Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Alien Covenant

Spoiler filled review of Alien Covenant!


I knew about twenty minutes in to watching the latest film in the Alien franchise, that I would have to write about it. I've seen every film in the series, have an Alien tattooed on my back, and wrote a massive review of Prometheus (I was an outlier in that I enjoyed much of it). 

Walking out of the theater, I wasn't just disappointed, I was actually angry. Angry at Ridley Scott. I decided to wait a few days before I put down my thoughts on digital paper. I wanted them to stew a bit and crystallize. Then, something interesting happened. I watched the first episode of the third season of Twin Peaks.

Much like Scott, director David Lynch has a storied and respected filmography. They even have some funny connections (read up on Jodorosky's Dune and Scott's Alien). I'll jump back to my thoughts on Lynch and Twin Peaks at the end of my review. For now, just store it as a little nugget in the back of your brain.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Terminal Thoughts



This is a write up on my thoughts about Terminal Directive, the ambitious new expansion to Android: Netrunner from Fantasy Flight Games. After the large red spoiler tag, there will be spoilers. Prior to that tag, I ruin it for you.

Before I dive in to the nitty gritty though, some background. I've been playing ANR since 2014. I've been running a league for almost as long in West Seattle. I'm what you could call a fanboy. I own two sets of all the cards (three of the core, of course), all the books, Android related board games and even the World of Androids art book - the pre-order version with the art prints and the playmat. So yeah, I love me some Netrunner.

Like many folks who love the game, I've been having a hard time lately. Some of the card pool has been dangerously wonky bordering on un-fun. Cards like Sifr, Faust, Sensie Actors Union and a few others have made the game a bit of a downer. I'm not going to get into that further in this review. I just wanted to point out the state of things as we all waited for Terminal Directive.

Okay, here we go...

Let's start with the superficial good stuff. The regular, tournament legal cards in TD are a lot of fun and really inject some life back into the metagame. Combined with the recent change to the Most Wanted List (the list of cards that are restricted in tournament play), and suddenly the game feels fresh again. Weyland especially feels like it got some love this time around. The faction had been in dire need of a leg up dating all the way back to the core set.

Besides the new card pool, the rest of the (ridiculously over-sized) box was supposed to be all about the (Pandemic) Legacy-style narrative campaign play that would tell a story. This is where we're going to get into the meat of my review.

My friend Kyle and I decided to play together. We'd each purchased Terminal Directive so for the campaign portion we just decided to use my card set.

  • Problem 1: We both bought TD because we want to own the tournament legal cards. Once we decided to play together, we had an entire extra set of campaign cards not being used. Awkward.
I chose Weyland and he chose Steve Cambridge and we agreed on a first time and place. Each campaign comes with a deck of stickers and cards broken down into numbered sets which are to be opened and activated upon certain triggers. 

Netrunner can be described as complex or fiddly depending on your perspective. Terminal Directive adds a whole extra layer of triggers, rules and abilities. That's not really a plus or a minus, but it might be for some folks. I can't really recommend this as a product for new players. They are going to miss half of their triggers which might actually ruin the narrative play.
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SPOILERS
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Each player has a PAD, a card board display where you keep track of various stickers and modifiers for the game. The story involves a murder mystery where it seems a bioroid has committed a murder, despite its theoretical protective programming. The runner wants to aid the NAPD in capturing the murderer while Weyland wants to snag the bioroid for use in its Hunter Seeker program.

We both had the two same basic triggers to start with - Win 2 games to open set X or lose 4 games to open set Y.  Additionally, upon setup, I was given three new agendas that I had to insert in my deck, replacing three cards of my choice (keeping the deck legal for regular Netrunner rules.). This was my first taste of new campaign cards. 

Our first day, we played three games. Kyle won the first one pretty easily. The second game I won with a Sea Source/Scorch combo, but I barely pulled it off. The third game, Kyle won again, allowing him to open his second set of objectives.
  • Problem 2: While I theoretically was allowed to change my deck between each game, I hadn't brought extra cards with me as I wasn't aware that it would be needed. Very few folks play a single game of Netrunner at a time and very few folks bring binders of cards with them. Some warning as to this situation might have been helpful. For example, "Be sure to have cards that you might want to swap into your decks between rounds."
Kyle and I decided to call it a day after that. I went home a little deflated. My one win didn't get me anything which means that my PAD looked exactly the same as it had after I'd set it up. Three games in and I hadn't touched my stack of stickers or cards outside of three new agendas I'd gotten at the start.

After changing up my deck, we agreed on a second day to meet a few days later and I went in re-invigorated and ready to play. One of the reasons that I picked Kyle to play against is that we are pretty evenly matched so I figured it was my turn to steam roll him for a bit.

Our third game was close for a little bit. One of the things I struggled with was agenda flooding (remember, no Jackson Howard as we were playing with the suggested rules of the cards in the TD box, plus one core set). There were very few times when I didn't have two agendas in HQ. Kyle was always ahead of me in cash which meant SEA Source was a dead card. He was rich enough to continually break my ice, which meant that installing and advancing was a sure fire way to lose an agenda.

In the end, Kyle won the fourth game and then the fifth.

But after losing four games, I was finally able to break open a new set! I was really excited because during the course of his games Kyle's PAD had literally FILLED with stickers and triggers. He had all kinds of conditions, cautions and fun things to do during his turn. Mine hadn't changed since we'd started playing.

Of course, losing four games was a sign that I was doing poorly in the narrative. The condition on my PAD triggered and I opened a NEW set of cards! My new cards were three new agendas. They were 2/0's and the story card that came along with Corporate Oversight (the new agenda) explained that I'd been doing so badly that Weyland had to step in and take matters into their hands.

But the cards didn't really help me. In fact, despite the new agenda's ability to rez a piece of ice for free when the agenda was scored, I found my effective card pool even thinner. But I wanted to give it a try and we played on. 

We played a sixth game, which I lost, and then a seventh which we didn't finish because Kyle completed his last objective and won the campaign. 

The end.

  • Problem 3: I was punished so severely for losing game after game that there was no story element for me and no chance to re-balance things. This feels like poor playtesting on FFG's part.
  • Problem 4: I was now looking at a stack of cards and stickers that I wasn't going to be using and were just ...trash. This was a huge waste of card board in so many ways. 
  • Problem 5: For me, the entire story of TD went like this: "There's a murder and you need to solve it. You didn't. The end." There were no beats in between. That's not a story, it's just a result.
  • Problem 6: If you take out the one game that I won, it means that the entire narrative could have played out in just six games. That's about 3 hours worth of play. Not much meat on those bones.
  • Problem 7: There were massive editing failures at all levels in TD. Confusing and unclear rules and triggers from a game perspective and just sloppy copyrighting. The whole game feels rushed and not properly play tested for balance or clarity.
My sticker sheet at the end of the game:

My PAD at the end of the game: (Those are 8 empty slots)

For comparison: On the left - An unused full stack of corporate cards and stickers.   In the middle- The cards and stickers I didn't use or see during the campaign.  On the right - the cards and stickers I saw and used in the campaign. 


Now, you might be tempted to say, "Connor, you're just sore because you lost six of seven games." You'd be partially right. I was sore. But I wasn't sore because I lost those games (Well, any more than any of us would be against an opponent we're usually evenly matched against). I was sore because this was supposed to be about a story. One I'd been waiting almost a year to embark on.  To say that it was flat, disappointing and a let down would be an understatement. Kyle gets lots of credit for building a solid deck, but I also have to wonder if there were inherit balance issues.


BUT

Let's talk about some good things. Netrunner is a great game and the idea of adding a narrative into an already existing game is brilliant! There's so much room to improve here that I'm thrilled at the possibilities.

Imagine: Quarterly data packed sized story adventures that come out, maybe between or in conjunction with regular data packs (This month: A Mars story!). They have a fold out sheet, a narrative a list of triggers and cards and stickers that come in packs. It's a role playing game in a box! Bring back old characters! Have crazy powerful cards! Go nuts because they're only allowed in the narrative games. Make an over arcing story that connects between packs! Create an online component! So many things you could do here that would require little investment on FFG's part and would create a second mini-community within Netrunner, one that would inspire the stay-at-home players to feel more involved as well as giving the competitive community more to salivate over.

Netrunner is my favorite game (and I can safely say I am a hard core gamer). Terminal Directive has some great cards and the seeds of some good ideas. In general, I think FFG does a solid job. They make mistakes, and TD is one of them. But that doesn't mean good things can't come out of this.

If you're thinking about buying TD, my suggestion is: Do it. If you're planning on playing the narrative, my suggestion is: Do it. *But* - bring your cards with you. Rebuild after each play. And don't use just one core. Use whatever card pool you and your opponent agree upon.  

In the scheme of things, we got some great new cards for four of the factions and FFG took a chance on something new and creative. It didn't pan out this time. I wish they'd handled the whole thing a little differently.

Doesn't mean I'm not working on my latest Skorpios deck as we speak.

Cheers, 
Connor

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Justice

Can we talk about "justice" for a minute? When something bad happens in our society, there's often a call for "justice" or when our legal system fails, people decry a lack of "justice". But I think very few people stop to think what it means, both in specific cases and in general. Most of us, in fact, have it dead wrong.

For the framework of this blog post, here are some synonyms for the word justice: fairness, justness, fair play, fair-mindedness, equity, evenhandedness, impartiality.

Let's say that someone smashes out your car window. What's justice in that scenario? Certainly that the person who did it should pay to have it replaced. But the cost of the window isn't the only consideration. Maybe you had to take time off of work or had to spend time with the police. Maybe you were frightened. The best society can do in that scenario is compensate you financially by perhaps penalizing the person who broke your window with a larger fine. But that's civil litigation. If there were criminal charges, the person might be sent to jail and maybe they'd lose their job over that lost time. The criminal justice system though isn't there to provide justice to a wronged individual though. You, as the victim of the crime are not important to the criminal justice system. That system is concerned with society as a whole. Its job is to both ensure public safety and attempt to reform the behavior of the perpetrator. 

By its very nature the criminal justice system isn't concerned with actual justice. Justice is about restoring the balance of things prior to the crime. In the example above, you want your window replaced and compensation for any time or effort it took to get it back to that state. Justice is getting things back to the way they were.

Even if it were allowed by a court, would you feel justice was served if instead of having your window replaced, you were authorized to go smash out the window of the person who smashed yours? It might feel good, you might have a sense of revenge. But at the end of the day, you then have two people with smashed out windows. Is that fair play? Equity? Or just tit for tat? How do you feel then when you have to go pay for your window to be repaired?

Let me give you another example. A person breaks into an elderly person's home, finds their secret retirement stash of money, piles it all up and then burns it. Every last dollar. They've left that elderly person destitute. Revenge would say that the elderly person would be allowed to burn all of the burglar's money. That still leaves the elderly person broke though. Justice says that the burglar should be forced to repay that elderly person in any and every way possible. Perhaps with his own immediate cash or through ongoing reparations.

Which brings me to murder. Unlike a broken window, a life can't be brought back, replaced or repaired. Money burned cannot be reimbursed. Once someone is dead, that damage is done. If Jane kills Bob, how does Jane offer Bob restitution? How does Bob get justice?

He doesn't. Ever. Bob never sees justice. Because justice would be that Bob gets his life back. There is no justice when someone is murdered. Penalizing Jane isn't justice for Bob. 

Society can do what it does to people who commit crimes: try to protect the rest of society and try to reform the criminals. The families and loved ones might cry out for the death penalty, and if they get it, they have revenge. But they weren't the ones wronged, Bob was. That's not justice.

In case I haven't yet crystallized my point for you, consider this: If you believe that executing Jane because she killed Bob is justice, then what is justice for Jane if she killed Bob and Mike? If Jane is executed for the murder of two people and you believe that's justice just as it is for her murder of one person, you're either saying that Mike's life didn't matter or that Jane's life is somehow worth more than other people's. 

I can't speak to the dead, but in this scenario, I bet that Bob and Mike would find it more just to be alive along with Jane than for all three of them to be dead.

Murdered people don't ever get justice. Murder is never fair, never just.

That's why it's wrong to murder. Not because some god told you or even some law. It's because the scales can never be balanced. No one murdered ever gets justice.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Fuck the 2nd Amendment

And you know what else? Fuck the U.S. Constitution. But that's a different post. Let's stick with the 2nd Amendment for today.

Every time I hear someone say something to the effect of "But it's my RIGHT. I have a RIGHT to own a gun," I picture some indignant old white man pounding a cane on the ground as he says it. Yep, you're right, the 2nd Amendment did give you the right to own guns. I'm not going to get into the whole 'well regulated militia' argument that some folks have decided is their battle ground as my stance is "Fuck the 2nd Amendment" in its entirety.

Let's go over the amendments in general, first. Most of you don't know dick about them and probably won't ever take the time to look them up. According to this poll, less than 20% of Americans know that the First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion. And according to this poll, only a third of Americans even know what the Bill of Rights are. I don't know as much as I could. However, I'm also capable of using the internet, collecting data, and then using that data to make measured adjustments to my opinion.

"So many words!"

Some of the Amendments are vaguely functional (the 4th for example or the 13th or the 19th). But most of them suffer from one major flaw: They were written by people who are no longer alive, who lived in a world that we don't live in. The authors of the Constitution, much like the authors of the Bible, have no clue - none - what life in Earth is currently like. That's not their fault. But it is your fault for listening to *anything* they have to say. You don't listen to Ben Fucking Franklin about the power that's running through your computer that's allowing you to read this. Why would you listen to anything that James Madison or George Mason had to say about AR-15's? What the fuck do they know about a country with 400 million people, 5000 miles across, populated with people from all over the planet? Hell, both of those men owned slaves and one of them refused to sign the Constitution. Neither of them thought women should vote. But based on their morale compass, you pro-gun advocates are going to plant your flag on the 2nd Amendment?

Gun control isn't the answer, you say? Well, let me make three requests of you, Mr. or Ms. 2nd Amendment.
1) Please explain this chart:


Please keep in mind that all of these countries have stricter gun laws than the U.S. Also keep in mind that these are just murder rates. This doesn't include accidental deaths, justifiable homicides or any other forms of firearm injuries or deaths.

2) Do you believe that firearms are the only way to defend yourself or your property? Do you realize that owning a gun doubles your risk of being the victim of homicide? Do you realize that owning a gun triples your chance of death by suicide? These aren't opinions. They are hard numbers. Feel free to peruse them yourself here:  http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=1814426

3) Are you prepared to take a life with your firearm? If you answered "yes" immediately, I believe that you are either unstable and should seek help or don't really understand the psychological ramifications of killing someone. Here's a quick read on that:  http://www.mlive.com/news/index.ssf/2012/06/experts_the_psychological_afte.html

Okay, so I probably have all of you hardcore 2nd Amendment folks in a lather right about now. Either that or you stopped reading awhile back. Let me take this opportunity to say this:

I think it should be legal for a citizen to own a firearm.

Also, I own a handgun. A nice 9mm that I'm very comfortable using. I'm a veteran. I also lost one of my best friends in the world to a gun-related death.

But that doesn't change the fact that the 2nd Amendment is an after thought piece of shit legislation made by slave owning white men 250 years ago that know absolutely jack shit about our world today. It needs to go.

In it's place, we need laws that presume we can't own a firearm and need to prove we are up to the responsibility on a regular basis. We need to be certified and registered with state and federal authorities. Our ammo needs to be limited and monitored. Our weapons need to be limited to those that are for sport or hunting. Simple as that.

(If you're now jabbering about defending ourselves from government tyranny, please know that I'm laughing. You are in no way, ever going to take down the federal government with any amount of your buddies or your weapons stash. That ship sailed at around the end of the Civil War.)

Let's stop arguing about what those asswipes meant when they cobbled together the 2nd Amendment and let's start thinking about gun laws that make sense in 2016. Let's start by looking around the world at what other countries do that works and stop pretending we invented and are therefore the experts on 'freedom'.

If you're still in a lather, relax, I'm sure your penis is totally adequate.  Except for you, Wayne LaPierre. You've never given a woman a real orgasm and you never will.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Sexism, misogyny, racism and bigotry in Android:Netrunner

As I write this my computer is quietly dinging at me every few seconds to let me know that new comments are appearing on a post on the Netrunner Facebook group. I started to write a long response of my own when I realized that it needed to be longer than just a few words.

The original post the person made isn't that important except to say that a commenter made a casually sexist remark and then defended it by saying that he was joking.

I love Netrunner. It's important to me. It's the first game in years that has gone from being just a game and into full fledged hobby for me. Part of what attracted me to it was its diversity. In the game, Runners come from all over the world and are often not male. Hell, they even have a 'Natural' tag (to differentiate from genetically modified, cyborg, etc.)

For all intents and purposes, I'm a straight white male. But having been an outsider in other ways for much of my life, gaming is something that I *need* to feel is inclusive. Netrunner became a beacon of maturity and thoughtfulness as well as creativity and theme and it wasn't hard for me to step into the role of a league and tournament organizer, which I've been doing for more than a year now.

I'm proud that we have plenty of people who aren't white men in our league and that we held what may have been the first Ladies Netrunner event.

That said, I've had to deal with sexism in our league on two different occasions and I'm here to say that I have absolutely zero tolerance for that shit and if you love Netrunner, you shouldn't tolerate it either.

In both cases, I had female players approach me and detail an uncomfortable situation. In both cases I asked what I could do to ensure it didn't happen again to them specifically. I also sent out a general email detailing my lack of tolerance for any kind of sexism, bigotry or other ugly behaviors.

The reason I'm writing this is because it's important that we call it out. Loudly. Call it public shaming. Call it whatever you want. It needs to be called out because it is corrosive, divisive and deadly to the community and the game. Netrunner is too important and too good to let it be dragged down by backwards, outdated thinking.

Netrunner is a game about the future and it's a game that portrays a role for all people in that future. I want to play Netrunner with everyone - straight, gay, Ugandan, Russian, female, male, cis, trans - everyone, except assholes.

So, I'm challenging all of you Netrunner players to either stand up and call this shit out...or quit playing my fucking game.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Richard Marx Is Punk as F**K

I realize the title might elicit some extreme reactions, but before you completely dismiss me, hear my tale.

In the 90s, I was heavily steeped in the goth and industrial culture, crowd surfing and moshing to bands like Nine Inch Nails, Ministry and the like. In the 00s, I embraced post punk and indie sounds. But my musical evolution had a clear and distinct beginning: pop rock.

For a good chunk of the 80s I was an avid fan of Huey Lewis and the News, Bryan Adams, The Cars, Tom Petty, etc. In fact, up until 1988, I'd only been to three live shows and they were all to see Huey Lewis.

In August of '88 I was just out of high school and planning on going into the military. I was a naive little nugget and the world seemed like a very big place that I was about to be thrown out into, head first. I'd also really been enjoying Richard Marx's first self-titled album. Its first big single, "Don't Mean Nothin'" was on regular rotation in my car's cassette player, the volume cranked to the maximum my little Datsun B210 could take.  If you need a refresher, here it is:


Anyway, once I heard Mr. Marx was coming to the Ventura County Fair, I was in like Flynn. I lived in Ventura at that time and it was rare to have artists that I was interested in come up our way. I bought a pair of tickets, hoping to take a girl that I liked, but after getting the 'I like you as a friend' speech, I asked my friend Rob to go with me.

I'd been to a few fairs and I expected it to be an open, standing room only kind of situation. What we were greeted with was something that was closer to a roving evangelical revival tent; neatly arranged folding chairs with letters and numbers stenciled precisely on the back, a rope barricade separating the front row from the stage by a good twenty feet. There were would be no unruly behavior at this show, by god.

I hadn't noticed the pre-ordained seating notations on our tickets up until that point, so we took our seats near the far back on the left side, a distinctly deflated slant to our posture. We were still close enough to catch a glimpse of RM's stylishly feathered hair, but certainly not close enough to distinguish any actual expressions on his face.

He and his band came out on stage to a sold out and well-seated, well-behaved crowd. There was enthusiastic applause and a few people stood and cheered. They quickly seated themselves again when they realized that this wasn't going to be that kind of show.

Or so we thought.

Mr. Marx stepped up to the microphone with classic rock star enthusiasm. But the words that came out of his mouth were like nothing I expected and to this day, remains one of the most rock and roll things I've ever been witness to. He said something to the effect of (and I'm pretty sure I remember this almost word for word), "Hey! Good to be here. When I came out for sound check and I saw all the seating, I spoke to the management and said that I usually do the kind of show where people are on their feet and dancing. They said something about safety and regulations. But you know what? They're not up here with a microphone. I am. And I say, there's a whole lot of you and only a few guys down in front of me here. I bet that if you all get up and move forward and come through that rope, they'll get out of the way."

The security at the front of the stage did a double take. The crowd stood and cheered and moved forward like a human wave. The security got out of the way. The chairs were discarded, tipped over and forgotten. The rope was pulled down. The crowd pressed right up against that stage for the next hour to sing along to their favorite songs and rock and roll lived on for another day.

I haven't listened to Richard Marx in years. Really, decades. A few years ago, I came across his Twitter and I clicked 'follow'. I couldn't tell you why. Maybe it was a sense of nostalgia, maybe it was that I was curious to see what someone like him would tweet about. He seemed smart, funny, self-aware. He seemed like a good guy. Life moved on.

Where this story ends is today. As I write this, I just got home from making an unplanned stop at a fast food restaurant. There were extenuating circumstances and I had to eat in the dining area. I'm sitting there having my chicken sandwich and through the PA I hear a voice. I didn't think about it, not for one second. There was no questioning. I just immediately knew, "That's Richard Marx." I didn't recognize the song, so I brought out my smart phone and called up Shazam. The song was "Nothing Left Behind Us," from his 2008 album, Paid Vacation.

I'm not here to tell you that I thought, "Oh my god, I love this. What have I been missing all of these years?", because that's not what went through my mind. My musical tastes have moved on in the years since that show and I'll probably not go back. 

But I smiled. I felt good. Because his voice somehow tapped into some deep part of my brain, my 18 year old psyche that was still there. It wasn't conscious at all, I was just automatically transported back to that great memory of getting out of my seat and saying, "Yeah, screw these seats!"

I'm glad Mr. Marx is still making music, still doing what he loves. And I'm glad that 18 year old me is still in there.

www.connoralexander.com

Thursday, December 31, 2015

My Top 100 Songs (76-100)

Wrapping up my Top 100 favorite songs list! 76-100! (Okay, 101, but I couldn't decide between the Shatner version of Common People and the original by Pulp, so both are included!)

YouTube Playlist:
https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLq7S3twOMsu0VxhNzZggP0PqOU4w-gquk

List:
76 Cactus - David Bowie
77 Policy of Truth - Depeche Mode
78 Take Me Out - Franz Ferdinand
79 Planet Earth - Duran Duran
80 Straight On - Heart
81 The Killing Moon - Echo and the Bunnymen
82 Destroy Everything You Touch - Ladytron
83 Love Like Blood - Killing Joke
84 Missionary Man - Eurythmics
85 Tribulations - LCD Soundsystem
86 Bette Davis Eyes - Kim Carnes
87 The Kids From Orange County - Moving Units
88 What You Need - INXS
89 Such Great Heights - Postal Service
90 Heartbreak Beat - Psychedelic Furs
91 Lucretia - Sisters of Mercy
92 I Won't Back Down - Tom Petty
93 Attitude - Suede
94 Run To You - Bryan Adams
95 Money Changes Everything - Cyndi Lauper
96 You're No Good - Linda Ronstadt
97 True Faith - New Order
98 Birdhouse In Your Soul - They Might Be Giants
99 Common People - William Shatner/Ben Folds
99 Common People - Pulp
100 Escape (The Pina Colada Song) - Rupert Holmes

Maybe when I hit 90, I'll put out another top 100 list. ;-)