Sunday, February 27, 2011

Board Game Review: Lost Cities

Imagine traveling through the desert sands trying to locate the lost treasures of ancient civilizations. Or perhaps you're up for some deep-sea diving, to recover the sunken chests of long-ago pirate battles. Will all of your preparation and determination pay off in the end?

Lost Cities is a card game designed by award-winning game designer Reiner Knizia. It was published by Kosmos in 1999.

Alas, don't let my two-cent pulp-novel description above fool you--while the game is nominally about launching expeditions to unknown territories, we're pretty much talking about a card game that you could more or less play with a regular deck of playing cards with an extra suit thrown in. While that doesn't necessarily mean it's not fun, just keep in mind you won't be shooting natives with a flintlock or escaping huge boulders through the jungle; you're going to be playing cards with numbers on them.

This is strictly a two-player game. Both you and your opponent will be competing to score the highest amount of points by placing cards to maximize the value of your expeditions. The game parts consist of a board that represents five different expeditions (Arctic/White, Jungle/Green, Egyptian/Yellow, Ocean/Blue, and Volcano/Red) and 60 cards: 9 for each expedition numbered 2 through 10 and three Investment cards for each expedition. Strictly speaking, this is a card game, even though there's a board; the board serves more as a marker than anything else and isn't really necessary.

 The game board: All it really does it mark the different colors of expedition. Quite useful, but not necessary.

The cards. The green card is an Investment card; the others are the standard numbered cards.

Players take turns doing the following:
1. Play or discard one card from their hand; and then
2. Draw one card from either the deck or the top of a discard pile.

To play a card, a player places the card on their side of the board that matches that expedition. So if a player has a White card, they would place it on their side of the White space on the expedition card. Both players can compete for the same expedition; one doesn't affect the other (although a card used by one player cannot be used by the other).

When you place a card, it must be higher than your previously played card.

The three Investment cards may be played before any numbered cards are played by you for that expedition. Once you place a numbered card, that color's additional Investment cards are useless to you.

You may discard a card instead of playing it. (You'll do this a lot; you'll see why, below). When you discard a card, place it on the board next to that color's expedition; the top card is always available for either player to pick up as their draw. (Players draw from the deck otherwise.)

This, in and of itself, is pretty simple. When the deck runs out, the hand is over, and players tally their scores.

Each player adds up the value of all of their cards in each expedition, subtracting 20 from the final total. Then, they multiply the final total for each expedition by the number of Investment cards that were played, plus one. The player with the highest total wins; games usually are three hands in total.

These are all simple rules, and easily fit on one page. But even though it's a simple game, there's a decent amount of strategy involved. Since there's only one copy of each card, players must balance the chance that their opponent is holding a crucial card for the same expedition. Since there is a 20 point penalty, players must decide whether they have the resources (and their opponent doesn't) to start an expedition that they can finish. And playing those investment cards are tricky: they pay off handsomely, but they delay getting your cards on the table, and woe is the individual who gets to multiply their negative score!

What I like about Lost Cities:
*It's simple to learn. Almost deceptively simple. The first few times I played, I worked up a fool-proof plan to win every time, and I ended up with negative scores all around. Go me!
*It's a cheap, easy "gateway" game that girlfriends and/or wives tend to enjoy.* Lost Cities has been considered the quintessential SO-friendly game--there is competition, but it's not direct, and hands play so quickly that an awful or frustrating game is easily forgotten
*There's a surprising amount of strategy with what amounts to a souped-up standard deck of cards. The investment cards in particular are good--they can really pay off greatly, but if you invest too much or wait too long you'll find yourself well in the hole, and it's hard to recover from that. The thing that makes it interesting is you pretty much have to make this judgment at the beginning of the hand.
*The last few turns can be legitimately tense. When you're counting how many cards are in the draw pile and how many are in your hand, you suddenly start doing damage control, minimizing your loss while poring over the contents of your rival's cards.

What I don't like about Lost Cities:
*Being a quick, simple, easy game has its drawbacks--while there's room for strategy, it maxes out pretty quick. Because it's not a long game this isn't a huge issue, but burnout may be a factor.
*The theme is pretty weak. This could easily have been about nearly any other subject and the rules of the game wouldn't be much different.
*A small quibble given the game, but the scoring is a touch convoluted. I'm glad they did it the way they did, because the rather unique scoring mechanism is what makes the game. Hardly a turnoff, but it's the last thing I want to do before hopping into another round...

From an efficiency standpoint, it's a great game--for what you get, there's a lot of game in there. But there's a hard limit as to how much fun you can have with limited options. Lost Cities is a very good game and is especially good for casual gamers, but anyone looking for a game they'll play for a long time may have a need for something stronger. I assign it a B. Your enjoyment may wane after a while, but given the low cost and short play time it's still getting you an awful lot of fun for your time and money.

Note: There is a Lost Cities: The Board Game; I've never played it, but it is similar in style.

*This is a benefit under the reasonably accurate assumption that a lot of women don't like to play board games. That may be another discussion for another day. And "gateway" games are those that may progress onto other, deeper games.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Living Game: Civilization V

Well, Civilization V has been out for a few months now. I'm still quite ambivalent about the game--I enjoy it, but there still seems to be something off, even after all this time--but there's a different aspect of the game that seems novel, at least to me, and that is the concept of the "living" game.

That's funny. I'm thinking things should stay the way they were originally designed. You hear that, Sotomayor?

Most console and PC games are released to the general public. After perhaps a month or so, all of the known glitches and flaws--usually in the form of unintended exploits, hardware issues, or non-critical errors--are fixed by a patch, and possibly additional patches as needed.  Most successful games get add-ons you can purchase after a few months. They're not really sequels, since they usually require the original game to play, but add a significant amount of content (also with a reduced price). Often, patches are required if the original game and the add-on cause unforeseen conflicts.

With Civ 5, however, the model seems to have changed. So far, approximately every two months or so, a new patch is released. But the patch is more than just glitch fixes and corrections--it has added new buildings, changed the social policies, and rearranged entire parts of the technology tree, among other things. (For those unversed in the Civ culture, these are reasonably large changes that normally appear in add-ons.) These are--I should add--free.

Now, a few caveats. Civ 5 does have supplemental programs you can purchase for a small fee--like seven dollars for two new civilizations--so the big changes aren't all free. But it doesn't appear like they are going to release a full-on product; it appears like they are going to slowly release small additions with a modest charge for each, so consumers can pick and choose what they want.

And while the "patches" are free, they may indeed be real game-fixing patches--the new buildings and tweaks to the technology tree are required to seriously balance the game. (I don't think they do, but a case can be made. Also, just to be clear, there are many legitimate fixes to the game; for example, originally multiplayer couldn't be played if any of the participants downloaded anything extra.) Civ 5 also requires Steam, a controversial program that (kind of) requires a steady internet connection to play games that normally don't require the internet. I happen to like the program (they often have awesome deals on older--I mean, "Classic"--games) and don't mind the occasional ads--and it's also not required, but it's hard to maneuver without it. In addition, the fact that transaction costs for new content is practically zero--especially when compared to the packaging and distribution required for the games you go to the store for--opens up a whole new possibility of "living" games.

Of course, on the reverse side of this--and detractors to the game feel this is the case--is that the creators basically released an unfinished game. There's some merit to this, since even I could tell on the first play that certain things weren't designed quite right. In the board game world, "living rules" can be used as both a feature and a pejorative, depending on whether players decide it makes the game better or it just shows that the designer isn't very good. The same translates over to the video game world as well.

I still feel like there should be a Civ-killer out there somewhere. Not that the Sid Meier franchise isn't a good product--it clearly is, even with its Civ 5 detractors--but I think with a little decent competition would make the genre as a whole a lot better. Civ still clings to quite a few old, musty conventions that need to be overhauled (such as immigration, trade, diplomacy, and tile-based workers) to remain fresh. (The way Civ handles all of these concepts isn't bad, of course, it's just absolutely nothing really new has come out in five series.) Perhaps Stardock of Galactic Civilization fame seems to be the one last strategy game developer in a dying PC gaming market, so perhaps someday we'll see that.

It's Like Thanksgiving All Over Again

As I have mentioned before, the Pop Tart Manufacturing Company had done good in creating the Pumpkin Pie Pop Tart, with the only drawback being that it was considered a Limited Edition recipe.  So last fall I grabbed a few as they became available and, sure enough, right around the second week of December they were all gone.

Fast forward to today, when my wife foolishly permitted me to go grocery shopping. Between the time I was dropping Sudanese orphans off at the Free Nintento DS Store and handing a fat check to the Save The Endangered Pink Koalas Foundation, I ran into Big Lots* to get some treats for the dogs. And lo and behold, I found something amazing: a book about constitutional reform by noted political scientist Larry Sabato.

But later, I ran across this:

That is ten--count 'em--ten boxes of Pumpkin Pie Pop Tarts, and the fire sale price of a buck eighty per box. This was a deal that I literally couldn't pass up--as in my physiological makeup would not permit me to walk past the shelf without dumping them all in the cart.

To be fair, now--I didn't clean out the store. I only took ten of the twelve available because--c'mon. Twelve would be too many. I'm not a charlatan.

Here's a different picture my wife took. And here's one of me recreating what would happen if Drew Carey tried to pawn these off on The Price Is Right.

*For those who don't know, Big Lots is a store that specializes in overstock items--also known as weird stuff that wouldn't sell or awesome deals on normal but oversupplied (i.e., nearly expired) items.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Chocolate Pucks

A few weeks ago I purchased for my wife a box of Fleury Flakes, a wonderful novelty cereal commemorating the star Pittsburgh Penguins goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury. They're really just frosted flakes, which in and of itself isn't a bad thing.

Hopefully having your own cereal and winning a Stanley Cup will more than compensate for being about four feet tall.

My wife, however, came up with a brilliant proposal: add in hockey pucks, which would be small chocolate marshmallows. This would have 1) been thematic, and 2) made boring sugared corn flakes into a bowl of awesomeness. And, really, if part of a nutritious breakfast is lacking anything, it's more ways to introduce refined sugar.

So I had thought it would be a good idea to give this a try, and since the Internet is the global supermarket, I set to find and order a bag of chocolate marshmallows, hopefully circular like hockey pucks. To my surprise and horror, chocolate dehydrated marshmallows are not available anywhere on the internet. I was able to find white marshmallows and Lucky Charm ripoffs, but no chocolate, even non-puck-shaped. I was floored, because there are things you can find on the internet that don't. in reality, exist. How could a form of chocolate not be available?

Now a caveat: I basically searched through five pages of Google search results wording "chocolate dehydrated cereal marshmallows" in every conceivable way. It's possible I just didn't word it the appropriate manner, but I doubt it; I assume at this point any chocolate marshmallows hidden this deep on the internet are getting shipped from some Namibian warehouse where they are actually made out of Splenda, rum and compressed rat tail grindings.

So this is my million dollar idea: Manufacture and sell dehydrated chocolate marshmallows. Clearly, there is a market gap for it, and I can guarantee there is a demand for it: the world will never run out of children, college aged men, or menstruation. Setting up a Chocolate Marshmallow Dehydrating Facility in my home is now on my bucket list.

In the meantime, the only option I have right now is to buy Count Chocula in bulk, sort out the marshmallows, and pretend that the Flower is playing some mutant X-Men hockey where the pucks look like godzilla feet.

Second Million Dollar Idea in this post: The GHL: Godzilla Hockey League.

Important Consumer Alert! Presenting: Energy Bills

Here at Crank Crank Revolution, we are nothing if not consumer advocates. We're always looking out for the common man, and any tips, aid, and help we can provide our readers we will be glad to pass it on.

I made today's post a high alert one because today I found out how the power companies determine your bill each month.

 I do believe this is the mail sorting facility.

Now, I can vouch for the accuracy of this method. It has been painstakingly been researched over the course of the last twenty minutes, less the ten minutes I spent watching my dog chew a hole through his blanket and wear it like a dress. But after all of my hard work, I freely give it to you, dear reader, so that you may make better decisions and become better consumers.

Here is what the electric company does:
1) The electric company chooses a random number.
2) They then choose a second random number.
3) They multiply these two numbers together. Alternately, they may divide them.
4) They print this on a bill and send it to you.

That's it! It quite simply, really, and I'm surprised they don't teach it in our schools. The common misconception is that it is somehow tied to the actual amount of energy you use in your home. I have no idea how this rumor got started, but I will be writing Snopes shortly to have it properly debunked.

Now, I'm still working on the gas bill. So far, it seems their formula is a basic two-phase algorithm, which, roughly speaking, is called "Summer" and "Prison Rape." I will keep y'all posted!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Conversion of Paul

Catching up with the news yesterday, I ran across this in an article:

Well, it turns out, there's a little mistake: Paul Ryan is a Republican, not a Democrat.

Misidentifying an obscure public official's party affiliation isn't a crime, of course. Unless, you know, that person is the individual who gave the most recent opposition response to the President's State of the Union.

And just look at the context of the quote: I would assume even a CNN reporter would question a Democrat calling out the teacher unions. That in and of itself would be a lead story on its own.

And, for the record, I noticed this yesterday, and it's still up today. I know it's a minor issue, but this is an indicator as to why print journalism is dying.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Arguing Through The Tubes

Despite my IRL personality, I try to do my best and not engage in too much internet arguing. There is a certain level of validity in participating in forum exchanges over the world wide web--you are more likely to encounter a lot of people that have a different background, perspective, and attitude than yourself, and such exchanges tend to be more educational than arguing with people who believe the exact same things as yourself. (Though don't tell the Baptists that.) There is a fundamental weakness, however, in that most of the people on the internet are complete jerkwads.

Very few people are ever convinced one way or the other, because some numbnut halfway across the world gave you a select collection of personal anecdotes that, if you refute them, force you into calling that person a liar and/or a fraud. And who wants to do that over the internet? That's the sort of thing you need to pull off face to face for the appropriate impact.

This week, however, such limitations didn't stop me. For whatever reason I engaged in about a half dozen arguments over people across the world. And the things I argued about were things that either 1) didn't really know all that much about*, or 2) were such obvious statements of fact that there should not have been any debate, but that didn't stop the other person from doing so anyway. So basically I was either talking out of my ass or talking to a brick wall, and, in at least one situation, probably both. What good did that do me, aside from heightened blood pressure and a need to come up with an insulting nickname worse than douchenugget?

Now, I'm not going to tell you that I'm 100% right all of the time--just ask my wife--but most arguments tend to have both individuals fighting over one end or the other of a bell curve. So far my efforts to point this out have been fruitless. So my new tactic will either be to come up with a more compelling argument, or to re-frame the argument as to the heritage of the other individual's parents. The most reasonable option--just keeping my mouth shut--well, that's just out of character. Douchenugget. 

*So help me, I was arguing with someone about what they call noodles in some backwater province in China, and by gum I knew I was right. Welcome to the Internet.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Wither Wisconsin?

This normally low-key state-level dust-up in Wisconsin has blasted into national coverage, not least because of the drama unfolding over wayward state Senators avoiding a quorum and the fact that it most likely represents a microcosm of things to come for pretty much every other state in the next year or so. At issue is a bill before the state legislature that would reform how public sector unions negotiate for their contracts--in this case, it requires some contributions to health care and pensions to come out-of-pocket for workers, and also strips collective bargaining for everything except actual wages. This last part is the one generating the most outrage, since it drastically reduces the long-term power of the unions in Wisconsin. What does this mean for everyone else?

The problem is: I don't know. I have a problem with public sector collective bargains, which is why they were largely outlawed in America until the 1950's. (I don't have a problem with private sector unions--as long as both sides voluntarily come to an agreement, I don't see how this is a problem for capitalists. But that's another discussion for another day.) The theory was that, in the private sector, both sides pushed against each other until there was a mutual agreement. The owners had an incentive to keep wages low, and labor had an incentive to keep wages high; the result was usually something reasonable.

In the public sector, however, there really isn't much of an incentive to keep wages low--if a purse-busting generous wage and benefit package gets passed, who cares? The bureaucrats who get to agree--including arbitrators and the like--suffer no consequences. And school boards? Losing an unpaid minor office doesn't seem like much of an incentive to play hardball with a well-funded and highly vocal organization such as, say, AFSCME.

[I'm aware that there are plenty of nuances in all of this, specifically for things like postal workers and first responders who aren't allowed to strike. Usually, however, these are taken care of in separate negotiations that often have special circumstances in their implementation, so I know very little about them.]

What is the solution? I have no idea. Contracts have to be negotiated somehow, and unlike private contracts, there's no way to threaten moving services elsewhere--basically, trash piles up and kids stay home and watch cartoons. But the way things work can't for very much longer. I'm not sure if I agree 100% with how the Wisconsin governor is handling it, but many budgets have gotten to the point where something has to be done, and no matter what public employees are going to be worse off since they've gotten the sweetest deals for decades. Perhaps they can look to nearby Detroit to see what happens when you load up on the short-term awesome contracts that can't be sustained for the long term.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Board Game Review: Pandemic

The world is on a brink of disaster. Populations are getting sick and dying out. Unknown mutations have nations at the mercy of nature. Can you handle the pressure of saving the world, one test tube at a time?

Pandemic is a cooperative game for two to four players. It was designed by Matt Leacock and published by Z-Man games.

In Pandemic, each player is trying to help cure four strains of virulent diseases--represented by cubes--while also halting the rapid spread of each disease.  If all four cures are found, everyone wins; if not, everyone loses (and, presumably, dies).

That's the most important thing to remember about Pandemic: it's a cooperative game. Players aren't competing with one another, but rather against the mechanics in the game.  Most people aren't used to non-competitive games, and many may mistakenly believe this lack of competition to be boring. Trust me, it's not.

 If you live in any of these cities, stock up on zinc lozenges.

Each player takes on one of five roles. Positions such as Scientist (who can find cures easier) to the Medic (who can cure diseases more efficiently) each have their own strength. Each player is randomly assigned one of these roles.

Each of the five Role cards.

Then, each player can take four actions per turn. These actions include moving, removing a cube, building a research center, or curing a disease. Normally, players can only move from one city to another adjacent city, but playing certain city cards allows players to move farther; in addition, travel from one research station to another is also allowed. After all four actions are taken, a player must draw two cards, and then must discard if they have more than seven cards in their hand.

Each card represents a city on the board. (There are five special cards that have bonuses.) Some additional cards are Epidemic cards, however, which are bad; see below. Each city is of a specific color (North American and Europe are blue, South America and Africa are yellow, Asia is Red, and Russia/Indian Subcontinent is black); normally a specific disease will only appear in its region. Collecting enough city cards of the proper color allows you to cure that disease; however, having specific city cards allow you to travel more efficiently and also build research stations.

A special event card, three city cards, and an Epidemic card.

After cards are drawn, a player turns over Infection cards. Infection cards have one city on it. A player simply places a cube of that color disease to be placed in that city. For example, a player who turns over Hong Kong would place one red cube in that city. As the game progresses, more cards are turned over per turn.

I say "simply," but, in reality, this simple mechanic is alarmingly creative, because there are two other factors at play. First is when there is an Epidemic. When an Epidemic card is drawn, the rate of infection increases, one new card is drawn from the bottom of the deck and all of the discarded cards are reshuffled and placed on top. This doesn't seem very impressive on paper, but what happens is that the cities that just got infected is going to get infected again, very soon. And by drawing from the bottom of the deck, you may have introduced a new regional disease into the shuffle.

A partially infected region.

The second thing is that no city can get more than three of the same color cube at once. If a fourth cube would be placed, it actually spreads to each adjacent city. And if any of those cities then hit four cubes, they spread as well. Chain reactions can occur very quickly with the placement of just one cube.

A cure is found by having one player hold five cards of the same color in a city with a research station. Once a cure is found, however, the disease can still spread. It becomes significantly easier to clear up the cubes from the board once a cure is found, but until all cubes are removed it still spreads like normal. Once all cures are found, the game is over; everyone has won.

Unfortunately, there is more than one way to lose. If the deck runs out, the game is over. If eight outbreaks occur, the game is over. And if you go to place a cube on the board but find that there are none left, everyone dies.

Players just getting into the game aren't sure what to do, so there is a lot of experimentation involved. It quickly becomes apparent that those city cards must be used efficiently and discards minimized. Since transferring cards from one player to another is possible but very difficult, players have to make the best decisions based on the cards that they draw, and everyone has to work together to balance stopping the spread of disease with finding cures.

The rules state that players shouldn't reveal the cards they have in their hand; this may seem odd in a cooperative game, especially since everyone can simply tell everyone what is in their hand. Trust me: you want to play this with hidden cards. Why? Well, the designers want to encourage players to discuss options with a certain level of hidden information. But--in my opinion--it's more important to move the game along. If everyone has all of their cards face-up, each turn each player is going to look at each card in everyone's hand, grinding the game to a boring halt. By forcing players to ask appropriate questions and allow players to suggest options, it makes the game be more fun and move faster. 

What I like about the game:
*The rules are reasonably simple. While there are something like eight different types of actions you can take each turn, they're all pretty self-explanatory. The spreading of diseases and the infection deck are a little convoluted, but the steps required are listed clearly in the cards.
*While the rules are simple, the execution of what everyone should be doing is not. Discussing how to go about accomplishing the many self-defined goals ("Someone needs to get to South America soon! Who is best able to do that?" "All we need is for either me or you to get one red card and we can cure it, but neither of us should move very far away...") is one of the more fascinating parts of the game.
*There's an easily integrated difficulty setting. Depending on how difficult players want the game to be, it simply requires the addition or subtraction of a few cards.
*Everything is almost exactly right from a balance perspective--there are a perfect number of cards in the deck that the game isn't too short, but still leaves a lot of pressure as the deck gets smaller and smaller.
*The game is very tense. One cube can quickly grow to two, then three, then half of a continent is on the verge of collapse. Being able to manage the unexpected is part of the game.

What I don't like about the game:
*Cooperative play is not for everyone. It's not hard for one person to dominate all of the decision-making, which sucks a lot of the fun away from the game.
*Since this is a cooperative game, there is more than the normal amount of randomness--you can play the best game, but you don't have any control over what happens. A lot of this luck is mitigated--players know what cities the diseases will appear in, just not the timing or frequency--but it's still a prevalent part of the game. This game is largely about reacting to random events, and not everyone really enjoys that.

Really, those two disadvantages aren't anything that bother me, so I heartily enjoy this game. There aren't too many cooperative games out there, and Pandemic is just easy and short enough to draw people in to new territory. It's also reasonably cheap. While it's not something that everyone will enjoy, and it's not a game I would play over and over again in one sitting, it's one of those designs that is simply efficient in the amount of rules, complexity, playing time, and engagement. I rate this game an A.

Note: There is an expansion called On the Brink, but I have not had a chance to play it yet.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Five for Fighting

Last Friday, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Islanders got into a massive slugfest. Over 346 penalty minutes were assessed, and at the time the last buzzer sounded there was a grand total of 15 players (from both teams) still on the bench, everyone else having been ejected. The Islanders won by an embarrassing (for Pittsburgh) 9-3.

"Embarrassing" is a good word to describe pretty much everything that happened that night. It also sparked a fierce debate about the role of fighting in hockey. So, of course, that leads us to the question: should fighting be banned in the great state of hockey?

A few years ago I read a book about hockey fights called The Code, by Ross Bernstein. I didn't think much of the book at the time--good enough, but it was mostly repeated anecdotes from long-ago players about fights and would have made a much better full-length magazine article than a book. But much of what was hashed out in that book was brought up again, and is certainly worth look at again.

All-out brawls like this seem to pop up every once in a while each season, so it's not like it's a rarity; but usually it doesn't involve teams with skilled players. Every team has their bruisers on the roster, and every player knows to be ready for a fight at any time. Still, hockey is the only professional sport that allows fighting and is written into the rule book. We don't let basketball or football players do this, so why do hockey players get a pass?

A few pro-fight arguments:

1) The fans love it. This is true, because I love hockey fights, and therefore, since I am representative of all worldwide individuals, hockey fights must be popular (but see below).
2) It is part of the hockey culture. Canadians have been fighting on ice for nearly a century, and it is simply part of the game.
3) There is a certain level of justification for fighting as a policing mechanism. Unlike most other sports, in hockey it is very, very easy to "accidentally" hurt other players, and there isn't much of a method of determining intent. Because players are always in motion and checking is a valid hockey move, the fine line between a standard hit and a viscous one is easy to cross. Refs can't visibly tell what players can feel, so players can "work it out" with their fists if too much goes on. The threat of a fight is often enough to keep the clutching and grabbing from getting out of hand.
4) There is the code mentioned above--despite what people believe, there is a rigid set of informal rules that have developed over the course of the years that all hockey players more or less follow.It isn't a free-for-all.

Of course, there are reasons not to have it:
1) Point number 3 above just seems like an excuse. Refs are there for a reason. If it's that bad, write it in the rulebook and start throwing clutchers in the sin bin.
2) While hockey fights tend to be crowd-pleasers, there is a train of thought that it's also hurting their growth. Canadians, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and New York teams are spoiled; most of the rest of the league is struggling to put fans in seats. Getting a Gordie Howe Hat Trick might get the Joe Lewis Arena all whipped up, but potential fans in Anaheim and Dallas might still think of hockey as a live-action performance of Slap Shot. (Although--c'mon. Dallas is not a fan of violence? Pul-leeze.)
3) With a greater awareness of things like concussions and paralysis in professional sports, encouraging bare-knuckle fighting seems absurd.
4) Olympic hockey and most European leagues don't permit fighting, and they seem to do pretty good.

Me, I think fighting is good for the game, but too much of a good thing can get pretty rough. Before the lockout in 2004-2005, hockey games became scoreless snorefests, and crowded scrums replaced real hockey on the ice. Since the penalty rules were revised after the lockout, it seems as if the NHL has reached a happy medium. You might see a good old-fashioned hockey fight every third game or so, and a few times a season you'll see a bench-clearing brawl. (Well, not really--leaving the bench is an automatic 10-game suspension. Few pros are willing to pull that trigger). So fans get to see real, skilled hockey most of the time, but still get to see a good fight once in a while. And there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with that.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Candy Review: Way Too Many Types Of Snickers Bars

It's a common theme for candy manufacturers to take a tried and true formula and put a twist on it, as evidenced by M&Ms and Twix (among many others.) Add to that list Snickers, who for the last few years have been cranking out variations for the sugar-loaded consuming population.

For our review, we have five types of Snickers bars:

I swear, there are more Snickers bars than Jackson siblings and Kardashians combined.

The five flavors are:
Snickers (Standard)
Snickers Dark
Snickers Peanut Butter
Snickers Fudge
Snickers Almond

(For some reason, I couldn't find any Almond Snickers that weren't King Size, so I had to consume it anyway. For science.)

So how do they stack up? Well, here are my thoughts:
Snickers have been around for decades, so there isn't any new surprises here. I've always liked Snickers, but it was never my favorite; I don't care for caramel and a little bit of nougat goes a long way for me. But--so help me--their commercials are right. If you eat one at just the right time, it can really hit the spot and sate my hunger. But most of the time, if given other options, I'd rather get something else.

Snickers Dark is more or less the same as a Snickers bar, but the outside coating is with dark chocolate. I am not a fan of dark chocolate*, and I'm certainly not a fan of slapping said dark chocolate on an otherwise perfectly decent candy bar. So I wasn't impressed with this, but then again I know a lot of people prefer dark chocolate. If you are one of those heathens, this may just be for you.

Snickers Peanut Butter had the most potential, since if you take the amount that I hate dark chocolate and multiply it by one million infinities, this is how much I love peanut butter. Alas, this was a disappointment. Theoretically it should taste good, but it seems to have just as many peanuts as a regular Snickers bar, and I don't really taste a significant amount of peanut butter. At best, it seems like they just replaced the caramel with peanut butter, and not much at that. The worst part is that they advertising AS A BENEFIT that it is 'peanut butter squared," and you open it up and you see this:

The top is a regular Snickers bar, and the bottom is what is known in the confection industry as "a ripoff."

Snickers PB actually tastes pretty good, but there isn't an overwhelming difference between them except that you pay the same amount for less product.
Snickers Fudge is one I wasn't sure what to think about. I like fudge but not overwhelvingly so--and it doesn't help that for some reason when I was a child I routinely mixed up fudge and brownies** so was always disappointed either way. And, truth be told, I couldn't tell much difference in this case between a regular Snickers and the fudge Snickers. It was a little more chocolaty but not excessively so. It was good.

Snickers Almond is another I wasn't sure what to expect. I'm not a fan of almonds, but they are good in certain things, and I thought a Snickers bar would be one of those things. But I really couldn't tell a significant difference--there's just too much nougat and chocolate and caramel for the difference between almonds and peanuts to stand out. Still good, just not much different.

The verdict? Basically, these are all Snickers bars. With the exception of PB and Dark, they all taste pretty much the same. And Dark isn't significantly off the mark. They are all good, but if tomorrow they were all discontinued, I don't think it would make much difference.

*For the record, dark chocolate is made by taking regular milk chocolate and adding puppy blood and broken dreams into it.
**Cut me some slack. They're both chocolate, they look identical from above and they use the same pan!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Dinner For Two

Some of you may not have heard, but there was a football game last weekend. In it, the valiant and brave Pittsburgh Steelers fought a gallant but ultimately futile battle against the hated Green Bay Packers. There was much at stake; not only the championship, but the shame of leaving the field not as millionaires, but as millionaires with a very slightly less amount of money.

I watched the game with some friends, among them my wife. Prior to the game, me and my wife debated whether we should place a bet with each other on the game. We thought about it and then kind of forgot about it and, finally made the following determination: if the Packers won, I would have to cook my wife dinner. If they won by more than 14 points, she would get to pick the menu. This was a particularly dangerous offer that was tendered, considering that the full extent of my culinary abilities hits the maximum at about a bowl of Cap'n Crunch and a peanut butter sandwich (w/ crusts). If the Steelers won--at the time the forgone conclusion here in western PA--my wife would be forced to watch the single greatest movie ever filmed, Every Which Way But Loose. If the Steelers won by more than 14 points, she would also have to watch the sequel, Any Which Way You Can.

Well, four quarters later and it looked like I was cooking dinner. Thankfully, she did not get to choose the menu; I am certain whatever delight she would have tasked me to prepare would have ended up with cardboard and paprika and frosting in it somehow.

By some mere coincidence, it is also Valentines Day weekend, so I craftily combined the two. I actually have the ability to grill, so tonight I treated my lovely wife to a good, old-fashioned steak and potatoes dinner.

While I was standing outside in the not-summer weather, though, holding my tongs and smelling the sweet, succulent smell of steak and garlic, I thought up a million-dollar idea. It's a T-Shirt that shows a guy grinning from ear to ear in front of a grill holding tongs and wearing an apron. The caption reads: "Grillin' like a Villain." I can't possibly imagine how this isn't the greatest idea ever.

So, anyway: thank you, Steelers Organization, and Ben Roethlisberger specifically for throwing two interceptions, for letting me eat steak tonight and become a theoretical millionaire.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

I Heart Tina Fey...

...but that doesn't mean she can't be wrong.

Fey recently wrote an article for the New Yorker about how she juggles having a child and a career. It's actually a humorous article (which can be found here, but it requires a subscription), but a part sticks out for me (warning: swear words):
I know older men in comedy who can barely feed and clean themselves, and they still work. The women, though, they’re all “crazy.” I have a suspicion - and hear me out, because this is a rough one - that the definition of “crazy” in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her anymore.

The only person I can think of who has escaped the “crazy” moniker is Betty White, which, obviously, is because people still want to have sex with her.

This is the infuriating thing that dawns on you one day: even if you would never sleep with or even flirt with anyone to get ahead, you are being sexually adjudicated. Network executives really do say things like “I don’t know. I don’t want to fuck anybody on this show.”
I can understand her frustration, but she seems to be forgetting one major detail--she works in Hollywood.

This industry can be so male-dominated and demeaning! By the way, can I get some more glitter for my cleavage?

Hollywood is a shallow, hypocritical place, and there isn't anything wrong with trying to make things right. But the entertainment industry by definition--the "show" in show business--relies on looks more than performance. Of course older women aren't getting job offers--Hollywood is all about youth and sex appeal. When a producer mentions that quote above, it is a legitimate concern--people want to watch shows and movies with attractive people. It may not be fair, but it's the culture that Hollywood has built, and it's what viewers want to see. You can't hand-wring your way to making this change.

The sad fact that professionals in Hollywood don't want to admit is that there is a very, very fine line between "making it" and waiting tables. There are thousands of perfectly good actors in this country that will never act because they don't have the connections, agents, or timing to do it. Many of these people are probably better than the actors getting jobs. (Yes, I'm looking at you, Nicholas Cage. Tell me, how did you get this gig again?) When you are in a creative endeavor, ability certainly counts, but there is always much, much more supply than demand. This has always been the case, so it's not very surprising to know that capped teeth and a D cup will give you an extra edge.

It also doesn't hurt that Hollywood is practically the only discrimination-endorsed industry. Since everything is creative, you can easily deny people jobs based on looks, nationality, disability. etc. (This doesn't stop celebrities from lecturing the rest of us, of course.) I don't fault them for that, of course, since it's necessary given the product. But you have to take the good with the bad, and the bad is that sometimes life isn't fair.

Of course, Fey is confusing things a bit. She talks about the industry and lumps writers, producers, and actors together. They're all creative, but only actors are onscreen; it just so happens that Fey transcends all of these roles. Could it be that even in the writer's rooms are nothing more than a sanctioned men's club? It's possible--Fey certainly knows more about it than I do--but I think it's more of a youth bias than a men's bias. I distinctly remember the writers of M*A*S*H and Cheers unable to secure new work because they hit their expiration date--i.e., 30. It may seem more acute to Fey since Hollywood has a bias against older female actors, but the same happens for writers who are older men as well. This is an important point, since it somewhat diminishes her point.

It's easy to pick on celebrities, and I'm no exception--people who are writers belong to a pretty exclusive club, one where they also get to do a job they love that also gives them a certain degree of fame and wealth; this is a luxury very few people get. The fact that there are a thousand hungry writers who are just as talented banging on the door sometimes seems lost to some of these people, and this often comes across as being ungrateful. And maybe it's just me, but the whole "Hollywood hates women" idea is getting old. So to speak.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Tibet or Not Tibet

Every year there always seems to be at least one "controversial" commercial during the Super Bowl. Usually it's about sex or innuendo (though certainly not always). Very rarely is it about politics. This year, of course, was the exception.

In this case, the commercial is for mass coupon company Groupon, and it's about a deal for a Chicago-based Tibetan restaurant.

People are upset that a company would make light of a tragedy--the repression of the Tibetan people--and then use that to sell stuff.

Personally, I think the ad is brilliant, and for a few apparent and not-so apparent reasons:
1) First off, I think the sarcasm is fairly evident. Although it's done in a humorous and deliberately dismissive manner, the sentiment is less "better grab on to this while you still can!" and more "Come see why this is a culture worth preserving."
2) If nothing else, it exposed individuals--football fans who are unlikely to know much about it--to Tibet and its plight.
3) Funds are going to the Tibetan fund, which helps preserve Tibetan culture. (Or so it seems. It's referenced in a few news articles, but I haven't gotten confirmation. It seems plausible so I'll go with it.)

(As an aside, at least they didn't go for the obvious joke.)

Of course, when it is all said and done, Groupon is still shilling a product. I suppose people are upset because they are tying moving goods and a serious crisis together, and it was done in a seemingly tasteless way. But--and this is the important part--it encourages people, via both the commercial and the actual deal itself, to sample and engage in Tibetan culture, something I guarantee few people would have done without the commercial. Granted, it's difficult to cram all of this into a 30-second spot, and maybe they were foolish to try. Perhaps it was insensitive--but I don't think that insensitivity negates the good, and it may just be that vaugue insensitivity is what garners attention in the first place.

If this is something that gets people interested in a culture, helps out a local business that caters to that culture, and makes everyone else a little bit more knowledgable, I can't see how it can't be a positive.

As an added benefit, it pisses of the Chinese government. So there is that.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Intangibles: A Prediction For Super Bowl XLV Based On Things That Don't In The Least Bit Matter

Unlike all of the other major sports, football doesn't have a playoff series--it's just "The Big Game," as advertisements for products that do not have a license agreement with the NFL are fond of calling the Super Bowl. As such, while there is room for legitimate analysis of statistics to determine who is likely to win--something Vegas has down to a quite profitable science--a lot of it comes down to what amateurs and armchair coaches call "intangibles." Those things that just can't be put down on paper or crunched through the statistics. The sort of nonsense that mediocre coaches--or the revised histories of legendary coaches in made-for-TV movies--use in pep talks to the team during halftime.

I've never quite got that. Who will win, they say: Which team has more "determination." Who has the most "motivation." What players are really "in it to win it." Really? This is the Super Bowl. Do they really need any extra psychological boosts?
Dear Team:

Re: The Super Bowl

This is simply a friendly reminder about the Super Bowl this weekend. You know that thing that you've been dreaming about every day of your life since you were like four years old? Well, it's coming up here in a few days just in case you've forgotten about it. I don't mean to be a naggy-noo, but I just don't want you guys to forget.
I have a copy of Who Moved My Cheese?  in my office if anyone wants to borrow it. If anyone has any problems getting pumped up for the one single event you have spent your entire life preparing yourself for, I have a spiral-bound booklet of team-building exercises we can all do.
In closing, I thought you guys might enjoy this:

So cute! Don't forget: Sunday. Don't be late.

Love, The Coach

Well, we are nothing but mediocre amateur armchair coaches here at C2R, so we've cooked up our own list of the most important "intangibles" for Sunday games. No statistician will be able to quantify these; no expert can expound poetically about them. But they are important, and they provide some pretty good excuses in case your team loses if you don't feel like admitting they just played like shit.

1. Weather
Both Pittsburgh and Green Bay are cold-weather teams. Pittsburgh has an open field that is used to snow, especially during playoffs. Things can get pretty chilly being right next to the river, and cold fronts from Lake Erie have a tendency to hit the Steel City with piles of snow at inopportune times on Sunday afternoons.

On the other hand--it's Green Bay. The home of  the Ice Bowl. Lambeau Field's nickname is the Frozen Tundra, for crying out loud. This is Wisconsin, where the official state tree is snow.

The Edge: Green Bay. The only thing that stays consistently under 32 in Pittsburgh is the Pirates' record.

2. Mormons
If there is one demographic that seems to be overrepresented (in proportion to the population as a whole), it's Mormons. I have no idea if any of the tenets of the Church of Latter-Day Saints are pertinent to the development of the 3-4 defense. But for some reason they crank out quality players every year.

As such, if my sources are correct, Pittburgh has two Mormons (Brett Keisel and Chris Hoke) while Green Bay has one (Brady Poppinga). Granted, no one has to fill out a Your Denomination Here blank on their NFL application form when they sign up, so there may be some super secret Mormons on either team. But this is the best guess.

With the possible exception of the Polynesians--of which the Steelers are also well-stocked--you won't see a bigger powerhouse in the NFL. A diverse team is a strong team, and the Mormons more than hold their own. And, yes, this will be the only time you will ever see the words "diverse" and "Mormon" in the same sentence.

The Edge: Steelers. The North Shore is almost ready to be certified as Little Utah.

3. Hair
Hair is, surprisingly, a decent barometer of victory on the field. As a recent example, the Pittsburgh Steelers were well-coiffed enough to win, when the Baltimore Ravens really only had Joe Flacco's eyebrow. But for the Super Bowl, things are a lot more competitive. Pittsburgh has:

Troy Polamalu

and Brett Keisel

While the Packers have Clay Matthews:

The Edge: Close to a push. While the photos above are accurate, they are also misrepresenting the sides; the Steelers are remarkably well-shorn, while the Packers seem quite normal. Maybe they all have their winter coat of fur on. But, one team has Polamolecules and the other doesn't. Guess which one wins?

4. Mascots
Both the Packers and the Steelers are good, solid, no-nonsense teams. They don't mess around. They don't need cheerleaders or fireworks or bobblehead nights to get their fans out to the game. With the exception of a 30-year-old tangerine-colored dish towel and a hat shaped like a wedge of cheese, both cities treat football like serious business.

So many Steeler fans were kind of shocked when they came out with a mascot a few years ago. Now, some mascots are easy to figure out--the Buffalo Bills have a cartoonish Buffalo, the Detroit Lions have a pantomime Lion, the Cincinatti Bengals have Chad Johnson--but what, exactly, would a Steeler be? Well, I suppose it would be exactly what it sounds like--a vaguely Bill-Cowher-shaped steelworker. Which sounds pretty boring, because it kinda is. And the name didn't help: after a contest, the winner chose "Steely McBeam," which doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. (Though I suppose it's better than more accurate Pittbsurgh alternatives, like a PennDOT worker named "Stoppy McNowork" or a pharmaceutical sales representative named "Moved To Georgia In The Late 70's Bzorsky.") He carries around (what else?) a big foam I-beam. The kids love him, I guess, so he's not all bad. But it's hard for a mascot like Steely to get the fans revved up when all he really does is remind everyone of a metrosexual uncle who was laid off two decades ago but still gets the union newsletter.

"If I end up coaching the Panthers next year, y'all be the first to know."

But then, Green Bay has no mascot. No caricature of Vince Lombardi racing around telling his players they can either watch the birth of their daughter or play in a preseason game against the Baltimore Colts and keep their job, but not both. No Hungarian immigrant running around getting the stadium excited by spending fourteen hours a day scraping up excess cow parts into a pile for soup stock for twelve cents an hour.

The Edge: Steelers. Despite what you think about poor Steely, at least he's better than nothing.

5. Nicknames
The Green Bay Packers are popularly known as "The Pack," which is a nice, short, and quite accurate description of the team. It also lends itself to easily constructed headlines and T-shirt slogans--Leader of the Pack, Pack Attack, etc. It's a graphic designer's dream.

The Pittsburgh Steelers don't have such a snappy nickname. The closest they have is "The Stillers." Linguistic anthropologists may disagree, but it just makes us sound like we don't know our alphabet.

I am ignoring, for both parties, "Black and Gold" and "Green and Gold." Those are not nicknames. Those are eBay product descriptions.

The Edge: Green Bay. Even the city name is more conducive to marketable slogans and color schemes.

So which team will come out ahead? Well, according to the intangibles, it looks like the Steelers by a squeaker. Sure, you may complain that this is hardly a scientific study, but how is it any worse than the guy on television stating such things as "When the team that has the most field goals by the second third of the fourth quarter is ahead by the number of wins they have in the season or number of sacks in the game so far (whichever is greater) has a 4 out of 7 chance of winning a non-overtime game"? Seriously.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Guide for Unrepentant Gamblers: Odds for Super Bowl XLV

Not everyone likes the Super Bowl; there are many people out there that just aren't into football. But never fear! There is one very easy way to make the Super Bowl interesting for you. This is called gambling.

Every year, the Gambling-Industrial Complex tries to formulate any conceivable way for people to put their hard-earned money on the game--how long will the national anthem be? How many commercials will there be?--and so on. People can place bets and waste--I mean, earn--money based on the outcome.

So for those looking to cash in, here's a list of the most popular odds:

The Black Eyed Peas will play a song no one who watches football will have ever heard before: 3-1

The Black Eyed Peas will be a group that no one who watches football will have ever heard before: 2-1

Fergie will piss herself on stage: 2-1

Regardless of whether the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Green Bay Packers win, Jerry Jones will try and make this Super Bowl about the Dallas Cowboys: 4-1
Emergency Lipitor prescriptions will increase dramatically in the next few days as Pittsburghers and Wisconsinites arrive: 2-1

Some clever deli owner in Fort Worth will come up with and sell a "Roethlisburger" and assume that he is the first one to come up with this: 3-2

The shortage of strippers will dissipate once they realize that Roethlisberger has been taking saltpeter daily since his suspension: 4-1

A bird will fly out of Brett Kiesel's beard sometime after the start of the second quarter: 2-1

Kiesel will then shoot said bird with a bow and eat it during halftime: 2-1

B.J. Raji and Casey Hampton will, combined, eat more than the entire population of China in chicken wings before, during, and after the game. 4-3

Mike Tomlin will smile, frown, or show any emotion at all: 4500-1

Hines Ward will smile after each play regardless of his or his team's performance: 2-1

At some point during the game, the parts of Ines Sainz that are considered to be a reporter will get a close-up shot from the camera: 3-1

Shots before and after commercials will show french fries on sandwiches, Lake Michigan, cheese mills, or random fat dudes that are obviously not cowboys wearing cowboy hats: 3-2

James Harrison will straight-up murder someone on the field: 3-1

Someone from Wisconsin will send me a nasty e-mail advising me that they are not called cheese mills but are called dairy processing plants or something like that: 3-2

People will still somehow manage to have fun despite the fact that there are no cheerleaders from either team: 4-1

Someone will say immediately after the game "You know, I'm glad I just watched my team in the Super Bowl. But what I was really waiting for was to see them in the Pro Bowl next week. Guess that's not gonna happen now." 3000-1

Someone will point out that Super Bowl Sunday is the biggest guacamole consumption day of the year as if this has been a fact established by multiple Nobel Prize-winning researchers, even though it's all bullshit: 2-1

The outcome of the Super Bowl will affect the next election and/or the performance of the stock market: 10000-1 will have a commercial that will point out the benefits of creating an account with them: 5000-1 will have a commercial that will feature some whore falling out of a tank top: 3-2

John Madden will be interviewed and he will be under the assumption that Brett Favre is playing in this game: 4-1

Hell--i.e., Dallas--will freeze over: Push

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Superbowl Commerical Quiz

It's almost Super Bowl time, and you know what that means--Superbowl commercials! (Also: football). Every year, there is a lot of speculation as to which company or endorsement or celebrity surprise will be the highlight of the game. Of course, it is a football game, so having major NFL starts participate in the process is always ideal. So, here is a quiz: match up the famous football personality with the appropriate product they would endorse in the world's most perfect Superbowl commercial!

Match these individuals:

1) Chad Johnson

2) Brett Favre

3) Ben Roethlisberger

4) Randy Moss

5) Ray Lewis

6) Rex Ryan

7) Tim Tebow

8) Tom Brady

9) Michael Vick

10) Peyton Manning

With these products:

A) Chik-Fil-A

B) Pillow Pets

C) Garland, Samuel & Loeb, Attorneys-At-Law

D) Dr. Scholl's

E) Ryder

F) J.A. Henckels Quality Cutlery

G) Twitpic

H) Rosetta Stone Spanish

I) Supercuts
 J) All of the above

Answers are in next month's issue.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Superbowl Week

I apologize to my non-Western PA and/or international (i.e., Latvian) readers, but it looks like it's going to be a fairly football-intense week of postings. If there are three rabid football markets in the United States, it's Pittsburgh, Green Bay, and Dallas, so this is a perfect orgasmic storm for those that like to watch an oval bundle of string and leather get knocked about in a corn field.

Sporting an obvious fight in this battle--which is good; it beats the nonchalant indifference of whether unemployed wheat farmers in Indianapolis or jazz musicians and pimps in New Orleans win the big game--I don't have much to offer as far as analysis or predictions, so I will do the next best thing: occasionally point out the blatantly obvious and making fun of Rex Ryan.

Anyway, here are some of my past columns that may, in fact, be relevant:

My thoughts on the saga of Ben Roethlisberger: Time To Take Some Shots
In Defense of Jeff Reed (kinda): Kicking the Kicker
New rules for the game: Football Reform
In regards to the pending CBA: 32 to 40