Five go mad at… my (fictional) dinner party

League of Extraordinary BloggersThis week’s league assignment was a doozy: pick five guests (dead, alive or fictional – which covers most people…) for the ultimate dinner party.

(I’m deliberately leaving out real folk I know – it seems stupid to start picking favourites from friends as some numpty will always get upset because you didn’t pick them.)

So there I am in my velvet suit, checking the spuds with a skewer while enjoying a cheeky glass of red, when I hear a ‘tap tap’ on the door. My first guest! Who could it be…

Loudon Wainwright III

No one else in the history of music has been able to make people laugh and cry on his beck and call in the same set – often in the same song – quite as consistently as the man Loudon. And it’s always nice to have someone at your place with some genuine musical talent on an acoustic.

Add to that he always seems lovely in conversation – and who’s going to have better stories than a man who spent the past 50 years competing with Dylan and Springsteen, touring the world, and siring kids as bonzo as Rufus and Martha? Man, he must have some stories. And he’s a skinny one – not likely to eat you out of house and home…

Janet Street-Porter

This may seem a bit left-field as she can come across as massively obnoxious on television, but I think JSP would be a cracking dinner party guest. She’s had an amazing career as a journalist, editing a national Sunday newspaper, and we can thank her for commissioning Red Dwarf when head of youth and entertainment features at BBC2.

She also loves walking, she loves the English countryside, but more importantly she’s as irreverent as they come and loves a good verbal bun fight. Admittedly she’d be in pretty strong left wing company here (spoiler alert!) but you can guarantee she’d find something to get her teeth into – other than my lovely southern friend chicken (with gravy, of course).

Tony Benn (RIP)

I’ve heard very few politicians open their mouths and start pontificating that I haven’t immediately wanted to punch in the face. Tony Benn is the only person who actually achieved the opposite, making me feel a little disappointed when he’d stop berating whichever poor soul was the subject of his ire that day.

A passionate and fascinating man, I expect he will remain the only politician I’ve been sad to see pass away. I met him to say ‘hello’ to ever so briefly on a march many years ago and he was every bit the gent, taking time to speak to everyone who wanted to have a few words. A great loss to the world – but still a great fictional dinner party guest!

Felicia Day

I’m going to get in trouble for this one… but what can I tell you? Genuinely charming and funny on screen, in one of my favourite TV shows of recent years (Eureka), starred in wonderful YouTube silliness The Guild and is one of the main creative forces behind YouTube channel Geek and Sundry.

Music, journalism and THE WORLD are all well and good but frankly, at some point in the evening, I’m going to have to get my geek on – and I can’t think of anyone (that I don’t know) who’d I’d rather have a laugh and play games with. I wonder if the rest of the them could be converted to board games…

John Peel (RIP)

Sadly another gonner, Peely was the musical father I never had. A genuine DJing legend, he lived music in a way the rest of us can only imagine – and he did it with a complete lack of style, outward professionalism or panache. I lost count of the amount of bands he introduced me to and he taught me that just liking one genre was for wankers.

And if you want stories, where else would you possibly want to look? He DJed for 40 years from Dallas and California to pirate radio to late night Radio 1, introducing more bands to the UK than you’ve had hot dinners. He was miserable if not at a gig or on the air (or at my dinner party, natch) and he saw, met and played everyone.

Alternative League dinner parties…

CONtemplation: Essen Spiel 2014

League of Extraordinary BloggersThis week’s league post assignment was CONtemplation, with the idea being everyone would talk about the San Diego Comic Con. But seeing as I couldn’t give a monkey’s about the ‘SDCC’ I figured a nice positive post about a con I do like would be preferable to one criticising one I don’t.

For me, there is but one con: the International Spieltage at Essen, or simply ‘Essen’ for short. It’s a four-day board and card game trade fair in October – with the twist being that, despite being a trade fair, it is open to the public. This gives it a uniquely chaotic feel, as publishers try to juggle paying consumers, business owners and game designers all in one packed convention space.

Over the four days something like 150,000 gamers head through the turnstiles into what feels like the world’s biggest jumble sale. Household names with huge elaborate stands such as Hasbro share the space with tiny one-man-band publishers, and all in the name of shifting units and striking deals. There is not a room to play games, or a series of lectures to attend – this is purely about demos and dollars.

Thursday morning, Essen 2012, just before the floodgates opened

Thursday morning, Essen 2012, just before the floodgates opened

But this is the biggest annual event in the world for new releases (500 games are launched every year), so people come from all over the globe – and come for the four days, taking over every hotel in the city.

Convention hours are for testing and buying – the evenings are for heading back to your hotel, reading your rules, then heading into the packed bar to game with friends and strangers alike.

While it may sound odd versus a normal con, I love this clear delineation between shopping and socialising; when you think about it, it’s actually far more natural. And it really is a standard shopping experience; there are new releases, second hand stalls, bargain knock down stock, plus everything in between – as long as it’s a game. You’ll find a few comics, accessories etc, but it must be less than 10% of the con space.

And the shopping aspect adds another unexpected benefit: an almost total lack of hard sell. The people coming to Essen WANT to give the stalls their money. They’ve been saving up, godamnit, and they are going to spend their entire gaming budget on stuff RIGHT NOW. When you see a booth worker without a customer you can guarantee they’ll be taking a breath, having a drink; they know someone will be along to hassle them soon.

Shafausa designer Christophe Borgeat demos his game.

A typical demo table at Essen

Last year I went as a designer too – at the lowest of low levels. In fact I only attended one publisher meeting, which was scary enough.

Hopefully this year I’ll be going as a designer with a game that’s actually on sale, adding another dimension to my Essen experience. And if I can get some of my games other prototypes to the next level in time, maybe I can take another small step up the designer ladder too.

But whatever happens, I’ll be there first and foremost as a gamer. I will queue pointlessly on the first morning and be swept along by the excited masses, wide eyes and mouth open, as we squirm into the halls. Then once the wave of enthusiasm has broken I’ll just drift around the stands, a stupid smile plastered over my face, keeping a keen eye out for bargains and spaces at interesting looking demo tables.

I don’t think that’s the average Essen goer’s experience, but as someone who has spent much of their former life in crowds I actually find it quite soothing. I spent years living in London, working in retail, working/attending conferences and generally fighting a crowd. It’s novel and strangely peaceful to now bob around in one. I can do it all day, every day, for the whole four days, watching the little changes – a game sold out here, a price drop there.

It’s still three months away, but I’m already starting to plot my bargain and new release lists. My hotel is booked and as today is payday, this weekend I’ll book my trains (Germany is a pleasant train journey from England now, thanks to Eurostar). And no, cheeky, I can’t tell you how many sleeps it is to go. Ask me again in a few weeks…

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The Manhattan Project: A four-sided game review

manhattan project boxThe Manhattan Project takes players back to the 1940s, as the world’s superpowers struggled to perfect the ultimate edge over their enemies; the atomic bomb.

While in many ways a standard worker placement game (2-5 players, two hours), Brandon Tibbetts’ game adds enough interesting twists to peak the interest of anyone with an interest in this style of game. Since its relatively low key 2012 Kickstarter release it has steadily garnered an enviable reputation.

Players place workers into buildings on both their own and a central action selection board. These allow you to mine ‘yellow cake’, enrich plutonium/uranium and design bombs – as well as upgrading workers to engineers or scientists to better fulfil these tasks.

You can buy your own buildings to do these same actions more efficiently; but there’s the options for building squadrons and air-striking your enemies (and to repair buildings). Or perhaps you’d prefer espionage, infiltrating other players’ buildings to use as your own?

Once your bombs are designed and your fuel ready, it’s time for testing; but can you do it quicker than your opponents? The key is efficiency, as whoever tests the right victory point total’s worth of bombs first immediately claims gold in the nuclear arms race.

Teaching

manhattan project rulesThe first thing to mention is the rulebook; it’s one of the best I’ve read. Anything carrying the ‘Kickstarter’ tag makes me nervous, but The Manhattan Project’s is master of both style and substance, nailing the theme (with newspaper style layout) and the rules with real clarity.

Anyone that has played a worker placement game will have little trouble picking things up, while it isn’t a bad game to teach players stepping up from gateway games. There is very little hidden information and turns build in complexity as the game goes on, so it’s pretty easy to give advice as you go too.

The biggest twist is how workers are managed. Each turn a player decides whether to place workers or bring them all back home. This can get pretty strategic, as you may want to leave a worker in a blocking position – but for how long? When you bring workers back, they all come back. Tied in with the espionage mentioned earlier, played well this can be devastating. It is also easy to learn and understand, as turns are pretty quick.

The key point to ram home as you teach is this: Manhattan Project doesn’t end after a set number of rounds, with everyone tallying victory points. It ends when one player reaches the target number of points (determined by player number), which can come as a bit of a surprise as the bombs are the only bit of hidden information in the game.

manhattan project bomb cardsThere’s an amount of bomb cards on display equal to the number of players plus one. When you choose ‘design bomb’ you pick them all up, keep one, then pass them on.

Each player takes one, with the person who chose the action getting the spare bomb as a bonus. This means everyone knows what bombs are out there (values/complexity vary), but is guessing who has what – and you don’t have to complete them all.

You can make a pretty good guess, but you never know quite how close each player is from laying those bombs and hitting the point target – and you can guarantee at least one player would’ve finished in their next turn. This creates a delicious tension around the table which has just the right feeling to fit the theme.

The four sides

manhattan project main boardThese are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: It’s hard to think of a game that better marries theme with mechanisms while still being 100 per cent ‘middle weight euro’. There’s very little luck and hidden information, but what is there becomes the real focus of the game without taking over – a really clever piece of slight-of-hand by the designer.
  • The thinker: While I admire both the mechanisms and the engine, I find not knowing when the game will end a little frustrating – but that is not a knock on the game. You need to alter your strategy to make sure you have the leanest production line to make exactly what you need, not particularly most productive, as all you need to do is get over the line. This twist makes the game endlessly fascinating.
  • The trasher: I have a love-hate relationship with The Manhattan Project. On one side I love the tension and the ability to screw your neighbour; but getting into a private battle tends to hand the game to another player who will sit back, not help, and profit from the fallout – there is rarely reward for aggression, except perhaps with two players. My advice is keep your eye on the quiet one – because they’re probably the person who’s winning!
  • The dabbler: First of all – how can those weird little workers with no faces have so much personality?! Seriously though, this game has a great story arc; nothing beats it for tension when you’re near the end of the game, trying to work out who is closest to the finish line. For one the climax, for the rest the anti-climax – but we all have a story to tell afterwards. Isn’t that the real point behind a gaming session?

Key observations

manhattan project workersThere are some accusations of underdevelopment – usually shrouded in a dig at it being a Kickstarter game. I can see this point of view a little bit, especially as the comments often come from ‘one and done’ players who have been put off after one poor experience – a very real problem in such a busy board game market.

It centres around one main point: there is no reward for aggression. This means that if the random cards favour one player who gets ahead, there is little reward for a player going after them – it simply opens the way for whoever is second to come through. Of course there’s nothing to stop players making deals – you send your fighters, I’ll send my bombers, you hit him with espionage etc. But it is a shame the game doesn’t deal with this better – and even more so that it doesn’t look as if the game’s expansion, The Second Stage, tried to tackle the problem either.

While garnering at least two-thirds positive reviews, the same old lazy comments also resurface: accusations of it being a generic worker placement euro that adds nothing new – largely from players who obviously don’t like worker placement games or who missed the fact it clearly has several interest new mechanisms. Why do they bother? Thankfully they’re in the minority.

Conclusion

manhattan project player boardThe Manhattan Project sits high in my top 20, with Tzolk’in the only worker placement game ahead of it, and is one of the few games I rate a 9.

My plays are into double figures and while I don’t feel I’ve explored many of its strategies, it still feels like a fresh experience each time. And even if it does start to get old, there’s a well regarded expansion available too.

The components, rulebook and art style really do stand out. I’m not one to turn my back on a game for its looks, but I appreciate quality: this is one of the most stylish games I own. From the cool workers to the ashtray and coffee stain on the board, it’s just gorgeous.

manhattan projectWhile the ‘take that’ nature of some of the actions may put some off, it’s surprising how many games are devoid of anyone using them at all; in a tight game they can seem like a waste, but someone looking like a runaway leader may well get a sound shoeing – but it’ll be their fault for showing their hand too early.

The Manhattan Project is a game I’d highly recommend to everyone who likes worker placement games, as well as to practically everyone else – it’s well worth the £30 price tag. Just keep your bomb plans close to your chest, and keep an eye out for those crafty espionage moves…

Check out these alternative takes on ‘The Apocalypse’ theme from esteemed members of the League of Extraordinary Bloggers:

It’s just not summer until…

League of Extraordinary BloggersFor me it’s just not summer until certain songs and artists suddenly start to become ear worms again, as if drawn through the ether back into my tiny mind by the sun.

They disappear as the leaves begin falling and if you asked me to write a top 10 bands I probably wouldn’t think of them. Then six months later, as the days get longer and sweatier, back they come from the sunnier recesses of my mind.

A great example is G. Love & Special Sauce. There’s something wonderfully summery about their sound, which is only exacerbated by his drawly vocals. It’s good vibes, chilled, sunny day music perfect for that festival feeling. The sound of people jamming late at night, but the sun still hasn’t quite gone down.

The music is funky and tuneful, a Philadephia sound laced with double bass and harmonica, but there’s more than a hint of funky hip hop in the mix too; it’s dancey, but not jump about like loons dancey – more wobbling about with a grin and a tap of your feet.

Another great example is De La Soul – a classic summertime band. They’ve got all the funk you need from a hip hop great, but without the ridiculous attitude problem. And its not the daisy age trappings that make them summery; its more of that classic laid back attitude mixed with a mellow party vibe.

The first time I heard ‘Three Feet High and Rising’ was amazing; I was working in a record shop in London and it was the year after Public Enemy’s ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions’ had landed. It simply shook up rap, but in the totally opposite direction. Suddenly there was cool rap that a) wasn’t ‘gansta’; and b) wasn’t shit.

But it’s not all about throwing your hands in the ay-a; all kinds of music makes me know it’s the summer again. Another classic for me is a taste of traditional, mainly because I spent the last twenty or so years involved with a folk festival. When I see the sun high in the sky of an evening, it’s easy for my mind to wander to drunken tented fields.

Of the many great folk closing bands, few beat Oysterband in my booze addled memories – and few songs have better closed a festival than ‘When I’m Up I Can’t Get Down’. Memories of jigging round fields to this always bring a smile to my face; even if the hangovers don’t. There’s an abandon in traditional artists you simply don’t get in other forms of music.

So yeah, for me it’s the music. Enjoy the weather – and the tunes :o)

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