Monday, November 27, 2017

Don't Get Board! (Guest Post)

Hi guys! It's crunch week for me, all my papers are due soon and I've got a load of grading to do before the semester ends next week. So, as a special favor, I asked my husband to write a post up for me about a topic near and dear to his own heart (and possibly contains useful information for those of you looking for fun gift ideas this year). Anyway, you are in for a treat!
Suzanne is great, but you already know that. She has a busy life between being a full-time student, college instructor, mom and wife. But the one thing she really looks forward to, other than reading, is working on this blog. She loves this blog and speaking with the like-minded folks (you!) who read it. I’ll admit that I am a bit of an absentee reader myself, but I am very glad she has the blog and I love to see the joy that it brings her. She asked me to help out with a guest post, so of course I’m happy to oblige.
Confession time: I am a nerd. I don’t play many video games or role-playing games (shout out to Stranger Things), I don’t read comics and I reached my saturation point in super hero movies before the original Avengers (sorry Evy, I know you love your Captain America). However, I love that nerd culture is becoming more mainstream in the United States and that more folks are comfortable liking things that used to be “uncool” (because seriously, we’re not in junior high anymore and being cool can actually be pretty lame). Let your nerd flag fly high! I do love fantasy and sci-fi novels and movies, I was *that kid* in junior high that had his Magic the Gathering cards taken by the math teacher because I was looking at them during class and at one point in my life I had a map of Middle Earth on my wall (whatever happened to that?). However, nowhere does my nerdom go deeper than it does with board games. I am a major board game nerd. I spent 3 days earlier this month playing board games in a hotel convention hall in Dallas along with 3,000 other fellow board gamers, so clearly this is not just a lukewarm interest for me (some favorites from that trip include Flip Ships, 1960: The Making of the President and Fresco). I love board games. I love how with a few bits of cardboard and plastic and rules you can enter a revised reality, where wooden discs are Puerto Rican farm workers, where dice are casino bosses fighting for supremacy of the Las Vegas strip, or where small plastic boats are pirate ships terrorizing merchants in the Caribbean.  I love that moment when the whole table buys into the story the game is telling (the “magic circle”) and players shout for joy as a yellow camel crosses the finish line or the momentary sense of real betrayal when a supposed friend purposely sinks the team’s final and crucial mission.

My love letter could continue, but I’ll stop for now. My point is that I really like games. And, as a gaming convert, I now have a duty to share this joy with others.
So first…
Games are not just for kids. None of the games I referenced above are for kids (though kids could play some of them). These are all designs that were created specifically for an older crowd. A crowd that can handle deeper rules, more engaging play and more impactful decisions. I love it when a game makes me think. And not just in a brain-burning-looking-eight-moves-ahead chess type of thinking. But rather in assessing when it is worth taking a big risk, when I need to change my strategy and what move is optimal. Okay, I admit that any of those things could also apply to a game of chess. Truthfully I’m no good at chess. I respect those who are, but I prefer games with more unique mechanisms and honestly, with more theme. Like having a Mexican standoff with your friends, or trying to tell the truth in such a way as to make the other player think you’re lying but not so overtly that it is obvious this is what you are doing (“clearly I can’t choose the wine in front of you”). These aren’t kid themes. Kids can play them, but my point is that GAMES ARE NOT JUST FOR KIDS (because if they are, then I guess I’ll have to come to terms with being a man-child).

There are more games than Monopoly, Risk, and Clue (and to be honest, those three games aren’t very good).  An important thing happened in 1995. Besides being the year that AOL offered internet access (which, of course, was just a 90s fad) to the masses, Settlers of Catan (now just called Catan) was released. In many ways this was a classic German game: it emphasized individual development with unique mechanisms and had less direct player conflict. Today these types of games are colloquially called “Eurogames.” Through the eighties and early nineties, the Germans (and other Europeans) played their own style of games that had increased non-random strategy (fewer dice rolls) while Americans were playing big thematic games, that essentially involved pushing plastic soldiers around a map and rolling a bunch of dice (now pejoratively called “Ameritrash”). Settlers of Catan had a typical Eurogame engine, but somehow started making waves in the US. What followed was several other Eurogames (now modern classics) including Carcassonne and Puerto Rico. Often the production quality of these games was lower than that of Ameritrash games (more cheap cardboard, less plastic miniatures, lower quality art, etc.), but US gamers loved the depth and structure that these games offered. In the years since the Euro-invasion, Ameritrash games have been made with more interesting mechanisms than just dice-rolling and Eurogames have improved their production quality and used more engaging themes (not just the archetypal 18th century farming). The two styles combined and intertwined to create a new and wonderful hybrid that represents most modern board games today.
Do any of you wish you could have seen Rome during its peak, or Florence during the Renaissance or Versailles during Louis XIV? We missed those golden ages, but we are currently living in the golden age of board gaming. Boardgamegeek.com, a repository of board game information, has a database of over 90,000 games, most of those coming from the past 15 years or so. There are dozens and dozens of incredibly skilled designers and studios who create new games every year. Most modern board games (those that aren’t “mass market” like Hasbro or Parker Brothers) are called “designer games” because they will list the name of the designer on the box cover. Names like Uwe Rosenberg, Eric Lang and Matt Leacock are the da Vincis, Michelangelos and Botticellis of the board gaming renaissance. With thousands of board games coming out every year, there are certainly some duds, but there are also certainly some fantastic games that will speak to you and bring joy to your life and kitchen table. Don’t miss out!

Here are some games I recommend and you can consider trying. None of these is too difficult, but all are a lot of fun.
Camel Up: You and up to 7 of your closest friends try to come out on top at the camel tracks. Cheer for the underdog or go with the safe bet, this one is a favorite at our house and we frequently pull it out when playing games with folks who are not in the hobby. A rare game that I think works well with between 2 and 8 players. Game of the year winner in 2014.

Kingdomino: Build a small kingdom, using domino shaped tiles. This one is so simple your grandma can play (and she will probably beat you), but also has a bit of a press-your-luck element as you try to get the perfect tile, but also risking that you’ll be stuck with something you can’t use. Plays very quick at 15 minutes, so you’ll likely find yourself playing it several times in a row. Game of the year winner in 2017.

Patchwork: This is a 2 player game that combines Tetris and quilt-making. Despite the theme, this one is highly satisfying and has a good amount of strategy. A great head-to-head game that doesn’t breed resentment when you are outmaneuvered. It feels so great to get the perfect piece to add to your quilt.

Sushi Go!: A fast-paced card game where you are trying to have the best sushi dinner. This features card drafting, where you get to pick a single card out of your hand to keep, then you have to pass the remaining cards to your neighbor. Simple, but solid. Do you keep the card you really need, or do you take the card that your brother really needs so he can’t have it?

7 Wonders: If card-drafting from Sushi Go! was your thing, 7 Wonders is my favorite implementation of card drafting on a deeper strategic game. Players compete to build up an ancient civilization, deciding whether to pursue military prowess, scientific superiority, cultural achievements or production supremacy.

Pandemic: This is a cooperative game where the players work together to play against the game and prevent the spread of diseases throughout the world. Being members of the CDC may not sound like your idea of a good time, but Pandemic combines tricky decisions, stressful card draws and a globetrotting team of scientists in a memorable and exciting way that will make you want to play again and again. This one often goes down to the wire and is very satisfying when you pull out a close victory and save the world from the rampant plague.

Pandemic Legacy Season One: If you like Pandemic and want to take your game to the next level, get a group of people to commit to Pandemic Legacy. It is based on Pandemic, but adds persistence and reaction to the game. This is a campaign game, where you work your way from January to December fighting off diseases. However, decisions you make in the game will permanently impact the game for future plays. You rip up cards, you write on the board, you open packages with new game pieces (it’s like Christmas!), you get new rules and new objectives. It also adds a narrative arch, where you are imbedded in a story that the game tells and you become invested in not only the outcome of the game, but the twists in the story and the fate of your characters. At the end you cannot replay the game, but if you’re like me, it will be your most memorable board gaming experience. I’ve heard that the creators of the game said something like the following, “We didn’t make a game that you could only play 15 times, we made a game you would actually play 15 times.” As of the time of this writing, Pandemic Legacy Season One is rated the #1 game on Boardgamegeek.com—which is pretty spectacular achievement. (Also, Season Two came out this month and, as long as Santa gets my letter, it is my most anticipated Christmas present this season.)
Thanks for sticking with me. The above games (except for Pandemic Legacy, and maybe 7 Wonders) are pretty light games. If you are more of a jump-in-the-deep-end type of person, maybe check out Power Grid, Scythe or Terraforming Mars or poke around on Boardgamegeek.com and see if something strikes your fancy. Also here are a few other taste curators that I recommend:
Shut Up and Sit Down (their intro to games video here is pretty fun, he makes several of the same points I make above, but with more humor and better costumes)

Happy gaming!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017


You guys, I've neglected this poor little blog of mine so terribly, but it's not for lack of interest. I have so much I want to say and write and post here, but the issue is time, like always. Still, I needed to give myself a break from all the crazy term paper writing and grading I'm in the middle of this month, so I'm popping by to write a few of those swirling thoughts down.

Also, I've got a little treat of a guest post in the pipeline for you, which you really ought to be excited about (I know I am).

Anyway, what I wanted to talk about today was composition. I teach a course that is sometimes referred to as "Freshman Composition," and in my practicum course we do a lot of talking and reading and theorizing about what "composition" means. The biggest thing we talk about is how composition isn't just about words or writing. Composition happens in many modes: visual/picture, sound/speech/music, body/gestural, and spatial/design. This means there is a move in composition courses to emphasize not just writing, but projects that involve all of these modes.

In fact, my students right now are in the middle of creating multi-modal projects. For this assignment, they were required to make an argument in a way that involves two or more "modes" of composition. Many of them are choosing to make videos, but I'm getting a lot of PowerPoint presentations, some picture books, photo essays, and one student is even making a blog.

This has kind of been a shift in thinking for me about what a freshman writing course should be. I mean, I get teaching writing. I'm comfortable teaching writing. I kind of thought that's what I signed up to do.

But video editing?

Photo composition?

Heck, even PowerPoint?

I'm totally out of my depth.

There's this old school, born-before-the-internet, averse-to-change side of me that's like "This is not what writing is!!! Can't we teaching writing in a writing class and leave all this technology/visual/mode stuff to tech people? Artists? Graphic designers? That's not me!"

But there's another side of me, this side that blogs and writes on the internet, that totally understands and is actually excited by this move. See, here's how the argument goes: Composition happens in all of these modes, but they've only been taught to the masses insofar as technology has allowed the masses access to these modes. The technology for writing just happened first. We got pencils and papers in such a cheap place that the masses could all be taught how to write (and technically, to draw too. It actually used to be much more common for people, especially women, to learn how to draw well.). But now technology has developed to such a point that every one of us is walking around with these devices in our pockets that can compose in all these other modes. It can take pictures. It can record video. It can edit. It can record sound. You can even do certain kinds of graphic design.

And now that this technology has become so ubiquitous, it kind of only makes sense that we begin teaching how to compose in all of these modes. I see this with my students. I can write an essay without blinking an eye, but edit a video? Haha. But the vast majority of my students are far more comfortable putting together these highly sophisticated videos than they are with any of the written assignments I've given them so far. It's put me in a bit of an awkward position, where my students are the experts on how to do the assignment, and I'm the amateur (worse than amateur). It's humbling.

But all this discussion about composing in different modes has made me see my five-year-old's play in a new light too. He is a composer. It was his drive to write stories that inspired his interest in learning to read (totally backwards of most children, who are interested in reading first and then learn how to write.) He still writes quite a bit, but his recent passion has been making movies. His imaginative play is all about practicing for his "movies" that he's going to make. He's constantly using my phone to take pictures and record videos (I never have space for the photos I want to take because of his creations). Luckily he has a wonderful father who's far less of a neophyte than I am, and who makes movies with him on Saturday mornings. They started out with stop motion photography on an app, but have since progressed to green-screens and special effects (see below, one of their first attempts, which is by no means professional, but pretty impressive to me). Friday night movie night is now less about the story of the movie, and more about how the movie was made (he was fascinated when we pulled out Honey I Shrunk the Kids a few months ago, and still talks about the sets and the "movie magic" that made that film possible).

I don't know if this means he's going to grow up to be a film producer or movie director. Maybe, maybe not. But I do know he's going to grow up completely understanding that stories and information can be communicated in many different modes, and he will be able to compose in any of them because of technology.

Also, he's definitely getting his own digital camera from Santa this year. Because I want my phone back.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Books I Read in October

My commute has quickly become my favorite part of the day, for two reasons. One is the scenery. You guys, I know Kansas gets all sorts of flak for being a fly-over state, and flatter than a pancake, and I've never heard anyone rave about natural beauty around here, but I'm totally falling in love! So, there aren't my beloved mountains, but our side of Kansas is actually not particularly flat (so surprised by the hills I have to climb every day on campus!). And it's no New England, but there are actually trees that change color here! A real fall! My drive through thirty miles of sparsely populated country and farmland surprises me every day with just being spectacularly beautiful. I've loved watching the scenery change through this month of October, as various trees and plants have flared in beautiful brilliant colors. It just fills my soul to be surrounded by such natural beauty. And every day I promise myself that I'm going to pull over to the side of the highway and take pictures, just to show everyone how beautiful Kansas is (but of course I never do, because I'm always in such a rush to get home or get to school).

The second reason I look forward to my commute is obviously, the audio books. Long stretches of beautiful scenery, easy driving, and wonderful books? When things are particularly rough, I'll find myself thinking "Well, in a couple hours I'll be driving home, with nothing to do but listen to my book!" It is the me-time that is getting me through this crazy stage in our lives right now.

I was able to finish five books in October, which brings my total to the year to 54. So, I've already reached my original goal of reading 52 books (a book a week), with two months to go! And I read some really good ones this month, so let's chat about them!

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne DuMaurier

Okay, when it comes to the month of October, I'm always on the lookout for good, creepy, suspenseful, thematic reading (that's not horror). I loved Rebecca, so this year I planned to try another DuMaurier in the hopes it would be another haunting, suspenseful, beautiful read. And, I will say this was beautifully written. DuMaurier has impeccable command of the language, I just enjoyed listening to these sentences being read aloud. It was gorgeous. But, both the plot and characters are extremely stupid. Everything about the characters is Freudian and frustrating and supposed to be mysterious but is mostly just ridiculous. I cannot recommend it for the plot or for any likable characters, but if you appreciate beautiful writing (and have already read Rebecca), then you might find some value in this one.

 A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

I read Rules of Civility  a few years ago, and while I recognized at the time Towles could turn a lovely phrase, I just couldn't bring myself to appreciate the characters in that book. So many stupid choices! However, I'd heard such high praise for this one that I was more than willing to give it a shot (this one wasn't getting compared to The Great Gatsby, so it had that in its favor). And you guys! This one is in strong, strong contention for my favorite book of the year! It was just... amazing. I don't really know how to describe it, because it's not plot heavy at all (although there is a meandering kind of plot), and its place is slow and philosophical. But I LOVED every single character in this book so much, and the writing was incredibly gorgeous. I couldn't stop listening to it, but didn't want it to end. I was so sad when it was over, and definitely plan on rereading it again. It felt like a funny, mostly happy homage to Russian literature (which is usually neither funny nor very happy), and it made me want to go back and read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and all those other classic greats (really, Russian literature is soooo goooood!). I just can't praise this one highly enough, except to say that I wouldn't mind owning this one (which is high praise coming from me).

A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny

This was my second attempt at a thematic October read. Nothing like a good murder-mystery to set the tone, right? I read Still Life last year, and it was quite enjoyable. Also, it took place in October, so it just felt wonderfully suited. This one, however, takes place over Christmas time, so it felt less appropriate for October (although, I'm not sure a murder-mystery is appropriate Christmas reading either). And while I still quite enjoyed it, it wasn't quite as good as Still Life. For one thing, I guessed who the murderer was from almost the beginning. I know some people would consider this a triumph, but I'm terrible at guessing this kind of thing, so if even I could spot the murderer, I think it means this one just wasn't clever enough. It surprisingly lessened my enjoyment to guess correctly so early on. Also, Inspector Gamache made some comments at the end about not liking the name Suzanne, so obviously there was some love loss there ;). All in all, I think I liked it well enough to try the third in this series, but it better live up to the first one or I might give up.

Mr. Rochester by Sarah Shoemaker

This was my third attempt at an October themed read, as what could be better than a retelling of a favorite, creepy gothic novel? And here's what I'll say: it was fine and enjoyable enough. There were some clever things Shoemaker did to flesh out Mr. Rochester's backstory. But in the end, it just couldn't live up to the excellence that is Jane Eyre, so immediately after I finished reading this one, I tried to go read that one. Alas, it's not available as an audio book through my library (why?!?).

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

To make up for not being able to listen to Jane Eyre, I settled on the next closest thing: Jane Austen. In retrospect, I probably should've picked Northanger Abbey instead of Sense and Sensibility, as that one is at least a parody of the Gothic genre, but instead I finished up this very un-creepy, very delightful novel on Halloween morning. It's been a long, long time since I've read Sense and Sensibility, but it was so wonderful to bask in Austen's beautiful language again. Apparently it inspired me to go an Austen kick, because I've already finished Pride and Prejudice and started on Persuasion (but you'll hear about those in my November wrap-up), and might see what other Austen novels I find available this month.

Anyway, so I really love my October theme reading, but clearly I start it too early in the month, and never have enough material to last until Halloween. Oh well, it's still super fun. And, in case you don't follow me on Instagram and missed this gem of a picture, here you go:

The literary family themed costume lives for another year! I just couldn't resist resurrecting this family costume, considering we now live in Kansas. Luckily the boys were on board with this, especially after we watched The Wizard of Oz for Friday night movie night (they loved it!). Our little scarecrow talked excitedly for weeks about being a scarecrow, but was less enthusiastic about actually wearing his costume (he cried for 10 minutes after I wrestled the shirt onto him, and point blank refused to wear the straw hat). It was classic, all around. (Check out last year's post to see the history of our literary family themed costumes.) Hope you all had a Happy Halloween!

And what did you read this month?