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.

Daredevil

The fight scene that closes out the second episode of Netflix’s Daredevil series is the defining moment of the show. To rescue a kidnapped child from the clutches of a Russian gang, blind New York lawyer Matt Murdock dons “the mask” and becomes his alter ego, a vigilante who will soon come to be called “Daredevil”. Sneaking into the gangs lair, Murdock uses his super powered senses to locate the child, determine the number of his enemies and where they are, and then pummel the baddies into submission.

The fight scene itself is marvelous: ostensibly a version of the Old Boy hallway fight, a single take (or perhaps multiple takes cleverly edited together to hide any seams, a la True Detective) captures Murdock punching and kicking and blocking his way to become the last man standing. While heavily dramatized, the scene is also realistically stylized. Murdock grows weary during the brawl, sometimes leaning against the wall to catch his breath. He lets his opponents come to him, baiting them with his exhaustion. The vision-impaired hero manages to dodge dozens of bullets and spinning heel kicks, while still becoming injured from the blows that his enemies land on him. It’s the old and the new mixing together, the abilities and powers of the comic’s pulp pages smashing directly into the gritty, realistic world that now seems a prerequisite to host these modern retellings. The grit and drama is heavy over the entire production, masking the silly fantasy of the Marvel Universe.

It’s also the reason that Daredevil sometimes doesn’t work.

To be fair, much of Daredevil does work. The fight scenes are outstanding, even if they have the fleeting feeling of being amazing for the first few seconds and then slowly becoming normal and laborious or tedious to watch. Despite the fact that it is distracting to have almost every combatant be a master martial artist, the choreography of the fights scenes is excellent and the lighting and set pieces frequently add a level of creative polish to the entire production.

The acting is quite good, with Vincent D’Onofrio’s portrayal of antagonist Wilson Fisk being a particular stand out. Fisk’s scenes stand out strongly against everyone else, sometimes unfortunately so. D’Onofrio plays the pleasantly plump “Kingpin” as a meticulous planner and strategist, but also as a nervous child, one prone to throwing tantrums when he’s upset. As Fisk attempts to rebuild Hells Kitchen in his own vision, he cannot understand why his allies attempt to take advantage of him. As Daredevil tries to come up with a means of outing Fisk as the center of a web of corruption, he cannot come to terms with where his actions may lead.

The inner turmoil of the Murdock/Daredevil character is a good example of the overall issue the series has to get around. As it has one foot firmly entrenched in source material, the show sometimes makes odd choices in terms of how much back story is brought to the plot. In the comics, Murdock is a devout Catholic and the nature of his faith creates a level of drama when he’s forced to balance it against his desire to combat the criminal underbelly of the city. In the show, Murdock’s faith feels like a tacked on bit of trivia that is too central to the character to leave out, but isn’t a driving force behind any of the series narrative. The Murdock of the television show seems to only be Catholic when he’s in scenes with his local priest. It doesn’t carry over into the narrative of the rest of the show, and it ends up feeling like something that the creators had to insert into the proceedings because the source material demanded it. They started out with a unique creation and then felt obligated to temper it with a fan expectation.

In a similar vein, the tone of the series is difficult to establish. The show is going for a gritty, dark mood. Fight scenes involving knives always end with someone cut and bleeding, and Daredevil is no exception, frequently taking beatings and spending the rest of the episode healing. Unfortunately, since the source material is a comic book, this realistic perspective on fighting is undone by the final battle between Daredevil and Fisk, where the comic book roots start to sneak in. The fight turns into a traditional, hyper violent comic book fight scene. Fisk, in particular, takes multiple blows to the head with a night stick and shakes it off like it’s a minor nuisance. The stylized realism that the show developed early on smashes head first into the expectations of its source material. A show that has tried to make the implications of violence stand in the forefront is undone by a surreal alleyway fight where two super human characters repeatedly smash each other with billy clubs and dumpsters.

The series is probably three or four episodes too long, as it only has enough plot for nine or ten episodes. When Fisk isn’t on screen, the action grinds to a halt. Murdock and his associates are serviceable, but ultimately a bit generic as we’ve seen it before. Daredevil has a vaguely Batman-ish reaction towards what he’s doing and his reluctance to kill. Murdock’s lawyer buddy Foggy and their secretary Karen are a semi-funny comic relief and plot device, respectively. Ultimately, the show starts to develop something with Fisk, who is unique as a villain in that he’s one of the first villains to make me wonder if what he’s doing is even wrong. Daredevil’s response to Fisk, in fact, is so furious and oppositional that at some points it makes the story and characters feel disconnected. Fisk cleans up a Russian drug gang and Daredevil seems to find this to be more problematic than it was to continue having the gang around. Fisk’s ultimate plans are fairly unclear, and it does seem like he is sometimes at the mercy of the Asian gangsters he associates with, but his ultimate goal of improving the neighborhood seems to match Murdock’s. Fisk is more prone to bouts of violence to achieve his aims, but he seems fairly harmless to citizens. He’s essentially a bad landlord, and that gets Murdock and company all riled up.

In the end, Daredevil felt like something I was simply trying to get through. I enjoyed the novelty of the first two episodes, but the slow middle derailed my enjoyment too much to even recover in the final episode or two. A few unearned deaths later (possibly to the chagrin of the creators who were then given a second season), and Daredevil ended with a new, slightly over the top costume and a new office plaque. Fisk ended up staring at the walls of his prison, a call back to something his abusive father used to make him do as a child. As usual, even the Fisk scenes in the ending montage were the best the show had to offer.

Titanfall

Titanfall is a 2014 first-person shooter developed by Respawn Entertainment and published by Electronic Arts exclusively for Microsoft Windows, Xbox 360, and Xbox One. The footage shown during this video is the PC version, with all graphical settings on “high”. There is an ultra setting, but unfortunately that asks a bit too much of my PC. Maybe after all that sweet internet YouTube money starts rolling in and I can buy one of the computers they use at NASA, I’ll revise the video accordingly.

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The Genius of Peep Show

So much of human interaction is hidden behind the scenes, outside of the normal mode of communication of language. The true meaning of most conversations exists outside of the “script” of what is said, and instead can be more fully understood as a complex combination of words, thoughts, emotions and judgment. The words we say are maybe only 10% of the total package, the vast majority of meaning and truth exists only in our minds, almost always unknown by the other half in our conversations.

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True Detective

About a quarter of the way into the premiere episode of HBO’s “True Detective”, Matthew McConaughey’s character, a detective named Rust Cohle, beings to wax poetic. Riding as the passenger in a prototypical detective sedan, Cohle stares glumly out the window and rambles on as his partner, Marty Hart, played by Woody Harrelson, listens in:

“Human consciousness is a tragic misstep in human evolution.”

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My Perestroika

“Perestroika” literally means restructuring in Russian, and it was also the term used to define the political and social changes that followed the collapse of the USSR. This documentary, “My Perestroika”, captures the ideology and feelings of a small group of Russians who are of the right age to remember the zeitgeist of Russia both before and after the wall fell. Incredible archival footage shows the society that the Communist Party was trying to build, and it is wonderfully inter cut with the directors modern footage to build the case that Russia is Russia, and it seems like it will always be that way, regardless of who is running the show. The cast of characters who are interviewed are intelligent, well spoken, and well read; this despite their various backgrounds and current situations that are all over the map (Despite the horrors of certain aspects of communism, I think this says something about the quality of the education in that system). Their opinions about the old guard and their new, more Western society are diverse, with some seeming pleased with the recent changes and others pining, ever so slightly, for the stability that the USSR offered. One last point: after watching this film, I found it impossible to ignore how similar the USSR and the USA were during the Cold War. For all of the teachings we’ve been given about how the evil empire was trying to conquer the world and it was up to the inherent purity of the US to stand against this threat, Russian children were being told the exact same thing. Hearing the kids say such in the archival footage is chilling. It makes you wonder if paranoia is the foundation for a lot of global issues.

 

Men, Women and Children

No one is ever going to say that Chad Kultgen is a master wordsmith. His novels always strike me as fleshed out screenplays; very straight forward and direct, with little description or clever language. His characters are rarely anything greater than the sum of their quirks, they have no separation from each other in any way outside of what each of them enjoys. All of his characters have the same dedicated focus and they all act remarkably similar to each other, even if their ultimate goals are different. His previous novels, “Average American Male” and “The Lie” both exist in the “fratire” genre, where the focus tends to be male oriented and extremely graphic and sexual. The sex is extremely male oriented; aggressive and detail oriented, with an emphasis on male dominance. That’s not a negative quality, it just should be recognized because it can be upsetting to some people. “American Male” was an interesting take on a nameless narrator who aimlessly goes through his life, driven only by sex and video games. “The Lie” was more complex, with a legitimately interesting plot that concerned the college careers of three fairly unlikable characters.

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50/50

Cancer is one of those things you’re not supposed to joke about. Even stand up comedians tend to shy away from the topic, unsure of who in the audience might be personally affected. True, there is isn’t much humor to be found in the subject beyond the standard comic fodder of shaved heads, but every once in a while you manage to find something in the awfulness of the disease that makes for a great story.

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Apollo 18

The “found footage” genre is always going to be one of the most scrutinized in film. I have to think that at least 93% of the conversation discussing these kinds of films involve the question of “why did so-and-so keep filming, even when the monster was chasing them?” The audience’s suspension of disbelief, an attribute shared by all successful films, is at its most tenuous during “found footage” films, which include “The Blair Witch Project”, “Paranormal Activity”, and now “Apollo 18”.

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