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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 7, 2017

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Two Games, Exploding Yogurt, Thorns

The biggest problem with trivia games -- even the well-written ones, like Trivial Pursuit -- is assembling a group of people to play together.

Let's face it, when playing trivia games many people are at a great disadvantage, at least in certain categories. For years, I've had to play Trivial Pursuit with a severe handicap: the Sports & Leisure category.

Not only do I know less than nothing about sports (that is, even the things I think I know are mostly wrong), but also it seems as though half the "leisure" questions are about alcoholic beverages, and as a Mormon, I have no idea what liquids are ingredients of various mixed drinks.

Otherwise, I do pretty well. So there's been many a game where my little wheel filled up with cheeses, except for Sports & Leisure, long before anyone else was close. But then I keep dancing around, failing to answer the sports questions, until somebody else fills their wheel and goes to the middle and wins.

Even if I get one sports question right, when I get into the middle my opponents only have to keep asking me sports questions and they have plenty of time to catch up and beat me.

Then there's the problem of brain-holes, where some fact you've known your whole life suddenly falls out. I remember one game with a group of professors from the Watauga College program at App State, where all I needed in order to win was to come up with the capital on the Danube that is named for two cities that combined into one.

I have known since fifth grade that the city is Budapest, Hungary, named for the cities of Buda and Pest. But at that moment, in that game, the only city that came to mind was Bucharest, the capital of Romania.

I knew that Bucharest was doubly wrong -- wrong city, wrong country -- and when I found another capital that started with B it was Belgrade, which in those days was in Yugoslavia. I could not pull Budapest into my brain for love or money. So I gave up, missed the point ... and lost the game.

But hey, Trivial Pursuit is competitive and I always like the people I'm playing with -- even Gregg Keizer, who constantly (and charmingly) murmurs "I know I know" while you're struggling to come up with the answer. The game provides the structure, but it's the good company that makes it fun.

It's less fun, though, when old coots like me are playing against much younger players -- college or high school students in particular. They're old enough to feel embarrassed about missing questions that they realize should be common knowledge, especially the history and geography questions. Yet half of those questions are easy for people of my generation because we lived through them!

Kennedy's Secretary of Defense? McNamara. Nixon's first Vice-President? Spiro Agnew. Songwriter of "God Bless America"? Irving Berlin. Singer/songwriter of "You're Having My Baby"? Paul Anka. TV series in which Gordon Jump says, "I swear to God I thought turkeys could fly"? WKRP in Cincinnati.

Most people of my generation don't even have to think to answer questions like that. This makes it so that many younger people won't play trivia games with old coots like me anymore.

Of course, these whippersnappers know the answers to all kinds of questions dealing with recent (last thirty years) pop music, especially rap. I can't tell one self-named rapper from another, and I certainly can't name any of their tracks, let alone their original names. Especially since the names keep changing. (Thanks, Formerly Alive Artist Named Prince, for getting that ball rolling.)

So I'm happy to tell you that there's a terrific, fast-moving, really fun trivia game called Five Second Rule that my wife and I have played successfully with our nine- and eleven-year-old granddaughters.

We knew they were having a good time because we had several other favorite games on the table, waiting to be played, but they kept insisting that we play yet another quick game of Five Second Rule.

There's a subtitle, too. It's really Five Second Rule: Just Spit It Out. And that pretty much describes the gameplay.

First, there's a box tightly filled with two-sided question cards. They all follow the same format: "Name three" and then some kind of person or object. Some of them are hard because they require actual knowledge: "Name three Chevrolets." "Name three Vice-Presidents." "Name three Civil War battles."

But others ask questions that you can answer just by being alive. "Name three candy bars." "Name three kinds of cake." "Name three fast-food franchises."

Easy, right? Oh, no, I must inform you. Every question is hard -- yet every question card will advance the game.

That's because you really do have only five seconds to spit out three examples in each category.

The timer is my favorite timer in the history of games. Not some sad little hour-glass full of fine white sand, which you have to watch closely in order to see when time runs out.

No, what you have is a plastic tube filled with tiny metal balls, with a horn at one end. We play it so the person answering the question holds the timer.

The idea is that as soon as you understand the question -- you have to pay attention to every word so that your answers actually fit the category -- you turn over the timer, the horn toots, and the metal balls roll noisily down a spiral ramp.

In five seconds, the balls have all reached the bottom, and your turn is over. It sounds like a rain stick, only it's faster. All it takes is a moment's hesitation and you'll find that you've said only two -- or even one -- answer when the time runs out.

My friends and I teased one player all night because early on, she had the question, "Name three kitchen implements," and she sat there tongue-tied and couldn't get past the first one."

It was the tension that got to her. "I imagined opening the utensil drawer and looked at what was in there. But I couldn't remember the name of any of them."

But the same thing happened to all of us. We only teased her because she was so extravagantly frustrated at not being able to name anything in that drawer.

You can sometimes be two clever for your own good. I got "Name three horses," for instance. By the pattern of the game, the answer would be things like, "Palomino, thoroughbred, Clydesdale," or "pinto, trotter, mustang," or "Arabian, carriage horse, plowhorse."

But I had to be clever, so I set out to name three individual horses. "Trigger," said I, thinking of Roy Rogers's horse, and then "Flicka," from the TV show "My Friend Flicka." But once I started with fictional horses, I just couldn't think of a third one fast enough, though the list is pretty long. Black Beauty, National Velvet, Silver (the Lone Ranger's horse), Rosinante (Don Quixote's), not to mention the Narnian horse Hwin ... I know way more than three fictional horses.

As long as I was naming individual horses, why not famous racehorses? Seabiscuit, Citation, Secretariat, Man o' War, Seattle Slew, Affirmed. And the most famous horse from antiquity, Bucephalus. Yeah, any of those and I could have aced the question.

But I was thinking of screen horses and all I could think of before the five seconds were up was two. I certainly didn't have time to change mental categories. So ... I outsmarted myself.

However, I had fun naming individual horses because everybody else laughed in delight at my decision to game the category. Technically, I was answering the question. It didn't say "Name three kinds of horse" or "breeds of horse," it just said "Name three horses."

That's why even questions this brief can be well- or badly written. This was a really good one because it left room for creativity and surprise.

Of course there were categories in which the nine- and eleven-year-olds couldn't think of a single entry. But guess what? There were categories that they could ace, but in which my wife and I couldn't think of a single example, not in time, anyway.

The nine-year-old was supposed to ask a question of her older sister, and she started weeding the cards: "She won't know this one," "she won't know this one." I stopped her, because, "If she doesn't know it, then the card goes to the next person, and the next person. And if nobody can do it, your sister will get the card after all."

When one person misses, the next person gets a chance -- but they can't use any of the answers that were already given when the timer was running. If somebody says more answers after the timer stops, then the next person can use them.

About a fifth of the cards were awarded to the original recipient by default. But even the questions on which everyone fails are fun to try to answer.

This game sounds easy, and it would be, if the name were Ten Second Rule. But getting three answers in five seconds is hard.

If you had to name three novels, you'd be wise not to choose long titles, because most people can't come up with and actually say "Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King" in five seconds. And heaven help you if all three of your choices begin "Harry Potter and the...." That timer will run out before you finish the second title.

Fortunately, there are no really mean questions, like "Name three George Eliot novels," or "Name three people lying dead on the stage at the end of Hamlet."

Even though the box is chock full of cards, when you play a dozen games in a row (no more than forty-five minutes), you start running out of cards. No problem. When you play the same card a second time, it isn't any easier because no matter how long a mental list of category entries you have in your brain, getting them into and out of your mouth in five seconds is still hard and the game stays fun.

There's also a Five Second Rule Jr. game, so maybe it can be played by kids even younger than the ones we tried it with. But since we've played it with all-adult groups, and groups of different generations, I can say with confidence that anybody can have fun playing Five Second Rule.

*

It happens that for my birthday, my youngest daughter got me a game that is much more challenging to play, but still really fun. Where Five Second Rule is fast-moving, the game of Concept requires some serious thinking.

The game functions rather like Charades. From a card, you pick one from a list of nine things, divided into three easy, three medium, and three hard ones.

They're all hard.

Because instead of acting out the word or phrase, or drawing something to get the other players to say it as in Pictionary, you have to choose from a playing board filled with various icons -- little pictures, each of which can suggest many different concepts.

At first you might think that it's like trying to tell a story with emojis, but these icons are way more useful than that. What's more, all the players have a sheet of paper listing possible meanings of the icons, though you are not limited to the listed meanings.

The player who is trying to "act out" the word will first pick the key concept and put a large question-mark token on it. Then, she uses tiny plastic cubes of the same color and puts them beside other related concepts.

If she needs to, she can put out more big tokens of different colors to set up different but supporting concepts, and each color has its own little plastic cubes.

The tiny plastic cubes suggest that you don't want to leave the game out where toddlers might find it. The cubes are too small to choke on, but you need those cubes, and you don't want to have to search for them in a diaper. Just sayin'.

Let me give you an example. The first word I chose was "kitchen." I began by putting the question-mark token on the icon of a house. Then I supported it with the "small" icon, the icon of a woman, and the icon of food.

The others fixated on "house, small" and I couldn't get them to stop thinking of different buildings. I didn't mean the house was small, I meant it was a room that was smaller than a whole house.

Then I realized that there was a separate icon for "inside." I got rid of "small" and replaced it with "inside." Immediately they realized that I was looking for something in a house rather than a kind of building, and when I put the "tools" icon between "woman" and "food," they got it.

The room with the tools that (most usually) women use to make food. They finally said "kitchen" and the turn moved on to somebody else.

Let me tell you, this game requires that you really wrack your brain -- to come up with your iconade (icon charade) and then to guess the iconades that other people set out for you.

You soon learn how to divide the main concept from subordinate concepts, and you also learn that the exact order in which you place the cubes and tokens will change the way the other players think of things.

What doesn't work, usually, is trying to make them say one word per token. First, they won't say the right word -- you want them to say "foot" but the icon is listed as meaning "leg" or "foot" and they won't stop saying "leg."

And second, the game isn't really charades, it's called "Concept," so you want to lay out your iconade in a way that will lead them through concepts, not particular words.

So here's where you have to get away from English grammar. We put our modifiers before the word they're modifying, but many other languages, like Spanish and Portugues, do the reverse. So instead of "white house," in Spanish you'd say "casa blanca."

That's how you want to lay out your nouns and modifiers. You start with the main noun -- the object you want them to anchor on -- and then add other icons to modify it. So instead of the icons "food," "tools," "inside," "house," you'd start with "house," then "inside," then "tools," then "food."

Trust me, it works way better in that order, because they won't say the words you expect, but they grasp the concepts more clearly in the noun-before-modifiers order.

The game takes patience. In fact, we thought of speeding the game up by dealing out one card to each player right at the start, so that while the player whose turn it is puzzles out the iconade he'll use, the other players can be planning theirs.

However, I suspect that won't speed up the game much, because after you spend a few minutes trying to decode somebody else's iconade, you'll have forgotten half of what you meant to do on your own. Guessing is just as much fun as plotting the iconade, so even though it's slower than a high-pressure game like Five Second Rule, the game of Concept is enjoyable for everyone.

If you're in a game-playing family or you have a few game-playing friends, both these games -- Concept and Five Second Rule -- are way faster than a whole game of Ticket to Ride, which is way faster than a game of Settlers of Cataan. Yet because Concept and Five Second Rule are so quick, you can play a lot of rounds and spend an hour or more on either of them.

I'm not sure that you want to give these as Christmas gifts, however, because you'd miss a lot of holiday-season game-playing by not opening them till Christmas. I think that, like picture puzzles, these should be available for use on the first day of vacation.

And best of all, both games measure something other than general knowledge, so there's no embarrassment.

Well, that's not true. There's a lot of embarrassment, pretty much continually, but everybody is equally embarrassed by mistakes and lapses, and everybody enjoys their own errors. Lots of laughing, lots of intensity -- just what games are supposed to deliver.

*

So the other day at Earthfare I picked up a little tub of cashew based yogurt. You know, there's soy milk and almond milk, so why not cashew milk? I liked that yogurt either in spite of or because of the cashew aftertaste, but I foolishly threw away the container before I reviewed it.

No problem, thought I. I'll just get another before I write my review.

Alas, I apparently got the last of that cashew yogurt in the store. But they did have a drinkable strawberry-flavored "Cashewgurt" made by something called "Forager Project." I brought it home and put it in the fridge.

Today was the day I decided to try it. So I got a glass, pulled the Cashewgurt bottle out of the fridge, and set them on the counter near the sink.

I did not notice that its sell-by date had passed five days before, but even if I had, it wouldn't have prepared me for what happened.

On the top of the lid, it said, "Shake well."

So I shook it. I shook it well. It was very well-shaken. Definitely not stirred, because the lid was still on it.

Then I set it back down on the counter and twisted the lid not even a centimeter -- just far enough to pop the seal between the lid and the bottle.

The lid blew off the top and pink froth sprayed into my face, onto my glasses, all over the counter.

Unbelievably, it didn't stop spewing until the only substance left in the bottle was froth. When I picked it up to empty the residue into the sink, nothing came out.

However, what remained on the counter -- the entire contents of the 28-ounce bottle -- was remarkably volatile. Cleanup should have been simple -- just wipe the strawberry froth toward the edge of the sink and let it flow down.

But it wouldn't go. I mean, most of it went, but no matter how I angled the sponge and then the paper towels, some of the froth rushed over to the sides and left a thin trail behind. And it wouldn't rinse off of the cutting boards that had been beside the sink; I had to scrub them with dishwashing soap in order to get them clean.

I never actually took a chemistry class in my life -- my whole education in the subject came from Isaac Asimov's book on organic chemistry -- so I really can't guess what was going inside that bottle to create so much pressure and so much froth.

I can't give you any idea of what Forager Project drinkable Cashewgurt tastes like because my mouth wasn't open when it exploded. I don't lick things off my counter after they blow up, because my guess is that whatever made them blow up, I don't want it inside my body.

What I can say is that "shake well" may sound like a clear instruction, but some things that you shake should only be opened under a big kettle, or you'll end up looking like the front row audience at a Gallagher concert.

*

If you're a fan of the Game of Thrones series on HBO, and you've already read George R.R. Martin's novels, and you've already re-watched the series and re-read the books, and you're hungry for a fresh experience of brutally realistic fantasy stories in a savagely unpleasant world, have I got the books for you.

I read Mark Lawrence's Prince of Thorns when it first came out, and I was blown away by the story and by the storytelling. Since then, Lawrence has completed the trilogy with King of Thorns and Emperor of Thorns, and I'm happy to tell you that the series only got better with each new volume.

Set in a future Europe and North Africa, after a nuclear war and a drastic rise in sea level, this is the story of Jorg Ancrath, the son of a king. When he was still a pre-pubescent boy, he was riding in a carriage with his mother and his younger brother. They were attacked by enemies at dusk, and when it became clear that their military escort was going to be overwhelmed, one of the servants threw Jorg into a particularly vicious thorn bush.

In the waning light, the attackers don't see Jorg. But they proceed on their mission, which is to kill the queen and the one prince they got their hands on, Jorg's younger brother.

Meanwhile, he remains trapped in the thorn bush, silently watching everything.

Everyone knew that this particular kind of thorn bush was so viciously painful that you can only escape from it if somebody else pulls away the branches. So Jorg was not blamed for failing to save his family. What could he have done, anyway? Against trained warriors, all he would have accomplished was to join his mother and brother in death.

Yet he is consumed with guilt -- and then, when his father, the king, instead of going to war with the neighboring monarch who committed the assassinations, makes a deal with him for reparations. Basically, he sets a financial value on his dead wife and dead son.

To Jorg, this is intolerable, and in an insanely bold adventure, he frees a brutal robber band from prison on the eve of their public execution and then joins them and eventually leads them on a rampage through some of the worst places in the land.

Worse yet, everyone -- including Jorg -- agrees that his dead younger brother was the strong one, the smart one, who would have made a much better heir to the kingdom than Jorg. So it's predictable that his father will marry again in order to create new and better princes.

Each of the novels in the series has its own satisfying conclusion, but they also make a seamless whole. Gradually Jorg makes connections with other rulers in other lands -- and also faces tough adversaries who bring him to the point of death more than once.

His worst enemy, the one he hates most, is his own father. His most useful ally turns out to be a computer program left over from our era -- basically, what might happen if Amazon's Alexa or Apple's Siri lived on for five hundred years, acquiring control over more robots and machines, along with far more information about the world around them.

By the end of the third volume, Emperor of Thorns, Jorg discovers who the most dangerous evil in the world really is, and just like an ancient mythic hero, he goes into the land of the dead in order to confront him, only to learn that there is yet a worse danger, one which only Jorg can prevent.

I listened to the audiobook, and despite a lot of mispronunciations -- a few of which are probably Britishisms -- the narrator, James Clamp, presents the characters and dialogue flawlessly. By the time you finish listening, you'll be echoing one of the most clever characters by wanting to say "Watch me" in the midst of some other conversation.

This is not a book series for the faint of heart. Jorg Ancrath does brutal, terrible things -- yet we are still expected to care about him and hope for his eventual triumph. Many readers would hate this experience, so that's why I think Game of Thrones is a good litmus test. If you have enjoyed the TV episodes and the books, then you will find Prince of Thorns and its sequels to be only incrementally more cruel and savage.

But it's definitely more, and not less. Even though there are no dragons.

There are escapes and victories both clever and miraculous, and one of the great pleasures is consulting the map and tying these events to the locations and technology of our world.

The result is a masterpiece of fantasy and science fiction that you probably don't want your mother to read.


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