Saturday five, 11/22/14.

I held my usual Klawchat on Thursday; I’ll have a wrap-up reaction piece on Monday to all the smaller moves from the last few days (Butler and LaRoche in particular). If something huge breaks today or tomorrow, I’ll write a separate piece on that.

If you’re looking for a comment, I’m sorry, but I have none to offer. I appreciate all of the support I’ve received.

  • My friend Wendy Thurm discusses the dominance of male followers on sports Twitter. I’m mentioned, and I too was surprised that the ratio of men to women among my followers was that high, given how many women I hear from via Twitter.
  • Because I’m a language dork, here are 23 charts and maps about languages from vox.com.
  • From Bon Appetit, some tips on not screwing up marinara sauce. I’ll add two more: Don’t add sugar, and add a splash of wine to extract some of the alcohol-soluble (but not water-soluble) compounds in the tomatoes.
  • From The Guardian, Hunter Felt writes about transgender MMA fighter Fallon Fox’s confrontation with the prejudice of Joe Rogan. There’s some interesting science in here too.
  • The report this week from the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate on the failures to treat Adam Lanza’s mental illness is incredibly horrifying. I’m reminded of the result of these mistakes, many of which were from his mother refusing to see her son as severely ill, every time I drive to or from Bristol, right by the I-84 exit for Sandy Hook and Newtown. But reading that piece also made it seem like Lanza was suffering badly and denied treatment that might have helped him (and saved all those kids). We’d never think of refusing treatment, even palliative care, to someone suffering from cancer or MS. Mental illness shouldn’t be treated differently.
  • NPR’s food blog goes after what’s really in “pumpkin spice” flavoring. I’m disappointed they linked to Vani Hari, who is wildly anti-science, but I would guess most people who down those drinks don’t know what they’re actually consuming. Eat real food, not facsimiles designed to remind your brain of real food.

And finally, a picture you won’t be able to unsee. What’s worse, the annexation of Crimea, or “Sweating Bullets?”

Top Chef, S12E06.

Klawchat today at 1 pm ET.

* Everyone is glad that Aaron’s gone. That’s before he was arrested, too. But the entire episode feels different without him around – there’s no bickering, no obvious conflicts, no enmity among the chefs still there. I’m sure eventually that will pop back up, but it was a clear shift in tone even if it’s a temporary one. At some point someone will tell Katsuji to shut the hell up, I’m sure.

* Adam says he’s concerned about Dougie, Melissa, Gregory, and Mei as his main competition, which sounds about right. He also calls Katsuji “a mess in a dress,” which I don’t understand.

* Melissa talks about her girlfriend back home, and the love/support notes she gave her before the show. So Melissa is Asian and gay … am I wrong to think that was probably not an easy childhood? It seems like a disproportionate percentage of Asian-American contestants on both Top Chef and Project Runway share a story of parental disappointment at their career choices. (That could be producer selection bias, I suppose.)

* Tiffani Faison from season one walks into their condo. (There’s a great profile of her from a recent issue of Boston magazine.) I had no idea she had a Texas-style Q joint in Boston, called Sweet Cheeks BBQ. Have any of you been? Texas Q ain’t nothing to fuck with. It had better be good.

* So they drag all the chefs down to a cranberry bog, probably down by Lakeville towards the Cape. The quickfire challenge is going to involve cranberries, and the sponsor/partner is Ocean Spray … and maybe for the first time ever, I’m completely on board with a product placement on this show. Ocean Spray is a cooperative, owned by its farmers, which has its own challenges – during my brief tenure in consulting right out of college, they were a client of my employer and I was on that case for about two months – but at least means the people doing the actual growing are able to reap the rewards of their work. I still think there’s a lot of untapped potential in the firm and the product, even now about twenty years later; people just don’t know what to do with cranberries because you can’t eat them raw (hot cranberries > raw cranberries, Ken), so you have to educate the consumers with products. Why not cranberry yogurts? Ice creams? Jams or preserves? That would have made a great challenge for the show, now that I think about it. But I digress.

* So we see a bog that’s been flooded for the harvest; the chefs have to put on waders and run back and forth to gather the berries (about six million floating in a closed loop on the surface), and the first four to fill their buckets get an advantage in the next challenge. I’m not a fan of challenges on this show that reward size or athleticism, which doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with cooking.

* Mei is 5’2″ and can’t swim. It’s not that deep, but I can understand her fear of the water if she can’t swim. We more or less forced our daughter to learn with lessons at age four, right when we moved to Arizona, because we viewed it as an essential life skill, especially in a state where every other house has a pool. You just have to know how to swim, right? I’m not winning any relays for my team out there, but I do know how to swim from A to B.

* So it turns out that Katie is a great athlete; apparently cooking was a way for her to move to Lake Tahoe and ski all the time. She wins the challenge, but after her it’s three boys – Adam, Gregory, and Doug. Meanwhile, Katsuji is mugging for the cameras, rolling around on the ground like he needs CPR.

* The actual Quickfire challenge is to create a dish that highlights the “unique flavor of the cranberry.” The top four harvesters get to use the high-end pantry, with better proteins, fresh herbs, and produce; the rest are much more limited by the low-end pantry. Fresh cranberries, dried (and sweetened) cranberries, and juices are available for all nine chefs. The winner gets immunity.

* Doug grabs pork tenderloin; isn’t that kind of a boring cut? It’s lean and pretty one-note, especially if you don’t have time to brine it.

* Katie is doing a cranberry borscht, a dish that’s typically sour anyway due to the use of vinegar. Doug thinks it’s a terrible idea, except he chose pork tenderloin, so maybe I’m not going to worry about what he says this time.

* Stacy explains away the low-end/high-end pantry difference by saying that if you’re a chef, “you should be able to work with anything at all.” That’s true, but if your ingredients are better, won’t your dish taste better?

* Katsuji is using skirt steak for tartare. Is this just a case of not knowing your ingredients? That’s a very tough cut with long muscle fibers, and needs to be cooked very very quickly over high heat to be chewable. There’s a reason it’s one of the cheapest cuts of cow at the butcher counter. I really like it, but only, you know, cooked.

* Adam made a bourbon and cranberry sauce-glazed strip steak with cranberry-infused mushroom fricasee. He lost the liquid he was going to use for a couscous element, and chefsplains it to Padma and Tiffani, who tells him not to talk about the mistakes like that. Gregory serves an Arctic char (a salmon-like fish) with sweet and sour cranberry sauce, trumpet mushrooms, and fresh pear. Keriann serves a carrot soup with cranberry and crab; that doesn’t sound remotely appealing to me, three ingredients that probably shouldn’t even appear in any combination of two. Doug does a bourbon and cranberry-glazed pork tenderloin, crisped Brussels sprouts, and cranberry mustard. Tiffani says it “tastes like fall in New England,” but neither she nor Padma have any praise at all for the pork, just everything around it.

* Melissa serves fried turkey with apple butter, cranberry compote, pecans, and fried sage. Katie’s borscht comes with creme fraiche, charred Brussels sprouts, and pancetta. I don’t think I’ve ever had real borscht, btu I love beets, and everything about her dish sounds fantastic – beets need acidity to balance their sweetness, and they play well with all kinds of fruits. I love a beet salad with orange supremes and a citrusy dressing. Katsuji’s steak tartare with chile de arbol mayo, olives, and cranberry hot sauce presents some mastication problems for the judges. Stacy made a curried cauliflower soup with a smoky pepper cranberry relish, but gets dinged for having too little sugar with the berries. Mei serves a sweet and sour pork with pickled mustard seed and apple salad. She’s unconcerned about the low-end pantry problem: “my fucking dish was great.” I don’t doubt it. And if I did, I wouldn’t tell her, 5’2” or not.

* So one more thought on cranberries: They’re too astringent to eat raw (just try it), but are high in pectins, which means they form a gel easy in the presence of heat and sugar; and in tannins, which are very bitter on their own and may interfere with some nutrient absorption (mostly proteins, which their structure of three to five carbon rings allows them to hold together in pairs) in the human GI tract. Tannins are what create that unpleasantly dry sensation in your mouth after you drink red wine or black tea. In On Food and Cooking, which every home cook should own, Harold McGee suggests sugar as a cover for the astringency of tannins; adding milk, gelatin, or another protein to keep the tanning busy so they don’t suck up the proteins in your saliva; or adding ingredients rich in pectins, gums, fats, or other oils to “take some tannins out of circulation” or slow their binding to proteins. That’s why cranberry sauce, which is high in sugar and gets those pectins active, isn’t astringent while the raw fruits are.

* The worst dishes were Katsuji’s because they couldn’t chew it; Adam’s, because he practically told them to hate his dish; and Stacy’s, whose soup was underseasoned and clunky to eat. The best dishes were Doug’s, a great fall dish that didn’t really push the boundaries on the key ingredient; Katie’s borscht is hard, which did push the envelope, swapping cranberries in for one of the signature ingredients in the dish; and Mei’s, which was complex and elegant. The judges didn’t specifically say that Mei’s “fucking dish was great,” but I think we know that’s what they were thinking.

* Katie wins, however, for her creativity, and gets immunity. Given the elimination challenge, that’s probably a big deal this time around.

* That elimination challenge: Cook an authentic Thanksgiving meal, historically accurate from ingredients to cooking implements, at Plimouth Plantation. They’re working as one giant group to make a traditional feast, and are only told up from that they’ll be limited to native ingredients and what the colonists brought with them. I *love* this – no gimmicks, no truffles or bacon or fish sauce or liquid aminos or whatever, no mounting everything with a stick of butter or a cup of cream. It’s as honest as food gets. Although I did wonder one thing: Did colonists bring salt and spices? The second Anglo-Dutch war in the East Indies didn’t occur until about forty years after the Mayflower reached what is now Massachusetts; at the time the ship left England, Banda/Run was still under British control, I think, so they should have had access to some of the spices from that region, notably black pepper and nutmeg.

* The diners will include James Beard winner Ken Oringer (of Toro, Clio, and La Verdad, the last one a taqueria right behind Fenway that I recommend for a pregame meal); members of the two Wampanoag tribes; and descendants of pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower.

* Gregory refers to Doug as “a little guy, very cute and a little fuzzy.” So he’s a Muppet? Or maybe a chinchilla? It sounds like he needs his own chew toy.

* The chefs arrive to find a lot of squash, legumes, and shellfish, tons of duck fat, and several containers of goat’s milk. There’s a fair amount of land-animal protein available, but it’s less traditional meats – venison, goose, and rabbit in particular. There’s one hearth with a pot, fire pits, and a lot of cast iron cookware. Adam and Doug are all over the spit-roasting set – Adam mentions catching and cooking with the drippings, which is both historically accurate and delicious. There’s a new Adam in this episode; he’s all camaraderie and teamwork this week, so maybe all he needed was for A-A-Ron to be gone. I don’t even think Adam told us where he was from in this episode.

* Gregory is going to cook the goose. I know there’s a huge layer of fat under the skin, but he says the meat itself is leaner than turkey meat. I had no idea, although I guess duck dries out pretty quickly (you can’t cook duck breast past medium or it’s a brick) so this makes sense.

* Doug is spear-roasting the rabbit, and wants the meat to spoon-ready because there are no forks for the diners. That’s thoughtful, though I imagine the pilgrims and their Wampanoag hosts weren’t squeamish about using their hands to eat.

* Katie is making a stuffing with lobster, walnuts, cranberries, and pickled blueberries. She’s taking a “big big leap” due to immunity. I can’t even imagine what this is going to taste like. I don’t really like fruity stuffings. That just sounds wrong.

* Melissa is just making a vegetable side dish because everyone else is cooking proteins. She says she’s showing off her execution and knife skills, but is that really what carries you once you’re halfway through the season?

* Mei is making a trout vinaigrette for cabbage she’s roasting with duck fat. I love this and want to try it immediately.

* Keriann was going to make a blueberry pie, but scraps it because the dough won’t stay cold, instead switching to venison and repurposing her filling, which at least she hadn’t sugared yet.

* I may have missed it, but I don’t think anyone at the table referred to the Wampanoags as “redskins.” It seems like such an easy way to honor them, too.

* Anyone else dig all the earrings Philip Wynne, one of the Wampanoag members at the table, was wearing? I might draw the line at the ring through the septum, though. I think I’d always feel like I have to sneeze.

* The dishes: Doug’s spit-roasted rabbit with garlic, ramps, hazelnuts, chestnut, and radishes required no forks, but the Wampanoags say they usually serve rabbit whole and just tear it apart at the table. The spit-roasting flavor is a winner, though. Katsuji served roasted pumpkin (or butternut squash?) with poached lobster, chestnuts, and ancho chile butter. That sounds amazing, but half the diners at my house next week wouldn’t touch it. Another of the Wampanoags says that they usually use lobster as bait to catch fish, not as food for themselves. Stacy’s ramp-smoked clams with butternut squash, roasted lobster, sesame seeds, and fresh ramps has some flavor that Gail and Padma in particular don’t like, although Tom praises her for finally “dirtying up” her food. She plated on the ground, though, which seems a little unsanitary. You can take the authenticity thing too far. Melissa’s roasted vegetable medley included parsnips, green beans, zucchini, and charred ramps with a vinaigrette. All four good but I’m not hearing a lot of praise for Melissa’s

* Tom mentions how, as a kid, his family’s Italian-American Thanksgiving always started with lasagna. It was the same in my house – often baked ziti rather than lasagna, but the same idea. And no one was really that hungry afterwards. We haven’t continued that tradition in my house, because no one can feel good after eating all of that.

* Doug steps in to help Gregory finish the goose, in part because they’re buds from PDX, but also because he loves that Gregory insisted on getting a bird on the table. It’s more of the camaraderie I mentioned above – it’s like Bizarro Top Chef where everyone gets along.

* Adam does a twist on succotash, with beans, corn, summer squash, wilted spinach, and spiced goat milk. Several of the Wampanoags say they love it, particularly as a twist on a dish (succotash) that’s very traditional for them. Katie’s blueberry stuffing with blue-cornmeal cornbread and sauteed lobster is a huge hit after all.. Gail says it’s “wacky-looking” (is that like crazy business?) but they all love it. Mei’s duck fat-roasted cabbage with trout vinaigrette also goes over well; she usually uses anchovy for salinity in the dressing, but Ken says the vinegar “just pops.” Is it just me, or are we seeing more vinaigrettes than ever this season? Gregory’s roasted goose, goose thigh confit with herbs, green beans, and gingered onions was just fair, as the confit wasn’t tender enough. Keriann’s seared venison loin with blueberry compote and buttered/herbed hazelnuts seems to have fared well, so her choice to switch worked out. Nobody really did poorly; Tom says, “There’s not a bad dish on the table.”

* Adam says to the group that “us nine absolutely nailed this as a team.” No true New Yorker would ever say anything so sappy. Come on, man.

* Padma’s favorite was Mei’s cabbage. Gail’s favorite was Doug’s. Padma also liked Katsuji’s squash. Tom loved it – calling it “sticky, gooey, savory.” He also loved Katie’s stuffing, although he says it didn’t need the lobster.

* Melissa’s vegetable medley was light on flavor. Ken questions her choice of dish; with two plus hours to cook on open fires, this is what you do? Gregory’s confit was a little dry and rough. Keriann’s blueberry sauce was too sweet on its own. Stacy’s stuffing upstaged the clams, but more importantly, it had that flavor a few people didn’t like. Tom kind of sounds bummed that they’ll have to send someone home for a dish that was only a little flawed, rather than an easy call on an outright failure.

* Doug, Katsuji, Mei are the top three. Katsuji produced intense flavor with just a few simple ingredients. Doug’s rabbit was successful because of the flavor of the wood-fired meat. Mei’s cabbage had crunch, smoky flavor, and a “pure comfort food” feel even though I at least don’t think of cabbage as comfort food. Katsuji wins, although it’s just bragging rights.

* Stacy, Melissa, and Gregory on the bottom. Padma pauses before saying Gregory’s name, but I can’t imagine anyone was surprised. Ken compliments Gregory’s cojones; Gregory said tradition made it important to get a bird on the table. Chefs rarely get sent home for taking too much of a risk, at least not this early in the competition. Stacy’s had a flavor that turned the judges off, and someone speculates that it might have been dirt from her plating.

* Stacy goes. Tom says her dish was very tasty, just the least favorite of a good group. She was probably the weakest competitor left anyway.

* Quick ranking, top to bottom: Gregory, Mei, Doug, Melissa, Adam, Katsuji, Katie, Keriann. Melissa’s been more potential than production, though.

* Next episode: Restaurant Wars! And Last Chance Kitchen is coming back! I believe we’re off next week, so my next recap will be the Thursday after Thanksgiving.

The Left Hand of Darkness.

I have three Insider posts up on recent moves, one on the Heyward/Miller swap, one on Toronto signing Russell Martin, and a third omnibus post covering Hellickson, Moncada, Burnett, and La Stella/Vizcaino. Also, if you missed my annual boardgames ranking, I posted that on Tuesday.

Ursula K. Le Guin won two Hugo Awards for novels, one for The Dispossessed, which I read earlier this year (and loved), and one for the book I just finished, The Left Hand of Darkness , a much stranger book in almost every respect. Set on a planet that suffers near-permanent winter, the novel manages to explore questions of political philosophy and economy while also delving into the still-current question of gender identity and whether gender is a biological or social construct, even though she wrote the book in the late 1960s.

On Gethen, the planet where the entire novel takes place, the still-human residents have evolved over tens of thousands of years to become hermaphroditic, mostly sexless until their mensual period of “kemmer,” a point in the hormonal cycle when that person’s male or female reproductive organs become capable of procreation for a few days. That means that a Gethenian can be a mother to one child and father to another, producing a different societal concept of families. The protagonist, Genly Ai, is an envoy sent from the Ekumen, the book’s united federation of planets (so to speak) that is hoping to invite Gethen into its alliance, which focuses primarily on the sharing of knowledge and limited trade. Ai is distrusted by two separate governments, one a loose, feudal monarchy, the latter a Soviet-style command structure, and finds he has just one Gethenian he can trust, the disgraced adviser Estraven. The second half of the book puts the two of them on a life-or-death journey across desolate, snowbound country, where Ai is forced to reconsider his own aloof, perhaps ignorant attitude toward the character of the Gethenians, including the influence of their mostly genderless existence on their development as humans.

While The Left Hand of Darkness is largely praised as an early feminist sci-fi novel, reading it today it came across as a broader exploration of gender identity questions and to what extent growing up in a two-gender society (that is still relatively intolerant of anyone with gender dysphoria, or even folks who aren’t strictly heterosexual) defines our characters as individual. In a society where roles are not defined by gender because gender doesn’t exist, many questions of equality go away, as do the narrow types of personalities considered acceptable for each gender. All Gethenians Ai encounters exhibit tendencies he considers “effeminate” – the use of the term itself even indicates the trouble he has defining people as “he” or “she” – and others he calls “masculine,” but those terms come from his own experience and have no meaning outside of the two-gender context. Increasing his understanding while suffering the privations of a trip across a glacier with Estraven – who, like most Gethenians, lacks the testerone-driven strength of a biologically male human – becomes essential to the success of his overall mission, if and when he survives.

The political aspects of Ai’s quest dominate the first half of the novel as he first fails to achieve his objectives in the monarchist nation of Karhide, then travels to the totalitarian Orgoreyn, only to get caught up in the infighting among that nation’s 33-member politburo. Much of his difficulty stems from widespread skepticism that he’s actually an alien – he looks similar to Gethenians, just taller, darker in complexsion, and of course of a single gender – and the rest comes from doubt over the peaceful nature of his mission. He spends two years in Karhide, but is hesitant to commit to bringing the ship with the rest of his trade mission (eleven others, all kept in stasis so they aren’t aging while waiting for the call) to Gethen, even though it would likely seal the agreement with the Karhidish monarch. Le Guin’s aim here is vague until Ai crosses the border, at which point she unloads on the Soviets, which I’m sure was a lot more powerful or shocking in 1969 when the book was first published than it is today. We’ve been too desensitized to the abuses of authoritarian regimes to be affected by Ai’s plight in a forced-labor camp.

My one complaint with Left Hand is Le Guin’s use of phony dialect and terminology, something a lot of fantasy and sci-fi writers do, presumably to make the whole setting seem more real to readers but instead just coming off as confusing and, to my eyes, a little juvenile. I don’t know why Le Guin needed to create a whole new calendar with names for months and days, all summarized in a appendix at the end of the book. I don’t know why she needed so many new terms for government officials; it seems like an imagination run wild, without the guiding hand of an editor to say, hey, you’re just going to make readers lose their focus on the plot. It’s too strong and thoughtful a novel to waste time on trivial word changes, and given how well the gender identity themes still hold up over 40 years later, a book that deserves a much wider audience than just the sci-fi crowd.

Next up: I’m reading two books at once now, W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil as my main read while also trying to read Carlos Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz in the original Spanish.

Top 60 boardgames.

This is now the seventh iteration of my own personal boardgame rankings, a list that’s now up to 60 titles, up ten once again from the previous year’s list. It’s not intended to be a critic’s list or an analytical take on the games; it’s about 80% based on how much we enjoy the games, with everything else – packaging and design, simplicity of rules, and in one case, the game’s importance within its niche – making up the rest.

I don’t mind a complex game, but I prefer games that offer more with less – there is an elegance in simple rules or mechanics that lead to a fun, competitive game. Don’t expect this to line up with the rankings at BoardGameGeek, where there’s something of a bias toward more complex games, which is fine but doesn’t line up perfectly with my own tastes.

I’ve expanded the list to include several games I have only played via iOS app implementations, rather than physical copies. As always, clicking on the game title takes you to amazon.com; if I have a full review posted on the site, the link to that will follow immediately. I’ve linked to app reviews where appropriate too. I’ve got most of these games in my aStore on amazon and am gradually adding the rest.

I’ve added a list of titles at the end that I have played at least once but not enough to offer a review of them or rank them. Many of those will appear on a future list once I get to play them more – I might update this list in a few weeks as we keep playing, as I’ve got a pretty long list of games to try out.

Finally, as with last year’s list, you’ll find a complexity grade to the end of each review, low/medium/high, to make it easier for you to jump around and see what games might appeal to you. I don’t think there’s better or worse complexity, just different levels for different kinds of players. My wife prefers medium; I’m somewhere between medium and high. This isn’t like ordering a filet and asking for it well done.

60. Hacienda. I’ve only played the app version (review), but it’s a solid tile-placement game with a strange scoring twist – the game comprises two phases, and the score from the short first phase is doubled and added to the score from the second phase for the final tally. Players compete to form chains of tiles on a board with various terrain hexes, racking up points for connecting to markets, creating larger herds of animals, and placing hacienda tokens on large chains. Through the Desert does this theme one better but Hacienda has more variable play as well as a huge set of user-generated maps available online. Complexity: Medium.

59. Hey, That’s My Fish! The rare kids’ boardgame (just $12!) that is still a fun play for adults, where players compete to score points by placing and moving their penguins across a board of hexagonal ice tiles … but the hitch is that the tile you leave then drops into the ocean, so the board changes as you go and you can even trap an opponent’s penguin if you plan it right. The app version, the only way I’ve played this game, includes some great animations, and you can unlock a number of alternate boards via achievements, most of which are low-hanging fruit. This and Blokus are the two best games specifically aimed at younger players that we’ve tried. Complexity: Low.

58. Maori: A light two- to four-player game, relatively high in the luck department for this list, with more opportunities to screw your opponent in a two player game, whereas with four players you’re focusing more on your own strategy and less on others’. In the game, players compete to fill out their own boards of 16 spaces by drawing island tiles from a central 4×4 grid, where the available selections depend on the movement of a boat token that travels around that grid’s perimeter. Players must form completed islands to receive points, and lose points for open spaces. Currently out of print, but amazon has plenty of new copies through marketplace sellers. Complexity: Low.

57. Oregon. I need to play this some more, but it does have promise as a 2-4 player game that actually works with two players. Each player competes to place meeples and buildings on a rectangular grid by playing cards that match the row and/or column in which he’s placing the pieces. Points increase when players form larger groups of farmers on adjacent squares, place buildings next to farmers already on the board, or accumulate coal and gold tokens by building mines. It’s pretty simple and quick to play, but not that deep strategically. Complexity: Low.

56. Navegador. Full review. I love this game’s theme and better implementation of the explore-build-trade combination than Yspahan has, but it doesn’t work well at all with two players and really needs at least four to create enough competition on the board to make it more than just a few players playing solitaire at the same table. Players begin in Portugal with two ships apiece and have to sail to South America, around Africa, and eventually to Japan, opening up new areas, establishing colonies, building factories and shipyards, and buying and selling goods from their colonies according to fluctuating market prices. With enough players, it’s tightly competitive without feeling work-like, and the replayability comes from the interactions among players, since the game has only a miniscule amount of randomness. If you tend to game with four or five players, this would probably rank higher for you than it does for me, but I slid it down about ten spots this year because we usually play with two or three. Complexity: Medium.

55. Star Realms. Another deckbuilder, this one just for two players, playing very much like Dominion but with a space-exploration/combat theme. Each player starts with 50 points and must knock the other player down to zero to win. Players begin with ten cards, seven worth 1 coin each, three worth 1 combat point each, and on each turn can buy cards and/or attack at will. Scrapping cards (i.e., the Chapel strategy) is pretty easy, however, so the main twist is that players can build a wall of “bases” to protect himself – but those bases are pretty easily destroyed after the first few rounds because players can easily get to 6-8 attack points per turn. It’s a solid design but replay value was limited. The app looks great but the AI was a little light. Complexity: Medium-low.

54. Race For The Galaxy: Full review. I’ve played this game a few more times using a freeware version I found online with very strong AI players, but that’s only served to underscore for me how much this game resembles work. It’s a deck-based game where players must know the cards in the deck well to be able to execute a strategy, and are more or less told by their initial card what strategy they must pursue. I don’t game to add to my stress levels, but this game requires such intensity of purpose that, despite a good theme and precisely designed mechanics, it feels like a responsibility rather than like fun. Android: Netrunner, a top ten overall game on BGG, suffers from a similar problem – you have to know the game intimately before you can play it well. Complexity: High.

53. Spyrium. Full review. The steampunk theme didn’t do much for me, but there’s a decent game underneath it of very long-term planning – what you build in phase one really determines how much you’ll be able to accomplish in phase three. From the designer of Caylus (#15 this year), Spyrium requires players to collect the fictional energy-dense crystal of that name (dilithium much?) to build factories that produce more of it or convert it into cash. The real key to the game are the technologies available early in the game that can lead to lower costs later on; skip those, or buy the wrong ones, and you’re sunk. Complexity: Medium-high.

52. Asara. Full review. Light strategy game that feels to us like a simpler, cleaner implementation of Alhambra’s theme and even some of its mechanics, without the elegance of the best family-strategy games like Stone Age or Small World. Players compete to build towers in five different colors, earning points for building the tallest ones or building the most, while dealing with a moderate element of randomness in acquiring tower parts. It’s also among the best-looking games we own, if that’s your thing. Complexity: Low.

51. Alhambra: Full review. After playing it a few more times, I do like it more than I did the first time around, but the method used to acquire money is an awful mechanic that really screws the game up (for me) with more than two players. One of the cooler-looking games in our collection. Complexity: Medium.

50. Zooloretto: Full review. A fun game, but a bit of a trifle compared to the others further up this list. You’re a zookeeper trying to fill his zoo’s three enclosures (expandable to four) with animals that arrive each turn on trucks available to all players, but each enclosure can only hold one type of animal at a time. There’s a cost to switching animals around, and there’s a penalty for picking up animals you can’t house, with points coming for filling an enclosure or filling all spots but one. I’m a little surprised this won the Spiel des Jahres, as it lacks the elegance of most winners of that award, and the two-player variant rules included in the game don’t work at all. I have played a simplified version of the game with my daughter, who loves the animal tokens and the well-drawn zoo boards. It’s a good starter game in the German-style genre, but not the best. Complexity: Low.

49. Valley of the Kings. Full review. One of many Dominion-inspired deckbuilders, VotK has a shifting central market from which players can acquire cards, where more powerful and valuable cards aren’t available till later in the game. Players acquire points by “entombing” cards, removing them from their active decks and trying to build collections of cards in certain colors for bonuses that rise exponentially. The first print run is sold out and I’m waiting for information on when there might be a second one. Complexity: Medium-low.

48. Acquire. Monopoly for grown-ups, and one of the oldest games on the list. Build hotel chains up from scratch, gain a majority of the shares, merge them, and try to outearn all your opponents. The game hinges heavily on its one random element – the draw of tiles from the pool each turn – but the decisions on buying stock in existing chains and how to sell them after a merger give the player far more control over his fate than he’d have in Monopoly. There’s a two-player variant that works OK, but it’s best with at least three people. The game looks a lot nicer now; I have a copy from the mid-1980s that still has the 1960s artwork and color scheme. Complexity: Low.

47. The Battle for Hill 218. A simple-not-that-simple two-player card game with a high degree of blowing-stuff-up-ness. Two players compete to take control of the hill of the game’s title by placing cards representing different military units that have specific attack and defense skills – some merely attacking an adjacent card, some able to attack deep behind enemy lines. Currently out of print, but the Kickstarter was successful and a new print run is on its way. I’ve played and liked the iOS app version. Complexity: Medium-low.

46. Forbidden Desert. Full review. A medium-weight cooperative game from the designer of Pandemic (a top ten game for me, and the best coop game I’ve played), Forbidden Desert has players trying to escape a sandstorm on a board that changes every game, on which a sandstorm threatens to kill them all if dehydration doesn’t get them first. It’s more luck-driven than Pandemic, which doesn’t suit my particular tastes, but overall isn’t as difficult to learn or play. Complexity: Medium.

45. Lords of Waterdeep. I just reviewed the app version of this game, and it apparently hews very closely to the physical version. Despite the grafted-on Dungeons and Dragons theme, it’s just a worker-placement game where players compete across eight rounds to acquire scarce resources, build buildings worth victory points, and occasionally sabotage other players. Agricola has similar mechanics and constraints, but its greater complexity makes for a more interesting game; Lords is better if you don’t want to spend an hour and a half playing one session. Complexity: Medium.

44. San Juan: Full review. The card game version of Puerto Rico, but far, far simpler, and very portable. I like this as a light game that lets you play a half-dozen times in an evening, but all it really shares with Puerto Rico is a theme and the concept of players taking different roles in each turn. It plays well with two players but also works with three or four. I get that saying this is a better game than Race for the Galaxy (they were developed in tandem before RftG split off) is anathema to most serious boardgamers, but the fact that you can pick this game up so much more easily is a major advantage in my mind, more than enough to balance out the significant loss of complexity; after two or three plays, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how to at least compete. The app version is very strong, with competent AI players and superb graphics. Complexity: Low.

43. Yspahan. Full review. I should love this moderate-strategy game that combines worker-placement, building, and trading/shipping into one fairly quick-moving game, but the need to choose and play a tight strategy from the start detracts a little from the fun value. Players compete to place goods in clusters of buildings called souks on the brightly colored game board, with completed souks worth points at the end of each of the game’s three “weeks.” Players also earn points and privileges by building up to six special buildings, and can accumulate points quickly by sending goods to the caravan – or can ship other players’ goods from souks to the caravan to screw them up. Requires at least three players. Complexity: Medium.

42. Diplomacy. Risk for grown-ups, with absolutely zero random chance – it’s all about negotiating. I wrote about the history of Diplomacy (and seven other games) for mental_floss in 2010, concluding with: “One of a handful of games (with Risk) in both the GAMES Magazine and Origin Awards Halls of Fame, Diplomacy is an excellent choice if you enjoy knife fights with your friends and holding grudges that last well beyond the final move.” I think that sums it up perfectly. I haven’t played this in a few years, unfortunately, although that’s no one’s fault but my own. Complexity: Medium.

41. Jambo. Full review. A two-player card game where the deck is virtually everything, meaning that there’s a high element of chance based on what cards you draw; if you don’t draw enough of the cards that allow you to sell and purchase wares, it’ll be hard for you to win. Each player is an African merchant dealing in six goods and must try to buy and sell them enough times to go from 20 gold at the game’s start to 60 or more at the end. We played this wrong a few times, then played it the right way and found it a little slow, as the deck includes a lot of cards of dubious value. I’ve moved this up a few spots this year after some replays, as it’s one of the best pure two-player games out there. It’s also among my favorite themes, maybe because it makes me think of the Animal Kingdom Lodge at Disneyworld. Complexity: Low.

40. Le Havre. Full review, including app. It’s a great game, one of the most complex I’ve tried, based on Agricola and Caylus (both further up this list), but my God, the setup is a bear if you’re playing the physical game, and a full game can take a few hours. I do like the game a lot on an intellectual level, but I can fully understand anyone who looks at the size and scope and says “no way.” The app version, on the other hand, removes the biggest obstacle to the game and the AI players are solid, even able to execute some niche strategies that require knowledge of the special buildings in the deck. That said, multiple plays of this (in the app version) against the two games that inspired it have shifted my opinion, to where now Le Havre seems to trade enjoyment for complexity, not an exchange I’m usually willing to make. If you think Caylus is for kids and Agricola too airy, Le Havre is the game for you. Complexity: High.

39. Flash Point: Fire Rescue Full review. A new cooperative boardgame that borrows very heavily from Pandemic but shifts to a new setting – a burning building with victims to be rescued – and includes different constraints and tools for fighting the common foe. I think Pandemic does this better, not just because Matt Leacock invented this subgenre but because the play itself, especially the way the foe (viruses) spreads across the board, so Flash Point is better if you love Pandemic and want more of the same but on a different board. Complexity: Medium.

38. Targi. Full review. Moderately complex two-player game with a clever mechanic for placing meeples on a grid – you don’t place meeples on the grid itself, but on the row/column headers, so you end up blocking out a whole row or column for your opponent. Players gather salt, pepper, dates, and the relatively scarce gold to enable them to buy “tribe cards” that are worth points by themselves and in combinations with other cards. Some tribe cards also confer benefits later in the game. Two-player games often tend to be too simple, or feel like weak variants of games designed for more players. Targi isn’t either of those things – it’s a smart game that feels like it was built for exactly two people. (I got it for under $20 last December, but as of this writing it’s selling for over $50 on amazon because it’s about to go out of stock.) Complexity: Medium.

37. Goa. Goa had been out of print for at least five years, but there was enough of a clamor for a reprint that Z-Man Games reissued it entirely, with a small expansion included. It’s similar to two other games higher on the list, Bora Bora and Castles of Burgundy, in that players work off both a central board and individual player cards, taking resources from the central space and using them to advance tokens or development in their own play area. In Goa, the central board has a 5×5 area of tiles for players to acquire via a convoluted auction process, but after that the process is more straightforward: You’re a Portuguese spice merchant, using spices, ships, and colonists to try to build plantations and settle colonies while also increasing your production power across five separate categories on your Progress card. It offers a lot of decisions despite using just three core resources, and once you know the rules game play moves much faster. The artwork could use some help; my wife says the drawing of the merchant/colonist “looks like he wants to oppress me.” Complexity: Medium.

36. Tobago. Full review. Solid family-strategy game with a kid-friendly theme of island exploration, hidden treasures, and puzzle-solving, without a lot of depth but high replay value through a variable board. Players place clue cards in columns that seek to narrow the possible locations of four treasures on the island, with each player placing a card earning a shot at the coins in that treasure – but a small chance the treasure, like the frogurt, will be cursed. The deductive element might be the game’s best attribute. The theme is similar to that of Relic Runners but the game plays more smoothly. Complexity: Low.

35. Machi Koro. Full review. A deckbuilder where the “deck” is actually all open, with all of a player’s cards laid out in front of him/her at all times. Each player rolls one or both dice and may collect coins depending on the result and on which cards s/he has on the table, then using coins to buy more cards and try to rack up bigger bonuses on future dice rolls. The first player to build four special buildings (requiring a lot of coins) wins the game. It might be a little too simple for adults to play alone, but we loved it as a family game where the dice keep the playing field fairly level. Complexity: Low.

34. Seasons. Full review. A hybrid game of deckbuilding and point accumulation, where the decks are very small, so understanding the available cards and the interactions between them (some of which create exponentially better effects) is key to playing the game well. Players play wizards who start the game with nine spell cards to play, divided into three groups of three, and use them to gain energy tokens and crystals that can eventually be converted into points. The seasons change according to a time wheel on the board, and each of the four energy types has a season in which it’s scarce and two in which it’s plentiful. Seasons has a very dedicated fan base and two popular expansions, and I agree with that in that once you get up the steep learning curve it’s a great game due to the number of possibilities for each move and differences from game to game. Complexity: Medium-high.

33. Scotland Yard. App review. One of the few old-school games on the board, and one I’ve only played in app form. One player plays the criminal mastermind (I don’t know if he’s really a mastermind, but doesn’t he have to be for the narrative to work?) trying to escape the other players, playing detectives, by using London’s transportation network of cabs, buses, the Tube, and occasionally a boat along the Thames. It’s recommended for ages 10 and up but there’s nothing on here a clever six- or seven-year-old couldn’t handle if playing alongside an adult, and like Tobago has a strong deductive-reasoning component that makes it a little bit educational as well as fun. Complexity: Low.

32. Power Grid: Full review. This might be the Acquire for the German-style set, as the best business- or economics-oriented game I’ve found. Each player tries to build a power grid on the board, bidding on plants at auction, placing stations in cities, and buying resources to fire them. Those resources become scarce and the game’s structure puts limits on expansion in the first two “phases.” It’s not a simple game to learn and a few rules are less than intuitive, but I’m not sure I’ve seen a game that does a better job of turning resource constraints into something fun. I’d love to see this turned into an app, although the real-time auction process would make async multi-player a tough sell. Disclaimer: My wife doesn’t like this game because she says the board and cards look “depressing.” Complexity: High (or medium-high).

31. Elder Sign. Full review. Another cooperative game, this one set in the Cthulhu realm of H.P. Lovecraft’s works, Elder Sign takes a different tack on teamwork by emphasizing individual actions within the larger rubric of coordinating actions to reach a common goal. Players represent detectives seeking to rid a haunted mansion of its evil spirits, room by room, earning certain rewards while incurring risks to their health and sanity, all to take out the big foozle before he returns to life and threatens to devour them all. Player actions take place via dice rolls, but players can use their unique skills as well as various cards to alter rolled dice or reroll them entirely to try to achieve the results necessary to clear a room. There’s still a heavy luck component and you’ll probably swear at some point that Cthulhu himself has possessed the dice, but that just makes killing your supernatural enemy all the more satisfying. Complexity: Medium-low.

30. Glen More: Full review. Build your Scottish settlement, grow wheat, make whiskey. Sure, you can do other stuff, like acquire special tiles (including Loch Ness!) or acquire the most chieftains or earn victory points by trading other resources, but really, whiskey, people. The tile selection mechanic is the biggest selling point, as players move on a track around the edge of the central board and may choose to skip one or more future turns by jumping further back to acquire a better tile. It’s been in and out of print a few times already, and is probably the game on this list that gets the least press relative to its quality and fun factor. Complexity: Medium.

29. Lost Cities: Full review. This was the best two-person game we’d found, from the prolific designer Reiner Knizia, and the most portable game as well, since it can be played with nothing but the game cards. We’ve since moved on to some more complex two-player games, but for simplicity (without becoming dumb) this one is hard to top. The deck comprises 12 cards in each of five colors, including cards numbered 2 through 10 and three “investment” cards to double, triple, or quadruple the profit or loss the player earns in that color. Players take turns drawing from the deck but may only place cards in increasing order, so if you draw a green 5 after you played the 6, tough luck. You can knock out a game in 15 minutes or less, so it’s one to play multiple times in a sitting. The iOS app is very slick and plays really quickly – a great one for killing a minute while you’re waiting in line. Complexity: Low.

28. Camel Up. Full review. Winner of the Spiel des Jahres award this year, Camel Up revolves around the “Camel Cup,” a race around the board involving … well, camels, yes, but camel meeples that stack, so when one lands on a space occupied by one or more camels already, they form a pile that moves as one. Players get to place little bets on each round of the race and on the ultimate winner and loser. Strategy is light, and it works for up to 8 players – the more the merrier in our experience, because it just gets sillier (in a good way). Complexity: Low.

27.Puerto Rico: Full review. It’s grown on me, especially since I got to try it out a few times online via Tropic Euro, although I’ve had friends and readers tell me it can become monotonous after a lot of games. You’re attempting to populate and build your own island, bringing in colonists, raising plantations, developing your town, and shipping goods back to the mother country. Very low luck factor, and just the right amount of screw-your-neighbor (while helping yourself, the ultimate defense). Unfortunately, the corn-and-ship strategy is really tough to beat, reducing the game’s replay value for me. There’s a solid iOS app as well, improved after some major upgrades. Complexity: High.

26. Vikings: Full review. Back in print after a two-year absence from the market! A very clever tile placement game in which players place island and ship tiles in their areas and then place vikings of six different colors on those tiles to maximize their points. Some vikings score points directly, but can’t score unless a black “warrior” viking is placed above them. Grey “boatsman” vikings are necessary to move vikings you’ve stored on to unused tiles. And if you don’t have enough blue “fisherman” vikings, you lose points at the end of the game for failing to feed everyone. Tile selection comes from a rondel that moves as tiles come off the board, with each space on the rondel assigning a monetary value to the tiles; tiles become cheaper as the number remaining decreases. You’re going to end up short somewhere, so deciding early where you’ll punt is key. Complexity: Medium.

25. Morels. Full review for Paste. A 2012 release, Morels is an easy-to-learn two-player card game with plenty of decision-making and a small amount of interaction with your opponent as you try to complete and “cook” sets of various mushroom types to earn points. The artwork is impressive and the game is very balanced, reminiscent of Lost Cities but with an extra tick of difficulty because of the use of an open, rolling display of cards from which players can choose. Complexity: Low.

24. Bora Bora. One of two 2013 releases on my list, Bora Bora is one of the best-looking games we own and plays like a more complex version of the Castles of Burgundy. Two to four players compete to occupy territories on a central board of five islands, then using resources they acquire there to build on their individual player cards … but that’s just one of many ways to gain points in this game, where you can also hire natives to perform tasks or earn shells or status points, and you can trade in shells for jewelry worth points at game-end, and you can get bonuses for collecting certain combinations of cards, natives, or resources. It’s almost too much – you have so many options the game can slow down if players start overthinking it – but if you like Castles of Burgundy this is a good follow-up purchase. Complexity: Medium.

23. Thurn and Taxis: Full review. I admit to a particularly soft spot for this game, as I love games with very simple rules that require quick thinking with a moderate amount of foresight. (I don’t care for chess, which I know is considered the intellectual’s game, because I look three or four moves ahead and see nothing but chaos.) Thurn und Taxis players try to construct routes across a map of Germany, using them to place mail stations and to try to occupy entire regions, earning points for doing so, and for constructing longer and longer routes. Just don’t do what I did and play it against an operations consultant, lest you get your clock cleaned. Back in print this year and quite reasonable at about $27. Complexity: Low.

22. Concordia. Full review coming soon on Paste; I’ve filed but don’t have a publication date yet. It’s a map game, set in Ancient Rome, built around trade and economics rather than conflict or claiming territories. Much better with four players than with two, where there isn’t enough interaction on the map to force players to make harder decisions. Runner-up for the Kennerspiel des Jahres (Connoisseur’s game of the year) this year to Istanbul, which I will also review for Paste in the next few weeks. Complexity: Medium.

21. Through the Desert. Full app review. Another Knizia game, this one on a large board of hexes where players place camels in chains, attempting to cordon off entire areas they can claim or to connect to specific hexes worth extra points, all while potentially blocking their opponents from building longer or more valuable chains in the same colors. Very simple to learn and to set up, and like most Knizia games, it’s balanced and the mechanics work beautifully. Out of print at the moment, although I picked up a new copy back in 2011 for $10 on amazon. I’d grab the app while we wait for the physical version to come back around. Complexity: Low.

20. Orient Express: An outstanding game that’s long out of print; I’m lucky enough to still have the copy my father bought for me in the 1980s, but fans have crafted their own remakes, like this one from a Boardgamegeek user. It takes those logic puzzles where you try to figure out which of five people held which job and lived on which street and had what for breakfast and turns them into a murder mystery board game with a fixed time limit. When the Orient Express reaches its destination, the game ends, so you need to move fast and follow the clues. The publishers still sell the expansions, adding up to 30 more cases for you to solve, through this site. Complexity: Low.

19. Agricola: I gained a new appreciation for this game thanks to the incredible iOS app version developed by Playdek, which made the game’s complexity less daunting and its internal sophistication more evident. It’s very well made aside from the square animal pegs, which we replaced (at the suggestion of one of you) with actual animal-shaped pieces I bought via amazon. You’re a farmer trying to raise enough food to feed your family, but also trying to grow your family so you have more help on the farm. The core game play isn’t that complex, but huge decks of cards offering bonuses, shortcuts, or special skills make the game much more involved, and require some knowledge of the game to play it effectively. My wife felt this game felt way too much like work; I enjoyed it more than that, but it is undeniably complex and you can easily spend the whole game freaking out about finding enough food, which about a billion or so people on the planet refer to as “life.” Complexity: High.

18. Ingenious Full app review. A new addition to the list, although I only own the app rather than the physical game. It’s another Reiner Knizia title, a two-person abstract strategy game that involves tile placement but where the final scoring compares each player’s lowest score across the six tile colors, rather than his/her highest. That alters gameplay substantially, often making the ideal play seem counterintuitive, and also requires each player to keep a more careful eye on what the other guy is doing. My daughter loves this game as well. Complexity: Low.

17. Battle Line: Full review. Among the best two-player games we’ve found, designed by Reiner Knizia, who is also behind half the other games on this list. Each player tries to build formations on his/her side of the nine flags that stand in a line between him and his opponent; formations include three cards, and the various formation types resemble poker hands, with a straight flush of 10-9-8 in one color as the best formation available. Control three adjacent flags, or any five of the nine, and you win. But ten tactics cards allow you to bend the rules, by stealing a card your opponent has played, raising the bar for a specific flag from three cards to four, or playing one of two wild cards that can stand in for any card you can’t draw. There’s a fair amount of randomness involved, but playing nine formations at once with a seven-card hand allows you to diversify your risk. The iOS app is among the best as well. Complexity: Low.

16. Samurai: Full iOS app review, which is identical to the board game. I bought the physical game after a few months of playing the app, and aside from a slightly dated design and look to the pieces and the board, it’s a great game – simple to learn, complex to play, works very well with two players, plays very differently with three or four as the board expands. Players compete to place their tiles on a map of Japan, divided into hexes, with the goal of controlling the hexes that contain buddha, farmer, or soldier tokens. Each player has hex tiles in his color, in various strengths, that exert control over the tokens they show; samurai tokens that affect all three token types; boats that sit off the shore and affect all token types; and special tokens that allow the reuse of an already-placed tile or allow the player to switch two tokens on the board. Trying to figure out where your opponent might screw you depending on what move you make is half the fun. Very high replayability too. Appears to be out of print at the moment. Complexity: Medium/low.

15. Caylus. Full app review. Another game I’ve only played in its app version, Caylus is the best of the breed of highly-complex games that also includes Agricola and Le Havre, with slightly simpler rules and fewer pieces, yet the same lack of randomness and relatively deep strategy. I’ve also found the game is more resilient to early miscues than other complex strategy games, as long as you don’t screw up too badly. In Caylus, players compete for resources used to construct new buildings along one public road and used to construct parts of the main castle where players can earn points and special privileges like extra points or resources. If another player uses a building you constructed, you get a point or a resource, and in most cases only one player can build a specific building type, while each castle level has a finite number of blocks to be built. There are also high point value statues and monuments that I think are essential to winning the game, but you have to balance the need to build those against adding to the castle and earning valuable privileges. Even playing the app a dozen or more times I’ve never felt it becoming monotonous, and the app’s graphics are probably the best I’ve seen alongside those of Agricola’s. Complexity: High.

14. Small World: Full review. I think the D&D-style theme does this game a disservice – that’s all just artwork and titles, but the game itself requires some tough real-time decisions. Each player uses his chosen race to take over as many game spaces as possible, but the board is small and your supply of units runs short quickly, forcing you to consider putting your race into “decline” and choosing a new one. But when you choose a new one is affected by what you stand to lose by doing so, how well-defended your current civilization’s position is, and when your opponents are likely to go into decline. The iPad app just got a huge upgrade this past summer too. Complexity: Medium.

13. Takenoko.Full review. If I tell you this is the cutest game we own, would you consider that a negative? The theme and components are fantastic – there’s a panda and a gardener and these little bamboo pieces, and the panda eats the bamboo and you have to lay new tiles and make sure they have irrigation and try not to go “squeeeeee!” at how adorable it all is. There’s a very good game here too: Players draw and score “objective” cards from collecting certain combinations of bamboo, laying specific patterns of hex tiles, or building stacks of bamboo on adjacent tiles. The rules are easy enough for my daughter to learn, but gameplay is more intricate because you’re planning a few moves out and have to deal with your opponents’ moves – although there’s no incentive to screw your opponents. Just be careful – that panda is hungry. Complexity: Medium-low.

12. Tigris and Euphrates: Review of the iOS app. The magnum opus from Herr Knizia, a two- to four-player board game where players fight for territory on a grid that includes the two rivers of the game’s title, but where the winning player is the one whose worst score (of four) is the best. Players gain points for placing tiles in each of four colors, for having their “leaders” adjacent to monuments in those colors, and for winning conflicts with other players. Each player gets points in those four colors, but the idea is to play a balanced strategy because of that highest low score rule. The rules are a little long, but the game play is very straightforward, and the number of decisions is large but manageable. I’ve never played the physical game; the current version (sold through that amazon link) includes some minor expansions I haven’t tried. Complexity: Medium.

11. The Settlers of Catan: We don’t pull this game out as much as we did a few years ago, and I’ve still got it ranked this high largely because of its value as an introduction to Eurogames, one of the best “gateway games” on the market. Without this game, we don’t have the explosion in boardgames we’ve had in the last fifteen years. We don’t have Ticket to Ride showing up in Target, a whole wall of German-style games in Barnes & Noble, or the Cones of Dunshire on network television. Only four games on this list predate Settlers, from an era where Monopoly was considered the ne plus ultra of boardgames and you couldn’t complain about how long and awful it was because you had no basis for comparison. The history of boardgames comprises two eras: Before Catan, and After Catan. We are fortunate to be in 18 A.C.

As for the game itself, in Catan three or four players compete on a variable board of hexes to acquire different resource types, build roads and cities, and reach twelve victory points before any other player. Resources are parceled out in part according to rolls of the dice, and you can lose resources if the Robber shows up on a roll of seven and you’re not prepared for it. The Seafarers expansion balances out the core game’s low value on the wool resource, but also makes the game take about 50% longer to play. It was, and is, a great starting point if you’ve never played anything on this list, and is also one of the few games here that has some traction outside of the boardgamer culture, although that’s improving as well. There’s a brand-new expansion called Explorers and Pirates that introduces new scenarios and “missions” that add new ways to gain victory points. I haven’t picked that up, as we’ve just got lots of other games we prefer after playing this one so often over the years. Complexity: Low.

10. Pandemic: Full review. We haven’t tried many cooperative games, but this one sets a very high bar. Two to four players work together to stop global outbreaks of four diseases that spread in ways that are only partly predictable, and the balance between searching for the cures to those diseases and the need to stop individual outbreaks before they spill over and end the game creates tremendous tension that usually lasts until the very end of the event deck at the heart of the game. The On The Brink expansion adds new roles and cards while upping the complexity further. The Pandemic iOS app is among the best out there and includes the expansion as an in-app purchase. If you’re looking for a cooperative game you can play with kids, try Forbidden Island, from the same developer but much easier to learn and to win. Complexity: Medium.

9. Splendor. Full review. A Spiel des Jahres nominee, Splendor has fast become a favorite in our house for its simple rules and balanced gameplay. My daughter, now eight, loves the game and is able to play at a level pretty close to the adults. It’s a simple game where players collect tokens to purchase cards from a 4×3 grid, and where purchased cards decrease the price of other cards. Players have to think long-term without ignoring short-term opportunities, and must compare the value of going for certain in-game bonuses against just plowing ahead with purchases to get the most valuable cards. Complexity: Low.

8. Dominion: Full review. The definitive deck-building game, with no actual board. Dominion’s base set – there are four major expansions out there, including the potential standalone Dominion: Intrigue game – includes money cards, action cards, and victory points cards. Each player begins with seven money cards and three victory cards and, shuffling and drawing five cards from his own deck each turn, must add cards to his deck to allow him to have the most victory points when the last six-point victory card is purchased. I don’t think we have a multi-player game with a smaller learning curve, and the fact that the original set alone comes with 25 action cards but each game you play only includes 10 means it offers unparalleled replayability even before you add an expansion set. We own Dominion Seaside (which is outstanding) and Dominion: Alchemy (which I find a little weird), plus a standalone expansion further up this list. I can also vouch for this as appropriate for a young player – my daughter (who started playing this at age six) understands the base game well enough to play it without me deliberately throwing the game to keep it competitive. Complexity: Low.

7. The Castles Of Burgundy Full review. Castles of Burgundy is the rare game that works well across its range of player numbers, as it scales well from two to four players by altering the resources available on the board to suit the number of people pursuing them. Players compete to fill out their own boards of hexes with different terrain/building types (it’s like zoning) by competiting for tiles on a central board, some of which are hexes while others are goods to be stored and later shipped for bonuses. Dice determine which resources you can acquire, but you can also alter dice rolls by paying coins or using special buildings to change or ignore them. Setup is a little long, mostly because sorting cardboard tiles is annoying, but gameplay is only moderately complex – a little more than Stone Age, not close to Caylus or Agricola – and players get so many turns that it stays loose even though there’s a lot to do over the course of one game. This was our favorite new addition in 2012 and we haven’t tried anything new since then that beats it, especially not for $27. Complexity: Medium (medium-high).

6. Jaipur: Full review. Jaipur is now our go-to two-player game, just as easy to learn but with two shades of additional complexity and a bit less randomness. In Jaipur, the two players compete to acquire collections of goods by building sets of matching cards in their hands, balancing the greater point bonuses from acquiring three to five goods at once against the benefit of taking one or two tokens to prevent the other player from getting the big bonuses. The game moves quickly due to a small number of decisions, like Lost Cities, so you can play two or three full games in an hour. It’s also incredibly portable. Complexity: Low.

5. Dominion: Intrigue. Intrigue can be combined with the base game of Dominion, but unlike other Dominion expansions (of which there are now approximately 82, with a new one released every other week, or so it seems) Intrigue is a complete game right out of the box because it includes the money and point cards. And it’s better than the original game when both are viewed without any expansions because it’s more interactive – Intrigue lives up to its name in the sense that you should spend much of your time either plotting against your neighbors or trying to defend yourself, which makes the “Big Money” strategy in the base game much less effective. The changes make the game longer, but more even, and more fun. Complexity: Medium.

4. Stone Age: Full review. Really a tremendous game, with lots of real-time decision-making but simple mechanics and goals that first-time players always seem to pick up quickly. It’s also very hard to hide your strategy, so newbies can learn through mimicry – thus forcing veteran players to change it up on the fly. Each player is trying to build a small stone-age civilization by expanding his population and gathering resources to construct buildings worth varying amounts of points, but must always ensure that he feeds all his people on each turn. The iOS app is strong – they did a nice job reimagining the board for smaller screens, too. Complexity: Medium.

3. Ticket to Ride. Full review. Actually a series of games, all working on the same theme: You receive certain routes across the map on the game board – U.S. or Europe, mostly – and have to collect enough train cards in the correct colors to complete those routes. But other players may have overlapping routes and the tracks can only accommodate so many trains. Like Dominion, it’s very simple to pick up, so while it’s not my favorite game to play, it’s my favorite game to bring or bring out when we’re with people who want to try a new game but either haven’t tried anything in the genre or aren’t up for a late night. I do recommend the 1910 expansion to anyone who gets the base Ticket to Ride game, as it has larger, easier-to-shuffle cards and offers more routes for greater replayability. We also own the Swiss and Nordic boards, which only play two to three players and involve more blocking than the U.S. and Europe games do, so I don’t recommend them. The iPad app, developed in-house, is among the best available. Complexity: Low.

2. 7 Wonders: Full review. 7 Wonders swept the major boardgame awards (yes, there are such things) in 2011 for good reason – it’s the best new game to come on the scene in a few years, combining complex decisions, fast gameplay, and an unusual mechanic around card selections where each player chooses a card from his hand and then passes the remainder to the next player. Players compete to build out their cities, each of which houses a unique wonder of the ancient world, and must balance their moves among resource production, buildings that add points, military forces, and trading. We saw no dominant strategy, several that worked well, and nothing that was so complex that we couldn’t quickly pick it up after screwing up our first game. The only negative here is the poorly written rules, but after one play it becomes far more intuitive. Plays best with three or more players, but the two-player variant works well. Complexity: Medium.

1. Carcassonne. Full review. The best-of-breed iOS app has only increased my appreciation for Carcassonne, a game I still play regularly by myself, with my wife and daughter, and with friends here or online. It brings ease of learning, tremendous replayability (I know I use that word a lot here, but it does matter), portability (you can put all the tiles and meeples in a small bag and stuff it in a suitcase), and plenty of different strategies and room for differing styles of play. You build the board as you go: Each player draws a tile at random and must place it adjacent to at least one tile already laid in a way that lines up any roads or cities on the new tile with the edges of the existing ones. You get points for starting cities, completing cities, extending roads, or by claiming farmlands adjacent to completing cities. It’s great with two players, and it’s great with four players. You can play independently, or you can play a little offense and try to stymie an opponent. The theme makes sense. The tiles are well-done in a vaguely amateurish way – appealing for their lack of polish. And there’s a host of expansions if you want to add a twist or two. We own the Traders and Builders expansion, which I like mostly for the Builder, an extra token that allows you to take an extra turn when you add on to whatever the Builder is working on, meaning you never have to waste a turn when you draw a plain road tile if you sit your Builder on a road. We also have Inns and Cathedrals, which we’ve only used once; it adds some double-or-nothing tiles to roads and cities, a giant meeple that counts as two when fighting for control of a city/road/farm, as well as the added meeples needed to play with a sixth opponent. Complexity: Low/medium-low for the base game, medium with expansions.

Games I need to play more: Istanbul and Five Tribes, both of which I’ll be reviewing for Paste shortly; Village; Tzol’kin; Innovation (one play didn’t thrill me); Room 25; Kings of Tokyo; Hanabi.

Games I own/have played and decided for various reasons not to rank: Friday (a good one-player game); Android: Netrunner (too freaking complicated); Suburbia (good app with poor AIs, haven’t seen the physical game); Love Letter (need to play with more people); Tikal (dropped off the list); Relic Runners (not good enough).

And, as with last year, my rankings of these games by how they play with just two players:

1. Jaipur
2. Carcassonne
3. Stone Age
4. Ticket to Ride
5. Splendor
6. Dominion/Intrigue
7. Small World
8. Battle Line
9. Samurai
10. Castles of Burgundy
11. Morels
12. Ingenious
13. Lost Cities
14. Pandemic
15. 7 Wonders
16. Through the Desert
17. Machi Koro
18. Targi
19. Jambo
20. San Juan
21. Thurn und Taxis
22. Orient Express
23. Tigris and Euphrates
24. Elder Sign
25. Tobago
26. Battle for Hill 218
27. Valley of the Kings
28. Asara
29. Star Realms
30. Maori

Saturday five, 11/15/14.

I was on vacation through Wednesday of this week, but did post an omnibus reaction piece to the Cuddyer, V-Mart, and Gose deals. I also held a Klawchat on Thursday.

This week’s links …

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

I have an omnibus post up for Insiders covering the Cuddyer signing, the Gose/Travis trade, and more, plus I held my regular Klawchat Thursday afternoon. Over at Paste I have a review of the hit Japanese game Machi Koro, a family-friendly deckbuilder that all three of us enjoyed.

We spent half of our vacation visiting The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios before moving over to Disneyworld, our first trip to the former , prompted by our trip through all seven books this year during our evening reading time. The two parts of Harry Potter World, Diagon Alley in Universal Studios and Hogsmeade in Universal’s Islands of Adventure, look exactly like you’d want them to look. The designs are spot on, especially in Diagon Alley, and you’ll feel like you’re walking around a movie set. Universal’s attention to detail around both areas was amazing, which makes it a little easier for you to fail to realize that twenty-dollar bills are flying out of your pockets the whole time.

There are four main rides in the two areas; my daughter tried one with me, I went on two alone, and we skipped the fourth (a roller-coaster that goes upside down, a dealbreaker for me). The Escape from Gringott’s ride in Diagon Alley is the newest one, and I thought the most impressive – it’s a 3-D ride where you’re in motion down a track that knocks you around a bit but isn’t terribly rough, and never goes all that fast. It’s the visuals and the illusion that sell it, which I won’t spoil here. There’s also new footage featuring most of the main actors from the films, adding to the realism of the ride (at least for kids who want to feel like they’re really in the story), which hews to the part of the seventh book where our heroes are going after the Horcrux in Bellatrix Lestrange’s vault. The waits were about 45-60 minutes while we were there, but there’s a single rider line if, like me, you can’t convince your daughter to try it.

Hogsmeade has the other three rides, including Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey as well as The Flight of the Hippogriff. The Forbidden Journey is a dark ride within Hogwarts that borrows the parabolic screen concept from Disney’s Soarin ride but puts riders in a vehicle that rotates vertically, so at one point you’re looking down at a steep drop while at other points you’re nearly prone. The story within the ride is unique and draws on several different books within the series, putting riders on a Quidditch pitch, in the Forbidden Forest, and in the Chamber of Secrets at different points, all with more new footage from actors playing the central characters. (While I’m sure they were all compensated well for their time, I imagine they wouldn’t participate if they were eager to leave the roles behind.) The Flight of the Hippogriff is a small roller-coaster, similar to Goofy’s Barnstormer ride at the Magic Kingdom but a little longer with tighter turns, running about 75 seconds in total; my daughter was iffy on it, although I think she didn’t like the fact that we rode after sunset and she couldn’t see any of what was coming.

While not technically a ride, the Hogwarts Express train that allows you to move between the two Harry Potter areas (if you have a combination ticket for both theme parks) is also fun and extremely well executed, with compartments that seat six and show a little outdoor footage on the exterior window. It’s a different film in each direction, and you even get some shadows behind the compartment door and a few familiar voices too.

Next stop: Platform 9 3/4.

A video posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

The food at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was somewhat disappointing, unfortunately – a valiant effort that fell short on execution. The butterbeer is the main attraction, and it’s good for about half a glass. The beverage itself tastes a lot like cream soda, but is topped with a creamy foam that tastes strongly of butterscotch, and there’s definitely the impression of dairy even if there isn’t any actual milk involved. It’s just too sweet to finish, and the one time I did more or less do that, I regretted it. The frozen version is even sweeter (your taste buds are dulled by cold, so frozen desserts need more sugar), and you lose some of those buttery notes in the regular drink. I never tried the pumpkin juice because it contains artifical sweeteners.

The two main restaurants are The Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade and the Leaky Cauldron in Diagon Alley, both quickservice restaurants that serve a decent number of options of mostly British pub fare. The Three Broomsticks was a tick better in our books, although neither was any great shakes. I liked their cornish pasties with side salad, but that plate alone (at $8.99) wouldn’t be a whole meal for an adult. The fish and chips were adequate, clearly just fried but not made from particularly good fish. The toad-in-the-hole (bangers served in a Yorkshire pudding-style dumpling) at the Leaky Cauldron was really disappointing – the sausage itself tasted fine but was overcooked, and the whole thing seemed to have been prepared the day before and half-heartedly nuked to order, although my daughter inhaled the minted peas (not mushy or grey) on the plate. The best thing I had to eat in either area was the ice cream at Florean Fortescue’s, where they have some non-traditional flavors like butterbeer, earl grey with lavender (really good, kind of subtle and not perfumy or floral at all), and sticky toffee pudding (could have used a little more toffee flavor).

And then you have the shops, basically giant vacuums that aim directly at your wallet as you walk by. My daughter saved up for months, including birthday money, and bought herself Hogwarts robes ($105), Hermione’s wand ($45 for the interactive model that activates some effects in the parks), a Head Girl pin (only $10), a stuffed Hedwig (I don’t even remember), and a bunch of things in the stationary store – a quill, a bottle of ink, a Gryffindor journal, and so on. We managed to limit the damage she could do in the candy stores (including Honeydukes), at least. But you’re primarily there to look and shop, with a few rides in between. My wife also picked up a Hedwig backpack which I mocked until I noticed how many women stopped and complimented her on it, so perhaps that’s the next best thing to walking around with a baby or a puppy.

The Diagon Alley area even includes a little dark corridor for Knockturn Alley, with one shop, Borgin and Burkes, selling slightly more sinister items for those of you on Team Voldemort. That was also the one place where we encountered a park employee who was truly in character, a young woman in darker garb who lurked in the alley and decided to tease my daughter, who was wearing a cat-ear headband and a shirt with a cat on it, by meowing and hissing at her while following us for a few minutes. She eventually asked if she could take my daughter home to be her kitten. I think my daughter was half-amused and half-worried, but my wife and I thought it was great. I wish more employees were in character – not named characters, which would be impossible, but playing typical denizens of the wizarding community to get the kids (and the grown-up kids, of which there were many) more into the feel of the setting.

The twin theme parks at Universal Studios are both massive beyond the Harry Potter sections, but there wasn’t a lot there that appealed to my daughter – a few rides in the Dr. Seuss area, a bit in Jurassic Park, but that’s about it. We probably could have done all of Harry Potter World in one full day if we’d arrived when the parks opened, and two days proved more than enough, probably just leading us to spend more money than we’d wanted to in the first place. I doubt we’ll go back until my daughter is willing to go on the two big Harry Potter rides she wouldn’t try this trip – it’s not worth spending all of that money to get into the parks just so we can spend even more at the shops, especially now that we’ve been there once and seen the scenery, which at the end of the trip was the best part of all.

Top Chef, S12E05.

The elephant in the room right now is the fact that Aaron, the villain on the show, was arrested last week for allegedly shoving his girlfriend, after which his employer tweeted that he no longer worked for them. Hating the guy in the context of the show is one thing, but if he did indeed assault his girlfriend, then this is no longer a laughing matter.

* Quickfire: Jamie Bissonnette of Coppa/Toro is in the house. I don’t know him directly, but I’m a big fan of his work – the meatballs with lardo at Coppa might be the single best thing I’ve ever eaten – and we have a few friends in common. He’s all punk rock on Twitter but it turns out he cleans up OK, wearing a suit and sporting a crisp haircut.

* It’s the Reynolds challenge, so the chefs have to cook using various Reynolds products, although at least this time they didn’t waste a few hundred pounds of foil wrapping up the entire kitchen. Bissonnette says they use foil in his kitchens to diffuse heat for hot- and cold-smoking. The chefs get paired up for head-to-head battles; the first chef picks the opponent, the opponent picks one of the available cooking methods.

* Katsuji picks Aaron; Aaron chooses smoked salmon for their battle. Doug picks Adam, who chooses steamed mussels. Keriann picks Stacy, who chooses trout en papillote. Melissa picks Katie, who chooses smoked BBQ (note: if it’s not smoked, it’s not BBQ). Mei draws Gregory by default, and he chooses steamed dumplings, saying he believes his will have much more flavor than hers even though she’s been making dumplings since she was about seven.

* Keriann talks about how cooking in parchment means praying the fish cooks in time. She doesn’t mention how cooking in parchment produces the blandest-tasting fish imaginable. I love fish, but if you’re going to cook it, you need the Maillard reactions from direct heat, or else you might as well have let it go spawn.

* Gregory serves steamed shrimp dumplings with ginger and herbs, but no dipping sauce. Mei serves pork dumplings with black vinegar, of which Padma is a big fan.

* Katie serves grilled chicken breast with pine nuts cooked in the style of baked beans, while Melissa serves a smoked and seared scallop with charred corn, smoked bacon, and grilled fennel.

* Katsuji, who wants to show Aaron how a real chef acts (if he only knew), serves a sake-infused chipotle broth with smoked jalapenos and salmon. Aaron serves a “lightly smoked” (that’s a tipoff) wild salmon with tarragon creme fraiche and pickled shallot. He says he “brined” the salmon for five minutes. Why not just show it some pictures of salt instead?

* Keriann serves trout with white wine butter sauce, fennel, serrano, bell pepper, and shallot – so, a ton of aromatics to make up for the total lack of flavor you get in the parchment. Stacy serves her trout with heirloom tomatoes, basil, onions, and spinach.

* Doug serves steamed mussels in orange/saffron butter with lemon preserve and roasted sweet red peppers. Adam serves his mussels with vadouvan (a curry-like spice mix), fresno chili broth, apples, and toasted pepitas. Adam is being a total dick to Doug in front of the judges, going past chest-thumping to flat-out insulting him. So you’re a New Yorker; that doesn’t justify being an asshole right before the two people who decide your fate and your opponent’s.

* Judging: Aaron’s salmon didn’t have enough smoke flavor (shocker), so Katsuji wins. Doug did a better job cooking his mussels, while Adam’s pepitas “really sung,” but Doug wins. Keriann’s trout had more texture and flavor, with more balance in the dish, so she beats Stacy. Katie scores the upset win over Melissa, as Jamie loved the pine nuts cooked down like beans. In the dumpling battle, Gregory wins, and Mei looks really upset. That might be your finals preview right there – or at least the one I’d choose to see at this point.

* The overall winner is … Gregory, of course, winning a $10K prize as well. He’s going Full Qui on this season. Jamie says, “If you had a New York City dumpling truck, there’d be a line around the block.” I’ll pay someone to stand in line for me, cronut-style.

* Elimination challenge: The chefs split into two teams, the winners on one team (blue) versus the losers (red) from the quickfire. The winning team will be safe from elimination. Teams offer up one chef for each challenge, but we end up with a lot of rematches because the chefs hear “strategy” and think “revenge,” at which point everything should be served cold, right?

* First battle: Adam vs Doug for a rematch. Adam bullies his way to that spot. Second: Katsuji vs Melissa. Third: Gregory vs Mei. Fourth: Keriann vs Stacy. Fifth: Aaron vs Katie. Aaron’s mad because he didn’t get to face Katsuji again and I think he feels like he was relegated to the last spot (which he was). Chefs say they don’t come on this show to make friends, but playing a little bit well with others has its advantages.

* The big twist: Each team has $1000 total to spend to serve 100 guests the next day at the Watertown Arsenal, so that’s $2 per plate. How do you economize for this? My first two thoughts were to avoid meat or fish, and to avoid pricier flavoring agents like Parmiggiano-Reggiano (which brings salt and umami but can easily run to $20/pound).

* Gregory is buying fresh turmeric (he says “toomeric,” like most people, but there’s an “r” in that first syllable). Have you ever seen fresh turmeric? It looks like giant maggots. I’ll buy mine powdered, thanks.

* Katsuji is putting charred cauliflower in the tostada. That cooks the exterior, but won’t it be raw inside? When I cook cauliflower by roasting it, it takes an hour-plus to cook through as a whole head and at least a half-hour as florets, and I have to work to prevent the exterior from burning before the interior softens.

* Melissa is having problem the texture of her gazpacho, and I believe this is what we refer to around here as “foreshadowing.”

* Gregory says Adam “just loves to talk shit.” Truer words were never spoken.

* Aaron’s pot of dashi broth ends up on the ground somehow. Mei, an actual team player, lends him “instant dashi mix” so that he’ll have some moisture in his meatball/noodle dish, but says it won’t be the same for flavor. That’s a lousy break for Aaron, but given what we know now, I couldn’t muster a lot of sympathy – I just want him off the show.

* Hugh’s back, always a win for the viewers. He was in rare form with the quips this week, asking Jamie if he brought a musket to the Watertown Arsenal, informing everyone that “you can open carry a musket in most southern states.”

* Adam says “it’s gonna be a bloodbath out there.” I get it, we do violent metaphors in sports too, but unless you’re making black pudding, that’s a bit much.

* The dishes: Doug serves beef tartare with ginger aioli, radish, chili oil, and cilantro. Tom says the “meat could be a little more seasoned,” which seems like a death knell for a raw beef dish. Adam made salt and pepper grits with cheddar cheese, a poached egg, and bacon and onion jam. Hugh, saying he’s had a lot of crappy grits on Top Chef, points out that “those are not crappy grits.” Adam wins unanimously.

* Doug says in the confessional that “I don’t know who won the battle of Lexington and Concord” but guessing it was the U.S., saying, “Go ‘Murica.” Gotta love the state of education in our country.

* Katsuji made a tostada with charred cauliflower, goat cheese, olives, dates, and a tomato and chili sauce. The judges say it was a little rich with the oil and the fat of the cheese, but it had a good texture and the cauliflower was cooked well (so I missed something in that process). Melissa’s chilled white gazpacho with cucumbers, mint, green grapes, and marcona almonds was, as expected, thin and watery. Katsuji wins 3/4, with Padma the dissenting vote.

* Katsuji said a few times there that he was having a panic attack … if he was, and I don’t mean to doubt him, I wish he’d gotten to explain more about what he was feeling.

* Tom says something very dismissive to Padma about this dish; did anyone catch it? I rewound a few times but couldn’t hear his words. His facial expression said a lot, though.

* The third battle is Gregory versus Mei again, and unsurprisingly, they both nailed their dishes. Gregory made shiitake mushrooms in a coconut milk-curry broth with turmeric and fresh dill; Jamie says it’s great Thai food for hot weather. It’s pretty weird to our palates here to have a hot dish in hot weather, but in Asia it seems like it’s quite common. Mei makes a quick kimchi with a New York strip loin and scallion salad; her beef was perfectly cooked and Tom loves the kimchi. But Gregory still wins the battle.

* Tom praises Gregory effusively, saying “he has a way of balancing a lot of different things … all of these aromatics that just … perfectly go together.” That might be some foreshadowing for the season finale.

* Keriann serves an herbed meatball with red onion jam, ginger mustard, and port reduction. Padma loves the jam, but Tom looks like he wants to reach for the ipecac. Stacy served marinated beets with pecan sage yogurt, horseradish brittle, and fresh horseradish. The judges say the beets were well cooked but the yogurt was bland, and I just don’t see going to battle (pun intended) with roasted beets – shouldn’t there be a LOT more to this dish? I feel like I’ve had more ornate beet dishes at a dozen restaurants. Stacy runs the table, though, because Keriann’s dish just sucked. The producers get what they wanted, though: A deciding fifth head-to-head.

* Tom says, “the war always comes down to the last battle.” Well, except for the War of 1812.

* Aaron serves an Asian pork meatball with scallop noodles, but he’s too clever by half as there’s no texture in the noodles – plus he did something similar in the elimination quickfire challenge against Katie. He admits the dashi disaster, but I don’t think he buys himself anything with his honesty. Katie takes a risk by making dessert, making an imperial stout chocolate cake with pomegranate molasses-macerated strawberries, smoked sour cream, and basil pink peppercorn oil. Hugh says the cake is classic and good but “not that exciting.”

* Aaron’s comments about dessert being a “copout” get him some flak from the judges, and when he says he can’t see going to war with chocolate cake, Hugh asks if he could imagine going to war with scallop noodles … Aaron can’t take it as well as he can dish it out, apparently.

* Katie wins unanimously, so the blue team takes the title, and one of the red team is going home. Mei and Adam should be safe. Stacy won her challenge, so if that’s enough to save her, it’s Aaron or Melissa. There’s no question whom I’d like to see sent home, but watery gazpacho isn’t helping anyone’s cause here. Jamie says he would have flunked Melissa’s gazpacho in a home economics class; do they actually still teach home ec in schools? I got a bad grade on one home ec test because the teacher insisted that peanuts were a “meat” (because they contained protein), but I refused to put the wrong answer and wrote they were legumes. Fight the power, folks.

* One interesting note from judges’ table: When the judges ask Adam and Mei if they ever thought to dissuade Aaron from trying a dish so ambitious he might not execute it, Gregory speaks up from the sidelines, saying “I would never have allowed that (the scallop noodles) to happen.” He didn’t deliver it in a condescending tone – although you could argue saying anything at all was out of line – but that just made it even more incisive to me. That did have the benefit of shutting Adam up for the first time all season.

* Aaron is eliminated. That’s fortunate for all concerned at this point, even though this was filmed months ago. He says a lot of the right things on the way out, with a few excuses thrown in. I might have been sympathetic, given what he’s told us about his childhood, before his recent arrest, but now I’m just glad he’s off the show. Melissa skated on a pretty bad dish, though, and Keriann might have been bounced if her team had lost.

* Rankings: Gregory, Mei, Doug, Adam, Melissa, Katie, Katsuji, Keriann, Stacy. There’s a big gap after Mei, and it’s starting to look like there’s a big gap after Katsuji, too.

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.

I somehow fell out of reading the works of Philip K. Dick over the last ten years or so, partly because I abandoned sci-fi for classic literature and detective novels, but also I think because I’d gotten the sense that I’d read his main works. Dick was highly prolific, with numerous additional novels appearing after his death in 1982 (shortly before Blade Runner, the film based on his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, was released), but his product was uneven, ranging from pulpy sci-fi works to serious novels of ideas like The Man in the High Castle, which was #95 on the first edition of the Klaw 100 and won the Hugo Award. Returning to his novels has reminded me of what I enjoy about Dick’s writing – his paranoia, his clarity of vision (despite a rather muddled personal life), and his willingness to dispense with the rules of narrative.

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said fits all three criteria, a dark, dystopian novel that deals in questions of identity, privacy, and, in classic Dick form, the nature of reality. Jason Taverner is a world-famous TV star with a weekly audience of 30 million for his Tuesday night program on NBC until he wakes up one morning to find that there is no longer any evidence of his existence. In a police state where citizens can barely move a few city blocks without government-issued identity cards, this makes Taverner a criminal, robbing him of everything that he uses to define himself while also destroying his freedom. His agent, his lawyer, his on-and-off girlfriend all seem to have no idea who he is. He has to deal with a teenaged forger just to get the documents he needs to head into the city, only to find himself swept into a police apparatus reminiscent of our NSA and Homeland Security, where suspects check in but they don’t check out. The truth of Taverner’s missing identity turns out to be far more bizarre than he or we could have imagined, and solving the problem becomes more complex when a dead body shows up in his path.

The paranoia of Taverner’s situation probably seems a bit old hat now – there was a short-lived network series called Nowhere Man in the mid-90s that borrowed the premise – but for 1974 it was fairly new. Dick magnifies the disastrous effect it might have on the victim’s sense of self by having this happen to someone who is world-famous, confident in his celebrity to the point of arrogance. But Taverner is also a “six,” one of a few remaining products of a government genetic breeding program aimed at creating people of extraordinary beauty and intelligence, giving him the wherewithal to respond to his crisis with alacrity (with a bit of overconfidence mixed in). While Jason’s six-ness doesn’t play a huge role in the plot, it does at least somewhat level the playing field for him after an unknown force or entity has effectively de-created him.

Beyond his ability to terrify the reader by placing his characters in situations like Taverner’s, Dick also defied or just ignored conventions of narrative fiction so that predicting resolutions or outcomes would just be a waste of the reader’s time. He was the true Unreliable Author; he wrote entire books where characters were merely figments of someone else’s imagination (Eye in the Sky), or were constructed realities (Time Out of Joint), or seemed to play with the many-worlds theory of quantum physics (Ubik). You can’t accept anything in a Philip Dick novel as real except the dystopia itself. I won’t spoil Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said‘s particular deviation from realism, but wish it had been further explored within the novel once it was revealed – by that point, the cause has ended, and the explanation of why Taverner was the main victim was unsatisfactory. However, Dick mitigates that weakness (and the slightly tacked-on feeling of the epilogue) by continuing to probe the same issues of identity after the irregularity has ended, this time shifting his focus more to the police commissioner, Felix Buckman, who has come into contact with Taverner and ends up facing his own crisis of self as a result.

I knocked off four books on vacation, including this one, William Gibson’s Count Zero, Dawn Powell’s The Happy Island, and P.G. Wodehouse’s Young Men in Spats. I’ll write reviews if time allows it; in the meantime, I’ve started Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hugo Award-winning novel The Left Hand of Darkness.

Saturday five, 11/8/14.

I’m still on vacation, enjoying Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade with the family and getting some reading time in too, but all the stuff I filed for ESPN before leaving is going up:

* My top 50 free agent rankings, with scouting reports on each.
* My offseason buyers’ guides to:
Starting pitchers
Relief pitchers
Outfielders
Corner infielders
Middle infielders

The guide to catchers will go up Sunday, and on Monday my NL ROY ballot column will go up after the winner is announced.

And now, the links…

Top Chef, S12E04.

Just a reminder that I’m on vacation this week, so I’ll be sparse on social media and not reacting to anything that happens in MLB. I’ve filed all of the buyers’ guides already, so they’ll continue to appear for Insiders. Today’s was on outfielders.

Those of you who’ve argued that this isn’t a great group of chefs got some validation in this episode; it wasn’t a terribly inspiring collection of dishes overall, light on creativity in particular even for chefs who nailed the execution. Meanwhile, we see that Keriann misses her family (don’t they all?) and Aaron is complaining about Katsuji trying to get in everyone’s head (I think he just talks a lot, with no real aim in mind, which makes him rather well qualified to deliver hot sports takes too).

* The quickfire takes place at Cheers! Lame. Mediocre show that somehow has glommed on to the identity of Boston without anything particularly Boston about it.

* Guest judge is … George Wendt. Even more lame. He was disappointingly unfunny here and didn’t seem to offer much food knowledge. Maybe the producers really wanted Hugh Laurie but just asked for the star of House.

* Quickfire: By law in Boston all bars must serve food. So a bitters bar like Sother Teague’s Amor y Amargo in Manhattan couldn’t exist? Also lame. I love a lot of things about Boston, but the state’s puritanical attitude to alcohol ain’t one of them. (And the way local retailers can dance around the three-store limit but Trader Joes can’t is downright corrupt.) The challenge is to make a bar snack in thirty minutes, with the winner getting immunity.

* Katie wants to make pickled cheese curds. How do you “pickle” anything in 30 minutes? In thirty minutes, all you can do is marinate it. That’s all. Stop calling it a fucking pickle just because you stuck it in acid.

* The real buzzword of this season is “spin.” Every plate is a “spin” on something else. Or maybe they’re just providing “spin” to the judges.

* Aaron is making a peanut butter and mayo burger, which a friend made for him once. He admits it sounds gross but says it tastes great. It does sound gross, but I imagine the heat of the burger makes the peanut butter into a rich sauce … I still wouldn’t do it, but I can’t knock it since I haven’t eaten it.

* Rebecca didn’t put enough glaze on her chicken wings. This might have made more sense if we’d seen more of her cooking – the editing of the quickfire this week really left us without much context.

* Aaron’s burger also has caramel bacon and a fried egg. That had to be an absolute mess to eat – the juices from the burger mixing with mayo, the runny egg yolk, and the liquid peanut butter. Katie fried cheese curds (beer-battered) with lemon and lime zest and fried olives. Stacy did an arugula pesto with prosciutto chips, balsamic tomato jam, and burrata as a spin on a BLT. Rebecca’s wings with spicy ponzu glaze didn’t have enough sauce. Keriann’s beer-battered onion rings were topped with crab salad and spicy hollandaise. Once again, she’s talking about her dish too much – spinning it instead of just letting the food talk. Wendt is “a sucker for crab meat.” That’s #analysis.

* Mos Chef has his first real stumble when all of the stuff on one of his burgers falls off the plate as he walks out to serve it. Pro tip: Try a toothpick next time. Or some epoxy.

* Adam made black bean chilaquiles with fried egg and avocado; probably not Boston bar food, but actually that and a brown ale sounds pretty good to me. Mei made fried chicken wings with lime-chili vinaigrette and pickles, probably the most appetizing thing I saw in this challenge. James made pickled and grilled carrots with red bean puree. How is that bar food? It’s rabbit food. Do rabbits go to bars? Can you ferment carrot juice? Maybe that’s what the White Rabbit was really getting high on. Katsuji made a mahi mahi and tuna ceviche with roasted tomato and jalapeno salsa. Now that is bar food – eat it with a salty tortilla chip, so the salt and acid make that beer taste even better.

* Down: Mos Chef, although Wendt says “Woody’s a vegan anyway.” James, because it didn’t feel like bar food. Up: Katsuji’s was creative and “yummy” (#analysis), and Keriann’s because it had crab meat. Winner … Katsuji, who, given how he’s performed to date, might need that immunity for his next twenty-ingredient special.

* Elimination challenge: Chef Michael Schlow of Via Matta is on hand, and the chefs will cook at Via Matta for sixty diners, working in teams of three to prepare a three-course Italian menu, which Padma calls “antipasta, pasti, and secondi.” I’m pretty sure that second course is “primi,” meaning first – antipasto means before the meal, then you have the first course (pasta or another starch, typically) and the second (protein). Diners will pick from the four menus, and the team whose menu is ordered the most wins the challenge; the others are up for what will be a double elimination.

* The chefs make their own teams, which can be a little awkward for chefs who don’t get “picked.” Adam, Doug, and Mei teamed up together fast, which says a little something about the mutual respect there, especially since we know Mei is very sharp. Mos Chef ends up with Katsuji and Aaron, who’ve already fought once, which means he’ll be playing traffic cop more than he should have to.

* Katsuji says they should use “macerated” on the menu instead of “marinated” because there’s no difference, which isn’t true. You macerate a fruit; you marinate anything else. So they’re right to say “macerated” peaches, even if it means no one will understand it. (At the table, Tom jokes that it looks like “masticated.” No, Tom, I don’t think that’s the word people will see when they misread it.)

* Melissa, James, and Keriann form the Grey team. James wants to cook lamb, but one or both of the women says not to use lamb, doesn’t think it’ll sell. James is Italian and cooks Italian; he says not to go seafood-centric but is outvoted. I believe this is known as … foreshadowing.

* That is a HUGE kitchen. Given what they usually have to work with, it must feel like chef heaven.

* Aaron is arguing for space with Mei/Adam. Then he’s bickering with Katsuji. In other words, it’s a day ending in -y.

* Mei says “at work I’m actually known as the Fish Bitch.” Seems proud of this. I guess it’s okay if you want to call yourself that.

* Melissa is making fresh ravioli in two hours. Katie (on the blue team with Rebecca and Stacy) is making fresh pappardelle. Is the challenge here the rolling and cutting? It doesn’t take that long to make the dough and rest it, and it cooks in two minutes, so I can only assume the difficulty is in rolling out the sheets and cutting or shaping it.

* Stacy discusses the difference between serving whole steak pieces versus slicing it before serving. Slicing means you can pick out fatty/gristly pieces, but she doesn’t say that it cools off much faster that way.

* Schlow is expediting and has to tell Katsuji and Aaron to shut up. Mos Chef says, “I feel like a dad in the setting with my two bickering sons.” I wish we’d heard Schlow say whatever he was thinking, probably something like, “who let these two clowns in my kitchen?”

* The celebrity diner is Emmy Rossum. Blais is back too, always a good thing.

(Rossum was also recently a guest judge on Project Runway, where she seemed to have a little more insight into the content. I mention watching Runway from time to time, and usually get some troglodyte responses that the show is gay or just for women. Rossum, who is very attractive, dressed as nearly all of the starlet guest judges do, in a short skirt or dress. The host is Heidi Klum, still one of the hottest women on the planet. The models are …. you know, models. A bit tall for me, but still, models. So, hey, if you want to tell me this show isn’t for you while you sit around on Sundays and watch big sweaty men grind their bodies against each other for six hours, be my guest.)

* Blais points out that the first item on the orange team’s menu has radicchio, which is a mixed bag: “Radicchio to the general public, it’s a tough sell,” since it’s so bitter. Also, does the general public really know what it is? I don’t think I knew until I saw it on Good Eats when I was about 30. And it took me a while to figure out how to prepare it in a way I liked. (You either need to brown those bitter heads like radicchio and endive to get some sugar out, or balance it with fat and acid like a bacon vinaigrette.)

* The purple team – Mos Chef, Aaron, Katsuji – is getting a lot of early orders, Aaron credits the scallops, because it’s his dish. Cool story bro.

* Rossum is gluten-free and has been for 15 years due to celiac disease (sprue), which she explains as an “allergy” on air. It ends up a last-minute twist for the teams, each of whom had prepared a traditional primo course with pasta. Katie improvises with zucchini ribbons; Melissa does risotto, which is very traditional for a primo. Katsuji just “deconstructs” his ravioli, giving Rossum the filling and sauce but no pasta. You do have a few options if you have time – rice and corn (polenta) are obvious ones, zucchini or vegetable ribbons less obvious (although Blais has a recipe like this in Try This at Home), and if alternative flours were available you can make pastas out them. Chickpea flour works surprisingly well, and they’re quite common in southern Italian cuisine (called ceci). If they had the right pan, chefs could have prepared farinate, a crepe made with chickpea flour that is outstanding and crispy without feeling heavy. Granted, I’m thinking of this at a keyboard, not a grill station with a clock taunting me.

* Purple team is up first. Aaron serves seared scallops with macerated peaches, pickled ramps, and crispy speck. Solid reviews all around. Katsuji just does a deconstructed ravioli – without the pasta. Emmy sees it for what it is and no one is amused. The pasta dough in everyone else’s spring pea and goat cheese ravioli is very dry. Mos Chef’s secondo of peppercorn-crusted strip loin with sweet onion compote and roasted tomato, cured olives, and herbs gets raves. Don’t call it a comeback.

* Orange team (Mei, Adam, Doug) is not getting many orders. They serve the judges next.

* Blais is “anxious” for Doug now because of the radicchio. Doug’s salad comes with warm pancetta, goat cheese vinaigrette, and hazelnuts. The judges seem to like it, but “not a bad little salad” is not what you’re going for. Adam served a bay scallop with fennel linguine, and swaps out a polenta cake for Rossum (good call). The Fish Witch (can’t do it, sorry) serves a gorgeous branzino with lemon jam, salsa verde, and radish. The skin is crispy too. I want this recipe.

* Grey team is also not getting a lot of orders. “Chilled wild shrimp” is not that appetizing a description, really. James’ salad is really a chilled seafood salad with shrimp, mussels, and clams along with arugula and wild orange. Sounds boring, although I admit I’m not a big chilled seafood guy unless it’s raw fish. Melissa made a homemade spring pea ravioli with ramps and bacon-parmiggiano broth, substituting a stunning bright-green fresh pea risotto for Rossum. Keriann made a pan-seared halibut with with olive oil, potato, warm asparagus salad, and pistachios. I wonder if Melissa was dragged down by her team here, as her dish was lauded but the structure of the challenge didn’t give us much positive feedback at the end.

* Aaron is incredibly messy in the kitchen, but at least he’s pleasant to work with.

* Blue team is up. Rebecca’s scallop with “charred” fennel, orange, and arugula starter is not very creative; Blais doesn’t even like the concept, saying she didn’t understand the ingredients. Katie hand-cut pappardelle and served it with a basil-walnut pesto and confit tomatoes, swapping in those zucchini ribbons for Rossum, who loved the idea and the dish itself. I think Katie should at least get points for the most creative gluten-free solution of the four. Stacy’s ribeye with king trumpet mushrooms, asparagus, and a kalamata olive vinaigrette is kind of a disaster; the steak was sliced too thin and the vegetables were brutalized from overcooking.

* The judges’ discussion, which includes Rossum and Schlow, overall feels like they were all a little underwhelmed. Purple team: Blais liked Aaron’s scallops, and Tom did too. Padma liked everything except the pasta, which was dry. Orange: Doug’s salad was not the prettiest, but was delicious. Schlow says it would have been a “satisfying” salad if you had a large serving, but it wasn’t great. Five years ago I might have argued there was no such thing as a “satisfying” salad, but I know better now. Blais loved Adam’s pasta, which reminded him of growing up on Strong Long Island. Grey: Keriann and Melissa are safe, but James had the worst salad of anyone’s. That’s where I wanted to hear more on Melissa’s dish. Blue: Rebecca’s scallop dish was the least inspiring of all for Blais, who said it felt “totally incomplete.” Stacy’s vegetables were destroyed, although Blais liked the olive vinaigrette. That reminds me of the strangest viniagrette I’ve ever had: chicken-liver vinaigrette, at Ludivine in Oklahoma City, one of my favorite restaurants in the country. It’s a great example of something I never would have thought to make, and was even reluctant to try, but then loved once I ate. I wish I hadn’t been such a closed-minded eater for the first 25 years of my life.

* Judges’ table: Tom says he would have preferred to see teams take more risks on their menus, which was my sense just watching the dishes and descriptions, too. Italian cuisine doesn’t have to be safe or boring. The purple team wins, but Katsuji looks totally bummed, even before Tom tells him that he would have gone home if he hadn’t been safe twice over.

* Blais tells the orange team they have to work on their menu-writing skills, because they didn’t get many orders but their dishes were all good. They’re safe.

* The blue team was the judges’ least favorite – Katie, Stacy, and Rebecca. Stacy said in the kitchen she knew her vegetables were overcooked, then lies to the judges about it and says she thought they were good. Blais says “there’s a difference between standing behind a dish and being honest … the vegetables were annihilated.” Man I am I glad to see Blais call someone on that bullshit. Just tell the truth, don’t make excuses, and you won’t make them hate your dish any more than they already did.

* Rebecca’s fennel wasn’t charred and the dish reminded Blais of mediocre room service. James’ salad barely had any olive oil, but wasn’t it also just a boring salad? He talks about “team harmony,” but how does that justify a badly executed dish? Be a team player AND make a good salad.

* Rebecca and James both go home, so Stacy barely skates by. James says he should have done a “louder, more seasonally relevant dish,” so at least he’s not blaming his teammates. If you cook something great, you don’t go home, not this early.

* Power rankings: Mos Chef and the Fish Witch seem like they’re miles ahead of everyone else right now. Adam, Doug, and Melissa make up the next tier, ahead of Aaron and Keriann and Katie. Stacy and Katsuji are on the bottom, probably with Katsuji most likely to get the boot next.