I Had That! #27: Dark Tower

Last week’s edition of “I Had That!” was pre-empted for Gen Con, a huge boardgaming convention. I’ve been playing boardgames for almost all of my life, and this is a good time to talk about two notable ones.

The first is Dark Tower. There are things kids want, and then there are things kids will beg and plead for, offering all sorts of bargains and extra chores and sacrifices to get. Dark Tower was the latter. It was as pricey as an electronic, computer-controlled boardgame would have been in 1981, but to a 13-year old, it was so very worth it.

It was an epic game. You searched the lands for three keys that would allow you to enter the eponymous tower, all the time building up your soldiers for the final battle and food to feed them. The computer, which was housed in the large plastic central tower, kept track of it all, spinning wheels with pictures on them that showed what was going on and playing sound effects and music. It was advanced for 1981, and there’s no boardgame like it on the market today, 33 years later.

We played the hell out of this thing, and I loved every single bit of it. Not just the tower, but the plastic buildings that fit into the board, the pegboards that you kept track of supplies on, the plastic dragon, it was all amazing to me.

Alas, my Dark Tower suffered the fate of many electronic devices back then: being stored with batteries in it, which ruptured and corroded, destroying the tower. No tower, no game. Much later in life I found two copies at tag sales that I was able to combine into a single working copy. However, the lure of cash was too much and I ended up Ebaying it.

One thing that helped Dark Tower was the incredible artwork, done by Bob Pepper. His artwork also showed up in another Milton Bradley game, Dragonmaster.

This was a trick-taking game with oversized, lavishly illustrated cards and cool interlocking plastic gems. It was a gorgeous looking object and I found the rules of play to be absolutely impenetrable. I never played it a single time. I was fascinated by the art, though, and I thought the Runesword was just the coolest thing ever. I didn’t play it, but I still remember it fondly. Now that I know and enjoy trick-taking games, I’d love to get another copy of it. (It’s based on a game called Coup d’Etat, which I do have a copy of but come on, I want those great cards!)

When did I get it? Both of these came out in 1981, so probably around then.

Do I still have it? I don’t have Dark Tower at all, or any of the Dragonmaster cards. I do, however, still have two of the red plastic gems from Dragonmaster.

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Thoughts on Ferguson

The situation in Ferguson, MO, has gotten incredible. What started as a tragic and calamitous incident has blown up into a firestorm of jaw-dropping outrageousness. At every single decision point the authorities in the city opted to take a path of ridiculous escalation, as though doubling down on their original missteps would somehow justify these ill-advised decisions. The actions of the police in Ferguson have blown up and they’ve come to unfortunately be taken as representatives of police throughout the country.

I grew up in New Orleans in the 80s, so I know what a corrupt, racist, and abusive police force looks like. Despite being a white middle-class suburban kid who didn’t drink or smoke pot, I was pulled over and hassled by cops who flat-out told me they picked me because I was a “college kid” with a WTUL bumper sticker and therefore a good target. I read the newspaper reports of the things they did to people who weren’t as white as I was and it was appalling. At the time it was one of the worst departments in the country. I got just a tiny taste of it, but enough to know it was much worse for other people. At the time I remember thinking that I would rather pay the Mafia for protection because hey, at least if you pay them, they leave you alone.

Despite my and my friends’ experiences with Louisiana cops, I didn’t grow up despising the police. On the contrary, when I moved here and became best friends with a cop I got to see that side of the experience. I know it’s a difficult, stressful, and thankless job, trying to keep safe a community that has nothing good to say about you. I now have a nephew and other friends who are police officers and I want them to be able to help people and stay safe.

I want to say that the problem in Ferguson is not cops per se, but a specific group of cops who seem to have lost their fucking minds. Hopped up on authority, fear, and a ton of surplus unnecessary military hardware they have cast themselves in some kind of action movie video game where only bigger and bigger guns can keep back the subhuman plague. LARPing as soldiers but with more weapons and less training than the real thing, they are doing everything they can to look ridiculous and appalling to everyone except the white people who are also terrified of angry black people. I want to say that but I know that there are plenty of folks out there who know that Ferguson could be their own community, given just the right spark to ignite it.

The attitude of the authorities in Ferguson is disgusting, as already thinly-veiled racial disgust has bubbled up to the surface. Yet it continues to manifest itself proudly and defiantly, as if wanting to use that old racist chestnut, “we’re just doing what everyone is thinking”. What worries me is not that only a small percentage of the Ferguson police department is non-white, but that an even smaller percentage has opted out of participating in this act of besieging their own town. It’s difficult to imagine what endgame they see to this situation, where they think the city and its police force can go from here.

We don’t yet know what actually happened with Michael Brown. Stories are circulating that sound dubious at best. The story on the police department’s side — which has changed repeatedly — is supposedly confirmed by witnesses, an odd attempt to validate it considering no one there was interested in talking to several witnesses who were there at the shooting when it happened (and who told a different story). It remains to be seen if the FBI can piece together a reasonable narrative at this point. I suspect it was, as these things often are, a case where something dumb escalated into stupid violence, resulting in a situation neither side wanted. But again, as before, the seemingly deliberate choice to choose the explosive, aggressive path every time led us to where we are now.

We keep hearing how the police in Ferguson are disobeying the number one rule of the firepower they wield: do not point a gun at someone unless you’re willing to shoot them. Based on what we’re seeing, they aren’t breaking this rule; they very much are willing to shoot their own citizens. These are no longer police, and police officers should not be rallying around them. They are an embarrassment to their badges, thugs and bullies and fascists, exactly the image they are usually trying to dismiss. No amount of looting, of which there was not much, can justify the mentality of these people. This is a perversion of their sworn duty.

It should also be noted that this situation — men from the government trampling on the rights of citizens with only guns and badges to support their side — is exactly the nightmare scenario the NRA types regularly trot out to explain why they need to own a closet full of semiautomatic rifles. This is why dozens of them went to the Bundy Ranch earlier this year and set up snipers against government agents. Yet in this case they are nowhere to be seen, their voices unheard. Why do you think that is?

Whenever an Islamic organization or individual does something awful there is a chorus of people demanding that the reasonable Muslims (as though doubting even the existence of such people) loudly denounce them. I don’t think this sentiment is necessarily wrong, and I’d say this is a good opportunity for police officers in America to distance themselves from the fascists in Ferguson. I understand why they might not want to do so, but hope they understand why those soldier wannabes in the above photo are making their job more difficult and thankless.

I don’t know the way out of Ferguson from here, and I’m afraid, literally, that it’s only going to get worse.

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Gen Con 2014!

This weekend I went to Gen Con, the hugenormous gaming convention in Indianapolis. I flew into Champaign and rode there with Dave T., who was a veteran.

It was…it was somewhat overwhelming. Crowded, noisy, confusing (I’m not sure how they were able to compress the 8-dimensional structure that is the Indianapolis Convention Center on to a 2-dimensional surface for the map of it), it was often more than I could handle and I frequently migrated out into the hallways to find some semblance of quiet. It’s all relative, though, since the hallways were where “wacky” shenanigans were usually taking place.

Not having been before, I imagined it as Unity Games writ large, with a dealer’s room attached. That was not completely accurate, as playing games (other than in paid-for sessions) wasn’t easy to do. I had bought tickets for the pick-up-and-play room, but that seemed more like folks just playing the games they’d bought with their friends instead of a social thing. Even so, the amount of noise and crowd and chaos had me in full-on new person panic mode for most of the time.

This isn’t to say I didn’t have a good time. I liked wandering through the vendor’s hall, looking at stuff, demoing games, buying some, and often just watching people demoing games. I met up with some friends from online there, and even saw local pal TJ, who I hadn’t seen in ages but got to say hey to in a different time zone. I played some social games that normally I don’t really do too much of and had a good time.


And did I mention I bought some games?

Here’s a comprehensive list of what I played (P), demoed (D), bought (B), and otherwise there.

Imperial Settlers (B/P) – This was the game I was most eagerly awaiting. Designed by Ignacy Trzewiczek, it’s a sort of stripped-down and streamlined version of 51st State/The New Era, which I love. I had pre-ordered it and picked up my copy there. Played a two-player version with a guy I met there and we both really liked it. I especially liked that I had an engine going early and it looked like it would be a runaway victory for me, but then his kicked in and he zoomed past me. It’s got some great art design and is a lot of fun. It plays quicker than New Era, the theme is lighter and more readily graspable, and it’s far easier to teach and learn, so even though I prefer the more complex game this is a good one to have at hand.

The Battle at Kemble’s Cascade (B/P) – I grabbed this one first thing because I was afraid it would quickly sell out (I don’t think it did). It’s a board game based on a (nonexistent) shoot-em-up arcade game and looked completely new and different. It wasn’t on a lot of folks’ watch lists for the con, and I didn’t see it being demoed or played too much. Dave and I both bought it and we played his copy Sunday night after we got back. It’s good, and it’s neat, but I’m kind of on the fence. It just didn’t get as exciting as I hoped it would, and as I think it should have been for its theme. I’ll need to give it more plays.

Star Realms (B/P) – I’d heard a lot about this little deckbuilder game, but it’s been sold out everywhere. They had a booth at the con, so I bought it from them. It’s a lot of fun and packs a lot of play into a small box. The iOS app has finally been approved, and even though it’s kind of sketchy, I think this will get a lot of play.

Relic (P) – This was one of the game sessions I bought a ticket for in advance. It’s essentially a Warhammer 40k version of Talisman, an old 80s game I love. It’s very much like its predecessor except with some nice twists. I like Talisman, but it isn’t one that gets any play anymore, so this was a chance to revisit it and I was glad to do so. Unfortunately there isn’t much point in me buying Relic, as I already own Talisman and it never leaves the shelf.

Space Cadets Dice Duel (D) – I was hoping to demo something else at this booth (I don’t remember what) but ended up trying this instead. It’s one of those frenetic dice games with everyone rolling dice and yelling simultaneously and it didn’t do anything for me.

Pandemic: Contagion (P) – Z-Man is turning Pandemic into a big franchise and this is one of the spinoffs, a non-cooperative game in which you play the part of viruses. IT wasn’t bad, and I’d play again, but I didn’t see a need to own it. (Also, it came in a clear plastic bag that said “Biohazard” and come on, guys, most of us were going to fly home.)

Galactic Strike Force (P) – This game, by the guys who made Sentinels of the Multiverse, was kind of a hot mess, and it didn’t help that the representative teaching it to us was just kind of winging rules at us, so none of us knew what we were doing or what was going on.

The Witcher Adventure Game (D) – This almost counts as a play, since even though it was truncated, the rest of the game would have just been more of the same. The other game I registered for in advance, it was also by Ignacy Trzewiczek. Unfortunately it fell completely flat for me (and, I think, the other guys playing). Just a big, dull snoozer of a game, with very little going on that was interesting and most conflict being provided by a deck of “foul fate” cards spitting out garbage on all the players. It was still in beta, so maybe they’re going to pump it up, so the final version might be better. For instance, in the final version, players may not be attacked, as I was, by a “Rouge”.


Boy, is Fantasy Flight’s face red.

Funemployed! (P) – this is a social/party game, of the Apples to Apples or Cards Against Humanity type. One person is hiring for a job (Pirate, Psychic, Game Show Host) and the others have cards they have to incorporate into their interview. My shining moment involved a simultaneous play of the cards “moist” and “cougars”. It was a lot of fun and hilarious, but not the sort of game I look to play too often, so no buy for me.

Cypher (B, P) – AEG had a huge hit with Love Letter, so now “microgames” are all the rage. This is a new one from them, with a cyberpunk theme. I bought it not knowing anything about it because it was cheap and small (I was concerned about luggage space at this point). Dave and I played it and it’s not bad, but would probably work better with more people. Still, not sure I’d play it over other games of its type.

Equinox (D) – I wanted to demo Impulse by Asmadi, but to do so you had to pay to go to their demo area, which was bullshit. Instead, at their booth, they were demoing Equinox, which didn’t seem too interesting, and every time I saw people trying it out, no one was saying a word during it, which didn’t bode well for me. I eventually gave it a try and yeah, it’s just dull.

BraveRats/R (P, sort of B) – Speaking of Love Letter, its designer has funneled its success into getting pretty much everything else he’s ever done published. R is a two-player microgame of the same bent which is being published as BraveRats in the US. At their booth you could play BraveRats against them and, if you won, win a copy of R. I won, got a copy of R, and didn’t see the need to supplement it with the American version. It’s not too bad.

Draco Magi (D) – I’ve backed this on Kickstarter and should be getting my copy soon, but one booth had it for demos. I tried it out and while I was again not sure what I was accomplishing (once more, not a great teacher), I saw enough that I’m looking forward to getting my copy.

Battle Merchants (P) – Gil Hova is a designer I follow on Twitter, and Battle Merchants is a game he just got published through Minion Games and Kickstarter. He was a great guy and I was eager to try out his game. Guys, it’s really good, and I regret not getting a copy there (I was out of luggage space at this point) but I will be picking it up soon. It’s a game in which fantasy races are battling but you don’t care who beats who because you’re an arms merchant selling them all weapons. You can even arm both sides of the same battle with no problem. Dave and I played against Gil and both liked it (Dave bought a copy.) Check this one out. We also playtested another design of his, Prime Time. It’s still in progress and needs work, but there’s a lot of potential there.


Gil Hova and Battle Merchants

But Wait, There’s More! (P) – Another social/party game, this time you’re pitching products with spurious features. In our game we were in teams, and one person would start the pitch and then say, “but wait! there’s more!” and the other would take over. Neither one knew what the other was going to do. Again, a ton of fun, but I just don’t get the occasion to play these sorts of games. It is currently available for backing on Kickstarter.

Star Wars: Empire Vs. Rebellion (P) – Dave bought this one and neither of us had heard of it. Turns out it’s a re-do of CIA Vs. KGB, which is a game I already own and like. The rules are a touch different, but it’s still essentially the same game and looks nice. I’m happy with the version I already have, though.

Zeppelin Attack (P) – This is another one Dave bought. It’s a small deckbuilder with a sort of steampunk theme. It does some different stuff with the mechanism and the art was gorgeous. We had already left by the time I played this, but if we hadn’t I would have probably bought a copy myself.

Other transactions I made: Bought Boss Monster and Coup, neither of which I’ve played, because both were cheap and small. There was a good price on Eight-Minute Empires: Legends, which I have played, so I got a copy of that. In the math trade I picked up Thunderstone: Numenara, Ground Floor, and Lost Valley: The Yukon Gold Rush (I gave up Manhattan Project, Invaders, and Firefly). I also had bought Arctic Scavengers off someone in an auction.

I had a lot of fun at GenCon, but it was a bit too much for me in a lot of ways. I’m not sure I’m up for another trip, but I’m glad I tried it out.

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I’m Off to Gen Con!

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It’s Been a Difficult Week (Note: It is Tuesday.)

Yesterday I was going to post about Broadchurch, the British drama we finished watching this past weekend. The Michael Brown news put the kibosh on that, as it seemed tasteless to talk about fictional murdered white kids when there was a real murdered black kid who needed talking about. But not by me; the last thing this situation needed was a white nerd man pontificating on it. That story hasn’t gotten any better, and in fact just keeps getting worse.

Then, last night, came the news that Robin Williams had died, apparently by his own hand. The simple death of Williams is a weird thing. He’s certainly an icon of my generation, and I loved him on “Mork and Mindy”, but he and I parted ways soon afterwards. I occasionally saw movies he was in, but I went more toward George Carlin for comedy.

The suicide following depression thing, well of course that hits home. We’re going to get deluged with “tears of a clown” and “I am Pagliacci” stuff over the next few days, as we learn all over again, as we do each time, that sometimes even very funny and seemingly happy people are hiding a wealth of internal pain. But we’ll forget it soon enough and go back to how depression isn’t a really real thing and you just need to cheer up and antidepressants are evil emotion-destroying poisons and all you really need are Natalie Portman and The Shins.

I feel hollowed out by all this. Last night on Twitter this Achewood comic was going around and I joined in because it was so apt. And this isn’t just the Robin Williams thing, it’s also the Mike Brown thing. We’re all fighting and trying our damndest just to exist. Just to make it to the next day. It’s the only game in town and you can’t win.

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I Had That! #26: Aiwa HS-T06 Tape Player

This installment of “I Had That!” (the halfway point, it should be noted) might be more aptly titled, “I Think I Had That?” because I’m not 100% certain this is in fact the item in question: my first portable tape player.

Actually, I know for a fact it wasn’t. That honor would go to a bulkier thing I had, probably a Radio Shack model, which I listened to a small collection of movie soundtracks on (Star Wars, Empire, Raiders, TRON, Close Encounters). But when the Walkman hit, and hit hard, and everyone wanted a small personal tape player, that one got replaced by a more pocket-friendly version.

I’m pretty sure the one I had was an Aiwa. And this looks like the model. A search on the model number reveals it was released around 1985, which is absolutely on point. I’d love to find the original retail price, but no luck so far.

1985 would be around the time when I really got into pop music. I’d had the radio, and a few albums I owned, but with the discovery of Depeche Mode, I began seeking out new music, expanding my horizons. In a short time I was buying albums by New Order, Pet Shop Boys, Devo, Icehouse, and more. And this was what I listened to them on at school. The radio was usually set to WTUL, Tulane University’s station which was the home of alternative music in New Orleans. I distinctly remember lying on the sofa in the G/T (Gifted/Talented, and that’s another story) room and hearing, for the first time, “Nemesis” by Shriekback played on WTUL. This was also the home of the first few Cool New Music Tapes.

The Aiwa was augmented by a Radio Shack tape deck in my car, which I’m pretty sure was not acquired through normal channels.

At some point the tape player fell and broke, which was devastating. It was replaced, but I remember not liking the replacement as much. It wasn’t as solid and aesthetically pleasing as the Aiwa. And eventually that would be replaced by a jambox, especially in 1987 when my first CD player came along.

Incidentally, the last I remember of the Radio Shack tape player was when I started at the University of New Orleans and went through the motions of being a proper college student, including taping lectures as though I’d listen to them again. I was taping and there was this horrible squealing sound in the auditorium. I looked around trying to figure out what it was, and only too late realized it was my tape player devouring the tape in it. Everyone else had already sussed this out and was wondering why I hadn’t. I shut it off and was mortified. Thankfully I soon after stopped going to classes and flunked out and spiraled into crushing depression.

When did I get it? 1985 sounds about right.

Do I still have it? I don’t. I probably kept its broken corpse for a while but eventually got rid of it.

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