Android: Netrunner Genesis Cycle (Game Review)

The first three Genesis Cycle packs

The first three Genesis Cycle packs

It’s been a year since I reviewed Android: Netrunner, so it’s past time for me to check in again. There has been a lot of new material for it, so the only reason for my lateness is that I lost interest. I found the base set to be a tense, varied game on its own with a lot of promise for the future. I’m just not the right person for collectable card games, though, even using the curated LCG model. I couldn’t keep up with it, and wonder whether Fantasy Flight’s expansions really kept improving the game.

So, the base game game out late last year. The first small expansion (“data pack”) was also released by the end of 2012. 2013 saw eight additional small expansions and one large one, with no sign of slowing down next year! I bought the first three packs in “the Genesis Cycle“, so this is nominally a review of those. But it probably applies to the many cards I haven’t seen, and to my take on LCGs in general.

Netrunner: Genesis Cycle CardsFirst of all, I question the cost. The point of a Living Card Game is that you have a known cost up front, because you buy sets with all the cards instead of buying random booster sets. But that doesn’t make it cheap by any means. These data packs retail for $15 each, and they provide three copies each of twenty different cards. That’s almost $1 for every new card type, and you’re not likely to use all the cards anyway.

The triplicate cards are understandable, since a deck is allowed to contain up to three of each one. It was annoying that the base set didn’t have three copies of each one. On the other hand, each data set also includes a new faction card in triplicate, even though no game would ever use more than one! If you’re already wondering whether the expansion is worth the cost, it’s frustrating to get a couple cards that are impossible to ever use.

As far as the gameplay goes, they definitely add some new things. Corps now have Agendas that can be advanced beyond the minimum requirement for bonuses, and one Agenda changes the flow of the game by giving the player an extra action every turn. The new faction cards (“identities” of existing factions) feel balanced with new special powers that will change your considerations when building a deck. It’s not bad.

It’s not great, either, though. The three data packs I bought cost almost as much as the base game, and I certainly didn’t feel like they changed the game very much. The strongest new cards and combos are difficult to get, and I appreciate that Fantasy Flight does not seem to be ramping up the power to make expansions must haves. But the main change in the game’s feeling for me was a disappointing one: I’d appreciated how the base set made you work with a very limited selection of cards and factions with known weaknesses. Since Netrunner is fundamentally a bluffing game, this knowledge was part of the tension. Even with the limited data packs that I bought, the biggest holes have been filled (every Runner faction has icebreakers of each major type), and there are too many threats for you to feel like you’re able to guess at what your opponent might still have hidden.

I am used to expansions shaking up a game more, because I usually play board games. With those, it’s understood that an expansion will add new rules or make other significant changes. Since a collectable card game needs to stay consistent over the years, even if a player misses a couple sets, it doesn’t have the freedom to change the game as drastically. This added to the impression that I wasn’t getting a lot for the price of the new cards.

A lot of this is my own opinion, of course, and it’s coming from someone who has never stuck with a collectable game. I know that Netrunner is still a big hit in certain crowds. My perspective should be familiar to a lot of board gamers, though, and I do think that the flaws I see are legitimate. The expansions are detailed and maintain the game’s high quality (although I did think the flavor text was lacking, and the alleged theme running through each data pack felt weak). Overall, if you’re still playing this game a lot, buying these will be an easy decision. For me, though, I felt trapped between a good base game that wasn’t designed for long-term replayability on its own, and an expanded system that cost a lot of money without adding real changes.

Grade: C

 

Obits – Beds & Bugs

Beds & Bugs cover

Obits – Beds & Bugs

The tricky thing about reviewing Obits’ Beds & Bugs is that it’s difficult to avoid repeating my review of Moody, Standard and Poor. They have a solid, blues-based garage rock sound that blew me away the first time I heard it, but every album since then has felt like a faint echo of their debut, I Blame You. I want to like it: The Obits are the current band of Hot Snakes’ Rick Froberg, and after three consistent albums it seems like they’re in this for the long haul, but it also seems like it’s maybe a little too consistent.

The music is melodic, but with a mild distortion that makes the vocals difficult to focus on. This is a good balance between accessibility and comforting obscurity. More importantly, it puts the focus on the music rather than the lyrics. The band sings about things like making sure your pets will be cared for in your will (“Pet Trust”) or a detailed explanation of a birth gone wrong (“Malpractice”). These topics are presented in such a straightforward way that it’s difficult to tell whether they are intended to be an absurdist comment on modern culture, a Dadaist parody of songwriting, or true-life topics that actually resonate with the songwriter. This isn’t a major problem since the music is the important thing here. But while it was easy to enjoy mildly amusing topics like “Two-Headed Coin” in their first album, this is less hook-filled and doesn’t offer too much that’s new.

It’s difficult to pinpoint a reason that these songs don’t grab me. Some of it is probably familiarity from the last albums. The only real difference I hear between their best songs and the other ones is that I Blame You really seemed driven by the drums. Drummer Alex Fleisig has left the band since this album was released, so I’m not sure if there’s a story there. Either way, the drumming here is good but feels like it’s mainly following the guitar. The music retains its distinctiveness, and it’s always a little interesting, but it’s never vital.

The Obits are a good band, and this album doesn’t change that. Beds & Bugs does suffer from the standard they set in the past, though, and with none of the songs being worth hearing for the lyrics, it’s too easy to make these unflattering comparisons.

Grade: C+

 

JD Wilkes & The Dirt Daubers – Wild Moon (Music Review)

Wild Moon cover

JD Wilkes & The Dirt Daubers – Wild Moon

The Dirt Daubers released Wild Moon under the name JD Wilkes & The Dirt Daubers, but this album may have deserved a more drastic name change. People only familiar with Wilkes from his other Dirt Daubers albums are in for a surprise: The raw roots country and stripped-down sound have been replaced by raw roots blues and a full rock sound. The change does feel more understandable if you’re familiar with Wilkes’ old band, The Legendary Shack-Shakers, as this basically provides a lot of what the Dirt Daubers’ previous albums had dropped from the Shack-Shakers. At the point, it appears that Wilkes doesn’t intend to stray that far from his old band. The defining aspects of the Dirt Daubers now appear to be that Wilkes has discarded his jester image for a slightly more serious one, and of course that half of the songs are fronted by Jessica Wilkes.

Jessica’s confident, brassy voice makes a good fit for these proto-jazz (white person blues?) songs. She still doesn’t have quite the range to carry an album on her own, but it’s hardly noticeable for her half. However, this means she is best suited for songs that showcase the Wilkes family’s quirky personality. Her “Apples and Oranges” is the album’s highlight, a swinging, rebellious song structured around an old nursery rhyme and playful lyrics. Otherwise, the songs she leads sound like blues standards about love and loss. They’re perfectly fine, but something that you could generally find in other bands’ catalogs.

JD is similarly restrained. I understand his seriousness about southern culture and his desire not to turn it into a joke, and that inclination is what always made his crazier songs so solid. Here we get Southern standards of the “creek-is-risin’-and-my-dead-baby’s-in-Heaven” variety (themes that appear multiple times), but his wit and fervor only make minor appearances. JD’s standout moments are the ones that recall the Shack Shakers: The out-of-nowhere proclamation that “it’s all a SNAFU, let’s go AWOL, you get FUGAZI and I’ll get FUBAR” in “Let It Fly”, or the electric acid-country of “Hidey-Hole”.

I feel bad saying that The Dirt Daubers sound best when they echo The Shack-Shakers, because in last year’s review I was very excited about the new life they breathed into traditional styles. But at least this time, the new band is definitely in the old one’s shadow. That’s not to say this isn’t good, and I like the energetic performances that bring a lot more fun than some of their genre contemporaries. I do hope that more of the personality from Wake Up Sinners shows up next time, though.

Grade: B-

Bora Bora (Game Review)

Bora Bora box

Bora Bora

Bora Bora is another complex game from Stefan Feld. If you’re familiar with Trajan and Castles of Burgundy, you have an idea what that means: A “point salad” game with more ways to score than any one person can handle. The different strategies are well balanced, and the winner will be the player who sees the best mix of opportunities based on the way the dice landed or cards came out. The central mechanic is some sort of creative action selection, and, of course, the theme has nothing to do with the gameplay.

Speaking as a huge fan of Feld, I think that this is his best game yet. It’s an especially tight version of his “too little time to do what you need” approach, with a lot more player interaction than most games that are this balanced and strategic. That interaction also helps the game to grow with your group as you get more experienced. In the early games, struggling to do your best is challenge enough. Once the basic strategies are under control, and players start looking around for opportunities to block each other, then the game grows new dimensions. And even the very first game is fairly accessible considering how much is going on. Everyone has their own “task tiles” and must complete one every round, so newbies have goals to direct them through the many choices they have to make.

Bora Bora play

The easiest way to describe this is “Trajan meets Macao with a new take on worker placement”. It’s like Trajan in that there are several actions to select, and they refer to areas of the board where you can score or gain resources in different ways. But the different areas here are more tightly interrelated than Trajan’s are. You’ll focus on one or two areas per game, but need to put some effort into all of them.

I’m reminded of Macao because that game has cards that keep piling up to be completed. Bora Bora’s task tiles are a more refined version of that, partly because they require you to accomplish things instead of just collecting resources. But also, you must “complete” one every round, possibly for zero points if you haven’t met the requirement. And the challenge scales well as you gain in strength throughout the game: Everyone starts with two standard tasks and one simple one. The simple one is like to be the only one possible to score in one round. You’ll start working towards the others right away, and choose new tasks that synergize with what you already have. By late in the game, that may finally start to get easy. But you’ll end the game with three tasks still in front of you, and you get one last chance to score all of them if possible! It’s a constant race to stay one step ahead of the game’s clock.

The new take on worker placement is very clever, and ages much better than Trajan’s central action. Your “workers” are dice that get rolled each round. Each action can be taken multiple times, but the die placed must have a lower value than any already on the action. High numbers can do more powerful actions, if you can get them out on time. Worker placement is typically about figuring out which actions need to be taken right away, and which are safe to leave until later. This is even more nerve-wracking, since playing an action isn’t always the same as blocking others. Also, you only have three dice per round in which to prepare for four end-of-round evaluations, including that task tile. There’s no way to to do it all.

The dice-based action selection and task tiles are both excellent mechanics, and the variety of things to do is among Feld’s best. I do think this has a little more randomness than his other complex games, since a couple sets of tiles are mixed up at the start of the game, and a few more (very important) sets are drawn before each round. But that still feels fair, and the game definitely rewards skill and planning. While I fully expect Feld to keep improving, Bora Bora currently stands as his masterpiece.

Grade: A

 

The Defibulators – Debt’ll Get’em (Music Review)

Debt'll Get'em cover

The Defibulators – Debt’ll Get’em

Well, this is a disappointment. YouTube is filled with videos of New York City country band The Defibulators, and a lot of them are great. But I bought Debt’ll Get’em, their sophomore album, and wasn’t very impressed. Probably the easiest way to right this review is to list the reasons why the album doesn’t work as well as browsing YouTube.

1. That “New York City country” thing

I’m no purist (and I’m a northern city person myself), so I can accept a bunch of New Yorkers singing country. But to do it, they need to figure out how to define themselves. A lot of the traditional language of country bands won’t work for them. Sometimes The Defibulators have this figured out: “Everybody’s Got a Banjo” admits to the trendiness of roots music and defends it as fun for everyone. (“If you mean it when you sling it, then you ain’t no fool.”) I find “Working Class” to be more troublesome, though. It’s a story of a privileged middle-class kid who was too lazy to get a good job. It’s witty, and I’m sure a lot of their audience loves it, but to me it feels inappropriate next to the great working class anthems it feels modeled after.

“Hee-Haw in Heaven” is a complete misfire. It’s supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, but it sounds like someone unfamiliar with country music trying to impress fans. There are also enough songs already about meeting country greats in heaven that this doesn’t sound clever or original. At times like this, it’s hard to forget any concerns about the band’s seriousness.

2. The energetic songs are lacking

Check out this live performance of “Go-Go Truck”. It’s a fun, wild song that gives Th’ Legendary Shack-Shakers a run for their money. Then listen to “Holy Roller” on Debt’ll Get’em. It’s styled like a religious revival and should be capable of matching “Go-Go Truck”. But the music is restrained and the back-up singers are minimized instead of let loose. It’s the sound of a studio band mimicking the hell-raising energy of another culture.

3. The quieter songs are easy to ignore

The band isn’t just about wild songs. They have plenty of sedate country crooners, and they aren’t necessarily bad. I certainly enjoyed the ones on YouTube. Here, I guess that I just don’t take them seriously coming from the singers of “Hee-Haw in Heaven”.

4. Not enough Erin Bru

The band has two vocalists: “Bug” Jennings and Erin Bru. Jennings is the wild frontman and is the soul of the band, but Bru’s smooth voice is a real gem. I’m not sure if she has the versatility to handle a band on her own, but her individual songs tend to be standouts. On YouTube, she seems to get almost have the time. On this album, she mainly sings duets and backup. She takes lead on the excellent “Pay for That Money”, the album’s one exception to the “boring slow song” rule. But that’s all.

Debt’ll Get’em has enough good moments to affirm that The Defibulators have skill. But they need to figure out what to do with it. This is a half-hearted effort.

Grade: C

 

Neil Gaiman – Fortunately, the Milk (Book Review)

Fortunately, the Milk cover

Neil Gaiman – Fortunately, the Milk

2013 is apparently Neil Gaiman’s year of short books. In addition to the children’s book Chu’s Day and adult book The Ocean at the End of the Lane, he also published the young reader’s novel Fortunately, the Milk. It’s a light, farcical story without the depth or elaborate structure that Gaiman often puts into his books. However, like most Gaiman novels, it’s exactly the length and style that it’s supposed to be, without regard for industry expectations.

Fortunately is the story of a father who goes off to the store to pick up milk for his children’s breakfast, and takes longer than expected to return. The kids accuse him of absent-mindedly talking to neighbors for too long, but he responds with a story of the time-and-space-spanning adventure he got sucked into. Fortunately, he managed to keep the milk safe every step of the way, and even saved the day before returning home with his shopping mission accomplished.

It’s a fast-moving romp, with scenes and characters changing constantly. It’s supposed to be an improvised shaggy dog tale, and the plot structure is pretty loose. The situations are funny, though. For adults, this captures the feel of a silly parent playing around with jokes that go just above their children’s heads. For kids, these ideas are just unusual enough to capture the imagination and become inside jokes or fodder for new stories.

It’s also filled with whimsical illustrations by Skottie Young. They have the same silly, sketchy feeling that the writing does, and it’s hard for me to imagine this book without his contribution. (It seems like Gaiman must have planned this with Young in mind. But since the British edition of this has a different artist, apparently that’s not true. I’m very curious to hear how the art works in that book.) The font of the book also changes to bold, hand-drawn lettering at certain points to emphasize action. That helps tie everything together, actually. Though this is nothing like the classic comic book mix of text and pictures, the two combine into one reading experience.

Yes, Fortunately, the Milk is a short book. (Thanks to those illustrations taking up space, it takes maybe a half hour for an adult to read.) But it was very fun for me, and it’s easy to imagine this being thrilling for the right child. It’s not a classic book, or even Gaiman’s best of the year, but it’s one I can recommend strongly.

Grade: B+

 

Oblivians – Desperation (Music Review)

Desperation cover

Oblivians – Desperation

Nostalgia being what it is, I’m not surprised that so many ’90s bands have reformed in the past couple years. What does surprise me is how good some of these reunions have been. It helps that most of these bands weren’t superstars hoping to make a fortune with teir comeback. They were critical darlings like The Pixies who only became widely appreciated in recent years, or cult favorites like The Oblivians. The Oblivians’ new album, Desperation, shows just how some age and perspective can strengthen a band. They’re the same dirty garage punks as ever, and they haven’t lost that immature edge, but their topics are deeper and more varied. Unexpected covers (like Paul Butterfield’s “Lovin’ Cup” and Stephanie McDee’s “Call the Police“) mix with songs about girls, music, and pinball.

The band bills themselves as “Greg Oblivian”, “Eric Oblivian”, and “Jack Oblivian”, and each member is credited with”guitar, drums, and vocals”. The names are an affectation, but the credits aren’t. All three members do switch between instruments and singing throughout the album. The lo-fi production helps obscure some of the differences between their performances, creating the continuity that makes it sound like all songs come from the same band. There are still obvious differences, but in the end it works to make Desperation a varied but coherent album. You get the thrashing “Run for Cover” and soul-influenced “Em” in one album, and it feels like they belong together.

Unfortunately, some of the most noticeable differences are in skill. Some songs have decently complex guitar or drums (by garage punk standards, at least), while others are simple and plodding. Songs like “Pinball King” have powerful vocals that really sell their combination of wild youth and knowing music veteran, while a couple like “Woke Up In A Police Car” feel more like the singer is sleepwalking through the performance.

Don’t let that discourage you, though. The best tracks are great. “Call the Police” (a cover of a zydeco party standby) and “Pinball King” (an unapologetic song about spending your life doing what you love) are my favorite simple dumb rock songs of the year. (Not that good “simple dumb rock songs” are ever as simple or dumb as they act.) Though they’re 90s punks, there’s a lot of Ramones or Dead Boys in their style, with strange choices of phrasing like “Little War Child” or “Fire Detector” that give the impression that they’re defining their own path rather than following a scene’s expectations. And “I’ll Be Gone” is a great opener for a comeback album, about their love of music and disdain for selling out or chasing trends.

I hope Desperation is the start of a great second career. It taps into the primal power of rock and roll, crossing generations and mixing wit with straightforward honesty. Even its less good songs feel appropriate. After all, rock as good as this should be messy and imperfect, right?

Grade: B+