Summer Doldrums – or Continuing #Kickstarter and PreOrder Madness

As it is the summer, my gaming as slowed as the RockyMountainNavy Boys find more outdoor activities to do, the family is traveling more often, and long summer evenings make gaming less a priority. But it doesn’t mean I don’t want to play! Or try new games!

In April 2018, I had 13 games on pre-order. What has happened since?

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Preorder, or just a disorder?

I currently have 16 items on preorder. A majority (9) are GMT Games P500 orders. I have a love/hate relationship with P500; I love the games but hate the wait. I also am a bit disappointed that GMT Games has become a victim of the Cult of the New (COTN) with newer games seemingly taking priority over long-awaited reprints or expansions. I don’t blame GMT Games; they are going after the money where money is to be had.

I am also a bit surprised at the number of Kickstarter games I have pledged for. Given my hesitancy to previously support games I am surprised that I have five on this list. (actually six but the forever-delayed Squadron Strike: Traveller does not have a BGG entry and therefore does not show up). I have to say that so far I am extremely happy with the Triplanetary campaign since it is delivering early (my copy may even be in the mail as I type).

I actually had another Kickstarter item on order until last night when I cancelled it. It was an RPG product and I had backed it because the theme was interesting. As I looked at the product a bit deeper there were aspects that I found, well, I decided the product was not for me and dropped the campaign.

The last two games are Father’s Day gifts to myself and show as preordered because I don’t have them in hand just yet. Once again, the ever-awesome The Player’s Aid guys just make it so that I can’t pass on another game. In this case it’s Patton’s  Vanguard (Revolution Games). The other is Mrs. Thatcher’s War: The Falklands 1982 (White Dog Games). This buy was heavily influenced by an interview designer Ben Madison recently did with Bruce Geryk at his Wild Weasel podcast.

Four of the Kickstarter games are to deliver before the end of the year. We will see; Triplanetary looks like it is coming in early but three other Kickstarter campaigns I have backed (two non-boardgames) are delayed. Maybe a poor investment?

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“You’re using Star Wars and physics in the same sentence….”

I had an unusual exchange on Twitter the other day. Unusual because I (frankly) was a bit of a jerk to @beltalowda_ and unusual because I let popular sci-fi get under my skin.

First, the exchange:

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I cut off my response because I was a bit of a jerk and talked down to @beltalowda_ (hey, if you’re reading this, sorry!).

The main point I was trying to make (on Twitter? I must be crazy!) is that science fiction and science fact don’t mix well, especially in the realm of gaming. Star Wars is nominally science fiction (I would argue it is more science fantasy but that is another, fruitless, discussion) and the games related to the franchise reflect that origin. Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game today is ranked as the #63 game overall on BoardGameGeek as well as the #7 Customizable Game (interestingly, Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures – The Force Awakens Core Set is ranked #4 in the Customizable Game category). These games use what gamers often refer to as “cinematic movement,” i.e. they fly about in space like airplanes. This is far different from what space combat will likely look like. Atomic Rockets, IMNSHO one of the best sites on the internet, devotes a whole section to Space War and what is closer to reality. For me, one of the hallmarks of a hard sci-fi game is the use of vector movement, ala (loosely) The Expanse.

Overall, The Expanse is better at hard sci-fi than many shows but even here there is a good deal of “handwavium” involved. Scott Manley on YouTube has made one of the better explanations so far:

My personal gaming experience has shown the same conflict between hard and popular sci-fi. I have bounced between hard (realistic?) sci-fi and more cinematic portrayals. Here is a list of a few games in my collection and how they looked at space combat:

Finding the right balance between popular sci-fi and hard sci-fi gaming is tricky. For myself, games like Star Fleet Battles and its derivatives are fun because of the theme since when playing these games I am choosing theme over mechanics. Some of the more hard sci-fi games are fun with a bit or realism thrown in (like Mayday) but some go too far (Squadron Strike: Traveller) where the fun has a hard time overcoming the difficulty of rules and play.

The upside of all this is that the gaming scene is broad enough that either preference, cinematic or vector, can be accommodated. It’s a matter of choice, and the game industry is healthy enough to give us that choice. Even if I am choosing not to play.

Hattip to @TableTopBill who commented on my tweet with the title of this post.

Reconsiderations after first 4-player Enemies of Rome (@Worth2004, 2017)

After being on a post school-year trip, the oldest RockyMountainNavy Boy is back home. Given his love of history, and especially Ancient history, the other RMN Boys insisted that Enemies of Rome (Worthington Publishing, 2017) land on the table for game night. This was the first four-player game we have played.

Prior to tonight’s game I had very mixed reactions to Enemies of Rome. I “like” the game, but it had issues (especially scoring and victory conditions) that I was uncomfortable with. This four-player game was much more enjoyable. Here are some reactions/thoughts after play:

  • MovementI discovered through the BGG forums that we were doing movement wrong. Made the changes this game and it really changed the dynamics of the board. With the right movement rules the board was more wide-open with Legions and Enemies of Rome moving about in a more frantic (?) manner. FUN!
  • More Players – Having a fourth Proconsul (player) on the board, and one less starting Enemies of Rome, made a huge difference. The hordes are dangerous but also “manageable.” I think the real sweet-spot player count is 4-5, not our usual 3-player.
  • Glory PointsEnemies of Rome still suffers a bit of an identity crisis; it looks like an Area Control game but winning has little to do with territory control. Glory Points are won in battles the player initiates. Whoever has the most Glory Points wins. The player with the most territories gets a +3 Glory Point bonus. For the Oldest RMN Boy in his first play the victory conditions were opaque to him; he was worried about taking – and protecting – territory and as a result he played a very defensive, even timid, game. The other RMN Boys spent a lot of time moving the Enemies of Rome against their older brother and fought few battles themselves. Meanwhile, my strategy was to win at least one battle every other turn. At the end of the game I had 14 Glory Points (averaging closer to one Glory Point every three-turns) AND the territory bonus! Even without the bonus I won by 1 Glory Point.

This four-player go at Enemies of Rome has raised the game’s standing in my eyes. I am looking forward to our next 3-player game with the proper movement rules to see that wide-open board again.

Featured image courtesy Worthington Publishing.

Red Alert – or Dread Alert?

Richard Borg’s Red Alert: Space Fleet Warfare is up on Kickstarter at the moment. Offered by the Plastic Soldier Company (PSC) I can pledge to support for about 120 US dollars.

Bonding with Board Games posted this “digital preview:”

While the game topic (theme?) is interesting to me, as a longtime naval and space warfare gamer I have mixed feelings.

First, I am not sure that the Left-Center-Right concept of a battlefield makes sense for space combat. The core issue in any space combat game is how to show three-dimensional combat on a 2-D board. Who can forget the classic “two dimensional thinking” in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan?

Most space games simply ignore the three dimensional aspects. Other games, like Squadron Strike: Traveller (another Kickstarter I am – still – waiting for) make it part of the game, albeit at greater complexity.

Some space combat games take the other extreme. A favorite game of mine is the space combat system found in the (Classic) Traveller RPG Book 5 High Guard. This game system has its weaknesses, as defined by the famous Eurisko incident using the Trillion Credit Squadron (TCS) tournament rules:

Trillion Credit Squadron was used as a test case for artificial intelligence researcher Douglas Lenat’s machine learning system Eurisko. Lenat programmed the TCS tournament rules into Eurisko, and the system designed a fleet of large, stationary, defenseless, and heavily armed ships.

  • This fleet then won the 1981 TCS national championship tournament at the Origins ’81 convention. GDW changed the rules for the following tournament, but Eurisko adapted to the changes and its fleet won the championship again. GDW threatened to cancel the tournament if a Eurisko-designed fleet entered again, and Lenat declined to do so, accepting the title “Grand Admiral” as consolation.[1] Lenat’s 1981 fleet design (including 75 Eurisko class Gunships) was printed in JTAS issue #10. (http://wiki.travellerrpg.com/Trillion_Credit_Squadron)

So the question facing me is playability or realism? More directly, is this game worth $120 of fun with my family, or is it $120+ of personal frustration? As I look at the campaign this morning, the Carrier Escalation Pack has unlocked, for a mere £14.50 extra. PSC apparently hopes we all subscribe to the old saying. “in for a penny, in for a pound.”

Then there is my usual Kickstarter concerns. Giving $120 +shipping +expansion packs NOW for a game SCHEDULED to deliver in March 2019 (or 9 months from campaign end) is becoming harder to accept.

As appealing as the is campaign looks to the RockyMountainNavy Boys, I think I am going to pass. The money involved can get us lots more gaming products NOW rather than a riskier investment into the future.

A Little Rebellion – #GameNight 1775 Rebellion – The American Revolution (@Academy_Games, 2013)

After playing Enemies of Rome (Worthington Publishing, 2017) the past few weeks, the Youngest RockyMountainNavy Boy picked an older but highly enjoyable title for this week’s Game Night. So it was that 1775 Rebellion – The American Revolution (Academy Games, 2013) landed on the table. We once again played a three-player version, with the very typical RockyMountainNavy Boys teaming up against Dad. The Youngest played the Loyalists while the Middle RMN Boy took the British Regulars.

Battle Forth

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End of Round 1 – 1775 Rebellion by Academy Games

Knowing that the Boys are tough opponents, I struck hard and fast. The Continentals were able to eject the British from Boston while an early Benjamin Franklin allowed me to land French troops in Savannah. Dangerously, the Patriots Militia had to play the Treaty of Paris Card as it was the only movement card in the first hand! Meanwhile, the Loyalist were recruiting a large Indian army in New York. At the end of Round 1 the Americans led 4 (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, & Georgia) to 3 (Quebec, Nova Scotia, & Delaware).

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End of Round 2 in 1775 Rebellion by Academy Games

Round 2 was more a war of movement as both sides postured for advantage. As the Americans I pursued a Southern Strategy and was able to bring Maryland to The Cause but was worried as the British were obviously looking to drive through New York from Canada and split the northern colonies.

End of Round 2 score:

  • Americans 5 (MA, CT, RI, GA, MD)
  • British 3 (Quebec, Nova Scotia, DE)

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In Round 3 the Americans took South Carolina and moved into North Carolina. In the North, French troops arrived in Newport to bolster the defenses there. This was especially welcome given the relentless British march through New York, The British also used their Indian allies to take Pennsylvania. Of note, the Loyalists’ played their own Treaty of Paris card. The next Treaty Card played would end the game.

End of Round 3 score:

  • Americans 7 (MA, CT, RI, GA, MD, SC, NC)
  • British 4 (Quebec, Nova Scotia, DE, PA)
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End of Round 4 – 1775 Rebellion by Academy Games

The first turn went to the Continental Army that hunkered down building forces. The second Turn was the British Regulars who used Warship Movement to land a force in Savannah – negating American control of the colony. The British also took control of New York by defeating a mixed Continental/Militia force in the area between New York City and Albany. The game was turning in favor the the British who now were tied 6-6. However, it would the be Patriot Militia who played the spoiler. During Turn 3 the Militia played the second Treaty of Paris card meaning the game would end after this Round. The Militia was able to move a force into New York City defeating a Loyalist-heavy force making New York an uncontrolled colony. Another small Militia force with Indian allies entered Western Pennsylvania which also took control of the colony away from the British. In Turn 4 the Loyalist player had too little too late and was unable to reverse a single colony falling. At the end of Round 4 (and game end) the Americans took the narrow victory with a 6-4 final score.

After Thoughts

1775 Rebellion has the least special rules of the Birth of America-series and is in many ways the easiest to play. The game can also end early like ours did tonight with both Treaty of Paris cards out for the Americans by the end of Round 4. Total game time was a short 60 minutes. Though the game was short by our game night standards (2-3 hours being acceptable) it was nonetheless very fun. I get a feeling that this month will be an Academy Games month as the Birth of America-series and 878 Vikings – Invasions of England come out for play!

 

Glorifying Enemies of Rome (Worthington Publishing LLC, 2017)

I LIKE Enemies of Rome (Worthington Publishing, 2017). The RockyMountainNavy Boys like Enemies of Rome. We have played it four times in the three weeks since it arrived in the RMN house. This level of repeat play is unheard of and a true testimony to how good the game is and how it fits the RMN game night. As good as Enemies of Rome is…I sense the RMN love affair with this game is quickly reaching the point of a major breakup.

So what is the problem?

We play Enemies of Rome even though we intensely dislike the scoring mechanic. Victory in Enemies of Rome is determined by Glory Points. In the rules as written (RAW), players earn Glory Points by attacking and winning a battle in an area. Defenders do not earn Glory Points even if they win. At the end of the game the player with the most areas gets a bonus of 3 Glory Points. A player can lose 2 Glory Points if they attack an area with another player’s Legions and do not win the battle; they do not lose Glory Points for losing against the enemies of Rome. The player with the most Glory Points is the winner. In the event of a tie, the tied player with the most Legions on the board wins.

Sounds pretty straight forward. Battle, earn Glory Points, and win.

Which doesn’t sit right with us. Victory in Enemies of Rome goes to the one who has won the most battles; the board state is irrelevant (except in a tie when it is the number of Legions, not areas, counted).

Another problem as I see it is the Event Cards in the game don’t support the Glory Point mechanic. To be clear, we have only played the three-player version of Enemies of Rome. After playing a few times (**SPOILER ALERT**) we have noticed that many of the Event Cards place enemies of Rome onto the board. When this happens a battle usually follows. Legions are expended in battle, but no Glory is won if these battles occur in areas the players already control. Indeed, a considerable number (maybe half?) of all battles in the games we played are against the enemies of Rome in areas already controlled. This means half the lost Legions, half the victories won, count as nothing.

[I fully realize that the “non-player” enemies of Rome are available to use as a proxy force. The ability to move the enemies of Rome on your turn is powerful as you can position the enemies of Rome in a more favorable manner to make your next conquest easier or you can use the enemies of Rome as a proxy army to batter down an opponent.] 

One other Event Card effect (**SPOILER ALERT REMAINS**) we noticed is that in the later stages of the game the arrival of the enemies of Rome often challenge one to keep areas they already control. One (major) impact of the cards is to force battles in controlled areas. Battles that are won don’t mean anything for there is no Glory Point earned for keeping an area you control. The battle system does not allow for retreat either; battles are to the death so there is no “save your troops” mechanism. The net effect is that players in the end game grow weaker as many battles are fought for no Glory Points.

In each of the games we played, at least one player was “besieged” for the better part of the game; that is, constantly fighting in areas already owned. As noted, these constant battle use up Legions but do not gain Glory Points. This player was at a constant disadvantage. It was very apparent that this player was going to lose as there is no “catch up” mechanism other than to win battles in other areas – battles that the player often cannot fight because the constant attrition of Legions fighting to just hold areas already owned prevents a build up of forces for attacking new areas.

We have already tried a few house rules to find a better experience. Instead of the player with the most areas getting a bonus we added the number of areas as a straight addition to Glory Points. Neither seems enough. We tried awarding bonus Glory Points (2) for an unused Intrigue Talent. In the next game we are considering changing the rule to make any victory in battle a Glory Point – even when defending. We may give a 2 Glory Point bonus to the player with he most Legions on the board. These changes certainly seem in spirit with the RAW where Glory Points only come from battles and the number of Legions on the board is an ingredient of the tie-breaker.

There is too much goodness in Enemies of Rome and we have already invested considerable playtime in this game to simply walk away from it. We will keep trying to find a balance. I am curious as to what the game designers have to say. So far, the forums on BoardGameGeek have several player comments but nothing from the designer.

Featured image courtesy Worthington Publishing.

#BookLook – Wargames Handbook, Third Edition, by James F. Dunnigan, 2000

When studying the history of the wargame hobby, one inevitably will run into the name James F. Dunnigan. His first published game was Jutland (Avalon Hill, 1967). His company, Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI) was THE wargame company of the 1970’s and 80’s. He started Strategy & Tactics magazine which continues to publish to this day. He is, in many ways, a father to the wargame hobby.

Although I am a longtime hobby grognard, I also have some links to professional wargaming in the Department of Defense. In the lead-up to CONNECTIONS 2018 this year I decided to study up a bit. In particular, I wanted to focus on the definition of a wargame. What better place to look than at a book written by James Dunnigan, the Wargames Handbook, Third Edition: How to Play and Design Commercial and Professional Wargames (Writers Club Press, 2000).

I was surprised at my reaction after reading this book. A giant of the hobby, who I had set up on a pedestal, does not deserve to be there.

The Wargames Handbook is a real mixed bag and I actually find it hard to categorize. It is part professional design guide, part memoir, part contemporary history, and part…useless. The copy I have in hand is the Third Edition published in 2000. The first edition appeared in 1980 with a second edition in 1993 before it went out of print in 1998.

The Wargames Handbook consists of nine chapters with End Note and Appendix. After reading the book I see the content as broadly divided into three categories:

  • Designing Wargames
  • History of Wargames
  • Computer Wargames

Of these three categories, the one of least interest to me was computer wargames. Dunnigan comes across as more than a bit bitter at the rise of computer gaming, and computer wargames in particular. He goes to great pains using figures and statistics to show the impact of computer wargames. For a tabletop, manual wargaming like myself his “contemporary history” accounts come across more as whines. The worst part has to be the multi-page GENIE replay of a computer wargame. If Dunnigan had a point here, it was lost in a wall of uninteresting computer printout.

The history of wargames parts are interesting but have since been done in much more detail elsewhere. Other histories also show a bit less bias and are more comprehensive than that presented here. It looks like Dunnigan wrote what he knew best, that is, his personal experiences and survey results. Granted, that experience is vast and in the golden age of wargames (1970’s and 80’s) he was right in the middle of the hobby, but he was not the only one.

The professional portion of the book is the designing wargames parts. As one Goodreads reviewer put it, “it’s heavy on what to do, but kind of light on how to do it.”

It would seem like Chapter 1 – What is a Wargame? would be a good place to find a definition of a wargame. Alas, this chapter is mostly devoted to a description of his wargame The Drive on Metz. Actually, the chapter is not just a description of the game, it is game play laid side-by-side with history. The closest Dunnigan gets to defining a wargame is the first three paragraphs. However, he fails to give us any sort of concise definition:

  • “A wargame is an attempt to get a jump on the future by obtaining a better understanding of the past.”
  • “A wargame is a combination of “game,” history and science.”
  • “Basically, it’s glorified chess.”
  • “If you’ve never encountered a wargame before, it’s easiest to just think of it as chess with a more complicated playing board and amore complex way of moving your pieces and taking your opponents.”
  • “A wargame usually combines a map, playing pieces representing historical personages or military units and s set of rules telling you what you can or cannot do  with them.”
  • “To be a wargame, in our sense of the word, the game must be realistic.”

Chapter 2 – How to Play is the heart of the wargame design advice. That is, if one wants to design a classic hex-&-counter wargame. Also contained in this chapter (indeed, the bulk of the chapter) is a listing of The Technical Terms Used in Wargaming. Alas, “wargame” or a variant does not appear in this listing!

Chapter 3 – Why Play the Games (and how to get the most out of it) is mostly a survey of historical periods and opportunities for wargaming. To me, the most interesting sections were the last two. In Fantasy & Science Fiction Games, Dunnigan points out that,

Unlike historical games, fantasy and science fiction have fewer restraints on what they can get away with. The designers as was as the users are eager to try anything. I find many innovative ideas concerning game mechanics can be found first presented in fantasy and science fiction games. These ideas can then be applied to historical subjects (p. 142)

As a longtime naval grognard, I found the last section, Special Problems of Air and Naval Games, to be more than mildly interesting. I was a bit surprised that Dunnigan sounds like he gave up on designing air and naval games because, as he puts it, they “can be most interesting and illuminating when conducted on the individual…level” (p. 145). Dunnigan capitulates designing aerial and naval games to exclusively the realm of computers. I think the truth is a bit deeper here, and maybe hits a little to close for Mr. Dunnigans ego.

IMG_0309Within my game collection I have five James Dunnigan-designed games. The one aerial game, Foxbat & Phantom (SPI, 1973) is not highly rated. Setting Jutland aside the other naval game I have, Sixth Fleet (SPI, 1975) plays like a land combat game at sea; i.e. totally unrealistic. Given the many wonderful air and naval games across the years, I have to wonder if Mr. Dunnigan was too fixated on hex-&-counter that he was unable to find the design spark to make a great air or naval game.

Chapter 4 – Designing Manual Games is more design advice, though again through the lens of The Drive on Metz game. In this chapter Dunnigan presents the complete rules of the game – as though reading a set of rules is enough to teach you how to write one of your own! I wonder how many game designers would agree with the opening sentence where Dunnigan states, “Game design is very much like writing a book, term paper or any other work of nonfiction. In many respects it’s actually easier” (p. 146).

I’m going to skip comment on chapters five thru seven (covering computer wargames and the history of wargames) and chapter nine (Wargames at War) because I already commented in general above. I do want to look closer at Chapter 8 – Who Plays the Games because I am disappointed at the blatant biases Dunnigan shows here.

In Chapter 8 – Who Plays the Games, Dunnigan starts out with a pithy comment, “Wargaming is the hobby of the over educated” (p. 300). He goes on to use market research and surveys from his time at SPI and Strategy & Tactics to study the wargamer demographic. Not surprisingly, he finds that the demographic is older (and getting older) and overwhelmingly male. He whines at how RPGs stole wargamers away and in doing so raises his nose in elitism over young gamers:

When role playing games (RPGs) became available, the social networking of students worked against wargames. The kids who played wargames were generally the brightest, if not always at the head of their class. RPGs are easier to get into and much larger numbers of students were able to participate. Many of the wargames became gamesters, the one participant in in an RPG who has to keep track of a lot of things simultaneously. Wargamers have a lot of skill and experience at that. Moreover, the average age of getting into wargames was twelve or thirteen years old. Wargames are, intellectually, an adult exercise and younger kids can’t really hack it. (p. 301)

Dunnigan goes on to discuss complexity in wargames, and in doing so doubles-down on the elitist gamer image:

“Wargames have always been arcane, but now publisher are putting out “simple” games that are only regarded as such by the more experienced players. If a game that is simple in absolute terms is published, the experienced gamers who comprise the majority of the buyers, turn their nose up at it” (p. 303).

This elitist attitude was first apparent in the Introduction where Dunnigan discusses “mushware.” As he writes:

Mushware is my term (borrowed from a programmer who worked for me years ago) for what people do with complex procedures in their brain, without the benefit of a computer. Mushware was also the reason why the market for manual was never that large. Only a small portion of the population come equipped to handle mushware. The ones who were exposed to manual wargames became, whether they wanted to or not, wargame designers. The mushware gamers couldn’t avoid understanding how the games worked, and in excruciating detail….We’ll never get back to the 70s, but with wargames established as a permanent part of the commercial gaming landscape, we can expect an unending stream of new and innovative ideas. Especially from those equipped with mushware. (p. xix-xxi)

My feeling after reading this book, and especially chapter eight and the discussion of mushware, is not inspiration but sadness. I am a bit sad that one of the giants of the hobby is not the great inspiration I had always envisioned. Instead, I now see Jim Dunnigan as a wargame designer that possessed a narrow ability to design historical land warfare wargames using classic hex-&-counter mechanics. I also see him as viewing himself as a member of an exclusive group – a group that is unwilling to share a hobby with RPG and computer wargames and collectible card games. Interestingly, I don’t recall reading anything about Magic: The Gathering in this book – amazing given how MTG was responsible for RPG and boardgame near-extinction in the 1990s. 

Fortunately, Dunnigan’s elitist attitude runs counter to the predominate mood of the boardgame hobby today. Indeed, in the very year the third edition of the Wargames Handbook was published, a “simple” wargame entered the hobby. Battle Cry (Avalon Hill, 2000) is regarded as the first of the Command and Colors System that in many ways revolutionized the wargame hobby with a “simple” wargame that broke many of the hex-&-counter design rules that SPI (and Dunnigan) clung to. I don’t find it surprising that the RockyMountainNavy game collection includes four Command and Colors games; nearly as many games as Jim Dunnigan designs owned.

This past weekend, the RockyMountainNavy Boys and I visited The Games Tavern in Chantilly, Virginia. We went in to look at tank models because the youngest RMN Boy likes to build armor. The weekend gaming was in full swing:

We were approached by many people who offered game and model advice and comment. We were invited to look at demos and displays and personal collections. My youngest was the center of attention because, I can tell, the hobby wants to bring young blood in, not keep it out. The incredible number of games – even wargames –  being published these days from designers that maybe had no wargame background proves that using mushware to design games is as useful as believing that midichlorians are part of the Force.

I recognize the Wargames Handbook is a snapshot in time as seen by the author. I am very glad that we have come far as a hobby in the intervening years.

Featured image courtesy goodreads.com