Book Review: A Vision of Fire

It seems that video games aren’t the only form of media that follows a drought/deluge release cycle. Suddenly we’re awash in new books as well as novel gaming experiences. There’s a remark in there about a day containing only so many hours, but, really, is there a better ‘problem’ to have than, “Too Many Fun Things to Read/Play?” Rank that up there near the top of #nerdworldproblems.

So now we can follow the example of the recent entry to the Kitchen Codex and give some of the less frequently featured sections of the site some overdue attention. We get to return to books with A Vision of Fire: A Novel by Gillian Anderson and Jeff Rovin. Yes, it’s that Gillian Anderson, she of the X-Files fame, making her authorial debut with this title.

I don’t know. Gillian’s a good actress, but how is she as a writer?

We’ll get to that, no worries. First, a synopsis!

A Vision of Fire will feel very familiar to fans of the X-Files, as it's set up like an extended monster-of-the-week style episode. We're presented with several seemingly disconnected but instantly engaging vignettes: a girl and her father are attacked by mysterious gunmen during an early morning walk to the girl's school, meanwhile, off the coast of Antarctica, a highly skilled thief loots a strange artifact that had only just been uncovered by a research vessel. In the aftermath of the attempted assassination, the girl begins exhibiting disturbing symptoms and behaviors that seem more akin to demonic possession than to any known illness. Her parents are beside themselves with worry, but are loathe to seek medical treatment. The father is India's ambassador to the UN and cannot brook distractions as he's buried in the midst of intense negotiations with Pakistan concerning the fate of Kashmir.

Enter Dr. Caitlin O'Hara, a tough but highly distinguished psychiatrist who specializes in adolescent trauma. She's brought onto the case by a former undergraduate classmate, and source of romantic tension, who is now acting as a translator for the Indian diplomatic delegation. While Caitlin expresses deep compassion and concern for her young patient, she finds herself increasingly frustrated as the cause of the girl's malady continues to defy definition. As the symptoms worsen, Caitlin discovers that her charge is not alone in her preternatural suffering, with two similar cases popping up in disparate corners of the globe and only one common occurrence linking them together: a family member's recent encounter with death.

As new information continues to stream in the situation grows murkier and more dire. The diplomatic negotiations sour and suddenly nuclear war becomes a very real possibility while Caitlin's patient teeters on the brink of total madness. Visions of a potentially ancient civilization color the experiences of the afflicted in disturbing and seemingly impossible ways. All the while a shadowy, long-established elite club of world travelers engage in potentially nefarious and bizarre activities. Are these all linked somehow? Can catastrophe be averted?

Of course, the answers to those are spoilers so large that they'd undermine the whole review. Suffice to say, you'll have to read A Vision of Fire to find out. And if you do decide to read it, you're in for a fun ride. A Vision of Fire is a fine bit of brain candy that makes use of tropes usually reserved for big budget action films. It's not supposed to be the most plausible or sophisticated collection of prose, so your best bet is not to go into it with lofty expectations. That's not to say that the writing is dreadful, but the quality is certainly uneven and several scenes feel a bit forced. It's not entirely clear if that disparity is the result of two authors collaborating on the book (it's never clear how much of the project was written by Gillian herself). If you can get through the first two or three chapters, then it's mostly smooth sailing from there on out.

That being said, the ending may prove a bit bumpy for some readers. The narrative builds to a frenetic crescendo, then abruptly changes tone but leaves much unresolved. The majority of this can be attributed to the fact that A Vision of Fire is supposed to be the first book in a series, so keeping that in mind may help prevent frustrations towards the end of the text.

The characterization is arguably the strongest part of the book, despite the fact that I couldn't stop picturing Dr. O'Hara as Dana Scully. Most of the individuals, even the non-human ones, we're introduced to remains believable and engaging despite the absurdities of the situations that are driving them. There are only a couple of one-dimensional exceptions to this, though that may also be tied back to the first-book-in-a-series phenomenon and we may see more from these people in the next installments.

Final Grade: B/B+

Bottom Line: If you come at A Vision of Fire prepared for a thrilling, psuedo-metaphysical ride, then you'll likely have an enjoyable reading experience; just don't take it too seriously. Even if it doesn't prompt fond memories of paranormal investigation, at 300 pages it'll be over in only a handful of sittings. It's a fast, fun read that will likely be a welcome distraction during the upcoming holiday travel season.  
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Gias Giveaway: Five Nights at Freddy's

The Steam Halloween Sale is here as well as numerous horror theme game bundles on IndieGala and HumbleBundle. There are horror games galore itching for you to buy them on the cheap, but here is a chance to snag one for free.

I have an extra copy of Five Nights at Freddy's to giveaway in the Halloween spirit.  It is easy to enter: just join the Care and Feeding of Nerds Steam group and post a comment stating what about Five Nights at Freddy's appeals to you.  
I will roll randomly among the eligible comments posted before 2 November at 8pm EST and email the key to the winner.

Get ready for fear.
Image credit

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Game Review: Beyond Earth

There aren’t many games that will prompt me to not only pre-order, but pre-load as soon as is permitted so I can get down to playing at the first opportunity. If you’ve been reading here for a bit, it’ll come as no surprise when I say that the Sid Meier Civilization franchise is one of the few exceptions. Ever since the guys at Firaxis debuted the trailer for Civilization: Beyond Earth at PAX East earlier this year I’ve been counting down to release day and trying desperately to not let expectations get the best of me.
Really? It just kind of looks like Civ in space.

From what I’ve heard and read, the number one cause of disappointment amongst those who have played Beyond Earth is that the game doesn’t resemble other Sid Meier games closely enough. It’s a lot of, “But it’s not like Civ 5,” and/or, “It’s not like Alpha Centauri.” Both of those statements are accurate, but, by the same token, both statements do not take into account what Firaxis had been saying about Beyond Earth throughout the latter’s developmental cycle. The title was not meant to be a re-skin of Civ 5 nor was it meant to be a reboot of Alpha Centauri. Beyond Earth is its own game meant to exist in its own right, so you’ll automatically risk dampening your own experience if you go in expecting it to be an updated clone.

Conversely (and paradoxically), the other commonly held position is that Beyond Earth is too similar to Civilization V, with some gamers going so far as to say that the former plays like a mod for the latter. This vantage is a bit more understandable, as Beyond Earth does draw substantially from its predecessors. The base engine is identical to that which powers Civilization V and the behavior of several units mirrors those from either Brave New World or Civilization IV. This is not entirely surprising given that a considerable portion of the development team also worked on either Civ 5 or Alpha Centauri. The overarching premise is that of your standard 4x and there’s nothing in Beyond Earth that revolutionizes that time-tested format.
The Earth isn't in in great shape when you leave it

The true beauty of Beyond Earth is not a heap of new, shiny features but, rather, is an efficient streamlining of the mechanics that made previous installments of the franchise so beloved. That smoother, less granular playing experience not only prevents frustrations that characterized certain facets of other Sid Meier games, but also serves to bolster the narrative of Beyond Earth. For example, as your civilization earns Affinity points (which we’ll go into momentarily), you are given the opportunity to select Affinity-specific upgrades for your military units. A few clicks simultaneously applies these upgrades to the entirety of your army, effectively preventing the scenario of realizing that you’re still fielding an archer 200+ turns into your game and saving you from having to click on each individual unit in order to modernize them. This feeds into the notion that, as a fledgling colony of humanity in a strange, alien world, you, as the chosen leader, would seek to act with the utmost efficiency.

That narrative is very well conveyed and unflinchingly applied. Some five centuries from now humanity pools its resources in a desperate attempt to flee the dying Earth and gain a fresh start amongst the stars. You can choose to play as one of eight supranational entities, or expedition sponsors, each with their own advantages and drawbacks. Aside from those civ-specific traits, any additional differentiation between you and your competitors comes directly from how you choose to play the game.
This brings us to the aforementioned Affinities. Depending on which of the five available victory conditions you’re aiming for, you may need to tailor your play in order to align your civilization with the appropriate Affinity. There are three such Affinities: the humanocentric Purity, the extraterrestrial sympathizer Harmony, and the cybernetic Supremacy. Your civ earns points, and thus aligns itself more with an Affinity, by completing quests and researching certain technologies. So, for the first time, you have victory conditions that are at least partially derived from the game’s narrative. Each successive earned Affinity point conveys certain benefits in addition to blanket military upgrades and three of the five victory conditions require a minimum Affinity score in order to actually win.


Quests appear in their own menu throughout the game and vary in complexity from something as simple as “build X number of Y type buildings” to the more involved “carry out high-level espionage missions in Z colony.” Some quests require only that a decision be rendered on set of binary options with that choice having enduring effects throughout your civ. While some of these assignments are the same in each playthrough, others vary based on your Affinity, your conduct within the game, and the other decisions you’ve rendered to that point. That blend creates a nice mix of predictability and randomness and deepens the amount of customization that’s available to players.

The third major driver of customization, and arguably one of the biggest drivers of Beyond Earth as a whole, is the revamped technology system. The neat, linear progression available in the Civilization games is replaced with a literal web populated with ‘stems’ (primary technologies) and ‘leaves’ (secondary related technologies). Selecting the order in which these are researched is semi-free-form and at least partially dependent on in-game events. As a result, you may find yourself occasionally having to research technologies reactively, which will feel decidedly unfamiliar to veteran Civ players. The web format underscores the precarious nature of your existence on your new chosen planet: progress is not a given and the relationships between the mysteries that are deciphered are often complex.
It wouldn’t be a sci-fi game without at least a few aliens, and the creatures that you encounter in Beyond Earth can shift the course of your civilization’s development. Though the extraterrestrials traverse the map in a way that will have you recalling the roving hordes of barbarians from earlier games, their movement and initial introduction to the game is about where the similarities between the two come to an end. The aggression level of the aliens is not a given. They may attack unprovoked, defend themselves only as necessary, or scurry away from your incursions into their habitat. Your interactions with the native fauna not only color how the aliens will treat your units, but shapes your relationships with the other human colonies. Depending on your decisions and your treatment of the aliens, you may end up with a number of them in your army and having command of giant manticores and sea dragons is incredibly fun.


The game certainly addictive (the GIR and I played in a multiplayer game with a friend for nine straight hours during Extra Life), but it’s definitely not perfect and falls somewhat short of being truly impressive. My overall impressions of Beyond Earth are as follows:

Pros

- It effectively takes the drudgery out of many facets of the earlier Civ games (e.g. upgrading army     units en masse)
- A Solid, consistent narrative that blends seamlessly into the mechanics for an immersive                 experience. Nearly everything about the game ties back to the concept of 
- A very solid multiplayer. The lack of a stable multiplayer option has been the bane of more than one incarnation of Civ, but this seems to have been soundly remedied in Beyond Earth.
- The mechanics do a good job forcing the player to think creatively. Many of the strategies that would work beautifully in other Civ games will not work the same way in Beyond Earth (namely rapid expansion, as your civilization’s total health [the equivalent of happiness in other Civ games] can be quite volatile and must be carefully maintained).
- Diplomacy is considerably less irksome when compared to other Sid Meier games, as each competing civ is similarly struggling to eek out an existence on the new planet. Transactions may involve the usage of favors, which may later serve as leverage, currency, or both. 
Cons

- The AI, while much better than other Civs, is still prone to stupidity. While there’s definitely fewer instances of suicidal aggression, there’s also plenty of aimless unit movement and headshaking obstinacy.
- The end game is extremely slow, particularly when compared with the brisk pace of the first 100 turns. It’s similar to the base version of Civ 5 where, once you set up your economy/culture/rampaging death army, winning is a simple matter of maintaining the status quo and running out the clock.
- If you're a fan of culture victories, then you will likely find Beyond Earth disappointing. While culture is present, it's substantially pared back when compared to other Civs and serves more of a supporting role than a direct route to victory.

Beyond Earth is an effective successor to Civilization V. It enhances the best parts of its predecessor and makes overall play smoother, leaving the player to focus on building the best possible strategy. The no-frills features, repetition of some quests, and player-driven civilization development can give some gamers the impression that the title is bland. Long-time players of Civilization V may join the ranks of their peers in saying that Beyond Earth is too similar to its forebear. That said, both Civilization fans and fans of turn-based strategy stand an equally likely chance of finding Beyond Earth very enjoyable. It's clear that Firaxis left a bit of room for an expansion and/or DLC which, if they keep to the schedule they've kept with other titles, will be out within a year or so.

It's a must-buy for Civilization aficionados, but everyone else will be served just as well waiting to see if Beyond Earth is featured in the Steam Winter Sale.

Final Grade: B/B+
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Gias Games: Five Nights at Freddy's

Horror patrons may be familiar with the Shakespearean classic Macbeth, “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” Five Nights at Freddy’s has earned an update to this classic line, “By the screaming of my lungs, something wicked this way comes.”

Five Nights at Freddy’s is an indie point-and-click survival horror game developed by Scott Cawthon. I played the Steam version of the game.  The game is successful enough that Five Nights at Freddy’s 2 is currently in production.

This game is scary despite its simplicity. You take on the role of a late night security guard at a restaurant for kids, similar to Chuck E. Cheese’s. You start your first night and receive your job responsibilities via a pre-recorded phone message from the previous security guard. Your job is quite simple: survive the night. There isn't any actual guarding to be done, just stay alive until 6 AM. It’s pretty straightforward, except that the animatronic singing animals start wandering the restaurant at night and kill any humans they come across. You stay in your guard booth for the night and need to keep the machines out. Your only abilities are to check the camera-feeds from around the restaurant, close the doors to your booth, and turn on the lights in the adjacent hallways. The trouble is that you only have a finite amount of power, so you can’t keep the doors closed or lights on constantly.  Everything you do, including just sitting silently, uses power. If the power ever goes out, you’re in a lot of trouble.

Some people have complained that this game is nothing but jump scares, and they could not be more wrong. It is true that the biggest scares in the game are jump scares, but they only occur when you have a game over; there are plenty of other scares in the game. You need to look through the camera feeds to keep an eye on where the animatronics are located and each image, whether displaying homocidal animatronics or not, is scary.
Classic horror movies, such as Alien and Jaws, have taught us that it is often scarier to not show the monster. The fear of the unknown is the most powerful tool of horror movies. Oftentimes, when we can directly see the monster there is less horror because the fear of the unknown is dissipated. It is a rare work where you can stare directly at the monster and maintain the same level of fear as when you couldn’t see the monster. Five Nights at Freddy’s achieves this handily.

As the nights progress at Freddy’s, the animatronics become more active and more aggressive in their wanderings. You need to keep an eye on where each of the animatronics are so you know they aren’t about burst into your booth and break your skull as they force you into a robot-suit-turned-meat-grinder. This means you will spend plenty of time on the cameras. When you can’t find the animatronics it’s scary because they could be sneaking up on you right now. When you can find them it’s scary because the artist has done a masterful job of making the animatronics as creepy as possible. Not only are the animatronics themselves unsettling, but as the week goes on they start doing things that are clearly impossible while you sit there and watch them. The grainy quality of the cameras heightens the tension. I found myself frequently asking if I was looking at animatronics or just a trick of the light in the camera. I found that I needed to talk to both myself and the animatronics I was watching on the cameras in order to allay my fears as I played. The talking didn’t help much, but every little boost to my confidence was welcome.
The sound for the game is perfect.  There is no ambient music, just the quiet of an empty restaurant at night.  Then you start to hear to hear the sound of someone or something knocking over pots and pans in the kitchen.  Is Freddy close?  You’ll know by the song he emits.  As the week progresses, you’ll become more and more unhinged.  You start to hear the animatronics talking or whispering things to you, you may even start hallucinating their faces.  You will know real terror when one of them is frantically pounding on the door to your booth when you only have 1% power reserves left.

I do have some issues with the game. There is no option menu at all. It’s okay that there’s no key rebinding, as the game does not use any key controls; it’s only point and click.  However, it would be nice to have a volume slider and resolution options. When you press escape, it doesn’t bring you back to the main menu as it should, it just quits out of the game. This is especially annoying when you have just lost and need to start the night over as the wait time between failure and returning to the start screen is long. I assumed that hitting escape would bring me back sooner, but it just quit the game. Additionally, the game only saves after you have survived a night, so you cannot save and quit in the middle of a night. Another issue I had may be due to my using a dual monitor set-up, but when I moved my mouse to click the light or door buttons on the right side of the screen my mouse would occasionally not register movement. Lastly, when clicking to turn on the lights the buttons would occasionally stick and waste power.

There is one additional problem I have with AI behavior, but it only became apparent to me from my research on the game. There are set patterns of movement that the AI has that can be discerned by the player and which can consequently lead to the player exploiting the AI to beat each night.  There are only two instances of this. One instance entails that when you see a specific event happen, you must immediately perform two specific actions in a certain order, and if you do then there’s nothing to worry about. The other instance is that the player can perform a simple series of actions over and over to get through the night without all of the terror and anticipation the game is supposed to evoke. I can forgive these issues as this is the first big offering from the developer and hope/expect them to be addressed in the sequel.

I adhere to the belief of underground documentaries filmed in real time which include the warning documentary quadrology known as the Terminator series. I have long professed that The Country Bear Jamboree is nothing more than a ploy to lure humanity into a false sense of security preparing for the imminent robot uprising and that it is simply a front for the slaughterhouse cleverly hidden beneath the stage. A sorted assortment of executioners indeed. Combine already murderous animatronics with the psychotic tendencies of the backwoods and you have a powerful combination.  They’re gonna make you squeal like a pig. It’s easy to see why Otis became evil and joined up with Lex Luthor. Animatronics are made out of human sacrifices and powered by hate, so it’s no wonder that the Freddy’s crew are coming to get you.

I found that, despite my love of horror, I couldn’t take playing this game in long bouts; my heart just couldn’t take the stress. I’d have to try to beat a night twice and then stop playing, it was just too emotionally intense. I managed to finally beat the 5th night after two hours of total play, though each night is not very long, perhaps 10 minutes, but the terror makes the time seem to drag out. There are bonus 6th and 7th nights, as well as a mode which lets you control AI behavior which unlocks after beating the 7th night. I was so freaked out just barely passing the 5th night that I have put down the game and am not sure if I will go back.

There are a couple lingering questions that remain unanswered and require suspension of disbelief.  Why hire a security guard at all when the murderous robots will keep any thieves out? If you want the security guard just to keep people out, why not post the guard outside? Why don’t they reprogram the animatronics if management is well aware of their murderous tendencies? How desperate do I have to be for money to keep coming back to this job each night?
The game retails for $4.99 on Steam and $2.99 on Google Play and the iOS App Store. It was recently part of an Indie Gala Monday bundle for $1.89. It takes about 2 hours to beat the 5 nights, and about 3.5 hours to beat all the nights of the game. At about $1.45 per hour of gameplay, that’s a pretty good ratio. However, the amount of horror per dollar is off the charts.

Recommendation: High. If you love horror games then you most certainly should play this. It’s terrifying in many ways and the atmosphere is incredible for an indie game where you just sit in one spot. The developer  did a terrific job putting you in the reality he created and making you scramble to survive.  I must caution that I would not let anyone with a heart condition watch you playing this game as I am perfectly fit and my heart could not take what I was seeing after a while.  This game is masterfully orchestrated to induce fear without any gore what-so-ever.
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This Week in Geekdom

It's...Sunday? <<flops over>> I'll issue apologies now if this post seems incoherent, as Extra Life 2014 drew to a close only about three hours ago. It was an excellent run, arguably easier than last year due in no small part to the release of Civilization: Beyond Earth this past Friday, but the GIR and I are definitely feeling the effects of sleep deprivation this morning. Despite that fatigue, the GIR managed to crank out his traditional gaming-inspired haiku! And, of course, being a little tired is a minuscule price to pay in order to help out the Children's Miracle Network. The numbers are still being tallied as of this writing, but it looks like this year's effort surpassed the 4 million USD mark, which is more than half a million dollars over last year's total.

Good times and good games all for an excellent cause. A special shout out goes to the donors that supported team the Care and Feeding of Nerds and the members of our Steam community who offered their time as Player Two for either the GIR or I. We couldn't have done it without you!

So today's post will be a bit on the short side, but there's still plenty of goodness to be had on This Week in Geekdom!

Games

The Xbox One is coming up on its first birthday and it hasn't been the smoothest of sailing this past year. Here is what Microsoft officer Phil Spencer had to say about the console and how it stacks up against the PS4.

Titanfall now has a co-op wave defense mode. Check out the details for this update and the forthcoming DLC, Deadly Ground, here.

Daleks: exterminators extraordinaire and...programming teachers

Comics

Ever wanted a detailed look at the vehicles in the Marvel-verse? Well these schematics will give you just that.
Image credit
TV/Movies

It's still two weeks away from formal release, but Chris Nolan's Interstellar is already racking up millions of dollars in ticket sales.

Fans of the A Song of Ice and Fire books have long since been made aware that the TV series differs quite a bit from the source material. These original Westeros lovers are in for more conversation fodder, as season five of Game of Thrones is set to deviate even more from the texts.

George Lucas believes that movie studios lack both talent and imagination.

Bronies rejoice! Hasbro is in the process of developing a My Little Pony movie. The project is set to release in 2017.

Science/Technology

He may be fresh off his Nobel prize win, but Eric Betzig it's letting a little thing like a laureate slow him down. The most recent edition of Science contains a whole different set of research that may revolutionize microscopy all over again.

Even the sun was in on the gaming celebrations this week. Check out the pac-man-like images of this week's solar eclipse.

Vulcanologists have been working for decades trying to develop a detailed, accurate forecasting methodology for volanic activity. This is what they've developed so far.

General Awesomeness/Feats of Nerdery

Have you ever dreamed of owning your own real-life Transformer? Well, Brave Robotics, Astratec Corp, and Torny Co. may have inched closer to making that dream a reality.

Air New Zealand loves embracing its homeland's connection to the Lord of the Rings films, but they may have outdone themselves with their new in-flight safety video. (Bonus: Elijah Wood cameo!)

As always, best wishes for an excellent week ahead!
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GIR's Extra Life Charity Event Haiku

I may not have managed the full 24 hours, but I did the best I could; there's always next year!  As per tradition here are the results of my feeble attempts at producing Haiku for some of the many games I attempted to enjoy through out the event. The goal was one game and one Haiku an hour but, due to the nature of certain games this, wasn't always possible. I present the results in no particular order:

Twenty four hours
My Everest Awaits me
Twenty four games high

Shadows of Mordor
Autumn trees shedding
Ruins haunted by cold winds
Uruks fall like leaves

Civilization: Beyond Earth
Far beyond the stars
Evolve quickly to survive
Humanity fades

Dead State
Survival instinct
Safety is an illusion
The Dead rule this land

Defense Grid 2
Must maze more quickly
Brave defenders of the core
Steadily Failing

Windward
Sails billow Windward
Hull overflows with riches
Pirate life suits me

Warmachine Tactics
Machines march across
Smoky blackened battlefield
Grinding gears bleed oil

Wasteland 2
Repelled Robot Hordes
Desert Rangers Save the Day
Pride of the Wasteland

Prison Architect
All Seeing warden
Cold steel imposes Order
Packed in Like Sardines

Shadowrun Dragonfall
Running in shadows
Samurai fears no Dragons
No risk no reward

Sunless Sea
Searchlight flickering
Nightmares glide through deep currents
Oceans of madness

Gauntlet
Red Warrior Starves
Worthless good for nothing Elf
Shot the food again

Invisible Inc.
Whispers of footfalls
Clueless guards know nothing of
Ghosts emptying Vaults

Pinball Fx2
Streaks of steel lightning
Flippers fire furiously
High score elusive

The Red Solstice
Howling storm bears down
Countless Rookies claimed by the
Red Solstice of Mars

Marvel Puzzle Quest
Cascading colors
Concentration critical
Comic book mayhem

MLB14 The Show 
Fenway's Champions
World Series swept flawlessly
Red Sox Redemption

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Developer Dialogues: Find It & Bind It

One of the excellent side effects of paying a visit to the Game Maker's Guild has been getting a glimpse inside the process that goes into developing a board game. As many of us are enthusiastic consumers of board games, it's easy to for your focus to fall solely on a finished product. By the time we get our hands on a game it's largely a matter of: pop out those chits and let the dice roll!

There's certainly nothing wrong with wanting to use a game for its given purpose, but we're all at least somewhat aware that the product wasn't magically conjured onto the shelves of our friendly local game store. We love to play them, but what's in a game?

That's why we'd like to bring you Developer Dialogues, a modification to our older Q&A series that seeks to bridge that gap between conceptual and content. This series will chronicle the development process, introduce you all to new designers, and, hopefully, culminate in a review of a game that you can bring home and play for yourself. 

Phil and Josh  are the minds behind Cray Cray Games. Their fast-paced card game, Find It & Bind It, is in the final stages of development with a Kickstarter to produce the title scheduled to go live in the first quarter of 2015. If you'd like to check out the game now, visit their page on Board Game Geek to download a black and white printable version. 
Picture via Board Game Geek
It’s very clear that you guys have a passion for gaming, but what prompted you to want to become developers?
  
Josh and I have been playing strategy games for ages and we’re both part of a weekly board/card gaming group. In early 2012, we were playing a map domination game (whose name shall not be mentioned) and while it had a lot of interesting mechanics and game play, we didn’t quite understand it, at first, or like the combat mechanics.
  
During the game we “house-ruled” a different mechanic and moved on. There were also several places in the rules that were just not very intelligible and it was hard to find key items because they weren’t where you’d expect them to be.
  
You know how when you go through the setup portion of rules and it seems fine and then someone asks a question like, “So, what’s the hand limit?” or something like that and then you have to go searching?  That happened. Then, inevitably, someone says, “Doesn’t anyone believe in proofreading or play testing games?”

Josh had written down thoughts on a map domination game of a different type with different mechanics and I read through it, asked questions and, in order to think about the game better and make sure I understood what Josh was getting at, I started writing the rules. A few back-n-forths in that process resulted in the earliest version of our first as-yet-unpublished game called Turf Wars. It is back-burnered at the moment because it is component-intensive and requires a lot of illustration.

Once you decided to put on the developer’s hat, what made you choose a strategy card game?

We had created two games prior to Find It & Bind It. We tend toward strategy games and like games with hidden identities or that give players the opportunity to be treacherous and traitorous. Good times. Those games were both manufacturing challenges for very different reasons and we set out to make a game that would be relatively simple with respect to components.

Josh facilitated us through a brainstorming session based on a blog entry by Fr├ęderic Moyersoen (the game designer behind Nuns on the Run, Bacchus’ Banquet, and Ninja to name a few) in an effort to hone-in and develop the game we had itching to come out. We also knew we had to shy away from any components that weren’t cards because we wanted our first attempt at a crowd-funded game to have a low goal and be feasibly funded--Find It & Bind It is almost entirely cards. It does have 2 round colored discs for each player that represents their witches.

It seems as though fast-paced, great-at-a-party card games are enjoying a bit of a surge in popularity over the past few years. What do you feel sets Find It & Bind It apart from the other fast-running card games in the market right now?

Find It & Bind It is a game where each player controls two witches.  Everyone is searching a 3x3 grid of Book Cards. One of them is the sought-after Book of Shadows. The other 8 are just “other books.”  The goal of the game is to find and bind The Book of Shadows by getting both of your witches to it and then using the action portion of your turn to bind it (flip it over) before someone else does.  The game works through the use of Spell Cards that enable players to Scry (look at and replace) or Obfuscate (look at and shuffle) the Book Cards so that they can search the grid for the elusive Book of Shadows.  There are also Spell Cards that allow players to mess with the other players.  

Find It & Bind It makes subtle references to a syndicated television show Charmed, but without overdoing it. The similarities include witches who are sisters--but only 2 so that’s like, really different--and the Book of Shadows and eventually the demon. For extra fun, the rules indicate that you chant some rhyming spell to bind Book of Shadows but that’s (sorta) optional.  :-)

The game has elements of search, requiring some memory, and has the potential to have a bunch of fun bluffing and deceiving other players at the same time. Players can also fling spells at one another so it never feels like you’re simply playing Solitaire. It’s an advanced, themed version of the classic “Shell Game” where an item is placed under a shell and shuffled repeatedly before the eyes of an audience, who is then asked to identify which shell the item is under.

The game is touted as being extremely easy to learn, but a highly satisfying overall play experience. How long would you say it takes people to pick up Find It & Bind It and what demographics do you think would most enjoy the game?

So far, the youngest players have been 8 years old and they were able to play the game and asked to play it again after they finished. It was adorable watching them try to bluff. That’s a skill that takes some practice. We’ve tested Find It & Bind It with players who play strategy board games all of the time and with people who rarely play. And even hard-core gamers who can settle in for hours have enjoyed it as well.

Let’s say your upcoming Kickstarter campaign goes smashingly well. Would you be open to continuing to develop Find It & Bind It? What would your first improvements to the game be?

Absolutely!  We have already come up with, and thoroughly play tested, two expansions to Find It & Bind It.  

The first, The Demon Expansion, replaces one of the Book Cards with a Demon and adds mechanics that enable the demon to attack players’ witches.  It also adds a selection of demon-specific spells to add to the fun.

The second, The Hexes and Relics Expansion, adds a full deck of Spell Cards that get mixed in.  There’s roughly 1/3 each of hexes, relics and search Spell Cards.  Hexes are played on other players and adversely affect their witches.  Relics are played on yourself and they bestow positive effects on your witches.

One of the play testers who liked the game and the expansions a lot joked and said he wanted to see a lot more expansions with each one replacing a Book Card and adding special mechanics as with The Demon Expansion.

We can promise you, and everyone, that if the Kickstarter campaign for Find It & Bind It goes smashingly, we’ll be ecstatic about coming up with more content for it. And we happily incorporate suggestions and ideas from play testers and backers.

How long did it take you to get the game to the point it’s at now? What would you say were the most enjoyable or most enlightening parts of the development process and what were some of the biggest challenges you faced?

I described earlier when Josh facilitated a brainstorming session. That night Find It & Bind It was born and its mechanics were almost entirely worked out in, literally, a few hours. This was about 1.5 years ago and we’ve been play testing and tweaking the text on Spell Cards and the rules to make them as intuitive as possible.

Balancing out the strengths, weaknesses, and abilities of the individual spell cards obviously has an enormous role in ensuring that that Find It & Bind It is an enjoyable playing experience. Was striking that balance difficult?

Yes and no. We had one real constraint that we were working with—trying to keep the card count down so that everything (for the base game) could be contained within a single deck of cards. After taking 9 cards for the books, 2 cards for row/column labels and another 6 for the player reference cards (a component we think every game should have) that left us with 37 cards to play with.  

We split that into thirds so we could have an even number of Scry, Obfuscate and other Spell Cards.  From there we experimented with different spells and play tested, play tested, play tested.  Seriously, you can never play test a game too much.  Watching how others use or choose not to use a given Spell Card is valuable information. Josh and I always chat after we witness a game play with some detail we want to remember to address at a later time.

Classical Art features heavily in the prototype of Find It & Bind it. What prompted you to go with existing works?

There are two main reasons. First, neither of us are illustrators. While we’re both artistic and have graphic design and photography skills, using fine art images seemed like a no-brainer. The second reason a lot of the specific art was used was because I’ve done a great deal of international travel and had almost all of photographs of the works of art already.

There’s a lot of art by Van Gogh and Goya Y Lucientes in the game and that’s not accidental. It helped that my own artistic taste leans toward darker imagery. And with the original content being in the public domain, that definitely makes the use of the photos even more legally safe.

Is there anything else that you think potential backers and players should know about Find It & Bind It?

Find It & Bind It is a labor of love.  Even though it was conceived in one dark and stormy night, it has undergone more than a year of play testing and convention appearances. We may be new to board game development, but we got involved in the business exactly because we felt other games were doing a disservice to their players with incomplete rules, broken mechanics, and contradictory or convoluted gameplay. This is our first attempt at making an exceedingly accessible gameplay experience for almost all ages and gaming backgrounds. It also leaves room for expansions and variants--all of which add to the potential of an already unique game that is never the same twice.
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GiR by GIR: Sunless Sea

Ahoy readers! In an effort to get into the spirit of the season (See what I did there? I know - you wish I hadn't) I'm here to provide my thoughts on the Early Access title Sunless Sea, brought to you by Failbetter Games, who are the same folks responsible for Fallen London. If you're unfamiliar, Fallen London is an online free-to-play narrative RPG with Victorian fantasy flair set in a subterranean city. Sunless Sea is primarily a 2D map exploration and trading game with elements of survival RPGs thrown in the mix. The game is set in the oceans of the same universe as Fallen London. Try and imagine if H.P. Lovecraft had written Life Aquatic and you’ll have a reasonable idea of what’s going on.

Admittedly it takes a specific kind of fan to fit that niche, but I found my time with the game enjoyable enough. You begin by picking a background for yourself: motivations, portrait, and name, then it’s off to adventure in your rickety steamboat. That’s really how it starts; there’s no epic quest, no baroness to save, just you loitering around a dock deciding if you want to explore the city or head out. Even after exhausting all feasible locations in the starting area I didn't have any actual quests, which was kind of liberating for me in a strange way. I’m so used to obsessively looking for the nearest Quest Giver with a bright yellow "!" that I almost wasn't sure how to proceed. Instead I kept reminding myself this isn't the type of game that gives me a list of collectibles or side-quests and I’d have to make my own adventure. 
“Smuggle souls. Seduce your crew. Go mad and hallucinate lizards. You are the captain. It’s your call…” Or so the game’s homepage tells me, and so I start by trying to double my starting money gambling at a tavern before we leave. SUCCESS! Of a sort? I don’t make any money but I get items such as “Secret” and “Recent News.” The game doesn't bother to explain why this counts as a successful outcome since I had been looking for extra money to buy additional supplies (fuel & food) before heading out, but it turns out the Secret will let me hire an additional Officer for my crew. I suppose the new crew member could be eaten during the voyage if we run out of actual supplies, which seems increasingly likely because some idiot spent our starting funds playing cards. As I said, MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. With my fresh 'supplies' acquired I launch the ship and head out to the open seas. 
 
The art is hauntingly beautiful and the music an appropriate blend of melancholy and sea chantey, but some of the charm of starts to wear thin as I putter around. One thing become painfully obvious right away: the starting steamship sucks. It moves pathetically slow even at full throttle and the peashooter of a front-facing cannon is almost less effective than my searchlight at killing the bats that occasionally besiege and terrorize me on my nascent voyage. Where I was once anxious to discover and marvel at Lovcraftian horrors from the deep, I'm now loathe to run into creatures as simple as crabs for fear of my hull splintering apart. The combat takes place in real time and requires you keeping whatever your target is illuminated until your cannons can fire. With only a single location discovered I’m already forced to return to my home port for repairs. Sadly, I never make it back as an albino eel 3 times the length of my meager vessel sinks me during the return trip. It seems I've underestimated the Unterzee to my peril, but am pleased to learn before starting over that I can choose to carry on an aspect of this voyage to my next game. I'm given a choice of  my nautical charts marking where I've been, a single Officer from my crew, or my ship. Well, being too poor to customize my ship or buy anything better than the starter craft, and having sacrificed my Officer in the name of hunger, the choice seems obvious; at least I won’t have to re-map what little I did find my next trip out. I’m led to believe should you not retain your charts, the layout of the new world you would spawn in would change.
My second voyage out fared slightly better as I focused on exploring rather than monster hunting.  
When exploring distant lands and ports outside of actual combat, the player often encounters situations that prompt him or her for their input regarding various courses of action. Would you like to survey the island from afar with your spyglass? Or send a landing party to scout the beach?  Peak through the windows of the abandoned crab shack or kick in its front door? Each option requires a various skill check of sorts based on one of or a combination of up to 5 attributes and/or items from your inventory: Hearts which help with inspiration, healing, defending, and terror checks; Veils for speed, stealth, deception, and range of being spotted; Pages for esoteric knowledge checks and converting resources; Mirrors for perception checks and speed of acquiring a target in combat; and lastly Iron which determines how much damage your attacks do.
Despite finding many new places and even a few quests I find I’m still not turning a profit. The cost of fuel and food are slowly bleeding me dry despite turning a constant stream exploration reports in to the harbor master. I’m being paid a pittance and, before long, I find myself broke and out of fuel.  Maybe I’m just not used to exploration-based games, but the pacing of Sunless Sea feels awfully slow; incapable of enduring combat, and unable to continue exploring, I’m left wondering what exactly the game wants me to do.
Sunless Sea bills itself as, “a non-linear, choice-heavy, personalized experience,” going on to add, “It’ll take dozens of games to explore all the sub-plots, grand arcs, alternatives, mysteries, relationships and romances in the game.” So, as with most survival games, clearly players are meant to fail to some degree, which may frustrate some folks. Fortunately for the game, after spending a significant number of hours in FTL and Don’t Starve, I’m pretty much immune to that sort of thing. Honestly though, I would appreciate it if Sunless Sea provided a bit more progression retention. That said, I do seem to manage to do a little better each time I begin a voyage, but I wonder how many players the game can retain with such a steep hill to climb. While you are constantly earning currency for simply making discoveries of new locations, it’s difficult to get deep enough into any of the sub-plots to care about solving them, and I can see several people simply giving up due to lack of tangible improvement and rewards.
Despite being Early Access like Invisible Inc. is, Sunless Sea is currently a complete experience with fully functioning features and hours of available gameplay. Failbetter even has a “Roadmap to Completion” which displays current state of play as well as the progress on various features and content for early adopters. Personally, I don’t regret buying the early access as I’m fairly confident the final product will be well worth the money, but for others I strongly recommend waiting to pick it up during a sale (if you enjoy helping development, the developers are VERY receptive to player feedback) or waiting until the actual release of the final version (if you can’t stand bugs and bumps in the road). At the moment there are no Achievements or Steam Trading Cards due to early access, though I would expect this to eventually change. Sunless Sea is available for PC & Mac on Steam or via Failbetter's own website, currently priced at $18.99 USD.  
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This Week in Geekdom

Hope everyone's having a great weekend thus far, particularly those of you lucky enough to be wandering the halls of SPIEL right now! We're now under one week until Extra Life 2014, and the GIR and I, along with hundreds of other gamers, are gearing up for 24 straight hours of gaming to benefit our respective local Children's Miracle Network hospitals.

Wait, gaming for 24 straight hours? How does that benefit sick kids?

If you're curious about how this whole Extra Life thing works, read here for our full write-up on the process and how you can help or even join in in you're so inclined.

Given that we'll probably be barely functional or unconscious at this time next week, there probably won't be a This Week in Geekdom on October 26th. So this post may have to tide us all over for two weeks. Let's get down to it!

Games

From the department of We Didn't Make This Up: Digital Extremes, the developers behind Warframe and the Darkness 2, are now owned by Sumpo Food Dealings, one of the largest chicken producers in China.

It's no secret that, for most indie game developers, the effort that goes into making a game is truly a labor of love. Here's a solid account of how these intrepid creators approach an often unforgiving market and how they endeavor to turn their pet project into the next big mega-hit.

TV/Movies

On Wednesday DC announced that they will be delivering the long-asked-after movie featuring Wonder Woman. The as yet untitled project is scheduled to hit theatres in 2017 and is part of DC's extremely dense cinema docket that extends to 2022.

Marvel was not without big movie news of its own. On Monday the publisher announced that Robert Downey Jr. will have a starring role in Captain America 3. This tidbit set comics news sites ablaze with speculation as to how the current array of Marvel films may treat Civil War

From the annals of last weekend's NYCCC comes this panel featuring the interviews of the cast of Star Trek: the Next Generation moderated by none other than Captain Kirk.

Fans of Gundam have a new reason to rejoice: the entire series will be coming to the US. The DVD/Blue Rays are slated to be available for purchase in early 2015. Because giant robots!

Science/Technology

After two years of downtime filled with extensive upgrades, the Large Hadron Collider is on the cusp of coming back online.

The X-37B, better known as the US Air Force's Orbital Test Vehicle, has returned to Earth after spending the better part of the past two years in orbit. The weird thing: no one knows what it was doing up there.

Speaking of strange satellites, researchers at Cornell University believe that there's something amiss with the shape of the orbit of one of Saturn's moons. Their contention is that Mimas (which my brain keeps reading as Minimus...thanks Kerbal) has an oscillating orbit potentially due to the presence of a subsurface ocean.

It's a question that's stymied scientists and armchair physicists alike: What is Dark Energy? Well, we may have a few answers for that.
For those of us planning to remain on Earth for the foreseeable future, a potential bit of good news: research featured in the latest edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that most climate change models may have been underestimating the capacity of plants to absorb carbon dioxide.

Feats of Nerdery

Disney-Lucasfilm has embraced this incredibly detailed and well-executed minimalist fan remake of the Empire Strikes Back.

Crowdfundables for your Consideration
One of our favorite games from Boston FIG, Phoenix Covenant, has just launched a Kickstarter! The project is already halfway to its funding goals and, if all goes well, is set to deliver the game into your hands by March of next year. Don't miss out on this highly engaging, beautifully rendered CCG/tactical hybrid.

The Black Glove is billed as an 'eerie, surrealistic first-person experience' and it comes to us courtesy of Day for Night Games, an indie studio staffed with the developmental minds that brought you Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite. The Black Glove aims to take point-and-click narrative-driven games to a new level by entwining the choices and actions of the player with the events and world around them. If funded, the Black Glove will be available for PC, iOS, and Linux, and will be delivered in late 2015. Check out the Kickstarter for full details and a peek at some of the amazing artwork.

As always, best wishes for an excellent week ahead!
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