Saturday, February 20, 2016

Blood Rage and Warrior Knights reviews

Blood Rage (released in 2015, published by CoolMiniOrNot) and Warrior Knights (originally released in 1985 by Games Workshop and then cleaned-up and re-released by Fantasy Flight Games in 2006) are two games that at a glance seem very similar. Both have elements of area control, some type of worker placement, collecting and playing cards, and miniatures. They are also both about war. Or are they...?

Warrior Knights is considered by many to be a classic Ameritrash game. That is to say it focuses on direct conflict between players, has a ton of colourful components, and has a strong theme. You hire armies, conquer and fortify cities, send your nobles on crusades and sponsor expeditions to distant and exotic lands. The game is played until either one player controls half of unrazed cities on the board or all the influence tokens have been claimed. Gathering influence also strongly depends on controlling as much cities as possible as each city - at the end of the round - provides some influence tokens to the controlling player. Meanwhile players also jokey for positions such as Head of the Church and Chairman of the Council to get additional powers. The game features a rather unusual way of resolving player actions and triggering different major events. Each player has a deck of cards and every card represents a different action (or actions) that a player can take on his turn. In the beginning of each round, each player selects six cards that will go into three stacks (so two cards into each stack), as well as two secret neutral cards that will go into each stack as well. Then each stack is shuffled and resolved one card at a time (so the first stack must be resolved first, then the second and then the third). It creates an interesting dynamic whereby each player knows which of his actions will happen, but it not completely sure WHEN the actions will happen or in which specific order. Now, these cards are further divided into three categories: Taxation, Assembly and Levying (I may be wrong about the name of that last one). When enough cards have been played in either of those three categories, a special phase occurs (Taxation, Assembly or Levying - duh!). This might be good for some players (yay! I finally get some money!) or bad for some players (crap! I have to pay my troops and I don't have enough money!), so that's a pretty interesting, but at times very frustrating mechanic. Meanwhile there are also interesting things happening like voting for different laws, jockeying for offices that upgrade your nobles, sponsoring expeditions that might bring a big financial reward (or fail utterly and waste your investments), or sending your armies across the sea on crusades.

What Warrior Knights does well are its often unique mechanics. I haven't seen some of its mechanics, like turn order resolution and special phase triggering, in  any other game. The Council phase where players can vote on different laws, offices, private motions and so on is also very interesting and has clearly influenced other FFG games like the Game of Thrones board game. The other thing that Warrior Knights does very well is that for such a sprawling board game there is very little downtime for the players. The turns can be resolved quite quickly and you're always paying attention because either your card gets drawn, your opponent's card might trigger a special phase in which you can participate, or a neutral card that affects everyone is drawn. So unlike some other 'heavy' board games, Warrior Knights actually resolves player turns quite quickly.
My not-so-winning strategy focused on expanding overseas on various crusades.

However, there are some rather significant problems with WK that prevent me from recommending this classic wholeheartedly. For one the manual is (as is typical with FFG) atrocious and there are many rules that you'll have to look up an FAQ or errata for on FFG's website. Some rules flat out contradict each other, many terms are used interchangeably or are not defined at all and many examples of play in the manual contradict the rules. Another HUGE problem in my opinion is that it's very hard to actually plan in Warrior Knights. Put the wrong card in the wrong stack and you're going to waste that turn and not even get that card back for a while so you can play it again. Get your card drawn at the wrong time and you might not reap the benefits of your action. Maybe you were hoping to get some money so you could hire more troops or pay the troops you already have, but another player snagged the troops you wanted to hire, or even worse the Wages phase had been triggers and now you have to pay your troops but you haven't gotten your tax money yet and now your entire ROUND is ruined! The other problem is that it is so easy for one player to snowball the game, especially if the player in the lead also grabs the title Chairman of the Committee. In these type of games, such as Risk, Forbidden Stars, Game of Thrones or even Munchkin (especially Munchkin!), usually if one player is doing very well the rest of the players will gang up on him/her, but in WK it is more difficult to do due to how the map is laid out and the fact that you can only field up to 4 armies and the defenders usually have an advantage. Furthermore, a role of the Head of the Church is actually actively penalized because the Head of the Church has to constantly spend actions to gain Faith tokens to spend on either avoiding negative events or gaining positive events and that limits the scope of the game for that player (until another player decides to snag that title - which apparently doesn't happen all that often). Finally, we played a 4 player game and the game finished just as the almost all the cities got claimed. It was a very anti-climatic conclusion and our game actually featured very little combat between players. I freely admit that I finally triggered an actual war with another player more out of boredom than out of some winning strategy. So there you have it, Warrior Knights is a war game that has a lot of fascinating political intrigue but not a heck of a lot of actual fighting, combined with frequently confusing rules.

One would think that Blood Rage, by contrast, would be even more furious and, well, bloody than Warrior Knights. But you'd be wrong! A-ha! Gotcha! Indeed, Blood Rage - one of the best-selling and critically-acclaimed games of 2015 - has a very strong theme of combat and Norse mythology, but underneath its raging exterior is actually a very calculating excellent Eurogame. You see, while you may be fooled by the absolutely gorgeous and hugely varied miniatures (it is published by Cool Mini Or Not after all), at its heart Blood Rage is a game of area control, worker placement and card drafting. It has gorgeous art and minis (seriously, the minis are amazingly awesome, each clan has three unique miniature sculpts as well as a ship, then there are five neutral heroes and four gigantic monsters), but these are just trappings for a game that combines some of the best game mechanics of the last few years.

The game is divided into three Ages (basically rounds), and each round proceeds in the same way. Players take actions such as paying and placing their minis on the board, playing Quest cards (secret objectives akin to Ticket to Ride), moving their minis around the board, pillaging (more on that in a bit) or playing different upgrade cards to differentiate their clan from other players. Then the players discard any remaining unplayed cards (except one that they can keep for the next age), then they score points for their secret Quests and then Ragnarok wipes out one of the random provinces on the board along with any minis that are in that province. However, that last one is actually a good thing as any troops that are wiped out in Ragnarok actually score points for their owners, they go to Valhalla and then you get them back in your pool. There are really two main mechanics in Blood Rage. One is placing your warriors in different provinces on the board and then pillaging the province. Now, when you declare pillaging, other players who have troops in adjacent provinces can come and join your pillaging with their troops provided there is space in the province-to-be-pillaged. This allows for some devious play where you bait the other players to move their troops into a province you really have no interest in so that you can pillage a province that they are no longer adjacent to. It also creates for some hilarious situations as a pillage announcement (inevitably done in a loud and booming voice) sucks in everything like some kind of rage-powered tornado. In a pillage, the players each select a battle card face-down and then reveal them simultaneously and resolve the effects. However, to prevent snowballing, the winner discards the card he played, while the losers get to keep theirs! Brilliant! Furthermore, the winner's minis are now in that province while the losers' troops go to Valhalla and there are many secret objectives for being the one to send warriors to Valhalla, or having the most warriors to Valhalla, and there are clan upgrades that give you points if your troops (or any troops) go to Valhalla during a pillage. So deciding where and when to pillage, and deciding if you'll actually gain more by losing the battle is very important.
We are uhhhh pillaging something, Probably.

The other mechanic of note is drafting cards. Each player gets 8 cards at the beginning of each age, picks two, then passes cards to the next player, receives cards, selects 1 card and so on until each player has 8 cards. Then he discards 2 cards face down. That way each player has a rough idea of what cards will be played during the Age, what secret Quests and battle cards might be floating around the table. Ideally each player will try to draft a good mix of upgrades, quests and battle cards, and it's a good idea to base your strategy around a particular god. You see, most cards are themes around different gods and each god provides a clear strategy to pursue. Tyr is all about big numbers in battle, Odin is all about leveling the playing field by indiscriminately wiping all most of the warriors participating in a battle, Thor is all about winning the battle, Heimdall's cards are centered on sneaky 'play out of your turn' situations, while Loki is all about losing battles on purpose. Each Age has a different deck to be drafted so that players' abilities in battle, upgrades and quest rewards become progressively more powerful with each Age.
Blood for the Blood God! Victory points for the victory throne!

There is much to recommend about Blood Rage. It's gorgeous, has interesting mechanics. It is actually quite fast-paced and there is very little downtime. The pillaging mechanic and card draft mechanic are very fun. Moreover, there is a ton of replayability because the provinces that start the game razed or the provinces that will be destroyed in each Age are randomized, and the rewards for pillaging are likewise randomized. There are already quite a few small expansions for the game that I can't wait to get. If I had any negative things to say about the game it would have to be two complaints. The first complaint is that a new player is at a disadvantage because he wouldn't have a good idea of what cards become available in each age and his drafted deck wouldn't be as powerful. Fortunately after just one playthrough the players grasp deck drafting mechanic very easily and form an idea of what cards are available. The second complaint is the big disconnect between theme and mechanics. The game has a very strong theme, but it's still a Eurogame at heart. Some people who are drawn in by the theme might be put off by the type of game it actually is. Personally however I have now played Blood Rage more than half a dozen times and I can't wait to play more!

P.S. I tried to make a semi-drunken unboxing video of Blood Rage. I hope to put it up soon! I apologize in advance!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Warning: long post to follow! So I've been making my way through all the Best Picture nominees this year, and as excited as I am to see both The Martian and Mad Max on the list - two sci-fi movies filled with science and explosions respectively - I still have to concede that The Big Short may deserve the best picture award.

Bridge of Spies is a bit too understated and too comfortable of a movie - it tells a good story, but it doesn't tell it in a particularly interesting way, and the performances are really not the best compared to previous performances by the cast. I found myself discretely checking the time during the film, and the typical Spielberg pay-off at the end felt forced if you consider that the Cold War went off for decades still and nothing really changed significantly. It was one of the weakest Spielberg movies in my opinion and there were many other films in 2015 that were much more deserving of a nomination.

Mad Max is a marvel and maybe my favourite film of the year, filled with great spectacle and performances but it is uneven in its pacing and story. Its symbolism is rather heavy-handed and gradually grows tiresome as the film winds down. I won't go into how it should've been titled "Imperator Furiosa" as many people claim, it is a Mad Max movie through and through. It is a surprisingly feminist film so that could be another important consideration in nominating it (and I feel that's a good thing by the way). I'm very happy to see it get the nomination, but its story, basic and sometimes nonsensical as it is, don't make it a serious contender in my opinion.

The Revenant is an extremely raw and demanding film, but it is trying too hard to be a Terrence Malick film while it should be its own film. The actors and crew do an amazing and incredibly demanding job but Revenant feels too much: too much machismo, too much faux-New Age, too much post-colonial critique, too much forced symbolism (how many times does Leo get symbolically reborn in Revenant? I lost count). Does Leo deserve best actor award or Tom Hardy best supporting actor? Absolutely. But whereas Inarritu's Birdman was sly, witty, subversive, with an engaging meta-critique of the genre -a real high-wire act - The Revenant is at times too bombastic, too serious, too ponderous.

Spotlight I enjoyed a lot, it tells a very important story and it tells it well and it joins films such as All the President's Men or Zodiac as a great journalistic film. But although it has a great script and performances, visually it is boring to watch - it is very conventional and mostly feels like a TV show. It is filled with medium cut-and-reverse shots of people talking with each other and doesn't do much effort to stage and shoot the scenes in ways that could be far more interesting (I admit that I have been binge-watching Every Frame a Painting lately so that might skew my opinions). It could work very well as an HBO miniseries allowing some characters and subplots to develop further. TV is not a bad thing, TV has been consistently great in the last decade, but I would like to see the camera and editing work hand in hand with the great performances and the script and Spotlight just doesn't do that.

The Martian is excellent. It's a great adaptation and it's a very fun film. But it is uneven, which becoming apparent through multiple viewings. There is no doubt that Matt Damon pulls off a great performance, but I can't pinpoint any particularly noteworthy moments from the rest of the cast. One half of the movie is Matt Damon's character's YouTube diary (which he totally carries off because everyone loves Matt Damon), the other half is a rather cliche "bring 'em home alive" astronaut movie. It is all great fun, the humour is excellent, and there are some nail-biting action scenes, but it's just too uneven to be the best picture in my opinion. Great sci-fi adventure film and a big huzzah for portrayal of scientists and engineers and astronauts though.

Room. This movie is more painful to watch in many ways than Revenant's 2+ hours of raw physical agony, because its pain and tragedy is of a whole different order. It wrings unforgettable performances from its actors and demands so much from the audience. On raw actor performance power it should win. But, and this is my totally subjective and personal opinion, I always wish and hope that best picture awards (Oscars or otherwise) should go to films that have something important to say or something new to say using the unique strengths of the media of film. Sometimes we get that, and sometimes we don't (*cough* Titanic *cough*). Room is a film about surviving the unthinkable and love, but its story and message is not unique - its performances are.

Brooklyn. I thought Brooklyn was OK. I could watch Saoirse Ronan any time, and I'm a big fan of Nick Hornby (sue me, High Fidelity is one of my personal favourites), but I cannot for the life of me understand what Brooklyn is doing on the Best Picture nominations. It has some very lovely and charming performances, but it's not a particularly interesting film and it doesn't have anything particularly interesting to say. Maybe I'm the wrong audience for it, but for me it was mostly forgettable.

OK, so Big Short. What Big Short does is essentially take the 2010 documentary "Inside Job" (which was already excellent and won an Oscar) and dials it to 11. Both it and Spotlight tell very important stories, but where Spotlight falters on using its camera wisely to help tell the story, The Big Short uses camera and editing confidently, doing with it things that most TV shows would not even attempt to do. Unlike "The Wolf of Wall Street" which I absolutely despise (a great performance by Leo notwithstanding) as basically glorifying the Wall Street life style (yes, it's trying to show us how evil and greedy those people are but the lesson seem to be that if you commit financial fraud you'll be super rich and basically get away with it in the end), "The Big Short" is raw in its anger and cynicism that the 2007/2008 economic meltdown happened, that it was basically designed to happen, and that basically no one who was responsible for it was punished. It has some great performances and even if it does falter once or twice towards the end in its pacing, it never loses its focus. And the way it uses music is just great! It's very insidious in how it uses music and interpolated cuts to both prime the audience for each scene's payoff and to keep the audience uneasy (watch carefully the scene where Steve Carrell's character talks to a couple of mortgage brokers in Florida - it's honestly a masterpiece of a scene for so many reasons I could go on abot). It is a Film with a capital F, it does something that only the medium of film can do successfully. It tells an important story and it does it incredibly well through performances, cinematography, sound and editing. In my opinion it best fulfills all the criteria of a Best Picture.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Dubai: Impressions and Tips

Having just returned from a Dubai vacation I'm naturally full to the brim with experiences and impressions, but I thought I'd focus on some overall impressions and some tips for new visitors to Dubai while they are still fresh in my mind.

Dubai is a very tourist-friendly city, everyone speaks or understands English and all signs are in English and Arabic, and you'll also notice many signs in Russian as well. It's a very multicultural and open city, but it's still a Muslim country so there are a few things to keep in mind. One being that it's hard to buy alcohol outside of hotel bars and night clubs. The other is that stores and such open a bit later on Friday than usual. Also, government offices and most government-run museums close at 2:30 so plan accordingly.

Getting around Dubai is very easy thanks to an excellent public transportation city. Don't get an Uber in Dubai! I've found that the taxis are very cheap, the drivers have all been very polite, and none have tried to cheat me unlike the taxi drivers in Doha. Also, getting around the city using the Dubai Metro is very cheap and very fast. 7 dirhams will get you to, or close to, most of the notable tourist and shopping locations such as Dubai Mall, Mall of the Emirates, and so on. To use the buses however, you need to get a bus card at one of the major bus station and then you can load money on it at the machines available at every bus stop (big or small). I only used the taxi three times while I was in Dubai, relying on public transport to get around and I didn't waste much time doing so. Oh yeah, when getting on a metro watch out for women-only entrance and the Gold VIP entrance. I'm not even joking.

Because it's so easy and fast to get to places using public transport don't be afraid to go out of Dubai City to find a cheap good hotel. You can find good cheap hotels as far away as Jumeirah 3 or out in Deira and still be able to go to Dubai downtown easily and cheaply.

Speaking of downtown, it's totally worth it. I'd say plan at least a day to spend just in Dubai Mall and nearby attractions. Dubai Aquarium in the mall is only 100 dirhams to go in and I personally enjoyed it. Burj Khalifa can be entered from the mall, and I highly recommend either booking the tickets online ahead of time or going up to the counter and booking them for later in the day. There's always a huge line waiting to get in and don't count on being able to just waltz in whenever you want. Also to note, you can go up to the 124th and 125 floors for I think 120 dirhams, or you can do the VIP treatment and go up to the 148th floor for 300 dirhams. The latter experience is still worth it, you don't need to stand in line waiting for your turn to go up, instead you get to relax in a nice lounge and get coffee and snacks (provided with the ticket), then go up and experience the amazing view with being plied with more drinks and snacks. Hey, chances are you'd only want to go up once anymore so might as well live a little. :)

The fountain show right outside the Dubai Mall is also unforgettable, but I also enjoyed a much more quiet nearby souq Al Bahar and a little park nearby as a way to wind from the busy and loud mall. Speaking of souqs, definitely try to get to some of the city's souqs to experience a less glamorous but also interesting side of Dubai. What I did was take the Metro to Al Fahidi station, got off, explored the excellent historical village, little museums and art galleries, the Al Fahidi fort and museum. I love this part of the city, it was especially charming and full of character. Then for just 1 dirham I caught a water taxi to go across the Dubai Creek to the older part of Dubai. Skip the Al Fahidi souq, it's really just a cheap indoor mall and not a souq at all, but definitely check out the Gold souq, Spice souq and Bur Dubai souq. They do get tiresome because of very pushy criers and salesmen offering Rolexes, Kashmir scarves, suspiciously cheap smart phones and less legal wares, but they do have character.

To unwind, I highly recommend Jumeirah public beach and in fact the entire Jumeirah (Jumeirah 1 that is) neighbourhood. It's a quiet beachside middle-class and small business neighbourhood, very lovely, lots of bike and running paths, you get to see pretty amazing Grand Jumeirah Mosque and the public beach was very lovely. I went on a weekday around noon and it was empty save for a couple of families and a few joggers and the water was lovely. Word of advice, if you see the famous Burj Al Arab tower in the distance (that's the famous super-posh hotel that's shaped like a sail and has golf courses on the roof) don't even bother to go see it. You can't get close it, you get stopped by security and you can't actually go inside unless you are a guest at the hotel or have an invitation. Don't bother spending your time and money.

Lastly if you are a geek and want to do some shopping or just geek out, I highly recommend checking out Kinokuniya in Dubal Mall, and Battlezone in Jumeirah. Battlezone has great staff, great playing spaces for miniature, board game, and CCG gamers, and very reasonable prices (by Gulf standards).

Anyway, I really enjoyed my time in Dubai, I did have to spend quite a lot on entertainment and shopping, but I found that transportation and food were cheaper than I expected. Great city to visit!