Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Game Review: Gloom

I was sitting in the drafty main hall of our creaky old mansion, screwing wheels into the leg-stubs of my favorite rat, Detritus, whose legs had recently been gnawed off by our cat Wemsley, who had choked to death on them. My lady was in her darkened chamber, surrounded by cracked mirrors and brushing the spiderwebs from her hair. The door moaned open and two of our ghastly friends entered, bringing with them a game they promised would be more diverting than scraping mold from the stern portraits of dead ancestors.

My lady and I sighed and rolled our eyes. We had tried such games before, and they were always about gaining money or wild hi-jinx which only made our everyday existence that much more unbearable. Our friends assured us that this game was different. It was every bit as morbid, macabre, and morose as we were.

Sure enough, the game was Gloom, and we were soon having more fun than a bevy of bats in a magnificent mausoleum. Each player controls a family of five unlucky, unlikeable people. The purpose is to make sure that the members of your family live as miserable lives as possible, then die. How horrid. How delightful!

The real fun comes from playing with quirky people with twisted senses of humor, and fortunately, our ghoulish group fit the bill. Soon, we were weaving tales around the cards, exploring how a brain in a vat is an especially unfortunate victim for poltergeists (since he can't get away from them) and learning exactly how many vicious animals a single red-headed stepchild can accidentally aggravate on a single picnic. Also, the only thing worse than being eaten by bears is being eaten by bear-snake hybrids.

The game has impishly innovative card design. The cards are printed on translucent plastic, and players stack events on top of the characters to describe the horrendous things occurring to them. Each of these events are worth a certain number of negative points (which are best for players!), except those few things that are actually pleasant for the characters (alas!). As you play more cards on top of the characters, bonuses from the more recent cards start to cover up the bonuses of past cards, so you can play excellent events on the other players' characters to cancel out the dreary day that character has had, while simultaneously ruining the previously peachy (or at least appallingly average) day your own character had.

I would recommend this game to any gloomy, ghastly gamer who is looking for a change of pace. Just beware those manatees, don't anger any midgets, and make sure the tiger is the one in the cage...

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Book Review: The Last Hot Time

The Last Hot Time, by John M. Ford, asks an interesting question: what would happen if the elves returned? According to the novel, the world wouldn't immediately turn into a magical realm of wonder and danger, and it also wouldn't remain completely bland and mundane. Instead, we would have the Elf lands and the human lands, and places in between where magic and technology exist. These in-between places, known as the Shade in the book, are often major cities, and one of those cities is Chicago, which is where the book takes place.

The Shade seems to have taken the heart of Chicago and made the city more like what it really is underneath. The book takes place in the modern day, but the Shade is full of speakeasies and casinos, with both human and Elf gangs fighting over them.

The protagonist, a paramedic named Danny Holman, gets mixed up with a kind-hearted gangster named Mr. Patrice and his bunch of oddball characters. They call him "Doc Hallownight" because nobody in the Shade goes by their real name. As Doc, he learns how to treat elf wounds with magical herbs, and he also learns something about courage, love, and terror. But enough about the cliches.

The story has quite a cast of characters all stuffed into a surprisingly sparse setting. Most of the action takes place either in Mr. Patrice's restaurant, the attached casino, or the rooms where various characters are staying. The supporting cast includes Cloudhunter, the mysterious elf, McCain, Mr. Patrice's loyal bodyguard, and Ginny, a bartender working for Mr. Patrice whom Danny falls for. Added to these are a dizzying array of secondary characters who are very difficult to keep straight.

The idea behind the novel is intriguing, and Ford explores a lot of interesting themes. I found that the tone shifted a lot through the book, going from mundane accounts of Danny's insomnia to nostalgic descriptions of people singing and dancing, to macabre scenes of terror where the bad guys torture innocent people for magic.

Naturally, there are bad guys, though the book doesn't tell us much about them. They're the bad guys because they're using people's suffering to generate magical power, and the protagonists have to stop them because they're also rival gangsters. The novel swerves suddenly into the action-filled parts and swerves back into the restaurant/casino lifestyle afterward just as quickly.

I think the thing that bothered me most about The Last Hot Time was that the author often left things unsaid, and I wasn't sure what he meant. I don't know if I was missing clues, or if the author meant for readers to fill in those parts for themselves. I'm not saying that everything has to be spelled out for the reader, but it's nice when we eventually figure out what's going on.

The novel was good, and I would recommend it, but if you're looking for an offbeat account of modern magic, check out Bad Magic by Stephan Zielinski first. Then, if you're still hungry for more, head over to The Last Hot Time. This review focuses on the negative, which is always easier to do than to talk about the positive, but I'll leave you with this quote from the novel that, to me, sums it up: "'Sides, didn't you always wanted to shoot a Tommy gun?"