Friday, June 30, 2017

Characters of the Reformation (Ignatius Press)

Hilaire Belloc was a Catholic, who is considered one of the most prolific writers in Englad during the 20th Century. He collaborated with G.K. Chesterton a fair bit, and one of his most well-known books is Cautionary Tales for Children, which are basically stories to scare your kids straight. As awesomely horrible as those stories are, today I'd like to tell you about one of his historical works - Characters of the Reformation.

Characters of the Reformation begins by talking about the significance of the Reformation. Belloc says that it was "the most important thing in history since the foundation of the Catholic Church." There are also brief paragraphs in this opening chapter, which identify the key players and set the stage for the coming individual chapters that will go into greater detail. We then are presented with the 23 people Belloc believes to be the most important during the Reformation.

The first person we encounter is King Henry VIII. Belloc describes how Henry sought an annulment from Catherine in order to marry Anne Boleyn. However, the annulment was not granted and sycophants encouraged him to go through with the marriage anyhow. Belloc speculates (probably correctly) that if King Henry VIII would have not followed his passions, then the Reformation would have died out in England first, followed quickly by the rest of Europe. Belloc then dedicates individual chapters to each of the two women just mentioned. Catherine was most likely abandoned by her lack of ability to produce a son, and Anne, unattractive as she was, had the ability to get men to be at her beck and call. The next two chapters contrast the two Thomases - Cromwell and More. The former was a flatterer to the King and made him a "pope" in England. The latter tried to serve as an absolute moral compass, but was not listened to, sadly. We also see the figures Pope Clement VII, Mary Tudor, Queen Elizabeth I, Descartes, and Pascal to name a few.

Each chapter in this book is more fascinating than the next. In addition, to getting a portrait of each of these important historical figures, we get an understanding of the part they played in the Reformation. What I like best about this book is that he looks at figures from both sides of the event, Catholic and Protestant. Now, granted, he has a strong Catholic bias, but that is to be expected, and if you know it going into it, you can read the book through that lens. He also omits/ignores the Eastern Orthodox Churches, when saying that if the Reformation had not occurred, there would only be the Catholic Church. Those weaknesses aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this book as it was not a dry presentation of dates and facts, but made the time come alive. If you would like to know more about the Reformation, I highly recommend this book!

This book was provided to me for free by Ignatius Press in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Istanbul (Alderac Entertainment Group)

The bazaar district of Istanbul is filled with a controlled chaos as merchants and their assistants scurry from one location to the next. Each one is trying to gather and deliver their goods the quickest, so that they can gather rubies faster than their opponents. Will you be the most efficient in your strategy or will rival merchants beat you to the punch? Find out in IstanbulIstanbul is a game for 2-5 players, ages 10+. It takes about an hour to play and retails for $50.
1. Lay out the 16 Place Tiles in a 4 x 4 grid. There are several suggested layouts in the back of the rule book. For your first game, try the "Short Paths" grid which uses the blue numbers on the tile.
2. Sort the Mosque Tiles by color and then by number of goods in four stacks. Place them on the two Mosques (Tiles 14 and 15).
3. Place three Wheelbarrow Extensions per player on the Wainwright.
4. Add 1 Ruby per player on each Mosque and the Wainwright. Also add Rubies to the Gemstone Dealer and Sultan's Palace, continuing until you reach the appropriate space per number of players.
5. Place the Mail Indicators in the top row of the Post Office.
6.  Shuffle the five dark Demand Tiles, and place them face up on the Large Market. Do the same with the light Demand Tiles, placing these on the Small Market.
7. Roll both dice to determine the starting place for the Governor. Repeat this for the Smuggler.
8. Shuffle the Bonus Cards and place them face-down in a stack. Also, place the coins and dice near the game board.
9. Have each player choose a color. Give them a Merchant Disc and four Assistant Discs of that color. Also give them a Wheelbarrow and four Goods Cubes, placing them on the first space of each good of their Wheelbarrow. Lastly, place a Family Member disc at the Police Station.
10. Give the starting player two coins, and give each subsequent player one additional coin. Also, give each player a Bonus Card.
Game Play - The game takes place over several rounds with the following four phases:
1. Movement - Move your Merchant stack with Assistants under him 1 or 2 Place Tiles. You then either pick up an Assistant or leave an Assistant behind. If you don't want to do either, then your turn ends.
2. Encounter with other Merchants (if any) - If there are other Merchants where you land, you must pay them each two coins. (If you can't or won't, your turn ends immediately.)
3. Action - You may carry out the action that the Place Tile provides. If you can't or don't want to, proceed to Encounters.
4. Encounters (if any) in any order with - a. Other Family Members - send them to the Police Station and gain three coins or one Bonus Card for each Family Member. b. the Governor - Draw one Bonus Card from the face-down stack. Pay two coins to keep it or discard another Bonus Card from your hand. c. the Smuggler - Gain one good of your choice, by paying two coins or another good. (Note: After encountering the Governor or Smuggler, roll both dice and move them to the Place Tile according to the value of dice.)
5. Bonus Cards - On your turn, you may play any number of Bonus Cards, which will allow you to alter the rules one time on your turn. (Example: Take five coins from the general supply.)

The end of the game is trigger when one player collects five Rubies. Complete the current round. After this occurs, each player may play any leftover Bonus Cards that provide goods or money.

In 2014, Istanbul won the game of the year award in the connoisseur category. That means that they viewed the game as more difficult and strategy driven than a regular family game. The game was wholly deserving of the win, but I would argue that it is out of the family game realm. Yes, there is a bit of a learning curve in explaining to people how to move their Merchant with the dropping an assistant off, but after a few rounds of play, it clicks. After that mechanism, the biggest thing is figuring out which routes/circuits are going to be the most efficient at getting you gems the quickest, because this game is a race. It is a true "pick up and deliver" game, where you must get various goods and exchange them for rubies. You will do this by travelling the smartest routes, cutting your opponent off from their routes, utilizing your family member, and playing bonus cards at the ideal time. I would argue that this is a gateway game, but I think someone who has played before would have an advantage over someone who doesn't.

What I like best about this game is the modular game board. This allows the game to scale in difficulty. When you are learning the game, you arrange the tiles in a beginner's setup so that you can learn the flow of the game. After everyone has gotten used to it, then there's a slightly more advanced setup that makes routes longer and more challenging. When you really want to ramp up the difficulty, you completely arrange them at random. That's when your brain really starts to burn a little as you're trying to find your best options before others can. Do I complete my wagon first? Do I focus on the Sultan's Palace before others? What do I do?! On its own, this is a great game and deserving of all the praise it receives. However, the designer decided to release two expansions to it to give you a little more to think about. The two expansions are called Mocha and Baksheesh and Letters and Seals. I have only played the first, so I'd like to tell you a little bit about it.

Mocha and Baksheesh introduces coffee and bribes to the game! These provide you new ways of getting rubies, which you will need, because you now need six rubies to win the game! In addition to these two elements of the game play, the modular board has grown larger. Instead of a 4 x 4, you are now making a 5 x 4 grid. Having these extra spaces gives you more routes to pursue and more options of winning. One of the "bad" things about the original game was if someone found the best route before you did, you would always be one step behind them. This expands both the game board and your options when gathering rubies. What I see as the biggest addition to this game is the guild cards. (I like to think of them as bonus cards on steroids.) These cards are so powerful that playing one takes your entire turn, but the benefits you get from them is huge. Pay one blue, one red, and one green to receive 20 coins. Take one free wheelbarrow extension. Do the tea house action and get double the income. It also introduces a strategy of sitting still. If you see an opponent is coming to your spot on their next turn, you can play a guild card and make them come to your spot and pay you to take their next action. This expansion really raises the bar on the game and adds more strategy and depth to an already great game!

Monday, June 26, 2017

Marian Veneration (Ignatius Press)

When I was in the process of converting to Catholicism, the biggest hangup I had was Mary. I don't know why honestly, and looking back on it, it was so stupid of me. Mary is Jesus' mother! He loved her with all His heart, why shouldn't we? It's not worship or idolatry to honor her. One of my favorite Cardinals, Francis Cardinal Arinze, recently wrote a book called Marian Veneration. I'd like to tell you about it.

The book begins with a chapter explaining two key terms - veneration and devotion. We then see Mary in Scripture in key events like the Annunciation, Visitation, Wedding Feast at Cana, and other mysteries of the Rosary. The next two chapters address her motherhood, both of God (Theotokos) and of the Church. We also have chapters, which show her place in salvation history and the Liturgy. Lastly, we see saints that had great devotion to Mary, different Marian apparitions, and various Marian societies.

The book is approximately 120 pages in length, making it the perfect introduction to Mary for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The book relies heavily on Scripture, Tradition, and history. We see references to Church Councils throughout history, as well as works from great Catholic authors. This is a book that I wish had been around 15 years ago, when I was in the process of my conversion. It would have crystallized things in my mind much more quickly, and I (hopefully) wouldn't have been as stubborn and ignorant on Christ's mother. If you know someone who struggles with Mary and her role in not only the Church, but each individual's life, I strongly recommend you get them a copy of this book!

This book was provided to me for free by Ignatius Press in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Way of Catechesis (Ave Maria Press)

It's only been one year, but it feels like forever since I have been a catechist. If you are a Catholic in good standing and have never been a Catechist, you should consider volunteering one or assisting one at least one year in your life. It is both a thankless and rewarding job that has equal shares of joy and frustration. You'll get kids who want to be there and kids who don't, kids whose parents are super-involved and parents you never see. But no matter the type of children you teach, you want to help them learn about Jesus and the love He has for each of them. However, there is more to catechesis than just teaching children, there are also opportunities to instruct adults as well, not only in RCIA, but in other programs as well. As difficult as you think teaching children can be, adults present their own challenges and joys. Recently, Gerard Baumbach published a book entitled The Way of Catechesis, which walks us through the history of catechesis.

The book starts in the Old Testament and is used to provide us both historical context and examples of catechesis for the Jewish people, through God's prophets. We then move to the New Testament and are presented with Jesus, the ultimate teacher and catechist. The whole book could have been written on Him, His message, and how we do and should respond to it, but the author did a fine job reducing it to one chapter. We then work our way though the centuries, starting with the Early Church, stopping in on the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and present day. Each chapter has reflection questions at the end, which can be used for individual use or small group discussion. At the end of the book are helpful books to read, copious notes, and an index, which can all be helpful for further study.

On its surface, the book is a history lesson on where the Church has been with catechesis and how it has changed through the centuries. A closer read reveals that the book is actually a mixture of history and goals/plans for the future. The old saying about you can't know where you are going unless you know where you have been summarizes this book perfectly. In this book, Baumbach shows his love for Christ and His Church. He also demonstrates how he wants discipleship within the Church to be dynamic and fruitful. This is an essential read for both pastors and directors of religious education. Normally, after reading a good book I like to keep it in my collection to reference in the future, but this is one I plan to pass on and share.

This book was provided to me for free by Ave Maria Press in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Problem Picnic: Attack of the Ants (Kids Table Board Gaming)

Everyone loves a good picnic. There's something about eating outdoors on a blanket and not bolt upright at a table or vegged out on the couch. The food just tastes better and you can have fun and play outdoors while or after eating, without having to worry about making a mess. Unfortunately, we all know the one thing that ruins a picnic...ANTS! Kids Table Board Gaming has recently published a game with just this theme called Problem Picnic: Attack of the Ants. The game plays 2-4 people, ages 8+. It takes approximately 30 minutes to play and retails for $26.
1. Shuffle the Picnic cards into a face-up deck. Create a Picnic Area based on the number of players (five in a 2-player game, seven in a 3-player game, and 9 in a 4-player game). Make sure to leave a space between each card that is as big as the biggest die in the game. Place the Puddle card near the deck of Picnic cards and out of the way.
2. Have each player pick a color. Give them the Anthill card and six Ant Dice of their color, which are placed on their Anthill.
3. Set up a scoring area away from the Picnic Area. Place the Majority card and a random set of Scoring cards equal to the number of players plus one. Then, mix the Reward Tokens face down, randomly placing one on each Scoring card and six on the Majority card.
4. Shuffle the Round cards face-down and deal five into a pile near the Scoring cards. Lastly, place the Action Tokens (shoe, honey on a stick, etc.) near the Round cards pile.
Game Play - The game lasts six rounds with each round having the following three parts:
1. Send out the Ants - Starting with the first player and going clockwise, if you have any Ant Dice left on your Anthill, you must pick one and roll/toss it into the Picnic Area. (Note: You want your Ants to land on Picnic cards that you are trying to collect.)
2. Bring back the Food - Once all player have run out of Ant Dice, you do the following:
a. Return all Ant Dice on the Puddle and not touching any Picnic cards to their owner's Anthill.
b. Resolve each Picnic card by tallying the number of ants shown on the dice face for each player. (Ties are broken in order of most dice on the card, biggest die on the card, and then no winner.) If you lose the Picnic card your ants are returned to your Anthill. If you win the card, all your Ants(except your Soldiers are placed on the Puddle.
c. After all the Picnic cards have been resolved, add them to your colony by placing the Plate icon (located in the corner) over an ant on another Picnic card.
3. Get ready for the next round - Add new Picnic cards to the Picnic Area in the same manner as initial setup. The new starting player is the player with the fewest Picnic cards in their area. They flip the Round card over and claim it for a unique power to use later.

Once the sixth round has occurred, score the Picnic cards from step 3 in the setup. Reward Tokens are awarded to the player who achieved the goal. Tie Tokens are awarded when multiple players accomplish the goal. Highest score wins!
A dexterity game that involves rolling dice... It's like everything I'm horrible at in games bundled into a cute package. With that being said, I would highly recommend this game! For starters, you have Scott Almes who designed this game. Anyone who is a fan of modern board games knows that Scott Almes is a genius who keeps producing hit after hit! Pair the awesome game design with the beautiful art of Josh Cappel and you get a game that you want, no need to have in your collection. These two men are the gold standard of the board gaming industry, and I would buy almost anything with either/both of their names on the box.

However, the game is more than just names on a box. There is solid game play that is easy enough for a child to learn but hard for even an adult to master, so the playing field is always level (or in my case skewed towards my son, because like I said earlier, horrible at this game). There is also high replay value in the game. There are six round cards with only five being used in the game, so you will never know which one is not going to show up in your game or in what order. There are also sixteen scoring cards, meaning you'll have three to five per game creating great variability by themselves, but even more so with the reward tokens.

Owning both the games from Kids Table Board Gaming, one thing I have noticed is their attention to detail. There are a lot of great games out there that I enjoy, but their components leave a lot to be desired. Problem Picnic shows game publishers how little things can go a long way. The dice could have been beautifully colored and that would have been enough, but instead they went the extra mile and made the pips ant shaped. The cardboard punch-out for the shoe could have been the same image front and back, but they actually had the top of a shoe on one side and the sole on the other side. It's nice touches like this that make the game stand out for all the right reasons. If you have kids in your household or grandkids, then you should really pick up their games, so they can continue to make more great games that are fun for the whole family.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Foodfighters (Kids Table Board Gaming)

If your mother was anything like my mother, then I'm sure you were always told not to play with your food. Perhaps it was because she didn't want us to be wasteful, or perhaps she just didn't want to clean up the potential mess. Today, I would like to introduce you to a game that does encourage you to play with your food - FoodfightersFoodfighters is a game for 2 players, ages 8+. It takes approximately 20 minutes to play and retails for approximately $21.
1. Decide who will play which team (Veggies or Meat). Give that play their nine Fighter tiles and shuffle them. Then, randomly lay out your tiles in a 3 x 3 grid.
2. Assemble the Pantry as follows - The Price Card, Dice, and Beans go in the middle. A player's three Power Cards, three Crackers, two Spoons, and one Pan are placed on their own side of the Pantry.
3. The start player is determined by who most recently ate one of the foods on their own team.
Game Play - The game goes turn-for-turn until one player loses all of their Fighter tiles. On your turn, you perform the following three actions in order:
1a. Roll for Beans - Roll the two white dice until both faces show beans on the face. Take that many Beans from the supply. OR
1b. Swap - Swap the position of two of your Fighter tiles or a Fighter tile with an empty space on the same row and take one Bean. OR
1c. Attack - Indicate which one of your Fighters is attacking which one of your opponent's Fighters. Note: The tiles must be within reach (either straight ahead or diagonally touching) and your Fighter must be have a matching thought bubble of the Fighter it is attacking. Roll the two white dice. If you get one Splat icon, you have knocked their fighter out. If you completely miss, you get the amount of Beans shown on the dice face.
2. After performing one of the actions above, you may buy one thing from your side of the Pantry. You can only buy the Bonus Die if it is available in the middle. The other items you cannot buy if you just used them your previous turn or if equipping them would put two of the same items on one Fighter tile.
3. Your opponent fills any gaps - If you knocked out any of your opponent's tiles, they must pick a Fighter from the farthest back row and fill in the gap that was created.
I'm usually not a fan of two-player only games, because there's three people in my household. Now, granted my son is fairly young, so for the time being a game that plays two players is okay. However, he does love games and he can pick them up fairly quickly, so when he saw this game laid out with the dice and all the amazing wooden components, he instantly wanted to play this game! This may be Kids Table Board Gaming's first game, but Josh Cappel and his wife Helaina are no strangers to the board gaming industry. He has co-designed many successful games and his beautiful and distinct art style can be found in a personal favorite game of mine - Scoville! His art made this theme a very tasty prospect, and I think I would buy this game for my son for the art alone. However, there is a little bit of meat in the mechanics too! You have to decide when to go for the attack and when to accumulate some currency for offense, defense, and special abilities on the cards. There is also a key moment where switching your fighters will pay dividends and make your opponent reevaluate their strategy.

The game sets up and plays very quickly too, which is something you need in a kid's game. Children don't want to sit around and wait for 30 minutes while you set up a game, nor do they want to have to sit through another 30 minutes worth of rules, and an hour of game play. They will get bored and leave if you submit them to that. Instead, Foodfighters is a quick skirmish with just enough strategy and luck of the dice that your children (and you) will want to immediately play again. Where the game shines for me is in the variability of the play. The base game comes with two factions (Meat and Veggies), to play with. You and your opponent can take turns playing each faction or draft Fighters from each faction to have a mixed faction army. (There are reusable stickers in the game that allow you to alter the thought bubbles for this game play.) There are also four expansion factions which you can add to the game for even more variability - Grains, S'mores, PB&J, and Problem Picnic (the last of which is inspired on their second game with the same name). The Cappels have produced a winner with this game, and I look forward to see what they have coming out next!

Monday, June 19, 2017

ABCs of the Christian Life (Ave Maria Press)

G.K. Chesterton is probably one of the most widely read Catholics after Augustine. However, even among Catholics, he is a polarizing figure. As Peter Kreeft pointed out in the Foreword, his writings are something you either love or hate. There is no middle ground. The reason many people dislike reading him so much is because his words can strike a nerve. They get right to the heart of the matter and tell the truth without pulling any punches. If you have never read any of G.K. Chesterton, I imagine you are wondering which work should I start with, because he has written thousands upon thousands of pages. Luckily, Ave Maria Press has recently published a book that I think makes the perfect introductory work. It is entitled ABCs of the Christian Life and has excerpts from many of his famous works.

ABCs of the Christian Life is laid out like one would expect for a book with this title. There are 26 chapters with each chapter representing a letter. The book begins with chapters on asceticism, Bethlehem, and Catholicism. We then take a detour and visit Charles Dickens, which I have to admit, I didn't expect to see him mentioned in this book. Other notable figures are St. Francis, St. Joan of Arc, St. Thomas Aquinas, and another surprising entry in Queen Victoria. In addition to people, the book also touches on concepts like insanity, miracles, and negativity. At the end of the book is an index that shows you the main work from which each chapter in this book was taken from, which is extremely helpful if you want to read further from that specific work.

Overall, I found this to be a fine introduction to the thoughts and works of G.K. Chesterton. I wouldn't necessarily say the book was a quick or easy read, because if so, then it wouldn't be a Chesterton book. What I do recommend for this book is to take your time reading through it. Don't try and read it in one sitting or even one day. Instead, try and read one chapter a day and let it marinate in your head. Once you finish the book, you are then ready to take on full works of G.K. Chesterton, and I would think back on chapters I liked and read those full works to start.

This book was provided to me for free by Ave Maria Press in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit (Sophia Institute Press)

Any good Christian knows the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Located in Isaiah 11, they are fear of the Lord, piety, knowledge, fortitude, counsel, understanding, and wisdom. Late last year, Sophia Institute Press published a book by Dr. Kevin Vost that examined each of these gifts through the lenses of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure. There are seven chapters (one for each gift) and each chapter follows the same structure - "1. Grasping the gifts, 2. Embracing the sacraments, 3. Examining our thoughts and deeds for obstacles to the gifts, 4. Practicing prayer, 5. Cultivating virtues, beatitudes, and fruits, 6. Flying to our Mother's aid, and 7. Imitating Christ. Each chapter also concludes with three brief essays - Profile in Giftedness, Angelic Analysis, and Profile in Grace.

Most of the gifts of the Holy Spirit are pretty straightforward. Yes, people sometimes mix up wisdom for intelligence, but people generally know what each means...except for fear of the Lord. People question if they should be afraid of God or what exactly does it mean? St. Augustine said fear is the avoidance of future evil, St. Thomas Aquinas tells us about four types of fear (worldly, servile, initial, and filial) and how a Christian progresses through these stages of fear as we grow in love of God. This was very helpful on elucidating this often misunderstood gift. At the end of the book is a helpful appendix with several tables serve as a quick guides and also relate the gifts to the Lord's Prayer. Dr, Kevin Vost and Sophia Institute Press deliver another wonderful with St. Thomas Aquinas as the backbone. I look forward to the next one he writes, as he has really helped me (and I'm sure countless others) better understand Aquinas' writings.

This book was provided to me for free by Sophia Institute Press in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Covert (Renegade Games)

Children throughout the world love imaginative play. They take on a role (cop/robber, cowboy/Indian, doctor/patient) and build a whole world of scenarios and fun. Lately, my son has been pretending to be a spy/secret agent. I don't know where he came up with it, but it is awesome to see his mind at work. This got me thinking about games with a spy/secret agent theme, and the first one that popped in my head was Covert. In Covert, you are a master spy located in Europe, during the Cold War era. You must secretly collect equipment, deploy your agents, and accomplish missions to be the sole victor. The game plays 2-4 players, age 10+. It retails for $60 and takes between 45 and 90 minutes depending on player count.
1. Place the board in the middle of the table.
2. Randomly deal each player a Character Card or players can choose if everyone agrees.
3. Then, give each player a Player Screen, five Dice, three Agent Pawns, one Reroll Token, and fifteen Intel Cubes.
4. Shuffle the Agency Cards. Each player (in turn order) will draw three cards and place one Agent Pawn in the matching city on the board. After this occurs, reshuffle all the Agency Cards and deal two to each player, which are kept secret from everyone else. Then, deal six Agency Cards face-up, one at a time, in the region spaces on the edge of the board. Place the remainder in a face-down draw deck.
5. Shuffle and deal each player three Mission Cards. Each player will then keep two, placing them behind their Player Screen, and returning the extra card to the deck. Then, place that deck face-down near the board and flip the top three cards face-up next to the deck.
6. Shuffle the Code Cards and deal two to each player, which they then place behind their Player Screen. Split the deck into two approximately equal-sized stacks, placing them face-down near the board.
7. Shuffle the Cipher Tokens and randomly place them in two lines of six tiles each.
8. Place the Turn Order Tokens near the board, making sure they equal the number of players in the game.
9. Put the Special Operations Tokens into the bag, placing it near the board as well.
Game Play - The game is played over multiple rounds with each round happening in the following order:
1. Roll and place dice - Players roll their dice and arrange them in numerical order for all players to see. (Note: You can use your Reroll Token any time.) Starting with the player last in turn order the previous round and continuing clockwise, each player places one die at a time. If placing in the four Action Circles, new die placed there must be adjacent to previous dice. If you can't or don't want to place anymore dice, take a Turn Order Marker.
2. Break codes - Going in turn order (based on the tokens), each player tries to break one of their Code Cards. They may swap two adjacent Cipher Tokens. If they placed and dice on the Decoder, they may place them on top of Cipher Tokens. If they are able to break the code on their card, they flip the card up to the equipment side, and place it next to their Character Card.
3. Dice resolution - Again, starting in turn order (based on the tokens), each player performs one action on their turn, resolving one or multiple dice. Actions include taking Agency Cards, taking Mission Cards, moving Agent Pawns, and completing missions.

The game end triggers when a player completes their sixth mission and the current round is finished. There is then one final round where people may complete one last mission.
Covert is a game with that takes many different mechanics, tweaks them, and gives you a lot to consider and execute. In the game you are rolling dice and locking them in place to be able to execute actions. You are managing your hand of cards and collecting the right gear (icons) to complete missions. You are moving your pawns to a certain place without tipping off your opponent of what you are trying to accomplish. The game is honestly one big, ever-evolving and ever-changing puzzle that you are trying to solve turn by turn. This is what makes the game awesome and what also make it a drag at four players. Though the game says it plays two to four players, I would say that the game plays perfectly with three. At two players, you are probably going to have hurt feelings, as you can completely block your opponent from performing certain actions. At four players, the game is going to feel like each turn is dragging as you are waiting for your turn, because like I said earlier, each turn you are putting together a mini-puzzle and that can take time to figure out.

I really enjoyed the theme of this game, as the Cold War is one that many games utilize. The rule book, the old-time images of cameras and gadgets, spy-shaped meeples, and leaving a cube behind as your presence of being in a city all added to the game's look and feel. Do you feel completely immersed in the experience? No, but it gets you a lot closer than other games do. The art, components, and game play are all solid and show that Kane Klenko and Renegade Game Studios have found a partnership that is sure to be fruitful for the coming years. Be sure to check out the following other games from them: FUSE, Flatline, and Flip Ships!

This game was provided to me for free by Renegade Game Studios in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Book of Revelation: Hope in the Midst of Persecution (Liguori Publications)

The Book of Revelation is one of the most controversial and argued about books in the whole Bible. Some people believe they can watch the news on TV and read the book of Revelation and somehow they will always sync up. Before I converted to Catholicism, I used to believe this. Since my conversion, I have a new respect and understanding for the book of Revelation, and I have enjoyed reading different commentaries and books on the subject. One such book is entitled The Book of Revelation: Hope in the Midst of Persecution.

The Book of Revelation: Hope in the Midst of Persecution is the last (sequentially) in the Liguori Catholic Bible Study series. The book starts with a description of what Lectio Divina is and how to practice it. This leads to an explanation on how to use this book, both individual and group study. The last bit of introductory material gives us information on the book of Revelation - how it was a coded message for persecuted Christians, characteristics of apocalyptic literature, and characteristics of Revelation. Then, we finally dive into the meat of the book, which is divided into the following lessons:

1. Exile on Patmos
2. The Seven Churches of Asia
3. The Seven Seals
4. The Bitter Scroll
5. The Dragon and the Beasts
6. The New Creation

The book provides a nice introduction to Revelation. It doesn't go super-deep, as most of the individual lessons cover two to four chapters each. However, the study does a nice job of putting the book in its proper context. Revelation was not written for the future generations as a prediction of the end times. No, it was written as a message of hope for persecuted Christians, both in the early Church and future generation. That is what makes this book of the Bible timeless. Persecution is and always has been a key component of Christianity, so all generations of Christians need a message of hope. I didn't get a chance to try this book with a small group, but individually I found it edifying and would recommend it to you, if you would like to read the book of Revelation through the lens of the Church.

This book was provided to me by Liguori Publications in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, June 9, 2017

32 Days (Pauline Books and Media)

If you are Catholic, then you are most likely familiar with the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. Why that man is not a canonized saint is baffling to me, but this review is not the place for that platform. In an interview in 1979, he was praised for his accomplishments and lauded for the various important people he had met throughout the world. He was then asked, who he considered to be the biggest inspiration to him. In his humility, Sheen responded that he had never met his biggest inspiration, but that it was an eleven year old Chinese girl and her love for the Eucharist that inspired him most. 32 Days: A Story of Faith and Courage tells the story of that girl.

Pei was a village girl who lived in China. Like most children, she had parents, siblings, and grandparents. They worked hard and didn't have a lot, but they loved each other and loved Jesus too. Within their village, there was a Catholic Church, a priest, and a school run by a Catholic nun. Things were quiet for the most part until the Communists took over the village. Everything changed at that point. The Communists used propaganda techniques, intimidation, and fear to try and "convert" people to this change in regime. In addition to imprisoning the priest, one of their worst atrocities was destroying the Church and everything inside of it. They even desecrated the Eucharist by throwing it on the ground and stepping on it. Pei witnessed all of this and felt helpless about it, but one day she resolved to go consume the sacred hosts, as that was Jesus and she longed for Him. There were 32 hosts, so she had to sneak out at night 32 times to do this. She was almost caught several times, and sadly, on the 32nd night she was. She was martyred that night, but during that month+, she grew closer to Jesus than most of us do in our lifetime. The book was an easy read, and one that I was able to read in about an hour. The content is sad, but beautiful. I would recommend it for those in 4th-6th grade, but even older children and adults could learn a lot from it.

This book was provided to me for free by Pauline Books and Media in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Kingdomino (Blue Orange Games)

Any good king is not happy with the size of his kingdom and is always looking to expand it. Be it fields, lakes, or mountains, they should belong to you and not the lord next door. In Kingdomino, you have a chance to do just that. Will your kingdom be the most valuable at the end or will the rival king claim all the choice land for themselves? Kingdomino is a game for 2-4 players, age 8+. It retails for $20 and takes approximately 15 minutes to play.

Setup - (Before the first game, assemble all four castles)
1. Each player takes one King of their color, except in a two-player game where they take both Kings. Also give them a Starting Tile, and the Castle of their color.
2. Thoroughly shuffle all the Dominoes, number side up. Then, remove a certain amount depending on number of players (24 in a two-player game, 12 in a three-player game, 0 in a four-player game). Place the Dominoes back in the box to form the draw pile.
3. Draw a number of Dominoes from the draw pile equal to the number of Kings in play. Arrange them in ascending order and then flip them over so the landscape side is face-up.
4. A player takes all Kings in their hands and shuffles/shakes them out of their hand. When your King appear, place it on a Domino of your choice.
5. When all the Dominoes have been chosen form a new line of Dominoes as you previously did.

Game Play - Play is determined by the positions of the Kings on the Dominoes line. Each player in King order does the following:
1. Add the chosen Domino to the your territory, according to the connection rules. (Connect it to the Starting Tile or to a matching landscape on another Domino. You must also not exceed a 5 x 5 grid.)
2. Choose a new Domino in the new line by placing your King on it.
3. After everyone has placed (or discarded) their Domino and chosen a new Domino, a new line of Dominoes is drawn and arranged in ascending order. You continue repeating Steps 1 and 2 until all tiles run out.

Scoring - For each different landscape (You may have multiple regions of the same landscape.), take the number of squares and multiply it by the number of crowns. A region without crowns scores no points. Add up all your points from the various regions and the highest score wins.

Kingdomino is nominated for the Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year), and it's no wonder why. With the low price point, simple rules, familiar game play, and bright art/colors, it's an easy recommendation for families. There are meaningful decisions (Do I go for more crowns and go later on the next turn, or go for more of this landscape and go early next turn in hopes of better tiles?) Some people might find the game to be too easy, but there are additional rules you can add to up the challenge of the game. My personal favorite is "The Mighty Duel" (only playable with two player) where you can build a 7 x 7 grid. Bruno Cathala took this simple design and knocked it out of the park!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Escape from Colditz 75th Anniversary Edition (Osprey Games)

Colditz Castle is a Renaissance castle in the town of Colditz, Germany. After World War II began, the castle was converted into a POW camp for officers who had become security risks or were dangerous. Despite it being considered an impossible to escape prison, it had a high amount of successful escapes. Major Pat Reid was one of the POWs to escape Colditz Castle. He designed a board game with screenwriter Brian Degas called Escape from Colditz. Osprey Games gave the game an update to commemorate the 75th Anniversary. It plays 2-6 players, ages 12+. Play time is variable in length depending on number of players, and it retails for $65.

1. Before beginning decided upon the number of rounds. 50 is standard for new players, with 40 being used for more experienced players.
2. Decide which player will take the role of the German Security Officer. Each other player is an Escape Officer of a different nation among the allied POWs at Colditz. Give each player a number of pawns of their color based on the number of players there are.
3. Separate the Escape Equipment cards into four piles and place them face-up beside the board.
4. Give one Escape Kit to every Escape Officer.
5. Shuffle the Security and Opportunity decks and place them face-down beside the board. Then, deal one Security to the German Security Office and one Opportunity card to each Escape Officer.
6. Set up the POWs according to the starting positions in the rule book. The German Security Officer then decides where to deploy his guards. One guard for every Escape Officer must be deployed to guard posts in the inner courtyard, and between two and seven extra guards in the outer courtyard. Remaining guards are placed in the Barracks.
Game Play - Start with the Escape Officer to the left of the German Security Officer and proceed clockwise.
1. Roll both dice. The combined result gives you the total distance you can move your pawns (Guards or POWs). You can split the result as many times as you wish, but you may never move a pawn through a space with another pawn.
2. If an Escape Officer rolls doubles, he may move a POW out of solitary for the cost of one movement point. If you ever roll doubles, you may roll again adding the extra dice to your total. (Note: You may never roll more than two extra times due to rolling doubles.)
3. On your turn you may gain Equipment cards, which can be freely traded between other Escape Officers on any turn, but the German Security Officer's team.
4. Escape Kits are gathered similarly to Equipment cards, but an Escape Officer can never have more than one at a time. It takes four pieces to make and you must have one POW in each of the four room types at the same time.
5. You escape by using Equipment to get through obstacles and the Escape Kit once you reach a target on the board. A guard may make an arrest by moving into the same space as a POW. The game ends when the round counter reaches zero or two POWs from the same nation escape. There is the possibility to have multiple winners if Escape Officers pull this off on the same turn.

For the most part, Escape from Colditz is a simple dice-rolling, point allocation system. It is a classic game in this sense, and it shows in some of the mechanics, like being rewarded for rolling doubles. Osprey Games is aware of this though, and let's you know they are aware. They have enough great games in their catalog that they could have easily updated the game's rules and mechanics to bring it more in line with modern gaming, but they felt it would be doing a disservice to the game and its designers, who were so closely tied to this game and the history which it represents. I applaud them for this decision.

As for the art and components, when you first open the box, you feel a bit immersed in theme. The boxes inside which hold the cards and other components feel like you are opening a kit from World War II. Yes, the player pieces are pawns, which most people look down upon, but meeples were not needed for a game like this and would distract I believe. I really liked the way the board looked too. Yes, it is a lot of individual spaces to move and absorb on initial glance, however, the color scheme has a very intuitive feel to it.

The game can play a little long (a couple of hours), but I really enjoyed the one versus many nature of it. Yes, it can be tough mentally/emotionally to play the German Security Officer, if you immerse yourself in the theme, but it is still a rewarding experience. What I really like about the game is the decisions you have to make. For example, if you have one POW close to escaping, but could be caught, you can move another of your POWs to intercept a guard, be caught, and let the other one escape. To some it might be a matter of moving pawns, but again, if you immerse yourself in the theme, it is a beautiful sacrifice that a person made for the betterment of another.

Overall, I enjoyed the experience this game provided. If I had to compare it to anything, it would be The Grizzled. It provides a tense experience that leaves you feeling drained after playing it, but in a good way. You feel like you have all the time in the world when you start with 50 rounds, but as it counts down, you get to 40 and then 30, and then 20. Suddenly, your pulses is racing and your stress level goes through the roof! This is how a game should make you feel! With that said, it is not a game I would want to play multiple times in a row, or maybe more than once a month, just because I feel like it would lessen the experience and make it more playing a game and maximizing your chances of winning, not experiencing the emotional and visceral response. However, I feel like this is a game that everyone should play at least once, and I firmly believe it belongs in every high school history classroom in the country.

This game was provided to me by Osprey Games in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Story of Civilization: Volume II (TAN Books)

Memorial Day has come and gone. That means summer is officially here. If you're a parent who sends their children to school, you are probably counting down when your children will be going back to school. On the other hand, if you are a homeschooling parent, you are already plotting next year's curriculum. If you don't have a good history program in place yet, allow me to give you a brief review of The Story of Civilization: Volume II. The volume begins with an introduction explaining how history is like an epic book or movie series, i.e., The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, or Star Wars. Since history is a long period of time, it works better to divide it into manageable chunks. The first division is entitled the Ancient World and the second division is called the Medieval World. The Medieval World starts shortly after the passage of the Edict of Milan and the spread of Christianity, and this is the product I would like to tell you about.

The volume then begins where the previous one left off. With the early spread of Christianity, we also see the spread of heresies and Christendom fighting against them. In addition to heretical priests, there were also emperors trying to exert their will over the Church and steer it in their direction and not the direction of the Holy Spirit. The Western Roman Empire then falls, and all that is left is the Eastern Roman Empire with Justinian. After this we see St. Benedict and his rule, the Irish missionaries, and the rise of the Islamic world. The volume continues on to show us the Crusades, Avignon and the papal controversy, the Hundred Years War, War of the Roses, and an early glimpse at the Renaissance. Apart from the lively storytelling nature of this text, I appreciate the honesty of it. "History is written by the winners," so it would have been easy to whitewash the black marks of the Church, but this text shows us the whole picture, for better or worse.

In addition to a text book, if you buy the whole The Story of Civilization: Volume II pack, you will receive CDs, streaming lectures, an activity book, a test book, a timeline, and a teacher's manual. I have not received all of these to review, but I would like to tell you about the test book and the timeline. The test book has a test for each lesson and the questions are a mix of matching, true/false, and multiple choice. By sticking with this format, you can test a wide-range of students. You also have an objective way to score them, opposed to short answer/essays. That is not to say that you shouldn't give your children additional "tests," but the test book serves its purpose and is a good barometer to how much your child learned/retained. The timeline is a nice large laminated sheet that fits nicely on a wall. On one side is a timeline that provides you a comprehensive and sequential view of what your child is learning. This helps to crystallize the concepts for them. On the other side is a "trivia" section, which your kids might find to be a fun game. Overall, this is a great series for the homeschooling parent, and one I would gladly recommend.

This product was provided to me for free by TAN Books in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Lost Woods (Poppy Jasper Games)

Some people absolutely love being outdoors. There's the sun, fresh air, nature, etc. I am not one of those people, nor is my wife, but somehow my son is. (Go figure!) For me, I'd rather be indoors without the bugs, the pollen, and the dirt. Therefore, when I heard about the game Lost Woods, I wondered if I would like this theme. After all, I have only ever been camping once, (It was miserable) and being lost in the woods and trying to escape seems like something I would hate in real life, so why would I like it in a game? However, the art drew me in and I decided to give this game a shot! Lost Woods is a game for 1-6 players, ages 12+. It takes approximately one hour to play and is currently on sale for $39.
1. Place the Camp in the middle of the table.
2. Have each player select an Adventurer Game Piece and set it in the center of the Camp.
3. Place the four decks (North, East, South, and West) of Map Cards where everyone can reach them with each card marked "Bottom of the Deck" on the bottom of their respective decks.
4. Remove D12 Weapons from the Weapons Bag, depending on the number of players.
5. Give each player a Player Mat corresponding to their Adventurer, one gold piece, and one D6 Weapon.
6. Starting player is the person who went camping most recently.
Game Play - A turn is composed of three basic steps:
1. Move - On your turn you can move 0, 1, 2, or 3 spaces in the Map that has been explored. (Note: Each face up card represents one space.) When moving, you may pick up any dropped items (Magic, Gold, Potions, and Weapons) that you move through.
2. Explore - Choose an open direction from your current location. Draw a map card in the direction you want to go, placing it in the open spot. Draw a tile from the bag. (Note: You can only have three items/potions in your inventory. If you have more than three, drop one item in the new new map card.) Move your Adventurer to the new map card.
3. Attack - If you are on the same Map Card as an enemy, you may choose to attack the enemy or not. Attacking is done by rolling a die corresponding to a Weapon or Magic you have. Attacking can have three results. Win by rolling higher than the enemy. Claim the enemy's gold value. Tie. Nothing happens. Lose by rolling lower than the enemy. If attacking with Magic, drop one Gold. If attacking with a Weapon, drop the Weapon used or one Gold. After the failed roll, you move back to Camp.

The end of the game is triggered when the Guardian (found at the bottom of one of the decks of Map Cards is revealed. The Guardian rolls three dice separately. Thus, the player battling them must defeat them in each dice roll. The game ends when someone explores or moves past the "exit" marked on the Guardian's Map Card or when there are no more places to explore. The winner is the player with the most gold at the end of the game. If there is a tie, the two Adventurers fight like they would fight an enemy.
I have played a lot of tile-laying games, and this one provided a fun and unique experience. For starters, there are a lot of components in this game, which provide unique experiences each play through. Sure, you'll see the same map tiles and weapons from game to game, but the order in which you see them will be unique, and since the game primarily revolves around dice rolls. Some times the dice are in your favor and other times, it seems like you only roll 1s.

The game's theme has a nice flavor as well. I personally hate camping, but this game made it seem like an exciting experience. The artwork on the map cards is simple in that it is clear and not distracting, but there are little nods to other media at times, which make you smile when you see it. My particular favorite is the card with the wardrobe and the lamppost, which pays homage to C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Speaking of the art, I really love the weapon tiles. The art on them has a cartoonish feel to them (I say that in a good way), and the weapons themselves are equal parts thematic and silly! You have stuff you would find around a campsite (paper towel roll, flaming marshmallow, cast iron skillet, and a fishing pole) and off the wall stuff (unicorn horn, elephant gun, and nunchucks). This mixture of weapons adds theme when you need it and tension-breaking hilarity when you need that. "I defeated that monster with a smelly sock on a stick!"

The game play itself is simple to learn, making it a good choice for children and families. What is especially nice is that the game can play six players, a win for those with a large family (or large game group)! More serious gamers may not like the random feel of the game with the monsters that show up, the dice rolls, and general luck feel of the game at times, but there is a Big Map variant to the game, which increases the play time, but also adds more spells and caves to the game. This will give you a few more ways to employ some different strategy into amassing the biggest stockpile of gold. There is also a Survival cooperative variant for people that don't like to compete with others, but it can only be played with 1-3 players. Overall, I found the game to be enjoyable and appreciate the detail and care that went into the creation of this game. From the game play to the art to the components, it was clearly a labor of love. Be sure to check out the second game from Poppy Jasper Games - Gnomi, a quick little card game you can play anywhere!

This game was provided to me for free by Poppy Jasper Games in exchange for an honest review.