Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Glimpse of Two Gulchites

A recent radio article discussing terrible job interview questions revealed that, on top of the normal nervousness involved in putting one's best foot forward for a prospective employer, an interviewee might have to field a doozy like, "How would you go about moving Mt. Fuji?"

My instinctive response, though I don't know if I would have the courage to voice it in a job audition, would be something along the lines of, "I guess this is similar to that question about 'how does a Pygmy go about eating an elephant?', and the answer at its simplest is, 'one bite at a time'. If I have to move Mt. Fuji by shovel, for instance, it comes down to 'one shovel-load at a time', doesn't it?"

The irony is that in actual day-to-day living, I can often find myself paralyzed by the scope or scale of a project, or multiple projects, and end up darting between them ineffectively, or worse yet, abandoning them until I have a better approach in mind. This has even impacted the amount of hobby work I have done lately.

Although the best way to complete a large modelling project is to leave it as accessible as possible so that you can work on it as time permits, I vastly prefer to have large, dedicated blocks of time that I can use to really focus on them and easily see my progress. The trouble is, as life gets increasingly busy, and my offspring become more and more active, that sort of time becomes difficult to come by!

I thought for sure I would get more work done on Serenity Gulch once Fenya's obligations to the Edmonton Opera Company were done with, but there is always another event, meeting, visit or committee, or at least that's how it seems. Wanting to complete a bunch of bystanders for some of the scenarios, a posse for Rob, since painting is more difficult for him than for me, some of my own models, plus the need for more buildings and scenery in the town itself, I looked for a day off when I could throw some serious effort at one of those tasks.

But maintenance issues and other commitments seems to conspire against me (or at least, that's how it seemed at the time), until I find myself less than two months out, with a scheduled renovation project jockeying for time with everything else. Some of the participants were hoping to come over for painting bees, since they had no hobby supplies of their own, and weekends were now in short supply. Had my reluctance to do piecemeal work doomed Gaming & Guinness X to be Gulchless?

When it came to a head, I offered a painting session yesterday, which Mike was willing to attend, and furthermore, was willing to take all the paints over to his place, and potentially host some bees at his place (far closer to where the others live) until the bathroom is completed in mid-April.

Breaking the seal on miniature painting after such a long absence felt really good, and I managed to get a couple of Rob's figures largely sorted out, his trail cook and scout:

With the paints out of the house, the first priority is renovation prep, but once that is out of the way, I can get back to work on some buildings and scenery. Once the new bathroom is in place, assembly should be done, for the most part, and I can focus solely on painting up buildings right up until G&G X.

It might not have quite as many structures as I had envisioned at the start, and some of the more ambitious elements I had wanted to add to Serentity Gulch may have to wait until a later date, but it feels good to be moving forward again, even if the pace and dedicated time isn't what I had hoped.

In the end, one bite at a time should get me and this tiny town to where we need to be by the end of May.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Pop Culture Gladiators: Star Wars vs. Marvel

So, sci-fi blog io9 is doing one of those ridiculous contests that pits various TV and movie franchises against each other in an approximation of the March Madness college basketball tournament, and they are now down to their Final Four:

Star Trek (TV) vs. Doctor Who

Star Wars vs. Marvel (Movies).

Currently, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Star Wars is currently edging out Marvel, but it is honestly closer than I anticipated:

Inline image 1

Now, as big a fan as I am of the original trilogy, I found it very easy to vote for Marvel. Why? Because Marvel has somehow managed to do the impossible.

Marvel, through what I presume to be a combination of alien technology and dark magic, have brought together an incongruous menagerie of different writers, directors and producers, from all sorts of backgrounds (The guy who made Elf is shooting Iron Man? A Shakespearean Brit is doing Thor? Some TV comedy duo is writing and directing a spy-thriller featuring Captain America?) and have not only come away with an astonishingly decent and consistent stable of ten movies (zero misfires by my math, one by Earl's), but then placed them in a shared cinematic universe and capped off their first phase by putting three title characters from their own feature films together in the first real superhero team movie!

Star Wars, on the other hand, starts off brilliantly with a new-fangled, old-fashioned look at space opera, then can't make up its mind about the tone it wants to take, and is hampered by no one more than its visionary writer-director, who asserted a micro-manager's control over practically every element, even when delegating might have rendered better results (e.g. dialogue, for instance).  And that's before you take the prequels into consideration.  It's a universe I am strangely looking forward to returning to, but as both entertainment and an accomplishment, I don't think it compares to what Marvel has done.

(Sorry, let me just kick this soapbox out of the way here...)

Now, should you feel the same way I do, and you have a moment to spare, I heartily encourage you to head over to io9 and vote, not against Star Wars, but in support of Marvel.  Tell your friends, if you've a mind to, and help narrow the gap and perhaps even create an upset. Face front, True Believers!

After that, it's everyone for themselves when the victor takes on Star Trek.

Star Wars ended up being victorious, but Marvel kept the margin close, to within 250 of nearly 7,000 votes.  On Monday, Star Wars (Movies) vs Star Trek (TV) begins, and that should be an interesting comments section to peruse...

Throwback Thursday: The Cycle Repeats Itself

(Originally posted March 31, 2009)

And now, a slightly comic denouement to the previous post, to serve as a virtual sorbet and make the transition to future silliness more palatable...

Mark is a friend of mine (former boss, actually) who lives in the U.K. and is a tremendous history buff. He sent me an e-mail telling me he enjoyed Opa's story, and added this: More WWII info for Fenya; apparently if German tourists get 'uppity' (a habit they find hard to break) in Holland the Dutch say 'can my grandad have his bicycle back?' as the occupying forces left in such a hurry they stole every mode of transport they could get their hands on!

Needless to say, I found this pretty funny, and told a few people at work, a few of my mates, the wife and so forth. That evening, she was on the phone with my father-in-law to thank him for the tale, and put me on the phone to tell him Mark's anecdote, which I related with glee.

"It's true," he said. "I had a bicycle near the end of the war. It was old, and worn out, and all the leather had come off the seat. Springs were all sticking out of it, so it hurt my bottom to ride it. But near the end of the war, a drunken German soldier came to the farm and just told me, 'Kid, I need that bicycle.' And I said, 'Take it.' And he rode off, and that was that."

Now, I figure a dilapidated bicycle is a small price to pay to hasten the departure of occupation forces, sad as it is to be taking a toy from a 12 year old Dutch boy. But there had to be some measure of satisfaction in knowing that if you wanted to, you could probably track the guy down by his funny walk after he rode it all the way to the border in a semi-anesthetized state, right?

And I am just waiting for the inappropriate moment when my daughter asks some visiting German person, "Can my granddad have his bicycle back? No, seriously..."

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Sharpe's Menu: Vernal Geekquinox 2015

Spring had arrived the day before, accompanied not by budding leaves but by a heavy snowfall warning, because Alberta. This did not dispirit us, however, as the weather was not severe enough to postpone Pete's semi-annual Geekquinox dinner, this one themed around Napoleonic officer Richard Sharpe, star of Bernard Cornwell's series of novels and Masterpiece Theatre's TV movies (aptly portrayed by Sean Bean).


Indulging both his dedication to cuisine and his compulsion towards presentation, he gave us all a video menu last month that used 54 minutes of excerpted video from the aforementioned series to present the dishes we would be eating that evening.


Many of us thought it would be a puzzle, and seeing the regiment's hunter sight up a hare made me think that rabbit might be on the menu. In fact, the videos were just a way to frame up different French and British dishes within the theme, linking them to various characters, and with the centrepiece being the immensely appropriate Beef Wellington. Upon arrival, we were able to view the bill of fare in its entirety again.


For someone who a few years ago would have listed the telephone as their preferred cooking implement, Pete has come a long way. Combining his epicurean tastes with a scientific rigour and dauntless attitude, there are few dishes or styles of cooking that he is unwilling to approach, and watching him in the kitchen is a treat.


The Guinness and Irish Whiskey cheese fondue was absolutely delightful, rich and hearty.


Audrey and I both love scallops, but have never had occasion to try Coquilles St. Jacques, and now we got to have them in bespoke dishes! To be fair, Pete would have preferred ramekins, but couldn't find any to his liking and these were on sale.

The stove only allowed six of these to be broiled at one time, so as Pete prepared the second batch, he was taken aback by the silence boom the normally talkative crowd. "Are they all right?" he inquired. Everyone replied in the affirmative, wordlessly, their mouths filled with scallops in a rich creamy sauce.

All the food was excellent, but the centrepiece was undoubtedly the Beef Wellington: a succulent tenderloin coated in foie gras and wrapped in phyllo pastry. It is quite an involved dish to prepare, so he had made it Thursday.


Taking them from the fridge, he quickly gave the pastry an egg wash for browning, and put them into the stove with the meat still cold; in this way, the beef doesn't overcook while the pastry bakes.

Normally Pete likes to do his experiments beforehand so he can adjust the recipe if needed; the complexity of this dish prevented that, so he was perhaps a little less certain than usual when he removed it from the oven and began carving it.

He needn't have worried; the meat was a prefect medium rare, soft and succulent, with most of the flavour coming from the foie gras and pastry. Accompanied by braised leeks and Yorkshire pudding, it was a masterwork that required no gravy or potatoes to round things out.

Another brilliant meal, spent in delightful company; three cheers for the chef!


Thursday, March 19, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Family Connections to The Holocaust

Notwithstanding how many people may have stopped perusing my ramblings since I began blogging here back in 2009, I understand that at least two people have started reading it since then.

Given my proclivity towards whimsy and nonsense, I thought it might be useful to go back and re-post and re-share some of my favourites from a half decade ago.  This is one of the stories that prompted me to start keeping a blog in the first place.

Original Title: Theories of Relative-ity, March 29, 2009

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My daughter, Fenya, is in the 5th grade, and has recently started a Social Studies unit on the Holocaust. Knowing that both of my wife's parents were in Holland during the war, she asked my wife to inquire if Oma or Opa knew anyone who had been taken away during the occupation.

Now, like a lot of people, I have a hard time categorizing my relationship with my father-in-law. Do I tell you we have drastically different ways about experiencing the world and the people in it? Or the fact that the very first words he said to me after being introduced and shaking hands was, "Soft hands"? Despite all that, however, he can be an easy fellow to respect. What he may lack in diplomacy he more than makes up for in honesty and clear language, and is an intelligent and inquisitive man with tremendous memory and insight.

He wrote the following to Fenya, and for a man of few words who does not have a lot of cause to write, he tells an important story about values, and risk, and familial connections to historic events in a way I can only describe as brilliantly succinct, and I wanted to share it with you.

March 27, 2009

Dear Fenya,

You asked your mom whether I knew people of the Jewish religion who were taken by the Germans and died (or were gassed) in a concentration camp in Germany or Poland. I knew an old Jewish couple who came to Mom and Dad’s farm periodically for some food. My Mom knew them very well because they had a small store from where they sold yarn to knit socks, vests, sweaters etc. I picture them as being in their seventies and were marked by a yellow star (the Star of David on their clothing). The Star of David, King of Israel from the Old Testament, and is mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. From about 1942 on until they were rounded up they were to be identified by the Star of David and a curfew was imposed on them; they were not allowed on the street between 9 pm and 7 am by the German occupation in Europe. They knew that they were earmarked for destruction. The man said one time to my Mom, ‘there is no reason for us to ask anybody to hide us, we are old anyway.’

There were several Jewish people in our town who had small businesses from which they eked out a living. Your Great-Uncle Hendrik Torsius and his wife took a Jewish family into hiding for 3 years; a man and his wife and their two teenaged daughters. They lived in an out of the way area at the time. He built a sort of chicken coop and made it appear for anybody’s eyes like a big pile of straw which would be used for bedding for cattle in the wintertime. They lived in very close quarters but survived for 3 years by hiding in this way.

One time the German army came around checking the area farms. Your Great-Uncle asked the soldier who was to check out his place what he was looking for and told him there was nothing to be found; ‘You might as well leave.’ Luckily, he left.

After the war, the family was given the distinction by the nation of Israel as being Righteous Gentiles, and a tree was planted in their honor in Israel.

Your Great-Uncle’s family put their lives on the line to save that family. If that Jewish family would have been found, both families would have been shot dead.

Opa Top,
(Gerrit Top)
High River, Alberta

Opa and Oma both experienced some terrible things during World War II. Opa barely missed being deported to work in concentration camps like Neuengamme and Birkenau in 1944. Over 600 young men and boys were shipped out, and only 49 returned after the war. (

I hope he can be convinced to write about that experience at some point, but I will certainly understand if he doesn't. In fact, this warcrime is so well known, he rarely even identifies himself as being from Putten.

At any rate, I am very grateful to my father-in-law, for connecting my daughter so directly to an act of heroism during a historic tragedy, and for reminding us that we are not so far removed from its effects as we might like to think.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Leprechaun Trap

Sunday night, for reasons known only to her, Glory built a Leprechaun trap.

Based loosely on the classic Burmese Tiger Trap of cartoon lore, but sans spikes, obviously; a dead or maimed leprechaun is not likely to take you to his tore of gold.  Her assumption was that surely not even one of the Wee Folk could cross a span covered by naught other than a single thickness of green tissue paper.

Regardless of motivation, it's always good to see people getting into the spirit of the Lesser Holidays. Fenya tells me that today at school hardly anyone dressed in green, and very few mentions were made of either the Saint, or his Day, or the Island Nation he is the Patron of. A bit sad, I have to say.

Our household, on the other hand, enjoyed a delicious St. Patrick's Day dinner at the church Sunday night, and were joined by Audrey's sister Betty and two of the cousins, Mark and Kara-Lynn,  Part of the impetus for attending was to sort out a suit for Mark for his grad which is approaching, but also to give a little equal exposure to Glory's Irish dancing since Betty and Kara-Lynn had previously come up from Rocky Mountain House to see Fenya in The Magic Flute.

Thus, arrayed in various types of silly headgear and viridian hues, we drove up to St. Albert for a great meal in good company, and someone even had the good sense to smuggle in a flask of Irish Mist as a means of enhancing the after dinner coffee.

But it was never proven who.

Kara-Lynn even had the good fortune to win the doorprize and take home a shamrock and some other goodies.

The dancing was my favourite part though, and Scoil Rince Mahoney brought dancers of all ages.  Glory got to do two, the first of which was a soft shoe team dance:

While the second was a hard shoe reel and was a chance for some of the younger performers to join the older girls:

All in all, a wonderful evening!

Sadly, this morning, the cunning leprechauns mocked Glory's trap by way of an unsuspecting but similarly colored third party.

Alas, no gold was to be had, but a grand St. Patrick's Day nonetheless.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Lessons of Gettysburg

Imagine that you are a Union infantryman during the American Civil War.  It is late March of 1865, tantalizingly close to the end of the war, and you can feel it, although you cannot know it. You and your regiment from Maine have found yourselves in a skirmish in Virginia at a place you think is called Quaker Road.  Muskets crackle on all sides, and the air is beginning to fill with the acrid smoke from black powder. The valour of your brigade commander, Brig. Gen Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, is well known, and he is leading your regiment now from horseback against a Confederate position when he is suddenly shot through the chest.

Time seems to congeal, and you see the splash of blood, the stiffening of his body from the impact, the bullet exiting from the center of his back as his mount rears and he plummets ignominiously to the ground.

Emotions race through you, jockeying for position: terror at seeing another man, known to you, fall slain; confusion, wondering who is now in charge; fear, at the prospect that the next .58 caliber minnie ball might have your name on it; and anger and guilt that your commanding officer has been killed before your eyes.

Adrenalin and the primal urge to persevere bubble up out of you in a guttural scream that puts the yipping 'rebel yell' to shame, and you fire your one shot at the cloud of smoke that might well mask the musket that felled your leader, and then raise your bayoneted musket as you, and the rest of your regiment, prepare to charge headlong into the enemy position...

And then, somehow, impossibly, Chamberlain staggers to his feet.

He is shaken, unsteady, but still composed.  His pistol lost, he draws his saber and exhorts the men of his brigade to join him in the charge, which you do, gladly, and in awe, because you can see, clearly, the hole in his blue wool uniform jacket, directly between his shoulder blades.

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I've always enjoyed public speaking, so when they formed a Toastmasters club at work, I was quick to join and had the privilege of becoming a charter member.  It's a great organization, well structured and supportive, with a clear structure to follow to get one's first designation of Competent Communicator.  There are ten speech projects, each with a different focus such as body language or clear phrasing, five of which I had completed as of the start of this week.

I wasn't scheduled to make a speech this past week; in fact, with the exception of a 'Tall Tales' speech contest last Autumn, I'd gone 11 months without a project to accommodate some newer members. When the scheduled speaker announced on Wednesday that they would not be able to give their speech the next day, I said I would be happy to step in.

My regret was almost immediate; I normally would have had a month or more to think about a topic and focus that suited the particular project, and now I had 24 hours to do that, and prepare and rehearse the speech in its entirety before delivering it at lunch the next day.

A glance at the Competent Communicator manual informed me that the focus of Project 6 was vocal variety.  My delivery was already pretty decent, but I needed to make sure that my speech gave me ample opportunity to demonstrate it. My first five speeches contained a lot of references to my father and family, and I wanted to make sure this one was non-anecdotal, but the infinite variety of possible topics left me paralyzed with indecision.

Turning to the internet on my lunch break, I found a great website that suggested focusing on the 'Four Ps' of public speaking: pace, pitch, power and pauses. It also suggested that speaking without notes (as I usually tried to do) would make it easier to keep my head up to project my voice, and to focus on the auditory component of my speech.  This meant it would have to be a topic I had some familiarity with, but what?

Thinking of changes in volume made me think of shouting, which in turn made me think of war cries; unbidden, the image from a t-shirt purchased at Gettysburg came to me, with the steely gaze of Confederate Gen. Lewis A. Armistead perched over the words, "Come on boys, give them the cold steel!"

The American Civil War seemed a good choice, but too broad; even the Battle of Gettysburg would be difficult to encompass in a 5-7 minute speech.  Limiting my speech to three lessons of leadership, including Armistead, Chamberlain and of course, Robert E. Lee, however, that could work.  I feel to outlining my speech, and that evening continued to refine it until I'd whittled it down to 6 minutes and 40 seconds.

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The speech, "Three Days at Gettysburg" was well received, but I wasn't overly happy with it; I knew I had gone a few seconds over (but had been spared the embarrassment of being clapped off!), and felt I had rushed my delivery in quite a few places.  In the future, I must try to get the rehearsed speech down to 6 minutes in order to avoid this.

My evaluator was happy with it though, praising my passion for the material and vocal variety, but suggesting I leave longer pauses after rhetorical questions, in order to better engage the audience, which I took immediately to heart.

The club president also spoke warmly about the number of facts I was able to present without notes, something I hadn't really considered; you know what you know, y'know?

After the meeting, the Sergeant-At-Arms was collecting the place cards and ballots, and mentioned to me that she had learned the Gettysburg address in school.  "I didn't realize you went to school in the U.S.," I confessed.

"I didn't," she said. "This was in India. We largely followed the British curriculum, but I distinctly remember learning about 'Four score and seven years ago..."

How astonishing to think that a speech containing the words, "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here," would be studied by someone a century later, on the opposite side of the globe.

I emailed the President that afternoon, to thank her for her kind words, and confessed that I could have done an entire speech - more than one, in fact - on just Chamberlain himself, In reading about him to make certain of my facts, I found the story on Wikipedia of how he earned the nickname, "Bloody Chamberlain", churlishly depicted by myself at the start of the post, and the manner in which his life was seemingly saved by a framed picture of his wife that he carried in his chest pocket:
The bullet went through his horse's neck, hit the picture frame, entered under Chamberlain's skin in the front of his chest, traveled around his body under the skin along the rib, and exited his back. To all observers Union and Confederate, it appeared that he was shot through his chest. He continued to encourage his men to attack. All sides cheered his valiant courage, and the Union assault was successful.

The American Civil War was a national tragedy, brimming with heroism and horror in equal measure.  It should hardly be surprising that such a conflict should provide so many intriguing characters and valuable lessons, and I am certain I will be plumbing its depths for future speeches.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Interview

When Audrey and I were living in Toronto and both working for Games Workshop, a fellow came up from the US operation to head up our trade sales department.  Jim was a nice fellow, originally from Kentucky who was positive, easygoing and had a way with a turn of phrase which endeared him to me almost immediately.  Audrey and I had him over for dinner and movies periodically, partially to provide him with an alternative to the pub antics of the younger crowd (which, to be clear, is a lot of fun when you allow for an appropriate refractory period), and partly because a drink at home with good company has always been, and remains, one of our favourite pastimes as people committed to a homebody lifestyle.

Jim is a kindred spirit in a lot of ways: liking but not needing a good party, having a theology that overlapped ours in a lot of places, and sharing our overwhelming joy when Fenya was born in Ontario in 1998.  Then we moved back to Alberta the following year, Jim moved out west to rep GW on the road but left the company not long after that, and our contact became intermittent.  He called me once from a moving car while visiting a mutual friend because that’s just how he rolls: hey, I just thought of someone we could talk to, so I’m going to make that happen right now, because I can, and because that way it stands the best chance of actually happening and not just going into the drawer labelled “That Would Have Been a Good Idea…”. While out West, he also met someone special, they got married, had a child, and ended up moving to the Midwest.

Then out of the blue one day about two years back, I got a call at my desk where I currently work, and lo and behold, it was Jim; he had come across the blog post where Fenya demonstrated one of her favourite camp songs and was moved to call me about it.  We caught up a little bit, then I called him from home later on and we jawed for over an hour, catching up, sharing stories and the like.

Since then, we catch news from each other in the Google+ stream (as I am a Facebook abstainer), chat occasionally on the phone, and trade emails and links and the like, until this past December, when he called from his home in Minnesota to say there was a chance that his wife might be taking an executive job in Calgary. They had some questions about what living in Alberta might really be like, and as someone who lives in Edmonton but thinks Calgary is actually pretty nice in its own way, I was happy to oblige.  Don’t get me wrong, I think our province’s greatest rivalry has its place, but it is a much smaller place than a lot of people seem to think it is.

One thing led to another, and last week, United Farmers of Alberta (UFA) announced that Jim’s wife Carol was going to be their new CEO.  The two of them and their son made arrangements to fly up this past weekend so Carol could meet the board and be introduced to some of the employees and so they could start searching for a place to live. We used Air Miles to book a room at the Delta Bow Valley so we could meet them for dinner this past Saturday.

A lot of dihydrogen monoxide has passed beneath the spanning structure in the decade and a half since we last saw Jim, but to see him in person again and give him a hug, you would have thought we’d just parted ways the week before.  It was a treat to meet Carol at last, who was charming and gracious despite having just accepted a very challenging new position, plus needing to select and finance a house and relocate herself and her family into a new country, in a new time zone, on a night the clocks were scheduled to move ahead one hour!  Under the same conditions I would have considered myself ahead of the game just being coherent.

In many ways, though, the highlight visitor for me was their son Jack, aged ten.

It’s often hard for us grownups to remember what a pain that tweenage stage can be when hanging around adults; you aren’t quite old enough to weigh in on most adult topics (and good grief, why would you? I’m a little embarrassed at how interested I actually was at the way mortgages differ between the US and Canada), but you aren’t small enough to be ‘cute’ and do ‘look at me’ stuff any longer.

Glory prefers to lean back and let the conversation wash over her, especially around those she is unfamiliar with.  Jack, like Fenya I think, has a knack for knowing when it’s good to talk and when it’s better to listen; he never worked to exert control over the conversation but interjected where it made sense, occasionally prompting his dad with an, “oh, let me tell it!” but not proceeding without approval.  We had a lovely time at dinner, but navigating the +15 pedway system on our walk back to their hotel gave me an opportunity to chat with him one-on-one that I was determined to make the most of.

“Jack,” I told him, “I have the distinct feeling that you and I are going to get along just fine –swimmingly, in fact-  it’s just that, to be sure, there are a few standard questions I need to ask you if that’s all right.”

“Sure,” he replied easily; there may have been a hint of trepidation there, but not much- he was ready to play.

“All right then, favourite superhero?”

Without hesitation, he answered, “Black Panther.”

“Bold choice,” I said with a tone of respect.

“He’s pretty cool, and he taught Captain America how to fight.”

“I had no idea,” I said truthfully. “Favourite DC superhero?”

“Batman,” again, without missing a beat.

“Me too,” I agreed.  “Marvel movie you are most looking forward to?”

“Black Panther.”

“That makes sense.  It’s cool that he is going to be in Civil War, too, right?”

“Oh,yeah!  There’s so much he can do…”

“Totally,” I said, “Scientist, martial artist, adventurer, king…I don’t see Bruce Wayne running an entire nation right?” Jack nodded in agreement and appreciation.

I pressed on: “Favourite fighter plane?”

A moment’s consideration, then, “F-15 Raptor.”  (Now, I might have mis-heard him here, as the next-generation jet featured in movies like Transformers is technically the F-22, but it is possible that there is a variant of the venerable Eagle with that name as well, so rather than display my ignorance, I moved on.)

“How about your favourite movie vehicle?”



“They are these giant fighting robots…”

“Yeah, from Pacific Rim; I love those too, I just never thought of them as vehicles, but they clearly are…excellent choice.  How about a wheeled vehicle?”

This prompted a little more cogitation.  “Hmm…ah!  The Batmobile.”

“Which one? There’s been a few now…” I pressed.

“The newest one,” he asserted.

“The Tumbler?”

“Yeah, that one.”

I nodded.  “Good choice, but my first love will always be the 1986 Tim Burton one with the giant turbine out front.”  This got me a nod of assent.  “Favourite X-Man?”

“Wolverine.  I mean, I know he’s too popular, but…wait, can I change my answer?”

“Of course.”

“Then it’s Iceman.”

Another choice from the lower echelons. “Bobby Drake? Okay, fair enough, that’s a great character finally getting good representation in the movies.  Mine is Kitty Pryde, but I am right there with you on Wolverine.”

By this point, I had to check in briefly with the adults plotting our course on the touch screen navigation stations situated throughout the pedway, and when I returned to Jack, I knew it was time to wrap things up.

"All right Jack," I said,  "You are doing well; so well, in fact, that I have only one more question to throw at you.  I don't normally use this one on minors, but your answers thus far have been excellent in terms of displaying your taste and insight, so, frankly, I think you are up to it." This elicited a grin and a nod, so I proceeded.

"Are you familiar with the an old TV show called The Twilight Zone?" Careful consideration, a shake of the head. "It was a cool old anthology show, with a different story and set of characters every week, and it was always introduced by this fellow named Rod Serling..."

"Wait, I think I have seen this..."

"They show a version in the lineup at the Tower of Terror in Disneyland..." More nodding now. "Anyhow, let's say you died, all right? Meteor from space, splat,you're done, but instead of going to your just reward you end up in a foggy waiting room with Rod Serling.  He says that you died just too darned young, and before you can move on, you need to go back in history-"

"Oh, man..." he intoned.

"Wait for it," I urged, "-back in history and you can pick any battle in history to fight and die in.  You don't need to suffer, and you won't feel any pain or anything, but The Powers That Be have decreed that you need this experience, so: what battle do you pick?"

You could hear the gears turning as he mulled his options over, but with surprising quickness, he asserted confidently, "The Revolutionary War, at the Battle of Bunker Hill."

The War of Independence is not one of my stronger areas of knowledge, but I quickly scoured my memories of Schoolhouse Rock for a clue to the significance, and it paid off.

"Bunker Hill?" I said. "where they said not to fire untiiiiilll...?"

"'You see the whites of their eyes,'" he responded, his own eyes sparkling.

"OutSTANDing," I said, and we bumped fists.

Jim, his father-sense tingling, sensed our completion. "So, how did he do?" he inquired without real concern. "Did he pass?"

"Are you kidding me?" I responded.  "Full marks, high honours; first percentile."

But then, I know he has some good teachers.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

UFOs vs. Finances vs. Time vs. You - The XCOM Boardgame, Reviewed

So, I'll level with you, I was pretty excited to pick upthe XCOM Boardgame with the gift certificate I got for Xmas; I lost a lot of sleep to the updated version of the PC classic that came to the PlayStation 3 a while back, Fantasy Flight Games have tremendous production values, and I was intrigued by the idea of a boardgame that required a free app in order to be played.


And after the first time I played it with two friends, I thought I had made a terrible mistake.


Seriously, I was wondering if I could take the game back to Mission Fun and Games for partial credit, that's the degree of concern we are talking about here. I mean, at the end of the day, I already have Pandemic to scratch my cooperative playing itch, and I know someone with a copy of The Captain is Dead!, so how many non-competitive gaming options did I need, anyways?


The three of us played our XCOM game a couple of weeks ago, and frankly, the tutorial kicked our ass. Yes, the process that introduces you to the game, almost discouraged us from ever playing it again. Not only did we lose badly, but we were left baffled at precisely how anyone could overcome the combination of flying saucers terrifying the populace, alien creatures invading our hidden base, and the missions that came up every turn that would enable us to win the game. On top of all that, the delicate balance needed to succeed honestly made the game feel a bit more like work, than play. Things looked pretty dire indeed after that first misadventure.


Now, in the interests of full disclosure, we were probably in the wrong mindset for that initial game; we were far more oriented towards something more beer-and-pretzelly...especially the beer part, if you catch my meaning. The game also has an intensity that is fun (on reflection) but requires a fair amount of focus, at least part of the time.


In XCOM, you and your teammates (up to 3) are in charge of defending the Earth from a variety of alien invaders. Each player has a role to fulfill: Commander (manages the budget, deploys interceptors), Central Officer (manages the app, deploys satellites), Chief Scientist (researches the alien tech to develop better weapons and equipment), and Squad Leader (trains and deploys military ground forces). Each player has their own set of resources and cards to manage, with more to come over the course of the game as newer, better tech is developed.


Each turn has two phases, the timed phase and the resolution phase, and this is where the app comes into play. During the timed phase, various elements occur in a random order, so in one turn the Chief Scientist may have to begin by drawing a set of cards and begin selecting which technology he wants to develop first. The next might kick off with the Squad Leader having to draw two missions from that deck and choosing which one to pursue. In either case every element in the timed phase has an associated timer, and the player must complete their task before the timer runs out. It's one thing to say, "All right, I can't dawdle when it's my turn to act...", but it's a whole 'nother thing when the app draws your name and the Central Officer barks out, "Commander, you have thirty seconds to deploy your interceptors!"


On top of the fact that you might not know if there are any more saucers expected following your interceptor deployment, every resource that gets placed on the board comes with a cost, so when you get to the resolution phase and count up 3 interceptors, 2 scientists, 2 satellites, 2 soldiers defending the XCOM base and 3 taking the fight to the foe on the selected mission, there had darned well better be 12 credits in the kitty. For every credit you come up short, another saucer is added to the board, increasing panic and making victory that much more elusive.


During the resolution phase, the timer gets put away and players use their allocated forces and applicable cards to thwart the invaders. The more of whatever you have thrown at the situation (scientists for tech, soldiers for aliens, interceptors for saucers, etc), the more of the blue XCOM dice you get to throw. Each six-sided dice has two success symbols on it, and the tougher the task, the more successes you require.


The good news is you can take as many rolls as you need; the bad news is that every roll must be accompanied by a standard 8-sided die called the Alien Die. There is a difficulty counter that starts at 1 and increases by +1 on each subsequent roll, and if the red die is equal to or lower than that number, you can't roll any more, and some sort of bad effect is visited on that resource: soldiers die, scientists are exhausted, interceptors are shot down, etc. Needless to say, pretty much every dice roll comes with a decent amount of associated stress or tension, so accumulating cards that allow you to reroll the Alien Die becomes a priority fairly quickly! Luckily you do start with one, but deciding precisely when is the best time to use it can be a difficult consensus to reach.


In order to keep things interesting, there is more than one way to lose at XCOM: if aliens successfully damage your base enough times, that's all she wrote. More threatening however, is mounting panic. Each saucer left over a continent increases panic there at the end of the resolution phase, through yellow to red and eventually chaos (which is orange, strangely). There are limited ways to reduce panic levels, and once a second continent succumbs to panic, the game ends; sic transit gloria mundi and all that.


Some of the cards let you use your resources off the board in order to achieve certain effects, so, for example, one tech card lets you put two scientists on it and bring on a replacement interceptor for free, or place a satellite on a card in order to move a saucer from one continent to another like a sheepdog. One thing we failed to notice in our first play-through is that you can play multiple resources on some of these cards, so while you can't use four scientists to get two interceptors (because the card has a maximum of 1listed on it), you can use three satellites to herd a like number of saucers around! Since we always had a surplus of satellites about and saucers were a continual problem, this revelation would have been tremendously helpful, but I only discovered it after the fact while perusing the online forums at the FFG website.


Playing a solitaire game afterwards once I knew this, and taking full advantage of the unlimited pause button that the Easy mode of the game allows, I was able to defeat the aliens fairly handily, but that's the catch, isn't it? Ideally, I won't be playing the game by myself, I will have teammates to negotiate with for scarce resources and cash, and we will all have the ticking clock to contend with.


And this is where the game transitions from tragic to brilliant; by giving each player their own cards to manage, a strict time limit, and a shared budget, Fantasy Flight has created a co-operative game that is almost impossible to quarterback.


For those of you who haven't played many co-op games, or who have, but with decent human beings, 'quarterbacking' is a name applied to the situation where one player takes a dominant role in the game, to the detriment of the other players. I've never encountered it myself personally, but it is easy to imagine a game of, say, Pandemic, where one player says, "Okay, I think I have a solution set here; can I see your cards? Yeah, so, you need to go to Tehran, here, I got it, cure one disease and then meet him in Istanbul. You give him that card, yeah, good, then you, you need to use your special ability to move me to Atlanta like this, it's okay,I like to move my own piece, then you use your two moves to get to the research station in Mumbai, shuttle back to Atlanta like this, give me those cards, no, those two, yeah, and then on my turn I can cure the disease and we win the game! Wasn't that fun? Guys? Hey, where are you going?"


Now, I think the best way to avoid an unfortunate scenario like this playing out is to just play with better people, but hey, none of us is without flaws, and this behaviour can often be coached out. On the other hand though, if you should find yourself unable to escape playing a person you suspect of having this particular trait, maybe on a retreat or at a gaming convention, how reassuring it is to know that there is one game in your cupboard that even an experienced player will find it difficult to hijack!


For the rest of us, the rest of the time, when we have the latitude needed to select both our games and gaming companions more diligently, we are left with a very decent cooperative game. XCOM boasts a good looking board, better looking pieces, great art, and all the other trimmings we have come to expect from Fantasy Flight Games. There are also some novel play mechanics, including a three way balancing act between the aliens, time, and sharing resources with the other players.


Having come around from thinking I'd wasted my money (and gift certificate!) to feeling good about my purchase, there are still a few things I would change about XCOM. First of all, while I appreciate having the rules embedded in the app, I would pay another $3-4 for a hard copy; sometimes the other players want to look something up during the timed phase and loading up the app feels prohibitive.


I can't really recommend the game for solitaire play either; other players can read over their cards and plan their actions while the active player completes their action in the timed phase, and there is no opportunity for this by yourself without pausing, which spoils the fun somewhat. Besides, there's a really good video game version of XCOM for solo play, so I hear.


The app itself is perfectly functional but a bit humdrum; the iPad version of Pandemic does a much better job of integrating things like dramatic changes in music, or flashing lights whenever an epidemic occurs. Considering the resources the developers must have had to work with, courtesy of the video game developers, some more cut scenes showcasing mission outcomes or even mounting panic would have been appreciated.

I wish the Tutorial was more random and less static; going through the same motions every time you introduce new players to the game could get old fast. Alternatively, a tutorial video outlining key concepts would be helpful, which is how The Captain is Dead! manages it.

Similarly, I think having the app itself read out the assignments, perhaps accompanied by appropriate sound effects like air raid sirens or Morse code signals would have added more atmosphere than having the Central Officer do it, and eventually the players would begin to associate the sounds with certain game actions, streamlining things even further.


Still, it is gratifying to see the victory screen when the combination of planning and luck sees you finally put paid to the invaders of our homeworld!



Sunday, March 1, 2015

The D&Deciding Factor

Our intermittent but long-running campaign of Dungeons & Dragons quietly ended last night; not in victory or defeat, but succumbing at last to inertia, its forward momentum gently coasting to a halt.

Five of us got together in The Batcave on Saturday night to finally resume our D&D campaign, on hiatus since November.  The holidays are a frantic time to try to get together, and afterwards I had been preoccupied with working on Serenity Gulch (which I hope to return to this week!).

Talk of work and the workplace kept us preoccupied while I set up my screens and hauled out my copy of Pyramid of Shadows, looking for the Post-It note I left in the last room cleared.  When I found it, I took a look at the overall map of the complex, and tried to figure out a way to get the party headed in the right direction.

Looking at the next encounter, I quickly determined that it had little or no value in terms of providing the party with either equipment or information needed to progress to the next level, and quickly decided to bypass it.  However, looking at the next room after that, it was more of the same: another trap and some more monsters, with little narrative or drama to add to the proceedings.

Thinking back over the past few months, I couldn't remember that last cool 'war story' or innovative tactic; tales of players thinking outside the box or a novel approach to a problem.  When we had come to the 4th edition of the rules, the clarity and simplicity had tremendous appeal.  Now those same qualities threatened to turn thrilling adventure into perfunctory millwork, something no game should ever be.

In the meantime, discussions about the more mundane but no less challenging elements of our varied lives played out before; there was no compulsion to return to the fray, no burning desire to pursue the path to see where it led, or discover what fiendish behemoth waited at the end of this level.  Had the time come at last for us to lay down, if not our swords, at least our dice?

I hesitantly explained my concerns to the players, and was relieved to discover that they had all felt similarly; in fact, more than one had said they found themselves hoping we would have too few players for quorum, meaning we could paint gunfighters or play something else.

As with so many things in life, it pays to know when to make a graceful exit, even in D&D, and we all elected to do so now. I am confident we will return again, some day, in some fashion, as the intrinsic thrill of slaying monsters, finding treasure and 'leveling up' has an inimitable appeal.

November 2009 (!)

I'm grateful to 4th ed. D&D for bringing us back into the fold; having not played an RPG since prior to moving to Toronto in 1995, it felt good, really good, to pick up character sheets, to push miniatures around a grid filled with dungeon walls, traps and all manner of fell creatures, and to see those same beasts bested with bravery, cunning and fortunate rolls of polyhedral dice.  But 4th edition's focus on tactics and player powers meant that the storytelling and problem solving that I fell in love with as a youth were often relegated to the back seat.

Some of our group hadn't role-played in some time, one of us hadn't really done it at all, so 4th ed. broke the seal on that as well, and makes a wonderful set of RPG training wheels, if you will.  I hope it paves the way so that when my Kickstarter copy of Spirit of 77 comes in later this year, we can jump straight in to a free form, extemporaneous game light in mechanics and heavy in soulful storytelling and collaborative improvisation between the players and the GM (or 'DJ' in this case).

Our busy lives as workers, bosses, contractors, parents, and children made it difficult to get together as often as we might have liked, and as Earl pointed out, is only likely to get even more busy as life progresses.  As a result, we probably only got to play D&D a dozen times last year, but I still think it is nothing short of amazing that 5-8 mostly middle aged people could sustain such an endeavour for more than five years, regardless of frequency.

In the end, the choice not to continue a game that wasn't as much fun as it had previously been is not very likely to make anyone's top 10 list of momentous decisions, but it was still surprisingly hard to do.  We all felt a little bad that we weren't able to at least finish off the Pyramid of Shadows, our current module, and there is always the risk that one person's tedious drudgery is another person's outlet for destructive tendencies.

Thankfully, we are an understanding group, committed to fellowship and fun, in that order, and as long as that remains the case, I am confident that new adventures and challenges will continue to present themselves.