Category Archives: comics and geek culture

Babu Frik

Why the Rise of Skywalker broke me

So, four months on, it would appear that I’m still not over the Rise of Skywalker.

(Spoilers ahead, obviously. But if you haven’t seen it by now, do you really care at this stage?)

So, first of all, I should say what kind of Star Wars fan I am. I was two when the original film came out, but because my parents were kind of nerds, I was almost weaned on it and Spielberg’s early blockbusters. I had some of the Kenner toys (although not as many as my friends), obviously. Aside from reading the Dark Empire comic and its follow ups (quite liked the first at the time, although it hasn’t dated well – hated the rest), I never really bothered with the Expanded Universe stuff, which I generally considered to be hackneyed trash (an opinion I still broadly hold having read some of the “classics”). Didn’t think much of the Special Editions. Don’t rate the Prequels, although I was never one of those “these films simply don’t exist” people. Liked the Tartakovsky Clone Wars. Was slow to warm up to Filoni’s The Clone Wars, but when I did at around season three, I fell for it hard, and there for Rebels. I was going through some stuff when the Disney era of Star Wars media began and, as such, consumed most of the early comics and novels, although I’ve fallen off the wagon over the past couple of years. Broadly liked The Force Awakens and Rogue One and while I don’t think Solo was great, I can name many many worse films that have a better reputation.

Oh, and, most defining of all (it would appear), I’m very much Team The Last Jedi. Not because I think it’s a perfect film; I’ve watched it several times and could spend many hours pointing out all of the bits that don’t work for me. But when it does work, it’s wonderful. I guess I’ll get more into that later.

I’m a fan who considers this to be a film franchise first, a TV franchise second, and I can take or leave most other things (with the exception of the tabletop game X-Wing, which I’m a little obsessed with).

So, back to the Rise of Skywalker. By now this has been a very widely dissected film – and I’m by no means the only person who didn’t like it. I think my position is probably best summarised as being somewhere between these two video essays:

I don’t have an awful lot else to add to those essays. I do take issue with the argument often stated in various parts of the internet that the films should have been “planned” better. The original trilogy wasn’t planned at all, and the Prequels were presumably better planned than any other films in the franchise, but it didn’t make them any better. The first two Sequel films actually complement each other well; the problem is that while Rian Johnson very much took a “yes, and” approach to The Last Jedi, Abrams is clearly a much less generous collaborator. As Patrick Willems said in a previous video, Abrams is someone known for starting series not for ending them – and that ended up being a major problem.

I also wonder to what extent Lucasfilm had actually planned for this film, which ended up getting trashed at a fairly late stage. I got the Art of the Rise of Skywalker a few weeks ago and it is notable that not a single piece of pre-production art of Palpatine exists in it (as opposed to this mysterious Oracle), and only one image of the Sith planet Exegol. Given that this book was mysteriously delayed for four months, they had time to insert this art if it existed.

Similarly, if you read the Aftermath novels it’s established that part of the Emperor’s Grand Design in the event of his death was to have a loyal cadre of Imperials go off to find a mystery place somewhere in the Unknown Regions that he had identified and build the First Order. You can still see the skeleton of that idea in Rise, but it ultimately contradicts this. For one thing, how did they get there if they didn’t have either of the Wayfinders? Secondly, why are the First Order and the Final Order different things? It’s all such a mess.

And then there’s Snoke. The most baffling thing for me is why Snoke just got casually dismissed as a clone instead of being something interesting – the idea was he was always intended to be little more than a head in a jar seems unlikely. People have picked up on how Rise seems to trash so much of The Last Jedi but there’s a lot set up in The Force Awakens which is treated with similar disdain. It’s such a depressing experience. This for me is a far more egregious contradiction than the “Rey nobody” twist in Last Jedi that upset so many people.

Interesting Failures

Of course, to be a Star Wars fan is to live in disappointment. Return of the Jedi was fairly critically panned at the time, and while I think I was too young to see it then, it certainly feels like a step down from the first two now. I had spent much of my early life looking forward to nine Star Wars films, which I imagined would be coming out like clockwork, every three years, from 1986 to 2001 and, well, that didn’t happen. In fact for a long time it didn’t look like it was going to happen at all. What we did get were the Special Editions which did some frankly horrible things to some of my favourite bits of the original trilogy. And when we finally did get episodes 1 to 3, it’s fair to say that they weren’t rapturously welcomed by those of us who had spent the best part of 20 years waiting for them.

But at the same time, people have short memories. People forget that Return of the Jedi was panned, and even the Prequel loathing has softened over time. And I guess you can shrug and dismiss the Rise of Skywalker hatred as just part of the same cycle. For me it’s different though.

You see, for all of Return of the Jedi‘s flaws, it does ultimately satisfyingly complete the story started in A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back. It is harder to defend the Prequels, which are objectively bad movies, but they are at least interesting failures, with interesting things to say. I’d rather watch films like that – the Matrix sequels also fit into this category – than safe cash grab sequels.

That are the Prequels about? It is admittedly sometimes hard to see through the terrible dialogue and garish CGI, but ultimately the story they tell are about how civilisations fall: it isn’t because a cackling villain turns up and ruins everything, it’s because the institutions designed to stand as a defense against tyranny (in the case of the Prequels, the Republic and the Jedi Order) grow complacent and lose their sense of purpose. And yeah, Palpatine has to come along to push it over, but the edifice was already crumbling before he came along.

That, to me, feels incredibly relevant right now – as it did back in the early 2000s when we were fighting a stupid preventable war like the one that informed Lucas when he set out to make the original films (Vietnam).

I kind of hate the fact that the themes of the Prequels resonate as strongly for me as they do, because I so dearly want them to be part of much better films. Fortunately I now have the Clone Wars to tell that story far more dramatically and entertainingly. But I give Lucas credit for trying to say something complex and nuanced in a film about space wizards.

But what does Abrams have to say? I know exactly what Lucas is saying in both his trilogies; and it’s clear what Johnson is saying in The Last Jedi, but ultimately in the Abrams films, it’s just stuff… that happens. I can give him a pass for The Force Awakens, which is just setting up the trilogy and is entertaining enough, but how do you set about finishing a epic a series as the Skywalker Saga without having anything to say?

Nostalgia and World Building

The biggest fundamental problem with Abrams’s films is that they are rooted in nostalgia at the expense of everything else. With The Force Awakens, that is understandable: the anger which certain parts of the fandom felt towards the Prequels is pretty hard to ignore. The Force Awakens was a useful reset button which should have given Lucasfilm the creative space to go in new directions with the franchise. That certainly seemed to be the plan with The Last Jedi – of course for a lot of fans that was a step too far. And that’s a hard schism to bridge: ultimately for a lot of people, all they wanted was more of the same and a film that took took the same material and ultimately asked different questions was just not on their checklist at all. It’s understandable why Lucasfilm got frit over the outrage over it and decided to make something that was comfortable, but given how many TLJ haters who seem as disappointed with it as the TLJ fans, I think that was the wrong call.

In retrospect, we’d have probably had better films if the anger over the Prequels had been a little more restrained. By the time Disney bought Lucasfilm and announced a new film series in 2012, it had just become a “known” fact that the Prequels were an unmitigated disaster and that the Sequel trilogy should be nothing like them. People like Simon Pegg had popularised the notion that they were unspeakable.

I especially remember this video, by a copywriter called Prescott Harvey, which came out in advance of The Force Awakens. It is an open letter to JJ Abrams and, at the time, was accompanied by a petition which thousands of people signed:

Post-gamergate and The Last Jedi nerdrage, I find this film a little uncomfortable to watch. The entitlement feels eerily famliar. That bit when his voice rises to almost a shouting pitch about how Star Wars must never be cute (which, even ignoring Return of the Jedi, dismisses much of the appeal of R2-D2, the jawas, Yoda and the ugnaughts in the first two films and seems to ignore the fact that there is significantly more graphic violence in the Prequels than the original trilogy), sounds like the archetype of every angry white nerd throwing his toys out of his pram we’ve heard ad nauseum in the years since.

And yes, superficially, there’s nothing too much to disagree with in this video: it does a fairly good job at encapsulating what the Original Trilogy was in essence. The problem is the suggestion that Star Wars shouldn’t strive to be anything more than that, that it should be kept in a safe little box. The logic is that Lucas tried to mix things up in the Prequels, they weren’t good, so that shows you shouldn’t mess with a winning formula. But the bad things about the Prequels wasn’t their ambition, it was their execution. And pushing so hard for future filmmakers to impose limitations like that was always going to be a monkey’s paw.

Prescott Harvey got the filmmaker he could only have dreamed of in the form of JJ Abrams. His previous film Super 8 seems to exist purely to make you think that Steven Spielberg made a horror film at around the same time he was making Close Encounters and Poltergeist (it was an entirely forgettable affair and I can pretty much guarantee you that everything memorable you think happened in it was actually a bit you remember from Stranger Things). His Star Trek films are basically an exercise in mashing up all the cool bits Abrams remembered from the Star Trek films he grew up with, mashed together (he just about pulled it off in his first film but, echoing Star Wars, came horribly unstuck in his messy second effort).

What is remarkable about both Abrams films is quite how pathologically they copy the Original Trilogy. It isn’t enough to have space ships that look like the TIE Fighters and X-Wings of old, they had to have actual TIE Fighters and X-Wings. The Empire and Rebellion were replicated as close as possible as they could be. And of course we had to have yet another Death Star.

And much of this was at the expense of world building and even the impact of the Original Trilogy. The sacrifice of the Rebellion over the course of those films has now been revealed to have achieve almost nothing; not even the Emperor actually died. In the years since The Force Awakens, Lucasfilm has authorised several novels, comics and even a TV show (The Resistance) to flesh out the Star Wars galaxy as it existed at the start of Episode VII, but even having read much of this it still feels pretty hollow.

Much of this replication can be excused away by the argument that, as George Lucas himself put it “Star Wars rhymes“. But rhyming isn’t the same thing as repetition, and that doesn’t mean that things that have dramatic justification in the originals have to happen in the Sequels simply because. So many of the beats in The Rise of Skywalker feel like characters going through the motions and beats of another film rather than getting there by themselves. Perhaps the most egregious is the notion that Rey is somehow conflicted about possibly, maybe, turning to the Dark Side when she is only ever presented as being repelled by the idea. We have the throne room sequence in Return of the Jedi replicated but she’s never actually tempted in the agonising way that Luke is; at worst she appears to briefly flirt with the idea of sacrificing herself to save her friends. Contrast that with the throne room scene in The Last Jedi which clearly echoes similar scenes in past films including Return of the Jedi, but doesn’t simply regurtitate past dramatic beats and comes at the climax of a film that has spent much of its time getting you to that point.

And in order to disguise how slavish this all is, they mask it by making everything bigger. It was bad in The Force Awakens when Starkiller Base could not only blow up planets, but multiple ones at once from across the galaxy. Where do you go from there? Well, you simply give every single Star Destroyer (which look identical to the original Star Destroyers but are now canonically bigger) a planet destroying ray gun. But all the bigger stuff does is serve to make everything feel more hollow, especially when you’ve done so little work fleshing out the galaxy which is now apparently under threat.

Retcons and Cash-ins

Admittedly, it has taken me a while to warm up to the Prequels, and a large part of that was The Clone Wars, which has spent much of the past 12 years clarifying and expanding on the material that was in the Prequel trilogy. We’re already seeing that with Rise of Skywalker with the publication of its novelisation which seems to have been written specifically to smooth over many of the film’s cracks. So it is that we now know that Palpatine didn’t have a son so much as a renegade “failed” clone, and that Rey and Ben Solo’s kiss was strictly platonic.

But this is where we come to the worst aspect of Star Wars fandom and how it has intersected with Disney corporatism; the need to explain everything. Star Wars has always had this. Its pretty harmless when it boils down to anthologies about every single background character ever, such as Tales from Mos Eisley Cantina, but there’s always been a tendency to take this too far. So it is that we have Skippy the Jedi Droid, and the explanation that there is a reason why some of the garbage spotting in the scene in Empire Strikes Back looks vaguely like the robot IG-88 who popped up in the bounty hunter scene a few minutes earlier (Boba Felt killed him! Oh, and there’s four of him. Oh, and he ended up merging with the Death Star shortly before it blew up in Return of the Jedi).

We don’t need any of this stuff, and much of the time it cheapens the original stories, relegating them to trivia. And while I am a big fan of The Clone Wars, which is in some respects a massive retcon, it’s not a good thing that the show had to do as much heavy lifting as it did; the Prequels should have done that in the first place.

But while this has been a part of Star Wars for as long as Obi-Wan Kenobi started wittering on about “a certain point of view” in Return of the Jedi, it has become a mania in the modern Disney corporation, filling its live action adaptation of their classic animated films with retcons intended to “fix” the original (I recommend a couple of videos by Lindsey Ellis for more on this). It’s no surprise that the first two standalone Star Wars films which came out, Rogue One and Solo, both ostensibly exist to “fix” and “explain” bits of the original films.

And that’s only one half of it. I think I liked Rogue One a lot more than some people because I’d read Catalyst first, which is entirely about Galen Erso. So I understood him, Jyn and Saw Garerra’s characters a lot better going in than most people did. But you shouldn’t have to read a book to properly enjoy a film. Yet this is now a feature. Starkiller Base made no sense to you in the Force Awakens? If you buy the Force Awakens Visual Dictionary it will helpfully explain how that works. Indeed, if you buy the Rise of Skywalker Visual Dictionary, it will tell you that it was built out of the planet Ilum, which appears in the Clone Wars.

We’ve reached a point now where shoddy explanations and poor characterisation no longer feel like a bug in the new Star Wars films, but a feature. Most people just want the big explosions and if you want the films to make sense, why there is helpfully a whole range of books out there to make it all make sense in your head. And, presumably, eventually a spin off TV show which will do all the heavy lifting for you.

There comes a point where this stops feeling like spin off merchandise and starts to feel like a confidence trick. It seems to all but encourage lazy writing; the worse the film turns out to be the more books get to come out to “fix” it. This seems to be what “plot hole culture” seems to have been leading up to, and it feels deeply cynical and dispiriting.

I should emphasise that I’m not puritanical about all this. I don’t expect a company like Disney to be making films for the sake of the art, just as Lucas wasn’t. Indeed, it’s actually a little weird to me that Disney has eschewed Lucas’s tendency to fill his films with kewl new spaceships that the fans will want to rush out and buy. But that would mean producing something novel rather than focusing exclusively on nostalgia by making everything look and feel like the films they grew up watching.

Ultimately no amount of retroactive fixes can make a film devoid of substance a good film. And this is ultimately the difference between the Prequels being redeemed by later media and the Rise of Skywalker receiving similar treatment. No amount of retconning can avoid the fact that that film ultimately has nothing to say.

A New Hope?

So my dislike of Rise of Skywalker is not just rooted in the film itself, but in the corporate culture in which it developed and how its rooted in an obsession that sees Star Wars in terms of nostalgia and facts but is less interested in things like theme and meaning.

But it isn’t despair that kills you, it’s the hope. And there is a part of me that is still rooting for the franchise. I quite liked the Mandalorian, although it was pretty unchallenging. And while the recent “Final Season” of the Clone Wars was, for the most part, fairly solid but run of the mill, its final arc, which echoes the events in Revenge of the Sith, is emotionally shredding.

And while I definitely get the impression that The Rise of Skywalker is the film that the producers ultimately set out to make, as something of a Lucasfilm-watcher, I do get the impression that the studio was concerned that it was going to be a bit of critical flop.

For one thing, Disney decided not to market it in its own right but as part of a season of Star Wars alongside the new video game Jedi: Fallen Order and the Mandalorian. The Mandalorian was particularly interesting because it meant releasing a show which had a massive spoiler in it that had been kept secret before airing, but at a time when they couldn’t launch Disney Plus across Europe – meaning that a very large market didn’t legally have access to the show. That always felt like a weird decision to me, but it did mean that thousands of people were ecstatically tweeting about The Child/Baby Yoda instead of expressing their concerns about the upcoming film. I think it paid off for them, but I doubt they’d have done it if they truly believed that The Rise of Skywalker could have stood on its own feet.

The other thing that reassures me that that they are taking their time not to rush into any more films, having axed the Weiss and Benioff series – which had lots of alarm bells wringing – and not yet having axed the promised Rian Johnson series – which will be alarming to some but very reassuring to others (especially after his triumphant return to the big screen with Knives Out). Indeed, taking their time is something I wish they’d done with the Sequel Trilogy. I can’t help but feel we’d have ended up with a stronger Episode Nine, irrespective of curveballs such as Carrie Fisher’s tragic death, we’d had the traditional three year wait between films (meaning that Episode IX would be due for release in 2021) rather than two.

UPDATE: I’m similarly encouraged by today’s announcement that Taiki Waititi will be directing a new Star Wars film.

Hopefully the departure of Bob Iger from Disney means that the corporation as a whole becomes less obsessed with this idea of making sequels and remakes as a way to retcon existing properties. And, ultimately, finishing off the Skywalker Saga always was going to be a far harder task than making tangential Star Wars films in the future. It’s just such a shame they dropped the ball so badly with this one.

Rigg's Shrine title card

Warhammer’s race and gender problem

Still working through my Age of Sigmar inspired recent obsession, I came across this post on Kieron Gillen and Matt Sheret’s Hipsterhammer Tumblr about the problematic nature of many of the new “rules” found in Age of Sigmar’s War Scrolls. This is of course true to the extent that you can take them seriously at all. But at the same time, the sad fact is that Warhammer has never not been problematic in terms of its presentation of disability, race and gender. And in many ways, it appears to have gone backwards since the 80s.

Map of the Known WorldPart of the problem is also what I praised in my last blog post: the impressive background developed for the Warhammer Fantasy RPG. Before then, the Warhammer setting was pretty much a free for all and several developers went off in several different directions. The “Known World,” very closely modelled on our own, included its own analogues of the Americas, Asia and the Middle East, even if the non-European-analogous bits were notably smaller than they are in the real world. The first “scenario pack” published for Warhammer 2, “Blood bath at Orc’s Drift” was set in the New World/America. Citadel Miniatures produced a range of miniatures based on different cultures, even if many of them never rose above the status of racial caricature, the pygmies being one especially notorious example.

Warhammer Pygmies were transposed from the African analogue to the South American one, Lustria. Lustria itself was probably the most detailed setting GW produced during the Warhammer 2 era. It was the setting of the introductory scenario included in the base set (“The Magnificent Sven”) and was revisited a couple more times in the irregularly produced Citadel Compendium (“Rigg’s Shrine” and “The Legend of Kremlo the Slann”). It was an interesting mix of Aztec and Mayan mythology mixed with von Daniken and punk, with Norse settlers battling with the indigenous ambiphibious Slann and the Amazon’s.

All of this was highly problematic, post-colonial material. But at least it existed. The fleshing out of the “Old World” and particularly its Holy Roman Empire analogue The Empire, lead to development of any other part of the setting essentially ceasing for at least a decade. GW didn’t return to Lustria until 1996 in which a radically revised version of Lizardmen were introduced and the Slann relegated to a more background position. The Amazons and Pygmies were simply written out. But at least the Americas (with North America now mainly populated by Dark Elves) were represented at all. The rest of the world was pretty much written out.

What we ended up with was a vision of a world in which the World of Men is limited to Europe, beset on all sides by bestial, evil and debauched races. It’s hard to see the Warhammer World as much more as the warnings of the Daily Mail and British National Party taken to its ultimate extreme. No wonder it blew up.

In terms of gender, the situation is, if anything, even more dire. The Amazons, in 1984, are the first and only attempt to create a female figure range for Warhammer Fantasy (the fact that Warhammer 40,000 had the Sisters of Battle is a rare example of 40k actually managing to out-diversify something). And no, the hermaphroditic Daemonettes of Slaanesh don’t count, even if they have become more female over time.

Why does this matter? GW are of course welcome to do whatever they like. But I’d argue that this lack of diversity simply compounds the lack of groundedness that has come to typify their fantasy setting. If you can’t imagine any of these characters having families and a hinterland, and the world is so lightly sketched that almost an entire hemisphere was completely unexplored by the time it is destroyed, no wonder it had failed to capture the imagination. And if you aren’t a while male of European descent, you are being offered nothing to identify with.

This runs contrary to the direction that the rest of the tabletop industry seems to be going. Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder are in a competition to out diversify the other; Android Netrunner, which has had gender and ethnic diversity baked into it since its latest incarnation was launched, is about to focus on Cyberpunk India for six months. Fundamentally, these companies are not doing this out of the good of their hearts, but because they want to reach out to a more diverse paying audience, and to revitalise a bunch of tropes which to everyone other than an increasingly dwindling minority of their existing audience has become extremely dull.

Age of Sigmar could be an attempt to reach out to a more diverse audience as well. Thus far, however, the only audience it looks set to appeal to is the existing Warhammer 40,000 market. If we are going to see greater ethnic and gender diversity in their miniatures range, it is not apparent from their new starter set, which appears to be as hyper-masculine as Warhammer has ever been.

Imagine if GW had gone the other way. Imagine if, at the end of their End Times metaplot they had blown up the Old World and instead begun to explore the rest of the Known World instead. Meeting the bedraggled remnants of a fallen Empire on the battlefield could have been a bright and colourful range of new civilisations. We could have revisited old ideas like the Amazons, updated for the modern era, explored rich civilisations in the analogues of Africa, the Indian sub-continent, China and Japan. I can’t be alone in thinking that would have been so much fresher and exciting than the rehashed content they have instead come up with.

Maybe we’ll still see something similar emerge out of this, but I somehow doubt it.

Age of 40,000 Sigmars

I’ve been watching the launch of Game Workshop’s new game, Warhammer: Age of Sigmar, and its backlash over the last few days attempting to decide what to make of it all. For those who don’t know, Games Workshop have discontinued their long established and original flagship miniatures war game Warhammer Fantasy Battle and replaced it with a new fantasy war game, Age of Sigmar.

There are essentially four major complaints about this game.

  1. The very explicit move away from a war game to a skirmish game, with fewer minatures per side and (shock!) round figure bases instead of square ones (although you can still use square ones if you have old figures with them).
  2. The core ruleset is basic at best and in particular replaces the existing system for building armies by spending a fixed number of points, with each miniature costing a certain amount, with a much simpler system of just counting the miniatures. A tiny goblin is worth exactly the same amount as that enormous dragon you own which takes up a quarter of the table.
  3. The “war scrolls” which GW have created to enable Warhammer Fantasy Battle gamers to play the new system with their old miniatures contain a number of, er, odd rules such as giving specific bonuses to players who opt to dance while rolling their dice or, my personal favourite, whoever has the most impressive moustache.
  4. The setting, which has abandoned Warhammer Fantasy’s Old World in favour of eight “realms”. I’m not entirely clear how these realms are supposed to interconnect – are they like planes of existence or parallel worlds or planets floating in space? – but it is certainly strongly implied that the world is much more vast and not simply set on one planet. It is all very vague (White Dwarf #75 was apparently meant to provide people with some details but having read it from cover to cover I can tell you that it reveals virtually nothing), but it all has a kind of “Tolkien in Space” vibe which, er, was the original idea at the heart of their “science fiction” miniatures game Warhammer 40,000. In the starter set, even the Sigmarite warriors look remarkably like 40,000’s Space Marines[TM].

I’m not especially interested in getting into all that per se. I pretty much walked away from Games Workshop in around 1990. Already annoyed by the changes to the company in the mid-80s, I’d grown sick of the way they would inconsistently release new games and then abandon them, their abandonment of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, the way White Dwarf had become a promotional tool which you paid for the privilege to read and the fact that the only thing they were consistent about where the price rises. Since that time, I’ve watched as every few years the company does something to alienate a big chunk of their customers. It has looked like a company dying on its arse for some time now. Yet it seems to keep going and enjoy a core customer base who stick by them through thick and thin.

The thing that they have fundamentally got right is the Warhammer 40,000 game, which has always been a skirmish game. It works because it is a good match between setting and game. The scale of the miniatures makes more sense for a skirmish game than it does for a war game (it has always felt a bit odd calling a game in which a few hundred combatants go up against each other a “war game”). The setting, whilst the epitomy of “grimdark” doesn’t lose believability despite it’s emphasis on “total war” because it is set across the entire galaxy. There’s a fairly clear idea about what they are fighting for. At it’s heart is a really good, extremely metal idea: that humanity has united behind a god-like Emperor who is waging an eternal psychic war against daemonic forces and is the only thing that stands between the human race and extinction.

The problem with Warhammer Fantasy has always been that its setting was never quite as strong. In its original incarnation, the setting was a fairly generic mashup of Tolkien, Lovecraft and Eric von Daniken; ancient alien race settle on a planet, terraform it, create the sentient races, usher in a golden age, but the warp gates they use for interstellar travel collapse, ushering in the forces of Chaos. That was fine as far as it went, but the setting only really came alive when they released Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and its developers decided to focus on a setting based on the Holy Roman Empire, with a dash of Lovecraft and Monty Python. Suddenly the setting had politics, and a real sense of a pervading menace. Chaos wasn’t just something you fought in the woods and the chaos wastes; it was a pervading menace at the heart of society. It suddenly had a groundedness that it lacked before.

But two things have happened since then which the WFB has struggled with ever since. Firstly, the roleplaying game was abandoned. There have been three separate attempts to revive it over the last 25 years, but always as an adjunct to the war game rather than a core part of the world building. Since then, the focus of the fiction and fluff has always been almost exclusively focused on war and fighting. The other thing that happened is organised play. In recent years, GW has opted to develop a metaplot which players are encouraged to contribute to by playing their own games enacting battles that spring out of the storyline.

As I said before, Warhammer 40,000 can cope with this sort of thing because it is spread across a galaxy. Warhammer Fantasy is set in a world which is actually smaller than our own. This doesn’t work because basic economics would make such eternal war utterly impractical. So to explain away this, the focus has had to shift increasingly towards higher and higher fantasy. Everything could just be explained away by magic. When you attempt to get your head around the fiction it becomes less and less clear why anyone is bothering to fight these battles at all and they increasingly sound like the fanfiction written by a demented thirteen year old.

I would argue that it is this lack of groundedness that has lead to the steep decline in Warhammer Fantasy’s popularity over the last few years. Fantasy only really works when it is grounded in some way. Magic and monsters are all very well, but if a fantasy world doesn’t feel like a real place, it is hard to care. And there has to be a mix of hope and darkness, not just unrelenting grimness.

All of which is a fairly long way of saying why I don’t think Age of Sigmar is going to save Warhammer Fantasy. The solution is not to create a fantasy version of Warhammer 40,000 but to make it less of a retread of Warhammer 40,000 in the first place. Based on what GW has released so far, Age of Sigmar contains none of the groundedness that 40,000 has to prevent it from seeming unplausible. The setting is extremely lightly sketched out, none of the protagonists and antagonists seem to have any real motivations besides wanting to fight for its own sake, even the precise nature of these “realms” has been glided over. Maybe this will all be revealed in the starter set’s rulebook, or in the numerous overpriced novels that they are set to publish. But where is the hook to capture the imagination of the average punter?

GW are remarkably unsentimental about their product lines. If it doesn’t sell in sufficient quantities, a game is swiftly cancelled, often never to be seen again. Over the years we have seen them produce and abandon many loved lines such as Bloodbowl, Space Hulk, Epic, Battlefleet Gothic and Mordheim. I could be proven wrong here but I suspect that Age of Sigmar is in a similar precarious state. If it doesn’t sell well enough, it won’t be around for long and that will be the end of Warhammer Fantasy. The good news is, as fans of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay can tell you, killing a product line doesn’t necessarily kill off the game itself. Despite GW’s strict rules on intellectual property, fan produced material can and does continue to flourish. I just hope the company is bought up by another company soon that will put their IP to better use. Fantasy Flight/Asmodee: since you’re in the business of buying up games companies anyway, you might want to take a look.

Terry Pratchett with librarian

On angels, apes and Terry Pratchett

I’m what you might call a lapsed Terry Pratchett fan. For most of my adolescence, his work was a huge influence on me. But, as was typical of my late-teenage self, I walked away when he hit his most prolific period out of indignation about “cashing in” or some such self-righteous bullshit (I like to think I have a more sophisticated and generous view of artists these days). I never went back because the backlog got overwhelming, although I still intend to at some point.

Like everyone else, I was saddened to hear of his death yesterday. Amid all the tributes and an affectionate quotes that filled my various feeds, one image particularly jarred with me. Intended as a tribute, it was this British Humanist Association image, repeating the oft-cited quote “I’d rather be a rising ape than a fallen angel”:
"I'd rather be a rising ape than a falling angel" Sir Terry Pratchett
There are several things I could say about this. The first thing is, that I thought it was a shame that the first thing the BHA reached for was the most divisive quote they could find. The second is that, the concept of a “rising ape” is nonsense. The enlightenment notion that we are on a progressive path from amoeba to divine being was actually pretty much refuted by Darwin himself, whose own views about evolution did away with concepts that were very much steeped in notions of progressivism such as Lamarckism. Of course, much of that was subsequently undermined by Herbert Spencer and his championing of the most un-Darwinian Social Darwinism, but we emerged from that intellectual cul-de-sac 70 years ago.

To be fair on Pratchett, this is an off the cuff quip he made, apparently inebriated, at the end of a very long answer he answered at a Guardian event at few years ago. It’s not a quote from Pratchett as much as it is a quote from the anonymous sub-editor who chose to give this clip that title. His full answer is much more nuanced:

For me, the far more inspiring quote is at the start of the same section, when he makes largely the same point in a much more sophisticated (and funny) way:

“I find it far more interesting; in a sense, far more religiously interesting; that a bunch of monkeys got down off trees and stopped arguing long enough, to build this; to build that; to build everything. And we’re monkeys. Our heritage is [unintelligible] to climb trees and throw shit at other [monkeys]. And actually, that’s so much more interesting than being fallen angels.”

But the third point I would make, via my friend James Blanchard, is that this in turn is an evolution of something Death says in The Hogfather:


Both the last two quotes are classic, brilliant, wonderful Pratchett. The first one is not. It is such a shame that the former seems to be the one that is being parroted by the media today.

One Ring RPG

The One Ring RPG Review: You Can Never Go Back Again

So, a bit of background for context of this review: I’ve been roleplaying since I was 9, back in 1983. Over the last 30 years I’ve played all sorts of games, mostly GMing, but never really got that sense of unbridled joy and creation that I got from playing those games as a kid when we barely understood any of the rules; the more I “learned” how to play RPGs, the less I seemed to enjoy them.

As I got older, I played less and less. Partly this was because of life and career getting in the way but, to be honest, partly is was the disappointment I tended to feel every time I played. I came to believe that being a good roleplayer – and specifically a good GM – was a skill that I simply lacked.

All that changed when I discovered Fiasco in 2012 (thanks, Mr Wheaton). I quickly graduated onto other games, particularly Monsterhearts, go involved in the London Indie RPG Meetup and have been a keen indie gamer ever since. I’ve played more memorable games over the last 2 years than I had in the preceeding 30.

None of this is to say that conventional RPGs are rubbish. I don’t believe that and neither to the tens (hundreds?) of thousands of people who play and enjoy them every week. All I’m saying here is that they aren’t really for me. I want to tell a story, I want to get immersed into a story, and I want to do it in a single session or a handful – not over dozens. I don’t want to be a player or a GM and would prefer to be in that sweet spot in between.

At least, that’s how I felt. But after a couple of years, I started to wonder: am I simply being unfair on conventional games? Is it possible to use the techniques that I’ve picked up from indie games and apply them to conventional ones? The One Ring, a game which I had had sitting on my shelf since its initial publication back in 2011, had been calling me – especially with the publication of an exciting looking campaign book which purported to be like the Great Pendragon Campaign only where you got to actually have an impact on events.

I didn’t have the time, inclination or players to try a full 30 year campaign, but I thought we could have a taster campaign of half a dozen sessions or so, to see how it works. So that’s what we started back in October and had our fifth and final session last night. So, did it change my perceptions of conventional RPGs?

The basics

First of all, I recognise that a number of people might object to me calling The One Ring a conventional RPG at all. It’s indie influences are quite clear, especially in the form of Mouse Guard / Burning Wheel (a ludography would have been nice, actually). This is takes the form of the game having a “loremaster phase” during which the adventuring takes place and a “fellowship phase” during which time the players get to regroup, recover and get on with life (I’ll return to this idea later).

The game has been designed from the ground up to better evoke Tolkien, almost as a rebuke to its predecessor Middle Earth RPGs (I can’t comment on the Lord of the Rings RPG from a decade or so ago, but Iron Crown Enterprise’s Middle Earth Roleplaying, the second RPG I ever owned, is almost comedic in its trashing of the Tolkien aesthetic). The game utilises custom dice, although ordinary dice would work fine with it: a twelve side “feat die” numbered 1-10, a “Gandalf rune” (an automatic success) and an “Eye of Sauron rune” (an automatic zero, or a complication), and a number of six sided “success dice” with a special rune marking each six to represent some special success has been achieved. Task resolution involves rolling a number of dice according to your skill value, plus the feat die, against a target number.

In keeping with the books it is based on, the game places as much emphasis on travelling and social encounters as it does on combat. Doing stuff in The One Ring, especially when you are starting out, is hard, and you will most likely have to spend Hope points – a measure of your favourable outlook on like – to succeed at things. In fact, my players tended to be a little shy about doing this during our first few sessions, partly because (as storygamers), they were interested in seeing what happened when they failed.

This brings me to my first criticism: failure is, on the whole, not especially interesting. Mouse Guard has a general “succeed but pay a price” rule when it comes to failure. The Hope system seems to replace that but I almost wish the rule had been that if you can succeed with the bonus spending Hope gets you, you have to spend it, because otherwise the GM and players are left stranded.

The exception to this rule is with the travel rules in which a role of the Sauron symbol on the Feat Die results in some kind of hazard occurring. This is okay, but the hazards themselves aren’t terribly interesting and having significantly more examples in the book would have been really useful. Indeed, aside from it counting as a zero, this is the only way the Sauron symbol is used in the mechanics, which is a bit of a missed opportunity in my view.

Overall, task resolution of all kinds tends to involve rolling dice multiple times. It isn’t always clear how exactly this is meant to work; I’m still not really clear what a failure on a die roll for an extended resolution represents (a complete failure, a “reset” where you have to start again, cancels out a success?), and found the social encounters system similarly murky. Fundamentally, I’m not sold on the idea that rolling lots of times makes a task resolution die roll more interesting; all too often we ended up sullenly rolling the dice instead of narrating what was actually happening. The dice weren’t prompting us and it was quite joyless. Compare this to a game such as Apocalypse World where everything is simplified down to a roll of just two dice, and yet the prompts provided for each “move” is such that it does a great job at guiding you towards a dramatically interesting resolution. I really wish this game had had more of that.

The combat system I’m slightly more of a fan of, although I know that view wasn’t unanimous within our group. For myself, I quite liked the system which involves characters adopting either a rearward or one of several close combat stances, and then making difficulty rolls based on the stance adopted (so for example, it is easier to hit if you adopt the forward stance than if you are defensive, but you are similarly easier to be hit). The rules as written don’t apply to every situation, essentially they assume that all the player characters are together in a bunch, but if you apply a bit of common sense, the system works quite well. Or at least, that’s what I felt by the end of our last session when I loosened up a little.

Actual play

So my intention when starting out with this campaign was to run the first six or so years in the aforementioned Darkening of Mirkwood campaign setting, possibly involving the pre-written adventures in the Tales from Wilderland book as the opportunity arose. At the end of the first session, however, I had decided to pretty much abandon that plan.

During the first session I ran the adventure provided in the basic rulebook, the Marsh Bell. I very quickly found I had an enormous problem with this scenario as it essentially railroads the characters to go down a certain path, have an assortment of encounters and then return. There seemed so little opportunity for the characters to have any agency at all. This is of course a basic problem with pre-written scenarios and a hard one to solve. But if I was to retain my enthusiasm for a full half dozen sessions, I’d need something more inspirational.

My alternative approach was to have the players provide me with a list of things they wanted to see in future scenarios. I’d then randomly pick a handful and use them (and the campaign guide) as inspiration for the following session. I used this approach for the following session, and thus set them on a mission to invite a great warrior to King Bard’s celebrations to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Five Armies. I deliberately didn’t overly prepare each session, preferring to “keep it feral” Monsterhearts-style, and letting the players prompt the action.

For me anyway, this seemed to work a lot better and very quickly we had lots of ideas. Although the path we followed ended up being almost a linear as the initial scenario, it felt less railroady because it was based on the player’s prompts. A bit of reincorporation goes a long way, so a weird vision of a sword in session one ended up forming the basis of a quest which was revealed in session three.

I felt that at times we were still straining against the system to be honest, especially when it came to travel, and there were times when I fudged like crazy. But overall I’m satisfied that in our five sessions we told a fairly satisfying story, and one which despite the decision to end it there, I was interested discover how it continued. This was at least partially because, as a result of the thrilling combat and escape from an orc domain at the end of the adventure, both of our Elf adventurers had worryingly little Hope left and I am curious to see how that would have complicated matters.

Not for me

It pains me to say it, but I’m wary of running a similar game again, certainly not for a while and without certain tweaks. Regardless of system, at the end of the day the relationship between player and GM is simply not one I enjoy that much.

At the same time, this experiment has given me a certain amount of insight into what it is that people get out of conventional RPGs. Up until now, I have tended to buy into GNS Theory, the idea that there are three types of RPG – gamist, narrativist and simulationist, with the fans of a lot of conventional RPGs enjoying them because of an interest in realism as opposed to telling a good story.

While there may well be people for whom that is a concern, I can’t help but feel that on the whole the roleplaying hobby abandoned overt simulationist games back in the 80s with all those 20 volume, intensely detailed games such as Rolemaster. The divide between conventional RPGs and story games doesn’t seem to be a tension between gamists and narrativists either as many story games place more emphasis on “game” than conventional ones. Instead, I think it is a question of where you want your story: in your head or on the table.

I’ve heard a lot of people talk about a typical RPG session as an experience where the real fun is figuring out what really happened between sessions, and I certainly felt that there was a bit of that with our game (and not just in the case of the really helpful notes that one of my players wrote up each week). All too often, the system informs the story but doesn’t enable it to happen there and then; it requires reflection to sweat the details out. And that reflection often takes place inside the head of the individual players rather than it being a shared experience.

By contrast, story games are all about experiencing the narrative there and then (in that sense, Ron Edward’s definition of “story now!” is quite correct). There certainly is reflection, but it tends to be based on a lot more open information and a much greater attempt to develop some level of consensus around the table as it happens.

In short, I think that conventional gamers get the same kick out of roleplaying that I do, just in a slightly different way and at a different time.

There is also a question of timescale within the fiction itself. Characters have agency in conventional RPGs; it’s just that their influence on events is more akin to steering a supertanker than a London cab. The Darkening of Mirkwood is a great example of that. I’ve read about half of it and what peaked my influence really is good. It effectively tells a story in which the actions of the player characters in year five might have enormous repercussions in year twenty-five. This is awesome. It is also something that I am unlikely to ever have either the time or patience to experience.

In this important respect, The One Ring is not thematic. The Lord of the Rings, certainly, has chapters which span decades as opposed to days, but they are just that: chapters. Cubicle 7 have yet to publish an adventure which has the feel of an epic quest such as the one told in either the Hobbit or its sequel. Yet that is what my players expected and wanted, and I’m sure they aren’t alone.

What would be more thematic, for me anyway, would be a system which allowed for both the Loremaster and Fellowship phases to be much bigger deals. So you would have bigger adventures spaced out by longer periods of downtime. The existing Fellowship phase system is simply not equipped to do this; even during the shortish periods it is designed to cover (by shortish I mean anything from a few weeks to a year), it is a bit of a damp squib. The Fellowship Phase options listed in the basic book and its supplements amount to little more than preparation for the next adventure. With some exceptions, they don’t really represent complications in a character’s life at all.

It would have been a great system if, during the Fellowship phase, characters might encounter some adversity, fall in love, lose a loved one, get sick, retire and pass the torch; anything to add a little more flavour and colour and definitely something that is not entirely in the control of the players. Allowing the players to flash their cash or hang out with a patron simply isn’t the same.

The bottom line is that the Middle Earth RPG that I want to play would be more epic, more dramatic and hand over a much greater share of narrative control to the players. I’ve come away feeling that despite being worlds apart tonally, Apocalypse World (but probably not Dungeon World) would form an excellent basis for this. At the same time, this game has given me some insight into what fans of conventional RPGs are getting out of it. I respect that, but for me what people enjoy about a game like The One Ring are a chore for me, and I don’t think that any amount of tweaking can fix that.

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.

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.

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.

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).


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