Monthly Archives: January 2014

Interlude – The Visual Word

One of the symptoms of my recent/ongoing/whenwilliteverstop illness is a low ability to concentrate. In my case, this manifests itself mainly as an inability to read and comprehend much more than a sentence at a time. Well done, body and brain. Well done. Just when I’m spending most time sitting and lying down because my body’s revolting (in the sense of an uprising against me, rather than being repulsive… although give me a few more sedentary months with chocolate…), my brain flakes out on the one thing I’ve actually got most time to do. Seriously, well done. All the time in the world to read, and I can’t read.

However…

For some reason, I can manage graphic novels and comic books. I’ve no idea what it is about them that makes them comprehensible to my current brain-state. Perhaps it’s the fact that virtually all the text comes in short, digestible chunks of dialogue and thought (apart from you, From Hell… you were hard work). Perhaps it’s that the descriptive text that makes up so much of standard, normal, non-graphic fiction (umm… is there a proper term for this?) is replaced by images, reducing the form to that of almost pure story. Perhaps it’s that the stories themselves are almost always episodic in nature – chunks of chunks, conveniently reducing the cognitive load. Whatever it is, it works for me.

I’m a relative newcomer to the realm of comics and graphic novels – a couple of months ago, I’d only read a couple – but I’ve had a few people ask me if I have any recommendations. Yes. Yes, I do. Here are a few of the books and series that have blown me away.

Side note: Every single one of the books that follows contains graphic violence and extremely strong language. I don’t know what that says about me as a person, but there it is.

Watchmen (1987) – Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

Watchmen

Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout “Save us!”…

…and I’ll look down, and whisper “No.”

Rorschach’s opening words in Watchmen

This book is some sort of rite of passage for anyone who wants to get into comics and graphic novels. Like Moore’s V for Vendetta, it’s very much a product of its time, with Cold War paranoia oozing through every frame. Unlike V though, it doesn’t seem to have aged much. Watchmen is drawn and coloured in a timeless, standard superhero-genre fashion: strong black lines and bold, often primary colours. Every frame jumps off the page and pulls you in.

But this is no superhero comic. The main characters in Watchmen are (with the exception of the virtually omnipotent super-being Dr Manhattan) simply people who chose to don costumes and fight for the American way of life… and many of them are pretty unpleasant people. The book is rife with antiheroes, with Rorschach’s unshakeable moral absolutism driving the plot forward through broken finger after broken finger.

I’ll admit, the last chapter or two didn’t fully do it for me. It seemed a step too far in an unrealistic direction, after so much time spent in a plausible world. But it was still great stuff. I’d highly recommend Watchmen.

Daytripper (2010) – Fábio Moon & Gabriel Bá

Daytripper

This is one of the few graphic novels I’d read before this illness. Through ten chapters, Daytripper tells the story of ten different possible endings to the life of Brazilian obituary writer Brás de Oliva Domingos. Sounds pretty bleak?

It’s not at all. It’s a sort of magical-realist paean to family, to love and to life itself. If that sounds massively sentimental and overly soppy… yeah, it kind of is. But it works, and mainly because of the incredible artwork. A contrast from Watchmen‘s rigid nine-frames-per-page layout, Moon and Bá strew frames across the page (although not with quite the same abandon as some of Sandman‘s artists, more of which later) and fill them with faces, places and emotion.

For a book about mortality, it’s surprisingly positive. Recommended for everyone. (And probably the least violent book in this post, although there are still a few bloody pages.)

Saga (2012–ongoing) – Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples

Saga

Ah, Saga. Look at the image above. A woman with wings and a slightly silly asymmetric haircut is holding a gun and breastfeeding a baby. A man with curly horns, goat ears and a sword has his arm around her. Does any of that put you off? No? Go out and read Saga now.

Even if it does put you off, I say go and read Saga anyway. At the moment, it’s only two volumes old with a third volume due in a couple of months, but it’s already a favourite of mine. Vaughan seems to have seen the freedom offered by a fantasy sci-fi setting and taken an “everything but the kitchen-sink… ah, what the hell, I’ll throw in the kitchen sink too” approach to Saga. Interplanetary warfare, wings, horns, magic, anthropomorphic rodents, teenage ghosts, living wooden spaceships, an entire nobility consisting of androids with televisions for heads (one of the main characters is Prince Robot IV)… it’s all in there.

There are no deep explorations of morality, or the nature of free will, or anything like that. This is pure, unadulterated fun in an over-the-top space-opera universe, with Buffy-esque tongue-in-cheek dialogue throughout. And that’s just the writing. The real icing on the cake is Staples’ artwork. Of everything I’ve read in the graphic format, Saga contains my favourite art. Every detail is beautifully realised and consistent from frame to frame. This feels like a real, ongoing story that the reader just happens to have walked in on halfway through. My only personal gripe with the art is that virtually every character is insanely beautiful; a bit more ugliness wouldn’t go amiss. That might just be me though.

Note: Saga does have quite a bit of graphic sexual content in it. There. I warned you. It doesn’t bother me, but it does bother some.

Sandman (1989–1996, now ongoing again) – Neil Gaiman & various artists

Sandman

Like Watchmen, Gaiman’s Sandman is something of a ‘must-read’ for those new to comics and graphic novels. This is very different fare though, and it sprawls quite differently across the twelve volumes that make up the original series.

I’ve only read the first three volumes, with the fourth waiting on my shelf, so I can’t comment on the full series. What I’ve read so far has varied in style and tone so widely that it can be hard to piece it together as a consistent narrative; in fact, it’s not intended to fit together in that way. Rather, it’s a collection of short stories, each of which feature dreams… and Dream, the main character of the series.

I started out sure that I’d love this series, but I don’t quite love it as much as I expected. Nevertheless, I can see that it’s brilliant writing and the art is superb in every story, which keeps bringing me back for more, and I like the variety. This is probably a series I’ll keep dipping back into for a long time yet.

Locke & Key (2008–2013) – Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodriguez

Locke and Key

I can’t quite put my finger on why I like Locke & Key as much as I do. It’s essentially a supernatural teen-drama. But I suppose it’s a supernatural teen-drama with a superb premise: the Locke family (minus the father, Rendell, who gets killed off in the first few pages of the first issue) move into the old family home, which is full of keys with wildly varying supernatural powers. Many chapters revolve around the discovery of a new key (often by six-year-old Bode) and how its powers affect the ongoing story arc. And just like all great writing, just when you think the story’s been neatly rounded up for the chapter, there’s a neat little twist that makes you want to carry on reading.

Locke & Key is unusual in this post in that it’s the only title I’ve read solely in digital form. The Comixology app for iPad offers instant download of pretty much every comic and graphic novel you can think of, usually substantially cheaper than the print edition. I’ve read a few free first issues on the app (that’s how they suck you in), but none have really worked on screen so well as Locke & Key. It’s down to the bold, detailed art style – it really sings with a backlight.

I’ve read the first four volumes, with two more to go (the final one will be released in a few weeks), and although the supernatural story has escalated a pretty long way, it hasn’t quite reached Stephen-King-level silliness. Yet. I fear it may run in the family – Joe Hill is the son of Stephen King – but the twist at the end of the fourth volume is a great set-up for the last couple of chunks.

Honourable mentions

I’m wearing myself out by actually thinking here (and this post has already taken a couple of days to put together), so I’ll quickly round up a few others that have tickled my awesome button.

From Hell (1999) – Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell

As I said above, this was hard work for me, and it’s really not going to be a book for everyone. It’s a graphic, graphic exploration of a hypothesis surrounding the Whitechapel murders of 1888. Rolling in themes of existentialism, Freemasonry and royal conspiracies through the medium of dark, murky and very explicit art, it’s a worthwhile read. But it’s a bit of a slog at times.

Revival (2012–ongoing) – Tim Seeley & Mike Norton

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Another zombie story. But this one’s a bit different. Here, the “revivers” aren’t bloodthirsty, flesh-eating monsters. They’re just like they were when they were alive the first time around. And this isn’t a zombie story about zombies; it’s a zombie story about people in a rural American town. I’m not sure about the other supernatural element that’s creeping into Revival over its two volumes so far, but I’m going to stick with it for now.

Ghost World (1997) – Daniel Clowes

I ploughed through this in one 90-minute sitting. It’s just a wonderful series of vignettes about growing up and being massively insecure, but the truly great part is the dialogue. It’s got that perfect level of teenage-girl snark.

OK, that’s enough for now. I’m off to read Chew, a series about a detective who experiences visions every time he eats anything other than beetroot. That’s what I love about comics: the creators can take absolutely any idea, no matter how ridiculous, and roll with it… and occasionally come up with something brilliant.

Thoughts on Agricola as a solo game

I was going to write a fairly condensed session-report-ish-type thing on a solo series of Agricola using the E and K decks (indeed, I have a draft of that post knocking around in the system here), but it got to the point where there was simply no challenge to the series. I could have gone on for probably twenty games in total before the target scores caught up with my farms. This sort of thing had started happening:

Agricola 14 food

Yes, that’s 14 Food left on the Fishing space at the end of the game – not once in the whole game did I deem it worthwhile to use an action to take that Food. That happened in two consecutive games.

I think once you realise there’s exactly 28 Wood available (2 Wood per round for 14 rounds), which is exactly enough to build 1 Wooden Hut room, 4 Stables and 15 Fences, that guides you down a certain path. Yes, there are Occupations and Improvements that might take you down a different route, but I just found myself in a routine of Plough*, Grain, Plough, Grain, Sow, Occupation (assuming I had spare Food from the previous game in the series), Fishing, whatever… and then the first Harvest. Of course, with an Occupation like Seasonal Worker (take a bonus Grain when using Day Labourer*, or a Vegetable from round 6), getting that Grain becomes a little easier.

So you’ve realised you’ve got enough Wood for one room. Then you Renovate to Clay at three rooms and build up to four rooms. Four rooms leaves enough space for five Fields and four Pastures (2 single-space, 2 double-space), each with a Stable, giving maximum points for Fields, Pastures and fenced Stables.

And then you realise that as long as you can get a Stone Oven by the third Harvest, you’re sorted for Food, so you can just go for a heavy baking strategy. And then you realise that means you don’t need any animals on your farm until the very last round, so you can always max out on points for each animal… oh, unless Cattle don’t come out until round 11, in which case you need to take 2 or 3 Cattle in round 12 or 13 so you can breed them once and then also take them in round 14 for a total of 6 Cattle and thus 4 points.

And then you find yourself with a whole different challenge: “How many of these Improvements and Occupations will get me points at the end of the game?” But by the time you get past the third or fourth game in the series, you’ve only got a small number of new Occupations to play each time and the Improvements are generally fairly weak for points and won’t change things much.

Yes, there are exceptions. With a combination like Master Builder and Mansion, it might make more sense to go for a much bigger Stone house and maybe sacrifice a Field or two… but those are just variations on the general theme. I’m pretty much always going to end up with a farm that looks like this:

83 points. EIGHTY-THREE.

83 points. EIGHTY-THREE.

A lot of these thoughts come via the iOS Agricola app, which enables you to rattle through a solo game and series much quicker than the print version (although as I’ve said previously, I much, much prefer the print version). I’ve played quite a few solo series with quite a few different combinations of Occupations and Minor Improvements, and they’ve all ended up pretty samey.

So what? Well, I suppose the Agricola solo series has lost its charm a bit. Maybe some different decks might spice things up a bit (I only have the base E, I and K decks), or maybe I should add in my underplayed copy of Farmers of the Moor, but as it stands it’s just trundle–trundle–trundle–do–some–maths–HUGE–SCORE.

Any spicing ideas gratefully received.

Maybe I should just play it with other people a bit more, eh?

* I know, I know. It should be Plow, Day Laborer, etc. if I’m to quote the names correctly. I’m British and it just doesn’t come naturally.

My 2013 in Games

Well, just like I did in May, I’m getting an odd compulsion to look back over my gaming in 2013, now that it’s all over.

Games with others

Most Played

The games I played with other people more than any other in 2013?

Coloretto and Pandemic (8 plays each)

No, neither are a surprise. Coloretto‘s quick, light and very popular at Newcastle Gamers. I’ve even got my own copy now, although I haven’t had the chance to inflict it on anyone yet. Great game, and I’m sure it’ll continue to get played a lot.

As for Pandemic, it’s one that I’ve used to introduce a few non-gamers to the world beyond Monopoly. It’s my infection vector (subject-related reference intended). Co-op, fairly quick, relatively simple… again, it’ll continue to be played for a long time to come.

Runner-up

Special mention has to go to Hanabi and Hive with 6 plays each. Both wonderful games in different ways. I need to find someone to regularly play Hive with. It shouldn’t be too hard to talk someone into it…

Best New Games of 2013

Keyflower. Keyflower, Keyflower, Keyflower. Love that game (and yes, I know it was technically published in 2012, but I didn’t get to play it until 2013). Tragically, according to BoardGameGeek, I haven’t played it since April! April! That needs to be rectified sharpish.

Terra Mystica should get an honourable mention here too. I’ve only played it once (and only two-player), but it was a corker.

Classics Discovered in 2013

Every board gamer has a few classic games in their mind that they’d “like to play”. Every so often, that opportunity presents itself. Here are a few I got to play in 2013. (I use the word “classic” fairly loosely – it’s a mixture of oldies and well-regarded-ies.)

Twilight Struggle: I’ve still only played this once face-to-face, but with a few more play-by-email games under my belt (using the Vassal engine), this has taken its place in my pantheon of favourite games. A stunningly good game.

Brass and Age of Industry: I’ve lumped these two together, what with AoI being a streamlined reworking of Brass. I got to play each of these twice in 2013, and they’re both fantastic games. I imagine Brass would be the harder sell to many people, and it’s a much more brutally unforgiving game, but I do prefer it in many ways (not least the north-west England setting).

El Grande: I wasn’t blown away by El Grande, but it’s such a classic that it was impossible to say no to a game.

High Frontier: Almost exactly a year ago, I played High Frontier. I would very much like to play it again. Olly now has the Colonization expansion. This is a delightful confluence of factors, which I’m sure will result in space-based awesomeness at some future point.

Solo Cardboard

I spend a ridiculous amount of time sitting at my desk staring at cardboard and wood in front of me. I love board gaming alone. It’s quiet, it’s intense and it’s (usually) challenging.

Leading the 2013 field in number of plays is Onirim (25 plays), followed by Friday (15 plays). I much prefer the gameplay of Friday, but Onirim takes about half the time and doesn’t need quite as much thought. It’s quite telling that 18 of those 25 plays were in December, during my current illness. It’s about all I could do in those early weeks.

Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-? is the next most popular solo game in my 2013, with 8 plays. I haven’t played it for a while, so maybe it’s time to have another run at keeping the world safe from terrorists. Thunderbolt Apache Leader, Field Commander Napoleon, Cuba Libre, Cruel Necessity, Space Empires: 4X and D-Day at Omaha Beach have all had multiple airings over the year (and it’s a little ambition to get a proper multiplayer game of Cuba Libre in this year). I seem to have settled into a fairly wargamer-ish solo regime, I think largely due to the sense of narrative gained through playing these games (as well as the substantial educational value in historical gaming). Nevertheless, euro-favourites Agricola and Snowdonia have also hit the table a fair few times in a solo capacity. In fact, Agricola‘s set up behind me right now.

Digital Board Gaming

It’s been a pretty full year for digital versions of board games across various platforms. I’ve been playing a few games by email using Vassal (most notable being Twilight Struggle and Red Winter: The Soviet Attack at Tolvajärvi, Finland: 8-12 December 1939), playing a few on Boîte à Jeux (mainly The Castles of Burgundy and Trajan, with a smattering of Agricola and an exploratory Dungeon Petz thrown in for good measure) and playing a lot on the iPad.

Carcassonne is still my gold standard for iPad gaming, and it’s still getting a lot of play even now. Eclipse put in a very good showing on its iOS release this summer, but Eclipse tends to shine with four or more players so asynchronous multiplayer games can get a little unwieldy in terms of downtime between turns.

Agricola on iOS… gaaaahhh. I love Agricola. I absolutely don’t love the iOS version. There’s too much visual faff, too much scrolling required, too much pictorial representation of what the print version does so well with words. I don’t find it user-friendly at all. I’m finding it manageable (just) in two-player games, where the number of action spaces is at a minimum (and thus the scrolling is at a minimum) and I can keep a vague idea in mind of what my opponent is doing without having to constantly look across several different screens of information. I know the iOS version of Le Havre is ugly, but at least you can see everything you need to see on a single screen. It’s brilliant. Agricola isn’t.

I’ve recently been putting in a fair few plays of Shenandoah Studios’ Battle of the Bulge and Drive on Moscow. They’re lovely little (well, Bulge is little… DoM is substantially bigger) wargames with an area-impulse system rather than a hex-and-counter approach. There’s a lot of challenge just against the AI, and I keep coming back again and again to Bulge‘s “Race for the Meuse” three-day scenario. It’s so tight for time for the Axis forces to hit the Meuse river by the end of the third day – love it.

Looking Forward

What will 2014 bring in terms of gaming? Well, for now it depends on my recovery from this post-viral fatigue syndrome… and once I’m past that it’ll depend on my work and studies, assuming I’m well enough to fully return to them.

I have a copy of Splotter Spellen classic Roads & Boats arriving in the next few days, plus the &cetera expansion. It’s always sounded like exactly the sort of thing I’d love (resources, networks, building, hexes, wet-erase pens… geese, for heaven’s sake) so I’ve jumped on a copy from the latest printing before it sells out and becomes unavailable for the next five years. Even if I hate it, I can wait a couple of years and sell it on for at least double what it’s cost me. And it’s cost me quite a bit.

January should also finally see the arrival of my Kickstarter copy of Hegemonic, pretty much one year on from when I first backed it. I’m still really looking forward to it – it seems like just my sort of twist on the whole space 4X thing. It’s a lot more like a cross between Dominant Species and Tigris & Euphrates than anything like Eclipse or Twilight Imperium. I know one thing for sure in 2014 though: I can’t be bothered with backing stuff on Kickstarter again, unless it’s proven to be beyond awesome and genuinely requires the backing to get published. If a game’s on Kickstarter, chances are it’ll hit the usual retail channels earlier and cheaper than the Kickstarter copies, and stretch goals generally aren’t going to make enough difference. (Still, Hegemonic genuinely wouldn’t have had the double-layered anti-slipping player boards if it hadn’t been on Kickstarter, so at least that’s something.)

Anyway, here’s to more gaming in 2014!

Agricola schnaps

Playing Alone #3 – D-Day at Omaha Beach

I’m playing the First Waves scenario of John Butterfield’s insanely colourful solitaire masterpiece D-Day at Omaha Beach. Seriously, you’ve never seen a wargame map with so many primary colours splashed across it. I can only start out with the best will in the world, but frankly this game is so absorbing that I’ll probably forget to write about it as it goes along (and being ill really doesn’t help, although really I’m only writing this to give my brain something to do!). Still, at least I’ve got a dramatic start to kick things off on 6 June 1944…

Turn 1 – 0615 (Low Tide)

The US amphibious operations at 0615 hit something of a brick wall, with the landing check cards delaying four of the tank units until Turn 2 (meaning they won’t hit the beach until Turn 3), eliminating one and subjecting the remaining three to a step loss. Ouch. Still, there’s no possibility of good news in the Turn 1 landing checks, so I can’t complain too much.

Nothing good can come of Turn 1 landing checks...

Literally nothing good can come of Turn 1 landing checks…

The three landed tank units manage to avoid coming under German fire and attempt to barrage some Widerstandsnests (WNs) – two are successful, disrupting a couple of nests and hopefully allowing some easier passage for my units in Turn 2. Talking of which… Continue reading