Posts Tagged review

Review: Vacuum Diagrams

When I made trips up and down the length of California, to visit home in Santa Cruz area while I went to school in Los Angeles area, I would sometimes stop at a highway convenience exit for food, bathroom, etc.  At one such stop, I ended up finding a Wendy’s and a bookstore within a gas station convenience store, and I picked up a collection of short stories called Vacuum Diagrams, by Stephen Baxter.  I really enjoyed reading them, having been hooked by the first couple of stories involving sentient creatures on an ice asteroid that had superfluid blood, and metamathematical nanobots as part of an experiment in quantum phenomena that ended up breaking free of the experiment to become grey goo.  I was in love with his universe.

Baxter writes hard sci fi, which is to say that he attempts to remain consistent to known or extrapolatable principles of science in his writing.  I eat this up because of my unique position as a former student of science and as a lover of high-tech fiction.  Vacuum Diagrams in particular is so great because it sketches out a cosmology and a wider universe around humans in the future through a number of interconnected short tales that are compelling on their own.  Not to spoil too much, but his primary conceit of an ancient elder race that’s kind of patronizing toward humans, and another ancient elder race of true aliens that (as a by product of their life cycle) are destroying the universe is really interesting to watch unfold over the course of (essentially) human’s future-history.

I recommend picking it up if (a) you enjoy seeing some of the weird parts of real science woven (faithfully) into fiction, and (b) you enjoy seeing a science-fiction world constructed from a series of stories that are each wonderful on their own.  Reading Vacuum Diagrams inspired me to pick up another one of his novels, Ring, which occurs in the same universe – it was okay, but not amazing – and I should see if Timelike Infinity, another in this universe, is any good.

Overall: A-
Number of Short Stories (Approx): 20
Secret to Ancient Elder Race’s Superiority: Time travel (obviously)

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Review: Castle Ravenloft

Today I played the new smash hit board game from the D&D side of Wizards, Castle Ravenloft.  I was an Eladrin Wizard, obviously, and although it was a lot of fun, I’m not sure there are many games I could have played with that group of folk (Aaron, Mike, Doug, Jenna) that would not have been fun due to the group.  I’m still kind of collecting my thoughts about it, but I thought I could give a quick hits and misses on it in a review here.


  • I felt like overall it captured some good D&D flavor and mechanics.  Party of adventurers, dungeon crawl, move-attack, random encounters.
  • There were some awesome moments, like when we figured out we could freeze the gargoyle in place by moving far enough away from it.
  • I liked the tile generation for the game board, it really made it feel like we were exploring.
  • Good use of miniatures, probably even better than how regular 4th Edition uses them (since here the game is about the movement, and sometimes in the RPG the figures can get in the way of the RP.)


  • Some of the D&D stuff was not well implemented, and it stuck out like a sore thumb to me: leveling up, for example, and the lack of overt incentives to stick together while walking around.
  • It was very odd that when you sprung a trap or found a monster, it would (a) be yours to control, but (b) immediately attack you.  Kind of a “stop hitting yourself” moment, over and over.
  • Each dungeon tile could have had a lot more flavor to it – instead of a generic “encounter” deck, there could have been named places with stuff that triggers when you find the place (like in Betrayal at House on the Hill).
  • Too many fidgety pieces to the game, and like five different decks of cards.
  • Too close to a straight-up representation of D&D’s rules – I feel like this could have been abstracted down for simplicity’s sake and would have made a better game and also a better stepping-stone toward D&D.

I definitely want to play it again sometime.  It’s probably not the best game to pick up for a more casual board game audience.

Overall: B-
Potential as a Substitute Evening for an RPG Group: High
Magic Missile: +8 to hit and 1 damage, pulls enemy if you miss

  • Way, way too many pieces.

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Review: Acme Bowl

Today we had a department party (thanks Aaron!) due to how awesome the year has been for Magic. We had it at Acme Bowl, a trendy/more upscale bowling place in Tukwila. I’ve been there before, at previous department parties and with local friends, but I noted a few interesting things to talk about – now that I’ve been there this year, with my blog fully operational!

The first thing that’s sweet about Acme Bowl is that there are music videos on the monitors down the lanes. This is both distracting and hilarious, because (possibly because there’s bar service at the lanes) folk sing along. I know I was singing along and it messed up my game a little bit, but it was all in good fun. I think it really elevates the bowling alley to an event location from the additional ambience.

The second thing I noted was the staff was super friendly. It’s possible that they were being kind due to our catering contract, but thinking back I believe this has usually been the case. The bartender and I also had a great chat about Magic, so there’s evidence they identify with gamers too.

The state-of-the-art bowling electronics were cool, although the random sports shots accompanying “Spare” and “Strike” notices could have been better selected?  Dunno, this one I could go either way on.  Kike most bowling places, there’s a significant amount of maintenance required when lanes malfunction, and that detracted from play experience and just time available.

Overall: B+
Songs Karaokied While Bowling: 2
Lane Reliability: 8/10

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Review: Raisin Nut Bran

I was at the supermarket the other day, and I thought to myself, I haven’t had dry cereal in a while as a breakfast.  So I wandered down that aisle and couldn’t find anything particularly interesting… until I wandered by Raisin Nut Bran.  I used to love getting this cereal when I was in school, mostly because (1) it feels healthy because there are so many wheat/bran flakes involved, and (2) it’s delicious because of the raisins in a sweet nut shell.  So I purchased a large box, and even as I now snack on it, I wanted to talk about how it measured up.

My thoughts:

  • It still delivers on the raisin covered in delicious nut shell promise.
  • It doesn’t hold up well (well, the flakes don’t) in milk for any significant period of time, and in air when I accidentally left the box open.
  • I find myself searching for the raisins, which means the base cereal is not doing its job of being “good enough” in a bowl for regular bites.  I normally expect a “highlight” item like the raisins to make some bites much more enjoyable, but not be a requirement for each bite.

I would stay stick with Honey Nut Cheerios or equivalent; they did not live up to my fond memories.  A cereal of all nut-covered raisins, however…

Overall: C+
Sweet Nuts (That’s What She Said): A-
Half-Life in Milk: ~10 minutes (below average)

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Review: Starcraft 2

I’ve talked previously about Starcraft 2, how I felt about receiving it on release day and how I reacted to two issues of choice in the single-player game, but I haven’t really reviewed it properly, so I thought I’d do so today.  For those who don’t know, Starcraft is Blizzard’s sci-fi/fantasy IP about humans living in kind of frontier space with an hive-alien race called Zerg and an ancient-tech-alien race called Protoss.  The game itself is a real time strategy game, which means you manage building up your base and sending your troops to attack theirs (and their base) in each game.  In the single-player campaign, there are often other more specific objectives you have to accomplish with the resources you find/leverage.

The Starcraft 2 single-player campaign was pretty impressive.  Not only did it cleanly introduce the player to the units and structures you can build (by way of play-to-learn levels), but it also told an interesting story and made me care a bit about my choices (by rewarding me with more story or with stuff) and gave me a wide range of customization – and since RTS games are about “customizing” the units you use and the strategy you take based on what’s happening minute to minute, further customization is a perfect addition here where in other games it may just feel extraneous.  I liked that the missions you got in single player varied widely in goal type, and it usually wasn’t “kill all the enemy buildings,” which is great because I can do that in multiplayer vs. a real human opponent.  One thing I disliked (although I admit this could be personal preference) is that the achievements/badges you get in the campaign mode aren’t told to you until after you complete a mission, and when you make a choice about what sort of customization you want, it is often irreversible – two things that made me feel like I was forced to replay the same content to “achieve everything.”

Speaking of which, the multiplayer in Starcraft 2 is actually something I got a head start on, joining the beta along with many friends to play online.  Multiplayer in Starcraft continues to be the pinnacle of online real-time strategy games for me: it has the right number of units, the right number of structures required to make those units, and the right number of “spellcasting” units so that the intense micromanagement of your units is an opt-in experience.  I am by no means an excellent Starcraft 2 player, but I love playing with friends in 2v2 or 3v3 capacity, and the game is well set up to make that function.

Overall: A
Sequel Power: More like Back to the Future 2, less like Terminator 2 (good, though!)
Use of Choice and Achievements to Enforce Replay: C
Zergling Rush: Still strong, after all these years!

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Review: Small Gods

Now, I am no particular Terry Pratchett fan.  (Wow, he is famous enough that I got a spelling auto-correct for his last name!)  I had only read Night Watch previously, because it was on a bookshelf and I was in need of a book.  That one was alright, nothing special, and I didn’t really understand why so many people – especially my roommate Sam – thought Pratchett’s Discworld books were so amazing.  But Sam, rational thinker and arguer that he is, convinced me to read Small Gods, holding it up as a better (maybe the best) example of Pratchett’s work in a single book.

I love it.  Small Gods is wonderfully irreverent, while at the same time saying so much more about faith, religion and spirituality than many other texts designed for that purpose ever do.  The characters are compelling, the integration of the story with the details of the world is excellent (and Pratchett’s world is quite impressive, and so it is even more impressive that it doesn’t overshadow the story), and it’s got quite a few laugh-out-loud funny moments.  Before Small Gods, I was dubious at the prospect of “humorous fantasy,” which is the genre I have always thought of Pratchett belonging to, but now I am a believer.

I’m not sure that Small Gods made me want to read the rest of the Discworld books, so well-contained was its story, but it does leave the seed of interest in my mind where before they was disapproval.  So that must also be seen as a success.  I would definitely recommend Small Gods to anyone who is interested in fantasy and likes stories that make them think.

Overall: A
Balance of Philosophy and Fantasy: A+

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Review: Vintage Rotisserie

First of all, this is not something the majority of folks are likely to just pick up: vintage rotisserie draft, as I have discussed previously, is only for the most highly enfranchised of Magic players, and even then it’s not for everybody.  However, I have done it now three times (!) and thought it would be a good time to talk about it.

Overall, I have not done well in the play-the-games portion.  But I have had lots of exciting moments during the draft proper – times when I realized exactly the card I needed and was able to pick it up, or times when I made someone yell in agony as I swiped their card before they got to it.  And I have also had some very fun games despite losing a lot.  I would not have thought, when told about a format where you needed to know all 12,000 Magic cards, and where simple missteps in draft could be a big problem for your deck, that the entire event would be so fun.

Things I have learned, that I would share with others!

  • Having a fixed set of cards, like 1000 or so of the “top contenders” based on consensus, out for people to see and interact with is an excellent way to do this kind of draft.  Having everyone do tons of homework and agonize over weeks in an asynchronous, not-in-person draft is kind of poopy.
  • Drafting a fun deck is probably better than a boring, skill-intensive deck (and some of the fun decks are skill-intensive too!)  It’s just way better to be enjoying playing, you can devote mental energy elsewhere, and the decks are close to each other in power level anyway.
  • For anyone who has played forever and is still into Magic, has or knows someone with a big collection, and/or likes to hang out with friends for a long Magic-related activity, this is the thing to try!  Kind of the pinnacle of draft experiences.

Overall: B+
“Game Pieces” per Game: A+++ (12,000 cards to choose from!)
Skill Required: More than I have, but fun nonetheless!
Wide Appeal: D

p.s. For those who are familiar with Magic, I have drafted a blue-black Time Vault combo deck, a blue-black-red Storm combo deck, and today I drafted a black-blue aggro-control deck.  I was very close to drafting an Elves deck which Aaron ended up drafting, too.

Thanks to Kyle Boddy to introducing me to it, and Brian David-Marshall and Randy Buehler for making in-person drafts possible with WotC folk!

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Review: Kingsburg

Kingsburg is one of your classic German resource-management strategy board games.  Dylan introduced me to it; I bought it recently while browsing for other stuff at a game store, because I remembered I enjoyed it.  Like many games of its ilk, it takes an hour or two to play, it involves a lot of fiddly resource pieces, and you build up and acquire victory points.  Unlike other games, it has a sweet core mechanic that I am very impressed with: dice roll drafting (explained below).  Although the game is kind of annoying to teach (there’s a lot of information to take in on your personal stuff-to-build card), it’s got pretty good pacing and a lot of fun moments.

The dice roll draft works as follows: all players roll three six-sided dice of their own color.  Then there are spaces on the board, 1-18, which have resource icons on them (they are advisors you are trying to influence, so like a Merchant, a Wizard, a Duchess, etc.).  You “draft” a space (take it and nobody else can) by putting any number of dice on it that add up to exactly the number shown.  So with my 6-5-4 roll, I could take the 9 space with the 4-5, or the 15 space with all the dice, or the 6 space with just the 6, etc.  You keep going around the table until everyone’s out of dice (or can’t place anywhere).  There are neat mechanics in game – extra dice, bump the number up/down one, get a one-time +2 chit – that influence the roll in interesting, strategic and fun ways.

The downside is that this super fun core mechanic is accompanied by a sheet of stuff to spend resources on, that isn’t particularly compelling in my opinion.  Ostensibly, the structures make you (a) better at dice-drafting, (b) better at doing the regular-interval combat mechanic, or (c) get points, but they kind of feel haphazard and they are very hard to keep track of in-game.  I would prefer a different system for spending resources that integrates better with the dice-drafting part of the game – maybe everything makes you better at drafting, there are more spaces, and the primary way to get points is via the draft?

Regardless, the game has many compelling parts (there’s even fun in griefing your opponents by picking a spot they want right in front of them!) and if you are into strategy board games, I recommend picking it up!

Overall: B+
Core Mechanic (Dice-Drafting): A
Fiddliness/Wordiness: C+
Gold Icon That Looks Like a Lemon So Everyone Calls It Lemons: A++ (thanks Dylan!)

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Review: Whistle Stop Ale House

There’s a restaurant near Wizards, I’ll call it a “classic lunch-style diner,” called Whistle Stop, which can essentially be described as the Wizards’ cafeteria.  I have certainly frequented it a bunch, and it’s been my go-to place for a burger or sandwich or salad or soup (of the day).  I know a fair number of people at work who also enjoy it, but recently a few of my friends have decided it is actually crappy and are boycotting it.  What is going on?  I intend to dig up the truth of the matter… in this review!

Whistle Stop’s got a large delta in its serving staff; that is, some are great and some are terrible.  I don’t want to name names (also I don’t really know their names), but I am very appreciative when I frequent a place and when I sit down, they already know my, e.g., drink order.  About half the staff at Whistle Stop does that for me.  Now, granted, the other half extends the meal by about half an hour because of delays in service, and that’s frequently a problem. So this is a hit-or-miss proposition, and that can often be a dealbreaker for lunchtime choices when you need to be sure to get back by a certain time.  I can see this being an argument for crappitude, and recently it seems like more of the bad staff are present and less of the good staff (bad trend).

Also one of their waitstaff is a dead ringer for Amanda Peet.

On the other hand, I have never had a problem with quality of food there, and one of Whistle Stop’s great triumphs is that everyone I know is capable of finding a (good) meal there.  Vegans, vegetarians, can’t-eat-bread, only-eat-meat — all of them have options, or at least a good option.  The food is also good every time.  It’s also the kind of simple restaurant fare I enjoy – maybe it’s my upbringing, but I’m not a fan of like, Thai or Indian frequently.  Once a while, sure, but I’m a burger/sandwich kind of guy.

Overall: B- (B+ for medium sized groups)
Guskingestion Factor: A-
Service, Averaged: B+
Service, Recently: C+

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Review: Preacher

I recently reread the graphic novel series Preacher, and I still think it’s pretty incredible. Preacher is the story of a preacher (durr), Jesse, who has lost his faith… right around the time a being of unimaginable power, Genesis, inhabits him.  Genesis grants him the power of the Word of God – when he wants to, he speaks and anyone who hears him must obey.  The story of the series is how Jesse hunts down God to confront him about a number of things, but mostly to demand answers about why God lets the world be so shitty.  The story is very compelling, and the characters have a lot to identify with.  The first part of the second compilation is just dynamite – it’s like a 33 Minutes from Battlestar Galactica, or a Faraday Cage from Anathem.

It has flaws: a lot of the pacing doesn’t work for me, because there are long sections of people talking in a diner, for example, rather than resolving those issues (the ones in the conversations had) through the action or arc of the plot.  That’s not to say that some resolution works that way — and when it does, it is spectacular.  Preacher has some scenes, and some panels, that are among the most visually engaging, viscerally gripping, and disturbing/terrifying/beautiful things I have ever read.

Preacher asks for a bit of faith – unironically – and suspension of disbelief, and the progression through the plot is a little shaky, but the series as a whole is unforgettable and has a lot of good stuff in it.  It captured a large chunk of my friends our Junior year of college, and is nothing if not epic in its scale and scope.  I’d recommend it if (a) you don’t take religion too seriously, (b) you appreciate a high-minded story that has its fair share of low-brow humor, and (c) you aren’t squeamish.

Overall: B+
Jesse’s Word of God Recommendation: Two thumbs up.
Balance of “Big Issues” with hilarity: Good

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