Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Passing Grade

At the time I started reading the first book, I didn't know that The Passage, a trilogy of post-apocalyptic novels by Justin Cronin, was about to be turned into a television series. I'd had my eye on the series for some time, and my husband had just listened to the audiobook and gave me the thumbs-up. It was only partway through the first book (also named The Passage) that I heard a series would be starting on FOX in January -- a little extra incentive to finish the book and "stay ahead" of the show.

I need not have worried. The book is epic, just staggeringly long. Book one itself feels like a trilogy, consisting of three sections each with a distinct tone and narrative, and each about as long as most writers' novels. By about 20% in (the end of that "first section"), it was pretty clear that I'd read everything that the first season of the coming series could possibly hope to cover. But I was very much enjoying the book, and kept soldiering on. For weeks. Until I couldn't remember a time before I was reading The Passage.

When finally I did reach the end, my opinion was a bit more mixed, and the length did have a bit to do with it. The novel was engaging overall, with each of its pieces telling an intriguing tale and featuring plenty of interesting characters and moments. But there were moments that the book definitely left me questioning why so much time had been spent on a particular character or plot element that was only going to be abandoned when the story skipped along later to something else.

Cronin's writing style itself was much like the story overall. Much of the time it was sharp, effective, and clever. Occasionally, it was unfocused and meandering. Chapter One, for example, paints a crystal clear and moving portrait of a character, one that immediately made me sit up and take notice and think, "this guy really knows how to develop a character and put you inside their head." But that character never appeared again. And moreover, similar care and craft was absent later on, when "part two" of the novel opened up. At that point, a large group is introduced and is largely ill-defined and interchangeable for several chapters.

This was my journey through The Passage, again and again. I wouldn't say it kept "winning me back," as it never really lost me along the way. But it would definitely catch me feeling it hadn't been truly great for a while.... and then it would drop a really compelling chapter that completely engaged me all over again. The novel always rewarded me for my diligence, but also slowed down enough to feel like "diligence" was what was sometimes demanded.

I finally did make it, and I absolutely want to read the next book. I also don't want to do that for some time; I've spent long enough with Justin Cronin for now. I'd give The Passage a B. It is a good book. I just wish you didn't have to work so hard for it.

Monday, December 17, 2018

I Detect a Board Game

One of the more buzzed-about games at this year's GenCon sold out before I could snag a copy. But a few months later, my group got their hands on one, and have since been playing Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game.

Detective is one of a few new games trying to live at unusual intersection. It's a mystery game, where the players work cooperatively to solve crimes. It's kinda-sorta Legacy, in that it features five distinct cases (connected in a serialized story) that you can play through just once. (But you could reset the box at the end and gift it on to people who didn't play -- or sit on it a few years and play again when you don't remember the details, I suppose.) You connect with a web site while you play and enter crime scene data you collect for "lab testing" and cross-referencing. Some of the details mentioned in the cases are real world tie-ins -- you can actually pull out a smart phone or laptop or whatever and Google for information.

We've now played through the entire five-case story, and I can say that overall I did enjoy it. But I also have a few reservations. For one, it's debatable how "game-like" this experience really is. It's at least as game-like as an escape room (and there are plenty of board game versions of those), which is a decent start. There are also choices to be made, as each case has a fixed amount of time and actions you can take, and thus only so much information you can uncover before the case closes and you must make your final report. That report is scored, as well, which introduces the game-like desire to want to replay and see if you could do better. (Though you can't. You now know the solution.)

It's also like other cooperative board games in that it feels like the game is very much stacked against you. With the limited number of actions your team has, there's absolutely no way to "do it all." So you have to discuss and agree on where to spend your efforts, hoping it will lead to answers. But the story is dense enough, and crafted with enough intrigue, that it can also feel like a mystery novel you only get to read half of before you're forced to guess the ending.

On the clear plus side, each of the five cases feels very different from one another. Some introduce different mechanics (enough to further justify it as a game and not merely an interactive story). And the mysteries generally have enough suspects and interesting twists to feel challenging and fun. On the minus side, the fifth and final case doesn't quite feel fair. Our group knew a big part of "the answer" early on, but could not uncover the rest before time ran out on us. Since we were then done with the game, we went through all the information to see what path could have taken us there... and found out there really wasn't one. (Not as explicitly as in earlier cases, anyway.)

Some aspects of the game are hit or miss. Each player nominally has a character with an ability you can use, but as the game has no individualized turn structure, it just becomes something for the group to deploy together. The "you can actually search for this on Google" has mixed results. In the first case or two, it's a real dud of an element, with web searches really just turning out "I guess that's intriguing" background information you don't really need to solve the cases. Fortunately, later cases worked this feature in brilliantly, making web searches a fun and vital piece of finding your answers.

Overall, I'd rate the experience a B. Decent fun, though admittedly I'm already looking forward to trying Chronicles of Crime, another game playing in a similar space. Still, if Detective sounds interesting to you, you probably won't be disappointed if you pick up a copy.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

There Is No Dana...?

Released in 2017, Azul quickly rocketed up to the upper echelons of board game fandom. It was 2018's Spiel des Jahres award winner. It's the number 1 abstract game on Board Game Geek. I'd been curious to try it out, and recently got that chance.

Nominally, the game is about designing a palace wall in Portugal using decorative tiles. But they don't call it an abstract game for nothing. The veneer of flavor is paper-thin, just enough to make you wonder if this game is a lot like Sagrada. (I don't think so.)

Five colors of tiles, in multiple quantities, are scrambled in a bag. A circle of spaces is created in the center of the table, the number of spaces varying with the number of players. At the start of each round, three tiles are pulled from the bag for each space around the circle. Then a draft begins. Each player picks one of the spaces, takes all tiles of one color from there, then pushes the remaining tiles into the center of the circle. As that pile builds up, it becomes another place you can draft from -- take all the tiles of one color from the center whenever you like (but the first player to do so each round will lose a point).

As players draft tiles, they stage them on their personal game boards. You have a "row" of one tile, above a row of two, three, four, and five. Each staging row must be filled with a single tile color. Each time you draft tiles, you must add them to one of these rows -- and if you overflow, those extra tiles cost you points. At the end of each round, if a row is full, you empty it an migrate one of those tiles over into a 5 x 5 grid. There, a quilt-like design is in place, with each of the five color types represented once in each row and each column. That's where the positive scoring happens, with points for connecting to previous tiles you've played, and endgame points for finishing rows, columns, or color types.

I feel I may not be doing the best job explaining this highly visual system in words, but it's quite easy to latch onto once you see it. You spend little mental effort understanding the rules, reserving plenty for the massive strategic implications.

It is a great, fun, and quick game. A four-player game took little more than 30 minutes (even with the explanation). Basic decisions seemed easy enough to make: look at your board, figure out what you need, and go find it in the drafting circle somewhere. (It will often be there, or at least something close to it.)

But I'm sure the reason this game has grown so popular is that it doesn't have to be that simple. We were all too new at the game to think much about thwarting our opponents, but the potential for this is absolutely there. What can you draft that helps you "some" while stopping your opponent from really big plays? What do you absolutely have to draft now, and what can you risk waiting on until your next turn? (These layers do feel similar to the decisions Sagrada asks you to make, but the drafting mechanism and "building" rules feel wholly different between the two games.)

If that's still not enough strategy for you, then each player board has a back side where the patterns of your finished walls aren't fixed. You decide for yourself how to array tiles in your 5 x 5 grid (though you can't repeat within a row or column). From my skill level now, I can't imagine ever wanting that, but it's there if we start playing this game a ton.

The tiles are sturdy and fun to handle, and the art design gives it all a nice push. My only minor complaint is that some of the tile "colors" are really patterns. Everyone who sees the game for the first time wonders why two particular colors of tile are "face down," because they're completely blank when the other three types are not. A concession to accurate colors in a real palace in Portugal, I imagine. You learn fast enough, anyway.

I have a small reservation about the scoring. I mentioned that connecting to previously played tiles in your wall is important, and as a result, it feels like a player who begins to do that well might be able to run away with things, giving others little hope of catching up. But I can hardly feel certain that's the case, as little as I've played the game. And it may be that players quickly learn to watch for that sort of thing after only a game or two.

I'd give Azul an A-. It's the first Spiel des Jahres winner in a while that I felt actually delivered on the hype. It's definitely worth picking up a copy.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Nailed File

It's very hard for a new hour-long show to make it into the queue at our house right now. We follow too many of them already to find time for new suggestions, no matter how animated the people making them get. But the same congestion doesn't apply to lightweight, half-hour shows. We like to put one on while eating dinner, or at the end of the night when one more heavy drama might break us.

Into this gap fell Nailed It! It's a dessert baking competition show on Netflix. And while I've never before taken any interest in a cooking show, this one has me hooked. The premise/twist: there are no skilled, professional bakers on the show. Instead, each episode features three home cooks, who "make things that taste good but look awful," "want to improve their skills," or "have families that think their cooking could use work."

These decidedly amateur contestants are then doomed to failure. The two challenges in each episode are ridiculously over the top -- multi-step creations with layers, sculpture, architecture, and adornments. And they're given a crazy-short amount of time to pull it off. Which they never do. They inevitably fall well short of the mark, and hilarity ensues.

Laughing at results is the centerpiece of the show, but amazingly, Nailed It! manages not to be mean-spirited. This is thanks to the two hosts. There's the exhaustingly upbeat Nicole Byer, who crows through every three-ring circus of an episode like she's just had a case of Red Bull. French pastry chef Jacques Torres supplements her enthusiasm with knowledge and kindness. Whenever judging time comes around, the two (and a third guest judge) always have their laughs, but always find genuinely nice and encouraging things to say as well. It really does all feel in good fun.

This show might defy the "grading" system I normally use. I mean, if for some reason I had to give up the show immediately, I could do that, no problem. But at the same time, it's the perfect show to close an evening, while you're finishing off a beer. It has managed to make me laugh harder than many sitcoms. So, I don't know... A for what it is, B+ in a grander scheme of things? It's entertaining, plain and simple.

Monday, December 10, 2018

DS9 Flashback: Blood Oath

After a first season in which Deep Space Nine seized on many opportunities to connect to Star Trek: The Next Generation, the series stepped out more on its own in season two. But late in the season came an episode that again looked back -- this time all the way to the original Star Trek series and three of its classic Klingons.

Three aging Klingons arrive on the station with news that upturns everything for Jadzia Dax. Decades before, as Curzon, Dax swore an oath of vengeance against a dishonorable "Albino" who murdered the sons of each Klingon: Kang, Kor, and Koloth. Each reacts differently to the realization that the current host of the Dax symbiont is not the man who swore that oath, but all agree that Jadzia should be under no obligation to pursue their hated foe. Jadzia, on the other hand, feels otherwise. She's determined to honor the blood oath, even if it means turning her back on Starfleet ideals.

I'm hardly a fan of Klingons, often finding their story lines one note and dull. But this is how you do things right: Klingons, tie-ins to other Star Trek, and using prominent guest stars well (in service of a main character). The episode didn't begin with lofty ambitions, though. Staff writer Peter Allan Fields pitched a Klingon vengeance story he called "The Beast," loosely based on Seven Samurai and its American remake, The Magnificent Seven. It was another staff writer, Robert Hewitt Wolfe, who had the bright idea to bring back popular Klingon villains from the original Star Trek to appear in this story.

Though inspired, the idea wasn't without its stumbling blocks. The producers had to track down the original actors to see if they were still working. One, William Campbell (Koloth), hadn't performed on screen in six years (and was ultimately "located" while appearing at a Star Trek convention!). Another, John Colicos (Kor), was reluctant to play the character when he read a script in which his character was, he felt, a buffoonish departure from the original role. (He was persuaded by a rewrite that made his character a sort of Falstaff who turns heroic, "the Ishmael who lives to tell the story.")

Then came the debate about what the Klingons should look like. The writers toyed with having these three return in their original, human-like "Fu Manchu" guises, but ultimately decided to update their looks. William Campbell thought the grueling makeup might "kill him," while Michael Ansara's (Kang) curiosity about the change was satisfied when he was told that this was a "natural physical metamorphosis" Klingons go through as they age.

As fun as it might be for Trekkers to see three classic characters return, that alone wouldn't make for such a good episode. Instead, it's how they interact with Dax that makes it a winner. It's a great performance from Terry Farrell, as she must approach each of the three Klingons in a different way -- it's a philosophical approach with the immediately accepting Kor, a physical struggle with the obstinate Koloth, and a battle of wills with Kang (who is hiding a secret from the rest).

The episode is all about Dax: how much the blood oath matters to her, and whether she can actually go through with killing in cold blood. There are interesting ramifications with her past hosts. Curzon clearly made the oath not just for politics, given how strongly Jadzia feels about it in the present. Then there's the matter of Joran, the murderous "secret host" the writers would invent next season; it's interesting to watch this episode knowing that killing is not actually foreign to Dax before this moment.

While focusing on Dax, the episode serves up some great moments for other characters too. We see Odo actually use charm, a rare weapon in his arsenal, to lure a drunk Kor out of Quark's holosuite. We also see Odo show rare deference to someone, upon hearing that Kor is actually a "Dahar master." Kira gets an intensely personal scene when Dax asks her what it was like to kill people in the Bajoran resistance, a moment when the Major drops everything on a dime to be a true and thoughtful friend. Sisko gets his moment to be a friend as well, challenging Dax's determination and asking if she can really go through with an oath for vengeance.

And yes, it's great for the guest stars too. It's fun to see three actors who all played campy roles on the original series be more serious here. Kor, once a mustache-twirling villain, becomes a tragic figure masking deep sorrow behind light-heartedness. Koloth, once pure comic relief, becomes a no-nonsense head-cracker. Kang, once comically afflicted with pride, here displays the genuine article. There are so many great moments for all three: Kor's immediate acceptance of Jadzia as an "old friend" and meaningful speech about the horrors of growing old; Koloth refusing to help Kor out of the drunk tank and beating Dax easily in one-on-one combat despite his age; Kang's painful confession of how he actually bargained with his hated enemy just for a slim chance at revenge.

I think part of why I enjoy this episode so much, despite all the Klingon stuff, is that Dax spends a fair amount of time calling Klingons on their stupid shit. Klingons throw their lives away too easily, she claims, suggesting their motto ought to be that "today is a good day to live." She also seems to ride full tilt for the blood oath, but in the final moment she in fact can't go through with it. (Kang charitably or obliviously sees this as Dax saving the killing blow on the Albino for him.) Dax doesn't just slide right into Klingon culture as easily as, say, Picard does on The Next Generation. And we see even more "counter-culture" Klingon development in the Albino, a cowardly and dishonorable figure for who murders from a distance with an engineered virus. (Admittedly, his "forehead" doesn't exactly confirm he's a Klingon, but it feels like a safe assumption when they don't specify he's something else.)

They spent a lot of money on this episode, filming the attack on the Albino's compound on location, and setting off an impressively large explosion as part of the sequence. Still, the budget of a syndicated 90s television show could only go so far -- the Albino's guards are clearly just humans in fake looking armor. (Though one could argue the guards are deliberately non-Klingon, to explain how three senior citizens and Dax could defeat so many of them in hand-to-hand combat.) Still more money was saved by staging the interior part of the battle on a redress of the set from the "Masks" episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Other observations:
  • There was, in fact, one more significant Klingon villain from the original Star Trek: Kras, from the episode "Friday's Child." I don't know if he was less popular with the fans, unavailable to return, or if the story simply didn't have room for more than three Klingons. Oh well.
  • Different people behind the making of the episode drew different comparisons for the arc of its story. I've already mentioned Shakespeare, Kurosawa, and Melville. Director Winrich Kolbe has also given interviews likening this to Wagnerian opera, Beowulf, and the Three Musketeers. (He saw Kor as Porthos, Koloth as Aramis, and Kang as Athos, with Dax being D'Artagnan, the "fourth" musketeer.)
For making even me love a Klingon episode, I have to give "Blood Oath" high marks. I'd give it an A-. It's a definite stand out of season two.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Bad Is Bad

One of the more buzzed-about board games this year was Villainous, in which up to six players each take on the role of a Disney movie villain and try to spoil the day before any of their competitors. From details I'd heard when it was selling fast at GenCon, it didn't sound like the type of game I'd enjoy much, and I put it out of my mind. But a friend recent picked up a copy and I got a chance to try it out.

Unfortunately, the nice things I can say are pretty much cosmetic. The core idea itself of playing a Disney villain is wonderful. Everyone loves the villains best. A game where Ursula, Jafar, Prince John, Captain Hook, the Queen of Hearts, and Maleficent can all compete? Great idea. The components are pretty good too, with hefty molded plastic pieces to represent the players. And the cards are all illustrated with new paintings of key frames from the six featured movies -- done perhaps to "equalize" the quality between newer and older films? This could have gone wrong easily, but the cards actually look great.

The game is steeped in flavor. Each character has their own goal to pursue, essentially playing out the plot of their movie. Hook has to find and defeat Peter Pan, Prince John has to amass tons of gold, and so on. But this fidelity comes at a high price in terms of ease of play. The six characters' victory conditions are so profoundly asynchronous that you really can't wrap your head around what anyone else is trying to do. Malificent's "curse all four of your locations" is easy enough to remember, but what's this nonsense the Queen of Hearts is doing with her sideways cards? And what are the steps involved in Jafar capturing the lamp and enslaving the Genie?

The result is a massive "take that" game, where everybody tries to stop the leader from winning until enough people are finally in a "close to winning" second place status that one person sneaks through. But as no one can quite understand all the other objectives, you end up doing a lot of asking "What are you trying to do? How close are you? Would you stop you right now if you were me?" You basically have to enlist the other players in the process of you picking on them. It makes it not much more fun for the picker than the pickee.

It's pretty much a disaster as a 6-player game. You have tons of down time between your turns. And while 5- and 6-player add a band-aid of a rule that the same player can't be picked on twice in a row, you still basically have 5 opponents trying to gang up on you with the "take that" mechanics. Lots and lots of bellyaching about who is closer to winning, who deserves a setback, and so on.

Disney villains could have made for a great gateway game into more advanced fare than Monopoly and the like, but the asynchronous victory conditions feel to me like they make the game quite inaccessible for new gamers, no matter how much they like the subject. As for veterans? Well, maybe you're into "take that," but my group isn't much (and maybe me least of all). This game just isn't for me, and I don't ever care to play it again. Under duress, I'd consider maybe a 3-player attempt, but that would be about it.

I'd give Villainous a D. They had a prime target, I think, but completely missed it.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

We Finally Got Rain in Seattle

The day before Thanksgiving was the final full day of our trip to Seattle. Planning the trip in the weeks before, we'd come upon a fun possibility for the day: skiing. We'd been considering a drive out to Mount Rainier anyway, then found there's a ski resort there, Crystal Mountain. And as it happened, skiing there was included in the season passes we'd already got for this winter here in Colorado. So, "free" skiing (well, already-paid-for skiing) in a place we wouldn't normally get to go!

But as we checked in regularly throughout November on the snow conditions at Crystal Mountain, it became apparent this plan wasn't going to work out. Opening day at the resort would be the day before Thanksgiving, and they'd had less than 6 inches of actual snow. (All those sunny and clear days in Seattle? I guess it was the same at Mount Rainier.) The novelty of skiing in a different place wasn't going to be worth renting equipment for just the couple trails they'd made barely enough fake snow on to open.

So, plan B: a lazy day to do anything we'd planned on an earlier day, but hadn't had time for. Though it had turned out that we hadn't "fallen behind" much. This was actually the one day of our entire trip where Seattle behaved as touted: it drizzled on and off throughout the morning, from a grey and overcast sky.

First we did one big suggestion we'd been given but skipped over. We headed down to Pioneer Square for breakfast and Bill Speidel's Underground Tour. It's been around for decades: a roughly one-hour guided tour into the basements of modern buildings, looking at the abandoned debris from 19th century Seattle and hearing the stories of the city's development.

This is the sort of thing -- by our tour guide's own admission -- that locals only do when a guest visits from out-of-town and makes them do it. For Denver folk, think (maybe?) a trip to Casa Bonita without kids. But I found it more entertaining than that. (And it brought far less gastrointestinal distress.) Our tour guide had his comedic material and delivery honed to a razor sharp edge, and even though some of the gags were corny, he made me chuckle. With exaggerated gestures and a "wait-for-it" patter, he related the destruction of the "first" Seattle in a fire (thanks to poor construction decisions), the almost-as-silly decisions of the "second" Seattle, and the colorful characters at the center of it all. Seattle locals might never take this tour, but I think they'd be entertained to try it.

After that, we decided to head back to Pike Place Market, our very first stop on this vacation, to see it during the day (and well before closing). We had the time to explore many more twists and turns and realize just how sprawling the place is. We accidentally found the (in)famous Gum Wall (gross), and decided to go back to the best brewery from that first night, Old Stove.

Later, we moved about a mile east, to Capitol Cider, a place with many great cider selections on tap and from bottles. We got to sample a short flight of cider from France, all very tasty and packed with far more flavor than any of the widely distributed American options. We decided for our last dinner to go back to the seafood place we'd enjoyed so much, Duke's.

Traveling home the next day was as easy as we'd hoped. We'd allowed ourselves time to deal with the airport, but it was hardly necessary. Though we did have a full flight, the airport itself just didn't seem that crowded on Thanksgiving Day. We spoiled ourselves by using accumulated air miles to upgrade to first class for the return trip, and by mid-afternoon we were back at home sweet home.

I know we got Seattle under atypical weather conditions, but I'm sure I would have enjoyed it regardless. Perhaps if I'm back that way again, I'll find time to visit with some of the many friends I have who've migrated that way over the years. Your city's quite nice, I think.