Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Saturday, May 2, 2020

9 great two-player board games

When you’re stuck inside with the same person for long periods — during a relaxing vacation, or maybe a long holiday break, or maybe a global self-quarantine undertaken in the name of preserving public health — it can be tough to find things to do together that are fun for both of you, without fighting.

Enter the board game specifically designed for two players. A small but growing subset of the board gaming hobby, board games (or card games) for two are among my very favorite games to play, especially because most of my board gaming adventures are undertaken with only my wife as my gaming partner. And we play a lot of two-player games.

An important caveat: Due to the coronavirus pandemic you may have heard about, it could be difficult or inadvisable to visit your local game store, or even to have games shipped to your home in a timely fashion. Many board games are also at least somewhat expensive. If you’re not in a position to buy any new games, for whatever reason, you quite likely have a deck of cards, which is one of the most foolproof ways imaginable to pass the time. Check out this website for a long list of great card games, many of which are meant for two players. (I’m partial to gin rummy.)

But if you would like to look beyond the pleasures of a deck of cards, below is a list of nine games designed specifically for two players. They don’t include two-player role-playing games (though there are some fun options out there), nor do they include games that are designed to accommodate more players but are still fun for two. All of these are designed specifically with two players in mind, and they’re all fairly easy to learn, requiring only 10 minutes or so of rule reading. Many of them are available in digital versions as well.

Athletes want the 2020 Olympics postponed. The IOC still won’t budge.

 2020 Olympics

Currently, the IOC’s official position is that the Olympics will begin on July 24, as scheduled. March 12 saw the traditional lighting of the torch in Olympia, Greece, and although the torch relay was canceled after the second day due to the need to avoid crowds, the flame reached Tokyo on Friday as planned.

In a lengthy interview with the New York Times on Thursday, IOC president Thomas Bach signaled the organizing body might be open to postponing the games, but that it would not make any such decision in the near future. “It would not be responsible in any way to set a date or take a decision right now,” he said, “which would be based on the speculation about the future developments.”

Bach has not set a date by which the IOC will have to make a final decision about postponing the games, saying that he will not speculate, but he has remained firm in saying that he will not cancel them.

Because the games have not been officially postponed, athletes are stuck in a state of limbo. They’re still expected to train for the games, but the gyms where they are supposed to train have mostly been shut down. And Bach’s latest interview comes after weeks of messaging from IOC urging athletes to continue planning to attend the Olympics in July, coronavirus or not.

On March 7, Bach issued a letter to Olympians encouraging them to continue to train for the games “with ‘full steam’” so that “we, the Olympic community, can once more unite the whole world in a peaceful competition.” On Wednesday, the New York Times reports, IOC officials held a two-hour conference call with Olympic athletes and national Olympic committees urging athletes to continue to train and characterizing coronavirus as “not a deadly disease.”

Increasingly, Olympic committees and sports federations are speaking out against the IOC’s current “wait and see” stance, calling for the games to be officially postponed.

On Friday, USA Swimming issued an open letter to the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee requesting that the games be postponed for one year.

“The right and responsible thing to do is to recognize everyone’s health and safety and appropriately recognize the toll this global pandemic is taking on athletic preparations,” USA Swimming’s letter reads. “It has transcended borders and wreaked havoc on entire populations, including those of our respected competitors.”

USA Track and Field followed suit on Saturday with another open letter. “We are all experiencing unfathomable disruptions, and everyone’s lives are being impacted accordingly,” wrote the USATF. “The alternative of moving forward in light of the current situation would not be in the best interests of our athletes (as difficult as that decision might be).”

USA Gymnastics has yet to make a statement, but it sent a survey to its members on Friday asking what its stance should be.

While the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee has remained reluctant to make an official request of the IOC, the Olympic Committees for both Norway and Brazil have issued statements calling for the games to be postponed. And individual athletes and Olympians have begun to speak out as well.

“This crisis is bigger than even the Olympics,” said six-time Olympian and current IOC Athletes Commission member Hayley Wickenheiser in a statement on Twitter on Tuesday. Wickenheiser, who is currently in training to become a doctor, went on, “I think the IOC insisting this will move ahead, with such conviction, is insensitive and irresponsible given the state of humanity.”

“For all of those athletes in the U.S., but also globally, like in Italy and in China, who are on complete lockdowns, I think it would make it a fairer competition in Tokyo if the Olympics were postponed to give everyone the time they need to be ready,” Laurie Hernandez, who won a gold medal in gymnastics in 2016, told the New York Times on Saturday.

Meanwhile, a survey published last Monday in Japan showed that 69.9 percent of people do not expect the Olympics to go forward in Tokyo this summer. But the financial cost of canceling the games would be substantial for Japan, which has already invested at least $12.6 billion into the 2020 Olympics. In a video conference on Monday, Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe declared his commitment to hosting the games.

“I want to hold the Olympics and Paralympics perfectly,” he said, “as proof that the human race will conquer the new coronavirus.”

The danger of mythologizing America’s “heartland”

When politicians like Pete Buttigieg or Amy Klobuchar want to seem safe, trustworthy, wholesome, and pragmatic, they often do so by playing up their connections to the region. A study a few years ago (one of those studies only useful for documenting preexisting prejudices, but that’s the point) ranked Indiana our country’s most “normal” state. Social scientists have chosen the Midwest as an object of fascination precisely because they thought it offered, as Helen and Robert Lynd — sociologists who studied small-town American life — once wrote, a “common denominator” of America.

Some vestige of this belief may account for the power granted to Iowa by our primary process. Most of all, pop culture normalizes the region: Think about how differently we would read the myth of Superman if his ship crashed in rural Connecticut, or how Fargo loses its irony (and everything else) if reimagined in Fargo, Arkansas. It must be Kansas that Dorothy returns to, not Schenectady or Dallas.

Anytime a region this large, this diverse, and this hard to define becomes a symbol for a concept that has the combined vagueness and life-regulating power of “normalcy,” it should tell us that we’re in the presence of myth. In its worst form, the association between Midwesternness and normalcy can become a proxy for whiteness, straightness, and/or maleness. There are people in the world who think that our outer-borough, rich-guy, New Yorker president better represents the Midwest than does Ilhan Omar, a Somali immigrant elected in 2018 to the House of Representatives from Minnesota, where she has lived for more than 20 years. This kind of thinking legitimizes prejudice while obscuring the region’s actual demographics, which are all over the place.

All that said, the idea’s appeal is powerful. Normalcy can give safety, warmth, the smugness of a person whose plate is full. It can make us feel invulnerable, passed over by history and its dangers, too broad for the grave, durable enough to survive biblical conflagration or climate change or, say, an ill-handled and sudden pandemic. Because it attracts us, normal-ness becomes a fetish, a performance, or a product. The Midwest, because of its perceived averageness, has long been forced to play a symbolic role in this process.

For all its appeal, normalcy is also alienating. I meet many Midwesterners who seem honestly to believe that their experiences are too banal for description, and, especially in my teaching, I meet young people who are so angry at themselves for their normal-ness that they can neither enjoy their lives nor change them. Among people who are less political — that is, among people who lean toward the right and don’t know it — you often hear a kind of general regret, a sense of having missed something, having blown a chance. The Midwest seems to offer us the chance to become normal, but what this means in practice is a paranoid sense that you’ve missed something irrevocable.

But precisely because it is a myth, the perceived normalcy of the Midwest does tell us a lot about ourselves. Myths always do. Early-20th-century American historians, intellectuals, writers, and politicians consciously constructed our image of the Midwest as the place where America averaged itself out.

What can I read that will make me feel better about being scared?

The solution here is obviously The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin. It’s a classic mystery about a group of strangers who are invited to move into a new luxury apartment building, only to learn that they have been made the beneficiaries of a local millionaire’s will. All of them stand to become very wealthy, if they can solve his riddle.

How about some secret society stuff?
Friend, get ye to Ninth House! Written by Leigh Bardugo, it’s a book where Yale’s secret societies are magic, and they’re also built around exploiting the poor. Our heroine has to police them, but she might be seduced into them herself. It’s a very rich, very absorbing read.

Have you tried Sarah Galley’s Magic for Liars? It stars a very hardboiled lady detective who’s investigating a crime at the magic boarding school where her sister teaches. Our girl herself doesn’t have magic, however: She’s relying on her wits alone. This one has a really carefully developed magical system that works with the mystery in fascinating ways.

We are all grieving right now. H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald is the best book I know of about grief and anxiety and how we are going to all get through this.

Stay safe. Stay inside as much as you possibly can. Read if it will help you. I love you all.

Why books matter right now, and which ones you should read


Books are a good thing to think about right now. Of course, I am biased because it is my job to think about books, but every time I turn my eyes away from one of my screens and the endless, frictionless scroll of despair, and pick up a physical book instead, I feel better. It’s as though I’m looking through a window into a different world, and it reminds me that together, we can build a reality that is better and stronger than the one in which we find ourselves trapped right now.

Personally, I’ve been reading Emma this week. It feels very comforting to wrap myself up in the concerns of the book’s tiny, claustrophobic little village, in which the central points of concern are who bought whom a pianoforte and whether it might be quite the thing to hold a ball in an inn rather than in a private home. And Jane Austen’s sentences are so precisely and carefully polished that there is an extra joy to reading them right now: They are at least one thing that is under perfect control in this world of chaos.

But that is my mood! You are quite possibly in an entirely different mood. So let’s find you something to read, too.

The recommendation requests below, submitted to me via email and on Twitter, have been edited for length and clarity.

Mood: utterly spent but still wanting to feel at least a little bit smart. I’m looking for genre fiction that goes down easy without making me feel dumb.

A mood I know well! Your email says you like mysteries, so give the author Tana French a try if you haven’t already — her last book, The Witch Elm, stands totally alone and is super accessible and very absorbing: it’s about a guy who lives a charmed life until (a) he’s mugged and (b) he finds a dead body in the tree in his uncle’s backyard. Maybe also throw in a little Lyndsay Faye — I’m a fan of Jane Steele, which reimagines Jane Eyre as a serial killer. For fantasy, try Sunshine by Robin McKinley (vampires, baking, romance; the food in that one!) and Gideon the Ninth, which is about lesbian necromancers in space.


Gideon the Ninth is about lesbian necromancers in space. Obviously, it’s perfect.
I’m a writing student, and I’m interested in learning more about second person. Recommend me something that best capitalizes on its second person POV?
Second person is so tricky! If you don’t have it under perfect control, it can come off as gimmicky, but when you use it well, you can make it deliver a gut punch that no other point of view can.

The two books I’ve seen do a nice job with second person recently are both memoirs: Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman’s Sounds Like Titanic, and Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House. Both of them explore past traumas, and both of them place those traumas in the second person. In certain ways, this approach reads as an act of dissociation by the narrator, as though the narrative voice of the memoir has to distance itself from the trauma by assigning it to you rather than I.

Dungeons & Dragons: A guide to exciting world of tabletop RPGs

RPGs have moved beyond their typical audience, to say the least. I’m frequently surprised to learn that a friend I never would have expected to be into D&D is playing in a campaign with other friends, often thanks to the magic of video conferencing software. After all, the game allows players to use a system of rules to tell a story together, rolling dice to resolve conflicts and playing out scenes that take place between their characters. And what’s more fun than telling a story with your friends?.

For four decades, Dungeons & Dragons has been on hobby and specialty shop shelves and played in basements out of sight. However, a shift in the popularity of geek culture, an update of the game itself and the rise of video platforms like Twitch and YouTube has helped the tabletop game grow its revenue for the last six years. “Last year was our 45th anniversary and our biggest year yet,” Nathan Stewart, vice president of the Dungeons & Dragons franchise, said. “So, that’s kind of crazy when you think about a brand of this size continuing to grow.”

But so much of the chatter about Dungeons & Dragons and the tabletop RPG boom has obscured a very real issue that potential players might face: Many RPGs have a steep learning curve, and the medium itself isn’t always the most user-friendly. Dungeons & Dragons is a fun game, but to get the most out of it, you need to have at least a few people at the table who really know what they’re doing and understand the rulebook backwards and forwards. That level of preparation often intimidates newcomers.

So thank goodness that the boom in tabletop RPG fandom has coincided with a boom in terrific, well-designed RPGs that are perfect for beginners, many of which you can play with a handful of dice or a deck of playing cards.

Plus, tabletop RPGs are eminently easy to play over video chat services if you can’t gather with your friends in person — something that RPG fans have known for ages and that many folks are newly discovering in this age of sheltering in place.

Even better, websites like Roll20 and numerous others have sprung up online to support RPG groups by offering digital versions of core rulebooks and virtual dice to roll. That makes it far easier to gather with friends online to tell stories together, whether you’re several time zones apart or just staying at home.

 And even if you’re not on Roll20, the vast majority of RPGs are available as PDFs you can instantly download from sites like DriveThruRPG, and there are plenty of virtual dice simulators out there. Having a printer with which to print out character sheets and other materials is helpful but not strictly necessary.