Thursday, April 27, 2017

Stanley Cup Thoughts After Round 1

I originally started writing this post on the first day of the playoffs over two weeks ago, only to be sidelined over the last week of staycation. I tried to revise and publish it a couple of times, but I just couldn't find the time to do it, and then the first round abruptly ended last Sunday night with nary a Game 7 to be played.

I figured, then, that the pause before the second round started would be as good a time as any to take stock of the happenings so far and to put out a few thoughts for the remainder of the playoffs; of course, I still managed to miss my target by a day, but I still think that it's worth sharing my thoughts on the playoffs so far and what might be to come.

For what it's worth, I'm glad that I didn't publish my picks for Round 1, since a number of them were flat-out wrong, including everyone but Edmonton in the West. My informal performance confirmed my suspicion that I was likely going to be worse at my predictions this year than I was in most years, since I had not watched one minute of regular season NHL hockey this year, and most of what I was basing my opinions off of was what I had learned through following the league through various sources such as the columns and podcasts of Sean McIndoe of Down Goes Brown.

Part of the reason for my relative lack of attention is that I have used much less time and energy for sports in general, and I wonder at times whether I still actually enjoy watching and following sports, or if I do so primarily as a diminishing result of residual years of interest in sports along with the need for cultivating social currency. I wrote about my waning general interest in sports and the reasons therein back in October 2015, but that only explains part of the reason that I have not paid much attention to hockey.

It's not that I don't like hockey; I have a long and deep affinity for the sport that dates back to watching playoff hockey when I was ten years old. Some of the reason for my lack of attention is that I have realized how little I enjoy regular season hockey, period. I always tune in more in the playoffs because it's more fun and meaningful to watch. But the main reason I have realized that I have not invested in hockey over the past year is actually because of how much I am not a fan of the NHL.

It seems as though the NHL as an organization continually finds new and creative ways to mismanage the sport. Whether it is through bungling expansion and franchise location, the loser point, non-Olympic participation, non-changes to the rules, or even the impending and likely 2020 lockout, I am continually amazed at how often the NHL seems to be completely inept at doing much to support its fans. The very fact that I - a lifelong hockey fan whose team is finally competitive after a decade and a half - am still lukewarm at best toward the game should be indication enough that the league is in somewhat dire straits in regard to its public perception.

And yet, I still find myself drawn back to the game and the amazing possibilities of what can happen on the ice. This year's playoffs were fascinating from the onset, and even that aforementioned lack of seven-game series has not dulled the interesting possibilities that remain for the rest of the playoffs. There is a palpable sense that the NHL is in a good place in spite of itself, and I am legitimately excited about the possibility of following the league again, even though I know there is a good chance that I will inevitably be disappointed in the long run.

All of those thoughts are pretext to the things that I am thinking in the wake of the end of the first round. I was thinking some of these before the playoffs began, but I have done my best to update them with what we know now after the field has been cut in half. Here, then, are ten things I am thinking about this year's playoffs as they have unfolded so far.


The ten things I think after Round 1


1. The Maple Leafs made the playoffs!!! For the first time in a full season since 2004 - the year before the lockout - the Leafs played well enough over 82 games to earn the right to lose in the playoffs. Yes, I knew they would lose in a short series, and yes, I knew that there will be widespread glee from the rest of the hockey world at watching the Leafs lose, but there is no reason for Leafs fans to be upset at all after their performance over the past two weeks - and if any of us start complaining, please remind us of the following facts in a gentle and respectful manner.

The Leafs went from dead last to a playoff spot at least one year before they were expected to figure it out and make the postseason, and they went through a lot of adversity even in the last month to get there. They have arguably the best young core of players in the league, and there is a window of at least two years with this group before they start having any salary cap issues (although the cynic in me assumes that it might not matter since the 2020-21 season will be somewhat scrapped anyway due to a lockout). The Leafs have been incredibly fun to follow this year, and their best three players are not old enough to be finished university. This is nothing but a good thing at this point.

I'm actually somewhat relieved that they did not get the match-up against the Senators; although I think they actually could have won that series, it was far easier to lose against Washington than it would have been to lose against Ottawa. And for the first time I can remember, I was not heartbroken by the end of a Leafs playoff run; in fact, I was greatly encouraged by how the Leafs pushed the best team in the league to the brink and forced them to five overtime games. I had initially hoped for (and predicted) one win against the Caps in an OT win in Game 3 (which actually did happen), so the Leafs exceeded even my greatest expectations, and I am very excited to see them take another step forward next year.

2. This might be one of the most wide-open years that I can remember in recent history. This is very clear already, with two of the regular-season division winners (Montreal and Chicago) being upset in the first round, and another (Washington) coming surprisingly close to an epic choke. Hockey is always kind of open anyway - more on that later - but this year seems particularly open. Every remaining team has some distinct flaws and/or impediments to their possible success - and even the best teams have issues that could conceivably prevent them from victory. There are also narratives that can be constructed for almost any team to make a deep run at this point, which is usually not the case.

The last year I remember that was this wide open after the first round was 2006, the year directly after the full-year lockout. No one knew exactly what would happen, and then we all thought we had it figured out until the underdog won every series in the West and the Oilers ended up coming within a Dwayne Roloson injury of the most improbable Stanley Cup run ever. It should make for an interesting couple of months. There was, of course, also that odd year in 2012 when the eighth-seeded Kings blew everyone away and almost swept their way to a Cup, which seems to roughly follow the pattern that there is a weird playoffs an average of once about every five years. (For the record, other weird years in recent memory were 2003 when the Ducks almost won the Cup as a 6-seed and 1996 when the Florida Panthers made one of the more inexplicable runs to the Finals.)

3. The main reason for the wide-openness of this year's playoffs is that it might be one of the weakest playoff fields I can remember. There are usually at least six or seven distinct contenders for whom a narrative could be constructed based on merit; this year, there were maybe four (five if you generously included the Canadiens, which I did not). Most of the stories I could write for teams to succeed were either dependent on a lot of luck or some key injuries to other teams, and that's not the sign of a strong field of contenders.

4. It also seems as if this is one of those transitional years that happens every so often when we see the old generation falling and a new one rising. The fact that the Atlantic Division turned over their entire playoff roster this year is perhaps evidence enough, but the presence of Columbus and Edmonton in the top echelon of regular season teams only serves as further proof that the road from cellar dweller to Cup favourite is perhaps shorter than it ever has been. There is still a good chance that the best teams of the past six or seven years - Chicago, Pittsburgh, Washington, New York Rangers, and maybe Los Angeles - have at least one or two solid Cup runs left, but the torch might be being passed to the next generation of Toronto, Edmonton, and (assuming they return to form) Tampa Bay.

5. With that said, there has been and still is no excuse for the Washington Capitals to not make a run to the Finals and likely the Cup. Short of a goalie like Fleury or Lundqvist playing super well for a series, there is no reason that they should not break through this year. The Leafs pushed them further than anyone expected, but that has not deterred me from continuing to pick the Caps to advance. Pittsburgh looked really good against Columbus, but Washington is a much better team than the overachieving Blue Jackets were. The Capitals were my pick for the East at the beginning of the playoffs, and anything less than a Finals appearance will be a disappointment for this team.

6. I still do not like the way the divisional playoffs work now. I kind of get why they do things the way they do with the wild card and the divisional crossover, but I really think that it's a bad idea. They should just take the top four teams of each division and have them play each other, with one possible exception if it really seems necessary: if the fifth-place team is better than the fourth-place team in the other division, have them crossover and play in that division (like the CFL crossover rule). That way, it would not be as likely that there would be a scenario in which the New York Rangers could very conceivably win a division in which they do not play, which is definitely in play this year.

7. There really is nothing like playoff hockey, especially overtime. The increase in intensity and significance of results does a lot to erase all of the sins of the extended length of the regular season. Sudden death overtime is by far the most exciting part of any sport, and playoff hockey has arguably the best overtime of any sport; anything can happen at any time, and anyone can become the hero.

The Washington-Toronto series was particularly incredible because five of the six games went to overtime (and the other almost did). The first round featured eighteen overtime games, so there is a distinct possibility that the record of 28 - set in 1993, which is widely regarded as one of the best playoffs ever - is in jeopardy, which is a very good thing for hockey.

8. Picking series winners, particularly in a given number of games, seems more fickle than it has ever been. I have done well enough in picking winners in most years, but there is just no way to accurately predict the number of games in a series. I managed to pick only half of the series in the first round correctly, much less the number of games, and I am not even attempting to pick any numbers of games for the series of the second round. Of course, with that said, I will now make picks for both conferences based on what I have seen in the first round.

9. My pick for the Eastern Conference Finals is Washington over New York. Sure, I know there's all kinds of history there, and the Leafs have now exposed some of their flaws, but I still think that Washington is the best of the four remaining teams. The main problem for them is that, even though they were the top team in the league, they will face the second-best team in the league in Round 2, since Pittsburgh is in their division. The Penguins looked really strong in Round 1 despite injuries to their top defenseman and their top goalie, and I would not be surprised if they pulled out this series and even made it look easy. I did, however, pick the Caps earlier, so I am going to stick with them; after all, they have to break out of the pattern of losing sometime, don't they?

On the Atlantic side, Ottawa looked surprisingly good against Boston, but I have a feeling that the Rangers have a solid run in them this year (perhaps Lundqvist's last) mainly because it feels like the most NHL-y thing to happen for a team to win a division in which they did not compete all year. That said, I would not be surprised to see this series come down to whether Erik Karlsson, the best player in the series, is able to put the Senators over the top for a surprise division title. Either way, I'm expecting a long series with very little actually dividing the teams.

10. Western Conference: All four remaining teams looked surprisingly good in Round 1, so it feels like just as much of a crapshoot as it to choose now as it did then (and of my original unpublished picks, only the Oilers are left). In the Pacific, I think that Anaheim has a really good chance against the upstart Oilers, who looked both really good in winning their series against San Jose but also really bad losing 7-0 in Game Four. I just think that the Oilers are still a bit too young and that Anaheim has enough experience and talent to win the series; that said, I would not be surprised to see Edmonton push the series long and maybe even win with a couple of breaks their way.

In the Central, both Nashville and St. Louis shocked the favourites, but the Predators' win was definitely the more shocking of the two. Nashville has some series "LA in 2012" potential to run the table to a Finals appearance and maybe even a win, while I think St. Louis might have reached the end of their potential with a surprisingly dominant Round 1 win over the Wild, who had faded significantly in the last month of the season. There is, of course, always the possibility that Jake Allen shuts the door for the Blues, though, which means that St. Louis could win an improbable division title.

Conclusion


Overall, it seems like this year might be one of those really memorable playoff years that generates some great moments for the history of the league, which seems appropriate for the NHL's hundredth anniversary. The first round has already had some great stories, and there seems like there are more to come, based on what happened so far. Every year has memorable moments, of course, but some stick out more than others based on the overall picture, and this might be one of those years. There are some great possible redemption and revenge and vindication stories among the remaining teams, and unless Pittsburgh wins, there will be a winner who has not won a Cup in at least a decade.

Any of the eight remaining teams has at least a conceivable path to the Finals, and nothing feels like a given at this point. Many of the pundits picked Chicago to dominate the West, and they're already done, and there's a very real possibility that Washington, the consensus pick in the East, could face another agonizingly early exit at the hands of the Penguins this round. I mean, it's even possible that we could have a "rematch" of the 2007 Anaheim-Ottawa Final, which no one would have predicted to start the season (although, to be fair, most people still are not picking that particular match up to happen).

These next six weeks seem like they will continue to provide some great hockey, and I am looking forward to seeing all of the teams I picked against win these series, since that seems to be the way things are going for me in recent years. And, just in case you're wondering, I'm cheering for the Oilers, even though I'm picking against them this round. I have a soft spot for them going back to my early days as a hockey fan (pre-Leafs), and they're my favourite team in their division. But mostly, I'm cheering for a really great rest of the playoffs, and I'm glad to be reinspired by hockey in spite of the NHL.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Deck Building Games: A (mostly) comprehensive introduction

I have been enjoying my deep dives into different genres and mechanics of board games over the past year or so. Having recently worked my way through worker placement games and cooperative games a year ago, I figured the next target for a comprehensive genre review should be deck-building games. DBGs are widely popular and present in my own collection and play history, so I figured it would be a fairly easy post to write.

Then a couple of recent events made this discussion even more topical. I realized that Hardback - the "pre-quill" to Paperback, a word deck-building game - was on Kickstarter, and I also discovered that The Dice Tower recently made a list of their top deck-building games, so my review of the genre suddenly became even more timely.

Note that I have chosen to focus on "deck-building" games specifically, which has meant that I have excluded a number of similar type games that feature "cube-building" (Automobiles), "bag-building" (Hyperborea and Orléans), or "dice-building" (Quarriors, Dice Masters) as a mechanic; they are similar in nature to deck-building games, but there are enough variations within those other mini-genres that it is more difficult to include them here.

I also have excluded Collectible Card Games such as Magic: The Gathering and Living Card Games such as Android: Netrunner from the conversation because their particular brand of deck crafting and/or card drafting is not the same as deck-building; again, there are some similarities, but they are different enough to warrant a different conversation.

What is "deck-building"?


Deck-building, like worker placement, is a relatively recent but prominent addition to the list of board gaming mechanics. Deck-builders have only been around since 2008, starting with the introduction of Dominion, but they have quickly emerged as one of the most popular genres in board gaming. The first five or six years of the history of DBGs after Dominion was dominated by simpler, more straightforward deck-builders, but now the genre has started to evolve and the mechanic has begun to be incorporated into more complex games.

It seems as though almost any possible theme or IP has been mined for deck-building: sci-fi; fantasy; zombies; superheroes (DC and Marvel); Star Trek; Street Fighter; Resident Evil; The Lord of the Rings; Harry Potter; Alien; Predator; Firefly; and even Big Trouble in Little China. There was even a tongue-in-cheek (though still somewhat serious) deck building game about building a deck entitled - you guessed it! - "Deck Building: The Deck-Building Game".

It's easy to see the appeal of DBGs on the parts of the designers and of the players. The basic mechanic is quite simple to design and to learn, as the basics of deck-building are arguably more standardized than any other genre. Each player starts off with a standard deck of cards that provides some combination of ability to attack other players, acquire new cards, and perhaps thin out the deck. A player plays cards, uses the possible abilities, gets new cards with new special abilities, puts everything in the discard and then draws new cards for a new turn and starts afresh.

The nature of the mechanic also makes games almost endlessly expandable and customizable. Many DBGs feature extensive sets that can be added to or intermixed in millions - maybe even billions - of combinations, and they can continually be added to, as players ultimately control the balance of the game in which expansions they include and also the way in which they add to or subtract from their decks during the game.

It is this repetitive and somewhat simplistic nature of DBGs that has been both a boon and a bane to the genre: a boon because it has allowed many DBGs to flourish with very short gestation periods, and a bane because it has limited the scope and range of the mechanic - at least until recently. But let's start going through some of my specific experience with deck builders, starting with the big one, Dominion.

Dominion and me


The grandfather of the entire deck-building mechanic genre is Dominion, and for many people, the game remains the peak accomplishment among deck-builders. There is not a lot to say about the game in general, other than what others have written. Chris Wray of The Opinionated Gamers sums up the history of the game well in his entry on the game (and the series) as part of his re-review of every game that won the Spiel des Jahres - the German award for game of the year, and game designer Donald X. Vaccarino has been public and vocal about his design process in posts on BGG like The Secret History of the Dominion Cards and designer diaries about more recent expansions.

Dominion was my first DBG, and I played it a lot when I was first emerging as a board game enthusiast a number of years ago. I have played it in some form or another in a hard copy only just over two dozen times, but I have easily played hundreds of games on my phone or online. I have familiarity with all of the expansions save for the most recent two, Adventures and Empires. It was one of my favourite games in my first few years as a true BoardGameGeek, but I don't own it anymore.

I hit a decision point about continuing to own Dominion when I was making a significant physical move in my life. At that point, I owned the base set and the Hinterlands expansion, and I knew that as a completionist that I had two choices: keep expanding and own it all - which now includes eight big boxes, three smaller expansions, several promos, and two second edition updates - or liquidate what I had and let it be. (For the record, there are now 275 different Kingdom cards in total among all of the various expansions.)

I chose to clear out the two sets I owned for a few reasons: I knew that I would be able to access Dominion in the future in others' collections; I knew I did not want to buy sleeves, which would eventually become a necessity in order to keep enjoying the game; I had other DBGs that scratched that itch enough so as to make Dominion somewhat superfluous; and I knew that I would always have the chance to play it because it is so popular.

I still really enjoy Dominion, and I rarely turn down a chance to play when it presents itself, which is surprisingly not that often. Maybe others in my gaming circles have similar timing to mine and they feel as though they played it through, or that, like me, they enjoy the themes of other DBGs more, but whatever the reason, Dominion rarely seems to make an appearance at gaming events anymore. Still, I do not regret my decision to clear it out of my collection, and I rarely find myself wanting to play Dominion, especially over my other DBGs, especially because I can play it anytime I want on my phone.

I did play enough Dominion in the time that I played the game that I was able to create a hierarchy of my favourite sets of cards in order of preference to play. Excluding the most recent sets that have been released since I mostly stopped playing Dominion (Guilds, Empires and Adventures), my order of favour of Dominion sets is: Prosperity; Intrigue; Base Set; Seaside; Hinterlands; Dark Ages; Cornucopia; and Alchemy. Now, onto the rest of the DBGs...

Compiling the list


As I did with the other genres I have reviewed, I went through the BoardGameGeek database and attempted to make a somewhat comprehensive list of all of the DBGs of note. I was able to come up with a list of only 57 games out of 1,872 total entries listed with the "deck / pool building" mechanic. I was quite surprised at how few notable DBGs there actually were, as the genre seemed to be much more ubiquitous than that judging by the space they seemed to take up on game store shelves, but I suppose that there were a lot of expansions featured along with those starter sets.

Of those 57, I have played 25, with another dozen on my want to play list. I was surprised, upon reflection on the larger list that I compiled, to discover that I own only ten DBGs ("only"), not including the two dozen various expansions and promos I own for those games. There are however, four of the ten that are space-themed, so my wife might have a point when she observes that I have too many space games that are all the same.

I have grouped those 57 DBGs into five categories according to relative complexity, with a short summary about the group. Each level includes my favourite example, DBGs in my collection, other DBGs I have played, DBGs on my want to play list, and then finally any other DBGs of note (some of which I may yet eventually play). The numbers in parentheses indicate the number of plays I have had for each game.

Micro/Introductory DBGs


These small DBGs took the concept and minimized it with smaller decks and fewer cards. They demonstrate ingenuity by nature of their ability to take the idea and to make it work to some extent in a smaller package with a quick play time, often through an insightful method of manipulating the cards. These DBGs have the feel of their larger cousins, but they do not have the depth of their longer counterparts; they are mostly meant to emulate the experience of a DBG, which several of them do well.

Flip City is my favourite of this small category mainly for its ingenuity in its reduction of cards, and I am looking forward to the new Wilderness version, which functions as either a standalone game or a game that can be integrated with the original. I suppose Friday is not that much smaller than an average DBG, but the fact that it is a solo game makes it feel a lot smaller, so I included it here.

Favourite: Flip City

In collection: Eminent Domain: Microcosm (2); Flip City (2) + Reuse expansion; Friday (6)

Also played: N/A

To play: Flip City: Wilderness

Others of Note: Fzzzt!

Straightforward DBGs


Most of the games here came be described as "deck-building in ________ or with __________", whether that blank is filled by "space", "Ancient Egypt", "words", "superheroes", "a fantasy world", or "a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland". Some of these have a slight edge to them, but they are fairly plain and easy to learn as far as DBGs go.

My favourite here is Star Realms, which I have played far more on my phone than on the table. I love the flexibility of the game with its various expansions, and I love how the game builds and snowballs but ends very quickly. I have played a limited amount of others in this category, but I have really enjoyed what I have played of most of them, and I look forward to more plays of Paperback and Valley of the Kings in particular.

Favourite: Star Realms

In collection: Paperback (2); Star Realms / Star Realms: Colony Wars with Gambit, Crisis and United expansions and various promos (13); Valley of the Kings (1); Valley of the Kings: Afterlife (2)

Also played: Arctic Scavengers (1); Ascension (2); Cthulhu Realms (1); DC Comics DBG (1); Dominion (26)

To play: Hero Realms

Others of note: Pixel Lincoln: The Deck Building Game; Tanto Cuore; Valley of the Kings: Last Rites

Intermediate DBGs


The primary focus of the games here is still the deck-building aspect of the game, but it's slightly more complex and often incorporates another element along with the deck building; think "deck-building plus a __________", with examples of blanks being "map", "technology tree", or "hyperviolent football match featuring various fantastical beings". My favourite here has been Eminent Domain, a game that I have feel as though I have barely begun to explore despite my many plays, which have mostly been teaching rounds or initial rounds with one of the two expansions.

This category is where many of the different games inspired by various intellectual properties (IP) end up, including the half-dozen different versions of the Legendary or Legendary Encounters games. Other than the Marvel game, I have not spent any time with the Legendary series (and I'm not even quite sure what makes the difference between a "Legendary" and a "Legendary Encounters" game, for that matter), but I would probably start with Firefly, since I have been on that kick in recent months; now that I think about it, that might be my next "legacy" game purchase...

Favourite: Eminent Domain (16)

In collection: Eminent Domain with Escalation and Exotica expansions and various promos

Also played: Blood Bowl: Team Manager - The Card Game (7); Legendary: A Marvel Deck-Building Game (4); Trains (1)

To play: Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deck Building Game; Legendary Encounters: Firefly; Mystic Vale

Others of note: Baseball Highlights: 2045; Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle; Legendary: Big Trouble in Little China; Legendary: Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Legendary Encounters: Predator; Nightfall; Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (various sets); Shadowrun: Crossfire; Thunderstone (Advance)


"Family" Strategy games that incorporate deck-building


In the past two or three years in particular, there have been more games that have incorporated the deck-building mechanic into the play of a family-oriented strategy game. In these games, deck-building is generally not the focus of the game, though it is integral to the workings of the games and of having a successful strategy.

I have chosen not to have a favourite in this category due to my limited plays of these games, but I did enjoy my plays of Super Motherload (a game by Canadian designers) and Commissioned, an interesting Kickstarter game that uses the theme of the early church spreading throughout the Middle East in the years after Christ.

Favourite: N/A

In collection: N/A

Played: Commissioned (1); Discoveries (1); Super Motherload (1)

To Play: Above and Below; Mega Man: The Board Game; Tyrants of the Underdark

Others of Note: The Big Book of Madness; Clank!

Complex games


In these much more complex games, as in the more family-style strategy games, deck-building is used as an aspect of a larger game. It still might be a prominent mechanic, but there is usually much more to the game than just getting the right cards into your deck - although getting the wrong cards can make life difficult. Most of these games have been released in the last few years, several to widespread critical acclaim, and I think that they collectively demonstrate that there is a strong future for deck-building as a mechanic in the world of complex strategy games.

My favourite so far is the very cerebral Core Worlds, which is the most traditional DBG of the category as far as I can determine. It takes at least two hours to play (unlike the much shorter Intermediate and Family Strategy DBGs, which are mostly closer to an hour or less once you know the game), and it is quite involved in terms of the thinking required to succeed. I really enjoyed the other games of this category that I have played, though, and I could easily see any of those four games becoming my favourite of this level with another play or two.

Favourite: Core Worlds (3)

In collection: Core Worlds with Galactic Orders and Revolution expansions

Played: Concordia (1); Great Western Trail (1); Lewis and Clark (1); Mombasa (1)

To play: Copycat; A Few Acres of Snow; Inis; Mage Knight Board Game; Rococo; Star Trek: Frontiers

Others of note: City of Iron; Cry Havoc; A Study in Emerald

Favourite Deck-Building Games


I know I have covered some of this information already throughout the post, but I still thought it would be valuable to collect my thoughts into one list of my favourite DBGs, regardless of level of complexity. I have included lists of the DBGs that I would most like to play, to replay, and to play more often, along with my five current favourites and a short commentary on each.

Top DBGs to play: A Few Acres of Snow; Hero Realms; Legendary Encounters: Firefly; Mega Man: The Board Game; Mystic Vale

Top DBGs to replay: Arctic Scavengers; Concordia; Great Western Trail; Mombasa; Trains

Top DBGs to play more often: Core Worlds; Eminent Domain; Paperback; Star Realms; Valley of the Kings

Top five Deck-Building Games:

Core Worlds (3) - I really enjoy that this is a complex DBG that takes over two hours to play. There are a lot of really challenging strategic decisions in the game, and I really enjoy what the expansions add to the game. Although I have only played it thrice, I really enjoy the depth of the game, and I am looking forward to many more brain-burning plays in the future.

Dominion (26) - It really is one of the best at what it does; even if the theme can seem a little dry, the mechanic is almost flawless. There is nearly endless variability among all of the kingdom cards (over 250 at this point) - almost too much, in my opinion. Still, it's a great game and one that I will always play, which earns it a place in my favourites.

Eminent Domain (16) - EmDo does a great job of combining deck-building with tableau building with a technology tree to create a surprisingly deep experience even though the basic game is quite simple. The game does have a significant learning curve, though, thanks to the presence of all of the different technologies, and the two major expansions - each of which I have played only once or twice - add more options and more depth to the game.

Legendary: A Marvel Deck-Building Game (4) - The original Legendary game is one of the better superhero games out there, regardless of genre. It has a unique set-up each time with a different super-villain, henchmen, scheme, and heroes, and it uses the established storylines and artwork of the Marvel Universe well. I do really enjoy how it mixes cooperative and competitive play - you have to work together to win, but there will still be a winner in the end - and even though it occasionally suffers from imbalance because of the way that the cards come out, I have had fun playing it every time.

Star Realms (13) - Star Realms is a fairly simple DBG - buy, attack, make combos, repeat - but I really enjoy it anyway. I really enjoy the chaining combos aspect of this game and how the game builds momentum as you play, which is not a feel that all DBGs are able to achieve.

Conclusion


I was very surprised to discover that I have played DBGs only 97 times in total at the time at which I wrote this post - or around 6% of my total overall plays - with over a quarter of those plays on various iterations of Dominion; that number, however, does not include the hundreds of games of Dominion and Star Realms that I have played online, It seems like that number and percentage should be much higher based on the popularity of the genre and the ease of learning DBGs, but I have chosen to spread my attention over many genres and mechanics and on many different examples within each genre, so perhaps that percentage should not be that surprising after all.

I do really enjoy DBGs, and I would like to play them more often in general. The best place for most DBGs - at least the ones at the Introductory, Straightforward or Intermediate level - is as either a warm-up before or a cool-down after the main course on a game night with people who know the game well enough to just be able to play without needing teaching or refreshing. I suppose, then, that I really need to focus on teaching the games in my collection to people with whom I play frequently, as that will likely result in more DBG plays in total.

I am also excited by the developments in the past couple of years in the complex end of the genre, and I do believe that there will continue to be innovations in how deck-building is incorporated into strategic games on a broader scale. There will likely continue to be a not-insignificant number of games based on various sources of untapped IP - Star Trek, Star Wars, Cthulhu, and Game of Thrones come immediately to mind as possibilities, though I am certain that there are many more nerdy obsessions from which viable DBGs could be extracted - and I imagine that I may end up playing a few of those, too.

Despite the fact that there is some tiredness in the constant onslaught of new IP-inspired games and somewhat of a derisive attitude amongst board gamers in regard to DBGs as a result, I tend to think that there is still a lot of life left in the deck-building genre, and I look forward to exploring more of it both in terms of breadth and depth, particularly at the more complex end of the scale. 

Monday, April 03, 2017

Turner Games: Quarter 1 2017 Update

The first three months of the year are now over, so it's time to take a look back at the games I played and thought about over the past quarter. I will go through the lists and specifics about what I played and how my collection changed, but I thought I would start with a short discussion of two areas I have been thinking about over the past quarter: game design and writing about board games.

Game Design


I have mentioned repeatedly here that I am working on several game designs and that I have been working on developing a local game design group. I did not make the progress on my individual designs that I had wanted to, but our group was able to make some progress and I am very excited about what the future will hold for the Game Forge.

I have already noticed a surge in my own interest in my designs in the context of collaboration with other emerging designers, and I'm really excited to see how having a more established community here will help me on the games I'm designing. For the record, including games that are in nascent idea format only, I'm up to five games on the go, so I have the next several years of designing already set out for me.

One thing that I find particularly exciting is that we are working on our online presence, and I am really looking forward to channeling some of my board game geekery through that site. What kind of geekery, you may ask? Well, this kind...

Writing about board games


Other than my wrap up posts from 2016, I posted only one article about board games in the first quarter, but it was a doozy: an overview and personal history of my experience with games in the worker placement genre. It was a lot of fun to write, and I was happy to see it be included in the recent SaskGames newsletter as well. I'm already working on the next genre overview on deck-building games, so stay tuned!

I also spent some idle time expanding my repertoire of GeekLists on BoardGameGeek. GeekLists are a fun way to collect and share information about my gaming habits and history, particularly amongst a community that has the same interests as me. It has been fun to get more connected into the social aspects of the BGG site as I created and shared a few GeekLists, including:

- Games that I played significantly before starting to log my plays on BGG
- Games that I have played extensively online and not logged on BGG
- Games that I have thrifted or am hoping or planning to thrift at some point
- My ongoing list of 2017 Games of Interest, many of which will likely end up on my Want To Play list at some point.

I share those here because I have a hunch that some of the same people who are willing to spend the time and energy to read through this post will also be interested in those lists. Either way, I'll move on with this update by starting with a quick evaluation for each of the goals I set for 2017 in my Year in Review for 2016.

Goals for 2017


I'm very pleased with my gaming over the past three months. With a couple of exceptions in what were perhaps overly ambitious goals based on lists of games to play or re-play, I am on track to easily finish most of my goals if I continue my current pace. Here are my thoughts on each goal.

1. 400 plays during the year, including 30 plays in each month. I am well on my way to accomplishing both parts of my goal, with well 118 plays total and at least thirty plays in each month so far.

2. Play 100 new games during the year. I am well on track to that goal, with 26 new games and 5 new expansions played to date.

3. Play 20 of my Top 25 to Play. I made great progress in the first couple of months with six of twenty played, but I stalled out for most of March and ended up with only seven played from that list, which is still over a third of the way to my goal and well ahead of my pace for the year. My problem is that there are only six more games to which I have access at this point in friends' collections, so I might run out of games to play unless I start buying them myself - or start making new friends who own those particular games.

4. Play 10 out of my 20 leftover Top to Play games. I played two in January and none since. Time to get back to it.

5. Play 20 out of my Top 25 to Replay. I got a bit of a slow start on this goal, too, with only one game from that list replayed. I have access to all of the games on my list in my friends' collections; it's just that I have too many games to play (first world gamer problems, I know).

6. Increase my h-index to 22. I passed an h-index of 19 (which means that I have played that many different games at least that many times) this quarter and I'm making progress on my way to 22. I have to record a minimum of eight total plays in order to get to 20, another dozen to get to 21, and another fourteen after that to get to 22, so it's definitely in sight for the end of the year if I prioritize playing certain games, with a minimum threshold of 34 plays to hit that goal.

7. Attend a convention. This goal is not likely to be accomplished until the fall, but it's still on my radar.

8. Publish Pot O' Gold. It's slow, but I'm making progress.

9. Finish the prototype of First Past the Post. I'm planning to have the first full play test in a few weeks, so it's coming along!

10. Start a game design / review website. It looks like the site will be launched in about a month, so I'm looking forward to crossing this one off the list.

Games Played


I played 89 unique games for a total of 119 plays. including 19 games that I played multiple times. I also started tracking when I hit various landmarks (2, 3+, 5+, 10+, and 25+ plays) for the first time, mainly because I think it will be interesting to see how balanced my plays are over time. I think the lists mostly speak for themselves, so I'll get right to them.

Most-played games this quarter:
1. Istanbul (5)
2. SeaFall (4)
3. Villages of Valeria (4)
4. Carcassonne / Jaipur / Rook (3)

New games played repeatedly this quarter: Dead of Winter; Nerdy Inventions; Shakespeare; Villages of Valeria (4)

Other games played more than once this quarter: 7 Wonders; Agricola; Fleet; King of New York; Pot O' Gold; Saint Petersburg; Splendor; Sushi Go!; Viticulture (9)

Games played this quarter from my Top 25 to play: Agricola: Farmers of the Moor; A Feast for Odin; Food Chain Magnate; The Gallerist; La Granja: No Siesta! - The Dice Game; The Manhattan Project: Energy Empire; Power Grid: The Card Game (7)

Games played this quarter from previous "Top to Play" lists: For Sale; Shakespeare (2)

Other new games played this quarter: Acquire; Adrenaline; Camel Up Cards; Captain Sonar; Coin Age; Dead of Winter; Dice City; Evolution; Mine All Mine!; Nerdy Inventions; New York 1901; Pillars of the Earth; Quests of Valeria; Qwirkle; Santorini; Star Fluxx; Trick of the Rails; Villages of Valeria (18)

New expansions played this quarter: Agricola: Farmers of the Moor; Fresco: The Scrolls; King of New York: Power Up!; Orleans: Trade and Intrigue; Village Inn (5)

New light/social games played this quarter: Coin Age; Mine All Mine! (2)

New filler games played this quarter: For Sale; Nerdy Inventions; Star Fluxx (3)

New light strategy games played this quarter: La Granja: No Siesta! - The Dice Game; Quests of Valeria; Trick of the Rails (3)

New family games played this quarter: Camel Up Cards; Captain Sonar; Dice City; Evolution; New York 1901; Qwirkle; Santorini (7)

New family strategy games played this quarter: Acquire; Adrenaline; Power Grid: The Card Game; Villages of Valeria (4)

New complex games played this quarter: Dead of Winter; The Manhattan Project: Energy Empire; The Pillars of the Earth; Shakespeare (4)

New mega-complex games played this quarter: A Feast for Odin; Food Chain Magnate; The Gallerist (3)

Favourite new games played this quarter: Adrenaline; A Feast for Odin; Food Chain Magnate; For Sale; La Granja: No Siesta! - The Dice Game; Shakespeare; Villages of Valeria

New games played repeatedly this quarter: Dead of Winter; Nerdy Inventions; Shakespeare; Villages of Valeria (4)

Games replayed from my Top 25 to Replay List this quarter: Five Tribes (1)

Other games replayed (for a second time) this quarter: Arboretum; Arkham Horror; Blokus Duo; Dead of Winter; Finca; Hey Waiter!; Lanterns: The Harvest Festival; The Manhattan Project: Chain Reaction; Nerdy Inventions; Portobello Market; Shakespeare; Space Junk; Villages of Valeria (13)

Expansions replayed (for a second time) this quarter: Istanbul: Mocha and Baksheesh (1)

New games to reach three plays this quarter: Burgoo; Cacao; Codenames: Pictures; Core Worlds; Hey, That's My Fish!; Knit Wit; Morels; Villages of Valeria; The Voyages of Marco Polo (9)

New nickels (five total plays) this quarter: Caverna: The Cave Farmers; El Grande; Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King; King of New York; Machi Koro; SeaFall; Spyrium; Takenoko; Viticulture (9)

New dimes (ten total plays) this quarter: The Game; Rook (2)

New quarters (25 total plays) this quarter: Agricola; Carcassonne (2)

And, for reference, here are my all-time most games played as of the end of this quarter:
1. 7 Wonders (68)
2. Pandemic (42)
3. Race for the Galaxy (39)
4. King of Tokyo (35)
5. Splendor (28)
6. Carcassonne / Dominion (26)
8. Agricola (25)
9. The Castles of Burgundy / Flash Point: Fire Rescue / Hanabi (23)
12. Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 (22)
13. Kingdom Builder (20)
14. Battle Line / Citadels / Fleet / Glory to Rome / Innovation / Lords of Waterdeep (19)
20. Pot O' Gold (18)

Want to play


I made a lot of headway on my WTP list over the past three months, dropping it under 170 for the first time in a long while. Sure, there are another fifty or so games on my list that I will likely add to my WTP list sooner or later, but I'm enjoying having a shorter list (so to speak) for now.

Games added this quarter: Charterstone; Chimera Station; Doughnut Drive-Thru; Food Truck Champion; Planetarium; Spyfall 2 (6)

Party/social games added this quarter: Spyfall 2 (1)

Filler/light games added this quarter: Doughnut Drive-Thru (1)

Light strategy games added this quarter: Food Truck Champion (1)

Family games added this quarter: Planetarium (1)

Family strategy games added this quarter: Charterstone; Chimera Station (2)

Complex games added this quarter: None

Expansions added this quarter: None

Games and expansions removed from my Want to Play list this quarter: Cosmic Run; Covert; Favor of the Pharaoh; Hengist; Liguria; Ra: The Dice Game (6)

Changes to my collection


Despite a not insignificant increase in the size of my collection over the past three months, I bought only one new game at full price in that time; the others were either arrivals from Kickstarter, deals purchased with Groupons, or thrifted. I did, however, pick up a number of new expansions for games, so I have still had a lot of new things to play.

One of the stranger things that happened over the past few months was that I reacquired a number of games that I had previously liquidated from my collection. I found inexpensive copies of Lord of the Rings, Scotland Yard, and Sequence, and I reacquired Spyrium after I realized that I did, in fact, want to play it again.

Games acquired this quarter: Camel Up Cards; Cockroach Poker; DaVinci's Challenge; The Lord of the Rings; Monopoly Deal; Nerdy Inventions; The Princes of Florence; Quests of Valeria; Qwirkle (Travel); Scotland Yard; Scrabble Slam!; Sequence; Spyrium; Star Fluxx; Villages of Valeria (KS Deluxe) (15)

Large expansions acquired this quarter: Core Worlds: Revolution; Dixit 3: Journey; Galaxy Trucker: Missions; King of New York: Power Up!; Star Realms: United x4 (Assault; Command; Heroes; Missions); Village Inn (9)

Small expansions (promos) acquired this quarter: 7 Wonders: Duel - Statue of Liberty; Cacao: Chocolatl - The New Huts; Camel Up Cards: Catch Up Trophies; Istanbul: Pegasus Depot; Star Realms: Promo Pack 1; Villages of Valeria: Bard Promo, Events, Guild Halls, and Monuments (9)

Games and expansions liquidated from my collection this quarter: Belfort; Carcassonne: The Castle; Fluxx; Space Junk; Spyfall +1 (6)

Kickstarters ordered this quarter (with target arrival date): Alien Frontiers: Factions with 2017 Promo Pack (Aug)

Kickstarters skipped this quarter: Food Truck Champion; Impulse 2nd Edition (with two expansions)

Kickstarters still on order from previous quarters (with expected arrival date): The Bird Told Me To Do It (April); Innovation Deluxe (Q2 2017); Tiny Epic Galaxies: Beyond the Black (May); Tiny Epic Quest (August)

Here's the updated shelfie for posterity:



Wish list


Despite my acquisitions over the past three months, my wish list has the same amount of items as it did before, thanks to a few additions along the way. That said, I'm happy with where it's at for now, though of course I would like it to shrink, as that would mean that I would have more games in my collection (not that I have the space for any more games on my shelf anyway).

Games added to my wish list this quarter: Cacao; Charterstone; A Feast for Odin; Pandemic Legacy: Season 2; Shakespeare (5)

Games acquired from my wish list this quarter: The Princes of Florence (1)

Games removed from my wish list this quarter: Alien Frontiers: Factions (pre-ordered); Spyfall 2 (2)

Expansions added to my wish list this quarter: Cacao: Chocolatl; Cities of Splendor; Mottainai: Wutai Mountain; Shakespeare: Backstage (4)

Expansions acquired from my wish list this quarter: Core Worlds: Revolution; Dixit 3: Journey; Galaxy Trucker: Missions; King of New York: Power Up!; Star Realms: United; Village Inn (6)

Small (mini/promo) expansions added to my "Want in Trade" list this quarter: Cacao x4; Core Worlds: The Stronghold; Dixit x4; Shakespeare: Prospero (10)

Looking forward to Quarter 2


Most of what I'm looking forward to over the next three months are various aspects of game design and local gaming events, so feel free to drop by if you're around for any of the dates listed below.

Getting back to SeaFall - Our group got a number of games in to the Legacy game that was released last fall, but then life happened and we took an extended break from exploring the wonders of the sea. Time to get back in our boats and sail into uncharted waters to see what can discover.

First Past the Post - I made some progress in March, and I'm really looking forward to putting more effort into my next game design in the near future. My goal is to have a decently working prototype ready before Canada Day.

FanExpo (May 6-7) - Not only is our local comic convention a lot of fun for all of the costumes and vendors, but it also features a board gaming corner run by SaskGames. Also, keep an eye out for a Game Design panel featuring yours truly at some point over the weekend.

Prairie Game Expo (May 27) - Our community's next quarterly day-long gaming session comes up at the end of May.

R. Game Forge - Our local game design group not only has a name, but also an emerging presence in local events and online. I'm excited to see where it goes from here, so stay tuned.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Quarter 1 2017 Media Update

The first quarter of the year is by far the best time of the year to catch up on culture. Not only do the various year-end best-of lists provide new material to investigate, but the relative dearth of new material also makes it a little easier to spend some time on discovering some of the things that may have been missed in the previous year.

Of course, the main lull is in the first six weeks of the year. By the time mid-February comes around, there are a couple of movies to see and some television shows that start running, but the real new wave of culture starts around Easter time. From that point forward, movies and TV are in full force for a few months before a summer valley which seems to be getting shorter each year, so this first quarter is really the best time for trying some new things.

I realized fairly early on in this past quarter that I had a renewed voracious appetite for media and culture and that I have been consuming a lot more than usual. I'm not sure why, as it is not as though I have been starving for culture over the past year, but I feel as though I have had more interest and investment in pop culture than in previous quarters. It might be that I have been listening to a couple of podcasts that focus on pop culture, or just that I have had the time for entering back into the world of pop culture, but whatever the reason, I have really been enjoying my time spent in these arenas since January.

As always, here's the description of what I have experienced and what I've missed and/or skipped over the past three months, as well as what I'm looking forward to in the next quarter. I've also included a new section called "Top of the Queue" in which I am indicating my top priorities for the next quarter from my existing lists.

What I experienced


13th - Ava DuVernay's documentary was deservedly nominated for an Academy Award, as the way in which it drew a direct line between the Thirteenth Amendment that ended slavery and the contemporary incarceration rate of African-Americans was both insightful and powerful.

American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson (FX) - I thought this was going to be a trashy cash-in on the O.J. saga, but it turned out to be one of the most prescient modern parables about America, fame, celebrity, the judicial system, and especially race. Performances from Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance, and Sterling K. Brown elevated the show well beyond where it might have otherwise been able to go, and the show easily set itself as one of the most important shows of the year and likely of the decade.

Childish Gambino - "Awaken, My Love!" - Donald Glover dropped a surprise album at the beginning of December 2016, but the biggest shock was that it was not a rap or hip-hop album; it was a hybrid of funk, soul, and R and B with a sense of emulating Prince at times. I have listened to it a lot over the past few months, and it is holding up.

Glennon Doyle Melton - I read both of Melton's books, starting with her new book, Love Warrior, before moving on to Carry On, Warrior. I thought Love Warrior was the far superior of the two both in content and in style, but I still found it difficult to read a book all about how she rediscovered herself in her marriage knowing that her marriage was now over. It was interesting discovering more about her, considering how influential she is in many of my female friends' lives and in the blogosphere in general, but I don't see much need for me to keep reading her work.

The Good Place (Season 1, NBC) - I would not have believed that a network comedy could feature intelligent explorations of ethics, morality, Kant, Plato, and the afterlife, but The Good Place proved otherwise. I binged it over a weekend, and I look forward to rewatching it before the second season in order to catch all of the things I missed along the way.

La La Land - The one-time Oscar favourite - also inexplicably the highest-earning live-action movie based on an original property released in the last year - was a fun date night and a very enjoyable film. I don't know that it deserved to win Best Picture, but it was one of the better films of the year, and I appreciated what it accomplished as a musical.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (Season 4, HBO) - I have found that I am not nearly as invested in John Oliver's show as I was in previous years, and I have narrowed it down to two problems. First, Oliver has had to dedicate so much time to Trump and the Republicans that it has taken away from his ability to tell any other stories. Second, and perhaps more prominently, the writing is subpar compared even to last season, which already demonstrated a dip in quality; the jokes are more obvious, and there seems to be more reliance on body and bawdy humour. I know Oliver always trafficked a bit in those scatalogical and vulgar arenas, but it seems to have worsened so far this season, and it just makes the show a little less enjoyable. I'll keep watching for now, but I'm not too far from leaving the show behind if it continues its current pattern.

Legion (Season 1, FX) - The new superhero story from Noah Hawley (of Fargo) promised to be different from the rest of the stories on the small screen, and it was, as it presented a psychological head trip with very little plot of which to speak, unlike the scene chewers in the rest of the DC and Marvel television universes. There were a couple of points at which it seemed as if the show was fighting the temptation to succumb to some of the superhero clichés, but I think it successfully managed to avoid those urges in a way that perhaps no superhero TV series has yet. Legion is one of my favourite shows of the year so far, and I think it's going to only get better with time.

The Lego Batman Movie - I had been excited about this movie since Lego Batman stole the show in The Lego Movie three years ago, as he was by far the funniest character in an already very funny movie. I really enjoyed his new outing, both for its tongue-in-cheek homage to the entire cinematic history of Batman but also its wider fun in regard to pop culture. The plot is serviceable enough - if you can stand a bit of self-referential cross-promotion of other Warner Bros. properties - but it's still definitely one of the more entertaining superhero movies in recent history.

Mr. Robot (Season 1-2, USA) - I finally caught up on the zeitgeisty show about hackers and corporations and cyber-terrorism, and it was totally worth the time I put into it. It's fascinating to see a show that is operating very much as a product of the medium of television with a number of experimental episodes and an unreliable narrator, in addition to building a captivating world and characters. I also find it interesting that creator and writer Sam Esmail also directed every episode in Season 2, so the entire show is an exercise in auteur-driven drama in a contemporary setting, which has not been very common in television (other than perhaps The Leftovers). I'm really interested to see where the show goes from here when it comes back in the fall.

Silence - Martin Scorsese's epic passion project about Jesuit missionaries in medieval Japan may not have gotten much attention during awards season, but it was easily one of the best and most haunting movies I have seen in awhile. This is one of those movies that is not easy to watch, but it is definitely worth watching every so often.

Also experienced: Batman v. Superman: Dawn of JusticeCommunity (Season 6 rewatch); Dave Eggers - The Circle and A Hologram for the KingFirefly and Serenity (rewatch); Hell or High WaterSpaceballs; The Spectacular Now; Suicide SquadSurvivor: Game Changers - Mamanuca Islands (Season 34, CBS); X-Men: Apocalypse

What I missed (or skipped)


The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Wii U) - I made the mistake of not pre-ordering the game, or else I would probably have spent at least fifty hours playing it over the past month. I did order it earlier this week, however, so I'm looking forward to spending a lot of time in Hyrule over the next few months.

Logan - I was not planning on watching the new Wolverine movie based on my experience with the previous two standalone movies in the franchise, but I started to rethink my position after it received rave reviews. I'm not a huge fan of violence, however, so I think I will wait until I can watch it on the small screen, since that will help me mediate my experience.

Nintendo Switch (March 3) - I wrote a post on why I'm holding off on picking up a Switch for now, but I still have not had the chance to even try it.

Powerless (Season 1, NBC) - This comedy that examines the lives of normal people working in the DC universe to adjust for security in the presence of superheroes looked interesting as a kind of cross between quirky comedies Better Off Ted and The Tick. Plus, it has Danny Pudi (Abed from Community) and Alan Tudyk (Wash from Firefly), so it has some good comedic chops right there; I just didn't get around to watching it.

The Shack - I will admit to being intrigued by the film adaptation to the allegorical Christian novel that caused so much controversy a few years back, but I will wait until it hits Netflix.

Sherlock (Season 4, BBC) - I was initially very excited about the new season of Sherlock, but my enthusiasm was dulled slightly by the tepid reception it received on airing. I'll still get around to it, likely sooner rather than later, but I'm prepared to be at least mildly disappointed. 

Super Bowl LI - The Super Bowl is usually kind of boring, and I figured that this year the Patriots had it in the bag. Well, they won in the end, but it was not exactly a conventional win - the only SB to go to OT. I guess it makes sense that I missed it, though, as it concluded the first NFL season in over two decades of which I did not watch one minute - and I didn't even really miss it.

Taboo (FX) - I was initially intrigued by Tom Hardy's entry into "intense male-protagonist in historical setting TV", but the more I heard about what happened in the show, I realized the less I wanted to immerse myself in that world.

T2: Trainspotting - I don't know if this two-decades later sequel will work, but the return of the cast and creative team of the 1996 original gives me hope that it will be worth the time.

The Young Pope (Season 1, HBO) - I was initially really interested by this HBO mini-series, but after hearing where the season took its characters, now I'm not so sure if I will invest in watching it. I think this will likely end up on the list of "shows I want to watch sometime but probably never will", but I'll keep it on my radar for now just in case.

Also on my radar but missed: The Expanse (SyFy, Season 2); Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (Season 1, Netflix); The Man in the High Castle (Season 2, Amazon)

Top of the Queue


Consider this new section the "catch-up list" - the items that are in my queue to watch / read / play right now. Some of these are things that I missed over the past quarter, while some are items that have been on my radar for a while. The fact that items are listed here does not necessarily mean that I will consume them next; it just means that I am aware that they are higher up in my personal queue. Of course, any of them might be bumped at any point by something else, or by any of the new things that are coming up, but I do find it helpful to have an idea of what some of the "next" things are on my lists.

Movies: Manchester by the SeaMoonlight; O.J.: Made in America 

Television: Black Mirror (Season 1-3, BBC/Netflix); BoJack Horseman (Season 1-3, Netflix); Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (Season 1, BBC/Netflix); Doctor Who - The Return of Dr. Mysterio (BBC); The Hour (BBC); Master of None (Season 1, Netflix); Morton and Hayes; Powerless (Season 1, NBC); Sherlock (Season 4, BBC); Superstore (Season 2, NBC)

Video Games: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Wii U); The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D (3DS)

Non-Fiction Books (Faith): Rob Bell - What We Talk About When We Talk About God; Nadia Bolz-Weber - Accidental Saints; Brené Brown - Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection; Ann Voskamp - The Broken Way

Fiction Books: Margaret Atwood - The Handmaid's Tale; Neil Gaiman - American Gods

Looking forward to Quarter 2


If you don't see me for a month or so after Easter, it's because I will be working my way through the excessive amount of television that is going to be released in April and May. I have four shows returning in a week's time - and that's not even counting the return of MST3K on Netflix or the two new shows that premiere a week later.

There are also surprisingly few movies being released in this quarter that I want to see. Usually, there are three or four movies in late April and May that are on my radar; this year, I have counted only the two. It's a conveniently uninspiring slate of sequels that are being released in May and June, so I'm looking forward to not going to the theatre that much - unless I go to see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 several times, which is a distinct possibility.

Better Call Saul (Season 3, AMC, April 10) - Gus is back!

Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Season 4, Fox, April 11) - The squad returns for the last half of the season after a three-month hiatus.

The Circle (April 28) - I am really interested to see how director James Ponsoldt brings Dave Eggers' prescient 2013 novel about Silicon Valley tech to life.

Doctor Who (Series 10, BBC, April 15) - Peter Capaldi's final season promises to be exciting, and I am curious to see not only who follows him, but also to see where he end up in the legacy of Doctors, as there's a possibility that he could challenge Tennant for the best Doctor in the new run. Yeah, I said it.

Fargo (Season 3, FX, April 19) - Noah Hawley might not be the hardest-working person in TV (that would be either Shonda Rhimes or Ryan Murphy), but he is definitely one of the more interesting creators working in television right now. Season 2 of Fargo stands as one of my favourite seasons of any show ever, so this is at the top of my list.

Fleet Foxes - Crack-Up (June 16) -
Fleet Foxes are releasing their first album in six years. If the lead single is any indication, they haven't lost a beat.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (May 5) - I think I might be more excited about this movie than for any movie I have anticipated in years.

Survivor: Game Changers - Mamanuca Islands (Season 34, CBS) - The latest season of all-returning players may have included a few questionable contestants if evaluated by the theme "game changers", but it has still been an interesting season so far, and things should get really interesting after the merge.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Season 3, Netflix, May 19) - The second season went to some very interesting places about processing grief, so I'm really intrigued by where this season of Kimmy will take its characters. Also, more Tina Fey is never a bad thing.

Veep (Season 6, HBO, April 16) - Veep has been eerily predictive over its entire run, but perhaps never more than the upcoming season in which a defeated female candidate is forced to create a new life out of the Oval Office.

Also intrigued by: American Gods (Season 1, Starz, April 30); Rob Bell - What is the Bible? (May 16); Bruxy Cavey - (Re)union (May 9); Coldplay - Kaleidoscope EP (June 2); Feist - Pleasure (April 28); Great News (Season 1, NBC, April 25); The Handmaid's Tale (Season 1, Hulu, April 26); Chuck Klosterman - X (May 16); Master of None (Season 2, Netflix, May 12); Mystery Science Theater 3000 (Season 11, Netflix, April 14); Twin Peaks (Season 3, Showtime, May 21); U2 - The Joshua Tree Tour (starts May 12); Wonder Woman (June 2)

And, just for reference, here are some of the things that I'm looking into in Quarter 3 and beyond: Blade Runner 2049 (October 6); Curb Your Enthusiasm (Season 9, HBO, TBD); The Dark Tower (July 28); The Deuce (HBO, TBD); Dunkirk (July 21); Mr. Robot (Season 3, USA, TBD - Fall); Spider-Man: Homecoming (July 7); Star Trek: Discovery (CBS All-Access, TBD); Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Dec. 15); Stranger Things (Season 2, Netflix, Halloween); The Tick (Season 1, Amazon, TBD); Top of the Lake (Season 2, Sundance, TBD)

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

LENT 2017: Communications

It has been a few weeks since I first posted about my journey at the beginning of Lent, in which I expressed my intention to spend time and energy over this liturgical season investing in being more intentional about considering my own vocation in my current context. It's not that I have not been thinking about the concept in that time or that I have not had the time to write the next installment - it's that I have not had the inclination to form any of those thoughts into another post.

Every once in a while, I have trouble sleeping at night. When that happens other than as a result of intake of caffeine too late in the day, I often find that I have something in my brain that I have to get out before I can fully rest, so I usually get out of bed and start journalling, at which point I typically realize by processing through writing what it is that has been keeping me awake. Last night, I realized that part of what I was processing was the question of creativity and writing and how this all fit, so it made sense to write this next installment of my journey in Lent about my vocation of communications.

As I have had several people observe to me over the past two years, I write a lot and I have been writing for a long time. I'm always taken a bit aback at first when people make that observation, but then I realize just how abnormal it is that I: 1. Write in a public forum regularly; 2. Have a two-decade long history of being publicly published in various media; and 3. Write well enough that people want to keep reading what I'm writing.

I still find myself somewhat flabbergasted when I discover that people seek me out and are deliberate in paying attention to what I say. It's not that I feel as though what I say is not worth the attention or that I do not think that the quality of my writing does not deserve said attention (lack of confidence was never my shortcoming, after all); it's more a sense of genuine surprise and honour that, out of all of the many many voices writing things on the internet, people would choose to spend their time and energy reading what I am writing.

I know I have spent a fair amount of time throughout the history of my blog writing about myself as a writer (most recently in May 2016), so I am trying not repeat myself (even though I recognize that as an almost inevitable likelihood at this point given the sheer volume of material I have produced over the years), but I do think that it is worthwhile for me to look at some of my history as a writer in order to consider where I am at now.


A writer's history


I guess I have almost always been a writer, though I rarely would have characterized myself as such. I do not remember writing much when I was a kid, but I also don't remember a time when I did not have an advanced vocabulary; I was reading books by the age of three, and by the time I was in Grade 5, I had the equivalent vocabulary of a first-year university student. I suppose when you do all that reading that it has to come out somehow, so I was a fairly early adopter in terms of writing.

I started writing for my high school newspaper, The Spark, in Grade 9, and I was part of the editing team soon thereafter. I learned a lot about myself as a writer in those years writing for an audience of a thousand peers, and I'm still proud of the work that I produced, especially in my Grade 12 year when I served as editor. It seems quaint now, especially in the age of the internet, to have written some of the pieces that I wrote at the time in the way that I wrote them then, but it was all part of my journey, and I realize now just how much each of those experiences - like interviewing Wide Mouth Mason or interviewing and writing the excerpt for the special guest for BRIT, our school's popular basketball tournament - helped shape me as a writer.

My initial plan upon leaving high school was actually to be a journalist. At that point in my life, my plan was to enter the world of sports writing and to perhaps be the next Ron MacLean, although now I imagine that I would be more like Sean McIndoe of Down Goes Brown, one of the few hockey writers I still actually follow. In retrospect, I'm not that disappointed that I did not pursue that path, though there is always a small part of me that wonders what the life of a sportswriter might have been, though I suspect that I would not have been satisfied with my life's work had that been my primary focus.

I continued to be involved with the student press when I started at university, both as an editor and as a writer, and I found that I still had an outlet for my ideas. I decided not to pursue journalism as a career at the point at which I recognized that the internet was going to be a tool that I could use for channeling my interests and skills as a writer. Self-publishing through zines and blogs and independent sites was on the rise around 2001, and I quickly realized that anything that I wanted to accomplish as a writer I could do on my own and that the established channels of journalism might actually take away from those possibilities in my future.

I kept on with my work for the school paper, particularly in the areas of Arts and Opinions, and I continued to hone my sense of voice and self. Blogging provided an additional outlet for me in my last few years of writing for the student press, and it still serves a purpose for me today (more on that to come). I occasionally sought other avenues to publish my writing after I finished school, most of which I was able to access through various contacts I had established over the previous seven years. I wrote a couple of articles for Patrol Mag (which is apparently now defunct), and I had one article I wrote about the 2006 TMNT movie published by Relevant Magazine in their "Dailies" section, and I was even published in The Saskatchewan Book of Everything.

But I was also attempting to start a teaching career and get married, so writing took a back seat for several years. Sure, I had a few spikes in my interest and production on my blog (particularly in 2009, the only year to date in which I have neither started nor ended a teaching contract) in those years, but most of my attention went elsewhere; in addition to teaching and marriage, I had constant career changes, church leadership, directing summer camps, and board games that took up a lot of my attention, so writing became less significant as a part of my life. It never left completely, but it was definitely a lot less prominent for a number of years.

That brings me to the present, in which I have been blogging at a furious pace over the past eighteen months: since October 2015, when I really started up again after about eighteen months in which I had been less productive, I have posted 128 times, good for just over 21 times per quarter and an average of a post every 4.28 days - numbers that do not include the forty-or-so posts that are sitting in my drafts folder in some semi-completed form.

The question I am seeking to answer in this season, then, is how does writing fit in as a vocation in my life? Or, perhaps more accurately, is it still vocational, or is it just a hobby that takes up a lot of time at this point? It's a question that has been plaguing me for the past month, and although I'm not sure I'm much closer to an answer, I think it is still worthwhile to examine where I am at now.

The present


My blog is admittedly a mish-mash of styles, subjects, and ideas, and it has been for most of the past decade. Sure, I had some avenues to siphon off some aspects of my writing, but since 2007, it has mostly all ended up here in a big jumble, so I thought I would start this part of my journey by sorting through the morass of topics that have come to make up my scattered consciousness online.

As I can see it, there are a number of different kinds of posts that I publish, some of which I would barely qualify as "writing", as they end up feeling more like BuzzFeed listicles than pieces with any actual analysis or deeper meaning. As I looked through my history - these past eighteen months particularly - I found ten different general ways to categorize the posts that I write.

1. Board games (mostly stats on games I have played and lists of games)
2. Sports predictions and reflections
3. Commentaries and/or opinion pieces on current events and/or politics
4. Commentaries/reviews/opinion pieces on pop culture (music, movies, TV, video games, etc.)
5. Pop culture lists and contextualizations of various canons (authors, works, media)
6. Expressions of thoughts on issues of church, faith, and theology
7. Personal processing
8. Biographical explorations
9. Vocational explorations
10. Random blatherskyte (shout-out to all you Darkwing Duck fans out there)

The first thing that really sticks out to me is that there are some very different categories included on that list, some of which have been more common at different points in my blogging history. There is, of course, a lot of overlap in and amongst those categories, as most of my personal processing also involves some kind of hook with pop culture and/or current events and/or one of my other hobbies, but it's a long way from serious theological discussions to lists of board games (or perhaps not as far, considering how many pastors there seem to be within the worlds of board game reviewing and design).

There are some general groups into which sets of categories could be placed - personal explorations, commentaries, lists, faith, and hobbies, perhaps - but when I break it down into these ten categories, it seems fairly clear that I am lacking focus and vision in my blog; it seems mostly to function as a repository for whatever I am thinking about and feeling the need to communicate at any given time, which makes sense, since that was my original purpose for my blog back in 2004 - a place to publish the things I was thinking about but that did not really belong in one of those other avenues.

I still wonder whether some of these subjects are best left for other fora or forms of media - topical blogs or sites to which I could contribute, or podcasts, for example. Though I have often considered either finding or establishing other places to divert some of those various categories, I have also wondered whether it is worth it to maintain that many different channels online, but I suppose I will continue to have these kinds of internal debates until I finally resolve them - a statement that is certainly tautological, though I'm not sure that it loses much meaning as a result.

I find it really difficult sometimes to have all of these parts of myself combined in one place and I feel unfocused and unable to process what I "need" to write. Sometimes, I recognize that my drive is to write something more diversionary, like the recent week in which I focused on the Oscars and the Nintendo Switch, but sometimes it's much deeper and more meaningful, like this series of posts. As much as I have struggled and continue to have to work through the juxtaposition of all of these types of writing, however, I recognize that they are all here and that they are all a part of me, for better or for worse, and that this blog reflects that fact.

Conclusion


There are a few ways in which I am seeking to solve this seemingly never-ending internal conflict. I am looking to diffuse some of my interests into different platforms; for example, I'm currently working on launching a separate site through which I can process most of my board game geekery. That still leaves me here, of course, with a combination of random thoughts on sports and current events, various pop culture thoughts, and assorted personal reflections. (I had initially started to write a section for this post on my pop culture writing and habits, but I think that it will be best left for another post, considering the already sizeable scope of what I had started writing.)

I have found, however, that my current circumstances and method of blogging have not been naturally adaptable to the kind of confessional long-form writing in which I have expressed interest over the past decade. I have had an idea for a book for seven years and a title for at least four of those, but aside from a couple of fits and starts, I have not made progress on either that book or the ideas that I have had since. I do believe that I will be able to repurpose some of the things that I have written on my blog over the years, but I also know that the process of writing individual blog posts is far different from the kind of sustained focus that is necessary in order to write a full book that has thematic through lines.

This is all to say that it feels as though I need to make a decision as to what I want to do with my vocation as a writer. I could pursue the type of writing that I have wanted to do for years and really press into what that might mean for me, particularly in light of a possible future as a career, but I am honestly not sure that I want to make the kinds of sacrifices of sleep or other hobbies that seem like they would be necessary to make that happen, and maybe that's where it ends for me - after all, if I'm not willing to do what I need to do to be a writer, maybe I'm not going to be a writer.

Then again, maybe there are ways to make this writing vocation work. Maybe it's as "simple" as waking up half an hour earlier and using that time to do the kind of writing that is difficult to do during the day. Maybe it's more complex, though, like having to make some hard decisions about reducing the other kinds of writing that are taking up my time and energy. It's really hard to say, though I do feel as though I am at a point at which I need to take some steps either toward pursuing writing or toward continuing to see it as more of a hobby than a vocation.

I will say, however, that I do feel (again) as though I have a renewed interest in investing in myself as a writer, and I am (again) interested to explore what it might mean to be more intentional about that different style of writing. I'm not sure that this Lenten journey will result in the kind of final decision that I had at one point hoped it might, but I'm certainly not discouraged by the progress that I have made in this area of my vocation over the past month.

I recently read through both of Glennon Doyle Melton's books, and though I have mixed opinions on their total effectiveness, I did find this quotation that really stuck out to me about writing in her first book, Carry On, Warrior, so I leave it here as a sort of benediction for this post and an encouragement to myself and to fellow writers.

"If, anywhere in your soul, you feel the desire to write, please write. Write as a gift to yourself and others. Everyone has a story to tell. Writing is not about creating tidy paragraphs that sound lovely or choosing the “right” worlds. It’s just about noticing who you are and noticing life and sharing what you notice. When you write your truth, it is a love offering to the world because it helps us feel braver and less alone. And if you’re a really, really bad writer, then it might be most important for you to write because your writing might free other really, really bad writers to have a go at it anyway…. If you feel something calling you to dance or write or paint or sing, please refuse to worry about whether you’re good enough. Just do it. Be generous. Offer a gift to the world that no one else can offer: yourself." (25)

I could not have said it better myself. For now, I'm writing as a gift to myself and hopefully for others, and I hope that there is some part of what I write that brings out truth. There's something invigorating about writing, even if it seems like it's a relatively meaningless topic at the time, and there's a sense of life and purpose that I derive from my expository exploits. I do not know what my writing will look like in the future - whether it will stay as it is or whether it will become more vocational - but I am always going to be a writer, period.

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