Archive for February, 2013

Comic Capsule Reviews: Recent Indie Miniseries

It’s been a while since I looked at small press comic miniseries, but I only have three completed ones to talk about. Between the economic downturn and the sudden rise of Image as the go-to place for indie talent, the tiny publishers are slowly getting squeezed out. There are still comics worth paying attention to, though.

(Note that, in the American comics industry, “small press” generally refers to anything that isn’t from one of the five “big” companies that occupy the front of the Previews catalog. This is actually a fairly strict definition, as some people will actually use terms like “indie” and “small press” for anything that doesn’t feature a DC or Marvel hero on the cover.)

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Lemony Snicket – “Who Could That Be at This Hour?” (Book Review)

"Who Could That Be at This Hour?" cover

Lemony Snicket – “Who Could That Be at This Hour?”

Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events started out as a breath of fresh air for children’s literature. This was not just because of its repeated reminders that good people were doomed to a life of misery, but also due to the unique atmosphere: Snicket’s world is populated half by idiotic adults who advance the plot with foolish, but internally consistent, logic, and half by parentless-but-capable children who take on the roles of private investigators and secret agents in order to stay one step ahead of the conspiracies that drive the world. Also, of course, there are the vocabulary lessons.

The series fell apart in the final act, though, as it turned out that Snicket wasn’t just writing a sad series, but an intentionally unsatisfying one. The ending didn’t even provide a basic resolution, let alone one worthy of the convoluted backstory that had been repeatedly hinted at. Despite that, I had high hopes for his new series, All the Wrong Questions. It goes back to Snicket’s youth, so it would ideally answer more questions than it raises, and it’s only planned to be four volumes, so it shouldn’t turn in to the shaggy-dog tale that Unfortunate Events was.

I’m disappointed, though, to learn that Snicket apparently didn’t see any problem with the way Unfortunate Events played out. This new series may be shorter, but book one (“Who Could That Be at This Hour?”) jumps right into the mess that the last one was at around book nine. It opens with Snicket as a young boy, fleeing murderous pseudo-parents, and already part of a complex organization that ranks every chaperone in town and needs to measure the local wells. He goes out of his way to avoid explaining why they do any of this. That was at least somewhat cute when he was writing about the Baudelaire orphans, who were just as in the dark as the reader, but there’s no excuse for his personal memoir to refuse to share pertinent details. It’s just frustrating, and Snicket’s decisions about what to tell us feel arbitrary.

That’s not to say there aren’t many bright spots. Snicket introduces the unique and colorful town of Stain’d-by-the-Sea, along with characters that are just as memorable. This is a world of faded actresses, vigilant reporters, and even a young femme fatale to frustrate our hero. It features illustrations by indie cartoonist/design genius Seth, whose cover treatment probably made this the most attractive new book on the shelves in 2012. And Snicket is deft with his postmodern tricks: Apparently this entire series is built around the theme of people asking the wrong questions at key times. (People twice fail to ask “Who could that be at this hour?”, but there are plenty of other discussions of right and wrong questions.)

There are plenty of interesting, compelling, and even hilarious moments here. If I had any confidence that the series was building toward a resolution that would explain some of the mysteries, I would have loved it. But once it became clear that this is in the same vein as his last series, every new hint just felt hollow and mocking. Like Charlie Brown and Lucy’s football, it’s easy to imagine how wonderful Snicket’s stories could be. Only a fool would keep holding out hope forever, though.

Grade: C


Ad Astra (Game Review)

As Astra box

Ad Astra

In Ad Astra, players choose action cards that everyone at the table will use, but that give a bonus to the one who selected it. On the board, they colonize resource-producing areas in order to harvest those resources and build structures that will produce even m ore. Yes, it sounds like a cross between Settlers of Catan and Race for the Galaxy, but it actually plays very differently from either.

The most obvious immediate difference is that the players go around the table a few times laying out action cards upside-down, so that a sequence of twelve to fifteen events (depending on the player count) is determined beforehand. When they unfold, the actions you picked may work out better or worse for you than expected, depending on what you gained from the actions the other players chose.

While that is important, the key aspect that makes this game work differently is the scoring: Points are earned by certain action cards, with a bonus for whoever is leading the category being scored. That turns Ad Astra into a game of careful simultaneous choices. Does it look like another player is preparing to score spaceships? Well, maybe you can choose some actions that will let you build another one of your own first. Or maybe you can let some other players struggle over the spaceship war, and take advantage of the resource-generating actions they’ll need to play. If you time it right, you could score your resource cards after those other players have discarded theirs to build the ships!

The action board, with the first eight revealed so far.

The four-player game has twelve actions per round. The first eight have been revealed so far.

It’s a clever system, but it must have been very difficult to balance right. Fortunately, the two veteran designers behind this (Bruno Faidutti and Serge Laget) found the perfect mix of elements to make this work. In most resource-building games like this, everyone needs to build up infrastructure at the beginning so that they can churn out the most resources and points at the end. Here, playing actions to score actually slows down your empire-building, but because of the bonus points for leading during a scoring round, it’s possible to earn significant points right away. If you’re the only player positioned to build, say, a terraformer in the first round, it might make sense to do that right away and claim points for it. Others will pull ahead of you in resources, but that doesn’t matter if you win the game. The ending condition (scoring fifty points) hits the sweet spot at which either short-sighted scoring or focused engine-building could win the day. The key is really to use whatever strategies your opponents are not, and there are enough choices (increasing fleets, seeking out specific resources, or building structures that give points but no in-game benefit) that there is always something unique you could be doing.

A section of the "board", which is actually disconnected systems of stars and planets, with ships sitting in "hyperspace" between them.

A section of the “board”, which is actually disconnected systems of stars and planets, with ships sitting in “hyperspace” between them.

The apparent similarities to Settlers and Race are interesting, because, unlike most of the gaming community, I’m not a big fan of either. This game doesn’t have the flaws I see in those, though. My problem with Race for the Galaxy is that your opponents quickly build up complex systems picked from a set of hundreds of different cards, and they’ll interact with yours in almost no meaningful ways. Yes, it’s important to understand their strengths and weaknesses to properly predict the actions that will help you best, but I have no motivation to pay attention. In Ad Astra, the system is much simpler and the interaction is frequent, thanks to the constant threat of scoring rounds. With that set-up, it’s fun to watch everyone and try to out-guess their action choices.

The usual complaint about Settlers is the randomness inherent in its resource-production. If you dislike that, you’ll be glad to know that Ad Astra has no dice. Instead, players must select action cards to generate resources. In fact, Ad Astra minimizes most random factors. Planets are hidden until someone lands on them, but you can look at all of them in a given “star system” at once when traveling, so you have a good deal of choice in the matter.

My main issue with Settlers is not the randomness, though. Or rather, I find it dry and too long for a game that has that much chance. There’s a high likelihood that some player will find themselves stuck without any good paths forward. In Ad Astra, on the other hand, there are no roads to block you in and so many resource types that no one will keep up production in all of them. Instead, the bank offers generous trades at a one-for-two rate, so whatever resources you do produce can get you the rest without too much efficiency loss. The best player still wins in the end, but there are options to keep everyone involved until the end.

This game is a few years old now, and it never got the attention it deserved. If you get a chance, though, try it out. It finds the perfect balance of elements to make a medium-length game of simultaneous choices interesting until the end.

Grade: B+


Cult of Youth – Cult of Youth (Music Review)

Cult of Youth cover

Cult of Youth – Cult of Youth

Cult of Youth can write some pretty good songs when they put their mind to it. Just listen to “New West”, the first track on their self-titled debut. Between Sean Ragon’s charismatic pronouncements and the purposeful, driven music, this sounds like the theme for a gothic Sergio Leone feature. In fact, the goodwill from that song carried me through the rest of the album the the first time I heard it. It took me several listens to accept that they didn’t have much to offer after that track ended.

The lyrics of “New West” play perfectly to Ragon’s own limitations. Its vaguely-defined protagonist and lack of resolution paint a picture of some archetypal Man With No Name striding through the frontier. But in the other songs, it’s just frustrating that the ideas lack a firm grounding and then fail to go anywhere. (For example, “Monsters” is some sort of parable about a man who is warned there are monsters in the world, but is then killed by them anyways. “Weary” describes a wandering woman cast out from society, but the refrain contradicts that by claiming “we are not weary” for no obvious reason.) In fact, I spent some time trying to figure out if this whole album was tied together by a theme that “New West” introduced. Everything may have the same cinematic bombast and slippery lack of meaning, but they turn out to have no connection beyond that.

The other problem is that the band doesn’t always seem to be trying very hard. They have the goth-folk formula down pat, with as much reverb as possible applied to semi-acoustic music, and a deep-voiced man soulfully but forcefully singing about the pains of the world. At times, it works well. Other times, it sounds like they barely showed up to the studio with a full song, and just assumed that their producer would turn up the bass and slather angst over everything for them.

It’s frustrating, because Cult of Youth has a sound that works for them and occasionally finds songs worthy of it. But for every compelling line, there are several that sound like they were grabbed at random from an angry high-schooler’s book of poems, and the band only comes up with a few interesting arrangements throughout the album. Cult of Youth could be pared down to create a good EP, but there’s no indication that those highlights define the direction the band wants to go in. They sound pretty comfortable on the songs that don’t go anywhere.

Grade: C