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Power Grid

January 14, 2013 3 comments

The board game that most of us learn to play whilst growing up is Monopoly. When played incorrectly (which most people do), it teaches the players that managing money is all about luck, bluffing and buying the first thing you see. When played using the rules provided in the box1, it teaches us that managing money is all about arguing and swindling. As life lessons go, both of those are pretty rubbish, which goes to show that if you want to learn about money, don’t learn it from anything called Monopoly.

Instead, you should learn some lessons from the excellent German boardgame, Power Grid. Designed by the award winning Friedemann Friese, this complicated looking but surprisingly simple game actually does what Monopoly only claims to; it’s about seizing corporate control and being the sole controller of a particular resource. As the name suggest, the commodity in question is electrical power; you and your friends via for control of a nation’s power stations. The game is German, so the default map is Germany. However, other boards are available for those obsessed with maps and simulation. The aim of the game is to provide power to as many different cities as you can. Players bid on types of power stations, some more efficient than others.

The game in which everyone wants the Wind Turbines. Except Daily Mail readers, of course.

The game in which everyone wants the Wind Turbines. Except Daily Mail readers, of course.

The twiddle here is that this is really a game about managing cost, making budgets and bluffing. At the start of the game, the less useful stations are the first available to buy. Typically, these are also hungry for fuel, and you also have to buy those resources. The more efficient you are in your bidding power stations the better, as it means you can afford to get better equipment as the game progresses.

You might be wondering how a game about budgeting can be fun; well, it’s all in the way to try to outthink and out-bluff your fellow players. This is a game about picking your moment and purchasing wisely. Instead of the utterly random elements of Monopoly, the player gets rewarded for thinking ahead and out thinking their competitors.

The map provides a number of strategy elements as well, but handling power and cash is the key part of winning here.
Power Grid is a family game, though one that is squarely pitched at teenagers and older. Though the subject matter feels dry, it’s absurdly fun to see that there’s a bargain on the table and then plotting to see how you can be the one to own it. It’s fun but also sneakily educational, which is always nice. Of all the games that combine world domination with shopping (and they are quite a few) Power Grid wins hands down.


1: Johnny Nexus wrote an excellent article on why Monopoly never gets played properly here.

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Categories: Games, Reviews

Black Library Weekender

November 5, 2012 Leave a comment

Rather than the usual format for a blog post, in which I wax lyrical1 about some nerd thing or other that has caught my eye this week, I’m going talk about what I did this weekend. Which is go to a luxury hotel in Nottingham and hang out with book geeks.

The Black Library Weekender was a two-day event focusing on the books produced by the world’s fifth largest publisher of Science Fiction. I am a big fan of the Black Library, partially because I was bitten by the Warhammer bug at a very young age2, but also because it deals with expanding consistent world settings; everything BL produces is part of a growing mythology, and everyone is invited to dive in. The imagination, much like sports, can be more fun with the addition of some basic rules, and the loose guidelines that define the worlds of Warhammer tend to be a lot of fun.3

So what happens when hundreds of fans turn up at a really nice place with conference facilities, a bar and a spa? A good time is had by all it seems, though I didn’t see many other fans in the swimming pool (they were mostly in the bar). Personal highlights for me include getting to chat away with the likes of Clint Werner4, who is very epitome of a Texan Gentleman, getting to geek out slightly at Aaron Dembski-Bowden5, and talk to a host of authors, editors and fans. (I was stunned to learn that they are people still using the old-school Rogue Trader rules to play RPGs. That is deeply hardcore.)

I also got to interview Dan Abnett for Starburst Magazine. I’m a big fan of Dan’s work, and it was a lot of fun to do. He’s a nice chap and I got some great stuff to write up later. I probably came across like a huge fanboy, but then that is who I am.

I totally played it cool, as you can see.

As an event, it was mostly seminars and signings, and there was quite a bit of overlap with the Horus Heresy talks; I learned a lot about what was coming up over the next 18 months for that series, and much less about other lines. However, I was also able to grab multiple viewpoints and takes on that bestselling series, so nothing was wasted. Another highlight was some great insights into the adventure gamebook industry.

The evening social events included The Pitch Factor, a Pop Idol style event where nervous unpublished authors pitched their ideas to two editors and an English teacher6. I had a go myself, and got the reality TV experience7, but it was an awful lot of fun. There was also a quiz, which was essentially authors versus the fans. Technically the fans won, but judging by the amount the laughter, I think everyone did.

It was a large, but intimate feeling event. The Black Library ‘tribe’ is a rather awesome one, and I can’t wait to do something like this again soon.


1: Or if you’ve met me, babble in excitable Geordie whalesong.
2: There is no known cure for Geek. It may mutate, but it can never be cured, and that’s fine the way it is.
3: Black Library, and indeed Games Workshop, have a policy that can best described as “It’s all true, especially the lies”. Much of the work is told from a specific viewpoint, and no one pretends that any one faction has the full facts. This means that stories are stack upon stories, creating a deep yet flexible world. This is a very British approach to dealing with story settings that feature multiple creative talents. Doctor Who has a similar policy.
4: He writes some cracking stuff; if gritty fantasy featuring rat-men and disease sounds like your thing, check out Dead Winter.
5: Aaron is a great writer who should be more famous than he is. He also wrote a great article on canon here.
6: Legion of the Damned writer Rob Sanders. Possibly the coolest English teacher ever, for a given value of cool. I may have babbled incoherently at him at one point about his cinematic scenes in The Primarchs.
7: I should have gone for My Little Primarch, also known as We buy any Khan.

Categories: Books, Comic Books, Reviews

Person of Interest

October 12, 2012 Leave a comment

Once in a good long while, you get a crime drama series that does something different with the basic premise of ‘they fight crime’. Alongside the many variants of Law & Order and CSI we now have Person of Interest, a show that owes more to classic crime fighting action heroes such as The Shadow and Batman than it does to the usual formula of “the law always wins”.

The premise is very comic-book like. A reclusive billionaire genius has access to limited information on forthcoming crimes. He recruits a down-on-his-luck ex-CIA agent to help him to get more information, and together they fight crime. The agent, John Reese, is a one man army with his own problems. His motivations for doing the things he does are complex, but you always get the feeling that he’s always one step away from being a true villain without that being played up a clichéd, angst-driven way. Actor Jim Caviezel1 does a good line in gritty voiced, hard boiled bad-ass, and it’s hard not to like this hero, who’s known to the police as ‘that guy in the suit’2.

The Shadow Radio Cover

The Shadow is a grandaddy of crime dramas featuring people with unusual abilities, and a clear source of inspiration for Person of Interest.

He’s supported by Harold Finch3, a crippled genius who has access to all the surveillance systems ever, and an unusual way of predicting crimes. I’ll avoid spoiling exactly what that is, but this element lends a further air of the fantastic to the whole show; it’s entirely believable, and yet incredible at the same time, making a Person of Interest less of a cop show and more of a super-hero story where nobody has super powers or wears a cape. It might not surprise you to learn that the producer is Jonathan Nolan, who co-wrote the relatively down-to-earth Batman movie The Dark Knight alongside his brother Christopher.

As the show progresses, the cast grows; we meet further heroes who again are regular people with an interest in keeping the streets clean and saving lives. Indeed, they’re introduced so subtly that it takes a while for us to realise that actually these characters are remarkable crime-fighters in their own right. Of course, they are recurring villains as well, and they are exactly what they need to be; real people, with real motivations doing bad things for reasons that they can justify and feel righteous for doing.

Person of Interest is now in its second season, and it keeps getting better and better as it goes on. I have high hopes for this show and I hope it inspires a renaissance in good solid story telling which features not indestructible action heroes, but remarkable people doing amazing things.


1: As badasses go, he’s an excellent choice. He’s also played incredibly powerful humans in the past; he was Jesus Christ in the The Passion of the Christ.
2: A regular suit, not a superhero costume. Though it may as well be.
3: Played by Michael Emerson, who’s made a career out of playing the quirky and off key. Previous roles include clowns and serial killers, which I’d argue is almost the same niche.

Categories: Comic Books, Reviews, TV

Prometheus

June 8, 2012 Leave a comment

Fear is one of the greatest challenges that art faces; trying to communicate fear is a difficult task, and fear in and of itself can restrict and strangle an artist in such a way that their work comes out warped. One could cheerfully argue that Hollywood, with its urge to ensure that each and every movie it produces is a blockbuster, is plagued by fear. Fear is also hard to use in art; truly scary movies are rare, and the true spine-chillers are always memorable.

I bring this up because this is the main problem with the movie Prometheus. What starts out as a great film about the nature of man and gods is plagued by having to be part of a legacy of scary movies. By attempting to place itself in the Alien1 mythology, it also attempts to emulate parts of that franchise that fans will enjoy. I have no idea why, but I suspect it’s easier to make a movie if you can strongly link it to other successes.

Looks gorgeous, great acting, great idea. If only they had the guts to make it not part of a franchise and go with the promise it gives in the first minutes of the movie.

Sadly, this ruins the feature. It fails to use fear to entertain, and fear of being a failure means the production was attached to something it never needed to be part of. Which is a shame, as the first 40 minutes of Prometheus are near-perfect. Atmosphere is established early on, and a good, old-fashioned tale about mans place amongst the stars is begun2. The sets are gorgeous, the actors are superb, the characters, though plain, seem up to the task of carrying the story and the whole thing looks fantastic. Anyone who grew up with a H. R. Giger poster on their wall will find a lot to love here.

And then, for no good reason, it descends into gore-splatter, knee jerk horror. I am loathe to give out spoilers (so I won’t), but there is one scene which is so trope filled, so cliché ridden that I simply turned off, and it made me feel like I was watching two movies stitched together. I expect Ridley Scott to handle his characters much better than this, and though it’s not as bad as other scenes in the same franchise 3, it brings the movie to a nadir it never quite recovers from.

Throw in a truly dire, CGI heavy scene towards the end and we are left with no surprises and a broken promise. Prometheus should have brought fire to the fearful movie moguls of Hollywood, banishing concerns about clever movies. Instead, it fails, and becomes just another movie about monsters in space.


1: Various people, including the movies producers, have stated that it’s not a prequel to Alien, and they’re right; that would be Alien Versus Predator. The problem is that the movie is hampered by its ties to franchise.
2: One could talk a great deal of horse-hockey about wounds in the side of Promethean giants, the nature of god and all the rest of it. Indeed, this sort of deep examination of the movie is valid, and probably what the director wanted. It’s just that because the last half of the movie is so dire, I cease to care about the clever subtext – make the movie not a pile of pants first, then add in the things that will keep Film Studies teachers in a job for the next 20 years.
3: If you’ve seen Aliens Versus Predator: Requiem you know what I mean.

Categories: Movies, Rants, Reviews

The Grind

May 24, 2012 Leave a comment

Like many a genre defining movie, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels has a lot to answer for, because it has inspired not only a huge box of rip-offs, most of them have been terrible. Sad to say, low budget feature The Grind can be added to the list of gritty, London based dramas that promises much but fails to deliver.

It stars Danny John Jules, an extremely fine actor who is best known for his role as The Cat from Red Dwarf, but is one of those incredibly talented types who shines in many roles. If you’re very old, you may remember him from Scum, a much better gritty British b-movie that I was really hoping The Grind would be. It also features actress Zoe Tapper, who should be familiar to fans of Demons1 and Survivors, though she’s almost criminally underused in this. The film’s star is Freddie Connor, who turns in a credible performance as a man who’s in over his head. Connor carries the story as best he can, but it’s clear that there isn’t much to carry.

It’s main selling point is “some bloke from Eastenders.” I’m sure the Jamie Foreman fanclub is delighted with The Grind. And by fanclub, I mean his mum.

The Grind is well named; it takes about 90 minutes to tell a half-an-hour tale, and though I’m typically loathe to be overly negative about a small-budget movie, its biggest flaw is that the story isn’t that good. The production is fine (though obviously on a budget) and it has a great supporting cast. It’s just a huge pity that the central premise has been done to death, and adds nothing new to genre.

There’s very little here for any sort of fan; fans of the Danny John Jules are better off watching him in Red Dwarf or maybe Maid Marian and those who love gritty, cockney based dramas have much better things to choose from. There just aren’t enough dans of boring, low budget trash, I suppose.


1: By fans, I mean Stephen Smith in Burnley, and his cat.

Categories: Reviews

Eternal Law

February 27, 2012 3 comments

If you were very lucky, you will have missed ITV’s recent attempt at genre drama; supernatural stinker Eternal Law1. The idea is quite a nice one; angels in the form of man take the guise of barristers to defend the innocent, typically fending off similarly disguised demons as they do so. Potentially, this could have been a great mix of court-room drama and supernatural adventure.

What we got was a poorly acted, badly thought out melodrama. It’s almost as if the producers thought that the idea (which though nice, isn’t terribly original) would be strong enough to carry the whole show by itself. The problem wasn’t just one element; this was a potentially brilliant, genre defining TV show let down by a lack of decent stories. Plenty of good ideas and yet not a single one of them was handled well.

The main characters had a lot of potential; the naive and child-like Tom, the bitter yet savvy Zak and the mysterious and capable Mrs Sherringham may have been a bit cliché, but they were strong enough to carry the story. Sadly, instead of letting the viewers getting to know the heroes, we instead got a lot quick fixes and most of the problems in the plot seemed to be resolved either by having the heroes shout at someone, or another character having an inexplicable change of heart.

Great idea, pity about the execution

Eternal Law was filled with some great moments; two angels sitting on top of York Minster having a swift drink talking about saving the world through better legal-aid sold the show to me initially, as did the various one-liners. After all, few shows ever get to have someone say “Hosanna singing ponce”. But nice set scenes do not a story make, and it’s main problem was that it couldn’t decide if it was a low-budget courtroom drama show or a low-budget supernatural thriller. By trying to be too many things, it ended up being nothing.

The real shame here is that not only has the show been cancelled, every botched job like this makes it harder for similar ideas to take their place. Eternal Law wasn’t a bad idea, it was just badly made. It’s tempting to poke fun at the show, but its so poorly put together that I suspect strong language may somehow make it fall apart. I haven’t the heart to be mean, because it’s so naff that I feel sorry for it.

If you want an interesting take on the divine and infernal interfering with the affairs of man, I recommend you check out Chris F Holm’s latest book Dead Harvest instead. Not only is it a better idea, it’d make a cracking bit of telly.


1: Previous efforts to make interesting genre shows have included Primeval and Demons. Whereas the former probably deserves its own post, the latter was the forgotten offspring of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Coronation Street without any of the charm that might imply. Best let sleeping Demons lie.

Categories: Reviews, TV

Black Dynamite

February 20, 2012 Leave a comment

In recent years, Hollywood has not only looked to its past for new ideas, it’s also began to be brutally honest about its history. This has yielded some great movies, but one you may have missed is Blaxploitation1 parody/homage, Black Dynamite.

Nostalgia works best when it’s done with open eyes. This is doubly true for parody. Black Dynamite is not just a pastiche of the highlights of the Blaxploitation genre, it’s a love poem to a wealth of cinema history that many of us disregard.

The plot of the movie follows the adventures of Black Dynamite, a Vietnam veteran and former CIA agent who cleans up the streets in response to his brother being killed. So far, so clichéd, but then, that’s the point. Dynamite is an excellent martial artist, a genius and of course, a superb lover. As the plot of the movie gets more and more unlikely, Dynamite’s near super-human prowess gets equally ridiculous. This allows the movie to start with a parody of the better examples of the genre and then continue to poke fun at more shoddily produced films that where so popular in the Seventies.

A near perfect parody of the genre

In addition to being genuinely funny, clever and well observed, the attention to detail on the feature is incredible; for a start, its shot on the sort of film they used back in the 70’s. Deliberate continuity errors are made, as anachronisms. If you aren’t into the sort of film , Black Dynamite is parodying, you’ll find it amusing. If you’re a massive nerd who happens to know that Rudy Ray Moore used a red boom mike (and frequently kept it in shot), you’ll be bowled over. 2

At its heart, Black Dynamite is one of those American comedies where they layer the jokes on thick in the hope of making you laugh. The reason it makes you laugh so loud is because though many of the gags will fly straight over your head, the sheer volume of ridiculous, genre driven laughs will crack a smile, even if you’ve never even heard of Shaft.


1: Blaxploitation is a genre of movie that came from the 1970’s. They tend to be set in the USA, and feature a heroic black character (usually a man from the ghettos) fighting corruption on multiple levels, and are typically action-driven crime thrillers like Shaft.
2: Okay, you and the one other person in the world who noticed that. Nerd.

Categories: Geek, Reviews