I wrote this update for Facebook fans of my little ghost research group, GSUK. I thought I may as well share it on my blog as well!
We maintain a quiet but social forum, and are always delighted to welcome new members. You can sign up here –
and it is the first place we announce new research or forthcoming events. Once you have signed up Becky or I have to approve you, so please do include an email – this is simply because we used to be besieged by SPAMbots who put some, er, interesting, links all over the forum!
If you have forgotten your password, just drop me a line at email@example.com and I’ll sort you out
or visit their website at http://www.spr.ac.uk/main/
Becky completed the MSc course in Parapsychology at Coventry University – http://www.facebook.com/search/?q=MSc+Parapsychology&init=quick#!/pages/Coventry/Coventry-University-MSc-Parapsychology/109629113877?ref=search&sid=642030568.4198790475..1 – highly recommded if you have the time and money.
She is now working on a PhD in anomalous experiences based on looking at peoples strange happenning and so forth. Last summer she and I conducted a trial piece of research, which we are currently coding, with one very interesting result straight off — http://jerome23.wordpress.com/2010/03/08/charting-the-unknown-ghosts-memory-the-progress-of-time/
I have been busy writing reviews for The SPR (one is in the current issue of the Paranormal Review actually: Tricia Robertson on psychic surgery, a most fascinating talk) and i’m keeping up to date on the latest in parapsychology.
Becky and i are now officially an item – we still have not moved in together, so we are commuting between Derby and Cheltenham at weekends, so things are a bit hectic.
The Next Event
No dates yet, as i’m still trying to sort out the best location, and what exctly we want to try. Our ghost nights are always a bit “different”, but I’ll keep you updated!
In the prevailing icy conditions, it seems only to apt to add to my blog this review, written last year when the weather was rather more clement! This review is “Adventures in running indie games with hard core war gamers and power gamers with a strong gamist tendency.” If that premise amuses you, read on.
In this review I will discuss Ben Lehman’s Polaris: Chivalric Tragedy at the Utmost North. The cover suggests 3-5 players aged 14 and up, and the game is really designed with four players in mind, though rules for three and five player variants are included. As one of my players said, “in some ways this resembles a board game”, and the requirement to have 3-5 and ideally four players immediately shows you some of the similarities. Nonetheless, Polaris is very much an rpg, and a beautiful example of how far the medium can be taken away from the D&D inspired conventions we think of when we here the words “roleplaying game.”
This is a very unusual game – but don’t let that put you off. You might well read a few paragraphs and think – hey, this is a Forge inspired indie game, it’s not for me – but stick with the review and see how I fared. Lets start with the stuff I found intimidating, and why it’s taken 3 years for me to run the game…
Polaris has no GM. Of all the heresies you can commit, this must be one of the most blatant. I’m a simulationist. I like to play against a written plot, and solve puzzles. My player group likewise. So collaborative storytelling? It reeks of campfires, folk music and real ale – three things I like, but I mean this in a bad way. The story is driven entirely by the players, responding to a beautifully written background, and the conventions of romantic tragedy and heroic knightly adventure. I half expected the players who turned up to walk out the door, as a previous group (who were Heroquest players – I was trying the Ars Magica/AD&D types this time) I had tried to get interested had, but after a minute of stunned silence they said, “sure, let’s try it…”
Secondly, Polaris is beautifully written. – which can be a bad thing! I have a few friends who were willing to try Nobilis, but were put off by the beautiful writing, especially the little epigrams, declared the game “pretentious” and never bothered to learn. I thought this could happen with my player group for Polaris. John is a hard core wargamer who loves tactical problems and avoiding conflict by careful planning, Tom I have only ever played once with, and Ed loves character generation and careful design, as in Ars Magica. I decided to read them a few pages of the background, then summarise more of it to give them the feel for the setting. About ten minutes of reading, answering questions about the background, and we were off. On seeing the character sheet they were intrigued enough to want to play.
So what is the background? It reminds me a bit of some of HP Lovecraft’s fantasy pieces, like The White Ship, Polaris, etc. In fact it reminds me even more of Robert Chambers, Oscar Wilde, and a few of the other Decadent/Celtic Twilight/Romantic authors, if that means anything to you. It’s a haunting fairy story about a land in the ultimate north, with a beautiful people who were destroyed in Arthurian style tragedy, and the players play the knights who have survived the death of the King and Queen, and the destruction of the capital in “The Mistake”. Whether the people are made of ice, human, fairy or something other I do not know – the nature of the tragedy is ambiguous, but deals with the rising of the sun, the dawn, and the coming of day to destroy the endless blissful night. It could be an allegory for many things, but even read literally all kinds of possible meanings and explanations arise from the beautifully written (if you like late 19th century/Edwardian prose, as I do) opening account. There are 28 pages of this, which despite the superb use of ambiguity which gives the players great scope to tell the story in many ways, is actually quite detailed in others.
The King and Queen are gone, lost with the destruction of the capital (though I can’t help wondering about the enemy knight Solaris and the Frost Maiden, but hey!) and the players play members of the Order of the Stars, a knightly order armed with Starlight Blades who guard the four remaining outposts of the people from the demons who pour from the Mistake where the capital was, and against corruption from within.
Here we have potential problem number 3. Your character is doomed. The world is ending, and the story is a tragedy. Tragedy however is not always depressing – and the game is written in a way that gives you considerable leeway in how that tragedy plays out. Ultimately you will be corrupted or killed – but is not the same true of Call of Cthulhu? The important thing is that you choose how the game will end for your character, and you are architect at least partially of your own downfall. In fact, despite the sombre tragic tone of the game, my group had a blast with it – there was more laughter and smiles than I have seen in a long time. We found Polaris great fun, and i wish to stress this. While we played seriously, the way the game works led to much clever negotiation to screw over each others characters, yet there was no recrimination or hostility, as I have even seen creep in to Paranoia (a game I have never managed to run successfully) – instead there was a strong competitive element I have not seen work well before in any rpg.
So potential problem 4 play was essentially competitive. Your character sheet has your Heart (your character, called the protagonist): the player who sits opposite you is your Mistaken, and plays your adversary and in play tries to complicate and make difficult your characters life; the player to the left is your New Moon, and plays characters with whom you have a formal relationship, such as other knights, the Judge, an Archivist, the Head of your City Council, or whatever – and to your right the Full Moon, you plays all the characters who you have an emotional and important relationship with. You also have four sets of Themes – Blessings, Offices, etc – which are effectively Virtues, Abilities, Backgrounds, call them what you like.
Before I describe how play works, if you are interested you can download the pdf character sheet here here Have a quick look, and you will quickly grasp how it works. You sit around a table, and the positions dictate the role of the other players with regards to your character. I was Tom’s Mistaken – he was mine. Ed was John’s and vice versa. Ed was my New Moon – he got to play a Royal Clerk who I worked for, and John as my Full Moon played the Goat Twins, two sisters I was torn between. You choose at least one character for each section of your sheet, the NPC’s important to you. the other players can play them, and from time to time one is removed from the story and crossed out, or a new one added. It works very well indeed.
We took it in turns to launch a scent each. You don’t have to, but for a first game it works pretty well, and I recommend it. A scene can involve your character, or the person sitting opposite you, and you have to be far more assertive than in many games. Instead of “I chop at the demon with my sword” you can say “The demonic legion falls upon me: for an afternoon I know no rest, but as my blade flashes in the night I slay relentless, till the ground for yards around is piled high with the melting corpses and rancid ashes of the demons. At last the army falls back, and I cut a path to the city, having slain three score demons…” Yes – very heroic – but you can bet it will go wrong. My Mistaken (Tom) is not going to let me get away with that! There is a formalized set of phrases which dictate how conflicts are resolved. Tom might respond “but only if… your beloved believing you lost to the army rides out alone to try and save you, or dies along side you, and is captured by the demonic horde…” I now have to either accept that, or use a phrase to undo it, or continue the story with an appropriate keyword phrase “but only if…. I here her pitiful screams, and spur my faithful horse as I ride after them…”
You have to be sensible here. It would be easy to push real world buttons, or be an arse. Don’t. Polaris demands maturity and trust. Do do not describe squicky, morally repugnant or deeply emotive scenes unless the other players can handle that I guess. The game demands maturity, and a certain ability to detach from the horrors and tragedy.
Right, so how do these key phrases which run the conflict mechanism work? Polaris is not freeform. There are very definite rules and game mechanisms, and you need to learn them, though from my experience this is best done in play. Polaris feels like a GAME, not a storytelling contest, though it is both. OK, again the best way to get the idea is to download the following useful files – Key Phrases Reference and Conflict Flowchart. We printed these off and kept them close to hand throughout play. They are invaluable.
I never thought my players would get the hang of this, and I thought I wouldn’t. You grasp it quicker with experience, and within a fairly short time we were all entering in to it fully, and resolving long and complex scenes. You certainly aren’t going to forget the game mechanics and go for full immersion – the mechanics are MORE blatant than dice, and negotiating scenes to an resolution requires quick thinking, wit, sensitivity and is very creative – but the game mechanics are extremely important. If you forgot them and just described what happened, it would cease to be a game, and Polaris is a skillful game. A single d6 is used, fairly infrequently, but the structure of the narrative through key phrases makes this game quite rules heavy compared to some I have played – and is better for it. The mechanic is pretty much unique to Polaris as far as I know, and unlike say Inspectres I would not want to borrow it for another game – but for this one it works beautifully.
So in essence, Polaris is a beautifully written, highly original and very unusual rpg, but it is a game, with solid well thought out mechanics that reflect the characters corruption and loss of faith, and well reflect the theme of the tragedy. My players loved it, because they are gamist – they could tell stories, but just as importantly they could use the mechanics to make each others character lives difficult, and while sometimes scenes involved our own characters, often we started scenes about our “Mistakens” character just to watch them squirm as we put them in horrible or emotionally charged situations. Most importantly, we laughed, swore, and had a great time!
The game would shine in campaign play – I would have thought 5 sessions would work well, though Ed’s cynical betrayal of the Knights and the People led to him falling pretty fast towards weariness and ultimate doom in our game – he reached a Zeal of 1 from 4 in a single session, but that was with unlucky dice rolls and repeatedly cynical self-serving choices. We have all agreed we will play again, though getting the same player group together owing to work and distance issues will be difficult. For three years I had owned this game and thought it an interesting piece of indie game design – having played it I can now say it’s an interesting and highly playable game which will appeal to gamers of a wide variety of interests.
The game is available from indiegamesrevolution in the US, or Leisuregames in the UK, and I expect other stockists. A well bound but small paperback book, £13.99 is a little pricey for the indie production values – I’d have though £10 would be fair – but the quality of the writing, the game and the art taken from Boris Artzybasheff’s work is so high I can rate it no less than 5 for style. For substance I gave 4 – I can see me playing this many times, but the setting is ultimately limited to what it does, and does very well.
If you are a mature traditional roleplayer looking for an interesting and revolutionary piece of rpg design ,and playing with exactly four players is to a problem to you, I really recommend this game. Get your friends to sit down and start playing, and be willing as we did to sacrifice tragic poetry to competitive gamesmanship and clever storytelling, and be willing to have fun with it – and the game will work just as well as if you are a group seeking catharsis and epic emotional drama.
OK, so this year for Christmas I took a huge risk and bought Becky a boardgame Ticket To Ride Europe. I am happy to say this proved to be an excellent choice! If you enjoy games, whether a hard-core gamer, or are just someone who likes to play something with friends other than Chess or Bridge or Strip Poker from time to time, I’d seriously consider buying this game. Even if you normally don’t like games, give it a go! And do read the review – because I include details on how you can try it out from the comfort of your own pc for free…
How do you explain TTR? It’s a family boardgame, which anyone aged over twelve should be able to understand the rules of an play, and intelligent kids from ten up should handle it – hell I was playing Avalon Hill’s Diplomacy at that age! It is certainly not Snakes and Ladders, but actually I think it is much less complicated than say Monopoly, and to me many many times more absorbing. I’m not a fan of long drawn out boardgames, and I quite like the mission cards in Risk which let the game end earlier if you meet your objectives — and yes, this game is easier to learn and more enjoyable to my mind than Risk. In fact I think it may be my favourite boardgame ever — and an avid Diplomacy fan like me has to admit that I may even prefer it to that great game. I’ll come back to that at the end of the review. Well this game can be played with 2 to 5 players, with the 2 player game being as good as the 3, 4, or 5 – just faster – and all of thm can be played in under an hour once everyone knows the rules, and maybe less.
So how does it work?
Ticket to Ride Europe is an amazingly simple but elegant design. You start with a game board (fairly large, will fit on a coffee table though- normal boardgame size I guess) depicting a map of Europe in 1901 (Spring 1901 perhaps?). Place names are generally rendered in the local language – Vienna is Wien, and so on. The map is fairly geographically accurate, with a few places positions nudged a few miles to fit better on the board, but t will certainly teach you geography, and may actually be useful in that respect. The map is attractive, and covered in pretty coloured railway lines – well potential railway lines, waiting to be built.
These routes are then built on by the players taking it in turns to lay their little plastic train carriages, to connect cities. It sounds deadly dull, but it isn’t. It’s utterly fascinating! To build a line you have to play cards, and you on each turn can either take two cards, from a face up selection, or from the deck for a random choice, to add to your hand. Alternatively you can play cards from your hand in sets to build lines (there is a third and fourth option mentioned below). So from London to Edinburgh can be built by playing a set of four orange cards, you have collected, or four blacks. Once someone has built a line that’s it : the route is claimed, and other players can’t build there, with the exception of double tracks, which you can build anyway – like London to Edinburgh – if you have the other colour. In the two player game only one set of double tracks can be built on. Lines do not have to be contigous: you can build anywhere on the baord you have the cards to play. Grey routes are wild, any coloured set of the relevant size can be played to complete them, but having the longest track does give you extra points and aid greatly in winning.
As well as the pink, white, green, yellow, orange, red and black cards their are also locomotive cards which are wild and can be played anywhere. They can also prove useful for building tunnels: I won’t explain tunnels and ferries here, but the rules are simple and elegant. The full rules can be downloaded here if you are interested, but it’s much easier to understand them if you have the map and pieces in front of you: neither Becky nor I were very excited when we first read the rules before we tried to play. (In fact she said it looked like “a game for trainspotters”). Now we are both addicted to this game! New features over the original Ticket to Ride (itself avery fun game, set in the USA 1901) are Tunnels, Ferries and Stations which add a little complexity but are enjoyable.
Building lines earns you points: byut the game is far more than this, and there is a nother vital deck of cards I have not yet touched upon – the Tickets. Tickets are destinations, and come in to two types – long routes and other routes. There are only six long routes in the original game, and this is perhaps the only weakness of the game as sold – you soon (after the maybe forty odd games I have now played – I told you it was addictive) -get to know all the long routes off by heart. There is an expansion pack which gives morte destination cards including 9 more long routes, but we have not bought it yet, as the game is very playable without it. These Ticket cards are at the heart of the game: you start with one long route and three short routes, randomly drawn, and get points for connecting these cities. You cn reject a couple if you want, and take a risk and draw more in the game (drawing three of which you must keep one is the third play option on a turn.
The final option is building a station – these allow you to run a service along a short stretch of a rival’s line, say Essen to Kobenhavn (Copenhagen for the Danish impaired among you, and I mean the language not my friends!). This costs you four points at the end of the game, but can be well worth it. There is an excellent tutorial and guide here on the publisher’s website, with loads of photos, a fun video which will show you the basics, , and all kinds of other great stuff.
Winning the Game
The player with the most points at the end wins, and you gain points by laying “track” – for example 1 point for a one stretch, 7 points for a four piece track and 21 points for the 8 piece tunnel between Stockholm and Petrograd (presumably actually a mix of tunnels and ferries, doubt anyone would try and bridge or tunnel under the Baltic there in reality, probably a line through Finalmnd off the top of the map?). Completing tickets earns you more points, and your long route is worth 21 or 20 alone – but if you manage a route from Kobenhavn to Erzurzum in Turkey, Palermo to Moscow, Athens to Edinburgh or Brest to Petrograd to give just three possibilities then you deserve it! Actually these long routes nearly always get completed – if you don’t complete a route, you LOSE the points instead of adding them, so you will lose 40 or 42 points from what you would have had if you made it.
The final source of points if for the longest continual stretch of of track built: ten points. Final scores range from about 150 (by me) to the lowest score I have ever seen, 30, achieved by Ed, though I think Becky managed that on an USA 1901 online game last night!
Fast and absorbing, especially in the 2 player game. Even in the 5 player you are usually busy planning your next move till your turn comes round again, though if another player is absorbed in an interminable text message conversation with a girlfriend on their turn or are a bit slow of understanding owing to being absorbed in something else like say cooking, it can be annoying to have to prompt them – but it’s the same with anything, and such people should be banished from civilisation (to Buxton, I know Ed never reads my blog so he won’t notice this!) anyway.
There is a lot of room for tactics and a large degree of skill, but also with the drawing of cards plenty of room for dumb luck and of the best laid plan to fall through. Careful play can usually mitigate this: Becky still wins most games, but we have all won a few, and DC won his very first game, which may have been through skill. The game is however quite low on interaction: you don’t trade cards, and the only real interaction comes in blocking each other routes by building where someone else needs to go. Experienced players see opportunities to do this more: they know the routes and important bits of track — (hint: the two piece green routes from Frankfurt to Essen and Rostov to Kharkhov are usually worth grabbing fast) — but even if you realise that Bob is building from Athens to Edinburgh, it is not really worth trying to block him, except possibly in 2 player game. You only have 45 pieces of track — and you will need all of them. In online play deliberately blocking someone is considered unsporting by many players anyway: wasting track messing about with your opponents planned routes is rarely worth it anyway, as you are more likely to win by going for your own destinations. I tend to like highly interactive games like Diplomacy: I still love TTR.
How Can I Try It Out for Free?
Go to the publishers website, Days of Wonder. Make sure you have read the rules – I put the link above. If you register on the Days of Wonder site you can play online free, I think four free games, which usually take about twenty to thirty minutes each to complete – online play seems much faster. You should be able to work it out quite quickly, and so long as you understand tunnels and ferries and stations (to play a station online drag and drop a card over the city you want to build on, and hit ok when it asks you: to play track drag and drop card on the route, and to take tickets double click on the Ticket cards.) Look for a game called For Beginners – and remeber that Ticket to Ride USA is the easiest to learn and play (no tunnels stations or ferries to worry about) so start with that. If you like it you can buy the online versions – owning a Days of Wonder boardgame gives you a ten per cent discount, and buying from the US store in dollars it was less than a tenner to buy Ticket to Ride and Ticket to Ride Europe online versions. It might take you a little while to work out how to join a game etc, but the tutorials are excellent and you are made to play a solo game against robot players (bots) first to make sure you get the hang of it when you register. So why not try it? I’m registered as CJ23 on the site, so do add me to your buddies when you join and I’ll play you if we are online at the same time.
Fast, addictive, plenty of strategy and a lot of fun – go play trains!
If you enjoyed this review you may wish to read my review of Agricola here