random thoughts to oil the mind

Tag: That was the Year

2019 in Review

Another year, and time again to look back over 12 months of consumed media. Following on from 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018, here’s another summary of what I’ve been reading, watching and playing over the past year.

Summary

PC games played: numerous

Best PC games: Abzü, Overcooked 1/2, Risk of Rain, Firewatch, Battalion 1944, We Were Here Too, Hard West

Worst PC games: Prison Architect, Lethis – Path of Progress, Rage, A Story About My Uncle, The Last Express

Board games played: 41 (81 plays)

Best board games: Decrypto, In the Year of the Dragon, Unfinished Case of Holmes, Codenames: Duet

Worst board games: Sherlock: Whereabouts Unknown, The Mind

Films watched: 41

Best films: Her, Hunger, Senna, Doubt, Star Wars, Jurassic Park

Worst films: Suicide Squad, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Books read: 48

Best books: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion , Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, The Comedians, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor, Bad Science, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Battle Cry of Freedom

Worst books: Cybercrime And The Darknet, No Need for Geniuses: Revolutionary Science in the Age of the Guillotine

A Year in Gaming

Another twelve months down the line, and not much has changed on the multiplayer gaming front. Counter-Strike: Global Operations remains our go-to watering hole of a Thursday, despite the incessant wave of cheating accusations that accompanies it. I still play Quake Champions occasionally, though it normally takes me a season to play all my placement matches, and so my rank is only visible for a while before it gets reset. Similarly I play the odd game of Heroes of the Storm, but haven’t done any ranked matches this year as far as I can remember.

Apart from the usual suspect, we played a few weeks of Paladins in recent months, which was a nice distraction and fairly enjoyable. It reminded me a blend of Team Fortress 2 with some extra layers of complexity a là Overwatch, but without the same level of seriousness. Certainly there seemed to be lots of players of dubious skill level on there, so maybe once we reach a ranked level, the matches might be more regularly challenging, rather than alternating between walkovers and walkunders. That is if we ever go back to it!

In the background we’ve been playing some Civ VI in the new PBEM variety, two games in parallel thanks to Benno quitting the first one before it had been set up! With Tesh’s rash exit from the second game, both were soon down to three players, so we’ve been progressing fairly fast, and the new cloud save system is a vast improvement on sending save files around. I have to say, I’m not particularly enjoying the game though, and it reminds me of how things went in our old games of Civ III; an interesting start until you realise what vital resource you’re lacking, a moment of dispair when you realise all the iron is in your neighbour’s back yard, then someone quits and we start again. I’m pretty much just clicking through my turns waiting for the games to end, though it could still take some time. But I’ll probably write something about that separately.

For solo gaming, I did squeeze in a few interesting titles this year. Abzü and Firewarch stand out for being somewhat less ordinary, I suppose basically both of them pure exploratory adventure games, the latter even carrying the moniker of a ’walking simulator’. Relaxing, intriguing, beautiful to behold, both offer a short diversion of a few hours that doesn’t overstay its welcome and definitely places a different slant on what you expect of a computer game. Another game of a similar ilk I tried was A Story About My Uncle, which was however more of a freaky platformer and fell rather flat with me.

A few more worthwhile mentions for the year: Hard West is an XCOM-style tactical shooter set in the American west, with several short campaigns which are interesting enough in their own right, and only consist of a few short missions. An enjoyable game, even if I didn’t get particularly far in it. Risk of Rain was a fun multiplayer roguelike platformer, which had us struggling to beat it the few evenings it appeared on the menu. Quick to pick up and play, with that ’oh just one more try!’ that comes with failure in roguelikes. Battalion 1944 scratches the itch that Day of Defeat left, and is actually a pretty competent shooter in its own right, though it has some very annoying movement mechanics that slightly detract from my enjoyment. We Were Here Too, the sequel to a puzzle game I think I reviewed here some years back, was a pretty straightforward but nevertheless enjoyable escape room relying on asymmetric knowledge, where communication is the key, as well as a bit of lateral thinking. And finally I can’t leave 2019 without mentioning the Overcooked games, which Ric introduced me to in spring, and which Steffi became addicted to and had us spending many an evening finely honing our tactics to unlock an elusive fourth star. It was actually quite impressive how we would barely scrape enough points to clear the three-star requirement, and yet we’d practice and practice until we could jump the four-star hurdle which was twice as high. Certainly helped being able to stream this to the TV in the lounge and play it on a controller.

Didn’t play any particularly terrible games this year, but one vague disappointment was trying to play through The Last Express. It’s one of those overlooked gems from the mid/late 90s, with a unique art style and ambitious gameplay, an adventure with real-time elements and multiple different endings. I imagine if I’d played it at the time, I’d have had the patience (and the boredom!) to explore every nook and cranny, trying to get through every ending, and never give up, but today I’m just too impatient and we couldn’t get into it at all.

A Year in Boardgaming

It hasn’t been a particularly great year for us in boardgaming with only 81 plays, certainly on the lower end for us, and there hasn’t really been very much new in all that. The Exit Games series remains one of Steffi’s favourites, though I have to say I’ve played enough now that I’m not really excited by the prospect of any more. We’ve also played a fair number of other games of a similar ilk, and whilst some of them at least offer slightly different challenges, with many using an app so you have to enter the answers in a more detailed way than you can get with a three-digit code, there are still only so many ways you can hide a solution in a box of bits.

Still, we did see a few new games to the table this year. We had a lot of fun with two party-esque games in Codenames: Duet and Decrypto. The former is just a slight tweak on the earlier version, but I think makes the game more enjoyable overall; instead of playing in two teams against one another, you play in two teams cooperatively, with everyone being responsible for both making and guessing clues. Certainly worked for us. Decrypto on the other hand relies on teams of players communicating codes to one another using a common ’codebook’. But the other team always gets to hear the code too, and must try to intercept the message, so players not only have to come up with ever new clues for their partners, but also work out what the cryptic clues their opponents are giving could mean. It’s fairly easy to put together your own version to try out too!

A short mention to The Quacks of Quedlinburg which won the Kennerspiel des Jahres 2018. While a fun little push-your-luck game, I’m hard pressed to understand how it was the Kennerspiel, nor really how it won at all. We played it with 4 players and it felt like it wasn’t really designed well for that number, with the starting two players able to capitalise on the cheaper chits and the other players then locked out of certain tactics. Otherwise the game was basically like an elaborate game of Pontoon, each player holding a bag and deciding whether to keep drawing or hold their current scores – twist or stick?!

There wasn’t really anything that I didn’t enjoy playing this year. We had a few lacklustre escape room games, both from Exit games series and others, but they’re generally one-off games which still have some entertainment value and don’t overlast their welcome. One game we’ve started playing as a filler is The Mind, which I really can’t rate and always feel is a bit of a waste of time. Basically 100 cards in total, starting off with each player getting one, then without communicating they have to play them in ascending order; then the round repeats, each player getting two cards etc. There are a few rules with lives and special abilities, but this is a game you could easily play with a pack of regular playing games and is basically a game of "can you all count together in your heads at the same speed?" Yawn.

Another game I have to mention and I’m dead on the fence about is Detective. It’s pushing a bit really to describe it as a game: essentially the players take on the role of detectives and have to solve five cases. Each case has a stack of cards which the team can explore, plus there’s a detailed app database containing extra info on lots of characters and events in the game, and some puzzles even require a bit of Googling to find the answer. You then decide when you think you’ve got enough info to solve the case, and the app takes you through a few questions and tells you your score. Each case is unique, but they are all somehow interconnected, with the same characters and locations reappearing. What’s not to like? Well, for one thing the game comes with a board, different characters, some silly tokens and really a whole load of guff which is just absolutely unnecessary. There’s a board just for the sake of having a board which is supposed to indicate where the investigation team currently is, and moving around costs time, but quite frankly that makes no sense. Sure, it’s important to keep track of time, and I can see that there has to be a ’currency’ of sorts to force players to make decisions about how much to research or what leads to follow, but then each investigator has a certain number of ’special ability’ chips which only they can use at a certain time. But why? It just adds pointless cruft to the game, where all the fun comes from theorising, putting the pieces of the puzzle together, working out the who, what, where and why. Where’s the fun in not being able to read the back of a card because computer specialist John already looked at the back of a different card? The other major criticism is the way the time pressure in the game works: it’s fairly straightforward in principle, you have for example three days to solve the case, each day has 8 hours, and each lead you follow will cost a certain amount of time. But you don’t know how much time, and often the ’story’ has stupid things like traffic jams costing you extra hours all because… reasons! We’ve done three of the cases so far, and while the first felt too easy (maybe a nice introduction?) we completely failed the second two. I hope we return to it, because the actual story is very interesting and feels well constructed, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to wholeheartedly recommend it.

A Year in Cinema

Although we haven’t kept it up quite as religiously, Tuesday evening remains film night and we watched about 40 this year. A few films I hadn’t seen before stuck out, as well as a few rewatches.

Her with Joaquin Phoenix was fantastic, and I found it really interesting how the perception of talking to an intelligent AI massively reminded me of the uncorporeal minds of the early internet, back when cyberspace really felt like something distinct and separate from the real world, where other people were faceless intelligences in the void. The main character’s connection to his AI reminded me of some of my early experiences with people on the fledgling internet, people I would never see, never meet, and could only engage with through words.

On a less upbeat note, we watched Hunger about Bobby Sands and the Maze hunger strikes. It’s not a film I’d particularly recommend, decent acting and cinematography notwithstanding, as there isn’t really much substance to it that you don’t already know (if you know about the events). Nevertheless I found it particularly interesting to see how allergically Steffi reacted to the inmates’ decisions, a very visceral inability to see things from their perspective.

One film I enjoyed while Steffi was away one evening was the documentary of Senna. The first thing I ever heard about Senna was probably when he died, and remember the funeral in Brazil being broadcast on TV, probably on news reports, though at that stage I hadn’t really watched any F1 races and had only otherwise heard of Mansell. The film was an interesting look at his life, the controversies, the rivalries and the sport of F1 in general in the late 80s/early 90s.

Another dramatic outing which had some extremely good acting was Doubt, starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. There isn’t really very much in the way of ’action’, being based on a play, but it is not a surprise that all four main actors were nominated for an Oscar.

A couple of films I rewatched this year, just because they happened to be on telly, but which reminded me of how good they are, were the original Star Wars and Jurassic Park. Yes, Star Wars is relatively cheesy, yes it has some god-awful dialogue and dated cinematics, but the overarching storyline is simply good. The few plot holes can easily be put down to dramatic licence, almost everything in it makes sense within the universe Lucas created, and the result is a solid and enjoyable opener to the saga which stands alone in its own right and remains entirely watchable today. I already ranted about Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in another thread, but even trying to judge the films in their own right, which is obviously impossible, I’m not sure A New Hope comes off any worse for its age. I don’t think you could say the same about the moneymaker.

Jurassic Park is a similarly well constructed story. Watching it with a particular eye to the scriptwriting, it’s amazing how effortlessly the characters are introduced. The first few scenes lay the groundwork about who everyone is without any exposition, any uncharacteristic or irrational moments, and sow the seeds which will be harvested by the end of the film. Simplicity like that takes a lot of work, even if you only went to watch the film for the dinosaurs. The special effects are also still decent, I think the film was made just early enough to avoid the early wave of terrible CGI, but late enough that it stands up cinematographically.

In terms of stinkers, we sadly watched quite a few this year. Two comic book films stood out as being particularly awful, with Suicide Squad quite possibly winning my award for most pointless comic book film I’m seen to date. No drama, no character development, too many minor characters who had no purpose, exposition slapped on like it was directed at retards, there was nothing to like about this film beyond Harley Quinn (who was admittedly excellent). Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice wasn’t quite as awful, but had absolutely none of the drama of Nolan’s Batman films, none of the positivity of Reeve’s Superman, and Batman beat Superman (FFS!)

A Year in Books

I managed to smash previous records with more than 15,000 pages read this year and nearly a book a week. Maybe I should actually make that a target for 2020?

Among the hits for this year was an interesting work on psychology and morality entitled The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Not sure where I got the recommendation, but it’s a really fascinating look at how we consider questions of morality, how certain aspects can be measured on different axes, and where for example people on the right and left of the political spectrum differ is generally in how these axes are weighted and/or how they are interpreted, but a lot more binds the two together than separates them. Indeed, two things become clear from his thesis: that most decisions we make of a moral nature are first made, then justified (i.e. we feel something is wrong, and only later when asked to justify it do we come up with reasons, which generally don’t make any sense – cup of Brexit anyone?), and that today’s politically divided societies have more to do with people not talking to one another, than with actual radical differencies, i.e. things feel more polarised today because of social media echo chambers, rather than our views becoming radically different.

On a more upbeat and positivistic note, I finally got around to reading Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, a look at how computer games successfully manage to do what we in society really need to learn from. Some of what the book covers is a bit wayward and comes from her research work, but a lot of the core message is sound and has very interesting implications for everyday life. Nothing much of it is new, but the book summarises it fairly succinctly: gaming succeeds because it rewards achievement, binds people together, creates a sense of accomplishment, teaches new skills, etc. A bit dated now, but worth a perusal (or reading a summary) nevertheless.

On the history front, I continued my Roman history trip with SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard. I understand she’s something of a TV personality as well? The book is a brief overview of Roman society, rather than a blow-by-blow look at events, and I found it to be very balanced, despite many decrying too much conjecture.

Another history gap I tried to fill this year was in reading two books I’ve had on my list probably since Dublin – i.e. for more than a decade! – those being Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Battle Cry of Freedom. The first is an amazingly sad history of what can only really be called the genocide of the native American tribes, showing how different tribes reacted in different ways, and the result in each and every instance was expropriation, exploitation, maltreatment and/or eradication. A very depressing chapter of history, from which no lessons have really been learned as far as I can see. The second is a detailed account of the American Civil War, which I knew pretty much nothing about beyond a few western films. Aside from the course of the war itself, it’s fascinating to look at how the issue of slavery was at once the cause of the war, and its ultimate end, without ever actually being the casus belli. Similarly mindblowing how the Democratic Party remained officially opposed to the 13th Amendment even after the war as "unwise, impolitic, cruel and unworthy of the support of civilized people". Such an enlightened heritage!

A couple of books with a slightly sciency/political bent tickled me this year. This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor is more amusing than enlightening, but it certainly had some eye-opening passages about how health care is actually delivered in the UK, as opposed to how it is perceived. At once hilarious and terrifying. Bad Science on the other hand is a more engaging and sober look mostly at how science is portrayed in the media, and the concomitant problems that brings. Ben Goldacre wrote (writes?) a column for the Guardian and a blog of the same name, usually highlighting badly reported findings and the like, and this book is just a more in-depth exposition of a few of those topics. Pretty much nothing unexpected in there, but it’s still maddening when you see the kinds of rigorous argument that can be arrayed against the most insidious of lies, and yet still fail to land in the minds of the converted. It reminded me of both The Righteous Mind (above) and Thinking Fast and Slow (also highly recommended) which I read some years back. Goldacre’s ultimate message seemt all the more realistic/pessimistic for it.

I didn’t seem to read too much fiction this year, at least not much I could unreservedly recommend. The longest book of the year was the nearly 1000-page Der Schwarm by Franz Schätzing, which while certainly interesting, read too much like a silly Roland Emmerich film and overstayed its welcome a bit. The best on my list was probably The Comedians, just another classic from probably my favourite author. So much depth in so little material, truly refined, his books are only short but pack so much of the human experience into so far words. I also read his England Made Me this year, and it goes to show how much he developed as an author over the years. The lack of plot in the latter book was no different to the former, but the characters were soulless in comparison.

Two books get my stinker of the year award. The first is No Need for Geniuses: Revolutionary Science in the Age of the Guillotine by Steve Jones, who normally writes pretty interesting popular science books. But I couldn’t really see any purpose to this book, it’s just a collection of small vignettes which may or may not have some relation to the French revolution, but generally didn’t. Jones isn’t a historian and it clearly isn’t his suit.

But hands down the worst book of the year goes to Cybercrime and the Darknet. One of those books my dad picked up on the cheap somewhere, he read it first, probably learned a few things, and sent it to me thinking I’d be interested. And oh my god, what a badly hashed together mess! I don’t wanna go hating on the author, she generally writes books for kids which I’m sure are perfectly fit to purpose, and maybe if you know absolutely nothing about the internet, then you could learn a few things from this book. But otherwise, everything about it was pathetic, and worse. It was like an undergraduate essay, written with an eye on the word count, trying to squeeze in footnotes which aren’t required (and missing ones which are absolutely vital). It was journalistic to the point of maddening, always looking at individual instances and extrapolating to general rules, with whole chapters dedicated to theorising about things that may/may not have happened and showing how that is the way of the internet… unless it isn’t. She peppers the text with statistics that bear only a passing relation to the subject matter at hand, no explanation, no interrogation, they’re just left hanging in the air as if self-evidently supporting her thesis (Goldacre would’ve torn her a new one). I don’t think I’ve ever facepalmed so many times in 150 pages. If she’d been an undergrad, I’d have given it back and had her re-write it. But she already has a degree – from Cambridge no less! – and works at a fucking university. I’ll retire to Bedlam.

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.

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.

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!

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