Wednesday, October 07, 2015

It's All So F.A.B.ulous

Reboots, reimaginings and returning relics are distressingly common in recent years. I understand that one of the big reasons for this is that the children of the 80's and 90's are now the ones in charge of greenlighting new projects today. If I had that power, we'd be starting Season 5 of MacGyver (2011)* around now.

But for all the terrible attempts to bring back the past, there are a handful of successes, and one series stands above all others in recent years.

Growing up, I watched the heck out of the original adventures of International Rescue, Thunderbirds, a supermarionation series by Gerry Anderson. I've seen every episode multiple times. So when I heard that there was a new series on the way from ITV, I was pretty excited. My excitement faltered when I first heard it would be CGI, but grew immensely when I discovered it would have sets by WETA Workshop, the same company behind the sets and props for such massive movies as Lord of the Rings, Avatar and Disctrict 9!

Wait. Is it computer animation, or physical models? Yes.

What? It's both. The sets are physical models build by WETA, and then the characters are digital creations composited into the filmed sets! And it works! Spectaularly. The new series, Thunderbirds Are Go has become my favourite sci-fi show on TV right now, either animated or live action, and joy of joys, this is both!

Here is my top five reasons Thunderbirds Are Go is awesome!

FIVE! The sets are lovingly created in exquisite detail by the masters of modern miniature sets, WETA Workshop. The level of care and attention to detail is astonishing. There is a massive amount of tribute paid to the original sets, from the basic base and craft designs simply getting a modern overhaul, to things like the portraits in the island lounge, or the orange juicer in the wall of the Thunderbird 1 hanger.

But it's more than that. Not everything runs smoothly, and there's a slight jerkiness to some of the sets more mobile aspects. My favourite is the wall panel that swivels back to bring Virgil in to pilot Thunderbird 2. The panel judders just a tiny amount as it starts its rotation, a mechanical hiccup that was either intentionally included or purposely not fixed, because it adds to the heritage of the series.

FOUR! The computer graphic elements are so good they are indistinguishable from the sets. The figures are animated with a wonderful texture to their clothes and skin, making them appear to be miniatures as well. The seams and zips look a little over-sized and the weave in the fabrics look magnified. The skin effect in particular is beautiful, a slightly shiny, waxy look, as if made from the same rubber as the original marionettes.

All this intentional fakeness helps sell the illusion that these are also physical puppets moving within the set spaces. It sounds impossible, a clever idea that could never pay off. Surely the viewer would see the layering of effects? Yet, Thunderbirds Are Go proves that it can be done through cutting edge CG animation, lighting and clever set features. Doors open and close in the physical set, powered by invisible gears and mechanisms, and then one of the brothers is animated in, perfectly timed to the footage. Your brain simply accepts what it sees.

I also love how the characters move. Being CG, they can run, jump and be more active, as well as type without being replaced by live action hands, yet they still can often be seen holding their hands in that classic marionette cupped pose, or they move just a little like they might be on strings. And I still can't believe that the vehicles themselves are entirely CG. They interact with the sets so well, again, totally selling the illusion.

THREE! Scott, Virgil, Gordon, Alan and John. The brothers are so well written and realised. They work well as a team, and there are never any egos. Everyone is working for the benefit of the mission, so when Scott tells Virgil that he needs to back off because he's putting himself and the mission in danger, then Virgil does so immediately. Everyone still gets their moments of heroics of course, but they also have absolute confidence in each other, and never bicker or disagree. Success is a team effort.

That said, I hope to see a lot more of the newest member of International Rescue, Kayo in future episodes. Kayo is the new Tin-Tin, and is much more proactive, having her own ship, Thunderbird S, the Shadow, and joining Alan on rescue missions in Thunderbird 3. But so far, she's only appeared in a handful of episodes. More please!

TWO! The characters are smart. As soon as someone on a video connection starts acting weird, Lady Penelopy spots the inconsistency and warns of a possible trap by the dastardly Hood, Scott agrees, and everyone acts accordingly. When John admits to missing Grandma's cooking, the rest of International Rescue jump to action to rescue their obviously captive brother. Problems are usually solved in clever, action packed ways, that leave plenty of room for drama.

I would like to see them hire a science advisor for future seasons, however. There is no reason they can't stick to some basic levels of science without compromising the tension. In one episode John is subjected to 25 Gs of force as Thunderbird 5's ring spins. A human would blackout at around 8 or 9 Gs. I know 25 sounds much cooler or more dangerous, but Brains could simply have stated "Th-th-the average human can only withstand up to 9 Gs of force before going unconscious" to which Scott could have quipped "John's never been average at anything" as the readouts climbed into the low double digits.

ONE! That theme.

Need I say more. No, I needn't, but I will. It's a great update of the original, making it a bit more action packed and exciting. In a stroke of genius, they opted to retain the countdown from the original theme, intoned by the late Peter Dyneley, who also voiced father Jeff Tracy in the original series. It sends shivers down my spine every time. There are some themes you skip past to get to the action, but not this one. Never this one.


* - In the Season 4 finale, MacGyver had to rescue friend and regular trouble-magnet Jack Dalton from recurring villain and master of disguise, Murdock after Jack stumbled on to a map to the lost library of Alexandria. In the Season 5 opener, Mac and Jack uncover the location of the library, only to discover that Murdock, presumed dead for a few months now, has gotten there ahead of them. When Jack gets them both trapped inside the ancient site, it's up to MacGyver to get them out, using only the artifacts inside. Sounds easy, but her hands have been badly burned in the cave-in, and she has to rely on Jack to put her plan into action.

No. No, I got the pronouns right.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Shake It Off, Shake It Off

Three years ago, on October 1st, 2012, I was provisionally diagnosed with Early Onset Parkinson's Disease. I wrote about this before, but now, three years on, I want to talk about how I think about my condition, and how it has, or, more accurately, hasn't affected me.

I've had PD for over three years now. Although I didn't see a neurologist until October, I had had tremors since March or April of that year. In those three years I've enjoyed my job, got back to swimming, drew lots of comics, played video games, read books and did lots of craft stuff, both with the kids in school and at home. Oh, and I became a dad. PD hasn't caused me any issues in anything I do. Sure, the tremor is annoying at times, but there's no loss of strength, so I don't have to worry about picking up an increasingly weighty baby! The only difficulty I can even struggle to think about is if I'm asked to write a note without something solid to lean on, say just using a binder held in my left hand. I can still manage it, but it won't be pretty!

Story Break: During the first year or two, I would occasionally blame anything and everything on PD. One time, while we were on holidays, I noticed my tremor was much stronger one morning. I quietly worried about it for an hour or two until Claire noticed that something was up and asked. When I explained, her reaction was "Or maybe it's the four cups of coffee you had over breakfast this morning." I do drink coffee, but not usually that much. We were out having a lovely breakfast and the server just kept refilling my cup. Mystery solved!

Since then, I've stopped blaming PD for everything. Now I blame those infernal cosmic rays from distant alien galaxies trying to alter our DNA for the coming invasion...

Some things will change, eventually. I might not be able to thread a bead for the kids some day. I might find I can't draw a neat circle one morning. Maybe I'll have to carry cups of tea one at a time, instead of one in each hand. All that's okay too. And they'll happen one at a time, not all at once, like the initial diagnosis. I'll deal with them then as they come.

My tremors get worse when I'm stressed, excited, tired, hungry, basically extremes of emotions or conditions, so I've really started to be more aware of my physical condition independant of PD at any time first and foremost. I try to eat well and regularly. I try not to have too much stress in my life, and get plenty of rest. You'd think that would be difficult with a six month old in my life, but Ada is a great night sleeper most of the time, so I usually get a good night's sleep.

The excitement bit is harder. I mean, for me, I get excited at movies, reading a good book, telling a joke, playing with the kids, all that. Heck, I get excited staring at paint dry. I just have to accept that I'm going to show my excitement more than others. That's not really a bad thing, in my opinion. Oh!! Taking photographs can be a bit of a pain, especially at exciting moments. Thank goodness for digital cameras. I just quietly delete all the blurry ones, as if they never happened. I had to let some of the hospital staff photograph the birth of our daughter, which worked out great in the end, as we got some incredibly unique photos to share with her on her 21st birthday/wedding day.

One great bit of advice I was given by my neurologist (I honestly love that I can say that. I have a neurologist! It's like I'm living in a TV show!) is not to let anyone decide for me when I need to start taking medication. Not doctors, not my neurologist, not family or friends. No one. I can choose that for myself, and to date, I have chosen to remain drug-free. I don't really need it yet anyway, the tremors are still pretty much limited to my left arm three years on.

The medication is getting better and better every year, but it's still not great. It has some long-term side effects, the funniest of which is tremors. Yup. The medication for PD causes tremors. Bananas! Anyway, the longer I can go without taking the medication, the longer I'll go before having to deal with the side-effects. Or, by the time I do start taking it, maybe I'll never have to deal with the side effects! One of the reasons for them is that the medication is a pill, so it's strongest when you take it and trails off over time, causing an inconsistency in the effects. This leads to peaks and valleys and the body has to try to compensate for that. They're currently working on a slow release delivery method, something planted under the skin that would release the medication evenly over days or weeks and just need topping-up at regular intervals. Cool!!

There is some advice that was given to me that I haven't taken myself yet, so read into that what you might. I haven't gone to any support groups or meet-ups for people with PD. I know that it's good to talk about these things with other folk and see how well they're coping. But instead, I blog. I believe that being open and honest about PD, or anything really, is great. It shows others that whatever they're dealing with, they're not alone, and sometimes that's how you feel when you get a diagnosis for something, not just PD. I was taught that by friends who survived cancer, and other friends who went through IVF treatments to become pregnant as they talked openly about what they were experiencing. I haven't had to deal with either of those, but their stories helped me with my diagnosis, as well as during the two years we were trying to become pregnant without success.

10% of the population will be diagnosed with PD at some point in their lives. 10%!! That's huge! One in ten people!! If that was a fatal condition, it would, literally, decimate the population! But it's not fatal. It's not even entirely life-changing. It's manageable, and getting more manageable every year.

I plan to live a long time yet, and thanks to medical science I'll be almost as active and productive as anyone else. I'll be a good friend, a good husband, and, hopefully, a good dad for a long time yet.

Post Script: This blog was inspired by a question from a friend. I'm so lucky to have great friends, and if this or anything else raises questions for you, feel free to ask me. I'll be delighted to answer them if I can.


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Stat Block

Over the course of 2014 I tracked almost every board game I played. It all started on New Years Eve, 2013. I was having a conversation about gaming with friends in which I claimed to lose far more games than I win, but also that I'm more likely to win games I don't own, and as soon as I buy it, I'm unlikely to win again.

Using a calendar I got from a friend, I tracked every game I played, how many players were involved, and weather I won or lost, along with a few other factors for specific games.

The tracking started with a game of Love Letter on January 1st, and ended on December 31st, with a game of Dixit, that technically ran into the New Year, but I'm counting it, mostly because I won.

Since it ended, I've been wondering how to put together the data I had collected into something usable. I'm no statistician, so I didn't know how to start. But a friend recently pointed me to an App for the iPhone that tracks games played and statistics over time, called Board Game Stats. While it is a paid-for App, it's really well built and has some great features, like linking to BoardGameGeek, or tracking not just your plays, but who you played with in each session.

I went back to my calendar and started plugging in all the games I had tracked. I was missing some information, like I had tracked the number of players, but not who they were, so all my games in the App for 2014 have one player, and I either win or lose. So the end stats aren't as good as the App can normall manage, but I did get something to share.

I played 59 unique games, over 194 play sessions. Seven games were played over seven times, with Bohnanza and Cosmic Encounter getting the most plays at 13 each. I won a total of 62 sessions. Given that Hanabi is a game you don't win, so much as do your best as a team, I won't include those four games in working out my win percentage. That's 62 out of 190 sessions, or 32.29%, which is actually a lot better than I expected. There is a margin for error, I may have missed tracking a few games, but it's a good approximation.

Machi Koro has the highest individual win percentage, at 75%, or 6 out of 8 games played, and lots of games have no wins, the highest ranked of which is Tsuro, at 24th most played game, three plays, all loses. Everything above that I've at least won once.

I guess this just goes to prove the concept of confimation bias. I believed I lost most of the games I played, and while I did lose over 50%, I wasn't losing as many as I expected. Given that I ususally play games with three or more players, winning almost one third of my total plays is actually expected!

The App doesn't track whether I'm more likely to win a game on first play or after a few games, nor does it track if I own the game at the time I won, but what it does track is fun to think about.

I'll be tracking my games from now on in the App, but I won't be as fastidious about it as I was in 2014. Also, I wasn't tracking any of my games before now in 2015, so there will be a big gap between plays in early 2014.

Then again, with Ada's arrival, there was a big gap anyway!


Monday, April 27, 2015

XCOM Custom Tokens

I recently got some custom pieces cut for my copy of XCOM The Board Game and posted them on my Twitter. The response was amazing! The XCOM Twitter account picked up on it first, before a bunch of regional 2K accounts started posting about it. 2K is the publisher for the video game XCOM, so... that was cool.

Here's how I made them, for those who might be interested.

It all started when I had learned of a place in Vancouver that offered laser cutting to the public. The Laser Cafe is part of MakerLabs Vancouver, and you can just bring them your file, tell them what you want done and they'll cut it for you for a very reasonable price. I immediately thought it would be perfect for the Elite Tokens from XCOM.

Unfortunately, I had no idea how to even begin. Fortunately, I have a genius wife who walked me through everything and taught me exactly what needed to be done.

I took the original cardboard Elite Tokens and the role cards for the role logos and scanned them in with my home flatbed scanner. Later I realised I could get a much cleaner version of the logos from the XCOM The Board Game app on my iPad by simply screen-capping the logos.

I took the file into Paint on Windows 7 and with a bit of tweeking I made black and white versions of the scanned components. I saved each individual component as a .png file, and then imported that into the free vector graphics software, Inkscape.

In Inscape I selected the component and created a vector map, deleting the original rough bitmap. Then I went around the image, cleaning up the vectors, deleting extra points, adjusting others and trying to bring the finished product to a higher quality. It was much easier the second time around with the versions from the iPad app. You live and learn.

At first, I thought what I had was fine until I realised that the black parts of the vector image would be where the laser would etch, and that translated to the coloured aspects of the compents rather than the black aspects. So I had to flip the black parts with the white parts, which, for me just learning to use Inkscape, was a difficult thing to do. Thankfully, as with everything, Claire jumped in to help, making the flip look easy.

The Elite Tokens took a bit more to do due to their unusual shape. I used the cicle tool and square tool to make the basic shape, laying it over the scanned image to keep the same dimensions. The icon in the center was all Claire's doing. She did some voodoo magic and a star was born.

With all the pieces drawn out in Inkscape, I took the PDF file to the MakerLabs. MakerLabs is a makerspace, a collective designed to allow people easy access to large or expensive tools and machines, such as CNC machines, 3D printers or, most intriguing to me, laser cutters, allowing you to bring ideas to life.

The wonderful staff in MakerLabs took my file and walked through what they offered. I wanted the parts cut in acrylic, and while they had a range of colours, they didn't have the matching colours for each of the roles, so I went with a transparent blue for everything. I thought it would make the parts look kinda... techie.

After making sure they knew what size each of the pieces needed to be, I left the file with MakerLabs, and came back to pick them up a few days later. As you can see from the photos, they came out looking amazing! I did learn one thing that I need to change from this first batch. If I continue to use transparent acrylic, I want to get the images burned in mirror image, so that the etched side will be face down and the smooth, clean side will be face up.

I'm so happy with these. The cuts are crisp and clean, and the etched parts are sharp with great definition, even on the small details. I'm already planning more. Namely, I want to make the XCOM role badges bigger to turn them into drinks coasters. I also have some plans for other custom components for other games, but that... that's a story for another post.

Related Posts
XCOM The Board Game

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Laugh Until You Cry

Postpartum depression is a very common condition that can effect either parent. It's mildest form is often referred to as "The Baby Blues", and usually sees parents just despairing over little things, or getting emotional over what would be an inconsequential event at any other time. Neither of these states is anything even remotely a matter to joke about, nor are they anything to be ashamed of.

But the pendulum swings both ways, and Claire and I have had our fair share of uncontrollable hilarity in the last three weeks as well. Here are my top three moments, in chronological order, where one or both of us have just lost it.

On Hold

The day we brought Ada home from the hospital was, obviously an important day for both of us. We got to be a family in the privacy of our own home for the first time. Because we were home early in the day, it was also our first chance to Skype family at home and show off our daughter.

I rang mum on Skype so I could video-chat with her and introduce her properly to her granddaughter. Ada was a bit sleepy, but awake long enough to sit in my arms and say hi. Mum couldn't manage to get her video on her end to work, but could see us fine.

About ten minutes into the call mum's house phone rang, and she answered it, explaining to whoever was on the line that she was talking to her son and grandchild. But instead of making an excuse and getting back to us, she continued to have a full half hour conversation, while keeping the Skype call open. That's not an exaggeration. Skype displays the length of the call. It was, literally, a half hour of listening to mum talking to her friend.

Claire had been working on her PC behind me all this time, but not really paying attention to the conversation. At some point, I wandered away into the kitchen, and Claire realised mum was still talking.

"Who's she talking too?"

"Someone on the phone."

And that's when we both broke. Claire started to laugh. I started to laugh. Claire laughed at me laughing. I laughed at her laughing. Then Claire's stitches from the c-section started to really pain her, and she tried to get me to stop laughing, which only made me laugh more, causing her to laugh more. The tears were streaming down our faces before Claire escaped to the bedroom to calm down.

We could barely look at each other for the next hour without falling to fits of giggles.

Not So Sleeping Beauties

Claire had just gotten Ada to sleep. She handed our unconscious little daughter, just a few days old, to me, and Ada didn't stir, resting on my chest, mouth wide open. Claire reached to grab a camera to capture the pose, but when I spotted what she had planned, I tried to mimic the pose myself.

This just lead to Claire and I both bursting out in laughter, Claire once again cursing my name for making her laugh enough to strain her abdomen, me trying my best to not wake up a sleeping Ada, and both of us struggling to see through tear filled eyes.

It took five minutes for both of us to be still long enough at the same time to get one simple photograph, but over an hour to cure our giggles sufficiently to allow us to talk to each other again.

Zapped On The Funny Bone

Ada had been sleeping for a few hours and was in need to feeding and a diaper change. Ada loves her diaper change time, and will lie out on the mat oohing and ahhing and smiling and making faces the whole time. Claire was changing the diaper, but I wandered in to say hi.

In the middle of wiping Ada's bottom, Ada did what comes natural and let out a little fart. Her bottom was still wet, so it came out with a splutter, sounding, in hindsight, like an electric spark, or, worse, an explosive poop! Claire's hand shot away like it had been hit with a cattle prod, and she jumped back.

I doubled over with laughter. I had to grip on to the changing table to stay standing. I was finding it hard to breath. Every time I took a steadying breath, I'd look up and see Ada smiling at me, and crack up again. Claire finished putting on Ada's diaper and getting more and more frustrated at my hysterics. Eventually, she called her parents who were in the living room and they came in, wondering what all the chaos was about. Claire told me to explain myself, which simply caused me to laugh even harder.

At that point, she picked up our daughter and left for the living room. I picked myself up, dried my eyes, and followed her out to start writing this post.

I've been giggling for over two hours now.

Bonus Giggles
Claire was exhausted one day, but Ada needed feeding, so she took her and started nursing while lying out on the couch. Both mom and daughter fell asleep, while Ada was still attached, and, while very asleep, still feeding weakly. Eventually, Ada detached, but stayed asleep against Claire's boob. It was incredibly adorable, cute and funny, but, obviously, no photos to remember the moment.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Meet Ada Maria Ryan

On March 23rd, 2015 at 14:35 Pacific Standard Time Claire and I were delighted to meet our baby daughter for the first time, Ada Maria Ryan. She was tiny and beautiful and perfect and purple. Oh so very purple.

But let's rewind a bit first.

In July of 2014, after trying to get pregnant for almost two years, Claire announced to me that she was pregnant. Thus began weeks of nervous anticipation and worry that it might all be taken away, as nature sometimes does. But it was to be, and we told some of our family and friends the good news with our 12 week ultrasound, and everyone once we had our 20 week ultrasound.

Christmas came and went and Claire still wasn't even really showing. She started to have a noticable bump in early February, and gave up work at the start of March.

We had decided to use a midwife right away, and our dream was to have a water birth at home in our own apartment. All was going well until early March when we confirmed that our little Spawnling was in the breech position, head up instead of down.

We had a few options, namely a risky vaginal breech birth, a far less risky elective c-section, or, an attempt at turning the Spawnling in utero, through a process called External Celphalic Version, or ECV. Frankly, the thought of a c-section terrified us both, and there are very few doctors trained to do a vaginal breach birth thanks to a now discredited report from eleven years ago that adviced against it.

The attempt to turn the Spawnling with ECV failed, after five attempts over two sessions on the same morning, leaving Claire sore and upset. After discussing our remaining options together and with our midwife and doctor, Claire chose to go ahead with a c-section, and all I could do was be there to give her my full support.

That was not an easy choice to make for Claire. She is phobic of needles, or more specifically, injections, a condition called trypanophobia. One of the neccessities of pregnancy in the first world is a regular requirement to have blood taken, and be generally poked and prodded throughout the nine months. She was much more capable of facing a bloodtest by early March than the first time back before Christmas, but the thought of having an IV and an epidural was terrifying.

With an elective c-section, you're given a time and a date to be at the hospital, as well as a consultation a few days before. There is no stress, no hours and hours of labour, no rushing about like a headless chicken, panicing about what is or might happen. It actually felt a bit weird, and the night before was like the worst Christmas Eve ever! If you think waiting for Santa is exciting, try waiting for the best, most unique gift imaginable!

We woke up before 7am Monday morning so that Claire could have breakfast, as her major abdominal surgery required her to fast from 7am onwords. We took the bus into downtown and headed to the hospital a little ahead of time, arriving at Surgical Daycare just before 1pm.

Claire was brought into surgery at 2pm, an hour ahead of schedule, and while the staff got her set up, I was told to wait outside in the hall. At 2:25 I was called in and found Claire surrounded by hospital staff with a sheet dividing her head and shoulders from the rest of her body. I sat beside her and talked to her, just trying to keep her calm and focused on me.

At about 2:30, our obstetrician, the wonderful and hilarious Doctor Anderson, told me to stand up. When I did, I looked over the dividing sheet to find myself looking at Doctor Anderson holding a tiny bottom and two legs up. Only a tiny bottom and two legs. The rest of Spawnling, from chest up, was still securely inside Claire. Doctor Anderson twisted the legs a bit and we had the following conversation:

Doctor Anderson: Do you want to call it, Denis?

Me: Er... I think it's a girl.

Entire room laughs.

I sat back down and tried to hug Claire.

"It's Ada, Claire. It's our daughter, Ada."

A few minutes more, with another bit of pulling and pushing, and a purple, gooey Ada was brought around the curtain for Claire to see for the first time. She was taken to a table to be cleaned, and as I hugged Claire we heard her cry for the first time. I was called over to see her, and despite less than a minute old, apart from her hands and feet, she was a healthy shade of pink already. As soon as I stood near, I said "Hello Ada", and she just stopped crying, turning her head toward me. While her umbilical cord was cut to allow her to be moved to the table, it was left long to allow me to cut it to size.

Once she was cleaned up, she was brought back for Claire to hold. After a few minutes of just being close, Claire and I did what we had talked about before her birth: We started talking to Ada in Irish, welcoming her into the world in our native tongue. Ada, for her part, just lay on Claire's neck and breathed.

Out of the OR and back to a Recovery Room for a few hours where mommy, daddy and Ada could bond. After that we were brought to the room we would spend the next three days in. We got to meet the most extraordinarily wonderful nurses, get help with Ada's low blood sugar and high bilirubin levels, and relax in peace, while Claire recovered from her surgery.

On Thursday, March 26th, we were dismissed from the hospital, and came home to be a family at our own pace. Since then, we have learned so much about our little Spawnling. She refuses to sleep on her back, laughs at jokes we can't hear, loves having her diaper changed and dislikes baths. We can't stop looking at her, and I can't stop photographing her, in case I miss anything. New parents, eh? Yeesh!!

We still talk to her in Irish when we can, she sleeps at night lying on each of our chests in turn, and while Claire tries to breastfeed as much as possible, she eats more than Claire can give, so we supplement with formula, allowing me to do night feeds, leaving Claire to get some sleep. Because of that, and regular naps during the day, we've both been getting a lot of sleep and feeling great.

We've taken walks up to Safeway, just two blocks away, and longer walks around downtown. We've visited the park on a sunny day and relaxed on a bench. We've met friends for lunch in a restaurant and been able to eat without too much trouble.

Ada has become a wonderful addition to our family. We are lucky to have her, and hope that we'll prove to be great parents over the coming years and decades.

It Was All A Dream
Ada on Flickr

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

XCOM The Board Game

I got into the XCOM franchise of games from Firaxsis with the modern relaunch in 2012. It's one of the few games I played a lot of when I got my new PC in 2013, even recording a YouTube series that included a squad of my friends defending the world from X-ray threat. Claire and I also enjoy watching another YouTube play by XCOM expert player BeagleRush, who plays at a level so far above me it's like someone who previously had never heard music listening to a full live symphony every week, and just like that hypothetical fellow, I thoroughly enjoy it every week, but have no idea how it's all done.

When Fantasy Flight Games announced an upcoming board game, I was mildly interested, but assumed it was going to be a miniatures strategy game mimicking the mission gameplay from the video games, and I am terrible at those. So, when previews started arriving, I grew more intrigued, as the designer Eric M. Lang decided to present a game focusing on the base management and global phase of the game instead, and I love that stuff.

XCOM The Board Game is a one to four player co-operative game where the players take on the four key roles of the XCOM Project command.

The Commander looks after global concerns, deploying Interceptors, while also keeping close track of the shared budget, and demanding that other roles "stop buying so much stuff!" Sending too few Interceptors results in UFO's staying on the board, harrassing everyone. Spending too much money has disasterous results on global trust in the Project, because clearly if you can't balance the books, you shouldn't be battling the mooks.

Speaking of mooks, the Squad Leader is in charge of the troops, assigning soldiers to missions and defending the base from attacks. Their role is most obviously critical to success, as successfully completed missions accelerate the chance of the final mission being triggered. But unlike some other roles, when things go bad for the Squad Leader, they go really bad, as soliders die and are taken away from possible combat rotation until the Commander can afford to buy them back.

The Chief Scientist spends their time researching new technology to upgrade the various roles in the game, providing new armour to the Squad Leader, the alien element Elerium to the Commander, or Alien Alloys for their own department, among others. While it is the most relaxed of the roles, it is also, aguably, actually the most vital to overall success, as it is the Scientist who keeps everyone else going when the chips are down.

Finally, there is the most interesting role in terms of mechanics, and also the most controvertial in terms of what it brings to the table, the Central Officer. Their role is to deploy satellites to orbit, but mostly to relay information to the other players. They do this using the free to download app, available on most popular devices and operating systems.

The app has caused some waves among core tabletop gamers, as some seem to feel that a board game should be without electronic attachments, especially one that isn't included in the box. To that, it's worth noting that:

  • Games have often come with nontraditional elements, from Atmosfear's videos to Scattergories' clockwork timer.
  • Everyone has a phone or tablet these days. Access to the app is unlikely to be an issue with even just minor effort.
  • The tasks of the app could be replicated with cards or dice, but only with extreme complexity in set-up and execution, and lots of limited-use components.

The XCOM game app lays out initial set-up, acts as a tutorial and rulebook, controls the game difficulty, what aliens you'll face and where your home base will be located. Relayed during play through the Central Officer, it tells players when to perform actions, from drawing cards to deploying units, and puts every such action under a tight time limit. The game has been built with the app in mind from the ground up, not tagged on halfway through developement, and it shows. It makes complex elements remarkably clean, while adding a tension and excitement that a deck of cards or roll of some dice could not.

Despite having those very seperate roles, communcation and player interaction is vital toward the success of the XCOM Project. Table talk is encouraged, especially during the Resolution Phase. The game is broken into two distinct phases, Timed and Resolution. The Timed Phase is, as you could guess, timed. The app tells you how much time you have to complete the task assigned, from a comfortable 30 seconds, to a few frantic moments. During the Timed Phase, players will commit their units to tasks, or chose cards to put into play, but nothing gets resolved. No dice get roled.

All the dice action happens during the Resolution Phase. This is not timed, allowing players to talk about how things went last round, and plan for the next, as well as activate cards for a wide variety of effects. It's a nice bit of downtime for everyone involved, allowing players to relax, grab a snack or use the washroom. It reminds me of something I heard about in relation to action movies. It's can't be go, go, go action for a full 90 minutes because you'll exhaust the audience. That's why so many great action movies have laugh-out-loud moments, or quiet, somber character pieces. This makes XCOM a much more relaxing game to play than other timed board games, such as Escape The Curse of the Temple or Space Alert.

I've had the joy of playing XCOM: The Board Game a lot recently, and with a wide variety of people, both friends and gamers I had only just met, thanks to a recent convention. I've taught the game to about a dozen or so people, and I can confidently say that it's remarkably easy to teach once you've had a game or two of practice. Pro Tip: Start with the dice rolling, in a broad generalisation. It gives a good basis for understanding why everything else happens. After a quick overview of how the game works, the first round covers most quetions that come up, and the game flows smoothly after that, even for new players.

XCOM is a fast, fun and intense. It's a fantastic co-op game that eliminates any possibility of "Expert Instruction", the possibility of a co-op game becoming a single player experience with viewers. Each player has their very specific roles, and while there is sometimes room for short discussion, the decision falls to the active player, often leading to tough choices that at least feel like you have ownership of that choice, even if it's the lesser of two evils. Actually, it's always the lesser of two evils.

It's a pity that all the rules are in the app. The box includes a single sheet for setup, but no paper rule book. While everything is in the app, it's not convenient for quick referencing rules. Relatedly, there are a few rules that the initial tutorial doesn't touch on, requiring players to search through the ap for answers to questions about exact mechanics or timing. This hurts especially when the tutorial seems to teach everything, while not actually doing to. Also, while most steps during the Resolution Phase will remind players to complete all elements of each step, one or two are missing, such as when a continent drops into full panic (the orange zone), you should move any UFOs in that continent to orbit. This is mentioned in the rules, but not the screen that asks about each continents status.

I love playing XCOM The Board Game, but it's not for everyone. I have a hard time getting it onto the table, and it's highly dependant on who shows up for games night. Anyone that has played it enjoys it, but not everyone is hungry for a second run. If you enjoy some tension in your games, a fun co-op experience and the truth that you will fail far more often than you will succeed, even on Easy, then XCOM might be for you.

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