For a lot of families -- mine included -- the holiday season always includes game-playing.
It isn't easy for a game to make it into our regular rotation. We buy and try a lot of new games, but even the ones we enjoy often don't claim our attention when we're having friends over and we're selecting a game to play.
Games we enjoy fall into three categories: fast-answer competition, turn-based strategy, and trivia question-answer games.
The older I get, the less I enjoy fast-answer games, not because I can't compete (I'm not that old) but because I get less and less patient with people who chatter and laugh instead of getting on with the game. All through a recent game of Catch Phrase -- which is a great game -- I found that I kept wishing I were doing almost anything else, because people kept talking and laughing so loudly that the person holding the electronic disc could not get the attention of his own team so they could make guesses based on his clues. Beep. Point lost, because people wouldn't pay attention and play.
All that chattering and laughing is called "having fun," so I find that the more I say, "The clock's still ticking" or "Let's move it along," the less fun other people have and the more they wish I'd drop out of the game and go watch television or listen to an audiobook. Which is exactly what I'm wishing.
But the turn-based games are perfect for me because they are way less fun. Yes, you read that correctly. You can have a lot of enjoyable conversation during the game without slowing it down at all, but the gameplay invites quiet thought. Think of Settlers of Cataan, Carcassonne, and Ticket to Ride. I love these games in part because they're not raucous and lively.
In fact, that's the saddest thing about TV commercials for games. Whenever they try to show people "having fun," they show raucous laughter -- even with games for which that kind of behavior is not welcome. Most game-playing involves intense concentration. Having fun looks like problem-solving, because it is problem-solving.
Days of Wonder, the company that publishes Ticket to Ride, has done a good job of expanding the game to other countries and continents. I've tried them all, but I keep coming back to the USA 1910 mega-game, in part because I know the map so well and have actually been in most of the cities.
Meanwhile, other maps often introduce complications that make the game less fun to me. The tunnels in the European game are just tedious, in my opinion. A game set in England alone might be more interesting, because I know the history of every region so the game would come alive for me.
This year, Days of Wonder introduced Ticket to Ride Rails and Sails, combining railroads on land and sailing routes on water. The game comes with two maps, occupying opposite sides of the same game board: a world map and a map of the Great Lakes.
I haven't played the Great Lakes game yet because I'm still enjoying the world map. There are weird unrealities in it -- for instance, even though the game supposedly takes place in the age of sail, it shows Arctic passages for ships without any barriers. Worse yet, because the game uses a Mercator projection, the polar routes are way too long -- or, if you look at it the other way, the routes nearer the equator are way too short.
But it's a game, not a historical reenactment, so I tell myself to shut up and play (and yes, sometimes I do obey myself when I tell me to be quiet).
The integration of railroads and sailing ships is quite smooth -- though, depending on the number of players, you have to count out a different number of each kind of playing piece every time you play.
I don't think Rails and Sails is the best place to start playing Ticket to Ride -- I highly recommend starting with the American map and the 1910 card set, because the gameplay is simplest. But if you're already familiar with Ticket to Ride, I think Rails and Sails is the best of their expansion modules.
As for trivia games, most attempts to create them are kind of awful. Many designers of trivia games think the idea is to create a trick exam that leads you to wrong answers if you don't listen to the question carefully enough. Or they simply ask horrible questions that require you to know facts that nobody should know, because that would mean that you spent a ridiculous amount of time studying trivia.
A good trivia game will have questions that suggest likely answers. The best way to learn good question-writing is to watch Jeopardy, because the writing staff meets a high standard of writing interesting, guessable clues. Most versions of Trivial Pursuit meet that same high standard of clue-writing.
But even when the questions are excellent, here's the other problem with trivia games: Certain players tend to dominate. We learned that even when our kids became teenagers, they couldn't really enjoy playing Trivial Pursuit with their mom and me, because we had lived through so much history that without even taxing our brains we simply knew answers that were completely baffling to them.
Now, when it came to pop music and movies -- depending on how long ago a particular Trivial Pursuit edition was published -- our kids usually owned us. I'm familiar with the names of a lot of contemporary pop singers and groups, but I have no idea what songs they performed, and I recognize none of the lyrics. I mean, Lady Gaga. Nicki Minaj. Kanye West. Really. At my age, my brain is too full of names that young people have never heard of, like John Gary, Vic Damone, and Perry Como, to make room for any of that nonsense.
But my lapses in those areas are not enough to keep me from winning pretty much every time. And games become less fun when the outcome is so predictable. Especially when at least one of your kids beats herself up for being so stupid when she doesn't achieve her idea of a respectable score.
To keep the record straight, I did lose one memorable Trivial Pursuit game to the faculty of App State's Interdisciplinary Studies program when I just couldn't pull "Budapest" out of my brain. The clue made it obvious -- a capital city made up of two cities on both sides of the Danube -- but all that would come into my head were the nearby capital cities Bucharest and Belgrade. I knew they were not right, but there was no escape from the blank in my brain. So I have been beaten, and embarrassingly, too.
I also believe it's wrong for Romania and Hungary to have rhyming capital cities. What, there weren't any other available sound combinations in southeastern Europe? Couldn't the Magyars of Hungary have adopted Aquincum, the original Celtic name, instead of combining Buda, Obuda, and Pest to make Budapest?
They committed this geographical crime in 1873, when only 400 miles away, Bucharest was five years away from becoming the capital of an independent Romania.
Yes, that's the way historical geography drives its aficionados crazy.
Meanwhile, how can we invite another couple over for a Trivial Pursuit tournament if we all know that my wife and I (playing as a team) will crush them? And that's the usual outcome -- not a hard-fought victory, but a crushing defeat that leaves our guests dispirited or embarrassed. This is not fun for anyone.
We have found only a few people that can play up to our level of competition -- and believe me, we treasure those games and those couples!
Meanwhile, though, we are grateful that game designers keep trying to come up with trivia-game formats that help even the odds. So far, the best example of this is the great game iKnow. Winning comes as much from predicting how well other players will answer as from getting the right answer yourself. If you like trivia games, but haven't yet tried iKnow, then check out their website, which offers pictures, gameplay description, and sample questions: http://www.iknowgame.net/
This year, a new trivia game has entered the lists, Terra. It's hard to get to it on the web because "terra" and "tera" are in wide use in the names of other games. You have to google "terra trivia game" -- or simply use this link: https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/153507/terra
Terra is centered on a world map, which is divided into countries and regions, demarcated on land and sea. Don't panic if geography isn't your favorite subject, because Terra doesn't depend on knowing detailed facts. The game design centers around being approximately right.
With each question, players take turns placing tokens on the map. Suppose you are asked to find the home range of a once-threatened species of bird that sounds to you like the condor -- the California condor in particular. Obviously, you'll get points if you can place your token on the western U.S., but what if somebody else has taken it?
Well, you can also get a smaller number of points for placing a token on an adjacent space. And, to my surprise, the California condor's natural range included Mexico, so that got full points. However, because I wasn't sure that it wasn't the Andean condor being referred to, I wasted a token on Peru. I knew too little and too much; but I got points because I was close enough.
Unlike iKnow, the game doesn't include any potentially insulting bets on whether other players will be right or not. All you do is place your tokens either on a map or on a numerical scale, knowing that if you're close, you'll get points.
Even better, the question cards tell you which quadrant of the map holds the correct answer. So you don't have to make guesses in the Philippines or Kenya when you know that the answer is in or near North America. Thus you are spared total embarrassment.
We've found that a lot of the pleasure comes from hearing other players talk through their guesses. Since they might be completely wrong, this doesn't necessarily help you get the right answer -- but it does allow players to show that their wrong answers had a sensible rationale, meaning you have even less embarrassment at failures.
Terra has joined our small repertory of trivia games we can play with anybody and not just a select group of hyper-educated trivia geeks like us. We lose as often as we win -- but we have a lot of out-loud fun while playing, so that wins and losses really don't matter.
Our local Barnes and Noble doesn't have room for a significant CD section, as the larger stores do. In fact, with Borders gone, I don't know of a good selection of CDs in town. If I want to browse music by category, I have to stop at the Barnes and Noble in Roanoke as I commute to or from Buena Vista, Virginia, during semesters when I teach at Southern Virginia University.
And that's a loss. Amazon tries to predict which albums I'm going to want, but it's still possible for years to pass without my hearing of a new album by any performer who is good enough to not be reviewed in Entertainment Weekly. (In almost every case, if EW reviews an album, I will loathe the experience of listening to it.)
Still, there's always that point-of-sale CD display that you can browse while waiting in the checkout line at our local Barnes and Noble. You get a selection of only a few dozen CDs, but they are not selected by people who are trying to look cool, the way EW chooses its albums for review.
Instead, many of the albums are aimed at old coots like me, for the obvious reason that we have the money to buy an album just to try it -- and we don't spend much time searching through Amazon or iTunes to find new albums.
A week ago, I picked up all the new Christmas albums that Barnes and Noble had on display. I checked the copyright dates -- when they weren't in 4-point type or covered by stickers -- to make sure the album was new enough that I didn't already own it.
The albums I picked up ranged from annoyance to timeless brilliance. I'll only review the ones that I have added to my regular Christmas music rotation.
I have never been a Garth Brooks fan -- I like vanilla yogurt, but not vanilla country music -- but Trisha Yearwood has sung many songs that I liked a lot. So I picked up their joint album, Christmas Together, and found that Garth and Trisha are not Steve and Eydie. (And if you don't know who Steve and Eydie are, I'm so sorry for you. They were good solo singers who became great duetists in the era of the Great American Songbook.)
The new Christmas song I liked best from this album is "Hard Candy Christmas," which -- no surprise -- is more Trisha than Garth. And "Marshmallow World" is right up there with "Mele Kalikimaka" on the list of the most annoying winter-holiday songs ever written. You know, the kind that make you want to skip to the next track, or change radio stations.
Christmas Party, by She & Him, is just what you'd expect -- a standards sensibility with a dash of whimsy and fun. It has both "Mele Kalikimaka" and "A Marshmallow World," but their versions are almost tolerable. I liked their "All I Want for Christmas Is You," and this is the first time I've liked "Christmas Don't Be Late," since I grew out of the Chipmunks version as a kid.
Chris Young's It Must Be Christmas is a good country album, a pleasure to listen to. My favorite new song is "Under the Weather," a romantic song for a married couple, which he performs perfectly. Young doesn't bring much to traditional carols like "Silent Night" and "The First Noel," while a standard like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" just doesn't work for him. But "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" totally rocks. I think Young's voice works best when he does full-on country arrangements.
I'm still not sure what to make of Jennifer Nettles, whom I had never heard of when I bought her album "To Celebrate Christmas." Her version of "Do You Hear What I Hear" gives a fierce country spin to this great Bing Crosby song, and I really like it. Then she takes on the Kenny Loggins classic "Celebrate Me Home" and makes it fresh and more moving than ever. Yet she gets sweet and mild on "The First Noel."
If I found her take on "Go Tell It On the Mountain" fairly annoying, so what? No way is that a Christmas song, anyway. And singing with Andra Day on "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" was interesting to hear once ... and never again. But in "The Little Drummer Boy" Nettles holds her own with Idina Menzel and hardly anybody can do that.
Jim Brickman's Comfort & Joy: The Sweet Sounds of Christmas is best when it's just Brickman playing his sweet lounge piano. But when Charlie Alan sings the silly "Hitch a Ride with Santa," I found I enjoyed it, as I also liked "Night Before Christmas" with John Oates singing the words. If, like me, you wondered what ever happened to Oates when Daryl Hall went solo, this is worth hearing: His voice is sweet, his interpretation honest and real. This is the best "Night Before Christmas" I've heard.
Amy Grant's Tennessee Christmas is a wonderful return of a singer I've lost track of over the years. She's much better as a grownup than she ever was as a teen-sensation singer. While she commits the unforgivable sin of talking on a track or two -- just don't do it! We came here for music! -- she introduces some wonderful songs that were new to me. My favorite: "To Be Together," which truly evokes the sense of Christmas as a time for families to go to all the trouble of coming home. Other new-to-me songs like "December" and "Melancholy Christmas" are nostalgic and lovely -- which is what the best Christmas music tries to be.
Straight No Chaser does just what you'd expect with I'll Have Another ... Christmas Album. They can be beautiful with sincere songs like "Mary, Did You Know?" "The Coventry Carol," and "Do You Hear What I Hear?" Their harmonies are surprising, yet pleasing.
But they really put their heart into tunes with a drinking-song sensibility (I mean, they are called Straight No Chaser) and even though I'll delete it from my hard drive in a few minutes, I can't deny that "To Christmas! (The Drinking Song)" does a very good job of what it's trying to do. Best song on the album: "Sing We Now of Christmas."
I've saved the best for last. Sarah McLachlan achieves perfection with her album Wonderland. I only hold one other Christmas album in such high esteem: Emmy Lou Harris's Light of the Stable. Every traditional song is reinvented in pleasing ways, so that this is now my favorite "O Come, All Ye Faithful" and "Away in a Manger."
But the real jewels on this album are her downtempo reinventions of more modern Christmas songs. "Let It Snow" and "The Christmas Song" are glorious new songs, rich and sweet. And a big-voice song like "O Holy Night" works perfectly with her lighter, gentler voice.
If you get only one new Christmas album this year, Sarah McClachlan's is the one I recommend.
Last week I reviewed a lot of the new Hallmark Christmas movies; since then, I've seen a few more worthy of note, and some you don't want to miss.
The moment I heard that A Heavenly Christmas was about Shirley MacLaine as an angel training Kristin Davis to be a "Christmas angel," I expect to loathe it with a deep loathing. It had sticky-cute written all over it.
Well guess what. I was wrong. Shirley MacLaine is acerbic, and the writer, Gregg McBride, gives her very good dialogue. And despite the absolute inevitability of the plot -- I called every "surprise" during the first five minutes -- it's a pleasure to watch Eric McCormack as a struggling musician trying to raise his orphaned niece, while her grandparents try to lure her away to live with them in Florida.
The best thing about A Heavenly Christmas is child actress Jaeda Lily Miller as the niece in question. Good heavens, this child can act! She is interesting and believable every moment that she's on screen. Because of her, this is a don't-miss Christmas movie.
And the predictability of the plot is one of its virtues, because if it ended any differently, we'd hate it!
The Case for Christmas is an adequate new take on the idea of Santa Claus being put on trial. The reason for a trial is quite different from Miracle on 34th Street, as is the resolution, but the movie (from 2011) works mostly because of good-natured performances from a talented cast led by Dean Cain. Still, it doesn't replace the Natalie Wood Miracle on 34th Street, which it inadvertently evokes at every turn.
On the Twelfth Day starts with Maggie (Brooke Nevin) as a young campus radio-station employee who loses her ride home for Christmas. The handsome on-air personality, Mitch (Robin Dunne), gives her a ride home. Caught in a traffic jam, he promises to turn it into her best Christmas Eve, which he very nearly succeeds in.
But when, ten years later, he comes back to do a morning radio show on a station in Maggie's home town, he has lost that love of Christmas he once had. For him, Christmas was tied up with family, and when his situation changed, he ... yes, you guessed it ... lost his Christmas spirit.
As a friend, Maggie starts to give Mitch back the gift he gave her on that ride home years before, through a series of "secret Santa" gifts. His station manager pretty much compels him to put these secret Santa gifts on the air, which changes their meaning.
Meanwhile, he connects with Maggie as a friend, so that he talks to her about all the gifts, little knowing that she's the one giving them to him. Complications ensue, but this is one "lost his Christmas spirit" movie that I really enjoyed ... and almost believed, which is way above average.
Looks Like Christmas has Anne Heche as Carol Montgomery, an insanely Christmas-centered woman who has her hyperactive fingers in every Christmas production and tradition in her son's junior high and in the town at large.
Into her world comes hyper-good-looking Dylan Neal as Terry, a developer whose company has sent him to this town to tear down the hundred-year-old library building and put up a big new hotel. Naturally, Carol is a leader of the preservation movement, so I expected the movie to center around that issue.
It doesn't. Oh, that conflict matters, but the resolution of it is natural and sensible. What matters in this story is the relationship between Terry and his daughter, Amelia, played beautifully by Farryn VanHumbeck, and how Carol becomes her surrogate mother while her son becomes Amelia's brother in all but fact. The healing of families is brought vividly to life in a Christmas context, and I really liked this movie.
I've never warmed up to Anne Heche as an actress until this movie, where she shows herself to have matured into a woman of warmth and strength -- no longer relying on cuteness and pertness, though such attributes are certainly not gone.
As this column appears on Thursday, I will be in Orem, Utah, attending the funeral of my father, Willard Richards Card. Born into a prominent Utah Mormon family, he went his own way, pursuing his love of drawing, painting, and model airplanes and cameras, to the consternation of his mother, who had no idea what to do with an artistic, techno-geek boy.
What she didn't realize was that Bil was one of the kindest, most generous and fun-loving people around, and in this he took after his father, Orson Rega Card -- the man I was named for. They shared a love of telling jokes and witticisms, which they were not ashamed to repeat on every possible occasion.
Being raised by Willard Card was the greatest blessing of my life. He was a man of mercy, patience, and forgiveness, and he was my teacher and guide in trying to become a good man. You can't become a good man unless someone has shown you what that means, and my father did it perfectly.
I not only learned all those personal things from him, but also I became his student in his profession as a professor of education. He talked educational theory and practical matters in teaching from the time I was old enough to realize how smart and fascinating my dad was.
He taught me how to take multiple-choice tests, which is how I got in the 99.3rd percentile on the math portion of the ACT -- after getting a D in geometry and never taking trigonometry or calculus. (The secret was simple: Answer every question, and change no answers.) This earned me a great scholarship to the only university I applied to.
But his influence on my life is wider and deeper than anything I can say here. I was not prepared for how devastated I have been since he died on Saturday night. It was almost unbearable to wake on Sunday morning to a world that didn't have my father in it. How will I know if I'm doing OK, if he isn't here to tell me?
I'll muddle through and do my best. After all, I've had his voice inside me, guiding me so clearly that I've rarely had to call him up to ask for counsel. I already knew the man he was, and therefore knew the counsel he would give. And when I'm at my best, it's because I'm acting out the script for life that he gave to me.
Final Notice: For those whose Christmas plans include giving someone a signed copy of one or more of my books, our local Barnes & Noble in Friendly Center is once again offering a selection of books that I will sign and personalize in time for the book(s) to be sent out before Christmas.
They will stop taking orders this coming Monday, 12 December. The orders need to come in by email. Then, on Monday I'll come by the store, sign all the books ordered the past week, and B&N will either ship them out to the address you provided, or hold them for in-store pickup.
Shipping costs a little extra, but if you're picking up your book(s) there's no charge. My signature is free.
The best way to place your order is by emailing the store at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell them the titles you want, the names of the people they are to be signed to, and the address to which the books should be shipped after signing. By using email, we can be sure all the spellings are as you want them.
Include your phone number, too, because a store employee will call you for payment information -- we don't want you to put such info in an email.
The books on offer are hardcovers and trade paperbacks of the Pathfinder series, the Mithermages series (e.g., The Lost Gate), Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and The Swarm, along with Enchantment and Magic Street. These are the books Barnes & Noble will have in stock in the local store.
(This offer is from our local Barnes & Noble only. The national chain and the Barnes & Noble website have nothing to do with this, and won't know what you're talking about if you try to participate through them.)