Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Review of The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler

First contact is an established sub-genre of science fiction. Humans arriving on an extra-terrestrial planet, chance meeting in space, or aliens arriving on Earth, innumerable such stories have been written in the century+ of sf. But what if the ”aliens” were with us all along? Such is the first question Ray Nayler's The Mountain in the Sea (2022) asks. The second it asks is: how would a fully corporate, technology-saturated world deal with that?

Set in a near-future of slightly altered national boundaries and nation states/business enterprises,The Mountain in the Sea is a braid of three character strands. First is Ha, a Vietnamese scientist who has been sent by her corp DIANIMA to a remote, heavily guarded Vietnamese island to do research. Specializing in marine biology, she finds herself in the company of the world's only sentient android investigating a strange underwater phenomenon involving octopode. Second is Rustem, a master hacker living under the radar in the Istanbul region. One of the world's best, he agrees to a hack job from an ultra rich but mysterious buyer, and ends up getting in over his head—almost. And lastly is Eiko, a slave worker aboard an AI captained fishing vessel called the Sea Wolf. Guarded by well-armed humans as the ship plies the South China seas, Eiko keeps his head down, waiting for his opportunity to escape.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Flick 'em Up

There are several motifs that cross medium regularly and often. Space adventure, knights & dragons, vampires—these and many other ideas appear in films, books, video games, music, and yes, board games. From bluffing game to economy management, so too has the wild west made its appearances. But nothing would seem to unleash the potential for cowboys and bandits like a flicking/dexterity game. Flick ‘Em Up (2015) is out to prove the theory right.

Flick ‘em Up is a game for 2-10 players (10 players not recommended, 2-6 is ok). Shootouts at the OK corral in finger-flicking form, each team has five plastic cowboys (or bandits, depending on your side), and need to meet the objective of the chosen scenario. This might be stealing X gold from the bank, or killing the sheriff/bandit chief, or protecting a certain building, or something else. The game comes with ten scenarios. It also comes with everything you need—cactuses, bales of straw, general stores, fences, banks, etc. to make your own little town to have a shootout in, or, from another perspective, assemble the chosen scenario.

Monday, December 26, 2022

Review of The John Varley Reader by John Varley

It's time for a behind-the-scenes look at Speculiction, to pull aside the glamor of everyday (ahem) posting and see the nitty gritty of how such a well oiled, mainstream blog runs.  Indeed, I keep a txt file titled: “To complete sf journey”. In the file is a list of authors and their books I would like to read before saying that I am no longer interested in reading anything else by them. Some authors are not included on the list given their entire oeuvre is of interest, e.g. Brian Aldiss, or, they've already been removed as I've had my fill, e.g. Alastair Reynolds. I don't purposely go through the list like a machine, but when the mood strikes me I take a look and choose a book. The mood apparently right, I saw there was only one entry remaining under John Varley: his de facto best-of short fiction entitled The John Varley Reader (2004). Here we go, one step closer to completion.  Whatever that means.

Before getting to the fiction, one important note about the Reader's non-fiction: Varley wrote individual introductions for each selection. For fans of the author, people who have likely already read the stories collected, Varley goes beyond a sentence or two to give the collection value. Some featuring several paragraphs and some several pages, Varley rhapsodizes on inspiration, providing context socially, ideologically, and historically for each story.

Monday, December 19, 2022

Non-fiction: Review of Cinema Speculation by Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino has repeated often enough that his film-making days are essentially behind him, and that he wants to start devoting time to other projects. Good on his word, he has produced a novelization of his film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and in 2022 his first piece of non-fiction, Cinema Speculation. Filled with epic dialogue, blood splatter, and norm-challenging scenes—at least proverbially? Let's see.

Cinema Speculation is three things: a bit of indirect biography, a bit of film history (primarily Hollywood 1950-80), but mostly analysis/critique of the films Tarantino considers critical from the 70s—Bullitt, The Getaway, Dirty Harry, Deliverance, Rocky, and Taxi Driver among them. It's a pet project as only somebody like Tarantino could get away with.

And it's well written. The voice/tone viewers are familiar with in Tarantino's films comes across in the book—not precisely in suave one-liners or weighted dialogue, rather in the mindset which believes such dialogue is critical to a film's success. Tarantino's spirit is fully alive on the page even if it's being applied in a different fashion.

Cardboard Corner: Review of "Sinister Motives, deluxe expansion for Marvel Champions: The Card Game

I was not a comic book reader as a child, and as an adult I still am not. Nevertheless, I know who Spider Man is. He is a popular enough cultural icon to have seeped his way into even my memory. And lo and behold, the Marvel Champions core box does contain Spider Man, so popular is he. And in the core box he does what Spider Man does—slings webs, ties up villains, and delivers swinging attacks. Wait, what's that you say? There's more spider men and spider women out there? My simple brain is getting confused. Let's take a look at Sinister Motives (2021), fourth campaign expansion for Marvel Champions: The Card Game.

Sinister Motives is a Spider-centric campaign. But Spider Man, at least the Peter Parker version, plays a mild mannered role. Instead of Peter, MJ, and Aunt Mary, we get Miles Morales, Billy Braddock, Gwen Stacy and other characters who came later in the Spiderverse. Strangely enough, however, they are still fighting Sandman, Mysterio, Vulture, Octopus, and other villains who... came earlier in the Spiderverse—right around the time of Peter Parker, interestingly. Something's crooked here—something sinister? Let's push on to see more of the contents.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Review of redRobe by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Jon Courtenay Grimwood's Arabesk trilogy is what put his name on the genre map—at least temporarily; the winds of change have evolved genre to the point long-term recognition is possible now only in niches. But before Raf and his near-future, alternate-history Turkish empire became a thing, Grimwood was exploring settings more recognizably cyberpunk. Through the first four novels of his oeuvre one finds the aesthetic front and center. It's only in the fourth, the subject of the review here, that hints of what's to come in Arabesk are made clear. Let's take a look at redRobe (2000).

Looking like a character straight from Japanese manga, Axl is spiky-haired young man living in a Mexico City of the near future who gives zero fucks for himself let alone other people. Physically augmented with various kit and a killer for hire, redRobe opens with Axl going out on a hit. His pistol possessing helpful AI, together the two take down the target. But things get twisted in the aftermath with Axl being taken into custody, his gun on the loose. Requesting a papal audience as his only hope of reprieve, Axl gets it—at least so he thinks. Soon after the rebellious young man is sent to a man-made planetoid to investigate where the Vatican's coffers disappeared to.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Zombie Kidz: Evolution

A legacy board game for kids? How does that work? Stickers. Ahh, I see…

But I simplify too much. Zombie Kidz: Evolution is more than just stickers. It’s Bicycle Boy and Lightsaber Girl and their friends protecting their school from their zombified teachers. Now that sounds like kids fun.

Zombie Kidz is a 2-4 cooperative game in which players attempt to lock the four gates before all the zombies infiltrate the school. On their turn, players roll a special zombie dice to see where the first zombie in the queue will spawn. After, they are able to move one space with their character and kill one zombie. If two players find themselves at one of the four gates, they high-five, put a lock on it, and go back to killing zombies. If all four gates have been locked, the players win. If a player needs to put a zombie on the board but there are none left in the queue, the players lose. That simple—at least at first.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Review of The Way Spring Arrives and Other Stories ed. by Yu Chen and Regina Kanyu Wang

I have soft spots in my heart and mind for Chinese poetry, literature, and philosophy. While I do not review them here, a pair of shelves in my home library are devoted to Daoist writings, Li Bai, Du Fu, Lin Yutang, and other irreplaceable pieces of Middle Kingdom culture. It's thus difficult for me to turn away from recent years' anthologies of Chinese science fiction and fantasy translated into English. Such is the reasoning for picking up The Way Spring Arrives ed. by Yu Chen and Regina Kanyu Wang (2022).

The Way Spring Arrives was purchased virtually sight unseen. It wasn't until encountering the first essay about a third of the way through that I learned the anthology was an all-female production. (Yeah, I know, I didn't look at the cover.) In other words, it wasn't obvious the content was trying to be “woke”. This is a a good thing. Some of the essays included in the collection, they are another thing, but the stories themselves do not wear an obvious agenda on their sleeves.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Dixit

Coconut. You either love it or hate it. A specific flavor, I’ve yet to meet a person on the fence about it. And indeed, there are just some things in life which have no middle ground. I can’t help but feel Dixit (2008) is one such board game. Grooves with your mentality, and it’s coconut cake with coffee. Confused as to what all the fuss is about, best move on to another game. So what could make it a coconut groove for you?

I’ve thought about the question, and I think the answer is a like of poetry—or at least an appreciation of the layered possibilities of imagery and metaphor. In Dixit, 3-6 players look at pictures—sorry, wonderfully delightful and imaginative images—to try to match them with clues given. At the beginning of the game, players are dealt a hand of six cards. The first player secretly chooses one from their hand and announces a clue. It can be a word, a sound, a song, a color—anything that can somehow be matched to the image on their card. The other players then secretly select the card from their hand which reminds them most of the clue given. The cards selected are all put face down in a pile, shuffled, and laid out randomly, face up in front of the players. The players then guess the card they think is the first player’s card. If everybody guesses the first player’s card, the players get points and the first player gets no points. If nobody guesses the first player’s cards, the players get points and the first player gets no points. If there is a mix of guesses, points are awarded to everyone, with bonuses. First player then rotates to the next player, and the process is repeated until someone reaches 30 points and becomes the winner.

Thursday, December 8, 2022

Review of What We Can Know about Thunderman by Alan Moore

Note: this novel is not sold individually at the time of this review. It is included in the short story collection Illuminations: Stories by Alan Moore.

For the unaware, Alan Moore is one of the most celebrated comic book/graphic novel writers of the late 20th/early 21st century. Coming to the foreground in the 80s and 90s, a time far removed from the heyday of Superman and the dime store superheroes of the boomer generation, Moore has made a name for himself with darker, more mature material for people interested in the medium beyond muscular men wearing leotards. Decades of time in the industry giving him a unique perspective, in the novel What We Can Know about Thunderman (2022) readers get that perspective, or rather perspectives, on the people who make the comic book superhero world spin.

What We Can Know about Thunderman is the sliced and diced, semi-fictional history of a comic book series called “Thunderman”. By necessity “semi-fictional”, Moore utilizes fictional IPs, including the titular Thunderman, but parallels the real world evolution of the comic book industry with the sharpest, most snarky of wit.

Console Corner: Review of Days Gone

In case you were living under a rock, zombies are a major thing in the past decade of entertainment. A common device in books, tv series, films, and yes video games, the undead are everywhere. Their sources are myriad—viruses and plagues, asteroid strikes and fungi, but ultimately the dead walk, slavering after red human blood through ravaged and despoiled landscapes. In the video game world, The Last of Us has, in most ways, set the bar for what a zombie game is/can be. What then could the industry hope to add to the genre? Let's see what Days Gone (2019) by Bend Studios is all about.

Days Gone is a single-player action rpg set in the near future after a pandemic has destroyed the majority of humanity and loosed a flood of “freaks” onto the world—zombies yearning for meat, any meat. It is the story of a former motorcycle gang member, Deacon St. John who, at the outset of the pandemic, makes the fateful decision to put his wife on a helicopter to safety so he can tend to his best friend, Boozer, who has been stabbed in the chaos. While successfully keeping Boozer alive, he never sees his wife again. Roaming the rainy Oregon wilderness together, Boozer and St. John have managed to stay alive for two years when the game begins. The pair now are now Drifters, bikers who make a living hunting freaks for bounties. Things take a sideways turn one day when Boozer is attacked by a cult, severely injuring his arm. Needing to do what he never wanted to do again, St. John must settle down in order keep his friend alive, and that means taking on the most dangerous jobs.

Monday, December 5, 2022

Review of Emergence by C.J. Cherryh

The driving forces behind the past fifteen—fifteen!!—Foreigner books have finally been put to rest. The Shadow Guild has been defeated and an accord has been reached with the Kyo protecting all sides for the future. Where could Cherryh possibly take the Foreigner series next with Emergence (2018)? To be blunt, Emergence does not directly answer that question, but does at least hint...

Emergence spends half of its calories putting footnotes on the Shadow Guild's attempt at a coup. (After fifteen books, I hope this is the final time we have to read about the Shadow Guild.) The novel starts with Cajeri, Uncle Tatesegi's house in the countryside, and yet another attack in the night on the house by shadowy people. There is a slightly different feel to this scenario given what has transpired. But yes, you've been here before—two times, if my count is correct. And though it's brief, yes, Bren's battle bus likewise makes another appearance.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Burgle Bros

As with so many of my favorite books and games, I’ve put off writing this review for some time. Irrationally worried about putting into words the reasons why a game is good, I don’t want to “destroy” it. In an attempt to put irrationality aside, here is my review of Burgle Bros (2015).

I suppose the label is “thematic”, but whatever you want to call board games which pave the way for players to imagine themselves in the scenario, that’s what Burgle Bros is. More than just an experience, however, the game also nails the sweet spot of fun. I distinguish because, Russian Railroads might be a great stock simulator (for the right audience), but damn is it complex. Not too heavy, not too light, not 1:1 to reality but certainly capturing the sentiment, Burgle Bros is a great way for 2-4 players to cooperatively throw off the day to day burden of being a virtuous and nice person and do what they’ve always wanted to do: be a high class thief and rob high-rises.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Review of Illuminations: Stories by Alan Moore

Alan Moore is one of the most recognized names in comic books/graphic novels of the past five decades. V Is for Vendetta, Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell, and several other IPs circulate widely among relevant readers, and in the case of film adaptations, viewers as well. But Moore likewise picks up the pen to write fiction. He has published a couple of novels, and in 2022 his first collection was released, Illuminations: Stories.

A re-readable and re-readable story kicks off Illuminations: feeling like something out of Tanith Lee's brilliantly dark imagination, “Hypothetical Lizard” is the baroque story of a sex slave captive in the most fantastical of bordellos, The House with No Clocks. Witness to a bizarre act of revenge, Moore spins an intriguing cast of mysterious characters around her, adding a thick layer of detail to bring their eerie, shadowy world to life. When one thinks of the visual power of fantasy to conjure otherworldy visions, this story is an excellent realization that rewards on a second (and third) read.

Cardboard Corner: Review of K2

Everybody has the game type which works best for them. Trick taking, deckbuilder, worker placement, blah blah blah, certain types of games click with certain types of thinkers. Hand management, for reasons I don’t understand, clicks with my brain the most. (And it’s not even my favorite game type.) Thus, if hand management is something that also clicks with you, or you are interested in experiencing a tight hand management game in a mountain climbing theme, check out K2 (2010).

A mid-weight family/strategy game for 2-5 players, in K2 players try to be the best manager of two climbers attempting to summit the synonymous mountain. Be the player to get your two climbers collectively the highest, you win. Control of your team is handled by cards, of which there are two types: movement and oxygen. Movement cards allow players to move their teams higher or lower, and oxygen cards allow players to survive high-altitude, all of which are dependent on mountain conditions. Cards of each type extremely limited, players must choose wisely when to play their best cards, and when to hold them for later moments. Burn them too early and your team may die. Wait too long, and, you guessed it, your team may die. Weather affecting and influencing game state, as well as players’ ability to set up tents, the player must combine cards with these elements to most effectively and efficiently maneuver their team toward the top.

Friday, November 25, 2022

Review of Venomous Lumpsucker by Ned Beauman

Ned Beauman's debut novel Boxer, Beetle (2010) is one of those pieces of fiction impossible to sum up in a line and still do the book justice. The book not complex, rather, it's singular to the point of defying easy description. And it's a brilliant read regardless which spectrum(s) of fiction most interest you. Beauman's oeuvre has been worth following since. 2022 sees the release of his fifth novel, the wonderfully titled Venomous Lumpsucker. Where has he come since Boxer, Beetle?

Venomous Lumpsucker kicks off as near-future cli-fi with one tongue in cheek. The world has reached the point where major animal species are dropping off the evolutionary radar at an incredible speed. In an effort to forestall extinctions, global governments agree on the idea of extinction credits—a cost to corporations who exploit environments for resources but in turn eliminate species. This raises the question: which species are worthy of credits? Enter species intelligence analysts, people who evaluate whether or not certain living things cross the sentience threshold, and are this worthy of credits.

Console Corner: Review of Hob

Heavily inspired by Nintendo's Legend of Zelda, Hob (2017) is a single-player environmental puzzler with bits of melee combat. Like Link running around the land of Zelda, Hob pulls a lever here which opens a door there, which leads to a key that can be used to access the elevator you first encountered entering the level, that leads to another level which... You get the picture. Regardless of influences, the question is: how well is the game done?

But where Legend of Zelda had 3D pretensions in a 2D world, Hob is fully 3D. Accordingly, Runic Games put the majority of its time into the game's visuals and puzzles such an environment has the opportunity for. And it paid off; they are the strongest elements of the game. The graphics emphasize machines, gears and interlocking pieces, which feel great spinning and clicking into place. (Sound effects are complementary.) If games can be reduced to pleasure, then solving a puzzle and watching how the pieces click into place is where Hob's dopamine hits.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Review of The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett

According to the lore, Discworld flies through space on the back of the great turtle Atuan and is supported on four sides by four great elephants. But there was once a fifth, and in the twenty-fourth Discworld novel, The Fifth Elephant (1999), readers learn of its fate, and continued impact on Disc life to this day.

Things are getting political in dwarf land. Conservatives are even clashing with liberals on the far away streets of Ankh-Morpork. Someone has stolen the dwarves' sacred Scone of Stone (or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof). And Wallace Stonky, Discworld inventor of rubberized “preventatives”, has somehow turned up dead. Investigation is needed all around. As Lord Vetinari dispatches Vimes to mediate the situation in Ubervald, enter the Night's Watch.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Neuroshima Hex

I don’t hate chess. As a young teen, I played a fair amount, and I still remember the rules. When they are old enough, I will teach my kids. And beyond my personal interest, I clearly understand it’s the most well-known board game there is in the world. But ultimately I don’t go to chess for fun. Something about it, perhaps the perceived weight that you must be a master to have success, turns me off. Neuroshima Hex (2006), on the other hand, is a neon light switch.

No need to be a master, anybody—older child to adult—can sit down and learn to play Neuroshima Hex. A post-apocalyptic, quasi-cyberpunk, mutant army vs mutant army type of game, it’s a family weight game that sees players deploying different hexagonal tiles (representing army units) on a board. Melee, ranged, and special attacks available, the base box comes with four unique armies, all with their own playstyle. As with chess, turn by turn players deploy their soldiers onto the field until one plays a battle tile, which triggers a set of chain reactions. Those which survive the battle remain, and those which died are removed. The goal to attack and defend, the first person to put 20 points of damage on their opponent(s), wins.

Friday, November 18, 2022

Review of Glitterati by Oliver Langmead

2084: The Anthology appeared a few years ago in tribute to the 70th anniversary of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four. A solid anthology of stories presenting innovative spins on dystopia, one which stuck out was Oliver Langmead's “Glitterati”. Featuring a world in which Haute couture ruled, fashionistas were at the top while uglies and the unfashionable languished at the bottom. Langmead keeping the tone appropriate for such an over-the-top idea, the visuals were on point describing a day-in-the-life of a glitterati. Possessing substance, in 2022 Langmead expanded the story into a novel of the same name, Glitterati.

Glitterati opens with the short story from 2084. It's a Tuesday afternoon and fashionista Simone is at home, getting ready for a typical Tuesday afternoon in the office reading fashion magazines. Fashion magazines dictate that Tuesday is white day, so he spends the appropriate hours preparing his makeup and outfit, only to discover, to his horror, that he has committed the faux pas of faux pas; today is in fact Wednesday, purple day. And making matters worse, his most fashionable of bosses has scheduled a surprise visit to see how his team are dressing themselves. Wearing white when he should have worn purple just the beginning, Simone's day only unravels further, including bodily fluids, inopportune paparazzi, and the ickiest of all things, a crying child. Just how far he plummets, however, is for the reader to discover.

Monday, November 14, 2022

Review of Drowning Practice by Mike Meginnis

I used to laugh at the idea of 'slipstream' fiction. “It's fantasy, folks.”, I was inclined to say. But with time, the idea has grown on me. It describes a very specific interstice. Far too mimetic to be fantasy yet containing a little something that just can't be reality, it's a subtle, delicate term which describes a subtle, delicate area of fiction that requires a tight hand on the wheel to keep within that specific interstice lest it all fall apart. Keeping things tight and under control is Mike MeGinnis' excellent Drowning Practice (2022).

The nexus of Drowning Practice is located in the idea that, every person, on the same night, has the same dream: the entire world will drown on November 1st. Different people react in different ways, including the three central characters: David, Lyd, and their daughter, Mott. David is a delusional secret service agent, Lyd a marginally successful novelist, and Mott the product of their collective personal issues.

Cardboard Corner: Review of The Magic Labyrinth

There are probably five or six games that I love playing with my children more than any other games we own. And the reason is simple: the playing field is even. The brain is needed but my children have an equal chance at winning, which creates an atmosphere of truly fun competition—joking, cheering, and over-the-top boasting. And with The Magic Labyrinth (2009) it’s likely my kids will be joking about ol’ dad’s fading memory.

While at heart a memory game, Magic Labyrinth brings so much more to the table in terms of a hands’ on, competitive experience for 2-4 people. The game box is constructed such that players build a walled labyrinth inside, then cover it with the game board. Players then take the meeple of their favorite color (complete with strong magnet located inside), and place it on their corner of the board’s grid. After, each player puts a small metal ball under the board so that sticks to the other side of their meeple/magnet. One player draws a token from the bag, places it on the appropriate symbol on the grid, and play begins. The first player rolls the die, and moves their meeple that number of spaces through the grid, guessing where the walls are under the board and thus trying not to have their metal ball knocked off by them. If their ball gets knocked off, they collect it, return to their corner, and await their next turn. Slowly, players build a mental map of the shape of the walls under the board. The first player to successfully navigate the hidden labyrinth to the token, collects it, another token is drawn, and play continues. First person to collect five tokens, wins.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Culture Corner: Indonesia - Yogyakarta & Jakarta

 And Part II of my two-week holiday in Indonesia.  Where the first 8 days were spent in Sulawesi, I spent the final four days in Java in Yogyakarta and Jakarta.  

Volcanos are everywhere in Indonesia, including as a backdrop to Borobudur.

Culture Corner: Indonesia - Bunaken & Tomohon

Hello, and welcome to Part I of my photos from a two-week holiday in Indonesia. It's a huge country, of which I saw only tiny pieces. The photos here are from the northern part of Sulawesi, specifically the island Bunaken and a city on the “mainland” called Tomohon. Part II to come.

After a quick stop in Jakarta, it was to the air again to Manado for diving at Bunaken and exploration of Tomohon.  In the photo above, Bunaken island is located directly in front of the volcano.

Monday, November 7, 2022

Review of Stamping Butterflies by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Brilliant, absolutely brilliant. Unfortunately, I know why novels like this fade: their heart requires patience for understanding, and we know most readers have trouble engaging with books where effort is required beyond turning pages and comprehending words. Thus, for that portion of sf readers who enjoy meeting the author halfway, Stamping Butterflies (2004) by Jon Courtenay Grimwood may be his masterpiece (End of the World Blues is in close competition) and is certainly a speculative fiction gem worth looking for.

Ostensibly, Stamping Butterflies is three independent tales. The first is of a street rat named Moz growing up in Marrakesh in the 70s. And while French colonial rule is fading, its impact remains in the lives of Moz, his friends and enemies on the streets, and his family. The second is of a strange, zombie-esque man who gets it into his head that he needs to take an old rifle and assassinate the President of the United States. Captured, he becomes Prisoner Zero, and the weight of American intelligence services is unleashed against him to get to the bottom of his actions. The third storyline, and the one most divorced from the other two, is set far in the future in a planetary system populated by hundreds of billions of people ruled by one person, the emperor Chuang Tzu. Chuang Tzu the only mortal, the hundreds of billions he rules are virtual people, while he suffers the cycle of life all animals do. The latest Chuang Tzu more than upset with this fate, little does he know help is on the way in the form of an assassin.

And we're back...

And we're back.  After two weeks in Indonesia in the hot sun (and sometimes in the hot water), real life has returned but millions of motor bikes still buzz in my ear.  My internal clock still catching up to European time, in the next couple of weeks I will post photos here.   

I read James Clavell's King Rat in airports, airplanes, and beaches, and can say: overrated.  I don't know if I can summon the strength to review it.  Much easier to (re-)read on the beach, airports, airplanes, trains, etc. was George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones.  This book holds up very well,  Say what you want about the tv series, but in the book Martin does a masterful job spinning wheels within wheels within wheels while keeping morality, at least for the most part, human.  

I also read Jon Courtenay Grimwood's Stamping Butterflies, which was superb.  Review coming in a moment...

Friday, October 21, 2022

Brief Hiatus...

I will be taking a short holiday to Indonesia for 2 weeks.  I'll be reading James Clavell's King Rat and re-reading Martin's A Game of Thrones - the latter for the hell of it.  I find complex reading impossible on vacation...

Monday, October 17, 2022

Non-Fiction Review: Prisoners of the Castle by Ben Macintyre

Since reading The Spy and the Traitor, I have kept an eye open—wide open—for any new releases by Ben Macintyre. And this year it caught something. Bringing history to life with precise, energetic prose, Prisoners of the Castle (2022) is yet more wonderfully well-written history, this time on upper-class prison life to the Nazi side of the fence.

In a nutshell, Prisoners of the Castle is the story of the prisoners kept by the Germans in Colditz castle throughout WWII. Where Nazi work camps and concentration camps reverberate through history with the all the nastiness and evil humanity can dream of, Colditz was comparatively a place of luxury. While technically a place for persons deemed unfriendly to the Nazi cause, it was predominantly a home for officers, aristocrats, and prisoners of value, a place where some modicum of normality was present—theater productions, care packages from home, alcohol, sport, and other niceties that the prisoners of Auschwitz and other such places could only dream of. Being several hundred years old, the castle was not exactly a modern detention center. The potential for escape was everywhere, something which dozens and dozens of people attempted, some with success.

Cardboard Corner: 1 v 1 v1: Comparing Fantasy Flight's Cooperative Card Games: Lord of the Rings, Arkham Horror, and Marvel Champions

There are three popular cooperative living card games on the market today: Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, Arkham Horror: The Card Game, and Marvel Champions: The Card Game. With Lord of the Rings in the middle of reprintings, Arkham Horror reprinting and releasing new content, and Marvel Champions fresh on the market, I thought it would be good to give would-be buyers information which can help pinpoint the game, or games, that might be for them. (Going forward the games will be referred to as: LotR, Arkham, and Marvel.)

Before getting into the games' differences, it's worth establishing the things they have in common. All are cooperative experiences designed for 1-4 players. All have a similar business model: a core set of content, followed by the periodic release of new content, in large and small sizes, which expands upon the core set in iterative fashion. None have a game board, only cards and tokens. The primary strategic element of each game is building decks of cards to tackle the challenges the game throws players' way. And lastly, all are based on fictional worlds that are ingrained in Western culture. (I will not be going into the differences of the worlds and lore in which the games live.) Everything else depends on the game.


Unique to Marvel Champions

-Playable out of the box for 1-4 players (Arkham and LotR require purchase of additional core sets for complete gameplay experiences of 3 or 4 players)

-The most unique heroes (Each Marvel hero has many cards that can only be used by that hero and each has an alter-ego side. Arkham and LotR's heroes are dependent on the pool of cards available in the hero's wider class and are not unique to a character)

-Focus on boss battles (Bad guys of varying sizes come and go in LotR and Arkham, but in Marvel, the villain is front and center, beginning to end, and its defeat is each game's goal.)

-No resource tokens (Cards play a dual role: as resources used to activate other cards, as well as cards that can be activated. LotR and Arkham both have resource tokens used as money.  This likewise means that players will see all of the cards in their deck in a single sitting at least once, unlike Arkham and LotR which is rarely the situation.)

-Most consumer friendly business model (while LotR and Arkham are currently taking steps to consolidate their original models, Marvel remains the easiest to jump into in the way the consumer wants)


Unique to LotR

-Team-based gameplay (Unlike Arkham and Marvel, in LotR players do not control a single hero, rather three heroes per player, creating a stronger team feel)

-Success most tightly linked to deckbuilding (Winning a scenario in LotR is most directly related to deck building and deck tweaking. Arkham and Marvel are less based on deck quality and more dependent on tactical, in-the-moment decisions)

-The most like a puzzle (While all three games introduce mechanisms that the player must figure out how to defeat, in LotR solving this “puzzle” is more dependent on the cards the players have in their decks—square peg for a square hole, and so on.)


Unique to Arkham

-Narrative-based experience (Marvel and LotR focus on individual scenarios/games, whereas Arkham offers multi-scenario experiences linked to form a campaign/narrative.)

-Upgradable heroes (In Arkham players upgrade, in rpg fashion, their heroes over the course of a campaign)

-Mapped settings with linked locations (LotR and Marvel offer vague, abstract environments, whereas in Arkham players build a map of locations at the start of gameplay, and physical movement between locations plays a critical role in the resolution of scenarios. In essence, the cards form a “game board”.)

-Doom clock (Arkham's clock ticks inevitably toward defeat with each round, whereas the time clocks of Marvel and LotR are more dynamic and depend on player influence.)

-Greatest non-determinism (Damage and success in LotR and Marvel are the result of a direct comparison of stats plus shadow/boost effects, whereas in Arkham players must not only compare stats but also take into consideration the randomness of draws from the chaos bag)


Common to Arkham and Marvel:

-Hero cards with personalized, negative effects that appear at surprise times (Arkham: weaknesses, and Marvel: obligations)

-Allies which supplement heroes (Gameplay is hero-centric, but with helpful allies coming and going from gameplay to aid the hero)

Common to LotR and Marvel

-Single game scenarios (where Arkham offers a narrative experience over multiple games/chapters, LotR and Marvel do not link gameplay between games except in the most limited fashion)

-Player actions directly affect the villain from playing the clock out (Arkham's clock ticks steadily toward zero with each round, whereas players in LotR and Marvel can influence the speed with which the clock ticks downward, even resetting it)

-Threat level (rising amounts of threat that, when hitting certain threshholds, spell defeat for the heroes)

Common between LotR and Arkham

-Resource tokens (Unlike Marvel whose cards double as resources, LotR and Arkham both have separate tokens as their game's currency for playing cards or events.)

-Resource Management (While resource management is a part of Marvel, it's more fast, furious, and immediate.  In Arkham and LotR players must be tactful, often planning one or two phases ahead, and paying the consequences now for an advantage later.) 

-Not much else (Beyond the baseline commonalities described earlier, these two games are the most distinct of the three.


Which One to Buy?

There are many ways to skin this cat, so let's take a look at a few:

World/Lore

If you like Marvel movies and superheroes, buy Marvel. If you like Middle Earth, buy LotR. And so on. Another way of saying this is, all games are of high quality design. The games are more similar in quality than different, meaning the world/lore/IP can be a decision point.

Access to content

As of the writing of this post, all the games and expansion content are on the market and available. Given the dynamic nature of the LCG model, however, this could change in a year or two, depending on how often reprints are done. Thus it's recommended to try a core set of the game you are most interested in, and if it grabs you, try to snap up as much of the expansion content that interests you ASAP. Your son or daughter will be sad if they cannot get Hulk or Black Widow three years from now, just as LotR fans will likely want to play the saga stories, etc.

Another note regarding content is how it is packaged.  Marvel is by far the most consumer friendly, but LotR and Arkham are making strides to catch up.  To be specific, Marvel players are able to purchase ready-to-play decks for heroes and villains, as well as combinations of both in deluxe campaign expansions.  They can buy what they like and not buy what they don't like.  Arkham and LotR originally mixed new content together and released it in monthly packs - a nightmare of webstore jumping to collect all the needed scenarios, not to mention all content for heroes, villains, and scenarios was mixed together.  But in reprinting earlier content, FFG are revising how Arkham and LotR are packaged.  What once required the purchase of seven different packages per campaign in Arkham has been boiled down to two, and in doing so separated heroes from villains and scenarios.  Players can buy what they want and ignore what they don't.  LotR still mixes content together, but individual campaigns/cycles can be purchased in single packages rather than multiple.  If things continue as they do, all content for Arkham and LotR should be available in the new business model in 2-3 years time.

Age Appropriateness/Difficulty

Marvel is the easiest of the three games, and therefore the most accessible to younger players. The theme is also wholly comic book. It is not adult for violence or other means. As long as the child understands the rules, they can play. To be clear, however, Marvel is not easy; players will lose as often as they win. Arkham and LotR are more difficult, but in different ways Though comparing apples to oranges, I would say Arkham is easier. A less-than-optimal deck can be overcome with good decisions and lucky draws from the chaos bag. LotR will likely see players suffering the most defeat til their deckbuilding overcomes the puzzle of the scenario. Looking at theme, Arkham is the most “adult”. Every family will vary, but Arkham card art does contain strong elements of horror and the macabre. The art of LotR, on the other hand, is perfectly suitable to young and old. The spirit of Tolkien channeled, lending a mythic feel to the images on cards.

Fun Factor

This depends on the person and what they consider fun and enjoyable beyond the theme/lore and cooperative play. For Marvel, smiles are to be had effectively comboing cards, seeing their favorite hero come to life in game mechanisms, and squeaking through threatening situations. For Arkham, enjoyment is driven by the journey through stories, the agency players have in making story-consequential decisions, and upgrading characters to more and more powerful states. And for LotR, the biggest bits of fun are to be had marshaling your army with a friend, working within really tight situations, and the satisfaction seeing a well-built deck finally “solve the puzzle”—“I knew that card would come in handy!”

Luck/Determinism

All three games are dynamic and can occasionally swing violently in one direction or another. But Arkham is the most complex and dynamic in terms of luck/determinism. It's randomness is an element until itself (the chaos bag), rather than a means. In Marvel and LotR luck is significant, but less so. Certainly there can be games where everything goes wrong and players are defeated in short order. But it's semi-predetermined by card shuffle. The deeper players get into the villain's deck, the more they can estimate what can and cannot happen. Arkham's chaos bag is just aptly named...


Conclusion

In the end, all three games offer different experiences, from world and lore to mechanisms and luck. That being said, Marvel and LotR, with their scenario-based gameplay, bear more in common than to Arkham and its narrative-driven experience. Therefore, the first decision point is: do you expect narrative/story in your game? If yes, Arkham is the obvious choice. Want something a little easier and child friendly? Try Marvel. In fact, I would argue Marvel is something like LotR 2.0—the more accessible version. Applying lessons learned, Marvel offers a streamlined, simpler version of LotR, as well as superhero-centric gameplay. LotR is the most difficult, meaning it is for players who like a real challenge, as well as a more team-based/troop commander experience.

Hope that helps.

Saturday, October 15, 2022

Review of All the Seas of the World by Guy Gavriel Kay

Several years ago I told myself I'm done with Guy Gavriel Kay. I'd read the best of his ouevre and the most mundane. And he wasn't showing any signs of getting out of the soft romance groove he seemed to have gotten himself into. But when he's good, he's great, and I always at least checked out a few sample chapters of his latest releases just to make sure I wasn't missing anything. With All the Seas of the World (2022) I just kept reading, until... the swarm of butterflies.

The reason I kept reading Seas is the patiently doled out opening scene. Paid to kill a caliph, a group of three assassins arrive on foreign shores with their mission before them. Disguised with a crafty plan, they implement a ruse that grants them audience with the caliph, there to put their terrible plan into action. But things don't always go according to plan. Decisions in the moment sway things, and from their decisions the butterfly effect of consequences spills across the world.

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Review of How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu

I live in Poland, a country full of highly independent-minded people. Garroulousness, striking your own path, and being a success following your own logic are key elements of one's identity. It's in extreme juxtaposition to the fact a high percentage of Poles are Catholics who bend the knee, chant about guilt, and stand with hands meekly folded on Sunday. But such is the paradox of humanity. Exploring the mortal side of this contradiction in variegated form is Sequoia Nagamatsu's How High We Go in the Dark (2022).

How High We Go in the Dark is not a typical novel. Located somewhere between a short-story collection and full-length novel, each chapter is in fact a new point of view, disparate from the others by place and time but part of a whole. Binding the stories together is humanity's response to a plague. With global warming, caveman remains are exposed in the Arctic, releasing a long dormant virus. From the beginning of the plague to thousands of years in the future, How High We Go in the Dark surveys individual people's relationship to the tragedy the plague. From parents losing children to researchers, ordinary people to space colonists, Nagamatsu covers the entirety.

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Review of The Robot Who Looked Like Me by Robert Sheckley

Robert Sheckley, oh Robert Sheckley, you under-recognized gem of rich, absurdist commentary on the foibles of this thing called existence. Every time I pick up a collection (so far), I'm pleasantly surprised at the number of ways you tweak fantastika to profundity. The latest is The Robot Who Looked Like Me (1978).

In the title story, which also opens the collection, Sheckley gives a workaholic an option: to buy a doppleganger robot who will do the fun stuff while he works-works-works to earn money and rise in society. Trouble is, the man meets a woman he wants to marry. What to do? The robot knows—and the underlying commentary is on point. Sheckley had a deconstructive streak in him, and in “Slaves of Time” he seems to enjoy rolling in the absurdity of time travel. Part personal story of the inventor of a time machine, part dystopia for the society it inspires, and all piss take for the flaws in humanity, Sheckley, as usual, gets a lot out of a little.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico... what’s to be said that hasn’t likely been said a thousand times already? One of the most popular board games of all time, I know I walk a path many before me have walked in writing this review. What do I hope to offer new Puerto Rico (2002)--to command a fresh voice relating how good it is? I don’t know, let’s see.

A competitive Euro game, Puerto Rico sees 3-5 players building their own colonial plantation on the island nation, trying to be the most efficient/successful in doing so (i.e. victory points!). Each player starts with an empty plantation (game board), and slowly but surely choose which crops to grow, where to assign their workers, and which buildings and businesses to invest in, all the while managing which crops and resources are shipped back to Europe for profits. Do you want to run a corn empire? Maybe be a coffee magnate? Or do you want to spread your risk and profit from both or more? When no more workers are left to be assigned, victory points are tallied, and the player with the most, wins. There is another layer of detail to each of those points (types of crops, building types, action selection, etc.), but overall that is a description of the machine driving the game.

Sunday, October 2, 2022

Review of Fire and Blood by George R.R. Martin

I assume I am part of a minority of people who are waiting for George R.R. Martin to finish the Song of Ice and Fire books before watching the Game of Thrones television series. It goes without saying club membership requires patience. While we wait, I decided to get a Westeros fix in the form of faux history, 2018's Fire and Blood.

Fire and Blood is a work of “history” describing the rise of Targaryen power in Westeros, and the tumultuous century of losing/gaining said power which followed. It is Song of Ice and Fire in concentrated form.

But also engaging. Where reading real world history is sometimes a dull, dry affair, Martin plays off two things to keep his fantasy history interesting: 1) humanity's penchant for all things royal, and 2) portraying humanity's foibles in the arena of power and pleasure, i.e. titillating drama. Martin also plays a bit off readers' prior knowledge of the world, but it's not necessary to know what role the Starks or Lannisters play in Song of Ice and Fire to enjoy Fire and Blood.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Review of A Touch of Strange by Theodore Sturgeon

In the fight to remain ashore as the waves of history wash things away, Theodore Sturgeon is clinging to the sands by a finger or two. Approaching fantastika more from a literary perspective than genre, such is fate for the concern of human nature. In an attempt to let Sturgeon keep his grip a bit longer, let's look at one the writer's best works, A Touch of Strange (1958).

For a writer who wrote predominantly short fiction, A Touch of Strange is a key point in Sturgeon's ouevre. Though containing only seven stories, it showcases the author in or at peak form. “Mr Costello, Hero” opens things on a quiet note, however. It is the story of a spaceship’s purser and his relationship with a fellow crewmen, the titular Mr. Costello. Arriving at their destination planet, the purser runs into a strange cult who believe everything—everything—must be communal. Such an economic philosophy not to the purser’s taste, he nevertheless finds himself the subject of Mr. Costello’s silver tongue. Not the greatest story contrasting freedom of choice with social obligation, but a solid stab.