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Book Review: Midnight Departure

Midnight Departure, by Dan Lombard, self published (, 2012, 190 pages, $14.00

It has become apparent to me recently that I must have a soft spot for train wrecks – I’m referring in particular to books, that is, terrible books, unabashed hot messes that couldn’t be saved, not even under the principle of the infinite monkey theorem by a thousand monkeys at a thousand keyboards (see, for example, the debacle Mount Diablo: Murder Maybe I reviewed in 2014). These are the books whose authors have the dubious distinction of having tossed the “litter” in literature. So when I learned of a thriller that tackled California’s controversial High Speed Train project, I eagerly put on my corpse-handling gloves and set to it. Needless to say, Midnight Departure did not disappoint.

I won’t deny it – I devoured the book feverishly in three days. I might even have finished it sooner had I not needed to set my book down every other page to take careful notes of every grammar gaffe and dead herring. And no, that’s not a typo; I’m coining a phrase, here and now, to describe what might traditionally be described as a “red” herring except that these purported misdirections – which begin as veiled foreshadowing but unerringly disintegrate with flimsy plotting into gaping plot holes ­– do nothing more than stink up the room like dead herrings. In fact, to consider these herrings of any species is specious and, in itself, an insult to herrings alive or dead. But more on that later.

By 1:30AM of Day 3 (really, it was Day 4 if you account for the fact that I read through the night just to finish the damn thing), I had scribbled down three thoughts I felt best characterized my experience. I polled my friends and it was all but unanimous that this said it best:

“To say this book has any sort of plot is like shaking a box of loose Legos and taking credit for any pieces that come out stuck together.”

In second place was this coinage:

“Even if I went out of my way to call this wan thriller a dime store novel, I’d still expect nine cents in change for my trouble.”

And in response to my personal favorite:

“This pulp fiction faux pas is such a blatant hatchet job, Gary Paulsen should sue the author for intellectual property theft.”

…one friend suggested I swap beloved children’s author Gary Paulsen for Tyree Smith.

Ugh. Too soon? Talk about rubbing “bath salts” in an open wound, am I right? I’ll give you a moment to collect yourself before we board this train.


Midnight Departure is the brainchild of author Dan Lombard, a man who believes that a “thriller” (a phrase I use lightly) about graft and corruption in the fictional California SwiftRail Authority is the ideal vehicle for an exposé on California’s current fracas over fast funiculars, more commonly known as the High Speed Train project. It becomes clear early on that Lombard is no fan of the High Speed Train. Through the eyes of the book’s fauxtagonist (what else do you call an unlikeable protagonist?), Lombard describes the fictitious California SwiftRail Authority as “waterboarding, a 5,000 piece monotone jigsaw puzzle and the Bataan Death March all wrapped up in one” which, aptly enough, also described my experience reading Midnight Departure. Later, the fauxtagonist describes his sadventures as “a comedy of errors that started with some bad sushi and just kept getting worse,” which again aptly describes Midnight Departure.

As I settled in to read, I began taking meticulous notes. But it wasn’t long before I discovered that the previous owner of my copy of Midnight Departure had done the same thing in the margins. While I had fast become sidetracked marking up the book’s shortcomings, I was delighted to find that my Mystery Reader had thoughtfully called out what I can only imagine must have been – to them – purported “facts” (they’re so ridiculous, let’s just agree right now to call them faux facts, or “fauxts”). As aimless as they were confusing, these fauxts were almost charming in their baselessness. Charming, that is, until it dawned on me that someone had thought to use Midnight Departure as a reference guide.

Midnight Departure is built not so much on a plot as it is a plod, a clumsy, cumbersome trudge through the sadventures and sexploits of Bob Jones, employee and unwitting pawn of California SwiftRail Authority director Tom Bates. In his first move toward check-mating the citizens of California, Tom is counting on Bob to rubberstamp everything that crosses his desk, all part of Tom’s super-secret, for-your-eyes-only mission that only his cabal of business tycoons and construction moguls know about. Well, the cabal and Bob, who experiences an out-of-the-blue interior monologue moment on page 38 wherein he recounts Tom’s super-secret plan as though reading straight from CliffsNotes, even though Bob is supposed to be Tom’s unknowing, hapless flunky.

Thankfully for his reader (not a typo), Lombard spells out the titillating title’s meaning on page 11 so as not to mislead the reader into thinking it necessary to read to the end in the hopes of further enlightenment. In the first of many let-downs, we learn that codename Operation Midnight Departure – the brainchild of villian-mediocreinaire Tom Bates – is a project whose sole goal is to spend $14 billion in bonds and stimulus funds as quickly as possible beginning at midnight until there’s no turning back. Never mind that the super-secret-project hits its first roadblock when Tom tells his henchman the operation is a “go” shortly after 8:34 PM (no really; precisely four minutes after a clandestine 8:30 PM meeting with the governor), while not even seconds earlier he had been basking in the nefariousity of his cunning plan and its equally very-nefarious code name. Granted, it’s not as snappy, but after he up and blew the whole midnight thing, he might have at least considered instead codename Undertaking Postprandial Spending Spree in the spirit of technical accuracy.

Before we dive deeper into the good stuff (i.e. necrophilia, yellow face, and Axe Body Spray), this is as good a time as any to explore a pet peeve of mine: The choice of character names. I’ll admit, not every character name needs to be so unique they sound like a Tolkien elf (e.g. Celebrimbor), but some originality is always appreciated, like Lisbeth Salander, Ramona Quimby, Humbert Humbert, Mary Poppins, Tyler Durden, Walter (Walt) White. The alliteration, the nuances of symbolism, these things help shape the character they represent. But Bob Jones? Tom Bates? I can’t believe Lombard was tapping his craft to echo the “everyman”. Despite a flaccid attempt at breaking the fourth wall (“His name is Bob Jones. Really, it is. Can’t make that up” [Ed. Note: yes, you can, it’s called exercising author’s privilege!]), the name choices are unpalatable.

The only thing sloppier than the name choices is the copyediting. And the only thing complicated about the characters or the plot they’re embroiled in is the word salad they’re wilting in. No one uses pronouns when they speak (“I’m leaving, take care of some personal business, be back in tomorrow” [p 150]), the pages are rotten with typos, and there are more plot holes and dead herrings than there are chapters. Take for instance, “…perhaps he would be someone he could turn down the road” (p 150), “1530 Clarkson Road In Concord” (p 171), “Whose it from?” (p 189), or “I’m actually in a a rush…” (p 174).

The number of unnecessary commas alone (e.g. “Tom raised an eyebrow in Bob’s direction, he didn’t need to, and wasn’t going to, answer the question.”) is enough to give a typesetter arthritis.

And this moment of reflection left me grinding my teeth: “[Bob] stood up and walked into the bathroom, staring at himself in the mirror… Bob smiled widely. His reflection smiled back.” Yes, traditionally, that’s how mirrors work.

And those dead herrings? In accordance with the dramatic principle known as Chekhov’s Gun, a gun hanging over the mantle in Act 1 should be fired by Act 3. But too often to count, Lombard leaves an arsenal of guns hanging over an English manor’s worth of mantles unfired, calling out details so specific, they could only be intentional. Except there was no intent intended.

Like when, early in our sadventure, Tom steps out of his office, “making straight for the elevator and the ride down the single story to the lobby, ignoring the wide, richly carpeted staircase that could also have taken him down that single flight.”

World-building? Hardly.

Climacophobia – the fear of climbing stairs? Did someone get a copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for Christmas?

Foreshadowing? Of what – an HGTV Home Makeover?

Or there’s the scene where Bob lets a dossier fall to the table with a thud, prompting Tom to caution him that loud noises like that could bring the armed highway patrolman outside the apartment door crashing down on them like ugly on an ape. But trust me – the only things the Ponch and Jons between these pages do is bumble into the climaxes of chase scenes to issue a speeding ticket to a hit man or to detain Authority director Tom until an EMT arrives to give him a wellness check (Say “ahhh”).

The one time someone fires the gun on the mantle, it takes the form of an incongruous children’s bouncy ball that oh-so-very-obviously changes hands as a “good luck charm” with all the subtly of a coyote in a henhouse only to make an appearance later during Bob’s yellow-bellied escape from Tokyo.

At its angry, shriveled heart, Midnight Departure is ultimately about how a public agency might betray the people’s trust. So, how do you blow $14 million sawbucks? On cuh-razy things like a $9,000 office window or a $500,000 “green” (?) logo. Still, for a man hell-bent on spending mucho moolah, Tom’s idea of a spending spree seems pretty tame – a new Dodge Charger (white) and Nissan Pathfinder (white) – especially when he has to fire a security guard to scrape together the cash. Even a despicable cartoon villain like Felonius “Gru” knows that firing a minion to ease up on the payroll defeats the purpose of dipping into the petty cash on his way to stealing the moon. That’s not how villainy – or overspending – works.

Other betrayals, like undermining basic human decency, are even less forgivable. In a groundless leap of faith, I began to hope that if the way Bob ran his elevator eyes over anything in a skirt was any indication of his prowess in bed, it was only a matter of time until our fauxtagonist could prove himself undercover (if you know what I mean <wink>). My wish came true in all the wrong ways during a scene where he hooks up with Sabrina, a Japanese escort, during a business trip. The scene is so awkward, the sterile climax amounts to Bob observing that she has no scent, “as if he had just buried his face in her freshly scrubbed hands.” It is only after waking up the next morning, and reflecting that her becoming “increasingly motionless and limpid during their passion” was surely due to his being “such a good lover that he just plain wore her out,” that he notices she’s dead.

Wait, what? This blatant act of necrophilia goes otherwise unremarked in the book? Yes, yes, Bob had sex with a corpse, nothing to see here, carry on.

This is just one example of the chest-thumping chauvinism that permeates the pages of Midnight Departure like Axe Body Spray in a high school locker room. Almost without exception, every woman is ogled and sized up like cattle in a stockyard. This flesh market begins in the California SwiftRail Authority’s office when Bob is introduced to his receptionist, Kiko. Sadly (because this, I will come to learn, is what passes as “character” development), without prompting Tom kindly lets Bob down easy that Kiko is married – Bob: “Happily married?”; Tom: “The best I can tell, yes.” – but concludes their locker room heart-to-heart by reassuring Bob that there are plenty of women, married or otherwise unencumbered, to pick from, as though the office was some buffet where lady fingers and Steak Diane are dishes of another sort altogether.

I’d as soon let mold grow on me before I’d let Bob Jones, so unsympathetically is he painted in the first few pages. Bob, the man who is purportedly this story’s hero, is at one time or another a pervert, an internet stalker, a lecher, or a necrophiliac. For example, this is a guy who puts a peephole in his soon-to-be ex-wife’s bedroom to watch her lesbian trysts, itself a tired, clichéd plot twist that wives who leave their husbands do so because they are lesbians, rather than because they realize they married total creepers.

Adding Yin to his Yang, Lombard makes sure to balance his glorification of over-sexed men with an equal serving of deplorification of the LGBTQ community and a caricature-ization of Asians. First, there is the non-sequitur throwaway moment in which Tom tells Bob that he has to ask their consultants if they are gay – why this is relevant never becomes clear, but it clearly checked a box on someone’s agenda. Then Lombard introduces a gay lawyer. Who’s dying of AIDS. Because that’s how gay lawyers die. Of AIDS. (<cough> Philadelphia <cough>.) But nothing tops the cringe-worthy yellow face moment when Bob resorts to applying bronzer makeup in the back of a Sashimi restaurant to escape the Yakuza.

The one time Lombard sets his sights on environmental issues, his treatment betrays either his naivety or sheer, willful ignorance of the permitting/mitigation banking process or general natural history. On the occasion in question, Bob visits the Altamont Pass – home to numerous wind farms – to help site a future tunnel boring in response to a three-year lawsuit over some “endangered species of lizard.” Once there, however, Bob waxes synthetic about wind energy’s missed mitigation bank credit opportunity – selling credits to developers because the wind farm’s turbines kill golden eagles that might otherwise kill California tiger salamanders (= not a lizard). By this misinformed logic loop, with each thwack-hawk-down, wind farms are saving salamanders; they’re paying it forward, really.

The erratic incongruities of Midnight Departure are writ large. At the conclusion of a key car chase, Tom – stranded on the side of the freeway – attempts to commandeer a highway patrolman using his deputation (a power Lombard omnipotently pencils into the narrative on the spot) by the Governor of California as an honorary member of the highway patrol. If that Deus ex machina maneuver isn’t awkward enough, the highway patrolman unflinchingly ignores Tom and Lombard and makes his boss sit in the naughty corner until the EMTs arrive, a move that Tom immediately acquiesces to like a Stormtrooper who has been told those aren’t the droids he’s looking for. And then there is the assassination attempt that is thwarted when the assassin is pulled over for speeding, all in the course of two brief paragraphs. It just dawned on me that Lombard’s CHP officers are effectively Stormtroopers ripped from the screenplay of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (a revelation that in hindsight seems more of a compliment than it was intended to be).

Ever the poster child of heightened perception, Bob, the same guy who has sex with a corpse and married a lesbian, inexplicably uncovers a money-laundering scheme between the President and the Authority’s contractors based on nothing more than a handshake in a local mega-church. Bob is also the same guy who later self-importantly jumps to the surprisingly-astute-yet-unfounded conclusion that someone tried to murder him with a serving of fugu (the Japanese pufferfish dish that can be fatal if the toxic tetrodotoxin poison is not properly removed), even though the dish might just as well have been prepared incorrectly. Step aside, Jessica Fletcher, Bob Jones is on the case.

In what he no doubt thought was an act of cunning daring-doo, Lombard uses two phone numbers in the story that – when you Google them – turn out to be those of Jerry Brown and Nancy Pelosi, a bold Easter-egg-of-a-move that unintentionally but very appropriately likens Midnight Departure to the bathroom stall wall of a public school bathroom.

When it comes at long last to the story’s climax, Lombard does exciting like an alcoholic does sober. As the story stumbles toward its feckless finish, Midnight Departure transforms itself into a parody of a spy film with a cigar tube that detects metal (if only it could detect the cheese or corn in this sad excuse for a plot), a kill switch in a speeding car operated by a mobile phone, and the big reveal of a sting operation so all-encompassing, forgettable B-side characters from throughout the story make an unnecessary, triumphant return as federal agents.

It’s been said, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. So if I had to say something nice about Midnight Departure, it would be that there were parts that reminded me of John Grisham’s The Firm, but only insomuch as the unending “action” scenes where Bob is blindly signing stacks of papers and naively burning through the California SwiftRail Authority’s (and taxpayer’s) dollars to drive the plot forward is about as riveting as Mitch McDeere photocopying legal briefs.


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Game Review: Evolution

evolution_box_rt_2nd_edition_1024x1024Evolution (2nd Edition), by North Star Games (, 2015 [ages 12+, 30-minute play time, 2-6 players] $54.99.

In the game of life, survival is key. And that’s not so different in the board game Evolution, the breakthrough Kickstarter success story in its second edition by North Star Games whose very DNA mimics our dog-eat-dog world.

As the game begins, each player takes charge of a new “species.” During each player’s turn, the species in their hand can be enhanced by playing or trading trait cards. Trading in a card to level up a species’ body size or population size makes them harder to be attacked or driven to extinction, but doing so comes with the added burden of needing additional food to sustain them. Playing a trait card confers that species with unique abilities that help them collect extra food (e.g. “scavenger,” “long neck,” and “fat tissue”), fend off attacks (e.g. “climbing,” “hard shell,” and “warning call”),  or attack other species (e.g. “ambush,” “pack hunting,” or “carnivore”). Each species is limited to three unique traits, but these cards can be swapped throughout the game to “evolve” in response to the competition as new species come and go.

In lieu of leveling-up the prehensile proto-llama or feathered faux-ferret you’ve created, each player also has the option of instead adding a new species to their hand to create various amalgams. And with every new species spawned (and their numbers grow), the food begins to dwindle as the watering hole gets that much more crowded. Because Evolution‘s game mechanics allow enough plasticity to repeatedly reboot or rebrand any number of species combos, the game play continues to change as different species thrive or fade to extinction. With a swap of one trait card you can transmorgify your seed-gathering arboreal pocket mouse into a blood-thirsty carnivorous arboreal pocket mouse who, because strength lies in numbers, may be the downfall of an opponent’s saber-toothed salamander.

Especially for those with a science background, it’s hard not to try and imagine real life examples of the pseudo-species you’ve created in the petri dish that is your “hand” of species. Whatever hand you’re dealt, you had better hope it has teeth because when the food runs out, no one is safe.  As players fight to evolve or eliminate the competition, they may have to cannibalize their own creations to become the last pygmy manatee standing in a playing field truly red in tooth and claw (or, if you play your cards right, hoof and trunk).

Evolution’s game play is so carefully crafted and expertly executed, it appears to have been lifted straight from the pages of Biology 101. Inhabiting a unique niche among board games as both tool and toy, Evolution has no equal. Imagine a lesson plan so addictive and so illustrative, the act of learning – a journey of enlightenment about species interactions, competition, and survival – unfolds unconsciously. One can only imagine the trajectory scientific progress might have taken if the Beagle’s own Charles Darwin and Captain FitzRoy had sat down to tinker with this board game in the captain’s parlor during their long voyage at sea instead of frolicking after a few fickle finches.

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App Review: Condor Country


When I first saw the advertisement announcing the upcoming release of Condor Country – a game packaged as an app for public consumption about wildlife conservation – I was understandably hooked. As a wildlife biologist by day, why wouldn’t I want to play a game featuring myself struggling to help the infamous California condor recover from extinction? Yes, please, take my money.

But there was no need – the app was a free download – so download it I did and rolled up my sleeves in preparation for the hard work ahead saving the world. Secretly, as I waited for the game to launch, I hoped against all hopes that it wouldn’t be *too* much like real life. I mean, who wants to play a game where you sit behind a desk and file paperwork and write reports as penance for those few exceptional field days (and some more mediocre ones) each year; let’s be honest, not every day in the life of a wildlife biologist is Planet Earth-worthy. (That doesn’t keep us from dreaming, though.) Little did I know…

As the game kicked off, I found myself with four condors that had reached adulthood and were ready to be released. The walk-thru fasttracked you through tagging ($200) and releasing each bird into the wilds of the Grand Canyon. But four birds do not a healthy population make. So my next stop was the captive flight pen, where I paired and mated ($200+) two captive adults in the hopes of an egg to hatch out. Like any captive breeding program, these things cost money. Radar units, captive pens, incubators, food, and – if there’s any money left – wages for the poor biologists doing all that dirty work (that, let’s be honest, would doubtless be donating their time anyway if the funding didn’t come through). Never fear, the public loves a spectacle – I could fundraise by turning on my radar unit to track the whereabouts of each tagged bird I had just released. For every bird I clicked on during the 15 seconds my radar unit worked (a little too close to home?), I raised $200 from eager funders. And I would need that cash since, by the end of the walk-thru, I was as good as broke.

It was at this point, too, that the game devolved from a learning tool carefully packaged as a game into a marathon of suffering through in-app ads to reset the 15-minute recharge on the radar unit, which is the ATM machine that greases the palms of this entire game. The more birds there were to track, the more money I could earn. But to raise more birds, I’d need to keep those incubators purring. And there’s a cost behind every egg I incubate ($200+) and tag ($200). And so to earn that cash, I’d have to keep tracking birds. See the vicious cycle? Knowing that the fate of a species rests in my capable hands meant I’d be watching plenty of ads to keep the radar unit’s batteries charged.

Extinction?!? Not on my watch, I reasoned as I settled in to watch an ad or too. But I soon realized that the only thing shorter than my patience during the 15 minutes it took to recharge the radar unit was the 15 seconds of radar run-time the “telemetry mini-game” allowed me to clumsily drag-scroll through the wilderness looking for – and then clicking on – constantly moving birds. Keeping the radar churning 24-7 to activate the 15-second mini-game and keep the funds rolling in meant binge-watching ads like back-to-back episodes of Battlestar Galactica. Except one of those experiences is fun.

In too many unfortunate ways, the game mechanics are not unlike real life – beggering yourself to keep your study going and keep enough public interest that the checks roll in. Except my guess is that the original intent of the game was to highlight the titillating conservation aspect of wildlife biology (“Track a bird!” “Hatch a baby condor!”), not the drudgery of fundraising and administrative work that goes on behind the scenes.

Although the press release offers that “Players are also able to earn special golden feathers to speed up game play by opting to learn more about condor conservation,” the only way I could find to earn such golden feathers was to watch more commercials about diabetes or online casino sims (“Few Feathers” [=10] per ad watched) or to purchase these gilded quills in the game’s “shop” at standard in-app purchase prices (=highway robbery). Granted, the press release also assures that proceeds from the optional in-game purchases will be used to support the Santa Barbara Zoo’s ongoing conservation and education programs, but I’d rather support the zoo by paying for the app outright than getting nickel-and-dimed on gold coins or, as the case may be, horse feathers.

Unfortunately, my suffering didn’t end there. It was only a matter of time before my funding had run dry and I couldn’t respawn an ad to recharge the radar if my life (or a condor’s) depended on it – a connection error or something, the not-so-helpful biologist explained. Now I had to sit out the 15 minute clock until my radar unit recharged. Without something better to do, I admit it was only a matter of seconds before I quit out of the game to try a new app I had also just downloaded that allowed me to trade in my biologist’s boots to become instead Ookujira, a sperm whale-like cetacean spy-hopping from rooftop-to-rooftop crushing alien ships on a “giant whale rampage” and having decidedly more fun while my batteries recharged.

In time, the connection error righted itself and the alien attack had been thwarted, so I left the radioactive waters of Ookujira-ravished Japan to rush through another bender of ads about Fantasy Football, credit scores, more Las Vegas slots, and Vaseline. As the funds rolled in once again, I nursed my captive breeding program along, fledging chicks one ad binge-fest at a time. But another glitch soon arose. For whatever reason, I had one hatchling that I couldn’t fledge no matter where I tapped plus two eggs in my incubator ready to hatch, but – according to the prompt that popped up every time I clicked on the well-done eggs – there were no open nest boxes (I had to unlock one or wait until one was finished) even though my captive pen – the one I had just expanded at the cost of several thousand ad-earned dollars (or golden feathers – by this point, who was keeping track – I had whored myself to earn either one) – appeared to have two move-in ready nest boxes, one apiece. 

I had just been flock-blocked.

And just like that, I had the scary realization how fragile such recovery programs really are and how precarious the plight of the California condor might be if the funding ever dried up, and not just in the game I was playing. Except I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the sobering message the designers had hoped to instill when they sat down at the drawing board.

Looking back now over what I’ve just panned penned, I can hear my mother reminding me, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Well, if that was the case, no one would bother writing reviews. But there are good things about Condor Country that give me hope. True, the coding may still be buggy (the text in the “Learn More About Condors” section is a jumbled mess, and the swipe controls are all janky between the captive flight pen [swipe right, move right] and outdoors [swipe right, move left]), but the graphics and soundtrack are top-notch. The game’s blend of realism and cartoony art make the gameplay easy on the eyes and appealing to children and adults, and the condors themselves are animated with enough life-like gestures to make them pop off the screen as they flap, preen, and primp.

Is there a way around the down time and in-app purchases? I certainly think so. Imagine that instead of watching advertisements, players could take an active role in driving home the conservation theme by patrolling the landscape as a ranger (while the various timers counted down in the background) in search of outdoor recreationists. If, say, a hunter appeared in the woods, by clicking on them the player would initiate one of several canned-but-not-too-preachy dialogue boxes where the ranger educated the hunter about the secondary consequences lead bullets have on wildlife (lead poisoning). For every ten hunters you talk to, one of them becomes a benefactor and donates $1,000 to the cause. Likewise, if you encountered a camper or backcountry hiker tossing trash on the ground, clicking on the garbage and then on the litterbug would prompt the the warden to talk to them about keeping our open spaces clean. For every five recreationalists you talk to, one of them donates $300 to the cause. It’s not sexy, but nor are ads about diabetes.

From what I’ve read, I would eventually have unlocked other mini games if only I had stuck it out, like being able to collect microtrash to keep the preserve clean. But I didn’t. I quit, extinction be damned. I had reached my ad tolerance threshold. After being violated by Madison Avenue one too many times,  I had a sudden need for some Vaseline – and, once again, Japan needed saving. 

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Game Review: Birds of a Feather


birds_boxBirds of a Feather, by Teale Fristoe, Nothing Sacred Games (, 2015 [ages 9+, 15-minute play time, 1-7 players] $20.00

If you are looking for the perfect gift for the birder in your life, know this: holding this game in the hand is worth two in the bush. Birds of a Feather, Teale Fristoe’s latest game (a Kickstarter campaign success story) under the Oakland, California-based independent game studio label Nothing Sacred Games, is sure to drive birders to consider counting cards this Christmas instead of birds.

The premise is simple: you and your fellow birders are out to bag your big year, collecting as many unique bird observations as you can. The ‘birds’ in this case are 60 illustrated playing cards, each depicting any one of 35 different bird species across a range of habitats (desert, ocean, wetlands, forest, mountains). The birds vary from the scarcer ‘aces’ (spotted owl), raptors (prairie falcon), and rarities (varied thrush, rhinoceros auklet) to the more common (Brandt’s cormorant, spotted towhee).

To play, each player selects a card from their hand and places it face down in front of them. Then each player reveals their card simultaneously, divulging the place they chose to visit and what they saw there. The game play and scoring revolve around the various habitats and their associated birds. If you want to park your dusty VW Microbus camper in the desert to bird for the day, you can do so by playing a cactus wren. If anyone else played a desert bird that first round, you can also record their desert species on your score card (but mind that they in turn can record your wren). During the next round, the cards from the previous round stay in play. So if another player (say, one who played an ocean species the last time) wants to bogart your wren, they can play a desert card of their own during the next round to nab it and any other desert species left on the table. But remember, you only get one second chance – birds don’t stay put for ever. Once a card has been in play two rounds, that bird species (and your chances of life-listing it) vanish like an ivory-billed woodpecker.



The scarcity of a species determines its point value, and while there may be three chances to see a common black-throated sparrow, there’s only one northern goshawk to witness in the woods. So arises this game’s subtle strategy: achieving a balance between the quantity and quality of birds seen in each habitat, knowing when to follow the crowd and when to strike out into a new habitat, and succumbing to temptation when a rare bird makes an appearance. With each of these too-true subtleties, Fristoe magically captures the rapture of birding and big years in a simple deck of cards, no small feat in itself. But his true ace in the hole are the illustrations – the entire deck painted by Fristoe’s brother Trevor, with each bird portrayed playfully and artfully in spectacular renderings that bring the birds and the game to life.



If you are itching to DIY, you can also download the game and print your own cards for a nominal fee ($5.00), which is great if you are impatient to play but sidesteps the overall presentation and quality of the finished game. As a bonus, Fristoe has also made the score card available as an app (Android, iOS, and web) or a printable .pdf, doing away with the frustration sure to arise when you complete your last paper score card.

It’s true – no game can truly capture the experience of being outdoors. But if you’ve hung up your binoculars for the night because the birds aren’t the only thing Old Man Winter has put to bed, consider reaching instead for Birds of a Feather.

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Book Review: Painting the Cows and Adventures in Conservation

Painting the CowsPainting the Cows: Twenty Years of Wildlife Conservation in California and the West, by T.A. Roberts, John Daniel & Company (, 1998, 176 pages, $14.95

Adventures in Conservation: Painting the Cows and Other Tales, by T.A. Roberts, Stone Wall Press, Inc., 1989, 174 pages, $12.95

I first discovered the work of Thomas A. Roberts several years after I settled in as a wildlife biologist. I can’t remember how I came by Painting the Cows, but I still recall my delight as I devoured and relished his writing. Later, when I loaned my copy out, I did so reluctantly – eager to share with friends a new author, concerned the book would get lost in circulation (… it did). Even though it gathered dust on a friend’s shelf for several years, upon its return Painting the Cows reassumed its rightful place with the other formative books in my personal natural history library – titles like Song of the WhaleMind of the Raven, and Never Cry Wolf that first breathed life into the job title ‘wildlife biologist’ long before I ever set foot in the field.

Roberts, wearing the hat of both wildlife biologist and forest ranger in Adventures in Conservation and its successor, Painting the Cows, revisits his years in the field with wonder, humility, and self-effacing honesty. Whether he’s setting controlled burns or smothering tempers (sometimes his own), driving a desk or driving a pickup, Roberts’ ruminations on the field of wildlife conservation are tempered by his insight into Nature and the human condition. In each story about the wild outdoors, Roberts lets slip how too often his battles are fought in the untamed wildland-urban interface of town hall meetings and written reports.

Roberts’ crisp writing is both evocative and grounded, describing a treed mountain lion “yawning improbable ten-penny fangs,” or decrying Idaho’s Snake River as a “century-long experiment to turn southern Idaho into a soil/fertilizer/pesticide slurry” such that “the state had gained world-class potatoes and a motto for its license plates, and lost the kind of locale National Geographic does specials about.” Subjecting himself to the same raw scrutiny, Roberts describes his participation in a mountain lion capture as “the kind of thing I wanted [my son] to think I did for a living,” or admits his personnel management style “was to delegate as much as possible, since I learned so much better from other people’s mistakes than I did from my own.”

AdventuresinConservationAmong the gems in Adventures in Conservation and Painting the Cows are “The Great Mule Deer Smorgasbord,” detailing Roberts’ Rube Goldberg attempts to catch a deer;  “Playing God in Montana,” in which wildlife becomes a straw man for a community’s concerns about the development of a proposed church headquarters along the Yellowstone River; and “Moment of Truth,” where Roberts’ mettle as a biologist is put to the test when the businessman side of the business asks too much of him. But don’t be mistaken. Although those stories stand out, each story in these anthologies is outstanding, making either book an upstanding gift for anyone with a hankering for wildlife biology.

And if you find yourself enchanted with Roberts’ writing, don’t overlook his fiction, an oeuvre of mysteries published over the years (Shy Moon, the Edgar Award-nominated The Heart of the Dog, and Beyond Saru) that peaks with his latest installment, Drake’s Bay, set in the San Francisco Bay Area (reviewed here).


(Disclaimer: Reviewer Matthew Bettelheim and Thomas A. Roberts have recently joined forces as co-editors of The Wildlife Confessional, an upcoming anthology of short stories by wildlife professionals to be published through The Wildlife Society. This collaborative effort was inspired by Mr. Roberts’ original anthologies, but has in no way biased the content of this review.)

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