wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Category: parenting

Spirited away; goodnight moon.

I saw Spirited Away (the English translation/adaptation) last night with my wife and son, and was reminded that this magnificent film would never, ever be made in the United States today — none of our animation studios, not even Pixar at its best, would trust children as Miyazaki does with scenes of such quiet contemplation, dream-logic, languor.

I’m reminded, actually, of Brown/Hurd’s Goodnight Moon: Margaret Wise Brown was both an acolyte of Gertrude Stein and part of the Bank Street Writers Lab, whose members emphasized the concrete details and intuitive surrealism of children’s own imaginative fancies, interviewing young children and mimicking their storytelling rhythms. (‘Goodnight noises everywhere’ is one of the great final lines in our literature.) Spirited Away gives me the same feeling of melancholy dissolution as Goodnight Moon, of drifting down into an inexpressibly vast strange universe, and celebrates the same virtue, the courage needed to face the world and speak the names of things.

Spirited Away is so full of visual invention that a complicated story would render it unwatchable. As it is, after the concise opening movement, there’s very little discrete incident in the entire film: the boiler room, the contract, No-Face’s arrival, the stink spirit, Haku wounded/Zeniba’s debt named, No-Face calmed, and then the extraordinary train journey to Zeniba’s home in the swamp — the last sequence with no obvious parallel in American animation, gorgeous and sad without being about sadness, if that makes sense. After that, naming the pigs is a brief formality — of course Chihiro can do it, the animals have gathered for a celebration not an execution — and what remains is the walk home, a final release of breath. Spirited Away is more than two hours long(!!), but I can easily imagine an American animation studio cramming its action into 90 minutes, complete with 3-D dragon ride around the bath house and more pratfalls from the sidekicks…

I first saw Spirited Away in 2002 when it made the arthouse rounds in the USA, and in all that time certain images have never left me: Kamaji working the boiler, Haku terrorized by the paper spirits, Yubaba wrapping herself in a shawl and flying away. But I’ve always treasured Chihiro’s train ride. I want to say it’s not like anything else I’ve seen, but the opposite is true; it’s like dozens of other sequences I’ve seen, almost exclusively in foreign pictures and ‘art movies,’ which invite the audience to watch the characters watch and wait,to take a long moment to see not what they see but as they do, not pedantically in terms of POV but in their time, so to speak — waiting as they wait, bored or curious as they are.

The train ride lasts three minutes, an eternity in children’s films. Chihiro’s companions fall asleep, No-Face bows its head and rests, and Chihiro simply looks out the window with an expression we haven’t seen before, seeming (to me) tired, resolved, resigned, fully present — I believe this is the moment when the fullness of her family’s outer-world (real-world) transformation, the frightening move to the new house and school, has finally settled in. By choosing to travel out, to assume responsibility for Haku’s theft of the seal, she has become…well, not an adult, that wouldn’t be fair, would it? But she’s transformed all the same. Not knowing what comes next, she changes because she has to. The train ride might be the end of her story, which is a hell of a thing for a children’s movie to dramatize: death as resignation and loss and the final turn of the page rather than glorious climax.1 And to do so wordlessly, as other worlds and stories drift by uncommented-upon, not for spectacle’s sake but because even in the third act of a film that’s just how long train rides (and nighttime soul-transformations) are, and the world is more important than any story we might tell about it…

This, I think, is the bravery that Spirited Away shares with Goodnight Moon, or rather that Miyazaki shares with Margaret Wise Brown. For kids (as I understand things), the world is full of stories, yet it isn’t itself a story — hasn’t yet been instrumentalized. Kids’ worlds are bigger than they are (not least because literally), bigger and stranger and terribly older, impossible to understand and so easier in a way simply to accept. In my experience kids deal with the world more sanely than adults in that specific sense, accepting that the world is a world. Which is why their own stories can at times be absurdly boring, their fantasies so repetitive: the world is enough for kids. The stories they find in the world are enough, and so are the trees, the uncapped pens, full and empty plastic bags, loud sounds, snatches of song, dogs playing, grandmothers, water and its coolness, its way of sneaking into every space… The visual richness of Spirited Away paradoxically serves the same end as the stark simplicity of Clement Hurd’s Goodnight Moon illustrations (and Margaret Wise Brown’s poetry): to see and show a world as it is, merely inescapably real — whether it contains a telephone and a little toy house and a painting of bears, or a flying river spirit and three friendly rolling heads and an eight-legged boiler-room demon.

Their animating principle is honesty; wonder and whimsy and whatever else follow from having resolved to see a child’s world on its own terms. Most kids’ stories (and ‘adult’ stories, now) can’t help but anxiously hang lampshades on their own fabulations, which right away dates them — you can place a story in spacetime by what it’s embarrassed about. But to depict a country of the imagination without embarrassment or self-consciousness, to see even imaginary things as they are, is to create something ‘timeless.’ We use other terms for this quality as well: ‘mythic,’ ‘sacred,’ though honestly I prefer ‘wise.’ Timeless children’s work goes beyond dated, socially contingent ideas of innocence and appropriateness, and discovers that the common element between children Then and Now, Here at home and unimaginably far Away, is the world itself.

Which is to say all great art explores the absolutely specific in order to discover the universal, but you already knew that, right?

If you haven’t seen Spirited Away, you should, you must. It’s beautiful because it’s true and vice versa, which I take to be a straightforward observation about the world rather than empty cliché, and by way of justification I submit the rest of this blogpost and the entire history of art and (why not?) the universe, amen.


  1. The phrase ‘death as glorious climax’ seems to me to sum up a lot of what’s sick about contemporary American culture. 

Cubes or GTFO.

My son has gotten really into playing with his 2x2x2 and 3x3x3 Rubik’s Cubes — though I’ll note that they’re not strictly Rubik’s, but rather third-party cubes designed for speed-solving. They are in every respect better, I think, than the Rubik-branded cubes, and no more expensive.

My son’s six years old. He can now solve one face more quickly than I can, though he’s not yet pushing ahead to the next level of the problem, i.e. he doesn’t yet have an orderly approach to solving and isn’t interested in solving (e.g.) a ‘layer’ instead of a face. I’m interested but disorderly, though I’m a bit further along cubewise than he is. Still, I didn’t dive into trying to figure the Cube out for myself until I’d spent some time looking at algorithms — which isn’t ‘cheating’ if you’re interested in the Cube as magic rather than as party trick —

Speed-solvers look at the cube, figure out which series of steps to implement given the pattern of colours they see, then rapidly execute a kind of ‘macro’ from memory. It’s nothing like what you or I would do; the ‘solving’ part of the term ‘speed-solving’ refers to a kind of mastery of self rather than of the mathematical puzzle of the cube. Turns out I have no interest in that — the mystery of it, the sense of enormous complexity undone stepwise by brainpower, is what draws me.

So anyway I can’t solve a Rubik’s Cube without instructions and neither can my son, not yet, and I’ve determined empirically that following a strategy guide to solve the Cube is boring after the first or second time.

SO!

For those of you interested in getting better at solving a Rubik’s Cube but uninterested in the (to me) somewhat narrow task of ‘speed-solving,’ I recommend Douglas Hofstadter’s Scientific American columns on Rubik’s Cube, reprinted in his superb collection Metamagical Themas. (Link goes to full text at archive.org.) They’re light on low-level strategy but long on inspiration and analytical cleverness — fans of Hofstadter’s singular body of work already know what I mean, those new to his writing have a treat in store.

Bombs away!

Some games for kids, September 2016.

Pokémon Trading Card Game

Much simpler than Magic, but for players who aren’t already TCG/LCG experts — especially kids — there’s enough tactical business to make for a satisfying experience. The biggest flaw in the game might be its presentation: the prebuilt ‘theme decks’ are essentially useless. I’m offended, frankly, by the difference between casual ‘just got a theme deck for my birthday, let’s see what this game is’ play and actual Pokémon-as-she-is-spoke. Decks are divided into Pokémon (cute monsters that attack and take damage), Supporters (which modify attacks, allow extra card draws and actions, etc.), and energy (which you attach to Pokémon in order to attack); the theme decks include tons of Pokémon because that’s what little kids like, and very few functional but uninspiring Supporter cards. As a result, beginners end up sitting there waiting for the right cards to pop up in the deck. Meanwhile, advanced players will have loaded their decks with draw/shuffle cards to ‘accelerate’ play, without which strategy isn’t actually possible.

Even my son, at five years old, picked up on the overimportance of luck in theme-deck-only play — but once I bought a few hundred random cards online, including lots of Supporter cards, we felt like we were playing a proper game, and both strategic (deckbuilding) and tactical choices began to matter.

If your five- or six-year-old reads well (lots of technical jargon on the cards) and likes the silly characters, this is a perfect starter card game; if nothing else, it’s fun to collect the stupid little Pokémon themselves, as the popularity of the Pokémon Go ‘game’ demonstrates. Be prepared to do some shuffling for your kid, and consider spending $4 on some sleeves to extend the life of the cards. Unlike Magic, you won’t still play this one in ten years, though plenty of kids certainly will.

Catan Junior

Exactly what it says on the tin: a subtly re-themed version of Settlers with essentially no strategic choices.

  • no variable probability for the hexes (only one die is rolled)
  • no random hex placement
  • no strategic pregame settlement/road placement (starting locations are fixed)
  • no stealing with the Pirate/Thief
  • much looser constraints on building (Lairs/Settlements can share a hex side)
  • no long roads
  • no Cities, just Lairs/Settlements
  • …and in the basic rules, no p2p trading — there’s a clever market/stockpile trading setup to replicate the use of ports in Settlers

So what’s left? A couple of paths to victory pretty dependent on luck, lots of social interaction during play, and that ol’ familiar feeling of mounting excitement as your settlements generate wealth. Oh, and no reading! Not a factor for my son but kids who aren’t yet comfortable reading will appreciate the design.

Is it a good game for kids? Well, look again at the changes Teuber made to his basic design: changes to setup mean you can’t essentially lose before the dice start rolling as you might in Settlers; no stealing and close-together Lairs means fewer hard feelings, and the clever ports-only trading setup smooths out the social dynamics at the table. Luck plays a big part as in the original game, but the Junior rules mitigate its most frustrating effects. It’s a thoughtful and intentional kids’ design.

If you love Settlers, you’ll get a kick out of this miniature variant edition. Our son (age six) enjoyed our initial play. This is a lightweight German game aimed at kids, much less demanding than Settlers and nowhere near as satisfying, but it does what it sets out to do — and it really does seem to be a perfect introduction to Teuber’s canonical original game. In fact, it made me want to play Settlers right away.

Carcassonne (plus expansions)

Honestly, I recommend Carcassonne over Catan Junior for kids who’ve played a couple of games beyond Candyland (which, for all its miserable determinism, is still a superb teaching tool). No reading in this classic game either. And best of all, the only subtle strategic decision — whether and when to join the ‘farmstakes’ — can simply be taken out in favour of a dead simple introductory game that more heavily weights randomness: just do cities, roads, and cloisters, and don’t bother with farms. Easy sneezy. The only remaining planning elements, then, are:

  • how many meeples to keep in hand
  • how many construction projects to focus on at a time
  • how far in advance to start the endgame, where you’ll deliberately leave projects unfinished

Attention spans matter, of course; my son can’t be bothered to attend to the difference between finished and unfinished cities in terms of endgame scoring, and plays tactically rather than strategically (we use the full rules). But tile and meeple placement are addictive and easy to understand, so you can play Carcassonne as a super-casual kids’ game with almost no strategic decision-making if you like.

The expansions are not equally fun. I’ve only played two with my son:

Inns & Cathedrals is to the original as Dominion: Intrigue is to Dominion: a subtler, more powerful version of the base game. An essential expansion, though the big meeples will take a little explaining. The Princess & the Dragon, on the other hand, is more like the Possession card in Dominion: Alchemy, adding a strategy-wrecking element (the dragon, which eats meeples) and making the game more cutthroat. My son loves it, but it makes the game…nuttier, and if the dragon ends up eating the wrong meeple, you risk tears. The River isn’t terribly exciting (we haven’t bothered with it) but it takes nothing away and essentially divides the ‘farm stakes’ into — pardon the metaphor — wholly separate Westeros and Essos games.

I used to like Carcassonne a lot — it’s a fun, relatively light game suitable for non-gamers — but with my son joining in, I’ve come to love it. We’ve got a couple more expansions (The Count, The Tower) that I look forward to revisiting. My son doesn’t yet grasp the various strategic angles, but that’s mostly a matter of him sitting still and paying attention — in terms of cognitive load, the full Carcassonne experience seems readily available to a bright six-year-old.

Recap

At this point, my son has played the following tabletop games (in addition to Candyland-style trivial games and some young kids’ games I can’t remember the names of):

  • King of Tokyo (heavy reading, simple math)
  • King of New York (heavy reading, slightly less simple math)
  • Carcassonne (no reading, little to no math)
  • Catan Junior (no reading, no math)
  • Munchkin Treasure Hunt (no reading, simple math)
  • Pokémon TCG (heavy reading, some math)
  • X-Wing Miniatures Game (heavy reading, complex dynamics, math)

We’ve played King of NYC, Munchkin Treasure Hunt, and X-Wing most, and unsurprisingly he’s best at those. MTH has no real strategy to it — it’s meant as a gateway to the not-terribly-deep Munchkin card game — and while it’s a good deal more involved than Candyland (which isn’t a game, strictly speaking), its only real demand on kids is basic arithmetic. An easy recommendation for step two in board-game education. King of NYC is a more involved game that my son seems to have a firm grasp on; he doesn’t play optimally, but his main failing at King is his stubborn refusal to leave Manhattan, which I totally understand. Anyhow, I assume most young kids will wanna be boss monster too…

(King of Tokyo is a simpler game even better suited to kids’ play — indeed I recommend it for families looking to move on to lightweight German-style games — but my wife, son, and I all enjoy NYC more.)

X-Wing is a really great minis combat game, but too complex in its complete form (i.e. including ships and cards beyond the Core Set) for five-year-olds. My son and I have been playing it for months, but I have to help him manage his upgrade cards and special abilities, which are the heart of the expanded game. That said, my son can now plan his moves a turn ahead, which is thrilling to see — I’m proud that he regularly beats me, and no I don’t always give him a squad-points handicap either. This fits well with my first impression of the game: flying awesome spaceships is X-Wing‘s immediate attraction, and the easiest part for little kids to grasp.

Anyhow, the upshot here is that parents looking for interesting games to play with their kids have a wealth of good options today, and I’m really enjoying raising my son to be not only an adventurer, artist, writer, athlete, sage, badass, scientist, engineer, pirate, destroyer of worlds, trustworthy friend, cool easygoing brilliant robot-making dweeb…but also a proper gamer.

Watching EMPIRE STRIKES BACK with my son.

My wife had only seen Empire once, my son had only seen A New Hope (once). I’ve seen them a hundred times. OK, press play.

They loved it. You forget what a visually striking film it is — the colours are dazzling, ‘painterly,’ Hoth bleached white crosshatched with livid red and green lasers, Bespin startling sunset orange, Dagobah an organic riot despite being shot in a studio. The fight in the freezing chamber is shot half in silhouette. And that final tableau…

Great film. A peculiar one as well. The middlest of middle chapters, ‘unsatisfying’ in theory but exhilarating and unsettling in practice. Two hours of unremitting tension and trouble (40ish minutes of nonstop movement to begin), culminating in about three minutes of ‘relief’ as the heroes, hanging around in a hospital, vow to fix things. Best dialogue in the series, best direction, richest material design. Contrarians are, in this case, merely wrong — Empire is straightforwardly the best thing about Star Wars.

My son’s reaction was interesting. He made me turn off the sound at two points: hand-removal and ‘Noooo!’ Turns out he has a really hard time watching film of grownups in terrible pain and confusion. (During Finding Dory he went to pieces when Dory spied her mom crying, right before she got lost.)

When we say kids have a hard time separating reality and fantasy in film, that’s partly (mostly?) because we do a poor job explaining what ‘acting’ and ‘filming’ and ‘special effects’ are — there’s so much we adults take for granted in film, never mind the up-down curve of a narrative… How would a kid figure out what a cartoon is, without being carefully told? It moves, it speaks. It feels pain.

Now we’re ready for Return of the Jedi, which he’ll love and I’ll have mixed feelings about. If my son wants to watch the prequels, we will, but I won’t push them. They’re a bit much.

X-Wing Minis Game after 10ish plays (with kids).

After 10ish plays, the X-Wing Miniatures Game goes from strength to strength. It’s easy to pick up, strategically deep, and tactically engrossing (there’s always something interesting to do, and no downtime) — better yet, there’s a vibrant community online and in person, and no shortage of interesting ‘metagame’ concerns, i.e. what the other nerds are flying these days, to occupy you when you’re not at the table. My son loves it, I love it.

It feels like the perfect starter miniatures wargame.

Read my earlier post so I don’t have to repeat the basics.

OK:

On the shelf, it looks like a dogfighting game, and it is; with most lists in a balanced game, you can’t win if you don’t fly skillfully. But it’s also a modern tabletop game played on a 3’x3′ area of your dinner table and aimed at kids raised on Pokémon — which means movement can only make so much difference, expert play is about synergy between ships and upgrades most of all, and building the right list for your playstyle (or adapting the latter to the former) makes all the difference to your chances.

What we’ve bought

There are three factions: the Rebels, the Empire, and ‘Scum & Villainy’ (bounty hunters, smugglers, ne’er-do-wells of every stripe from the Expanded Universe and games). If you’re just dipping your toes into the game and wanna go beyond the Core Set, buy a small number of Rebel/Imperial ships and leave the smaller, less immediately recognizable Scum faction to the hardcore.

The Core Sets include an X-Wing and two TIE Fighters, which is a pretty even match; there are subtle differences between the original box and and the Force Awakens box. If you’re thinking of trying the game, grab the TFA box, which runs $25ish on Amazon ($40 in stores) and gives you three useful ships, up-to-date rules, and damage cards; the original box includes Luke’s T-65 X-Wing, which doesn’t see much action in organized play — but then c’mon, it’s Luke Skywalker for heaven’s sake! You’ll do well either way.

If you want to move on from the Core Set, buy a second box — if you have the TFA box, grab the original, and vice versa. (Though goofy, this is standard advice for new players.) Here’s why: you’ll need more dice than a single box contains, and the Core Set is an extraordinary value for the money. Plus you’ll be able to fly a swarm of four TIE Fighters against Poe and Luke. If you like Star Wars, that should set your heart racing.

My son generally flies Rebels. We’ve bought a couple more ships this week, and now have the super-maneuverable but lightweight A-Wing, a wonderfully robust B-Wing (both from the Rebel Aces set), an E-Wing (the maneuverability of an A-Wing on an X-Wing-like frame), a sturdy reliable Y-Wing, and of course Han Solo’s YT-1300. The latter two fly differently from the other dogfighting ships: both feature turrets which fire in a 360-degree arc, which makes life much easier on a young pilot. I’ve decided that the Falcon is an ideal ship for kids, because while it’s not very agile (i.e. it’s bad at avoiding damage through defensive dice rolls), it can take a pounding and keep flying, and it can be flown right through the middle of the battle without too much fancy stickwork. The Y-Wing takes more thought to fly skillfully.

I think our Rebel ships are a little more forgiving for young kids than the Imperials — low agility (defense dice) but high shields (hit points) makes for an exciting health countdown but decent survivability.

I’m usually playing the highly maneuverable but generally more fragile Imperial fighters. In addition to the Imperial Aces set (two wickedly fast, fragile TIE Interceptors), four TIE Fighters (Poe was right: they really move, and a swarm of TIEs is a magnificent sight on the table, but a single well-timed shot can turn them into dust), and Boba Fett’s surprisingly fleet large ship Slave-1, we’ve picked up the TIE Advanced package, which gives you Darth Vader, who gets two actions per turn and is in theory an absolute terror. Only ‘in theory,’ though, because The TIE Advanced is considered ‘broken’ without the point-cost fixes included in the $100 Imperial Raider set — we’re not obsessives, so for casual play just implement the fix yourself without buying the damn cards. What’s the point of a Star Wars game without its iconic villain, after all?

Initial purchases: casual vs competitive play

If you’re just starting out, buy the ships you like and don’t worry about what’s competitive! That stuff only matters if you’re heading out to the local game store for a tournament or open play night.

The Core Set(s), the Falcon, a Y-Wing or B-Wing, and a couple of TIE variants (e.g. the Imperial Aces set) will make for a good time and give you a variety of choices to make on each side. Large ships handle differently from small ones, but the mechanics of maneuver-template placement are the same — it’s an easy jump, even for kids, who’ll likely prefer the big ships anyway. I’d stay away from the TIE Phantom at first, especially if you’re playing with kids; its cloaking device will frustrate young players and adds a decent amount of mental overhead for whoever’s flying.

Don’t bother with huge ships (the Blockade Runner, the Rebel Transport from Empire Strikes Back) unless you’re an obsessive collector; they hardly see organized store play, add a bunch of additional rules, and really want an extra-large table space anyhow.

If you know you’re going to compete, there are plenty of ‘What to Buy First/Next’ guides online — ‘Bell of Lost Souls’ and ‘Team Covenant’ are good strategy sites (here’s an example of a deep dive on list-building from TC), and there’s a very helpful Reddit guide on this score. But so’s you know, diving in for competitive play means buying something on the order of $150-200 worth of expansions just to get the Ideal Mix of Pilots and Upgrades; some of the most desirable upgrades, for instance, come with Scum ships, and even if you’re not flying a Scum list you’ll end up buying one or more of several ships you won’t end up flying.

This is a very expensive game for hardcore players.

For everyone else, I recommend doing what my son and I did: buy what looks cool and don’t try to optimize for competitive advantage. Maybe grab the Aces expansions, which are good values at two ships apiece, and/or a large ship on each side. (The VT-49 Decimator is an Imperial answer to the Falcon, with no defense dice — it can’t dodge hits without help from the cards — and huge hit points. But it’s less iconic than Slave-1, so maybe less fun in that sense.) Stay away from the Lambda-Class Shuttle at first; it’s a utility vehicle rather than a primary attack ship, and calls for a subtler approach than run’n’gun Imperial ships.

If you’re like me, eventually you’ll want duplicates. (I haven’t yet succumbed.) Swarms of A-Wings in tight formation, a trio of B-Wings looping through enemy airspace, Luke/Wedge/Biggs/Porkins bearing down on a flight of TIE Fighters…if those words don’t give you a tingle than you and I were brought up differently. In terms of point costs (not dollar value), Z-95 Headhunters and A-Wings make for cheap swarms, and six or seven TIE Fighters are still dangerous (chewing up opponent actions with a hail of concentrated attacks), while you wouldn’t field more than a couple of TIE Interceptors at a time. Don’t start buying duplicates until you’ve gotten good use out of your Core Set(s), though.

‘Action economy,’ strategy, investment

The term ‘action economy’ comes up often in nerdy game chatter. Broadly, it refers to the dynamics of player actions per turn. The Tutorial rules for X-Wing only involve moving and shooting — but once you’re into the full game, and especially once you start piling up upgrade cards, action economy is everything.

(Historical note: the most popular and influential example of this style of game design is Magic: The Gathering, with its dead-simple basic mechanics and synergizing cards which break a rule or two apiece, but the crazy grandpa of M:TG is Cosmic Encounter, a highly social strategy game and one of the greatest entertainments known to our species. If you’ve never played Cosmic with three or four friends and several bottles of wine, you owe it to yourself to seek out that experience.)

In X-Wing, each ship gets one maneuver, one action, and one shot per turn as a default. Because a ship’s combat effectiveness doesn’t diminish as it takes damage, this means you’ll always concentrate fire on individual targets when possible; it’s much better to aim four guns at one target and take it off the board, reducing the enemy’s ability to return fire, than to spread damage out over four targets and still take four shots on the next go-round. Moreover, say you’re in a 3-on-3 match, and you point all your blasters at one enemy ship: unless she’s got some way of passing actions between ships, she can only alter one defensive dice roll with a token — having spent it, she has to survive the other two attacks with unmodified dice, while the attacking ships’ll be using target locks and focus tokens to improve their odds of hitting. Concentrating fire is one simple way of playing to the action economy. It’s wargaming 101.

But!

Individual pilot/upgrade cards ‘break’ the action economy rules in small ways, and a lot of tactical play revolves around manipulating your opponent’s action economy or your own. Vader, for instance, gets two actions per turn, but it’s sometimes more useful to pass that spare action around with the Squad Leader upgrade. The B-Wing ‘ace,’ Keyan Farlander, gets to convert his stress tokens to focus tokens when he attacks, so he effectively gets an extra action every time he makes a high-stress maneuver like a 180-degree turn, which would normally prevent the pilot from taking an action that turn. That’ll change the way your B-Wings fly relative to other ships. The Fire Control System upgrade allows a ship to acquire a target lock (which can be spent to reroll attack dice) immediately after shooting — a free action which frees the player up to concentrate on ‘focus’ (boost hit/evade chances on attack and defense rolls) and ‘evade’ (extra defense) actions. Push the Limit, a very popular upgrade card, lets you take a stress token to buy an extra action right now, altering the turn-to-turn flow of the game.

And it gets more complicated if your pilot’s special ability triggers an upgrade card which generates an additional action which allows a nearby ship to take another action which…

If you watch videos of high-level X-Wing play (which is more fun than it sounds), top players are routinely averaging more than one action per ship for long stretches. That’s one big reason why competitive play is so different from casual — the action economy is central to, as they say, ‘the maths,’ and addressing probabilities directly by manipulating the flow of player actions is levels beyond the standard fly/focus/fire of beginning play. This is where the money goes, really: into powerful ship/card combinations which allow you to play a qualitatively different game from your opponent. An ‘arc-dodging’ ship with a bonus action can boost (take an additional short banking turn or forward move) and barrel roll (slide sideways) to get out of enemy firing arcs. A hit-point-heavy tank can combine focus and evade tokens to ensure near-invulnerability under heavy fire. A support ship like the Imperial shuttle (or ‘space cow’) can hang back and soak up allies’ stress tokens, granting them the rough equivalent of a boost action each turn and making the entire fleet more maneuverable at low cost.

This stuff isn’t in the rules anywhere, and it’s not obvious from looking at the most basic cards — the opportunities for ship/card synergy only become clear when you look at multiple sets at once.

Which is why X-Wing gets much deeper and more enjoyable the more you invest in it — ‘invest’ here meaning both time and money. This is the great innovation of ‘German-style’ board games and M:TG-descended American games: the idea that very simple rules, graspable by kids, can support complex strategies and a long learning curve without requiring the gigantic player buy-in of, say, classic hex-based wargames of the 70s and 80s. That mix of immediate playability and serious depth, characteristic of the best games of the last couple decades, is one reason why X-Wing seems to be the bestselling minis game in America right now — the others being the Star Wars name, obviously, and the fact that you don’t have to paint the gorgeous minis to start playing.

Logistics

Speaking of those minis: I bought these two Stanley organizers from Amazon and a 2-inch sheet of Pick’n’pluck Battlefoam at the Compleat Strategist in Boston. (The foam is too tall for the short organizer, almost certainly taller than I needed, but it’s what they had.) I grabbed a bunch of tiny compartments from the shallower organizer to hold tokens during games, picked’n’plucked foam like a madman for an hour or so, and ended up with a superb organizational solution that keeps the ships well protected, easily stores every card and token and movement template etc., but — this is a small thing that does, I confess, matter to me — still looks cobbled-together and not particularly nerdy.

Pick’n’pluck foam is incredible. It just works. Caveat: make sure you spend some time laying out your minis to get a dense packing arrangement.

I considered buying a proper battlemat, which is essentially a 3′ square mousepad, but decided that $40-50 was too much to spend. Instead I found an extra-large yoga mat for just over $20, cut it carefully in half, and made a ‘starfield’ with a silver Sharpie. Looks good, works vastly better than a bare tabletop (no sliding or bumping), and cost half as much as a proper mat. The surface is less perfect for the task than the expensive mat, but I’m totally satisfied.

Be warned that X-Wing requires a large table space! You need a 3’x3′ space for the mat itself (that’s the size of a proper game), with probably 6″ of clearance on two sides for cards, templates, tokens, whiskey, etc.

Our local nerd store has smallish tables to accommodate M:TG play, but they offer huge portable minis tabletops for 40K and such, which are ideal. If you have a small table, this lightweight foldable presentation board is a near-perfect solution, except that it’s so light you’ll surely bump it around, and will therefore need to think about how to keep it stable. (Ask your local science grad student where she got her display board.)

Actually I’m gonna buy one of those boards this week.

Examples of play

X-Wing videos are a great way to figure out the dynamics of the game. Team Covenant has the best production values and surprisingly charming, earnest announcers. (OK now look. There are very very few women in the X-Wing community. The TC announcers are very much dudes, which is fine — dudes are people too — but when it comes to the speech patterns and inflections of nerdboys, forewarned is forearmed. That said, announcer Zach Bunn is particularly knowledgeable, and the hosts’ periodic outbursts of gratitude and affection for the X-Wing community are heartwarming.)

Here’s a 2015 World semifinals match. The three-time champ, Paul Heaver, is extraordinarily good at every aspect of the game. In this video he’s flying a ‘stress hog’ Y-Wing, piling stress onto his targets and interfering with his opponent’s action economy. The challenger, Jeremy Howard, is flying a ‘Palp Aces’ list — two high-pilot-skill Imperial aces and a shuttle with Emperor Palpatine to soak up stress tokens and modify attack dice left and right. Just look at how many tokens all the ships have the whole game — these are carefully optimized lists.

Here’s a mirror match from the 2016 Hoth Open (I think it’s the USA national championships) between Palp Aces lists using Whisper, a cloaking TIE Phantom that gets a focus token after every hit. Superb piloting here, and a handy demonstration of the importance of both human error and ‘pew pew’ noises.

And finally, Nathan Eide, a 16-year-old(?) kid, flying a triple Imperial Aces list against three Jumpmaster 5000 behemoths. From my viewing, Nathan is the best tactical pilot on the scene — younger and more error-prone than Heaver, not surprisingly, but vastly more entertaining to watch. I don’t care for Jumpmasters, but honestly I don’t have a sense of what it takes to fly them well, whereas the dynamics of Imperial aces make sense to me. Either way, this match features two very different lists, which is handy.

In sum

Buy the Core Set. It’s a blast. My wife likes it, my son loves it, and I — well, we’re well past 5,000 words on the subject. You know what I think.

The X-Wing Miniatures Game.

This is my new gaming obsession. Dad-gaming report first, then some more general observations about the game.

Playing X-WING with kids

My son and I bought X-Wing at Pandemonium (our FLGS in Central Square) for the obvious reasons:

  • It’s absolutely beautiful on the table — easily the most aesthetically satisfying tabletop game I’ve ever played
  • It’s Star Wars
  • It’s shockingly cheap considering the quality of the components; Fantasy Flight absolutely knocked this one out of the park

But also for a couple of nonobvious ones:

  • The Quick Start Rules present a radically simplified version of the game, which isn’t deep enough to sustain adult play but which is absolutely perfect for little kids — my son, not yet six years old, picked it up instantly (and loved it, which is the main reason we bought the game)
  • The game’s rules are layered such that you can add a couple of subsystems at a time atop the Quick Start rules
  • Upgrade cards, the heart of the squad-building game or ‘meta,’ can be added in small doses, allowing for good control over the complexity of the game

The importance of the last two points to parents can’t be overstated. Our very first Quick Start game was intoxicating mostly because Luke Skywalker was flying against two TIE Fighters on the table right in front of us, but in our second game we only added rules for blaster range, obstacles, and barrel rolls (but not Focus/Evade/Target Lock actions). Critical hits we just counted as two regular hits. This kept things novel for me and manageable for my son. (Also, see below about the organization of the game docs.)

The full ruleset is a little too complex for a 5yo to grasp all at once. After a half-dozen or more games, my son can’t yet keep track of all the moving parts and suffers from the usual kid attention span problems around the half-hour mark. But he’s now aware of the various subsystems and still really digs the game. So we have momentum going into the next half-dozen games.

In short, if you can resist the urge to buy every single ship and can figure out which rules add manageable complexity and fun to the Quick Start, this is a perfect game for kids — and should stay engaging for a long time as they grow into the rules and start picking up expansions.

Some other games we’ve played

I’ve only played two games of Magic: The Gathering, using prebuilt dueling decks. It was obvious why people love it, but the ‘meta’ — the deckbuilding aspect along with the realtime social dimension, i.e. what decks and combos are being played competitively this year — is forbidding. True, there are M:TG formats that allow you to compete without spending too much. But ranked players need to spend a lot of money and an enormous amount of time (and study!) to keep up. And the aesthetics of M:TG are essentially nonexistent: the game quickly turns into a series of math problems, with ‘theme’ little more than a mnemonic aid.

(Dominion has that latter quality too. The genius of Dominion is that it moves deckbuilding to the table and eliminates the collectible/’meta’ aspect, so that competitive and casual Dominion player are separated by expertise and not income. The core mechanics of Dominion were of the ‘brilliant, and in retrospect obvious and inevitable’ sort; the game can’t be overpraised, I think, though it’s lost a bit of geek currency as other games have built on its innovations.)

My son and I have played a few games of the Pokemon CCG. It’s fun enough — another very solid kids’ game — but is much less deep and interesting than M:TG, and certainly doesn’t compel me like Dominion. Honestly, it feels like a knockoff. I lost interest in it right away, and my son was more interested in looking at the cards than in playing more games.

The appeal of expansions

I bought a handful of additional ships right after we started with the X-Wing Core Set, so we only had to make do with the original box for maybe three games. But I’m sure that with the full rules and the range of pilots and upgrades included in the set, you could easily play eight or ten games without getting bored. That’s fantastic value for money, especially if you buy it on Amazon (~$25; we got ours at the FLGS because we like people and Jeff Bezos is scum, but YMMV).

We now own both Core Sets — Luke vs two TIE Fighters, Poe vs two First Order TIEs — and four expansions: Rebel Aces (B-Wing & A-Wing), Imperial Aces (two TIE Interceptors), the Millennium Falcon, and Slave-1 (Boba Fett’s ship; please tell me you knew that). It was really hard to stop there. My son can’t stop ogling the huge ships: the Rebel Blockade Runner and troop carrier, and the big Imperial assault carrier (which can carry four TIE Fighters on its underside). I can only fend him off for so long. And eventually we’ll need a complement of Headhunters, a Y-Wing or two…

Because the ‘meta’ has changed with each of the game’s eight waves of expansions — for a while a heavily kitted-out Falcon with lite wingmen was the list to beat, then an Imperial Shuttle pulling stress tokens from a couple of laser-dodging Imperial aces, etc. — it’s easy to feel obligated to keep up with the expansions, especially if you start reading up on strategy or watching YouTube videos of competitive play. (Here is the best one I’ve seen — a matchup of identical lists featuring some amazing flying, some very bad luck, and an inexplicable mistake which costs one player the game.) Do not give in. You don’t need much to have a great time playing the game, and some ships dramatically alter the character of play: the Falcon, for instance, shoots in a 360-degree arc, and Slave-1 is built for missile launches and ion cannons, so each of those ships takes the game in a new direction from the core set.

The nice thing about the ‘meta’ is this: there’s no obvious ‘best possible list,’ nor have I heard about ‘broken’ builds (as in D&D online fandom/nerdrage). One guy, a software dude named Paul Heaver, has won three out of four World Championships — but he’s won them with completely different squads. That speaks to the designers’ skill, and the playerbase’s cleverness and adaptability.

Getting started

Each turn is simply structured:

  1. Choose a maneuver for each ship in secret using its slick little rotating maneuver dial. The first few times you play, this’ll be the grooviest part.
  2. Reveal and perform maneuvers, then declare an action for each ship, worst-rated pilots first. Special abilities and upgrades can allow multiple actions; certain maneuvers stress pilots, preventing actions; hitting an asteroid or proximity mine is bad, etc. To perform a maneuver, carefully lay down the appropriate template using the little nubbly guides on the ship’s base, then move the ship to the other end of the template. This is hard for little kids at first. Playing on a slightly squishy surface — a playmat or even a yoga mat(!) — makes it easier, more precise, less accident-prone.
  3. Fire! Best-rated pilots shoot first, one attack per ship (in general). Depending on the action chosen in phase 2, modify the dice roll: Target Lock lets you reroll attack dice, Focus improves certain attack and defense rolls, etc. Assign damage, clear away anyone who’s been blasted into space dust, etc.
  4. Clear unused tokens and GOTO 1.

Skilled players talk about the ‘four pillars’ of strong competitive play: building your squad list, placing asteroids, placing your fleet, and actually flying. In casual play, especially with kids, flying is the most rewarding and fun part — that’s where your energy will go. Playing with the Core Set only deemphasizes squad (‘list’) building, and asteroid placement is something of an arcane art, so your first few games will mostly involve playing chicken with your enemies and occasionally crashing into things. It’s terribly fun. Then you settle down and start thinking strategically.

The tactical and strategic components of the game are beautifully balanced. Because you’re flying a pretend spaceship instead of laying down cards, there’s a real chance for piloting skill to overcome advantages of preparation — all else being equal, you expect a T-70 X-Wing to outgun a couple of TIE Fighters on the strength of its heavy shields and decent maneuverability, but it could easily go the other way if the TIEs can concentrate fire (draining the X-Wing’s supply of tokens each turn) and use their superior dials to stay out of the Rebel’s firing arc. And with the right upgrades, those TIEs could become much more serious threats.

You might be a little disappointed by the fact that the Core Set only comes with three ships, but this isn’t 40K (or indeed M:TG); each ship handles differently from every other, and you have tons of interesting choices to make at every step of the game. A single ship can fly for a damned long time — and win, if you fly right.

Assuming you don’t pilot your ships out into the infinite void when there’s a battle going on, there are no ‘dead turns’ in X-Wing. And because play is ordered by individual pilots’ skill ranks, you’re not sitting around waiting for the other player to finish a whole mess of moves. Check out the competitive match linked above: each round is several minutes long, but (even accounting for the fact that the maneuver stage has been edited out of the video) there’s no real downtime for either player. That’s a real achievement by the designers…and a big boon for parents playing with little kids.

Squad building and ‘the meta,’ briefly

Each pilot and ship upgrade has a point cost; typical squads are 100 points. Building a squad means literally shopping for the right equipment given the kind of flying you want to do. You have a wide variety of options: heavy tanks orbited by little buzzing wingmen, swarms of ‘jousting’ ships (e.g. TIE Fighters) pulverizing enemies with concentrated fire, bombers outfitted with explosive ordnance, ‘stressbots’ which clamp down on the opposing side’s ‘action economy,’ fragile ‘arc dodgers’ which maneuver nimbly out of trouble but don’t last long under direct fire…it’s all wonderfully thematic (Han’s special ability is the power to gamble on a total reroll — and yes, he shoots first), and unless you play obsessively and spend a ton of money you won’t exhaust your options. Needless to say, you’ll fly Han and Chewie differently against a squadron of TIE Fighters than you would against, say, a giant Imperial transport ship.

My strong advice: buy ships you think are cool, and don’t worry about the competitive ‘meta.’ Get Large ships through Amazon to save money, but if Amazon doesn’t offer a subsantial discount (e.g. their small ships are very close to list price), head to your Friendly Local Game Store and support local and small businesses.

The material reality of X-WING

The components are ridiculous! Serious players replace their heavy cardstock tokens, maneuver templates, and range markers with acrylic plastic, which gets expensive; normal humans won’t have to. Fantasy Flight Games has a reputation for top-notch material components, and X-Wing‘s are just superb.

The miniatures themselves — for nerds like me, maybe the game’s primary selling point — are exquisite. I really like the design of the game, I love its strategic and tactical elements, but it’s impossible not to gush about the miniatures. The Falcon mini is as detailed as my large-scale Kenner toy from back in the day, very nicely painted, and it only cost ~$24. Seeing it glide across the table in mid-battle is a thrill every single time.

The cards are standard FFG sizes, so you can sleeve them if you’re an obsessive, which I am not yet.

Storing the ships is a problem, albeit a solved one — I use a smallish sheet of pick’n’pluck foam in a deep Stanley tool organizer, with little plastic bins for the cards and chits, and everything fits with room to spare. It took a couple hours to put together. Other folks repurpose the vacuum-formed plastic packaging, but I didn’t feel like busting out a heat gun for this project. There are limits to my madness.

Documentation

The Force Awakens Core Set comes with two rulebooks: a ‘Learn to Play’ book with the streamlined Basic Rules and an intro to the full rules, and a comprehensive alphabetical reference which is fully useful only after you’ve read through it once. As usual with cyclopedia-type rulebooks, it’s only as good as its index, which is imperfect.

Hint to technical writers: double the length of the index, include ‘redundant’ entries (if ‘Overlapping’ is in there, ‘Collision’ damn well should be!), and put the index on the front cover of the book.

All this said, the documentation is good once you have the hang of it.

You can find hundreds of pages of fanmade guides as well, especially formation flying tutorials and beginner guides and rundowns of popular squad lists. Check out the FFG forums (which are nowhere near as toxic as, say, rpg.net).

Concern, complaint, caveat

  • It takes a longish time to set up. Once you get the hang of it it’s not so bad, but arranging the components is a bit of a hassle — it’s very much unlike M:TG in that regard. You can’t just slap the pieces on the table and say ‘Let’s go!’
  • You’ll benefit greatly from a playmat (or a yoga mat), which will run you a couple dozen dollars at minimum — $50 for a nice one. They’re like giant mousepads, and they transform minis play. But because the standard surface is 3′ square, you may not have a table big enough. Our little dinner table is only 30″ wide, I think. Something to think about.
  • This bears restating: to ‘keep up’ with the game is expensive. Buying one of each ship will give you plenty of competitive squads, but you’ll want more than one of many ships (and cards). Casual play is cheap, but there’s a serious temptation to pick up a ship here, a ship there, and the cheapest of the lot are $12 or so. Be vigilant, and set limits on spending in advance.
  • Near as I can tell, this hobby seems to be all male. I’ve seen no evidence of women playing competitive X-Wing; I’m sure they’re out there, but I don’t know how to find them. RPGs have a sizable female playerbase, but miniatures wargames (like M:TG) seem to still be a male domain. If you’re a woman interested in playing X-Wing at the FLGS, all I can do is apologize for the atmosphere of unwelcome, and suggest bringing a tight crew of female friends who won’t take any shit from anyone. (The X-Wing community has an admirable mantra, ‘Fly Casual,’ which is all about helping one another out and being cool about imprecision and welcoming new players and so forth. But there are hard physical limits on adolescent males’ ability to empathize.)

Drooling

Every time I look at the X-Wing pieces in their big foam-lined case, I want to take them out and play. I love this game. I love playing it, watching it, and reading about it. It tickles all my sensitive nerd places — particularly when we throw a little John Williams on the stereo while rolling the bones — and while it’s not inexhaustibly deep, it’s going to be a lot of fun for a long time, and gets a lot more compelling as you travel along its learning curve.

I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Oh, and if you have some money burning a hole in your pocket: X-Wing is only one of five Star Wars games from Fantasy Flight. Armada is a deep game of capital ship combat with mechanics somewhat similar to X-Wing‘s; Imperial Assault is squad-level infantry combat on a grid, with a clever campaign system; Rebellion is a galactic-scale wargame; and then there’s the well liked RPG, which is split into several titles (Force & Destiny, Edge of the Empire, etc.). FFG’s big on custom dice and superb production values, but they also just design good games (look at Arkham Horror or Battlestar Galactica). I look forward to bankrupting our family with more FFG products.

Descent of a derogation.

This is only about words, haha:

As I kid I used to think ‘hypochondriac’ belonged to the same category as ‘nutjob,’ i.e. synonyms for hopeless case. There was nothing to do for a hypochondriac, always going on about problems they don’t have. They’re too much trouble: they’re simply wrong, pathetically so.

Now that I understand what the term actually refers to — run-of-the-mill free-floating anxiety with its chief locus in health concerns — I’m disappointed in myself for never having wondered whether the term had a non-editorial purpose.

Children don’t ‘learn the meanings of words’ in some abstract sense; there isn’t a word/definition pair that simply slots into an empty memory bank somewhere in your brain-cabinet. They only use words, and silently absorb gigantic amounts of information about how words are used around them. If grandpa can’t help but curl his lip in disgust when he says ‘German,’ his kids and grandkids won’t even think of Germany as a country in the same sense as their own — for them it’ll exist first of all as a stimulus to disgust, and they’ll know first that the word is a unit of speech with that effect.

The kids will see ‘Germany’ in the emotional colour of grandpa’s reaction, and their own reaction to his anger, and so forth. Other colours too, needless to say, but emotional channels are wide open in such family settings. The emotional intensity of that environment grants special depth and primacy to the impressions we form there, whether or not we understand or appreciate that primacy. That’s what family is for, in part; that’s why it matters so much.

People seem to think of sentences as shipping containers for pure information, but much or most of the time the weight of significance actually rests on the emotional over/undertones of speech. You say ‘I love you’ and I barely process the words, but rather I hear proximity, vulnerability, softening (or hardening) of tone, tempo, pitch: the music which predates language.

The term ‘body language’ is itself a childish derogation of our primary method of communication.

We delay or deny our children access to their full powers of reasoning if we teach them that ideas have no meaning or value outside the emotional reactions they get out of us. And we fuck up our kids further by ignoring the massive amount of physical/emotional information transmitted along with every word.

It would’ve been useful for me to learn early on that ‘hypochondriac’ is a straightforward description of a bundle of feelings and behaviours, not an invitation to sneer. I might’ve realized more quickly that I was becoming one, and acted accordingly. Words get in the way.