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.

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.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


So, in the new prototype game from Evil Hat (, Zeppelin Armada, the designer uses the term "yoink" to describe a particular card seizing mechanic used in the game.  At first, as I read the rules, I thought this might be a quaint informalism that might get polished out of the rules.  However, I soon realized that it was a very important and particular term of art.  And, as you will see, my son easily adopted the term (and the ethos) so I would say it's a keeper.

Sunday I had intended to get in a game of Zeppelin Armada and report a playtest thereafter.  One thing and another and the day got to busy and we were scheduled to have dinner with friends at one of our neighbor's houses that evening.  We took some games, though we usually end up just chatting after dinner, but I threw in the game components, just in case.

Later in the evening, while we were sitting around the table talking, I heard my son shout from downstairs in our neighbor's basement "Fireball!"

I realized, that my carefully assembled game had been yoinked!

I did not get to observe, supervise or record the play, so it is not likely a great playtest from a scientific point of view.

However, within an hour I did an audio recorded interview using my smartphone and discussed what had happened with my son and sent that off as a first installment on my promise to playtest.  Ian had some interesting observations.  As we play more, we will see how they develop for us.

And, just as a preview of "the future" we did do a full playtest Monday night.  I just need to write it up . . .

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Playtest: Zeppelin Armada - Phase 1 (Assembly)

Evil Hat Productions (, an independent game publisher with many local ties to the DC Metro area is developing a new card game, which I and my family have been selected to playtest.  This means that we will give the game a workout through playing several times and providing feedback.  The tentative title of the game is "Zeppelin Armada" and that may be more descriptive than poetic, but it gets the job done.  Part of playtest is to give feedback on every aspect of the game through actual play and reaction to the game by players, so if we have a "better" idea for any part, we can certainly suggest it.

We have not yet played so far.  Today was simply assembly.  The deck consists of 100 cards, and the playtest package came as several digital files, including rules and images of the cards (just text and numbers, art and design is coming later).  So, first, I had to assemble the cards.

Fortunately today, I happened to be cleaning out the computer armoire, so I came across enough pages of light cardstock to print the cards on.  It was something of a task to cut all 100 cards out with scissors, but, thanks to another resource I had on hand, I did not have to worry about how exactly precise I was in cutting up the cards.  My son, Ian, has, left over from his days as a Yu Gi Oh enthusiast, a bunch of card protective card sleeves.  Basically, they have a clear cover and an opaque back and hold a card so it is not damages by prolonged use.

These held my cut up cardstock easily and made the sizes uniform, no matter how uneven I had been with the scissors.  Towards the end, I had to scrounge around for the last several sleeves (Ian is not the most organized with his things, but then, he is his father's son).  In the end, I had two different colors of sleeves, but enough so that the distinction won't give away the card.  Also, I did not need sleeves for five of the cards, which are double sided.  I printed them on the cardstock and folded the front and back together, gluing them with a glue stick and then cutting them out.  These double thickness cards should be sturdy through the playtest and they are never put in the deck, so it does not matter that they are a little different.

Reading through the rules, besides the card sleeves and the card stock, I have to come up with some counters that track damage to individual Zeppelin cards, some dice to keep track of maximum Zeppelin speed, and a coin (used for one or more special powers associated with some cards).  This does seem a bit fiddly, but no more than many other popular games (e.g. Magic the Gathering) that center on cards.

Looking over the different kinds of cards, what they do, and examining the rules, this looks like a fun game with some interesting possibilities.  I can't wait to sit down and play.  One of my "selling points" to get a playtest slot was that I would include my kids in the play, so we got feedback from the 11 and 13 year old set.  I am pretty sure that Ian will love the game.  I am not sure about Fiona.  She loves to win games, but I am not sure if this will be too fiddly for her.  We shall see.

Tomorrow will likely be the first play.  I hope to report soon thereafter.

A new leaf

This is my second regular blog.  The first, though I had a few good posts here and there in the last years (especially my narrative about my anniversary trip to Paris last year) it has become hard to manage, especially since it is blocked at my work place (like I am expected to work at work; who knew?).

Anyway, I might get a luchtime post in here and there with a blog with better access, so, I am launching this somewhat pretentious sounding blog now.  I hope it turns out well enough.

My first topic is going to be a playtest of a card game in development that I am participating in for Evil Hat Productions (  This is a non-collectable card game with a fun Pulp Fiction theme: Zeppelins!

More in my next post.