Archive for December, 2012

Android: Netrunner (Game Review)

Android: Netrunner

Android: Netrunner

After creating Magic: The Gathering, Richard Garfield tried to reproduce his success with another collectable card game, Netrunner. It failed to survive long, but its cult following led Fantasy Flight Games to resurrect it two decades later. Despite all the advances in game design over that time, the new version (now branded Android: Netrunner) holds up remarkably well.

The biggest innovation of the game was the asynchronous roles for its two players. Set in a cyberpunk future, one person played a Corporation trying to protect their secrets from the Runner (hacker) played by the other. Each player uses different types of cards and has very different needs. Most of the rules flow smoothly from that concept, with the Corporation seeking to spend turns “advancing” Agenda cards before the Runner can break through the Ice protecting them. This is a big change from the direct attacks of Magic, and the resources used are different as well: Instead of recurring Mana to spend every turn, players gather up credits, potentially spending many turns’ worth in a single big move – and also potentially finding themselves strapped for cash just when the other strikes.

The Runner's play area, with a few rows for the different types of cards.

The Runner’s play area, with a few rows for the different types of cards.

Fundamentally, this is a bluffing game. The Corporation plays most of their cards face-down, so the Runner doesn’t know the types or strength of the Ice until they attack. They don’t even know if the card being protected is an Agenda or Trap. This makes for very tense games, as both sides try to build up their abilities, responding to the perceived or actual threats shown by the other. Often, the end result hinges on a single element that seems blown out of proportion, with one surprising success giving a player the card they need for victory. (Agendas are generally worth two or three points, and the first player to seven wins.) These game-ending chances (or lucky combos coming at just the right time) may seem a little disappointing to some people. They are the only potential problem with the gameplay that I see, though: My experiences have been consistently interesting, tense, and varied. Even if one player gets off to a better start, the other can still threaten to build up their abilities and take the lead later. (This is important to note, because I did play the original version of this, and I remember most games being very one-sided. Whether it was a problem with that version, or with my skills at the time, I can’t say.)

The Corporation's play area, full of face-up and face-down cards. Ice (horizontal cards) protects everything - even the draw and discard piles.

The Corporation’s play area, full of face-up and face-down cards. Ice (horizontal cards) protects everything – even the draw and discard piles.

Even the deck-building has elements of this guessing, as the game has too many aspects to account for every time. Will the Corporation be trying to run “Traces” against the Runner? Will the Runner use Viruses or straightforward Icebreakers? Will the Runner benefit from revealing their opponent’s cards, or is that a waste of resources that could be better put towards brute force? All those answers depend on what the opponent chooses before the game starts.

Fantasy Flight has left the gameplay fundamentally the same, but did make significant changes to the deck-building. For one thing, this is now a “Living Card Game” instead of a “collectible card game”. The LCG model means that instead of buying packs of random cards, people purchase a complete set at one time. Frequent updates are released, but those are also available in a single purchase. This new version also groups cards into “factions”, with decks needing to be built largely around a single one. (Cards from other factions can be added, but only up to a specific “influence” level.)

The LCG model is probably the right business decision for Netrunner. It always had a reputation for being a game based more on mixing in the right surprises than on tracking down rare cards. I appreciated that I didn’t need to spend lots of money to feel involved, but that may be why it didn’t survive as a CCG.

Psychologically, this makes it feel very different. For example, the game is easiest to play if both people have bought their own copies. That is true of both CCGs and LCGs, but since LCGs feel more like traditional board games, that seems like an extra expense. Also, you are allowed to include up to three copies of each card in your deck, and it’s usually best to do so. But it’s one thing to search through booster packs for extra copies of a card you like, and it’s another to realize that you’re paying for one large box full of duplicate cards. Worse, some cards in the base set only have one or two copies. To play with three of them, you’d need to buy multiple copies of the game! (Or make your own copies, of course.) That feels like an obnoxious limitation.

On the other hand, I now have three copies of most cards in the decks I made. I usually didn’t have extra copies available in the decks I made with the original game. I suspect that that might have added the randomness that made my old games so one-sided, while the modern ones are competitive. If so, I can’t argue with the results.

So far, the game is very fun, but also very limited. There are just enough cards to let you make a basic deck with each faction, and there aren’t a lot of changes you can make from the others. It seems that the base set is well-designed to keep you building within tight constraints that expansions will have to take away. There are too many strong combos that are limited now only by the cost of mixing cards from different factions. How long can that last as new cards are added? And what about the cards so powerful that the other side needs to treat them as a threat at all times? Bluffing games work when each side has a known set of threats to make. If new cards keep being added to the game, then the set of possible actions will be too diverse to create true bluffing tension. (The first expansion just came out. It looks very fun, but mainly skirts those issues by including very few cards.)

Judging this game by its base set only, it’s excellent. It provides a unique feel with a enough tweaks available to keep me playing for a while. I may not be sure what the future holds for Netrunner, but in the worst-case scenario, the initial cards are well worth buying on their own.

Grade: A-


Regina Spektor – What We Saw From the Cheap Seats (Music Review)

What We Saw From the Cheap Seats cover

Regina Spektor – What We Saw From the Cheap Seats

Regina Spektor has a strange position in the indie pop scene. Wildly experimental, but also seriously sentimental and unironic, these two sides sometimes collide unexpectedly. When she tried to promote her previous album with “Laughing With”, for example, fans expecting a clever deconstruction of life reacted like it was an especially bad email forward from their mothers. What We Saw From the Cheap Seats doesn’t have anything that extreme, but Spektor continues to flit happily around the whole spectrum. There’s no sign that she sees a difference between the straightforward ballad of “How” (a heart-on-her-sleeve elegy for a relationship) and the flights of fancy in “All the Rowboats” (anthropomorphizing items in a museum). The Manic Pixie Dream Girl of experimental pop, she seems to find meaning in a creative worldview that others see as a strict contradiction.

In Cheap Seats, Spektor seems more settled in to her role than ever. No longer trying the chaotic variety of tricks she used in Soviet Kitsch, but also without the pop stardom attempts of Begin To Hope, she just sings the songs she wants. Her music is becoming consistently good, but I miss the misfires that used to go along with her biggest successes. Hopefully something pushes her out of her comfort zone soon.

In the meantime, it’s hard to complain about the work she’s delivering, A couple songs err on the overly-sincere side (“Ballad of a Politician” has nothing new to say about its subject matter), and there are just a couple flights of experimentation: “Oh Marcello” is full of quick-spoken lines about a woman whose fortune teller warned her that her son would grow up to be a killer, but with a slow, heartfelt chorus lifted directly from “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”. With Biblical references and a little beatboxing mixed in, it creates an unexpectedly beautiful patchwork.

Almost all the songs fall solidly between those, though: Piano-based with electronic accompaniment and clear production, they rely mainly on Spektor’s classical background and beautiful voice to communicate her worldview in quirky ways. She sings about “the pain of knowing that true love exists” and muses on a piano’s suitability as firewood during a song about mortality. Not for the first time, one of the album’s strongest tracks (“Ne Me Quitte Pas” in this case) is a reworking of one of her songs from her early days.

The open-eyed sentimentality and unique styles make Spektor as fascinating as she is divisive. I’m one of the people who likes her, so much so that I expect to keep enjoying her albums even if she continues her slow movement away from the styles I like the most.

Grade: B


Howler – America Give Up (Music Review)

America Give Up cover

Howler – America Give Up

America Give Up, Howler’s full-length debut, has gotten a lot of attention this year. I can sort of see why, though it hasn’t thrilled me the same way. Bouncy surf-rock with a constant fuzzy drone and hooky riffs, this is the bubblegum pop version of garage rock. It’s a style I like, but partly for the substance that often goes with it. In Howler’s case, they don’t have the variety of Black Lips or the lyrical depth of Goodnight Loving. The catchy sound can take them far, admittedly.

The band comes across as youthful and optimistic, in a complete contrast to their album title. In fact, it’s almost hard to notice that the songs cover the half-angry, half-stoned territory common to garage rock: I usually come away from the album feeling vaguely like I’d just heard some eager, lo-fi Beach Boys covers. In reality, they sing things like “A shotgun wedding at a quarter to five/I shot the husband and I sleep with the bride” and “You think we’re Bonnie and Clyde/But both of them fucking died”. Nothing too offensive, of course. If anything, I probably get that feeling because of how carefully calculated it sounds. At least, when I hear Howler sing “I hate myself more than I hate you”, it seems to have little more meaning than “La la la” would.

The group’s catchiness fails it only twice: Once in “Too Much Blood”, when they slow their sound down and seem to reveal the lack of any substance behind them, and conversely on “Black Lagoon”, when the attempt at a more aggressive song just comes out wrong and feels irritating. (Being the last song on the album, its annoying anti-hooks are a real problem.) Otherwise, America Give Up is a fun, upbeat album. It’s just immediately forgettable afterwards, except for a few lines from “Black Lagoon” that I’m trying to forget.

Grade: C+


Circa News (iPhone App Review)

Main news screen of CircaThese days I get my news mostly from Twitter and special-interest blogs. That doesn’t give me a very comprehensive picture, but it’s difficult to break the habits of our bite-sized info-culture. So I was very interested when I heard of Circa News, an iPhone app that promises to provide convenient news digests for the Twitter era.

It’s a very well-designed app, pulling the reader right in with large photos (beautiful in the retina display), and the story condensed into factoids one can flip through. Additional pictures and info boxes prevent the information feeling like a wall of boring text.

The first page of a story. Notice the “1 of 5” telling you the page count, and the top of the next page just barely visible to flick to. It does feel nice.

The news doesn’t satisfy me, though. It really doesn’t offer that much more depth than the Twitter culture I was hoping to go beyond. Circa’s editors summarize other news sites, sometimes with better success than others. Many articles lend themselves to a one-minute overview nicely, but others left me with no context to understand them. It turns out that there is a way to make the he-said/she-said style of political reporting even worse, and that’s to trim out all the facts for brevity. Circa provides links to the original articles, but that just eats up more time than it would to load the original in the first place. On balance, I did learn a lot, but I was also putting in a lot of time to give the program a chance. I didn’t see savings over going straight to a standard news site.

Circa’s editors do have a difficult task. I’m sure it’s harder than it looks to decide which stories make the cut, whether a certain factoid deserves its own story or should be part of an existing one, and when to link stories. But it feels rushed. It is just good enough to work, but you will still find the occasional typo, repeated item, or even false statement.

A couple of mistakes. The news feed shows one story twice. More seriously, the other article makes a claim (that the Pope’s tweets are infallible) directly contradicted by the first source article.

The other big selling point of Circa is that you can subscribe to a story that interests you. Updates will be added to the original story, so people who don’t care about it won’t have to see it again. While a good idea in theory, this again creates difficult choices for the editors. What deserves a new story and what should be added to an old one? In the end, it turns out not to matter: Most stories never get updates, and the ones that do usually (always?) end up back in the main newsfeed (sometimes with a new name) for everyone to see.

I’m also not sure what Circa’s business model is. It requires a paid staff to keep it going, but the app is free and has no ads. Either that’s about to change, or they have plans to gather your personal information. (You do need to sign up to subscribe to stories. Nothing seems too intrusive, though.) I know I’m in the minority, but I’d rather pay for a good service than get it for free and wonder when it will be ruined by lack of money.

Circa’s main advantage is the friendly UI and simple iPhone feeling, which will certainly make it easier for some people to keep up on news. For me, it didn’t pass a couple simple tests: It didn’t feel more time efficient than reading “regular” news, or more in-depth than following people with the right interests on Twitter. I’m glad to see people experimenting with ways to distribute the news, but that’s partly because I’m still looking for a solution myself.

Grade: C


Two Hardcore Albums: OFF! and Ceremony (Music Review)

The hardcore punk movement is pretty much gone today. But sometimes, it’s only after a sound has run its course that people can fully appreciate the ways it can be used. 2012 brought two albums that do great things with this now-nostalgic style.

OFF! cover


Hardcore supergroup OFF! has a new self-titled album to follow up their 2010 masterpiece First Four EPs. By the numbers, it’s even more terse and brutal: Sixteen songs running slightly less than sixteen minutes. What’s more important, though, is that it doesn’t just feel like the band felt pigeonholed into this pattern. These songs are just as vital as the last set.

The idea of a full “album” taking a quarter of an hour is probably more off-putting to some people than the intense music. But punk artists really are capable of fitting a full song into the space of 30 or 45 seconds. Often (though not always) with chord changes, a verse-chorus-verse structure, and as many lyrics as the average three-minute song, these aren’t necessarily a shortcut for the band.

Admittedly, I usually feel disappointed by the albums, even the classic ones, that have nothing but short songs. That’s what makes OFF! so impressive, though. The songs do consistently feel complete, as well as distinctive from each other. (It probably helps that their production is so much better than it was on most of those releases from the 1980s.) And while the songs on First Four EPs didn’t always fit together well, possibly because of the “EP” conceit, OFF! feels like a consistent album from start to end. I can even say things like “it feels sort of uninteresting for the first several songs, but then it really grabs me”, without feeling silly about the fact that those first five songs take four minutes.

If the album has one weakness compared to First Four EPs, it’s in the song themes. They cover the same angry and misanthropic territory, with a few political screeds and stories of the punk scene. (One song is titled “Feelings Are Meant To Be Hurt”, and another has the line “I’m gonna club you like a baby seal”.) But where First Four EPs had a recurring theme of depression and social anxiety, OFF!’s personal stories are references to old grudges or tales about friends. These fail to feel as interesting or revelatory – it’s not like any of the songs develop a serious depth, after all. (Admittedly, the lives of the band members are part of punk history, so they have some relevance. It’s still less interesting to me, though.) Other than that flaw, though, these songs are more sonically varied, and there are still plenty of great moments. “I Need One (I Want One)” is their catchiest song to date, and coming after the strong “503” and “Zero For Conduct”, it’s the sort of album closer that makes you want to listen again right away.

The main flaw of OFF! is simply that it wasn’t first. This release is more of the same, rather than an attention-grabbing statement. But that still is impressive; I’m not sure that many people expected them to keep the magic going for another sixteen minutes.

Grade: B+

Zoo cover

Ceremony – Zoo

In contrast to the traditionalism of OFF!, Ceremony adds a heavy dose of post-punk to their latest release, Zoo. The first two tracks make it clear that this is still a hardcore band at heart, but then “Repeating the Circle” comes on, with the melodic looping sound (and lyrics) that the title implies. Later songs mix the styles, with many creating a full droning gothic soundscape that sounds more new wave than punk. Imagine if Johnny Rotten recorded with both Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd on the same album, and you’ll have a good impression of the stylistic variety (though not the exact sounds) found here.

Overall, this is intense music with slightly nasal shouting. Even the punkest songs have a full sound, with none of the DIY aesthetic one might expect. They have a knack for hooks, with even the tracks I didn’t quickly learn still having many memorable moments.

Lyrically, there is a consistent aura of hopelessness about civilization and finding a purpose. “Son replaces father when father dies/He eats dead things to stay alive”, goes part of fatalistic story on “Brace Yourself”. That four-minute song has four minutes worth of lyrics, but the later “Nosebleed” (which is slightly longer), has just a couple of lines no longer than that repeated over and over. There isn’t a ton of depth to the lyrics, but there is a consistent message.

With the catharsis of punk and the complexity of art rock, Ceremony have created a heady album. Here we see two different ways to use an older music style: OFF! distills the things that were best about hardcore’s past, taking advantage of the full picture that can only be seen after the fact. Meanwhile, Zoo uses it as a springboard to the future, mixing the things that worked with every other tool they have available.

Grade: B+


John Lindqvist – Let Me In (Book Review)

(Note that this has been published in English both as Let Me In and Let The Right One In. The author prefers “the right one”, and I also find that to be the more evocative title. I bought the copy with the title Let Me In, though, because I liked its cover much better.)

Let Me In cover

John Lindqvist – Let Me In

A while ago, I wrote an essay about the appeal of horror. After reading John Lindqvist’s excellent Let Me In, though, I notice an important aspect that I missed before: Horror plots remove all our preconceived notions about whether things will end the way they “should”, letting us truly experience the story without knowing where it will go.

As someone who loves getting lost in stories but doesn’t automatically like blood and gore, this may be a major part of horror’s draw for me. I think that most modern stories (especially movies) have abused this feature to the point where it loses its meaning. The shocking notion that the heroes could lose eventually turns into the expectation that they have to lose, and eventually we end up with plots just as formulaic as the ones they replaced. (My least favorite one is where the hero appears to win a standard victory, but then the final scene has the surprise revelation that they actually lost.) It’s yet another example of horror’s subversive potential being turned into something safe.

Let Me In has none of that, though. While I had a lot more knowledge than the characters, and could therefore mutely witness some of the tragedies unfolding, I really didn’t know how the larger plot would go. It ends better for some people than others, but it’s not immediately obvious who will get what conclusion. And, of course, these endings have little to do with what the people “deserve”. Sure, there are clear (and very satisfying) plot arcs in retrospect; Just because a story is unpredictable doesn’t mean it should be chaotic. The important thing is that I don’t feel like Lindqvist was following a clichéd path.

This book is definitely not for the squeamish, though. It starts by establishing a triangle between a cold-blooded child vampire, a pedophile too hesitant to act on his urges, and a bullied young boy with a growing obsession for serial killers. From there, it introduces a cast of related characters in the neighborhood, and heads off in some unexpected directions. If you feel that any of that could make you uncomfortable, you’re probably right. It never feels exploitative, though. This simply unfolds naturally from its unsettling premises.

Fundamentally, Let Me In is about people more than the supernatural. Alcoholism, abuse, and broken relationships do more damage than actual vampire attacks, and those are all presented as part of the same dirty world. (The unrealistic elements, helpfully, remain understated, with just enough details to help us accept that vampires exist but remain rare and unknown.) It’s a coming of age and love story in the tragic vein that Robert Cormier might write, with a perpetually-twelve-year-old outsider and a typical bullied kid giving each other strength. Characters are never detailed, and the writing feels a little stilted at times, but Lindqvist uses peoples’ actions to sketch out believable character portraits. Though the children feel more fully realized than the adults, everyone is sympathetic. Horror is most effective when you can feel for everyone involved, even the ones on opposite sides of a fight, because then you know that someone will get worse than they deserve.

An enjoyably disturbing work, and most of all fair (within its cynical worldview), Let Me In is a story that I would recommend most of all to people who want to get carried away in a good story. There’s no larger moral or philosophical question to be discovered here, but it does provide a completely fresh look at a tired premise.

Grade: A-


Wanda Jackson – Unfinished Business (Music Review)

Unfinished Business

Wanda Jackson – Unfinished Business

In addition to releasing his own album, Justin Townes Earle also recently produced Wanda Jackson’s Unfinished Business. He’s a very different talent than Jack White, who produced The Party Ain’t Over for her, and their two albums make an interesting contrast. Though I now think I was a bit harsh on Party, my basic criticism stands: White brought in an energetic rock band that drowned out the aging Jackson. Earle brings a gentler band in, emphasizing the swinging country side of Jackson’s rockabilly legacy, and she sounds a lot more confident now.

The song selection is strong throughout. It’s unfortunate that these are all covers, but Jackson came of age in a time when it was expected that other people would write the songs she sang. Today, that apparently means that she sings previously-released songs, instead of having someone write her new material. However, these are mainly underplayed songs that deserve her attention: One track from Earle appears here, as does one from his father Steve and namesake Townes Van Zandt. All feel appropriate for Jackson’s style and persona, even though only a few are from her heyday. The only one that falls short is “California Stars”. The Woody Guthrie/Wilco song is a good choice, but the delivery feels rushed.

Unfinished Business doesn’t have the high points of The Party Ain’t Over, but it more than makes up for that by feeling like a coherent album without the missteps either. Jackson is charismatic and comfortable, and her throaty growls sound as good as ever. While she’s obviously not young anymore, she and Earle never sound like they’re stretching beyond her capabilities.

I wonder if I’ll ever get to hear Jackson perform new material with supporters of this caliber. Probably not, but at least this is a fun album, and a worthwhile tribute to her influence.

Grade: B-