Games We Play: New Year’s Eve Edition

Some years we go out, many we stay in.

This was a staying in year, at least after a nice dinner out with friends.

Afterward, it was just the two of us (and Best Cat) at home, relaxing away the last hours of 2019, may it rest in pieces.

Somewhere along the line we decided to play some games, which led to us standing in the den, where (most of) the games are, and that’s where the following conversation occurred:

THE EMPRESS OF WHISKY: We have too many games.

ME: I don’t know you anymore.

THE EMPRESS: No, look — there are games stacked in that chair, a few on the floor, some on that end table …

ME: I have been saying we should buy another bookcase.

THE EMPRESS: We don’t need another bookcase!

ME: <gestures at the games stacked in that chair, a few on the floor, some on that end table>

THE EMPRESS: Look, we don’t even play some of these! We should get rid of the ones we don’t play.

ME: So, everything but Castles, then?

THE EMPRESS: <gives look>

ME: Okay, maybe we don’t just play Castles, but we have been playing a lot of Castles, lately.

THE EMPRESS: True. But there are lots of games here we haven’t played in years. Or, ever. <points> Those are still in shrink-wrap!

ME: <stares at shoes, hoping to avoid another conversation about game spending>

THE EMPRESS: <sighs the sigh of the long-suffering spouse of a game addict>

ME: <idea bulb over head>

THE EMPRESS: <worried look>

ME: Let’s play them, then! All of them! A new year starts in just a few hours. We can make this our 2020 project.

THE EMPRESS: <slightly excited> And any we don’t play get rid of?

ME: Well, I wouldn’t go that far … we might not get to all of them.

THE EMPRESS: Uh, that’s kinda my point!

ME: Let’s say we’ll get rid of any we don’t enjoy playing. But we have to play them first.

THE EMPRESS: Okay.

ME: No repeats!

THE EMPRESS: Wait a minute …

ME: Decide now when in 2020 you want that one game of Castles to be.

THE EMPRESS: Maybe we start each time with a game of Castles as a warm-up!

ME: <sighs the sigh of the long-suffering spouse of a Castles addict>

 

And so began The Project.*

*(The results of which will be chronicled here as Games We Play.)

Look, I don’t know how many games we have.

It’s not that I can’t count that high or that they’re so unorganized that I can’t find them all to count them. I just … don’t want to math that much, okay?

Suffice to say there are a lot. Like a lot, a lot. So many that we will not realistically get through all of them in a year, even if we really pick up our playing rate.

But we’re going to give this a go, anyway.

And so as to give us a head start, I am going to count the games we played on the last day of 2019 because, at least in spirit, they are part of this. Don’t hold their year against them.

 

Deadly Doodles

Details: Designed by Samuel Mitschke and Randy Scheunemann for Steve Jackson Games, 2019. 1-4 players. Quick.

Source: I bought it for The Empress at Christmas 2019.

Overview: It’s fun. We played it with my younger sister and her husband on Christmas Day at their house. (We also “played” it with our five-year-old nephew. He drew lines. It was cute.)

The game comes with four dry erase map boards, markers, and a set of cards. Draw four cards each turn to tell you what segments you have available to draw that turn. Attempt to connect segments to collect treasure and weapons while fighting monsters and avoiding traps.

Thoughts: This is not a deeply strategic game, but it does require some careful thinking and planning to win. Spot of luck in the card order doesn’t hurt, either. You don’t see what other players are doing while it’s going on, so it’s sort of a play-against-the-game sort of game, but there are some interactive actions (traps!) and it’s fun at the end when everyone shows off their mad (or mad!) orienteering skilz.

Result: On New Year’s Eve, I beat The Empress 28-24.

Record: Jon 1, The Empress 0

Verdict: Keep

 

Carcassonne

Details: Designed by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede for Hans im Glück, 2000.* 2-5 players. Short-to-medium.

*(The German original. My version was distributed by Rio Grande Games in the United States. The U.S. license has since been purchased by Z-Man Games.)

Source: I bought it, jeez, shortly after college? When it was still newish, anyway. It won the Spiel des Jahres in 2001, and my copy does not have that on the box, so it’s an early edition.

Overview: Each turn you draw a tile, then place it adjacent to matching tiles already in play, thus slowly creating a sprawling countryside full of castles, roads, fields, and monasteries. When you place a tile, you have the option to add one of your meeples to it, thus setting yourself up to score points on the growing castle, road, field, or monastery.

Thoughts: It’s a classic for a reason, and it popularized the tile-laying game style. Carcassonne itself has about a dozen expansions adding tiles and rules. Our copy includes extra tiles from at least four of those, but we prefer to play under the original rules. There are several other Carcassonne games with different themes (and varying rules) out there, and we own a few. Maybe we’ll even get to some of them before 2020’s out.

No two games are the same, and it’s fun to build things while blocking, stealing, and generally aggravating your opponent(s). There is some luck in the tile drawing, but tile and meeple placement weighs much more heavily in the outcome.

It works fine as a two-player game, but — as is the case with many multi-player games played by just two — it can get pretty intense with the direct, head-to-head nature of play. It’s really fun with three or four players. Five (or six, with an expansion) players can make it seem to drag.

Result: On New Year’s Eve, I beat The Empress, 189-188.

Record: Jon 2, The Empress 0

Verdict: Keep.

 

The Downfall of Pompeii

Details: Designed by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede for AMIGO, 2004.* 2-4 players. Short.

*(Distribued by Mayfield Games in the States, at least my copy was.)

Source: We bought this one after playing it at Steve Jackson’s Ogre Launch Party in Austin back in October 2013. (Another couple had a copy, and they were very excited to have it, as it had just come back into print after a long time out.)

Overview: It’s another acclaimed tile game by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede! This time, the tiles aren’t that big of a deal until the end, though. It’s more a card and meeple placement game until then. First, you populate the city, before rapidly de-populating it once the volcano blows.

Thoughts: This games is always a hoot. Nothing says “fun” like tossing your opponent’s meeple into a volcano! (The game includes a really spiffy 3-D volcano.) The card draws can make it play pretty random and swing-y at times, but it’s ultimately a game of strategic meeple placement, followed by a quick, mean game of tile placement and meeple burning. See also: “fun.”

This plays very mean with just two people, and it’s really better with three or four. It’s actually one of my favorite three-player games. (Good, balanced three-player games are hard to find.) It also plays reliably short, with built-in timing based on fixed numbers of card and tile draws.

Result: On New Year’s Eve, I beat The Empress by several escaping meeples, but I forgot to get an exact count.

Record: Jon 3, The Empress 0

Verdict: Keep

Special Appearance: Best Cat tried to stay up to watch us play, but she ultimately decided to sleep through the transition from one year to the next.

Games We Play: An Introduction

The Empress of Whisky and I play a lot of games: board games, card games, role-playing games.

We’re pretty competitive about the board and card games, and we are most definitely not that couple you hate because they’re always helping each other out when you play a game with them.

Hell, no.

In fact, we have a saying: “I love you … outside the game.”

(In a sign of how seriously we take this, the line made its way into our wedding vows.)

Inside the game, we fight like strangers at best, but more often like neighbors with a long-simmering dispute over that one tree on the property line that no one wants to prune or rake up after.

It’s awesome.

We love playing games with friends, and we’re always thinking it’s been too long since we went to or hosted a game night. (It always is!)

But we also play a lot of two-player games, just us, head-to-head.

That’s how we spent New Year’s Eve, ushering in 2020 at the dining room table over a series of games.

Then we got up and played several more on New Year’s Day, after brunch and while the black-eyed peas were still simmering.

As we were doing this, I decided it would be a great thing to write about, since it’s a subject I haven’t hit on before — at least, not regularly — and I’d been looking for something in the semi-regular feature category that wasn’t just more whisky.

So, here we are then.

First proper post will show up shortly after this one, detailing those games we played on New Year’s Day, then others will follow throughout the year as we play through our collection.

Oh, right. The collection.

We have a lot of games. Like, a lot, a lot. So many that storage is becoming an issue. Thus we’ve decided, with reluctance, to prune out a few.

The only fair way to do that? Play ’em all, of course.

May the best games win.

Superstitions for the New Year

Do you have any New Year’s Day superstitions?

Boy, do I.

Well, I don’t have them, per se, as I am not a superstitious person, but I am subject to them as a native Southerner.

Here are the big ones I learned growing up:

No washing clothes on New Year’s Day.

Mom always handled this one by having a massive wash-in on New Year’s Eve, and growing up I remember at least once seeing her standing anxiously near the washer waiting for a load to finish as the clock approached midnight. Also? Drying doesn’t count. At least, that’s what Mom says. Don’t argue with Mom.

My Younger Sister has taken this approach as well, and I heard from her yesterday about how her day was going, and she was excited to say the laundry had all been slain ahead of schedule.

I take a more literal approach. The superstition says don’t wash on New Year’s Day. I can handle that without washing everything in the house the day before. This is basic procrastination, and I am its master.

I did some towels yesterday, but there are some left. And I didn’t have a full load of clothes ready to wash. I won’t bother with any of this today, because what’s another day?

(Caveat: This is not superstition related, just how I generally approach laundry. Is there enough to wear today? We are good, then. The rest can wait. See also: Procrastination.)

No sweeping on New Year’s Day.

Be still, my heart. The odds of me picking up a broom on any day, let alone a holiday, are sliiiiiim. I am a modern man with a vacuum cleaner, thank you. Actually, I am an ultra-modern man with a robot vacuum. To be on the safe side, I will run neither today. (The theme so far in these superstitions is avoiding house work, and I am here for that action.)

There was one year, however, when Mom corralled my sister and I into raking all the leaves in the front yard. We expressed the opinion that raking was close enough to sweeping as to be courting disaster. Mom (whom I suspect just wanted us out of the house for a bit at this late point in our extended holiday breaks at home) overruled us, so rake we did. For hours. Ugh. Anyway, as a result of that incident I added my own superstition.

No raking on New Year’s Day

Don’t give me lip about creating my own superstition. It has to be as valid as any of the rest of them, I figure. It’s even on-theme, what with being an avoidance of chores.

Anyway, these days I have a real easy way to get by on this one, which is called living in a condo. (Note: This works for most forms of yard work, be they rooted in superstition or not.)

Eat black-eyed peas for luck.

The way I see it, any food-based superstition can really just be re-framed as a holiday food tradition. No one says it’s “bad luck” to not eat turkey on Thanksgiving, right? We eat that bird because of tradition. And because of yum.

Anyway, black-eyed peas. I love them.

For me, New Year’s Day is just a great excuse to do black-eyed peas right. Most years the last thing I do before bed after watching the ball drop on New Year’s Eve is to put a full pot of peas in salted water so they can get a good overnight soak. This way, when I wake up, they are ready to start their slow (two hours or so) simmering cook on the stove the next morning and be ready in time for the holiday lunch.

I absolutely do not go in for crock pots or insta-pots, or any other new-fangled way of cooking them. I’m generally pretty science-positive and new-technique-friendly in my kitchen, but doing black-eyed peas the old way is a tradition with which I do not mess.

Eat greens for luck. 

I’ve also heard this one as eat greens for prosperity (ca$h money, yo) in the new year.

I guess I’m doomed to be poor, given my relationship with green vegetables (and most other vegetables), which is, basically: “Leave me alone, and I’ll leave you uneaten.”

Most years, just for sport, I’ll choke down a few green beans, as they’re the closest thing to “greens” I can tolerate. You can keep your damned collards, though.

Getting back to the “foods as tradition, not superstition” thought: If black-eyed peas are the Thanksgiving turkey of New Year’s Day, I guess that makes greens the cranberry sauce for me. (Yeah, I don’t like cranberry sauce. Sue me. Or, better, just appreciate this means you get to eat more of it yourself.)

Something I’ve forgotten

There’s (surely) another Southern New Year’s Day superstition/tradition I am forgetting as I write this.

There are (certainly) New Year’s Day superstitions/traditions from other communities / parts of the country / parts of the world that I do not follow because they aren’t mine or I am ignorant of their existence.

If you know of some good ones, feel free to share in the comments.

Updated Thoughts on Dry January

They’re still basically the same as they were when last I brought the subject up.

I will add, this time, that these are my thoughts, the ones that work for me.

If you, your liver, or your family need a break from alcohol — for a month, for a year, forever — do it.

I make a bit of light sometimes of my drinking, but if I may be serious for a minute — hush, it’s possible — I acknowledge not everyone has it so easy. I know and appreciate my good fortune in these matters.

Cheers.

2019 Whisky Wind-down, 1: The Down

A calico cat, in closeup, stares at you. Over her shoulders, just out of focus, sits a bottle of Ardbeg Kelpie and a tumbler with a dram poured in it.

Today’s dram: Ardbeg Kelpie.

Today’s tasting notes: If you love big, cask-strength Islay whisky, the sort where the first sip scores your mouth to prepare to lay down a sweet ride on the ocean … get thee to your best bottle shoppe and acquire this. I don’t have a seal of approval or such, but this would be on any such list I developed.

Today’s brief preface to thoughts: A kelpie is a legendary creature, specifically a shape-shifting water-beast in Celtic lore, said to haunt the lochs of Scotland.

I don’t know if such things are real. Legends tell us stories we may choose to believe, of things that may have been real once (or remain real but hidden). It’s a matter of choice to believe in them, to seek them out, to find our own truths.

Today’s thoughts: I suffer from depression and anxiety.

This has been the case for me for at least half my life. Until recently, however, my struggle was carried out on a personal level only.

That changed this year.

I finally acknowledged it was time I had some assistance. Getting to that point took an incredible amount of time, frustration, and overcoming fear. So much fear. When you’ve lived half your life learning to cope in certain ways, you really might not be inclined to give those ways up on the hope that someone — an external someone — might have a piece of the solution you’ve been needing.

This is especially true when the one and only person you really trust to talk to about such things is yourself.

I’m not going to make this a long, mopey recovery post. Frankly, I don’t have that in me. I’m still a bit amazed I have this much in me. But one of the remarkable things about the ongoing improvements in my mental well-being is an ability to look at something, keep looking at it, and even start to do something about it.

Not coincidentally, these are all common factors to overcoming writer’s block.

I may never be the scribe I aspire to be. I may never be good enough to be the understudy to the person who carries the pencil box of the person who holds the backup pencils for the official pencil box carrier to a third-tier, semi-notable writer … but dammit I’m going to stop worrying about the outcome and just get some words down.

Nothing else for it.

My mental improvement has been a journey, and it’s not over. I owe tremendous thanks to so many people who helped me get to the point of seeking help, receiving help, and keeping going when the help takes time to, well, help.

Several friends, whom I will not name here, have gone through, and continue to go through, similar issues. Their support — especially, in many cases, just their examples in living their lives — has made such difference in mine.

Several family, whom I will not single out, have also helped tremendously in this regard.

Okay, I will single out a couple, only because I know specifically they will not mind.

Without The Empress of Whisky, my life partner, I would not be here, full stop. She’s the pole star in my wanderings, and the constant that keeps my going. I love her fully and forever.

Also, Cat. She really is the best cat.

Today’s toast: To the future, and to the joy that comes of having one.

2019 Whisky Wind-down, 2: The Wind

A bottle of Passport Scotch whisky sits next to a poured dram and U.S. passport, which is open to a page showing a Costa Rica entry stamp.

Today’s dram: Passport Scotch

Today’s tasting notes: It’s a blend. It tastes as much like generic Scotch whisky as you can imagine, in this case on the peaty side with a slight rough edge. The label says its contents are “predominately from Speyside” — I don’t get a particular Speyside vibe off it, though — and it’s made by William Longmore & Co. It’s fine.

Today’s thoughts: I’m rarely drawn to blends, but this bottle called to me in the duty-free shop, so I picked it up on a lark because the name amused me in an international airport.

(There’s actually a stor y about buying this and then fighting with the TSA about it, but I don’t have a lot of time tonight, and I don’t need to get on any government watch lists, so I’ll save that gem for another day.)

This purchase was on the way back from Costa Rica, which you may recall was where this blog got stuck for a bit.

Frankly, I could still be there.

No, really. Everything in the past two years might just be a fever dream I’m having because I fell asleep in the sun on the beach. Totally possible. Partially desirable.

Part of the joy of the Costa Rica trip, after all, was spending some time outside the States, in the company of people who also needed, after our first year in neo-fascist America, to get away for a bit. The temptation to just never come back was mighty tempting.

I did not succumb to that one.

Instead, I let another temptation take me — the one to just lie down and shut up, to let the world go by, to let the bad things go unremarked.

I still don’t know what I should be saying about things, but I am here, in my home country, which will probably always be my home country, and I daily surround myself with the kind of people who make this a country worth staying in and worth fighting to keep free.

Today’s pseudo-philosophical attempt to relate whisky to life: A blend may or may not be stronger than the sum of its components, but it is a sum, not a single thing. Seems like there’s a lesson in there worth applying out here.

Today’s toast: To there (and back again).

2019 Whisky Wind-down, 3: Appropriate to the Occasion

Two glasses full of whiskey clink in front of a bottle of Balvenie 14-year-old Caribbean cask-finished whisky.

Today’s dram: The Balvenie, 14-year-old, Caribbean Cask

Today’s tasting notes: It’s a warm, easy whisky. Well, easy is relative, I guess. It’s full, rich, with a faint burn but nothing like harshness. There’s a sweetness to the finish. I’m told it has a lovely faint vanilla in the aroma, but I can’t quite catch it yet, dammit.

Today’s thoughts: This year’s wind-down should have been a weekly feature, right?

Yes, yes, I’d have missed that deadline, too. Shush.

Earlier this month, The Empress of Whisky and I observed our 14th anniversary.

When I say “observed” I really mean that. This year we just watched it go by, what with it falling on a day when neither of us was feeling much like celebrating, due to the case of never-ending plague we contracted.

At least, it sure felt never-ending while it was going on. We have both, finally, after about a month all told, returned to our more-or-less usual set of senses and sensibilities. We feel like doing things, such as getting up from bed and even trying exotic foods that are not soup or crackers and drinks that didn’t start their lives on a citrus tree.

We have resumed our hobbies.

In my case, that includes drinking whisky and writing about it.

You don’t get a name like The Empress of Whisky by not enjoying the stuff, so when it came time to pick an anniversary gift, I thought it would be fun to select for us a bottle of something aged 14 years. (This is not a novel concept; she hit on the idea two years ago.)

There aren’t that many options in that specific age. The great majority of whisky is sold after aging 10 or 12 years. I know of a good 13-year-old whisky, but I’ve only seen a few aged 14 years. Next year, if I try this, I’ll have a wealth of options at the 15-year-old mark, but sadly that’s also the mark where whisky prices take a nice jump.

Then there are scarce offerings at 16 or 17 years old before you start to see several offerings at 18, with prices that might start to make your hair stand on end. Those are the common ages you’re likely to see on your friendly bottle shoppe shelves. Anything older is usually behind a glass case or a locked door.

Anyway, back to the 14 at hand.

It’s apparently (according to the distillery’s marketing copy) aged for 14 years and then finished (for an undefined length of time) in freshly emptied rum barrels, said barrels having been previously filled with a blend of Caribbean rums selected by the Balvenie master distiller. Lovely.

I found this lovely option to offer my lovely wife, and once we were both well, we shared a lovely dram. ‘Twas lovely.

Today’s word of the day: Lovely, apparently.

Today’s toast: Here’s to 14 years behind, and many more ahead.