random thoughts to oil the mind

Month: December 2018

2018 in Review

To keep up an ancient tradition, I figured I’ll keep up my review of the past twelve months in consumed media goods. So following on from 2015, 2016 and 2017, the first wrap-up on the new forums! (I normally draught these things and write them over a series of days, but since this software doesn’t seem to offer draughts, I’ve penned this in one sitting and it’s probably riddled with typos. 🙂 )

Summary

PC games played: numerous

Best PC games: Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, HELLDIVERS, Transistor, Quake Champions, Bomber Crew

Worst PC games: Stardew Valley, any Battle Royale title

Board games played: 88 plays (48 games)

Best board games: Exit (series), Azul, Goa, Magic Maze, Terraforming Mars

Worst board games: T.I.M.E. Stories, Naufragos, Sebastian Fitzek Safehouse

Films watched: 47

Best films: Shaun the Sheep: The Movie, A Man for All Seasons, Trainspotting/Requiem for a Dream, Zodiac, They Live, Frost/Nixon

Worst films: Four Brothers, Total Recall,

Books read: 45

Best books: The Selfish Gene, I, Claudius, Memoirs of Hadrian, Master and Commander, Wesley: The Remarkable Story of an Owl

Worst books: The Infinities, JavaScript in Ten Minutes, The Shortest History of Germany

Countries visited: UK, Austria

A Year in Gaming

Just re-reading my round-up from last year and it all sounds very familiar. While I keep meaning to play through some of the many titles littering my Steam list, most of my gaming time involves returning to those few favoured watering holes of old. Or new! This winter I decided to try out the ranked games in Heroes of the Storm and am actually rather enjoying it. Apart from my very first placement match, where I was presumably thrown in with all manner of pillock, the games have been pretty relaxed and now I feel like I’m definitely in the right league for my skill level, the games are fair and rarely snowball, and the draught is usually where the weaknesses show.

Quake Champions has obviously been another highlight these past months. For a few weeks I was fair addicted to it, there’s something about the instant gratification and low downtime that I really enjoy, particularly standard deathmatch or instagib. It was also nice to see my stats improving a little as time went on, gradually my average deaths dropped and my damage increased slightly, though sadly that didn’t actually help my victory stats. I think I had multiple DM games where I’d top the scoreboard in damage, alive time, accuracy and K:D ratio, and still come 7th of 8 players! However I seem to have broken the addiction now, not having played for about a month. I’m sure I’ll return to it to try out CTF, but I dunno if it’ll have the same relish as a few weeks back.

In terms of solo gaming, I did manage to get into a couple of little titles. Bomber Crew was one which showed a lot of promise in the premise, and it definitely scratched an itch which FTL left throbbing all those years ago. Basically you pilot a bomber during the Second World War, taking it out on various types of missions, earning money and slowly gearing up your bird. There are the same kind of calculations to make, with more action stations than crew members, things like fires and broken equipment to repair, ammo to restock, and the same trade-offs in terms of whether you should upgrade the guns or the armour etc. Unfortunately it never got quite as intense as FTL, especially as you could crash your plane and continue with a new one, so progressing through the main storyline ended up becoming a question of grinding repeatable missions to earn enough money so you could afford an all-singing, all-dancing beast on your factory bombing run, and then to hell with the crew after that.

For games with actual storylines, Alan Wake is one I’m still trying to play a bit of but kinda have to force myself to bother. It’s fairly enjoyable in terms of the story – a horror writer with writer’s block ends up living out his nightmares on a holiday retreat, very Steven King – but the game itself just feels a bit dull, gradually bungling through the levels, fighting lack-lustre enemies. In particular I was annoyed that you’re supposed to pick up pages of the novel and discover the story that way, but I’m sure I missed some of them in the levels I’ve played through, and there’s no way I’m going back looking for them. Maybe I’ll carry on at some point, but probably not.

Another I’ve been trying to play recently is Transistor, which is a seriously delicious game from the polish and visuals, but in terms of gameplay just hasn’t really gripped me yet. The skills seem to all chain onto one another, so a bit like Magicka there’s a large number of potential ways to use those abilities, and I’m not really interested in experimenting with them, although I presume that’s a large part of the appeal. The storyline so far has been pretty intriguing though, so maybe I’ll stick at it.

A couple of honourable last mentions: Papers, Please has been on my list for long enough and I finally got around to giving it a run. A couple of hours with it was enough for me, but it’s a superb idea and really well implemented. Sit in your customs booth checking the papers of all people trying to cross the border, gradually ramp up the difficulty, include a few little subplots with certain recurring characters and decisions to make – do you take the bribe and let the criminal through or call security? Brilliant. The only problem I had was that I played it in short bites, half an hour here and there, and since each level adds an extra layer of complexity, I never got proficient enough to feel like I was learning anything. Maybe playing the game in one sitting makes for a more enjoyable experience.

I can’t say that for my final pick, where you definitely feel the improvements as the game continues, and that’s in Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes! A really fantastic idea for a game, we played a fair bit over Christmas with Steffi’s parents. Basically only one person can see the screen and has a bomb in front of them with various wires, buttons, batteries, symbols and the rest of it, and the other player(s) in the game have a manual of how that all fits together. The defuser has to explain exactly what they see in front of them, while the others have to work out what the defuser has to do, which wires to cut, which buttons to press etc. At the beginning you’re figuring out how to defuse a single module with loads of time, but gradually you get familiar with how they work and so the time starts ramping up, the number of mistakes you’re allowed is reduced, and we’ve got to the stage now where there are additional elements the defuser has to attend to to stop the thing going off. For a family game it was probably a bit too complex, and certainly gave Steffi’s parents headaches, but it actually helped in a way that the game is only in English, as some of the modules are designed to cause confusion in what information you give, but the homophones and potential misunderstandings are lost when you’re using German pronunciation. I guess Steffi and I will soldier on with the game as a twosome, but I may be roping in you guys to help when it gets really hard!

I didn’t really play any stinkers this year, but the one thing that just doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest is this whole Battle Royale fad. I already wrote about that in another post, but whichever version we’re talking about, whether Fortnite, Blops IV or the shitty CS:GO version, I find the whole concept boring. The scale of those games is nice, the idea of large battles certainly appeals to me (and I always thought it’d be cool to have a big 100 vs 100 on something like Operation Flashpoint), but Battle Royale is more like a big game of hide and loot. I can’t be arsed opening boxes to find guns, especially not opening ten boxes to still have nothing more than a shitty pistol. I don’t get any real sense of achievement for killing someone, in comparison to say vanilla CS or Quake, so there really isn’t much left to appeal. The recent CS:GO version feels like a particular waste of time, we’ve won a few rounds on there and most of the time you’re still sporting a pistol with three bullets at the end. Just not my flavour at all.

Finally, a game which I thought I’d take a look at and almost immediately gave up on for the sheer time-sink factor was Stardew Valley. I thought it might be a nice relaxing "farming sim" of types, but no, it’s an entire microcosm you could probably spend hundreds of hours in and still be none the wiser. I’m sure it’s amazing if you’ve the time to kill, but I don’t.

A Year in Boardgaming

Back to the analogue world and we spent about the same amount of time around the table as usual. Most of our gaming has been relatively light, though we did try out a few heavier games, including some real stinkers.

First up has to be the Exit Games series I mentioned last year. I think we’ve now played all of these, at least all which aren’t ranked ’easy’, going through them with different people. For a short little adventure which takes about an hour to ninety minutes all in one small box, you really can’t knock them. The only couple of criticisms I would have is that you’re supposed to ’destroy’ the contents when you play it, which is totally unnecessary and really just serves to waste paper and force you to buy the game new. In fact we just photocopy the few things you’re supposed to cut up and then pass the games on to friends when we’re finished. The other is that the clues can get fairly samey, which is understandable enough, but even within the same game sometimes they rely too heavily on a certain mechanism.

Another light game, and this year’s Spiel des Jahres, was Azul. Dead simple to play, I’d say fairly similar to Splendor, it’s one you can break out with just about anyone and they’ll soon get a feel for it. I don’t think it’s particularly strategic, particularly with four players there seems to be a lot of randomness to the scoring, but for a quick starter or as a family game, I can’t knock it.

In terms of heavier titles, we got around to playing the two games I bought alongside Caverna last year. One of those was Goa, which felt a bit like a light version Puerto Rico. Instead of trading goods back to the Old World for points, you ship them back to upgrade your skills, and like most games of that ilk you always run out of turns before you can really achieve what you wanted. There’s also a nice auctioning phase at the beginning of each round to add some player interaction which is kinda missing from Puerto Rico.

Another heavy title is one currently ranked very highly at BGG and that’s Terraforming Mars. We only played it once, so we were kinda just getting familiar with the rules after the first playthrough, but I can certainly see the appeal. Most of the game is based around playing out unique cards, similar to something like Seasons, so it’s a lot about maximising your hand to get the most out of your cards, and each player is playing their own game to some extent. But what was particularly cool is that there are some basic parameters for Mars itself which the players can influence through their actions and which affect everyone equally, such as the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere. In order to play your card, you might need the oxygen content to rise to X, but if that happens, another player won’t be able to play card Y. Obviously that means you need to be familiar with what’s available in the deck to really plan your strategy well, but otherwise that meant it was a nice mix between complex solitaire and interactive strategy title.

I think my favourite new game of the year was a surprising coop game our friends borrowed from the library called Magic Maze. Super simple, four players control four mice, directing them around a maze where they have to collect their weapons and get out of the labyrinth before the time runs out (if memory serves, maybe the goal was described differently). Every player can move every mouse at any time, the trick being however that the players can only move in one direction (e.g. only south, only north) and they cannot communicate! The maze itself is modular, being built up of smaller cards which add on as the mice explore the boundaries. The game then gets more complex as you work your way through the mazes, but that’s all there is to it in principle, and it’s surprisingly challenging and fun at the same time. Since the goal is almost always obvious, you don’t need to communicate (there are a few ’breaks’ where it’s allowed), but because you’re concentrating on four different mice, it’s easy to overlook the fact that everyone is waiting for you to move that one mouse one bastard square north!

Sadly, there were also a few tripe games this year. We went to our local little gaming convention again in winter and got a few things to the table, one being Sebastian Fitzek Safehouse. Having his name on the front (German thriller author) probably doubled the game’s price, because the game itself was pretty awful. It was like a cut-down and weak game of canasta against the clock, ostensibly you’re running through town being chased by a murderer and have to make it back to the safehouse before he does, and… yawn. Totally forgettable.

Another which was disappointing but for other reasons was the other game I’d bought together with Caverna, called Naufragos (or Castaways). Basically it sounded like a neat coop survival game, the premise being similar to Robinson Crusoe et al, where you’re stranded on a desert island and have to work together to escape. Fair idea for a game, but the execution was just terrible. First of all, the rules were so badly written my copy came with a second revamped versiom, and even they were so incoherent I had watch a video online to work out how to set the damn game up. But I could overlook that if at least the game mechanics had been solid. The game was basically divided into two halves, one part was kinda organising, the second part adventuring. The large island was divided into three parts, and the idea was that by adventuring through the deck, you would progress from the beach, through the interior, to the uplands from where you could spot ships or planes and get rescued, something along those lines. But the adventure cards were 90% of the time either ’X happens to you’, or ’roll a dice, if you get a 6 X happens to you’. There was no way to actually plan ahead or make proper decisions, and sometimes you’d just find yourself rolling over and over again just to survive. And that was the ’exciting’ bit of the game! The bookkeeping part sounded all well and good, placing workers on the board to harvest food, build shelters, chop wood, tend to the campfire, all things which made sense for the theme and should’ve been fleshed out more. Unfortunately it basically meant that one/two people simply spent their entire time moving wood from the forest to the basket and from the basket to the building site/campfire, while the other players rolled their way through a deck of cards. Yay. Given the fact that I couldn’t follow the rules, I couldn’t even recommend it as a light family game, it was way too dense for that, yet far too boring for adults.

But the most pathetic game of the year goes hands down to T.I.M.E. Stories! I am seriously at a loss as to how this game can be currently ranked 60th on BGG. We’d seen the name a few times and heard a few things about it, so when a colleague at work sold his copy, I thought it’d be worth a whirl. I suppose you could call the game a ’system’, where each mission is a deck of cards which uses the basic components of the game. There is no real board per se, but rather you travel back in time, taking on the bodies of four ’hosts’ in the past, each with their own special abilities/traits, and then explore a location to find whatever it is you’re supposed to fix. In the mission in the main game, you’re back in a French asylum in the early twentieth century investigating the disappearance of some patients. We’d read the one major criticism, that you generally fail on your first attempt(s) and have to start again and go through the same steps, but that didn’t sound that bad until we actually had to do it ourselves. Honestly, the entire concept of the game seems to be that you’re to work your way through each location through trial and error, finding out what you’re supposed to do in what order. That’s it. There’s no logic to your choices, no way of knowing or even guessing beforehand whether what you’re doing is correct, you just plough on through and find out which cards you need to look at, which rooms to visit and what to ignore. Boring as sin! There was one fairly decent puzzle in our mission, but even that we failed to crack because we just didn’t expect there to be anything like that as the rest of the game had been so asinine. And at full price it would’ve cost something like €50 for ONE adventure! Each expansion costs another €25 or something daft, so in comparison to one of those Exit games mentioned above, it just doesn’t bear even the slightest comparison. Obviously a lot of people have found something enjoyable about this title, or it wouldn’t be ranked so highly, but for me it felt like a waste of time and money, and I’m only glad I didn’t pay full price for it!

A Year in Cinema

After last year’s pitiful 16 films, this year’s haul of 47 films looks very healthy indeed. Steffi and I have made Tuesdays our film night, and we take turns choosing a title to watch. She’s a big Marvel fan, so we’ve gobbled up most of that series so far.

Just to pick some of the highlights, we saw Frost/Nixon earlier in the year, about the interviews between David Frost and Richard Nixon following his resignation and withdrawal from public life. Obviously a pretty slow film, and with a fair amount of dramatic leniency, it was still really interesting to watch and the two main actors did an awesome job, especially in trying to mimic their ways of speaking.

We had a bit of a drug-themed season with both Requiem for a Dream and Trainspotting, both really cool films for different reasons. Requiem is pretty hard-hitting, but beautifully put together cinematographically, its acts divided into different seasons with a chilling soundtrack, I loved how it explored the nature of drug abuse and addiction from different perspectives. Trainspotting is obviously an entirely different kettle of fish. I saw it years ago, and it scores high on the nostalgia points for the fantastic soundtrack, but it has a much more up-beat vibe than Requiem while still being a pretty dire portrayal of the dangers of addiction.

Sticking on the serious side, I watched Zodiac for research purposes, the Fincher film about the Zodiac killer in California, one of those uncaught serial murderers of which America has so many. The fact that the resolution to this story is known from the outset is what made it interesting to watch from my perspective, how to build suspense and tension when the information is already out in the open. I only felt the film was a bit on the long side, since it covers the case from three different perspectives over a period of several decades.

A Man for All Seasons is a 60s film which has I think been on my "to watch" list since Dr Holland mentioned it in an English class. Basically about Thomas More and his inability to accept Henry VIII’s divorce on account of his religious conviction, it’s an excellent period drama with some awesome performances, showing its clear theatrical origins. A slow watch, but very enjoyable.

Slightly more tongue-in-cheek, we also watched They Live this year, an 80s Carpenter sci-fi thriller about aliens who have infiltrated society and the down-and-out hobo who saves the world. It’s suitably cliched to be something of a bubble-gum film, but there are a few scenes which really make the film memorably stand out. Definitely worth a watch if you haven’t seen it before.

The major disappointment of the year was hands down the 2012 Total Recall remake. I’m a big fan of the original, and I have nothing against a remake adding a new twist to the story or bringing something fresh, or even just a straight remake of the original movie with a few fresh ideas. But no, they managed none of the above. They rewrote the story but placed it in a world even more absurd than the original, taking the over-the-top characters and trying to play them seriously, and yet somehow even less convincingly. It’s not really Total Recall, and it doesn’t try hard enough to be something new either, so about the only moments in the film which end up being enjoyable are those which directly cite the original (e.g. three-breasted prostitutes and exploding head masks).

But Total Recall gets points for at least trying. Scraping the bottom of the barrel was Four Brothers, a film which had me muttering "fucking Americans" under my breath for about two hours. Loud, stupid, unrealistic, violent, vigilantist bullshit. Somewhat akin to Pain & Gain, I guess this is one Benno would enjoy!

A Year in Books

I managed to munch through another 45 books this year, roughly on a par with previous years for number of pages. One theme recently seems to be an interest in Roman history, with two of my favourites being I, Claudius and Memoirs of Hadrian, two extremely well researched and fascinating books written from the perspectives of the two emperors, the first as a kind of history of the Julio-Claudians, the second in the form of a letter to Marcus Aurelius. Both are fairly dense to read, not exactly page-turners, but very rewarding.

Slightly more exciting perhaps was Master and Commander, the first book in Patrick O’Briain’s nautical series which was turned into the film with Russel Crowe. It’s often compared to the Sharpe series in terms of being a series of multiple books on an English hero in the Napoleonic Wars, but judging from this first volume that’s pretty much where the comparison ends. Based on historical events, the book goes into some nauseating detail about ship’s rigging and the like, which leaves your head spinning if you’re trying to follow along, but otherwise it was a highly enjoyable read and is probably a rewarding series.

In terms of non-fiction, I’ve read a fairly eclectic mix again, though a couple are worth mentioning. The Selfish Gene is one of those classics of evolution which seems just as important to read today as on its publication in 1976, looking at evolution from the perspective of the gene rather than the organism. It’s the kind of thing that is barely even touched on in schools but really deserves more consideration. I’m currently reading The Righteous Mind which is more about moral psychology, but interestingly covers some of the same topics from the angle of the group.

Another random read, but one which pleasantly surprised me, was Wesley: The Story of a Remarkable Owl, recommended to me I believe because I read Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? last year. Basically this short memoir is the story of an owl taken in by the author, and their relationship together over the course of nearly two decades. The author turns from surrogate mother to life partner for the owl, and becomes a mass murderer of mice for good measure in the process. While not scientifically written, there are tons of fascinating titbits and anecdotes, along with touching observational insights.

A weird book I read this year was The Shortest History of Germany. One of Steffi’s colleagues leant it to her to hear her opinion, but she didn’t have any time so I gobbled it down one weekend. While there’s nothing particularly surprising about what you’d find in there, it’s seriously amazing how twisted the agenda is inside. Basically he puts forward the theory that any time Germany’s east gets the upper hand, things go awry. Everything west of the Elbe is okay, between Elbe and Rhine suitably westernised under Roman influence, but everything else is danger zone. That’s where the Prussians came from, the Nazis, the Stasi and now the AfD. Maybe an interesting gedankenexperiment for some folks, but it seems odd coming in a book with such an innocuous title. Maybe the author’s just a raging Catholic, I can’t tell.

My worst book of the year however has to go to The Infinities. Not sure where I got the recommendation, but I wish I knew so I could block them in future! The plot sounded interesting enough – a man lies at death’s door when his family flock around him, as do the Greek gods, the perfect setup for some antics and mischief – but basically nothing at all happens of any consequence. I ploughed through it because it’s short enough my frustration was never bigger than my ambition for finishing it, but the taste in my mouth never got any sweeter. I guess Banville is one of those writers who are praised for their elegant prose by other thumb-sucking navel-gazers but who remain beyond comprehension for ordinary folks. And to be honest I didn’t even find his writing worthy of a letter home.

A Pleb by Any Other Name

A German-British dual national changed her name by deed poll to give herself the name Silia Valentina Mariella Gräfin von Fürstenstein. Armed with a passport and presumably enough ancillary documentation to cosh an elephant (or at least a German bureaucrat), the woman attempted to have her decision acknowledged back in Germany. She was rebuffed, however, on the grounds that the surname contained an aristocratic moniker, and this decision has now been upheld by the German Federal Court.

In Germany, even marginally unusual names can be a difficult prospect at times, decisions by the European courts occasionally drag the country into the past. Double-barrelled surnames are of particular contention, although some ten years ago the European Court of Justice indicated that Germany cannot reject the names of fellow Europeans as accepted in their country of birth.

Interestingly then, it seems the same doesn’t hold true for persons attempting to game the system by changing their names abroad. The court’s refusal to acknowledge Frau Gräfin von Fürstenstein’s name draws on a law dating from the Weimar Republic which, in the name of equality, abolished noble titles, at once turning them into regular surnames and preventing their being awarded in future.

So quite why it should be a problem for such surnames to be invented, rather than awarded, defies all logic. Surely acting in such a way is entirely counter to the whole purpose of the law. If your precious countess is no longer a countess, but no one else can call themselves countess, then that title becomes special again. If you really want to wipe out the nobility, then there’s no better weapon than the disdain of ubiquity. Florian König is no more a king than a flower, and I’m sure the courts wouldn’t have raised any objections had the fair lady changed her name to Silia König. But to call herself a countess? The cheek!

Although Silia would have recourse to defer the matter to the European Court, it would unlikely provide any succour in this instance, as Peter Mark Emanuel Graf von Wolffersdorff Freiherr von Bogendorff previously discovered. The German state’s sworn aim to provide equality for all German citizens before the law would apparently be endangered by allowing a pleb to change their name to look like it were an aristocratic title. This honourable goal, enshrined in Article 109 of the Weimar constitution, is fast approaching its hundredth anniversary. Using that as an excuse to prevent little people changing their names screams of hypocrisy writ large. If the alleged goal is to burn down the palace of prestige, couldn’t we find some more effective methods than matches? A compromise that lasts a century isn’t conciliatory, it’s a full-blown concession. In comparison, just over the border in Austria, the same noble goal was managed at a stroke by having all noble titles expunged. That decision has seen support at the level of the European Courts even today when trying to ‘import’ noble titles from Germany.

More than a century on and Germany is still ostensibly waiting for its noble titles to go extinct, while the courts effectively defend their right to be worn and not to be diluted. If we’re really to put an end to the stigma of nobility, Germany needs to progress beyond the compromises of a century ago and offer something recognisably approaching equality before the law. The law claims to be blind, but behind closed doors it seems it still wears a monocle.

[Photo by Cederic X on Unsplash]

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