I used to have a whole long list of webcomics that I would read religiously. Some of them I caught onto in the beginning; others I saw and went back to the beginning, spending hours catching up on the archives. For a couple of years now, I haven’t really kept up with most of them, finding I don’t really have the time to read so many of them, what with all my Facebooking and video gaming and online board gaming and offline board gaming and… well, you get the picture.
There are two, however, with which I do try to stay au courant. One of them is John Allison’s Scary-Go-Round, which follows several characters – some school children and some adults – through adventures great and small, bizarre and mundane. The school kids, in various combinations and permutations, have solved odd mysteries in their small English town of Tackleford. The adults have had their own strange and wonderful stories. I would not do them justice by trying to write synopses, so I will just say click the link above, or better yet, start with Bad Machinery, which introduces Jack, Sonny, Shauna, Mildred, Charlotte (aka Lottie), and Linton on their first day at Griswalds Grammar School; then follow all their cases. Or scroll down and look at the other archives – the original Scary-Go-Round, or the two “Bobbins” series. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable rabbit hole to fall into.
The other thing Mr. Allison does, or at least used to do, is a year-end Top 20 records review, featuring his characters Shelley Winters and the aforementioned Lottie, who is definitely the most enthusiastically and misguidedly ambitious of the Griswalds schoolchildren. The two girls have opinions, and they have introduced me to some really excellent music I might otherwise never have heard of. (I’m don’t think those reviews are available online, sadly.)
The other webcomic I am most enamored of started out as a not-web comic, but its creators have moved it to a webcomic format and have been putting all the back issues on the website. I speak, of course, of the Wonder and Glory that is… Atomic Robo. This has it all: humor, adventure, nefarious villains, action scientists, the robotic progeny of Nikola Tesla. It is impossible to catalog all the ways this book makes me happy. Here’s how much I love Atomic Robo: I don’t do cosplay, but I am seriously considering designing, building, and wearing an Atomic Robo costume. (Which doesn’t sound like much, but it has become more than just a fleeting “Oh, wouldn’t that be cool” kind of idea. It’s an idea that has sunk its tendrils into my brain, and won’t let go.) Last Saturday being Free Comic Book Day, there was, of course, a free Atomic Robo comic (although really, now that they’re on the web, they’re all free, but the FCBD 2015 story isn’t all available online yet – I got it via Comixology), starring my favorite villain, Dr. Dinosaur.
It being Cinco de Mayo, last night’s games had no Mexican theme whatsoever. The closest we got was the Boy sitting at one end of the table practicing Spanish with Duolingo on his phone.
We had five people, and everyone’s first name except for mine began with J: Jim, J.R., Jessie, Julie. It’s bizarre. I may have to start going by my middle name just to blend in. (Go ahead, feel free to guess.)
We were fortunate enough to have some good options for five players. We ended up with Dogs of War, from designer Paolo Mori, manufactured/published/distributed by Cool Mini or Not, Edge Entertainment, and Spaghetti Western Games. Deceptively simple and very well put-together, the game places 3-5 players into a struggle to influence six warring families, using their captains – really wonderful plastic figurines, most with ridiculous hats – and soldiers of different values/strengths to dictate the tide of battle. There are slight game play differences between a 3P game and a 4- or 5P game; the following description is for the 5P.
In each of four “years,” the six families pair off randomly to engage in one of three battles. Each side of each battle gets a randomly-selected “order of battle” card, which provide several places to place a captain, most of which entail a reward for the player. In addition, each battle gets a randomly-selected bonus tile, which will give a (wait for it) bonus to whoever has the most captains on the winning side of the battle.
Each year begins with players collecting income – money is very tight – and spending some or all of it on soldiers. There is an increasing strength-to-cost ratio (from footsoldiers at the bottom, costing 1 coin for a strength of 1; to war machines, costing 4 coins but providing 7 strength).
Once all players have mustered their armies, the players take it in turn to place one captain and one soldier on one side of any of the three battles. The captain goes to a spot on the order of battle card, the soldier goes on a designated pile, and the battle tracker is adjusted toward the appropriate family’s side by the strength of the soldier. The player receives the reward for whichever spot their captain occupies, and the next player goes. At any time, a player may pass, but that means they are out for the rest of the year. When a player runs out of captains, they must pass. (In year 1, each player starts with three captains; in years 2 and 3, they start with four; and in year 4, they start with five; there are ways to get additional captains for use in a given year.)
Each battle is thus a tug-of-war, with the soldiers on each side tilting the balance of victory to one family or the other. When all players have passed, the year ends. The family that won each battle moves up in value on a track (and in a decisive enough victory, that family will move up two spaces on the track while the losing family moves down one). The players whose captains were on the wining side get points equal to the number of captains on the losing side. Then, whoever had the most captains on the winning side gets whatever bonus is provided by the bonus tile for that battle. Lather, rinse, repeat for three battles per year times four years. So that’s … carry the one … twelve battles total. And each year, the family pairings, order of battle cards, and bonus tiles are randomized, so you can never be sure what you’re going to have the opportunity to get.
And it’s important what you get when you send your captains out, because among the rewards, you may (and will want to) collect shields representing the family for whom you are fighting. At the end of the game, each player gets victory points equal to the number of shields for each family multiplied by the value of the position that family has reached on the that power track. The track runs from a value of -1 (where all families start) up to 7. Part of the strategy lies in figuring out which families are winning battles (and which ones you can help win battles) and increasing in value and getting those families’ shields.
That last point was brought home sharply last night, when Jessie managed to get 10 of the 12 shields for one family, which also happened to be the one that reached the highest value on the power track. His shields were worth 3 points apiece, and those 30 points – not even considering the other points he had accumulated over the course of the game – exceeded one player’s total score, and nearly matched two other players’ total scores. Despite the trouncing, we all agreed that it was an excellent game, with one caveat: among the tactics cards, there are some that are just more valuable than others. A card that allows a player to add +3 to their soldier’s strength at any time is strictly better than a card that allows a player to add +2 to their soldier’s strength when playing on the losing side of a battle. Other cards are useful only in specific circumstances, which makes them less valuable than other cards that are always useful.
That aside, though, the game is really a blast. It has a lot of “take-that” kind of interaction, a lot of planning and trying to predict what your opponents will do, and a lot of frustration as you realize that in order to get an order of battle reward you really need, you have to support the “wrong” side of a battle (i.e., where you want the other family to win). And aside from a few instances of analysis paralysis, it is a very quick game. Easy to learn – there are only six pages of rules, with the rest of the 25-30 page rule book being taken up by backstory for the families and the captains – quick to play. This one will definitely hit the table again.
Jim left after we finished Dogs of War, leaving us with four players. We didn’t want a long game, so we settled on Artipia Games’ Shadows Over the Empire, which has a fair amount of depth despite taking as little as fifteen minutes to play. This is another influence struggle, with each player taking the role of a leader in the city of Cardis (linking the game thematically to Aritipia’s worker-placement/deck-building game Archon: Glory and Machinations). In this case, the city is represented by a five-by-five card layout, with the cards representing leaders at the corners, card representing a Distinct Personality (e.g., a prince) in the center, and cards representing other people filling out the array.
Players take turns trying to spread their network of influence from their leader across the city, placing tokens on cards to control those people, and using the special abilities of the people they then control. Each round, each player in turn may either influence a person, use a controlled person’s special ability, or pass. When a person has either influenced or been influenced in a given round, that person may not be used to influence any other person, but a player who controls that person may use the special ability. (Special abilities can generally be used only once per round; a card gets rotated to show its ability has been used.) When all players have passed, the round ends. Conflicts – cards on which more than one player has tokens – are resolved at the end of each round by removing tokens, one-for-one from all players with tokens on the card, until only one player’s (or no players’) tokens remain. The players check to see if anybody has won, and if not, all rotated cards are reset and every person becomes eligible to try to influence another person in the next round. A new first player is determined (whoever has the fewest tokens on the board), and the next round begins.
This is a race game: if, at the end of a round, a player has deployed all of their influence tokens on the people of the city, and either (a) is not in conflict anywhere or (b) they control the Distinct Personality (i.e., they are the only player with tokens on the card), they win. Players have to keep their eyes on how many tokens their opponents have left to put on the board, and try to remove their opponents’ tokens (using a special ability of a person they control) and/or put their own tokens on their opponents’ controlled people, creating a conflict. There is thus a tension between trying to get one’s own tokens onto the board and trying to get rid of your opponents’ tokens. Special abilities may allow a player to move cards or tokens, add or subtract tokens, or a number of other functions.
Because each player starts with 18 tokens, and most actions result in placing 2-4 tokens on a card, the game very quickly moves toward the vicinity of the endgame. In last night’s struggle, J.R. and I focused attention on Julie, who was poised to win, but unfortunately, left Jessie in control of the Distinct Personality for one round too many, allowing him to sneak his way to a second victory for the night.
For some reason, I always feel kind of blah about this game when J.R. suggests playing it, but once we get into it, I remember how interesting it is and how much fun it is to play. And it’s very fast. I think our game last night took 45 minutes, including teaching Julie how to play. This is another one that should get played more, especially since there are multiple decks of cards to choose from that can make it a very different game. The A deck that we played with last night is the simplest. I’ve played the B deck in the past – there are three different Distinct Personalities to choose from, and the cards’ special abilities become more complex. We have yet to play the C deck, which – according to J.R. – contains cards with some really mind-bending special abilities. Next time.
By he way, Jessie has now won two games on two consecutive game nights. If you don’t hear from hi for a while, don’t worry. I’m sure he’s off doing good works somewhere with no wi-fi or cell reception, and he’ll turn up eventually. Now excuse me, I have to go wash this shovel.
I have no gee whiz techie things to post today, because no science has happened recently. I had no political or current events things yesterday, because my Liberal Hive Mind subscription is past due, so I’ve not received the latest Outrage Update. As soon as I bring my account current, I am sure I will have many wonderful things to discuss.
Still, you get this drivel, so it’s not a total loss.
I cannot argue with the Observer here. I have been a Wire fan since college, back in the last Ice Age. During the reading period before finals, our college radio station ran “orgies”–blocks of programming dedicated entirely to a single composer or band–and I remember pulling an all-nighter writing a paper during a Wire orgy. “Three Girl Rhumba” is permanently etched in neural channels in my brain as a result. (I have a clip of the opening to that song that I use as a ringtone on occasion.)
So I was not surprised that the band’s latest album was good. What I didn’t necessarily expect was that it would be great. This release, more than 2011’s Red Bark Tree, is a sonic callback to the earliest albums, with strong doses of Pink Flag (1977) and Chairs Missing (1978). (The band’s 2013 release, Change Becomes Us, is also a reflection of the early days, but that is to be expected, as the songs on that one were unreleased tracks from 1979-80.)
Through the liquid flow of bass and keyboards, Colin Newman’s vocals take on a slightly muted tone, as if burbling up out of a well. The lyrics are tuned to modern life – the lead-off track, “Blogging,” is a sharp look at our mobile (as in device) culture – but the sounds are classic Wire. The band’s line-up is not the same as it was 35 years ago, but the music is a solid return to the original sensibility that struck such a chord in me back then.
Somebody posted something recently in one of my feeds about the new Avengers movie, and I guess they must have been posting from a phone, because they referred to “age of lutein.” It turns out lutein is a real thing (which I guess is why someone’s autocorrect would use it); it’s a yellow pigment found in plant leaves and egg yolks. THIS IS HOW TRIVIA HAPPENS, PEOPLE.
Anyway, I am going to see Avengers: Age of Lutein tomorrow evening with the Boy, the Girl, and one of the Boy’s friends. Mrs. Someone can’t make it, so that means some subset of us will undoubtedly be seeing it again sometime fairly soon. I’m looking forward to it. The Boy and I watch Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and we enjoy seeing how the movies are tied into the TV show (or is it vice versa)?
In Dead Tree news, I just finished reading The Three Musketeers (Gutenberg Project link). I’ve seen the movie–and as far as I’m concerned, there is only one “The Movie” when it comes to this work: the 1973 Richard Lester version, starring Michael York, Oliver Reed, Charlton Heston, Faye Dunaway, and Raquel Welch–but I had never before read the book. The movie tells only the first half of the story; I never saw the sequel (The Four Musketeers), which tells the second half.
The book is a great deal of fun. The language is pretty florid, but it’s hard to tell if that’s the result of mid-19th century literary sensibilities or Alexandre Dumas’s tribute to earlier times (with a wink to the reader). Overall, the book is quite funny (though fairly gruesome in parts). The religious and political setting is one with which I am entirely unfamiliar, so it has spurred me to further reading. I would like to read Dumas’s follow-ups, Twenty Years After and The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later.
But that will have to wait, as I am now on to Ancillary Sword, the sequel to Acillary Justice (about which I wrote last week). I just started, so I have little to say about it, other than that I really like the way Ann Leckie evokes the cultural and religious background in which the story is set.
Hey! This will be a week since I rebooted this thing. Go me! Anyway, last night was, as most Tuesdays are, game night. Herewith, a brief after-action report.
Your humble narrator
Jim, An Instructor of Impressionable Youth
JR, A Seminarian
Jessie, Another Seminarian
Julie, A Former Seminarian
Jason, A Terminally Cheerful Person
Ocean, A Late Arrival
(Astute observers will note a preponderance of people whose names begin with J. We are still working on finding a cause for this clustering effect.) Initially having six people, we split into two groups of three. Ocean’s arrival filled one group to four just as the first game began. Excelsior!
The Games I Didn’t Play
We didn’t name the two groups, so I will make up names for them. Team Not-Me consisted of Jim, Jason, and Julie. Their first game was Harbour, a short, relatively light game of resource collection, building, and market manipulation.
Once that was done (I don’t know who won, but I am fairly certain the winner’s name begins with J), the group moved on to Viticulturewith the Tuscany expansion. The expansion provides a legacy structure that allows the winner to “uncork” a new feature, making the next game very different. This is the second time it’s been played in my group, so it has been enhanced by the previous winner and last night’s winner (Jason).
The Games I DID Play
Meanwhile, back at stately Wayne Manor… you know what I mean. Team The Other Team consisted of me, JR, and Jessie, with Ocean joining us shortly after we had set up the first game. Which was Lords of Xidit, brought to you by the people who make Seasons, and set loosely in the same world.
In this game, the players travel around the map from city to city, recruiting units from five different classes (Farmer, Bowman, Infantry, Cleric, Mage) and using those units in various combinations to defeat threats. A game turn consists of six actions, performed one at a time clockwise from the current starting player. In a single action, a player can move along a road to a new city, recruit units or defeat a threat in a city (depending on which is available), or just wait and twiddle their thumbs. The tricky part is that all six of a player’s actions must be planned in advance, which means the players have to consider the timing of their actions – someone might get to their destination first, leaving them twisting in the wind and unable to do what they had planned.
In addition to the advance planning mechanism, the game has a couple of other interesting features. Empty recruitment markers cycle to become future threats, and defeated threats cycle to become future recruitment markers, and the players can see what is coming down the pike. This also feeds into the planning.
The endgame scoring process is interesting as well. Defeating a threat entitles the player to take two of three possible rewards: Reputation, Gold, or Sorcerer Towers. After 12 turns, the game ends and each player is ranked according to their accumulation of each of these three rewards, in an order determined at the beginning of the game. (In our game, the order was, in fact, Reputation, Gold, Towers.) The last player in rank in each reward is eliminated and cannot win, but their score in the other rewards counts toward determining everybody’s rank in the other rewards. In our game, Ocean was last in Reputation, so he was out of contention; but his rank in Gold was higher than everybody else’s pushing the rest of us down in rank. I got eliminated in the Gold ranking, and then Jessie defeated JR on Towers to win the game.
The game is designed for four, but also plays with three players (using a dummy player to work out the rankings at the end) and with five (in which case the lowest two players are eliminated in the first ranking). It took us about two hours, including learning the rules.
Since Team Edward was ensconced in Viticulture when we finished, we opened up Stefan Feld’s Bruges(with the City on the Zwin expansion). We are a Feld-friendly crew, but I had forgotten how enjoyable this game is.
As with most Feld games, there are multiple paths to victory and a half dozen fiddly ways to score points, and players must make hard choices. Each turn, players draw up to a hand of five cards, from two decks containing cards of five different colors (red, yellow, blue, purple, brown). For each draw, a player has two choices – usually two different colors, but sometimes both the same). Then the current starting player rolls five dice – one in each color; the pips on each die establish certain costs and values and may result in the players’ receiving threat tokens.
The players then take turns playing a card from their hand, one at a time clockwise from the starting player. Each card may be played in one of six ways: to gain workers of the corresponding color (for future use); to gain money equal to the number of pips on the corresponding die; to eliminate a threat of the corresponding color; to build a section of canal by paying money; to build a house by expending a worker of the appropriate color; or, once a house is available, to put a person into a house by paying money. A person in a house in a player’s display will have a special ability that may happen just once when played, or may be activated by spending a worker of a particular color, or if a certain condition is met. The expansion adds (optionally) more cards; boats each turn that allow a player who builds a canal to get an extra benefit; and a market that grants a player a bonus of some sort when they take a particular action during that turn.
Each player plays (usually) four cards per round, then the starting player rotates clockwise, and the cycle begins again. The game’s final round is triggered when the last card in either of the two decks is taken. (There is a deck of additional cards that can be used to fill out the rest of the round as needed.) When the player’s have taken their last actions, the scores are totaled up and – mirabile dictu! – the player with the most points wins. As noted, there are multiple ways points are scored, and since most of the scoring is left to the end of the game, it can be difficult to gauge how well one is doing. Last night, I thought I was doing miserably, but I wound up in second place, two or three points behind Jessie and ahead of JR by about the same margin.
A good time was had by all. Having won two games in a row, and every game he played last night, Jessie was placed on probationary status, and swore never to do it again. Also, I need to take better pictures.
Finally, not weird, but just because it is so freakin’ cool, here’s the picture (and a video) released by NASA to celebrate the Hubble Space Telescope’s 25th Anniversary last Friday, featuring the Westerlund 2 cluster, where so many stars are being spectacularly born.
Actually, this week has been a bear–literally, a large Alaskan grizzly, or perhaps a Kodiak bear*–so I have not had time to engage in any of the music discovery that I would normally report on here. So for this week, I will just put up this video of some little English band of yesteryear singing a little ditty I have been learning on bass. (For such a simple song, it’s a pretty complex bass line. Not difficult, necessarily, but deeper than you might expect.)
Next week, maybe something new and previously unheard…
*Please don’t write in to complain. The management is aware that a Kodiak bear is the same as an Alaskan grizzly.
The story takes place in a universe dominated by a religious empire (the Radch) that has expanded aggressively, using (among other things) sentient starships which interact with their human commanders through human bodies called ancillaries. The narrator, Breq, is a former ancillary from a particular echelon of ancillaries of the warship Justice ofToren,platoon of its ancillaries, but is now a single individual. Breq’s sole goal now is to exact revenge against the person who effectively destroyed her as a ship and left only the one ancillary.
The story itself is a little slow to get rolling, but ultimately becomes a compelling space opera, weaving together Breq’s current journey with the slow reveal of what happened to the Justice of Toren. What I (and many reviewers) find so fascinating about the book, though, is that the Radch empire uses a language (which presumably reflects a culture) that does not mark gender. Breq and the other Radchaai characters refer to everybody using feminine pronouns–“she,” “her”–even while describing or otherwise indicating that particular individuals are male. Thus, on a planet outside the empire, whose native language does recognize gender differences, Breq will listen for cues from natives as to whether a particular person is male or female, while Breq’s internal narration consistently uses only feminine pronouns.
At first, this was a little odd. In the beginning, the use of “her” and “she” in conjunction with a description of a character as “probably male” (Breq’s not very certain all the time) jars one out of the story a bit. About 50 pages in, though, it struck me that gender didn’t matter. Whether a given character had male or female genitalia, or whether they identified as one gender or another, was entirely irrelevant to the story, because (a) most of the action didn’t have anything to do with sex, romance, love, or anything that might implicate gender or gender roles; and (b) even in those few instances where relationships were relevant, the gender(s) of the participants were not.
I think that when we read a book, we look for cues in the text to help us develop an internal image of the characters, and that’s why the use of non-gender in this book was a bit jarring. But when it finally clicked for me, I realized that my internal visual image of the characters was irrelevant to the story and to my enjoyment thereof. The use of feminine pronouns dispelled the “default” maleness for characters whose sex is not specified (because–again–it doesn’t matter).
I am sure there are people who think the genderless approach is a gimmick, or who will bristle at not knowing exactly which equipment a particular character is sporting between their legs (or who will be offended at the idea that a male-sexed character–whose maleness might be cued in the text–would be referred to as “she”). Some might think it distracts and detracts from the storytelling. In a lesser story, maybe any of that distraction would have been a negative; but for me at least, the transition from catching myself constantly wondering and adjusting my internal image of the characters to realizing that I knew exactly what was going on and it didn’t matter whether a particular character was a man or a woman or something else added a cool dimension to the whole experience. I’m looking forward to reading the next two books. (Because isn’t everything at least a trilogy these days? Ancillary Sword is already out, and Ancillary Mercy is coming this year.)