Archive for April, 2013

Deck-Building Game Reviews: Core Worlds, For the Crown, and Puzzle Strike

I talk about deck-building games fairly often, usually to complain that they copy Dominion while missing the point. There have been some clever twists, but only one real success so far. However, these days Dominion is a well-established part of the board gaming scene, and we’re seeing more and more innovation.

Here are reviews of a few other games I’ve been trying out. Admittedly, each one is at least a year old, so they prove that this innovation has been growing for a while. However, I’m heartened by both the successes and failures here. Even when these have problems, it’s not that they misunderstand the game they’re copying. I think that the most exciting times for the deck-building mechanic may be just ahead. Continue reading

Sons of Rogue’s Gallery (Music Review)

Son of Rogue's Gallery cover

Various Artists – Son of Rogue’s Gallery

I was a big fan of Rogue’s Gallery, a 2006 compilation nominally spun out of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. It didn’t really feature pirates that often, despite a subtitle promising “Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys”, but it did resurrect a lot of old folk songs to demonstrate how dirty, violent, and desperate the seafaring life was. Admittedly, most of the tracks were forgettable, but there were several amazing stand-outs, and on the whole it made for a fascinating study of forgotten songs. Now we have another two-disc set, entitled Sons of Rogue’s Gallery, that follows largely the same pattern. There are a few differences, such as a couple recordings that predated this project and slightly less depressing subject matter overall. However, It’s safe to say that if you listened to Rogue’s Gallery, you already know whether or not you’ll like Son of Rogue’s Gallery.

This new project got more press than I ever heard for Rogue’s Gallery, thanks mainly to Tom Waits and Keith Richards collaborating on “Shenandoah”. It’s a slow, faithful rendition of the one song from this that everyone already knows, but it’s always nice to hear Waits’ voice in a simple, unironic performance like this. What I would have chosen to represent this compilation, and what I wish there were more of, is the excellent songs from both Shane MacGowan and Macy Gray. They each found a perfect balance between the old culture and modern expectations, bringing their songs alive for today.

There are also several tracks that reinterpret the source material more drastically, with both good and bad results. Todd Rundgren presents “Rolling Down To Old Maui” as a disco-era party song, and Kembra Pfahler’s “Barnacle Bill the Sailor” is a jarring contrast between a classic, gentle style and a noisy experimental one. Elsewhere, Katey Red and Big Freedia (with Akron/Family, surprisingly) turn an old story about sexual conquests into a hip-hop-tingued schoolyard chant, and Shilpa Ray sings a seven-minute revenge fantasy with moody backing from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. And I have to mention Iggy Pop’s scenery-chewing ode to sodomy, “Asshole Rules the Navy”. (Yes, the people I’ve listed are a pretty good representation of the breadth and talent gathered for this. Artists from Ivan Neville to Broken Social Scene to Patti Smith appear here. The most surprising is a duet between Michael Stipe and Courtney Love.)

Despite those examples, most of these songs stick pretty close to a gentle folk approach. I think a few of the performers felt obligated to treat the originals with staid respect. Much like hesitant high school kids reading Shakespeare, you’ll almost overlook the danger and murder that lurks in those gentle-sounding songs. Here is my big complaint about Songs of Rogue’s Gallery, because the original came with liner notes to give more context about each track. This made all the songs part of an interesting tapestry, even when they weren’t as attention-grabbing. Here, though, if a song isn’t interesting on its own, the rest of the compilation does nothing to help justify it.

Sons of Rogue’s Gallery is uneven, but like its predecessor, it has enough great tracks to justify it. The lack of liner notes and inclusion of happier, less desperate songs do make this feel like a step down from the first album. Still, although a lot of people would not necessarily want to purchase this, it’s definitely something that everyone should get the chance to hear.

Grade: B-

 

Karen Russell – Vampires in the Lemon Grove (Book Review)

Vampires in the Lemon Grove cover

Karen Russell – Vampires in the Lemon Grove

I spent most of my youth wishing that the literary world would take science fiction and fantasy seriously. Now that they do, I’m not sure what to make of it. Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove is a short story collection written in a literary style, but with a heavy reliance on fantastical tweaks. They’re occasionally fascinating, both for their investigation of human nature and their unusual ideas, but often unsatisfying.

The strange thing is that the stories don’t make the same mistakes. Some are too focused on their ideas, but the plots and characters don’t go anywhere. The title story, for example, starts with a clever twist on vampire tropes but just turns them into the sort of bland, unsatisfying ciphers that no one but book critics like. Other stories are just the opposite, with compelling people who seem lessened by the unrealistic elements that are shoe-horned in. “Proving Up” is an interesting story of frontier life, with a realistic idea that provides enough hook for a story: Settlers need a glass window to qualify for land under the Homesteader Act, so one boy makes a mad ride across the plains to ensure the one window in the area appears in every house that the inspector will visit. However, it takes a sudden supernatural turn that feels like it cheats everything that came before, by applying a sudden harsh judgment to the characters.

That judgment at the end of “Proving Up” is an example of the problem that plagues “literary” fantasy. Like magical realism before it, this genre is only accepted by the tastemakers when it has clear symbolic meaning. And while that sounds like something I should love, the application  is way too heavy-handed. The symbols in this book are a lot less subtle than I would expect from an award-winning author, but apparently people assume that a lack of realism necessitates a lack of subtlety. Nowhere is this more apparent than “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating”, a humorous story about someone who spends nine months of each year traveling to Antarctica to watch the “sporting event” of whales eating krill. Funny for a few pages, it soon gets weighed down in repeated mentions of all the people around him who die on the trip, or his bitter complaints about the ex-wife who left him for a more balanced man. If “Antarctic Tailgaiting” is meant to make fun of obsessed sports fans, it fails by being less sophisticated than the crowd it looks down on.

Russell could be a great writer if she found the right balance for her stories. “Reeling for the Empire” is a compelling story about factory workers turned into monstrous silkworms as a casualty of Japan’s Twentieth Century industrial awakening. It’s the sort of apt, unsettling metaphor that Paolo Bacigalupi would be proud of, and the regretful characters work well. However, I do wish it had a bit more plot. “The New Veterans”, though, only struggles because it has too much plot: It’s the story of a massage therapist who discovers she can manipulate a veteran’s tattoo to change his war memories and take the burden of his trauma for him. It doesn’t come to a conclusion about whether this is right or not, which is understandable, but it still goes back and forth on that decision too many times.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove is interesting and memorable, but rarely enjoyable. It’s a strange mix of elements that I like, but it doesn’t put them together in a way that I can recommend.

Grade: C

 

King Tuff – King Tuff (Music Review)

King Tuff cover

King Tuff – King Tuff

I have a soft spot for fuzzed-out garage rock, but I don’t always think of it as a distinct genre. Instead, it’s a filter that other styles can be run through, usually based on pop and rock sounds of past generations. Like adding spice to food, it can’t save something that doesn’t have a good taste to begin with, but it can add another dimension to something that’s already enjoyable.

As King Tuff demonstrates on last year’s self-titled release, personality also plays a strange role in this. While garage rock used to signal a DIY ethos, in this era of high-tech recording it’s always a conscious choice. Was the rest of their image calculated as well?

With a slightly forced falsetto that belies the care and control behind the performance, King Tuff bounces through four different personas in the first four tracks: “Anthem” is a lite-metal ode to music, with random mentions of gore, while “Alone & Stoned” captures the Blue Album-era Weezer aesthetic of the introverted geek. “Keep on Movin'” heads in the opposite direction, providing a sidewise look at 1960s dance hits. Featuring a smooth, sleazy groove and silly dance moves (“I do the creepy crawl/Crazy legs like Daddy Long”), it’s a fun joke that reveals nothing about the actual band. But then “Unusual World” slows things down, with a spacey sound and sensitive lyrics. It seems at first that there’s no common ground to the band’s approach.

Each song stands out on its own as a catchy, off-kilter work, though, and a more consistent personality develops by the end. The partying (“everybody dancin’ in the dirty club”) and occasionally monstrous imagery (“now I’m going rotten/I’m turning green”) work as youthful fantasies of rock stardom, which would make the minor-key ballads part of the emotion and angst of that age. It’s consistent once the songs are familiar, though none of them feel like they’re repeating each other. Even with that variety, every one deserves a place on the album.

It’s also worth noting that in place of a booklet, the CD comes with individual cards for each song. The only track listing is in the order of those inserts, giving it a flippant non-commercial air. But each one also features additional artwork, adding to the personality of the album. It’s fun, and the effort is appreciated. Maybe more than anything else, extra touches like that are a reminder that even when musical styles are calculated, they can still be labors of love.

Grade: B

 

Astronut and Pangolin: Two iPhone Aiming Games

For today, here are two quick reviews of iPhone arcade games. I wouldn’t quite call them puzzle games, but both are based more around timing and aim than standard arcade elements. Both are also available for free, with in-app purchases used to purchase the whole game if you like the early demo levels.


AstronutAstronut

Astronut is a few years old; I remember it being one of the first games to use that in-app purchasing model. In it, you play a sort of base-jumping spaceman who leaps from one rotating planet to the next. Instead of directly moving him, you have to wait for the planet to rotate to the right position and jump at the right moment. This makes the Jump button about the only control in the game, though there is also a “Boost” ability that lets you shoot straight ahead for a time, passing through planets and destroying enemies.

As it was made by the design experts at the Iconfactory, you’d expect Astronut to handle this simplicity well. It does, to an extent. The game is quick to learn, and the different kinds of monsters are planets you encounter are all easily recognizable. It’s enjoyably cute, without being busy or distracting. However, the controls aren’t as elegant. In a game in which one basic action is used 95% of the time, I’d expect to be able to just tap the screen to use it. Instead, both Jump and Boost are accessed with little buttons in the bottom corners, and the rest of the screen is a giant pause button. It’s easy to pause this by accident, which is really frustrating in a timing-based game.

The goal of the game is simply to dash forward to the end of each level, and it’s fun when everything goes right. But sometimes it’s annoying how easy it can be, as most enemies only hurt you when you’re in space, and most planets in the early levels let you hang out on them harmlessly as long as you want. Your Boost power takes time to recharge after each use, but that’s not actually a problem. On the other hand, it can feel difficult sometimes, because timing your jump can be difficult. But failing in that just feels arbitrary, rather than a punishment for a mistake.

This arbitrariness is largely because, if you jump farther than a short hop, your character starts to drift in space, spinning wildly but attracted by the gravity of nearby planets. The game encourages this (long hang times are even worth points), but whether you land safely or not is completely left up to chance. Especially when later levels add barriers to bounce off of and planets that push you away, sometimes it just feels like watching a pinball bounce around.

Grade: C


PangolinPangolin

A pangolin is a scaly tropical anteater, but you don’t need to understand that to play Pangolin any more than you need to recognize a hedgehog to play Sonic. The animal’s one relevant feature is that it rolls up into a ball when threatened. Here, your character spends the whole time in ball form, trusting you to bat it through an obstacle course. You have a limited number of shots to make in each level, but because the pangolin is almost always flying through the air, it’s much more hectic than golf. Also, you’re rewarded for finishing with shots remaining and for picking up the coins and gems on each level. That gives each course multiple levels of difficulty: First you can try to make it to the end at all, and then you can try to redo it better. Thanks to this, even the free teaching levels offer a good deal of challenge and replay value.

To bat the pangolin around, you tap two fingers on the screen to make a platform it can bounce off of. The position and angle matter a lot, of course, and even the distance between your fingers determines how much force the bounce will have. As you can imagine, this is easy to mess up, especially since the pangolin’s constant movement means that the view you’re trying to tap on is always scrolling by. However, the difficult aiming never becomes as annoying as Astronut. Most importantly, it’s because levels take under a minute each to complete. Retrying a shot that happens ten seconds into a level is hardly frustrating at all. Also, Pangolin lets you restart the current level by swiping your finger to the right. I was suspicious of this non-standard UI control at first, but it really works. Before long, restarting after a mistake becomes so reflexive that the action never stops at all. It’s actually easy to retry than it is to leave the game, which makes this dangerously addictive.

Once I do stop, though, Pangolin’s addictive hold fades. It’s simple and repetitive enough that I can go days without thinking about it again. The next time I do try it, though, I’m always surprised by how immersive and fun it is. It has a unique cartoony appearance (I especially like the textured look of the backgrounds), a physics model that feels very natural (among other things, it lets the pangolin hug the insides of curves, which is necessary for a lot of the moves in the game), and challenges for different skill levels. I’m looking forward to having more level packs to buy in the future.

Grade: B

 

Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Book Review)

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society cover

Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, is a novel told entirely by letters sent between the characters. It’s unique, and feels appropriate for these word-loving people of the 1940s, though it does at times create a distance between the reader and events. When protagonist Juliet Ashton is about to meet some pen-pals in person for the first time, she writes about the worry that “I have become better at writing than living” – a strange twist for the novel reader, who only ever knows her through that writer’s personality!

Guernsey is a small island in the English Channel that was occupied by Germany in World War II. The novel tells of Juliet, a London author seeking inspiration for her next book, meeting up with its people shortly after the war ended. The literary society was initially formed as a front to escape German attention, but its plainspoken farmers soon learned to find meaning and even purpose in books. That moral is none too subtle, but sure to please the novel’s audience.

The rest of the plot is no subtler, though. The whole arc of it will be obvious from the first few pages, and the only surprises are when harsh memories of the war intrude. These do lend the story some heft, but the occupation is still past, and there is never the slightest threat to anyone during the time the story is unfolding. In addition to Juliet’s quest for new material, the main plot is a traditional romance. The authors almost seem to casually dismiss it: The initial suitor (who of course won’t work out) is never given much attention, as the important interactions with him take place outside of letters. The later interest is treated as an obvious choice by so many characters that it doesn’t seem like it should matter as a source of tension at all.

Neither plot is really worth attention, actually. The authors make the strange choice to keep Juliet’s professional writing out of the pages she writes here, so we only learn about it second-hand. At a turning point, her friend and editor advises Juliet that her story “lacks a center” and helps her find one. Unfortunately, this novel has the same problem and never does resolve it. The reason to read it is in its characters, who are the sort of quirky, life-loving people who would name their book club after “potato peel pie”. However, funny events like that are be best experienced directly, not filtered through after-the fact letter-writing. Fortunately, the later portions of the book take place once Juliet has met them, and is mainly updating her friends back home about her adventures, so the telling takes on a much more linear, traditional story structure.

Even so, the letter-writing structure of the book is fun. It’s the main thing that saves this from being a weightless story about people the authors wish were their friends. Love for the setting and the characters drive it even when the plot cannot.

Grade: B-

David Bowie – The Next Day (Music Review)

The Next Day cover

David Bowie – The Next Day

After the longest absence of his career, David Bowie makes a triumphant return with The Next Day. The first question people ask when he releases a new album is always what he sounds like this time. Surprisingly, he simply sounds like David Bowie. After a career of creating and shedding personas, anxiously trying to get a jump on the next musical trend, this is maybe the most comfortable he’s ever seemed in his own skin.

Of course, there’s always been more commonality to Bowie’s works than the common wisdom claims. There’s a reason that most people are either fanatic or lukewarm about Bowie in general, rather than saying things like “I’m a fan of Aladdin Sane, but not the Thin White Duke.” Those personas were never truly different artists, but instead different views into the same performer: An intricate composer with a simple but sincere voice, who was alternately torn between savvy commercial moves and a distinctly unmarketable fascination with disasters and dystopias.

The title of The Next Day, along with album art repurposed from “Heroes”, may imply that his next identity is that of the aged rockstar, but that’s only half-true. He has stopped worrying about revamping his image or keeping fresh for a fickle audience, but there’s little sense that he’s cashing in on his past or worrying about his relevance. This is made clear when the title track turns out to have nothing to do with his career’s “next day”, but is instead a classic Bowie look at humanity’s dark side. It kicks off this album with a tale of religious zealots whipped into murderous rage, subverting any expectation you may have for an old singer shuffling off into retirement. It’s also one of the few energetic songs on the album, but it still manages to define the atmosphere of the whole thing. Yes, the album gets a lot of mileage out of celebrating Bowie’s career, so it’s best for people who are familiar with him. But rather than pining for past glories, he uses his current position as skillfully as he always has.

Darker topics like the title track’s show up regularly, especially on the sympathetic but passive observation of a killer on “Valentine’s Day”. Bowie’s still interested in the pop crowd-pleasers, though. “Dancing Out In Space” has a synthesized retro-groove that will sound comfortable to people who mainly know “Space Oddity” and “Ashes to Ashes”, and “Boss Of Me” is a schmaltzy love song saved only by a voice that’s capable of dismissing cynical evaluation.

And, of course, songs about pop stardom are also natural to Bowie. As always, though, he doesn’t sing them about himself, but instead pretends to be an observer of the dizzying heights he’s attained: “(You Will) Set The World On Fire” is a rocking celebration of someone’s future success, with an energetic build-up and only brief moments of release, implying a climax still to come. “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”, arguably the album’s highlight, is a crooning, introspective song about the nature of fame. He describes a reciprocal relationship between celebrities and fans that is sometimes symbiotic, and sometimes mutually parasitic. The contradictory conclusion, “we will never be rid of these stars… but I hope they live forever”, sums up everything he was trying to say in the days of “Ziggy Stardust” and “Fame”. Maybe that’s the real defining aspect of this album: Bowie has the same obsessions as always, but now he finally understands and controls them.

Grade: A-