Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Renowned Explorers

The folks at Abbey Games know their business. I loved their first game, Reus - one of the very few that I've enjoyed enough to unlock all the achievements on Steam. Renowned Explorers is their second effort and it did not disappoint.
Renowned Explorers logo.png
In Renowned Explorers, you take charge of a group of three adventurers who set out on expeditions around the globe to discover fame and treasure. The gameplay takes place on three levels:
  1. The between-expeditions strategy phase where you improve your crew, make scientific discoveries, and plan where to go next.
  2. Moving from location to location on each expedition's map. This part is semi-randomized. Many of the map components are always the same, but located in different spots and connected in different ways from one game to the next.
  3. Turn-based battles between your crew and various enemies, ranging from animals to villagers to cultists, and even the occasional angry ghost.
I use the term "battle" loosely, because you have three different approaches for conflict resolution. You can be Aggressive with actual physical harm, or Devious with calculated insults, or make Friendly overtures. The idea is to overcome their resistance to your cause, and any of the three approaches is viable as a primary focus. In each conflict, there's an overall "mood" based on the combination of your approach and that of the enemy. You often need to tailor your approach based on the specific enemy you're facing. For instance, if you encounter a bunch of Devious monkeys, it may not be a bright idea to charge in Aggressively, since your crew gets a penalty when the mood is "Escalated" (you Aggressive, enemy Devious).

I really like this "combat" system that gives you more options than just smacking around the bad guys. Making good use of the mood can swing a conflict in your favor (or vice versa, of course). Which crew members you have along in a particular game can make the exact same encounter play out very differently from one game to the next. And the game might give you bonuses for using a particular approach, giving you incentive to find a way to prevail even despite negative moods.

A game consists of taking your crew on five expeditions. You collect renown based on how well you find gold, gain status in the eye of your peers, and make scientific discoveries. A game is won if you exceed 2500 renown after finishing your five expeditions. I won most of the games I played, though occasionally I'd fail to reach 2500 renown or my crew would be defeated in a tough encounter.

There's plenty of crew members to choose from, divided into four classes: scientist, fighter, scout, and speaker. Each class gives you bonuses at certain types of challenges, and each individual crew member has strengths and weaknesses during conflicts. Choosing a crew such that the members compliment one another is important!

The game got quite a bit easier once I picked up More to Explore, the first expansion. It added two new mechanics that give you additional bonuses: Campfire stories, where your crew's expedition stories give you bonuses; and Treasure bonus choices, allowing you to choose from a set of bonuses when finding a significant treasure. The latter is especially useful since Treasure bonuses are very powerful, so being able to choose one that fits with the crew you're playing helps a lot.

There's also a second expansion out now, The Emperor's Challenge. It adds a whole new game mode where you're collecting trophies based on completing specific challenges, rather than just going for the highest renown score. I haven't played it quite as much yet, but I've liked it so far. The trophy requirements often go against the strengths of your crew, so you need to be extra careful in planning how to get those trophies while still staying alive and completing your expeditions.

There's very little to find fault with in Renowned Explorers, in my opinion. If the style of gameplay appeals to you, then the game will have its hooks in you pretty quickly! My only real complaint is that the options for expeditions is fairly limited, so you end up doing the same things repeatedly as you play more games. The expansions are helping with that by adding more expedition options.

I've made it through about 70% of the achievements in Renowned Explorers, and I fully expect that I'll keep playing until I get the rest. After this and Reus, I'm looking forward to seeing what Abbey Games comes up with next!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Michigan Radio "Issues and Ale" in Grand Rapids

Michigan Radio puts on occasional panel-discussion style events around the state, in a series called "Issues and Ale." This week they came to Grand Rapids.
The event was held in a theater at Celebration Cinema, and the place was full. This was the first "Issues and Ale" that I've attended, but judging from what I've seen about past events, they're usually held in smaller venues. (Brewpubs, often, thus the "ale" part.) Good thing they booked a larger venue this time, as the Michigan Radio folks were saying that they ran out of tickets. They brought in a small corner bar set up in one corner of the theater, too, so the ale was still present.

Michigan Radio analyst Jack Lessenberry moderated the discussion, along with four panelists:

  • TJ Bucholz, President & CEO of Vanguard Public Affairs
  • Scott Hagerstrom, state director for President Trump's 2016 presidential campaign
  • Cheyna Roth, capitol reporter for the Michigan Public Radio Network
  • Gleaves Whitney, presidential historian and Director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University

The subject of the discussion was "President Trump: A Michigan Report Card." The idea was to talk about how the first few months of the Trump presidency has affected Michigan. It started out approximately on subject, but once audience questions started I didn't think there was a whole lot specific to Michigan. There was some discussion of Great Lakes water protection, but otherwise the subjects were the same you hear at the national level: health care, overcoming partisanship, education, etc.

There was no doubt that this was a left-leaning crowd. No one raised their hand when asked if anyone present had voted for Trump, and the audience response was pretty hostile to much of what Scott had to say. Not too surprising for an event put on by NPR, though I noticed much the same thing in other political events recently (such as town halls for Republican congressman Justin Amash).

I thought Jack did well as moderator, stopping the discussion several times when it got heated and keeping the panel more or less on topic. He called out the panelists a few times when they dodged questions or tried to deliver incorrect information. Honestly, I'd have rather had him as one of the panelists, as I like the daily commentary he provides on Michigan Radio and I think he'd have had some good opinions to share. But he did a fine job as moderator, too.

Nothing that was said surprised me all that much. Scott supported much of what President Trump has been doing (when not battling scandals) and repeated many of the points he campaigned on. TJ provided a response from the Democratic party point of view. Neither said anything that would be out of place on one of the cable news channels. The other two panelists did provide some interesting takes on some questions, particularly some of the historical perspective from Gleaves, but they didn't get the majority of the speaking time.

All in all, an interesting evening. I'll certainly consider going to another Issues and Ale event in the future, though preferably one on a less contentious subject.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017


First-person shooters are not my favorite genre. I played my share of Doom, Wolfenstein 3D, and Quake like every other nerdy high school and college student in the 1990s, but they always took second place to strategy and role-playing games. So it takes something more than just running around with a weapon and a target-rich environment to convince me to devote time to a shooter. BioShock is one of only two such series that have done that and held my attention enough to play all the way through. (The other is Mass Effect, though I've yet to try the new Andromeda entry in that series. Probably not a coincidence that both have science-fiction aspects.)
Much of BioShock's appeal for me is the world-building. BioShock and BioShock 2 take place in the 1960s in Rapture, an underwater city with a steampunk feel that's populated largely by genetically modified monstrosities. The environment has a post-apocalyptic feel as you pick your way through what remains of the once-luxurious city. BioShock Infinite is a bit of a different animal, as it takes place in a floating city called Columbia in the early 1900s. Unlike Rapture, Columbia isn't a run-down wreck and many of the people are normal civilians. (At first, anyway. Plenty of destruction as the game progresses.)

In both games, you pursue leaders who created a dystopia while following their own vision of perfection. In Rapture that largely takes the form of genetic modification, with lots of physical and psychological manipulation to keep the resulting monstrosities under control. In Columbia, you're working against an elitist, racist cult. There's a "grand society gone wrong" feel to both Rapture and Columbia, paired with a mix of old and future technology. That combination reminds me of golden-age science fiction in many ways; playing through these games feels much like reading some of those old stories.

In Rapture, there's a major moral choice in whether to save or harvest "little sisters" that provide power for your genetic modifications. (Personally, I have a hard time believing that anyone doesn't want to save the little cuties.) The choices don't have a lot of effect on the gameplay, but the ending differs based on what you've decided to do along the way. Nothing in BioShock Infinite's Columbia setting seemed to provide the same kind of moral decision-making, which was a little disappointing.

The two settings do eventually connect, but not until near the very end of BioShock Infinite. There's an add-on story called Burial at Sea that was released as DLC for BioShock Infinite that makes the link much more explicit. I thought the add-on was very well done, worth playing for anyone that enjoyed BioShock Infinite, but it's clearly targeted for people who have played the games in both settings.

I played these games mostly to work my way through the story, so the actual gameplay mechanics weren't my main focus. I purposely chose the easiest difficulty mode to avoid getting stuck in long fights, and picked abilities that minimized the need for shooter skill. For instance, in BioShock 2, I picked up the Security Command ability and upgraded it so I could summon a robot to fight for me. You can't ever avoid the shooting entirely, but it can be made less painful. Even so, there were sections where I had trouble making it through alive. Fortunately, death is a temporary state in these games.

It's possible to find some replay value in the BioShock games, either finding different ways to fight or changing moral choices to get different endings. None of that appeals to me, though. Most of the fun for me is in discovering things about the world as I move through the story. Once those surprises are gone, it's no longer very interesting, even if there are some differences. And playing with more difficult combat, like BioShock Infinite's 1999 mode, holds zero appeal whatsoever for me.

The BioShock series is well worth playing through at least once for any gamer. Even if first-person shooters aren't your thing, the story and world-building are worth the effort.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Fifth Third River Bank Run 2017

What a difference a couple of weeks makes. Downtown GR was cold and wet the last time I was there for a run, but it was beautiful this weekend for the Fifth Third River Bank Run.
I've not participated in the River Bank Run the last few years, largely because it's such a huge event. The organizers do a good job, but with so many people crowded lines and race courses are inevitable. The last time I ran, I did the 5k, and it felt like I was constantly having to dodge people who were slightly faster or slower.
I went downtown early on Friday afternoon to pick up my race packet at DeVos Hall, and even during that low-volume time it was really busy! I had to park several blocks away to avoid waiting in long traffic lines near the hall. They had plenty of volunteers on hand, though, so there wasn't much waiting involved once I got inside.

This year, I ran the 10k and the crowding during the race was much less of an issue. There were still plenty of people - 3200+ according to the results page - but the field spread out pretty quickly. There were a few times where I felt the crowding, but not nearly as much as a few years ago.
The course is fairly easy, without too many big hills. The biggest one is about 1.5 miles from the finish, which isn't ideal placement, but on the bright side it's pretty much flat to the finish once you're over it! According to the results site, I finished in just under 53 minutes, putting me well inside the top half of finishers.
There's a nice after-party area at the end where folks can hang out while the 25k race finishes and results are announced. I didn't stay for that, but it's nice for those that want to stick around. I was pretty happy to eat some fruit, drink some water, and head home for a shower.