Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 Reading in Review

I was inspired by William Michaelian's blog post where he goes through all of the books he read in 2015. William read a metric ton of books this last year and it seems to be the year of Sir Walter Scott.

So, I wanted to develop my own list as a look back at what I read and enjoyed this year. I will give you what I rated each book as, but if you would like to see more in-depth reviews you can check out my reviews on Goodreads. I may do a little commentary about some titles, but not all of them. Here goes...

Redeployment, by Phil Kay: 3 out of 5 stars.

The Martian, by Andy Weir: 5 out of 5 stars. I do need to pause for a moment on The Martian because when I reviewed it I stated that it was the best book I read in 2015. When I wrote that it was like two or three days into 2015. I started this book in 2014 and only finished it in 2015, but looking over my list I might still go with that. Only one other book would be contending for that claim, but I might just like The Martian better.

Ms. Marvel, Vol 1: 4 stars.

Rat Queens, Vol 1: 2 stars.

East of West, Vol 1: 5 stars.

East of West, Vol 2: 4 stars.

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte: 5 stars. I read this book as I was teaching it to my AP Literature and Composition class. I adored this book. I was skeptical if it would serve my purposes, and/or if the students would enjoy it, but it did both. I was surprised to see how many of my students dove into this lengthy novel and got wrapped up with this soap opera of a story.

The Walking Dead, Vol 6: 4 stars.

The Arrival, by Shaun Tan: 5 stars. This is a fantastic example of what can be accomplished in the comic book genre.

Maus, Vol 1, by Art Spiegelman: 5 stars.

Habibi, by Craig Thompson: 3 stars.

Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb: 3 stars.

Bayou, Vol 1: 5 stars.

I Remember Beirut, by Zeina Abirached: 2 stars.

A Dance with Dragons, by George R. R. Martin: 3 stars. I have been reading one novel in the Song of Ice and Fire series every summer for about four years. So, this is my last one, until Martin writes another book. A bitter sweet moment when I finished this novel, not only because this one was not as good as some of the previous books.

Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe: 3 stars.

Armada, by Ernest Cline: 3 stars. Such a disappointment.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, by J. K. Rowling: 3 stars. I listened to this book on a road trip with my family. I have read this book before and watched the movie, but we plugged this in to listen because my son was interested. This has launched him into a journey of reading all of the Harry Potter books and I am excited for him. He seems to be enjoying the novels. I don't really care for them myself, but I am glad that Rowling wrote them, so developing readers have something exciting to latch on to and love.

The Dinosaur Lords, by Victor Milan: 3 stars. I really wanted this novel to be better than it was.

Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk: 5 stars. Loved it. This would be the book that might be the contender for The Martian. I wrote about this novel at length on my literature

Star Wars: Aftermath, by Chuch Wendig: 2 stars.

Our Town, by Thornton Wilder: 3 stars.

I read 22 books in total and I had challenged myself to read 12. I have in the past challenged myself to read 24, but I am glad I didn't do that again this year. I prefer to be able to just enjoy what I am reading and read a leisurely pace. I read a lot of graphic novels this year, more than I have in the past couple of years. But, as I reflect, I also read a lot of mediocre stuff. A lot of just average books. That is a pity. I like to try new things, or read things I have seen, but it seems to me that a lot of the stuff I consume is just meh. I do feel like running my literature blog has pushed me towards reading more academic works. You can see that I start to read more "literature" in the second half of the year. I read a bunch of graphic novels during summer break though.

You also can see a cool info-graphic of my year in reading on Goodreads--Link.

Next year, I would like to continue to read more "literature," as well as return to me roots and read a lot more fantasy and science fiction.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Recent Acquisitions--Or December is a Good Month for Picking Up Board Games

I usually get a couple of games during the month of December; what with Board Game Geek (BGG) Secret Santa, gifts from my gaming friends, and presents from family. But this last month was especially great for getting new board games added to my collection. I added 18 new items--6 expansions and 12 new games. Let's talk about each of them in more detail.

Labyrinth: Charlie and I have really been enjoying playing Twilight Struggle and this war game is in the same vein. It has card play and is America fighting against the terrorist forces. It looks more complicated than Twilight Struggle and might take me a while before I understand it. But then Twilight Struggle was difficult for me too at first. This game also boasts a really great solo experience and I am always looking for games that are good to play solo.

Circus Train: Charlie is my best friend. I don't know that I have ever had a friend like Chuck before in my life. He is super thoughtful and brought this game over this last week on Tuesday for our weekly game night. I have only played this game once, but I really enjoyed it. You are putting on circus shows in different cities in America. It is a mix between a train game and Colosseum. It is from Victory Point Games so it has those chunky laser cut pieces that are nice.

Blood Rage: I heard Tom Vasel and company raving about this game. I had seen the Kickstarter for it, but it just didn't sound that great to me at the time. And sometimes I dislike how Cool Mini or Not does their rule books. But after watching several reviews this just really sounded fun, so I had some extra money and I decided to pick it up as a gift to myself. I've played it once already and really enjoyed it. I lost pretty badly, but I enjoyed that there are many paths to victory. I want to play it more. And it has pretty cool looking miniatures.

Ticket to Ride: United Kingdom/Pennsylvania: This was also part of my present to myself shipment that I got from Miniature Market. Tom Vasel said this was really good too. It sounded like two variations of Ticket to Ride that were a little more complicated, and that appealed to me. We have already played on the Pennsylvania map and enjoyed it. I would really like to try the UK map too with the technologies.

Lords of Waterdeep: This year I signed up for two different BGG Secret Santa. One was just the normal/Euro Secret Santa and the other was the War Game Secret Santa. Lords of Waterdeep came from my normal Secret Santa. I have played this game before and enjoyed it. This is a pretty simple worker placement. A good entry point into that mechanism. I would love to introduce more people to worker placement and I think this will be a good one to have in my collection. I believe that my wife will enjoy it too. Thanks Santa!

Ticket to Ride: Heart of Africa: This also came from my normal Secret Santa. It was on my list because I love Ticket to Ride. I haven't tried it yet and I don't know how often it will hit the table. But I will give it a try eventually.

Colt Express: Horses and Stagecoach: I absolutely love Colt Express. It totally deserved to win the Spiel des Jahres this last year. And when this expansion came out I just went and purchased it right away. I'm glad I did too. It adds some new wrinkles to the game, but I don't think it adds a huge amount of complexity. It keeps the same spirit of Colt Express. Although it did make the game significantly longer the one time I played with this expansion. I'm hoping that that will not always be the case.

Cash and Guns: More Cash and More Guns: This is another expansion that I just had to have. Funagain Games had an awesome Black Friday/Cyber Monday/Christmas sale and I just had to grab some deals. This was one of them. This expansion looks like a lot of fun and I can't wait to give it a try. I really would like to play it with a huge group though. The more the better with this game.

Euphoria: This was another game from the Funagain sale. I have really enjoyed Viticulture by the same company that made this game. I think I will like the theme and it is worker placement. It has great pieces too.

Hellenes: I had never checked out this block war game before, but it was up on the Funagain sale. I did a quick view of a review and it looked pretty cool so I picked it up. Hopefully it will be great.

Blood and Roses: This was also on the Funagain sale. I had this counter and hex on my wish list for a while and I just had to pick it up when it was on sale. It looks pretty complicated, but it also has a high solo rating, so hopefully it will work as a great solo experience. I started clipping counters and this one will keep be busy for a while.

Holdfast: Russa: This beaut came from my war game Secret Santa (Santa Grogs) and he knocked my gifts right out of the park. Such great choices. I am looking to cracking open this block war game.

Churchill: This also came from Santa Grogs and while it looks much more complicated, I have been drooling over it since I learned of its release. It is for three people and you play the three super powers coming out of WWII--Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt. It is more of a political struggle game, but it looks super fun and also has a high solo rating. Can't wait. I am really glad that I did war game Secret Santa this year. It was fun.

Camel Up: Supercup: My mother got me this expansion. I asked for it and it got wrapped up under the tree. I love Camel Up and my family loves Camel Up. Just like with Colt Express, this game totally deserved the Spiel des Jahres last year. I am hoping that this expansion will be fun without adding too much complexity.

Dead Men Tell No Tales: My mother also got me this game. Pirates? Yes, please. Zombies? Sure, I don't mind zombies. Cooperative game play? Hell, yes! I heard a lot of good things about this game and I am hoping that it will provide another great cooperative experience for me and my family. Although I don't know how easy it will be for my son.

Niagara: My brother and sister-in-law got us this game. It looks like a fun family weight game with a little take that built in. I like the look of the pieces and how the box is used to make a waterfall out of the board. Here's to hoping that it will be as much fun as it looks.

Battleship: My son got a newer version of this for Christmas from his Grandmother. I used to like Battleship when I was a kid, so I let the little guy store the game down on in the game room. It is shelf worthy. I guess my mother and wife picked this one up at a thrift store a few weeks back for a song. It is totally complete and was unpunched. I wonder how many copies of games like this there are out in the world that sit in closets unpunched. Punching and organizing game components is one of my favorite things to do.

Tokaido: Collectors Pieces: I Kickstarted this a few years ago and it finally arrived the day before Christmas. All I got were the pieces to upgrade my copy of Tokaido to a Collectors Edition. It looks pretty cool, although we haven't played Tokaido too often. But now it has metal coins and little figurines. I will have to give Tokaido another try.

So, as you can see, I had a great December. I have a ton of games to open and organize, which I love. I am going to try and space them out a little though because I do love organizing components so much.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Shameless Plug

Time for some cross promotion. 

Did you know that this isn't my only blog? I have for the last year been keeping a blog about literature as a project with my AP Literature students. I spend my time there discussing poetry, short stories, and novels that I have read. It is pretty good.

Right now, the blog is on hiatus because of Winter Break. But when it is in full swing I publish on average about twice a week.

Monday, December 21, 2015

So crazy it just might be true!

Some film theories I just dismiss as hogwash, but this one has some legs. Give it a view.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

On Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I have seen the movie and I want to write a proper review of it. But I need some time. I need that time for two reasons. First, I want to give people time to go out and watch the movie. This film is one of the greatest movie going experiences I've ever had and that is because I went in without being spoiled. I want to respect that experience and let people go out and experience it. Secondly, I would like to watch the film a second time before I post a review. But I will be doing at least one post about this movie...soon.

With all of that being said, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is good. It is marvelous and wonderful. If you are a fan of the original Star Wars Trilogy you will love this movie! Go see it.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Top 5 Board Games of 2015

I don't want anyone to misunderstand my list here. I play a lot of board games; I just don't necessarily play all of the newest, hottest board games. I haven't played most of what released in 2015, not even scratching the surface. But, this is what I would deem the five best games of 2015. Take it with a grain of...oh you know.

Number 5: Spirits of the Rice Paddy
Ancient Balinese legend describes a host of powerful spirits who help poor rice farmers achieve success. These farmers have long used a sophisticated irrigation system to organize rice cultivation by integrating religious devotion and social responsibility with traditional farming methods. Even modern farmers seek to placate the spirit world in their quest to produce an abundant harvest. 
In Spirits of the Rice Paddy, players must compete with fellow rice farmers to construct and tend rice paddies. Oxen can build walls and remove large rocks. Ducks can be employed to eat harmful pests and fertilize the fledgling crops. Weeds must be kept at bay. Most importantly, water must be conserved and released with the greatest of care. With a little luck, all that back-breaking labor will pay off in the end. The good news is that the spirits are eager to assist, granting many special abilities, blessings, and magic. The farmer who produces the most rice over seven rounds wins the game.
This game is very interesting. I've played it twice. Once solo and once with Amy. There is a dynamic push and pull between the players in this game. You are all vying for water so you can flood your rice paddies. It has a bit of worker allocation and I love the components. Double layer boards are the future! I would like to try this game more with four. It is okay with two, but I think the competition for water would be much better with more players.

Number 4: Stockpile
Stockpile is an economic board game that combines the traditional stockholding strategy of buy low, sell high with several additional mechanisms to create a fast-paced, engaging and interactive experience. 
In Stockpile, players act as stock market investors at the end of the 20th century hoping to strike it rich, and the investor with the most money at the end of the game is the winner. Stockpile centers around the idea that nobody knows everything about the stock market, but everyone does know something. In the game, this philosophy manifests in two ways: insider information and the stockpile. 
First, players are given insider information each round. This information dictates how a stock’s value will change at the end of the round. By privately learning if a stock is going to move up or down, each player has a chance to act ahead of the market by buying or selling at the right time. 
Second, players purchase their stocks by bidding on piles of cards called stockpiles. These stockpiles will contain a mixture of face-up and face-down cards placed by other players in the game. In this way, nobody will know all of the cards in the stockpiles. Not all cards are good either. Trading fees can poison the piles by making players pay more than they bid. By putting stocks and other cards up for auction, Stockpile catalyzes player interaction, especially when potential profits from insider information are on the line. 
Both of these mechanisms are combined with some stock market elements to make players consider multiple factors when selling a stock. Do you hold onto a stock in hopes of catching a lucrative stock split or do you sell now to avoid the potential company bankruptcy? Can you hold onto your stock until the end of the game to become the majority shareholder, or do you need the liquidity of cash now for future bidding? Do you risk it all by investing heavily into one company, or do you mitigate your risk by diversifying your portfolio? 
In the end, everyone knows something about the stock market, so it all comes down to strategy execution. Will you be able to navigate the movements of the stock market with certainty? Or will your investments go under from poor predictions?
Alright, I don't really like economic games or games about markets. I can tolerate Power Grid and lighter economic fair. But I have a group of buddies that is really into them and I just cannot enjoy that much math. Stockpile is my kind of game though. Now, I will admit that I would never play without the variable player powers. I don't think that they add too much complexity that new players would be confused with them and it just adds so much to the game. I know the designer and he is a great guy. I don't need to own this game, but I do enjoy playing every once in a while.

Number 3: 7 Wonders: Duel
In many ways 7 Wonders: Duel resembles its parent game 7 Wonders as over three ages players acquire cards that provide resources or advance their military or scientific development in order to develop a civilization and complete wonders. 
What's different about 7 Wonders: Duel is that, as the title suggests, the game is solely for two players, with the players not drafting card simultaneously from hands of cards, but from a display of face-down and face-up cards arranged at the start of a round. A player can take a card only if it's not covered by any others, so timing comes into play as well as bonus moves that allow you to take a second card immediately. As in the original game, each card that you acquire can be built, discarded for coins, or used to construct a wonder.Each player starts with four wonder cards, and the construction of a wonder provides its owner with a special ability. Only seven wonders can be built, though, so one player will end up short. 
Players can purchase resources at any time from the bank, or they can gain cards during the game that provide them with resources for future building; as you acquire resources, the cost for those particular resources increases for your opponent, representing your dominance in this area. 
A player can win 7 Wonders: Duel in one of three ways. Each time that you acquire a military card, you advance the military marker toward your opponent's capital, giving you a bonus at certain positions. If you reach the opponent's capital, you win the game immediately. Similarly, if you acquire any six of seven different scientific symbols, you achieve scientific dominance and win immediately. If neither of these situations occurs, then the player with the most points at the end of the game wins.
I think I like 7 Wonders: Duel more than I like 7 Wonders. That may be seen as heresy, but 7 Wonders: Duel has so many things going for it. The two player version of 7 Wonders is not good. I mean it will fill that 7 Wonders void within your heart in a pinch, but I would just as soon get seven people together and play real 7 Wonders. Or get less people together and play Sushi Go. And Antoine Bauza could have just created a game that retreads on many of these old ideas from 7 Wonders. But he doesn't. 7 Wonders: Duel is a great game. It has enough connection to 7 Wonders that people who know that game will immediately find Duel familiar, but there is enough new stuff to keep people who know 7 Wonders inside and out interested. I love that there are three victory conditions and you need to be watching all of them. Watch out for people trying to destroy all of your resources too. That is a legit strategy.

Number 2: The Voyages of Marco Polo
In 1271, 17-year-old Marco Polo started on a journey to China with his father and older brother. After a long and grueling journey that led through Jerusalem and Mesopotamia and over the "Silk Road", they reached the court of Kublai Khan in 1275. 
In The Voyages of Marco Polo, players recreate this journey, with each player having a different character and special power in the game. The game is played over five rounds. Each round, the players roll their five personal dice and can perform one action each turn with them. The five main actions are shown on the bottom part of the board: 
  • Get resources with 1-3 dice, depending on the value of the resource (camels, pepper, silk, gold). The first player for each resource gets them for free; the later ones have to pay according to the value shown on the dice.
  • Take one resource of your choice and two camels. Each player sets the minimum value for the future dice.
  • Earn money, with any one die netting you five money.
  • Purchase orders: The value of one die unlocks the orders up to that number (shown on the spaces) and allows you to buy one or two of those orders. Orders are refreshed and placed at the beginning of each round. To fulfill an order, players have to spend resources for victory points, other resources, camels, and more.
  • Travel: Two dice are placed to unlock the distance that can be traveled on the upper part of the board, that is, the map. Here, the traveler piece of each player starts at Venice and can decide between several routes eastward, all the way to Beijing. When a traveler stops at a city, they place a marker there, giving them access to a different additional action for the rest of the game. 
After five rounds, the game ends with players receiving victory points for arriving in Beijing, fulfilling the most orders, and having reached the cities on secret city cards that each player gets at the start of the game; these points are added to the VPs gained during the game.
This is my kind of game. Dice placement, exploration, variable player powers. I absolutely adore this game. It was one of those games that when I saw the preview I knew that I was going to have this game in my collection and that I would love it for years. This game has so many paths to victory and I really feel like many of them are viable. Do you complete contracts? Or should you travel and get points and additional spots to place dice instead? I love all of the choices. Great game!

Number 1: Pandemic: Legacy
Pandemic Legacy is by design a non-replayable co-operative campaign game, with on overarching story-arc played through in 12-24 sessions, depending on how well your group does at the game. At the beginning, the game starts very similar to basic Pandemic, in which your team of disease-fighting specialists races against the clock to travel around the world, treating disease hotspots while researching cures for each of four plagues before they get out of hand. 
During a player's turn, they have four actions available, with which they may travel around in the world in various ways (sometimes needing to discard a card), build structures like research stations, treat diseases (removing one cube from the board; if all cubes of a color have been removed, the disease has been eradicated), trade cards with other players, or find a cure for a disease (requiring five cards of the same color to be discarded while at a research station). Each player has a unique role with special abilities to help them at these actions. 
After a player has taken their actions, they draw two cards. These cards can include epidemic cards, which will place new disease cubes on the board, and can lead to an outbreak, spreading disease cubes even further. Outbreaks additionally increase the panic level of a city, making that city more expensive to travel to. 
Each month in the game, you have two chances to achieve that month's objectives. If you succeed, you win and immediately move on to the next month. If you fail, you have a second chance, with more funding for beneficial event cards. 
During the campaign, new rules and components will be introduced. These will sometimes require you to permanently alter the components of the game; this includes writing on cards, ripping up cards, and placing permanent stickers on components. Your characters can gain new skills, or detrimental effects. A character can even be lost entirely, at which point it's no longer available for play.
As of the writing of this listicle, Pandemic: Legacy is the number 2 game on Board Game Geek. And it should be. This game is amazing. It is one of the best experiences I've ever had. Not just one of the best gaming experiences, one of the best experiences. So much fun! I played with my wife and son and we played a total of 20 games. It astounds me that there are people smart enough to create something like this. A true masterpiece of board game design. Risk: Legacy never interested me because at the end of the day it is still Risk. But this was right up my ally. I bought it the day it became available. If Matt Leacock does indeed make a season 2 it will be a instant buy for me. I won't even need to see previews or photos or anything. I absolutely loved this game! 10/10

And my honorable mentions go to Cacao and Dune: The Dice Game. Both are interesting, but not the best of 2015.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Classic Movie Review: Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

This last summer I went with my buddy, Jesse, and we saw Mad Max: Fury Road. It was and is the best action movie of 2015. 

With that, it sparked an interest in me to view the old Mad Max movies upon which this new film takes its heritage. So, I watched the original Mad Max and just last night, I finished Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior.

Mad Max was a passable movie. It was interesting at times, confusing at other. The ending is all you really need to understand Max's motivation. George Miller was trying to develop this post-apocalyptic world and it doesn't really come through too much in the first film. But Mad Max certainly is a good revenge film. And the action set pieces are great. If I were going to give Mad Max a grade I would give it a C.

Now, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior is a totally different beast. So, let's dive in and break this "beast" apart.

The World: I absolutely love post-apocalyptic worlds and this movie is post-apocalyptic. More so than the first Mad Max outing. You have feral bands of misfits roaming the desert looking for gasoline. They are brutal and ruthless. They do not care who they kill or hurt as long as they survive. Although, I don't really understand why we as humans would revert to wearing S&M leathers when the world ends. I would think we would want something a little more comfortable--everything else in the world sucks, why should your wardrobe choices suck too? The world of Mad Max is dusty, and grimy, and full of lethal, evil men--I love it.

The Characters: Max is the reason you are watching this film and he is a delightfully broken character. He is a rogue. He is selfish. He looks out for number one. But there is also that tiny piece of humanity within him. That piece that pulls at his heart and says that he should help people. Even at the end of the film, when he decides to help this group by driving the gas tanker, he doesn't really do it for them. He wants revenge. He wants to best the evil band that hurt him so badly. And that is why Max is able to be tricked. He is blinded by rage, anger, and hate. He is totally unfixable and that is that makes him a great character. The rest of the characters in the movie are laughably forgettable, even the bad guys. I know that guy with the mask had a name, but I wouldn't be able to tell you what it was without looking it up, and I finished the film last night. Okay, I looked it up and his name was Humungus. See what I mean! Why is his name Humungus? And who cares. They could have called them Bad Guy 1, Bad Guy 2, Bad Guy Boss and it wouldn't have made a difference. The Gyro Captain wasn't very interesting as a character, more of a Deus Ex Machina for Max when he gets beat up.
The Feral Kid (Really! That was the kids name?) was somewhat interesting. I was hoping that Max would use the kid to replace his dog. And I loved that scene where that kid killed two men with his sharp boomerang--one of the best! But Max is the best character. Who cares about the rest; this is Max's movie.

The Acting: Mel Gibson is at his best when he doesn't talk. That is what you get out of this movie. Gibson being a BA with very little dialogue. He fights and drives and get hurt and fights and drives some more. There were some moments where I was surprised that Max survived. But Gibson does a good job playing the BA, loner, rogue type. Certainly not his best role ever (Braveheart I'm looking at you), but not bad.

The Action: This is the strongest point I have, which is why I saved it for last. George Miller understands action. He understands explosions and car chases. He understands how to film groups of vehicles chasing each other trying to stop another car. He understand blood and gore. This is where this movie shines the most. Because the movie is all practical effects I believe it. I like action that is real. Mel Gibson might not have been in his car or that truck when they crashed, but someone was--or at least a dummy was and it was filmed in such a way that I believed it. You see, I can tell when something is a digital effect. I understand the need for CGI, but I feel like CGI has been the downfall of action movies in general. This movie does action right.

In the end, I would give Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior a B+. It is a great action movie, set in a interesting world. Go back and give it a view.