Monthly Archives: February 2010

Winter Games: Passing time with kids, but without pixels

Board games are good for the brain, obviously, but they’re good for the soul too. They draw people together, create friendly competition, ask for your attention, and reward you for your focus.

We game in our household year-round, but the snowed-in season has brought a flurry of opportunities to gather at the kitchen table with TVs off. But not just for any old game: Not all board games are created equal.

Games of pure chance are time-fillers on par with flipping coins. I know kids love Sorry and Trouble. I know this. But who cares how many die rolls it takes to get around a board?

The Sorrys and Troubles and UNO Deluxe Spin Ultimates of the world constitute a vast swath of the Target game aisle. That place saddens my heart every time I walk past it, expecting something magic to pop out, and getting instead a weary mix of played-out classics (original Monopoly is really not that fun; it gets no better when rebranded with puppies or sports teams) and classless junk made of cheap plastic and cardboard (with names like “Don’t Wake the Schoolmarm!” and “French Fry Frenzy!”)


As a wee Drew, I loved me some Mousetrap. I would set that contraption game up by myself and play rat catcher all afternoon. But today, oy. The only thing worse than the cover art on the modern version is its flimsy … flimsiness … that permeates the air when you open the box. This one doesn’t feel satisfying to snap together, and it fell apart in our hands shortly after opening. (Little cardboard chits of cheese are still floating around my house years later. What were those things for? Who knows.) None of us fell in love with the plasticrap in that box.

Thus, behold me now: an unabashed Game Snob. I look for games that ask for more noodling; for premises that tickle the fancy; for tasks that appear simple but are deceivingly layered; and even for parts of satisfying quality. There’s nothing that feels so good as a solid wood gamepiece in the hand as it is slammed onto the table as an act of final triumph over your opponents.

Here then is the hit parade, the games we’ve been getting out with regularity this season. These are the ones we can play as a family, but children are not required to be present before busting one of them out. (If you can find them. You’ll need to go further afield than dear old Target. But oh, it is worth it.)

Ticket to Ride (by Days of Wonder)

A modern Colossus of games in my opinion. Simple rules, object-oriented play, decisions to be made, gambits to be gambled upon. Even the 6-year-old (above) could understand gameplay, though he is more comfortable paired with an adult.

In Ticket to Ride, players connect cities by building their own railways. The mechanic is straightforward: Match cards in your hand with colored spaces on the board to claim a route. Need to connect Denver and Duluth? That’s six orange spaces; you’ll need six orange cards. From this simple gameplay opens up a rich (but not *too* rich) series of decisions to make about when and how to connect your given destination cities while blocking (or avoid getting blocked by) your opponent. Great replay value.

Portobello Market (by Playroom Entertainment)

Looks like Ticket to Ride, plays totally differently. Portobello Market requires a leap of abstraction. Your job is to place “stalls” in the famous London flea market, then score points by attracting rich customers to your lane. Your available choices of what to do next are small: Place another stall? Invite a customer over? But the variety provided therein makes for a wealth of decisions — or at least just enough decisions to keep an adult (or an 9-year-old) from going mad with “analysis paralysis.” It looks more complicated than it is, and it only lasts 30 minutes or so when you get the hang of it. Just right.

Risk (plus the variants 2210 A.D. and Godstorm, all by Hasbro)

Classic Risk gets good play at our house. Over at Board Game Geek, where real Game Snobs make me look like Peter Populist, a great debate rages over whether classic Risk is a truly great strategy game or a predictable relic from the era of the Game of Life. I say it is an addictive gateway to more modern fare, and a welcome way to spend time … every now and again. Risk spawned a number of heavily themed variants like the post-apocalyptic 2210 (above), and the ancient-mythological Godstorm, both of which we enjoy greatly. (We also own the Lord of the Rings version, but found it wanting.) These variant games have real drawbacks: The rules are dense and easy to get wrong, and the number of variables gets overwhelming at times. The addition of “power cards” adds a great deal more reading to perform special attacks or defensive maneuvers, which makes this more age-prohibitive than other games. (It’s one thing to be able to read, it’s another thing to decipher gamerspeak.) As a result, these are good indulgences that fill you up when you crave them. Just not too often.

Heroscape (by Hasbro)

Constructable battlefields? Classic heroes in miniature? Comics-accurate superpowers reduced to simple mechanics? Check, check, check. I’m in! Like many tabletop miniatures games, each of your unique troopers has special powers that can be activated by die rolls to damage their opponents. What makes Heroscape special is a versatile tile system that can form as many battle maps as you can imagine; an innovative die-rolling system that’s fun to reconcile; the ability to run special scenarios, so it’s not always fight-to-the-death; and, ahem, the Marvel license. (There are scads of other generic Heroscape minis you can recruit — Vikings, Knights Templar, vampires, robots — but make mine Marvel. DC, where are you?)

13 Dead End Drive (by Milton Bradley)

Sometimes you just want a game board with 3D pieces that replicate a mansion populated with characters you’re trying to kill. The appeal here is the goofy factor of triggering the chandelier trap to fall on unsuspecting game pieces, or tipping the suit of armor onto their heads. There’s some simple strategy involving which characters you should move closer to their dooms and which characters you can maneuver to safety to claim a dead widow’s inheritance. Just enough decision-making to cause a 5-year-old to pause in contemplation, coupled with just enough silly backstabbing to make that contemplation worth it.

Sherlock (by Playroom Entertainment)

Put away that boring box of Memory cards. No one wants to set up that mass of tiles anyway – and there’s always one of the pairs that’s half missing. Where’s the other hot dog? Why do we have only one tennis shoe? Bah, make room for Sherlock, the easy-to-digest memory game with a kinetic kick. In a circle of eight face-down cards, players must recall what objects are on the hidden cards. When you guess one right, the top of each card gives you a direction (left or right) and a number of spaces to move the “Sherlock” character. This system automatically tells you which card to recall next. When Sherlock lands on a face-up card, you keep it, and replace it in the circle with a new object card. This makes the game renewable — it can last as long as you can stand. Plus it’s is WAY easier to clean up and set up. My daughter has been awesome at this since she was 4.

Catch-a-Match (by Playroom Entertainment … again!)

Can you find the one matching pair? (Mouse over for the answer.)

A simple deck of cards that can go anywhere, including doctor’s offices, restaurants and the lines at Disney World. On each of the 15 cards, there are 15 differently colored objects. On any two pair of cards, only one set of those objects will match exactly. Find it first, win the round. I don’t know how it works, it just does. Try it yourself. What object — and only one object — on the two cards above is exactly the same? (Harder than it looks, right?)

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Three-Word Review of ‘Big Man Japan’

Quaaludes for kaiju.

Captions don't count: If ever there were a movie premise that would own me, it's this: A documentary about an average schmoe who gets supersized by the government whenever Godzilla-like kaiju monsters threaten Japan. In his non-huge state he's a depressingly lonely bumbler, and sadly, as the documentarians follow "Big-Sato" around his empty little life, the storytelling descends from quirky-yet-slow to just plain slow. The handful of standout moments come from some truly original monster fights, especially the one pictured above. Instead of clubbing it out, the "Stink Monsters" and Big-Sato bicker like overserved strangers in a bar. But the sum total of all the character development is bupkus in the end: Wikipedia calls the finale a "hallucinogenic apotheosis," while I would call it "Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge" or possibly just "goofy." I wanted to love you, Big Man, but your story was too small.

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Where does creativity come from?

When I was co-writing Edgar & Ellen books for Star Farm Productions, we authors were meant to be a secret cabal writing under a pen name, and thus we kept our identities under wraps. Our work may have been unknown to the readership, but we were regularly on display for investors or potential business partners — we were a devastatingly charming and handsome group, so it was good business to let the money folks mingle among us, I suppose.

Whether or not we were as charming or handsome as I recall, our most frequently asked questions from these practical people were “Where do you get your ideas?” and, alarmingly, “How do you know you won’t run out of ideas?” To some folks, this was a mystery akin to the Meaning of the Cosmos.

I call it “making the white space go away” — the act of facing a blank piece of paper and filling it with ideas and complete sentences. Plenty of people can edit; show them a story you’ve written and they can wade in with a red pen and find all kinds of wrong with it. But actually making the white space go away to begin with, this is the act of mystic sorcery that gives non-creatives clammy hands and dyspepsia.

Until the last 10 years or so, I had no idea how many people fear and loathe this notion. To these people, creatives appear to be magicians, lion tamers and clowns rolled into one. It may be why so many of us dress like walking carnivals.

Except for Tom Wolfe, of course.

Anyway, creativity is like a mischievous poltergeist. You can be terrified of it, or you can be kind of fascinated with it; you can study it or try to trap it, but you’ll probably have more luck letting it run roughshod over you. (Maybe the ghost will like this, and befriend you.) Feline, creativity is aloof one minute and desperate to be scratched the next. Why it comes and goes is anyone’s guess.

One thing is certain: There’s no lack of inspiration if you’re willing to work for it, or are patient enough to let it approach you on tentative paws. I’ve watched two documentaries recently about creators I admire, and each comes with a unique view of where creators get their juice.

Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts

Composer Philip Glass made his fame on minimalistic music that — to some tastes — beats the ear down with the relentless rhythm of a rusty wheat thresher. To me, though, the best of his repertoire is among the most inspiring created by man. It can be:

intoxicating, as “Pruitt Igoe” from the movie “Koyaanisqatsi” (the one that “Watchmen” used as the soundtrack for a god); or

exhilarating, like the opening to “Powaqqatsi,” where he scores a tune to the unbelievable toil of Brazilian gold miners; or

meditative, as this piano sonata that transports you to the most peaceful place on this plane or any other; or

uplifting, like this tune from “Mishima” (the entire soundtrack of which stands in contrast to the bleakness of its story).

Some of Glass’ music, I’ll allow, can drive away ears with its mechanical chill and occasional stone-cold weirdness. (His defense of that: “There’s lots of music in this world — Mozart, the Beatles. Go listen to that. You have my blessing.”) I half expected the man of such extremes to be a shut-in or a misanthrope. Turns out, he’s the most jovial Good Time Charlie you can imagine. At one point, he’s kneading pizza dough for a whole cabin full of family and professional performance friends. How jolly!

“He’s the exact opposite of the lone composer in his hut,” one colleague says.

When asked about how he’s doing on a symphony he’s writing, Glass admits he is struggling.

“It’s puzzling. I don’t know sometimes where we’re going with it,” he says. But he stays at it, saying that although the struggle can be scary for less experienced creators, he’s confident that at this point in his career, a creative solution will present itself.

“You’re like the fisherman on the water waiting for the bite. It’ll come,” he says. “But it doesn’t come if you’re not there waiting for it. You’ve got to do the work or it doesn’t come.”

(This is a similar solution for inspiration espoused in that great TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert: Show up for work!)

Then Glass delivers a line that rang my bell: “I think of (creation) as one of those rivers that’s running underground and you don’t know where it is. But you know it’s running.”

“So it’s like divining water?” asks the interviewer.

Glass pauses. “Who the hell knows?”

Exactly. Just keep prospecting for that mysterious river.

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

If Philip Glass is divining for hidden waters, Hunter S. Thompson is the guy straddling the geyser, pointing his .38 revolver down its maw and daring it to go off.

The author of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72” traded exclusively in rage and outrageousness. Words to him were knives and hammers to expose hypocrisy — or just honk off the squares. His brain-bent “Gonzo” brand of  journalism flowed from him in the ’60s and ’70s at an astonishing rate.

Where did HST’s creativity come from? There’s no doubt that psychedelics were an important Muse for him. As a reminder, let us catalog once more the famous contents of the convertible’s trunk in the semi-autobiographical “Vegas”:

We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine and a whole galaxy of multicolored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers … Also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.

But the only thing that worried me was the ether. There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible than a man in the depths of an ether binge. And I knew we’d get into that rotten stuff pretty soon.

Gonzo indeed. In a book only nominally about the coverage of a desert motocross race, Thompson blew the lids off his audience with a nonstop, holy-cow-get-a-load-of-this litany of bizarre behavior.

In addition to being a hoot, the drug-fueled madness of “Vegas” gave rise to an alter-ego: “Raoul Duke,” a flagrant degenerate who was a thin surrogate for Thompson, allowing the author to adopt a larger than life image. Did Hunter really get wasted and imagine a flying bat attack while driving top speed to Barstow, or was that just a fictional embellishment that happened to fictional Duke? Eh, who can tell? And who cares when it’s this preposterously fun?

Which gives birth to Thompson’s other Muse. Raoul Duke gave him a voice, an affectation, an excuse to filter everything through the angry hedonism of this character, and it drove everything he would do in the rest of his career. In other words, he was able to derive inspiration not from Glass’ underground river, but from the question, “What Would Duke Do?”

If he had limited himself to books about excessive drug use, he might have worn out his welcome and made nothing of any further relevance. But Thompson had a keen interest in politics, and when he combined Duke with Tricky Dick, he wrote the most scathing and penetrating journalism about politics ever written, “Campaign Trail”:

How long , O Lord … How long? Where will it end? The only possible good that can come from this wretched campaign is the ever-increasing likelihood that it will cause the Democratic Party to self-destruct…the more I learn about the realities of national politics, the more I’m convinced that the Democratic Party is an atavistic endeavor — more an Obstacle than a Vehicle — and that there is really no hope of accomplishing anything new or different in American politics until the Democratic Party is done away with.

It is a bogus alternative to the politics of Nixon: A gang of senile leeches like George Meany, Hubert Humphrey and Mayor Daley … Scoop Jackson, Ed Muskie and Frank Rizzo, the super-cop mayor of Philadelphia.

George McGovern is a Democrat, and I suppose I have to sympathize in some guilt-stricken way with whatever demented obsession makes him think he can somehow cause this herd of venal pigs to see the light and make him their leader.

This is journalism that begs to be read aloud. Thompson took no crap, alternately exposing truths and spreading lies through his dispatches for “Rolling Stone.” Consider this immortal bit of commentary:

Some people will say that words like “scum” and “rotten” are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place.

Through it all, Raoul Duke’s cynicism and cockeyed antisocial behavior cut through phoniness. But receiving inspiration through an alter-ego had its drawback. Thompson/Duke became larger than the stories he covered; he was no longer an observer at an event, he was the event. He acquired groupies and hangers-on and myriad distractions. In one interview he acknowledged that his surrogate was almost too big: “I’m really in the way as a person. I’m an appendage (to Raoul Duke).”

Aforementioned tony dresser Tom Wolfe agreed. In an interview for this movie, he said: “It must have been a burden. He must have felt trapped in Gonzo.”

The trap was pretty complete. Thompson hit the bottom when, on assignment to cover the 1974 Ali-Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle,” he couldn’t be bothered to actually attend the fight. Wallowed so deep in a drugged out daze, he missed one of the classic boxing matches of all time. This point is as good as any to chart the beginning of his downward slide into creative bankruptcy and irrelevancy.

And he knew it. “Gonzo” the documentary shows a man who recognized he was running out of creative juice — though it’s not clear if he blamed the drugs as much as his second-banana status to his alter-ego.

In any event, in 2005, depressed about the American policies of the time, tired of watching his creative output dwindle, and generally fed up with being “bitchy,” Thompson picked a lovely day while his son was visiting to step into an adjoining room and put a bullet in his head.

Did he choose the wrong Muse? The uppers and downers versus the underground river? Depends  — he sure enjoyed success and left his mark on literature and American culture. But instead of choosing a renewable resource like Glass, he chose a finite source for his creativity: a spliff lit at both ends.


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When catalogs were catalogs: Lessons in writing from the Hammacher vault

I wrote for the venerable oddball catalog Hammacher Schlemmer for oh, about a year and a half — but what a great year and a half. Because you’ll never write something nuttier than what you write for a venerable oddball catalog.

I created copy for fiber-optic snowman tree toppers, remote-control golf balls, transparent kayaks, sonic mosquito repellants and robot vacuum cleaners. I test drove a motorcycle that was no higher than my shins; I rubbed my face over a $2,000 eiderdown pillow (and was promptly yelled at); and I wrote with a straight face: “This stainless-steel ship’s lamp is a modern interpretation of the lanterns used in the days when Scandinavian whaling ships thronged the frigid waters between the Faroe Islands and the Baltic Sea.”

Cuz that’s how you roll at Hammacher. Even though it sounds like we had free reign to write the kookiest things that came to mind (and although the often-outrageous products warranted it), Hammacher house writing style was actually one of tremendous authority. We were to add no hyperbole or salesy gimmick. Nothing but facts and straightforward reporting of a product’s features, with perhaps a wry smile at the more absurd moments. I was told once to picture Walter Cronkite introducing the reader to the product — a trustworthy father figure giving a utilitarian dissertation of what the thing does without undue embellishment.

Although if you’re given a pricey kerosene lamp to sell, you may have to bust out the allusions to the 19th Century Scandinavian whaling industry. Once, when we had a particularly prosaic cookie jar to sell (it spun and played Christmas music, but was otherwise a typical ceramic vessel for holding cookies) we had to resort to counting how many cookies it could hold, because otherwise, how do you say something authoritative about that? At the very least, we could show that Hammacher had calculated your actual volume of potential cookie storage. (The product bombed anyway.)

But even if I thought I had a few nutty products to sell, nothing beats this gem from the archives, circa 1961; I’ve held it dear for years as a reminder that sometimes you just have to put reservations aside and Go For It.

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