Trashfest Northeast 2015

For the third year in a row I went down to Connecticut this weekend to play a heaping helping of boardgames at Trashfest! This is always a good time and some fun people and this year was no exception.

I started out by teaching three other guys Battle Merchants. This is the second time I have played with the New Kingdoms expansion/alteration and I think the revised kingdom cards are really good. The new players seemed to enjoy it and one of them won, nearly steamrolling over everyone else (I was a very close second but only because I got really lucky in the final season.)

Someone there was selling Dark Moon, a game I’d had my eye on, for a really good price. It’s a retheme of “BSG Express”, which was itself a fan-made dice adaptation of the Battlestar Galactica boardgame. I’m not a huge fan of BSG, but more for the length and sameness than the central idea behind it. I wanted to jump on that sale price but felt I should give it a try first. I found some others who were happy to teach it and played a game. I was one of the Infected, and played cool for a while. At one point I selected an event card which could have given the game away and was disastrous for the humans, but it was because I was completely inept, not because I was trying to kill them all. When we Infected revealed, we had the humans on the ropes, but they wriggled out and won. Stupid humans. I had a good time and ended up buying that copy.

The people I had just tried to murder in Dark Moon wanted to play Space Cadets: Dice Duel next and I obliged. I tried this out at Gen Con and it didn’t do much for me then. It also didn’t do much for me now. I like dice stuff but I don’t like real-time everyone-roll-dice-and-then-yell stuff. Others had fun, tho, so I’m good.

The next game, though, was Space Cadets: Away Missions, and it was a blast. This has been getting a lot of buzz lately and was everywhere at Trashfest (the designers were there) but for some reason I thought it was some kind of miniatures game and that’s not normally my thing. It’s not. It’s more like a dungeon crawl game and it is a bunch of fun. We played a scenario where aliens were infesting our spacecraft and we had to defeat them all before the self-destruct went off. We were successful, but largely because of an amazing turn where the meathead character found some kind of adrenaline injector, Hulked out, and went on a rampage, mowing down aliens left and right. It was glorious. As I say, the designers were there, and the copy we played belonged to one of them, so it was the top-of-the-line Kickstarter edition with beautifully painted miniatures. I don’t usually care about such things, but in this case they really made the game come alive. It was loads of fun.

Then I played Albion’s Legacy and the less said, the better.

I was watching as Flick ‘Em Up was being taught, but it seemed like (a) way more than I wanted in a flicking game and (b) it would be kind of long and convoluted, so I bailed and joined a game of The Omega Virus. This game from the 80s was a hoot. There’s not a lot of play to it (you’re just kind of moving around and hoping to find stuff) but it’s a lot of goofy fun, as it has an electronic talking component, which serves as the countdown, the voice of the base computer begging for help, and the voice of the Omega Virus making fun of the base computer. I and one other player cornered the Virus in a room but he beat me to defeating it. I have been wanting to play Omega Virus for ages and am glad I finally got a chance. This makes me even more eager to finish SECRET BOARD GAME PROJECT “VICTOR MIKE”.

I can’t think of a better crowd to play Cockroach Poker with, and we had a great time. I pulled an especially gutsy move, passing a stinkbug to someone when I already had three of them in front of me. I figured no one would believe I’d do that, and it paid off.

There was a flicking game competition going on, and to help I brought my copy of Maus Nach Haus, which has not seen table time in far too long. You have six mice and someone spins a wooden ring. You try to flick your mice so that when the ring stops spinning and falls, they’ll be inside it. That’s it. It is a riot, and inspired a lot of obscene trash talk, as all the best games for pre-schoolers do.

I was ready to leave at that point but Matt Loter convinced me to stay for a round of a game he’s designing, U Mad Bro?, about the brain-twisting ineffable horror of Cthulhu and its effect on Jersey Bros. It’s a microgame, dumb as hell, and full of luck, and we had a lot of fun playing it. If you want a game where you stroke your beard and puzzle over interesting decisions in the problem space, it’s not for you. If you want to have a good time, it’s aces.

And that closed out another Trashfest. As always, many thanks to the organizers. I sadly did not play my traditional game of Ascending Empires on the Super Deluxe Board, nor did I play or teach The New Era. I saw other things being played that I’m now interested in, such as The Grizzled and Argent. Can’t wait for next year.

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I Played That! #37: Fallout 3 (PC)

I am a huge fan of the Fallout series, but when the third installment was announced, I was crushed. The announcement and screenshot showed that instead of an isometric, third-person RPG, it was going to be a first-person shooter. As I’ve discussed before, the types of games I loved had all vanished and now one of the few franchises that had been there for me was going to the dark side. No, I was not happy.

For four years I sulked and had nothing to do with it. But then in 2012, out of the blue, I bought a PC game I’ll talk about later (I haven’t approached this series in even an optimal non-chronological fashion, sorry), and the fact that I enjoyed it and that it ran fine on my laptop made me think that maybe I could take a crack at PC games I’d assumed my machine couldn’t run. So I bought Fallout 3.

It was a revelation. I loved playing it. I loved the sense of exploration, I loved the immersion, and I loved the combat. Hunting down feral ghouls and raiders with a sniper rifle was exciting and fun. I couldn’t get enough of it. I DO like FPSes, Sam I Am! And I will play them on a boat, and I will play them with a G.O.A.T.!

Here’s a little something about people in the world: sometimes they change their minds about things. They get new information. They are turned on to a different point of view. They realize their old views were sheltered or prejudiced or ill-informed and re-evaluate past statements and decisions. Sometimes it involves something minor like realizing you actually do enjoy a certain type of videogame you had declared contempt for. Sometimes it’s something much larger and more important. But it happens. It’s the point of growing up and gaining maturity.

It helped that the actual game of Fallout 3 was a lot of fun, with an interesting mix of excitement, humor, pathos, and mystery. The world was huge, and interesting finds awaited the intrepid explorer. The main storyline was kind of dull, absurd, and had an unbelievably stupid end to it, but the side missions were excellent, fleshing out the world and giving lovely story beats without simply dumping a bunch of text into a “book” or a baobab-sized conversation tree. A lot of thought was put into it beyond the weapons and the combat, and the whole thing works very well. It’s a world where you just don’t want to be a jerk, unlike a lot of other games I’ve played.

Fallout 3 was a gateway drug for me, and before long I was trying other FPSes and then moved to the Xbox. In fact, this really should be the final entry in this series, since this game directly led to me jumping back to consoles and eschewing the PC as a gaming platform, at least for the moment.

As you know, Fallout 4 dropped this past week and while I haven’t played it yet (I foolishly “pre-“ordered mine from Amazon, and it only shipped out yesterday) I can’t wait. It looks and sounds great, and even the aspects of it that I’m kind of wary about I’m keeping an open mind about because hey, I’ve been wrong before.

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J’Aime Paris

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Master of None

Fall time is TV time, when you want nothing more than sit on your butt in front of the TV. And a show just dropped on Netflix that is a great addition to the season. Master of None is a new series from comedian Aziz Ansari. In ten thirty minute episodes it looks at kids, parents, death, old age, dating, Indian characters in Hollywood, relationships, sexual harassment, Nashville, adultery, and much more.

It’s amazing how much is packed into this series, yet it still has time to breathe and spend time with its characters. The writing is sharp and funny, and it goes into unexpected places (usually because it doesn’t go to the “unexpected” places most TV writing would go. I know that doesn’t make sense, but trust me.) It’s also interesting because it starts out seeming episodic and self-contained, but as you go further in, there are multiple threads that are picked up again and reexamined.

It’s funny and is not afraid to go either towards the risque or the sentimental. The supporting cast is great, especially the laconic Denise (Lena Waithe). Two particularly bright spots are Ansari’s character’s parents, played by his actual parents, who are adorable.

It’s a great bit of TV, and I’m really hoping we get more of it. Even if we don’t, It’s got a great story arc that reaches a satisfying conclusion — a rare thing for shows these days. Check it out.

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Burgle Bros.: Get In. Get the Loot. Get Out.

A while back I backed some board games on Kickstarter, just for the hell of it. Some of those choices were good, many not so good. These days I don’t even look at KS anymore. But the final one came in this weekend, Burgle Bros. It’s a cooperative heist game where you’re infiltrating an office building looking for safes and avoiding guards. It’s cleverly done.

It turns out it’s a really fun game. It moves away from the direction of many co-ops, with a constant, tenacious threat (roaming guards) instead of making you play whack-a-mole with pop-up disasters. The guards are just brutal, and not learning guard management fast will knock you out in no time. It’s a tough game (a rule we messed up made it even tougher) but it’s a lot of fun to play, and we got a lot of great “story” moments out of it. Like the other game I’ve seen from Time Fowers, Paperback, it’s got a great look to it. The art by Ryan Goldsberry is top-notch.

Cracking the safe on the first floor and heading for the stairs.

However, all is not fantastic here. There is a deck of “Event” cards you can draw from by sacrificing actions. I can’t see ANY reason to do so. The events are sort of split between good and bad ones, but the good ones are only sort of okay and several bad ones that can be devastating. Considering you’re giving up actions to get them, they are simply not worth it. Furthermore, the events resolve immediately, so even a lot of the “good” ones can be useless if they happen at the wrong time. In our game I went first and decided to grab an event (we had not looked at them in advance) just to see what we got and it was a horrible one that smacked us down right out of the gate. After seeing a few more, and after looking through them after our game (which we lost), I would rather spend actions doing NOTHING than risk that deck. After discussing this with another person, he pointed out that you have to draw an event if you don’t use all your actions. I think it makes more sense to think of the event draw as a penalty, as incentive to use as many actions as possible. On the other hand, I’d still try to find janky ways to “use” my actions over drawing from this deck.

Second, when we opened our first safe, the loot we got was a Persian Cat, which had an “ability”. I looked in the rulebook to understand the ability and there was no mention of it. Heading to BGG, I see this from Fowers:

cat is attracted to the nearest room with an alarm icon at the start of the turn of the player holding him. it does not take an action to pick the cat back up once you are in his tile.

Sorry, the loot was a stretch goal and I didn’t clarify them in the rules more.

That is absolutely infuriating and one of my key problems with Kickstarter. You are producing a game, produce that game. I’m already not down with taking a supposedly finished and tested design and then throwing in a bunch of new additional stuff just because you got more cash, but when you don’t even include rules about the new additional stuff? Because they were a last-minute addition? That’s obnoxious, and does not add to my already shaky confidence in KS games to begin with.

(To be honest, the loot “abilities” can probably just be ignored, especially at first. They add unnecessary difficulty to an already tough task.)

A motion detector outside the bathroom? That’s harsh, boss.

All that aside, though, Burgle Bros. did pretty well for us. We got all the way to the third floor (of three) before I got caught by the guard. This ends the game for everyone because we are bad thieves who will rat each other out instantly. (We’re also bad thieves because we’re busting into a heavily-patrolled building with zero knowledge of its layout or even what it is we’ll be stealing, but that’s another story.) Unlike many other co-op games, there was no “alpha player” problem and we all worked together to figure out how best to outwit the guards and avoid alarms. Towards the end we were even purposely setting off alarms to draw a guard away from other players. It’s easy to learn and the task at hand is pretty straightforward without a lot of gamey nonsense bunging it up. There’s a lot to like here.

Hopefully more plays will smooth out the disappointment from the event deck. It should be a minor thing, but it really bugs me. I’ll also have to convince my usually co-op-averse group to give it more tries.

Burgle Bros: it’ll steal…your heart.

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The Movies-to-Watch List: All the President’s Men (1976)

Only one movie remained on my 2015 Movies-to-Watch list: 1984’s Buckaroo Banzai. It was a controversial choice when I first included it, but I thought I’d try and get through it this time. It was not to be. It’s not on Netflix Watch Instantly, and although we could have put the disk in our queue, when you’re faced with ordering Buckaroo Banzai or just about anything else, well…there’s a reason it was the last one remaining. I had a copy I downloaded ages ago, but it’s in a video format nothing except my computer likes, so it was either watch it on my laptop or download another. And nobody was telling me the effort was worth it. So I scrubbed it from the list and subbed in a disk Becky had ordered that was a contender for the list originally, All the President’s Men.

There have been several movies I’ve seen that make me think I just do not get movies, period. Wings of Desire I thought would absolutely never end, and I’m not sure I even made it through all the way. The Social Network was, I thought, a needless view of a character who starts out as an asshole and eventually becomes a richer asshole (I felt similarly about There Will Be Blood.) There’s another that springs to mind, and the experience I had with it was similar to that I had with All the President’s Men.

I know the story of Watergate. I know how the events behind it played out, from the burglary to Nixon’s resignation. I know the cast of horrible people, each more despicable than the last. And I know, of course, that it was a big deal. I know all that from things I’ve read (though not the book on which the movie was based.) But I didn’t get any of it from the movie. Sure, in 1976 this was completely fresh in everyone’s mind. But here in 2015, the story that Woodward and Bernstein are working on is utterly opaque. I don’t get the sense from anyone, including the reporters, that this is a huge deal. We’re told about people being threatened and spied on and bugged and such, but we don’t see any of this. It’s like a horror movie in which people are constantly talking about the Creepity Spookum but it never actually shows up. I just never got any feeling of genuine tension during the movie. Who are these people? What are we even accusing them of? What’s the danger here?

This goes for the characters as well, what there are. Woodward and Bernstein are absolute enigmas, coat racks with press cards. Hardly any of the scenes give them any kind of depth or insight. Their superiors show character, particularly Jack Warden and Jason Robards, but the material doesn’t really rise to it. Jason Robards is showing terrific concern over the quality of the story but nothing is playing off of him.

The movie I’m reminded of is 2007’s Zodiac, which trod similar ground. Again, this was a subject of which I already knew a fair amount, but I once more got no sense of it from within the movie. And, like those other movies I mentioned, it’s highly regarded. It didn’t do anything for me. I didn’t have any sense of the story or the people covering it, or why I was watching a movie instead of a documentary or reading a book. I didn’t see the point in this even being a movie.

I don’t know what I would have wanted out of All the President’s Men. Obviously I don’t need there to be a car chase and rocket launcher shootout between G. Gordon Liddy and Carl Bernstein, though now that I say it I most sincerely do want that. I realize that, for the most part, this is how it actually happened, but that doesn’t, for me, ensure it’s actually interesting. The part where they need a super secret document, so they ask the girl, “can you get this?” and she says no, but then the next day she gives it to them in full, that’s just not super gripping storytelling.

So yeah, I just didn’t appreciate All the President’s Men much at all. And I know it’s well-loved, but it bounced right off of me. I guess I’m just a bonehead when it comes to appreciating film.

Despite that, there will be a Movies-to-Watch list for 2016.

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I Played That! #36: Star Fleet I (PC)

Yes indeed, I paid retail price for a game that looked like the above. What’s more, although Wikipedia says this came out in 1984 (when such graphics on the PC wouldn’t have been too unexpected, I’m pretty sure I didn’t buy this until more like 1988 or 1989.

A was the case with Rogue, Star Fleet I: The War Begins was essentially a pay-for version of a popular, usually free mainframe game, Star Trek. You are in command of a space battleship and searching the galaxy for enemy Krellan (Klingon) and sneaky cloaked Zaldron (Zromulan) ships to destroy. You use phasers and missiles and so forth. What (I think) SFI brought to the Star Trek game was the fact that enemies could transport on to your ship and cause a ruckus, requiring you to dispatch security teams to kill or capture the intruders. That was always a hassle, especially if you had combat going on at the same time.

I played a lot of SFI, but I don’t think I ever really cracked the higher levels of it. One cool thing about it was that it tracked your “Captain” through various missions and ships, awarding you medals and promotions if you did well and busting you down if you, say, destroyed a starship.

When the shareware model took off, I bought another version of this game for Windows. It was called WinTrek, and I’m not sure why I opted for buying it instead of just playing Star Fleet I. I guess the nifty Windows graphics and interface called to me. It wasn’t nearly as detailed as SFI, but good for quick games.

This type of game is still greatly enjoyed. There are a number of current versions (including some with throwback text graphics) available for iPad and the like. I should grab one of those.

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I Played That! #35: Ultima Underworld I and II (PC)

As we’ve seen, the Ultima series always tried to be on the cutting edge of gaming. While never sacrificing story and mechanics, they always pushed the graphics to whatever the current limits were. It was tough being an Ultima fanboy on a budget.

People think of Doom and Wolfenstein 3D as the originators of the FPS, but Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, predated both of them, unveiling a fully 3D world that was far ahead of other emerging 3D games. It was a true dungeon crawl, with the player searching dark caves and lava flows, hacking at monsters, and finding lost items of power.

Although it was developed around the same time as Ultima VII, it takes place before those events. The nemesis that would star in the Ultima games starting with VII was not in this one. Instead there is a more vague threat, a powerful demon that is about to be released into Britannia. The player’s character, the Avatar, must search the Abyss for the demon, a victim its minion has kidnapped, and the means for which to defeat it. It’s standard dungeon stuff, and less intricate than previous Ultima games, but there were still plenty of interesting moments in it.

The Guardian does show up in the sequel, Ultima Underworld 2: Labyrinth of Worlds. He imprisons Lord British’s castle under a large gem, with several inhabitants (including you, the Avatar) inside. The player discovers the source of the spell, which leads him to other worlds that the Guardian has previously conquered. By moving back and forth between them, the Avatar must weaken the Guardian’s hold on those worlds and thus free his friends.

Underworld 2 features one of the most interesting bits I ever encountered in an Ultima game. One of the worlds you visit is Talorus, an alien world that was truly alien. The Talorids have a society that doesn’t mirror human society, and the player never does get a sense of how it all works, but can suss out enough to complete his mission.

It also featured one of the most unintentionally hilarious moments I’ve ever encountered in a game. Uh, spoilers here, in case you’re thinking of working on a 22 year old video game. The final confrontation takes place in “the Ethereal Void”, which is reachable only in a dream state. In order to get there, the Avatar has to eat a certain plant before going to sleep. In these games, the character had to constantly find and eat food and rest, or else suffer hunger and fatigue. I was ready to finish the game, head into the final moment and free my friends and the world. I grabbed the magic plant and went to eat it…

…and the game told me I was full. I had recently eaten food in the game and my hunger was 100% sated. I simply couldn’t eat another bite, even a small plant that would open the gateway to eliminate a worldwide threat. I had to actually run around in circles until I worked up enough hunger that I could finally eat the damn plant.

The Underworld games were great fun and a nice side trip from the main Ultima storyline. Still, I was eager to get back to the “real” games and the showdown with the Guardian that awaited me in Ultima VIII.

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