July 27, 2011

Book and Board Game Match-Up: The Hanging Gardens and Shadow Spinner

The Game (from Rio Grande): The hanging gardens were one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world, as all history courses teach. But, did they actually exist? Nothing remains of their reported splendor, which was built for the eyes of Amyitis. Without an exact reference to follow, players will re-build the hanging gardens according to their own tastes. Card follows card with magnificent buildings, sparkling fountains, and exotic plants as the players work to rebuild the legendary gardens. In the end, the queen will be pleased and rewards the victory palm to the player whose work on the gardens most impresses her highness.--Amazon Product Description

The Book (by Susan Fletcher): Every night, Shahrazad begins a story. And every morning, the Sultan lets her live another day -- providing the story is interesting enough to capture his attention. After almost one thousand nights, Shahrazad is running out of tales. And that is how Marjan's story begins.... 

It falls to Marjan to help Shahrazad find new stories -- ones the Sultan has never heard before. To do that, the girl is forced to undertake a dangerous and forbidden mission: sneak from the harem and travel the city, pulling tales from strangers and bringing them back to Shahrazad. But as she searches the city, a wonderful thing happens. From a quiet spinner of tales, Marjan suddenly becomes the center of a more surprising story than she ever could have imagined. 

I realize that the time periods for these are different, but I love the rich, Middle Eastern theme running through both of these.  There are a number of games and books set in this area, but these both focus on places of beauty: the hanging gardens, and the Sultan's harem.  Well, what's left of the harem.  Shahrazad's story is ancient (it's the frame story for One Thousand and One Arabian Nights) and one I've always loved.  The Sultan had been marrying a girl every night and killing her in the morning, until Shahrazad braved marrying him to save others, armed only with her skill for storytelling.  Susan Fletcher draws me right into this tenuous world, throwing Marjan -- a girl with her own strengths -- into the mix. 

The Hanging Gardens is a clever strategy game.  The cards are divided into six cells, with each cell either blank, or filled with a garden type.  Players overlap the cards to create sets of three or more of a kind.  When a set's created, players take one of the available scoring tiles (which themselves come in sets).  I love spacial games.  Usually tiles are involved (like with Carcassone), but I'd never seen a game with an overlapping card mechanism.  It always leaves me chewing my lip -- cover up this, or cover up that?

Both Shadow Spinner and The Hanging Gardens are are fun, engrossing, and leave me feeling like I've traveled a step away from home.  As a bonus, here's a recipe for the mind-meltingly-good Turkish dish Hunkar Begendi.  Apparently I shouldn't type while hungry.  My recipe book also calls for fresh-chopped tomatoes on top, along with parsley. 

July 20, 2011

Book and Board Game Match-Up: Born to Run and Breaking Away

The Book (by Christopher McDougall): Full of incredible characters, amazing athletic achievements, cutting-edge science, and, most of all, pure inspiration, Born to Run is an epic adventure that began with one simple question: Why does my foot hurt? In search of an answer, Christopher McDougall sets off to find a tribe of the world’s greatest distance runners and learn their secrets, and in the process shows us that everything we thought we knew about running is wrong.

Isolated by the most savage terrain in North America, the reclusive Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s deadly Copper Canyons are custodians of a lost art. For centuries they have practiced techniques that allow them to run hundreds of miles without rest and chase down anything from a deer to an Olympic marathoner while enjoying every mile of it. Their superhuman talent is matched by uncanny health and serenity, leaving the Tarahumara immune to the diseases and strife that plague modern existence. With the help of Caballo Blanco, a mysterious loner who lives among the tribe, the author was able not only to uncover the secrets of the Tarahumara but also to find his own inner ultra-athlete, as he trained for the challenge of a lifetime: a fifty-mile race through the heart of Tarahumara country pitting the tribe against an odd band of Americans, including a star ultramarathoner, a beautiful young surfer, and a barefoot wonder.

With a sharp wit and wild exuberance, McDougall takes us from the high-tech science labs at Harvard to the sun-baked valleys and freezing peaks across North America, where ever-growing numbers of ultrarunners are pushing their bodies to the limit, and, finally, to the climactic race in the Copper Canyons. Born to Run is that rare book that will not only engage your mind but inspire your body when you realize that the secret to happiness is right at your feet, and that you, indeed all of us, were born to run. -- Amazon Book Description

The Game (from Fiendish Board Games):A luck free race game based on cycling. Players control a team of 4 cyclists. For each cyclist the player chooses one of his available movement allowances and moves that many squares. Once all cyclists have moved the expended movement allowances are replaced with new ones calculated according to the cyclist's position in the peloton; being at the back of a group brings a high replacement value, being at the front a low one.

Sprint points are earned by being among the first 8 to cross the sprint lines so there is always a trade-off between slipstreaming ("drafting") the other riders in order to build up high movement allowances and making a break for the front to be the first to cross the finish line. --BoardGameGeek Description

Born to Run is miraculous simply because it made me want to go running -- something I usually consider monotonous torture.  The effortless prose and smooth storytelling transformed running into something other than one dull footfall after another.  Break Away has that same effect on me.  Often racing games reinforce that the sport isn't exciting: roll dice.  Move piece.  Wait.  Repeat.  Break Away is the brilliant antithesis of that.  Strategy is king.  Do I punch ahead, or hang in back and hope for a killer slipstream?  Should store up this lap to sprint to the finish, or try to score this lap around?  It's made me think about cycling as a mental and strategic endeavor instead of a purely physical one.

I read Born to Run because I'm a fan of ethnographies, but this pulled me into two cultures: that of the Tarahumara, and that of ultramarathoners.  I was happily impressed with McDougall's writing skill.  He had me laughing, pondering, or biting my nails on every page as he dangled a bit of history, science, or story.  Breaking Away, likewise, keeps my brain engaged.  Other players' moves heavily affect my own in the search for a good slipstream, so even when I'm not moving one of my cyclists, I'm counting, plotting, grimacing, or cheering when someone makes just the move I needed.  Breaking Away is also nice because it accommodates a large number of players.  If you like running and cycling -- or want to -- Born to Run or Breaking Away are excellent choices..

July 13, 2011

Book & Board Game Match-Up: 7 Wonders and Warbreaker

The Game (from Asmodee): 7 Wonders lasts three ages. In each age, players receive seven cards from a particular deck, choose one of those cards, then pass the remainder to an adjacent player, as in Fairy Tale or a Magic: the Gathering booster draft. Players reveal their cards simultaneously, paying resources if needed or collecting resources or interacting with other players in various ways. (Players have individual boards with special powers on which to organize their cards, and the boards are double-sided as in Bauza's Ghost Stories.) Each player then chooses another card from the deck they were passed, and the process repeats until players have six cards in play from that age. After three ages, the game ends. In essence 7 Wonders is a card development game along the lines of Race for the Galaxy or Dominion. Some cards have immediate effects, while others provide bonuses or upgrades later in the game. Some cards provide discounts on future purchases. Some provide military strength to overpower your neighbors and others give nothing but victory points. Unlike Magic or Fairy Tale, however, each card is played immediately after being drafted, so you'll know which cards your neighbor is receiving and how his choices might affect what you've already built up. Cards are passed left-right-left over the three ages, so you need to keep an eye on the neighbors in both directions. --Amazon Product Description

The Book (by Brandon Sanderson): Warbreaker tells the story of two princesses, Vivenna and Siri. Vivenna was contracted through treaty to marry the God-King of rival nation Hallendren. Instead Siri is sent to meet the treaty. Vivenna then follows to Hallendren in hopes of saving Siri from her fate. Both sisters become involved in intrigues relating to an imminent war between their home nation of Idris and Hallendren. -- Wikipedia

 Both of these are about nation building.  In 7 Wonders (which just won the Kennerspiel des Jahres!), you can choose a variety of strategies to win – military, science, markets, monuments, etc.  In Warbreaker, the broad cast of characters tries to manipulate a nation with varied approaches, from subtle suggestions to outright warfare.  Part of the enjoyment of 7 Wonders is deciding what strategy you’ll use; in Warbreaker, it’s figuring out who’s using what strategy to accomplish what goal.

My favorite thing about 7 Wonders is that it’s played drafting-style, and as far as military and trading go, you only deal with your neighbors.  Effectively, this means that you can actually play with seven people and have the game move as quickly as if it were only three.  I love elegant strategy games, but when you toss in lots of players, they usually slow to a crawl and it’s impossible to keep track of what everyone’s doing.  7 Wonders is always fast-paced, and as an added bonus, the art is gorgeous – the kind of stuff that really should be on my walls. 

Warbreaker also has a strong visual component.  Brandon Sanderson, master of intricate magic systems, deals heavily with color in Warbreaker's magic.  The setting also isn’t Ye Olde Drab Medieval, but a tropical valley next to an inland sea.

Being someone who both enjoys subtle strategy, political maneuvering, and sweeping colors, I heartily recommend both 7 Wonders and Warbreaker.

July 11, 2011

"Canvas" sold to Daily Science Fiction

My flash-fiction story "Canvas" just sold to Daily Science Fiction -- my first pro-paying sale.  I'm pretty jazzed about it.  DSF is a great magazine.  Subscription's free, and every weekday they e-mail out a story.  They also keep an archive of all of these on their website.  I'm not sure when my story will actually appear, but I'll be sure to let you know.

My favorite living short story writer, Eric James Stone, has a number of stories published in Daily Science Fiction, which made selling "Canvas" even better.  If you haven't read anything by him, I highly recommend it.  I was terribly excited when he won a Nebula this year.  His bibliography contains a truckload of his work available either for free through magazines like DSF or free via audio podcast.

July 6, 2011

Critiquing and The Causation Fallacy

I've seen writers bitterly complain when the friend of a published novelist gets a book deal -- certainly they're just riding coattails.  There might be a correlation here, perhaps even a causality, but I sincerely doubt it's the one complainers are thinking of when they shake their fists.

Let's assume that the published author and friend are both in a writing group together (I can name several incidences like this, so I think that's likely).  People bring different strengths to a writing group.  Something I've noticed about a good writing group is that people have different strengths.  Someone might have a killer eye for plot holes.  Someone might tune into how well the emotions are working, or the pacing, or a dozen different things.

All these things work together for the good of the author and the manuscript, who goes out and sells it.  Huzzah!  A breakthrough.

Would it really be surprising then, that a second person from the same writing group also get a contract?  Maybe the friendship helps them wiggle a toe in the door, but I'm convinced manuscripts stand or fall on their own merit.  This second author is critiquing and writing regularly in a good group.  He or she is likely also doing other things (reading, going to conferences, sending out manuscripts).  I doubt having supporting writing friends hurts, either.

Which brings us to our last Critique Secret: Good critique groups help each other succeed.  Hopefully after this series, that doesn't sound like a secret.

Do I think it's coincidence that there are a number of writer's friends who get published?  Of course not.  But I doubt there's some secret ring of agents and editors laughing maniacally in the corner, either (unless they're currently watching Megamind, which was excellent). 

There's a lot more to say about critiquing (I'm sure I'll come back to it in the future; I love this topic), but for now, here's the link to Critters, an excellent online critiquing workshop.  Click on "Workshops" on the far right to find genres other than SF/F/H.  If you don't have a writing group, dive into this one!  The water's great.

July 3, 2011

Technical Issues...

Wednesday's post didn't make it, alas, due to some kind of technical issue with Blogger, but my own computer is up and running again!  Huzzah.  Blog post as regular this coming Wednesday.