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.

Continue reading

Advertisements

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.

Continue reading

Bruges (Game Review)

Bruges box

Bruges

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