Can you save Mars? A 2 player RPG that is not an investigative game, and that does politics well…
So this morning I found myself with the prospect of a free evening, and in a spirit of optimism I fired off text messages to a number of friends seeing who might be available for the 5th ed Dungeons & Dragons campaign we have talked about starting for a while. Unsurprisingly perhaps, given the lack of notice, only one person got back to me.
Now I don’t know about you, but I actually enjoy running RPG sessions with a GM and 2 or 3 players. A lot of games, from Ars Magica to Call of Cthulhu can really shine with a small number of players, but unfortunately I don’t think Dungeons & Dragons is one. D&D seems to work best with 4 to 5 players and a referee, and 5th edition seems to regard 4 players as the norm. I’m an experienced referee and can modify a scenario quickly, but one player – no it would lose too much…
Still Ben was coming over, and I did not want to cancel. We could play a boardgame – but then I remembered one night back last Summer I ran a little indie game by Tim Koppang ( @tckoppang ) called Mars Colony. On the night in question I had gone over to see my friend Richard, and for various reasons we had not been able to play an rpg in years – he can’t make most sessions. Then I recalled I owned this little game, which can be played, indeed is designed to be played in an evening, and which has interesting themes. Best of all it is designed specifically for one on one play, and Richard and I really enjoyed it – so much so I backed the follow up Mars Colony: 39 Dark on Kickstarter.
So tonight Ben and I played Mars Colony. Can you review a game based on two plays? Actually that is more than I get to give some games nowadays, as I have so many things I want to try that some games fall by the wayside quickly. However some games that were mindblowing the first time I ran them – like Primetime Adventures – later felt flat with less inspired players. I therefore like to play a game an awful lot before I review it, which is why I’m still waiting to review say Pavis for Heroquest (still one scenario left to run!).
So a two player RPG – does it work? Short answer – yes. You need the rules, available on pdf (or print) here, 2 six sided dice, some paper, preferably a few index card but pieces of paper will suffice and a couple of pens. Print out the “character sheet” and the “political organisations sheet” and you are ready to play.
I then just read Ben the first few sections of the rules. In many games this would be extremely tedious, but the page count here (around 54) is deceptive – the pages are fairly short on text in the introductory section, but s have some great photographs of Mars from space probes. Ben was fine with my quickly reading him the summary – Earth has set up a colony on Mars, but the project has gone astray, and the Mars colony is in danger of collapse. I as “Governor” would play various citizens on Mars – anyone he interacted with, and he would play Kelly, the person sent to Mars from Earth as “Saviour” to try and resolve the situation there.
The actual mechanics of the game are very simple. The set up takes a little bit of thought however…
When Kelly arrives on Mars there are four political parties, whose colours are Red, Blue, Yellow and Green. These parties can be dominant, minority or fringe. In both games I have played two dominant parties deadlocked the political process, with one minority and one fringe party. And now the clever bit – the players each think of two real world political parties they have some knowledge of the ideologies of – and these four parties comprise the four parties on Mars.
Now actually it is easier than it may sound to choose four parties. You probably know a bot about politics in your country (assuming it is not a one party state), and in both games we found we could find parties both players grasped some of the ideals of. Not agreed with – that is not necessary – just understood. Now if you don’t know a lot of politics, just look up parties in another country on Wikipedia, or go with caricatures of what you think the parties believe – exact agreement is not necessary. What was noticeable was while in each game we had a mainstream right wing party and a slightly further left part, for the other two parties we chose rather er, extreme, options. And that works really well! In one game a Martian party based on UKIP wanted Mars to sever its tiers with Earth, and end to unlimited immigration, and to cut back the state and increase the private sector; the Martian Greens in another game (a fringe party) favoured the removal of humanity (and all traces of the colony) from Mars, and were slightly sinister – unlike my first game where they were benign and were attempting to protect the ecosystem and help minimise the harm cause by settlement. :) How you view the parties will tend to unfold in game, and if my experience is anything to go by does not reflect your own real world politics :)
Also, you write down on index cards (or rough paper) some real world issues and grievances you have against governments (I’m assuming you are playing this in a country where this is safe to do – it is a game after all! If not, choose someone else’s government, like for example the poor US govt. record on race relations historically or the British history of colonialism or the … you get the picture). These can be very vague “I hate it when politicians exploit power for their own game” or specific “I think the selling off of the Post Office was a major scandal as the price was far too low”. A couple of these are drawn as themes to explore in the game.
Finally there are three specific issues that need to be faced. Kelly must find solutions to all of them. In the first game the “others”, “terrorism” and “immigration” were the problems which made for a rather dramatic game. In tonight’s game the themes were “atmosphere”, “communications” and “energy” – more low key, but still made for a tense game at times. My job was defining the problems, well with Ben, and then thwarting his plans to resolve them by endless issues I threw at him as I thought of them.
Finally you roll a couple of dice, to determine one person who Kelly knows on the planet. In the first game it was his missing father who lived out in the Martian outback (and was actually leader of the eco-warriors who threatened the community as it turned out in play); in the second game, it was a former school friend now second in command to the pacifist Head of Security.
Oh yes – the organisation sheet, details 16 NPCs – 4 from the Media, 4 from the Earth Council, 4 from the Mayors Office and 4 from the Colony Council. They are invoked by both the player and GM in play, as relationships are forged and political allegiance determined, and compromises sought.
The actual games plays much like any other RPG: a conversation between the Referee and the player, the “saviour” Kelly. In tonight’s game for example Kelly decided to set up an office staff in his hotel to handle communications, win over the Head of Media, and make a series of public appeals and public information broadcasts explaining why atmospherics were disrupting communications with Earth (solar flares were involved) and what the Government were going to do about it. In this case using a series of lasers communications were sent via a monitoring station in the outer solar system; it’s asteroid defence role was replaced, which led to a close shave when a chunk of rock was detected too late as it whizzed past Earth. :)
The Luck of the Dice
The scenes can be a lot of fun to play, but both players have to be really on their toes. It is easy to go blank or despair as the player as the problems seem insurmountable — and the referee needs to be perverse and men spirited to keep thinking up new problems and piling the pressure on. An important part of the game is how Kelly evolves as a person faced with this terrible task – however the mechanics don’t allow much time for introspection. Unlike most RPGs there is a WIN condition here – Kelly’s player needs to amass twenty resolution point in each problem.
Now here is a rather important disconnect. While I never let the players end the scene and roll for a resolution until I felt dramatic cutting left us with some real progress or character development, the mechanic here stands completely independent of how the scene played. You roll 2 six sided dice, sum them, and add that many points to the resolution of that problem. If either dice shows a one, then you need to make difficult choices – but the number of points gained towards resolution have nothing to do with how well you played or planned your actions in the preceding scene. Actually this may be far more true of modern politics than most people realise, but I thought it might frustrate the players. It die not. They understood the dice mechanic here at the end of the scene drives storytelling, and no dice are thrown during the scene – that is pure storytelling.
Really I hesitate to use the word game. IT is, because you can win or lose, and their is an element of skill. However MOST of the enjoyment of the game comes in collaborative storytelling, and seeing what emerges from your (oppositional) control of the narrative. the dice mechanism is important – and there is some skill here – indeed the choices you make determine if you win or lose rather than anything else – but the dice system and the narrative part of the game are really quite separate.
So the dice – if either comes up one, you must move a token from your Admired Circle (everyone loves you when you arrive on Mars, so you have all 9 tokens there) to Contempt – as people start to despise you for your failings – and score no points towards solving the problems. It’s not a good feeling, as you only have 9 turns to gather 20 points in each; and you roll quite a few ones. Still you put your hands up, admit your solution failed, and describe how the situation gets worse and the protests that follow. If you earn 5 points of contempt, that is it – Game Over, you are recalled to Earth in disgrace.
There is another option, that lets you keep those valuable points. You can choose to lie. Now I am sure no politician would ever do such a dastardly thing as lie to the public to cover up their own failures, but yes, in this game such a reprehensible thing can happen. This way you still get the points, and there are no consequences. Well probably not – though you must roll just in case of Scandal, the chance of which gets greater the more you lie. In tonight’s game Ben as Kelly resolved the last of the colony problems on the final turn, and only needed one point being on 19 already – but then rolled a 1. Unfortunately he needed the points (well one of them) to win, so he decided to lie (for only the second time). He rolled the Scandal Test, the dice were against him – two 1’s and that was it, the mother of all scandals engulfed him. :) Ge did better than Richard, who came nowhere near to solving the colony’s problems.
You would still struggle however to solve the three problems, were you not able to keep rolling in the resolution phase. If no 1’s come up on your first throw, you can choose to roll again and sum the total. You might get lucky, but you are more likely to roll a 1 and have to choose between deception or contempt. Still, you have to take risks…
The dice system delivers; the disconnect with the narrative meat of the game is not as jarring as it sounds, in fact you only notice it when you sit back afterwards. Unlike quite a few games, skill is more important than luck I think – you are making meaningful choices about what to do with the dice. The luck element is high, but not as high a some RPG experiences. (I once downed a Minotaur Stormbull with a single critical hit from my Duck adventurer in Runequest 2e, killing the character who had been bullying mine!)
The game follows the indie tradition of doing one job, being a game about one thing – in this case Kelly Perkins attempt to save Mars Colony – but doing it well, with tightly focussed mechanics. The game is suited to 2-3 hours play. if you play light hearted or as a serious drama, it delivers, but we tried to play fairly straight. Both players enjoyed it, and wanted to play again sometime. And really and honestly, it does a better job of politics than most games. The organisation chart to my mind could do with a bit more fleshing out – something more like the Board-game Kremlin perhaps, but I am pretty sure Tim C Koppang left it as he did for good design reasons. This is a carefully thought out, intelligent game, which offers a very interesting and different play experience. As it is almost unique in my experience, I shall give it 8 out of 10, given it slow price and excellent repeat play potential. It won;t be to all tastes – some people really may not enjoy it – but if you have a hankering to explore politics and play a somewhat adversarial GM versus player rpg, then I can recommend Mars Colony.
I ran the game from pdf using my Samsung Galaxy S4 as my Hudl in for repair with no problems. Once you understand the rules you don’t have to refer to the document much. My copy review copy was purchased, though I do welcome games to review, though can make no promises on the time-scale owing to pressure of other commitments. Contact me at email@example.com
A 2 player game about a giant robot mega-tank (the OGRE) as it ploughs towards through the defenders killing everything in the way…
Back in my school days in Bury St Edmunds, there was a little boat enthusiasts shop called the Bury Boatique, hidden away round the back of a house in Eastgate Street. Sometime in the late 70’s or early 80’s, Mr James who ran it started to sell games and wargaming miniatures, and soon it was where all my pocket money went. At some point I picked up Metagaming’s RPG published as piecework, The Fantasy Trip, or at least the first part, Melee (I still have it somewhere!) and shortly thereafter I picked up a couple of micro-games, very cheap little boardgames that came in a bag and had minimal components. One of these games was Metagaming’s 1977 classic, OGRE.
Now the designer Steve Jackson (USA – not to be confused with Steve Jackson UK) left Metagaming and set up his own company, and had his first really big hit as far as I know with Car Wars, and later with his RPG GURPS, and I picked up a supplement for OGRE, called GEV (Ground Effect Vehicle) which luckily I still have in my bedroom at my parent’s house! :).
Back to the Future
Skip forward to 2014, and I have grown fatter, my hair is far more sparse, and now as then I have little money. Steve Jackson Games are still going strong, and they raised almost a million dollars on Kickstarter for the OGRE Designers Edition. I missed it, but I got to see it at Continuum 2012 where a very enthusiastic MiB demo’d it and ran a tournament that Hugh and Lloyd played in. I now live in Cheltenham, and about a year ago Ben at Proud Lion got a copy in – it was retailing at around £80, and I was not going to pay that — I might have, but I don’t have that sort of money, I wish I did — but when in 2014 I saw he had OGRE Pocket Edition, almost an exact facsimile of the first Steve Jackson version (but with art from the Metagaming original? Not sure!) for the 1977 price of $3, or $3 in this country – well I grabbed it off the shelf. I even bought Lloyd a copy, as this is famously the only boardgame he has ever liked and agreed to play!!! :)
So for me this was an exercise in nostalgia, but also a chance to combine it with my copy of GEV and play for the first time in 30 or more years. So how does it hold up? Well some of the predictions, like automated warfare (drones!) are coming true – but is this still a fun game, and does it have anything to offer the Eurogamer generation?
Well I really enjoyed it, and Phil who I introduced it to thought it OK, but he would prefer to play other games! It had clearly been a long time, as I had to look up how terrain works on the oh so simple map (answer: not much, it restricts movement a little but you can fire over it) and more importantly how movement works for OGREs – 3 movement points per turn, assuming tracks undamaged. Finding that in the rules was actually a bit of a challenge!
So I still have not said what the game is about. It is pretty simple – an OGRE is a vast huge robot tank, armed with missile launches, rail guns that fire tac-nuke shells, and lots of anti-infantry weapons, and it is played by one player, and is his only piece. The defender tries to stop the OGRE getting in range of (and hence destroying) the defenders Command Post, and if it is destroyed, tries to stop the OGRE escaping back off his end of the map. To do this the defender has GEVs – hovertanks, heavy tanks, light tanks, missile tanks and infantry units. Each counter has a D value (Defence) a M value (movement) and a X/x, so for example 4/2 – a strength 4 attack with a range of 2.
You work out the ratio of Attack Strength to Defence Strength, round in the defenders favour, roll a dice and consult a chart that will instantly be familiar to people who played Avalon Hill or SPI hex based wargames, but is hardly mentally taxing even if you have no idea what I am on about! So with Attack Strength 6, hitting a tank with Defence 2, you roll a dice and consult the 3:1 column.
It’s hard to get over how basic and ugly the map is in this reprint of the first edition – the GEV map was marginally better – but I recall making my own maps. You can easily do this nowadays too. There is also tons of fan support – including an OGRE map editor for XP/98. Another good fan site with maps can be found here and Steve Jackson maintain their own OGRE page here.
So how did the game play? Unlike GEV I would say OGRE makes for a great solitaire game, as the OGRE player (Phil in this case) has less to do. He chooses which of the defenders units to target true, and his movement tactics, but after that he just rolls the dice a lot as his weapons annihilate the defending units. With the exception of Howitzers – expensive and vulnerable immobile big guns the defender can use – the OGRE has the longest ranged weapons, and can annihilate most of the defenders units before they get close.
The defender really has their work cut out, but the classic scenario (Mk3 OGRE versus a lot of infantry and some armour) is pretty well balanced as I recall. Not in this game – despite Phil having some appalling luck, my weak tactics as the defender let him slaughter me. The game ended in a total victory for Phil, with him blowing up my Command Post AFTER he has wiped out every other one of my units. So if this appeals to you, let me give you some defender tactics I’m now recalling after 30 years…
Tactics for the Defence
Whereas the OGRE only has to get to within 5 spaces of your Command Post, no die roll needed, to destroy it, you need to immobilize his OGRE and take out all the weapon systems. In hindsight and with vague memories of my youthful gaming – I was under ten years old though – make sure your Command Post is secure not by putting troops around it – he can shoot over them – but by hitting him with everything while he is still as far away as possible. You have to be up close to actually hit him, so the carnage will be terrible, but crowd in as many units as you can to maximise firepower. “Get their fastest with the mostest” as the old military adage has it.
Now an important rule I overlooked – if you hit his tracks you do damage equal to your attack strength… While I took out Phil’s main battery with a lucky shot from a Heavy Tank, and yes you should fire at the Main Battery (can only take one hit) combining fire if possible, and then take out those awful missile systems (he has two) ultimately you buy more time by taking out his tank tracks. He has 45 points of Track, but every 15 destroyed slows him by one hex a turn movement and buys you more time. You will need to stop him anyway, so do this as quickly as you can. a couple of Howitzer units can with luck quickly bog him down, as every hit (1 n 3 chance) does 8 points to his tracks. Of course they are immobile, and he will destroy them as soon as he closes on them, but I think it is worth the gamble. Once you have taken out his main weapons, use your tanks to chew up his Anti-personnel weapons (8) before any infantry go near the OGRE.
And the most important bit – GEV hovertanks move, then fire, then move again. So zoom in on your turn, shoot, and run away. They are pretty weak but they are fun to use. Anyway, hopefully you will do far better than I did today!
I like this game a lot – but there is an element of nostalgia. Priced at three pounds though, it would be silly not to buy it? You will need a six sided dice and some paper, though I have since discovered that rather than recording the OGRE stats (weapons and track armour) on a piece of paper I could have downloaded a rather good free app named OGRE War Room that I now have on my Android phone (I expect there is an iPhone version) and which does handles all this, and dice rolls etc. You still need the boardgame- there has not been a computer version of OGRE since 8 bit machines as far as I know, though there is an attractive miniatures version I would like to play, but for three pounds I think anyone can afford it.
The component are very basic, but Winchell Chung’s silhouettes of tanks on the counter evoke happy memories, and they are good quality card stock. The map is awfully, hilariously, dreadful – but entirely usable. The Mk3 and Mk5 OGRE are given stats, but others are available online (including build your own OGRE systems) and this faithfully reproduces the First Edition, though with some clarifications on the rules I think.
I don’t think Becky will ever want to play this, but she was never a fan of games like Vietnam, Advanced Squad Leader, Air War or Freedom in the Galaxy. She is simply not a wargamer, or interested in military themes – yet even so, if she tried it I think she might enjoy the simple tactical challenge and surprising depth of this venerable, creaky, astonishingly basic but still amusing classic. I shall award the pocket edition a score based upon the price of £3 -it has to be 10/10!
As Christmas approaches I guess now is an opportune time to remind people that last year I listed a number of great boardgames that people might seriously be glad to get in their Christmas stockings. Like my friend Lloyd, I never liked boardgames much (though I did briefly play Magic the Gathering in the mid-90’s!) until I discovered Ticket to Ride and was immediately sold on the new wave of Eurogames. I believe the second boardgame I bought back then, and played very heavily for weeks thereafter, many times a day, was Z-Man Games Pandemic.
Now Pandemic is reviewed on this blog, and let me start with what is really the conclusion of this new review – while Pandemic The Cure is a completely separate stand alone game, it is really exactly the same game with different mechanics. if that sounds confusing, well, let me offer some quick advice –
A. This is a collaborative game – the players play together against the game system, and all win or all lose. You are not competing against the other players, just against the game! You play specialist trying to contain disease epidemics and save humanity,
B. This is an excellent game, rated highly by the four of us who have played it so far, and as good as the original Pandemic game.
c. This is a stand alone game, not an expansion — having said that…
D. The mechanics are much more abstract than in Pandemic – so I strongly advise you to buy or at least play that game first. It’s as good as the new one, just different, and you will appreciate Pandemic: The Cure much more if you have played Pandemic first!
E. If you own and enjoy Pandemic, I suspect you will really enjoy Pandemic: The Cure
For the rest of this review, having established the above, I am going to assume some familiarity with Pandemic, even if only from reading the detailed review on this blog here.
So what is it about?
In this game Matt Leacock has simply reinvented Pandemic to use a different set of mechanics, and with custom dice as the core mechanic, rather than the cards cubes and board of the original game. It’s not just thematically similar, it is really the same game – but the difference in mechanics makes it very different in play. As a result you will want both. Ticket to Ride did something similar with a custom dice variant, which we all disliked intensely, and which we have not played since the week we bought it – here we the new game just as much as the old one. It is different enough to appeal, familiar enough to seem good old Pandemic – and to be fair I have not actually played Pandemic much since Z-Man brought out the 2nd edition with different card backs meaning the second expansion was incompatible with my earlier games, and only making the replacement cards to upgrade available from Canada at an extortionate price when you added in postage. That was to me as a 1st edition customer enough to annoy me in to deciding to buy no more of their games — I’m glad I relented, though still deeply annoyed. (I ended up using horrid card covers that slip so don’t play Pandemic any more.)
So what is the difference?
Pandemic: The Cure (PTC henceforth) dispenses with the city cards, the cities on the map board, in fact all cards from Pandemic except for a number of Special Events (versions of those from both Pandemic and the On The Brink expansion).
Instead of a board you begin with six cardboard circles, numbered one to six – and 12 dice in 4 colours, representing the four diseases in Pandemic, are placed randomly on these. Like disease cubes in Pandemic after each player turn you add more dice/cubes, and diseases can outbreak. Every game we played that we lost – 7 out of 9 – ended with us reaching 8 outbreaks, but the game can also end if you run out of dice/cubes to place on the regions, which we played carefully to avoid, or if you reach the end of the contagion track, which despite rolling astonishingly badly in one game never happened.
The regions are the 5 continents of the original Pandemic, with the Indian subcontinent split off. The disease dice in red, yellow, black and blue drawn randomly from the “infection bag” are very attractive, and while six sided are not numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 as you might expect, but are instead numbered to reflect the prevalence of different diseases in a region in the original game – so Europe is particularly susceptible to Blue disease dice.
The “board” takes up about half the space of the original game, perfect if you don’t have a large table – but this game is not suitable for trains or travel. The beautiful custom dice are just that custom – and losing one, and this game is full of plastic dice, well that is it for your game. You need all the dice! Whatever you do, don’t lose them – if one drops on the floor stop and look for it immediately.
This is made more true by the fact that each role – all familiar I think to Pandemic with On the Brink expansion players, though I can’t remember if the Contingency Specialist appears in that game. Each role now comes with a set of custom dice, in the colour of that role, and different from any other role’s dice. The dice give you options – travel by ship, fly, cure, or collect samples, or disastrously a biohazard marker which advances the contagion track and increases the virulence (and number of disease dice placed on the regions at the end of your turn), Most roles also have some special symbols which give them additional options.
On your turn you roll the dice 5 for every role but the Generalist who gets 7 – and then spend them in any order, except the Biohazard dice resolve first. You may keep re-rolling any dice until you use them on your turn, but each role increases the chance the biohazard symbol will come up and increase the infection rate on the contagion track. The custom dice are very pretty, and make for genuine tactical choices.
When you remove disease counters they now pass to the “Treatment Centre” in the middle of the “board” from which samples have to be taken. Some dice will from time to time comes up with a + symbol and placed in a pool in the CDC, and may be used by *any player* at * any time* to buy one of the three Special Event cards always turned up. We really liked this – it is far less luck based and more tactical than the old Pandemic special events.
The role of luck
My initial thought was that this game would be much less strategically challenging and far more luck based than Pandemic. Surely all these dice make for more randomness? Actually I think the balance is nicely met, and PTC is like Pandemic a game that rewards careful planning, but in which, yes, luck does play a significant role. It always did in the original game, and I think that is part of its appeal. Things can turn bad very quickly, and you have to constantly judge whether to re-roll a dice to get an action you want at the real risk of tipping the balance further towards a loss as disease takes over by rolling a biohazard symbol!
Nowhere do you feel the luck of the dice as much as in the “Cure Disease” mechanism. As in the original game you win by curing all 4 diseases (though unlike the original game you can never eradicate a disease totally), and to do this you collect sets of samples taken from the “treatment centre” in the middle. However each sample must be “bottled up” by one of your Role dice, reducing the number of actions you have until you finally cure that disease. It is much easier than in the original game to pass samples from one player to another, but when you get enough – probably 3, though the Scientist could perhaps manage with 2, and 4 is often best – you can try and cure the disease.
Unlike Pandemic where you have to race to a research centre (they don’t feature in PTC) you can try at the end of any turn. Unless you are in the same region as the Scientist (who makes it 2 easier) you gather up the disease dice, and try and roll a total of 13+, with + symbols counting as zero. Now remember the disease dice are not numbered 1 to 6 – at least one face has a + (zero here) and the other vary – I have not checked the maths. Experience suggest 3 dice of samples MIGHT just let you cure the disease, 4 often works and 5 is pretty much guaranteed if you can get that many together. If you fail your role action dice stay bottled up another turn, but at least you can try again then. And as in Pandemic, if you cure a disease, you can remove satisfying numbers of cubes…
In poor taste?
Z-Man have released this game at a time when an Ebola epidemic is afflicting parts of West Africa causing vast misery and suffering. Is this in horrendous taste? This is the kind of thing that makes me queasy – still I do find playing Pandemic actually has made me more aware of the work of the CDC and other organisations that combat epidemics worldwide ( I see no reason why you should have to play CDC and not any other international relief or medical organisation though, but it is an American game) and at least a little good has come from it, with Pandemic parties arranged to raise funds to fight Ebola. You can find details and how to host one here.
Because we were reviewing the game, we did not ponder the morality of it. It seems in no worse taste than Monopoly (a celebration of predatory capitalism) or most wargames – and in fact here celebrates the heroic struggle against disease. I have examined my conscience and decided it is OK to enjoy this game, but it has made me decide to donate more to the struggle. And as Tom noted, not just Ebola – there are diseases we have cures for where funding can definitely prevent deaths today.
Still, I felt it worth noting…
An excellent game, with attractive well made components. Our plastic ring had one hole (the zero on the Outbreaks) imperfectly drilled making it hard to put the green hypo marker in, but other than that minor flaw the components, especially the dice, are attractive and well designed, and the cardboard regions are sturdy and workmanlike if not attractive. The role cards show a mix of genders, if that bothers you, and are well illustrated and fairly clear. The rules need careful reading, but once you spot the differences from Pandemic, and actually play, it all falls in to place. Do check the rules booklet on each new element when you first play, but if you are used to Pandemic, this should be exceptionally easy to learn. The box says age 8+ – I would have thought age 10+ – and it is not a game I would buy someone aged younger than 13. It is really for adults, and intelligent, sober adults – it requires too much concentration to play after more than a couple of beers! Supposedly it lasts 30 minutes, though most of games were nearer 45 minutes, but I have played three times in two days with different players and each time we enjoyed it enough to fit 3 games in. It is fairly addictive.
If you enjoy Pandemic, or used to but have since found it grew stale, buy this game. If you are a Robert Smith fan hoping for the boardgame of Disintegration, best avoided ;)
In past years I have written advice for Freshers of the University of Gloucestershire. My friends who work or studied at the uni have added to it. You can find it at Fresher’s Week in Cheltenham: Six Things I Wish I Had Known
This year, a warning. The University has probably told you not to bring your car to uni. You may think this is insane. No, they are sensible. Here is why.
Most housing developments round the college have allocated to them in planning between 0.3 and 0.5 parking spaces per household as far as I can make out. So basically, at best you or your neighbours can park outside your houses.
Now a lot of working families have 2 cars – this is luckily offset by he fact that many people in Cheltenham don’t need a car at all, or can’t afford one, or can’t park the bloody thing. However if a typical student house with 4, 5 or 6 residents (that typical student terraced house was originally built for a family of 2 adults and a kids) all bring a car along – you are going to have hell from your neighbours from Day One. Maybe fortunately, that won’t happen, because you won’t be able to park in your street.
The council has recognised there is not enough parking, so residents – meaning homeowners in the main – can pay £70 or so for a permit which lets them park in their streets, but of course there are only half the number of permits needed. Most of Cheltenham is covered with these permit schemes, street after street, and you are not going to be able to get a permit.
So if you bring a car, where can you park it? Well you can rent an off-road parking space or garage- they are like gold dust, and the one we have costs £800 a year, but anything from £800 to £1000 is reasonable. If you will be driving home every week, or to work somewhere not serviced by public transport, that is one solution. Another is Cheltenham is well serviced with car parks – but it is going to cost you at least that much and involve getting up to put tickets on your car unless you can buy a season ticket.
Now if you park your car near a couple of our sites, its pretty likely to be vandalised, broken in to or wrecked anyway, because these areas are not actually *very nice* – and if you park outside someone’s house, they might just torch your car. Now things are much better than twenty years ago, but seriously, I have lived here for decades now and I would not take the mickey out of the locals around FCH or Hardwick; I am have a healthy respect for my teeth. Violence is uncommon – I was the victim of unprovoked violence in day time on the streets only twice in all my student years, and I was unlucky — but seriously, as some of my friends who live in St Pauls and can’t get their cars off their drives because the four students in the house across the road all brought a car will tell you — annoying your neighbours is a bad idea in these parts. You are going to have a bad time.
Still, if you figure you can afford the insurance, aggro and prescriptions/dental work, you could bring a car. However what good is it? If you are in Cheltenham in any sensible student housing you are close to either the town centre or Bath Road, and it is unlikely you will need to drive anywhere. I have lived here since 1987 without a car, 27 years now. I went nightclubbng, shopping, and to lectures on all campuses, and was just fine.
Still you are determined. OK, so you drive to The Park, or FCH, and then what? There is uni permit parking, and some space in the car parks for those with special needs, but they cost. Otherwise, you can just drive round the streets looking at the permit only parking areas designated for residents, and wondering what the hell you do now.
So don’t being a car. There is a fine inter-campus bus service, which I campaigned for back in the late 1980, so you can thank me later. It has stopped being free a couple of years back, but it will get you from A to B. Or there is the Honeybourne Cycle Path, Have a look at this guide to cycling in Cheltenham – especially the map. Copies are usually available from FCH and possibly Park Reception.
From FCH or Hardwick it is a minutes ride to a path that leads up to this mercifully flat (no gradients as former railway line) route which will take you up to the Railway Station, where you can cut through on to the Landsdown cycle path to St Stephen’s Road then down to The Park; 2.38 miles of easy cycling. From Pitville Halls cut through by the Pump Room, down the hill to Pitville Park and through to Tommy Tay;ors Lane then join the Honeybourne by the Leisure Centre. Cycling is extremely popular in Cheltenham right now, and if you do run in to the problems you can at least out-pedal any hassle one hopes. :)
So yes I have painted a bleak, but I think realistic picture. Use the bus, walk or cycle. Don’t bring your car to university, unless you can afford to pay for parking. It’s going to get even worse as the Permit Scheme finally reaches the far side of St . Pauls and Peters this year,
And hey it’s not all bad. Here are some University of Gloucestershire ghost stories for you!
Tonight I started thinking about my time in LARP – live action role playing – and what I learned from it. I doubt many people will be interested, but if you are a larper, freeformer or follow me because of my Ars Magica writing you might find something that sparks memories here. Tonight I’m just going to write on this, even if it is self indulgent and there are much better and more important things I could write about, because I really need to get back in to the habit of writing, and because it’s fun to write about myself because I’m an egotistical maniac. :D
I started playing rpg’s young – Traveller was my first purchase, and I played D&D at school and then with various friends, but most notably Axel Johnston and Mark Weston in the early days. I was a founding member of the Mid Anglia Wargamers club along with Phil Mansfield, and also got to play RPG’s there, and in the mid 80’s sessions of the “Nameless Anarchist Horde” rpg group were regular events on a Thursday night at my parents. Axel was hosting his Runequest and Cyberpunk games on a Monday, and Peter Clark was running games on the weekend. RPG was a big part of my life, but I was also a committed miniature wargamer and board gamer, and indeed some of my board game designs I now realise were actually pretty good and far ahead of the curve.
However, this is about Live Action RPG, and I guess I first heard of that in the early to mid 1980’s when a company called Treasure Trap started to run adventures at Pekforton Castle – sort of D&D for real. Ever since the invention of D&D back in 73/74 roleplayers had dressed up and gone to conventions, doing what today would be referred to as cosplay. When my gaming friend James moved away to Kent, he returned a few months later (the last time I knowingly saw him actually) and told me about how his GM (or DM, Dungeonmaster in D&D parlance dressed up for the game in robes etc. I smiled and said “cool!” but I must admit my first thought was “what a freak he must be!”. However, going beyond dressing up, and actually acting out the narrative of the game, moving from “rpg as radio play with an improvised script” to “rpg as full costume drama/contact sport” – that was a pretty obvious development too.
Now I have been involved with lots of strands of LARP, and for a long time now – almost 30 years – but I have noted very little interest in the origins of the hobby, and almost no attempts to write a history or LARP. As far as I was concerned Treasure Trap in the UK founded in 1982 was the earliest commercial LARP company, and the only one I had heard of. Curiously the UK roleplaying magazine White Dwarf was to my memory scathing and derogatory about Treasure Trap and “Live Action Role Play” or LARP as it became known, and I seem to recall the word “freaks” and “rubber swords” being used a bit. I may well be wrong — it has been thirty years, and while I still have many old issues laying around, I can’t locate the article or editorials in question, but when the company ran in to difficulties with accusations of financial misbehaviour and general misery in 1985 — the ins and outs of which again I never knew, and only gleaned from an often hostile gaming press – there seemed to be a note of relief.
Now maybe I’m imagining it – if there was hostility to LARP, it was probably on the part of one or two writers anyway – but I think I understood it, and shared it to a certain extent. D&D and gaming generally had been suffering from the US backlash against the game, led by BADD and the legendary Patricia Pulling, whose son, a gamer, had committed suicide. Worse was to come — Chick Publications brought out Dark Dungeons, possibly the most infamous anti-gaming tract ever in 1984.
Uni & The Dungeonmaster
If that was bad, we were all reeling from something far, far worse. It is so shameful I hesitate even now to mention it in public. Yet I must, and years of therapy mean I can now recall it, and indeed sadistically inflict it upon you. Take 20 minutes to watch this. You will never be the same again…
Yes, the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon really killed 90% of the credibility of the game. Long before even that however, something to have a more enduring legacy had occurred.
Enter the Steam Tunnels
In 1979 a brilliant but troubled 16 year old prodigy named James Dallas Egbert III had gone missing from Michigan State University. His parents called in Private Eye William Dear, a tough guy PI of the old school I think from his book. He however also comes over as humane, understanding and pretty liberal — and genuinely out to save hi client, the missing boy. Dallas, as he preferred to be called had issues with his mother (according to Dear) who had very high expectations from him, but the real issue seems to have been he was far younger than anyone around him, and he was also homosexual at a time when that may have been a bit harder than today. After 30 days Dear got him back – but the media circus that erupted was very much focussed on the fact Dallas was a keen D&D player – though kicked out of the only group who admitted to playing with him for being high all the time it seems — and may have been playing D&D in the 8.5 miles of steam tunnels beneath Michigan State University campus.
Now let us be clear – Dallas was manufacturing heavy drugs, and using them, and involved in gay sex while a minor which could have got his apparently older partners in to huge trouble. The reasons for his disappearance he gave were family expectations, but he may well have had other reasons, or parts of it may have been involuntary, or, well who knows? It was a long time ago, and tragically Dallas killed himself later. His original disappearance was part of a botched suicide attempt, and later he tried again while missing. This is all awful and miserable, but it had nothing to do with D&D. William Dear however played up the gaming angle, and attempted to play down the drugs and gay angle, and the media got very excited by those steam tunnels which it became clear were used by students to travel and play games and for darker purposes. Still Dear had uncovered the first LARPERs – and curiously also records in his book that some people were by the summer of 1979 playing D&D on company computers after work hours by modems – putting internet RPG sessions back to 1979.
Now in the USA the Dallas Egbert case was headline news, and it was noted in the papers over here, with the D&D leads to boy vanishing spin I guess. I think many people were more intrigued by what he reported about people playing “D&D live” though. In 1984 Dear published a full(-ish) account of the case, The Dungeon Master, which is often referred to as anti-gaming literature. I have read ever one of the 402 pages and I don’t get that impression at all. William Dear himself paid sixty bucks (so about £90 in today’s equivalent cash) to a student to run a D&D adventure for him, and narrates it in the book (high on DM fiat, sounds enjoyable though). He has only positive things to say about the staff of TSR, the game manufacturers, and seems generally positive as do his staff about the geeky SF fans, Tolkien Society members and D&D players they interacted with. However there was a five year gap between the case and newspaper headlines and his book coming out.
In that time an American author Rona Jaffe wrote a novel that loosely refers to the steam tunnel legends, and in the minds of those who remembered coverage of the Dallas Egbert case might have seemed connected. In fact there may be no connection — because plenty of people other than Egbert had played D&D in the MSU steam tunnels, including according to Dear professors, and his inquiries uncovered a whole subculture of “live D&D players”. Southern Methodist University and California Institute of Technology had these proto-larpers in the tunnels there; and Dear reports “It was a seven-day-a-week vocation for some students at the University of Iowa” (Dear, 1984, p.163)
What is also interesting is the gender aspect in these larp circles. “Half were girls. Dungeons & Dragons isn’t an arm wrestling contest, it’s a mental game. The women in our group were very imaginative. It got tough in the tunnels, of course, but it wasn’t the sort of tough that required lifting heavy boxes or duking it out with John Wayne types. The women could handle the conditions as well as any guy.”
(Dear 1984, p.158)
The DM for at least one MSU tunnel game was a woman. I have been trying to work out how the game was played – were there live combats? – as Dear mentions other campuses where wooden weapons were employed, usually bamboo rattans at this point – but it is not clear from his text. What we do know is this
“You could get lost very easily. And the conditions were terrible – so hot you thought your brain would boil… The DM would hide treasures, which all of us had chipped in to buy, and the person who found them could keep them. And there’d be niches you could reach in to. You might come up with a handful of decaying calf’s liver, or soggy spaghetti representing an orc’s brain, or something equally unappetising. Of course you might find a treasure. The DM did not really have to set traps. There were plenty of those already”.
(Dear 1984, p.158)
Rona Jaffe’s book Mazes and Monsters took as it’s plot a steam tunnel game of D&D, or Mazes & Monsters as known here, that goes badly wrong. One of the players becomes obsessed with their character, and ends up, you guessed it, nuts in the steam tunnels. CBS bought the TV rights, a made for TV movie followed, that you can still catch from time to time, probably only because the obsessed boy was played by a very young Tom Hanks. ;)
It’s late, and you have plenty to watch. Tomorrow I’ll pick up the story in 1985, when for the first time I decided to abandon sanity and head out in to the woods to play D&D live, with no real idea of what I was doing :) What could possibly go wrong? I’ll also reveal the story of “Romeo & Juliet meet the Verona Chainsaw Massacre” the KEGS school KILLER game, and finally our Halloween 1985 attempt at playing Call of Cthulhu Live, which was extremely cool.
And yes, some of this has been embarrassing. Geeky silly sterotypes abound still today, we just laugh at them more. I rather wish my 1985 experience in Lawshall woods – or was it Hartest woods? – had even been as respectable as this video Harry posted earlier — which just goes to show that embarrassing stuff was not exclusive to the 80’s ;)
First, Merry Christmas!
Secondly, we have all been there. A family Christmas turns toxic when someone suggest playing a board game, and Aunty drags Monopoly out of the cupboard. Now Monopoly can be a lot of fun I guess – but it is not for me. There are MUCH worse games on the market — but there are also some real gems out there, which deserve to be better know. I write games, design games, create games, and there are many that are like a special kind of Purgatory that can put you off the idea of board games for life. So today, hampered by a badly cut finger that makes typing really difficult, I thought I’d have a go at listing 12 games that you might actually enjoy playing this Christmas. I’ve played all of them, and missed an awful lot of favourites out, but seriously, these are all great games.
I’m not ranking them by quality, but by complexity and price, with family suitable and “people-who-don’t-play-games” games first. Some of these really require a serious effort just to learn, so try the lower numbered games before you rush out and drop fifty quid on Agricola unless you are already a hard core gamer. At the end I’ll list places you can get them from, as unless you have a local hobby retailer you might struggle.
So without further ado, on with the games!
Game 1: HANABI
Hanabi is ace. It’s a game about fireworks, and making them, but really it is a game about collecting cards in sets of five, and working together to match colours and numbers. At around a tenner, and playable with 2 to 5 players, age 8 and up, you can play a complete game in 20 to 30 minutes. The cards are boldly designed and pretty enough, but this game is sadly utterly unsuitable for the colour blind, as I have pretty good colour vision and under electric light struggles sometimes to tell green from blue, and white from yellow, so if you are red/green deficient you are really going to struggle. The rules are very short, and really it’s a sort of Patience card game where the players work together to try and complete 5 fireworks before they run out of cards or time or make too many mistakes. The catch is you can’t see what cards you are holding, holding your hand to face the other players. It is quite hard to explain, but for a simple fun family game, I would highly recommend it.
Game 2: SETTLERS OF CATAN
This is a modern classic, a fun game for those aged ten up, but also Becky’s favourite game of the moment. Perhaps the biggest drawback of this game is it only works with 3 or 4 players, and while it lasts an hour and a half that speeds by. An island is constructed of hexagon tiles, and players build roads and houses across it by collecting cards and playing them in sets. You can find this one in your local W.H.Smiths and prices are usually around £30 to £40, but honestly it’s worth it if you have two or three other people who you might play games with. I’ve been playing since 1995 and I’m not bored with it yet. My review can be found here on this blog, and you can find loads about the game on the internet.
Game 3: TICKET TO RIDE/TICKET TO RIDE EUROPE
The game that turned me in to a hard core board game player after years of not being keen on them. Even Settlers has begun to leave me unsatisfied after ten or more years of play, when I picked up this game to take to Becky’s one Christmas. We played it at least weekly for months, in fact maybe a year, before my Agricola passion took over. Ticket to Ride is the USA map, Ticket to Ride Europe covers –well, Europe! — and both are great games, which handle 2 to 5 players well, age ten and up I would say. Coloured cards are a feature but the pieces and cards have symbols on so if you have good eyesight colour blindness many to be such a big issue as in say Hanabi, where the symbols are hard to describe and differentiate at a distance. However the pieces and tracks on the board are small, so be cautious and check – don’t take my word for it. So what’s it about? Railways, and building tracks between cities! I review the game here on this blog and there is a good online version you can play free a few times to see if you like it. Expect to pay thirty to forty pounds for this one!
Game 4: LOVE LETTER
A ridiculously simple but clever game that uses a handful of cards and some little pink cubes for scoring. My copy came in a red velveteen bag that a friend said looked like it should contain some device from Anne Summers! Set in a court where the Princess has taken herself off to her her room after the Queen was arrested for treason, and various princes are trying to get the staff to smuggle love letters to her. You play one of the princes (or princesses I guess) trying to win the heart of the Princess, and you do this by playing special cards. For 2 to 4 players, aged ten and up this is a real gem worth seeking out. It only takes 15 to 20 minutes to play, the rules are a bit complex but once you get them elegant, and it costs under a tenner, indeed maybe £6 to £8 I think. Definitely recommended.
Game 5: PANDEMIC
The theme of this game is utterly grim. Viral pandemics have broken out across the globe, and you play the desperate attempt to contain them before they wipe out humanity. This is one of my favourite games, and a co-operative one – the players as in Hanabi work together to beat the game, not each other. The game supports 2 to 4 players, though you could adapt it to play it on your own I think if you really wanted. A clever game mechanic sees little wooden cubes spread across the map each turn as cards reveal where the diseases are flourishing, and you race around the game map sharing resources and ideas with other players trying to stop a cataclysm. If you work in a Path lab, or have friends with a love of medical drama, you must buy this. My only caveat is this – buy the Second Edition. I owned the First Edition, and the supplement On the Brink – and I have just bought the latest supplement for the game, but I then had to buy covers for all my cards as the second edition has new artwork, and so the In the Lab supplement is only really usable with second edition. Given how much I had already spent buying the first editions I was hacked off, though pleased when I found the company sell a set of cards to upgrade your old version to the new. Until that is I found out how much they cost, and that retailers don’t carry them so I’d be paying to have them shipped from Canada. Poor show, I probably won’t buy any more Pandemic stuff now, though I have covered my old cards with card protector sleeves so I can play In the Lab if I want to.
Game 6: CTHULHU 500
I don’t know much about motor racing, but I am a big fan of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror fiction. Unfortunately far too many games in my opinion try to involve elements of his Cthulhu Mythos, but in this case the bizarre mix of racing cars and eldritch tentacled horrors actually works. A fun card game for 3 to 8 players with fairly light mechanics, you will need a couple of ordinary six sided dice. Definitely worth a go, if you can find a copy! I’d say the complexity level was about that of the old Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks, so age 12+?
Game 7: KING OF TOKYO
Another game I reviewed on this blog, a homage to “Giant Monster ate my city” type movies. Designed by Richard Garfield who gave the world Magic: The Gathering, this is a great little family game for age 12+. with 2-6 players playing the part of Giant Monsters competing to trash a city. It’s great fun, and fiercely competitive, and while it has some small pieces and is a bit pricey at around £30 I think anyone could learn the rules if they read them carefully and the components and presentation are beautiful. Do get this one for a Christmas rampage! I have already reviewed it on this blog.
Game 8: DOMINION
A card game of considerable complexity and sophistication, we played this loads for a while. You need the table space you would use for a board game, and it is hard to explain except to say it is a bit like Magic the Gathering or a collectible card game, where all the players have access to the same cards. I enjoy this one, but do think it is less suitable as a first game unless you have played some card games like Magic first. 2-4 players aged 10+, maybe even 12+ as the strategies get mind-boggling pretty fast. So what’s it about? Well you collect cards and play them to get money to buy cards to acquire kingdom cards. Yes I know that leaves you little the wiser, but trust me it’s a good game! Twenty to Thirty minutes, probably around 30 pounds.
Game 9: 7 WONDERS
This one is quite complicated as well. Play through several periods of history building up your civilisation by acquiring technologies, monuments, armies and building your Wonder of the World! It’s again really a card game, but the hands of cards are swapped between players after each turn, and there are little game boards and coins as well, and some tokens used in scoring. A really fun game, the complexity is probably age 12+, and you need three to seven players. Takes a little while to understand and explain the rules, but once people understand the rules a good game can be played in 30 minutes. Prices seem to range from twenty five to forty pounds for this one.
Game 10: TWILIGHT STRUGGLE
NOT a family game. GMT Games produce serious wargames in the style of the old SPI/Avalon Hill Games ones, but this is not a hex based wargame – it’s a card and map driven simulation of the period 1946 to 1990, covering the whole of the Cold War. It’s for two players, one playing the Soviet Bloc, one playing the USA and allies, and I guess the subject matter is grim — the game can end in a loss if one player accidentally goes too far and causes a Nuclear Armageddon. However if you lived through some of those years, and have a good knowledge of 20th century history, this is about the finest three hour tense political and military game you can play I think. A lot of counters, well written and informative rules, it simulates the perceived reality of the Cold War from the perspective of the Soviets and Americans — a chilling game of brinkmanship, imperialism and real world horrors. Cards reflect actual events of the Cold War period, and doubtless some people would argue the game is in horrific taste, but it is certainly educational and makes you think. It is a also a beautifully constructed game, giving a balanced outcome — if the Soviet’s don’t win early though they face a serious struggle to hold off the US. The Space Race mechanic is great, and how many games give you the decision to boycott the Olympics or not, hey? 1989 dealing with the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe in that year is another game with similar mechanics and an equally perfect evocation of an era. If you are 30+, love modern history, and want a serious two player game, look no further. It’s a long way from Christmas jollity though!
Game 11: STAR WARS: X WING
Less a board game than a little wargame you can play on the kitchen table featuring painted models of Star Wars ships. For your thirty pounds you get everything you need to play, with one X wing and two TIE fighters. The introductory rules are absurdly simple, and suit age 9+ I’d say for 2 players, but there is a decent little wargame in here with a lot of complexity once you move to the main rule book, and the manoeuvre rules are really quite cool. The only drawback is you want more and more ships, and at about £12 a ship it could prove pricey, though I would say an additional fifty quid would give you enough ships to satisfy most folks, or you could just buy a second basic box set. I like this game, and it seems to appeal to the lads, but not as much to the ladies — though I am sure big Star Wars fans would love it! Definitely worth buying this Christmas, some branches of Waterstones have it in. A lot of fun with pretty model spaceships, and only 30 minutes or so to play a dogfight like you saw in the movies!
Game 12: AGRICOLA
If you know me you probably know that my current favourite game for the last couple of years has been Agricola. It works well with 2 to 5 players, though I think I play 3 player most, has difficult rules that take a lot of reading to understand, and takes an hour to two hours to play — but once you master the rules and complexity, it is a beautiful game. I have played it a LOT – a couple of hundred games now – and it is one of those rare games that I think is improved by a supplement, in this case Farmers of the Moor. However Agricola will set you back £50, and is definitely age 12+, though with the amount of play I have had from it it certainly has been worth every penny for me. I won’t describe it in detail here, as I have already reviewed it on this blog, but Agricola remains as of Christmas 2013 my all time favourite game, having replaced Diplomacy in my affections.
So Where Can I Buy These Games?
Firstly a warning. If you buy online, many of these games have supplements and expansions. If you know about the game you will recognise the difference, but there is no point in buying an expansion without the game itself. So check you are buying the game, not a supplement for it!
If you live in Cheltenham first try Proud Lion, your local game and comic shop shop on Albion Street, across the road from the back entrance to Debenham’s. Ben can advise you well, and he keeps a good selection of titles in stock upstairs. I would certainly recommend Green Knight Games, another local business (mail order) who have an excellent knowledge of the games and are always helpful and efficient.
If not, you can try ordering from the net. Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com stock many of these titles, Leisure Games in London stock pretty much everything too, are very helpful, and do mail order — and it is worth checking your local branch of Waterstones or WH.Smiths, where some of these games can be found. There are of course hobby shops up and down the country, and they vary greatly in customer service – sadly I can no longer recommend Wayland’s Forge, Birmingham, after a friend (Andy) gave the guy behind the till a sum of money when we entered the shop and said “this is for CJ’s birthday, let him just grab what he wants”, and then when I went to pay a couple of minutes later found the shop guy had converted it to Store Credit – so I could get no change, buy no second hand goods and the money Andy had given to me for my birthday had suddenly become tied to buying stuff there. Admittedly it was odd Andy gave him the money before I completed the purchase, but for refusal to backtrack or do anything about it I stopped shopping there, which must have cost the business rather a lot over the years. I’m still annoyed about it 7 or so years later! Of course the bloke in question may be long gone by now, so perhaps worth a try.
I do hope you will try a game this Christmas! This is by no means a definitive list, and many of my favourites do not appear, but do offer your suggestions in the comments section below, and advice on local stockists near you or games you have enjoyed. :)
A few of you may know that I write a lot for the books for the Ars Magica 5th edition roleplaying game published by Atlas Games, and that I am something of an enthusiast for the game, originating and often hosting the UK Grand Tribunal convention, running the Arcane Connection podcast and trying to get more people involved in playing Ars Magica and even creating tutorials on how to play, as well as occasionally contributing to Andrew Gronosky’s Project Redcap and Mark Lawford & Ben McFarland’s fanzine Sub Rosa.
Over the last 14 years I have been heavily involved with the Ars Magica community, from the Berklist to the forums and beyond. By this stage a few of the fans know my name and know that I spend a lot of my free time on Ars Magica, though I’m certainlyu not one of the big names of the field. In fact, I doubt most Ars Magica players have any idea at all who I am. This made the events of today very touching, and unexpected!
Lloyd came over this evening, bring a big box which had been delivered by Amazon to my old address. Inside the box were two parcels —
“To encourage you to further endeavours. The Secret Masters of Ars Magica”. An anonymous gift! Was it a bomb?
Nope it was an amazing microphone! Anyone who has ever listened to Arcane Connection the Ars Magica podcast knows that poor equipment has bedevilled almost everything we have ever tried to do, so this is truly a wondrous gift, better than a whole rook of Creo! And yet there was even more!
The second parcel contained this —
It is a magical device enchanted to cast Image from the Wizard Torn, a dubious benefit to anyone who ever seen my Presence -5 form, and who knows that the humble monk Chretien de Roamer has the Flaw Monstrous Appearance! It is however absolutely perfect for the Google Hangout Ars Magica chats I am experimenting with, and I am floored by the generosity of the fans.
Now for the first time in several days (lot happening right now, but sadly not Ars related good things) I wandered over tothe forum and found the person responsible for sending the Amazon to deliver the parcel. Poor Lloyd! He has barely recovered, only his Parma Magica saved him from her feminine wiles, deadly sorcery and ferocious single weapon attack! (The traditional Redcap delivery would have been just as acceptable chaps ;) ). I therefore must thank Timothy Ferguson who despite my protestations for some time that I would never accept a gift or donation towards my podcasting and Ars related activity went on and did it anyway. :D I hope Timothy was not the only contributor: the only problem is I don’t know who else to thank, and with my magical supplies so short, and the Stonehenge Tribunal limit on turning base metal to gold, well I can’t hope to reimburse people in the traditional way, by silver coins.
I am humbled by this gift, and rather astonished. I did not think the podcast, forged with the technical skills of Kevin Sides who somehow keeps my PC running, and let us not forget the third member of Arcane Connection, Tom Nowell, who often bought the cat food while I bought another £3 microphone (they die frequently!). Without Tom and Kev’s enthusiasm, and all the folks who have managed despite difficult time zone issues and poor connections to appear as special guests, there would be no Arcane Connection.
I will however repay folks, or at least try, in another way. I have a project for my usual 30 days in November series for the forum — not saints this year, or hermetic Tribunal cases — something rather different — and possibly a second one. Furthermore come December I shall try and provide a little Christmas present for everyone — an adventure — but right now i’m still formatting and sorting out the pdf’s for the last one, months overdue, which goes to Grand Tribunal attendees! Assuming everything is OK over the next week or so, (I’m awaiting some news which may prove stressful in the extreme, but hoping all good) I promise to continue doing what I can to reward and expand the fan base.
So thank you very much to the chaps and ladies of the Ars Magica community, especially to Timothy Ferguson for refusing to take no for an answer, and to David Chart and Atlas Games for giving me the opportunity to keep doing what I love! I’m not a big name rpg writer, or even prominent member of the fan community, but it was lovely to be given the opportunity to keep producing stuff and reassuring that some people actually enjoy it!
So thanks so much!
all the best
It was an overcast day, and I was walking through Bury St Edmunds with my best friend, Hugh. After lunch sometime, killing time before our scheduled afternoon classes. I don’t know the date or even the year — and Hugh is not sure he was with me at the critical moment. I think he was a few steps behind: certainly he joined me within a few minutes at most, but I recall talking to him immediately after the experience. Memory plays funny tricks.
I can’t recall precisely what we were doing — we had I think bought aniseed balls, but why we had strayed as far as Chequer Square I don’t know. I don’t know what we were talking about, what I was thinking or feeling, or why Hugh was a few paces behind (by my memory) as I looked left down the side of the cathedral, and saw myself looking back.
Not exactly — this is the memory I have of what I saw, and Hugh confirms it is what I said I saw…
A crocodile of school kids, rather strung out and disorganised, in St. James middle school uniform, walking towards me. The sun had come out, suddenly everything was warm, and the bright light bathed the scene. They were walking down the path from the gate that leads from the left side of the West Front towards my position, between St. James Church (the Cathedral) and the Norman Tower.
And I was among them, looking at myself. I was very neat, but my shirt hung out a bit (this was always characteristic of me) and I did not appear to notice myself looking back — only myself some five or six years older, a hippy looking type with shoulder length hair and a slouched demeanour very different to this upright young Chris I was viewing.
Frustratingly, I don’t know how the experience ended, I know I looked again and I was not there, and I think I asked Hugh if he saw me, and he looked at me oddly, and I told him what had happened, Hugh says he clearly recalls me telling him about the experience, but whether it was there, later in town when he met me, or even back at the school he can’t recall. He was concerned because I was clearly very upset and “not myself”. He remembers the realisation I was ill, and that we spoke at length before I went to my afternoon English class with I think Jill Curtiss back at KEGS. Hugh wasn’t doing English – he went off to his class — but by that time I was feeling very odd indeed, and was shaking a bit, had nausea, and a bad headache.
Our conversation revolved around the fact I thought my Middle School me would have hated my Upper School me – and now if it had seen me, the reason I felt so dizzy, “not me” and in fact downright odd might have been because previous-me was now making life changes that would result in now-me no longer existing. The fact that I claimed to have seen myself did not seem to worry Hugh – he was convinced I had, and intrigued, and I think we both thought our conversation was perfectly normal, which just shows how imaginative and odd we could be. The fun of the whole parallel time lines/ weird Dr Who type vibe was spoiled by my increasing anxiety, and the fact I felt absolutely awful. I was by the time I somehow made it up the stairs to my English class suffering from a stomach pain, legs like jelly, and a raging headache.
Was it Miss Curtiss or Miss Daniels who took that class? Again I have no idea. My friend Gary McFegan may well have been there — but I don’t know. What I recall was I was sitting by the door, facing across the room from the windows, and the dull light shining in seemed ridiculously and painfully bright, and it slowly dawned on me I had a fever. I could not look at the window, covered my eyes with my sleeve and began to retch.
Whoever took that class, they realised I was very unwell, and told me to go to the nurse, or home, or something. I offered no explanation, and think I just walked out of school and to my grandmother’s house, only a few streets away. There I recall sitting quietly in the dark of her front room with the curtains drawn, until somehow I was taken home to my parents, and went straight to bed. I don’t know if my parents knew I was ill – mum never took or gave pills, and so I was probably left to sleep it off. I have vague memories of flashes of pink and green lights, and of a raging headache. I never get headaches. This was incredible.
I think I missed a couple of days of school, because I felt like I had been through a tumble dryer. I ached from head to foot. I felt abysmal. Yet at no point was I running a temperature, and curiously it was only last night reading a book on hallucinations I finally understood what had happened back then. I had had my first migraine.
Most of my friends who suffer from migraine seem to do so regularly — at least not infrequently. I have had three migraines as far as I know, and the next one was in the early 1990’s when I lived at Hewlett Road, Cheltenham. Each one has hit me terribly hard, but there appears to be a decade or more in between them. However I have lived with migraine sufferers, and have seen their symptoms. I never realised however that what happened to me that day was a migraine induced hallucination — I had never heard of such a thing.
I think I would have forgotten the incident, putting it down to a trick of the imagination, if I had not been so ill afterwards. Oddly, despite having spent two decades of my life working on other peoples ghost experiences, and hallucinations, and having trained in psychiatric nursing in the early 90’s for a while, I have never thought of this as a ghost, or even a hallucination. I put it down to some wild hiccup of the mind. It had scared me badly, but nothing bad happened. Hippy Chris morphed in to CJ as we know me today, and that bizarre moment when I appeared to be seeing myself, well, it was an in-joke for Hugh and I to laugh over.
I was also frankly embarrassed. I have always prided myself on my rationality, and while I recalled a tale of Goethe seeing himself (or was it Schiller?), and probably knew even then that the doppelganger was an omen of the percipient’s death, it was easier to forget about it. I think I have told a handful of people over the years, maybe mentioned the experience in passing online, but I have never felt it “paranormal”. (Compare and contrast with my obsession with the event at Thetford Priory). Even now I hesitate to share the story, as it does make me sound nuts. The truth is of course that given the right conditions, we can all hallucinate.
So why do I think it a migraine? Well the symptoms I felt after the “vision” certainly sound like migraine to me now — though I’m no expert. Becky is making her final amendments to her PhD thesis, and is deeply involved in the mechanics of the apparitional experience right now, and I had picked up a pile of her books and was reading through them. Oliver Sack’s popular 2012 book Hallucinations was among them, and I was reading through it when I found the section on autoscopy, seeing your own body from outside, most commonly mentioned in Out of the Body Experience (OBE) research. I had noted years before the section in Green & McCreery’s classic Apparitions (1975) on what they term “autophany”, seeing one’s own apparition; and I knew the case from Gurney’s Phantasms of the Living (1886) of a lady called Sarah who alarmed herself and guests at diner one night by manifesting by the table! Strangely despite my own odd experience these cases had never really interested me much — but on reading Sacks book I suddenly realised the link between the migraine that followed the experience and my doppleganger vision.
It seems I am in good company — the great naturalist Carl Linnaeus had similar experiences, linked to his migraines according to Sacks. So did Goethe, though we know not if migraines was involved, and also Guy de Maupaussant, who wrote Le Horla. I have never had such an experience again, and in a sense I am relieved: there was a strong sense to me, however unreasonable, that my double was in fact hostile. Given I interpreted the experience in terms of a projected memory, or a timeslip — I considered both — that is actually quite odd. I quite like myself after all!
Migraine is just one reason for this kind of unpleasant experience, and a search on Google shows up several papers on the subject published in the last ten years. And yet, despite my immense love of studying the apparitional experience, and the years I have read round the literature on hallucinations to understand it, I have a curious reticence about even speaking of this odd little thing that happened almost thirty years ago.
Last night, Hugh and I, still friends and now both living 150 miles from the scene of the incident talked about it over a boardgame, and I thought maybe others might be interested. So many kind people have over the years risked ridicule t share with me or Becky or other researchers their own anomalous experiences, and I find it easy enough to discuss what happened at Thetford; that was something one could easily classify ghost, and “ghosts are OK?” in our culture I guess. So I am sharing my story, and hope it might perhaps reassure others having truly weird experiences that nothing bad came of it, either in the form of a severe and prolonged illness, or being haunted to my doom by my doppleganger. I’ll tell you what though: migraine was bad enough.