The Sage Welcomes You

So, here you find a blog about life in general, but with a focus on family, games, books and creativity. Other "stuff" will creep in from timt to time.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Review Punisher #6

Last Wednesday, December 7, issue 6 is this extraordinary comic book series came out.  The character is a frightening and dark anti-hero.  The Punisher has all the classic elements of the revenge story, a decent man pushed to extremes by the senseless death of his family.  However, Frank Castle (The Punisher) went beyond simply making those responsible for his family's death.  That story is already over, but for the the central character, the war goes on.  The Punisher is like a darker reflection of Batman. 

However, whereas Batman becomes the great detective, The Punisher is first and foremost a soldier (Marine).  He is not solving crimes and mysteries, he is conducting a vigilante campaign where the solution is cutting off the enemy and then killing them.  Over and over.  The Punisher speaks to that deep cultural theme in western culture of vengeance.  Ultimately, we have turned away from vengeance as a tenant of acceptable society, but we cannot seem to fully escape it either.  Somehow, it appeals to us that by exacting retribution we can achieve peace.  In practice, this seems not to be born out well.

However, in literature, we can vicariously experience the catharsis that comes with seeing those who have done dark deeds meet deadly justice and feel the satisfaction of knowing in that closed fictional universe that they deserved it.  This is what is appealing about Punisher.  If we had this guy actually doing things in our cities, we would be pretty damn terrified, but in the pages of a comic book, he can embody our fantasies of dark age justice.  As the character Beowulf communicates to the King Hrothgar who mourned for the loss of one of his thanes and friends, vengeance is better than tears.  The Punisher gives us this.

So, what about issue 6? 


Up to this point the story has centered on the Punisher's investigation of a shadowy organization called The Exchange, which came to light when its operatives had a shootout with a rival gang in the middle of a wedding (which was in the wrong place and the wrong time), resulting in the death of the groom, the wounding of the bride, and the death of almost 30 guests.  From issue 1, The Punisher has been killing members of The Exchange, those directly responsible and those in charge.  However, he is still far from the heart of the criminal enterprise.  The Exchange, meanwhile, is trying to figure out how to kill him.  In issue 3, the hit they paid for on him severely wounded him, but left their "contractor" dead and just made The Punisher more determined to finish the job.

Much of the story so far has been told through the eyes of two police detectives hot on the trail of The Exchange and the Punisher.  One has secret ties to the Punisher, and the other seems to have a history with him as well.  The action is also being covered by a determined reporter, who has become friends with the victim/bride of the wedding massacre, Rachel Cole Alves, a decorated Marine.  Rachel has started using the friendship to obtain intelligence for her own purposes.

Throughout the first five issues, Italian artist Marco Chechetto has brilliantly illustrated the adventures, but with issue 6, he is on hiatus.

Taking up the artist mantel are the reliable Matthews, Southworth & Clark.  Their take is different from the atmospheric and dark cityscapes done by Chechetto, but this issue takes place almost entirely in semi-rural upstate New York, and the change in art suits the change in environment.  The snowy killing fields that emerge are eerie and beautiful as The Punisher opens a new front in his unending war.

While issue 5 hinted at the fact that Rachel might be taking the same path as Frank Castle in seeking her own vengeance, this issue we see that she has indeed committed to this path.  The Punisher and the Bride both zero in on a meeting of operatives of the Exchange with deadly effect, and it brings them gun muzzle to gun muzzle with each other by the end of the book.

The art and story flow very well, the action is intense and visceral, and there is some serious vengeance going on.  The only regret I have from reading is reaching the end and knowing I have weeks to get the next bit, and months ahead to enjoy as this arc plays out. 

This is a book worth investing in.  Issue 6 introduces as new level of risk and complexity into the story.  Now, we have to see what does Frank Castle do when confronted with someone who could be his younger self.  Does he take on an ally in his war?  Does he dissuade her from the path of unending death and struggle, revealing the emptiness of vengeance that he cannot give up?  Is she destined to conclude her vengeance story and escape, whether crippled or not, or does her vengeance story end like so many (Hamlet comes to mind) with vengeance consuming everything and killing the hero in the end?

These tantalizing questions remain and will keep me reading.  You should be too.

Here are some other views: (
Verdict: Buy)

CBR (5/5 stars)

Henchmen for Hire (4/5 stars)

iFanboy (Story 4/5 Art 4/5)

Weedbeater's Comic Reviews (3/5)

IGN (7/10)

Comic Vine (4/5)

The Weekly Crisis (Verdict: Buy It)

Mark's Comic Book Review Center (9/10)

Vasegurt's Review of Comic Culture ("This book remains high quality, and the art is perfectly suited for the story being told.")

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Continuing my support for Greg Rucka and Marco Checchetto--Punisher Issue #5

Picked up this issue yesterday.  The only thing frustrating I find about it is that it is so good, that it is almost painful to reach the end a realize I need to wait another four, five or even six weeks for the next installment. 

The action is subdued, but the story advances, the characters become more layered, and the sense of impending conflict is heightened as The Punisher is clearly getting closer to the criminals at the top of the new criminal organization in New York, The Exchange. 

Art is superior and the storytelling continues to compel.  Reviews continue to be strong.  For example:

IGN: ("Greg Rucka and Marco Checchetto continue their exploration of Frank Castle's world in Punisher #5 and find success like never before in achieving a clear depiction of how Frank affects the world around him. While the Punisher himself remains as elusive (and quiet) as ever in this installment, Rucka's decision to jump around between the criminals, the detectives, Rachel Cole and perhaps most importantly, a young kid that wanders into Frank's hideout, showcases the writer's understanding of what makes this character fascinating. Spoiler: it's not just that he's a badass."  Rating 9/10

It is not to late to pick up all of the first five issues.  Great stuff!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Veteran's Day: Thinking of My Civil War Generation

Today, for Veteran’s Day, I am remembering my ancestors who were veterans of America’s conflicts.  I have recently dived deep into my family’s genealogy and discovered many surprising things.  I would say that I never grew up with much military tradition, or even thought about military service in my family history.  As it turns out, however, my ancestors rendered service from colonial times forward.   There are still many questions I have to answer about my family history, and I doubt that I will fully understand all the events and issues with which my family has wrestled.

While I could try to profile ancestors from the Revolution, the War of 1812, or even more recent conflicts such as the First or Second World War, I have decided that with the 150th Anniversary of the American Civil War, I will focus on the Civil War generation.  Even here, my research is far from done, but I have six (of the sixteen) third great grandfathers for whom I have established pretty well their Civil War service that I would like to remember and honor.

My research divides, not surprisingly, into the inheritance I have from my father’s line and that I have from my mother’s.  Also no surprise, we end up on both sides of the conflict.  My mother’s people, the Franklins, and many of the families that my mother descends from, had a long Southern history.  I have confirmed many Confederates in my genealogical attic, and once I finish sifting through all the family lines, I expect to have more direct Confederate ancestors than Union. 

Part of this is because, on my father’s side, three of my third great grandfathers were in Europe at the time of the war and they or their children did not reach American shores until the conflict was over.  The Frankes themselves remain mysterious.  Though they apparently arrived in 1855 and moved to Wisconsin, I have found scant history for them during the Civil War.  It seems likely that they were farming, but not fighting.  That disposes of my father’s paternal line.  However, the maternal line has some amazing stories and stretches back to Seventeenth Century Colonial America.  From my paternal grandmother then, I have a number of Union soldiers to talk about.

Returning to the question of my divided family, I have questioned myself a bit in reconciling the Blue and the Grey of my past.  I cannot disown my ancestors who fought for the Confederacy any more than they can dishonor me in the present.  We are part of a great confluence of history and biology. 

Need I remember them on Veteran’s Day though? 

From my political perspective, their cause was a traitor’s cause.  Whatever acts of bravery and honor they performed, they did so against the interests of MY country, MY Union.  Yet, though I find the cause detestable, I find comfort in the words of General Grant, who stated after the surrender of Lee at Appomattox, "I felt sad and depressed at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though their cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought."  I harbor anger then, not for my ancestors, but for their leaders, politicians and generals, who led my people astray in support of this worst cause of history.  They put them on the wrong side of history, and failed in the vision of a better, more just and freer America.  For my Confederate ancestors, I am sad and I regret their sufferings and hardships, and I remember that they played a role in making America the country it is on this Veteran’s Day.

The Grey

I write of three Confederate ancestors today.  They came from diverse states and saw varied service.  Yet each eventually ended up in Union custody as prisoners of war.  Each also suffered greatly from the failure of leadership from both Union and Confederate governments.  After the entry of substantial numbers of African American troops on the side of the Union, General Robert E. Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis refused to exchange black troops back to the Union in return for Confederate parolees.  Instead, laws had been passed that threatened black troops with hanging, and the Confederate government also expressed the intent to “return” black troops to their “owners” as property (despite the fact that many were not escaped slaves, but instead free blacks from the North who volunteered).  In response, the North determined that prisoner exchanges would then cease.  This caused the POW population for both North and South to swell beyond the capacity for which either side had planned.  What followed was shameful treatment of military prisoners on both sides, with harsh conditions, lack of food, shelter, medical care and other necessary supplies.  The South’s greatest infamy was Andersonville, Georgia and the North’s was Elmira, New York.  Both sides failed in planning and logistics to care for prisoners in their custody, but ultimately it was the racist policies of the Confederacy that sparked the crisis, and I place the greater blame there.  And for this lack of leadership, you will see that my ancestors paid dearly.

William Alcie Patterson Franklin
W.A.P. as he is often seen in records was born in Alabama on September 30, 1839.  He was raised in Arkansas with a brother and a sister and three half-brothers and a half-sister.  In the 1860 census he was living in his family’s home and working as a laborer.  His father, who had been born in Mississippi, was a farmer.  In 1862, W.A.P., at the age of 22, enlisted in the 19th (Dockery’s) Arkansas Infantry Regiment, Company B.  Despite his youth, he was made a Sergeant.  He kept a journal during the war, which a distant cousin has the keeping of, and I hope someday to have a copy to review.  Based on the Regimental history W.A.P. saw considerable combat.  His unit fought in the Second Battle of Corinth in Mississippi (October 1862) and later that same month fought at the Battle of Hatchie’s Bridge.  In May, 1863, the 19th Arkansas saw repeated action against the Union forces as U.S. Grant launched his Vicksburg campaign in Mississippi.  The 19th fought at the Battle of Port Gibson, the Battle of Champion Hill, and the Battle of Big Black River Bridge.  Each of these was Union victories in U.S. Grant’s relentless march on Vicksburg to seize control of the Upper Mississippi.  At the Big Black River Bridge, W.A.P. was taken prisoner.  He was initially remanded to Federal custody Camp Morton, Indiana.  He was later transferred east, to Fort Delaware, Delaware.  He spent less than a month in Delaware, and was transferred to spend the last days of the war at the infamous prisoner of war camp at Point Lookout, Maryland.  Despite probably being subject to varied and harsh conditions in prisoner of war camp (the song “Oh, I’m A Good Old Rebel” says “I followed old Marsh Robert for four years thereabouts, got wounded in three places and starved at Point Lookout”), W.A.P. returned to Arkansas upon his parole and picked his life back up.

John H G Mathis
John was born in Georgia on January 17, 1845.  In the 1860 census, he lived with his parents in Winn Parish, Louisiana.  He was only 15.  His father was a farmer, born in Georgia.  John was the youngest son and he had two older brothers and a younger and an older sister.  In about May 1861, shortly after the Civil War began in April 1861, John enlisted for service with the Third Louisiana Infantry Regiment as a private in Company C, the Winn Rifles.  He was only 16.  His regiment soon saw action.  In October of 1861 they participated in the Battle of Oak Hill, also called Bloody Hill, in Missouri.  In March of 1862 the 3rd saw action in the Battle of Pea Ridge (also known as Elk Horn), in Arkansas.  Next they saw action in the Battle of Iuka in Mississippi.  Like W.A.P. Franklin, John’s unit was at the Second Battle of Corinth in Mississippi in October 1862.  While the 19th Arkansas engaged with U.S. Grant’s forces outside of Vicksburg, the 3rd Louisiana was called to man the defensive works around Vicksburg in January 1863.  The Third saw action in the Battle of Snyder’s Bluff in April 1863.  The 3rd held out in Vicksburg with the other Confederate forces during the Union siege, until the city fell to U.S. Grant’s forces on July 4, 1863.  John was wounded and taken prisoner.  The records are unclear as to whether John was held in Demopolis, Alabama or Alexandria, Louisiana, but those two locations were the places that members of the 3rd Louisiana were held.  He was in Federal custody until the end of the war, when he was paroled at Natchitoches, Louisiana on June 12, 1865.  He was 20 years old, and he returned to Winn Parish to pick up his life.

Burrell Hudson
Burrell was born in Alabama about 1828.  He married in 1857 to Minerva Ann Christian.  They had one daughter and one son born at the start of the war, and a second son was born during the course of the war.  In the census of 1860, Burrell was listed as an overseer.  His family appears to have owned slaves when he was growing up.  At the age of 33, in October 1861, he joined the 21st Alabama Infantry Regiment, Company C, as a private.  The 21st saw action at the Battle of Shiloh on April 6 and 7 of 1862.  The Battle of Shiloh is especially notable, as it was, at that point, the bloodiest battle of the war.  By war's end, there were many battles that were worse, but the news from Shiloh was shocking to both sides.  April 6th went very well for the Confederate forces, which largely routed the Union troops under the command of William T. Sherman and U.S. Grant.  The 21st Alabama was especially valiant that day.  Press reports indicated that the 21st had “covered themselves with glory . . . [and] captured two batteries.”  The regiment suffered heavily, including losing six color bearers and some 200 killed and wounded.  Neither individuals nor units were issued with citations or medals in the Confederacy.  However, if one was mentioned in official dispatches, it was considered a great honor.  The 21st’ gallantry on the first day of Shiloh was so noted.  The first day’s victory was costly over all, with the Confederates losing their commanding general, General Albert Sidney Johnson.  The second day of the battle did not go well for the Confederates.  U.S. Grant was often at his best when he was on the ropes.  He also received fresh reinforcements during the night.  The Confederates we likely exhausted from their marching and offensive the day before, and may have been insufficiently provisioned.  In any case, outnumbered and exhausted, the 21st retreated with the Confederate order of battle.  The unit subsequently fought at Farmington, Mississippi in May, 1862.  The 21st was then retrained for garrison duty, with a focus on heavy artillery.  They were redeployed to Mobile, Alabama and stationed at Forts Gaines and Morgan in the summer of 1862.  The 21st thereafter had a quiet war in garrison duty until that attack on Mobile Bay by Admiral Farragut (Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!) in August 1864.  After the bay fell, the forts were bombarded and each surrendered.  Burrell’s Company C was apparently at Fort Hudson.  They were originally held in New Orleans, but later transferred to Elmira, New York by rail in October 1864.  The Elmira prison camp came to be known as Hell-mira by the Confederate prisoners.  Not only was their neglect in the supply of the camp, but actual intentional abuse under the auspices of the vindictive camp commandant.  Burrell did not do well under the harsh conditions in the camp and contracted dysentery.  On December 21, 1864, he succumbed to his illness.  Though record keeping on the burial of Confederate prisoners at the Woodlawn National Cemetery was generally good, no record entry exists for Burrell and he lies anonymously among the dead of the camp.

The Blue

Eli Tannehill
Eli was born in Somerset County in Pennsylvania in 1821.  He was one of eleven children.  He and his wife, Elizabeth Jane Graham, married in 1843 and were parents of nine children who lived to adulthood.  In the census of 1860, he was listed as a farmer in Lower Turkeyfoot Township.  Turkeyfoot was a stop on the Underground Railroad.  Eli and his family were Methodists, which was a denomination that was officially anti-slavery.  I have no evidence to suggest that Eli or his family was directly involved in assisting fugitive slaves, but clearly he lived in a community where the sympathies were with abolition.  Some of his neighbors left Pennsylvania and moved as far as Kansas to show their support for freedom (Moses Younkin, of whom we shall hear more below, was one).  Eli did not leave Pennsylvania, but once the war began, he heard his call of duty.  He was 40 years old and left a wife with nine children aged 1 to 16 in order to, I believe, follow his conscience and fight for “the Union and the Right” as was the refrain in the “Battle Cry of Freedom.”  Here, I can only imagine that the end of slavery must have been part of his motivation.  He enlisted in Philadelphia, into the 112th Pennsylvania, 2nd Heavy Artillery Regiment as a private in Battery K on November 11, 1862 (149 years ago today).  The 2nd Pennsylvania became the North’s largest regiment.  It was quickly stationed for garrison duty in the forts around Washington, DC, providing security for the capital.  The unit both trained as artillery and infantry, and worked on improving and expanding fortifications.  The majority of their service was as a rear echelon unit, until U.S. Grant called on the many heavy artillery units around DC to assist in his drive into the South in 1864.  The 2nd did not participate in the Battles of the Wilderness or Cold Harbor which occupied Grant’s thrust in May and June 1864, but they engaged in skirmishes around Cold Harbor subsequent to the main battle.  They then fought in the battle before Petersburg and then, with the rest of Grant’s army, settled into defensive siege works and trenches around the city of Petersburg, Virginia in June 1864.  There are at least three markers on the Petersburg National Battlefield that mark the positions held by the Second during the siege operations.  According to one of Eli’s fellow soldiers, on August 5, 1864 Battery/Company K had been serving in the trenches throughout the day and the men were suffering from thirst.  Eli offered to go for water for his comrades.  As he was returning, he was shot and killed (likely by a Confederate sharpshooter).  He was buried on the battlefield.  While the place was marked at the time, most of the graves of the Union dead from the siege were very makeshift, and in 1866 there was a concerted effort to consolidate the Union dead into a national cemetery.  According to the National Park Service, Ely Tannyhill [sic] has long been listed as one of the “possibles” at Poplar Grove National Cemetery, among four thousand unknown Union dead laid to rest there.

And now our hero's sleeping with thousands of the brave.
No marble slab does mark the place that shows where he was laid.
He died to save our Union; he's free of care and toil.
Thank God! The Stars and Stripes still wave above Virginia's soil!
--Virginia’s Bloody Soil

Moses Younkin
Moses was born in Turkeyfoot Township, Somerset County, Pennsylvania on May 1, 1830.  He married Lavila Mitchell on June 5, 1851 and their daughter Emma Virginia Younkin was born in 1852.  About 1855, Moses moved his family from Pennsylvania to Kansas Territory.  In 1856, he, his family, and two brothers, Jerome and William settled on Timber Creek as the first white settlers in what would become Clay County, Kansas.  Moses was a Free State settler, voting and perhaps fighting for Kansas to enter the Union as a free as opposed to a slave state.  He had grown up in the same community as Eli Tannehill, and was a Methodist and likely abolitionist.  Besides living as a pioneer, farmer and political activist in Kansas Territory, he also helped found the town of Milford in Geary County, he helped lay out a road from Manhattan to Solomon’s Fork as a territorial commissioner, and he won a reputation as a scout and plainsman.  He is said to have been a friend of members of the Kaw or Kanza tribe (though this friendly tribe was nonetheless forced to relocate to Oklahoma Indian territory in 1873).  In the census of 1860, he was listed as a farmer in Clay County and, along with his growing family; he listed his younger brother Alfred as a farm hand.  Alfred was 10 years younger than Moses.  In October, 1861 with the Civil War in full swing, he was commissioned as a militia captain for the 15th Kansas State Militia, Company C.  In January 1864, Moses became one of three Clay County Commissioners.  However, in March 1864, Moses, age 33, and his younger brother Alfred, age 23, both reported to Fort Riley, Kansas to enlist as privates in the 11th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry.  The 11th had begun as an infantry unit, but was converted to Cavalry in late 1863 and early 1864.  Both of the brothers joined Company L, which was assigned to “the Indian service.”  Moses was quickly promoted to sergeant by May 1864.  The Kansas/Nebraska/Colorado frontier was dangerous and active during the Civil War.  Tribes such as the Sioux and the Cheyenne, hostile to the expansion of the United States and bent on driving settlers and soldiers out of their territory kept up significant raiding and attacks.  The “Indian service” included protecting lines of communication such as telegraph lines and stage coach stations, as well as protecting settlers and pioneers who continued to stream west on the Oregon Trail and the Overland Trail.  In 1865, the 11th moved from Kansas to Nebraska and from there into the parts of the Dakota Territories that would eventually become Wyoming to suppress Indian raids and to protect settlements.  The frontier life was hard, as supplies were hit and miss, and the weather severe.  Nonetheless, both Younkin brothers survived the many conflicts with Indians without harm.  In the summer of 1865, they were ordered to Fort Leavenworth, back in Kansas, to be mustered out.  However, Alfred caught a “bilious fever” (possibly typhoid fever) and never made it to Leavenworth.  He died in Marshall, Kansas at the age of 25 on September 15, 1865, where he had apparently been left to recover during the trip to Leavenworth.  Moses left military service on at Leavenworth in July 1865 and then returned to Clay County, Kansas to rejoin his family.  He had many more adventures and was a very active veteran, especially with the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), who ultimately provided for his services upon his death, far away from Kansas in Washington State, where he is buried in Bellingham with a headstone noting his service with the 11th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry.

Edit: June 13, 2012

This is late, late breaking news, but something that happens all too frequently in genealogy.  You think you find an amazing story, one almost too interesting to be true.

Then you find out that it is too interesting to be true.

While dates and some documents seemed to support that I was descended from the person I discussed below, it turns out my McHenrys did not move from Pennsylvania to Louisiana after the war.  I have a different set of McHenrys entirely in my background, though both seemed to admire Benjamin Franklin and named sons after him.  My Benjamin Franklin McHenry did not descend from Matthew (below), but rather from a Benjamin Franklin McHenry, Sr, about whom I am still researching. 

Matthew's story is still interesting and I wish I could claim it on my tree, but it belongs to someone else and the last thing I want to do is appropriate someone elses history.  However, for any of you who do descend from Matthew Lowery McHenry (even though I got a bit of the story wrong) thank you for letting me borrow him, however erroneously, and thank you for your ancestor's service in the defense of our country and Union.
Matthew Lowery McHenry
One of the interesting delights of genealogy is finding out facts that no one seems to have passed on in the family.  Matthew Lowery is my mother’s ancestor, her second great grandfather, and yet he is, as she put jokingly, a “damn Yankee.”  Though his son moved to Louisiana towards the end of the Nineteenth Century, Matthew Lowery lived and died a Northerner from Columbia County, Pennsylvania.  He was born there on October 2, 1832 to a Scotch-Irish family.  In the census of 1860, Matthew Lowery’s information is sadly illegible, but in 1850, he was listed as a laborer working for a farmer who was also a potter.  In 1870, he was a farm laborer, so it seems safe to say that he was a farmer of some sort at the start of the war.  He married his wife Kate (I have not identified her family name yet) in 1860 as well, and they had two children by 1864.  Late in the war, on September 21, 1864, Matthew Lowery, at the age of 31, enlisted as a private in Company B of the 210th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  His unit was quickly sent to reinforce the armies already besieging Petersburg in Virginia.  He served around Petersburg, and the 210th was engaged in several small skirmishes until the city succumbed to U.S. Grant’s armies in April 1865.  The 210th then served with Grant’s forces until Robert E. Lee was forced to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.  After the victory of Union forces, the 210th was eventually moved to Washington, DC, where, on May 30, 1865, Matthew Lowery was mustered out and returned to his family in Pennsylvania.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Out Today; Punnisher #4

I missed plugging issue #3 which was also awesome, but today here is a review for issue #4 by Jason Serafino:

Punisher #4
What it’s about: For a character that hasn’t been able to star in a movie that's anything more than abysmal, the Punisher has had pretty good luck when it comes to high-profile comic talent. With Greg Rucka now handling the writing duties, Marvel’s latest take on Frank Castle’s war on crime is just as brutal as ever.

Aided by the incredibly grim art by Marco Checchetto, Punisher strays from the typical Spandex superhero story, but it’s also not as grounded as Garth Ennis’ Punisher Max. Somehow Rucka has found a perfect balance between street violence and fantasy, and it works surprisingly well.

What to expect this month: After a brutal battle with the Vulture last issue, which left the Punisher battered and broken in an alley, Frank Castle is now a wounded animal with nothing but vengeance on his mind. A very pissed off Frank Castle is left to track down the criminal empire known as The Exchange, in order to get revenge for a wedding day massacre that left dozens dead.

Along with Daredevil, Punisher is one of Marvel's best newly relaunched books. Incredibly violent, intricately plotted, and simply beautiful to look at, this title should be a lesson to the industry as to how a great comic begins with a great creative team. [Amen to THAT Jason, amen to that; ERF]
(available at

I am buying my issue this afternoon.  How about you?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Punisher Issue #2

So, today, Issue #2 of The Punisher, written by Greg Rucka, came out (  We are still early in a serious plot arc, but the character work, as well as the art, is outstanding.  I have yet to see any critical reviews, but my short review is, if you liked and were intrigued by Issue #1 (and you should have been and if you don't have it go and GET IT!) then this will keep you going.  However, there is no quick payoff, this is a slow-burn story.  We are in the middle of things and this issue ends in a cliff-hanger.  The action is furious but the meaning is only coming to us slowly.  Fortunately, Issue #3 is out on September 7.  The bad news after that is that Issue #4 is not scheduled until October 5.  Still, The Punisher is expertly working his way through the small fry bad guys on his way to the big fish, and it is an amazing character driven and artistically magnificent ride.

Check it out!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

I can't go, but you can!

If you live in the DC metro area, consider dropping by Labyrinth Games down in DC (near Eastern Market Metro stop) for the August 13 Gamerati Tour (Tour Stops: Saturday, August 13th).  Gamerati is an organization developed by Ed Healy to try to build and link communities of game players.  This month he is driving across the United States and stopping to showcase local game stores, their patrons, owners, and cultures.  Ed explains his thoughts behind his tour at the tour site linked above.  My own spin is that I think that he sees the building of strong community and social network ties helps expand interest and acceptance of different kinds of games and gamers, and this in terns offers commercial opportunities to stores and game producers.  And everyone wins.

Well, I wish him much luck.  I will be heading out of town that weekend, but anyone remotely interested in games, from Scrabble to Dungeons & Dragons, should head to Labyrinth Games to see what it is all about.  The store is fantastic and the owner and employees are incredibly nice and knowledgeable.  I should note that this is a store that is totally mom and kid friendly.  Even if you haven't played a game for a long time, you will find yourself right at home (and probably playing a game before long) at this store.

I think Ed may be capturing some video to showcase the store and may also be doing some recording for podcasting, etc.  I think the event will be interesting, and, if nothing else, you can pick up a fun new game and maybe meet some cool new folks you never met before.  Wish I could be there.  Give it a shot!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple opens the way to fun for the whole family

Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple  is a game by designer Daniel Solis and published by Evil Hat Productions.  The game comes as a beautiful and well-written little harback book that allows a group of players to tell fun and funny stories about young people trying to do the right thing and help people while getting themselves in and out of trouble.

As it turns out, I wrote one teeny tiny part of the book (most of page 37), but until Sunday I had never actually played the game.  Finally, after having the game for a few weeks, I was able to round up the family and we all set to telling a fun story.  Others have already explained how the game goes better than I can, but essentially, everyone playes by creating a character (a Pilgrim) to be part of the story.  The story is about solving a problem that someone has written a letter about (my contribution was one such letter).  Each person takes a turn being the storyteller, while everyone else gets to decide how people get into trouble (the troublemakers).  Play passes until the problem at the heart of of the game is solved with a happy ending or an unhappy ending.  We managed to achieve a happy ending in our first play.

The Pilgrims were Clumsy Kitten (Fiona), Foolish Tiger (Ian), Zany Panda (Evan) and Friendly Gecko (Laura).  We were asked to solve the letter entitled "Is it Safe to Allow Cabbages on Roller Coasters?"(page 31 in the main book). 

Here is the story we told:

Pilgrim Friendly Gecko climbed up the side of the rollercoasterat the amusement park to check its maintenance.  But, Pilgrim Friendly Geck talks to the Talking Sky Cabbages and makes them uncomfortable by being too friendly and smiley because they are pessimistic cabbages.  Pilgrim Clumsy Kitten helps by making sure that the thousand thugs of the Coleslaw Front don't come into the amusement park and warms everyone if they try to come in by purring loundly.  Unfortunately, Pilgrim Clumsy Kitten knocks a modified cart into a Talkin Sky Cabbage, starting a riot.  Pilgrim Zany Panda helps to calm down the Talking Sky Cabbages by giving each one a big panda hug, rescuing Pilgrim Clumsy Kitten.

One of the Coleslaw Front is disguised as a giant cabbage and is so freaked out because Zany Panda gave him a panda hug that he attacks Zany Panda.  Suddenly Pligrim Foolish Tiger leaps on the Coleslaw Front member and saves Zany Panda.  In his eagerness to save Zany Panda, Goolish Tiger trips into the controls of a nearby ride and sends the tallest, fastest rollercoaster into heartpounding action!  Bystandards start screaming and Pilgrim Friendly Gecko quickly climbs back down the rollercoaster.  Pilgrim Friendly Gecko decides to find George and she talks him into letting her see him in the Executive Bathroom.  However George sees how friendly she is and decides to lock her in with him.

Pilgrim Clumsy Kitten helps Hazel Harrington by stalling the Cabbages and purring for traffic control on the bumper cars, because Cabbages don't like bumping.  It is going well until the Coleslaw Front gets on the ride with the Cabbages and Clumsy Kitten knocks the controls up to "Greased Lightning" speed.  Zany Panda thinks that it is so hilarious that he picks up Hazel Harrington and flies them behind the controls of one of the bumper cars.  Pilgrim Foolish Tiger leaps off the ride and into line at the bumper cars.  A six-foot wide Cabbage rolls on top of Foolish Tiger because he cut in line. 

Pilgrim Friendly Gecko opens the windo of the executive bathroom and flies away from George.

Clumsy Kitten purrs loudly and flies to the control panel and turns the bumper car ride off.  Pilgrim Zay Panda reassures Ms. Harrington with a hug and politely helps her off the ride in front of the Cabbages and the Coleslaw Terrorists.  Zany Panda smiles happily while Hazel Harrington takes offense to his hugs and slaps him!

Foolish Tiger lauches the Cabbage off of him and into the air!  Unfortunately, the now flying Cabbage goes through the open window of the executive bathroom and the cabbage lands on the despondent George.

Pilgrim Friendly Gecko takes Hazel Harrington for a ride on the merry-go-round to cheer her up, so she's not mad at Zany Panda anymore.  The Cabbages, who were unfomfortable with Friendly Gecko before, now see her laughing and smiling with Hazel and think Friendly Gecko is making fun of them so them demand to speak to Goerge.

Pilgrim Clumsy Kitten flies to help George so he will not be mad at Foolish Tiger, but when she purrs at the six-foot tall Cabbage, it gets scared and falls out the window!  Zany Panda rushes over to correct Clumsy Kitten's accident so there is not another riot at Popsicore Park and uses his cushy cuddly body to break the Cabbage President's fall.  This pushes him into the new underground ride which was made especially for the Sky Cabbages.  Foolish tiger scares away the Coleslaw Front terrorists out from the park.

After the hardcore Coleslaw Front leaders leave, the Pilgrims help the rest who rode the bumper cards and had fun with the Cabbages become friends and pay to become yearly members of the park.  Hazel becomes the general manager of the park and Geroge comes out of the executive bathroom and everyone becomes Facebook Friends.

The End.

Monday, August 1, 2011

And more from my freind

I hope to post an actual play from my family's first run of Do, Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, but until then, I wanted to point out that on Wednesday, my friend Greg Rucka has a new (and well-reviewed) gig starting as the author behind the relaunch of the Marvel Universe character The Punisher (see

I'll be picking it up on Wednesday.  Hope you do too.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Something cool

I have not been much into web-comics.  My consumption of media is sporadic and ecclectic due to being busy and possibly a bit unfocussed.  However, this: Lady Sabre & The Pirates of the Ineffable Aether is going to rock.

Not much art has leaked out, but the beautiful drawing of a sabre promises much, and I have seen samples of other work by this artist, Rick Burchett, and it is wonderful.  The writer is none other than Greg Rucka, known for writing mainstream comic characters like Batman, Batwoman, Wonder Woman, Superman, Daredevil and Punisher, as well as his independent comic work, Whiteout, Queen & Country and Stumptown.  Also, he has a long resume of excellent suspense novels. 

Disclaimer, I have known Greg since we were both in high school, so I am totally biased, but I promise, if you read his work, you will not be disappointed.  He knows how to build a character, set a scene and he writes action like nobody's business.  He has been nominated and won multiple comic book and writer's awards, so he is a good bet.

Lady Sabre is going to be a new venture with elements of fantasy, science fiction, swashbuckling action and that ineffable aesthetic, Steampunk. 

I think it will be all good, because, even though there has not been much of a medium for Greg to write in this mode before, he knows it, loves it and will do right by it.

I can't wait for release day, July 11.  It is going to rock!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Variety of news

It has been busy and I have been remiss in getting updates into this blog.  Unfortunately, it appears to be a modus operandi with me a blogging.  Still, I am paving the road to Hell and all . . .

So, I have a couple of Zeppelin Armada reports to give, which may or may not happen.  We did play twice with the second round playtest rules and some of the changes were awesome and some made us wish for the old rules.  All in all, though, we were impressed with how responsive the designers were to the questions raised by the first round of testing.  The game is going to be really good, and I just hope it has good success once it is released.  The good thing about the company releasing it, Evil Hat, is that they don't push out products just to get them out.  They test and review very carefully, and I think we might be in a third round of testing.

In other news, a game I have been supporting is coming out, with the PDF already released. 

The game might be considered unusual until you realize that you have done this more informally around the campfire since you were a kid.  Essentially, you tell a story by taking turns in adding elements.  However, it is more structured, in that you use the mechanics of the game to help guide the development of the story (e.g. you may have a result that tells you the story requires some serious trouble to crop up, or alternatively you might have a result that tells you that it is time to narrate some great success or triumph).  It also has an interesting setting for the stories and gives a certain structure, because you are solving a problem or set of problems presented in a letter (the conceit is that people out in the world write a letter to the Flying Temple when they have a problem they cannot handle; some problems are serious, some humorous, some just off the wall, but they all provide a fun structure to the story you tell). 

So, I was interested in the game, and I contributed a letter that was to go in the first expansion to the game, a special Book of Letters.  However, much to my surprise, my letter did not get chosen for the Book of Letters.  Instead it appears in the main book! 

That's pretty awesome.  So, yes, I am biased, although I had no idea that something that I wrote would be published in the main game when I first signed up to preorder the book.  Modern publishing is pretty amazing.

So, check that out or ask me about it.  I am going to print out the rules this week and try to find some time to play.

On other fronts, my daughter finished elementary school last week, and I now no longer have any elementary school kids in my house.  It is a pretty strange feeling.  Some sense of pride, some sense of loss, happiness and bitersweetness all bound up together.

Of course, since the swim season quickly ensued, I have had little time to contemplate things as our Whetstone Whales swim team has a crackerjack season to get through over the next six weeks.

So, I may not blog again for a while.  In the meantime, join me is saying:


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Savage Worlds and Da Bomb

On Saturday, my son and I went to the wonderful Labyrinth Games to participate in their "Taste of Savage Worlds" event.  Labyrinth Games is a terrific game store on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.  The owner, Kathleen, has let the store host a series of "Taste of" events that showcase different games with a free session of play.  So, several weeks ago I signed Ian and I up to go and play Savage Worlds.

Savage Worlds is a table top role playing game (RPG) published by Pinnacle Entertainment Group  and the basic rulebook costs about $10, which is hard to beat. I had never played Savage Worlds before, though I had heard of the game.  I did no research before we went to play.  My son, on the other hand, found a lot of information online and created one or more characters ahead of time.

We had a really good time (which I will go into in detail below), but first, one gripe.  Transit on a nice day in May in Washington, DC SUCKS.  We got to park for free at the end of the Red Metro Line, which was all well and good, and we gave ourselves an hour and a half to arrive from our end of the Red Line to Eastern Market on the Orange/Blue line, and we arrived in good time (we had maybe 15 minutes to look around the shop, talk to people and then get down to play).  Getting home was pretty much a royal pain.  We did dinner in town, and then had to wait a long time for a ludicrously full train to stop and not have room to pick us up, and then wait a longer time to get a train to go to transfer at Metro Center.  There, we waited about half an hour with a LOT of people for a train to finally come.  On a Saturday night.  And then, when we finally got to get on a train and stand for  most of the trip, they were doing track work, which meant we had another 15 minute stop in limbo while we waited our turn to pass through the single track area.  Now, I am a big supporter of public transit, and I think, in general, Metro does all right.  However,  when going to a four hour event takes almost four hours of transit, that makes deciding to take transit over driving or some other alternative (like not going and spending money in DC) more attractive. 

Still, even with transit woes, we had a good time.  I do wish that the market made sense to have a branch of Labyrinth Games in the little mall across the street from my neighborhood, but that's never going to happen, so I just have to be very happy that such a great store is reasonably close to me at all.

So, as far as playing Savage Worlds, there are two things that will make or break the event.  First, of course, is whether or not the game and its rules, in and of themselves make sense and are fun.  I can report that Savage Worlds appears to be a very solid and fun game.  It is advertised as "multi genre" (rather than generic), which means that it is flexible enough to be used in lots of different settings with an emphasis on fast and action packed play (so it could handle anything, to use some cinematic References, from the Silverado, to Raiders of the Lost Ark, to Lord of the Rings, to Terminator, or Mad Max).  The second ingredient is the people.  We did well in this regard too.  At our table, besides Ian and I, were Paul, our Game Master, Bob (who apparently helped organize the event, and he did a great job (and brought cookies)), and Chris.  Everyone was very nice, very relaxed, and there to have fun.

There were two other tables with different games.  If I have a regret, it is that we were not able to play all the games being run, because they all sounded and looked pretty fun.  Of the games we did not play, I don't know which one was better, because both looked pretty awesome.  One was apparently something like Sam Spade meets Inception meets Call of Cthulhu.  The other was something like the Wild West with Witchcraft (maybe Cowboys and Wizards instead of the forthcoming "Cowboys and Aliens" [which is something else Savage Worlds could probably handle)).  Both those talbes were packed and people had lots of loud fun dealing with the stories told.

Ours was great as well, and thus I save the best (because we were playing it) for last.  Our setting was "Darwin's World" a post apocalyptic survival game with mutants and radiation.  Our GM Paul had pre-made characters ready, and we got to customize them with our mutations, as we were all mutants.  Ian ended up with a vigilant guard who had toxic skin and a lethal sting.  Bob was the other warrior and was some kind of huge, winged reptilian.  Chris was, I think, slightly glowing and immune to radiation.  I had the healer of the group, and I was both mute and I stank and I had underdeveloped lung capacity so I was not good at certain survival things, like running.  Not all mutations exactly gave you superpowers.  Anyway, I named my mutant Red Cross (which Paul wrote down as Redd Xross) and indicated that he had a big red cross painted on his shirt so he could point to it to indicate his name (being mute and all).

It was a fun mix.

We were told to report for a little job.  The feel was like a frontier town, so a bit of a Western, with mutants and radiation thrown in.  Of course, just getting the job was hard as some kind of "bad guy" group was already trying to steal the packaged we were supposed to deliver.  We had a big fight and got to learn how combat works in Savage Worlds (pretty well).  It turned out that Chris and Ian's fortes were marksmanship with rifles.  Bob was one terrifying killer with a katana.  I got lucky with my pistol once and thought I was a gunfighter (turned out later, I was wrong and just got lucky once).  We rescued our erstwhile boss and he gave us the package to deliver.

We did have a vehicle, so it started to turn a bit more like Mad Max, but we did not actually have any vehicle combat.

Instead, we found the village we were going to almost empty, except for a few kids left on guard.  They volunteered to go with us to look for their families, as some big bad group (again, think the marauders from Mad Max) was out after everyone trying to get some prize piece of technology.  Turned out there was an old weapons lab nearby.  We went and checked it out.  We were not finding the adults from the village, though we spotted the bad guys flying mutants chasing something far away on the ground.

Our next big fight was in the parking lot of the lab.  It was a long complicated fight.  The best result was that we managed to keep the over enthusiastic kids from getting hurt.  However, we had to fight a huge flying poisonous snake/worm thing that could turn invisible.  In the end, it wrapped around Ian's character and tried to fly off with him.  Chris shot it out of the air and Bob caught Ian (remember, Bob could fly) and managed to make sure they both did not die in the fall.  I was mostly useless, and in the middle of the fight, a bunch of radioactive zombies showed up and had me surrounded.  We were running out of time for the game, so after managing to kill the big flying creature, Paul narrated the ending. 

The villagers showed up and polished off the zombies.  They were gratified that the kids were still alive and explained that the big marauder guys had killed the original recipient of our package (she sacrificed herself by drawing them off, riding a motorcycle).  So, we presented the package to her sister who said it was a key to get an atomic bomb. 

We broke into the research lab, got into the vault and repaired the equipment to load the bomb onto a flat bed truck.  Of course then the marauder guys showed up, and they seemed to think the bomb belonged to them.

A narrated running fire fight ensued, but with our brave mutant characters' help, the villages would get the bomb back to the frontier outpost where they traded it for protection and incorporation and we got made special citizens.

All in all, it was quite fun.  I though Paul did especially well in taking us through how the game worked without belaboring anything.  The game was all in all, fast paced and fun.

If I had any disappointment, it was that the second combat got bogged down, and that we had to have a narrated rather than played through ending.  However, Paul drove a very long way to come run the game, and on the whole, he did a great job, so I can't fault the pacing too much, as he was dealing with three out of four players that had never done the game before.

It was really a good fun for an afternoon.  It also made a long day because of the transit issues, so we can't do too many of these.  Still, we will watch to see what more Labyrinth has to offer because the store runs a great event.

Now I have to think about what in future I might run with Savage Worlds.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Playtest: Zeppelin Armada - Phase 3 (Some Explanations)

Fred Hicks, one of the guiding lights at Evil Hat Productions, has a good post about the game that I and my family have had a chance to play test, giving some evocative quotes and summaries about the game from some of the other play testers.  I wanted to take a moment to post again about the game, but from a slightly different perspective.

The other day, a neighbor who had seen some of my playtest posts asked me what it was I was doing.  The idea of this kind of game and the design process, including play testing, was outside of his experience, and, as I looked through his eyes and his questions, I could see that my writing was completely in a foreign language for him.  Whether or not it is coherent enough for people more on the inside of gaming is not for me to say, but I though I would do my best to, as a post script to the whole experience, try to more expansively describe what the playtest experience was about and what was this game we were playing.

I won't claim that I am such a good communicator that anyone will be able to understand from what I write, but I hope that I can be more clear and more detailed in this capstone to allow this to be more accessible and more understandable. 

And maybe it can, in some small way, bring people more towards the world of game playing that I enjoy and that the game, Zeppelin Armada, represents.

So, let me define first what my role was in the game design process, and then explain what the game itself was about (while protecting the still in development intellectual property of the game).

Games and the Design Process:

Games are part of almost every human culture throughout time.  Many games have been with us for a long time and they take lots of different shapes.  Some are games we play as children with various amounts of rules, such as tag, Red Rover, Sardines, hopscotch, 4-square, etc.  Some of these games require a certain number of people of equipment, but the knowledge of these games are pretty much passed down on the playgrounds of the world, if not from parent to child.  Other games like Chess, Checkers, and a million card games (poker, bridge, spades, hearts, canasta, pinochle) are more formal in their components (a board, chess pieces, decks of cards, etc.) and rules.  Many of these games are hundreds or even thousands of years old in their origin.

Then, we also have more modern games that we have grown up with.  Their age may be measured in perhaps a century or decades, but we know them well and love them.  These are games like Monopoly, Risk, Sorry, Stratego, Clue, Life, etc.  Generally, they are considred "board games" because their central feature is that there is a board that is the center of the game's action, and while there may be cards, dice, and game pieces to move around, the board definse the game for us.

If you think about how many games there are (maybe how many are just stuffed in your closet or on a shelf in your basement) you begin to realize how many games have come and gone.

And yet, we love games, and creative people love to make and sell games and new ones continue to appear.  Some are destined to be classics, many are destined to entertain for a play or two and then gather dust.

Yet, how is a game made today?

While I don't think there is a single "scientific" process, there are definite phases of development which a successful game has to go through.  It starts with an idea from an individual or group of designers who want to do something through a game.  The idea may start as a particular mechanic (way you play a game) or theme (what the game is about, like Clue is about solving a murder mystery or Monopoly is about making money) or some combination.  From the basic idea, you have to come up with the medium of play (a board, cards, dice, hand gestures, whatever), determine the goal (have the most money, capture the king, get around the board first, etc.) and form the rules (who goes first, how are pieces moved, when is it somebody else's turn, etc.). 

That can be, you might expect, a lot of work.  There can be, I think, a lot of trial and error.  From moving from the starting idea to a rough outline of why you play (goal), how you play (rules) and where you play (medium [e.g. on a board]) is a lot of work.  And, of course, once you have all that done, the designer can think that it all makes perfect sense.  But, until the game is explained to and played with other people outside of the design group, there is no way to know if the game really works and really is fun.

So, you have to start testing the game, and thus, the playtest. 

Typically, I think a game goes through an "in house" playtest.  That is, the designer or design group plays with people they know and explain and guide the play.  This is good, because the designers can be challenged to explain and clarify issues about how the game is played and to start to deal with design issues which they may not have thought of (what happens if two players are in the same space?).  The down side of this, is that because the game is still under the direct control of the designers, it is hard to tell if the game will work out in the real world. 

Have you ever noticed how many times you learn a game because someone explains it to you, rather than reading the rules?  Games often are transmitted much more easily from an experienced player to a new player.  Rules are looked up in novel situations, and to settle disputes, but often, most players never read through the whole rule book.

However, with a new game, the game will not spread far if the designers have to go and explain the game play to you personally.  Instead, they have to be able to write rules and provide components (board, cards, dice, whatever) that are sufficiently clear and self-explanatory so that someone whom the designer will never meet can buy the game, read the rules, and play and (most importantly) have fun.

So, that is why an external playtest is important.  The external playtest releases the rules and components to one or more outside groups to review and play on their own.  Then, as they run across things that don't seem clear or that don't seem to work in a game, they can give feedback to improve the rules, or to improve how the rules are written, and to improve and hone the game.

Some games will go through multiple external playtests, so that the game play and written rules can be really polished and ready for eventual marketing.

And that, of course, is the next move.  Once playtest is over and the game is "done," then the work begins.  You have to figure out how to manufacture the compoents (rule book, board, cards, dice, etc. etc.),  How to assemble those components.  How to package the game.  How to pay for the labor that goes into all of those things, and establish a market, and figure out storage, shipping, and pricing.

And eventually, people have to learn about the game, play it, like it, and most importantly, buy it.  That is, if you are doing this commercially.

And, since I am not actually either a professional or amateur game designer, I probably left out some steps, but, I think you get the idea.  The process of creating a game is pretty complex, time consuming, and potentially costly.

So, where did I fit in as far as this new game, Zeppelin Armada?

Me and the Playtest

My family and I were selected to participate in the initial external playtest of the game.

How did this happen?  Well, I keep tabs on a few blogs by smart people who do interesting things.  One of them is Fred Hicks, whom I mentioned above, and one day he mentioned that he was looking for playtesters for this new game in development by Evil Hat.  On impulse, I responded with my interest, and I was one of the first five who responded in the manner he requested.  We got added into a google group which was created to manage the external playtest process, and within days, I had access to the draft rules and the files from whcih I could create the essential components of the game to try it out.

This was my first time as a playtester, and it was exciting to be part of a creative process which is going to result in a game that goes out to the public.

So, what we had to do was, of course, play the game.  We also had to record how things went in the game and respond to a questionaire each time we played.  In it, we addressed specific questions the designers had about how the game went, and also had an opportunity to give opinions and observations about what we liked and did not like about the game.

We sent all that in (by e-mail) and our input, along with the other testers, is all be considered in a redraft of the game. 

We will be participating in a second round of testing which will examine the revised game.

And let me just say, as an aside, that the information super highway really makes this process a lot easier than it has ever been.

And what do we get paid?  We get credit and thanks in the printed materials when the game comes out.  For a small game company like Evil Hat, the reward is really to participate in the creative process.  If successful, we might get a copy of the game, but that is not really the point.  The point is to do something fun and constructive with interesting and fun people.

All in all, it has been a good experience.

The Game Itself

So, what is the game?

It is not a computer game.  Nor is it really a board game.

It is a game centered around a fun theme: Zeppelins and villains. 

Zeppelins were, for a short time, an important civilian and miliatry form of air transport.  During the 1930s especially, they fueled people's imagination and romantic sense of travel, adventure and scientific progress.  While the Hindenburg crash did not end the Zeppelin era, per se, it took the shine off of it.  Still, many look back to that time and cannot help but imagine wild and amazing adventures centered around Zeppelins.  This is especially true because the Zeppelin Age was also the age of the pulp fiction hero.  From detectives (think Sam Spade) to masked vigilantes (like The Shadow, or The Green Hornet) to space heros (like Flash Gordon), this era of pop culture burst with amazing adventures of derring do and mad science.

So, the idea of the game is to take your flagship and fleet of Zeppelins and rule the air.  You play not as a hero, but rather as one of several competing villains, the kind who would have given Flash Gordon or Doc Savage a run for their money.

Each player gets to choose a villain and his or her flagship, and then builds an armada to take down the other players and rule the skies.

The game is a card game, in that the play centers on cards, but not from a traditional deck, with traditional cards in suits (hearts, spades, etc.).  Instead, the cards are a combination of game pieces, like those you might use in Risk or Battleship, and game effects, like the Chance or Community Chest cards in Monopoly.

Besides cards, there are a few other things needed which come, not with the game, but from things you are likely to have around the house.  Some dice (traditional cube, six sided), a coin, and some counters (could be beads, stones, or other coins), just some things to help keep track of stuff that is going on in the game.

After choosing a villainous flagship, each player gets a number of Zeppelins with which to start an armada.  Rather than a board, each player has a formation of Zeppelin cards.  They have to be around the flagship, so that, at any one time, the most there can be down is a three by three square of Zeppelin cards, centered on the flagship.  Each Zeppelin has different qualities that help define how good it is in battle.

Each player then also gets a hand of cards.  These cards may include additional Zeppelins that can be played, as well as weapons with which to launch attacks on rivals, characters that can be played on Zeppelins to make they work better (for yours) or work worse (for your opponents), conditions that change the way the game is played, and events that can help you or hurt your opponents.

The game proceeds in turns, and each player gets to make decisions about how to play cards, discard cards and draw cards.  Attacks against fellow players are frequent, and really, the ultimate point of the game.  You are trying to be the last one standing, just like Risk, for example.

The game, once you get the rules and understand the different qualities of Zeppelins, etc., plays pretty fast.  Still, a whole game goes, generally about a hour and a half. 

It is a very directly competative game.  You are trying to directly beat the other playes by eliminating them (again, like Risk or Battleship).  If you play in the spirit of fun, it can be great to blow up your opponent's vessels, play a card to escape certain destruction of your own airships, and to try to be the most daring and merciless villain to cut a swath of destruction through the skies.

We are very much looking forward to trying out the new and improved game and doing what we can to suggest any additional changes that will help bring it out of testing and into production so that someday, not to long from now, anyone can pick up a deck, pull together a few things that are around the house, and engage in a battle royale for control of the skies.

I hope, in my long winded, way, I have explained what I have been up to and why.

Play on!

Friday, April 29, 2011

Superman renounces U.S. Citizenship or how to write badly

So, in the historic Action Comics 900, which invented in many ways the Superhero genre when it introduced Superman in 1938 with Action Comics 1, one of the short pieces has Superman declaring that he will "speak before the United Nations . . . and inform them that I am renouncing my U.S. Citizenship." The story was written by David S. Goyer and titled "The Incident."

There has been all kinds of reaction all over the net and cable TV and plenty of stupid things have been said. The analysis has been shallow on both sides and focuses on the act, rather than whether the story itself holds together.

My thesis here, is that it is a bad story that does not hold together. My thesis can also be summed up as "you don't pull on Superman's cape." Superman is a character with a lot of history and who is quite embedded in the American psyche. He exists in a imaginary universe where by dealing with larger than life issues, he illuminates things about our real world from kindness, to humanity, to heroism, to sacrifice. Superman has been done well and done poorly over his run. Superman seems to work best when his stories are told in the world of fantasy of the DC Comics universe. Bringing in more of the real world has to be handled very carefully. When you just throw in "real world" elements without carefully considering how to integrate such elements into a fictional universe you end up with a discordant and quite possibly silly outcome.

It can be done, but you can't just throw it out there. I would cite Greg Rucka's run on Wonder Woman, which focused as much on her role as Ambassador to the U.N. from the island of the Amazons, Themyscira, as it did on her role as a superhero. If you read those stories, you see how carefully the stories are plotted to blend the gonzo universe of superheroes with mythic, alien, magical, super science, etc. etc. orgins, with a discourse about political, ethical and religious beliefs. Not easy, but, when approached carefully, very satisfying.

I have to say that Goyer utterly fails. The central plot revolves around Superman flying over to Iran (not one of the DC Universes made up countries, but a real country where things are really happening) to witness a protest. He does not do any intervention other than appearing on the ground. This then supposedly causes an international incident as Iran accuses the U.S. of an act of war by sending Superman. Superman is confronted by a member of the U.S. administration who chides him, and he responds that he is going to announce that he is renouncing his U.S. citizenship in order to work more on a global level.


In my opinion, just dumb, unearned and poorly thought out.


When you write any iconic character, you have to serve the character. You don't bend it to your will to make your point. That does not mean that you can't make your point, if it is in line with the character, but you have to be subtle and respect the source material. Goyer fails.

If you are talking about having Superman intervening in real world events, you start down the road of wondering where Superman is for all the real world events. Why didn't he stop 9/11? Why hasn't he seized Gadaffi. Why wouldn't he disarm nuclear armed countries? You have to live with the conceit that Superman exists to deal with out sized threats to the earth, but he does not exist to solve all of the world's problems. He is not our dictator or ruler or supreme interventionist. He is Earth's protector and servant, but we all still have to do the hard work of making and not breaking our world.

Goyer story paints a Superman who has decided to start meddling in messy, complicated international affairs. But he does so out of the blue. No ground work, no development, no thought. And then, he delivers the punchline, sure to churn the news cycle and to go into reprints, but that makes no sense, the vow to renounce U.S. citizenship.

Superman is a genius, he would have thought a few things through and remembered his history. Goyer is clearly not at his best here, and has not done his homework.

For Superman to renounce citizenship, you have to go through the gyrations of figuring out what citizenship he has. That opens another can of worms that Goyer just doesn't consider. Lots of versions of Superman's origins exist. In some, he is born on Krypton and then sent to the Earth, crash landing in Kansas to end up in an orphanage, or to be taken in by the Kents, or found by the Kents, taken to an orphanage and then adopted by them. At least one version had him in a "birthing matrix", which did not actually "birth" him until it landed in the United States (thus Superman is "born" on Earth in the U.S.). If there is going to be citizenship to renounce, Goyer has to settle which story of Superman's origin gives him any citizenship of the U.S. in the first place. Interestingly, there are considerations of this our on the internet -- link.

A number of legal theories could give Clark Kent, the person that Superman really is, U.S. Citizenship. And that is another thing that Goyer has forgotten. Greg Rucka (one of my favorite authors), has cogently said that Superman is the alter ego, but Clark Kent is the real person, who Superman really is. Whereas for Bruce Wayne, Batman is who he really is, and Wayne is just someone he has to pretend to be to do his job. So, if Superman is renouncing his citizenship, what about Clark (not to mention Mrs. Superman, Lois Lane)? Now, maybe, Goyer could have salvaged this by dealing with the "honorary citizenship" route. At one point, I believe, Superman was granted honorary citizenship in all countries who were part of the United Nations. His story could have had Iran revoke that honorary citizenship and still be provoked by Superman as a tool of the West and the U.S. and then Superman, for a more global perspective, might renounce all his honorary citizenships before the UN, to say that he, as Superman, would always act as some sort of "world citizen." Still not the best, but not nearly as dumb and in the weeds as this story.

Further, Superman can't renounce his citizenship without Clark Kent renouncing. And, it is not a straight-forward process. Generally, you need to leave the U.S. and renounce before a consular official of the U.S. Just making a speech before the UN has no effect. There is paperwork and there are interviews, and there would be a confirmation of identity and a confiscation of any passport.

Well, does Superman have a passport? Clark Kent probably does, but Superman? Would Superman out his secret identity to renounce? What really could happen? Why is Goyer dragging us into the bureaucratic weeds? Superman filling out paperwork and having us ask whether he has a passport is lame.

Goyer not having thought this through when Superman, who is brilliant and extremely well-informed, has failed the character.

Epically failed in my estimation.

The whole thing falls apart.

And after the news cycle churn and the second and third run of the comic happens, then, I expect that it will be mostly forgotten or soon taking out of continuity as if it had never happened.

Because it is dumb.

A smarter more careful writer might, just might have made something of this, but there are better stories to tell and a way to make the points without miring the Man of Steel in the messiness of real world immigration paperwork.

Superman is American, and born of dreams and imagination that happened in America. But he represents the best in humanity, and the irony is, of course, that he is not human, but a "strange visitor from another planet." Superman stories have to capture the strength, the brilliance, and the vulnerability of a person who can move planets, but who knows he cannot do it all alone. Goyer lost Superman's sense of wonder and power and moral authority in his story. And, for Action Comics 900, that is a shame.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Playtest: Zeppelin Armada - Phase 2 (Game 2)

Continuing my family's playtest quest with Evil Hat's card game in development, Zeppelin Armada, I, my son and my father (retired mathematician born in the 30's) sat down to play a game. Dad is a good game player and a good sport, but a game with this many different bits is not generally up his alley. Nonetheless, for his son and his grandson, he was willing to give it a try.

We decided this time, at my son's demand, to choose our flag ships. He really wanted to play Der Blizmann. My dad chose the Mathmagician, Dr. Mathuselah, and I chose Kahn, Gorilla Kahn!!!!!!

It was no problem to explain how the game starts and getting dad to lay out his Zeppelins. My son and I got our armadas arranged and we started with our dealt hands. We rolled a die to determine who would go first, and the die came up with my dad's numbers. I took the lead in helping him sort through the different kinds of cards. We each took a fairly conservative approach to our opening game, but I got a card that forced me to attack every turn or lose a Zeppelin, so I started blasting away fairly early and the rounds of back and forth attacks never really ceased.

I was able to play more strategically this time, often using my ability to yoink attack cards (due to fast fleet speed) to just get attacks I did not want to see used against me off the board and then discard them in favor of trying to draw cards that were of more help.

My dad was fairly even handed in his attacks, pounding both my armada and that of my son. However, he did (properly) assess that my son was the more dangerous opponent, and soon began concentrating more on him.

On the other hand, my son pretty much concentrated on wiping me out. I was able to pull a few tricks, such as pulling one of his best Zeppelins from the "dead" Zep pile with a reaction card to put in my fleet, but in the end, I went down in flames. The thing about the game, though, is that playing is plenty entertaining, so losing, for me, does not have to terrible a sting. I was out for about another 20 or so minutes as the regular game finished up.

Naturally enough, I became my dad's advisor, and pretty soon we had taken my son's armada down and finished his flag ship off with an Event that does non-attack damage to any Zeppelin. That was a clean and clear win for my dad.

My son, however, always the designer and never without an opinion of how a game can improve, felt that he should have been able to use a special power of his damaged flag ship to shift damage to his other remaining Zeppelin. The text on the flagship pretty clearly forbids this, as it only works on attack damage and the Even card was specifically non-attack.

However, he persuaded us to continue to play a "what if" scenario. If he had been able to shunt damage over, then what. Well, we exteneded our play out another 15 minutes to find out. He staged a little bit of a comeback, but by the end of the 15 minutes, he was down to just his flagship, which my dad decisively took down again.

So, much to my son's chagrin, the what if was answered that, after 15 more minutes of suffering, he still would have lost. Still he believed that the change would be a good one. This I dutifully included in the formal playtest report.

One other "new" think for us in this game was that we used cards (probably because of our more aggresive discarding) much more rapidly, such that we had to reshuffle the deck after we ran out of attack/event/reaction/character cards. The Zeppelins, once out of play, don't, as a rule, come back. So we did reshuffle the non-Zep cards and created a new draw pile. I am not sure if this was specifically covered in the draft rules, but it seemed to make sense.

The bottom line was again that the game was good fun. It is a lot to track for a card game, and one thing about some cards that stay in play is that they all seem to have different triggers for leaving play. One will have to be discarded when a new Zeppelin is played, another if you play a Reaction. This can get to be a lot to track and remember. I think we may have had at least one instance where a card did not get immediately discarded when it was supposed to because of the complexity.

Still, this is not the most complex game out there, and if, as my son has suggested, the final version has something like a checklisted "reminder card" included for each player, that would mostly eliminate these issues for the casual or beginning player.

Though my dad won, he was a bit amused and bemused at the whole process. He definitely participated in and enjoyed the game, but it was not his kind of game. I would not want to pidgeon hole anyone based on age or any other characteristic, but I think there is going to be only a narrow slice of my dad's contemporaries who will have much interest in Zeppelin Armada as a regular game to play. Still, the playability and fun of the game ought to appeal to a broad spectrim of game players.

Hopefully, our responses back to Evil Hat will assist in fine tuning the game and getting it to market that much quicker.

I want to thank Fred and Jeff and all the other hard working members of the Evil Hat team who made it possible for us to play. It has been a very interesting experience.

So, it is possible there will be no more playtest posts, but, stick around. I might have one or two other things to say, and they might even be interesting.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A short word about a great shop!

Today I had the chance to go by Labyrinth Games on Capitol Hill (near Eastern Market) in Washington DC. This is a fabulous store. I met the owner, Kathleen, and one of her staff and they were fantastic. They were totally helpful, interested in games, in the games I played and in what I was looking for. This is a local business for DC that deserves support and success. Though it is out of my way, I will do what I can to go by because it will be a great place to find out about and try out new games. If you like games, give this place a try. It is a gem!

Playtest: Zeppelin Armada - Phase 2 (interlude)

Here's a link to see Ian and Fiona playing the game when they were getting along.  Thanks to Fred Hicks for posting.

Playtest: Zeppelin Armada - Phase 2 (Game 1)

Monday night I, my 11 year old daughter, Fiona, and 13 year old son, Ian, sat down and played a full game of Zeppelin Armada.  We decided to add an additional 10 damage counters to our supply (I had started with 20) based on Ian's experience when he yoiked the game the other night.  Our experience was different, however, and we did not need them all.  We had few wounded Zeppelins, but lots that got just blown out of the sky.  Also, we added a coin for a coin toss as well as the miniature golf arcade token, which we used as an indicator of a bonus a particular Zeppelin flagship could apply.

Every player starts with a flagship, and each flag ship is commanded by one of the pulp villains in Evil Hat's Spirit of the Century (SotC) RPG univerese (two male characters, Dr. Methuselah and Der Blitzmann; two female characters, Rocket Red and Princess Cyclone; and one non-human, Gorilla Khan(!!!)).

So, with our full kit assembled, we set to play.  We randomly dealt our flagship cards and Ian got Dr. Methuselah, Fiona got Princess Cyclone, and I got Rocket Red.  As a quick diversion, we consulted one of my copies of SotC and checked out the stats and pictures of Dr. Methuselah and Rocket Red.  Princess Cyclone appears to be a new creations, and had no picture we could find.  However, Fiona set to remedy this, splitting time between the game and drawing her own illustration of her Martial Weather Witch.

We each got to draw our starting Zeppelins, and Fiona and I each had very fast fleets, which put us on top for the card capturing mechanic of "yoinking."  We rolled to see who started first, and Ian started us off.  Position and order are important in this game, as, for one thing, it determines who can attack whom and when.  Clockwise around the table, there was Ian, then me, then Fiona.  I could attack Ian with my right (he could retaliate with his left).  I could attack Fiona with my left and she attack me with her right.  Her left was posed against Ian's right.

We began with good natured table talk and helpful advice to each other as cards were getting played for the first time.  Ian, after having carefully absorbed the game already, was the clear person to beat.  Fiona and I had a lot of tit for tat attacks against each other, especially after Ian got an early card that blocked all attacks from my right against his left.  Strategically then, I made the fateful decision to try to take out Fiona (yes, picking on my little girl) to try to get to Ian).  Fiona, concentrated a lot of attacks on me, although she also split and hit Ian too.  All in all, though, the battle was one sided from the beginning, because as Fiona and I blew each other out of the sky, and Ian jumped in and caused us problems, Ian built a bigger and bigger armada.

Strategically, I would have done better to try to encourage non-aggression with Fiona, and in fact should have figured out how to support her as a proxy against Ian, since he was immune pretty much to my attacks.  Well, it was fun just blasting away with big Zeppelins and explosive, electrical, kinetic, etc. attacks, and to pull out Events and Reactions that helped frustrate and confound your opponents.  Late in the game, we started seeing some Characters (basically special "crew" that can get placed on Zeppelins, though not all are actually helpful (and you can play them on your opponents)) appear.  Too late for me.  Between Ian and Fiona, I was crushed a little over an hour into the game.  However, I had crippled Fiona pretty bad, and Ian, as Dr. Methuselah seemed triumphant.

Then, the fact that it was after 9 pm and a brother and sister faced off against each other began to show.  This is a very personally competitive game.  There are no abstract winning of tricks or lucky cards.  You decide to do things (like attack) to specific opponents.  Tired and grumpy kids turn out to be frustrated by the course of such a game, and Fiona felt that her brother was smugly unbeatable, and decided, after a couple of turns of playing with me as advisor, that she no longer was interested (and that Ian was mean, and he always wins games, etc. (she is, after all, 11)). 

So, I took over Princess Cyclone.  I gave Ian a run for his cards.  I even made his flagship "flip" first.  This is another mechanic where instead of being destroyed, the first time a flagship takes a certain amount of damage, it transforms into a weaker version of itself, but keeps on fighting and commanding the fleet.  Despite this satisfying outcome, Ian had my, now borrowed, flagship flipped the next turn, and soon, my defenses were spent and he blew me out of the sky.

So, this write up is not about the formal technical aspects of the playtest, though I have hit upon a few points.  This is more about how things went and what social (and emotional) impressions we had.  In general, everyone had fun.  Ian, as winner, had a lot of fun.  I had fun, despite being the biggest loser.  Fiona, had some fun.  She liked the theme, and early on, when it was anyone's game, she enjoyed it.  However, there is a lot to keep track of, and as the game grew to be one sided, with things falling Ian's way again and again, she had less fun.  This was, of course, impacted by the fact that she was tired and the game was going late.  Normally, she would not walk away from the table, but, as you all probably know, siblings are often simultaneously best friends and bitter rivals.  This is true for my kids.  They have a lot of congruent interests and can get along incredibly well.  They also can fight like cats and dogs, use inappropriate words and inappropriate force with each other, and generally drive each other (and their parents) crazy.

So, mixing that with a new and highly competative game, was a little explosive.

That aside, the test went well.  The game proved to be very playable and fun.  The theme is imaginative and goofy and exciting.  The mechanics work well.  There are important mechanical and social issues to consider in building your tactics and strategy in the game.  We have a few observations to share with the designers, and hopefully, our thoughts, with those of the other testers, will make it an even better, polished and exciting game.

Now, my next planned test would be to include my dad, who arrives with my mom tomorrow, in a test this weekend.

We shall see.