Archive for May, 2012

Origins Recap: 2010

Here are my notes from the 2010 Origins. I’m now all caught up on these recaps, since I posted 2011’s immediately after it finished last year.

This was the year that I finally stopped talking about games I already knew, and also talked more about themes of the convention. It definitely reads a lot better than the earlier years’ wrap-ups.

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Origins Recap: 2009

Continuing my catch-up of old Origins recaps, here is 2009’s. This was my third time at the show, and the first one where I started to run into people I knew regularly. Also, I noted afterwards that finding games felt very different. In other years, I discovered a lot of new exciting games that I hadn’t heard of before. In 2009, I mainly knew about the games already. This was probably just because I was paying more attention to game news, rather than a big shift in the industry.

As with the 2008 recap, I tried to sort the games in order from best to worst, even though a lot of them are difficult to compare directly.  And it can be hard to decide for sure what I thought after one play (especially when I learn halfway through that we were taught wrong…)  But this is roughly in order.

Warning: I try to make most of my game reviews fairly accessible to people new to the hobby. But this is from an email I sent to serious gaming friends, and I was just getting experienced enough with board games to compare everything to each other. So this summary assumes that you are familiar with the other popular games that were out there in 2009.

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Origins Recap: 2008

Last year, I posted a long Origins write-up to my blog. I had actually written these for my friends for a few years before then. I thought it would be interesting to post those for historical comparison. Here is the first of my old reports, with minor editing to make references to friends and current events clearer.

2008 was a significant year for my game-playing hobby. I left Origins most excited about games like Metropolys that found clever new approaches to the classic Euro approach: Just one or two mechanics for people to use in a roundabout way to earn points, and ending in 45 minutes. Little did I know that Agricola was currently blowing up in Europe and would be in the US later that year. Between that and Galaxy Trucker, another game that was long and component-rich for my tastes at the time, I’d finish 2008 with a very different attitude about gaming than I’d had in the middle of the year. (Also, I tried out a prototype of Dominion here. I thought it was clever, of course, but I had no idea how big a deal that game would be.)

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Asara and Lords of Waterdeep (Game Reviews)

I enjoy worker placement games. If you’re unfamiliar with those, the idea is that each player chooses from available actions by placing one of their pieces (a “worker”) on it. For the rest of that round, that action is unavailable to be used again. To win, you’ll need to plan ahead for the upcoming actions you need to take, and figure out which ones to take first based on what you expect other players to block. In order to make these choices interesting, worker placement games tend to be long and complex. However, I recently played two games in this genre that simplified the mechanics a good deal. Here are my reviews of Asara and Lords of Waterdeep.

I have only played each game once, so take my opinions even more lightly than you normally should. But I’m unlikely to play either again in the near future (one didn’t impress me, and the other is owned by an out-of-state friend), and I did feel like I got a good feel for their strengths and weaknesses in that single play.

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The Avengers (Movie Review)

The Avengers movie posterBy now, it’s a little late for me to tell you to go see The Avengers. You probably already have, unless you decided to ignore a month’s worth of great reviews. But I finally saw it, and I loved it. (This was not a foregone conclusion. Of the various movies that set up the premise for this one, I had only seen Iron Man. I found it to be okay, even though most people loved it. That hadn’t left me inclined to watch all the others that people said weren’t as good as Iron Man.)

There are definitely problems: Captain America looks less like a believable character than someone in a Halloween costume. The Hulk changes from a malevolent monster to a warrior with self-control, and the movie makes little effort to bridge the gap between those extremes. “Street-level” heroes without superpowers contribute to the fights as well as Thor and Iron Man. And Samuel L. Jackson seems to be phoning it in the first half of the movie, despite the character of Nick Fury being written to his strengths. (He does improve a lot in his less frequent, but more vital, scenes late in the movie. When called on to deliver a “mutherfucking snakes” line, Jackson is up to it.)

These problems hardly matter, though, because the movie makes everything work. It also helps a lot that, like Jackson’s performance, everything gets better as time goes on. Each succeeding action scene is more thrilling, the characters become better established, and the momentum picks up. This is managed largely because the movie had a huge budget to match the sheer audacity of its plans: The disparate heroes and cosmic villains require a lot more suspension of disbelief than (successful) superhero movies usually aim for, but Marvel had the money to make the special effects work. It also succeeds because it’s written by Joss Whedon.

To many people, Whedon is mainly a source of quirky dialog, and some of that pops up here. Unlike comic writers such as Brian Bendis, though, he is able to control his tics and take on other styles. This was a big-budget action movie first, a spiritual sequel to several different movies second, a Whedon movie last. His version of Tony Stark was completely true to the prior movies, and I can only assume that the other characters, who were written very differently, fit the movies I didn’t see.

Whedon’s real talent is respecting established characters. He’s usually done this with characters he created, but comics like Astonishing X-Men have proven that he can do it just as well with other peoples’ stories. He not only rewards the fans who are familiar with the characters, but shows newcomers why the fanbase exists. This made Whedon a perfect choice for this movie, which needed to handle a wide variety of heroes without making their coexistence seem ridiculous. Honestly, as much as I loved The Avengers and would now line up to see any other superhero movie Whedon writes, this still didn’t sell me on the Marvel movies in general. It would be too easy for lesser hands to mess up a premise that involves a dramatic god, a gee-whiz science fiction hero, a monster driven by rage, and more all in one plot. The only character here who I am really interested in beyond this one movie is the Black Widow, played flawlessly by Scarlett Johansson. (Whedon’s reputation as the only mainstream writer who reliably includes strong female characters is now firmly established.)

I feel a little silly making such a big deal out of a summer action movie, but The Avengers really was excellent. With a satisfying plot, time for every character, and big-budget action that really felt exciting, this is a rare achievement. But this wasn’t “just” a well-executed movie; The Avengers may be an important step for superhero movies as a whole.

In the past, I’ve had a general rule that superhero movies succeed to the extent that they make their stories simple and streamlined for a wide audience. Everyone in the X-Men movies gets their powers from mutations, because also throwing in magic and cosmic forces would stretch belief. Spider-Man’s web-shooters are organic, because it’s difficult to accept that he’d also be the sort of genius who could invent such a thing on his own. And so on. I think that’s a big part of the reason that we’ve never had a superhero series stay good for three movies. By that third one, the writers have gotten lazy, and so an alien creature falls to Earth directly onto Peter Parker’s bicycle, because the plot needs to start some way.

The Avengers, as I already mentioned, is an audacious movie. It opens with a scene that draws from Marvel’s stable of cosmic powers. It throws together heroes of magic, science fiction, and good old human toughness. And the result is something that even I, as a comics fan, would have considered accessible only to the hardcore fans. But instead, this is now mainstream entertainment! The credit is split among the huge budget, Whedon’s attention to all the characters, and to the earlier movies that laid the groundwork, but the fact remains that this is a sea change in the way that modern superhero movies work. We now have millions of people who are paying money to follow a convoluted world spread across multiple movie series, and the geekiest features of comic book plots appear prominently. It could even be argued that, because this follows up so much on Iron Man 2, this is a successful third movie in that series!

The Avengers is a fun movie. The Avengers is an important part of a series of stories that will probably be coming out for years. And yes, The Avengers is actually a bold change to the way that movies like this work. It may have all those flaws I listed at the beginning, but this is a huge success however you measure it.

Grade: A-

Lionel Shriver – We Need To Talk About Kevin (Book Review)

We Need To Talk About Kevin cover

Lionel Shriver – We Need To Talk About Kevin

Lionel Shriver’s writing is literary and sophisticated, but don’t let that fool you. Had her career gone slightly differently, it’s easy to imagine her cranking out Saw sequels. She loves to make the audience squirm, and that’s exactly why We Need To Talk About Kevin is so successful: Told by Eva, a mother whose son went on a school-shooting rampage, we get to watch his entire childhood unfold with knowledge that he will get worse, not better, with age. Shriver’s empathetic, human approach makes this horrifying story that much more effective.

That’s not to say that it’s perfect. Part of this book’s draw is our curiosity about why a kid would do this, and parents will be captivated by the fear that their child could turn out the same. However, Kevin is too perfectly evil from the moment of birth to be compared to the kids we know. He refuses to be held or fed by Eva, but always acts like a good kid when his father’s around. He stubbornly refuses to talk at all in front of his parents until he’s secretly learned to speak in complete sentences at the age of three, and he still wears diapers even when he’s old enough to make it clear that he’s just doing so to make his mother uncomfortable. Even before the age of self-awareness, Kevin wants to prove to himself that he is better than everyone and relies on them for nothing.

It’s arguable that Eva’s account is not supposed to be trustworthy; After all, one major question of the novel is whether Kevin’s behavior is his parents’ fault. However, she includes too many details involving witnesses: The first nanny refused to finish a single day when Kevin was just weeks old, every parent in his preschool pulled their child out and then met secretly at another place without him, and so on. If Eva is lying about facts like these, especially when she admits so many difficult things in her writing, then the book would be meaningless. No, to get meaning out of this story, I have to believe Eva’s testimony, and approach this as a horrific tale about a child of pure evil rather than an exploration of kids in general. (The question about Eva’s culpability is also less interesting because of this. Apparently, a lot of readers do blame her for not loving Kevin enough. A great book could be written on that subject, but in this case Kevin refuses her love from the beginning. Instead, I read the book, and that reaction, as an examination of the impossible standards some people will hold mothers up to.)

Kevin is a great character, though, and he does eventually grow into his personality. As a young adult, he does represent the fears that parents have when their child grows sullen and withdrawn. The book would be incredibly powerful if it had rushed to get Kevin to that point.

In fact, almost all the characters are great. (The one exception is Kevin’s sister, a loving doormat who is too perfectly designed for narrative convenience.) Eva is a complex woman with hopes and dreams. Many people consider her a villain for being uncertain if she loves her child, but the fears she privately shares in the book are honest and relatable. The book’s horror works because we get to know her both as a vibrant young woman and as the broken product of eighteen years with Kevin. Franklin, the father, is a great foil for Eva. It’s clear how they fell in love, even if they become so strongly at odds when it comes to child-rearing. (However, it should be said that he sometimes sticks up for Kevin to the point of undermining Eva. If anyone was responsible for the way that Kevin turned out, it’s the father, and Eva’s unwillingness to face this is a real problem for her intelligent, practical character.) Even the people who pass through in a single scene are expertly portrayed.

The story is mostly told in flashbacks, but there is a running plot about Eva’s prison visits with Kevin. As much as he always spurned and hated her, their relationship becomes the most fascinating thing about the book. Near the end, the flashbacks catch up to the modern day, and the plot lines converge with a great payoff. The ending does hold some real (and fair) surprises, even if the reader did know to expect the shooting spree all along.

If I have some complaints about this book, it’s because it’s so good that it demands being held up to a high standard. We Need To Talk About Kevin is filled with great characters and makes real emotional connections with the readers. It only falls short of being a modern-day classic because Kevin’s unbelievable childhood keeps us from seriously considering the questions it asks about killers and their parents. Even so, this is both accessible and intelligent, and will stick with you after it’s finished.

Grade: B+

Imperial Rooster – Decent People (Music Review)

Decent People cover

Imperial Rooster – Decent People

“Anything Goes At A Rooster Show”, the lead track on Decent People, wastes no time in announcing that Imperial Rooster is a quirky, irreverent country act. Featuring L. Ron Hubbard, monkeys, and a vending machine full of raw pickled eggs, it does sound like “a good old fashioned Rooster show” would be a lot of fun.

After that song, though, the band tries to go in too many directions, few of them good. One country standby after another is embraced eagerly, from warnings about divine judgment to an enthusiastic jug solo. I still can’t tell whether the exaggerated country moan in the vocals is satirical or just over-indulgent. At least it’s obvious that the huge body count comes from a less-than-serious love of murder and heartbreak songs. This young band has some strengths, but a lot of weaknesses, and they haven’t yet figured out how to tell them apart.

The attention-craving sinners of “Anything Goes…” and “DWI Marijuana Blues” clash with the God-fearing balladeers who sing “our ignorance will block out the Sun” and warn the listener away from internet porn (with too much fervor to be taken seriously). In case that isn’t enough variety, the singer occasionally switches over to a Tom Waits-esque yell. These all clash, especially when they show up in the same song. (For example, the painfully-slow ballad about their fears for the modern world would be more tolerable if it weren’t named “Korhn Sirup Sundae”.)

If Imperial Rooster has a future, it’s probably in that Tom Waits impression. Not that they have Waits’ gift for lyrics, but the growling and energy distract from their lack of singing skill. “45 Seconds Of Blood” is actually a fun little song, and only partly because it is too quick to wear out its welcome. In fact, “The Beast On The Backs Of Our Children” is almost seven minutes long and manages to stay interesting. It could use some polishing up, but its bloody morality play grunted out over an oompah beat is unique enough to work.

Unfortunately, every decent song like that is balanced out by a few completely forgettable ones. With production that makes the album sound like an unprepared first take and failed humor that never lives up to the promise of “Anything Goes…”, many of these songs shouldn’t have even been considered for release. (Even if women abusing their husbands were automatically funny, “I Like The Way (She…)” is plodding and forgettable enough to ruin the joke.)

There’s one reason I keep coming back to this album, though: “Suzie Anna Riverstone”. This mixes Imperial Rooster’s split personalities perfectly, and results in a song I will listen to on repeat. Modeled after a traditional country tragedy, the lyrics are just too over the top to take seriously, and the shit-kicking energy makes it a fun, self-aware celebration of the genre.

Decent People is a rare thing: An indisputably bad album that still makes me interested in seeing the band live. The country pranksters behind “Anything Goes At A Rooster Show” and “Suzie Anna Riverstone” have to be fun in concert, and given that those songs bookend the album, the band clearly knows those are their standouts. It’s just too bad that they haven’t figured out how to make the rest of their songs work like that.

Grade: D+

First Looks At New Comics: Rachel Rising, Snarked!, and Thief of Thieves

I’ve been reviewing different comic series in different ways. In many cases, I post a single review after the conclusion of a long mini-series or one that had run for only a few years. For longer-running ones, I might check in with a review every 12-24 issues. With mini-series and most ongoings, I group several together for “capsule reviews”. I like this system, even if my choices are sometimes arbitrary. (Why did I review The Unwritten after 24 issues and Morning Glories after 12? Why has Amazing Spider-Man received its own reviews while other Marvel comics are grouped together? Just because, I guess.)

There is one problem, though. It’s a lot of fun to discuss new series when they first come out. It’s also probably more valuable to my readers to talk about new comics while there’s still a chance to jump on board. Therefore, I’ve decided to start writing first looks at new series that I otherwise wouldn’t review for another year or two. (Of course, if it’s not very good, this may also be my last look at it.)

This will still be somewhat arbitrary. A twelve issue miniseries would get reviewed after it finishes, and most ongoing superhero comics will still get lumped into capsule reviews. I don’t always know how long a comic will run, so I may make the wrong decision about whether it needs a first look a few months in. But I’ll do it where it seems useful.

Here are my initial impressions of three non-superhero comics. With a children’s book, a horror story, and a crime drama, there’s something for everyone.

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The First Two Fablehaven Books

Fablehaven cover

Brandon Mull – Fablehaven

I have my misgivings about Harry Potter, but I tried out Brandon Mull’s Fablehaven series even though it was recommended to me as being “like Harry Potter“. I’m glad I did. It’s not clear to me how it will keep up the world-building without eventually getting bogged down and inconsistent, but the first two books were worth reading.

The first book, Fablehaven, introduces the central conceit: Magical creatures live in our world, but are almost extinct. A small group of people keep the existence of magic a secret while also running preserves on which these creatures still live. When thirteen-year old Kendra and her younger brother Seth discover this, they get caught up in their grandparents’ efforts to protect the haven, if not the whole world, from evil forces.

This book draws as much inspiration from dark old fairy tales as safer modern stories. The magical creatures are dangerous and inhuman. The intelligent ones are immortal, and can’t bring themselves to focus on, or even comprehend, the concerns of the brief-lived humans who are trying to save them. Most of the danger here comes from a more complex worldview than simply good versus evil.

This book taps into the mix of the innocent and the horrific that gives classic fairy tales their power. The children, especially headstrong Seth, make mistakes with horrible consequences, and the sense of danger is strong. The first hint of magic they discover is grotesque and unique, and described so viscerally that it still sticks with me. It should be said that the plot pacing is uneven, but that also serves to make the disasters and sudden plot shifts much more surprising.

Until the ending, that is. The resolution manages to fix even problems that seemed irreversible, and retroactively makes the world seem safe and fair after all. This is maybe necessary for its target age range, but felt like a betrayal of the story I had come to expect.

Fablehaven: Rise of the Evening Star cover

Brandon Mull – Fablehaven: Rise of the Evening Star

Fablehaven: Rise of the Evening Star shows Mull’s growing skill as a writer. I have no complaints here about uneven pacing, as the length and plot progression fit the book perfectly. He also appears to be managing the series well. Small events from Fablehaven are now growing into a larger story, and events from the first book are logically followed up on here. This avoids Harry Potter’s problem with characters or spells from one book that just seem forgotten when they could be useful in later ones. It helps that in Fablehaven, magic comes from non-human creatures. People rarely understand how or why fantastical items work, and the magical creatures have established motivations to keep them from becoming directly involved. This resolves most questions of “why didn’t someone just solve the problem with this spell?” Even so, there are a lot of powerful items and creatures on display here, given how small their ecosystem is supposed to be. I worry that that will start to seem inconsistent within a few books.

The immediate problem, though, is that between Mull’s cleaner writing and the reassuring ending of the first book, Rise of the Evening Star never finds the sense of danger that impressed me in Fablehaven. The in-book dangers are still great, and the disasters still happen, but the reader can clearly see the path to a happy conclusion.

Mull has a knack for cool ideas. I don’t want to spoil the creatures the kids encounter here or some of the things that happen to the main characters, but if you ask any young fans about this series, they will probably be bursting to tell you about all the crazy, imaginative things that happen here. That’s true in both books, but seems to be even more prominent now that Mull has found his footing in book two.

Overall, these books are fun if flawed, and their best parts are very memorable. I preferred the more chaotic, unpredictable feel of the first book, but I can see why some people think that the series improves as it goes along. Either way, I’m curious to see what happens next. I’m not sure if it will keep working for me, but it’s doing better than Harry Potter was after two books.

Fablehaven: B

Fablehaven: Rise of the Evening Star: B-