Tzolk’in (Game Review)

Tzolk'in box

Tzolk’in

Some board games are complicated because of the ways you can block your opponents. Others are complicated because simply figuring out your own moves takes careful planning. Daniele Tascini’s Tzolk’in is in the latter category.

It is a worker placement game with an eye-grabbing set of interlocking gears. On each turn, a player either places workers on cogs of the gear or removes them. The gears advance after each time around the table, moving workers up to new, and generally stronger, actions. The action is triggered when the workers are removed, not placed. That gear mechanism is very cool and distinctive, and is a rare case of a production gimmick that is also vital to the gameplay.

It’s also easy to make mistakes, and hard to play as efficiently as possible. You can place or remove multiple workers in one turn, so you’ll need to set up big turns to get the most out of your actions. But corn is needed to place workers, and the cost rises quickly as more are used. Placing workers directly on higher spots on the wheel also costs corn. It can be easy to get stuck because you ran out of resources, or because your workers didn’t all reach the proper actions at the right time.

A close-up of a few gears. The large center one is used to turn everything in unison. (And it looks cool.)

A close-up of a few gears. The large center one is used to turn everything in unison. (And it looks cool.)

The first time or two you play this game, it will take all your efforts just to take care of basic needs. Reserve extra corn for the feeding phases, figure out how to get other resources, and suddenly realize at the halfway point of the game that you hadn’t even done anything to earn points yet! After a few games, you’ll be able to make plans, and maybe follow through on them. My second game was against someone who had played over a dozen times, and he had an incredible engine going before I’d even figured out how to provide basic food for my workers.

Just because the personal choices are complex doesn’t mean there’s no player interaction. There are plenty of opportunities to predict others’ moves and get in their ways. Workers must always be played on the lowest available spot on a wheel, so placing one may either help or hurt your opponents, depending on how quickly they need to get to the top actions and whether they can afford the cost of the higher space. Players can also race to be the one who builds a point-scoring monument, or fight to move to the top of temple influence tracks. There are even actions that let you advance the wheel two spaces instead of one, which can really mess up someone else’s plans!

It’s a good thing that Tzolk’in has all that going on, because the ways to score points aren’t very interesting. There are a few distinct paths, such as those temple or monument points, or getting the expensive Crystal Skull resources and dropping them off on spaces of the religious track. (Yes this game comes with Crystal Skull tokens!) But there are only a few, they don’t have a lot of synergy with each other, and the only one that really changes from game to game is which monuments are available. Those are important, since they give you points for doing different actions, therefore putting the focus on different paths to victory in each game, but it’s very easy to choose a strategy that doesn’t use monuments at all.

Don’t let that dissuade you from trying Tzolk’in, though. It’s a great experience, both mind-blowing solitaire and intense competition at the same time. It’s definitely an advanced game. I’ve played slightly more complicated ones in the past year, but never one so punishing if you mistime your moves. But if you’re used to board games, this one takes worker placement to the next level. Like Targi, your workers’ actions aren’t decided directly by where you place them, but indirectly due to the timing of multiple decisions.

Grade: B+

 
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End-of-2013 Crowd-Funding Roundup

Back in the middle of the year, I posted a few essays about the current state of crowd-funding. It’s been a while, and I want to check in again with a few links and comments. Crowd-funding is still new and evolving quickly.


Maze of Games cardFirst, some optimistic news. Sometimes I can be cynical about Kickstarter campaigns for unprofessional projects that disappoint everyone in the end, so it’s good to remember the things that they can do that normal commercial ventures can’t.

The Maze of Games was a Kickstarter campaign by Lone Shark Games to create a cool-sounding “puzzle novel”. It completed its funding back in March, but has missed the November delivery date. Earlier this week, the team posted an update to say that the book definitely would not be available on time to deliver as a Christmas present. As an apology, they’re creating a holiday card with an extra puzzle on it. It’s being distributed online to all backers, and if you intended to give the book as a present, you can ask for a physical copy of this card to be sent to you. Lone Shark asked that people only request the hard copy of the card if they needed something to give to someone who would eventually get the book as a present.

Ok, so this is another example of a Kickstarter project missing its timeline, and a card saying “you’ll get this book in a couple months” isn’t as good as actually receiving the book. But I find it pretty impressive that the team could ask backers, on the honor system, to tell them whether they needed the extra collectable card in the mail. I’ll bet you that most people do answer that honestly. The creative team is trying to do something extra for their supporters, and those supporters won’t take unfair advantage of it. I like seeing the community that these campaigns are building.


Broken TelephoneOn a sadder note, I’ve been following Ryan Estrada’s Broken Telephone campaign lately. With less than a week to go, it may still reach its funding goal, but it’s not a sure thing at all. This never should have been a question. Estrada is trusted name in webcomics who has been around for years, and he has a clever idea: Eighteen interlocked stories will be delivered one at a time, “book of the month” style, in which the hero of one story is the villain of another. Estrada is pushing a pay what you want model with a minimum price of only $1, so there’s no reason not to give this one a chance.

A creative, inexpensive product from someone reliable? Why is this having so much trouble meeting its goal? Well, this is the first Kickstarter campaign I’ve seen that really embraces a pay-what-you-want approach. You can get the entire project for $1. $18 gets you a small add-on, and $48 gets a bunch of Estrada’s old comics thrown in. There’s no option for a physical book, because a project delivered in installments only makes sense when digital. So basically, the only motivation to pay more is in supporting the art.

If you do the math, it’s obvious that a lot of people are paying more than the minimum. It still may not be enough, though. This is the first project I’ve seen that really tests whether backer generosity alone is enough to get a new project funded. Pay-what-you-want models have so far been the domain of the Humble Bundle and similar systems, in which people sell already-created works at a discounted rate. Kickstarter is for people to create new things, and so there are costs that can’t be ignored.

I hope the Broken Telephone campaign succeeds. Whether it does or not, though, I wouldn’t encourage people to follow this model in the future.

[Update: The project ended up funding, and getting several-thousand-dollar-boost once it reached the goal. Estrada also pointed out that while this earned less than the similar project he Kickstarted last year, the average amount per backer was higher. He has cultivated an audience that he can rely on to support him in projects like this. I think he’s only netting a few thousand dollars for a year’s worth of work, so I’m not wildly optimistic, but at least my initial pessimism was overblown.]


SFAM panelFinally, you may recall that I was excited about Patreon a few months ago. I hoped that it would provide a way to give webcomics the regular income they needed to keep going for years, since Kickstarter’s model of funding specific projects doesn’t really apply to that. Well, we now have a webcomics artist I really like, Jon Rosenberg, trying the system out! He’s looking for readers to sponsor his continued work on Scenes From a Multiverse, and I really hope it succeeds. All it takes is $1 or $2 a month from is most committed readers.

I’m not sure whether Rosenberg’s campaign is the best test case or not. His bonuses for backers don’t add much value – I’d think that bonus strips and art would be a natural fit for webcomics. Also, his stated goals ($2000-$4000 per month) are pretty high, and he only promises a few comics per week even if those levels are hit. I understand where he’s coming from. Rosenberg has been making webcomics for well over a decade, and now has a decent freelance career to support his family with. His standards for succeeding with webcomics are higher than a lot of young eager artists who would be thrilled to get an extra $50-$100 per comic. I do think a top-tier webcomic deserves to bring in that sort of money, but I just worry about the first high-profile test setting the expectations to that right away.

Either way, though, it’s a reminder that crowd-funding is still changing fast. I hope that Rosenberg’s campaign succeeds, but whether it does or not, I would like to see other people following his lead.

[Update: Rosenberg met his first goal in a little over a week. And in that time, Zach Weinersmith also launched a Patreon site which exploded into the several-thousand-dollars-per-month range almost immediately. I’m thrilled about the potential this new system offers.]

Phosphorescent – Muchacho (Music Review)

Muchacho cover

Phosphorescent – Muchacho

Phosphorescent’s Muchacho album art is dominated by singer-songwriter Matthew Houck looking carefree and surrounded by topless hippie women. That, combined with song titles like “Sun, Arise! (An Invocation, An Introduction)” might lead you to assume that this is all New Age messages of positivity. Actually, the recurring theme of the songs is that love is a painful trap, and Houck is happiest when not tied down. That also explains the women, I guess. But you could be forgiven if you listened to Muchacho dozens of times and still didn’t notice what it was about, because the songs are so quiet and shapeless that they’re almost impossible to pay attention to.

Yes, this is the album with the excellent “Song for Zula”: Its haunting, looping music perfectly complements the emotionally-damaged singer who curses love by contradicting “Ring of Fire”. If Muchacho had more songs like this, I’d have loved it. But most of the rest feel incomplete, like demos or codas. In fact, it wouldn’t be too far off to think of the entire album as a suite meant to echo “Zula”. That would be ok if this were an EP.

Nothing is bad. It’s just incomplete, with songs built on a repeating lyric that goes nowhere or gentle, lulling sounds that never feel like a finished work. It’s filled with interesting fragments, though. That hippie style merges well with some modern electronic flair, and it comes across as a production geek’s loving tribute to hippie songcraft.

Phosphorescent is a promising band that doesn’t seem to have mastered the art of the song. If you want background music, Muchacho will do excellently. If you don’t, this probably won’t work. I spent months wanting to give this a chance, and it kept turning into background music no matter how hard I tried.

Grade: C

 

Reviewing Games on Yucata – Previously Reviewed Ones

YucataAs promised, here are reviews of Yucata board games that I’d previously reviewed on this site. Since I’ve already discussed the games in depth, this article focuses mostly on how well Yucata implemented them for playing online. All three covered here are worker placement games whose mechanics naturally fit in a turn-based system, so there’s no point in dwelling on that in the reviews. My grade for the Yucata implementation accounts for how fun they are, though, so the game’s quality does matter. Just read the original reviews for more information about that.

Also, as I warned in last week’s article about Boîte à Jeux games, the ones here don’t reflect the quality of the site overall. For some reason, Boite’s games that I’d already reviewed tend to be the best that that site has to offer, while Yucata’s show the site at its worst. I still definitely recommend Yucata in general, though, and I’ll eventually review other games that demonstrate the full breadth of the site.

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Maria V. Snyder – Poison Study (Book Review)

Poison Study cover

Maria V. Snyder – Poison Study

What would you do if you were forced to become a king’s food taster, and also given a poison that would kill you if you ever tried to run away from that dangerous job? Would you rebel, quietly work on staying alive, or just give in and become completely loyal to your captors? Yelena, the hero of Poison Study, goes through all those stages. Admittedly, this captivity doesn’t sound as bad as her alternative, since she was a condemned prisoner before that. Still, her behavior would seem like Stockholm Syndrome if author Maria V. Snyder didn’t stack the deck in her favor from the beginning: Yelena has a front-row seat to most royal events, protection from the second-in-command, and a personal history with the people who turn out to threaten the crown. Also, there’s a love interest to keep her loyal. Though this is a fantasy book, there’s a strong dose of the romance genre in it.

In general, your opinion about the book will depend on how much you mind the deck-stacking. Snyder definitely sets up the world and the situations so that Yelena always has a way through. A lot of that makes little sense – Why is Yelena granted so much freedom, as well as so much personal help from the head of security and intelligence, when that man other times makes it clear that he doesn’t trust a condemned murderer like her one bit? Yelena is skilled – she’s no passive heroine-in-distress – but these skills usually feel like arbitrary decisions made by the author to get her through the story. Everything about the rules, traditions, and situations that occur has been set up to get her from Point A to Point B.

On the other hand, Poison Study is light and often fun. Even if most of the characters and plot events are foreshadowed, it’s still interesting to see the details unfold. And the setting is clever. Ixia is ruled by an iron-fisted dictator whose harsh laws make no exceptions for people’s motives or life situations. However, it replaced a corrupt kingdom which rewarded only power and bribery. The book doesn’t shy away from the evils of the current system, but makes a good argument that the citizens are better off than they had been before.

Though there is magic (arbitrary rules have been set up to ensure Yelena’s victory, remember?), most of the book feels grounded in reality. A romance fan could enjoy this easily, although it’s still definitely more of a fantasy novel. The romance never derails the plot, even though it is fairly obvious all along. I did mind the abusive undertones to it – The man is controlling and violent, but that’s ok because Yelena understands him. These are just undertones, at least, making it better than a lot of successful romances, and I was glad to see Yelena stand up for herself most of the time.

I can’t recommend Poison Study, but didn’t dislike it either. It’s clever sometimes, predictable others, with two-dimensional characters in an interesting situation. Yelena succeeds at times just because she’s the main character, but other times because she’s a strong, confident woman. It’s blandly enjoyable and doesn’t insult the reader’s intelligence, but it frequently skirts that line.

Grade: C+

 

Hank3’s 2013 Releases (Music Review)

Two years ago, Hank3 released four albums from very different genres. Some were much better than others. Now he’s back with two albums (one a double) that total almost two and a half hours of playtime. It’s not surprising that one of them is country (Brothers of the 4×4) and the other punk (A Fiendish Threat), but it is interesting to see that neither is very similar to what he was doing in 2011. Love him or hate him, it’s obvious that he’s always pushing himself and unwilling to play it safe.

A Fiendish Threat cover

Hank3 – A Fiendish Threat

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: The punk album is disappointing. It’s not bad, but it rarely feels like his heart is in it, either. It became obvious with his last crop of releases that Hank3 has only a passing interest in lyrics and mostly focuses on constructing soundscapes. But punk has to be a lot more about the lyrics and less about the “construction”, so it mainly sounds like an imitation of a genre he’s interested in. Some songs use sped-up country instruments and rhythms, which add a unique twist, but otherwise this doesn’t stand out. Hank3 needs to find a producer and editor he can trust, rather than running everything himself, because someone else would have made this leaner and shorter. More importantly, Hank3 needs to figure out what he wants to say when he does this. It’s a good sound, but it’s not compelling punk.

Brothers of the 4x4 cover

Hank3 – Brothers of the 4×4

Brothers of the 4×4, on the other hand, is one of his best albums. He obviously isn’t beholden to the over-the-top rebellion he pioneered in the last decade, but he isn’t necessarily interested in returning to his early traditional music, either. That rebel is still part of him, but he doesn’t feel the need to press the issue. Songs here are more likely to be about complex relationships or his love of nature as partying and fighting. In fact, “Farthest Away” is a surprisingly introspective song about a relationship growing cold, and in “The Outdoor Plan” he sounds more excited about finding bear tracks than he used to be about drugs. He even talks about wanting to find a woman to settle down with. There’s no doubt that this is an honest slice of life from someone who refuses to be pigeonholed by anything in his past.

The songs are long, though. Almost half of them cross the six-minute mark, and album-opener “Nearly Gone” is eight and a half. The first time I listened to it, I was saying “this sounds good, but it’s a bit long” by four minutes. Long, repetitive refrains and instrumental breaks are used in almost every song.

They sound good, though, and I enjoy it now that I’m over the initial shock. Hank3 has written good songs, and he takes the time to play with each one’s sound. I wouldn’t quite call this his “jam band album”, but if I wanted to convince someone from that scene to try country music, this wouldn’t be a bad album to start with. Each song does have a distinct sound, from the electric riffs in “Hurtin For Certin” to the clawhammer banjo in “Possum In A Tree”.

The lyrics are still sometimes weak. I can ignore the repeated “Losing like a loser who’s got nothing to lose” in the otherwise-good “Deep Scars”, but “Held Up” is nothing but bad repetitive rhymes about visiting each southern state. (“Ain’t nothin’ like the feel of Virginia’s vagine.” Seriously?) Hank3 isn’t stuck in the trap of repeating themes from old albums, though, as he seemed to be in 2011, and so they are almost always new and interesting enough to carry the songs.

The 89-minute running time gives me plenty of chances to enjoy it and then to get bored. As with A Fiendish Threat, it wouldn’t hurt to have someone else to force Hank3 to pare this down sometimes. However, most of it is very good, and I think that almost every song on here will be someone’s favorite. Personally, I keep coming back to the catchy “Hurtin for Certin”, the freewheeling groove of “Dread Full Drive” and “Toothpickin”, and the depressed, human groove of “Deep Scars” and “Farthest Away”. “Looky Yonder Commin” is also a great song full of personality and confidence, which surprised me because the odes to his coon-hunting dog were the weakest part of his last country albums.

A lot of baggage and expectations always come along with Hank3’s new albums, but if you set all that aside and just look at the music, Brothers of the 4×4 may be his strongest country effort ever. He’s confident and experienced, and that rebel energy that could have driven him to an early grave has instead been harnessed to keep him experimenting with new sounds. This one has a couple songs that just need to go, and several more that should have been cut back, but there’s still more than one full album of great stuff here.

A Fiendish Threat: C

Brothers of the 4×4: B+

 

Reviewing Games on Boîte à Jeux – Previously Reviewed Ones

Boite a Jeux logoI’ve been playing a lot of board games recently on the web. I discussed these in general a couple months back, but I should start talking about the specific games as well. It actually seems a little tricky to review: How do I tell if my opinion is based on the game itself, or the way it plays on the site? So I’m going to start by looking at games that I had already played in person and reviewed before I played them online. Today, I’ll look at four on Boîte à Jeux, and next week I’ll talk about ones on Yucata.

My reviews for these games are focused mainly on why they work, or don’t, online. I’ve already covered the mechanics in earlier articles. My grades here do account for whether or not I enjoy the games in general, but also how they work in a turn-based system and how well they were implemented.

It turns out that the games I already knew are some of the best ones on Boîte, so the reviews here are very positive in three of the four cases. Strangely, the Yucata games I have reviewed already are some of the more disappointing ones there. Don’t think the extremes in these reviews represent the whole sites, though. As you’ll see when I get around to reviewing other ones in a month or two, both sites have their good and bad games.

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