As we all know, the world has been gripped by a pandemic since the winter / early spring of 2020. The high infection and mortality rates of the novel caronavirus and its associated disease, COVID-19, lead to a mass panic that resulted in governments all over the world completely shutting down economies and recommending social distancing measures intended to mitigate the spread of the disease long enough to get it under control. This seemed to work up through April, when declining cases and general public boredness and frustration lead to the premature re-opening of businesses, and a few weeks later we started seeing huge increases in cases. As a society, we put money before the life and dignity of people, and tens of thousands of people have unnecessarily died because people couldn't wait three more weeks before going to the hair solon or the beach.

I wanted to write about the pandemic back during the height of the lockdown in April, but I kept putting it off until it seemed like a resolution was in sight. I didn't want to publish my thoughts on the issue until I actually knew how it would all turn out, and whether or not I would be personally affected by it. But now it appears that we are nowhere near the end of this pandemic, and the general public and our political leaders have seemingly lost all will to take any meaningful steps to deal with it. I guess now is as good a time as any to start talking about it.

The Las Vegas Strip was shut down for over a month. Shortly after it re-opened, casino workers started getting sick.

I want to talk about the broader socio-political impacts of the pandemic, but I want to take more time to get my thoughts together and do the proper research to make sure I get the facts right. So I'll be writing later about the lessons that I think society (American society more specifically) should have learned from this pandemic (but apparently didn't). First, I'm going to write about the impacts that the pandemic had on me, personally -- which (admittedly) isn't particularly dramatic.

We had a couple of minor scares, but they all turned out to be false alarms. Early in the pandemic, a friend had cold or flu-like symptoms within a day of us having her husband over. Turned out, she just had tonsillitis. Though a regular cold seems to have gone around their house a couple times over the months of the pandemic. We had another friend who works in a local supermarket and had a co-worker test positive for COVID. Her and her roommates all had tests and all came back negative, thankfully. I also had a couple work colleagues who had direct business contacts who got sick and tested positive, though none of my colleagues ever showed symptoms. As I said, multiple close calls.

Commuting from the Bedroom to the Living Room

Unlike many people who were furloughed or laid off, I was fortunate enough to keep my job and be able to work from home during the lockdowns. We were scheduled to re-open the office in mid-July, but the resurgence in local cases prompted our boss to keep everyone working from home indefinitely until new cases drop again. It was a good call.

Many of my friends and family weren't as lucky. I had several friends get furloughed, and most of them ended up being permanently laid off. My mom was also furloughed, and she does not expect to go back to work. Well, I guess she gets an early retirement. My sister also works in a health clinic, so was an essential worker who was potentially at high risk. Her clinic shortened its hours and only takes patients by appointment, so it wasn't nearly as stressful or dangerous as it could have been if she had been working at a hospital, but she still had a very rough few months.

Thankfully, I had my partner and proxy-daughter to keep me company while locked down in work-from-home mode. As for my partner, she's a teacher and was doing the whole tele-education thing over Google classroom, phone calls, and emails for the few weeks that were left in the school year. Then she got the summer off anyway, so she was even less impacted than I was. She was going to have paid vacation for the whole summer anyway. As for what's going to happen when the 2020 school year starts ... that's still up in the air as of the time of this publication. Our local school district has a plan for re-opening, but it's not ideal. I don't think any plan would be ideal in this situation. It's just all different degrees of bad.

Public schools are the last thing we should be re-opening during a pandemic.
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Photosynthesis - title

Blue Orange is a company that has released a series of very successful board games that are geared towards children, and which feature educational themes. My girlfriend and I came across some of their games in a kids' hobby store while on a family road trip last year. The game that stood out the most on the shelf was a new release called Photosynthesis, a game about players competing to grow a small forest. The box art and pictures on the back made the game look very pretty, and its educational theme about the life cycle of plants intrigued us. So we bought a copy and held onto it until our kid's birthday in the fall.

The game is recommended for ages eight and older, and is easy to dismiss as just a "kids' game", especially given its status as "edutainment". However, this game is more complicated than your standard kids' fare. There actually is some strategy involved, and the game runs for about 90-minutes. It's not a random dial-flicker or dice-roller like Chutes and Ladders, Candyland, or other such Milton Bradley / Hasbro / Parker Bros. games that make up a kid's board game shelf. It also has deeper strategy than the children's version of Carcassone (which our kid also has). This game (along with most of Blue Orange's catalog) is definitely geared towards family night, in which people of all ages are playing.

The game board is very pretty once multiple trees of different colors are placed.

A vibrant forest

This game's components certainly are pretty. The trees (and everything else) are simple cardboard cutouts, but they are printed on some thick and sturdy cardstock. Production quality is pretty high for a kid's game, and that high quality is always important when you're playing a game with kids, as it means the game will last longer before falling apart. All the colors are vibrant and attractive, and they all mix together very well when the trees are all clumped together on the board. I'm not particularly keen on the blue evergreens, which look very unnatural and kind of out of place. Maybe Blue Orange could have gone with more of a blue-green color? Or maybe red, as in "redwood"? Ah well, it's not a big deal. Maybe the blue trees are an homage to the company's name. The game looks very pretty, in any case.

The gameplay is pretty simple and elegant. Each turn, sunlight comes from a particular direction on the board, and any trees that are not blocked by an adjacent tree (e.g. the tree is not "in the shadow" of another tree) collects sunlight points for the owning player. Each player then spends their sunlight points to plant new seeds on the board, or to grow existing seeds into small trees, to grow an existing tree from small to medium or medium to large, or to let a large tree die. When a large tree dies, it creates new soil, which is awarded to the owning player as victory points. Trees in spaces further from the edges of the board score more points.

The sun moves across the board each turn, providing sunlight and shade to different trees.

Each round the sun moves around the board, casting different trees in the shadows of other trees. Medium and large trees also collect more sunlight, cast longer shadows, and can collect sunlight if partially-obstructed by smaller trees. So where you put the trees, and how tall you let them grow, will determine whether they will get sunlight, or if they will block other players' trees. You also have trade offs between planting more trees or growing your existing trees. Your own trees can also block your other trees, so you have to keep that in mind when you are placing or growing your trees.

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At the end of April, our family's beloved cat, Gynx passed away. My father found him lying dead next to the curb outside the house. There were no apparent signs of injury or trauma, so we don't think he was hit by a car. Perhaps he had a heart attack or a stroke? Because nobody was there to witness it, we'll never know for sure.

My sister took it particularly hard. She had just fed him his breakfast 20 or 30 minutes before my dad found him outside. All seemed well. Just another routine morning. My how suddenly things can change...

She was hit hard with grief, and felt responsible. "If only I hadn't let him outside", she said. But it wasn't her fault. She had no way of knowing. He could just as easily have passed inside the house.

Our cat Gynx died this month after 20 happy and loving years.

Yes, I do wish that we could have had some warning. One of my friends once lost an old cat who had become ill. She got to hold her cat and pet him and make him comfortable as he slowly passed and breathed his last breath. If I were a cat, that's how I'd want to go: comfortably resting in the lap of my beloved human. I wish that Gynx could have had that as well.

But as I said, none of us can feel responsible or guilty. We can't have known that his time was coming. He was healthy and active right up till the end. We all worried that someday he'd go outside and we'd never see him again, and over the years, it became harder and harder to let him go. But he loved to be outside, so keeping him locked inside would have just made him miserable and stressed, and probably only accelerated his demise.

A life worth celebrating; not grieving

I've written about the loss of pets before on this blog. Back in 2014, Nipper, a tortoise that I had since I was about 7 or 8 years old died after apparently becoming trapped in her burrow. The following year, I also lost my baby tortoise Koopa to some kind of tragic accident. Like with Gynx, I have little-to-no idea what actually happened, since I wasn't there to witness the event itself. The sudden and tragic loss of those tortoises was gut-wrenching and depressing, and I grieved very hard, and for a very long time.

I was much more prepared for Gynx's death than I was for the deaths of my tortoises Nipper and Koopa.

Though Gynx's death was also sudden, it was not altogether unexpected. Gynx was 20 years old, which is very old for a cat. I had thought cats only lived for 15-ish years, so I had spent the past 5 or 6 years thinking that Gynx's time could come any day now. I didn't expect for him to hit 20! So when his time finally came, I think I was emotionally prepared for it -- had been for a long time, in fact. I knew that phone call from my mom, dad, or sister would be coming eventually, and when it came, I knew what it would be.

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This year's holiday season saw a fundamental shift in the way (and reasons) that I buy games. I bought a gaming console as a gift for a child. This Christmas, my girlfriend and I bought our 7-year old a Nintendo Switch (and also managed to get our hands on an SNES Classic). For the first time, I'm not buying games and consoles for myself anymore; I'm buying them for my proxy-child.

My game and console purchases aren't just for me anymore...

I guess I'm old now...

This also means that I now possess my first Nintendo console since 10-year-old me replaced my old NES with a Sega Genesis...

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As is the case with many kids who grew up in the 80's and 90's, I played many hours of Oregon Trail in the computer labs in elementary school. Some teachers even had to limit how many hours students could spend on that game, so as to make sure we were also playing the other math and language games available.

Now there is a tabletop card game adaptation of the original computer game. It's exclusively available at Target ... and apparently also on Amazon. It retails at $15, but I always seem to see it on sale for $10 or $12. So it's an inexpensive little game.

My seven-year-old proxy-daughter picked out this game for me as a birthday gift. She recognized it from the TV show Teen Titans Go!, which has an episode in which the characters act out the original computer game (and all die, of course). When I asked her what the Oregon Trail is, she responded "Everyone got dysentery.". So I asked if she knows what dysentery is, and she responded "It's where you poop to death." I guess the show has some educational value after all...

More an emergent narrative than an actual game

The game is simple to play. Each player is given a hand of trail cards and supply cards, and there's a stack of "Calamity Cards" that serve as the main challenge for the game. Players take turns playing a trail card from their hand or a supply card. The selected card's trail end must match up with the end point of the trail on the previous card in order for the card to be played. Most trail cards will require some kind of resolution. Some are river fording cards that require the player to roll a die in order to allow the party to proceed past the river or suffer penalties. Some are calamities that require drawing a card from the calamity deck and resolving its effects.

Most calamities can be countered with supply cards, but snake bites and dysentery are instant, unavoidable deaths.

Most calamities are unfortunate effects that require a die roll or a specific supply card to be played. If the effect is not resolved in time, a penalty occurs -- usually the death of the affected player. Some calamity cards (such as the snake bite or ubiquitous dysentery) will even kill a player outright, with no chance to avoid death.

The objective of the game is for the party to successfully pass 50 trail cards to travel from Independence, Missouri to Willamette Valley, Oregon. It's a purely cooperative game, so if any one surviving party member makes it to Oregon, then the entire group (including the dead players) wins the game.

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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