It is that time once again where I thought it would be fun to put together a top ten list of my very favourite movies of the year.
It is time once again to recount what I believe to be the best ten movies of 2013. I’m pleased that I am getting this article out before the Oscars this time around since often it can seem anti-climatic if my number one pick ends up winning best picture (like last year with Argo). What started off as an abysmal year in terms of quality of movies (by the end of the summer, I had only seen one movie worth talking about), I am pleased that by year’s end, all ten entries in the list are excellent films (especially the top three this year).
This year I thought I’d try to jump the gun on Oscar and release my best movies of the year article before the Academy Awards are announced. It always feels a little cheap when my number one movie of the year happens to land the Best Picture golden statue.
2014 was a decent year for movies. I saw some excellent films, very few bad ones and the ones that I would say are mediocre were far better than the mediocrity of past years.
It’s that time of year again when we look back at the previous year and remember the best of the best. Oscar season is done and they’ve had their say, but now let’s have ours. 2015 was a pretty good year for movies, I think we had about six outstanding films this year, which is fantastic.
Well, it’s that time of year again where we’ll take a look back on what the very best of the year had to offer us in terms of movies. Let’s get right into it!
Well, I’ve put it off far too long to get this article put together. There are still movies I want to see from 2017 but at this point, there is too much good stuff in 2018 to see so I don’t see myself catching up. So while imperfect, I think I’ve come up with a strong list of best movies for the year and I strongly encourage you to see these films if you haven’t already. Most should be easy enough to find at home now on some sort of streaming device.
[Insert siege engine related pun here]
The latest piece of mine to have slithered onto Shut Up & Sit down is a review of Bowen Simmon’s long-awaited Guns of Gettysburg. It’s good, very good, with the usual mixture of design creativity, weighty strategy and brilliantly abstracted history we’ve come to expect from Bowen.
But I don’t think it’s as good as his previous offerings. It runs pretty long and is more complex, for starters, and that’s no small issue given the steep learning curve of his highly procedural games. It’s also rather deterministic early on in the game, because all blocks start at the same strength. But things still become pleasingly capricious after the first few battles, and its well worth playing, especially if you’ve not had the chance to sample his unique approach to games before.
I also did a long piece on the Spiel des Jahres for Casual Game Insider magazine. Proper games journalism! With research and everything! Did you know there was a print board gaming magazine? Me neither: thank Superfly Pete for the information. I presume the piece will be in the next issue.
Board game adaptations continue to pile up, and most of them continue to feel rather lifeless without the pleasure of other human beings to play with. But this month two games I covered on Gamezebo have notably bucked the trend.
First is Zombies!!! which manages to impressively overcome the colossal drag factor of the awful board game and actually be quite fun solo. What the game needed was speed of play and streamlining, and it got both. Although, oddly, without an option to speed it up even more by turning off animations. But it’s still Zombies!!! at its core and so should be approached with caution.
The other is A Brief History of the World. This was new to me, and I was actually really impressed with the underlying game, in spite of the colossal oddity of being Pharohnic Egypt one turn, the Shang Dynasty the next and then topping things off by assuming the role of Hitler. It’s also a near-perfect fit for the asynchronous play model. The app is regrettably buggy, but developer Sage has a good record of getting things fixed.
Speaking of computer versions of board games, there’s a new version of Catan out on PC. It’s lovely. But there’s still no online play, and no really good reason to pick it over existing versions you might already own.
There was a Steam sale. I managed to only spend £15. I am very proud of my indomitable willpower. I haven’t played many of the games yet. Little Inferno is an interesting concept, packed with cleverness and useful commentary on environmentalism, consumerism and a self-critique of lightweight mobile games. But it’s really more of an interactive toy than a game and expensive for what it is at full price. System Shock 2 might have a 92% Metacritic rating but it feels very, very old and clunky. I also got a bunch of interesting strategy games in the last Humble Bundle sale. Soon I'll have more unplayed games on Steam than I have in my wardrobe.
I reviewed some more stuff for PC Gamer. Super Splatters is a tolerable physics puzzler, Angry Birds style with added goo. Not awful, but only really worthwhile for dedicated fans of the genre. I also had a look at an alpha version of Conquest Mars which is an interesting idea: a real time strategy game stripped back to the bare essentials in an attempt to make it acutally about strategy and not the efficiency of gathering resources. It's pretty fun, and it's amazing to see a lightweight browser-based game handle hundreds of tanks on screen at once, although it'd benefit from some more development. There's an inevitable crowdfunding campaign if you want to help make it happen. Finally I covered a rather peculiar but interesting game called Cubetractor which, improbably, mixes elements of strategy, puzzle and bullet hell games into one unlikely package. It's entertaning to play and I admire its originality but it can be increadibly frustrating at times when you you want to plan a strategy or experiment with a puzzle solution but all you're constantly interrupted by the need to frantically dodge bullets.
It dawned on my some time ago that my knowledge of European history before Julius Caesar was almost non-existent. I’ve finally got around to remedying that with two excellent books, Ancient Worlds by Richard Miles for the broad overview, and Warfare in the Classical World by John Warry for the violence.
One of the most interesting things is the manner in which the books highlight the steady march of both civilization and warfare through what I’d previously perceived as a rather homogenous period between the invention of writing cities in ancient Mesopotamia and the rise of Feudalism and the mounted knight in the Dark Ages. I knew there was a lot of history in between, of course, but I had no idea how many new ideas came and went in the meantime.
God help me, but they're making me want to re-purchase the Greek C&C:A expansions (#1 and #6) that I slated for not bringing enough new to the game and sold. They don't bring enough new to the game. But suddenly names like Marathon, Salamis and of course Marathon.seem a whole lot more appealing all on their own.
This wonderful summer stretches on, a long, languid march of hazy days basking in the dusty glory of the sun and too many middle-aged men in shorts. When I’d been through all my reggae albums, where else was there to go but the techno-driven party scene of the early nineties?
As a dutiful indie kid at that time, I shunned electronic music like I shunned daylight, wincing in horror at the garish pop tunes that adorned the chart. But then, one day, I heard Orbital’s Belfast, and my life changed forever.
There were so many anthems then, glittering waves of melody riding on a sea of pounding bass lines. Next was Underworld and Dubnobasswithmyheadman one of the best, and best-named, albums ever released. Then Tricky with Aftermath, 808 State with Pacific State, the Aphex Twin with Xtal.
Whatever happened to techno? Drowned, it seems it an endless swamp of euro-trance from which project horrid oddities like The Knife, deliberately standing out by being as extreme as possible and skirting the edges of unlistenable discord as a result. They called it Intelligent Dance Music once upon a time. A pompous label, but I want it back: now it seems you can either have the Intelligent or the Dance, but not at the same time.
I’m tired of thinking of double entendres and puns on the phrase “Bolt Thrower”. You're probably tired of reading them. It’s here, it’s by me, please read it.
You’ll recall I’ve resurrected this column to link back to my pieces for the lovely crew at Shut Up & Sit Down, where my last review was Combat Commander: Europe. It’s a game I avoided for a long time due to lacking tanks, but I was wrong to do so. It’s a brilliant game which creates incomparably detailed narratives of small-scale World War 2 firefights.
Occasionally the strategy elements fall flat with unlucky card draws or obvious map bottlenecks but it’s one of those rare titles where the other elements - the story in this case - are so rich that you stop caring and just enjoy the ride. It’s my game of choice at the moment, and I’m actually annoyed that I have other games to review and so can’t play it enough, let alone justify splashing on expansions.
Films and TV
Been watching an unusually large amount lately.
Finished Walking Dead season three. It was a huge let-down as far as I’m concerned, with the last episode being more feeble than finale. Very telling that the best episodes in the series, 12 and 13, went back to the series roots by focussing on the relationships between a subset of the cast. But they were lights in a mediocre grayness. Really hope season 4 either improves substantially or is the last.
I believed that Star Trek Into Darkness was probably worth a rare cinema trip. It was. I’m an old-school Trek fan, who thinks the original series was the best and I understand the feeling of loss engendered by the removal of intelligent sci-fi. But for me, what made Star Trek great wasn’t the clever bits, but its humanity and character interplay. That has survived the reboot wholly intact and carried on into this film, with the added bonus of vast entertainment value.
Enjoying the latest season of Doctor Who so far. I felt Matt Smith had lived in his predecessor’s shadow for too long, more the fault of Tennant’s brilliance than any serious shortcomings on Smith’s part. But enough time has passed now for that shadow to fade, and allow Smith his time in the limelight. It’s helped enormously by some meaty, imaginative stories and Jenna-Louise Coleman who does a sterling job of using the limited resources allowed to the part of Doctor’s assistant to fashion a crude facsimile of an interesting character. So it's a bit of a shame he's just announced he's stepping down from the role. Ah well. Let the speculation begin! I'd say Benedict Cumberbatch if he wasn't now a megastar. Or perhaps it's time for a female Doctor Whp?
Finished Moby Dick. Shows its age, but if you can get past ye turgid olde fashioned Englishe, it’s an incredible book.
Next on the reading table is that classic of tenth century Icelandic literature Njal’s Saga. The Vikings unquestionably had the best medieval writers, helped enormously by a culture underpinned by brutal inter-family violence. Fascinating both on a historical level and as an insight into the questionable fruits of jealousy and resentment. Someone should make a game about this.
My second original Xbox 360 died the death. Fortunately I’d bought it from a shop that offered guarantees on second hand model and got to take it back for a new slim model, just paying the price difference. The man behind the counter related the tale of one regular customer who’d been through thirteen of the core models before the slims came out. Shame on you, Microsoft.
I don’t see any reason in the Xbox One launch to bother upgrading until I’ve done playing all the games I wanted to on the current model. And there’s plenty of those left. So it seemed reasonable to chip in now, despite the expense. Why they added a loud ping to the turn-on and disc-draw buttons, other than to infuriate the parents of sleeping children, is beyond me. I really, really, really wish you could turn it off.
The only thing of value that I lost was a save of Arkham Asylum about three-quarters complete, so I’ll never get to see the end now. But it’s a good game, not a great one, that perhaps tries to cram too many different play styles into one package and was a little on the easy side. Besides I got Arkham City as part of the package, so I can pick up not all that long after I left off.
Anyway, as a result, I got stuck with my PC. So after staring at the unscalable height’s of moss_icon’s pinball scores I decided to give up and went back to XCOM instead in Ironman mode, the way it should be played. It’s much more intense and weaves a richer narrative that way. Wish I’d done it the first time round.
I mostly get tuned into music music through suggestions on social media. Even here. But occasionally I dip my toe cautiously into the pop-shark infested waves of other outlets. So it was, while trudging tiresomely through the sludge being served up by last.fm radio, I was completely blown away when I came across Eros by Mary Hampton. Striking, sombre, rich and deep it felt comprehensively different
Right away I turned off last.fm and spooled the whole of her first album, My Mother’s Children, on Spotify. I found it to be equally astonishing. Gliding effortlessly from incredibly delicate acoustic flights to sudden dark and aggressive whimsy, it’s sort of like a musical version of Alice in Wonderland. There are relatively few albums that have no filler on them, that make you want to listen to every track one after the other every time. But this is one of mine.
So, of course, I went and got the rest of her catalogue. Her first EP, Six Songs of Refusal, is a lovely collection of traditional folk but only Eros really gives a taste of what’s to come. The second EP, Six Songs of Hunger, is less interesting. Her second album, Folly, is uneven. At it’s best, songs like Honey in the Rock, it’s arguably better than her first. But it’s too willfully obscure at times.
In spite of the ups and downs, I remain totally enchanted by her work. By far the best new thing I’ve found so far this year. Hoping I might get to see her play live one day.
Let's Bolt some Throws! What a great way to quickly enliven old, tired furniature.
Rather than an actual SU&SD review this time, I wrote an article that the community over there kept asking me to write, which was a guide to introductory wargames.
While there's obviously lots of games mentioned, I deliberately steered clear of naming a particular favourite, or a ranked list because I wanted to make the point that the best introductory wargame for any given person depends on the sorts of games and the sort of history that person likes. There seems to be the absurd idea that just because some wargames are complex, all of them are, and all of them are similar enough for there to be a sort of gentle introduction that'll make them all work for you. It's poppycock. If you can play a hobby game, you can play a wargame, and since the definiting characterstic and charm of a wargame, for me at least, is the history it describes, that should be the number one thing you think about when picking one.
A lot of people seemed suprised that Sekigahara wasn't mentioned. It's a great game, but it's also a law unto itself. You won't get anything from it that's at all applicable to learning others games, so it's not really "introductory" in that sense.
I also can't keep my hands off Splendor at the moment. I know I already reviewed it, and I know it's not typically the sort of game that I, or the general audience here, would likely go for, but it just keeps growing on me for reasons that are hard to pin down. It's so quick and simple, yet has so many moving parts that it's worth playing just to marvel at how much game there is compacted into such a tiny design. It's like an eel: every time I think I've got a handle on how to play it, I find its changed in my grip, even as I'm playing, and I'm losing again. Super clever piece of design, and about the best light/medium modern, low interaction Euro I've played.
Films & TV
Really disappointed with The Avengers film. The last third was pretty good, full of the thrills and spills you'd expect, but the preceding parts felt padded with flabby exposition and uninteresting characters. If it wasn't for Mark Ruffalo's excellent turn as The Hulk I might not even have had the patience to make it to the finale.
I've also become convinced that The Walking Dead jumped the shark at the mid-point of season 4. The recent run was muddled and dull, with too much switching between disparate groups to build any momentum. Episode 14 was shocking, but in a voyeuristic way rather than using the shock value to make a serious point. Episode 15 was the best. The finale was feeble, and stole most of its best ideas from Cormac McCarthy's The Road anyway. I'm kind of sad there is even a season five.
A Game of Thrones, on the other hand, goes from strength to strength. Although I was gobsmacked and more than a little annoyed when a major UK press outlet spoilered the big shock in episode 2 by giving it away in an article headline that ended up in the "most read" section at the top of the page the morning after it was broadcast in the US, before it had even been on in the UK.
Lest I sound excessively negative, I did really enjoy a relatively obscure British vampire flick called Byzantium. It was directed by Neil Jordan who also made the excellent adaptation of Interview with the Vampire, a story with which Byzantium shares a lot of common ground. And in honesty I thought there were no new angles on the whole vampire-as-character trope. But Byzantium managed to find a few, ruminating on the fear and isolation immortality could bring, rather than glorying in the life everlasting.
I'm in the grip of an FTL obsession so extreme that it's a wonder I managed to tear myself away from it long enough to write this. The to-do list I keep on my phone is growing longer and longer as I devote every spare second to this game. I covered quite why it's so brilliant and so addictive over at Pocketgamer.
I started playing before the recent update which bought a bunch of new, optional "advanced" content. So far, I haven't been hugely impressed with the switch. I don't see any great reason to invest in any of the new systems or weapons, and it actually makes the boss fight, which is the weakest part of the game, marginally worse by making it more random. I'm sticking with the standard edition for now, but either way it's still excellent and you should all play it, now.
The only thing that stopped me from playing it was the release of Hearthstone on iPad, which I was thrilled to be allowed to review. I'm mattDP#2148 although being on the Europe server, I doubt I'll see many of your around.
Pocketgamer also made meÂÂÂÂ review Rollercoaster Tycoon 4 mobile which may be the worst, most soulless, greedy, cynical thing I've ever played. It made me angry and depressed. Avoid.
Been redisovering B. Dolan's Fallen House, Sunken City and loving it. I'm a sucker for rap with big, thundering production underneath and that album rarely disappoints on that front, with even the slower, quieter tracks being loaded with menace. Lyrical content that veers between razor-sharp political discourse and vampire hunting helps, too.
I've also been trying to get into Vampire Weekend, since everyone else seems to rate them, but I'm just not seeing that. The tunes are jaunty and pleasing enough, but they're melodically empty and a little repetitive. And the lyrics just drip with with pathetic, upper middle class teen pretension. I should know, having once been one myself, and having grown out of it.
OK, I warned you guys that I might have to do this from time to time. I’m shamelessly stealing the idea of my fellow staffers Micheal and Ken and having my own named column to talk about a whole grab-bag of crap alongside games. And I’m shamelessly stealing their idea of incorporating my name into the title too. When I stopped to think about how I could riff on my name, the choice of combining a weapon, Games Workshop games and a famous death metal band (even though I hate death metal, y’all seem to love it) was too good to miss in spite of the atrocious pun it represents. So welcome to the inaugural edition of Bolt Thrower - won’t be quite such a regular feature as Next of Ken or Barnestorming, but hopefully still the first of many.
Thirteen isn't the unluckiest number when it's delivering you a pre-Halloween payload of bolt thrower goodness. Limbs everywhere!
This month's review on Shut Up & Sit Down is GMT's bastard stepchild of the block genre, Sekigahara. It's a fascinating game, with large amounts of muscular history rippling attractively beneath a thin skin of rules. There's a lot to like about it, from the faultless presentation to the wonderful mix of strategy and bluffing and it's so accessible that it's already seen lots of table time round here, and there wil certainly be more to come. It's just that I kind of feel it's blow-by-blow battle system and sudden-death victories should somehow be more exciting than they are. Because the game is deep and well-balanced, it almost necessarily results in there being few critical single-point decisions: what matters is your overall play. That's a good thing in many ways, but it robs the game of a little tension.
Halloween necessarily means horror games bursting out of the walls like a zombie horde. One of the more bizarre offerings is Knock-Knock which I reviewed over at NHS. It's a most peculiar game, with tedious,repetitive and often frustrating gameplay mechanics but absolutely beguiling atmosphere and plot. The latter just about wins out over the former and drags you through to the end. Definately not for everyone: even if you can get past the play, the narrative is deliberately left riddled with unexplained holes. But may prove worthwhile for its sheer oddness.
I also did a short piece for parenting website Quib.ly on horror games that were sufficiently light on shocks and gore to be suitable for teens and younger. I had the most fun researching the article by playing all the games in question. Most of them you'll have heard of before, but I did discover one totally new to me, a wholly unique iOS game called Papa Sangre. It's gimmick is that it's entirely sound-based. You put on a pair of headphone and navigate through the pitch-black realm of the dead but orienting yourself against the noises you hear. It's a brilliantly realised concept harder, and scarier, than you might imagine. There's a sequel out on 31st October, but in the meantime the original is totally worth your Halloween dollars and play-hours if you don't already know it.
Late to the party, but I got to review the iOS version of Small World too.
A friend of mine, who is not only a knowledgeable horror afficionado but an author too, told me recently that the only book which had genuinely scared him was Steven King's The Shining. So even though I know the film I had to get a copy for Halloween. Not read much so far, but been impressed with what I have. I'd always dismissed King as a pretty cheap, trashy writer based on some brief experiences with his early books. But I was wrong: The Shinking is fully skillfully realised characters and cunningly wrought prose.
Oh, and anyone with access to kindle, either through e-reader or tablet, should be looking to read the ghost stories of MR James over the spooky season. They're the finest stories of the supernatural ever written, in my opinion, and they're free. So no excuses.
Even though I'd not long finished the books, I watched the first Hunger Games film. It felt like the casting was all wrong: Katniss and Gale were way too well fed and clean cut, and Peeta wasn't sufficiently handsome. Not sure how well I would have followed it if I didn't know the books and was disappointed that the rushed opening kind of failed to set up the dystopian feel and the family relationships propery. But once the games start, it all comes together pretty well. I think it probably works bettert than the book.
I borrowed a cheap LCD TV. It was awful. I returned it and put my cathode ray set back in pride of place.
As a leaving present from my previous employer, I got a pair of tickets to see folk singer and guitarist Martin Simpson. I've found his material to be a little uneven in the past: some of his self-penned material is heartbreaking but he covers a lot of blues and traditional songs and they can verge toward the twee. But he was amazing live. I'd never realised listening to his records before what a skilful guitarist he is, and watching him race up and down the frets and strings, plucking more notes than he had fingers, was entrancing.
It also seems an opportune time to remind you all of my refined and updated Spotify Halloween playlist.There's all sorts in there: it starts with prog rock, then indie, then electronica and rap and finally classical. So should be something to suit anyone.
It’s trash culture time. I’ve always been fond of the number 13 because daft people think it’s unlucky. Enough said.
Roll up, ladies and gentlemen! Queue right here for your literal once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be skewered by a shot from the most famous siege engine in Imperial Rome! That’s right, it’s time for Bolt Thrower #2.GamesFond as they are of their boardgames over at NoHighScores, I’m not sure there’s ever been much written about wargames over there so I thought I’deducate their readership on the finer points of Panzer-pushing, including why the genre is so bafflingly resistant to modernisation, and why it is when designers to break the mold the games are often of startling quality. I’ve also taken the opportunity to lay down four games that I feel are both newbie-friendly and yet epitomise the cutting edge of wargame design. No doubt some of you, especially the wargamers amongst you, many of whom have a much wider range of experience in the genre than I do, will disagree with my picks, so get on the thread and let everyone know about it.BooksAt the moment I’m one half of the way through the enormous French Revolution yarn A Place of Greater Safety. The author won the famous Booker Prize for another of her historical novels, but this one actually had better reviews on Amazon so I was expecting great things. I have not, as yet, discovered them. It’s certainly not a bad book by any stretch, but it has this bizarre focus on the intimate details of the lives of three figures at the forefront of the revolution, so close and personal that it neglects to talk about a lot of the wider history. So if you don’t know some of the history, you’ll frequently be left wondering what on earth some of the characters are talking about, and if you do then it ruins much of the suspense. The author also seems to be infuriatingly fond of implicating things rather than stating them directly, which exacerbates the problem. Interesting, well-written and often entertaining, but not a book I can imagine reading more than once.I also got lucky and caught the e-bookCodex Nekromantica on one day when it happened to be free. It’s a fun read, a kind of Pratchett-esque take on Lovecraft that focuses squarely on laughs over the depth of imagination, character and cunning metaphors that you get with the real Pratchett. Good job too, as while the author clearly has a talent for fast-moving plots and humorous similes, originality and character aren’t really his strong points and he’s self aware enough to know it, and clever enough to turn it to his advantage by poking ironic fun at his own stereotypes. And as it turns out it’s ideal material to read in the dark while waiting for toddlers to go sleep, so it gave me a lot of pleasure right up until the ending, which was rubbish, leaving a variety of important plot points forgotten and entirely unresolved.MobileI’ve finally discovered the joys ofAscendancy on iOS. It does work exceptionally well on that platform and the app is highly recommended by me and about anyone else that’s ever used it. But I found it had a smaller life span for me than many others: got burned out on it after a couple of weeks. I haven’t bothered withReturn of the Fallen. Deckbuilders just aren’t my thing I guess.On the other hand I played all the way throughEverlandson my Android phone (it’s also on iOS) and wanted more.Everlands is actually a board game, just one that only exists on mobile devices. While it ostensibly has a theme of animals trying to save one another from an infection of evilness, it’s actually pretty abstract. You play on an empty hex grid, choosing and placing one piece per turn from a selection of units that have attack and hit point values, arrows to indicate which hex sides they attack from, and a special power. When you place a unit it takes damage equal to the attack value of adjacent enemy pieces which can attack across the relevant hex sides and if it survives it attacks back. Any piece that accumulates more damage than its hit points gets flipped to the opposing side. And you’re playing to have the most pieces on the board. It’s a bit likeNeuroshima Hex only cuter, slightly simpler, slightly deeper and a lot more fun. It would make a great 2-player board game and I’ll eat my hat if someone hasn’t already thought about licencing it as a physical product. For a dollar, it’s pretty much a must-have in my book.MusicIf you’ve been following the forums, you’ll have noticed that this week F:AT’s been on a massive hip-hop and rap trip. Everyone’s been pitching in and suggesting their favourite tracks and in the interests of enjoying it all myself at minimum effort, I compiled the lot into aSpotify playlist. Where I couldn’t find the suggested track by a given artist, I just substituted the most popular instead, so that’ll be why certain picks didn’t make the list.And man, I have to say you lot have good taste in rap (except for whoever posted Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac). Here in the UK we just don’t get the exposure to some of the more inventive underground stuff you’ve been posting so that’s been a real eye-opener, especially Aesop Rock and Clipse both new to me and both great. So far the collective favourite album - with three different tracks recommended by three different users (including me) - is the MF DOOM and Madlib collaborationMadvillainy. And with good reason too: critically acclaimed, cryptic, funky, experimental and in my top three rap albums of all time.I can’t say I’m a huge hip-hop fan - I still don’t like the majority of it that I hear. But I’ve long been of the opinion that what makes the difference between good rap and bad rap is not the rapping at all but the quality of the production. The very best rappers are extremely skillful, but I don’t think the majority - even the majority with record deals - do anything particularly special. But a quality producer, laying down some deep, hollow beats and scarred soul samples can create an atmosphere that’s at once funky and terrifying and so good that almost anyone rapping would sound good laid over the top. Hearing all your picks, and listening to you talk about some of your favourite producers: Madlib, RZA, Blockhead and others has only re-enforced my belief.
It's been a while since I steered anyone toward my series on tabletop versions of video games over at Gamerati. But since I did one on the StarCraft board game to coincide with the final digital game in that series, Legacy of the Void, I figured it was time for a reminder.
However great the StarCraft board game was, I think it would have been better with looser ties to the source material. It would almost certainly have resulted in a similar game but one which was a lot less complex to digest. In that respect it's almost the opposite of the Civilization board game which, as I argued in another column, is a quite brilliant reduction of the digital essentials to tabletop format.
The other thing I wanted to talk about this week is lasers. I was playing X-Wing a couple of weeks ago when my opponent pulled out a laser line for checking up on some the firing arcs. It's a brilliant idea: X-Wing models are so top-heavy, it's hard to get a ruler in to measure the angles properly without knocking them all over. The laser is more accurate, less clumsy and, best of all, looks awesome in the middle of what's supposed to be a laser dogfight.
I was so impressed that I wrote a piece about using the device in X-Wing and Armada for the manufacturer. It's called a Target Lock and, while they're made in Denmark, you can get them from specialist shops all over the place. So stick one on your Christmas list. I can see it being useful in pretty much any and every miniatures gaming system.
Speaking of Christmas, what I'd like most in the whole world is some more Patreon supporters. But it's not something I can really put on my Christmas list so I'm putting it here instead.
My video game time recently has been all about Hard West. This has been trailered around as being a "cowboy XCOM", which it kind of is. But the essential mechanics of XCOM remain easily good enough to power a game. And on top of that, what makes Hard West special is the excellent and imaginative atmosphere and storytelling.
It's more weird west than wild west, but the supernatural elements are done with subtlety and flair. You do get to flat-out demons in the end, but the narrative along the way is excellent. There are eight campaigns, each of which, in a neat twist, ties in with events or characters from one of the previous stories to make a satisfying whole.
It hasn't got massive critical acclaim, but I think it's one of the best things I've played this year. Worth the entry price for the experience alone.
I'm also contributing to Pocket Tactics now, which is great as I can't think of a much better place to explore my crossover of interests. My first piece there was a review of Steam: Rails to Riches, a title I wholly recommend to deep strategy masochists who don't want to deal with other human beings, even over the internet.
The other big event in gaming is that I finally got to play Journey. It was worth the wait. I feel like I could write essay upon essay about this game. About all the tiny clever design choices that go in conveying emotion to the player. About how you naturally find ways of communicating with your fellow players using only musical notes. About how freedom of movement, or lack thereof, is central to the game's message and appeal.
But I won't. I'll just settle for saying if you haven't played it, play it. It's one of the best games of the last decade.
Coming at you like a south-bound freight train, or more probably like a spear fired at considerable velocity from an ancient siege engine, it’s Bolt Thrower #3.
Tastier than a slice of pie, it’s Bolt Thrower time again. I’ve got one more review to shoehorn in over on NHS, and then hopefully we can take a short break from these.
You know the drill by now. Some feeble pun or other on the multiple meaning of the phrase “Bolt Thrower”. I really can’t be bothered today, so let’s get down to it.GamesThere are several games that I’ve reviewed twice, but I’ve made history this week by givingCommands & Colors: Ancients a third going over. The reason for revisiting it is partly because I thought the upcoming Playdek version for iOS made the game of above-average interest for the NoHighScores crowd and partly because I’ve never satisfactorily managed to articulate my feelings on the small fly in the otherwise delightful ointment that this game presents. Which is basically that the system engine is just better suited to simpler games, but you kind of need to detail it more in a review and that’s proved hard. Not sure if I’ve done any better this time. Anyway, it offers a delightfully smooth path into being a conflict simulation while remaining a demanding, thrilling ride. It’s very good, just stopped from greatness by a few too many rules and a bit too much seriousness bolted on to a fairly light framework.BooksI have been reading a book called The Resurrectionist, which is the tale of a surgeon's apprentice in Victorian London, and his fall from polite society into vice and, eventually, shocking crime. It’s a strange and curious book which seems to have attracted a lot of opprobrium from other reviewers who have slated it for weak characters, a dull plot and for advertising itself as a gothic horror when it’s nothing of the sort. I do not agree. Most characters are, I agree, one-dimensional, but the protagonist is most certainly not. Indeed I would argue that the thin manner in which they’ve been drawn is symptomatic of his disinterest in them, of his distance from the rest of humanity. You may gather from this that the main character is largely unsympathetic, which he is, and personally I think that’s what is putting people off the book. It may not be a classic gothic horror, but the setting is certainly gothic and the subject matter is fairly horrible. The plot is very slow burning, certainly, but it is not dull by any stretch, and its leisurely unfolding leaves the author plenty of room to deploy his most potent weapon: an atmosphere so claustrophobic, strangling and dense that you could practically slice it into wedges and serve it at a dinner party. I found it a startlingly well-crafted exercise in word-craft, in setting, and most of all in illustrating how few steps there can be between polite society and barbarism.TV & FilmSince last time I’ve been making a dedicated effort to try and catch up with some of the higher-profile films I missed at the cinema over the last year or two. First up was Super 8, which I enjoyed thoroughly while watching and then almost instantly forgot. Only a couple of weeks after watching it I can quite literally no longer recall what was good about it. I remember thinking the child cast did extremely well and being impressed by the loving manner in which the ‘70s setting was re-created and also wondering why Spielberg didn’t direct it himself since his fingerprints were all over it. But beyond that, no, in recollection it seemed a pretty pointless, schmaltzy film that idly recycled ideas and concepts we’ve seen a hundred times before elsewhere.Then it was some action films, both of which had bombed critically but which I was interested enough to watch anyway. I went into my viewing of the 2011 remake ofConan the Barbarian with the lowest possible expectations and came away moderately impressed. It’s nothing special but it does what it says on the tin: action scenes are frequent, well choreographed and drenched in plenty of gore and the cast generally take the whole thing with the correct tongue-in-cheek attitude. Except, sadly, for the lead who threatens to ruin the whole thing with a glowering attempt at being serious. So, fun while it lasted but not something I’d watch again, in stark contrast to the original which actually seems to improve with repeat viewings. Sadly the same cannot be said for the next film which wasSucker Punch.I am left wondering how a film that has so many fantastic ingredients could be so utterly, irredeemably awful. Not only is it soul-suckingly boring - a quite inexcusable crime for a film so packed with action and visual effects - but the mildly erotic elements just come across as being creepy and exploitative. It joined the select few films that I’ve been unable to watch all the way through: after about 70 minutes I forwarded on to see if the ending would improve it at all. It didn’t. Avoid.Video gamesI have been tired and ill of late, and going to bed early to read rather than sitting up to play computer games. One thing I have spent some time with is the iOS version of Spiderweb Software’s RPG Avadon: The Black Fortress. It’s very, very old school: gameplay is reminiscent of pre-Baldur’s Gate RPG’s. You wander round big areas on an isomorphic map, getting lost, fulfilling quests, killing monsters and collecting items. For the most part this no longer grabs me as being particularly entertaining and the interface is not brilliant either which doesn’t help. But it’s just about held my interest with one redeeming factor, which is a well-judged and pervasive sense of moral confusion. Gone are usual black-and-white, good versus bad plots typical of fantasy settings. Instead there’s a real sense that the cause for which you are working is unpleasantly oppressive, if necessarily so, and that your enemies frequently have understandable and occasionally noble motivations. There are elements of this in even the smallest side quests in the game, and it changes what would otherwise be a fairly forgettable and dated title into something engaging and playable.Also,I have an Xbox 360 now. So this section may expand in future.MusicIt has been a time of discovering new music for me. Unfortunately most of it has been music that lots and lots of other people have already discovered and so is likely to be of minimal interest to you all. Kanye West, for example. I mean obviously I’d heard his stuff before and dismissed most of it as light pop hip-hop, but then I heard My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy with its big, complex, bombastic sound so unlike the usual stripped down soul samples of other hip-hop and was reasonably impressed: theskit at the end of Blame Game was hilarious. I also heard Florence + The Machine for the first time - genuinely the first ever time - and thought her latest album, Ceremonials was quite fantastic, managing the impossible feat of being simultaneously very modern and very retro. For my money, however, the rest of the albums to completely overshadowed by the enormous, exhilaratingRemain Nameless with its unbelievably lascivious bass line and divisive lyrical interpretations: is it about casual sex, or God? Within 48 hours I’d gone from never having heard it before to it being one of my top 3 most played tracks of all time on Last fm as I just sat and listened to it on endless repeat.I did uncover one relatively obscure band as well, though, Welsh folk-pop duo Paper Aeroplanes. Their material ranges from bouncy up-tempo love songs to more sombre and reflective material. The former is largely forgettable, but they’re at their best at the moodier end of the spectrum: I’ve been particularly haunted bySave It andSame Mistakes, both from their recent EP We Are Ghosts. But the stand out thing about Paper Aeroplanes is not the songs, nor the fingerpicking guitar, but the singer Sarah Howells and her extraordinary ability to rapidly switch around her impressive vocal range to wring every possible ounce of emotion out of her lyrics. I discovered that she’s also worked with a number of trance DJs and producers and picked up some of that material too, figuring that sort of voice would work extremely well in that environment and haven’t been at all disappointed. I used to listen to a lot of trance, back in the days when a good night out consisted of popping a few pills and hitting the dance floor for five hours straight, and cheesy as it might be, it was great to hear some again. I got a particular rush out ofSkies on Fire which, to bring us full circle, turned out to be a remix of a Paper Aeroplanes track. I think I prefer the trance version.
They’re coming at you thick and fast, a veritable storm of fire. It’s Bolt Thrower time yet again, although there shouldn’t be too many back-to-back versions. I plan to use the opportunity to catch up on some longer-running trash culture themes that I might miss in my fortnightly snapshots.
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s a projectile from an ancient siege engine!GamesThe feature this week is a review of the Fantasy Flight Games re-release of Nexus Ops. I’ve always been impressed by the manner in which Nexus Ops managed to cram the entire design history of dudes on a map games into a tiny, manageable and hugely entertaining package, losing nothing but the epic feel of its more unwieldy ancestors. And the FFG reboot gives you all that back of course, plus a wild bunch of very good variants to solve the occasional staleness of the original game. Yeah, so you don’t get the blacklight figures any more but really, how many people regularly used that feature? Yeah, it’s ugly but so was the original. It’s a quality reprint of an excellent game. Quit complaining.
Well, life's thrown me a wrong 'un that looks and feels a lot more like a war machine-sized spear than a cricket ball. Although I can tell you from experience that they hurt too.
Page 2 of 10