One of the things I intended to do more of when I revamped my website back in 2021 was quit social media and start blogging here. I managed to do the first part of that in 2022, deleting most of my social media accounts. (I’m still on Letterboxd and Goodreads, but those are mostly to track my own media consumption.) I never really got around to the latter though. I wanted blogging to feel like early-aughts LiveJournal again, but I’m not as naive as I was in my late-teens/early-twenties to blog as openly as I did then. (Looking back on my LJ archive, it’s wild to see the kind of things I was sharing with the open web back then.) So that’s led me to a fair amount of starting and ultimately deleting blog posts. With it being a new year and with me getting tired of seeing “Computer Tools for Solving Color Puzzles While Colorblind” every time I load my homepage, I decided to challenge myself to find some things I am comfortable writing about. So with that in mind, here’s my review of 2023 and all the various forms of entertainment I took in over the year.
While I haven’t been blogging about myself generally, I’m please that I’ve managed to keep the Puzzle Game Review Blog going. I had set myself a goal of trying to post a review a month, and was able to write 12 reviews that year, so I’m pretty pleased about that. That’s the rate I’m going to try moving forward with, though having ADHD means that it’s likely to ebb and flow rather than be steady. I doubt I’ll ever hit the same level I did in 2021 when a combination of my ADHD-brain being very excited about a new thing and having a lot of free time due to the pandemic made a perfect puzzle game storm and granted me the energy to write 50+ reviews in a matter of months.
I’m still catching up on the large stockpile of puzzle games I acquired in the manic puzzle game high of 2021, so a fair number of the games I played this year were from around that time. (I’ve been really enjoying both the Scarlet Envelope and Enigma Fellowship series and hope to finish catching up on them this year.) However, two games released last year really leap out at me: Threads of Fate and The Medusa Report.
If you asked me today, I’d say that Threads of Fate was my favorite puzzle game experience overall of all the games I’ve played through so far. Blending historical fact with a fantastical story and expertly crafted puzzles, it felt tailor made for me and I still find myself thinking about it weeks after I finished it.
The Medusa Report was similarly fantastic, with a pleasingly authentic early-80’s aesthetic and that continued the gripping story that 2021 favorite The Vandermist Dossier started. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that part three might be announced this year. (If not, I may have to learn Dutch so I can play the already-released Het Wildeman Geheim!)
It was really nice in 2023 to be able to get together with people in-person and play some games. My weekly D&D group is now around the table; there is just a palpable energy that comes from being in the same room as other people that playing over video just can’t seem to replicate. (I also really appreciate not having to open Zoom over the weekend, after a work week filled with Zoom meetings!)
In addition to my weekly D&D campaign that I DM, I’ve gotten to be a player in a variety of fun, monthly-ish campaigns DM’ed by some close friends. It’s really nice to be able to show up to a game without a mountain of prep work ahead of time for a change!
We got to play some neat, new board games this year. Artisans of Splendent Vale was a warm-hearted, queer adventure campaign game that I really enjoyed from start to finish. It’s a fantastic rebuke to the rash of grimdark games that have come out lately and only seem to be catered to one specific type of gamer. It has a novel system where each player has their own storybook, allowing them to read along as one person narrates and adding their character’s own unique perspectives and commentary that aren’t printed in the other books.
Starship Captains did a fantastic job of making you feel like you’re playing through some episodic adventures, as you pilot your rickety ship through space. It’s also a fairly quick play, on average taking about the length of one Star Trek episode to play through.
There were a few “new-to-me” games that I picked up this year. I especially enjoyed Lost Ruins of Arnak—which combines worker-placement and deck-building games in some exciting ways—and Race for the Galaxy—which added some thoughtful (and much needed) colorblind accessibility tweaks in its second edition.
I’m hoping that 2024 is the year that I’ll feel comfortable enough to do some in-person escape rooms again. There’s so many good rooms in the area that I haven’t made it to (*cough*Locurio*cough*) and I’d really like to remedy that.
2023 was also the year that I dipped my toes into playing some board games solo. I had an odd aversion to it at first, which is weird because I typically play through puzzle games and video games on my own; I even play a lot of board games by myself on my iPad and phone! So, I figured, it must be that I associated the medium—pulling a game of the shelf and setting it up on a table—exclusively with social times. The solution ended up being that, much like I got used to going to a movie or dining out on my own1I used to have a job that required me to travel on my own a fair amount, that got me used to doing those activities solo pretty quickly!, I just needed to start playing games solo and the awkwardness would dissipate the more I did it. Sure enough, the more I played on my own, the less weird it got.
The big solo game I wanted to play was Sleeping Gods, a unique open-world exploration board game. The game supports multiple players, and I tried playing a session or two of it with a friend, but I think it works better as a solo endeavor. There’s a lot of text that needs to be read aloud, which can drag things down when playing with multiple players. It also helps to be able to play multiple sessions as close together as you can, as there’s a fair amount of small details it asks you to remember, and with scheduling things with multiple adults being as difficult as it is, that seemed unlikely. That said, playing it on my own, the game shined. Lots of interesting narrative, characters, and replayability—I made it through an entire campaign and managed to explore maybe a fifth of the map? Looking forward to playing through another campaign of it this year.
Over in the electronic side of things, my favorite video game series is The Legend of Zelda. So, as one might imagine, Tears of the Kingdom ended up dominating my time for a while there. I liked it so much, I would get up early so I could play it before work. My relationship with mornings is fraught at best, so that was surprising even to me. I still haven’t finished it—in true ADHD fashion I played it pretty obsessively for a month or two and then abruptly stopped one day—but am looking forward to picking it back up this year.
On the PC, I played through a few interesting new games this year. I was able to decipher unknown languages in both Heaven’s Vault and Chants of Sennaar. I really enjoyed both games, and might end up writing a longer review of them some day. But to make a brief comparison of the two, I enjoyed the language deciphering in Heaven’s Vault better, there was only a single language to decipher (Chants has five) which allowed for greater complexity and deeper nuance. However, I preferred the story and gameplay of Chants of Sennaar. (Heaven’s Vault controls were clunky and the flying sequences mostly felt like interminable filler.) I think either would be a joy for any puzzle-minded person to play, but would recommend Chants of Sennaar over Heaven’s Vault as it’s the more accessible of the two.
I finally played through Contradiction, which I think Mairi at The Escape Roomer had recommended in some forum or another back in 2021, and found it to be a charming little indie game that reminded me of the glory days of FMV-ish puzzle games from the late 90’s/early 00’s like Myst and The 7th Guest. It sounds like the odds of a sequel happening are low, but I’d be a Day One backer if it ever happened.
Surprising even me, I haven’t played Baldur’s Gate 3 yet. I think I’m saving it for a time when I can take a week or two off of work. It has been delightful listening to my friends rave about it, though.
Movies, TV, and Books
I saw a fair number of films last year, and I have a list of my favorite films from 2023 over on my Letterboxd. A few quick recommendations: Poor Things was fantastically weird, funny, and erotic; aka a Yorgos Lanthimos film. I’m already making plans to see it again with my friends who haven’t had a chance to yet. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood was an tremendously moving documentary about the need for human connection and intimacy and the power of safe and sacred spaces and ritual.
On the less serious side, it was a real treat to see a great Dungeons and Dragons film on the big screen. (I was there on opening day for the 2000 D&D film and, well, the less said about it the better!) Barbie was an unexpectedly fun time. Lastly, it was very satisfying that The Venture Bros movie was able to wrap things up as well as it did.
Over on the small screen, I was surprised to find that I spent most of my viewing hours watching Apple TV+ originals. I’ll admit to being really dubious about the service when it launched, but their quality over quantity approach has really been paying off. Just last year alone, I watched excellent seasons of For All Mankind, Slow Horses, Foundation, Shrinking, Silo, Schmigadoon and The Afterparty. I also watched and enjoyed (though a bit less than the aforementioned titles) The Changeling, Platonic, and Invasion.
It was a really good year for animation as well, with Blue Eye Samurai, Scott Pilgrim Takes Off, and Scavengers Reign all delivering surprising and thrilling seasons that felt unlike any other animated shows I’ve seen. Blue Eye Samurai was especially moving, and I hope that it’s able to avoid the Netflix axe to get as many seasons as it needs to finish its epic tale.
It feels like mystery shows are having a comeback moment. The second season of The Afterparty was a lot of fun (I’m really bummed there won’t be a season three though!), Only Murders in the Building delivered a pretty satisfying season, and Poker Face was so good that it made me go back and start watching Murder She Wrote and the old Columbo films. Being a big fan of The OA and The Sound of My Voice, I had high hopes for A Murder at the End of the World but it was the weakest of the bunch. There were two mystery stories running parallel throughout most of it, but the much stronger of the two was backgrounded to the weaker one in service of a incredibly obvious ‘twist’ that it wanted to setup.
Season two of The Wheel of Time was a nice jump in quality over the first, pandemic-affected season. I liked the show enough that I finally started reading the voluminous tomes that make up the source material. (I say ‘finally’ because I had been gifted The Eye of the World no less than three times as a young adult, though I kept hearing about how it was meandering and the series would never be finished and never got around to reading it.) I’m four volumes in and have enjoyed what I’ve read so far, though there are definitely parts that have aged less gracefully than others.
I was absolutely gutted by Burial Rites, a historical fiction novel by Hannah Kent about Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last executed person in Iceland. A thoughtful and empathetic book, it—much like Iceland—was both stark and full of beauty.
Legends and Lattes by Travis Baldree was a much cozier book, about a former fantasy adventurer who puts down her sword and opens a coffee shop. A book about friendship, romance, and connection, it was a nice escape from, well, everything else going on in the world.
I also would be remiss if I did not mention Raw Dog: The Naked Truth About Hot Dogs by Jamie Loftus, which felt like a book that was written directly for me. I don’t think I’ve laughed as loud at a book as I did reading through this travelogue of the most star-crossed trip since The Odyssey.
Travel and Sandwiches
Last year I had the great fortune of being able to do more traveling than I ever have in my life and, as everyone knows, one of the best parts of traveling is the meals you get to eat along the way. So here, in chronological order, are some of my favorite, affordable meals from this year and the places that served them. Should you find yourself in any of these cities, I recommend you stop in for a bite.
I started the year here at home, so I think it’s appropriate to begin in Seattle for breakfast. After my dad, Morsel makes the world’s best buttermilk biscuits, which are ample yet soft. If you’re ever on Seattle, it’s worth the side quest to the U-District to grab their biscuits and gravy and a biscuit to-go for any late night munchies you might have.
In Chicago the Stay and Play Game Cafe has some awesome Puerto Rican food and a huge game library to enjoy while you eat. I had the Tripleta with Yuca fries, while we played Dune: Imperium. Both were pretty great.
In Reykjavik, there’s a little hot dog hut called Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur that makes some dynamite hot dogs. (It’s a shame Raw Dog was only limited to American establishments, I think the author would have enjoyed an Icelandic dog!) I recommend getting it fully dressed with their remoulade and crispy fried onion.
Hidden on Plaça de Sant Jaume in the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona is a small restaurant, Gallo Nero, that makes the best Italian Sandwiches I’ve ever had. It was so good, it was the only place on the entire trip that we ate at multiple times. It was better than the Italian Sandwiches we had in Rome. Pro-tip: If you’re down with dairy, definitely splurge for getting burrata on your sandwich, it’s heavenly.
If you visit the Spanish Steps in Rome, there is a small pasta shop a block away, Pastificio Guerra, with a long line out the door. The line moves quick and when you make it to the front of the line you can choose from two types of ridiculously good, fresh made pasta for a nigh-impossibly affordable price. (€4 a plate when I was there!)
Omaha’s known for their beef and while I had a very excellent steak there, it wasn’t what I would call affordable. Instead, I’d like to highlight Lola’s Cafe, a super cute cafe with a truly excellent kale salad and great vibes, all located inside of an indie movie theater. It’s the type of place I’d be a regular at, if it were here in Seattle.
The dutch crunch bread at Break Bread sandwich shop in Portland, OR is so good that it has inspired me to try making my own at home. While my efforts haven’t been that successful, the sandwiches at Break Bread were consistently delightful. I was in Portland for three days and went to Break Bread twice, it’s that good.
On the west side of the Big Island of Hawai’i, a mile or two before you turn off for Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Park, is Kaaloa’s Super Js Authentic Hawaiian, a small roadside restaurant serving up some tremendously good plate lunches. I had the lau lau with mac salad and a slice of guava cake and couldn’t have been happier.
This has ended up being a fair bit longer than I anticipated, so I’m going to wrap here. My goal is to try and do some more blogging this year. If not, I’ve got some exciting puzzle games on my shelf that I’m looking forward to playing and writing about, so there should be some new reviews for them soon. Until then, if you’re reading this, I hope 2024 is treating you well.