Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Major Pop Culture That I Have Missed (Part III)

Today's installment is about major TV shows in the last few years that I missed out on.

Deadwood (2004-2006)

Set in the old West, about society-building and with more profanity than The Wire, Deadwood is held up to be one of the best shows of the last ten years. And I've certainly had opportunity to watch the three-season run, but the furthest I've gotten is watching one or two episodes. It is one of the shows on my long list and one of these days I will get to it, but so far I haven't felt like I need to drop everything and consume it.

The Sopranos (1999-2007)

See all of the words of high praise above and put them here too. The long-running mob drama seems to have made its impact in the culture. However, when it first started and was aired on CTV I watched the first episode. The first episode has a very grisly strangulation scene which put me off the entire show. I've never gone back and so far I don't plan to.

Terriers (2010)

There have been many single-season shows that have shown promise and even brilliance, then have been cancelled. My So Called Life, Freaks and Geeks, Rubicon, Nowhere Man, and others. Terriers is one of the most recent examples of this. It is also a show that is high up on my to-watch list, I just haven't gotten to it yet. About unlicenced private investigators in California and somewhat reminicent of The Rockford Files, the critics went crazy over this one. The only advantage of shows like this being cancelled is that it is easier to catch up with them. Though, like Rubicon, Terriers has not been released on disc yet.

Ranma 1/2 (animation, TV 1989-1992 + various sequels)

When I got into anime in my late teens, Ranma 1/2 numbered over a hundred episodes (161 of the TV show alone). It was a popular comedy-martial arts show at the time, but I had to draw the line somewhere. Watching over a hundred episodes at that time on VHS was a feat and honestly, as significant as the title was, I wasn't particularily drawn to it. I know the premise, a magical spring turns people into the last thing that was in it and that transformation happens every time they are exposed to water. Although I have since lifted by self-imposed ban on longer series (over the last several years I've made my way through Rose of Versailles and Turn A Gundam), and I plan to watch at least parts of Urusei Yatsura and One Piece, I've never felt it necessary to go back to catch up with Ranma 1/2.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Major Pop Culture That I Have Missed (Part II)

Continuing on with some of the major pop culture phenomena that I have not experienced, this time turning to books.

The books of Anne McCaffrey

Anne McCaffrey died this past week. Many of my friends read her books and were huge fans of them. I even promised one of those friends that I would read one of them. However, at least eighteen years have passed since then and I still have not read any of her books. I'm not really sure why. I certainly have nothing against her science-fiction flavoured fantasy novels of dragons and dragonriders. I guess I always had other fantasy and science fiction books to read (many of which I still have to read), so I never made time for her books.

The books of John Bellairs

The House With a Clock In Its Walls. The Face In the Frost. I have a feeling that I would love these books now. Perhaps even then. However, when I was a child I was very afraid of scary things. And Edward Gorey's illustrations were scary. I now love Edward Gorey's illustrations and I appreciate his humour. However, the younger version of me couldn't stand them. And as the vast majority of Bellair's books had illustrations by Gorey, I avoided them.

The Hardy Boys

Okay, I have read some of the Hardy Boys books, just not very many -- maybe two or three. I even had the detective guide featuring them.

I was a huge mystery fan in the middle grades, and the supernatural mysteries of Betty Ren Wright (The Dollhouse Murders) along with Willo Davis Roberts' View From the Cherry Tree, The Ghost Squad series (E. W. Hildick), and the puzzle mysteries of Donald Sobol (Encyclopedia Brown, Two-Minute Mysteries), along with The Three Investigators (my formula series of choice) kept me busy, so I never felt it necessary to read The Hardy Boys.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Fun of Switching Bodies

Last night I caught up with last week's episode of Lost Girl, "Original Skin." It was a body-switch story, with all of the main characters (including Dyson's new girlfriend). The cause of the switch was beer spiked with gorgon's blood. Part of the fun of this type of episode is that actors can act like other characters, often to comic effect (as well as realizing the desires of some of the audiece to have certain pairs of characters kiss who wouldn't normally). "Original Skin" certainly took advantage of these elements.

In the body-switch episode in Utena, after an encounter with some explosive curry, Utena and Anthy switch bodies. Seeing Utena submissive and passive, while Anthy is playing sports and active is a fun contrast (even a number of characters comment on it). Likewise, in "Original Skin" characters who have opposite traits inhabit eachother's bodies. Über-masculine Dyson posseses the body of party girl Kenzie, and Kenzie, Dyson's body. Unlike some other body-switch episodes though, the body switch isn't just for laughs -- the characters realize new things about eachother. Kenzie detects what Dyson lost at the end of season one and Dyson realizes just how frail yet awesome Kenzie is. (Oh, and it turns out that she should be wearing glasses.)

This added element to the story speaks to the show's development of characters for its viewers. While there are certainly story elements that are included (such as the return of the Nain Rouge), Dyson's observations about Kenzie go more towards adding interesting traits that probably won't have a sigificant role in the story, and adds more information about her that we didn't know before. I can guarantee though that from last week on, fans will add the fact that Kenzie is near-sighted when desiring her to new viewers in the same way that they will note what Dyson gave up to the Norn to viewers coming in a the beginning or middle of season two.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Forming a List (Anime, Part VI)

Continuing on with another title, another favourite of mine.

Revolutionary Girl Utena

Created by the Be-Papas group, including director Kunihiko Ikuhara (Sailor Moon S), scriptwriter Yoji Enokido (FLCL, RahXephon), animator Shinya Hasegawa (Sailor Moon SuperS), and manga artist Chiho Saito (Magnolia Waltz), Revolutionary Girl Utena (Utena) is the story of a girl, Utena Tenjou, who dresses in a boy's uniform and whose goal is to be a prince (who actively saves those in need). With roots in Tezuka's Princess Knight and Ikeda's Rose of Versailles, Be-Papas takes elements of these classic shows, blends them with new elements and makes their own creation.

Utena is drawn into mysterious duels between the student council members of her school, Ohtori Academy, for control over the passive Anthy Himemiya who tends to her rose garden. In the first story arc after Utena almost accidently wins control of Anthy, the other members of the student council fight her. And in turn, each of those characters is developed and their backgrounds and motivations revealed. The second arc introduces a rival group of duelists, the Black Rose Duelists, who try to win Anthy. This second group of duelists consist of secondary characters that we have already met, and who have close relationships with student council members that are ultimately unsatisfying in some aspect. Although the most formulaic arc, the second arc is one of my favourites because of the character development of characters that would normally be left in the shadows. The third and fourth arcs follow, taking the story forward in questioning who Utena wants to be and what the duels are being conducted for.

Utena is presented in a stylized surrealism -- Ohtori Academy is full of mysteries, shadow girls (literally shadow silhouettes on the walls who give commentary like a Greek chorus), a dueling arena with an upside down floating castle, repressed feelings and emotions -- it makes for a unique viewing experience.

The TV series was followed by a movie, The Adolescence of Utena, which is not a recap of the TV series, nor a retelling, but while set in a very different world (Ohtori Academy is even more surreal, with moving classrooms and stairwells) it resolves many of the unresolved story threads from the TV series.

Ikuhara's latest project is Mawaru Penguindrum, and it is facinating to watch for similar elements as appeared in Utena popping up, but in very different contexts. Penguindrum so far hasn't conveyed the same level of repression and melodrama, but it is a worthy successor to Utena in style.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Major Pop Culture That I Have Missed (Part I)

Today I saw The Muppets, the new film from Jason Segel (and directed by James Robin, who also directed Flight of the Conchords and Da Ali G Show). I have a confession to make though: growing up I did not watch The Muppet Show.

More acurately, I did not watch it very often. I have watched plenty of Sesame Street and Muppet Babies, and over the years I have seen a lot of footage from The Muppet Show. I do have vague memories of seeing it at my paternal Grandma's house sporatically -- but I don't remember watching it regularily. Likewise, I although I am sure I have seen some of the Muppet movies, I do not remember them very well which probably means I only saw them once or a very few times. In contrast, I remember seeing the Sesame Street film Follow That Bird (featuring Big Bird) in theatre.

It seems that for my generation (those of us born in the late 1970s and early 1980s), many elements of the pop culture that we grew up on is coming back in various forms. Transformers, one of the pop culture staples of my childhood which I was obsessive over for years, has been remade into three blockbuster films (none of which seem to be written as well as a single episode of the mid-1980s cartoon). DVD boxsets of many standouts of my childhood cartoon watching have been released in the last handful of years including The Real Ghostbusters and Transformers.

The reason for this resurgence of 1980s cartoons is clear. Those of us who grew up watching the shows are nostalgic for them and for the most part are in our 30s and are willing to buy them. Maybe with the excuse that we will show them to the next generation, or more honestly so we can see if there was really anything in what we remember so fondly.

With the deluge of all of this media and the release of The Muppets this week, I am reminded of what I have missed over the years. Some things I was aware of and purposely avoided (like G.I. Joe), others I realize in retrospect I would have loved, but wasn't exposed to (like Animaniacs in the 1990s).

Fraggle Rock (1983-1985)

Another of Jim Henson's creations that I didn't follow as avidly as others. I have thought for years that I was just a little too young for it at the time it was originally on, but there are plenty of people my age (33) who were into it. At the time though I wasn't aware of any of them, one the neighbours who was two years older than me was really into it. I was aware of the show and I probably saw at least some of the episodes, but I don't remember watching it very much.

G.I. Joe (the animated series, 1985-1986)

One of the things that Hasbro did very well with G.I. Joe and Transformers, was make characters who had very defined roles. Although I never had any G.I. Joe toys, I do remember sometimes looking at the boxes in the toy departments of department stores and being facinated by the different jobs each had -- from munitions experts to strategy to driving (I'm making these up, but they're probably accurate). For Transformers, the function, tech specs (which originally you sort of needed the clear red plastic to read because the blue line graphing out the different attributes was obscured by red lines), picture and description -- along with the comics and the cartoon -- fueled years of internal fantasy over the characters. (The toys were a bit of a disappointment in comparrison.)

I never got into G.I. Joe though and if I did watch an episode of the cartoon, it wasn't until I was an adult. It was popular at the same time as Transformers, and my heart was with Transformers.

Transformers (the animated series, seasons 2, 3 and 4; late 1985-1987)

What? you may be asking. Yes, I was a huge Transformers fan. Yes, to a degree I still am (at least of Generation One). And yes, I saw Transformers: The Movie in theatre and still remember in despair when Siskel and Ebert gave it a thumbs down review. Optimus Prime's death in the movie was one of the major cultural events of my childhood. I'm not sure exactly what happened that caused this gap, but I have an idea.

Transformers was a multi-media experience for me. I watched the cartoon, I played with the toys (well, more live action roleplayed the characters with my friends) and read the comics. The first issue of the comic that I bought was #8. It featured the Dinobots on the cover and was one of the things that made me a reader. I followed the comics for years. However, with the cartoon series, I remember the first season (1984, only sixteen episodes) and the movie (1986). However, the rest of the cartoon series, especially after the movie, I don't remember. That is, with one notable exception. At the local video rental store I found a copy of The Return of Optimus Prime. I am pretty sure that I rented it and watched it, but I didn't watch a lot of the animated series after that. Of course, having said that, at the same time I continued to read the comic (which had started pretty dark) and the UK comics (which had started to be imported by the time I was in grade 6) which went to even darker and more experimental places than the American series did at that point.

By the time I was in grade 6 (1989-90) the other factor was that the animated series was not on as much and the videos that were available were only of a handful of episodes. (I remember watching the first three episodes of season one -- especially the beginning part of the first episode when the characters are in their Cybertronian vehicle forms before being changed by the Ark to resemble Earth vehicles.)

This is no longer a concern though, with the release of the complete series, first by Rhino, then by Time Warner. The entire run of Transformers is there for my consumption, whenever I want it.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Dragonmeet, What Cthulhloid Goodess Will You Bring?

The British gaming convention organized by Cubicle 7 is this weekend. A year ago I didn't even know that Dragonmeet existed, let alone what it was called, this year I've been waiting with anticipation.

That's because some of the best Cthulhu-related products in English are coming from the UK these days. Cubicle 7's Cthulhu Britannica line is providing sourcebooks about 1920s England and Scotland (so far the only book on Wales is in German). Also in this UK-oriented line is the first boxset for Call of Cthulhu in nearly twenty years, focusing on London. After Bookhounds of London (and the Occult Guide to London) from the Trail of Cthulhu line (Pelgrane Press), it'll be interesting to see how this boxset compares.

(Speaking of Trail of Cthulhu, the Eternal Lies campaign is also getting closer to its release, possibly as early as late summer in 2012.)

Not everything is coming from the UK though. One of Chaosium's monographs that is also slowly nearing completion is the guide for the classic Masks of Nyarlethotep campaign.

All in all, the stars seem to be right for some Cthulhu gaming.

What happened to Buy Nothing Day?

Maybe I just haven't been paying attention recently, but this is the first year in a long time that I haven't heard about Buy Nothing Day. I know that it is that day, but I can't recall hearing that it was coming up at all in the last few weeks.

Black Friday, the largest shopping day of the year in the USA ( and which Buy Nothing Day is a response to), has been covered quite a bit, in part with articles with the ominous headlines such as "Black Friday shoppers shot, pepper sprayed."

So I just looked up Buy Nothing Day. The first hit is a page on Adbusters' web site and it turns out that this is the twentieth anniversary of the anti-consumerism celebration. That makes it especially odd that I haven't heard anything leading up today. With the Occupy movement getting so much attention, one would think this would be a perfect time to question the way we spend money (and much of that money not even real money at all, much of the purchases being paid by credit card).

Even knowing it was Buy Nothing Day though, I wasn't as careful not to buy anything as I have been in the past. When I first consciously did not buy anything on the Friday after American Thanksgiving, I was very careful. I'd bring a snack to eat at school so I wouldn't spend money on food. Even so, I was pretty good this year. All I bought today was lunch ($6.25 + $1 tip) and a box of Kleenex ($3.50). I'm sure my twenty-something-year-old self would be disgusted, but I don't feel too guilty.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Forty-eight years of Doctor Who

The first time I encountered Doctor Who I turned it off. YTV was running Doctor Who just before Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT). Our TV at home didn't go above channel 13 and YTV was channel 22, so I had to go over to my Grandparents house around 5 to watch it.

My opinion of Doctor Who changed. Later in the year I began watching the ends of the episodes and at some point must have been pulled in by one of the cliffhangers. I don't remember the story that I became a regular viewer. I remember watching a lot of the Seventh Doctor's stories (all of them) and most of the Sixth's -- especially A Trial of a Timelord. My dislike of the Sixth Doctor I recall focused on how mean he was to Peri (one of his companions). I also remember watching a lot of the First, Third and the first few stories of the Fourth Doctor.

The next year I was in England for my step-father's sabbatical year. Though Doctor Who was not running there (it had wrapped up a year or two earlier), the local branch of the library had many of the novelizations of the the long-running series. The Central Library had even more. I read all of the novelizations that I could get my hands on -- from First Doctor stories like the two-volume Dalek Master Plan to Fourth Doctor stories like Image of the Fendahl and The Face of Evil.

After devouring the novelizations and getting my first Doctor Who reference books, I returned to Canada where I continued to watch the series (and learned what this Red Dwarf thing was that my classmates had been watching when Sherlock Holmes was on). Soon after the New Adventures novels began release. One of my uncles gave me the first one or two of these. They followed the Seventh Doctor and Ace on their continuing adventures after Survival, the last aired story. It wasn't until years later that I found out about Andrew Cartmell's "master plan" in his depiction of the Doctor. However, even not knowing it, I loved it. I read everything I could get my hands on, and was rewarded with the release of the Handbook series covering each Doctor.

A lot of time has passed since then. Doctor Who has gone from being cancelled, to being reintroduced as a made-for-TV movie (that was ultimately disappointing for a purest like me), to being relaunched even more years later in its current incarnation which has been running six seasons now. I still like watching episodes of the classic series, still haven't caught up on all of the Fourth and Fifth Doctor stories, but I'm not worried. I'll have plenty of new Who to watch in the upcoming years and the off-seasons to catch up on the classic series.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Forming a List (Anime, Part V)

Continuing on with my ongoing list of anime.

Patlabor 2

It's unfair of me to isolate this from the overall Patlabor series, which includes two OVAs, a TV series, three movies and a number of mini-episodes. However, of all of the parts of Patlabor, this second movie stands by itself as one of the strongest political thrillers in live action or animation that I've watched.

In the near future (1990s) human-operated robots are used widely for varying work purposes. These robots are called "labors" and with the rise of the use of these labors, crime with them also increases. So in the introduction of Patrol Labor (Patlabor) divisions in police forces. In a future post I will talk more about the overall series and its large cast of characters. Only a handful of those characters star here, the rest being relegated to background characters.

To quote the description on the back of the special edition boxset, "Patlabor 2 draws police commanders Ki'ichi Gotoh and Shinobou Nagumo into the hunt for Tsuge, a rogue office of the Japan Self-Defense Froces connected with an escalating wave of terrorist attacks. But the investigation into the plot is guarded by secrets both personal and political, as the awkening fear of terror in Tokyo is slowly answered by the dream-like fade of democracy into martial law."

Many of the same staff who worked on Ghost in the Shell also worked on Patlabor 2. Headgear primaries Mamoru Oshii (director) and Kazunori Ito (scriptwriter) are present. The film watched in retrospect seems to foresee the state Tokyo would be in after the sarin gas attacks, as well as New York directly after the September 11 attacks. Indeed, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, this was the film that I turned to for an artistic explanation of what was happening. The shots of military vehicles rolling through Tokyo as it begins to snow are some of the most beautiful scenes in the film, heigtened by Kenji Kawai's haunting score.

This is the one to show anybody who doubts how diverse anime can be.

On Promotional Decks and Losing

This August at Gencon, Fantasy Flight Games had a special tournament for their Lord of the Rings: The Card Game (LotR)with a promotional encounter deck named The Massing at Osgiliath. Reports came out shortly afterwards reporting that it was the most difficult encounter deck yet. While some of the players were shocked at the difficulty, I rejoiced. For as you may have gathered, I enjoy losing.

LotR is a cooperative game, where the players are trying to succeed at a quest. One to four quest cards make up the stages of the quest that the players have to make it through to win. Threats come from the encounter deck, which includes enemies, events and dangerous locations, which must be overcome to succeed. The rising danger in the game is measured by a player's threat level and if a player's threat reaches 50, that player loses. A player also loses if all of her heroes are killed.

LotR can already be a very difficult game to win (as a cooperative game should be), but The Massing at Osgiliath ramped up that difficulty. For anyone following the previous promotional decks that Fantasy Flight Games has released for its card games, this should not have been a surprise. The Wildling Deck and Circle of Spies deck for A Game of Thrones (AGoT) and the Yithian Deck for Call of Cthulhu are previous examples of near-unbeatable decks that Fantasy Flight Games has produced for promotional tournaments.

The joy of these decks comes in the rare instance in which they are beaten, through skill and luck. They a goal to reach, an obstacle to overcome. And are part of what make these games so much fun to play.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Dominion: World Championships

Earlier this evening I played two games of Dominion (using cards from the new Hinterlands expansion) while watching the Magic: The Gathering World Championships final. Here are some thoughts on Magic, Dominion and the Magic World Championships.

Dominion was the first of the recent trend of deck building games, but it has its roots in games like Magic. Dominion is basically an open draft of cards, using resources and actions from the deck one is actively constructing to best draft the winning deck (with the most victory points). If draft environments create the most even playing fields for similarily-experienced players in Magic, then Dominion is even more fair, as every player is aware of which cards are available at the beginning of each game. However, the metagame of the Magic World Championship is not an even playing field.

Ideally, for constructed play in Magic the metagame should be full of threats, answers to those threats and further answers to those first answers. These threats and answers can be deck archetypes or can be single- or multi-card combinations that can be used in multiple decks. Imagine these threats and answers and answers to answers work something like the game rock-paper-scissors. The key to be successful in a tournament is to figure out the metagame, which can become a matter of trying to outguess what people will be playing. Usually in a given overall metagame (the format of Worlds is standard, so the last two years worth of card sets are playable, over a thousand individual cards) there will be a deck or decks that are particularily strong. Let's say there is one deck and call it "rock." Ideally, in a healthy environment, there will be a solid strategy against rock, embodied in a deck we will call "paper."

Initially with these two decks, deciding on what to play would be determined on what is likely to be played. If the tournament was dominated by rock, then it would be best to play paper. However, as most players know this going in, they may decide to play paper instead of rock. However, if most of them play paper, then playing paper is pointless because it is meant to fight rock. A match of two paper decks would be what is called a mirror match and would be determined more by chance (cards drawn) than anything else. Add to this a deck we will call scissors, which is the answer to paper and the analogy is complete. Scissors will do well against paper, but will not do very well against rock. However, if the pairings are favorable and enough paper decks are played, then scissors may do very well. Add onto this that players have to decide which deck they will play with before entering the tournament and cannot change their mind once they have decided, and you can see how the dynamics in a tournament can work.

Granted, the rock-paper-scissors analogy is overly simplistic. At any given time in an environment there may be multiple decks that could be considered rock (Team Channel-Fireball thought it was Tempered Steel going into Worlds, as four members of the team played exactly the same deck going into the Top 8), and each of those decks may have an answer and each of those decks. . . and so on. The reality of many recent world championships (in Magic and other games) is that there is one dominant deck that really does outperform everything else and does not seemingly have an answer. While that was not the case in this year's Magic World Championships (with the possible exception of Tempered Steel going into the Top 8), it has been true in the past with the Psychatog deck in 2002, Faeries in 2008, and recent world championships for Call of Cthulhu and Warhammer: Invasion.

Even so, the rock-paper-scissors analogy is a good one for what a healthy environment should look like. Variety is good in an environment. It makes things more interesting.

One of the selections of cards that I played with in one of my Dominion: Hinterlands games had an interesting balance of cards. The selection included Trader, a response action that played as an action trashes a card and allows the player to gain a number of Silver equal to the cost of the card trashed. (Silver is a treasure card worth 2 coins, used to buy more cards.) Another card was Noble Brigand, which can effectively steal Silver and Gold (worth 3 coins) off of opponents' decks. Noble Brigand makes buying Silver and Gold undesirable early in the game, while normally getting these two treasure cards is usually a good strategy. However, it turns out that Trader works so quickly, converting other cards into Silver, playing Noble Brigand isn't fast enough to catch up. If we applied the rock-paper-scissors model to this situationl, if buying Silver early in the game is "rock," then Noble Brigand is "paper" and Trader is "scissors." (Trader isn't as good as just buying Silver in many instances, because it requires buying other more expensive cards and converting them to Silver, which takes more time than just buying multiple Silvers early and buying high-victory point cards.)

In the finals of the Magic World Championships, it was clear going in (decklists were available) which player had the strongest deck. (Reflected in the World Champions 3-0 victory in the best of five match.) In my game of Dominion: Hinterlands, my opponent took advantage of the Silver-producing Trader engine, and I tried to counter with Noble Brigand. However, as noted above, Trader outran Noble Brigand and my opponent had a well-earned victory.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Things That Keep Popping Up: Tintin and the Cthulhu Mythos

My history with Tintin goes back to when I began taking piano lessons. My piano teacher had a number of Tintin books in her waiting room, which I would read before waiting for my piano lesson to start. Eventually I borrowed the books from the library, and even today I still return to random volumes (okay, especially Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon).

The Tintin books have seemingly never gone out of print and are as much a staple of children's reading now as they were for decades before I discovered them. This year, however, another animated movie based on Herge's popular series of comics about the intrepid boy reporter and his dog Snowy, possibly the biggest Tintin movie that we have seen in the English-language market. With this release, Tintin will be even more popular than it has been already (fighting for reading space with so many other book-movie behemoths). With this renewed interest, new covers will be adorning the new editions of Herge's classic series.

This morning my girlfriend came across Chris Thorndycroft's blog that has Tintin covers by artist Muray Groat for Tintin books that never were. Combining Tintin and Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, I can only guess how these would have brought a little more madness to the world.

(If you haven't already, have a look at the covers and then continue reading this post.)

It's fun to spot which covers Groat has taken Tintin out of or has added elements of the Mythos into. For example, the images of Tintin and Snowy are taken from the cover of The Calculus Affair, reversed, and added into Tintin in Innsmouth (watching deep ones shambling towards the sea instead of the soldiers searching for Professor Calculus). The At the Mountains of Madness cover is seemingly inspired by Tintin in Tibet, but judging from Tintin's clothes, Tintin's image is probably taken from another story.

The combination of Tintin and the Mythos seems a perfect fit. Tintin fits the mold of a fearless investigator of the Mythos, and at least one of the Tintin books had elements of weird fiction (The Shooting Star). If these Tintin-Mythos books did exist, they would be great templates for Call of Cthulhu adventures (in the pulp vein).

I can only dream.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Forming a List (Anime, Part IV)

Another title from my core anime collection.

Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade

I have a friend who has been interested in postmodern fairy tale retellings for about as long as I've known her. Back when we'd read stories to eachother on the phone, she would sometimes read me some of the stories from the Datlow and Windling anthologies. Today postmodern fairy tale retellings have a stable presence of pop culture, whether it is through comics like Fables or TV shows like Once Upon a Time, Grimm and Lost Girl or a growing number of picture books (starting with Scieszka and Smith's The Stinky Cheese Man and with roots going back at least as far as James Stevenson's straight-yet-tongue-in-cheek retellings of the some of the classics). I sometimes wonder if anybody reads the original stories anymore (apart from doing so with the intenet to adapt them).

Directed by Hiroyuki Okiura (whose latest film just premiered this summer) and written by Mamoru Oshii, Jin-Roh is framed around "Little Red Riding Hood" (more the darker Perrault version than the happy-ending version the Grimms are known for) and set in an alternate 1960s Japan that was developed through some of Oshii's non-anime work. Although flawed in a number of ways, the story of Fuse, a member of an elite miltary unit, and his obsession over a suicide bomber and her sister is perfect for those of us who love reworkings of classic fairy tale stories.

As well, the animation dream team that worked on the Patlabor films and Ghost in the Shell reunite for this one. Director Okiura, who did character designs for Ghost in the Shell and key animation for both Patlabor films, here also does storyboards and character designs. Hiromasa Ogura reprises his role as art director, and the man who would go on to direct Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Eden of the East, Kenji Kamiyama, takes the role of animation director. Furthermore, on the music front, Koko Kanno collaborator Hajime Mizoguchi delivers some great orchestral pieces.

Jin-Roh is one of the few films that got a Bu-ray release through Bandai Visual USA before it was folded into Bandai Entertainment. Before that it was first released in 2002 in a special edition that included the soundtrack CD and regular edition through Bandai Entertainment.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Forming a List (Anime, Part III)

Today we will turn to one of my favourite shows.

Neon Genesis Evangelion

One of the things that has drawn Western viewers into anime has been the complex nature of the storylines compared to the relatively simplistic storylines of American animation. Taking the most stereotypical tropes from giant robot shows, the staff at Gainax, under Hideako Anno's direction, created one of the landmarks of mid-90s anime that told a multi-generational story with action, angst, humour, and drama.

While some viewers are turned off by the angst of the main characters and the use of religious symbols to create an air of mystery around the alien invaders, called "Angels" (in the English version) and each named after Christian angels, I have remained facinated with Evangelion since I first encountered it in 1996 or 1997.

From the first episode, it is clear that the show starts in the middle of things. Main character Shinji arrives in Tokyo-3 just as it is being attacked by one of the mysterious Angels. Shinji is confronted by his long-absent father and is told he must pilot a giant robot, which may not actually be a robot at all, to fight the attacking Angel. It is a great hook, and we are sucked in deeper and deeper into the story from there.

Evangelion's influence can be seen in anime from the mid-90s onwards. For example characters like Rei Ayanami, one of the other Evangelion pilots, can be seen in shows from the mid-90s onwards in anime shows. At the same time, Evangelion itself was influenced heavily by shows that came before it, from Space Runaway Ideon to the British live-action series UFO.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

If I Can Only Have Three Copies of Each Card, Why Do I Have Four Copies of Some? (And Other Changes)

I've recently been looking through my Call of Cthulhu cards. Going through decks that I haven't looked at in a while, I began realizing that there were four copies of some of some cards. Isn't there a limit of three copies per card, I thought. The current rulebook clearly states that the limit is three copies of a single named card. Had I been cheating with all of these decks when I played with them? Finally I dug out a rule sheet from the last base set of the game while it was a CCG and was relieved to learn that the limit had been four copies of a card. Which brings me to my topic for tonight, changes that have been made to CCGs that have been successful and not so successful.

Restrictions, Bannings and Reservations

By the time I got into Magic: The Gathering, it had a restricted list. Cards (only released a short year before I started playing) that were so powerful that only one copy was allowed in constructed decks. Many of these cards were already insanely expensive. With changing formats, some of these cards became banned, not allowed at all in constructed decks. Most of these restrictions and banning did not affect any of us in my play group, as we didn't have very large card pools (yet) and most of us missed those early days of the game.

For games that have new parts being added constantly and an ever changing overall metagame, it is necessary for certain cards to be somehow restricted from competitive (read: non-casual) play. Despite inherent balances being intially designed into games, with growth comes new strategies that dominate the field. And as variety is one important element of a healthy environment, if there is no immediate in-game solution, then restriction of the cards that make the strategy dominant must be restricted somehow. If players at a major tournament are all playing the same deck and what decides whether they win or lose a match is determined by who wins a coin toss to go first or who draws a key card first, they may as well be flipping coins, because that is how exciting the game will be.

Legend of the Five Rings (L5R), which is one of the oldest still-surviving card games, had a famous ad celebrating that the game had 0 banned cards and 0 restricted cards, an obvious poke at Magic. In time though, it had its own list of banned cards. While nobody enjoys buying a pack of cards and getting cards that can't be played with, but it is important for the overall health of the game to have this control. In fact, I think it is inevitable now for any game that has an organized play system to end up with some type of restrictions on certain cards.

Changing Card Backs

It turns out that the International Olympic Committee has trademarked any logo with interlocking rings. This was not good news for L5R, whose card backs had the game's distinctive logo, five inter-locking rings with "Legend of the Five Rings" written overtop. If players are upset about restrictions on which cards they own that they can use to play, having the backs of cards change is even more trouble-causing. Playing with cards that can be easily identifed from their backs is an obvious problem, and although card sleeves were added in starters of the first expansion affected, it was a bad move (if necessary).

Of course, as mentioned above, L5R is still going fairly strong, so whatever effect the change to the card backs had, it obviously didn't kill off the game. When Call of Cthulhu moved from being a CCG to an Living Card Game (LCG), the backs (which had "Collectible Card Game" on them) also changed. However, between the change in L5R (in 2000) and the change in Call of Cthulhu (in 2008), the use of card sleeves increased. As well, while Spirit Wars, the first expansion for L5R that featured the new card backs, was a direct continuation of L5R, the LCG Core Set, which introduced the new Call of Cthulhu card backs, was a re-launch of the game after it had all but died.

Fantasy Flight Game's introduction of the Living Card Game

I've spent a lot of money on CCGs through the years. A lot of money. Collectible card games are not a cheap hobby. By the time Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) introduced the LCG model I was buying two boxes of each expansion, sometimes more of the base sets. I was actively playing two games at the time (A Game of Thrones and Call of Cthulhu), both made by FFG. This was the amount of booster packs that I had to buy to get a good playset for each expansion, and at that, rarely a full playset (3x or 4x of each card). The days of having incomplete playsets, focused playsets on certain factions, or buying expansions a booster pack at a time were long over.

The LCG model released the expansions in full play sets (with 40 cards per pack -- with 3x10 cards and 1x10; later revised to 60 cards per pack with 3x20 cards). I loved it. It meant a huge cost savings for me. However, one of the members of my playgroup didn't like the change. He preferred the randomness of the CCG model and having an unequal number of copies of the cards. While I undestand he misses the excitement of opening a booster pack not knowing what cards he would get, I think the days of not being able to build any deck that we wanted because we were missing cards were long over by then.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Price of An Episode

I'm considering buying TV shows through iTunes. Normally I get my TV shows through a combination of DVD/Blu-ray, downloading and streaming online. However, I have an iPad now that can deal with high definition video better than my computer can, so I'm strongly considering taking that route.

Let's start with the three shows that I am actively watching.

Mawaru Penguindrum -- no official North American distribution.

My Little Pony: Frienship is Magic -- not available through iTunes, but each episode is uploaded to YouTube by the end of the day it initially airs.

Lost Girl -- streamed for free on Showcase's web site, available through iTunes (season pass for season 2: $34.99 HD/$30.99 SD).

Next let's look at some of the shows that I have recently bought on Blu-ray or DVD:

Doctor Who, Series 6, Part I (episodes 1-7): Cost of the Blu-ray box-set (1080p): $30.98 (let's say that I bought it for the current Amazon price of $25.99 though). Cost on iTunes (720p): $23.99.

Law & Order: Not really fair, as I just go the complete series DVD boxset, which ended up coming out to about $25 per season. Still, season 20 of L&O on iTunes (standard definition) goes for $34.99.

The Twilight Zone: Only the first three seasons (of five) are available on iTunes ($59.99 for season 1 in 720p HD). The Blu-ray (1080p) was close to $80 per season, which is closer to what season 2 goes for in iTunes ( $2.49 per episode for 37 episodes).

And now shows that I would consider buying through iTunes:

The Good Wife: I've only heard good things about this one. Season 1 on DVD (which I can never find in stores) goes for $44.99 normally, $30.14 currently on Amazon. On iTunes season 1 goes for $64.99 (HD) or $49.99 (SD). Subsequent seasons (the show is currently in its third season) are similarly priced (and a season pass is available for s3). Season 2 DVDs go for $59.99 normally, $44.99 currently on Amazon.

Doctor Who (classic series): These are a bargain in iTunes. Four-episode serials go for $5.99, six-episode serials for $8.99. The selection isn't great, but the price is good. (Compare with the DVDs of these serials -- The Talons of Weng-Chiang, an eight-episode serial, with extras goes for $43.98 normally on DVD, currently $34.99 on Amazon.)

I like the idea of the season pass, getting a new episode just after it airs. With some shows I like to keep up with the current episodes (like Doctor Who, Lost Girl and A Game of Thrones), whereas others I can wait until the season is long over.

One of the choices that I have made is that the shows that I do buy through iTunes, I will not buy again on disc. Buying discs of the shows that I follow has been something that I have done, but I think buying the show once is good enough (though that rule seemingly hasn't applied to anime DVDs).

Another thing that I have noticed with this new way to buy my shows is that I am not in a rush to buy the shows on iTunes. With disc releases, I usually buy them within a week of release (whether I'm going to watch them immediately or not). I haven't started collecting TV episodes in iTunes yet (the one show that I have bought, a classic Doctor Who serial, I have watched most of since buying).

Monday, November 14, 2011

On learning CCGs

Here are some lessons that I've learned in learning and teaching to play collectible card games (CCGs) in no particular order.

There is a learning curve.

I have been playing CCGs for nineteen years now, and many other boardgames and card games before then. I like to think that I have a fairly good grasp on how these games work. However, there are things that I realized over time (it took me a good two years playing Magic: The Gathering before I got the grasp of deckbuidling for that game). Thus, it is important to start new players with the basic concepts of the game and her play with simple decks first, then getting to more complex ones.

Back when I was playing Doomtown actively, there was a player I knew from playing Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) who wanted to try out Doomtown. So he played with my playgroup. At the time my playgroup, who all started playing at the same time, had mastered deckbuidling for the game and we had refined the decks we played over months of play and with every expansion that had been released. Needless to say, he was overwhelmed and commented that we should use beginner decks with new players. I think my response was to blink at him. I have since learned that lesson.

Winning is important to most beginning players.

I still have a hard time wrapping my mind around this one. Growing up I played a lot of boardgames with my step-brother and other family members. They were all better players than me generally and I rarely won. In fact, I remember the single time I won a game of Stratego against my step-brother (it was while he was watching a hockey game). The point is, I never expected to win and if I did win, it was a huge achievement. I still had fun playing though, and I worked hard to master the games that I played.

Flash forward several years to when I started playing L5R. There was a very active play group in Saskatoon at the time, so I sat down with four or five other players to play with my Phoenix Kiho deck. I won. One of the players I was playing with was the one mentioned above who soon after tried out Doomtown. I realized that he was expecting an easier time, and that I was probably given an easier time that first game that I played. Which may have worked for others, but didn't work for me, because one of my motivations for playing is to get better.

The point here is that winning is important to a lot of people, and can be a good motivator for them to continue playing.

Winning is not everything, but it is important to focus on.

This is actually a lesson that I learned in Monopoly. When I was about eleven or twelve years old I was obsessed with Monopoly. I had a book about Monopoly (which was the first analysis I read of a boardgame) which pointed out that in the actual rules of Monopoly there was no money in the middle that you won by landing on Free Parking. In fact, this money in the middle house rule slowed down the game! Furthermore, a game of Monopoly should last no more than two hours! The reason that games of Monopoly sometimes took legendary amounts of time to complete (if they finished at all) were because the players had stopped focusing on the winning condition: to bankrupt your oppponents.

While I have learned since then that when teaching someone a new game, starting with, "The goal is to win," doesn't work quite as well as I once thought it might. While it is important to note what the win conditions are (and the end-of-game conditions), most people don't appreciate being told that their goal is to win.

In CCGs, this focus on winning is one of the most important things to keep in mind when deckbuilding. "How does this deck win?" is something that a deckbuilder must ask herself through the whole process. Once that element is built into the deck, then you can focus on how the deck can respond to the local metagame.

Factions help to draw new players in. Story too.

The first faction-based game that I played was L5R. Set in a fictional medieval-Asian themed world, L5R has a storyline based around a number of clans vying for control of the Emerald Empire. Each clan has a different theme -- dishonour (Scorpion), politics (Crane), magic (Phoenix), military (defensive -- Crab; offensive -- Lion; cavalary -- Unicorn) and the forces of evil (Shadowlands). When I entered the game I was facinated by the Phoenix and Crane clans. This not only focused my deck types, but also focused my collection of cards. Cards for other clans I could trade for more cards of my clans. In addition to this was a rich story, part of which was told in the rulebooks, part of which was told in the flavour text on the cards. Clan was set against Clan, so there was even a reason to battle with opponents in the game. (Over time these inter-Clan rivalries became like the relationships in Gossip Girl, taking on every permutation thinkable.) My love for playing and stories that go along with it date back to Transformers, but the story that was written for L5R, especially for its first story arc was truly epic and got me playing.

Another part of the story in L5R was that it was interactive in that players could determine the outcome of the story by how they played. In organized touraments, players would declare for a clan and if enough players won for a particular clan that clan would get a benefit in the story and sometimes would get a card representing that win. For the world championship that determined the resolution of the first storyline, multiple endings had been written for each clan respectively if they won. As clans were elminated leading up to the finals, those storylines were destroyed. In the end the final two players (representing Crane and Lion respectively) decided to share the win, causing the story guru to destroy the remaining endings and create a new one on the spot.

It's easy to understand why L5R players were passionate about their game.

Your playgroup is the game.

Especially with deckbuilding games, the people you play with make the game playable. Because the game is constantly evolving (if it is still being released), the decks you play with should be constantly changing. Part of the metagame (game within the game) aspect of these games is that there is a reactionary element to deckbuilding depending on what is currently dominant. Most games have answering strategies to strategies, and part of the fun is finding what those answers are. In the last few years my playgroup for the active games that I play has not been playing as much, so although I continue to follow the games, I have not been building decks as much as I had in the past. The nature of deckbuilding games requires a level of commitment by players that isn't required for boardgames, as so much of the game is focused on deckbuilding when not actually playing. Although the players can have differing levels of commitement, there has to be a base level of commitment for these games or else they don't really work.

The more cards you have access to, the richer the game experience.

When I started playing Magic, the card pool that my friends and I had access to was fairly small. We were in high school and didn't have a lot of money to spend on the game (even if we did, there wasn't a lot of it available until Fallen Empires was released). However, as the card pool expands, the more options open up. Learning which cards are more powerful than others is possible, as you don't have to play with all of the cards you have of given colour or faction.

New games often suffer from having a small pool of cards to build decks with. However, while the card pool is small, the learning curve is a little less steep (without added choices of more cards), and with additional cards deckbuilding becomes more diverse.

The real objective is fun.

I once saw a group of kids playing Magic. An older kid was instructing how to play and was not using the rules that I was familiar with. I was tempted to go over and give them a quick rules summary, then realized that as long as they were having fun, whether or not they were playing the Magic I knew and loved or another, it didn't really matter.

The wonderful thing about CCGs is that they are both fun at a social level, in playing with other people, and fun at an indivdual level, in deckbuilding. And because they are constantly changing, adapting to new cards and new decks makes these games continue to be fun for a long, long time.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Weekday Podcasts

Continuing on with some of the podcasts I regularly listen to. This time the ones that are released on weekdays.

Tiesto's Club Life

One of the two dance music podcasts that I listen to. Tiesto is one of the most famous DJs in the world and his trance podcasts energize my cycling, walking or just doing chores.

Dance Department

The other of the two dance music podcasts that I listen to. From Radio 538 in Amsterdam, this is the first podcast that I found that kept me up with current dance music (mostly house and trance). Although predominantly music, there are some interviews with various DJs and producers during the Winter Music Conference and on Ibiza during the summer.

Savage Lovecast

I discovered this one years ago while visiting a friend in Winnipeg. The audio offshoot of Dan Savage's widely syndicated column.

Search Engine

Now hosted by TVO, originally from CBC. A podcast about the impact of the Internet on society. The articles and interviews are always facinating. The show has focused a lot on copyright and the upcoming changes to copyright legislation, but a variety of other topics have also been discussed and explored.

The Dice Tower

Boardgames are one of the things that I am passionate about. This podcast is done by others who are also passionate about boardgames. Recently it has banded together with other podcasts about boardgames which together gives a complete picture of contemporary boardgaming.

Reasonable Discussions

The AV Club's weekly podcast. My weekly peek into pop culture. Even topics that I don't usually pay much attention to, like music reviews, are fun to listen to. The "extracurricular activities" section where the contributors talk about stuff they've been listening to/reading/watching reminds me of our open book discussions in SPLAT.

Talking TV With Ryan and Ryan

The reason I like to listen to pop culture podcasts is similar to why I like reading review journals. I get a snapshot of what is new or about to be released and why it's important (or not important). There is a lot of TV that I would like to watch, but don't have the time to. This podcast not only allows me to keep up with what's new, but also to decide what's worth watching.

The Doctor Who Podcast

In a sea of podcasts about Doctor Who, this is the one that I have stuck with. While I usually listen to this one more while there are new episodes airing, I have been making an effort to listen to more episodes off-season. This podcast is very focused, the three main hosts are all fans of the classic series as well as of the new series, have different opinions about episodes and are articulate about it.

The H. P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast (HPPodcraft)

The most recent addition to my weekday podcasts, this is a weekly podcast that covers the stories of H. P. Lovecraft. This is like a really good discussion in a lit class. Although they put out separate readings of selected stories by HPL, there are short segments from the stories that are inserted in each episode. I've been downloading previous episodes as I want to know more about certain stories, and waiting for some of the other (later) stories to be discussed (the stories are being discussed in publishing order).

Power and Politics (and Power and Politics: The War Room)

The audio podcast of CBC News Network's daily (M-F) TV program about federal politics. I've recently been depressed about federal (and provincial) politics, so I haven't been keeping up recently with this one. However, this is the one to listen to keep up with what's happening on Parliament Hill.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Weekend Podcasts

It's the weekend, and here are some of the podcasts that I spend parts of my weekend (and the following week) listening to.


The podcast of Anime News Network. Has great interviews with people in the North American anime and manga industry. Also features a lot of talk about film, tv and the hazards of being a critic in an online world.


A great little podcast about film. A mix of reviews of new films, with great thematic marathons of older films. Great analysis of movies by people who know their stuff. (It encourages me that even they have giant to-watch lists too.)

The House

Federal politics radio program from CBC. I've a little behind on this one because of my despair about politics in general. I began listening when Kathleen Petty took over from Don Newman when he retired. I still have fond memories of watching Kathleen Petty doing election camnpaign coverage in 1997 at the then-new CBC Newsworld headquarters in Calgary. Evan Solomon (who I still remember fondly from Hot Type) who recently has been doing Power and Politics (the daily CBC News Network federal politics show with an audio podcast) has now taken over. When I need to catch up on the week in politics, I turn to this one.

Cardboard of the Rings

The podcast (from Toronto) about the Lord of the Rings: The Card Game. The card game is a relatively new Living Card Game (LCG) from Fantasy Flight Games, which is one of the games I am most actively interested in currently. I plan to play a game of LotR with the podcasters when I visit Toronto the next time. . .

Deck Construct

A podcast about Magic: The Gathering done by a young man living in or around London. When I listen to this podcast I am reminded that in England students actually learn how to make an argument well. The podcast is done very professionally, stays on topic and the young man who does it is very articulate. He is not the best Magic player, but he is passionate and dedicated to the game and that comes through.

2 Champs and a Chump

A podcast about the Game of Thrones LCG. Although on hiatus for a few months, this podcast is hosted by two World Champions and a non-World Champion. These guys know the game inside out and it's always fun to hear their analysis of the latest chapter packs and the current overall metagame.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Deciding On a Deck to Construct

Over the last nineteen years I have played a lot of deck construction games (call them Collectible Card Games, Trading Card Games or Living Card Games) in the last nineteen years. Each game has its own unique elements to consider when constructing a deck for it. For example, in Magic: The Gathering it is the land/mana base that play with, in Doomtown it is the card suits and values you play with and what poker hands those cards will make, in 7th Sea it is the attack types on the cards, in Game of Thrones it is the challenge icons that you are playing with, in Call of Cthulhu it is which struggle icons you play with, and so on. In all though, the process of deckbuilding itself is similar. You start with an idea, you look at what cards you can implement that idea with (or sometimes which cards you can flesh it out with), put it together, edit it down and then play with it and revise it until moving on to the next deck and repeating the process.

Like everything else, the more you do of something, the easier it becomes. Things connect in your brain in new ways. With these games, the more variety you are exposed to, the more ways that cards work together or against eachother you become aware of. Much of this is summed up in the concept of the metagame, the game within the game, adapting to your current play environment.

When I first started playing Magic: The Gathering the way my friends and I constructed decks was to throw all of our cards of certain colours together, throw in a bunch of appropriate land and play. We had great fun, but had no idea about how to contruct decks. I remember the first really focused, constructed deck that I played against. It was a mono-blue deck with Merfolk of the Pearl Trident, Clone, Vesuvan Doppelganger and Leviathan. Keep in mind I was probably playing with a set of random black-blue cards and my deck was about 100 cards. I was slaughtered. What I remembered though is how everything in the opposing deck worked together. Two swings from Leviathan (a 10/10 trampler) was prettymuch all one needed to win, so the cost of sacking two islands a turn to it was nothing. Flash forward another year when my step-brother visited from out of town, bringing to my usual playgroup a blue-black-white deck. It was just after Ice Age had been released and the deck had Merieke Ri Berit and Norritt. Most of us had moved away from random assortments of cards of the same colours by this point, but all of our games were Mickey Mouse, in that we didn't actively attack eachother for the first half of the game while we built up forces, then one player would launch an attack and we would deal with him or her, then build up until another player tried attacking. Needless to say, my step-brother beat us soundly.

Another number of years passed. My deck construction skills improved, as did those of my fellow players. Then one of my friends bought copies of the World Championship decks for Magic. My mind was blown. I had sworn off counterspell decks because I had felt they were too unfair. What's the fun in every spell you try playing countered by your opponent? However, one of the decks had counterspells and didn't play them unfairly. The counterspells were there to gain time to build up to the heavy hitters. Previously each of us who played together had our own focus of deck types -- red-green aggro, white control/life-gain, and so on -- but being exposed to these different decks opened up the possibilities. I began truly understanding that certain cards were better to play with than others. A good part of this is came from our collections growing over time, so that the choices of what cards we had to play with become less restrictive.

Since then I have become much better at deck construction, building a multitide of decks for a many different games. While I am not constructing decks regularly anymore, I remain facinated by deck construction in the multitude of games that I keep track of. When I do have a chance to think about deck construction, I am often faced with decks that are begging to be made. The component pieces clearly line up because they are thematically linked (ghouls in one of the recent cycles in Call of Cthulhu for instance) or specifically name eachother (like a few cycles of cards in M11). I prefer to give my attention to the decks that are a little quieter though, the ones that come while flipping through a pack of cards and make you look a card from another pack I looked at previously. While it's easy to put together the obvious decks, and is often a good way to put together teaching decks or good thematic decks, my favourite decks are the quieter ones. The ones that take form in moments of inspiration or realization. These decks often don't work to win, some of my favourite Magic decks have been like Rube Goldberg machines, but sometimes they do, and in both cases the result is fun.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Worker Placement + Area Control = Great Fun

I got board the Alien Frontiers train about two months ago.

I was on Kickstarter pledging money to a friend's theatre project and while I was there decided to check out Alien Frontiers. I had heard a lot about the game on The Dice Tower podcast and, being a devout member of the cult of the new, I thought I should have a look at it. The Kickstarter program was actually for the first expansion for the game, but one of the funding levels included the game itself. So I pledged my money and waited.

Now that the game has arrived and I have played it twice, I am glad I supported the expansion (and got the game). Alien Frontiers is a worker placement/area control game and will be compared to Kingsburg for all time. That is because both games share a worker placement mechanic involving placing dice. In Kingsburg each player has a dedicated set of (six-sided) dice that she rolls each turn and places on characters that each have a unique set of actions. In Alien Frontiers each player has a set of dice (or "ships") which can be placed on a multitude of orbital platforms, each with its own action.

While Kingsburg is a deeper game -- there are more complex choices for players to make through the course of the game and more going on in general -- Alien Frontiers has more player conflict, especially in the area control aspect of the game. The primary thematic-goal of Alien Frontiers is to colonize a planet, which is divided up into territories (each named after a different science fiction author). Victory points are scored by placing colonies in each territory, as well as controlling (having more colonies than any other player) territories. (There are a few other ways to gain victory points, but placing colonies and controlling territories are the major ones.) Early in the game each player usually takes over different territories (each of which also gives a bonus ability for the controller), but as the mid-game sets in players begin to the fight for the same territories. As victory points can be lost as well as won, control over a territory can mean the difference between winning and losing. This leads to decisions having to made about fortifying a single territory (getting fewer victory points, but securing the territory from takeover by another player) or expanding quickly (getting more victory points, but being more susceptible to takeover by another player).

The worker placement aspect of the game ties in very well with the space colonization theme. The obital colonies with which players can dock ships are designed so that ships (dice) of any value can be used, but doubles, triples, 6s and sets of 1-2-3/2-3-4/4-5-6 are particularly valuable and can be used for stronger actions. Add to this the abilities controlling the different territories give and the abilities from alien tech cards, and balance is restored to a game that could have been too dependant on lucky dice rolls.

I'm looking forward to playing more of Alien Frontiers, and also for the expansion which will add even more depth to the overall game.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Why I Watch the TV Shows That I Do

I just finished catching up with the last two week's of the AV Club's Reasonable Discussions podcast. Two of the segments got me thinking about how the reasons behind what shows I watch have changed over time.

The two segments were about NBC's comedies (Community, Parks and Recreation) and why they are not watched as much as perhaps they deserve to be, and about the new Steve (Hunger) McQueen film Shame being rated NC-17 and the studio seemingly not caring that the rating will mean that the movie will not be able to play in a number of theatres or be advertised in print in a number of places.

In the segment about NBC the point was made that networks will place shows next to eachother so that there will be carryover in the audience. (Openings with good hooks are great at this, as I disovered watching CSI a few years ago -- after finishing one episode I would watch the beginning of the next episode and get sucked in.) Although I don't doubt that this is a strategy, it has no impact on how I watch television currently. It did when I was a child though and prettymuch defines the pattern of my TV watching on Saturday mornings.

When I was watching Saturday morning television (which was before live action began intruding into animation's domain of Saturday mornings), my goal (if I was conscious of it) was to fill my time by watching cartoons. Although some of the shows I was quite fond of (Muppet Babies, Real Ghostbusters, Looney Toons), for the most part many of the shows were just filler. Before and after school TV watching was similar, filling time between getting home and eating supper. I was quite passionate about not missing episodes (even though everything was episodic at that time, with the notable exception of Robotech, whose storyline I didn't follow closely until much, much later). There was a lot of concern at the time about how much television children consumed, and looking back at myself I can understand why. (Don't get me wrong, I did a lot of other stuff as a child too, but I did watch a lot of TV.)

When I watch TV shows now I don't watch filler shows. Except when I'm at my Dad's for supper, I don't even watch commercials (except good ones on YouTube). In fact, in contrast to my TV watching as a child, now as an adult I find that I don't have enough time to watch what I want to. I don't watch time-wise as much as I did as a child (though the time I spend on the Internet plus the time I watch TV probably gets close to it), but when I do watch TV it is much more focused. I watch shows that I want to watch and I usually choose ahead of time what I will watch.

In addition to the obvious technological changes that have happened since the mid-1980s that makes my current television watching behaviour possible, there is a lot more available to watch now than there was then. At the beginning of one of the 20xx novels, Arthur C Clarke begins with a quote about how the numbers of the dead outnumber the living. It seems the same way with what is available to watch. Although there is a never-ending stream of new programs to watch, there is also a growing amount of older shows waiting to be caught up on. And even being discerning in what I decide to watch, the number of shows on my to-watch list is enormous.

So makes me decide to watch the shows that I do watch (or at least intend to watch)? I am a review junkie. I listen to and read reviews every week. I keep track of what's being released and what's being said about it. Although the to-watch list is ever-growing, I usually focus on a few titles at a time. For example here is a list of the shows that I am currently watching on a regular basis:

Mawaru Penguindrum
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic
Lost Girl

And on a semi-regular basis:

Space Battleship Yamato

I wonder what my ten-year-old self would have thought of that lineup.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Eternal Lies

For the last several months I have been emersing myself in games based on the Cthulhu Mythos. One of those games has been the Trail of Cthulhu roleplaying game, a re-working of Call of Cthulhu with the Gumshoe System and set in the 1930s.

There is something about Trail of Cthulhu that particularly appeals to me in the way I think about story. As an investigative game, its adventures are set up in scenes where clues are found, interpreted and followed. I believe that one of the joys of roleplaying games is creating a collective story, and the Trail of Cthulhu adventures are set up to provide a strong skeleton for that story. I've looked and have read through a number of releases for the game, and I have been impressed consistantly.

Eternal Lies is a large campaign that has been in the works for a while now. It has been compared to Masks of Nyarlathotep, the classic world-spanning campaign for Call of Cthulhu, and promises to be epic.

Ten years ago a group of investigators fought against the summoning of a Mythos creature (or "ancient and monstrous evil," if you prefer). They failed. Now you are investigating what happened, and more importantly, what went wrong. Along the way you get to visit "ancient crypts, abandoned estates, and festering slums. . . [, and] choked jungles." Oh yeah, and you also get to delve into the crushed psyches of your predecessors. In the end, the "world is yours to save. . . or lose."

Added to this, there is also a soundtrack that was composed to go along with the campaign. Although in practice using relatively short tracks themed to each section of the campaign may be hard to use, it adds another tool to set the mood.

Pelgrane Press is currently in the playtesting stage for Eternal Lies. Hopefully it will see release in the early part of 2012.

Monday, November 7, 2011

I Have to Say Something About It, Don't I?

Am I disappointed? Yes. Was I expecting this? Yes.

At the time of this writing the NDP is elected or leading in 9 seats out of 58 in Saskatchewan. Many of the close ridings that we hoped would go to the NDP did not. That includes the one I live in.

However, it is true that this is an opportunity for renewal. I realize we have been talking renewal for years, but with the NDP MLAs who have been elected, many of the old guard are out. Unlike previous opportunities for renewal, this may be the saddest, but best one.

I don't look forward to the potential gutting of OHS legislation or the continuing repressive labour legislation that will be coming in the next four years. Hopefully by the end of this new term we'll have some crown corporations left intact.

Here's looking forward to four years from now with hope.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Sometimes Cliches Can Be Handy

Since last year I have been running a game of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (3d ed). My play group, which consists of myself and three friends, does not meet very frequently. Life is busy and oftentimes the weekends are even busier. Back in July we were going to play (for the first time in months). One of our players wasn't able to make it though, so we cancelled. It wasn't until this weekend that all four of us were able to get together again. Unfortuantly, one of the players fell ill in the days leading up to the weekend and ended up not being able to make it.

We had planned to play on Sunday afternoon, and the weekend beforehand ended up being quite busy. So I basically had the two hours between waking up and when the other players arrived to figure out what to do. I could have cancelled, but the frequency of our play sessions is so infrequent that I wanted to carry on. In other games, the third player character could just take a backseat to the primary action, but I didn't want his player to miss out on the ongoing story. So I decided to pull a Ravenloft diversion.

Ravenloft is an Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D) setting that was released as such for Second Edition in 1990 (it appeared twice before in modules). Though Ravenloft is significant for a number of other things, what is important in this context is that it was a gothic horror realm (the "Demiplane of Dread") that any character from any AD&D setting could end up in. The charcter would be walking along one day, up would come the mists and there they were in Ravenloft.

Now one of my players is very much into developing his character's background, so I thought I would give him an opportunity do so through a little trick that I learned about in some of Graham Walmsley's Trail of Cthulhu modules -- directed scenes. In a directed scene the players play out the roles other than those of their player characters in a scene defined by the Game Master.

Adding to the above, I wanted an improvised short adventure that we could get through in two or three hours that wouldn't kill the player characters. Drawing partially from A Wrinkle in Time and the gothic horror present in the Innistrad block in Magic: The Gathering and in Ravenloft, I improvised a short adventure for my players. Here is the outline of it:

First, the player characters had been investigating strange goings-on in an old hunting lodge as part of the introductory "An Eye for an Eye" adventure included in the Core Set of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Everything around the two player characters froze and became grey. They were drawn out of the kitchen (where the last session had ended) and down the hallway, past a room where they saw a clue to the ongoing adventure, then outside where the mists rose up.

At this point I did directed scenes for each player character. I asked my players to think of the most traumatic thing that had happened shortly after they entered the Empire. (One character is a high elf and the other is a dwarf, so neither of them were originally born in the Empire, where most of Third Edition is set.) I gave them a few minutes.

The elf character had been taunted by a human and was beaten up in a brawl. The (human) man who taunted him and knocked him out would never be forgotten. The directed scene that I had the two players play was from just after the brawl between the elf and a human priest (of the goddess of healing) who he talked to afterwards. It worked much like a short therapy session, as the elf had also been taunted in his homeland due to his being an iligitimate child of a noble.

The dwarf character's immediate family and trading band had been killed by a warband of orcs. He would always remember the orc war chief that had killed those he was closest to. Afterwards, he wandered into a nearby town and met a barber-surgeon who he would apprentice under to become a barber-surgeon himself. The directed scene was of the meeting of these two characters, dwarf and human barber-surgeon.

Returning to the mists, the characters ended up on a road surrounded by dense forest (reminicent of Northern Saskatchewan). After travelling up the road for about twenty minutes they encountered three young children. The oldest of the children, a girl about seven years old, told the adventurers that their brother had been taken by monsters that had come out of the woods.

Scouting ahead, the elf ended up at a large clearing in which there was a guard house and a small fortress. He shot an arrow into a tree at the edge of the clearing to mark that he had been there. Then, recklessly knocking on the door of the guardhouse, he came face to face with his human tormentor for his flashback and was taken.

Arriving to the clearing later with the children, the dwarf failed to see the arrow in the tree. However, it was spotted by the older girl who said she and her younger siblings would wait by the tree with an arrow in it. The dwarf then checked the guardhouse, and finding it empy, tried the fortress. Coming face to face with the orcish war chief from his flashback, he was also taken.

Both characters came to in a courtyard, facing their own worst fears personified (as it were). Also in the courtyard, the abducted brother sitting on a throne wearing a crown. The fight began. Interestingly, the elf's primary tactic was to intimidate the thug who had taunted and beaten him up all that time ago. The war chief and the dwarf immedately drew weapons and engaged in battle. In the meantime, shadowy figures started gathering at the edges of the courtyard and approached slowly and menacingly.

A number of rounds of combat began. One of the interesting mechanics in Third Edition is that the custom dice allow forthe success and failure of an action to be separate from other positive or negative things happening when attempting that action. For example, when trying to climb a wall, you could succeed climbing it, but also pulling a muscle while doing so. The combat began focused on the primary adversaries -- these two figures from the player characters' respective pasts who had caused so much trauma. However, after several rounds of fairly unsuccessful combat, the player characters began focusing on the boy on the throne with the crown, who of course was the centre of what was happening to them. The elf began throwing daggers at the boy, some of which nicked his arms at which point, ever so briefly, the shdowy figures at the edges of the courtyard blinked out.

Soon the player characters were talking to the boy, telling him that his younger siblings needed him. At a particular high roll of boons, though the overall roll failed, the boy shouted out, "I'm afraid." Which was an invitation for the player characters to show him that they had overcome their fears, which they caught on to after about a full round. With some more successful pleas for the boy to be strong and think of his siblings, he overcame the evil influence of the crown, throwing it off.

The rest was fairly straightforward, the shadowy figures which had blinked out at least three times fully disappeared, the two adversaries faded out too. Of the crown? When they looked at where it had been thrown, it too had disappeared. Older brother was bandaged up (at least two daggers had hit him) and was reunited with his younger siblings outside.

Again the mists rose up, the children faded away and the player characters found themselves again in the kitchen of the hunting lodge they had started the session in.

There are some things that I would have liked to have differently (and may have, if I had had more time). The first is to have more detail about the monsters that took the boy. My players have already faced beastmen, but I wanted to have something almost more Lovecraftian. Recently looking a demo scenerio for Trail of Cthulhu, I was thinking of the good use of a night gaunt (which doesn't even take material form until it is right on you, let alone the alternate way that it "tickles"). Ultimately I went with a group of nondiscript monsters, as I thought that would be more terrifying for the young children the player characters met. These same monsters, of course, came back in the courtyard as a sideline menace as shadowy figures. (But wait, if the monsters disappeared when the crown was taken off the boy, how could they have been around to abduct him in the first place and place the crown on his head? Just go along with the story!)

The second thing I would do differently is make the threat more real to the player characters. I wish I had given them both good hits by their adversaries before they figured out what was actually going on. On the other hand though, the whole thing was very fear-driven and ended up being about facing your fears, so it makes sense that their fears ended up not being able to hurt them.

All in all, the imnprovised session made for a fun afternoon of gaming.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Forming a List (Anime, Part II)

Continuing on from yesterday, here are some thoughts on my core collection of anime.

Here and There, Now and Then

This may be the darkest anime that I have ever watched. Shu, a boy from present day, is transported to the far, far future where the sun is huge, resources are scarce and things are prettymuch as bleak as they can be. What makes the show all the more heartbreaking is that Shu is really earnest and energetic and, although transported to a hellish future, doesn't fall into a depressive whirlpool -- even when he is beaten down at every opportunity. Shu personifies the resolve that investigators in games like Call of Cthulhu must possess. Any normal person faced with similar circumstances (transported into a hellish future in Shu's case, facing the madness-inducing true nature of the universe in the investigators' case) would curl up in a ball and want to die (or just go insane). And speaking of insane, the main antagonist (who is the absolute dictator of a mobile city reminicent of the treaded cities of Phillip Reeve's Hungry City Chronicles) is absolutely unstable and insane, and can go from being coherent to raving mad instantaneously. To contrast with the overall dread of the show, the opening credits' music is upbeat, happy even, but with the constant sense of dread, it becomes bittersweet and exemplifies the longing to return to the time that Shu came from.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Forming a List (Anime, Part I)

We've been doing booklists at work for a while now, which have recently expanded into lists of CDs and DVDs. I immediately signed up to do a list of anime. My list is not due until next year, but I thought I would start the thought process here with two titles that are in my personal collection and write briefly about each one.

Cardcaptor Sakura

Although my first exposure to the magical girl genre was Sailor Moon, it is Cardcaptor Sakura that is the purest example I have seen of the subgenre. The same basic tropes are at play in both shows -- a young woman/girl who has a mystical destiny and magical powers, a magical animal guide, and a quest with weekly objects to collect -- Cardcaptor Sakura just pulls them off more succintly (part of this is that while Sailor Moon ran to 200 episodes --plus three movies -- Cardcaptor Sakura only had 70 episodes -- plus two movies). Cardcaptor Sakura also has an element of mystery that is largely missing in Sailor Moon (perhaps with the exceptions of Sailor Saturn and Chibi-Moon). While the foreshadowing is not subtle, it is present and a number of secondary characters that you wouldn't expect at first to be significant, become very significant by the end of the series.

Kino's Journey

This 13-episode series has a quiet tone and one of the most gender ambiguous characters I've ever encountered in fiction. When I watched the series for the first time, I often would swap the masculine and feminine third-person pronouns when talking about the main character, Kino. Is she a boy? Is he a girl? I had no idea, but the character facinated me. The premise of the series is that Kino journeys with a talking motorcycle through different lands learning about each, then moving on. Although this premise nominally creates a similar episodic structure to The Littlest Hobo or The Fugitive, Kino doesn't share Richard Kimble's (unrealizable) desire to stay, nor the nameless dog's desire to help. However, like both live-action characters, Kino does get drawn into events and often helps (or tries to help).