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Thinking Out Loud

Monday, January 30, 2006

A Ton of New Games >> Mall of Horror, T&E Card Game, Vegas Showdown & More!

Last night was a great night for gaming, despite running longer than expected. Got to play 2 games I had played before, but a whopping 4 games I hadn't played before -- one we enjoyed so much we played twice! Two of the games went on my "want" list right away... A third I had already purchased, based on reviews, and this affirmed the purchase.

Game 1: Carcassonne - Hunters and Gatherers

Justin: 172
Jay: 185

I arrived at Justin's place a bit earlier than the others, so we cracked open C:H&G... Neither of us had played in a while, but it reminded me of how solid a game -- especially for 2 players -- this tile laying masterpiece is. The bonus tiles are such a great addition. Once rule I hadn't realized before, but which adds a whole new decision point to the game, is that the person who caps off a forest with a gold nugget earns the bonus tile, even if that person doesn't score any points -- letting folks seal off an opponent's scoring option while snagging those precious tiles.

Bottom Line: 9.5/10 ... Nice variations provide enough differences to make it a unique experience from the traditional Carcassonne -- and a much more balanced, strategic game, in my opinion. The bonus tiles add quite a bit. A strong game, which helps streamline and fulfill the potential Carcassonne tempted us with.

Game 2: Mall of Horror first play!

Julia: 8 pts
Michael: 5 pts
Justin: 3 pts
Jay: 0 pts (dead after turn 9)
Chris: 0 pts (dead after turn 7)

I was eager to try this one out. I had just purchased it the day before, and had put together a nice player aid which I submitted to BGG. I think folks were a bit skeptical, and it took a fair bit to explain, but once it got underway, the game moved at a nice pace and there was lots of tension. Chris and I got chowed early, from a combination of poor planning on our part and clever powerbrokering by the others. In the first game, we sorely underestimated the value of the Security Chief, and the Security Office was overrun and closed after turn 3 -- so no Security Chief, no additional information to help us plan out our moves. And it wasn't until toward the end of the game that we realized how critical control of the parking lot is for distribution of those cards -- the cards and their division are one of the key features to establishing cliques and cementing assistance in the game. Wonderful, wonderful gameplay experience.

Bottom Line: 8/10 ... [ORIGINAL POST] I picked up Mall of Horror based on several recommendations and Tom Vasel's excellent review. Sounds like a nice, bloody game of backstabbing, betrayal, deception and getting other people in trouble -- basically an entire game of Diplomacy that can be wrapped up in an hour or less. After a quick read through the rules, I can't wait to try it out!

[UPDATE] 2 Plays, and it's as exciting and engaging as I had hoped. The tension and flow fits the zombie theme wonderfully. Players can find themselves eliminated very quickly, though, and reduced to the role of spectator early in the game. I was a bit surprised that the game seemed to slow down as players were eliminated, rather than speed up, and the last half of the game takes much longer to resolve than the first half -- opposite of my expectations for the theme and how these mechanics would work. Could be based on our play group, however... Still, a solid game with lots of deliciously evil powerbrokering decisions. And it's just so darn fun!!

Game 3: Razzia!

Chris: 33
Justin: 17
Jay: 12
Michael: 7

This is only the fourth time I've played Razzia... Which coupled with Ra's four plays, is all I need to know that I will probably never like this game format. It's utterly chaotic, with an illusion over control over your decisions. I also have not been able to use experience to help establish a better means to evaluate auction lots for competitive bidding -- or on those instances where I do evaluate them and want them, I'm consistently outbid by players with the higher values. Not a fan.

Bottom Line: 4/10 ... It's a lot like Ra... And that's not necessarily a good thing. The cards take up a heckuva lot of space, since they need to be clearly spread out so everyone can see what everyone else has at any given time. Feels like a lot of decisions are beyond your control, and a great deal of the game passes with very few interesting decisions. Far, far more luck than I was expecting. I'd play it again, but only if everyone absolutely had to play it and I got to pick the next game.

[UPDATE] Dropped yet another point. More plays just reveals more of what I don't like -- too many times you don't have a decision, instead the game decides for you. Turn 1 -- I'll take a hit instead of call an auction. Oh, Razzia was drawn... looks like there will be an auction anyway. So glad I made that decision. Turn 2 -- Oh look, another Razzia card. Turn 3 -- Oh look, another Razzia card. Turn 4 -- Oh look, another Razzia card. Where is my decision making again? Oh, and if you're behind in scoring after round 2, how on earth do you make up ground on someone?

Game 4: Euphrates & Tigris Card Game first play!

Michael: 4/5/6/11
Justin: 4/4/4/5
Chris: 3/4/5/5/
Jay: 3/3/3/5

This game was frustration, personified. I started with 1 Green, 1 Blue, 6 Red and no Grey. In fact, I didn't draw any Grey until turn 4, and then just a single card. I didn't even have an opportunity to score Grey points until turn 6... And by then my King was in a completed kingdom, so I had to spend 1 action to move him first. I really dislike having to spend a card from your hand to score in a color -- that not only lessens the value of Ships/Monuments, but exaggerates the luck factor of the poor draw. Needing 2 of any color to score for that color can seriously hamper your plans, and place further emphasis on the value of Traders... But don't have any Green in your hand? Well, then too bad -- enjoy getting beat up by the other players' traders, so they can grab the treasure and cement a huge lead. Standard hidden scoring would be fine, but I'm befuddled why you can't even look at your own score!! What? Adding an arbitrary memory element to this game feels ridiculous... Why add another reason to be frustrated?

Bottom Line: 4/10 ... What a disappointing game! I was hoping for a more streamlined, engaging game that still felt like T&E, but was simpler to grasp and quicker to play. It does play more quickly, but the game feels so herky jerky, and it plays so incredibly differently than the boardgame that it's a shame it uses the same name -- aside from lowest common denominator scoring in four colors and what triggers internal/external conflicts, the game feels awkward and remarkably unlike T&E.

Sure, you get a larger hand size (8 instead of 6) but the fact that you need a card of whatever color you want to score in your hand when scoring is triggered means you have fewer actual options. Also exaggerating the problem of being short-suited as in T&E because, for some reason, there is NO option to exchange cards!! Have bad cards? Can you only play cards to trigger battles you can't win or score points for other players? Too bad!!

Also a strange vibe that the only way you can get two kingdoms close to external conflict is to play enough cards to let the player on your left trigger the conflict -- it's nigh impossible to set up external conflict w/o receing an "alley oop" from the player to your right (intentionally or not).

Game 5: Vegas Showdown first play!

Chris: 46
Jay: 41
Justin: 41
Michael: 40

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Vegas Showdown. Despite being a lot of stuff going on, and much of it feeling eerily similar (the Knizia-esque scoring at the end, the Alhambra/PoF casino building, etc) it offers enough novelty and a fun theme to make it a very nice bidding alternative. Justin ran through the rules quickly, but after I heard the setup and first few rules, the rest felt intuitive based on seeing the scoring aid and seeing the bidding map. I wish I could have redone 1 or 2 actions over the course of the game, but overall, I'm pleased with how quickly I felt I picked up on it, and that I tied for second in a very close game.

Bottom Line: 8/10 ... Surprisingly impressed with the variety of options, interesting integration of the event cards, bidding and planning in this game. Timely theme based on the growing popularity of poker and gambling. Decent design, but poor component quality. The player mats are very flimsy, the larger cardboard tiles seem to warp horribly and the ultra-cheap poker chips for cash were disappointing. Still, lots of scoring methods, and it looks like it pays to be flexible while still offering a variety of approaches to take. Thoroughly enjoyed the game, and I could see playing this with a wide range of people... If the production quality were better, it'd go up to about 8.5 or so... Good "entry level" bidding game, with lots of variety and replay value due to the event cards. I felt my decisions mattered more than in something like Ra.

Game 6: King Me! first play!

Julia: 67
Chris: 66
Justin: 50
Jay: 48
Michael: 42

Cute, clever little game. The seeding at the beginning was fun, with a very light bluffing tone. Oddly enough, in our very first round, the very first noble ascending to the throne was crowned -- everyone assumed someone else would behead him. I believe Julia and Chris both had that noble on their score card, giving them pretty big leads early on... Since many of the other nobles hadn't even moved from their starting positions, the rest of the scoring was very low. It was also then that I realized that you get two veto/behead cards per round and not for the entire game. Oops -- My bad!

Bottom Line: 7/10 ... Cute, quick filler with neat voting dynamics, push your luck and pseudo bluffing elements. Only real downside is there are sooo many characters, and the color scheme/font are hard to distinguish, so you need to constantly adjust the markers or get a closer look to evaluate what's going on. Still, novel enough to stand on its own and provide a different experience than other fillers of the same length.

Game 7: Mall of Horror second play!

Justin: 7
Michael: 5
Chris: 5
Julia: 2 characters chomped on Round 15 (last round of game)
Jay: Last character chomped on Round 7...

I'm glad we played this one again, after learning the ropes earlier in the evening. A coalition of evil was formed on the first turn between Michael and Justin when all three of us found ourselves in the parking lot with our Gunmen and another character for 3 votes each and 2 zombies. Without any discussion, they opted to let the zombies eat both of my characters, forcing me to use an Axe after the first vote (killing my Pin Up) to at least keep 2 characters in the game.

Justin managed to maintain dominance of the parking lot for the entire game, earning a card 8 turns in a row. Since he had such a dominant card advantage, he was at little risk of zombie attacks in the parking lot and didn't lose his first character until Round 8. I was unsuccessful in convincing the other players to surge into the Parking Lot and seize control of the truck from him. Justin spread the bonus cards equally between Michael and Julia, to keep them on his side -- and Chris and I couldn't mount an effective counter assault on our own.

Julia had an early monopoly on the Security Chief role, wielding that power for 8 of the first 9 turns. Eventually Chris wrested it away from her for a few rounds, but by then I was already dead and couldn't do much to affect the game. My Tough Guy was killed in the Restaurant on turn 3, where Chris forced me at gunpoint to go make a nice zombie snack. A miscalculation on openings in a location forced my Gunman into the parking lot on Round 7, where Justin -- still sitting there with all three characters -- quickly dispatched me, and then used his plethora of cards to kill off the remaining zombies.

So I was out of the game on Round 7, before Julia, Justin and Chris had even lost their first character. I was a bit frustrated that instead of trying to target the other players with three characters (and in my mind, the biggest scoring threats to any of the others) they all seemed to prefer to remove me completely from the game first... I can see that making sense to be one step closer to the Security Chief for movement, but watching them play for the next hour wasn't as much fun... Only 2 group votes ever came up after that, and my single vote was meaningless in the outcome since the players still in the game had already decided how to resolve the vote.

The second half of the game took about 50% longer than the first half, as there was far more deal brokering -- or at least discussion -- for mutual survival, and there were far fewer zombies manifesting on the board. Two locations shut down, so while it limited the destination options, there were fewer people left, so far fewer conflicts for the open spots in locations... And no zombies showed up when the two closed locations were rolled, so on a few turns, only 1 or 2 zombies appeared, resulting in 5 turns in a row when nobody died right before the end.

Then on the fateful Round 15, with no Security Officer, Julia tried moving into a booked room, leaving one character to fend for himself in the SuperMarket, and forcing the other into the Parking Lot. Enough zombies showed up at both locations to munch both of her characters, leaving only three characters in the game, triggering the end.

A special tip of the hat to Michael, who lost his first character on Round 2, and his second character on Round 4... Despite being 4th to act in the movement phase, he was rarely shunted to the Parking Lot, and was able to move his single remaining character around and survive 11 rounds to the end of the game, and amazing streak!

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Quick Hits >> Attika, Basari and Cloud 9

Got some good three player gaming in tonight with Jorge and Eva. I gave Hacienda another go, which I'll admit is better with three than with five. I won a close game (beating Eva by 1 point... One point!!) but things still feel a bit empy. The final score was 125-134-100...

The best part of the night was getting to try three new games. I recently acquired Attika and Basari via trade, and Jorge & Eva offered up Cloud 9 as a nice, light filler that works well at the local boardgame meetups. Here's how things went.

Basari
Jorge: 104
Eva: 90
Jay: 83

I tried picking roles I felt the others were also picking, to get in on as many trades as possible, rather than trying to pick actions I thought would benefit me the most -- as such, when I guessed wrong, I was left with marginally useful results. On the last two turns, they were able to make some mutually beneficial bribes that catapulted Eva from last place to contention, blowing past me in the process.

Bottom Line: 6.5/10 Nice, light game of guesswork, a bit of bluffing, and trying to figure out what your opponents want. I like the bartering system of escalating bids to bribe another player for the right to use an action. The board, however, is clumsy -- I can now see the attraction to the card decks used in Ein, Stein & Reich, the revisioning of Basari.

--

Cloud 9
Jorge: 36
Eva: 58
Jay: 52

Not really much to report on strategy. I made some poor guesses, and threw some dice combinations I didn't have the cards to back up. It's pretty light, even for a filler, but the fun is in the interaction and chit-chat more than the decision making.

Bottom Line: 6.5/10 Harmless, light and fluffy filler fun. A bit of card counting and risk management is all the decision making there is to find in this breezy push your luck game. Quick pace, ultra-easy rules and a light theme work well. Nice, sturdy cards, but the long game board is one of the most horribly warped monstrosities I've ever seen -- with so many pronounced folds and backfolds, it never lays flat, so the scoring markers slide all over the place. The board drops it down half a point from a 7.

--

Attika
Jorge: 29
Eva: 26
Jay: 30 (all tiles placed)

Jorge and Eva had played 2 player games online, and quickly grew disenchanted by the overwhelming role of luck in the early game, but were up for giving the three player game a try. I struggled trying to figure out the best placement of tiles to maximize efficiency, but I do think I made some good decisions to go along with my above average luck of the draw. Eva was seriously hampered by having her starting city, Corinth, on the bottom of her "black" pile of chits, while Jorge and I had our starting cities at the top. A very close game, as only the use of two amphorae at the very end gave me the extra actions I needed to win -- with exactly the right number/mix of cards in my hand to build my last building, the silver mine!

Bottom Line: 6/10 I really like the components and feel of the gameplay pacing, but I was taken aback at the huge role of luck. If one player gets their core city as the first draw from their stack of black tiles, they have a huge advantage over someone with that starting city further down the stack. If that can be addressed, I do like the efficiency decisions facing players, and the cascade effect of building structures for free or reduced costs if timed properly. As is, the outcome is determined by the setup of the player's tile stacks more than their decisions. Once you balance the starting tile draws, the rest of the game is quite enjoyable, and would probably hover right around a 7.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Hacienda >> Initial Reaction

Got my first playing of Hacienda in last night. It wasn't my copy, and I was taught the rules -- I can't help but think (hope?) that we must have had some rules wrong, because I was surprised at how much I felt was lacking from the game.

Comparisons to Ticket to Ride and Through the Desert are obvious, but the game does offer some interesting twists on both games. Unfortunately, it includes some of my least favorite aspects of TTR -- the face up draw piles, where having matching cards available on your turn saves you precious actions, while invariably some players have to churn actions to get into playable positions. Otherwise, I think the similarities to TTR are mostly superficial, while TtD provides a roughly comparable gameplay experience.

I also was shocked that there was no balancing system to soften the player order advantage to going early (or rather, the huge disadvantages to going later) especially in a five player game. I'd play it again, but I think Through the Desert offers an overall superior experience in roughly half the time.

Gut feeling rating: 5/10. Probably would peak at a 6 if we found some rules inconsistencies or mistakes. I just don't see how the decision making or interaction would carry this much higher than a 6. I'd love to be wrong, though, since the production quality is superb.

More on what I felt was a significant player disadvantage for going last.

In the asymmetric map, the first 4 players all have the opportunity to make a 2 action move that places land and then an animal to connect a market, while being adjacent to water. And then they still have a third action to draw a card or commit another animal.

Meanwhile, the last player must use all three actions to connect to a market in this way, including the use of a pampas terrain card or a non-money making animal card in order to do so.
So they lose out on the water terrain scoring and actually have to invest more actions unless they deliberately make an aggressive opening move to place tiles at an already occupied market/watering hole, a decision that forces them into confrontation with another player for purely arbitrary reasons.

I also realized that the last player is disadvantaged by several other factors:

1) The last player has fewer overall turn options to purchase water or hacienda. As limited resources with a discrete counter mix, these two scoring items are harder to acquire for the last player in turn order. Each water source has to "get past" 4 other players in order for the last player to purchase one. Getting one for free doesn't disincentive other players from purchasing additional ones -- so they're all contested. It's just that the last player has the worst position to purchase and benefit from these.

2) The last player has far fewer potential turns/actions than the other players due to the half and end game conditions. When the animal draw pile is exhausted, a scoring round is triggered. If this happens early in the turn, the last player has fewer options -- it's quite likely that few, if any, animal cards will be left face up to select from, so the common draw and play an animal in the same turn option is not available, leaving them with fewer opportunities to take scoring/earning turns at the end of a round.

3) Since they don't have access to water immediately, they have 1 fewer total action available to them over the course of the entire game if they want to even the playing field -- they have to invest an action to purchase water which other players get for free. If the others get just 1 or 2 VPs from their initial water placement, it's worth it, since they didn't have to invest anything in that.

4) Simply to balance out starting positions, that person also has to spend 12 gold to normalize the situation. This means investing cash (and 1.2 VP) to get water they need a maximum return on -- they can't afford to spend the action AND the gold if they're only to score 2 or 3 total VPs for the water/hacienda placement, unlike someone who starts with this option for free.

I just don't get it.

Scoring Results (1st half/interim scoring in parenthesis)
listed in turn order -- I was 4th of 5 players
Justin: 70 (20)
Trey: 73 (21)
Julia: 36 (12)
Jay: 96 (37)
Chris: 25 (74)

I seriously won purely by opportunity. It's not necessarily that I played better, but we were all learning the game and didn't fully appreciate all the scoring nuances until the interim scoring. Had we cleared the board and started over right then and there, I think things would have been far different. I had one goal and one goal only in mind from the outset -- build a big land mass. That's it.

As it was, I was the only player to score a land chain in the first half -- 8 land tiles with a hacienda for 31 of my 37 points right there. Rather than try to cut me off and restrict that territory from growing further, folks basically conceded and started playing for 2nd place, allowing me to add 4 more tiles to that in the second half. By the end of the game, I only had 3 markets linked -- virtually all my points came from that enormous land chain, and purchasing 2 water spaces I could completely enclose with my tiles.

So it was definitely an aberration, and a game which would be very unlikely to occur again. But it was a learning experience. Ultimately, I learned that unless I was missing something fairly significant about the gameplay, decisions or scoring, that Hacienda probably won't have much to offer me, and doesn't really provide anything unique or compelling.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Best Case Scenario >> Surgery Was a Success!!

As some of you may know, I have chronic back problems, which had been getting worse and worse over the last year or so. After a battery of tests and exams late in '05, I had back surgery scheduled for Thursday, January 12th -- 9 years and 10 days after my last back surgery (which took place on my 24th birthday).

Amazingly, I'm already back home. In fact, I was released at 7:30 PM on Thursday, literally 12 hours after the surgery was completed that morning.

The surgery and so far recovery have gone incredibly well. The percoset (SP?) I'm on for pain makes me groggy and a little disoriented, but that's better than the flaring pain from the surgery area.

The surgery, a hemi-discectomy/decompression of the L3/L4 and L4/L5 vertebrae, helped relieve pressure on my spinal cord caused by vertebral stenosis -- more or less small bone spurs in the vertebrae that constricted the spinal cord and would cause severe pain and numbness in my hips and legs. The incision was about 3 inches long, and looks pretty nasty, but is much cleaner and more efficient than the last time I had this surgery.

In 1997, the surgery site was closed with eight metal staples -- not very pretty, and it left a really nasty scar. This time, the incision was closed with dissolvable sutures, which will eventually go away on their own. Since the surgery was in the same location, the incision this time around sits almost directly on top of the scar from last time, making for a pretty yucky looking lower back. It's a good thing I gave up my aspirations as a lower back model ages ago.

I'm hoping to be back to a regular (albeit light and restricted) schedule starting the middle of next week...

The real trick is to find a way to use the computer from a reclined position -- most comfortable on my back, but least functional for a computer. Sitting is the worst possible position, since it puts so much strain and pressure on the base of the spine, right at the site of my surgery. Good thing I've got a decent laptop...

Thanks to all the well-wishers out there who sent me words of encouragement or prayed for a successful surgery! I really appreciate the support and thoughtfulness. Things have progressed very well so far and I'm confident I'll have a full and healthy recovery.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Mesopotamia >> Initial Thoughts

I got one last night of gaming in to tide me over for the rest of the month, and was able to try Mesopotamia, Klaus-J├╝rgen "Carcassonne" Wrede's new game from Phalanx/Mayfair. I'm curious if any of you blog readers have had a chance to play it yet...

Here's my initial reaction of the game after that one play:

Interesting game with superficial similarities to Tikal. Another game of having to maximize turn efficiency, as you get very few actions per turn to accomplish a lot of things.

The action cards seem a bit unwieldy and out of balance with the value of other actions, but that could just be based on how our game panned out. My action cards were always useful to my current plans, while others got cards that were more or less wasted (such as some of the exploration cards later in the game).

I wanted to like the game more, but it seemed that there was far more indirect conflict and interaction than direct (at least, efficient and direct) means to really interfere with the plans of other players.

It felt like it was missing something -- a mechanic, a scoring element,a turn option -- to jack up the level of immersion. I think there's a definite potential for players to have turns that benefit other players more than themselves (such as in Hansa, by virtue of the final position of the boat), but it may be so subtle that it's hard to spot or evaluate. Sometimes this may be through poor play, but with the random nature of the action cards and exploration, it could very well be through good planning stymied by bad luck.

I rarely spent actions exploring, never built a temple (or whatever you call the piece where your workers can gain mana) and basically used the same approach I use with Torres -- get as many guys onto the board as possible as early as you can, grab action cards, and remain flexible.

I ended up winning our first game, with 2 other novices and 1 experienced player. I was only targeted once by others' action cards (such as stealing my mana, which is required to pay for your sacrifices), which could have hamstrung me more if I had been heavily targeted. But I still ended up winning.

However, I don't think I necessarily made better or more efficient decisions... Though perhaps, for a learning game, I did make better decisions based on early comprehension and sticking with my initial Torres-style plan -- plans and decisiont that simply wouldn't hold up against more experienced players. From that regard, it's really hard to judge the game based on just this one play.

The Bottom Line: I'd play itagain, but unless something reveals itself after another game or two, I don't think Mesopotamia would go much higher than a 6/10 rating in my book.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Happy 33rd to Me >> The Worst Birthday Ever

Monday, January 2nd, was my 33rd birthday. I've had some real stinkers before, but this one really took the proverbial cake (no cake was actually taken or consumed on this birthday, however). My parents literally forgot about (or chose not to celebrate) my 18th birthday, so I wandered aimlessly out into the cold Wisconsin night for several hours. I had my first major back surgery on my 24th birthday, and woke up from surgery alone in a hallway, unable to feel anything from the waist down.

But this one was even better. At 5:15 AM, the tornado warning sirens went off as the electricity went out. Our family scrambled to grab flashlights and blankets and make our way down into the basement. My back is aching terribly, and is much worse in the morning before I've had a chance to take any medicine or stretch out -- fumbling around in the dark for flashlights and going back and forth up the stairs was agonizing.

Ben, almost three now, was pretty good, but was starting to get scared. He really had no idea what was going on. We eventually made our way back upstairs around 7 AM, and called the utility company, Ameren UE, to find out when the electricity would be back on. It was scheduled to be back online around 7:30 AM, so we decided to go out for breakfast to Denny's for my birthday.

After a grease-filled breakfast, we were all feeling pretty ill, but drudged back home to find the electricity was still off. Another call to Ameren UE told us it'd be up by 8:30 AM for sure. This time we took a shopping trip to Target and Best Buy to kill time. Upon our return, the electricity was still off. And by now I was really feeling lousy -- a headache and mild fever accompanied the sour stomach from breakfast. And the house had gotten pretty darn cold.

We drudged off to the mall, and returned to find the electricity still off. Ben started to get more and more concerned that our house was broken and started to get really fussy and ornery. Couldn't blame him -- I was getting really fussy and ornery, too. I was starting to become a wreck, and we were wondering if we had to find somewhere else to spend the night.

The electricity didn't come back on until almost 9:45 PM that night. Just long enough that some frozen goods had to be thrown out, as well as several things from the fridge (nothing like room temperature milk). And the leftover ice cream cake from Xmas -- earmarked for birthday consumption -- had completely disintegrated into a morass of goo.

When I broke down just after dinner and growled to Trish it was the worst birthday ever, Ben piped up and said "It's your birthday? Happy Birthday daddy!" ... Suddenly it wasn't so bad after all. Then he gave me a great big hug and said "It's ok to be scared of the dark, daddy. I love you."

Then Ben ate a snack and took a bath, in the dark, without so much as a fuss. Then scurried off to bed and gave me a big hug before drifting off to sleep. And he didn't make a peep until morning.

After Ben was in bed, Trish and I sat around in the dark, listening to some of the CDs we used to listen to while we were still dating, and talking about how it could have been much, much worse. We only lost our power -- no one was hurt, nothing was destroyed. We had clean drinking water. We had all our clothes. Our house was still standing.

Did I say worst birthday ever? It ended up being pretty special after all. In fact, I'm sure I'll remember this birthday far longer than many others.