What Did I Play? [3/07/16 – 3/13/2016]

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A vlog about the board games and video games I played between 3/07/16 and 3/13/16!

Some quick thoughts about XCOM 2, Stardew Valley, and the Twilight Struggle beta.

What Did I play? [2/29/16 – 3/06/16]

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A vlog about the board games and video games I played between 2/29/16 and 3/06/16!

Some quick thoughts about Jaipur, XCOM 2, The Binding of Issac, Arboretum and Stardew Valley.

2016 New Years Resolutions

I generally never stick to my New Year Resolutions, but I do think they’re a good thing to do, if only because it’s productive to think about where you are in life and where you’d like to be. For 2016, I’d like to try to focus on becoming more productive on the YouTube channel and the podcasts. I don’t think I need a piece of content every single day, but I do need regularity and to stick to a schedule.

One of my biggest problems is the inability to stick to a schedule and to do a little bit of something every day. I too frequently come home from work and use being tired as an excuse to not do anything. Or I’ll say that the upstairs neighbors are too loud to do any recording, when I could easily shoot b-roll or capture video or something similarly unrestricted by noise levels. An hour a day is a million times better than no hours a day, and I should try to stick to that.

That said, here are my New Years Resolutions for 2016:

  • Finish the TNG podcast (2 a week! We can do it!).
  • One board game or video game related piece of content each week.
  • Add music reviews to the YouTube channel. Nothing huge, maybe one a month or something, with an associated blog post.

That’s it! I can do it! Youze can do it! We all can do it!

The Top 5 Seinfeld Episodes

Seinfeld remains one of my favorite shows of all time. During my high school and college years, it would have definitely placed first in the ranking of my favorite shows of all time, and it certainly would have been in first place on the comedies list, miles ahead of its next closest competitor.

Time moves on, however. I’m not sure Seinfeld even occupies the top spot on my comedy list anymore, a victim to time and exposure to shows like the BBC hit “Peep Show”, and the brilliant, burning on both ends of candle “Arrested Development” (although the third and Netflix produced fourth season did enough damage to knock the sublime first and second seasons of the show down a peg).

Seinfeld seems a little dated at this point, a victim of The Seinfeld Is Unfunny Effect. The first three seasons remind me in some ways of the first two seasons of The Next Generation (even though TNG was much, much, much worse): everything about the production screams late ’80s or early ’90s. The shows just don’t feel modern. The episodes look grainy, the pacing is wrong, the editing is slow and drawn out. Despite that, the fourth through seventh seasons remain some of the strongest sitcom seasons in television history. For a few brief years the show found its legendary stride and created some of the most memorable jokes and story lines that still exist in the culture today.

With the entire Seinfeld library having recently moved to Hulu, I embarked on a minor mission to see how the show held up. It’s surprising, and mildly distressing, how easy it is to burn through multiple seasons of half hour sitcoms, but in the end I narrowed down my list of the top five Seinfeld episodes, and ultimately my favorite season of the show. Four of the five episodes are from season five, which I now consider to be the turning point in the shows tone. With the addition of some new writers, the show moved away from its hyper realistic tone of the earlier seasons and began to embrace stories that were clearly conceived by writers but were still very grounded in normal, day to day life. The topics were familiar and from real life experiences, but the plot and characters became a bit more broad and the series began to work diligently to have their complicated plots weave together by the end of each episode.

That said, here are my top five episodes of Seinfeld.

5. The Puffy Shirt

Puffy Shisrt

The second episode of season five, “The Puffy Shirt” was written by Larry David, who considers the episode to be one of his favorites. Kramer dates a “low-talker” who asks an unsuspecting Jerry to wear some of her new clothing line on The Today Show, where he’ll be promoting a benefit to clothe the homeless. In the second storyline, George’s luck starts to turn around as he’s found to be a remarkable hand model, one with hands so spectacular that they remind everyone of Ray McKigney, a hand model ruined after he found that no woman could match the beauty of his own hand.

The scene where Kramer reveals the Puffy Shirt is outstanding. Jerry’s reaction to the shirt, and Kramer’s pleasure at revealing it, are wonderful. The business of Kramer forcing the shirt at a reluctant Jerry is topped off with the memorable, “But I don’t wanna be a pirate!” line as Jerry tries to stop himself from laughing.

In addition, we’ve got a great Mr and Mrs Costanza scene in the restaurant. It’s tough to not have the best episodes of the show include these two breakout stars, and here we get to experience the origin of George’s paranoia as Frank Costanza insists that the waiter sees them, he just doesn’t want to serve them.

It all culminates in Jerry ruining the low talker’s life when he slams her business on The Today Show, George burns his hands on a hot iron after insulting the shirt in front of its creator, and all the pre-ordered Puffy Shirts at the factory (“They’re making these?”) are distributed to the homeless.

It’s really not a bad looking shirt.

4. The Marine Biologist

Marine Biologist

What did I just say about story lines colliding? “The Marine Biologist”, written by Ron Hauge and Charlie Rubin, is peak Seinfeld. To impress a former classmate, Jerry spins a yarn about George having become a marine biologist. Unfortunately for George, the lie works and he and the classmate begin to date, all under the false pretense that George had made something of his life since college, and that he was an expert about all things fish and whale related.

The George plot is so outstanding that it covers over the weakest part of the episode: Elaine’s plot about meeting a famous Russian author and having her new digital organizer (very ’90s) annoy him to the point where he throws it out the limousine window and injures a passerby. The plot doesn’t really work, and it doesn’t tie into the greater story in any meaningful way.

The Kramer arc exists just to set up the climax of the episode. Kramer comes into a huge collection of golf balls, and travels down to the beach to hit them into the ocean. Unfortunately, Kramer’s golf game has left him and he only hit “one really good one, that went way out there”.

After George and his new lady friend stumble upon a beached whale as they’re out walking on the beach (“Is anyone here a marine biologist?”), George becomes a hero by saving the day. Reaching into the whale’s blowhole, he felt an obstruction and pulled out… a golf ball. A Titleist.

This episode is sublime. The collision of plot strands in the end is arguably the finest use of the trick that the show ever did (that one yelp of audience laughter as George reveals the golf ball!), and even the use of the phrase “marine biologist” seems just so Seinfeld-y. During the shows run, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld demonstrated an affection for odd sounding words and phrases. It doesn’t even sound like a real job! And Larry David’s voice over on the timeless “Is anyone here a marine biologist?” line is simply perfect.

3. The Opposite

The Opposite

Season five ends with an ingenious twist on the George character: if everything you’ve done in the past has been wrong, then doesn’t the opposite have to be right?

When George hits his breaking point, he decides to do “the opposite”. Whatever his gut tells him to do, he’ll do the opposite of that. Telling a woman he just met that he’s unemployed and lives with his parents? No problem. Not getting upset when a jackass driver cuts him off? Easy. Yelling at the owner of the New York Yankees during a job interview? He’ll do it!

Elaine, on the other hand, finds her life falling apart. She gets evicted from her apartment, causes her employer Pendant Publishing to fold, and ends up, to her horror, “becoming George”.

Jerry’s plot line details how everything always works out for him. He loses a gig only to get another one for the same day and pay only moments later. He throws money out the window only to have it come back into his life (albeit with George). His story ends with the realization that as an “Even Steven”, when one friend is up (George), another one is down (Elaine).

Kramer’s plot is mostly forgettable, as he begins a book tour on Regis and Kathie Lee. The most memorable moment from this scene is Regis’ bizarre, “This guy’s bonkos!” line, which, according to Philbin, was performed against his will and at the insistence of the Seinfeld writers.

But really, this episode lives and dies on the George storyline. Every scene with him is hilarious, each getting better and better, until it all culminates in the scene where he screams at Steinbrenner for ruining the Yankees organization. In the episode’s final twist, Steinbrenners response is “Hire this man!” and thus we see the genesis of many great plot lines involving George and the New York Yankees.

2. The Hamptons

Hamptons

“I was in the pool! I was in the pool!”

It’s one of the most quoted Seinfeld lines, sold with delicious zeal by Jason Alexander. This episode is mostly known for the “shrinkage” story, yet another example of the show’s language infecting the cultural zeitgeist. Do women know about shrinkage?

But honestly, the George story is only one of a few excellent threads that run through this one. For some reason, sitcom episodes that involve the beach are always a favorite of mine. Any show that runs for a few seasons inevitably ends up at the beach, and these episodes always tickle my fancy. Here, the entire cast gets a weekend at the Hamptons, home of world famous tomatoes and topless beaches. George is trying to get laid, Kramer wants some lobster, Elaine meets a man with a curious vocabulary, and Jerry mostly acts as a smirking foil to his co-star’s plots.

For me, the Elaine story is… breathtaking. A simple joke that builds around the idea that sometimes “people say things just to be nice”, it’s Seinfeld’s observational humor at it’s best. The wordplay is funny, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is outstanding, and the guest actor playing the soap opera-esque doctor fits the bill perfectly.

Kramer’s lobster story is solid, and worth the wait just for his unaware, happy waving at the end when the police come to arrest him for poaching.

Of course, the George story is the episode’s backbone. He tries to see his new girlfriend naked, is foiled by her exhibitionist ways, and then tries to see Jerry’s girlfriend topless to “even the score”. When that fails, he is instead embarrassed after he takes a dip in the cold ocean and, well, nature takes its course.

A very strong episode with tremendous plots for everyone involved, a catch phrase that endures today, and the beach. It’s almost perfect.

And 1… The Gum

The Gum

Is this a sleeper choice? The only episode not from the fifth season on this list, The Gum can instead be found in the middle of season seven.

Written by the underrated writing team of Tom Gammill and Max Pross, The Gum is a nearly perfect sitcom script. It’s a master class in writing.

Building around a George plot line where he tries to convince his old friend Deena that he is not, in fact, crazy and obsessed with the returning Lloyd Braun, the other threads of the story all combine to make George’s life that much more difficult. “Crazy” Lloyd Braun made his first appearance in The Low Fat Yogurt, and he appears in this episode having just been released from a mental institution. As Kramer doesn’t want to upset Lloyd, he goes out of his way to accommodate him by endorsing all of his odd behavior, including the excessive buying and chewing of gum.

Because of this hilarious catering to Lloyd’s whims, Jerry is forced to wear glasses that make him blind, and Elaine’s wardrobe malfunction causes her to send mixed messages. When Lloyd and Jerry buy “a lot of gum”, George can’t get the blinded Jerry to respond to his greeting. When Deena doubts George’s sanity, as she knows that Jerry doesn’t wear glasses, George loses it. “Don’t you see!”, he yells, “He was doing it to fool Lloyd Braun!”

It’s a difficult episode to explain. It’s tremendously scripted, and very, very tight. All of the plot threads come together in a totally natural way, and it’s difficult to watch the episode and see the strings being pulled to get to the resolution. It takes the Seinfeld conceit of intersecting plot lines and takes the idea to its absolute apex.

It’s hysterical, and it’s my absolute favorite episode in a show filled with them.

Let’s Play: Labyrinth: The War on Terror [Solitaire]

Labyrinth: The War on Terror is a 2010 board game that simulates the state of affairs in the world, and the Muslim world in particular, after the events of 9/11. In the game, one player takes the role of the US and the other the role of the jihadist forces. While built as a two player game, a remarkable feature of the game is its ability to be played as a solo game experience.

In the solitaire game, the single player controls the US forces, while the artificial intelligence of the jihadists is determined through a complex series of flow charts.

In this video playlist, I play a single deck game against the evil AI flow chart!

Splendor: Steam Version

Splendor, the award winning board game released in 2014, has returned to the gaming scene in a digital version. Available on Steam and iOS, the Splendor app is priced at $10. So is it worth the cost?

I recorded a game of Splendor on my PC and put down a couple of my thoughts about this shiny new digital port.

Chaos on the Bridge

“The Pensky Podcast”, my show that is currently running through all 178 episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, continues! In a little bit of a side track, Clay and I watched “Chaos on the Bridge”, the William Shatner produced documentary that explores the first three years of the TNG era.

It’s an interesting, if scattershot, documentary that examines all of the tumult and interpersonal conflicts that plagued the show in its early years. We get a lot of conflicting stories, polite insults, and a few inner thoughts of people that existed on the fringe of popular culture for about 75 hour long television episodes.

In the video above, we breakdown what we think about the documentary, including our favorite writers, best stories, and which bit of juicy gossip got us the most excited! In all seriousness, the documentary is a worthwhile purchase (on Vimeo) that will probably have a few bits of information that even the most dedicated Trekkie might know.

Highly recommended!

Creep

Creep is a 2014 indie… horror… uh… comedy… um…

…movie…?

It’s something, that’s for certain.

Written by and starring Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass (of FX’s The League), Creep is a low budget film that combines horror and comedy into a completely unique package that will leave you in fits of both screaming and laughing.

Brice plays Aaron, a videographer who responds to an ad on Craigslist that promises $1,000 for a day of work filming an individual out in the wilderness. That individual turns out to be Josef (Duplass), a man stricken with terminal cancer. Aaron is told that he’s been hired to film Josef’s final farewell. Josef has only months to live and he wishes to leave the video tape behind for his unborn child as a memorial.

A few twists and turns carry the rest of the narrative, which involves an ax, a wolf mask, and a horrific yet hilarious story heard only through audio.

Creep is a clever take on the found footage genre. However, instead of subverting the idea of found footage, Creep instead subverts the idea of what is scary about that style of narrative. Fans of the genre are well accustomed to the jump scares that clutter up every found footage story. Whenever a character is wandering through the woods or an empty house, meekly calling out someone else’s name, you can rest assured that a jump scare is imminent. The scare might not be a legitimate threat. It might just be a cat knocking over something, or the wind gusting through a window.

Creep cleverly manipulates this trope of the genre. Josef is a disturbed individual, but the scares in the movie come from his inopportune sense of playfulness, not really a true sense of terror. The movie builds to a hilarious final scare, which is played as a sort of meta joke/scare that details the entire theme.

The movie is genuinely frightening, as most of the jump scares are well done (and demonstrate that 90% of a jump scare is the audio mixing). As the story develops, the meta aspect begins to break through, leaving the third act a very dark comedy that still leaves you unsettled.

By the end, the story has wrapped up and one character begins to question why certain events unfolded like they did. To us in the audience, it’s a clever coda to a well done joke. To the character asking the question, it becomes a raison d’etre.

And a wonderful addition to his collection.

Star Realms

I work in a corporate office.

Sometimes, I’ll get up and leave my cubicle to get a cup of coffee. Sometimes I don’t even want the coffee. I just want to stretch my legs. Sometimes I already have a cup of coffee, and I’ll pour that one out and try a different Keurig blend. Other times, I’ll simply get a cup of water.

Then I go back to my desk.

Sometimes I go out to lunch. Occasionally I’ll walk fifteen minutes down the road to get a Subway sandwich. Sometimes I even go to the Subway store which is only five minutes away. The days where I go to the farther store are random; it’s just how my mood strikes me.

Then I go back to my desk. I always end up back at my desk.

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Star Realms reminds me a bit of these tiny adventures in working a 9 to 5. An assorted group of random actions that, at when viewed in hindsight, seem less random than they actually are. My days in the office always seem to build to something. If you were to view these days at an extremely high level, you’d almost think there was some strategy to it.

There would be times where I’d show up to the coffee machine and discover that some kind soul made cupcakes! Through sheer strategy, I timed my coffee break to coincide with the arrival of a sugary desert!

But then, on the other hand, there would be times when I’d walk to the farthest Subway only to change my mind halfway and grab a bagel instead.

Star Realms is a deck building card game. In a deck builder, the players start with extremely weak cards and use those cards to gain other, stronger cards. This, in turn, strengthens their overall deck. Efficient players will try to shed their weaker cards in order to strengthen their hands. The engine runs on simplicity and strategy is to be efficient. Efficiency is a king maker.

Star Realms is, at its most basic, a two player game. Opponents square off with identical starting decks and use a “Trade Row” of face up cards on the table to strengthen their respective decks. The simple mechanics rely on three stats: authority, trade, and combat. Players start with 50 “authority” (in the normal world we call this value, “health”), and they use trade (money) value to buy more powerful cards from the Trade Row. Combat (damage) values are essentially attack values, and the combat damage that you deal to an opponent results in a reduction in their total authority value. When a player is reduced to 0 authority, the game ends and that player loses.

The cards which are purchased can also have special abilities. They can draw additional cards to your base hand size of five. They can force opponents to discard cards. They can allow a player to “scrap” cards they own, which allows for decks to become more efficient and powerful via the removal of weaker cards. In addition, each card is aligned with one of four factions, and when cards of a similar faction are played together they can sometimes synergize if they have “allied abilities”. Essentially, factions of the same type can allow for additional actions if they are played in the same turn.

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On a turn, a player throws down their hand of cards. Since all cards played perform an action, the order of card play is irrelevant. However, a small advantage lies in having more cards to play, or to cause your opponent to have fewer cards to play. The player then sorts through their hand, enacts card abilities, and determines the sum totals for authority, combat and trade, and then uses those total values against their opponent. They might also choose to “scrap” certain cards in order to gain an additional advantage, at the expense of permanently losing that card.

Once finished, the player discards all the cards they played, removes scrapped cards, and draws five new cards to refill their hand. Then their opponent takes a turn.

It’s a simple process. Games rarely take longer than ten minutes and the individual turns are extremely quick. It’s quick, brisk, and any other adjective for speedy that you can conjure up.

Star Realms sits at an odd crossroads. It’s the sort of game that seems to teeter on the edge of the good/bad divide, and its placement there leaves you with a neither favorable nor unfavorable opinion. I could imagine a few rule changes that would make the game play much worse than it does, and I can also see a few improvements that could be made. The odd thing is that the improvements I would make would change the overall game play and we might end up in an even less favorable spot.

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Let’s discuss a few of the issues with this game.

As I mentioned in the opening, a game of Star Realms feels like a game playing itself through a random collection of actions. The human players are simply there to shuffle and deal cards. The “AI” of the game is disconnected from a physical boy: the game is SkyNet and we are T-100s. SkyNet does all the thinking and we T-100’s are there to do all the heavy lifting and savior-of-humanity assassinating. Random events come and go, and only appear strategic in hindsight (and only for the victor).

There is precious little decision making in Star Realms. Hands of cards are simply dropped on the table (if you’re playing correctly, this is being done in various dramatic ways) and then sorted to figure out what has happened. Cards cannot be held between turns, so what you’re dealt is what you get. At this point, strategy has joined Elvis in leaving the building. Maybe you’ve been strategizing about which factions to purchase from the Trade Row, but at this point it’s all for naught: you drew no matching factions and instead drew too many terrible starting cards.

In addition to this lack of strategy, the Trade Row dominates the flow of the game. There are extremely few cards that allow cards from the Trade Row to be removed, so refreshing your options is largely a matter of bad cards being purchased and clearing room for new options. Since the starting selection of Trade Row cards is random, you can initiate games where the first few options you’re given are simply no good. Or, you can have an opening selection of relatively weak cards and nothing to build towards.

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What then happens is a series of semi-random events. In a manner similar to the events of my work day, players start to buy seemingly random cards. Getting lucky in terms of trade value is a huge boon early on, but your still limited to the options the Trade Row has presented you. Players slowly gain mid value cards and then wait for the next reshuffle to get them back.

At this point, we hit another odd snag. Star Realms has an extremely quick escalation in terms of abilities. The first deck deal is weak, but even then it’s still possible to draw five trade value, which is a sizable number throughout the game. With the first reshuffle and then into the second, the player decks take a drastic jump in output. A player causing their opponent to lose 20% of their total authority (health) on the second or third reshuffle is fairly common. The game plays quickly, but the pace seems to outrun the strategy. Card selection, the random event I keep harping on, is minor in impact when you consider how quickly each player is powering up.

But, you say, why don’t you just increase the amount of authority each player starts with? That would lengthen the game and allow for various strategies to feel more developed! You might even get a chance to buy one of those 7 or 8 value ships that have amazing effects! You don’t typically see them in normal length games because the lesser ships do enough damage to not make the higher priced ones a value proposition! That’d be great, you’d say.

But then, I’d reply, you’re going to push Star Realms out of the good/bad divide. Altering the game this way removes one of the games greatest strengths: its quick pace and overall length. The current length of the game is almost ideal for what it is, even if that length results in games that can sometimes feel inevitable and lacking in any sort of cohesive strategy. It’s a tough trade off to make.

I enjoy Star Realms. However, to do that I have to appreciate the fact that the lack of decision making is just a part of the overall experience. What appears to be a variety of options really isn’t anything of the sort, and removing a players impact when playing their hand just furthers the realization that the game is playing itself. When I win, I can look back at the card purchases I made and talk myself into how smart I was to make those decisions. Ultimately, however, those decisions were made for me: I bought that card because I could afford it, and not because of some greater motive. The game plays too quickly for anything else.

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Star Realms is a game for the determinist, but those who believe in free will might still think that they’re making smart game choices, even if they ultimately end up back at their office “desk”.

With all that said, it plays in ten minutes! And set up is lighting quick!

Just be sure to buy the iOS app that tracks each players’ authority. The authority cards included with the game are truly awful.