Friday, November 29, 2013

2013 Christmas Shopping List

This year, I've decided to do something a little different: Instead of going out and braving the stores this Black Friday, I'm going to create a list of products that I, personally, have consumed in some way or another, and am going to recommend it to my readers.

Most of the people who read this blog know my interests, more or less. I've tried to pick stuff that isn't incredibly well-known; you can hear about most consumer electronics or popular music from people who know more about it than myself. Yet I've also tried to not put things too horribly obscure; sadly, not everyone who is getting Christmas presents this year is me. I don't just want to do an info dump on y'all this year, so I've also held some items back for future years. My tastes, after all, are always perennial.

As part of full disclosure, if you buy off of this list I will get a (reasonably small) portion of the list price.

Hark! A Vagrant! Kate Beaton's comic strips are something that has to be seen to be believed--a mixture of historical wit, absurdity, and alarmingly hilarious art. Sure, it gets a little too inside baseball with Canadian history, but it's more fascinating then anything else.
The Areas of My Expertise   John Hodgman's first book in the Complete World Knowledge series, this is a 100% serious almanac filled with completely false facts. It excels mainly in its extraordinary detail, with the highlight being the list of 700+ hobo names (no, really). It's the first in the series and the best, so I suggest starting here.
A Flash of Murder by Jeff Boarts is a local author who has written a classic mystery set in (a thankfully fictional version of) my hometown. With plenty of suspects, a slowly unraveling motive, and plenty of action, I can't recommend it highly enough.

It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia: I know the show has been around for a while and it's hardly unknown, but if you haven't had the pleasure, I highly recommend this series. Sure, it's crude and crass, but the cast and writers know exactly how to pull off some good comedy with an equal mix of continuity, hedonism, and sharp writing. Season One tried to be a little bit too outrageous just for its own sake, but starting in Season Two the series was dramatically improved with the addition of Danny Devito, the depraved father of the group.
Best. Concert. Ever.: A perfect if a bit lengthy introduction to this century's awesomest musician Jonathan Coulton. It operates as (more or less) of a greatest hits album with the addition of the concert experience. While some of this complication might be a little too meta for some (Playing Still Alive on Rock Band isn't as funny unless you know about the song beforehand) it's still too good to ignore.

The Venture Brothers: The cult hit from the Adult Swim lineup of the Cartoon Network, VB takes a look at what a realistic superhero would look like. Rusty Venture is the child of famed scientist and inventor Jonas Venture at the height of the Cold War, but things have gone...downhill. Rusty and his two kids, Dean and Hank (the eponymous Brothers), along with bodyguard Brock, run the Venture Compound by more or less skating along with the least amount of effort possible. His archenemy, The Monarch, tries to thwart his plans. While it's a parody of the superhero comic strips of the Golden Age, it's surprisingly played straight as well, with interesting character development and legitimate plots that aren't just blatant spoofs.
Flight of the Conchords:This musical comedy duo from Australia New Zealand converted their muscial success to this HBO series, which follows Bret and Germaine as they try and find success in America. Punctuated by the occasional absurdist song, the pair do an excellent job of playing off of, and giving tribute to, various stereotypes.

Board Games:
Settlers of Catan: The grandfather of the German Games revolution (don't ask--or, rather, do, if you are interested and want to hear me talk about it for a few hours), Settlers is the perfect introduction to "modern" games. It has all of the elements of the new style of games--reduced direct conflict, no one gets eliminated, negotiation--while still retaining the familiar (dice rolling, victory points). In Settlers, you are trying to build settlements on an island. The "board" changes every game, where there are various resources (like wood or sheep) that are only collects on a specific die roll--so a roll of 6 would let anyone adjacent to a hex that has a 6 collect it. (Thus, 2s and 12s are the least common, while 6s and 8s are the most common--and everyone is affected equally). While the game has shown its age and is a touch on the expensive side for what you get, it's definitely worth playing.
Ticket to Ride: If building settlements ain't your thang, try your hand at building railroads. This incredibly simple game still packs in a lot of strategy. It combined the familiar rummy-style meld mechanism with a map of the United States, with the goal of connecting various cities on the map. (For example, the route from Miami to New Orleans requires six Red cards to be "melded" at one time.) While I'm not a fan of how blocking works, everything else about the game absolutely shines.
Say Anything: A simple if effective party game, this has always been a consistent hit, and due to its nature is eternally replayable. A judge--rotating from round to round--reads a question ("What superpower would be the best to have?") and everyone writes down their own answer and reveals it. The judge secretly picks a "winner," then all players get two votes, placing tokens on two different answers (or both votes on one answer). The judge reveals their pick, and points are scored depending on how many people picked the correct answer. The scoring is a bit wonky but you're not in it to win.

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