Friday, April 27, 2018

Psalm Basics for Catholics (Ave Maria Press)

Dr. John Bergsma is a theology professor at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He has written many books on Scripture, but the ones I know his best for are his "Basics for Catholics" books. The first one was Bible Basics for Catholics with two follow-ups (so far) entitled New Testament Basics for Catholics and Psalm Basics for Catholics. Today, I am going to tell you about the latter work, as it his most recent one in the series. The book is divided into eleven chapters, which are as follows:

1. What's a "Psalm"? Who Wrote Them? and All That Stuff
2. How the Psalms Fit into the Story of Salvation
3. More About David
4. The Story the Psalms Tell
5. Introducing the Psalter! (Introducing the Psalter!)
6. Book I of Psalms: Weeping and Moaning
7. Book II of Psalms: Triumph and Rejoicing
8. Book III of Psalms: Descending into Grief
9. Book IV of Psalms: Waiting Around in Exile
10. Book V of Psalms: Woohoo! The Exile is Over! At Least Mostly
11. Different Ways to Read the Psalms

The book begins by telling us about who David is, what a Psalm is, why they were written, and the different types of psalms. Chapter Two then walks us through all of salvation history and the seven covenants. They are Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, New and Eucharistic Covenant. Dr. Bergsma tells us that the psalms "flow from the Davidic Covenant, and we use them in the New Covenant because it is the restored and transformed covenant of David. We then learn more about David and get a comparison between his covenant and the Mosaic Covenant. The rest of the book is the meat of this book and gives you summaries and important psalms in each of the five sections of Psalms. The last chapter provides a nice chart, which gives you different psalms to read depending on how you are feeling at the time.

Like his other books in this series, Dr. Bergsma presents this information in an approachable method. He provides you with enough information on the subject matter, as to not overwhelm you, but also invites you to dive deeper after reading his book. The most charming parts of this series are his clever stick-figure drawings. These pictures are not only amusing, but they are also educational. I especially liked the one he made of King David looking like a rock star! These simple drawings help illustrate the main points Dr. Bergsma is trying to convey and so in a way that is helpful and not distracting. If he did a whole book of nothing but stick drawings from every famous Bible story, I would gladly buy it and love every minute of it! I hope there are more books in this series, because I highly recommend them all.

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

Monday, April 23, 2018

Villages of Valeria: Landmarks (Daily Magic Games)

One of my top ten, possibly top five games of all time is Valeria Card Kingdoms (VCK). It is a fun game of dice-chucking and monster-slaying with great artwork to boot! Following up on the success of this popular game, a prequel was released called Villages of Valeria (VOV). Within this tableau-building game, you will construct buildings, cultivate resources, and attract adventurers to make your village the next capital city of Valeria. On Kickstarter currently is the first expansion to VOV entitled Landmarks. Let's talk about the basic game and what the expansion brings to it.

1. Give each player a Player Aid Card and Castle Card. The Castle Card is the beginning of your Village.
2. Pick the Starting Player, giving them the Action Selection Card and Active Player Token.
3. Form the Bank from a predetermined number of Gold Coins based on player count. Then, give each player three Gold Coins.
4. Shuffle the two decks of Adventurers and Buildings, forming a separate pile for each. Then, deal each player six Building cards.
5. Deal five Building cards face-up in the center of the table and put the deck face-down next to them.
6. Deal five Adventurer cards face-up above the Building cards and put the deck face-down next to them.
7. Each player, in turn order, then plays one Building card from their hand as a Resource at no cost. This card is slid upside down under your Castle Card.

Game Play - On your turn you will Replenish (taking all the Gold Coins on your Resource Cards and keeping them as yours) and take one of the following five actions:
1. Harvest - Draw three Building Cards into your hand, one at a time.
2. Develop - Discard one card from your hand to add one other card from your hand to your Village as a Resource.
3. Build - Pay the cost of one Building Card from your hand to add it your Village as a Building. Then, draw one card into your hand.
4. Recruit - Pay one Gold Coin to the Bank to add an Adventurer to your Village.
5. Tax - Take one Gold Coin from the Bank and draw one Building Card.

After performing your one Action, all other players (in clockwise order) may follow this action to gain a weaker version of your Action. For example, instead of drawing three cards in the Harvest, the follower draws one card. The game ends when one player's Village has a predetermined number of Adventurers and Buildings. All follow actions are completed and victory points are totaled. The person with the most points wins!
What Landmarks Adds - The expansions adds the following:
1. More Building and Adventurer cards - This part of the expansion is called "more of the same," and I mean this in a good way.
2. Architects - These cards are dealt before the game starts and provide a secret end-game goal, i.e., one point for each Holy symbol on your Buildings.
3. Landmarks - On the follow action, you may now Acquire a Landmark instead of following the main action. There are five types of Landmarks, with each requiring you discard a specific card(s). Landmarks aren't buildings that trigger the end of the game and provide a scoring bonus if you have a set of all five or if you have the most of each type of Landmark.

Villages of Valeria is a tableau-building game that has elements of games like Puerto Rico or Eminent Domain with the follow mechanism. What I like best about this game is that you have to spend gold to build your Buildings. When spending this gold, you can spend them on your Resource cards or other players Resource cards that makes for an interesting decision you will build. Do I wait to build until I have the necessary Resources or do I give my opponent some gold and possibly speed up their engine? Another element I like from this game is the discard feature. When you discard cards from your hand, they don't just go into a pile to be shuffled if the deck runs out. Instead, you place them on top of the row of building cards where you choose, potentially blocking your opponent from getting cards they want. Every time I play this game, it is over before I want it to be, which makes me want to immediately play it again. This is the hallmark of a great game!

So why would I want an expansion to come along and possibly bloat a great game? Because, it actually doesn't over-complicate an already great game. The extra Building and Adventurer cards merely add more variety without introducing something new. That's a winner in my wife's book, who hates basically all expansions on principal. The Architects give you something to focus your strategy on before the game begins, which is a welcome addition when there are so many choices early on. Lastly, the Landmarks give you a follow action to perform when you can't or don't want to follow the main action. They also give you another way to score points in a game that is already tight on scoring.

This is a fairly seamless expansion to incorporate and one that I would include from the very beginning when teaching new players. If you already have the base game, this expansion is a no-brainer purchase. The only decision you'll have to make is if I want to spend $10 extra dollars on a bigger box with vibrant art on it. If you have never played the game before, there's a pledge level for you as well, whether you want a Standard or a Deluxe edition of the game...Seriously, get the Deluxe! Highly recommend this game and expansion!

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Before I Was Me (Sophia Institute Press)

Before I Was Me is a hardcover children's book from Sophia Institute Press. It tells the story of a little boy asking God who he will become when he is born. God told the little boy that he had great plans for him, so the little boy assumed he would become an astronaut who ate milk and cookies. However, God asked the little boy how he would get the cookies, so the boy next decided he would become a baker. This cute story continues on of God further questioning the boy with each occupation, and the boy goes from astronaut to baker to farmer to doctor to teacher to parents. The boy realizes that parents are the most important "job," but God instructs him that the only way people become parents is with a child, so the boy decides to become a child, because children are the purest representations of God's love.

This is a very simple book with a profound message. The art and illustrations draw you into the message, but also provide a touch of humor that children and parents will both enjoy. Frank Fraser does a superb job at both writing and illustrating this book as the pictures complement the story without distracting from its message. This is a very sweet book and one that belongs on every child's bookshelf. It would make an excellent Baptism gift for first time parents or birthday gift, and I can't recommend it enough!

This book was provided to me for free by Sophia Institute Press.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Forty Reasons I Am A Catholic (Sophia Institute Press)

Dr. Peter Kreeft is one of the most well-known Catholics in the United States. He is a professor of philosophy and a prolific author, penning over 40 books on philosophy, theology, and apologetics. His most recent book is entitled Forty Reasons I Am A Catholic. Before I talk about the book, I would like to clarify that Dr. Kreeft explains that there are well more than 40 reasons he is Catholic. He simply wrote down 40 reasons, because he believes a good question (Why are you a Catholic?) deserves a good answer, or 40 in this case.

The book is not systematically organized by topic, but instead is just 40 concrete examples from Dr. Kreeft's life. Each chapter is only a few pages long with the longest being six pages. His first reason sounds simple, "because he believes it's true," but it is deeper than that. He is Catholic because he believes it holds Jesus' truth, and ends this chapter by telling people that they should only convert to Catholicism if they believe it is true. If they don't believe that, don't become Catholic or leave the Church, because hypocrisy is a grave sin. Other examples in this book range from his belief of Jesus in the Eucharist and the sacrament of Confession to something so personal as his mother.

The book is written in a very accessible and approachable language. It is very easy to read through, but Dr. Kreeft doesn't dumb anything down, and presents sound philosophical arguments for his serious reasons. (Don't expect one for the chapter on because of the movies.) This book is good for non-Catholics who wonder why you are Catholic, teens/young adults who are in the questioning stage of their life and going off to college, or Catholics who have been Catholic for a long time but sometimes wonder or question why they are Catholic. I highly recommend it and will be passing this book along to others.

This book was provided to me for free by Sophia Institute Press.

Friday, April 13, 2018

CV Pocket (Passport Games Studios)

One of my wife's favorite games is CV. It has fun artwork, a life-building theme, short playing time, and a Yahtzee-like game play that is familiar. After CV, there came the game CVlizations, which took the same great artwork and gave us civilization building game. Well, now the third game in this "series" has been released, and it's called CV PocketCV Pocket is a game for 2 to 4 players, ages 10+. It takes approximately 20 minutes to play and retails for $20.

1. Give everyone a player aid card.
2. Take the deck of cards and remove cards depending on player count. For example, if you are only playing with two players, then remove all the cards marked for three and four players.
3. Shuffle the remaining deck and deal 15 cards into three columns of five cards to form the tableau.
Game Play
1. On each player's first turn, they must take a bottom card from any of the three columns. They then slide the cards down in that column.
2. On subsequent turns, you pick a card corresponding to the transportation symbol on the last card you took. For example, a bike means you must take from Row 1. (Note: A car lets you take from Row 2, and a plane lets you take from Row 3).
3. When there are only four total cards left in the tableau, refill to original setting of three columns of five.
4. You may pass at anytime, but the game will end when all players have passed in a row.
5. Scores are then calculated using the player aid card, and the highest score wins!

At its heart, this game is a smaller, lighter, quicker version of CV. The biggest differences between the pocket version and the regular version is a lack of "press your luck." Instead of rolling dice three times and hoping for a symbol to show up, you have to plan your move based on which row you want to pull from and hope the card is still there when it gets back to your turn. In a two-player game, this is usually doable. With more players, you sometimes get the card and sometimes don't. Since cards shift downwards, I found it best sometimes to look at the cards in the row above, as they would probably shift down to the row I could pick. Therefore, I found the game play to be a bit more enjoyable and calculating than the original.

Perhaps, the most disappointing thing for me was the replay value. In the regular game, you felt like you saw the same cards every game, but this was slightly improved with the Gossip expansion. In CV Pocket, there are only 55 cards (some of which are duplicates) and to make matters worse, you trim the deck the same way every time based on player count. This starts to create a somewhat unsatisfying two-player experience the more you play it, so I have to give the preference nod to classic CV here.

The art and presentation in this game is the last thing I would like to talk about. If you loved the art in the original CV game, then you will love this art. It has its own style and sense of humor associated with it that I greatly appreciate. The only downside to the art in the pocket version of this game is that it's on a smaller scale. Due to the layout of the cards and having to have different symbols, numbers, etc. the art was shrunk down a bit, which was sad, but understandable. As for the presentation, I feel like the box was bigger than necessary, which I attribute to shelf presence and visibility. There is no way CV Pocket will fit in your pocket. I could have done without an insert, score pad, and pencil and would instead have liked a tuck-box or something slimmer to make this a truly portable game.

In conclusion, this was a quick, fun game with great art that I would play if asked, but not multiple games in a row. I much prefer the original CV game, and as it stands now, you can actually get the regular game for the same price as the pocket version on Amazon.

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

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Zendo (Looney Labs)

When I was much younger, logic puzzles were some of my favorite things to do. It was a brain-burning challenge of having limited information and trying to solve the answer, and if I could race someone doing the same logic puzzle, well that was even better. As I have grown older, I realize that I don't do these as much as I used to. I don't know if I got burnt out on them, or if I switched to word puzzles, but it hit me the other day and I started to miss them. Recently, Looney Labs re-released one of their classics called Zendo, and I knew I wanted to play it! Zendo is an inductive logic game for 2 to 6 players, ages 8+. (However, younger players can certainly play this.) It takes between 15 and 60 minutes to play and retails for $40.
Setup and Game Play
Within the box, there are 27 pyramids, 27 wedges, and 27 blocks (9 per color of red, blue, and yellow). On each turn, one person will be the Moderator who is in charge of providing answers to questions about the secret rule. To begin, the Moderator selects a secret rule card and marks it with the provided clips. The Moderator then creates the first two structures, using one or more pieces for each structure. Of these two structures, one will follow the secret rule and the other will not. The structure that follows the secret rule is marked with a white token and the structure that does not is marked with a black token. It is now all the other players turns individually in clockwise order. Each of their turns has the following three phases:
1. Build a new structure from one or more pieces, arranging the pieces in any fashion.
2. Choose "Tell" or "Quiz." By choosing "Tell," the Moderator will mark your structure with a white or black token to indicate if it follows the secret rule. By choosing "Quiz," all other players guess (in secret) if your structure follows the secret rule or not. Each player that guesses correctly is awarded a guessing token.
3. Make a guess or pass. If you have a guessing token, you may make a guess on what the secret rule is. The Moderator then can disprove your guess in one of the two ways - 1. By building a structure which follows the rule but disproves your guess or 2. By building a structure that does not follow the rule but represents your guess.

The game ends when the Moderator is unable to disprove a guess.
I have always heard about Zendo and Pyramid Arcade from Looney Labs, but was hesitant to try them, just because they weren't really a "game" to me. They were either a box of mini-games or were just a "puzzle." After playing around with Zendo, I think my initial assessment of the type of product was accurate, but I was dead wrong about the fun level. The game itself definitely plays like a puzzle you are trying to figure out before anyone else can. I like that you can scale the difficulty to make it easier or harder depending on the age/experience of the other players.

That being said, I must admit that not everyone I played the game with found it enjoyable. Some people like solving a logic puzzle, and some do not. I did, however, find this game to be very successful when playing with children of different ages. The colors were bright and shapes were tactile and provided a very hands-on approach to problem solving. It is for that reason that I think parents should play this game with their children and/or teachers should play this game with their class. It encourages critical thinking and will help their young minds grow.

This game was provided to me for free by Looney Labs in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Loosing the Lion (Emmaus Road Publishing)

The shortest of the four Gospels is The Gospel According to Mark, weighing in at a "mere" sixteen chapters. However, don't let that short length fool you. It packs just as much a punch as the other three, if not more, due to the urgency of the way its message is delivered. With the current Liturgical Year being Year B, the Catholic Church's Sunday Gospels are read primarily from The Gospel According to Mark. That made this the perfect year for Emmaus Road Publishing to release the book Loosing the Lion: Proclaiming the Gospel of Mark. The book is divided into three main parts - Preaching the Gospel of Mark,  The Gospel of Mark in the Lectionary, and Resources for Further Study. Since we all know what type of content is in Part Three, I would like to focus solely on the first two parts in this review.

Part One begins by talking about the modern age and how we have grown numb in a post-Christian culture. There is also the problem of accommodation and moralism. We try too hard to make the Gospel approachable, but in doing so, we lose the beauty of it. This leads to how pastors should preach the Gospel using the fourfold sense method, which involves literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical. This method is designed to  make saints and gives us the true story of salvation history. Dr. Leroy Huizenga goes on to suggest that The Gospel According to Mark is "an ancient biography, an index of Jesus, and a sacramental narrative icon." Lastly, Part One provides us with a brief summary of Mark's Gospel, which includes how it was written and the theological themes and motifs the author used. Part Two is the meat of this book, and is broken into eight thematic chapters that walk us through the entire book of Mark. What I found most helpful in Part Two was the Table of Contents. Each section of Scripture tells us the day and week of the Liturgical Calendar where this section of the Gospel is read.

One could argue that this book is merely a commentary on The Gospel According to Mark, and while it is that, it is so much more than that. Dr. Huizenga goes into such great detail on each section of Mark, but does so in an approachable way. There are times you read through this book and you have to go back and read what you just read, but that is because you are not used to reading Mark this way. However, on a second reading of the text, the message clicks and makes sense. There are two ways you can read this book, and I'd honestly recommend both ways. The first is to read through the book cover to cover, thus reading through Mark from beginning to end. The second way is to follow along with the Liturgical Calendar. This way will require some skipping around of chapters and sections, but if you are in Year B, I honestly think it is a great way to read this book. This book offered me a lot of thought-provoking insight into Mark's Gospel and caused me to slow down reading and appreciate the words in a way I have never done before. I highly recommend this book.

This book was provided to me for free by Emmaus Road Publishing in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Christ of the Apocalypse (Emmaus Road Publishing)

One of the most controversial and confusing books in the Bible is the Book of Revelation. There is symbolism and strange descriptions in it that can't be found in other books. Because of this, a lot of Protestants started viewing this as a book purely about the end times and the coming Armageddon. However, this is not the way that the early Church viewed this book, and it is not the way that Catholics or Orthodox view this book either. Recently a book was published by by Emmaus Road Publishing called The Christ of the Apocalypse. In this unique look at Revelation, Msgr. A. Robert Nusca sees Revelation as a portrait of Jesus. The books is divided into six chapters:

1. The Faces of Jesus in the New Testament
2. Jesus the Glorified Angel Walks amid the Churches
3. The Messianic Lion/Lamb of God
4. Jesus Christ the Divine Warrior
5. A Fourth Face: A Reflection
6. Christian Hope in an Era of Posts

The opening chapter begins by giving us brief portraits of Jesus in the Four Gospels and the Book of Revelation. The rest of the chapter then sets the stage for how the rest of the book is laid out, showing us Jesus as Glorified Angel, Messianic Lion/Lamb of God, Divine Warrior, and even seeing Jesus reflected in humanity. When looking at Jesus as the Glorified Angel, we see that the descriptions given to Jesus are the same descriptions given to God. "Revelation 1 through 3 calls us to be attentive to the various presences of Jesus Christ in the midst of the contemporary life of the Church and to heed his voice as it speaks to us in so many different ways at the heart of everyday life." A particularly interesting section occurs between the two descriptors of the Glorified Angel and the Messianic Lion/Lamb. It is here that Msgr. Nusca elaborates on the "Topography of John's Heaven," and how it is comprised on concentric circles around the Throne of God.

The book continues to walk you through specific chapters of Revelation, explaining each time how we can see the Face of Jesus in that specific section. The book closes by encouraging people to continue to look for God in an age when most people have forgotten or ignored God. Reading through this book was a welcome challenge and one that I would recommend to all Catholics. Too often, we ignore the book of Revelation because we are afraid of what it might say, but this book reveals the truth to us. In Revelation, we see the many faces of Christ that invite us to communion with Him and His Father. Highly recommended.

This book was provided to me for free by Emmaus Road Publishing in exchange for an honest review.