Archive for March 2011

Hylozoic   1 comment

Roughtly translated, Hylozoic means the era when everything is alive.  Not only is everything alive, but everything has a mind and is conscious.  What a bizarre thought!  But then, Rudy Rucker specializes in bizarre thoughts.

Where are you going to get enough conflict to create a plot and a good story in a world where everything is alive and conscious?  Why, Outer Space, of course!  Our heroes  get involved with three alien races: the Peng, the Mepples, and the Hrull.  It’s all very silly.

Rudy Rucker has got to be the weirdest writer of science fiction in the U.S.A. today.  Perhaps he’s the weirdest in the world.  I haven’t read anyone so purely out-of-his-mind since the days of R. A. Lafferty in the seventies.

His real name is Rudolf von Bitter Rucker, and he’s a mathematician and a college professor.  You can read all about him here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rudy_Rucker.  Seven years ago he looked like this:

He’s about a year older than me, and I think I would like him.  I certainly enjoy his books.

Hylozoic is one of those books based on the life of a real person.  In this case, Rucker picked one of the weirdest people who ever lived, the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch.  Apparently, the word Hieronymous is just the Latin form of his real name–a name that would have sounded like Yeroon.  Bosch painted demented scenes from heaven and hell at the end of the Middle Ages.  Here is one of them.

What is going on in this picture?  It’s Hell, so it can’t be anything good.  I kind of like the rabbit in the lower center though. 

Things we would consider to be inanimate objects frequently appear to be alive and moving around in Bosch’s art.  Apparently that got Professor Rucker to thinking about what life could be like if everything had its own consciousness.  Rucker also likes to wander through time, space, and other dimensions.  Half of Hylozoic takes place on the Hybrane–a place very much like our Earth but with a slightly different history, and 6 times as big as we are.  Why six?   I don’t know.  That’s where we meet Yeroon. 

Hylozoic is all about the importance of being gnarly–i.e. chaotic.  I have often said, “Blood and Souls for Arioch!  Cheese and Biscuits for the Trollgod!  I serve only Chaos!”  So, you can see that the book was a perfect read for me.

If you read science fiction, do yourself a favor and find Hylozoic.  Follow Jayjay (Jorge Jimenez) and Thuy Nguyen through the subdimensions all the way to Infinity.  I guarantee you’ll be weirded out before you finish it.

End

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Posted March 23, 2011 by atroll in Science Fiction, Uncategorized

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City of the Gods Book Signing   1 comment

This is just a very good-looking book.

Speaking as a (very minor) author myself, I can tell you all that there is a difference between a thrill and a pleasure.  It’s a thrill, at lease for me, when your brain child comes off the press and you hold it in your hands for the first time.  It’s a pleasure when you sign it off with an autograph to an appreciative fan.  All authors should experience both.  Those experiences are your real reward for creating the book in the first place.

On the afternoon of March 19, I went out to participate in the pleasure of my friend Steven S. Crompton.  I suppose it can now be told–M Scott Verne, supposedly one of the co-authors of City of the Gods is just an alias for Steve Crompton.  Steve is a double threat man–both author and illustrator.  And he’s very good at both jobs.

There was a book signing for City of Gods at the Book Maze bookstore in Tempe, Arizona.  I was invited, and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.  It was a pleasure–not so much a thrill, but definitely a pleasure for all who attended.

Lee Klein and friend pose in front of her bookstore.

I didn’t remember there being a bookstore that far east on University Avenue.  It is well past the Arizona State University college area and halfway to Mesa.  But, I went looking for it, and I found it.  To my surprise, the store belonged to my old friend Lee Klein. (I hope I’m spelling it right–it could be Kline.)  I’m so jealous of her.  She has her own bookstore, and she also runs Reality Simulations Incorporated, a play by mail game company best known for the Hyborean War game–conquer the world during the Age of Conan. RSI also has a very fine arena fighting game called Duel Masters.  I’ve played both games.  I stink at them, but they’re fun.

Lee provided the space for Steve’s book signing–handled the cash transactions, provided cookies, etc.  It was great.

This is the glorious life. Steve is all dressed up and surrounded by the fantasies he has created.

I had already bought my copy of City of the Gods, so I brought it with me for Steve to sign.  I had to tell him to look up and smile at the camera.  Steve had a wide variety of other things to sell in addition to his book.  Prints, chapbooks, decks of cards, other games that he has worked on, even some erotic comic books.  Steve also created Demi the Demoness, the sweetest hellion you’ll ever meet.  They were all on sale that afternoon, and since Steve is a fantastic artist, it was a treat for the eyes.

I got to sit down behind the table and have a good chat with him.  Then when he got busy, I wandered around and shmoozed  with a lot of other people that I haven’t seen for years.  The thing we had in common was our friendship with Steve.  They all came out to support him on his day of triumph.

A closer look at the good stuff Steve has created.

I’m thinking I don’t want to invade the privacy of Steve’s wife and friends who were there to support him.  I enjoyed seeing them again, and we had some good talks.  Maybe if they tell me, it’s okay, I’ll post pictures of some of the others who were there.  I didn’t take very many.

The Book Maze is the kind of friendly place where people can get together and game.

Some gamers were sitting out front when I arrived.  I knew some of them.  I love a bookstore that will let people sit down and read or play games.  Definitely the kind of place where I could hang out.  Now that I know it’s there, I’ll definitely be going back to it from time to time.  The store also runs a little cafe where drinks and snacks may be obtained.  Very nice.  All the comforts of home in one fine location.

About 3:30 I said goodbye and went back home after an afternoon very well spent.  You probably missed the signing, but don’t miss the book, available on Amazon.com.   Perhaps I’ll have a signing out there some time.  It would surely be a pleasure.

End

Posted March 20, 2011 by atroll in Uncategorized

Return to Tortilla Flats   3 comments

Superstition Mountains--Volcanic Fortress

After my first trip to Tortilla Flats, I knew I would want to return some time.  The opportunity finally came on March 18, 2011.  I got my trusty digital camera, jumped in the car with wife and son and a chest of bottled water, and headed east.  We wasted no time following Van Buren and Mill and Apache Blvd and Main Street through East Phoenix, Tempe, Mesa, and Apache Junction–just got on the 202 freeway and hauled ass out to the edge of Pinal County at warp speed.

Our first destination was the Lost Dutchman State Park.  You find it just past the fake ghost mining town at the very beginning of the Apache Trail.  The chief attraction is that people can camp there, and do lots of hiking in the surrounding Sonoran Desert.  You do get a good view of the Superstition Mountains.  To document this trip I’m using all my own pictures.  We got out there by about 10 a.m.  The weather was balmy–high 70s with a light breeze blowing.  Because I’ve been taking a geology couse at Phoenix College, I was on the lookout for interesting rocks–the whole area should be full of igneous clasts.  Alas, there wasn’t that much to see down in the park area.  We took about a one mile hike on a clearly marked trail, and this is what we saw.

View of the Sonoran Desert looking away from the mountains.

This whole part of the country is part of the Tonto National Forest–named after the Lone Ranger’s friend, I guess.  Considering that tonto means stupid in Spanish, I can’t see any other reason for naming it that.  It looks like a forest, but the trees are Mesquite, Palo Verde, Saguaros, and Prickly Pear cactus, with some creosote and brittlebush mixed in.

Those blocky walls and cliffs are what's left of an immense volcanic dome after it collapsed some 25 million years ago.

The path was liberally provided with signs under plexiglass that explained what we were seeing.  The only sign I bothered to photograph was the one explaining how the Superstitions were really the caldera walls of an immense collapsed volcanic dome.  Twenty-five million years of erosion has weathered it into the bizarre irregular fortress that it is today.

Coyote sundial. As you can see it was about 11 a.m. by the time we found this original desert clock.

Perhaps the most interesting thing on the trail was a coyote sundial.  There was plenty of evidence like this that whoever planned this section of the park had a good sense of humor.

The Superstitition massif in the background was by far the most interesting thing to look at.

This mountain is connected to tales of gold, crazy prospectors, Apache warriors, and death in the desert.  Authors and publishers still do a thriving business in books about this wilderness area.  Every few years some lunatics go off and die or otherwise disappear while trying to find the lost treasure trove of gold that is supposed to be here.

This little mesa looks like a hard place to reach.

The surrounding countryside is equally rugged.

The main saloon/restaurant at Tortilla Flats was having a busy day.

Carved wooden Indians (excuse me, Native Americans) guard the front door of the restaurant at the tourist trap known as Tortilla Flats.  This small town is 10 miles deeper into the hills beyond the Lost Dutchman State Park, about 1/3 of the way to Roosevelt Dam.  The road is extremely twisty but well paved and a nice ride.  This touristy survival of the Old West lies just beyond Canyon Lake.  There must have been 500 people there when we arrived.  Every parking place was taken, and the wait to get into the restaurant was over an hour.  We saw license plates on cars from all over the United States and even Canada.

Jacob Walz, the Dutchman, has been preserved under glass here to be your fortuneteller.

In point of fact, the “Dutchman” was really a German named Jacob Walz.  The best guess is that he tole people he was Deutsch (which is the German word for German), and our ignorant cowboy predecessor figured he said he was Dutch.

We did not get in to have lunch at Tortilla Flats–way too crowded for my taste.  I did get a picture of me on the side of the road.

I was thirsty and I bought a can of Orange Crush. I'm hiding it behind my back for this picture.

We headed back to Phoenix.  I had to stop and take a picute of the lake, and also of the wild flowers in bloom.

The western end of Canyon Lake seen from scenic lookout point 2 miles away.

—-

Some desert flowers. They are bright yellow, but not very exciting.

It was past noon now, and we were all getting hungry.  We decided to try our luck at the Mining Camp Restaurant back closer to Apache Junction.  It turned out to be a good place to eat, even if it was located in the ritzy section of Apache Junction.  The road leading up to it was full of million dollar estates done in the flat-roofed Spanish style.  Envy.  Sure would be nice to live in one of those palaces.

Atmospheric, but expensive. We ended our adventure here with a $45 hamburger lunch.

The food was good.  The lemonade was sweet.  The restaurant had that old west feeling to it.  After lunch I looked through the gift shop.  They had some nice toys including the ever popular Arizona Jackalope doll.  The jackalope, if you haven’t heard of it, is a mythical Arizona desert beast that is half jack rabbit, half antelope.

I admired the toys, but didn't buy any.

And so I say farewell to the mighty Superstition Mountains of Arizona.  Summer is coming, and it will soon be way too hot to be walking around in the desert.  Future trips will be taking me to cooler places.

End

Suburban view of the southern Superstitions.

Posted March 19, 2011 by atroll in Uncategorized

David Weber has Robert Jordan’s Disease   2 comments

If you don’t know who David Weber is and something about his extremely popular Honor Harrington series of space opera novels, quit reading now, or go look him up.  If you don’t know who Robert Jordan was and about his best-selling Wheel of Time epic fantasy novels, then quit reading now, or go look him up.

What follows is strictly my own critical opinion.  Since both of these writers are a million times more popular and well-known than I am or will ever be, consider the following rant to be just a coyote howling in the wilderness.  But, my gag reflex has been triggered (again) and I must either speak or throw up.

When I talk about Robert Jordan’s disease, I am not talking about the cardiac amyloidosis that took his life in 2007.  I was a fan of Mr. Jordan while he was writing Conan novels and creating the epic heroic fantasy known as The Wheel of Time.  He wrote 11 books in that series, of what was originally projected to be a trilogy, and had a 12th one in planning when he died.  I don’t suppose we’ll ever find out how the events concerning The Dragon Reborn ever turned out.

I noticed something that dismayed me about Jordan’s writing as time went on.  Each book got longer than the one before it, although the actual movement of the plot became shorter.  Less actually happened in the world, and it took longer to talk about it.  Why?  The simple explanation is that the number of characters involved in the novel kept increasing.  To give all the “major” characters their own scenes took more pages.  Worse yet, most of the new characters were female, and they spent all their on-page time bickering and belittling each other.  Every single woman in his epic fantasy had an overwhelming superiority complex, which, of course, he had to show in hundreds of pages of bitchy female infighting–all to the detriment of the main story. 

That’s not exactly wht is happening in Weber’s Honorverse series, now in its 12th novel with MISSION OF HONOR, but something very similar is going on, and it may make me swear off reading the series forever.  Do you hear me, Baen Books?  Don’t send me any more Weber novels about Honor Harrington.

In the beginning, the series focussed on Honor Harrington, a remarkably talented, smart, and lucky starship commander in the Royal Manticoran space navy.  She often found herself in combat with members of another star system–the so-called Republic of Haven.  What made the books enjoyable was the predicaments that Harrington got into, and how she got back out again.  Although Weber does like to have his characters think out loud while talking to other characters, there was plenty of action–at least in the beginning.

Times have changed.  Weber has introduced so many characters that the reader needs a scorecard, or perhaps a computer database or wiki to keep up with them.  In fact, there is a 14 page appendix at the end of the novel that lists the characters.  Fourteen pages with as many as 20 characters listed per page!  And just like Mr. Jordan’s characters, they all need their on-page time in the book.  And they mostly just talk to each other in dozens of little disconnected scenes that are somehow supposed to all fit together to make the novel.

And what do they talk about?  Interesting conversation has a lot to recommend it, but how interesting is it really, Mr. Weber, when all your characters, despite your elaborate and high-faluting concoctions of future names, may as well be the same person?  What do these dozens of characters spend page after page discussing? In your case it’s how stupid their opponents are, or occasionally, how stupid they aren’t.  This kind of comment comes up time after time:

“Now if only the idiot knew what the hell his precious Navy was up to, Kolokoltsov thought coldly.”  MISSION OF HONOR, p. 5.

“And if they’re still too stupid to accept the inevitable,” he shrugged, “we send in however much of the Battle Fleet it takes and squash them like a bug.”  MISSION OF HONOR, p. 21.  (There are 16 pages of conversation between these comments showing how stupid, self-serving and corrupt the Solarian ministers really are, and it’s not over yet.)

“Those civilian idiots can talk about “if” all they want to . . . p. 26.

“Matthew was firmly of the opinion that High Ridge’s idiotic foreign policy had done a great deal to provoke . . .” p. 49.

Just because I’ve stopped putting in quotes, don’t get the idea that the author has stopped talking about idiots.  Characters have their IQs compared (unfavorably) to their shoe sizes.  It goes on and on chapter after chapter.  Talk after talk, scene after scene, chapter after chapter, someone, somewhere is being called stupid.

And here’s my last quote: President Pritchart is talking to Queen Elizabeth (the heads of state of Haven and Manticore respectively). “Don’t you think it would be sort of stupid of either of us to let the other one go down and leave us all alone?”  That’s on page 583–the penultimate page of the book.  And the focus is still on stupid.

Believe it or not, Mr. Weber, there are authors who can go through entire books without calling anyone an idiot, and yet it pops up in your writing every dozen pages or so; sometimes less.  Are there some superiority complexes involved here?  Is it just the characters?  Or is it David Weber who thinks he’s the only smart one in the room?

Looks like Robert Jordan’s disease to me!  Not only has David Weber proliferated the number of characters that he needs for the novel, but he has fallen in love with them.  And they’re basically all the same–a bunch of politicos and military who think they are the only ones in the universe with even half a working brain.

You know, it is possible to be wrong without being stupid or corrupt.  It’s also possible to be right while being stupid and/or corrupt.  Everything is relative, isn’t it?

In a novel named after Honor Harrington, we first see her on page 30.  Doesn’t it seem like that is taking a little too long to introduce your protagonist?  Personally, I kind of like books that start out with a sentence like: “The sting of the horsefly’s bite saved Conan’s life.”  We know who our hero is and that he’s lucky in the very first sentence.

And here’s my second gripe.  With all this talking head action, we don’t see any actual space combat until page 258.  This is a series based on the combat of interstellar fleets, and we don’t get any combat until page 258!!!  Does that seem kind of incredible to you, dear Reader?  It boggles my mind.

Why doesn’t a real editor step in and tell him that he has Robert Jordan’s disease?  Why doesn’t someone tell him to stick to a story, anybody’s story!, instead of writing future history as a series of conversations by people who think someone else, usually a foe, is an idiot?

Don’t get me wrong!  I don’t hate David Weber.  I’ve been a fan for a couple of decades now.  He’s a superb master of the English language, he puts together gripping plots, and he knows his stuff scientifically.  His powers of invention are brilliant.  He has empathy for every side in combat. 

But, he has Robert Jordan’s disease, and I really wish he’d see a (writing) doctor and take the cure.  I’m now on page 466 of the novel, and there have been two (count them, two) significant space battles–both of them completely one-sided.  Finishing this book is going to be a feat of endurance for me–not pleasure, and as soon as I’m done, it’s off to Half-Price Books with it.  Perhaps Baen Books’ brilliant packaging of this novel will allow me to foist it off on some other poor shmuck of a space opera fan.

Truth in editorializing: I received MISSION OF HONOR as a free review copy.  I started to read it because I have read and enjoyed some of Weber’s earlier books.  Also, Baen sends me so many free books that I do feel I should review some of them from time to time.  And I feel I can’t be just a fountain of unrestricted praise in this blog.  Readers should, imho, read critically. 

Gack!  Robert Jordan’s disease–what a hideous fate for a terrific writer! 

Your mileage may vary.

End

Posted March 14, 2011 by atroll in Uncategorized

City of the Gods–the Book   2 comments

Aavi, the gorgeous blonde, spends more time outside the city than in it.

City of the Gods is an epic fantasy about the loss of faith and what that can do to a man’s spirit.  It starts out as a take on the Pygmalion legend–what would happen if a statue came to life, and a man fell in love with her/it.  It starts out as an epic tale of  gods and pantheons in conflict.  It starts out as a quest for identity–Aavi–not her real name–does not remember very much–she can walk and talk, but that’s about it.  She doesn’t even remember food and how to eat.  As you can tell, a lot of different things are going on here, and it’s not all on the surface.

Our hero, a freeman called D’Molay, notices Aavi’s entry into the world, and gets involved in helping her.  Getting involved is always dangerous–in this case it leads to D’Molay being sucked into  several quests and a war between the gods Set and Ares.

But, let’s talk about the setting.  The premise behind this novel is that all the ancient pagan gods of Earth had to leave our world behind and go somewhere else to live.  They are still immortal, and retain their godly powers, but they can no longer interfere with or control our world.  They live in an alternate world of undetermined size–it doesn’t actually seem very big .  Our protagonists travel back and forth across it just a few days of travel.  There is a central metropolis on an island in the middle of a circular lake.  The shores of the lake are divided into wedge-shaped realms (for lack of a better term) in which the gods of different pantheons hold sway.  There is a Greek realm, an Egyptian realm, an Asiatic realm, an American realm, a Celtic realm and so forth.  Theoretically every different realm should be represented, but of course the authors do not have room in their novel to represent that kind of diversity–they stick to just a few gods and goddesses that are fairly well known to the educated reader.  The only real surprise was Mazu the Asian water goddess–I had never heard of her before.  In this bizarre afterlife, there are plenty of humans.  Most of them are servants/slaves of the deities they worshipped in life.  They can live a long time, but they are not immortal.  There is no clue as to what happens to the souls of mortals that die in this realm.  Our hero, D’Molay, is a free man.  He earns his living by doing errands for different deities, but he is not beholden to any of them.  There aren’t many free men in the Realm of the Gods, and that makes  him valuable as an agent to  different deities at different times.

In the course of the novel, Aavi is lost, enslaved, tortured, rescued, and finally her secret is revealed.  D’Molay plays a big part in all these events, and he falls in love with her.  He loves her so much that he would literally die for her.  This is a pretty good adventure story.  D’Molay is no Conanesque hero, but he’s respectable for a mortal man as far as heroes go.  But that’s not really what the novel is all about.  I’m not going to tell you, dear Reader, what is really going on.  If you want to find out, you’ll need to buy the novel and read it.

The City of the Gods exemplifies the finest kind of amateur writing, illustrating, and publishing.  Most of the fantasies published by the big publishing companies aren’t half as well done as this tale of amnesia in “heaven”.  In addition to a strong story, the reader also gets a phantasmagoria of classical art photoshopped into new and amazing panoramas that illustrate the story.  The original chapbook that I reviewed last year shows some of this amazing art in color–a feast for the eyes and the spirit of the reader.  The realities of publishing a 300 page novel have reduced that art to gray-scale for the interior, but it’s still gorgeous work.  Whenever I see a job well done, I like to salute the person that did it.  I take this opportunity to tip my hat and express admiration for my friend Steven S. Crompton for the way he has arranged this work.

I haven’t said much about the authors M. Scott Verne and Wynn Mercer.  They are also friends of mine and I know a secret about them that I am not at liberty to reveal.  One thing I can say–those names are pseudonyms.

We live in an age when any moderately talented person can create and produce his or her own book/art/motion picture.  I’ve done it myself, so it can’t be that hard.  Often this material is far more original and creative than the formula-driven pap that the big corporate publishers offer  us.  Even the best work of amateurs is fortunate to find a few dozen, hundred, or thousand readers/viewers/fans.  The only publicity that City of the Gods will get is what the creators can produce for themselves on the internet–and perhaps a few reviews like this one.  That’s a shame.  It deserves an audience of millions.  It’s that good.

I’m in position to receive a lot of free books as review copies.  The authors probably would have given me a copy.  I bought my copy.  It’s worth buying and it will have an honored place in my personal fantasy collection until I die.  Go, thou, and buy your own copy.  If you like fantasy at all,  you won’t regret it.

End

Posted March 11, 2011 by atroll in Uncategorized

Shining Force–Best replayable VGA game ever   6 comments

Because Wikipedia has such an excellent article about the nature and origins of the Japanese game Shining Force, which you can read here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shining_Force, I can keep my blog short and just talk about what I like and dislike about the game.

Shining Force 1, the only game in the series that I have played, tells the story of a young hero who has to gather up a force of other heroes, fight his way across two continents, and finally defeat a god of evil known as Dark Dragon.  Originally named Max, you can rename the hero to make him your own–I call my version Arrth.

What makes Shining Force really interesting is that it is a kind of fantasy rpg tactical battling version of Groundhog Day.  No matter how many times you lose a battle, you can always go back to your last save and fight it again.  In fact, the game gives you a spell to invoke the Groundhog Day option–a spell called Egress. If you’re getting your butt whipped by the overwhelming forces of the Enemy, cast Egress and start the whole battle all over again.  And you get to keep all the experience points and treasures gained during the losing battle.  This means that your Shining Force group gets stronger and stronger until you can finally overwhelm the forces of Runefaust (Evil Bad Guys), and move on to the next setpiece battle.

Let me add that the forces of evil have a pretty good A.I. algorithm.  They take and hold strategic locations on the battle map, and they can gang up effectively to smash your Shining Force party members.  Sometimes, just the loss of one key member can spell doom for the entire party during a battle.  Lose Tao, the flame-haired enchantress who starts with your party, in your attempt to cross the desert to Anri’s queendom, and you may as well Egress right on the spot.  Without her casting Blaze spells at the zombies that bar your course, you’re not going to make it.

I really play and replay Shining Force for the battles.  I totally enjoy the turn-based tactical struggles where your little army of good guys is always outnumbered, and outclassed, at least until a few Groundhog Day iterations have gone by, and you understand the enemy strengths and weaknesses while getting stronger your own self.

Part of the charm of Shining Force, but not the part I like the most, is the exploration of the world that you have to do with your main character between each battle.  It is there that information is learned, new characters are met and recruited, and certain plot points are reached that advance the story.  It is also a time for buying and selling equipment, arming and equipping your characters with the best armor and weapons they can get.  For example, it is good practice to have each of your characters take one or two medical herbs in their inventory.  They are going to get hurt and need healing during the battles.  Although characters can be healed by magical spells, or by talking to the priest back at the last town you visited, sometimes you can’t wait.  You always want your main character to be as healthy as possible.  If he is killed, then you lose.  (Anyway, I play it as a loss.  Even the main character can be revived from the dead with some penalties associated.)

In Shining Force there is a large assortment of characters that you can recruit to increase the size and fighting ability of your troop.  Eventually, you get more characters thay you have slots for.  That means some of them have to just sit around doing nothing.  You usually lose your original starters.  Characters that join the party later are so much stronger than the original cast that you can’t help but take them.

One of the things that gives the game replayability is how you choose to use your recruits.  For example, there are a lot of centaur characters in the game–and you could choose to only use centaurs in your shining force.  Just leave the other characters behind–in the clubhouse of Shining Force HQ–and out of the battles.  This makes the game a lot more challenging.  I am right now trying to win the game by only using female characters.  Arrth, of course, is male, and somehow he just loves to lead an Amazonian force of warrior women.  My son, Corencio, is playing with a force where all the characters are wizards of one sort or another.  That is a very strong force the way he has it organized.

Graphics and dialog are primitive by modern standards, but they are bright, colorful, and have a bit of motion in them.  At least, the graphics are primitive in the Sega Smash Pack 2 version that I have.  However, a search of Shining Force images on the web shows that they have been upgraded considerably for more modern platforms.  So your experience of the game is very likely to be much glitzier than mine.  However, there is a wide variety of creatures, characters, structures, and combat maps.  The variety keeps you interested and playing.  There is probably music with the game, but I play it on a computer, not a gaming system, and I always keep the volume turned down.

In summary, Shining Force is extremely likeable as games go.  It is available on many different gaming ploatforms.  It has sequels and side adventures that you can play.  It will keep you interested for a long time.  If you never give up, you will reach the point where you win the game–that is always satisfying.  It is a fairly long story that makes good use of basic fantasy tropes–elves, dwarves, dragons, wizards, but it steps outside the standard fantasy genre with such things as a steam-powered armadillo creature and laser weapons.  After you have won the game, you will immediately see ways where you could have tried to do things differently.

You might even go on to try the ultimate challenge–winning the whole game with nothing but the one hero character you start out with.  That would be quite a feat.

This is what Shining Force looks like on a modern game system.

End

Posted March 7, 2011 by atroll in Uncategorized

Magic the Gathering–the Building of Decks   3 comments

I think they could have had a flashier, more colorful look for the back of the cards.

One game I really enjoy playing is Magic the Gathering.  The game was invented by Professor Richard Garfield and first released on an unsuspecting world in 1993.  I was at Origins that year when It was released.  The Wizards of the Coast booth was getting a lot of attention, and I walked over to see what the big attraction was.  It was Magic!  They were selling cards just as fast as they could take the money.  Peter Adkison saw me and called out to me, “Hey, Ken, you oughta get in on this. It’s going to be great.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“A new game called magic.  You buy a deck of cards and then you compete with other players and try to win their cards away from them.”

“How much does it cost?”

“Only Six dollars for a deck or $2.99 for a pack of cards.”

“How many cards in a deck?”

“Sixty.”

“Ten cents a card!  That’s outrageous!  I’ll pass.”

“Okay, Your loss.”  He went back to selling cards to other rabid fans who couldn’t wait to throw their money at them.”

“This is a fad,” I said to myself.  “It will never replace roleplaying.  Nah, it will never really catch on.”

That may not be exactly how it went.  It was a long time ago, and I didn’t pay attention or write it down at the time, but it was pretty close to that.   I could have been in at the very beginning of Magic’s rise to most popular card game in the world, and I stepped aside.  (This seems to happen quite a lot in my life.  I have chances to connect with Greatness, often before it becomes Great, and I step aside.  Does that ever happen to you?)

I didn’t get into Magic as a player until a year later when all my friends in Phoenix started playing the game.  Once I started playing and found out how much fun it was, I was as hooked as everyone else on the game.  Well, I wasn’t totally hooked.  I never became a dealer of Magic cards.

Eighteen years later Magic is still going strong.  I’m still playing.  I have a few thousand cards around the house and am still buying new ones from time to time.  I was in a Magic tournament a few weeks ago–came in 17th out of 30–not because I’m that good, but because some players, when they see they can’t win, just drop out.  I play mostly with my son.  James St. Andre is 19 going on 20, and Magic has become the center of his existence.  He has a friend named Harley who is also deeply involved.  Hanging with these teens gives me an opportunity to play a game I love, and meet new people, and stay current.  Through most of my career as a librarian I have managed to stay current with what’s happening with young people, teens, twenties, etc.  I do it by being interested in what they are interested in.  I may look old on the outside, but I’m a teenager at heart.

Still, if Magic were a static, unchanging game, I would have probably set it aside long ago.  When I was  younger, I loved to play chess.  I still can’t pass a fancy chess set without stopping to admire it.  I own sets with unique themes–one is made all of transparent glass, another is  conquistadors and Mayans.  You get the idea.  Themed chess sets still appeal to me.  I still love the game of chess, but I hardly ever play it.  I go years at a time witout playing it.  Been there, done that.

Dogs vs. Cats in medieval garb. How cool is that! I love this kind of thing, but I don't play chess any more. The pieces are cute, but the game hasn't changed a bit to account for it.

Magic remains new, and what keeps it new is the ability of players like myself to make their own individual decks.  You buy or acquire the cards, but you can put them together any way you want.  I’m a Game Designer.  That’s my number one joy in life–creating new games.  I can make a game any time, any place, out of anything.  Each time I take an idea and make a new deck from that idea, it is just like making a  new game, and I will have the opportunity to test how good that game is against other Magic players.

There are rules for constructing decks.  For example, a full deck is supposed to have at least 60 cards in it.  The decks require land to power the cards and their effects–lands of specific colors and types.  Decks should be about 30 to 40% land, 30% creatures, 30% spells.  These rules are more like guidelines, but you get the idea.

The best Magic players in the world build their decks to emphasize one or two killer effects.  If they can get a certain combination of cards, they win.  Often the cards required for these killer effects are rare, expensive, and hard to obtain.  I retain a vestige of both sanity and humility–I will never be able to match and compete with such players.  I play the game for fun, not for a living.

Then there are players who don’t have a clue.  They are new to the game, and they let other people build their decks for them.  Or they just buy starter decks and slowly modify them.  I can beat those players most of the time.  I’m always happy to see such a nooby–it means I’m going to win. (insert evil chuckle here).

And there are a lot of players in the middle.  We have a pretty good idea of what we’re doing.  We play for the fun of the game, and for the fun of seeing our decks beat their decks. 

Magic lends itself to Theme players.  It does this by having lots of fantasy creatures of the same type that can be grouped together to gain a thematic effect.  Goblins, for example.  Goblins are generally low-powered creatures with tricky effects.  Goblin grenade unites a spell with a suicide bomber to do 5 damage.  That’s a pretty good blast.

Take this present to that guy over there!

Magic continually reinvents itself by offering new cards and powers to the players.  It seems that each new set incorporates some gimmick to make their cards more powerful and dangerous than everything that has gone before.  That doesn’t always work, but Wizards of the Coast always try.

Another thing that keeps Magic going is the issuance of new Rare cards with every set.  There are Rares and Mythic Rares now–you get a rare with each pack of cards that you buy.  Mythic Rares are a lot harder to get.  Here are some of the Rares and Mythic Rares tht I own.  Each one is important to a theme deck built around it.

Valakut is the Master Volcano of all Volcanoes. What if Volcanoes were alive and malevolent?

Valakut is the key card in a red burn deck meant to simply blast the other player out of existence by playing mountains.  Rig the game so that you draw mutltiple cards each turn, and can play more than one land, and the deck becomes very dangerous.

This Planeswalker turns mountains into creatures that do direct damage. At  least you can then fight them as if they were creatures.  Imagine killing a mountain!

Koth of the Hammer is a Planeswalker who turns mountains into creatures.  He can win a game all by himself, but he’s second banana to Valakut in the red deck they share.

This is a silly card with a power that costs too much to use.

Sometimes I wonder what the Magic Card designers were thinking. When one point of energy can do up to 3 or 4 direct damage in a red deck, why have a card that has to be played, then has to guess a card at random and get it right and pay 3 energy to do 2 damage to the opponent?  Not only is the cost way too much for the effect, but you wind up telling your opponent what is in your hand.  This card should be rare mostly because anyone who buys it will tear it up in disgust.  I keep it for the art.

The Eldrazi are a recent gimmick for Magic the Gathering.  They are a race of horrible creatures that attack your world–alien invaders of the worst sort.  The largest of them are world-destroying giants.  The smallest are insignificant gnats. And there are many sizes in between.  You can build a multi-colored deck to bring in Eldrazi. 

The horrible monsters from another plane of existence is a concept that keeps coming up at Wizards of the Coast.  Off the top of my head I can think of 3 other groups of cards that fall into this category: The Phyrexians, the Slivers, and the Kavu.  Kavu cards are pretty old, and they seem to have faded from the Magic scene.  Slivers are so horribly effective that WotC seems to have discontinued them for now.  Phyrexians and Eldrazi are still going strong.

I have an awesome Sliver deck that includes this pretty card. The deck is too evil to play, and all right thinking players band together to destroy slivers whenever they appear.

I could go on and on.  The point I really wanted to make is how much fun it is to create your own decks using Magic cards.  It is also fun to make Shadowfist decks, or Legend of Five Rings decks, or Yu-Gi-Oh, or Naruto, or whatever your brand of collectible card-playing might be.  The other games don’t offer as much variety as Magic but the challenge of making a world-beating deck always exists.

Friends, bring your decks to the Sci-Fic or Gaming conventions that you attend, and I’ll be happy to take you on.  Consider yourself challenged!

End