I can do this.

It’s that time again, time for the most amazing commercials you’ve ever seen to show up on YouTube and elsewhere. While I intend to do my usual run-down and review of the offerings when the time comes, an early favorite has crossed my feeds:

I love this so much. I love it because it puts video gaming on par with Chess and Football. I love the subtle call-outs to the anime and to the game mythology in the lead-in. I love that there’s diversity. And OMG, I teared up a little at the end. Yes, we can do this.

Part of me is like, how has it been 20 years? Part of me is like, how has it ONLY been 20 years? Just 20 years ago, this screen was state of the art on a handheld gaming device:
Pokemon original

Now, we’re just a few cycles away from having a location based real world Pokemon game on our phones…on our wrists!

Mind Games 2014 Recap (Austin, TX)

Background:  The Mind Games convention is where/how American Mensa awards games the Mensa Select seal.  The seal is awarded to 5-6 games each year. It’s an event with 200-300 Mensans in attendance, specifically a self-selecting subset of Mensa that are gamers. As a judge/attendee, you are assigned around 25-30 games to play during the play period (Friday 11am until Sunday 9am). Between 50-60 are submitted in total each year by various manufactures in lots of genres, though Euro games are sadly almost always under-represented and under-ranked. Each judge gets to vote on 7 (in a ranked order) from the list of ones they were assigned. To vote, judges must play the 25-30 they are assigned, but that is on the honor system. The remaining submissions are optional, but I try to get through all of them each year. Other people have different mandatory/optional lists versus yours, such that it is balanced with the number of people who judge each game. At the end of the judging/play period, the ballots are tallied and the winning games are announced on Sunday. A press release generally follows on Monday.  You can look up the winners for past years at http://mindgames.us.mensa.org/about/winning-games/.

This year’s winners for Mind Games were Gravwell, Qwixx, Pyramix, The Duke & Euphoria.  My votes to win were (in rank order) Euphoria, Compounded, Pyramix, Four in a Square, Freedom: The Underground Railroad, 20 Express, and Tapple.  If I could have voted based on all the selections, my votes to win would have been Euphoria, Compounded, Coup, Freedom: The Underground Railroad, Sushi Go, and Qwixx.  So, there’s decent overlap between what won and what I liked. 🙂

Of this year’s winners, the only one that really bums me out is Gravwell.  I just did not find it to be a very interesting game.  The concept is that you program moves to try to escape a gravity well with your spaceship, but in my play of it, it felt like the programming could only rarely be done strategically.  Talking to other attendees, their experiences differed.  Either way, I will say that it’s better than some past winners that made it into the mix.

Qwixx is a Gamewright republish of a game found at Essen, and they did a great job with the rules and components.  It’s a very quick and simple dice game with no downtime and light strategy.  Its only flaw is that you need the included pad of scoresheets (which will inevitably run out).  It’s also a great value for the price.

Pyramix uses cubes (d6’s) with symbols on them to build a pyramid and then has each player collect cubes.  There are multiple approaches that can win, and, like Qwixx, it’s aesthetically pleasing.  The strategy is a little limited, as final scoring depends heavily on things you can’t discover until the endgame, but it’s a unique concept and turned out to be a great little game.

The Duke is a chess-like abstract strategy game.  It’s a bit tough to summarize beyond that, but one unique mechanic it uses is having pieces where the moves change each time you use them, alternating between two types of moves.  This is made simple by them printing the move on the piece itself, so you never have to ask “what does the wizard do again?”.  As with any abstract strat game, it will suffer from Analysis Paralysis (AP) with the right player(s), but if you can avoid that, it’s pleasing and a good challenge. There are expansions in the box that add more complexity and variety to the gameplay, too, but I didn’t get to try those.

Euphoria…now, looking at the names of this year’s submissions alone, I would have bet good money that Euphoria would  be a dog, but it turned out to be my favorite of the weekend.  It is a worker placement and resource management game.  You’ll see people complain that the rules are long.  If you’re a frequent euro gamer, you’ll find them remarkably well-written and easy to grasp.  It *may* have a bit of an issue in that it doesn’t provide enough encouragement to perform a mechanic that seems like they wanted to happen (building markets), but that may also be a result of inefficient play or simply not knowing the game well enough.  The theming, building in a dystopian future, reminded me of several young adult dystopian future novels. (Is that a new genre yet?  Remember when we had “young adult paranormal romance”?  Do they now have “young adult dystopian sci-fi”?)

Compounded was a non-winner that I enjoyed.  You play the role of a chemist in what is clearly a severely underfunded lab (you have to build your own fire extinguisher), and you use elements drawn randomly to fill compounds from a set that is available to everyone.  Different compounds, once claimed/created, have different benefits that help you make the next compound faster, and the goal is to get the most points before game end.  There’s also randomized explosions that occur, scattering the elements around the lab.  Overall, it’s a medium strategy game with cute components and a nifty periodic table as a scoreboard.

Freedom is a co-op game where players work together as abolitionists trying to move slaves on the Underground Railroad.  This game is masterful with white guilt, but it’s also nicely historic, beautifully laid out, and it plays well.  You really do care about your slave cubes and feel bad about not rescuing them.  Plus, the theme forces you to make tough decisions in the vein of deciding whether it’s worthwhile to sacrifice one person to save many.  (People who have trouble not saving a person in Flash Point will not do well at this game. 😉 )

Another notable submission was Coup, which has an endorsement by Wil Wheaton on the back and comes from the makers of The Resistance.  Coup has similar elements to Resistance, but it is playable with fewer players (2-6).  It very much reminds me of the dynamic in Survivor around hidden immunity idols.

Overall, this year’s submissions were remarkably good.  The “dog” of the weekend was Po-rum-bo, and, in many past Mind Games, that would have been a middle of the pack game.  The head judge noted that every single game got at least one vote, and that, too, is unusual. I think it reflects that the submissions were overall of good quality.

Full spreadsheet o’ ratings and other such joy:

Monkey Rolls

The recent strategy discussion surrounding Arthur Chu’s run on Jeopardy led DH and I to start watching the show again. (It probably goes without saying, but we like Chu’s approach.) Watching the show reminded me of a thing that DH and I used to do: monkey rolls.

When DH and I were still early in our time living together, we’d often watch Jeopardy in bed as we settled down for the night. We wanted to keep score between us, but we didn’t want to have to count the game scores or handle daily doubles and whatnot. So, we kept score using “monkey rolls”. We had a stuffed plushie/beanie monkey, and we would roll him to the left (my side of the bed) when I got an answer correct or to the right (DH’s side of the bed) when he got an answer correct. Likewise, if you got it wrong, you lost a monkey roll to the other side.

If the monkey rolled off the bed before the episode was over, that counted as a win; a win by monkey fall was pretty rare. Otherwise, the side the monkey was on when the episode ended won. We also handicapped based on prior wins, but also based on DH being older and thus having more passive knowledge. (The monkey generally started two rolls to my side.)

Glasses

HaveADrinkThe picture over there shows the frames that I currently wear. I’ll be picking up new frames and glasses in the next week, and a convo with a friend on FB got me thinking about glasses and my history with them.

I got my first pair of glasses when I was pretty young, maybe third grade. At the time, my best friends, Kathy & Jessica, had glasses. My parents had glasses. All the adults I liked wore glasses. Going to the eye doctor with my Mom was always fun. She’d get to pick out new glasses, and it was like she had a new face each time. And to my little child brain, that meant that you needed glasses to be cool, that somehow the simple act of having and wearing glasses would confer awesomeness upon you. Being a little kid, I didn’t know much about how getting glasses worked, but I started making inquiries, and apparently the key to it was complaining about headaches and not being able to see the board. I started my campaign along those lines, and sure enough, not long thereafter, I found myself in the eye doctor’s office.

He started running tests, and while I was determined to get glasses, I chickened out at the idea of faking my way through tests. Besides, I was even more of a desperate overachiever then than I am now, so the idea of intentionally flunking a test was just unthinkable. Of course I can read the bottom row! I can read the row below that if you want! My heart sank as I realized I probably wouldn’t need glasses after all. My Mom got her exam done next, and I sat patiently watching as the doctor ran similar tests on her. She ended up getting contacts that day for the first time, IIRC, and contacts were a really big and annoying thing back then. But, I do remember my mind being blown that anyone would want to *not* wear glasses! Yet, here she was talking to the kindly doctor about how she was willing to do all this extra work to not have to wear glasses. Meanwhile, while she was learning about contacts, I got permission to go look at the frames. I woefully tried on pairs in the kids’ section and was near tears when I found one pair with the Smurfs logo on them, with Smurf blue thin metal rims, that I loved and wouldn’t be able to have.

Then, the eye doctor finished with my Mom and cheerfully asked if I had found frames I liked. I glumly said I had. He mistook the reason for my sadness. “Oh, don’t worry. All the coolest kids wear glasses.” I raised my eyes with hope. What had happened? I had passed all the tests! He had said “great job” each time, so I knew I did! And yet…now he was telling my Mom about the glasses I’d need and asking her about options. I was getting glasses! I dashed over to the Smurfs pair and clutched them. I didn’t realize I wouldn’t be taking them home that day, so that was a whole separate process of having to convince me I couldn’t just have the ones on the shelf. (It was very confusing. Isn’t that how buying stuff works?) But, the whole time, I was convinced that the eye doctor and I were having a conspiracy, that he’d realized I wanted them so badly that he was making it so I could have them.

A week or two later, I came home from school and my Mom told me that my glasses were ready. I don’t remember being fitted for them. (They may have just been sent home for me with my Mom?) I do remember putting them on, and standing outside our apartment with my Mom and Dad. My Dad asked me if it felt different. I looked at the trees off in the distance, and it was different. I could see the edges of branches and leaves. I could tell branches apart even from where we were. Before, everything just kind of faded into a blur, and I thought that was normal, how everyone saw things. After all, if you look at art or photos, that’s how people draw things. There’s less detail farther away. But suddenly, I had a super power of being able to see tall trees clearly! It was amazing!

For years afterward, I remained convinced that I didn’t really *need* glasses. After all, I could read just fine without them. It was just that the doctor was nice to me that day. 🙂 Later on, after I realized that they are in fact annoying and get in the way, I tried really hard to actually pass the eye test, and, of course, I still needed glasses. As it happens, even if I wanted to wear contacts, I couldn’t. I have astigmatism, which means the contacts are larger and less flexible because they can’t spin on your eye (the region that I look through has to be precise), and I have tiny eye openings and long eyelashes which means putting in any contacts, much less larger contacts, is just incredibly difficult. But really, I still love my glasses. They’re an accessory that I get to wear all the time. It is annoying to have to keep up with them, to not be able to just wake up and see, or lay in bed and watch TV without them. They fog up when I go skiing, and before I bought a specifically lightweight pair for running, they were very annoying then, too. But picking out new glasses frames is always a wonderful event, and I can’t imagine not getting to do it periodically. I’m super excited for my next pair. I’ll post pictures when I have them, of course.

New glasses!

Mensa Mind Games 2013 Recap

The accoutrements of Mind Games 2013
The accoutrements of Mind Games 2013
For those who don’t know, Mensa Mind Games™ is how American Mensa judges games to receive the Mensa Select&#0153 seal, which is awarded to 5-6 games each year. It’s an event with around 300 Mensans in attendance, specifically a self-selecting subset of Mensa that are gamers. As a judge/attendee, you are assigned around 25-30 games to play during the play period (Friday 10am until Sunday around 2am). Between 50-60 are submitted in total each year by various manufactures in lots of genres, though Euro games are sadly almost always underrepresented and under-ranked. (There’s 54 this year.) You get to vote on 7 (in a ranked order) from the list of ones you’ve been assigned. To vote you must play the 25-30 you are assigned, though it’s only on your honor that you do so. The remaining submission group is optional for you to play, but I try to get through all of them each year. Other people have different mandatory/optional lists versus yours, such that it is balanced with the number of people who judge each game. At the end of the judging/play period, the ballots are tallied and the winning games are announced on Sunday. A press release generally follows on Monday.

At the end of the event, the judges/attendees divvy up the (very played and well used) copies of games such that each attendee usually gets to take home at least one and sometimes two games. That’s your reward for doing all the work. The divvying system is very efficient and highly fair, but it does mean that you may not get your first choice or even your second or third…hence the “take ranking” (which I use for taking games at the end) vs. the “score ranking” (which I use for judging) and what goes into each.

It is a highly intense event to attend, particularly until you get the hang of it or particularly if you aren’t a frequent gamer. While I can easily get through the entire list in a judging period, many attendees will have trouble just getting through their mandatory set. It is especially challenging if you don’t get started as soon as play opens or if you have limited gaming experience. (It helps to know common mechanics so that you can quickly understand rules.)

The format of the event, unfortunately, favors games which can be learned and played quickly. People tend to lose patience with games that are longer or that have more complex rulesets. Additionally, a fair number of the gamers that show up are not Euro gamers; they’re word game/puzzle fans or abstract strategy fans. Thus, the typical Euro boardgame is unlikely to win. Because of this, there have been fewer submitted each year. That sad fact bums me out. However I enjoy the event immensely because I get a varied exposure to games, many that I would never pick up or see otherwise, and I like critiquing things. I also particularly enjoy coming up with my own ranking system and evaluation methods for games and plugging it all into a massive spreadsheet. I like monitoring the data as I put it in (e.g., are my rankings averaging higher or lower as I go on?) and deciding how to adjust or tweak so my final rankings match my actual ranking of games.

Without further ado, here is my spreadsheet for 2013: Mind Games 2013 – My Ranked List. I’ll also go through some highlights below, and I’ll tweet (or RT) the winners tomorrow later today after they’re announced.

Suburbia is the clear winner to me from this year’s event. It’s a highly balanced euro game with dead simple rules and instructions. We played it with two players and three. In both cases, it played well. (It plays up to four.) Those on the geek may already know this one, too. I was thrilled that this was on my judging ballot; it’s my number one pick. Sadly, it probably won’t win, but it is definitely worth a try if you’re into that style of gaming.

Kulami (FoxMind) wasn’t on my ballot, but it was my second favorite game of the event. This one is an abstract strategy game for two players in which you claim territory on a varied boardscape. There are limitations on how you place your pieces that provide a very interesting push and pull of defense and offense. It has great components for the price; it could sit on a coffee table as a decoration. Because the board layout changes to your tastes each game, it has a fair amount of replay value as well. This one seems like it will have a fair shot at winning.

Komodo was another high ranking one, and this is certainly a prime example of a game that I was unlikely to encounter elsewhere. It had elements of Carcassonne, and it may even be rightfully called a more simple variant of that game. (A Kiwi on their site termed it a combination of Ticket To Ride and Carcassonne, and I think that description is quite adroit.) It also has a zoology theme. While the game themes as trying to save animals from an extinction event, I think of it more as building a zoo to house a collection of animals. (So, of course, the theme got it some points from me!) This was a euro-style game, and its only flaw was that the animals you draw and the action/event cards add a fair amount of randomness that can be frustrating. However, it will generally move quickly, I think, and not suffer from AP as much as Carc and other Carc variants.

There were a few variants of Anomia this year. Anomia won in 2010, and the manufacturer/designer submitted a new variant this year, called Duple. In addition to Duple, Buffalo (which doesn’t seem to be available anywhere yet as best as I can tell) and Speedy Recall both copied the Anomia mechanic while adding twists to fix Anomia’s main flaw (that the game has some repeat play issues in that the same matches come up each game). Anomia is a great Mensa Select success story in that it was from a relatively small and independent game house that got major popularity thanks to the award.

Variants of Set and Qwirkle also seem to be a theme this year, with many games playing on the idea of multiple qualities with a need to match some subset of those qualities to create sets or play chains. Pick A Pig is the most notable of these in that it introduces a simulplay mechanic that reduces downtime. It also has adorable graphics and comes in a dog-themed variant for those that want something more canine. 🙂

Edited to add relevant tweets:

Also, below is an Amazon widget of my favorites from this year (or, rather, a subset of my favorites that are available on Amazon, since Komodo and Forbidden Desert aren’t up there), for your purchasing pleasure. If you have an adblocker turned on, you may need to turn it off for the widget to be visible. 🙂

Going Away Festivities

We had a going away party yesterday. One group joined us at the casino for a buffet lunch:

We had to take the picture really fast because photos aren't allowed in the casino.
We had to take the picture really fast because photos aren’t allowed in the casino.

I also hopped into a picture and Moo went behind the camera. We wanted an employee to take the picture for us, but he let us know we weren’t allowed to take pictures but promised to walk away and pretend he had no idea what we were doing. 🙂

Going Away Group

Then, another group (with some overlap) came over to the house to play games and try to drink away our wine & liquor collection that can’t be moved. (The recycle bin had 20 empty bottles in it, so good job, y’all! But I still have about 30 more, so…again tonight? j/k)

We played 8-player RoboRally to start the evening. Telestrations, Age of Steam, and Cards Against Humanity also hit the table.

Photo taken by K*, who was sadly the first robot to die
Photo taken by K*, who was sadly the first robot to die
This shot was taken by Moo, who was too tipsy to play. :)
This shot was taken by Moo, who was too tipsy to play. 🙂

This morning, Moo and R* and I played Endeavor as the game to be the final game the three of us play in this house. :*( We hugged. Moo and I cried a bit. Then, they left with promises to stay in touch and meet up soon in Vegas. So, that’s that. I have no more excuses now and have begun prepping to do my “final move” on Thursday. DH will still effectively live in IL for the next month or so, but Pancake and I will officially be living in Seattle as of Thursday evening.

How to Fix Quidditch

This came up in another forum, and as lots of people liked my solution, I wanted to include it here for posterity. 😉 The problem with Quidditch is that the snitch is over-valued. It is so rare that it’s highly notable when the team catching the snitch doesn’t win the game.

My suggestion to fix Quidditch is to make the snitch worth zero points. It ends the game when caught, and the team with the most points at that time wins. If the score is tied, the snitch will disappear the moment it is touched and reappear in a random location.

What results from this change is that the Seeker has to react not only to the speed and timing of the snitch but also to the score of the game. If her team is ahead, the seeker must catch the snitch, but if her team is behind, the seeker must keep the other seeker from catching the snitch. (It would be even more of a challenge if the scoreboard weren’t visible to the seekers; it’s an easy enchantment in the wizarding world. Now, the seeker has to track and remember the scoring and act accordingly. Of course, the enchantment would also need to prevent the crowd and possibly teammates from tipping the seekers off as to the right move.)

With this, there is a need for a smart, decisive, and agile seeker. In the books, we’re led to believe those are traits required for a seeker, but the game actually doesn’t demand much besides skill on a broomstick and a willingness to endure some temporary injury that magic will heal shortly thereafter.

Now, let’s consider when the snitch should arrive. For a very fast-paced and exciting sport, having the Snitch buzzing about from the get go could be quite fun. It would force both teams to immediate action. The snitch appearing at a random point in time between 0-20 minutes into the game would also be interesting. Perhaps the snitch could appear randomly following the first score. In any case, the game is made much more strategic by simply reducing the point value of the snitch to zero.

Rallye History

First, I haven’t mentioned it here directly, so I should: we’re moving! We’re heading to Seattle. I’ve kind of loved Seattle from afar for quite awhile, so I’m really excited to move there. It’s a lot of work to get ready, though. I went through our bookcases today to decide which books to keep and which to give away. (Most books are being given away. The need for paperbacks that I’ve already read has diminished considerably in the Kindle age.)

Along with that, DH and I were deciding which of our old trophies to donate. We decided we wanted to keep the trophy for the first rallye we won together, but we didn’t know which one it was. For the record (since I use this blog as records as much as anything else), the first rallye we won together (and the second rallye we did together) was the Famous Ghost Hunt on October 19 in 2002. The first rallye we did together (which included the infamous abortion-avoidance-clinic-mix-up that nearly led to us not dating) was the Famous Puzzler on September 21st of that same year. Between that one and the second one, I did a rallye with my former rallye partner, Xnera (who still exists!), and my mom. We had lots of fun, but that was the last one I did with her. Awww…good times, good times.

Anyways, DH and I were a pretty unstoppable force once we were doing rallies together. Check out the 2002 results to see us dominate. We also started writing rallies, and the 24 Rallye (themed after the TV show, natch) was our first one of those. We later did one themed for Buffy and one themed for Lost. We also did a non-TV theme called X Marks The Spot that was a gimmick rallye involving treasure maps. 🙂

I wanted to record that info here, as it took some research to dig it up, and I don’t want to have to dig it up again in the future. We are saving all of our dash plaques; we eventually want to mount them on a pretty board. We’re also saving one of the trophies we won in the Ghost Hunt. Rallying is kind of how we fell in love, so it will always hold a special place in our memory. 🙂

Holiday Video Gaming Round-up

I did quite a bit of gaming in the time between returning from our pre-Christmas cruise and now. I’d received several games from my wish list for the holidays. I figured I’d share my thoughts on the titles I’ve been playing lately.

  • Fallout: New Vegas – It’s really an expansion of FO3 more than its own game, by all reports, and that’s fine, because FO3 was a really good game. However, I started getting through the main questline way too quickly, so I double-checked a walkthrough. Sure enough, just like FO3 started out, you can’t continue in New Vegas after completing the main quest. So, I’m now doing side quests. It feels like it happened too fast, though. I’m not sure how much of that is because I know the system now and how much is that it’s just a much smaller game. Also, I found New Vegas itself to be disappointing. FO3 was filled with real landmarks done in post-apocalyptic fashion. Just from going through the game, I know DC geography better. I suppose I recognize that they couldn’t do that with Vegas for obvious reasons, but it’s not even close. I suppose I wish that they had just picked a different location if they couldn’t do Vegas properly. All of this is really a nitpick though. It’s still an addictive game where you are enveloped in the story from the beginning. And btw, fuck the legion. (Hilarious bugs persist, too. My favorite was after I respawned in Nipton and the scene was setting up, the villagers were walking up to their crosses and hopping on, essentially self-crucifying.)
  • Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two – It pains me to say this, but it’s horrible. Okay, the first Epic Mickey had some control issues with the third person camera. Not only are those issues still present, the game is practically unplayable in single player form. Instead of letting you switch back and forth between Mickey and Oswald, the tried and true method for handling single player in a co-op game, they make you cope with AI Oswald, and the AI is horrible. Also, Oswald is lame compared to Mickey, which I suppose he had to be, since you can’t make the challenges very dependent on him because the AI is so bad. I’m still very early in the game, but it feels like it’s lacking the playful nostalgia from the original. Also, the EM1 storyline was really good. It really captured your attention. They made you care about the characters. EM2…it’s just kind of blah. It’s like any one of the issues would be forgivable but poor story + bad single player + bad controls = bad game. I’ll probably still play it through, because I’m dedicated, but it’ll be on the backburner.
  • Kinect Disneyland Adventures – Okay, this is surprisingly awesome. It really does feel like you’re in Disneyland. As far as storyline, it’s kind of Fallout-esque in the sense that it’s quest-based, with side quests and a main questline. Mostly, you’re just visiting Disneyland and doing stuff there. You can explore freely, or you can follow the quest path. The controls are all Kinect-based, which has pros and cons. To run around, you put an arm out and basically point toward where you want to go, or bend your arm toward you to turn around. It’s intuitive, but after a few minutes of running around (which can feel painfully slow…did they really need the realism of a crowded park?), my arm was getting tired. When you encounter characters or rides, you wave to interact, and then you have gestures that apply once you’re in that interaction. For example, to get an autograph, you hold out both hands, palms up, and say, “Autograph.” The rides are all mini-games based on the ride, rather than a ride-through. But, this game has what I would expect from a Disney title: attention to detail. As you walk around, you overhear other park guests talking about what they’re doing that day. Yes, some of it is PR (“Wow, this popcorn is amazing!”, “Dad, can we come back tomorrow?”), but it’s also a nice touch that some games would have skipped. The tutorial is fairly complete without being tiresome, and the game has lots of ways to help you out gently if you seem to have forgotten how to do something. Most of all though, it feels like you’re having a day in the park. I can see it as being a great way to tide you over between visits or to help a younger child understand what the park is like before their first visit. Also, if you’re a WDW person who can’t go to Disneyland, this lets you tour a virtual version of the iconic original cheaply and easily.
  • Just Dance 4 for Kinect – There’s not a ton of gameplay difference here in this one versus Just Dance 3. It’s got the same kooky animations and the same overly forgiving scoring system. Just like previous versions, you have to play to unlock features that really should be present out of the box, like playlists. However, the Kinect experience has been thoroughly improved. The tracking seems to be much better, and we were able to play with four people in a less-than-ideal space without too much issue. Also, they added video capture which has lots of potential hilarity. But, overall, you’re basically just buying a new playlist of dance songs.

Thanksmisukah

This has been a whirlwind of trips. We spent Thanksgiving weekend in Detroit, mostly. We visited with family, and we gave out Hanukkah gifts (and received some from our close family on that side). Getting to see the adorable nephews was awesome. I can’t believe AN1 is going to be old enough for his Bar Mitzvah next year! He’s almost taller than I am. AN2 is a hoot. He’s even more of a ham than AN1 was at his age, which is hard to imagine but still true. On our way home, we stopped for an overnight in Indiana. This was one of the first Thanksgiving trips in MI/IN that we’ve done where there hasn’t been snow. There were some flurries in Detroit at one point, but nothing stuck. I skipped out on the Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales, mainly because they just weren’t that good this year.

Right after Thanksgiving weekend, DH had to go to Vegas for a bit, which gave me time to work on the job hunt. Right after DH got back from Vegas, we hopped on a plane to Asheville, NC to visit a casino down there and then drive to Charleston, SC to visit with my family. Asheville is a really pretty area. I wish we’d had more time there to explore, but I was eager to head down to SC.

For this SC trip, we had decided to rent a house out on Kiawah. DH was doing the Kiawah Islands Half-marathon to close out his 13.1-in-13.1 goal for the year, so having a place on the island was going to be convenient for him to get to the race start. It also allowed us to all be in one place for gaming and such. My parents fed us homemade food all weekend, which was awesome. It was too chilly for the beach or swimming, though still shorts weather for those of us acclimatized to northern reaches. DH and I enjoyed a nice walk around the island at one point, and he even did 20 miles on the day after his half marathon in preparation for running the Goofy in WDW in January.

DH completes 13.1 Half-Marathons in 13.1 States!

We introduced my parents to Ascension and played Empire Builder a few times. We also played sillier games like Zombie Fluxx. Mostly, we enjoyed each other’s company. 🙂

And, I have to say that while the vacation rental wasn’t as easy-breezy as the All Star Vacation Home in Orlando, it was still an awesome experience and certainly a great value. Per night, it was less than staying in a single hotel room on Kiawah would have been, and it was about the equivalent in cost of having two hotel rooms at normal to average city rates. We had a three bedroom house on stilts overlooking a small pond. There were three separate outdoor tables as well as a big dining table inside and a small table in the kitchen. Each bedroom had a small TV, and the main room had a big TV. I’m really thinking that I might try to coordinate “TravelCon” at some point, where I get a bunch of gamer friends together and we get a house at some scenic location but mostly have the intent to play games and socialize all weekend.

All in all, we had a good holiday season, and we were pretty much done with the holidays by mid-December, which was nice. 🙂

Europe Cruise 2012 – Rome Day 1

Since I had a sudden increase in free time, DH and I decided to use one of his free cruises to go back to Europe. We wanted to do the western Mediterranean. Because it departed and returned mid-week, we decided to get on the NCL Epic in Rome (actually Civitavecchia, which I keep wanting to call Citavecchia). Booking last minute meant that finding a reasonably priced hotel to stay in near Termini Station in Rome was a challenge; most places were sold out. However, we managed to book at the Funny Palace Hostel (for a traditional room with en suite bathroom, not in the hostel part), and we really were quite happy with it. The room was not all that different from our previous European hotel experiences. The main difference that affected us was that, while they will include towels at no charge, things like soap and shampoo aren’t in the room. Fortunately, I had brought my own shampoo, but neither of us had soap with us. Still, when you’re just staying one night on either side of a cruise, it’s all you need. There are stores right nearby where you can get soap and whatnot if you want. Also, an “express” breakfast of a pastry and coffee or juice was included, which was great for us.

We got into Rome in the evening. Our first challenge was hauling our luggage up four flights of stairs to the room. (One of these days, I will learn to pack lighter for these trips! Did I really need FOUR bridge books? Why didn’t I find them on Kindle instead? These are the things you think about while climbing four flights of stairs.) After that, we changed clothes, freshened up a bit, and headed out onto the town. Even though it was relatively late in the evening, Rome was hopping. Our hosts had warned us that the trains wouldn’t be running due to a planned workers’ strike that night, so we took a cab instead to the Spanish Steps to start a walking tour.

Europe Cruise 2012

The Spanish Steps are, among other things, a popular hangout for teens in Rome. It’s a place to see and be seen. There’s also a nifty fountain at the bottom.

Europe Cruise 2012

Europe Cruise 2012

Our walking tour then guided us toward the Trevi fountain. Along the way, though, it called out “the fanciest McDonald’s in the world”. We could NOT pass that up. When you first walk inside, it just seems like the new McCafe concept, albeit with some interesting art on the walls.

Europe Cruise 2012

However, after going down a long and dark (but inviting) hallway and climbing a flight of stairs, you end up in a McDonald’s wonderland.

Europe Cruise 2012

Europe Cruise 2012

Europe Cruise 2012

Europe Cruise 2012

DH decided he had to get a cone here, just to say he ate at this McDonald’s. I took advantage of the clean and complimentary bathroom while he ordered. Then, while he noshed, we worked on translating the signs.

Europe Cruise 2012

We think that one reads:

MILK: eat from pastures
IN SALAD
* Transport in vehicles with temperature controlled lettuce
* In one tree with one possum, rise to your camp to say yes and loudly for the Nostradamus salad
* Prepare the Nostradamus salad freshly like DiGiorno (not delivery), like Nell’s coochie and God’s Nostradamus restaurant

But…our Italian is rusty, so, don’t quote us or anything.

As we walked further, we came to a sign that I think speaks for itself.

Europe Cruise 2012

Before too long, we were at the beautiful (and crowded) Trevi fountain. I took lots of pictures that are in the gallery, but I’ll leave you with this dramatic image. (Yes, I went nuts with my art filters on this trip!)
Europe Cruise 2012

The Inside of Pancake

Ever wonder what Pancake’s insides look like? I meant to post these awhile back, but I’m only just now getting around to it.
Pancake Lateral X-Ray
Pancake Thorax X-Ray

The clinic where I take Pancake gives me digital copies of X-rays and whatnot, hence me having pictures of his insides. He’s getting an ultrasound tomorrow, to check for kidney stones. I’m hoping I get images of that, too! 🙂

Tea Hat

This is my tea hat:

Tea Hat
This is my tea hat. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

My tea hat helps me brew delicious mint tea at work. It keeps the teabags from falling in and also helps hold the steam in the pot.

Tea Hat brewing
The tea hat happily does its job with the Bodum pot. They're friends.

This particular tea hat is awesome because it also functions as a tiny potholder. It can be used to squish out the last bits of tea goodness from the bags.

Tea hat squeezing
Having awesome cartoons behind your teapot is critical to maximize the tea's power.

And, of course, it can also be used as a hat.

Tea Hat as a hat
It makes me look jaunty.

Drawings from the Animation Academy

As many of you know, my favorite thing to do at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (DHS) in WDW is the Animation Academy. It’s a 15 minute class where an animator shows you how to draw a character. I had a “duh” moment as I was deciding what to do with my latest art…I could scan it! Now, I’m sad for the ones I’ve tossed in the recycling bin!

First, here’s a drawing I did of Pascal, the chameleon from Tangled:

WDW DHS - Pascal

This is the second Mickey that I’ve drawn at the academy, and I’ve also drawn Minnie. Point being, I’m getting pretty good at this one, I think.
WDW DHS - Mickey

Conversation with a Printer

Printer: I see you’ve asked me to print out two photos. I will print out two blank pages of paper instead.
Me: Um, why would you do that?
Printer: Don’t you prefer two blank pieces of paper?
Me: No, not really.
Printer: Yes, you do. This is for you to sketch out your hopes and dreams. Don’t let other people decide what you look at! Forge your own destiny.
Me: But, I really wanted these two photos. (clicks print again)
Printer: Oh, I see. You want more sheets of blank paper. No problem. Coming right up.
Me: NO! I will turn you off and turn you back on again! I swear! Don’t make me do it! (clicks print again)
Printer: Alright, I’ll give you some more blank sheets of paper, but you really need to stop this. It’s bad for the planet. Trees are starving in Africa…or something.
Me: ::headdesk::

(inspired by a conversation I had with my Dad while he was trying to print something earlier today)

Cheetah Tales and Hipster Whispers

Last night, B* and I attended a benefit dinner for the Cheetah Conservation Fund. I had gotten an invitation as a result of a donation I made back when I ran the Cheetah 5K (my first 5K after starting my half-marathon training plan). It was held downtown, in a very nice law office that overlooks the river, and one of the things we got to do while there is meet a cheetah, pictured above. We also met Dr. Marker, who is the founder and director of the CCF. She works in Namibia to help educate farmers on ways that they can protect their livestock without having to hunt or kill the cheetah population.

It was very nice, and B* and I enjoyed the experience immensely. We listened to the cheetah purring contentedly as he was adored by all of us. He was a bit restless during the photo session, but this particular cheetah is in training to become an ambassador cheetah, meaning one that will do educational programs and do media appearances. We were like a beta test. 🙂

After we finished at the benefit (where, really, I felt very adored…it was nice), B* and I decided to see if there was a show we could go see. We initially were thinking ComedySportz, but we Googled and found a Super Mario themed burlesque show that intrigued us. The same theatre also had a similar offering themed on Star Wars that was showing a bit earlier, so we decided to give that a try. After a bit of a drive, we parked not far from the theatre entrance, at which point B* had to pay the meter. The meter was still operating for another 40 minutes, and each 15 minute period was a quarter. Neither of us had change, but the paybox took credit. B* used his card, with some grumbling about having to pay for five minutes, and we joked about the credit card having to be authorized for 65 cents. But then, with near perfect timing, the paybox declined the card. 🙂 It was just a glitch, but it cracked us up thoroughly.

While B* put the pay ticket in the windshield, I went to the box office to get our tickets. We were an hour early, and they had a show in progress already. They had signs up to keep quiet, so as I walked in, I closed the door carefully, and I whispered, “I’d like–”

“SHHHHH! Show in progress!”

I almost laughed. I was already whispering. I couldn’t go any lower. (B* later suggested that I should have said my next lowest level is “vibrate” and started buzzing at the guy.) So I walked over to the counter and tried to be even quieter. “Could I please get tickets to–”

The hipster in charge interrupted with a loud whisper, “Could you speak up?”

I can’t please these people! 🙂 After all of that, I learned that both shows were already sold out. D’oh! And after B* paid 65 cents for parking! So, we bailed and went back to our original plan of ComedySportz, which was funny as usual. I got home way later than I should have, especially since I had to wake up this morning to do the Corn Maze 5K (which went well, despite ominous weather). B* and I will definitely be doing that burlesque show at some point in the future. They seem to do a geeky series of them, so we imagine we’ll be able to do it in good time.

The Drunk Leading the Blind

After our day in Dubrovnik (which I’ll talk about in a single post about Croatia), DH and I decided to enjoy some late evening hot tubbing.  It’s always a good way to meet some other people as well as enjoy the hot bubbly water.  After some tub-shuffling (one tub’s bubbles weren’t on, and we didn’t know how to turn them on), we ended up in a tub with a couple from Valencia.  They spoke very little English, and DH speaks very little Spanish, but we managed some small talk anyways.  Then, they left and were replaced with another couple…and later a woman joined us who was very friendly.  She was an ex-pat living in Croatia with her husband, originally from Pittsburgh and Alabama.  We were having a good time talking to her and comparing notes on the trip so far, as well as learning about life in Croatia from a US perspective.  She saw something, I don’t remember what, in the distance and I wanted to look, so I went to grab my glasses from the edge of the hot tub, and they were gone! 

Now, I had put them in a very specific spot that was not prone to getting knocked either on the ground or into the hot tub, so I was shocked they were not there.  The only thing I could figure, especially after DH and I hunted for them as well as checking with the bars near the pool, is that one of the foreign couples had picked them up accidentally while gathering their things, thinking they were their glasses or sunglasses.  Our new ex-pat friend, Bridget, hunted around for them with us until her husband returned from checking on the kids, but we had no luck.  We were told that the main lost and found is at reception, so we went down to that floor to check, but again, no luck.  They said to check back as it might take awhile for whoever had them to get them over to reception.  But, at that point, I was tired and now sad, so I was pretty much done for the evening.

The next morning, we checked again after breakfast with no luck.  This was a sea day, so at least there wasn’t much to see.  I did have my prescription sunglasses with me, so I was stuck with the piteous choice of things being dark but clear or unclear and bright.  As is normal for NCL sea days, they had a liquor tasting scheduled.  What was not normal is that this ship, for whatever reason, scheduled all the tastings back to back on one day.  It was martini tasting (my favorite) at 2pm, followed by wine tasting at 3pm, and then beer tasting at 4pm.  DH and I chuckled about how there were sure to be some crazy people who did all three because of how they were scheduled.

We had told Bridget about how the ‘tini tastings tend to be both fun and a good value, and so we weren’t surprised when she joined us there along with her husband, Dave.  Another person we’d met, Sally, also sat with us while we enjoyed various martinis.  DH had gone to a frequent cruisers’ reception before the ‘tini tasting where they handed out free rum punch, so he decided to sit out the ‘tinis.  (He’s not much of a ‘tini drinker anyways.)  Well, as normal, I was schnockered after sampling 5 mini-tinis plus extras from the bartender.  Bridget and Dave also wanted to go to the wine tasting, and DH was up for that, so I went along though I sat that one out.  We ran into some of Bridget’s other acquaintances there, one of whom grew up in Charleston, so that was great fun. 

The beer tasting was next, but Bridget, Lindsay (from Charleston), DH, and I had no interest in it.  Lindsay’s husband, Ian, and Bridget’s husband, Dave, headed down to give it a go.  DH and I checked again at the front desk for my glasses (no luck), and then went to the bar city area to meet up again with our group.  So…DH and I were drunk, but our companions were definitely wasted.  They were barely walking without tumbling.  Bridget was chatting up random men and showing her boobs to them.  It was crazy.  It was hilarious, mind you, but crazy.  Then, DH and I wanted to do the progressive trivia round 1 at 5:45 that was right nearby so we went there.  (I should note that DH and I are enablers, as we fetched spare drinks from the casino for our companions while we got ones for ourselves at the same time.)  We decided our team name should be, “We are so drunk.”  Bridget kept falling out of her bar stool, so she eventually sat in a regular chair and then couldn’t stay in that successfully.  The whole group was loud and raucous.  But, we still somehow managed to get 11.5 questions right and narrowly avoided the best score for that round.  Some spoilsports came over and complained to us about the noise, but, in fairness, we sat at the bar, as far from the main trivia group as we could…and we were able to hear and answer the questions, despite being right next to the drunken crew, so yeah…screw you, old angry men!  We even had some people defect from their teams and come to ours to help answer questions for us (mainly due to Bridget luring them with her assets), so that may have been the real issue at hand. 🙂 

Anyways, after trivia, DH and I left the rest of the group and headed to dinner, figuring we needed some food in our stomachs.  Then, we went back to the room to rest (read: pass out) until the evening entertainment started.  We always enjoy the evening game show activities.  We got up eventually to go to one show and perhaps unsurprisingly, none of our companions made it there.    Also, DH and I both needed to go running, and we felt sober enough to manage that after our brief nap, so we went running around 10pm.  I’m proud to say that either I’m a better runner when inebriated (possible) or the track on the ship is shorter than it says it is (also possible).  I want to think the alcohol was the main contributor, so I can someday plan to do those wine-filled 10K’s.  We also stopped again at the desk to check for my glasses, and they were there!  As suspected, one of the couples had picked them up by accident.  Yay!  I could see!  And just in time, too, as the next day, we’d be in Piraeus/Athens.