Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Theology for Beginners (Ignatius Press)

I was lamenting the other day that there are no "middle-ground" Catholic books. There are thousands of beginner level books that tend to blend together after a while, and there are hundreds of advanced level books that are great for the professors and theology majors. But where are the "middle-ground books" for people who feel they have progressed past the introductory level books? Then, I thought some more and realized I was being arrogant to think I was past the introductory stage and decided to tackle a classic Frank Sheed book called Theology for Beginners.

Theology for Beginners is a 200 page book originally published in 1957. Ignatius Press re-released it for the 60th anniversary. The book is divided into twenty chapters which were originally part of a diocesan weeklies column. The book begins with a chapter on why we should study theology, and to summarize Sheed, it is because the truth is food for us and light for us. We are then treated to lessons on the Trinity, Creation, the Nature of Man, Redemption, the Redeemer, Mary, the Sacraments, the Eucharist, and the Next Life.

One of the most interesting chapters in this book dealt with the Fall. In this chapter, Sheed looks at both the Fall of the Angels and the Fall of Adam. He talks of some angels choosing self over God. This sin of pride resulted in a rejection of God and His love. With Adam's fall that resulted from Satan's temptation, man had broken his union with God and he was supernaturally dead. All future men (and women) would now be born with original sin. Additionally, our imagination and passions (two things which were good before the Fall) have been distorted and disordered and now can consume us in a very negative way. We can now become slaves to them and let them rule us, if we allow ourselves. This leads us to the truths about Hell. It exists. It exists because of Satan and the angels Fall. It is a place of suffering. It is eternal. It is important to remember that God doesn't send people to Hell. Man sends himself there by choosing self-love over love of God. Thankfully, Hell is not our only possible destination. If we love God, but have minor sins, we can go to Purgatory and receiving sanctifying purification to eventually get to the ultimate destination of Heaven!

This book is an excellent guide to theology that has stood the test of time. The writing style is concise and succinct, getting the message across without overly complicating matters. It was also a very humbling read, because it showed me that even in beginner level theology, there is still much to be learned. I highly recommend this book!

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Seven Ways to Trick a Troll (University of Minnesota Press)

University of Minnesota Press has done a first-rate job of bringing Norse mythology and tales to the next generation of readers. From re-publishing d’Aulaires’ Book of Norwegian Folktales to giving us unique works from troll expert Lise Lunge-Larsen, it has truly been an epic journey. Today, I would like to share with you their latest offering entitled Seven Ways to Trick a Troll. The book is divided into the following seven tales:

1. Little Goose
2. The Ashlad Who Stole the Troll's Treasures
3. The Hen is Tripping in the Mountain
4. The Boys Who Met Trolls in the Woods
5. A Narrow Escape
6. The Troll Who Played Hide-and-Go-Seek
7. Tor Out-Skis the Trolls

The book begins with a introductory tale that tells the origin of trolls from an "enormous frost giant named Ymir." These ancient trolls, which came from between his toes originally had six heads and six arms each, but eventually trolls started coming in varied shapes and sizes. It also tells us that their brains are the size of walnuts, so anyone, even a child, could trick a troll if they knew how. This leads us to the seven tales mentioned above and details the seven different weaknesses of a troll and how you can defeat them.

I won't tell you about all of them, but just give a brief summary of the first story. In Little Goose, a mischievous little girl goes up a mountain one day to pick berries. She eats too many and falls asleep in a cave, where a troll also happens to be. He thinks she is a goose though (something this troll does not eat), and he strikes up a conversation with Little Goose. It is here that she tricks him and discovers what he hates most of all is loud noises, especially bells and whistles. The next day she goes home and tells this to her entire town. They use this information to scare him away and build a bell tower to keep him away. Thus, we learn the first weakness of a troll is they hate loud noises. What are the other six weaknesses? You'll have to buy the book and find out! The book closes with ways to spot now extinct trolls in the different landscapes of woods, mountains, or even by large bodies of water. This is an excellent and engaging book that is beautifully illustrated. I'm not sure who loved the stories more, my son or me as I was reading them to him!

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

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Valeria Card Kingdoms: Shadowvale (Daily Magic Games)

A lot of gamers like to do Top 10 lists...frequently. They make an overall Top 10, a yearly Top 10, a cooperative Top 10, a competitive Top 10, etc. I have never considered doing this, as I have a lot of games and the game I want to play depends on my mood, time I have to play, and who I am playing with. However, there is one game I love and will play with anyone at anytime, and that game is Valeria Card Kingdoms (aka VCK). It is a simple game to learn, keeps every player engaged every turn, and has amazing artwork to boot! At the end of 2016, they launched their first big expansion on Kickstarter called Flames and Frost. This year they are releasing the second big expansion on Kickstarter called Shadowvale. For those unfamiliar with the base game, it is a game for 1 to 5 players, ages 14+. It takes approximately 30 minutes to play and is currently on Amazon for $31 (steal of a price). The latest expansion can be acquired for a pledge of $24 plus shipping.

Overview and Game Play
The King of Valeria has grown weak in his old age, and his kingdom is under siege by monsters of every shape and size. You and your fellow Dukes sense an opportunity to rally the Citizens, purchase Domains, and repel these vile Monsters from the Kingdom. Whoever manages to do this most successfully will be in prime position to seize the throne of the failing king!

After setting up a game with five stacks of Monsters, ten unique numbered Citizens, and five stacks of Domains. Each player draws a Duke card that they keep secret for end game scoring. Game play is as simple as rolling a pair of dice, activating your Citizens that match the numbers rolled (For example, a 1 and 6 activate citizens with a value of 1, 6, and 7) and taking two actions. Your two actions in the base game were hire a citizen, kill a monster, or buy a domain. The game ends when card stacks equal to twice the number of players have been exhausted. Most victory points is the winner!

What's New In The Expansion:
1. New Citizens - From an Exorcist to an Inventor, there's a lot of interesting Citizens introduced.
2. New Monsters - Spawning from the Sewers, Necropolis, Woods, Den, and Crypt, these horrific beings include rats, vampires, werewolves, and even zombies!
3. New Domains - Some interesting additions here have mutually beneficial player interactions, where you can give a resource to a neighbor to gain a victory point.
4. New Dukes - Nothing earth-shattering here, but they are allowing you the opportunity to get your face in the game, like they did with the base game.
5. Relics - This mini-expansion gives you an additional card at the beginning of the game that gives you a special action that only you can perform.
1. More of Everything - More Citizens, More Monsters, More Dukes. This adds a ton of replay value and setup variability to the base game.
2. Same Great Art - Mico once again delivers quality art. I mean look at the Blood Moon Palace. Gorgeous!
3. Relics - This little game changer is truly awesome and gives you a little power that only you can use. It's not enough to win you the game, but it can certainly turn a bad/mediocre turn into a good turn.

1. Monsters - The horror theme isn't one I am particularly drawn to in media (books, movies, or games). My wife isn't a fan either. I can see myself adding one of these monsters to the mix one playing, but would never play with only Shadowvale monsters.

Final Thoughts
When it comes to expansions, there are generally three approaches to take:
1. Add more of what you're used to with the base game to increase replay value and variability.
2. Add something new to keep the game fresh and introduce new strategies.
3. Add something that completely changes how the game is played.

VCK has predominantly stuck with the first two options, which I applaud. In following this strategy, we have been introduced to new Citizens of Valeria (both venerable and questionable), seen the borders of the Kingdom expand with new Domains to purchase, and unearthed Monsters we hoped we'd never encounter. (That's not to say we didn't rise to the occasion and deal them a sound defeat!) The amount of unique combinations you can now make when setting up this game has increased exponentially, and it has made a world that is visually rich and appealing.

In terms of adding new things, VCK has been careful to add to the game and enhance it rather than change it. With the Flames and Frost Kickstarter, we were introduced a mini-expansion called Agents which gave us a different action to take (Hire an Agent) that stayed true to the spirit of the game, while expanding our options. Shadowvale Kickstarter is taking a similar approach by introducing Relics. This mini-expansion also gives you another action you can take, but it is an action only you can take. Think of it as a variable starting power that not only adds variety, but gives you a specialty you can focus your strategy on for the game.

Valeria Card Kingdoms is a game I will continue to visit and play over and over again. It's beautifully simple in its game play and simply beautiful in its artwork. They could make 100 expansions for this game, and I would gladly own all of them, though I'd probably need a bigger box! If you own VCK, this is the easiest decision for a Kickstarter you'll have all year. If you don't own VCK...why not?! Go buy a copy, experience its greatness, and then pledge for this Kickstarter!

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Tiny Epic Quest (Gamelyn Games)

Gamelyn Games is one of my favorite board game publishers. They are known primarily for their Tiny Epic line of games, of which I am the proud owner of all of them. Today, I would like to tell you about one of them called Tiny Epic Quest, but before I do that let's talk about what makes a game Tiny and Epic. They come in a small box (7" x 4.75" x 1.5"), have simple rules, offer high levels of strategy, and come packed with amazing components. Each of them is also designed by Scott Almes and contain a theme and game play unlike other Tiny Epic games.

Tiny Epic Quest is a game for 1 to 4 players, ages 14+. It takes approximately one hour to play and retails for $30. The game takes place in the Mushroom Realm, where you and your fellow adventurers are embarking on quests to save this world that is being torn asunder by evil Goblins from the underworld. You will accomplish this by 1. defeating the goblins, 2. learning magical spells, 3. exploring temples, and 4. completing quests! The game plays over five rounds and whoever earns the most victory points from the four objectives is the winner.
Game Play
The game area is arranged in a similar manner every time. There are four castle cards on the map, which are put in the corners of a 3 x 3 grid. Regular map cards then fill in the cross of that grid, and two cards are put on each side of the grid to form the coast of the map. After this, each player is given three ordinary meeples to place in their castle with not a weapon or spell to their name.

The game is then played over five rounds with each round broken into two phases - day and night. During the day phase, there are four turns of movement which will give you the option of moving an individual meeple or keeping them idle. The five different types of movement are by foot, by horse, by raft, by gryphon, and by ship. Each moves you in a certain pattern and can only be played once per round. After these four movements, night falls and the real action begins. Players take turn rolling five dice which allow them to explore temples, attack goblins, or learn spells. Be aware, these goblins will be trying to hit you as well. After you have rolled the dice and resolved the actions, the dice move to the next player, and you can choose to rest or keep adventuring. Successfully completing quests and exploring temples earn you points as well as items, which can be equipped to your meeples!

1. Theme and Artwork - Any child of the 90s will have a flashback when seeing this game. If you are a fan of Nintendo video games, like I was, just looking at the box makes you think of The Legend of Zelda and long for the 8 bit days of collecting the Triforce and defeating Ganondorf.

2. Components - Like with all of their Tiny Epic games, the components are top notch. The cardboard is thick, and the wood is beautifully painted. The dice (usually my favorite component of a Tiny Epic game) are beautifully marbled, but there are new items that eclipse all of these components...the ITEMeeple and their attachments. These aren't your traditional meeples, but instead are a hard plastic with holes bored into them to attach swords and shields, bombs and boomerangs! Were these ITEMeeples necessary? Of course not, but they were revolutionary and something Gamelyn has implemented into the next two Tiny Epic games - Tiny Epic Defenders and Tiny Epic Zombies (currently on Kickstarter).

3. Replay Value - The game play itself is best described as a sandbox adventure. Yes, you have objectives you are trying to complete and there are specific ways to score points, but you decide which path of victory you are going to pursue. The replay value in this game is very high due, because the map changes every time you play and if you flip the map cards over, you can play a more difficult variant called GloomFall. In this variant, the goblins are more aggressive and the temples are tougher to explore. Apart from the adventuring that occurs, my favorite aspect of the game is the push your luck element that the dice offer you in the night phase. The dice can be your best friend or your worst enemy in this game, and it can change from round to round.

Footprint - For coming in such a tiny box, this game is a bit of a table space hog when you set up the map. If you aren't aware of that when you pick up the box, you will quickly find yourself wondering if you picked the right side of the table to play on.

Teaching - It takes a couple of rounds playing this game for the game to click with people when playing it the first time. There are some nuances in the travel and resting, flipping over aggressive goblins or spending energy to pass them. You definitely want to play this game two times in a row with a new group, because by the time they get it, the game will be over.

Final Thoughts:
I generally ask myself three questions after playing a game and before recommending it to people:

1. Will this game stay in my collection? Absolutely!
2. Will I play this game anytime I am asked? Of course!
3. How does this compare to other games by the same designer or same genre/mechanic? I am going to tweak question three and say Where does this rank among Tiny Epic games? The answer to this one is that it is currently my second favorite among their Tiny Epic line. First for me is still Tiny Epic Galaxies, but Tiny Epic Quest might fall to #3 once I get a chance to play the new Tiny Epic Defenders!

Overall, Scott Almes and Gamelyn Games packed a lot of game play and material into this Tiny Epic game. It was short, fun, and left me wishing I could have done more once the game ended, thus making me want to play it again immediately. These are signs of a great game to me!

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A Catholic Quest for the Holy Grail (TAN Books)

The Holy Grail is one of the most elusive, coveted, and sought after relics in Christendom. Lots of hours have been spent searching for it, and many words (both fiction and non) have been written about it. However, there is still the question in many minds about where it was a real chalice at all or merely some symbolic ideal. In a recent book entitled A Catholic Quest for the Holy Grail, Charles A. Coulombe takes a look at the mysteries, myths, and conspiracies surrounding it.

The book begins with a long excerpt telling the tale of Sir Percival and others Knights of King Arthur's Round Table and their quest for the Holy Grail. If you don't know this tale, it is a fascinating read about despair and hope, sin and redemption. We then see origins of the Church in the time immediately after Jesus and the many relics associated with His life and death. The chapter covers Constantine's mother (Helena) who was responsible for a large number of relics we have today and it also briefly touches on the origins of Britain and the whispers of Arthur. According to the Arthur, he was a real historical figure, just not the romanticized one that we all know. The author continues walking us through history where we come upon the Crusades with the Grail being a key item in these battles. However, it is not the Grail itself that is of importance, but what the Grail contained the Blood of Christ.

This book does a great job of teaching us Church History without the reader realizing it. The author presents us a lot of information through the centuries, but does so in a compelling way that it is more than reading dry facts, but a journey a quest in and of itself. This seems to be the author's main purpose. Using the Grail as his backdrop, he shows us that the Church of the past was more in tune with the many miracles and wonders of their time. The present day Church is unfortunately not as attuned to present day miracles. Therefore, the author thinks we need to use the story of the Grail to educate people like in the past. Truly a fascinating read and one that I will re-visit in the near future to try and absorb more on my second time reading through it.

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

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Life of Jesus (Pauline Books and Media)

Pauline Books and Media has been very successful in their publication of graphic novels of saints. Recently, they published one titled The Life of Jesus which is approximately 140 pages long and designed for children ages 9 to 12. The graphic novel is divided into the following eight  sections - Birth and Baptism, Ministry, Miracles, Teachings, Relationships and Forgiveness, Discipleship in Action, The Price of True Love, and Death and Resurrection. The graphic novel is a blending of all four Gospels, done in chronological fashion. That means you will go from Luke to Matthew and back to Luke with sprinklings of Mark and John. This gives the reader an easier narrative to follow than picking only one Gospel. At the bottom of every page are Scripture references which provide an excellent resource for parents to cross-reference or older children to discover the passages themselves in the Bible. The pages are black, giving the content on the pages a more serious feel to it. This is appropriate as it is not only the story of our Savior, but also of our salvation. As I was reading through this I found myself very engaged by both the content and presentation. The graphical representation of the story really helped the Gospel stories come to life in a new way. I was thinking as I was reading through it that this seems somewhat more geared towards boys than girls, but I do believe it would be a spiritual benefit for anyone of any age to read this. I look forward to a time when my son is old enough to enjoy and appreciate this.

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

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Our Blessed Mother (Pauline Books and Media)

It is a brand new year, and even though January 1 wasn't a holy day of obligation this year, I am still grateful that my parish offered Mass, despite it being below freezing. I understand that not everyone can attend and those with very small children might not want to get them out in the frozen tundra, but it is still important to teach your children about Mary and her importance in Jesus' lives and ours. To do that, I recommend the book Our Blessed Mother. The book is a softcover, approximately 60 pages and is designed for children ages 7 to 9.

The book is divided into two parts - The Life of Mary and Mary Leads Us to Jesus. The book begins in the Old Testament with Adam and Eve and the first sin. It is here that mankind at its lowest moment is first promised a Savior to save us from our sinful, fallen nature. We then fast-forward to the birth of Mary to Ann and Joachim and also see some glimpses of her childhood in the Temple. The rest of Part One walks us through the Gospels with the Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Flight into Egypt, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Pentecost. Part Two focuses on Mary's role in the present in her apparitions. The book covers Lourdes, Fatima, and Guadalupe and also details the Miraculous Medal as well as the Rosary. My favorite part of the book is that each chapter ends with the particular Feast Day that the chapter covered. This is a great primer for your children and one I highly recommend.

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