Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

This is the book on which Spielberg’s film of the same name is based. It’s a post environmental apocalyptic world where the poor are poorer and the rich and richer. Most people escape reality by spending all their time in a virtual reality. One of the founders of that virtual reality (VR) has died, and left a will that passes on control of the VR and immense wealth to the first to find their way to where he has hidden a series of three keys and one door. Our hero is one of the many trying to secure that prize against big corporate baddies.

The book is jam packed of 70s and 80s cultural references – pop music, TV, and – of course – video games. You don’t need to get these references, but for sure it helps.

The writing doesn’t get in the way of the story, and there are enough twists and turns to keep your interest up. In short, very enjoyable, but not everyone’s cup of tea.

Incidentally, I have read the book and seen the film. Thankfully, I read the book first. Why? The film is awful. I would never have bothered with the book based on the film.

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Something else to thank the UN for

The Times of Israel reports:

Last month, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) organized a “Kites of Hope” festival for over 1,000 Gazan schoolchildren from Khan Younis.

The same report also tells us:

Israel struggles to handle latest threat from Gaza: Fire-starting kites

 

Blaze breaks out near Kibbutz Be’eri after a container of burning liquid is flown over the border on a kite, in fourth such attack in as many days

I have cycled at Be’eri. I knew it was close to Gaza. This brings it into perspective as to how close. And it also underlines that no good deed goes unpunished. Except that, when it comes to the UN, you do have to wonder about their motivation.

To put it another way, welcome to the Middle East.

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Turning the red planet green

So, there I was, wondering what game to play at this week’s session. Five gamers. Hmm. Terra Mystica, Puerto Rico, or Power Grid

One gamer called off.

So, there I was, wondering what game to play at this week’s session. Four gamers. Hmm. Acquire, Tigris to Euphrates, or Dominion

One gamer called off.

So, there I was, wondering what game to play at this week’s session. Three gamers. Hmm. Alhambra, Ticket To Ride, or Game of Thrones

One gamer called off.

So, there I was, wondering what game to play at this week’s session. Two gamers. Sheer and me. So, I asked Sheer, and Terraforming Mars got the nod.

In all seriousness, if only for a moment, it meant that Sheer could teach me to play this game – one I have been looking to play for a while – without any distractions. We took it easy, and before long we were up and playing.

If only I knew what the good cards were!

In short, each player is a company tasked with terraforming Mars, the famous red planet. Each company has its own special power. The extent to which Mars is improved is measured by its temperature, oxygen level, and ocean coverage. Each player is dealt cards and uses these cards to acquire the necessary building blocks to acquire the necessary cards to acquire…you get the picture.

Being card driven, there is a substantial luck element. Sheer’s house rule to alleviate the effects is a good one: using a 7-Wonders type drafting mechanism for each batch of new cards. It adds time, but was well worth it.

Like with many of these types of games – with a ton of cards and card interactions – Sheer’s extensive previous plays gave him a big advantage. I knew that before we started, but it was all about learning the game, and Sheer probably had some of the enjoyment drained out of the experience as well since he faced such a modest challenge. But it was fun, and I think Sheer enjoyed competing against himself to see how far he could boost his average score. Quite far, methinks!

Red was doing well. I wasn’t red…

I am even more keen to play the game after that first exposure. It took us, including rules briefing, about three hours. The problem is, with more than two players, it may be too long for a single night’s play midweek. Maybe I will need to wait for another night of call-offs!

Thanks To Sheer for coming and teaching me the game. A keeper.

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Sirens – Joseph Knox

Modern British crime novel set in Manchester, looking at the drug scene and some of the city’s less attractive features, areas, and characters.

The hero is Aidan Waits, a loose cannon of a policeman who oversteps the law and falls into the clutches of a superior officer determined to send him into deep undercover. There, he is tasked with collecting evidence against a local drug boss, one of whose girlfriends disappeared without a trace ten years ago. At the same time, a member of parliament has a wayward daughter who has done a runner and is enmeshed in the dark underbelly of that city.

Waits is a compelling enough character to keep the reader’s interest up. The backdrop is done reasonably well, but I thought the critics were way over the top in suggesting it was outstanding. (That Observer quote on the cover is ridiculous. A friend of the author perhaps?)

The supporting characters are a believable lot, though I would have liked to seen more attention paid to some of them. The main baddie, for example, kind of makes guest appearances only, popping up from time to time to no great effect.

The closing chapters are a step up from some of the middle where the fizz went out of the tension at times. Overall, pretty good stuff.

There is more to come from Waits and here’s hoping this reasonably promising start is a true hint of better things ahead.

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Billboards, Hours, and the Post

Three micro reviews of movies recently watched.

Warning: plot spoilers!

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

Great acting by Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell. Woody Harrelson plays Woody Harrelson. The film is, on the whole, enthralling and tense right up until the time Harrelson’s character dies. After that, the pace was too uneven, and the atmosphere was somewhat limp. I cannot make my mind up if Peter Dinklage is there as a court jester or a serious character. He plays it straight, but the script veers too close to exploitation comedy for my tastes. Glad I saw it, but – unsurprisingly – not the brilliant film the critics seem to think.


Darkest Hour

The story is known, and it is not an action packed encounter. Lord Halifax’s cowardly streak has been fashioned out of thin air, and stretched beyond breaking point to create dramatic tension and a counterpoint to solid Winston. Oldman’s acting is just as over the top as the real Winston was, so that’s on target. The scene in the underground is daft, though it does mean I got my name on the screen for the first time in cinema history. See if you can work out how that happened. Better overall than ‘Three Billboards’ in my opinion.

The Post

S. L. O. W. Similar to Darkest Hour in that the story is known and lacks punch. Sure, people were risking their liberty, but a movie has to do a lot more than this one does to make the threat feel real. I thought Meryl Streep was on autopilot some of the time, and the script gave her little to work with. Similarly, Hanks was left high and dry by the ineffectual narrative he is asked to portray. The film looks good in all the right places, but has no punch, no bite, and little that endured in my memory. Blah.

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Entering the arena

Avri, Azriel, Efrat, Rosalynn, and Sheer joined me for this week’s regular gaming session. Surprisingly, Mr Prompt (aka Sheer) was last to arrive, and late, so a group decision was made to kick off with Between Two Cities. I’m not sure if there was a connection, but another rarity occurred: Sheer finished in last place. Who won? Glad you asked. I did. Sort of. Actually, it was a tie between Azriel and me, but for some strange, illogical, unfair, and prejudicial tie breaking rule, Azriel won. So, I sort of won, but Azriel really won.

So far as the game play itself is concerned, there was a quick rules briefing required for some, but once started the play was straightforward. The different scoring for different types of tiles is neat, and although there is some considerable luck, there is more skill than may at first appear. I like it well enough to keep playing it.

We then moved on to 7 Wonders.

  • Efrat had never played it before, and – inevitably – struggled. She hung on like a trouper, however, and kept fighting for every last point until the bitter end.
  • Rosalynn cornered the science cards and amassed a might 40 points in that category alone. Unfortunately, there was little else on her scoreboard.
  • Avri went for a military win, did well enough with that and finance, but otherwise made little impact.
  • Sheer added to his military prowess with some blue and yellow cards, doing well enough to finish 3rd.
  • Azriel scored well in the final rounds, picking up some decent guild cards, and important sets of science cards. He was 2nd.
  • My blue card strategy turned out to be a winner. A couple of guild cards in the closing rounds made sure of victory.

Rosalynn went off for an early night, and the five remaining tackled Titan the Arena, a classic Reiner Knizia design.

The game is built on the theme of monsters fighting in an arena, with one eliminated each round. You start with eight, and stop when three are left standing. Each monster has a special power (extra draw, extra discard, swap cards, and do on) but you can only use the power if you play a card of that type, and you control the monster. Control is determined by the strength of your bets. You have poker chips to signal your bets, and each round the value of your bet is decreased. There is also a maximum of one secret bet per player which is tricky. It’s valuable if it survives, but at the outset it is a guess, really, of who will survive no matter the cards in your hand.

All were new to this except me, so I explained the rules and led by example, making a suicidal secret bet, and then desperately trying for some respectability. Let it be said that there was a lot of backstabbing in this game, and some of it even had a point…

Avri put me out of the reckoning, then Azriel, Sheer, and Efrat got in a tangle. I stayed clear, but still finished last. Most others were huddled above me in the ‘respectable score’ region, with Efrat a clear winner. Good, clean fun.

Thanks to all who came. It was fun.

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The damn crossroads

16 June, 1815, 14:30, on the road to Quatre Bras.

Still on the table is the Quatre Bras battle from Battles of Waterloo.

Generally, I have to fit in my wargaming in snatches of time, so I rarely get a chance for a single long session to immerse myself in a game. That’s when I get the best out of playing a wargame. It’s one reason why I love playing ASL, because you have to be at it for hours! It’s another reason why I treasure my trips to Consimworld. Therefore, this game hasn’t had the best of chances to shine. However, there’s a lot to like, and I’ve enjoyed playing and replaying the battle for the famous crossroads.

The French Cavalry are about to cross the stream and outflank the Allied line, threatening mass slaughter. Will Ney seize the chance, or is he worried what’s behind the ridge?

I want to try the Ligny battle in the Battles of Waterloo box. However, the Ligny game by Walter Vejdovsky (Ligny 1815: Last Eagles, published by Hexasim) has received rave reviews, and I am more likely to play that first.

I have a sneaking suspicion that if the original command system were given some love, care, and attention, it might be worth reusing.  That having been said, in this particular battle, there’s a need for straitjacket rules to prevent grossly ahistorical developments. No French player worth his salt would dilly-dally the way Ney did.

The combat system – like Fallen Eagles – uses both fire and shock combat. The Gamers‘ Napoleonic Battle Series (NBS) took fire combat out for infantry, and rolled up into a quite brilliant shock combat system. That does speed play enormously. I fiddled around with implementing a combat system like that into Battles of Waterloo, and it sort of worked. But, why was I going halfway towards NBS instead of just using full blown NBS? Another gaming project for retirement!

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