Wednesday, November 29, 2017

London: Second Edition (Osprey Games)

The Great Fire of London in 1666 is still fresh in our minds, and the city needs to be rebuilt. As one of the master architects, you are competing with other architects to make the city shine like it used to. This will involve using the right people, acquiring the best land, and building the most prestigious buildings. This is London: Second EditionLondon: Second Edition is the masterful republication of a classic Martin Wallace game. It is suited for ages 14+, takes about 60-90 minutes to play, and retails for $55.00.
1. Put the board in the middle of the table.
2. Give each player a score marker, placing it on the 0 space of the board.
3. Give each player 5 pounds.
4. Separate the city cards into an A, B, and C deck. Shuffle each deck separately. Then, place the A deck on top of the B deck on top of the C deck.
5. Deal each player six cards from the newly formed deck.
6. Find the three starter boroughs of City, Westminster, and Southwark & Bermondsey, placing them next to the board. Shuffle the rest of the boroughs, placing them face-down to form a borough deck.
Game Play - The goal is to have the most prestige when the city cards run out. On your first action, you must draw a city card. After that turn, you may perform one of four actions:
1. Develop your city - Play one or more of the city cards from your hand to the table one at a time.
2. Buy land - Choose a borough card from the three face-up on the table, pay its cost, and add it to your building area.
3. Running your city - Activate city cards in your building display one at a time in any order. Doing this requires you to pay the activation cost, carrying out the effect, and flipping the card face-down if necessary. After activation, you will receive poverty tokens for each stack in your building display, each 10 pound of loans, and card in your hand.
4. Draw three more city cards - Draw exactly three cards from any combination of the deck or the development board.

If the city deck is empty at the end of a player's turn, every other player gets one more turn. The player with the most prestige is the winner!
Martin Wallace is a name that is famous in the gaming world. He is known for making games that are strategic, deep, and thinky. London, however, was one of his most accessible games that was published 7 years ago, and was a game I sadly never got to play. Therefore, when I heard Osprey Games was making a second edition of the game, I knew I wanted to play it! The game play in this is game is clever and unique in that you use the cards in your hand to play other cards in your hand. Then, there is the mechanic of running your city. This is where your points and other benefits come from. However, you have to be careful when running your city, and make sure you lay out your city efficiently and don't have too many cards in your hand as well. If you are inefficient, then you will get paupers which are bad for your city and clog up your hand.

What I liked best about this game was the new artwork. I have looked up images of the old artwork, and it really is night and day! This new game art enriches the theme (which my wife loved, because 1. she is an architect and 2. she loves London) and makes it stand out from other Euro games. The only thing I didn't like about the game was the box component. I know it's Osprey Games m.o. to put their games in a fold-open box that resembles a book, but this game deserved a normal game box in my opinion. That complaint aside, I am thrilled that I finally got a chance to try this game. It crunched my brain and made me think, plan, and manage carefully in order to make the best city possible. I still lost to my wife multiple times (shocker!), but I didn't mind because it was like a fun puzzle trying to figure out each game. If you are a fan of history, London, Euro games, or have just ever wanted to try a Martin Wallace game, this is the game for you!

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

Monday, November 27, 2017

Heroism and Genius (Ignatius Press)

When you look back through the history of the Catholic Church, there have been some amazing men and women who helped shape not only the Church, but society as well. The stories of their lives could fill an endless amount of volumes, and each would be a remarkable read, no doubt. Fr. William J. Slattery recently penned a book titled Heroism and Genius. In this book, he narrowed the focus to priests. The book's introduction begins with a lengthy quote from Aragorn to Boromir in The Lord of the Rings. He then summarizes the three main parts of the book. Part One explains what modern historians have concluded with the Church's role in the shaping of Western Civilization, why the book asserts that priests were the constructors of this civilization, and the milestones from from 200 A.D. to 1300 A.D. Part Two "describes the gradual shaping from A.D. 300 to A.D. 1000 of the embryo of medieval Christendom." Part Three shows the "decisive role of priests" in the building of different social, artistic, and economic institutions.

Chapter Two looks at the Fall of the Roman Empire and the Conversion of Europe. It also looks intently at something we take for granted and that is the birth of the parish and the impact it had in shaping and preserving Western Christendom. Chapter Three, a favorite of mine does some heavy lifting in that it discusses the powerhouses that are Ambrose, Augustine, Leo the Great, and Gregory the Great. Augustine gets the lion's share of Chapter Three (as is to be expected), but it was nice to see Ambrose get his dues. He famously stated, "The Emperor is in the Church, not above it," and showed us that you cannot back down from God's truths, even to someone as powerful as the emperor. Chapter Four focuses on St. Benedict and St. Columba and the amazing impact that monasteries had on Western Europe. Chapter Five focuses heavily on Charlemagne, his model of Europe, and the man who mentored him, Alcuin. That was truly a fascinating chapter and shined the light on a man many in history overlook, because he is so overshadowed by Charlemagne.

I just walked you briefly through Part Two of this book. I won't do the same for Part Three. Instead, I will close with my thoughts on why you should buy this book. The Catholic priest right now is the one of the most under-appreciated people in the Western world. Whereas, he used to be held in extremely high regard, he is now seen as just a common man, and talked about behind his back as such too. One could also even argue that the priest is an endangered species. Just for a small sample size, my archdiocese produces one priest a year (on average) with a recent high of four one year. This book explains the vital role that priests have played in Western Christendom and culture since Christ founded the Church, and it does so with history to prove it. Without priests, I shudder to think where our society would be today, or if it even would be. It is for that reason that I encourage you, no implore you, to buy this book and read it. We must appreciate our priests again, help our priests to be the best that they can be, and foster vocations for new priests.

This book was provided to me for free by Carmel Communications in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Flip Ships (Renegade Game Studios)

It was a calm and peaceful day. All was quiet and well...until the mother ship came... That was the day our lives changed forever. Waves of alien ships poured out of this monstrous vessel. We didn't have a chance to prepare or recruit our best fighters, but we vowed to fight it off bravely. This is Flip ShipsFlip Ships is game for 1-4 players, ages 8+. It take about 30 minutes to play and retails for $40.
1. Assemble the six Battle Zone Tiles from 0 to 20.
2. Take the Pilot Cards and shuffle the 1s, 2s, and 3s into separate decks. For each player, deal one card from each deck, lining them up to the right of the Battle Zone Tiles.
3. Each player then chooses color and takes the Ships (discs) of that color on the appropriate cards in a single column. Each player then takes two of their Level 1 Ships and places them on the table, just above their Level 3 ships, which is where they will stay until you are ready to attack with them.
4. Place the Docking Bay near the Pilot Cards.
5. Shuffle the Enemy Cards together and deal cards into a deck based on the number of players and difficulty level you desire. You will then deal Enemy Cards face-up to form two rows of Enemy Ships next to the Moon spaces furthest from the edge of the table.
6. Assemble the Mother Ship and place it above the middle Enemy Card in the back row.
7. Place the City Health Marker on Space 20 and the Mothership Health Marker on a space depending on number of players and difficulty.
Game Play - Each round is broken into four phases:
1. Flip Ships - Place a Ship so it is slightly hanging off the end of the table. Strike it upward with a finger. Leave it where it lands and do not reset any Enemy Cards that are disturbed.
2. Resolve Attacks - Discard Enemy Cards that were destroyed. Remove ships that landed in the Mother Ship or did not successfully attack Enemy Cards. (Note: If Mother Ship is hit, lower the health meter.)
3. The Enemy Marches - Straighten up any Enemy Cards that were knocked out of alignment. Then, move Enemy Cards forward a number of spaces based on what their card tells you to do. If any move past the last moon row, you lose health.
4. Cleanup - Move all Ships from Docking Bay to space above their Pilot Cards. Refill the back two rows with Enemy Cards. Rotate starting player clockwise.

The game will end in defeat when your city takes 20 damage or victory when you have defeated the Mother Ship and all Enemy Cards.
Earlier this week, I reviewed Flatline (also by Kane Klenko), and I thought it would be appropriate to review another one of his this week. I would like to start by saying that it seems to me that Mr. Klenko designs games that I am horribly bad at. First, it was real-time games, now it is dexterity games. That observation aside, I did find the game to be enjoyable and difficult (for me). Those of you with a shred of coordination would probably excel at this game. However, I think I lost every game I played, much to the chagrin of my fellow pilots.

As I'm sure has been said a million times, this game reminds me of the old Atari game Space Invaders, which I also wasn't great at. The artwork in this game was the best part of the game for me. The colors and illustration style are amazingly vibrant and pop off the table, inviting you to play. As for the components, they are a mixed bag for me. With dexterity games, I like more wood than cardboard in the box, like Flick 'em Up! I'd even take plastic, like the cheaper version of Flick 'em Up! However, I understand the cost associated with wood and plastic and that by using cardboard, you can make this game more accessible to the masses.

For my final opinion, I think this would be a good game for kids and families. It has broad appeal, adjustable difficulty, and a good price point. Is it my favorite dexterity game? No, but I do see the appeal and merit of it.

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

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Beautiful Leatherette Volumes from TAN Books

TAN Books has been on a tear publishing beautiful leatherette books for people from all walks of life. Today, I would like to tell you about two of the more recent works - 100 Holy Hours for Women and Manual for Conquering Deadly Sin.

100 Holy Hours for Women is a small (about 6.5" x 4") blue leatherette volume with gold-edged pages that is approximately 500 pages long. The blue binding gives it a distinct Marian feel to it. It was originally published in 1985 and was composed by Mother Mary Raphael Lubowidzka. "The book was originally written as a religious sister's guide for daily adoration." Each meditation is approximately five pages long and begins with a single verse. This then leads to a two-part meditation with the first part containing profound bits of spiritual wisdom, and the second part being a personal reflection of hers and a prayer we could all emulate. For example, her first meditation explains that the angels are pure spiritual beings and were the first beings to show Jesus love and adoration. They also implore us to do the same. She then calls on the help of the angels to make her time in front of the Eucharist more focused on Christ, instead of worldly distractions.

Reading through this book was beautiful and doing so in front of the Eucharist makes it all the more special. with 100 reflections, if you went to Adoration once a week, you'd have almost enough to get you through two years. Also, don't let the name fool you, this work is spiritually beneficial for men and women alike. I plan on giving my copy to my wife for Christmas and think it would make a perfect gift for the special women in your life. Highly recommended!

Manual for Conquering Deadly Sin is a small (about 7" x 4.5") black leatherette volume with silver-edged pages that is approximately 300 pages long. The black binding gives it a serious and somber tone, and you know what you are about to read is a matter of life and death. It was written by Fr. Dennis Kolinski and two parts - The Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies and Prayers and Words of Wisdom, Warning and Encouragement in the Struggle Against Deadly Sin.

The first part begins by explaining the two types of sin - mortal and venial. It then goes on to define the seven deadly sins and their opposing virtues. These are as follows - lust:chastity, gluttony:temperance, avarice:generosity, sloth:diligence, anger:meekness, envy:generosity/kindness, and pride:humility. This essay then breaks apart each sin by giving us a reference in the Catechism on the sin and Scripture and magisterial teachings on it. Lastly, there are remedies for each sin to help us combat them. For example, with the sin of lust, he recommends guarding our eyes to what we see, prayer, daily examination of conscience, regular confession, and Eucharistic adoration. In Part Two, each sin is given copious amounts of quotes from both Scripture and the Church Fathers on fighting these sins.

This is a beautiful volume filled with great spiritual wisdom. Given the presentation, you would think it is more geared towards men than women, but I promise you every Christian would benefit from reading this work. I would go so far as to say that you should pair it with the Manual for Spiritual Warfare and fully equip yourself for the battle you will constantly be facing on your spiritual journey!

These volumes were provided to me for free by TAN Books in exchange for honest reviews.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Flatline: A FUSE Aftershock Game (Renegade Game Studios)

The bombs have finally stopped exploding. We have survived, but just barely. Unfortunately, there are a lot of injuries and it is up to us to treat them and save as many of our crew members as possible before time runs out. This is the world of Flatline: A FUSE Aftershock GameFlatline is a game for 1 to 5 players, age 13+. It takes approximately 45 minutes to play and retails for $50.

1. Assemble the board by putting the four corner pieces together and Life Support Dial in the center.
2. Shuffle the Emergency Cards and place them face-down near the area of the board numbered 1 through 6. Place the Emergency Dice in the spot next to the number 1.
3. Shuffle the Patient Cards and deal a number face-down based on difficulty and player count.
4. Turn the Life Support Dial so that the connection with the diamond is lined up with the first space of one Patient Card.
5. Place a Power Cube on each Recharging Station.
6. Take the Power Meter equal to number of players, placing it on the green side for normal or red side for expert. Fill the Power Meter with the remaining eight Power Cubes.
7. Give the most experienced player the player aid tile. They are the Chief Medical Officer and are responsible for the flow of the game. Another player will be intern and in charge of sorting and redistributing dice.
8. Have each player choose a dice color and put six of them in their area, placing one die off to the side and the other back in the box.
9. Place the Cleared Tiles and Lock-Down Tiles within reach of the board.

Game Play - The goal of the game is treat all the Patient Cards before you run out of time. Each round is played as such:

1. Lose Power - Remove the left-most Power Cube from the Power Meter.
2. Add Emergencies - Flip over a number of Emergency Cards equal to the number underneath the Power Cube just removed. Add them face-up to the board filling in empty spots on the numbers 1 through 6. If necessary, make a second row above the first row.
3. Roll the Emergency Dice - Roll the two Emergency Dice and resolve the Emergency Cards (in numeric order) based on the dice results.
4. Planning - Players can discuss a strategy now. Time is unlimited, but institute a timer if you deem necessary.

5. Countdown - Players have one minute to place their dice. Once time expires or all dice or placed, this step is over. You must match your dice according to the icons on the Patient Cards, and follow rules accordingly, i.e., one player playing all dice or all players needing to place dice.

6. Resolve Cards - Beginning with cards in the Stat Area and moving to Emergency Area, resolve cards. If a Stat Area card isn't cleared, it is flipped face-down and put near the red-edge of the board. (Note: Too many of these cards will cause you to lose the game.) If it is resolved, it is put near the green-edge of the board and will provide you a one-time bonus. Remove any Emergency Area cards you cleared.
7. Resolve Patient Cards and Recharging Stations - Beginning with the Patient Card connected to the diamond on the Life Support Dial, go line-by-line and see if a line on a Patient Card is fully resolved. If so, place a Cleared Tile on that line. If all lines are cleared on a Patient Card, that patient is saved and you might trigger a bonus or penalty. Next, if a Recharging Station was filled with the appropriate dice for that round, you may place a Power Cube back in the Power Meter.
8. Turn the Life Support Dial - After everything has been resolved and dice returned, turn the Life Support Dial once clockwise, so that the diamond is now on the first space of the next Patient Card.

The game ends in success if all Patient Cards are treated or failure if the last Power Cube is removed from the Power Meter or if 3 face-down cards are placed in the red-edge border of the board.

If I am being completely honest, I hate real-time games. (Okay, hate is too strong of a is more a strong dislike.) My game group generally like to take our time and think when playing. Add small children to the mix, and real-time games don't generally work for us. When I played FUSE, I found it a stressful 10 minutes, mixed with a low success rate, but I had fun trying, probably because it was only 10 minutes. However, it was not something I would seek out and play time and time again, mainly because it was real time. So what on earth made me want to try Flatline?

I think the biggest factor in trying another real time was that this one was micro-bursts. Unlike, FUSE, where it's 10 minutes of stress, This is one minute of stress followed by an evaluation. Then, another minute of stress followed by an evaluation. This was my kind of real-time game. I could deal with one-minute and taking time to briefly resolve and evaluate after the fact. This felt like a comfortable mix of strategy, planning, and chaos, as opposed to 10 minutes of no time to think, follow your gut, and hope for the best. Also, it being only a minute makes it a bit more friendly for gamers with kids. You can tell your kid, "Wait one minute," and they'll generally be okay. If you tell your kid, "Wait 10 minutes," your house might be in shambles when you look up from the game.

The theme is supposed to feel like a hospital or emergency room in space, but apart from the real time stress of hospitals/emergency rooms, it doesn't entirely immerse you in theme. Since it's not constant stress pounding away at you the entire time you are playing, you can spice up your game by naming the Patient Cards (sticky notes) or giving them roles, but this might make the game too real for some people. The components are top-notch and what I've come to expect from Renegade Game Studios
The cardboard is thick, and the dice are plentiful and the spinning cardboard dial adds a nice touch and feel.

After playing through this game a few times, I feel like I have finally found a real-time game that is just my speed. It provided a good balance of stress and calm, planning and frenetic execution. I still don't love real-time games, but if someone asked me to play this game, I would play it, and if someone asked me for a real-time recommendation, it would be this game. Good job, Kane Klenko! You made me like a real-time game!

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

Friday, November 17, 2017

Wisdom: God's Vision for Life (Ascension Press)

When people first pick up a Bible, they think they are getting one book that they can read from cover to cover, in order, and understand everything. What they don't realize is that there are 73 books and many different "genres" within the Bible. There is Law, Historical Narrative, Allegory, Apocalyptic and Wisdom literature. While it might be wrong to pick a favorite genre, if I had to it would definitely be the Wisdom books, which are comprised of Proverbs, Wisdom, Sirach, and Ecclesiastes. There is just something about reading a chapter or even a few verses a day from these four books that puts your day on the right path and helps make you spiritually smarter. Ascension Press realizes the value of these books too, and that's why one of their latest studies focuses on them. It's called Wisdom: God's Vision for Life and features Ascension Press veteran Jeff Cavins paired with Thomas Smith. This DVD series is divided into the following eight sessions:

1. Introduction
2. Wisdom in Decision-Making
3. Wisdom in Finances
4. Wisdom in Relationships
5. Wisdom for Peace of Mind
6. Wisdom in Speech
7. Wisdom in Age
8. Wisdom in Christ

The study is done in Lectio Divina format. You will read, reflect, relate and rest. There will home preparation which you will do individually, a video presentation everyone will watch together, a small group discussion, and lastly a review of everyone's responses. In addition to focusing on the four Old Testament Wisdom books mentioned above, there are also selections from Psalms, Tobit, Philippians, 1 Timothy, Titus, and Ephesians to name a few. What I like best about this program is the practical approach it takes to wisdom literature. It would be very easy to make a series that examines one book of the Bible and go through it verse-by-verse. Instead, the creators looked for common themes found in all the books and focused on different areas where people need the most help, i.e., finances, relationships, speech, etc. So why should you or your parish invest in this program? Wisdom 7 says the following:

In Wisdom is a spirit
intelligent, holy, unique,
Manifold, subtle, agile,
clear, unstained, certain,
Not baneful, loving the good, keen,
unhampered, beneficent, kindly,
Firm, secure, tranquil,
all-powerful, all-seeing,
And pervading all spirits,
though they be intelligent, pure and very subtle.
For Wisdom is mobile beyond all motion,
and she penetrates and pervades all things by reason of her purity.
For she is an aura of the might of God
and a pure effusion of the glory of the Almighty;
therefore nought that is sullied enters into her.
For she is the refulgence of eternal light,
the spotless mirror of the power of God,
the image of his goodness.
And she, who is one, can do all things,
and renews everything while herself perduring;
And passing into holy souls from age to age,
she produces friends of God and prophets.
For there is nought God loves, be it not one who dwells with Wisdom.
For she is fairer than the sun
and surpasses every constellation of the stars.
Compared to light, she takes precedence;
for that, indeed, night supplants,
but wickedness prevails not over Wisdom.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Ticket to Ride: First Journey App (Asmodee)

One of the very first games I remember playing when I was introduced to modern tabletop gaming was called Ticket to Ride. It is a modern classic by Alan R. Moon and contains elements of hand management, set collection, and route building. It also comes with cool train shaped pieces, which give a nice visual effect when claiming your routes. It was beautiful and simple and the perfect introduction for families and new gamers. Recently a children's version of this game was released called Ticket to Ride: First Journey, which is designed for children ages 6+. It simplifies the game even more and makes it accessible to children at a much younger age. As of late, Asmodee has been on a tear releasing app versions of their popular games, and this is now true of Ticket to Ride: First Journey too!
In this game, you are given route cards to complete, like regular Ticket to Ride. However, the map is smaller and routes are generally shorter. Also, unlike regular Ticket to Ride, you are not trying to complete the longest and best routes, you are just trying to be the first to complete six routes. The app plays up to four people with the ability to play either against the AI or your friends in pass and play mode. It is bright and colorful, which appeals to kids, and the graphics on it have movement and motion to them when connecting cities, which is fun and captivating. After each game you win, you also get a picture to go into your collection and collect, which is like a little trophy for kids. I will say that playing on a phone, the trains are a little hard to place due to screen size, but that is no problem when playing with a tablet. At $1.99, this game is a steal because you get this map and the Europe map if you sign up for an Asmodee account. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Space Race: Interkosmos

The more I play board games the more I realize that they are a lot like movies. There are big budget titles and indie darlings. There are ones with big names, and ones by first-timers looking to make a splash. The movies most interesting of all to me are the cult-classics. These movies are hidden gems that are underappreciated, except for their small core following. Eventually, their brilliance is discovered and the popularity explodes. Two such titles I can think of that fall into this category are The Princess Bride and The Goonies.

This got me to thinking. Are there cult classic games currently in the hobby? I think so, but I can't really prove it, because it's just kind of a gut instinct. However, if I had to provide you with some examples to back my claim I would list Vast: The Crystal Caverns and Space Race: The Card GameSpace Race is a clever little card game of space exploration for 1 to 4 players. It was a Kickstarter darling that did not see retail release, causing a lot of people to be sad they missed this project. Well, if you missed it, lucky for you, there is currently an expansion out called Interkosmos, and you can get the base game and expansion during this campaign! So what's new in Interkosmos?
The first big change to the game is the addition of a fifth Space Program (or player). In the original game, you had the U.S., Russia, Europe, and Private Sector that you could play as. With the expansion, we now have the Chinese and their Taikonauts! Not only does this make the game playable with a larger group, it adds more theme to the game as China was the third country to put astronauts in space.

Second, you will now have achievements which can be completed and range in difficulty from having two of one type of card in your agency to using two immediate actions in one round. With only five available each game, you will now have to focus on completing specific tasks while still building the best space program. However, you will have to complete these tasks more quickly than your opponents or you will risk not scoring any points for them at all.

The third big change is an influx of new cards added to the universe. We now get to see famous people such as Alan Shepard, Jeff Bezos, Yang Liwei, and Vladimir Komarov. There is technology such as Mir, Goddard Space Flight Center, and Falcon 9.There's also some fun breakthroughs like a Martian Colony and Landing on Venus. These cards expand the deck of cards dramatically and add so much more theme to the game that you can taste it!

The last and biggest change related to the game is the introduction of Scenarios! There are currently three Scenarios (with the potential for more in the form of Stretch Goals) that make the game so much more awesome. The Scenario I tried was called The Dawn of an Era. In this scenario, countries are at the start of the space race (Appropriate!) and are competing in a technological arms race to establish supremacy. This means that you won't be playing breakthrough cards like normal and will have to wait until the last round to make the best possible combinations. My wife and I really enjoyed playing this specific Scenario at two players because it made the game take on an even deeper historical context that you don't always get in the base game. I'm not sure how well this Scenario would scale beyond three players, but I'm anxious to try it and other Scenarios.

I wasn't sure what to expect from the expansion, but I was pleased with every addition to the game. Jan Soukal and Michal Mikes took an already excellent game and found a way to make the universe bigger and better. In a hobby with so many space games (99% of them 4x or alien-based), it is refreshing to see a game steeped in history, actual people, actual technology, and actual events. This is my go-to space game and one you need in your collection if you have any love of space and exploration at all. If you already own the base game, pledge for the expansion. If you don't own the base game, well you better be one of the first 1000 to pledge for the base and expansion, because you might never have a chance to own this game again! Highly recommended!

Friday, November 10, 2017

Flora of Middle-Earth (Oxford University Press)

Any fan of  J.R.R.Tolkien knows that the man was a genius, and I think even that term does not do him justice. In addition to creating a whole world (Middle-earth), he also created a language, and comprehensive (yet sadly unfinished) history of this world. What people (myself included) might not know about Tolkien is that he loved plants. He even wrote in one of his letters, "I am (obviously) much in love with plants and above all trees, and always have been; and I find human maltreatment of them as hard to bear as some find ill-treatment of animals." Reading this statement and just merely thinking about some of the passages of Lord of the Rings, it is clear to see all the plant life or flora in his works. There's Kingsfoil, pipe-weed, the white trees of Gondor, and of course who could forget Treebeard and the other Ents? In a recently published book, Flora of Middle Earth, father-son duo Walter S. Judd and Graham A. Judd set out explore and explain this interesting subject. The book is approximately 400 pages long and is divided into the following chapters:

1. Introduction: The Importance of Plants in J.R.R. Tolkien's Legendarium
2. Plant Communities of Middle-earth
3. The Diversity of Life, with a Focus on the Green Plants
4. Introduction to Plant Morphology: Learning the Language of Plant Descriptions
5. Identification of the Plants of Middle-earth
6. Telperion and Laurelin: The Two Trees of Valinor
7. The Plants of Middle Earth
8. A Note from the Illustrator

The opening chapters provide a brief lesson on the different climate zones in Middle-earth, what exactly is a plant, what are the parts of a plant, and a key to identifying the plants of Middle-earth. This is a lot of science and botany and might bog the average reader down if they don't share as great a love for plants as the authors and Tolkien. Chapter Six is a brief but amazingly interesting chapter to read as the Two Trees of Valinor are central to the mythology of Middle-earth. They are the origin of the Sun, the Moon, great Elvish wisdom, and the white trees of Gondor. Sadly, they were destroyed by Morgoth and Ungoliant. The meat (or I guess in tree terminology, sapwood) of this book is Chapter Seven. Within this massive chapter are roughly 100 different types of plants from Middle-earth, including unidentified plants, which are plants that are merely named in in the Legendarium but little or no other information is known about them. Each identified plant is given its own subsection in the chapter and contains the following information about each plant: an excerpt from Tolkien's works, etymology, distribution and ecology, economic uses, and description. Some plants have figures/illustrations associated with each, but not all of them.

This was a truly fascinating work to read. It opened my eyes to a love of Tolkien's that I didn't even know existed within him. This is also a very dense work to read as well. Unless you truly love plants, you are not going to breeze their every page and find yourself bogged down with facts and details sometimes. What I loved best about this book is some of the sections that blew my mind on their significance in Middle-earth, and I immediately went back and read them. This is a book I see myself visiting each time I read Tolkien, so that I can better understand a botanical layer of his work that until now I didn't even know was present!

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

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle - The Monster Box of Monsters (USAopoly)

Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle was one of the it games of 2016. It took deck-building, mixed it with a campaign style format, and used a HUGELY popular theme to make for a fun and exciting experience. I remember playing through it with friends and we loved almost everything about it. The biggest problems we found with the game were minor inaccuracies with cards appearing before they should, only having one playable female character, and a somewhat swingy experience due to villain order and glut of cards you filled your deck with. When, I heard about an expansion coming out, I was eager to try it.

The first things you notice about the expansion are the name and presentation. Called The Monster Box of Monsters, this is a clear reference to the Monster Book of Monsters used by Hagrid when he taught Care of Magical Creatures. As for the appearance, it is a miniature box decorated like a piece of luggage, which artfully ties in with the larger base game box, also decorated like a luggage trunk. As one can guess, this expansion is mainly about introducing monsters or creatures into the game. You will see familiar faces and foes like Fluffy, Norbert, and the mysterious Boggart. These get shuffled in with Villains from the base game and provide an exciting twist on a game you have already conquered. However, there's more to this box than monsters...

The expansion has introduced a fifth playable character in the form of Luna Lovegood! How can you not love the ever-positive and quirky Luna? Adding her to the box makes this game more female friendly, because it means one less woman has to play as Ron (Sorry, Rupert!) when playing this game. I personally still think it's a shame that Ginny hasn't been made into a playable character, but maybe we'll get a second expansion next year? While it would have been nice to expand the game to five players and open this game up to larger player counts, I understand that game balance would have been thrown off doing so.

The biggest difference one will notice in this box is game play. There are a couple of new "devices" added that make for a more challenging experience. First, there is an introduction of Encounter cards, which must be cleared now in addition to defeating Villains and Creatures. One such Encounter you will have to clear is Cornish Pixies. (Yes, Seamus, Cornish Pixies!) Another new "device" added to the game is Detention cards. When you gain these cards, you will clog your deck up with useless cards that provide no benefit and harm you if you discard them. To help counter these new challenges, a new benefit has been introduced called Banishing. Banishing allows you to thin cards from your deck and create a smaller more powerful deck. This is a useful mechanic that ever deck-building game needs, so I am glad to see it added.

Overall, I was pleased with this expansion. It wasn't perfect and took some getting used to with the increased difficulty, but it also added a lot of new and interesting bits and pieces to the game, while maintaining the heart and familiar feel of the game. The biggest disappointment fans of the game will face is that you should have completed the base game before incorporating any of the new material from expansions. That complaint is minor, though, as most people have already finished the game, or if not, now have extra motivation to do so. I highly recommend picking up this expansion and discovering the secrets of the four little boxes contained within. You won't regret it!

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

Monday, November 6, 2017

Beren and Lúthien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

In 1916, J.R.R. Tolkien returned from France and the Battle of Somme of the First World War. Three million men fought in this battle and over one million were injured or killed, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history. Knowing these statistics, it is safe to say that the battle impacted Tolkien's life. This is evidenced by the fact that he penned Beren and Lúthien, a tragic tale of an ill-fated love between a mortal man and immortal she-Elf. In fact, you can see elements of The Silmarillion and other First Age tales of Tolkien's in Beren and Lúthien. Unfortunately, for Tolkien and us, he never finished it. He constantly tweaked the work and revisited it, but it was never completed. The 2017 release of this title shows just that.

Like all of the Tolkien books that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has produced lately, the presentation value is top-notch! The book is a dust-jacketed hardcover, so it matches the formatting of the other books. Alan Lee does the illustrations for the book and after Pauline Baynes, he is my go-to Tolkien illustrator. As for the contents of the book, it is what you have come to expect from the recent Tolkien releases. This means that there is a lot of background, history, and revisions. A lot of this information and text can be found in You won't find a completed work, but instead you will find different attempts by Tolkien at completing this work. What I found interesting is that the literary style changed as well, as there are manuscripts that show this work in both poetry and prose format. Reading through the book was not only interesting because Tolkien's works are brilliant, but it is simply fascinating to enter the mind of a genius and see the evolution of a work. Looking at all the unfinished works that Tolkien left behind, it is clear that the man was a perfectionist, who was always trying to perfect his works and make them the best they could be. He reminds me of one of his characters named Niggle from Leaf by Niggle, which is another fine work of his you should read. Sadly for him (and more sadly for us), if he had given us a 75% effort and finished a work, it would probably still better than 99% of the other works out there. If you are someone who hasn't read the History of Middle Earth or are a Tolkien completionist, I recommend picking up a copy. If you are just a casual fan of his, then you'd be better served with other works of his.

This copy was provided to me for free by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring (DeMontfort Music)

In 2013, the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist released their debut album Mater Eucharistiae, which was a smash hit! 2014 saw them release their sophomore album The Rosary, and for a few years, I thought that was all they were going to release...NOPE! A few weeks ago their third album, Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring was released. This gave people about a month to pick up this Christmas album. Like other albums released from DeMontfort Music, the album is a mixture of hymns and chants, as well as English and Latin selections. Included on this album are the following:

1. Christmas Proclamation
2. Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring
3. Wake, Awake, For Night is Flying
4. Sleep, Little Jesus
5. Carol of the Bells
6. Emmanuel
7. Snowflakes
8. Away in a Manger
9. Angels We Have Heard on High
10. Adeste Fideles
11. Joy to the World
12. Gaudete
13. Of the Father's Love Begotten
14. Madonna's Lullaby
15. Gabriel's Message
16. We Wish You a Merry Christmas

It's said in the music business that you haven't made it until you put out a Christmas album. Well, I guess we can say that these sisters have officially made it! There are many Christmas albums that flood the market every year that completely miss the point of Christmas, so it was refreshing to see this holy album be released that focuses on the real reason for the season. On this album, you will see a lot of familiar titles, which is always refreshing because you can sing along. However, I also loved that there were titles on this album that I was unfamiliar with, as it helped broaden my catalog of great Christmas songs. Listening to this album in my car has been a relaxing endeavor, as it has helped me focus on Jesus with my commute to and from work. Unfortunately, I have to put this album away until December when Advent officially starts, because it is currently Ordinary Time and you should appreciate the season you are in. However, when December 3rd gets here, this album is going back into my car CD player and will be on loop through the beginning of next year. Pick up this album and a second one for a friend. You won't be sorry.