Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Problem with Star Wars

I've been thinking a lot about Star Wars this week… and about the “controversy” around The Last Jedi.

First, let’s get this out of the way: we're a bunch of nerds arguing about a movie series. This is the very definition of “first world problem” and none of this really matters. Second, it’s OK to dislike TLJ, just as it is OK to love it. Third, I didn't hate The Last Jedi, but I didn't love it either… and that's what everyone is talking about, so I might as well too.

Here’s my thesis about the problem with the new Star Wars trilogy: it needed a “show runner”. Bear with me as I lay out my case.

The prequels (Ep I - III) have a better story. They are not good movies, but they have an amazing plot. If George had let others (like Kasden) craft the scripts and dialogue, and there had been better acting, they could have been amazing. The story was there, but poorly executed. I also posit that their importance is because of Palpatine’s story, not Vader’s. Anakin was a patsy. Palpatine was one bad-ass motherf@#%$!... But I'm straying off-point.

The point is that Lucas had a vision of the Machiavellian machinations which would lead a Senator of a back water planet to become Emperor of the Galaxy. Palpatine was playing a literal long game. Encouraging a civil war. Setting up the clones. Making his planet a victim so he could rise from obscurity. This shit had layers upon layers. It was an amazing idea ruined by terrible scripts… But the idea was there. A single over-arcing plot to tie the 3 movies together (even if it was poorly executed).

The problem with the new trilogy is that it doesn't have any of that. There are 3 separate movies being made with no single visionary at the helm. Each movie is a different set of script writers, and different directors, which all have different visions of what Star Wars is, with no pre-planned plot to pull together the movies. There was no single (or collaborative) voice to be the advocate for a central vision. (The only reason Abrams is coming back for IX is that Disney fired the other dude. J.J. had no plans to be involved this far. It was supposed to be one and done for him). So, in essence, we were being given 3 separate movies with a veneer of “trilogy” in the same way Jaws was a trilogy… You know, because they all had a shark.

Rian basically threw out all of the set ups Abrams created. I didn't have [much of] a problem with that because I felt The Force Awakens was too much of a retread of Star Wars (it was not called “A New Hope” when I saw it in theaters). But Rian’s throw aways illustrate the problem. There are no ties that bind the movies together when one filmmaker can just disregard what the other(s) have laid out. Don't like Snoke? F@ck ‘im. Mysterious protagonist origin story? Nah, screw that. Awkward love story between 2 characters that have known each other for only several hours? No, let’s make it an awkward love triangle instead.

Don't get me wrong. I actually liked a lot of what Rian did in TLJ. I like a flawed Luke, broken by his former hubris. I thought Snoke was Diet Crystal Palpatine. Good riddance. Rose rocks (although the love story is a bit forced… I mean, she was kicking Finn’s ass for being a deserter just a few hours before). Laura Dern brought gravitas in spades, and Kylo Ren is as complex of a character that has existed in any Star Wars.

But Abrams could throw all that in the waste bin, too. Rey could suddenly go from being a nobody to one of the lost Kenobi quintuplets. Snoke could be revealed as a Midichlorian-infused Jango Fett clone when his Force-wielding “brother” shows up. Maz Kanata could become a useful character instead of an awkward segue between story beats.

In IX, J.J. could choose to undo every decision made by Rian because there is no unifying thread for the trilogy. It's at the whim and mercy of whomever comes next. A trilogy is not just having the same characters in 3 disparate stories.

That's likely the core of the discontent with the new movie. I don't blame Rian. He got saddled with Abrams garbage and chose to take out the trash instead of slogging through, and probably ended up with a better movie as a result. But that doesn't leave the audience feeling any less betrayed for being catfished by the discarded teases.

When you boil it down, a novel trilogy isn't written by 3 different authors with differing visions. A Star Wars trilogy should not be either… But that's where we are now.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Best Board Games for the Nascent Board Gamer

So, I recently ran across a “Best Five Board Games” list made by some random website that appears to have no actual experience with board gaming. Their picks were utterly sad and pathetic, including the likes of Monopoly, Life, and Candy Land.

If you’re an avid board gamer, you probably already have a “gateway game” list to play with those friends who are not in your normal board game group… but here is my take on the best introductory games, simply because I have a gaming blog and the more we spread the word, the better. The list, in no particular order…

Alhambra  


This set collection and puzzle game is light enough for the novice gamer, but has some real strategic meat on its bones. In Alhambra ($25), you collect gardens, pavilions, and various building tiles to expand and beautify your 13th century fortress. Money management is critical as you gain bonus purchases for paying the exact amount for a tile. The player who has collected the most of specific tiles sets over the course of 3 rounds will score the points for a win.

Catan 5th Edition  


Originally published in 1995 as “Settlers of Catan”, this resource management and building game kick-started the board gaming renaissance. Over 20 years later, Catan ($35) is in its 5th Edition with numerous expansions and spin-offs. In Catan, you collect the resources of brick, wheat, ore, wood, and wool in order to expand your settlements to become cities.

This “gateway” game is easy to teach in that you can compare it to existing popular games like Monopoly. You build “Settlements” instead of Houses and upgrade to “Cities” instead of Hotels. Expanding your road system onto valuable resource tiles is key, similar to expanding the number of properties in that other game. Players who have grown up on Hasbro and Parker Brothers will find a familiar home in Catan, but with a much greater depth of play (and hopefully fewer fits of crying).

Codenames / Codenames: Pictures   


Codenames borders on the “party game” genre, but I honestly love this game and everyone to whom I have introduced this game has also loved it. For around $12, what’s not to love? In summary, you give clues to your teammates in order for them to make the word associations and select one or more cards, while trying to avoid selecting the other team’s cards.  I believe Codename: Pictures is slightly superior in that there are a lots of clue variations that will arise due to the esoteric artwork (which is the same reason I also enjoy the next pick).

Dominion


Originally left off this list as an oversight, Dominion ($30) defined the deck-building genre -- creating synergies from a shared deck of cards, as opposed to games like Magic: The Gathering where each player has their own separate deck. While other better deck builders have come along in the intervening years, the simple Action, Buy, Cards (ABC) mechanic of Dominion makes it a breeze to teach to new players. It makes for the perfect stepping stone to more complex deck-builder games.
A multitude of different expansions has also kept its reply value high despite its age.

Dixit / Dixit: Odyssey  


Dixit is the original “weird art” game in which the players give one word clues for the other players to guess the correct card. However, your clue can’t be too obvious such that everyone gets it, or else you do not earn any points. The key is to get one or two players to guess correctly while leaving the others pondering. The art is truly evocative, but the replayability is only good if you play with different groups of people from time to time (or buy more expansions). The Odyssey version supports up to 12 players. The original Dixit is inexpensive at $20. The Dixit “International” version includes the fancier built-in scoreboard for another $8.

King of Tokyo 


In King of Tokyo ($27), you play giant monsters invading Tokyo, and beating up upon one another. Using a Yahtzee-like dice mechanic, you roll for attack power to assault your opponents, energy to purchase power-up cards, hearts to heal oneself, or just victory points to get you closer to a win. The winner is the first to 20 point or the last monster standing. This humorous, fast-paced, streamlined game will win over gamers of all ages (8 and up).

Love Letter 


Love Letter is kind of like a sophisticated version of “Old Maid” for adults. Using deduction and card mechanics, you try to obtain cards close in rank of the Princess, while not getting caught with the Princess and forced to discard it. It’s simple to learn and quick to play. If you think the cooties-laden theme will turn off younger gamers, there are Batman, Adventure Time, and Munchkin versions as well. At less than $10, this is a great value.

Lords of Waterdeep


Despite the somewhat odd combination of theme and mechanics, Lords of Waterdeep ($35) is actually a solid worker placement and resource management game which serves as an excellent example of this sub-genre of board games. As a secret Lord of Waterdeep, you place your agents in the city to recruit "adventurers" (resources represented by black, white, purple and orange cubes) in order to complete quests and gain victory points. You may also build additional locations in the city to provide resources to you and others in the game. At the end of 8 rounds, the winner is the player who has completed the most quests that match the affinity of their secret identity.

Ra  


Ra ($50) is a set collection game that uses an auction mechanic. In Ra, you bid on various tiles representing advances in civilization, pharaohs rising to power, agriculture along the Nile, and monuments to gods and kings.  It also has a press-your-luck aspect as you try to squeeze in one or two more big auctions before the end of a round in a desperate attempt to get the last 2 or 3 tiles you might need. The combination of luck and strategy makes this game exciting to the last Sphinx.

The Resistance / Resistance Avalon


Find the traitors. Backstab and accuse your friends! Resistance is one of the best traitor mechanic games on the market. As the leader, you must pick a team to execute a covert mission (or quest).  However, there are traitors in the group attempting to sabotage your success while not revealing themselves. You might think you know who your friends are, but these deception and social deduction games will put you to the test.

Splendour  


Splendor ($24) is another simple set collection (hmm… I’m sensing an unintended theme here…) and card drafting game, which is easy to learn, but still has a strategic depth often not found in other “light” board games. In the beautifully illustrated Splendor, you collect gems (chips) in order to purchase cards which also have a gem value. As you collect more gem cards, you are able to purchase gem cards that have higher point values as well as collect Noble cards worth additional points. The first player to 15 points wins. This is another game that quickly becomes a favorite among people are not not hard core  board gamers.

Ticket to Ride Europe 


Ticket to Ride Europe ($40) is yet another set collecting and route building game that almost always wins over non-gamers. TTR is probably considered one of the original “gateway games” due to its simplicity (along with Catan), but it still offers a decent amount of strategy and a soup├žon of luck. There are numerous editions, but the Europe version of Ticket to Ride probably has the most balanced board. Many also love the Nordic Countries.

Tsuro


I just couldn't stop at ten. Tsuro ($25) is tile placement at its simplest. Place your tile, move your pawn, and try not to fly off the board. One minute to learn, twenty minutes to play... such a light, quick game for just about anyone, and it supports up to 8 players! With Tsuro of the Seas, you can play the base Tsuro mechanics, or add in the boat-eating dragons for a little more chaos (but at the cost of a slightly longer and more fiddly game).


Final Thoughts


This list is by no means exhaustive, and there are a number of recent releases are not mentioned. There are several more that could make the cut like Carcassonne, JamaicaForbidden Desert, Stone Age7 Wonders, Small World, Sagrada, Sushi Go Party!... I had to stop somewhere.  I purposely did not include 2-player only games, as this was intended for the wider audience playing with a group of friends. If there are additions you'd like to see, tell us in the comments what "gateway games" are at the top of your lists and how they are good for beginning strategists.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Owlbear's D&D Holiday Gift Guide

The holidays are here, so you might be wondering what to get your gaming friends (or, let’s be honest… probably a little gift for yourself). The great news is that there is a whole plethora of D&D-related gifts for a wide variety of diverse gaming interests.

D&D RPG


The recent release schedule has had quite an array of books for the tabletop gamer. For players and Dungeon Masters alike, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything ($30) includes 32 new class paths and new spells for PCs, as well as offering an array of of advice for DM’s on encounter building, proficiencies, traps, and downtime activities. Volo’s Guide to Monsters ($34) gives DM’s new variants of classic, iconic monsters as well as includes other fantastic creatures that didn’t quite make it into the Monster Manual.

The most recent adventure offerings have included a variety of adventuring locales for gaming groups with a variety of play styles.

Storm King’s Thunder ($34) is sprawling Sword Coast campaign crossing the wilds of Faerun from Waterdeep to Anauroch and nearly all places in between. This sandbox-like adventure path has multitude of hooks and side quests all over its massive Sword Coast map.

Tales from the Yawning Portal ($34) brings back old-school dungeon crawls from prior editions, updating them for D&D 5th Edition. Classics include the Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, the Sunless Citadel, White Plume Mountain, and the infamous Tomb of Horrors.

Tomb of Annihilation ($34) is the most recent offering with an Isle of Dread and Tomb of Horrors inspired campaign in Chult, updating the hex crawl style campaign for 5th Edition.

For fans of Critical Role, you can now play in Matthew Mercer’s world, the Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting (apostrophes included at no extra charge) for $26.

Or if Tolkien is more your thing, Cubicle 7 has converted its One Ring game to D&D 5th Edition rules with Adventures in Middle Earth. If you've wanted to play a low fantasy version of D&D, especially set in Tolkien's universe, this is probably right up your alley.

In the accessories category, there is the newly revised Dungeon Master's Screen Reincarnated ($10), the thick, folding cardboard D&D Adventure Grid (more than just a battle mat at $20) and the venerable, but still available D&D Dungeon Tiles: Wilderness Master Set ($18), soon to be reprinted along with the Dungeon and City master sets.

If you’re playing on the grid, you may want to pick up some D&D Icons of the Realms or Pathfinder Battles miniatures… and for the DM who has everything, there is the massively, huge Tiamat Ma’al Drakar miniature for about $100 from Reaper Miniatures. Can that thing even be called a “miniature”?

D&D Board Games


But it’s not all about D&D role-playing. Wizards of the Coast has expanded the brand into some really amazing board games.

Wrath of Ashardalon miniatures
For those who don’t have time for a regular rpg home game, or may be missing a Dungeon Master to run the group, Wizards of the Coast has a series of dungeon-crawl board games that might serve as a reasonable substitute. The most recent version is Tomb of Annihilation (not to be confused with the D&D adventure of the same name).

The Temple of Elemental Evil version introduced campaign play, which the prior versions lacked. However, Wrath of Ashardalon probably comes with the best variety of miniatures, including an amazing Huge Red Dragon. Not only are theses fun dungeon crawl board games, the miniatures themselves make these games a fantastic value if you also play D&D tabletop.

Assault of the Giants takes on the area-control board game with asymmetric play and features a beautiful Sword Coast game board and over a dozen giant miniatures. Even though the giant miniatures are not as large as the Icons of the Realms miniatures, they are still sizable enough for rpg play in a pinch. This also comes in a painted miniature premium version.

Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate reskins a D&D theme onto Betrayal at the House on the Hill. Fans of the original will almost certainly like this version (full review here).

Dragonfire brings Catalyst Games’ Crossfire deck-builder mechanics into the D&D world. This game not only offers cooperative deck building, you can also play campaign scenarios that allow your characters to progress similar to a legacy game. I will have to opportunity to play this title more extensively this weekend and I’m looking forward to seeing how it fares. Fans of the Shadowrun Crossfire game are bound love this D&D themed version.

Tyrants of the Underdark combines deck building with area control in an Underdark themed game board (my initial review here). Like other deck builders, you mix and match cards from different factions to give the game a huge replayability factor.

There are multiple paths to victory and the lead can swing wildly from player to player across turns. Victory points at the end are almost always very close, making the game play exciting to the very last turn. This is one of the top board games in my collection, and probably ranks just behind Roll for the Galaxy as my favorite.

Lords of Waterdeep along with its expansion Scoundrels of Skullport provide a solid worker-placement board game. Though it is now several years old, it is still in print and is well regarded even among the most jaded board gamers. This is also a great “gateway” board game for D&D groups that may not be as into the board game scene.

D&D Adjacent Games


Though not strictly D&D themed, there are several fantasy games that give a similar flavor.

If you are lucky enough to live near a 5 Below thrift store, keep an eye out for Magic the Gathering: Arena of the Planeswalkers for only $5 ($10 - $12 on Amazon)! This Heroscape-based game uses characters and creatures from the Magic the Gathering universe in an entertaining, squad-based miniatures skirmish game. But the best part is that it come with 35 miniatures. That’s a fantastic value at $5 or even $10.

It’s $5 expansion, Battle for Zendikar come with another 16 miniatures. That over 50 miniatures for between $12 to $18!!!  If you are really lucky, you can also find Shadows over Innistrad for less than $10 and add another 25 figures to that total! Hell, even if you hate skirmish board games, you can pick up 75 miniatures for under $30… and the game is pretty fun, too!

While not quite the stunning Planeswalker deal, Zombicide: Black Plague offers a zombie apocalypse with fantasy flavor. Zombicide has been so popular that it has generated many expansions, but this stand-alone version is probably the best, especially if you like the fantasy theme.

Speaking of fantasy re-themes, Defenders of the Realm generates the race-against-the-clock excitement of games like Pandemic, but instead of fighting disease, you are fighting orcs and dragons!

And lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the old-timer dungeon crawlers, Descent: Journeys in the Dark and its many expansions. Descent now includes an app from Fantasy Flight that allows all the players to play cooperatively against the game without the Overlord player. (Imperial Assault offers a similar dungeon-crawl-slash-race-against-the-clock experience, but in the Star Wars universe).

Final Thoughts


We're definitely in a golden age of gaming. Between D&D and other fantasy rpgs and board games, there are dozens of ways to get your fantasy kicks this year.
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