One ahead...

I knew I'd been reading a fair bit this month, but it surprised me when I had a look at Goodreads and realised that I'd gone a book ahead (which is much better than 4 or 5 behind). Now just to keep it up. Summary coming soon.

Somehow I've caught up!

31 May 2019

The Fall of Rome

Off work today looking after the kids as it's half term. It's been a pretty grim day, with lots of rain. They did get a good runabout earlier but once they started to get fractious I decided that it was boardgame time and dug out Pandemic: Fall of Rome. It's not one that we've played before, but they do like the Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert games which use some of the same underpinning mechanics.

The lads who saved Rome

Set up didn't take too long, but it was a little challenging due to all the questions. We quickly got underway. Each person takes the role of a character. I was a Consul, Nathan the head of the Navy and Aidan the Army. We were quite lucky with the draws there.

Rather than a disease pool (as in Pandemic), you have five tribes of barbarians who are trying to expand into the empire. Each turn you can take four actions. These include the normal movement options you'd expect in this kind of game, but you can also create up to five forts (which allow you to defend key cities efficiently) and recruit legions amongst others.

Once you've acted, you draw two cards from the player deck. These will either be events (can be played at any time), cities or the dreaded revolt card. You collect sets of city cards to trade in as an alliance with a tribe to make them non-hostile. It doesn't stop them entering the Roman territory or even causing a city to be sacked, but it does mean that you can recruit them into your legions. The revolt card causes a card to be drawn from the bottom of the barbarian deck and three cubes representing that tribe are placed at that location. This can trigger a sacking event if the players are unlucky. The played cards are reshuffled and placed back on top of the deck in time-honoured Pandemic fashion. The invasion rate tracker is raised a level. This starts to reduce the level you can recruit legions at and also increases the number of cards drawn in the invasion phase.

Then it's time to draw from the barbarian deck for the invasion phase. You draw a card with a route, tribe and city. This determines where the extra cube that represents tribes moving into the empire will be placed. It is always placed closest to the source/entry point of the tribe concerned, so a continuous chain is established through the empire. Should a fourth cube be placed, then the city is sacked and instead, cubes representing the tribe are placed in all adjacent cities, which can cause further sackings. This can be pretty nasty. Each city stacked increases the decline track and Rome gets closer to falling. You start at two cards drawn and it jumps as the invasion tracker is incremented.

Combat occurs either in a battle action (where the player rolls up to three special D6 depending on how many legions are present). This can reduce legions, barbarians, both or trigger a special action. Combat also occurs in the invasion stage of the turn. Legions in cities that have no fort are ambushed and destroyed by the barbarians, the only upside is that the barbarians don't survive to settle. If a city has a fort, a legion is removed to destroy the invader.

You win by having treaties with all the tribes, or having treaties with some of the tribes and driving the others from the map. You can lose in multiple ways; running out of cards in the player deck; having the decline track hit the end; having Roma sacked.

All in all, the game definitely has a feel for its subject and plays well. The legion mechanic is different and we were pretty nervous at the end as we tried to get the last two cards to seal a treaty with the Ostrogoths before the player deck ran out. They were too spread out to make a military solution viable in the time we had left. Fortune favoured us and we prevailed. Along the way, having treaties in place so we could recruit in large numbers of barbarians also helped to keep us in play.

The kids enjoyed the game; however, I don't think I'll be buying any more with this engine as we have the two Forbidden games, the original Pandemic and the Cthulhu version. That's not to denigrate the game, just to say that we have enough.

28 May 2019

Alien Quickstart - first thoughts


So, the Alien Quickstart dropped last night just before 11pm so I stayed up to read it.

Some quick thoughts:

* This is very much an evolution of Coriolis, but more brutal.
* It's very pretty.
* You have four stats, and 12 skills (3 linked to each stat)
* Four character types - Frontier Colonists, Space Truckers, Company Reps and Colonial Marines.
* Usual Year Zero Engine - roll a handful of dice from stat + skill + gear looking for 6s (actually a star on the special dice you'll be able to get).
* Pushing a skill roll (re-rolling failures except facehuggers) adds a stress level
* Certain situations (like being jumped by a xenomorph or finding out your colleague is an Android) generate stress levels.
*Stress levels act as extra dice you must use. They can generate extra successes (because you're stressed and more focussed) but if you roll a 1 (facehugger) then you panic.
*Panic is bad. You roll a D6 plus your current stress level. Low results mean you are scared and a bit flakey, high results can result in paranoia, violence or catatonia. Certain character types can go the full Hudson and attack things instead.
* You can lose stress by relaxing and feeling safe.
* Resource management can be important (Air/Water/Food/Power) and running out has mechanical effects and adds to stress.
* Cinematic mode will be brutal on characters.
* Cinematic mode runs in three acts. Each character has a personal agenda in each act.
* Completing personal agendas gains you a story point. This sits with the player (not the character) and can be spent for an automatic success (ie a 6 roll).
* Agendas can drive PVP. Once it escalates, the GM can take over a character and they become an NPC.
* The cinematic mode scenario in the game is likely to chew through incautious characters. Fortunately, there are plenty of spares.
* The scenario does recognisably feel like an Alien film.
* The Xenomorph stats have a random roll table for 'special moves'. You can roll this, or just pick and make it up yourself. Looks like the tables in Forbidden Lands.

The production values are really high. The art is great. It will definitely catch the feel of the films. The material presented is more aligned to a one shot rather than a campaign (but the campaign material is not presented in this). The rules seem comprehensive and thought through and there are few errors in the text.

Definitely pleased that I ordered this.

Makes me Smile


The geek in me can’t help but smirk when I see this van at work. 

A selection of Thrillers

The last month I've not been at my best from a combination of tiredness and then a horrible chest infection which took about three weeks to shift properly. As a result, I've not found myself able to focus brilliantly; work and then the North Star preparation dominated.

I've watched a few thrillers recently as mind-candy when I couldn't face doing something more constructive like writing. They're all old ones that I missed when they came out because of the lack of cinema nights once the kids arrived.

The films included Safe House, Spy Game and Hanna. I'll add some thoughts after the break below.

Safe House
A vehicle for Ryan Gosling and Denzil Washington, Safe House is set pretty much entirely in Cape Town in South Africa. Gosling is a low ranking - but ambitious - CIA operative who is frustrated at his position as the caretaker for a safe house. Washington is a rogue agent who emerges in Cape Town as he obtains a file with vital information in it. Their paths cross and the adventure is on.

What I liked about this was the reasonably low-fi spy routines, the sideline exploring the impact of dishonesty on relationships and the lack of any completely ridiculous 007 style escalations. By having a naive young agent, you get to see his experience as he discovers the implications of 'the ends justifies the means' and realises that he doesn't entirely like them. Both actors did really well.

What I didn't like was the predictable twist at the end and the way that the dark-side of the operations was almost ham-fistedly rammed down your throat. 

Spy Game
A Tony Scott thriller, Spy Games delivers well. It explores the relationship over 30 years between two CIA agents. We start with Robert Redford's character Nathan Muir on his last day working for the Agency before he retires to the Bahamas. He's drawn into a meeting about his former protege, Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) and soon discovers that Bishop has carried out a failed rogue operation in China, and is held awaiting execution unless the US acknowledges he is one of their agents. Of course, this will be politically embarrassing as the President has trade talks with China the next week.

What I liked about this film was the way that it slowly revealed the relationship arc with the two characters across three decades starting in Vietnam, and also the clever and simple tradecraft that Muir uses to outwit the more political new guard at the Agency. I also like the way that this explored the toll that the duplicity of cover identities and secrets has on relationships. Ultimately, the retiring Muir's strongest two relationships are with his secretary and with Bishop (with whom he has fallen out). Both actors give great performances and I will watch this again at some point. 

What I didn't like was the over-complicated plan that gets Bishop caught at the start. It didn't ring true to the rest of the narrative. Operation Dinner Out also stretched credibility, but I was invested enough in the ending at that point that it didn't disappoint.

Hanna has been on my 'to-watch' list for what seems like forever, and I'm glad I finally caught up with it. Hanna is a teenage girl who has lived most of her life in the snow-covered forests of Scandinavia, where her father has trained her in survival, combat and homeschooled her using encyclopedias. He is an ex-CIA asset who went off the grid at least ten years before, just after Hanna's mother was murdered by the CIA case-officer in charge of Hanna's father Erik. Naive to the modern world, having only read about it, Hanna is given a choice to re-enter it by her father. However, if she takes it, it means that Marissa Wiegler (played by Cate Blanchett) will try and kill her and her father. She takes the choice, and events ensue. There are good performances all around by Eric Bana, Blanchett and Saoirse Ronan as Hanna.

What I liked about this was the slight quirkiness, especially the British family. I also loved the way Ronan nailed the slightly detached and disconnected but closely focused nature of Hanna. The music and style of the movie were very well done.

I didn't have anything that I particularly disliked; the closest would be the way that Wiegler becomes almost a pantomime villain at some points.

19 May 2019


2019 Reading Challenge: A bit behind

A little behind

The last few years I've been using Goodreads to track my reading, which beats the spreadsheets that I used to use. Pre-kids, I used to read somewhere between 80 and 110 books a year, but now I'm just striving to manage one a week on average.

The last three years, I've made the target easily, but this year it's been a struggle and I've been close on two months behind. I've pulled it back a little over the last few weeks with a series of roleplaying books, and I suspect I'll be fine for the year[1], but I've never been behind before. I'm kind of dreading doing the mini-reviews for the Tavern.

It's been a pretty busy year, with some of my spare time diverted to writing and organising a variety of projects, plus I've hit at least one book that has been hard work[2]. It'll be interesting to see how things go along.

17 May 2019
[1] If I'm stuck, I can always start to re-read the Sandman or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen collected editions!
[2] Gnomon, I'm looking at you!

North Star 2019 report

Our second North Star, a convention born of an impulse decision after a conversation between Graham and I about TravCon, provided a great weekend of gaming. After a pretty frantic Friday completing my game preparation as a result of game changes in the last two weeks, I rolled into the Garrison around 9am on Saturday to find that my co-conspirator Graham had already set the room up. I only needed to get the badges out and the signs up before we started. Like Revelation, North Star has a very relaxed feel compared to the start of Furnace. It’s probably the difference of thirty-five people instead of seventy-five.

My first game was Space 1889 run by Paul Mitchener. I’ve loved this setting for a long time, but never really got it to the table so the opportunity to play was something that I jumped at. This was my first visit to Venus, and it was by Zeppelin, piloted by my young blonde German inventor, Lena. Keary was playing the explorer who owned the airship, and we naughtily added some suggestive shenanigans into the game. Of course, he was my ‘Uncle’! We quickly encountered a flyer working using Martian lift-wood technology (something which shouldn’t work, and indeed is one of the reasons the British aren’t in control of the planet). This moved to attack us; they failed, naturally and we ended up in a search for the source of the lift-wood and also the crew of another Zeppelin who were going to be forced to fight for their lives in a gladiatorial arena in a hidden city. We managed to succeed with some derring-do and had a lot of fun. It ended with us setting up a tri-partite company to exploit the new technology as good Imperialists do. I enjoyed the setting, the game and the player’s take on the characters. I’d definitely like to look at this again. Shout out to Paul, who was one of our hero GMs, running three slots.

Morrisons for lunch, with an uninspiring feta salad.

Slot 2 brought Chitter, a game set in the Skyrealms of Jorune universe using Genesys run by Richard Talbot, one of my fellow BITS colleagues. I’d read Jorune years ago but had never got to the point of playing or running it. I’d also never gone anywhere near Genesys in any of its forms, so this was a real voyage of discovery for me. The adventure had a vibe of films like ‘Southern Comfort’ or ‘Deliverance’. We were a militia patrol sent into the deep forest to try and find out what was killing all our livestock. Our ragtag group consisted of a pure-strain human and most of the hybrid creatures from the human geneering programme. We managed to establish a good relationship with the locals quite quickly, and soon set off in pursuit of the cause of the trouble. My Bron (a Bear hybrid) was the squad leader and had to pull our dysfunctional and rag-tag band together. Somehow, we did it all by the numbers and managed to succeed at the plot. I found that Genesys worked well enough, but I’m not sure why I’d use it over other games. Jorune was interesting, and Richard had prepared a rich and interesting scenario for us. Richard was also one of our hero GMs, running three games back-to-back.

Dinner was the traditional trip to KFC with Keary and John.

The evening slot was my first game, Plausible Deniability. This was a Traveller scenario which I’d previously tested at TravCon 2018. It is built around the player characters signing up as the crew of a Type T Patrol Cruiser deployed as a deniable privateer asset by the Imperium. It built upon the Letter of Marque supplement, and I introduced some elements of troupe play so the whole command crew didn’t end up on every mission. There was much privateering fun and a scramble for funds to keep the ship aloft. The crew were dysfunctional (well, they were pirates!). Tom and Andy did a grand job of ripping everyone off. Fil brilliantly played the noble and owner-on-board whose ‘Daddy had bought me this ship”. The players did really well and met the scenario objectives in a far more direct manner than I expected. There were some comments that it felt like the start of a campaign; these nailed it as the scenario was designed as the pilot/introduction to a campaign. I enjoyed this and need to develop it a bit further. I think my GMing was okay for this game, but tiredness was starting to show.

A visit to the bar, followed by rather a late one catching up with Neil McGurk and drinking some of the bottle of Jura that I had brought with me. We called it a day at 2am.

The next morning started too early when I got a text at 6.50am from my eldest’s football coach wishing him luck in the match that he had that day. A little too early on a Sunday, I think!

Garrison breakfast with the Baldowskis and Graham, and then we were off again for Day 2.

Slot 4 had me playing Valkyrie Nine, Paul Baldowski’s fun SF horror using the Cthulhu Hack. Having subsequently bought and read the book, I am surprised how well we managed to stumble around in our guise as the moonbase’s robots missing most of the clues yet managing to come out with a positive solution. Of course, we all died, but not before my bot achieved self-awareness and insanity. Great group of players and much fun was had. I really enjoyed myself, and Paul didn’t seem too jaded to be running it for the second slot in a row. He had kindly stepped up as a hero GM to fill a gap when one of the other GMs pulled out of the convention at short notice.

Lunch was an okay Chicken Salad from Morrisons. Quick preparation for the raffle, which went well. As usual, I managed not to win anything.

Slot 5 was the game that had been both filling me with anticipation and terror in the run-up, a playtest of Blue Planet: Recontact with the scenario Trouble in Paradise. The scenario is the kick off for one of the campaign frames in the game. The characters are all part of Red Sky Charters, a family business already struggling to make ends meet. The game opens in media res, with the characters kidnapped by a group of Russian mobsters. It worked really well and the players just went through it. We all had a learning curve to do with the game, but the setting worked for people familiar with all the previous material and for those that had never seen it before. The players were awesome and it felt like the opening of a TV series. I’d have loved to have run a follow up with the same group. I’m pleased with how I GMd this. I was enthused and full of energy mostly. I will do this again. Big thanks to Alison, Tilly, Paul, Dr Bob and Neil for making this such good fun.

And then it was all over. Graham had already left, and by the time I departed around 6.30pm, the last group was coming to a close. It worked well enough that we’re going to do it all again in 2020 over the weekend of 9th/10th May.

14 May 2019