Monday, December 21, 2015

Star Wars Episode VII Review: The New Hope Awakens

After watching Episode VII - The Force Awakens, it was clearer to me than ever that the crucial missing element of the prequels was the fun interplay between the main heroes. Many aspects of the prequels are compelling as pulp adventure, but the flat direction and dialogue makes them feel sort of awkward and lifeless ("I love you because you're not like sand."). In Episode VII the characters bounce against each other in interesting ways, and are simply fun to watch.

On the other hand, Episode VII made me appreciate Lucas' boldness a bit more. He may have gone overboard on fan-service now and then (like WAAY overboard), but he did try to make something fresh and new, whereas the plot of Episode VII is basically a carbon copy of Episode IV - A New Hope.

Summary with *spoilers*:

Arriving in a Star Destroyer, the Evil Empire, led by an ominous masked Dark Jedi dressed in black, wreak havoc on the rebel defenders. But before being captured a Rebel Leader manages to put the critical info they are looking for in the care of a cute Droid who is sent away to wander a Desert Planet. The Droid is captured by a junker but our Hero, who has lived on this planet since childhood and knows its dangers, rescues it and brings it back to their humble abode. Meanwhile the Rebel Leader is tortured by the dark Jedi.

The Hero is forced to leave their flawed but familiar life when the Evil Empire attacks their home, and joins with a wise old Mentor who tells them about the force. The Hero is exposed to the weirdness of the wider galaxy at a space-port cantina filled with bizarre aliens, and are spotted by a spy who alerts the Evil Empire.

After the Evil Empire demonstrates the power of their Death Star by destroying the home of the Rebel Leader, the heroes sneak aboard on a rescue mission. They succeed, but the wise old Mentor is struck down by his once-ally, the Dark Jedi.

Compelled to flee by the death of their mentor, the hero escapes but must later confront the Dark Jedi on the surface of the Death Star. By using the force, the Hero prevails and escapes the exploding death star, with an assist by the Millennium Falcon. Back at the Rebel Base there is much celebration, and Chewbacca’s contribution is largely ignored.

[/end spoilers]

Obviously I'm exaggerating the similarities for effect (though not all that much really). Things diverge here and there, and my hope is that J.J.'s intention was to bring everything back to square one, sort of wipe the slate clean, before romping off on new space adventures.

Definitely there is a lot that's done right. Abrams captures the tone of the originals, and the action is fun and intentionally a bit sloppy since we aren't dealing with perfect Jedi monks (one of the best action beats in the prequels in my opinion is the clumsy struggle with Obi-Wan and Jango Fett slipping around in the rain). There were also lots of other little homages scattered throughout which frequently delighted me (though at times the references seemed to come every few seconds, which drew me out of the moment).

Certainly the overwhelming similarities with A New Hope are intentional. Lucas himself had the idea that the prequels would "rhyme" with the originals, yet this becomes a delicate balancing act. Reincorporation creates connectedness and familiarity, but also staleness and predictability. J.J. Abrams understands the value of mystique and the unexplained, and the best parts of Episode VII are the new and strange, and the hints at larger stories and mysteries. (Han Solo confronted by the Greedo equivalents, angry Irish man and space Yakuzah, was definitely my favorite moment, and captured everything I love about Star Wars.)

I'm eager to see where Rian Johnson takes us next, and I sincerely hope that this first film is used as a launchpad to explore a broader Star Wars universe, rather than successive entries simply wallowing in fan service (*cough*Star Trek Into Darkness*cough*). Joss Whedon has repeatedly proven that fan expectation can be leveraged to subvert and surprise, rather than simply appease.

I'm not ready to call him Jar Jar Abrams just yet. In some ways Episode VII is a great Star Wars movie. I'm just not sure it will ultimately be anyone's favorite Star Wars movie.

Or maybe it will. Star Trek Into Darkness might be someone's favorite Star Trek movie if they haven't seen Wrath of Khan.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Good, The Board, and The Ugly

The awesome folks at The Good, The Board, and The Ugly podcast were kind enough to request I join them on their latest episode. I had a blast talking about Steampunk Rally and a number of other games.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

New YouTube Channel: Obsidian Orphan

Lately I've been working on a few nerdy mashup songs, and I've created a YouTube channel to showcase them. I chose the name "Obsidian Orphan" because it's a cool anagram of my full name.

That's right, my middle name is Naad.

My middle name is Dana.

Steampunk Rally: Dice Tower Review

Copies of Steampunk Rally have been arriving at peoples' doorsteps and I'm very pleased at how well it's been received. Early Kickstarter hype always artificially inflates a games boardgamegeek rating, but I'm pleased that we actually got a nice bump when people started actually playing the game.

After all these Steampunk Rally posts, I imagine you've either ordered the game already or tuned out in disgust, but if you're still on the fence you can check out this comprehensive review from the Dice Tower network. I'm a bit sad Tom Vasel himself didn't give his thoughts, but I'm pleased by what was put together here and very happy that people are having fun with the 8-player mode.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Steampunk Rally: Tutorial Video

Copies of Steampunk Rally are well on their way to backers and should start arriving this month!
Prepare your body, mind, and spirit with this how-to-play video:

Monday, June 8, 2015

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Orin's Turnip Thyme Chicken Sausage Time

I'm not a huge potato guy. Honestly I prefer turnips and feel they are underrated. But then I also don't like Mario 3 so what do I know?

-For this one, you're going to slice a purple top turnip into relatively thin slices, like the width of about four bar coasters. Not like the thick cork ones, why would you assume I meant those? Chop up an onion and start frying the turnip and the onion together at medium heat with a dab of butter so nothing sticks.

-Add a healthy amount of paprika and about a teaspoon of sugar, and mix in some spices to taste. I used a bit of salt, pepper, garlic, savory, basil, thyme and mustard powder. I'll probably play around with these, the sugar's important though because it nicely balances the strong turnip flavor. I also added a bit of hot pepper, but this is optional.

-Stir semi-regularly. When the turnip is soft and the onions are clear, add some chicken sausage to the pan. I had little ones, but if you have a larger sausage then cut it into bite-size chunks. Or at least don't take it out in public.

-Stir once more and enjoy your smug superiority over potato people (and/or people who prefer potatoes).

Takes about an hour depending on how soft you like your turnips. Yields about 3 servings.

Did you ever try adding an egg to the boiling water when making cheap cup ramen? It is not related to this recipe but it is a superior method of consuming cheap cup ramen.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Orin's Orange Pepper Rosé Rice Pasta Recipe

My girlfriend seems to function better when she avoids eating gluten, so we've been playing around with some recipes that avoid wheat, and I concocted one yesterday that we both agreed was worth sharing. The meatballs (Swedish) and rosé sauce I used was store bought. (Also this would work fine with regular pasta I'm sure, but that might result in horrific and NSFW consequences.)
-Bake about three handfuls of meatballs. (A "handful" is a scientific term for a "thwack.")

-Boils some brown rice pasta. (Ours didn't expand much, so you should probably put in more than you think you need, and it takes a fair bit of boiling.) Drain pasta when it's desirably droopy, drizzle with olive oil (to keep it from sticking) and a pinch of salt and mix.
-In a pan sauté half a copped union, a bit of green onion, and a bell pepper (an orange one will look nice). Onions should be translucent but not burnt.

-Add to pan meatballs, rosé sauce, a dash of pepper to taste, a dash of powdered ginger, and a very hot pepper. (The hot pepper I used was from the deli and stuffed with feta cheese, the both of us agreed that it was virtually inedible on its own, so I removed the also extremely hot feta and sprinkled it on the dish.)

-Stir intermittently for a few minutes over medium to high heat, then remove hot pepper. Serve over pasta (make sure both are still warm).

Takes about a half hour to prepare. Yields approximately 3 servings depending on hunger level.

I would have liked to include a picture as the dish was quite attractive as well as being delicious, but we gobbled it down immediately before the idea of posting it came up. Also since the hot pepper was only simmered for a bit and then removed, the dish isn't very spicy at all (and probablly wouldn't be described as "spicy" by someone who didn't see the hot pepper go in), but along with the ginger it gives a little kick.

Also if you stick the green union bases in water and leave them near sunlight, they will regrow and you can have LIMITLESS ONIONS! Bye-bye costly onion bills, hello sensible onion bills!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Le Gouffre

One of my uber-talented artists on Steampunk Rally, David Forest, has just released a jaw-dropping animated short two years in the making. Give it a watch!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Heart of Crown Review: Goofus and Gallant

Heart of Crown sports one of those euphonious names that only seem to result from sketchy Japanese-to-English translations (I just watched an episode of an anime that included the line "please stop the mystic power generator," spoken with great earnestness of course). It belongs to the "deck building" family of games which began with Dominion in 2008. The core idea of deck building, acquiring cards throughout play to beef up the awesomeness and combo-potential of your deck, has been taken in a lot of different directions since that unarguably seminal game: steampunk economics, a global warming post-apocalypse, epic space battles, the struggle for Canada, and superhero punching (or Alien punching, if you prefer). Heart of Crown may at first glance appear regressive since it hews more closely to the original Dominion than any other subsequent effort in terms of both theme and general mechanics. However, labeling it a Dominion knock-off would be a great disservice once you realize that it addresses each of Dominion's failings in a highly direct and effective manner, elegantly bending those flaws into powerful assets Batman.

A minor annoyance in Dominion is remembering how many actions you have left to play. Several cards give you additional actions, and then of course those cards require an action to play, so the math gets... yeach. It's not gamebreaking or anything, but it means a lot of counting on your fingers, which can be detrimental to managing a hand of cards (and Marduk help you if you lose count and have to retrace your steps).

Heart of Crown neatly solves this by simply putting an arrow on the right edge of cards that don't require an action, and a second arrow on the bottom edge of cards that grant an additional action, and require that each card (after the first) must be played with a arrow pointing to it. It's extremely intuitive, involves no counting, and also makes it easy for opponents to check your "math," and it allows the designers to easily balance the various card powers by simply giving them different numbers of arrows without requiring reams of extra text and rules exceptions for what does and doesn't require an action to play. (The arrow icon could be slightly clearer though, it blends in a bit until you know what you're looking for.)

Dominion utilized a clever system of adding purchased "Victory Point" cards to your deck, creating a catch-up dynamic wherein the players with the most points by necessity also have the most cludged-up decks, and forcing the players to make tough choices between improving their deck's functionality or actually gaining points. The problem is that the actual experience of drawing a hand full of useless 6-VP province cards is dull at best and incredibly frustrating at worst.

Heart of Crown expands on this dynamic to create difficult in-the-moment tactical choices. If you draw a hand with points cards, you can "bank" these cards and get them out of your deck (and in fact only banked cards add to your score), but you can't purchase any cards that turn. So a hand full of points cards, rather than a wasted turn, feels like an efficient opportunity to bank, and a hand with some useful cards and some points cards suddenly offers an agonizing choice rather than merely an inefficient turn. Furthermore, this mechanic allows you to better slim and hone your deck, reducing late-game randomness.

In Dominion, you can buy two cards that you intend to play off each other, and then proceed to never ever draw them both in the same hand.

In Heart of Crown, you can stow action cards for use on later turns (depending on how awesome your "kingdom" is).

In Dominion, all the purchasable cards are available right at the start of the game. This reduces randomness and allows for lots of long-term planning, but it also makes the turn-to-turn decisions less interesting since you mostly know what will be available and don't really need to react on the fly. An experienced Dominion player can look at any card setup and immediately say "oh those three cards are going to combo well," and then proceed to pursue that theory and potentially make few to no further choices throughout the game (aside from paying attention to how fast other players are accelerating the endgame). Also having to try and internalize what every action card does right from turn-1 can be a bit daunting if you're at all inexperienced.

Subsequent deck building games like Ascension and Marvel Legendary address this by having a limited selection of random cards to select from. This forces on-the-fly strategizing, but it also increases the random factor, and potentially limits the overall strategizing that a player can do. Heart of Crown finds an interesting middle ground wherein there are always eight different types of action cards available, but which cards and how many of each card shift over time, emphasizing both short and long-term planning (and also reducing setup time). I'm slightly concerned that, because you see a bigger portion of the action cards every game, certain combos might become known and always exploited when possible, but there are expansions to remedy that.

Dominion did not feature adorable anime handmaiden cards.

Heart of Crown addresses this by featuring adorable anime handmaiden cards.

In summary, Heart of Crown is basically Dominion 2.0, and I mean this in the best way possible. Dominion itself is a brilliant, important and innovative game, and Heart of Crown brings a whole host of improvements to the table (and I didn't even get into the fascinating game of chicken involving the Princess powers). There's enough diversity in this genre to justify owning a few different deck building games; Legendary Encounters is a pretty different game from A Few Acres of Snow, for example. But to be honest, given the choice between Dominion and Heart of Crown, I would pick Heart of Crown every time.

...sadly Heart of Crown is not available in English, and as far as I know there are no specific plans to remedy that, which renders this review ...entirely pointless! On the other hand, it gave me the opportunity to type the phrase "please stop the mystic power generator."

Sunday, January 11, 2015

2,400 Free DOS Games!

DOSBox can be kind of a pain in the butt, and some DOS games had copy protection that was just as irritating as the stuff EA puts out (particularly when you don't have the instruction manual that came with the specific starmap with the coordinates you need!). Luckily you can now play 2,400 classic DOS games right in your browser for free! Let's celebrate videogame history by falling in love with dying of dysentery all over again.

My Game Design Course (Winter 2015)

In the Fall I ran a game design course in Mount Royal's continuing education department, and it went quite well! In class we developed a tabletop adaption of Minecraft and an interesting alternate-history WWII game which is still under development (among other things). I'll be doing another run-through on Tuesday nights starting February 3rd and running until March 7th (seven classes total). Course content will be similar to the first iteration.

If you're in Calgary and are interested in learning about game design, you can find the course on MRU's website by searching Course Registration Number: 30941

Spread the word, superfriends!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Steampunk Rally - Most Anticipated Games of 2015

Voting is now open for boardgamegeek's most anticipated games of 2015, and Steampunk Rally has been nominated for seven categories. We're currently in the coveted top 20 overall, but it looks like it will be a tight race. If you have a moment before January 18th (and a bgg account), please consider heading over and voting for us! ...that is if Steampunk Rally is one of your most anticipated games of 2015. If not, then never mind. We hope to do better by you another year.