Books wot I red: The Book of Dust volume 1, Wild Chamber & The Knife of Never Letting Go

This is something of a record for me, managing to get through three books in less than four months. It certainly helped that two of them were real page-turners. While the third I probably only read about two-thirds of, as I was skipping big chunks of boredom as I went.

All three were off the list, but another first was that four books actually came off of it this time. That’s because I tried and failed to stick with The Shape of Things to Come by HG Wells. I was fascinated to find out what one of the true masters of sci-fi predicted for the world – right up to 2015 – back in 1929. But I’ll never find out because I just couldn’t manage the incredibly slow pacing of the book. Wot a Philistine. Anyway, onto the fluff I could manage…

The Book of Dust, Volume 1: The Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

I absolutely loved Pullman’s first trilogy, his Dark Materials. And I’ve really enjoyed reliving it recently via the excellent television series. So I was excited to see him return to the universe for this prequel series. This time we’re concentrating on the happenings around the time of Lyra’s birth. with unlikely heroes rising to the challenge of protecting the infant Lyra from evil forces.

I guess I was set up to be disappointed. Lyra was such a fantastically well-rounded character. Naively ‘good’ with an infectious tomboy streak. While the whole idea of dust and demons was fascinating. And while the whole’ good and evil’ Christianity thing was a little on the nose, you had to remember this was a children’s book series. It knocked the Potter-verse into a cocked hat in terms of depth, essentially being the new Tolkien vs the new Blyton. Both have their place.

So, to the Book of Dust. I hated it. The main characters were uninspired and cliched. But somehow also inconsistent. In the hands of such disappointing ‘heroes’ the old demon/dust angle soon became pedestrian. While the story itself was a sub-Lord of the Rings wander (albeit in a boat) with added nappy changing. Lots of nappy changing. By halfway I was skipping every second page and I almost gave up. And now, having decided there’s no way in hell I’ll read any more of this tripe, I wish I had. I’m not sure what amazes me more – that such a clearly excellent writer can be this poorly advised/edited. Or that the reviews were so generous. This is surely one of the biggest drops in form in literary history.

Wild Chamber by Christopher Fowler

After such a miserable waste of my limited reading time, I felt I had to turn to another old favourite – but one that never disappoints. Author Christopher Fowler has terminal cancer. And when his time comes, I’ll be as upset as I’ve ever been about the loss of someone I’ve never known. He’ll be up there with John Peel and David Bowie. Because he’s a brilliant author and a brilliant person. Don’t believe me? Go check out his website. He speaks my language.

The Peculiar Crimes Unit investigations, or Bryant and May detective novels, have been popping along every year or so since 2003. They star two elderly detectives who bicker like the best of them and whose relationship is hugely compelling. As are the other personalities in their dysfunctional police unit. But the real star of the series is London. Fowler has an insatiable lust for knowledge about the city’s largely unknown and often dark historical underbelly. And its this combination, along with some brilliant storytelling, that makes the books shine.

Wild Chamber is no different. It calls back cleverly to a previous story and contains all the usual oddball characters. The plot twists and turns, never giving you the chance to put the pieces together. But the relationships are so charming to read you just enjoy the ride. My only minor complaint is the continued repeat plot of the dark forces trying to close the unit. After this many books, it’s tired. Yes, the threat puts a time limit on proceedings that helps add a little tension. But it seems to happen in every book. For a man with such a vivid imagination, it seems odd to keep flogging this particular horse. That said, the moving on of a few minor character subplots made up for it in the end. Brilliant, as always.

Chaos Walking 1: The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

I’d heard loads of good things about this series and found Book One in a charity shop cheap as chips, so gave it a go. The writing style immediately drew me in, having an uneducated Western-style (as in cowboys) feel but in a sci-fi setting. As a sucker for Firefly, I was hooked – and for the most part, I wasn’t disappointed.

Without giving too much away, our heroes are human settlers on a distant planet that has a strange effect on its male occupants. Basically, everyone can hear each other’s thoughts. It’s a fascinating premise, which the book handles incredibly intelligently – while sticking to the first-person, uneducated narrative. Things soon heat up, leading to a rip-roaring yarn that promises much and – in many ways – goes on to deliver.

I wholeheartedly recommend it and look forward to reading the following books in the series. But I do have some reservations. I think the book could’ve comfortably been 100 pages shorter. There’s a lot of repeating of pretty basic points and overemphasis on the obvious. Sure, it’s aimed at a younger audience – but this still seemed OTT when you think of some of the intelligent writing now considered standard for young adults. Also, there was a bit too much of the Lord of the Rings traveling syndrome. Get there already! Especially when a lot of the drudgery just seemed thrust in to bring home overly repeated points.

What’s next on the list?

Numbers one, two, and four are read off the list since last time, while number three fell off the list – the first time that has happened. This all means there are four – yes, FOUR (count ’em) new entries. The world’s gone MAD I tell you.

  1. A Gamut of Games by Sid Sackson. Third time on the list. I need to get around to reading some more non-fiction. This time from a genuine board game design legend. How better to get my design mojo back?
  2. Shadow Prey by John Sandford. New entry! Sequal to Rules of Prey, which I read back in 2020. Hopefully more game designer/detective gritty murder goodness.
  3. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle. New entry! Famous, innit?
  4. Hero of the Underworld by Jimmy Boyle. New entry! I have no idea why this is on my shelf. Answers on a postcard. But I may as well read it!
  5. Crikey, I don’t know. Any suggestions?

Paris Eiffel Expansion review

Paris: La Cité de la Lumière is a gorgeous two-player-only tile-laying game, released in 2019 (and reviewed by me in 2022 – linked above), that plays in 20-30 minutes.

It’s a game of two distinct halves, with the players essentially building the board with tiles in the first half – while also taking polyominoes they will try to use in the second half of the game. In part two, you try to place them while also claiming special actions that can enhance your position, or mess with your opponent’s plans.

I’m a big fan of the original, as it packs a lot of meaningful decisions into a short play time and a small box, while also looking great on the table. It’s simple to teach, but the fact you build the board – and use just eight of the twelve special actions each game, keeps each play feeling different. And while the rules are simple, playing well is anything but.

What does the Paris Eiffel Expansion bring to the party?

While the expansion comes in a box that’s the same size as the original, it contains very much less. It comes with eight new special action postcards, five cardboard pieces and two wooden ones to go with them, plus a nicely illustrated scorepad (something lacking in the original).

In terms of gameplay, things remain exactly the same. All you do is mix in – in any way you choose – the eight new special actions. So you can choose to use just the new set, choose the exact ones you want for each game, or randomise by shuffling the postcards and randomly picking eight. And that’s all she wrote.

How much does it change the game?

There are no new systems or changes to the rules with the introduction of Paris: Eiffel. Seven of the new action postcards have a piece you place onto the board, while one (Quartiers Pauvres) is purely a scoring card giving bonus points (1,2,4,8) for each edge of the board your buildings are touching.

The two wooden pieces (Notre Dame and The Catacombs) let you score off one of the other player’s buildings, while the Louxor, Louvre, Hotel des Invalides score points in various ways for the person who played them. Tour Eiffel scores (by colour) for the four spaces below, which can’t have buildings on them – while streetlights below it count double. Finally, the Arc de Triomphe acts as a bridge between your buildings, increasing the size of your largest area accordingly.

Essentially though, nothing changes. None of the new cards change any fundamentals, or make you play differently. As before, each action postcard either messes with your opponent or mitigates when they mess with you – or when you just plain mess up. However, you do suddenly have a genuinely different setup each time you play. And who doesn’t want more options? All of the new actions play well. Although the size of the Eiffel and Triomphe pieces will annoy some, as it can be hard to see the rest of the board once they’re in play.

Is the Paris Eiffel Expansion value for money?

According to Board Game Prices (at time of writing), you can get the Paris Eiffel expansion for around £15 including delivery. Purely on what you get in the box, this doesn’t feel good value at all. In terms of cardboard, perhaps it is. The pieces are lovely and chunky and fit perfectly with the original game. So physically, perhaps it is enough to justify the price tag. But mechanically? I don’t think so.

Is the Paris Eiffel Expansion essential?

Certainly not. If you’re an occasional player of Paris: La Cité de la Lumière and haven’t felt the need to add anything, there’s no reason to seek this one out. However, regular players who love the original will certainly find plenty to make them smile here. As mentioned, it doesn’t really feel value for money. But it’s so lovely to look at, if you can justify it, then it’s a great addition to the base game. If something isn’t going to be value for money, having it at such a low price point certainly helps! I’ll certainly be keeping it and am happy to have it. It makes a really good game better.

… and does it fit in the original Paris: La Cité de la Lumière box?

Just! Kind of. I think that if you methodically manoeuvred (I so wanted to make a ‘Louvre’d pun there…) every piece with surgical precision, the box lid might lay flat. But instead you’ll probably end up with a lid that won’t quite close. C’est la vie.

* Thank you to Kosmos UK for providing a copy for review.

Origins First Builders: A four-sided review

The Origins First Builders board game is a worker placement tableau building euro game for one-to-four players. It is a complex game with lots of moving parts, but the 14+ age limit suggested is a bit steep. I’d say 12+ is fine, as there is no hidden information so you can walk players through issues as you play. It takes 2-3 hours with more than two.

The theme is a slightly odd Stargate-ish sci-fi idea, with each player building their own city via tile buying and placement. The artwork is nice without ever getting in the way, but the size of font used for the text on the tiles is laughable. You don’t use the abilities often but still, it’s barely legible.

In the box you’ll find the main game board, four small player boards, 83 building tiles, 49 dice, 61 small cards, 33 plastic pieces, 80 wooden discs, and more than 100 cardboard chits. The component quality is about average and (for me) the game looks great on the table. The resource tokens are awful, but more on that later. Looking at comparison site Board Game Prices, you can find it for around £40, which is great value for a big box euro that’s crammed full of stuff.

Teaching Origins First Builders

This is an action selection game that uses dice as workers. There are five (non-contested) worker spaces, each matching the colour of a worker dice. Each space has two basic actions to choose from, plus a colour-matched one. Send a non-matching dice and you choose one of the basic actions; send one of the correct colour and you additionally get to do the colour-matched action. At the end of each round, when you take your worker dice back, they go up one number. When they reach six, they get a super turn where you do both actions – plus the coloured action, if you colour match the dice.

At the end of a round when dice were used as a six, they’re retired. They go to a special area of your board and enhance your one non-dice worker. This chap can go anywhere, anytime, and counts as every colour you’ve retired. So he starts colourless, but through the game can become very powerful – especially as he has no number restriction. You see, each of the five worker spaces has a dial numbered 1-6. Each time a worker goes there, it goes up one (or back to one, if on six). If you place a dice there with a number lower than the dial, you need to pay resources to make up the difference.

so what do these workers do?

Origins First Builders has three basic resources, plus a wild one. Every action space has an option that gives resources, and another that lets you spend them (the coloured bonus actions do all sorts). The colour positions are set at the start of each game, adding a nice level of variety. Some of them synergise nicely in certain spots, which will point more experienced players in a particular direction. But there is plenty else to consider.

Other actions allow you to open up new worker bases (that you put your dice in), take new dice, move on military/god tracks (for various bonuses and points), and buy building tiles. Building tiles (which are also in the dice colours) give you a one-off bonus when you take them. Your main aim with them is to match the patterns on (randomly selected pre-game) bonus cards. Once you have a square of four buildings, you can choose to place one of your dice into the middle to ‘close a district’. This gives you those bonus points, while also re-triggering any buildings in the district that match the dice colour.

As is the way in this post-Feld euro world, almost everything everywhere scores points. When one of several game end triggers occurs, the person who has done a bunch of stuff the most efficiently wins.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: I do love a good worker placement game, and Origins First Builders is most certainly one of those. There’s just the right amount of random in the setup to make each game feel like a different puzzle, while every action selection feels both tricky and meaningful. And it feels very competitive, despite being largely passive.
  • The thinker: While I enjoy the game, it feels a little as if it is decided in setup. The way things come out will favour a particular strategy, and if one person spots that early and the rest don’t – forget about it. Also, two players trying to do the same thing can be particularly painful. Going for the same tile colours means they’ll likely be more expensive. While the amount of tower discs in each colour (they multiply the score of your district dice) can do for you if you compete for them. But this is a common euro issue and didn’t stop my enjoyment.
  • The trasher: When I saw the military track, I had hope! But no – it’s just another euro game, with the track being a way to score points and grab resources – but not from your opponents. The one bright spot was the multiple ways a game can end, which keeps you on your toes. Things can end really fast, so you need to be on the ball. But generally, meh. It’s OK.
  • The dabbler: I thought Origins First Builders looked pretty and colourful during setup, but more and more components kept appearing from the box! It looks overwhelming at first, but it actually plays smoothly. However, a good and/or experienced player is absolutely going to rip the rest apart. This is very much a game of skill, where the players picking and sticking to the ‘right’ paths are going to wipe the floor with us dabblers!

Key observations

Looking through naysayer comments, the same theme keeps coming up: balance. This seems to be from players who think playing a complex game once, and losing, is enough to call it unbalanced and give it a one or two out of 10. The funny thing is, read enough of the comments, and you’ll find that every single part of the game us unfairly broken and using it is an unbeatable strategy. As mentioned above, every game plays differently and you have to look for what synergises best once the game is set up. This is not going to be to everyone’s tastes, but it isn’t ‘broken’ – it’s a feature, not a bug.

The flipside to this is that if two players see that killer strategy, and compete over it, someone else can benefit greatly and trump them both. Stubbornness isn’t going to help, and while it’s relatively easy to pivot – you’re of course leaving the other person with the golden ticket.

The theme is pretty stupid and barely implemented – but I didn’t care at all. And while the text on the buildings is unreadable without picking one up and staring at it, it isn’t actually a big deal. These bonuses are small and you’re unlikely to be taking tiles for them – you’ll be taking them for the colour. As there is only one tile of each colour in the market at any time, you’ll be taking it when you can afford to. I feel players who complain about this are rather missing the point of the tiles.

Generally I liked the components, which made the terrible resource tokens even harder to fathom. There are two few, they’re small, but worse they look pretty similar. Each fiddly token has a small whitey/yellowy symbol on a grey background, making them incredibly easy to muddle up. And in a game where resource management tends to be a big part of winning, this is an issue. It sounds small, but is incredibly frustrating. If I find myself playing a lot, I expect I’ll upgrade them – but I hate that it feels I need to, rather than want to.

Conclusion: Origins First Builders

Origins First Builders is a good euro game. There will be too much going on for some, while the random setup – that can create some killer combos while leaving other strategies pretty useless – is certainly not going to be for everyone. But personally, it won me over. There’s enough passive interaction to keep you looking around the table, lots of snappy actions making short meaningful turns, while both strategy and tactics are important as the board situation is constantly subtly changing. A keeper for me.

It’s all gone quiet over there…

This is the longest I’ve gone without posting since I started this blog umptimillion years ago, so I thought I’d better pop in, say hello, say sorry, and explain my tardiness.

Basically, life.

Since being made redundant in February I’ve managed to fins some freelance writing work. The pay is awful, and made worse my the weakness of the pound (I’m being paid in USD), but I’m really enjoying it. The writing is a lot of fun, but is taking up a massive amount of my time – and unsurprisingly, when not writing, I don’t want to be writing. A stark contrast to when I was editing, and missed writing.

I’m writing guides for computer games – and if it paid a living wage I’d be all over it. But for now its at least helping eek out my redundancy money. If you have any interest in MMO Lost Ark or mobile game Dislyte you should go check the site out.

Gaming drought

On the flip side, my chances to play board games have been seriously limited. My last local group largely imploded, as these things do sometimes, and ‘Sarah weekends’ have tended to be busy with other things. My plays count is way down and I can’t see it improving much in the short term.

That said, there are reviews on the way for Origins: First Builders (a euro I’ve enjoyed my first few plays of), the recent Paris: La Cité de la Lumière expansion (again, enjoyed my first play), and Iki (a great rondel-based euro). I’m hoping to review at least two of them, but hopefully all three, during July.

Many of the plays I have had were at UK Games Expo. I worked a couple of shifts on the Surprised Stare stand, which I enjoyed more than I thought I would. I didn’t have much time to anything other than demo games for them, but on my one free afternoon I did manage to put names to faces in this post-COVID world at Hachette, Kosmos and Coiledspring Games – three supporters of the blog I very much appreciate.

And finally, you may also see my name attached to the occasional article in Tabletop Gaming Magazine. Again, if I could do that full time I’d love to. But this time it is a lack of opportunities, rather than poor pay. If only there was more of a market for paid board game journos!

So again, sorry for the lack of posts – but I’m not going anywhere. Stay tuned!

UK Games Expo 2022 – June 3-5

Struggling to find time for a post this week, as a nice weekend away in Stamford is being quickly followed by pre UK Games Expo 2022 panic. I’d forgotten it was next weekend, so am now desperately trying to do enough freelance writing to buy food while doing everything else on my to-do list. Oops…

So yeah, I’ve got some work. I’m not sure if it’s going to end up paying enough to pay the bills. But I’m giving it a go for a few months to see how it pans out. I’m writing computer game guides for The Gamer. There’s a commission-style payment system (based on visits) on top of a low per-article payment. So it’s going to take a few months to see if it’ll pay he bills. But fingers crossed, because I’m really enjoying writing again.

I’m also writing a bit for Tabletop Magazine. Only an article here and there, but again it’s lovely getting paid to write again. Hopefully I’ll be along to Tabletop Gaming Live in September. It has sensibly moved to Manchester after a rather lukewarm start in London before covid. Bringing us neatly back to cons.

Working at UK Games Expo 2022

I’ll be demoing for Surprised Stare at UK Games Expo at the weekend. I’m on the stand Friday and Saturday mornings, so why not drop by, say ‘hi’, and play one of their excellent small box mini war games (including March of Progress and Ming Voyages)? Or, if you like solo stuff, the excellent sci-fi card game Lux Aeterna? They’ll also have the evergreen Snowdonia, alongside a sneak peak of the upcoming remake of Kingmaker. I’m only there until Saturday lunchtime though.

If I didn’t have all that going on, I’d be working on my next few reviews: Origins (dice-for-workers euro game), Pacific Rails Inc (trains!) and 303 Squadron (WWII air skirmish). They’re are the only games left on my review shelf now – and I’m determined not to add any more until they’re done. But, Expo…

Hopefully see some of you there!