Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Earworm Parade

For the past few weeks I’ve spent a great deal of time working in an environment with a soundtrack selected by people much younger and hipper than I am. The end result is a series of earworm infestations that have not quite led me to question my own sanity (that ship has long sailed) but rather has led me to random thoughts, which I have decided to share with you. Aren’t you lucky?

I don’t know the names or artists on most of the songs I’m hearing all day, so my references will mainly be to lyrics. If you listen to FM 107.1 in the Boston area, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

*So what is a “shorty,” exactly? I don’t know, but apparently one is on fire on the dance floor. And this “shorty” can also pop and lock like birthday cake.

*The aforementioned “shorty” is also apparently cool, like fire. Which must be no mean feat, or at least no meaning.

*Ah, Justin Bieber. Jailbait for soccer moms, and just the latest aural assault perpetuated by Canada.

*Seriously. Justin Bieber, Celine Dionne, Jim Carey, Mike Meyers; it’s like Canada’s chief export is “annoying.”

*Speaking of annoying, I feel greatly cheated. Eminem was supposed to be retired, dammit.

*There was a time when I thought Eminem was a violent misogynist worthy of scorn. After hearing his latest, I can only muster pity. This is his experience with love? This is what he thinks love is like? That’s just sad.

*Oh look, it’s been twenty minutes. I guess it’s time for someone to call 911 because another “shorty” fire is burning on the dance floor. Ooh whoa.

*So… are all of Kesha’s (sorry; Ke$ha’s) songs about drugs?

*Lady Gaga: She’s like a new wave Madonna, but with talent.

*Gaga also offers a hint to keeping your songs from being overplayed: get every single one of them on the radio at once. That way the DJ won’t have to play the same song six times a day.

*Did you know there’s a She-Wolf in the closet? I keep mine in the garage, myself. She’s not house trained.

*Wait a minute, who let Lady Antebellum in here?

*And the next song features a guy playing a Ukelele and referencing Mr. Mister? Did someone change the station and not tell me?

*Oh good. “Shorty” fire burning on the dance floor again. Much better, or at least more consistent. This station must have a pack-a-day “shorty” habit.

*Always remember: If you can’t sing, just add a Klaxon siren to your song. Klaxon: It’s the new cowbell.

*Seriously, working security at a Ke$ha concert must be a freakin’ nightmare. How can a song like “Take it off” not result in a riot if her fans are half as drug addled as her songs?

*What happened to Julio Iglesias’ son? He used to sing sultry Latin love songs, now he’s singing techno and sampling Lionel Richie.

*”Don’t stop baby, don’t stop baby! I’ve got my balls in a vi-i-ice!”

*Oh good, another “shorty” fire. Did you know the guy who sings this song has done songs for the new Electric Company? According to that song, he used to be a shorty. Which just confuses me more.

* And another “shorty” song, but this one’s different. Apparently this one is like Dy-No-Mite.

*Need a wish right now? Me too. I’m wishing someone would change the station. But my wish doesn’t require a 747.

*Selena Gomez and Miley Cyrus: The latest steel-cage match between former Disney tween idols who realize there’s a whole market of perverted old men who can’t wait until one or the other of them turns 18. The winner will be on the cover of Cosmo in about a year. The loser will be on the cover of Playboy in about a decade.

*So let me get this straight: Someone took an awesome, if overplayed Daft Punk song, slowed it down, set rap lyrics to it, and… created a new song that wasn’t nearly as awesome but only took half as long to become overplayed? Well done!

*A song that features the refrain from Madonna’s San Pedro, which includes sampled Michael Jackson tracks. Finally, some originality!

*If your cell phone is so loud that it can interrupt you while dancing at a club, your ringer is too loud.

*Strong bad was right: Anyone who uses “La la’s” in place of legit lyrics is definitely in the bottom ten.

*And no, you don’t get irony points if you sing about being “sick and tired of all the la la la la” before launching into a chorus consisting of nothing but “la la’s.”

*Setting a Rascall Flatts song to a techno beat has the same comedic value of setting a Kid Rock song to a polka beat, with the sole exception being that the latter is at least intentionally funny.

*Maybe hips don’t lie, but I have it on good authority that butts are not so trustworthy, and they tend to do most of the talking.

*Oh, now I get what a “shorty” is. Apparently, a “shorty” is like a melody in your head that goes “la la la la” every day. Thanks for clearing that up.

So that’s what I’ve learned from listening to top 40 hits. I now know that a “shorty” is a highly flammable, if not explosive, MP3 player that goes “la la la la.” I’ve also learned that I prefer my iPod full of songs at least five years old (the last album I bought was in 2005.)

I’ve also learned that pretty much all you have to do to make it to the top forty is to include the words “mister DJ” in your lyrics somewhere, because every third song on the radio seems to specifically address him.

Now, if you’ll pardon me, I have to go find some rapid-release Tylenol.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

We Represent the Mob-Grinding Guild, the Mob-Grinding Guild, the Mob-Grinding Guild

So recently I’ve been touting the virtues of Rio Grande. But what about other publishers? Where’s the love for, for example, Steve Jackson Games?

Well, funny you should ask, dear reader. Because I just happen to have in my pocket a deck of cards from Steve Jackson Games. That game is Munchkin.

Munchkin is almost more of a genre than a game. I say that because the original Munchkin, or as I like to call it Munchkin Classic, is accompanied on store shelves by several different cosmetically different versions that use the exact same game mechanics.

Munchkin Classic, for example, takes place in a high fantasy setting; humans, hobbits, orcs and elves fighting with elegant if primitive weapons and slaying dragons. Then there’s Star Munchkin, which takes the same mechanics but uses clichés from Gene Roddenberry instead of J.R.R. Tolkien. If that wasn’t enough, there’s Spy Munchkin (which uses Ian Fleming clichés), Cowboy Munchkin (Sergio Leone clichés) and Pirate Munchkin (which has something to do with killing ninjas)

The mechanics for each set are virtually identical to each other, to the point where you can mix and match sets to have a Sci Fi Western game if that’s what you want to do. You might think that this would wreck the setting, but the text on the cards and in the manual is so goofy and funny that you’ll never wonder why an orc would have a cyborg sidekick with a sixshooter.

The game itself is all about loot and level grinding, so it might as well be called Diablo or WoW. Each player starts the game as a level 1 human with no class (don’t blame me for that joke; It’s in the manual) and no weapons. During the course of the game you may acquire a race or class, and you’ll probably get some weapons. These can be played during your turn to give your character attributes, abilities or combat modifiers.

On your turn, you kick open a door by drawing a card from the pile of cards with doors on the back, and turning it face up. If it’s a monster, you must either fight or run. If it’s an item, you can add it to your hand or play it to give yourself a boost. Anything else (curse, etc), follow the instructions on the card. If you did not draw a monster, you may “loot the room” by drawing another door card. If you pick a monster card at this point, you may add it to your hand to be used later.

The fighting mechanic is simple math. The monster card has a level on it. You take your level, add any combat modifiers from the weapons, class and race cards you might have in play, then use any spells, curses or affects in your hand that might give you an advantage. If after all that, your number is higher than the monster’s level, you win.

If you have the higher number, you go up as many levels as the monster card says to go up and draw as many “loot” cards (from the pile of cards with treasure on the back) as the monster card says you get. The game ends when a given player gets to level ten.

Of course, without interaction from other players, this game might as well be a solo D&D campaign, and that’s just sad. So, just to keep it lively, other players are allowed to help the active player or the monster by casting buffs or other affect cards.

An example might be illustrative:

Herman is currently a level 2 human. He currently has boots that give him a +2 combat modifier, armor that gives him +1, and a hammer that gives him +3. He “kicks down a door” to find a level 4 slime monster, against whom his character is weak (-2 modifier) because his character race is a dwarf and the slime gets stuck in his beard. With the modifiers, his number is 6 to the slime monster’s four. However, Bobby has a card that gives the slime monster a buff of +2, and he plays it making the match 6 against 6. A tie equals losing in Munchkin, so Herman must run, play an effect card, or get someone to help him. Fortunately, Zoe has a curse card that will make bring the slime monster down three levels, and she agrees to play it if Herman shares the loot he would draw if he beat the monster (2 cards for the purposes of this example). Herman agrees, and Zoe and he both reap the benefits of a tag team kill. Herman goes up a level, and they both get one loot card apiece.

As you might imagine, the game can get very cutthroat. Players in the lead tend to get ganged up on by pretty much everyone at the table, and there really isn’t any such thing as a friendly game of Munchkin. Fortunately, the humor leavens the tactics quite a bit, so much that being robbed of victory by a well (or poorly, depending upon whose turn it is) wandering monster card doesn’t sting because of the manner in which it kills you.

Not that playing a card that nobody knows you have which happens to completely nullify that monster isn’t darn satisfying.

For some reason there is a fair amount of haterade pointed at Munchkin by people who play other card and board games. I’m not sure why. It might be the fact that victory can be stolen from a player so quickly and often. I can see where this would chafe at more competitive board and tabletop gamers. The game does lean heavily on the luck of the draw, but there are some tactical decisions that can make or break you. (Pro Tip: If you’re trying to gain a level by playing a monster against yourself, don’t pick one that approaches three fourths of your level. Your opponents will buff the living crap out of that thing, especially if you’re in the lead. Ask me how I know.) If you’re looking for a game where your fate doesn’t depend on the people you’re playing with not being jerks then you’re going to have a hard time finding a game to play.

It might also be overexposure. There are dozens of Munchkin variants, and something like eight expansion decks for the original Munchkin (one of which I received free at Pax from someone at Steve Jackson Games, so take this review for what it is: glowing praise bought incredibly cheaply. You other video and board game developers take note). Some people don’t like things that break out of the niche market to achieve wider success. In the music world, these people are called hipsters. In the gaming world, they’re just called nerds.

But if you are not the gaming equivalent of a hipster, and you have a whole $25 to spare, I can honestly recommend Munchkin or any of the variants thereof. It plays quickly, even with just two players, and you’re sure to get at least a chuckle out of a given session.

And if you don’t… well, just remember this: I am much more likely to review a product well if I receive it or some part of it for free. At least I’m honest with you.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Hi! I'm the Internet, and I'm Gere to Suck The Joy Out Of Your Life

It must be frustrating to be Joss Whedon.

I'm watching The Dollhouse, season 1, on DVD with my wife. We just finished episode 5 the night before this writing, and we're enjoying it immensely. The internet, in particular forums and people like this guy, feel extremely differently.

As near as I can figure it from reading old forum posts-- which is something, dear reader, you should never ever do-- there are four stages of Whedon Fandom that repeat indefinitely.

1) Anticipation. "OMG! There's a new Joss Whedon TV series coming out! It's got a quirky, offbeat take on an old genre and an actress that will probably spawn an internet fetish subculture! I'm so excited! I hope the network gives this one a chance for a change."

2) Consternation. "Hey! This isn't the show I was expecting at all. It's like Whedon can't even read my mind or something. I'm going to stop watching it until it gets better."

3) Vindication. "That new Whedon show was cancelled? Well, I can't say I'm surprised based on the three episodes of it I watched before declaring it utter crap."

4) Indignation. "OMG! I'm watching this Joss Whedon TV show on DVD and it's so incredibly awesome! I can't believe the stupid networks cancelled it so soon."

... and proceed to step 1.

When your core fanbase is like that, what chance do you have for commercial success? They'll love your show to death as long as you're not making new episodes, or as long as you don't dare to make something that might appeal to someone besides the niche market (LOWEST COMMON DENOMINATOR SELLOUT BULLCRAP!).

And then if someone genuinely likes some of your work, other of your so-called fans jump down their throats for being a fanboy with no taste. Some people even write comics about it.

(To be fair, Dollhouse is a show that plays better (for me, anyway) on DVD than it would on TV. These episodes dripped out one week at a time would have me losing my patience rather quickly. I felt the same way about The Pretender. The multitudinous threads and weaves were just too much for me to keep track of if I could only get a carefully restricted glimpse of the loom once a week. But give me the ability to devour two, three, four episdes at a time and the show becomes pure brilliance.)

If you love something, or like it or even find it mildly tolerable, the internet is not your friend. That's because it's full of joyless people who think they'll feel better about themselves if they tear down stuff that other people like.

It has been my goal on this site to be the opposite of that person. You'll note that most of my reviews are positive, and I try to talk about things that I like and why I like them rather than going off on rants about why such-and-such is so awful. I hope to be a tonic for anyone sick of the legions of trolls who angrily type badly spelled rants about how some beautiful model is, in actuality, objectively ugly and disgusting because they say so.

Or anyone who posts comments after Youtube videos. Here's another handy internet survival tip: Never read youtube comments. I can't prove it, but I believe they actually suck brain cells out through your eyeballs.

That may be a losing battle, but when you're a fan of Joss Whedon you get kind of used to those.

It's a cliche', but happiness is a choice. You can accept the way things are, and maybe find some enjoyment there, or you can forever lament how things are not, and be an internet troll. I oversimplify, but that's another feature of the internet that I don't have as much of a problem with.

Well, I'm enjoying Dollhouse, and I have right from episode 1. I understand why it was cancelled, and I suspect it has less to do with Fox's mishandling (though I wouldn't doubt that as a factor) and more to do with a certain segment of a certain writer's fanbase being unpleasable, or at least acting that way on internet forums.

Because, seriously, if you can watch the first five episodes of Dollhouse and come to the conclusion that Elizu Dushku can't act, you're standards are un-meetable.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Quite Taken

Every so often, rarer than ever these days, a newly released movie will grab my attention and make me think “Gee whillikers. I’d sure like to see that in theatres.” Of course, that doesn’t happen anymore. Having two kids under four, and nobody you’d trust to babysit even if you were the type of parent inclined to let someone else raise your child for you, means that movie theatres are off limits. The last movie I saw in a theatre was Hot Fuzz, seen shortly before my daughter was born.

And I don’t truck with the kinds of parents who bring young children to R rated movies just because they feel entitled to retain some aspect of their previous, non-parenthood life. And yes, I am referring to you; the lady who brought her four year old in a stroller to see Snakes on a Plane. You’re a parent now. Suck it up and act like one.

Missing out on the theatre experience isn’t really a problem for me. I’m anti-social by nature (please note the user comment section on this blog. There isn’t one. And it’s not because I don’t like you, it’s just that I don’t care what you think.). Movie theatres are infested with people, which is a strike against them to me. It’s also expensive. Matinees go for seven bucks these days, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but $14 (you think I’d leave my wife at home to see a movie?) for a one-shot experience is kind of steep when a patient person can wait a few months and pay $20 for the DVD and have the movie to watch on his own terms as many times as I like, and if I don’t like it I can turn it around and resell it on Ebay or Amazon to recoup some of the purchase price.

Anyway, that long winded introduction was my way of giving you enough backstory to understand why I bought Taken, starring Liam Neeson, on DVD without having seen it before. The trailer caught my attention back when it first came out in theatres, and it gave me goose pimples.

The basic plot is laid out right there: Retired spook embarks on a quest to find his kidnapped daughter. That would have been enough to sell me on several levels: I’m a father, I like action movies, and I’m impressed by the novelty of making the CIA the good guys for a change.

So the premise had me sold. What about the execution? It’s even better. First off, let me be blunt and point out that Liam Neeson is one of the best actors currently working in Hollywood today. He and Ed Harris are two actors that have really earned the right to call themselves actors. They’re not flashy, and they tend not to win as many Oscars as they probably deserve, but never once do you see them in a movie and fail to believe them in their respective roles. Neeson flawlessly conveys not only the urgency that the character must feel, but also the supreme confidence that the character has in his ability to get this job done. There is no failure for this man. You get the impression that he has done all this a thousand times before when the stakes for him personally were considerably lower.

Another thing that struck me about the movie is how true it rings. I admit I don’t have any real knowledge of the sorts of things Neeson does in this movie. But there is one name I trust above all others to give me an accurate account of how such things are done, and that name is Marcinko. I have read every book ever written by the Sharkman of the Delta, and every action sequence in Taken feels like it was informed by all of them. The violence is quick, decisive and brutal. Fights are never fair, and the gunplay seems to have been directed by someone who’s actually held a gun in his lifetime. There is no drawn out give and take, no banter, and no mercy. Even the car chases feel like how a real one would play out.

In fact, the only “no you didn’t” moment in the movie comes early on, when the hero uses what appears to be a magical photo printing kiosk to identify an accomplice to his daughter’s kidnapping by finding his reflection in a picture taken by a cell phone. If only my photo kiosks had a magical “enhance” button, I wouldn’t need to upgrade from my 1 Megapixel camera. I could just use the software to “enhance” my pictures until they looked like 10 Megapixels, or since it’s magic I might as well go whole hog and say infinity-pixels. (They actually have these, incidentally. They’re called 35mm cameras.)

The main thing about Taken, though, is how un-Hollywood the movie feels. The main character is a former CIA spook, and his friends are also former CIA spooks. And they are, to a man, good men. They are good men who know how and when to do horrible things. The most surprising bit of it, though, is there is no distraught hand-wringing about it. Yes, the main character conducts some fairly brutal interrogations. But by the time all is said and done, it’s clear he was doing right. Without going so far as to say the end justifies the means, the movie makes it clear that when bad things are happening and the chips are down, you want a man like this in your corner.

It’s also pretty clear that the writer and director had absolutely no concerns about how this movie would play overseas. Contrast with your blockbusters like G.I. Joe, which changed G.I. Joe into some kind of NATO on steroids solely for international marketing reasons. Without spoiling too much, the primary villains are Albanian human traffickers that seem to be ripped from the headlines. The French authorities in Taken are corrupt, incompetent or both. This is not a movie intended to ingratiate itself to the continental crowd.

Another really surprising, perhaps the most surprising and un-Hollywood aspect of the movie is the main character’s daughter. Not just in how well written she is; probably one of the more well rounded, accurate 17 year olds you’ll see in a movie; but in a particular peculiarity of hers that I won’t mention for the sake of spoiler reduction. Suffice it to say that a trait that is not highly valued among Hollywood types turns out to literally save her life.

Taken is an intense, well written and well acted thriller. I heartily recommend it to anyone who like the Jason Bourne style of spy-thriller, but who is tired of the standard genre tropes.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Nation Building for Fun and Profit

Last week I introduced some of you to the concept of the Board Game for Grownups, courtesy of Rio Grande’s Bohnanza. Bohnanza is a card game, but a good way to wet your toes in the waters that ultimately flow from GenCon every year.

But what about board games? Well, Rio Grande has you covered on that front as well. And since I foreshadowed the existence of a “gateway board game” last week, I might as well fulfill that. So this week I’ll be discussing Carcassonne.

That’s pronounced “Car” (as in automobile) “Cass” (as in Mama) “Own” (as in pwn).

It’s easier to play than to say, or spell for that matter. For two to five players. Each player selects a set of colored tokens that represent their people. There are ENTER NUMBER HERE cardboard tiles in the box, one of which is the starter tile (identified by the inverted palette printing on its back). The remaining tiles are placed face down in an easy to reach location off to the side in a loose pile, not a stack (it would reach the ceiling if you tried to stack them anyway.)

On a player’s turn, he or she must select a tile from the pile and try to place it adjacent to any tiles already on the board. This is where the skill comes in, because you can’t just place a tile any old where. All four sides of the tile have to match whatever surrounds it. If there’s a road in the middle of one side, it has to line up to another road. Likewise, a castle wall or green field must touch a castle wall or green field. So it’s kind of like four-sided dominoes.

Now, if it were just four-sided dominoes, it probably wouldn’t sell very well (we can’t all replicate the fabulous success of Tri-dominoes, after all). So Carcassonne mixes it up a bit by allowing the active player to claim a feature on the tile provided it’s not already claimed by extension from another tile.

For example, let’s say Herman draws a tile that starts a road (roads start or end at intersections, small towns, and castle gates). Three sides of his tile match green fields, which makes this one fairly easy to place. He places the tile down in such a way that the only side adjacent to existing tiles is a green field. He now has the choice of claiming either the road or the field. However, Bobby, in the previous turn, had placed a green field tile and placed a marker down to claim that field as his own. Bobby’s field was extended by Herman’s tile, so Herman cannot claim the field. Instead he claims the road.

Points are tallied by counting up the number of tiles that comprise completed features, and more is better. If the road Herman began in his turn is completed on the next turn by Zoe who drew a tile with a road on one side and castle walls on the other three sides and wanted to prevent Herman from being able to claim points for a big long road, then Herman must collect his marker and add the score (score for a road times number of tiles) to his own score.

Play continues until the tiles run out or no tiles can be legally placed.

There are some specialty scoring rules for contingencies, such as what if two players end up “owning” the same feature on the map, but for the most part that’s it. The rules for a given turn can be summed up on an index card with plenty of room leftover for doodles of Zoe in a chainmail bikini riding a dragon that’s eating that stupid boyfriend of hers who doesn’t even like board games and doesn’t treat her anywhere near as well as she deserves.

Not that Herman ever thought of her like that or anything.

As a gateway into board gaming, this one is crackijuana. It gets you in the door of the board gaming shop, so you know where to get the harder stuff, and is easy to get addicted to. I first played it at Pax East 2010, where I was about to leave but bumped into some fellow Employed Gamers and asked if I could join in on a game. It was enough fun that I bought it to play with my wife, who didn’t need to be convinced to try a board game but had never tried any of the European style games that tend to have simpler rules but more complex strategies than the Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers games.

Much of the game is left to the player to do. The board needn’t be square, so if you can’t find a good place to put a tile, you can put it on the border of the map as it currently exists. Finishing someone else’s map feature can be profitable for you, even if you can’t claim anything, because it might shrink how big their feature can get, thus limiting the points they get. The number of each kind of tile is listed in the instruction manual, so you can gauge how likely it would be that you get a certain kind of tile before you commit to a new feature. And remember, just because you have a big castle doesn’t mean you’ll finish it before the end of the game, when the points for unfinished features are tallied and you find your score will not be as high as if you finished a slightly smaller castle when you had the chance.

If you thought board games were all about Monopoly and Pop-O-Matic Trouble, then consider branching out a bit. And if you’re looking to branch out, you can’t go far wrong with Carcassonne. But be forewarned: The game is very fun, and comes with a brochure advertising other games from Rio Grande.

Because hey, that crackijuana isn’t going to sell itself.