Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Wolfenstein: The New Order (and the Old Blood)

Perhaps the only thing missing from this game is the opportunity to personally
shoot Hitler in the face.
Wolfenstein is the grand-daddy of FPS, with Wolfenstein 3D one of the first serious exemplars of the genre, and a franchise which seems to renew itself once every decade or so. The latest revival began ahead of schedule with the largely ignored Wolfenstein in 2009, but this generation's serious entry is Wofenstein: The New Order, which brings the action of the series into an alternate 1960 in which the Nazis won the war and now rule the world.

Actually, we open with a chapter set in the last days of World War II, and the fact that this is in 1946 is a fucking sign. Long-time antagonist Wilhelm 'Deathshead' Strasse has pioneered a wave of advanced technologies which have brought the Nazis to the brink of total victory. Together with a company of infantry including Private Wyatt, and RAF pilot Fergus, series protagonist BJ Blazkowicz must infiltrate Deathshead's fortress and assassinate the general, but falls foul of what will come to be his most insurmountable foe of all, an unavoidable cutscene capture. Forced to chose which of his friends will be vivisected by Strasse, he escapes with the survivor, only to suffer a head wound which leaves him comatose.

Holy fucking shit I'M ON THE MOON!
Blazkowich spend fourteen years immobile in an asylum in Poland, until the Nazis come to close it down and take the inmates for experimentation. Driven by a desire to protect the nurse who has cared for him, Blazkowicz - displaying phenomenal muscle tone after fourteen years of immobility - starts murdering his way through the Nazis to save the girl. She takes him to her grandparents and they set off on a course that will lead them to the resistance, to a secret order of Jewish mystics, and even to the moon, before ultimately returning for a final confrontation with Deathshead.

Along the way, BJ has to fight robot dogs, cyborg dogs, supersoldiers, drones, and a whole lot of Nazis with a combination of light stealth and heavy firepower, including his new signature combination weapon and cutting tool, the LaserKraftwerk. There's a story, a romance, and you get to rock out with Jimi Hendrix in one of the timelines created by your choice at the start of the game. A lot of people get dead in the most horrible and visceral fashion that modern graphics technology can muster, and you spend what seems to be an awful lot of time looking down at a knife sticking out of BJ's chest, waiting for the QTE to strike back.

The Beatles may have gone German, but at least they got in trouble for not
thanking the Fuhrer before their concert.
The New Order is a very grim game, with lots of desperate gambits and bloody violence. At one point you fight your way through the burning Resistance HQ, past the bodies of your dead comrades, including a couple dead on a cot with a pistol by one of their hands. Then J plays the Star-Spangled Banner while he's gunned down by forces under the command of the crazed former head of the League of German Girls, whose face is all messed up from where it was squashed by a robot earlier in the game. Later on, her dodgy-moustached toyboy leers in your face after poisoning you, but you shrug off the drugs and brutally stab him to death. There's a lot of brutal to-death stabbing, with the takedown kills in particular leaving Dishonoured for dust and dual wielding - which you can do with everything from knives to assault shotguns - carrying a high chance of messy dismemberment.

Speaking of Dishonoured, my hours playing that game were a disservice here. Although there are stealth sections and it's always best to take out the commanders who can call in reinforcements before going loud, loud is pretty much where you always end up. This is not a stealth game and it isn't a game with multiple paths. It's a linear shooter, albeit a graphically impressive one. As a character, BJ Blazkowicz isn't actually that much more interesting for having a face, a voice and a love interest, and this does create a slight problem when he is surrounded by more interesting characters who keep getting killed.

Both of these two have more layers in their backstory than Blazkowicz, but by
the end of the game you will have shot one of them in the zombie face. I feel
it incumbent on me to save Annette because I don't want to let the only gay in
the franchise get eaten.
This goes double for the games stand-alone companion, The Old Blood, which is essentially the New Orderverse reboot of Return to Castle Wolfenstein, complete with the death of cool Brit Agent 1 (aka Wesley,) and a slight branching path where you can save either your resistance contact Kessler or his assistant Annette (because nuWolfenstein loves to make you choose who lives and who dies.) The one you don't get to in time becomes a zombie, as does Agent 2 (aka Pippa), another cool British character whose tragedy is all the greater, since it's her role to demand that you leave all your guns behind before going on a doomed undercover run, just to make sure that you have to watch her get clobbered by zombies because you can't shoot through a blocked gap to save her.

Don't get attached, folks.
So, yeah. It's more than thirty years since the first Castle Wolfenstein, and twenty since an identified BJ Blazkowicz first shot a Nazi in the face, and while The New Order and The Old Blood are decent fun and technically impressive, in terms of substance they aren't much beyond what Return was doing in 1992. The levels are open, but the plot still runs pretty much on rails. Also, you have to recollect your guns pretty much every level, even your spare knives and basic handgun don't seem to be basic mission equipment (although the laser cannon is thankfully essential,) which gets very, very old. As a die hard stealther, I also miss the Snooper rifle of Return, which leads to every level eventually becoming an arena.

On the upside, dieselpunk Nazi-punching, so it's swings and roundabouts.

X-COM 2 - Thoughts on completion

This is the Avatar, the pinnacle of the Alien masterplan. It has silly hair.
So, I have now finished my first play-through of X-COM 2.

The pacing of the game is interesting. Unlike its predecessor, nothing comes for nothing. whereas in the glory days of X-COM there were new scientists and engineers shipping in every month, here they have to be hired. Individually. And they cost, so there's a trade off between investing for the future and buying in enhancements for the field troops. This means that in the early part of the game, your progress is slow. Your engineers are individually assigned to clear rooms and create or - once you have enough of them to spare one or two from clearance and construction duty - enhance the rooms in your ant farm. Scientists are less exciting, and although individually named they basically just reduce your research times.

In addition, your monthly income is in the form of a supply drop, which has to be collected by the Avenger, and while you're doing that, you can't do anything else. The singularity of the Avenger quickly becomes a source of tension, if not frustration, as scan events crop up and you have to choose between resource seeking, expanding your network of resistance contacts and just staying at home to lick your wounds (until you get the Advanced Warfare Centre, which accelerates healing, built, expect to spend a fair amount of time at Resistance HQ with the 'quicker healing times' bonus activated.)

As you go through the game, Advent works on a series of black projects designed to make your life more difficult. Some of these just advance the Avatar project which serves as the endgame clock, but others give the enemy bonuses for a month, or send a flying saucer to come and shoot you down. In the latter case, this can result in the game's version of Enemy Within's base defence map, in which you have to defend the Avenger from an infinite supply of bads while also making an end run to take out an EMP spike. You can - indeed, you must - return the favour by attacking Avatar blacksites to reduce the Avatar counter, usually by planting a bomb, although a few special mission have you retrieving information.

The Psi-Operative wields the power of purple.
One of my favourite things about the game's build system is Squad Upgrades. Once you finish researching a new class of weapons, you only need to build the squad upgrade and everyone gets the new hardware, which means no more juggling your one plasma sniper back and forth between injured snipers and accidentally sending your top soldier onto the deck of an alien battleship with a flak jacket and a 30.06 bolt-action. Basic weapons and standard armour is upgraded this way, although you can also build individual suits of heavy armour - the EXO and WAR suits - in the Proving Grounds. You can also make armour out of the three alien rulers, which is... a little bit serial killer, if I'm honest.

Once you've done the appropriate research and construction, you can start training an additional class of soldier, the Psi-Operative. Unlike in X-COM these are not regular soldiers with extra abilities. They train from Rookie in the psi lab and gain no XP or promotions in the field, and their suite of abilities can be customised as they train. Of course, you're going to want to get Mind Control, because it's awesome, not least because in this game it lasts all level.

The Andromedon; hard as nails and twice as useful.
There's a new alien called the Andromedon, which is basically a toxic beastie in an armoured battle suit. If one gets killed the shell cracks and it staggers about leaking toxic atmosphere for a bit. Mind Control one of those bad boys and you've got a friend of life, or at least for the level. Sadly you can't bring it home with you, however much I wanted to love him and hug him and call him George. In my head canon I was whammying the same Andromedon every mission; I called him Drommie and he was my bud. You know, in a creepy, mind controlling, Purple Man kind of way.

Eventually I got to the final mission and took my best dudes into the Advent core while whipping up worldwide rebellion by exposing Advent's programme of genetic harvesting and alteration. Tragically I lost two of my oldest and dearest shitkickers during the attack - and I think we must have left the damn Hunter's Axe behind as well, which is a bit of a wrench - but the Avatars were slain and thus the forces of goodness and niceness - or at least the closest approximation you can get while literally wearing the skull of the fallen as a hat - prevailed, after many hours of satisfying game play.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

First Thoughts on X-COM 2

In the intervening twenty years, the Sectoids got ripped.
Somewhat behind the rest of the world, I'f started playing X-COM 2. Here are my early thoughts. As a note, I picked up a copy with plenty of DLC, including 'Shen's Final Gift', in which you discover a robot soldier left for you by Dr Shen, and 'Alien Hunters', in which you find some Van Helsing type weapons in a downed Skyranger and a major headache left for you by Dr Vahlen.

You open in a world governed by ADVENT, an alien backed government that decries X-COM as terrorists. Taking initial control of the traditional tutorial sacrifices, you bring your team along with Central Officer Bradford, to extract the Commander - who, in a metafictional headfuck, is of course you - from an ADVENT facility where - to continue the headfuckery - you have spent decades unwittingly aiding the aliens by playing through endless variations of the invasion in a simulation in your mind, which is implied to have been the original X-COM reboot.

Make no mistake; officer pullover will fuck you up.
This game is based around the Avenger, a captured alien transport fixed up by the now-vanished Dr Shen and his badass daughter Lily. It has its own engineering section and labs - run by former ADVENT collaborator Dr Tygan - a geoscape, and an 'ant farm' where you can build your facilities after clearing out the junk.

Much of the game is the same as it ever was, but with the addition of an overworld map which you need to navigate by contacting resistance cells, scanning locations and slowly expanding your influence. Some of your missions come from the resistance, others from scanning intel points, and some are linked to the central goal of preventing a project called Avatar reaching fruition by attacking alien facilities. The main things to get to grips with in the overworld are that funding is hella slow, scientists and engineers are rarer than hen's teeth, and you will miss out on things because there simply isn't time to do everything. Every time you set down to scan for supplies, there's a good chance one of your resistance bases will get raided, requiring you to mount a rescue mission (the game's equivalent of the old terror missions,) in which you have to tag out as many civilians as possible, at least one of whom is a shapeshifting ooze-ogre called a Faceless.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The mission control system is reassuringly familiar, as you order your troops across an isometric landscape, juggling unit cohesion with sightlines, cover and the need to shoot as many things as much as possible, because the aliens are much, much tougher this time out. Basic Sectoids are nails hard and chuck around mind control from mission 1. The Thin Men are replaced by the Viper, a vaguely feminine snake with arms, guns and an attitude problem. Even the grunts - adapted human troopers - have wicked pulse rifles and are led by tough officers with a fierce scarf game.  Later on you start running into armoured opponents and shit gets real.

The other big difference is that you start most missions Concealed, until you get spotted or take a shot, which means that you can sneak up and ambush the first set of aliens by setting up lots of Overwatch before you spook them, and there is little in gaming more satisfying than pulling off a perfect opening ambush. There are also plenty of minor changes to the system: In particular, reloading no longer ends your turn, so if you run dry in a protracted fight you can spend your next turn by reloading and then firing. You can also call in an evac if the mission goes south, and carry your fallen comrades home for life-saving treatment or to nick their stuff. Weapons are upgraded at a squad level (unlock the shard gun and all your shotguns become shard guns) but can individually be fitted with modular upgrades like stocks, sights and hair-triggers captured from dead enemies to give a nice, piecemeal feeling to the loadout.

"We'll include all the old alien types, but unrecognisable and really nasty."
There is a slight change to the class system: Rangers replace the old Assault class, largely by bringing a knife to the gunfight, although when I say knife I mean machete and when I say gunfight I mean it would have been a gunfight if the other guy had a face left. Heavies are now Grenadiers, swapping their rockets for a grenade launcher. Snipers are Sharpshooters, and Supports are replaced by the Specialist, who has a hovering drone.  Progression follows the same two-stream system, with mixing and matching perfectly possible, but the themes are much stronger. Grenadiers essentially get machine gun or grenade upgrades, Sharpshooters rifle or pistol, Rangers stealth or stabbing, and Specialists medical or 'combat hacker', which provides a suite of offensive and technical abilities. All troops are also super-customisable, although I'm not even touching that yet.

"You're very tall."
More variety is provided by the DLC. 'Shen's Final Gift' is a marathon slog through a robot factory filled with killer robots, controlled by an AI named Julian. Survive the bots and the turrets and the poison gas and you get to fight Julian on the roof, in control of a particularly vicious Sectopod, for control of Spark-001, a robot battle chassis. I called him 'Reus' for reasons which will likely elude those not au fait with the requirements of criminal culpability and/or Latin, and also HALO. It's a slog, and Sectopod Julian is a bugger, especially if you go at it in the early game (which I did.) On the plus side, your Specialist for the mission is Lily Shen, who is a tricked out Combat Hacker (and instant fail condition if she gets killed.) She is also, it turns out, Dr Shen's Final Gift, but in gameplay terms we get to keep the Spark.

And at least Shen left us something useful (as well as a crazy AI.) 'Alien Hunters' give you a set of special weapons - the Bolt Caster, a powerful but single shot rifle; the Shadowkeeper, a kick ass pistol which can drop you back into Concealment once per mission; and the Hunter's Axe, an awesome melee weapon with a second axe for throwing - and another new mission, this time to track down traces of Dr Vahlen, who turns out to have left you... a trio of giant 'ruler' monsters with dozens of hitpoints each, and armour, and they not only get a move during the alien turn, but after every one of your actions. And then if you ding them up a bit they run away, and randomly appear in another mission. If you're really lucky, you'll meet the Berserker Queen in a time-critical mission which then becomes impossible because you spent four turns trying not to get stepped on. On the plus side, in the initial mission you get to take Bradford along, although that does have the downside that, as a max-level Ranger with a custome assault rifle, he tends to hog between most of and all of the kills.

The Codex is basically Norton Antivirus with an actual gun.
X-COM 2  takes the excellence of X-COM: Enemy Unknown and runs with it, providing tougher challenges and an entirely new level of conflict to consider in the form of the overworld map, as well as sexier graphics and an almost entirely absent tendency for troops to appear to be shooting in entirely the wrong direction in the cut scenes. The limited resources enhance the resistance feel of the game, and it is very possible for an otherwise perfect mission - of which I have so far had one - to go aggressively south with the addition of a roving ruler or unexpected Codex (a flickering extra-dimensional projection of the ADVENT internet.) You are likely to spend a lot of time shuffling between troops with 60% of your force in the infirmary at any one time, especially while you're still using kevlar armour. Moreover, wounded soldiers can become Shaken, rendering them prone to panic and mind-control until they come through a mission effective and unscathed. Thus you have equal and opposite incentives to bench shaken troops or to bring them with.

There's only one real problem with the game, and that is that it kind of spoils its predecessor. I've played a lot of X-COM over the last couple of years, but I'm not sure I'll go back to it now that it's just a simulation I played in my head while I was in a tank, so that the aliens could learn to beat my peeps in battle. It's like being... the anti-Ender, which is depressing, if probably free of ultra-right bias at least.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

We're Not Using the Z Word - Vocabulary and Expectation

Image from Shaun of the Dead, (c) probably Universal Pictures 2004
You know what you're getting when someone says 'zombie', right? It's a word with years, decades even, of accumulated pop-cultural and literary antecedents to inform our expectations. The cultural front-loading of words like zombie, vampire, werewolf or witch are useful shorthand for the writer. 'Zombie' conveys a wealth of information in an incredibly succinct way because the word is laden with cultural coding. That same coding allows a clever writer to subvert expectations in an interesting way, but it has a downside. In fact, it has several.

Familiarity breeds contempt, it is said, and certainly one of the first things to be called at the screen during any zombie feature is usually 'aim for the head, numbnuts!' We the viewers are so steeped in this lore that genre blindness and obedience to years of best-practice training which teaches shooters to aim for centre of mass looks like sheer folly. They're zombies, right? They move slowly and eat brains. Shoot them in the head. Job done. Not only does this create animosity towards the characters in a work of fiction, it is also part and parcel of a process by which an antagonist loses their sense of threat.

This was the oft-maligned genius of 28 Days Later. Say what you like about the rage monkeys and all, the film's trump card was the fast zombie. We were keyed up to expect zombies and when they came barreling along at a rate of knots, we were totally unprepared. Since then, the fast zombie has lost that shock power and it occupies a similar place to the slow zombie. By the same token, I guess Stephanie Meyer deserves some credit for bucking expectations of the term 'vampire', but I really struggle to give it, and I know exactly why. 28 Days Later gave us fast moving monsters that nonetheless filled the same horror role as slow zombies, of being mindless, hunger-driven beasts that look like us, but aren't. Meyer's vampires have next to nothing of horror left in them, just melancholy and glitter.

But I digress.

It is desperately important to some people that Stormfly is not a dragon.
Astrid doesn't seem bothered. Image (c) Dreamworks, 2014
The problem with a jack move like the fast zombie is that some people will always consider it to be 'cheating', or that the film is getting it wrong. 28 Days Later was assailed by cries of zombie fail (although fast zombies have since come to be considered an acceptable, if slightly weaksauce alternative.) Internet commenters rail against dragons that are actually wyverns, the tetrapodal losers. That same cultural coding that creates the sense of expectation creates a sort of entitlement. We have a right to expect dragons to love gold, vampires to fear the sun and zombies to moan 'brains', and if a story throws us by having them do something different, we can end up feeling aggrieved that they got it wrong, or worse, used fake zombies to get a cheap scare. It's like the rage felt over cultural appropriation, only the culture involved is that of the populist, mass-media majority(1).

But this isn't my media blog, it's my writing blog, so what does this mean for writers? Well, basically it means that what you choose to call something is a major decision, especially if you're leaning towards one of the popular terms. If you call something a zombie, you're loading it with expectations. If you call something a dragon you'd better be prepared for people to count the feet and sniff disdainfully (although this one is less of a big deal.) If you call something a witch, be ready for potential Wiccan backlash(2), and if you call a race of travelers you-know-what... Well, you deserve whatever's coming to you, really. So, before you decide on a name you should:

a) Make sure it's not a racial, ethnic or cultural slur, especially if you're white(3).

b) Be aware of the intrinsic cultural coding and whether it fits with what you're writing.

c) Decide if you're happy to follow expectations, or if you want to subvert them.

Point c is important. There's nothing wrong with breaking expectations if you're doing it as a subversion (as with the original fast zombies or the vampires of the Dresden Files, none of which exactly work like trad vamps and that's the point,) but if you're trying to shoehorn something else into a conventional term, you're making a rod for your own back.

From the other side, if you are going with that conventional term, be sure that if you have changes, there are reasons for them, either relating to the narrative or 'in-universe.'  Fast zombies result less from mutation of the zombie virus than from a desire to shake up the genre, but faeries who are vulnerable to silver and not iron or vampires who aren't burned in the sun should probably have a reason for that and the question ought to be addressed.

Aurochs? Load of bull if you ask me. Image by Heinrich Harder.
Now, mostly I'm writing this as a reminder for myself rather than a guide for anyone else. I'm writing an epic fantasy novel and I'm getting to a point where I really need to start constructing some language and making sure my terminology is sound. Part of that is avoiding words that have encoded meanings; not just things like 'zombie' or 'dragon', but anthropological terms like clan, tribe or state. Is it apt to call any religious leader a priest? And for every time I've thought about this in advance I catch myself using another phrase that I just haven't thought about at all. New words are safer, but then you have to a) construct that language, so you don't just have words in isolation, and b) make sure that they are clear and memorable. Even if you have a glossary you don't want the reader flipping back and forth every couple of pages to remember whether a tsepec'manai is the leader of a village or the senior herder of aurochs.

(1) Not that there isn't an element of appropriation in zombies, but that ship sailed a long time ago and is, if anything, a lost irony to those who argue the toss on zombie speed.
(2) Dating a Wiccan has seriously sensitised me to this; it's easy to be a jerk just by not thinking.
(3) See (2) above.

Friday, 26 August 2016

The Trouble with Skype

I was reading an article by game writer +Grant Howitt about the joys of letting your group write your RPG character for you, and why it's awesome. It's a great article, and you should probably read it. In fact, if you've only got time to read that article or mine, I recommend his.

It also brought home to me something I've not really been able to put my finger on about the limitations of online roleplaying. Despite the title of this post, I've actually been using the built-in video/voice chat function of Roll20 for my most recent game, but the same things apply. It all comes up because my last few games have all run on some variation of Fate Core mechanics, and letting other people determine aspects of your background is a main part of Fate Core character creation, and one which has never gone really well, and I think for two reasons.

The first is simple and primal: We're not used to it. It's weird and scary. These are our characters, and I* don't want you** getting your fingermarks and your anime influences and your relentless 90s comedy referencing and your Ministry of Sound all over them. I can love the idea as much as anything and there's still a snarling, territorial beast at the core of my authorial soul that resents it. I suspect that this part has been strengthened by years of LARPing in an environment in which physical investment heightened that character possessiveness - and often a sort of narrative narcissism that insists that this is their story - to an almost insane degree.

Did I say narcissism? It's actually more like a form of partial solipsism, in which each player subconsciously assumes that the game is purely about their character, converting that to the conscious notion that each character has their own story, all of which link, rather than there being one story about everybody.

Give your 'princess' concept a bigger spin than 'plays the guitar'. Image from
Tale of Tales (2015, Archimede Pictures)
Now, having said all of that, the problem in Fate Core is almost the inverse - you are supposed to include another PC in your backstory, and people get just as twitchy about doing that as they do about letting other people include their character.

Either way around, what's the solution to that? Time, patience and the millions of years of evolution that allow us to confront our subconscious urges, basically. It's all fixable if we'e willing to go with it.

But the second problem... There's the rub. The second problem is the medium we're using. Any form of video conferencing is a poor substitute for personal interaction on a lot of levels, from sound and picture quality, to the exclusion of a whole lexicon of body language, to the fact that you don't get to share a meal and hug. Perhaps the most restrictive aspect, however, is that you can't crosstalk, and you can't have separate conversations; at least not organically. It inhibits the back and forth of conversation, and you can't make eye contact. There's no real way to signal your desire to speak other than shouting out, and if you can overcome your awkwardness enough to do that you can bet that the person you're interrupting will be pissed as hell, even if you are interrupting to make do something that will make them look cooler or prevent them from opening the door to certain death because they learned the two guard problem from Labyrinth. That sort of awkwardness is inimical to the sort of free exchange that makes such collaborative character creation both fun and involving.

There's probably a whole other article on video conferencing and player trust, but competition for the single communication channel has a deleterious effect on player and character interaction in the best of groups, and genuinely collaborative character generation needs a level of free and spontaneous interaction that let you feel comfortable shouting 'secretly a revolutionary socialist!' as the idea comes to you, instead of waiting for a free channel as the idea gradually becomes more and more awkward and eventually you decide it's a terrible idea and just sit by while someone suggests 'really into flower arranging' because it feels like a safe bet.

As a side problem, the limited time typically allotted to an online game - I'm lucky if we can get in three hours per session - tends to result in everyone coming to the 'table' with their ideas largely formed, simply because we lack the setting for people to talk, pass books back and forth, and write at the same time.

So, having named the problem, what's the solution?

Well, for starters, we need to be willing to try things. We need to be brave, and willing to give up our impulse to play the mechanically optimised character if that's not the point of the game***. On this subject, I refer you back to the original article.

On a more specific level, if we're going to be communicating largely online, then we need to work out better ways to do it; a new etiquette for social video conferencing. After all, it's not as if we don't have tools at our disposal. Explicitly use voice chat to encourage simultaneous responses. Employ a virtual ticket system. Avoid rigid turn taking, as that could be awkward if someone doesn't have an idea, or if someone else already said there. If two people present 'secretly a ninja' in simultaneous text chat, that's a vote of confidence in the concept. If one person suggests it and the other goes after them and didn't have any other ideas, then the second person feels uninspired, even though the first may also have nothing else in mind.

In conclusion, we're not as tech-savvy as we'd like to think we are. This is still terra incognita for us, and we're going to need to start blazing some serious trails if conference roleplaying is ever going to be the alternative that so many responsible, hard-working adults need.

* By which I could equally mean you.
** By which I could equally mean me.
*** I'm infamously bad at optimising, but I'm not saying that y'all need to get with my programme. It's not that I don't try to optimise, I'm just bad at it, and incompetence is no substitute for intent.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016


I'm going to add a layer of sealant, in part to try to take some of the shine off the brass, and the duct tape needs to be scuffed up a bit, but basically this is done. The trigger is a little sticky, but hopefully that will work loose. If I feel fancy enough to try a stencil, or if I get some mini paints to do details, I'll add the name; Vigilance.

Monday, 11 April 2016

I be not crafty

I took a day off today to mod a Nerf gun for No Rest.

13.00 - We begin

I laughably consider myself 'ready'.
13.05 - Begin wrestling with screws.
13.45 - Finally get gun disassembled

14.00 - After much consideration, decide that the mechanism in this thing is way too complicated to be worth fucking with, however much easier it is to paint the gun with the case in pieces.
14.30 - Finally get the thing back together so it fires.
15.00 - Make a frankly half-arsed job of sanding down the surfaces, taking off the logos at least.
15.20 - Finally apply the first base coat.

I am not very good at this.

Monday, 11 January 2016

Confessions of a Dormant Gamer

I really miss gaming.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not completely gameless. There's No Rest for the Wicked, which is great, and my online Fate game 'Operatives of CROSSBOW' is a lot of fun, but there's something about hanging out, sharing snacks, cooking giant pans of pasta and making endless pots of tea that I really, really miss (and it's not really the tea.)

Obviously, the golden age of tabletop roleplaying is at University. Your time is largely your own, you all live close together and you have somewhere to game where you generally won't disturb anyone else (especially not if, like me, you end up spending two out of three years living next to the noisiest room on campus and directly above the bar.) After that, work is a bit of a shock to the system, but in the end it was my increasing involvement in IoD LARP that did for my tabletopping. I just didn't have any more time for writing games or in many cases for playing them.

Since then, I've had some success with skype games, but they always seem to fade out more easily. Something about the disconnect means that people see them as less of a commitment, and it's harder for the rest of the group to have a separate conversation - whether planning your next moves or just shooting the breeze - if one or two PCs are monopolising the action for a time. As a result, although I love 'CROSSBOW', I do find myself hankering to add an in-person tabletop game to my roster.

Sadly, I live in the middle of nowhere and I don't drive, and I and all my friends are now - as much as we might wish to deny it - middle aged professionals*. At my last attempt to pull together a tabletop game, I couldn't find one night a month to assemble more than two people at once. I'm also very bad at meeting new people, so finding a group in Littleport would be a massive source of stress for me.

I wish I had some grand conclusion, but I don't. I just really miss gaming.

* Okay; some of them are young professionals, but for the most part we have jobs and the other things that keep a body from hauling an hour and a half across the country to play an evening of Pathfinder.

Friday, 8 January 2016

We're Going On a Bear Hunt, Room on the Broom and Go Go Dragons

Oh no! Sticky mud!
This Christmas, we introduced our daughter to board gaming, with the help of her grandparents. I bought her one game, they bought her two.

First up, we played We're Going on a Bear Hunt, the game of the children's classic from former Children's Laureate Michael Rosen. It's a reasonably simple chase game with a twist: Roll the die, move around the board, sometimes skip a go or draw a card which may allow you to roll again. The twist is that once a player wakes up the bear they start rolling two dice while the bear rolls one die to chase after them.

Room on the Broom is likewise based on a children's classic, and is a combination chase and set-collecting game, with an exciting sort of overlapping Moebius loop course and a dragon podding around trying to catch you. The course has two rings and you cross from one to the other each circuit, which actually confused the hell out of Arya. She also found the spinner a little more challenging than the dice. The set collecting just baffled her; the idea that she would just take the top card instead of sorting out the one she needed was clearly alien to her, and when I didn't get the card I needed to beat her, she went through the deck and found it for me, which made me very happy.

Finally, Go, Go Dragons is a race game. A scatter of discs on the table have dragon footprints face up and dragon faces in one of four colours face down. Turn up a disc, move the dragon shown one space forward. Each player 'supports' one dragon, and is supposed to wave their card excitedly when they move. As the last-place dragon reaches each line of the course, another disc is flipped and that dragon goes back a step. It says it's for older children than the other two games, but in a lot of ways is simpler.

The games are all pretty simple, but they delight Arya, which is lovely to see. She's a little wobbly on counting out her moves, but that will come in time.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

X-COM the board game

This Christmas, I got my metamour a copy of X-COM the board game, another box full of pieces from complexity merchants Fantasy Flight Games. It's designed for 1-4 players filling four roles between them:

  • The Commander places interceptors to shoot down UFOs, but more importantly oversees X-COM's funds each turn.
  • The Central Officer controls the placement of satellites to shoot down orbiting UFOs, and controls the digital app which provides UFO placements and random events.
  • The Squad Leader controls the deployment of soldiers to complete missions and to defend the X-COM base from alien assault.
  • The Chief Scientist assigns research projects and researchers to provide all roles with additional assets in order to do their jobs.
The three marshmallows standing in for
UFOs are a sign that things are not going
So, the key words you may have spotted in there were 'digital app'. You can't actually play X-COM without a tablet or smartphone to run the free companion app which provides random and plotted events and also contains the rules (there is no paper rule book.) But don't let that fool you; there are all the usual cards and tokens you'd expect from Fantasy Flight, and little plastic models to boot.

Each role has a set of accompanying asset and reserve cards. The assets have abilities to aid in the performance of the role, while the reserves are resources to be assigned: Interceptors, Satellites, Soldiers and Researchers. The Commander also gets a stack of credit chips to represent X-COM's money each round. The Chief Scientist gets a deck of technology cards, which can be researched to grant new assets. The Squad Leader has a stack of mission cards, each including three tasks, some or all of which may be filled by drawing from the alien deck, with defeated aliens becoming salvage, which can be spent by the Chief Scientist. The Commander gets a stack of crisis cards which make bad things happen. There is also a set of success tokens to track how well a task is going, and the dice. The game includes five blue six-siders, each with four blank faces and two X-COM symbols, and a red eight-sider.

Each game has an invasion scenario, which determines the base location, one of the Commander's assets, the final mission, the selection of aliens and the shit that goes down when the base gets dinged up.

Each turn begins with a timed phase, in which the app is king: research projects and defence assets are assigned, while aliens are played into base assaults, UFOs placed on the world map and Crisis cards drawn. Each time a crisis turns up, the Commander has a matter of seconds to choose between the top two cards. Similarly, the Squad Leader gets to draw two mission cards and play one, and the Chief Scientist chooses between a hand of six tech cards to fill three research slots. At the end of the timed phase, you count up assigned resources and audit against the available funds. If you've overspent, one of the continents gets more panicky. If there's an underspend, you can get more soldiers or interceptors, and believe me; you'll need them.

When base defence goes wrong, or rather, just before that
The timed phase is followed by the resolution phase. First, all crisis cards are resolved, then each player in turn runs through their tasks: Research, orbital defence, global defence, base defence and the mission. Resolving a task involves rolling a number of the blue X-COM dice and the red alien die. You can roll as many times as you like, but each time the threat level rises, and if the alien die comes up equal to or lower than the threat level, you lose your assets. Satellites and researchers are disabled for a turn; interceptors and soldiers are glooped.

Guess who's coming to dinner. Just FYI,
those are stacks of four UFOs, not single
If there are UFOs left on any continent, that continent gets more panicked. If any aliens attacking the base aren't killed, the base takes damage. As the base takes damage, more bad shit happens. As panic rises, funding drops (and the chances of getting yet more panic from overspending rises.) It is incredibly easy to enter a spiral of failure, as we discovered in the game where we ended up having to use marshmallows for UFOs because we ran out of the little plastic ones. A key part of that was that our Chief Scientist had a run of terrible dice rolls, so were were shoring up the dyke with no tools. Research really is the key to success, it seems.

Victory comes when - or rather if - you unlock the final mission and complete it, but you can lose by having the base destroyed or too many continents crash into total panic. It's tough; almost Pandemic tough.

The main strength and weakness of the game is the app. It provides a lot of pace and variation, but until you get into the swing of it it can feel a bit mechanical, as if you're just a process not a player. The rest has a fair bit of the old X-COM flavour, from the tech cards which mirror advances from the game to the crushing sense of inevitable doom that creeps over you as a play through becomes untenable and the marshmallows close in.

There is also an issue with the size of the game. The board and additional cards are the absolute limit of what my table can hold, leaving me feeling that my hardware may no longer be adequate to run a modern board game.