Sunday, December 27, 2015

My favourite TV shows of 2015 and the rest

2015 continued the era of great TV all around. I didn't watch all the shows that I was interested in, but I also managed to watch some shows that I didn't expect to enjoy as much as I did. My favorite TV shows of 2015 in no particular order are:

Although I wasn't a big fan of the actor playing Daredevil, the terrific supporting cast, amazing action sequences, and the Kingpin casting kept me coming back. It was a great origin story combined with some social commentary and a street-level view of the Marvel universe in the post-Avengers timelines. Can't wait to see the second season.

The Man in the High Castle
When I heard that Amazon picked up the adaptation rights for Philip K. Dick's amazing alternate history novel of the same name I was very skeptical. Previous Amazon shows were not my cup of tea. However, this show is amazing for so many reasons. The world-building is astounding and scary, the plot is sufficiently different from the book that it kept me wondering as to what was going to happen next. The show took its time to introduce new characters and relationships and explore the world rather than concentrating on action and plot all the time. It also showed an even darker and more fearful America than the one we have today, and makes a point about intolerance, hatred and fear in America today. Great show all around.

Mr. Robot
A show I didn't expect to like very much, Mr. Robot instead shows hacking in a very realistic and well-researched way with a great cast and a story with some very unexpected twists (although the big twist about Mr. Robot's identity I saw coming a mile away). Absolutely gorgeous and unexpectedly dark show. I can't wait for the second season.

Better Call Saul
I'm not a big Breaking Bad fan, but I always liked the character of Saul Goodman - the sleazy lawyer who has all ten of his dirty fingers in various criminal pies. I thought this show would be much of the same, but to my surprise it transcended my expectations in every way. This show is funnier and punchier than Breaking Bad, makes more of a social commentary on American justice system, features great cast, and its protagonist Jimmy (a.k.a. Saul Goodman) is a troubled but essentially good man (I think pun intended) who wants to do the right thing even when doing the wrong thing would be so much easier. I find him much more interesting and appealing than Walter White. Can't wait for the second season.

Jessica Jones
Another Netflix/Marvel show, where Daredevil is an origin story focusing on action, Jessica Jones is a story about what a retired superhero detective and focuses much more on investigations, personal relationships and dealing with trauma. It was quite a bit slower than Daredevil (a little too slow, there were a couple of episodes that could be easily condensed) and I didn't like all the subplots as much as the main plot, but the lead performances by Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones and David Tennant as Killgrave (maybe the best villain in TV or film all year as far as I'm concerned) carried the show. It also ends on a sufficient cliffhanger that I would like to see more.

Broadchurch, season 2
Speaking of David Tennant, I didn't expect to see a second season of Broadchurch made, but it was, and it was just as nail-biting as the first season. This time, the main plot involves both the aftermath of Season 1 when the killer is on trial, and David Tennant's character's past case and family. I enjoyed it as much as the first season and the ending was very satisfying.

Mad Men final season
I didn't think it was possible for Mad Men to ever finish, or at least finish in any way that didn't involve its protagonist's death but AMC pulled it off. Satisfying finale to a show that occasionally felt like it outstayed its welcome.

The Expanse
This show came out of nowhere. I was vaguely aware that Sy-fy was going to do an adaptation of this terrific sci-fi novel (first in the series) but I didn't expect it to be as good as it was. I'm only 4 episodes in but I'm completely hooked. This is a great hard sci-fi show with excellent casting, great visual effects that recall the best of Battlestar Galactica show, and a very interesting and brisk plot. I hope the rest of the season will be just as good.

And the best show of 2015 for me was...
The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I watched one episode, then immediately another. Then I stayed up half the night to watch the entire show. Then I went online to see when the next season will be out. This show is the funniest show I've seen all year, but it also has great social commentary, and truly heartbreaking moments as well. And the performances by every member of the cast are perfect. This show stole my heart.

Shows I wish I watched
I still have to catch up on the last season of Hannibal and HBO's Show Me a Hero looks great as well. I hope to finish both before the slew of 2016 seasons start. I also didn't watch Season 5 of Game of Thrones. Why? Well, I heard that there are some parts now that go beyond book 5 (A Dance with Dragons) so I'd rather wait for the book, however long it takes, and then watch the season. Fargo is another show I really want to catch up on, hopefully I'll have the time to do so in the early 2016. Wolf Hall - an adaptation of a terrific novel by Hilary Mantel, is another show I'd like to try just to see if it's even half as good as the book. Master of None is a comedy show and I'm usually not big on those but I absolutely adore Aziz Ansari's comedy, so I hope to catch up on it eventually. Narcos is a show I've started to watch, but I'm only two episodes in and I'm not completely convinced if I really like it or not. iZombie also comes highly recommended by everyone I know who has seen it, so it's on my list as well, hopefully before the second season is out. And of course there's another season of Orphan Black I haven't seen yet. Finally, I've yet to watch the third season Vikings and that's something I need to fix ASAP! Because Vikings has consistently been amazing in the past! And I guess since we're on a topic of Vikings I'm mildly interested in The Last Kingdom - an adaptation of Bernard Cromwell's excellent historical books about the Viking invasions but from the perspective of the Saxons.

Shows that disappointed me
I really really wanted to like The Knick but I just couldn't get into it. For some reason I found it hard to keep track of the characters, the subplots didn't really interest me much, and the show just didn't grip me. Rectify - I just couldn't care about any of the characters of their drama, by the end of episode 2 I was bored stiff. I really wanted to like the second season of Penny Dreadful, and there are some great episodes in this season, but overall I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as the first season - the ending was also quite a letdown.

Next up, my favourite films of 2015!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Four games in four stories

This review post is rather late because I was both crazy busy and crazy lazy at the same time, and Fallout 4 came out and yeah, I'm out of excuses. Instead, I'm going to do a pile of mini-reviews at once. But we are going to do this as stories, because one of the things I love about board games (good ones anyway) is that each game is a unique story.

We begin in ancient times, on the coast of eastern Mediterranean, near the Fertile Crescent, the birthplace of... Advanced Civilization! There, on the banks of the Upper Nile, a small tribe begins its migration northward, pressured by population growth and hunger for victory points! And victory points, as any student of history can tell you, come from cities and luxury resources! They grew and prospered, spreading west into Africa and north into Sinai and Judea where they came into conflict with a migrating tribe of... the Blue People! (honestly, I can't recall what the actual name of the faction was - it was either Hittites or Asiatics, the point of the story is...)
My glorious Egyptian civilization. I felt like I did as well as I did mostly because of my starting location.
The great Yellow People (a.k.a. Egyptians) rolled the Blue People, but then worked out a peace treaty and commenced lots and lots of trading in the hopes of creating sets of resource cards that could be used to create ever more glorious technologies like sail-weaving and pottery and yarn-making. So it went through several ages, more cities arose, more sets of cards were assembled, and the mighty Yellow People fleet kept the country safe for a few hours until we ran out of time and had to cut Advanced Civilization short. In brief, Advanced Civilization looks intimidating as hell and the rules are not well-written, but it's actually much easier than it appears. It's a game of area control, deck building, and negotiation, and it's a lot of fun at first; however, it outstays its welcome after the first two ages (I think there are four or five in total? I can't accurately remember). After the first age I've pretty much experienced all there was to the game and its mechanics. It's a grand game but it's not worth the 6-8 hour investment to actually finish it properly. I also felt that a big thing this game was lacking was some differentiation between the different civilizations other than starting location. Basically all civilizations are identical in every way and have access to the same technologies. That was quite a big flaw in my opinion.

We skip a couple of thousand years to the rainy shores of... Britannia! There, a bunch of tribes live more or less peacefully. Doing their stuff. Welsh are welshing, Picts are picting, when out of the misty southern fog suddenly... A WHOLE CRAPLOAD OF ROMANS APPEARED! The Romans kicked some major butt, but couldn't quite conquer northern England (held off by the Brigantes) or Wales (held off by the Welsh). Eventually Romans were replaced by Roman Britannians who were promptly wiped out by invading Saxons and Angles. Meanwhile in the north, the Picts and Brigandians were stubbornly staying alive against invading Irish, Scots and remaining Caledonians. However, with the Welsh-Angle alliance holding Saxons down, it seemed like Britannia's troubles would soon be over. Even Brigantians mostly stayed in their hills. A few centuries passed by uneventfully (if by uneventful you mean Irish constantly landing on western shores and taking heads. Which is exactly what I mean by uneventful). When suddenly Vikings!

OK, they weren't this handsome, but close enough. The Norsemen, the Norwegians, and some other Scandinavians I can't remember now pretty much slaughtered everyone. Even the Picts, who managed to wipe out the Scots, were themselves finally wiped. Only the Saxons were holding on, stabbing the Angles in the back when they were invaded by Norwegians. When just as suddenly, the Normans landed and started killing Saxons like they were going out of style. Except William the Conqueror turned out to be William the Unlucky when he tried to take out the Saxon king, rolled like shit and died himself. Leaving the Norwegians to pick up the pieces and become the winners.

Basically in Britannia, players take on successive waves of invaders trying to take as much of provinces in Britain as possible while amassing as many victory points as possible (which is totally historically accurate - I checked wikipedia).
My Angles are getting annihilated while Lille's Norwegians are burning everything in sight.
 If this sounds like Smallworld, that's because Smallworld was actually inspired by the original edition of Britannia (I played the 2008 FFG reprint). I quite enjoyed this game, it has a lot of replayability (there are a ton of different invaders to try and you don't always get the same invaders to control), it's actually very historically accurate so it's great for teaching Dark Ages history of Britain, and it's not a very complicated game. The randomness of dice rolls in combat can turn off some people but I enjoyed it in this game, and also it's not very easy to find. Personally I'd love to play it again a couple of times.

Staying in Britain, but almost six hundred years later, an ambitious English captain is hiring an intrepid crew, outfits his ship - The Golden Hind - with the finest cannons and sails, and stocks provisions for a trip to the Caribbean where riches and glory await. The captain's name? Francis Drake. Even before he sets out, there is a great element of risk. Will he woo the Virgin Queen in hopes that she will grant him additional money and supplies? Petition for a chance to be the Admiral or the Governor of English possessions in the Caribbean? Attract more investors? Hire spies? And most importantly, should he sail ahead of his competitors who are likewise preparing for plundering voyages of their own? At last he feels ready to sail. He arrives in the Caribbean ahead of his competitors but sadly he didn't bring enough supplies so he focuses on trading for indigo and attacking the weaker Spanish outposts, while his competitors chase Spanish galleons and attack the great cities of Havana and Panama. Disheartened, the English privateer returns home to outfit his ship for a second voyage.
The Francis Drake wannabes are ready to sail!

Francis Drake is a pretty awesome worker placement game with a very strong theme. Actually it's two worker placement games in one. The first one is about outfitting your ship, but the way it's done is quite intriguing. The potential actions are laid out with cards in a row, but once you commit to a card you can't do an action on any of the previous cards in a row, you can only go forward, plus you are competing for actions with other players. The second worker placement game in Francis Drake is in voyaging to the Caribbean, attacking Spanish forts, towns and galleons, trading for goods and other shenanigans, in order to (drumroll please!) get victory points. This is done by placing disks with numbers, and as players stack those disks on top of each other, there's an element of bluffing. I really liked this game. More than Advanced Civilization or Britannia, this is a game that I would love to own.

Thousands of years in the future, in a galaxy far away from England or Mesopotamia, a faction of religious dissidents sets out to usher in a new galactic renaissance, but only if the dice fall in their favor as they Roll for the Galaxy! Finding themselves on the run, the religious dissidents make an alliance with other outcasts and separatists in the far away systems of the galaxy. Finding an extremely advanced lab, they research the secrets of nanotechnology which makes them an economic superpower in the long run. They construct great docks to carry their goods and their religious creed to the rest of the galaxy and finally bring about the great galactic renaissance of peace, prosperity and cultural growth that was spoken of in their prophecies.
Victory was finally achieved! With much nanotechnology and dice!

Roll for the Galaxy is a spiritual sequel to the super-popular and acclaimed Race for the Galaxy. Except, while I hate Race for the Galaxy, Roll for the Galaxy is marvelous in every way. Players roll dice, assign those dice to different actions, then buy different cards to advance their galactic civilization and achieve goals, then use their dice and cards to get more dice, and roll those dice, and oh God this feedback loop is too addictive! Unlike Race for the Galaxy, Roll for the Galaxy is much quicker, the new art is much better, you can easily see how well other players are doing, building a "deck" of dice and then rolling a whole bunch of them feels so much more satisfying. And just like Race for the Galaxy it lets you create your own personal narrative of a grand space opera. This is a game I'll be buying for myself the moment I have the chance.

So there we have it, four games. One venerable classic that turned out to be so-so, a delightful historic game with some replayability, a fantastic worker placement game with a strong theme and equally fantastic deck/dice building game. Soon, I hope to review Trains, Exploding Kittens and a couple of other new games. Until then, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year's!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

A pile of Eurogames!

This week was something of a Eurogame binge, having played three games: Imperial, Manhattan Project, and Brass. In case you're not familiar with the term, Eurogames refer to board games typically designed and produced by European game designers and companies (but not exclusively so) that focus on non-zero sum victory goals (so definitely not Monopoly or Risk - think more accumulation of victory points or specific resources), creating and running efficient economies and competing for resources. Games like Settlers of Catan and Carcasonne are two of the best known examples of this genre. Two of the games I've played were very much typical Eurogames (Manhattan Project and Brass) while Imperial was unlike almost any other game I've played.

Imperial looks very much like Risk or Diplomacy at first glance.
I'm running Germany into the ground and lining my pockets at the same time!
There are European nations conforming to late 19th century borders, armies and fleets and money. However, this is where the similarities end. You see, the players aren't the nations, they are devious investors manipulating the nations from the shadows! A player who invests the most into a nation the controls what that nation does, but there's nothing preventing that player from also investing in other nations. Growing the nation's treasury through taxation and war and then raiding that treasure through bonds for all it's worth is quite a viable strategy! For example I started out in control of Germany, I quickly invested in Italy and seized control of Italy for a few turns, then spent a few turns without a country to control (but with plenty of cash and investments in most of the other countries) before once again controlling Germany. I ran Germany into the ground but it didn't matter - what mattered was how much cash I had (not the nation I controlled) and the value of the bonds I held at the end of the game. I'm only scratching the surface here because the game also features a very unique rondel which the players use to issue commands to their controlled nations, a simple but enjoyable combat system, and all sorts of other devious things one can do. On top of that it's a purely non-random game but one with a lot of depth. Imperial is definitely a game I can't wait to play again!

Manhattan Project is a quintessential worker placement Euro game with a few twists that made it far more enjoyable for me than very similar games such as Agricola. The players are countries competing to develop their own nuclear weapons.
 My dinky personal playing space, only six buildings but at least I already have a bomb loaded!
 They use three different types of workers (labourers, engineers and scientists) to take actions dictated on the main board as well as the buildings they can buy. Players have to accumulate resources such as money and yellowcake (un-enriched Uranium ore) and then refine uranium and/or plutonium, research different bomb designs, build said bombs, and then "load" them. Only loaded bombs grant victory points - money and other resources are only means to an end (building the bomb) and provide no victory points. So it's an exercise in creating the most efficient economic chains just like Agricola. But what Manhattan Project does differently is injecting a lot more direct competition and ability to interfere with the other players than most Eurogames have.
 Players can use espionage to send their workers into enemy's buildings denying their use, they can also build fighters and bombers to disable enemy buildings and disrupt their chains. There is a LOT of depth to the game, and I haven't even tried the hydrogen bomb rules or the expansion, but I have already enjoyed it a lot more than Agricola. I'm not sure I'm comfortable with the theme as being entirely appropriate, but then again Archipelago is one of my top favourite games and it's a game about the brutal colonization of Polynesian islands by Europeans...

Finally, Brass was a game I was very dubious about, since it's designed by Martin Wallace known for very heavy Eurogames and whose game After the Flood I didn't particularly enjoy. On the surface there is little to recommend Brass - it's a game about industrial development in Lancashire in the second half of the 19th century, and it's butt ugly to boot (just look at it!).
 It also features one of the worst-written manuals I've ever seen. However, we played a few practice turns first, slowly figured out the rules and played a proper game, and surprisingly we had a blast! Players play two cards per turn that dictate where the players can construct buildings or what type of buildings they can place. At the same time players are trying to accumulate money and to spend the coal and iron from their mines or from the separate pool of resources. The game has two phases - a canal phase and railroad phase. During each phase players have access to different buildings, the costs are different, and some locations only open up in the railroad phase. Almost everything gets wiped out after the canal phase (this seems to be Martin Wallace's calling card just like After the Flood) so the players have clear choices between trying to make as much money in the canal phase or to lay groundwork for even bigger expansion during the railway age. There is a lot more to this game but suffice to say I greatly enjoyed it and anyone who likes Powergrid will find a lot to like here as well, provided you can get past the awful manual and visual design (I found some tiles very hard to read because of a poor choice of colour contrast).

Anyway, three new games and I can't wait to play all three of these again! Definitely a big hit with me!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Mage Knight and After the Flood

It only took me two weeks after moving to Doha, Qatar to find a board gaming group. Meetup is pretty amazing for finding people for whatever hobby or past time you're looking for. The group I joined (link here) plays every week, Simon is a very gracious host with a very large playing table, a very large collection, and a fantastic view of the Pearl. So if you're in Doha and you want to play some board games give a shout. Anyway, on to the reviews.

We decided to play two games that two of the players have never played before: Vlaada Chvátil's Mage Knight (2011 edition) and Martin Wallace's After the Flood (a 2008 game). I'll start with the latter however as that was the one we played first. After the Flood is set in ancient Mesopotamia and covers about 2000 years of history with the manual being full of wonderful historical information and trivia about the setting.
Picture courtesy of Dice Tower
At its heart, After the Flood is a worker placement, area control game. Workers are used to generate basic resources and to claim areas where these basic resources can be upgraded to progressively better and better resources. At the end of the game if you have the most workers in a given area you score the victory points for that area. Armies are used to deny areas to the enemy, sack enemy cities, or in lieu of workers when trading resources. Cities can also be upgraded for massive victory point boosts. The game has several unique mechanics to handicap the lead players, for example if one player passes the other players can keep taking turns but every turn they subsequently take requires them to throw away some of their resources. Also, the game is broken up into five turns and on turns 2 and 4 a great deluge (or as the game called it Decline Phase) occurs which wipes out most of the workers off the board, effectively resetting it. In each turn new empires open up for players to raise their armies in so you're constantly planning one or two turns ahead, looking to see where you will be able to raise armies and control vital resources. The other noteworthy thing about the game is that it is designed precisely for three players. Three shall be the number of thy counting, and the number of thy counting shall be two. Not two, not four, not two to three or two to four, three. This makes it a bit weird. So what I liked about it was the whole process of building an effective economic engine to steamroll your empire to victory. The way different resources provided different bonuses (such as upgrading your army or building a bigger army or giving you more workers or upgrading cities) was very well managed. I also rather liked the look of the board and the pieces although many people online apparently complain that the game looks boring - I don't agree, it has a clean aesthetic with Mesopotamian feel and the areas are very clearly delineated. However, would I recommend After the Flood? Well, no. And there are three big reasons for it. The first reason is how combat is resolved. Basically it's like Risk, but only the attacker rolls the dice and the probabilities are HEAVILY skewed in the favour of the attacker (7+ if your army has no upgrades, or 5+ if it is better equipped than your opponent, that means that even when you don't have equipment you'll be killing the enemy 50% of the time). Building enormous army of doom to completely disrupt your opponents' plans seems too easy and the dice rolling is too random and feels out of place in an otherwise Eurogame design. The other reason is that there isn't much replay value to it. It's quite clear what gives the most victory points from the start so as long as you try to occupy areas that produce certain resources (particularly Lapis Lazuli and gold) you'll be able to place more workers and have better armies than your opponents. Finally, After the Flood is - like Monopoly or Risk - a game where you can usually see who's going to win the game by the end of turn three, and yet it takes two more turns to make it a fait accompli. If it wasn't for these reasons I'd definitely recommend it. It was enjoyable enough for a 1.5-2 hour game, but nothing I'd really want to play again. Games such as Samurai, El Grande or Archipelago (my personal favourite) do the same thing but much better.

The other game we played is the esteemed Mage Knight, currently sitting on number 8 at Board Game Geek, which is quite a remarkable feat considering the competition. Mage Knight is a fantasy quasi-RPG game with tile-laying and heavy deck-building mechanics. Each player contains a hero and his or her entourage of followers, exploring randomly revealed tiles. They fight marauding orks and dragons, explore tombs, dungeons, monster lairs, and if you're feeling a bit more evil also storming wizard towers, forts and even cities (although cities may require more than one player to work together). Hero's basic and special abilities, spells, and artifacts are represented by a deck of cards that gradually grows throughout the game, and most abilities and spells have a basic effect that doesn't cost anything and a special effect that costs mana. Mana is generated randomly by rolling a bunch of dice, and it can also be acquired as crystals or tokens by going to certain locations on the map or playing certain cards. So it's also a resource management game as well. OK, to be honest I would do the complexity of the game a grave injustice if I tried to summarize it so just go and watch the excellent (and hilarious!) review of Mage Knight by Shut Up & Sit Down crew here to get a better sense of the rules. Let's just say that there are so many little systems all working together in ways you only begin to appreciate (and develop an awe for) towards the end of the first game you play. There are just so many options you have but the game never throws them all at you at once, instead slowly giving you the tools and awareness as the game progresses. And just look at it! It is one of the most gorgeous games I've ever played!
Image courtesy of
 The production value definitely justifies the rather steep price tag. The heroes are decently fully painted minis, the art on tiles and monsters and cards is excellent, the cities are heroclix like bastions and the way the tiles fit together... Unnnnnghhhhhh.

OK, but is it actually fun? Well... The design - both gameplay and artistic - is amazing, but there are definitely a few hurdles that made the first time I played Mage Knight a somewhat frustrating experience. So what were they? One is that since the map is randomly generated moving around can be quite frustrating and very slow, especially at the start. There are too many impassable barriers (at least in the early game before you acquire various spells of flying and such) that make moving about rather tedious. The other is a problem endemic in deckbuilders such as Dominion: the curse of an enormous chain of cards being played on one turn, and if the player plays the cards in the wrong order from the one s/he intended then they usually start the chain anew. Turns where a player took ten or even twenty minutes were not uncommon. There is also an enormous amount of rules to digest - if everyone already knows the rules then the game runs a bit faster but even so, there's already a huge errata and FAQ online for the game that the players need to be familiar with. The other problem is endemic to all of Vlaada's games (except for his party games) and that is a horrible manual. A lot of spelling errors, referring to the same concept by two different names throughout the manual, lack of a decent index, the way related rules are not always grouped together into logical categories, all make learning Mage Knight much more frustrating than it should be. Even after playing it for the first time I'm not altogether sure that we played it correctly, and I still can't easily tell you all the different ways in which victory points are scored. Lastly, most deckbuilding games contain some form of mechanic whereby you can 'trim' your deck or starting cards to make room for better cards. Mage Knight does not and I often found that I wanted to prune my deck of certain cards permanently but there was no way to do so. Maybe one of the expansions for the game (there are two currently out I believe) introduces this, but the base game certainly does not. However, despite these shortcomings, Mage Knight is the game I would definitely want to play again and again, to try out different heroes (each of which feels very different to play it would appear!), to try out different paths to victory and just to see more of it! I feel like during the first game we barely scratched the surface of different special abilities, spells and artifacts and that's just the base game!

So there you have it: one solid if unremarkable game, and the other an occasionally frustrating but clearly very promising experience!