My Friend Fancies You – Gaming Romance

So I’m back from Peaky, the game writing weekend, after a few hours on site. I left at breakfast on the first full day, with a full refund and a lift to a train station, but still pretty dejected and out of pocket through trains. An  organizational cock up led to someone not being assigned a bed at this residential con, and unfortunately they nicked mine. As it was the middle of the night and everyone apart from me and Roger seemed to be pretty merry or asleep, I tried to doss down on a sofa  and cricked my neck. Unable to sleep – it gets cold down in the living rooms with no heating and no bedding, I wandered around the site until 6am when other folks got up.  Still thanks to Graham A, Ali and Alison I got a good breakfast before I left, and thanks to the wondrous Andrew Sceats who lent me money and  the excellent Martin Jones who really came through by driving me to a station I got a train home and was asleep by 1pm. I’m really upset about missing out on one of the two events I am doing this year for such a pointless reason – and it looks like with finances as utterly desperate as they are I might miss Consequences as well, which given my current annoyance/dejection/misery might be a good thing.

Anyhow this time we went with Graham W’s idea of writing a game about Romance. I think he means “romantic love”; Romance is of course a complicated set of genres, and I did not think we were going to create a Gothic Romance, or an Arthurian Romance, or any other “fabulous” tale.  We took it as more Mills & Boone romance I think, but I missed some of this discussion as I was trying to locate my room in the absence of post it notes with names on the door, or room numbers etc :(

What Happened at Peaky…

Anyway we split in to two groups – Mo Holkar, Kath Banks, Tony Mitton, Nick Curd, Steve Hatherley and Graham W in one, who said they were going to do something more Nordic/Experimental (I doubt it will be more Nordic than me – they all seemed quite British! ;) ) and Richard Perry, Roger G, Natalie Curd, Elyssia and myself in the other. I was *very* happy with my group. I think the others produced 4, a “horror game that felt horrific” last year.hearts

So I got to write with a bunch of people I really love writing with; all great game writers. Unlike the ‘Nordic group’ I’m not so invested in game theory – mainly because I don’t know much bar what Nathan has pointed me at over the years, but I figured if we were going to write a game about Romantic love it should be, well romantic ;) This is a fault I need to remedy – a lot of Nordic LARP seems to derive from Improv theory, but I have spent a few happy evenings reading the Jeep site.

The group stormed through some amazing ideas, and were creating a fine game when I had to leave. I would have offered to write a couple of characters from here but I don’t think that would work – you have to be present to actually know what is going down, in the frenzied writing of a Peaky freeform. So I thought I’d write my own game tonight. Sure no will will play it, but at least I will produce something from this utterly wasted weekend of misery. The one good thing was I got to see fat black cat and the other Upper Rectory kitty again, and the Arnolds and a few other friends.

Love In Theory

So first up – we are going to write a game about romantic love, so what do we mean by that? Romantic love is a culturally constructed state according to many psychologists; some historians claim it was a product of 12th century Western Europe, and that those cultural ideas shaped the experience of love for all subsequent generations. I have no idea where the truth lies – but I want to explore easily accessible pop culture versions of romantic love that we can relate to from personal experience, in a Western European (or North American) setting. So the Romantic love of Hollywood, fluttering hearts, crushes, infatuation, mad passion and star crossed lovers.

This kind of romantic love is like an artillery barrage; it devastates everything, but the real action of love is what follows six to thirty six months later according to psychologists, when the initial fireworks and fluttering gets replaced by the “she has so many faults but I love her” realistic kind of relationship love. Straight away, drawing on pretty mainstream psychological research, we have something interesting. While the Biblical era Greeks had four types of love, here it is suggested that eros, romantic love, may turn in to something more like storge after a relatively short time.

So let’s take this as a model. Of course you can emulate the wild being in love feeling later in a relationship – but it is distinct from solid relational love. The game we were writing at Peaky was about a growing relationship – the latter kind of love, or the transition from romantic love to relationship/security love. I joked that as we were starting with some characters in relationships that was like starting the larp in prison and ignoring the shoot out at the bank before hand; I’m not sure I manage to convey my point. (Neither group was actually interested in the psychology or history or cultural positioning of romantic love I think – Steve Hatherley said he would be in whatever group I wasn’t – maybe I just come over as too academic, but it gives me a starting point to explore raw human emotion in a larp). Of course you might just want to emulate the genre rules of cinematic larp, or literary larp – that would “feel romantic” too – but it would be like the difference between seeing a ghost and watching a ghost movie – the genre conventions are true to themselves, not the phenomenology of apparitional experience.

Now some people get hooked on the endorphins high of romantic love, and endlessly change partners, believing that because they way they love is changing, that is not “the one” and ending one relationship for another. I’m not suggesting that is always wrong – but I do think we can get addicted to the rush of romantic love. In our game therefore love can be both incredible explosively potent – but also fickle.

So I want to write a game dealing with couples falling in and out of romantic love. I need a model, so I will take the Jungian one – not because it is necessarily true, but because it is elegant and easy to map in to games. In this model romantic love is a kind of religious devotion – the other party takes on that quality theologian Paul Tillich reserved for the Divine; that which is the ultimate ground of our being. Our put another way, she is crazy about the guy and thinks of nothing else.

heartsHowever the Jungian model suggests this almost idolatrous passion is false; based upon a lie. Just as the atheist philosopher Feurbach said we project our desires on to the Heavens and call them God; so in romantic love we project our own needs, desired qualities and aspirations on the object of our affections, imbuing the loved one with almost mystical virtues. So to really get in to the spirit of playing romantic love, treat the other as a goddess or at least a demigod. Ignore all flaws – ignore all human features – no scatological Swiftian revelation can break the divine spell.

Years ago my girlfriend Polly and I used to celebrate Valentine’s Day by engaging in little romances, lying to each other all day about our repeated infidelities (which were mythical) or plans to poison the other or our involvement in armed robbery or whatever lie came to mind – using the dictionary definition of romance,

Romance : something (as an extravagant story or account) that lacks basis in fact

To romance can mean to lie – the last line of Saki’s The Open Window uses it in this sense, and I only recently noticed that many of my friends did not understand why “romance at short notice was her specialty”. They probably don’t understand why someone might carry a torch for someone either, or act like a bit of a pill. ;)

So by the Jungian model it is easier to fall in love at first sight – you have very little to stop you endowing your beloved with any qualities you want, as you know nothing of them. They are a blank slate, often one with pretty eyes or a beguiling bosom. It is MUCH more rare to hear of people falling for their best friends – hence that horrible phrase “friend zone” – but unless something dramatic happens you can’t fall in love (i.e.. lie to yourself about) someone you know really well. ;)

Now this may all seem rather cynical, and anyway I’m well known for regarding psychodynamic models as pretty much nonsense. So why use it? Well because the model sort of works, and provides a framework. The full Jungian model has a woman possessing the shadow-man – her animus that she projects on to the beloved male. You can read about the animus and anima, those anthropomorphic archetypes that lurk in our unconscious here. So it’s a Just-So Story, but one that works; if we want a romantic game that feels romantic, we can play with projecting the players’ anima/animus on to another player.

If you can get this right, the players will fall in love with each other. No not characters. I mean players – hence the bolding…hearts

Bleeding Hearts…

Before we start to discuss how to do that, maybe we should consider if it is desirable, ethical, or useful. Do we actually want players to fall in love? And is it even possible to manufacture love? The answer is of course yes – and we have a strong commercial history of selling pretty clothes and make up by claiming it will provoke love – and family cars too – and pretty much everything else come to think of it.

However anyone who has kicked around larp circles know couples who met in game – however you meet plenty of tabletop roleplayers who met in game, or stamp collectors who met a ta convention, or squash players who met down the court. The fact people with common interests sometimes fall in love is not exactly surprising or interesting. However, have you ever fallen in love in character, and then been confused by your feelings after the game, finding yourself angry or infatuated with or just hung up on something the other character said? It’s Bleed – when emotions in game bleed like ink over the page, and cross over out of game. Emily Care Boss coined the phrase in 2007 – I guess It’s American Freeform not Nordic originally, but it’s well known in other contexts. I recently did some work looking at couples who played lovers in Hollywood films – and fell in love on set. This is Bleed. The role has become an out of character truth; the characters were in love, now the players are.

So we can have a little moral panic about how easily it would be to manipulate someone’s emotions: or the dangers of falling ion love with inappropriate people in games, or of screwing over our own relationships. Now I am rather unlovely – no woman is going to fall for me in game; but I also understand the phenomenon from my days back in the psychotherapy community. It’s pretty much what the Freudians call Transference/Countertransference – it is worth just looking at that link quickly.

So as a young therapist they tried to teach me methods to ground myself, and dismiss any inappropriate relationships that emerge. Teachers so likewise. Nordic larpers acknowledge bleed, and spend time de-roleing, reverting to normal, so they do not carry the bleed too far. Still it is easy to fall in love with someone through a game- and the Jungian model gives us a powerful clue why – you know you are not dealing with the real person, so you can project your fantasies on to the character much easier, and that crosses to the player.

Except I think that is a nonsense. Some of you may have done some Cognitive Behaviour Therapy which includes the Hot Cross Bun model. I believe, following William James and a centuries worth of experimental psychologists, that notion of personality and self based on essentialist principles – you have a set of factors that are stable and describe you – may be flawed. An awful lot of experimental evidence suggests that you change peoples thinking by modifying their behaviour – getting them to play a role causes them to change who they are, because they become how they behave.speed

Now this is a whole different essay – and has pretty profound implications for roleplayers, many of whom now finally understand why they became a bearded dwarf and always carry a battle axe and a ten foot pole to the office. ;) Jokes aside though, acting out a role is a pretty good way to cause changes in thinking. Praxis leads to devotion, not vice versa by this model. You do something, like smoke, and that causes you to think like a smoker. You act like a bully, you will become a bully. Of course most larpers will de-role. Or get thumped. All this will be socially contextualised. Falling in love however – can that really happen, just because you are acting like you are in love?

Yes. It happens in Hollywood, it happens in games, and it happens in nightclubs. You know those creeps in the PUA** community? They learned tricks I learned from a psychologist, like get a girl to buy you a drink and she will like you – because she bought you a drink, so she must do. It even happens in lab studies.

So how do you test love in the lab? Simple – set up a speed dating event. We know the base percentages of how many couples want to meet afterwards. Now get them to engage in touch, eye contact, footsie during their speed dates – to act as if they are already in a relationship. the numbers go through the roof – add dim lighting, mood music, tell to hold hands and gaze in it each others eyes and you end up with happy couples falling for each other.hearts

Add to this the rollercoaster effect. You are better off taking a date to a horror movie, a rollercoaster or a quick run through the bad part of town chased by rabid wolves than a romantic laid back meal. If their heartbeat is raised, they are way more likely to be attracted to you and date/cop off with you.

Enough! If you want to know how to exploit experimental psychology in an attempt to get less single – and can handle the ethical issues – buy a copy of Prof. Richard Wiseman’s 2012 book Rip It Up. LARPERs may sometimes do it by accident – I may be able to write a game which uses all the findings of experimental psychology and Madison Avenue to cause at least some of the players to fall madly in love with each other – in fact I may well try to do this for next Consequences. If all the players are single, and give informed consent like those in Wiseman’s speed dating experiments then ethical issues may be a little simpler.

Richard Wiseman

Richard Wiseman

For this weekend, let us assume I want to write a game where the players DO NOT fall in love with each other. This was roughly the point I was at when we set off in our groups last night – after a fairly sharp retort from Steve Hatherley I guessed they wanted to avoid theory of this sort, and stick with Nordic Larp theory, and my group did not seem enthused by the few brief references so I aimed at trying to get us to emulate a genre narrative, by talking about favourite love films in my occasional interjection and little contributions.

Now through mischance I’m stuck at home, 100 miles from the action, and while my weekend is ruined I can at least try and work on writing a game that 2is a romance game that feels romantic”. I have already decided NOT to make the players fall in love (until Consequences – and those who have played Romantic roles against me may now realise why I play avoidant or awful partners in romances, just to be safe – no one will fall for me, but I might fall heavily for you after all – so the more lovely you as a player are the more my character will prove evasive or crap in a romance!)

Anyway – how do I write a game based on my theoretical musings? Let’s design a game to do one thing – High School dating – passionate, desperate, secret and highly social, filled with gossip, backbiting and status plays.  This is a very rough first draft…

Lemonade Crush

A LARP for 5 to 8 players of any gender mix.

Setting: High School. Most people experience romantic love the first time there? I’m thinking Grease as inspiration – Summer Nights and all that jazz. High School Romance just works. You could set it wherever you want; but I want the love affairs to be examined through a friendship (and enemy network). Love affairs can at this age be status plays I guess – so we want a group of people who know each other well, interact daily, and most importantly don’t fall for each other, at least initially. Yes – the loved ones in this game of love are not going to be played by players, or referees. They will be abstracted as posters on the walls.

This is NOT to stop the players falling in love with each other. It is to make it about being in love, and projecting your romantic fantasies (or animus/anima) on the other person: but you don’t really know that person, and in this game we are dealing with the falling in love bit – when the poster reciprocates, it is seen through the discussion between the players. The poster itself remains quite passive. :)

refresh

Set Up:  Firstly you need some big bits of paper taped to a wall or similar to represent the BELOVEDS. There are two less BELOVEDS than players. Some players are not going to end up with one of these high status wallflowers ;) Each BELOVED have a name, a gender, and nothing else. Peter, Male will do. The genders should be roughly those of the desired gender for the player characters – so if you have 2 Female heterosexuals, 2 females lesbians and 3 gay men you will have 5 BELOVEDS, and maybe 4 should be men, one female. People may of course choose to change their character’s sexual orientation in play as they realise they are bi or straight or gay or whatever. It’s High School, it happens. IT is also quite permissible to play a closeted character, and engage in romance for public purposes with an opposite sex character before changing and going for a same sex character. I’m going to use heterosexuality mainly in examples when writing, but seriously, it is not important in the game. I’m not trying to not be inclusive, I just tend to be by being straight use heteronormative terms reflexively so I may as well acknowledge this failing now…

Tape the BELOVEDS far enough around the walls that they are not next to each other – players have to move from end of the room to end to be next to them – spread them out. Write a word describing where in the school they are usually found in each – that area by the poster is now that area in play. So CANTEEN, GYM, COMMON ROOM, BEHIND THE STANDS, BY THE LAKE, IN THE LIBRARY, OUTSIDE THE SCHOOL GATES, OUT OF BOUNDS etc, etc. When a player approaches a poster they are going to that part of the school, and should roleplay accordingly.hearts

Character Creation: Give each player a cardboard heart in a different colour, and some bluetack to stick it to a poster later on. They will have 5 in total, so cut out plenty from brightly coloured card, but they only get one per scene.

Now give each character a character sheet – I’ll write a few pregenerated ones, or you can design your own, if you want to play close to home and base it on yourself at school, or invent a fun character. You need a couple of paragraphs of public knowledge, which say what all the kids know about you. Write this, add a name, then introduce yourself by reading your paragraph out loud.

Now write a another paragraph, with hidden stuff about you – important, scandalous, interesting or scary stuff. Stuff worth gossiping about. Keep it realistic for the setting – you might be guilty of burning down a barn, or have had an affair with Mrs Smith the Piano Teacher – but avoid “am a serial killer” type OTT secrets. Believing you are psychic is fine. Your dad having an affair is fine. Your mum being the President is probably not. ;)

Your best friends will know this stuff, but no one else. Decide who your best friends are from the other CHARACTERS – NOT the BELOVEDS. Write their names on your character sheet, but DO NOT discuss it. Your best friends may have chosen you back – or may have chosen someone else. It doesn’t matter – High School is like that. Resist the temptation to discuss this before the game starts. Everyone know reveals who their two best friends are, and goes off with them and reads them their Hidden Stuff paragraph.

Setting Up The Beloveds: Each of the BELOVEDS now is assigned something which makes them stand out. Each player chooses something in turn, and writes it on a BELOVED, until each BELOVED has a Status. Start from this list –

TEAM CAPTAIN, RICH DADDY, HEADMASTER’S CHILD, DRAMATICS STAR, FASHIONISTA, STUNNING LOOKS, AMAZING BODY, SHY BUT BEAUTIFUL, SO MATURE, OWNS A CAR, BAY BOY/BAD GIRL, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, PUTS OUT, MUSICIAN, LEADER OF THE GANG, GEEKY GENIUS, STRAIGHT A STUDENT.

That’s just to get you started. The BELOVEDS are the students everyone wants to be, or be with. Each has one of those status. Now you need to add

One Intriguing Fact about each. Start with which ever players have not got to assign a status to a BELOVED, and let them make up the first two, and write them on any BELOVED; one each. Then carry on with players taking turns until every BELOVED has an Intriguing Fact.  To be an Intriguing Fact it must NOT follow on from the Status. So you can NOT say the Team Captain “is under consideration for a Manchester Utd youth team place”. You could say “has a aunt popularly reputed to be a witch who feeds the pigeons each day in the market square”.   Intriguing Facts are by definition TRUE – and help make the beloved’s fascinating.

and then the next player in order starts with

One Thing they like – Again this should not follow on from the Beloved’s Status, or the Intriguing Fact. The Team Captains with the Witchy aunt might like pigeons – but that is too close to the aunt who feeds them. He might like cricket – but Team Captains often do. So he has “a passion for Astronomy, and often goes up to the old Observatory on the hill at night alone”.  Go for interesting things, with plot potential, not “candy floss” or “big boobs”.

till each BELOVED has been assigned one, and then

One Thing In People They Despise – There are no limits on this section, but players who know anything about other characters may well use this to make sure that other characters who are say dog breeders will have a real problem with  this character who “despises animal lovers”.

Finally, keep going in sequence, give out postcards for each BELOVED’S Secret. Secrets can be dramatic, trivial, or just a way to their heart. Somehow the player who assigns the BELOVED’s character has found out the secret – but the BELOVED does not know they know.  The cards are bluetacked face to the poster, until the Secret is revealed.  Two characters will not know any BELOVED’S Secret.  This is intentional.

An Outsider whether they know a secret ot not may now snoop by looking at one of the other BELOVED’s secrets – they may know one or two secrets, but Outsider’s are ignored by the popular BELOVED kids so learn more by just being able to spy more without being noticed!

My Secret Crush: Each player now records which of the BELOVED they have a secret crush on. They may not immediately pursue that BELOVED, preferring to aim for another easier to date BELOVED, but there is a record of who they liked at the start of the game, and at the end players compare notes. It is very likely they will have changed their minds…

The Aim of the Game: Is to fall madly in love and have it reciprocated. BELOVED’s offer their affections to whoever has offered them at least three hearts, and more than anyone else.  No one may offer their heart to another player until Scene 3. Hearts not used in a Scene are lost.

We are now ready to begin the game itself .

heartsHow It Plays

A group of chairs in the centre of the room represents the playground. Each scene occurs on a Tuesday, at lunch break, one week apart. The game represents a month of High School, with a final scene which discusses “Where are they know”.  Each Scene last exactly 25 minutes till the lunchtime bell goes; the GM’s should time it and ring a bell to mark time out..

The players start in character chatting over lunch. They may tell each other secrets about BELOVEDS or each other – but if you treacherously betray someone’s hidden information, you can’t do it in front of them!  Build Improv style on what other players say; don’t block, say yes. However in this game, you are falling hard for someone, and your job is to not admit it, but to subtly mention the BELOVED you are infatuated with about six times! Act a bit swoony – the real test of your roleplaying here is can you play at being in love at High School convincingly?

Now the Hearts – to put a heart on a poster, you must go and interact with them. However you are very nervous, so you must take a friend with you, to witness your attempt at wooing. It can be really subtle, like offering to carry their books, or standing open mouthed and staring and giggling at ten paces from the poster,or flexing your muscles and working out just across from the poster.  If your friend thinks you act appropriately High Schooler in love trying to impress a popular kid, you may put a heart on the poster in Scene One. In later Scenes you need to show you have something in common, or explain how the two of you woo the BELOVED by somehow playing on their fascinating fact, like, dislike or status. After Scene 3 you need two friends to be involved in helping you win them over.

OR If you can tell a GM the Beloved’s Secret, and explain how you are playing on it, you can put a Heart on without a friend. Only one heart per scene, and a different way of winning their affections based on their secret each time is required.

You can also remove a single heart from a poster, by spreading (vaguely true) malicious gossip or secrets about the lover. You need a friend to accompany you again; call a GM over, march over to the poster bold as brass and whisper why that Beloved should never be trusted and is an awful person – and GIVE A GOOD REASON.

Then go back to mooning around, gossiping, or trying to find out more about a Beloved.

At the End of  A Scene: Write a new sentence about yourself on your character sheet. Tell your two best friends, even if you now hate them because they have spread your story all over school. Everyone who  placed a heart on a BELOVED can write a new sentence on the poster which becomes true about that BELOVED “Johnny will never race cars again after his elder brother was in that smash up” or “Mary has a real thing against Catholic kids (like Jim’s character)”#

Additional for End of Scene 3 & 4:  If anyone has three hearts on a BELOVED and no one else has, write “Going out with X” where X is that characters name. To prevent them winning at the end of the SCENE 4, the others will have to plot to break them up and remove a heart. This requires at least 2 characters co-operating, and as the player will add another heart, you will need at least two plots to end that relationship.  If it is the end of Scene 4 it is already too late.

Any characters (NOT BELOVED’s who don’t have hearts being cardboard cut outs) who swap hearts in Scenes 3 or 4 are now going out. They break up if one player declares it, and you can tell them secrets or try and break them up, but it is a player choice. Being in such a relationship at the end of the game is a minor victory for both players, if the other players agree in a simple majority vote they appear to be in love ;)

Scene 5; This scene is much shorter. Each character has a chance to speak about where they are twenty years on, and what life did to to them. Each other player then adds a single factor comment to that picture, which the player must acknowledge as true, and then they wrap up. This can often be funny, or tragic, or just poignant. Did the High School relationships last?

refresh

A Final Note

I dashed this off in 3 hours on my own, so it is a mere fragment of a Peaky team writing game, and therefore a bit pants. Still it is probably quite different to the proper well written games, and allows me to participate a little even though I am banished home by a cricked neck and lack of a bed. :) It does illustrate my style of writing though – start with the big picture, identify what I want the game to do, then aim at doing one thing well. I’ll be interested to see how my musings on romance in games compare with what came out of Peaky…

 

CJ x

 

** If you don’t know what the PUA community is don’t worry. Your life is better for it.

Posted in Dreadful attempts at humour, Fun forthcoming events, Games, Science, Social commentary desecrated, Uninteresting to others whitterings about my life | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Review: The Bermuda Triangle Mystery – Solved by Lawrence David Kusche

Book titles tend to be prone to hyperbole, but this 1975 book, one of my favourite books, does exactly what it says on the cover. It simply explains the Bermuda Triangle phenomena, and also teaches a few lessons in critical thinking that deeply impressed 10 year old me when I first read it. Charles_Berlitz_-_The_Bermuda_Triangle_-_1977_Panther_paperback_book_cover

I grew up in the 1970’s, and books were my sweets or chocolate, While I used to spend hours riding around the farm or climbing trees, or playing in puddles where leaves formed ships and carried cargoes of flower petals and little stones over muddy seas to imagined nations – but at night I used to read pretty much anything I could lay my hands on.  My older siblings (the closest is 14 years older than me) left all manner of books – and as I got older my pocket money was spent on books from the second hand book shops in Hatter Street, Bury, now sadly all gone.

Eventually I stumbled upon Charles Berlitz’s The Bermuda Triangle, and I was instantly hooked!  I had a friend called Splodge – well that was not what his parents called him but his nickname, but I won’t embarrass him by giving his real name – and we both read through that book time and time again, usually with me reading and him looking words up when we were puzzled. There weren’t many kids at Ingham Primary – I think 7 the year I left, and it closed as a result – but we were probably the only ones to ever sit around talking about magnetic pole reversal, which we felt had to be involved somehow in any explanation.

Now we were not alone – Charles Berlitz (yes he of the language school) had written The Bermuda Triangle (1974) one of the biggest sellers of the 1970’s (20 million copies in 30 languages), and while it never reached quite the level of influence of Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, it was a massive influence on popular culture. There was a film (I never saw it!) in 1978, and it even made Top of the Pops in 1981, via the awesome Barry Manilow. If you are not at work, you must stop and watch this now ;) You will thank me for it!

“Bermuda Triangle makes people disappear…” That video just makes me blush!

In 1981 Splodge and I were at middle school in Bury, and while still friends my obsession with the boardgame Diplomacy and roleplaying games was leading us in different directions.  One day however I found a book called The Bermuda Triangle – Solved, by Lawrence David Kusche, and I bought it and read it.  It taught me a valuable lesson in critical thinking, and made me far more sceptical. (I soon after acquired a book that demolished von Daniken – I’ll have to dig that one out!)

The Bermuda Triangle – Solved

Last week I was lucky enough to find a copy again in a second hand book shop, and curiously enough on rereading it, it does not contain the passage I (mis)remember as coming from it about the Bermuda Triangle being a HUGE area, and one of the busiest air and seaways in the world, so statistically the number of disappearances is no more than one would expect, if that. Nor does it mention the possibility of piracy and vessels and planes being stolen for drug running. While both may be factors in some of the cases examined – around 50 chronological short chapters, with a demolition of Ivan T. Sandersen’s Vile Vortices and a piece on The Devils Sea off Japan at the end – Kusche would actually not be impressed. He rejects ALL theories for the Bermuda Triangle phenomena, because he does not think that is such a thing (in fact he demonstrates beautifully there isn’t) and because he advocates rejecting all theoretical top down approaches.

Bermuda 2

What Kusche does is take each case as a *separate incident*. And then he does something quite extraordinary – rather than as “mystifiers” usually do simply copying stories from earlier books on the subject, Kusche looked up the original documents, wrote  letters to the Coast Guard and other parties, and dug out contemporary newspaper articles. He seems to have also developed a pretty good knowledge of ocean currents, compasses, navigation, and all manner of other subjects – by looking stuff up, and writing to people.

Kusche was (I’m guessing he is retired now) a librarian, and he dedicates his book to all the other librarians he worked with using Inter Library Loans, and to the Arizona librarians who were his colleagues and who kept being asked for books on the Bermuda Triangle. His book came out the year after Berlitz’s, and while he is careful not to mention or critique individual authors – he mentions The Legend – it is clear Berlitz is one of his main targets.

So what did Kusche find? Basically that a lot of authors are a) lazy or b) dishonest. Some cases (two or three) seems to be entirely imaginary –  simply made up. None of them are very interesting or significant though. A few of the vessels listed as missing in much Bermuda Triangle lore were actually found, safe and well, with crews intact – they were just delayed, out of radio contact, or rather prematurely reported missing in one case by a slightly over anxious son.

Where the vessels or planes are missing, time and time again there is little mystery. In a surprising number of cases some debris was found, though in many none. In a LOT of cases there was terrible weather at the time of the loss – not mentioned in most accounts now. What is very common is for the Triangle authors to make things sound more mysterious than they actually were.  Planes were within sight of the airfield and just vanished. Weather conditions were perfect when ships vanish half way through a message. In short the writers have allowed truth to give way to dramatic flourishes, and they sometimes actually get “improved” by further invented details by subsequent authors, though not always.  These details always serve the purpose of making the story weirder, more interestingly mysterious.

The newspaper accounts throw up all manner of little errors that have crept in to the stories. Kusche opens each chapter with “The Legend” – a composite account of how the story is told in books on the supernatural – and then gives the facts. A few cases took place nowhere near what we would consider the Bermuda Triangle – one occurred in the Pacific Ocean off Mexico, several a lot closer in the Gulf of Mexico but others all over the North Atlantic, right up to within a few hundred miles of Ireland.  I was surprised at the inclusion of Donald Crowhurst and the Teignmouth Electron – according to Kusche one author depicts this as a mysterious disappearance, rather than the clear case of suicide it was!

At the end of the book Kusche summarises his findings, and points out the only clear conclusuon. Prioperly examined on a case by case basis, there is no need to postulate a “Bermuda Triangle effect”. There are certainly some intriguing mysteries, like the Carroll A Deering, or the loss of Star Ariel – but there is no need to invoke a common cause for the losses.

Interestingly, Kusche provides details that even someone like me who has watched many documentaries and read much of what has been written on these matters had missed. For example, I always wondered why Taylor, Flight Leader on Flight 19 never switched radio frequencies to the clear emergency frequency when requested, or why when a radio location fix was established fairly early in the crisis he was not able to find his way back to Fort Lauderdale. The answers are given by Kusche – one of the Flight could not access the emergency frequency, so Taylor kept everyone on 4800 to keep his planes together, and the station that got the directional fix on Flight 19 could not reach them, and their teletype was not working – so those who *were* taking to Flight 19 did not know where they were to pass the information on! (If you don’t know about the events of December 5th 1945, look at Flight 19 here).

Now Kusche has to be fair been perhaps a little superseded by Wikipedia – I’m guessing much of his book is now cited on the individual wiki enties for the cases – yet for sheer encyclopaedic dogged critical thinking and hard work his efforts will always be impressive. It is a little masterpiece of scepticism, and one that curiously you rarely hear big name Skeptics invoke, perhaps because so few people care about the Bermuda Triangle now?

A Curious Foreshadowing

One case however did really strike me – and it’s one I know well from various books, Star Ariel. Star Ariel was flying from Bermuda to Kingston, Jamaica, and a short distance in to the flight announced it was signing off from Bermuda and would be signing on to Kingston. Kingston never heard from it — and in fact it never radioed Nassau either. This strikes Kusche as odd.  I don’t know how to use my paint program on this PC, but I will attempt a rough map…

The route of Star Ariel. Last transmission was just four minutes after crossed the 30 degree line at 9.37am local time, when the pilot said was swapping over radio to Kingston, the destination. Why?

The route of Star Ariel. Last transmission was just four minutes after crossed the 30 degree line at 9.37am local time, when the pilot said was swapping over radio to Kingston, the destination. Why?

Something odd here. Apparently most pilots worked Bermuda much longer, then worked Nassau mid flight, or more likely stayed in touch with Bermuda then swapped to Kingston at the mid-point. Yet at 9.42am, the Star Ariel just beyond the 30 degree N line radioed “I am changing frequency to MRX” [Kingston]. Why? Kusche is puzzled, and so am I.  The plane has not made contact with Kingston, and was 100 miles in to a 1,100 mile flight.  Then the quote that stopped me dead for a moment

“The possibility of an aircraft signing off on one frequency, and not reporting on the new one does not appear to be have been guarded against by the procedures laid down by the highest authorities up till this time”

Those words come from the 1948 Ministry of Civil Aviation report on the loss of Star Ariel, and are cited by Kusche. When I read them as a child they meant nothing to me, and if I had read them a year ago they would have provoked little interest.

Then of course it happened again – the jet MH370 vanished under exactly these circumstances, going missing in the switch-over from  one air traffic system to another.  I’m not going to get excited by conspiracy theory, but it seems the 1948 advice was never acted upon, and it does make me wonder if Star Ariel could have been deliberately lost, though why I can not imagine?

The year before Star Tiger had vanished on the Azores to Bermuda run, and various theories have been put forward, often revolving around navigational failure (Kusche downplays this an unlikely) or defective cabin heaters causing a fire.

The important thing is, when you take away all the “paranormal” mystery, there is plenty of genuine mystery left to go around!

In Summary

This remains an excellent book, and an excellent sceptical work. Kusche explains why compasses spin, and many other minor mysteries – and curiously the first “lost in a fog” Piper account, that preceded later electronic fog encounters, actually appears to be a fictional case. The book is filled with interesting snippets even for the armchair expert, and is certainly thought provoking, even 40 years after it was published. Highly recommended

I have not seen the Prometheus Books new edition from 1985 – buy it here!

CJ x

Posted in Debunking myths, Paranormal, Reviews and Past Events, Science, Social commentary desecrated, Uninteresting to others whitterings about my life | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

RPG Review: Mars Colony, a 2 player Tabletop RPG by Tim Koppang

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…

Mars Colony rpg 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.

tckFinally 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.

wpid-20150103_033047.jpgSo 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.  organisationchart

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…

Overall

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.

Mars Colony is $6 pdf, $12 paperback and $15 book + pdf (+  postage) and you can get it here or from Indie Press Revolution.  Physical copies are available in the UK from Leisure Games for £9.99

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 chrisjensenromer@hotmail.com

cj x

Posted in Games, Reviews and Past Events | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Boardgame Review: OGRE (Pocket Edition) by Steve Jackson Games

A 2 player game about a giant robot mega-tank (the OGRE) as it ploughs towards through the defenders killing everything in the way…

wpid-20141228_172649.jpgBack 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?wpid-20141228_164607.jpg

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.wpid-20141228_172514.jpg

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

wpid-20141228_172451.jpgWhereas 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!

Overall

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 themesyet 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!

sjglogo

Posted in Games, Reviews and Past Events | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Boardgame Review: Pandemic – The Cure

Pandemic-The-Cure

Pandemic-The-Cure

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.

Becky takes a move

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. wpid-20141220_231542.jpg

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.

wpid-20141220_230054.jpgThis 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. wpid-20141220_230354.jpg

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.wpid-20141220_224331.jpg

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…

Overall

wpid-20141220_224324.jpgAn 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 ;)

Overall 9/10

Posted in Games, Reviews and Past Events | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Presence and the Press: Once Again Science Journalists Tell Us Ghosts Explained Away!

OK, I blog very rarely nowadays, but I thought I had best respond to all the press excitement caused by an article from Current Biology, which pretty much everyone (including the authors) seem to think explains away “ghosts”.  You should quickly read about it here or on the BBC News or pretty much anywhere on the web. So does it explain spooks away like the cock crow? Hard to tell without a copy of the full text of the article, but I’m going to doubt it for now. ;) Entitled “Neurological and Robot-controlled Induction of an Apparition” by Blanke et al. the articles abstract is as follows –

 Tales of ghosts, wraiths, and other apparitions have been reported in virtually all cultures. The strange sensation that somebody is nearby when no one is actually present and cannot be seen (feeling of a presence, FoP) is a fascinating feat of the human mind, and this apparition is often covered in the literature of divinity, occultism, and fiction. Although it is described by neurological and psychiatric patients  and healthy individuals in different situations, it is not yet understood how the phenomenon is triggered by the brain. Here, we performed lesion analysis in neurological FoP patients, supported by an analysis of associated neurological deficits…

 You can read the full Abstract here.

Bold claims! However this is an interesting and useful study in to the neurology of proprioception, defined by the dictionary as

Proprioception (/ˌproʊpri.ɵˈsɛpʃən/ PRO-pree-o-SEP-shən), from Latin proprius, meaning “one’s own”, “individual” and perception, is the sense of the relative position of neighbouring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement.

The parts of the brain involved are the PCML for conscious proprioception and the dorsal and ventral spinocerebellar tracts for unconscious proprioception. THis study may show us more about the sense of presence – I know little about it, though Dr James McHarg published on it in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (JSPR) back in the 1980s with relation to the sense of presence, and I seem to recall addressed the SPR on the subject.

Society for Psychical Research

Society for Psychical Research

Certainly parapsychologists have been interested in the subject, and James McHarg got me interested in Temporal and Parietal Lobe Epilepsy in terms of explaining anomalous experience – an idea whose time was probably the mid-90’s, and now seems peculiarly dated to me. However back in 2011 my friend the fantastic Emma McNeill covered this well in a Fortean Times article – TLE and Anomalous Experince 

So the new article builds upon ideas that have been kicking around in parapsychological and Fortean circles for a while  (for about forty years in fact – from 1974) and the experimental validation of the idea is of course cool. Of course – there is a problem, and a serious one. You guessed that, right?

Emma’s article includes a few things I’d take issue with. Persinger’s God Helmet work that is invoked in the Nature coverage and Emma’s FT piece , unrelated to this experiment (Persinger was not an author or involved) has been severely critiqued by Per Grandvist – but that is not the issue here. I merely sound a note of extreme caution. No the issue here is in a line from Emma’s article

“Ghost sightings are easiest, with the sudden chill, sense of foreboding and looming presence.”

And here is my problem. In fact, while we all may nod in agreement,  studies of the apparitional experience by Sidgwick et al (1894), D.J. West (1948, 1990) and Smith (2013) have actually shown that these three elements – a drop in temperature, foreboding before the experience, and  a “presence” – occur extremely rarely, in fact in 0.5% to less than 2% of apparitional experiences studied.

They are of course staples of *ghost fiction* – both literary and TV/film – but in first hand percipient reports they are rare. Now Smith did find that 4.5% of her “disturbances” cases – those which involved purported physical movement of objects or other physical phenomena – included reference to a sense of presence; but bear in mind this “haunting” category reflects experiences over time – the “presence” seems to arise as an explanation for the phenomena? Even then, it is rare.

Now of course there are well known cases of “presences” – most notably those experienced by high altitude mountaineers, like that famous reported by Reinhold Messner on Nanga Parbat , (See for example Brugger et al (1999) “Hallucinatory experiences in extreme-altitude climbers” in Neuropsychiatry Neuropsychol. Behav. Neurol. 12: 67–71) This may well explain them. These are not however seeming related to the common or garden spook experience! rubber hand   Post Ehrsson’s rubber hand experiments which were wildly reported as explaining Out of the Body Experiences a while back ( Ehrsson et al , (2005)  “Touching a rubber hand: feeling of body ownership is associated with activity in multisensory brain areas” in the Journal of Neuroscience 2005; 25: 10564–10573) there has been a lot of interest in proprioception and its role in anomalous experience –  but while parapsychologists have embraced it, as we saw in the Liverpool Hope conference a few years backs papers on OBE, in this case, has the paper really explained anything new about most apparitional experiences despite the title?

Fotheringay church at night, from GSUK fieldtrip.

Fotheringay church at night

Nope. Apparition means “appearance”. The paper deals with a sense of presence, which as I have noted is not usually, or even commonly, indeed hardly “infrequently”, associated with apparitional experiences. Of course no one bothers to ask a parapsychologist, or humble ghost researcher (like myself, or the aforementioned Smith who happens to be my partner and who completed her PhD on the spook experience last year) about this stuff.

Whenever “Science explains X”, no one ever seems to think of asking the small academic group of experts on “x”, whatever “X” may be this week! ;)  You may recall my amusing description of all of the parts of the brain that have been invoked in different competing explanations of the Near Death Experience, or Sleep Paralysis, or — well let’s just say our Science journalists report the same mysteries solved year in year out, with little apparent progress in some topics. The real solutions will one day be uncovered by science i am sure – but for now, we gloss over just how hard that search may be. :) Still despite my cynicism, I suspect some good science lies behind this paper – and yes it might explain some presence cases – juts they don’t have much to do with “ghosts”, and I’m not sure how many mountaineers have a robot tickling their backs – (maybe a robot yeti? ) – still good stuff.  Like the “shadow people” Blanke may well have helped explain in an earlier paper, they simply don’t show up very much in our case files.

A GSUK member participates in an a experiment in Tamworth Castle

A GSUK member participates in an a experiment in Tamworth Castle

I won’t comment on the schizophrenia claims – I have no idea if a “sense of presence” is common in that condition – Aleman and Larøi (1999) do not mention it in their excellent Hallucinations when discussing sensory modalities, but there is a body of medical literature that suggests the primary sensory modality of the disorder varies by culture. I will leave it to Claridge and others qualified  to assess the importance of this research in the medical area – I am afraid I must stick to discussing spooks, or I will never get to bed. I am hopeful something will come of the paper, but who knows? I can probably look up the papers I have read on the sensory modality of illness related hallucinations if anyone needs them, though I expect PubMed will turn plenty up. So to return to the experiment, how did they induce an apparition, that is a hallucination in the visual modality? No idea! I am hampered by the paper being in press. What I am fairly sure is it was not as reported here

But when the movements of the robotic arm were delayed by about 500 milliseconds the participants reported seeing up to four ghosts around them and felt that the robotic finger stroking them belonged to an unseen presence.  (The Independent)

Is this the case? Not that I can see! What actually happened was people who were blindfolded – so it would be hard to have a realistic visual hallucination imposed on the background as in genuine “spook” experiences – were simply unnerved by the feeling of presence. I see no evidence of an apparition (lit. appearance, from the Latin) So where did the journalist get four spooks from? I suspect this passage from Nature

In a further experiment, another set of participants was put in front of four people who were chatting, and told that one or more of them may be in the same room when they carried out the test. During the test, the delayed touch led them to feel that there were several people in the room — even though they remained alone.

So why am I bothering to comment on all this? Well firstly I’d like to congratulate the team at Lausanne, and hope they continue to advance our knowledge of proprioception, and Science generally.  However once again lousy media coverage will make the task of those of us who actually engage with the apparitional experience and what it means that little bit harder, as once again we will be told “Science has explained away ghosts”, just as we were after the interesting work of Tandy and Lawrence some decade ago. So please, please, think critically when you read this stuff, and do always read more widely in the literature of the experience before leaping to wild conclusions… cj X

Posted in Paranormal, Reviews and Past Events, Science, Social commentary desecrated | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dealing With Ghosts, Part One: Some friendly advice for journalists, T.V. researchers and writers.

Every few weeks I receive a phone call or email from an interested media person, wanting me to help them out with an article, documentary, occasionally a film and sometimes a series. In the past I have cooperated, and have appeared in everything from Women’s Weekly to GQ, even getting a couple of column inches on the cover of The Times one Christmas Day.

I have appeared in ten or eleven different paranormal TV series, and more unusually have also been a researcher for several, and have written for and developed shows for TV (some paranormal related), working for a good number of production companies. While I no longer work in the media, I have experience in front of and behind the camera, understand the industry, the pressures, and the laughs. I have a host of silly anecdotes about my time in TV: and plenty of great stories about my 27 years as a paranormal researcher.

Unfortunately however, when the paranormal as a subject meets the hapless parapsychologist or ghosthunter all kinds of things can go wrong… ;)

Utterly unconvincing ghost

In this short article aimed at the media people, I’m going to try and offer some pointers, some advice, and hell if despite you printing this off and waving it at your Editor/Producer they still demand the impossible, I do consultancy. Details of that at the end though :) The idea is to give you enough material to make do without me.

Who Ya Gonna Call?

So first up, you need people…  Skeptics. Parapsychologists. Ghosthunters. Mediums. Dowsers. Reincarnation Researchers. EVP People, Tableturners. Cryptozoologists. You need an expert? OK, I can probably point you at the person you need, or someone who knows them.  It’s a pretty small field, with most of the “experts” knowing the other “experts” – at least on the academic side of things. I can probably point you to who you might want to talk to, but the key is to know what you are looking for.  Most of the time people don’t, and they have tried to research by reading websites, but sadly that does not really explain much about the culture of the paranormal in the UK.

 

Essentially you have the academics – boffins if you like – who are experts in some narrow aspect of the field (and know vast amounts about everything else it seems to me). My girlfriend, Becky is one I guess – she defended her thesis last Halloween and has a PhD on ghosts.  No one from the media has ever paid any interest in her research as far as I know, and she is currently working on her book, but actually it was quite fascinating stuff.  If you want someone who REALLY knows their stuff there are the people to turn to – Prof Alan Gauld for example is simple incredibly erudite and knowledgeable about mediumship, poltergeists, apparitions. Steve Parsons is your man for environmental factors that might be related to ghost sightings. Tom Ruffles will certainly be able to provide critical comment on any haunting, and knows far more than I ever will about ghost photos. Cal Cooper is who you call for phone calls from the dead.  So if you want to deal with peer reviewed science, then you should contact the Society for Psychical Research (established 1882) at www.spr.ac.uk and they can point you in the right direction.

SPR logo

If you are north of the border you will also want the Scottish Society for Psychical Research.

Of course it could be that you want a university department that researches parapsychology. The KPU at Edinburgh University can help here – there page contains links to most of the research centres in the UK.

smLogoProf Richard Wiseman is the sceptic most journalists seem to go to first, but don’t forget the APRU where Prof Chris French can provide intelligent comment.  

So yes, those are the academics. And if you are interested in Dr Becky Smith’s work on ghosts, and what she found out, I will happily put you in touch with her. (chrisjensenromer@hotmail.com)

Next up are the non-university experts, whose learning is often equally formidable. I guess most of the ghosthunters can be found here. The premier organisation for paranormal researchers is ASSAP – the Association for Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena. Their website has an incredible amount of resources and the blog is updated regularly, and everything is written in a clear, interesting and non-academic gobbledigook way.

ASSAP Conference

A panel at the 2012 ASSAP Conference underway.

You will find believers and sceptics here, just as in the universities, but there is more interest I think in reaching the general public.  ASSAP will almost certainly know someone who can help you, if your project can be done ethically and usefully (see below). For a really good media communicator from the sceptical side of things who is fiercely intelligent try Hayley Stevens – she will point you to a good sceptic if she can’t help I’m sure.

Scooby Doo

And for sheer history and plenty of experience and expertise you could try The Ghost Club, who may well have what you need.

Now I’m going to concentrate on the ghost side of things now – you can find pagans via the Pagan Fed, I can’t help you there much, and for mystery and out of place animals (panthers, yetis etc) you definitely need the Centre for Fortean Zoology,  UFOLogy? Well the Magonians are fascinating and BUFORA are still going strong. Dr David Sivier has considerable expertise on the academic side and would certainly point you at the right people. I can put genuine journalists in touch with him, as he does not maintain much of a web presence. For psychics and mediums I think Psychic News   and the Spritualists National Union ideal places to start, but for physical mediumship try the Arthur Findlay College and the Noah’s Ark Society.  I could go on for ever – I don’t for example know anything useful about Ganzfeld, Remote Viewing, or various other topics – but you should;d be able to find someone from one of the above who is a bona fide expert.

Finally there are local groups and experts. These can range from the brilliant – for example Parasearch in the West Midlands – to the utterly stark raving bonkers. Many of these groups split, change their names, and become new groups – but often there are a few hardcore folks, who may have considerable knowledge, For a local newspaper, they may well be brilliant, because they have that local knowledge you need, and stories relevant to your readership. Many of the “experts” above may well also be involved with smaller groups like these, and of course there are also authors of books on local ghosts – here in Gloucestershire I think of Lyn Cinderey, Eileen Fry, Bob Meredith, off the top of my head –  who are great for radio or papers or TV. They know their stuff!  You just need to find the right people for the tone of what you want…

CJ and Jo-Dee on a ghost hunt!

CJ and Jo-Dee on a ghost hunt!

If all of this sounds like a lot of work, you can ask me to do it. I do sometimes act as an agent for a number of folks in the field, filtering through media requests and making sure journalists find the right person. You can email me in the first instance with what you are looking for and why – and I might be able to point you to someone. if the request is trivial and just involved me telling you who to speak to which I immediately know it is free – if you require me to poke around and find someone, and set up something, hey then I will expect to be paid. See below. If that has not put you off, you can reach me here. (chrisjensenromer@hotmail.com) or via the following

IN part 2: finding locations, ghost photos, acquiring art and illustrations, and what ideas are simply a waste of time and every commissioning editor has heard them a dozen times before. Plus ethics, and why you probably can’t get anyone to help you do what you want if you want any credibility… ;)

CJ x

Posted in Paranormal, Social commentary desecrated, Unclassifiable! | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment