30 March 2006

Gods, Mongrels and Demons by Angus Calder

A strange book. Calder provides 101 capsule biographies, which are in general fairly interesting.

However, it lacks any focus for the general reader. This is because it seems to be primarily just people he was interested in researching. This comes through in the large number of his own ancestors and people that he knew included. I can understand that he may be interested in these people, but that hardly makes them "essential lives" for the rest of us (that's his subtitle, by the way).

It also, bizarrely, includes a few mythological figures. Again, these are generally interesting histories. But they don't really fit in.

Calder also uses a number of the biographies merely as a starting point for his musings on related topics, sometimes hardly mentioning the person that the article is about.

Overall, an okay book with a lot of interesting biographies, but unsatidfying due to the lack of a real unifying theme (at least, to the world at large).
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28 March 2006

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Okay, this is just a initial impressions review, really. I've only played for maybe twelves hours total and a lot of that was redoing bits after being killed the first (Or fourth) time.

Firstly, it is probably the prettiest PC game yet. My machine is only a touch over the recommended spec, and I have been too scared to try and max out the graphics, but on the ones it picked for me... wow. It gets you with little things, like walking through knee high grass and bushes, which look pretty much real. And gazing down onto the Imperial City at sunrise is just astounding. There is one big "...but" here - the facial animations when you talk to people are really bad. The faces themselves look good, but the movement's just wrong - like talking to a latex puppet. After Half-life 2, this is just terrible.

The system and quests are just like Morrowind (my only previous exposure to the series) and that's fine. For some reason they decided to scale how tough things are to your level, which means the level of difficulty is consistent all through. Why they chose to do that instead of "remove leveling", I have no idea. So far, quests and exploration have been fun. I did the first few pieces of the main quest and then decided to take a break and explore. It's all good stuff.

Also, it's nowhere near as buggy as any of Bethesda's other games has been. Not unbuggy, by all accounts, but I am unaffected. Strictly speaking, I am - it crashes every time I exit the game - but not in a way that affects my play.

Buy this game, unless your machine can't run all the pretty stuff.
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Secrets of the Stone Age by Richard Rudgley

I got this out of the library to try and assuage my curiosity about what is actually known about the people I wrote about in Three Dooms. It's an okay coffee table book about a bunch of prehistoric topics. It has a chapter on Catalhoyuk which is the main reason I grabbed it (that, and it was about the only book on this topic the library had that was published in the last ten years).

Some nice photos, a bunch of cool facts, and a little bizarre speculation that isn't rooted in anything we actually know about those times.

But it does have an extra reading list that I will follow up...
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27 March 2006

Hellboy (the film)

Just watched this again, for the second time.

The first time, I was disappointed. Too much of a purist about the comics I suppose. This time I found it pretty cool. Still a bunch of truly ludicrous stuff in there, but that's in keeping with the whle idea really.

I'm kind of tempted to check out the extended edition now, even.
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Emperor: The Gods of War by Conn Iggulden

Well, finished the last in this series. Good, but weaker than the second and third. This one really felt like a lot of cool stuff had been left out (and Iggulden says as much in his note at the end).
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Finally got around to watching Hero, too. I have a feeling I'd been watching a bunch of wushu and martial arts films when it was initially released and got bored of them. Bad mistake.

This is a great example of the extremely stylized and crazy brand that I like. It was also a stunningly well constructed use of multiple versions of the same story, something normally guaranteed to just piss me off.

Good acting all round as well.

It also made me think about Qin Shi Huang and wonder what he'd think about his many portrayals in films these days. He seems to get a lot more play than Alexander or Julius Caesar, to name some European people of similar stature. Odd.
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The Constant Gardener

I watched this film on Saturday. Very good.

The plot didn't feel like it totally hung together, but things moved along enough that this wan't really a bother. What did stand out was the acting, especially Ralph Fiennes, who was on top form. It was also fairly unrelentingly grim, but that's pretty much par for the course.

I am now motivated to find the Le Carre novel that it was based on and check for differences.
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25 March 2006

Game chef review: Our Guardian Devils by Jason Petrasko

Next review was Our Guardian Devils by Jason Petrasko.

Man, what a game to read with a bad head cold, after taking really strong cold drugs, in a hot bath. It would be pretty trippy normally, but that just made it even more so.

Anyhow, in this one the GM-role-ish represents the ancient dark evil and the players all play some emotions. Everyone's interest is centered on some 'devils' - one person who transcended despair and the people they magically dragged with them as minions. Kind of. They have the job of protecting the dreamers of the world from the evil force.

The players get to control game characters when the character is motivated by your emotion. So you need to build this up to get things done, i.e. save the world by saving the dreamers.

The system is constantly tempting everyone to take risks in order to save the dreamers. It looks like it could get brutal as you get into the tough stuff.

The game gets played in three sessions, each with a different focus. It looks like it will effectively drive the story to great things.

Very cool game, worth checking out if any of that sounds intriguing. It will probably improve noticably after playtest and revision, there are still a few rough edges here and there.
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24 March 2006

Game Chef review: The Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries

Next one on the list was The Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries by Eric J Boyd.

This game is pulpy, with members of the eponymous committee telling the story of what happened during an expedition. Very Indiana Jones kind of stuff.

Basic design is very cool, but there are a few rough edges still.

At the beginning of the game, you brainstorm a pile of hazards that will appear later in the game. Then you hand your list to another player, who acts as your opposition in play.

Hazards are resolved with a time limit, which should make things fun. If you run out of time before narrating your whole victory, you are penalised. The overall effect should be some breathless action sequences for serious hazards.

Advice: Keep an eye out for a revised version.

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Game Chef review: Crime & Punishment

So, this year all game chef contestants are peer-reviewing the other entries. My first one to do was Crime & Punishment by Moyra Turkington.

This is a great game, ready to go as is, and it's hard to believe that she wrote it in one week. It has art and fancy (cool) layout and everything.

Anyhow, the game is about procedural dramas, that is your CSI/Law and Order style shows. It's played in two hours, encompassing one episode of a show. This two hour limit was a restriction for the game chef contest, there seems to be no reason why you couldn't play a series using these rules if you wanted.

Gameplay is divided into two halves.

The first hour is spent as the show's writing team, establishing what elements will be present in the show and organising the key scenes. You earn currency for your suggestions that end up being used in the show here. The brainstorming system looks good, enough structure that you won't get stumped but leaving things pretty open in general. You also set how much the show emphasizes personal issues of the investigators and/or political ramifications of the case.

Then you bid for characters. The characters are Steele (the captain/boss and kind of GM role) and one or two pairs of investigators. So you can't play it with four, just three or five. In any case, the investigators are then picked. There's a list of them to choose from, each with a short description and a special ability. They are all really cool.

Finally, you sit down to play the episode out. Scenes are played as set up by the writers, except that you can bid your earned currency to take over narration if you want to.

Lastly, if you run out of time, the person playing Steele gets to just end the episode with a dramatic conclusion.

All very cool. Despite not being a fan of these sorts of shows (not recently, anyhow) I will try and play this game.
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23 March 2006

Read-through review of The Shab-Al-Hiri Roach by Jason Morningstar

Today I received my copy of The Shab-Al-Hiri Roach by Jason Morningstar. (Find out more)

First impressions were good - it's a lovely looking book. Very nice cover art and design. Getting one of the first hundred, it is signed (with the note GU-UD - on page 64 I later discover this translates as "Dance, lowly maggot") and numbered (according to the stamp, number 28 of 100 owned by Pemberton Library). The book is filled with colourful pictures and comments like this, all building up the style of the game.

I next opened a little envelope that contained the cards and a large, creepy rubber cockroach. My daughter loved this and began running around the house with it. That's just cool.

Anyway, on to the actual text. It's pretty short so I have already read through it. The basic idea is simple. An evil, ancient Sumerian roach god has got loose at Pemberton University in 1919. The players all have a character who is a member of the faculty there, involved in their own power struggles, of the usual academic type. The roach will possess some (or all) of these characters, leading to gruesome, absurd hijinks.

The game is played without a gamemaster. You play through six key events in the University year, with each player having the opportunity to frame a scene that (hopefully) will lead to a boost in their character's reputation. Each scene ends with a conflict, which resolves who gets what from the things that happen there.

To throw a spanner in that, at the beginning of each event you each turn over a card. This has two sides, one for people possessed by the roach and one for everyone else. You must work this into one of the scenes in the event. Becoming possessed by the roach happens in two ways - if you turn over a card indicating that happens, or voluntarily at any time. The reason that you might do this voluntarily is that it gives you a huge mechanical advantage in conflict resolution. Of course, it's hard to get un-possessed, too. And if you end the game with a roach, then you lose.

Another nice feature of the cards is that the roach ones are orders from the roach (all in ancient sumerian and loosely translated). They are obscure and strange. But the bit I like the best is that if your character has a roach, you must pick another player to be the target of the order before you read it. So you might end up with something like "AS-AZIGA NISSU LAL-BAL: A shadow falls over this person - threaten him" aimed at your primary ally (or vice versa). Oh yes, you also have to intone the sumerian phrase in a sinister voice when you carry out the order.

Overall, a lovely physical book and interesting game design. Play should be absolutely hilarious. Well worth a look.
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19 March 2006

Interesting Stuff From Bruce Sterling

Via BoingBoing, I got pointed at Sterling's speech at some conference. Listening to it now, and it's some cool stuff. He covers topics like the way the world is falling apart and maybe how things like spimes might save it.

Find it (and a pointer to another speech transcript too) at here.
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Game Chef 2005: Three Dooms Complete

Huzzah, my entry for this year is finished and submitted.

Here's the back cover blurb:

Three Dooms

A roleplaying game of prehistoric disaster prevention.

Back at the dawn of civilization, a growing town is threatened by three terrible catastrophes. You will play the part of glory-seeking heroes and bickering town elders as you attempt to save the town.

The game requires no pre-game preparation aside from reading the rules and rotates the gamemastering duties.

You can check out a copy at Generic Games if you want to read it.

The Yes Men

This is a great documentary about some bizarre characters. They're anti-globalization protesters who - apparently kind of by accident - started impersonating WTO officials to stage prank style protests. They basically pretended to be WTO guys and turned up at conferences (and similar) to spout crazy, over-the-top fake WTO positions and plans.

The pranks themselves are hilarious. The points they are making about globalization aren't really too deep, but they are worth thinking about anyway.

It's worth watching just for the gold management leisure suit that they unveil in front of an unsuspecting conference audience in Finland. Well, it's worth watching anyhow, to be honest.

They have a website, too.
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17 March 2006

Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

Just watched this documentary. An interesting topic - this one guy who kind of accidentally ended up looking after and studying a flock of parrots that live in San Francisco.

There's a good, gentle narration - occasional questions, the guy saying his piece, some interviews with neighbours etc.

What really stands out is the absolutely stunning cinematography. The parrots look amazing and you can really see the personalities of several of the main birds.
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15 March 2006

Coyote Frontier by Allen Steele

This is the third of Allen Steele's Coyote novels. They chart the settlement and early years of the first interstellar colony. Steele uses this backdrop as a place to comment on various present day political trends and shows a little bit of utopianism as well.

This third novel is the one I enjoyed the most. This story involves the colony being contacted by a new Earth faction than in the last two books, and the resulting repercussions. These are accentuated by the new ship bringing a stargate with them, so that Earth is now about a day from Coyote, instead of 50 years.

All three novels suffer a bit from a disjointed style. They are really a series of linked short stories more than a novel, and the jumping from character to character and place to place and time to time was a bit annoying.

In everything else, it's a good science fiction novel. Recommended.
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12 March 2006

My Game Chef Entry: Three Dooms

So, I got inspired and am planning to write a game about emotionally-driven heroes defending their town from great evils at the dawn of civilization. Three sessions. Player with the most glory at the end wins.

Dooms are decided by committee at the beginning of each session. The gamemastering duties go to whichever player suggested the Doom that faces you each evening, and they get called "Doom Master" for the duration.

More at my game chef thread.
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Parallel Worlds by Michio Kaku

A really amazingly interesting tour of the state of physics and cosmology. Kaku writes about his stuff without any mathematics, so it should be accessible to anyone with a layperson's understanding of modern physics and geometry.

It's divided into three sections.

The first explains the big bang theory, standard model and relativity. It shows what these models explain and where they fail.

The second section moves on to weird stuff like wormholes, strings, extra dimensions and other universes. The development of string theory gets a lot of attention. There is some amazing stuff in here.

The final section talks about the end of the universe. It goes over different possibilities and what intelligent life might do to mitigate or escape them. There's also a discussion of the religious implications of current cosmology, based on the anthropic principle (short story: Kaku thinks the universe kind of seems likely to appear to have been designed). There's some interesting ideas in here too.

It's shaped by Kaku's own interests and research, so feels like it might be downplaying areas he isn't interested in or feels hold little promise. I'm not saying that is the case, just that it feels like it might be.

The book also feels like I need to read it again in a month or two to really get to grips with the content.

If you are interested in cosmology and the weird stuff physics has discovered recently, this is a must-read.
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06 March 2006

A Short History of Progress by Roland Wright

A good read. Basically a wake-up call, asking everyone to stop carrying on like our civilization is sustainable. Illustrated with a range of historical case studies in which Wright points at thoughtless progress as the culprit in the collapse of pretty much every collapsed society.

It's hard to argue with this stuff. Wright's work isn't supported by statistics, but the fact is that humans are really bad at making good decisions about the future. This is really what he's on about - we need to stop thinking "it will be okay" and start thinking "what do we need to do right now to keep things under control?"

The depressing part about it all is that we may have missed our chance. Wright thinks we still might be able to save ourselves, but the rate of climate change currently seems to leave the possibility that it's too late. The other problem is, of course, that individuals can't really make much of a difference. Which is not to say that you shouldn't try, but in the end anything I do is going to be irrelevant when compared to the policy decisions made in the USA, Russia, China and India over the next decade or two.

Conclusions? The book is worth a read. Global civiliazation needs improvements.
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05 March 2006

Private Wars by Greg Rucka

One of Rucka's Queen & Country novels - I read some of his comics about the same character (well, characters, but it is essentially Tara Chace's story) last year. The comics are good, the novel was better. It's a spy thriller, and exciting nasty stuff. He pushes the reader pretty hard in some of the more violent parts. However, if you are prepared to take a rough ride emotionally, the story definitely pays off. Great characters, great story.
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04 March 2006

Emperor: The Field of Swords by Conn Iggulden

Number three in this series is better than the first two. I deals with Caesar's triumvirate with Pompey and Crassus and his conquest of Gaul. Awesome.

I also think I'm going to have to go and read the biography of Caesar that Iggulden keeps recommending in the historical notes at the end of each book.
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