Thursday, October 19, 2017

A Stain on Your Game Table

Sagrada is a largely abstract board game at its core, done up in a very colorful wrapper. The players are each crafting their own stained glass windows, vying for the most points at the end of the game.

Each "window" is a grid 5 squares wide and 4 squares tall, which you must fill up over the game with dice in 5 different colors. You must always place each new die adjacent (diagonally or orthogonally) to a die you've previously placed, but you may never place a die of the same color or value next to another (orthogonally). Complicating this task is the starting template you must work on, which, though leaving some squares undefined, will require that many squares be filled with a die of a particular color or value.

Each round of the 10-round game is a serpentine draft. The first player pulls dice from a bag at random, one more than the number of players, and then rolls them. That player then drafts which die he wants to take and place in his window. He then must sit in tension as every other player drafts two dice from the pile, one at a time clockwise around the table, then one at a time counter-clockwise back, starting with the last player. It's a draft style that works especially well for this game, as early players will often end up with one thing that's exactly what they want and one thing they don't want at all; later players can usually get two things that work, though neither of them perfect.

Changing up the game each time you play are the scoring conditions. Each player has a secret color they're trying most to collect -- they'll score the total value shown on all dice of that color at the end of the game. There are also three common scoring conditions shown on cards revealed at random at the start of the game. There might be points for full sets of all 6 die values, or for maintaining an entire column of different colors, or for an entire row of different values. (You'll lose 1 point for every empty space you aren't able to legally fill by the end of the game.)

Easing your strategic considerations while also making them deeper are a trio of special powers (also randomly selected and represented on cards) you can use during your turn. They provide effects like the ability to relocate one die within your window, reroll a die at the time you draft it, or place a die while ignoring a particular restriction normally placed on you. But you only get to use these powers sparingly. Each player is given between 3 and 6 tokens at the start of the game, as defined by the starting window grid -- harder grids give more tokens. The first player to use a power in the entire game can do so for a cost of just one token; each subsequent use by anyone requires two. You want to act early for the bargain, but powers are far more useful later in the game as your window fills and dice placement gets harder. (Any tokens you haven't spent by the end of the game are worth a point each.)

I've thoroughly enjoyed this game each time I've played it. What's more, it's been the rare game of late to get played multiple times in my group; too often, it's only the party games that make repeat appearances, while the deeper thinking games, no matter how satisfying, get played only once or twice. (So many games, so little time.) Sagrada, with its fairly easy-to-understand rules and short-to-medium play times, has become a regular request.

I should also point out that I've enjoyed the game despite the fact that I haven't yet won it. Actually, my husband has defeated all comers, dialing in expertly on the type of planning this game requires. But I still want to keep trying to pull out a victory.

My only minor complaint would be that I think the dice in the game are a little too small. The scale was understandably shrunk to conserve table space, make the draw bag of 90 dice not too heavy, and (yes) save a little on production costs. But the dice are small enough, and the window frames tight enough (and built shallow enough) that it's fairly easy to accidentally nudge a die you've previously placed. It seems like every single player has done it at least once every time I've played, and they always have to apologize to the group as they try to remember what value that die showed previously when they put it back.

Still, I'd give Sagrada a high recommendation -- an A- grade. Even for gamers that normally might shy away from the randomness of dice, this game uses them in a compelling and strategic way.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

DS9 Flashback: Emissary

It's been more than a year now since I wrapped up my re-watch of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It had always been my intention to move along to Deep Space Nine, my favorite of the Star Trek series, but I didn't quite get around to it. By now, of course, we have Star Trek: Discovery and the Star Trek homage series The Orville, so my blog has no shortage of Star Trek. Still, it's Deep Space Nine! So away we go, starting with the two-hour premiere, Emissary.

In the three years since losing his wife in the battle with the Borg at Wolf 359, Benjamin Sisko has grown detached from most everything but his son Jake. Now he's been assigned to command a remote space station, abandoned by the Cardassians in orbit of Bajor... and this may just be the last straw before he leaves Starfleet for a civilian life. But then the spiritual leader of the Bajorans, Kai Opaka, sets him on a quest that may change everything for him, Bajor, and the galaxy: he must find the Celestial Temple, home of the god-like Bajoran Prophets.

It may be for the better that I didn't start watching Deep Space Nine again until Discovery came along, because Star Trek's newest series provides interesting context for this older one. Many of the criticisms leveled at Discovery today were leveled at Deep Space Nine back in 1993. It's so dark and gritty. The theme song isn't adventurous enough. The characters don't feel like a happy family. Where's the "boldly going?" Why do they wear different uniforms? Deep Space Nine grew into something amazing, of course, despite these initial signs that turned some Trekkers off. Here's hoping Discovery does the same.

Deep Space Nine was designed to be different, of course. The creators felt they couldn't have two exploring starships on two different series at the same time, and so deliberately designed this "Western in space" show to be The Rifleman to The Next Generation's Wagon Train. Deep Space Nine would stay in one place and have to live with consequences, where the Enterprise could just forget about the ramifications of anything they did and warp to the next adventure.

The creators did want to use some elements of the parent show in the spin-off. They'd hoped to bring Ro Laren over as the station's first officer, but actress Michelle Forbes turned down the offer, not wanting to be tied to a single series for years. (Major Kira was created in her place, and this was likely a better thing for the show, having a Bajoran character who was not a Starfleet officer.) The creators also decided to have a Trill in the main cast, though the makeup was redesigned from its original Next Generation appearance after two days of filming, once the executives decided it detracted too much from Terry Farrell's appearance.

But mostly, Deep Space Nine was intended to be new and different. And it would include a mix of Starfleet and non-Starfleet characters, to skirt Gene Roddenberry's edict that future humans wouldn't have conflict (the lifeblood of good television drama) with each other. The rough circumstances of life on the station would also give the human characters permission to be less than their idealized Starfleet selves. This falling apart alien station, a steampunk-like contrast to the comparatively antiseptic Enterprise, made it okay for O'Brien to kick the machinery, for Bashir to unthinkingly flaunt his privilege by calling someone's home a "wilderness," and for Sisko to not want to be there at all.

Right out the gate here, we have Sisko and Kira feuding with each other. We have Odo sparring verbally with Quark (though it's the performances of Rene Auberjonois and Armin Shimerman that rightly shade this for comedy rather than venom). We have Kira and O'Brien bonding over, essentially, racism -- a mutual hatred of Cardassians. You even have the star of this new series actively hating the star of the existing one, depicted in Sisko's anger (irrational, though understandable) at Captain Picard over the death of his wife. (For Picard's part, this is a truly terrible reminder of the worst event of his life.) I suppose if one could only see Star Trek as what The Next Generation was offering, then yes, this was a real shock to the system.

But there were ways in which this first episode of Deep Space Nine actually wasn't all that different from the series that spawned it. Many of the elements introduced here were also part of The Next Generation's pilot, "Encounter at Farpoint." You have characters with one kind of past relationship now trying to forge a different one. (Riker and Troi; Sisko and Dax.) You have a single parent who has lost a spouse trying to raise a kid alone. (The Crushers; the Siskos.) There's an "outsider" character who doesn't know the full details of his origins. (Data; Odo.) Some characters aren't introduced until partway through the episode (Riker, Geordi, and the Crushers; Dax and Bashir.) And then there's the fact that Deep Space Nine would actually go on to have a mostly "Next Gen" first season of not-always-inspired adventures of the week.

Still, a lot of what would become core to Deep Space Nine was here, in some form, right at the beginning. Religion played a major role in the story, for the first time in Star Trek. Recurring characters, significant and minor, appeared for the first time: Dukat, Nog, and barfly Morn. Quark is conniving, and less of a caricature than Next Generation Ferengi. Avery Brooks is pouring his soul into an emotional performance. Kira is all hard edges and emotional barriers.

Not everything gels right out of the gate, though, and the script itself isn't top notch. The emotional content of the scenes with the wormhole aliens is great, but the actual dialogue is rather rough. (Does Sisko really do convincing a job explaining the nature of linear existence? I mean, if you really have no understanding of it at all?) And not that this show ever pretended to have a "grand plan," but various details here, major and minor, don't quite fit with things we later learn. The Prophets would later be revealed to be much more in touch with existence beyond the wormhole than you'd ever guess. Sisko's father, though established here as a chef, is implied to be either dead or retired. Dax's previous host would eventually be said to have died in a far less peaceful (but happy; ahem) way. Quark's makeup looks different (with Armin Shimerman wearing the prosthetic for his brother Rom). Still, there's much more good than bad here, and plenty of promise for the future of the series.

Other observations:
  • This pilot had a huge budget for the time, particular compared with The Next Generation's premiere. You see the money on screen in lots of location shooting, and in the on-screen realization of the Battle at Wolf 359. (In Next Gen, we saw only the aftermath.)
  • The captain of the Saratoga is played by J.G. Hertzler, the actor who would go on to play Martok in later seasons of the show.
  • O'Brien's goodbye to The Next Generation -- first, to the bridge itself, and then to Captain Picard -- is a wonderfully poignant moment for fans of that series.
  • The idea that Sisko and Dax see different landscapes when they exit the runabout inside the wormhole is an interesting one, but isn't really explained. My thoughts: maybe Dax sees a paradise because she's happy to be out there exploring, while Sisko's desire not to be on the station at all is reflected in the bleak wasteland he sees.
  • Michelle Forbes wasn't the only "first choice" actress to turn down a role on the series. The creators originally sought Famke Janssen to play Dax, but she too didn't want to be tied down to a series. Interestingly, the character Janssen played in The Next Generation would clearly inspire the redesigned Trill makeup.
"Emissary" is hardly peak Deep Space Nine, but it gets the series started on a stronger foot than any previous Star Trek pilot did. I'd mark it a B+. As I remember things, that actually puts it on the high end of a sometimes lackluster first season of the show. But either way, the (long) journey through Deep Space Nine has begun for me again.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Krill

The Orville feels like it's still trying to find the right balance of comedy and drama, and with its most recent episode, turned the dial sharply in the comedy direction. "Krill" was far and away its funniest episode yet. If I were just tuning into The Orville for the laughs, I might be inclined to say that this is perfect -- keep things right there. But the prior episodes of the series have established that they're not just here to crack jokes, they're here to tell legitimate Star Trek stories as well. And from that angle, the episode was decent, but still a bit off.

The moral line this story tried to walk was a bit too tricky. Mercer and Malloy started their mission as an earnest attempt to understand their adversaries better. But then it took a sharp turn into planning a mass murder. And then the scales of that were somehow meant to be balanced by their efforts to save a group of children. Sure, war blurs the moral lines, and you could weigh the lives they were saving against the lives they were taking, but the episode didn't really do that effectively -- the one good moment in this regard was the final scene, in which the Krill woman Teleya chillingly pointed out that they've made enemies for life out of each of those rescued children. Perhaps without all the surrounding comedy, this material wouldn't have seemed so jarring. Or perhaps it's simply that because the humor seemed at its most dialed in, I wanted the drama to be too.

I certainly did enjoy the episode for that humor, though. The endless jokes about the Krill deity Avis never seemed to get old (may he cover the loss of our vehicle). But there were plenty of other funny moments too, from the general sloppiness of Mercer and Malloy as undercover operatives (though that too may have hurt the credibility of the drama), to the "Bortus eats anything" cold open, to the great callback about Malloy's new leg. If the show can continue operating at this level, I feel like it will have nailed a key part of its formula.

We skip The Orville this week, thanks to baseball playoffs. Hopefully this doesn't cost them too much ratings momentum just when they're building up a rhythm. I'd mark "Krill" a B+.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Choose Your Pain


Star Trek: Discovery turned in another strong episode this week with "Choose Your Pain."

When Captain Lorca is captured by the Klingons, Discovery must mount a rescue. But the unwilling use of the tardigrade to power the ship's spore drive has had increasingly negative effects on the creature. A clash ensues between Burnham and Saru over the ethics versus the necessities of the situation.

For those concerned that Discovery was charting too dark a path, this episode injected a big dose of Star Trek ideals into the mix. Michael Burnham's conscience could not abide the abuse of a life-form, no matter the justification, and that attitude helped other characters reconnect with their own dormant sense of morality -- most keenly Stamets. One could argue that his motives in injecting himself with the tardigrade DNA weren't primarily about sparing the life-form (or even the ship); he specifically wished in a previous episode that he could "talk to his mushrooms," and this was an exact fulfillment of that wish. (Though the final scene darkly hinted at hidden costs for this.)

Even though more recognizable Star Trek ideals were in evidence this episode, the series definitely didn't relinquish its claim on darker material. We learned this week that Lorca murdered the entire crew of his former ship rather than see them captured by Klingons. Though you could fixate on the plot hole of wondering just how he managed to escape, I instead choose to focus on the volumes this says about his character. It's a real turducken of compassion, cold-bloodedness, and compartmentalization, and tells us just what lengths Lorca will go to. (Where Klingons are involved in particular.)

There was still more darkness in the introduction of the series' final main character, Ash Tyler. Though he and Michael Burnham have both spent the last half year in prison, Tyler's experience could not be more different. Discovery as a series is poised to really explore his PTSD in deep ways that, say, The Next Generation only briefly did with Picard after his experience with the Borg (and even less following his torture at the hands of a Cardassian). Moreover, Tyler isn't just a prisoner of war, isn't just a victim of torture, but was specifically established as a survivor of sexual violence. Discovery will have to handle this very carefully to do right by real life victims, but if the writers can rise to the challenge, it will allow Star Trek to truly go where it's never gone before.

Speaking of which... "Fuck." With Tilly's unguarded outburst (and Stamets' agreement that that's the exactly the word that was called for), Star Trek left its former high water mark of profanity in the dust. (Data's "shit" in Generations?) I'm really not sure how I feel about this moment. Over on The Orville, "Star Trek with characters that talk like normal people" is part of the allure. Here, on actual Star Trek, having the characters talk like normal people has been an adjustment, whether its Stamets talking about music that actually came after the baroque era (his uncle plays in a Beatles cover band), Tilly's awkward motor mouth, or now, the dropping of F-bombs. I can imagine there are parents out there now truly outraged that they feel they can no longer watch Star Trek with their children. I sort of empathize with them to the extent that if Discovery is just doing this because they're on a streaming service and they can, that's not a great reason. But it did feel reasonably organic (and funny) in the moment. I guess the jury's out for me, and we'll see if further "evidence" is "submitted" in future episodes.

Counterbalancing all these ways in which this episode was presenting a modern, grittier Star Trek, it loaded up with shout-outs to prior series. Saru's computer inquiry about great starship captains mentioned Robert April, Jonathan Archer, Matt Decker, and Christopher Pike, ticking off the animated series, the first Star Trek pilot, Enterprise, and a particularly beloved episode of the original series. Meanwhile, if you made any mental connections to The Next Generation in watching a captured captain be tortured with light, that's on you. (Though there should have been four lights.)

Then we had Star Trek fan Rainn Wilson as original series rogue Harcourt Fenton Mudd. This was a performance that worked well in this series, even if it's hard to reconcile this tormented Klingon prisoner struggling to survive with the playful scamp we'd "later" see in the original series. Then again, we don't see starship hallways bathed in pink and green spotlights either. The personality of the original Mudd wouldn't have worked at all here. For some, that probably means this version should have simply been an original character. But we have what we have, and I for one hope we'll see Mudd again, trying to make good on his threat to come after Lorca.

I can't close out without acknowledging, at last, the depiction of a relationship between gay characters on a Star Trek series for the first time. It had been teased in the press for Discovery, but in this episode was finally made official, the relationship between Stamets and Culber. On the one shoulder (with the chip on it), I'm annoyed that the two weren't shown in a romantic context (even a simple kiss), as if the creative forces behind the show are still nervous about that or something. On the other shoulder, it's nice that we saw a scene of simple domesticity that depicted the relationship as routine as any other. (And the scene was a little daring, from a Star Trek point of view: it actually took place in a bathroom.) In the end, I mostly come down on the side of thrilled to see this, particularly when the nature of Discovery doesn't seem like it's going to make much room for any other romantic relationships besides this one.

This was probably my second-favorite episode so far, though it still didn't quite climb into A territory for me. I'd call it a strong B+. It put down lots of new paths for future episodes to walk, and I look forward to that.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

A Pharaoh to Remember

Mask of the Pharaoh is a bit of an odd duck that straddles the line between game and group activity. (It also straddles names; before Hasbro bought and re-issued it, it was originally released under the title Mask of Anubis.)

You download an app to your phone that will simulate a view standing inside a cartoonish Egyptian tomb, placing your phone inside a mask that will create a 3D effect when you look inside. (For spectators, it creates the appearance of you putting a dog-headed Anubis mask over your eyes. A+ for flavor there.)

You get one minute to look at a fixed position inside the tomb, but you can rotate in all directions to describe everything you see in a 360-degree panorama -- the junctions of the passages, any adornments hanging on the walls, and so forth. As you describe, all other players use a series of jigsaw-style pieces to try to assemble an overhead map of what you're seeing.

When the minute is up, you pass the mask to the next player, who is then dropped into a separate location inside the same tomb and then gets a minute to describe what they see. You get seven views in total, and if everyone is good enough and thorough enough at describing what they see, a clear picture will come together of the entire tomb -- you'll figure out where the different parts of the maze adjoin, and reveal an unbroken path from the starting point to a throne deep inside. If you do this successfully, your group wins. If not... well, try again (perhaps on an easier difficulty setting).

The endeavor takes, as you would imagine, just upward of seven minutes (one minute per view). But you'll immediately want to play again, so don't expect this to just be 10 minutes and done. It has a viral quality to it too. It came out on a recent game night where the group was large enough to split in half, and the people who had opted for the more conventional strategy game had moments of envy glancing over at the group playing with the Egyptian mask.

But the fun it brings is limited. It isn't a super-deep experience; there are only so many things you can find adorning the walls of the tomb, and the "gameplay" (to the extent it feels like a game at all) is very limited. The more you play, the more you and your friends develop a shorthand and the whole thing becomes much less challenging. Simply, the half-life on this thing is quite brief. I was glad to have played it, and I also kind of expect not to play it again -- not for not wanting to exactly, but because I doubt it will ever be anyone's top suggestion.

I'd give Mask of the Pharaoh a B-. Perhaps if a more robust game had been grafted onto the concept, it would be something to recommend. As it stands, a party game group (with spatially-oriented people) will probably mine it for a bit of fun before moving on.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Re-Run

If I'm being honest, I respected the movie Blade Runner more than I enjoyed it. Film noir stories are more miss than hit with me, and the original Blade Runner indulged in all of the trappings of film noir that turn me off. Still, there was an artistic sci-fi vision there beyond reproach; the film looks amazing even today, and is positively mind-boggling by 1982 standards. Hopefully, this background gives you a sense of the modest hopes I had for the new sequel, Blade Runner 2049.

Almost any discussion of the plot gets into spoiler territory, bur slightly fleshing out what the trailers implied seems safe enough. Set 30 years after the events of the first film, Blade Runner 2049 follows a new police officer/hunter played by Ryan Gosling, as he tracks down a missing replicant of world-changing significance. The search ultimately brings him into contact with Rick Deckard, the central character played by Harrison Ford in the original film.

I found the plot of this sequel to be stronger than that of the original. There are more explicit character motivations woven into this story, and the stakes are much higher. The issue of "humanity vs. artificial intelligence," which often plays as subtext in the original film, feels more integral to this new tale, and is better for it. I felt more of an emotional investment here.

That said, the pace is ponderously slow at times. Some of this is done in deliberate homage to the original, and even works at times as a stylistic choice. But the movie does run two hours and 40 minutes, and there isn't two hours and 40 minutes' worth of plot here. Particularly uncomfortable is the decision to delay a particular plot development you know is coming until more than 100 minutes into the film. Many movies are ending by that point, and yet this one is (from a cynical point of view) just getting started.

The casting is impeccable, most keenly in Ryan Gosling. Looking back on the original film, Harrison Ford's rather flat performance was one of its weaknesses; he was deliberately turning off the Han Solo/Indiana Jones charm, but was still years off from perfecting the non-verbal acting he'd show off in other films. (Key exhibit: The Fugitive.) Ryan Gosling is a perfect heir-apparent to the emotionally stunted Deckard of the original Blade Runner; the film leverages his trademark restraint in a fantastic way. (And as for Harrison Ford himself? Well, he's now 35 years wiser as a performer, and is able to effectively "do more with less" this time around.)

A pair of outstanding actresses do their best to steal the movie. Ana de Armas plays Joi, a holographic character that's the film's most effective way of exploring questions of "real" vs. "artificial." From one scene to the next, and even alternating within a single scene, de Armas walks the line between authentic emotion and programmed response. Then there's Sylvia Hoeks as Luv, this film's closest proxy for Roy Batty in the original film. Hoeks imbues her character with more legit menace and malice than I ever felt from Rutger Hauer, standing out as a strong character, period (without needing to qualify her as a "strong female character").

There are plenty of other actors you'll recognize. Dave Bautista has a small but pivotal role that may well surprise people with its emotional heft (those people who didn't pay attention to what he was doing in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, anyway). Robin Wright employs the frigid authority she cultivated on House of Cards to chilling effect. Jared Leto's role is a weak link, though the actor's own real-life egocentric impulses play as perfect subtext for the self-important aphorisms of his character. There are other tiny roles that make a big impact too, but it feels best not to spoil anything about them.

Of course, it wouldn't be a worthy Blade Runner sequel if the visuals weren't a major part of it. Director Denis Villeneuve (who helmed the excellent Arrival) takes the baton from Ridley Scott without missing a step. With brilliant production design and cinematography, the movie is awash in color and mood. Sickly yellow never looked so gorgeous. The future of the first film is expanded on creatively and faithfully (even when that means continuing to use brands that have gone belly-up over the years since 1982). In this age where I'd have bet no visual effects could be considered truly jaw-dropping anymore, this film manages multiple such moments. (One in particular is a trick that has been tried recently in other films, succeeding here where others failed by knowing the limitations of the technology, knowing how to do things sparingly and hide the "seams.")

The musical score, by Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer, is a glorious throwback to the Vangelis music of the original film. It repeats actual themes from the original, develops new ones, and manages to capture the soul of early 80s synth without bringing the cheesiness along with it. It's a soundtrack I'll likely be adding to my collection.

Blade Runner 2049 does have its flaws, but it held my attention far more effectively than the original -- and judging by the reviews, it managed to do so while simultaneously pleasing that movie's most die-hard fans. That's no mean feat. I give Blade Runner 2049 a B+. This is one to catch in a theater, on the big screen.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Pria

The latest episode of The Orville wasn't just an homage to Star Trek: The Next Generation, but to Firefly too. It felt directly inspired by two episodes (though not an exact copy of either), Trek's "A Matter of Time" (about a time-traveling hustler) and Firefly's "Our Mrs. Reynolds" (about a grifter who takes in most of the crew, and the captain in particular).

Unfortunately, I found it a weaker episode of The Orville, on a few levels. The script was in a general shape, but lacking polish. The ex-spouse conflict between Mercer and Grayson was a great theme to explore, but the dialogue was a bit ham-fisted. The title character of Pria was a great stone to make ripples in the pond, but not quite alluring enough to believably captivate Mercer, nor quite clever enough for the audience to ever really believe her over Grayson.

On the performance side, I learned about the limitations of Charlize Theron. She is, without question, a strong actress. She's made many great films and has been great in them. I haven't seen the one for which she won an Oscar (Monster), but I have no reason to suspect she didn't deserve it. But television is a different animal -- a merciless beast that must be fed.

Films shoot just a couple pages a day, over the course of months. Television shoots a whole episode in just seven or eight days, filming up to 10 pages a day (or more) at times just to keep on schedule. There's little time for rehearsal, only slightly more time to try multiple takes and finesse a performance. A television actor has to be in the ballpark on the first try, calibrate quickly to director suggestions, and nail a scene fast to make the day. I think it's not saying much bad about Charlize Theron to say that (from this performance, at least), television simply isn't for her. She came off rather wooden, and certainly couldn't wrap her tongue around the technobabble. She was there at the request of her friend Seth MacFarlane, and now will return to the movies, where she'll shine again.

I place the blame on Theron because I know she had a good director on this occasion: Star Trek's own Commander Riker, Jonathan Frakes. Frakes is an excellent television director, having cut his teeth on The Next Generation (many of its better episodes), and having since worked on a number of other shows. What's more, he works well with actors; in fact, I'd say he teased out the best performances in the show so far from MacFarlane (as a dopey, smitten Mercer) and Scott Grimes (as Malloy, in the "pranking Isaac" subplot). Frakes also did some flashy camera moves in this episode -- nothing that broke the show's style entirely, but definitely more ambitious than the norm.

Still, it's a shame that Frakes' episode this season was the one that could have used another draft on the script. It was more disorderly than an actual disaster, but when the comedy subplot plays as stronger than the main story line, something is definitely off. I give "Pria" a B-.

Monday, October 09, 2017

The Butcher's Knife Cares Not for the Lamb's Cry

I said of last week's Star Trek: Discovery that you should just break down and get the CBS streaming service. That was for the content, and I stand by the recommendation. But I'll acknowledge that the service itself sucks. It doesn't work at all on Xbox 360 despite being advertised for it, and it took a week-and-a-half for their "customer service" to reply to my email about that with a simple "yeah, that's a known issue and we're working on it." When we watched last night's episode, there were visual artifacts throughout, created by poor compression and delivery. So yeah, the service itself is terrible, and I'll be canceling it the moment Discovery goes on hiatus. (Hopefully, I'll squeeze in the 10-episode season of The Good Fight by then.)

Anyway... I put all that talk first mainly as a buffer, because I'll no longer be dancing the spoiler-free dance in these Discovery reviews. If you're not on board yet, come back tomorrow for talk about The Orville.

This week's Discovery felt like a direct response to the criticism the writers no doubt anticipated before a single episode ever aired: "It doesn't feel like Star Trek." The core values of Star Trek informed the central character conflict this time, as Captain Lorca and Commander Landry pushed and pushed to weaponize the creature captured from the Glenn, while Burnham pushed back to do the Trek thing, the "Devil in the Dark"/Horta thing, and strive to understand and respect the "monster."

The Star Trek thing was vindicated as the right thing on many levels. Landry was killed (going through a glass table, pure Star Trek-style) for pressing the opposite. Doing the right thing still got got Lorca something of value. But this is dark Star Trek, so Burnham still has to reckon with the reality that the creature, understood or not, is now a prisoner, an enslaved "computer" for the Discovery's experimental propulsion. The metaphor is surely not lost on her -- she herself can also be seen as a prisoner forced to work for Lorca, though she is choosing this out of her own sense of guilt, where the creature has no choice.

The episode was filled with other great character moments to underscore the way they'd been established in previous episodes: whip-cracking Lorca, awkward motormouth Tilley, thoughtful and wary Saru, and put-upon (understandably so) Stamets. Look four episodes into any other Star Trek series, and I think you won't find characters as sharply drawn as what we have here.

But this was only half the episode. The Klingon storyline was resumed, following Voq's efforts to lead T'kumva's disciples back to glory. Well, back to just functioning, actually; it was revealed that they've been scavenging around the battlefield/graveyard for months, barely subsisting. It's a uniquely Klingon attitude to be all about the battle, yet reject the spoils of a battle as a pollution of racial purity. It's also uniquely Klingon that enduring hardship doesn't really fall under the banner of "honor"; given the chance, most of Voq's followers abandoned him.

It's an intriguing story line, and more intriguing still to see a Star Trek show pursue a serialized story line that's completely isolated from every main character of the show. But I'm going to join the chorus: the subtitles stink. I don't object in principle to the idea of reading extensive dialogue in a foreign language -- it's been used to great effect in Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and other prestigious shows. But there are two major flaws in how it's being approached here:

First, the Klingon language itself doesn't sound right in these actors' mouths. It's so stilted and guttural that the actors seem hard-pressed to emote through it. This episode showed some progress in this from the premiere, but it's still hard to read the impulses driving any given scene. The second problem is the actual font itself in which the dialogue is subtitled -- it's just the worst. It's presented in small caps, which compresses the vertical appearance and makes any character talking about himself (saying "I") stick out awkwardly in a sentence. It has bulky serifs that spindle out and render the individual characters less distinct. And the kerning leaves huge spaces between the letters such that very little text can be placed on the screen at one time; this makes it even harder to follow the throughline of a scene, because a character's dialogue often must be broken up and can't fit on the screen all at once. There's really something to the widespread subtitle complaining, above and beyond a superficial "I hate reading" criticism -- these specific subtitles are almost bred in a lab to be off-putting and hard to read.

Overall, though, the episode was a good one, and the most "Star Trek" episode the series has had yet. I give it a B+.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Boxing Day

Rewinding now to that escape room/dinner party night I wrote about last week, I'd like to talk about the other brand of escape room in a box game we tried.... er.... Escape Room in a Box.

This is one of the many Kickstarter-makes-good stories in the board game industry, a product that was funded so successfully and feted with such enthusiasm that it was subsequently purchased by Hasbro. Word is it will be re-released this coming November, now re-christened as the first of a line of games -- Escape Room in a Box: The Werewolf Experiment.

Where this product seeks to stand out from the many other escape games is that it goes in hard for the props. The game contains metal tins and a zippered "bank bag" (just like you will actually encounter in a live escape room), all closed with combination locks you'll have to deduce the codes for. There are other props too, though saying much about them would risk spoiling the experience for those who will one day try the game. Suffice it to say, though I have yet to try some of the escape room games out there, I can't imagine that any others have spent more on the tactile side of things, giving you actual items to interact with.

The puzzles of this game were a pretty authentic representation of the escape room experience too. Some were easy, some were hard (though, talking with another group who played, we didn't necessarily agree on which was which). One puzzle we never did exactly crack how the game was trying to give us the information, though we got to it just the same without having to "cheat" by trying multiple answers through brute force.

Kickstarter backers got a "refill kit," replacing the games disposable items so that it could be played again with another group without having to duplicate any of the items. (Hopefully, this touch makes it to the mass market production.) The game even registered itself with a "track your escape room success" app, placing it alongside physical escape rooms and letting you track your time/score, if you like.

They seem to have thought of everything, and the effort really shows. I'm tempted to dock the product a few points for the one or two obtuse elements of its puzzles.... but then, maybe it was just me and my group that were being obtuse. The bottom line is, this product does a pretty amazing job of rendering the escape room experience in bring-it-home form. I give it an A-.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

If the Stars Should Appear

The writing of the most recent episode of The Orville was not as sharp or compelling as the installment before, but it was still a classic Star Trek story through and through. "If the Stars Should Appear" had the Orville crew dealing with a primitive people unaware that their "planet" was actually a massive interstellar spaceship.

The metaphor was a bit murkier this time, though the plot did brush up against issues of religious dogma, authoritarianism, and (if you sort of squint and cock your head) climate change. It was definitely a cocktail of Star Trek themes. Though the jokes were still woven in, and the characters still relaxed and 21st-century casual, the behavior was more noble and in the Trek mode this week. The crew still helped the aliens, even after those aliens shot Kitan and tortured Grayson, and gave the ship over to its owners in the end.

The most Star Trek element of all this week was actually the music, which in several key moments was specifically crafted to mimic passages of actual Star Trek scores. Most distinctive -- to me, anyway, as I've listened to Jerry Goldsmith's work again and again -- was when they first boarded the alien ship, a two-minute chunk of music that came as close to matching "V'Ger's Theme" from Star Trek: The Motion Picture as you can without opening yourself up to a lawsuit. I was quite distracted, though simultaneously swept up in a wave of nostalgia by just how much this series wants to pay homage to Star Trek.

Character behavior was a bit one-note all around this week. That was nothing out of the ordinary for the "aliens of the week," but was a bit of a regression for the main cast. Bortus had a generic spat with his husband (that didn't even get resolved within the episode), Isaac was all about making Mercer uncomfortable with personal questions, and most everyone else was being generally stoic. There was at least plenty of room for some of the better humor the show has played thus far: Mercer trying to be diplomatic about the terrible food, LaMarr's celebration at destroying the enemy ship, Grayson cracking wise about her "Friends" at Central Perk, and more.

And it did all end on a fun note of wonder, with the world ship's dome retracted for an entire population to behold the stars for the first time. (An extra degree of gravitas was lent to the proceedings by Seth MacFarlane dipping into his Contacts and calling up Liam Neeson for an unexpected cameo.)

I think this might have actually been the weakest episode so far of The Orville, but it still struck a loving tone that was fun to watch -- an especially nice one in pairing with Star Trek: Discovery, actually. Those who can't get on board with the darker Trek can revel in the old school-ness of this pseudo-Trek. I give "If the Stars Should Appear" a B-.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Context Is for Kings

If you were on the fence about Star Trek: Discovery last week after its one broadcast episode (half episode, really; the two-parter finished online), let me try to clarify things after episode 3: do it. Go for it. Get the streaming service. Suck it up, pay the monthly fee (you do it for Game of Thrones without complaint; or do you pirate that too?). It's worth it.

Here ends the spoiler-free portion of the review. If you need the spoiler-light version as farther convincing:

It's easier to recommend Star Trek: Discovery now that we can all wrap our heads around what it is -- "Star Trek: Black Ops." I expect this will have a section of Trekdom up in arms. Starfleet doesn't have a sinister bone in its body, they'll say. But Deep Space Nine used the "Section 31" conceit to serve up some of the most powerful morality tales of the entire franchise. Starfleet doesn't pursue research with weapons applications, they'll say. Except for the Genesis Device, of course, the Macguffin at the heart of the best Star Trek movie. Or, you know, just recall that the Starfleet of Kirk's era wasn't nearly as enlightened as that of the series that followed, justifying the time in which this series is set (as opposed to setting it post-Voyager).

But watch it. Because this series is very quickly declaring itself as a worthy entry in the Star Trek canon, actually going boldly where none have gone before -- because this setup sure feels like it will facilitate some new kinds of stories. Or even worthy takes on similar old stories, as we have a whole new darker set of characters to experience them.

Here ends the spoiler-light portion of the review. If you continue from here, I'm assuming you're current on the show.

One of the virtues of doing a "prologue" two-parter to open the series is that it already firmly established Michael Burnham (and, to a lesser extent, Saru). That made for more time to introduce others in the Discovery crew this week, and the episode really did this well -- we got very little in the way of monologues serving up backstory (Captain Lorca talking about his eyes was the only moment that stuck out awkwardly for me). Instead, we got lots of the characters actually showing us who they are.

Starting with Lorca (since I just mentioned him), we've got a captain who might just have the shortest leash of any to command in a Star Trek series. He's stern, won't leave the door open even a crack for insubordination, and is absolutely willing to bend the rules to get what he wants. But he's also not humorless (his playful but withering dig at Stamets' intelligence establishing that). After wondering what the hell a Tribble was doing in his ready room for several minutes, I decided that might actually tell us everything we need to know about the man. Lorca is the sort of person who would keep a cooing biohazard as a pet, the sort of person who has actually figured out (or had people figure out) a way to keep the damn thing from overrunning his ship with its breeding... and who decided to keep that information a secret. Lorca lives dangerously and keeps his cards close to the vest always. He's unlike any Trek captain we've seen so far, and casting Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs) to play him seems perfect.

Another character with rough edges, Stamets will not suffer fools -- but he's smart and inventive enough that unfortunately for him, he usually has to. Simultaneously, though, he actually might be the closest thing to a "regular Starfleet character" that this show has -- he's the voice on the show most questioning why a convicted criminal should be welcomed into the crew, he's the one complaining how his pure dream is being co-opted for nefarious applications. He seems like he might be the moral center of the show, which is interesting for at least two reasons. First, it seems like Discovery's mission will have vanishing use for morality; second, because he's going to be a beacon of morality and the franchise's first regular gay character. (Not to be retconned as such.) This facet of Stamets wasn't discussed in his first episode, though it's been widely reported on, and I love the pairing of stalwart morality with the character who a stubborn portion of society would find inherently immoral. I look forward to seeing what Anthony Rapp does with the role.

Cadet Tilly is hilarious. I imagine some people will find her annoying. And it's also true that "doe-eyed newbie" has an expiration date as the character experiences more and more. But it's great to have someone in the mix who doesn't react to the bizarre, unique, and incredible with blank-faced stoicism. It's also fun to have someone so socially awkward in the mix too, whose attempts to be sly backfire in her face ("assigned seating"). Giving Burnham, the character raised by Vulcans, a roommate who's so emotionally unreserved is an inherently wonderful comedic pairing. And it seems like Mary Wiseman has the comic timing to pull it off.

The episode gave us not only lots of character, but plenty of atmosphere too. The sequence aboard the USS Glenn was a straight-up Alien homage, a mini-horror movie that included lots of tension and some truly grisly visuals (this is the stuff they can do because it's a streaming show). The opening taste of prison life, by way of the three hardened criminals on the shuttle with Burnham, was another glimpse at a corner of the Star Trek universe we don't usually get to see.

In short, I'm enthusiastically on board now. If this were the pilot episode of the show, it would, far and away, be the most effective pilot of any of the Star Trek series. I give this episode an A-. I'm ready and eager for what comes next.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Great (Pretty Good, At Least) Escape

Last weekend, my friends hosted a gaming/dinner party where only one type of game was on the agenda: escape room games. I've written before on a couple of occasions about escape rooms we've enjoyed. It seems they're enough of a phenomenon that a number of board game manufacturers have tried to package the same kind of experience in a product you can play in your own home.

We got to try a couple different ones at this party, but I'm going to focus on one particular brand in this post -- Exit: The Game. It has the most notoriety at the moment, fresh off a 2017 win of the Kennerspiel des Jahres award (the "expert game of the year" honor given out in the German game industry).

Exit is a game in a rather tiny box, containing just cards, a booklet, and a "decoder wheel." It sells for around $15, and is made to be played just once -- not only will you "solve" the room, you will destroy some of the game components in the course of doing so. Given the notable number of games my group has paid three or four times that amount for and then only played once, this is not a huge ask -- particularly compared to the cost of actually going to an escape room. If the "ticket" is fun enough, it could easily be worth $15.

There are three Exit games so far, each with a different story and setting. (Three more are due to be released soon.) I played two different ones on the night of this dinner party: The Abandoned Cabin (a classic "cabin in the woods" trope) and The Secret Lab (where you must experiment with the chemicals in a laboratory to find escape).

Exit: The Game (in any version) does a great job of recreating just about everything that's key to the escape room experience. There are puzzles to solve of various difficulties, pulling on different kinds of skills. Some are observational, requiring you to notice details in the artwork of cards, while others are the sorts of intuitive and associative leaps that are escape rooms' bread and butter. One of the two games had a fourth-wall breaking puzzle that compromised the flavor of the game and wasn't worth that sacrifice even for the cleverness, in my opinion. Still, the experience of both games was fun overall.

The Secret Lab seemed the far harder of the two to me (and I've heard the third Exit game, an Egyptian themed adventure, is hardest of all). The game does include a card-based hint system if you get stuck, but there's only so effective this can be if the game designers haven't anticipated why and how the players might actually get stuck (which is a tall order). This key interactive element, plus the production values of being inside a constructed environment, are enough that these sorts of games aren't going to replace escape rooms -- not for me at least. But these games were quite a lot of fun, and I look forward to trying the others in the series.

I'd give these Exit: The Game products a B+ (with my specific recommendation being for the Abandoned Cabin installment, if you're going to try just one). If you've enjoyed an escape room before, it's hard to imagine you wouldn't enjoy this.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Watch Out

Early this year, the movie Baywatch seemed like it might be a bit of dopey fun. But then the critics savaged it, and no one went to see it -- including everyone I know. When it limped out on Blu-ray, though, I began to hear from different friends in different settings: "yeah I just saw that; it was actually kind of funny, better than I expected." So I decided to give the movie a try.

Baywatch is, of course, the film adaptation of the cheesy TV series about lifeguards saving lives and fighting crime in ever-sunny California. Like the 21 Jump Street film adaptation, Baywatch acknowledges the inherent silliness of the premise, leans into it all the way, and plays that for comedy. Also like 21 Jump Street, it embraces an R rating, with all the lewdness that enables. I liked 21 Jump Street, so I certainly think it's a formula that can work. But Baywatch simply isn't as funny.

Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron actually make a fairly decent comic team. Both have a background that likely prepared them for this sort of utterly deadpan comedy. Johnson learned to deliver preposterous dialogue with utter sincerity in the wrestling ring, making him the ultimate straight man; Efron learned similarly to commit to over-the-top singing and dancing for kids in High School Musical. Baywatch is at its best when their two characters soldier through the outlandish without acknowledging it as such (a strain of humor mostly given to Johnson). I feel like Baywatch would have been a decidedly better movie if they'd just gone full "Airplane!" with it.

There's frankly too much plot in the movie, in the form of a central villain with a scheme to devalue land and buy it for a big real estate development. It's not that it's an overly complicated story, but that it takes up too much space because it's too cliche. Though the villain's identity is meant to be a bit of a secret at first (and the primary henchman certainly is), both these revelations can be guessed the first time the characters appear on screen. This wouldn't be a problem if the movie was using these cliches like all the others, as something to poke fun at, but it's instead drawn out for all the drama it's worth. (Which isn't as much as the writers think.)

If I'd never allowed my expectations to get boosted back up after bottoming out, I might have found the movie less of a chore. As originally expected, it's just a bit of dopey fun. Just a bit. There's worse, but there's also much better. I give Baywatch a C-.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

About a Girl

Sunday night was Star Trek night at my house, in a big way. The group that gathered not only watched both hours of the Star Trek: Discovery debut, we also caught up with the previous week's episode of The Orville. The timing was something, because if Discovery hadn't arrived to officially claim the Star Trek mantle, The Orville would most certainly have claimed it with the episode it delivered.

Bortus, the ship's Moclan second officer, welcomes a baby with his mate Klyden. But the happy occasion quickly becomes a moral quandary. Though Moclans are an ostensibly single-gender species, the baby has been born female, an extremely rare genetic "defect" that Bortus and Klyden want corrected with surgery. When Dr. Finn refuses, they reach out to their homeworld, soon bringing about a diplomatic and legal battle.

Seriously, a story doesn't get more quintessentially Star Trek than this. Dressing up a conflict in a sci-fi veneer, the more modern the better, is what almost all the most lauded episodes of every Trek series did. The fans rightly elevated the ones that did so more subtly ("The Measure of a Man," for instance), but the blunt episodes of the original series are just as famous (the racial allegory of "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield," to name one).

"About a Girl" hews more to the latter category than the former; no one is going to miss the transgender parallel being drawn here. Still, the arguments are shuffled up just a bit. In the real world, transgender people (and those who support them) argue to be taken at their word on their own sexual identities (with or without surgery). In this episode of The Orville, the people arguing for a surgery are the ones denying a gender identity.

The premise is squeezed of all its metaphorical juice as the episode also touches on feminism along the way. The Moclans' objection to the female child isn't just about her rarity, it's about their viewing women as inferior, teeing up another Star Trek hallmark: a court battle in which the crew members are pressed into service as attorneys. Here, because The Orville has one foot planted in the world of comedy, the characters are able to comment on how ludicrous an idea this is on its face. And then, impressively, they're actually able to provide a better justification for it than perhaps any Star Trek episode ever offered: Commander Grayson must argue on the baby's behalf because no Moclan wants the job.

Not only has The Orville done its best job yet of delivery a sci-fi morality tale, its humor was dialed in at its best yet as well. The episode got full mileage out of letting its characters "be regular humans" in this episode -- characters talk of penises and vaginas (hardly dirty words, but nothing you would ever imagine a Star Trek character saying), and helmsman Malloy is allowed to look flat-out stupid when questioned in the trial.

Then came the episode's finest touch: they lose in the end. The trial reaches the most realistic verdict to expect from a monolithic, indoctrinated society, and forces the gender reassignment surgery on the baby girl. There are a handful episodes of Star Trek where the characters "lose" (and some of these are the most beloved; see "The City on the Edge of Forever" -- seriously, see it), but that is decidedly the exception to the rule. In opting for this ending, The Orville declared that it not only will claim Star Trek's allegorical mantle, and not only will try to be funny, it will be a more modern show that tries to allow for more realistic storytelling.

Pretty impressive in all, if you ask me. (And you did. You're reading this.) I of course wish the episode were more subtle and nuanced. And I also think this story would land better if it could somehow be told in a world where we knew the main characters better, having lived with them for, say, a full season or two. But it's undeniably The Orville's best episode to date, and indicative of the direction I hope they continue in. It's also notably better than The Next Generation's "transgender episode," "The Outcast." I give "About a Girl" a B+. As I said in my Discovery review, I think that show might have entertained me more this week, but The Orville felt more like "Star Trek."

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Vulcan Hello / Battle at the Binary Stars

Let's talk about Star Trek: Discovery.

This is going to be an unusually ordered review, as I'm going to attempt to serve three masters here. First, you'll get my spoiler-free thoughts, for those who haven't watched any of the show. Then, I'll gather my thoughts on only the first episode, for those who watched the debut on television. Lastly, I'll go through the second hour, available through CBS All Access.

Perhaps first, we should talk about expectations. I know a lot of people who were looking forward to this with impossible-to-fulfill expectations. This was going to be the first new Star Trek series in more than a decade! People scoured every frame of every trailer, weighing in on the merits of overhauling the look of the Klingons, having a new uniform design that was not consistent with the original series (or even Captain Pike's Enterprise), and seemingly developed a pre-hostility. "I want this to be good," many seemed to profess, "but it's not going to be."

For my part, I went in as I try to do any time I've already decided to "buy a ticket." It was Star Trek; I knew I was going to watch it; so don't tell me anything else. It was impossible to avoid all information about it, of course, but I went in relatively blind.

Perhaps it's best/easiest to contrast this premiere with the third episode of The Orville that ran last Thursday. (I haven't reviewed that yet, but that's coming.) Overall, I believe Discovery entertained me more. But that episode of The Orville felt more like "Star Trek" to me.

Discovery is fully committed to serialized storytelling, in a way that even Deep Space Nine never dared approach. It's a show written for its medium: a streaming service. Much like Stranger Things or Daredevil or your Netflix show of choice, the first episode wasn't a complete story in any sense of the term, and ended on a cliffhanger designed to make you immediately want to watch the next episode. So did the second episode, which is an odd choice, as CBS All Access doesn't actually drop a whole season at once like Netflix; they spit out one episode a week.

Cliffhangers aside, though, the two episodes together did at least feel like a complete story. And when you consider that every Star Trek series since The Next Generation began with a two-hour premiere episode, this makes sense. It's too bad that commerce/marketing/scheming conspired to break it in half and leave people who watched on television, not sold on just one hour, in the lurch.

The production values of this show are sky high. With elaborate, real sets (not green-screened), location filming, fantastic visual effects, and great makeup, this thing looks like a movie. In fact, some creative decisions were made that make it too much like a movie -- specifically the three reboot (or "Kelvin timeline") movies. There were jarring lens flares and Dutch angles all over these episodes. I suspect this is meant to look "cinematic," but it really distracted the group I watched with.

There was a Star Trek sensibility to it all, though. I'll get into the specifics later, once I'm done with the "spoiler-free" section, but there absolutely seemed to be a real-world allegory woven into this tale, more subtly than many Trek episodes. There was also solid development of the main character, Michael Burnham.

To go farther, I think I need to get into specifics. So if you didn't watch either episode, consider this your jumping off point. I'll leave you with my verdict: I collectively give the two episodes a B, and I await the next episode with cautious optimism.

If you're still here now, I assume you at least watched the first hour, "The Vulcan Hello."

A number of creative risks were taken in the creation of the first episode. I felt more of them worked out than didn't, so I appreciate the attempt. But I have no doubt the mileage will vary among viewers.

First of all, it's remarkable that we didn't even get introduced to the titular ship, the Discovery, in the premiere of the show. This is what I meant by the show going all in on serialization. This was fascinating, as we joined a crew that's been together already for 7 years before we get to see them. It's like starting a series with the series finale of The Next Generation or something. The characters already know each other, give each other slack and work in a relaxed manner with each other, and generally do feel like they've been starring in a show we just didn't get to see.

Because of this choice, you don't get to have those typical Trek pilot moments of characters' first meetings, so we have to be shown who everyone is, not told. That's great, though it also meant that a lot more time needed to be spent on character development and not plot. Put more baldly, you could walk away from hour one with the sense that "nothing happened," because a lot of time was spent establishing the relationship between Burnham and Captain Georgiou, and showing us in rather striking detail just who Burnham is in the big lead-up to her moment of mutiny. And I thought it was great that they did this, because it made that moment when Burnham gave Georgiou the next pinch truly impactful.

Woven into all this, we also got a good sense of who Saru is. It's intriguing to have a character on a Star Trek show who is, at core, a coward. He's the "us" in all this, the one having the most "human" reactions to encountering the unknown. He's the Spock, the Data, the Seven of Nine, the "other" who is trying to fit in with everyone else. But it does feel to me like he's coming from a different angle than the characters in his Trek ancestry; I'm intrigued to see how that fits in the mix.

There were moments in the first hour that definitely didn't work so well. I'm generally against the decision to have so much subtitled Klingon. I understand the impulse to set the Klingons apart and have them (logically) speaking to each other in their own language. But the language is so guttural and stilted and weird that none of the actors could fit it compellingly in their mouths. It didn't sound like real language, it sounded like grunts and strains. The actors couldn't convey any emotions. A good subtitled scene still gets across the emotional throughline even without the subtitles. (For comparison, watch any scene in Dothraki in Game of Thrones.) Here, without the subtitles, you'd be completely lost.

The opening desert scene was ridiculous. The banter between Burham and Georgiou was fun, the first piece in establishing their relationship. But the idea of leaving tracks in the sand, in a storm, as if they wouldn't immediately be erased, was just stupid. It felt spiritually connected to the opening sequence of Star Trek Into Darkness, where they worked backward from a visual they wanted (there, the Enterprise rising up out of the water; here, the Trek chevron in an overhead shot) and failed to effectively reach it.

Moving on to hour two then.... (duck out here if you didn't stream the last part)...

As I mentioned above, you really needed to see the two episodes together to get the "full story" out of them. Together, you got the fall of Michael Burnham and the rise of the Klingon T'Kuvma. In fact, this was at least as compelling a Trek movie as the one we got most recently, Star Trek Beyond.

In the full context of both hours, we see what allegory has been inserted here. This group of Klingons are the nationalists, railing against the onset of a "globalism" that threatens their beliefs, their way of life. They're on the cusp of being absorbed into the Federation, and they hate it. And their last gasp, their railing against the inevitable, is going to be violent and scary. In short, this is what's playing out in the United States right freaking now, every day. I can only hope that in reality, it doesn't take seven decades to play out as it does in the established Star Trek timeline.

If you watched this whole "two-hour premiere," you'll know that the Discovery still hasn't been introduced. Neither has more than half of the main cast. This is extraordinary, something you could only do on a streaming show with a full season commitment. And while I may wonder later if these two episodes shouldn't have been "aired" as a full flashback somewhere in the middle of the season instead, for now it does at least put the focus squarely on the main character.

It totally works to base a Star Trek series around a character who isn't the captain. At least, so far I'm willing to say that it does. Sonequa Martin-Green is engaging as Burnham, and this story gives her plenty of chance to shine. I'm less sure about the Vulcan background they've given the character at this point (though she's not a Spock clone; she hasn't chosen to maintain steadfast Vulcan emotionlessness). Maybe it's just my fanness recoiling against the retcon of giving Sarek an adoptive father.

Well, I've shuffled around for quite enough for one post, I think. Like I said a while back, taken together, I'd give these first two hours a B. I am interested in seeing more, and meeting more of the characters this new series has cooked up.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Making Me Sick

There are a lot more board games out there that take 2 to 4 players than those that will work for up to 5. Adding that fifth player can be a tricky thing that doesn't always "just work." Just adding too much down time between turns can be bad enough; sometimes that one extra person can upset the entire balance of the game system.

Viral is a new game that says "2-5 players" on the box, but should have known better and capped it at 4. Each player controls a virus strain that has infected a human host. The board represents six different sections of the body, each with one to three organs, where players battle against each other for control. At the end of each round, your virus must have the highest numbers in a section to score points, but must also be present in all organs in that section to do so.

You have a series of cards that cover your possible moves, and a separate set of cards to target those moves in a particular section of the body. Cards let you reproduce new viruses, migrate them across organs (and through the blood stream to other sections of the body), attack rival viruses, and shield your viruses from attack. The cards you use in one round are excluded from use during the next round, but you can also pick up new cards with new combinations of abilities throughout the game.

I played Viral with 5 players, and I never want to play it again -- not with that number again, at least, though the experience was negative enough to sour me on the game entirely. First, five players is sheer chaos. Each player plays just two cards per round, but each card has multiple actions on it that affect the board state so wildly that planning is essentially impossible. Go early in the turn order, and there's no way for you to account for what will happen after you and before scoring. Go late in the turn order, and there's no way for you to account for everything that's changed since you all simultaneously chose the cards you were playing that turn -- what you wanted to do may now simply be irrelevant.

Setup for 5 players is, quite simply, unbalanced and unfair. There are 12 organs on the board, a number that divides equally for 2, 3, or 4, players. Do you leave two of them empty for the 5-player set-up? Nope, the last two players get them. The player in third position gets squeezed, behind in numbers, and with players causing unpredictable chaos on turn 1 both before and after him.

The game has a bit of a "rich get richer" problem. There's a built-in mechanism that tries to address this: when an organ fills up with too many viruses, the body react and wipes them all out at the end of the turn, which theoretically hurts the players with more board presence more extremely. But there's another mechanism that favors the leaders. At regular intervals on the scoring track are places where, when reached, you get to draft a new ability card for your hand (any of three face up options, or a blind choice from the deck). These are super-powerful compared to the starting cards, so the first player to reach a point plateau and nab one gets more power to turn around and immediately use on the next turn to ascend to still greater heights and earn still more powers. With a limited number of rounds in the game, earning a power early means you get to use yours more often than the late bloomers use theirs, an imbalance with no real counterweight.

There's still more chaos in the game, in the form of a deck of event cards that are shuffled and revealed round by round throughout the game, putting different benefits or penalties on different organs in the body. It's very difficult to instantly get to any particular place you need to go in the body, as movement is rather restricted. It's not like every player can instantly go vie for control of what's important in a given round, or abandon an area that's become dangerous. So essentially, these event cards can randomly give further help to players who don't need it, or further keep trailing players under the thumb of the game's chaos engine.

Even though I somehow managed to finish just one point behind the two players who tied for first (those being the fourth and fifth players that started the game with the extra virus; just saying), I felt completely out of control the entire time, and could point to nothing but dumb luck and opportunity on the final turn of the game that made it that close. That close finish did nothing to salvage the experience as a whole, one I don't care to repeat ever again.

I suppose I might consider giving the game another shot with fewer players some time, but that sort of feels like opting for a left-footed kick to the crotch rather than a right-footed one. I've had a great run of trying decent-to-excellent new board games for some time now, but that ends here with Viral. Solid theme, pretty board... terrible play experience. I give it a D.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

My Kingdom for a Domino

Ever since the German Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) award was split in 2011 to add a Kennerspiel des Jahres ("Expert" Game of the Year), the original award has gone to more straightforward games. It now feels like the eligibility barriers include that the game can't take more than half an hour to play, or more than 2 or 3 minutes to learn the rules. Despite this, there have been some very satisfying winners, such as Codenames. But I'm not so sure about this year's winner, Kingdomino.

Starting with a single square shaped tile, players much each build a kingdom that fits within a 5x5 grid. They do this by drafting "domino" shaped tiles, each featuring one or two terrain types (from about half a dozen that exist in the game). When placing a new tile in the domain, at least one of the two sides must be placed adjacent to matching terrain type (or to the starting square, which can touch anything). Tiles are numbered, with more powerful ones numbered higher. The order of power taken in one round determines the order of drafting in the following round -- if you get a weaker tile, you'll choose sooner from next round's options. Some tiles have crown symbols in one of the two terrain squares. This is how scoring works. At the end of the game, you score points in each of your terrain zones -- the number of squares in the zone multiplied by the number of crowns in the zone.

And that's it.

I will say in praise of Kingdomino that it feels like one of the more effective bridges into "hobby gaming" that has come along in a while. I can easily imagine explaining it to non-gamers, and it is certainly more satisfying to play by far than the games "most people have heard of." It probably displaces Carcassonne as the easiest tile game to bridge people into the larger world of games; there's no need to explain wacky farm scoring, no pain points in deploying all your workers too fast.

That said, I just wasn't all that thrilled by it. Some of this may have to do with trying it pretty quickly on the heels of Between Two Cities, which I found to be a far more satisfying "simple tile laying game." But it's also a good deal less compelling than other recent Spiel des Jahres winners, such as Hanabi or Camel Up. It's so easy to see the best move every time that your decision making is trivial, and you can easily tell when someone else is doing well enough that you won't win. Even when a game runs only 20 minutes or so, it's a bit rough to feel certainty by minute 5 that you're going to lose.

I wouldn't refuse to play Kingdomino again; it wasn't that unsatisfying. But that's mainly because I know that playing a game of it would still leave plenty of time for other games during an all-night get-together. (Even then, I'd try to steer toward Between Two Cities instead.) I give Kingdomino a B-. There's a nice simplicity to it, but it's just a little too simple for my tastes.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Command Performance

The Emmys were last night, and while I often use the day after an awards show to share snarky comments my friends and I lobbed at the screen, the truth is that show just wasn't our priority this year. We watched some of it (get ready for hundreds of Sean Spicer think pieces, why is the announcer always YELLING AT ME?, Jeremy Piven looks like he showed up at a Halloween party in a Jeremy Piven costume), but we spent the bulk of the night watching last Monday's season finale of Preacher, the new Rick and Morty, and the new episode of The Orville.

The Orville did inch along slightly from the pilot in finding the right formula: it was a little bit more consistent with the humor this week, and leaned a little more into the "everyone talks and acts like a normal human" conceit. And, of course, it remained a loving clone of Star Trek: The Next Generation, scooping up plot threads from at least three episodes of that series (the captain is abducted by aliens, a junior officer has to command for the first time, an alien crew member has a baby), and putting them through the blender.

The Orville was trying to weave in a new element this week, a dash of Star Trek's high-and-mighty moralizing. It came in the form of speechifying about how future humans have moved past zoos and imprisoning animals for entertainment. That was pure Star Trek right there (and about as bluntly delivered as in any Trek episode that actually articulated its moral in dialogue). I prefer to let the viewer read between the lines on their own, though I will admit that it changes the lens a bit to hear futuristic morality speechified by people who use words like "sucks" and make marijuana edibles with their replicator.

The budget, though still substantial, seemed far more realistic for a weekly series this time around. We got a few digital sets for the zoo, a lot of replicator visual effects, and a healthy number of background extras, but overall this seemed more like the level of execution we can expect in a regular episode... and it still made the whole thing pleasing to the eye.

I appreciated the focus on character -- Mercer and Grayson revisiting everything good and bad about their relationship, Kitan's command dilemma and Dr. Finn's "Obi-Wan"-like advice. Still, as the show learns to deploy more weapons from the arsenal, I do hope they learn to do so with more subtlety. This was a small step in the right direction, but only if you're staring right at the needle looking for it to move. I'd give this episode a B.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Batty

As we approach the final quarter of the year, a lot of the movies I missed earlier in the year are starting to make their way to Blu-ray, streaming, HBO, and the like. I get to catch up a bit. Recently, that meant watching The Lego Batman Movie. (I know, it's supposed to be LEGO. I'm not doing that all through this post; I don't want it to look like I'm screaming at everybody.)

Taking Will Arnett's rendition of Batman from the original Lego Movie and pushing him center stage, this movie does a pretty good job of fulfilling both the promises in its title -- it's both a credible Batman movie and a credible Lego movie. On the Batman side, we get a story about Bruce Wayne (slowly) finding room in his heart for a new family after building his entire life around the loss of his parents (which, thankfully, this movie doesn't dramatize for the umpteenth time). The story is a direct reaction to (and sometimes parody of) the increasingly broody portrayals of Batman in film, putting him through a story in which he learns to feel some emotion other than rage.

As a Lego movie, it's once again a gonzo buffet of anything and everything you might plausibly (or implausibly) stuff into a movie fueled by a child's imagination. You get more Batman characters than you've ever heard of (and you're encouraged to look them up) and a rogue's gallery of baddies from every other property Warned Brothers studios controls. There are also (as in the original movie) key moments in the plot that hinge on the fact that these are in fact Legos we're talking about. It's a lot of fun.

The movie comes at you with off the charts intensity. The dialogue is fast and loaded with joke after joke. There are visual gags everywhere you look. I'm not sure if this is all intended for a kid with a short attention span, or an adult who will see every part of this film dozens of times while their kids have it on. Either way, if one moment doesn't work for you, you don't have to wait long for the next. And if a joke does work for you, rest assured that you'll probably get a callback to it later in the film, whether it's about Robin's costume choices, guns that go "pew pew pew" when fired, or Batman's admiration of his own abs.

It's kind of crazy how deep the casting bench goes, and how even many of the casting choices could be regarded as jokes in and of themselves. There's an Arrested Development reunion placing Michael Cera as Robin opposite Will Arnett's Batman. After Rosario Dawson has become a ubiquitous presence in the Marvel Universe, she now moves over to DC as Barbara Gordon. Siri is the voice of the "'puter" (no credit to Susan Bennett). Zach Galifianakis takes a spin as the Joker. Voldemort is actually in the movie, voiced by Eddie Izzard -- even though Ralph Fiennes is also in the movie (as Alfred).

There's Kate Micucci and Riki Lindhome -- both parts of Garfunkel and Oates. Billy Dee Williams is the voice of Two Face, a promise fulfilled after almost 30 years since he played Harvey Dent in Tim Burton's Batman. Conan O'Brien, Seth Green, Jemaine Clement, Ellie Kemper, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Adam Devine, Mariah Carey, Chris Hardwick... if seems like if a working actor (or non-actor!) didn't record a line for The Lego Batman Movie, they must not have wanted to.

In fact, the movie does buckle a bit under all the weight at times. But it's consistently fun, and does a good job of not just being for the kids. I give it a B. It carries the baton well for the emerging Lego film franchise.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A Tale Between Two Cities

It's rare to find a game that accommodates a large number of players without it being a "party game." But my group has recently come across one in Between Two Cities, a tile-laying, city-building game designed by Ben Rosset and Matthew O'Malley.

The game is played over three rounds, at the end of which each player will have taken part in building two cities: each in a 4x4 grid, one shared with the player on their left, and one shared with the player on their right. In round one, you begin with 7 square tiles, from which you draft two and pass the remainder. You (and your adjacent partners) then decide which of your two selections goes in which of your two cities (and where) -- you place one tile in each. Repeating the draft twice puts 6 tiles into each city, three that you drafted, and three drafted by your partner in that city.

Round two repeats the process, but with a twist. The tiles in this round are like dominos, with two squares positioned attached to one another. You're dealt 3 of these, and must choose one for each of your two cities. Round three wraps up the game by returning to the round one system (single tiles, though passing in the opposite direction), completing each 4x4 city.

Scoring then takes place for each city. There are six different categories (colors) of tiles, each one scoring by a different means -- some want a certain geography, some want the presence of other types of tiles, others compare against the other cities built during the game. Once scoring of the cities is complete, each player's score is whichever of their two cities is worth fewer points. So you want to try to push your two city's developments in equal measure, and truly work with your two partners to make each one be the best it can.

The game takes up to 7 players, and I have no reason to think there's much difference playing with anywhere from 3 on up -- the only difference is how many opponents aren't also your partners; the game won't take appreciably longer to play, as all decision-making is done simultaneously throughout. (Having not looked at the rulebook myself, I don't know how a 1- or 2-player game would operate exactly, but the game is supposed to work for those numbers too.)

The decisions you make here are pretty satisfying. There aren't so many negotiations with partners as to turn this into mini-Diplomacy. Usually, it's pretty clear which of your two drafted tiles is best for which city, as is the decision where to place a tile. Keeping the cities to a slim 4x4 grid helps that. It also helps the length of the game, which can easily be played in under 30 minutes -- even with slower players, and distractions or conversations interrupting the game. (The box actually touts a 20 minute run time, which seems totally plausible to me.)

Satisfying but short, good for a large group while still being strategic and not a party game? That's a pretty rare game indeed. (I hope past reviews have made clear that I have nothing against a good party game -- and there are some that are quite good. But that's not always the itch you want to scratch on game night.) I'd probably give the actual gameplay of Between Two Cities a B+ grade. But as a nod to the achievement and the design, hitting this niche and making it so that there is such a game that my group can play, I think I'll nudge it up to an A-