Archive for June, 2013

Comic Chameleon (iPhone App Review)

Comic ChameleonThough Comic Chameleon isn’t the first iPhone app devoted to web comics, it bills itself as the first one made with the comics creators’ permission, and to share revenue with them instead of stealing their audience. That’s an admirable goal, and I was excited about this project. Unfortunately, so far it’s just not worthwhile. It’s telling that I put this review off for a while, always telling myself that I should use the app more before writing about it. I’ve finally accepted that I’m just not going to use it much more, because it doesn’t offer me a good comic reading experience.

Looking at individual comic pages isn’t a bad experience. I mean, the comic is there on the screen. You can read it just like you would in a web browser, and swipe to move through the archives. It does let you view alt text, which is something that is otherwise inconsistent on the Safari app. But if you want to read the news posts and comments that go along with the posts, see the jokey titles that each episode of Dinosaur Comics gets, or otherwise see more than the comic, this app will not match the web site experience.

The big innovation in Comic Chameleon is that it lets you browse panel by panel instead of scrolling and zooming manually. This is an impressive achievement, as I’m sure it took the creators a long time to mark each panel (sometimes with creative choices when the divisions aren’t clear). I use this feature sometimes, but usually prefer not to. The layout of a comic is important, and these comics were designed to be viewed one page at a time. You could make a comic designed to be viewed panel by panel, but these ones weren’t. If the page doesn’t fit on the iPhone screen, I prefer to zoom and scroll myself. At least that keeps my relationship with the page intact. The knowledge that I’m the one looking at a piece at a time allows me to appreciate the page as a single unit in the end. Yes, that usually requires one hand to hold the phone and another to pinch and zoom, so the app’s system is better if I’m holding something in one hand and want to scroll through comics with only one hand free. But that’s maybe too specific a niche for this app to target.

A webcomics app should do more than just let you browse through comics, though. As a way to keep up with your favorite works, Comic Chameleon fails. The main screen is a scrolling list of every comic supported by the app. There’s no way to make a list of favorites or hide the ones you don’t want to read. It also doesn’t track what you’ve read in each comic, so you have to open up a comic to find out if it’s been updated. If the comic tells a story, and you are more than one update behind, then too bad! You’ll start at the most recent one and have to scroll backwards through possible spoilers to manually find the right point. (Yes, you could also find the sub-screen that lists all comics by date, but do you really remember the exact date you last checked in on the comic?)

Comic Chameleon arguably works as a hub to check out comics you might not have heard of before, but honestly, I have no need for that. I don’t have enough time to check out all the recommendations I already get. What I want is a simple way to find out which comics I like have updates, and to see those updates in order. Right now, a basic RSS reader works a lot better than this dedicated app.

So far, the only comic that has been interesting to follow through this app is A Softer World. The comics are short enough to be readable on my phone in landscape mode, there is no plot so I don’t have to worry about reading backwards until I have caught up, and since the website only has new news posts every few weeks, I don’t feel like I’m missing anything. Also, it comes alphabetically at the start of the list, so it’s not a pain to get to. No other comic can replicate those benefits, though.

It feels churlish to complain about a free app, especially since the ads go towards people who deserve the money. But it makes comics harder to follow, not easier. I’m still hopeful about this concept in general. It’s always been difficult for webcomics to find revenue streams, and inexpensive apps sound like a perfect fit for them. In fact, I don’t even count Comic Chameleon out yet. It could easily add subscription features in the future. It seems that all the work for version 1.0 went into setting up the technical features, including the (significant) effort of a protocol to let it see full comic histories and panel breakdowns. Right now, though, it has the building blocks but no useful UI. I worry that as it is, the app just won’t bring in enough ad revenue to keep them working on it. If they do, I’ll definitely follow up with a new review. For the time being, though, keep reading your favorite webcomics on RSS and websites, and find other ways to support them.

Grade (version 1.0): C-


John Scalzi – Redshirts (Book Review)

Redshirts cover

John Scalzi – Redshirts

It’s a running joke that the bit characters on Star Trek get killed cheaply, but what do they think about it? Redshirts is the story of the crewmembers on a ship very much like The Enterprise who realize that they’re always the ones to die on missions. They look for an explanation and a way to save themselves.

It’s no secret that I dislike John Scalzi’s writing style, but I still had high hopes for this. Redshirts didn’t need to be brilliant, but just the clever, well-structured sci-fi adventure that Scalzi does best. And I assumed that his writing had probably improved over the years.

How wrong I was.

Oh, it’s clever at times. Scalzi takes a metatextual nerd joke and builds a story around it that actually makes sense at times. But the characters are flat and pointless, and the writing usually doesn’t feel right for the content. Redshirts should either be a light farce that doesn’t take its situation seriously, or a psychological horror piece about people who can’t escape the force that is killing them one by one. This dallies in both extremes (some death scenes are played for laughs, while at other times characters betray each other to save themselves), but it usually ends up stuck in an awkward middle. The story is played seriously, but without the pathos it needs. And I’m never given much reason to care about anyone in the book, which makes it awkward when the story stops to give a minor character some growth.

Seriously, this is what passes for character development in Redshirts:

“Man, I owe you a blowjob,” Duvall said.

“What?” Dahl said.

“What?” Hester said.

“Sorry,” Duvall said. “In ground forces, when someone does you a favor you tell them you owe them a sex act. If it’s a little thing, it’s a handjob. Medium, blowjob. Big favor, you owe them a fuck. Force of habit. It’s just an expression.”

“Got it, Dahl said.

Yeah, I get it. Light, funny, sexually-charged banter can be fun. But this scene feels lifted from a C+ paper in a class called “Character Quirks 101”.

It’s not just the characters, though. The plot and its resolution, which seemed like another good Scalzi effort at first, eventually go completely off the rails. Redshirts jokes about the nonsensical science in Star Trek-like dramas, which is fair enough. But after establishing the bad science rules, the characters proceed to solve their problems in ways that barely follow from that! Let that sink in: Scalzi presumably meant his writing to rise above the sci-fi hackwork he jokes about, even if it was working in the same system. But instead, he makes fun of those systems, and then proceeds to do a worse job himself.

Seriously. One of the most important actions the characters take comes a few pages after they discuss the fact that it wouldn’t work. They don’t find a way around it. One of them just pops up in the next chapter and says “Hey guys, it’s time to do this.” Some major later plot points also don’t follow from the established rules. (I can’t talk about them without spoilers, so I’ll put them below in the comments.) This book is supposed to work because it plays around with sci-fi clichés in clever ways, so it’s a real problem that the cleverness fails after the first hundred pages.

Then there’s the rest of the plot. It ends abruptly, with a twist that barely makes sense. It’s then followed by three codas, named (and written in) “First Person”, “Second Person”, and “Third Person”. Each one fleshes out a character who only appeared for brief moments in the main story, giving us closure about something that doesn’t matter at all. And yes, one is written with an irritating second-person point of view, for no discernible reason other than the writing gimmick. The final coda would be a pretty good short story on its own, but in context it just reminds us of the single awkward scene its person appeared in: Witnessing a moment of growth for another character that no one cared about.

Yes, I know Redshirts is up for a Hugo award right now. I can’t imagine why. It has an interesting set-up, but it falls apart thanks to flat characters, inconsistent events, and a plot structure that barely even makes sense. Save yourself the effort.

Grade: D


Savages – Silence Yourself (Music Review)

Silence Yourself cover

Savages – Silence Yourself

The term “post-punk” is supposed to imply that bands are merging the brashness, honesty, and non-conformity of punk with a musical growth that DIY screamers couldn’t manage. But too often, the music seems to be all “post” and no “punk”, with meandering, barely emotional songs that sound like the musicians want nothing to do with their namesake. On Silence Yourself, Savages show what post-punk is supposed to be, with intense, emotional songs that also have an art-school reserve and depth.

Loud all-female groups are rare, but Savages don’t push too hard to exploit that. The best songs, actually, take sideways looks at the female experience. “Husbands” is a nerve-wracking song about a confused reaction to domestic bliss, and “Hit Me” is a brutal challenge to the world. But most tracks are human, slightly obscured in meaning, and don’t obviously apply to one gender when the lyrics are looked at in isolation. If the ironic feminism of “Husbands” and “Hit Me” doesn’t appeal to you, there is also “Strife”, a heartfelt song about a relationship that is strong specifically because of the hardships. “Strife” perfectly captures an awkward but real topic that few song address.

Silence Yourself is far from perfect. The middle fades into that forgettable drone that reminds me of standard disappointing post-punk. In fact, I had probably listened to it a dozen times before I realized that “Dead Nature” was an instrumental; That part of the album is just one long muddy delay before “She Will” kicks off the incredible second half. For an album meant to be loud and in-your-face, it’s unfortunate that the band loses their way like that. But the high points are some of the year’s best. Savages have established themselves as a vital band.

Grade: B+


Board Games on iPhone: Le Havre and Ticket to Ride

For years, I’ve insisted that board games were designed to be played in person, and therefore were generally best that way. But since becoming a father, it’s been a lot harder to find time for in-person gaming. I’ve finally started playing more online, and found that a lot of turn-based games are fun that way. The results are mixed – if there are going to be long delays between turns, it’s generally best to play weightier games where each turn is significant instead of ones where people make frequent simple moves.

Today I’m looking at two iPhone board game apps. I’ve found myself with very mixed opinions about iPhone gaming. It is very convenient to have the apps everywhere I go, and to find out it’s my turn through push notifications. On the other hand, Apple’s Game Center is still pretty frustrating. It’s fine for starting games with friends, as long as you know enough people who have iPhones and want to play the game, but it almost always fails if I try to start a game against random opponents. It seems to be at least partly because Game Center looks for people trying to start exactly the same game as you. I may be happy to play a three, four, or five-player game, but I still have to choose one before Apple will match me. It would be nice to know that, for example, there was a four-player game just waiting on one more person to join before it could start up. It’s even worse when the games have multiple set-up options, because whatever you choose has to be matched exactly by someone else or they won’t join your game. For anything with more than two players, it seems that usually by the time the game starts up, at least one player has wandered off and never thinks to check back. At this point, I’m willing to say that Game Center games are good only for friends or playing against a single random opponent.

The two games I’m reviewing today are ones that I already know and like in tabletop form. I’m not focusing too much on gameplay here, but rather in how well they provide the same experience in mobile form.

Le HavreLe Havre

Le Havre is a long, complex game that requires a large table and involves a lot of cards with detailed text and symbols. I was curious to see how someone could fit all that into a playable iPhone game, and the answer turns out to be that they couldn’t. They make a valiant effort, with different areas of the board that you can tap to expand. In the normal collapsed view, the cards are “stacked” so that the titles are readable as long as there aren’t too many yet. It even shows everyone’s play areas, with the current player’s given a little more space. All the information is there as long as you tap the right spots to get into it. However, it’s very hard to follow. I’m an ok Le Havre player, but I act like a complete novice in the iPhone app because I don’t notice everything that’s going on. Yes, all the information and actions are there (including a slow-to-page-through log of past turns), but I just can’t take it in on the phone.

Part of me feels like cutting the creators some slack, because this was a valiant attempt to fit so much complexity onto a small screen. They definitely did a better job than I would have. But the ads in the app destroyed my good will. It’s a $5 game, a premium price by App Store standards, but it still has frequent ads. Admittedly, they’re for other games by the same company rather than third-party ads. But still, they appear frequently and have “close” buttons that are almost impossible to hit on the first try. I’ve never had so much trouble just trying to hit a simple “X” button, and every time I fail, it takes me out of the app and into Safari. (Also, sometimes you may tap an option on the normal menu, and the app decides that you clicked a not-yet-seen ad.) I don’t know whether or not they intentionally tried to increase their hit rates by making it so easy to follow the advertised links by accident, but they couldn’t have done a better job if they had tried. (Oh, and did I mention that the screechy in-game music is so bad that I need to keep my phone on silent whenever I play?)

I’m told that Le Havre is playable on the iPad, and I can believe that. But it’s sold for the iPhone, and that’s what I’m reviewing. In that format, it’s a confusing, unplayable mess. I give them some credit for the complexity of the implementation, but that’s the best praise I have.

Grade: D

Ticket to RideTicket to Ride

The physical version of Ticket to Ride is one of the classic “gateway” Euro games, and from what I hear, the app has been just as successful. I think it deserves that. It’s a near-perfect implementation of the board game, with all information fitting neatly on the screen. Your hand goes across the bottom, the cards you can draw from across the side, and your specific “tickets” (missions) down in a corner. You do have to cycle through the tickets one at a time, but that’s rarely necessary because the app automatically highlights every city you need to connect. The view of all required cities is usually all you need to know, unless you’re trying to decide which missions to give up on. Keeping track of those locations on the map yourself can be the most frustrating part of the game, so the app has a big advantage over the tabletop version. Though there’s no log of all past turns, it also does a nice job of displaying everyone’s most recent move in a status bar across the top. That bar also summarizes the number of cards and train tokens players are holding, so everything you could normally need to know is covered at a glance. I can think of several more obscure things I’d like to know: How many wild cards did an opponent use when they built that last track, or at which specific point since I last checked in did the available cards refresh? However, I would rarely use this information.

The app’s main flaws are outside of the game. The Game Center hassle goes without saying, and it’s debatable whether Ticket to Ride should be blamed for that. But it’s also difficult to enter and leave your existing games. When looking at a gameboard, the only way to back out to the main screen is a (hard-to-find) button labeled “Quit”, which I was scared to press at first. Then from the home screen, to get back to a game in progress, I have to go through all the steps of setting up a new game, even going as far as the Game Center dialog that looks like I’m going to invite new people! The news items (all ads for Days of Wonder products) can also be annoying, since they add to the count on the app’s icon, making it look like you have games waiting for your move. And you need to scroll all the way to the bottom of the news post to clear it from your count.

Still, all these hassles are peripheral to the main experience. Once you actually get a game going, this feels exactly like playing classic Ticket to Ride.

Grade: B


Kickstarter as a Brand

I didn’t plan to talk about Kickstarter so frequently on this blog, but I want to briefly bring up what I think is a little-talked-about huge issue for their future.

One of the big controversies of the past week was, of course, Above the Game, a Kickstarter-funded book that promised to help men pick up women. It turned out to a handbook for sexual assault, there was a huge outcry, Kickstarter let the campaign run to completion anyway, and then reversed course to apologize for their actions. (Update: The author has also apologized and offered to change the book. I don’t know the full details, but for the purposes of this article I’m refraining from commenting directly about him.)

I don’t have anything to add to the basic moral issues here. The book sounds disgusting, and Kickstarter’s apology was excellent, as it didn’t try to shift blame and involved concrete steps to demonstrate their sincerity. However, I was surprised at how much people were blaming Kickstarter for the situation, and their statements that this would taint every future Kickstarter project.

The question facing Kickstarter now is whether they are a hands-off service, or a curated brand. For example, I blog through WordPress, and (as far as I know) no company employee ever reviewed my writing for appropriateness. If something like Above the Game were written as a blog, people would be disgusted by it, but I don’t think many people would be calling on WordPress to shut it down. It just wouldn’t occur to them that WordPress, as a company, was responsible for the blog in any way. On the other hand, if that book were being published by a major company like Harper Collins, people would be very upset. Big publishing companies individually choose their titles to fit a brand, and their name is intended to be an indicator of quality.

So what is Kickstarter? Is it a general service like WordPress, or a controlled, curated brand like Harper Collins? Ok, I know it’s somewhere in the middle, but where in the middle does it fall? People who say they won’t trust Kickstarter any more obviously think of it as a brand that can be tarnished, and they’re mad that the company didn’t closely review the book before approving the project. On the other hand, Kickstarter seems to think of themselves as closer to the WordPress model: Their job is to put up the website and manage the money, but every time you back a project, you’re warned that Kickstarter has nothing to do with the creator’s success or failure. People have been sued for crowd-funding campaigns that made promises they couldn’t live up to, but Kickstarter has avoided responsibility even in those cases.

The tension now is that the company and its users have different visions of what Kickstarter is. And though Kickstarter takes legal shelter in their hands-off definition, they definitely profit from the belief that they are a curated brand. You only have to look at the way people react when they hear a project is up on Kickstarter: They’ll send money through that to people that they otherwise would never trust without more proof. Also, Kickstarter does impose restrictions on the types of projects allowed, and they’ll refuse to publish anything that isn’t “art” in some way.

So Kickstarter does make value judgments, imposes restrictions on their projects, and profits from the strength of their brand name. On the other hand, they say that they are just a middleman for the artistic creators, and have nothing to do with the qualities of the actual project. This contradiction cannot last, and it seems that things may be reaching a breaking point. I’m not sure how Kickstarter is going to handle this.

Origins 2013: The Other Games

Concluding my three part look at Origins 2013, here are the games I tried that weren’t brand new. Even so, “new” is a relative term. I believe King of Tokyo and Puzzle Strike Shadows are the only ones that even existed at last year’s convention, and King of Tokyo was getting a big promotional push. (I also spent some time with a prototype game and playing a game I already knew. I don’t cover that stuff here, and also don’t go into the games I looked into but didn’t try.)

It’s amazing that I was able to fill my time with new games so efficiently that a debut from last Fall’s Essen festival now seems old. Just a few years ago, I remember spending most of my Origins time in the Board Room, because there  weren’t enough games around the rest of the convention to hold my attention. And even then, a lot of what I played in the Board Room was a couple years old. Board gaming has really taken off, as well as taken a starring role at Origins. Admittedly, this probably gives me a skewed view of the convention as a whole. Not everyone agrees with my claim that the convention is healthier than ever, and that’s probably because I don’t notice how categories like RPGs and miniatures are fading away. My posts about Origins are admittedly biased towards the subjects I care about. However, I can say that in a short time, board gaming has gone from being an unimportant sideline of Origins to the main point. I don’t know whether it will be enough to keep the show going if everything else dries up, but I definitely hope so. This is an incredible event if you’re a board gamer.

And now, onto my first impressions of games.

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Origins 2013: The New Games

To follow up on my general impressions of Origins 2013, here are the specifics about the games I played. I didn’t feel like I got a good handle on which games had “buzz” this year. Maybe it’s because I was running around from game to game so quickly, or maybe it’s because there were so many new, big releases that the board gamer buzz tied closely to what the community already knew to look for. Either way, I don’t think I can sort my games by buzz-level this year like I normally do. Instead, I’m splitting them up by how new they are. So many of them were brand new that if I just separate the Origins debuts from the ones that came out a few months ago, that divides my list pretty neatly in two. So today I’m going to cover the Origins debuts and upcoming games, and in a couple days I’ll look at the “older” titles.

I’m only looking at games’ US availability here. They almost all come out in Europe sooner, but I’m a US gamer, Origins is a US conference, and I think it’s fair to look at them that way. Also, as usual, I don’t want to give “formal” reviews for a game that I played once in a convention atmosphere. Instead of my usual letter grades, I’m using a 1-10 rating.

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