I just got back from seeing Queen of Katwe, and as I expected, I really enjoyed the movie. The acting was fantastic. Madina Nalwanga's portrayal of Phiona Mutesi looked natural and effortless, while adult actors Lupita Nyong'o and David Oyelowo nailed the roles of Phiona's mother, Harriet, and her chess coach, Robert Katende.
What impressed me the most about the movie is that it successfully treads the line between realistic and inspirational. It's a Disney movie, so you know it's going to have a happy ending, but I also didn't feel lied to about Phiona's economic situation. At various points in the film, the family is kicked out of their home, they have to sneak out of a hospital because they can't afford the bill, and Phiona's sister is (tastefully) depicted as relying on sugar daddies for money. Madina Nalwanga does an amazing job of portraying a young girl who has had a glimpse of a better life and can't reconcile it with her current reality, while Lupita Nyong'o delivers a stunning portrayal of a loving mother who is under severe stress.
Obviously, this movie is about a lot more than chess, and I think that's what makes it an excellent chess movie. This isn't a film about geniuses who are dancing on the brink of insanity. In Queen of Katwe, chess is what keeps the main character sane.
Queen of Katwe is also an important film because it's a movie with no significant white characters. We need more movies that tell stories about non-white people and non-westerners, which makes Queen of Katwe more culturally valuable than the usual Disney fare. I hope that its presence on the scene breathes new life not only into the film industry, but into the game of chess.
I write a lot about the games I play with my students, but the fact remains that I do the vast majority of my gaming alone. Most of the time, I will not purchase a game if it doesn't have solo rules, because I know that I won't be able to play it. Ironically, although I have played board games for a long time, I began to get more serious about them as a possible way to spend more time with my boyfriend. As it turns out, he typically prefers to unwind by watching TV or playing a video game. Plus, he dislikes deckbuilding games but enjoys Munchkin. Woe.
Recently, however, I bought a game that we've played together more than once or twice: Mice and Mystics. Initially my boyfriend wanted to try it because he used to enjoy tabletop RPGs and because he thought the mice looked cute. Then, when we actually played it, we got really into the story. If you aren't familiar, Mice and Mystics is both a game and a story. At key moments, you read aloud from a "storybook" that propels the narrative forward and gives you setup information for the next "scene" in the game. Reading from a storybook feels corny at first, but then it adds a lot to the experience. And although Mice and Mystics doesn't have a particularly complicated combat system (move mouse, roll dice), it's fun to decide who will take on which roach or rat, or to help each other fight a giant spider. It's also easy to get attached to specific characters. Certain mice in the box are "mine" and others are "his" because we each have our favorites. (Lily forever!)
What is interesting is that I adore Mice and Mystics, but I'm not sure I would if my boyfriend didn't love to play it. The game is fine, but it's only fine. The idea of playing it alone doesn't have quite the same spark for me. Mice and Mystics is somehow both simple and very fiddly because there are so many specific rules. I often find myself improvising rules on the fly because I'd rather keep the flow of the game going than go back to the rulebook to see whether I am playing 100% correctly. Frankly, I'm not convinced it makes that much of a difference. None of the mechanics in Mice and Mystics are new or special, and there aren't any interesting tactical decisions to make. Also, because each session is part of a story, you really only play each scenario one time. Unless you enjoy revisiting the same story over and over, you can only get limited play out of the box. And to be completely honest, I wouldn't revisit this story over and over—it is just okay so far. We haven't come across anything that has blown my mind.
But now that Mice and Mystics is one of those things that my boyfriend and I do together, every time we play feels special, and the story means a lot more to me. We now have "memories" of the time we disguised ourselves as rats and gambled with our enemies to get intel, or of the time we thought a huge spider was going to get the best of us. Whenever we play this game, I know that my boyfriend and I are going to spend 2–3 hours of quality time together, without interruptions from the TV or cell phones. That alone makes this game magic, whatever its shortcomings.
I guess all of this goes to show that the "best" games aren't always the ones that win your heart.
When I found out that Disney was about to release a movie about a girl who plays chess, I was very excited. Who doesn't love a good heartwarming movie? And one about chess, to boot? Since the movie isn't out yet, I decided to read the book: Queen of Katwe by Tim Crothers. I have only said this about The Godfather before now, but... I think I will like the movie better.
I will be real with you: The book itself is not written very well. The beginning is super jumpy, and it takes forever for us to be introduced to our young chess enthusiast. I think the book should have started with Phiona, rather than with full descriptions of the lives of several people connected with her. I also would have loved to see much more in-depth discussion of Phiona's chess playing and her place in the chess world. I am glad I had some gift card credit, because $11.99 is a lot of money for 200 pages, a large chunk of which aren't even about Phiona.
But if you can navigate through those choppy waters, you will find a very interesting story. Phiona Mutesi has grown up in Uganda in such crushing poverty that she is not able to eat every day, much less afford to go to school. However, she becomes so captivated by the game of chess that it changes her life and eventually her circumstances. Phiona has no understanding of formal chess theory and no training beyond her Ugandan coach and teammates, and yet she is able to put up strong performances at international events in Sudan and later in Russia. Sure, she loses to other players who have more experience and better training, but she is smart enough to figure out mistakes on her own without the formal education from which those other players have benefitted.
Today, Phiona is thriving. She is going to school and has dreams of working as a doctor and of becoming a chess grandmaster. Phiona's talent has also brought tremendous hope to her family and to her community. I have no idea how Phiona's chess game has developed since the book was written, but I would love an update. Has access to new resources allowed her to improve her play? Did that game with Bill Gates ever really happen? More importantly, how did she do with Kasparov the other day?
One thing I can say for the book is that it's honest: Phiona is a talented chess player, but because of her circumstances, it's not clear whether she will have the opportunity or access that she will need to fully blossom. (Uganda cannot consistently afford to support a women's chess team at international events.) Hopefully, the publicity from The Queen of Katwe, both the book and the film, will give her the boost she needs. But no matter what, her story is inspirational: Phiona Mutesi proves that young girls can be brilliant and determined, that they can dream, no matter where they come from.
Elder Sign is obviously a beloved game that winds up on many lists of recommended games for solo players. It was #24 on Ricky Royal's 2015 Top 100 and #15 on Board Game Geek's People's Choice Top 100 for solo games for the same year. The game is intended to be a shorter and more manageable version of the massive Arkham Horror, with a Cthulhu theme but also with stripped-down dice-throwing mechanics. Each player takes control of an investigator, and investigators work to complete "tasks" by traveling to different locations and successfully rolling certain combinations of dice. Successes are rewarded with special items and/or Elder Signs. Failures are punished with loss of health and/or sanity. The ultimate goal is to collect Elder Signs that will prevent a Lovecraftian Ancient One from awakening.
I love a wide range of games, but Elder Sign is not for me at all. I've played it solo and groups, and found it lackluster on all occasions, even when everyone else gloried in a last-minute victory over an awakened Ancient One. The only reason I haven't traded it away already is that my boyfriend would be disappointed. (He, too, inexplicably loves the game.)
So what is it about Elder Sign that fails to move me? Part of it is that I don't enjoy dice games. I happily roll dice during RPG battles, and can accept dice mechanics as part of the games that I play. But a game that is all dice? I don't have that kind of luck, and I usually end up very frustrated. It's not satisfying for me to achieve victories purely through the vagaries of fortune. Even though Elder Sign gives investigators special abilities that allow them to manipulate the dice a bit, I prefer to play games that give me a greater sense of control over my own victory (or defeat).
But beyond that, by boiling down the mechanics of Elder Sign, the game seems to have lost a lot of the theme along the way. The game's art is great, and there is some pretty good flavor text, but the Elder Sign doesn't give me that feeling I wanted, the feeling of exploring a sinister museum where hidden dangers lurk in the shadows of the display cases. For me, the mechanics and the theme do not work together well enough for to provide an immersive experience. The dice tasks listed on the location cards feel meaningless—what exactly am I trying to do, anyway? And why is it so random? Although I don't always have the time, I'd rather pull out Eldritch Horror for a fuller, more story-laced ride.
I don't always need a lot of theme to make a game enjoyable, but if the game is going to be light on theme, I want it to be heavy on strategy--Dominion's theme is super pasted-on, but I still adore it because I can get creative by combining different card mechanics. My brain has something to chew on the whole time.
Elder Sign can't be a bad game, given how many people seem to love it. But I can't stand it, and I dread the next time I am asked to play it. Perhaps I can collect Elder Signs to prevent Elder SIgn from reawakening.
Although the new school year means a lot more social gaming with colleagues and students, I am still maintaining my solitary habits. One of my solo favorites at the moment is Ascension. I love both Magic: The Gathering and deckbuilding games, so it was inevitable that this game would become addictive for me. Ascension is a card game invented by two MtG Pro Tour champs, but it isn't a collectable card game like Magic. Instead, the game comes in one box and has many (many!) expansions that add layers of strategy. In Ascension, players acquire cards that are pulled from a draw deck and placed in the center row. The goal of the game is to be the player with the most honor at the end, and acquired cards either provide immediate honor when you defeat them or delayed honor when you calculate the value of your deck at the end.
What is best for me, though, is that the solitary Ascension experience can be had in two forms, each of which is strategically different. I can either play a hard copy of the game with solo rules, or I can play on my iPad against the AI. Each is really playing solo, but the rules and resulting strategies are different enough that I get a lot more out of my game.
When playing on the iPad, the game is more "traditional." The AI isn't brilliant, but it's good for learning and studying the cards. I can play with my own deckbuilding goals in mind, looking for card synergy and focusing on particular factions. In other words, the iPad version of the game mimics a real game with another human—and can turn into one if you want to play online. This is also a great way to get used to each card, especially since the app offers so many expansions.
In a lot of ways, the official solo rules make Ascension more challenging. In solo mode, your "enemy" is guaranteed to acquire two cards per round—the two cards that are furthest to the right on the center row. Denying your shadow opponent any advantages forces you to acquire different cards in different patterns. Cards you might not normally be interested in—especially those that allow you to banish valuable center-row cards that you can't currently acquire for yourself—suddenly become hot commodities. True solo play is also harrowing because in the early game your deck is weak and you don't have much buying power. This usually turns the end of the game into a frantic attempt to catch up to your automated nemesis.
As I get better at Ascension and come to know the cards and what they are capable of, I am glad that there are two ways to play the game by myself. Playing on my iPad helps me to hone my skills for when I eventually find face-to-face opponents, and playing the analog solo variant forces me to work my brain and exploit my cards in new and creative ways. Ascension is definitely a new favorite for me.
What do you do when you can't play as many board games as you'd like? You read about them! (At least, that's what I've been doing.) Here is a roundup of a few books about gaming that I've enjoyed during my adventure in Rome.
1) The Immortal Game: A History of Chess by David Shenk
In this book, Shenk has created a mashup of family history, chess history, and his personal experiences as a new chess player trying to fall in love with the game. His final product is an exuberant and informative work that gave me tons of ideas for what to read next. (Did you know that medieval romances often include scenes where the lovers play each other at chess? Or that Napoleon played on a fancy chessboard while in exile, never knowing it contained a secret plan for his escape? OMG!) Although Shenk sometimes overstates the social influence and interpretation of chess—at least in the eyes of a skeptical historian like me—his book is an excellent pleasure read that helped rekindle my own interest in chess. I may break my dusty old board out when I get home.
2) The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World's Favorite Board Game by Mary Pilon
I personally hate playing Monopoly. Fortunately, the history of the game is far more interesting than the game itself. Apparently the true inventor of the game didn't receive full credit for her brainchild until long after her death, and before Parker Brothers got ahold of the title, the game was popular among liberals and anti-Monopolists who never expected the game to become a game company's goldmine. This book taught me a lot about games as social messages, as well as about intellectual property and patent law in the United States. Definitely worth a read for both gamers and people who are interested in American social history.
3) Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It by David Ewalt
I hate to say it, but this book disappointed me. I am very interested in the history of D&D and in roleplaying games generally, but Of Dice and Men is bloated with the author's descriptions of his own campaigns, obsessions, and insecurities about being an avid D&D player. I often found myself skipping over his personal stories in search of the next history section, and I would then find the historical sections to be a little bit thin. I would have especially liked to see a more insightful analysis of D&D and the Satanic Panic, which I remember because my grandparents used to warn me never to play the game lest I make contact with actual demons. I'll definitely be on the lookout for a deeper meditation on what I consider to be one of the most important games ever made.
If you have any good suggestions for books about gaming, please feel free to leave me a comment!
I took some time this afternoon to watch Going Cardboard, a 2012 documentary about the rising popularity of German board games in the United States—at least, I think that's what it was about. And that is the problem with this documentary.
The subject of Going Cardboard is obviously fascinating to me, because it's about board games. I really enjoyed getting to see footage from Essen, and I especially loved seeing interviews with people behind the games I enjoy every day. There were some cool interviews, too. I had no idea that a guy named Zev is behind Z-Man games. I regularly see Donald Vaccarino's name on my Dominion box, but I had no idea what he looked like. (Actually, the only designer whose picture I could identify is Friedemann Friese—it's hard to miss green hair.) It was fun to hear board game publishers speak for themselves, and to see snippets of a story about a man who wanted to publish his game, Huang Di, but just couldn't seem to catch a break.
As you can see, however, there was a lot going on in this documentary. It utterly lacked focus. The sound and picture quality were cheap, but it was a low budget doc, so I can forgive that. I was not, however, impressed by the nonexistent main storyline. Was this doc about American vs. German games? About the Spiel des Jahres? About the game publishing industry in general? It tried to be about all of these things, and ended up being about none of them. This makes me sad, because each of those subjects individually would have been fascinating. The palpable enthusiasm of the people interviewed for the doc was infectious, so the raw material was pretty good. But the final product ended up being lackluster.
If you are a board gaming megafan, you will enjoy this film just because. But I probably wouldn't show this to a non-gamer to help them understand what I do with my spare time, because there isn't a strong enough hook to draw them in.
You would think that, when naming a new game, you would at least choose a title that is easy to Google. That clearly did not occur to whoever localized The Game: Are You Ready to Play The Game? Not only is the name pretty unwieldy, but its "badass" skull theme is goofy and has nothing to do with the actual gameplay.
That said, the fact of the matter is that this game is addictive. Seriously, I can't quit playing it. The Game's German name is Spiel...so lange du kannst! This translates to "Play... as long as you can!" And believe me, you will. There is a reason this game was a 2015 Spiel des Jahres nominee.
The rules of The Game are simple, and so is its overall concept. There are 102 cards in the game. Four them are used to start off the stacks on which the rest of the cards are played. Two of the stacks ascend from 1 to 99, while the other two descend from 100 to 2. The remaining cards are the numbers 2–98. Each player draws a starting hand of 6–8 cards, depending on the number of players (The Game is a co-op that can accommodate 1–5). Every turn, each player must play at least two of his or her cards before drawing back up to the hand limit. If you can lay every single card on a pile, you win. If you don't win—this will usually be the case—you judge yourself by how few cards were still left at the end. If there are fewer than ten cards remaining, you had a pretty good run.
To add some strategic depth to the game, there is also the "backwards" rule. This means that you can lay a card on an ascending pile that is 10 less than the top card on the pile (e.g. a 29 to a 19 on a 1 to 99 pile), or a card on a descending pile that is 10 greater than the top card on the pile (e.g. a 79 to an 89 on the 100 to 2 pile). This helps you to buy yourself some more breathing room as you try to get rid of more cards.
Although it is not a perfect game—luck has a lot to do with your final results--The Game is highly addictive and remarkably tense for a game that is about stacking some number cards. I have played it solo and in a group of three, and it was a lot of fun in both cases. My friends kept saying, "Let's try that one more time. I'm sure we can do better this time!" Sometimes I pull it out as a warmup for a longer gaming session, but end up spending an hour just playing The Game. I actually told my boyfriend that it was like an analog cell phone game because it is quick and you'll play over and over again.
Then I checked the iOS Store: There IS an app! And, rather than tone down the whole skull theme, it appears that the app developers have doubled down. Have a listen, because that voiceover is AMAZING. I start laughing every time I hear it. I keep thinking I'm actually about to play Mortal Kombat.
If you're looking for something deep and complicated, look elsewhere. But if you want a simple, inexpensive card game with a lot of replayability, I highly recommend The Game. I'm honestly glad it is in my collection, even with the skull art and ridiculous name.
Although solo gaming is growing in popularity, not too many board games are made exclusively for solo play. One exception is Hostage Negotiator, a solitaire game whose successful funding through Kickstarter revealed that demand really is high enough to support the publication of one-player board games.
Your role in Hostage Negotiator is exactly what you would expect: You must free hostages from one of three abductors (more are added through expansion packs). If you neutralize the abductor and free more than half of the hostages, you win. If you lose more than half of the hostages, or if the abductor escapes, you are defeated.
This game is generally billed as a dice chucker, but it incorporates several interesting strategic elements, including deckbuilding. To make progress with an abductor (or not), you engage in several "conversations," during which you play conversation cards. Your starting hand consists of six zero-cost conversation cards that you must use to improve your situation. Depending on how you deploy the cards, you can reduce the abductor's threat level—thus lowering the likelihood of a hostage's death and giving you more dice to roll—and/or win conversation points, which are used to purchase more useful cards for the next turn. Once you have figured out some of an abductor's demands, you also have the option of conceding them, which can provide short-term benefits but also nasty long-term consequences. Each round, you must draw a card from the terror deck, which further complicates your situation and pushes you closer to a pivotal event that will bring the game to an end.
The dice rolling aspect of the game might drive some players crazy. It is entirely possible that all of your rolls will be terrible and that you will lose the game as a result. But I actually found the randomness to be a lot of fun because it was easy for me to imagine myself on the phone with a panicky, unstable hostage abductor whose actions were becoming increasingly erratic. Also, as I played the game more, I developed strategies that made me feel like I had a chance at success, so it was satisfying to fight on even if I ultimately lost.
Hostage Negotiator is a highly replayable game, with a lot of variability built into it. Not only are there slightly different rules for each abductor, but the randomization of terror cards and abductor demands creates a slightly different scenario each time you play. If you pick up more abductor packs, you can also try your skills against abductors with different special rules and abilities.
Although not all of the abductors are compelling, Hostage Negotiator does a good job coming up with interesting mechanics that are connected with the abductors' identities and personal situations. This isn't immediately clear in the base game. The recommended first abductor for beginners, Arkayne Massua, is a generic terrorist type who wants weapons, money, etc.
But the others, Edward and Donna, provide much more interesting scenarios. Donna, in particular, is a favorite of mine because she is a teacher who has been denied tenure, and who has taken several of her students hostage in a desperate bid for professional security and affirmation. I always wonder: How old are her students? Did she have the nerve to threaten her most brilliant and delightful pupils, or did she work in a school where everyone treated her like crap? How would it feel to be a kid in that class, proud that you did your homework assignment for once and then coming to the realization that this was no normal school day? Some of Donna's demands are darkly hilarious, and it really adds to the joy of playing the game.
Hostage Negotiator is at its best when it helps you tell yourself a story. In the expansion packs, some of the new abductors are generic criminal types who just have cool added mechanics. But one is so sympathetic that his hostages get Stockholm Syndrome, which makes freeing them more interesting and challenging. While all of the different abductors make for fun and clever puzzles, my favorite experiences with this game come from testing myself against the ones with the most nuance. They make the conversations, hostage meeples, and terror events really come alive.
If you enjoy solo games, I would say that Hostage Negotiator is a must-have for your collection. It manages to be interesting and tense, play after play. And it also has the potential to provide you with an imaginative experience that takes you beyond solving a puzzle and immerses you in a high-stakes adventure.
Since childhood, I have been mildly obsessed with Sherlock Holmes. I devoured the original Conan Doyle stories, and I've watched and rewatched Jeremy Brett's iconic performances as Holmes. When I heard about a game called Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, I had to have it.
Consulting Detective is not like most games. There is no game board, and there are no pieces to move or dice to roll. You have only a map, a directory, some copies of the Times, a case book, and your wits. Not only am I attracted to the prospect of a game that is all skill and no luck, but Consulting Detective also offers a relaxing hybrid of reading a book and playing a game. The introductory text and the statements and observations you can find in the casebook are very well written and highly atmospheric. Even random tidbits in the newspapers (I particularly enjoy the personal ads) add fun and flavor to the game. It is escapism at its finest.
The premise of the game is that you are a Baker Street Irregular, and that Holmes is teaching you the detective's trade by having you cut your teeth on cases he has already solved. It is fun to imagine that your deductive skills are being honed by history's greatest detective, and even more fun to entertain fantasies of someday beating the master at his own game.
Consulting Detective actually does encourage you to "beat" Holmes through ruthless efficiency—you can "win" if you solve the case using fewer leads than he does. I do not, however, recommend this method of playing the game. If you rush through the cases, you will inevitably miss a lot of the richness and joy that Consulting Detective can offer. In addition to finding information about the "main" case, you will run across sometimes hilarious side stories that lighten up the game and deepen the experience of playing it. Also, what is the point of all of those painstakingly written casebooks if nobody reads them? Seriously, if you get this game, take the time to really savor it. Don't rush through in an attempt to "win," because it will ultimately be less satisfying.
There is one other very good reason to slow down when playing Consulting Detective, and that is the limited nature of a mystery game. There are only ten cases in the box, and you are eventually going to run out of them. Board Game Geek features some fan-made cases, and an expansion in English should be published soon, but ultimately, this game is finite. Don't waste it.
The materials in the box are also finite—you get one map, one directory, one copy of each newspaper, etc. To maximize the fun of playing Consulting Detective, I recommend that you either play it alone or with a very small group of people. It might drag if too many people are trying to follow leads, read things for themselves, etc.
I also have one major caveat. Although I adore this game and plan to finish playing every single case, Consulting Detective is not perfect. When it was first published in 1981, its original language was English. But the current reprint is actually re-translated from French. Some of the cases, especially Case 3, are affected by sloppy translations that lead to contradictory evidence and flubbed details. The game is not broken, and it's still fun to play, but if you get the game and notice something weird, you should check the unofficial errata at Board Game Geek for spoiler-free corrections.
Overall, I highly recommend Consulting Detective and will be on the lookout for any expansions. I think my heart is going to break just a little bit when I finish the tenth and final case. This is an excellent gaming experience, particularly for soloists.
My name is Liz, and I play a lot of games. By day, I am a teacher. By night, I am an avid gamer.