Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Painting Journeys in Middle Earth: Villains of Eriador

My father-in-law taught me the wonderful tradition of hiding your own presents under the Christmas tree. This year, I had a nice surprise from myself on Christmas morning: the Villains of Eriador expansion pack for Journeys in Middle Earth. I painted the core set back in September, and my two older boys and I enjoyed playing the Bones of Arnor campaign with Legolas, Gimli, and Bilbo. We knew we wanted to play again; in fact, my second son was ready to start another campaign the night after finishing the first. Knowing that Villains of Eriador adds three extra villain miniatures and a handful of cards, I set up a plan to get it around the holidays so we could get back into Middle Earth.

The Bones of Arnor campaign is free with the companion app, but the other available campaign is a separate purchase. I am mentioning that here because that makes me a little uneasy: separating out three villain figures for separate purchase and charging for a second campaign feels like nickle-and-diming the fans. I find myself curious about how this financial decision played out. I know as well as anyone that software costs money to make and maintain, but on the other hand, you're really buying access to the software whenever you buy the physical content as well. In some ways, it's not like the old days when you bought computing hardware and the software came with it—the days that gave rise to innovations like Unix and the Free Software Foundation.

As with the base set characters, I started by cleaning the miniatures. They were then prepared using zenithal priming from my airbrush.

The game expansion contains no illustrations for the three villains: they do not have any card representation in the game, unlike their spiritual predecessors Descent or Imperial Assault. There are a few threads about color schemes over on BoardGameGeek, and in one of them, I discovered that there is one illustration presumably of Gulgotar in the app, at the point where you choose your difficulty level. I grabbed a screenshot from the Steam version of the app, and I am including it here for other painters who might want quick access to it.

As you can see, Gulgotar has uncommon blue-tinted skin. For my figure, I decided to match this tone. There are two failed attempts under my third and final attempt. The others were too blue and too saturated: adding grey into the mixture helped. My color-matching attempts were both aided and frustrated by Sorastro's excellent video tutorial about this miniature. I didn't want to just copy his recipes, but in the end, I did copy his skin recipe pretty closely. Here is the result.

The first pass at Gulgotar was "clean" with no weathering, and it looked pretty sharp. That metallic girdle and the ... shoulder spikes? ... looked like they needed a little something, so I went in with some stippling of thin orange and browns. As I've said before, I still get very nervous about weathering, but I'm glad I did it here. The only part that stands out to me as incongruous is that the rusty effect on the blunt side of the sword is a bit too intense for the rest of the blade; I may yet go in and add a little more grime or, perhaps, stipple in a little more metallic.

I am happy with how his furs came out. I used a technique I learned years ago from Sorastro's Chewbacca and Ghaarkan video—a technique that has served me well. I mixed up shade and highlight tones and wet-blended them on the furs, and this effect was enhanced by the zenithal priming. Adding a wash of sepia and black ink brought all the colors together, and a modicum of manual highlighting finished the job.

I'll mention here that the figures were based using the same mixture as the base set: black tea, burnt grass fine turf, and medium green fine turf, followed by static grass after varnish. It is literally the same mixture, since I had some leftover in a little sealed plastic cup.

Here is Coalfang, on whom I used the same basic approach as described for the furs above but with much more manual highlighting. The first pass left him looking much too dark, but I was able to brighten him up considerably. It's a simply monochrome paint job, with a little blue washed into the shadows, but I don't think that really shows.

My commentary about Coalfang is another critique of how the expansion was packaged and sold, as well as how it relates to the DLC campaign. My sons and I started the second campaign last night, and it turns out (minor spoiler ahead) that Coalfang is introduced in the very first mission. Coalfang is described in text as being russet with black fangs. When I painted it, all I had to go with was "coal fang", which sounds to me like it should be black, not potato-colored. We enjoyed the first mission, but I couldn't help but be a little miffed that I spent hours on this wolf with no color guidance, and then the first thing we find tells me that it doesn't match the designer's vision. I don't know if anyone from Fantasy Flight will come across this post or not, but seriously: consider your painters.

As I told my boys last night, I could always repaint it. I'm not real keen on it, though. [UPDATE: But I did. See below.] It's already varnished and flocked. To reprime it, I'd have to strip it or peel away the flocking; to paint it again by hand I'd have to cover all the black and revarnish. Pride is probably not worth it when I have plenty of other figures to paint, and monochrome wolves aren't really as exciting as some other things in the queue.

This is Atarin. (Minor spoilers ahead.) Now, if you've played the Bones of Arnor, you may be surprised that this is Atarin. The figure is not quite how Atarin is described in the campaign text. I don't know if he shows up in armor and a cape in the paid campaign or not, but it is definitely jarring compared to Bones of Arnor.

In any case, one of the BGG threads I mentioned previously commented that the armor could fit a silver-black-red paint scheme, going with the idea that he's a Numenorian Nazgul. He was pretty straightforward to paint after this decision. The dark areas are a mix of black and deep sea blue, and the silver is a mix of regular paints with my Vallejo Metal Air Silver. P3 Armor Wash added some depth to the shadows of the armor. The cape was basecoated in red with the shadows and highlights painted in with two-brush blending. There are some parts of the figure that could be interpreted as leather, around the belt and what look like pouches, but I decided to keep all of these black anyway to maintain a stark, three-color effect.

If you look at his face, you can see that the figure actually has a nose and lips sculpted inside the helmet. I painted these, because it seemed like the right thing to do. It's a bit silly, though: black, silver, red... and a little bit of a pink nose. One could paint the face jet black and have a more sinister effect, more in keeping with a ringwraith rather than a dude in fancy armor.

There's a family photo of the three villains. Gulgotar was clearly the most fun and interesting one to paint, while the other two are more like palette explorations. Still, it's always fun to bring out a special miniature at a climactic moment in a board game, so I'm glad to have them. Coincidentally, I'm posting this on the day that Fantasy Flight Games is announcing the new big-box expansion to Journeys in Middle Earth, and from the discussion I've seen about it, I'll say they have my number.

Thanks for reading!


We are a few sessions into the campaign now, and the dissonance between the description of Coalfang in the app and my paint job was just too much for me.
Coalfang Revised

Coalfang Revised
She's now properly russet with black fangs and claws. I also repainted the undamaged eye to be red, to match the other wargs, although I gave her a yellow pupil where the others had none. Her left eye looks more deadened by contrast with the red one, which I think is a subtle win. I was able to redo the thick tufts of fur fairly quickly, and I spent much more time on the lighter brown areas. Some paint ended up on the rocks, of course, so they were touched up pretty heavily.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Painting Posthuman Saga

I backed Posthuman Saga on Kickstarter after talking to a gaming buddy about it. I knew relatively little about the game, but I had never painted any post-apocalyptic minis before. I think I must have been one of the first North American backers to get my copy, and over the past few days, I've been painting the characters from the core set. Turns out, painting post-apoc figures isn't that much different from medieval fantasy characters—more glasses, fewer fireballs, and about the same amount of backpacks.

I started out by working on the bases. I used the technique I talked about in my post about the Thunderstone Quest miniatures, where I laid down superglue, sprinkled in a little coarse, medium, and fine grit, and then set the glue with baking powder. Here's a process shot of how they looked before priming. (The Deluxe Edition mutant doll figure is shown here too, but I haven't painted it yet; that will be part of the next batch.)

I followed this with zenithal priming from the airbrush, although I'll quickly mention that I've been having some trouble with my airbrush. It's not clear to me if I need to replace some particular part or if this cheap brush just needs to be replaced and upgraded. I'll think about that a little harder on my birthday, perhaps.

I believe I drybrushed the bases with Beige Brown, although it may have been Flat Earth. The two colors are very similar. Increasing amounts of Ivory were added to get decent highlights.

Here are the figures in the order I painted them.

I started with the Guard. I had been away from all miniature painting for months until Christmas, when my family and I did our one-night painting of the miniatures from Clank Legacy. My family and I have also been working on something of a secret project that I look forward to writing about later, but suffice it to say for now that it involves short painting sessions as well. Working on the Guard reminded me how pleasant it is to sit in my office in the evening, listen to a podcast or some tunes, and make a plastic thing a bit prettier.

I started in on this figure by doing thin layers over the zenithal priming, something of a speedy approach as I used on the mobs in Journeys in Middle Earth. Really, I was thinking that I would get these characters done pretty quickly so I could get the game to the table. As I set into my chair and made progress on my Watch Later list on YouTube, I decided I would take a little more time on them. This was an in-progress decision, and it turned out having an interesting implication: the pants are done in a thin layer over the zenithal priming, whereas the rest of the miniature is painted in my more conventional style, mixing two-brush blending and layering as needed. It gives him a subtle kind of contrast that the other miniatures don't have.

I will also quickly mention that up until not long ago, his sneakers were bright white and red. I couldn't decide if I wanted to do any light weathering on these figures or not. I decided to do a little around the feet before varnishing them, and he definitely looks better this way than when he had out-of-the-box kicks.

The glasses were fun to paint. I borrowed from Ghool's Quick Tip about how to paint glasses, and I think the results are pretty good.

This is the Cage Fighter. I think she's the most visually impressive of the lot. The sculpt is good, and I think I did a good job pulling out the contrast.

All of these figures have prominent card art, which you can see on the Kickstarter campaign page. The art for this character has her in checkered pants, but I didn't want to take that deep a dive. I picked the most prominent orange color and used that. I thought about going in and adding more weathering to all the metal spiky bits, but I decided to keep them pretty clean.

Here is the Scout. His pants caused me some grief because they're so incredibly wrinkled, like they just don't fit. I suppose one must scavenge what one can. On my first pass, I painted it a solid color and then used a wash, but this got it too dark. I repainted in a more appropriate tone, but not completely opaque, and then painted in the shadows. After one more glaze of orange, I got it where I wanted it.

From the front, I think he looks pretty darned good. The back of this guy is another story. There's just nothing happening there. His jacket is almost completely smooth, and the bag over his shoulder is wholly uninteresting. I could have painted in some more details here, but again, I was feeling a tension between beauty and time. I decided it's good enough for now. If this guy turns out to be a favorite figure in a favorite game, maybe I'll address it again, but for now, he's table-ready.

This is the Scavenger. He's a really interesting character, and I love the combination of dark skin, pale clothes, dreadlocks, and overflowing backpack: he has a lot of texture. I still struggle to paint dark skinned miniatures from lack of practice. There can be so much rich tonal variation, but the highlights can still go all the way up. I need to be careful not to exaggerate or make it look cartoony. I think I did an OK job here, and fortunately, there's a lot of other focus areas to take away from just the flesh colors.

I saw another painter's rendition of this figure where he gave him different colored shoes. There's ambiguity in the card art, which has a sort of graphic novel style. I decided to echo the colors from the rest of his outfit back down into his feet, and I think this helps tie some of the pieces together. For example, the purple backpack color is repeated on his socks, which I think gives some balance. Like the Scout's pants, I like the idea that this tough-looking apocalypse survivor doesn't care what you think about his purple backpack: it's big, it fits, and it works for carrying odds and ends.

Painting glass bottles is always tricky, since you cannot paint clear. I decided to make it look like he's carrying along a half-empty Bombay Sapphire. The blue comes out of nowhere in the composition, but it makes me laugh.

Finally, here is the Scientist. Her skin is more of a milk chocolate tone, but very little of it is showing in the sculpt. The art has her peering through the glasses, but again, you can't paint clear. Originally, I did the glasses in black transitioning to magenta at the bottom, but there was an unclear edge at the top of the glasses then: not much contrast. The more I looked at her, the more I thought about what the future used to look like: magenta and cyan. Like the blue on the Scavenger, she gets an out-of-left-field shock of cyan on her glasses. It draws attention to her face and makes her look like a synthwave album, both of which are good.

After a first pass at the jacket, I ended up doing a black glaze over the whole thing to tone down highlights gone too far. The glaze medium left her jacket looking shiny, but I couldn't shake the idea that the highlights were still not right. I'm glad I revisited them, even though it was kind of tricky to paint: once she was matte varnished, it confirmed that the extra highlights on the upturned parts of the jacket were needed. It would have been too much black otherwise.

Here they are, all together. It was a fun set to paint, and I think they will look good on the table; I look forward to trying the game this weekend. I'll mention here (so I can look it up later) that the bases were ringed in Americana Dark Chocolate, which is a nice color but took three coats to get anything like good coverage. Usually I just slop on some black craft paint and am done with it. I thought about gluing on some burnt grass flock, but the more I looked at them, I decided I liked the spartan wasteland as it was.

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Thinking about High Impact Practices

I have been selected to be part of my university's High Impact Practice Implementation and Assessment Task Force. The task force chair has been good about sending agendas along with work for us to do in preparation for the meetings. In preparation for a meeting next week, we were asked to prepare responses to a few questions. I decided to write my responses here on the blog, in the spirit of No Wasted Writing. (Of course, I am doing this after having sent a novella of an email back to a student, so clearly, I need to be more prudent about No Wasted Writing.)

For some context, it's important to know that the university's strategic plan has defined High Impact Practices to include undergraduate research, immersive learning, study abroad or study away, and societal issue or global challenge. This is a subset of those talked about as HIPPs by AAC&U.

I'll typeset the questions in italics and then give my answer to each below it.

What is the purpose of high impact practices to you? To you, what do high impact practices endeavor to accomplish?

High-impact practices engage students in authentic knowledge work. Student learning is strengthened and deepened by having it take place in the context of meaningful work. The credited learning experience becomes focused on an extrinsic, persistent goal rather than an intrinsic, ephemeral one.

The goal of the experience remains learner enrichment rather than community impact. If external audiences benefit from high-impact practices, this is of course beneficial. However, our real focus is on the transformation and enrichment of the learner. This perspective allows us to form partnerships and accept risk, rather than recruiting clients and becoming risk-averse. My experience has been that students often learn more from failure, and that the transformations in the students far exceed any extrinsic benefit.

What are THREE strengths of BSU's high impact practices? (You might have hundreds of ideas—please identify the top three)
  1. The Provost's funding for Immersive Learning projects gives faculty support to experiment with new ideas prior to formalization in the course catalog.
  2. Many of the faculty involved in high-impact practices are talented and committed scholars who want the best for their students.
  3. There are resources devoted to celebrating the success and spreading the word about projects, for example, through the Immersive Learning Awards program, Community Partner Awards program, Immersive Learning Showcase, and other university marketing efforts. These frame this work as important to the university's identity and narrative.
What are the THREE weaknesses of BSU's high impact practices?
  1. Creative projects are subject to the tyranny of higher education conventions such as 15-week semesters, scheduling around other courses, letter grades, and the inability to "fire" students from a team. These directly contradict most of what we know about how knowledge work gets done.
  2. There is dissonance between the message that we value high-impact practices and the advice that is given to junior faculty.
  3. Departmental and college control over the implementation of high impact practices is a disincentive to multidisciplinary collaborations. The de facto standard is to design experiences for your own majors, regardless of the problem being addressed. Anything else requires inordinate, unrewarded effort.
Bonus answer: Failure to hyphenate the adjective phrase "high-impact".

When students (undergraduate and graduate) graduate from BSU with at least one high impact practice...
  1. What do we want them to know?
  2. What do we want the students to be able to do?
  3. What do we want students to value?
I assume the author wants discipline-agnostic answers rather than discipline-specific ones, which makes this a little challenging to address. However, I was able to pull from my notes about my own department's search for a vision, and this gave me a way to frame my answers.

We want them to know:
  • Fundamental concepts, vocabulary, and techniques of their academic majors and minors.
  • Some advanced topics within their academic majors.
I realize that these items are not clearly related to high-impact practices: they could be said of any student who graduates. It was originally unintentional, but upon reflection, I think it is right. The high-impact practices should strengthen and secure a student's knowledge—even if that is because the experience made them question or doubt it.

We want them to be able to:
  • Self-correct
    • That is, a student should be able to reflect on what they are making or doing, identify their assumptions, and change direction based on this analysis. This is the competent level of the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition, and it is an indicator of reflective practice.
  • Communicate ideas clearly and effectively to different audiences.
  • Ask good, clear questions.
  • Work respectfully and productively on a multidisciplinary team.
We want them to value:
  • The responsibility they have to their team, their employer, and their community
  • The dignity of the individual
  • Lifetime learning
  • Virtuous living: that virtues are habits of the mind developed through intentional practice and self-mastery. Essentially, this is beatitudo, the classic question of what is good in life.
Please feel free to share your own responses or reactions in the comments.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

The Games of 2019

Happy New Year! As has been my tradition the past three years (2018, 2017, 2016), I am pausing to reflect on the board games I played this past year. I logged 526 plays, which is slightly less than last year. Honestly, I'm shocked, because I don't remember any dry spells here. In the last few days, I logged 17 plays of BONK, which takes just a few minutes to play, and I thought that would inflate my numbers. Perhaps it was because I worked like mad this summer on Kaiju Kaboom, whereas the previous year I spent many afternoons with Gloomhaven.

These are the games I played at least ten times this past year. I've combined families of games where I have logged them separately but they are really the same game, just with expansions or legacy forms.

  • Kingdomino (41)
  • Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Core Set and Curse of the Crimson Throne (41)
  • BONK (19)
  • Clank! A Deck-Building Adventure and Legacy (23)
  • Azul (14)
  • Dungeons & Dragons: Tempe of Elemental Evil (14)
  • Quiddler (14)
  • Thunderstone Quest (14)
  • Call to Adventure (13)
  • Arcadia Quest (12)
  • The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-Earth (12)
  • Fabled Fruit (11)
  • Gloomhaven (11)
  • The Mind (11)
  • Fireball Island: The Curse of Vul-Kar (10)
One of the major milestones this year is that my second son (9) has been able to join in much more of the "core gamer" games. In some ways, this started Christmas 2018, when he joined my wife, my oldest son, and me in playing Charterstone, which remains one of my favorite gaming memories. Over the year, he learned Middle Earth Quest, Castles of Mad King Ludwig, and Thunderstone, Quest. My two older sons and I played through the first campaign of Journeys in Middle Earth and a campaign of Arcadia Quest, and with my wife, we played a campaign of Temple of Elemental Evil and got 7th Continent back out and played—and beat—the first curse. My wife and I had tried that one when I first got the game and had no such luck. The four of us also played through the new core set and expansion for Pathfinder Adventure Card Game this summer. That was probably too much PACG all at once, as we were pretty burned out by the end. 

One of the other big winners this year was clearly Kingdomino. This game is fun for everybody, including my youngest son (4). The fact that he plays it, and generally plays it well, makes it a go-to game for family board game time.  My third son (6) is showing great promise in games as well. He learned to play Ticket to Ride this year, and he also learned the basics of deckbuilding games, including the mash shuffle. He loves to play Clank!, which is great, because that also is a consistently fun game. Perhaps there is some irony, then, that as much as I am enjoying Clank! Legacy, I am finding it less consistent than vanilla Clank!. Just last night, I messed up a rule, which had material consequences; every legacy game I have played fails the robustness test in the face of tired or confused players.

My oldest son and I hit a wall in Gloomhaven recently, where neither one of us is about to level up, and we're just not sure where to go next to solve the deeper mysteries of the world. I bought the expansion but still haven't painted the figure. One of us would have to become the new character, and the other person would stay locked in their other, which is already at or near maximum level. I feel like we should try the expansion anyway, in part because I just read Childres' end-of-year blog post about it, but part of me wonders if we would have more fun with a reboot once the sequel releases.

As of today, my games h-index is 22, meaning that there are 22 games that I have played 22 times. My player h-index is 17, meaning that there are 17 people with whom I have played 17 times.

Let's look at how my top games of all time have changed. Last year, I included those games that I had played 20 or more times, but that list keeps getting longer. Hence, I'm going to make the cut at 25 this year.
  • Gloomhaven (66)
  • Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, all versions (57)
  • Crokinole (56)
  • Animal Upon Animal (54)
  • Clank! A Deck-Building Adventure and Legacy (53)
  • Carcassonne (44)
  • Kingdomino (41)
  • Camel Up (40)
  • Rhino Hero: Super Battle (37)
  • Labyrinth (36)
  • Thunderstone Quest (36)
  • Quiddler (33)
  • Runebound Third Edition (33)
  • Reiner Knizia's Amazing Flea Circus (32)
  • Terror in Meeple City (30)
  • Dungeons & Dragons: Temple of Elemental Evil (28)
  • Stuffed Fables (27)
  • Go Nuts for Donuts (25)
  • Obstacles (25)
  • Race for the Galaxy (25)
I think that this is a healthy mix of kids' games and strategy games for someone with four boys. It's still the case that one of my very favorite games is Mage Knight: The Board Game, but that one is harder to get to the table, so at 21 plays, it didn't make the cut. It's at the same level as Champions of Midgard, which the four older members of the family all love and which, despite its preponderance of pieces, we can get set up and torn down faster because everyone can help.

This year, I also logged some of the video games I played (and also, some of the books I read), inspired by Michael Bayne's post and project last year. I even started the year logging my general activity, but I found this too cumbersome and not interesting enough to continue. There were a few games that I dabbled in, particularly free ones from the Epic Games Store. Other games, I played more seriously as a hobbyist. Briefly, these were Just Cause 3, Star Control Origins, Slay the Spire, Donut County, Dead Cells, Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden, Thimbleweed Park, Minit, Defense Grid: The Awakening, SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech, and Disco Elysium. I could write more about these video games, but I think for now I just want to mention the contrast between the last two. Hand of Gilgamech was entirely competent. I enjoyed playing it, but the writing, characters, and plot were absolutely uninteresting. While not painful or cringeworthy, the dialog felt completely uninspired. Compare this to Disco Elysium, where in the first three minutes of gameplay, you have a rich vocabulary, distinct character voices, and a compelling hook. Disco Elysium, which I bought because so many people have said it's really good, is really good. There are parts that I think are incongruent, which I would like to write about at some point, but that's not going to be today. The fact that one can talk about incongruity, though, implies that the world and story are worth talking about. One final video game note: Mutant Year Zero's story surprised me at one point, which was a great delight for a jaded grognard like me.

Thanks for reading. May you have an excellent year in games!