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December 31, 2003

Obligatory "Best Of 2003" List

Favorite Movies Seen In The Theater: Return Of The King (Review pending, honest), The Station Agent (ditto), Talk To Her, The Pianist, Kill Bill Vol. 1.

  • Caveat 1: I somehow never got around to seeing Lost In Translation, but I have a hunch that it might have been up there.
  • Caveat 2: Only an exceptional year in fictional movies could keep documentaries off my Top 5. That said, a Top 10 probably would have had Capturing The Friendmans and Spellbound in the 6 and 7 positions.
Most Disappointing Movie Seen In The Theater: The Matrix Reloaded, duh.

Movie That, Had I Seen It In The Theater, Might Have Challenged The Matrix Reloaded For The Title Of 'Most Disappointing Movie Seen In The Theater': That would be The Hulk.

Favorite Movies Seen On DVD: About Schmidt, Y Tu Mama Tambien, About A Boy (yeah, I was surprised too).

Worst Movie I Watched The First 20 Minutes Of On DVD: xXx.

Favorite Fiction Books Read: The Hours, Empire Falls, Look At Me.

Favorite Non-Fiction Book Read: The Armchair Economist.

Favorite Album: Give Up by The Postal Service. Predictable but true.

Favorite Game: Age Of Steam.

Stupidest New Trend Witnessed: Drivers talking on their cell phones via "hands-free headsets" while still holding the cell phone in their hand. I have not the words.

December 30, 2003

I'll Be Prone For Christmas

The heartwarming yuletide tale of how I wound up in the Emergency Room on Christmas morning is available here.

I'll Be Prone For Christmas

Note: I combined two posts into this one for easier reading.

Part I

I had a very traditional Christmas this year, spent in a warm, quiet environment, shared only with those closest to me: The Queen, and the on-call staff of the Virginia Mason Hospital's Emergency Room.

Actually, the holidays came a little early this year. On the morning of December 23rd I woke to discover that Santa had brought a little something down my gastrointestinal chimney. But at first I thought I was just suffereing from a routine backache. The pain was in my left flank, just under the ribcage, so I assumed I had pulled a muscle in my sleep or something. Anyhow, I was experiencing only mild discomfort, so I headed off to work. I figured eight hours in my ergonomically-correct chair ought to fix me right up.

Instead, I wound up declaring it a sick day around noon, when I could no longer focus on anything beyond the fact that I had apparently been shot in the back with a crossbow. By this time I was sweating, perhaps feverish, and a little concerned about throwing up. I hobbled down to the bus station and took the first coach home. I'm not too proud to admit that there may have been some whimpering involved in this endeavor. Possibly even some moaning. Yes, I had become The Guy No One Wants To Sit Next To On The Bus.

When I got home I did a little Googling, and zeroed in on this page about the wonder of kidney stones. Here are some Fun Facts that are not even remotely fun:

  • "Typically, a person with a kidney stone feels a sharp, cramping pain in the back and side in the area of the kidney or in the lower abdomen." Check!
  • "Often there is nausea, fever and chills, and vomiting." Check!
  • "Kidney stones are reported to be more painful than gun shots, surgery, broken bones, or even burns. This pain is often described as the worst pain a person has ever suffered, even by women who have given birth." Holy shit!
I was less than thrilled about that last one. I didn't help that I'd been watching videos of women giving birth in these childcare classes, and so had some idea of what was coming down the pike (so to speak). It was also depressing to realize that my vow throughout The Queen's pregnancy that I wished I could "share her pain" was, in fact, a filthy lie.

The next day the pain had moved to my front, consistent with the "kidney stone" hypothesis. It also felt much better -- so much so that I was able to so some last-minute Christmas shopping (by which I of course mean "all my Christmas shopping"). If anything, the moderate pain in my abdomen distracted me from the excruciating pain of being at the mall.

And so, to the night before Christmas -- Christmas morning, really, since The Queen and I didn't hit the sack until 12:30 or so. Mamma in her 'kerchief and I in my cap had just settled down for a long winter's nap, when what to my wondering gut should appear but an sharp stabbing pain that just filled me with fear!

See, now the pain was my back ... again. Which meant that either (a) the kidney stone was going back up my ureter, like a kid at the playground clawing his way up a slide, or (b) I was afflicted with Something Else. Judging (b) the more likely of the two possibilities, we figured we better go to the ER to make sure it wasn't appendicitis.

(In telling this story a few days later to my friend J., a.k.a. "The Human Encyclopedia," I got to this point and he said, "Well, it couldn't be appendicitis, because your pain was in your left side and your appendix is in your right." Hey, thanks a ton for that timely information!!)

And that is the True Story how I wound up in the Emergency Room on Christmas day.

* * * * * * * * *

Part II

We arrived at the Virginia Mason Hospital around 2:30 AM.

Those of you familiar with the Seattle will recognize that while 9th avenue on Capitol Hill is not exactly the shadiest part of town, it would still not be your #1 pick for "Places I'd Like My Pregnant Wife To Be Wandering Around Alone In During The Witching Hour." So when we got to the hospital I accompanied The Queen to the parking lot two blocks downhill rather than being dropped off at the ER entrance.

The walk back up the hill was a real treat, let me tell you. I say "walk," even though, in truth, I was using the gait popularized by the sleestaks on Land Of The Lost. And even though The Queen was kindly trudging at a glacial speed, I lagged behind hissing "not so fast!"

(Later The Queen and I had a good laugh over my macho insistence in staying with her, imaging what would have happened if we'd actually been accosted. I'd yell "You rapscallions stay away from my wife!" in a quavering voice, hunched over and shaking a single fist, while she kicked the crap out of our assailants in defence of her hubby with the tummyache.)

I was apparently the only person in the city fool enough to have stabbing abdominal pains on Christmas, because, once we got inside, we had the joint to ourselves. So here's a tip, kids: if you plan your medical emergencies for December 25th you won't have to stand in line at the ER.

I filled out some paperwork was interviewed by the receiving nurse. I described my symptoms, telling her that I'd thought it to be a kidney stone, but that the pain kept migrating from my front to my back. At this she looked puzzled and said "That's weird." I was almost cranky enough to snap "I know it's weird ... that's why I came to the Emergency Room." But then I felt so bad about even thinking this that I instead said, "Sorry you got stuck working on Christmas."

"That's okay, I'm Jewish," she said, and then added, "Sorry you got a kidney stone on Christmas."

"That's okay, I'm an atheist." I replied. "So maybe I had it coming."

Then she asked me to rate the pain on a scale from 1 to 10, "Ten being the worst pain you have ever experienced." I found this question hard to answer since I have never been in a lot of pain -- never broken a bone, never had a serious burn. So, by definition, this was 10: the worst pain I had ever experienced. But I doubted it qualified for the blue ribbon, and told the nurse as much. "Well," she said, "then make 10 'the worst pain you can imagine'." As embarassing as it is to admit, the first thing that popped into my head was the scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Han Solo gets tortured. I gave the pain a 6.

Here followed two hours of Guess The Ailment. I lay on a bed, gown-clad and IV'd, occasionally contributing bodily fluids to the cause. The attending nurse, who was five years younger than me and about three times as pierced, occasionally dropped in to say that my tests came back fine. This sounded like good news until I realized it was secret code for "we still don't know what in the hell is wrong with you."

At one point a second nurse came in and stuck tiny metallic tags all over my body. She then clamped wires onto them, which were connected to a cardiosomethingorother that pronounced my heart to be A-OK. After unhooking everything the nurse ripped off the little stickers one by one -- Sthip! Sthip! Sthip! It was like a community college's "Intro To S&M" course.

Finally I won this medical version of "Stump The Band" and was rewarded with a trip to CAT scanner. An hour later the doctor arrived with the report from the radiologist and a diagnosis in hand.

"Sorry it took so long, but the condition you've got is brand new," the doctor said, as if the Gastrointestinal Afflictions Council had just rolled it out as part of their 2004 line. "It was only first diagnosed a few years ago, so we didn't even have it in our database. But I found a case study that describes your symptoms perfectly, and the CAT scan confirms it."

The doctor seemed pretty giddy that I'd had the good fortune to contract a hip, 21st century condition. Or maybe I was giddy from the pain medication. Either way, it turned out I was the proud owner of primary epiploic appendagitis (PEA).

[Note: Okay, so here's the part where I start using phrases like "my colon" in conjunction with words like "torsion". So if you're squeamish, or if you're some ex-girlfriend looking me up via Google in the hopes of rekindling an old flame, this is where you'll want to stop reading.]

Apparently the colon has these useless things called "epiploic appendixes" (finger-like projections of fat) attached to it, and the EAs sometimes get twisted. Yes, you heard right: PEA is a result of "epiploic appendix torsion." A EA's blood-supply gets cut off when its twisted, and this results in inflammation. Fortunately, the swelling generally causes the EAs to become untwisted; unfortunately, it still takes a while for the inflammation to subside, and it hurts like hell all the while. It's your EA's way of saying, "I may have no known anatomical function BUT DON'T FUCK WITH ME MAN!"

[Note: Dude, I totally warned you not to read that.]

This was pretty much the best of all possible diagnosis. PEA is not a chronic or preventable condition -- it's just one of those things that happens from time to time. And I don't mean "one of those things that happens to me, Matthew Baldwin, from time to time" -- there's no reason to believe that I'm any more likely to get PEA again in the future than, say, you.

"But I dunno," I hear you saying, "An painful, unpreventable condition that could strike at anytime doesn't sound so great to me!" Yeah, but consider the alternative. If PEA was preventable, I would then be charged with the task of actually trying to prevent it, and this would inevitably involve cutting back on my alcohol consumption, or eating less Italian sausage, or, let's not even think about it, exercising. More importantly, PEA can strike at any age: the case studies I read on the Internet involve people ranging from 18 to 60. So -- and this is the take-home message here, folks -- my having primary epiploic appendagitis is in no way an indication that I am getting old. Huzzah!

Anyway, since the only real medical advice they could offer was "grin and bear it," I was discharged from the ER with a pat on the back and a round of "good luck"s. On the bright side, though, I did receive the perfect gift for the modern holiday season: a vial full of Percocet! Merry Christmas indeed.

Who wants some postscripts?

  1. The pain peaked on Christmas morning and it waned from that point forward. As of today, December 30th, I no longer even feel the pangs that have haunted me for the last day or so.
  2. The staff at the Virginia Mason Emergency Room that morning could only be described as "way super awesome." Everybody was so friendly that, when they got all psyched that I had a rare condition, I was actually pretty proud of myself.
  3. The moral of the story: Do not write about your gastrointestinal distress on your blog unless you want to receive email from sympathetic readers who will describe their own analogous ailments in horrific detail.

December 24, 2003

Boardgames On The Beat

If you heard me on The Beat and are are looking for more information on the games described, head on over to SeattleSpiel.

[ link | Games]

December 22, 2003

Christmas Week Goodies

I'm taking Christmas week off, but here's a few goodies.

My 2003 Holiday Survival Guide For Slackers appears in The Morning News today. Credit where it's due: thanks to

  • K for Revolve: The Complete New Testament
  • Skwm for the Trebuchet store.
  • Rob (Cockerham?) for reminding me of my buddy's "Juiceman" story.
  • Everyone else who offered suggestions.

I'll get a review for Return Of The King up by the end of the day festive holiday season, (look for it below this post).

I'll be yammering about boardgames on the KUOW's The Beat. I believe my segment is slated to air on the December 24th show.

I've updated my favorite posts.

And speaking of goodies, Daymented sent the yeti some cookies and a kickass mix CD. I hereby declare Stace and Sean Dayment to be: awesome.

Merry What-Have-You, and a happy Something Else!

December 18, 2003

Texas Justice

Have you seen that program Texas Justice? I just started watching it and, man, it's great. I usually don't like these daytime judge shows, but it's always fun to see a defendant in a squabble over garbage cans get the death penalty.

December 17, 2003

Best For Last

Sorry I couldn't post yesterday, but I spent all day standing in line for the big midnight premier. I thought getting there a day early would put me near the front of the queue, but people had been lining up all week so I was closer to the middle.

The atmosphere in line was electric: everyone was super excited and a lot of folks were in costumes and stuff. There was this one guy near the front of the line dressed like an Xtreme snowboarding pig. I don't know if he made the costume himself or rented it but, either way, it was awesome.

This is the first time I'd gone to one of these big "opening night" debuts. I really loved the first two in the series, but both times I had been content to experience them a few weeks after they had come out. But this time -- I dunno, I just couldn't wait. I really wanted to be one of the first people in the world to taste the latest addition to the line.

My enthusiasm was mostly due to the fact that the first two wildly exceeded my expectations. Like a lot of people, I was pretty apprehensive when I heard they were making the first one -- I figured they were going to completely mess up a classic. So I was totally blown away when I finally tried Mountain Dew: Code Red and discovered that it was not only faithful to the spirit of the original Mountain Dew, but actually improved upon it. I liked Code Red so much, in fact, that I was certain that the second would fall short of the standard it set. But Mountain Dew: Livewire was everything I'd hoped it would be. Sure, I wasn't wild about its finish, but what do you expect for the second installment in a trilogy?

Anyway. Last night, at exactly 12:00, they threw open the doors to the Safeway and we finally got the opportunity to purchase Mountain Dew: Porcine Glory. And my review? It was fantastic! They truly saved the best for last. All the caffeine of the original Mountain Dew in a pork-flavored soda -- genius! It didn't feel like a sequel at all; in fact, it tasted like the others in the series had been inexorably building to this wonderous, grand conclusion. This is a beverage I'll be drinking again and again!

If Porcine Glory doesn't win "Best Soft Drink" at the 2004 Thirsties it will be nothing short of a scandal. Mark my words.

December 15, 2003

Q: What are your strengths?

A: Um. Well, I have great analytical skills and love solving puzzles, so when I'm given a task I will dedicate myself to it until I have it figured out. I'm also very methodical. I don't take shortcuts -- I make a plan and attack a problem step by step, documenting everything as I got. Those are probably my greatest strengths.

Q: Good. So now tell me: what are your greatest weaknesses?

A: Weaknesses? Uhhhh, hmm. Oh, okay, here's one. When my home world exploded, large chunks of the planet's crust were infused with radiation and hurled into the depths of the space. Some of these fragments landed on Earth, and, when I find myself in close proximity to one of these stones, I lose my superpowers and become very weak.

Also: I'm a perfectionist.

I totally dog dare you to say that at your next job interview.

[ link | Humor]

December 12, 2003

Homeland Security Update

Because of the burgeoning debt, the United States Congress has agreed to dramatically scale back the scope of the "Star Wars" Missile Defense Program. This is what it will now consist of:

On the bright side, the new system is expected to stop about as many missiles as the old system would have.

December 11, 2003

Life In The Fishbowl

My series of Morning News essays taken from my Peace Corps journals continues today with Life In The Fishbowl.

The Dean Meme

Oh man, am I ever sick of the another McGovern meme currently being propagated by Republicans ostensibly thrilled that Dean is going to clinch the Democratic nomination. Dean ain't my first choice for the nomination, and I honestly don't know if he can beat Bush in 2004, but the whole "Dean = McGovern" thing drives me nuts.

So do me a favor. The next time someone feeds you this line, reply:

Dean is McGovern? Huh. Well, then by extending your analogy we can conclude that Bush is Nixon: a man so obsessed with power, secrecy and personal vendettas that the second term of his presidency will collapse under the weight of its own corruption.

Knowing what we know now about the two candidates, I think most people would prefer to vote for McGovern.

At this point the person comparing Dean to McGovern will have to (a) concede to your dizzying logic or (b) admit that the analogy is facile. (Or, if you're on The O'Reilly Factor, (c) tell you to shut up.) In any case, this would help nip this meme in the bud.

December 10, 2003

Oh Yeah? Well Solaris Was Boring!

In the elevator this morning a man and a woman were talking to one another in Russian. I couldn't understand anything they were saying until, in the middle of a sentence, the man dropped in the title "Big Fat Greek Wedding." At this the woman adopted an expression of disgust and began speaking disdainfully. This too was entirely in Russian, except for one part where she rolled her eyes, made air quotes, and said, in English and with utter contempt, "American style."

Father's Roundtable

Two dads-to-be and two dads-now-are participated in The Morning News New Father's Roundtable. I was one of 'em.

December 09, 2003

The Passing Of The Gasket
C'mon everybody: do The Robot!

Dun dun ... dun dun ... dun dun
I say whip it!
Dun dun ... dun dun ... dun dun
Whip it good!

December 08, 2003

The Glow Is Fading

The Queen:

"The last trimester is ridiculous. He's fully formed, you know -- now he's just sitting around getting fat. There's no excuse for him to still be in there."
Two months to go ...

Holiday Survival Guide For Slackers 2003

I'm working on my annual Holiday Survival Guide For Slackers and I'm looking for suggestions. If you know of some stupid crap available for purchase on the intarweb, you can mention it here or drop me an email. Thanks!

December 05, 2003

Friday Afternoon Scratchpad

Allow Me To Apologize In Advance

Until recently the Seattle Symphony only performed works by a single composer: The Brandenburg Concertos, The Art of Fugue, The Goldberg Variations, etc. But when audiences started complaining about the lack of variety, the conductor decided to think outside of the Bachs.


One of my coworkers is deaf. When we see each other in the hall, I always greet him by silently mouthing the word "hi" instead of just saying it. I'm fully aware of how stupid this is but can't seem to break the habit.


Whoa, addictive.

My life as a dwarf.

Actual billboard. Not an actual billboard.

Amazing True Fact: Babies Are Adorable!

Our friends have a two year-old daughter named A., who's at the stage where speech revolves around stock, sing-song phrase like "Da-da!" and "uh-oh!"

A. was watching us adults play Smarty Party, a game similar to Outburst in which players try to come up with the items that fit a given category. We had named eight of "The Top Ten Religions, By Number Of Followers" and were stumped by the remaining two. We finally gave up but suspected that we would kick ourselves for not remembering at least one of the two omitted.

The Reader told us we had missed "Jainism." Most of us were, like, "oh man, I never would have guessed that."

"The other one," the Reader continued, "Was Baha'i." At his there was much slapping of the forehead, and we all shouted "Baha'i!" in unison.

A. merrily waved and exclaimed "Buh bye!"

Ode To An Obnoxious Guy

If anyone
Is more annoying
Than the guy who thinks
He's the only person in the world

It's the guy who thinks
There are only two things in the world:
And a conspiracy against him.

The Bad Review Revue

The Haunted Mansion: "Lamer than Tiny Tim on a damp London day." -- Brian Parks, VILLIAGE VOICE

Bad Santa: "A frozen pile of reindeer droppings, the cinematic equivalent to passing a kidney stone." -- K.J. Doughton, FILM THREAT

Honey: "Amid the endless stream of catch-a-rising-star movie cliches are a few new ones, notably 'skinny girls always win out in the end' and 'hootchie bad, faux hootchie good.' -- Marc Savlov, AUSTIN CHRONICLE

Gothika: "All the subtlety of a Judas Priest video." -- Desson Thomas, WASHINGTON POST

Timeline: "The trouble with this movie is basically everything." -- Wesley Morris, BOSTON GLOBE

December 03, 2003

Good Gift Games 2003

Note: If you heard me on The Beat and are are looking for more information on the games described, head on over to SeattleSpiel.

It's everybody's favorite holiday tradition:  Matthew Baldwin's Annual Good Gift Games Guide!

Every year I assemble a list of those games that, in my opinion, make swell presents for the holiday season.  In compiling these guides, I start with the assuption that the gift recipients are not habitual game players, so the games selected (with a few exceptions) are those with few rules and a focus on fun.  I also try and emphasize inexpensive games but, this year, I largely failed in that regard.  Oh well --  the economy's pickin' up, right?

A quick word on "complexity". I've included five  levels, here:  "No-brainer," "Simple," "Average," "Moderate" and "Advanced."  This indicates how easy the game is to learn or teach, but not necessarily how easy it is to play well.    Also, I'm grading on a curve here -- "average" does not mean "halfway between Hi-Ho Cherry-O and Dungeons and Dragons," it means "Average" in terms of a G3. All of the games listed would be suitable gifts for non-gamers (with the possible exception of Amun-Re, the one advanced game).

This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, just those that came to mind as I was writing this.  If there's another game you want an opinion on, drop me a line at matthew@defectiveyeti.com -- my knowledge in these matters is frighteningly encyclopedic.  And don't confine yourself to this year's games alone: be sure to check out the G3s 2000, the G3s 2001,  and last year's guide, which also includes the Canonical List of G3games.

Enough jibba-jabba!

Coloretto (Complexity: No-brainer; Number of Players: 3-5; Playing Time: 20 minutes; Cost: $10):  You want to hear all the rules for Coloretto?  Here you go:  On your turn you can either (a) draw a card and add it to a row, or (b) take all the cards in a row.  That's it. Well, okay, maybe there's one or two other rules, but, honestly, I've hit the highlights.  And yet, it somehow manages to be terrific fun.  Go figure.

Clans (Complexity: Simple; Number of Players: 2-4; Playing Time: 30 minutes; Cost: $20):  I typically don't like abstract games, but there are two game designers who have a knack for creating abstract games that are simple, clever, brief, and contain just enough theme to win me over.  Leo Colovini is the first, and I find his Clans --   a souped-up version of Nim ostensibly about the formation of prehistoric villages -- to be unaccountably addicting.

Paris Paris (Complexity: Average; Number of Players: 2-4; Playing Time: 45 minutes; Cost: $20):  Michael Schacht is the other designer who manages to create abstract games I like-- in fact, his Web of Power is one of my all-time favorites.  Web of Power is now out of print, alas, but Paris Paris fills much the same niche:  it is easy to learn, it plays in under an hour, and it will leave you saying "let's try that  again."

Pirate's Cove (Complexity: Moderate;  Number of Players: 3-5; Playing Time: 90 minutes; Cost: $40):  Enough with the abstracts; on to the themes!  I recently bought Pirates Cove as my annual "Holiday Game," and it has been filling the role admirably.   Captain a pirate ship, send it to the four corners of the globe in search of booty, 
and greet rival corsairs with blast of cannonfire. Puts the "Arr!" into "replayable."

Mystery Rummy: Al Capone and the Chicago Underworld (Complexity: Average; Number of Players: 2-4; Playing Time: 30 minutes; Cost: $10):  This is the fourth in the "Mystery Rummy" series, and many folks think it's the best.  I harbor a slight preference for Wyatt Earp, but I like that Capone (unlike Earp) can be played as a four-person partnership game.

Queens's Necklace (Complexity: Average; Number of Players: 3-4; Playing Time: 40 minutes; Cost: $20):  Queen's Necklace is one of those rare games that's superb with three.  Set on the eve of the French Revolution, players become Royal Jewelers, vying to purchase valuable gems and trying to curry favor with the court.  And check out the well-done online tutorial.

Smarty Party (Complexity: No-brainer; Number of Players: 3-8; Playing Time: 30 minutes; Cost: $20):  Remember Outburst, that game where someone reads a category ("Parts of the body that come in pairs") and then everyone shouts out answers for 60 seconds or so?  Okay, Smarty Party = Outburst - the time limit + clever scoring system + rubber pants.  The cards contain some errors (which drives me nuts), but overall this is a very fun party game.  And I'm not kidding about the pants.

New England (Complexity: Moderate; Number of Players: 3-4; Playing Time: 90 minutes; Cost: $35):  The sleeper hit of the year.  When New England was released in German it received little acclaim, but the new English version has been garnering raves and just bagged the GAMES Magazine "Game Of The Year" award.  The heart of the game is an innovate auction system in which the amount you agree to pay for items also dictates whether you'll have the pick of the litter or have to pick through the dregs.  It's also quite nice to look at.

I'm The Boss (Complexity: Moderate; Number of Players: 4-6; Playing Time: 60 minutes; Cost: $30): I've owned the German version of this game for years, but it's been so long out of print that my friends who enjoy it (and many do) have been unable to get their own copy.  Thankfully, the game has been reissued, this time in English.  I'm The Boss is pure negotiation, as you  wheedle, beg, and coerce your opponents into collaboration on a series of business deals.

Amun-Re (Complexity: Advanced; Number of Players: 3-5; Playing Time: 90 minutes; Cost: $30):  Amun-Re has a pretty steep learning curve, but it's a game worth the effort.  Players strive to build pyramids, farm the Nile, and placate a fickle Sun God.  How Amun-Re rewards players (as a group) depends on how much they sacrifice (as a group), and it's this delicate balance between cooperation and competition that makes the game hum.

Balloon Cup & Odin's Ravens (Complexity: Average; Number of Players: 2; Playing Time: 30 minutes; Cost: $15):  Two different games with lots of similarities:  both are card games, both are for two players, both are short 'n' simple (Balloon Cup a little more so), and both are quite fun.  Most prefer Balloon Cup slightly (me, I like Odin's Ravens a smidgen more), but both are perfect for a game-playing twosome.

The Bucket King (Complexity: Simple; Number of Players: 3-6; Playing Time: 30 minutes; Cost: $20):  Why wasn't this on last year's list?  I have no idea, but it certainly should have been.   Protect your pyramid of buckets while sending farm animals out to knock over the pyramids of others.  So, yeah, the theme is stupid. But that won't prevent you from totally stressin' out when a sheep is maurading towards your bucket cache.

Other Great Games

A couple of games I'd hesitate to give as gifts but are worthy of mention.

  • Age of Steam:  Age of Steam meets none of the criteria for a Good Gift Game:  it's long (3 hours), it is expensive (40 bucks), and it's way too complex for casual gamers.  But it was my favorite of 2003, so I'd be remiss to omit it.
  • Alhambra:  Only absent from the above list because most would probably prefer to wait for the English version to be released late next year.
  • Fresh Fish: Me, I love this game, but it's certainly not for everybody.  Suitable for those who enjoy puzzles, spatial reasoning, or headaches.
  • Settlers of the Stone AgeSettlers of the Stone Age is as fine a game as any of the above, but, honestly, if you're giving gifts (or even purchasing for yourself), the original Settlers of Catan is still the way to go.   That said, Stone Age is a great substitute for Catan if you've played the latter to the point of indifference.
  • Edel, Stein & Reich:  A wonderful game but, at the moment, only available in German.

Second Opinions

Don't trust the yeti? Here's some other "best of" lists for your consideration.

  • The 2004 GAMES Magazine Games 100:
    • Game of the Year: New England
    • Best Advanced Strategy Game:  Wildlife (this is by my favorite designer and on a theme that fascinates me, but I have somehow managed to never play it. Buy it and invite me over.)
    • Best Family Game:  ZooSim
    • Best Family Strategy Game:  I'm The Boss
    • Best Card Game:  Queen's Necklace
    • Best Two-player Game:  Balloon Cup
    • Best Party Game:  Dibs (very similar to Smarty Party, listed above)
One last note. All the links in this guide point to Funagain.com, which used to be my retailer of choice (and continues to have the best website of any vendor, bar none). But I've recently begun using Game Surplus for all of my ordering, as their prices are lower and their customer service is exemplary. FYI.

December 01, 2003

Texas Trip: The Final Frontier

The Queen and I flew to Texas on Frontier Airlines. Never heard of it? Neither had I, and I found this vaguely disconcerting. I don't like flying under any circumstances, and I wasn't exactly psyched to be on an airline less well-known than your average brand of salad dressing. But I ordered our tickets on one of them Internet Ticket WWW sites, and my insistence that we receive the lowest possible fare resulted in Frontier.

Frontier, it turns out, is one of those bargain basement outfits like "Southwest." We figured this out even before we got to the gate. Standing in line to hand over our luggage, we saw that three different airlines inhabited this section of check-in counter. On the wall behind them, Delta had a fancy, digital readerboard that displayed up-to-the minute information about the arrival and departure times of its jets; Horizon's had a plastic-and-magnets affair that clerks had to manually change to show ETAs and ETDs; Frontier had a four dollar Wal*mart whiteboard and a couple of dry-erase markers.

Frontier's slogan is "A Different Animal," another element of the airline that was apparently designed to make me feel ill at ease. When it comes to, say, video games or fruit juices, I find the prospect of something completely new intriguing. But when it comes to large, heavy machines improbably traveling through the ether, I'm not really in the market for an innovation. If the architecture of regular airplanes is modeled on birds, what "different animal" am I to assume Frontier is emulating? Bats? Bees? Golden -- god forbid -- Retrievers?

It turns out that the "Different Animal" tagline is just part of a marketing strategy targeting the lucrative "six year-old girl" demographic. Each Frontier jet, we discovered when we arrived at the gate, has a picture of some Lil' Baby Critter on its tail wing, each looking like it had been ripped from the pages of the "Adworable Widdle Animals 2004 Wall Calendar." The Queen and I jokingly wondered if you could special-request a particular mammal, like asking for an aisle seat. "My wife is pregnant," you'd say to the check-in clerk, "so it's imperative we receive an ocelot."

"We have some great news!" someone gushed over the PA system at our gate, moments before we were to board. "We are very please to announce that we will be featuring DirectTV on this flight!" (They said this like MacGyver had just been on board, rigging up the system with paperclips and gumballs, but I've since discovered that Frontier always has DirectTV on their flights.) Basically all this meant that every seat had a small television set embedded in its back to ensure that, even on a cross-continental flight, no one will have to forego the sweat, sweet nectar of televised soma for even a moment.

But the TV cost money, as with everything on Frontier. They didn't even have meals on the flights -- you had to buy your own $9 ham sandwich at the airport commissary and bring it on board with you. During the preflight instructions I expected the stewardess to say that, in the event of a sudden depressurization of the cabin, an air mask would drop from the overhead compartment, and all you would need to do is swipe a major credit card through the reader in your armrest to purchase 3 minutes of oxygen for only $10.

Some folks, including the man sitting next to me, ponied up the $5 for the DirectTV headsets. The Queen was mesmerized by the guy two rows ahead of us on the opposite side of the aisle; she kept elbowing me and saying, in a tone of sheer wonderment, "That guy's been watching Animal Planet the entire trip! He paid five bucks to watch Animal Planet!"

About halfway through the flight I glanced at the TV belonging to the man to my left. On screen were two sock puppets, conversing. The man, sensing my gaze, frantically jabbed at the channel changer until he found a basketball game.