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The Chicago Bears really hit it out of the park with the 2021 draft. What's funny is that this draft mirrors the Bears' dumbfounding 2017 draft, but with an almost polar opposite outlook. In 2017, the Bears infamously traded up one spot to take Mitch Trubisky with the number 2 overall pick. At the time, Bears fans and sports pundits were scratching their heads wondering what the heck Ryan Pace was thinking, as Trubisky wasn't even projected to be the best QB in the draft, let alone the second best player overall. With the gift of hindsight, the Bears' pick looks even worse considering that both Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson were both available, and neither was drafted in the top 10. Other notable players from that draft whom the Bears passed on drafting include Jamal Adams (pick 6 to the Jets), Christian McCaffery (pick 8 to the Panthers), Marshon Lattimore (pick 11 to the Sants), and Evan Engram (pick 23 to the Giants).

Photo by Chicago Bears
The Bears got a steal at the 11th overall pick in quarterback Justin Fields from Ohio State.

The Bears once again traded up to select a QB in the first round. Many analysts listed Justin Fields as the 3rd best QB in the draft, but also acknowledged that the top 3 positions were close to being a toss-up. Fields could easily have been the third overall pick to the 49ers, but San Francisco opted to take Trey Lance instead. This meant that Fields was still available at pick 11, after both the Broncos and Eagles passed on selecting him. The Bears traded up with the Giants to select Fields 11th overall. Like I said, the situation resembles the 2017 draft, except instead of trading up one space to reach for a QB who everyone expected would be available much later, the Bears patiently waited to steal a top talent who had slipped to a later pick. Sure the Bears gave up their first-round pick for next year's draft, but they got a much better value from it this time around.

The Bears had a similar opportunity in the second round, trading up with the Panthers to take offensive tackle Teven Jenkins with the 7th pick of the second round. Jenkins was projected to be a first-round talent, but slipped to the second round. Once again, the Bears got excellent value for their pick. Fields may sit behind Nick Foles and/or Andy Dalton for a period of time, but Jenkins will likely be a started in week 1 (especially since the Bears promptly cut veteran tackle Charles Leno Jr. after drafting Jenkins). And even if Fields does sit behind one of the veterans, I fully expect that he'll be starting by the end of the season.

Not only are both Fields and Jenkins excellent picks in their own right (and excellent value), but they also compliment each other well: an elite passer and an elite pass protector. The fact that both slipped to later picks (or rounds) will also potentially mean that both will be playing with a chip on their shoulders.

Photo by Brett Deering, Getty Images
Fields can likely feel safe with offensive tackle Teven Jenkins blocking his blind side.
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Madden NFL - title

The third (and presumably final) update for Madden 21's long-neglected franchise mode is finally live. Madden franchise players finally have the full Madden 21 franchise mode to play with -- in March ... a full month after the SuperBowl and the end of the NFL season. Obviously, this is too little, and too late for me to bother changing my review of Madden 21 or to change my mind about my long-standing frustration with the lack of attention that EA is paying to Madden's franchise mode.

This update will supplement some of the superficial changes made in the earlier updates with some slightly more substantive upgrades. On the superficial end of the spectrum, it adds a league history that tracks SuperBowl champions, seasonal awards, and other information from year-to-year. On the more substantive end of the spectrum, it also makes some long-overdue revisions to CPU teams' trade logic. CPU teams will supposedly be better at evaluating trade proposals, will value elite offensive linemen more highly, and can no longer be tricked into thinking that a reserve player is a starting-caliber talent simply by moving the player up on your depth chart.

Good thing I had already completed my trades for Quentin Nelson and Deshaun Watson to the Bears before this update went live; otherwise, I might not have been able to get either player -- let alone both. Not that it matters, I probably won't be putting much more time into Madden 21. I'll likely have to play a few more games to capture footage for the next installment(s) of my "How Madden Fails To Simulate Football" video series.

The only reason I would continue playing Madden 21 would be to capture footage
for my "How Madden Fails To Simulate Football" video series.

A good sign for the future of Franchise?

Madden's current executive producer, Seann Graddy went on YouTube to prior to the patch releasing to sing its praises as part of EA's continuing effort to provide lip service to Franchise players. In this video, he also gave Franchise players a sneak peak at what we can expect in next year's game. On Graddy's computer screen in the background, we can see a "Staff Management" screen showing the Chicago Bears' head coach, Matt Nagy, along with an offensive coordinator named Sam Norris, a defensive coordinator named Bill Lando, and a fourth slot that simply says "player personnel". This means that players should expect to see offensive and defensive coordinators return in Madden 22 -- something that has been sorely missing from the game since (I think) Madden 13.

EA's preview of the 3rd Franchise update for Madden 21 gives clues about what will be in Madden 22.

I don't recognize the names Sam Norris or Bill Lando. The Bears' current offensive and defensive coordinators are Bill Lazor and Sean Desai (respectively). Sam Norris and Bill Lando were not the names of previous coordinators either. I looked both names up on Google, and didn't find any results for Chicago Bears coaches. These are either place-holder names for a feature that is still a work-in-progress, or it is evidence that Madden 22 will not have real-life coordinator names.

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Star Trek Ascendancy - expansions

It took forever for me to get a chance to play Star Trek: Ascendancy, thanks in large part to its hard three-player limit. I had a feeling that I would really enjoy the game when I first opened it up and skimmed through the rules. A good Star Trek-themed 4-x game is something that I've been craving since Birth of the Federation on Windows 98. Sure enough, after playing Ascendancy, it immediately became my favorite Star Trek board game on the market. The friends that I've played it with have also all loved it so far.

The base game included an insert advertising the first two expansions: the Cardassians and Ferengi. After the first play-session, I put the two expansions on my wishlist. Each expansion adds an additional faction and support for an additional player (for up to five, if you have the friends and the time). The Borg expansion came out around the same time, and I picked that one up too, as I was curious to see how the NPC Borg faction would play out. We decided to stick with the more basic expansions first though, as the Borg added extra complexity (and difficulty) that we weren't sure we were ready for. So I'll be reviewing the Borg seperately.

Star Trek: Ascendancy came packaged with an insert for the Cardassian and Ferengi expansions.

I had hoped to get a review of the Ferengi, Cardassians, and Borg out last year. And I don't mean like "in December" last year; I mean I had hoped to have this review out last February! Unfortunately, the difficulty inherent in getting four or five people together to play a six-hour board game, combined with packing up the house and moving last summer, meant that I got a couple early games in with the Cardassians, but never got a chance to play as the Ferengi until this winter. I didn't want to write a review of one faction without playing the other, since they are kind of inversions of each other in many ways.

The core game comes packaged with turn order cards for up to ten players, so I initially guessed that meant that Gale Force 9 was anticipating at least seven expansions. The Vulcans and Andorians will be released imminently, and the Borg rules actually allow the Borg to use up two turn order cards, which means there's only one space left to fill! Judging by the cards present in the base game, it looks like the Tholians are set to be the last expansion. If that's the case, this would leave some significant players on the Star Trek galactic stage out in the cold. The Dominion would be the single, most conspicuous absence from the game's roster. I also had hoped to see the Gorn as a faction, and at least one Delta Quadrant faction (such as the Kazon or Hirogen).

Well, I can take a guess what the next (hopefully not last) planned expansions is...

Though, I guess there's nothing stopping Gale Force 9 from releasing more expansion factions than there are turn order cards. I mean, I doubt anybody's going to be playing this game with nine or ten players anyway. Good luck finding a table big enough to even play such a game to begin with! GF9 could also just package an eleventh or twelfth turn order card in any future expansions if they feel it's necessary. So there's no reason why they would be unable to release the Dominion, Gorn, or other factions.

In any case, the first three expansions complete the Birth of the Federation roster of playable Federation, Klingons, Romulans, Ferengi, and Cardassians, as well as an NPC Borg faction.

There's not much in the way of new rules for either of the new factions. Both come with 10 new system discs (including the faction's respective homeworld), all the faction's ships and control nodes, advancement decks, some extra resource nodes and tokens, and ten new exploration cards. Everything slots pretty seamlessly into the core game. The only new mechanics are associated with some of the new exploration cards in the Ferengi expansion, but the card texts are pretty self-explanatory. There's a tiny rules insert anyway, in case you need more clarification.

I was expecting a Dominion expansion, and had hoped for the Gorn and at least one Delta Quadrant faction.

The seamless integration and lack of new rules does not, however, mean that the new factions feel dull or uninteresting. In fact, both the Cardassians and Ferengi have a very distinct (and very fresh) feel of play. Both have very potent unique boons and banes that separate them tremendously from the three factions included in the core set. In general, they both are dependent on using their ships and fleets to fuel their respective economies, which gives their ships uses beyond just exploration, research, and military action. You have to be very deliberate with your ships and fleets, since proper use is essential to keeping your economy running. As such, I don't recommend that a novice player jump into playing as either the Cardassians or Ferengi. You could probably muddle your way along, but it's better to have a firm grasp of the game mechanics (playing as the Klingons or Romulans) before you try your hand at the expansions.

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Star Trek Ascendancy 50th anniversary edition

As I had mentioned in my Star Trek: Fleet Captains review, good Star Trek games are few and far between. Perhaps my favorite Trek game of all time is the Windows '98 4-x strategy game Birth of the Federation. BotF, developed my Microprose, was basically a Trek reskin of Master of Orion II. It was buggy, had cheating A.I., suffered from a major memory leak that slowed the game to a crawl after about 100 turns of play, and it didn't include any Original Series ships or technologies. But it did manage to faithfully capture Star Trek's spirit of exploration and discovery by being a game about exploring and colonizing a galaxy.

It wasn't a stripped-down startship combat simulator (Starfleet Command), or a cookie-cutter first-person shooter (Elite Force), or a lazy StarCraft clone (Armada), or an out-of-place dogfighter (Invasion), or a derivative WoW clone (Star Trek: Online). None of those games is terrible. I've played them all, and actually have some rather fond memories with most of them. But none of these games really meshed perfectly with the Star Trek license, and none of them really scratched my Star Trek gaming itch the way that Birth of the Federation did. Apparently, some designers at Gale Force Nine also like Birth of the Federation, because their new board game, Star Trek: Ascendancy, almost feels like a board game version of that classic Trek PC game.

Ascendancy is the first proper 4-x board game using the Star Trek license that I've seen. It certainly blows Fleet Captains out of the water. While Fleet Captains included some token exploration and territory-expansion mechanics as a supplement to the ship-to-ship combat that was the core of the game, Ascendancy is a game that is actually about exploring a procedurally-generated map, colonizing planets, and developing their resources. You can win by conquering other players' home worlds, or by developing your culture up to a specific level.

The final frontier is always in flux

The board of Star Trek: Ascendancy utilizes an interesting and novel modular board. Disk tiles represent planets, systems, and anomalies, each of which is connected by star lanes of varying distances. New systems and star lanes are drawn from a deck as the players explore, and so the board is constantly expanding as you play. It's nothing earth-shatteringly new, but it does have one neat gimmick that I haven't seen in other similar games.

The map will grow and change as the game progresses.

In addition to the board dynamically growing as the game progresses, systems are considered to be "floating" until they become locked in place by being connected to two or more systems via a star lane. This means that leaf systems can be freely rotated around to make room for other tiles to be placed in the play area. I believe this is intended to model the 3-dimensional nature of space. In a more practical sense, it means that the galaxy [map] can (and will) change its shape occasionally, leaving the true distances between locations ambiguous until everything gets locked down.

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Cities XXL - game title

So right off the bat, Cities XXL is not substantially different from its predecessor (Cities XL). In my time with the game so far, I've only encountered two new features. Everything else, right down to the buildings available and the game interface, are unchanged. XXL hardly deserves to be called a sequel or sold as a new game. It's a content patch, and not even a very good one.

But on the upside, since I never got around to reviewing the original Cities XL, I can just roll them both into one review!

Cities XL - box art Cities XXL - box art
This review will cover both Cities XL, and Cities XXL because they're practically the same game.

When I first started playing Cities XL a few years ago, I was really impressed with it. I hadn't really played any modern city-builder games since SimCity 4, and so the jump to 3-D graphics, the ability to draw curved roads, and the sheer size of the maps was enough to win me over initially. But as I've played the game more, it's limitations and weaknesses have become much more apparent and hard to ignore. This is especially true in the game's interface and controls, which are very rough and full of nagging annoyances. When compared to the much smoother and organic controls of games like Tropico 5, the modern [disastrous] SimCity reboot, and even older games like Caesar IV, Cities XL really starts to look bad.

The biggest deterrent to enjoying Cities XL is its UI and controls. There's nothing that really single-handedly breaks the game, but there's a cacaphony of small, nagging problems that gradually wear down your resolve to play the game. The first thing that you'll notice is the ugly and disorganized interface. There are buttons and widgets floating all over the screen: build icons, overlay toggles, camera control widgets, zoning sub-controls, and so on. You can customize some of the UI elements by dragging them to different places on the screen, but there is no arrangement that really feels comfortable.

Charts, graphs, and table widgets are also ugly and difficult to read or understand, so I rarely use them. There's a lot of depth of information in these widgets, but they are just so poorly designed as to be nearly un-useable. And while some info-widgets show a great degree of granularity and precision, others are oddly abstracted. For example, shops and industrial buildings say that they require a "medium" number of workers of various classes, but they don't specify exactly how many employees they require. I assume that "low", "medium", and "high" correspond to the respective sizes of the residential zones, but I don't know for sure.

Cities XXL - closed office building
This office building had to close before I found out why it was unsatisfied.

Feedback in general is one of the game's weaknesses. The "satisfaction" level of buildings are all shown as colored circles rather than actual numbers. Those colored circles that indicate the satisfaction level of a building can be highlighted to show the percentage of satisfaction, but it won't necessarily give any indicators as to what is influencing that percentage...

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Grid Clock provided by trowaSoft.

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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