Archive for October, 2013

New Game Watch: Essen 2013

Though Origins is my annual gaming highlight, last weekend was Essen Spiel, the biggest event for the world in general. Given that, I thought I’d take a look at what new and upcoming games are the most interesting right now.

This is definitely not a thorough list. It’s just the games that I have my eye on after skimming through various news sites and blogs. And since most of those sites were mainly posting pictures and discussing the new convention hall, I turned to the two community ratings charts: BGG Geekbuzz and Fairplay. You can see the Fairplay results at Opinionated Gamers, but I’m not sure if you can find a history on the GeekBuzz page, or just see the latest convention’s results. So for posterity, here are the top ten in each:

GeekBuzz Fairplay
1. Amerigo Russian Railroads
2. Bruxelles 1893 Concordia
3. Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends Glass Road
4. Twin Tin Bots Bruxelles 1893
5. Romolo o Remo? Kashgar
6. Love Letter Rokoko
7. Serpent’s Tongue Spyrium
8. Hanabi Madeira
9. Steam Park Love Letter
10. Glass Road UGO!

It’s a little frustrating to try to make sense of this list from the other side of the world. It’s dominated by worker placement games, and I can find very little information about most of them online. (The rules are often available, but it can be difficult to get much from those alone, especially when you’re trying to catch up on so many.) I haven’t found much in the way of reviews or commentary to tell me how one new worker placement game differs from the next. But as I already mentioned, everyone is talking at length about the Essen convention hall set-up.

I’m sure that a year from now, I’ll have opinions about most of these games. But for now, all I can do is make a note of the most popular ones and try to guess at the best ones.

My initial guesses are below.

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Future of the Left – How To Stop Your Brain In An Accident (Music Review)

How To Stop Your Brain In An Accident cover

Future of the Left – How To Stop Your Brain In An Accident

I guess I didn’t have to worry about Future of the Left after all. Last year’s The Plot Against Common Sense was musically strong but lyrically weak, and I wasn’t sure what to make of that. Falco’s brilliant sarcasm was wasted on its easy targets, and it lacked the truly weird choices of words that define this band and Mclusky before it. This year, the band shook off the traditional record industry connections and crowdfunded a crazy, wide-ranging album that finally lives up to my expectations. How To Stop Your Brain In An Accident, which is officially released today, is what I want from post-hardcore absurdism.

Falco will never stop having things to say, but this time around he manages to convey a general disdain for society and popular culture without dumbing it down to make specific statements. Compare this album’s “Singing of the Bonesaws” to the last one’s “Robocop 4 – Fuck Off Robocop”. Both are bitter, semi-spoken word complaints about the entertainment industry, but last year’s take was more like a comedy routine worth listening to once. “Bonesaws” is a legitimate song, and possibly the high point of the album, with a hard-to-follow logic that makes it worth returning to over and over. Halfway through, it becomes a shaggy dog tale about his family being killed by the psychic blow of wasted lives on MTV. It’s catchy and quirky enough to feel nothing like a lecture, and it has the weirdest verbal hook you’ll hear all year. (“It bursts from the screen and into their eyes and their hearts and their minds and their tits and their pits”.)

There are some weak points. Songs like “Things To Say To Friendly Policemen” and “Future Child Embarrassment Matrix” feel like lists without much inspiration behind them (though “Policemen” has the best electro-rock riffs of the album”), and there are a few spots like the opening of “How To Spot A Record Company” where both the music and vocals feel too fractured for me to care. But the more I listen to it, the harder it is for me to find parts to complain about. Initially boring songs like “French Lessons” turn out to have interesting messages. In fact, Future of the Left is becoming more adept at a wide variety of sounds, with that and “Why Aren’t I Going To Hell?” filling out the “tender” side of the equation. Falco is probably tired of hearing his new band compared to Mclusky, but with this album I think it’s fair to say that Future of the Left is a multi-faceted band with their “post-Mclusky” sound being only part of their charm. They haven’t hit Mclusky’s high points yet, but they’re still making great music.

Backers of their crowd-funding effort also received the EP Love Songs for Our Husbands, and it focuses the things I most want from this band into four short, brutal tracks. True, it’s only nine minutes long, and one of the songs (“The Male Gaze”) is also on How To Stop Your Brain, so it’s hard to call this essential. But this is the band unhinged, free to turn up the volume and yell out inanities. I really wish “The Bisexuality of Distance” were on the main album, with its unrelenting guitars and unhinged lyrics that are too clever to have been written as quickly as they seem. They follow that up with “An Idiot’s Idea of Ireland”, which is one of their most successful efforts at making a point without watering down the song (“I’ve been there twice/once in a dream state that lasted for most of my youth/Two years ago/we stopped off in Dublin/and wondered if Warsaw had moved”).

I still approach every Future of the Left album with unfair expectations, and I’m always disappointed that they have to include some filler. But How To Stop Your Brain moves closer to my hope of what this band can be.

How To Stop Your Brain in an Accident: B+

Love Songs For Our Husbands: A-


Interactive Fiction Competition: The Wizard’s Apprentice and Further

IFComp 2013 is a little more than halfway over, and despite my intentions to focus on it, I’ve only had time for a few entries so far. But it’s time to check in and give an update. So here are reviews of the first two I played. There’s no intentional theme to this article, since I haven’t played enough to group them into categories. But these were both traditional text parser games, and unfortunately, both were disappointing. They were also both very short. I guess that will have to do for the theme.

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Bruges (Game Review)

Bruges box


Stefan Feld’s board games have been growing more complex lately, and Bruges is his attempt to design a simpler one in his distinctive style. In that regard, I think the game is a mixed success. It’s definitely not the brainburner that Trajan and Castles of Burgundy are, but I don’t know that a fan of light games would find this one any easier to learn. And though it’s still a fun game, it’s not nearly as good as his other recent efforts. I wonder if this “simplification” just doesn’t come naturally to him any more.

As with most recent Feld games, Bruges involves action selection every turn, with looming deadlines and threats of disaster. In this case, the action selection is with colored cards. You can choose any of the six actions, but for five of them, the color of the card you play determines how the action is used. For example, you can take worker tokens of the given color, or earn money equal to the number currently showing on that colored die. Each card also has a “person” with a unique power, and the sixth action is to recruit them. People are worth points and give you new abilities.

There are always several options available to you, and you’ll get the feeling (common in Feld’s games) that you simply can’t find time to do everything you’d like. You’ll need to earn money to recruit a person, and also first build a house (spending workers) for them. Afterwards, the ability they give you usually requires more workers. The actions you spend earning all those things requires you to play cards, which means discarding people. And you can’t focus all the time on getting more people: Disaster tiles come out randomly every round, and you need to get rid of them before three matching ones appear. You can spend money every round to advance on a “prestige” track for points, and also build canals to score further.

There are some clever mechanics. A dice roll at the start of each round determines disasters and prices for everyone, keeping the luck from playing too wild a role. I also like the fact that there are two draw decks, since the back of each card shows the color. This gives players some control over what they’ll draw into their hand.

However, the game has flaws as well. It feels like it’s been modeled after Feld’s other “point salad” games, with several balanced paths to victory. Only the people you recruit are very significant, though; Unless you have a lot of luck or the right abilities, canals and the prestige track are just going to waste your time. Also, drawing the right person at the right time can be worth a lot of points. Despite the other mechanics keeping luck in check, all those random people passing through your hands turn out to be a major uncontrollable factor. There is definitely skill in Bruges, but I’ve finished games in both first and last place and not felt like I did anything different to earn the credit in one or the blame in the other.

Bruges is a decent game, offering a lot of choice while keeping the strategy light. My familiarity with Feld’s style is both good and bad here: I appreciate the tweaks on his typical design decisions, but also feel like it promises a game with different balance and victory paths than it actually has. If you aren’t familiar with his games, just think of this as an opportunity for a fun sort of frustration, because you’ll always have lots of things to do and just a few actions to do them in. But despite that, the winner will be the one who drew the best cards. That should give you an idea of whether you’ll enjoy this.

Grade: B-


China Miéville – Railsea (Book Review)

Railsea cover

China Miéville – Railsea

Though I am a huge fan of China Miéville, I put off reading Railsea for a full year. It’s his second young adult book, and his first, Un Lun Dun, had been his only bad novel to date. That book introduced a world filled with arbitrary, pun-filled wonders that didn’t even begin to form a cohesive whole, and felt like Miéville was just not understanding or respecting his audience.

I needn’t have worried. Railsea takes an entirely different approach to adapting Miéville’s writing for young adults. Now, I’m not sure how many children are going to want to read through the novel, as it’s filled with big words and complex concepts. If you’re already familiar with him, though, it works, and he feels free to invent his most wild and exciting world in years. It’s difficult to describe the setting of Railsea without making it feel ridiculous. Suffice to say, it involves a desolate world filled with railroad track that trains traverse like ships on the ocean, and the ground below them swarms with burrowing beasts that make it as dangerous to go overboard as it would while sailing. Many trains hunt giant moles, and the captains are generally motivated by Moby Dick-like nemeses. And that’s just the basic setting, without the truly fantastical details. But Miéville, being Miéville, makes it work.

Normally, Miéville’s name on a novel also means that it will be violent, cynical, and likely have an unsatisfying ending. I’ve said before that his gift is for world-building, but his heart lies in world-destroying. This was his main concession for the YA audience. It’s still a bit bleaker than many young books would be – expect some murderous, corrupt government agents, for example – but throughout nearly the whole book, the feeling pervades that this is a “safe” story, which will follow the expected patterns and provide most characters with the ending they deserve. And this does require some people to act in selfless ways that seem to be against their normal personality, as well as some plot-hammering to reintroduce people who are spread about the world. If my familiarity with Miéville made the convoluted (but fun) prose easier to accept, it also made the gentle plot feel jarring. After wishing that he would stick to more standard endings from time to time, I learned that it wasn’t really what I wanted.

Sure, there are other aspects that fit the young adult audience. The basic sketch of the story is definitely designed that way: A young orphan learns about himself, and picks up a clever animal sidekick, while on a quest that introduces him to other children who are more capable than adults. But it is usually hard to pick out the standard YA threads from all the Miévillian flights of imagination. Overall, even though I don’t know how right this is for most young readers, and I found the plot less satisfying than normal, the prose and setting will be a treat for any fan of his. I’m hoping for more pure worldbuilding fantasies like this.

Grade: B


Robbie Fulks – Gone Away Backward (Music Review)

Gone Away Backward cover

Robbie Fulks – Gone Away Backward

Robbie Fulks held an interesting position in the early days of alt country: He was justly regarded as a genius, but never quite fit into the scene. Fulks was just a little too authentic, and could be as dismissive of elitist alt-country poseurs as he was of brainless pop country culture. In context, it’s not too surprising that he would return from a years-long semi-hiatus with an album like Gone Away Backwards. This is a set of no-frills country songs that could be mistaken for a time capsule from half a century ago. Full of slow, mournful ballads and an old man’s sensibility, it has little of the commercial appeal that was peppered through his old albums. All his past releases mixed things up with a few gimmicky songs or sarcastic attacks on tradition, but there’s no change of pace here.

That’s not to say that Gone Away Backwards is disappointing. On the contrary, it may be Fulks’ masterwork. “I’ll Trade You Money for Wine” opens the album with one of the most philosophical drunkards I’ve heard in song, and the winding narration of “The Many Disguises of God” starts with a new father’s thoughts and proceeds through the world’s atrocities and sorrows. The dominant theme is that of an old man looking back at life with regret, and I hope that’s not entirely autobiographical. But the prevailing atmosphere is that of “the country”, and this album seems to be Fulks’ thesis on that oft-maligned concept. With deep lyrics and strong emotion, Fulks describes a culture that’s nothing like the one that the music industry wants to commoditize for us.

The themes of regretful life and country culture mix frequently, including “That’s Where I’m From”, the spiritual heart of the album. It sounds at first like one of those “country checklist” songs that pop stars like to sing to let you know exactly how to be like them, with lines like “that’s where I’m from, where time passes slower, that’s where I’m from, where it’s ‘yes, ma’am’ and ‘no, sir’”. But how many songs like that would close with “some place I can’t go home to, that’s where I’m from”? The song contains a real look at the things that may make someone try to leave the culture, and faces the fact that remaining “country” in the city is a mixed blessing. In contrast to songs that say “everyone should be this way”, Fulks sees his roots as a personal thing and only wants to explain, not convert.

This album was produced by Steve Albini, and he was a perfect choice. His gift for making musicians sound “like themselves” was exactly what this stripped-down performance needed. Fulks and his music are clear and crisp, with both the skill and imperfections laid out for the world. After this, it’s difficult to listen to Fulks’ last big album, Georgia Hard, without hearing heavy-handed studio effects. In fact, Gone Away Backward is Fulks’ return to Bloodshot Records, and I can’t help but wonder if even a label like Merge was too “big” to let him do something as simple and authentic as this. I’ve expressed conflicted feelings about Bloodshot on this blog before, but their (very light) fingerprint on works like this shows how beneficial they can be.

This may not be an immediately accessible album. The complex lyrics reward multiple listens, though, and without betraying the simple hillbilly sound that Fulks has embraced. Most importantly, though, this is exactly the album that he wanted to make. Gone Away Backward is a strong vision from an underappreciated artist, and there were no compromises in its creation.

Grade: A

Karen Thompson Walker – The Age of Miracles (Book Review)

The Age of Miracles cover

Karen Thompson Walker – The Age of Miracles

Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles is a first-person account of an apocalypse. When the Earth’s rotation begins to slow down for unknown reasons, both society and the environment fall apart. The narrator, Julia, is a middle-school girl whose coming of age is intertwined with changes for all humanity.

Don’t think too much about the science behind this. If such a thing were to happen, I believe the changes in temperature and atmosphere would actually be a lot more extreme than the book shows, and anything that relied on satellite communication would probably break right away. But that’s not supposed to be the focus of the book, anyway. Walker is more interested in her characters and they ways they’re affected.

The problem is that the characters aren’t good enough to carry the book, either. The cast was very well-planned, with motivations that feel realistic and play off each other in interesting ways. But the novel rarely gives the characters much more warmth than that initial outline must have had. Interactions are shallow and uninteresting, and Julia’s narration gives no emotion to most important events. Julia is a poor choice for narrator. She’s a passive observer who doesn’t even take action the rare times that something truly matters to her. Sometimes narrators like this work because it makes them a good stand-in for the reader, but if so they need to have something interesting to say. Even her “growth” in the later part of the book has more to do with how other people decide to treat her than with anything she does.

This aspect does slowly improve as the book goes on, though. Several people have subplots, a few of which are interesting. Near the end, some emotional events happen that Julia finally feels strongly about, and they work. Walker can write powerful prose when she focuses on simple human tragedies like a loved one dying.

On a broader scale than the main characters, this book’s portrayal of humanity also seems weak. From the moment scientists announce that the Earth’s rotation has changed, a country full of people who didn’t believe in global warming is suddenly paying rapt attention and panicking. People actually move out of state less than a day after the event happens. Within a couple months, there is such a wide gulf between people who stick to a 24-hour clock and people who adjust to the ever-lengthening days that ex-friends are already vandalizing houses and turning each other in to the police. Governments seem to be strangely passive as their systems collapse, and while I can believe that no one ever finds a solution to the problem, I’d expect some systemic reactions to it.

The Age of Miracles is a simple read that still took me a while to get through. It’s not a bad book, really, but it is a bland one. For all its attempts to humanize a fictional apocalypse, its main strength is satisfying an abstract curiosity about what will happen next. There’s a decently-structured plot, just little reason to care.

Grade: C


Ultimate Werewolf: Inquisition (Game Review)

Ultimate Werewolf: Inquisition box

Ultimate Werewolf: Inquisition

I enjoy Are You A Werewolf?, but it’s definitely not a game I can play very often. It’s long, intense, requires a lot of players, and people are kicked out frequently. “Legend” Dan Hoffman’s Ultimate Werewolf: Inquisition fills a great niche, then, mixing the social game experience with more board game elements. It plays faster, supports a wide range of players, and keeps everyone involved throughout. Effectively, you’re playing a game of “meta-Werewolf“, since cards on the table stand in for the villagers and werewolves who get killed off, while the players divide up into secret teams and try to help their side survive.

The table has two cards for each member of the village, one face up with their power, and another face down and mixed up randomly with the others. During the day, every player chooses one power to use, and then everyone votes to “lynch” one of the face-down cards. This requires “voting cubes”, and the various powers will restore your cubes, give you information, or let you impact the vote. Then at night, one column of face-down cards is chosen, and while everyone’s eyes are closed, the werewolf players get to look at them all and choose one as their victim. Every time a someone is killed, their cards (and therefore their powers) are removed from the game, but remember that players are not connected to specific cards. Even if a werewolf player reveals themself, they remain in the game to sow havoc.

Ultimate Werewolf Inquisition Play

Survivors (and their powers) shown on the left, but their locations are hidden among the face-down cards on the right.

The system is simple, and I’d like to call it elegant. However, it is pretty confusing at first. It’s difficult for new players to grasp everything, with special rules about tracking villagers’ states, handling single-card columns, and very inconsistent iconography for the special powers. The mechanics for choosing the werewolves’ victim every night are a little fiddly, and make it likely that someone will accidentally reveal information during their first couple games. The rule book actually doesn’t help much, with all the information present but easy to overlook. Everything will seem natural before long, but it’s a bumpy start.

Ultimate Werewolf Inquisition CardsAfter that, though, this game is brilliant. It maintains most of the tension of Werewolf, but with activities that give players a lot more choices. Instead of one person being the Seer, everyone gets occasional chances to gain information, and your actions at the table provide more chances to observe behavior and falsify claims. The dynamics of the two teams take on more depth, since the Wolves get a lot more information (viewing columns each night), but the Villagers can act openly. Sometimes it is worth it for a Wolf player to stop hiding their identity and make a surprising move. For the rest of the game they’ll be able to participate, but the Villagers won’t trust them during the important votes. (This is handled much better than in games like Shadows Over Camelot or Battlestar Galactica, which I think let the traitors stay too powerful after revealing themselves.) It balances the social and gaming aspects well.

Being a Werewolf game, victory does sometimes hinge on a single (un)lucky move or a 50/50 choice about who to trust at the end. But if you like that game, you’ll find this one to be slightly less arbitrary, and without the length and player elimination that can make those events so painful. This has all the laughter, tension, and confusion that I would expect. My only real complaint (once every player is familiar with the game) is that there aren’t enough role cards. There are only fifteen roles available (counting the Werewolves and generic Villagers), and a few are similar to each other. I can see how this is a difficult game to balance and add variety to, but even so, I wish I hadn’t seen all the roles within a few games.

That complaint aside, this is the best new social deduction game I’ve seen in years. Take the time to get over the initial learning curve and give it a chance.

Grade: B+


Eddie Spaghetti – The Value of Nothing (Music Review)

The Value of Nothing cover

Eddie Spaghetti – The Value of Nothing

The last time I reviewed one of Eddie Spaghetti’s solo albums, I suggested that he stop doing so many covers and focus on original material. Well, he wrote all the songs on The Value of Nothing, but it doesn’t help as much as I’d hoped. He partially moves away from the country style he had been using, splitting the difference with the mature rock of Get It Together, Spaghetti’s most recent record with The Supersuckers. Get It Together was an excellent, underrated album, and Spaghetti just can’t duplicate that when playing with just a couple band members and straddling the line between country and rock. If his previous solo work suffered in comparison to the classic songs he was covering, this one can’t help but be compared to Get It Together.

This certainly isn’t all bad. Most notably, “Waste of Time” is a really fun swinging country song about being a lazy slacker. “You Get To Be My Age” is a love song with an unusual perspective, and the personal nature of songs like this make it easier to overlook some of the album’s flaws. “When I Go, I’m Gone” is a quieter version of a song that originally appeared in Get It Together. It’s arguable which is better, and they’re different enough to each stand alone, though this one isn’t exactly essential given that you should already own Get It Together.

Most of the other tracks are nothing special. With the added rock element on this album, it finally makes sense to see Spaghetti on Bloodshot Records. He sounds like yet another aging rock star playing with country sounds and unafraid to experiment, but also not necessarily aware of which experiments worked. He needed someone around to point out that the accordion on “People Are Shit” makes it sound like a bad polka song, instead of another interesting love story. And “If Anyone’s Got The Balls” is a weird, misguided attempt at bragging and some mild obscenity that sounds out of place. (On the other hand, “Fuckin’ With My Head” is a mostly successful use of over-the-top swearing. This is something that The Supersuckers have done well in the past. It may not compare to highlights like “Pretty Fucked Up” from Motherfuckers Be Trippin’, but it’s a decent song.)

Disappointingly, The Value of Nothing continues Spaghetti’s recent trend of fans-only albums that even the fans will enjoy sporadically. There are some good tracks here, but overall, this is the sort of album he can only get away with because he’s capable of doing much better things.

Grade: C


Drew Magary – The Postmortal

The Postmortal cover

Drew Magary – The Postmortal

What would happen if we discovered an inexpensive way to stop people from aging? According to Drew Magary’s The Postmortal, everyone would quickly take “The Cure” and begin to wear away at our environment and social fabric. It’s a plausible answer, but a pretty shallow one that assumes a quick read of modern American culture is all we need to predict the next century. In fact, “shallow” describes the book pretty well.

It starts off pretty strongly, with an interesting hook that fits the book’s breezy, blog-post style. (That voice is a little weird if you worry about how convenient it is that the author’s explanations and details are perfectly aimed at a reader of the book, rather than a contemporary of his. But it’s easy enough to ignore.) And when the story suddenly jumps forward ten years to a world still celebrating The Cure, it stays believable. Magary’s depiction of our modern world may be a bit facile, but it feels real and manages to spark anger, curiosity, and sympathy at the right times.

Then it jumps forward again, twenty years this time. And the narrator acts completely the same, despite the major lifestyle changes he allegedly underwent during that time. The world is devolving into chaos, but his day-to-day interactions with the supporting cast feel the same as they did pre-Cure. The occasional interruptions to deal with disasters don’t feel like they belong in the same world he’s describing the rest of the time. And really, the entire plot just flows along as if that twenty-year break had actually been a week. The story gets put on hold whenever it jumps through time (it happens again), and plot threads that should be long-forgotten keep coming up as if the world revolves around just him.

It’s sad to see a light, enjoyable book go so far off the rails. By the end, the protagonist is making sudden, hard to justify decisions about crazy plot twists that stem from events that had been unresolved for decades. The rest of the world seems just as eager to bring things to a climax, and events that were obviously foreshadowed but never made believable begin to happen at a fast pace. What was supposed to be a thought experiment about human nature closes on a big mess of coincidences, rushed plot, and side characters who don’t have agency except to support or foil the narrator.

The Postmortal could have been good. The strong part, which seems more or less grounded in reality and gives us supporting characters to care about, takes up almost the first half of the book. But it lacks the vision to keep extrapolating, as well as the ability to keep the plot developing fairly. It has its strengths and weaknesses, but maybe the most disappointing part is the missed potential.

Grade: C