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So the Gang’s Vaccinated but You’ve All Forgotten How to Interact Socially: TableTopCrashers Edition

It was 4 years ago, in June of 2017, that I was invited over a friend’s house to play a game. My friends Dan and Kevin love table-top games. That first night was a Game of Thrones table top game and it sounded fun. I thought I’d hang out, have a few beers, and play for an hour or two. The game lasted 6 hours. It was intense. I was not prepared. My wife was texting me asking if I’d been kidnapped. I survived that first night, although I’ve never played the Game of Thrones game since. Instead, that night turned into a D&D campaign where this same group of friends gets together once a month to role-play and Roll Initiative. That night has also led to more friendly gatherings with us and our wives and many more table-top games, all of which have been introduced to me by Dan or Kevin. I thought it’d be worth sharing the games I have really liked and look forward to playing now that all my friends are vaccinated and we are hanging out again. I also asked my favorite “Game Masters” Dan and Kevin (Kevin insisted they be called this) to weigh in on my choices.

1. Codenames: This is a team game where the Team Leader gives their teammates one-word clues to try and figure out all the words that correspond to their team color: red or blue. My wife, Sarah, and I are terrible teammates because after 18 years we still don’t understand how the other thinks. It’s a fun game to start the night off and get everyone interacting.

Dan: “A great party game for large numbers. Easy to teach for any level of gamer.”

Kevin: “First party game I purchased after watching it played on YouTube (TableTop/Wil Wheaton, which I can’t remember if I found myself or was recommended by Dan). It’s a perfect blend of Password meets Battleship.  Once everyone gets it, it’s fun.  Sometimes, it sucks when people aren’t on the same page, but that’s why it’s a game.”

2. Times Up! Title Recall!: This is a fantastic game that combines elements of $100,000 Pyramid, Codenames, and Charades. It’s perfect for a large number of people to split into teams. Players try to get their teammates to guess the same set of titles over 3 rounds. In round 1, you can give different clues. In round 2, you can only use one-word clues. In round 3, you cannot use words. I’m still bitter about the time my team didn’t guess “Born to Run” in round 3.

Dan: “Another great party game. Guaranteed to give everyone a good belly laugh.”

Kevin: “The perfect party game with people who know each other’s quirks and stuff.  Charades, password, plus “guess what I’m trying to get you to guess without saying it”.  Plus trying to just remember everything beforehand.  Love it.  But I think it depends on the crowd.”

3. Love Letters: This is described as a game of risk, deduction, and luck for 2-4 players. It’s a card game and the deck only has a total of 16 cards. Each player starts with one card and on their turn has to draw a new card and discard one. The cards contain actions the players can use to try and knock other players out of the game. This has been my recent favorite card game. It’s fast and has elements that allow you to guess another’s player card.

Dan: “Draw a card, play a card. Simple mechanics and lots of fun. Great time filler game.”

Kevin: “Love it and all its variations.  Perfect “filler” game, as they say.  My wife hates it. I don’t know why.  I think it’s just because there is no specific “point structure in place.” Fun to just kill some time in between “heavier” games.”

4. Secret Hitler: There are liberals and fascists and someone is secretly Hitler. The fascists do what fascists do and the liberals try and stop them. The game is set prior to World War 2. It’s good for 5-10 players.

Dan: “A great social deduction game. May take a few rounds for everyone to get the hang of it. You won’t ever trust anyone again.”

Kevin: “Meh.”

5. Wingspan: When Kevin described this game to me, I thought it sounded insane. Sarah and I played with Kevin and his wife, Kristen. I won, so of course, I had to include this game on this list. I can’t even describe fully all of the elements of this game or how to play it, but it’s brilliant. It’s described as a card-driven, engine-building board game. There are beautiful illustrations of so many different birds, and there are eggs, and food tokens. Just get it. You’ll like it.

Dan: “A step up in weight and strategy. A beautiful game that brings in heavier board game mechanics.” 

Kevin: “When I really got into the hobby, this was a game that just looked beautiful and had an odd theme.  It’s one of the more intermediate games I’m into but everything about it just works out to a perfect “t”.  The theme plays great. It’s just fun to play with people once they get the hang of it.  Also, it’s one of the more complicated games that I actually was able to explain to people (Which doesn’t happen that often).  I have nothing but great things to say about this game about birds.  I don’t even care if I win or lose.” 

6. Carcassone: This is a tile placement game set in southern France that’s good for 2-5 players. I’ve played a few times and I’m still not great at the strategy of road/city building. Kevin really likes this game (and is great at it) so we’ll start the night with this one if he’s grumpy.

Dan: “A good gateway game to introduce the general board gamer to modern board games. Easy to learn and a great strategy game.”

Kevin: “Wingspan and Carcassone are close in terms of my favorites.  Carcassone was the first game I remember really enjoying with its simple gameplay.  Each game is different.  I like tile/worker placement games.  I didn’t realize there was actual strategy involved until playing online.  I’ve played this game hundreds of times either on line or at a table.  The artwork is great.  Each game reveals a different “board.” This is my favorite game.”

7. Potion Explosion: I like that this game uses marbles. You take an ingredient marble and if that causes marbles of the same color to connect, you can take them. You use the ingredient marbles to build your potions, set out on cool-looking potion game pieces. Once a potion is finished, you can use it to unleash the abilities on the game piece.

Dan: “It’s a phone app in the form of a board game.”

Kevin: “It’s fun. Kind of like “Real life” Candy Crush but with other people. It’s solid.”

8. Bang the Dice: The players are either Sheriff, deputy, outlaw or renegade determined by card draw. It’s an easy game to get the hang of fairly quickly, and the dice element is different than the other games we typically play (other than D&D).

Dan: “A fun, quick-hit dice game.”

Kevin: “My first dice game that I’ve purchased.  I think I’ve played this and King of Tokyo.  This is better.  It’s easy to play and easy to explain.  I just wish I could play it with more people more often.”

9. One Night Ultimate Werewolf: This is an app-driven game that can have up to 10 players. Each player is given a character with an ability and the goal is to either kill the werewolf, if you’re a villager or if you’re the werewolf: survive. It’s great fun and I am absolutely terrible at it.

Dan: “A shorter social deduction game than Secret Hitler, but just as fun. Multiple player roles add variability.”

Kevin: “I’m indifferent on Werewolf.  It’s fine.  I don’t necessarily feel a need to play it again.”

10. Dixit: Whenever anyone suggests playing this game, I always have to be reminded what this game is about, but once reminded, I always want to play. The players are dealt 6 cards. Each player takes turn being the storyteller and makes up a sentence about one of their cards. The other players select one of their cards that matches the story. After the cards are shuffled and set out, the players try and guess which card was the storyteller’s card and points are given out accordingly. It’s good for 3-6 players, but I think 5-6 players works best.

Dan: “Another great gateway game to introduce the general board gamer to modern board games. Invest in expansion packs though.”

Kevin: “Just a beautiful easy to understand game that works for all involved.  Once you go through enough cards though, it could get repetitive without having to buy expansion packs.  If you’re not “close” with the group you’re with, this would be a safer bet than Time’s Up! Title Recall!”


11. Century: Spice Road: Have you ever wanted to learn about the spice trade? I put this game into the category of games like Wingspan. There seems to be a lot of components to it, but I was able to figure things out fairly quickly and enjoyed playing. It’s good for 2-5 players. There are various and sundry cards that you can use to establish a trade route and trade spices. Do not be intimated by this game. It’s fun.

Dan: “Another game that is a quick and easy teach. Good components.”

Kevin: “A solid game that seems complicated at first but isn’t.  I could play it any time.  I also had fun making up my own “player board.” I have nothing bad to say about it.  Nothing particularly great though either.  It’s just a fun game.”

12. JAWS: I love JAWS. It’s one of my favorite movies and I was happy to play this game. One team is Brody, Hooper, and Quint, while the other sole player is the shark. Each turn allows the players to accomplish certain tasks to either kill the shark or to eat swimmers, if you’re the shark. Quint is not allowed to eat swimmers no matter how many times I suggested it. I worry about the re-playability of this game.

Dan: “Fun game for one of my favorite movies. Make sure each person plays as both crew and the shark.” 

Kevin: “As movie fans, it was fun to play.  I don’t really know about re-playability though.  It might just be fun to go through it the one time.  Maybe a second?  I don’t know.  It was fine.  It’s worth it to play just for quotes and stuff from the movie.”

13. Pandemic: I know. Believe me, I know. It’s a really fun game though and the first time Dan, Kevin, and I played (a year into the current pandemic) we won. It’s a cooperative game so the players all work together to stop the pandemic. What a concept!

Dan: “Another great game to introduce to new gamers about modern gaming. Co-ops are great games but need to make sure that one person doesn’t just take over and tell everyone what to do. It’s a fine line between team strategy and alpha gaming.” 

Kevin: “It’s fun and really good but more experienced gamers have a tendency to “alpha game” it so it’s like you’re just playing along with the alpha.  It’s a good game though.”

14. Downforce: This is a card-driven game where you bid, race, and bet. It comes with little cars that you move around the game board.

Kevin: “Very fun game.  Betting and racing.  It’s fun to kind of think you’re young again and playing with hot wheels/matchbox cars but with some strategy involved.  I will play this game anytime and also play for additional laps (not just one).”  

15. Exploding Kittens: This is a card game involving exploding kittens in which the goal is to cause another player to draw the exploding kitten card.

Dan: “Another quick and fun game. Get the kids involved.”

Kevin: “Another perfect “filler game.”  Kids (who can understand) and adults just enjoy it.  It’s just fun.  Maybe the Ted Lasso of games.”

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The Last Book You’ll Ever Read #2: Inevitabilities and Causes

At the risk of sounding even more like GateCrashers’ resident Pop-Pop, I need to mention the Vault Undressed variant covers for this issue, which are scandalous and definitely worthy of that black bag they put them in. One is done by main artist Leila Leiz and colorist Vlad Popov and the other is done by Richard Pace. I’m not sure which I like more, but I will say that for the Leiz/Popov cover, it took me a while before I noticed the heads of the two dead guys.

Credit: Cullen Bunn/Leila Leiz/Giada Marchisio/Vlad Popov/Jim Campbell (Vault Comics)

Getting in to the issue itself, we find Olivia Kade on her book tour and she’s met with angry protests. Connor Wilson, who is hired to protect her, still hasn’t read the book per Kade’s instruction to him, but he wonders if her treatise on the downfall of society and humanity’s descent into cruelty isn’t accurate. At the signing, Olivia again reads from Satyr and if the theme of the passage from the first issue was about binary of the predator or the prey, this time it is civilized or wild, with everything going swimmingly well for two pages until a couple is caught having loud and aggresive sex. The question remains as to whether Olivia’s book is merely documenting society’s decline or is perhaps causing it.

Bunn has created a fascinating character with Olivia Kade and the script shines in the scenes between Olivia and Wilson as the latter tries to dig deeper to figure her out. The dynamic between the two feels like something out of an old Hollywood movie and that sensibility is mixed in with the modern issues of violence, depravity, and sex. It is interesting to see everything play out.

Leiz’s artwork works incredibly well in telling this story. There are several times when a close-up of a character’s face and eyes are shown outside of a panel. Or they are overlapping with a couple of panels and the pages of dialogue pass in the looks. The aggression of the crowds and Olivia’s fear are captured so well. The last few pages, which switch between a full page fight scene and a full page sex scene, show the ability to be dynamic and sensual. And that last page is sexy as hell.

Credit: Cullen Bunn/Leila Leiz/Giada Marchisio/Vlad Popov/Jim Campbell (Vault Comics)

Both Giada Marchisio and Vlad Popov are listed as colorists and because of them, I appreciate how bright and alive this book looks. With a story like this, I think there could have been a tendency to make the book look dark, but I don’t believe that would work. Jim Campbell is the letterer and as always, his lettering never gets in the way and is absolutely crucial to this story, especially with certain panels being heavy on dialogue. The lettering during the fight scene was particularly well done.

There’s definitely more to the story Satyr as Olivia is once again assailed by a protestor who mentions “The Wilding.” And after two issues, I’m not concerned that I don’t know more about where the story is going. I am surprised that the relationship between Olivia and Wilson predictably played out in this issue, but I’m still invested in seeing where things go from here.

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Review: The Last Book You’ll Ever Read

            “A reality is just what we tell each other it is.” This line from John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness underscores the central premise of The Last Book You’ll Ever Read, which opens with the line, “Civilization is a lie.” So, if the reality of our civilization is just what we tell each other it is, and what we’ve been telling each other is a lie, what happens when someone starts telling the truth? According to Cullen Bunn and Leila Leiz, nothing good. 

            Bunn is clearly influenced by H.P. Lovecraft, and this has served him well in the past with series like The Unsound and The Empty Man, but this is Lovecraft by way of John Carpenter (hence In the Mouth of Madness, itself a reference to Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness), filtered through Bunn’s unique way of presenting ordinary but compelling characters and then watching how they react as terrible things happen around them or to them. In this case, writer Olivia Kade has written Satyr, which is very popular and purports to tell the truth about our reality but is possibly causing people to act out their basest instinct and become feral. I say “possibly” because the beauty and mystery of the first issue is that it doesn’t make clear Kade’s intentions. Peppered throughout the scenes of Kade’s book signing are scenes of the carnage that is related to people that have read the book as well as two radio hosts engaging in an interesting debate as to whether Satyr merely chronicles the decline of humanity or is somehow inciting it. The entire issue is well paced to maximize the horror of the situation. 

            Leiz’s artwork and character design are well suited here. To paraphrase a line from the issue, each character is both predator and prey and they look both parts. There are intense close-ups that then pull back to a panel just off to the side of the main action that allows the SFX to create suspense. The use of off-kilter panel layouts with characters drawn beyond the borders make the action scenes feel immersive and fluid. One page in particular that uses flowing blood as the panel borders is a particular standout and teases the horror to come. 

            Giada Marchisio colors the issue beautifully with a wonderful ability to use red sparingly so that it really stands out as scenes and characters are drenched in it. Jim Campbell provides the lettering and there’s a natural flow to the dialogue that is effortless; it never gets in the way of the action. I’m not sure there’s any other letterer that can so effectively convey the quiet SFX for someone choking on their own blood. I want to note that there are several variant covers for this and every single one is exceptional, but the Chris Shehan cover produced for Little Shop of Comics (great name!) in Cuba, Missouri is my favorite. 

            The mystery and horror of Olivia Kade and Satyr is one I am now invested in and I’m excited by the idea that I’m not sure in which direction this is going. Is Kade a prophet of more depravity to come or a simple chronicler of the here and now? Regardless, this is the beginning of something terrible. 

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Film

Star Wars: Rise of Their Resistance

I stood in the large corridor of a First Order Star Destroyer after my transport was captured attempting to flee the planet Batuu. I was traveling with my mother, Joan, my 8-year-old daughter, Charlotte, and dozens of others seeking refuge. As we were lined up to be brought in to interrogation, a young-looking First Order Officer taunted a few of the other prisoners. When none would reveal themselves as members of the Resistance, he made a bee-line for my daughter, staring her down. Frightened, but fiercely protective, I stepped out of line directly in his path, and with as much bravado as I could muster under the circumstances I said, “Leave her alone, nerf herder.” The First Order Officer was momentarily taken aback at my disrespect.

My daughter, in fear for my safety, or perhaps due to embarrassment, begged me to be quiet. The First Order Officer, for reasons that are wholly his own, relented, and walked away with a sarcastic retort, “I see we’ve heard from the tactical genius.” From that point on, it was a thrilling and daring escape from the First Order Star Destroyer and as soon as I landed back on Batuu I excitedly turned to Charlotte and asked if she wanted to ride Rise of the Resistance again. “Meh”, was her reply. “I have a bad feeling about this”, I thought to myself.  

After a few years of trying to entice her to sit with me and watch the Original Trilogy, I thought actually being in Galaxy’s Edge at Disney World’s Hollywood Studios would do the (Jedi mind) trick and convince her. I was wrong. She and her sister, my daughter Penny, who just turned 4 years old, begrudgingly rode Star Tours after my wife, Sarah, said “Please, your dad doesn’t ask for much and this will make him happy” roughly 47 times. Charlotte refused to pilot the Millennium Falcon with me on Smuggler’s Run, and both kids had no interest in taking a photo in front of any of the number of cool things scattered around the park; like Poe’s X-Wing, Kylo Ren’s TIE Echelon, or my favorite Star Wars character Chewbacca. 

Don’t get me wrong, Charlotte and Penny had a fantastic time over the 6 days we spent in Disney World, despite my attempts to interest them in Star Wars. They loved the pool at the resort, the safari in Animal Kingdom, Toy Story Mania, and so many other things. I don’t want to be mistaken, I had fun too, but it was a bit disheartening. On the plane home, as I was thinking back about the trip, I was reminded of Patton Oswalt’s bit from Talking for Clapping where he discusses how Star Wars was his “realm”, but his daughter isn’t into it, and he didn’t want to be the equivalent of a sports-obsessed father that makes their kid play football until it builds to that “I don’t want your life” moment in Varsity Blues

I want my children to have their own likes and interests. I want my children to discover their own realms and get lost in them like I did with Star Wars. Recently, Charlotte has been into The Last Kids on Earth graphic novel series. Penny loves Bluey. As they get older, they will discover other things they love. Maybe one day one of those things will be Star Wars. Maybe it never will and that’s okay. I’ve had a few small victories. When Charlotte was three years old, I bought her the Star Wars Little Golden Book set that covered the Original Trilogy and the Prequels and for a while, she enjoyed when I read them to her at bedtime. Both kids think lightsabers are fun and they like their “Baby Yoda” shirts.

I was born in 1979, and as far back as I can remember, there was Star Wars. I saw Return of the Jedi in the theatre, and a few summers later my mom bought me a ROTJ t-shirt on the Wildwood, NJ boardwalk with an iron-on transfer that I wore until the picture had completely faded away. My family didn’t have a lot of money, but my parents would take me to the nearby Kiddie City on payday and I could get one Kenner action figure. My mom still reminds me that I would infuriatingly tell them the action figure I was going to pick next payday as we left the store. I still have all of those action figures. They’re in a Darth Vader case in my basement that I’d bring out and play with along with Charlotte and Penny and their figures from My Little Pony, Hatchimals, and Disney Princesses. 

When I was a kid, Star Wars felt like it was fully mine. I wanted to be Luke Skywalker and be friends with Han Solo and Chewbacca. I pretended I was rescuing Princess Leia from Jabba the Hutt. I fought alongside Ewoks at the Battle of Endor. I trained to be a Jedi with Obi-Wan and Yoda. I felt brave, powerful, and part of something bigger than myself. Star Wars gave me hope. Hope that a too short, annoying kid from a twin home in Linwood, PA might matter. I wanted to share that with my girls. I wanted them to be empowered by Star Wars the same as I had been. I wanted them to participate in the fun of Star Wars

I’ve come to realize though they have their own things that empower them. Their own worlds that they immerse themselves in and I will share in those worlds when they let me. As Yoda said to Luke in The Last Jedi, “Luke, we are what they grow beyond.”