Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Reading list - 2018

Fallen Dragon - Peter F. Hamilton

I dimly remembered the central theme of this as asymmetric sci-fi warfare - an invading armoured-up corporation against an advanced but non-military planet - which is a topic I'm interested in from a gaming perspective, making it worth a re-read, but my memory was flawed.

I enjoyed it more than I think I did the first time I read it - there are sympathetic characters on both sides of the central conflict, a broad and interesting background beyond that and the whole thing comes to a satisfying if slightly too neat conclusion. While the deux ex machina in the hands of the underdogs deflates the main plot there are interesting cameos from the modified humans of the Santa Chico colony and the glimpse at space opera in the broader background is tempting if rather neglected.

There are definite hints of author wish fulfilment in the portrayal of the main character Lawrence's early life (which I seem to remember as a bit of a sub-theme of Hamilton's work - less creepy here though than in Misspent Youth), in a way this slightly counts against the novel while also being central to the character's development.

Original, imaginative but not quite the story-telling mastery promised by the blurb.

Great Maria - Cecelia Holland

An enjoyable and interesting telling of the Norman conquest of Sicily - but not. Maria's husband is clearly modelled on Robert Guiscard, but is called Richard, and the places and battles have different names than the real events, however the overall narrative matches the broad sweep of the history. It seemed an odd choice to me to be so parallel but different, and slightly bugged me all through an otherwise great book.

The narrator's perspective is oddly compelling - as with Hild she is often forced to await the outcome of battles which will reshape her life from afar, and as the wife of a knight her power or influence waxes and wanes strongly according to the men who are present or absent at the time. Her marriage is a passionate, abusive, ambitious partnership which is very much presented at face value, making for a novel which is very hard to pigeonhole. Well worth a read.

Worlds of Arthur - Guy Halsall

A slightly odd and disjointed book but well worth your time if you're interested in post-Roman Britain. The oddness is because large sections of it are written as a "how to rebut theories on King Arthur" guide, which on the one hand is comprehensive and informative but on the other is in places repetitive and perhaps at times covers what may be trivial to the intended audience.

It is though a very good guide to the patchy but occasionally deep information we have about the period, enlivened with some of the author's (perhaps not entirely conventional) theories.

Places in the Darkness - Chris Brookmyre

I've enjoyed Brookmyre's work since Quite Ugly One Morning and was interested to see he'd moved into sci-fi. Places in the Darkness lives up to its blurb ("gripping" and "ingenious" amongst it). In many ways it's Brookmyre's gruesome murder investigation stock in trade, but the sci-fi element helps him move from "look at the world we've made for ourselves" onto the world we might be making. It doesn't offer anything astonishing but does give an interesting take on the near-ish future in a way that resonates and provokes a slightly worried "hummm". Recommended.

Losing Small Wars - Frank Ledwidge

Not my usual cup of tea, but the blurb caught my eye. As someone with a vague interest in military stuff I know that the British army is (was?) considered good at small wars, however its deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan clearly didn't go as hoped or expected. Ledwidge relentlessly fills in the blanks, and it was particularly interesting to see operations I remember being reported on the news being retold from the other side of the lens. The blame is placed fairly squarely at the feet of the planners and strategists (or lack thereof) - there are some glimmers of hope within the conclusion but generally the sense is that the institution will just roll on. Fascinating, convincing, depressing.

Some choice quotes:

"The problem may be summed up thus: the old ways of 'cracking on' and then muddling through, using a combination of wishful thinking, old myths and 'initiative' are (or should be) long gone".

"... the lie has been given to the seductive myth of 'punching above our weight' militarily. As anyone even remotely familiar with boxing will readily acknowledge, punching above one's weight is to be avoided if at all possible. There is no virtue in entering a fight at a disadvantage. Heroic, outnumbered actions are not primarily accounts of courage; they are often testaments to inadequate contingency planning and poor strategy"

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet - Becky Chambers

Sort of a space opera Firefly - the ship's crew are oddballs rather than outlaws and there are aliens, but otherwise a very similar feel.

If there's a downside to this book it's that it feels like the start of a TV series - there is a main story but it mainly wants you to meet and become involved with the characters, however you're not quite sure what you're signing up for. I'm interested in where their stories will go, but I'm not quite sure I'm interested enough to invest in an open-ended or at least as-yet unfinished series. And the novel's not quite strong enough to stand on its own, probably because that's not Chambers' goal. I'll keep an eye on where this goes, but probably not pick up the next in the meantime.

Broken Homes - Ben Aaronovitch

More great stuff from Aaronovitch and Peter Grant. Totally convincing worldbuilding, the invented elements fit seamlessly into real London and the magical world has the right amount of limitation to allow for the suspension of disbelief. OK, except for perhaps the ending which is perhaps unconvincing while delivering a surprising punch. It feels like too easy a choice, but I'll be reading more of these.

The Old Man and the Sea - Ernest Hemingway

I was recommended this as a "light read", which is a bit of a misnomer, although it is short. Truly an impressive book, it invites you in to share the old man's obsession and ordeal. It's hard to comment further without getting into details of the tale so I'll end by saying it's downbeat, uplifting and, for a novel that's so self-contained, intriguing.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Screenplay) - J.K. Rowling

My family are invested enough into the Harry Potter universe to make reading this screenplay worthwhile, but I'd far rather it was a novel. For one thing the stage direction is so detailed and yet so narrow that the resulting impression is far less evocative, and the format is thin enough to leave you feeling short changed.

It's refreshing to be in a different time and on a different continent, and Newt's character and occupation are interesting, but it's no where near as compelling as the original stories.

Ignorant Armies - David Pringle (ed.)

The early Warhammer anthologies are a bit of a mixed bag but this is probably the strongest of those I've read in recent years. Usually I mention the better stories but this is good enough to only really have one weak one - Apprentice Luck - with the others all having something to recommend them. Two are worth a specific mention - The Star Boat because, while a few points of the plot seem a bit off, the idea is a strong one which fires the imagination and is wrapped up suitably by its ending, and The Laughter of Dark Gods as it gives a very good idea of the early conception of a chaos champion's journey. Well worth it for Warhammer enthusiasts, a bit average otherwise.

King Hereafter - Dorothy Dunnett

This retelling of an interesting area of history - early 11th Century Scotland - and a well-respected author seemed like a good bet and mostly it was, however the third quarter really dragged.

If, as was the case for me, all you know about Macbeth is the Shakespeare version, this book will be a revelation. Suffice to say his reign was a lot longer and more successful than I thought, and hence for at least the first half it completely avoided the problem central to historical novels that you know how it's going to turn out. Mix in Dunnett's unconventional theory that Macbeth and Thorfinn, Earl of Orkney are one and the same and the book (bar that third quarter) becomes a mix of viking yarn and inter-kingdom plotting that combine into an informative, enjoyable and occasionally tense read. The slower chunk, where we find out about Macbeth's pilgrimage to Rome and watch him trying to bond his disparate kingdom into a whole, rather let the remainder down - while important to the overall story and adding poignancy to the ending it's really very stodgy.

As an aside it really emphasises how little we know about even major figures of the time - Macbeth and Thorfinn - that Dunnett's theory can be unconventional rather than downright wrong. Given the sparsity of the known facts it always impresses me when someone can craft such a detailed, convincing story within the period; that it both fits with what we know while at the same time being so different from the conventional narrative is even more impressive.

Daughter of the Empire - Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts

I thought I'd re-read this as a "chicken soup" book while struggling with the middle section of King Hereafter, and because having heard that it's based around an old Tékumel campaign I wondered how it would read now I know a bit more about that world. It was the good, easy read that I was hoping for, spoiled slightly by a vague memory of how things would turn out.

The social and political conflicts which are central to the plot still strike me as far more interesting than the standard D&D fare of titles such as Magician, however reading it from a gaming viewpoint I find it hard to see how it would work as a game rather than as a novel since prospective players would need to know far more than is reasonable about the setting to really take part.

The setting also seemed not so much Tékumel influenced but rather by the 1980s interest with all things Japanese - although there are some themes from the former such as the value and scarcity of metal; loyalties owed to house, clan and god; slavery and the non-human cho-ja.

I'd recommend it to those who haven't read the series as a good, early example of a now overstocked genre.

Moon Tiger - Penelope Lively

Another book that left me feeling I should read more proper literature. The story itself is fairly sparse but its central device, of retelling the same scene from the distinct and discordant perspectives of the participants, is cleverly done. The main characters are all sufficiently flawed to provide conflict while being redeemable enough to be believable and to some degree sympathetic. A great insight into the human condition and, in the context of the current times, a reminder that the recent popularity of nostalgia for the mid-20th century is entirely misplaced.

The Ghost Brigades - John Scalzi

Sort of a sequel to Old Man's War - mostly new characters in the same setting. A good read, picking up the psychological side of the Ghost Brigades' creation process and some of the wider questions that the technology raises. The special forces characters are flawed by the nature of their creation, and you also spend time with the viewpoint of Boutin who's pretty much a sociopath, so there's a little to be desired on the character sympathy front.

The weakness in the setting (or perhaps the whole genre) remains - the society is advanced enough to invent new solutions to the problems they are faced with, while also being on a technical par with several other species such that they can have sustained conflict with them. Asking you to consider the implications of some technology while asking you to not think too closely about others gives the whole thing a dissonance which I couldn't quite escape from. Worthwhile but slightly disappointing.

Honour's Knight - Rachel Bach

A slightly weaker sequel to Fortune's Pawn, perfectly readable but not quite up to the mark set by its predecessor. The setting is solid, Devi's place within it is suitably complex and believably plotted, however as the bigger picture of the series emerges it doesn't quite work for me. I can't quite put my finger on why, except that perhaps it's military sci-fi morphing into space opera or something like that. Also, although the various trials and battles are well set up there's never really a feeling of danger despite a few shocks. Still - some good battles, interesting use of the powered armour that's central to Devi's world, nicely varied aliens and some human interest. Good, and I will get the sequel, but not great.

Niccolò Rising - Dorothy Dunnett

I was put off from starting this by my struggles with King Hereafter but I shouldn't have worried. Despite some of the same difficult characteristics as that book - a plethora of often similar names to pick up, and excessively clever plotting by the main character - I found it far easier to digest and enjoy. It's full of convincing period detail and with the tension between the entitled landed gentry and the new, often richer merchant class (which makes the early Renaissance so interesting as a setting) a central part of the background.

The story moves along nicely and covers a lot of ground, both geographically and in development of the main characters. There are a few moments which seem to be necessitated by the plot rather than being convincing in themselves, and the ending I felt to be a bit of a let-down having its eye on the sequel and a new, interesting setting rather than delivering on what had gone before. I will pick up the next in the series, but with less enthusiasm than I expected when still half way through.

Lucifer's Dragon - Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Good-ish cyberpunk. The story is told in two parts, the current-ish founding of New Venice and the future dystopia, the former being slightly the more interesting and readable part. A few areas jarred - the 1998-era descriptions of shiny new PC technology are a bit embarrassing to the modern eye, and there's the occasional overly graphic or disturbing sexual interlude but mostly it's a solid, engaging novel with a slightly too pat, not entirely convincing ending.

An interesting thing, to my perhaps quirky mind, was that the portrayal of combat set around 100 years in the future was far more sci-fi than anything you'd see in Warhammer 40K.

The Meknificent Seven - Pat Mills

The recent death of Carlos Ezquerra prompted me to pick up the origin compilation of the ABC Warriors, a couple of strips of which I'd read when I was young. I'm not sure about this as an art form - the original format of the stories as short strips make for somewhat shallow reading, however there are some nice concepts, some great art and an irreverence which keeps a few of the stories relevant nearly 40 years later.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Orc- and goblin-tober

Despite my grumbling about Mordheim in my last post the game did give me the motivation to get an orc painted in time for Orctober, as well as a goblin sidekick.

After my pasting last time I decided to try a fresh orc warband, and since armour is reassuringly expensive in the game I went hunting through my collection to find some unarmoured figures to bulk out the group.

As far as I can tell Citadel have never made an unarmoured orc archer so this chap with a crossbow got drafted in. I love the variety in the heads of the C16 orcs, and also their "everyday" quality, so I've pulled a few more to the front of my painting queue to give me more options for reinforcements or more to the point replacements... in true tradition of newly painted figures he didn't survive the battle, and my poor luck with the serious injuries rolls continued meaning he won't be back next time.

I particularly enjoyed painting the goblin, to me this era had just the right balance of sinister charm. I'm going for a brighter skin tone and more colourful clothing with the goblins compared to my orcs, I maybe could have gone with slightly brighter clothing but have erred on the side of caution. It'd be good to get one and or two more of these done as well, but realistically I don't think I'll get around to more for a while and frankly I find the prospect of painting a whole Fantasy Battle unit distinctly offputting. The fact that this chap was undercoated with the aim of going to BOYL '13 gives an idea of just how offputting...

Small, easily attainable warbands are definitely the key selling point of Mordheim to me!

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Mordheim, in the springtime

Back in April (I said my next post would be late!) I got to try out this new-fangled Mordheim game that people seem to be talking about these days.

The attraction is obvious - I got to field a warband with just these guys:

And I must have enjoyed myself, as I only remembered to take one picture:

The carnival comes to town

But overall I think the game isn't quite for me.

The real sticking point in my mind is that the metagame just doesn't make sense. It's the same issue as with a Frostgrave campaign, or trying to play a linked series of Realm of Chaos games - it's suspension of disbelief-breaking that these warbands (or a subset from a small sample of warbands) keep on bumping into one another and fighting for the same old reasons. I mean, say they were really exploring and battling over one small-ish area, then surely the bigger, tougher warbands would just go around to the weaker warbands' bases, wipe them out and steal their stuff, and then go back to looting the city?

I'm over-simplifying a little of course, but this gives the idea of what's going on in the back of my mind while trying to get into the campaign.

In a similar vein, the wilderness supplement looked interesting at first, but the scenarios seem a bit off - to me they came across as something you might present to an old-school D&D group (with a full set of henchmen and bag-carriers) rather than a warband out to make their mark on the world.

So, much as I love not having to paint many figures, the game's a bit too small-scale for me.

A few things also bothered me about the rules themselves, which probably not surprisingly I viewed through a WFB lens.

One being the comparative weakness of armour: no different from WFB at its basics, but the relatively larger number of modifiers (from critical hits, to a character's strength, and from "normal" weapons such as axes) means that often it's negated.

The other being the lack of penalties for fighting with two weapons, meaning it's foolish not to go for the extra attack (although I did out of stubbornness). It ought to be something that only a "manic warrior" would do (to quote from the rulebook), and given that these are treasure hunters (who ought to value their hide) you'd think armour would be valued above hitting power. Given that the game world is vaguely early 16th century shields may well be going out of fashion, but to be replaced by body armour along with a long and pointy weapon, or expensive but extremely effective plate, not with a whole bunch of people taking the manic warrior route. But from a warband selection perspective two weapons is instead the "correct" choice.

Still, I will be back - the chance to roll some dice while pushing (a small number of) figures around the table calls for that. But I'll be pining for something larger-scale...

Sunday, 30 September 2018

BOYL Sunday

There probably ought to be something here about how belated this post is, but wait until you see my next one...

On my way to the Sunday of BOYL I took a diversion to Warhammer World to pick up a copy of the reprinted 40K, since my old one has the traditional late 80s binding...

It was kind of interesting to see Games Workshop's headquarters, which really brings home how big a company it is. Anyway, I got my hands on the new, much thicker, edition:

Top: original, practically loose-leaf edition. Bottom: thicker and so far pristine!
And then back to Foundry, where I'd arranged to use my accumulated painted chaos force in a 1,000-point-a-side battle against Paul D's orcs and goblins (and goblins). We'd opted for 2nd edition, which remains my favourite edition for nostalgia reasons, although it was interesting to be reminded just how much of what I consider Warhammer hadn't been included by that point (e.g. no beast handlers or minotaurs yet). And to be reminded of the joys of calculating points values down to quarters rather than merely halves.

I'd expected to be outnumbered, but not quite to this extent!

1,000 points buys a lot of goblins and orcs
I started out sending my chaos hounds out on the flank, with a target of the bolt throwers but stopping off via the nearby unit of orcs. I know this isn't the best way to use the hounds, one day I might even remember that! They hit the orcs hard, but not hard enough.

Meanwhile my main force was heading for the enemy centre, in good chaotic tradition. Not unexpectedly the goblins have fanatics waiting for this sort of thing. It turns out that in 2nd edition fanatics don't have quite the impact I'm used to from 3rd edition, so I let disposing of them tie me up rather than ploughing on through.

Oh-oh, fanatics

Part one of Paul's cunning plan was that one of his heroes had a weapon with the Sleep Attack ability. It knocked out the hounds' handler, and deprived of his leadership they routed at their first check. Meanwhile my mortar was killing the odd orc here and there, but overall having very limited impact.

Part two of Paul's cunning plan was a shaman with Zone of Steadfastness. A minor bonus of the zone is that these goblins became immune to psychological effects, but the real point is that it tripled their number of attacks. Even with their low weapon skill that's a lot of fightiness, and they held off the charge of my minotaur and beastmen -

And quite quickly killed the minotaur. Paul was particularly keen that I captured this moment of the battle!

The minotaur falls to the unexpectedly mighty goblins

The goblins versus beastmen battle became the main focal point. The beastmen were slowly whittling them down, but couldn't afford the casualties they took in return. And meanwhile my chaos warriors, having taken a diversion to avoid the fanatics, were very slow in arriving.

By the time they did get to the battle, it was looking like a bit of a lost cause, although in points terms I had the majority of my warband still in action. But this fight was all happening within the Zone.

My beastmen had been very resiliant, passing several rout tests, but eventually the shear numbers of orcs and goblins chewed them up.

I generally find this sort of simple game as a good, relaxing way to spend BOYL Sunday, as everyone tends to be a bit frazzled after a full Saturday. What to start painting for next year and, especially after a lost battle like this, how to play things differently, then tend to occupy the brain on the drive home.

In hindsight I was annoyed with myself for my approach to the second half of the battle (and a bit about the hound deployment). I sometimes wonder if wargaming isn't really the hobby for me!

I try not to meta-game either in army selection or during the battle itself, but to both me and my battlefield alter ego it was fairly apparent that even that number of orcs and goblins shouldn't be all that worrying to a combat-centric chaos force such as this. The shaman was clearly the main threat on the field. Once the trap of the Zone was sprung I should have thrown everything at trying to kill him, certainly my mage's powers and perhaps my un-engaged warriors. But equally I should, contrary to the normal approach for a chaos force, have tried to widen out the battle and not have everything fighting in the Zone.

Still, well done to Paul: his minions' plan was a good one, whereas I didn't really have much of a plan!

Sunday, 12 August 2018

BOYL was last week...

... but I've only just properly got back to the internet via Sussex (holiday) and London (work) so have only got to blogging about it now.

Given the lateness there's no point in me doing a general write-up and loads of other people have done great ones already. So on that topic I'll just link to Thantsants' and Whiskey Priest's posts, which in turn link to lots of other write-ups.

I hadn't been sure about what to plump for as my Saturday game but in the end Thantsants' Rigg's Shrine game caught my fancy. Currently having vikings on the brain and recently-ish having played the Kremlo scenarios I thought it'd be interesting to do a Kremlo conversion to bring to the game. I'd originally planned to spruce up an extra unit of vikings to bring with him but in the end only managed to add a single berserker to my group.

I was pretty happy with how he turned out, given that he's only my second substantial conversion. There are several bits that aren't how I'd like, and results are never as good as the concept you have in your mind's eye, but he's definitely good enough. I was helped by the fact that I was taking on something alien, and the eye lets you off where it would be far more critical with a human figure, and also because Kremlo is a bit of an oddity having a very different head shape to other Slann of the same era. I used Kremlos by Thantsants, Aiteal and Greblord as references, as well as the C32 Palace Guard for general size and shape. In the end he's a bit between those two and so not recognisably either, but he did the job.

At the event he bumped into two other Kremlos, including this one of Harry's who turned out to be the last Kremlo standing. Side-by-side the flaws with the head are more apparent, with mine being rather too plain, but I'm happy enough with him.

The Rigg's Shrine game looked spectacular, with the jungle looking great but overshadowed by the sheer amount of work that the shrine had taken Steve to build which really showed in the end result.

Here it is fully assembled after the game -

And in action, with the final showdown near the high altar -

Best of all the game was fast paced (we got through nearly 20 turns) while still allowing plenty of time for chatting and admiring little bits of lead. It left me with a desire to get more stuff painted, and soon (perhaps the year after next) to contribute more substantively to one of these big games. As Whiskey Priest points out in his call to arms, to get the most out of BOYL you really want to be rolling dice, and there are relatively few games - such as this one and the Helsreach board - that cater to pickup players. One of these days I need to do my bit in that regard.

So that was my Saturday - next I'll look at the 1000 points of chaos versus orcs game that Paul D and I had planned for our Sunday.

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Traders - 40K style

Deadlines are coming thick and fast at the moment, with these chaps being needed for our Exeter Oldhammerers session yesterday. I was able to find a fair bit of painting time last weekend, and just about managed to get them varnished in time for the game.

I've owned these chaps for donkey's years, with the Metal Magic adventurer on the left having got his undercoat probably 25 years ago. Originally the plan was for them to be a 40K version of my Fallout traders - quite a prosperous merchant by the look of it, apparently a rather security-conscious one at that.

The scenario called for him to be an Imperial Governor, which he seemed to work quite nicely for as well. The trouble is, now having a toe in the 40K door, you start to think: he probably ought to have some sort of lackey in robes, and here's this guy with a bit of armour on who I ought to paint up, and so on. A slippery slope.

But next deadline... BOYL... 

Friday, 22 June 2018

SAGA berserkers

My first SAGA unit completed, to go with my warlord from 2½ years ago.

I'm only counting them as 3 towards my total for the year as I made a reasonable start on these in 2016 (undercoat, flesh and a few other bits).

Hopefully progress from here on will be somewhat faster, as I feel I'm starting to get myself better setup for painting in our new house, as well as working out how to set targets that will roughly be met.

One aspect is having at least some of my painting stuff on surface (although that may not always be possible) and painting in small batches, so that rather having to get stuff out and tackle whatever's next to do I can find something smaller or larger that can be done in whatever time's available.

More important though is motivation, which for me seems to come down to short-term, achievable targets, ideally with something concrete such as a game at the end of it. "Paint my vikings this year" simply isn't going to happen, endlessly procrastinated and distracted by other shiny things. "Paint my berserkers for the game in two weeks" might just about happen - although the chaps might have to go into battle without their shields.

And polishing off the last little bits generally does get done, as the finished model is where the payoff is for me.