Cool Things: Ticket to Ride

Board games are a great way to spend an enjoyable evening with friends and family but many of them are thematically “out there”, focusing on things like world conquest, clashing armies or other stuff that may feel too contentious for some people. Fortunately there are games that provide very intriguing and challenging gameplay while presenting a friendlier aesthetic.

Ticket To Ride is one of them.

The theme of this game is trains! Nice, safe trains, carting thousands and thousands of tons of freight and passengers daily at breakneck speed all over America and occasionally running over cars or pedestri- well, anyway. The goal of the game is to score the most points (surprise!) by laying claim to various rail lines by using (more surprising!) tickets. Tickets are color coded to certain lines and lines are worth more points depending on their length. Finally, players are secretly assigned the goal of building a long unbroken line between two cities on the map. The farther apart the two ends are the bigger the bonus but failing to finish by the end of the game gives a penalty instead.

The charm of Ticket To Ride is its simplicity. All a player has to do on their turn is decide whether they want to take new tickets or lay claim to a railway. At the same time, the ability to do only one thing on your turn makes all the other players a serious obstacle. Grandiose plans can be upset by one ill timed opposing play but, at the same time, the board is full of alternative routes and creative players will be able to do an end run around most obstacles with a little lateral thinking.

In short, the game is very simple and can be easily picked up by fairly young people but it’s still complex enough to keep experienced board gamers interested. If you’ve been looking for a board game to share with a skeptical crowd then this might be the game for you. Likewise if you’re looking for a game you can share with children age eight and up and still enjoy yourself as you play this might also be a good choice. Look around for it if you have the chance.

Overcommitted and Short on Quality

Sometimes you wind up doing too much at once and the more pressing priorities squeeze out the less pressing ones. Unfortunately, such is the situation I find myself in this week. While there is a chapter most of the way doe I’d prefer to wait to put it up until next week, as that will give me time to really edit and perfect it. Also, Thunder Clap has reached it’s climax and we’re about to start wrapping things up, there’s really only three or four chapters left to go so this is a natural break point.

Sorry for the delay, this is really my fault for failing to budget my time well last week. I hope you’ll come back on Wednesday for a Not April Fools Day segment or next week for the next installment of Thunder Clap.

Nate

The Importance of Context, Historical and Otherwise

Marvel’s Agent Carter was an interesting experiment. A series of eight hour-length episodes, the miniseries-esque offering served to expand the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) while allowing it’s sister show, Agents of SHIELD, a chance to regroup and air the second half of it’s season in one long continuous burst rather than chopping it’s episodes up in that weird spring schedule a lot of TV shows adopt. This certainly helps SHIELD tell a cohesive, overarching story and the idea of a miniseries expanding the MCU is a new angle we haven’t seen in TV before, in part because there’s never been anything quite like the MCU before to drive it.

That’s not to say Agent Carter is without flaws. I could find any number to nitpick at but the one that really jumps out at me does so because of how glaring it is. On the whole, not many characters in the series, outside leading lady Peggy Carter, showed much character growth or had their background delved into at any length. What I want to poke at is one of the attempts to provide that growth that fell somewhat flat. It concerns SSR Agent Jack Thompson.

Thompson is Carter’s foil in the SSR, the agent devoted to the idea that she couldn’t hack it in the high stakes world of cold war spy work. He’s a decorated marine who won the Navy Cross in the Pacific Theater of the Second World War and he’s determined to prove he’s top dog. Eventually we find out why (and please be aware that this is a spoiler, if a minor one.)

You see, our boy Jack got the Navy Cross for saving his superiors life during a night ambush by the Japanese. He woke up, saw Japanese soldiers in their camp and started shooting. In the aftermath he found a white flag dropped on the ground and concludes the Japanese were surrendering and that he’d just incited the death of innocent men. Then he gets an award for it and the guilt really starts eating at him.

Jack tells Peggy this story after he freezes in the middle of a pitched gunfight and she asks him why, giving her and the audience a little more understanding of why he is the way he is. It’s a nice moment, well acted and well written. It has one problem.

The Japanese almost never surrendered.

Soldiers talk about fighting to the death all the time but a large percentage of them will surrender if it’s clear there’s nothing more they can do to win. Troops in WWII did it all the time. German troops, Italian troops, American troops, British troops, French troops, it was just a part of war and nothing to be ashamed of. For everyone, that is, but the Japanese.

The culture of Imperial Japan was fatalistic in the extreme, most famously manifesting in the kamikaze pilots at the end of the war, and it’s shocking how all pervasive the attitude was. Many Japanese troops captured during the war were incapacitated somehow and most of those capable of resisting chose to do so until killed, or did something suicidal like running at enemies with a grenade ticking in their hands or just committed suicide rather than submit to capture. This isn’t to say the Japanese didn’t surrender but those who did were a very small minority.

On the other hand, the Japanese knew the Americans surrendered and expected them to do the same. So Japanese troops would sometimes pretend to surrender, approaching with a white flag and hands in the air, only to drop the flag and attack when it looked like they were close enough to enemy lines. This tactic quickly became well known among American troops who viewed any attempt to surrender in a large group with a great deal of suspicion. It may have happened much less often than people talked about but it’s still a historical fact, confirmed by records on both sides of the conflict, that Japanese troops almost never surrendered during WWII.

This is something Jack Thompson should have known. He should not have been readily accepting of the notion that the Japanese troops who’d come into his camp were there to surrender because the historical context makes such an assumption highly unlikely. Failing to take this context into account when writing this scene strips the moment of all the credibility it’s good writing and acting earned it.

It’s not like this fact would have changed the scene a great deal if it had been included – Thompson could have been just as guilt-ridden over choosing not to wait to see if the Japanese really were surrendering before fighting back instead of giving them the benefit of the doubt no matter how little he may have thought they deserved it. In fact, that scene might have been even more believable and more suited to analyzing the horrors of war because Jack would have found himself in a situation where he was powerless to know whether he made the right choice or not. At least when he knows with concrete certainty that he was wrong he can look for some kind of penance. But the stark fact of war is that it dehumanizes those that participate and Jack’s inability to tell whether he did the right thing or not would be a powerful representation of that, one that would reinforce the ambiguous yet grim fate of the Japanese soldiers who found their way into his encampment.

Instead the writers failed to do their research and a scene that had the potential to be very impactful fell flat by failing to fit with the historical context it was intended to have. Agent Carter did a very good job recreating the mid to late 1940s in fashion, culture and even architecture and vehicles. That’s what makes this oversight particularly glaring – it’s a hole in the historical context that’s otherwise rock solid. Writers take note! If you’re going to add historical context make sure you get it all or your work is just going to come out flat.

This War of Mine

This War of Mine is a computer game about a familiar topic: War in the modern age. Mechanically it’s very cool, combining elements of resource management and base building with careful, stealthy gameplay. Basically, during the day you keep your base running and during the night you go and collect resources without drawing too much attention. While none of that is new or groundbreaking gameplay it’s solid in concept and well executed. That said, the game would be pretty bland if that was all there was to it. In fact, there are a number of zombie survival games that probably do the base building half of the game better and there’s certainly at least two ninja/commando style games that do the stealth parts in a more interesting way.

Or, at least they do if approached from the direction of most game stories.

See, the typical video game is an examination of what the player would do with unusual powers. Could you manage to rescue a princess? No? What if you could jump really high, throw fireballs and utilize plumbing in surprising ways? Well play a Mario game and find out!

Strategy games give players the chance to command armies, first person shooters give players unlimited stamina and military gear they’ll probably never see, RPGs let players develop powers that could never exist in real life and Minecraft lets you make just about anything you could ever want. It’s no surprise these games are popular since they let you do things that, for the most part, you could never hope to actually do. This War of Mine, on the other hand, does the exact opposite. It challenges you to do something that you would never want to do in real life and gives you no special powers to accomplish it with. While that doesn’t sound interesting at first it is still an engaging experience.

You see, in This War of Mine your base is a small house in the middle of a civil war somewhere in Eastern Europe. The stealth portions of the game are you going out to look for supplies in the night, so soldiers won’t see and shoot you. And you play a civilian with no special training just trying to stay alive while bullets and shells fly by outside.

This War of Mine is a nerve-wracking game. I don’t recommend playing it in large chunks, the decisions you have to make are sometimes unpleasant and emotionally draining. You will probably wind up turning away other refugees looking for shelter because the house just cannot hold anyone else. You will run like a coward when the soldiers outside spot you on a foraging run. You’ll have to decide whether running a risk to help someone you meet outside is worth your possibly not getting back to the house and the hungry people there. Especially if helping means standing up to a soldier with nothing but a crowbar in your hands.

As a game, from the angle of gameplay mechanics and execution, This War of Mine is not groundbreaking even if it is solid. But it manages to convey an experience that people must live through every day in a way that is gripping and rightly draining. For that alone, the game qualifies as an unmitigated success.

Thunder Clap: Brawl

Izzy

Circuit kicked things off with a literal bang, electricity arcing with a teeth rattling crack from his chair to his hands, then from his hands to the plasma cloud in front of Helix. Things got weird – if the guy throwing lighting wasn’t weird enough – when the plasma ball bent and stretched from an orb to a weird, wavering teardrop shape that pushed towards the middle of the room before throwing lightning bolts at the two nearest guards and sending them tumbling to the ground. That seemed like an excellent time to gently tip a desk over on top of them so I did.

Hopefully it was too heavy for them to move, I’m not very good at judging things like that. To be on the safe side I got a desk for each of them.

The man on the throne swooped through the hole in the side of the building, his hoverchair – or whatever you wanted to call it – humming loud enough to be heard over the chaos and the plasma cloud bent back towards Helix. Whatever was going on there it was probably magnetic and headache inducing, by which I mean any attempt to explain it would probably fry the brains of most people, so I didn’t worry about it too much and just kept an eye on the to make sure I didn’t get fried by it as it went spastic.

Helix apparently had no such worries because he walked through the plasma with no visible harm. As he did so he clapped his hands over his ears and dropped his mouth open, giving me just enough of a warning what was coming that I could do the same and confusing most everyone else in the room to no end. The plasma abruptly shimmered out of existence, the heat that kept it burning quickly dispersing in the surrounding atmosphere as Helix stopped holding it in one place. The result was a loud bang exactly like you would expect from a bolt of lighting, since the part of lighting that you see is composed of superheated plasma doing the exact same thing.

The noise was loud enough that I could feel it in my sternum and even with my ears covered and my mouth open to relieve pressure it still felt like the noise came from a whip cracking at the side of my head. I managed to get my bearings with a quick shake to clear my head and Helix didn’t seemed bothered by the noise any more than I was but by the time my head was clear the guards in the room were still woozily looking about or had hands on the side of their heads. Circuit didn’t seem to notice at all, or at least he didn’t do anything about the noise for all I knew he’d put earplugs in while I was busy smashing walls, but whatever the explanation Davis apparently shared it because he didn’t seem bothered either. His partner with the fancy hoverthrone was probably protected by the fact that he was still at the far end of the room and probably too far to suffer more than minor tinnitus from Helix’s improvised flashbang.

In spite of being the closest to ground zero Helix showed the least signs of being affected out of anyone there, he’d already put one guard into an arm lock and levered him to the floor by the time my ears stopped ringing enough for my eyes to focus again. But even with most of the players temporarily stunned we were still outnumbered and Davis was surprisingly fast for a man of his size, and he jumped Helix with a lack a finesse more than made up for with enthusiasm.

Desks were getting pretty scarce on my side of the room for some reason so I took matters into my own hands by the expedient of trying to grab Davis. Before I could add one more to the three person pile-up Hoverthrone sideswiped me and I spun once, rolled twice and wound up against the wall with a throbbing pain in my side where I’d been hit. Yes I could have stopped him with one hand if I’d seen him coming but that’s the real trick and I hadn’t managed it. I got to my feet and swiped my hand through the wall, fumbling for a second before I managed to grab a two-by-four and yanked it out of the wall in a shower of drywall dust. I realized as I was hefting it to throw that yanking it out of the wall hand left the ends jagged and potentially fatal if I threw it at Davis, who wasn’t in body armor, so I switched and flung it at the Hoverthrone, catching it low, near the base in fact, and tumbling it end over end. The rider fell entirely out of the chair, proving that Circuit’s roller coaster style restraints were a wise choice, and without direction the throne itself just kept spinning for a moment before falling to the ground like an abandoned puppet.

Circuit’s head snapped around, the throne’s deactivation apparently distracting him from beating a guard’s head against the armrest of his wheelchair. Pushing the guard aside Circuit kicked his chair into motion, it’s motor whirring frantically as he rolled towards the tangle of equipment at the center of the room. He only got halfway there before Davis looked up from the frantic wrestling match he was tangled in and yelled, “Stop him!”

A second later Davis went back down as Helix kicked him in the teeth.

Circuit’s doppelganger – evil twin just doesn’t sound right – scrambled to his feet and made a twitching motion in the direction of the only guard left standing, a woman who still looked a little dazed, and she went flying towards Circuit. She suddenly slowed a few feet away and Circuit managed to grab her and deflect her over the top of his chair but it was proof enough that the guards were still wearing maglev harnesses and fake Circuit still had some measure of control over them.

And fake Circuit himself was wearing a harness too, as he proved when a second later he jerked up and over the debris we’d left all over the place, flying straight towards Circuit with a frustrated scream. Circuit matched flying with flying, his chair whirring back away from his imposter for a split second before it cleared the floor itself and went straight up towards the ceiling. For some reason the wheelchair flipped over mid-air and wound up with its wheels pressed against the ceiling as Circuit looked down on his double disapprovingly.

Fake Circuit had his arms outstretched and I wondered for a split second whether Circuit’s chair had flipped because of interference from his rival, then one of the chair’s wheels spun and it pivoted 180 degrees around the other wheel putting Circuit right above his clone. Then chair and rider dropped like a stone, Circuit’s arms outstretched to catch his double, and both men crashed to the floor with the chair on top of them.

Davis and Helix were still grappling with each other but the guard Helix had been tangling with at first had squirmed free and started over to dig his boss out. I headed that off at the pass, crossing over to him with three quick steps, looping one hand around his head as I slid a knee behind his. Flipping him to the ground was as easy as flicking water off of my fingers and I took his carbine and twisted its barrel into a knot as an afterthought. What I really wanted was the Hoverthrone.

It sat on its side where it had fallen, looking fairly inoffensive covered in dust with a two-by-four sticking out of the bottom, not like the monument to self-importance it had probably been intended as. But then, self-important stuff rarely comes off looking as grand as it’s intended. I picked the thing up, stepped over to the pit it was obviously intended to fit in somehow and smashed the two things together. They didn’t fit together nicely so I tried it again. And again. And a few more times, for good measure. Once the whole mess was reduced to a sparking mess of wires, cracked casings and loose microchips I tossed the wrecked throne aside and looked around.

None of the guards seemed to be interested in fighting anymore. Circuit had somehow righted his wheelchair and was rubbing at his shoulder with a pained look on his face, his double was still crumpled on the floor and might not have been breathing. And Helix was cuffing Davis, who had a nasty looking nosebleed and what would probably turn out to be two black eyes. I heaved a sigh and dusted my hands off. “There, that’s over with.”

Helix gave me an approving look before turning to look at Circuit. His expression quickly turned dark. “No. We’re not done yet. Not by a long shot.”

Fiction Index

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Creativity and Entertainment: A 21st Century Conundrum

From the wealthy of Regency England gathered around the pianoforte for an evening of music to the pioneers in the American West listening to a man with a fiddle, from a man telling stories by the firelight to a group of gamers telling stories about their D&D characters, the human race has a long history of people creating and sharing those creations with others. But not so much in the recent past.

We hardly even think of this kind of creativity as creative anymore, we just call it entertainment, ignoring the fact that throughout most of history “entertainment” was something that people created for themselves or those immediately around them. Since the rise of media driven culture people in societies with advanced media have largely given over the business of entertainment to an elite caste and become entirely consumers, rather than creators. The theory, as with all the things we’ve stopped doing for ourselves over the years, is that a professional will do it better than we could and the loss of knowing how to do it won’t hurt us that much. And in some cases that’s probably true.

But in the case of creating entertainment I’d argue it’s very much the opposite.

Our culture has lost the ability to create entertainment itself and it suffers for it. We suffer from a loss of ability to connect to other people, a loss of insight into the creative process and a loss of the ability to appreciate creativity.

Creativity is, at it’s core, the ability to explain ideas to other people in a way that they find exciting and engaging. In order to do it you have to be able to get a feel for where other people are mentally and emotionally and then lead them to the experience you want them to have. On the large scale that means understanding the society around you and on a smaller scale it means being alert and attentive to the people you meet. By necessity it requires that you both know how to understand people and how to best collaborate to bring them where you want them to go. These kinds of very basic people skills are a core part of entertainment and when we stop creating to entertain they begin to atrophy and our society is paying the price – as a culture America is becoming more rude, less understanding and more impatient. Is all this because we’ve given up entertaining ourselves? No, probably not. But is that a factor? I think it may be.

But society isn’t the only thing hurt by our failure to create and entertain – our ability to understand the creative process is impaired. There are some things about what goes into entertainment that can only be understood fully by someone who’s done it. Ask anyone who’s just attempted theater or written a short story for the first time – they’ll always tell you it’s more effort than they expected. On top of that, the sense of accomplishment and, when working in a group, the sense of comradery is far more than you would expect. To go with it, there’s almost a sense of possession – what you’ve done or created is yours alone and not like anything else on Earth, for good or bad.

An understanding of that work and that sense of accomplishment comes with an understanding of the euphoria and sense of importance that comes with creativity. After all, you’re making up something that never existed before and that’s going to feel good. With that rush comes the tendency to push ideas, to construct stories in ways that make our own ideas prominent. As a creator it’s important to check this tendency in the interests of verisimilitude but no one can do it perfectly and some creators don’t do it at all. Having actually been through the process personally helps you spot when others aren’t policing themselves as well as they might.

That’s an important skill to have because entertainment contains a lot of ideas that entertainers are trying to advance – yes, they have the goal of entertaining you but almost all entertainers have things beyond entertainment that interest them and those ideas always creep into the entertainment you provide. If you’ve created your own entertainment before you know how this can happen and can spot the signs more easily. Sure, TV is just TV but that doesn’t mean it’s not influencing you at all. You might not be selling your soul to the devil when you flip on pop radio but Taylor Swift is certainly getting some real estate in your brain. The familiarity being a creator yourself gives you will help you understand what those influences are doing with the brainspace you’re giving em.

Finally, being creative really does help you appreciate the results of the creative endeavors produced by others. The act of creating requires a practiced eye or ear or hand. Once you’ve developed those skills it will as easily pick out the best that other creators have to offer and savor it all the more for knowing all the time and passion that went into it.

The benefits of creating are many, but you’ll probably effect the most people with them if you aim to entertain. If you’ve not even dabbled a bit in creative expression to share with others then go out and try it. It will be good for your friends and for you.

Cool Things: Foxglove Summer

Usually when I talk about books or movies I enjoy I try and avoid spoilers. But this is book five in Ben Aaronovitch’s excellent Rivers of London series and, while I’m going to try and avoid spoiling anything about this book, there are some major spoilers for the rest of the series. If you haven’t read the first four books and you want to do so without spoilers now is the time to bow out. You can come back after you read up to this point, though!

So if you read Broken Homes you know that Rivers of London has gone through a major transition. Leslie May, a major player in PC Peter Grant’s life, has abandoned the forces of good and joined up with the Faceless Man to work against Peter, DCI Nightingale and the rest of The Folly (namely, the maid, Molly, and the department mascot, Toby the Dog). In exchange she hopes to get a new face to replace the one she lost to Mr. Punch at the end of the first book.

Foxglove Summer opens with Peter being sent out of London (gasp!) to investigate a case of missing children. There’s no evidence of this being the kind of case The Folly normally investigates but due diligence is due diligence and that goes double when children are involved. That goes double again when witnesses report the children talked to invisible friends that, unlike the typical invisible friend, are actually there. Moving things. Giving rides. Touching people. It seems like you can’t go anywhere with Peter and not find something Folly-esque.

Beyond saving the kids Peter has issues of his own to work out. First, by going into the country he’s quite literally run from his problems back in London. He hasn’t dealt with Leslie’s betrayal or the near-death experience he had on his last assignment. The Metropolitan Police aren’t entirely sure he wasn’t in cahoots with Leslie. And Beverly Brook, London River Incarnate, has come in on this case to consult and there’s unresolved emotional issues there, too.

All in all, Foxglove Summer is kind of a renaissance for the series. Peter is put in unfamiliar circumstances so he can get perspective, set new goals and come to grips with his very unexpected place in life. At the same time, it provides a jumping on point for new readers. If you want to get into this series in the middle, don’t want to go back and read a bunch of backstory or just want to enjoy a good suspense story with an otherworldly twist then this book will fit your bill. The one disappointment you might find as you read will stem from the title’s failure to advance it’s overarching plot, as Beverly is the only river of London in the book and the machinations of the various riverine incarnations is alluded to but never comes into play. While events in this book may eventually play a part in future parts of that story the lack of obvious advancement might be frustrating to some longtime readers.

All in all this is another solid installment to the series and reaffirms my belief that Aaronovitch will be able to transition things well from the opening act of his story to the larger stage of whatever is coming down the pike. But it’s also probably the last really accessible entrance point for new readers so if you want to get on board do it now.