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2014: Best of Books

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Best Nonfiction
India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy by Ramachandra Guha (2007)

Guha's tome is the best kind of history.  It's accessible, thorough, and well-researched.  I knew next to nothing about modern India before reading this book.  I was afraid that I was going to be tackling more than I could handle, what with the mammoth size of it and the excessive footnoting.  Turns out that I was able to digest it pretty easily.  It's still a heavy non-fiction book, so it wasn't exactly easy reading, but it taught me so much, and brought to life some of the biggest figures in democratic Indian history.  Difficult-to-understand concepts like the role of religion, the patchwork of cultures, and the geographic differences of India are explained clearly enough I could figure them out with ease.

For those looking for an introduction to modern India, this is a great book to start with.

Best Comic
Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh (2013)

It's a bit of a cop-out to nominate a book that started as a webcomic, but this book is quite incredible. There's a lot of great stories here, including the favorites from the webcomic, but also some new stuff. It's also just plain old nice to have an actual book to read.

Brosh is excellent at getting to the darker parts of the psyche, the parts we don't like to show people. She's willing to put it all out there, and the result is a vulnerable and exciting connection that you feel with her. I don't know many other comic artists that can appeal across as wide of a spectrum as can Brosh. She's one of the most talented of her generation, and I will happily read anything she puts out.

Trend: Fewer books read

For the second straight year in a row, my books-read list was way down. Part of it was that I have been reading heavier stuff and longer books, and part of it is that I just don't read as much as I used to in book format. A lot more of my reading time is devoted to reading longform articles and news articles on the internet. I feel mostly okay about this, although I do miss being able to say "Look at all this stuff I read" when this time of year comes around. I do think that I've begun reading a bit more recently, so we'll see if this will turn the pace around, and I get more read next year.

Complete list of what I read in 2014
India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy
The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games, #1)
Things Fall Apart (The African Trilogy, #1)
Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened
Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile
Catching Fire (The Hunger Games, #2)
Travels with Charley in Search of America
Mockingjay (The Hunger Games, #3)
Look at Me

2014: Best of Games

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The move put me well behind schedule, but I find it useful to put these year-in-review posts together anyway.  As always, this is a review of the games that are new-to-me, not necessarily only the ones published in 2014.

Best Civilization Game
Antiquity (2004)

Nearly every year, I put a civilization game somewhere on this list, either as a winner or as an honorable mention.  This year's entry is Antiquity, one of those Splotter games that was released eons ago and now costs an arm and a leg if you want to get a copy.  But damn, this one is worth it.  It does an excellent job of unrolling the fallacy of pretending that mediaval societies were little more than a stepping stone to industrialized societies.  Instead, there is a rich alternative medieval model to this world, one that emphasizes both the culture of stewardship toward natural resources and the difficulty of growth in the medieval era.  We're used to thinking of ecology as a modern problem, but Antiquity emphasizes that it's something we've been dealing with for a long time.  If you ignore it, you will choke your civilization and your city will stagnate and decline.

It's not a perfect simulation.  It shares some of the common problems with civ games -- players still represent some kind of weird god-king that has near complete control over their population, and it's city-based, which is an odd way of modeling the mostly agrarian societies of the era.  There's also a strange win condition surrounding your cathedral.  It's a great choice in game terms, but it's really weird way to declare a win, by satisfying your particular patron saint more as if he or she was an ancient Mesopotamian god.

But the game is just so unique, and well-balanced, and has a fitting art style and a great presentation.  It's a great choice for this year's representative in the Civ category.

Best Eurogame
Suburbia (2012)

I never thought I'd be giving a best-of in this category, and I definitely didn't think I'd be awarding a game named after one of my least favorite contributions of American car culture.  Suburbia, however, is an example of what Euros can be like if they stick with a theme instead of running from it.  The game manages to take Euro design principles like simple math, changing valuations, and tableau building, and wraps them around a cohesive theme.  The theme doesn't necessarily fit with building a suburb (it's much more like building a city center), but it does hit all the high- and low-points of city governance.  You have to keep your people happy, but it helps to specialize, but you can't be completely without any services, and you have to make sure that it all balances on the budget spreadsheet.  

Euros are often decried for their bureaucracy, and Suburbia takes the novel step of embracing it and working it into its theme.

 

Best Wargame
Fire in the Lake (2014)

Board wargames have been struggling about how best to simulate post-WWII warfare since their inception.  Most modern wars don't fit the all-or-nothing mindset of WWII, but instead are as much about occupying hostile territory, winning hearts and minds, and keeping fragile coalitions together.  Volko Ruhnke's COIN series seems to finally have figured it out.  The idea is startlingly simple -- break the coalitions into players that represent their smaller factions, and make the players have different goals, some of which are common, and some of which are competing.  This puts a very natural-feeling strain on the relationship, where the players know they have to work together, but they also don't want to help their ally too much or they won't accomplish their objectives.

This sounds simple, and in hindsight, it is.  However, cooperative competition was not a commonly used mechanic in wargames until these games came around.  Conflicts were nearly always simplified into two-sides, and if your teammate won, you won too, so there was a spirit of self-sacrifice for your ally that simply doesn't work for most modern warfare.

The mechanics work so well at bringing out the political reality for the factions.  The Americans and South Vietnamese can hold the cities, but it's nigh-impossible to dig out the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong from the jungles, and even connections between the cities are tenuous and need to be closely monitored.  Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese desperately need to take northern territory, something that is difficult in the face of American airstrikes.  The Viet Cong can strike anywhere, but don't have the strength to hold on for very long without aid from the North Koreans, but that threatens to wipe out the gains that they worked hard for.  The South Vietnamese mostly care about propping up their own regime, even if that means cracking down on the local populace, but those same people will flock to the Viet Cong banners if they press too hard.  Any one of these traits is difficult to model, and the fact that Fire in the Lake manages to get all of them is truly amazing.

 

Honorable Mention

American Megafauna (2001) - Phil Eklund has joined Martin Wallace as my favorite idiosynchratic game developer, and this is my favorite Phil Eklund game I've tried thusfar.  The sheer baroqueness of this title is what gives it the charm.  It would probably be game of the year if not for the fact that there is very little control here, and you can get caught in a terrible downward spiral that is not of your making.

Rampage, also reissued as Terror in Meeple City (2013) - I love the stupid NES game of the same name, and this is a pitch-perfect implementation of the same idea.  Sure, there's very little to this game, but the components and the madcap gameplay made this is the most fun I've had playing a dexterity game in years.

Factory Fun (2010) - I've not seen any other game combine speed, optimization, and spacial manipulation in the way that this game does.

Football Fever (1982) - Probably the best team-independent football game out there.  Not a ton of replayability because of that, but I don't think it would take too much to make this into something really special, and some leagues have apparently done just that.

 

Trend: Fantasy Flight Stagnation
Horus Heresy (2010)
Merchant of Venus (2012)
Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game – Wisdom and Warfare (2013)

Once upon a time, Fantasy Flight was my favorite publisher.  Between 2004 and 2011 they put out some of my favorite games ever, and the original hits poured in.  Twilight Imperium, A Game of Thrones, Mansions of Madness, Battlestar Galactica, and many others.  Even the games that I played that I didn't love tended to be very good.

It's now been since the release of Mansions of Madness in 2010 since FFG has released something new that I liked.  Horus Heresy was one of the last of the big box games that intrigued me, and it was mostly a noble failure with components that looked good but were very difficult to deal with.  Merchant of Venus had the classic version in the box, which was alright.  The FFG redux that was also included in the box was a mess that took away most of the character, and added some generic-feeling missions and travel mechanics without streamlining anything.  As for Sid Meier's Civilization... Well.  I loved Civilization when it first came out.  I thought it was a great implementation of the computer game, and I even gave it a Game of the Year award in 2010.  The more I played it, though, the more degenerate it got.  The base game developed serious balance issues as we played it more, and both of the expansions failed to create a truly balanced game.  In addition, the game got more and more unforgiving.  It stopped being fun to play, and became a 3+ hour chore.

The stagnation seems to be because they've lost their most talented designers.  Virtually every one of their original games during the 2004-2011 golden years had one of three designers on it: Christian Petersen, Corey Konieczka, and Kevin Wilson.  Petersen has mostly given up game design to be the CEO of the company.  Wilson is gone to become an independent game designer.  Konieczka has only done two original games since 2011, and both are Star Wars licensed.  I have no doubt that FFG continues to be a successful game company monetarily, but  they're not going to match the truly great games they used to put out until they reinvest in their in-house design team.

 

Trend: Kickstarter
Agents of Smersh (2012)
Arcadia Quest (2014)
Boss Monster: The Dungeon Building Card Game (2013)
Eight Minute Empire: Legends (2012)
Euphoria: Build a Better Dystopia (2013)
Foretold: Rise of a God (2014)
The New Science (2013)

Kickstarter generally means that the art and components are wonderful, but the development is usually lacking.  Those traits are well-understood by the boardgame community at this point.  The new funding model is allowing a wider number of people to get into the industry, which means we're seeing more unique themes, more untested mechanics, and just plain more releases.

I have yet to support a Kickstarter game, and I doubt I ever will.  The model shifts most of the risk to the consumer, and the Kickstarters that are truly good go out through the regular distribution channels at much lower prices.  The promos that you get for being an early supporter are, by their very nature, inessential to the game.  But, I do hope Kickstarter keeps going.  KS has done a lot to add visibility to the hobby.  I have some reservations that the growth may be too fast, but it does not yet seem to be the case, and I'm tentatively hopeful that the growth will level off to a consistent, sustainable level for the hobby.

 

Trend: Clearing Out the Collection

I took the opportunity of our move to clean out my collection, which included a lot of games that I kinda wanted to play that I had accumulated over the years, but hadn't quite gotten around to getting on the table.  Predictably, most of them were pretty bad, which is probably the reason I had never gotten them to the table in the past.  There were a few notable exceptions including Factory Fun, and a few that I just couldn't evaluate until I got a few more plays in.  The move also forced me to do my first BGG auction, which was pretty successful and saw everything sell.  I managed to get all of my games onto one shelf in our new place, and I'm rededicating myself to keeping it that way.

 

Worst games

Firefly: The Game (2013) - I think my play was a bit exceptional, but I was caught in a situation from prior poor decisions where I had no choice but to try a skill check until I succeeded.  I tried five turns in a row, during which an hour and a half of my life elapsed that I will never get back.  I called it quits after that.

Magnifico (2008) - Promising dudes-on-a-map game with an off-the-wall theme ruined by inadequate playtesting.  The tanks never die, and you can attack with them on the same turn as you take them, so you take them and then plow over the other players, who just do the same thing on your turn.

another damn Civilization game (2011), Battue: Storm of the Horse Lords (2007), Family Business (1982), The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2002), Slapshot (1982) -  I had accumulated a lot of games over the years that had appealing themes, and I got them at a bargain at one time or another.  As I was moving, it was time for these games to hit the table so that I could see if it was worth moving or not.  These were the worst of that set.  All had very obvious choices, degenerate gameplay, an absurd reliance on luck, or all of the above.

Cockroach Poker (2004) - Some of my gamer friends seem to like this, but I have no idea why.  There is nothing to this game other than guessing whether somebody is lying to you.  It's also degenerate, as you try to gang up on the loser.

Desperados of Dice Town (2014) - The strategy?  Roll actions.

Piña Pirata (2014) - I get the sense that it's not for the type of gamer that I am, but there's no decisions to make here.

Home Game Fantasy Football (1994) - One of the worst football sims out there.  Clearly trying to cash in on Fantasy Football, but included a joke of a board game just in case you didn't want to run your own league.

 

And here's the complete list of what I played for the first time last year.

Hanabi
Quest: A Time of Heroes
Memoir '44: Terrain Pack
Asante
Blokus 3D
Love Letter
Mundus Novus
The New Science
Suburbia
Agents of SMERSH
Antiquity
Chainmail
Eight-Minute Empire: Legends
Euphoria: Build a Better Dystopia
Factory Fun
Horus Heresy
Italia
Jamaica
Lords of Waterdeep
Lords of Waterdeep: Scoundrels of Skullport
Merchant of Venus (second edition)
Rio de la Plata
Sim City: The Card Game
Slapshot
Star Trek: The Adventure Game
Suburbia Inc
Terror in Meeple City
American Megafauna
another damn Civilization game
Arcadia Quest
Babel
Battue: Storm of the Horse Lords
Battue: The Walls of Tarsos
Bezzerwizzer
Bios: Megafauna
Boss Monster: The Dungeon Building Card Game
Cockroach Poker
Crown of Roses
Desperados of Dice Town
Executive Decision
Family Business
Famous First Downs: The World's Smallest Football Game
Felinia
Fire in the Lake
Firefly: The Game
Firefly: The Game – Artful Dodger
Firefly: The Game – Breakin' Atmo
Firefly: The Game – Mal's Pretty Floral Bonnet Promo Card
Firefly: The Game – Pirates & Bounty Hunters
Firefly: The Game – Wash's Lucky Dinosaurs Promo Card
Football Fever
Foretold: Rise of a God
Galaxy Trucker: The Big Expansion
The Gnomes of Zavandor
Greed
GridIron Master
Hey, That's My Fish!
Home Game Fantasy Football
Impulse
Justinian
Kittens in a Blender
Ladies & Gentlemen
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Magnifico
Masons
Metro
Morels
The New Science: Fantasy Scientists
NFL Franchise
Origins: How We Became Human
Phlounder
Piña Pirata
Poseidon
Qwirkle Cubes
Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island
Shoot Out
Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game – Wisdom and Warfare
Theseus: The Dark Orbit
Thinking Man's Football
Ticket to Ride: Europe
Tokaido
Tokaido: Crossroads
TPOC: The Politics of Cannibals
Trajan
Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar
Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar – Tribes & Prophecies
Village
Village Inn
Zilch

The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies

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I can handle the first two movies.  The first one's a romp that takes way too long, but has several good moments, and mostly captures the tone of the book, even if it doesn't get quite all the charm.  The second one is also decent, and includes the amazing golden dragon scene.  But at this point, the reservoir of good will that Jackson built up after the Lord of the Rings trilogy is completely spent, and this movie is the laziest and worst of the three.  

Smaug, the villain of the franchise, kicks the bucket in the first 10 minutes of the movie, but there still needs to an epic film, so we get the Battle of the Five Armies for three hours.  That sounds like it's a good thing.  The battles of Helm's Deep and Gondor were some of the best parts of the original trilogy.  The five armies that give the battle its title are mostly irrelevant, though.  There's a bunch of dwarves we've never met before, some elves who we never liked much anyway, one army of men who just got their city burned but manage to field an army anyway, and two separate armies of bad guys that somehow have managed to transmute themselves from small raiding parties to massive forces.  And the actual battle is very, very dull.  Sloppy maneuver and countermaneuver makes for dull movies, so we get to watch a bunch of one-on-one combat instead.  Some characters kick the bucket who we barely care about, and finally, after an interminably long time, the movie ends.

If I ever watch this trilogy again, I'm going to be sorely tempted to just watch until Smaug is vanquished and turn it off then, because this movie is ridiculously stupid and pointless.

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Stardust

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I'm not quite sure how I missed this movie when it came out. Though I wasn't quite as into swords-and-sorcery fantasy as I once was, I would still have identified at the time as a fantasy fan. Maybe my lukewarm relationship with Neil Gaiman was to blame? Regardless, I blame my friends for not cluing me into this movie at the time.

Fast forward to Christmas 2014 when we're hanging around at Tara's sister's new apartment. She has it recorded, learns we haven't seen it, and makes it her mission to make us see it. So, knowing nothing about it, I find myself watching it. Lo and behold, it's pretty good. Now my mystification at not having heard of it is redoubled. This is a clear successor to Princess Bride, and I don't understand why nerds haven't banded together behind this one the way they have for Princess Bride.

This is not to say the movie is without fault. It's sexual politics in particular are pretty rough. Female agency is restricted to the Evil Old Witch trope, every other female is reduced to bit part or prize to be won by the hero. I get that this comes from fairy tales, but it still is pretty tedious.

That aside, the writing is great, the story is amusing, and I'm glad I saw this. For one thing, at least I can say I've seen something with Claire Danes in it, finally.

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American Hustle

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This movie is an enigma. It's not especially easy to follow, and it consciously steers away from any kind of moral. I wasn't quite sure what to make of it, and the distance of several months hasn't brought much clarity. It borrows heavily from Scorsese's Casino, in that this is an ensemble cast of a bunch of hucksters conning each other. However, Casino eventually sorts out the good guys and the bad guys, something that Hustle pointedly avoids. The con and the movie both eventually end, and although it's obvious who triumphed, it's not clear how we're supposed to feel about it. It's an ambitious artistic choice, and I'll forgive the movie it's ambiguity for being willing to take the chance.

It's not hard to forgive the movie, either. The cast is fantastic, the writing and delivery are crisp, and the period costumes and sets are wonderfully articulated. It's particularly interesting how this isn't just the 70s, it's the 70s among a very particular kind of upwardly mobile slice of society. The microwave scene, in particular, is absolutely fabulous, and if you aren't a Jennifer Lawrence fan before watching it, you will be afterward.

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The Imitation Game

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Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing? Sign me up! This was one of those oh-so-rare movies that I knew I was going to as soon as I heard a rumor about it. I was really bummed when I wasn't able to see it on release day because it was a limited release, but lo and behold, it just so happened that I was moving to L.A. and was able to see it very soon afterwards. It was a nice introduction to the perks of living in the entertainment capital of the world. Even though I ended up writing this review well after the fact, it was

The movie mostly delivers on its promise, though it has a tendency to get a bit maudlin at times, and it leans heavily on the lazy trope of "computer genius solves everything with computer wizardry." Still, the story of Alan Turing is complex, multilayered, and compelling, and it takes more than a bit of sloppy screenwriting to get in the way. The costuming and sets are excellent, and the directing and acting are usually good.

It really hit Tara in a major way. It's germane to our time, both for its take on gay rights, and for its take on the power of computers. Recommended for fans of historical dramas.

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Hunger Games: Catching Fire - The Movie

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What a letdown after the first two movies. Admittedly, the movie has an uphill battle, as the third book is already weaker than the first two books, and the money-grubbing choice to divide it into two parts certainly doesn't help.

Even with those considerations in mind, the movie doesn't come close to its potential. This is a cold, static adaptation of the book, in a way that shows off just how dynamic and appealing the first two were by contrast. There are no transcendent moments like there were in the first two movies, and Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss comes across as bland, which is really saying something for a character and an actress who are both firebrands. There's a lot of artistic talent that's squandered here, from Lawrence to Philip Seymour Hoffman to Julianne Moore. Wasting all of that means that the director got in the way, and there's a lot to think that's the case here. I'm not sure why Francis Lawrence managed to strike out so spectacularly here when he managed to succeed on the second movie, but this movie is not worth seeing. Perhaps the last movie will redeem this one. I sure hope so.

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Portlandia: Season 3

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Portlandia is starting to reach the end of its string. It's still got some good moments, but those moments are rarer now. Much as I love urban hipster culture, there's only so many times you can go back to that well and still think it's funny. We've watched just about all of the season now, and may or may not finish off the rest of it. With our move to Los Angeles, we've dropped it, and I think it's somewhat unlikely we pick this up again.

Anyway, it's not hard to watch this show, and if you're still entertained, stick with it, but I'd definitely start in Season 1, and you'll know if you want to see season 3 when you get there.

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Interstellar

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Matthew McConaughey! Anne Hathaway! Space! Christopher Nolan!

This movie is good. It's got great acting, and truly wonderful exterior space shots. It's definitely worth seeing. But the good parts of the movie stand on their own, and I have nothing to add that seeing the movie itself doesn't accomplish in a much better fashion..

Let's get to the niggle -- I just wish that Christopher Nolan had a more sensitive bullshit meter. It's easy to see why Nolan picked up this script. Much of it is perfect for him. There's a lonely hero out of place, commentary on human nature, and a sweeping storyline with a philosophical bent. But, much like with Inception, the movie has a lot of bombast, but the storyline has big, obvious, gaping holes. It seems like Nolan could and should have sniffed this out at the script stage, and it feels lazy that he decided to hand-wave it away.

The big problem is that the black hole makes no sense whatsoever. Black holes are crazy things. They're ridiculously dense, cause all kinds of strange behavior, and should, under no circumstances, ever be messed with. Unfortunately, the movie plot keeps going back to a black hole for plot points, and they just don't make sense. Most obviously, I'm not sure what kind of propulsion and fuel system they have for these ships, but it seems that they can just go for a quick dip in the interior of a black hole like it's no big deal. The movie also plays fast and loose with gravitational pressure, time dilation, fuel effects, event horizons, and time travel. If this was one scene in the movie, or if they mostly ignored the black hole, this wouldn't be so jarring, but they keep going back to the black hole as a plot point, and it wears very thin, very fast.

But again, it's still a good movie. Get your popcorn, suspend your disbelief, and enjoy the ride.

I'm hoping that the success of this movie and Gravity means that big-budget near-future space movies are getting a renaissance. Most of our space movies have been suffering from the Star Wars effect, and need to be set in a galaxy far, far away with lots of aliens and a high dose of adventure. These sci-fi adventure movies are fun, and I certainly don't advocate for the elimination of them, but my favorite sci-fi dives a little deeper into the human psyche.

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Star Trek: The Next Generation - Seasons 6 and 7

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This series just gets better and better until it ends. Being television from the 90s, there's more than a few episodes that are flat and awkward, but the good episodes are more frequent, and even better than the good episodes of earlier seasons. The characters continue to grow and don't stagnate, which is remarkable for a series that got to its seventh season. Wrinkles like Troi and Work's relationship, and Crusher and Troi's struggle for promotion get explored up to the very end. They don't feel like naked ratings grabs, but rather real, plausible character growth.

The regular hokiness of Star Trek and the implausibility of the hegemony remains, of course, as well as the rather flat characterization of the other alien species, but I still really, really like this series.

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