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!