Category Archives: comics and geek culture

Box art of the Alchemists board game

Games I love: Alchemists

I have a bad habit of dismissing games based on the fact that they sound boring, only to go onto try them and love them. This years was particularly bad as I first dismissed Splendor, fell in love with it, was furious when is failed to win the Spiel Des Jahre, which went to Camel Up, a game which I also thought sounded lame before playing it and realising it totally deserved the award. The thing is, until you try games out, you never know which ones you’re going to love and which ones will send you to sleep. And you never have enough time to test them all out, which can be very frustrating.

This, in a nutshell, is the theme of Alchemists, another game which didn’t interest me when I first heard about it but which I am happy to report is an excellent addition to my collection. In Alchemists, you play an alchemist working in a medieval university attempting to discover the essential nature of the eight “alchemicals” – ingredients which you can use to make magical potions and poisons.

Box art of the Alchemists board game

At the heart of the game is a concept which will be very familiar to players of logic puzzles and, er, Cluedo. When you test two ingredients together they will either result in producing a “positive” potion, a “negative” poison, or a very tasty soup which does nothing whatsoever. You understand the underlying alchemistry (is that a word? It is now) behind it all and so the more information you have, the more you can narrow down the possibilities about each ingredients’ essential qualities. If you had the time and resources to test all the ingredients, fame and academic prestige would be all yours. But you don’t have the resources, and you have a number of rivals each trying the same thing.

At the heart of the game is a phone app which you use to test the ingredients and a number of other actions. Board games which rely on apps (as opposed to apps which keep score or replace basic functions such as rolling dice) are quite a new thing – as far as I know only Alchemists and the upcoming XCOM board game have taken this step. They’re controversial as there are concerns that it is just a gimmick. While this possibility is not inconceivable, I can say that with Alchemists it adds a new dimension to the game which wouldn’t be possible without the app. The game is in fact playable without the app, but it relies on having one person play a facilitator. It’s clear that the app opens up new possibilities for gameplay, which is why this game feels so fresh. Probably the best thing I can about the app is that it doesn’t get in the way. It’s straightforward to use and allows you to concentrate on the game itself (I suspect having a human facilitator would be far more intrusive).

Screenshot from Alchemists app demonstrating it identifying cardsScreenshot from app showing the reaction from the previous image

The best aspect of this game is the way it parodies academic life. The goal of the game is to finish with the highest academic reputation, but that’s an ephemeral thing. You can concentrate on research, but will quickly find yourself cash strapped. You can sell out and flog your potions to passing adventurers for their own nefarious purposes, but risk your reputation. Most research is done by exploiting students, but if you poison them then they demanding money; you can test potions on yourself for free, but that means you have to suffer all the negative consequences if they turn out to be poison. If you don’t publish enough theses before the two academic conferences in the game take place, you will lose reputation and you can gain reputation by debunking your rivals’ theses. You can spend the game riding the coat-tails of the players doing the real research and do very well for yourself. Both times I’ve played it, I’ve found myself getting extremely caught up in the theme.

Indeed, the way the theme and the game mechanisms mesh – aided by the app of course – is remarkable. While it takes a while explaining the logic behind the alchemicals and there are some basic rules that need explaining, once you get that out of the way it really is a very smooth game to play. Not all the rules need to be learned in round one, which means you can progressively explain them as they come up. For a game with as many moving parts as this one has, that really is something.

Before I get too hung up on the game’s brilliance, I do have a couple of criticisms. The pieces you use to keep track of the results of your various experiments don’t fit into the board they are intended to be inserted into. There’s a knack to wedge them in, but a lot of players seem to really struggle with them. Fortunately, the publishers CGE have announced that they will be replacing these with slightly smaller counters. A bigger issue however are the pads which you are supposed to record your results on. The various symbols on these are quite small have been faded out. I struggle to see them clearly, and my partially sighted wife has a real problem. I plan to mock up my own laminated versions soon.

These production niggles however don’t interfere with what is a really great game which, while having some very familiar mechanics feels remarkably fresh and original. The theme and app make it surprisingly accessible for a game of this length and complexity. If board games with apps are going to be a thing, Alchemists really does point the way forward and give us cause for optimism.

ep7stormtroopers

Star Wars Episode VII: your republic is my empire

The teaser trailer for Star Wars Episode VII is out and it is causing much excitement, ridicule and exasperation at all the excitement and ridicule (delete as applicable):

One of the things that has got a lot of people buzzing is the presence of stormtroopers, albeit Apple circa 2001 stormtroopers. Wasn’t the Empire destroyed at the end of Return of the Jedi? How can they still be around?

It strikes me that there are two possibilities. One is boring as all hell. The other is much more interesting.

The boring option is the one they went for with the now defunct Expanded Universe (disclaimer: I haven’t read much post-Jedi EU; I just didn’t like what I did read): after the Emperor was killed a breakaway group of Admirals split off to form their own Imperial Remnant who continued to bother the good guys for years afterwards. This is sort of how I would have imagined things when I was nine and presupposes a simplistic goodies vs baddies approach. And while it’s true that George Lucas himself rather encourages this with his focus on the dark and light side of the Force, in reality there is a lot more ambiguity even in the original film series, with bored stormtroopers having casual conversations and careerist generals doing their best to manage Darth Vader’s mood swings in Empire Strikes Back. The implication that there are enough true believers in the Imperial Navy to break off and form a significant threat to the New Republic just doesn’t make any sense to me. There isn’t much of a (real world) historical precedent to suggest that this is what is likely to happen either.

What is more interesting to me is this: after the fall of Palpatine, the entire galaxy is likely to erupt into civil war. After all, immediately preceding his rise to power, the galaxy bubbling under with petty disputes and this was stoked by Palpatine and Dooku which lead to the Clone Wars. It is unlikely that after 20+ years of oppressive dictatorship that the Empire would simply turn into a happy clappy New Republic, much more likely that the vast majority of planets will either declare independence or form new alliances of their own. It is very unlikely that even after 30 years there wouldn’t still be tensions and trade disputes across the galaxy.

The people taking over the New Republic, who we might speculate are lead by Mon Mothma and Princess Leia, are unlikely to dismantle everything they’ve inherited. Whoever takes over as Commander in Chief is going to have to immediately make some very difficult decisions: do we let planet X invade planet Y or do we try to maintain the peace? Are these people really freedom fighters or are they pirates? Democratic ideals only get you so far. There are going to be a lot of people who, having won the war, are going to be deeply disaffected by the subsequent regime and its tough choices.

So while I think it is very likely that there will be some stringent measures to de-Sithify the Imperial armed forces, at the end of the day they are unlikely to be decommissioned. This shouldn’t be a huge surprise to people: after all, during the prequels the stormtrooper’s predecessors the clone troopers were the good guys (gliding over Order 66 for a second there).

George Lucas got an awful lot wrong with the prequels, but much of the world building was spot on. People derided the focus on politics and trade disputes, but that made it feel much more real to me. Scratch behind the surface and the prequels aren’t a simplistic battle between the light and the dark, but a much more subtle tale of a decadent republic reaching the end of its usefulness, dominated by a religious order, the Jedi, who had become horrifically complacent and meddling in political affairs they should have left well alone. These themes are all there in the films and explored in greater depth in the Clone Wars (the irony of this being achieved in a watchable kids’ show is not lost on me).

The key thing that concerns me about these new films is that they will look at the criticism of the prequels and seek to simplify that political situation. If they do, my suspicion is that the films themselves will feel quite vacuous and empty. I’m not suggesting that the films should be about affairs of state and politicking in the way that I would agree that the prequels focus too much on scenes from the Galactic Senate which would have been better relegated to the background and opening crawls. But if they open with Luke and Leia doing everything right and bringing back and idyllic New Republic that only starts to go wrong when a new bad guy emerges, I will be deeply disappointed.

So, to summarise, I’m hoping those Stormtroopers are under the command of Leia who, if not an actual villain, is certainly worn down after decades of making hard choices and not getting everything right. That’s drama right there, that is.

Twilight Imperium

Games I love: Twilight Imperium

I held off from getting into Twilight Imperium for years. Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition (“TI3″) – I never tried the earlier editions – is by definition a pretty preposterous game. The main thing it is famous for is it’s length. The longest it’s taken me to play the basic game is 14 hours, including setup time. The shortest, this weekend, was 8 – although that doesn’t include me procrastinating the night before setting up as much of the game as possible before the players were due to arrive the next morning.

Straight off the bat, if you don’t like long games this is not the game for you. This is something you want to play if you like the idea of an intense, full day of negotiation and strategising, as much a test of endurance as it is a contest of skill. Most games I’ve played have included a mid-game lull in which all the players are exhausted and bamboozled, unclear about what the hell they’re doing. It’s a mark of the game’s quality that no-one has ever walked out at that point, preferring to stick it out to the bitter end.

So what’s it about? The setting of TI3 is a decayed galactic empire in the far future. A race of four armed aliens, the Lazax, ruled the galaxy for millennia but were eventually overthrown and vanished in a cosmic huff. Each player runs one of the remaining factions as they attempt to realise their own imperialist ambitions and take over. The game involves building up fleets of spaceships, discovering new worlds, warring with rival factions and politicking in the galactic assembly. Everyone has their own secret objectives and a series of public objectives are revealed as the game goes on. Meeting those objectives earns you points, and the first player to reach 10 points wins the game.

It looks beautiful. The artwork on the cards and hexes (the game uses a modular board of hexes which is different each game) is beautiful, as are the space ships. It’s huge. Admittedly, we tend to play using the “larger map” option, but our dining room table cannot really accommodate more than four players – last time a friend of mine ended up bringing over a couple of desks to give us somewhere to put stuff on.

Mechanically, the game is interesting. I read an article yesterday in which Scott Nicholson argues that the current boom in tabletop gaming is due to a fusion of European (resource management, economic, somewhat abstract, strategic) and American (thematic, conflict oriented, dice-heavy) styles of games. I hadn’t thought of it quite like that before but I think it’s true, and nowhere is it more apparent than in TI3 which blends the two to the nth degree.

On the one hand, it is the ultimate “Ameritrash” game, yet at its heart is a game in which you have to carefully make use of the planets in your empire’s limited resources, and one of the main mechanics is “role allocation” – a mechanic that first came to prominence in the classic Euro game Puerto Rico. As such, you can play the game as a roleplaying game or a strategy game. In reality, most players tend to do a bit of both.

It isn’t a perfect game by any means. The game length is, frankly, because of its flabbiness. Some will find that lack of sleek design a real turn-off. Personally, I don’t mind. What I mind somewhat more is that some of the factions/alien races are significantly weaker than others, and that the system for politics is underwhelming. The latter is something that I am the most disappointed with. A number of games “do politics” better than this one. Warrior Knights and even the Game of Thrones board game has a more interesting system, and I just received my copy of Democracy: Majority Rules which focuses on this aspect, which I will hopefully get round to reviewing soon. Yet what promises to be a really exciting central aspect of TI3 – there are dozens of “politics cards” which you can potentially use in the game, all of which include a proposition the galactic council must vote on which adds new rules or even gives individual players additional points – all too often falls completely flat.

But one of the great things about TI3 is that it is so modular. The base game and especially its two expansions include a whole series of options which you can include or omit. I have to admit that I’m a bit of an all in kind of player, and prefer to include as many as possible. Introducing house rules is not only straightforward but, I get the impression, almost required for any group which plays the game regularly. If you’re going to spend an entire Saturday playing, it only makes sense that you would want to play it “your” way. Because of its modular nature, hacking a new rule is quite straightforward – as will probably be the case with politics the next time we play (I shall certainly be making use of the Democracy: Majority Rules gavel!).

Interestingly, Twilight Imperium itself is responsible for the creation of an empire. It’s designer Christian T. Peterson is the founder and CEO of Fantasy Flight Games and its initial success is what gave that company the start it needed. I’m always a little surprised that they haven’t tried making more of its IP than they have. In the early days it had a spin off RPG and a collectable card game, but these days only Rex: Final Days of an Empire, itself a reimplentation of the classic Dune board game, is in print. I would probably buy a Twilight Imperium Living Card Game in a hot second. I suppose Star Wars fills this slot for FFG these days.

This game is not for everyone, but if you like the idea of spending a day – or even a weekend – immersing yourself in a grand space opera, there is no other game that quite delivers in the way TI3 does. You won’t get to play it every week, but every time you do play it will feel special and you will be thinking about it for days afterwards.

Shattered Remains card art (artist Matt Zeilinger)

Rotation and Tabletop Economics

Wednesday was a big day in the world of tabletop gaming. While in the UK we were having bonfires around the country, in Roseville, Minnesota Fantasy Flight Games announced a bonfire of the Living Card Games. Well, a light singeing at any rate. To any non-tabletop gamer, and indeed any non-LCgamer, this will probably mean absolutely nothing. But it’s an interesting response to a growing problem which the fans of these games have recognised for a long time.

Ever since I worked in a comic shop in the early nineties during the speculator boom (and arguably going back to when Games Workshop decided to change their business model in the late 80s and alienate fans like myself), I’ve always had an interest in how economics impacts on hobbyist interests. Tabletop gaming is currently going through a bit of a renaissance, with convention visitor numbers up, the number of games exploding, and games starting to enter mainstream consciousness. To what degree this period of growth will be sustainable in the long term is an interesting moot point, and there have been a lot of busts in the past. Reading the excellent four volume Designers & Dragons as I did recently, it was made painfully clear how vulnerable tabletop gaming – in that case RPGs – are to such cycles, and the severe consequences when the industry takes a dive. Fantasy Flight Games in particular appear to be on a high right now – they more or less owned Gen Con this year with a succession of announcements which had their fans – especially Star Wars gamers – frothing at the mouth. Past experience suggests that at some point someone is going to make a big mistake and for this to all come crashing down around our ears. The question is, when?

I don’t want to suggest in any way that Fantasy Flight’s announcement on Wednesday is an early warning that that crash is imminent; quite the opposite. In fact it’s a sign of something I’ve felt for a while, which is that FFG are a generally very cautious and sensible company that is all too aware of the risks inherent in the industry.

CCGs and LCGs

First of all, a bit of terminology. Living Card Games is a trademark of FFG which they use to describe their customisable card games and the business model they use to market them. The model itself is now being adapted by other companies as a sign of its success. Customisable card game may require a little more explanation for people not familiar with the concept.

Most people will know what a card game is, whether its poker or Uno. The most significant thing that makes customisable card games different is that the players have their own decks of cards which are kept entirely separate from their opponent’s. What’s more, while a standard deck of cards might be finite – 13 cards for each suit plus one or two jokers – the different cards that might appear in a customisable deck is potentially infinite. Before the game itself, players will “build decks” by selecting cards from a pool of cards that they own. They can customise their decks however they like, as long as they stick to certain restrictions laid out in the rules of play.

The difference between a Collectable Card Game and a Living Card Game is how players acquire that pool. The first customisable card game – and the first Collectable Card Game – was Magic the Gathering. This game and its hundreds of imitators sold players cards in the form of starter decks and booster packs. The business model was essentially cribbed from trading cards (or football stickers, cigarette cards or bubblegum cards depending on what you’re more familiar with): the cards came in randomised packs, with some cards especially rare and hard to find. If you want a full set, you would need to buy many thousands of cards (seriously; I recently acquired a bunch of retail packs of a long out of print CCG called On the Edge. I’ve ploughed through two boxes – 1,800 cards – and still don’t have close to a full set of the basic 270 cards).

The Magic the Gathering CCG model was wildly successful in the mid-90s until it all came crashing down, taking retailers, distributors and publishers with it. Since then, Magic itself has remained a strong contender and a number of companies continue to do good business that way, but the mania that surrounded it has died down. Fundamentally, there are people who hate it as a model and won’t go anywhere near it. Even Wizards of the Coast, the publishers of Magic, have recognised this and increasingly sell pre-made decks for more casual players.

Fantasy Flight dipped their toes into the CCG business but in 2008 decided to switch to the LCG format. In their business model, there are no randomised packs (let’s park discussion about draft play for now). Instead, they sell core sets, boxed expansions and cycles of smaller packs of cards, all of which contain exactly the same cards. What LCGs lose by abandoning the random factor they gain in an increased focus on optimising decks and keeping up with the “meta” (the groupthink of the player base in which certain cards and strategems fall in and out of favour as more cards are published).

Rotation

The LCG model has been extremely successful for Fantasy Flight. Beginning by reformatting their Call of Cthulhu and Game of Thrones CCGs to the new model, they currently publish six games – including the wildly popular Netrunner – and retired a seventh earlier this year. The announcement they made on Wednesday is in response to that success.

The one thing FFG are good at doing is supporting their successful games, and that means expansions. For their more traditional board and card games, that’s relatively straightforward: sell a game, offer players the options of expansions and they can pick and choose what they want depending on their enthusiasm. The prevalence of expansions aren’t a huge barrier to entry for board games; they give you more variety and options but since all players are playing with the same set, there’s no competitive need to buy expansions.

LCGs are different. If you don’t buy all the cards, you have a competitive disadvantage to the players who do. At least, in theory; skill and practice is a generally a far bigger factor. Nonetheless, that drive for completion is real. Right now, completing the Game of Thrones card game means acquiring the core set, six boxed expansions, and 72 smaller packs. Each of those smaller packs will set you back a tenner, meaning that if you want to buy everything available right now, you will end up spending just shy of £900. The other games are less extreme, but by the end of this year, relative newcomer Netrunner will consist of a core set, three boxed expansions and 18 smaller packs, costing just under £300. That isn’t just a challenge for players; that’s a challenge for retailers who only have so much shelf and storage space.

There’s also another problem, and a different economics. Fundamentally, the more cards in the pool, the smaller an impact each additional card will make. This is mitigated by FFG deliberately taking note of and attempting to disrupt the aforementioned meta from time to time. Thus, if they spot that a specific card is being used in all the winning championship decks, they will set themselves the task of coming up with a new card that will weaken the power of the old one. It’s one of the most exciting aspects of LCGs, which is that play in the real world has a direct impact on future releases. But over time, their ability to keep evolving the game in that way becomes increasingly limited as more and more options become available to players. At that point, the theory goes at least, the game will become less exciting; it will no longer be “living”.

I haven’t ever played the Game of Thrones LCG for precisely the prohibitive entry restrictions that I outlined above, but I understand that the problems with the metagame outlined above have become acute with that game. Rather than try to fudge it, FFG have opted instead to simply bring out a new edition of the game and be done with it. For the other games however, they have decided to introduce a new system called rotation. What that amounts to is the smaller packs over time being declared not tournament legal and falling out of print.

The most interesting thing about all this to me is how modest a change this new policy amounts to. Because rotation will only kick in when a game reaches its eighth “cycle” (a cycle is a set of six thematically linked packs), at which point the first two cycles will be taken out of circulation. With FFG pumping out slightly less than two cycles a year for each LCG, that means that cards will have a tournament life of around four years. Contrast that with Magic the Gathering, which I understand has a rotation cycle of roughly 18 months.

The total tournament legal card pool will remain huge. For us Netrunner players, we still have five and a half cycles to look forward to before our cards start becoming obsolete and I personally can’t even visualise what a card pool that large will look like. It isn’t obvious to me how this will especially lower the barrier of entry for new players, although I suppose it will at least encourage them to invest in the newer cycles and box sets and not bother with the older ones which have less tournament life in them.

I suspect, also, that in reality a game will have to be doing extremely well to actually reach the stage when a cycle is rotated out. Hidden amongst all the announcements on Wednesday is the news that rotation won’t actually affect the Call of Cthulhu LCG because they won’t be producing any new cycles for it; it’s a complete game. The same has already effectively happened with Warhammer: Invasion. The Lord of the Rings is a cooperative game and thus players don’t have to worry about tournaments. It is by no means certain that the other LCGs – Netrunner, Star Wars and Warhammer 40,000: Conquest – will survive long enough.

The Future

I presume that Fantasy Flight wrestled over this a lot before settling on a change that will have such a modest impact. While I don’t think it is a backwards step, I do think they have hedged too much to avoid alienating the existing fanbase. For all its flaws, Magic the Gathering offers far more frequent jumping on points for new players, which explains its longevity (20 years and counting). I suspect that once the concept of rotation has bedded down, they will tweak it more in favour of bringing in new players.

What’s fascinating is seeing a tabletop games company explicitly planning over a period of five years. This represents a level of maturity generally unheard in the industry. The business plan of most games companies seems to be: produce a new game on a regular basis and, if it’s a hit, rush out a series of expansions and spin offs until the cashcow has been squeezed dry. To be fair, an increasing number of companies seem to plan their release schedule 1-2 years ahead, but Fantasy Flight seem to have a bigger picture in mind. And it seems to be working for them.

You can especially see this in their Star Wars game range. They’re currently supporting 8 Star Wars games (counting the three RPGs separately despite their compatibility), and it’s clear that they’ve had quite a far sighted release schedule in mind. With the new films on the horizon, it’s increasingly looking as if their game ranges will be maturing at exactly the right moment; a completely unprecedented bit of marketing synergy (if you can pardon the expression).

The million dollar question is, how much is too much expansion? LCGs, while apparently cheaper than CCGs, expect their players to sink around £170 into the game every year, and rotation won’t change that. The X-Wing miniatures game, while allowing for more specialisation (i.e. in LCGs, you have to buy all the different “factions” which are available to play in the packs; in a game like X-Wing you can focus on a single faction or even a handful of specific ships), costs even more to buy the entire range, and that is about to be joined by two more miniatures games this winter. If enough players suddenly snap and stop buying product, these games could suddenly see sales plummet. It hasn’t happened yet in this case, but there are past precedents (such as RPGs in the early 80s).

Fantasy Flight themselves appear to be quite mindful of that, and produce games in modest print runs. What’s mildly irritating to us consumers in terms of product being out of stock all the time, makes perfect sense for them. But the downside of this approach is cost. This was drilled home to me when I attended the giant Spiel convention in Essen this year, where you can buy German board games intended for the high street for literally half the equivalent US games typically cost. The former is produced in print runs of 500,000+ while the latter is frequently produced at runs lower than 5,000. The reason FFG charge £12 for a pack of 60 cards is because they don’t want to be left sitting on thousands of unsellable packs and come unstuck in the way that so many of their predecessors have done.

I’ve already heard grumblings about how much better value AEG’s new Doomtown Reloaded customisable card game compared to its Fantasy Flight equivalents. The reason is simple: AEG are looking to break into the market and only have one game to support: they have both the capacity and the incentive to undercut FFG. As FFG grow, an increasing number of their competitors must be making the same calculation. And while I think FFG are too cautious to create a boom (and AEG are a veteran company – this is not their first rodeo), I’m not so sure about everyone else. That’s a cause for some concern.

This year, the US gaming convention Gen Con is believed to have eclipsed the German Spiel for the first time in terms of attendance figures. Even here in the UK, Games Expo has been enjoying exponential growth over the last few years (of course, these conventions are still tiny compared to the largest computer game cons). It very much looks as if we’re on the cusp of a boom. We’ll almost certainly see a market contraction at some point; the question is when, and by how much. In the worst case scenario, this could see high street gaming stores – already in long term decline – obliterated. But if the lessons of the past can be learned, the overall impact – with the rise of board game cafés and mainstream consciousness – could still be positive. FFG’s announcement on Wednesday suggests to me that at least one company is very mindful of the risks and rewards at stake.

Flashville, or where they went wrong with The Flash [SPOILERS]

The Flash
The Flash is my favourite superhero. He has a simple but amazing power, he’s a scientist and he’s an uncomplicated hero; what’s not to love? So I was quite looking forward to the new TV series, and the extended trailer they released over the summer whet my appetite. Now though, a few episodes in, I’m about ready to call it quits.

It’s worth pointing out that they’ve done a lot right with the series; the special effects are fantastic given the demands of television. Grant Gustin is just right for the role (it’s interesting comparing his frame with John Wesley Shipp’s in the 1990 TV series; it never made sense for Barry Allen to be as bulked up as Wesley Shipp was back then). And I applaud their decision to go for a multi-racial cast. But there are three main quibbles I have with it [SPOILER WARNING FROM THIS POINT ON]. Continue reading

Resting on the Laurels of the Doctor

Note: there are no actual spoilers in this post, but there is some speculation about this month’s Christmas Special of Doctor Who in the last paragraph.

doctorwho50
I have a confession to make: I don’t entirely get Doctor Who.

It’s not that I don’t like it; I’ve watched pretty much every episode that has been aired since, as a young child in the late 70s, I was aware of its existence (and quite a few others besides). I wept buckets at the end of both “The Day of the Doctor” and An Adventure in Space and Time last week, and laughed like a loon during The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot. What I don’t understand is quite why it seems to inspire as much passion as it does.

What I find with Doctor Who is this: a lot of the older stuff which is frequently cited as “classic” and the best that Who has to offer often leaves me non-plussed. At the same time, while I often feel that New Who gets a far worse rap from its Old Who critics than it deserves, as often as not it underwhelms me as well.

Take a specific example: “The Caves of Androzani”. This is cited by multiple sources as the greatest Doctor Who story of all time. Yet when I watched it a couple of years ago, it left me cold. The acting was weak, the sets poor (I know, cheap shot), the pacing all over the place (despite having a fondness for Old Who-style cliffhangers, a lot of the time the episodic format seemed to lead to a lot of padding out), the drama was nowhere. At around the same time, I also saw “The Awakening” – a Peter Davison story which is variably treated as awful or indifferent – and really enjoyed it. I genuinely don’t understand why Caves is considered a classic while Awakening is a flop.

Lest you think I’m just having a go at Old Who, I have a different problem with New Who. The new version solves a lot of the issues that the old one had, namely acting, special effects, pacing and theme, but has created some new ones of its own. To a lesser extent with the Russell T. Davies era and a much greater extent with the Stephen Moffat era, a formula has become established whereby the Doctor faces a problem, the stakes are raised to a ridiculously high level, there are lots of emotions, and then the Doctor solves everything with a lot of hand waving and Murray Gold’s score doing all the heavy lifting. After seven seasons of this formula, I feel like I’m done with it. There are episodes which follow this formula and yet transcend it, and I do feel that “Day of the Doctor” achieved that (partly I think because of the odd pacing which rather broke it up), but it has certainly been the case that for the last couple of years it has felt as if it has been stuck in a timeloop and being edited by an 8 year old with ADHD. I often feel like the subsequent animated gifs that emerge online after each episode of Doctor Who are more worthwhile than the episodes themselves.

(I’m sounding very anti-Moffat hear so let me say this: his worst episodes and best episodes are better than Davies’s worst and best; it’s just his average episodes that let him down. I also think that while he deserves a lot of criticism for his portrayal of women, I also think it is true that he is probably the most feminist of Who’s showrunners thus far and that it is odd that Davies didn’t get more stick than he did.)

There is plenty about Doctor Who that I love. The TARDIS is a beautiful concept, wonderfully realised (and for me at least evokes childhood memories of excitedly spotting the last few genuine police boxes before they were removed from British streets). The enigmatic nature of the central character, together with its endless potential for renewal, has proven itself. I’m frequently taken in by the series’ charm, especially in the case of the Hartnell, Troughton and Tom Baker eras (Pertwee has never really done it for me). At its heart, the programme is about hope and believing in alternatives. Perhaps more so than any other science fiction or fantasy franchise, it is fundamentally, unashamedly liberal, with an emphasis on social justice and the dignity of the individual, and a deep distrust of authority and dogma.

I suppose that ultimately my problem with Doctor Who boils down to this: somehow it appears to have ended up with a status that places it above a lot of other fandom for no other reason that there is so much of it. As a kid, Doctor Who pretty much lost me in the 80s and yet as an adult I feel that I’m often told it was my fault for not giving Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Bonnie Langford, Sophie Aldred et al more of a chance. I think you need to squint a little too hard to see the genius of this era; it’s not that I can’t comprehend what people are talking about on an intellectual level, it’s just that it still isn’t that enjoyable – and this is meant to be entertainment after all. With New Who I almost have the opposite problem: I appreciate that the reason the series comes across like a hyperactive toddler is that it is a kid’s show, but at the same time I feel I’m supposed to also appreciate that it has depths at the same time, even when those depths seem to have been done by the numbers. Both incarnations seem to get let off the hook because of Doctor Who’s privileged status as the Grand Old Man of British genre television rather than appreciated on their own merits. To a certain extent this is echoed by Colin Baker’s intemperate “for the fans” remarks, complaining about the fact he and the other 80s Doctors weren’t invited to be involved in the 50th anniversary programme directly; what ought to matter is what makes good television, not nostalgic fanwank.

Fundamentally, right now I think the series is in a rut. I can almost guess how “The Time of the Doctor” is going to go: the Doctor is given the choice between dying a final death (because he’s on his twelfth regeneration of course) and saving the universe, or letting something awful happen, it all gets terribly emotional and then he waves his hands around and cuts the Gordian knot, only to realise that he has to die anyway but – cue more handwaving – gets to regenerate after all. Oh, and there’ll be snow and sleigh bells at some point because Christmas. Hopefully it will transcend the formula again, but I think it will be hoping too much for it to actually subvert it. I pray that the Peter Capaldi incarnation will lead to a greater variation of tones and plotlines than we’ve seen in recent years; if it doesn’t then I might just be forced to give up on it.

Complete Zenith: A Review

cover to Complete ZenithWARNING: Some minor spoilers in the images, but nothing to get too excited about.

Zenith is a comic strip from “my era” of 2000ad. I first started getting 2000ad from Prog 497 (after already purchasing several Titan reprint albums) and Zenith himself arrived in Prog 520.

In some ways it’s a surprise Zenith was a hit in the comic’s pages. Grant Morrison is one of the few British creators in the 80s who didn’t cut his teeth in 2000ad – his break was in DC Thompson’s Starblazer – and it is fair to say he never really “got” the 2000ad house style as was all too apparent in his work on Judge Dredd and the infamous “summer offensive”. What’s more, 2000ad doesn’t do superheroes. Zenith represented 2000ad’s first non-parodic toe dip into those deep waters.

In many respects, Zenith feels more like a Warrior strip than a 2000ad one and has a lot in common with Alan Moore’s Marvelman and Captain Britain in that it is a very British treatment of a quintessentially American genre. I wouldn’t over emphasise the similarities however, and feed into Alan Moore’s lazy narrative that Morrison is a plagiarist. Indeed, many of the ideas that Morrison plays with in Zenith are ones which he has revisited in his own work many times since, particularly in Final Crisis, Animal Man and his Vertigo trilogy of The Invisibles, Flex Mentallo and The Filth.

Despite Morrison moving rapidly onto bigger things, the story arc of Zenith is complete. The full colour Phase IV came out a few years after Phase III, and Morrison even returned for a one-off in 2000. It has however been increasingly hard to get hold of. Titan Books only reprinted the first three phases and ceased their 2000ad line in the early 90s. There was talk of reprinting it in the early noughties, but it quickly emerged that there were legal disputes preventing this from happening.

What are these legal disputes? Essentially, pretty much everything which 2000ad has ever published has been on the basis of work-for-hire: the company owns the rights in perpetuity (there are actually exceptions to this, but for the most part this is where the comic published work which had been initially commissioned by another publisher, notably Toxic!). However, Grant Morrison maintains that he never signed away his rights to Zenith and it would appear that 2000ad cannot prove him wrong in this respect. They could offer him a new contract or just accept he has the rights, but that would open up a legal minefield which could force 2000ad to revisit its ownership of pretty much everything it published in the 80s. As such it would appear they are at an impasse, the big loser being artist Steve Yeowell for whom this probably represents his most critically acclaimed and commercial work.

2000ad Books’ decision to print the entire run in a single volume earlier this year came out of nowhere. It has been limited to a (quickly sold out) print run of 1,000 and it is entirely possible this is the only time it will ever be reprinted. By all accounts, Morrison was not consulted on this and Rebellion have essentially stonewalled him. The theory goes that this is an experiment to see how he reacts. Either he’ll throw his lawyers at them or he’ll let it pass, in which case their case that he waived his rights and they are free to reprint will be that much stronger. It is far too soon to tell who will eventually win this, but in the meantime those of us willing to fork out £100 get a copy of something they have been dreaming of having in their hands for years.

What can I say about the book? I haven’t read the strip for many years and haven’t had a chance to pore through this edition yet, but I can say that it is very, very lovely indeed.

My shelves have been filling up with 2000ad’s “telephone directory” reprints for quite some time now (yes, I know that telephone directories these days are thinner than a weekly Prog; you get my meaning). I adore them, but they’re a bit of a mixed bag. Some of the reproduction and restoration, especially in the earlier days, is a bit iffy – especially when they are working from degraded copies of the comic rather than from negatives. And some of their choices can be a little odd, such as their decision to not include The Dead Man and America from their Complete Judge Dredd volumes (WHY????? Sigh, it still makes me furious). So I’ll be honest when I say that despite being willing to fork out for this volume I was a little trepidatious.

some of the reprint covers which appear in the Complete ZenithBut it has exceeded my expectations in several respects. This may seem obvious, but when they say “complete”, they mean it. It doesn’t just have all the strips, but it includes all the covers. Not just the 2000ad covers but the covers of the Titan reprints (which themselves were Ryan Hughes design classics) and the Quality and Egmont-Fleetway US reprints. I didn’t even know that Simon Bisley drew covers for the latter, although I have to admit that I’m not entirely blown away by them. It even includes a text story that Mark Millar wrote for an old annual, which if I recall correctly was only tangentially related to Zenith and (like many Mark Millar superhero and 2000ad stories) best forgotten about.

And then there’s the colour. Reprinting 2000ad strips from the late 80s and early 90s can be a bit of a challenge because the comic went from mainly monochrome to full colour in 1990. To keep costs down, book publishers tend to get creative when confronted with things like this by printing half the book in black and white and half in colour, but this can often look awful. On top of this, Phase I of Zenith was during a brief period when 2000ad adopted an odd habit of printing the last page of some of its strips on the back page of the comic itself – often in full colour. Most of the time, the solution to that is to print the page in black and white – and most of the time that means a page which looked gorgeous in the original comic looking muddy and illegible. This has particularly plagued the Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog reprints.

Colour transitions in the Complete ZenithNot so with Zenith. That £100 asking price means that, to their credit, they have spared no expense. So on the two chapters in Phase I where this applies you get a wonderful burst of colour. There is a slight issue which I’ve noticed whereby one of the annual stories, an Interlude, appears to have been printed slightly out of sequence so that it appears between Phases III and IV (when, if I recall correctly, it should be between II and III), but this is not disastrous as the story is out of sequence in any case.

Overall, I’m very happy with this and am content with paying the money. I very much expect an unlimited edition to appear in the next few years, but I don’t think those reprints will be either as comprehensive or include the nice touches that this one does.

And what of the ethics of reprinting this despite the legal uncertainty? Well, as readers of this blog will know, I’m fairly radical when it comes to my views on intellectual property. I think there is a good case for making all publications public domain 20 years after their initial publication – and I suspect that such an approach would have concentrated minds in both the Morrison and 2000ad camps. The existence of 2000ad slightly challenges my opposition to corporations being able to jealously guard their intellectual property because it has to be said that if their archives were worth less to them, it is entirely possible it would have ceased to be a viable publication some time ago (that said, I’m not wedded to 20 years and a somewhat longer period than that would probably fix that). I also have a lot of sympathy for Steve Yeowell and can’t believe that Morrison didn’t know he was working on a work for hire basis at the time. So yeah, I think they are right to test the waters here.

Dragonmeet and widening the RPG audience

I had a great time at Dragonmeet on Saturday. It may surprise some people to know that this was my first Dragonmeet (London’s premiere roleplaying convention which I believe has been going since the 1980s) but in fact, UK Games Expo this year was the first gaming convention I’d gone to since, I think, Games Day ’88 (around the time Games Workshop was transforming from a distributor to just focusing on its own miniatures games).

I had a game of Durance, Jason Morningstar’s next game after Fiasco which can best be summed up as “early colonial Australia – in spaaaace”. I wish I’d played a couple more games, especially Microscope, but Durance took a long time and I needed a break and some shopping time.

As for purchases, I picked up My Life With Master, Psi*Run, Witch: The Road to Lindisfarne and Becoming Heroes – all indie games with their own little quirks. I’ve read the rules to Psi*Run thus far and it looks great – essentially the players are amnesiacs with psychic powers who are being chased by some unknown threat: maybe they’re alien abductees or the victims of some government experiment. They start the game asking themselves a series of questions and end the game when one of them has answered all of them (as is common with indie games, you get to make these up as you go along).

I only went to one seminar, and I regret not going to the one with Robin D Laws about his new Hillfolk game which I’ve invested in as a Kickstarter. I’m still toying with investing in the Guide to Glorantha Kickstarter (I deeply love Glorantha as a setting both because it is highly original and the setting of the first RPG I ever owned), so it would have been nice to go to that, but it would have meant not having a morning game. Priorities!

The one seminar I did go to was about the future of the UK RPG “industry”. But the main point that was rammed home at the seminar was that there was no industry, just four games companies which operate out of the US (Pelgrane Press, Cubicle 7, Chronicle City and Mongoose), a distribution company (Esvedium) and a scattering of shops. And while the general consensus seemed to be that its decline from the “heady” days of the 1980s has probably levelled out now, no one could envision any sunlit uplands ahead to look forward to. There was an agreement that with the internet, we probably don’t even need an industry for the hobby to continue, but it would probably plod along in any case. There was no prospect of a renaissance.

I found it to be quite an interesting talk, not quite depressing although in many ways it should have been. It reminded me a bit of the very similar conversation going on within the comics ironic-quotation-marks-industry and the heroic but seemingly futile efforts of a handful of people working within it to persuade it that there is a mainstream audience out there to exploit if only it would haul itself out of its self imposed ghetto (I promise not to segue into a discussion about Giles Coren being a cock, except to say that Giles Coren is a cock).

I’ve written about RPGs and the mainstream recently. At the risk of repeating myself, if you want to expand your audience, you should focus on games that do not require (at least) 3 expensive “core” hardback books to play and which encourage the sort of play in which one individual dedicates huge amount of personal time preparing a game for everyone else. You should probably look at games which put as much emphasis on plot and character – possibly even sex – as they do on action and violence. You should look at games with a wide range of genres, not just another flavour of fantasy-horror-scifi. None of this is to say that any of these things are bad or that all games should contain none of these elements, just that variety is the spice of life and a narrow idea of what is and isn’t roleplaying doesn’t help anybody. Don’t mistake a genre for a medium.

Of course, there are games out there which tick these boxes, but they are known as “indie” games and seen as niche (from my experience, by their advocates as well as others in the RPG scene). I don’t think there are any particular villains here: most of the industry panellists at the seminar were enthusiastic about the indie scene. Indeed, the host James Wallis wrote The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen and is in many ways a godfather of the indie scene*. All the UK RPG publishers produce games which are to a greater or lesser extent “indie” in style or tone. The issue to me is more one of mindset, and a realisation of the opportunities that games like Fiasco bring to the market.

At one stage in the seminar, one of the audience members asked the panel what they were doing to bring children into the hobby and got quite finger jabby. While enticing a new generation is important, I wonder whether too much concern about making it accessible for “the kids” is missing the point. I couldn’t make head or tail of Runequest 2 when I was 8 (or MERPs for that matter; I always seemed to buy complicated fantasy games when I was a kid); it didn’t stop me from playing it numerous times. I persevered because it seemed cool, because my media was saturated with science fiction and fantasy, and – crucially – because there weren’t shinier, easier ways to sate my appetite for immersive fantasy gameplay. Since the latter factor has now been irrevocably lost thanks to computer games and to a lesser extent miniature war games, I can’t really see how efforts to entice them will ever be enormously successful.

I think it’s the slightly older generation that is a more likely prospect and the one thing that isn’t likely to excite them is tabletop versions of something they can do on the computer in a way that is infinitely more immersive. What that suggests to me is that “old school” dungeon bashes are unlikely to cut the mustard.

Tabletop roleplaying’s potential appeal is in providing things you can’t do on a computer, and that means stuff other than killing things and solving puzzles. You can create worlds, endless situations, flawed heroes (and even not heroes at all) with a few simple rules, some friends and possibly some dice in a way you can never do on a computer (and the moment you will be able to do that will also be the singularity; best not to think about!).

Roleplaying’s potential therefore is its ability to provide boundless creativity in a social environment, if only the scene could get over its obsession with stabbing orcs. And what goes for teenagers is also likely to appeal more to women.

What all this suggests to me is that if the industry is to be truly ambitious, it needs to start eschewing notions of “old school” play and deliberately look towards games which offer things that are unique to tabletop roleplaying itself. Surprisingly (to me at least), that would suggest that the approach of moving to simpler boardgame “gateway” games such as Castle Ravenloft may not actually be the right approach. It suggests that, for example, while the Dungeons and Dragons Next project may result in a game the existing fans love, it will be a cul de sac rather than a way of bringing in new gamers.

Psi*Run offers an alternative approach. A 60 page rulebook clearly designed to be accessible to a younger audience, offering a type of game that you couldn’t do better on a computer. I’m thinking of buying it for my niece. The recently released Dungeon World appears to offer old style fantasy adventure with more of an indie aesthetic; maybe this is the way forward?

Piers from the London Indie RPG Meetup made a salient point at the seminar when he suggested that in many ways indie games are more like traditional RPG scenarios than game systems in that they are intended to be played a couple of times before the players move onto something else rather than a game you go back to again and again over a number of years. In some respects, this is a bit like novels as opposed to a massive TV franchise like Star Trek; a one off story focusing on one or two ideas rather than a never ending saga. And that also has a lot in common with how boardgames have developed over the past decade where the designer is becoming ever more important rather than the franchise.

Overall, I think there needs to be an injection of ambition into the RPG scene. There has been more innovation over the past decade than we saw throughout the 25 years before that. Accessible games like Fiasco have the potential to break into the mainstream. What the scene needs is a little more self confidence and a little less comfort with the idea of wallowing in obscurity. There’s already Free RPG Day (itself a spinoff from Free Comic Book Day) but from what I’ve seen of what most companies produce to promote this event, it is more aimed at promoting upcoming stuff to an existing base than building a new one. Perhaps this day, or another, needs to be adopted for evangelising about the mediums true potential – and potential audience.

* (UPDATE) It would appear that I stole that description of James Wallis from Robin D. Laws. But he’s right.

Microscope: roleplaying history fractally

20121119-005738.jpgI’ve been exploring quite a lot of roleplaying games recently, but Microscope is probably the most unique I’ve come across thus far.

Arguably, it isn’t even a roleplaying game, although roleplaying is part of it. The goal of the players is not to play a character but to create a fictional history, potentially spanning tens of thousands of years.

The basis of the game is a timeline with a simple beginning and ending. This could be anything. For example, the start point could be “humanity struggles to recover from the zombie apocalypse” and the end point could be “humans and AIs form the galactic federation” (fantasy and mythical settings, indeed anything, can also be used – I’ve even considered it as a tool for developing a democratic reform counterfactual as an exercise for work).

In each player’s turn, they can either establish a new period, a new event (which must take place during an established period) or a scene (which must take place during an established event). You can place your chosen period, event or scene at any point in the timeline and can thus bounce around continually. The only restriction is that you must follow the “focus” – a particular thing that one of the players chooses all the players must explore during each round.

The scenes are the most complex aspect of the rules, and the closest the game gets to traditional roleplaying. For each scene, all the players pick a role and, in the process, work together to answer a question set by the person whose turn it is. So, if the question is: “Why did Halo Jones kill Luiz Cannibal in cold blood?”, one player might play Halo Jones, another might play Luiz Cannibal, and so on. The scene ends as soon as the question has been answered. If the players want to continue that story, another player will have to choose a scene on their turn to continue it.

One thing the game designer Ben Robbins is quite emphatic about is that the players must not attempt to write a history by committee. Instead, when it is your turn you have complete autonomy. The other players are banned from making suggestions, although they can ask for clarification. The only restrictions are that new elements can’t contradict old ones, and that they must stay within the basic rules. There is a slight exception to that in that during a scene a player can “Push” for something to happen – in which case the options are discussed and the players take a vote. Aside from that, and the fact that the players must initially agree what the overall theme is to be, that is the only point in which players have to reach some level of agreement. I disagree with some of the terminology used in the rule book: far from “banning” collaboration, this is an interesting way to enforce it in a meaningful way (as opposed to having the strongest willed player dominate); it takes the improvisational dictum of “yes, and…” and turns it into a fundamental building block for the rules.

The best genre settings drip with history, yet the idea of developing one of your own has been curiously unexplored by game designers up until now. I say “curiously” but it never occurred to me that it might even be worth considering until I came across this game. Now my mind is racing with possibilities, enthused by such rich histories as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Nikolai Dante, Warhammer 40,000 and Vampire: the Masquerade. But of course, those should only be starting points: the real genius of the game is not letting you explore established backgrounds but in creating your own by having a group of players subtly pulling in opposite directions. In short, this is another game to add to my burgeoning “must try” list.

Fighting Fantasy


A filmmaker is attempting to raise £40,000 on Kickstarter to make a film about the development and legacy of Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. It’s an ambitious project which I’d love to see happen, so I’ve chipped in and would encourage you to do the same.

I was one of the first generation of Fighting Fantasy fans, starting with the publication of the Warlock of Firetop Mountain in 1982. We didn’t have the Puffin Club at my school; we had the Chip Club. Nonetheless, that was how me and my sister discovered the series and I quickly graduated onto the Forest of Doom, City of Thieves, Starship Traveller and Deathtrap Dungeon.

I had a bit of a pro-Ian Livingstone bias, which was probably unfair in retrospect and I suspect was limited to the fact that I got Forest of Doom while my sister got the more experimental Citadel of Chaos. That changed when I discovered the Sorcery! series, with its spellbook, overarching plot and gorgeous John Blanche artwork. I was pretty hardcore, buying Warlock magazine from issue 2, the Out of the Pit monster manual, the background book Titan, and so on.

They weren’t perfect. Like most RPGs at the time, they tended to be both combat heavy and leave you rather dependent on the luck of the dice, which was a little redundant as if you died, you would tend to simply ignore the result and carry on. But the Fighting Fantasy books opened so many avenues for me. Like many other people, they encouraged my reading, and it will be no surprise to anyone to learn that they got me into roleplaying games. But I’d credit them with something more fundamental than that, in that they made me realise at a young age that I didn’t have to just be a consumer, but an active participant in my media as well (of course, this also came at the same time as the rise of the home microcomputer – which had a similar democratising effect. As it happens there’s also an open Kickstarter at the moment to fund an updated version of Elite).

This is an important part of my personal history, so I’m keen to see the documentary get made. Plus, it is possible I might be making a minor appearance in it as they appear to be using footage from Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s presentation at this year’s UK Games Expo in it, in which you can quite clearly see me in the audience! So please have a look at the Turn to 400 Kickstarter and consider putting some dosh behind it.