Thursday, February 27, 2014

Great boardgames, Ukraine, Carmina Burana

Hi, folks! So much for my New Year’s resolution to blog more frequently and keep it more pithy. I actually felt like I was running short on things to say on the gaming front, and as long as I was having a hard time coming up with something, I was dragging my feet about a new post. Anyway, this time around: My favorite boardgames, the Ukraine, and Carmina Burana.

Gaming: When we can’t get a full table at our regular Thursday D&D game, we almost always fall back on a great boardgame or two. One of my secret schemes for Sasquatch is to publish some good, Euro-style games or even some old Avalon Hill-style wargames if we ever get the chance. In fact, I’ve been working on a couple of game designs over the last few weeks that have a lot of promise. Since I’m not ready to say too much more right now about that, I thought I’d tell you about a couple of the games that are the Thursday “backup plan.”

One of our favorites is Mission Red Planet, by Asmodee Games. It came out in 2005, and it’s currently not in print, so it is pretty hard to find. But I picked up a copy at GenCon a few years back, and I’ve played it dozens of times. What you do on your turn is determined by which character you pick—if you choose the Pilot, you get to send 2 astronauts to Mars, and change the destination of a spaceship, but if you play the Femme Fatale, you send 1 astronaut to Mars but you get to change one playing piece on Mars from another player’s faction to yours. The sneaky part of the game is figuring out which of your characters to use when, since you can’t use the same character twice (until you play the character that recharges all your character picks). Plus, the board and the artwork are gorgeous, and have a wonderful steampunk/Age of Exploration vibe to them.

Steve (our usual game host) is a big fan of Lords of Vegas, by Mayfair Games. It’s a little more recent (2010) and definitely more of an American-style game than Mission Red Planet. You compete to buy empty lots in Las Vegas and build the biggest, richest casinos you can. The competition can be pretty cutthroat, since one of the most effective tactics is to force mergers and reorganizations of competing casinos. Protecting yourself against hostile takeovers is key!

The game we play more than any other these days is Lords of Waterdeep. As a Forgotten Realms author and fan, I appreciate the flavor and attention to detail that goes into the game. But even more than feeling like a good Realms intrigue game, Lords of Waterdeep is an outstanding Euro-style worker placement game, with scads of really fun and interesting combo plays—if you can set up a turn engine or cycle that gives you bonus “X” when you do “Y,” it’s pretty sweet. Rodney Thompson and Peter Lee did an amazing job with this one; it’s my personal favorite these days, and will probably remain so for quite some time!

Politics/Current Events: I’ve always had an interest in Russian history, and I’ve been following developments in the Ukraine with some interest over the last few weeks. I can’t say that I’m sorry to see Yanukovych go—by all accounts the regime was extremely corrupt, and he was clearly Putin’s stooge. But it’s not clear to me that the West should be trying to pull Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit. I guess when it comes down to it, I hope the Ukrainians get a chance to decide for themselves where they stand between Moscow and the West, and that it won’t take a civil war (or a Russian invasion) to work that out.

Basically, Ukraine:Russia::Texas:United States. Rather like Texas, Ukraine was a border region that was fought over by its neighbors. Like Texas, it’s home to a peculiarly national culture or icon—the Cossacks are to Russia like cowboys are to the US of A—and it has a tradition of independent statehood at various times in its history. And, like Texas, Ukraine fought against its parent country in a civil war. When we think about what we could or should do in the current Ukrainian crisis, we should ask ourselves how we would feel if Russia was mucking about with Texas secessionists and trying to tell us what to do there. Other than encouraging restraint on all sides, we probably can’t do all that much.

If I had to take a guess on what the likely outcome is... I think it’s bad. Putin has shown that he is not afraid to use force to make sure that former Soviet republics stay in line, especially if there is an ethnic Russian population living under someone else’s government. I think Putin arms Yanukovych to the teeth and turns him loose to conquer the Ukraine and make sure it stays in Moscow’s orbit. Putin controls western Europe’s energy supply, so I doubt the EU will be able to say much about it. And he knows that Obama is a nonfactor. (To be fair, it’s not clear that any US president ought to get between Putin and the Ukraine right now.) To me, that adds up to a mess that we haven’t seen in Europe since the Serbian troubles of the 1990s.

The Finer Things: My daughter performed in her university choir production of “Carmina Burana.” If you’re a fantasy movie geek like I am, you probably know the piece best as “the music from Excalibur when King Arthur was riding through the apple blossoms.” They did an awesome job with O Fortuno, and really knocked it out of the park. Here’s what I never knew before reading the program at the concert: “Carmina Burana” was written by Carl Orff in 1937 and first performed in Frankfurt, Germany. (Apparently the Nazis loved it.) Excalibur came out in 1981, and Orff lived until 1982. Weird, huh? I always thought that it was a much older piece of music.