Cheap Ottawa

I recently traveled to Ottawa, our nation’s capitol, for a few days, and wanted to share some travel tips with fellow voyagers traveling on a budget.

How to Get There

If you have a car, drive. But if you don’t, plan ahead, and get a discounted ticket from VIA Rail. It cost me a little over $100 in economy class to go from London to Ottawa each way, which I’ve been told is about the same cost as a Greyhound bus ticket. Beware connections though: VIA trains are notoriously behind schedule, so it’s best if you have at least a 45 minute window to make a connection.

Where to Stay

You can do the regular internet thing and try websites like or to get a regular hotel room. But I’d advise hunting down either a bed-and-breakfast (for $100 or less), or using the summer residence “hotels” at either the University of Ottawa (you can bus or walk downtown from there) or Saint Paul University (where I stayed). U of O has “prison cell” rooms for at low as $40 a night, with no private bath or much more than a bed. They also have larger rooms for $80-90 a night. But I opted for Saint Paul, which is more out of the way, though had a room sale for $80 a night for a full suite consisting of two bedrooms, a central kitchenette with a fridge, and a bathroom and shower. The AC was a bit tricky to work, but once it was going, the room went from blistering hot to sub-arctic conditions.

Saint Paul isn’t as convenient as other locations. It’s really too far away to walk downtown. But right in front of it is the terminus of the #16 OC Transpo bus, which will take you right downtown to either the Mackenzie-King stop (where half the buses in Ottawa go) or within a couple of blocks of the Parliament buildings. The #5 bus also heads up Main Street, where St. Paul is located. To get to the summer hotel residence, you have to go through the doors on the right side of the college, then head to the brown building on the right.

Note that in this year – 2016 – it seems like the entire city of Ottawa is clogged up with construction. This is especially noticeable on the transit routes, since as far as I could tell, the transitways were all closed. These are bus-only routes that provide quick travel times to key points in the city via routes with numbers in the 90s. Note that the #92 and #96 buses go from the VIA station to the Mackenzie-Shopping Center.

What to See

I’ll refer to summer events, though the indoor things should also be available in winter too. Ottawa is full of museums. It’s also full of long walking and bike paths. From Saint Paul U you can walk or bike along the east side of Rideau Canal all the way to Parliament. This path is a bit dull after a mile or so, since the canal is dark and seaweed-infested, but it might be more charming in the winter. Warning: Ottawa can get VERY hot in the summer – when I visited in August, it was 30C feeling like 38C for a couple of days.

A can’t miss, in my book, is the War Museum. In a brand new building on the north-west edge of central Ottawa, it’s not as easy to get to as some of the other museums, though if you consult the “travel planner” on the OC Transpo website, you can work out a reasonable route. It costs $15 for an adult ticket, and can fill up most of your day, closing weekdays at 6PM. Don’t miss the LeBreton Gallery at the end of the historically-themed exhibits: it’s full of tanks, guns, and other vehicles, mainly from the World Wars. If it’s a nice day, you can exit the back of the War Museum and walk along the Ottawa River path to the Parliament Building, which takes about 25 minutes if you’re fast.

Second, I would recommend the Parliamentary light show, which starts at 9:30 in the summer, and last about a half hour. It’s free. You can also go across the street from Parliament to the tourist office and pick up tickets for a tour of Parliament, either outside or inside (though the inside tours get snapped up quick). They’re free too, though there was construction going on in summer 2016 that prevented access to all the grounds.

Third, I would recommend the Canadian Museum of Nature, on McLeod and Metcalfe in the south-east corner of downtown, walkable from Saint Paul. It’s a Victorian mansion with four floors of exhibits, including this summer a special dinosaur exhibit (which cost $10 more). This museum is free Thursday nights 5-8, as are some of the other “lesser” museums.

Fourth, though I didn’t visit it this time, there’s the National Gallery, in the north-east corner of downtown, just north of the Byward Market (a nice place to have a meal). It’s worth seeing if you like fine art, and has a good collection of Canadian art. Another museum I’d recommend, though like the National Gallery I skipped it this time, is the Aviation and Space Museum at Rockliffe Airport. This is way to the east of downtown, and is directly accessed by bus only twice per day, so you really need to drive or cab there. It has a great collection of vintage aircraft.

Lastly, over on the Quebec side of the river is the Museum of History, which is worth visiting, and like the Nature museum, free Thursday nights. There is a foot bridge you can walk across, which apparently takes about 25 minutes from the Ottawa side.

As far as victuals go, there is the usual assortments of chain restaurants and cafes downtown as you move from Wellington Street (Parliament) up to the Sparks Street Mall (no cars!) and Albert and Slater Streets (east-west streets on which the buses run). For greater variety, head east over the canal to the Byward Market, which has a few dozen small eateries with a variety of cuisines. There’s also a number of bars with outdoor patios within two blocks.

Lastly but not least, Ottawa actually has four beaches, the largest (according to the city’s web site) being Britannia Bay, a large bay west of the city, at the end of the #16 bus route. It’s a long bus ride, though you can cut your time down by using an express route before getting on the #16. The beach itself is roped off, with a lifeguard. Beside it is a medium-sized building with change rooms, some sort of community center, and a beachfront restaurant with burgers and other snacks that are reasonable and tasty. The water was pretty clear the day I went, and there are benches and picnic tables scattered around a small park. Worth a visit.


The Decline of Image Politics?

By Doug Mann, May 2016

On September 26, 1960 American politics changed forever. Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee for President, debated the slightly younger and substantially more charismatic Democrat John F. Kennedy on live TV. Nixon, who inexplicably eschewed makeup, appearing pale, sweaty and dodgy alongside the tanned, hale and hearty Kennedy. Pundits claimed that Nixon won the radio debate, but lost the real one – the one about image. A paradigm silently shifted.

Seven years later French Situationist theorist Guy Debord published a taught little book called The Society of the Spectacle that recognized this shift. Modern society, said Debord, wasn’t about philosophical ideas or political debates, but about images, about the spectacles provided by the cinema, television, and advertising. “The spectacle is not a collection of images,” Debord stated, “but a social relation between people mediated by images,” a relation dominated by appearances and pseudo-events. It is the guardian of a society that wants to sleep, to leave the real behind.

Debord’s claim seemed to become doubly true with the rise of social media and the Web 2.0 in the new millennium. Now millions spent much over their day hunched like zombies over the screens of their computers and smart phones staring at videos and pictures, communicating in Newspeak-like abbreviated texts. And the politics of the image marched arm-in-arm with digital culture, with even the most conservative politicians tweeting their daily manoeuvrings to the often indifferent masses (unless a Weiner-style scandal strikes).

Fast forward 56 years to the current US election. In some ways, the image politics paradigm still seems dominant. Most major candidates perform their personae to TV cameras and Internet feeds, their hair perfect, their policies hidden under empty rhetoric massaged by spin doctors. But then there’s Bernie on the left, and the Donald on the right. Trump fits the image politics model only superficially, while Saunders doesn’t fit it at all.

The battle in the Democratic camp isn’t so much an ideological one as a surprising struggle between postmodern and early modern ways of doing politics. In one corner stands Hillary, heir to the Clinton family dynasty, backed by Wall Street, practitioner of the football-coach “we’re gonna win!” style speechmaking. Despite her call to identity politics as potentially the “first female President,” many American women are looking below the veil, finding a policy chameleon. And voting for Bernie.

Saunders, a senior citizen with a shock of mad scientist hair, is hardly the ideal candidate for screen culture. He actually talks about policy and ideology. He points an accusing finger at Wall Street and at the establishment politicians in Washington who are paid $200,000 for speaking engagements while refusing to raise the minimum wage of their constituents, not to mention the corrupt systems of lobbyists that maintains them in power. He even commits the cardinal sin of admitting to being a social democrat, which is only one step away from socialism proper, the ninth circle of Hell for American conservatives.

Second Wave feminists might argue that Saunders is yet another old white man trying to reclaim the power of patriarchy over American politics, his ideology making him only slightly more palatable than Trump. Yet watching street interviews on the major networks indicates that a lot of women – especially young women – are fed up with politics as usual, and back Bernie’s explicitly leftist policies over Hillary’s indebtedness to big business.

On the GOP side things aren’t so clear. Among the fallen is the vapid Marco Rubio, young and handsome, but who Chris Christie exposed in a February debate as having been programmed by his handlers into becoming a bundle of sound bytes approved by party elites. Ted Cruz is older and increasingly irascible, but still able to present a nice image on TV screens, yet he struggles to reconcile his religion and family values with the realities of mass politics.

And then there’s Donald. On the surface, he seems to fit the Debordian archetype, his speeches punctuated by outrageous demands like the one for a Great Wall along the Rio Grande that are sure to get YouTubed and repeated endlessly on the nightly news. Isn’t he living evidence of the power of the society of the spectacle?

In a word, no. Even Saudners-style social democrats have to admit that Trump is putting forth policies, as crazy or horrific as they may sound: the Mexican wall, “rebuilding” the military, an end to Muslim immigration, and the use of torture on terrorist suspects. Admittedly, his sound bytes are quite entertaining, more so the scripted quips of a Rubio or Clinton. Yet a lot of what he says comes across as raw and unscripted, anathema to spin doctors used to the rules of post-Kennedy image politics.

His rally speeches are notoriously long and rambling, and not covered a by mass media which has to shoehorn short media clips in between commercials. Conservative Americans have responded. On April 26, 8 days after his potentially disastrous “7-11” gaffe, Trump steamrolled his way through five more primary states with victories. Saunders won’t win, though he’s still clawing away delegates from Clinton.

Most of us north of the border have long viewed American politics as one huge spectacle, one paid for by corporations who expect to get fair return on their investments from politicians they help send to Congress and the White House. What’s different this time around is that two major candidates have rejected the tightly controlled, money-driven image politics that ruled the roost for a half century. It’s a clash of paradigms, a return to dialectic. Richard Nixon would smile his grinch smile at this decline of the image.

Of Monsters and Men: A Review of EPIC Card Game

Doug Mann, April 2016

Epic Card Game is a fantasy card game from designers Robert Dougherty and Darwin Kastle, the team responsible for the very good Star Realms, and White Wizard Games. The 2015 production had a lot of hype connected to it. Let’s see if it measures up to this hype.

Epic consists of a deck of 128 standard-sized cards. Eight of these are double-sided “tokens” (minions) that various cards bring into play: humans, demons, zombies and wolves. The rest of the deck consists of one-sided collections of champions (heroes) and events. The champions are divided into four classes: Good (yellow), Evil (red), Wild (green) and Sage (blue). These four classes of cards parallel the four factions in Star Realms, though they don’t have as great an effect on play as the Star Realms factions do.

Two things make Epic epic. First, every single card has a beautiful painting on it, with repeats found only on the four types of token cards. Many of these, if blown up about ten times, would be suitable for postering or screen savering, if not framing. Unfortunately, the artistic medium isn’t the message. Second, the things pictured on these cards are a wild miss-mash of decades of fantasy gaming: human heroes, fairies, vampires, flying horses, dragons and dinosaurs make an appearance, among other creatures. In this sense, the game is thematically a somewhat more serious version of Smash Up. Fun seems to be promised.

However, the rules and game mechanics don’t measure up to the visual presentation of the game. The rule-book is a tiny card-sized booklet with Mage Knight-style typesetting – you’re strongly advised to either print off the rules on full-sized sheets of paper (download them from BGG) or to order a Sherlock Holmes commemorative magnifying glass from the BBC website before reading them. Second, the rules themselves are poorly organized, full of jargon, and require several readings before they “stick.” To solve this, I’ve rewritten the rules from scratch: see my Epic Revisited post on BGG.

One problem is that the jargon isn’t natural English, and echoes (I’m taking this on faith since I’m not an aficionado) Magic the Gathering, assuming that all players of Epic know its venerable parent game. Instead of “kill” and “apply” we get “break” and “tribute”; then we get a series of terms such as “ambush,” “banish,” “blitz,” “loyalty 2”, “righteous,” and “untargetable” that require players to pull out their electron microscope and refer to the rule-book to understand them. This use of a lot of special jargon might be justified in a monster like Arkham Horror, but not in a small card game like Epic.

Here’s how it plays. Each player starts with a hand of 30 cards and 30 Health (though there’s no tracker provided). You can “mulligan” away some cards in exchange for Health. Champions have attack and defence values, a gold cost of 0 or 1, and various special powers. You get 1 gold each turn (not provided – use poker chips): the most powerful cards cost 1 gold, so you can only put one of these into play each turn.

You start your turn by rebooting your gold supply, “preparing” you champions, drawing a card, then playing cards, using powers or attacking “as much as you like”.

epic art 05 stand alone

In the Battle Phase, the attacker chooses which champions will attack, the defender plays powers/events and chooses blockers, and then the attacker responds with powers/events. Each side deals out damage based on their attack values (though no tokens are provided); to “break” a champion, you have to match their defence value. This is followed by “triggered abilities” and an End Phase where you discard down to seven cards and remove damage.

The main problem with the mechanics of Epic lies in the phrase “as much as you like.” Other than the one-gold restriction, players typically wind up tossing down a bunch of champions and events without much strategy or structure. This is accentuated by the fact that attack values range from 0 for the High King to 18 for the Burrowing Wurm, a much larger range than the 0-8 one seen in Star Realms ships and bases (I’m excluding late-game faction-matching power-ups).

That means that a rampaging dinosaur can wipe out a small party of petty humans with a swing of its tail. In addition, there are a few super-powered event cards like “banish all champions” that make planning pointless. There’s little subtlety in the game: it’s more like WWF wresting than a cagey boxing match. Or like a petulant child at Wal-Mart who cries “mommy mommy… I want all those toys!”

The tight gold restriction limits this WWF factor a bit, though this has its own problem: it’s pretty easy to wind up with a handful of powerful 1-gold cards that you can’t play on a given turn. You eventually just have to discard these if you get too many. Since there’s no shuffling of the discard pile in Epic as far as I can tell, they’re lost unless you can recall them with an event card, which probably costs 1 more gold.

I find the way gold is used in Star Realms much more satisfying: you start with a deck of eight Scouts (which provide 1 gold) and two Vipers (1 attack), and use the gold provided by these Scouts to buy ships with higher gold and attack values, placing these into your discard pile when you buy them, shuffling the discards with your player deck runs out.

This deck-building aspect of Star Realms wouldn’t have to be integrated into Epic to fix the latter game, yet the way the gold works should be revised. One possibility is to create a market of five cards, giving each player a set amount of gold for the entire game (say 20): they could use this gold to buy new cards along with playing the 1-gold cards, but only one such card per turn.

In short, there’s no sense of the engine-building found in Eurogames like Terra Mystica or in most deck-builders. Things just happen, somewhat randomly. And bloodily.

Another problem with the game is that there are three “positions” for champions: prepared, expended and flipped, which interact with a series of special powers with an “extend” cost indicated by a turn-left arrow. This adds needless complexity: I suggest revising it to include just “active” and “tired” champions, with both attacking and blocking tiring a champion. Once again, too much jargon.

Then there’s what’s missing from the game but required to play it effectively: gold and damage tokens, a health tracker, and a player aid that summarizes both the sequence of play and the arcane terminology found on the cards. Epic is in reality a small-box game like Incan Gold that has cheaped out on essential components to fit into a box about the size of two decks of cards stacked on top of each other. It calls for a “deluxe” second edition with lots of shiny new baubles included.

Lastly, the game has no sensible meta-narrative. In Star Realms, you’re fighting to reduce the authority of other star empires, to crumble their political structures with military might. Here you’re fighting to reduce health. Whose health? That of a god? Who is this god? And why would he care if a random zombie or wolf gets killed? And where did he get that flying horse from?

Epic Art 08

In conclusion, Epic looks great. But it doesn’t play great. Here are my ratings out of 6:

  • Strategy: 2 Cool (too many wild mood swings)
  • Luck: 4 Warm (your life depends on your card draws)
  • Complexity: 4 Warm (too much for a card game)
  • Aesthetics: 5 Very Good (6 Excellent for the paintings)
  • Player Interaction: 3 Moderate
  • Level of Conflict: 5 Hot (it’s a slug-fest after all)
  • Depth of Theme: 2 Cool (a demon can ride Pegasus into battle against a Triceratops! How freaking awesome is tha…. wait… that makes no sense!)
  • Overall: 2 Mediocre (back to the wizardly work bench fellows!)

Who Watches the Spiel-Men? An Introduction to Board Game Videography

By Doug Mann, 2016

Now that board gaming has become more and more popular throughout the Western world, a wide number of videographers of the hobby have sprung up with their own web sites or on YouTube. Many are amateurish, working without scripts and failing to give their viewers a clear view of the game being reviewed (either in terms of rules or camera focus).

Yet there are at least half a dozen stables of game reviewers whose producers know what they’re doing, their video reviews emerging like prancing ponies from their virtual paddocks with clever scripts, lively graphics and solid explanations of the core mechanics of the games being reviewed. Here’s a quick overview of the best board game reviewers along with a few videos from each on games either we’ve played in the club or should play because they are just that good.

1. The Dice Tower

blood rage by me 02

A Monster Mash in Blood Rage

This is really about a dozen different reviewers who are sponsored by games stores like Cool Stuff Inc. The core group, out of Miami Florida, is made up of Tom Vasel and his sidekicks Sam Healey and Zee Garcia, who have done dozens of “Top Ten” lists of specific genres of games that are quite fun if you know anything about the games they’re reviewing. They don’t explain the rules of the games they review in these lists, but engage in lots of witty banter and story telling.

Tom also does his own solo game reviews, and reviews solo games with Sam under the moniker “Miami Dice.” Added to this core are solo reviews by Ryan Metzler and the Game Boy Geek, and reviews of war games by the much more laid back “HAMTAG” trio, who aren’t as slick as Tom’s crew.

The Dice Tower’s reviews are good at giving an overview of a game or game genre, though in most cases of no use in learning a new game. Their reviews tend to be a bit soft though usually fair, approving most of what comes to their table (though they are willing to slag off games they don’t like, including their Eurogame nemesis Agricola).

So for the critical theory of gaming, they get three dice out of five. For rules explanations, only two dice. For humour, they get four chuckles out of five, especially for their Top Tens videos. No one matches the Dice Tower for raw numbers of videos or breadth of coverage. They’re the big box store of board game reviewers, closer to Zellers than Wal-Mart.

Here are their Top Ten lists for Exploration games, games with Great Theming, and Games Every Gamer Should Own, along with the Miami Dice review of Blood Rage. Though I usually agree with Sam in their respective Top Ten lists, the Exploration list is one of the few where I enthusiastically agree with Zee, where he champions the three titanic tees of archaeological games Tikal, Thebes and Tobago.

The Dice Tower – Top 10 Exploration Games

The Dice Tower – Top 10 Games with Great Theming

The Dice Tower – Miami Dice, Episode 170 – Blood Rage

2. Starlit Citadel

Starlit Smashup 2

Kaja and Joanna Review Smash Up

Starlit Citadel is a games store, both real and online, in Vancouver. Most of their videos are short reviews of specific games that rarely top ten minutes in length, shot at a table in the back of their games store (as opposed to Tom’s basement in many of the Dice Tower videos). They’re hosted by the store manager Kaja Sadowski, who is a bit stiff though the better games critic, and the livelier Joanna Gaskell, a local actress and games enthusiast.

Kaja and Joanna’s videos are more tightly scripted than those made by the Dice Tower, and contain little fluff – though are largely humourless. They do two things very well. First, they show you all the components of the game laid out (instead of just dropping the components on the table in slow motion like Tom Vasel), explaining the basics of the game like the publisher, genre, length, number of players and likely demographic.

Second, and this is where they really excel, they take about five minutes explaining in detail the rules of the game. The problem is that they do this so quickly that you have to hit the pause button several times to take it all in. Yet if you’ve already played the game in question, their rule overviews are excellent ways of jogging your memory.

One problem with their reviews is that they love almost everything they review, though Kaja will often explain how the game is only good for a certain type of group, while Joanna explains rules flaws. The camera work becomes considerably better in their Season 3 and 4 reviews, with sharper images and fewer static two-shots.

Kaja embraces her inner Lovecraft by reviewing Smash Up Expansions
Kaja Channels Her Inner Cthulu While Reviewing Smash Up Expansions

So three dice for their critical theory, four for their rules explanations, and only one very restrained chuckle for their humour. Here are reviews from their first, second and fourth seasons on The Resistance, Smash Up and Evolution.

The Resistance Review – Starlit Citadel Reviews Season 1

Smash Up Review – Starlit Citadel Reviews Season 2

Evolution : Starlit Citadel Reviews Season 4

3. Watch it Played

ashes by me 02

Jessa and Maeoni Face Off in Ashes

This video series is hosted by Rodney Smith on YouTube, who I was surprised to find out recently is fellow Canadian hailing from the opposite side of the country from the Starlit Citadel ladies, Prince Edward Island. Though he may come across as a bit Mr. Rogerish at first, Rodney does an excellent job at explaining rules for games, taking around a half hour to go over a rules set in detail. You can play most games after watching one of his videos. His camera work is impeccable, offering lots of clear close ups of a game’s components as he explains game play.

Rodney has done over a hundred “how to play” videos since starting in 2011. As this series isn’t about reviewing games, he doesn’t say much about a game’s flaws. So Rodney gets only one die for critical theory, but five out of five for rules explanations, and two chuckles for his affable manner.

Here are his overviews of three excellent games: the richly themed hybrid brawls Kemet and Blood Rage, and what is arguably the new king of the hill in fantasy card games, Ashes. Contrast his bubbly factual style in these videos with the very different styles in the Dice Tower and Shut Up & Sit Down videos on the same games.

Kemet – How To Play

Blood Rage – How To Play

Ashes – How To Play

4. Board to Death


Giancarlo and Felicia Visit Tobago

This is really a collection of reviewers in different locations, though the best are done by the Italian gamer couple Giancarlo and Felicia, though judging by the Team Canada jersey seen in their review of Concept, they appear to be once again located in the True North. In their reviews they do a very good job of explaining rules and of offering a critical overview of the game, though not in as much detail as Rodney, with some corny jokes thrown in.

For the handful of reviews done by Giancarlo and Felicia, four dice for critical theory, four for rules explanations, and two embarrassed chuckles for their sense of humour. Here are their reviews of Tobago and Star Realms: you can learn to play the game in the first, while in the second Giancarlo has the cajones to criticize a fan favourite as “not all that original.”

Tobago Board Game Video Review

Star Realms Deck Building Video review

5. Fantasy Flight

descent by me 07

A Bad Day at the Farm in Descent

These promotional videos for their own games have the professional polish of big studio movie trailers with dramatic music and voiceovers by deep-voiced British actors positively oozing gravitas.

Some are short overviews, some are more detailed rules explanations, and some are “behind the scenes” videos about how the game in question was made.

Fantasy Flight gets only one die for critical theory and one chuckle for humour, but four dice for their longer rules explanations, and one Oscar for Best Special Effects in a Board Game Video.

Here are examples of their three basic types of videos: a short speechless ad for Descent 2.0 (which always makes me want to get the trolls and ogres out), a much longer tutorial for A Game of Thrones, and a “behind the curtains” look at The Fury of Dracula.

Descent: Journeys in the Dark Second Edition

A Game of Thrones: The Board Game (2nd Edition) Complete Tutorial

Fury of Dracula (3rd edition) – Video Highlight

6. Shut Up & Sit Down

Last but not least is the top-notch game journalism offered by the British website Shut Up & Sit Down, run by Quintin “Quinns” Smith and Paul “Paul” Dean, with assists from time-warped eighties hipster Matt Lees, Irish immigrant Brendan Caldwell, and a few of their other friends and lovers. The SU&SD crew have been mashing up board game reviews with the dry surreal British sketch comedy of Monty Python, Big Train and The Mighty Boosh since 2011, shooting their videos in the kitchens, dining and laundry rooms of their squalid flats and in the historic streets of old London.

They also do blog-style reviews and podcasts, both with a free-flowing sense of humour. Though British, they tend to be somewhat sceptical of Eurogames, usually reserving their enthusiasm for the most solid Ameritrash.

The video reviews by the frenetic Quinns involve such hijinks as dressing as a character in Incan Gold, roaming about a park looking for lost gems like Splendor, wandering through crowds on the Tube with Paul at his side explaining the pros and cons of a new release. Paul’s reviews are somewhat dryer, but also use some theme-connected sketch comedy, and are more thoughtful in tone than Quinns’ mad rushing-abouts.

Quinns Plays Kemet
Quinns Raves Over the Pyramid Power Emanating from Kemet – And Rightly So (screen grab)

SU&SD’s reviews are funnier than most big-budget American sitcoms (yes, I’m thinking of you Charlie Sheen). Their cinematography is low-budget cinema verité, though they get the most out of their micro-budget, using quick cuts and odd camera angles to add some Adam-West-era-Batman-style entertainment value to the comic core of their reviews. SU&SD do not take a lot of time explaining rules, so marks off here, but are willing to trash sacred cows like Arkham Horror if they see fit (I won’t be throwing out my copy quite yet).

So for the completely different approach from old Blightly, two dice for rules explanations, four for the critical theory of gaming, and five big chuckles for their wacky sense of humour. Here are Quinns’ review of Kemet, Paul’s of Ashes, and Matt’s opening combo of Coup and a recipe for sweet potato fries (both equally tasty):

Shutup and Sit Down – Kemet

Shutup and Sit Down – Ashes

Shutup and Sit Down – Coup

And for its combination of critical theory and board gaming sitcomedy, here’s Paul’s overview of Specter Ops, which ends with him getting drunk and agonizing over a lost hidden movement love, the then-out-of-print Fury of Dracula:

Shutup and Sit Down – Specter Ops

7. Consolation Prizes

I’d like to mention a couple of runners-up, both of whom post on YouTube: the Rahdo Runs Through It series of reviews/game plays by Richard Ham and the Drive Thru series of reviews hosted by Joel Eddy.

I prefer the Drive Thru series as a more reliable match for my own taste for rambunctious games married to strong themes. For example, he gushes over Ashes and Blood Rage. However, both Ham and Eddy are both quite thorough in dissecting the games that they review. Ham has the annoying habit of constantly referring to aspects of games that his wife “Jen” either likes or dislikes without her actually being present (at least in the episodes that I’ve watched), and he rejects the brilliant design of Kemet, so points off from me for his otherwise strong series of reviews.

In addition, Ham makes it clear (for instance, when guest starring on Tom Vasel’s Top Ten series on The Dice Tower) that he only plays and reviews two-player games. That’s a bit like a movie reviewer who only reviews Hollywood film.

Both Rahdo and Drive Thru do straight-up game reviews without any comic banter or sketch comedy.

Also worth mentioning is the series with the slickest production values on the Web, Table Top, which features Hollywood types playing full games with some rules explanations and the occasional direct-to-camera musings over strategy by the individual players. It’s hosted by former Star Fleet junior officer Wil Wheaton and co-produced by Wil and Felicia Day, who also appears in a few episodes.

These can be quite entertaining, though not as much as Shut Up & Sit Down, and aren’t useful for either rules explanations or game reviews. For those who fondly remember The Next Generation, you get to hear Ensign Crusher whining yet again, this time about losing yet another board game. Also annoying is the fact that there is usually one celebrity who has no idea how to play the game (examples include the otherwise admirable Alan Tudyk and Karen Gillan)—if they can learn lines, they can learn a few game rules! I especially recommend their playthroughs of Cards Against Humanity (not for the kiddies!) and Sheriff of Nottingham.

8. The Judgement


The Duke and the Scorpion Visit Westeros

So if you want a short overview before buying a game or a rules refresher, visit the Starlit Citadel. If you want to learn how to play a new game, go to Rodney Smith. If you want an amusing and mildly critical overview of a specific game or game genre, the Dice Tower is your wisest destination.

But if you want a little of everything and some belly laughs, then your top pick is Shut Up & Sit Down, in my view the best board game videographers on the World Wide Web.

Freeze frame on Kemet’s scorpion staring down the Duke from Coup, then fade to black to the sound of slowly intensifying kettle drumming.


A Ludic Odyssey: A Journey through the CYCLADES System

By Doug Mann, April 2016

According to Homer, Odysseus took ten years to get home from the Trojan War. Though playing all the elements of Matagot’s Cyclades series of games and expansions won’t take you that long, it’s sufficiently confusing to require a steady hand on the tiller to navigate one’s way through all its complexities.

In this article I’ll outline the components and core rules of each of these elements, offering bouquets or brickbats to each according to their merits. Instead following the chronological order in which they were published, I’ll follow the logical order in which the smart gamer will want to buy them: Cyclades, Titans, Hades, and then the minor add-ons.

Cyclades 05a Box Art

1. The Trojan Horse: CYCLADES

In 2009 Matagot published the core game in the system, Cyclades. It’s distributed by Asmodee in North America. Designed by Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc, Cyclades centers on an abstract version of the Cyclades archipelago, where each player controls one of five ancient Greek city states who make offerings to the gods in order to conquer islands, build fortresses, ports, temples and universities, and build up their economy in order to construct two metropolises.

Thus Cyclades is in part a worker-placement game, in part a wargame; in part diplomatic manoeuvring, in part a paean to Greek polytheism.

Like all the games in their XL line (e.g. Utopia and Kemet), Matagot has pulled out the stops to provide us with great board game art, both in the two-dimensional cardboard components provided – the reversible maps, “god board,” god tiles, cards, and money counters – along with in the plastic miniatures of troops, ships, and monsters.

You get two double-sided maps with “thin” and “thick” selections of sea and island circles that can be combined in four distinct ways for 2, 3, 4 or 5-player games. Most of the map is water, so sea power is key. You also get five large monster miniatures – the centaur Chiron, the Cyclops Polyphemus, the Minotaur, Medusa, and the Kraken – modelled in hard marble-coloured plastic, along with five sets of troops and ships, each in their own colour and individual sculpts in malleable, glossy plastic.

The goal of the game is to control two metropolises. You can do this by combining four distinct types of buildings (forts, ports, temples and universities), collecting four Philosopher cards, or stealing someone else’s metropolis.

Players start with two troops, two ships, and two isles.

My Pic - Cyclades full map
A Zeus-Eye View of the Five-Player Map

In the opening phase of each turn players do three things. First, a new card is drawn from the beautifully illustrated Mythological Creature deck, moving old cards down a track on the god board from a cost of 4, 3 then 2 gold. These represent various creatures such as Pegasus, a Siren, a giant, a griffin and a sphinx that you can buy along with a god to give you a one-turn special power.

Then large tiles representing the four main gods in the game – Zeus, Ares, Poseidon and Athena – are randomly placed on the god board (a separate board you lay alongside the map) on top of Apollo, whose last position is fixed. There are four spots in a full 5-player game; these spots are reduced for 2, 3 or 4 players (some gods take a holiday, but come back next turn).

Finally, players collect their income in “GPs” (which I’ll call gold from now on) based on how many cornucopia symbols they control on the map. Unlike their other possessions, their gold is hidden behind beautifully illustrated cardboard screens which have on their reverse side densely packed summaries of all the iconography in the game (which most players promptly ignore after trying to decipher them).

In the offering phase each player in turn bids one or more gold for the favours of one of these gods. Other players can outbid them – if they do, then the first player must bid on a new god. This is when the game really shines, as players jockey for position based on their future plans and how much gold they can afford to pay. If you bid too much, you won’t have any money left over to buy troops, ships or buildings.

The god you wind up with determines what you can do during the action phase:

  • Zeus gives you a Priest card, which gives you a discount of 1 gold on future god bids (you always have to pay at least 1 gold). You can buy a second Priest for 4 gold. Zeus also lets you build a temple for 2 gold, which gives you 1 off the cost of mythological creature cards. Finally, he also gives you the right to pay 1 gold to replace a current creature card with a new one.
  • Ares is the god of war: he gives you 1 free troop and the right to buy 3 more. He also gives you the right to buy a fortress for 2 gold (giving you +1 to isle defense rolls). With Ares, you can move a group of troops on the same island for 1 gold each move – this includes using friendly ships to transport troops across adjacent sea zones.
  • Poseidon is the god of the sea: he mirrors Ares in giving you 1 free fleet, the right to buy up to 3 more, and the ability to buy a port for 2 gold (giving you +1 to adjoining sea battles). He also gives you the ability to move a group of fleets in the same zone up to 3 sea zones.
  • Athena is the goddess of wisdom: she gives you one free philosopher and the chance to build a second for 4 gold. If you get Athena two turns in a row, you could in theory spend 8 gold to buy 4 philosophers, which are automatically converted into a metropolis: you’re half way to winning the standard game. You can also build a university for 2 gold: this has no special power, other than emanating the faint shimmer of knowledge from its walls.
  • Apollo is the consolation prize: he gives you a turn off from the hustle and bustle of city-state squabbling. He’s free, and gives the first player who picks him (several players can choose him) a new cornucopia, and everyone 1 gold. If you’re down to one isle, he gives you 4 gold instead. So Apollo is a catch-up mechanism for players who have been crushed by an enemy.

Someone who only knows the original game will wonder “hey, where are the other seven Olympian deities? Where are Hermes and Aphrodite?” The answer is given by Hades.

A note on strategy here: unlike in Titans, in Cyclades you need to set up the old Poseidon-Ares two-step to conquer an isle (move a fleet, then move troops), which might be difficult if others know you’re trying to do it. So using Athena to buy philosophers becomes a much more viable winning strategy. If the two-step is hard for you, it’s probably hard for everyone else too, so you can exist in splendid isolation on most isles.

My Pic - Cyclades Kraken
Beware the Kraken! The Monster Miniatures from CYCLADES

The Mythological Creatures can be bought by all the gods but Apollo. Their cost is determined by the position on the creature track, ranging from 2-4 gold (-1 for each temple you control). Their powers also vary greatly: the Griffon can steal half of another player’s gold, the Siren can steal a ship, while Pegasus can fly your troops across the board. This latter power should be house-ruled as a prohibited way of winning the game: in theory you could pick up a large army and fly across the map with your super-horse to take poorly defended metropolis from a poorly defended player.

In addition to the twelve creatures represented only by cards are five who have their own miniatures. They work in the same way as the cards-only creatures, disappearing after one turn like stars on a cheesy Hollywood chat show. The Kraken is by far the most powerful: it destroys all fleets in one sea zone, and can be moved by paying 1 gold per zone. The rest are underpowered, especially Chiron, whose only function is to protect against Pegasus, Giants and Harpies. Since none of these might be in play, he could be literally useless.

This is one weakness of Cyclades. The idea of including mythological monsters is great, but they disappear after one turn. I’ve tried to solve this problem with regards to the monster miniatures in my article Powering Up the Monsters in Cyclades. As for the rest, the Priestess cards in the Hades expansion allow players to pay to keep a monster in play. A third option is to house rule a simple system where you can keep a monster for an extra turn by paying either a Priest card or gold on a scale starting at 2 and increasing 1 per turn (but don’t allow this for the Kraken: it’s dangerous enough as it is).

The other disappointment here is that many of the card-only monsters call out for their own miniatures: the Sphinx, Pegasus, the Griffon and the Siren at minimum.

If you enter an isle with your troops or a sea zone with your fleets, there’s a battle. The mechanics of this are simple: add up your troops/ships, add in fortresss or port bonuses, and then roll one reduced-luck die (with faces of 0-1-1-2-2-3): the highest total wins. The loser loses one troop/fleet, and has the option to retreat. If there’s a tie, both players lose a unit. If the defender chooses to stay, players roll for round two of the battle. And so on.

Players can leave an isle empty but still control it: they can place a control marker on it. A nice balancing rule in Cyclades is the one which protects players with only one isle from being eliminated: you can’t attack such a player unless you can prove that by doing so you can win the game. If you finish a turn with two metropolises, you win.

The brilliance of Cylades comes from integrating its several disparate elements without getting bogged down by rules (the rules booklet is only eight pages, including two pages of setup diagrams). First, the theme of Greek mythology comes through strongly in what is mechanically a Eurogame-Ameritrash hybrid. This is aided by second pillar of the game’s brilliance: the map and board art and the miniature sculpts, which makes you feel as though you’re really moving triremes and hoplites across the Greek islands as you pray to Ares and Poseidon and avoid perils like Medusa’s snaky coiffure and the Kraken’s bloody maw. The third pillar is the strong bidding mechanic tied to the gold shortages created by the topography of the map and overly hubristic leaders. In Cyclades, as Mr. Jagger once put it, you can’t always get what you want. Though with enough gold and careful bidding, you might get what you need.

In short, Cyclades is the Trojan Horse that gets you into the system nicely. It’s got its flaws, notably under-powered and evanescent monsters. But when you voyage further into the system to visit the nymph Calypso, you’ll be very pleased with her boon: Cyclades Titans.

Ratings out of 6 for the basic game:

  • Complexity: 3 Moderate
  • Strategy: 5 Hot
  • Luck: 3 Moderate
  • Aesthetics: 6 Excellent

The Three Continua

  • Player Interaction: 6 Blazing (the bidding mechanic clinches this)
  • Level of Conflict: 4 Warm (muted when you get Zeus, Athena or Apollo)
  • Depth of Theme: 5 Hot (needs more gods and some heroes)
  • Overall: 5.2 Very Good

Titans Cover

2. Visiting Calypso: The TITANS Expansion

In 2014 Matagot released its second major expansion, Cyclades Titans, from the same design team. This is more of a substantial re-imagining of the game than a simple series of tweaks. It’s also the system’s crowning achievement, its Empire Strikes Back to the base game’s Star Wars: A New Hope. It turns the game’s volume up to 11.

The basic mechanics of the game are the same: collecting resources, bidding for gods, and then using their powers to build buildings and move pieces on the map. There are three major and three lesser additions to the core game that really make it shine. First, the major additions:

  • There is a new two-sided non-modular map. On one side is a single large multi-territory island surrounded by two smaller islands and many sea zones, with cornucopia sprinkled liberally across the board (with five on the small islands and seven on the sea zones). This is used in the 3- or 4-player variants. On the back is a map with two large islands, once against surrounded by two small fertile islands and sea zones that are home to a total of 19 cornucopia between them. The four-page rulebook redefines the “isles” of the base game as “territories,” so players can now march to victory without the aid of the sea god.
  • To make things even more exciting, enter Kronos and his Titans. The new god board can now handle six gods. Kronos is randomly placed and bid for like the other mobile gods: he gives you one free building from one of the god tiles above him on the god board, along with the opportunity to buy a Titan for 2 gold. If Kronos is at the top of the board, he gives you a Titan instead of a building, so for 2 gold you get two Titans. The Titans are like portable command centers: they only count as 1 troop in battle, but can be moved regardless of what god you bid on (except Apollo). One Titan move costs 1 gold, 2 costs 2, 3 costs 3, etc. One might also add that the Titan pieces, coming in six colours and three individual sculpts, tower over the relatively tiny troop miniatures.
  • The game can now be played by up to six players. With three or five, it’s still a competitive game. With four players, you can choose to play it as a team game; with six players, you must. Teams need three metropolises total to win. In my view the Cyclades-Titans six-player team game is the apex of the system, its Parthenon.

There are three more new elements in Titans that aren’t game changers like those above:

  • Free Positioning: Players now get 7 gold before the game to bid on the gods in the standard manner in a special placement phase, getting a free troop, fleet, Titan, Priest, Philosopher or cornucopia, depending on the god chosen. They also get for free a building associated with that god (except for Apollo), and use the order of this pre-game god board to set up their troops on two adjacent territories and their fleets on two adjacent sea zones. Before all of this, one of each type of building is randomly placed on set territories on the map. These new rules get the game off to a roaring start, since up to nine buildings may already be in place on the first turn.
  • Divine Artefacts: These are represented on cards mixed into the Mythological Creatures deck along with by white marble columns that you can place on the board and move with your troops. The Winged Sandals allow you to fly across an island, Zeus’ Lightning to siphon a gold from a player who outbids you, the Large Cornucopia to double the gold produced in that territory, the Caduceus to heal a dead soldier, and the Cap of Invisibility to move through enemy troops and fleets. These could be a game changer since possession of all five give you and immediate victory – but this is very hard to do, even in the team game, with others watching. They can change the game’s military strategy considerably: for instance, the sandals allow you to paradrop troops deep into enemy territory.
  • Special Metropolises: Though largely harmless, these are the only dispensable part of this expansion. There are five cards for the five types of metropolises: military, religious, cultural, commercial and seaside. Each gives a bonus according to its theme e.g. the religious one gives you a discount of 2 gold off creature buys, the commercial 2 extra gold during the revenues phase. You randomly choose two per game, with the first two metropolis builders getting dibs on them.

With the new map the value of sea-power and thus of Poseidon are decreased, since most of the time you’ll be fighting battles on a single island. However, the sea god still has a strong economic function: on the big map, there are 14 floating cornucopias to go fishing for. It’s actually easier to create a naval empire in Titans if other players fixate on Ares and Kronos. The three-cornucopia isle in the strait between the two major islands is sure to be a bone of contention, the game’s Alsace-Lorraine.

My Pic - Titans map
Plenty of Land for Stomping: The 5/6 Player Map in TITANS

Titans has just a tad more tension associated with the bidding round, since Kronos is now in play, and those Titans and free buildings are awfully tasty. The major change to the feel of the game, however, is brought by the Titans themselves, who can always move as long as you have some cash in hand, bringing along any regular troops in their territory. Everyone now has to look over their shoulders as they bid for an Athena-style victory or decide to go fishing with Poseidon – you can’t just turtle on a couple of isles and buy a victory.

The team play nicely ties all the new elements together, especially with six players playing on the big two-island map. It forces either a one-two player split on each island, or for each team of three to dominate one island each. This makes for some tough choices. Having six different gods to chose between, some players will inevitably play an aggressive Ares-Kronos strategy, grabbing whatever land they can, with others choosing a more economic Athena-Apollo-Poseidon one. A good team requires at least one player playing on each side of this fence. A third option is to carefully collect all five divine artefacts, fighting just enough to keep the other team off balance.

There’s another advantage of team play: now an individual player who has been successfully attacked can’t feel picked on, as his or her mates should be ready to serve up the cold dish of revenge to their mutual enemies.

In summary, team Titans is an excellent multi-faceted reboot of Cyclades that increases the level of conflict without adding a ton of complexity, though softening that conflict in the team variant with back-slapping “we happy few” camaraderie.

But where are those missing gods? More durable creatures? Homer’s heroes? We’ll have to journey to the underworld to find them.

Ratings out of 6 for Titans:

  • Complexity: 4 Warm
  • Strategy: 5 Hot
  • Luck: 3 Moderate
  • Aesthetics: 6 Excellent

The Three Continua

  • Player Interaction: 6 Blazing
  • Level of Conflict: 5 Hot (it’s not just a war game)
  • Depth of Theme: 5 Hot (still a few mythical things missing)
  • Overall: 5.5 Very Good+ (competitive game), 6 Excellent (team game)

My Pic - Hades cover

3. Cerberus Barks – Should We Stay Away? The HADES Expansion

Published in 2011, Hades is first expansion to the core game. It’s very different from Titans: it doesn’t come with a map or reboot the game, but provides a series of four rules modules (only three of which have pieces and cards associated with them). One or more of these can be “plugged into” imaginary slots in the core game to expand its coverage of Greek mythology while at the same time upping its complexity.

In this sense, it’s a potpourri of new rules, miniatures, cards and tiles which players can pick and choose between as they see fit.

Hades makes use of all the main rules in the core game. Here are the modules it adds:

  • #1. Pre-Game Free Placement: This is simply the free positioning rules replicated in Titans, though without the bonus starting buildings (remember, Hades was designed for the sparser map of the original game). Both versions work well with the maps they were designed for, so no further comment is needed.
  • #2. Hades and his Undead: The lord of the underworld arrives periodically with an army of up to 5 troops and a navy of up to 5 fleets. He is also provided with his own standard-sized god tile, a grey column, and a Necropolis tile.
  • #3. Heroes and New Creatures: Six heroes enter the fray: Achilles, Hector, Odysseus, Perseus, Midas and Penthesilea the Amazon. From the nether regions come Cererbus (who has his own sculpted miniature), Charon, Empusa and the Furies (they have cards only).
  • #4. Divine Favours: This module adds eight “minor” gods missing from the core game. Hera, Aphrodite, Artemis, Demeter and Hestia give their controller a Priestess card and a unique Divine Favour, while Hermes, Dionysus and Hephaestus give a Favour and a Magic Item card (there are ten of these).

Skipping the free placement rules, I’ll review these in the order I think they should be added to the Cyclades-Titans combined game.

[1] First, there’s no problem adding the new god Hades and his army of the undead. His tile has a threat track on which you roll one die during each opening phase: when it hits 9, his tile replaces the lowest of the other gods on the god board. If you control him, you get a free troop OR fleet, and can buy up to four more troops or fleets, both of which can be mixed with your own units. Hades is basically Ares and Poseidon combined: you can pay 1 gold to move either his troops or fleets. The trick is that after one turn, the undead all go back to Hades! So you might wind up paying a lot of gold for nothing.

In addition, if you control Hades you can build a Necropolis for 2 gold. If you do, each time a troop or fleet dies, you add 1 gold to it. Whoever controls the Necropolis during the next income phase gets this gold.

Some might think that Hades’ presence unbalances the game. I haven’t found this to be a problem: since everyone is freaked out when he arrives, they tend to push up the bidding for his favours, thus exhausting their gold supply. He is good for one or two solid attacks.

[2] Second, if Hades is already in the game, have no fear in adding his friends Cererbus, Charon, Empusa and the Furies. These denizens of the underworld make thematic sense, and only add complexity when a player has to look up their powers for the first time. In my view, combining Cyclades, Titans, and these two elements of Hades provide a rich, playable game that won’t get too bogged down with rule lawyering.

Hades Aphrodite
Aphrodite, Goddess of Love – Divine Favour Tile from HADES

[3] Third, and I think this is more of a judgement call, add Module #4 Divine Favours if you want the full Olympian pantheon on the board. This module adds eight minor gods to the mix: each turn one is randomly chosen and placed alongside the lowest core god’s tile (not counting Apollo) on the god board as a bonus tile. So you might get Zeus and Hera with the same bid.

If you get this last core god, you also get the unique favour offered by the minor god along with either a Priestess card or a Magic Item. The Priestess cards, which come with the minor goddesses, are the best part of this module: you can spend one of these to keep either a hero or monster miniature on the map for one more turn. Some of the unique powers are thematic, some not so much: Aphrodite allows you to double troop numbers for 2 gold, Dionysus can build a theatre (a wild card building) for the same cost, while Demeter gives you a bonus gold for each isle/territory you control. This last bonus can be hefty in Titans, though for the most part, the minor gods’ powers integrate well.

The trio of minor male gods give you one of ten Magic Items cards such as Apollo’s Arrows, Poseidon’s Trident or Pandora’s Box. Some of these seem like variations on themes already seen in the Mythological Creatures deck, though they are largely thematic. You can hold onto an item for one turn.

One problem with the Divine Favours and Magic Items in this module is that if you add them to the Heroes and Creatures module, Hades introduces 28 new special powers to the Cyclades system, not counting Hades, his Necropolis, and Priestess cards. That’s 31 new rule blurbs to research during the game.

In contrast, Cyclades has 5 gods, 17 creatures, 5 buildings and 2 card types one has to know, for a total of 29 total blurbs – though everything but the creature powers become intuitive after a single game. Titans adds 1 god, 6 buildings, and 5 artifacts to the mix, for a total of 12 new blurbs (with the powers of the 3 unused special metropolises being of no concern). So Cyclades-Titans has a total of 38 unique game elements with special rules in play in any one game; Hades adds all by itself another 31 new elements with special rules.

So if you want to add the minor gods and their favours and items, make sure you have a good reference card printed off from Board Game Geek. They slow down what is otherwise a sleek game system. Yet the Priestess cards are a good fix for the problem of the disappearing monster miniatures from the base game. If you don’t want more complexity, simply place a Priestess card on the last god on the god board as a bonus and ignore the rest of this module. But if you love the theme of Greek mythology, add the minor gods.

My Pic - Titans pieces medium
Heroes from HADES ~ Titans and Divine Artifacts from TITANS ~ Troops from CYCLADES

[4] Lastly, the Heroes from Module #3 don’t integrate well into Titans and should not be added in their original form. These are recruited from the Mythological Creatures deck, and can be kept around in future turns at a cost of either 2 gold or a Priestess card.

They each have a military power (Achilles counts as two troops, Midas can pay to re-roll battle dice) and a sacrificial power (you remove their piece from the board to gain this). The idea of including these heroes makes a lot of thematic sense, enriching the game’s mythos, although Penthesilia is the Pete Best of the band. Their miniatures are nice to look at.

But their sacrificial powers are just too great: Achilles can be sacrificed to build a metropolis if you have four isles/territories (you can get these in one move in Titans); Perseus can move troops to any other isle/territory not protected by another hero (he’s a super-Pegasus); Penthesilia can build a metropolis on a secret Amazon island that can’t be attacked; while Midas can just buy a metropolis with 15 gold. You could in theory win a game with just a couple of hero sacrifices, and not much else.

Solution: allow the heroes in the game, but strip them of their sacrificial powers. Without these, the heros are a nice addition, and considerably simpler than the minor gods with all their special powers and Magic Items.

[5] With Hades we come to the end of our Odyssey through the main elements of the Cyclades system. If you like both the core game and Titans, Hades is a worthy though non-essential addition to your collection. My recommendation, if you have 4+ players, is to use all of Cyclades and Titans, then add Hades and his undead, the four new creatures, the Priestess cards and maybe the stripped-down heroes from the Hades expansion. If players are comfortable with the system and love Greek myths, add in the minor gods also. If they want to emphasize playability, just add Hades and his minions and the four new creatures.

To start, I’ll rate each module separately, out of 6:

  • #2 Hades and his Undead: 5.5 Very Good+
  • #3 Heroes: 3 Fair (as written), 4.5 Good+ (if you strip them of their sacrificial powers)
  • #3 New Creatures: 5 Very Good (though hardly necessary)
  • #4 Minor Gods/Divine Favours/Magic Items: 4.5 Good+
  • #4 Priestess Cards (by themselves): 6 Excellent (a much needed fix)

Here are my ratings for Cyclades-Titans with all of Hades added / then with “Hades-light” added (Hades and his undead, the four new creatures and the Priestess cards). Hades-light emphasizes playability, whereas full Hades adds complexity and theme.

  • Complexity: 5 Hot / 4 Warm (adding all of Hades ups this considerably)
  • Strategy: 5 Hot (it’s a brain burner either way)
  • Luck: 3.5/3 Moderate (a bit higher with all those minor gods added)
  • Aesthetics: 6 Excellent (the art is top flight once again)

The Three Continua

  • Player Interaction: 5 Hot /6 Blazing (checking the rules constantly reduces player interaction in full Hades a bit)
  • Level of Conflict: 5 Hot (it slows down the game so reduces this a bit)
  • Depth of Theme: 6 Blazing /5 Hot (using all of Hades does fill in the “missing” gods and heroes)
  • Overall Rating for the Hades expansion: 4.7 Good+

Hades - Hecate kit

4. Avoiding the Sirens: The C3K CROSSOVER and Other Minor Add-Ons

As the friendly shores of Ithaca beckon us home, we still have a few other minor expansions to review before finishing our Odyssey through the Cyclades system. Like the heroes module in Hades, these add-ons are like Sirens for the less-than-wealthy who like their games playable: they’re hard to resist, but of little navigational aid.

[1] The C3K Creatures Crossover Mini-Expansion (2013) attempts to integrate the monster miniatures from Cyclades into Kemet and vice versa. It costs about $15 in Canada, but consists of only six power tiles (for Kemet), seven cards (for Cyclades), and a thin rules booklet. With it you can use the scarab beetle, scorpion, mummy, sphinx, snake, elephant and Phoenix from Kemet in Cyclades as troops with special attack powers. Leaving aside the small addition to the complexity of the game the module adds, the addition of these Egyptian monsters to the glory that was Greece is wildly anti-thematic on the level of Hollywood scripts re-written by committees of hacks and overly-protective producers. And for the same price you can get a full card game like Star Realms. My rating: 2/6.

[2] In 2011 Matagot gave away two freebees. First was a creature card for the Manticore, which eliminates heroes, given away in Plato magazine. Second was the more substantial Hecate add-on, an Essen freebee that can be bought on the Matagot web site for 5 Euros plus 8 Euros for shipping (it also comes with the Manticore card). It includes the Hecate minor god tile, two plastic columns, and six colour-coded cloth bags for your plastic pieces. Hecate has the interesting power of being able to dig an underground tunnel between two territories. For a brief time in the summer of 2016, the Hecate add-on could also be bought with six small silk bags for your armies and navies from the Board Game Geek store. My rating: 4/6 (5 if the shipping were cheaper).

[3] Matagot promises a new mini-expansion called Monuments for 2016. This will contain ten monuments and their associated cards, presumably each with their own special power. On aesthetics alone it should rate a 6.

This completes our ludic Odyssey through Cyclades and its expansions. I hope Penelope has made lunch, I’m hungry!

Who Watches the Watchmen? The Evils of Identity Politics in Academic Life

February 2005, revised April 2016. Rejected by the Western News, presumably for ideological reasons. I have since softened my views as with the drying up of tenure-track jobs, even affirmative action hires are fewer and fewer, so things have evened out a bit. 

The leaders of the postmodern academy have spent the last two decades wallowing in the mire of two huge and stinky piles of ideological muck – identity politics and politically correct liberalism. These watchmen and watchwomen have supported a public discourse and hiring policies that are hostile to individual rights while being tied to rather dubious notions of collective rights and collective guilt. Yet those strange ideas are rarely brought into the public light since politically correct liberalism has achieved such a powerfully hegemonic position within North American universities that its critics are automatically rejected from teaching positions, or silenced by threats of being fired or denied tenure once there.

What is identity politics? It’s the notion that one’s biological traits, which are largely unchangeable, define one’s being and one’s politics. A person is, in essence, their biology. Further, questions of freedom and equality are always framed in terms of membership in a given biological group, with some such groups being defined in their very essence as “oppressors,” others as “oppressed.” The opposite of identity politics is the more old-fashioned liberalism of individual rights as laid out in such documents as the Magna Carta, the American Constitution, the French Declaration of Rights of 1789, and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (though even the latter contains some exceptions to the rule of the supremacy of individual rights).

Identity politics, in the forms of rabid nationalism, ethnic violence, religious schisms and genocides, is responsible for most of the mass killings of the last century, from two world wars and the Armenian Genocide of 1915 to the massacre in Rwanda in 1994 and the current problems in the Middle East. At its most basic, identity politics seeks to accelerate the tribalism which seems inherent in the human character.

People seem naturally to identify with and seek out the company of others who are physically “like” them. Hence friendships are usually between those of the same age group, race, religion (or lack thereof), and sometimes sex. Conversely, people tend to be instinctively repelled by physical differences. Some cases in point from campus life: on my sociological forays on the local public transit system AKA taking the bus to school, I’ve noted time and time again that students will consistently avoid sitting in empty seats besides senior citizens, preferring to stand to avoid the “contamination” of close contact with an “old” person.

Second, even in the relatively tolerant, openly liberal environment of the modern university, young people will form themselves spontaneously into social groups based on their racial and religious identities. I remember during my doctoral studies at the University of Waterloo in the 1990s walking into the cavernous student center and seeing crowds of undergraduates spontaneously dividing themselves into tribal clusters centered on groups of comfy chairs – the black students in one group, the East Asians there, the South Asians here, the students of British and European descent (let’s just call them “Euros”) over there. Some of this is language. But most of it is our instinctual tribalism.[1]

The most extreme forms of tribalism lead to blood and death. Witness the long and dreary fight between Israel and her Arab neighbors. Politically correct liberals expend great energy condemning this or that abuse of one side or the other, often slipping into that most eternal of Western social diseases, antisemitism. Yet this conflict will never end as long as Arabs and Jews define themselves as two mutually exclusive tribes claiming the same patch of ground (though to be fair, Israel is to date the only functioning democracy in the region, the only state that accords women full civil rights).

Tribalism also creates religious and ethnic hatreds within states. Ask Martin Luther King, Steve Biko and Theo van Gogh about this – oh wait a minute, you can’t: they’re dead. By the way: Dr. King wanted a color-blind society, a not ghettoized affirmative action.

Naturally, the most fervent defenders of identity politics on university campuses a generation ago were the radical feminists, who saw patriarchy as an all-encompassing Force lead by Darth Vaderish men determined to keep all women everywhere in positions of subservience. Being a woman meant by definition being oppressed, regardless of the car you owned, the house you lived in, your income, your education, or in many cases the color of your skin (note that at least in America, almost all Second Wave feminists were white bourgeois women). So a female academic on the Sunshine List is still more of a victim than a male adjunct faculty member who makes poverty-level wages, regardless of any evidence to the contrary. Facts don’t matter.

And not surprisingly – cue the kettle drums and ominous trumpet blasts – being a man meant being an oppressor, except in the case of the most pliant types (enter the violins) with tears in their eyes and a thousand “mea culpas!” on their lips. Fortunately, the bizarre claims of the likes of Andrea Dworkin and Mary Daly have fewer and fewer admirers today, as third wave feminists no longer define men per se as their collective enemies. So some progress here.

Identity politics is directly tied to the culture of victimization. An absurd example of this culture was an August 2006 news report on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation about a Montreal man who read the Gazette (the local English-language newspaper) and thought he had won the lottery. The newspaper had printed the wrong lottery numbers. After finding out the mistake, the poor gent was all aflutter, claiming he couldn’t go into work because of heart problems. He was a victim of bad typesetting. So within days he filed a law suit against the paper for redress. Was he a victim? Or simply a fool for pinning his hopes for happiness on lottery tickets?[2]

A more recent example was the rather dismal Jian Gomeshi trial. Even though the evidence given by Gomeshi’s accusers involved backsliding, collusion and perhaps lying, and his lawyer Marie Henein sounded disgusted with their testimony in an interview with Peter Mansbridge, some radicals still wanted to try him in the press and mass media, not in a courtroom. That’s because what matters in the mass media are not facts, but outrage and moral theater – hence CNN’s interruption of an important recent story to cut to an empty podium where Donald Trump was about to speak. Did Gomeshi engage in rough sex? It would seem so. But the victims of his affections remained friends and lovers. Facts matter.

The basic premise of politically correct liberalism is that by speaking and writing in warm and fuzzy ways about sex, race, religion, and other aspects of identity politics, we as a society can somehow achieve real social equality. Politically correct liberalism uses distortions of reality in order to obscure real differences between people, or to paper over cracks in the wall of social inequality with a thin layer of linguistic wallpaper. Examples abound: couples are no longer husband and wife, boyfriends, girlfriends, or lovers, but “partners.” What’s the nature of their partnership? Writing books together? Co-owning a flower shop? Playing on the same curling team? Sleeping together? Or some combination of these things? Who really knows – and in most cases, who really cares?

identity politics 02.jpg

And sometime in the last two decades Indians, Pakistanis, Afghans, Vietnamese, Chinese, Koreans, and the many other peoples living on the world’s largest continent merged into that nebulous mass that politically correct liberalism calls “Asians.” This despite the fact that the older ethnic terms weren’t generally meant as ethnic slurs. Once again politically correct types ignore the huge differences between Indian Hindus, Tibetan Buddhists, and secular Japanese – to choose three cultural groups out of a hat – by referring to all of them with the same vague term, one which throws over a billion people with a diverse series of cultures into one huge semantic basket. In trying to be anti-racist, PC liberals become more racist.

Of course, most of the ardent supporters of politically correct liberalism live in the suburbs, drive nice cars, and have never felt the sting of real poverty. Their revolution is one of words and questionable hiring policies. As an old school social democrat who believes that equality is first and foremost a matter of economics and class, I find this deeply hypocritical.

Affirmative action in the academy is a case in point of the excesses of politically correct liberalism allied to identity politics. Its role is rather different in Canada than the US. South of the border affirmative action is largely an attempt to overcome racism against blacks. Yet in Canada, where the percentage of black people is far smaller, affirmative action in universities is much more tied to radical feminist politics.

We should distinguish three types of equity in academic hiring. First, we can call hiring based purely on qualifications which is blind to race, sex, age, and other biological traits “fair” hiring. Second, there’s “soft” affirmative action, where in cases of two candidates having identical or very similar qualifications, jobs go to women or ethnic minorities until they achieve a reasonable level of representation, at which point “fair hiring” takes over. Third, there’s “hard” affirmative action, where women and ethnic minorities are hired over others regardless of their respective qualifications. This third form of affirmative action is immoral and corrupt.[3]

Given current sociological realities, hard affirmative action is guilty of four sins. It hypocritically attacks a moral principle that is – and one imagines always will be – at the center of academic life. It actively supports identity politics, yet doesn’t take into account the important social changes of the last generation which have economically benefited some biological groups much more than others. It sacrifices a large group of people for reasons of a collective historical guilt that living individuals are almost entirely innocent of. And it echoes Nazi and other fascist racial policies, albeit in a reversed form.

The moral principle I’m talking about is the principle of just deserts. No, this isn’t a policy of having only chocolate sundaes and strawberries and cream for dinner, as yummy a policy as this would be, but the notion that people should get the economic and social rewards they “deserve” based on their inherent skills, including intelligence, hard work, dedication, and commitment. Further, it says that we should ignore irrelevant factors such race, age, sex, religion and class. We professors tell our students, either explicitly or implicitly, that the grades we give them are based on a combination of amount of work and basic research and writing skills. Those with the best grades can go on top graduate school and perhaps become professors themselves.

Yet when it comes to hiring new professors, the principle of just deserts is thrown out the window. People are hired based on their youth, sex or race rather than the most extensive qualifications. That’s what affirmative action is: choosing to hire someone you KNOW isn’t as qualified as others applying to the position in order to support the collective rights of groups defined as “oppressed,” while punishing other groups due to the collective guilt you’ve assigned them. This is hypocrisy of the highest order. Imagine a classroom where a professor assigned grades based purely on the sex or race of her students, giving black women an “A”, Latino women a “B”, and white males a “C”, regardless of the work they handed in. Such a practice would bring howls of outrage from all and sundry.

It would be all too easy to provide a number of specific examples from the many cases of dubious affirmative action hires done over the last two decades in Canadian universities, but I have it on good authority that to do so would open up the possibility of libel suits (not to mention putting me on any number of blacklists). Instead we’ll look at a fictionalized collage of the type of hirings typically done in politically correct Humanities and Social Science departments by visiting the Theosophy Department at a Prominent Canadian University (PCU). This collage is based on a number of specific factual cases.

Twelve years ago, in 1996, the Theosophy Department was dominated by about a dozen or so white males hired in the sixties and seventies nearing the end of their careers who felt a slight twinge of guilt about being so white and so male. That being the case, they listened to the two second-wave feminists in the department that they embark on a stringent program of affirmative-action hiring. They also decided they needed some “new blood,” so they opted to avoid hiring candidates with extensive teaching experience and publication lists since they were obviously “set in their ways” and wouldn’t “fit” the department’s needs (i.e. they were too old or would make the tenured faculty who had rested on their publishing laurels some time in the seventies look bad).

Provided with plenty of cash from PCU’s faculty renewal fund, the Theosophers hired ten new faculty over the last decade. Two were established scholars from the USA with credible publication records, one male, one female. The male hire had even published a book, unlike any of the other new faculty. Five were doctoral students with no publication records and minimal teaching experience (four of these being women), the other three recent graduates averaging two published articles and one year’s teaching experience (two of these are women). Overall the Theosophers hire seven women and three men with an average age of 32, dropping to 29 if you throw out the two “credible” hires.

Of these ten, two are East Asian, the other eight white; all of them are from middle or upper-class families. Their “open” job calls bring in 200-250 applications, with about two-thirds of these being candidates with complete Ph.D.s and at least a year’s worth of teaching experience. The hiring committee systematically throws out applications from older white males when making affirmative action hires to make sure that the young women they want hired have no credible competition during the job interviews and talks. None of these men complain, fearing retribution. Six of the seven women hired are quite fetching, improving the aesthetics of the Department immeasurably.


So why are such hiring decisions made? Mainly to fulfill the ideological program of politically correct liberalism, notably its promotion of identity politics. There are other reasons too. For one thing, young inexperienced academics are more fearful of loosing their jobs and thus more politically pliable. Thirdly, I have it on good authority that some faculty members apply the “principle of envy.” This principle states that “I shall not hire anyone with a significantly better publication or teaching record than me because it will make me look bad when my name comes up for tenure or promotion.”

Lastly, fetching young women are sometimes hired for their “aesthetic” qualifications: I’ve seen myself the sickening sight of senior male faculty fawning over a newly hired young faculty member as she makes corrections to her incomplete doctoral thesis. I follow Camille Paglia in saying that there’s nothing wrong with appreciating beauty, though perhaps we need some affirmative action for the “aesthetically challenged” too.

Yet politically correct liberalism is not only guilty of identifying a person’s essence with their biology. It is guilty of three more sins: of ostrich sociology, of a dubious notion of collective guilt, and of an unwitting but all the same unholy ideological alliance with fascism.

One inescapable sociological fact of the last two decades is the rising social and economic clout of women.  An August 23, 2006 Statistics Canada report featured on CBC radio and TV notes that about one-third of wives in dual-income families now make more than their husbands, while men make on average 16% more than women. Taken out of context, these stats may seem like evidence of sexism against women. Quite the contrary: for one thing, women’s paychecks have steadily increased in North America over the last three decades. Depending on who you ask, it’s now about 79% in the U.S. Further, the argument that these figures represent endemic sexism against women ignores two rather huge elephants sitting in the corner.

For one thing, look around any given shopping mall or fast-food restaurant: the majority of workers in these places are women working at or near minimum wage. The post-industrial capitalist service economy relies on underpaid women’s work to function.

As for university life, let’s look at my own university, The University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada. UWO’s Provost office published a report in January 2000 on gender and hiring between 1991 and 1999. Here’s the facts: 23.2% of the pool of job applicants in this period were women. But 30.4% of those interviewed and 36.2% of those hired were female. Overall, a given female applicant had a 5.4% chance of being given a job, with a given male having only a 2.9% chance. So Jennifer Jones had almost twice the chance of being hired at Western than her brother John. And these figures are skewed down by the paucity of women in the physical sciences: in the humanities, the percentages for women were much higher.

These figures are no doubt understatements of the growing place of women in the university. Over the last six years (up to 2005) a number of departments on Western’s campus have accelerated aggressive programs to hire women to point where in some cases they represent half or more of full-time faculty, despite being a minority of job applicants overall.

What do you call it when an organization systematically favours one sex over the other in the hiring process? Let’s see… flipping though my dictionary… I believe this is called “sexism”! Women who have gotten to the doctoral level are now a privileged class in academe, having two-to-three times better odds of getting a tenure-track job than a man with the same qualifications (and probably ten times the odds if the man is middle-aged).

The two elephants in the corner overlooked by politically correct liberals are the realities of the tenure system and family life. A young man hired in 1970 and granted tenure a few years later could still be a full-time faculty member 35 years later: the tenure system guarantees that gender and racial imbalances can’t change overnight. Secondly, PC liberals ignore how freely chosen life decisions, such as those of women in their late 20s who drop out of academic life to marry and raise a family, have a dramatic effect on the composition of the faculty. Of course, the idea that an educated woman would put aside her career to raise children irritates academic feminists to no end.

A Statistics Canada “Daily” from February 2005 clarifies the situation even further. Between 1990 and 2003, the number of full-time female university teachers “jumped by over 50%.” In contrast, male faculty dropped by 14% in the same period. The Daily from October 11, 2005 reports that 60% of the degrees, diplomas and certificates awarded by universities in 2003 were given to women. This drops to 52% of master’s degrees and 41% of doctorates, though women still earned 53% of all post-graduate degrees and diplomas in 2003. A good guess as to why there’s a drop-off from masters to PhD degrees is that as women hit their late twenties they marry and have children, social realities not likely to be changed by affirmative action programs. Some of these women make the decision to be full-time moms instead of full-time academics, for which we can hardly blame them.

It’s clear that women now dominate the undergraduate classroom, and that this domination has filtered into a significant number of graduate programs e.g. psychology, sociology, the languages and literature. I’ve taught social science classes where 90% of my students were female, where a medium-sized lecture hall contains dozens of young women and three young men, two of whom never talk. And given the fact that young males often spend the first year or three of their undergraduate careers crippled by excess booze and testosterone, this domination of women is likely to increase in future.

Further, some ethnic groups have benefited from changing social conditions far more than others. Young East Asians on university campuses often come from affluent backgrounds, and are generally no more “underprivileged” than their Euro counterparts. In my experience East Asian students have a good work ethic, better than most undergraduates of European descent – far more East Asian women have gotten top marks in the various arts and social sciences courses I’ve taught than their small numbers in these programs would merit. This isn’t to say that they don’t suffer from some residual racism outside the university, but we’re a far cry from the Chinese head-tax of the early twentieth century or the internment camps for Japanese-Canadians built during World War II.

Ignoring these social changes is ostrich sociology, sticking your head in the sand to avoid coming to grips with threats to your ideological worldview. If supporters of identity politics really wanted to deal with the complex interrelation between race and class which condemns some people to physical labor or service industry jobs and others to professional careers, they would promote the hiring of working-class blacks, natives and (given recent events) South Asian Muslims, who are rarely seen in the university classroom. Of course, class is the invisible but most powerful determinant of who winds up in the factory or food court and who winds up in the boardroom or behind a lectern. Yet no affirmative action hiring programs address this deepest cause of social inequality.

One common practice by politically correct liberals is to hire foreign professors from countries where English isn’t the first language to get a hit of that warm feeling of moral superiority. It goes without saying that all universities should encourage atmospheres of racial tolerance. But one of the most common complaints I’ve overheard from undergraduate students, especially in the sciences, is against TAs and lecturers whose English language skills are poor. Hiring non-English speakers to teach in university is like hiring a doctor who has learned medicine from watching hospital shows on TV. Fluency in the language of the land should be an absolutely essential criterion for all academic hiring, a criterion that should stand above ideological debates about identity politics.

Speaking out against racism and sexism on university campuses in 1958 was a brave act. Doing so in 2016 is about as risky as putting on your shoes in the morning. That’s because there really aren’t nefarious cabals of racists and sexists lurking in back rooms smoking Cubans and plotting to restore patriarchy or the British Empire. Almost no one – and I include myself in this group – wants to return to the unofficial policies of racial and sexual prejudice common throughout North American universities a up to the 1960s.

Given this, PC liberals justify affirmative action by the claim that white men are collectively guilty of oppressions of the past, whether it’s imperialism, slavery or the nuclear family. “Sacrifices must be made,” says the PC liberal – “you can’t make an omelet without cracking a few eggs.” Yet the eggs being cracked – the current generation of Euro males, especially older ones from more humble class backgrounds – are 99% of the time entirely innocent of these past oppressions. This logic of collective guilt has been used many times in the past by world leaders to justify the cruelest of acts – Hitler and the Jews, Stalin and the kulaks, Mao and the Tibetans. It’s irrational nonsense. Why is it resurfacing now?

Fourthly, there is just a whiff of neo-fascism in hard affirmative action. Nazi racial eugenicists and racial “scientists” were fond of making charts and diagrams of various types of body shapes and facial features to illustrate the supposed superiority of the “Master Race” to non-Aryans, notably their enemies the Slavs and the Jews. Today equity bureaucrats perform a Nietzschean revaluation of values, promoting a reversed and distorted version of the fascist racial order, creating complex lists of the now-favoured ethnic groups that look like a photographic negative of the Nazi list (except perhaps the Jews, who always get screwed). Ironically, the fascists and the supporters of hard affirmative action agree on one vital point: one’s biology defines one’s being.

Naturally, academic hirings are very secretive affairs: letters of reference, CVs and shortlists are by no means meant to be general public knowledge. Academics are brilliant at rationalizing bad behavior, justifying age discrimination and reverse sexism with phrases such as “he really didn’t fit our department’s needs” or the wonderfully tautological “he wasn’t what we were looking for.” Deans rubber stamp these decisions, while equity officers, the commissars of identity politics on campuses, enthusiastically cheer them on. And undergraduate students are largely ignorant of these shenanigans, happy to attend their classes without getting involved in departmental debates.

In some cases affirmative action is a corrupt use of public funds to support policies few outside the academy are aware of. In Canada, the money paid to professors comes from the state (and thus public taxes) and student tuition, yet those making hiring decisions show very little responsibility to either the public good or student well being. Almost all students will want the best teachers and researchers money can buy, yet affirmative action purposely avoids giving them these, egged on by the consumerist mindset promoted by rating professors with student evaluations.. Further, most young people will tell you they don’t want to be hired purely because of their chromosomes or skin colour, so those hired under the tokenism of identity politics aren’t especially the best role models. The fact that 60% of Canadian university students are now women shows that even a supposedly “patriarchal” academy can put sexual discrimination to rest without any help equity committees.

The late lamented former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau fought his own battle against identity politics in trying to defend the Canadian federal state against the entropic forces of Quebec nationalism. Though we should never fall into a mood of complacency, Canadian federalism is to be congratulated as a successful system of rough-and-ready compromises between regions and founding peoples, the British, French and native. And for the most part Canada has been more successful than European countries in integrating immigrant cultures into its social fabric. We have no Jean-Marie Le Pen, no major neo-Nazi groups. Yet university leaders seek to import the snarling dogs of identity politics onto campuses which we as a society have kept at bay.

Affirmative action as currently practiced is based on moral hypocrisy, bad sociology, collective guilt, and an analogy to fascist racial science. It should be ended immediately. In it is place professors should actively encourage minority groups and women to go to graduate school, publish and teach, earning their spurs fair and square, promising everyone an atmosphere of non-discrimination when it comes to making hiring decisions.

Who watches the watchmen? At present, no one.

[1] I will use principally Canadian examples in this article since these are the ones I know best, though much of what I have to say also applies to the US and other Western nations.

[2] This is not to deny the fact that there are real victims of violence, racism and poverty in the world. My point is simply that by lowering the bar for “victimhood” we cheapen the plight of real victims.

[3] By “corruption” I mean simply using public money – in the case of universities, mostly student tuition and taxes – for private purposes. These purposes are ones the vast majority of contributors never consented to, nor would they consent to them if they were widely known.


Fundamental Freedoms

 Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:

  • (a) freedom of conscience and religion;

  • (b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;

  • (c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and

  • (d) freedom of association.


How to Write a Good Arts or Social Science Essay

By Doug Mann 2016


1. Read the question or statement or topic you’re writing your paper on carefully. Reply to what it ACTUALLY asks or states, NOT what you imagine it to be asking or stating. Read over your course outline, especially the sections describing what your professor expects of you in terms of the length, format, and level of research involved in the essay. If the outline doesn’t go over these things, ask your professor in person what he or she expects. Don’t ignore relevant course texts: at minimum, the marker will think you couldn’t be bothered to buy or read them.

And most importantly, if the topic asks a question, ANSWER IT!

2. Know the basic theorist or text or media artifact referred to in the topic well. If necessary, consult a sociological or philosophical dictionary (e.g. the Oxford or Cambridge ones) or encyclopaedia to help you understand his or her basic ideas.

3. Understanding a Text: Read over difficult passages twice, preferably after a break. Highlight key phrases or sentences. Look over your notes, and don’t be afraid to ask basic questions in class (there are probably others who don’t understand either). And try to read the text critically.

Writing the Paper

4. Thesis: First and foremost, figure out what you want to prove (or at least claim) in your paper: this is called your thesis. State it in the first or second paragraph.

  • A Classic Thesis: “All history is the history of class struggles.”
  • Another Classic Thesis: “Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.”
  • Good Thesis: “In this paper I will prove that the claims made by Marx in his theory of alienation still apply to modern service-industry labour.”
  • Bad Thesis: “There are many theories of advertising. Some think it is a good thing, some think it’s bad. In this paper I will explore some of these theories.”
  • Really Bad Thesis: “I watched Fight Club last night. It’s a totally confusing film. I’ll talk about some scenes in the movie in this paper.”
  • Super Bad Thesis: “I’ve got work in other courses, so I didn’t have time to work on this paper. Also, I was sick. So here goes nothing.”
  • Non-Thesis: “Smith thinks that consumerism creates freedom. Jones thinks it imprisons us in false hopes. I’ll discuss both of them.”

A clear and evocative title helps to make your thesis stand out:

  • Classic Title: “The Communist Manifesto” (hint: it’s a manifesto about communism)
  • Good Title: “The Best of Times, the Worst of Times: The Financial Crisis of 2008 as the Downfall of Financial Capitalism”
  • Vague Title: “Social Theory Paper on Marx”
  • Bad Title: Some Issues Surrounding Capitalism”
  • Really Bad Title: Sociology 2240 Essay”

5. Arguments and Language: A good theory paper tries to prove its thesis by making good arguments, backed up by social and historical data and examples, or by reference to the cultural genre or work being explored there. These include both logical arguments (“if X and Y are true, then Z must follow”) and empirical ones (facts and examples that support your case). When using logical arguments, it’s important to define your key terms: e.g. if you want to argue that “all political ideas are reflections of an underlying material substructure”, define what you mean by “material substructure.”

There’s nothing wrong with expressing emotions in a theory paper, as long as these can be backed up by good argument, and are therefore not purely personal (e.g. “I feel globalization is wrong!” Why should I care what you feel, if I don’t share this feeling? Tell me why I should share it!).

Think of yourself as a defense attorney defending a client against a criminal charge. It’s up to you to convince the jury that your client is innocent using facts and arguments. The client is your thesis.

As for the use of the first-person pronoun, use it when you have to, but it’s usually easy to omit, e.g. the statement “I believe that our PM is very charismatic” means exactly the same thing as the statement “our PM is very charismatic”. You could say “I went to Spain last summer” since it’s a personal revelation, but you don’t need the pronoun in saying “I found that most people in Spain speak Spanish.”

There’s also nothing wrong (although some more conservative theorists would disagree with this point) with using metaphorical language in your paper, including analogies: they help to keep the reader awake. Just make sure they have some point. The same goes for humour, which is a largely a lost art in undergraduate papers.

6. Organization: Organize your paper rationally – an outline is useful in this respect. Well organized papers reflect well organized thinking. Don’t repeat the same point 5 or 6 times: once or twice is sufficient. If you do, it looks like you’re adding needless filler to a thin paper.

In general, it’s wise to start by presenting your weaker or less significant arguments first, ending with the strong ones. If you have the space, it’s good to spend some time refuting one or two major counter-arguments to your thesis in the middle of your paper. Don’t spend two pages summarizing points you’ve already made in your “conclusion”: keep this short and sweet. Tell the reader something they don’t already know.

This is very important: don’t pull a thesis rabbit out of your hat in the last two pages! No surprise endings! The whole point of a good university essay is to argue for a specific position – if the reader doesn’t know what this position is, he or she won’t be amazed when you tell them in the last paragraph.

Read the course outline: most professors will say something about what they expect in an essay somewhere in their outlines. Proofread your paper. Then proofread it again. If your professor asks for three legitimate i.e. non-Internet sources, then read and discuss at least three such sources. University essays aren’t like Big Macs you can order and consume in ten minutes: you have to make them yourself, and you have to make sure they’re big and tasty sandwiches of relevant information and sound arguments!

student writing essay 01

7. Vocabulary: Define all key terms that aren’t common currency. DO NOT use words you’re not sure the meaning of – if you do, the marker is likely to get a chuckle, but at your expense. I found that the best way to become a literate speaker of the English language was to always have my handy Oxford compact dictionary at my side, and to look up the meaning of words I didn’t understand over and over until I remembered what they meant. Too many students today use words they clearly don’t understand, which can cause a chuckle (and loss of marks) in the reader’s mind. If you’re not sure what a word means, look it up!

Anders Henriksson, a history professor, has written a whole book about unintentionally comical things students have said in essays – things like Jesus said “the mice shall inherit the Earth”, or that during the Gulf War “Satan Husane invaided Kiwi and Sandy Arabia.” You don’t want to be featured in his second edition.

Avoid buzzwords such as “proactive” (a Simpsons episode actually mocks someone using this term), bureaucratic jargon like “individuals”, “males” and “females” (say “people”, “men” and “women”), along with non-existent words such as “relatable.”  You’re not a cop on Law and Order. Sadly, many students try to use a level of vocabulary they don’t understand to impress a reader with their intelligence or a misplaced political correctness. If you don’t know it, don’t use it!

Here’s the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, which offers simple and clear definitions:

Here’s the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary and Thesaurus, with somewhat more complex information:

8. Beware the Weasel!: Don’t pad your essay with fluff or weasel phrases, e.g. “The abortion question has been debated for centuries by many intelligent people. No real answer can be given to the moral dilemma involved.” Similarly, don’t start your paper with a vague and ultimately meaningless claim such as “Inequality goes back to the days of the dinosaurs, it has no solution!” As tempting as it may be to avoid making any substantive claims in your paper, don’t be a weasel: get to the point early, and state that point clearly!

9. Facts: Get your facts straight. For example, if you want to claim that a loss of religious values has caused divorce rates in Canada to rise over the last 20 years, find some statistical evidence that shows that divorce rates have in fact risen in that period. Don’t guess. The same advice applies to historical events: use a reference source to check dates and basic information, e.g. if you want to make some claim about the Enlightenment affecting the French Revolution, find out when it took place, why it took place, and something about the role of Enlightenment ideas in the political rhetoric of its leaders. Many students make empirical claims like “no one want to read books any more” without backing these up with evidence.

10. Basic Texts: Do not attempt to communicate telepathically with the major theorist you’re focussing on in your paper when analyzing their ideas: use the primary texts listed on the course outline that are relevant to your topic, and then add further research. Do NOT rely exclusively on lecture or web pages in this regard: it gives the appearance that you couldn’t be bothered to read the course materials. Example: if you’re writing a paper on Marx’s theory of alienation, actually read the relevant Marx text (in this case the 1844 Manuscripts), and quote or paraphrase it in your essay.

Essays which analyze a major theorist purely through sketchy web notes or through a secondary source largely unrelated to the theorist in question are seen by markers as HIGHLY suspicious – did you actually come to class? Or read the course texts? Have you recycled an unrelated paper from another course by changing a few sentences to make it tangentially fit into this course? This is becoming more and more of a problem in the age of Web 2.0, when some students are tempted to write a whole essay without ever opening the covers of a book so they can return to their cell texts and Facebook pages ASAP. Note that copyright laws still prevent the majority of books in print from being legally available online.

11. Language Skills: Spelling, grammar and syntax are VERY important, style FAIRLY important. Good spelling, grammar and sentence structure show clarity of expression and basic literacy (after all, you should be able to speak and write English by first-year university!), while style shows some individuality and some passion for your material. This is true for ALL social science, humanities and related courses, not just English courses proper. Good language skills developed during your university tenure will stay with you much longer and will probably be of greater utility than most of the specific information you’ve learned in your courses. I’ve found that in almost ALL cases, people who can think clearly are also people who can write clearly, and vice versa. A paper with fifty grammar errors is unlikely to be chock full of brilliant ideas.

And besides, a difficult-to-read paper, one that’s full of spelling and grammar mistakes, will give the marker a headache as a result of having to make the necessary corrections. It’s like trying to understand someone who’s mumbling: they might have something important to say, but you just can’t make it out, and eventually you get tired of trying. You can be sure that if you make the marker’s life difficult, you probably won’t be happy with the grade he or she gives you. The Buddha may be right that all life is suffering: but there’s no reason you have to add to that suffering by handing in a sloppily written paper. Note that all modern word processors have automatic spelling and grammar checkers, so if you don’t correct these, it’s your own fault (though our mediocre high schools should bear some of the blame).

If you’re still not convinced, imagine failing to get your dream job because your cover letter is full of mistakes, or you struggle to form meaningful sentences in the interview.

A Note on Punctuation: Use commas at “pauses” in your sentences, semi-colons to separate independent clauses, colons and dashes to separate phrases that are juxtaposed to each other. If you’re not sure, read your paper out loud, trying to imagine where the punctuation should go. It works best if you adopt a Shakespearean style as you read it. Here’s a simple punctuation guide that could save you a lot of headaches:

12. Presentation and References: Always type or word-process your papers, double-spacing (except for long quotes), with 1-inch margins and 11-12 point text. You do not have to use Times Roman, but avoid the goofier fonts. Stick more or less to the length the professor has asked for. Don’t put fancy covers on your papers: just staple the upper left corner. Use a standard referencing system – the MLA is strongly preferred – to give the sources of the quotes, paraphrases, and other information taken from external sources. Here’s a brief style guide that’s easy to follow:

Markers prefer either footnotes, or internal references such as the following:

Some noted theorists claim that “the rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain” (Smith 2006, 123). Others disagree. For example, one points out that the average rainfall in the Pyrenees Mountains is much greater than that found in the Spanish plains (Jones 45). Yet post-modern theorists like Laflamme (2007, 23) argue that rain can’t be measured at all, so the question of the distribution of rainfall in Spain has no true answer.

In the above example, Smith and Laflamme have two entries in your bibliography, while Jones only has one, thus you have to include the year to distinguish the two works by each author. Make sure you list all the works you consulted while writing your paper alphabetically in your bibliography at the end of the paper, including web pages (list the author of the web page, if known, its title, along with its web address). Endnotes are more difficult for the marker to refer to, and should definitely be avoided.

Either MLA or APA-style bibliographical styles are fine, though retyping a full bibliographical entry a dozen types at the bottom of the page seems pointless to me. Here’s an MLA-style set of bibliographical entries (they’re fictional):

Jones, Cyrano. “Deconstructing Rainfall Statistics.” The Journal of Wet Things 34.2 (1999): 77-99.

Laflamme, Louis . “Yellow Rain: Myth or Fact?” Scientific American 77: January 2007, pp. 44-66.

Laflamme, Louis. “What is Rain?” A Book of Essays on Rainfall. Ed. Jennifer J. Macadam. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Smith, Yardley. Rainfall in Spain: A Scientific Study. Madrid: University of Madrid Press, 2006.

Smith, Yardley. “I Love the Rain.” Rainy Day Stories. Ed. Annie Lennox. Glasgow: University of Glasgow Press, 2009.

And here’s some audio and video references:

The Matrix. Written and Directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski. Warner Brothers, 1999.

“33”. Battlestar Galatica. Written by Ronald D. Moore. Directed by Michael Rymer. Episode 1.1. Scifi Channel, January 14, 2005. [in a pinch you can omit the writer and director TV episodes, though full information is better.]

Spears, Britney. “Gimme More.” Blackout. 2007.

You must source all of your quotes and paraphrases, or else you’re flirting with plagiarism. If you quote an author in the main text of your paper, make sure that author’s work is listed in the bibliography. If you don’t, you’re at best sloppy, at worst, a plagiarist. Many professors insist on a minimum number of academic sources for your papers. The proper use of references proves that you’ve done this.

13. Creativity: A good essay shows some attempt at uniqueness and creativity, some attempt to go beyond the lectures and readings in coming to grips with the topic. Ideally, social and cultural theory and cultural studies are living conversations, not just resurrections of dead ideas. The marker doesn’t want to read over and over again exactly the same examples and explanations given in the lectures and texts: he or she is no doubt already familiar with the basic ideas contained in these.

14. Excuses: Some professors will accept pressing excuses for late papers. Others just automatically deduct some part of the grade. DO NOT simply assume that a professor will accept late work at full grade value: the other students and professors have work to do and lives to live too! Here’s some classic bad excuses for late or substandard work (this list is a work in progress):

  • I was too busy (in some undefined manner).
  • I drank too much last night (it was St. Patrick’s Day!).
  • My History prof lets me hand in things late! You should too!
  • I had a cold/the flu/smallpox/a rare South American virus I caught from a monkey at the zoo!
  • I had an Economics assignment to hand in, and after all, Economics is more important than your course, so I did it first (this will NOT ingratiate you with any self-respecting marker on this planet!).
  • This isn’t an English course! Whad’ya mean I gotta spell good? OMG, grammer is f0ur losers! Gess I gotta re-rite it. Coarse evaluation: 1/7 – prof sucks.
  • My grandmother died for the third time this year (it turns out she’s an unkillable zombie).
  • My computer crashed! I have to wait until it gets fixed! (which omits the obvious fact that there are probably hundreds of easily available computers in student labs around campus).
  • You mean there’s an essay in this course? I guess I should have read the course outline before November.
  • You mean there’s a course outline? I thought you were making it all up as you went along! My bad!
  • I have a part-time job that prevents me from writing papers between September and April. Can you accommodate me?
  • Please… please… please… oh god please… (accompanied by sobbing, tears, anguished cries, hair pulling, etc.).

15. Bad Grades: Papers that ignore the advice pointed out in points 4 to 14 are usually graded as no better than C+. Here are some GUARANTEED reasons for getting a mediocre grade on a paper:

  • Multiple spelling mistakes, vocabulary and punctuation errors, bad grammar, weak syntax (sentence structure)
  • Factual errors and the misquoting of key authors
  • Simply ignoring the relevant reading(s), especially course texts
  • Making assertions without supporting them
  • Substituting a list of ideas or facts for a good argument
  • Adding irrelevant material, including making excuses for the paper being late or sub-standard in the body of the paper
  • Revealing your thesis in the very last paragraph (wow, I didn’t see that coming!)

16. Fairness: Surprisingly or not, although some TAs and profs mark harder than others, they usually agree on the same serial scale for a given group of papers i.e. Professor A would rank papers X, Y, and Z in the same order as Professor B, although one might give paper X an A and the other an A-. So although marking isn’t entirely objective (indeed, little in life is), it isn’t entirely subjective either. If you are disappointed by an essay grade, don’t spend the rest of the term sulking, convinced that the TA or Professor hates you, or “is a real jerk”. It’s far more likely that relative to the other papers he or she graded, you got what you deserved. It may be hard to believe, but markers usually don’t take out their frustrations on students. Getting “even” with a TA or professor on evaluations if they’ve taught a good class but given you low marks is petty and immature: your teachers ARE NOT out to get you! Think of them like referees in a hockey or soccer game: it’s up to you to win the game. We’re just here to enforce the (academic) rules.

badger 02 angry

17. Don’t be a Marks Badger! Generally speaking, professors and TAs have good reasons for giving you the mark that you got. It’s usually not worth it in the long run to badger a professor for a higher grade UNLESS there’s an adding mistake or serious inconsistency in the way it was marked or if there were several TAs and one TA marks much harder than the others. For one thing, badgering a prof creates bad karma which will guarantee you several things: (a) no extensions on work in the future; (b) possibly, lower marks on “close calls” for your other work; (c) the unlikelihood of being able to take courses from that prof in the future in a warm and friendly atmosphere; (d) no letters for grad school.

And there’s no point in saying that your mark was unfair because you got a higher mark in another course: this could be because (a) the other marker was afraid of badgers such as you or inflated his/her grades to buy good evaluations, or (b) you actually worked harder on the first assignment, so you deserved the higher grade in the other course, or (c) the courses dealt with different subject matters, and you were more adept at the topic you chose in the previous course than on this one. The key to getting higher marks is (believe it or not) skill and hard work, so put away your badger mask and get out your pen and highlighter! Don’t waste your time e-mailing a professor to beg for a higher grade without a good reason to back up your request!

WORST EXCUSE EVER (disgruntled sigh): The worst reason to ask for a higher grade is because you “need it” to stay in your program, keep a scholarship, graduate with honours, get into grad school, etc. If everyone got what they wanted just by asking for it, champagne would flow from public water fountains, great clouds of ten-dollar bills would fall from the sky and yummy donuts would magically appear whenever you’re hungry. When you say to a professor “I need a 70% in your course to stay in my academic program”, most markers with even a modicum of self-respect are NOT thinking “hmm…. I guess if he/she really needs the grade, I’d better just give it to them!” Instead they’re most likely thinking one of the following: “why didn’t you spend more than two days on your essay? maybe even proofread it?” or “why didn’t you come to class on a regular basis and not miss that 7% quiz that would have boosted you to a 70%”, or “if you had only participated more than zero times you’d have gotten the grade you want legitimately!”.

In my experience, most people who drop below an important grade barrier (e.g. a 50% pass, a 70% to stay in a program) then complain about it later have shot themselves in the foot in some obvious way: missed a lot of classes (and thus don’t know the course material), missed a quiz or test, not participated in a class with a significant participation grade, or written a sloppily edited essay at the last minute that ignores the basic requirements stipulated in the course outline or on a professor’s web page. To echo Jean-Paul Sartre, be responsible for your actions: don’t blame your marker for calling you out on something you’ve done yourself.

18. Plagiarism: Last but not least, DON’T PLAGIARISE! If you quote an author, reference that quote. The same goes for paraphrases of texts – indicate where you’re getting the paraphrase from. You don’t need to reference a commonly known fact or widely agreed upon idea, e.g. “Paris is the capital of France”, or “Karl Marx was the father of modern socialism”, or “World War Two ended in an Allied victory in 1945.” But you do have to reference more obscure facts and less well known ideas. Footnotes or internal notes (see point 12 above) are easiest to check for a marker.

And yes, cutting and pasting from web pages without referencing them counts as plagiarism. Be warned: most markers know full well how to use search engines like Google. It’s pretty easy to catch a plagiarist who copies material from the Internet, so don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time (i.e. at minimum, getting a 0 on the essay or failing the course). In most of the cases I’ve discovered, I found the original plagiarised source in less than 5 minutes.

Having said this, avoid excessive quoting. For example, you can state most matters of opinion in your own words e.g. say “modern industrial labour is alienated”, as opposed to “According to McLellan, ‘modern industrial labour is alienated’ (McLellan 234).”

cell phone essay

19. Virtual Age Note for Technology Addicts and Sufferers from AADD: If you’ve gotten this far, this note probably doesn’t apply to you! But read on anyways. In the last few years more and more students have become addicted to their cell phones, Blackberries, to online messaging, video games, checking Facebook on their laptops during lectures, admiring their Instagram photos, and other technological marvels.

The problem with all of these technologies is that they create artificial attention deficits that clearly affect the quality of your writing (not to mention preventing you from reading good books, which causes a general decline in standards of literacy). One can hear lurking in the background of all those typos, grammar errors, incomplete sentences, and jargonesque phrases lifted straight out of badly written journal articles the shrill ring tones of cell phones and the beeps of your friends sending you messages. If you want to reduce your AADD (Artificial Attention Deficit Disorder) while writing papers, do the following:

  • Take the battery out of your cell phone and put it in your closet as you shed a tear and wave goodbye to your best friend for a week or two.
  • Hide your Playstation/Gameboy/XBox under your sofa. Don’t play video games in the background of your word processor.
  • DO NOT surf the Internet other than to so serious research. Disable all messenger services.
  • Turn off your TV. Play some soothing music on your stereo – classical, instrumental, folk, etc. – or turn on an FM radio station with such music.
  • Every couple of hours go for a walk, have a coffee, eat lunch, or raid the fridge for a break. Get lots of sleep. These breaks (as opposed to last-minute cramming) help to refresh the creative centers of your brain.
  • Most importantly, start one or two essays a month before they’re due! So if the essay is due December 1st, start it on November 1st! Ideally, chose the essay that is least based on course lectures and start working on it in the second month of the term: if you can write merely a page per week, it’ll be done long before it’s due! Pace yourself: academic life is a marathon, not a 100-yard dash.

20. Addendum for Papers on Film or TV: If your paper is on a TV show, list all the episodes you watched and took notes on in your bibliography by episode title, show title, episode number (usually in the format “Season Number-Episode Number” e.g. “Episode 2.6”), and broadcast date. You may also include the writer of the show, and if you’re really ambitious the director’s name. The stars don’t matter, since they usually stay the same over the course of the show. For example:

“The Hand of God.” Battlestar Galatica (2003) Episode 1.10. Written by David Wheddle and Bradley Thompson. Directed by Jeff Woolnough. Space, November 11, 2005.

You can find numerous episode guides on most prominent TV shows on the Net which list all of the information mentioned above. The website is very comprehensive, with complete episode listings for every show I’ve ever looked up on it, while features a massive database that covers all movies and TV shows ever made.

Films should be listed by director, film title, and year, with the screenwriter and production company being optional, e.g.:

Lehmann, Michael. Heathers. Written by Daniel Waters. New World Pictures, 1988.

Essays on film and TV shows that don’t list and directly refer to the video texts they’re based on are by definition failures. So if you write an essay on Sex and the City but don’t refer to, quote, or reference any Sex and the City episodes, then you really haven’t done your job properly, have you? Be thankful if you pass in such a case.

21. Last-Minute Gasps of Electronic Desperation: DO NOT e-mail your professor a pile of questions about how to structure your essay the weekend before it’s due: this only proves that you have poor time-management skills. It’s smarter to come to your professor or TA’s office hours or to meet them informally a week or two in advance with your rough outline and any questions you have about how to proceed. That way you can clear up any confusions with further questions, as opposed to cajoling or guilting your marker into writing a thousand word e-mail on a Sunday night to give you the luxury of doing your work at the last moment (not to mention not having to leave your house or apartment, climbing some stairs and talking to your professor, which, by the way, are good for you both physically and psychologically). It’s surprising how many students ignore this very commonsense bit of advice and treat their instructors like fast-food outlets, open 24 hours and always read to serve you with a smile on their facial emoji.

22. My Iron Laws of Marks (2008)

Methodology: As of this date I’ve taught over fifty classes comprised of thousands of students, and come to some fairly well supported conclusions about the relationships between certain types of student behaviour and the grades they get in my classes. Here’s a summary of my findings. 2016 Update: my conclusions here still stand up quite well.

Note: These are all statistical correlations, meaning that they are “usually” true, though they admit of individual exceptions. “Strong Correlation” means that the relationship holds true in 80% or more cases. “Weak Correlation” means that the relationship holds true in 65% or more cases. “Inverse Correlation” means that as factor X increases, factor Y decreases, e.g. more partying = lower grades.

1. ATTENDANCE: There is a Strong Correlation between attending class on a regular basis and getting an A or B. The majority of students with grades of C or lower skip class on a regular basis. This is easily explained: if you come to class, you’ll know the material better, do not miss any quizzes, and can participate.

2. SEATING: There is Strong Correlation between sitting in the front row of class and getting an A or B. Conversely, there is a Weak Correlation between sitting as far from the professor as possible, usually in the back row, and getting a grade of C or less. Students who get a D or F almost ALWAYS skip a significant number of classes, sit at the back, and play with their digital devices during class. Again, this is easily explained: students who sit near the front are more cognitively and emotionally engaged in the class materials and discussions. This doesn’t really apply to small seminar-style classes, where the seats are arranged in a semi-circle or square (though the “rule of furthest distance from the professor equals lower marks” still has some validity).

In some cases, I can roughly predict grades half way through the very first class based on where you sit, your level of participation, and your cell phone/laptop use.

3. ELECTRONIC DISENGAGEMENT: The is a Strong Correlation between students who regularly distract themselves with electronic communications devices – cell phones and laptops (on which they text, surf, use Facebook or play games) – and students who get a B- or less in a given class. There is also a Strong Correlation between (a) students who print off class notes, come to class without any electronic devices and listen to lectures/discussions and (b) students who get an A or a B.

This is a chicken-or-egg issue: students who are disengaged electronically don’t process the information being offered in class; yet the fact that they come to class with these devices and programs in place shows their intention to ignore the lecture/discussion taking place in the class. So which comes first, the intellectual disengagement, or the electronic devices? It doesn’t matter: they create a vicious feedback loop.

4. PARTICIPATION: Though there are quiet but bright students, there is a Weak Correlation between students who participate on a regular basis and getting a grade of B or better. This becomes a Strong Correlation in classes with significant, i.e. 10% or better, participation grades. Participators have more emotional stake in the course material, and are more likely to remember key facts and issues addressed in class.

5. RESEARCH: There is a Strong Correlation between doing serious research, i.e. reading books and scholarly articles, and getting an A on an essay. There is a Weak Correlation between those who do most of their research online and getting a mediocre (72% or lower) essay grade.

Case Study: Pop Culture 2008

To illustrate my Iron Laws, I include data from an actual class I taught, which I’ll call “Pop Culture 2008” to protect the anonymity of the students in it.

There were 40 students in this class. Of the ten students who got an 80% or better, all attended class on a regular basis, with six sitting literally in the front row of the class, the other four in the middle. Only four or five of these ten students brought laptops to class on a regular basis, with none of them appearing to be electronically disengaged. Five participated pretty well every class, three occasionally.

The student with the highest grade on her essay had four books, one scholarly article and no Internet sources listed in her works cited. She had probably done the most solid research in the class, i.e. read the greatest number of published pages in print. Students with grades of C+ or less on their essays tended to rely on short Web-based sources for much of their research.

Of the ten students with the lowest grades, C or less, seven were chronic truants, the other three missing a quarter to a third of classes. Seven or eight sat fairly consistently in the back row of the class (when they bothered to attend it), while six or seven were “electronically disengaged” due to laptop play and/or cell phone or Blackberry use. Three participated occasionally, about every third class; one talked a few times; while the other six never talked. The three students with the lowest grades (a) all skipped at least seven or eight classes each, (b) never participated, (c) sat in the back row for most classes they attended, and (d) were distracted by electronic devices on a regular basis.

Overall, all five of my Iron Laws were validated by grades in this class. Although there were a few participators with disappointing grades, these seemed to be connected to disengagement from studying and research.

Last revision: April 4, 2016

Siren’s Song or Witch’s Brew? A First Visit to the TERRA MYSTICA

By Doug Mann, Easter 2016

Over a year ago I succumbed to popular opinion and skyrocketing online ratings and bought a copy of what is now the reigning champion of Eurogames – standing #3 overall on the Board Game Geek – Terra Mystica. Since then it’s remained a brooding curiosity at the bottom of a pile of more frequently played games, unappreciated and underplayed.

Its big piles of wooden pieces and many colourful components occasionally called out like a siren’s song, beckoning me to take it out and learn it. Yet whenever I approached I heard a fearful witches’ cackle, its complex iconography seeming to point to an equally complex set of game mechanics. A sense of rules vertigo kept me away.

So over a holiday weekend I decided to ignore this cackle and heed the siren’s call, watching several introductory YouTube videos then giving it a whirl in a series of 2- and 3-player solitaire sessions. What I found was that although its reputation for strategic complexity is well deserved, its rules aren’t any harder to learn than my favourites Kemet or Fury of Dracula. Further, it’s a richly engaging game, a real brain buster, even given its paucity of theme. Though the witches weren’t entirely wrong, I should have listened to the sirens all long.

I’ve since played it with others, which confirms my conclusions here.

It’s easiest to think of Terra Mystica as a mashup of Ticket to Ride (borrowing the idea of the longest route), Small World (sharing the idea of asymmetrical races), and Lords of Waterdeep (a fantasy-themed game where you place wooden pieces on a map).

Here are the basics. Terra Mystica, designed by Helge Ostertag and Jens Drögenmüller and published in North America by Z-Man Games in 2013, is a worker-placement game for 2-5 players that clocks in, according to the box, at 30 minutes per player, though with experienced players I would imagine this would drop to 20 minutes per. You could make it into a crowded 6-player game just by buying a set of twenty small purple cubes from the dollar store – the rest of the components needed are already there.

The first thing you notice upon cracking open its heavy box are large bags of wooden pieces representing five types of structures (buildings) in seven colours each, along with smaller bags of plain wood cubes (workers) and small purple wafers (power). Also in the box are eight turn-based scoring tiles of which you randomly choose six and place them on the board (they also function as a turn record), nine long thin bonus tiles, 28 oval-shaped favour tiles, and a collection of hexagonal town and action markers.

Yet the center of the game is a map covered with large hexes colour-coded as seven different types of terrain: lakes, swamps, mountains, plains, forests, wastelands and deserts, along with normally unpassable river hexes. Players build structures on this map to gain resources and victory points, the latter being, in the Euro tradition, the goal of the game.

Terra Mystica 10 cult board
The Cult Board: Elementary, My Dear Mystican!

In addition, there is a Cult Board with four vertical columns of rectangles numbered 0-10 representing control of the Fire, Water, Earth and Air cults, which gain players both power and victory points. Each player has an initially daunting-looking player board geared to the race of beings they’ve chose to play – e.g. Giants or Witches, Halflings or Dwarves. There are seven boards in seven colours keyed to the seven batches of wooden pieces that come with the game. Each board has two sides, thus giving players a wide variety of 14 races to choose between. Since each race’s starting resources, building costs and special powers are different, the game has plenty of replayability.

The main resources used early in the game are workers and gold. Later, magical power and priests are added to this mix.

Most players start with two “dwellings”: like all structures, they must be placed on your race’s native terrain. To pick an easy-to-play starting race to use an example, the native terrain of the Witches is forests. To increase your mystical empire, you must terraform hexes adjacent to those you already control before placing new dwellings on them. Your player board has a mystic roundel of terrain types that indicate how many “shovels” you have to buy to convert such a hex to friendly terrain. For instance, at the start of the game the Witches have to buy one shovel (costing three workers) to convert a lake hex, two for a swamp, three for a desert. So a key tactic in your initial placement is choosing local terrain that’s friendly to your race.

In addition, each player board has three power “bowls.” To spend one or more of your starting twelve power wafers, you need to first move all the tokens from Bowl 1 to Bowl 2, then move some from 2 to 3, from which you can spend them (returning the used tokens to Bowl 1).

The game consists of six rounds, the core of each made up of multiple single-action player turns which continue until everyone has run out of resources and passes. Each round consists of three phases:

  • Income Phase: Players collect workers, gold, priests and power from uncovered parts of their player board and from bonus and favour tiles. This phase is easy to do once you get a handle on the game’s iconography: an open hand means “here’s some income for you.” The two initial dwellings get you one worker each; to get money and power, you’ll have to build trading houses; for priests, you’ll need temples. The trick here is that once you upgrade one structure to another, you place the original structure back on your board, covering up last turn’s income type. So a key element of the game is balancing your supply of workers (easy to get), gold (you start with some, but it soon runs out) and power (you’ll need upgrades for this).
  • Action Phase: This is the meat of the game. Players take turns choosing one of eight actions, the starting player decided by whoever passed first in the previous round.
  • Cleanup Phase: Players now score cult bonuses listed on the scoring tiles along the left side of the board (these change every game, and are public knowledge), get their action markers back, and add one gold to unchosen bonus tiles, like the buildings in Lords of Waterdeep.
terra mystica 11 witches x
Double Double, Toil and Trouble: The Complex Iconography of the Witch Board

After placing their starting dwellings, collecting starting resources (which varies by race), and choosing a bonus tile, players take their income and prepare for the first round’s Action Phase. There are four actions players are likely to use throughout the game, four others that are rare until mid-game. Here are the early-game gambits:

  • 1. Terraform and Build a Dwelling: Players can convert one adjacent hex to their native terrain, then (if they can afford it) place a dwelling on it. For instance, on their first turn the Witches could pay three workers to terraform a lake hex, then one worker and two gold to build the dwelling, leaving them only one worker.
  • 2. Upgrade Spades Track: To cut down on the number of workers it costs to terraform terrain, you can upgrade this track twice. It would cost the Witches two workers, five gold and a priest to upgrade this one level, reducing terraforming costs to two shovels per terrain level while also giving them a bonus of six victory points.
  • 3. Upgrade a Structure: Players can convert dwellings to trading houses (power level 2), which give them gold and power instead of workers. From there, they can upgrade “politically” to strongholds (power level 3), which give them power and a special ability, or “religiously” first to temples (level 2) then to a sanctuary (level 3), which give them priests and favours (presumably from the gods of this mystical land). The stronghold and sanctuary upgrades are costly but important. The favour tiles give their owners a one-time boost of 1-3 levels on a specific cult track plus ongoing income or victory point bonuses.
  • 4. Pass: If you choose this first, you get dibs on available bonus tiles (always important) and get to move first in the next round. Once everyone passes, the round ends and the remaining bonus tiles are divvied up.

The game incorporates a weird synergy: if you build a trading house next to an opponent’s structure, your gold cost is halved; but your opponent has the option of trading victory points (all start with twenty) for power at a -1 discount if you build any structure next to them them by adding up the power levels of their adjacent structures.

If a player accumulates four structures totaling seven or more power levels in a single settlement, they immediately place a town on a hex of their choice, giving them a hefty victory point bonus of 6-9 along with an influx of either power, gold, workers, a priest, or a +1 on all cult tracks.

terra mystica 12 tiles x
The Bonus Tiles (top), Scoring Tiles (bottom) and one of many Favour Tiles

Though each game is different, these actions don’t tend to pop up until rounds 3 or 4:

  • 5. Upgrade Shipping Track: Since river hexes interrupt hexes being adjacent for the purpose of building and end-game scoring, you can add 1-3 points of ships that allow you to skip over this number of river hexes.
  • 6. Power Actions: At the bottom of the main map are six fixed power actions that can be chosen only once per round. They cost 3-6 power tokens from taken from Bowl 3, and give their choosers either a priest, two workers, seven money, a bridge, or one or two shovels. Later in the game, as players accumulate more and more magical power, these are key stopgaps to fill up on much-needed resources. At the same time you can “convert” power to priests, workers or gold, though the exchange rates are not good (e.g. a priest costs 5 power). You can also permanently trash power wafers from Bowl 2 to move an equivalent number to Bowl 3, or down-convert a priest to a worker or a worker to a gold coin.
  • 7. Climb Cult Tracks: You can permanently assign a priest to one of four empty spaces at the bottom of each cult track to move your cult marker up 3 (first priest) or 2 (later priests) spaces. You can also “visit” a cult with your priest, getting only +1 on that track, then returning him to your supply. There are a lot of victory points tied up in the cult board, 32 total if one player dominates all four cults. Each track also distributes up to 8 power to whomever can climb to the top of the stairway to mystical heaven. A warning to all acolytes: ignore the cult board at your peril!
  • 8. Special Actions: Lastly, there is a variety of gold-coloured special action hexes on bonus tiles, favour tiles and uncovered stronghold spaces on player boards. These provide either resources, victory points or a special building ability. For instance, the Witches get to place a free dwelling on any forest hex once their stronghold has been built.

At the end of the game the players with the three largest contiguous set of structures get 18, 12 and 6 points respectively; the players with the three highest ratings on each of the four cult tracks get 8, 4 and 2 points per cult. So in a three-player game a player who dominates two cults would get 20 points (8+8+2+2), roughly matching the obsessive builder. There are thus multiple paths to victory in Terra Mystica.

This leads to one of two main critiques: given the many paths to resources and victory points the game offers, analysis-paralysis looms large – at least until your resources run dry. Like chess, if your opponents start thinking three or four turns in advance, you’re in for a long night.

Second, though the art is quite nice and the rules play up differences between the races, the theme is quite thin: the mystic land could easily be converted into a horrible dungeon or alien solar system. Admittedly, the special powers of most races do make sense: the Fakirs have flying carpets, the Dwarves tunnels, the Engineers bridges, the Giants reduced terraforming costs. The same can be said of the mythic synergy found in the choice of most races’ native terrains (e.g. mermaids like lakes).

The three-dimensionality of all those differently shaped wooden pieces, not to mention the riot of colours in the pieces, on the map and on the player boards certainly liven up proceedings. Having said this, its depth of theme is only a fraction of that seen in The Fury of Dracula or A Game of Thrones. It’s a Eurogame, albeit a rich one. What theme there is seems more like thick paint covering a huge clanking mechanical engine than living, breathing ludic theatre.

Terra Mystica 02 full game
The Grande Finale of a Three-Player Game: Halflings in Brown, Engineers in Grey, and Darklings in Black (of course). The Halflings Win by 6 Despite Darkling Control of 3 out of 4 Cults.

Third, a minor quibble: the names of some of the structures were lost in the translation from German to English. To start with, why not call them “buildings”? Why not call the basic structure a “house” rather than the more nebulous “dwelling”, which sounds like we’re in graduate seminar on Heidegger? Why not call the stronghold a “castle”? What is a “stronghold” anyway? Calling the basic religious building a “temple” is fine, but why is the superior structure called a “sanctuary” instead of, say, a “cathedral”? To my mind a sanctuary is a small seedy house run by social workers or some poles and perches where wild birds can get a free meal.

Terra Mystica is the worker-placement and resource-management game turned up to 11. It’s a thinker’s game. No scorpion riding or leaving rats in your wake to distract vampire hunters: it’s all about figuring out how to convert a variety of resources into victory points. One can almost see the steam coming out of players’ ears as they gaze at their player boards, a puzzled frown on their faces. Ambrosial steam, that is.

The player interaction is minimal: no trading, no bidding, no real negotiation. It’s a good example of what I have called elsewhere on this site a semi-solitaire repressed conflict game: you will compete for dominance on the cult track or to be the first one to grab a key power action or bonus tile, but you can’t attack anyone, or even play an annoying mandatory quest to temporarily block the leading player’s future worker placements. So unless all the other players ignore their own interests and pile on, an experienced player should be able to milk enough victory points out of the Mystica cow to beat most rookies.

On the plus side, it’s a pure strategy game with only the negligible luck generated by the choice of special scoring tiles at the start of the game. And unlike say Stone Age, there aren’t obvious moves like going to the love shack or tiling the field. Within the Euro canon, it’s easy to understand why it’s at or near the top of most “best of” lists, though if I had my druthers, I would rather play a Euro like Tikal with a stronger theme and cleaner mechanics. But its siren’s song still calls to me from its mounds of coloured wood and complex tactics like some long-lost Teutonic banshee.

Here are my ratings of the game out of 6:

  • Complexity: 4 Warm (actual rules), 5 Hot (player choices)
  • Strategy: 6 Blazing (as much as any Euro I’ve played)
  • Luck: 1 Frigid
  • Aesthetics: 4 Good
  • Player Interaction: 2 Cool
  • Level of Conflict: 2 Cool
  • Strength of Theme: 2 Cool (unless you have a big imagination)
  • Overall: 5 Very Good

Summary: If you love semi-dense Euros, this is a must have. If you’re into frothy party games, skip it. If you are a theme junkie, you would probably prefer to spend your money at the Matagot or Fantasy Flight stores, though you might want to visit these mystic lands on someone else’s wagon to sniff all that ambrosial brain steam.

Terra Mystica by Me 07 halflings board

Appendix: The Races, Home Terrains and Special Powers of Terra Mystica

Green (Forests): Witches (get 5 bonus VP for a town) and Auren (no basic special power).

Blue (Lakes): Mermaids (can skip 1 river space when building) and Swarmlings (start with 8 workers and 20 gold, get 3 bonus workers for a town, but have increased building costs).

Black (Swamps): Alchemists (may trade 1 VP for 1 gold or 2 gold for 1 VP) and Darklings (need to use priests to terraform, but get lots of these with level 3 structures)

Brown (Plains): Halflings (get 1 VP for every shovel bought and have cheap shovel-track upgrade costs) and Cultists (if your neighbours take power when you build next to them, you get +1 on one cult track)

Grey (Mountains): Dwarves (can tunnel under any hex for +2 workers, get 4 VP for doing so) and Engineers (can build a bridge for 2 workers, dwellings cost only 1 worker + 1 gold).

Red (Wastelands): Giants (all terraforming costs 2 shovels) and Chaos Magicians (start with only one dwelling, but have cheap stronghold costs)

Yellow (Desert): Nomads (start with 3 dwellings) and Fakirs (can use a priest and a “magic carpet” to skip one terrain space when building).

Recommended races for new players, in rough order of ease of play: Nomads, Engineers, Halflings, Witches, Mermaids.

Avoid the Auren, Chaos Magicians and Darklings until you learn the game. Beware the Giants – they pay two shovels for all terra-forming, so it’s easy for them to fall behind early in the game.


The Midnight of Print Culture

By Doug Mann

First published in The Toronto Star, July 7, 2013.

Being an obsessive cinephile, prior to seeing Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight I checked out some comments online. This film, like its predecessors Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, is in essence a long deep conversation between an American named Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and une francaise named Celine (Julie Delpy) on life, love and the meaning of human existence. Watching it requires attention and patience.

There was a radical split between those who loved the film and those who hated it. The latter gave it one or two stars out of 10, repeatedly attacking it as “boring,” in one case describing how they left after 15 minutes and demanded a refund. Its champions gave it ratings of 7-10, calling it “intelligent,” “courageous” and “cerebral.”

This split is symbolic of a profound cultural shift. On the surface, we are approaching the midnight of traditional print media as a driving force in western culture. For one thing, it’s clear that students — whose “job” it is, after all, to read — more and more have to be coerced to do so. The Boston Globe reported back in 2007 that about 40 per cent of college freshmen don’t read for pleasure, with half of Americans aged 18-24 following suit.

Since then, students read even less. Pay attention to any bus or cafeteria near a college or university: almost everyone who looks like a student (and older folks to boot) are lost in an audio-visual mindscape provided by smart phones and iPods. Even as recently as 10 years ago, these same students could still be seen reading newspapers, magazines, sometimes even books in public.

My own chequered teaching career has, by sheer fluke, coincided with the rise of digital networks to cultural prominence. While in the early days of the web 1.0 one still had a reasonable expectation that core course readings would be read, now I assign complex texts like a Druid priest waving a branch of oak, performing a religious rite that started to lose its meaning roughly around the time Mark Zuckerberg gave up on his career as a Harvard undergraduate.

Despite this seeming decline of print, some critics point to the phenomenal success of popular literature over the last decade or so. Yet what are the bestsellers they single out? For the most part, they are “young adult” titles like Harry Potter and the Twilight series. Suzanne Collins can tell a whacking good tale, but Katniss Everdeen is no Raskolnikov, however salutary a heroine she is for 14-year-old girls.

There are obvious parallels in film and TV. The biggest movies over the last decade feature comic book heroes, romantic vampires, besotted pirates and teenage magicians. North American audiences seek out worlds of childlike fantasy.

The midnight of print is also approaching in the newspaper industry. In 2010, the Guardian reported the shuttering of 166 American newspapers in the previous two years. Though this decline has slowed of late, print journalism has been called “America’s fastest-shrinking industry” due to slumping circulations and declining ad revenues, which are now lower (in inflation-adjusted dollars) than in 1950. Free online reading is only partly to blame.

Yet the midnight of print is only a symptom of a more sinister cultural darkening brought about by digital media. This is a decline of the complex narrative as the centre of public life, the midnight of depth meaning.

We’ve witnessed less and less interest in three phenomena since Time Berners-Lee first uploaded his first few lines of HTML code onto the nascent net: complex arguments in theoretical thinking, extended adult narratives in fiction, and long serious conversations in everyday life. Academic and geek culture are only partial exceptions to this rule, preserves where complex narratives, like pandas and California condors, survive as endangered species.

Boredom is the chief psychological sign of the rejection of the complex narrative.

Over the last 15 years, digital networks have steadily chipped away at the boredom threshold to the point now where 10 minutes away from such networks seems like an eternity to the digital native. Our mental hardware is being reprogrammed to reject the long conversation, the complex story, the arcane argument. Instead we have Twitter, texting and TV sound bytes.

Midnight is upon us. The Cheshire cats of complexity are fading away, being replaced by popup ads and Facebook likes. Goodbye Jesse. Au revoir Celine.

The Failed Logic of Globalization

Doug Mann 2015

Originally Published in the Hamilton Spectator, July 21, 2015

If you walk into any dollar store in Canada you’ll notice three things. First, things are cheap – not surprisingly, usually a dollar. Second, outside of food, nothing is made in North America. Third, they’re often packed with customers.

The dollar store is a microcosm of what’s wrong with our economy. In the closing days of the Cold War the grinning avatars of hard conservatism – Reagan, Thatcher and Mulroney – helped to kick start a new global order that would supposedly bring prosperity to all by removing barriers to the free flow of investment capital and trade. Once the Berlin Wall fell, the last real barrier to a globalized world economy disappeared and it was full steam ahead.

Over two decades governments and technology corporations followed suit by adding one brick after another to the ziggurat of the globalized economy: NAFTA (1988 and 1994), the invention of HTML and thus the Internet (1991), the Uruguay Round of GATT negotiations (1986-94), the WTO (1994), conservative Work Bank policies (from the 1990s on), the concentration of mass media in fewer and fewer hands, the Web 2.0 (2004 and on), deregulated financial markets under George W. Bush, smart phones (starting with Blackberries in 2003). The new order had its global markets, global communications network and a friendly banking system in place. This ziggurat is now more or less complete, with only a few outliers like North Korea beyond the pale.

The logic of globalization was simple enough: reduce or remove trade barriers, make capital, goods and labour mobile, reduce the power of national governments to regulate the marketplace, and eliminate the power of unions to fight for a living wage.

The results are also hardly surprising, though rarely bemoaned by a mass media that has long since swallowed the Kool-Aid of corporate power: an increasingly divided class society, symbolized by the recent image of Donald Trump descending on an elevator from his penthouse to announce his presidential run, trophy wife at his side; the institutionalization of contract work and chronic unemployment in North America – why buy the cow if you can rent it for four months; volatile financial markets – witness the 2008 crash and the lingering recession; and a ruling class that has surrendered power to de-territorialized corporations who jockey for the biggest tax cuts from state and provincial governments.

Young, increasingly mobile workers grasp at any rung that will elevate them above minimum-wage service work: hence the neo-serfdom of unpaid internships promoted by governments and “progressive” universities alike. Cheap labour costs in Asia causes industry to flee high-wage jurisdictions in North America like thieves in the night.

Digital networks help: the Net has created the greatest marketplace ever. It’s relatively impervious to state control, with the ironic exception of the rising global power China. The market is everywhere and nowhere, and the social conditions of the production of all those cheap goods in local dollar stores are invisible to the low-wage and unemployed people who buy them.

The facts are straightforward. Back in the 1950s, 52% of our economy was dedicated to goods production. By 1977 this had slipped to 34.6%. Stats Can reports that in 2015, 78% of Canadians work in the service sector, while only 22% make things. Unionization in Canada slipped from 38% to around 30% from 1981-2012, with the slide for men a precipitous 42.1%-to-28.5%. Every month or so we hear news of a factory shutting down in Ontario or Quebec, its facilities headed for warmer fiscal climes. The exodus of manufacturing from the American rust belt is plain for all to see: visit Detroit to see the effects of globalization, Mad Max style.

Average yearly industrial wages in China rose to a whopping $7000 in 2014, representing 15% of those in North America. A few years earlier, American workers out-earned the Chinese by a ratio of over ten-to-one. Rising wages in Asia contrast with those in Mexico, where the average industrial worker now earns less than his compadre in Beijing. A global regime of mobile capital and “free trade” allows manufacturers to cut labour costs by up to 90% by abandoning the countries where they actually sell their goods. Working conditions in the factories of Asia are often abysmal, causing suicides in Chinese iPhone plants and deadly fires in Bangladeshi shirt sweatshops.

Cheap goods, depressed wages, contracts over careers, the de-industrialization of North America, a more divided and thus less just society. The logic of globalization was a failure from day one. It may have worked for Western power elites. But not for the rest of us.