Next of Ken, Volume 32: Gremlins 2, Grimm, American Horror Story, and Eminent Domain!

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Come on in for another dose of Next of Ken, where this week I'm talking about Gremlins 2, spooky new television series American Horror Story and Grimm, plus a review of Tasty Minstrel Games' new Eminent Domain.  All that, and 0 grams of saturated fat to boot!  Join us, won't you?




Noises Sound Like The End, and We Will Never See Them

altI recently revisited a movie from my younger days that I've always had a fascination with, even though I really didn't like it when I saw it in the theater--Gremlins 2.

The original Gremlins was a cultural phenomenon, so much so that the "rules" are ingrained in our cultural psyche.  Don't get them wet.  Don't expose them to bright light.  And no matter what you do...don't feed them after midnight. It was a movie that successfully blended horror and comedy, a very tricky balance to maintain.

It had plenty of laughs in the form of the antics of the little green critters, but there were plenty of scenes that were pretty nasty (everyone remembers the microwave, right?)

Gremlins 2 was weird in that it took six years for the sequel to come out.  In the era of Rambos and Rockys that would be churned out every couple of years, seeing a sequel come out that much later was unheard of.  I was pretty excited about it regardless, because it was one of my favorite movies as a kid.

I remember finally getting to the theater to see it, and I *hated* it.  Where were the scares?  The movie had taken on a full comedic tilt, and there were no scares to be found.  I was a surly metalhead sixteen year-old...where were the blood and guts, man?  You had full bore pop culture spoofs such as the scene where a winged Gremlin bursts through a wall, leaving behind a picture-perfect Batman symbol (the Keaton Batman film had of course made its own huge cultural splash the year before.)

I think I rented it on VHS just to be sure, though honestly I can't remember.  Mostly though it was a movie that I'd think about as being a terrible sequel, but it was a movie that completely beffudled me.  I wasn't alone; where the original raked in $150 million on a relatively lean $11 million budget, Gremlins 2 pulled in only $41 million on a $50 million budget.

There were things that stuck with me though, and over the years as I became more and more interested in stories with metafictional elements, I wanted to go back and revisit this one.  It had bounced in and out of my Amazon cart endlessly, just one of those things I wasBrain_Gremlin going to pick up eventually.

Lucky for me, it was on one of the digital movie channels the other night, and I finally decided to give it another chance.The verdict?  I still don't think it's a good movie, but it is ultimately a fascinating one.

You see, the director Joe Dante had declined to make a sequel after the first one was such a smash hit, believing the story was done.  Warner continued to try and get someone, anyone to take the reigns and get the movie made, but their plans didn't really seem to pan out.  Rumor has it, they finally approached Dante again, not only with a big budget, but something else he insisted creative control.

What did he do with that control?  Folks, he took a giant shit on the studio and the movie that had made him a lot of money.  Here is a guy who not only understood the endless cynical nature of sequels, he decided he was going to skewer it absolutely and totally.

(reading) So you have endless, endless gags and jokes.  Famous actors like Christopher F'n Lee hamming things up distressingly, just having a ball.  You even have the movie shredding itself, as during one scene some security guards ridicule the "rules" mercilessly with questions like, "What if one of them eats something at eleven o'clock, but he gets something stuck in his teeth..." and "What about if he's eating in an airplane, and they cross the time zone..." (Hey, it's *always* after midnight somewhere, right?)  You have Phoebe Cates lampooning her famous "Dead Daddy Santa" speech.

Mostly though, about an hour into the movie, it is joke after gag after joke, and it doesn't hold together so much as a movie as it does a complete and utter random jaunt into complete chaos.  It's a movie that not only knows it's a movie, it knows it's a unnecessary sequel to a very successful movie, and as I said just takes a complete shit all over it.  It may not be a great film, but it's hard to hate something where everyone is having an obviously great time, while simultaneously lambasting Hollywood and its cynical love of senseless, money-driven sequels.

And remember what I said about being a fan of all things metafictional?  It did give us this memorable moment, where the movie appears to physically break down due to a Gremlin attack, and only one man can stop them:

Yes, this sequence is really, truly in the middle of the movie, and tells you just about all you need to know about Gremlins 2.

It did also give us this've been warned.  It loops, so no need to watch it past 30 seconds or so:




At the Stroke of Midnight Come, She Polished Verse and Hearses

I've been trying to get into a few new shows recently, since many of the ones I used to watch are gone or cancelled.  I'm kind of the kiss of death for a lot of shows, especially if I watch from the beginning (it's a wonder Angel made it five seasons, you know?)

GRIMM_NBCI caught the first episode of Grimm.  It's a show about a cop who is of the legendary "Grimm" bloodline, and the hook is that he can see mythological creatures for what they are.  Apparently they are hiding in plain sight and mere mortals just can't "see" them properly.  I wasn't really impressed with the pilot.  First off the lead actor isn't really that great, he's kind of a personality vacuum.  The story is too eager to plunge straight into its mythology, so the intro is pretty rushed.

Plus, as a procedural, it's pretty bad.  So the guy "has a hunch" (i.e., can see the monster wolf man for what he is) so he can bust in without a warrant?  And everyone's ok with this...because he 'had a feeling?'  Yeah, that doesn't really work so well.  They need to decide whether they want to have those procedural elements, or just wing it and not sweat any of that too much.

I was hoping the wolf guy sidekick wasn't going to be a regular character, but based on the previews for the next episode, that looks like the direction they're going in.  I was really just hoping he was a "see? we're not all bad!" bit part.  He and the main guy don't really interface all that well.   I'm giving it a couple more episodes to see if it sticks.  So far, I've definitely seen much, much better, especially from the production team involved.  But you guys know me--I'm a sucker for giving genre shows every chance possible.

He was excited because he thought it was One show I am digging is American Horror Story on FX.  We've watched the first three episodes and it strikes a nice, creepy vibe.  It's a story about a dysfunctional family that moves into a new home as they try to put the pieces of their family back together.  Being that it's an FX show, they aren't skimping on gore and profanity.  It's basically FX's gig as a sort of "HBO Lite."

The cast is solid.  Dylan McDermott plays the same guy he always does (i.e., "I'm intense and speak in hushed, stilted sentences"), but there's are strong performances from Connie Britton, Evan Peters, and Oscar winner Jessica f'n Lange as Constance,  the next door neighbor who is obviously much more than she seems.

The narrative is a touch spotty at times, but it's good horror-themed TV.  Between this, the Walking Dead, True Blood, and a plethora of other horror shows, it's almost like the Fox Network in the 80s here (anyone else remember Werewolf?  Man I loved that show!  And how about Freddy's, I loved Werewolf, man!)

American Horror Story has been renewed for a second season already amidst very good ratings, so I guess they haven't gotten the memo yet that I'm following the show.

The other new show sitting on our DVR is Once Upon a Time, but I can't be assed to watch it just yet.   Reviews on that one were kinda "meh", so I'm probably safe skipping it.  I'll give it a chance, though.



If You're in the Way of Their Progress, They'll Take Anything That They Choose

A while back, I used to run a sporadic blog series entitled, "Euros that Don't Suck." If I still did that column, then Eminent Domain (2-4

EmDo_Coverplayers, 45 minutes, designer Seth Jaffee, Tasty Minstrel Games) would definitely fit the bill.

Eminent Domain is a deckbuilding/role-selection game where players attempt to explore and colonize or conquer planets, along the way turning profit with production and trade, and discovering new technologies.  Now I know that most likely, some combination of words in that previous sentence already has your gamer "spidey sense" tingling.  Bear with me, there still might be something here to suit you despite your misgivings.

Unlike a lot of deckbuilders, most of the cards you add to your deck aren't those you purchase, but instead are taken from stacks of role cards in the center of the table.  The roles are quite similar to those found in games like Race for the Galaxy.  Survey lets you nab new planets from the planet deck, Colonize and Warfare are two different ways of getting those planets into play, there's a Produce/Trade split role card, and lastly Research, which is different than the others.

On your turn, you can play a card for an action, as most cards have two purposes--an action, and a role.  The action is yours and yours alone to take.   Often the actions are similar to the roles, but not always.  Warfare gets you a fighter or lets you attack a planet almost just like its role, but cards like Survey's action have nothing to do with planets and just let you draw two more cards.

Then, you must choose a role.  The roles are actually stacks of cards on a central board.  By picking that role, you're adding it to your deck along with taking that role for the turn.  You can also boost the action by playing more of the same type of icons, to generate a stronger effect.  As you do certain roles more and more often, you'll be able to boost them with more cards, making you more proficient with what you can do on any given turn.

However, once you've chosen a role, just like other role selection games your opponents can hop on the gravy train, playing cards of their own with the same icon to get the same benefit.  But that's the catch--they need cards in their hand that match your role; without them, they don't get to do anything.  Players can always "Dissent" instead of "Following"--when you dissent, you simply get to draw a card from your deck.

The planets are a different stack, and these are one of the biggest source of victory points.  You must Survey to get planets out, and once you do, you'll notice they have two different types of costs.  There's a military cost that is paid when you attack a planet by discarding that many fighters.  Then there's a Colony cost which requires you to Colonize and finally settle with that many Colony cards tucked underneath, at which point you'll get them back.  Once you've flipped these planets, they'll start granting you other benefits, such as production/trade for VPs, bonus icons that will strengthen your actions, but most importantly having certain types of planets will open up the Technology decks for you.

EmdDo_Data_NetworkRemember the Research role?  There are three different decks, and each are keyed to the three main planet types.  By generating enough Research icons with an action, and having a certain number of flipped up planets of different types, you can purchase Technology cards for your deck.  Some of these are more powerful versions of the main roles.  The more powerful techs require you to have multiples of a given planet type, along with more Research icons (the strongest techs require three of a type of planet as well as 7 Research--a tall order for a deck unless it's specifically gunning for it.)  The stronger tech cards also have victory points on them, so researching new technology is also a way to earn points.

Players thus take turns choosing roles, purchasing techs, conquering and colonizing planets, and trading the goods from these new planets they've established.

Now, I know that the first complaint out of the box is going to relate to player interaction.  Make no mistake here, this is a Euro through and through.  A Euro with a cool space theme, but a Euro nonetheless.  However, for six years now, my Euro card game of choice has been San Juan...and suddenly I feel that distinction is threatened.

I'm going to be honest and upfront--I genuinely disliked Race for the Galaxy, a game that shares some gameplay elements with Eminent Domain and even San Juan itself.  The double-guessing game with the "all roles available" gameplay, coupled with the giant deck with one-off of certain cards that you needed to win...bleh.

You may have similar misgivings, so let me assure you that this is a far, far better game than Race for the Galaxy is.  Race I traded after only a handful of plays; Eminent Domain has already made itself at home and isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

Just know going in that the game has the whole "piggybacking" role selection as its chief interaction point, but it's an important one.  MostEmDo_Weapon_Emporium good role-selection games thrive on figuring out how to force your opponents to do part of your work for you.  This one takes it to another level by allowing you to continually get better and better at certain roles, especially as you take them more often and use other cards to slim your deck, getting rid of roles you aren't using very often.

I freely admit that the game is about building a sleek engine.  But the cool part of the game is that set up as it is, there's not much downtime.  As you must choose whether to Follow or Dissent on other players turns, plus pay attention to what they're doing most often so you can either reap the benefits of their role choices or avoid things that will help them out.

The tech cards are genius though and are definitely the star of the show.  You're not looking at ten stacks of identical cards; there are only a few of each type of tech card in these decks, and of the most powerful techs there are only singular copies.  Some of them become a part of your deck and others stay in play, granting you permanent abilities.

What can I say about Eminent Domain?  It's a fast, fun deckbuilder Euro with great bits that blends elements of other games that came before it, but mixes it up and brings enough new stuff to the table to make it stand out from the rest.  It's not really much at all like Dominion or any of that model of deckbuilder that followed it.

I really shouldn't be surprised that I like this, considering I also really enjoyed Seth's Terra Prime--a streamlined space exploration/trade game that had solid gameplay but was let down by production issues.  He's got a knack so far of putting out Euros that AT fans shouldn't feel embarassed to enjoy, and let me tell you, that can be quite a feat.  Eminent Domain gives you strong, fluid gameplay, the ability to customize and specialize, in a nice 45 minute window that's not so short it just burns by, but not so long that you get bored of the whole thing.

2011 continues to impress in terms of fantastic board game releases.  Check out Eminent Domain, it's a lot of fun and definitely a keeper.


Big thanks go out to Gamesalute, who provided the review copy for this column.



And that's going to do it for yet another spine-tingling episode of Next of Ken.  I'm off to nab me some hot cold sodas and cold hot popcorn, RIGHT NOW.  Until next time, I'll see ya in seven.




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