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2017 in Review

Why not make a habit? The forum hasn’t exactly seen much use over the past twelve months, but as there’s nowhere else I’d post this, following on from 2015 and 2016, here’s a short wrap up of the past twelve months, of no particular interest to anyone!

Summary

Words translated: unknown

PC games played: lots

Best PC games: Mini Metro, Turmoil, Tropico 4, Tomb Raider, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, Her Story

Worst PC games: Cities: Skylines, Dustforce, Far Cry 2

Board games played: 91 plays (36 games)

Best board games: Exit (series), Kneipenquiz, Saboteur

Worst board games: The Resistance, 7 Wonders

Films watched: 16

Best films: The African Doctor, Dune, Love Actually

Worst films: Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Leaves of Grass, The Inbetweeners 2

Books read: 40

Best books: A Walk in the Woods, The Gods Themselves, Freedom Next Time, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, The Great Dune Trilogy, There Was a Country

Worst books: The Tipping Point, Me Talk Pretty One Day, How to be German in 50 Easy Steps

Countries visited: UK

A Year in Gaming

It’s strange really that I feel like I didn’t play many games this year, yet I’m sure my hours wouldn’t bear that out. Aside from our usual Thursday night bashes, I’ve put what feels like hundreds of hours into Heroes of the Storm with Steffi, some weeks literally playing a few rounds every night, though maybe averaged out over the year it’s not that much. Still, in terms of trying to whittle through my backlog on Steam I haven’t been particularly successful.

Having said that, my Steam list suggests I’ve hopped around quite a bit over these past twelve months. Certainly I played a fair few relaxing solo-player adventures. Mini Metro is one of those simple yet slick titles which is ostensibly easy but quickly ramps up the difficulty. All you need to do is build an underground network and get passengers to stations where they want to go. It doesn’t even matter which station per se, as long as the round peg goes in the round hole. It doesn’t quite satisfy me as a solid game of OpenTTD would, but for a quick ten minutes it’s fun trying the challenges.

In a similar vein I really enjoyed playing through Turmoil, which has a bit more scope in that there’s a campaign and more strategic planning about how you build up your oil business. More of a medium-weight title, there’s enough depth to sink several hours into, but after one playthrough I couldn’t really be faffed starting again on the harder difficulty.

It seems I did a fair bit of building this year, with Cities: Skylines and Tropico 4 also on the list. Skylines was a bit disappointing, at least with the base game I was playing with. It felt like I’d pretty much done everything there was to do after a few hours, and aside from setting up a new district and repeating the whole thing, there wasn’t much incentive to continue. Tropico on the other hand is nicely packaged up into specific scenarios which force you to play a certain way. Of course it’s just as repetitive in its own way, but having to tune your island paradise towards fat American tourists or greedy industrialists at least offers a different tack.

When not building, I’ve tried to run through a few of the solo-player games on my list. Tomb Raider turned out to be an enjoyable surprise, just the right blend of action and puzzle elements, the feeling of open adventure without having too much space to get lost in, a wonderfully weird storyline, and about the right length to enjoy playing it through without getting bored.

Surprise hits of the year? Call of Juarez Gunslinger doesn’t really count as a surprise, given as I’d really enjoyed Bound in Blood, but it’s a counterfactual pure action Wild Western romp, with barely a moment’s rest between gun fights, showdowns, wild chases and the like. I think it only took 6 hours but I ended up sticking around for the achievements, it was that much fun! Antichamber is a fantastic puzzle game, and one which I’d probably play more of if Steffi were interested as well. Unfortunately the puzzles are a bit too abstract for my meagre mind and I either got stuck or lost and ended up leaving it. But I’d recommend it nevertheless! Another neat surprise was Her Story, which is almost better described as an art project rather than a game. There’s nothing I can say about it without really spoiling the surprise, but the game will take probably only 3 hours to play, which is definitely worth the few pounds it costs if you enjoy adventure games or mysteries. (Side note: the recommendation came from watching Mark Brown, see below.) The final oddball I’ll mention was Party Hard, an ultraviolent 8-bit title in the vein of Hotline Miami, where the premise is essentially that you’re fed up of the kids making noise at the party, so you go in and MURDER EVERYONE! I played it as a two-player coop with Steffi and had an absolute riot, often just trying to work out what the hell we were doing.

Worst games of the year? There wasn’t really anything which stuck out as being ‘bad’, though there were a few I gave up on quite quickly. Far Cry 2 just felt way too open, a game you could sink hours into without getting anywhere, and which didn’t grab me sufficiently from the start. I played a few missions and forgot about it. Dustforce I probably picked up for free somewhere or had in some bundle. A weird premise, it’s like a race platformer which you could probably sink hours into mastering the moves, but I really could not be fussed!

A Year in Boardgaming

Didn’t play quite as much this year as usual, a lot of those 100 plays including smaller lightweight titles. Probably the Exit games are the ones which stand out. We’ve played three now – The Secret Lab, The Pharaoh’s Tomb and Murder on the Orient Express – and each is an enjoyable few hours deciphering clues and working your way through the puzzles to the end. We messed up the first game a bit because we were unsure how we were supposed to approach the materials in the box and ended up being too cautious (not looking at things when we were allowed to), but the second was a real blast. The puzzles are nice and varied, some quite tricky and abstract, others you look at and can solve without really needing to think about them, but overall the difficulty was about right to keep you guessing and not frustrate anyone. There are clues for if you get stuck, and normally we only needed one hint to put us back on the right track, since sometimes you end up convinced you need to combine two elements in the box which have nothing to do with one another. I imagine we’ll pick up a couple more of these in the year to come, and even though you can only play them once, at about €10 a pop it’s a decent price for the fun you get out of it.

Another game we’ve played a fair few times with different people is a pub quiz coop called Kneipenquiz. Essentially you form one team and play against three other imaginary teams through 5 rounds of 5 general knowledge questions. Aside from answering questions, you have to judge which ones you’ve answered correctly and make sure you earn the most points from them (or alternatively, that your opponents earn the least), meaning that even if you only get about half of them right, you can still sneak victory. Makes a nice alternative to the standard every-man-for-himself trivia games, though I don’t know if they’ll make an English version.

We didn’t play much in the way of standard Eurogames/strategy games this year, at least nothing new. I’d picked up a cheap copy of Caverna and got that to the table a couple of times, and Space Alert remains a regular favourite with our group. We managed to get a 6-player game of Battlestar Galactica going at long last, and although it was a fun evening, it again didn’t really deliver as it should’ve. One of the players deliberately half-pretended to be a Cylon just to keep the tension going, but otherwise it was completely obvious to him that there was only one Cylon in the game and that person had 0 chance of winning. Luck of the cards again, but I think the game sadly lacks a bit of depth to make it interesting enough beyond the traitor element (though theme and mechanics meld really well).

But the biggest disappointment of the year for me was our weekend in Scotland, when we seemed to be on one long treachery trip. One Night Ultimate Werewolf is a fun enough game, the rounds are short enough that it doesn’t drag, there are enough roles that it doesn’t get stale, but I quite often found that with so many players, the villagers or werewolves had more chance of winning/losing through random luck than through clever deduction. The werewolf would argue themselves into a hole and get lynched, only for someone to have swapped their card at random and the new werewolves to surprisingly find they’d won. Enjoyable, but just a bit dissatisfying to vote to kill the werewolf as a villager, and discover you’re actually a werewolf who’d got away with it.

Still, that game was 100 times better than The Resistance. I’ve been itching to play that game for a few years (and even own an unplayed copy here!) having read the reviews, but the actual experience, at least with those rules and that number of people, just felt like an exercise in frustrating pointlessness. I imagined it would be a cross between Werewolf and Mastermind, with traitors waiting to be unmasked by the voting, but in the end it felt as random as hell and way more about talking trash than really finding spies.

Saboteur on the other hand was a positive surprise and one where the mechanic worked really well. Certainly there was a decent amount of luck involved with the way the cards fell, but there was usually chance for the Saboteurs to do a bit of damage or at least keep people guessing without it being too obvious. Even when revealed, there’s still some tactics in how to use up the remaining cards. I think the game is perfect with five players, which helped with my first impressions, since it keeps open the number of Saboteurs present in the round. With four players it’s far too easy to lock the one Saboteur down once they’ve been revealed.

A Year in Cinema

My film list looks even bleaker than usual this year, with just 16 films (and most of them watched in Scotland!) Probably the favourite on the list was The African Doctor, a fairly touching story of a black doctor trying to integrate himself and his family in a rural French village. Comedic ups and downs, its also quite poignant without being overtly depressing.

Another was probably Dune, which I only watched because I was reading the trilogy. I’d watched some or maybe all of it once before as a child, but too young at the time to understand any of it. It’s a crazy story, and Lynch’s film version is a fantastic rendition, even if it can’t quite capture the sheer epic drama and depth of the novels and made a few strange choices in what was changed for the film (the ending in particular is really off the wall).

The two worst films on the list are at different ends of the spectrum. The Inbetweeners 2 was one I caught while in Scotland and frankly as puerile as they come. Reminded me of that dreadful Kevin and Perry Go Large for pure/poor toilet humour. At the other end of the spectrum was Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi, which again just took away from the amazement I held for the original trilogy. To my mind, it’s as if they took a recipe book for making a successful film and followed it step by step. I’ve no doubt it will rake in millions at the box office, but in my eyes it was a soulless slog which added nothing to the Star Wars saga (and rather took more away) and only continued where the previous films left off on their quest to hoover up the dollars.

Perhaps the last film worth mentioning though is one of those annual favourites: Love Actually. We watched it in German this time for Steffi’s parents’ benefit, but it was a reminder of what you can do with a decent story. Yeah, a cheap and cheesy feel-good film, but the screenplay is nicely interwoven. Just quality.

One of the reasons we haven’t watched many films this year is probably for watching more telly. Nothing particularly exciting, aside from Steffi becoming a Doctor Who addict the only notable series we’ve watched was Broadchurch. I’m not normally a fan of series as they usually drag their plots out too thin, but the saving grace here is that it isn’t too long. The acting is great, they pack a lot of drama into a small space, and the biggest disappointment is probably when it’s over. We gobbled up the first series which I’d heartily recommend, the second isn’t too bad though I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to watch it. Steffi got the third for Christmas, so I guess that’s our televisual viewing for January covered!

A Year in Books

What I haven’t been consuming through flickering images I made up for through the written word this year, again reading over 11,000 pages. Since we’d been walking a fair bit this summer, I decided to re-read A Walk in the Woods. I love Bryson’s writing style, and this is one of his finest, laugh-out-loud funny, occasionally informative, even slightly inspiring given the epic undertaking he sets out on, recounting his efforts to walk the Appalachian Trail with an old school friend. I’d like to think I might achieve something similar one day!

Sticking with non-fiction but a rather more depressing read was Chinua Achebe’s memoir of the Biafran War, There Was a Country, an intelligent look back at one of those gruelling episodes of history so sadly invisible in the western conscience.

More recently I finally got around to reading Freedom Next Time by John Pilger. Published back in 2007 and looking at injustices in places like Palestine, the Chagos Islands and post-Apartheid South Africa, it’s amazing how relevant it remains a decade down the road. So much obviously broken while the wheels of change grind on the gears of conservatism. The chapter on Palestine seems almost prescient in light of big yin Trump’s decision to recognise Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem.

In a less political vein, I read Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal. Basically a summary of the previous decades’ study of animal cognition, it’s also fascinating as an anthropological study of the hubris of humankind, the constant battle against the raw egocentrical arrogance of the human condition. Highly recommended.

In fiction it seems that my favourites of the year were all science fiction. The aforementioned Dune is a stonking work which well deserves its place at the top of many people’s lists. I didn’t care much for the first sequel, the second was fairly interesting again, but the sheer scale and attention to detail well warrants this universe’s comparison to the likes of Lord of the Rings. I wouldn’t say it was a favourite, but I’ve got nothing but respect for it.

More of a guilty pleasure perhaps, but the other 5-star sci-fi romp this year was The Gods Themselves. Asimov had such a fertile mind and such prodigious output, even if his writing style wouldn’t win any beauty awards. The background in this case is an exploration of interactions between parallel universes simply sparked by someone mentioning an isotope that couldn’t physically exist in our universe. From that he managed to extrapolate an exciting little novel which contains more interesting ideas than some writers manage in a lifetime. It’s almost the antithesis of Herbert’s writing, but it scratches entirely different neurons for me.

There weren’t any serious stinkers on my reading list this year, but a few disappointments. The Tipping Point is one of those popular sociology books which hits the top of the bestsellers lists for its entirely unwarranted buzz. I hate the journalistic style which pads out a simple idea into a book, a book which is nevertheless brief and devoid of serious content. There are a few interesting titbits here, but all in all I’d prefer to read the brief summary (or just the blurb!) and have done with it. Nor has it particularly aged well, being published in 2001 before the virality of the internet really fledged.

Another book which didn’t meet expectations was Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris. I’ve no idea how this ended up on my Amazon wishlist (I should really add notes as to where they come from!) but after probably a decade I finally got around to getting a copy and reading it. And it’s… meh. Allegedly humorous, I found the author to be fairly obnoxious and decidedly unfunny in the vast majority of the essays in this little collection. Only at the end does it pick up a bit, when he moves to France and starts trying to find his feet in a new country with a new language, probably because it’s something I can somewhat relate to.

The final book in the “non-recommendation” pile isn’t so much there because it’s bad but because I could probably do better if I weren’t such a lazy bastard! How to be German in 50 Easy Steps is one of those light-hearted Michael-takers, a bit like the Xenophobes’ guides but nowhere near as polished. Seriously nowhere near. There’s plenty to giggle about, particularly as someone living here, or even for someone just interesting in different cultures, but the episodes in each chapter are way too short and leave a permanent sense of missed potential. I’m sure I couldn’t do better really, but the overall effect is poor enough that it gives me the feeling I could.

*A Year in casts

A new rubric for this year, though it isn’t new to my schedule, and those are just a few of those ‘subscriptions’ that have kept me going over the year. Podcasts, YouTube feeds, bloggers and whathaveyou.

I’ve started actually subscribing to channels on YouTube rather than always searching for stuff I want to watch manually, which means I actually end up watching a fair amount of trash while making pancakes on a Sunday morning. CinemaSins is always a blast when covering films I’ve seen, I dunno how long it takes them to produce an episode but it’s beautifully condensed into about 15 minutes of succinct critique. He’s totally on my wavelength about so many things. For gaming I have a few feeds, but one which I really enjoy is a series by Mark Brown on game design. His Game Maker’s Toolkit takes apart game mechanics and looks at how intelligent design can really make or break a game, from the tiny annoyances that interrupt the immersion, to the subtle and cunning tactics designers employ to get players to play the game the ‘right’ way. Seriously well worth watching if that at all interests you.

In terms of audio, I’ve been devouring two podcasts in particular. One going under the curious title No Such Thing As A Fish is related to the QI TV series. It’s basically a show run by the ‘elves’ who find out all those crazy facts that are covered on the show. The main crew are a delightful bunch and both their banter and the mad things they discover make it a seriously entertaining listen. The other podcast I’ve been listening to is Revolutions by Mike Duncan. I listened to his History of Rome series last year on my walks to the tram, and although I’m not quite as gripped by the subject of his new series, I enjoy his narrative style (and am so used to his voice by now!) that it fills a nice gap in my listening schedule! Only history buffs need apply here though.

Reading Roundup

Some years ago (last decade!) I decided to do a brief round-up of some recent reads. Sadly I don’t find make the time to gather my thoughts and sum up my opinions, so in no particular order, I thought I’d write a few words on some of the books that have graced my bedside table over the past few weeks.

Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks

In essence, this is the story of what happens when you put your money where your mouth is, even when your mouth is currently being fuelled by the wrong kind of babble-juice. Tony Hawks found himself challenged at a party that his oft-regaled anecdote of seeing someone hitchhiking with a fridge in Ireland was pigswill. In the morning, a note beside his bed seemed evidence that he’d taken up a £100 bet that he could do the same, circumnavigating the emerald isle with a home appliance.

What follows is a quirky adventure blending English stoicism and the Irish devotion to the craic, replete with fridge surfing, radio DJs, island kings and a night in the doghouse, all culminating in a triumphal march through the capital celebrating the pointlessness of it all. For anyone enjoying Irish sensibilities, there are plenty of amusing moments along the way. Ultimately a very pointless little book, but entertaining nonetheless.

The Great Dune Trilogy by Frank Herbert

A handful of words aren’t enough to do justice to Dune, let alone its two sequels Dune Messiah and Children of Dune. The first novel in particular is something of an operatic masterpiece, which despite such a depth and richness of ideas never bogs down as something like the oft-compared Lord of the Rings clearly does. Where other series focus on the science or the fiction, Dune creates an entire mythology, replete with political system, religion and technology.

I’ll be honest, reading all three novels back-to-back was something of a stretch, particularly as the second doesn’t live up anywhere near the expectations harboured following the operatic majesty of the first. Dune Messiah has something of a marmite effect on the fans. Fortunately the final volume in the original trilogy returns to better form, adding more sweeping strokes to Herbert’s epic canvas, without dawdling too much on the details. Definitely well worth reading the first if you’re a fan of (science) fiction in depth. Despite the few tweaks, David Lynch’s film captures the general tenor of this vision beautifully.

The Lady Vanishes & The Spiral Staircase by Ethel Lina White

A pleasant surprise with two short novels in one slender volume. It’s something of a shame that they are both published here under the names of the films they inspired rather than the books as they were written (The Lady Vanishes was originally entitled The Wheel Spins; The Spiral Staircase as Some Must Watch). The Lady Vanishes is rather overshadowed by the films and has a somewhat slow pace, which probably isn’t helped by knowing the story in advance. It’s almost a pity that this novel gets first billing, since the lesser-known The Spiral Staircase is the stronger of the two in my view. An atmospheric setting, strong characterisation, the gradually building suspense – the comparisons with Agatha Christie are unsurprising and genuinely well deserved.

Both of these thrillers deliver some classic 1930s suspense and mystery, and while the films probably outshine the novels on which they are based, as a light diversion for fans of mystery and skulduggery, you could do far worse.

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal

‘They’re very intelligent animals.’ There’s a platitude I’ll never tire of hearing. When it comes to

In this relatively short but accessible volume, primatologist Frans de Waal takes us on a tour through the world of animal intelligence, or at least the study of it. He points out how human beings, so obsessed with their own navels, are wont to move the goalposts any time some semblance of anthropomorphic intelligence is found in animal test subjects. ‘Animals aren’t intelligent because they can’t something’ is always true as long as something remains. They can’t use tools, talk, empathise, plan ahead, show regret, recognise their reflections, deceive. Each time some evidence appears which suggests the contrary, human exceptionalism comes up with the next new something to define the experience of the human condition.

Aside from the proselytising, de Waal rightly highlights the difficulties of any kind of study in this area. Human beings have an extremely difficult challenge in designing tests for non-human subjects to measure non-human capacities. That is the real question written on the cover, though it sometimes gets lost amidst the examples and de Waal’s broadsides against those in the behaviourist camp. Nevertheless, at its core it presents an interesting conundrum. The book could’ve done with some streamlining, but as a piece of popular science it offers an excellent introduction to the subject.

[Photo by Karim Ghantous on Unsplash]

2016 in Review

Twelve months down the line, I thought I’d post another year in review. Again, this post won’t be of any interest to anyone, but here’s a summary of some of the media I’ve consumed over the past year.

Summary

Words translated: 479,763 (plus 70,563 proofread)

PC games played: lots

Best PC games: Broforce, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, Door Kickers, SpeedRunners, Broken Sword 5

Worst PC games: Lovely Planet, Evolve Stage 2

Board games played: 98 plays (45 games)

Best board games: Splendor, One Night Ultimate Werewolf

Worst board games: Nightfall, Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King

Films watched: 44

Best films: Calvary, Chef, The Artist, The Wrestler, Doom

Worst films: RockNRolla, Iron Sky, Catch .44

Books read: 34

Best books: The Blind Watchmaker, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, Regeneration, Die vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh, The Martian, Keeper of the Nuclear Conscience: The Life and Work of Joseph Rotblat

Worst books: Er ist wieder da, The Spire, Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren

Countries visited: Austria, UK

Photos taken: 1373

A Year in Gaming

Another fairly docile year, at least as far as single-player gaming was concerned. I managed to play through Shadow of Mordor in spring, which had a really nice storyline and decent mechanics, even if I got a bit bored of running around towards the end. We also played through Broken Sword 5 which was a great return to form for the series, excellent story and interesting puzzles, without any pointless 3D models and awkward handling. More recently I’ve been running through Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime with Steffi, a cute little couch coop which has you piloting a ship through colourful space/underwater scenes to rescue bunnies… it’s a weird old setting alright, but it reminds me a teensie bit of FTL, just with two players. Hotseat the shields, engines and weapons to make it through safely!

Apart from that, most of my gaming action this year was reserved for our Thursday night sessions. Pretty amazing that we’ve kept it up for more than a year now, and I look forward to it every week just as ever. I’m also happy we’ve managed to try a nice range of titles. I think Broforce was probably the surprise highlight for me, suitably madcap, all the while challenging but without ever really being impossibly so.

Worst games of the year then? As ever I picked up plenty of cheapos or got free copies of titles for various things. I sometimes try them out at the weekends and screen them for ones which might be a laugh on Thursdays. Occasionally you find something cute, like that SpeedRunners game. Other times I find single-player titles which you can while away an afternoon on, such as Door Kickers, a cute tactical point-and-click which reminded me of Frozen Synapse without being anywhere near as serious in the planning aspect. But one truly painful half hour I put myself through was for Lovely Planet. I’m not even sure you can really call it a game! More like someone’s end-of-year project in a CS class, put together over a weekend fuelled by caffeine and bad cartoons.

Perhaps unfair, but I think the worst game we tried on a Thursday was still Evolve Stage 2. As much as you want to love the concept of that title, the game is fundamentally flawed because of the very nature of a game revolving around hide-and-seek with Godzilla. I’m sure it would be a bit more fun if you knew the person you were trying to hunt down, but essentially most of your time is spent trying to avoid combat, which makes for a rather dull game. I know they based the game off the way people enjoyed the interaction between the Tank and the survivors in L4D, but they needed to keep the story-driven elements or the environment interaction of that game to give the players something to do.

A Year in Boardgaming

So how about gaming of the analogue variety? Managed to play 45 different titles this year across nearly a hundred plays. I think that says it all for how much time you spend playing any one particular game. Remember when we were kids and you’d spend all your time playing Monopoly any chance you got, because it was one of only three games anyone ever had? Now we’re completely spoilt for choice and barely end up giving any of them any table time. Bit of a shame really, since that means there’s no opportunity to really get to learn them and understand strategies with any depth. On the other hand, maybe that helps to hide some of the fundamental flaws I’m sure many of them feature.

Anyway, we didn’t really try out any new heavy titles this year, rather sticking to lightweights. One great starter game we discovered was Splendor. Explained in 2 minutes, it’s nevertheless one which requires a fair amount of planning and watching what your opponents are doing if you want to do well. Certainly a nice opener for an evening. One in a similar vein which I found somewhat disappointing was Isle of Skye, winner of the Kennerspiel des Jahres. It’s a bit of a mongrel game, with Carcassonne-style tile-laying, auctions and modular scoring, but I didn’t really like the overall package. You can spend a lot of time trying to work out your strategy, but ultimately if your opponents want to drag you through the mud, there’s nothing you can do about it, and the four-player game to me seems rather broken. Maybe it works with 2 players, I can’t say.

Another game I wasn’t overly enamoured with, though I can see why it’s popular, is 7 Wonders. For me it offers strategy with a nice ramping effect, all wrapped in a quick quality package… and that’s exactly why I dislike it! We own one called Glory to Rome which to me is very similar, but actually genuinely allows you to plan ahead, rather than dangling on the end of an unknown hand of cards. 7 Wonders pretends to offer a lot in a quick burst, but it’s superficial in my eyes, and I’d rather have a serious game to ponder over, or a quick and quirky fun game rather than a mishmash of the two.

The last game I’ll mention is one I bought a number of years ago but which we only just got around to trying called Nightfall. It was sold to me as a kind of interactive Dominion with vampires and werewolves, but I found it to be dreadful, even worse than Dominion! The rules were fairly complex, although the gameplay was straightforward; there was potential for them to really use the theme, but it was entirely wasted and you ended up completely ignoring what was on the cards and just looking at the numbers; finally the sheer variety of cards meant we didn’t really have a clue what was going on half the time and just bought and played any old random thing. We gave it two strikes and I was frankly happy when it was back in the box!

A Year in Cinema

Didn’t get to the cinema much this year, only a few outdoor excursions and the company’s annual Christmas treat (for Rogue One). But we currently have a Netflix account we’ve watched a few things over, and there are plenty of DVDs still waiting to be watched. Following on from last year’s The Guard, which I watched last year, Calvary was high up on the list of top films. Far grittier, meatier, and with some more surprising roles for certain actors, it was an oh-so-very Irish film, but highly recommendable.

Another great drama I can heartily recommend is The Wrestler with Mickey Rourke. There’s not much of a plot per se, just the story of an entertainer at the end of his career, but a really poignant tale extremely well told. It’s documentary style, without going as far as to be annoying, and well worth a watch. In a similar vein I thought Chef with/by/from Jon Favreau was really good, if slightly more pointless than The Wrestler.

In terms of more action-filled movies, I didn’t see much I would recommend. In fact I saw some real stinkers and most of the rest disappointed me in one way or another. Since Steffi’d never seen any Guy Ritchie, we tried out RockNRolla and were frankly bored to tears by the end of it. It just doesn’t hold a candle to Lock Stock and Snatch. I also got a chance to watch Iron Sky and was honestly underwhelmed by the film. The idea in and of itself wasn’t bad, but it ended up falling flat even as a farce in my eyes, with very few laughs to be had. But taking the biscuit for worst film was far and away Catch .44. I’m still at a loss to explain how Forest Whittaker would take up a role for that script – although he gave a very good performance having said that! But otherwise the film had absolutely no redeeming features. It was like someone watched an early Tarrantino and thought it would be easy to copy. Inane storyline, terrible dialogue, pointless characters; it mostly came down to a bunch of criminals pointing guns at one another and using the eff word repeatedly. Yay.

As said, I managed to hit the cinema for the latest Star Wars instalment, and the Star Trek before that. Star Trek was a reasonable popcorn flick, but I was really disappointed with the story. It felt like the entire film was just an excuse to string together a few action sequences. Major kudos to Karl Urban though, his McCoy is almost as good as the real thing. Rogue One wasn’t quite as bad, probably better than Episode VII (which I watched again beforehand and thought even less about the second time round). There were a few decisions I felt were pretty stupid in terms of the overarching story, a fair number of cheesy crowdpleasers for the fans, but otherwise it was alright. Might write a post on that later if I can be bothered.

My surprise ‘hit’ of the year (despite it being a decade old) was probably Doom. I spotted it on Netflix and since I couldn’t find anything better, thought what the hell. I can honestly say I had zero expectations for this film, and it fulfilled all of them! The first hour or so they make up some fairly standard storyline about genetic manipulation, ancient alien civilisations and zombies. Then they just give up and admit they were only having a laugh, converting the film into a first-person shooter for the last quarter of an hour. Brilliant!

A Year in Books

I managed to trump this year’s target with over 11,000 pages read. A few highlights include: The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins, a classic exposition of evolution theory; The Woman Who Walked Into Doors by Roddy Doyle, a novel about domestic violence; Regeneration by Pat Barker, a brilliant story about the Great War poets, particularly Siegfried Sassoon; and The Martian, the self-published novel by Andy Weir that got turned into a Hollywood film. The story might be mundane, like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, but it’s definitely worth the read just for the amount of loving detail that went into writing it.

On the German side, I read through Die vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh, which quite frankly deserves way more attention than it gets. An epic tale of roughly historical events during the Armenian genocide, it was banned shortly after publication (by everyone’s favourite bogeymen) and is probably too long to enjoy widespread appeal, but in my eyes it deserves a place up there as one of the greatest novels in the German language.

Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren gets a thumbs down from me, even if I found the concept itself pretty interesting. The whole book is written in the style of a journalistic interview with the author, just questions and answers as to the story’s motivations, developments and meanings over pages and pages. The amazing thing is that he still manages to make it a page-turner, despite there not actually being a novel to go with the interview! Nevertheless I find that kind of interview tedious and annoying to read at the best of times, so it was something of a chore to read through 200 odd pages of one. Far worse was Er is wieder da, a story about Hitler waking up alive and kicking in the present day and becoming a media celebrity. Apart from a few pages where we read Hitler’s views of the politicians who followed him, the satire in this book is mostly cheap, often tasteless, and quite frankly boring. German humour at its finest, sadly. Nevertheless it sold in droves and got turned into a film.

Finally, one book I almost ended up abandoning despite being so short was William Golding’s The Spire. I remember someone having to study that for A-level and complaining how dull it was, but based on the other stuff I’ve read by him, I figured it couldn’t be all that bad, surely! No, it really is like pouring sticky treacle in your ear. Maybe I’m just too thick to understand it, but it really didn’t grab me at all.

2015 in Review

Statistics! They’re everywhere… and I seem to have collected a lot of my own. This post isn’t of any interest to anyone, but I just thought I’d write up what media I’ve been consuming over the past twelve months.

Summary

Words translated: 583,472 (plus over 122,017 proofread)

PC games played: lots

Best PC games: This War of Mine, Resonance, Sang-Froid, Heroes of the Storm

Worst PC games: Kane & Lynch 2

Board games played: 92 plays (33 games)

Best board games: Space Alert, Colt Express

Worst board games: 100 Unique Places

Films watched: 38

Best films: There Will Be Blood, The Guard, Up

Worst films: Fantastic Four

Books read: 27

Best books: The Better Angels of Our Nature, The God Delusion, The Inheritors

Worst books: Billard um halb zehn, The Numerati: How They’ll Get My Number and Yours

Countries visited: Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, Czech Republic, UK

Photos taken: 2614

A Year in Gaming

This year wasn’t particularly exciting for me in terms of gaming. Though I did get through a few coop titles, I didn’t really play any big games through on my own.

The start of the year saw a few weeks/months of playing through those Christmassy coop bargains, some better than others. ORION: Prelude was a fun little dinosaur survival game, with short waves of increasingly difficult dinos to defend your base against. It was a bit clunky, and the design seemed a bit stupid when you could drive around in a tank pounding the pursuing stegosaurus without any danger unless your driver got lost. Meanwhile God Mode and FORCED kept us busy for a few evenings, the former essentially a standard coop shooter, battling through levels full of random enemies with various boosters and weapons unlocks, the latter an isometric puzzle-driven dungeon crawler. Otherwise Fox and I played through the few remaining coop missions of Company of Heroes 2, really well designed in some cases and definitely one of my favourite RTS titles of recent years, though I can’t bring myself to play it ‘competitively’.

Steffi hasn’t played as much this year, at least not with others, but there were a few games we went through together. One was quite possibly the worst game I’ve ever bothered to complete, being Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days. Terrible plot, terrible characters, terrible gameplay, just multifariously and absolutely horrific, so glad I only paid a few quid for it.

Another coop I played through with Steffi was Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris, after enjoying the first one of the series so much. Isometric action adventure with plenty of puzzles, some nice interplay between the characters and some fun achievements to try to unlock meant we spent quite a bit of time on it. I also dug up Torchlight II and went on a mad quest with Steffi to finish all the achievements (including completing the game on hardcore-die-once-and-you-start-again-crying mode). Great fun, if rather grindy! We also started playing Magicka 2 with Fox, but somehow there just isn’t enough enjoyment there to warrant loading it up again. I think we had one session some time in mid-year and haven’t returned to it since.

In terms of solo gaming, as said, I didn’t really play anything that gripped me for long. There were a few smaller titles such as CastleStorm (a fairly enjoyable tower defence game), Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit (classic racing title, fast cars and dance music), or the simple does-what-it-says-on-the-tin Tower Wars (definitely one I’d like to try multiplayer). I never really bothered trying to get my teeth into any larger titles. Afterfall InSanity is probably the only FPS I tried to play, but soon got bored. I loaded up Sniper: Ghost Warrior and virtually fell asleep during the tutorial. As for strategy games, I had a few goes at Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth after P bought it for me: fairly solid game, though not as feature complete as Civilization V. I also played a few missions of Supreme Commander 2, and felt like I’d seen enough. Though I did play Planetary Annihilation a fair bit more, I just don’t like the concept of the round planet.

So down to my few nice discoveries of 2015: one came right at the start of the year, probably purchased in the winter sales, called Sang-Froid – Tales of Werewolves. Although I didn’t play it particularly far, I liked the design elements and general storyline, hunting werewolves in mid-nineteenth century Canada, with separate stages in which you buy traps and manage resources, set up a plan of action, and then actually carry it out. Maybe that was also what gripped me about This War of Mine, a game set based on the Yugoslav wars of the 90s and played from the perspective of the survivors rather than the soldiers. Scavenge goods, cook food, defend your survivors, and craft tools to make it all easier. Gripping game that I never actually played through to the end, but which impressed me nonetheless. One other title I should mention is an adventure game I played with Steffi called Resonance. A retro 1980s graphical style, with fairly straightforward point-and-click mechanics and elements, but with an absolutely awesome storyline, decent voice acting and logical puzzles. Definitely a surprise hit for me.

What about the board games? Thirty-three different games this year, 92 plays. Ignoring the smaller card games, the top ranks are occupied by some old stalwart coop titles like Ghost Stories and Space Alert. We bought our friend the expansion to the latter for her birthday right before Christmas, so I guess that’ll be on the menu a fair bit in 2016 as well. A new title to the mix lately was Colt Express, Spiel des Jahres this year, neat game of train robbery in the Wild West with strategy, luck and a fair amount of laughs. Otherwise not too many new ‘big’ games played, apart from Caverna at Ric’s. Except for one other we added to the list just before Christmas: the game’s designer actually lives in Karlsruhe, so when I found out I sent him a random message and he invited us round to play his latest title Neanderthal. Definitely a geek’s game, perhaps more for curiosity/educational purposes than anything, but still funny to play a title with its designer.

Bad titles? Not really any worth mentioning. One small one I bought for Steffi at Christmas looks like it’ll bug me: Seven Dragons. I feel like it stole the victory conditions thing from Fluxx, so you can basically work towards winning and then have the whole game change with one play of a card. Otherwise it’s something of a kids’ filler game with laying tiles. Yawn. Another which I didn’t really expect much of, given as Steffi picked it up for a few quid in some pound shop, was 100 Unique Places. Basically a geography quiz board game on the rough premise of raising awareness about global warming yada yada, it just screwed up some of the basics. One thing was that five of us couldn’t work out the damn one-page rulebook, so we just ignored probably one of the main rules as it was self-contradictory and played a rather friendly race around the board. Other than that, the questions were as so often the case a bit dumb, some of them expecting you to know some really obscure facts without help, others giving you options for something fairly easy, or having statistical questions which essentially meant “choose one of these at random: A, B or C.” Best of all was that some of the questions had times set in the future which were already in the past… sure, the game’s five years old, but that put a weird spin on the questions: "What did scientists in 2010 think would have happened by 2013, irrespective of whether it in fact did or did not happen?" Bah!

A Year in Cinema

Apparently I watched 38 films this year, though a fair number of those were re-watches. Only went to the cinema a few times, so most of the new films were on DVD/TV, but there were a few that stayed in my mind. Up was one which caught me off guard, I’m not generally a fan of those kinda films, but it hit all the right notes and told a magically mental story really well. There Will Be Blood was another tremendous film, perhaps a bit on the long side, but it was the perfect vehicle for Daniel Day-Lewis’s acting skills. Highly recommended.

Best comedy for me was definitely The Guard, a black comedy of drug dealing on the west coast of Ireland, though one notable mention has to be Tropic Thunder. I can’t normally stomach Ben Stiller, but somehow the film had me giggling all the way through.

Another couple of highlights of the year were Inception, which I finally got around to watching despite having had the DVD on the shelf for about 4 years. A very decent film with a cool premise, which in my opinion just failed to be amazing by having an uninteresting and flimsy plot (the sideplot is more important but taking the focus off the main plot left it feeling misdirected). Keeping with DiCrapio, I also saw The Wolf of Wall Street, which was purely entertaining for its sex, drugs and humour. Finally there was Big Fish, a sweet psychedelic voyage of discovery.

At the other end of the scale there were some real stinkers. Olympus Has Fallen, not the title of a news article on the camera company, takes the crown for crappy action film of the year, with an absolutely mental plot and so many holes you could sail the Titanic through it. The final Hobbit film, Battle of the Five Armies, was probably the worst big budget title of my year, such an overinflated snorefest. At least the same couldn’t quite be said of Sucker Punch, which was essentially a film designed around a few cool set-piece scenes which otherwise didn’t have any point to being there. It was like watching someone play a computer game, having to put up with the levels between enjoying a few boss fights. We’ve also been watching the Resident Evil series (only missing the latest one) but they’re much better entertainment value, classic popcorn action horrors.

No, the real mouldy potato at the bottom of this bag of refuse is definitely the new Fantastic Four film which we ended up seeing at an outdoor cinema in late summer. I dislike comic book films anyway, but this one managed to fail hard on so many different levels, it was even dull for one of those. Character development, love triangles, catharsis, even the pure action sequences were just terrible in the extreme, and I expect the witty one-liners would only be found funny by preteens.

A Year in Books

I missed my book target this year, but read about 9,000 pages. A few highlights: The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker, a great study of the decline of violence in society of the past millennia, something that has largely gone ignored or at least hasn’t been given due consideration; The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, which I read expecting would annoy the hell out of me being written by the atheist pope, but ended up making me respect him for at least carrying his thoughts through to their logical conclusions and defending secularism properly.

On the German side of things, Lingua Tertii Imperii was a fascinating read on the language of the Third Reich. I’d been piqued by reading Klemperer’s diaries, and whilst LTI wasn’t a particularly standard arrangement, there were loads of interesting titbits and morsels for thought. Then there was Buddenbrooks, one of those classics that nobody reads. To be honest I found it disappointing, expecting more in the way of historical parallels beyond the family drama, and having said so to a few people, someone lent me Joseph Roth’s Radetzkymarsch which I found that much better for exactly that reason.

Down there with the worst books of the year was one my dad recommended called The Numerati, vaguely about the new tech wizards and their realms of big data. An interesting topic, but it was basically written by a journalistic idiot who doesn’t know the subject and treats anyone who does know something about it as a magician. Basically the very epitome of Clarke’s third law. Not only that, but being written by a journalist it was full of the fluff you expect to find in a newspaper article in every single chapter, so the slim volume mostly consisted of padding. But my absolute worst choice of the year was Billard um halb zehn by Heinrich Böll. It’s not often that I actually stop reading a book, but I gave up after literally losing the plot. Written from 11 different perspectives, after about 100 pages I just got completely confused about who the hell was currently narrating and simply had no interest in muddling through!

The Paper mp3

Amazon Kindle

Amazon Kindle e-book reader

Reading this post recently, I found myself asking why ebooks haven’t really taken off as a medium. Certainly more recent efforts, such as Amazon’s Kindle, have helped to reignite the market after a rather dubious development period over the past decade or so, but if one compares the ubiquity of mobile phones or digital audio players, e-books are entirely missing from the landscape. ((According to The Guardian in April 2008, ebooks accounted for less than 1% of the total publishing market, albeit this share has no doubt increased since.))

In purely utilitarian terms, should the technology ever be fully and appropriately used, ebooks have a lot to offer over their paper counterparts. There are far fewer requirements and resources needed for production, and distribution is much easier. Whilst a device on which to read ebooks might outweigh a single volume, additional books add nothing, and in terms of transporting books en mass, ebooks are clearly in favour. The ability to flick through a paper volume might be lost in the electronic form, but this is clearly compensated for by vastly improved tools for search and cross-referencing. Likewise combining other forms of media such as video and audio is a perfectly reasonable conception with ebooks, that the paper variety can’t really compete with on any level. They’re also more easily manipulable, in terms of being able to zoom, highlight or simple leave your own annotations about the place. All of which is to say nothing of the potential advantages for newspapers and other periodicals.

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