Archive for August, 2012

Ray Bradbury – Something Wicked This Way Comes (Book Review)

Something Wicked This Way Comes cover

Ray Bradbury – Something Wicked This Way Comes

I’ve read a lot by Ray Bradbury, but not for years. I just tried Something Wicked This Way Comes, his most famous work that I hadn’t read yet. I’m glad I did; The style was, if anything, more lyrical and over-the-top than I remembered, but he writes with a confidence that makes it work. As a meditation on aging, both for young boys growing up and men looking back on their youth, the unironic intensity of his purple prose is effective. It’s a heady, memorable read.

The book does get weaker as it goes on, though. It starts as a beautiful description of the unknown territory that comes with growing up, and gradually turns into a fairly clichéd story about good versus evil. While it’s lowest points still make a satisfying 1960’s pulp novel, I feel like I only got glimpses of the book that the opening chapters promised.

The initial protagonists are 13-year old friends Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, whom the book comes right out and introduces as a innocent do-gooder and a darker, wild spirit. (You can guess which is which from the names.) But at that age, their incompatibility is abstract and they are great friends, despite the stresses it sometimes causes. Best of all, their entire world is viewed through a lens much like a Bradbury fantasy. Even before the coming of the mysterious, sinister circus that gives the book its threat, Jim and Will act like they are in a world of magic. (For example, a nearby house referred to as “The Theater” is apparently a home for mundane swingers, but after catching a glimpse through the window, the boys see hints of mysteries that threaten to tear their friendship apart.)

As the story goes on, Will’s father Charles Halloway takes the lead. A fairly obvious stand-in for Bradbury himself, Charles confronts his own midlife crisis with circumspect, flowery speeches and becomes the perfect hero for the boys when their struggle turns out to hinge on the philosophy behind morality. (Debate still rages on about whether Bradbury was a science fiction or fantasy writer, and this book makes a good summary for each side. The story is purely fantastical, but it portrays the love of ideas, and even more so of talking about those ideas, that dominated classic science fiction.)

Charles’ speeches are often ridiculous, especially when he admits he’s rambling away while they are under a tight deadline. However, the changing relationship between the father and son, especially the aspects they can’t express, is probably the best part of the book. Bradbury’s abstract prose is the only way I can imagine to portray that existential longing crossed with old-fashioned familial love.

Something Wicked is well worth reading despite its disappointments. In fact, those failures help to emphasize the open-ended nature of the book’s big questions. In a paradox that feels very appropriate, I want to say that this story will stick with me for a long time even as I feel it slipping away like a dream a week after finishing it.

Grade: B


Kingdom Builder: Nomads (Game Review)

Kingdom Builder: Nomads box

Kingdom Builder: Nomads

Donald X. Vaccarino’s Kingdom Builder is a light but decent game, whose main draw lies in the promise of variety that later additions will offer. Kingdom Builder: Nomads therefore has a much larger responsibility than most game expansions do. The results are inconclusive; Nomads offers a good variety of new features, but it doesn’t seem to open up the Kingdom Builder system in the way that I’d hoped.

Nomads has four boards, each with a new building on it. Since each game uses four random boards, this adds to the variety of combinations available. These also put more effort into the mountain and water layout, making it much more interesting to plan around impassable terrain. The abilities of the new buildings vary. The Quarry, which lets you add “Stone” to block off tiles on the map, is a fun ability. The Caravan, on the other hand, is surprisingly confusing. While it plays a similar role to the Stables of the original game, it slows down turns and even causes good characters to make occasional mistakes.

Instead of Castle spaces, these boards include the “Nomad” spaces that give the game its name. Each of these holds a single tile that grants an ability slightly more powerful than the standard buildings. However, the tiles are used a single time and then discarded from the game. This is a great addition, since there are now more items to go for on the board, and new considerations about which ones will be the most valuable for the game.

The heart of Kingdom Builder is really the fact that the scoring changes completely from game to game. (Imagine playing a Chess variant where one game is a race to move your Pawns the furthest, the next is based around controlling specific spaces on the board, and so on. That will give you an idea of the variety of strategies that different sessions of Kingdom Builder offer.) Here, the expansion also has a good twist. Three new possible scoring conditions are added which award points for actions during the game instead of at the end. They are well balanced, and offer interesting new choices.

The only bad addition in the Nomads expansion is, fortunately, completely optional: Pieces for a fifth player may be welcomed by some, but I found the game to have too much downtime this way. Kingdom Builder is a fast-playing filler, and I don’t want to wait for four people to make moves between each of my turns.

Early in a Nomads game, with Quarries and Nomad tiles in use (plus the new red player pieces)

So if Nomads fleshes out the game in multiple ways, why am I somewhat disappointed? Well, part of it is the price. After adding a $35 MSRP expansion to a $60 MSRP base, I still feel like I have a light game that offers direct comparisons to Dominion but doesn’t have anywhere near the variety. Queen Games offers high-quality production along with its high prices, but that just makes me frustrated that the backs of the cards and boards don’t match the original. Apparently I have the American version of Kingdom Builder and the International version of Nomads, so everything has different backs. It can be worked around, but it feels shoddy given the price.

More importantly, though, is the nagging impression that Kingdom Builder is already running out of steam instead of promising new ideas yet to come. In a behind-the-scenes look at the game, Vaccarino flat-out admits that the number of scoring cards we’ve seen so far has been limited not by what Queen could afford to print for the game, but by what he could actually think of that played well. Having exhausted the basic possibilities in the first set, he now covered in-game scoring for Nomads. But what’s next? Will the next expansion need to add entirely new concepts just to justify three more scoring cards? This game already had to replace some existing score cards so that references to “Castle spaces” now say “Castle or Nomad spaces”, and it can be confusing for players to notice the distinction between them on the boards. It seems like the new ideas will increase complexity quickly.

If you like Kingdom Builder, Nomads has several clever additions that will double the game’s lifetime for you. It still dampens my hopes about the future of the game, though. At this point, I’m not sure if I’ll stick with it through the next expansion or not.

Grade: B-