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Next of Ken, Volume 12: Super 8, Innovation, Days of Steam: Locomotives

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Next of Ken, Volume 12:  Super 8, Innovation, Days of Steam: Locomotives
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In this week's installment, some Dinklage love, a review of JJ Abrams ultra-retro Super 8, and reviews of Innovation and Days of Steam: Locomotives. Join us, won't you?

Life, Life, is just a game....we all end up the same


Game of Thrones aired its season finale on Sunday evening, and I gotta say, hats off to them for a freaking fantastic first season.

They did a great job in bringing these characters to life; I daresay no one who reads the books now can picture Eddard Stark without Sean Bean, or Tyrion Lannister without Peter Dinklage. I would be surprised if both did not end up with Emmy nominations for their work.

The series was up to over 3 million viewers for the finale, which is tremendous for a premium channel (even one like HBO.)

They were able to use this to their advantage as the series had plenty of violence, profanity, and nudity, just like the books. No one can say they were being sensationalist just to be so--although there were a few scenes added just for TV that were obviously just for the titilization factor.

I'm reading through the books now, about 2/3 of the way through Clash of Kings. That book is even more exciting than the first, so I'm anxiously awaiting season 2.

The only bad part? "Spring 2012." Are ya f'n KIDDING me?


Turning to the camera I can see, a world that never, never

My wife and I caught Super 8 last week. I've been way behind on my summer movies, but she took me to see this as an early Father's Day treat.


First off, I'm a fan of J.J. Abrams. Lost, Star Trek, Cloverfield, I've enjoyed these to varying degrees. I thought Lost was great but uneven television; Cloverfield was a terrific theater thrill ride that lost much when viewed on the smaller screen; and Star Trek was just good stuff that truly got the masses interested in Star Trek again.

The trailers for Super 8 were mysterious; the side of a train being punched out; cars floating; explosions; and just in general Weird Shit Going Down. You quickly gathered that there was some sort of monster here, but like Cloverfield's marketing, all of that was left unrevealed in all of the movie's marketing.

I'm happy to report that while the monster design is actually strangely lacking, the movie itself is a slice of old-fashioned movie making that is a breath of fresh air in the ADD-laced summer blockbuster season. It's decidedly retro in everything that it does--it's even set in 1979, with all the styles, music, and attitudes from that era.

I went in wanting to be wowed by the monster and the reveal of the mystery, but what I enjoyed the most was how character-driven and quiet it was. If you step back and look at the big picture, the "mystery" is entirely incidental. Sure, it's the impetus for everything major happening in the movie, but it could basically be any crisis.

Abrams has always idolized Spielberg (who has a producer's credit here), and this feels exactly like a lost Spielberg film from the 80s. You've got kids that are neither written as totally precocious idiots nor as tiny adults, a mistake that many, many writers make.

I was amazed at how much I enjoyed this very old-school experience. There's probably nostalgia at work here, but it took me back to exactly the sort of movies I watched as a kid, when every storyline was filled with possibility and potential.

There are some negatives, chiefly how ultimately unimportant the form that the actual threat takes, and the CGI design on the monster itself. I'm guessing it's different than you'd expect, but it stands out like a sore thumb in a movie that's swimming in so much homage to the movies that came before it. I don't know if the old way of doing things would've worked better for this film, like stop motion, models, or puppets, but if there's a movie that called for it, this is the one.

But even so...go see this movie. The train crash itself *alone* is worth it. Thumbs up.


Flam, Combustion thrustin'


I've been playing Innovation with my wife lately. For those who haven't tried it, Innovation (Asmadi Games) is a two-four player fairly abstract card game, where players race through the ages in an attempt to collect achievements and declare their civilization victorious.

The cards are divided up into ages from 1-10, with each being a slice of an historical era (Prehistoric, Industrial, Modern, so on and so forth.) There are five colors, and to play a new card you play it on top of that same color, if there is one. If there isn't one in play of that color, it forms its own new stack.

Each card has icons that line the left and bottom of the card, and there's its brilliance. Powers on cards are triggered by having a 'superiority' of icons for attacks, and regular effects must be shared by those who have as many of an icon as you do, or greater. With the "splay" mechanic, you can shift piles of cards so that more icons show, increasing your power in numbers of particular icons.

At the start of the game, one card from each age except the 10th is set aside as an "achievement" to be earned. You have a score pile that you build during the game by executing certain powers, and you can nab achievements by having 5x the age value of the achievement in points, as well as having at least that value on one of your top cards. So to claim the age 5 achievement, for example, you need 25 points in your score pile as well as a age 5 or higher card in play as a top card. There are other special achievements that can be earned by doing special feats (such as one that you earn by having all of your stacks in play splayed right, which is harder and more time-consuming than it sounds.) Earn a specified number of achievements first--six in two-player, for example--and you win the game.

Innovation is, well, innovative, to say the least. It is completely unlike any other game that I own. The actions are very simple, you can either draw a card, play (meld) a card, score an achievement if able, or execute the text (dogma) on one of your active cards. Players take turns, doing two actions per turn, until the game ends.

It's not a game I would have expected to like as much as I do, to be honest. There's no denying that while some technologies have a vague relationship to their real-life counterparts, the link is often tenuous at best and nonsensical, at worst (what, exactly, does Enterprise have to do with stealing a crown card and splaying your green cards? Dunno.)

A sample of the game in play.

Photo Credit: Boardgamegeek.com


However, you do get some really cool thematic touches, like Fission. If the first part of it 'hits', then you basically blow up the world, removing all hands, cards in play, and score cards from the game, potentially putting you back in the Stone Age. I spent the last game I played of this repeating pushing the button, but failing to blast the world into oblivion. I needed to because my wife was kicking my ass at this game.

There's an expansion coming out which I'm looking forward to, even though I don't feel like I've fully explored every card and every strategy in the base game. I do know that few games turn out even remotely the same, and although it's an abstract and unthematic game at times, I really enjoy it. There's no pansy Euro-centric design here; it's about taking, stealing, destroying your opponent's stuff, and there is no artificial catch-up mechanism. Play badly, and the game will allow someone to thoroughly trash you while you watch helplessly. My advice? Play better. I'm still trying to take my own advice, of course.


'Cause my baby's got a locomotive, my baby's gone off the track


We also got the Days of Steam expansion played this past weekend. I reviewed the game a few months back, and while I found it to be a cute, light diversion, it didn't really grab me and some of the gameplay left things to be desired.

With only a $10 expansion, the game has gone from "meh" to "wow" for me, just like that.

The expansion is entitled Days of Steam: Locomotives (Valley Games, 2-4 players, requires base game), and is $10 MSRP and includes factory tiles, coal loader tiles, and new train boards for each player.

The train boards include 'upgrades'. The first and most welcome is Stability, which removes the old die-based system of derailment entirely and gives you a top-speed based on the number of curves you want to enter. While I'm all for dice, the use of it in the original game was stupid; the penalty for derailment was high, and the few rolls made were extremely game-swinging. I'm all for dice in my games, but not when they're used badly.

The other upgrades include earning +1 steam from playing 1-steam tiles, and increasing your max steam from 6 to 8, which works well with Stability. There's also a one-time boost of 5 coal that also lets you take more from the coal loaders that will now pepper the track as the game progresses.

Mostly the gameplay at its core is unchanged. It's a bit Age of Steam without the economics, coupled with Carcassonne-style tile laying. Build routes as you play, pick up goods, deliver them to the proper towns, score points.

However, it's the fine details that have been greatly improved. Coal in the base game was an afterthought, handed out after the tiles were depleted, and coming too late in the game to make a difference. Now, coal is a fundamental part of gameplay, even if it does simply act as Steam in a different currency. The upgrade gives you five coal, and the coal stations will allow you to stop there and load some more on your journey. This really helps with the stop-and-go gameplay of the original where you'd play a lot of tiles, build up steam, make a delivery, play some more tiles, build up steam...very clunky. Now, it's possible to plan in such a way where you're making longer runs without having to do a bunch of pointless track-building.


The factories are very cool. They are located on the tiles, and when you play one, you get to fish a good of that color from the bag and place it there. You can't "park" on a good there, you need to pick it up moving through or at the start of a turn there, but otherwise it acts just like a regular good. They don't get replenished, but because you pick where the tile goes, you can set yourself up nicely without having to plop down a town and wasting a turn.

Speaking of that, playing towns was a thankless necessity in the old game, but you now at least get compensation for doing so in the form of coal, so it's mostly like playing a 1-steam tile from before.

Last but not least, they fixed the f@#$ing scoring, probably the dumbest part of the original and the reason it was hard to take it seriously. Under both sets of rules, you get a 'diversity' bonus for having goods of different colors. However, in the old game, the scale was off the charts--2 different colored goods got you one bonus point, 3 got you *3*, and one of each netted a ridiculous FIVE bonus points. Why was this an issue? Because each good cube is worth 2 points, so getting one of each + the bonus meant 13 points, the score that ends the game.

This was bad because it made games of this beyond luck-driven and completely stunted. The bonus was so swingy, it was basically the only way to win, and you needed tiles to come out a certain way for you to get it. It also meant the game ended well before it felt like it began.

Now, the ratio for bonuses is a tidy +1/+2/+3, which means the game won't end after someone delivers 4 different goods. Since you can purchase upgrades by discarding a goods cube, what happens is the game is given more room to develop and breathe, and is a damned bit more strategic than it was before.

I'll be honest, this is the sort of thing that should have been in the base game, as it fixes every flaw I found in it that kept it from being a really good game. Yet it's only $10 and expertly fixes everything. The base game is a reprint of the JKLM title and the expansion is solely their release alone, so obviously someone at Valley agreed that there was a good game here that just needed some tweakin'.

Days of Steam went from a game that we played a bit and tucked in the game closet to one that I'm looking forward to getting played again. It's still no Steam, but it's perfect as a tight, cutthroat, but light pick-up-and-deliver game. There's simply no reason to ever play this game without the expansion. Thumbs were middlin' for Days of Steam, but with Locomotives mixed in, thumbs are solidly up.

That's gonna do it for next week, folks. Thanks as always for reading, any feedback or suggestions are absolutely welcome and encouraged. Until then, I'll see ya in seven.


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