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Category: Con Culture


Review by C.J. Bunce

Marvel Contest of Champions is a 2014 mobile fighting game from Kabam, released four years ago on iOS and Android, boasting more than 100 million players.  Based on ideas generated from the 1982 three-issue Marvel Comics series Contest of Champions by Mark Gruenwald, John Romita Jr., and Bob Layton, players select superheroes from across the history of the Marvel universe to battle each other.  Both the original comic and the game key in on the scheming machinations of Grandmaster and the Collector, and if the idea sounds familiar, it may be because it was also featured in Marvel’s big screen Thor: Ragnarok, with Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster pitting Chris Hemsworth’s Thor against Mark Ruffalo’s Planet Hulk-inspired gladiator Hulk.

Initially intended to be based on Marvel’s Super Heroes Secret Wars comics, the Contest of Champions video game features more than 100 playable characters, and includes dozens of others.  The characters as realized for the game and the game environments is the focus of a new book from author Paul Davies, Marvel Contest of Champions: The Art of the Battlerealm The book represents one of the rare assemblages of so many characters from all segments of the Marvel universe.  Showcasing the story by Sam Humphries and artwork by Gabriel Frizzera, Luke Ross, and others, the book is full of great character designs, concepts, and final selections.  It even takes readers beyond the events of Infinity War, although the game does not adhere to the movies.

Readers and game players will find it difficult coming up with characters from Marvel Comics not incorporated into Contest of Champions.  In the book they’ll find updated versions of all the superheroes (and many villains) from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, plus the X-Men, Deadpool, Old Man Logan, X-23, Spider-Gwen, Ghost Rider, Howard the Duck, Hyperion, Jane Foster’s Thor, Miles Morales’s Spidey, Kamala Khan’s Ms. Marvel, Spawn, Dark Phoenix, She-Hulk, Moon Knight, Cable, Gwenpool, Mephisto, Blade, Carnage, and the Inhumans.  Plus there’s the Netflix Marvel series characters, lesser used characters like the future evil Hulk called Maestro, Magik, M.O.D.O.K., Sentry, Sentinel, Sabretooth, Agent Venom, Morningstar, Guillotine, Karnak, Kang, Doctor Voodoo, Black Bolt, and Venompool.  Both Angela, grand-daughter of Odin, and King Groot are brilliantly realized in the game and the book (shown above).

Here are some preview pages from Marvel Contest of Champions: The Art of the Battlerealm:

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Review by C.J. Bunce

It’s a new year.  Have you made any resolutions yet?  If you’ve ever wanted to support a cause and couldn’t figure out a practical way to actually make a difference, a new field guide will get you started.  It’s Road Map for Revolutionaries, a step-by-step approach to getting from an idea to actually having an impact.  If you’re tired of inaction and just talk, you need to know the rules of change and how to navigate them.  Pick a cause–anything you view strongly–then read through the book with an eye toward getting more involved.  Written by cause advocates Elisa Camahort Page, Carolyn Gerin, and Jamia Wilson, readers can approach their participation from any number of strategic angles.

Knowing the laws and regulations that apply is a key first step.  The authors provide an extensive section on protests and civil disobedience, where your rights extend and the limits of those rights–how to raise awareness, how to meet, lobby, and influence representatives, basics on asserting economic pressure to achieve change via boycotts, buycotts, and divestments, and understanding the role shareholders can take to influence corporate responsibility.  Roughly a third of the book keys in on how you can work to update institutions that are not keeping up with changing times.

For some Road Map for Revolutionaries will be a refresher on high school Government and Economics classes, for others it can be a first step into navigating into a more civic role personally.  Understanding the role of social media today, understanding modern terms that weren’t used even a few years ago–all of these ideas will update even those who consider themselves lifelong policy advocates.  It would make a good companion to last year’s The Encyclopedia of Misinformation (reviewed here at borg), another handbook for navigating a quick-paced, tech driven world.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

If you’re thinking about how you can change the world for the better in 2019, one step in the right direction would be reading writer/artist Rachel Ignotofsky‘s latest science book, The Wondrous Workings of Planet Earth: Understanding Our World and Ecosystems, an easy to understand guide to the elements of science that converge to tell us about the inter-relationships of all life on Earth.  Ecosystems and organisms, wastelands to deserts and the oceans, from lichen to predators, with some -isms to learn or re-learn (like commensalism and mutualism), concepts you might learn in grade school natural science and geography, high school biology, and college geology and environmental studies.  In a word, it’s what everyone should know about Earth’s ecology.

One of my own proudest achievements was belonging to my grade school’s ecology club between 1975 and 1982, learning about the natural world, planting trees, and making the area better for wildlife.  Many concepts I learned then and supplemented in junior high, high school, and college, are peppered throughout this brightly illustrated volume.  Readers will examine some benefits of particular ecosystems (and threats to them), including the Redwood Forest, the Mangrove Swamp, the Mojave Desert, the Amazon Rainforest, the Atacama Desert, the Pampas, the Andes, the British Moors, the Alps, the Siberian Taiga, the Mongolian Steppe, the Himalayan mountains, the Congo rainforests, the Savannas, the Sahara, the Great Barrier Reef, the Tundra, and more.  The classification of lifeforms and cycles of life are detailed, including the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the phosphorous cycle, the water cycle, and plant cycle.  Deforestation, invasive species, desertification, and pollution are identified as just some of the threats the Earth faces.

Writer/artists Rachel Ignotofsky offers through her unique style charts, diagrams, and pictures, all as explanations of how the world’s piece parts interplay to create the global ecosystem.  Key to all of it is how humans can act to protect the planet.

Take a look at this preview of ten pages from Ignotofsky’s book, courtesy of Ten Speed Press:

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Our borg Best of 2018 list continues today with the Best in Print.  If you missed them, check out our review of the Best Movies of 2018 here, the Kick-Ass Heroines of 2018 here, and the Best in Television 2018 here.

So let’s get going.  Here are our selections for this year’s Best in Print:

Best Read, Best Sci-fi Read – The Synapse Sequence by Daniel Godfrey (Titan Books).  The Synapse Sequence is one of those standout reads that reflects why we all flock to the latest new book in the first place.  The detective mystery, the future mind travel tech, the twists, and the successful use of multiple perspectives made this one of the most engaging sci-fi reads since Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park.  Honorable mention: Solo: A Star Wars Story novelization by Mur Lafferty (Del Rey).

Best Retro Read – Killing Town by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins (Hard Case Crime).  The lost, first Mike Hammer novel released for the 100th anniversary of Mickey Spillane’s birth was gold for noir crime fans.  This first Hammer story introduced an origin for a character that had never been released, in fact never finished, but Spillane’s late career partner on his work made a seamless read.  This was the event of the year for the genre, and a fun ride for his famous character.  Honorable mention: Help, I Am Being Held Prisoner, by Donald E. Westlake.

Best Tie-In Book – Solo: A Star Wars Story–Expanded Edition novelization by Mur Lafferty (Del Rey).  Not since Donald Glut’s novelization of The Empire Strikes Back had we encountered a Star Wars story as engaging as this one.  Lafferty took the final film version and Lawrence and Jon Kasdan’s script to weave together something fuller than the film on-screen.  Surprises and details moviegoers may have overlooked were revealed, and characters were introduced that didn’t make the final film cut.  Better yet, the writing itself was exciting.  We read more franchise tie-ins than ever before this year, and many were great reads, but this book had it all.  Honorable Mention: Big Damn Hero by James Lovegrove (Titan).

Best Genre Non-fiction – Hitchcock’s Heroines by Caroline Young (Insight Editions).  A compelling look at the director and his relationship with the leading women in his films, this new work on Hitchcock was filled with information diehard fans of Hitchcock will not have seen before.  Young incorporated behind-the-scenes images, costume sketches, and a detailed history of the circumstances behind key films of the master of suspense and his work with some of Hollywood’s finest performers.

There’s much more of our selections for 2018’s Best in Print to go…

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What inspired you this year to be a hero?

A new Spider-Man taking to the big screen?  A new Doctor and her friends savings the world?

Lots of superheroes trying to save the planet from Thanos?

You don’t need superpowers to change the world.

Several charities are out there in need of your help.  You can change the world one dollar at a time.  And it can even help your own pocketbook if you make charitable contributions by the end of the month for your 2018 taxes.

So change the world.  borg.com endorses the following awesome organizations:

Wayside Waifs

Great Plains SPCA

Alley Cat Allies

Humane Society

ASPCA

Animal Rescue League

Bat Conservation International

American Anti-Vivisection Society

REGAP

Best Friends Animal Society Sanctuary

Frankie’s Friends

Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary

Check out these great charities today and give if you can.

C.J. Bunce
Editor
borg.com

This is our recommendations for gifts for your best friends–your dogs–whether for the holidays or whenever–each of these toys was tried and tested by hounds who, as a breed, are pretty stubborn as playtime goes.  Each toy below passed their scrutiny with flying colors.  Ultimately your dog wants you, your time, and a warm home.  But some of these items will help you connect with your dog.

We bought more than one of some of these over the years, usually so individual dogs didn’t have to share, like the Twist’n’Treats.  Only one of these on the below list ever broke–the Tug-a-Jug–because a human dropped it onto a hard floor and the base cracked, and we replaced it, but over the years we bought at least three and the dogs loved them.

Always monitor your dogs when playing with toys.  Pieces can be chewed off quicker than you might think, and you don’t want an emergency room visit to have something removed if swallowed.  We suggest avoiding toys with “squeakers”–these get removed by dogs easier than anything else and can also be swallowed, choke a dog, or otherwise block her system.

This PetSafe brand Twist’n’Treat rated #1 with our dogs.  It unscrews so you can put small treats, kibbles, or biscuits inside.  It’s easy for a dog to chew, and it takes some time and effort for your dog to unscrew it to get the prize inside.  It’s also easy to tighten it over time after it gets easier for the dog to figure out.

This PetSafe brand Tug-a-Jug rope toy and treat dispenser is a big hit.   Two dogs will play tug-o’-war with it, and if a person holds it, as many as three dogs can take turns pulling the rope down to release a kibble treat.  The holes at the bottom allow the scent of the treats inside outward to attract your furry friend.  It unscrews simply to add more treats or to clean it.

Do you have a dog who loves to work his brain? Then this one is for him/her.  It’s a casino with slots and removable toys for dispensing treats.  Your dog will figure it out, component by component.  Drawers open only after the dog figures out how to remove the bone pegs on top.  It’s from Outward Hound, and you can’t go wrong with any of their educational pet toys.  Make sure you monitor use on this, especially with a bigger dog who might be inclined to chew the plastic bone parts.

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In the event you somehow forget to get your cat something for the holiday season, we have some tested items that are sure to please your cat as much as they did our furry friends.  Some of these can still be shipped in time for Christmas by Amazon.  But your cat probably won’t care if they have it in time.  Ultimately your cat wants you, your time, and a warm home.  But some of these items will help you connect with your cat.

A new book by the animal trainer for the Harry Potter movies will get you involved with your cat.  Think your cat can’t learn all the tricks dogs know?  Then you need to read Superstar Cats: 25 Easy Tricks to Make Your Cat Shine in the Spotlight.  Professional trainer Julie Tottman explains what is needed (like treats, a blanket, etc.), how long the trick might take, and step-by-step her method of getting Daniel Craig’s cat to lie down on command in Spectre, or Crookshanks the cat to carry an object from point A to B as in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  Get it for your cat or your favorite cat lover for a stocking stuffer available now from Running Press here at Amazon.

Rule one of playtime for any pet?  Don’t let them play unsupervised.  Animal hospitals are full of cats and dogs that swallow a small item, and many toys can be chewed up and swallowed if the cat or dog has enough time to do it.

What have we found to be the #1 toy for our cats?  Just like the National Toy Hall of Fame named the ball, the stick, the blanket, and the cardboard box to its list of toys for humans, our cats routinely pick this over the rest:  It’s the plastic strapping material that holds heavy shipments you might find wrapped around a boxed self-assembled shelf.  Home Depot and Lowe’s have these literally lying on the floor in their aisles, as they are used to hold multiple boxes on shipping pallets.  We learned ours was a toy when a heavy box arrived and the cats went crazy for it.  Just wash it before use.  How do you use it?  Just run it along the floor, twist, or twirl it, and watch your cat go crazy.  And it’s free.  We picked up a few extra lengths from a helper at Home Depot.

The #2 favorite cat toy?  A cardboard box.  Any box will do.  They’ll sleep in it.  Hide in it.  Chew on it.  If you order anything from CatIt, their box has great pre-printed holes, so you pull out the item and your cat is likely to use the reassembled box with cut holes longer than the toy it contained.  Drop in a ball (or another piece of cardboard, or one of these things I don’t remember buying that my cat found under something somewhere) and they’ll never get tired of it until it falls apart and you replace it.  Again, it’s free.

Still want to buy your cat some actual toys?  Here are eight more recommendations, tried and tested by our cats:

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Review by C.J. Bunce

As a high schooler who wasn’t a gamer, I watched my friends with their stack of books and wondered why the books looked so… corporate.  I knew enough about the basics of Dungeons & Dragons, and knew the focus on role-playing and imagination, and couldn’t see why players didn’t use some kind of fantasy covers, like poster art from Dragonslayer or The Dark Crystal.  Wandering a Borders or Barnes and Noble bookstore more than 15 years ago, I thought the faux leather and metal locks-and-hinge look from the 3.5 Edition was what I had expected for an in-universe look of a game that was about bringing players inside a new world.  Wizards of the Coast stepped into a different flavor of that theme with its variant series of books for the 5th Edition, and the result has been pretty stunning.

The variants Wizards of the Coast chose were created by Hydro74.  That’s the alias of artist Joshua M. Smith, whose artwork often reflects a unique style that pulls together the bright-on-black contrasts of 1970s black velvet posters, magical stylized creatures, and eye-popping foil-embossed, metallic inks.  In a series where magic is key, the selection of Hydro74 for the 5th Edition special variant covers was a great choice.

Wizards of the Coast has been slowly releasing the variants beginning late 2016 with Hydro74 covers on special editions of Volo’s Guide to Monsters, and continuing with Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, this year’s history of D&D: Art & Arcana, and a stylized D&D ampersand dragon used for other covers and poster art that began as a cover for Dragon+ magazine in 2015.  But now the publisher has created a one-stop ultimate collection of special covers for the key 5th Edition books released before the other Hydro74 covers became the theme, in the Special Edition Core Rulebooks Gift Set.  The set includes Hydro74 cover versions for the Dungeon Master’s Guide, the Monster Manual, and the Player’s Handbook, and a sturdy storage box and screen–both decorated with shiny red and gold embossed dragon imagery.  If you haven’t picked up the core rulebooks for the 5th Edition yet and you’ve been thinking about diving in, this is the place to start.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

The classic wartime strategy board game is back, but this time with the strangest update yet.  It’s Axis & Allies & Zombies.  Just released, the game is playable as a standalone game featuring a 1941 scenario, and if you’re a fan of the original and think you’ve exhausted all the scenarios under past editions, you’ll love the included new rule modifications for the 1942 Edition of Axis & Allies.  It’s a great way to reinvigorate your game play (even if zombies aren’t your thing).  Why?  At its core, Axis & Allies is a heavily dice-driven game.  The update really offers some random changes in circumstances thrown at you as you defend the Americans, the Soviets, the British, the Germans, or the Japanese, in an alternate universe battle to win World War II (we reviewed the new Axis & Allies 1942 Edition last year here at borg).  If you love the zombie genre, even better, as no other game will give you this kind of real-world zombie battle, outside maybe your town’s annual zombie run.

Everything you need to play the game under the 1941 Zombie rules–the standalone game–are included in Axis & Allies & Zombies.  Blood-spattered money (Industrial Production Credits), a stained deluxe game board, six new zombie game dice, ghostly zombie characters, new zombie control markers, a set of 60 zombies (plus an 86-card expansion deck for the 1942 Edition), and all the game pieces from the original game are included here.  A big difference is this game can be played on a standard card table as opposed to the 1942 game board which requires far more space to play–this edition of the game includes a smaller game board than the original, but it still has plenty of room for play.

Zombies are created whenever a nation’s infantry unit is destroyed or via a directive from a zombie card drawn during each turn.  Every zombie gets to attack in each round.  Even neutral territories have gameplay–as a “Desperate Times” zombie card may indicate zombie infiltration via those locations, unlike their lack of utility in the classic game.  Optional play of “Desperate Measures” rules can result in good or bad actions, like the ability to use newly conceived anti-zombie technology.  And don’t expect an air attack by zombies.  Why?  Zombies can’t fly airplanes (of course!).  You also can’t deny the cool factor of another new feature–Chainsaw Tanks.

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Wizards of the Coast has two new books available just in time for Christmas gameplay.  Guildmasters’ Guide to Ravnica is the first time Dungeons & Dragons has formally issued a crossover with the realms of Magic: The Gathering Ravnica, first introduced in 2005 in Magic: The Gathering’s Ravnica: City of Guilds and again in 2012 in Return to Ravnica, is a vast plane and a diverse cityscape, where ten guilds battle for power, wealth, and influence.

The sourcebook includes detailed chapters on the ten guilds:  Azorius Senate, Boros Legion, Cult of Rakdos, Golgari Swarm, Gruul Clans, House Dimir, Izzet League, Orzhov Syndicate, Selesnya Conclave, Simic Combine, and sections on Creating Adventures, Treasures, and Friends and Foes.  Guildmasters’ Guide to Ravnica includes a key focus on the Tenth District of the city, which includes adventure opportunities for all ten guilds.  It boasts six new playable species, plus a new cleric domain, a new druid circle, backgrounds, and an expansive bestiary.

The second year-end release, Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage serves as part two of the Waterdeep: Dragon Heist adventure (reviewed here).  The Waterdeep saga continues where Dragon Heist ended, taking characters beyond the fifth level all the way to 20th level should they explore the entirety of Halaster’s home.  Players will find a tavern called the Yawning Portal in the city of Waterdeep, named after a pit in its common room.  Not explored in Tales from the Yawning Portal, at the bottom of the pit is a dungeon known as Undermountain, the domain of the mad wizard Halaster Blackcloak.  It is here where monsters, traps, and mysteries abound in 23 dungeons, along with the refuge of Skullport.  You’ll also find Stardock, the asteroid that orbits Toril, and new magical items like the Dodecahedron of Doom, plus Halaster and eleven other monsters not included in the Monster Manual.

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