Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Hugo Spreadsheet

I had a couple of e-mail requests for a copy after this morning's post, so here is a link to the Excel spreadsheet I used to determine my Hugo votes.

My ratings have been deleted, because I'm not choosing to share all of my votes with you.

To use this, just fill in values for "good" and "fun."  I used the "Weighted Good" for my final outcome (it makes Good three times as important as Fun when voting). And I'm not a mathematician, so I'm not even sure "weighted" is the proper term for what I did.

Also: Fun doesn't necessarily mean "light-hearted or entertaining."  "Fun" for me was "engaging/kept me reading." Something that is Good +10, Fun -10 would still finish ahead of No Award on my ballot, with a final score of 11.49 (with 11.53 being the cutoff, as noted in this morning's post).

I'll be tweaking and updating and changing this spreadsheet over time - I'm not sure that 1/3 is the right balance, here. But this link will always have the "latest" version of the spreadsheet.

Hugo Awards: Done Voting

I read as much as I could. And then I watched as much as I could. And there are only a few days left for Hugo votes, so I locked my votes in.

I'm not going to go too deeply into my voting, but I will go briefly over why I voted as I did:

I've mentioned before that too many people confuse Good with Fun, and think that fun things are deserving of awards, when they aren't. And that is sorta the root of the Puppy issue from a few years ago. Books that they liked weren't winning awards.

The Hugos are the only major award that is fan-chosen, and it's a self-selecting group of fans: People who are willing and able to spend money to vote on an award.

They didn't break any rules. Not any written rules, at any rate. But they hijacked the system last year nonetheless. And this year, they hijacked it again - only worse, because last year they learned that dominating the ballot won't necessarily win them any awards, so they filled the ballot with complete crap.

I did not read the obvious joke nominees (although I did try in at least one case). I did not read the hit pieces.

I read as much as I could of the others. I looked at the art nominees.

And then I grabbed an excel spreadsheet and rated everything based on a +10 to -10 scale of "Good" and "Fun." I plotted that on a graph, and figured out where my "No Award" point was - it's equivalent to 0 Good, 0 Fun. Anything with a score worse than that scored below No Award.

I also weighted the spreadsheet in favor of Good.  So a Good 5, Fun 0 work will have a better score than a Good 0, Fun 5 work.

Remember that this is zero average. Mediocre scores for good and fun are the +2 / -2 range. 3-5 is good, 6+ is great.  -3 to -5 is bad. -6 and less is awful.

Then I fed it to a formula to determine the distance from 10,10, as if it were a triangle and I was calculating the hypotenuse. So low numbers were good, high numbers bad.

0, 0 in my spreadsheet, BTW, comes to a final score of  11.53, so anything above that level was out.

I'm going to discuss two categories, tell you how I voted, and discuss each nominee in that category. I'm going to discuss Best Novel and Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form.

And yes, I know. I crazy-overthought this.

In the Novel category, my vote looks like this:

The Fifth Season: Good 7, Fun 3 (Final score: 5.02)
I liked this book. It was really good. But the changing POV - even though it made sense by the end - drove me up a tree. Second-person writing is also a rough one for me, even when handled well. These made it difficult for me to get into and through the book, even though it was very good.

Ancillary Mercy: Good 3, Fun 4 (Final score: 7.80)
My biggest concern with this one is simple: Does it stand on its own? I've read the earlier two books in the series (and I very much liked them), but this didn't feel like a standalone novel. Not only that, but felt like the second half of a book more than it felt like the third book in the trilogy. This pushed its "Good" score down a bit for me. I will say that book one, Ancillary Justice, is very much worth reading. If you like it, move on to books 2 and 3. If you don't ... well ... then don't.

Seveneves: Good 5, Fun -2 (Final score: 8.52)
Stephenson is always a slog for me. He's one of those authors who feels like he's using more words than he needs to make his point, sometimes. His books are nearly always good, but I often really really struggle to get through them.  Seveneves was no exception. In fact, I'm not completely through this one as of this writing. His Good score may drop a bit, but I suspect his Fun will be pretty stable. I'm told by a couple of friends that it stumbles in the last third or so of the book. Worth noting: This was a Puppy nominee. Widely believed to be one of their "human shield" nominees who were there to make straight anti-Puppy voters feel bad for voting down actual quality work.

Aeronaut's Windlass: Good -3, Fun 4 (Final score: 13.45)
I really enjoyed this book, but it was not good. Not at all. It read like many of the Star Trek novels I have sitting on my shelf. Not because the characters fit the Star Trek character roles, but because it felt like he was trying to hit specific beats. It's like someone challenged Butcher to write a steampunk novel, and he was working his way through a steampunk checklist. And he didn't bring anything new to the genre in the process.  Don't get me wrong: I'm going to buy the sequels to this, too. At least the first couple of them. But this is The Expendables. This is The Fast and the Furious. Rollicking fun summertime fare, but not something that should win awards. This is below No Award on my ballot.

Uprooted: Fun -3, Good -7 (Final score: 15.47)
I couldn't. I just ... this book was really not for me. I hated every page of it that I read, and I gave up pretty early. I'm not a fan of Novik's writing - I got through the first two Tremeraire books before giving up midway through the third - and this book utterly failed to change my mind about her talent. She has potential to be a fantastic writer, I just haven't liked anything she has ever written.

In the Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form) category, my vote looks like this:

Mad Max: Fury Road: Good 5, Fun 6 (Final score: 5.50).
I loved this movie. It wasn't a transcendent experience, and it was a bit of an odd duck (post-Apocalyptic films haven't been A Thing for a while, now). But it was well-directed, well-acted, and a ton of fun. Some of the most fun I've had watching a movie in a while.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Good 2, Fun 9 (final score: 8.02)
It was a little too derivative of the originals for me, and the whole "Luke is missing!" mystery at the core of it was ... forced. And not well, either. Having Artoo hold the key to the whole thing was also a bit of an almost-too-literal deus ex machina. But it was fun.

The Martian Good 6, Fun -3 (final score: 8.47)
It was good. Really good. Fantastic, even. But it was also dull. Through most of the film, nothing happened. It's done well enough to (mostly) distract you from that realization, but man. I could just watch Survivorman on TV and get much of the same degree of escapism. Because really, this really was just Survivorman on Mars.

Avengers: Age of Ultron Good 0, Fun 4 (Final score: 8.71)
I think I'm the only one I know who was less-than-impressed with this one. The effects were good, the story was cliche-ridden. The worst of the Marvel movies that I've seen (I didn't see the second Thor movie). Nowhere near the promise shown in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, either. It was mediocre but fun - and that fun keeps it above No Award on my ballot.

I haven't seen Ex Machina, so I don't know how good it is or isn't. So I'm just leaving it off of my ballot. There also aren't any films in the category which scored below No Award, so I'm leaving No Award off of my ballot, as well.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Learned Something New This Weekend

I know that parts of my gaming experience are unique. Everyone's experiences are somewhat unique, if we're getting pedantic (and I'm known for my pedantry at times).

You know how I talk occasionally about publisher customer service?  Apparently I have a lot more experience with it than most folks.

This week, I acquired Kaosball. It's a fun game, so far, and I have Thoughts that will share here at some point. But I'm thinking about getting back into painting miniatures.

The game arrived on Monday, and it hit the table on Wednesday. I spent Tuesday reading and re-reading the rules and the FAQ and generally just getting ready to play on Wednesday.

We played a quick three-player game on Wednesday. Made a couple of rules mistakes - nothing big. Just little stuff. But we got through it and had a good time.

On Saturday, I pulled it out and started examining the figures to see what kind of task I was in for with the painting, and then I noticed that one of my Ringers was headless.  He wasn't a ringer that'd come out on Wednesday, and I hadn't even looked at the figures prior to that.

So I contacted CMoN customer care, and I assume they'll take good care of me. Because game publishers do that. It's a small industry and a small hobby and so negative word-of-mouth is especially damaging.

I mentioned it to a friend, and his comment was, "Again, Eric? It seems like almost every game you buy has an issue! I have more than 1500 games, and I've never needed to contact the publisher for support!"

Me? I apparently have The Luck. I have a number of games with damaged pieces. If the damage doesn't affect the gameplay, I'll often let it lie. But if it's missing pieces or something that impacts gameplay is damaged, I'll go to customer service.

How frequent is this an issue for me?

Here's what I can think of off the top of my head (and every time I start on this list, I think of another one):

1) Archipelago was missing one of its punch boards. I discovered this when I didn't appear to have a start tile. Ludically got one to me surprisingly quickly.
2) Room 25 was missing half of its countdown/number line/turn order tracker. In fact, I had duplicates of half of it. Matagot was very fast at sending the missing punchboard to me.
3) My copy of Star Trek: Attack Wing had an Enterprise with a malformed peg for sitting on the base. WizKids put me through a brief song-and-dance of sending unclear photos to demonstrate the issue, but they sent me the replacement ship.
4) My copy of Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deckbuilding Game was missing a card. One card out of six hundred. One of the "rare" cards for one of the characters. Had I not been sleeving them, I would never have discovered this card missing. Because I was one card short. Upper Deck sent me a replacement without a hassle.
5) My copy of Mutant Chronicles was missing a promo piece. I acquired the game at GenCon, and everyone who got it there was supposed to get a promo. Fantasy Flight sent the promo with zero hassle.
6) There was a known issue with some older copies of Cutthroat Caverns or one of its expansions - I honestly don't recall which. Somewhere in one of the print runs, the cards changed size, so the newer expansions weren't as compatible with one another as they should have been. But Smirk & Dagger made good on replacements, including a replacement box insert. When mine (weirdly) still didn't fit right, they sent me a second box insert. Curt Covert is good people.

These, by the way are just off the top of my head. I could probably spend some time in my collection and point out, "And this was missing its rulebook. And this was missing ..."

I have RPG books that are misprinted - one book is missing pages, one book has an upside-down cover, one book has repeated pages ...

In all cases, the publisher took care of me and gave me a replacement. All cases.

I even had a game that I purchased second-hand. It was missing pieces, and I contacted the publisher asking if there was a way I could buy them. I told him up front that I had purchased second-hand. He still sent them for free. And no, it wasn't a publisher I had worked with before. It wasn't someone I knew.

I have never had a publisher fail to take care of me when something I'd purchased was damaged or defective. I know there are laws in place to protect consumers from defective goods, but I have never gotten the impression that these were "forced" customer service issues. One publisher threw in a bunch of promos with their replacement shipment, for example. One RPG publisher sent me PDF codes for supplements in the e-mail when they were waiting for a fresh printing of my mis-printed book (because they had run out).

This is an industry where the people who are in the industry full time want to make it right.

Just one more thing to love about the hobby, I guess.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Box Inserts

This week, I have a new-found appreciation for the change wrought by a good box insert.

I mean ... I've known that a good insert makes a huge difference, but it was really driven home by several events over the last few weeks:

  1. I decided to try out the Broken Token inserts, including their 7 Wonders insert. I have all of the expansions and promos for this game and my cards are sleeved, and which means that the base game's insert is filled with fail. I can't fit the leaders and all of the Wonders and the Babel cards and tiles in there.
  2. I acquired Food Chain Magnate, which includes 300+ cards and no insert. Looking through my collection, I have a few games in this category, too.  Nations and Megacivilization both spring immediately to mind.  Having that many cards and no insert (or tuckboxes for the cards) is - honestly - unforgivable.

Here's what you need to know about me and handicrafts:

I'm clumsy and uncoordinated.  That's putting it mildly.  I can't even count the number of miniatures I have glued myself to while assembling them. The most notable self-gluing came while when I was 19, living in a dorm, and assembling a Locust battlemech, where I managed to glue both hands to the figure and my phone, and I managed to glue the phone to my ear at the same time.

So I looked at the Broken Token's roster, first, looking for a simple kit to start with. I settled on their box insert for Legendary Encounters, because I have Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deckbuilding Game (and I quite like it, for reasons I can't fully articulate - but that's another discussion for another time), and I'm dissatisfied with the "stock" insert (because I sleeve cards that get shuffled/used a lot). I ordered the insert and a bit of Gorilla Glue.  It took me about ten minutes to get the box together.

The instructions were clear, and I barely needed to use any glue on it (and I didn't glue myself to the box).  I can do this, I thought.  So I ordered the previously-mentioned insert for 7 Wonders.

It's several degrees of difficulty higher than the other one. It took me about an hour (not including time for the glue to dry) to get this one together. But it works. It holds all the bits - all of them. Sleeved cards, extra Wonders, Leaders, City Cards, and all. In the base game's box, which is now a bit sturdier than before.

Sadly, neither The Broken Token nor Go7Gaming make inserts for Nations or Megacivilization or Food Chain Magnate. So I did some digging and found several sites of DIYers who were doing game inserts out of foamcore. The Esoteric Order of Gamers even has some walkthrough posts with video showing how to use foamcore to make inserts.

I can do that, I thought. So I had my wife pick up a metal yardstick and some glue, and I grabbed a self-healing cut mat and my trusty X-Acto knife and then I ... proceeded to make a hash of it. The yardstick didn't have any kind of cork or non-slick backing. My X-Acto knife kept cutting at an angle because I wobbled. So I had curved and angle-cut foamcore, when I wanted crisp edges and straight lines. But - and this is the important part - I enjoyed the work. So, even though nothing usable came out of it, it was fun. It was something I want to do again.  Only with better tools. And it's the kind of thing where the more I do, the better I'll get.  You know: Practice Makes Better.

I don't do things half-way. It's just not me.  So I ordered this kit. I did my research, and it's highly-rated and should do what I need it to do. Now I just need to wait for it to arrive so I can ... waste a ton of foamcore trying to get things right.

I don't expect to turn out professional-quality inserts in No Time At All, but with a bit of practice and some time, I'm pretty sure I can get some pretty solid results in a reasonably short amount of time.

Provided I don't glue myself to the box.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Hitting the Table: Elysium

So last week, I told you I was going to talk about Elysium. And here I am to carry out that threat.

Elysium is a divine-themed tableau builder that uses the Greek pantheon as its inspiration. Where Deus is a light game, Elysium requires quite a bit of reading and juggling various abilities.

I'm afraid I don't have a bunch of awesome pictures of Elysium, because card games are oddly difficult for me to photograph. I'll supplement with pics from BoardGameGeek as needed.

Deus isn't strongly tied to its theme. You could very easily peel the gods out of it and throw in a different theme - it's not sacrificing to Neptune, it's investing in your trade infrastructure, for example.  That won't work with Elysium, because every card in the game ties back to one of the deities in some way.

At the start of the game, players will have four pillars on their board, along with a bit of money and a few victory points. There are cards tied to eight different gods in the box. Choose five gods for your game (we usually pull bonus tokens out of a hat). This means that every game will likely feature cards you haven't seen before. Shuffle those five small decks together to form one deck for play. Turn a variable number of cards face-up (it depends on the number of players).

Players then proceed to draft cards. Or turn order markers (more on this in a bit).

In Deus, you needed to keep track of multiple resources in potentially sizable quantities. In Elysium, you have no quantities to keep track of. You only need to keep track of four pillars. You'll gain victory points and money (and possibly prestige, if Ares is in play).

Each card has a bunch of information on it.  Here are three cards from the Hades deck:

Photo by Brett J. Gilbert
In the upper left is the rank of the card and a symbol telling you which god's family these cards are from.  Ranks range from 1-3, and there will be five gods in each game. In the upper right is the pillar (or pillars) you need to have available in order to draft the card.  The left-center is a symbol that tells you when and how the card's ability is triggered.  Finally, in the "text box" has symbols that tell you what it does in both symbol form and in text.

Each round, each player will draft three cards and one turn order marker. When it's your turn to draft, you can also activate some of your cards (depending on their timing). To draft a card, just choose one in the available draft pool and place it above your player board (an area called your "Domain"). Then discard one of your pillars. Note here: If I draft the left-most character in the above picture, I need to have my yellow pillar available, but I can discard any pillar. I don't have to discard my yellow pillar, I just need to have it.  The turn order markers are similarly tied to pillar colors - you can only draft what you have.  

It's possible that you won't be able to draft because you only have your yellow pillar and all of the cards require blue or red. If this happens, you draft a "Citizen," which is the top card of the deck, drafted face-down. Citizens are kind of a mixed blessing.

The turn order markers that you'll draft also have three symbols on them. There is a gold coin representing money, a harp representing "transfers," and a laurel wreath representing victory points.  Once everyone has collected all four items that they're going to collect that turn, players move their turn order indicators around, and the new first player moves into their transfer phase.

To transfer, you pay money equal to a card's rank, and move it from above your player board to below it - an area called your "Elysium."  Cards in your Elysium can no longer use their special abilities, but cards in your Domain are worth no points at the end of the game.

Every time you transfer a card to your Elyisum, you also add it to a set called a "Legend."  There are two kinds of Legends - there are Level Legends and there are Family Legends. One of them is cards from different families but which have the same rank, and one of them is cards of the same family that are different ranks. The different sets are worth different amounts of points, depending on how full they are.  There are also bonus points available for the largest rank-based set and being the first to complete a 1-2-3 set of a single family.  You can use citizens in your sets, but they are worth -2 points at the end of play. It's not a huge number of points to lose, but losing a close game because you had too many citizens can be heart-breaking.

That's the gameplay in a (crazy-simplified) nutshell.  Here's the thing, though: This game is complex. There are five or six different times and ways that cards in your Domain can activate, ranging from "triggers as soon as you draft it and never again," to "tap to use, untap during the transfer phase" (they don't phrase it like that, mind you), to "always-on effect." Each of these has their own symbol in play.

Also, each set of God cards plays differently. Apollo, for example, gives you the Oracle (a preview of the top of the deck for the next drafting round) and cards that interact with the Oracle. Ares gives you another way to earn victory points at the end of the game. Hephaestus makes it easier to earn money. And so on and so forth.

Balancing your actions is tricky, too. Because you need to transfer cards to get points to win, but some cards are too valuable to transfer. And you also need to have enough transfers and the money to pay for those transfers ...

And the game runs for a total of five rounds. That's twenty turns per player. Players who know what they're doing can be done in half an hour (with four players), so it's fairly quickly-playing.

It's a surprisingly deep game. I won't say broken strategies don't exist, but I haven't found them, yet. 

I think that this is one of the deepest tableau-builders I own. 

7 Wonders is a fantastic game, but there's not a ton of depth there until you start adding expansions - and those tend to focus strategy more than add depth. Also in 7 Wonders, cards played are effectively dead - they don't do anything (with a small handful of exceptions). In Elysium, every single card in your tableau has the ability to do something. It's possible to have multiple cards trigger on a single draft, for example.

Deus has cards triggering later in play, but they trigger in a predictable order that doesn't change. When I build a blue card, I know that all of my previously-played blue cards are going to trigger in order, and I usually know exactly when I'm going to do each time. I also have a hand of cards that I can hold onto and play when I want to play them. And I've only played one game of Deus in which we didn't reshuffle the draw deck at least once. In Elysium, the draft mechanism means that I won't necessarily know what's going to be available each turn. I also don't know which characters will appear in a given turn, so it requires a greater degree of adaptation. And you won't go through the deck multiple times unless something's gone very weird.

I'm a huge fan of this game, but it's a game that I can't bring to the table with easily-frustrated players, and casual gamers won't do well. It's also worth noting that knowing what's in the various decks is powerful.

But with experienced gamers, I pull this one out as often as I can. It's really that good.