Posts Categorised: Sunday Almanac

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.

Continue reading…

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.

Continue reading…

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.

Continue reading…

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.

Continue reading…

Sunday Almanac: What EA’s Q4 earnings tell us about the state of free-to-play

A Stanley Kubrick shot of commodity traders in Chicago, 1949.

A Stanley Kubrick shot of commodity traders in Chicago, 1949.

Publishing behemoth EA published their fourth quarter earnings a couple of weeks back, beating Wall Street expectations and pulling down over $900 million in revenue.

But the big bottom line numbers weren’t what I was interested in. Over the past year, EA has pursued a dual-pronged mobile games strategy: nurturing original made-for-mobile franchises like Simpsons Tapped Out (fair play to them) and taking old beloved “core” gaming franchises like Dungeon Keeper and Ultima and contorting them into half-assed F2P games with a modicum of name recognition.

I fully admit to bringing my grindiest grinding axes with me when I looked at EA’s Q4 numbers: I believe EA’s strategy of mining core gaming IPs for free-to-play fodder is a grave strategic error (see this post from February for more on that), but more than that I just hate it and want to see it fail. I’m not going to get a job as a Merrill Lynch analyst anytime soon with that attitude, I guess.

So (if anything) what do EA’s Q4 earnings tell us about their free-to-play strategy?

Continue reading…

Sunday Almanac, 6 April 2014

Imagine FTL with Syd Mead art. Call me, Syd.

Imagine FTL with Syd Mead art. Call me, Syd.

Lots of site news today but before we get to that, have you seen that there’s a new Michael Lewis book? I’m only a couple of chapters in but I’m already sucked into it. Like The Big Short back in 2010, Flash Boys takes the intentionally obfuscated world of finance and makes it comprehensible to non-Wall Street muggles like me. And it’s gripping as any novel. This time Lewis takes us to Wall Street just after the housing bust to explore the rise of electronic trading and the fact that almost nobody at the major banks seemed to actually understand how it worked. Of course, someone exploited that lack of understanding to turn the banks’ captive genie against them right under their noses.

But yes: site news. To celebrate PT‘s second birthday last week, I invited game devs that we admired to contribute guest posts about their favorite iOS games. I reached out to many more than I needed, expecting a positive response rate of around 50%. Instead, we got posts back from 90% of the devs I pinged, so the “My Favorite iOS games” series will continue this week, with many more interesting revelations from devs and writers we love.

More news! I’m taking some time off over the next couple of weeks, but PT will soldier on under the steely-eyed gaze of Neumann. Dave will be running the news and we’ll have 3-4 reviews per week as usual, including a few I wrote over the last couple of weeks and stashed for later.

Sunday links after the jump. See you guys soon.

Continue reading…

Sunday Almanac, 30 March 2014

Pay 25 crystals to lower the ramp.

Pay 25 crystals to lower the ramp.

Well, I tried Boom Beach, just as I promised 164′s Brad that I would. I swear I did. I cinched the velvet cord of my gaming jacket and sat down in PT HQ’s most decadently upholstered chair and informed the castellan that I was not to be disturbed for one hour. I was prepared to give Boom Beach my full attention.

It all starts out very promisingly: Boom Beach is a big island-hopping campaign set on an infinite archipelago. Load your landing ships up with infantry and go conquer somebody’s island, then use the resources you gained to do it again to some other poor bastard.

This is a highly mercenary war, though. You can bring a gunboat along with your landing ships, and it will gamely fire off a couple of cannonades at the enemy ashore — but if you want any more naval gun support, you have to pay for it in cash money. By the shot. Supercell’s creative director must have a picture of Milo Minderbinder up in his office.

After less than ten minutes of playing, Boom Beach gave me the boot: I had performed all of the activities that I could for free, and now the semi-sequel to Clash of Clans was telling me to go do something else for the next five minutes or else cough up a wad of cash. I spent the rest of my hour reading, and I regret nothing.

I’m sure that Boom Beach’s game mechanics and monetisation scheme are both novel and state-of-the-art, but I’m just not cut out for it. It’s a game designed to be played in the margins of life: in line at the ATM, or on a crosstown bus. There’s nothing wrong with that sort of game, but it’s built for an audience that isn’t us — or at least not me. Gaming isn’t a hobby for the average Clash of Clans player, it’s a distraction. For the whale, it’s an outlet for addiction.

I would make life a lot easier for poor bedraggled Paul–who sells our ads for us–if I would only say something nice about free-to-play games and the cash-flush studios that make them every once in a while. And I would, too. I’m just waiting for a game that warrants the praise.

Sunday links after the jump.

Continue reading…

Sunday Almanac, 9 March 2014

The third way.

The third way.

Twilight Struggle is not a spectator sport.

My semi-regular board game group includes many of my oldest friends, and board game night is as important for catching up and commiserating as it is for gaming. One six-way game of Catan can take up the whole night because we’re talking about work and kids and TV as much as much as we’re trading wool and building roads.

I had bought the renowned two-player game Twilight Struggle last year and quickly found that there was a hidden cost to it. Not only did you have to learn the Cold War strategy game yourself, but you had to find one (and only one) friend willing to learn it, too.

So when I suggested to my friend Will a couple of months ago that we quietly calve off from the larger board game group to form a Twilight Struggle sub-group, it immediately felt furtive. Our secret head-to-head TS games were of an entirely different character than board game night. There was no chit-chat about annoying co-workers or funny incidents at daycare pickup: there was only Middle Eastern shuttle diplomacy and lamentations over missed opportunities to coup Italy.

Several weekly games went by before word got out: there was a second board game night happening off the reservation. The larger group was appalled. Come play Twilight Struggle with us, they said — we’ll just drink wine and watch.

With some trepidation we agreed. The experiment started in good faith, with lots of questions from from the observers and eager explanations from Will and I peppering the usual board game night chat. But Twilight Struggle is an all-consuming monster of a game. You can’t genuinely engage about dumb bosses and the last episode of Girls while you’re plotting next turn’s political realignment in Venezuela. After about an hour, questions about the game stopped coming in, and the long dining room table had developed a tacitly agreed-upon DMZ between the TS game and everyone else. I actually had a lot to say about Girls, but how can you worry about Brooklyn when all of Europe is being consumed by imperialism?

We shelved Twilight Struggle to everyone’s visible relief and broke out the crowd-pleasing Munchkin. I leaned over to Will and told him I’d taken a picture of the board state with my phone before I’d put it away. “I know,” he said, “and I bagged our hands separately. We’ll finish this on Sunday.”

Things have returned to the status quo ante. Friday nights are for the group and for conviviality. But Sundays are for war.

Sunday links after the jump.

Continue reading…