Friday, February 28, 2014

Confessions of a former bully

Wednesday was Pink Shirt Day, a time in which students and staff at schools are encouraged to wear pink to bring awareness to the issue of bullying. It has been an incredibly successful movement, as it has given an opportunity and a language for kids to openly discuss issues of bullying, some of which are even currently happening. But it's also a hard day for a lot of kids, as they have to confront their pasts (or presents) and come to terms with either being bullied or being a bully. It's a hard day for me, and not because I was bullied from Kindergarten to Grade 3, as I had one particular antagonist who followed me between schools and made me miserable for a few years (and in whose eventual incarceration I took guilty pleasure in observing in the local paper in my early 20s). No, this day is hard for me because I was a bully myself, and I still feel some of the shame and guilt of those actions over the years, feelings that come up every year on Pink Shirt Day. For two years, I have thought about writing this post, just missing the window each year; of course, I think that was a convenient excuse for me not to have to share it, since I'm kind of ashamed of what I'm about to share. But now, I think it's time for me to share some of my story and finally get it off my chest, so here goes.

The Early Years (Grade 3-5)

I was mostly off by myself for my early years of school. I probably could have skipped a grade ahead academically, but I was already young for my grade, and I was not socially ready to be bumped, even though I was always considered to be "mature". For most of my primary years, I isolated myself and was happy enough being with my own company, and I remember actually using books and easels to physically separate myself from my classmates in Grade 3; of course, I am now incredulous that the teacher allowed me to do so, and it is no surprise that we collectively sent her to a nervous breakdown by mid-November (poor Mrs. Murdock - or Mrs. "Murder-on-the-dock", as we so "eloquently" mocked her). I made it through that year (along with my admittedly terrible class), as well as the following year of Grade 4, in which I still just mostly kept to myself. But things started to change when I was nine-and-a-half years old.

As I entered Grade 5, I was placed in a program called "Actal" for "academically talented" students (arguably the worst name for such a program ever); it was located in the same building, but I was grouped with 29 other new students who were finally going to be at my academic level - or so I thought. It soon became clear that I was still at the top of this exceptional group academically, even though socially I was not aware or adept at all. I did not make friends with most of my new classmates in Grade 5; I did, however, make two really good friends, so I was happy enough. By the time the end of the year hit, the social pecking order was well-established, and me and my crewmates (we were really into Star Trek: The Next Generation, which tells you something of our social acumen) were having enough fun playing by ourselves.

Middle School

Something changed the next year in Grade 6, and I don't know what it was to this day. Maybe it was just the onset of puberty, or the developmental need for acceptance from peers changing the social dynamics, or just that we had gotten used to our group and the social roles were set, but whatever it was, it wasn't good. There were fourteen or fifteen boys in the class, and there were about eight of them who were "in" as friends, leaving the other half-dozen of us to scramble for acceptance, often putting the others down to climb higher in the social strata. It probably would have worked for us just to become friends, but we kept putting each other down in hopes of climbing. It was a miserable couple of years for me socially, as I did not have friends at school; for some reason, I had turned my back on my Grade 5 friends at school, even though we were still friends on our own time.

I was not really happy with this whole situation, which is probably why I started intellectually bullying my classmates. I was an imperious ass most of the time, correcting people's spelling and not playing sports on principle (I'm not sure which one) and generally being unbearable to others. It didn't help that I had a nasty temper, and that my classmates were able to provoke me into bellowing at them, flipping desks, and even a jump kicking fit that left the others in hysterics. I think that I lashed out even more because I was pushed myself, even if it was mostly my own doing. Of course, I was also cagey enough not to act out when the teacher was in the room, so I mostly got away with it. I remember one incident in particular in which I hit another kid across the forehead with one of those yellow library chairs that had the front and back feet connected by a metal rod on each side; the teacher walked in within minutes, and I think everyone was so stunned (my victim included) that no one said a word, and I never got in trouble for it. Of course, I cannot fathom now having those kinds of situations occur in a classroom, or what I would do with a kid like I was who is too clever for his own good.

Summer Camp

But school was not the only place in which I was a bully. Starting in the summer between Grade 5 and Grade 6, I started going to AWANA Scholarship Camp, which is just as nerdy as it sounds: a program for kids who completed their memory books in the AWANA program during the year. It took all of ten minutes for me to earn the moniker "Professor", but it took a couple of years before I was able to fully realize my place at the top of the social pyramid; not only did I have good friends at camp, but somehow, I was the centre of the social world there. And believe me, I recognize the ridiculous nature of a camp in which I could be socially embraced as a brainiac; for those middle years, that became part of my identity and part of what I liked about myself, to the point that my default name for video games was "Prof".  I lived for that one week in the summer when I was king, and I now realize what I had to do to keep my throne, whether it was on purpose or just in not needing to care about the "little" people.

There were kids that I was downright mean to: fat kids we called "blimp" and another kid we called "Roberto" because of his Blue Jays hat who we provoked to mudslinging (the actual kind, not the overused political metaphor). I was in my element, but I can only imagine that there were several other kids who grew to dislike camp because of my antics. They mellowed out by my last year or two at camp (which, not coincidentally, occurred around the same time I matured in my school life after Grade 10), but I cringe at the way I acted when I had popularity and power for that one week each summer. I realize that I'm probably overexaggerating and only remembering the negative aspects, and that I was probably also really nice to some kids, but I still can't shake the feeling that there are a few people out there who were miserable because of me.

Into High School

I made a change in Grade 8. I don't remember exactly what prompted it, but I decided to start playing sports and to stop spazzing out and to be a nicer person. Lo and behold, I gained social capital. I didn't have friends, exactly, but I was included more socially at school, and I wasn't miserable. Over the next couple of years, as I transitioned into high school in Grade 9, I made friends, including with classmates who had previously shunned me. But I still wasn't exactly happy, and I still had a temper sometimes. I'm still a little ashamed of some of the ways that I treated schoolmates in Grade 8 to 10 - particularly a couple of my female classmates and one guy who I enthusiastically proclaimed should be listed as "most likely to be gay" in our Grade 8 graduation (with no acknowledgement that this was inappropriate). It took a couple of years for me to work this toxicity out of my system, but I feel like I was mostly able to do so by the time I was halfway through Grade 10.

I started to really grow into my own person at age fifteen, and I wasn't mean or bullying to anyone, at least on purpose. I still had some personal conflicts with my classmates - particularly females - but I wasn't a bully in the same way anymore. I think the change came largely because I got to be more confident in myself, I made some meaningful friends, and I got involved positively at school. I mostly stayed out of the popular scene and just did my own thing, so I didn't have the opportunity to be a part of the social divisions of high school; I mostly just worked around them and intersected with people of all groups as a "neutral" party with the school paper. I actually loved my years of high school - the only one in my family who can make that claim - and I flourished for those last couple of years with no need to belittle others because I finally liked myself and found ways to feel valued.

My apology

I'll be honest that most of the ways that I did bully were subtle or barely noticeable, and maybe I am the only one who continues to notice my particular offenses, but I bet that most of us have something like this in our pasts. Part of this post was inspired by an old friend whom I have known for over two decades, as we went to school together from Grade 5 through 12. He sent me a message yesterday apologizing for the way he treated me for years and trying to reconnect after not talking for probably a decade or so. I really appreciated his message, because I have sent out that message to others in the past, and he indirectly inspired me to finally admit my wrongs and to officially apologize publicly.

So this is my apology, to all those who I have hurt over the years: I am sorry for being a bully and for hurting you and making you feel lesser so that I could feel good about myself. I hope that if there is any lingering hurt or resentment that you can forgive me. And I forgive my bullies, like JL (who may still be in prison), and I hope that you feel that forgiveness somehow. If you are someone that I hurt as a bully, I would love to have a conversation with you sometime to work things out.

It feels really good to have shared this now after two years of having it linger below the surface. I feel a lot lighter, and I think that Pink Shirt Day may no longer bring those same feelings of shame and guilt. As you may be able to tell, even now, I am still sensitive about having been a bully. Any time someone accuses me of being too aggressive or of being too insensitive, it hits me hard because I know what it's like to be that person, and I don't ever want to be like that again. So if you are someone who right now is feeling hurt because of my words or actions, I am sorry. I can only hope that you can find it in yourself to make yourself vulnerable with me and that we can talk sometime. Thanks for listening to my confession.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Kickstarter my heart

I suppose I could be considered a veteran of Kickstarter now, at least in regard to board games. In the past two years, I have purchased most of my new games through KS (thanks to influxes of Christmas/birthday money and income from selling items locally), backing fifteen projects in the process; all but one of those were board games, so I am fairly well-versed in what makes Kickstarter work, at least from the perspective of a Canadian board gamer. Most gamers, like me, use KS as a way to discover new games and to pre-order games that are known quantities, so it both a tool for investment and for consumption. I thought it was a good time to share some of what I have learned through using KS in these past two years and to evaluate the relative success or failure of my time on Kickstarter.

How does crowdfunding (board games) work?

Kickstarter (or Indiegogo or other similar sites) allow entrepreneurs to raise funds directly from investors by posting their projects online. There needs to be a specific product as a direct result of the project; it cannot be funding anything vague, unclear, or ongoing (such as salary income). Musical artists raise money for albums, authors raise money for publishing books (not for being paid for writing them, though), and game designers and producers raise money to produce their games (board or video), among many other types of projects. The investor pledges a certain amount of money, which is only paid if the project successfully funds at its deadline; up until that final moment, an investor can modify or remove her pledge, but they are locked in as soon as it funds. The investor will receive periodic updates about the project until it finally arrives in its finished form in her mailbox.
Board games have been a huge part of Kickstarter, and there have been a few dozen games that have achieved widespread popularity as a direct result of their use of KS to launch their designs. It has allowed independent designers direct access to gamers, and it has encouraged an entire community of game designers to connect and support one another. Several smaller companies have been established and flourished in large part due to their presence on KS (Indie Boards & Cards, TMG, and others), and more are emerging all the time. Most designs are close to complete, including prototypes, rules, and playtesting, and KS is usually the final step to determine the level of production.

Designers post their projects with information about their project, including the intended shipping date, pieces included, risks of the project, and rewards depending on funding level; they often  also advertise bonus content available "exclusively" through KS, and then they encourage funders to advertise their projects to others by setting "stretch goals" at higher amounts of total funding. The consumer can fund any amount they wish and pick whichever reward they want from the ones included. After a time period set by the designer, the project either funds or fails, and the designer either begins to prepare for production or running another campaign.

What makes me back a project?

After some reflection, I determined that there are five primary factors that affect my willingness to back a project. They are not necessarily in any kind of priority order, as some factors are more influential at times and not at others. As a rule, a project needs to satisfy at least four of these factors for me to look at backing it, but it does depend on how attractive each factor is.
1. Established reputation - I am much more ready to back a project when the company or designer or artist or game has a reputation, such as when it has already been released. I suppose that is why I often end up backing projects that are for expansions for games, or for new editions. I have ordered several games without playing them, but I was able to research them well enough to know that I would like them.

2. Promotional items - the more stretch goals and limited items a project has, the more appealing it is for me. Most KS campaigns state that "exclusive" items may be available afterward in limited quantities, but at increased cost and decreased availability, so the best way to make sure that you get them is through KS.

3. Cost (including shipping) - The project has to have an attractive cost, and shipping cannot be unreasonable. Of course, one of the things that makes me able to order more through KS is that I have some friends who are willing to let me use their US shipping address; if not for that, I would order far fewer items.
  4. Campaign itself - There is something about the nature of the campaign itself that can be attractive. An involved designer can make a huge difference, and receiving regular updates and communication makes me much more likely to back a project.

5. Timing - a short window between project funding and production can make a huge difference in my willingness to back a project (just as a longer window can be a significant deterrent).

What makes me hesitate to back a project?

1. Shipping costs - One of the biggest disincentives for backing is high shipping, especially to Canada. Some projects are much more Canada-friendly, but the shipping is often obscene compared to the free shipping many projects receive within the US. If I ever moved farther from the border, I would have a hard time justifying some of the purchases I have made through KS.

2. Canadian dollar - The loonie has taken a dive in the past month, and since most projects are funded in US dollars, that means higher prices for me. It's usually not enough to fully deter me, but it does make me think twice when I have to pay 10% more than I did a few months ago just because of our currency.

3. Timing - Sometimes it's the wait time for the project that deters me, but it's usually the timing outside the project that is the biggest deterrent for me. Usually that means that I either do not have enough funds to back a project, or I have too many projects I am already backing at the time.
4. Risk of the project - There are well-documented stories of people getting poor products in KS. It is, after all, an investment in an essentially unknown project, and there is actually no requirement for project designers to follow through on their promises, even though they have taken money from backers.
5. Availability afterward - If a game is likely to be readily available afterward, and the promo items are not enough to make me buy the game, I'm not likely to back it.

Projects I missed out on

For every project I have backed, there are several that I could also have backed along the way. Despite the significant volume of projects available, there are only three projects that I am truly disappointed to have missed in my two years of Kickstarting. Five Iron Frenzy Kickstarted their new album, but that was before I was on KS, and I also just forgot about it at the time. Fleet: Arctic Bounty came at a time when I did not have any capital to invest in new projects, and the campaign seemed to indicate that they would be using KS again in the future. And Cult Classic was a truly genuine Kickstarter - an independent game from a little-known designer that actually looked like a lot of fun. I just completely forgot about it and missed out on it before it expired. There are others I missed, of course, but those were the only three that I actually regret not backing, since they met most of my criteria for backing and just either came at the wrong time or slipped my mind.

But most of the projects I have passed on are subject to several of the aforementioned deterrents. Projects such as Keyflower: The Farmers, Belfort: The Expansion Expansion, and The Resistance: Avalon had great reputation and decent cost, but they were also going to be readily available afterward and had few promotional items. I probably would have backed Cinelinx, but it came at a time when I was already backing several other projects, and I'm not sure with whom I would play it. Coup looked like fun, but the stretch goals were not enough to make me want to get it before I played it. The hardest one not to back was Tiny Epic Kingdoms, which just concluded in the past month. It had a great price, lots of fantastic stretch goals, and it looked like fun, but I was not sure if I was going to play it enough to justify ordering it, and the weak Canadian dollar made it more unattractive.

Evaluating projects

This brings me to the heart of what I wanted to do with this post: to evaluate my purchases so far and to reflect on whether KS has been a good idea for me or not. I can only officially evaluate projects I have received, but for the projects that are underway, I have done my best to evaluate them, since I know whether a couple of them will be worth it already. For each project I have backed, I have given a few comments, as well as whether it is a hit or a miss, including the degree to which it has hit or missed.

The P Eight Six Project ($30, shipped)– As a fan of P86 over the past fifteen years, I felt a certain connection to this project, which helped to fund their Wait for the Siren album; plus, it was a birthday gift from my wife. I was slightly underwhelmed by parts of the album, but that’s to be expected considering that lead singer Andrew Schwab is the only original member left. Still, I’m glad that P86 is still doing their thing, and Schwab’s book The Tin Soldiers was a solid reflection on the issues facing men today. And I’m still looking at being part of the Indiegogo campaign for their new album. Verdict: Slight hit.
Evil Baby Orphanage ($40 + $8 shipping, arrived April 2013) – My wife wanted to back this flippant card game because of the inspiration from John and Hank Green, so I consented. We enjoyed seeing the project develop and how the Nerdfighter community embraced it, but the initial game itself was underwhelming. It seems like the expansions will fix the issues, but we have not played them yet, even though we have had them for almost a year. That said, it is a lot of fun to enjoy the sense of humour of the cards, and the artwork is also a lot of fun. Verdict: slight miss.

Among the Stars: The Ambassadors ($76, shipping included) – The expansion to Among the Stars hit all of the targets: great reputation, fun campaign, great price and availability, and a lot of promotional items. The game had been on my wishlist, so it was pretty automatic for me to order it. One of my best KS deals so far. Verdict: huge hit.

Eminent Domain: Escalation ($50, shipping to US included) – ED had been on my radar as one to play, so when the expansion was released with the base game at a very affordable price point, I had to pull the trigger. I have only played the base game once, but I enjoyed it as a mix of Race for the Galaxy, Glory to Rome, and Dominion. I think this will get a lot more life out of it. Verdict: hit.

Flash Point: Fire Rescue: Extreme Danger ($112, shipping to US included) – I took a bit of a risk with this one, as I had not played the game when I ordered it and I ordered the full package, which included the base game, the Extreme Danger expansion, as well as three other expansions (double-sided boards with different settings). We played it recently and recently enjoyed it, and I am really excited about the vast replayability of the game, as well as having another solid co-operative game to go along with Pandemic. Verdict: (looks like a huge) hit.

Council of Verona ($12, shipping to US included) – The idea of a Love Letter-level game set in the world of Romeo and Juliet appealed to me as an English teacher and a board gamer, and the price was right. I have not played it yet, but it looks like it will be a fun game and great resource. Verdict: hit.

Where Art Thou Romeo? (Pay-What-You-Want, shipping included) – This was a “nano-game” of only three cards included as an add-on with Council of Verona, but I just missed it on the first time around. It was a fascinating case as a “true” PWYW [Include link to Crash Games article here] with no recommended fee, so I backed it for $4. I have not played it yet, but it looks like a nice little diversion, particularly for the price. Verdict: slight hit.

Incoming games

One of the more recent development in board games on Kickstarter is the concept of “microgames”, very small games that offer significant play at a very reduced rate. In addition to Where Art Thou Romeo?, I have three other microgames on order through Kickstarter: Coin Age (April 2014), Burgoo (June 2014), and This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the 2-4 of Us (June 2014). They all cost between $5 and $7 including shipping, and they all look like a lot of fun. And if for some reason they are not that good, they only cost the amount of a cup of coffee. Verdict: (hopefully) hit.
Of the five other projects I have backed that are incoming, three are games that looked like a lot of fun. RARRR! ($23 shipped to US, arrives April 2014) is a card game that features Kaiju and looks like it will partner well with King of Tokyo; Space Junk ($39 shipped, arriving July 2014) is a madcap game developed by some game designers from my hometown, Saskatoon. It looks like it captures some of the feel of Galaxy Trucker, and I'm looking forward to it. Scoville ($55 shipped, arrives Nov 2014) is a Euro game based on the cross-breeding peppers. I won't be able to finally evaluate them until I play them, but they all look really great. Verdict: Awaiting "trial".

The other two I have on order are the Fresco Big Box ($110 including the Alhambra Big Box, May 2014) and Kingdom Builder Big Box ($72, August 2014) both by Queen Games. In these cases, I am essentially using Kickstarter as a pre-order service to get games with all of their expansions that I already knew I wanted at a great price with a couple of minor promos thrown in. There has been some discussion around the internet about how a larger company like Queen Games seems to be defying the true spirit of Kickstarter by using it to market established games, as they are one of a handful of companies – Days of Wonder, Rio Grande, Mayfair, Z-Man, and Fantasy Flight, among a few others – who are fully established enough to launch games on their own without using KS. That said, KS does ensure that all of their projects meet their requirements, so I'm taking advantage of the deals while I can. These were three of my most-wanted games, and I know I will enjoy them all well. Verdict: hit.



It's encouraging to see that I have not made a poor purchase yet on KS, with only one project that I would rate as a "slight miss", and even that may change. I am really cautious about KS, and I believe that my caution has paid off. It remains one of my main streams of new game information and ultimately new games, and I really enjoy the process of being a part of the community that emerges out of a Kickstarter project. I have not branched out yet to projects other than board games, and I think that would be a fun way to engage the arts. I also look forward to the day when I have a project that can be Kickstarted, whether that's the game I am currently designing (for serious), the book that someday I will finally finish (not really serious yet), or some other idea I hope to bring to fruition in the future. Until then, I will continue to enjoy the process of investing and enjoying the many unique ideas that are coming to life through Kickstarter.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Wii U!

I have had a lot of fun in the past few weeks with my new Wii U. I had been eyeing up buying a Wii U since its release just over a year ago, but I had not figured out how to afford one until I started doing some scheming after Christmas. I had some Christmas and birthday money to use, so I was starting to do some calculations about trading in some old games and using the profits to supplement my cash outlay on the system. But then, as I researched on (an indispensable tool for video game collectors), I began to realize that I could probably fund the entire system - and then some - simply by trading in games. So I started doing some sorting and scheming, and soon I realized that I could easily part with a number of items, including a Sega Master System with nine games (all in the case) and the most valuable game in my collection, a complete-in-box copy of Earthbound for the SNES.

Earthbound has been trending up for years, but it has jumped even more lately; when I traded it in, it was worth $382 on VGPC. I figured it was time to finally part ways with the game, as I have owned it for over a decade and I have played it for a couple of hours total in that time. Plus, it was recently released on the Nintendo eShop for $10, so I could easily play it anytime I want to. I received close to $250 in trade just for the one game, which I figured was easier than trying to sell it (it did have a torn label and the manual was in not great condition), so I was able, in essence to trade one game straight up and get a Wii U. I have since been able to trade in and sell a number of other games, so I have amassed a small collection of brand new games at no cost.

This Wii U purchase is the first time ever that I have bought a console this early in its life, near the beginning of the peak of the console. In the past, I have waited for significant price drops, and the soonest I have owned a console was 2.5 years into its life (about halfway in video game console terms). My Nintendo was a hand-me-down from a friend of my dad’s; I still have it and it still works! The first time I bought my own console was in early December 1994, when my sister and I pooled our money to buy a Super Nintendo for $110 from Superstore. I remember getting a Game Boy for my elementary school “graduation” in 1996, and then I finally bought a Nintendo 64 on my own in December 1998 on Boxing Day using the profits from my first job. I bought a Gamecube used at the end of the console’s life, and the Wii used halfway through its time, as well as a Nintendo DS well into its life, but I have always been catching up. I am excited to finally be on the cutting edge of a video game generation.

Why Wii U?

Of course, that does not answer the question that many of you might now be asking, which is: why would I buy a Wii U? There are, after all, more powerful and high-profile game systems out there (PS4,  XBox One), and the Wii U has been maligned in its first year and a bit. I really don't think that the criticisms leveled toward the Wii U are fair, as the system is really quite impressive technically. The games look great in HD, the control is intuitive and innovative, and Nintendo is still doing great things with their old standbys. Sure, it's no PS4 or Xbox One, but it's not trying to be. With that in mind, there are several reasons I picked the Wii U.

1. I am a fan of Nintendo games and franchises going back 25 years. From the early years of Mario, Zelda, Metroid through the many incarnations since, I just really enjoy how Nintendo develops their franchises. I'm still waiting for that new Metroid, a new StarFox, and even a new Star Tropics (not holding my breath for that one), and it does not even really matter to me that there are not new franchises, since there is still lots of life left in the old ones (though the "New Super Mario Bros." branch does seem to be running a little thin…).

2. The style of games suits me as a gamer in this phase of life. Nintendo games tend to be more casual and more oriented toward retro gamers, both of which are good for me. I never really enjoyed first-person shooters, role-playing games, or fighting games, so the relative lack of those styles of games on Nintendo systems does not bother me. I do not have the time or energy for games that require intense input of time and effort, and Nintendo does not really require that with their current games. Most gamers see this as a detriment, but I see it as a bonus.

3. The Wii U meets the social aspect of gaming for me, especially with the person with whom I play the most: my wife. She tends to enjoy the kinds of games that are available for Nintendo systems, and we have fun playing them together. We have already enjoyed a lot of Nintendo Land, and I'm sure that there is a lot more fun to come. I also really enjoy the asymmetric gameplay provided by the GamePad, and I think the Wii U is the best social console.

4. The pace of releases fits my gaming habits right now. Some gamers complain that there are not enough releases, but I find that the current schedule of a big Nintendo release every few months is more than enough to meet my needs. I probably game about five hours per week, so a title that provides thirty hours of play will last me a month or more.

Why now?

So, then, the question is why I picked now to get in on the Wii U craze. Part of it is the fact that my game collection has increased in value to the point that I could fund it entirely through trades, but also that I am now willing to part with items that once I would not have allowed to leave. My focus in collecting is changing much more, and I am actively continuing to trade items from my collection that I will not likely play. So

But the other piece is that I think this is the perfect time to get into the Wii U. I waited for a year until there was a sufficiently large library to enjoy, and I already have six games to play through: three initial launch titles (Nintendo Land, New Super Mario Bros. U and New Super Luigi U, and Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed); and three other high profile releases, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD, the arguable "killer app" of the console, Super Mario 3D World, and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (including playing as Cranky Kong!).

There are several other titles I am excited to play, including (in no particular order): Pikmin 3, Lego City Undercover, The Wonderful 101, and Lego Marvel Super Heroes. That's ten games right there, not including the eShop downloads of Earthbound, Wii Fit U, and NES Remix, which brings new challenges to classic games. There is more than enough of a library to keep me entertained for a while, and the next few months will bring even more goodies. Mario Kart 8 releases May 30, and it features the Koopalings as playable drivers. Yarn Yoshi, the spiritual sequel to Kirby's Epic Yarn and Yoshi's Story, will come out in the fall, and a fighting game called Hyrule Warriors set in the Zelda universe has also been announced for this year. Then there's a little game called Super Smash Bros. Wii U that you may have heard of that will be out this fall… Factor in the fact that new Zelda, Metroid, and StarFox games are rumoured for 2015, and it looks like I will be set for the next couple of years of gaming.

The bottom line is that I am excited about video games for the first time in a few years, actually. I have (perhaps surprisingly) not played many video games in the past couple of years, and I am excited about getting back into the hobby as a player and not just as a collector. I am excited to connect with friends and to use the social aspects of the Wii U. And I am really excited to just enjoy the sheer pleasure of playing games that are fun. So if you don't hear from me for awhile, just check in on the Miiverse - you might find me there.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

On BC's "balanced" budget

When I first moved to British Columbia in 2008, I received a nasty surprise in the mail after a few weeks: a bill entitled "Medical Services Premiums" (or MSP, for short) for almost $300. It covered my first three months of health care premiums, which were around $95 per month at the time. Imagine my surprise at having to pay this unadvertised expense, as BC is one of the few provinces that still charges a separate MSP. Fast forward six years, and MSP has gone up over 30% for our to around $125 per month for the two of us. And the BC government just announced in their budget yesterday that MSP fees would be raised another $5.50 per month to offset the costs of rising health care, making it almost a 40% rise in fees in the past six years.

MSP is not without its detractors, as many people believe that it is a way of taxing British Columbians without having to label it a tax. Furthermore, although the government states that there are up to 1 million residents of the province who receive either reduction or elimination of the fee, it is also not pro-rated according to income, so the biggest crunch lands on people who do not qualify for those reductions (I think the line is around $30,000 per year) but who still do not have incomes to necessarily support the expense of over $1500 per year (and rising). And lest you think that a change in income would allow you to reduce your fee, it comes with a caveat typical of "Bureaucracy Central": your MSP is based on your previous year's income, and any application for receiving immediate relief is subject to a not insignificant amount of paperwork and no guarantee that anything will actually change.

A "balanced" budget

I mention MSP because there has been a lot of talk in the past 24 hours on the West Coast about how BC tabled a "balanced" budget for 2014, and is even expecting a meagre surplus of $184 million for this year. The BC Liberals have been pointing to their second consecutive balanced budget as a feat for the province and a point of pride, along with trumpeting the fact that BC has the lowest income tax in Canada. They have also been pointing out that they are putting "families first" by providing an early childhood tax credit that will give parents $55/month, as well as establishing RESPs of $1200 for any child born after January 1, 2007 on their sixth birthday (as long as the parents set up the RESP).

Their self-promotion seems to ring a little hollow in light not only of the rise of MSP fees, but the other impending rises in costs at the behest of the government. BC Hydro fees are being raised over 25% over the next five years, BC Ferries has recently increased their fares while reducing service. While both Hydro and Ferries are at arm's length from the government as Crown corporations, they are still significantly intertwined with and emblematic of the overall policy and practice of this government, which has been in power here since 2001. The overall result is that, while the government can boast that they have a balanced budget, costs for individuals living in BC will go up by several hundred dollars this year alone just from the rises in MSP, Hydro, and Ferries (especially if you're living in a coastal community). The government is, in effect, passing the buck to the consumer.

It's all about the framing

The issue here is not only how the government is choosing to balance the budget - on the backs of individuals - but also in the way that they are choosing to frame this accomplishment. Their announcements have been couched in political language that emphasizes their feat while minimizing the recognition on the effect of British Columbians in general. Though there are some benefits for families with small children that will (somewhat to mostly) offset the rises in costs, anyone who does not have children between the ages of 0 and 6 seems to have no benefit at all to living here, at least according to this budget. And although there will be minimal cost effect for the lowest economic tier of residents, as the government has pointed out, there are already significant barriers to living in this province as a lower-income person or family. The RESP benefit is a perfect example: in order to take advantage of it, parents need to be able to complete the work, but many parents who might most need to take advantage of the RESP contributions will not know how to fill out the forms.

The government, in effect, seems to be saying that the benefit of living in BC outweighs any possible detriments that come with a few austerity budgets, and they are not recognizing how much individuals have to sacrifice to be here in either their budget priorities or in their language about the budget. The government often talks about how great it is to live in BC and how they are doing their best for everyone, but these Liberals have also been notoriously friendly to business and high-income earners over $120,000. This does, however, seem to be a viable strategy for them, as they have won four consecutive majority governments, though their policies can be (and often are) interpreted as a lack of empathy for people who fall in the low-to-middle-class bracket ($30,000 to $120,000 income per year), and their attempts to frame this budget as anything but further burden on this group seem to be failing, if the media analysis is any indication.

The Best Place on Earth?

It is probably a little obvious that I am not a fan of this budget and even of this government's way of operating in general. I understand that a government has to present things in a certain manner and that a certain level of politics are involved, but it's hard not to feel a little slighted and insulted by the manner in which this government has treated me. I really wish that they would come out and be honest and say that this is going to be tough for British Columbians and that they have had to make cuts, but that would not be a very politically astute move. I wish that they would just be honest about the taxes that we pay, rather than trying to disguise them in fees like MSP, but, again, that would not be apropos.

The message being delivered over and over, by this budget and this government and even our license plates, is that BC is the best place on Earth, and that simply is not true. BC is a beautiful place to live geographically, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for families to live here, despite the government's assertion that their policy is "families first." Most people who choose to continue to stay here do so because they feel that the benefits (ie. the climate, the outdoors, the lifestyle) outweigh the detriments, although that does not account for the portion of the population that simply cannot afford to go elsewhere. The message sent by this budget by the government is that it is everyone for him or herself, and that they are not willing to make it easier for the people of BC, nor are they willing to admit that everything here is not okay. The message really is that BC might be the best place on Earth, if you have the money to be here, and that is not a "balanced" perspective.

Monday, February 17, 2014

How I buy new board games

I have been thinking a lot lately about buying new board games. There have been a number of great Kickstarter campaigns in the past month, and I have used some of my Christmas and birthday money to fund some of my investments there, as I did last year (Among the Stars, Eminent Domain, Flash Point: Fire Rescue). But as I have considered different projects, some of which I backed enthusiastically (Space Junk, Fresco Big Box, Kingdom Builder Big Box, and Scoville, the latter two of which are still raising funds), and some of which I ultimately decided not to back (Tiny Epic Kingdoms), I have realized that there is a method to my madness, a system with which I sometimes formally (but often unconsciously) decide which games will get my money next. I should mention, of course, that this is all assuming a healthy perspective toward buying new games and managing finances and not succumbing to "acquisition disorder" and buying all of the games right away and not having any money left over for food or rent. With those boundaries in mind, there are ten questions I ask myself when I am looking at purchasing a new game, as well as a preliminary question.

I have an extensive list of games on my BGG wishlist, as well as a list of games to play (162 and 142 respectively, with a lot of overlap), so I have a lot of potential choices to make. Even as I begin to narrow it down, I could buy any one of 50+ games or expansions at any time, so I have to have a process. Before I even play a game, I usually research using various sites, including BoardGameGeek, Starlit Citadel, The Dice Tower, I Slay the Dragon, The Opinionated Gamers, the Reddit community r/boardgames, and Today in Board Games, and I know a decent amount about different designers, mechanics, reputations, and whether a game will be a good fit for me in terms of style of gameplay. I try to prioritize the games I learn in such a way as to facilitate predicting my possible next purchases, and the meta-game has already begun: trying to determine which game to purchase next.

0. Do I need to play it to know that I will like it? Before I buy any game, I have to do some "homework", but there are times that I just know I don't really have to play a game before I buy it. It's rare, especially because I will almost always rather buy a game that has been on my list for a while, but it happens. I'm not making blind decisions, though; I have a lengthy process. I almost always play before I buy, but I do occasionally take a calculated risk that incorporates the actual ten questions below. I did not always do this - for years, I just bought games that looked like fun - and it did not always work out for me, as I ended up with a few mistakes that I have now been able to trade, gift away, or use as credit in purchasing new games.

1. Will I play this game? It might seem obvious, but the place to start is in knowing if it is a game I will like, period. I now know myself as a gamer well enough to know that I do not particularly enjoy a lot of styles of games: longer games; war games; role-playing games; games that are too chaotic or luck-based; games that have too many fiddly get the point. I tend to gravitate toward games that play in at most 90 minutes, have high variability, relatively simple mechanics, and are more in the Euro style of gaming, rather than the so-called "American" style. They have to have enough strategic complexity and thematic appeal without becoming too overwhelming or unmanageable.

2. Will I play this game enough? So I can see that it is a game that I will enjoy and play, but will I play it enough to warrant owning it? I would like to play most games I own regularly, maybe 5-10 times a year (we call it "nickel and diming" in game-speak), so I'm not particularly interested in owning games that, although I enjoy them, will only hit the table once or twice a year. I would rather buy other games and play these kinds of games at, say, a board game café like the one that just opened in Victoria. That was part of the reason I parted ways with Killer Bunnies and the Journey to Jupiter last year; I enjoyed it, but I rarely played regular Killer Bunnies, much less the space off-shoot.

3. With whom will I play it? Okay, so even if I like it and would play it over and over again, do I have other people who will play it with me? This question is particularly about whether my wife will like it enough to play; I am glad that she enjoys games enough to play (somewhat) often, and that she has taste that mostly mirrors mine, but I still have to always consider her style of gaming, as she is my primary audience. There are games that I know I will play more with my gaming friends, and I am quite privileged to have 6-8 people with whom I can consistently play. so I have a built-in audience, but I always have to think about who is going to play the game with me - especially after that first time.

4. Is it easy to teach? Which leads me to the teachability of a game as a deciding factor. Is the game easy to teach for what it is? Not all games have the same level of teachability, of course, depending on internal complexity, but even within that stratification of social-light-medium-heavy, is it easy to teach and for others to understand? We end up teaching and learning a lot of new games to and with people who are gamers and non-gamers alike, so this question is paramount. Is it still fun the first time, or is it too overwhelming for what it is. I played Takenoko and Spyrium for the first time recently, and they both (in my opinion) pass the test well; Takenoko is a straight-forward family game, and Spyrium is a more complex strategic game, but they both were quickly learnable.

5. Will this game still be good after ten plays? This is a cousin of Questions 1 and 2, "Will I play it (enough)?", though it is slightly different. Can I see this game maintaining its appeal past the initial few plays, or will it become repetitive or tedious or predictable? This is really a question about a game's flexibility and variability, as well as its ability to sustain attention past the first few "this is really cool" plays.

6. Do I already have a game that fits this niche or need? There are a lot of themes and mechanics that are repeated in waves of popularity, so I have to ask if a game does something that I already have, or if it presents a new element. Deck builders and worker placements are very popular, but do I need more than one or two?

7. Will I play this game soon? Can I wait to own it or play it again, or is this a "must buy ASAP" situation. Some games sit on my list for years; some for hours. Part of the issue is when I get other games coming in and if I have time for a new one at that time or if I have the freedom to wait. Unless...

8. Is this an offer I can't refuse right now? Some deals are so good that they can't be passed up, especially when I'm buying used games or games that are (or are going) out-of-print. I can usually wait for most games, but there is always that chance that the deal might never be sweeter. Of course, this is problematic with Kickstarter campaigns, since the deals are almost always so good. I can usually justify it with the next follow-up question.

9. Will I be able to trade it or resell it for adequate value? Is it popular and well-regarded enough that should I choose not to keep it that I can get most of my money back or possibly trade it for something I will like? If it's going to be a pox on my collection that I can't shake, it might not make my list, especially if I'm not sure about it.

10. Is someone else I know going to buy it? I have the convenience of having friends who also buy games, and we deliberately try to fashion our collections in such a way as to avoid overlap. Sometimes we just have to own our own copies, but it's awfully handy to have regular access to about 30 or 40 games I don't have to own.

I know that this seems like an exhaustive process, and it can be, but usually the answers to these questions are fairly quick and easy. My process usually goes in stages, and that's why these questions are framed this way. Games will often sit at #5 or 6 for awhile, just waiting for the right time. Perhaps the best example is Kingdom Builder. I played it two years ago and loved it, but I also figured I would wait for expansions and a big box. It has been advertised for a year, and it just released on Kickstarter. I ordered it right away, although I still have to wait until August or September for it to arrive, but I'm okay with that - it will be worth the wait. Besides, I just got in several Kickstarter games I ordered in the past year, plus I have some trade in value to burn in the next few months, so I have enough gaming to do for now. Still, I'm sure that will not stop me from dreaming a bit and looking for some other new purchases to bolster my shelves...oh no, it's starting again...must resist urge to splurge...

Friday, February 07, 2014

Catching the Olympic spirit

Yes, as Ron MacLean and Peter Mansbridge pointed out, I was one of those teachers who chose to show the opening ceremonies at school this morning; after all, what use is a SMART board and a work period if you can't show something so historic? I must admit that I misted up a little when I saw the Canadians come in led by Hayley Wickenheiser (arguably the greatest women's hockey player ever). There's something about the Winter Olympics especially that draws me in every time, despite all of the politicking and controversy and commercialism and everything else that goes with the Olympics, and it gets right to my heart. It might be easy to sit in cynicism about all the shadiness of the Sochi games or the amount spent on Canada's team by the government ($89 million!) or how the Paralympics should be considered toward the medal total or about how there is an "official everything" of Canada's Olympic team (does Canada really need Ritz as our official cracker?) or even the very nature of how and why we award people for sporting competitions or whatever other criticisms you can produce, but I am choosing to put those things aside and just to enjoy these next few weeks as a Canadian and a fan of sports.

I love how Canadians unite in our attention to the games, and how it captures a sense of national pride in the way that rarely happens outside of sport. I love that we get to wonder each day how Canadians did, and that every person instantly becomes an expert on each obscure sport's rules and each athlete's history. I enjoy how the most random facts about an athlete's training become national talking points thanks to Brian Williams' entertaining though bombastic bluster. I thoroughly enjoy all of the over-the-top patriotism of the Canadian media and how they usually do manage to balance significant homerism with coverage of significant stories from around the world. I love that we get to watch with expectation that Canadians will represent us well and enjoy the success of our fellow Canucks - especially hockey and curling. I'm excited to be watching these Olympics, and I'm proud to be Canadian. Go Canada Go!

Sunday, February 02, 2014

That's that, mattress man

I was truly saddened by the news today that Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away at age 46, likely due to a heroin overdose, in his apartment in Greenwich Village, New York. My stomach sank as I read the news, especially because he had been sober for 23 years before relapsing last year and checking himself into rehab. He was known for his method acting, and widely regarded as one of the best actors (if not the best) of the past decade, and he would easily have a guaranteed spot in the Actor's Hall of Fame (if such a thing were to exist). He had incredible charisma and presence in every role in film and on stage, and he will be sorely missed. There will be many, many, many tributes and pieces about his legacy written today, but I still felt that I needed to write my own, even just to process what it means for him to be gone.

Hoffman has been one of my favourite actors for years, more or less since his performance in Capote, for which he won the Best Actor Oscar. (Here's the video of his acceptance speech.) My first memory of Hoffman was Dusty in 1996's blockbuster Twister, but he was such a chameleon that it took me a long time to realize that he had also played Brandt in The Big Lebowski, among many other iconic roles; as I went back over some of his earlier films later on, some of those performances became my favourites: Scotty in Boogie Nights; Lester Bangs in Almost Famous; and, of course, Dean Trumbell in Punch-Drunk Love (the clips below are NSFW for language).

After Capote, he was a fully acknowledged leading man, though he often chose roles that allowed others to take the lead. He faced off against Tom Cruise in M:I III before taking some fantastic roles in both independent and mainstream films, including some of my favourites of the past seven or so years: The Savages; Synecdoche, New York; Doubt; Charlie Wilson's War; The Ides of March; Moneyball; The Master; and as the enigmatic The Count in Pirate Radio, which led to this fantastic (although deleted) scene at Abbey Road.

I was not surprised that the news of his death hit me so hard today; after all, I felt a certain connection with Hoffman not only in his incredible performances, but also in his identity as a person struggling to make it through life both on and off screen. (So much, in fact, that my wife thought he would be the perfect candidate to play me in a movie version of my life, age notwithstanding.) As Derek Thompson writes, "he could puff himself up and play larger than life, but his specialty - losers, outcasts, and human marginalia - was to find the quiet dignity in life-sized characters." He never felt like a movie star; he always seemed to be a regular guy who was an actor. He was the kind of actor that I could see myself being one day, were I ever to return to drama, and he made me think about who I am and what I value through his performances.

So the world is a little worse off today because of our loss, which came well before its proper time. I guess we'll always have the twenty or so (!) incredible performances to revisit, but like other actors who die too early, we will always wonder what might have been. And now, I think it's appropriate to finish off with what is widely regarded as one of his best scenes as the memorable Gust from the otherwise unmemorable Charlie Wilson's War. Hoffman matched with Aaron Sorkin's words makes for magic.


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