Stardom 12/22/16 Live Thoughts

December 22, 2016 in Tokyo, Japan

I was lucky enough to also be at Stardom’s big year end show in 2015, which was quite unique as it featured Act Yasukawa’s retirement. I was curious to see how this year’s would be different being perhaps a more “typical” year end show for them.

The show started just a couple hours after my arrival in Japan, so while I made decent time from the airport I still unfortunately missed the first two matches of Azumi vs Arisu Nanase vs Ruaka and Konami vs Hiromi Mimura.

So the first match I saw was a three way tag between Oedo Tai (Kris Wolf & Hana Kimura), Jungle Kyouna & Natsuko Tora, and Kaori Yoneyama & Saori Anou. One member of each team (Hana, Tora, and Saori) was new to me.

There was some comedy early on as the teams taunted each other, then things progressed into back and forth between the three teams and some multiple person spots. Wolf is so charismatic the crowd popped for her surprise win despite her heel status.They kept it short and energetic here, leading to a decent, if unremarkable, triple tag.

The NWA Western States Tag Team Titles were on the line next as Twisted Sisterz (Thunder Rosa and Holidead) (c) defended against Queens Quest (HZK and Momo Watanabe). With Queen’s Quest being a new big heel faction associated with Io, I was honestly was hoping for more from them. All four wrestlers were clearly giving good effort and there were some bright spots, but the chemistry between the teams as opponents just generally seemed poor and there was a lot of awkwardness and things not connecting / coming across quite right. I feel like these teams are capable of more. The heel vs heel dynamic also kept the crowd rather tepid, and QQ’s puzzling loss seems to cut off the relatively new team’s momentum.

A pair of dark matches featuring models/actresses against career professional wrestlers were next.

In her debut match Nana Suzuki got to get in the ring against one of Stardom’s aces, Kairi Hojo, in a singles contest. Nana actually played her role as an overmatched but determined underdog quite well and the match was good. Kairi rightly dominated most of this, but the story was well told and Nana got the crowd behind her comeback spots. Nana seems like she could make the transition and wrestle regularly if she wants to.

Stardom’s reigning champion Io Shirai teamed with the other visitor, Mariko Seyama,to face Hiroyo Matsumoto & Jungle Kyouna. To be honest, Mariko did not come across nearly as good as Nana did, seeming awkward in the ring. The vets held it together well enough, but it wasn’t nearly as good as the previous match. Also, dark match or not, it was odd seeing Io try to play face here and her normal heel character later. The result was the crowd just cheered her in both matches, which perhaps took a little away from the story she was telling with Mayu.

In the semi-main Oedo Tai (Kyoko Kimura & Kagetsu) defended their Goddesses of Stardom Titles against former champions Kairi Hojo & Yoko Bito. There was a lot of interference from the Oedo Tai entourage outside the ring, which generated quite the conquering hero reception for Hojo & Bito when they finally overcame it all and took their belts back. Really good match.

In the main event of last year’s Climax Io Shirai claimed the World of Stardom title from  Meiko Satomura in one of the top five matches I saw my entire trip. In this year’s main she defended that same title against her former Thunder Rock partner Mayu Iwatani.

This was a great, pedal-to-the-floor main event with tons of jaw dropping exchanges from two pros extremely familiar with one another. Highlights include Mayu hitting dragon suplexes on the apron and floor (ouch!), trying for one from the top rope only to have Io flip out and LAND ON HER FEET, and a trio of rolling Germans from Io that has to be seen to be believed. Strong back and forth contest and an excellent main event.

I was slightly surprised at the outcome, as once Queen’s Quest lost earlier in the evening I figured we’d get Mayu victorious here to culminate her redemption / revenge story before the heels regrouped and established dominance at a later date. Of course, cocky Io seeming unbeatable is also a compelling story hook.

 

This was an interesting show for Stardom. There were some issues with storytelling, blurry face-heel dynamics, and occasional missed spots and clunky ringwork. Yet there was also some excellent action and overall things came together and I found the show fun and entertaining despite those weaknesses, which is what really matters. Top two matches in particular are well worth seeking out.

Holiday Celebration with Glimpses of Past and Future Art Exhibitions

In addition to Tenri Cultural Institute‘s language school and numerous cultural events,  it hosts an art gallery that is always home to a variety of wonderful exhibitions ranging from traditional Japanese techniques to innovative multinational displays of modern art. I previously shared my thoughts on the June 2016 exhibitthe multinational Ink Imagists exhibition, and Chika MacDonald’s Mugen exhibit.

The exhibitions themselves are of course incredible, but Tenri usually also has an opening reception attended by the artists and sometimes featuring extra attractions such as live demonstrations or musical performances. The December 15th opening for Tenri’s Holiday Art Show (which ran from December 10th to the 22nd) was a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

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A special treat at the reception was a fantastic assortment of hand made chocolate by Kanami Chocolate Brooklyn. As impressive visually as in taste and nicely diverse in flavor and texture, the treats were absolutely delicious.

 

 

The exhibition was a great collection of work from a mix of both artists who have had previous shows at Tenri and ones with upcoming exhibitions.

 

 

It was a wonderful snapshot of the diversity of artistic styles featured at the gallery, with numerous different techniques and styles on display. From more traditional art to three dimensional work and even a enclosed relaxation “retreat” there was a multitude of interesting things to see and experience.

 

 

 

Several of the artists were in attendance and happily interacting with visitors. I was happy to have the opportunity to catch up with my friend Chika MacDonald, who in addition to provding two gorgeous pieces for the show in the similar to those showcased in her Mugen exhibit wore a shawl with an beautiful image in the same vein on the back.

 

 

It was also great to meet Alex Kukai Shinohara and discuss his work a bit, which told parallel stories of a gallery exhibit with text elements and striking three dimensional frames forming art pieces within his art pieces.

 

 

Near the end of the reception there was a short shamisen and vocal  performance by Sumie Kaneko. Her music is lovely and I recommend checking out the longer performances she has at Tenri and other venues, such as her Dec 23rd show at Club Bonafide on 52nd street.

 

As always I highly recommend checking out the wonderful art that Tenri Gallery showcases, but in addition if you are able to attend the receptions you’ll enjoy a wonderfully relaxed and fun social event as well.

Ars Alchimia Review (First Impressions)

Alchemy is a hallmark of a lot of video game sidequest activities, and I was both amused and intrigued by the thought of a board game based around it.

 

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The general setup is great and makes a lot of sense thematically: players gather materials, learn recipes (“orders”), and perform alchemy (all represented by different cards on the board). There are also cards representing assistants that can be hired to provide specific bonuses.

The key mechanics are worker placement and resource management. Collection and spending the proper resources to complete orders is the main way to collect victory points, which of course determine the winner at game end.

Taking actions is where the worker placement comes in. Players deploy workers to the board spaces associated with the card they want to claim/use. A significant amount of strategy revolves around this deployment. At least one more worker must be placed than those currently on the space (the previous workers are then moved to a general area for the rest of the round). So popular spaces become more and more “expensive” as the round goes on.

The second aspect to deciding how many workers to play involves bonus die rolls when taking certain actions. Playing extra workers increase the chances of collecting bonuses, but will also make that space require even more workers to use again in the future. It’s a really great aspect: players always get a set benefit for using the card regardless, but can mitigate the luck for bonuses if they choose.

There are other interesting elements that add depth, including players who go later in turn order getting more workers, elixirs which count as any resource when completing orders, etc. I found it all came together really well and provided interesting, meaningful choices during the game.

 

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Ars Alchimedia has very nice looking components and attractive art, but admittedly it could have been “spruced up” a bit. It’s clearly reflective of Japanese design and original production in the economy of space everything has. There is an incredible amount of information and functionality compressed down into a general board and a bunch of different card types.

While impressive, this also makes things a bit overwhelming on the cards sometimes and leads to very small and occasionally hard to read type, particularly since TMG made the odd decision to leave the original Japanese text in addition to the translations. While the Japanese student in me likes this, from a gameplay perspective it’s unneeded and distracting. My opponent (who is not colorblind) also had some trouble telling the small colored boxed apart on the cards, which could have been easily addressed by using the symbols for each resources shown on the player’s tracking cards.

This is a hefty game cleverly packed into a small box, and as such while I generally really like the design and artistic style there are some minor resulting inconveniences.

 

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The overall balance seemed good, with harder to get materials and orders being involved in higher scoring. Although there is luck involved in the available options on the board at any given time and some are strictly better than others. However there is a mitigating mechanism for turn order, so I think it all fits nicely and fairly.

I really enjoyed my first experience with Ars Alchimia and am excited to play it again sometime, try it with more players, etc.

Yakitori Board Game Review (First Impressions)

One of the most intriguing things about how gaming continues to expand and grow is the way designers take inspiration from all kinds of unexpected (and sometimes “mundane”) sources to create original and engaging games. One example of such is Yakitori, a laser cut wooden game based around trying to maximize profit while grilling and selling the titular street food.

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The gameplay is both a well simplified play on the chosen theme and a deep enough game in itself.  Each round players roll three dice and then use them to choose (in turn) which available actions they want to perform. The die values will determine action order within each action category.

  1. At Market players will buy raw ingredients or sell their cooked dishes. There are three different types of meat tiles and three different vegetable tiles available in the game.
  2. The Influence category allows manipulation of demand for ingredients, moving their individual buy and sell prices up or down.
  3. Finally Grilling allows players to cook the food on their skewers or accelerate/slow the speed with which it reaches doneness.

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The skewers are both a fun thematic component and a clever mechanic. Raw food starts on the lowest section of the skewer, and moves upward as time passes. Which section it is in when a player sells it will determine whether they get a monetary bonus (for perfect doneness) or a penalty (for overcooking vegetables or undercooking meat).

At the end of the game players also receive bonuses for cooking the most of a particular type of food and for groups of diverse types sold (although each food item sold during the game may only be counted once for bonuses).

There are meaningful choices each round, although in the 2 player game certain limitations almost felt too restrictive. It adds strategy but can be a little frustrating and makes the learning curve for playing well steeper than first apparent.

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This is definitely a game enhanced by the production value and design choices. There’s a wonderful classic quality to a well made wooden game that fits nicely with the theme, and again the way the food tiles interact with the skewers is a unique hook to build gameplay around. The center slots on a couple of the tiles were a bit too tight to properly move along the skewers, but that should fix itself as we play more and seems better than having them too loose.

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While the game seemed quite accessible, as I mentioned earlier I feel like there’s aspects of the strategy I wasn’t quite getting. This isn’t necessarily bad early on, as it encourages more play to begin to understand certain subtleties beneath the  seemingly straightforward base mechanics. The 2 player game definitely felt a bit cutthroat, where one mistake might put the game out of reach. It seems like this will play much differently with more players, something I look forward to trying in the future.

There’s more to Yakitori that initially meets the eye, and all around it strikes me as a nice package. It’s a game with a unique (yet accessible) theme, good production quality, and interesting gameplay.

Cooperative Gaming: Fun with a Common Goal

I’m an avid gamer and have played a large variety of board games of different complexities and styles over the years. A particular type that has become more common recently is the cooperative game, where instead of competing against each other players work together to defeat the game itself.

In addition to being a nice change of pace and a fun and exciting genre, co-op games can also be a nice way to introduce new gamers to the hobby, as working with veteran gamers instead of against them can be less intimidating. I’ll include notes on how new gamer friendly each is, but in most cases having at least one experienced gamer playing to learn / explain the rules will be very helpful.

Here’s a sampling of diverse cooperative games that include several of my favorites.

 

Beyond Baker Street

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Player count: 2-4

New gamer friendly?: Reasonably, but probably better to start with Hanabi.

Like Hanabi, Beyond Baker Street is a fun team game in which players can not see their own cards but received limited information from other players about them in order to figure out what to play when. Beyond Baker Street goes a couple steps farther than ordering cards within a color type to having changing total goals as well as a “time limit” of sorts and a general track that has to be exactly maxed out during the coarse of the game.

I enjoy the additional complexities this adds and experienced gamers will be able to jump right in here, but with new gamers I’d again recommend starting with Hanabi. Further thoughts here.

 

Ghost Stories

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Player count: 1-4 (I recommend 2+, best with the full 4)

New gamer friendly?: Reasonably

Easily one of my favorite co-op games of all time. Fairly easy to teach but has a lot of variation and depth. Best on its own or with the Ghost Moon expansion  (Black Secret has fallen flat with my group so far). Notorious for its difficulty, but we’ve found it challenging rather than frustrating. The changing board, player powers and enemy cards make every game significantly different, which greatly aids its longevity. I’ve had good reception playing this with both new and experienced gamers.

 

Mysterium

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Player count: 2-7 (I recommend 4+)

New gamer friendly?: Yes

I love the way Mysterium takes the base concept of Dixit and expands it into not only a fuller game, but also cooperative one. One player is a ghost trying to point “psychics” (the other players) to possible culprits solely through handing out cards with abstract images on them. The multi-round elements where players can get further clues towards each of their personal cards to guess is fun, and taking the competitive aspect out of this type of interpretive exercise is nice.

Have tried this with a mix of veteran and new gamers, and everyone’s had a lot of fun with it (having an experienced gamer around to play the ghost is recommended though). Some aspects of gameplay are lost with less than 4 players, so while it’s playable with 2 or 3 bigger groups are better.

Further thoughts here.

 

Project Elite

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Player count: 1-4 (I recommend 2-4)

New gamer friendly?: Reasonably

Project Elite has an aspect that other games on this list do not have: real-time sections. In between periods of common planning and upkeep of the enemy alien pieces, players frantically roll dice during two minute real-time periods during which they attack the aliens and attempt to accomplish their goals. There’s a fairly large learning curve to initally start playing, but once someone’s played once I think it’d be pretty easy to teach. This is frantically fun and having upkeep outside of the real-time play is a wonderful design choice. It feels almost video game like in a great way.

Further thoughts here.

 

Ravens of Thri Sahshri

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Player count: 2

New gamer friendly?: No

Ravens of Thri Sahashri is an asymmetrical two player game whose core concept requires both players having firm grasp of rules before play starts. The players are trying to complete certain goals while having completely different personal gameplay mechanics and communicating only through play choices.

Ravens has elements of deduction, press-your-luck card drawing, and color/type matching. There are tons of little rules working in concert, but the game does a lot with them and comes together mechanically and thematically. It takes some time to wrap your brain around, but I adored it once initiated.

Further thoughts here.

 

Shadows Over Camelot

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Player count: 3-7

New gamer friendly?: Reasonably

For years this was my go-to cooperative game, and probably my most used to intro new gamers. The presence of different quests to do and a choice of activities is appealing, and the theme classic. It does have significant downtime between turns as the player count gets high, but is still a lot of fun. One barrier to entry here is the possible presence of a hidden traitor, secretly working to help the game defeat the players.  This can be difficult for new gamers as they can’t really ask for help with playing if they end up a traitor. Still, while newer games have replaced this a bit in our group this is  great co-op all around.

 

T.I.M.E Stories

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Player count: 2-4 (best with 4)

New gamer friendly?: Somewhat

As much an experience as it is a game, T.I.M.E Stories provides a compelling and fun first mission as well as fantastic framework for future expansions/adventures. It’s hard to talk about in detail because of the exploration and story based nature of the game make any specific comments spoiler prone, but T.I.M.E Stories is a fun and immersive adventure that I highly recommend.

Because of that spoiler-ish nature, when starting with the base game mission everyone playing must be new to game. So unlike the other games on this list it’s not possible to have someone who’s previously played the game take part to teach and explain as things go. Experienced gamers don’t necessarily have an advantage here, but they might understand rules quicker

Full review here.

 

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Hope this feature has been useful in shining a light on some gems in the cooperative genre. While these are some of my personal favorites there are many other excellent games of this type to discover.

Batman: The Telltale Series Episode 1 Review

I’m a lifelong fan of Batman and the mythos surrounding him in various incarnations. I also have enjoyed previous episodic adventure games from Telltale such as The Wolf Among Us and Life is Strange.  As such I’ve been quite excited to check out Telltale’s foray into Gotham City and their exploration of its iconic hero.

 

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Adventure games of this type are primarily about the story, and Telltale had the proper insight to realize any strong Batman story is at least as much about Bruce Wayne as it is his alter ego. The core plot arises from the Wayne persona, while Batman provides the action. The balance is quite good so far. The themes and certain events are quite dark, but of course a serious take on Batman lends itself to such treatment.

This is set early on in Batman’s career, and the worldbuilding and introduction of their version of familiar characters is well handled. There are several nice cameos and Easter eggs, and the combination of characters used at this point is excellent. I really like one reimagining of classic villain in particular, and there’s a great twist involving another.

The actions sequences seemed a bit different from what I’m used to from Telltale, as the commands I missed didn’t seem to impact the scene at all. Batman still appeared to dodge in the indicated direction even if I missed the input. I could be wrong, or the inputs in this game might just determine a failure of scene if enough are failed. Can’t say at this point.

The conversation parts were the expected solid stuff from Telltale. The choices have small effects so far, but they are there and appreciated. The staying silent option continues to add nice layer to conversation choices. It’s simple but important.

A third part of this game involves investigation of a crime scene. These aspects are interesting and have a lot of potential.

Overall I found this to be a strong start to what will hopefully be a captivating ride. There’s a nice mystery at the center and this episode ended with a big hook for future episodes.

The environment is fantastic. It captures the feel of the locales perfectly, including a boarding school, associated dorms, a run down house, etc. I found myself stopping to look at all the posters and flyers as much out of curiosity as to find clues. There’s a significant amount of little things to poke around.

Some players will find it on the short side, but it had good progression and found a decent stopping point, and is after all just episode 1. I enjoyed this and will definitely be checking out further chapters.

The Future is Now 4

In addition to excellent matches and an incredible number of highly talented wrestlers, I love watching independent wrestling to see people develop and grow and get a glimpse of tomorrow’s stars today. I’ve previously featured Timothy Thatcher, Dalton Castle, and Nicole Savoy in my first The Future is Now blog, Su Yung, Leah Vaughn (then Leah von Dutch) and Takumi Iroha in my second, and Courtney Rush, Matt Riddle, Shayna Baszler, and Rhia O’Reilly in my third.

This time I’m going to narrow the focus a bit, doing a feature on some of the young Joshi stars that made huge impressions on me during my trip to Japan at the beginning of this year.

Professional wrestlers can start (much) younger in Japan than the US, leading to some interesting situations with standout young talent already being established and accomplished veterans while still in their teens, in addition to young rookie talent getting an early chance to develop into fully rounded performers. All of the wrestlers in this column are 20 years old or younger.

This column is long overdue and in some ways outdated, but I decided it’s still worth it to share my impressions as they were when I saw these athletes live. I’ve added some further context where needed, but for the most part the following information and opinions are rooted in the beginning of 2016.

Kyuuri

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It’s easy to tell that the (seemingly) diminutive Kyuuri already has an extensive understanding of her craft. She’s an amazingly smooth, masterful submission wrestler who always seems the equal to her often larger and more experienced opponents. Even in her frilly, bright green gear (that reminds my niece of Tinkerbell) Kyuuri conveys a sense of being a competent threat to her opponents in a way beyond several wrestlers I’ve seen with far more time in the business.  If she continues to acclimate and excel as much as she has so far in her 3 years in wrestling, this 18 year old is easily going to be a huge star by her mid-twenties despite her size. An ICE Cross Infinity Championship reign for her sooner rather than later would be entirely justified.

Yuuka

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Yuuka is another young star whose instincts far outshone her 2 years of experience and 17 years of age. She carried herself in a way that made an immediate impact, including a ring style that showcased hard strikes and fierce determination in a thoroughly compelling manner.

Unfortunately Yuuka has spent the latter half of this year on hiatus for undisclosed reasons. But is still listed as part of the Ice Ribbon roster on their webpage, so here’s hoping she will return at some point. Of the wrestlers I was previously unfamiliar with she left perhaps the greatest impression, and she certainly has the potential for a big career ahead of her if she continues.

Kotori

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Kotori is a 18 year old wrestler based in the Gatoh Move promotion who has an exuberance and enthusiasm to her wrestling that’s downright contagious. She’s a captivating performer and more than held her own in all the matches I saw, usually against opponents with a great deal more experience. Her unique charisma and already well honed skills and instincts will certainly only continue to develop and expand as her career goes on beyond its current 3 years.

Riho

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I’d like to finish this feature talking about two wrestlers who are on the other end of what I mentioned in the opening than those discussed so far. In contrast to showing poise and skill beyond their experience, these wrestlers already HAVE an incredible amount of experience at an extremely young age.

First is Riho, who like Kotori currently works for the Gatoh Move promotion. She began wrestling an the age of 9 and thus has an astonishing 10+ years in the business at only 19. A natural, likable underdog, Riho effortlessly rallies the crowd behind her with a bright personality and expert timing and execution in her wrestling. She is so masterful at her role I actually get the impression branching out a bit in terms of style and opponents would be good for her, as she comes across as someone who has all the tools to succeed at anything she wanted to.

Tsukushi

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Finally we have Tsukushi , another example of the unique situations in which a very young wrestler can already be a long established veteran. At 19 years old she’s already been wrestling for over 6 years, and it shows in her instincts, polish, and overall performance.

Tsukushi’s extremely smooth in the ring and knows how to make her offense look believable, even though she’s usually smaller than her opponents (often quite significantly). Her ring style is generally strike and high-flying based, so she approaches the size disadvantage in a distinctly different way than what I mentioned about Kyuuri. She comes across as a threat even when at first glance it seems she should be horribly outmatched, which is both a result of and a testament to her experience and devotion to her craft.

She’s always a stone’s throw from Ice Ribbon’s main title and is an invaluable utility player that can help the less experienced wrestlers, elevate others into title contention, or challenge the reigning champion herself to establish their worthiness. Tsukasa Fujimoto is the ace of Ice Ribbon, but Tsukushi is just as important to the promotion at present. And given her age they could build the promotion around her (and others mentioned here) for a long time to come.

Honorable mentions: 

Narrowing this list was tough, as I saw numerous young talents with bright futures.

Maruko Nagasaki might have been the most surprisingly impressive wrestler I saw relative to her experience. She was clearly still “earning her stripes” so to speak, but was solid in the ring and held up her end of matches so well I was shocked to learn she had debuted only 3 months prior to my seeing her wrestle. Also, Kurumi was recovering from injury during my trip, so I haven’t seen her wrestle yet. From what I understand if I had she would have been a certain inclusion in this list.

There are some excellent young wrestlers outside of my favorite promotions that I didn’t get to see as much of as I would have liked, so hopefully my path will cross more with wrestlers such as Sareee, Meiko Tanaka, etc going forward.

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That all for now. Hope I’ve brought a new wrestler or two to attention, and everyone mentioned is well worth checking out.