Sunday, 20 August 2017

Gaming Star Wars...

Well, one of the largest game conventions in the world, GenCon, has come and gone. In past years I would have been eagerly pouring over the list of new releases and announcements, keeping abreast of my favourite companies and looking eagerly forward to the games shown and talked about. I am not disinterested this year, but some of the flame has dimmed, I have shelves of games and some of them sit, as yet, unplayed.

Nonetheless, it is an important time for the hobby, and I was thrilled to see Modiphius walk away with a swag of Ennies. I read that, from a trade perspective, this year was an absolutely bumper one for game sales, with many publishers underestimating the stock they would require. This can only be a good thing for the hobby!

Two games announced recently (one actually at GenCon) have me most keenly interested. The first is the publication of the 30th Anniversary Edition of the Star Wars Role Playing Game. First published by West End in the 80s, this RPG has a seminal place in my own gaming history and I have very fond memories of playing it.

More recently I have enjoyed the newer FFG Edge of the Empire Star Wars game, but the West End system holds a special place in my nostalgic heart. I think I'll be picking it up for this, if for no other reason. I'm thrilled to see FFG releasing this anniversary edition - it looks good.

The other big game announced at GenCon was Star Wars: Legion. A ground based miniatures game set in the Star Wars universe - more specifically the first trilogy era (IV, V, and VI). Many moons ago I played and rather enjoyed the West End Star Wars miniatures game, and this new offering has me interested.

The box comes with a variety of goodies, specifically 33 miniatures and all the accouterments required to play. Orders look to be given through token placement, and there are special movement rulers and dice, not unlike what we have seen with X-Wing, Armada and Runewars. I'm not adverse to these elements, but one thing does hold me back: the use of special cards and powers. I like a good special rule in miniatures games - it helps add flavour without front loading complexity, but I'm not a huge fan of how it was carried through in X-Wing - with certain cards only available in certain expansions, and a tendency in the competitive arena to buy boxes of stuff for a handful of cards.

I'm also a little hesitant given FFGs history of having new models out-compete the older ones. I don't begrudge a company for making money, far from it, and I'm not the sort of person who is much interested in building a highly competitive force - enough to have fun is what I'm after. Still, these elements have me pausing. Perhaps they are concerns for naught - Fantasy Flight make some excellent games and I'm sure Legion will be one of them. The Star Wars IP is one that I enjoy, and so I may end up getting Legion, but I think I'll wait for now...

Photos from GenCon do look particularly awesome though...

Friday, 18 August 2017

Sensory Trays

Every classroom is a snapshot of society. When you read or a hear a statistic, x% of kids are y, those kids are present in every school, in every class. Any person who has cause to work with large groups of people will know the same to be true.

Every class contains students with diverse learning needs, and in my class I'm lucky enough to work with an aide who helps run and individualized program for some of my class members. Scrolling through Pinterest she found some interesting activities that make use of sensory trays. Sensory based activities are great for students with a range of learning needs, but seem to be most commonly used with students on the autism spectrum. We had a look around at educational suppliers who sold sensory trays, but like anything for a wedding, anything for a classroom magically costs a significant amount of money.

With the prospect of purchasing a collection of Sensory Trays unlikely I thought, 'What the hell, I'll just make some'. To be honest, they probably ended up costing a not insignificant amount, though I did make 8 of them.

I used 40mm x 10mm stripping for the edges, and 3mm MDF for the base. The trays are roughly 450mm x 300 mm. The stripping was glued and screwed in place, and sanded back. I also used a wood burner to label them. Lastly, they were finished with 4 coats of marine grade polyurethane varnish. In retrospect I would have done a few things differently, but I had fun putting them together and now have a collection I can use at school and a couple I can keep at home for my kids to play with.

Since I enjoyed making these I think my next project will be to make some sensory boards... should be good fun.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Children of Time is a stand alone science fiction novel by Adrian Tchaikovsky. I won't give too much away through the course of this review, rather I'll attempt to capture some of my thoughts on the book.

Children of Time is, first and foremost, a highly enjoyable read. It deals with the concept of uplift, something fans of science fiction will recognise, but it also deals with the fractious, destructive and violent tendencies of our own species.

The uplift story line (uplift being a process whereby an animal is lifted to consciousness through artificial means) follows the development of various types of invertebrates, specifically through the lens of the dominant species: the jumping spider, Portia. Each set of chapters that follows the uplift story thread leaps several generations, and through the course of the book, and over hundreds if not thousands of generations, the development of this species from humble beginnings to full civilisation is lovingly detailed, cleverly wrought and thoroughly fascinating. Explaining it here, or to a friend, feels somewhat absurd, so unlikely and alien that it sits in-congruent with the idea that it might make for a fascinating story; it is not. This evolving tale is engrossing, well detailed and believably carried through. In fact, as a reader I was far more well-disposed toward the spiders than I was toward our own species!

The development of technology, domestication, and civilisation in this arachnid species is brilliantly etched out. Over deep time we chart the rise and development of a nascent consciousness to a full blown civilisation, it is both identifiable and alien, familiar and strange, but most of all it is absolutely engaging.

Photo credit: Opo Terser/Wikipedia (CC BY 2.0)

Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it; this is the refrain that sings through the human portion of the story. Tchaikovsky takes on the human condition, juxtaposed against the rise of the Portia civilisation we see a broken shadow of humanity, the last remnants of our species searching for a world to assert themselves on.

This is a dual story, we have the uplift component and the human component; two threads enmeshed that parallel and commentate on one another. We see the spiders reaching toward something we, as readers, would recognise as civilisation, and we see contrasted against them, our own, and the comparisons are a stark analysis of the human condition. Fractious, violent, factional, brilliant, creative, hungry problem solvers we are, and the struggles faced by the ark ship Gilgamesh (the same hero who sought immortality) and its crew paint an, at times, bleak picture of our potentials.

The inevitable conflict between the two species, as the story threads collide back together, is chilling, and I found myself, strangely, wishing the cold vacuum of space would extinguish the guttering candle of humanity. But the ending itself is better still.

I found Children of Time to be a fascinating story, for all the depth lovingly sown into Portia and her species, for all the base struggles that beset our own, Children of Time remains a rollicking good story. Through it we chart the rise of civilisation, great battles and discoveries, a desperate fight for survival carried through by sheer will and tenacity against all odds. I thoroughly enjoyed it...

Sunday, 13 August 2017


Kings of War is a fantasy table-top war game from Mantic Games. I wrote about it in a previous blog post, and noted that I had thoroughly enjoyed my first game. Using a mix of Perry Miniatures boxes I had sitting around from older projects, a Fireforge box given to me by a good friend, and some other Fireforge boxes I ordered, I am slowly going through the process of assembling a Kingdoms of Men army (which is short hand for a generic human fantasy army).

One of the pieces I required was a siege engine of some sort. Not content with any old cannon (my troops look far too early-medieval for that sort of shenanigans), I settled on a trebuchet... for who on all this Earth doesn't love a trebuchet!

I poked around the web for a while, and found some fairly disappointing approximations - sure they would fit on the recommended base size - but they weren't really trebuchet material. Then I stumbled upon Gripping Beast... Oh dear Gripping Beast! The sight of this fair machine of war had me a-slaver, I had to have it - consequences (and there are consequences) be damned!

Yesterday's post brought me the sweet embrace of this mighty machine, and I spent some time last night assembling the beast. I have to say - it is wonderful. Indeed, had I been patient and bothered, I could have made it functional with little effort.

The resin pieces washed...

All the bits trimmed and laid out ready for assembly. It's worth noting that the reverse side of most of the pieces lacks any detail (in fact it's just the back of the cast resin), but it matters not a jot, for it is formidable and lovely once all together.
The instructions are fairly lacking, but I did my best to rig this machine to look like it could work. The brown string running off to the left is attached to the pin that holds the arm to the winch. I'm not sure how it's meant to be rigged, but this looks functional enough for me!
The set comes with three crew, and this fellow was holding a hammer. I removed said hammer and drilled his hands out to run the release thread through.
After cutting and rigging all the ropes, I painted them with PVA. This coil I made sure not to stick down - I can glue it once the basing is done properly.

Here we come to the key problem faced by such an enormous engine of eradication. The small square sitting on the larger one is the recommended base size for a trebuchet in Kings of War... There are rules for using larger base sizes (luckily), but I feel like I'm putting a terrain piece down. The base I used is some 21cm x 23 cm... 

Here the beast is, with some Perry 28mm archers and men-at-arms ranging in front of it...

A true behemoth...

Luckily it *just* fits onto the shelf. At this point I started wondering how'd I'd get to the club and around the place to game with... I could probably fire it from home. I think it has the range.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Uprooted, by Naomi Novik

Uprooted is a fairytale-esque fantasy novel by Naomi Novik, author of the Tememaire series. The book charts the story of Agnieszka, a young girl from an unremarkable village on the edge of a dark, mystical and terrifying forest. Unexpectedly chosen by the 'Dragon', she begins a journey of discovery, both of the world around her and within herself. 

I won't give away too much of the plot as a lot of it is wrapped up in the personal growth story of Agneiszka, and the discovery process is as important for the reader as for the character, but I will try and encapsulate what I particularly enjoyed about this book.

The setting of Uprooted is dark; edged with magic and corruption. The forest that dominates Agneiszka's world is a living thing, its agency laced with a malignant intent and is quite hauntingly carried through the use of motifs and scenes that vary between creeping dread and outright violent horror. This setting is quite fascinating in how limited it is in many ways - the valley, the towns, the river, the forest and the Dragon's tower. The story expands somewhat as it progresses, but the little valley, the world outside Agneiszka's village, is the hub around which all the world spins. The limited setting is welcome, as readers we identify with the locals, feel the distance to court, the threat is more imminent... I am reminded that to write a good fantasy story one does not need a continent of mighty kingdoms as the backdrop...

I wrote at the beginning that the story felt very much a fairytale-esque fantasy novel. With the limited pool of characters, the limited setting, the feel of the threat and particularly the style of the magic the book feels very much like it could comfortably sit within the cannon of the Brothers Grimm or similar. The world has a very Slavic feel to it, and the magic plays a great role in this. It is folk magic: turning a leaf into a boat, a mud sculpture into an ox, throwing sticks into the air for them to become arrows or spears, one of the characters in the history of the setting is even Baba Jaga herself...

It is charming, the magic is delightful and disarming inasmuch as the forest against which the story sets itself is dark and foul. The history of the setting, of this little world, is similarly interesting, and ties nicely to the circular themes in the plot. There were times with Agneiszka frustrated me, her perpetual self-doubt and indecision were annoying traits; but she does grow, and in the end it is worth remembering she is a girl of 17 when she is swept into the story. At its core Uprooted is a girl-to-woman story, a story of growing up, of stepping into the shoes of necessity and getting things done, despite my occasional frustration with Agneiszka, she is likable; she is determined and fearless; bolder than those around her.

All taken together Uprooted is a highly enjoyable read. It is rare enough to find a stand alone fantasy novel and this one, for me, is best described as charming. I enjoyed the characters, setting, and story all, but the forest and the magic were the well-layered elements I loved most.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman

Laughter and love, cunning and cruelty, the gods of the Norse myths are all the things that people are, but larger than life. For a long time I have loved the stories that have come down to us, mostly from Icelandic poets: the Prose Edda, the Poetic Edda, the many Sagas that tell of heroes such as Grettir the strong and Njal the wise. Along with other mythologies, like the Kalavala, and fantasy fiction such as Lord of the Rings, these books, characters and worlds were formative for me as a reader, and hold a special place in my heart.

I was excited to see Neil Gaiman, an author whose works I much admire, turn out a book on the subject. I'm not sure what I was expecting, a story perhaps, told in the modern sense? A cohesive plot winding through the adventures of the Aesir?

Norse Mythology is exactly what it states on the cover, episodic and written in a playful tone, as if meant to be told: it is a collection of the stories about the Norse gods. Each episode tracks the adventures of some of the gods, usually Thor and Loki, as they battle Frost Giants, fish for the Midgard Serpent, trick the Dwarfs and match wit and strength with strength and wit.

It is written as if to be spoken, it's prose simple and light and enjoyable throughout. Most of all though, the character is there. Reading Norse Mythology was like putting on an old favourite jumper, comfortable in its warm familiarity. Reading Gaiman's version of these myths made me chuckle at the brazenness of Thor, marvel at the wicked cunning of Loki, mourn for the slaying of Baldur, but most of all it made me smile. I've long been a lover of these myths, and was thrilled again by them, in this new retelling.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

The Imperial Radch Series, by Anne Lecke

The Imperial Radch Series, by Anne Leckie, is a trilogy comprised of Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy. I won’t go into too many details on the characters or plotting, as the twists and turns of fate that trace the steps of the main character spin around short but vital bursts of action that are integral to the whole.

To be honest, I only finished the series a day ago, and while I started the first book a long while back, I still feel like the series requires some digestion before I know exactly how I feel about it. What I can say is that I enjoyed reading the books immensely, and am glad that I did, but they are different and interesting, which is why I walk away my full opinion as yet unformed.

I found the first quarter to third of Ancillary Justice to be rather impenetrable to begin with. First, the main character is gestalt – many bodies with one mind. Second, the culture to which this character belongs (perhaps observes is a better term) is quite separate from more traditional sci-fi staples; it is bound by traditions and observances, by ritual and belief. Third, the first portion of the book takes place on a world in the throes of having being conquered, which in itself provides a dichotomy of cultures to comprehend. Fourth and last, there is a back and forth between the present of the story and a vital past which expounds the whys and wherefores of the present.

So we have an unusual main character and several alien cultures, with their complex politics beating, arrhythmic, beneath the relatively calm surface. I found it a lot to contend with to be honest, but it was interesting, and Leckie provides us with secondary characters who act as something of anchor points from which to hang. As Ancillary Justice wound on, a crucial tipping point occurred, unfolding as ground shifting for us as readers as for the main character, and the story spun in a new arc; previous elements suddenly clarified.

The climax of Ancillary Justice felt short and almost hurried, but as I read through the series I felt that this was the pace of things that Leckie had intended. The pendulum of events in the Imperial Radch series feels like a gradual build-up of pressures released explosively in short bursts of action.

I think one of the things Leckie manages masterfully is the way in which she is able to capture what is being said that is not being said; the implication, suggestion, intention, the compliment and insult... what is communicated through a widening of eyes, a tightening of lips, a straightening of shoulders. Much of the dialog between characters is not what is said, but what is not, at least explicitly.

The Imperial Radch series is an interesting read. I think some will find it endlessly impenetrable, others slow paced and bogged in relationships. For me though, the series is interesting because of those things, it is somewhat impenetrable because of the detail Leckie builds into her worlds and characters, it isn't bogged in relationships, but relationships are fundamental - these are the fulcrums around which everything pivots and all meaning is lost without them.

The story, overall, is about relationships, the pressures are personal and political more than anything else, it is about identity and agency, and about the violation of those things.

The pacing is different, with its build ups and explosive reliefs, but as much as a flurry of action might pass in an instant the story does not feel slow. Having read the three books of the series, I find it difficult to disentangle them. I like the setting, there is much that is different and unique about it that could be mentioned, but as much as they are interesting, what I think rings strongest for me revolves around the themes of agency and ownership. Themes I can’t help but to relate to our own developing understanding of other animals on this planet, and of the technology we are developing.

I’m still not sure exactly how I feel about these books, but I am glad to have read them, and will be looking forward to whatever else Leckie pens.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Perry Good...

Apologies dear reader, I couldn't resist the very poor title.

Recently I had the opportunity to play a learning game of Kings of War.

Being the indecisive type I ummed and ahhhed over whether I was going to collect this game (having quite enough games on my shelves already), and then over which army I might collect *if* I chose to...

Having already purchased a couple of boxes of plastics for use with Mordheim, I thought a fairly easy jump-in point would be to use the left overs as the basis for my army, so Kingdoms of Men (a catch-all army) seemed the easiest option.

First off let me say that Kings of War was a remarkably simple game, the stat line is minimal and the game play is straightforward. It is a very beer and pretzels style of game, where large armies can clash, fight for victory and head home for a pint of the best afterwards. The learning game I played was large enough, and was over in around an hour. There is a risk, when designing a simple game, of removing tactical depth, now I am hardly qualified (after one play) to judge Kings of War appropriately, but I enjoyed the game immensely. The choices you make impact the game significantly. The positioning of your units, the timing of your movements, your ability to attack a flank or outnumber your foe are all significant factors that require some thought both in deployment and maneuver. I'll write more on the game as I gain experience, but thus far I am impressed. I had a lot of fun, and am particularly thrilled to have found a big battle game that plays as quickly and simply as a skirmish game.

Having now (finally) begun to assemble my force I felt particularly inspired to comment on a singular observation: Perry Miniatures make some absolutely stunning figures. I have been putting together men-at-arms and archers from the 'English Army 1415-1429' box, and they are brilliant.

I am increasingly disliking the exaggerated miniatures produced at the 28mm scale, with over-sized weapons and proportions... it must be my age. As I have been putting the Perry figures together my appreciation for their quality and excellence has grown significantly. I enjoyed painting the ones I put together for my Mordheim band, I love the look of the Napoleonics models I have assembled for Sharp Practice, and the bases of miniatures coming together for my Kings of War force look stunning.

One of the sprues from the box (obviously archers), which provides some nice choices. The different sprues provide a different range of options; the men-at-arms ones had a variety of weapon choices.

All the pieces snipped off the sprue and trimmed, ready to be glued together and based. I am multi-basing the units for Kings of War.

The crisp detail in these figures is absolutely brilliant, the historical aesthetic, with good proportions and a variety of poses and expressions is also excellent (though the expressions are hard to note on those wearing full armour!). Each of the men-at-arms came with a detached visor which could be added (as above), glued as if raised (below), or not added at all.

Perry Miniatures are some of the absolute best quality figures I own. I know companies like Games Workshop and others have a reputation for producing high quality plastics, but for me, Perry Miniatures has become a favourite. The detail, variety of options, price and aesthetic are all huge ticks as far I am concerned. They are truly excellent, and well worth looking at.

Some Perry figures painted up for my Averlander warband for Mordheim.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017


It's been a little while since I last ventured to the castle cabinet to compose a post, the grounds have needed tending, and the smaller members of the castle staff have required attention. Much has happened in the meantime, however, games have been purchased and played, events run and plans made.

A few weeks ago the inaugural Shepparcon took place, a board game convention in my humble town, and was a smashing success. It was a lot of fun to be a part of the organising committee, and while my contributions were limited, the rest of the crew did a fantastic job. We had close to 90 people come through over the course of the weekend, and much gaming was had by all. The event may well be the subject of a future post, but suffice to say I had a blast. Some of the standout games I managed to play included Eye for an Eye (a prototype of the highest quality), Santorini, and Red 7.

Eye for an Eye is, in some ways, a bizarre game. It's a real-time miniatures game - something I would have considered impossible, but the frantic rolling of action dice, the placement of the dice, and the spending of said dice to move, attack, defend and perform other actions was a huge amount of fun.  Ben Boersma, the designer, is an Australian with several other games to his name. Eye for an Eye is set in his Occulite universe, and is an absolute blast to play. A game that conceptually I thought could not possibly work, Eye for an Eye is, instead, a raucous roller coaster of silly fun. I will certainly be getting a copy when it makes its way into production. If you're interested, you can get the print and play version here.

Santorini is a lovely looking game that ran quickly, had a simple rules set and was easy to play, for those reasons it was highly enjoyable. Some might argue it is very much a poster child of form over function, but the nice pieces really do make the game that little bit more fun.

Red 7 is a strange card game, at the end of every one of your turns you need to be winning, and you do that by playing cards in front of you to match the rule, or by modifying the rule (or both). It's one of those games where every turn you survive you feel like you've managed to do something clever, it was an excellent game, and one I'll be chasing up.

All in all Shepparcon was a success, and we're very much looking forward to what next year will bring. I'm sure the Con is going to grow, and it will be fantastic to be a part of that.

On the podcast front I have been decidedly slack, it's been tough to coordinate a recording time, but finally we have a new episode up (and plans to record another very soon). The latest episode of the On Minis Games podcast can be found here. We talk about Drop Fleet Commander, Drop Zone Commander, Kings of War, and a multitude of Kickstarters.

Lastly, I have been making slow plans to get my RPG group back playing, for a while our games centered around testing adventures for the upcoming Infinity RPG, and I want to take a break from that and try something different. My shelves are over stocked with a variety of games I either haven't played in a long time or ever, so it was to those I went looking. Being the vacillating type, I am still swinging between two options, but I think I have managed to sort out in my mind what I want to run.

I think we'll play through a few short campaigns of 3-5 adventures each, across a couple of different game systems. To begin with I think we'll run with Symbaroum, which is a dark and strange fantasy setting with gorgeous art. The setting is excellent (and very evocative), and the game system seems interesting enough - so we might kick off with that.

The other game I am looking at is Heavy Gear. Heavy Gear is an old favourite of mine, so I am most definitely looking forward to playing it again. I have the second edition rules set, as well as the third edition SilCore set. After some research I think we'll run with the second edition rules, though we may pull a few tweaks from the SilCore rules as well. We'll see how we go!

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

A love of reading

A vast majority of the posts on this blog are related to games and gaming. This post, however, will buck the trend; I want to write about a love of reading.

Books are a wonder. Unknowing and not counting the passing of minutes and hours, reading books can ensnare us, tangle us in other places, times, worlds and imaginings. They can take us on emotional journeys. They can make us laugh, cry, get so angry we have to put the book down only to pick it up again moments later. They can get us so excited our eyes leap from sentence to sentence, racing to see where the action leads. They are a way to experience, a key to knowledge, a challenge to our preconceptions, a teacher of wisdom and language and expression.

Some of my fondest memories from my youth are of me rolled up in my blankets reading Tolkien, Eddings, Feist, Asimov and others, while the silent and dark Earth rolled through the night. I don't read as much as I used to, and it is something I want to get back into the habit of, but I have an undying love of it still, and will, I think, always.

I am lucky enough to have three wonderful children I get to read to, although our evening routine is sometimes just a chaotic and exhausting struggle to make sure they are fed, bathed and in bed. I also have a day job that lets me express my love of learning and reading the (unlucky) kids in my class.

Reading aloud is always something I have enjoyed. Putting expression and emphasis into description, using voices and whispering and thundering the dialog where required appeals to my overwrought sense of drama.

Teaching, as I do, 8-9 year olds, allows for a certain amount of class time dedicated to a class book. I have my favourite books to read, and every year the children in my class will no doubt get to hear of the bravery of Mrs Frisby, the daring of Harry Potter, and the exploits of Mr Fox. Every year I also try and find some new book or three they might also enjoy. The last few years have introduced the kids and myself to Artemis Fowl, A Wrinkle in Time, Alex Rider and many others, and no doubt a few of these will become regulars in years to come.

Every year it's interesting to see the responses of the kids. A few years ago I had a class that would applaud after every reading (unprompted I assure you), this year my class will borrow as many copies of the same book as they can find and sit in little huddles following on as we read.

At the moment we are reading Little House in the Big Wood, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and I, in a terrible Southern American accent (wrong accent no doubt, but recognisably American at least), and finding myself drawn through the window into a beautifully sketched world remarkably different to our own. The kids have been horrified at a deer being butchered, disgusted by the making of cheese, fascinated by the making of bullets or of little Laura playing with her corn husk doll. In short, it is a fascinating book, remarkably approachable given the span of time, and one I am enjoying a lot. I cannot think of any book I have read that has given the kids more insight into the past than this one, nor one where they have had so many questions. I thoroughly recommend it, though it is obviously also a product of its time (itself a point for discussion).

 Reading is a wonderful thing, and I hope that some of the kids that walk away from my class do so having lost the conception that 'reading is not for them'. To my mind, it is just a matter of finding the right book...

(I should note - all the pictures I put on my white board are usually my poorly executed facsimiles of an image I liked from the web)