Friday, May 29, 2015

Book Review: Itty Bitty Hellboy by Art Baltazar and Franco

Itty Bitty Hellboy by Art Baltazar and Franco

What if Hellboy and his friends were a group of youngsters having adventures in their backyard like kids always do? That's the premise of this book. The drawings are cute and most stories are two to four page long, often ending in a joke. It reads like a cross between Peanuts and Calvin & Hobbes. I found the book mildly entertaining--it seems aimed at a much younger audience than me. Though I think the age the book is aimed at is probably (and properly) completely unfamiliar with Hellboy and his companions in the regular comics, so many of the jokes will be missed. And there's the weird bit where Roger the Homunculus twins himself so he can date Baba Yaga and Hecate, which also isn't really appropriate for younger readers the way it comes off here. The overall tone is odd. I'm not sure who I'd recommend this for, and I don't plan to read it again.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Game Review: Marvel Dice Masters: Avengers Vs X-Men

Marvel Dice Masters: Avengers Vs X-Men by Eric M. Lang and Michael Elliott

A common trope in comics is to have superheroes fight each other. Whether through an honest misunderstanding or villainous mind-control, whenever two or more heroes come together, there's a good chance they duke it out among themselves before they take out the real bad guy at the end of the book or movie. Marvel Dice Masters lets two players form up teams to fight each other in classic comic fashion.

The game starts with each player choosing among the various heroes and villains. Each character card lists the cost in energy to purchase the character's die, any special abilities, and any team affiliation (Avengers, X-Men, Fantastic Four, Villains). The starter set comes with eight characters who each have three cards and two dice. Players have to choose which card they will use for a chosen character, typically based on the power that character offers (for example, Captain America can either recruit new sidekicks or knock out opponent's sidekicks).

Purchase cost, energy type, and affiliation in upper left, power in middle, die faces on bottom!

After assembling individual teams, four action cards are selected (two by each player). These cards have three dice each and either player can buy these dice on the player's turn. The actions usually have offensive or defensive bonuses.

Similar to Cap, but no specific energy required to buy the die

Each player starts with eight "sidekick" dice and a dice bag. The first player draws four dice from his or her bag and rolls them. The player may reroll any of the dice. Then the player can spend energy rolled to buy dice (characters or actions), field characters (cost from zero to three), or pay for global actions (see Take Cover in picture above). Characters can only be fielded if their particular die was rolled with one of the character faces showing (not one of the energy faces) and the player can afford the Fielding Cost (upper left corner on the die). Used energy and actions go to a used pile.

Some of the dice

Fielded characters have the option of attacking or being held in reserve for use on a later turn, either to gang up with more characters or to block the opponent's characters when they attack on the opponent's turn.

If a character attacks and isn't blocked, that character's attack value is deducted from the opponent's life (players agree on a starting number (usually 15 to 20): if the life number gets to zero, you lose!) and the character die goes into the used pile.

If the character is blocked, the character's attack value (upper right corner on the die) is compared to the blocker's defense value (lower right corner on the die) and if the attack value is equal or greater, the blocker is knocked out and the blocker die goes to the prep area. At the same time, the blocker's attack value is compared to the character's defense value and if the attack value is equal or greater, the character is knocked out and its die goes to the prep area. So the two opposing characters could knock each other out or one could knock out the other. The trick here is that the blocking player may use more than one character to block an attacker, in which case the blockers' attack values are added together, making it easier to knock out the attacker. The attacker decides how to divide his attack value among the blocking characters. The math isn't too tricky, it just makes for interesting decisions with fielded characters.

Beast character dice faces (from one of the Beast cards)

Hulk character dice faces

Professor X character dice faces

Spider-man character dice faces

Any character die who is not knocked out goes back to the field area. The knocked out dice go into a prep area which means on the next turn, those KOed dice are added to the four dice drawn from the bag (thus allowing a player to roll lots of dice). When a player needs to draw from the bag and the it's empty, all the dice in the used pile go in the bag. So another interesting strategy is managing which characters stay in the field and which cycle through the dice bag.

My son and I enjoy the game a lot because of the flexibility and the thematic feel. When we started playing, we used just two actions and had three characters each, making it easier to keep track of abilities and what was going on. As we get better, we add more characters and actions to have interesting combinations. The game plays in about twenty minutes, letting us squeeze in games before dinner or in other times when a longer game would be impossible. The only downsides are (1) the box it comes is not so great for storing the game and (2) using a player mat to keep track of which dice are where is extremely helpful. The rule book has a basic mat in the middle page that could be photocopied or home-designed mats are available on Board Game Geek (or the company sells big mats for $15 to $20 depending on the version purchased).

An early game for us with a printed play mat

I bought the original starter set, Avengers Vs X-Men since it has the characters I and my son are most familiar with--Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, etc. The set only comes with two X-Men (Storm and Beast), which is a little disappointing for fielding an X-Men team against the Avengers. Another set was released, called the Uncanny X-Men, which features lots of popular X-Men like Cyclops, Iceman, Professor X, and Wolverine. A third set is coming out as I write called Avengers: Age of Ultron, which features the characters from the movie. Knowing that now, I probably would have bought Uncanny X-Men and then get the Age of Ultron set to avoid having duplicate Avengers. Having the extra dice for a character is handy (most cards let players field four dice per named character), but having a greater diversity of characters is even better in my opinion. All the sets work together, though certain characters have slight color or symbol changes on their dice.

Avenger Vs X-Men dice on left, Uncanny X-Men dice on right (Storm and Iron Man are the characters)

The way to get extra characters is to buy booster packs, which include two different dice with two matching cards. For example, a pack could have an Ant-Man die with card and a Magneto die with card. Some cards are rarer than others, giving a fun lottery feeling when opening a new pack. We've opened a bunch of Uncanny X-Men packs and have been able to expand our set of X-Men and villains enough to field thematic teams. Packs are only 99 cents, which is a bargain compared to other collectible games. Buying specific characters means shopping second-hand on eBay or online stores. We haven't found other players to trade with but we hope to!

A typical booster pack

Other starter sets are available for Dungeons and Dragons, Yu-Gi-Oh, and DC Justice League, and they are all compatible with each other. We don't plan to mix in DC superheroes or DnD characters though that may appeal to some. The Dice Masters system has a lot of flexibility and can appeal to many different tastes. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

N's New Supervillain Identity

N, at nine months, is getting many more motor skills. He can grab things and move them around. He can't quite place them where they belong (yet) so he has started doing something else. If it's a solid object, he'll put it in his mouth--typical infant behavior. But if it's paper, he will try to crunch it up. He is completely ruthless about this and respects neither the government nor God. I can say this since he is just as happy to crush the pages of a library book as those of a church hymnal.

Church bulletins are fair game too!

He even rumpled up the very Mother's Day card he picked out!

Since he can't sign it, he has to leave his mark somehow

We have started calling his new supervillain identity "The Crumpler." He tears into newspapers. He crinkles up board game rule books. Anything he can reach, he will crumple.

Being a supervillain (or even a regular villain) means having a distinctive look. L has helped by giving him some bad hair to go with his bad boy behavior.
Combing it crazy

A satisfied customer


Height: 30 in.
Weight: 18 lbs., 6 oz.
Powers: Crumples paper and paper products, also drools on and chews all things
Weakness/Kryptonite: Lamination

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Book Review: Green Lantern The New 52 Vol. 4: Dark Days

Green Lantern The New 52 Volume 4: Dark Days by Robert Venditti and Billy Tan

After taking a lot of casualties in the last volume, the Green Lantern Corps is in bad enough shape that the Guardians decide to promote Hal Jordan to head of the Corps. Almost immediately the Orange Lanterns (who are motivated only by greed) attack, hoping to steal whatever stuff is on the Green Lantern home base of Oa. Hal and company (featuring some brand new recruits) just barely beat back the threat when they discover problems with their rings. The energy that powers them is fluctuating badly thanks to a new threat from before the Big Bang--Relic. Relic is a giant, crazy scientist from the universe that existed before the Big Bang. That universe ended when its light-wielders depleted all the light energy they had (causing the Big Bang). Somehow Relic survived and now he is try to stop all the Lantern Corps from using up all this universe's light energy and causing another universal catastrophe. Can Hal Jordan and the Lanterns both defeat Relic and start using their light energy more wisely?

The plot is large and imaginative, possibly bordering on the preposterous. I went with it and found it an enjoyable read. The "history" of Relic is well-written and makes him an interesting opponent that forces Hal not to go it solo. Hal needs to learn leadership skills and this gives him a good opportunity. I was worried the "conserving resources" theme might get too heavy-handed but they don't go overboard with it. They just went overboard with a lot of other elements!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Movie Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) written and directed by Joss Whedon

The Avengers take out a heavily fortified Hydra base where they collect Loki's staff and encounter two enhanced people, twins Pietro and Wanda Maximoff. He can move faster than fast (he's Quicksilver in the comics, who appeared also in X-Men: Days of Future Past); she uses magic and can read minds as well as put thoughts into them (she's Scarlett Witch in the comics, no priors). She does a number on most of the Avengers before leaving (Hawkeye is quick enough to stop her, quipping "I've already done the  mind control thing, didn't like it!"). They are haunted by those thoughts as the return to New York to celebrate recovering the staff.

Back at Avengers HQ, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner analyze the staff before Thor takes it off for safekeeping. Tony discovers an artificial intelligence in it and attempts to modify it so he can complete his Ultron project. Ultron will bring about "peace in our time" by securing the Earth from hostile aliens. And presumably other earth-bound baddies. Tony and Bruce head off to the party while the Ultron AI hangs out with JARVIS (Ironman's AI assistant). While the Avengers have fun and get a little drunk, Ultron takes out JARVIS and escapes into the internet, quickly infecting several Ironman suits and starting on a project to bring about "peace in our time," basically by wiping out the Avengers and the rest of the human race as well. Ultron recruits the twins, who don't catch on to the second part of his plan because Wanda can't read mechanical minds. A globe-spanning fight ensues.

The movie has a well-balanced mix of action, comedy, and character development. The cast is rather massive (the original six Avengers, the twins, Ultron, and a few others thrown in) but Whedon's script gives everyone enough time and personal scenes to make the characters more believable and interesting. Whedon's trademark witty banter is in fine form as well. The plot is also massive and suffers a little bit--they do so many things that it's hard to keep track of why certain things are important or even necessary. The story moves along so quickly that viewers are swept up in the action and it's easy to let the odd plot points slip on by.

This is a big, fun summer blockbuster, well worth seeing.

And yes, it is already available for pre-order on Amazon!

Friday, May 22, 2015

Movie Review: The Black Sleep (1956)

The Black Sleep (1956) dir. by Reginald LeBorg

Doctor Ramsey awaits execution in 1872 London. He claims he is wrongfully accused on circumstantial evidence. One of his teachers, Sir Joel Cadman (Basil Rathbone), visits and offers him a drink mixed with a drug that will make tomorrow's hanging easier. The doctor thinks it's a sedative but when the executioners come in the morning, they find him dead. Cadman takes custody of the body to give it a proper burial. Back at his lab, he gives Ramsey's body an injection that brings the doctor back to life! Cadman has a special powder he calls the Black Sleep that mimics death. If the antidote is given within 12 hours, the person will wake up and be fine.

Of course, Cadman doesn't do this out of the goodness of his heart or because he thinks Ramsey is innocent. Cadman needs another brain surgeon to work with him. He sends Ramsey off to his seaside castle home where his laboratory is hidden behind a fireplace. Cadman arrives and explains how he is mapping the brain's function. He confirms his conclusions through experimental surgeries on people under the influence of Black Sleep. Ramsey sees a few people at the home who did not come out of surgery well. He has his misgivings about Cadman's plans and has to plot his way out of a tricky situation.

The movie is a standard 1950s B-movie mixture of mad science and mutant horror in a medieval-looking manor. A lot of fine actors (Rathbone, Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, John Carradine) give good performances but the story is only so-so. The brain surgeries are more convincing looking that I expected from 1950s special effects.

A standard, unremarkable (except for actors and surgeries) horror movie.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Book Review: Saint Francis of Assisi by G. K. Chesterton

Saint Francis of Assisi by G. K. Chesterton

Chesterton takes on a challenging task in writing a biography of Saint Francis of Assisi. Francis was beloved in his own life time, so even the earliest sources are bound to exaggerate (if not make up) stories. Or at least skeptics can assume so. And Francis's life was well over five hundred years ago leaving plenty of time for legends and misconceptions to grow. How can a modern, interested person get a true understanding of the man with so many obstacles in the way?

Chesterton flies over such hurdles by several methods. His first and least obvious solution is to eschew the typical biography's strictly historical retelling of someone's life, where they start with his birth on such and such a date at a certain place and recite all the famous historical and personal events up to his burial on such and such a date at a certain place. Instead, Chesterton focuses on a few key events in Francis's life and meditates on how those events reveal Francis. In an early event, he was working for his father as a cloth merchant, negotiating with a purchaser while a beggar was also asking Francis for alms. Trying to please two supplicants at the same time was impossible for Francis though he clearly wanted to. When he was finished with the merchant, he turned to help the beggar who had left. Francis left his market stall (with presumably a lot of valuable stock unattended) to hunt down the beggar in the narrow byways of Assisi and give him the money he had just made. Chesterton points out that Francis always treated everyone equally, as a brother, whether they were from a high or low station. He didn't play favorites, he was a true egalitarian. The incident also shows his unconcern for material things. Many other incidents are handled with the same depth and reflection.

Chesterton also avoids the ambiguities and misconceptions about Francis's life by looking at the world as it was when Francis lived. Many modern people cherish Francis as the harbinger of the Renaissance--a man in love with nature and unconcerned with personal possessions. He's considered a Flower Child and a proto-communist. Chesterton argues that Francis came immediately after the time known as the "Dark Ages" but those times were only "dark" in the sense of Europe being besieged by the paganism of Rome and the perpetual barbarian invasions. Paganism had finally been overthrown by Francis's time; the barbarians had settled down to become locals and Christians. Monks no longer had to live in cloisters where they kept learning alive. Francis's friars could live "on the road" as it were, relying entirely on the generosity of others for food and shelter. His call appealed to many in his day but clearly it couldn't be heeded by all or society would collapse. His love of nature sprang from a simplicity of life that accepts the world with wonder. He's fascinated by the God-given glory of animals, not just by the animals themselves. His context gives him a different view from what we might casually think today.

Chesterton writes for the modern reader who is uninformed yet curious about this romantic and fantastic character. Chesterton sets aside the skeptic's doubt (if the reader denies the supernatural is even possible, Francis will forever remain inexplicable) and assumes the inquirer's wonder (the reader is open to explanations beyond his or her own personal experience). Chesterton himself was in such a position before his conversion to Christianity and thus is possibly the best author to tackle St. Francis's biography in this way. He gives a sense of Francis's life and the sanctity he had on a level few of us experience. Francis was a true lover of God and men and lived out that love with a sense of humor and self-denial that will always fascinate the casual observer and may transform those who strive to look more closely.

This book is an unusual, fascinating, and well worth your while.

I was inspired to read this by that great podcast, A Good Story Is Hard to Find, and somehow have managed to read it before the episode posted! I may treat myself to ice cream.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Armed Forces Day 2015

For Armed Forces Day (May 16 in 2015) we went back to the Cryptologic Museum for their festivities. The day celebrates all those who defend our country. It was created in 1949 as a consolidation of the various Army, Navy, and Air Force Days (since they were all integrated into the Department of Defense that year). The Marine Corps still celebrates their own day but they also participate in Armed Forces Day.

The sign

Walking in from the parking lot, the first display was the radio station, where ham radio operators demonstrated their equipment and techniques. They had a radio from World War II and some telegraph equipment (along with a chart showing Morse Code). J and L were fascinated by the old-style equipment.

Ham radio demonstrations

Old tech-the kids loved the typewriter

Morse Code and broadcasters

Another set

At another booth, Naval cadets taught knot tying. L was more interested than J, though that may have been due to the colorful little ropes on which they practiced.

The nice lady demonstrates a square knot for L

L ties the knot!

Further on was a thank you card to sign to troops out on deployment.

L signs

J signs

Also outside were several emergency response vehicles from the Maryland National Guard. One looks like a communications vehicle with its special dome antenna. No one was there to talk about it. The doors were open so J and L both sat at the wheel.

Communications/response vehicle

J at the wheel

L ready to drive

Front view of the car

The other vehicle is basically a mobile crime lab. Meant to analyze CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or explosive) materials, it is useful during large scale incidents or in handling much simpler issues like an envelope with suspicious white powder.

Mobile CBRNE lab

We saw where the band would be playing later in the afternoon, but L had a birthday party to attend, so we never got to hear them. Maybe next year!

Band stand before band's arrival

On our way inside, L and J picked up sheets for the scavenger hunt, which consisted in finding letters at various stations and displays and matching them up to different lines on the sheet. The SIGABA cipher machine was used by the Americans in World War II.

SIGABA Machine provided scavenger hunt letter E!

Across the hall is a display for the Wind Talkers, Navajos who used their language as a code indecipherable to the Axis powers in the Pacific.

Wind Talkers display

Another fun activity indoors was the invisible ink display. In the American War of Independence, colonial spies used invisible ink to hide messages in mundane correspondence. A reactive agent made the words reappear!

J and L write with invisible ink

L restores her letters

Another interesting code is this random sheet of letters (bottom of the picture) that is discernible only when the top sheet is placed over it.

Will the proper letters please make themselves known!

Many other displays show the various devices used to keep information secure, including the famous Enigma machine.


A bit from the Colossus computer

Vietnam-era reconnaissance 

Old-fashioned satellite

After completing the scavenger hunt, J and L turned in their sheets for the prize--ice cream.

A sweet, sprinkly treat

One last station outside had an enormous Jenga block tower. We didn't try our hand at it but admired others who did.

Super Jenga

We were happy to celebrate Armed Forces Day in such an informative and fun way.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

L, Liberty Farmer

L has some new interests. At school, the social studies unit covered the Statue of Liberty. Her studies inspired her to read more about the statue and to imitate her as well!

L as Lady Liberty

Another pose

Another day

In case you are wondering about the book in the last picture, yes it has worms all over the cover. The book is about composting, inspired by another interest. We have a small compost bin out back of the house where table scraps and cooking scraps are stored. Also, we ordered some worms on the internet and have started our own worm farm! L has been brave enough to touch them with her own (gloved) hands.

New pets?!?

Close up

We have a special bin that we keep in the garage so the worms don't get too cold (or run slither away). Having the lights on for the first few days convinced the worms to stay inside the bin. Now they are happily munching down old newspaper and select table scraps and will turn them into compost!

The worm farm

Bin ventilation