Friday, 17 November 2017

Terminal World, by Alastair Reynolds

Here is a book that defies classification. Science fiction melded with the fantastic, steam power and dirigibles, the visceral post apocalyptic skull boys who bear a mad-cap resemblance to the villains that hound Mad Max. All of it wound tightly around a sprawling and interesting setting, an Earth, tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of years into the future. A world built on a sense of the scientific, but sufficiently removed from us to appear, at times, magical.



The cast of characters, from the dogged former angel (yes, you read that correctly, but not 'angel' in the conventional sense) Doctor Quillon, to his rough guide, protector and sometimes hater Meroka. The genius and authorial voice of Ricasso, the determined sky-captain Curtana, are all memorable, well constructed and larger than life.

The story itself follows a twisting plot, not a simple adversary for the protagonist to defeat, but an exploration of what is fundamentally wrong with the setting itself, and the winding journey through the world that uncovers it. The setting of Terminal World is strange and wonderful, a planet overlaid with zones in each of which different technologies are possible. High zones around the mysterious city/spire Spearpoint, allow high tech, and lower zones, extending out into the world, cause this high tech to break down and stop working. We have laser fights in one section, and horse back sabre rattling in another, steam belching contraptions, and the Swarm: of sky-galleon-esque dirigibles. The explanation for all of this is fundamental to the development of the plot, so I won't go in to too many details other than to state it is engrossing. The world itself is the antagonist, the problem, and the characters' journeys explore and reveal it in stepped clues that reveal its true nature.

For all the seeming absurdity, the tour de force of imagination writ large in a setting both magical and scientific, it is a world that I found interesting and engaging. A story that I found strange and wonderful in equal measure. With characters I liked, and found interesting. This, as I stated earlier, is a book that defies classification. Some might place it firmly in the steam-punk genre, for the dirigibles that battle in the skies and the clanking machines that so richly define portions of the setting. But there is science fiction here too, and no small amount of fantasy. This book will not be to everyone's taste, but it is different and engaging, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Apps and Board Games

I've played two board games recently that require the use of Apps to play. X-Com and First Martians, both of which use apps to facilitate the gameplay.



In X-Com the app tells you how much money you'll have on a turn, where aliens pop up on the board, when to complete various actions and vitally, it times you, meaning you must take certain actions in the game under the pressure of a countdown. The timed aspect particularly makes the game an exciting and tense game experience, no time to overthink things or plan too carefully, but you must attempt to be optimal in the time provided.

X-Com


In First Martians the app runs you through the game, including providing unique events, facilitating scenario and campaign play and makes for a highly varied game experience.

I'll be honest, when First Martians was announced I was very excited. The Martian is a favourite book of mine, I like science, space, and generally it ticked all the boxes. I didn't read much about the game aside from the theme, and preordered it as soon as I could. When it arrived I found out that it needed an app to run, and some of the shine was removed from the game for me.

First Martians


This reaction of mine, the sense that the requirement for an app in a board game holds a negative connotation, is, quite probably, entirely in my head. I'm sure that many people out there similarly feel it detracts from a game, and more, no doubt, feel that it does nothing but add to the experience. I'm sure as time wears on my opinion on the matter will change and evolve - after all, the inclusion of apps is nothing but an evolution of the mediums, using technology to add to the play space and experience of a game.

Nonetheless I have reservations. I have board games on my shelf that are over twenty years old, and I can grab them off the shelves flick through the rules and play them. Does requiring an app place a death sentence against a game? Does it limit the game to the length of time a company will support the app? To the length of time the company exists? To the length of time the app is able to run on newer and newer technology?

Does any of this even matter? In an era of legacy games, which more often than not are physically altered with each play, does a set or uncertain lifespan matter? With legacy games the value is derived from the unique experience it provides, are games with apps any different? In a time where hundreds of new games are published every year, and more often than not new games hit the tables only a handful of times before they are supplanted by even newer ones, is the lifespan of a game relevant?

I'm sure there are a thousand ways the mixing of the digital and physical mediums can create a new and unique experience for players. As long as people feel like they are getting value for money - whatever metric one uses for such a calculation, then so be it. I don't have a personal gripe with companies experimenting with apps, integrating technology into board games in new and different ways - after all experimentation is how things grow, develop and become more interesting.

But... when I get a game that must use an app I can't help but wonder how long it will be playable for, and that is the thought that makes me shrug my shoulders and question if the game is really one I want on my shelf. Maybe I'm dated in my view, maybe I'm being overly skeptical, cynical or worrisome, and I'm sure my attitude will change over time and through exposure. If I play something a bunch of times and never again then it has served it purpose - certainly more so than the many games I've bought over the years and played once before reshelving them ne'er to be seen again.

We arrive again at whatever metric one uses to derive value for money. I may buy a game that in five years time will be unsupported and unplayable because the app no longer functions, but then, if I've played it 5, 10, 20 times in that period then it has been of more value than the game I bought and only ever played once. In the end I'm not really sure of my opinion; I don't like the idea that having a game linked inextricably to an app means, in all likelyhood, that the day the app is no longer updated/supported is the day the game becomes useless cardboard. But then I can see the benefits of using apps too: the potentials for expanding and changing and varying a game experience. The last five years or so has seen an increase in the number of games with linked apps, and I'm sure we'll see this trend continue. I'm not really sure how I feel about it, is it something that bothers you?




Monday, 30 October 2017

Symbaroum

There is a beautiful majesty to art, the way it can represent mood and atmosphere to inspire emotion and imagination. Symbaroum is a Swedish role playing game produced by Järnringen in Swedish and distributed by Mōdiphiüs in English. What drew me to this game more than anything else was the art. Evocative and otherworldly, it paints, in muted tones, a world and setting which is wild and mysterious, fay and dangerous. 



The setting itself is a fantasy built into the vacuum of a collapsed great empire, the main protagonists are people fleeing their old lands which were corrupted by death. The themes are environmental, primal and elemental. Much iconography and mood feels drawn from old myths and stories like the Edda and the Kalevala. The wild is unknowable and dangerous, corrupting and vigilant. The forces of the world are driven by powers that mere mortals do not, and perhaps can never understand. 



The artistic style carries through into the muted tones of the maps and book, naturalistic colours dominate the palette. The history and setting match the visual style beautifully, and while the tropes common to fantasy are present, they hearken back to their primal roots more than they lean on modern variations. Elves and trolls, wild beasts and dragons, all are there in plenty if you venture into the forest deep enough, but they are not the elves and trolls of the Lord of the Rings, nor those more modern versions typified by Dungeons and Dragons or Warhammer. They are the elves of folklore, elemental and fay, wild and dangerous. Dragons will as soon manipulate, fool and trick as they will roar with fury and power. There is much to like in this setting.



The rules are light and easy, encounters dangerous and over quickly, even between powerful adversaries. Special abilities allow characters unique talents that can be fun and interesting when employed well, and provide lots of ways to substitute one stat for another, meaning combat doesn't need to be the exclusive province of the stereotypical tank. It is possible to game the system to some extent, and GMs and players alike need occasionally to be ready to make a best judgement and move on. But it is an engaging and quick moving game engine that allows heroic action and story to come before the minutia that dominates many game systems.



I won't go much further in detailing the mechanisms and setting, Symbaroum is a game with an evocative and stylized world. A setting that is challenging, dark and fay. The rules are relatively simple, roll a D20 and get below your modified stat. One of the more unique elements is that only the players ever touch the dice: they roll for the damage they inflict while enemy armour simply soaks X, they roll their armour while enemy attacks simply inflict X. It is a system that took a game or two to get used to, but works, and works quickly and well. This is a game I have thoroughly enjoyed, and while we're only around 8 sessions in, I am looking forward to playing more.




As of writing this Järnringen are running a Kickstarter for their version of a Monster Manual. It looks great. If you're interested at all in the game - I'd recommend checking it out!


I should note - while I freelance for Modiphius I have never worked on the Symbaroum line (though of course, it would be awesome to do so), I am recommending this game purely as a fan. 




Friday, 27 October 2017

Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen

I may be late to the party, but apparently this book is some sort of classic. Looking for something new to read to my class I stumbled across a copy of Hatchet on the shelves of the library. My mind immediately cast back to the many times others had recommended the book, and lacking any other concrete ideas, I pulled it from the shelf.


Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen, is a survival book. It is about a young boy called Brian Robeson travelling by aeroplane to visit his father when disaster strikes. Over the Canadian forests the pilot suffers a fatal heart attack. While Brian does his best to keep the plane on course, it eventually crashes, leaving an injured Brian to take care of himself in the wild.

I doubt I needed to even write that much, Hatchet is one of those books that everyone bar me seems to have read in high-school or at some other point in their lives. It has a reputation that makes the book feel ubiquitous, like it's something I should have read, even if I hadn't. Looking over Goodreads, it also seems to fall into the love/hate dichotomy. I can understand.

Hatchet is written in a very striking style. It is written in short sentences, and makes much use of repetition. The book makes statements, makes statements and then repeats them, repeats them and slightly expands them each time.


If I were reading the book to myself I think I might have found the style interesting, but occasionally stilted. As it was I read the book out loud to my class, and the repetition and mixture of short and longer sentences gave the book a rhythm. As if it was always meant to be read out loud. The story had a beat, it rose and fell, was tense and interesting, engaging and dramatic; I enjoyed it immensely.

Story wise Hatchet is is relatively simple, a tale of survival in a harsh and unrelenting wilderness, an alien world to the city-dweller Brian. This is not to criticise the narrative arc, the story is as much about the evolution of Brian as it is about the trials and tribulations he suffers while fighting to survive. The continual mistakes, set-backs and fell chances that befall Brian are counterpointed by the successes and discoveries he makes as he learns to get by. The book is primal; Brian's failures and challenges are keenly felt, and his successes permits us moments to bask in celebratory warmth on our protagonists part. As a reader I felt compelled and engaged the entire time, and my students seemed to enjoy it a lot too (many borrowed later books in the series).

If you, like me, are one of the few people who has not read Hatchet, I would thoroughly recommend it. If you find the writing style off-putting, I suggest reading it as if it is being read out loud, a story told over flickering flames rather than processed silently. I'm glad I read Hatchet, it was captivating in both its use of language and its classic survival story and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think it'll make my regular cycle of reading material for my classes.



Wednesday, 27 September 2017

The World of Twilight...

The World of Twlight: Chronicles of Anyaral is a fantasy skirmish-scale miniatures game designed by Michael Thorp. It uses a range of interesting mechanisms, but perhaps the biggest draw card for me is the wonderful aesthetic, and the look and feel of the world.


I have been looking for a while for a game my kids and I can collect and play, and with the lad being a huge fan of dinosaurs, this seemed like an obvious choice.

The rules book is high quality, well bound, clearly laid out and compiling several previously released smaller books. In it are all the rules and stats required to play, as well as copious amounts of fluff text detailing the absolutely charming world of Anyaral.


Also scattered throughout are wonderful little line drawings that give personality and loving rendition to this characterful setting.





The metal and resin miniatures do justice to the illustrations. They are high quality, well cast, easy to assemble and full of detail and character. These have to be some of my favourite fantasy miniatures, the aesthetic is fantastic and the quality high. They feel like they are around a 28mm scale, and look great on the table. I really want to get paint on them.

Devanu Outcasts

Clan Orel

All models that came with the 'Large Starter Set' assembled and based. I'll go through and take some better close ups another time.

The rules themselves are interesting and dynamic. Counters are drawn from a bag, and may match either player or be a 'Combat Counter'. When a player's Counter is drawn from the bag, they may select a model to activate, if this model has some form of leadership ability, they in turn may activate other models. Once the chain of activated models has been selected, they play may move them, and use any pertinent abilities. Making sure models are positioned well, in order to ensure they are activated in a coordinated fashion, and can make best use of their abilities, is key to success.

Yellow and green Initiative Counters (6 of each), and two orange Combat Counters. After the second Combat Counter is drawn in any turn and resolved, the Turn Ends.

The early stages of the Chance Encounter Scenario.

If a Combat Counter is drawn, any models in base-to-base combat may engage in melee. This is not the only time melee occurs, as some abilities may allow for out of sequence attacks (like 'Charge'), but is one of the key moments in which combat is resolved.

The Devanu advance on the militia...

Players take turns in initiative order selecting a model to attack with, and combat is dynamic and interesting. Each player has twelve combat stones, 6 'Erac' (offensive), and 6 'Oran' (defensive). Each one of these stones is essentially a D2, like a coin, with a symbol on one side and a blank on the other. As well as the two models involved directly in a melee, other adjacent models may also offer 'support'. Support, abilities and a model's 'Combat' stat dictates how many stones a player may throw, and a player may select what mix of Erac and Oran will comprise this amount.

I did a quick paint job on my Combat Stones - no doubt they'll chip through use. But they are easier to read now than blank metal!

So, a model may attack another model, and will gather up a number of stones equal to the attacker's Combat stat, relevant abilities, and any support it gains. That player may choose to use stones that are Erac or Oran (or a mix), in order to make their combat action more offensive or defensive. Any Erac thrown are countered by an opponent's Oran, and vice-versa. For every 'hit' landed, the hit model rolls a D6, if it is equal to or higher than their Toughness, they live, if not, the model is removed. It is possible for both sides to inflict damage on the other at the same time.

Stat Cards came with the 'Large Starter' and are well worth it. They are good quality, tidy and capture all the information required in play. 

Combat may sound convoluted and messy, but in practice it is straightforward. Tactically interesting choices abound in model positioning, and using abilities to stack the odds against the opponent. The blind bluff of whether you are going to be more attacking or defensive with your combat stones is also a lot of fun. I thoroughly enjoyed the first simple games I played, and am looking forward to playing with more miniatures on the table.

Militia face off against the advancing Devanu.

The Jenta Hunter and Militia Captain faced off, both inflicting mortal wounds on the other...

World of Twilight: Chronicles of Anyaral is a great game. With a multitude of scenarios to play through, and an inventive, unique and thoroughly charming aesthetic, it's a game I am glad I bought into. The rules are fun and interesting, allowing for quick game-play and tactical thinking. I am looking forward to playing a lot more!




Sunday, 24 September 2017

Writing about writing

The last two to three weeks have been a huge challenge for me. For a few years I have been working as a freelance writer for Spartan Games and Modiphius Entertainment. It's something I enjoy doing a lot, but it can be draining, especially when writing is not my main job. This last month was one of those occasions where everything just happens to land at once.

Freelance writing, at least in my experience, is a funny gig. Both the companies I have worked for produce licensed products I have worked on, Halo with Spartan, and Infinity with Modiphius. A typical job runs through multiple stages, first the offer of doing it (of course). The outline, which then is approved/improved by both the company you work for and the license holder. Then the draft, which is then approved/improved by both the company you work for and the license holder. Then the drafts following...

This process can be quick, and it can be lengthy. I have been writing for the Infinity: The Role Playing Game line, published by Modiphius and licensed from Corvus Belli, since the latter part of 2015. This year that work has taken a sharp upturn in speed and quantity, and this last month has been one of those wonderful occasions where everything seems to land at once.



The last two or three weeks have been a real challenge for me. At the start of September I was twiddling my thumbs, enjoying Netflix, blogging and putting together a bunch of miniatures for Kings of War. About a week and a half in, everything landed. Outlines had been approved and dates for draft submissions set. New jobs offered and dates set. All of it landed quickly.

In the last two weeks I have managed, just, to pen some 30,000 words (that's around 60-70 typed pages). It has been a real challenge. I realise that for full-time writers this amount may not be very much, but it is the most I have written in such a demanding time-frame, and has been tough. No Netflix, no miniature assembly, no gym, no game nights, no anything other than sitting down at my desk every night and pushing on with the job at hand. It was a challenge, but I managed it, I am proud of it (and here's hoping Modiphius and Corvus Belli feel the same). It has been intense, but I have loved it.

I learned a lot in the last few weeks.

One: I can manage 20,000 in a week if I really push myself, but it is exhausting.

Two: Most nights I worked between 3-5 hours, and managed a rate somewhere around 800-1000 words an hour (some nights more, some nights less - and these are words that I am happy with having on the page).

Three: No distractions, no procrastination. Even half an hour lost is too much time lost. Sometimes you just have to force yourself to start.

Four: If you're stuck, start some other section. Don't waste time staring at the screen and wondering what to do. A lot of the time your subconscious will keep at the problem even when you're thinking of something else - then at some point it will ring the consciousness doorbell - Ding. Hi, I'm the subconscious, I'm here to tell you how to deal with that problem... Or, go for a walk, throw some darts, do something mindless for a short period of time to let your brain clear and mull things over.

Five: I have been writing for a role playing game - so the key question is always: How would this be interesting or useful to the GM or players? How would this make the stories they tell, the adventures they experience more exciting and nuanced?

Six: Writers research some weird stuff. Common Latvian surnames? What conditions in the ionosphere cause microwave beam attenuation? Types and effects of different necrotic poisons? What would the word 'condolences' be in Persian? What biological systems allow an insect to breathe? What is the structure of the UN Security Council? Seriously. My search history has me flagged as a seditious terrorist, I'm sure of it. Irrespective of the watch lists you might end up on, writers research. I was lucky enough to have the Infinity books published by Corvus Belli, the Graphic Novel Outrage, the Infinity RPG Core Book and so on to call upon. But we don't just get information, we apply it. How does that information change, mutate, alter and make more interesting the thing we are sculpting with our words?

Seven: Reread and edit. Chances are at that at some point you were three sentences ahead of your fingers and you accidentally typed to to or or and and when when. Chances are you mistook one name for another, or rewrote something you had already described. Chances are a convoluted sentence can be rewritten to be more clear. I read my writing aloud to myself. If I stumble as I read I stop and look to see why, most of the time it's because the sentence structure needs work, the phrasing is confusing, or too much has been packed into a single sentence.It seems obvious to write this, but it takes time and needs to be done.

Eight: Ask questions. If you have an editor, liaison, or group you're working with and you're stuck on something, ask (for me this was regularly something like: Wait. What did you want with this bit?). They want what you want - the best danged piece possible.

Nine: More. Much more. It was a real challenge this last two and a bit weeks, and I have more projects to finish yet, but I have a better understanding of my capabilities and limitations now than I did at the start of the month.

I'm not sure what the purpose of this was... but there are some thoughts regardless.





Wednesday, 13 September 2017

MOAR Artillery!

Well, I had intended to post this a week ago, but I have become unreasonably busy with several jobs all landing at once. When you work as a freelance writer, the process of getting a specific job, and the steps it goes through can be staccato. This is especially true when working with an IP that is being licensed by the company your are writing for. Proposals go to the company, maybe back to you, back to the company, eventually to the IP holder for approval, back to you... the steps can be multiple. Added to this is the fact that any one of those might happen quickly, or might take time. Building a true sense of when a proposal or outline will be fleshed into a draft, and from draft to editor to final draft to editor and eventually layout can be difficult and sometimes impossible. The process may be quick, or it may take months. You can go from having no work to do to having a whole lot land at once.

This last week has seen the latter, with multiple jobs either clearing or soon to be clearing approvals and deadlines suddenly looming. I'm not complaining, I love writing for games, probably more than playing them, but jobs take precedence over blogs, as the old rhyme goes.

In any case! Artillery!

I wrote a scathing attack on Mantic's policy of basing Artillery on trifling bases a week or so ago, and my view on the topic has only grown more strident. Mantic can be sure that an angry 'Letter to the Editor' is being formulated as you read this. The so-called boffins at Mantic HQ will blister with shame when they read it, but it can't be helped; they brought it on themselves.

The more I think on it, the more apoplectic I become. I sit staring gloomily into the dying embers of the fire, a vintage cognac spoiling in my idle hand, swirled only occasionally by a fierce convulsion of fury that engulfs me when I think of the base sizes, and a cold disquiet settles on me... 50mm indeed! How hulking weapons of an epic fantasy setting are meant to be represented on 50mm square bases is anyone's guess. A random spasm over the '5' and '0' keys, driven by a force of madness that knows no bounds is the only reasonable conclusion. It is what it is. And what it is is a level of foolishness that could drive a grown man to the edge of his sanity, but I digress.

After piecing together the monumental bombard from Perry Miniatures, I managed to put together two smaller engines (picked to fit the minuscule bases Kings of War demands for such things). Both of these are from the War of the Roses range of Artillery, and are breach loading field guns.

As always with Perry Miniatures, the models are well cast and hold excellent detail. They went together quickly and without much trouble. I am a big fan of this company!





Yes, yes. I glued everything down before undercoating and painting, again. I blame the base sizes personally, the topic is chewing away at my sanity like a gerbil on a wafer. Nonetheless, they are excellent models. The top two images are of the single arc breach loading field piece. The final two images are of the double arc breach loading field piece. I am very pleased with how they came out!