Friday, May 30, 2014

Review: X-Men: Days of Future Past

I have been wary of the X-Men movie franchise for well over a decade. X-Men and X2: X-Men United seemed great at the time they were released in 2000 and 2002, respectively, but they were released before the first wave of superhero movies (led by Spider-Man, also in 2002) started dominating the multiplex, so their seeming excellence may have been relative to the general dearth of similar material (I would have to rewatch them to see if they still hold up). Since then, the franchise has been less than exemplary, as X-Men: The Last Stand was a disastrous Ratneresque mess, and the Wolverine movies were atrocious. X-Men: First Class, the last movie in the main X-Men cineverse, was surprisingly entertaining as it rebooted the characters back to 1962 and examined some of the beginnings of the established characters, but it was still a little overstuffed and convoluted. So, with all of that recent history in mind, it was hard to be really optimistic about the chances of X-Men: Days of Future Past.

There were a lot of points both going for and against the new release, the franchise's suspect history not withstanding. Bryan Singer, the director of the first two X-movies, would be returning, and (recent real-life allegations aside) his involvement begged the question: would he be the Singer of X-Men and X2, or the Singer of Superman Returns (the movie for which he abandoned the X-movies to make in the mid-2000s)? In choosing the Days of Future Past storyline - one of the most beloved by X-Men fans like me - were they making a cagey move to maneuver the franchise past all of its bumps and bruises, or were they going to butcher the storyline and completely alienate the people who cared the most about where it went? And in combining the casts from all of the X-movies, would it remain balanced, or would it be even more hard to track which mutants were which and leave them all devoid of character development? It seemed like it might go either way up until the movie was released.

With all of these questions in mind, I was both cautiously optimistic and anticipatedly pessimistic about the movie's prospects. I anticipated that I would be disappointed by how Singer mangled the storyline - one of my favourites - but I also hoped that there would be enough good points about it that would allow me to enjoy the movie in spite of its (I assumed glaringly obvious) faults. I knew that I would see it either way, and that I needed to be a part of whatever it ended up being, so we went to see it within the first few days of its release. (It helped that I still had a BOGO coupon from Cheerios that had be used, so it only cost my wife and I $11.49 in all to see it in AVX 3D - not a bad deal at all.) And I was very pleasantly surprised by the overall quality of X-Men: Days of Future Past. Not only was I not disappointed by the movie, I was actually enthralled and impressed by it - so much so that I would consider seeing it again in theatres before its run is complete (which is a rare occurrence for me, only preceded by the first X-Men, the first and third Lord of the Rings, Inception, and maybe one or two other movies over the past 15 years). I found that I actually have a lot to say about this movie, so I've broken it down into five things I really liked and five things I didn't like as much, which all taken together should give a clear idea of what I thought about the movie.

[Obligatory SPOILER ALERT if you have not watched the movie yet.]

What I liked about Days of Future Past


Honoring the source material - The first reaction any fan like me had was mixed: "they're doing Days of Future Past! I hope they don't mess it up." (Spoiler: they didn't.) Choosing one of the most iconic storylines not only in X-Men's five decades but in all of comic nerd-dom seemed like a brave move after the butchering of the Dark Phoenix saga and the mangling of Wolverine's origins, but it paid off. The writers were able to create a storyline that embodied much of the spirit of the original while giving it its own spin within the context of the movie franchise. It was smart like the 1990s X-Men cartoon (still one of my favourites of all time), and it did not leave any gaping plot holes. I was completely satisfied with everything they changed, and they still featured Bishop in the future storyline. I have heard that the original comic authors were happy with the movie version, and they should have been.

Progression of the cinematic storyline - One of the challenges facing this movie was that the last two main X-Men have been uneven (to say the least), and they needed to find a way to bring everyone together and to do justice to both older and younger casts and to not have it feel as hokey as Star Trek: Generations (the inevitable comparison considering Stewart's involvement in both). Using the DOFP storyline allowed Singer to do so organically and meaningfully, and it really worked well as both a send-off for the first cast, a continuation of First Class, and a reboot for the future. He managed to acknowledge The Last Stand and to move past it, and the franchise is now in prime position to move into a future unfettered by its suspect past. In a smart move, Fox has already announced that the next movie - Apocalypse - will star younger X-Men and be set in the 1980s, so the older cast will likely only appear in random cameos (much like Spock in the new Star Trek movie storyline), leaving the action to an as-of-yet undetermined younger cast to join Professor X and Beast (with Fassbender's and Lawrence's characters allowed to exist on the periphery based on their character arcs in DOFP). They took an increasingly complex universe, made it accessible for anyone, and then made it even easier to adapt in the future. Like Xavier, I now have hope for the X-Men.

The acting - Consider, for one moment, the roster of actors who appeared in roles in this movie: Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Lawrence (3), Michael Fassbender, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry (more on her later), and Ellen Page, who have been nominated for 8 Oscars between them with two winners among their ranks. Then add to that list the consistently underrated James McAvoy (much like his countryman Ewan McGregor), Patrick Stewart, only one of the most respected theatrical actors of his generation, and Peter Dinklage, and you have the second-best cast assembled for a superhero movie.

[For anyone curious about this claim, here are the others in my top three: In third, The Avengers with six Oscar nominations but no wins: Downey Jr. (2); Renner (2); Jackson (1); Ruffalo (1); Johansson (an inexplicable 0, but 4 Golden Globe nominations); and Hemsworth and Evans (0). In first, The Dark Knight, with 18 nominations and 5 wins for the actors in the two movies, including: Oldman (1 nom); M. Gyllenhaal (1 nom); E. Roberts (1 nom); Bale (2 noms, 1 win); Caine (6 noms, 2 wins); Freeman (5 noms, 1 win); and Heath Ledger (2 noms, 1 win for his role in this movie as the Joker), as well as Aaron Eckhart. (It gets the edge of Batman Begins, which 18 nominations and 4 wins, including nominations for Neeson (1), Watanabe (1), and Wilkinson (2) and TDK Rises, which had 17 nominations but 6 wins, including Hathaway (2 noms, 1 win) and Cotillard (1 nom, 1 win), not to mention Hardy and Gordon-Levitt, both of whom seem like they will inevitably be nominated someday. Of course, this all assumes that Oscar nominations are the entire measure of someone's acting ability; I know they're not, but it was an easy enough way to quantify my discussion with some numbers, and it still gives a pretty clear picture of the talents of actors in each film. Anyway, back to the point.]

The point is that the caliber of acting in this movie elevated it far beyond what it could (or maybe would or should) have been, and that it continues the generally high quality of actors in major superhero movies. (Call it the Nolan effect for now, but I like this world in which blockbuster franchises feature quality actors - as long as they also get to use their off-time to make the kinds of dramas that keep them sharp. But I digress.) There were many moments in which McAvoy, Fassbender, and Lawrence in particular elevated their material far beyond what they should have been able to, and it is those performances that helped make the movie exceed my expectations. Some superhero movies work more or less in spite of or around the performances; this one would not have been anywhere nearly as effective with lesser actors.

The visuals and action sequences - The movie had a lot of exposition to work through, but it balanced it with some highly entertaining action sequences. The battle scene that starts in medias res was captivating and stunning at points, especially with the new-to-the-movies mutants Bishop, Sunspot, and Warpath along with Colossus, Iceman, and Shadowcat against the terrifying Sentinels. The movie's climactic battle with the Sentinels was a little anti-climactic, but still visually stunning, but it was some of the action between those two that made up for it, particularly the scene with Quicksilver in the Pentagon. I'm not so sure that the movie really needed to be in 3D for what it was, but it was still a treat to watch.

The overall tone of the movie - It seems like most superhero movies miss the mark in having a balance between the need for gravity and levity. The Dark Knight seems to have convinced many filmmakers to go as dark as possible, but that's not the best decision for every franchise. DOFP managed that balance well with enough moments of levity to set against the apocalyptic framing of the entire movie. Add to that the nods to nerds and fanboys throughout, and DOFP is an entertaining movie that does not take itself quite too seriously while still taking itself seriously enough when it needed to (though I could have done without Nixon). And that end teaser tag was beyond brilliant - but that's mainly because I knew exactly what they were doing.

The things I didn't like


Despite my overall positive reaction to the movie, there were a few things that I didn't like along the way. None of them were quite enough to override my general enthusiasm about the entire package, but they are each something that I did notice as I was watching or considering the movie.

The overly aggressive and uneven marketing campaign - Okay, so the posters of Xavier and Magneto were seriously awesome, and the teaser of Magneto being involved at the grassy knoll was a great little twist on history. They were almost enough to make me overlook the rest of the uneven marketing campaign - almost. This article on Vulture explains the entire sordid ordeal from start to finish, but suffice to say that it made me uneasy about whether the movie would be any good if they felt the need to sell it so hard. It felt more like a 1990s-style movie campaign, or one that might be associated with Transformers - just a really really hard push. I know for most of the movie-going public that there is no discernible difference between a franchise like X-Men and one like Transformers, but it just really seemed like it was a little too over-the-top, and it did more to make me question the movie than to make me want to see it.

The awkward exposition - For the first section of the movie (until Logan wakes up in 1973), the movie felt a little uneven, choppy, and forced. As mentioned earlier, I appreciated the in medias res beginning, but it seemed awkward for about ten minutes or so thereafter as the characters tried to explain just what was actually going on. I know they had a lot of material to exposit, they had to make a lot of assumptions about familiarity with characters, and that there was not much time to do either, but I still think that the dialogue and the editing on the second "scene" of the movie - the future after the initial attack - could have been written and filmed much more effectively. (Perhaps that will come with the extended cut on DVD.)

The lack of strong female characters - This X-Men adventure was much more of a testosterone fest than previous editions, and I doubt it would pass the Bechdel test (a method of evaluating the meaningfulness of female presence in any movie). After all, the only meaningful female character in the movie spent most of her time naked in blue paint, seducing men, or just plain impersonating them to get anywhere. Others were reduced to very limited roles (a very under-utilized Ellen Page as Shadowcat, Storm, even Blink) or in peripheral cameos (Rogue and Jean Grey in the future denouement). The X-Men have a rich history of strong female characters - arguably one of the best in comics - as well as in diversity, but this movie mainly just featured white guys, which was a little disappointing. I really hope that Singer brings back the strong women and diverse people in the future.

Halle Berry - Let's face it: the cast of X-Men has always been a mixed bag. Some of the casting was great - even necessary - as Patrick Stewart was the one and only actor who could have played Xavier, Ian McKellen brought the necessary gravitas (see what I did there?) to Magneto, and the previously unknown Hugh Jackman did not allow us to imagine another Wolverine (which apparently would have been Dougray Scott, if not for Mission: Impossible II going overtime in its filming). Some were middling - not great, but not terrible: Anna Paquin as Rogue, James Marsden as Cyclops, and Famke Janssen as Jean Grey; the actors did well enough in their roles, but I still could easily imagine other actors doing better with each of those parts (the inevitable question of "then who?" is difficult to answer, since it was cast fifteen years ago, but I stand by my evaluations).

Then there's Halle Berry, the black hole of the franchise. Granted, she was at the top of her game when the X-movies were released - there was a span of a couple of years in which she was an action star displaying her "talents" in Swordfish, she was in the X-movies, she was a iconic Bond girl, and she won an Oscar - but she was still terribly miscast as Storm, who is meant to be mysterious, lithe, and African - in other words, not Halle Berry at all. Though her violent death did seem somewhat cathartic for people who have held this point of view for fourteen years (arguably intentionally so by Singer), her presence - muted as it was - still annoyed me.

Violence - I know the X-Men series has had a penchant for violence since Wolverine first skewered a soldier in the X-kitchen in X2, but I did feel like this edition was excessive. I was surprised that the movie received a PG-13 rating given the number of gruesome deaths experienced by the characters, but then I read that the MPAA - the organization that delivers the ratings - considers deaths of "mutants" to be like other sub-human characters (such as orcs in The Lord of the Rings), so it was deemed to be okay to melt, rend, rip, and otherwise mutilate them in visceral detail onscreen. (I suppose anti-mutant prejudice is real, after all.) I think it would have been easy to not show them as much as it was to show them, and I really didn't need to or want to see those deaths - especially in 3D. It's a minor complaint, but it's a valid one nonetheless.

Final thoughts


In the end, my complaints were mostly related to the issues around the movie, rather than the movie itself, which I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated as a movie on its own merits and as a version of the Days of Future Past storyline. This has easily been my favourite X-Men movie, and I will definitely watch it again. I really do hope that they amend the issues of diversity and gender in the next sequel, X-Men: Apocalypse (though I'm not holding out for less violence). But for now, I'm just glad that they did justice to the characters, spirit, and depth of the source material, and even though I think they could have pushed some of the themes a little further, it wasn't heavy-handed or unbearable (as the franchise has been in the past). I definitely recommend this movie on its merits of acting and writing, as a fun summer spectacle, and as a salvaging of a wounded blockbuster franchise.

Which, while we're on the subject, seems like it will work with the future of the X-Men movies: out with Magneto, in with the most brutal mutant ever known to humanity, Apocalypse, as well as his four horsemen. It is one of my favourite episodes of the animated series, and I'm looking forward to what they do with the Angel storyline (thus redeeming it from the aforementioned bungling of The Last Stand). Channing Tatum has been announced as Gambit (ehhhh...), and there are many internet columnists already making the case that Lupita Nyong'o should play Storm, which I would echo vociferously. But with only Professor X, Beast, and Havok remaining of the younger cast, there is lots of room to add more iconic characters in new younger iterations: Colossus, Iceman, Cyclops, Jean Grey, Rogue, Nightcrawler, Shadowcat, Psylocke, Dazzler, Jubilee...okay, well those last two are kind of same-y, but you get the point that the list could easily go on. The X-Men are back in form, better than ever, and ready for a new start, and I am now on board with their vision. I also have two years to rewatch the Animated Series in the meantime, bub.

What were your thoughts on Days of Future Past? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Ranking the Mario games: the power-ups

In the past week, I have (mostly) defeated Super Mario 3D World (just one last level to go!), and I started on New Super Mario Bros. U - at least until Mario Kart 8 arrives on Friday. They are two very different games - in some ways incomparable - and they are both a lot of fun, largely due to the new power-ups they provide (Cat Mario and Flying Squirrel Mario, respectively). Since I wrote about Mario two weeks ago, I have been thinking about ranking the Mario games - but I just couldn't quite bring myself to do it. Maybe it didn't seem right to compare games across thirty years and six generations of consoles, or maybe it was because I haven't played a couple of the recent 3DS entries, or maybe I just couldn't compare the experiences because each game is slightly different, but whatever the reason, I just couldn't compare them.

Then I thought about ranking the power-ups, but there are over three dozen (and counting). I found some lists that are interesting (links here and here), but I thought I would take a slightly different tack: what if I ranked the Mario games according to their power-ups? I focused on the Mario platform games, rather than the entire collection of Mario games (ie. Party, Kart, sports, Paper Mario. etc.), leaving me with sixteen games to rank, as I also did not consider the Wario or Yoshi games part of this discussion (even if they had the word "Mario" in the title). Here, then, is my ranking of Mario games according to their power-ups.


16. Super Mario Bros. 2 (NES, 1988) - With only the Mushroom and the Star here, the main method of attack in this game was throwing vegetables at your enemies. It gets points for being the first to feature different playable characters, but it's almost not fair putting this reskinned version of a completely unrelated game up against the other Mario games.

15. Super Mario Land (GB, 1989) - The main appeal here was bringing the world of Mario to the portable masses, so it's not surprising that it's only the Mushroom, Flower, and Star that appear. The Flower could gather coins, though, which would be integrated later on in the series.

14. Super Mario Land 2 (GB, 1992) - The Game Boy sequel featured a Carrot that would turn Mario into Rabbit Mario, with which he could fly, in addition to the basics. Cool idea, but it was definitely done better in other games.

13. New Super Mario Bros. 2 (3DS, 2012) - The newest entry to rank this low on the list, this game's biggest new innovation was the Gold Flower, which allowed players to shoot fireballs that turned into coins. Nothing else really new here - just the same old same old basics, the Mini and Mega Mushrooms and the Super Leaf. Moving on.

12. Super Mario Sunshine (Gamecube, 2002) - This is easily the game that is the least Mario-like of all, both by gameplay and power-ups. It doesn't include the Mushroom or Flower, and its main "power-up" (if you will) is F.L.U.D.D. (a terrible acronym for Flash Liquidizer Ultra Dousing Device), a water-cannon that erases muck left all over Isle Delfino. Yoshi makes an appearance, but this one mainly gets points for ingenuity and uniqueness. (If I was ranking by gameplay, this would jump several spots.)

11. Super Mario 3D Land (3DS, 2011) - One of the few Mario games I haven't played, this one earns points for the return of the Super Leaf (not seen since Super Mario Bros. 3), as well as the introduction of the Boomerang Flower, which is very well-executed in other games as well. It has the basics, plus some cool ideas in the Propeller Block and Prize Block, and it brings back the Statue Leaf (also from SMB3) to barely miss the top ten.

10. New Super Mario Bros. U (WiiU, 2012) - Now we're starting to see some cool stuff happening. The Super Acorn brought a new element to flying, as Flying Squirrel Mario was more about gliding than previous power-ups. The simplicity of this one new addition (one of the best in the series, I think), along with the returning Mushroom, Fire and Ice Flowers, the Mini Mushroom, and Star, made for a simple but effective variety. Add in Yoshi and three different baby Yoshis with different abilities, and you've got a top ten game by the power-ups.



9. Super Mario World (SNES, 1991) - Let's face it: the big power-up of this game - the Feather that gives Mario a Cape - is just a weaker version of the Super Leaf from the series' previous effort, Super Mario Bros. 3, with an extra ground pound at the end. There are the basic Mushroom, Flower, and Star, as well as the kind-of gimmicky but fun P-Balloon that allows Mario to inflate, but the main draw here is Yoshi, who arguably has never been better than in this, his first appearance. Plus, being able to have different coloured Yoshis with different abilities depending on the colour of Koopas eaten was totally tubular. (That's a joke for anyone who has played the game to its gnarly conclusion.)


8. Super Mario Bros (NES, 1985) - The original had only the three basic power-ups - Mushroom, Fire Flower, and Star - but that's all it needed. There is nothing quite so satisfying as getting that Mushroom exactly when it's needed, and nothing as disheartening as watching it go over the edge as you strain to catch it.

7. New Super Mario Bros. Wii (Wii, 2009) -
It was difficult to put this entry so low, but some would argue that I probably put it too high up. The usual suspects made their appearances here - Mushroom, Star, Fire and Ice Flowers, Mini Mushroom, and Yoshi - but the Propeller Mushroom and Penguin Suit make NSMBWii pretty awesome - even if it did seem redundant to have the Penguin Suit also shoot ice balls.


6. New Super Mario Bros. (DS, 2006) - The first of the New SMB series introduced three new power-ups in addition to the standard Mushroom, Flower, and Star. The Mega Mushroom and Mini Mushroom have been used repeatedly since, but NSMB gets points for being the first and the most integrated. The Blue Koopa Shell actually let Mario transform into a one of his most iconic enemies, and it gets points for ingenuity. The best of the New Super Mario Bros. series by power-ups.

5. Super Mario 64 (N64, 1996) - Along with the complete departure into 3D from the previous 2D side-scrolling games, Super Mario 64 featured none of the same power-ups. It seemed like heresy after a decade of Mushrooms, Flowers, and Stars, but it soon became clear that this was an entirely new Mario unlike any other we had seen before. Instead, the game used Caps that would be unlocked later in the game and force us to return to those early levels. The Wing Cap let Mario fly, the Vanish Cap let him disappear, and the Metal Cap turned him nigh invincible and extra heavy, and they all worked together with a lot of new moves to make Super Mario 64 one of the best of the series.


4. Super Mario Galaxy (Wii, 2007) - This game had the most power-ups of any Mario game at the time with nine, including some really interesting ones - just not regular Mushrooms. The Fire Flower, Ice Flower, Rainbow Star (for invincibility) and Red Star (for flight) were timed items, but the real stars were the three new transformations: Boo, Bee, and Spring Mario. They were each fascinating to see as the game progressed, and they all changed a fundamental way that Mario moved, just as the entire game did. The only reason this isn't higher is...well, you'll see.



3. Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES, 1989) - After the weirdness of its awkward predecessor, SMB3 got back to business in a big way. There were the usual Mushroom, Fire Flower, and Star, but the real innovation was the Super Leaf that let Mario fly and whack things with his tail as Raccoon Mario. It also added three new suits to the mix : the Frog Suit for underwater levels, the Hammer Suit that turned Mario into a Hammer Bro, and the Tanooki Suit that let Mario be Raccoon Mario and turn into a statue for some reason. Then top it off with the P-Wing that let you essentially be invincible as you flew through a level and Kuribo's Shoe (on the right) in World 5, and you've got a top three game according to the power-ups! (Not to mention one of my favourite to make bead sprites from!)


2. Super Mario 3D World (WiiU, 2013) - I know that some people will accuse me of the recency effect here, but just stop for a moment and think about this line-up of power-ups: Mushroom; Fire Flower; Star; Super Leaf; Boomerang Flower; Propeller Block; Prize Block. Now add to it the Cannon Box that shoots cannonballs repeatedly, the Light Block that shines a light in front of you, the Double Cherry that creates clones of Mario, and the Super Bell that turns Mario into Cat Mario, and you have one of the best line-ups of the series. Plus, you have the option of several different characters, each of whom has a different ability (for the first time in 25 years!), and they did it all without feeling gimmicky or forced. This is the Mario game that gives us hope for a bright future for Mario, especially as it came after a couple of years of ho-hum entries on the 3DS and WiiU. But it's still not the best game for power-ups; that title could belong to only one game...


1. Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Wii, 2010) - Not only did the sequel to Mario's greatest adventure feature almost all of the power-ups from the first Super Mario Galaxy (save for the Ice Flower and Red Star), it included three new ones: the Cloud Flower, the Rock Mushroom, and the Spin Drill. Some of the previous powers got less exposure in this edition, but there was still enough presence here to make them memorable. Add to this already awesome list the introduction of Yoshi and three new power-ups for him and you have the greatest game of Mario power-ups yet. At least until they release Super Mario Universe...

There you have it: my ranking of the Mario games by their power-ups. I imagine that if I were to rank the Mario games by gameplay that the basic order would be fairly similar, so you still have an idea of which games I like the best (although I definitely liked Super Mario Sunshine better than it ranked here, and I would rank the original Super Mario Bros. lower; maybe they would just switch places). As you can see, Nintendo still has a lot of great ideas for future Mario games, and despite a couple of sidesteps in 2011-2012, they're still going as strong as ever. And just in case you thought they might run out of ideas sometime, I found a cool wiki called Fantendo, which treats imaginary Mario games like they have been released, and which includes a master list of all of the theoretical power-ups here. (Go ahead, click it. I'll see you in an hour or so. Enjoy the rabbit hole.) There are a lot of really neat places that Mario could go in the future - we just get to see what happens when Nintendo inevitably releases the next game in the series.

What are your favourite Mario power-ups? And which game am I totally wrong about? Let me know in the comments.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Survivor gets back to its roots

Another May, another season of Survivor in the books. [Spoiler alert, obviously.] Cagayan, the series' 28th season, was the first one to feature entirely new players in five years and only the third of the past nine to feature all first-timers. Considering that the other two of that bunch (Season 21, Nicaragua and Season 24, One World) are widely ranked as two of the worst seasons of the show, the producers were running a big risk, but it paid off with a memorable season and continued the series' recent hot streak. Many fans have already ranked this season as one of the ten best, as they have with the previous three, and EW Survivor columnist Dalton Ross (who is as close to an expert as you get without playing the game or being Jeff Probst) ranked Cagayan as fourth-best overall and the the best season featuring all-new players since the very first season in Borneo. (I tend to agree with him in spirit, but I will still likely do a ranking of my own soon just to test it out for myself.)

The initial tribe division - Brain vs. Brawn vs. Beauty - did not really work effectively, but it still did shape the outcome of the game. It turned into a lot more than that simplistic division, especially because the initial tribe divisions usually only ever last nine or ten days before they shuffle the players between tribes, and it was interesting to see how the groups interacted and intersected, as several of the more successful players of the season could have easily been grouped in more than one of those initial divisions. The season featured betrayals and blindsides, the craziest idol hunt ever seen on Survivor, one of the worst tribes ever, a quitter, a full freak-out with rice dumped on the fire, and at least a half-dozen players who are likely candidates to play again. In a lot of ways, this season was a call-back to the earlier seasons of Survivor: all-new players, immunity idols, great challenges, and a Final Two instead of a Final Three. The season did not do much to introduce new ideas to Survivor - the immunity idol with special powers was the only new element to the game - but its contribution was in stripping away much of the largesse of previous seasons and getting Survivor back to its roots of "outwit, outplay, outlast".

Playing to win


There are, as always, several things that astound me about the people who play Survivor, especially with a history that includes 28 seasons, fourteen years, and over 400 players. I am still shocked when players outright quit the game. It has not happened often - no more than a dozen times in total - but each time it fascinates me that people just can't stick it out. I also find it interesting how there still seem to be players who don't understand how the game fundamentally works. It was acceptable in the show's first few seasons that players might make easily preventable blunders, but there are some fundamental philosophies and practices of the game that should be very clear by now to everyone who plays the game. And any player that doesn't do their homework ahead of time and watch previous seasons is doing themselves - and the game of Survivor - a huge disservice.

With that in mind, it confounds me that even after this long that there are people that don't seem to be ready for Survivor. It is often stated about certain players that they "come to play", and it is almost always used as an epithet for someone being a huge threat in the game. I know that different people have different styles and strategies, but that still does not account for people who seem to be unprepared or unwilling to play the game. One of the reasons that Caguyan is being cited as one of the best seasons is that a high percentage of players came ready to play and to be aggressive in order to win; I would personally estimate the number at about a dozen of the eighteen castaways. That still leaves, of course, a third of the cast that did not seem prepared or willing to play, which still seems like a high number after this long. I realize, of course, that a lot of the nuance of the players' games is lost in the editing of the show, and that things are a lot different out there, but there is still no excuse for not doing everything possible to win when the game starts. This discussion leads to my thoughts on this season's winner, so skip over the next section if you don't want it spoiled!

The aggressive archetype


The victory by Tony, the New Jersey police officer who came out playing intensively on Day 1 and did not let up until he inexplicably won 39 days later, was the perfect ending for the season even as it seemed highly improbable at the beginning of the game. Tony seemed like the kind of aggressive player - the ultimate Brawn - who would leave his mark on the game, but who would not be likely to win it all. He was a player in the mold of Boston Rob and Russell Hantz, the kind who prominently, forcefully, and aggressively forces his personality onto the game immediately and significantly. He did, and much of the pace and progression of the game was dependent on Tony and his constant maneuvering, up to and including the final jury. He lied to everyone, but he did it within the construct of the game, and he was ultimately rewarded for it, likely largely due to an impassioned plea from super-fan Spencer, who made a better argument for Tony's win than Tony ever could. It took a couple of lucky breaks for the victory to be realized - particularly the fact that Tony had to rely on his alliance with Woo and Woo's code of honour in order to even make it before the jury in an unexpected Final Two - but Tony still shaped this season in his image and managed to come out on top.

The efficacy of this aggressive strategy is debatable, as it depends largely on the particular make-up of each cast and the events of each season as to how successful these kinds of players are. It really depends on whether there are any other players who recognize what is happening and who can mobilize others to make the move. Sometimes they get booted early (Boston Rob in Marquesas and in Heroes vs. Villains, Russell in Redemption Island), sometimes they get blindsided soon after the merge (Philip in Caramoan), sometimes they make it to the end only to be on the wrong end of a vengeful jury (Rob in All-Stars and Russell in Samoa and Heroes vs. Villains), and sometimes they even win impressively (Rob in Redemption Island). Give credit to Tony, though, as he did what Russell could not and what it took Rob until his fourth season, as he is the only aggressive-style player to win in his first season. And that's what, in some ways, made this season feel so fresh and its conclusion feel so appropriate: by all accounts, Tony should not have won in Season 28 with everything that has happened before on Survivor, yet he managed to buck the odds and do it, once again proving that anything really is possible on Survivor,.

The future of Survivor


It seems unbelievable that Survivor is not only going strong, but is arguably as good as it ever has been after 28 seasons. For next season, Survivor is heading to San Juan del Sur, but it is more importantly returning to its "Blood vs. Water" twist, in which pairs of family members are placed into the competition together. The difference this time is that there will be no returning players among the cast, so it will be all-new players who will be competing against their loved ones. It will be the true test of the twist, which (I think) was one of the best variations on the game, as there will not be the power of established personalities to enhance the idea, leaving it just up to the game itself to prove its worth. (For my part, I think it will work really well, and I'm excited to see Blood vs. Water return, along with Redemption Island.)

Beyond that, Survivor will be entering its 30th season (!), which is an astounding achievement for any TV show. It seems almost certain that the landmark season will feature returning players again, as the list of possible returnees is growing with every subsequent entry to the franchise. Granted, the show did just feature twenty returning personalities between Seasons 26 and 27, but there are still a number of players dating all the way back to Season 1 who are still in the mix for another season of returning players (likely the show's fifth with at least half the cast comprised of returnees). Here are five ideas I have had about how the show could bring back players, either as an entire cast idea or as a tribe competing against other tribes (perhaps composed according to another theme listed here).

1. Winner's Circle. There has been a lot of talk about a "Winner's Circle" season made up only of previous winners, but that seems unlikely for a number of reasons, including the availability and willingness of enough participants who want to play again. That said, it might make a really interesting twist for a tribe, particularly when paired with something like...

2. Early boots. Create a cast made entirely of players who have not made the jury on their season, or even of castaways first voted off the island (Francesca being the poster child of this phenomenon, having been voted off first twice). I know a number of those people deserved the early boots, but there are occasionally players like Boston Rob who got turfed early on who could do well given another shot (Rory from Vanuatu comes immediately to mind.) Or, the twist could be made even more interesting by pitting a team of winners against a team of first-offs to see what happens.

3. "Out at five (or four)". Feature players who made it to the Final Five or Four, but who did not make it to appear before the jury. There are a few examples of players who made it that far more than once (Rupert in Pearl Islands and All-Stars and Erik in Micronesia and Caramoan), so it could be a really interesting twist, especially if it were to be combined with...

4. The Jury Experts. Include only players who made it to the jury (ie. the Final Two or Three) but did not win. They know what it takes to get there, and even what it takes to win, but they just couldn't pull it off for whatever reason. Amanda Kimmel did it twice, so she would be a great candidate, but there are a lot of other players who made it at least once to face the jury who could get another shot.

5. Outwit, outplay, outlast. Or, rather than distinguishing tribes based on when a person left the game, they could use the established archetypes of the strategic, social, and physical elements of the game contained in the show's motto to divide the tribes. Brain vs. Brawn vs. Beauty kind of captured this idea, but I think it could be pushed further, and that it would work best with returning players who have an established style of playing the game. I think it might have the same effect as the last season that featured entirely returning players, Heroes vs. Villains, and it would make for some interesting thoughts about labels and how they affect the game in the short- and long- term.

These are, of course, only a few possibilities for the thirtieth season, and although the list of players who would come back is likely still a long one, it all depends on who is available at the time. The fact is that Survivor is still as creative and full of life as it ever has been, and it will be exciting to see what happens in the future of the series, regardless of who is playing. But I do have one last suggestion for the show that merits mentioning: bring the show to the Great White North - perhaps somewhere along the coast in BC - and open it up to us Canucks; after all, as we learned from Justified, not all Canadians are nice.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

At least it was here

NBC recently canceled one of my favourite shows. It was often funny and action-filled with lots of nerd in-jokes, guest stars, and some very strange characters. It managed to make five seasons, even though every season finale also could have been a series finale, and Subway played a big role in the show. But enough about Chuck; let's talk about Community. (Is it just me, or is it really kind of weird how much the two shows had parallel runs?)

Community, one of my favourite television shows ever, was abruptly canceled by the Peacock last week. Despite the ratings of the most recent season, the move came as a surprise, as many pundits had assumed that the final sixth season would become a reality and that the plucky cast and crew of Greendale would have one last short season to expand their zaniness alongside the final season of their longtime schedule mate Parks and Recreation (which had its final seventh season announced). Instead of #sixseasonsandamovie, we got #fiveseasonsandacancellation (which reminds me, I really should watch The Cape sometime.)

Television writers such as Andy Greenwald of Grantland and Matt Zoller Seitz of Vulture posted their obituaries very soon after the announcement - almost as if they had their pieces ready to run just in case Community did get the axe. Fans of the show, in various stages of grief, immediately flooded social media with their own obituaries through hashtags and half-cocked plans and pleas to write Comedy Central and Netflix to revive the show. This is one of those obituaries, but it is not one of those pleas. Community has been significant enough to me that I feel the need to write about just what it has meant to me over the past five years, but I also need to write about why I am not advocating for its revival. But let's start with reviewing the history of the show for context.

Introduction to Television


I was an early adopter of Community, as I'm fairly certain I started watching it when the pilot aired. I appreciated the quirky characters and setting, and it seemed like this would be my kind of show. Then came the second episode, "Spanish 101", and I was completely hooked as soon as Jeff and Pierce performed an epic Spanish conversation with Aimee Mann's "Save Me" in the background; I had, after all, just recently watched Magnolia for the first time when I watched it, so I completely loved the joke. Plus, we got the first glimpse of the awesomeness of Troy and Abed end tags: "Donde esta la biblioteca..."

Through the remainder of that first season, which featured highlights such as the ridiculous debate, Jeff playing nude pool against his PE teacher, Rich in pottery class, Goodfellas with chicken fingers, paintball!, and the Tranny dance, Community soon emerged as my can't miss show, my go-to comedy, and the one show that I could watch over and over again. The second season started off where the first had left off - the KFC rocket, a zombie movie, the bottle episode, a claymation Christmas special! - and Community continued to set new standards almost weekly with its level of meta. Through the rest of that season (the show's best, IMHO) and the third season, despite its inherent oddness, still captured and extended that spirit. But it seemed like the show had likely run its course, and that cancellation was imminent: the show was not doing well in the ratings, and it had gotten too weird for any casual viewers. We fans fully expected that the end of Season 3 would be the end of Community, so nothing prepared us for what happened next.

The Economics of Television Production


In the midst of the aftermath of the season (or, as we thought, series) finale, a Community-esque turn of events took place: series showrunner and primary creative force Dan Harmon was removed from his role, but the show was renewed for a shortened fourth season with new showrunners. I don't remember the exact sequence of events - whether the show aired the finale before or after the announcement - but I do recall that there were flurries of tweets, articles, and postulations about the entire process and what it meant in terms of Community's possibilities for syndication. The move was seen to be more economic than anything, as it was widely (and it seems correctly) assumed that both NBC, the network, and Sony, the production company, thought that it would be cheaper and more effective to attempt to revive an existing property with a small rabid fan base than to develop several new untested properties that were, statistically, likely destined to fail. Season 4 was going to air with 13 episodes, starting on October 19, and fans like me were dubious but still intrigued: was it possible that Harmon was actually a negative influence on the show, rather than the sole driving creative force?

Thanks to NBC's continued mismanagement of the show, we had to wait until January 2 to have our answer, as the premiere was inexplicably delayed (leading several cast members to tweet that "October 19 is a state of mind"). We got our answer, and it seemed that our fears had been realized: Harmon was the main creative force, and the show was a shell of itself without him. There were a few inspired episodes - "Alternative History of the German Invasion" chief among them - and moments along the way, but the show mostly fell flat. The lowest point may have been the Thanksgiving episode - aired in mid-March - in which several characters found themselves "doing Shawshank". It's something that the show might have done otherwise, but there was nothing tongue-in-cheek or self-aware about imitating The Shawshank Redemption explicitly; the true genius of Community's parodies and homages was in their subtlety, and this was not subtle. The rest of the season was similarly awkward, and it concluded with episodes that Harmon himself had said would never happen again: paintball and the Darkest Timeline. "Advanced Introduction to Finality", which we (again) assumed would be the series finale, wasn't perfect, but it was entertaining enough, and it worked to end the show - but then we were pitched another curve ball.

Narrative Reinvention and Creative Recasting


In another unexpected twist, NBC announced not only that there would be a fifth (again shortened) season of Community, but that Harmon would return as showrunner. In this instance, the economics of television worked in the favour of the show, as it was again postulated that Sony and NBC thought that they could revive Community and bring back the ardent fans who had left the show during Season 4 and perhaps gain some new casual fans on the way to getting enough episodes for syndication (100 being the purported magic number). It would take some narrative juggling, however, as the main cast was all supposed to have graduated at the end of Season 4, and it would also take some creative recasting, as Chevy Chase announced his departure from the show, and Donald Glover announced that he would follow suit after five episodes. The show brought back actors like Ken Jeong, Jim Rash, and John Oliver in increased roles, and they added Jonathan Banks (Mike from Breaking Bad) to fill the gaps. But despite the hope, we fans were again dubious: could Harmon bring Community back to its former glory, even with a significantly new cast, or would it again feel like a shell of what it used to be?

The first two episodes if the season showed promise, and they created a (somewhat) plausible scenario in which these characters could all return to Greendale and work together. Jeff returned as a professor of Law, the new characters came on as teachers, and the rest of the gang all returned as students since they didn't know what to do next with their lives and didn't want to move on. The whole gang formed the "Save Greendale" committee, and the season's central thrust was on. It was a little awkward for a couple of episodes, as Harmon was introducing new characters and plot lines while trying to negate the effects of the "gas leak" (as everyone referred to the events of Season 4), but by the third episode, it was clear that Harmon and company were back on track.

Climax, Denouement, and Narrative Decline


Starting with "Intergluteal Numismatics", the show submitted what might have been its best run ever (as I discussed here). The show easily survived the departures of Chase and even Glover, and it seemed better than ever, culminating with "App Development and Condiments" (the MeowMeowBeenz dystopian episode), which I would submit in any argument of "best episode of Community ever". But then the last few episodes started to trail off, and it seemed like things didn't quite work. The cast did another "Dungeons and Dragons" bottle episode, and it felt a little derivative. The "G.I. Jeff" animated take on G.I. Joe seemed like more of an event for event's sake than a natural part of the progression of the show, and it didn't help that the core plot device of the episode (Jeff self-harming because of his fortieth birthday) seemed unrealistic, even for Community.

Then came the two-part season (and perhaps series) finale with its reintroduction of Subway and rumours of buried treasure, which mostly worked, but wasn't quite up to the standard that Community had set in the past. It felt like it would have been a great storyline in Season 1 or early in Season 2, but it seemed like Community should have advanced past that point by now, especially in the light that they could be the series finale. Basic Story and Basic Sandwich were fun enough, but they just left me wondering what else might have been and whether Community had, in fact, given its best already. It seemed to me, by the end of Season 5, that Harmon and company may have taken the show as far as they could, and cancellation might be the best option for the show. The best analogy I could think of was having a pet that had been sick, got better and had a few great months, and then started to get sick again, leaving the owners wondering whether it was time to put him out of his misery while he was still somewhat healthy. Sony decided to put Community to sleep, and it seems like it was the right decision, as I think Community had run its course after a good life.

Sociology of Narrative Cessation


In some confluence of economics, commercial appeal, critical appeal, creative liberty, and fortunate opportunity comes that decision of when and how end a television show. It's a little easier in some cases, but every show - especially every comedy - has its own rhythm and pitch, and there's no one perfect length. It seems like most comedies that last a hundred episodes can last until somewhere around 150 or 160 episodes before the slide starts, but even that can vary. Seinfeld left at the perfect time, at the top of its game, while its critical competitor Frasier lingered just a little too long. 30 Rock had a short seventh season to finish up creatively, and the aforementioned Parks and Rec will have the same opportunity in the fall. The Office stayed a season too long, and most fans thought that How I Met Your Mother did the same. The Big Bang Theory is destined to overstay its welcome (if it hasn't already - I haven't watched it in a couple of seasons). The point here is that there is no magic formula to know when a show is finished: sometimes, you just know it's done when it's done.

The issue here, of course, is that many of those shows had their fate decided by the creative forces behind the show, whereas Community's fate has almost entirely been a product of the decisions of the network. Some of those shows listed - 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation - were fortunate to run as long as they did and owed their elongated stays mainly to the largesse of NBC's executives, rather than having earned them in the ratings, but they still had favour that Community has never had. There are, of course, two other examples that fans of Community will invoke to prove that there is still hope for the show. Arrested Development was far too short in its first iteration, and it still has life in its second run (I hope). Futurama ran for 72 episodes, was cancelled, came back with four full-length movies (equaling another sixteen episodes) before returning with another 52 episodes, leaving them with the equivalent of 140 episodes, so it should be no surprise that it didn't quite feel done yet (and there's still hope for Netflix to pick it up). The comparisons seem somewhat appropriate, except that I think that Community has already had its first and second runs - the "first run", as it were, ended with the end of Season 4, and Season 5 served as its return, so to speak, so I think that this comparison has already run its course.

Evaluating Creative Completion and Processing Grief


The question here, as I see it, is whether Community should have ended anyway at this point, regardless of the decision of the network. My argument, clearly, is that it did, and that this is a good stopping point for the show. Community ran for 97 episodes - the rough equivalent of four full American network seasons - which is near the beginning of the range in which shows seem to be done. Out of those 97 episodes, there are a few that are not that memorable - mostly in Season 4 - but the level of quality overall is incredible. There was enough spark in Season 5 to warrant hope for one last great season after its conclusion - but the last few episodes proved that there was no guarantee that Community would reach those heights. In my opinion, it is better to have it ended now on a mostly high note than to have the possibility of another "gas leak" season.

Do I think that Community had run its creative course? Of course not - I think it could have lasted another 50-60 episodes if everything had gone perfectly. Do I think that it's possible that the damage done by the fourth season contributed to the issues of the fifth and its cancellation, and that the ordeal of the last two years shortened the creative life of the show? Yes, and that's why I am not advocating for its return. With that said, if Community were somehow to inexplicably overcome the odds yet again and be renewed, I will watch the next season with relish and vigor and enjoy as much of it as I can and not feel like a hypocrite when my misgivings were inevitably proven to be wrongly placed after the first amazing episode of the season.

Voyeurism, Surrealism, and Audience Identification


So why does all of this matter? After all, it's just a TV show, right? Of course it is, but Community meant so much more. The goings-on around and behind the scenes and on Twitter and Reddit in many ways were as important as what was happening on the actual show. Characters had their own Twitter accounts, and each of the Greendale Seven felt like a real person. I cannot think of a show that felt so "real", despite its clear existence as a surreal construct. Seinfeld and Arrested Development also played with that line between real and surreal, but they always felt voyeuristic. Community was "ours" in a way no show has ever been, and Dan Harmon was one of us: flawed and fallible, yet incredibly brilliant and successful in the right situation. The scenarios became more and more unreal, but yet each of the characters and the creators became more grounded in spite of the chaos around them.

Community, partially by design and partially by circumstance, lived up to its name. The hardships faced by characters on the show mirrored the hardships faced by fans of the show, and we bonded together in community about our community. As public acceptance of the show's increasingly odd narrative increased, our devotion increased even more, and our sense of communal alienation mirrored the journey of our Human Beings. It became a show about the experience of being a community, and a community formed around the experience of the show. We fans were as important as anyone else who was part of the experience, and that meant something to us. Community was not just theirs - it was, and is, and will be, ours, regardless of what happens in its future, and we will always have chicken fingers (in addition to every other in-joke from those five seasons).

Personal Perspectives on Community


But even beyond the communal aspect of what Community has meant to fans, it has meant more to me personally. Community has given me so much over these past five years - a segment of time that is easily the most challenging five-year span in my own life - and I feel like I owe a lot to this seemingly insignificant show. Like the show, I have been facing yearly decisions from other people as to my future, and my health and well-being have varied according to those decisions. I speak of the year-to-year nature of my professional teaching career, the beginning of which coincided with the first time that Community's future was in question at the end of the first season. It does not seem like coincidence that Community's conclusion comes at the same time that I am wondering about whether I need to conclude this season of my life and make some changes, and how I would end well in the midst of not being sure of what comes next.

Community is so entirely intertwined with this season of my life that it will always bring me back to who I have been in the past five years in Victoria. Much like my experience here, I will take elements of Community into my life beyond it, and I will return to it in future iterations of who I am. I am sure that I will rewatch the series several times over, and that I will make connections with people who also have been shaped and formed by Community over these five years, much like my experience of living and teaching in Victoria will be a vital part of who I am. Community really has been about more than just the show to me, and it seems to be an appropriate metaphor for my last several years.

So thank you, Community, for who you have been in my life. Thank you for the laughs, for "my emotions!", and for the times that you allowed me to escape from my circumstances. I know that you are all fictional characters, but thank you to Jeff, Troy, Abed, Shirley, Annie, Britta, Pierce, Chang, Craig, Duncan, Buzz, Starburns, Garrett, Magnitude, Vicki, Koogler, and everyone else who has been a part of this crazy Community journey (and, of course, the actual people behind those characters). And thank you to everyone who has been part of my crazy Community and journey over the past five years. All I can say is that "at least it was here."

(Wow, that got Sorkin-y.)

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The true appeal of Mario

It has been said that Mario is one of the most recognizable faces in the world, along with Mickey Mouse and Hello Kitty, and it's hard to argue with that claim. His first major release, Super Mario Bros. in 1985, arguably saved the video game industry from the crash of 1983 and paved the way for every game since, and he has not gone more than a year without a release in his name since 1988 (I'm pretty sure). For over three decades, his video games have continually triumphed as leaders in innovation, gameplay, fun, and quality (not just quantity), and his likeness has been associated with innumerable variations of merchandise. I have recently been enjoying the latest entry in the franchise - Super Mario 3D World for the WiiU - but before that, I also replayed my way through Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel for the Wii in quick succession, and I intend to play through New Super Mario Bros. U next.

As you might expect, I am not content just to enjoy the games for what they are and I have been thinking about the idea of Mario and his enduring popularity as I have played through these games. To that end, I
I recently read a great book on the history of Mario (and of Nintendo) called Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America by Jeff Ryan. Ryan makes some interesting comments and observations on how Mario has shaped Nintendo and America, but I felt that there was more to add to what he postulated in his discussion about why Mario matters and why he is still leading the industry after over three decades. (It should be noted that I am choosing to focus on the core games in the series, rather than the myriad offshoots in which Mario and his cast of characters star - though I will include a post on those later.) With this pre-amble in mind, it's time to head off to the Mushroom Kingdom and see what we can discover about our favourite mustachioed plumbers from Brooklyn (as if there were any competition).

Why does Mario matter?


With several dozen games to his credit, there is little doubt that Mario matters. He is the bread and butter of every Nintendo console, and of the platforming genre in general, and video games would not be what they are now without Mario. So the real question is not "does Mario matter?"; it's "why does Mario matter?" That is to say, what is it about this character that has made him appeal so widely to players of all ages and backgrounds. I also looked at the question "what makes Mario great?", and I found that the answers lined up exactly with the answers to these questions, perhaps unsurprisingly. I also found that it is not necessarily about Mario himself as much as it is about the entire Mario universe, so even though I'm going to use the term "Mario", it should be understood that it includes all of his worlds and the characters within them as well.
Here, then, are the five reasons that I think answer the question of why Mario matters and what makes Mario great.

1. Relatability. One of the main points that Ryan makes is that Mario is an everyman character, which allows the player to imagine themselves in that role. I'm not so sure of that myself, but I do think that Mario's consistency has made him much more relatable. Unlike Link, whose appearance has changed with almost every iteration of The Legend of Zelda, Mario's basic appearance has always remained the same: blue overalls, red cap, black mustache. But it's not just his appearance that makes him relatable: it's also the repeated musical motifs that emerge in some form in each game.

2. Simplicity. The core formula of Mario games has not changed in thirty years: jump, run, and use power-ups to attack and fly and make it to the end of the level; if you don't make it, try again until you do. There are a lot of variations on that formula, but I think that its simplicity and predictability is a huge part of the appeal. This simplicity allows for the introduction of concepts and then the repetition of those same concepts in other applied situations (much like education...).

3. Innovation. Despite Mario's simplicity, there has been significant innovation in areas such as graphics, music, and gameplay in almost every entry in the series, and not just within the context of the series. Super Mario Bros. 3 introduced the idea of choice in levels. Super Mario World was the first significant 16-bit platformer. Super Mario 64 was the first influential 3D game for families. New Super Mario Bros. Wii brought multiplayer into the game. But even the games that have not been particularly innovative beyond the series have still brought something fresh into Mario's universe - Super Mario Sunshine's FLUDD, for example - and help to make each game feel fresh.

4. Creativity. Beyond the innovation present in the series, there is a sense of creativity and imagination in each game. A big part of the fun of each Mario game is in playing the levels and wondering how they came up with the idea in the first place. Each world - and often each level - has a new twist that activates the player's imagination and ignites the sense of childish exploration.

5. Replayability. Yes, the games are simple, but that's part of what makes them replayable. Most Mario games include secret goals or items to collect, which further increases the replay value, but the fact is that regardless of whether the level is complete or not that it is still fun to play again. I can easily see myself replaying Super Mario 3D World just to enjoy the levels again, even though I have almost entirely completed the game.

All of these factors taken together - simplicity, relatability, innovation, creativity, and replayability - demonstrate just why Mario matters. And all of these facets of Mario games are part of what I think is the true reason for Mario's significance: they are perhaps the purest and best application of educational theory in practice. We all want to learn and grow, and Mario games not only allow for that to happen but they necessitate it in order to progress in the game. They reflect the best that educators like myself attempt to do, and they do it in a way that doesn't even feel like learning. I know that every game, to some extent, necessitates some learning to progress, but Mario games are so deliberate and intentional about their goals that it makes it hard to see beyond this very basic appeal as the root of their success. Mario matters, in essence, because he taps into the child in each of us- the child who wants to explore, create, grow, and learn - and he provides the perfect platform (pun intended) for that to happen.

Conclusion: The Future of Mario

I had considered including a ranking of various Mario games and spin-offs as part of this discussion, but I think it's best to leave it here and to conclude with a few things that I would love to see as part of Mario's future. If the last few years have shown fans anything, it's that Mario is far from finished as a series. The last several games have been among the most creative of the series, and they have proved that Mario's formula still works. There have been occasional slight mis-steps - New Super Mario Bros. U had more of a feeling of repetitiveness than any previous Mario game had had - but the series is still going strong. I'm sure that Nintendo has even more creative ideas in the pipeline (another intentional pun) for our heroic plumber, but as long as they stay true to the five characteristics listed above and the truly educational nature of the Mario series, I'm sure that Mario will still continue to be fun, successful, and profitable long into the future.

With that said, I do have one idea for Nintendo that I would love to see expand the Mario universe even further: create a true open-world Mario game. I would love to see Mario fully be able to explore his universe. The closest there have been to open world Mario games were Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine, which featured mostly open world levels, as well as the off-shoot Super Mario RPG (and the subsequent Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi games). But I would love to see a true open world Mario experience that's not an RPG; make it an action adventure game like The Legend of Zelda or Metroid, and have a number of Mario's different power-ups available to help explore the Mushroom Kingdom. It would be easy to include different characters as both playable and non-playable characters, and then to feature levels that could be accessed along the way (kind of like dungeons in Zelda). Call it Super Mario Universe, Nintendo, and make it happen.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Just how unique are these Stanley Cup Playoffs, anyway?

As I was completing my second round picks of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, I realized that the four teams that played in the Conference Finals last year - Chicago, LA, Boston, and Pittsburgh - were not only all still playing, but that they were playing in series in which they were each favoured, meaning that there is a not-negligible possibility that this year's NHL Conference Finals could feature the same four teams as last year. Right now, each of the four are in a position to win their series (Boston is only tied with Montreal right now, but they do have two of the last three games at home.) This realization made me wonder whether that had ever happened before in the NHL, or if it had even been close to happening. It sent me down a fun journey through NHL history to find the answer, and some of the answers actually really surprised me.

First of all, I had to define the parameters of my investigation. I figured that there would have been a greater likelihood of this occurrence in the years of the Original Six (1941-1967), when there were only six teams, so I ruled that out. The period from 1967-1980 featured several expansions to new markets, but the NHL actually used a preliminary round reseeding structure until 1981. In this model, all of the best 16 teams were ranked and seeded regardless of conference or division, so it did not seem like it would work for the purposes of this analysis, since there were too many variables for which to account and the instances of repetition would be as much a product of chance as of design.

In 1982, the NHL made the change to a divisional model for the playoffs in which the first two rounds were played within each of four divisions. The divisions were divided into two conferences, so the winners of the same divisions would play each year to determine the conference winner and Stanley Cup Finalist. This model created a far greater likelihood of teams meeting repeatedly, and it is essentially the same system that the NHL uses today, although they have made some minor adjustments along the way. 

Using 1982 as the beginning benchmark, this analysis includes the three distinct periods since that 1982 season: divisional playoffs from 1982-1993; the conference seeding model from 1993 to 2013; and this year's reinstitution of the divisional playoff model. Thanks to the omission of the playoffs in 2005, there are either 30 or 31 points of data to analyze (depending on whether it can include this year or not), with each year's playoffs represented by one point of data. This amount seemed appropriate to establish some trends for the modern league and to determine an answer to the question. 

(Note: the years listed below refer in which the playoffs were held, rather than the year that the league ran; therefore, "85", for example, refers to the 1985 Stanley Cup playoffs that concluded the 1984-85 season. In addition, the term "years" may be used in place of "seasons" or even "playoffs", and it should be remembered that 2004 and 2006 count as succeeding years because of the 2005 lockout.)


Initial findings



It should come as no surprise that in the 30 playoffs from 1983 to 2013 that there was no two subsequent playoffs in which all four Conference Finalists repeated in the Conference Finals the following year. But what surprised me was that there was only once (1992) in which even three of the four Conference Finalists made it back; that year might have had all four, except that Chicago had been upset by Minnesota in the first round the previous year. It did not surprise me that it was so difficult to see the same teams playing year-to-year, as there are myriad variables that can affect a team's success, including key injuries throughout the season and playoffs or even something as simple as a bad bounce of the puck in overtime.

The two most common occurrences were that either one team would make it back (12 times) or that two would return (10 times). That should not be very surprising, as many teams that tend to have success in the playoffs are able to repeat and sustain it for at least a few seasons. What really surprised me, however, was how often there had been a complete turnover of teams in the Conference Finals: seven times, including three years in a row: 2003-2006. In fact, it was almost twice as likely that there would be one or no repeats than that two or more would repeat (19 to 11). Here is the breakdown according to how many teams repeated in each playoff:

0/4: 86, 89, 93, 03, 04, 06, 12 (7 times)
1/4: 85, 87, 90, 94, 95, 96, 98, 02, 08, 10, 11, 13 (12 times)
2/4: 83, 84, 88, 91, 97, 99, 00, 01, 07, 09 (10 times)
3/4: 92 (once)

As you can see, there are some cycles apparent, but the overall pattern is that there is significant turnover every year. These numbers, of course, do not demonstrate any specific data about teams, so let's look at some of the teams that have had runs of success over the years.


Runs and rematches



Though there is a lot of turnover between each year, there is remarkable consistency between consecutive years. Here is a breakdown of the most outstanding runs of excellence to the Conference Finals.

Four straight appearances: Detroit (95-98); Colorado (99-02)

Three straight appearances: New York Islanders (82-84); Edmonton (83-85); Boston (88-90); Edmonton (90-92); Dallas (98-00); Detroit (07-09)

Two straight
 appearances: Chicago (82-83); Detroit (87-88); Chicago (89-90); Pittsburgh (91-92); Toronto (93-94); New Jersey (94-95); Colorado (96-97); Buffalo (98-99); Dallas (99-00); NJ (00-01); Anaheim (06-07); Buffalo (06-07); Pittsburgh (08-09); Chicago (09-10); San Jose (10-11); LA (12-13).

Two appearances in three years (not already included): Philadelphia (95, 97), Philadelphia (08,10); Boston (11, 13)

Sustained runs of excellence (above 60% for at least four years): Chicago (3/4, 82-85); Montreal (4/6, 84-89); Philadelphia (3/5, 85-89); Boston (4/5, 88-92); Chicago (3/4, 89-92); New Jersey (3/4, 99-03); and Anaheim (3/4, 03-07). (Oddly enough, both of Chicago's possible four-year runs were interrupted by surprise upsets by Minnesota in the third year.) The two best sustained runs, both of which are nearly unbelievable both in their longevity and consistency: Edmonton (8/10, 83-92) and Colorado (6/7, 96-02).

Of the one hundred and twenty possible instances in which a team could return to the Conference Finals the next year that it occurred 35 times, or just over one-quarter of the time. There were another 11 instances in which a team returned after a one-year absence, and yet another 6 instances in which a team returned after a two-year absence. The lesson, of course, seems to be that most teams have short sustained rules of excellence with a maximum window of four years, and that if they don't make it back the next year, their chances go down significantly in making it back at all.

It should be mentioned that all of the teams that made at least three appearances in a row won a Stanley Cup except for Boston (88-90), who had the misfortune of facing Mark Messier's Oilers twice. Of the other 19 times in which a team made two consecutive appearances (or two in three years), ten won a Cup (including five in the first year), another four made it to the Finals at least once, and the remaining five (including most notably Toronto and San Jose) never made an appearance beyond the Conference Finals.

What this shows is that the teams that make it far once are able to make it again, and that there are many instances in which teams learned their lessons in one playoff and applied them later on, whether they won a Cup initially or not. And the results bear out: ten of the teams that won the Cup for the first time had been to a Conference Final within three years in advance of their victory.

With all of those runs of excellence, it might seem like there would be a lot of rematches, despite what the initial numbers showed. Of the sixty possible rematches between Conference Finalists, there have only been four instances in which teams have met in consecutive years; the number increases to seven if rematches within a three-year span are considered. Here are those rematches:

Edmonton-Chicago (West 83, 85); Edmonton-Detroit (West 87, 88); Montreal-Philadelphia (East 87, 89); Edmonton-Chicago (West 90, 92); Boston-Pittsburgh (East 91, 92); Detroit-Colorado (West 96, 97); Colorado-Dallas (West 99,00).

All this makes this year's possibility of a double-rematch even that much more statistically isolated. But there's one last level of 

Surviving the first round

So far, we have looked only at the Conference Finals, but what happens if we extend the evaluation of success back one round to see how teams perform the year following their appearances. What is perhaps not surprising is that it is very difficult for teams that make the Conference Finals to even make it to the second round the following year. 2013 is only the second time in the 30 years surveyed in which all four Conference Finalists even made it to the second round the following year; the first was 1984. Here are the results from the years of 1982-2013.

0/4: 02, 03, 11
1/4: 85, 88, 92, 93, 97, 04, 07
2/4: 82, 83, 89, 96, 01, 06, 08, 10, 12
3/4: 86, 87, 90, 91, 94, 95, 98, 99, 09
4/4: 84, 13

As you can see, it is much more likely that teams make at least the second round when having appeared in the Conference Finals the previous year. What did surprise me is that there were three instances in which none of the previous year's Conference Finalists even made it to the second round and seven instances in which only one team made it to the second round, making for a one-in-three chance that not even two of the previous years' Conference Finalists make it out of the first round. (I suppose there might be more investigation to determine how many teams even made it to the playoffs in the year after their Conference Finals appearance, but that would take a bit more work on my part.) And again, it demonstrates just how unlikely this year's particular scenario actually is.


Conclusions


It should come as no surprise that all of the findings indicate that it is incredibly difficult for teams to sustain any kind of success as measured by length of playoff runs. The Stanley Cup is often called the hardest trophy to win, and it seems to be rightfully so, given the facts presented here. The NHL is a highly competitive league, and there is some truth to the fact that any team that makes the playoffs can win it in any given year, like the 2012 LA Kings, who entered as the 8th-ranked seed in the West and had arguably the most dominant run in modern history to the Cup that year.

But what continually surprised me, despite the general toll that playoff success seemed to take on teams - was how remarkably consistent the drop off was, with a couple of exceptions. Most teams do seem to have, at most, a five year window to win, and if they don't do it within that window, it will not likely happen. Teams that make it further more consistently seem to have a shorter window now than they did in the past, which perhaps explains why San Jose has been good but not great for so long: they have never had to deal with the fatigue that comes from those last 7 (or 8 or 9) games and that trip to the Finals. 

That's what makes this year's crop that much more remarkable. Pittsburgh made their first trip in 2008, and Chicago in 2009, marking seven and six years of sustained excellence, respectively. (Boston and LA are on four and three years since their first appearances, in that order.) All four of these teams have lots of very young players, so perhaps that has given them the extra resilience necessary to make such extensive runs. Still, their absences over the past few years do also indicate just how hard it is to make it back even to the Conference Finals from year to year. 

If all four teams make it through this round, this playoff will be one-of-a-kind, and I can't even imagine the probability math required to figure out just exactly what the odds are of it actually happening. But at least now, with this investigation in hand, we have somewhat of an idea of the possible magnitude of this year's playoffs in the scope of hockey history - at least in the last thirty years - so let's appreciate the accomplishments of each of these teams as we watch what happens in the next two-and-a-half rounds of excellent playoff hockey.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

The art of complex games

I played a game called Terra Mystica over the weekend. The game has been very well received since its release in 2012, and it currently sits at number 6 on BoardGameGeek's rankings (it's a big deal for board games to rank that highly that quickly). The basic idea of the game is that each player is a different fantastical race that is rushing to terraform the same map to suit their needs - only to compete with the other races who are trying to do the same thing. It's a ridiculously complex game, as it involves not only the variable player powers, but also a number of different resources that can be used to accomplish each task, including workers, coins, power, and priests, each of which have their own possibilities. The entire resource and payment system is further complicated by the fact that each race is adjusted to fit thematically for the particular peculiarities associated with their terrain (for example, the merfolk use water more efficiently), and that many of the adaptations of one race will affect the other races and how they choose to or are able to allocate resources. It's kind of like Settlers of Catan meets Dungeons and Dragons on steroids. Even the basic promo picture of the board from the publisher, Z-Man Games, is kind of mind-boggling:



[An aside: I know that, at this point, there are two camps of readers: the kind that either already know and love the game or the gamers who are thinking that "hey, this game sounds great and I would like to try it", or the people who I lost at the words "fantastical", "terraform", and "ridiculously complex" (or maybe even "BoardGameGeek"). I'm going to try to meet the needs of both camps with my analysis here, so please bear with me on either side, as I may use some terminology for the first camp that is simplistic and some for the second camp that is overly involved, but I'm going to press on anyway. End of aside.]

If anyone was wondering how I did, I was terrible. Abysmal. Cataclysmically bad. My final score was 55 points, which sounds okay, until you realize that the winning score was 110, and everyone else scored at least 25-30 points higher than me. Perhaps the worst part was that I had a strong sense that I would not do well as soon as I made my first placement of the game. Granted, it was my first time playing this particular game, so the first play is a wash anyway, but I figured that it would be better to play it out and to see what happened. I was glad that it did not really sour the experience of the game for me, either, as I still really appreciated the gameplay, the design of the mechanics, and the visuals of the game itself, and I felt that, even though it seemed like I was doomed from the start, that I was still able to enjoy the overall experience and to learn from it. I am even looking forward to playing Terra Mystica again sometime now that I have an idea of how the game flows and works. But this experience has also helped me to think about my experience with complex games in general; but first, it's important to define what makes a complex game.


Introduction to complex games


I recognize that to some people that almost any board game could be considered "complex", but I'm going to explain and use the terminology that is widely accepted in the board game community. BGG, the most influential site for board gamers, uses a weighting system that ranks games from 1 to 5, with the five different levels representing, starting with 1, "light," "light-medium", "medium", "medium-heavy", and "heavy". The general flow of the chart is such that the games that are ranked as lighter are very easy to explain and take a small amount of time; the games get longer, more involved, and more complex as the number increases. Here are popular examples of different games within each of several ranges as given by BGG so you can see the progression (assuming you have played or heard of some of these games).

1-1.5 - Taboo, Scattergories, Fluxx, Dixit, Apples to Apples
1.5-2 - The Resistance, Bohnanza, King of Tokyo, Killer Bunnies, Blokus
2-2.3 - Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, Flash Point: Fire Rescue
2.3-2.6 - Small World, Dominion, The Settlers of Catan, 7 Wonders, Pandemic
2.6-2.9 - Innovation, Suburbia, Tikal, El Grande, Glory to Rome
3-3.3 - Race for the Galaxy, Village, The Castles of Burgundy
3.3-3.6 - Power Grid, Puerto Rico, Agricola, Eclipse, Arkham Horror
3.6-3.9 - Le Havre, Caylus, War of the Ring, Ora et Labora
4+ - Through the Ages, Mage Knight, Twilight Imperium, Advanced Squad Leader

The system has its flaws - for example, the fact that it is entirely user-derived, and that the terms "light", "medium", and "heavy" are left to intuitive understanding rather than being defined by a clear rubric - but it is generally a good gauge of the relative complexity of a game, despite the possible arguments with a particular game's weighting; World in Flames, for example, takes 100 hours to complete a game, but it is still only ranked at a 4.6, begging the question of what, exactly, would be considered a 5.0 game if not that. At any rate, it's still a useful metric not on its own merits but on the picture it gives of how the complexities of different games are related. (For more on weighting, read here. Warning: it's very nerdy.)

For the purposes of this discussion, I am considering "complex games" to be games that take over an hour (at least) to play, require at least 15 minutes to explain the rules to someone, and that would be challenging to pick up and play even for gamers who have the understanding of the genre. It's essentially any game that is ranked higher than 3.0 on the BGG scale. It is somewhat intuitive and arbitrary, but the basic idea of my definition is that any game that requires previous understanding of a concept or method of gameplay is complex. If I can explain it to a non-gamer with relative ease and success, it's not "complex." It gets a little thorny around the mid-range - I'm not sure I would call El Grande or Power Grid "complex", but others might - but this is probably the best I can do for a functional definition.

The recent history of complex games


As I mentioned, complex games have increased in favour and frequency as board gaming has emerged as a much more popular hobby, particularly over the past decade. The Spiel des Jahres, the German "Game of the Year" award that has been given out since 1979, tends to skew toward more family-oriented games that are more accessible to more people - their weights usually top out just above two - gave out special awards to complex games to Caylus in 2006 and Agricola in 2008 before instituting the "Kennerspiel des Jahres", or "Connosieur's Game of the Year", in 2011. (Meanwhile, the Deutscher Spiele Preis, a different German game of the year award, has often awarded more complex games.) BGG tends to skew more toward favouring medium to medium-heavy games (between 2 and 3 to 3 and 4 on the weight scale), as over 80% of the Top 100 ranked games fall into those two categories, with almost twice as many in the latter group than in the former. Board gamers have more access to and interaction with the hobby than ever before, and the general complexity of the games is rising as there are more people investing in the hobby.

The (nearly) indisputable modern master of complex games is German designer Uwe Rosenberg, who was best known his bean-farming card-trading game Bohnanza until he devised a 17th century farming game called Agricola that quickly shot to the top of the BoardGameGeek rankings. In the past few years, Rosenberg has released several highly acclaimed complex games (with year of release, current BGG ranking, and current game weight):  Agricola (2008, #3, 3.6); Le Havre (2008, #10, 3.8); At the Gates of Loyang (2009, #175, 3.2); Ora et Labora (2011, #34, 3.9); Glass Road (2013, #246, 2.9); and Caverna: The Cave Farmers (2013, #12, 3.8), in addition to lighter 2-player adaptations of his first two releases: Agricola: All Creatures Big & Small (2011, #538, 2.4); and Le Havre: The Inland Port (2012, #538, 2.6). For those keeping track, that's eight games in six years, with four in the top 34 on BGG and all within the top 0.008 % of all games catalogued on the site's database, as well as consulting credit on...you guessed it, Terra Mystica, which brings me back to my initial discussion about my experiences with complex games.

My history of playing complex games


The first truly complex game that I remember playing was Twilight Imperium in February 2008. TI, as it's known, is a very involved sci-fi game in which each player takes on a race that is trying to extend their influence over the galaxy and ultimately come out on top after several hours of exploration, negotiation, and confrontation. It was at a friend's birthday party with lots of new players and lots of distractions (kids and wives and such), and by the time we actually got into it, it was time to pack up to go. It was, admittedly, not the right format for such a venture, but I'm glad I tried it at least once. It's the kind of game that I think any gamer should try, even just to try it; I would actually like to try it again now, since I have a much better-developed skill set with which to play the game.

As I really started to get into board games in early 2011, I started to play some of the more popular but less complex games - Puerto Rico, Agricola, Power Grid - and I found that I really enjoyed them. They activated something in my brain. In my three years of gaming since, I have played and enjoyed a number of other complex games with varying levels of enjoyment, from the less complex - Village, The Castles of Burgundy, El Grande, Glass Road, Race for the Galaxy - to the definitely more complex - Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar, Caylus, Eclipse, Le Havre, Ora et Labora, and now Terra Mystica. (For those who are wondering how I get to play all of these games, I should state that a high number of these plays are thanks to friends who also enjoy complex games and have not-insignificant budgets for games.) A significantly high percentage of games that I want to play are in the category of complex games, and even some of the purportedly "lighter" games I like (such as 7 Wonders or Innovation) have a distinctly complex element to them. It's not that I don't like lighter games - I really enjoy games like Takenoko that have simple gameplay but a lot of possible strategic options - but I have noticed that my tastes are definitely skewing more toward the meatier games, which I suppose makes sense.

The complex games I play


As my interest in and level of gaming has increased, so have my familiarity and frequency of plays of complex games. I currently have just over a dozen games in my complex gaming repertoire, with another half-dozen that I have tried but want to play again sometime. Here are some of my breakdowns of the complex games I play or want to play, in handy lists for my future reference (I won't even pretend that this section really appeals to anyone other than future me.)

Games in my repertoire: Agricola; At the Gates of Loyang; The Castles of Burgundy; Caylus; Egizia; El Grande; Le Havre; Power Grid; Puerto Rico; Race for the Galaxy; Tikal; Village (I would also include Galaxy Trucker and Cosmic Encounter here, even though their weights are a little lighter on BGG.)

Games I have tried once but want to play more: Eclipse; Glass Road; Ora et Labora; Terra Mystica; Twilight Struggle; Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar

The next complex games I will likely play (as they are owned by friends): Bora Bora; Dominant Species; In the Year of the Dragon; Macao; Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island

Top 5 complex games to try sometime: Caverna: The Cave Farmers; Core Worlds; Firefly: The Game; Hawaii; Notre Dame

The next ten on my list to try: Amerigo; Belfort; Copycat; Keyflower; Lewis & Clark; The Manhattan Project; Shadows Over Camelot; Tigris & Euphrates; Trajan; Troyes

Fifteen other complex games I would like to try sometime: Alien Frontiers; Amun-Re; Battlestar Galactica; El Caballero; Glen More; Java; Kingsburg; Mexica; Myrmes; Navegador; Primordial Soup; Taj Mahal; Through The Ages; Tikal II: The Lost Temple; Yggdrasil

The challenges and benefits of complex games


Although I have much more of a taste and desire to play complex games now, they are not without their challenges, even for a seasoned gamer like me. My experience with Terra Mystica was not singular, as I often end up performing very poorly on my first play through a complex game. I almost always have an "aha!" moment partway through the game when I realize how everything I have been doing up to that point was completely misguided. It's easy, with all of the new pieces and parts, to get lost in the how of the game and to lose track of the why - or vice versa - and it happens to me all the time when I play a new complex game. They can easily become an exercise in frustration - particularly if a more experienced and impatient gamer is playing with a newer gamer - and it can be really aggravating if you have a poor performance, as they do take a longer period of time. They can be subject to "analysis paralysis", an even that occurs when a player takes a longer-than-reasonable time to make a decision because of the possible ramifications of that decision (usually because they are counting possible points for each path, for example). They also demand to be played more frequently in order to be really understood, as playing a game like Terra Mystica once or twice a year means that you will have to spend most of your time reviewing the basic rules and essentially relearning the game each time. And many of these games are punishing for people with any kind of deficiency in math, as they often rely on counting points and determining optimal moves based on probabilities and percentages.

Of course, many of these challenges have corresponding benefits as well. Repeated plays reward players as they become more familiar with strategy. The increased length of complex games can allow for more interaction with the game and with one another. The worlds that they create are often much more involved, and they can be much more immersive than lighter games often can be. They reward more developed strategy, and there is something intensely satisfying about seeing a plan come together (particularly if it comes as a surprise to the other players). They develop a different skill set than simpler games, as they often rely less on luck elements, and many of the skills learned in playing complex games are surprisingly adaptable to other spheres of life. Plus, they are just a lot of fun once you get to know how they work.


Tips for playing new complex games



As I would consider myself a veteran of playing new complex games (though not necessarily in mastering them in replays), I have found that I have a few tips that might help others in attempting to break into 
Five strategies for playing complex games for the first time:

1. Familiarize yourself with the game ahead of time. If possible, take the time before you play to get a sense of the entire game. Use whatever methods you need Read the rules, watch a playthrough on YouTube, or download a "how to play" summary from the game's page on BGG.

2. Ask lots of questions. There will be many parts of the game that you don't understand, even if you have familiarized yourself with the rules or listened to the person who is patiently explaining how it all works. Don't be afraid of asking questions throughout the game - they are meant to invoke thought. A word of caution, though: try not to ask about involved strategy, but focus on the basic functions of the game; leave the advanced questions for discussion after the game is over.

3. Play in a non-pressure situation. Make sure that it is a good learning situation for you. Don't be the only new player in a game that depends on high interaction. Have someone who knows your learning style who can guide you through the experience. Play with less than a full complement of players, as an increased number of participants can often heighten the sense of complexity, if even only superficially. Give yourself the space to experiment, enjoy, and even take a breather if it's getting too intense.

4. Expect that your first play will be a write-off. In your first play (at least), you will simply be learning how the game works - the basic mechanics, what pieces you use, what parts change in what phases of the game. It is a learning experience, so treat it as such: get a sense of the game and don't worry about how you do in comparison to others. Enjoy it, and remember the lessons you learn so that you can apply them the next time.

5. Take solace in the small victories. You still need to have some goals, so take comfort in little victories.
In my play of Terra Mystica, I was glad that I correctly predicted that I was doomed from the start: not that I was doomed, but that I was able to recognize it. The first time I played Le Havre, I made it a goal to not take a loan (one of the more essential parts of the game) to see what happened; sure, I lost terribly, but I learned something. Even learning a new game is a victory in itself, so enjoy the little things.

Conclusion


It should come as little surprise that I am looking forward to playing more complex games, both in variety of new games and in repeated plays of the complex games in my repertoire. As I wrote a month ago, most of the complex games I enjoy are of the Eurogame variety, and I have 35 games on my list to play. That does not include the kinds of games that I would like to play once - Twilight Imperium, Arkham Horror - just to try them out, rather than looking at adding them to the fold. I do tend to gravitate much more readily to complex games now, and I appreciate the different gaming skills I have developed over the past three+ years of playing complex games.

With that said, there are certain games that I just don't see myself really playing that often. Games like Terra Mystica, Eclipse, or Dominant Species (which I have yet to try) are fun to play, but I doubt I would ever purchase them for a couple of reasons: cost ($60 and up); prospective amount of plays (low); time to play a game (2-3 hours) and the fact that my wife - my main partner in gaming - would not likely enjoy them. I am working at getting her to enjoy more of the lower complex games, but she probably won't ever get to the point that a game like Terra Mystica is a fun experience for her. Then again, I'm not sure how much I really enjoy games of that level of complexity, either. 

It seems to me that I have a soft cap on my tolerance for complexity, and that at a certain point that games just become too intricate and involved to be worth playing. There are several possible reasons for this. Perhaps it's because I often end up teaching games, so I often have to skew toward lighter games. It might be that I feel I can get the strategic element of games with games with medium to medium-heavy games, so that the extra strategy that might come with more complex games is essentially superfluous. Or it might just be that I usually would prefer to play two games rather than one, so I would rather play two medium games than one heavier one. But with that said, I do enjoy complex games much more than I have, so it is entirely possible that my tolerance for and enjoyment of complex games will continue to increase. I have a long life of complex games ahead of me, so now the complex meta-game begins: I just need to get my strategy underway to figure out how to play all of the games I want to play...

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