Posts Categorised: Sunday Almanac

Monday Almanac: Walls that talk

Vindolanda, photo taken by the author. Blurriness on account of the pub lunch, not the fault of the camera.

Vindolanda, photo taken by the author. Blurriness on account of the pub lunch, not the fault of the camera.

Pa Faraday was over on business from the motherland, so we took the weekend to go to Hadrian’s Wall, a British landmark that I’d never seen in all the years I’ve lived here. Moving to a new place comes with a regrettable impulse to adopt the jaded ways of a local as rapidly as possible, sacrificing the opportunity to gawp about as a tourist. I was glad for the excuse.

There’s no shortage of towns in England’s north that advertise muric attractions — fifteen-hundred years after resisting imperial rule like a toddler fights bedtime, the English are decidedly pro-Roman now. We chose more or less at random to visit Vindolanda, which involved a train to Bardon Mill, a friendly little town where the eponymous mill still stands, the pub serves a respectable lunch (try the curry), and the locals are keen to have new ears to bend about how hapless Newcastle United FC are.

Vindolanda is about a mile’s walk from the town (don’t bother getting a cab — working for the local taxi services appears to be some sort of penal duty, judging from their enthusiasm for picking up customers) and it’s one of the most remarkable ancient Roman sites I’ve ever seen. The stone walls of the 3rd-century Roman fort are partially preserved, as are the footings of the surrounding village — it’s more impressive than the nearby remains of Hadrian’s Wall, which you could stumble over without noticing. You can walk through these remarkable ruins and then visit a modern on-site museum where a carefully curated collection of artefacts from the site are on display: pilum spears, funerary stones, a huge assortment of leather shoes that look strong enough to walk in today.

Most important among the artefacts are the Vindolanda tablets, hundreds of tiny scraps of wood inscribed with (to the Romans) unimportant everyday messages that give us a crucial window into everyday life in classical Britain: troop head-counts, thank-you notes for gifts (and passive-aggressive letters wondering about the absence of a thank-you note), informal business proposals. If you look at poorly spelled and lazily punctuated internet comments and worry about the state of civilization, have a gander at the ropey cursive writing and casual approach to grammar in the Vindolanda tablets and be assured that people have been like that for at least a couple of thousand years.

If you find yourself in the north of England with an afternoon to kill, go to Vindolanda. You can even volunteer to join the ongoing excavations there, which I might do myself next summer. If you can’t make it to England, you can look at the Vindolanda tablets online — read them on a rainy day and have a friend tell you that he misses Joey Barton for a fuller Hadrian’s Wall visit experience.

It’s the summer bank holiday today, so there will be just one more post today. Almanac links after the jump.

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Sunday Almanac: Fly me to the War Moon

A whole new world.

That’s… no moon?

This isn’t The Official Pocket Tactics Review of Star Realms (Neumann will be bringing those particular tablets down from Mount Hexmap this week) but I’ve gotten a few online matches in since the game dropped for iOS on Thursday and I couldn’t resist writing about it.

My hopes for the quality of the Star Realms app were sky-high when I played the PC beta back in June. I’m disappointed to say that the mobile app doesn’t quite live up to potential. Ascension, the current king of digital deck-builders, need not fear being toppled just yet. Star Realms is, frankly, a poor experience on a phone — but the foibles are forgivable on a tablet. More than that — they’re worth putting up with because the game itself is really, really good.

One quirk of Ascension is that you’re never 100% sure who’s winning until all of the victory points are tallied up at the very end, a quality the game shares with Euro board games like Carcassonne. It’s like playing Russian roulette by taking up unhealthy diets — maybe you beat the other guy but you’re not gonna know for a while.

Star Realms, by contrast, doesn’t give any inherent victory point value to the cards. Instead, the game is about directly knocking out your opponent’s hitpoints before she knocks out yours. The hitpoint pools (“authority” in Star Realms argot) are never in doubt, which creates more palpable end-game drama than Ascension ever can with its nebulous accounting. You know when you’re in a close game, and it’s really exciting as a result. Star Realms is maybe one expansion pack away from true greatness.

Sunday links below.

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Sunday Almanac: Not at Gamescom Edition

Attendees at the first Gen Con in 1968.

Attendees at the first Gen Con in 1968. The nerds of 1968 would be the coolest kids in Shoreditch or Brooklyn today.

I’m not at Gamescom in Germany this week — or at the similarly named, counter-programmed Gen Con in Indiana. I would have loved to have been at one or the other, but Lady F and I have got a wedding to attend at the end of the week. My significant other is not one to miss a wedding because there’s a board game convention on.

Now this is going to be a pretty great wedding but I still lament not attending because like Will.i.am, I’ve got a feeling. A feeling that something really excellent is going to be announced this week. Obviously there will be a lot of video games revealed at Gamescom and Gen Con, but something tells me that we’ll have a notable for our particular wavelength on the gaming spectrum. Maybe it’s going to be a new iOS title from Firaxis, who have been awfully quiet on the mobile front after a busy 2013 – remember that they didn’t have a hand in Civ Rev 2. Or maybe it’ll be the long-rumoured tablet edition of Fantasy Flight’s Android Netrunner that I’ve been hearing whispers about for the past year.

I don’t know. This is all just a hunch. But here at PT HQ we’ll be sleeping one eye up this week.

Sunday links below.

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Sunday Almanac: Passepartout, the Accidental Bolivar

You'll be first against the wall, sir.

You’ll be first against the wall, sir.

I was surprised when Inkle revealed 80 Days and told us that in this adventure we would be cast as Passepartout, the valet to Jules Verne’s globe-trotting gentleman protagonist Phileas Fogg. Playing second fiddle to the hero is still a rare thing in games.

For gameplay purposes this didn’t turn out to be a very big deal — valet or not, you still dictate the route of your round-the-world journey in 80 Days and are responsible for the wheeling and dealing that paves the path. The significance of Inkle’s choice of Passepartout as the player’s point of view doesn’t become apparent until you’ve dug into the narrative a little.

Writing interactive fiction means finding a way to give the player room to inhabit the main character. Mass Effect does this by making Shepherd a totally blank slate and crafting a big bombastic story where fine details of her character are irrelevant. The ancient space robots coming to devour the galaxy’s sentient species don’t really care if Shepherd prefers Coke or Pepsi.

Telltale’s stories are much more intimate and can’t afford to be so blasé about who’s at their center. In Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us, Bigby is a carefully written character with a dark history that the player is role-playing rather than an avatar you’re projecting yourself onto. But Telltale has made Bigby into an alienated former villain that the supporting characters are unsure of and distant from, cleverly allowing space for the player to make Bigby into a conciliatory figure making a break with his past or a heavy who leans on his notoriety.

Inkle and 80 Days lead writer Meg Jayanth have done an even more clever turn with Passepartout, and it’s something that I marvelled at all the way through their remarkable game. The wiggle room in the narrative that allows players to channel their influence through Passepartout is built around his social status.

Being a servant, Passepartout mixes freely with lower-class passengers on the Orient Express and menial labourers in Lahore without trouble — but as the valet of an English gentlemen he dines with heiresses on airships and chats with automaton tycoons and no one raises on eyebrow. Passepartout passes effortlessly across the Victorian class divide and gives us a chance to explore as much of Jayanth’s world as we like.

The late-19th-century Victorian period of 80 Days isn’t ours, exactly (unless I’ve missed the mechanical elephants at Paddington Station — drop me a discreet line if so) but it’s just as much of a political powder keg. Monarchies and empires are bloated, decaying, and overripe for overthrow. The most whimsical thing about 80 Days isn’t the hover-cars or armies of mechanical men – it’s that our man Passepartout is always landing in the right place at the right time to knock over the first domino in a revolution. He’s a Mister Bean of regime change, accidentally pulling the lever that costs a satrap his head.

Amazingly, someone who’s played and enjoyed 80 Days might never experience any of that. Not only is the game world enormous, but Inkle are perfectly happy for you to play 80 Days as a straight adventure, briefly taking in the sights as you speed across the globe to win Fogg’s wager. But if you slow down long enough for your Passepartout to inadvertently raise a little hell, you’ll be glad you did.

Sunday links after the jump.

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Sunday Almanac: The Longest Patrol

Tony Tony Tony has done it again.

Tony Tony Tony has done it again.

I’ve just returned to my writing grotto atop windy Mount Hexmap after four days’ holiday in Marrakech where I ate my body weight in tajines and got beard-grooming tips from a place where beards have been fashionable since the Second Punic War.

I obviously didn’t do very much gaming on this trip save for on the flights and during hotel downtime, but I was surprised by what I found myself firing up when I had a few moments to kill. An iPad full of the hottest, latest and greatest stuff — and with my finger free to tap on any of it I found it gravitating to Ace Patrol Pacific Skies.

You can’t call Ace Patrol “underrated” around here — we gave a 4 to its first incarnation and a 5 to the second, then bigged it up in the year-end awards. But it still doesn’t seem to command the dewy-eyed adoration I think it deserves.

Ace Patrol puts you in charge a four-man “squadron” of fighter pilots; the original set over the trenches of WWI and the second in the Pacific in the Second World War. Your pilots fly a randomly-generated campaign of missions that you control in turn-based action against an opposing squadron. The moves available to your pilot in any turn are limited by physics (are you going fast enough to attempt a half-loop?) and by their own knowledge (how do you do this wingover thing again?) which grows as they gain experience.

The original Ace Patrol from last spring is an uncut diamond, and the semi-sequel Pacific Skies released at the end of the summer is still a bit rough but it’s a bigger rock, with much more to appreciate. Leading your little squadron through each turn-based dog-fight is a classic Sid Meier design that works equally well on two levels of access. Like Civ, you can just jump in at a low difficulty level and play the game by feel and intuition and have a great time with it. But advanced players can crank up the challenge and approach each aerial furball like a chess match, planning two or three moves into the future and setting up your pilots’ moves to match.

Eurogamer ran a great feature last week based on a visit to Firaxis HQ that reveals a little bit about how things work at the House that Sid Built. “Sid makes lots of games and brings them in. He’s perpetually prototyping things,” says Beyond Earth designer (and Pocket Tactics reader) Will Miller.

I like to think that Ace Patrol was a rough prototype that Uncle Sid was just messing around with and that Firaxis decided might just make a profit. The game has the charmingly slapdash feel of a soapbox derby racer: not all of the animations sync up perfectly and once in a while the AI will zig when it clearly should have zagged. But it’s a joy to play and I keep on rolling new squadrons and starting fresh campaigns almost a year after its release.

Uncle Sid is but a man and will some day pass from this mortal coil, or — heaven forfend — might just want to hang up his spurs eventually. I sure as heck want to play more of his games before he does either of those things. I’d love to see 2K and Firaxis give us more of these Sid Meier deep cuts — games that aren’t robust enough to get the full Civilization treatment but that hold up nicely as $5 mobile adventures.

Sunday links after the jump.

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Sunday Almanac: Sympathy for Benedict Arnold

Arnold's coat gets a little redder at Saratoga, where he was wounded in action.

Arnold’s coat gets a little redder at Saratoga, where he was wounded in action.

I have been enjoying the heck out a history podcast called Revolutions recently. It’s done by Mike Duncan, who did the inexhaustibly comprehensive History of Rome podcast over the last couple of years. Revolutions has just completed a thirty-episode tour of the American Revolution, and the surprising part of it for me is the story of Benedict Arnold.

Everything that American schoolchildren learn about Revolutionary War general Benedict Arnold can be summed up rather concisely: he was a no-good rat fink who turned his coat for the King when the colonies needed him most. But as you learn about Arnold, you come to realise that that neat little factoid leaves out the really interesting stuff. Duncan’s podcast tells me that Arnold was a battlefield genius who was perennially denied credit for his successes by his glory hound boss Horatio Gates. Arnold suffered countless indignities before finally breaking and offering his services to the British.

It’s probably a bit too far to argue that Arnold was misunderstood, exactly — he’s still a no-good rat fink turncoat. But the Revolutions podcast takes a one-dimensional villain and makes him into a nuanced character who merits a touch of sympathy. If any of you have got a good book to recommend about the man, I’m all ears.

Sunday links after the jump.

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Sunday Almanac: Foyles ain’t scared

The old Foyles, 1955.

The old Foyles, 1955.

When I first came to London, many years ago now, Foyles was my first friend. I had moved to a new city from a different country and I didn’t know a single soul when I landed. My first free afternoon was spent wandering up Charing Cross Road from Trafalgar Square, nosing about the cozy, musty booksellers that line that street. But when I got to the top of the road, I found Foyles, a four-storey giant that towered over every other bookshop in the city. I spent the rest of the day there, and many more since.

You won’t be surprised that the guy who runs Pocket Tactics reads a lot of books on his iPad, but I’m not ready to leave Foyles and its brethren behind yet. I worry about Foyles. A lot.

The family-owned company reported a sales decline of 2.5% last year, and hey, man — I’m part of the problem. I probably read one printed-on-pulp book for every three or four digital books I read, and more of my spending shifts away from Foyles to Amazon and iTunes every year. Lately when I walk out of Foyle’s with a purchase in my hand it feels more and more like buying watery lemonade from a kid’s sidewalk stall — a neighbourly obligation rather than a genuine act of commerce.

How do you solve the problem of your sales eroding in the face of advancing technology that cuts you out of the loop? Foyles have decided that the answer is to open a bigger store. You read that right.

This month, Foyles vacated the low-ceilinged warren they’ve occupied for over a hundred years and moved next door into a big, airy, modern space. I visited it today for the first time. There’s a wide central atrium down the center of the stairwell that leads to a massive skylight. The floors are brand new hardwood whose smell mixes amiably with the scent of paper and glue from the merchandise. The in-store wifi network offers a search app that tells you which shelf you can a particular book on. It’s a wonderful place. It feels expensive.

The lavish new space fills me with anxiety. If your friend tells you he’s having trouble making ends meet and his solution is to buy a Ferrari and hope for the best, you’d probably take him aside for a chat. But I can’t have a come-to-Jesus talk with Foyles, and even if I could — what would I say? I’m complicit in its demise. A world without bookshops sounds like an awful place, but apparently not awful enough to keep my finger off the BUY links on the iBooks Store.

I don’t know anything about the bookselling business, and I do know that it takes money to make money. So maybe the beautiful new store isn’t the Bad Decision Palace that it feels like to me. I hope Foyles’ decision to move into it doesn’t kill my friend.

And yeah, I did buy a physical book today.

Sunday links after the jump.

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Sunday Almanac: Letter from Helsinki

I've had reindeer cheese today.

I’ve had reindeer cheese today.

The lovely folks at Pocket Gamer invited me over to Helsinki for their second PG Connects conference. Along with judging the Big Indie Pitch, I’m on a panel entitled “Why do we need the games media?”, which strikes me a bit like asking the barber if you need a haircut. But hey, I’m not one to sneer at a reason to go to Helsinki.

This is a beautiful city with a lot of trees, water and cantankerous sea gulls. Gothic revival buildings sit comfortably next to more modern structures, though it’s evident Helsinki has consciously sought to maintain an Old Europe feel — there’s very few buildings taller than the two cathedrals and definitely nothing that you wouldn’t flatter by calling a skyscraper. The result is a cosmopolitan city that feels like a town.

There’s a delightfully weird edge to Helsinki, though. Walking near the Senate Square with PG‘s Chris James earlier, we were accosted by a couple of grifters trying to press CDs into our hands that were dubiously labelled “Operating System”. That’s not a proposition I’ve ever received before (not even in San Francisco), and my reluctance must have been instantly apparent because one of the guys immediately switched to plan B. “It’s a video game,” he reassured us. When that impelled neither Chris nor I to make any move towards a disc, he went for the Hail Mary. “It’s porn.” I wonder if that’s ever worked for him.

Besides the coverage of PG Connects this week, you can expect an interview with Playdek about Twilight Struggle that I did last week, plus Kelsey’s review of Wolfgang Kramer’s 6 Takes! and my verdict on Panzer Tactics HD. Sunday links after the jump.

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