Saturday, May 3, 2008

Transit Purgatory

Whatta day. Left San Francisco at 4pm on Friday, and I was supposed to be in Madrid by now. Unfortunately, Virgin Atlantic only budgeted an hour for transfer time, and Iberria closes thier gates 45 before departure. Good to know. Incidentally, 15 minutes is not enough time to deplane and take a bus across the vast, permanently under construction hinterland of Heathrow. Add to that one 10 minute tarmac delay, and it's pretty much an impossibility.

I've never had a good experience at Heathrow. Last time I was here, I waited in security and customs for and hour, only to be paged back to ticketing so I could watch my oversize bag and make sure in got put on the conveyor belt. I still have no idea why. Had to go through security again.

When I got to the gate late today, they sent me back to Virgin. 45 minutes and a bus ride later, the flustered attendant at Virgin told me there was nothing they could do and go back to Iberria. Another half hour later, the lady at Iberria was telling me I had to go back to Virgin. Good times!

I'm on standby for a flight that should put me in Madrid 4 hours later than I would have liked. But, yeah. Standby.

At any rate, I was on TV last night. Huzzah.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Risk: Black Ops - The Inside

My first impressions of the design of Black Ops held to the end. Every thing is rendered in cool grey and black tones, with sharp edged design. I enjoy the non-Mercator map greatly.

I'm shocked at the level of quality and care that went into the whole package. I'm familiar with the conflict between making something for the most people to enjoy, and wanting to make something that you (and maybe six other people) would enjoy. Black Ops would probably never sell to more than a hardcore audience, with its stark minimalist flat black and glossy grey aesthetic, but I would have been one of those six people who bought it.

The pieces are simple and geometric painted wooden shapes, and while I do have an affinity for my favorite Risk's (Godstorm) detailed miniatures, these pieces groove with Black Ops' overall feel.
The instructions for the "basic training" game come on these six file cards inside a folder, and the folder itself contains the rules for the "command room" variant. Each card details a separate game mechanic. Here's where the new rules come into play:
  1. Combat, Troop Movement - All relatively unchanged. This, to my mind, is a good thing. I know Risk's luck based approach is a big turn off to many, but I think and element of luck and risk is integral to a good strategy game
  2. Cities and Capitals - Both sweeten the worth of the territories they are in, and are part of the objective system, detailed later.
  3. Drafting - gaining new troops is dependent on not only your territories and complete continents, but also how many cities and capitals you control. Additionally, cards are slightly different. Each card still has a picture of a country on in, but instead of the holy trinity of cavalry, infantry, and artillery, each are marked with one or two stars. You can trade in 2 or more cards at the beginning of your turn, provided at least one card has two stars. You can also hold limitless cards. The amount of troops gained depends on the amount of stars, and it's not a sliding scale. Since the game is no longer weighted towards global conquest, you no longer have to suffer the exponential escalating end game.
  4. Objectives and Rewards - I never played any of the Mission Risk variants, so the Objectives are new to me. There are 12 total, 6 major and 6 minor. They range from capturing an enemy capital, hold a number of cities, too "Take over an entire continent in one turn." Achieving an Objective (in the "command room" variant) grants you a reward. The rewards vary from adding an extra attack or defend die, and dropping the lowest roll, to an Airfield, which provides attack bonuses to all adjacent territories. They're an excellent balance between Risk's traditional simplicity and more complex wargame's aggressive complexity. They provide flavor, but are achieved with elegantly simple rules.
  5. Endgame - It's over when a predetermined amount of objectives are achieved. Since all objectives are visible at the start of play (as well as which rewards they grant) you can tell when someone is close to achieving one, and adjust your strategy accordingly.
The Devil's Crossing

All in all, the rules made perfect sense just reading them, something that rarely happens for me, and the updates are intuitive, elegant, and devious. I'm excited about my first playtest... as soon as I stop working 12-14 hour days. Look out, Australia.

Thanks again to Rob D at Hasbro

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Risk: Black Ops

Rob Daviau and Hasbro were nice enough to send me this brand new preview copy of Risk: Black Ops...I want to open it, but I think I need to stare at it a little more.
Very handsome, minimalist packaging... I'll have a full update on the contents and a play test soon.
Thanks Rob, and everyone else. I'll spread the word.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

I'm Internet Famous

...because random people are giving me shit in forums. Awesome.

Gamersyde Interview

Some of my favorites from the various places this was hosted.
  • Ok, that guy was acting really gay. Kinda fruity, i guess now i know why he gave the interview to snoopers, watch out man.
  • was it me or did that guy have an insanely large nostril?
  • Is that Seth Rogen?
Thanks to Snoopers and Bryan for that interview, I really enjoyed it.

Dream Journal #1 - The South Coast which my subconscious plagiarizes HP Lovecraft.
So, I had an epically fucked up and bizarre dream a few nights ago, thanks no doubt to the endless cocktail of over the counter cold and flu medications I’d been imbibing. So, sit back and enjoy this tale:

It's winter break; and I have three months off (Ah, dream logic). My girlfriend and I decide to head down the South Coast (the vast thousand mile stretches of sparsely settled lands south of San Francisco) and just see where we end up. No particular plan.

We stop at a beach a few miles south of San Francisco; from the road you can see that there is an ambulance on the beach, and large excavation in the sand. We approach and find several bodies being removed from the pit. We watch in silence with a large crowd as they are put in body bags, and driven away. There's a Park Ranger there, so I strike up a conversation.

“It’s a shame.” I say.

“Yeah, it’s just lucky that we found them.” He replies.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“You know…” He says, and then I do know.

Fifty or so people go missing in the South Coast every year around winter break. They almost never find anyone, and when they do, there is no obvious cause of death; the victims are just buried in the sand, or huddled in caves. This has been happening for hundreds of years. It’s just a weird fact of life in the South Coast.

There’s a ranger station just up the road, so I decide to head up there and pick up the pamphlets on what the latest theories are. I’m not terribly concerned about it, but I’m curious. The ranger station is packed due to the latest discovery of the bodies on the beach. They’re updating a list on a chalkboard with the names of the missing so far on it, putting check marks next to the names of the people that we’re exhumed on the beach. I scan the list and see that it’s been a really bad year. Over a hundred people are missing, and it’s only the first month of winter break.

I scan the names and see two names that stick out immediately: J.M., a coworker of mine, and Eddie Murphy, the actor. Both missing for a few weeks. This piques my interest a bit. I knew J was heading south with his girlfriend, but I hadn’t heard he was missing.

As I scan the list for more names, there’s a commotion in the Station. A ranger comes in frantically to alert the other rangers of something odd outside. He tries to play it cool, but we can all overhear him. By the time the Rangers are headed out to investigate, there’s a small crowd following them. We head across Highway one and up the hill, where we find a cave that looks like it’s newly revealed by a landslide. It’s a shallow, but dark earthen tunnel that slopes down into the hillside. There’s already a crowd of people heading into the mouth, and down. Inside, the tunnel ends in a small alcove made of rock.
The walls are covered in etched writing, names, each in a different handwriting. People are solemnly searching the walls for names they know already will be there. I realize that everyone here knows someone who’s gone missing. There’s a clear progression of names from back to front. The leading edge contains J’s name, and as you follow the list backwards, the names become old-fashioned, then are all in Spanish, then a few are in pictographs I can’t read. It’s a dawning realization among everyone in the tunnel, what we’re all seeing. I start to panic, and I exit the tunnel at high speed.

My girlfriend and I concur that we should just move on and leave this portion of the South Coast. We’re both deeply unsettled about the whole affair, and don’t discuss it as we drive south. We’re get a few hundred miles south (The South Coast in my dream is an enormous and sparsely populated frontier land), when I see something on the side of the road. We pull over and find a car buried in the brush.

It’s a Corsair, a rust colored model of car that I recognize at once as exclusive to the locals of the South Coast. It looks like a heavily armored Volkswagen Beetle; the windows are rows of slits in the metal, the tires are invisible behind strange steampunk looking hubcaps, and protrusions like pipes dart of it at odd angels. Something is odd about this Corsair, and I pop the door open. Inside is new bill of sale, with J’s name on it. Inside the glovebox are a series of maps and guide books for the South Coast, including a brand new looking guidebook called “In the Footsteps of Cthulhu”.

This makes perfect sense to me in the dream. HP Lovecraft was from the South Coast, and all his stories take place along the strange fishing villages and old towns that dot the beach. This was part of the reason I wanted to come.

At this point I realize that I have to find out what happened to J. There’s no police to speak off in the South Coast, and he was so far south that he’ll likely never be found. So despite my girlfriend’s protestations, I resolve to track him down.
All I know at this point is that J bought a whole bunch of South Coast guidebooks and maps. He headed south, where he sold his car to buy the local-approved Corsair. This suddenly makes sense to me. The locals hate tourism, it would be best to blend in. We swap cars, and take the Corsair, leaving mine in the brush. I still don’t know where J went next, but I use my phone to check his Amazon purchases. The list account for all the guidebooks I’ve found, except for one that’s not in the car: A guide to the Village of Grey.

Grey is perhaps the most well known population center in the South Coast. This isn’t a huge revelation to me, I knew this, but it makes a lot of sense that he would be headed there. It’s also where I assumed we would end up on our vacation. We head down the road in J’s Corsair.

The days and nights in the South Coast are almost identical; the night is only slightly darker. It’s a foggy and bleak country, very little but endless sand dunes and thin beach grass, and the pounding pale gray ocean. It takes us several days of travel across the one lane coastal highway. We sleep in the Corsair during the night, and never pass another driver or a car.

Finally we reach Grey.
The main part of Grey is behind wooden walls and officially off limits to non-natives, but the tourist quarter has maybe 100 fellow travellers from various parts of the country. They wander around with a look of perpetual disappointment, thumbing through guidebooks, and grumbling about the bleak and ugly vacation spot they’ve chosen. The tourist quarter faces the ocean, with the highway and a mile or so of sand dune, separating it from the water.

No one who lives in Grey works in the Tourist Quarter (I’ve never actually seen a local) and it’s all automated. It sounds high-tech, but it’s just the opposite. Food is all prepackaged snack food, dispensed by rickety wooden machines. All the cogs and gears of the machines are made of drift wood, salt eaten and paint peeling. The same goes for all the buildings and the rows and rows of hotels. I pick a hotel and start looking around. Again, the hotels are all automated. You drop money in a wooden slot, sign a ledger, and a ring of keys slide down the wooden trough. I flip through the ledger, and find J’s name next to a room number. I drop money into the slot, and when the key slot opens, I jam my hand into it. I grope in the darkness and start pulling out key rings; after a few tries I find the key’s to J’s room. We head up the rickety stairs and look for the correct room number.

The hotels are thin, like the flatiron building, but they stretch for miles. Each room consists of a bed, a stainless steel sink, and a wooden toilet. The whole room is less than 4 feet wide, but 30 feet long. There are windows open and facing the central courtyard of the Tourist Quarter, but the wall facing the ocean is blank and windowless. The whole place is dilapidated; it’s entirely made of the same driftwood looking lumber, with faded paint and fraying edges. There’s the remnants of a strange sense of "maritime country cute” in the Tourist Quarter, although it’s long since faded and peeled into creepiness. It looks like some little old lady with a cutesy nautical architecture fetish built the whole town 100 years ago, and then it was left to crack, peel and fade in the salt and sun.

As I enter J’s room, I don’t expect to find anything, but on the bed are two desiccated corpses. J and his girlfriend. We stare a while, not knowing what to do. They look like they died in pain or in fear, grimacing and clutching at each other, but there is no sign of violence. There’s no police in Grey, of course, so all I can do is note the room number, but a blanket over them, and go to our own room for the night. Clearly, neither of us wants to stay very long, and our vacation is effectively over. We settle in to the thin rickety bed, and try to sleep.

Forgive me, this is where it gets weird. Within the dream, I have another dream.

Suddenly I’m on the beach outside Grey and its morning. I must have driven the corsair here, because it’s on the beach behind me. I realize now that the strange hubcaps allow it to drive on the sand. I’m very disoriented, not sure how I got here, wondering where my girlfriend is, when I look out at the waves. I see someone walk out of the water in badly shredded surfer’s wetsuit. I know who it is, but now I cannot recall. His face is a bleary smear in my memory. He’s yelling at me, waving his arms and gesticulating. He’s trying to warn me of something, and I can see behind him that he’s being pursued; a horde of people spring out of the water, hooting and hollering.

They wear incredibly decayed scuba gear, and ride small motorized devices, like a personal underwater engine, all made with a similar aesthetic to the architecture of Grey and the make of the corsair.
This is the first time I’ve ever seen locals. They look vaguely fish like themselves, pale and waterlogged, and sport clothes made out of rope and fibers. Shells for jewelry, long dreadlocks, shark teeth woven into their beards. They shoot my unknown friend with a spear gun and tug on the wire, pulling his body back into the surf, and then they surround me. In moments, my arms are tied behind my head, and they drag me into the surf.

I’m completely disoriented but I hear their wet laughter die and they go silent as they prepare for some sort of ritual. They’re holding a rusty curving dagger, and they have a infant wrapped in oilskins. It’s mewling in the saltwater spray, and I can hear them all chanting around it. As they dip
the knife towards the child, I can hear fragments of their chant. “Cthulhu” is the only word I hear, and it makes me want to laugh. It’s all so absurd. The baby stops crying, and I know it must be dead. The incoming waves around me are now tinged red. The chanting increases in volume, and in the bloody surging tide I can see something taking shape it each breaking wave. I get the sense of teeth and jaws and eyes and tentacles and a maw, and I close my eyes because I don’t want to look, but I can still sense the thing being birthed from the sea, like there is a voice describing it to me, echoing loudly in my skull.

Then everything stops, and I can hear laughter.

Distinctive, braying laughter.

It’s Eddie Murphy.

He’s standing on the beach, and laughing in disbelief at the scene. “This is one shitty looking movie!” he hollers. The cultists stare at him and then me in disbelief, and the thing beneath the waves slithers soundlessly away into the ocean.

Eddie Murphy walks down the beach towards them, laughing, with an air of utter nonchalance, still convinced he’s wandered onto the set of some cheap horror movie. The cultists are rapidly shifting from shock to pure rage, and begin advancing on him.
I raise my voice to scream a warning at him and I get smacked in the jaw with the butt of a spear.

That’s when I wake up. In the hotel bed in the Tourist District of Grey.
I have some vague conception that what I had just ‘dreamed’ might have been something that had happened in the past, or something that would happen in the future, but I had no idea.

All I know is that I have to get the fuck out of the South Coast.

I wake my girlfriend up and send her outside to get some water and food for the trip from the wooden automat. I scramble, frantically packing our things, but I can’t find my left shoe. I lean out the window towards the plaza, to ask my girlfriend if she’s seen it, and I see her talking to S, an old friend from an old job I haven’t seen for years. This bit of familiarity calms me and I walk down to shake his hand, feeling foolish for panicking.

We chit chat for a few minutes, and eat a prepackaged breakfast. I tell him vaguely what’s been happening, and that we intend to leave Grey as soon as possible. He smiles and nods at this.

“Well… Good luck, I guess.” He says cryptically, and then walks away.

My panic is back on in a flash at this, and I race back upstairs. I still can’t find that goddamned shoe! I’m tearing the room apart when I realize, my girlfriend hasn’t followed me back upstairs.
Then I realize it’s also completely silent outside. I race to the window, and the entire plaza is deserted. Not a soul around.

I feel like my chest is about to collapse in panic.

Everything is so quiet and so still that it feels like a physical caul has been pulled over the world, and it’s suffocating me.

And then I wake up. For reals this time.

So… I have no idea what that’s about. I wrote it all down as soon as I woke up, every little weird detail, almost all the names: Village of Grey, the Corsair (I started calling the land the South Coast as I wrote this, in the dream it was just the concept of endless hinterlands south of San Francisco…)

I was sorely tempted to leave Eddie Murphy out of it, as it makes for a much more… tonally consistent story, but theres no use lying to my brain. This dream reignited a Lovecraft reading frenzy that I had put aside some years prior.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Yes, it has vampires in it. Spoiler.

30 Days of Night

I was expecting very little when I slid the DVD in, but it only took a few magnificently haunting shots of huge dark clouds over flowing snowfields to know that I would like this movie in spite of nearly flaw. The cinematography is crisp and beautiful and it's the engine that builds the first portion of this film, a nice slow, creepy, deliberate foundation for the flawed but frightening second and third acts.

It's one of the most horrifically violent films I've ever seen when it finally gets rolling, but it's pacing out the outset ramps up to this quite effectively. It never becomes a gore film, because we care enough about the characters to find the violence shocking and threatening, not exploitative. The gore is only half seen, and you’re left wondering if you actually saw what you think you saw; we're never invited to share in the quality of the make up, or given a moment to appreciate how realistic the severed head is.

The film is very stylish without being over-stylized, and makes interesting choices, if not always correct ones. There is a major scene in the comic that's played for humor, and the film rightfully changes it to fit the tone; it's the exact same event, but framed in nearly the opposite way. At one point, there's an enormous explosion, and it occurs in near silence. It's an effective subversion of expectations.

I'm not a big fan of vampires generally, the gothy romance attached to them leaves me bored. The Alaskan vampires here, led by an eerie Danny Huston, were everything the vampires in I Am Legend should have been: fast, feral, inhuman, but still played by actors. They’re consistently unnerving and scary, the way the communicate like a pack of birds, and move like wolves. They're human only in shape, and just barely.

Overall, the acting is very mediocre, but some very interesting choices are made. Josh Hartnett's protagonist is anything but tough guy. He needs his inhaler, and his voice cracks with fear; it goes along way to allowing us to connect to him more as a regular guy.

The whole thing moves in fits and starts when the shit hit's the fan, and we lose a week of time here and there, which serves to let the tension evaporate when it could be building constantly. Some odd and not very effective choices are made with a little girl vampire which put to mind some major lost opportunities. And the ending is throughly anticlimactic and sacrifices a lot of the consistency the movie had built upon.

Overall it's a success: the overwhelming bleakness of it all feels more like an apocalypse or zombie movie, where our heroes are survivors and outnumbered. Which is a good thing.

Much better than the comic.

Arbitrarily I give it 4 out of 5 possible Alaskas:

Reasons To Blog After an Absence, and a Belated Top Ten

Potentially, but never intentionally spoiler-ing reviews to protect the sensitive and Delicate. Starting soon.

  1. Hissing Fauna… – Of Montreal
  2. In Rainbows - Radiohead
  3. Flying Cup Club – Beirut
  4. Neon Bible – Arcade Fire
  5. Armchair Apocrypha – Andrew Bird
  6. Sky Blue Sky – Wilco
  7. Mirrored – Battles
  8. We were dead… - Modest Mouse
  9. Shepard’s Dog - Iron and Wine
  10. Cassadaga – Bright Eyes
Honorable Mention
Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga – Spoon

Best album I loved and mysteriously only listened to once:
Boxer – National

Best album I probably should have checked out but didn’t:
LCD Sound System.

  1. Bioshock
  2. Orange Box
  3. Rock Band
  4. Halo 3
  5. Mass Effect
  6. Super Mario Galaxy
  7. Call of Duty 4
  8. Assassin’s Creed
  9. Puzzle Quest
  10. This spot left open to taunt Metroid Prime III. That’s right. You’re not good enough to be on the top ten list.
Honorable Mention
Metroid Prime III

  1. There Will Be Blood
  2. No Country for Old men
  3. The Assassination of Jesse James
  4. Perfume
  5. Ratatouille
  6. King of Kong
  7. Zodiac
  8. Into the Wild
  9. Bug
  10. Knocked Up

Honorable Mentions
Black Snake Moan

Best movies I probably should have checked out but didn’t:
Lives of Others