Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Guilty Pleasures: Escape from New York

The current decade may turn out to be the golden age of dystopian young-adult fiction, but the jaded, economically stagnant 1970s were the golden age of dystopian science fiction movies. They were cheap to make (plenty of abandoned factories and vacant lots to film in), and they reflected the American and European public's skepticism about the future. Examples include Silent Running (set in outer space but with an ecological catastrophe back on Earth), Soylent Green, Sleeper, Rollerball, Deathrace 2000, A Boy and His Dog, Logan's Run (both a movie and a TV series), the first television adaptation of Brave New World, a short-lived children's show called Ark II, and, at the end of the decade, The Last Chase and Mad Max. While it was released in July 1981, Escape from New York should be included in this cohort, given that it grew out of four cultural and political developments of the 1970s: post-Watergate political disaffection, the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-81, rising crime rates, and the ongoing decay of what the opening voice-over calls “the once-great city of New York.”

The premise of the film is, I suspect, fairly well known. It is 1997, and a crime-ridden, embattled United States has become a police state, albeit a somewhat negligent one; to deal with its growing criminal population the U.S. government has turned Manhattan Island into a vast walled prison camp for undesirables. After the American president (Donald Pleasence) crash-lands in New York on his way to an important peace summit, condemned war hero Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is recruited to infiltrate Manhattan and rescue the prez. Mayhem, in the form of several gun fights, car chases, an unexpected reunion with an old partner in crime (Harry Dean Stanton) and his squeeze (Adrienne Barbeau), and a climactic confrontation with the prison's capo, The Duke (Chef), ensues.

I became aware of EFNY in the summer of 1981, when my brother and I saw an ad for the boardgame version of the movie (produced by TSR Hobbies, the D&D people). We were thrilled to learn the game was based on a movie, and we nagged our mother (we were good naggers) until she took us to see it. I think she must have liked the film as well, because as I recall we went to see it twice in the theater, and many times on video thereafter. The movie did well in general release, making $25 million (four times its cost), creating a brief period of fame for director John Carpenter, turning former child-actor Kurt Russell into an action movie hero, and even spawning a lousy sequel in 1996. The dystopian future it predicted did not, for the most part, come to pass. World War Three did not break out, the American violent crime rate dropped after 1990, and New York City recovered; even Manhattan's former crack houses are now high-rent apartments. (We do live in more of a police state than we did in 1981, thanks, curiously enough, to a plane crash or two in New York City.)  But it remains an appealing and entertaining movie nonetheless.

Part of Escape's lasting appeal comes from its memorable characters, each played by a first-rate actor or actress.*  It is great fun to watch Isaac Hayes take command of the stage without saying a word, Harry Dean Stanton connive and lie, Adrienne Barbeau flesh out her few lines with great facial expressions, Frank Doubleday camp it up as Romero, Donald Pleasence transform from a fearful wreck into a ball of murderous rage, and the disaffected anti-hero Kurt Russell develop a trace of conscience.  The movie also deftly blends three film genres, at least two of which remain popular: action movies, “Fall of New York” films – a discrete genre between 1970 and 1990 -- and science fiction. The sci-fi trappings are restrained, limited to a few James-Bond gadgets issued to Snake and the prison warden's extensive surveillance computers**, and give the film an air of near-future realism, much like another 1981 sci-fi movie, Outland.  

It is as an action movie that Escape really shines: Carpenter took the existing conventions of action films and imparted his own brilliant, berserk twists to them. Most modern action films have running gunfights; EFNY has gunfights in which the protagonist uses his gun to perforate walls and then dive through the impromptu cut-outs.  Other action films have car chases; EFNY has a pimped-out town car chasing a taxi cab on a bridge covered in land mines.  Some action films have a gladiatorial contest between the good guy and the bad guy; Escape has Snake fighting a seven-foot-tall professional wrestler with nail-studded baseball bats. Many action films have comic relief; EFNY has a prisoners' drag show singing "Everyone's Coming to New York" and a lovable old cab driver (Ernest Borgnine) who flings molotov cocktails at assailants while listening to "Bandstand Boogie."  All this in just an hour and forty minutes of run time.  What's not to like?

Yes, I have heard that there is a remake in the works, and no, I don't plan to see it, unless it is directed by Edgar Wright or the Coen brothers.


* With the exception of a few minor parts played by people of varying degrees of talent.  One of the helicopter pilots is played by Carpenter, and one of the Secret Service agents on Air Force One is played by Gerald Ford's son.  No, really.

** Fun fact: computer animation was so expensive in the early 1980s that Carpenter “simulated” it with actual ink-drawn animation. To make the film's wire-frame "computer" animation of Manhattan, the FX technicians built a model of the city and lined the buildings' edges with glow-in-the-dark tape.  Another fun fact: Escape's matte shots of Manhattan were painted by James Cameron.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Games That Don't Suck: 7 Wonders

Civilization-building games have been around since the publication of the Civilization board game in 1980, and they have been popular since Sid Meier developed the first Civilization computer game in the early 1990s. Such games, which require players to build resources, develop cities, make scientific breakthroughs, fight wars, and build monumental structures (or Wonders), can be very rewarding, but they generally also have complicated rules and take many hours to play. Game designers have been trying to develop a “Civilization lite” board game for some years, with limited success. With their 2010 game 7 Wonders, though, author Antoine Bauza and his marauding Belgian play-testers may have finally reached this goal, creating a game with the feel of a civ-builder but much less complexity and a much shorter play time.

In 7 Wonders players focus on developing a city associated with one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: Rhodes, Ephesus, or Babylon, for example. The game is divided into total of three Ages and 18 turns (six turns/Age). During his/her turn, a player usually will focus on building up his/her city or constructing his/her wonder. A player may do one of three things on each turn:

Construct a building (the standard action),
Build a stage of his/her wonder, or
Cash in a card for 3 money, used to buy resources.

Wonders earn victory points and each has a special ability associated with it that the player earns after building the middle stage – an extra resource, extra money, a free science field (see below), etc. The heart of the game, however, is the construction of city structures. Some of these produce raw materials, like wood or stone (sorry, Catan players: no sheep); some produce finished goods, like glass; some generate coins or give a commerce bonus; some generate military strength that helps earn military victory points; some (like temples and statues) simply give you victory points; some give fields in a particular science (of which there are three, symbolized by a gear, a compass, and a tablet); and some, known as guilds, give victory points for certain sets of cards or other “criteria.”

On his/her turn, a player can build one structure or wonder stage provided s/he has sufficient resources for it. If the player's city doesn't have resource structures that produce some or all of the goods needed to buy the new building or stage, s/he can buy resources from a neighboring city for 2 coins per resource, provided that neighboring city actually produces that resource. One can only buy resources from the cities of one's immediate neighbors – the players to one's left and right. (This is one of the ways the designers have kept the game's play time to an hour, even if there are more than 2-3 players.) There are also some structures that, once built, allow the player to build later Ages' structures for free – a workshop, for instance, allows a player to build a free laboratory.

The players' building choices are limited by the availability of resources and by the game's signature playing mechanic: card-drafting. Each player starts each Age with seven cards, of which s/he selects one to build (or use as a marker for a Wonder stage or trades for three coins) and passes the rest to the player sitting next to them. This gives players an opportunity to deny neighboring players the structures they might need to pursue a particular game strategy, like a military buildup or an accumulation of scientific buildings. On the next turn the player takes one card from her new hand, which she received from the player sitting next to her, and builds it (or uses it as a marker), and so on until they have only one card left, which they discard. This occurs after six turns and marks the end of an Age.

Before new Age cards are drawn and passed out, the players resolve military conflicts. Military structures generate from one to three crossed sword-and-shield symbols, representing each player's military power. Each player with military power will automatically fight a war at the end of each Age with their neighbors. Whoever has the most sword-and-shield symbols in these conflicts receives a military victory marker, ranging in value from 1 to 5 victory points (depending on the Age), for each battle they win (though they can only fight their neighbors). Each loser receives a defeat marker worth -1 points. Apparently these are fairly limited wars, which is just as well. Plenty of wargames on the market for those who prefer conflict simulations.

At the end of the game players earn victory points (VP) in seven ways:
  1. for completing the stages of their Wonder
  2. for building civic structures that are worth a specified number of points
  3. for building certain mercantile structures that are worth victory points
  4. for building guilds and meeting the conditions on them
  5. for winning military conflicts
  6. for their coins (1 VP per three coins, rounded down)
  7. and for scientific fields, on an exponential scale. For each set of cards with the same scientific field (compass, tablet, or gear), the player receives a number of VP equal to the square of the number of cards. Players also receive another 7 VP for each set of three different fields. These points can really add up.

There are many different strategies for accumulating points, but in my experience a balanced approach works best. One can rack up a lot of points with a pure-science strategy, but someone who has been focusing instead on building civic structures, winning battles, and building their Wonder can usually accumulate more.

**

One of the nice features of the game is there are relatively few parts – just the seven “wonder boards” (the players' play mats), the cards representing structures (which can double as markers for stages of a wonder), coins, and military victory markers. There are no resource tokens because one cannot pile up resources from turn to turn, and because resources are automatically generated by one's own and one's neighbors' resource structures. It is also a quick game to play, even with 6 or 7 players, because one can only interact (trade, fight) with one's immediate neighbors. And players need not merely focus on building up their own civilizations, because the drafting mechanic allows them to affect what cards their neighbors receive, and military conflicts can yield a lot of points for their winners toward the end of the game. The “screw-thy-neighbor” aspects of the game, however, are not so dominant that they lead to a lot of hard feelings at the end. The most common reaction I've heard from new players at the end of their first game is “Let's play again!”

Are there any shortcomings to the game? 7 Wonders was designed for both American and European players, so some of the cards and Wonder boards use symbols whose meaning can be opaque to beginning (or even intermediate) players. Fortunately, these are decoded in the rule book. Also, some people might be deterred by the $49.99 price tag. As with Dominion, however, this game has at least $100 worth of replay value.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Spiritual Emptiness We Seek

Hiero's Journey, Chapter Six:

(For the previous entry in this series, see here.)

Having been knocked unconscious again – I suspect Lanier has trouble knowing how to end a chapter – Our Hiero awakens in the hold of the Evil Unclean Mutants' lightning-gun boat. No good can come of this, we say to ourselves, and our suspicions are confirmed when Per Desteen is taken off-board, none too gently, by an EUM priest and a Hairy Howler heavy, “Chee-Chowk.”* The Evil Mutants have taken Hiero to a small fort on a lifeless black island, Manoon, located somewhere near present-day Mackinac. The EUM priest, “S'duna,” tells Hiero that the isle has “the spiritual emptiness we seek to encourage the growth of pure thought” (133). S'duna would be right at home in one of the Bond rip-off movies of the 1960s, perhaps even in Operation Double 007.

S'duna and Chee-Chowk fling Hiero into a locked cell, where the super-psychic gun-slinging priest-warrior springs into action, psychically speaking. After erecting a shield against the Evil Mutant priests' Psychic Bad Touches, Hiero manages to find a mental “wavelength” that lets him tap into the priests' thoughts and perceptions without compromising his own defenses. He finds that only one of the priests is monitoring him, while S'duna, his handler, is drugged out and dreaming of recreational pleasures “foul beyond belief” (137). This euphemism, incidentally, was already quaint when Lanier wrote Hiero's Journey. Today, saying “foul beyond belief” merely means one has never been on the Internet, nor seen a John Waters movie. It also leads me to wonder whether the Church in Hiero's time still practices the sacrament of absolution, and whether Hiero, as an ordained priest, has ever heard any confessions. Probably not, given his squeamishness about the Evil Mutants' “perversions.”

It does not take Hiero long to effect his escape. He uses his telepathy to find Gorm, who along with Luchare has escaped the mutant attack and is now a safe distance from Manoon, and promises to join him soon. The killah priest then plants a psychic command – go check on the prisoner, stat – in the monitoring priest's mind, and, when the unsuspecting Evil Mutant unlocks his cell, kills him with a Psychic Headbutt (unintentionally, but gladly). On the way out of the fortress Hiero runs into Chee-Chowk, who seems glad to have the opportunity to mash the escapee. Unfortunately for the Howler, Hiero had just found his sword in a nearby storeroom, and after a short fight he buries the blade in his assailant's head. “A pity, Chee-Chowk,” he mused aloud. “Perhaps if decent men had raised you, you'd have been just another kind of man, not a foul, night-haunting ogre” (145). This is as close as Lanier comes to the egalitarian attitude of Terry Pratchett, and one must give him credit for not casting all evil mutants as irreparably so.

Some evil mutants are apparently less competent than others. The Evil Unclean Mutant priests were apparently too overconfident to guard the harbor, and Hiero manages to steal a sailboat and head out into the lake. Shortly after Hiero's departure the Evil High Priest S'duna wakes up, finds his prize prisoner has escaped, and mentally commands giant lampreys to attack Hiero's boat! Eek! Is this the end for Our Hero? Probably not, because there are still nine chapters to go!

Though let's admit it: we're still mildly curious about what happens next.

**

Coming next: The reunited adventurers discover some radioactive ruins, like you do.


* Chee-Chowk is Hairy Howler slang for “It's Society's Fault.”