Monday, September 15, 2014

Board Game: Mimic

The Game: Mimic: Safari Edition
The Publisher: Funmaker Games
Time: 20-30 minutes
Players: Teagan and me

Game Play: Mimic has a bunch of "mimic cards," which have kaleidoscope-esque pictures of jungle animals in three different colors, "start cards" (just black with a star design), and "power cards" (cartoony, out-of-place monkeys drawings). The idea is to lay your cards down, two at a time, so as to form sets - a set is four cards, all the same color, with two different designs. But, you can only build out from a start card (you start with one in the center), and you can only build out three cards from the initial start card in any direction. When you form a set, you put a "score cube" down on the last card in your set.

Teagan is nonplussed.
Object is to lose all your score cubes. Power cards can be used to move cards, eliminate them, play a third one, and so forth, but you only get to use each one once.

Opinions: I think this game is actually pretty decent, but it's hard to know, because I'm still not sure if I was playing it right. The instruction booklet is composed of a series of lists, explaining the rules for each type of cards, but there's never an especially well-composed "order of play," and the instructions are unfriendly and hard to parse. That said, we started one game, decided we were doing it wrong, started again, and Teagan figured it out and won, so there's that.

Now she's plussed.
There's an "advanced" version of play that we haven't tried, and it supposedly works with three people. I need someone smarter than me to read the rules, apparently, because I still feel like I'm missing something.

Game designers, if you can't explain things well, get someone who can to write your rulebook.

Keep? Yeah. If I can figure it out, I think it'd be a good time-killer.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Character Creation: Little Wizards

As you may have noticed, I was having something of a rough day earlier. I have a little time before bed, so I'm going to make a quick character.

The Game: Little Wizards
The Publisher: Crafty Games
Degree of Familiarity: None, really. I've read and I helped my kids make characters the other day. We might play it this weekend.
Books Required: Just the one.

Little Wizards is an RPG for kids, wherein you play (yep) young wizards. Said wizards inhabit Coinworld, which has two halves (Heads and Tails), each with a bunch of archipelagos. Teagan and Cael made characters the other day, and that went pretty well, so let's get to this.

My first choice is whether I'm a Mage or a Sorcerer. Sorcerers are born with their magic; Mages learn it at school. Since my kids made Sorcerers, I'll make a Mage.

Now I get into details. I can make these up, roll on some charts, or do a combination. I like rolling, so I'll do that for now. I get: Hair that is wild and unruly, eyes that are bright green, and ears that are pointy, like a cat's. Sure.

For my Signature Feature, I roll "shoes that squeak." Eh. I think I shall reroll. Rain boots. Much better. I think they're bright red.

Personality: I get to determine my best quality, general nature, and worst quality. Hokay. I'm friendly, I'm generally fidgety, and I'm stubborn. Actually, I don't like stubborn. I'll be impulsive instead.

Now, my tastes. I get a like, something I enjoy, a dislike, and something I fear. Sure. I like shoes - actually, why not? He's already wearing rain boots. Let's say he's got a thing for boots. I enjoy camping; all right, that works. I fear spiders ( I making Ron Weasley?). And I dislike doing chores. Well, duh.

Motivations: I dream of brewing a new kind of potion. It's not the first thing I'd have chosen for this guy, but I'm OK with him enjoying potions. Maybe his dad was a Snape sort of person and it's not that he's got any great talent for potions, but he knows how much Dad loves them. He seeks to complete a rock collection. Now, see, that sounds much more like what my character would actually want to do.

OK, I'm off the charts and high on life. Gotta figure out which archipelago I'm from. I kinda like the Shivers Archipelago in Tails. Vampires, werewolves, and other such critters live there, and the inhabitants wind up having to discourage visitors from panicking. I think his family is from there, but he went to school in the Whispers Archipelago - where family is really important. That's maybe where he got the idea that he has to make potions like dad.

So now, stats. I've got three, Body, Heart, and Brain. One's Good, one's Better, one's Best. I think I'll be Best at Heart, Better at Body, and Good at Brain.

Ok, now magic. Hmm. Turns out Alchemy is a sorcerer thing. OK, so dad was a sorcerer, but I'm not (it skipped a generation). I get a Better and two Goods, here, so I'll put the Better in Broom Riding and the Goods into Shapechanging and Spellcasting.

Now, wizard gear! I get a broom, a hat, a wand, and a familiar.

Well, my broom was given to me by the werewolf family down the lane, but their youngest liked to chew on it, so it's got gnaw-marks all over it. My wand was my father's first wand, and it sometimes forgets that I'm not a sorcerer and gets impatient, spitting out sparks or waving by itself. My hat is an official Whispers Academy of Magic hat that I've embroidered with some personal touches (including the design of a boot). And my familiar...well, now I need the dice again.

The book says all familiars are black. I roll a hawk, vulture, kestrel, or condor. Hmm. I like "vulture," actually, given where I'm from. He calls his vulture "Loopy" (because he flies in circles, like they do), and doesn't quite get why other wizards get so creepy out by the bird.

And now some other belongings! My Li'l Wizard has a cloth sack that he uses to collect rocks, a rock hammer, and some polishing clothes. He generally wears the rain boots, but he'll swap out for formal boots at fancy occasions or sturdy boots for hiking.

And then I just need a name. Let's called him Surki (full name is Surkavius, but only his mom calls him that).

Why Depression Sucks (for me)

Depression sucks in general, but here's why it's hard for me personally. Do note that, as I'm typing this, I'm not actually "low" yet. I'm feeling the black dog a little more heavily today, but I'm hoping to shake him off.

If you don't know the black dog metaphor, I'll see if I can embed the video.

Depression, for me, was something I grappled with through most of my teen years, and a large chunk of my 20s. I attempted suicide when I was 16, and for years I thought it was because of the relationship I was in (rather, that I had just gotten out of) and a bunch of other stressors in my life. It wasn't. Looking back, I can see how a confluence of factors - including those stressors, but also including how our society tells teens that their problems don't matter, that they're stupid, that they're in the midst of the best time of their lives (oh my god, what a horrible destructive lie), that I just wanted attention, and so on and on. And all of that fed the dog.

It got better for me when Heather and I got married, but the dog came back hard as our marriage was winding down. It really didn't have much to do with Heather or our relationship. It was, again, a confluence of things. I was happy in a lot of ways, or I should have been, but here's the thing about the black dog, and why I find it so scary - the black dog doesn't care. It hears all of the "but you have all these good things going for you." It hears that, nods, and stares. It doesn't care for the good things, because it knows that the good things are an attempt to distract you, and that dog is fucking implacable.

In 2009 I very nearly ended it all. And, again, it wasn't that I was sad. Sadness is just one little part of depression. It was mostly that I was terrified. Sadness has a cause. I was sad when my father died. I was sad when I didn't get into grad school for writing (though that was probably for the best). Depression isn't traceable to any one thing, as much as my traitorous brain tries to make it about one thing or another. But at the end of the day, it's this swirling, horrible, chaotic hole that threatens to swallow me, and the only way I could see to make that feeling of terrible, unchecked freefall was to stop.

I didn't want to die. I wanted to stop.

I got better. I realized that day, after I'd been standing in my driveway in the freezing cold wondering how long it would take hypothermia to set in if I walked into the woods, stripped down and got in the creek, that I really needed help. So, encouraged by the people who loved me, I went back into therapy. I considered medication, but I wanted to try to get past the black dog without it, and that worked out. If I hadn't been able to drive the dog off by just realigning my own thoughts, you can bet I'd have started on meds. I used to be anti-meds. I'm not anymore. I'm anti-feeling-like-death-would-be-sweet-release.

Depression sucks (for me) because it's scary and because it's unpredictable. Sure, when things get overwhelming it's hard to cope, but that's not the same thing. I can get past "overwhelmed" by taking some time with my kids or my friends, or watching Super Troopers for the 100th time, or whatever. The black dog doesn't care about any of that. It's patient, it's tenacious, and it's happy - rather, willing - to wait until I'm alone and then barge in. The black dog doesn't bite. That I could cope with; pain's easy. The black dog just acts like this fucking echo of all the shit in my head that I hate.

Scariest thing?

Sometimes that black dog wins.

Sometimes people fall into that hole he makes in them, and they can't get out. Some people alter themselves chemically to try and fix the problem, some people compensate in other ways. And eventually, some folks just...give up. They fall in, and they stop struggling. I know that feeling. But I don't want it.

The black dog, however, does not care what I want. So I have to. I have to care harder and louder and more passionately because if I do, I can eventually send the dog away.

Like I said at the beginning, I'm not depressed right now. I'm just...having a hard time. Being sick took something out of me, ongoing health issues are worrying me, I have a lot to do, and going to work every day has become harder because so much of my job is slowly getting replaced by mind-numbing bullshit.

The dog isn't here yet. But I can hear its little toenails, and I really, really don't want it to find me.

Movie #271: A Fish Called Wanda

A Fish Called Wanda is a crime comedy starring John Cleese, Michael Palin, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Kevin Kline. You might notice that's the same cast as Fierce Creatures...wait, deja vu.

Anyway. Wanda (Curtis) is a jewel thief, partnered up with a London gangster named George (Tom Georgeson) and his flunky/materials procurer Ken (Palin). She brings in her "brother" (actually lover), Otto, an ex-cia spook and complete numbskull (Kline, in an Oscar-winning performance) to handle the violent stuff.

But she has her own plans - she and Otto set George up after the robbery, whereupon she plans to grab the diamonds they stole and skip town...only George, not being a complete idiot, moved them and she doesn't know where. So she keeps Otto on, and moves to seduce George's lawyer, Archie, (Cleese), figuring if George cops a please he'll tell Archie where the jewels are first.

Archie is trapped in a marriage to a sarcastic, privileged wife (Maria Aitken), and stuck with his spoiled, shallow daughter (Cynthia Cleese, credited as Caylor), and is generally unhappy. Wanda's charms work on him, a few ethical niggles aside (interestingly, it's about the fact that she's a defense witness; he never so much as puts up a fight on the "I'm already married" front) and they fall in love. In the end, it all goes haywire, Archie, exposed, cuts his losses and helps Wanda steal the diamonds, and they flee to South American and start a leper colony.

I'm not saying much about Kline's character, but he really makes the movie. He's kind of Archer before Archer was a thing; he's highly skilled but a complete idiot, with a nasty sadistic streak to boot (he tortures Ken into telling him where the diamonds are by eating his entire tank of fish in front of him, including the titular Wanda). Palin, too, has a nicely understated performance, using a severe stutter (Palin himself has a stutter, and even has a fluency center named for him) and behaving mostly nicely - except when he kills an old lady by killing her dogs one by one (accidentally, though killing the old lady was always the plan). So nobody's really an upright moral human being here.

With that said, it's fun to watch Wanda's seduction of Archie evolve from purely self-serving to something she's enjoying to something she's conflicted about, to when she realizes she's really hot for him and if only he's rich! (But he's not.) Archie, similarly, gets a character arc, but it's less pronounced.

It's fun, but it's British, and you need to be prepared for some violence to people and animals. But given that, it's a classic comedy and worthy of the praise it gets.

My grade: A-
Rewatch value: Medium-high

Next up: The Hunger Games

Monday, September 8, 2014

Movie #270: Fierce Creatures

Fierce Creatures is a comedy starring John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, and Michael Palin - which, you might know, are the four leads from A Fish Called Wanda. Sequel? Not so much, it's what Kline called an "equal" (which it isn't), whatever that means.

So: A zoo in England is purchase by New Zealand-born media magnate Rod McCain (Kline). He installs former Hong Kong police officer Rollo Lee (Cleese) to run it, on the understanding that it, like all his acquisitions, turn a hefty profit (which it won't, because it's a zoo). Willa Weston (Curits), hired to run a TV network that Rod sold off, gets herself installed as the head of said zoo, with McCain's idiot son Vince (also Kline, in his main role) tagging along.

Lee, in his brief period as director of the zoo, institutes a policy that all animals must be (as the title suggests) fierce. This leads to some amusing scenes with the small mammals keeper (Robert Linsday) trying to convince Lee that animals like anteaters and meerkats are vicious monsters, while the loquacious insect keeper Bugsy Malone (Palin, and no, I didn't make that name up) points out that while a tarantula is harmless, it's perceived as dangerous, and if what we want is the perception of risk...

...blah. The fierce creatures initiative gets put by the wayside almost immediately, as Vince and Willa arrive to take over, and they don't care if things are fierce, so it's never mentioned again. Vince sets about selling sponsorships on the animals, while Lee is busted down to middle management and falls in love with Willa, all the while kah-razy happenstance seems to indicate that Lee is bangin' all the tail in the zoo, and we ain't just talking about the keepers.

The movie feels like a sitcom, frankly. The plot works well enough if you don't squint, the jokes are funny (and Cleese and Curtis have some fun chemistry), and the animals are cute. But there's no sense of time - events that should take weeks happen in a day, and the ending is contrived as hell. Interestingly, the ending was reshot long after the original cut debuted (and was found unsatisfying, but I have no idea what the content was), which is why Carey Lowell just kind of vanishes from the movie.

All in all, it's not bad, but A Fish Called Wanda is worlds better.

My Grade: B-
Rewatch Value: Medium-high (look, watchable isn't the same as good)

Next up: A Fish Called Wanda

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Character Creation: Anathema

The Game: Anathema
The Publisher: End Transmission
Degree of Familiarity: None. I've read it.
Books Required: Just the one.

Anathema is a game that came out of the same Game Chef competition that produced They Became Flesh. It's billed as "a roleplaying game of death deferred," which I'm not sure is quite accurate, but of course I haven't played it. The cover is simple and sexy, though some of the font choices are a little strange and hard to read (but I'm a White Wolf vet, so I'm pretty inured).

The idea is that you're someone who's died, and been recruited by The Balance (have I mentioned it annoys me when games capitalize articles? just me?) to "kill as many people in as short a time as possible."

Yep. That's the game. You kill people. You're not given much guidance on who to kill or how, you just kill people.

I have some issues with this, not least of which is that the book gives you stats for people that you should be killing. It's mentioned that low-level Shrouds (your character is called a "Shroud") kill people one at a time, while more powerful Shrouds arrange plane crashes and plagues and so forth.

The idea is an intriguing one. And I don't necessary mean that in a good way. I'm not necessarily opposed to going to dark places in my roleplaying, obviously (curse the darkness is hardly a walk in the park, and I've played and enjoyed Poison'd, which is hardly light and fluffy). But this...I dunno. It reads (and again, haven't played it) like a mostly traditional RPG; roll a dice pool, anything above a 3 is a success, and considering that the designer is also working on Shadowrun 5th I guess that's not a huge surprise. But the tone of the game feels like it should be an indie game, like the killing and the death and everything should be abstracted. Put another way, there are stats in the back of the book for the people you'll be killing, arranged by how much of a fight they can put up. So children/old people are first.

That makes me profoundly uncomfortable, not (just) because the game is suggested wholesale murder might be fun to roleplay, but because it's presently people in the same way that other games present orcs.

Oh, another peeve: There's no character sheet. I asked one of the designers, but never got a response, and I can't find it. Said designer also mentioned, by the way, that this game hasn't exactly been extensively playtested, which makes me wonder why it's been published. I mean, why rush?

Anyway, I'm also informed that the game sells, so I dunno, maybe it works in play. I'm in no hurry to try.

OK. Chargen.

Before we construct a Shroud, the book says, we must decide on an identity for our Husk. I should pick name, profession, personality, history, age, appearance, family, and all the other little details (quoting here) that make someone human. Next sentence: "None of these factors will have any mechanical impact on game play, but they should be recorded in as much detail as possible."


If it doesn't impact gameplay, why the hell is it there? Or maybe it just doesn't have mechanical impact, in which case I have the same question, really, because if you want the players to care about something, you make it important to the game. But whatevs. I need a Husk.

Method of death is important. Most common cause of death in the US is heart disease. Accidents are fifth on the list. I'll split the difference and say my Husk died of a stroke. He was in his 40s, in otherwise decent health, but had a brain bleed that got out of control. One day he just keeled over, and his last thought, quite apart from being profound or poignant, was "I'm going to be late for the movie."

His name was Harold Duncan, and he was a high school math teacher. He covered one wall of his classroom with whiteboard paper because he hated the feel of chalk. He was married, but he and his wife grew distant within a few years of their wedding. They liked each other well enough, and they were comfortable, but there wasn't much fiery passion there. Harold liked his work, coached soccer, and was just beginning to wonder if maybe he might be missing something when his brain caught up with him.

It seems character creation takes place during the first session of play (that is, chargen is part of the game, of which I approve). I do think, however, that the actual steps could be called out a little more clearly. I get 10 points to split up between Combat, Perception, Manipulation, and Resistance. Max is five, min is 1. OK.

Well, let's assume that I'm not going to be a bruiser, because I rarely play those. I'll put 4 points into Perception, 2 into Combat, and 3 each into Manipulation and Resistance.

Well, looking ahead, my Husk died due to illness, which means my primary Dominion is Pestilence (makes sense). I start with 3 in said Dominion. Then I get 5 points to buy up other Dominions, but I can't put them higher than my primary -1, which is 2. Right? Weird. Why not just say I get 2/2/1? Oh, well, I guess there are six Dominions total, so I could take the other five at 1 point, but eh.

OK, let's see. War is boring combat stuff with really no flavor to it (1st dot, extra damage, 2nd dot, extra attack, third dot, ladies' lingerie). Misfortune is more interesting, though the first power is called "Accident Freak." WTF?

Anyway, I'll take 2 points there. Atrophy allows me to give humans "points of Age," which I assume means I can...age them. The dot rating just determines range. Famine Dominion lets me destroy food and then dehydrate people, and Despair lets me sap people's Will.

Huh. Well, I'll take Despair 2 and then Atrophy 1, how about.

So, now I get more points to put into Abilities (oh, the points before were for the Husk, these are the Shroud's influence, kinda like the two-step process in Mummy: The Resurrection). Sure. I can go over 5 now, but every point over 5 costs 2 points. Well, I'll boost Perception to 5. Most of my powers rely on Manipulation, so I'll spend two points to put that to 5, and then two more to put it to 6. And then I'll put the last point into Resistance.

Now I decide why the (sorry, "The") Balance chose me. I can be Violent ("I KILLLL YOOOUUU"), Lost ("Huh?") or Kindly ("I AM ANGST!"). Well, clearly Violent doesn't work. Kindly makes some sense, but I think I'll go Lost. When I get closer to understanding who I was in life and why I was chosen, I gain Will. Sure. I lose Will by not trying to do that.

And then I get a Victim Preference and a Victim Avoidance. OH GOD. These are people that I prefer to kill and that I prefer not to kill. One of the examples is "haughty blonde cheerleader". That's uncomfortable, given the amount of blithe misogyny that gets slung around in this hobby (the other example of Victim Preference is "KKK Members").

Well, I think I'll take "incompetent bureaucrats" as my Victim Preference, and "teenage athletes" as my Avoidance, why not.

Almost done. I have to determine how much time elapsed between death and Shroud-hood. It's very vague, though. Rolling a d6, I get "days." OK. It only took days for Harold to become a Shroud.

And now I get (hang on; it's a d6) five random memory fragments. I'm gonna get get some entropy. Oh, wait, it's actually a d6-2 because I'm Lost. So just three.

I get 3, which is a sibling or close friend. Sure. Let's say Harold had a younger sister named Olivia, training for the Olympics when Harold died (Harold doesn't remember which event).

A roll of 4 gives me an important lover or lack thereof. Sure. Let's say his wife, Jackie. He remembers her in a vague, abstract sort of way. I think that in play, the sad lesson here would be that's pretty much how their marriage was.

And finally, 8 means an enemy. Harold's principal, Mr. Aiken, is old as dirt and has no time for any approach to teaching that doesn't involve the way he used to do it...40 years ago. Harold had to get the union involved when he put that white board stuff up in his room. Aiken's first on the block when the Harold-Shroud comes around, man.

"In terms of their formidable supernatural powers, Shrouds that have newly returned are as weak as kittens." FUCK THAT. If I'm going to be weak as a kitten, I want to actually be playing a kitten. (And there are lots of games for that.) But I think that puts me done.

Name: Bleed
Husk: Harold Duncan
Abilities: Combat 2, Perception 5, Manipulation 6, Resistance 4
Dominions: Pestilence 3, Atrophy 1, Despair 2, Misfortune 2
Trait That Doesn't Have a Name: Lost
Memory Fragments: Olivia (sister), Jackie (wife), Mr. Aiken (dickbag principal)
Will: 10
Anathema: 0

There ya have it!

Friday, September 5, 2014

Movie #269: Hudson Hawk

Hudson Hawk is a weird caper/comedy starring Bruce Willis, Danny Aiello, Andie MacDowell, James Coburn, Richard E. Grant, and Sandra Bernhard.

Eddie "the Hudson Hawk" (Willis) is a great cat burglar who, upon being released from prison, is immediately blackmailed into robbing an auction house with his partner Tommy (Aiello). They steal a statuette of a horse created by Da Vinci, but it turns out the people who wanted it (his, an Italian crime family called the Mario Brothers! No, an English butler with retractable blades in his hands!) really want this nifty crystal inside it.

Hawk meets up with a scholar from the Vatican (MacDowell), but barely has time to flirt before being drugged by an evil CIA agent (Coburn) and whisked off to Rome to rob said Vatican of Da Vinci's Codex (which contains another crystal). Turns out the real masterminds are a pair of industrialists (Grant and Bernhard, chewing scenery so hard you'd think they were starving) who want to recreate Da Vinci's gold machine and flood the market with gold to destroy the world's economy.

The movie is light on plot, but dense on characters. There are a lot of people flitting it, doing things, and then dying, and it can be hard to keep track of the layers, but it's actually pretty comic-booky at the end of the day. And the movie gets sillier and more ridiculous as it goes, to the point where Bernhard flicks Willis' nose and there's a boing sound effect.

This movie bombed at the box office, and it's routinely held up as an example of a crappy movie, but I dunno. I like it. Willis hasn't gotten all dour yet, the supporting cast looks like their having fun, Coburn gets to be badass and threatening (it was remarked, while we watched this movie, that there's no shame in having your ass kicked by James Coburn). I kinda feel like Andie MacDowell is the weak spot, but then I usually do (she was third choice for this role and the other two were European, which would have made a lot more sense). But even so, she gets a few good moments, so overall I think it's fun.

My Grade: B+
Rewatch value: High

Next up: Fierce Creatures