Games: Lord of the Rings, The Confrontation

As anyone who ever played the Atari 2600 version of E.T. will testify, games based on movies tend to suck. And nowhere is this more evident than the world of board games, where every blockbuster harbingers a remainder shelf at Kaybee Toys filled with hastily thrown together “Game Of Life” knockoffs rechristened with the movie’s title. You can always spot a crappy movie adaptation, because it feels obligated to mention that it’s a game right on the box, presumably so you don’t confuse it with a key lime pie. Behold Titanic: The Board Game (Typical review: “Must…not…swallow…own…tongue…”), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Quidditch Card Game (typical review: “Broken.”) and The Hours: The Board Game (Typical review …. okay, I made this one up).

Still, every once in a while we get lucky. Such is the case with Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, a new offering from Fantasy Flight Games. This is not to be confused with the original Lord of the Rings game by the same company. Unlike its Big Brother, Lord of “The Rings: The Confrontation” (hereafter “LotR:C”) is strictly a two-player game, has a third of the rules of the bigger game, plays in a fraction of the time and sells for half the price. But the two games do share one thing in common: they are both amongst the best in my collection.

The central mechanic in LotR:C will be familiar to anyone who has ever played Stratego. The board, which depicts 16 regions of Middle Earth, is positioned diagonally between the two players, so that the person playing “Light” has The Shire in his corner while “Dark” has Mordor in his. The combatants each have nine unique pieces, which they place into their own territories any way they chose. As in Stratego, the “faces” of the pieces show who they are, but the backs — the sides visible to the opponent — are nondescript. Once the forces are arrayed, the battle begins.

On a turn, a player may move one of his pieces one step forward. Because the regions are staggered, brick-style, this usually means that an advancing piece has two territories to choose from. Unless the moved character now resides in a space occupied by an enemy, the player ends his turn. But if both Light and Dark pieces inhabit the same area, a brawl erupts.

Combat is fairly simple. First, both players reveal who is involved in the battle. Because each character has a special power, identifying the warriors is often enough to determine a winner. For example, Gimli’s power is “Instantly defeat the Orcs,” so if the dwarf is revealed and the Orcs prove to be his sparring partner, that’s as far as you go: Orcs dead.

If the fight continues, both players chose a card from their hand and reveal them simultaneously. Most of the cards have numbers on them (from 1-6), and the value of a played card is added to the charatcer’s “Strength” (indicated by a digit on the charatcer’s piece) to determine his combat total. The piece with the lowest total loses and is removed from the game.

All in all a pretty hum-drum system, I’m sure you’ll agree. But what makes LotR:C such an addictive little gem is the asymmetrical nature of the contest. For starters, both players have different goals: the Light player is trying to get Frodo all the way across the board and into Mordor; the Dark player, in turn, just wants Frodo whacked. Secondly, the Dark player has much more raw power than the Light player — higher valued cards, numerically stronger characters, etc. — but the Light player, by virtue of some special cards and character powers — has more tricks up his sleeves. In other words, the Dark player wins through force, the Light player wins through guile, just as you’d want a game based on The Lord of the Rings to play out.

Furthermore, the powers of the pieces are remarkably well suited for the characters they correspond to. Boromir is a time bomb: when he gets in a fight he automatically loses, but he takes the opponent down with him. Sam is generally weak, but if he’s in the same space as Frodo his strength more than doubles. Frodo is useless in a fight, but, when threatened, he can flee to an adjacent territory. The Balrog, meanwhile, defends Moria — anyone who tries to go through the mines is immediately defeated if the Balrog is in the house. And the Flying Nazgul can attack any piece anywhere on the board.

Best of all, the atmosphere of the epic is recreated by the game: Light seems doomed from the get-go, and most victories by the good guys are Pyrrhic in nature. In the last game I played, for example, I threw Sam to the wolves — the Wargs, actually — so that Frodo could move one more step towards Mordor. When you win as Dark, you have to resist to urge to cackle evilly and gloat about your dominance; when you win as Light, your first impulse will be to sigh with relief and wipe the sweat off your brow.

Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation has rapidly become one of my favorite games. I honestly don’t know how long I’ll be playing it — it’s entirely possible that I’ll “burn out” on it in a month or so — but right now I’m itchin’ to play it at every opportunity. It’s thirty bucks, it’s available through Funagain, and it’s the perfect pastime for the long months until The Return of the King hits the theaters in December. You should get it.

Movies: 8 Mile

After a week of listening to me rave about Spirited Away, my wife resolved to go see it for herself. She and a friend trekked to the local dollar theater to see the seven o’clock showing, and, after checking the listings, I figured what the heck: I’d tag along and catch 8 Mile, which was playing at roughly the same time. Granted, I’d be seeing it by myself — my efforts to recruit a companion for The Eminem Show were met with flat refusal by all I asked — but, even solo, I expected it would be a adequate way to kill two hours while waiting for for The Queen.

As it turned out, 8 Mile was exactly that: nothing great, nothing original, nothing worth even recommending per se. But if you ever find yourself at a $3 Theater with 120 minutes on your hands, it’s about as fine a time-killer as you’re likely to find.

Eminem stars as, well, Eminem, I guess. I mean, he’s called “Rabbit” in the film, but I am led to understand that the character he plays is loosely based on his own life: young, vaguely psychotic kid, living with his single, screwed-up Mom in Detroit, makes good — or, at the very least, makes less bad. I could go on about the plot, but if you’ve seen Hoosier or Over the Top or Searching For Bobby Fisher or any movie that revolves around a competition of some sort, you already know how 8 Mile plays out. Suffice to say that the film opens with rap contest, ends with a rap contest, and spends much of the middle getting you from one to the other.

So rather than telling you what’s in the movie, let me instead tell you what I was pleasantly surprised to find absent from this film.

Eminem songs: For a movie starring Eminem and telling the story of a thinly-disguised Eminem, there are remarkably few Eminem songs in the flick. Sure, he raps during the competitions, but throughout the rest of the story he breaks into rhyme only a handful of times. There are no moments contrived to feature his new hit single (Rabbit: “Hey, who wants to help me clean out my closet?”), no Eminem songs playing over the car radio as they drive around, etc. Why, you’d almost think they were more interested in making a movie than showcasing a celebrity. Likewise …

Eminem PR: Eminem is not a likeable guy in this flick — which is to say that the character, Rabbit, is not a likeable guy. He’s pretty much a complete loser, actually. When he gets beat up, you’re kinda rootin’ for the assailants. In other words, 8 Mile is not an attempt to aggrandize or whitewash the career of Eminem. You may come out of the theater a little more sympathetic towards him, but you still won’t want him to date your daughter.

High stakes: The “big contest” that Rabbit works the whole movie to win is, in fact, nothing more than a pissant little neighborhood “rap off”. Unlike Rocky, he’s not gunning for the World Championship; he just want one thing — one tiny, insignificant thing — to go right in life, for once. This makes the movie much more realistic, and, paradoxically, a lot more powerful.

Race politics: Eminem is white; the guys he raps against are black. So? The movie makes very little of this — so little that this aspect of the plot is a little unbelievable, frankly. But it’s a lot better than the alternative I’d feared: the filmmakers urging the audience to cheer for Rabbit because it would be cool for the white guy to beat all the minorities at their own game. (Here, let me put all that in scare quotes so that no one accuses me of advocating this view: it would be “cool” for the “white guy” to beat all the “minorities” at “their own game”.) Screenwriter Scott Silver did a good job is divorcing race from the central story, and although this strips the plot of a lot of depth, it
also steers it clear of some philosophical landmines.

8 Mile will be on DVD soon; you should rent it. If it’s still playing at your local theater, you might even want to catch it there. It’s difficult to endorse because it’s so forgettable, but you won’t regret having seen it.

Bad Neighbor

CNN - While testifying at a Senate committee hearing in Washington, CIA Director George Tenet was asked whether North Korea had a ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. West Coast. "I think the declassified answer, is yes, they can do that," Tenet said.

Oh fabulous — I just bought a house here in Seattle, and I’m sure that’s gonna do wonders for the property values. THANKS A LOT NORTH KOREA!!!

Greenspan Sees Shadow, Predicts Six More Weeks of Low Interest Rates

With members of Congress gathered in front of his Washington DC residence, Alan Greenspan emerged from his home this morning and saw his own shadow, thereby predicting six more weeks of low interest rates. "Some have said that deficit spending will drive interest rates up," said Speaker of the House Denny Hastert immediately following the ceremony. "But Alan Greenspan, seeing his shadow here today, has told the American people in no uncertain terms that the Bush Administration has this nation on the road to recovery." Top Democrats, however, were quick to cast doubt on the accuracy of the prediction. "The man has, like, twenty / four-million vision," said Senator John Kerry. "Who can really say what he sees or doesn't see?" Greenspan, who retreated into his home after fetching his newspaper, is expected to remain secluded until April 20, when he will perform his annual egg-hiding duties.

No, Don’t Be Chicken Again!

So anyway, The Queen and I were in the car, listing to a NPR quiz show. (We were also driving somewhere. I don’t want to give you the impression that we just sit out in the car and listen to NPR quiz shows.) One of the multiple-choice questions was something along the lines of “In 1962 President Kennedy formed the President’s Council On Youth Fitness, the official theme song of which was what?” The host then gave, as possible answers, three equally ludicrous song titles, including option C: “Go You Chickenfat, Go!”

“Go You Chickenfat?,” The Queen said incredulously, while the contestant hemmed and hawed. “Well, it’s not that one.”

“Yes it is,” said I.

At that moment the contestant guessed B, only to discover that she was wrong. “No,” said the gameshow host, “the correct answer is C: Go You Chickenfat, Go!”

The Queen looked at me with what would have been respect if this particular piece of obscure knowledge hasn’t been so astoundingly stupid. “How on earth did you know that?” she asked.

“Touch down, every morning — ten times!,” I told her. “Not just, now and theeennnnnn…”

I took her expression of horror as encouragement, and continued.

“Give that chickenfat, back to the chicken and, don’t be chicken again.”

“Oh my God,” said The Queen. “Are you singing the Chickenfat Song? Do you know the words to The Chickenfat Song?”

“No, don’t be chicken again!” I replied.

It’s true. I know the whole goddamned Chickenfat Song. And here it is. [mp3 link. Warning — you will have this song in your head for at least a week after hearing it. I am so totally not exaggerating.]

Apparently this song — actually called “The Youth Fitness Song,” written by Meredith Wilson and recorded by Robert Preston — was distributed by the Presidential Council on Youth Fitness to every school in the United States. And that’s where I — and thousands of other people — heard it.

Indeed, I heard it every single day, as I and a couple dozen of my elementary school classmates did our morning PE exercises. I don’t remember how old I was, or what grade I was in, or what teacher played it for us, but I’ll be pickled if I don’t recall every single word of this six minute, thirty second song.

With crap like this lodged into every nook and cranny of my memory, is it any wonder that I can’t remember my own zip code?

War Protest

My name is George W. Bush. You tried to assassinate my father. Prepare to die.

(If anyone knows who created this image, let me know — I’d love to give ‘im the credit he deserves.)