Archive for June, 2011

Origins 2011 Wrap-Up

I just got back from five days at Origins, the annual gaming convention in Columbus. I had a great time as always. While the convention encompasses non-computer gaming of all sorts (minis, CCGs, role playing, and so on), I always go for the board games. Specifically, I go to check out new games I haven’t played before. Here is my report of the convention from that point of view.

(Sorry, I didn’t have a camera with me. I’m still relatively new to blogging, and I didn’t think to bring one until it was too late. I’ll remember next year!)

I think that three main themes dominated the convention this year:

  1. Pretty much everyone I talked to, from friends to vendors to people on Twitter, agreed that the convention was slower this year than last year. Whether that meant fewer new good games, fewer attendees, or less money spent, everyone says it’s going downhill. I agreed that it felt a lot slower, but I’m not so sure now that I look back. I remember people complaining about how there were not enough good games last year, but I still found a lot of good ones then. I thought I had a lot of downtime this year, but looking back at 2010’s notes, I played approximately the same number of games (32 last year, 31 this year). I’m not going to bother calculating the total time they took, but it does seem that I just forgot about the downtime I had last year. Admittedly, I did learn fewer new games this year (19 instead of 24), but I blame that on my own unpreparedness. I’ve been getting ready for a wedding instead of researching the games I needed to find, and I arguably shouldn’t have taken five days for this at all. (On Sunday, I discovered several games I wanted to play, but I didn’t have time for all of them. Had I known about them ahead of time, those numbers would be closer.) So while there were a few worrisome signs of cutbacks, I think that this meme grew mainly out of human nature. We’re always comparing the present to the best parts of the past.
  2. Pure Eurogames are falling out of style. Last year, the big theme I noticed were that Euro- and American elements were finally being mixed together. My theory was that Eurogames were established enough that the American designers could draw on them successfully, and that Eurogamers were now thoroughly used to the basic mechanics of their games and ready for something new. This year, that has accelerated. There were a few good Euros out there, but they weren’t the ones with buzz. The dice games, dexterity games, and battle games were what everyone wanted to talk about this year. That makes sense, as the tastemakers in the Euro scene have always been eager for the next big thing. Five years ago, every new twist on area control and resource production was interesting to us. Three years ago, Agricola was ground-breaking. Today, all those things are familiar and dull. But making a balanced, replayable space battle based on flicking tokens around the board? That’s new.This ties in to my earlier point. The general consensus always seems to be that there aren’t enough good new games, but I still can’t keep up with them. The only problem is that as we get more familiar with the options, it’s harder to make everything seem new. Given that reality, I’m amazed by how much innovation I’m still seeing.
  3. Dominion is still a big deal, and now the deck-building knock-offs have arrived in force. Thunderstone is now established as a major game, and Nightfall, Ascension, and Resident Evil are jockeying for their position next. The retailers were giving these the sort of major promotional support usually associated with collectable card games, so they must expect huge results from this genre.I’m already on record complaining that all the new games have missed the elements that made Dominion great, without finding anything worthwhile to add. Overall, I found this new crop to be just as disappointing, but there are some glimmers of hope. Most importantly, though, I could still see a lot more games of Dominion being played than every other deck-builder combined. That game still has the fanbase it deserves.

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Frankie and Johnny (Music Review)

Frankie and Johnny cover

Various Artists - Frankie and Johnny

I’ve seen quite a few albums dedicated to murder ballads, but a CD filled with different renditions of a single one is a bold new idea. “Frankie and Johnny”, the chosen song, is unusual in that it’s about a wronged woman killing her man. It’s one of the classic murder ballads, but not nearly as well-known these days as “Stagger Lee” or “Long Black Veil”, so the tracks still feel fresh. I’d never heard of Righteous Records before this, but I’m intrigued now. Unfortunately, my impression of them after this is mixed.

To begin with, the songs are excellent. All from the first half of the 20th century, the sound and production quality is uniformly clear and rich. That’s unusual for recordings from this era, and many classic, well-written songs are done an injustice by the muddy, washed-out versions we have today. Whether Righteous was responsible for the remastering of these, or if they were just very discriminating in their selection, they deserve congratulations for putting together a compilation that retains the feeling the music must have had at the time it was performed.

Unfortunately, Righteous skimps in other ways. The same heavily-pixelated art is used repeatedly across the CD and booklet, despite having nothing obvious to do with the story, and there is at least one typo in the track list. In place of the rich, fascinating liner notes a project like this could have yielded, all we have is a short essay apparently cribbed from the internet. (Its saving grace is referring readers to Planet Slade, possibly the best website for the history of murder ballads.) There aren’t even any details about when the songs were recorded, or what makes each version notable.

Fortunately, the songs are more important than the album they came in. Despite telling the same story, they are not simply copies of each other. The elements of the songs, both musically and lyrically, are recognizable from track to track, but with constant variations. Across blues, jazz, and country roots styles, it flows together into one long but interesting performance, much like something that today’s culture of remixes might provide. The songs generally agree on some details (when Frankie found out Johnny was “doing her wrong”, she shot him three times with a .44), but constantly change up where the events occurred, what they were wearing, and who the focus should be on. (Ironically, the parts they agree on differ from the actual historical event that inspired the song: Johnny, whose real name was Albert, was shot a single time from a .38 pistol. All the songs gloss over the fact that Frankie was a prostitute and Albert her pimp.) Only Champion Jack Dupree drastically changes the story, turning Johnny into a murderous robber who survives to be captured by the law.

The frustrating part is that, out of the fifteen renditions provided here, seven are instrumentals. A few music-only tracks would add some enjoyable variety, as well as emphasizing the way a recognizable melody is adapted across multiple artists’ styles. But it borders on false advertising that almost half of the songs on this “murder ballad” compilation have no murder in them.

My ideal version of this would replace a few of those with other, more varied recordings of the songs. The perfunctory essay in the CD booklet even mentions that this has been performed by Elvis, Steve Wonder, Gene Simmons and others, but presumably those were too difficult to license. Still, it’s disappointing that they don’t include any of the seven artists they list to demonstrate that the song is a classic.

I do have some misgivings about this compilation, but it is an important document of a little-remembered song. The target audience is probably not very large, but those who like murder ballads or classic recordings will find a lot to like here.

Grade: B-

Fight Club (Book Review)

Fight Club cover

Fight Club

After reading Noise, I really wanted to try Fight Club. Both stories are nominally wish fulfillment tales about violent young men, but neither actually intends for you to root for them all the way through. Strangely, even though Fight Club is one of the best movies of the last generation, I’d never read the book. It was interesting to read something that was so familiar in some ways (almost all of the voice-overs and speeches are lifted verbatim from the novel), but new in others. I haven’t had an experience like this since I read the novel version of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest more than a decade ago. But where the Cuckoo’s Nest book immediately supplanted the movie for me, the movie version of Fight Club is still definitely my favorite. There is little if anything of import in the book that the movie didn’t also cover, and the prose never put me there in the same visceral way that the movie did. (In contrast, the text in Cuckoo’s Nest offered much that the movie was missing, and its incredible prose was even better than the movie’s acting.)

That’s not to say that the book wasn’t still good. With most of the movie’s text and plot coming from it, how could it not be?

From this point on, there are spoilers for the story.

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Woven Bones – In And Out And Back Again (Music Review)

In And Out And Back Again cover

Woven Bones - In And Out And Back Again

Woven Bones have a strong ear for catchy pop hooks, but they bury these under layers of droning guitar and fuzzed-out garage vocals. The small fraction of pop aficionados who will appreciate that combination will find In And Out And Back Again enjoyable and light. That grainy, minimalistic bubble gum picture on the cover is accurate.

Despite the sloppy garage sound, Woven Bones are a tightly knit outfit. Not a beat is out of place, and the confident vocal snarl maintains a constant forward momentum. In And Out demonstrates that Woven Bones has already crafted a more distinctive sound than most bands ever achieve.

This “Woven Bones sound” is both a blessing and a curse. The songs are consistently good, without a single bad moment, but neither does any track work as an obvious standout. And though there is definite variety from track to track (check out the hooky “Your Way With My Life” followed immediately by slow, sinister “Creepy Bone”), it would wear out its welcome if it went past the album’s short 26 minutes. However, it is to the album’s credit that it doesn’t even feel like 26 minutes. It flies by with a constant succession of earworms, and no breaks at which the listener might notice the passage of time. Album-closer “Blind Conscience” does take a minute too long to fade out, but it isn’t until this wind-down that anyone would check their watch.

From what little I can find online, it looks like Woven Bones have released a series of under-the-radar EPs along with this (barely) full-length. I don’t see them breaking through to popular appeal any time soon, but I fully expect them to gain new devoted fans with each release. Their enthusiastic, high-energy twist on a slacker sound remains compelling even after the newness has worn off.

Grade: B