Archive for October, 2011

Morning Glories (Comic Review)

(This is a review of issues 1-12 of the Image comic Morning Glories. These can also be found in the first two collected volumes of the series.)

Morning Glories issue #1 cover

Morning Glories

Students usually feel like they are fighting against their school, but what if that school really were trying to kill them? That is the central hook of Morning Glories, a comic about six students newly recruited to a prestigious, but sinister, private academy.

It’s a silly idea even on its face, because any school with the body count shown here would end quickly. It might make for a fun miniseries, but Morning Glories is intended to be a long-running series. Amazingly, author Nick Spencer seems poised to make it work by not only examining the “what if?” question, but also considering why a school would want to kill its students. Twelve issues in, we don’t have a lot of answers, but there are quite a few hints about a centuries-old movement (possibly religious, possibly looking for an answer to a legitimate threat) testing children to find ones with some sort of special power. With enough suspension of disbelief to assume that their secret society could cover up the deaths and maintain their school’s prestigious reputation, this actually makes a twisted sort of sense.

Artist Joe Eisma does a passable job portraying the often dialogue-heavy story, with distinct characters and expressive faces and postures (even if he does favor a few generic body types).His linework features the occasional jarring angle and could definitely use a strong inker to give it depth, but it’s better than many DC and Marvel artists. Best of all, he is one of the few Image artists who can keep anything close to a monthly schedule .

But the art is really just a delivery mechanism for the story that dominates this comic. It’s defined by the many mysteries and constant twists, with each new issue providing a good chunk of plot and new information. Though the story is not unfolding in any hurry, it certainly can’t be accused of decompression or padding. Reading it as a serialized work, it delivers something new every month.

The plot points offer a lot of variety, from tweaking everyday aspects of school life (teachers, cheerleading squads, and guidance counselors) to completely unexpected surprises (ghosts, underground prisoners, and a strange device that intrigues cutting-edge physicists). Spencer almost seems scared to go a single issue without defying expectations, and the tone of each issue varies widely, too, from horror to graphic violence to understated suspense.

The characters started as a typical Breakfast Club-style collection of cliches. Though they haven’t gotten much deeper (this comic’s strength is in unexpected twists, not character development), they have defied expectations. In these first twelve issues, every one has either turned out to have a shocking history or faced things within the school that played off their basic archetype in surprising ways. There are also varying allegiances among the school staff and at least one organization seeking to destroy them from the outside.

It’s a lot to take in, and if anything, the concern is that Morning Glories will turn out to be one of those stories that piles the mysteries on but doesn’t know how to resolve them. That was my initial impression of this, but fortunately I re-read the series so far in preparation for this review. Taking in every issue at once, a lot of the pieces fit together better than I had expected, and the total number of open mysteries was not as large as it had seemed. (Most importantly, and a little embarrassingly, I hadn’t noticed before that one person had played a role in at least three characters’ life stories. What I’d thought to be three unrelated pieces of information all tied together neatly.) It’s strange, because this had seemed to be the perfect series to read for the monthly surprises, but now I can see a strong argument for following it in larger collected chunks. Either way, though, the mysteries seem well fleshed out, and the few explanations to date have been satisfying, so it seems that Spencer does know what he’s doing. He says that he has this planned out until an ending around issue 100, and the build-up so far seems fair given that schedule.

It’s always hard to know whether to trust a title whose main draw is mysteries and plot twists. Many high-profile works that took that approach fizzled out disappointingly (look at X-Files or Lost), but a low-stakes creator-owned comic like this arguably has a better chance of holding true to a vision. Whatever the final result is, Morning Glories has at least turned out to be a worthwhile read so far. The memorable hooks and new questions keep this interesting month after month.

Grade: B


Quarriors! (Game Review)

Quarriors! Box

Quarriors!

The more games fail to live up to expectations as “the next Dominion“, the more people seem to want to make one. It’s not necessarily a fair way to judge a game, though; Can’t it succeed or fail by its own merits? Quarriors! owes a very obvious debt to Dominion, but its most notable strengths and flaws are unique to this game.

In short, Quarriors! takes the idea of a deck-building game and turns it into “dice-building”. Many elements translate from cards to dice pretty naturally: Players draw their “hand” of dice from a bag rather than a deck (making shuffling much faster!) and discard them on the table. Each turn, the player can buy one more die from the common pool and add it to their discard pile, and when the bag runs empty, all the discarded dice are mixed back in.

Quarriors! Setup with dice and cards in the middle of the table.

The game mechanics are elegantly built around the strengths and weaknesses of dice. For example, powers that let players manipulate the draw pile won’t work, but the discard pile is available for interaction. Also, since dice can’t hold as much information as cards, so each type has a reference card sitting in the middle of the table with a full description. The dice that go along with each card have a distinct color, making them easy to identify quickly. Cleverly, each color of dice has three corresponding cards (only one of which will be available per game) with different costs or special powers, meaning that the game can provide a good deal of variety without needing thousands of costly dice. In fact, publisher WizKids has done a great job of providing quality components (including a cool die-shaped tin for a box) at the price of a normal game. My only complaint, and it is a serious one, is that all three cards for a given die have exactly the same art, making it difficult to identify a given game’s setup quickly.

Being a dice game, Quarriors! obviously has a lot more randomness in it than Dominion. The game is designed around this, with a shorter play time and a theme of summoning creatures to do battle. Surprisingly, the rules for working with these creatures feel to be in the spirit of Dominion. After being played, they immediately attack the other creatures in front of all opponents equally. Any creatures that survive for one round around the table are scored and then discarded, eventually being shuffled back in to the bag. It’s the first balanced fighting system I’ve seen in a deck-building game, and I really appreciate the fact that creatures automatically attack all opponents equally, since deck-builders seem to do better without directed attacks. I also like the way that this game’s resource (“quiddity”, which is basically a quantity of magic) is used both for the “action” and “buy” phases of a turn. It requires quiddity to deploy monsters for battle, but that reduces the amount of buying power left afterwards. It’s as elegant, and potentially as tense, as Dominion’s “one action then one buy” rule.

Some of the dice in Quarriors!For all the clever ideas though, it feels like a lot of the gameplay was not fully thought through. There is potential interaction between the different types of dice, but the powers have a lot less subtlety than Dominion. Most abilities just increase the stats of a creature, which means that the exact combination of dice a player acquires isn’t as important as it should be. There is some strategy in deciding which and how many spells to mix with the creatures, but for the most part, a player won’t go wrong in simply buying the strongest creature possible. Since the more expensive creatures are generally higher on all stats and score more points, if one player gets an early chance to buy something like a Quake Dragon, the rest of the game feels more like a formality than a real competition. And since the rolls determine the strength of the dice, there is no card that can’t potentially be bought on the first turn, even though the average player won’t get it until past the halfway point. Quarriors! officially ends at a very low point score, apparently so that games won’t last long enough for the randomness to become frustrating, but the result of that is that players have almost no chance to catch up to the person who got a lucky start. There is an endgame mentality almost from the first roll. I generally play to a slightly higher point total. It’s still a fast game with a lot of luck, but at least then there is some chance that a player who spends time building a strategic set of dice will be rewarded. Even so, Quarriors! would require major revisions to change the fact that the first player to buy a Dragon usually wins.

All in all, Quarriors! offers a strange mix of strategy and randomness that is a little unsatisfying. Clever play is possible, but rarely matters more than luck. The game is light and fast, but it can take some focus to evaluate the multiple powers of each card and refer back to the middle of the table for information not on the dice themselves. Basically, to truly appreciate it you need to be able to follow somewhat complex timing rules, but prefer theme and randomness over heavy games. It is a very clever design, and everyone should enjoy playing it a few times. Long-term, though, the variety of setup options don’t keep the game from feeling somewhat repetitive and arbitrary.

Grade: B-

(Note: The images in this article come from Board Game Geek. For more information about each one, including the photographer, they all link back to the original.)

Obits – Moody, Standard and Poor (Music Review)

Moody, Standard and Poor cover

Obits - Moody, Standard and Poor

When the Obits’ first album I Blame You appeared in 2009, it was a breath of fresh air. Two years later, their follow-up Moody, Standard and Poor is much like a second breath of that exact same fresh air. It’s as good as the first one in many ways, but just doesn’t feel nearly as vital.

It’s kind of strange to complain about the album sounding too similar to anything, given how unique the band’s sound is. A bass-heavy, blues-informed garage band, they have a punk energy but the clean sound and slightly abstract lyrics of an indie blues band. Singer Rick Froberg has an intense scream that demands attention, but the taut, frequently-evolving music is what sticks in the listener’s mind. The Obits deserve comparisons to Boston in their accomplishment of creating a distinctive, immediately recognizable sound on their debut.

If anything, Moody, Standard and Poor dials down the musical intensity slightly and explores slightly wider ground lyrically, but this is so subtle that it’s hard to tell if it was intentional. That may be a fertile direction for future Obits albums, but in this one, it just sounds like a collection of second-best songs from the same session as I Blame You. It’s even shorter than that album, at a slim 35 minutes.

The similarities mean that the sound is still great, at least. There isn’t a single minute of filler, and the new songs are welcome. They range from the introspective and (slightly) slow-paced “New August”, which takes time to build a groove, to the angry “No Fly List”, which proves that the band can incorporate punk rock intensity when they want. The mostly instrumental “Spot the Pikey”, with surf riffs leading up to an almost-bored group reciting the song title, has a sense of humor not previously shown.

There are definitely multiple possibilities for evolution in the group’s future. Obviously, it will still sound reminiscent of these past albums, and in some ways it’s unfair to punish them for having developed such an original sound already. But it will be necessary for the Obits to recapture the thrill of discovery and claim the excitement that their style deserves.

Grade: B-