Saturday, April 29, 2017

Board Game Review: Apples to Apples

A plastic tray with spaces for three stacks of cards, capable of holding about a hundred or so cards each. Two of these are filled with cards that have red backs and the 'Apples to Apples' logo, which is the game's name on a yellow circle. The third compartment has a similar stack of cards, except the backs are green instead of red. Spread nearby are six of the red cards, face up, showing the red apple character and the card's titles: Convenience Stores, Time Travel, Hawaii, Food Poisoning, Sandra Bullock, and Redwood Forests. Also nearby is a spread of three green cards, which look similar apart from being green. The titles are: Nutty, Endangered, and Special.

Many years ago, the Dork Spouse and I would attend the annual Christmas and New Year's parties of some friends. It was on such an occasion that we were introduced to Apples to Apples. This game is ridiculously popular. Especially now that the 'naughty' version, known as Cards Against Humanity exists.

Yes, I know they're not technically the same game. But they're basically the same game.

Anyway, I'm going to write a review of Apples to Apples today. We'll start, as is the norm, with the ratings:

Strategy and Randomness are rated from 0 to 6. A 0 means the rated aspect plays no part in determining the game's outcome; and a 6 means that it is the only factor that determines the game's outcome. Complexity is also rated from 0 to 6; a 0 means that it's so simple a six-year-old can play it, a 3 means any adult should have no trouble playing, and a 6 means that you'll need to refer to the rulebook frequently. Humour can be rated as 'None,' meaning the game is not meant to be funny, or it may have one or more of the following: Derivative (meaning the humour is based on an outside source, such as a game based on a comedy film), Implicit (meaning that the game's components are funny, such as humourous card text), or Inherent (meaning that the actions the players take are funny). Attractiveness has nine possible ratings. Ideal: the game is beautiful and makes game play easier. Pretty: The design is beautiful and neither eases nor impedes game play. Nice: The design is beautiful but makes game play harder than necessary. Useful: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but eases gameplay. Average: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Useless: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Utilitarian: The design is ugly, but eases gameplay. Ugly: The design is ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Worthless: The design is ugly, andmakes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Average Length of Game Play describes how long an average game will probably last, give or take. Gamer Profile Ratings measures how strongly a game will appeal to players based on their interest in one of four areas. These areas are measured as High, Medium, or Low. Strategy describes how much a game involves cognitive challenges, thinking and planning, and making sound decisions. Conflict describes how much direct hostile action there is between players, from destroying units to stealing resources. Social Manipulation describes how much bluffing, deceiving, and persuading there is between players. Fantasy describes how much a game immerses players in another world, another time.

Strategy: 0
Randomness: 4
Complexity: 1
Humour: Implicit, Inherent
Attractiveness: Average
Average Length of Gameplay: 45 minutes
Gamer Profile Ratings:
  Strategy: Low
  Conflict: Low
  Social Manipulation: Medium
  Fantasy: Low

Most everyone knows how this game works. Just in case you don't: the game consists of a number of green cards, which contain adjectives or similar descriptive terms (for example: 'Demanding,' 'Bashful,' or 'Naughty and Nice'), and roughly three times as many red cards, which contain nouns (which can range from simple things like 'Marriage,' 'Claude Monet,' or 'My Boss' to more complex concepts such as 'Berlin - 1945,' 'Hammer & Nails,' and 'A High School Bathroom') or gerund-form verbs (such as 'Skydiving,' 'Ballroom Dancing,' or 'Panning for Gold').

Players have a hand of seven red cards. They take it in turn to be 'The Judge.' The Judge must draw a green card, read it aloud, and place it in the centre of the table. All the other players must then choose a red card from their hand which they feel is described by the green card, and place it face down near the green card. For example, if the green card is 'Devious,' you might choose to play the 'Tony Blair' card.

Once everyone has played (technically, the rules say that the last player to play a card doesn't get to play this round, but in my experience, this results in one or two players being excluded every time, as they aren't as able to think as quickly as the others. Therefore, many groups that I know ignore this rule, and simply say, 'Get your card in quickly so we don't have to wait on you'), the Judge shuffles together all the played red cards and reads them aloud. He then chooses which one is best described by the green card. Perhaps the green card is 'Dangerous,' and the players have submitted 'Feathers,' 'Terrorist Attacks,' 'Worms,' 'Waco, Texas,' 'Steven Spielberg,' and 'NYPD.' Which would you choose as the most dangerous of those options?

The player who played the chosen card gets the green card, which represents one point. The rules specify that the game ends once someone has reached a certain score (the target score depends on the number of players), and the player with the most points wins. However, many people just like to play until they're bored with it and count up the score after that.

I'll be honest: I hate this game. My brain is very literal. When I see a green card that says, 'Cuddly,' I'm going to play a red card that says something like 'Teddy Bear.' So I invariably get a little irritated when the Judge chooses a card like 'Iceberg,' which he then justifies by stating, 'You've never met my ex-girlfriend.' As a result, this game (which seems to me a word game) ends up being more of a social game, where you try to deduce how the Judge will react to the various cards in your hand. Especially given that I am socially incompetent, I am very bad at thinking in those terms. This is also why I hated playing with the listed 'the last player to play a card doesn't get to play' rule; everyone else would easily choose a card from their hand whilst I was still struggling to switch my brain out of literal mode and into social mode. Thus I was almost always the player who never got to play a card.

Another thing that annoys me about this game is the fact that it's dependent on luck more than any other factor. Even for those players who excel at social comprehension, if they don't have any appropriate red cards in their hands, they can't score a point. It goes back to my rant about player agency. I often feel, when playing Apples to Apples, that the randomness which is an inherent part of the game has left me with no viable options for actions to take. That doesn't make for a good game, in my opinion.

Anyway. I know a lot of people like this game. I'm not one of them. I find that the most enjoyable activities for me are those that involve a lot of mental activity. Games that don't involve mental activity, or are of a kind of mental activity that is counter to the way that my particular brain works (such as social interactions of the type required by Apples to Apples), are not enjoyable to me. Which makes game nights with many of the people I hang out with less enjoyable for me than it should be.

Enough wallowing. I have described how I feel about Apples to Apples. Perhaps you disagree, which is fine. People like games for different reasons. I have tried to be as impartial in my description of the mechanics of the game as I can, and in my ratings of the different aspects. With luck, that's enough for you to decide what you think of the game, if you don't already have an opinion.

And with that, I bid you adieu. Join me again for whatever I post next time. Until then,

Game on!

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Rant: Star Wars vs Star Trek

It has been two months since I posted. My goodness, that is a long time. I haven't had a break that long since I returned from hiatus in December 2014. I'm really sorry. Life got too busy there for a while. I just didn't have the time, or the energy needed to think of topics.

With that said, let's get back into the swing of things. I'm going to rant today about something that has been bothering me for a while now. I know I've mentioned this a little bit before, but I want to expand on it.

I don't like Star Wars. After I watched Episode II: Attack of the Clones, I lost interest in the franchise. I waited until Episode III was in the dollar cinema before going to see it. Then in 2012, when Disney bought the whole mess, it began a horrifying cycle of new Star Wars films every year. It began with Episode VII in 2015, followed by Rogue One in 2016. Episode VIII will release this year, with a Han Solo film planned for 2018. According to Wikipedia, Episode IX will come out in 2019, and there will be another film in 2020. If I know how Disney works, they won't stop there. They will continue to churn out films every year for as long as they can.

Which means that every year, I will have to endure the repeated indignity of nearly everyone else on the planet losing their collective minds.

I wouldn't mind so much if there were some counterpart for Star Trek fans like myself. After the release of Star Trek: Nemesis in 2002, the only Trek was Enterprise, a series I disliked due to the amount of retconning involved, until 2009 when the first reboot film was released. Even now, the controversy over those reboot films (such as Into Darkness, which apparently everyone except me hated, and Beyond, which it seems everyone except for me and one of my spouse's co-workers loved) has made the release of a fourth film seem unlikely, despite the announcements from Paramount studios. There is much talk about the potential new show Discovery, but the release date has been pushed back so many times already, and made more vague with each delay (first it was 'January 2017,' then it was 'May 2017,' then it was 'Late Summer or Early Autumn of 2017,' and now it's simply 'whenever it's ready'). So, you know, I don't have high hopes for it.

But here's the thing: Star Wars is not science fiction. It's not. It's really not. The Force has nothing to do with science; its basically a form of magic. This means that Star Wars should actually be described as Science Fantasy, if 'science' should be included in the genre name at all. Which I dispute.

Star Wars relies on special effects for its appeal. Nobody would watch it without the lightsabers, the Force-based acrobatics and magical powers used by the Jedi and the Sith, the massive space battles, the content-light but adrenaline-heavy action sequences... Star Trek, on the other hand, has always been able to hold its own with less reliance on flashy gimmicks (it doesn't always do this, but it can). The original series was very popular despite the bad special effects (or sometimes, essentially no special effects at all).

Furthermore, Star Wars is based on the trite 'war of good vs evil.' I don't believe in such things. It's why I loved the Watchmen comic so much: it hinges on the fact that villains don't set out to do evil things for the sake of being evil; they are doing what seems good to them, and that perception of good conflicts with other people's conception of 'good.' The same is true of Star Trek. In many episodes, and even several films, we see the protagonists and antagonists are at odds not because one wants to do evil and the other wants to do good, but because both sides are pursuing what they see as good, and those visions are in direct conflict. The Klingons don't oppose the Federation because they are evil; they oppose them because they perceive the conquest of lesser species as good. Even Khan, although he was in the end driven by a desire for vengeance, saw his attempts at conquest to be beneficial (just look at the episode 'Space Seed,' when he says, 'We offerred the world order!' He wasn't killing people because he was evil and killing was the evil thing to do; he was doing it because he felt it was justified, that it was necessary. Just as in real life, only the mentally ill actively pursue what they see as evil. This is part of what makes Star Trek a superior franchise: it more closely models real life in its portrayal of antagonism.

Especially in the way that Star Wars, like most settings, too closely models an antiquated view of what being evil means in the first place. The Jedi Order, which is seen as the pinnacle of 'the good guys,' states outright in the Jedi Code that natural and normal human conditions are to be avoided. Emotions are as integral a part of what it means to be human as it is possible to be, yet the Jedi Code states 'There is no emotion, there is peace.' It is mentioned in at least one of the films that the Jedi are not permitted to have romantic relationships (which, of course, includes sexual activity), despite the clearly essential nature of such relations. Yet the Sith, who include as part of their code the line, 'Through passion, I gain strength,' which indicates that they do not fear the natural and normal state of being, are clearly and constantly portrayed as evil. Their desires are cartoonishly simplified in the cliche 'good/evil' dichotomy that is so exhaustively used as the basis for the vast majority of modern storytelling: 'We will conquer because conquering is the evil thing to do. We will kill because killing is the evil thing to do. We will oppress because oppression is evil and we are evil people.'

I get so tired of that attitude.

Star Trek doesn't fall back on that perspective. Sure, some of the villains are fairly hackneyed; the Klingons and Romulans (especially in early incarnations), the Cardassians and the Dominion, even to a great extent the Borg; these are all conquering races because they come from a culture that values conquest. But at least they have a reason for it beyond 'We are evil, and evil people conquer.' Emperor Palpatine and his cohorts want to rule simply for their own evil nefarious purposes.

Even if we ignore the science fiction/science fantasy genre distinctions and compare The Force to Star Trek's lack of magic (advanced alien abilities and technology that masquerades as magic notwithstanding), we see that Star Trek offers a positive view of our potential. Look at all we've accomplished in a few centuries! We've achieved faster-than-light space travel! We've conquered many medical maladies! We've mastered teleportation technology! We have unified not only our own species, but many other extraterrestrial races as an allied force for peace!

What does Star Wars offer? Magic powers? I'm sorry, but Harry Potter does that too. Give Harry Potter a lightsaber, blaster pistol, and a star fighter, and there's basically no difference between Hogwarts and the Jedi Council.

But Star Trek? With the possible exception of Babylon 5 (which I wasn't able to watch when it originally aired, and I haven't been able to watch since), I'm not aware of any science fiction show that had such a relentlessly optimistic view of the future. Not just in terms of what technology we can develop (even The Jetsons showed a hopefully view of what wonderful gadgets we can someday create), but in terms of how far we've come as a species, in terms of overcoming social and political ills, in terms of who and what we are.

Star Wars will never have that.