Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Books: The Surrogates

“The Surrogates” is a comic book series written by Robert Venditti and illustrated by Brett Weldele. In the comic, most of society experiences life through remote-controlled androids that were originally designed to help physically-impaired people. When a mysterious terrorist threatens to destroy these surrogates, it’s up to Lt. Harvey Greer to stop him before the world is changed forever.

“The Surrogates” is an example of socially-oriented science-fiction, as it focuses on technology’s effect on society rather than the technology itself. There isn’t much explanation of how the “surries” work, nor is the plot’s dilemma or solution rooted in technology. Essentially, if you take away all the futuristic trappings, you’re left with a traditional detective story - a hard-boiled protagonist, his loyal partner, his irritated police chief, etc.

Despite these stereotypes, “The Surrogates” is entertaining enough to recommend. I enjoyed Weldele’s atmospheric panels (as you might expect, much of the story takes place at night, in the rain), and the story moves along at a leisurely clip. And, at the very least, it's better than its mediocre film adaptation.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

TV: Minute to Win It

The success of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” touched off the current game show resurgence, but “Millionaire,” like other quiz shows, proved to be too cerebral and wordy to appeal to the broad audience required for primetime TV. As such, the networks have been progressively dumbing things down. Even if you didn’t speak English, for instance, you could probably figure out a game show like “Deal or No Deal.”

The NBC game show "Minute to Win It" sets the comprehensibility bar even lower; it pits contestants against a variety of physical challenges that employ household objects. The challenges range from the simple (use a tape measure to roll a ping pong ball into a shot glass) to the insane (balance an egg on top of a lightbulb using table salt). All must be completed in under a minute. Some challenges are much harder than they look:

The show has some great little touches. The enthusiastic Guy Fieri, a Food Channel celebrity chef, makes for an amiable host, and the little video introductions for each challenge are well-done (somebody at NBC must be a "Portal" fan). Still, the stage settings, camera work, and challenges lack a certain visual panache. For a better take on the same idea, check out the ITV show "The Cube" (awesome "Matrix"-style bullet time effects start around the 6:30 mark):

Food: Dark Beers for Dark Days

The rainy season has arrived here in South Florida, and that means you can be stuck inside for days at a time while sheets of water pour down from overcast clouds. As you might expect, it can get pretty gloomy when you don’t see the sun for days. Here are a couple of beers to help with the cabin fever:

Steelhead Scotch Porter - Mad River Brewing Company

Supposedly, this beer is a combination of a scotch ale and a traditional porter. From a glance, though, it’s easy to see that this brew stresses the porter side of the equation; the color is very dark, almost black, with little swirls of yeasty sediment visible when you pour the stuff out into a glass.

When you drink it, you immediately taste the smoky molasses flavor - almost too much smoke. There’s a faint, sulphurous aftertaste present, too, like a day-old egg salad sandwich. Despite these strange notes, it’s a decent, drinkable porter (6% ABV) that would go well with a mild-flavored dish.

8 Ball Stout - Lost Coast Brewery and Cafe

This is an American-style stout that tastes best cold, from a tap; at room temperature, the flavors are a little muted, making it less memorable. As you might expect, there are deep chocolate and coffee undertones in the beer, married with the oatmeal-ish aftertaste.

The coffee and roasted malt flavors are a little austere, for lack of a better word. My favorite Russian Imperial stout, Old Rasputin, bites into the tongue (maybe it’s because Old Rasputin is 9% ABV and not 6%). In contrast, 8 Ball Stout sort of floats in your mouth, the midweight flavors suspended but never really hitting as hard as they could. Overall, though, it’s an okay stout, and it’s pretty inexpensive, to boot.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Movies: You Don't Know Jack

If there's one role Al Pacino has down pat, it's the sympathetic fanatic. Whether he's blowing people away as a coked-up Tony Montana or railing against God in "The Devil's Advocate," Pacino has a knack for making the audience like someone who is obsessed to the point of lunacy. His latest assignment is Dr. Jack Kevorkian in HBO's new biopic, "You Don't Know Jack":

The film, directed by Barry Levinson, gives America's most famous "active euthanasia" advocate a relatively evenhanded treatment. At no time is Kevorkian accorded the more sinister or cynical motives his detractors pin on him. Instead, Pacino plays him as an outspoken iconoclast who wants suffering people to be able to choose a safe and painless physician-assisted suicide.

At the same time, the viewer is treated to Kevorkian's relentless provocation of the government and sometimes unhinged worldview (he famously encases one patient in a plastic tent so he can reuse the carbon monoxide - the resulting spectacle is ghoulish, which is completely lost on Kevorkian). There is a sense of inevitability as Kevorkian's allies start to drift away from him as his crusade grows more and more desperate.

Pacino is helped along by first-rate production values and a star-studded cast. John Goodman plays his assistant, Neal Nicol, while Susan Sarandon plays Janet Good, a Hemlock Society member who becomes Pacino's closest philosophical mate. The show is practically stolen, however, by a gleeful Danny Huston (as high-profile lawyer/politician Geoffrey Fieger) and a frumpy Brenda Vaccaro (as Kevorkian's supportive sister).

If there's a downside to Levinson's straightforward direction, it's that the whole thing almost plays like a documentary. The filmmaking lacks the imagination of some other notable HBO productions; though I appreciate when a director tries to tell more by doing less, it's a little too spare to be memorable. Still, it's worth a look, if only to see Al Pacino deliver his usual acerbic rants.

Rating: 6/10

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Real Life Intrudes

Sorry for the light posting...between pressure-cleaning the driveway, mowing the lawn, mopping the floor, and cleaning the bathroom, I haven't had much quality writing time. Shangrila Towers should resume once the house is in good order.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Guns: Sport Show Specialists Gun Show review and walkthrough

April 15th was "Buy A Gun Day," and I realized I hadn't made any firearms-related purchases in awhile. So yesterday, with the spirit of BAG Day in mind, I did a little window shopping at a gun show on the South Florida Fairgrounds.

Florida has a preemption statute (Fla. Stat. Section 790.33 (2009), if you're curious) forbidding local governments from creating their own gun regulations; there's an exception in the Florida Constitution, however, allowing them to enact waiting periods for firearms purchasers. AFAIK, the private sales prohibition is only enforceable because the gun show is being held on county property. As you might imagine, the county ordinances suck a lot of fun out of the gun show, but I pressed on anyway.

Ah, the concealed weapons permit class at the gun show. Call me crazy, but two hours is not a lot of time to instruct someone about the topics I'd expect in a basic CCW class: gun safety, gun handling, gun selection, holster selection, and the laws regarding carry and use of a firearm for lawful self-defense. You're probably much better off taking a day or weekend-long class at a brick-and-mortar establishment. For those who are experienced and just want the permit, though, I guess it's pretty convenient.

Finally we get into the gun show itself:

I've been at pitiful shows held in hotel conference rooms, gigantic shows held at state fairgrounds, and everything in between. This one was a medium size show, about a dozen or so major multi-table FFLs, the usual smattering of ammo, accessory, and specialty gun sellers, and a small dose of miscellaneous stuff. Disappointingly, there was only one table selling reloading components, but several tables hawking the militaria and food products (jerky, anyone?) you've come to expect at the Fun Show.

I met Bill Plappert of Rhino Holsters, Inc., who was demonstrating some of the company's products. Rhino produces a line of OWB holsters where you weave your belt over, rather than below, the holster:

It's an interesting idea - having the holster attached on two sides (there's both a belt loop and a simple clip for the pants) certainly increases stability. The two obvious drawbacks are that you need an oversize belt (like in IWB carry) and that the holster and gun are exposed (like in OWB carry).

There were plenty of tables that weren't selling anything. Representatives from Okeechobee Shooting Sports were simply handing out leaflets promoting their range (seems like a fun place to shoot - I'll probably visit them sometime). The ATF and NRA had tables, as well as various LEO and military charities.

I'm not sure if I'd ever visit this one again (the entry fee is a steep $8). For Palm Beach County, which often feels like somewhere in New York or New Jersey, I suppose it's about as good as you can get.

Music: Iron Man (The Cardigans cover)

When a band covers a song, they can either remain faithful to the source material or depart radically away from it. How different a cover actually is depends not on any changes in tone or style, but on the musical variations a cover brings to the table. Seether's version of George Michael's pop classic "Careless Whisper" introduces grungy guitars and angrier vocals, for instance, but otherwise stays pretty close to the original.

For something that strays a bit further, here's an excerpt of a live concert by The Cardigans, where they perform their cover of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" (you can find the recorded version on their third album, "First Band on the Moon," which also contains the megahit "Lovefool"):

While the lyrics and overall structure are pretty much unaltered, many of the details have been changed. The band messes with the song's distinctive guitar riff, adding some jazzy notes to the straightforward heavy metal progression. The rhythmic drones of the keyboard gives some background texture to the song's verses (the original, like most early Sabbath, had Ozzy singing with the "Iron Man" riff throughout), and between verses, frontwoman Nina Persson inserts the occasional vocal flourish. Taken as a whole, you have a great cover that respects the original without being enslaved by it.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Books: Comic Books, Neo-Noir Edition

One Bad Day

Steve Rolston (who illustrated the award-winning "Queen & Country" and "Pounded") tries his hand at storytelling in "One Bad Day." Like the title implies, the comic follows Marie, an average girl who has a really, really bad day. The trouble starts only a few pages in, when an old schoolchum of Marie's mysteriously reappears. From there, her luck gets progressively worse - car chases, shootouts, and even her unbearable cousin's birthday party.

Despite the clean, Hergé-influenced monochrome art, "One Bad Day" has a violent slacker noir plot; if you've seen movies like "Pineapple Express," where average Joes get caught up in the machinations of the criminal underworld, you know what to expect. Still, Rolston's good at making our heroine fairly likeable, which is more than most first-timers accomplish.

Heavy Liquid

Paul Pope is probably best known for "THB" and "Batman: Year 100," but this is his most successful effort at creating a new world. "Heavy Liquid" features S, a young courier who's good at finding people and getting into trouble. Today, the person in question is his long-lost girlfriend, and the trouble involves "heavy liquid," a mercury-like metal of unknown origin. Everyone wants it: criminal kingpins, the Feds, a reclusive art collector. But no one knows its secret...not even S, who is thoroughly, hopelessly addicted to it.

The world of "Heavy Liquid" has touches of Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, and Raymond Chandler. Instead of dropping a lot of shiny technology onto his grimy near-future setting, Pope smartly sticks it in here and there: a compact electric bike, an impossibly small hand torch, half-hour transatlantic scramjet flights. Pope's story is mostly unremarkable (if you've seen one hard-bitten protagonist in search of lost love, then you've seen them all), but I did like the final sequence, which was part revelation and part fever dream.

Miscellany: Shangrila Towers Personality Quiz

STEP 1: Read this story about Kathleen Bogart, a psychology researcher who has a rare congenital condition that causes facial paralysis. Bogart cannot muster any facial expressions beyond a slight smile; she recognizes emotions just fine, but cannot convey them through her face. Ironically, she worked as a social worker before realizing that she couldn't emotionally connect with people who were unused to her lack of visible affect.


If you thought, "Boy, that's such a pity," you're a pessimist.

If you thought, "That's an inspiring story," you're an optimist.

If you thought, "Whoa - she's a psychologist who has no facial expressions...I bet she could clean up in Texas Hold 'Em," you're an engineer.

Food: Italian Ice Capades

Spring is in full swing, and the warmer weather lends itself to one of my favorite frozen treats, Italian ice (AKA water ice). Unlike a snow cone, which is merely crushed or shaved ice flavored with syrup, Italian ice has a smoother texture since it's made like ice cream; a blend of flavoring and water is poured into a batch freezer and served by the scoop. Here are reviews of the two Italian ice chains in my area:

Uncle Louie G

Unless you live in New York City, you're probably unfamiliar with Uncle Louie G; most of the chain's locations are in Long Island. Curiously enough, there's one in downtown West Palm, and I dropped in for a taste of Brooklyn.

Louie G serves up both Italian ice and regular ice cream, with each day bringing a pretty good flavor selection for each. There are a lot of oddball flavors, especially for the ices - stuff like bubble gum, cotton candy, and chocolate jelly ring will likely offend adult palates. The standard fruit flavors are good, but the real standout is the vanilla oreo, an unexpectedly creamy concoction with real chunks of cookie in the mix. If you're not in an ice mood, you can order up any number of milk shakes, sundaes, and other conventional ice cream-based desserts.

2/4 stars

Rita's Water Ice

Rita's Water Ice has tons of locations all through the the East Coast, so it's not really surprising that there's one three minutes away from where I live. What is surprising, though, is the relatively limited selection of Italian ice flavors available each day. When most ice cream shops have 16, 24, or even 36 flavors on tap, first-time visitors to Rita's might feel a little constrained.

Rita's has an ace up her sleeve, though - frozen custard. With a consistency somewhere between soft serve and traditional ice cream, frozen custard pairs well with the frostiness of Italian ice. Accordingly, most of the Rita's menu mixes water ice with custard; the results are weirdly addictive because of the novelty of the contrasting textures. Mix two layers of vanilla custard with orange ice, for instance, and you've just perfectly replicated the taste of a classic orange creamsicle.

2/4 stars

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Miscellany: Poppin' The Bennies

People with seasonal allergies owe a large debt to Dr. George Rieveschl, the inventor of diphenhydramine (AKA Benadryl). Benadryl was the first truly successful mass-market antihistamine, and it remains one of the most effective. Here's a vid explaining how it works:

Like a lot of people, I've been "poppin' the Bennies" lately in order to combat itchy eyes, runny nose, and annoying sinus pressure. Unfortunately, diphenhydramine has one big side effect - drowsiness. The sleepiness and muscle relaxation the drug causes is so profound that diphenhydramine is often used as a sleep aid. So, for all fellow allergy sufferers who are riding the pink dragon tonight, I bid you sweet dreams...

Friday, April 09, 2010

Guns: The Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot

Color me green with envy - Tam's at the Knob Creek Gun Range to partake in their spring machine gun shoot.

If you've never heard of the Knob Creek MG shoot, suffice it to say that it's heaven on Earth for fans of military firearms. Dealers, collectors, and owners from around the country make the biannual pilgrimage in order to light up targets downrange with an assortment of rare machine guns and cannons. Many of them will rent time on these guns for a nominal fee - who could resist wasting a wrecked car with a .50 cal?

There's a lot going on besides the main MG shoot, though - practical shooting competitions using pistols, rifles, shotguns, and subguns, militaria of all sizes and descriptions (including rides in tanks and helicopters), and an enormous gun show to boot. Heck, an entire half-hour episode of "Mail Call" was devoted to the Knob Creek shoot.

The high point of the MG shoot for many is the night shoot, when everyone loads up with tracers and big barrels of pyrotechnics are placed downrange:

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Food: The Original Brooklyn Water Bagel Co.

For the sake of bagel lovers everywhere, let's hope that the Brooklyn Water Bagel Co. has success in its franchising endeavors. That's because the nascent Delray-based chain offers up perhaps the best mass-market bagels ever: big, boiled-then-baked rings with chewy exteriors and soft interiors. They handily beat the "bagels" sold by big bakery chains like Einstein Bros. and Panera; instead of being a donut-shaped piece of bread, these bagels are more akin to those made by a traditional Jewish deli.

According to BWBC, the bagels are made possible by an elaborate water filtration and mineral addition system that purportedly generates a perfect copy of the municipal water of Brooklyn. Though I agree that New York City tap water tastes great, I have the feeling the whole thing is a gimmick more than anything else. But hey, if that gimmick helps these guys sell more real-deal bagels around the country, I'm all for it.

The bagel prices are decent (a buck per bagel, regardless of variety, $5 for a half-dozen bagels), but the more elaborate menu items are on the expensive side (the lunch bagel sandwiches all hover around $6 or $7). Aside from bagels and bagel-related sandwiches, BWBC offers a full line of beverages (soft drinks, various coffees, and egg cream made with Fox's U-bet chocolate syrup) and killer potato pancakes.

BWBC uses the filtered water in its coffee, soft drinks, and ice machines, as well as bottling it up and selling it separately for $1 a bottle. In terms of franchise potential, I think the reliance on a space and labor-intensive water filtration system might be problematic. Krispy Kreme has the same problem; that conveyor belt deep fryer looks fantastic and makes great donuts, but Dunkin' Donuts' ship-in-the-donuts approach is more adaptable to retail locations. Hopefully BWBC can scale down the concept.

2/4 stars

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Links: IMFDB

IMFDB - is it a new initiative of the International Monetary Fund? Perhaps a division of the Impossible Mission Force? Maybe a bit of slang related to the International Metalworkers' Federation?

Actually, it stands for "Internet Movie Firearms Database." The collaborative, wiki format site catalogs guns from numerous movies and TV shows. It also serves as a showcase for the ingenuity of Hollywood armorers, who can dress up standard prop guns into something as cool as the endoskeleton pulse rifles from "Terminator 2."

IMFDB also makes for a nifty way to kill a boring evening, or to settle bets with friends. For instance, what model snubnose did Arnie give Vanessa William in "Eraser"?

If you look closely, you can see that it's not a S&W Bodyguard (like I thought when I first saw the flick). The gun is actually a regular Chief's Special with hammer-shroud grips.

How about the shotgun Principal Strickland used in "Back to the Future Part II"?

Mossberg 500. Eat lead, slackers!

Or maybe you want to know the exact set-up of the AR carbines in "I Am Legend"? Or what everybody was using in that final shootout in "The Way of the Gun"? Any way you slice it, IMFDB is just an endless treasure trove of gun geek goodness.

Books: The Tales of Beedle the Bard

"The Tales of Beedle the Bard" is a collection of five short stories from the "Harry Potter" universe; the proceeds go to author J.K. Rowling's charity, Lumos. These fairy tales range in tone from the Grimm ("The Warlock's Hairy Heart" has a particularly bloody ending) to the happy ("The Fountain of Fair Fortune"). The collection is easily finished in one sitting; the upside is that all five are short enough to be good bedtime stories.

Actually, I suspect Rowling likes to write these spin-off books. Most fantasy authors are locked in to huge, multi-volume epics with page counts measured in the thousands - it must be nice to write something without having to check whether it conflicts with some bit of continuity you generated five years and 3,000 pages ago. "Beedle the Bard," for instance, only has one firm link with the main "Potter" plot: "The Tale of the Three Brothers."

I've never read a single word of the main "Harry Potter" series, but I've enjoyed the various one-offs that J.K. Rowling has produced for charity over the years. Whatever your opinion of the über-successful author or her work, you have to tip your hat to someone who has put pen to paper in order to help others (Rowling's previous "Potter" companion books, "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" and "Quidditch Through the Ages," earned millions for the charity Comic Relief). Because of the charitable hook, "The Tales of Beedle the Bard" earns a pass in spite of its brevity.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Tech: Torchlight review

It's been a long, rough ride for the ex-Blizzard North employees who struck out on their own following Blizzard's acquisition by Vivendi. After several stops and starts, Max and Erich Schaefer (who helped design the megahit "Diablo" series) have teamed up with Travis Baldree to form Runic Games. Their first title is, somewhat predictably, a "Diablo" clone called "Torchlight."

"Torchlight" will be instantly familiar to anyone who's ever played a "Diablo"-style hack-and-slash action RPG: isometric perspective, randomly generated dungeons, big red and blue balls representing your health and mana, etc. The game also mixes in a lot of ideas from Baldree's "Fate" series, like your ever-faithful pet and a pleasant, cartoony art style.

Most importantly, the designers of "Torchlight" know what hack-and-slash is supposed to feel like. The sounds and graphics that accompany your warrior cleaving into a goblin horde feel appropriately meaty. High-level spells put out colorful pyrotechnics, and level-ups get the fanfare they deserve. These are the kinds of visceral details most "Diablo" clones omit. Like in "Diablo," the levels themselves are a nice mix of interesting environments, with locales ranging from an abandoned dwarven fortress to a goblin prison perched on a sea of lava.

There are plenty of times when the game feels a little too much like "Diablo," though. That's because there are numerous enemies that have been imported wholesale. Vicious jungle pygmies? Giant spiders that spew immobilizing webs? Mummies that explode in a poison gas cloud after death? "Diablo II" fans will immediately recognize all of these enemies, and it's a little lazy of Runic Games to just recycle them, no matter what the nostalgia value.

The game fares better when it makes smart changes to the tried-and-true "Diablo" model. Unlike in "Diablo II," there are numerous shared spells and passive abilties between the three selectable characters (Destroyer, Vanquisher, and Alchemist, although they're basically remixes of the standard warrior, rogue, and mage classes). This means that you can create interesting variant builds, like a melee-focused Alchemist or a spellcasting Destroyer. That's a lot of replay value for a $20 downloadable game.

You're going to need that replay value, however, since "Torchlight" is single-player only at the moment. Runic is currently working on a free-to-play, microtransaction-supported MMO add-on (or perhaps a standalone sequel). In the meantime, the game's harder difficulty levels and hardcore mode (where character deaths are permanent) should keep you occupied.

I haven't said much about the game's plot because there really isn't much of one to speak of. Sure, there's some token NPCs and an ongoing theme of corruption involving the game's magic source, Ember, but it's all just an excuse to kill stuff. If you don't mind your hack-and-slash being a little purposeless, "Torchlight" is well worth a look.

Rating: 84/100

Friday, April 02, 2010

Sports: Rafa vs. Andy

It took some doing, but I managed to make it to the men's semifinals of the Sony Ericsson Open, where Rafael Nadal was playing Andy Roddick. The sold-out stadium was nearly full, the sky was clear, and the mood was jolly as the players warmed up. Rafa has beaten Andy three straight times, so most commentators (and fans) didn't give Andy much of a chance today. Here are my impressions of the match:

Rafa's often stereotyped as a sort of hyperkinetic warrior, his competitiveness manifested in fist pumps and grunts that can be seen and heard even from the cheap seats. Rafa's pre-serve rituals belie that image, however: he grabs at his shorts like he has a wedgie, gently tucks his hair behind each ear, pauses with a scowl, and then launches into his motion after everything has been put in place just so.

It's Andy Roddick who looks fidgety when he serves. The constant tugging of his Lacoste shirt at the shoulders is the main tic people see on TV, but in person the whole ritual looks more violent. It's not nervousness, though; the serve is Andy's bread-and-butter, so he steps up to the plate before each point with confidence, the kind that can only be obtained from having done thousands and thousands of repetitions of something. So many that Andy could almost do it blindfolded.

Though both men are elite athletes, they definitely contrast visually. Andy's shirt hangs from his shoulders like Superman's cape, reinforcing his All-American, boy-next-door persona. Rafa's is more form-fitting, like a modern day superhero's tights. It's hard to see at this distance, but they're surely sweating bullets in the hot Miami sun.

Their games are visually different, too. Rafa's lasso-whip lefty forehand is even more impressive in person, putting so much topspin on the ball that it explodes off the mid-speed Laycold court surface. From this height, it's almost humorous, like a gimmick in a 3D movie. That topspin gives Rafa the ability to change directions and impart power, and it's clear that Rafa has the upper hand in almost every baseline rally. After taking advantage of a sloppy service game from Roddick, Nadal takes the first set 6-4.

But Andy's signature weapon is working today, too, and he's bombing 130+ mph serves up the T and 110 mph sliders out wide. Even Roddick's second serves are putting pressure on Rafa, who is one of the best returners in tennis. A few spectacular rallies in one of Rafa's service games leads to Andy taking the second set, 6-3.

Andy Roddick's made some fundamental changes in his game. He's slimmed down, strengthened his backhand, and turbocharged his defense from the baseline. Despite these improvements, he's never going to outrally Nadal, and he seems to realize it in the latter stages of the match. It is Roddick's willingness to come in behind his serve (despite the occasional suicidal net rush) that becomes the decisive factor. Rafa's rhythm gets disrupted, errors start creeping in to his game, and no amount of "Vamos!"-ing or fist pumps can hide the truth - Andy is the better player today. Roddick breaks Rafa twice in the third, and the final score is 4-6, 6-3, 6-3.

Miscellany: Carcassonne review

The best European-style board games tap into the intrinsic fun of building things. I guess there's just something fundamentally satisfying about laying your railroad routes in "Ticket to Ride" or plopping down cities in "Settlers of Catan." Some American games do have the same mechanic, but they also usually introduce an element of capitalist risk: you can go bankrupt and lose all your property in "Monopoly," for instance. With Eurogames, no matter how poorly you play, the things you set down usually persist.

"Carcassonne," designed by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede, is one of the most popular Eurogames, and it makes bulding the gameworld the central focus of play. "Carcassonne" won the prestigious Spiel des Jahres award in 2001, and a seemingly endless tide of expansion sets, standalone semi-sequels, and spinoffs have kept the game at the forefront of the casual German-style board game community to this day.

The rules are pretty simple. Each player takes turns placing square land tiles. There are several possible landscape features - cities, roads, fields, etc. - and each new tile must correspond to what is already in play. After laying down the tile, you can "claim" it by placing a follower on it. Complete any terrain feature that includes a square with your follower on it and you get points.

In spite of its tactical simplicity and heavy dependence on luck, "Carcassonne" is fun for all ages because laying out the game's "board" is so tactile. The heavy cardboard land tiles look appealing and have a pleasing texture. The little wooden follower figurines (nicknamed "meeple") are cute and well-made. Even the game's scorecard is interesting - you place a token on a continously numbered track instead of merely jotting down your score:

"Carcassonne" is often cited as a "gateway game" to introduce newcomers to European-style board games, but it's fun in its own right, too. So, if you're in the mood for a (very) light strategy game that the whole family can play, you pretty much can't go wrong with "Carcassonne" or one of its many progeny.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Closing Up Shop

Perhaps the scarcity of posting here in recent weeks has hinted at it: the working world is even more time-consuming than I ever thought it would be. Law school kept me pretty busy, of course, but it was always possible to cram a post or two in during lunch or a tedious lecture. When you're on the clock, though, finding time to procure content and update a blog is nigh-impossible.

So, I think it's time to bid a fond farewell to Shangrila Towers. I'll keep the blog up, and I might even throw up a post from time to time, but it's just too much of a burden to update it regularly. It's been a great run, but all good things must come to an end.

EDIT: Happy April Fool's Day! Shangrila Towers isn't going anywhere.