Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Subterfuge reminds me of happy days playing Risk

Subterfuge is a multi-player game marketed as an exercise in strategy and diplomacy that is available as an app on, I believe, both the iOS and Android. The game feels a bit like a mash up between Mission Red Planet and Diplomacy, set on an ocean floor populated by a steampunk civilization reminiscent of that in BioShock.

Players control bases on the sea floor, and mine for the mineral Neptunium. Victory, it seems, goes to the player who is first to achieve a pre-set Neptunium score. Submarines carry drillers, the grunts of this universe, between factories and bases. They do all the digging and the fighting.

Who's Queen?

Specialists bring crunch to the game.
A queen rules over each faction and she is responsible for recruiting and promoting specialists. These are experts similar to those in Mission Red Planet. Their skills bring extra crunch to the game; they include smugglers, pirates, thieves and admirals. Some of them have scope for promotion, although I'm still getting my head around this. Like in Chess, if you lose your queen, you're out of the game.

Subterfuge is played in real-time. That means that production and the movement of submarines between bases takes place over a period of hours or days. It is designed to be played on mobile devices. Players can therefore dip into it as and when it suits them over a period of 24 hours or so. The game will, however, disqualify players if they are inactive for more than 48 hours.

There is an element of limited intelligence here: each base has a maximum sonar range. You can monitor activity at other players' bases if they are within sonar range, and receive alerts on your phone when new submarines crop up inside your sonar network. I quite like this - the use of a software platform means that you cannot possess godlike intelligence on your foes.

Subterfuge is designed to fit the long strategy game into the schedule of a busy modern lifestyle, and it does this very well. When there is no longer time to get people around a table for a day to play Supremacy or Twilight Imperium, Subterfuge is able to offer a strategy game along similar lines for a much smaller commitment in terms of time. A fast forward dial allows you to order units that will only become available in the future, when you are asleep for example!

I'm still playing in my first game. I had to solve a number of mission problems using the game before I could sign up, but these are really designed to help you to learn the basics before you get involved. In my new game there have been several other major revelations that have jeopardised my ability to win, but I'm treating this largely as a learning exercise.

An example of part of a game in action.

The developers stress using diplomacy as vital to winning, but I've seen very little of this so far. Strangely, many of the players in this first game seem keen to avoid ending the game by mining too much Neptunium too quickly, and my decision to establish a mine early in the game was treated with some shock. I've since lost the mine to another player who has promised not to upgrade production! I've consulted another player and he thinks they are trying to prolong the game.

While there is little danger of me winning, I'm not about to drop out either, as this is a valuable opportunity to test out many of the specialists and other functionality in the game. I've always been of the view that there is fun and entertainment to be derived from hanging onto a losing position just to make the lives of others more challenging, rather than simply walking away from the table. We'll see how I progress with this.

I should also mention that the aesthetics are lovely, from the undersea landscape to the portraits of specialists to the sound effects. Try typing out a message in-game to another player and it sounds like a typewriter!

Subterfuge is free to play once you have achieved Level 1 status. You can then join online games. For a fee of $10 you can upgrade, which will give you other functionality - I'm not precisely sure what yet - but also more importantly it seems you can also then set up and participate in private games with friends, rather than just in public sessions, which somehow seems even more fun.

Friday, 13 October 2017

My first stab at playing in an NFL fantasy league

Ed Dickson, currently the starting TE at Carolina
This year I have been roped into managing a fantasy NFL team in a 12 player league being administered by a friend of my brother. Although we live in England, we have been fans of the old gridiron since Channel 4 first started broadcasting a regular Sunday evening show back in about 1985. American football had fascinated me from an earlier age, however, as living in the Middle East we were able to watch college football on Saudi Aramco's TV channel.

Fast forward to 2017, and I'm stumbling into the first quarter of the season. We are an eclectic mix of managers, including Brits, Australians and Americans. I think there is a Kiwi in there too.

The opening draft was special, taking place at noon on a Saturday, in order to accommodate bedtime in Australia and breakfast in North Carolina. I ran a couple of simulated drafts in advance, but as far as I could see, there was broad consensus in terms of the players chosen. It was obvious on your turn who you should opt for.

It is unlike fantasy cricket - if you play fantasy cricket during the English county cricket season - in fantasy cricket, once you have a player on your roster, he's yours until you choose to trade him or drop him. In the Daily Telegraph's fantasy cricket league, more than one player can benefit from the same cricketer's points during a week. Also, the English cricket season is a sprawling, fragmented affair, making it hard to keep track of who is playing when unless you are extremely dedicated.

My first draft left me with what I thought was a fairly strong team, although I did end up with three quarterbacks, namely Cam Newton, Trevor Siemian and Tyrod Taylor. All three are starting quarterbacks, giving them a good prospect of scoring each week. I note also that quarterbacks are the biggest consistent points earners, so mess this up, and you can mess up your season.

My problem is deciding which one to go with. While I've got a fairly solid corps of running backs, including Devonta Freeman and Jordan Howard, I'm rotating my QBs as if they were pitchers in baseball. Newton has been regularly talked down since the season started, following on from a shoulder injury, but has become a decent performer. I suspect that Carolina is deliberately making him seem more badly injured than he really is, to out fake the other teams - will he play, won't he? You can imagine the frustration.

As I write this Newton has just netted me 22.1 points following the Panthers' loss to the Eagles. But deciding from week to week is difficult, as inevitably one of the QBs you have benched plays a blinder. That's just how it is. But is it maddening at times, when you see a possible victory slip through your fingers.

I'm still struggling a little against my competitors: going into this weekend I'm 2-3, but hoping to take myself to .500 if I can. It is another week where some NFL teams have a bye week, as was last week, which means some of my personnel are not playing. You really need to fill all your player slots for each weekend, otherwise you will likely lose. Even failing to start a kicker can cost you a game. I've been finding that my games are coming down to + / - 15 points or less, so I am well aware that you need to do all you can to make sure you have a healthy squad with a good chance of making some points.

Thus far I've had some surprises, and some canny moves. Picking up Carolina TE Ed Dickson off waivers after Greg Olsen was injured for the season was one: my fellow coaches had not picked up on the fact that Carolina would likely be forced to start him against New England in Week 4. I grabbed him and since then he has netted 7.2 vs New England, an awesome 19.2 against Detroit, and 4.9 against Philadelphia this week. Still, that's not bad for someone who was lazing around on waivers.

I'll probably report back on my progress later on in the season when I have more to ruminate on.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Why I won't be buying the new Conan RPG

A new Conan RPG is born!
The new Conan role playing game is now out from Modiphius, and I'm sure it is very nice too. A great deal of effort has been spent on coming up with something that sports fantastic artwork, and I'm sure it plays well. But I won't be buying it. As a Robert E. Howard fan, you might wonder why I'm not going to shell out for it.

Some years ago Mongoose published a d20 version of Conan, and I loaded up on those books. They were a mixed bag, but the system was easy to introduce to people already playing Dungeons & Dragons, as it used very similar rules. I can't say the interior art was very good, but I wasn't really buying it for that.

I think I've reached a point in my game purchasing habits where there has to be a very good reason to buy something. I have not bought the new edition of Call of Cthulhu yet, largely because I think 6th edition CoC does a good job, and there are also other rules systems (e.g. Trail of Cthulhu) which can do as good, if not a better job, when exploring the horrors of the Cthulhu Mythos.

A new Conan game means learning a new system before umpiring it. I have been playing RPGs now since 1984, and have absorbed an awful lot of different rules, most recently the Cypher system from Monte Cook Games. I am, however, reaching the point that I'd rather convert a setting to a rules set I know than buy a new game and a new rules package purely because a publisher has acquired a license.

I hear the guys at Happy Jack's are playing in a Star Wars campaign using Traveller, and good on them. If you know how to play Traveller, why bother buying the Fantasy Flight Star Wars games - just use an existing science fiction system and adapt it. There is SO much information available on the Star Wars universe online, you really don't need to buy new source books. I was flicking through the old Rebellion era campaign guide from West End Games a few weeks ago, and realised the vast bulk of the information in there is available online, and not only that, but much, much more. Indeed, half the fun of the Star Wars universe now is researching the obscure references, IMHO!

Back to Conan. After you have read the stories, and maybe some of the comics, you probably have a good grasp of the canon. Everything else can be filled in from either further online research, painting in the gaps yourself, or doing what Howard himself did, which is plundering real world history.

Yes, let's talk about Robert E. Howard

Conan the Valorous - meh!
I've had something of a revelation about Howard in the last few years. When I was a teen, I loved his stories, and read them voraciously, as well as all the knock offs by the likes of L. Sprague de Camp, Robert Jordan, Andrew J. Offut et al. I think I finally ran out of steam in the late 1980s with Conan the Valorous, when I realised that the general quality of the writing and story telling was going into decline.

Howard plundered from the pages of ancient history unashamedly. He was obviously well-read in history, and also produced a lot of historical novels. Many of his medieval stories have been 'converted' into Conan stories - Hawks Over Shem anyone? Oh yes. Based on historical fact. I've read up on it.

When I was 17 I was studying ancient history at school, and part of the program was to read and virtually memorise the entirety of Herodotus' Histories. Imagine my surprise when names and places from the pages of Conan jumped out at me. Yes, the Cimmerians were a real tribe who indulged in many of the same activities as Howard's Cimmerians, as were the Picts, the Kushites, and many more. What this taught me is that if you are happy freely porting historical material into Hyboria, you're on the right track.

Go beyond this, however, and the exotic locales Howard dreamed up in Texas begin to ring a little hollow once you have actually crossed the Sahara desert, walked the foot hills of the Himalayas (and almost died of altitude sickness) or jostled your way through the bazaars of Lahore or Malacca. Some of his visions are accurate, possibly poached from the pages of travel books, others, not quite so. That's not to say he should have been shooting for historical or geographical accuracy when writing his stories, but reading him now in my forties I sometimes wish he had had the opportunity to travel more widely himself, like Hemingway or Twain.

Finally, I'm reading now the complete stories of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle was a doctor and died at the age of 71. He wrote his first Holmes story, as far as I can tell, in 1887 (A Study in Scarlet). At that point he was still in his late twenties. But he was a trained doctor who had also spent time at school in Austria. As he progressed, his writing, including his Holmes tales, reflected his wider experience of people and places. Howard, on the other hand, seems to have kept himself to Texas, and wrote most of his output over seven years, between the ages of 23 and 30. Coming to his stories again, in later life, they somehow do not have the depth of scene and character that once they exhibited. Conan Doyle, on the other hand, does.

Yes, but where are you going with all this?

There are many interpretations of Hyborian geography.
This takes us back to running games in Howard's world. This is not, I think, a 'canon' world. Even the original maps were dreamed up by fans, not by Howard himself. He never imagined it as a cohesive world to the degree that Tolkien imagined Middle-earth. Yes, he made it up as he went along, and so, I would argue, should GMs. I was looking through the very substantial source book that Mongoose published for their iteration of Conan role playing on the mystic realm of Stygia. It is all very nice, and there are some useful tidbits in there, but this is not the Stygia of my imagination, perhaps not that of Howard's either. Mongoose did a good job of compiling a large amount of information on Stygia from a broad range of sources, including the somewhat suspect Marvel comics of the 1970s, but it comes across as something of a mish-mash, and not how I would want to present Stygia to players.

What I'm getting at is this - you don't really need to buy Conan source books or Conan role playing games. Take the Hyborian world at a high level - the kingdoms, the cultures, the peoples, the gods, and then make it your own. Sometimes people who play RPGs get a little too obsessive about settings. We've seen this in a recent Forgotten Realms versus Greyhawk debate on Facebook. Forgotten Realms is praised for its vast and detailed canon, which is great if you like vast canon, but frankly I don't. Greyhawk was great when it was just one boxed set. It had maps, high level details on kingdoms, religions, armies, encounter tables, and suchlike, but as a GM I had more fun dropping adventures into less detailed corners of Greyhawk or setting my own there - basically, designing the parameters myself. Greyhawk had room for the writer, just as Howard's world had room for the writers that followed in his wake.

I'm finding this difficulty with the depth and detail of Glorantha at the moment - you really can get lost in that world, particularly in areas like Dragon Pass or Pavis which have been heavily detailed over the years. Luckily, there are still parts of Glorantha that seem to have just had the bare bones sketched out, and that is how it should be!

My take on Conan then: I'm more than happy to play a character in someone's campaign, but I won't be spending a cent on the new game myself. There are just so many rich resources available online, and so many excellent rules systems in print already. I'm not a Robert E. Howard completist. I will still enjoy his stories and watch Arnie prance around on television once in a while, and all that will be enough to spark my imagination. I think that, personally, I've just reached a point where a new line of Conan RPG books fails to excite me. Sorry Modiphius.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Sherlock Holmes - action hero?

Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr as Watson and Holmes
Sherlock Holmes, as presented to the world by director Guy Ritchie in 2009, is an eminently watchable reinterpretation of the great Victorian detective. It is described as a "neo-noir, period mystery action film", which rather hits the nail on the head. The whole exercise is a vehicle for Robert Downey Jr's invention of Holmes as an eccentric, driven action hero. There is something of the Tony Stark in Downey Jr's Holmes, but you do need someone with this level of on-screen personality to carry it through, and he surely does.

This is not 'classic' Holmes; it is not Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett, by any means, but sometimes it is good to get out from under those immense shadows, as Benedict Cumberbatch has done with the recent BBC series. I'm working my way through the original stories, and to be honest, the Guy Ritchie interpretation of Holmes seems just as viable as others. Holmes was an eccentric, difficult to live with, occasionally inspired by flights of genius. That is all here in Ritchie's film.

But the backdrop against which the film's events take place is gorgeous, thanks to a whopping special effects budget. As an Englishman with a love of London, including its grittier side, Ritchie is able to bring the 1880s to life on screen, in a panoramic spectacular (e.g. the scenes on Tower Bridge at the end). As a native Londoner he avoids stereotypes, and includes accents and cultures which would have existed in Victorian London. The poverty and the bad teeth, the Irish navvies, hell, even a French dock worker, all are on display. It makes for a much more gritty and European portrayal.

At the time of filming in 2008-09, Ritchie, Downey Jr and co-star Jude Law (playing Doctor John Watson) were frequent fixtures on London's high end night life scene, happy to spend time partying with each other in the West End after the cameras stopped rolling, and that chemistry comes through in the camaraderie between the actors.

But what also makes the film so strong, from the perspective of a Call of Cthulhu gamer, perhaps, is Mark Strong's villainous Lord Henry Blackwood. Strong is one of the treasures of British cinema at the moment, and underused in the first Kingsman film, if you ask me, but in Sherlock Holmes he does a superb job as a corrupt aristocrat and occultist out to take over the Empire. Watch the first 10 minutes of this film and tell me if it isn't something straight out of a game of Call of Cthulhu? Strong's Blackwood could be a shoe-in for a CoC cult leader.

The whole exercise has a tense undercurrent verging on horror and nineteenth century mysticism that should make it compulsory viewing for any Keepers who are considering running some Gaslight adventures. Combine that with the pulp action elements and it feels very much like a typical game I might umpire.