Review: Miskatonic School for Girls

We picked up Miskatonic School for Girls at PAX East 2012 and we’ve since sat down and played several hands of the two-player variant of the game.  Here’s my specific feedback in Exciting Bullet Point Form.

– The packaging and game pieces are professionally done.  Nothing about this game feels cheap due to being kickstarted.  The play boards are sturdy.  The cards have attractive art on front and back.  The instructions are bright and clear.  Pieces return to the box with relative ease.  

– The game itself takes about five minutes to set up for a 2 player hand.  Decks sort into their respective piles.  What goes where is clear after a quick look at the instructions.

– The art for the monsters is top notch and the monster names are adorably Lovecraftian and clever.  The girl cards were bland in art and name, making it hard to tell what was a real “key buy.”  

– We were up and playing a first hand quickly.  The instructions are easy to understand to anyone who has played a Dominion-like deck-building game in the past.  By the way, folks: if you have not played Dominion and you want to play any of the new card-and-board games on the market, find someone who has Dominion and play several hands.  Every hot new game uses some “twist” on the Dominion deck building mechanics.

– Every turn in the “buy” phase, a player buys a girl for their House (ala Harry Potter) and a new member of the faculty of the school who is, naturally, some horrible abomination from beyond the stars.  These go into the purchase pile and always come out next turn.  Like Ascension, Miskatonic provides stock “buys” of transfer students and substitute abominations should a player not be able to buy a student or a faculty that turn.  

– Miskatonic School for Girls has a nice twist on Dominion-like play: when buying a horrible member of the faculty, one plays it into one’s opponent’s deck and, like any “buy,” must come out next turn.  So you, the player, has incentive to buy the biggest, nastiest monster on the board and send it into your opponent’s deck knowing well they must deal with it immediately while at the same time buying the most amount of “fight” into one’s house to defend against whatever is being sent into your deck.  This sets up a nice bit of tension and competition over cards on the board and strategic buys.

– And as a second twist, whenever a monster ends up in a player’s hand from drawing a hand, at the end of the buying phase, the player has to fight the Cthuloid horror with students in the house.  Should the students fail to hold off the horrid Lunch Lady from Beyond, the House as a whole takes sanity damage.  When sanity hits 0, the player is out of the game.

– Faculty and students get shuffled into the deck after buy-and-fight phases ala any deck building game so faculty can pop out of the deck at any time to gnaw on the student’s heads.  Near the end of the game, a player can draw an entire hand of pure faculty which is, as we discovered, bad.

– The game has a built in “sanity death spiral.”  As the decks grow, more faculty come out.  As more faculty come out, more students lose sanity.  As more students lose sanity… It’s a nice mechanic.

– Cards do have different effects on them — both girls and monsters.  They were a bit forgettable, though.  For an expansion: punchier effects!  

– The game does have generators the same way Ascension has constructs.  They felt a little undercosted and overpowered but still… generators are good.

– The game’s play is considerably more Ascension-like than Dominion-like, although the games are close in play and composition.  If you like Ascension, you will certainly like Miskatonic School for Girls.  If you believe Ascension is an abomination upon the Earth and a blight on all deck building games you should stick with Dominion and its 10,000 expansion packs.

– An entire game takes 30-40 minutes, tops. 

We enjoyed it.  I would gladly play it again.  I would lug the game over to a friend’s house to play several hands.  What struck me during play was how well expansions of monsters and students would fit into the gameplay seamlessly so I have some expectation of expansions in the future.  For Fun to 11’s first stab at a commercial product, it’s a success.

Recommended buy for the deck building card-and-board gamer in your life.

Review: Old Man’s War

Old Man's War
Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have exactly one essential issue with “Old Man’s War:”

The book ends so well and succinctly I feel no compulsion to read the sequels.

Otherwise, this book is fantastic. So many cool science fiction themes to ponder: the corporatization of space exploration and settlement, “We are the invaders,” the incredible diversity in life and the further diversity in how it tries to kill us, the bizarreness of space battle, and the future of humanity, all packed into one little thin tome. The presentation of the various aliens is fantastic, and so are the ways humans die in space — some great, some terrible.

I can gush about Old Man’s War all day. It’s like an evil Star Trek.

The nut of the book is this: Earth offers its old people a chance at a new life when they reach 75. If you so live that long, you can join up with the CDF, the Colonization Defense Forces, which promises a new life and a Fountain of Youth. Only hitch: you don’t ever come back to Earth. Earth marks you as dead and you are gone into space forever. This is clever — instead of poaching the breeding population, needed for colonization, it poaches the old and infirm who only drain terrestrial resources and have a full life experience. And the CDF makes good on its promise……. in a way.

Ah space, full of aliens to meet, greet and shoot in the face. Humans have a skip drive which allows them to get around in the galaxy and there, the entire cast of Star Control II awaits them. Those things that look like HR Giger’s nightmares? Peaceful underwater mathematicians who want to bond and share with humanity. The wise deer-headed mammalian animals out of Star Trek? They love the taste of human flesh and set up human farms whenever they take out a colony. So be aware, recruit! What you think is huggable thinks you are tasty on rye.

In the CDF you aren’t going to last long because everything in the galaxy wants to chew on your head. So here’s your gun! Here’s your BrainPal(tm) and your body full of SmartBlood(tm). Know that humanity needs to be genetically enhanced on the fly to survive in the harsh and crazy conditions of space. You’re enhanced, now! Go shoot some aliens for the good of mankind!

I have special love for the super intelligent bugs with the shield around their entire solar system to keep out invaders and their religious purity and their weird war games. For should any of these aliens interact with dirty humans they will be pulverized and their molecules shot into the nearest black hole unless it is under the onus of war. Then there will be death! And rebirth! It will be glorious! Woo!

5 stars. Great book and a great look on what humanity being the alien invaders in a galaxy full of intelligent species is like and how the stupidity of life isn’t confined to just Earth. Go read it.

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Review: Mockingjay

Mockingjay
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This review containers spoilers for Mockingjay.

At one point in the book, Joanna Mason, one of the victors from Catching Fire, has this exchange with Katniss:

“Is that why you hate me?” I ask.
“Partly,” she admits. “Jealousy is certainly involved. I also think you’re a little hard to swallow. With your tacky romantic drama and your defender-of-the-helpless act. Only it isn’t an act, which make you more unbearable. Please feel free to take this personally.”

I like Joanna because she sums up why I only give Mockinjay, the last book in the Hunger Games trilogy, a 3.5 — although Goodreads only allows me to give full stars. About half of the book is Katniss moping around or mooning or complaining or whining or otherwise not moving the plot along much at all. Entire chapters devolve into “and Katniss feels bad.” I get she feels bad and she’s had some unbelievably bad life experiences at the hands of the Capital that defy belief but she’s also the main viewpoint character and the complaining got old.

The other half of the book is full of action sequences, one more implausible than the next. And here are some of my bigger plot gripes:

– Anyone notice Katniss gets turned into Hawkeye? Anyone? I couldn’t decide if this was good or bad, honestly. On one hand, thumbs up Avengers! On the other hand… isn’t Hawkeye in the Avengers? It turns out I like the character of Beetee and I did like District 13s crazy cache of technology and weaponry but this felt silly.

– The bombing of District 12 which, on any level of examination, makes no sense. If District 12 is mining, and the military uses coal to run its generators for the mountain military base for the scene with District 2, doesn’t blowing up District 12… shoot the Capital in the foot? Or, as everything seems to run on nuclear — those hovercraft ain’t steampunk — what was the point of District 12 the whole time? A buffer to District 13?

– Everyone forgets Peeta is missing a leg. The whole book forgets Peeta is missing a leg. I suppose the new leg is so awesome it no longer needs mention? And why does Peeta, who, I should mention, is missing a leg sent on a military mission for District 13 after they made such a hoopty-do about military training and people going on military missions being in military fit condition? Why is Peeta thrown in with their squad? This makes no sense whatsoever.

– Why is the entire military of the Capital housed under one mountain in District 12? Can they not… find two mountains? A mountain and a big sprawling fort? I dunno, a mountain and a freaking castle? Who designs their military to have one massive point of failure?

– And my biggest gripe: why the hell did the Capital trap the entire city where normal people live like the Arena? I was completely down with the Arena-like mobile pods of death. Those rocked hard. But when streets opened up into whirring meatwheels of death, I was like… okay, shark? You have been jumped.

I can go on and on. The whole book doesn’t work.

It sounds and feels like sour grapes for a kid’s book that never made the slightest pretension of sci-fi worldbuilding. I rolled with it in Hunger Games and Catching Fire because the centerpiece, Katniss, and what happened to her was gripping and awful enough to keep the book rolling. Here, in Mockingjay, the actual rebellion is abstracted out as big events unfold offscreen (notably Peeta’s rescue). The whole world is in flames and we see Katniss curled up in a corner. Good sequences, like the bombing of District 13 and the firefight in District 8, are overshadowed by strings of “buh” moments. For a big global rebellion, the book is missing some essential meat. I can’t see it. Even the news updates aren’t enough. Like Katniss, I can only know about it in the abstract, and it makes the first 70% of the book unsatisfying.

The final end is good. Mockingjay gets back a star for the final pages.

I wanted more. I didn’t get more. The book is the weakest of the three. Of course read it to finish off the series, but no reason to re-read a second time.

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PAX East 2012

I am blogging from the road! This is a unique experience but I wanted to type up our yearly PAX roundup before forgetting the details. Hopefully my formatting doesn’t suck.

The Good:

  • Diablo III – The console free play area this year not only was enormous – necessary for the huge League of Legends tournament going on – but for showing games in beta. We never did get to play Torchlight II but we did play Diablo III. My complaints about the game are still the same with the dumbed down skill tree and the always on DRM. But man. Blizzard, shut up and take my money.
  • XCOM – I was worried 2K would turn XCOM into some first person shooter. Nope, it’s a squad combat tactical RPG vs. aliens. Now with exploding environments! And on XBox! All good.
  • MC Frontalot – I thought my knee was going to disintegrate after standing for hours to get to the last act of the concert but powering through to MC Frontalot was worth it. The dude has so much energy on stage he might have exploded. The song ‘It is Pitch Dark’ is awesome live. Sure, Jonathan Coulton was fun but Frontalot was better.
  • Lords of Waterdeep – Yeah, okay WotC just take my money. Game is great board gamey fun. Just a well designed game.
  • Cards Against Humanity – With great embarrassment I admit I was introduced to this horrible game by WotC reps. Where they got it from who knows. It’s Apples to Apples for adults. And hilarious. The Cards Against Humanity guys sold out completely. At one time we walked past the tables in the Westin Mezzanine and there were 3 games going.
  • Rob’s Cortex Plus Tactics Hack – In which we had fun playing the Marvel Heroic Role Playing system as base classes from Final Fantasy Tactics with a bit of Two Guys With Swords.
  • Soul Caliber V – Bought and en route to the house.
  • Gazillions of friends – Holy crap PEOPLE! HI PEOPLE! I think I got to everyone!
  • The End of the Omegathon – They played…. Crokinole. It’s Canadian bar shuffleboard. At first we were like… What the hell is this? Then we got into it. We started cheering and commenting on the turns. The match went for an hour and a half! I was so happy Eric suggested we watch it from a theater instead of standing in the grand ballroom. YAY CROKINOLE. It was epic.
  • Bastion – The guys who made Bastion were manning the booth including the composer for the soundtrack and the kid (!!!) who did the VoiceOver. I felt the need to give them more money but I have the soundtrack so I bought a Bastion bandanna.
  • Playtesting Race to Adventure – It’s a super fun game and you will love it when it comes out. Trust me.
  • Celebrity Pictures – Rumor is that I made some squeeing noise on meeting Margaret Weis. That might be true. I have good pictures of Eric with MC Frontalot and Jonathan Coulton.
  • The Boston Westin – We will never stay anywhere else. They set up the Mezzanine for continuous overflow tabletop play. Service was great. Attached to the Conference Center. Only ~ $10 a night more expensive than the Marriott.
  • Getting Mark to play Magic – Rumor is this happened. Sadly no photographic evidence.

The Meh

  • Rock Band Blitz – It hurt my hands.
  • Nintendo 3DS – Finally played the 3DS and I had to turn off the 3D because the game was so fuzzy. I’ll stick with my XL.
  • Torchlight II – I got a good look at it in the PC Freeplay area and it’s Torchlight with multiplayer. Yeah I know it’s what we want…
  • Eminent Domain – Card game that is a cross between Dominion and Race for the Galaxy. Two games I like very much, yeah, but Eminent Domain lacked a personality of it’s own.
  • Zillions of MMORPGs – EVERYONE has an MMO and they all look the same. the SWTOR booth was so big it had its own lounge.

The Bad

  • Guy at Battlefield Booth – Felt the need to explain D&D to the girls. Note, I had no such issues with the WotC reps, who were infinitely cooler.
  • Missing all the Panels – Went to a convention and went to no talks. Sigh.
  • Too many people! I did not get to everyone. 🙁 Sorry peeps. Also, I am super bad with names… As many people learned.
  • PC Freeplay shutting down Dungeon Defenders. Meh.
  • Worn Out – We overdid it a bit and now we are trashed.
  • Expensive Boston food – Christ, I felt fleeced.
  • Bizarre survey guy in the Nintendo booth – He felt the need to take a survey about the 3DS before I had a chance to play it.

So that’s my roundup! Bye PAX East 2012 – you were awesome.