– Ben Martens


Google Pixel 7a Upgrade

We usually try to keep our phones 2-3 years, but even though we just got our Pixel 6a’s ~12 months ago, we’ve upgraded. I was having some oddities charging my phone sometimes and Tyla had trouble with the fingerprint sensor with one of her hands. Neither was a major problem, but I noticed that the 7a’s were on sale for $370 and our 6a’s were worth $200 on trade in. So for $170 per phone, we could upgrade. Why not? The 7a is a pretty big jump from the 6a in that it has face unlock, wireless charging, and an even better camera. We only paid $300 for our 6a’s so they basically cost us $100 for a year of use.

Even after a year of usage, the batteries on our phones were easily lasting through the day and the pictures that it took were gorgeous. I’m still a very big fan of the Pixel “a” line of phones. I would wager that if you had Pixel 7a and a flagship $800-$1000 device, most people couldn’t tell the difference. The only thing that might tip them off is screen size, but personally, I’m not a fan of the gigantic phones. I want someting that easily fits in my pocket. The 7a is exactly the same dimensions as the 6a, but don’t worry: they moved the buttons about 1 mm so you have to buy new cases.

If you’ve been on the fence about trying out the Pixel *a lineup, expect to see more sales on them as we get closer to the next batch of phones being released. I expect to see them on sale in the $300-325 range over the next few months. They’re fantastic devices and the cameras in them rival any phone at any price.

As is the norm when we upgrade devices, here’s an updated device history:

Sanyo SCP-4000 (?)
May 2001
LG 4500
April 2004
Motorola Q
September 2006
HTC Touch
May 2008
HTC Touch Pro 2
January 2010
HTC Trophy
June 2011
HTC 8x
December 2012
Nokia Lumia Icon
January 2015
Samsung Galaxy S7
October 2016
Google Pixel 4a
September 2020
Google Pixel 6a
March 2023
Google Pixel 7a
February 2024

Xbox Series X Review

Let’s start with a little journey through my console gaming history. Growing up, we didn’t have any consoles, but one of my good friends had a NES. There were many hours spent in Tecmo Super Bowl, Contra, Super Ivan’s Offroad (with the rented adapter from the video store to play four person), and lots of others. Later he also got a SNES but I mostly remember spending time with him on the NES.

Towards the end of my time at Purdue, I won a programming contest and got the original Xbox (along with an HP Jornada and compact flash WiFi card!) When I moved with it to New Jersey, we would have Halo LAN parties where we would wire up 4 Xbox consoles with four CRTs that people lugged to the house and frag the night away. Once I moved on from that console, I installed a new operating system on it and turned it into an NES emulator.

In November of 2005, the Xbox360 launched and I spent hours and hours hunting one down. They were very difficult to find due to their popularity but in January I finally got my hands on one. I ended up owning three or four of these over the years because they were how we watched TV. Cable TV came into a PC with an InfiniTV card and then was distributed out via the Media Center Extender app on the Xbox360. To this day, that remains the best DVR that I ever used.

The Xbox One launched in November 2013 and by then I was married, Elijah was here, and I was gaming a lot less, but I eventually picked one up in July 2014. My gaming was mostly relegated to whatever the latest Forza game happened to be at the time I picked up the controller.

The Xbox Series X launched in November 2020, and due to massive supply shortages from the pandemic, they are still nearly impossible to find a year later. It’s hard to tell how high the demand is given the incredibly low supply, but they disappear from the shelves nearly immediately. The same is true for the latest PlayStation console. Right before Christmas, I was able to snag a refurbished unit through work at a discounted price. So now we finally get to the topic of the post: an Xbox Series X Review.

First off, we’re back to the goofy console design. Remember how the Xbox 360 devices were always marketed in a vertical position? The same goes for the Series X but thankfully you can lay it down. The only annoying thing is that leaves the Xbox logo power light rotated 90 degrees. It doesn’t matter, but it’s a constant reminder of their bad design choice. Who has room for a device that big standing vertically?

Secondly, it’s very weird to boot up a brand new console and get exactly the same user interface as the Xbox One. I didn’t even buy any new games with this console. I just downloaded the same ones I had been playing on the Xbox One. Microsoft has moved more to a common OS across their devices and most games work on both the Xbox One and the Series X (and the Series S which sits somewhere in the middle.) The Series X is capable for 4k resolution at 120fps so it has a lot more horsepower than the other models. This results in better visuals for all the games.

Getting the new console has always been the way that you played the latest games. But if that’s not true anymore, then why upgrade? Well, honestly, it’s not necessary and it was still a splurge for me. But the biggest reason that I look forward to using it is how incredibly fast it is. For example, booting my Xbox One and getting to a playable point in Forza Horizon 5 takes about 4-5 minutes on my Xbox One. On the Series X it happens in seconds. Not only are the graphics better in the game, but the menus and challenges all load nearly instantaneously compared to 30-60 second waits on the Xbox One. (Note that I have the original version of the Xbox One so your mileage may vary if you bought later hardware revision.)

The end goal that I’m really shooting for is 4k gaming. I bought an AV receiver that is 4k capable last year and now I have a device that can spit out 4k video both for gaming and streaming video from the Internet. The last piece of the puzzle is a 4k projector. I bought the Epson 8350 in 2011, had it repaired in 2015, and I replaced the lamp in 2018. Over that time, 4k projectors have come down dramatically in price and there are lots of good options, but I’m going to try to hold out for a while longer and get more use out of this current projector. We’ll see how long I can hold out though…


Thanks to NickS for pointing me to The Battle of Polytopia. It’s a turn based strategy game similar to Civilization but MUCH simpler. It’s available for free for both iOS and Android, but there are optional in game purchases if you want to get more tribes and support the author.

You can either play to get the highest score in 30 turns or to conquer every other civilization on the map. After choosing your tribe, you’ll get one person in your tiny little village and then you set off exploring the land, gathering resources to expand your city and investing in technology. Along the way you’ll probably encounter other tribes to battle and conquer.

The game walks the perfect line of complex strategy and easy to understand game mechanics. The technology tree is pretty diverse but it’s simple enough that you can easily memorize it. It’s also the same for every civilization which helps dramatically. The differences between civilizations are their starting technologies and the type of terrain that they normally start on.

A multiplayer feature was recently added so you can play against your friends. It’s fun but it takes a lot longer than playing against the computer.

If you’re at all interested in strategy games, this one is worth a look! It has totally sucked me in. My high score in points mode is 63,730 and in domination mode, I’ve gotten 3 stars with 6 of the tribes so far. Can you beat those marks? (Judging by the high score tables, lots of people can.) If you want to join me in a multiplayer game, send me a note! So far I’ve gotten Logan hooked but the more the merrier.

Forza Motorsport 7 Review

I don’t spend much time playing video games anymore, but I always make time for Forza games when they come out. Racing simulators are my favorite and this is one of the best. I also know a couple people who work on the game so it’s fun to see what they’ve been up to.

Forza 7 is gorgeous and the driving experience is wonderful. This version adds night racing and dynamic weather conditions. You might start in the day time or dry weather but you could end in night time or rain. Other than that, though, it’s another series of races to enjoy. If you liked the previous ones, you’ll like this, but if you’re hoping that this version adds an epic story line, look elsewhere.

One thing that I’m unhappy with in this version is the lack of incentive to make the game more realistic. For example, there’s no incentive to turn on realistic car damage. You don’t pay for any of the damage after the race or suffer ill effects during the race. Just smash your way up to the front. Sure, you can change this setting, but it doesn’t give you any more money or lead to faster lap times so how many people will really do this? I’d like to see a cash bonus if you run with damage enabled or maybe a penalty after the race for how much damage you did to your car.

In general, I’m still waiting for two things in a racing simulator:

  1. Let me play Forza with virtual reality goggles on. I’d probably puke after 20-30 minutes of it, but I still want it.
  2. We have all this great real world map data available. Let me plug in an address and drop my car there. I don’t even care how real the graphics are. Just get the turns and the elevation changes to match the real world and I’d be thrilled. How fast could I make it to work on empty streets with a Ferrari? I want to know!

Sushi Go

“Ben, you’re a nerd. All these board games you’ve been writing about are too confusing and weird.” Never fear! I have a game for you too: Sushi Go.

The rules of Sushi Go can be explained in one minute. All the players are dealt cards. You look at your cards, play one card and then everyone passes their cards to the player next to them. You’re trying to build sets and matches but so is everyone else.

The game goes extremely quickly, but it’s a good introduction to “hand passing” games. This one is great for large groups that contain people who don’t play a lot of these games and/or include younger players. We often use this one as a filler when we only have a few minutes to play a game.


If you look at a game of Pandemic, it feels a bit like Risk. There’s a map of the world and a bunch of little pieces on it. In Pandemic, however, all the players are working together to stop the outbreak of four different diseases. You can do a little bit of disease cleanup by visiting the various cities, but you’ll rapidly fall behind. To cure the disease, you need to collect cards that match the colors of the various diseases.

Each player has different skills that are represented by cards dealt at the beginning of the game. You might have special abilities to heal infected cities, cure diseases with fewer cards, or move players around the board. That mix of skills changes with each game.

This game is one of the hardest ones I’ve played. It’s a team game and it requires everyone to be playing with the same strategy. You can talk freely but still, it’s hard to keep it all in your head. I love it though! There’s a version for Android where you get to play all the characters and using that, I’ve been able to win a few times on the easy settings.


Monday and Tuesday started with board game posts so let’s just go for a whole week of board games. Up today is “Munchkin“. This game starts off easy and gets more complicated as you play. Everyone starts off at Level 1 and is trying to become a Level 10 munchkin. You gain levels by defeating monsters that you encounter, and you defeat monsters by using items you have acquired and deals made with other players.

Every card you play has the ability to dramatically change the game and even change the rules of the game to some extent. The game is intentionally comical and open to definition. You’ll run into situations where the various rules conflict or are vague and you just get to argue it out. The instructions make this very clear from the start by explaining how to start the game. It says: “Decide who goes first by rolling the dice and arguing about the results and the meaning of this sentence and whether the fact that a word seems to be missing any effect.”

During the game you might find yourself as an elf carrying a flask of glue wearing pantyhose of giant strength, but if that all helps you defeat a maul rat then you just gained a level. Let’s just hope someone doesn’t curse you with a sex change.

There’s plenty of strategy and it takes a lot of concentration to figure out how to apply all the wild cards in your hand to win the game. I love this game but it’s on the complicated side and can take a while. If you somehow get bored of the base game, there are endless numbers of expansion packs available.

Oldies But Goodies

After writing about Fluxx yesterday, I thought I’d do a few more posts on my favorite board games. (And yes, I probably use “board games” incorrectly since some of these are tile games and others are card games.)

To get started, I’ll rip through some of the “classics” that I’ve already written about in the past:

  • Settlers of Catan – This was one of the first games that opened the general US population (myself included) up to modern board games. I’ve played this hundreds of times and will happily play it again at any time. The rules are pretty simple but the board changes every game so you need to be able to employ different strategies depending on the situation. Once you get a few games under your belt, you can read my strategy guide.
  • Ticket To Ride – This is probably the next game that most people played after they discovered Settlers. I like this but it’s not one of my favorites. There is a LOT of luck involved in getting the right cards, but if you play enough times, the better players will eventually win more games.
  • Carcassonne – This is a tile based game. You build up a shared board with the other players and carefully place your followers to gain ownership of a road, field, city, or cloister. I actually enjoy this one a bit more on a computer/phone/Xbox because scoring can get a little tricky in person.
  • Dominion – We were looking to branch out a bit from the classics listed above and this was recommended by a lot of other gamers. It’s a card game where the rules and strategy change with every game (this is a common theme in modern board games.) I enjoy this but for some reason it doesn’t get picked as often lately. I think part of the reason is because we have so many new games to try out.

All of these are solid choices. Prices range between $30 and $50 depending on the game. That might seem like a lot of money, but think about how much a group of 4 people would spend for one evening together if they went out. Even if you only play the game a couple times, you probably got your money’s worth.

Fluxx Review

When we get together with Tyla’s family, we like to play board games and we’re regularly trying out new ones. I figured I would start sharing my thoughts about them as we try them. It’s probably silly because there are much better board game review sites out there, but this is the only one that contains my opinions.

The most recent game we played is Fluxx 5.0. The game is extremely simple. The rules are that you draw one card and play one card. At the beginning, there isn’t even a defined way to win! The catch is that many of the cards you play modify the rules of the game. Maybe you’ll play three cards at a time, or maybe the first card you play will be picked by someone else, or maybe you can’t keep any cards in your hand after your turn is done.

Eventually someone will play a “goal” card. That lists out two items that you need to collect to win the game. You collect items by playing “keeper” cards that have various items on them. If you play the two keeper cards that match the goal card, you win. But inevitably, as soon as you get close to winning, someone will replace the goal card with a different one and then you have to start over.

The game is fun for it’s simplicity and maddening for its ability to foil any plan you try to make. I’ve only played three games of this, but I don’t see a strong strategy component yet. There’s probably some strategy in there somewhere, but for now it’s just hilarious to watch the game progress.

Kingdom Builder Strategy Guide

Logan got Kingdom Builder for Christmas and a few days later I discovered it was available on my phone. I’ve been playing it since then. A lot.

Whenever we head to Wil Wheaton’s Table Top Games videos on YouTube to see a video of them playing it. They have an episode for Kingdom Builder and it’s a good way to understand what the game is about. It’s a deep strategy game with very simple rules. There’s some luck based on what type of resource you draw each turn, but the game is mostly skill.

I couldn’t find a nice strategy guide for the game so I thought I’d make an attempt. I’m by no means an expert, but I’ve played through a few hundred matches so I figure I can at least get one started.

  1. Before you put down any pieces, come up with a strategy for your game.
    1. What kinds of scoring cards are out? Which ones will give you the most points? Some cards like Knights are worth a lot of points and others like Citizens are worth less. If, for example, there aren’t any high scoring cards out, then you might want to focus more on building next to castles. If the game involves Farmers, you need to figure out how to get your pieces into all four quadrants.
    2. What special tiles are in play? If there is a Hermit card turned up and you don’t play on the Horse tile, you’re probably not going to win. There are other good matches too. If Merchants are in play, try to grab the Boat tile if it is available. The Watchtower tile is a great one if you’re using either Discoverer or Knight cards.
    3. Usually it’s hard to focus on all three scoring cards at once, so pick the two highest value ones and focus on those first. Get points with the third card when you’re stuck with the first two toward the end of the game.
  2. Be careful where you place your tile. That sounds obvious, but those first two or three turns can make or break your game. For example, let’s say that you have a Farmers card and you need to get a piece in all four quadrants. If your first place touches all of the different land types, then it’s going to be very hard to get to all four quadrants. But if you can play those first pieces, get a tile, and only touch one resource type, you have a good chance of being able to play somewhere else on your next turn. On the flip side, if you’re trying to get points with Lords or Citizens, then you might want to spread out and touch lots of different resources so that you can keep growing those settlements.
  3. The special location tiles come in two main categories. A winning game will probably make use of some from each category.
    1. Relocation: These let you move pieces to other locations after they have been played. This is useful for breaking up settlements in a Hermits game but has other value too.
    2. Additional pieces: These let you play more than 3 pieces in a game. It’s really hard to win a game if you still have 10 pieces left when someone else goes out.
  4. The value of the Horse tile cannot be understated. You can make up for a lot of mistakes with this tile and also grab a lot of extra points. If you have both tiles it’s pretty easy to travel around the board and get most/all of the castle points. The horse tile is a great first play too because if you happen to be touching the next resource card, you could play your horse tile first and hop away leaving you free to play elsewhere on the board.
  5. With every play, think about how many points you’re getting. Sometimes you can get 4 or 5 points with a single piece (play next to a castle next to water and/or mountains with Fisherman and/or MIners in play.) The total points in a game will vary widely by the type of cards in play (I’ve seen winning scores below 40 and above 115), but in general, you need to get at least one point for every piece. If you have to put down a piece with 0 points (or even 0.5 points), think about how you can move it somewhere else on the board with one of your relocation tiles.
  6. Get your own house in order first, but as you’re playing out your strategy, consider opportunities to block your opponents. For example, if they don’t have a Horse and they’re building a long row for Knights, a single piece in their way might keep them away from a lot of points. Also, in a game of Hermits, don’t leave an isolated single resource open. That’s a surefire point for someone else who draws that resource card.
  7. The randomness in the game stems from having to draw a terrain card at the start of every turn. You can decrease the risk by know what you’ll do with every different terrain card. They might not all be equally awesome, but hopefully you can do something with every card to get you some points.

This is one of my favorite board games. You can explain the rules to a new player in a couple minutes but it will take a lifetime to master it.