Saturday, February 25, 2017

El Grande: The King and the Intrigant -- Board Game Journeys

Board Game Journeys is a new feature on The Left Chapter that will review and look at the mechanics of the best board games/card games out there. As always, if you have a game you would like to do a feature on, send it to

As a long term fan and devotee of board games of many different types I have long wanted to launch this feature. Board games and strategic card (and in some cases dice) games are a remarkable hobby and interest that combines entertainment, mind power and skill with direct socializing with friends and family!

I like board games of all types but I am especially fond of those with historical themes and tend to enjoy those that are more skill and strategy driven as opposed to those that emphasize luck. In this ongoing feature we will be looking at games that are easy to learn (though often hard to master) through to those of very high complexity as in the cases of some of the old Avalon Hill strategy games, for example.

Today we start with a game that is historically themed, can be two or multiplayer (up to 5), and is relatively easy to learn but is a real test of skill making it very re-playable. These types of board games are terrific when you come across them as they have a very wide appeal and are perfect for an evening with friends who may not be "gamers" as well as those who are.

El Grande: The King and the Intrigant is a card driven and multiple scoring round game that has very elegant mechanics. The game seeks to recreate the intrigue and plotting of the Spanish court in the late middle ages. Each player is a "Grande" and your goal is to muster more influence across the kingdom than any other player through the placement and movement of your minions -- known as "Caballeros" -- in Spain's various regions.

The game board prior to the beginning of play

The more Caballeros you have in any given region the greater your influence there. Each region has a given intrinsic value point wise (with second and third place scoring in multiplayer games) that can be altered by the play of certain cards and that is possibly increased by the presence of a Grande and/or the King. There is also a Castillo region off the coast of Spain where the numbers of Caballeros that have been placed are hidden and who are placed back onto the board during scoring rounds in a way that can shift regional balances of power at the last moment!

At the beginning of the game the starting home region of the King and each player is determined randomly. The King's region and the player's home regions can be changed over the course of the game and a key strategic aspect is that any region the King is in is frozen as long as the King is in it in terms of the placement or movement of Caballeros or Grandes. In addition, the region that the king is in effects where player's can place Caballeros during their turn elsewhere on the board.

A sample game board right at the start. The King is the large game piece, the
Grandes are the medium-sized cubes and the Caballeros are the small cubes

The game is divided into 9 rounds. After every third round the game is scored (various cards can result in partial scoring as well) and after the 9th round there is a final scoring. The scores are cumulative and are kept track of on a scoring track that runs around the board's edge. They are determined to your level of control within each region and their relative values.

A sample board at the end of the first scoring after 3 rounds of play

The truly clever mechanic at play however is the way the game determines who gets to do what during each round and how many Caballeros they get to place. At the beginning of each turn, 5 Action Cards (moves) are revealed that are available for players to play and that allow certain things such as the scoring of specific regions, moving the King, moving your own or other player's Caballeros, etc. In any game with less than 5 players some of these cards will not be used.

Players then bid on who gets to pick which move and in what order by using "Power Cards" numbered between 1 and 13 with the higher the value being the more powerful card. The Power Cards used to bid also determine the number of Caballeros that are made available for placement by being transferred from the "provinces" to a "Court" card where they await being placed on the board at some future point (this is NOT the number that you actually get to place that turn) while the move that they ultimately chose decides the actual number of Caballeros that they get to, in fact, place on the board that turn. This means the player always has to manage not just what move they would ideally like to have, but how many Caballeros bidding on that move will free up for placement and how many Caballeros the move itself will allow to be placed in addition to the actions allowed by the card!

It is intricate though easy to understand after having played a round or two. It is always hard to master. There is nothing worse than getting an Action Card that allows 4 or 5 Caballeros to be placed but not having that number available for placement.

A sample board at the beginning of round 7 after the second scoring

Power Cards, however, can normally only ever be played once, which means that every turn the players have to evaluate the moves available to them, how critical it is to them to get these moves or to prevent other players from getting these moves, and when it is worth playing their "one time only" high value trump cards like their 12 or 13 card to get a key move.

Meanwhile, the higher the value of the Power card you use the LOWER the number of Caballeros you free up for placement! The 7 card pictured here frees up 3 Caballeros, while the 1 card would free up 6 and the 13 card frees up none. This means you also have to factor that into when it is worth playing the higher cards.

These are some examples of the Action Cards players can bid on and at the bottom of each card are the number of Caballeros that they then get to place in various regions or the Castillo before or after the action allowed (players, by the way, do not actually have to take the action, they can simply use the card to place Caballeros and prevent others from taking the action). Most cards and actions are available only once or twice a game. The King's Card allowing the King to be moved is available to bid on every turn.

Other factors come into play, such as the "Secret Wheel", the "Mobile Score Boards" and the scoring order, but those can all be learned by picking up a copy of this excellent game.

In addition to the strength of the mechanics, the game is rendered in a beautiful way with a gorgeous board, wooden pieces and well thought out theme. It is fun and exciting, turns do not take too long and last second or unexpected developments can upend strategies that had seemed like sure things.

A perfect game to start this series with as it will hold appeal for both the hardcore and the casual gamer and is highly addictive. Many a night I have played it has ended with players debating whether we should all start another game even though it is obviously too late to do so!

A sample board at game's end

Several expansions are now available for El Grande, but I personally did not take to these expansions and actually prefer the play of the base game as is.

Unlike some games we will be looking at, various versions of El Grande are still in production and are available new (generally for around $50 and up).

Game: El Grande (1995) Rio Grande Games
Designers: Wolfgang Kramer & Richard Ulrich
Details: 2-5 Players, Aged 12 and Up
Average Game Time: 90 Minutes

Friday, February 24, 2017


What about a world where there are no good guys?

I laughed, smiling at him

What is the point of thinking about that?

Step back five years...imagine

Step back ten years

Sydney comes up the stairs drink in hand

You almost felt them when they were coming up over that hill. Four cars and a lot of trouble. Bruce tried to put the Ford in reverse but there was no going in reverse quick enough at that point. "Fuck this. I'm not going down this way" Richard yelled as he started to open the passenger door even though we were moving and moving pretty fast. I kept holding on to the rifle in the back seat, my father's fucking rifle that I found in the garage when he died, even though my hands were almost too weak now to grip. 

The beach was unbelievable that day

Streams of people with blankets and coolers

I was touching your hair with your head on my chest and you were looking out at the lake

All while mumbling quietly under your breath creepy like at some old time school house

Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down.

The first shot hit Bruce right in the forehead. His blood and brains blew out all over me and the car's cabin like some vile crimson mist. The car was still moving backwards but Richard was almost out hanging on to the passenger door low with one hand while trying to aim with the other.  But it didn't work and the last thing I saw before I hit the car floor was him falling face first into the gravel road. He cried out but I could no longer see him. I heard more shots. Four. Maybe five. Couldn't tell if any were his. 

I saw it

I saw all of it

The announcement was over the PA system and told us what we were all dreading

Drew was actually holding his head in his hands and almost sobbing

That day when they tell you you will have to go but you have nowhere to go to

Our car finally stopped when it plowed into the trees at the end of the road. I didn't know if they had seen me at all. I had no idea how close they were but I reached up and opened the back door a little and slid out leaving the rifle behind. I was crouched and heading into the bushes but the bullet hit me before I even heard it.

She was out for the night

Richard at the Formica table in the kitchen by the screen door

Talking intensely at me empty beer bottles like cathedral spires at the center

What choice do we have one is going to get hurt

The phone starts ringing on the wall right beside my head but I just can't answer it

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Farmhouse Cookbook w. Raised Doughnuts, Puzzle Cake, Beef Stroganoff & more -- Vintage Cookbook TBT

Vintage Cookbook: The Farmhouse Cookbook, Claire Moon

Publication Details: Ideals Publishing, 1978

Ideals Magazine was an inspirational and religious magazine that started publication in the 1940's and that was especially known for its Christmas and Easter issues. The magazine aimed for a folksy charm and centered around family stories, poems, illustrations, traditional tales and the like. While the magazine ceased full publication several years ago, they still publish those two holiday issues which are available through larger bookstores and sites like Amazon.

Back in their heyday Ideals would also publish special issues and magazine formatted cookbooks of various kinds. In fact, they published a lot of cookbooks! I have seen sites where 70 or more titles are listed.

These cookbooks are often worth tracking down for their large numbers of themed recipes as well as their reflection of North American cooking in the eras in which they were published. The cookbooks run the gambit from bread to cookie to budget to gourmet to meat and on and on. Some, such as the one we are looking at today, have sections for all of these and are centred around what one supposes must be an "ideal, in this case the "Farmhouse".

As with many cookbooks from the 1970s, The Farmhouse Cookbook swings frequently between the classic and the campy, including in its full page photography. Here the photography seeks to emphasize the farmhouse theme.

There are pages and pages of recipes broken down by type (Salads, Mains, Desserts, etc.). Most often there are 4-6 recipes to a page! These are all over the map in terms of their appeal to a 2017 palate. Classics like Beef Stroganoff, Sauerbraten or Potato Pancakes never really go out of style while others like Cheese Savory Canapes and Celebration Salad likely are too dated for all but the most adventurous to attempt.

Then are are those like the Sauerkraut Casserole that sound kind of "out there" at first, but on closer inspection have interesting flavour combinations. Whether these combinations are of interest to you or not, of course, is another matter.

Here we are going to look at only a small number of the cookbook's recipes focusing on those that had accompanying photographs. To see the rest, alas, you will have to track a copy down!

The recipes either immediately proceed or follow their picture.

(Click on images to enlarge)

(Above the Red Cabbage recipe is pictured as accompanying a pork roast)

See also: Eastern Vegetarian Cooking w. Lime Pickle, Dashi, Millet & more -- Vintage Cookbook TBT

See also: Mary Poppins in the Kitchen w. Dundee Cake, Welsh Rarebit, Yorkshire Pudding & more! -- Vintage Cookbook TBT

Vintage Cookbook TBT List

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Stove-top Braised Beef Short Ribs

Beef short ribs are a cut that, generally speaking, benefit from a long cooking time to make them moist and fall-off-the-bone delicious. This especially true if you are buying grocery chain cuts.

Today we are going to take a look at making braised short ribs that are simmered in broth and wine with an assortment of vegetables. We are also going to do it entirely stove-top.

This is a terrific winter dish as well -- both hearty and warming.

For this blog we made four short ribs.

First, season your ribs liberally with both salt and black pepper and let them sit at room temperature for half-an-hour prior to cooking.

Heat some olive oil in a large, deep saucepan and brown the short ribs for 2 minutes a side.

When they are nicely browned (see photo) remove to a platter and set aside. Do not drain any of the liquids from the saucepan.

Into the saucepan add one large diced onion, 2 chopped carrots, two chopped stalks of celery and 3 minced cloves of garlic (as well as more oil if needed).

Brown these, stirring regularly, for about 10 minutes over medium heat. You want the onions especially to be soft and golden.

Add the short ribs back to the saucepan and then add an equal mixture of red wine and beef broth until the ribs are slightly covered. I used a Cabernet Sauvignon.

Finally, add 3 bay leaves, 2 sprigs of thyme and 2 sprigs of parsley.

Bring to a boil, reduce heat heat and simmer, uncovered, for around 2 1/2 hours. The liquid will reduce, so after about an hour flip the short ribs ever half-hour or so.

When the short ribs are done you will literally be able to pull out one of the bones easily and with no resistance.

You can serve the ribs whole or cut into individual "riblets". I like to serve them whole over mashed potatoes or rice with some of the vegetables and juices on top. It is a wonderful dish to savour with some of the red wine that you did not use to cook with (or a whole different bottle altogether!) and a crusty baguette.


See also: Georgian Beef Chakhokhbili

See also: Stove-top Caribbean Style Braised Oxtail

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

15 Classic Bookstore Bookmarks from Toronto, Guelph, Hamilton & more

As most people familiar with this blog will know, until the end of 2015 my partner Natalie and I owned and operated an independent bookstore in South Etobicoke. This first opened as Used Book Paradise in 2001 and then moved a little to the east within the community and became Community Roots Books in 2009.

As with most bookstores it was a labour of love, but sadly while the business does still exist, we had to make the difficult decision to make it online only. As the closing of the bookstore approached I wrote of the whole experience and family story that the bookstore had become in a piece called A Farewell to a Bookstore.

Our transition to online only is part of a broader pattern of independent bookstores doing this, or closing down altogether.

Over the years in the store (as one would imagine) I came across a great many bookmarks of various kinds that had been left by people in the books they brought to us. Many are just art, some advertise books or other items, some were political, some had short inspirational messages, and so on.  Others were bookmarks that also served  as advertisements, naturally, for bookstores.

Today we are going to take a look at 15 classic bookmarks for bookstores many of which (though not all) are no longer open.

I have a lot more of these, so you can look forward to a future post with more!

(Click on images to enlarge)

Pages was an iconic Toronto bookstore on Queen St. W. that opened in 1979.
It closed in 2009 a victim not of declining sales but of ever higher rents.

Bryan Prince's bookstore has been serving Hamilton since 1989.

Lakeview Used Books opened in 1996 and had an attached military museum! 
At some point it got new owners, the museum closed, and it became By The Lake Books.

Parry Sound Books, though it has moved from Church St, also happily still serves cottage country.
I love the quote on this bookmark!

Used Book Paradise was the first incarnation of our bookstore.
In 2009 it moved and became Community Roots. 

The Vancouver Women's Bookstore was a feminist bookstore that was open from 1973 to 1996.

Another iconic women's bookstore that has sadly closed is the Toronto Women's Bookstore.
After 39 years it closed in 2012. The Toronto Star wrote of the sadness of so many when it shut its doors. Michele Landsberg described it as “a priceless resource in Toronto.”
This was a two-sided bookmark.
On a different bookmark from the store that I have (but that is to damaged to share) a quote read:
"Value books as cultural and intellectual expressions, not merely commodities".
You can read about the bookstore as well on Wikipedia.

Bookworld was the bookstore of the Communist Party of Canada.
It moved to College St. and closed in the early 90s.

Bakka (now Bakka Pheonix) Books is Toronto's famous science fiction and fantasy bookstore.
Open since 1973 it is now located on Harbord St.

After 36 years serving Guelph, Macondo Books closed in 2014. These are two of their bookmarks.

Also in Guelph, The Bookshelf opened solely as a bookstore in 1973, became a bookstore/cafe in 1980 and then added a cinema in 1987!
These are two bookmarks from the store, including one promoting a Canadian film in 1994.

Writers & Co. was on Yonge between Davisville and Eglinton. 
It was replaced by a "spy" store after closing.

Opened in 1965, The Book Mark was 

Watch for a second installment soon!