Friday, 17 November 2017

Terminal World, by Alastair Reynolds

Here is a book that defies classification. Science fiction melded with the fantastic, steam power and dirigibles, the visceral post apocalyptic skull boys who bear a mad-cap resemblance to the villains that hound Mad Max. All of it wound tightly around a sprawling and interesting setting, an Earth, tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of years into the future. A world built on a sense of the scientific, but sufficiently removed from us to appear, at times, magical.

The cast of characters, from the dogged former angel (yes, you read that correctly, but not 'angel' in the conventional sense) Doctor Quillon, to his rough guide, protector and sometimes hater Meroka. The genius and authorial voice of Ricasso, the determined sky-captain Curtana, are all memorable, well constructed and larger than life.

The story itself follows a twisting plot, not a simple adversary for the protagonist to defeat, but an exploration of what is fundamentally wrong with the setting itself, and the winding journey through the world that uncovers it. The setting of Terminal World is strange and wonderful, a planet overlaid with zones in each of which different technologies are possible. High zones around the mysterious city/spire Spearpoint, allow high tech, and lower zones, extending out into the world, cause this high tech to break down and stop working. We have laser fights in one section, and horse back sabre rattling in another, steam belching contraptions, and the Swarm: of sky-galleon-esque dirigibles. The explanation for all of this is fundamental to the development of the plot, so I won't go in to too many details other than to state it is engrossing. The world itself is the antagonist, the problem, and the characters' journeys explore and reveal it in stepped clues that reveal its true nature.

For all the seeming absurdity, the tour de force of imagination writ large in a setting both magical and scientific, it is a world that I found interesting and engaging. A story that I found strange and wonderful in equal measure. With characters I liked, and found interesting. This, as I stated earlier, is a book that defies classification. Some might place it firmly in the steam-punk genre, for the dirigibles that battle in the skies and the clanking machines that so richly define portions of the setting. But there is science fiction here too, and no small amount of fantasy. This book will not be to everyone's taste, but it is different and engaging, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Apps and Board Games

I've played two board games recently that require the use of Apps to play. X-Com and First Martians, both of which use apps to facilitate the gameplay.

In X-Com the app tells you how much money you'll have on a turn, where aliens pop up on the board, when to complete various actions and vitally, it times you, meaning you must take certain actions in the game under the pressure of a countdown. The timed aspect particularly makes the game an exciting and tense game experience, no time to overthink things or plan too carefully, but you must attempt to be optimal in the time provided.


In First Martians the app runs you through the game, including providing unique events, facilitating scenario and campaign play and makes for a highly varied game experience.

I'll be honest, when First Martians was announced I was very excited. The Martian is a favourite book of mine, I like science, space, and generally it ticked all the boxes. I didn't read much about the game aside from the theme, and preordered it as soon as I could. When it arrived I found out that it needed an app to run, and some of the shine was removed from the game for me.

First Martians

This reaction of mine, the sense that the requirement for an app in a board game holds a negative connotation, is, quite probably, entirely in my head. I'm sure that many people out there similarly feel it detracts from a game, and more, no doubt, feel that it does nothing but add to the experience. I'm sure as time wears on my opinion on the matter will change and evolve - after all, the inclusion of apps is nothing but an evolution of the mediums, using technology to add to the play space and experience of a game.

Nonetheless I have reservations. I have board games on my shelf that are over twenty years old, and I can grab them off the shelves flick through the rules and play them. Does requiring an app place a death sentence against a game? Does it limit the game to the length of time a company will support the app? To the length of time the company exists? To the length of time the app is able to run on newer and newer technology?

Does any of this even matter? In an era of legacy games, which more often than not are physically altered with each play, does a set or uncertain lifespan matter? With legacy games the value is derived from the unique experience it provides, are games with apps any different? In a time where hundreds of new games are published every year, and more often than not new games hit the tables only a handful of times before they are supplanted by even newer ones, is the lifespan of a game relevant?

I'm sure there are a thousand ways the mixing of the digital and physical mediums can create a new and unique experience for players. As long as people feel like they are getting value for money - whatever metric one uses for such a calculation, then so be it. I don't have a personal gripe with companies experimenting with apps, integrating technology into board games in new and different ways - after all experimentation is how things grow, develop and become more interesting.

But... when I get a game that must use an app I can't help but wonder how long it will be playable for, and that is the thought that makes me shrug my shoulders and question if the game is really one I want on my shelf. Maybe I'm dated in my view, maybe I'm being overly skeptical, cynical or worrisome, and I'm sure my attitude will change over time and through exposure. If I play something a bunch of times and never again then it has served it purpose - certainly more so than the many games I've bought over the years and played once before reshelving them ne'er to be seen again.

We arrive again at whatever metric one uses to derive value for money. I may buy a game that in five years time will be unsupported and unplayable because the app no longer functions, but then, if I've played it 5, 10, 20 times in that period then it has been of more value than the game I bought and only ever played once. In the end I'm not really sure of my opinion; I don't like the idea that having a game linked inextricably to an app means, in all likelyhood, that the day the app is no longer updated/supported is the day the game becomes useless cardboard. But then I can see the benefits of using apps too: the potentials for expanding and changing and varying a game experience. The last five years or so has seen an increase in the number of games with linked apps, and I'm sure we'll see this trend continue. I'm not really sure how I feel about it, is it something that bothers you?