The First Play: Pandemic

I love playing board games. They allow you to interact with your friends in a way that video games rarely allow, but they can be problematic. You can’t really get a video game wrong. You can be bad at a video game, and you can fail in a variety of ways, but these blunders and failures usually result in some form of game over screen prompting you to load a previous save.

No such luck in board games, I’m afraid. As Rob Daviau recently said board games are the only form of gaming that require you to pass a reading comprehension exam to learn the rules, then a spoken exam to teach the rules to your friends. As a result of this, it is entirely possible to break a game and either make it unplayable, or unwinnable. There is no engine, no wall of code limiting what you can do with the components of a board game. As a result, if you misinterpret or forget a rule and don’t realise, you could quite easily waste an hour playing a broken game.

This happened to my group recently, playing our first game of Pandemic.

Oh, no, I've wasted my life.

Defeat. Despondence. Despair. This is how we looked upon realising our fate.

We’re all fairly seasoned when it games to games, both on a table and on a screen, so it might seem a bit strange that we’d never played Pandemic, a game widely considered to be an ‘entry level’ board game. We simply had never been drawn to it, until one of us picked it up and the cheap and we decided to give it a try.

Now the problem. Amongst my friends not only am I the most competent rules-learner, I am also the most competent cook. So, deeming food poisoning to be a higher risk than a broken rule, I delegated my learning and teaching responsibilities to our next best reader whilst I made dinner.

Aside from a couple of moments when we misunderstood the use of the country cards the game ran smoothly. That is, until we realised late in the game that we had already lost. With three of the four diseases cured, two of which had been eradicated, the world was doomed. Whilst our backup rules-master had understood and conveyed the basic mechanics well enough, he had failed to keep the end game and winning conditions in his mind.

Crucially, we thought the game would end when we cured and eradicated all diseases (in which case we would be victorious), or when the outbreak indicator reached the final space. What we didn’t realise was that when the player draw pile ran out of cards, the game would end and we would lose. Which is exactly what happened.

Pandemic sad times

This is how the board looked at the end of the world. Doesn’t seem too apocalyptic, does it?

We were peeved, but not because of the loss. We accepted the loss. What irked us was the fact that we had been striving to eradicate a disease after we cured it, wasting precious turns attempting to fulfil a victory condition that didn’t exist. We were unaware that we only needed to discover a cure for the four diseases, not eradicate them entirely. Once our genius minds had discovered humanity’s means of survival it would be left to lesser beings to do the final mopping up, whilst we cleared away the game board.

No, what galled us was the fact that if we’d had one more turn we would have been able to cure the remaining disease and win the game. We wasted precious time chasing goals that didn’t exist, and as a result we failed the easiest difficulty level the game has to offer. That’s embarrassing. 

So friends, this is a warning and plea. When you’re teaching your friends a game, don’t start at the beginning. Sure, it’s tempting to open the rulebook and start reading it aloud from front to back. It seems neat and logical. But it’s unhelpful. Always try to start by telling your players who they are and what their goals are. Then get into the nitty gritty of mechanics and strategy, how the game is played. Otherwise, you are doomed.

P.S. I’m thinking of making this into an ongoing feature, documenting the first time I play a new game with my group. A mix of first impressions, rules clarifications and humorous failures.

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True Detective: “The Long Bright Dark” Review

The trope of two poorly matched detectives investigating an unnervingly occult killing has been done to death. Despite that, there was something about the trailers for True Detective that really got me excited. Maybe it was the bleak southern gothic style, or maybe I just trust HBO too much. Whatever the reason, the first episode of the eight-part crime anthology left me feeling vindicated.

Set and filmed in Louisiana, the show follows detectives Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) across two different time periods. In 1995 they investigate the grisly murder of a former prostitute named Dora Lang. In 2012 the two men are separately interviewed by another pair of detectives, indicating that perhaps the Dora Lang case wasn’t as solved as the two protagonists had previously thought.

Woody Harrelson’s Hart is pleasingly off-type for the eccentric actor. It’s refreshing to see Harrelson playing the steady suburban family man, with a beautiful blonde toupee that is humorously absent in 2012. McConaughey’s Rust Cohle is the antithesis of Hart, a pessimistic loner with a penchant for spouting crushingly negative philosophical soundbites. While he’s relatively clean-cut in the ’95 scenes, McCounaghey is almost unrecognisable in 2012, with long greasy hair, a drooping moustache and a love of afternoon drinking. It’s clear that something has driven the two partners apart, and I’m strangely more excited to see their relationship develop and get torn apart than I am by the main murder plot line.

As I mentioned earlier True Detective is walking a path well travelled. What sets it apart from its contemporaries and predecessors is the dialogue. The scripts for all eight episodes were written by novelist Nic Pizzolatto, and the dialogue in episode one was tight, hard-boiled and darkly amusing. During a discussion of their respective religious views, Rusty says “I consider myself a realist, but in philosophical terms I’m what’s called a pessimist.” Hart questions him on what exactly that means, to which Rusty responds “It means I’m bad at parties.” It’s straight out of a hard-boiled pulp detective novel, but doesn’t come across as even remotely cheesy or cliched thanks to the excellent delivery and chemistry of the two lead actors.

I was greatly impressed by the cinematography and directing, which somehow manages to match the tone of the dialogue perfectly and created a masterful sense of place. Everything is grey, brown or beige, and everything seems oppressively muggy and humid. There’s a constant sense of foreboding, and the knowledge that our two leads eventually become estranged only adds to the tension. We see that Cohle isn’t afraid to come to blows with his colleagues, who refer to him as the ‘Tax man’ thanks to the large ledger he carries in lieu of a traditional policeman’s notepad. The potential for violence between the two leads, both of whom are likeable and compelling in their own way, creates a stronger dramatic hook than most police procedural or serial killer shows manage to achieve. True Detective is both affective and effective (sorry for the short poem) because it forgoes the murder-porn, slow mo torture and killing montages so many crime shows opt to use, and focuses instead on the toll that the crimes have on our heroes.

It’s probably too early for me to be calling True Detective the best new show of 2014, but so far nothing else has gotten me nearly as excited. It’s dark, edgy and wryly humorous, and its focus on ideas like identity and philosophy instead of murder montages and evidence collection make it much more compelling and thought provoking than any serial killer/police drama I’ve seen in a long time.

CoD: Black Ops 2 – Future Fighty Fun Times

Dare I say it, the reveal trailer for this year’s instalment of the never ending Call of Duty franchise has got me a bit excited. Finally, a CoD developer is innovating. For ages now, gamers have been speculating about where the franchise can go, now that they’ve covered the past and the present, and the only obvious answer was the future. So it’s not very surprising that Treyarch have opted to move forward in time with their next FPS outing. What is surprising is the version of the future they have opted to explore. I imagine most people would have expected an over the top, ridiculous future with giant mechs and lasers flying all over the place. Refreshingly, Treyarch have created a future that feels startlingly real.

Black Ops 2 will be set in 2025. That sounds kinda far off now, but in fact when that year rolls around, I will be a sprightly 35 years old. I’ll be in my prime! Not only have they chosen a year that’s effectively just around the corner, Treyarch have designed a conflict that is totally plausible. The plot is based around a terrorist organisation taking control of a huge drone army. You might think that such a thing sounds like futuristic nonsense, but today the US DoD has thousands of drones at their disposal, worldwide, and some of them look positively futuristic.

This is a real drone!

It stands to reason that with such technology having proven highly effective in the past, the U.S. and other militaries would continue to expand their unmanned arsenal. You might think that such a powerful force would be impossible to take control of, but just last October a virus infected the U.S. drone fleet. Such an occurrence is a real potential danger, and it’s sure to make for a compelling single player campaign, which is long overdue where this franchise is concerned.

The fact that Treyarch is seeking to diversify the single player campaign with so called ‘Strike Missions’  tells me that for the first time in a long time, this will be a Call of Duty game that is not solely focused on repetitive multiplayer, with a paltry 5 hour campaign tacked on. In these Strike Missions you control a Black Ops unit, and you select a mission to undertake based on how the cold war between the US and China (not Russia, for once!) is progressing. Choosing one mission may cost you the opportunity to undertake others, and success is by no means guaranteed. As a result, you may find the single player campaign differing greatly on separate attempts, changing the course of the conflict with your success and failure.

As well as their narrative bending potential, the way these strike missions will be played really appeals to me. Supposedly, each mission will be a small sandbox, wherein you can choose which objectives to pursue first, which will potentially alter your chances for success. I imagine that carrying out objectives in a logical, stealthy order (these are black ops missions, after all) will decrease your chances of discovery, allowing you to complete more objectives before the shit hits the fan. Additionally, you choose as which unit you play as by zooming out to an RTS style overwatch view of the battlefield, then selecting a new unit to inhabit, be it flesh and blood soldier, or a walking tank. You can even issue orders through the overwatch mode, bringing in even more strategic options.

I must admit, I was ready to scoff at yet another annual Call of Duty, recycling old gameplay elements with a nonsensical story and repetitive multiplayer, but dare I say it, I’m excited. Treyarch have taken a risk in departing from the tried and tested CoD formula, and I for one can’t wait to see how it turns out.

The Walking Dead: The Game – Episode One

Warning: This review will contain spoilers, at least for my version of the game.

The above statement may confuse you. That’s because, on different playthroughs, it’s possible to have a very different experience in this game, and you will create a very different character. Although his name will always be Lee.

I’ll preface by saying that I haven’t played any of Telltale’s recent games, and point and click adventure games really vexed me when I played them as a kid. Some of the solutions were just nonsensical, and I would spend hours randomly clicking, hoping to find a relevant object. Thankfully, there’s none of that here.

I picked this game up because I’m a big fan of the Walking Dead comics, which is the universe in which this game is based, rather than the TV show. You should know that if you’re the sort of person who watches the show and finds yourself begging fore action and less exposition, then this game probably isn’t for you. In fact, the Walking Dead as a franchise isn’t for you. It’s about people, not about zombies. I wrote a whole dissertation on the subject, so don’t get me started.

Speaking of people, that’s what this game is all about. You play as Lee Everett, a man who may or may not be a murderer, who is on his way to prison when the world ends. After receiving a get out of jail free card, you are put in control of Lee, and it’s up to you to decide what sort of man he is. You’re soon paired up with a scared child named Clementine, and it’s up to you to guide Lee in keeping her safe.

As I said, this game is about people, and how you interact with them. This game features the best conversation system I have ever seen. There is no paragon and renegade system, and you can’t cycle through a conversation and explore every possible response. Instead, you are given a limited time to choose from a set of responses, and the game literally notes how your response is taken by other characters. Telltale says the way people perceive Lee is going to drastically affect future episodes, so you’d better think wisely and quickly about how you respond to probing questions.

This means that the game will have great replay value. You’re provided with three save slots, so you’re encouraged to see how different choices affect Lee’s journey. I created a prime save, that I’ll use for my continuing story, then I created a new save, so I could be an arse hole. And I discovered something that greatly surprised me: I didn’t like it. I found myself wanting to be kind to the characters I’d already bonded with in my first play through. Telltale have done a great job making you care for the characters, and even though I know that Clementine isn’t a real girl and she’s probably voiced by an adult (not to mention the fact that I hate kids), I find myself wanting to keep her safe.The voice acting is great, and so is the art style and animation. It all helps to draw you into the emotional experience.

Mushy emotions out of the way, I’m pleased to say that Telltale have not held back on the gore front, and there are some very satisfying kills. The controls work extremely well, as you move your character with the left stick and move a targeting reticule with the right, allowing you to highlight various objects or attack an oncoming zombie. It’s very fluid and sounds simple, but in the heat of the moment it can feel very tense, and it’s good fun. However, there aren’t many puzzles in this game so far, so hardcore adventure game fans may be disappointed. I am a huge rpg fan, and to me, this feels like a very pure rpg experience. You literally play a role, and you definite your main character as you see fit. No colour swaps here, I anticipate a great branching story line in later episodes that will feature varied, emotional endings.

 

 

Skyrim DLC Announced: Dawnguard

Today, Bethesda announced the first piece of DLC for Skyrim. It’s called Dawnguard, and so far, very little is known about it. All Bethesda have released is the following image, along with the fact that it will be initially XBox exclusive, and more will be revealed at E3.

 

Still wearing that helmet...

So far, speculation indicates that this DLC will involve Snow Elves and Crossbows. Hmm, sounds a bit Horse Armourish to me. Judging by the presence of what could be crossbow bolts on Dovahkiin’s back in the image above, I think the inclusion of crossbows is a safe bet. Not sure about the glowing eyes though. So far, I’m a little disappointed. Bethesda have previously said that they will be focusing on expansive DLC for Skyrim, more akin to the Shivering Isles for Oblivion and the large expansions to Morrowind. Still, it’s early days yet, and hopefully the E3 announcement will contain enough details to get me excited.

Game of Thrones: The Ghost of Harrenhal

This episode opens with the resolution of last weeks WTF cliffhanger, and the war of four kings is down to three (there was never five kings. Balon hasn’t crowned himself yet, and Renly’s dead. Mance doesn’t count). Just when it looked like an alliance would be forged, Stannis’ shadow awkwardly appeared and stabbed Renly. This scene felt a little strange, as if the actors were all waiting for a cue to react to an invisible presence, which I suppose they must have been. It felt awkward. Anyway, it was nice seeing Brienne show that she can fuck shit up. It was also interesting to see how visceral her grief was, as the show hadn’t really hinted at just how much she loved Renly.

The plot continues to surge forward, thankfully avoiding mid-season stagnation. Although not as bonkers as Garden of Bones, The Ghost of Harrenhal still provided plenty of plot momentum. Stannis has won himself an army, Jon Snow has escaped his boring duties as Steward, and Arya has a pet assassin! Oh, and Tyrion has wildfire. Lots of wildfire. I’m eagerly anticipating seeing Jon get some action next week, as he sets of with legendary range Qorin Halfhand to assassinate Mance Rayder.

Littlefinger is up to his usual tricks, promising the Tyrell siblings all that they desire (revenge for Loras and a crown for Margaery). I love Aiden Gillen’s facial expressions as Littlefinger, he can convey so much with one little smirk. We see again that Margaery is willing to do pretty much anything to win herself a crown. She would probably be less keen if she saw what Sansa has to put up with.

Davos is none to happy with Stannis, and he urges him not to take Melisandre to King’s Landing, for fear of rumours that she whispers orders in the would-be King’s ear. Thankfully, Stannis sees the wisdom in this, and he decides to leave her behind, showing that although he’s willing to use her when he needs to, now he has his army he is not willing to risk his victory being perceived as hers.

Although Jon Snow’s this week were mostly preamble and set up, the other non-Westeros plotline was packed with developments, as Dany teaches her dragons to feed themselves, pimps Doreah out to some Quartheen nobles, and receives a marriage proposal from Xaro. There were some nice comic scenes, such as the Dothraki demonstrating their unrelenting need to steal, and some eerie ones, like Pryat Pree’s creepy magic show and Quaithe’s cryptic warnings. However, they all lead up to a great scene showcasing the awkward dynamic between Dany and Jorah. It’s becoming clear that his feelings towards her go beyond his desire to see her on the iron throne, and now that she’s aware of this the dynamic between the two of them is sure to shift dramatically.

Meanwhile, Theon is learning that Iron Islanders don’t give much of a shit about who you are. Their respect is earned through deeds, not boasts. Thankfully he’s got a cunning new first mate to help him, and the two of them put together a cunning plan to steal Winterfell out from under the Starks. We later see that Bran falls for his plan, showing that he’s as honourable and as gullible as any other Stark. Any viewers canny enough to unravel the not-too-subtle symbolism of Bran’s latest dream will have a good idea of what is coming. I’ve got a feeling that Theon is going to become a real hate figure for viewers of the show, perhaps even more so than Joffrey. Alfie Allen is great at showing Theon’s arrogance and vulnerability, I just hope he’s capable of playing BAT SHIT CRAZY.

Arya’s journey has taken a turn for the better, as she finally starts being able to dole out some justice. It’s nice to finally see some really bad people get what they deserve on this show. Prior to this point, Tyrion’s been the only character doling out any much needed comeuppances, and then mostly verbally. However, I was sad to see the Tickler as Arya’s first victim, as this deprives us of one of my favourite scenes in the books (“IS THERE GOLD IN THE VILLAGE?!”). I was wrong about Tom Wlaschiha. He’s really nailing the mysterious foreign assassin, and I can’t wait to see more scenes between Arya and her new mentor (of sorts).

Yet again Maisie Williams gets one of the best scenes of the episode, successfully staring down Tywin Lannister of all people, and even managing to get in a slight threat. Oh, and her teaching Gendry how to sword fight was pretty funny. The show is doing a good job of humanising Tywin. You get the sense that he is weary, that he never wanted this war with the Starks, and that he’s much more similar to Tyrion than he is to his other, taller children. Speaking of Tyrion, it was cool to see the public in King’s Landing, and their reaction to, and perception of Lannister rule. We learn that many people believe that Tyrion is the malignant force in the city’s government, when in fact he’s the only one working in a sane fashion to protect the people of the city. This is a problem that Tyrion has always and will always face, be it from his father, his sister, or the people he rules over. Due to his size, he will always be looked down upon, and never appreciated. When Bronn tells him that the people think he is a monster, he seems disappointed, and genuinely surprised, but only for a moment. He’s used to this sort of treatment, as we’ve seen from his conversations with Cersei.

Like some episodes last season, I can’t help but feel that we’re a little pressed for time in this episode, as there is a lot packed in. As a fan of the book I was instantly aware that Theon’s boat, Sea Bitch, must be a lot faster than she looks to have been able to reach Torrhen’s Square in just a couple of days, but that’s TV for you. Still, I suppose such compromises must be made to keep so many different story lines moving at a coherent place. GRRM himself seems to struggle most with getting the right characters to the right place at the right time, so I suppose it’s not surprising that the show would face similar issues.

Game of Thrones: Garden of Bones

First off, OMG THE TITLE RHYMES. That shouldn’t make me nearly this happy, but it does. As always, full spoilers of this episode to follow.

I think this might be the most fucked up episode yet, full of torture, amputation and scary shadow demons, and I loved it. We’re introduced to a bunch of new characters, along with two new key locations, and we’re treated to plenty of great dialogue as the plot advances.

I loved the opening of this episode. It was a stark (sorry) reminder that not all Lannister soldiers are evil, as the previous episode would have us believe. It was nice to see two men at arms having a conversation that I’m sure many fans have had- who would win in a fight between x and y? I was intrigued to see that rumours of Renly’s bed time preferences have spread as far as the lowly foot soldiers. Sadly, such merriment was short lived, as Grey Wind arrived to turn the poor soldiers inside out.

Immediately after this we meet Roose Bolton. Whilst he wasn’t as creepy as I’d imagined him, Roose was perfectly calm and seemingly normal, until he started talking about flaying Lannister officers. He’s definitely someone that new viewers will be keeping an eye on. Next, we meet Oona Chaplin’s character, who was reported to be named Jeyne, but gives the name Alyssa, or maybe it was Talissa, I don’t know, it was hard to hear. If she is indeed Jeyne Westerling, as was indicated when she was cast, I’m really interested in how HBO are going to change Robb’s romance on screen. It seems to me like he’s going to fall for this strong willed foreigner, only to find that she is in fact the daughter of one of his enemies’ vassals. I honestly think that would be more compelling than what happens ‘off-screen’ in the books, where Jeyne nurses Robb, they have sex, and he marries her out of honour.

Down south in King’s Landing we learn that, yep, Joffrey’s still a raging arsehole, and so are his cronies, Ser Lancel and Ser Meryn. It was nice to see a brief glimpse of the Hound’s look of distaste as Joffrey ordered Sansa’s beating. Luckily, Tyrion arrives before any real damage is done. It was refreshing to see someone teaching Joffrey a lesson, even if it’s bound to come back and bite Tyrion in the arse. This episode reinforced my love for Bronn. I reckon he could easily take Ser Meryn, he spends his days beating up teenage girls. Jerome Flynn gets to deliver what is easily the best line of the entire show: “There’s no cure for being a cunt.” How right you are, Bronn.

Speaking of Joffrey fighting back against Tyrion, he really shows his most sadistic side when he decides to send a message to his uncle. I’m concerned about the show’s treatment of King Joff, as I’ve previously mentioned. We know that Joffrey’s a cunt. They’ve shown that plenty of times. In the novels Joffrey is arrogant and petulant, and somewhat twisted, but he’s not yet a full blown psychopath. I’m worried that the show is making him into an evil caricaturefor the sake of having a clear villain on the show, which is otherwise populated with ambiguous, well rounded characters.

Later on we get to see Tyrion does what he does best, which is schooling some arrogant fool in how the game of thrones is played. Lancel goes from an arrogant, haughty knight to a snivelling child in about 10 seconds, and Tyrion gains another informant. As he keeps saying, Tyrion is not Ned Stark, and he intends to keep all of his extremities attached to his body.

Arya and Gendry continue to have the most compelling plot, going from peril to peril. Now they’re imprisoned in the ruins of Harrenhal, which looks appropriately huge and terrifying. The scenes of torture make you really worry about the fate of these two beloved characters in a show where plot armour is often shown to be asreliable as a shield made of rice pudding. We get to see Arya’s first nightly revenge-prayer, which is something I think that non-book readers will latch onto and really enjoy, especially as her kill list continues to grow.

The Tickler was, I thought, superbly played. I don’t know the name of the actor they cast, but he’s perfect. He just seems so calm and casual when he’s torturing these innocent people in a pretty horrific (and creative) way. I noticed that the Mountain was re cast, which seemed pointless to me, though I suppose it must have been down to some scheduling conflict. Thankfully, Lord Tywin arrives just in time (the Lannister men seem to be doing a lot of that this week), and proves that although he can be cold and calculating, he is not a cruel man. He insists that the prisoners be put to work, saving Gendry and Arya, and points out that Arya is, in fact, a girl. I’m looking forward to seeing their scenes together, as Tywin actually came across as quite likable when he was speaking to Arya. Who knows, maybe we’ll see a softer side of the old lion.

In Renly’s camp, Littlefinger is up to his usual tricks, trying to act innocent in order to build himself an insurance policy, should the Lannister’s fall. His scene with Catelyn was stunning, and seeing the way that the sight of Cat going from fierce and angry to almost broken with grief was really emotional. I can’t believe that so many GoT fans were outraged by Michelle Fairley being cast as Cat. She stole the show this week, and the music in this scene was incredible. We then see what passes for negotiations between Renly and Stannis, and it really hammers home just how different these two brothers are. I found myself unable to root for either one of them, as they both have their flaws. I reckon GRRM will surprise everyone and put Gendry on the Iron Throne, when all’s done.

Daenerys finally gets somewhere! She manages to gain access to Qarth, despite acting like a true Targaryen, i.e. mental, arrogant and angry. This scene was a stark reminder that even Dany is susceptible to the Targaryen crazy gene. Xaro came across as very imposing, yet charming, and I think seeing him try to romance the Khaleesi will be interesting. Also, I think I spotted Pryat Pree amongst the Thirteen, and damn that guy looks creepy.

Despite Catelyn stealing the show this week, I think it’s the final scene that will get everyone’s tongues a-wagging. We finally hear some of Davos’ history with Stannis, explaining why he is so fiercely loyal to his king, and the his king orders him to do something he is clearly not comfortable with. Stannis’ strong sense of honour clearly doesn’t prohibit him from using dark magic to assassinate his only brother!

We learn that Melisandre’s views on good and evil are different from Stannis’, and she comes across as being very otherworldly in this scene. I thought the shadow demon baby looked incredible, and I’m glad that the showrunners decided to really go for it in this bizare, fantasy heavy scene, rather than tone things down. Also, even as a veteran reader of the books I still don’t have a handle on Melisandre. She’s demonstrated time and time again that her god, R’hllor, has legitimate power, but we still don’t know for sure who she serves. Her ability to birth a demon on short notice seems to indicate that she’s not necessarily a force for good.

Either way, this episode’s closing scene reminds us that, although it has been forgotten, magic does still exist in Westeros. Dragons, Others, and now a shadow demon. The night is dark and full of terrors.