Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Two Clever

The newest entry in the game juggernaut Codenames is Codenames: Duet. Intended primarily for two players (though playable with two teams), this takes the familiar gameplay of the original and applies it to a cooperative game.

As before, a 5x5 grid of cards is laid out, each containing a word. A separate card marks the words in that grid that a clue giver is trying to get the guesser to say by giving one-word clues -- and three words (not just one this time) that must be avoided. But this time around, the cards are double sided. Players/teams sit across from each other, each working the same grid and taking turns giving clues. 15 of the 25 words must be guessed between them; each side of the card marks 6 words that only that side is trying to give clues for, while 3 words are shared on both sides. One of the three "assassin" words to be avoided is shared with the other side of the card; one of the words that's an assassin on one side is actually a word to be guessed on the other. The players have just 9 clues between them (10 turns of guesses) to identify the 15 correct words.

I'm quite impressed at the ingenuity in converting this game into something cooperative. The double-sided clue card is a clever innovation, and the rules governing how they're designed add a fun element of deductive reasoning to the game. When you hear there's a cooperative Codenames, you might well ask, "how does that work?" Pretty well, it turns out.

It's also quite difficult. Racing against another team in the standard version is, it turns out, a lot easier than just racing the clock. With one side only able to give 4 clues (and the other only able to give 1 more), you really have to find ways to stitch two or three words on the grid together with just a single clue. You can't let up on the gas like you can in the original when you build a comfortable lead on the rival team. In fact, we played several rounds of Codenames: Duet on the night we first tried it, and we weren't successful -- not even once.

Fun, clever, and challenging -- Codenames: Duet is all that. Yet it also feels a little bit limited to me. It really does seem like it's just a two-player game. We tried it with teams, which led to a whole lot of awkward whispering back and forth within each team about what clue to actually give. Finally, pen and paper had to be brought out just so "discussion" could happen without the guessers hearing. It was awkward any way you slice it, where the simple two player experience would just be you and one other person working together. Personally, I rarely have need of a two-player game, and this awkwardness in trying to include more than that may well mean that my group just opts for the original Codenames when given the chance.

That makes this game a hard one to grade. It feels like its awkwardness in scaling to more players really shouldn't count too much against it if it is a perfect two-player game... though that makes it much less likely I'll actually play it again. Call it a B+? If you're a Codenames fan, or simply on the lookout for a good two-player game, you'll definitely want to pick up Codenames: Duet.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Dragon and the Wolf

With its season 7 finale, Game of Thrones reached a pinnacle, a new level of delivering what it's been delivering throughout the season (particularly in the back half): moments that are satisfying because you've been waiting for them so long, yet also a bit hollow because the run-up to them has been truncated. I'll take it a step farther. Much of the finale, while making you cry "oh no!" or "oh yeah!" at your TV, didn't really make sense.

That didn't manifest right away. We began with the big peace conference at King's Landing, and because they allowed this episode to sprawl to 80 minutes, the sequence was given time to hit all the needed beats. All the needed "reunion" moments, specifically: Tyrion and Podrick, The Hound and Brienne, Tyrion and Bronn, The Hound and the Mountain, Theon and Euron, Brienne and Jaime... I don't think a single meaningful pairing was overlooked. There were other great character moments scattered throughout too; my favorite was Qyburn's very different reaction to the wight than everyone else, an eager curiosity. He wanted to immediately begin some sort of experimentation.

Jon Snow's gotta Jon Snow of course, and would rather forfeit everything than tell a lie. They sold this moment to us hard, enough so that I suppose I must believe that this is the choice the honorable-to-a-fault Snow would make. It's also the moment we have to have if people are later expected to fall in line behind him as their ultimate leader -- people need to know Jon would never, ever sell them out. But still, when Dany gives you the silent nod indicating it's okay for you to lie, when the safety of the entire world is on the line, when this is what you've been working for literally for years.... really, Jon Snow?

Like I said, it had to go this way, whether it was completely believable or not, not only to set up things next season, but also to set up a big confrontation between Cersei and Tyrion. It was a largely satisfying scene, but you had to explain for yourself why Cersei in fact didn't kill Tyrion when given a chance. I think it tracked because she didn't really want a battle with Daenerys and her allies right then and there, which she most assuredly would have had if she'd killed Tyrion. So Tyrion gets the satisfaction of thinking he's persuaded Cersei, and Cersei gets to do what Cersei does: lie to everyone about her intentions. (I suppose the fact she did so provided further narrative cover for Jon Snow's decision not to lie. We don't really want our hero to be like Cersei, do we?)

But then we get into much shakier territory as we head to Winterfell. Weeks ago, talking with a friend about the rift between Arya and Sansa and how rushed it seemed, he noted that many viewers had rallied around the notion that it was all a ruse to counter-ensnare Littlefinger. I scoffed, not because that seemed impossible, but because that reading of events was even less supported than the the rift between sisters. But that's exactly where we ended up.

Yes, it was satisfying to watch Littlefinger sqiurm and beg and finally feel out of control for a moment, satisfying to see him finally get his come-uppance for kicking off this entire sad series of events, and yet it simply made no sense. If Arya and Sansa were leading him on the entire time, then why the charade when he wasn't around to see it? If they figured out at some point that they were being misled, then what occurred to make them realize it? This entire plotline was staged for an audience, staged for a dramatic bang at the end, but didn't track at all from the perspectives of any of characters -- perhaps least of all Littlefinger himself, who really shouldn't have gone down so easily after all the masterful manipulations we've seen him pull off.

Jon Snow talked the spine back into Theon Greyjoy, who now heads off to rescue his sister from Euron... who we would later be told did not abandon Cersei. There again, a plot point that's hard to reconcile. Euron was just supposed to have invented a reason at the summit to walk out? It's not like either of them actually believed they'd see an actual wight, so what was the pretense going to have been originally? "Oh, I guess seeing you all actually here is too much for me! I'm out!" Euron and Cersei's plan only makes sense with events unfolding that neither could possibly have foreseen. Guess that's where all of Littlefinger's cleverness went.

Samwell returned to Winterfell for a meeting of the minds with creepy Bran, and all the threads were finally laid bare. Samwell hadn't ignored Gilly, it seems, and had heard about the marriage between Rhaegar and Lyanna. So Bran hit the search function on his third eye and confirmed Jon's -- Aegon's -- legitimacy and claim to the Iron Throne.... right as Dany was, uh, receiving several inches of Snow. I guess the story never ends. Maybe some day, we'll get Game of Thrones: The Next Generation, where the incestuous child of Cersei and Jaime struggles with the incestuous child of Dany and Jon. (Okay, probably not.)

The big, final scene of the season was the most "satisfying, yet illogical" scene of the all. The Wall finally came down, and the Walkers finally marched their army into the South. Yet as cool as the visual of an "ice dragon" is, I'm not sure that using ice to instantly shatter ice feels quite right. Then there's the fact that this is a calamity of the hero's own making. If Jon Snow's "capture a wight" plan hadn't been so woefully deficient that Dany had to sacrifice a dragon rescuing him, then the Night King would never have had a dragon in the first place to so easily get through the Wall. I mean, I'm not arguing for hindsight here -- I'm saying Jon Snow had NO plan, and here are the results.

So we're now all teed up for the final season, though we're told it could be until 2019 before it comes. We're definitely accelerating toward AN ending, which is more than George R.R. Martin is ever likely to give us. So on that level, I am satisfied. But as plot dominoes continue to fall out of expediency and not logic, the ride feels less compelling than it has before. I give the finale a B.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Gotta Dance

If I'd known ahead of time that Stephen Daldry was the director behind the movie Billy Elliot, I probably never would have given it a chance. This is, after all, the guy who directed such mind-numbing Oscar cliches like The Hours, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and The Reader. (He's also rumored to be in consideration for a future Star Wars film. Oh dear.) But it turns out that this being Daldry's first full length feature must make all the difference; it came before he decided to focus his career exclusively on boring movies.

You probably already know it (or have seen the movie yourself), but Billy Elliot is the story of a young English boy with a talent most won't understand. It's the mid 1980s, his mother has died, and his father is out of work due to a labor strike. Life is pretty grim for him, save for the joy he finds in an unlikely place: ballet lessons. Yet while it's both his passion and, according to his teacher, a true calling, his father is having none of it. Drama ensues, the story of finding what one is meant to do and changing minds.

Having now seen this, I do feel like I understand where the movie Sing Street pulled some of its inspiration -- both are set in the same time frame, take place in broken homes, and are centered on a young boy who has found a way to express himself. My preference is ultimately for Sing Street, but Billy Elliot is a good experience too.

At the risk of spoiling things (but hey, the movie is 17 years old), Billy Elliot takes a more interesting Act 3 turn. Billy's dream becomes the whole family's dream, a single rope of something good that everyone can hold on to in the midst of everything else going wrong. It's uplifting to watch a father and brother, both dead-set against Billy's passion at first, make the turn and become supportive. You could take this tale at face value or draw your own analogies from it (the film itself, in fact, includes a subplot about a young gay kid struggling with the closet), but either way it's a tear-in-the-eye, smile-on-the-face story.

I'm not sure the movie ever quite convinces me that Billy is really the ballet prodigy he's said to be, but young Jamie Bell is certainly a good actor in this, and I'd gladly take that over perfectly polished dance skills. (Indeed, at age 14, he won the BAFTA for Best Actor in this role.) Actually, the cast is great throughout, though it's likely the only one recognizable to the average American audience would be Julie Walters, who plays Mrs. Wilkinson, the chain-smoking, cantankerous ballet teacher with a secret heart of gold. (She too won a BAFTA for her performance.)

I have a soft spot for "I have to find my own path" movies, and Billy Elliot is another solid entry in that niche. I give it a B+.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Harboring Some Thoughts

Yokohama is a board game in which players become merchants working to establish trade in a bustling Japanese harbor. The theme feels rather slight to me, though, perhaps holding up to a little bit of scrutiny, but mostly there to contain a series of "gamer's game" mechanics.

The "board" is made up of a series of tiles set up at random in brick style, in an upside-down triangle. A form of route building takes place on these tiles, with each player starting a turn by either placing two workers on one tile, or three workers each on different tiles. These routes of workers pave the way for the player's "president" marker, who must always move along a path connected by the player's workers, and must always end movement on a tile where no other president is positioned. Wherever you choose to land, that's the action you take. The magnitude of that action is determined by how many workers you've built up on the tile, and all those workers are removed again as you take it. So you're managing a constant ebb and flow, trying to plan ahead for actions you'll need.

Though it didn't occur to me at the times I played Yokohama, there are some superficial similarities here to the mechanics of Istanbul. Istanbul (with its "tower" of action discs) feels a bit more clever in its action-taking and movement, but Yokohama has more granular scoring, which I found to be a significant mark against Istanbul. Yokohama also throws in some other wrinkles -- contracts you need to acquire and complete, abilities you can gain throughout the game to let you skirt the rules, and more ways to score points and trigger the end of the game.

But all that nuance does come at a price: the time it takes to play. Both times I did, Yokohama felt to me like it took a lot longer than its not-super-complex rules set would suggest. True, new players were involved in those plays (including me the first time, of course), and that will always slow a game down. Still, this game's core mechanic does seem like a tough one for those susceptible to "analysis paralysis." I think it's that element of needing to build up workers on one tile over time so that, say, four turns from now, you'll be able to take a particular action to a large degree. It's a lot of planning, which you must do in several places at once.

I did enjoy Yokohama well enough, and I would play it again if brought to the table. Still, that sense of disconnect between its rules complexity and its play time feels like a bit of an issue to me. I'd call it a B+. I'd recommend it as a "better Istanbul," and to players who love Euro games in that "not quite abstract, but hardly awash in theme" space. But it's probably not a must-have for every gamer's collection.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017


I missed the movie Get Out in theaters a few months ago. Even with all the hype around how good it was, it fell at a time when my weekends were full, and I just never carved out time to see it. I regret that even more now that I have seen it and learned that indeed: the hype was real.

Get Out is a horror movie written and directed by Jordan Peele. A black man named Chris is invited to a wealthy suburban neighborhood to meet the parents of his white girlfriend, Rose. Despite Rose's assurances that racism isn't going to be an issue, Chris is nervous. But he's completely unprepared for the evil secret he soon discovers.

Jordan Peele has said that one of his principle inspirations here was The Stepford Wives, and it definitely shows. Still, to say any more than that would spoil the fun, and there is a lot more going on in this movie. It fires on all cylinders, being both an excellent horror/suspense film and a wickedly smart film with sharp commentary woven all throughout the plot. This is what It Follows was billed to be by the critics, though delivering on its promise where I thought that film came up short.

The cast is great. Daniel Kaluuya is Chris, a likeable hero who's easy to root for. (It's helpful that Peele's script grounds all the moments where you'd scream "don't do that!" at the screen in a context where you can believe the hero would make the choice he does.) Allison Williams, who many will know from HBO's Girls, is his girlfriend Rose, turning up the charm to max.

The rest of the cast is stacked high with great performers. Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener are perfect as the parents, goofy and awkward on the surface, and ultimately revealed to me quite sinister beneath. (I'm going out on a limb here and saying that's not really a spoiler.) Lil Rel Howery is hilarious as Rod, who in a series of phone calls becomes the voice of the audience urging his friend Chris not to be stupid. And Stephen Root has a wonderful, key role; the less said about it, the better.

Get Out is, quite simply, the best movie I've seen so far this year. And it sets such a high bar that I won't be at all surprise if it's still the best movie I saw all year come December 31st. I know some of my readers simply don't do horror, which is a shame... I think everyone should see this. I give it an enthusiastic A.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Beyond the Wall

Once again, plenty of amazing things happened in this week's Game of Thrones -- big plot developments, jaw-dropping action sequences, enough to leave a viewer charged when the end credits arrived. But again, as with last week, it came with some odd pacing.

Most of the hour was devoted to the journey north of the Wall, and started off on good footing with plenty of great character-driven conversations between the dead-hunting party. Jon and Jorah talked about the latter's father, and the family sword Longclaw. The Hound and Tormund bonded over insults (both dishing them out and teaching them). Gendry got to confront the men who handed him over for torture. So on through the group, and there were many interesting pairings to explore.

But at the same time, note that many of these conversations piled up right up against each other. In earlier, ten-episode seasons, these scenes undoubtedly would have been separated from one another with cuts to things happening elsewhere in Westeros. That would have given us more space to really take in all the connections and reflect on what they meant. Instead, it felt like the writers were fully aware of all the interesting pairings they had to explore among their band of adventurers... they just also knew they only had 10 or so minutes to cram it all in.

In an earlier season, the battle with the "dead bear" would have been enough for one week; we would have gotten to the big showdown the week after. Even that action scene with the bear came off a bit rushed, too frenetic to quite track exactly what was happening to who. (Did we have a couple of red shirts in the mix here? Somehow I'd thought that everyone leaving on this excursion last week was "someone important.")

Still, any story compression north of the Wall was nothing compared to what was happening at Winterfell. At gazelle pace, Sansa sent Brienne away, and her relationship with Arya came completely unglued. Now mind you, I can ultimately believe these characters would get to that place eventually. Sansa is dealing with a form of PTSD in which any time she pushes for something too hard, horrors are visited upon her. She's also using Cersei a lot as a guide for leadership, and hasn't yet fully learned that there's more to leadership than just claiming you're in charge. Sansa walks on eggshells around her northern allies, and yet thinks herself absolutely safe in Winterfell. It tracks when you think it through... but we're missing a lot of the connective tissue.

In the same way, when you stop to think about it, Arya hasn't really seen Sansa in years. The family bonds between them have had a long time to atrophy, and they weren't really that strong to begin with in their case. Arya of course feels more loyalty to her dead father than to her living sister. I can believe that the crafty Littlefinger could drive a wedge between them. But it has all happened so quickly. And where is Bran in all of this? I really feel like I needed another episode or two of watching things unravel between the Stark sisters to come naturally to this juncture -- Arya essentially threatening to kill Sansa.

Tyrion's conversation with Daenerys felt like the one part of the plot that was given the appropriate amount of space to breathe. Everything we've been getting this season has been part of a nicely slow burn that's telling us Dany may just wind up being a villain by the end of this tale, as monstrous as the Mad King before her. And really, this is not a new development, if you look back at her entire story. Her brother Viserys was an ass, to be sure, but Dany's indifference to watching his execution by boiling gold is chilling. Her decision to oppose slavery is the correct one, but her methods of crucifying hundreds, burning people alive, and eagerly encouraging a cult of personality around her undermine her image as a pure heroine. Tyrion and Daenerys seem to be on a collision course in the final season, and it's been satisfying watching that inevitable crash in "slow motion" over the course of these last few episodes.

But, of course, what everyone will be talking about this morning (well, besides the eclipse -- but we're talking Game of Thrones here) is the dead dragon. And UNdead dragon. Dany's sense of invulnerability took a huge hit when she charged up in an attempted rescue only to lose one of her "children." (I believe it was Viserion, though I don't believe that was stated explicitly in the episode.) Night King's gonna Night King, so -1 dragon for Dany means +1 dragon for the army of the dead.

That showdown itself had an appropriately slow buildup. Too slow, even? I mean, how long did it take Gendry to run to the Wall, and then send a raven to Dragonstone, and then for Dany to fly back north of Eastwatch? Surely a week at least, even at speeds faster than Game of Thrones has operated before this season. That's a long time to be stuck on an ice floe staring at zombies. When the battle came, though, it was intense -- even though the most significant non-winged characters lost in it were Thoros and the back-for-30-seconds Benjen Stark.

Like I said at the beginning, there were plenty of satisfying developments that left me feeling thrilled at the end of the hour. But it came with another acceleration of pacing, despite the hour-plus running time, that made that thrill start to fade more quickly than usual. I'd give this week's episode a B+.

Only one episode to go -- the season finale, and the longest installment of the entire series to date. It seems as though everyone is bound for King's Landing. And it would hardly be the stuff of a season finale if we spent the episode with people talking around a table and coming to a friendly agreement.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Black Requiem

Game of Thrones is always the first item on the blog agenda each Monday, but there was another (less widely viewed) entertainment event on TV this past weekend: the series finale of Orphan Black. I believe the only time I've written about the series here was to talk about its soundtrack album. It's something of an oversight on my part, as I've been there from the beginning for every one of Orphan Black's 50 episodes. Yet it's also something of an "editorial decision" on my part, as I felt like the show was never really as good as it was during its amazing first season.

But first, in case you missed the show entirely, the quick summary: Orphan Black is the story of a group of women who discover they're all subjects of a cloning experiment. Though each of them has the same face, their lives are all wildly different. The sisters (or "sestras," as the fans know them) unite in support of each other, and in a long-running effort to bring down the shadowy organization that seeks to control them.

For me, Orphan Black charted a narrative course much like The X-Files. It captured my imagination almost immediately, pulled me in with tantalizing mysteries, then became impenetrable and convoluted as it increasingly appeared that everything was being made up as they went along. Still, even after my interest in (and comprehension of) the ongoing story waned, I kept tuning in with enthusiasm for the characters.

The series' star, Tatiana Maslany, was nothing short of incredible. Even the Emmys, which seem to overlook every genre show that doesn't involve dragons (and took a while to warm even to them), actually saw fit to give her the Outstanding Lead Actress prize for her work on the show. (And they should have given it to her every single year.) Maslany's work on Orphan Black is the pinnacle against which all other "one actor playing multiple characters" stories should be measured. It is for me, at least, and everyone else comes up short. When the clones take part in their different subplots in an episode, you forget that you're seeing the same actress in scene after scene. When they appear on screen together, you'd still forget if the show didn't go so far out of its way to one up itself with seamless visual effects that make you wonder "how the hell they pulled that off."

While Maslany shouldered most of the weight, there were plenty of other great characters on the show too. Jordan Gavaris was wildly entertaining as the brother of "principle" clone Sarah Manning. Maria Doyle Kennedy was a chilly badass as Siobhan, Sarah's adoptive mother. And Kristian Bruun was hilariously immune to shame as Donnie, husband to overbearing clone Alison, serving up nearly all the show's most memorable comedic moments.

Orphan Black wrapped up with what for me felt like a satisfying series finale. As I said, the show's "mythology/conspiracy" had long stopped being a source of interest for me, so it's possible that viewers still on board with all that may not have gotten what they were looking for. But it was an episode determined to give a resolution to the emotional arcs of all the characters. The back half in particular was devoted to important character scenes involving the "sestras." (One last grand "four clones in one shot" scene, more than just being technically difficult, was also the most touching of the hour.)

I really should have been praising the show here, for the performances if nothing else. Now that it's my last chance, I'd best not let it go by. If you want to see the best acting that's been on television this decade, you should go watch Orphan Black. I suppose going out on a truly high note would have been if they'd managed to keep me engaged in the story the whole time. But they kept me caring about the characters even through story twists I didn't care about at all, which might be an even greater trick. It deserves my recommendation.

Monday, August 14, 2017


After watching a new Game of Thrones episode, I don't usually seek out comments from friends or critics before writing up my own thoughts. This time, though, I happened to catch what a few people were saying. It seems that this was the episode that finally just broke everyone with all the "video game fast travel."

While the show (like the books) has always played fast and loose with exact chronology and the passage of time, this was extreme. Just a few weeks ago, we didn't see Arya for an entire episode because she was walking north to Winterfell. This week, Davos went all the way from Dragonstone to King's Landing and back, then headed up to the Wall. (And all that after Daenerys return from the field of battle to Dragonstone... though, admittedly, dragon has got to be the fastest means of travel there is in Westeros.)

Either because of all the whiplashing about, or coinciding with it, the series served up one of its more uneven episodes that somehow simultaneously felt overcrammed with plot and left you feeling that not much happened. I trust that if anything interesting had happened to the Hound on his way to the Wall, or to Jorah on his way to Dragonstone, or to Theon as he wandered the halls of Dragonstone for... what... probably months?... then we would have seen it dramatized on screen. But this sort of missing material is exactly the sort of thing it feels like we would have gotten back in, say, season two. And it's not unfair to ask, "Really? You only had 13 episodes' worth of stuff left to do going into this season? Are you sure?"

Anyway, enough about what wasn't here this week. Let's talk about what was. First, the aftermath of last week's epic battle. Bronn's heroics (and dry humor) continued as he pulled Jaime to safety. Then Daenerys embraced her Targaryen side, specifically the part about burning enemies alive. That's the end of Randall Tarly and his son Dickon. It was an odd character arc for Randall, who through the way he'd raised Sam showed that he lived his entire life a stern and intractable man. He finally bent just once to support Cersei over the Tyrells, and then utterly recoiled from it. Once was enough; never again. I suppose his narrative purpose overall was to show that Cersei has many ways of getting what she wants, of getting people to do things they otherwise would not. (In this case, I believe it was Jaime that did the convincing.)

Jaime returned to King's Landing with news of both the Lannister army's utter defeat and of the true culprit behind the death of Joffrey. As expected, Cersei didn't want to believe Tyrion's innocence in that murder.

At Dragonstone, Jon Snow revealed his inner dragon whisperer, and Daenerys seemed insufficiently thrown by the ability of someone else to tame one of her "children." The "no, seriously, how in the actual hell did you do that?" scene it feels like we should have gotten was instead interrupted by the return of Jorah Mormont.

Bran did some Three-Eyed Raven-style spying beyond the Wall to remind us that yes, the army of the dead is still coming, and are apparently the only beings in Westeros actually constrained by travel time. And though he had fresh warnings sent out by ravens (the two-eyed kind), nobody wanted to hear of it, including the maesters of Oldtown, who slapped down Samwell with a fresh mountain of books to copy as punishment for talking out of turn. Later in the episode, this would lead to a moment of everyone watching the show screaming at their TV's as Sam and Gilly casually stumble upon evidence of Rheagar actually marrying Lyanna Stark, and dismissing it as irrelevant.

Varys and Tyrion had a heart-to-heart about where the line is crossed when serving tyranny and doing nothing to stop it. In a crowded episode, this would be an easy scene to overlook, and yet it feels like the sort of thing that could end up being a major nod to some event yet to come. It's not like we needed any particular reminder of Varys' past at this stage of the story, making one start to wonder if Tyrion is going to have to turn on Daenerys at some point.

Next, the Craziest Plan in Westeros was hatched, to head north of the wall, capture a wight, and bring it back to show off P.T. Barnum-style to Cersei. The sheer craziness of this plan didn't stop there, as its intermediate steps involved sailing to King's Landing in secret and delivering Tyrion to a clandestine meeting with Jaime. It felt like we didn't get to see nearly enough of that reunion, that just when Tyrion really opened the door on what an ass their father Tywin was, we cut away.

Specifically, we cut away to bring another long-missing face back into the story: Gendry. Davos swung by the smith shop to scoop up Robert Baratheon's bastard son for fresh adventure. I do wonder how important it really is in the grand scheme of things to tie up the Gendry plot thread, but hey, why not? He sure can swing a hammer, which ought to come in handy north of the Wall.

Winterfell hosted a round of Spy vs. Spy, in which Littlefinger showed he didn't need the ability to change his face to come out on top. First, we saw fractures between Arya and Sansa of their own making, with Arya seemingly both frustrated that her sister was hungry for power and yet not claiming it strongly enough. This set the stage for Littlefinger, knowing he was being watched, to forge a note from Sansa to be found by the snooping Arya. I'm sure someone out there has freeze-framed that note, that a transcription is waiting on line somewhere. But I don't need to have the specifics to guess the general shape of it: it's tailored to drive a wedge between the Stark sisters.

Next Jaime and Cersei swapped roles a bit, and it was Cersei's turn to be the one with big news to share. First, she knows all about Jaime's secret meeting with Tyrion, and is warning against further "betrayal." But more significantly, she's pregnant with a fourth child of incest. And this time, she doesn't see any reason to hide that information from anyone. How people (or "the people") are going to react to the news might be up for grabs, but I'll lay odds that we're never actually going to see that baby born before this tale is over.

Our final moments of the episode were up at Eastwatch, as a truly eclectic band of men (no tall woman, sorry Tormund) came together to go White Walker hunting. Not everyone is coming back from this quest, I guarantee. Maybe we should start a pool on who lives and who dies.

So yes, plenty happened this week... even though it feels like this was a rather forgettable episode overall between last week's epic installment and what feels like other mammoth developments teed up for the next two. That rocky pacing of the narrative does make me feel like this was the weakest episode of the season. Not too bad, probably about a B in my book, but a bit of a letdown after the standard that's been set recently.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

The Fall Begins

Like Charlie Brown running at the football, I've found myself once again reading the latest book by Terry Brooks. Despite disappointment in his last several efforts, I just can't give up this author I loved in my (less cultured) youth. And since all my new favorite fantasy authors don't actually seem to be in the business of publishing new books (I'm looking at you, George R.R. Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, and Scott Lynch), I'm inevitably drawn back to Brooks, who releases something every single year, like clockwork.

There was extra incentive this time around: this newest book, The Black Elfstone, kicks off a four-book series (The Fall of Shannara) which Terry Brooks has said will conclude his decades-running Shannara series, once and for all. I'm not exactly sure what an end to the series would look like -- it has consisted of multiple self-contained arcs over the years, and has always struck me as open-ended. But finding out what Brooks thinks is meant to cap it off, along with the actually having it capped off, was a tempting lure.

Obviously, no closure was to be had here in this book, what with three more on the way over the next three years. But many of the elements put into play were intriguing enough. This story involves a mysterious force of magical invaders who come storming into Brooks' Four Lands with seemingly unstoppable might and abilities. Awash in political intrigue, the Druid protectors of the land are ill-equipped to stand against them. Meanwhile (because there's always an Ohmsford descendant in these books), young siblings named Tarsha and Tavo are coming to grips with their emerging magical abilities. The older, Tavo, is unable to control his power, and is heading down a dark path of corruption and evil. His sister, Tarsha, is determined to help him, but must first learn about her own power before she can help him tame his.

There have been so many of these Shannara books that it might not be possible for Brooks to write something he hasn't written in some way before. The idea of a corrupt descendant of Shannara was explored with the Ilse Witch books; a massive invading horde and direct threat to the Druids' castle was part of the original volume, The Sword of Shannara, some four decades ago. But there's an urgency, intensity, and scale here that does make these elements feel different. "Sword" in particular dated from back when Brooks was just 95% aping J.R.R. Tolkien, so the invaders here feel different than an army of mindless orcs.

The writing itself is better than Brooks has managed of late. He continues to wedge in a romantic subplot without being able to compellingly craft it, and he has a tendency to repeat information unnecessarily (in identical ways) in consecutive chapters. But he's also willing to risk more here than he usually does, likely because this is his ending. His heroic Druid, Drisker Arc, does some decidedly unheroic things. There are moments of more intense violence and danger than he typically allows. He also invests in secondary characters more deeply than he has of late, giving it more weight when bad things happen to them.

I'd hardly say that Terry Brooks is at the top of the field, nor even at the top of his game. But this book was a step up for him. I was probably a bit ashamed of myself for wanting to read it, but wasn't mad at myself afterward for having done so. I'd grade it a B.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Dun Deal

Dunkirk is the latest film from writer-director Christopher Nolan. It's a tale from World War II less familiar to self-centric Americans who generally only know about Pearl Harbor, Normandy, and maybe a few other things (if they watched Band of Brothers).

It's also quite a paradox of a film. It's an epic movie of sweeping scope... that's well under two hours. It's in many ways a story of a crushing defeat rather than a grand victory... though it is in many ways uplifting. Its sparse dialogue, and the general way the visuals could have conveyed that story with even less dialogue, makes the whole thing play much like a silent movie... but the way the sound effects scream in your eardrums and rumble your seats make it quite the opposite.

War movies are rarely a solid hit with me, and so by that standard I quite liked the film. But by the standards of Christopher Nolan, who usually amazes me on some level, this movie can't climb to the upper reaches of his filmography. Still, many elements of the movie are quite successful. It follows three distinct plot threads -- land, sea, and air. Each is distinct, adds to the whole, has a different tone, and gets you to invest in different ways.

The land story puts you right on the beach in Dunkirk, right in the thick of being surrounded and bombarded. There are no heroics here; courage manifests in not being paralyzed entirely. This thread is punctuated by some stiff-upper-lip nobility from Kenneth Branagh as a naval commander, but is generally the most conventional aspect of the film.

The air story tells another somewhat typical story of war movies: the carrying-on in the face of impossible odds. A group of pilots are trying to do as much as they can, wherever they can, to buy time for the Dunkirk evacuation. This section of the film serves up the most compelling visuals, a reason to see this in the theater if you intend to see it at all, and to consider an IMAX screening if one is convenient for you. (This section also makes the bold choice of again casting Tom Hardy as a character in a mask that muffles his voice. Wicked humor from Christopher Nolan?)

The sea story is to me the most compelling, as it follows a family of civilians who take their own boat out to rescue soldiers. It's a war movie happening to characters who "don't belong" in a war movie. This section also paints a vivid picture of PTSD and how it can utterly unmake a person, in the form of one particular rescued soldier. Stage actor turned film darling Mark Rylance is the star of this narrative, which also features a compelling performance by Nolan veteran Cillian Murphy.

There's one big aspect of the movie I can't decide on: the way its structured. Perhaps this should be considered a minor spoiler, so you might want to skip to the next paragraph. The three different plot threads each take place on their own time scale: the land unfolding over a week, the sea over a day, and the air over an hour. Despite the disparity, each thread is given equal time in the movie, and is shuffled together evenly as though unfolding concurrently. I'm reminded slightly of Game of Thrones (and A Song of Ice and Fire), which similarly juxtaposes subplots that aren't actually concurrent just to make for the most dramatic presentation. It's more in your face here, though, as day and night are sometimes interpolated, and as (eventually, in the third act) events you've already seen get repeated from another perspective. It is a novel and clever approach. Yet being such a cerebral component of an otherwise visceral experience, it does make me question whether it was the right choice for the film.

Overall, I'd give Dunkirk a B+. It's operating at a high enough level that I can say Christopher Nolan's track record remains intact -- he still hasn't made a truly bad movie. But at the same time, I feel that if it were to somehow make my Top 10 List of 2017, it would only be because I didn't see enough movies by the end of the year.

Monday, August 07, 2017

The Spoils of War

Since the moment a baby dragon first crawled up onto Daenerys' shoulder, this is the scene we've all been waiting for: Dany riding a grown dragon into a full-scale battle and wrecking shop. Having waited for it so long, though, it shouldn't be hard to wait a little longer, to the end of this post (and its proper place in the episode), to get into that.

Things kicked off with the proper return of Bronn, more than his mere wave to the camera last week. He needled Jamie (though he could not have known how extensively, could never have guessed at what Jamie had just learned), reestablishing his mercenary cred just in time for later heroics in the episode.

Cersei made a brief appearance this week, scheming with the very pleased Braavos banker. I'm frankly surprised that they made an explicit point later on of saying that the gold of Highgarden had successfully made it back to King's Landing. So much has been going right for Cersei lately that even the heavy losses her army would take at the end of the episode doesn't necessarily feel like a big enough shoe to drop for her. But it seems whatever troubles lay ahead of her won't center around angry bankers looking to get their money back. (Fair enough. I suppose late interest payments aren't easily the stuff of compelling drama.)

Creepy Bran's gotta do what Creepy Bran's gotta do. After seasons of adventure with Meera Reed (and the death of her brother), she gets nothing from Bran -- not even a proper thanks. Bran may be able to see everything throughout history, but judging by how he "sees" what's right in front of him at the moment, his power to interpret anything he's seeing is virtually nil. Unceremoniously dumping Meera, exposing Arya's kill list unthinkingly... he's got no social game. As Meera pegged it, Bran died in that cave.

Arya surprised me by showing up at Winterfell this week. I'd been certain that her encounter with Nymeria from two weeks back was a scene meant to tell her "there's no home for you anymore." Maybe it was a scene meant to say that, but it's a message she wasn't quite ready to hear. Fun for the audience, though, as Arya's return led to a number of fun scenes of pure fan service. If the reuniting of almost every living Stark didn't get you, how about Arya finally getting hands on some Valyrian steel? How about her effortlessly getting the drop on those two guards at the gate? Or how about the fantastic sword fight with Brienne? (More training, eh? Can a dash of brute force swordsmanship augment Arya's water dancing, assassin-y combat style?)

In the caves beneath Dragonstone, Jon tried another tactic in forging the alliance he wants with Dany. But both characters remained steadfastly true to their natures: Jon's too stubborn to compromise principle to get what he wants; Dany's too set on ruling everything to let the North go. The "help us / bend the knee" dance continued for another verse. Still, the alliance got a little bit of growth in the form of Jon nudging Dany out of her first thought, to fly straight over to the Red Keep and melting it, Harrenhal-style. He talked her into a more conventional military engagement instead. (And would later talk himself out of killing Theon, letting the rescue of Sansa outweigh all the misery Theon visited on Jon's family.)

And then, the moment we were all waiting for. The final, extended battle sequence was immensely satisfying, and superbly realized on just about every level. The breathtaking vistas of the unmarred countryside set up the environment before it was then consumed in flame. We got thousands of charging Dothraki warriors, strafing run after strafing run of dragon fire, and all the graphic violence you could ever want: sprays of blood, bodies turned to ash, humans and horses horribly maimed. It was the same combination of thrill and horror that the very best war movies deliver.

You couldn't help but cheer as Bronn fought his way to the ballista, even though you never wanted him to actually be successful using it against Daenerys and her dragon. He struck a severe but seemingly non-fatal blow, and then it sure seemed as though he'd his last moment on the show. But Bronn rolled out of harm's way just in time to then return for one last bit of heroics. As Jamie made a futile, foolish charge, attempting to kill Dany, Bronn shoved Jamie out of the path of dragon fire and into the water. How Jamie is going to swim to safety, weighed down by plate armor and a golden hand, is hard to imagine. But I'm convinced we haven't seen the last of him all the same.

For giving us a sequence years in the making, and that scene being everything you could have dreamed of, it's hard to think of this episode as anything but an A. It was, by run time, the shortest episode in the entire run of the series. But short was sweet.

Friday, August 04, 2017

It's Norse Than We Thought

Yggdrasil is a cooperative board game in which the players unite as Norse gods to defend against the mythological monsters marching on the titular world tree. You don't win the game so much as survive it; one card from a deck of enemies is revealed at the start of each player's turn, and you must stave off defeat until the deck is exhausted.

In the way of most co-op games, it's fiendishly difficult. (By which I mean it's challenging, not necessarily complex.) The system is stacked against you, and random chance can make any one playthrough particularly tough. This is sort of expected in a co-op game, and not really a mark against it. But the game does have issues that soured my experience.

First, it does not scale well for the number of players. To be fair, the rulebook does warn you that the game will be harder with more players. This is because an enemy card is revealed at the start of every turn. Each player can cultivate a narrow specialty against a particular kind of enemy, but they only get to apply that specialty when their turn comes around. If you're good at a thing that becomes a pressing concern during some other player's turn, the group may have to wait a while until you can "take care of it" -- and that's time you may not have. Yggdrasil claims it can be played with up to 6 players, but it felt to me like any more than 4 wasn't truly practical.

Second, there might be a bit too much randomness in the system; there certainly is for my taste, anyway. There's the shuffled deck of enemy cards that determines where the players must focus at what time. There are bags of chips (containing "hits" and "misses," loosely) from which the players must draw to accumulate strength for attacks. Then there's a die that's rolled both during combat resolution and to apply some of the game's effects. Any one or two of these sources of randomness feels pretty typical of the co-op genre, but all of them together makes for what feels to me like a too wide a variance in difficulty.

Third -- and most discouraging in my experience -- is the design of the characters each player assumes. Everybody takes a particular Norse god -- Thor, Odin, Freyja, and so forth -- each with its own unique ability. This is the backbone of a good co-op game, in my view: give each player their own way to affect the game as no one else can, and everyone is much more likely to feel they're contributing in some way to the group. Some characters in Yggdrasil have powers that can be disproportionately undermined by negative effects during the game. While some character abilities are applied quite generally, others are tied to specific game actions -- actions that can be turned off or rendered useless during play. Put another way, the game gives each player a "role" to play in the group... and then can proceed to make it impossible to pursue that role. That in turn can make a player feel useless to the group effort, or even a detriment.

The game is dripping with Norse flavor, and adorned with vivid art. But it's not a very good team experience; not, at least, with 6 players. I thought Yggdrasil fell far short of other co-op games of similar complexity, like Ghost Stories, or the many variants of Pandemic. I'd grade it a C.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Sideways Glance

"Things we simply don't have the answers to." That's the subject of the podcast Thinking Sideways. It's a sort of In Search Of / Unsolved Mysteries hybrid, albeit from a more skeptical perspective.

In each weekly episode, the three hosts -- Devin, Joe, and Steve -- gather to talk through a mystery. Their topics range widely on a continuum from gritty to outlandish. Sometimes they examine crimes, like that of serial abductor/rapist Mr. Cruel. Sometimes it's "crime with an unexplained twist," like the "Taman Shud" case involving an unidentified victim with an unsolved cipher in his pocket. They'll also get into "crime? maybe?", like the disappearance of the pilots of a Navy blimp in the 1940s. They'll talk about purely unexplained phenomena, like the powerful aquatic noise dubbed "the Bloop," or the "Dog Suicide Bridge" in Overtoun, Scotland. At times, for fun, they even play with whackadoodle conspiracy material, like the Carnac Stones of France.

This wide-ranging interest in topics kept me trying out the podcast for several episodes. What ultimately pulled me in was their approach to telling these tales. Thinking Sideways isn't out to tell you cheesy ghost stories. Its hosts recognize that the simple facts can be spooky enough themselves.

After catching their listeners up in the initial segment, the bulk of each episode is devoted to discussing theories of the case. Here, they'll cover almost every possible angle, treating each with the appropriate level of consideration. They'll talk outlandish ideas, often just for a laugh. They'll pick through more factually supported theories, pointing out the unaddressed holes along the way.

I'm reminded a lot of another podcast I tried out for a time and quickly dropped: Lore. That's another podcast about the spooky and bizarre, but one that's definitely out for the creepy vibes. It's not about to let facts or reason get in the way of a campfire story, and that's one approach. I've found Thinking Sideways to be more compelling.

I will say, though, that the production on Thinking Sideways is basically at the bare minimum. It's three people talking. There's little sign of editing work; there are no sound effects and only music to bookend each episode. The microphone quality is subpar; some episodes sound like they were recorded on a tin can phone coming from a bathroom. (Lore is superior in all these aspects.) Given the distinctly "lo-fi" quality, it's not a podcast I find I can listen to for multiple episodes at a time.

Still, the content itself I enjoy, even if I wish the presentation were better. I'd give Thinking Sideways a B. If you like true crime and the unknown, I think you'll find it worth a try.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Quad Goals

Quadropolis is a fascinating tile placement game that combines a lot of compelling pieces of other games into one compact experience. Each player is a city planner than must draft tiles to add to their own personal 4x4 city. There are six categories of tiles, each with their own rules for scoring points that leverage their positions relative to other tiles. You must focus on some categories at the expense of others, and maximize your points as best you can.

It's the clever mechanism for drafting tiles that really makes the game. At the start of each round, 25 tiles are laid out in their own 5x5 grid. Each player has four builders valued 1 through 4. When their turn comes, a player must take one of those builders and place them on the end of a row or column of the grid. The value of the number chosen indicates how many tiles into that row or column the player chooses to draft. As the round unfolds, drafting gets trickier and trickier. You can use only the numbered builders you have remaining. You can't place on the ends of a row or column already occupied by another builder. Many spaces now set empty. And you also can't point directly in the direction from which the most recently drafted tile was taken.

Your builders also place a restriction on how your own city takes shape. Your personal 4x4 grid is numbered too. The number of the builder you use to draft a piece is also the same number of the row or column where you must position that piece in your own grid. The piece you want to draft might be there for the taking... but you might not be allowed to put it in the best scoring position in your own city.

The rules are fairly simple, but the strategic implications are considerable. You can do well by focusing on tile types your opponents are ignoring... but you can still thwart an opponent's plans by blocking key spots with your builders. There's enough interconnectedness between the types of tiles that you still keep invested in more tile types than you ignore, so you can still come into conflict with any of your opponents. Then there's an entire "Expert" set of rules that add still more nuances to the game -- a set of rules I have yet to even try.

The icing on the cake here is that even as sophisticated as the gameplay can get, the game is still rather brisk. At just 4 rounds of four drafts each, you essentially make just 16 decisions in the entire game. It's more than enough to make for a satisfying experience... yet that experience takes only 30 to 60 minutes.

I probably don't have enough plays yet to bestow a grade A on the game. But I certainly look forward to playing it more. It's at least an A-, one of the neater board games I've come across in a while.