Saturday, 26 September 2015

First Plays - Thoughts on Some Games I've Played Recently

I've played a few new games recently, and while I've not yet played them enough to form an opinion (most of these I've only played once), I thought I'd set out what I thought.

Roll for the Galaxy

I've played Race for the Galaxy quite a few times, and I do like it, but I'm very bad at it, and find sometimes it is hard work trying to do well which detracts from the enjoyment of the game. Enter 'Roll for the Galaxy'. In many respects it is very similar to it's older cousin, but instead of using cards, you use dice to build colonies and developments. You roll your dice, and while you can choose any action, the symbols which are face up on the dice determine whether you can use roles selected by other players as well.

I thought this game was really neat, I already like it more than Race for the Galaxy, and although there's still a full range of different strategies you can choose from, it feels less work because you often have less options to choose from when making decisions and less things you can build at any one time.


I've had this game for quite a while but never played it before, but had a couple of games at the club this week. Boy am I bad at this game, I was eliminated very early on in both games. To me it is a bit of a mix of The Resistance and Love Letter. Some people may think this is slightly bizzare comparison but that is what it was like to me. Like Love Letter, you (at the start of the game anyway) have two role cards to choose from, but unlike in Love Letter you don't have to play it. You take an action either based on one of the roles in your hand, some default actions not related to a particular role, or by bluffing and pretending you have a roll card. People can call your bluff though, and one of you will lose one of your two roll cards then.

I certainly don't love this game (I don't think I ever will), and as I said, I'm very bad at it, but I'd be up for playing again sometime. Certainly it's okay as a quick filler.


This is a really nice looking worker placement game, set in a sort of post-apocalyptic future I believe, not that the theme matters. It has got some really interesting mechanisms. Your workers are represented by dice, I think you start with two but can acquire more. You initially roll all your dice, and can play only one at once, unless there are two or more the same in which case you can play all of them that turn. Once all of your dice have been played on the board, you take a turn to recall them and then re-roll them all in your play area. There's a snag though. If the total of all your dice is more than a certain number, you lose one of your dice/workers. So you want to get more workers to get too many or you might lose one.
From Board Game Geek

There are all sorts of action spaces your workers can go on, many of them are better the higher the dice number (but sometimes the reverse can be true). There's spaces that affect your maximum dice roll before you start losing workers, there's spaces that increase your card hand limit, and there's the usual spaces that get you resources, cards etc. There's also a rather neat mechanism whereby you can use resources to help build a building. It does tie up workers for a while, but it gets you a victory point star and what's more once it's built anyone who didn't contribute to the building suffers some sort of penalty or restriction to what they can do. Haven't seen this sort of thing before.

Overall a really interesting worker placement game, I enjoyed a lot. It didn't hurt that I won either, after my friend Neil (whose game it is) announced in no uncertain terms near the end of the game that he had definitely won. Victory is sweet!

El Grande

I included this in my list of 'Top 10 Games I Missed Out On' on my blog recently, and my friend Gareth noticed and brought it along to one of our next games evenings - thanks Gareth! I really enjoyed this game. It is one of the grand-daddy's of area control games as it came out 20 years ago now in 1995. It is a deceptively simple game, you get a hand of cards numbered one to thirteen and you choose one to play each round. These cards do two things. Firstly, they indicate turn order - the person who chose the highest numbered card goes first. It also has another number on which indicates how many pieces you can take from your stock to your supply (i.e. bring into use to be able to play on the board). The low turn order numbers have more stock-supply markers, the higher numbers don't allow you to bring in any pieces, so you've got to carefully manage which cards you play when.

The players then, in turn order, choose a card from one of six action cards available. These also have two functions, firstly to dictate how many pieces you can play on the board, and secondly it gives you a bonus action you can take which can be anything from 'move five of an opponents pieces anywhere on the board' to 'score an area'. Unless otherwise indicated by cards, there are three scoring rounds in the game, and you'll get different number of points for having the most pieces in an area, second most, third most etc.

In many respects this is such a simple game, but I really like it a lot. Shame it is so hard to get hold of an English version. Though I've just read there's a big box version coming out later in the year...

Mice and Mystics

I've wanted to play this for quite some time, and as it is advertised as for 7+ we thought we'd be able to play this with our six year old daughter who plays quite a few 8+ games quite happily now. I was therefore surprised at just how complicated this game was. By that I don't mean there's lots of really complicated strategy, there really isn't. It's just that there is a lot of rules to remember. There's all the general rules, then there's specific rules for the scenario you are playing. That's a lot of rules to remember and get straight. I watched the 'How to Play' video a couple of times, and read the rules before I'd got it completely figured.

In the end, I decided not to play it with my daughter, so my wife and I played instead. I liked the story aspect of the game, but because we kept checking what we were supposed to be doing it detracted from it a little. Probably not my preferred type of game, but I'm glad I got to play, and think it will be worth picking up again in a year or two and playing with my daughter.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Review of 'Neither Here Nor There' by Bill Bryson

I am not a die hard Bill Bryson fan by any stretch of the imagination. I've enjoyed several of his books, but there's been a couple of others I gave up on. I decided to give this one a go though because I was visiting Paris and Amsterdam, two of the cities Bryson visited in this book. I'm glad I did.

'Neither Here Nor There' is an account of Bill Bryson's travels in mainland Europe. He mainly travelled by train and bus, and visited many places - mainly cities - in both Western and Eastern Europe. It took me most of the book to work out exactly when the book was set, I had been thinking it was around the year 2000, but when he was visiting Eastern bloc countries it transpired that his trip took place in 1990, when many countries were on the cusp between communism and capitalism. To paraphrase Bryson, he said he was sure the place (Sofia in Bulgaria I think) would be very different in five years time, and the inhabitants would be much better for it, but he was glad he saw it before it changed all the same.

The book is not only set in 1990 however, as it features a number of flashbacks to when he travelled in Europe as a student in 1972 with his friend Stephen Katz. This allows an interesting 'then and now' comparison which I think added to the narrative.

It's interesting that of all the Bill Bryson books I've enjoyed, I've liked each one for different reasons. For instance I enjoyed 'Down Under' for all the history and interesting stories of Australia and Australians, whereas I enjoyed the autobiographical aspects and social history in 'The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid'. I really liked 'Neither Here Nor There' because it made me get up and travel to a lot of these places. I really felt the excitement and adventure of travel in this book, and loved the descriptions of some of the places that made me feel like I was there (Sorrento and Lake Como both spring to mind). I also really liked the sound of Split, Croatia and Diocletian's Palace where the corridors of the old Roman Palace are now the narrow streets of the old town. I really want to visit.

This was a really good, classic travel book, easy to read with plenty of comic moments, but also beautiful descriptions, fascinating facts and the real feeling that you are travelling along with Bill Bryson at times.

I don't tend to highlight many passages in books that I read (though it is quite easy on my Kindle Paperwhite), but there was one paragraph towards the end of the book when Bryson was in Bulgaria that I wanted to quote, because I found it quite profoundly true.

"I know Communism never worked  and I would have hated living under it myself, but it seems to me none the less that there is a kind of sadness in the thought that the only economic system that appears to work is one based on self interest and greed."

Something to think on I think. I also wonder if one was to follow in the author's footsteps today, what sort of different experience they would have. Obviously, they wouldn't be travelling through communist countries, and so many Eastern European cities would be profoundly different. I suspect everywhere would be very different too, the internet and globalisation generally have dealt a profound blow to individual cultures all over the world.

Some of the adventures of travel are lost these days too - all those hours getting lost and not being able to read or understand anything would no longer be a problem. You can just pull out your smartphone for directions or instant translations when you don't understand something. My recent experience in Europe was greatly enhanced by this technology, though I was with my family and so being able to quickly find toilets, cafes, the hotel etc were really helpful.

Anyway, that's enough of being morbid. This is a great travelogue written at just the right time I think. A worthy 9/10.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Review of 'Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City' by Russell Shorto

This is one of my three holiday reads, from recent holiday to Amsterdam & Paris. I started each of the three books either just before or while on holiday, but finished none of them. Holidays after all are about more than just reading. This was the last one to start, and I began (or picked up where the sample left off anyway) when in Paris the day before catching the train to Amsterdam. Part of the reason for picking it was to learn something about the history of Amsterdam to better enjoy the visit, so thought I should really start before I got there! I consequently read this straight through, and didn't put down for another book.

Anyway, on to the book. This is a narrative history book, relating the story of Amsterdam from its founding in medieval times right through to the present day. It's also an exploration of the concept of liberty, which Amsterdam has for much of its existence stood at the forefront of. If this sounds a bit high brow and technical, don't worry. While the author shares some interesting views on this, it doesn't get in the way of the main event of telling the history of Amsterdam. It just gives it a subtle extra flavour, and adds a bit of weight to the book. The story of the city it told chronologically, picking up all of the important stuff along the way, and offers us portraits of some of the most significant figure in its history. The main chunk of the book covers Amsterdam's struggle against its Spanish Catholic overlords in the 16th century, and the city's subsequent golden age in the 17th century when it was arguably the richest and most powerful city in the world. This is probably the best part of the book, but the section of Amsterdam during and either side of World War 2 is also excellent. The story of Anne Frank is of course covered, but we also get the story of another girl, Frieda Menco, who used to play with Anne and her sister, who survived the war and recently told her story to the author of this book.

The author has an insider-outsider viewpoint which I find quite useful - insider knowledge but maintaining an outside perspective to properly be able to see the bigger picture. He's an American, but has lived in Amsterdam for a number of years. He's obviously undertaken a lot of research, but also conducted in depth interviews with Amsterdamer's which really add significantly to the last part of the book.

As well as this one, his other major book which was written a few years earlier is 'The Island at the Center of the World', a brilliant narrative of history of the founding and early history of New York (originally New Amsterdam as it was founded by the Dutch). Despite covering a much wider time frame, 'Amsterdam' is a significantly smaller book in size and scope. It doesn't quite reach the heights of the author's previous work, but is still a great read.

In conclusion, this is a great book if you are looking to visit Amsterdam or interested in its history at all. There are few cities that can lay claim to the historical significance or legacy of Amsterdam, and its achievement is all the more amazing because of the short time in which it did it. The smaller stories in the book are excellent too, my favourite probably being the story about the heroics and ingenuity of Dutch resistance members during World War 2, particularly Wally Van Hall.

Really recommended, 9/10.

And Amsterdam itself? Would I recommend that as a place to visit? Well that depends. If you really like your history then definitely. It has amazing history, beautiful architecture and a lovely canal network with great boat tours. It has its seedy side too, which you can't help stumbling over from time to time (okay quite a lot really), so you'd need to not be worried about that if you were going to enjoy the city. It's got great museums, including the Amsterdam Museum which is all about the history of the city, and lots of old canal houses which you can look round.

You don't even need to go round any museums to appreciate the history though, just by walking round seeing all the old buildings will do that for you. Look out for the pictoral signs on building facades, there's lots of really interesting ones.

Final words of advice? If you are going to visit Amsterdam, be careful not to get run over by bikes - they are everywhere (they have their own dedicated cycle lanes which look a lot like pavements - be warned). Oh and take this book with you, and you'll be wowing your friends and family with fascinating tales of Amsterdam's history.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Review of "The Game" game. Erm...

Back from a great holiday to Paris and Amsterdam. While I was there I randomly came upon an excellent board gaming shop, Descartes. Of course, it wasn't ideal for me personally, as most of the games were in French and my French is somewhat sub-par. However I did pick up a copy of a great little card game called, rather unimaginatively, "The Game". Or to give it its full title: "The Game": Spiel... so lange du kannst". It has no in game text, so is language independent apart from the rules which I already knew, so snapped it up.

In case you are wondering, Spiel... so lange du kannst is German and translates as 'Game... as long as you can'. Though my copy says "le jeu n'est pas votre ami!" which I think translates as "The Game is not your friend". Which is somewhat different. Anyway...

Type of game: Co-operative card game
No. of players: 1-5
Age: 8+
Difficulty: really easy
Length of play: 20 minutes

"The Game" BGG link (you need the link otherwise you'll never find it)

This is a really simple game to play, one of those 'why didn't I think of that' games. It's also a co-op game which is interesting for a simple little card game like this. It reminds me a bit of Hanabi, purely because you are working together to put numbered cards on piles in some kind of order. It doesn't have Hanabi's twist though - in The Game you can see your own cards and no-one elses.

How to Play

The game consists of 98 numbered cards, going from 2 to 99, and four base cards. Two of the base cards start at 1 and cards played increase in number each time. The other two base cards start at 100 and you play cards in reverse numerical order. Each player gets a hand of cards, 7 with two players, 6 cards with 3+ players, and this hand gets replenished every turn.

On a players turn they have to play at least two cards, but can play more if they like (note however - when the draw deck runs out they only need to play one card)They can play on any of the piles they want, and can play on multiple piles in a turn. Each card they play must be bigger than the last card played for the piles going in ascending order, or smaller than the last card on the piles going in descending order. The only exception to this is that if you are able to you can play a card different by exactly 10 on a card to go back. For example on the ascending pile, if the last card played was 37, you either play a card greater than 37, or you can play a 27 card. Similarly, if playing on a descending pile and the last card played was 37, you would have to either play a card less than 37, or you can play a 47. This is really useful as it allows more cards to get played on a pile.

Playing the Game on the train to Amsterdam
The aim of the game is for everyone to successfully get rid of all of their cards (once the draw pile is empty your hand doesn't get replenished). Often this doesn't happen, as once someone can't play, the game ends, and then everyone adds up the number of cards in their hands, and the number of cards (if any) left in the draw pile. A score of less than 10 is good.

The trick to this game is getting the right amount of communication between players. You have to communicate with other players to co-operate in what cards to play, otherwise you'll lose badly. However too much communication will ruin the game by making it too easy. The rule is you can't mention numbers at all, but you can say things like "please don't play on that pile as I've got a good card for it", or "only go up a little bit on this pile if you can" but can't be more specific than that.

The Verdict

I really like this game. It is so simple to learn and play (after much pleading with us, we relented and taught my six year old daughter the game and she keeps asking to play it), but playing it well and winning can be really challenging especially if you stick to the minimal communication rules. If you are finding it too easy and you are winning too often, there are ways to make it harder too. It's good value for money (mine cost 12 euros), and has lots of replay value.

I've played this game with two, three and four players and it plays well with all player counts. It is an easier game with two players, communication is more complicated and with four players you can't as easily ensure no one plays on the pile you want to play on (sometimes they just have to, or ruin another pile completely). But even with two players it is a good, fun challenge.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Paris & Amsterdam, Books and (small) Board Games

Well having already mostly forgotten what work is (despite only being off 5 days so far), we're now off on holiday in the morning. First stop is Paris, then onto Amsterdam on Sunday. I think it is going to be board game-light week due to luggage constraints, though I am managing to squeeze a few small games into my bag.

Parade - A classic small card game. There's a parade of cards on the table 0 to 10 in various different colours (5 maybe?). You've got to put down a card each turn on the end of the card, but depending on what card you place you may be forced to pick up cards. The aim is not to pick up cards, but if you do, try to get the most cards in a colour to only score 1 point per card rather than the face value.

Province - This is a micro game which I kickstarted a couple of years ago. Only played once and can't really remember much at all about it, but it is tiny, so in it goes!

Fungi - A really nice card game about mushrooms for 2 players. Lovely to play, helps if you like mushrooms (or at least don't feel sick at the sight of them like some people I know).

Lost Legagy: Starship - Only played once or twice, is really small and comes in its own bag. Not supposed to be as good with two players, but we'll give it a go.

No theming there alas. I suppose I could have bought 'The Merchants of Amsterdam' (BGG rank 1021), Hotel Amsterdam (7754), The Chaps From Amsterdam (with an average rating of 3.2, probably not worth the excess baggage charge), or even 'Amsterdam' from 1973. As for Paris, there's 'Paris Connection' (rank 1014), Paris Paris (rank 2067) or Drive on Paris (rank 3365). If anyone's played any of these, let me know what they're like! As it is I'll stick to small games that fit in the bag!

As to books though, I have gone for a bit of a theme. The last book I read was a light military SF novel which was enjoyable enough, but I wanted something with a bit more substance next. So I've gone for some non-fiction history/travel books linking in to where I'm going.

First up is 'Parisians' by Graham Robb. The author has written a number of other non-fiction books, most notably 'The Discovery of France' is a book all about the French - the place, the people, the customs and lots of interesting stories. That book excluded Paris however, perhaps because he always intended this follow up book.

Parisians are a series of twenty stories (or vignettes to use a word of French origin) about famous Parisians, to narrate the story of Paris. The first story is from just before the French Revolution and continue up until recent times. Some of the stories are of famous Parisians you've actually heard of, some little known historical figures that deserve a bigger place in history. I've actually started this one, and it is already fascinating.

I've had mixed feelings about Bill Bryson in the past, there's some books that I've started but never really got into. I think the problem is that his books are a mix of informative and comic, and for me there's an ideal balance which is not always met. I don't mind erring more on the informative side, after all I enjoy reading straight travelogues too, but if the balance tips too much towards the funny at the expense of the information imparted he tends to lose me. I don't really like books that are funny but empty.

I recently read 'Down Under' though, his book on Australia, and thought it was fantastic. I learned a lot and laughed a lot throughout. So I am going to give 'Neither Here Nor There', an account of his travels through Europe ,a go. He stops in both Paris and Amsterdam (along with a lot of other places), so that fits in well with my holiday.

Finally, a history of Amsterdam. I had a choice of this book by Russell Shorto, and one by Dutch writer Geert  Mak. I opted for 'Amsterdam' by Russell Shorto, partly based on the sample first chapters I read (though both were very promising), but also because Shorto wrote one of my favourite history books, 'The Island at the Center of the World' about the early history of New York (when it was a Dutch colony known as New Amsterdam).

Amsterdam has a short but fascinating history. It is less than a thousand years old, but only several centuries after its founding was, for a while in the late 17th century, the most prominent and successful of European cities. I know relatively little about it however, so I am looking forward to learning more.

So that's what I'm taking with me. The trip isn't really about board gaming or reading of course, there won't be that much time for either. But hopefully after a long day's sightseeing there will be time to relax with a game and a book - and maybe a glass or two of wine in Paris, and a few beers in Amsterdam...

Monday, 24 August 2015

So Just Who Was Mad King Ludwig?

Following on from my review of the board game 'Castles of Mad King Ludwig' yesterday, today I'm going to have a bit of a delve into the theme and a bit of history to find out just who Mad King Ludwig was, and whether he really was mad.

Who Was Mad King Ludwig?

The eponymous mad king was in fact Ludwig II, King of Bavaria, sometimes known to history as the Swan King or the Fairy Tale King. He succeeded to the throne when he was only 18, after the death of his father (as an interesting aside for board gamers, as a young man his aide-de-camp and close personal friend was Prince Paul, a member of Bavaria's wealthy Thurn Und Taxis family. But that is for another time).

When Ludwig ascended the throne in 1864, he really wasn't ready for high office and simply wasn't interested in politics or affairs of state, much preferring his passions for art, architecture and music. He was a longtime friend and patron of Richard Wagner, the famous composer most known for his epic Ring Cycle. It is thought by many that without the support of Ludwig, Wagner would never have been the success he was.

Before we get on to Castles, a brief history lesson. At the time Ludwig became king, Bavaria was a separate independent kingdom, but not for long. Bavaria became embroiled in the Austro-Prussian war in 1866, unfortunately picking the wrong side. Bavaria sided with Austria, but when they were defeated, Bavaria had to sign a mutual defence treaty with Prussia which effectively meant Bavaria was under Prussian control. In 1870 after another war (the Franco-Prussian war), Bismark set about completing the unification of Germany. He gave certain financial inducements for King Ludwig to sign the Kaiserbrief, a letter endorsing the creation of the German Empire. Bavaria thus became a part of the German Empire which, while Bavaria was left with a certain degree of autonomy, left Ludwig free to pursue his favourite hobby - building Castles!


The most famous of Ludwig's Castles was Schloss Neuschwanstein, a Romanesque Revival palace on a rugged hilltop, overlooking Ludwig's childhood home of Hohenschwangau. 

Like Ludwig's other projects, Neuschwanstein was paid for from his personal fortune (as well as a few loans!), and Ludwig oversaw every little detail of the design and construction. It was built to be decorative rather than functional and was inspired by the works of Ludwig's friend Richard Wagner. It was supposed to have more than 200 rooms, but only 15 of them were ever finished, including the 'Hall of the Singers', The Throne Hall. The Bedroom and the Study Room.

Since Ludwig's death, the castle has been an extremely popular tourist attraction, with over 60 million people having visited it to date. It was also the inspiration for Disney's Sleeping Beauty Castle.

Linderhof Palace

Linderhof is the smallest of Ludwig's castles, and is the only one he lived to see finished. It took as its inspiration Versailles, the Palace of the French Sun King, Louis IVX (who Ludwig idolized). There were only four rooms of any significance: The Hall of Mirrors, The East and West Tapestry Chambers and the Audience Room (in which Ludwig never had an audience).


Herrenchiemsee was a Benedictine abbey which was created in the year 765. It was eventually purchased by Ludwig and turned into a royal residence known as the Old Palace. Not content with that though, Ludwig also built Herrenchiemsee Palace, which became known as the New Palace. It was never finished, but it took inspiration from, and was a partial replica of, the Palace of Versailles in France.

Ludwig's Death

Despite the fact he never used public funds for any of his building projects, Ludwig was extremely unpopular with his ministers, perhaps because he wasn't interested in governing, or because he was in a lot of debt after borrowing money from many of the royal families of Europe. His ministers sought to depose him, and did so by accumulating evidence that he was in fact insane and not fit to rule. The conspirators then approached Bismark with their 'findings' which he likened to "rakings from the King's waste-paper baskets and cupboards", but didn't actually do anything to stop them.

Only three days after he was deposed, Ludwig was out taking a walk in the grounds of Berg Castle where he had been taken, with a Doctor Gudden (one of the doctors who declared him insane). Neither of them were seen alive again, and their bodies were later found in a lake in the grounds). The doctor showed signs he had been strangled but there was nothing to suggest how Ludwig died. The mystery of Ludwig's death has not been solved to this day.

So Was King Ludwig really mad?

At the fact the time, no one really refuted Ludwig's insanity, but since them historians have considered the case in more detail and many have concluded that the evidence was largely fabricated. The records of the case were even studied by psychiatrists, and findings published in the journal 'History of Psychiatry' concluded he wasn't insane, only eccentric.

How Closely Has the Game Stuck to the Theme?

The game doesn't really have anything much to do with Ludwig himself, but in one sense it has stuck closely to the theme. The artwork on the box is of (or closely resembles) Ludwig's masterpiece, Neuschwanstein. The rambling nature and strange configuration of rooms which players end up creating in the game somehow fits well with the eccentricity of Ludwig as well.

The game sticks closely to the theme in the type of rooms which are in Ludwig's castles, or would have been if he had been able to finish them. In particular there are some specific rooms featured in the game which are taken directly from Ludwig's Castles, including the Tapestry Rooms, the Audience Chamber and the Singer's Chamber.

Overall, a great theme for a great game.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Castles of Mad King Ludwig review

Today I'm going to review one of my favourite games at the moment, 'The Castles of Mad King Ludwig'. First some details.

Publisher: Bezier Games
Designer: Ted Alspach
Age: 10+
Number of players: 1-4
BGG rank: 52
Length: 1-2 hours (two player can be played in an hour)
Difficulty: Easy-medium

What's it all about?

The game is all about designing your own crazy castle. You start off with an octagonal entrance foyer, and from there you buy rooms, corridors and stairs to add on to your castle. You are seeking to beat your fellow players to some shared goals, as well as working towards your own secret goals, both of which earn you victory points. You also earn victory points whenever you put down rooms.

How Do You Play?

Game Board - The Master Builder Chooses the cost of available rooms

Every round, each player gets the opportunity to buy a room and add it to their castle (or take money if they prefer). One of the neat things about the game is that each round, a different player gets to be the Master Builder, and set the price of the rooms available to buy. When the other players buy a room, they pay the Master Builder, thus earning him or her an income. The Master Builder still has to pay if they buy a room, but they pay the bank. So the Master Builder has to weigh up how to price the different rooms. They might want to make a room they really want cheap, but not too cheap that other players buy it first (they have to buy last after all other players have gone).

Here's a close up of one of the rooms

Players usually only to buy one room per round, which must be placed immediately, and a room cannot be changed once it is placed (fairly obviously, rooms aren't usually portable!). Each room scores a certain number of points when played, plus additional points are scored depending on the rooms adjacent to it. This usually fits in well with the theme, so that the Master Bedroom will score negative points if it is situated next to the Singer's chamber or the Lute room for instance.
Here's my castle at the end of a recent game

As well as scoring points, players can earn bonus for completing a room - linking all doorways with other rooms or corridors. Different room types have different bonuses, like having another turn, getting money, earning extra victory points etc.

So What's the Verdict?

As I think I've already said, I like this game a lot. It's a really easy game to learn, but there's a lot of strategy with players having to weigh up quite a few different factors. Despite this though, play is quite quick with very little downtime in choosing what to do, even for AP players (Analysis Paralysis). I haven't played the solo variant but it is excellent with 2, 3 or 4 players. In my opinion it is just as good with 2 players as with 4, which isn't the case for a lot of games. The only slightly tricky bit is making sure you keep up with the scoring and don't miss points.

As well as actual game play, there's a lot of fun to be had with the theme, which is present throughout. Several times we've played we've had a good laugh at the unusual combination of rooms we've built in our castles, and what the inhabitants might be getting up to!

If you've played the designer's previous game, Suburbia, you might be wondering how this compares. Well I've played both, but much prefer this game. It's easier to play and a lot less confusing, as you are building your own castle rather than contributing to one joint suburbs. In Castles you really get a feeling of satisfaction with your own creation that just isn't there in Suburbia. I also think the theme is much better, as is the artwork.

Compenents - 4/5
Ease of play - 4/5
Theme - 5/5
Replayability 5/5

Overall: 5/5

A very enjoyable, light strategy game that's easy to learn with tons of replay value.

So that's my review. Tomorrow however I'm going to try something a bit different as I delve a bit into the background to the theme of the game (now available - click here). Who was Mad King Ludwig? Was her really mad? What strange, crazy castles did he build?

Friday, 21 August 2015

Top 10 'Missed Out On' Games I Need to Play

I've played several games for the first time recently, only for a board gaming friend of mine to remark 'What, you haven't played that yet?' These are games that a lot of members of my game group have played multiple times but I've either not been there or playing a different game. I realise there's quite a lot of these, so here's my top 10 'Missed Out On' games I need to play. I'm deliberately not including really new games, just games that are at least a year old.

  1. Trajan - I'm quite a fan of Stefan Feld games and have now played a few, but of his major games Trajan, ranked 38 on Board Game Geek, is a notable omission. 
  2. El Grande - This is something of a grand-daddy of modern strategy board games, dating back to 1995 from one of Germany's first professional games designers, Wolfgang Kramer (he co-designed Colosseum which is a game I really enjoy). In the game you play a Spanish lord drafting in your knights (or Caballero's as they are known in Spain) to help you control areas of the board.
  3. Claustrophobia - A decent two player dungeon crawler. I really need to get this, especially as my wife really loves dungeon crawlers (thanks to the Diablo series of computer games).
  4. Railways of the World/Steam - I'm including these both together even though they are separate games but both train games. I always used to want to build model railways as a child, now I've moved on to wanting to build railroads in games. Both games by Martin Wallace, Railways of the World is the simpler game I think.
  5. Lancaster - Given I live in Lancaster, I really should have played this game, particular as it has been a popular one that has been brought to club nights many times. Set in 1413, it's Area Control/Worker Placement and players take the role of powerful noblemen, vying to be the King's right hand man. 
  6. Euphoria - Everyone seems to talk about how this is a fantastic game, but I've not played it. It's a worker placement game where your dice are workers, and it is set in a dystopian future, but I don't know much more than that about it.
  7. Twilight Struggle - It's the number one game on Board Game Geek and has been for a while. It's a strategic two player game about the Cold War. Why have I not played this yet?
  8. Firefly: The Game - We love Firefly, and this game seems quite true to the series - travel round the galaxy, hiring crew, picking up cargo etc. Must play.
  9. Terra Mystica - This is number two on Board Game Geek, and is an epic civilisation building game in a fantasy landscape, featuring 14 different races in seven landscapes. This seems exactly my sort of game.
  10. Bora Bora - Apologies for putting two Stefan Feld games on this list, but I really do like his games and this is supposed to be one of his best. It was had the chance to get it on sale for £20 a while back, I really should have picked it up then.
What games have you missed out on playing so far?

Thursday, 2 July 2015

The Human Story

What I'm Reading: The Penguin History of the World (33% through)
What I'm Watching - Castle Series 7
What's Cooking? - Paprika Beef & Sweet Potato Pie

I've always found it hard to reconcile the different interests I have, and nowhere is this more pronounced than it what I choose to read. My tastes shift from time to time and in any given week are influenced by how busy or stressed I am, but can be just about anything (excluding celebrity biographies and Mills & Boon perhaps!). On the fiction side I usually prefer science fiction, some historical fiction, and the occasional bit of contemporary veering towards literary fiction. On the non-fiction side it tends to be history, science, travel and a few other odds and sods.

The biggest contrast I always think is between history (-fiction) and science (-fiction), particularly when these sum up the core of what I like to read. Then it finally occurred to me the other day that they are far more similar than you might think. What links them, and what I love about both of them, is the idea of what I think of as The Human Story. History is all about what we humans got up to in the past, how we got where we are today. When you stop to think about it, the story is frankly an incredible and wondrous one in such a short fraction of a second in geological or cosmic time. Science, and especially science fiction, is forward looking and asks how might the human story continue in the centuries and millennia ahead? Thinking about this is every bit as exciting and wondrous as the story of how we got where we are today.

Well my reading tastes have - for now at least - shifted a little back to history (though one of the books I'm so looking forward to coming out this month is a science fiction one- more on that later). A visit to a museum recently gave me a hankering for history again. I started 'A History of the World in Bite Sized Chunks', but it was far too bite-size and not meaty enough for what I wanted, so I instead picked up 'The Penguin History of the World 6th edition' by J.M. Roberts and Odd Arne Westad. At well over 1,000 pages it is quite a read, but at least I've got it on Kindle to save me lugging all that paper around. History is so full of great stories, and I hope to share some of them with you soon.

A couple of books I'm looking forward to this month couldn't be more different from each other (and the book I'm reading):

'Go Set a Watchman' by Harper Lee - One of my favourite ever books is 'To Kill a Mockingbird' by Harper Lee. I think it helped that I read it as an adult and not at school, as most people who read it school didn't seem to appreciate it. It is one of great classics of the 20th Century, set in the 1930s Deep South and dealing with racism that was endemic in the American South at that time. It is the only book published by the author... until now. More than half a century later, she is releasing 'Go Set a Watchman' which is a kind of sequel, although it was actually written before To Kill a Mockingbird, and deals with the child characters Scout and Jem as adults. The book is published on 14 July.

'Armada' by Ernest Cline. A couple of years ago I read 'Ready Player One', Cline's first book and absolutely loved it. It was science fiction, and also a 1980s nostalgia fest. I've never read anything like it before. Well now he's written another one 'Armada'. This book is about a science fiction geek who really wishes he could help save the world like he does in computer games. Only now an alien fleet has arrived in orbit and needs his (and other people's) help to save the Earth. This one comes out two days after 'Go Set a Watchman' so I'm going to have a busy time reading! I'd also better get cracking on The History of the World, as I've still got about 800 pages to go...

Lastly for now, I've started a new feature on my blog, What I'm.... to let any blog readers out there what I'm upto, whether that's what I'm reading, listening to, watching, drinking. Will vary it depending on what I'm doing. And while I'm only an occasional cook, I did cook Paprika Beef & Sweet Potato Pie, a Pampered Chef recipe, and it was yum!

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Book Club of Two - Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

My wife and I are both keen readers and while our reading tastes differ considerably, there is some crossover, books or authors that we both like. On those occasions we always enjoy discussing books we've both liked, and that's where we came up with the idea for a 'Book Club of Two' where we both read the same book at the same time. We can discuss as we go and compare notes afterwards. It sounded like a good idea, particularly as we both now have Kindles and can share books easily, so decided to give it a go. After a couple of false starts, we settled on 'Frankenstein' by Mary Shelley. It's a Classic and critically acclaimed, but it is also science fiction, a genre I enjoy. Here's what I thought of it, then I'll give you my wife's thoughts as a bonus.

First of all it is a short book, only about 200 pages, so it is not one that is going to take months to read. What's more it is quite an easily read, there's some lengthy chunks of description and exposition in places, but for the most part the book flies along at a decent pace. So it already has a couple of advantages over other classics.

Frankenstein is a story that has long since entered popular culture, but how much do you actually know about the story? To explode one common misconception for starters, (Dr) Frankenstein is the name of the person who created the monster/creature, rather than the creature itself. In the course of study and research at a university, he discovers the secret of life and death, and creates a creature out of a mish-mash of body parts and then imbues life into it. The creature is let loose on the world, and the majority of the book then deals with the consequences of this.

It is a good story, and while it does come across as a bit cliched and obvious at times, one has to remember this was the first story of its kind. There were no such cliches or stereotypes when this book was written in the early 1800s. Most of the book is set in mainland Europe, particularly Switzerland, which is quite unusual and takes a bit of getting used to, albeit later on Frankenstein does visit Britain. Occasionally, I did get frustrated with how idiotic Dr Frankenstein was (a good example with only a small spoiler is that after creating the Monster, he basically runs away in terror - no wonder it turned out so badly...) but didn't detract much from the story. I particularly liked the part of the story where the monster tells his side of the story and what he's been upto after Dr Frankenstein ran away in terror from his creation. I started to feel sorry for the monster... for a while at least. I thought the book ended well too, but won't say any more about it as I don't spoil the book for anyone who might want to read it. Overall a very good book, recommended. I'd give it 8/10.

Now for my wife Kate's comments.

"It's hard to believe it was written more than a hundred years ago, it is more like current historical fiction. I thought it was engaging, a little obvious at times and a little frustrating (the decisions made by the main character at times), but it was excellent and no wonder it has stood the test of time."

We'll bring you another read from the Book Club of Two in due course!

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Jump into the Escape Pod for great audio SF!

There are so many great places to read and listen to short stories online, especially science fiction but most of these are not well known. I've decided to periodically take a look at one, to shine a light on some hidden gems.

In my forays into the world of SF short stories, I came across Escape Pod ( It is a science fiction short story podcast with a new episode each week. Each episode features one new short story, sometimes a new one, sometimes a reprint (can you call it a reprint if it's an audio story?). I've listened to quite a few, and while I've not liked all of them, there's been some really gems and the rest are not bad at all. I'm not usually a big audio fiction fan, preferring to read, but I've found that short stories really do work for me in audio format as I can often listen to them in one sitting. Escape Pod also have some really excellent narrators that add an extra touch to the story.

As well as the story, each episode features a short preamble, a bit of a summary or reflection afterwards, and some listener feedback from a previous episode (incidentally, this is taken from the active forums on the website where listeners discuss each episode afterwards). It adds just a little bit to the overall package, but add something it does.

One of the really good things about Escape Pod is that if features old stories as well as new. There's some classic stories that have been given the Escape Pod treatment, including the following:

Episode 400 - Escape Party by Arthur C Clarke

Episode 100 - Nightfall by Isaac Asimov

Episode 453 - The Grotto of the Dancing Bear by Clifford D Simak

Episode 392 - Aftermaths by Lois McMaster Bujold (not sure if this is a classic or new story, but I love her books, so thought I'd include.

Episode 490 - Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

There's also stories by David Brin, Robert Silverberg, Ted Chiang and loads more. For a list of episodes, you are best checking out this wikipedia page.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Reading Arthur C Clarke - Early stories

As part of my recent enthusiasm for short stories, I've started on some classic science fiction stories. I mentioned Clifford D Simak last week, and I'm going to be reading more of his books soon, but I decided to take a fresh look at a rather more well known name in the field of science fiction - Arthur C Clarke. He's written many classic novels, but also many excellent short stories, and like many classic authors, many later novels started out as short stories.

There are a few of his short stories available online (I've already talked about 'Rescue Party'), but I decided to splash out on 'The Collected Short Stories of Arthur C Clarke', which includes all 104 of his published short stories in chronological order. It's quite expensive in paperback, but a bargain at £7.99 on Kindle. Here are my thoughts on the first few stories.

'Travel by Wire' was his first published short story, published in December 1937 in Amateur Science Fiction stories, what seems to be a short lived small press type magazine. Clarke would have been 20 at the time, and you can tell as it has a jokey vibe, relating student pranks and rivalries between different science faculties (though interestingly he didn't go to university until many years later). This story is based on the idea of a Star Trek style transporter (albeit 30 years before Star Trek did it), sending people down telephone wires and re materialising them at the other end. Told in a humorous way, it also has an amusing little twist at the end. Told in the first person (though often using collective 'we'), it is also very short, probably no more than 1500 words. It may be three quarters of a century old, but I really enjoyed it, and but for the mention of dates and a couple of quaint anachronisms it could have been written yesterday.

'How We Went to Mars' is another first person narrative, starting with: 'It is with considerable trepidation that I now take up my pen to describe the incredible adventures that befell the members of the Snoring-in-the-Hay Rocket Society in the Winter of 1952'. This was written in 1937 when national space agencies had not yet become interested in space, but amateur rocket societies were springing up everywhere. This tongue in cheek story is about a rocket from one of these societies which launches (with several members of the society on board including the narrator), aiming for Earth orbit. Unfortunately they lapse into a temporary coma, aren't awake when they need to break and overshoot. They are now heading to Mars... This is something of a tongue in cheek story, and is for many reasons now very dated. It is still however worth reading for a glimpse of a time when rocket technology was starting to come of age, and Amateur Rocket Societies were a big thing.

Sometimes, my thoughts on a story are indelibly linked in my mind with where I was when I read it and I read this story while sat in the sunshine on the deck, sipping a Starbucks coffee overlooking the boating lake at Center Parcs. I always like reading in the sunshine. Anyway, 'Retreat from Earth' isn't much about sunshine, it is about aliens who come to colonise Earth. A well trod path you might say (albeit not at the time it was written). But it is also about Termites, and it is a story about humanity's origins. This is also the first of Clarke's stories to be written in the third person.

'Reverie' is a strange inclusion in a book of short stories, as it seems to be an article about the state of science fiction (in the 1930s). It's quite short however and is certainly interesting, not least because it would not really be out of place today.

'The Awakening' is an early story about cryogenics, and one dying man's wish to be put to sleep for a hundred years in the hope that a century's advances in medical science will find a cure for, well, death. It's story that has been told many times before, but this could well be the first, and it is a good story too.

'Whacky' is the next story, and is one I really don't get, maybe it is just wacky! If someone has read it, perhaps they can explain it to me.

Arthur C Clarke sold 'Loophole' to Astounding Science Fiction in the closing months of the Second World War, and it was published in 1946. It is an example of the 'don't underestimate us humans' story, and is told in the form of a series of memos (I'd actually call them emails as that's what they look like, except for the fact that at this point there was a long time before they were going to be invented) between various alien military and political figures about a surveillance of Earth and the human race. Short and punchy, this is an easy, enjoyable read.

The next story is 'Rescue Party' which I've talked about previously - you can read about it here. Anyway, that's it for now, more soon.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

From a Hangman to Alien Rescuers... more short story recommendations

Continuing on from last week's post, I've got more great short story recommendations, most of which you can read and/or listen to online. If you didn't catch last week's post, you can read it here. I've been reading mostly science fiction short stories, but have picked one or two non sci-fi stories that I've enjoyed recently too.

'Light of Other Days' by Bob Shaw. This was written in the 1960s, and I'd not heard of the story before and only barely heard of the author however I came across a Youtube video suggesting this was the best SF short story ever. I don't know I'd agree with that, but it is a really great story. It's only short, so you can easily read in about fifteen minutes. It's got a great science fiction concept (slow glass), but it is a story about people with the concept just part of the backdrop. Definitely worth a read.

'New Folks Home' by Clifford D Simak. This is my first short story by Simak, and I've previously only read one novel of his (Way Station - you can read my review here), but I really like this author. He had a long career, with his first story being published in 1931, and his last in the 1980s shortly before his death. He wrote what has been described as 'Pastoral SF', linking galaxy spanning science fiction concepts with a simple, rural backdrop. The link to this story is to an audio version of the story, from the great folks at Escape Pod. I'm not always a fan of audio stories over reading them on the page (or screen), but I thought the narration on this really good and fit well with the story.

'Item Not as Described' by J.W. Alden. While I've been reading a lot of older 'golden age' science fiction, I've also been reading quite a few new short stories. There's lots of places to read new stuff online, including quite a few 'pro' websites which publish short stories by some of the best modern SF writers (websites/e-zines like Clarkesworld, Lightspeed Magazine, Strange Horizons etc) but there's also a lot of semi-pro and small press websites and e-zines and there's some really good stuff on these too. This one was published in Kasma Magazine and is quite an amusing story, taking the form of a thread of email exchanges between someone who has bought an item on an online auction site which wasn't as described, the seller of said item and the customer service department of the auction site. However the auction site is something of a darker alternative to eBay! It's only short, but is a fun and amusing read.

'Rescue Party' by Arthur C Clarke. This is a true golden age SF story, from one of the masters of science fiction. An alien starship comes to the rescue of Earth when it is discovered that Earth's sun is about to explode, destroying all of the solar system. But where are all the people? Thanks to +Kenny Chaffin from Google Plus for this excellent recommendation.

And now for a couple of non-science fiction recommendations. As I mentioned in last week's post, despite enjoying a wide variety of novels in most genres, I'm struggling to find non-SF stories which I've really enjoyed. Possibly because the stories are either trash, trying to be too literary, or concentrating on the 'dark side of the human psyche' or similar, which most of the time just bores me.

Anyway the first of these is 'The Three Strangers' by Thomas Hardy. For anyone who doesn't know, Hardy was a classic English author of the Victorian era (19th century) who wrote rural English stories such as 'The Mayor of Casterbridge' and 'Jude the Obscure'. I've not read any of his books, but his short stories were recommended to me, in particular an anthology called 'Wessex Tales'. I've read several of these so far, and particularly enjoyed The Three Strangers, which is a country tale about a hangman. It is the sort you could imagine an old man telling his grandchildren while sat round the fire of a thatched cottage, deep in the woods.

The second of these is 'The Blue Girl' by Alex Grecian. This is a short story set in late 19th century London, a crime-mystery featuring Constable Colin Pringle. By his own frank admission, Pringle isn't a very hard working or dedicated policeman - he only joined the police force because he thought the uniform might attract pretty young girls. He isn't even a detective, however the sight of the blue girl floating in the canal makes him feel compelled  to do some investigating, because if he doesn't, no one else will. This short story is based on the author's Murder Squad books of Victorian detective fiction. I haven't read any of them, and only read this story as it was recommended to me by my lovely wife who is a fan of Grecian's books. I really enjoyed it however, and it is doing a good job of making me want to read his books. This isn't available free online as far as I can see, but is only 49 pence in the UK Kindle store.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Reading Short Stories

Unfortunately it has been a long, long time since I've managed a blog post - over two months - and that's after a very promising start throughout January. I haven't been idle however, I've picked up the writing bug and started writing short stories. Why short stories? Well partly at least because they are just that - short! I've always got lots of ideas, and short stories allow me to get more of my ideas onto the page. I may work my way up to something longer, but for now I'm really enjoying writing short stories.

As well as writing short stories I've also been reading them too. I've never been a big reader of short stories, always preferring novels, and I don't think that is going to change anytime soon, but I have been surprised how much I've enjoyed some of the stories I've read. There's also quite a lot that left my cold (and bored and at times confused). In this and more posts over the next few weeks I'll be talking about my findings and reviewing some of the stories I've read, particularly ones I've really enjoyed. Where these are available free online I'll include a link too (and so many stories are available on the internet). I've been reading quite a wide mix of stories, there's a lot of science fiction and fantasy short stories, but quite a few others too. The great thing is that you can easily read a big variety in a short space of time, no getting stuck in a book for weeks or months on end.

I'm going to start off with some science fiction & fantasy stories this time.

'Nightfall' by Isaac Asimov (available as an audio story here or as a pdf here). This was written in 1941 but has not aged at all, and is everything a science fiction story should be. The story is about a solar eclipse, but also is a story about superstition and ignorance versus knowledge and science. At least I think it is, it is a while since I've read this one.

'Fermi and Frost' by Frederick Pohl. (available online here). A story about the end of the world and nuclear winter. A bit dated now, but I thought this was a fabulous story. I talked about it a bit more in this blog post from a couple of years ago.

'The Paper Menagerie' by Ken Liu. (available here) If you don't read science fiction short stories, you've probably never heard of Ken Liu, but in science fiction circles he's considered one of the finest modern short story writers (modern as in the last 10 years). I suppose this is technically a fantasy story, but really there's just the smallest touch of magic in it, other than which it is a normal contemporary short story and a very good one too. It is about family, parenthood and the problems that can come when different cultures collide. This story won the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Award.

Talking about good modern authors, Ted Chiang is another name most people won't have heard of, not surprisingly as he's not written any novels, and has only published 14 short stories in a 20 year career although many of them have won science fiction's top awards. You don't get many science fiction short story writers being written about in The Economist, but you can read this excellent article about him here. I've only read a couple of his stories so far, including 'Exhalation' about a strange universe inhabited by sentient mechanical beings. I read this online, but can't seem to find it now. There is a free audio version though. Chiang's stories can be quite philosophical, and really make you think.

There's many online magazines and websites which publish new short stories every month, week or even day. I'll maybe talk about some of these in a later post, but for now I thought I'd pick one I'd read recently. It isn't a classic or famous story (though it was nominated for the Nebula award in 2013), but is one I enjoyed a lot. It is 'The Sounds of Old Earth' by Matthew Kressel published online in Lightspeed Magazine. It is about a future polluted Earth, which is to be evacuated and and everyone shipped off to New Earth. It's about an old man who has too many memories and doesn't want to leave. It is also about frogs.

So there you go, five stories all available online. If you are after classic sci-fi, go for Nightfall, if you fancy a bit of nostalgia, go for the Sounds of Old Earth, and if you aren't much into science fiction or fantasy, have a read of The Paper Menagerie. Or just read them all.

If you read (or have already read) any of the stories, do comment and let me know what you think, or if you've got any short stories you really recommend - in any genre - then tell me, I'm always on the look out for good short fiction to read.

Next time I'll probably talk about some more mainstream, non science fiction/fantasy short stories, but despite reading some supposed classics I am struggling for stories I really love. Anyway, that's for next time.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

The Rosie Project (and what makes a perfect book)

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
Genre: Contemporary/comic
No. of pages: 300

Don Tillman in a thirty nine year old Genetics professor at an Australian university, and he has decided that he would like to get married. He has come to this conclusion  because studies show that married people live happier, more productive and fulfilled lives. Plus it is so much more efficient and economical, sharing the cost of living, cooking meals for two rather than one... Unfortunately he's never really had a relationship that has lasted beyond the first date, people - particularly women - do find him a bit weird, as his social skills are not very good. Also, he is very particular about the sort of woman he would be able to live with - they shouldn't drink (much), should be intelligent, must not smoke, be able to dance... One day he has the perfect idea of how to solve it - a very detailed questionnaire, so he can screen out all of the unsuitable candidates. So begins The Wife Project. He's after the perfect wife and many are unsuitable, none more so than Rosie...

Before I get on to what I thought of The Rosie Project, in the spirit of the story I would try out The Book Project and see how suitable this book is. So here's my list of what I'd need to make the perfect book.

  1. Beautiful writing, the kind of prose that really sucks you in, makes you feel like you are there, drinking in every delightful word.
  2. A good story, well constructed and not predictable.
  3. Characters that you really get to know and care about what happens to them
  4. A sense of awe and wonder
  5. Lots of really fascinating detail, where you learn a lot.
  6. A real page turner.
  7. A happy ending
  8. A world in which you can escape into and forget your real life worries
  9. The right length, not too long that it takes forever to read, but not so short that it is over too soon.
  10. An overall great feeling at the end that you've just read a fantastic book that you want to tell everyone about.
So how did this book fare? Well like Rosie, this book fails many of the criteria: the writing isn't beautiful (it isn't that kind of book, it is short and snappy rather than overly verbose), the book is nothing if not predictable and there's no sense of awe or wonder. You never really escape into it, like you would with some books, and it is not exactly a page turner though it is a quick read. So what does it have in its favour? Well I really liked the character of Don. He is rather odd by most standards but that just makes him quite endearing and I really found myself hoping and wishing everything would turn out for him. It is funny in many places, sometimes laugh out loud funny, and it has *very slight spoiler* a happy ending. And as for number 10, it did leave me with a great feeling of having read a great book (though now, a few days later this has faded a fair bit, quicker than may be the case with heavier fare).

So it fails many of the above tests, but then that's the point really isn't it? That's why you don't judge a book (or a woman) on the results of a questionnaire!

I feel I should mention one criticism of the book, which is that it isn't actually very reflective of people with Asperger's Syndrome and in fact is potentially quite insulting to them. I don't know about this, but although Asperger's is mentioned, Don doesn't think of himself as having this, and there is at most the inference that he has, it is never explicitly stated. I don't think the author intended this to be a serious book about people with Asperger's or similar mental conditions. It is meant to be a light hearted, heart warming and funny book, and in this the author has definitely been successful. I'd give this a 9/10, just. I nearly marked it down for being a bit too light and fluffy, but in the end I didn't have the heart to.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Guards! Guards! (Arrest that dragon!)

Book:  'Guards! Guards' by Terry Prachett
Series: Discworld series (book 8, but standalone)
Genre: Comic Fantasy

I'm a bit of a sucker for a beautiful book. I'm talking here about a really beautiful looking book (though obviously beautiful writing is good too). This is the way the publishing industry is going too, publishing really lovely hardback editions of books to try and entice readers to buying actual physical books for way over the odds. It worked for me. This is one of those gorgeous, textured hardcover books that feels great to hold. It's stylistic cover is all oranges, yellows and silver, with a large fire breathing dragon gliding over the cityscape of Ankh Morpork.

They do say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover though, so lets go and see what's inside. 'Guards! Guards!' by Terry Pratchett is a Discworld* novel, the eighth in the series. For those that don't know, the Discworld novels - of which there are about forty to date - is a series of comic fantasy novels by Terry Pratchett, set in the fictional Discworld. Novels can, by and large, be read in any order and in fact many Pratchett fans would argue that the first couple of books aren't the best starting point. This book is the first book to feature the City Watch^ - Captain Vimes, Carrot, Nobby and Colon amonst others and is as good a starting point as any (Mort is another really good one to start with).

I'm not a diehard Pratchett fan by any means, I've read a few books before, but never any of the City Watch books, though friends have suggested these are some of their favourite Pratchatt books. So I thought I'd give this one a go. The premise of the book is that the City Watch is at an all-time low, the Captain is a hopeless drunk and his two sub-ordinates are just...hopeless. Then Carrot, an eager six foot plus dwarf joins the watch, the first volunteer in... well, a long time. Soon after his arrival a dragon arrives in mysterious circumstances and the Watch actually have a job to do for once.

I really enjoyed this book. Pratchett is a very funny writer. He makes a lot out of metaphors and word-play - for instance when one Vimes tells one of the Watch to 'throw the book' at the bad guy, that's what he does, literally. He makes good use of footnotes# for particularly amusing additions to the main story, and so it is always worth reading those. Sometimes 'comic' authors try to be funny but just fall short, but not this author, he actually is very funny. What's more though, there is actually a good story - it is a somewhat stereotypical fantasy story - dragon threatens city - hero arrives to challenge it - but that is entirely the point here! This completely turns the story on its head and makes much fun of the stereotypes.

So that's good humour, good story and to add to that, there's good characters which you really care about too. They're funny and a bit silly, but sincere too, you believe in them. The main character Captain Vimes, starts out a drunkard who barely does anything, he doesn't want to be that way, but doesn't know how else to be. The arrival of danger in the city gives him the impetous to actually change, and be more the person he always wanted to be. Then there's Carrot, an eager young recruit who believes in (and knows off by heart) the law, when no one else does. He also takes everything literally, which is rather funny a lot of the time.

Pulling off both being funny and telling a good story is quite a challenge, but Pratchett really manages it well in this novel. I'm going to give this a solid 8/10.

If you enjoy this book, then you'll probably enjoy the rest of the Discworld novels. If you particularly like the characters in this book, then you'll want to check out the other two books in the City Watch trilogy - 'Men at Arms' and 'Feet of Clay'.

*These are 'must read' books for  members of the Flat Earth Society, as the Discworld is literally that, a flat disc. Resting on top of four elephants. Who are atop a giant turtle. Which is flying through space. All fairly normal really.
^Watch is probably an apt name, as it is not like they actually do anything.
# Like this. Not that I'm copying or anything. Erm.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

On This Day in History... A Time Machine was born!

On this day in history, a time machine was born. Seriously. On 21 January 1981, the first De-Lorean car rolled off the production line in Dubmurry, a suburb of Belfast in Northern Ireland. Making the De-Lorean a British car... sort of. Only about 9,000 were ever made before the company halted production in 1983, and so it would have remained an obscure car only known to die hard motor fanatics, were it not for its starring role in one of my favourite films, Back to the Future. So for Back to the Future fans, this is a day worth celebrating.
BTTF DeLorean Time Machine" by Terabass 
The car retailed for about $25,000 (about $60k in today's money) but was so popular that there was a waiting list, and many people were willing to pay over the odds for the car. The company went into liquidation during a huge slump in the US car market, and after the creator, John DeLorean, was arrested on drug trafficking charges. He was later found to be not guilty but by that point it was too late for the DeLorean.

The car had several production runs, but with only very minor differences, and all the production cars were left hand drives as they were made for the American market, although 16 were subsequently modified to be right hand drive. Then there was the pilot test cars, all thought destroyed, until one turned up in a barn in Northern Ireland in 2003. How someone had one of these all this time and no-one noticed I've no idea...

Interestingly there are also three gold DeLoreans, covered in 24 carat gold plating. These were made for American Express, who were planning to sell 100 gold DeLorean's as part of a sales promotion. Only two were made initially however, and one was made later from spare parts which had been ordered by American Express in case of any faults or damage to the cars. A gold DeLorean just isn't the same though, it wasn't in Back to the Future after all, was it?

That's enough about the DeLorean, but I'll be coming back to Back to the Future later in the year as 2015 is a very important year. It is 30 years since the first film came out, but much more importantly, it was the year Marty McFly travelled to in Back to the Future 2. You know, the one with the hoverboards and flying cars...

Monday, 19 January 2015

Britain's Next Bestseller?

This weekend I came across a great new (to me at least, think it's been around a few months) website, It's a sort of Kickstarter for books, authors submit their novel and it gets put on the site. People can then pre-order the book, and if the book meets the minimum number of pre-orders the author gets a deal and the book gets published.

I was immediately attracted to the editor's pick, '26 Miles to the Moon' by Andrew Males. It's got a bit of a bonkers theme, run a marathon and the winner gets to go to the moon but I kind of like that. This isn't a science fiction book at all, it is described as General Fiction/Humour, but I like the nod to space tourism. This could actually happen in the next decade, there's certainly enough space obsessed billionaires to make it happen (well I can think of at least one, which is surely enough...).

I liked the concept, but that on its own wasn't enough to make me part with £9.99. Fortunately there's a sizable initial sample, about three chapters you can download and read (the chapters are quite short). It's really quite a funny book and endearing too. I can honestly say that if I could have, I'd have kept reading the book. I'll have to wait for a bit for that though...

For more information about this book click here to read all about it. You can also download the free some sample from here, I suggest you do because it's great fun! If you want to you can pre-order it for £9.99 (plus £2.49 postage). It's already met its minimum 250 pre-orders so the book is going to be published, but you've got until Friday to get in on the act (after that you'll have to wait until it's actually published around April/May time). Pre-ordering the book gets you it 2 weeks before it gets published, and you get your name published in the book as a thank you for helping getting it to print. You never know, this really could be Britain's next bestseller and you could help make it happen.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Crime, Overstuffed Armchairs & a Time Before the Internet

I've just finished reading Sunset Express by Robert Crais, a private detective crime novel featuring California PI Elvis Cole and his sidekick, Joe Pike. It's the six in the Elvis Cole series, and while I've been reading them in order it has been a while since I read the last one.

I'll come on to why I like the series and what I thought in a minute, but first a brief synopsis.

A woman has been murdered, and the evidence all points to the husband, a super rich businessman. However there are suggestions that the female detective who found the crucial piece of evidence and made the arrest will do anything to get ahead - some even believe she has falsified evidence before and would do so again to get her career back on track. Elvis Cole is hired by the defendant's legal team - headed by celeb hotshot lawyer Jonathan Green - to look into the Detective's background, and follow up on some other leads.

This is a good, solid detective novel. There are some good twists and turns, but overall you know roughly what sort of book you are going to get before you set out. They've all been good so far, and I liked this one at least as much as the others. One quirk I noticed about the book though, is that whatever house Elvis Cole goes into, whether victim, suspect or witness, there always seems to be an overstuffed armchair. And this got me thinking. Now that it's on my mind, I'm sure there's always overstuffed armchairs in crime novels, and don't read about them elsewhere. Come to think of it, who overstuff's their armchairs? I'm not sure if I've seen one before in real life!

Anyway, moving on from that, what is it I like about the Elvis Cole novels? One of the most noticeable things, and something I've noticed in other crime novels (such as Sue Grafton) is that the books take place in the modern day, but before mobile phones or the internet. It is a time when, if you need to find something out you do some good old fashioned detective work you don't just fire up Google. It's also a time when, if you are stuck somewhere, you can't just whip out your iPhone... I like this about it, and think detective crime novels like these would be much less enjoyable if they featured lots of modern technology (note - just realised it was written in the late 1990s when the internet was in its infancy and the populous were only just starting to get obsessed with their mobile phones. It will be interesting to see if later books keep the traditional pre-internet perspective).

I also like the Elvis Cole books because they are funny. Elvis is a real wisecracking smart-ass, and really likable about it too. Over the course of the books you really feel like you are getting to know him. The reader is invited into his home, find out what he's cooking, what he's drinking and anything else that's going on. There's a bit of a sub-plot involving his girlfriend that spans several books, and he's not a dysfunctional loner unlike many detectives you meet in crime fiction. All of this makes the books quite a refreshing read.

If you are thinking of picking up an Elvis Cole novel, you might want to start at the beginning with 'The Monkey's Raincoat' but you can I believe read them in any order, certainly in the case of the first 7 books anyway. The 8th book, LA Requiem, is deeper and darker, and mark something of a turning point in the books. Or so I've heard anyway, I'm not there yet though.