Saturday, October 20, 2007

My Game of the Year (so far)

My pick for the best game I've played all year was finally released this week. No, it's not Beautiful Katamari (though I need to pick that up too if I can get it in the midst of all of the other great games being released in the next six weeks; this is the best Christmas season for games I can recall in a long, long time). I'm talking about the board game 1960: The Making of a President.

Political games have a long history of being absolute garbage. One of the few quality ones for computers was Balance of Power and a few years ago Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews took inspiration from that classic computer game to create the board game Twilight Struggle. Twilight Struggle has the players compete as superpowers through the cold war and is the best feeling strategic cold war game I've ever played. 1960 is a kind of sequel where Jason Matthews took most of the mechanics that made Twilight Struggle so great and applied them to a presidential campaign.

Each player steps into the shoes of one of the candidates and on each turn are dealt a hand of cards which depict major events that occurred in the weeks leading up to the election. If the event is something that his candidate can take advantage of then the player has a choice of using the event which can affect a lot of things in the game or caching it in for influence over voters. They can campaign directly appealing to voters in a particular state which can pay off in the short term since enough of an advantage can effectively lock their opponent out of the state, or put their efforts into campaigning on particular issues which can have long term benefits if the issues they're ahead on are the ones that are important to the American people.
The events give the game a see-saw feeling where even when things are bad they can turn around in an instant with a good play. A card could lock an opponent out of a region of the country for a time letting their opponent run rampant. Or a shift of priority in the issues could lead to a come back with media endorsements. A landslide is possible but your opponent has to just about roll over and let you take it for that to occur. At 1960's heart it's a game of damage control; you have to react to the bad events while trying to leave yourself enough resources left over to gain ground.The game components are impressively designed. The board has a late 50's style, the game uses tokens that feature the campaign buttons, and the markers for keeping track of the electoral college votes have the appropriate state seal for each of them printed on one side. It's some of the nicest design work I've seen giving the fun game inside some very pretty wrapping.

If you play the game then I would recommend reading The Making of a President: 1960 (hey, that title sounds familiar). T.H. White, better known to nerds as the writer of The Once and Future King, followed the Kennedy campaign around very closely and wrote a very detailed history of the campaign as it was occurring. His closeness to the Kennedy camp did seem to make him more willing to excuse Kennedy's faults compared to Nixon's, but it brings much of the history detailed in the game into focus.

It's a fun game. It's an interesting history lesson of the type usually only found in quality wargames (and I guess you could call a campaign a kind of war). It's the best game I've played so far this year.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Blaphemy or Faithful?

It's time for more easy content on Friday... er... Blasphemy or Faithful!

It's based on "The Golden Man" by Philip K. Dick. The film says so right in the credits, even!

Pro: Well, there's a guy who can see the future and a government agent...
Con: Everything else. Different main character, different setting, different plot, different themes. If it wasn't for that credit I'd never connect this movie to Dick's story which featured a race of mutants being hunted to extinction, one which had golden skin (hence the title of the original story) and the ability to see the future. This movie has something to do with some kind of unexplained terrorist plot to detonate a nuclear bomb for unspecified reasons with indeterminate goals by European terrorists and the FBI seeking the help of a stage magician who can see a few minutes into the future as part of a plan that doesn't really make sense to intercept them.
Result: The only way this movie could be more blasphemous toward the original story would be if Nicholas Cage dug up Dick's grave and raped the corpse for the camera. My theory is that the scriptwriter said he took the idea from a story and the studio lawyer just did a google search for "short story see the future" and credited what came up when he hit "I'm Feeling Lucky".

Fantastic Four
Based on "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine". It says so right over the title of the comic and if you can't trust Stan Lee, a.k.a. the Astounding Hyperbolic-Man, who can you trust? I'm not referring to the unreleased Roger Corman film here, I've got to save that one for later.

Pro: Four astronauts are caught in a radiation storm with inadequate shielding get super powers; so far so good. The one that looks like he's been dipped in orange play-do is unhappy about it and rages against the others; still good.
Con: Oh, and Dr. Doom is also with them in the radiation storm and gets super powers. That's like a Superman movie where Lex Luthor is from Krypton (yeah, I'm aware of that horror show of a script that was planned). I know that comic book movies feel the need to justify their bizarre character's existence but that one's right off the deep end.
Result: For comic nerds Dr. Doom is just as popular as his enemies and getting it that wrong is unforgivable.

Dungeons and Dragons
A film a long time in the adapting the world's most popular role-playing game.

Pro: Generic fantasy setting? A plot that drives characters from location to location but doesn't actually make much sense? Ridiculous creatures and settings? Major characters that are referred to only by their race and never by their name? While all of these might be cons for film quality it sounds like the vast majority of D&D games I've encountered.
Con: They didn't keep track of their spell components and forgot to bring a cleric. No stopping the quest to go get pizza. No long winded rules lawyer arguments delaying the climax.
Result: Pretty faithful and it serves as a stern warning against making fantasy novels based on someone's D&D campaign.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Battle in Time

The Big Time was about a time war that we never actually saw or had the story really involved with it so I feel I'm owed at least one battle in time. So I have dug out the best of them all. Better than the board game Duel of Ages where you play different historical figures and make them fight for your amusement. Better than that episode of Dr. Who where the second Doctor encounters an evil time lord who has gathered armies from all of history and is making them fight. This is the best.

That's right, I like this issue of Fantastic Four better than a Hugo winning novel by an aknowledged science fiction grandmaster.

In fairness, though, this is the single best issue of Fantastic Four ever created. Lee and Kirby had the epic mythic feel that made their entire run worth noting, Mark Waid and John Byrne had some excellent issues and great runs, but this single Walt Simonson issue is the greatest.

You see, Dr. Doom has at long last succeeded and captured the Fantastic Four. The Human Torch is trapped underwater, the Invisible Woman has been gassed, the Thing is beaten into submission and Reed Richards is buried alive. Reed manages to escape his death trap claiming he dug out with his belt buckle setting up this. I'll let Dr. Doom explain the plot from here:

Okay, the armor redesign for Doom wasn't great, but it only lasted for two issues.

So Doom and Reed are going to spend the issue teleporting back and forth in time and taking pot shots at each other:
The clocks in the lower left hand corner show the time and the clocks in the burst that appear when Reed and Doom vanish tell you what time they've traveled to. As they fight the Thing tries to rescue the rest of the team and occasionally interferes in their battle:

The best moment of all has Reed turn the time travel technology they're using against Doom in a way that was completely unexpected:

That shot Reed blocked traveled in time to 12:33am, nearly half an hour before their battle began. But if you look back at the cover you'll see that he actually deflected the shot out of the fourth wall and into the cover!

Doing all of this time travel isn't a good thing as it turns out and Reed and Doom have done serious damage to the space/time continuum by using it as their private battlefield. So finally no less of an authority than Judge Dredd shows up to haul them in. Or as close of a Judge Dredd knock off as possible for Marvel to use without getting sued.

So it's not a deep story. I'd never seriously put it up for Hugo. But something happened! And it used time travel rather than talking about it! In a method that took advantage of the strengths of the medium! And it got me to use lots of exclamation points and sentence fragments! That makes it the best time travel battle ever.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Review - The Big Time

The Big Time
by Fritz Leiber
1958 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

The Big Time
is a time travel story about a great war over the entire course of history where the nature of reality changes from attack to attack.


It features sinister plots by beings far beyond human understanding and we're all just pawns in their eternal game.


Some of the time travel concepts are particularly mind bending like what happens if history changes so you were recruited into the war (you still exist but you have overlapping memories of the new history).


And it's told completely from the perspective of entertainers who exist entirely outside of the war so that none of those fascinating concepts raised are actually brought into the plot which occurs entirely in what amounts to a bar outside of time.


I think it would be almost unfair to give a synopsis since none of it actually matters for the book but here goes. There are two forces fighting for control of all of time, the "Snakes" and "Spiders". They recruit people through mysterious means and have them affect the course of history. Leiber makes a big deal of the fact that the true nature of the "Snakes" and "Spiders" is unknown to those fighting the war; they don't know what the side they're fighting on is fighting for. There's a place outside of time that is provided for rest and recuperation between battles which is where our narrator works and it is where the "action" takes place. A bunch of people come back from a failed mission and they might have a bomb with them and then the bar loses its connection to the universe.

The ancient adage of "Show, don't tell," isn't always true but you can get a good example of why it is repeated so often by reading The Big Time. Almost all of this book is telling. The narrator tells us about the interesting impact of the time war they're fighting but we never see any of it. People tell us something about what missions they perform in the war but we never see them. The very slight plot that effectively starts about two-thirds of the way through the book and is quickly wrapped up and that just leaves us with characters. Sadly they're paper thin and can't carry the weight of the book.

Perhaps at the time that Leiber was writing having characters fighting a war they didn't understand and were growing weary of conflict was less of a clichè when he wrote it. He was far from the first to use those themes and his examination of them goes about as far as the description in the previous sentence.

I've been told that Leiber wrote The Big Time with a stage production in mind and if that's true then it certainly explains the very confined nature of the story. It still doesn't make The Big Time good. It's all build up, no pay off. It's so slight that I really don't have anything else to add. I can't talk about the big ideas because they're raised but not used. I can't talk about the plot because it's barely there.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Oh! A New Collection of Stories for 1956!

Remember when books had advertisements for other books on the back cover?

From the back cover of my copy of Double Star (click for readable size):

Monday, October 15, 2007

Review - Double Star

Double Star
by Robert Heinlein
1956 Hugo Award for Best Novel

Quick! Which one of these doesn't belong: Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, or Double Star? I'll give you a hint, three of those are major works of science fiction that have received attention even beyond genre fans and are generally considered the greatest works of Robert Heinlein. The other is Double Star.

Which isn't to say that Double Star is bad, it's a mid-range Heinlein work which if you like Heinlein at all is worth a read. The problem is that among his record four wins for best novel there are three major works and one that is pretty much forgotten.

The plot is essentially cribbed from The Prisoner of Zenda (or Dave for those who are unaware of anything before 1990). Lorenzo Smythe is an actor who is hired to step into the shoes of the politician John Bonforte who has been kidnapped on the eve of a ceremony to join a tribe of Martians (aliens rather than humans who live on Mars since this was written in the 50's when Martians could still be used from time to time). The ceremony cannot be postponed and missing it would have grave consequences for the state of Bonforte's political party. Once it is over, though, circumstances conspire to have Lorenzo continue playing the role of Bonforte.

It's slight, it's simple, and the politics are laughable with their pure hearted politician Bonforte. Using a stand-in when it's vital that the Martians have someone there I can accept as the premise of the novel, but having the stand-in would go so far as to make major political decisions supplanting their own thoughts for what they think the original would do is pushing things. To have it done smoothly with hardly any complications with his handlers is just taking it too far.

By far the best thing thing about Double Star is the characterization of Lorenzo Smythe. The story is told from his point-of-view and he's an egotistical blow hard. It lends the book a particularly entertaining voice that helps it overcome the weaknesses of the plot.

As a special treat for those who hate Heinlein one of his fetishes make a particularly out of place early appearance here. At one point Smythe says to his secretary, "Stow it, Penny, or I'll spank your round fanny - at two gravities." In theory he should be in character as Bonforte at this point but this strikes me as awfully unprofessional even for 1956. Of course he is supposed to be a politician and we know it isn't that much of a stretch...

One thing I found odd is that the ruler of the solar system is King Willem of the House of Orange. That's right, the Dutch have conquered the universe. I like seeing futures where the world powers are ones different from what you might expect and seeing the Dutch in charge made for a quirky change. Apparently they run the world as a constitutional monarchy.

Double Star is a slight Heinlein work. If you read it with that in mind then it probably won't bother you, but it's fluff.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

I Have Found a Soul Mate

I have found a reviewer who not only agrees with me on most video games but is just as bitter and angry as I am: