Monday, 30 November 2020

Reading Update

 Back in May, during Lockdown #1 when I had little gaming news to report, I posted an update on books I'd been reading.  Since we're now in a similar position for the next few weeks here in England, here is another list of books I've been reading (thank goodness for Goodreads or I'd never remember which ones I'd read!)...

Wiffle Lever to Full!: Daleks, Death Stars and Dreamy Eyed Nostalgia at the Strangest Sci Fi Conventions by Bob Fischer

An odd a lot reading this was a 99p special on the Kindle and is an account of the author attending various science fiction conventions.  It avoids being too mocking and if you've ever attended a con you'll recognise lots in the book.  My only experience of conventions was attending a couple back in the mid 80s in Glasgow.  They were great fun and I got to meet one of my favourite authors, Harlan Ellison, but I have an abiding memory of a group of us being chased out of a screening of Star Trek 2 by a mob of angry Trekkies for laughing during Spock's funeral scene (apologies for the spoiler!)... somehow we lived to tell the tale!

Eastern Horizons by Levison Wood

A really good travel writer, this is an account of his first big overland trip through Eastern Europe, Iran, Afghanistan and into India.

Rogues edited by George RR Martin & Gardner Dozois

This is one of those collections of short stories which can be very hit and miss... on balance there were a few clunkers but mostly the stories were pretty good, especially the Neil Gaiman and Joe Abercrombie stories.   There were also a few writers I hadn't come across who I really should follow up on.

White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s by Joe Boyd

If you're a fan of late 60's/early 70's British psychedelia and folk music you'll have come across Joe Boyd.  He ran the UFO Club in London and produced bands like early Pink Floyd, the Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention and Nick Drake.  His accounts of the era are fascinating as well as his stories of organising tours with a range of Jazz and Blues artists in the 60s.

Written in History: Letters that Changed the World by Simon Sebag Montefiore

This takes historical letters from figures throughout history and attempts to use them to offer insights into the events or the people involved.  Sadly the letters quoted are often very short with little context and really tell you nothing about the person or the times.   I can't help feel this could have been done much better and it felt like a real wasted opportunity.

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

It's ages since I've read a Pratchett book so I decided to start working my way through the Night Watch books.  I was at uni when a friend mentioned this new book he'd read called The Colour of Magic and I've been a fan ever since... I could go on for ages about the many layers in a TP book as well as the gentle Wodehousian humour, the philosophy and the insight he had into so many aspects of life but I'd better stop now!

The Green Man's Heir by Juliet E McKenna

My best friend recommended this (another Amazon 99p special).. an interesting take on traditional British myths and legends in a contemporary setting.  I guess it has a similar vibe to the Ben Aaronovitch Rivers of London books (which I can highly recommend)...this isn't anywhere as good but was still an interesting read

Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

Imagine Scooby Doo or the Hardy Boys once they've grown up and are trying to deal with the PTSD impact of all those mysteries as youngsters.  Now add in a dollop of the Cthulhu mythos and you have Meddling Kids.  An entertaining romp that avoids being a complete Scooby Doo spoof and is more a tribute to all  those children's books and tv series... the setting is appropriately in the Blyton Hills, by the Zoinks River... good fun.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

A book I knew relatively little about other than vague memories of the 80s tv adaptation. Absolutely fantastic and definitely one you should read!  A not totally unkind look at  a fading world, written in the 1940s when it seemed that the aristocratic world might not survive the huge changes of the war.

The Last of the Romans by Derek Birks

Another 99p Amazon deal... 99p too much!  I've always found the Arthurian/Late Roman period fascinating and thought this might be a good Cornwell-esque romp.  It isn't.  Shockingly bad... an unlikeable character who can single-handedly slaughter his way through hundreds of enemies, sustaining serious wounds that he later shrugs off, while spouting terrible, terrible dialogue and a complete lack of characterisation.   Perhaps I should come off the fence and say what I really think...

Normal People by Sally Rooney

A recent tv series on UK tv (which I missed) I was recommended this as having a similar feel to Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City books (which I loved).  It charts the twists and turns of 2 people's relationships at school and then at university.  To be honest I gave up part way through as I simply didn't care about any of them. 

The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell

An attempt to re-dress the balance after reading the dreck  that was 'The Last of the Romans'.  I think this is probably the best of Cornwell's books... an attempt at a 'realistic' Arthurian book, given that we really know very little of this period.  It's a great read and the trilogy is worth checking out if you haven't read it.  The only  downside is that it reminded me that I find the whole  Arthurian myth very depressing... everyone betrays everyone else and there is an inevitable sense of doom as the story progresses... or is it just me?

The Worlds War by David Olusoga

A Father's Day present from my son. this is a really interesting look at the black and minority ethnic soldiers from parts the British Empire who fought in the First World War.  Some really interesting insights into the huge contribution made by soldiers, especially from India, whose experiences are often overlooked or unrecognised

Empire in Black and Gold by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky is one of those authors whose books I've seen on the shelf in bookshops and the library but not really looked at.  I picked this up (yes...another cheap Amazon deal) and really enjoyed it. To be honest the setting and background does read like something he'd knocked up for a role-playing campaign (and it turns out he's a LARPer and role-player so perhaps I'm right!) and when describing it to others it sounds a bit rubbish... different races/peoples with aspects of insects in a fantasy world.  So, for example there are Beetle-people who are engineers, Dragonflies and Mantis people who are warriors, Mystic Moth people etc. And then there are the Wasps who are basically insect-Nazis, set on conquering the world and bending everyone to their will.  Despite this slightly dismissive description of the setting it was a really entertaining book which I rattled through in no time at all.  One of those books where you finish a chapter and then think...maybe I'll just read the next one...  highly recommended although I was a bit put off when I discovered that that there are at least 10 books in the series!

Factfulness by Hans Rosling

A really interesting take on the world situation (admittedly pre-Covid) and how our understanding is based on a very slanted world view and not necessarily on fact.  It also looks at how using data can shine a light on how things really are...often in a more positive way than you might imagine.  This was recommended during a presentation at work by our Data Team and I then discovered my son had a copy which he lent me.  Recommended... especially at the moment when actual facts and data are being misused so frequently

Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith

If I was to say, why not read a book about octopuses and their brains you might think 'it's ok, Ill pass', but this is a simply fascinating look at how brains and consciousness have evolved and how cephalopods may be the closest thing we have to a different form of consciousness and intelligence. A journey through evolutionary biology and philosophy in a very accessible way this is highly recommended although it my put you off eating calamari for life!!

Thursday, 26 November 2020

Dragonquest - a role-playing nostalgia trip

 Role playing  was my first gateway into wargames, some time back around the late 1970s.  My best friend and I spent a lot of our teenage years exploring Dungeons and Dragons (when there was only 1 edition) and then a host of other games...Call of Cthulhu, Gamma World, Chivalry and Sorcery.  I seem to remember we had a particular fondness for game from FGU such as Space Opera and that had a table and a dice roll for just about everything.  This carried on into my uni years with a very active club at Strathclyde Uni (who were secretly the cabal that ran the students union, but that's another story!).  Through RPGs I'd also discovered historical games but these always ran a parallel but separate course for me.

After I left uni and moved south I found a small group of gamers in Surrey...remember this was in the days of cards in games shops (when games shops were a thing) or small ads in a magazine.  This lasted a year or so until work and stuff got in the way and that was that.  Many years later my son discovered my old D&D books in the loft and we've played a few games but never as part of a group.

Back in the summer an old friend from uni days posted on Facebook that he was planning an online role playing session and I decided to take a very nostalgic plunge back into the world of RPGs.  We have been playing every fortnight since June... a mix of players from Britain, Canada and the USA,  all negotiating time zones and hoping our wifi connections hold out.  

We've been playing Dragonquest... a very old school 1980s set of rules (I mean... just look at that cover art!).  The setting is an unusual middle-eastern style world... think ancient Persia... with the usual mix of fantasy races and settings but tweaked to reflect the setting.  The rules are very detailed in a way that only 1980s games can be.  Character creation includes roles for whether you are right or left handed, which birth aspect you have etc, Similarly the combat rules have a host of modifiers and tables and the magic rules seem even more complex: it could become very easy to get bogged down in this but  we have played fairly fast and loose with this and it hasn't got in the way of the game or the story... our DM is very skilled at winging it, an essential skill for anyone running an RPG.  You can always guarantee the players will immediately do the opposite of what you expect and you need someone with the flexibility and creativity to go with it and avoid the game becoming broken.

We've been using Roll20 as a way of hosting the games... to be honest I don't really know how it all works but luckily the GM and some of the players do.  The nice feature is that the character sheets are all hosted on the system and this takes care of all the modifiers and dice rolls automatically for me 

So far we've dealt with an plague that was turning villagers into flesh eating zombies and are now delving deep into an ancient tomb full of traps, orcs (who are actually very friendly) and undead spirits.  My character, Farshad the Halfling, was meant to be a sneaky thief who would excel at sneaking and stay out of trouble, has taken on a life and character of his own and I've discovered he's actually a psychopathic Murder-Hobbit who tends to get stuck into a fight with his short sword and dagger at the slightest provocation... you can take the boy out of Glasgow...

It's been great fun and a really good return to an aspect of the hobby that I'd forgotten.

Thursday, 5 November 2020

The Great War 1914-1916


As promised here is the update no one is waiting for on the progress of our Paths of Glory WW1 grand strategy game.  We've been progressing slowly... a turn seems to take us over an hour and I usually have a headache from juggling all the possibilities and limited resources (It's a bit like being at work!) so we've been playing a round or so on occasional days and leaving the game set up.  

We've now reached the beginning of 1916.  1915 was a busy year...

Early in 1915 Callum's combined German and Austro-Hungarian armies managed to encircle several Russian armies, placing them out of supply.  One of these was down to me overextending my lines and the other due to not paying attention (too much vodka and caviar!).  I desperately tried to break through to relieve them but couldn't do it and they were all permanently destroyed...disaster!  Luckily although the Russians are a bit rubbish, they get lots of reinforcements...just as well really!

The Bulgarians and the Serbs decide to ignore the war and each other

Next Bulgaria and Italy entered the the war.  I'm not sure this really helped either of us as it just meant more rather weedy troops to try and mobilise with the same number of Ops Points.  So far little has happened on the Italian front

Northern Italy

I managed to deploy the Russian Caucuses army into the Middle East although neither  of us could see the point of trying to fight in that theatre... there seems little to be gained for a lot of effort and it could become a distracting sideshow (but this may have been a mistake).

The Germans redeployed some of their armies from the East to the West and to guard the Italian border.  Mata Hari had used her fiendish Dutch wiles on someone from Allied High Command to reveal my hand of cards and so Callum knew Italy was due to enter the war soon.

By the end of 1915 Italy was proving a minor sideshow with little happening.  Still nothing happening at all in the Middle East.  

On the Western Front it certainly wasn't all quiet as a series of pointless attacks caused heavy casualties on both sides, made no progress and then had reinforcements being fed into the mincer so we could do it all again... just like the real thing! 

I had the option to bring Romania into the war but didn't really see the point... they only have a few Corps to deploy and keeping them neutral protects Russia's southern flank.

At this point we both ran out of steam.  Neither of us were really enthused to carry on and after leaving it for a couple of days we've decided to declare a cessation of hostilities.  The game was interesting and works well in recreating the frustrations of the static western front and the fluid, mobile east.  The problem was that it was all becoming a bit repetitive:  build-up, attack, losers retreat and attackers decline to follow up (we learned early on that salients are bad places to find yourself in), reinforce , and repeat....

With hindsight we might have done a few things differently.  We both found ourselves getting drawn into turns where we just reacted to each other's moves rather than pursuing any kind of grand strategy (ha!... as if I actually had a strategy!!).  We'd also ignored the 'sideshow theatres of the Middle East and Italy and, although these may not contribute much strategically, they do increase the general war effort which allows new cards to be brought into play.  For the Allies this could mean the  USA entering the war and could enable the Central Powers to force Russia to withdraw due to revolution, both potentially game changers.  

I think we'll play it again at some point but for now it's packed up and we'll try something less demanding in time and brainpower instead.