“Thrawn” is a breath of fresh Star Wars air.

Timothy Zahn’s new book, Thrawn (April 2017) is a brilliant novel to stand against the string of relatively weak Star Wars movies that have been coming out these past few years. (Note, it is on sale for $1.99 for the next 5 days)

I love this book because it is strategic but simple to understand. It gives complexity to characters that become villains of the Star Wars galaxy. It has smart allies and antagonists across the board, and is often a political, military, and social battle of equals with their own strengths and weaknesses. Thrawn is a brilliant strategist but terrible politician. Arhinda, the second “protagonist” is a brilliant bureaucrat but overly paranoid and is all too willing to change loyalties when advantageous for her.

Interspersed between the chapters is Thrawn’s monologue or thoughts. They are pithy and feel like they belong in Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”. Yet they are never cheesy and I think we’d do well today to follow them:

All people have regrets. Warriors are no exceptions. One would hope it was possible to distinguish between events caused by one’s carelessness or lack of ability and those caused by circumstances or forces beyond one’s control. But in practice, there is no difference. All forms of regret sear equally deeply into the mind and soul. All forms leave scars of equal bitterness.

In Arihnda Pryce, you can see where seemingly innocent but ambitious behavior transforms into shades of manipulation and cruelty. I love her character development so much.

In Thrawn, you see an internal struggle of being part of a genocidal empire that helps keep the peace in the Star Wars universe. Thrawn is a good guy on the wrong side, believing in stability above all else. His interactions with our main character, Eli, show that rather than being driven by paranoia, Thrawn is driven by principle and loyalty to his friends.

A friend need not be kept either within sight or within reach. A friend must be allowed the freedom to find and follow his own path.

Timothy Zahn wrote the original Thrawn books has done a great job tying in the post-Disney Star Wars with the “Legend Extended Universe” that is made “not canon”. I haven’t read the original Thrawn books, but hope to get to them as soon as possible. This is very well written YA, and makes me want to dive head-first into the Star Wars universe.

Asimov’s “Second Foundation” continues his streak of simple characters but brilliant imagination

Asimov’s third book of his Foundation series – “Second Foundation” is a 4 star book, purely on merit of the strategic climax pulled off in the story. I think it is worth a read to experience the story, but it suffers from the same things as his previous books in the series: static characters and very simplistic storylines.

Two thoughts here:

  1. The second foundation reminds me of the one of those stories that have a ton of story and backstory… just to set up the big pun (in this case a strategic stroke of brilliance). 
  2. It also reminds me of a big chess game with grand strokes. He effectively believes in Great people and naively focuses on a small subset of people that “change the course of history”. People prepare their chess moves in advance, and proceed to out-duel each other in a series of “i think you think i think” battles.

It’s hard to explain why Asimov is not a beautiful writer, but the stories always feel transactional, the twists forced, and sides with heavily unfair advantages. There’s little nuance to the books, and it all feels like a mediocre storyline that carries you over to the Little Twist, and then the Big Twist.

Overall I enjoy Asimov’s vision, themes and the diversity in which people engage with the “greater purpose” of the Seldon plan. Some people become complacent, while others become skeptical, and others fanatical. He uses generational gaps as a tool to refresh characters and show that sometimes the lessons of the past are forgotten.

Asimov was only 22 when he wrote this genre-defining “Foundation” series. I’ll attribute to his youth the brilliant imagination but simple understanding of human nature in this series. Despite whatever criticism is commonly leveled against Asimov, he rightfully deserves being one of the “big three” science fiction authors.

 

Mistborn’s study of religion seems to reflect Sanderson’s exploration of his own faith

The Mistborn series was Brandon Sanderson’s biggest hit… (before the Stormlight Archives blew it out of the water.)

But the series is still very good, and showed off Sanderson’s ability to create a beautiful world, fun dialogue, and an interesting magic system. Most brilliantly, it showed off Sanderson’s ability to create a crazy story arc that unwraps into a huge, sprawling plot and wraps itself back up again with a tiny bow on top.

That being said, the most interesting thing to me in Mistborn (and Sanderson) is around Religion.

Mistborn and Sanderson and Religion

Sanderson is a Mormon, which gives light to some patterns in his writing. You can see him teasing the edge of normal adult themes but the books stay mostly PG. His action is brilliant, but his conversations around romance and relationships have a child-like innocence.

The man seems to have a constant, intellectual struggle with his own relationship with the LDS (Latter Day Saints), and is open about it in his blog post reflecting on JK Rowling’s revelation of Dumbledore’s sexuality. This blog post is so, so characteristic of his open-minded writing style, and makes me appreciate that his character and his books are cut from the same cloth.

How much of his struggles are in the mind of Sazed? How does he think about featuring socially liberal characters and undergoing an study of hundreds of theoretical religions?

“It sounds to me, young one,” Haddek said, “that you’re searching for something that cannot be found.” “The truth?” Sazed said. “No,” Haddek replied. “A religion that requires no faith of its believers.”

I can’t help but wonder if Sazed’s intellectual, dispassionate study of religions around the world parallel’s Sanderson’s own attempt to question but come to terms with the Mormon Church.

How had Sazed become the one that people came to with their problems? Couldn’t they sense that he was simply a hypocrite, capable of formulating answers that sounded good, yet incapable of following his own advice? He felt lost. He felt a weight, squeezing him, telling him to simply give up.

In general, the entire series toys with the idea and roles religion and prophecy play in our lives. The idea of religious idols getting twisted and transformed by its practitioners is a consistent theme across the three books. Whether it be the Lord Ruler, the Survivor, the Survivor of the Flames, or the capital B big religion, they all come with their illusion of legitimacy, flaws, and fights between those of the faith.

I think Sanderson is the best fantasy author of this decade, and the way he approaches faith in his books simply makes me respect him even more.

Reviewing 25 more iOS games (circa Feb 2018)

The past half year has been more games than I’d like, but it’s been a good process of exploration of enjoyable games. Not all of these are very new, but there definitely is a bias towards new games.

Rankings

All played with iOS 7 plus. Bold = Paid game. 

10/10
I think these check off all the boxes of an amazing game. Highly recommend.
  1. Banner Saga 2 (Grid Strategy)
9/10
These are absolutely amazing games with one or two things that prevent it from being perfect. I absolutely finished as much as I could, or uninstalled to prevent myself from being debilitated by getting too addicted. 
  1. Star Wars KOTOR (RPG)
  2. Titanfall Assault (Strategy Duel?? e.g. Clash Royale)
  3. Arena of Valor (MOBA)
  4. Through the Ages (Board Game)
  5. Elder Scrolls: Legends (Card Game)
  6. Lost Portal (Card Game)
  7. Agent A (Escape Room)
8/10 
These are pretty solid games with no huge complaints. I’m happy to have played them however, I wouldn’t go out of my way to play them too much. Some of these (i.e. Vainglory) are supplanted by better versions above.  
  1. Vainglory (MOBA)
  2. Reigns, Her Majesty (Decision Making)
  3. Age of Rivals (Board Game)
  4. Hero Hunters (Shooter)
  5. The Room, Three (Escape Room)
  6. Iron Marines (Strategy)
7/10
Some of these I spent a good amount of time on, hoping they’d get better. They mostly ended up being a huge grind and waste of time. I think many of these have brilliant game mechanics but the Free to Play nature of them (along with autoplay) make me regret spending time on them. 
  1. Alchemist’s Code (Grid Strategy)
  2. Lineage 2 (MMORPG)
  3. Rules of Survival (Survival Shooter)
  4. Iron Blade (Swipe RPG)
  5. Dust, AET (Platformer)
Below 6
These games generally disappointed. They were often burdened by equal F2P issues as 7-rated games, but didn’t have great mechanics either. I wouldn’t recommend these.
  1. Ultimate General Gettysberg (Real Time Strategy)
  2. The Trail (Don’t know)
  3. NBA Live (Basketball)
  4. FIFA Live (Soccer)
  5. Onmyoji (RPG)

Onto the Reviews

Banner Saga 2 10

As beautiful and brilliant as the original Banner Saga, with new characters and fun.
 
I think I spent around 10-20 hours on this game. I really enjoyed the storyline, and the fact that your decisions are so often consequential. (i.e. if one character dies early on then it affects the story options later in the game).
 
This is one of the perfect and fun strategy grid series that I cannot recommend enough to new mobile gamers.

Star Wars KOTOR 9

+10 for being a brilliant story with tons of consequential decisions throughout the game. You don’t only pursue good or evil in the main storyline. Rather, these decision points exist in almost all minor interactions and side quests. You can choose to be helpful, or a huge asshole across the board.
-1 for controls.
This is a 9 because the controls aren’t that great. Definitely would have preferred WASD w/ clicking, but the mobility was absolutely worth it.

Titanfall Assault 9

Titanfall Assault is an isometric Clash Royale clone, and executes it extremely effectively. 
For those who haven’t played CR, you strategically drop units across the map to win capture points. The units move autonomously to capture objectives. Each unit has different costs and counters, so you have to manage resources to out-duel your opponent. 
I really like the capture points system rather than just base race. These packaged 3-5 minute games make it easy to squeeze in throughout the day.

Lost Portal 9 

This is a pretty good card game that rivals the two peer games Hearthstone & Elder Scrolls:Legends. The mechanics are much easier to learn and a bit more forgiving. 
 
The brilliance of this game is difficulty progression. You have to make nuanced but steady improvements in your deck to battle your way through the ~6 stages in the game. Each stage has 3-4 levels, each level has 3-4 floors, each floor has 3-4 opponents, so 6 x 3 x 3 x 3 gives us at least 100+ unique opponents to power through.

Through the Ages 9

Never played the board game, but this this screams to me very good port” of a very fun board game game. This game’s resource management and counting rivals the complexity of Agricola (i.e. blows Settlers of Catan out of the water), and the app collapses this into a very functional UI and does all the counting for you.
Ultimately a highly addicting game, and with challenging CPUs. I can’t imagine the commitment needed to play an online game, so I won’t try that. In the end, absolutely worth it if you love board games and want to harden those chops.

Arena of Valor 9

This is legitimately a good game. AoV basically a League of Legends clone that has taken China by storm. There are some others (i.e. Mobile Legends, Vainglory, etc.) but I believe AoV is the best at this moment. Games are around 25 minutes for a ranked 5v5. Matchmaking is nearly instant.
 
A combination of joystick & auto-target simplifies the otherwise difficult mechanics in LoL, and allows you to focus on the fun parts (i.e. positioning, team fights, etc). Admittedly, it is a bit harder to specific units for single-target spells, but that’s for another day.
 
Also, just like league, this has very limited pay to play” mechanics so you can be on
 
One of the main issues with Vainglory, for example, was if you fat fingered an attack, you would move towards the enemy rather than attacking & kiting. 

Agent A 9

This is a fun, cutely animated escape room” type game. You are Agent A, trying to sneak into enemy operative La Rouge’s” to stop her from eliminating your entire intelligence team. The colors are bright, so It is a great combination of playfulness, challenge, and a nice thick plot. Altogether a pleasant play.

Elder Scrolls: Legends 9

This one is a brilliant card game that has equally fun if not funner mechanics than Hearthstone. Matchmaking was very reasonable, and I don’t remember having any problems with progression. This is one of the few games I uninstalled to prevent the addiction from getting too far.

Hero Hunters 8

I think the issue is that early on it’s very non-obvious where the strategy in the game is (other than composition). It is like playing some bite-sized version of Time Crisis on mobile, where the big mechanics involve moving between cover”, switching between characters, and shooting enemies.
 
I liked it but it was fun for about… 2 hours until I moved on.

Age of Rivals 8

I downloaded this in an attempt to play a board game on the computer. It actually has very difficult mechanics and non-trivial CPU difficulty. Minus points for not allowing you to adjust your deck! This is a pretty annoying part.
 
This is one of the few board games” where I think multiplayer is pretty reasonable each game is < 20 minutes. I think I’m scared of going back to it because it Is easy to forget all the strategies very quickly. 

The Room Three 8

This game is one of those escape the room” type games that is slightly creepy but intricately designed and absolutely beautiful. I didn’t finish it entirely, but enough to love and appreciate the artistry.

Iron Marines 8

This is an attempted Starcraft-style RTS that is much more simplistic. I don’t think these types of games work too well on mobile, and in the end I couldn’t really figure out how to effectively deal with the mechanics. 

Rules of Survival 8

+ for implementation
– for difficulty, generally not worth getting into this genre (though i guess you can say the same about FPS, RTS, MOBA  etc.)
I played this game for like 2 hours, and decided this PUBG/Fortnite style game was not for me. This is such an experience-driven game that as a newbie you are completely dead in the water in this free for all battle royale. The mechanics for this game are admittedly very good and I imagine almost as fun as the PC version.
 
Overall plus points for implementation, and minus for difficulty, generally not worth getting into this genre (though i guess you can say the same about FPS, RTS, MOBA  etc.)

Onirim 7

This is another classic board game/card game port to Mobile. It is kind of fun in the beginning, but effectively a sophisticated version of Solitaire with different cards and rules. If that is your thing, you will love Onirim. Otherwise, it is a solid free game, easy to learn, and worth a shot.

Lineage 2 7

+1 for well designed open world, no stamina in F2P
-1 for Autoplay, lack of customization
I really wanted to vent by playing a brainless Diablo-style clone. Lineage is a beautiful open world game with reasonable characters and a diverse map. There is no end of things to do, and stamina is not an issue.
 
However, the big issue with Lineage (and a lot of modern games coming out of asia) is Autoplay”. In this mode, your character plays itself, and you end up doing little more than equipping your character and deciding which missions to embark on to get in on all the promotions. Yes, you don’t *have* to autoplay but once the option is available it becomes a heavy disadvantage not to use it.
 
It also gets minus points for lack of customization (everyone has same spells), and lots of fetch/kill quests.

Dust AET 7

Sideways platformer. Pretty fun but in the end it is some sort of mindless mashing of attacks and combos. The story doesn’t seem good enough to make up for that.

Alchemist’s Code 7

This is a mobile F2P version of Final Fantasy Tactics. I think that it is legitimately a fun game and has good mechanics. It has a grinding structure where you can get most of the characters.
The story is pretty crap, and overall I just couldn’t bear myself to finish or continue playing. In the end, pretty addicting but overall “wouldn’t reinstall”.