Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Orléans with Trade and Intrigue (Tasty Minstrel Games)

Orléans is one of the Top 25 games of all time and might quite possibly be my #1 game of all time, and not just because it is one of the few games where I win against my wife. The game takes place during the medieval ages in the city of Orléans (fitting) and the area of Loire around it. It is a game for 1 to 4 players (with an upcoming expansion to add a 5th player) that retails for $60. There are two expansions for it - Invasion ($50) and Trade and Intrigue ($25), as well as numerous mini-building promos ($6 for each set of three). Today, I would like to tell you about the base game and Trade and Intrigue.

Setup and Game Play
Before the game begins, you have to seed the main board by putting Goods Tiles face up on the Road and Waterway spaces of the map. You also sort the neutral Character Tiles by their profession and place them on their appropriate buildings. Each player then receives a Bag, 5 Coins, 7 Cubes, 1 Merchant Token, 10 Trading Stations, a Player Board, and one set of Followers (composed of a Farmer, Boatman, Craftsman, and Trader). Your Merchant is placed in the city of Orléans on the map, and your cubes are placed on the starting spaces of the buildings with all the neutral Character Tiles. Next, you'll want to put the Beneficial Deeds board out. Lastly, you'll want to shuffle the Hour Glass Tiles, which dictates the event of each of the 18 rounds

At the beginning of each round, you flip over the top Hour Glass Tile, which tells you what the event will be that round. The events are mix of positive and negative, ranging from earning Coins to losing a Character Tile. Each player then reaches into their Bag and draws out a number of Character Tiles equal to their level on the Knight's building track. (Note: The first round you will only draw your initial four tiles.) Each player then arranges their Character Tiles on their Player Boards. After everyone has done this, the tiles are removed and actions are performed based on where the tiles were placed. Most of the actions revolve around recruiting a new Follower and moving up the building track of that Follower. However, you can also travel from Orléans to another city, collect a Good, and possibly build a Trade House. You can automate some of your buildings with a gear so you use fewer Character Tiles to activate them, construct a new building, which gives you the ability to perform actions that other players cannot. Lastly, you can send some of your Followers to the Beneficial Deeds board and receive a small benefit. You then take all your used Followers and new Followers and place them back in your bag to start the next round, until all Hourglass Tiles are exhausted.
Orléans was my first introduction to a bag-building game. For those unfamiliar with this mechanic, it is similar to a deck-building game, except instead of having a deck of cards that you keep adding cards to, you are adding discs to a bag. The biggest difference between Orléans and a traditional deck-building game is the unpredictability of what you draw. With a traditional deck-builder, eventually you will cycle through all your cards, shuffle them, and go again. With Orléans, you keep putting the discs back in the bag, and you never know what you are going to draw. Yes, you can increase the number of discs you draw, but you may have some Followers in your bag that you only draw once or twice in an 18 round campaign. It's beautifully frustrating! This is where thinning your bag out of unnecessary workers is crucial. Not only does using the Beneficial Deeds/Trade/Intrigue board give you a boost, it also pares down your bag where you can control what you draw and optimize your points engine.

What I like best about this game is the many paths to victory. Yes, there are certain things you need to do each game, such as getting more Knights to be able to draw more discs each round, but after that the game is pretty wide-open. Gain more goods and a coin each round by getting more Farmers. Use lots of gears to automate your buildings and perform more actions. Travel every round through France and build all your Trading Houses. I repeat...many different paths to victory. What my wife likes best about this game is that there is very little player interaction (also known as multiplayer solitaire). Very little of what you do affects other players, and that is how my wife likes her games. What I didn't really like about the game was the predictability of the Hour Glass Tiles and the Beneficial Deeds board being too wide open. There are 18 rounds in a game, but only six unique events (three sets of six), so you can roughly count the Hour Glass Tiles and get a good idea of what event is coming up next. Yes, the order is different every game, but it's still a degree of predictability. As for the Beneficial Deeds board, it was nice to retire workers there, but in a 2-player game, you were hard pressed to make real progress on these boards and ever complete a lot of the tracks on that board. The Trade and Intrigue expansion fixed both of these problems.
In Trade and Intrigue, there are 34 Hourglass Tiles, divided into groups of A, B, C, and D. You will take four from each group, and two preassigned ones for a beginning and end and make a unique game experience each time. Within these tiles, you will find some repeats from the base game, but you will also find tiles that restrict which Followers you can hire, allow you to pay coins to hire a Follower, pay money for Goods, pay a tithe of your coins, or even shorten the game from 17 to 18 rounds. With no duplicates in this bunch, you never know what kind of experience you are going to end up having, and it provides new challenges to not only build your engine, but maximize it too!

There are also two new boards, one being a new Beneficial Deeds board and the other being an Intrigue board. With the former, it basically tightens up the number of spaces in a 2-player game and provides more/better rewards than the base game. The real game changer is the Intrigue board. If you didn't like the multiplayer solitaire aspect of this game, this board fixes it! Now when you send Followers here, instead of getting something, you take or destroy something of your opponents. There are actions like arson, where you can remove one of their Trading Stations, tax collector where players pay you coins, or hangman where you get money and they lose a Follower (yup, you were the one who hanged their Follower). It adds a nasty and take that element to the game, which my wife will never play, but I appreciate it being included, because it gives options for different groups and different playing styles.

The last changes to this expansion are "more of the same" and "something new." The more of the same is the new buildings included in this game, which I always appreciate because it gives me more variety to choose from each game. I own all the mini-promos, so I have a lot of buildings and this helps adds to the replay value of the game. The new aspect is called Orders. There is a deck of 23 Order cards that you shuffle and deal five face-up. On these cards is the name of a town, some goods, and a point value. On your last action, if your Merchant is in that town, and you have those goods, you may turn them in to complete the order and score points at the end of the game. This is a module of the expansion I don't play with often (or ever when teaching the game), but it feels like it adds some theme to the Merchant traveling around the map. Before, it was just a necessary thing to do to collect goods and score points. Now, your Trading Stations are actually thematically tied in and also help your goods provide more points than they would by themselves at the end of the game.

Before Trade and Intrigue, Orléans was already my favorite game in my collection. Afterwards, it just solidified my decision. This was the expansion I was hoping for with Invasion. It has everything I look for in game expansions - "more of the same," added replay value, and new twists to keep the game fresh and help me discover new paths to victory. I will never play Orléans again without the Trade and Intrigue expansion. Highly recommended!

Orléans was purchased on my own, but Trade and Intrigue was provided to me for free by Tasty Minstrel Games.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Report from Calabria (Ignatius Press)

The Carthusian Monks are a religious order that are devoted to silence, prayer, and simplicity. Due to this isolation from the world and a solitary devotion to God, they tend not to allow visitors, except on rare occasions. With that said, they recently allowed a visitor to their community in Calabria, Italy. He was an American priest, who chose to remain anonymous, follow their daily regimen, and write a book about it. This book is called Report from Calabria: A Season with the Carthusian Monks, and I'd like to tell you a little bit about it today.

The book is written in the format of journaling/letters home to his family and friends. The first letter begins by telling us a little bit about who the Carthusian Monks are, his initial impressions of the community, and the three "products" that these monks produce - 1. Divine Worship, 2. Prayer for Oneself and Others, and 3. Contemplative Union with God. He concludes the first letter by giving an outline or schedule of a typical day in the life of a Carthusian Monks. Their day starts at 11:30 PM with prayer and ends at 7:30 PM after prayer. Much of their day is spent praying in solitude in their cell, except Sundays or Solemnities. Apart from few meals (usually in silence or in their cell), there is some manual prayer but the bulk of their day is prayer. The second letter tells about the food. He describes it as simple, but delicious and a generous portion. However, they only receive one meal per day. Another letter tells us that presently that there are only six monks present at the community of Serra San Bruno. Some have died. Some have left the community. Others have gone on to set up communities in different countries. Other letters tell about the struggle of the language barrier, miracles, and the strange visitors that come visit this community.

The book concludes by giving us two appendices, one with writings of St. Bruno and the other about the popes and their support of the Carthusian Monks. Overall, I found this book to be an interesting read. It gave me some insight on a religious order that I knew very little about and will probably never experience. I appreciated the author's writing of this book and putting it on a very simple level showing the actual day to day grit and grind of this lifestyle. He didn't try to glamorize it or make it seem like something everyone could or should do, but instead showed us a lifestyle that few are called to and appreciate those who are called to such a lifestyle. Apart from the writing style, what really made this book standout was all the photographs that complemented the text. If you would like to learn more about the Carthusian Monks, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of this book.

This book was provided to me for free by Ignatius Press.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Contemplating the Face of Christ

Lent is still in its infancy and already I am feeling the struggle with some of my resolutions. With it happening this early, I know it's going to be a tough effort, but it just means I need to apply myself even more and lean on Jesus and Mary. The best way to do that is through prayer and one of the quintessential prayers of Lent is The Way of the Cross. Today, I would like to tell you about a book that focuses on The Way of the Cross called Contemplating the Face of Christ.

Contemplating the Face of Christ is a 100+ page Way of the Cross prayer book with meditations by Fr. Marko Rupnik and mosaic images from outside the Church of Santa Maria in Tomlin, Slovenia. The Stations begin in the traditional format of "We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world." There is then an excerpt from the New Testament that relates to the current Station. Fr. Rupnik's meditation is next, and it uses the mosaic image to guide his meditation. This is followed by an excerpt from a Church Father, and an Old Testament reading that shows how this Station fulfilled the Old Testament reading. Finally, it ends traditionally with something like this from the First Station, "At the cross her station keeping stood the mournful mother weeping, close to Jesus to the last."

Fr. Rupnik offers simple but beautiful insights that cause you to pause with each Station reflection and look at things as you had never done so before. For example, in the First Station there is a mosaic of Pilate, Caiaphas, and Jesus. Both Pilate and Caiaphas are in Jesus' face, essentially hiding it. He says the following, "Pilate looks into the face of Christ, but he does not see the Truth. The high priest Caiaphas directs his gaze elsewhere. He follows his own religious schemes, which prevent him from recognizing the Lord in that face so close to him." He points out that the reason they can't know truth is because they don't have love. They don't have love because sin destroyed love. This is an interesting viewpoint on just the first station. Each station draws us closer to the Cross and closer to Christ. I highly recommend this book for your Lenten journey. I know I will be visiting it frequently!

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

Thursday, February 15, 2018

A Devotional Journey Into the Mass (Sophia Institute Press)

With Lent here, it is not only a good time to give things up, but also a time to take things up. Maybe you could pray the Rosary more, or go to Mass more, or read the Bible/spiritual works more. All of these are good options, and perhaps you could combine some of the three or find some other spiritual pursuit that helps you grow closer to God. Recently, I received a book in the mail that while it is not specifically for Lent is definitely worth reading during Lent. It is called A Devotional Journey Into the Mass. The book is divided into nine chapters with the first eight giving you concrete ways to actively participate in Mass and the ninth a summation chapter. The eight active participation chapters are as follows:

1. How to Enter the Church Building
2. How to Make the Sign of the Cross
3. How to Pray the Opening Prayer
4. How to Listen to the Readings
5. How to Prepare the Heart at the Offertory
6. How to Participate in the Eucharistic Prayer
7. How to Receive Communion to the Fullest
8. How to Respond to the Dismissal

Each chapter begins with a verse to set the frame of reference. The material is presented in a straightforward tone, calling upon Scripture, Catechism, and personal reflections of the author. The advice giving in each section is concrete and simple to execute, if only a little effort is exerted on the part of the reader. For example, when entering the Church building, enter from the main entrance and not the side. Make the Sign of the Cross thoughtfully, recalling our Creation. For the Sunday Reading, use lectio divina and meditate throughout the week on the upcoming readings for Sunday. When we leave Mass, remember that we are not just leaving until next Sunday, but instead are given a mission to sanctify the world. A perfect way to remember this is with St. Francis of Assisi's "Peace Prayer," which starts off "Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace."

Reading through this book was quick and insightful and something you could probably do in an afternoon or an evening. However, even if you can read it this quickly, I encourage you to slow down and read it more thoughtfully, because within it you will find simple but profound wisdom. I encourage you to pick up this book and read through it during Lent, so that you may grow closer to God and actively participate in the Mass more fully, not only during Lent but always.

A review copy of this book was provided by Sophia Institute Press.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Richard the Lionheart (CMON)

In the 12th century, England was ruled by King Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionheart. This was a time of crusaders, and Richard believed it was his duty to lead troops to the Holy Land against the Sultan Saladin. Wars are never that neatly compartmentalized, and while Richard was away his younger brother John Lackland (Prince John), not only sat on the throne in Richard's place, but also tried to seize it from him. Recently, CMON published a game called Richard the Lionheart, which transports players back to the 12 century and asks them to ally with Richard or John, rally support for their chosen leader, and see who is on the throne when the dust settles. Richard the Lionheart is a game for 2 to 6 players, ages 14+. It takes about one hour to play and retails for $70.

Game Play
Richard the Lionheart is a game of alliances, but ultimately it will only have one winner. If you play with an even number of people, you will divide up into forces for Richard (Robin Hood, Little John, Friar Tuck, and Maid Marion) or forces against him (Prince John, Sheriff of Nottingham, Bishop of Ely, and Isabella). When there are an odd number of players, a neutral party is introduced (Leopold of Austria at three players or Marie of France at five players). (Note: With 4+ players, there will also be some additional NPC merchants and mercenaries to help you.)

The game is played on a map of England, where you and the other players will be traveling through different locations. Each of these locations is color-coded to match support for Richard or John. Therefore, locations that match your affiliation can only be activated by you and will only provide you advantages. While you are traversing England, there will be events to deal with, which give special scoring opportunities or actions that occur. There are also edicts that give you bonus points. Most importantly are the influence cards. This is the meat of the game, because it is these cards that will determine each round how the Crusade is faring. Is Richard winning the battle or is Saladin? Is the King close to returning or still far away? And lastly, is Richard's treasury full or are the coffers almost bare? You may want Richard to win the battle and come back early since you feel you are in the lead, but another Richard supporter might want to slow his return down so that they can be his favored servant and seize the victory! The game will end with either Richard's army winning, Saladin's army winning, Richard returning, Richard's treasury being exhausted or playing ten rounds.
1. Theme - It's nice to see Robin Hood and the Sheriff in a game, where they are not the sole focus of it, merely pawns in the grand stage of things. A lot of people might not like the fact that the Crusades are used as a backdrop, and feel that it sanitizes them by not addressing the atrocities of them, but I think this game mixed history with legends to create a compelling setting.

2. Art and Miniatures - The art in this game is very reminiscent of the Middle Ages and some of the boards feel like you are looking at a tapestry of sorts. There are also highly detailed miniatures in this game, which is what you come to expect from CMON.

3. Player Boards and Player Count - Each character in the game provides you a different starting amount of coins and a special ability that other characters don't have. I love asymmetrical player powers, because it makes you alter your strategy each time you play. As for the player count, the game can accommodate between two and six people, and as mentioned above, each count gives you a different setup. This too adds replay value and gives you a unique experience each time you play.

1. Components - With the inclusion of miniatures in this game, it makes the game feel deluxe. Unfortunately, the coins and prestige tokens are both made of cardboard and it makes you wish that they had been wood or plastic at least. (We'd all love metal, but metal is expensive.)
2. Semi-cooperative nature - I am the type of person who either likes a full cooperative experience or a semi-cooperative experience with a hidden traitor. In this game, you're playing with a team to win, but if you don't have the most points on your team, you won't win.

1. Price - The most unfortunate part of this game is the price point. At $70 MSRP, this game prices itself out of a lot of people's budgets, especially families.

Final Thoughts
Overall, I found this to be an enjoyable game with a theme that I could really sink my teeth into. The game does a nice job of abstracting the Crusades into a manageable format and the game play is fun at all player counts. As stated above, I don't like the semi-cooperative nature of this game, because I'd rather win/lose as a team or have a traitor on my team. It's not very fun with newer games explaining to them that their team won, but they didn't and leaves some people scratching their heads. Therefore, I would say if you are a fan of this period in time, consider picking up the game. If you are not, the game might still be for you, just at a lower price point than MSRP, so wait for a sale.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Mother Teresa and The Way of the Cross (Pauline Books and Media)

I looked at my calendar the other day, and I realized that Lent was sneaking up on me and Ash Wednesday was next week! With that in mind, I was looking for good books to read for myself and the son as well. With that in mind, I turned to Pauline Books and Media and looked at the two books Mother Teresa and The Way of the Cross.
Mother Teresa: The Story of the Saint of Calcutta begins by telling us about Mother Teresa's (then Agnes) early life. She lost her father at an early age, but was always a pious little girl. Even at an early age, she wanted to be a sister, but her mother wanted to to go to school. She asked her mother again at age 17 to be a missionary sister, and after 24 hours of prayer, her mother agreed. In the middle chapters of the book, we see her education, journeys, struggles, and her extraordinary mission work. The book ends talking about her death and funeral and with a prayer to her. It is a short read with great illustrations. It is done in a similar style to Jorge from Argentina and Karol from Poland. Makes me wonder if this should have been called Agnes from Yugoslavia?
The Way of the Cross: Discovering Mercy with Saint Longinus is a short booklet that gives us a unique perspective on praying the Stations of the Cross. On this Way of the Cross, we look at Jesus' Passion from the perspective of the centurion who pierced Jesus' heart on the Cross. Each step of the way, Longinus gives us his observation on what Jesus probably experienced, how Longinus felt watching Jesus suffer, and what he thought Jesus was saying to him whenever their gazes met. At the end of this booklet, we are given a historical perspective on Longinus as well as a prayer to this saint. It is a unique Way of the Cross that is not entirely factual, but reads as if it could be. I recommend you pray this Lent. It will give you a fresh perspective and speak to you in powerful ways.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Tinyville Town Part Two (Abrams Books)

At the end of 2016, I shared with you about a children's series that I really loved called Tinyville Town from Abrams Books. In this series, they are aiming at the very young with board books and early readers with nice hardcover books.
Time for School! is an illustrated hardcover book, measuring approximately 9.5" x 10.5". The book is written and illustrated by Brian Biggs. In this book, it is the first day of school. It shows that everyone (young and old) are doing things to get ready for school. There's the principal, teachers, a crossing guard, and even a new student. When you're young being new at a school is possibly one of the worst things in the world. However, everyone in Tinyville Town is very nice and make the new girl, Ellie Emberley, feel right at home. She makes new friends, learns from her teacher, and has fun at recess. It really is the perfect start to a school year. While, it's unrealistic to think that all schools would be like this, it is nice to imagine a place like this and also teach your children that they should be nice to new students and make friends with everyone. The story flows nicely. The art is simple and welcoming. There's even touches of humor in there, like the kid who went to school but forgot to wear shoes. I love these hardcover books and hope to see more!
Following this hardcover book, two board books were released. They are called Tinyville Town: I'm a Librarian and Tinyville Town: I'm a Police Officer. Each book is 22 pages in length (like their predecessors) and focuses on that specific profession. In the librarian book, we learn that librarians are generally asked a lot of questions throughout their day and are known for good research. It's not as informative as other books in this series, and there is a troubling illustration to me. At the beginning and end of every one of these hardcovers, we see the person rising from bed and going to sleep. You can't see the face of Kevin the librarian's partner in the bed, but it appears to be a man. Your child probably won't notice this, as I didn't on first glance, but be warned. The police office book is much better, as we see that a police officer's job is to help, protect, and serve. Kathy the police office even solves a silly case where the culprit turns out to be a monkey. What I like best about this book is that it paints cops in a positive light, something this country desperately needs to remember. Apart from the questionable partner (something that is making me struggle with keeping this book), I really like these books, because they not only teach your children what different people do, but they show that everyone has a purpose. They also give realistic career ideas, not just astronauts or professional athletes. Look for the next book in this series Tinyville Town: I'm a Mail Carrier coming out this March.
These books were provided to me for free by Abrams Books in exchange for honest reviews.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Go to Heaven (Ignatius Press)

Archbishop Fulton Sheen is a man that needs no introduction. In addition to being a great priest and bishop, he was also a TV "personality" that shared the Catholic faith with millions and a prolific author, whose message still rings true today. Ignatius Press recently reprinted one of his lesser known works entitled Go to Heaven. The title was inspired by a musing Sheen once made about hearing so often the expression "Go to Hell," but never hearing someone say "Go to Heaven." With this work, he hopes to provide a road map for the reader on how to choose Heaven in the life you are currently living, and not taking for granted the serious reality of Hell.

The book begins by examining how man has changed over the years. In the past, man looked to nature to discover God. Instead of seeing all the beauty and complexity that is in the world around them, man now discovers God in man's own distorted nature. This leads to a chapter on how God helps our disordered mind and will. We are then presented chapters on grace and faith and their roles in the Christian life. Sheen beautifully explains that "Grace is the life of God among men," and "Grace makes man more than a 'new creature', and infinitely higher than his former condition." We also learn about how difficult it is to live a Christian life, what Mary's role in the Church is, and the final choice of Heaven or Hell.

Archbishop Sheen's genius is on full display with this work. In fact, if you have ever seen or heard him on TV, you can hear his voice coming off the pages as you read his words. When you think about how long ago this book was written (over 50 years), it is remarkable how accurate and relevant it still is today. The book poignantly explains the struggle of man in his fallen nature and gives him a map on how to find ultimate and eternal happiness. Will the journey be easy? No. Will there be slips and falls and struggles along the way? Most definitely! But like the caring shepherd he was, Sheen wants to ensure as many sheep make it home as possible. Like all of his works, I cannot recommend this one enough!