Posts Categorised: Sunday Almanac

Sunday Almanac: Odds, Ends and Odd Ends

Lady F and I were at the RA this weekend to see the Dennis Hopper photography exhibit, and were greeted by this installation of U-boats on the way in. None of the young ticket-rippers working that day seemed to know who the artist was or what the work was called.

Lady F and I were at the RA this weekend to see the Dennis Hopper photography exhibit, and were greeted by this installation of U-boats lurking in the entryway. None of the young ticket-rippers working that day seemed to know who the artist was or what the work was called. Sorry about the glare — unlike Mr Hopper I’m a crummy photographer.

This week’s Almanac isn’t a story or a rant; it’s just a clear-out. My sinister office here at PT HQ high atop Mount Hexmap is almost completely papered over with post-its and notes written to myself on the backs of Woolworth receipts and racing forms — I can hardly keep my plans for superweapons straight from my schematics for mind control devices. Intolerable.

After the jump: small updates from developers we care about and stuff that has slipped through the cracks over the last couple of weeks.

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Sunday Almanac: Reader Survey data reveals shocking truth about PT readers

Here's to you lot.

Here’s to you lot.

Yes, it’s true. Pocket Tactics readers are smarter, more attractive, and uphold higher standards of personal hygiene than the average Joe or Jane. It’s been scientifically proven by the results of this year’s Reader Survey, which over a thousand of you graciously volunteered your time to fill out last week. I thought perhaps you’d enjoy seeing some of the data from it.

Fair warning: this Almanac is all naval-gazing inside-baseball tomfoolery about PT. If you don’t care (who could blame you?) then we’ll see you tomorrow for news and my review of Spymaster.

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Sunday Almanac: The Second Annual Reader Survey needs you

Bring along Chairman Owen's Little Red Book

“Forward to Mount Hexmap and the glorious ultimate victory of premium games, Comrades!”

I believe it was Churchill who said that advertising is the worst way of supporting a website, except for all the others that have been attempted. Well for the moment, at least, advertising provides most of the revenue that pays Pocket Tactics‘ bills and pays for the services of our exceptional staff (Neumann, Clancy, Kelsey, FNG Jacob) and our unexceptional staff (Owen).

So that we can brag to our advertisers about how attractive and intelligent our readership is, we do one annual survey to get to know you better. Last month there were about 150,000 different people that came to PT around a million times, so we’d love to hear a little bit about who you are and what you think.

I promise in every legally binding way that we won’t use this information for anything nefarious or sell it or anything like that. We just want to be able to tell our advertisers that you’re 60% Americans and 14% left-handed and 21% Whigs and that sort of thing.

I’ve got a bunch of promo codes for good iOS games to give away as a thank-you for taking the time to do the survey. Leave us your email address and the end of the survey (totally optional) and I’ll give them away in a random drawing at the end of this week.

So here’s the survey — thanks very much for your time.

And thanks again for reading Pocket Tactics. The site gets bigger every single month and it’s hugely gratifying that folks like you enjoy our terrible headline puns and whatnot.

Sunday links after the jump.

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Monday Almanac: Walls that talk

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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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