Book Review – The Magicians

The-Magicians-Book-Cover-e1317909429117To understand The Magicians, you need to have read any Harry Potter or Chronicles of Narnia books.  You also should have watched Man of Steel or Batman Begins.   For all its length and ingenuity, The Magicians is anything but an original story.  It is not more than one of those old Marvel “What If” comic books.  What if Harry Potter went to school in the real world, not a fairy tale world?  Would Harry ended up <ahem> “boinking” Hermione by the end of book 2 and the Weasley twins?  Wouldn’t they actually be the school dealers instead of selling pranks?  What if Narnia was real?  What adolescent boy in World War II Britain wouldn’t have chosen to stay over there where he was king rather than face the Blitz for one more day?

Lev Grossman has done nothing more than taken those stories (with a couple little whiffs of Lord of the Rings, just for good measure) and brought them to the real world.  He has asked what would happen if adolescents were taken to a school of magic?  Would they become any less adolescent?  Or would they stay the same?  In doing so, Grossman may not have created an original story but the deconstruction of our cherished myths of Hogwarts and Narnia feels spot on.   

[Read more…]

Ticket to Ride: The Gateway Game to an Earlier Era

Note: This is the second in a series in gateway games – the games that take us from Monopoly to bigger games. The biggest ones are Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, and Carcassonne. We’ll start with those and move on to three less obvious games. This is not the normal format for game reviews, but is more of a sales job.

Note 2: I started this series 6 months ago and this is the second in the series. Yes, I have ADD problems sometimes.

One of my worst family trips as a kid was going to Disney Land when I was around 9 or 10. To be clear, going to Disney Land was not the bad part of it. I rather enjoyed it. In an earlier day, my parents let my brother and I roam the park with minimal supervision But getting there was another story. We traveled from Seattle to Anaheim on Amtrak. My father, my mother, my brother (who was two years older) and I were in a small sleeper car that made our Suburban 1 seem large. I have it on good authority that portions of Vacation were based on that trip. So trains are not looked at romantically on my part. And yet, Ticket to Ride is just so dang fun.

Ticket to Ride BoxAt its heart, Ticket to Ride combines two classic “serious” game mechanics – card drafting and worker placement. On a map of the United States  2, players vie to complete routes between cities by placing their trains. At the start of the game – and later if they choose – route cards are drawn that have two cities. Based on the length of the route, you earn points by completing the route. And if you don’t complete the route? You lose that number of points.

To complete routes, you need to place trains. And – true to real life – if you want to complete a long route, you need to actually complete a number of smaller segments. For example, Seattle to New York is made of many small segments such as Seattle-Portland, Portland-Salt Lake City, Salt Lake City-Denver, etc. So to claim a route, you need to discard from your hand train cards that match the number and the color of the route (For example, Atlanta to Miami requires six black train cards).  And you get additional points for how long each segment is.  A one train segment is one point.  A six train segment is 15 points.


Our beloved board, just like an old shoe, continues to be used beyond its lifespan.  Split in two and falling apart, it still represents perfection in a board.

Our beloved board, just like an old shoe, continues to be used beyond its lifespan. Split in two and falling apart, it still represents perfection in a board.

Each turn, you can do one of three things. You can place some of your 45 trains dow (The worker placement element). You can draw two train cards (either from five face-up cards or from the face-down deck) 3. Or you can draw three new route cards (called destinations) and keep at least one.

As with most great games, the challenge is in the balance. Do you take that long route when you only have a few trains left? Do you claim the route from Los Angeles to Las Vegas this turn, before someone else does and blocks you out? 4 The agony felt in making these choices is incredible and shows the wonderfulness of the game.  There is an element of luck.  The end game can be stultifying when the one card you need to complete 4 routes you have just…will…not…come…up.  And yet, we still go back to it.  Like Acquire, it’s a game of choices and strategy with a good amount of luck thrown in.

Our family started playing this when our kids were 6 and 8 (give or take). It is still one of our go-to games and I’d go out on a limb to say it’s my wife’s favorite game.  I should also note that it’s one of the best time wasters on tablets.  My wife and I, when we first got an Ipad, wasted way too much sleep time playing this game with each other.

How The West Was Won

How The West Was Won

  1. This is back when Surburbans were trucks, not luxury vehicles. We could fit the whole soccer team in the back. 
  2. You can also get maps for Europe, Asia, India, Africa, Germany, Netherlands, Norway…you get the idea. 
  3.  As a point of rule reference, though I don’t pretend to be the rules maven, you can also pick up an engine that acts as a wild card. In the same vein, a number of routes are grey, meaning that you can use any color train cards to claim. 
  4. True story. My 10 year old son completed all his routes and didn’t want to risk more. So he just placed trains on all the routes out of Miami. Just for fun. Unfortunately, my long-suffering wife who actually plays games for fun needed to complete routes out of Miami. And an unintentional robber baron was born. 

Why you should be up and down like a crazy man after the US-Ghana match

A friend of mine was complaining recently about the lack of decorum that US fans were showing after defeating Ghana on June 17.  His reasoning, logical as always, was “Hey, it’s a first round game and it isn’t as if we were playing anything more than a 3rd tier team.”  My esteemed colleague has managed to get the facts right and the argument wrong.  This was always so much more than just the first game of the first round.  This game was always going to determine the US team’s chances of success.

Standings After Round 1
Team Wins Losses Ties Points Goal Differential
Germany 1 0 0 3 4
USA 1 0 0 3 1
Ghana 0 1 0 0 -1
Portugal 0 1 0 0 -4

[Read more…]

Locust Effect? Fairly depressing with no good prescription

Locust Effect Cover

Gary Haugen’s The Locust Effect is both an important read as well as very frustrating read. As the book’s heart, Haugen seeks to lay out the case that the billions of aid that we spend on economic development as well as medical and social development is completely hampered by the lack of justice for the poor.  His data is complete and compelling – he illustrates the importance of sex crimes within the poor of areas such as Narobi, the Philippines, and Peru.  He shows the lack of judicial access that the poor have worldwide – and the crimes that result from that, ranging from slavery to property confiscation.  He calls this the Locust Effect – a plague of locusts that will eat up the benefits of international aid to the poor.

His particular concern is the lack of equity for the poor women of the world, especially in light of studies that show that women hold the key for bringing out of poverty.  For example, education of females is critical for reducing poverty yet school has become a primary location for sexual violence against girls, leading to families holding their daughters out of school.  And there is no recourse for the poor in terms of the legal system.  Should aid be spent on guaranteeing education for females? Yes, but unless buffered by law & order mechanisms, it will be largely wasted.

Haugen does not just a good job, but a great job in laying out  his thesis – that aid without access to justice and law enforcement is subject to be ineffective.  By mixing in personal stories with data, his is a thoroughly depressing book that makes you wonder what can be done.  And that becomes the root of the problem with the book.  It does not give a clear picture of how the reader can effectively help change?  Donate to his organization, International Justice Mission (which is a truly great cause, by the way)?  Call our congresspeople?  You just don’t know.  The key to a book like this lies not just in shining a light in a dark place, but showing how the reader can help bring people out of darkness.  Is there an easy answer? No, but some signposts on the way for the average reader to go would have made the book much more effective.

🙂 🙂 🙂 out of 5

Settling into Catan

Note: I’m going to blog about a series of games I consider to be “gateway” games.  That’s defined as a game that changes the dynamics somewhat between chance and skill,  that is not as mainstream as Risk or Monopoly, but enough people play it that it is more than niche.  I’ve identified 6 games.  Originally this was going to be one post but I’m too lazy to write that much in one spell, so a series it is!

Note 2: If you’ve seen this before, apologies.  It disappeared last night.

Settlers of Catan is probably the best known of the classics.  It is one of the “Holy Trinity,” consisting of itself, Ticket to Ride, and Carcassonne.  We’ll get to those in a second.  What makes Catan so immensely cool is that – despite its reputation as a “Eurogame” 1 – it is really more Risk than Chess. Your lives are ruled by the dice. Here’s the scoop: You need to build cities and settlements to win. To build those, you roll the dice. If you (or anyone else) happen to have a city/settlement next to the area which contains the number you rolled, then that city/settlement produces that resource. Obviously, there is some strategy – you need to know odds that you are more likely to get a 6,7, or 8 than a 2 or 12 when rolling 2 dice. So you know which ones are more valuable. But what if you’ve got a lot of iron ore (one type of resource) but no wood? What then? Well, you trade with other players (or seaports, but let’s ignore that dynamic for simplicity sake)
[Read more…]

On a Rampage – a Game Review

Feeling destructive today?  Little aggression from work?  Asmodee has a great game for you – Rampage.  Rampage lets you become an old movie monster and wander around town destroying buildings and eating people.  And who wouldn’t want to do that?

The full game.

The full game.

 What’s It Look Like?

Imagine a Porsche.  Looking good, right?  Now imagine a Porsche that doesn’t break down.  That’s the components in Rampage.  The game designer did a great job of matching a great looking game with pieces that don’t fall apart at a moment’s notice.  From the box (which is striking and stands out in game stores) to the colorful map, Rampage is a pleasure to look at.  The monsters themselves are great cartoon representations of the old movies we older folks grew up with (the true Godzilla, not the Matthew Broderick version).  As I was an early purchaser, the game store threw in stickers for the meeples.  Strictly speaking, these are not necessary.  In fact, I would not have put them on if my son didn’t volunteer to stick them all on in the back seat of the car on the way home from the game store. [Read more…]

First hike of the new year

Last weekend I managed to get the family lost on Tiger Mountain.  I blamed the lack of a good Green Trails map.  But apparently, even official trails are not mapped there.  So we ended up on a gun range instead.  There’s a good story somewhere in there, but I think I’ll just post some pictures instead.

Perhaps my designer target rainboots were not appropriate for an uphill hike?

Perhaps my designer target rainboots were not appropriate for an uphill hike?

I know I'm not supposed to climb, but I just can't help it.

I know I’m not supposed to climb, but I just can’t help it.



Gratuitous lens flare courtesy of JJ Abrams.  Perhaps looking for the Ewok planet for the next Star Wars film?

Gratuitous lens flare courtesy of JJ Abrams. Perhaps looking for the Ewok planet for the next Star Wars film?

I ate my dad's hiking boots and I'm not even sorry.

I ate my dad’s hiking boots and I’m not even sorry.