Heard the one about the man who asked for a 69 in his ice cream? It's Bolt Thrower time.
Seems like an age since I’ve written one of these, so will have to do either recent material or quick skips. Either way you’ve got a lot of Matt Thrower linkage goodness to other sites in the works.Board GamesThe big feature this week is a review of the Dungeon Command release sets, Sting of Lolth and Heart of Cormyr. The combination of tactical miniatures and card decks, compatible with other WotC products and released in modular format has a lot of promise, but these initial offerings don’t live up to the potential. Games start out with plenty of interest but with no dice, most of the excitement and tactical interest come from card play and once the cards run out they turn into routine slugging matches. The newest set, Tyranny of Goblins, is out this week and it’ll be interested if the cards inject some much needed variety into the system or follow the same format.I also contributed a feature on video to board game conversions to UK video gaming website BeefJack. I was pretty happy with it but it resulted in stunned silence. Not sure if that’s because it was actually rubbish, or stating the obvious, or no-one cares. Take a look and like it on facebook and maybe they’ll let me do another.Video GamesFinally Finished Legend of Grimrock. The last couple of levels dragged a little, but then again you might expect that from a game with a 2-hour play time. But otherwise superb, a fantastic balance of tough puzzles, frantic combat and role-playing acquisition, and a worth successor to Dungeon Master, one of the best games of the 80’s. I have no idea why the genre was allowed to languish for so long, and I was moved to review it on NHS.I’ve also started contributing reviews of children’s apps to gamezebo. May be of interest to those of you with kids. I’m hoping they might let me do the next big-name iOS board game release which I imagine is probably Agricola. Fingers crossed.Remaining screen time has been with Battle Academy, which remains amazing, and Kingdom Rush. I hate myself for playing Kingdom Rush because, like many other tower defence games, it’s too much skinner-box addiction to collecting upgrades and not enough strategy. But it’s got it’s claws into me and won’t let go.TVSurprisingly little. I count this as a good thing. The new series of Doctor Who is the only regular fixture and so far I’ve been absolutely loving it. Best Matt Smith material so far. First episode was a fantastic use of an old foe, second was a fantastic use of time travel tropes, third was fantastic intelligent sci-fi. The idea that in between episodes the Doctor is spending more time apart from Amy and Rory seems to have bought a bit more depth and nuance to all three characters which is very welcome. Also finally got round to the first episode of Breaking Bad after far too many recommendations. I loved it but, like most US TV series, I was really put off by the sheer volume of episodes down the line. I don’t like committing myself to so much TV, even if it’s high quality, so I may pass on the remainder.BooksMost recently was Never Let Me Go which is one of the finest books I’ve ever read, if one of the most depressing and disquieting. It’s a book I didn’t enjoy at all, but would read again at the drop of a hat. Can’t say much about it without spoilers but I remain astonished at the way the author used his simple dystopian sci-fi setting to pose so many important and powerful questions about how we live now, both as individuals and a society, and might do in the future. Cannot recommend this highly enough.Before that I read Matterhorn, a novel about the Vietnam War written by a veteran and apparently based very loosely on real events. It was very good, combining a terribly compulsive, thriller-like page turning quality with such tragedy and pathos that you hardly dared read another sentence for fear things would get even worse. My only critique is a slight lack of depth. It had some interesting things to say about racism, and about the terrible balance between the strategic requirements of command and the tactical requirements of soldiers on the ground, but not quite as much as the author perhaps thought it did. MusicBeen on an interesting voyage through some of the more obscure electronica in my collection this week. It never ceases to amaze me what an eclectic and organic sounds electronic music can have, especially if you’ve only been exposed to chart techno and house.Two artists have featured prominently. First up is The Black Dog, who pioneered what became rather snobbishly known as “Intelligent Dance Music” in the early 90’s. Following on from the Detroit techno scene they sought to mix interesting sonic textures and unpredictable melodies with danceable beats, as exemplified by tracks like Carceres Ex Novum. As you might expect from a fairly experimental outfit, quality varies wildly but if you spin their best albums, Bytes and Spanners, you should find plenty to tickle your eardrums.The other major fixture in my playlists is Four Tet. Tagged with a “folktronica” label, it’s a style of music that has little to do with actual folk and is really about using electronics to mix and process organic, acoustic sounds and music. You could do worse than listen to Angel Echoes for a sample. Work varies from short singles to ten minute epics and sometimes collapses under the weight of its own ambition but when it works, it’s ecstatic and inspiring in a way that dance music rarely manages without chemical support.
It's hash time! Bully beef and yorkshire puddings.
So you might remember my last Shut Up & Sit Down column ended with a cliffhanger about the relevance of card-driven wargames? Well the thrilling conclusion is here and it also kind of includes a review of Twilight Struggle. If you want the spoilers, Quintin & I agreed that card driven games were great for high-level games that included a lot of politics, but perhaps less so for closer scale boots on the ground combat simulations. And Twilight Struggle is superb and everyone should play it all of the time for ever more. But you all probably knew that bit already, seeing as it's my favourite game and I never shut up about how great it is.
To my surprise, the comments thread underneath kind of turned into a debate on the whole feeling versus mechanics thing in board game reviews. My stuff for SU&SD is deliberately super-light on mechanical detail and I like it that way. The idea is not to scare people off complicated-sounding games but as I've always said, if I wanted a rules-rewrite I just go read the rulebook and not a review. I want to capture how games feel to play, why they're exciting, and offer an opinion - something that's too often relegated to a few throwaway lines at the end of the review. Anyway, read the comments: they're interesting.
I played a lot of Card Hunter, which is brilliant. I really got in to the whole meta-plot thing with fledgling GM Gary with his hopeless crush on Karen the pizza girl, and familial battles with his arrogant big brother Melvin. It's wonderfully compelling because it's the teenage years of probably every gamer, ever, writ large and stuffed with added jokes yet handled with charming sensitivity. The actual game is pretty fun too. I got my party up to about level ten and have stopped for now only because I have an enormous library of unplayed Steam games clamouring for time. Don't but put off by the free to play thing: revel in it. Find out how great it is then pass the developers a bit of money. They did a great job, and they deserve to eat.
Out of all those unplayed Steam games I chose, for no real reason, Mark of the Ninja. Now here's a thing: I don't like 3D stealth games. But I love Mark of the Ninja. I love the way the 2D platform style does away with the annoyances of the genre, such as never really knowing when you're properly hidden and when you're about to be discovered. In this game not only is it all crystal clear but the title encourages you to mess with the mechanic by throwing things to make noise and distract attention. The whole thing has an astonishing sandbox feel about it, with no "right" way of getting past any given situation. A roster of moves and equipment gives you incredible leesway to invent your own answers. Totally compelling.
In keeping with my reputation as the biggest whore in games writing, I'm on pocketgamer now. Ages ago I wrote them a feature about starter iOS board games and I didn't actually realise they'd published it. I've now followed it up with another list piece about graphically intensive games to test the new iPhone 5S.
I got to review the Chainsaw Warrior app for Gamezebo. I thought the original game was awful: no strategy, too much overhead and didn't even evoke it's tired theme. But it's amazing how much the game is improved by a shorter play time and farming all the fiddle-factor out to the microprocessor. I found it surprisingly fun, although just recycling the art and presentation from the board game with virtually no added sound and graphics is pretty cheap.
There's also this odd little gizmo called Dice+ that I took for a spin and reviewed. It's a rubbery cube that talks to your mobile device through bluetooth, so you can play digital board games with an actual electronic dice to throw. The possibilities in this are really intriguing: it generates random colours as well as numbers, and a couple of the included games showcase how this combination of numbers and colours on the one hand, and a sepeate physical object to manipulate on the other, can bring something new to the genre. Sadly, all the other games on offer are rubbish. But it's early days yet: worth keeping an eye on this one.
Finished the last Hunger Games book. I was advised on the last thread not to bother which, on the whole, is sound advice. The final book wastes all the carefully accumulated suspension of disbelief with a very silly plot and does nothing to advance the characters along the way. I did think it wound up the love triangle in satisfying fashion, but that was about it. After a steady diet of junk, I thought I'd tackle something a bit more substantial after, so I picked up Aldous Huxley's history of the Loudon possessions, the Devils of Loudon. It's an odd, uneven book which features meticulously researched history bought vividly, almost painfully, to life, rubbing up with some turgid, incomprehensible explorations of theology and philosophy. But the good outweighs the bad.
In this whole time I've managed to watch one bit of TV worthy of note: the season finale of Doctor Who. It was a thrilling ride but I'm beginning to tire of almost every Who episode boiling down to Deus Ex Machina explanations and plot devices.
In spite of the fact I'm not watching much TV, I've resumed my quest to find a good HDTV set to replace my old cathode ray box. And the more I see of them, the more I'm perplexed why anyone buys them. Even at the high end, LCD seems to have noticable pixellation, and Plasmas seem to have noticable posterisation. Not to mention jaggies, motion artefacts and various other undesirables. I'm beginning to think it's due to input quality - that there just isn't enough TV transmitted in quality HD signal in this country. In which case, why don't more people stick with CRT? I'd love to see my Xbox 360 games in their full glory, but it's not worth effectively downgrading my TV viewing quality in exchange.
This week, I have been mostly being underwhelmed by critically acclaimed albums.
First up is the Chvrches record. It was enjoyable enough, a definate keeper, but I had a hard time understanding why it's been all over the internet like a veneral disease. The fourth track, Lies, in incredible but mostly it just made me want to listen to Little Boots or Robyn or Purtiy Ring instead.
The other was Kendrick Lamar's 2012 album good kid, m.A.A.d city which topped a lot of end of year polls last year. I listened to it around that time and was totally underwheled, but for some reason I felt compelled to give it another chance. It's far more uneven than the Chvrches album. I generally prefer East Coast rap with its harder beats, sparser samples and more political content than the West Coast version, and some of the tracks here are typical of the worst excesses of that style, with Kendrick slobbering lazily over sluggish G-Funk. But some of the material is brilliant. In particular I was blown away by The Art of Peer Pressure, a song of astonishing pathos. It really conjures the tragedy of youth wilfully wasted in the pursuit of dubious and fleeting pleasure, and almost brings a lump to my throat - the first rap track ever, I think, to do so.
There’s nothing imaginary about this edition of Bolt Thrower. It’s huge.
So this Bolt Thrower is bought to you courtesy of Shut Up & Sit Down allowing me to review monster wargame It Never Snows. Real team effort this time: I wrote the review, and Quintin edited it into something special.
It Never Snows is the world’s first accessible monster wargame. Five map, 800 counter behemoths are not supposed to have easily digestible rules that span only a few pages. Anyone can play this, provided they can find the time necessary. And, like most monster games, the focus is on logistics, getting the right things to the right place at the right time, more than strategy. Worthwhile if you can find the time, if only because it might be your only chance to play such a colossal game.
Been busy on Gamezebo of late, although I think they’re getting a bit annoyed with me having to pass on work because I’ve only got a swiftly-obsolete iPad1.
I took a look at the long awaited Agricola, which is very well done although I think the amount of information needed to play is more than even Playdek’s legendary UI skills can cope with. And the AI isn’t quite up to snuff, but that was a tall order too. It’s about as good as could be expected.
The Rivals of Catan on the other hand is a bug-riddled mess. A recent update improved things somewhat but there’s little excuse for releasing a half-tested product in the first place. And there’s no asynch either although the AI is actually pretty good. I’d never played this before and really enjoyed the game: enough to consider grabbing a physical copy.
Truth be told I’m getting a bit tired of board gaming on the iPad. Board games are meant to be played with other people, and aside from a few monster wargames, are best that way. Video games are meant to be played alone and if that’s what you’re doing, get something designed for just that.
On NHS I reviewed the latest Fighting Fantasy Gamebook from Tin Man, Forest of Doom. Their gamebook engine is great, and it’s got a nifty new auto-map feature but the choice of source material is unfortunate. The adventure is old school in all the bad ways.
Two words: Dark Souls.
When I was a teenager, playing 8-bit RPGs for the first time I used to dream of a future where there would be RPGs where combat was in real time, forcing you to master two skills at once and pull off the moves under pressure. Dark Souls is almost exactly what I had in mind. It’s uncanny, almost like Hidetaka Miyazaki saw inside my head and made my dream come true.
Except he turned it into a nightmare. I’ve found its difficult level a little overstated but that’s mainly because I’m not bothered about turning to a FAQ whenever I get stuck, or the impenetrable mechanics aren’t explained. I do want to have fun with it after all. But it’s still pretty punishing. I just seem to be a sucker for it. I wish I’d got the Prepare to Die edition but I skimped to save a few paltry pence. No idea if I can just “upgrade” on Xbox with a new disk or DLC. I guess it’s long enough as it is.
I was forced to tear myself away from it recently to review Element4l for PC Gamer. Any other month I’d rave about this: it’s a super-cool new indie puzzle platformer with the freshest mechanics I’ve seen in ages. You can’t really move: instead you have to change form and use the physical properties of your new shape to navigate the environment. Ice slides, for example, and air floats.
For what sounds like a very static game, it’s often joyously fast-paced and punctuated by some challenging puzzles and move sequences. Soundtrack is ace too. Definitely worth checking out, but I couldn’t wait to get back to Dark Souls.
Snuff by Terry Pratchett is my current bedside companion. Sadly it just continues the slow decline in quality that’s been evident since the Discworld series hit the mid-twenties. It has its moments, but it’s also rambling in places, largely unfunny and the social commentary treads ground he’s already covered with much greater panache in previous titles. It also seems to turn Sam Vimes into some sort of omnipotent superhero. I think I liked him better as a grizzled man of the people.
Caught Looper and really enjoyed it in spite of the fact that much of the film was spent trying to paper over its own colossal plot holes. Clever stuff: I need to see it again to really mull over everything that was in there. Always good to see mainstream cinema demonstrate it can be both intelligent and entertaining at the same time. It’s a shame that they couldn’t find a way to make the story vaguely plausible.
Half-way through Game of Thrones season 3. It continues to be enormously entertaining although I often get lost in the confusing plethora of people and places and the tangled lines they interweave. That, I suppose, is one reason to prefer the bloated, overindulgent books rather than the TV show.
I also read this article about feminism which opens talking about Doctor Who companions and thus, on its narrative, neatly nails what’s been bothering me about all the companion characters since the reboot, except for Donna. Still want to know what's so odd about Clara though. Not quite at the season finale.
It’s summer, and clichéd as it is that means reggae for me. It’s one of the few genres of music where, thanks to lackadaisical quality control in Jamaican studios, compilation albums are often as good if not better than artist albums.
My sound for the season is therefore the deluxe edition of the soundtrack to Jamaican movie The Harder They Come. The film itself is largely forgettable but the original soundtrack was an ace compilation of classic reggae. The re-release adds a ton of tunes I don’t remember being in the film, but it now reads like a who’s who of 70’s roots and is a joy from start to finish. The high point is possibly the high point of the whole era: Toots and the Maytals with the unforgettable Pressure Drop.
Sorry to be throwing you another curve-bolt this week. But I’ve ended up chaining two reviews back to back because I delayed by Dungeon Command review for too long. Apologies - you’ll get some dedicated board game content next week.Board GamesI wrote a review of the classic Last Night on Earth for the NoHighScores crowd. I suspect most of you here will have played it extensively but it remains a divisive game and I thought it worth recording my opinions. Which are largely very positive. I think it’s marginally more tactical than its dice-fest reputation suggests and regardless it’s at a time and complexity level and with sufficient narrative potential to make quick fire, lightweight gameplay exciting and fun. And I love the art. So there.I got to play Notre Dame for the first time last week. I quite enjoyed it although I’m not sure what the replay value is like. But for most of the game all I could hear in my head was Chuck D rapping “Bring the Rats!”Video GamesI got to review Mechwarrior for gamezebo which was a nice opportunity. However on my original iPad it was riddled with bugs, crashed constantly and was basically unplayable. I found out later that it’s not iPad 1 compatible. The app store normally prevents you from downloading incompatible material but it seems that doesn’t apply to preview copies. Bit worrying that my not terribly old tablet device is already starting to become redundant.So I went back to Zombie Highway in search of some casual gaming. It should be renamed Zombie Heroin. That is all.Been playing lots of Mount & Blade: Warband on the PC as well. It’s an exceptionally odd game: a sort of medieval sandbox world in which you attempt to rise up the feudal hierarchy by currying the favour of nobles with missions for them, stealing territory off rival kingdoms and perhaps eventually setting yourself up as a power in your own right if you’re lucky and skillful. In spite of its primitive graphics and interface (text? text? in 2012?) you have to admire the game for having the balls to implement a realistic and hard-to-master combat model and for the lack of an overarching plot. Instead it’s a true sandbox where you’re genuinely free to become what you like. But it seems to lack variety: whether you’re killing bandits, or outlaws, or errant farmers the model seems very much the same. Perhaps it will bloom into something brilliant eventually but at the moment it belongs in the “missed opportunity” box.TVThought the last Doctor Who episode with the invasion of the cubes was awful. The basic concept was great and the buildup to the little boxes of doom opening was tense but after that point the whole thing just fell apart. They spent so much time setting the scene that the conclusion felt rushed and unsatisfying: right up until the last few minutes in fact I was expecting to discover this was the first of a two-parter. But no. Very disappointed. I saw the Wuxia film Hero with Jet Li and Maggie Cheung for about the third time. It remains superbly watchable even after repeat viewings have rendered the plot twist meaningless. It features what are probably the finest sword fighting scenes ever committed to celluloid: fluid, graceful, and thrilling. The cinematography is superb, focussing on blocks of colour and stunning shots across the varied Chinese landscape. You could watch it with the sound and subtitles off and it’d still be superb. And, like the best Wuxia material, it has a deeper moral underneath all of the beauty and the action. Some critics apparently accused it of being an apology for Chinese human rights abuse. Personally, I thought it was a more satisfying exploration of Spocks’ sentiment that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.Books I’ve just finished the comedy novel A Confederacy of Dunces. Set in early sixties New Orleans it chronicles the struggles of medievalist Ignatius J. Reilly against modernity and the pressing need to work to earn a living. There are very few humorous novels that have made me laugh out loud, there’s something about the medium that invites gentle fun poking over outright mockery, and Confederacy of Dunces is not one of them. But it did make me smile a lot. It’s a clever blend of all sorts of comedy techniques and juxtapositions from simple farce to rather profound intellectual jokes. But the author seems to be more interested in setting up the punchlines than he is in weaving a pleasing narrative, and the plot sometimes drifts somewhat. A good read, but not a book I’m likely to revisit.So the next on the list was the compilation of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth novels and short stories. I’ve read some of these before, but never in their entirety. I regard Vance as one of the very few fantasy writers to have genuinely escaped from under the shadow of Tolkien. Instead of the feeble attempts at rich background and exposition that most Tolkien copyists feature, a seemingly endless parade of fantasy wonders spring direct from pen to page with nary a verb given to explanation. If you’re used to the usual fare it’s disconcerting at first but after a while you begin to see how it offers a wonderful freedom to explore what fantasy is all about, unfettered imaginings, without the burden of having to try and make things consistent or sensical. Vance’s wondrous creations are ably supported by his extensive vocabulary and bizarre archaic yet dense writing style. It’s superb stuff, and my only disappointment is that the central character in many of the stories, a witty rogue named Cugel, is somewhat too roguish for my tastes. Vance clearly loves him as a character but after he’d sold one companion into slavery, effectively raped another, and sacrificed the lives of nearly 40 people to keep him safe during a dangerous journey, I lost sympathy.MusicMumford & Sons have a new album out, Babel. I adore their curious mixture of alternative rock and bluegrass and couldn’t wait to hear it and wasn’t disappointed. It’s a good record and if you’re enjoyed their previous album you’ll enjoy this. The only fly in the ointment is that it’s a bit *too* similar. It’s easy for successful bands to get stuck in creative holding patterns and become irrelevant and I hope it doesn’t happen to this lot.I’ve also been listening to an awful lot of Pink Floyd. I played the entirety of The Wall for the first time since becoming a parent and found it deeply disturbing. All that responsibility. For a person, a character, a whole human and not just their phyisical wellbeing. It's terrifying.
The latest game I covered on Shut Up & Sit Down is the second in the Band of Brothers series, Ghost Panzer. I passed on the first one because it sounded more than slightly unlikely: you don't get historically realistic tactics by making a game simpler. That's totally not going to work, except here, where it works beautifully. The only problem is that it's almost too accurate, forcing you to re-use the same strategic approach over and over again. But there's still plenty of tactics to puzzle over, and I was impressed enough by the game to pick up its predecessor, Screaming Eagles. Top work by the designer, Jim Krohn.
Played Kahuna for a pocketgamer review and given that I don't much care for either abstracts nor the era to which it belongs, was surprised to find I really liked it. The app has some very rough edges, such as lacking either a save or a hotseat facility, but I had lots of fun playing solitaire.
I also interviewed David Dunham, creator of King of Dragon Pass and the incredible Shenandoah strategy games. That made me want to play King of Dragaon Pass again. It's full of imponderables and unknowns, which is kind of hard to deal with if you're a board gamer, used to near-perfect information. But the narrative it spills out is so compelling and bizarre that you've just got to learn to go with the flow and see where it takes you.
I don't hear anyone talk about Adventure Time around these parts, but I imagine there are a few fans and you'll probably have heard about a new iOS game based on the franchise. It's pretty fun at first but watch out - while a paid app, it's structured to push IAP at you very hard indeed.The most egregious example is a slowly refilling energy meter: grinding is one thing, but when you have to pay again just because you want to keep on playing a game you already paid for I feel some sort of line has been crossed.
Interestingly I took the space strategy game Shifts for another spin and was shocked to find that had reverted to fremium too, with ads now popping up all over a game that I had - again - already paid for. It's getting a little scary that as consumers expect rock-bottom prices on the app store, these sorts of shitty contiunal-pay models are becoming the only thing that generates enough revenue to keep developers afloat.
I'm kind of leery about talking over what I've been playing on PC and Consoles of late, because I've started posting short rundowns over at NoHighScores and I don't want to turn this into another section of click through links. Go look there if you want to hear about that: I'm sure you know the address by now.
So instead I'll just flag up a of game I've been playing that I haven't got around to talking about yet: Teleglitch. I thought it was superb at first, a dizzying combination of brutal twin-stick shooter with a roguelike vibe and open-world style item crafting and exploration. And I still think it's very good it just... takes a bit too long to die. For a game with such an unforgiving difficulty curve, taking 30 minutes to get through one of its ten levels means the devotion of significant chunks of time to progression once you get used to running the first couple. So learning the ropes on the deeper levels means a lot of repetition. Kind of a shame as it'd be a game of considerable genius otherwise.
Having avoided popular horror for a long time becuase I'd assumed it was a snakepit of talentless splatter-fests, I'm now rather enjoying working my way through some of the better Stephen King books. Latest was Salem's Lot which I enjoyed, kind of in spite of itself. The pacing is a little uneven and even a maestro like King struggles a bit to inject something fresh into the tired old traditional vampire genre, but he's got such an eye for detail and character and the nasty little hidden hooks that needle you just outside your imagnation that I couldn't help but to keep turning the pages.
What's that? Matt read a comic book? That's right. For the first time in about twenty years I cracked the spine on a physical comic book, after asking y'all for recommendations on graphic novels best read in real paper format. Sadly I didn't do my homework: I went for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen's Black Dossier, in spite of knowing very little about the series as a whole, not realising it was more supposed to be a supporting sourcebook than an actual story. Unsurprisingly, I found it a little confusing, although I loved the colossal, exuberant literary theivery and genre-blending. But even if I had known what I was getting into I think that splitting up comic panels with so much plain text was a mistake: rather than telling mututally supportive narrative strands, it just felt really stop-start and piecemeal.
Films & TV
Liked World War Z more than I was expecting, but I wasn't expecting much. Delivered precisely nothing new to the various genres is pays homage to, but was taut and competently delivered nevertheless.
The big surprise in my recent film viewings was The Place Beyond the Pines, a movie I only ended up watching because I liked the cinematography on the trailer. I knew very little about it, but it felt like a big, powerful film about feuding and violence and the way tensions simmer down the generations. For all the plot revolved around something of a deus ex machina moment, the characters felt incredibly disturbingly, depressingly real, a vital snapshot of small town life making the sorts of decisions and having the sorts of conversations that take place in suburban homes the world over. Impressive.
Feels like a long time since I'd seen a really good sitcom and then two come along at once. House of Fools and Inside Number 9, both currently showing on BBC 2 weekknights. No idea if you can get them in the US, but do so if you can.
For no particular reason, the last few weeks has seen me going on a bit of a Smiths spree. There's not much to say about the Smiths that hasn't been said already, but I'm convinced much of their brilliance doesn't come from Morrissey's lyrics alone but the juxtaposition of his ditties of misery with Jonny Marr's jaunty, jangling guitar lines. At least I tell myself that, because Morrissey's public persona appears to be such an utter knob that I don't like to give him too much of the credit.
But here's one curious thing I've never quite worked out. I was a teenager when The Smiths were at the height of their powers, and heavily into the whole doom and gloom angle of 80's gothic rock so you'd have thought I would have been an absolute sucker for The Smiths. Many of my friends were. But I hated their music: it was too much like jangle-pop at a time I liked my music hard and heavy. Same goes for The Cure. However The Smiths have grown into one of my favourite bands with the passing of the years, but I still don't have any time for The Cure, even though I once served their lead singer in a garage. And he had his hair back-combed and his makeup on, even on an everyday trip out for petrol. Respect for that, even if his music sucks.
My latest review up on SU&SD is Fire in the Lake. It took me on quite a personal journey, from thinking that Vietnam was the last gasp of traditional regular warfare to the understanding it was more the first irregular engagement of the modern age, complete with corrupt regime, terrorists and all. As a game, it's an impressive combination of strategy and history. But there's a lot of inertia there in terms of learning the rules, getting to grips with all the moving parts, and sitting through the play time. It's a minimum of three hours for the shortest scenario in the book, which is also the least interesting.
Fellow FATtie Jazzbeaux and I met up for a day's gaming at our local club a couple of weeks ago. I had my kids along for the ride, which was fun: they played some Lego games, King of Tokyo, Ticket to Ride and Dungeon. We sat in on some of those, but also got the chance to play Five Tribes and Incursion. It was my first time with the latter game, and I really enjoyed it. The Space Hulk comparisons are very valid, although it seems a little more chaotic, but the cards added a fun extra dimension. Going to stick with the Hulk though, I think. It just can't be beaten on atmospherics.
There were some people playing Betrayal at House on the Hill, but I didn't get to try it. Shame, as it looked really fun. I sold my unplayed copy years ago when they were going for about £150. I think I have enough games to avoid the temptation to pick up another copy to sit unplayed for years.
It seems to have been ages since I've seen a good horror film. At the risk of sounding like an old fart, I'd venture that this is because nearly all modern horror films are crap. However, I got lucky and broke my streak with two crackers for Halloween.
First was Cabin in the Woods. It wasn't scary, but it was a roller-coaster ride of tremendous entertainment. The meta structure was clever, and the gleeful inclusion of pretty much every horror film meme ever was magnificent.
The Conjuring was a totally different kettle of fish. Managing to make the over-worked threat of Satanic possession feel scary and believable again was no mean feat. And it had a great balance of competing elements. It was creepy without becoming unbearable, had jump scares without getting predictable and hammed it up without feeling unrealistic.
The first episode of the Walking Dead Season 5 was amazing. The second and third were flaccid and poor, with pantomime cannibals. The show feels like it's run out of energy to me. I just want to see them given some focus, put on the road to Washington, and the thing wound up one way or the other when they get there.
Still loving Peter Capaldi as Doctor Who. I saw some old Tom Baker episodes the other day and the comparison between him and Capaldi seemed very clear, so much so that I don't think it's a coincidence. I reckon both writer and actor used everyone's favourite post-reboot doctor as a template for the current one. Unfortunately less flattering comparisons hold up too. The old episode was full of cardboard characters and deux-ex-machina plot explanations. It was held together largely by the strength of the Doctor's performance, which seems very much like the current run too.
I wanted to do some more horror stuff over Halloween, so I picked up Eldrtich and STALKER in the Steam sale. Eldritch is shallow but fun, a procedurally generated rogue-like FPS that butchers Lovecraft. STALKER I have mixed feelings about. I'm enjoying its unusual setting and open world structure. But the early stages feel repetitive and the difficulty is very uneven. It's pretty dispiriting to survive a close firefight, only to stumble into an invisible radation hotspot and die, forcing you to do the whole thing over.
Also picked up Legend of Grimrock 2 on release, since the original was one of my favourite games of the last few years. If you liked the predecessor, you'll love this, because it does everything the original did, but bigger and better. If you didn't ,there's not enough new here to change your mind.
I was expecting Battle Academy 2 on the iPad to be magnificent , and it is. I was expecting Galaxy TruckerÂÂ on the iPad to be awful, and it's magnificent. I've been saying for years that what iPad board games really need to take them to the next better is a more comprehensive, campaign-like single player game. Galaxy Trucker has that, and it totally makes the game. The way it inventively shrugs away the difficulties with bringing the real-time elements of the game to digital is just a joy to see.
Y'all said I ought to read Grant Morrison's Batman run, so I started with the first volume, Batman and Son.
It was great as a whole, but a bit uneven. The titular story started magnificently, but came to a disappointingly sudden conclusion. It was a breath of fresh air to see the Dark Knight struggling with something as commonplace as parenthood, though. I had mixed feelings about the text piece Joker at Midnight. Although it offered an intimate glimpse into the mind of Batman's favorite villain, it felt overcooked.
I actually like the third part, Three Ghosts of Batman best. As writers have increasingly focused on how Batman's mania reflects that of his foes, they've forgotten the gray morality of his choice to be a vigilante. It's good to see a story that manages to do both at once.
Will see if I can pick up the "Black Glove" issues for next time.
Inspired by a combination of the spooky season and Micheal Barnes, I went delving into the lost archives of Gothic rock. And I learned something important: nearly all the bands I worshiped as a teenager are crap.
The Mission and the Cult are just awful, weak soft rock pastiches of the gothic sound. The Cure's paper thin sound was just pop music for goth wannabe's. Siouxsie and the Banshees are, in spite of a long history of album releases, effectively a singles band. Most of their records are packed with filler between one or two classic tracks. Bauhaus have their moments but often seem like they're trying too hard to be kooky and "out there". And so it goes on.
Only the Sisters of Mercy and Fields of the Nephilim, plus possibly Joy Division if you count their melancholy post punk as goth, are still worth the time nowadays. The Nephilim were the only band who could make the whole gloomy pagan act sound convincing, and their material is still electrifying and occasionally creepy. The Sisters still own it though, with their sparse, stripped down misery-dance. The first two albums are the best, of course, but the more I listen to the early EPs (most of which are collected on Some Girls Wander by Mistake), the more I think that's perhaps where the real highlights are.
Well now, I bet that was something of a shock, seeing another Bolt Thrower turning up unexpectedly out of the blue. Much akin to the shock of being skewered by a huge spear from an ancient siege engine, I should imagine.
OK, so here’s the thing. I decide to resurrect this dormant column style because I’m now covering wargames for the lovely people at Shut Up & Sit Down. Not only does this give me an excuse to link to those pieces, but I kind of miss doing the trash culture stuff too. It doesn’t half stick in my throat seeing Barnes getting all those comments for off-the-cuff commentary on comics and the like.
Although I imagine it would help if my cultural tastes were anything like the prevailing norm around here. I can’t help it. I’m English.
And so are Shut Up & Sit Down. So here, as already publicised on the forum, is my inaugural piece on the dubiously militaristic pleasures of wargaming. And to follow that up this month I took a look at The Last King of Scotland after having my curiosity piqued by Nate right here on this hallowed site.
It’s a stupidly, stupidly chaotic and random game by consim standards, in which single dice rolls can completely determine the game outside of any strategy or choice. But it’s cheap, and wraps in 60-90 minutes, so that’s actually okay. It let me embrace the chaos and just laugh at the wild swings of fate. Not really recommended as an introductory game though, largely because the rules are so atrociously written. Shame. But if you can get past that, and don’t mind the dice, it’s a hoot.
TV & Films
Not much apart from The Walking Dead. Not enjoying series 3 as much as the first two. The show seems to have given up its character-driven edge in favour of more run of the mill horror and action tropes. They’re still delivered with style, though. But it feels like it’s starting to run out of steam. If they can’t get the quality back, then I hope season 4 will be the last.
First couple of new Doctor Who episodes look promising. I still can’t get a feel for Clara’s personality though. It’s been a recurring problem through all the companions in the reboot - apart from Donna, none of them really seemed to have a distinct character.
It feels like a long time since a video game really stood out and bit me, hard, to the point where I’m daydreaming about it at work and itching to play it at night. Every time I get this sensation I start to think I’m getting too old for video games, but I played some great titles last year, so it can’t be that. With any luck I’m just becoming more critical. The one game I played this year that came close was Hotline Miami, which I reviewed over at No High Scores. But while there’s an incredible amount of play elements and art in that game, it’s just a bit too short and simple to be truly great.
Started playing Arkham Asylum which shows some promise. The characterisation of the comic book cast is breathtaking. Early days yet, but it feels a bit on the easy side. Contrived too, the way you can just press a button and have Bruce pop back from the dead like nothing’s happened. And so far I get no real sense of how the combat works. You press buttons, baddies drop and combos ratchet up. It’s just not clear how these things are linked.
Moby Dick. It feels like I’ve been reading Moby Dick forever. Its somewhat archaic writing style (which can be excused, seeing as it was written 150 years ago) and frequent philosophical allusions encourage it to be approached in small chunks, so getting through it takes time. But that aside, it’s an astonishing book. A brilliant hybrid of humour, adventure, textbook and high art wrapped neatly into an inspiringly experimental literary format.
When I was a teenager, the Madchester scene broke over me like a religious experience. Combining the instruments and arrangements of UK alternative rock with the beats and hedonistic attitudes of the rave scene, it was pretty much me at the age of 16.
Most of the bands that made that music haven’t really survived the test of time. The big international name that made it into the history books is that of The Stone Roses. A lot of people remember The Happy Mondays, partly for inventing the sound and partly for their legendary drug consumption. Not many people seem to remember James.
I’ve been re-living James recently. At first I couldn’t understand how a band that had such colossal, unforgettable anthems as Sit Down and Laid weren’t remembered more fondly. But eventually it dawned on me that they were a singles act. All their albums are packed with filler between the awesome songs. There’s not one record in danger of troubling anyone’s top 100 lists.
But in the download era, that deserves to be re-evaluated. Because their singles are fucking brilliant, easily capable of going toe-to-toe with, even crushing those of their better known contemporaries. There’s a singles compilation and a greatest hits album. Play them, and marvel just how good James could be at the height of their powers.
Also, this week I finally realised that R.E.M. suck. Sorry it’s taken so long.
The latest craze to come screaming round the corner with a roar of engines is Automobiles, which has taken my gaming group by storm. It's a deckbuilder that's been mutated into a bag-and-cube builder, neatly removing the fuss of shuffling and sorting that accompanies games in that tiresome genre. And with the addition of a board, some interaction and lots of excitement it's really quite the thing, the sort of game it's hard to imagine anyone disliking. Review over at Shut Up & Sit Down.
We're not playing much else except for Risk: Legacy which just makes me ever more excited for Seafall every time it comes out. Daughters seem to have given up on gaming for the moment in favour of My Little Pony cartoons. They'll get bored of it eventually.
The chance to write about Clash Royale got me back into the game again. It's still good, but often when I lose I have no idea why, and I worry that it's almost too addictive. Between them, those two facets of the game make losing streaks unpleasantly frustrating rather than fun. Especially since you can't play without risking your rank, and all the other little annoying gameplay tweaks to try and squeeze you to spend, spend, spend. I might give it up again soon. Games should make you happy, not angry.
Hearthstone is a different matter. The new expansion feels like it's almost reset the game to day one, so playing has the sense of rediscovering the joy all over from scratch. I love it so much that I've written about it more than once. If you've somehow avoided the lure so far, there's never been a better time to get involved, now that Standard Mode has limited the card advantage enjoyed by long term fans.
On the PC I've mostly been playing Skyrim and it's mostly gone like most Bethesda RPG's before it. Fifteen hours or so of exhilaration followed by boredom when you realise the beautifully drawn world is fundamentally flawed. I tried avoiding all enchanting and alchemy this time, since previous Elder Scroll games are just too easily broken with those skills. It still wasn't enough. Maybe I'll go back to it one day. The scenery is pretty amazing with a bunch of texture mods installed.
Finally, I wanted to talk about Scott Walker. A recent musical discovery, some of you may know him from 60's pop balladeers The Walker Brothers. Some of you may also know that after the group split, he pursued an increasingly bizarre and unhinged solo career. Then, after a decade of silence, he released Tilt and The Drift, two of the bleakest and most beautiful records you're ever likely to hear.
Do listen, even if only for the song where the only percussion is someone repeatedly punching a dead pig. You might never listen again but, then again, you might never hear anything else like it in your life.
Welcome to Bolt Thrower, the gaming column that blows your head off. If you’re new to the format, here’s the deal: I link something I’ve written elsewhere and then pontificate a bit on what I’m playing right now that’s not in the review queue.
Bit of a different format this time. After months of trying, I realised that the usual breakdown of my cultural activities was of interest to no-one. Plus I'm not really at my best talking about films and books. So when I do this from now on you'll get one linked board game review and one in-depth look at something else nerd-related. Probably a video game most of the time.
The last thing I looked at for Shut Up & Sit Down has to rank as one of the most unusual. Legion of Honour is an overpriced card game recreating the life of soldiers in Napoleon's Grand Armee.
It's more like a role-playing game than a consim. You create a character with various stats and then draw cards to see what happens to him. The decks you pull from are built from a mixture of historical, plausible and fictional events from the period.
There's almost no strategy in it, since most of the events just happen to you with no choice involved. Sometimes you'll get to decide whether to be brave or cowardly in battle. Sometimes you'll fight a little duelling mini-game. Sometimes you can pull rank and interfere with the plans of your fellow officers. Ultimately, though, it's a game that can be won by a lucky card pull on the last turn after many hours of play.
So why would anyone play it? The answer is that it weaves the most extraordinary narratives of life in Imperial France. The detail is incredible, especially given the lack of flavour text. It's not a game about strategy or tactics but about historical soldiers as real, living, breathing beings.
There's some examples of what I mean in the review, but it really is a unique game. Surprisingly fun, too, although there are question marks over long-term replay value. And if the play time looks too much then, like most role-playing games, it's easy to pack up and pull out again.
For tabletop day this year I did what I should do every year. Rather than spend all day in a dark room playing a succession of identikit worker placement games, I got wasted with my friends and played Monopoly. It was hilarious, and I loved it.
My desire to play Bloodborne has thrust me back into the world of Dark Souls. I remember a lingering sense from my last sessions with it that it contained too much deliberate obfuscation. Picking it up again reinforced that sense: I had to recall what upgrade paths my weapons and armour were on, and how I was planning to build my stats to wield them. The number crunching is complex and confusing to the point where even experienced players have trouble giving good advice. I still can't understand how anyone managed to work all this stuff out, given the lack of instructions in the game.
I read an interview with the director, Hidetaka Miyazaki recently where he revealed he was fond of reading books he could only partially understand. He'd fill in the gaps from his imagination. That sense of deliberate incompleteness permeates Dark Souls. When it comes to game mechanics, I'd argue it was a definite problem. In every other way it's a breath of fresh air.
Much has already been made of the way in which the game offers a fragmentary story, making the player fill in the gaps. It's not necessary to drink at Lordran's lore vessel to enjoy the game: a lot of the backstory still puzzles me. But by refusing to spoon-feed the player narrative, the game retains a sense of mystery and discovery throughout, pulling you deeper into its dangerous world.
The same is true of the combat. The difficulty level forces you to observe, learn and practice for every new encounter. It gets wearing, but it also ensures that the game remains fresh and challenging right up to the last moment.
What struck me while playing recently is how these aspects of the game relate it to the Rogue-like genre. There's no obvious connection: Dark Souls has no permadeath and no procedural generation. What's similar is the sense of danger, of exploring the unknown.
In a Rogue-like game every step into the blackness is a step into peril, weighted with tension. You have no way of knowing what's out there, and whether it will kill you. Similarly, being unable to predict what's ahead is a big lure toward ignoring the danger and continuing to explore. And both these things are a key part of the appeal of the Souls games.
So perhaps it's not surprising that we now see procedurally generated dungeons in Dark Souls' spiritual successor, Bloodborne.
What's really striking about both Miyazaki's game and Rogue-likes, though, is how they reject the power fantasy behind most AAA gaming. They treat players like adults, facing them with unpredictability and making them learn from their mistakes through harsh consequences. Yet Dark Souls is very much a big budget game in other respects. It's a testament to its quality that so many hardcore gamers have latched onto it.
It's been a little while, but I'm back with another wargame review for Shut Up & Sit Down. Except it isn't a wargame at all. I'm looking at Euro-in-wargame's clothes Race to the Rhine.
Except it isn't a typical model Euro at all. The way it's structured makes it look like a race game, but it can be viciously cut-throat. It encourages players to hoard supplies needed by other generals, snip off each other's best routes and use the Nazis to cut supply lines. The result is an interesting and unique game.
It reminds me of Imperial in certain respects. It's not so brilliantly malleable and open-ended as that game. But it manages to force the players into tough decisions without straightjacketing them, or throttling back the interaction. Sometimes, though, it's a bit too much like too much hard work, not enough fun.
I've also been playing some 5th edition D&D - first time I've played any interation of the game in twenty years. It's been amazing. More content on that over the coming weeks.
I got asked to compile a list of my top 30 iOS games recently, and it seemed a good excuse to catch up on some titles I'd been meaning to play.
A couple stood out. First was The Room and its sequel. I had these down as simplistic puzzle games, but boy, was I wrong on that. Some of the challenges are tough, although a timed hint system means no-one should get stuck forever. But what really surprised me was the horror atmosphere. I'm amazed and impressed that a simplistic touch and move game can generate such an oppressive aura of dread.
The other was Wayward Souls. It's a classic dungeon-delving Rogue-like with a big palette of items and enemies, randomly generated levels and a steep difficult curve. What makes it stand out is that it's a real-time game. Combat strikes a satisfying balance between twitch and tactics, and it feels like you're only ever a few pixels away from doom. It's multiplatform, though, and probably better on PC.
I seem to be on a run of poor to mediocre material at the moment. I watched the Amazing Spider Man, and it wasn't. Couldn't see much love for this at all. The characters were all paper thin, Parker's guilt complex wasn't explored at all and I cared more about the villain than anyone. The action sequences were similarly flat. But without any emotional center, I'm not sure even exciting CGI could have saved this.
Also of interest to some is bizarre body horror Under the Skin. It plays rather more like some French arthouse piece than anything in the usual horror canon, but it is still pretty disturbing. After an intriguing start, full of mystery, sex and extraordinary primal visuals, it loses the plot halfway through. After that it doesn't seem to know if it wants to be horror, human drama, or thought-provoking artistry and ends up being a mess.
Finally got round to starting the new Doctor Who. Loving Peter Capaldi, who seems to be channeling the spirit of Tom Baker in the best possible way. I was also struck by the end of the first episode, which twisted things into the Doctor's viewpoint, at once both alien and vulnerable. I'm not sure about the supporting cast, though, or the overarching plot. Time will tell.
I went on a sudden massive comics bender, inspired by watching the Batman Year One film, which was okay. But I didn't realise there was a whole story arc in that continuity, so I read the lot.
I thought most of it was pretty poor. I've read Year One before and thought it overrated. But I also caught the well-recieved Man Who Laughs and didn't think much of that, either. Added no interest to the most interesting villain in all of comic books. And don't get me started on Batman and the Mad Monk.
The best was Batman and the Monster Men, which bought the rookie Batman alive, as someone learning to cope with their overconfidence. And then, of course, there's the classic Long Halloween, but I'd read that before too.
I also read Old Man Logan. I don't know much about comics, and I know less about Marvel than most, but this was excellent. The art was incredible, evocative, airbrushed brilliance. And the story, recasting Wolverine in a bizarre post-apocalyptic world ruled by supervillains, was imaginative and unpredictable. Highly recommended.
Been listening to a lot of classic 70's rock lately, things like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. I didn't like it much when I was younger, so I feel I've got a lot of catching up to do.
I've only unearthed one decent new band, but I reckon it's a doozy. Young Wonder, a "dub-pop" duo from Ireland. I have no idea what dub-pop is supposed to be, but in practice it's funky shit garnished with multi-layered and filtered samples. It's kind of like trip-hop, but cheery,
They've only put out two EPs so far, but the sound is shaping up to be super promising. Here's Orange, from their eponymous first record, and To You from the more recent Show Your Teeth. If you like it, they're on Spotify andÂ Bandcamp.
Oh, and stuff you Barnes, Tori Amos is an absolute godess.
There's no wargame review on SU&SD this time. Instead I got to review a board game for a video game site: XCOM on Pocketgamer to be precise. It's an odd review because I tried to focus on the things that would be of most interest to mobile gamers: the app, and how much it resembles the XCOM video game.
My Gamerati series is actually running a bit ahead of my columns here, so this week you get another one! This time it’s deconstructing XCOM: The Board Game.
You may not know it but I am here to tell you that you are living in a golden age. A golden age of television dramas. A shining exemplar of this is Breaking Bad. The story of a man who, having noble and good motivations, makes a deal with the devil. The thing is, the devil is shrewd and doesn't give a damn about your intentions and he seldom comes out on the short end of a bargain. The series starts a bit slow but don't be put off by that. Watch the first few episodes knowing that the foundations being laid will be the basis for towering story. Every season the tension gets ratcheted up and up but unlike some shows (hello Lost) there is a payoff that not only makes sense but leaves you satisfied and eager for more. The characters are deep and well drawn. The acting is superb. You will find yourself loving and hating the main players by turns, rooting for and against them and when one or the other comes through a crisis you will feel as elated as they do...until you realize what they actually did to succeed and what you are cheering for. Of course they only did what they had to do. Don't we all?
Netflix Status: First 4 seasons are currently streaming
I PnP a couple games a year, at minimum. Usually they're big productions, not just a handful of tokens and cards. My last big project was Talisman 2e, which included everything ever made for it. Right now I'm working on Dune. Despite my leanings towards big PnP projects I do them as simply and cheaply as possible. Here's my method.
The world of comic books and the real world collide when three high school boys are granted super powers. These boys are no Peter Parkers or Clark Kents. They react in a way that feels true to how actual teenage boys would if they discovered that they had some cool new abilities and their problems and coping mechanisms don't suddenly disappear. The basic story has been done before. (I'm looking at you "Where No Man Has Gone Before") but it is done well here. A cool take on the super hero genre and the "found footage" technique didn't get on my nerves nearly as much as I thought it might.
Status: Still showing in theaters
Clash of the TitansStarring: Gemma Arterton, Liam Neeson, Sam WorthingtonDirector: Louis LeterrierWarner Brothers PicturesIn Cinemas from Friday 2nd AprilClash of the Titans is a tale of the ultimate struggle for power, pitting men against kings and kings against gods. But the war between the gods themselves could destroy the world. Born of a god but raised as a man, Perseus (Sam Worthington –Every Movie Being Made At The Moment) is helpless to save his family from Hades (Ralph Fiennes – The Avengers, Maid In Manhattan), vengeful god of the underworld. With nothing left to lose, Perseus volunteers to lead a dangerous mission to defeat Hades before he can seize power from Zeus (Liam Neeson – Darkman, Fallout III) and unleash hell on earth.
Brad and Ömer review "Ottoman Sunset: The Great War in the East 1914-1918" from Victory Point Games
In this book review edition of Claymore Division, Brad and Ömer rate and discuss "The Nazi Occult", "Myths and Legends: Thor" and "Catch That Tiger".
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