Keeping score


I don’t know about you, but I’m occasionally struck by a sense of frustration that I haven’t really achieved anything yet. Since I was in my teens I’ve developed a bad habit of occasionally comparing my age to that of people I admire; I see things like the new King Kong and realise it was created by someone just a few years older than me; I watch a documentary of Michelangelo and discover he painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling when he was thirty-seven … well, I could go on and on.

Of course, in my late teens and early twenties I could always convince myself that I had plenty of time to paint a Sistine Chapel of my own, but as the big four-oh looms it’s getting a bit trickier to maintain that deception. Have you ever noticed how so many famous creative people did their best work in their twenties and thirties?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of what I’ve achieved as a graphic designer, and I don’t have self-esteem problems as a rule. I can’t imagine doing anything else for a living, and eleven years working for myself is something to be proud of. But I sometimes ask myself if I’m ever going to create something really memorable—something that impacts culture, or inspires people … even changes their lives. And as I get older, the possibility that I will seems to get smaller.

Boardgame Review: Conquest of the Empire

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Conquest of the EmpireI’m a fantasy and sci-fi fan when it comes to games, but after recently discovering the excellent Memoir ’44, which has become a favourite, I’ve begun checking out a few historically themed games as well.

Conquest of the Empire by Eagle Games is my latest purchase, and it’s proved to be a wonderfully strategic and amospheric mid-weight game. You’re thrown into the period of the Roman Empire, there to gather your armies to march on the provinces, attempt to control the Senate, and ruthlessly cut down your opponents through military might, alliances and treachery. If you have any interest in the period at all you’ll love this game.

Eagle Games has gone all out to make a high quality product. The heavy box contains a huge 3.5 x 4 foot three-section map of Europe and Northern Africa, beautifully painted in antique style. It’s also is chock-a-block with nicely detailed, large plastic pieces, thankfully not attached to sprues and already bagged. You get six sets in different colours of your Caesar, generals, infantry, cavalry, two-piece catapults and galleys, plus some generic cities and roads. There is also a deck of well-illustrated cards, a bag of large ‘gold’ and ‘silver’ coins (which are great fun to stack, or cast contemptuously across the board to an opponent), and several oversized—everything about this game is big—special dice.

All this largess wouldn’t be much good without a rules system, and Eagle Games brilliantly hedges their bets by giving you two! The first ‘Classic’ set of rules is the original Milton Bradley Game Master series game from 1984 of which this is a reprint, with a few tweaks. I have yet to play this system as apparently it’s showing its age. The other rules booklet is completely new, based on another game called Struggle of Empires. It works perfectly for the theme. The game is divided into four Campaign Seasons, during which players work out their alliances and turn order using a simple but clever bidding system, and complete other once-a-Season actions such as calculating Victory Points. But the heart of each Season is four rounds in each of which players get to choose two actions: either buy a Conquest card, move or battle their forces, recruit, raise funds, or buy Influence tokens to control Provinces. It’s this range of choices, and especially the limited amount of opportunities available to make them, that make developing a well-timed strategy so interesting.

Victory Points are received by having Influence tokens in a Province, but of course you can’t buy them if a non-allied military force is there with you. Time for battle! The combat system is simple but effective; players roll a number of dice, adding dice if they have a general or their Caesar present, are defending a city, or if they have a relevant card. For each symbol on the dice that matches a piece in your army, you destroy an opponent piece. It’s basically the reverse of the Memoir ’44 system, where symbols indicate which opponent pieces you have destroyed.

Ancient Rome wasn’t just about armies however. You can also buy Senate Vote cards, and then call a vote on, for example, who receives an Emergency Tax of 50 talents (coins). Players vote using Senator cards—in addition to a starting hand of these you can buy more during the game, or ‘steal’ them from other players. A player who has the most influence in Italia gets to keep one of their discarded Senator cards after a vote, so controlling Italia and the Senate is a good recipe for overall victory. Get too cocky however, and the other players are bound to ally against you …

I’ve played this involving game with three and four players and it has been a great success; I can only imagine it gets better with the maximum six players. If you like a bit of strategy, high quality game components, just the right balance of luck, strategy, ease of play and complexity—and the thought of becoming Emperor of the Ancient Roman world—this game’s for you.
Four Caligulas out of five.

As is my want, I’ve made a colour Rules Summary and a Reference Sheet (in two flavours, light or dark background!) you can download here. The Reference Sheet in particular makes play go a lot more smoothly.

I won an award!


AwardWell, I won it three years ago—I only just received it! Back in 2001 I was in London and doing a bit of work for various companies there, one of whom was a game publisher called Hogshead Publishing, who at the time were putting out, among other things, the excellent Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. I worked on the logo and cover layout of one of the WFRP tomes, Realms of Sorcery, and also designed the cover of a bizarre roleplaying game called Nobilis. It so happened that at the next Origins Awards, ‘the industry’s premier awards for recognizing excellence in hobby games publishing’, Nobilis won ‘Best Graphic Design of a Book Format Product of 2002’, an accolade I share with James Wallis and Carol Johnson, who did the book’s interior.

NobilisIf you’ve ever seen a bunch of gaming products on the shelf you’ll notice that they all tend to fall into the ‘bright colours, monsters and buxom warrior women’ kind of mould, but James, who owned Hogshead (and did most of the work) had the courage to do something different with this product. We’d sit in the pub next to his office and discuss his ideas for it over a few pints. Instead of battling beasties, he wanted to use the stark image of the Art Nouveau sculpture Sphinx Mysterieux by Charles van der Stappe.

Game of PowersThe job was a graphic designers dream—given such excellent source material, my instant solution was to feature it large and closely cropped with a simple yet elegant logo treatment. The image wraps over the covers and the bust’s pupil forms the ‘o’ of Nobilis on the spine. I had the pleasure of designing for a large format square hardcover, unusual in publishing. Inside, James did a beautiful job with the layout, with full page, surreal B&W illustrations and a perfectionist’s eye for detail. Everything about the book made it stand out from the usual gaming fare (including the content, I might add).

I continued the concept with the follow up, The Game of Powers. They’re jobs I’m still proud of—every review of Nobilis I’ve read praises the design. So it’s nice to have this surprisingly solid and well-made award sitting on my desk three years on. Not only does it remind me of a job well done, but it takes me back to London, 2001, and the wonderful people I met there.

The Rhythm of Life!

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Very funny and clever Guinness ad.

Film review: Serenity



It’s not every day you get to enjoy Joss Whedon’s work on the big screen, so we did this one in style by seeing it ‘La Premiere’. For those of you who aren’t local that means large lounge seats, alcohol in the cinema, a tray of Turkish dips, and all the gold you can eat—well, not that last one.

You all know the back story by now … Joss Whedon creates scifi slash western series Firefly only to have it rudely pulled by brainless Fox executives before a single season is out; DVD goes on to sell truckloads; Whedon gets to make film version with the same cast. For those of you who for some bizarre reason have yet to make it to the cinema, let me place your minds at rest; the result is a bloody entertaining scifi flick that plays like a big finale to the series and will leave Firefly fans satisfied and, of course, clambering for more.

In fact that smooth transition to the big screen from the small is probably responsible for the film’s few flaws which, in the interest of impartial reviewing, I feel I should report. Those movie-goers not conversant with the fifteen episode backstory may find some of the characters don’t get as much development as they’d like, but then there’s a lot to squeeze into 119 minutes. The series fans can of course fill in the gaps and sit back and enjoy the further adventures of some of the best characters ever developed for TV, characters that have very quickly become like close friends. Also, Whedon has had to do a lot with a relatively small budget, so some scenes feel smaller than what we’re used to on the big screen, some of the sets feel a bit cramped, and not every effects shot is faultless (though Zoic Studios do sterling work, as ever). The Reavers—space zombies, basically—don’t come across as threatening as they did on television, and perhaps could have been better realised.

Small quibbles though. Basically, if you’re a fan of Whedon’s snappy, witty writing, you’ll love this film. It amazes me that reviews persist in comparing it with the latest Star Wars, which is like comparing a gourmet dining experience with MacDonalds drive-through. If you never ‘got’ Buffy and Angel and still think it’s some kind of 90210-meets-Charmed, you probably won’t like it it. I immediately suggest you get thee to the video store and start from Buffy Season 1, Episode 1. You’ve got a lot of wonderful viewing ahead of you that culminates in this film.

So what’s next Joss? Surprise us, we can’t wait.

Four badly translated Chinese curses out of five.

The boots were made for etc


I’ve been working from home again for almost two months now, and the temptation to turn into a mindless slob who spends all of his time staring mindlessly at a glowing computer screen is so strong, I’ve recently begun forcing myself to get up and go for a walk. Sure, I walk up to the shops with my little Thermos mug and get a large takeway cappuccino ever morning, but I’m talking about a decent, mile-munching late afternoon/early evening leg-stretcher.
And what a difference it makes. After a day at the coal face—others may call it a 15 inch Mac LCD screen of course—there’s nothing more mind- and lung-expanding than striding about the back streets of your neighbourhood for half an hour. I’ll put some good walking music on the shuffle (today happened to be Turin Brakes, Coldplay, Spain and Aimee Mann) and head off in my chosen direction. Slowly I’m forcing myself to remember to get a good whiff of the flowers I pass, or register the tasty smells of what people are cooking for their evening meal. I’ll stop and say hello to the odd friendly cat. And in just a few minutes I’ve forgotten about the design I’m working on and my senses take over and give my brain a rest.
I highly recommend it. But you may have other ways of rewinding after a long day’s work, especially those of you who work from home. What are they?

She’s back


Kate BushI just finished listening to the first new Kate Bush song in 12 years—the new single King of the Mountain. Follow the link and click on ‘Listen Again’—the song is about 37 minutes into the show (you can fast forward but not rewind). You’ll need Realplayer.

I haven’t been this excited about a new music release in years. The new album Aerial is out October 24th (more info here) and the official site is launched Nov 7.

I know twelve years have passed, but I couldn’t get that horrible thing she did with Prince on The Red Shoes out of my head, and I was afraid that her new work would try to be ‘poppy’ like that again. Well, to my great relief, on the strength of this single it seems Kate is back to her own unique and much-loved self. The song is atmospheric and a bit creepy, and takes its time building to one of those wonderful richly textured crescendos she does so well. I can hardly wait to hear it on a good stereo and have it grow on me as I know it will.

My last memory of a new Kate album is The Red Shoes, which I first played lying on my bed with headphones on in total darkness, savouring every moment. While it isn’t her best work it’s still head and shoulders over the output of most musicians. Like so many others I’ve missed new music from her more than I’ve realised. Masterworks like The Kick Inside, The Dreaming, The Hounds of Love … these albums have been the soundtrack to my life.

Good things take time they say—hopefully that’s true in this case, and this new album turns out to be something very special …

Update: Just discovered it will be a double album! Hallelujah!
By the way, this is my 100th post here on Headless Hollow. Thanks for stopping by, dear reader.

Film review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory


Willy Wonka

I’ll no doubt be pilloried for this, but the original 1971 film version of Roald Dahl’s book, starring Gene Wilder, did very little for me as a child. I remember that every time it came on TV I’d start watching it, but end up disappointed by the end—even then it seemed a little cheap, like a poor man’s Wizard of Oz.

Of course the book, and the film, are beloved by millions, most of whom will probably love this ‘re-imagining’ (or whatever you call them these days) by Tim Burton. The reviews have been great. But I hate to say it just felt like a tricked up rework that will rapidly date, and personally I’d like to see Burton turn his talents to something a little more original.

There are some nice bits of course; Charlie’s crooked little family house is charming, and the opening moments with his family are quite emotional. Depp is a weirder Wonka than Wilder (say that three times fast), even if Michael Jackson does keep springing involuntarily to mind. The kids are well cast, especially Freddie Highmore as Charlie Bucket. Deep Roy, endlessly digitally doubled, brings more gravitas than you could think possible to the singing and dancing Oompa-Loompas.

But let’s face it, this is an effects-driven family fun-fest, and is fine as such. I just feel like I’ve seen it all before (the glass elevator scenes, for example, so similar to Slartibartfast’s cherry-picker whizzing about in the recent The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). I came out feeling unsatisfied and I’d forgotten all about it in ten minutes. I guess you had to have loved the original.

Two Oompa-Loompas out of five.

Mighty-ish Mouse


Mighty Mouse

I just got my new Apple Mighty Mouse this morning, and while it still isn’t the perfect mouse, I like it. But then I don’t have to use it continually; my favoured input device is a Wacom pen and tablet.

Highlights: lovely sensitive little scrollball that scrolls in all directions; great clicking action; two buttons—at long last; smooth, simple design.

Lowlights: hard to press double side button action (who thought that was a good idea?); still wired.

The Game of Life


Memoir '44

Once a week, on a Wednesday, I meet a friend of mine I’ve known for about 25 years for a few games of squash. After pushing our nearly-40 year old bodies to breaking point running around a few square metres of court chasing a little rubber ball, we head back to one of our homes, where we order pizza, have a few beers, and our lovely and extremely indulgent female partners put up with us laughing, shouting and having a great time over a boardgame.

Tonight we got out Memoir ’44, a simple but always enjoyable game that elegantly recreates and commemorates the battles in Northern France in 1944. My friend played the French, attempting to re-take Toulon on August 20-26 (I just realised—our timing is impeccable). My German infantry was well placed in defensive positions, aided by an artillery piece in Hyéres on the right flank. The battle was hard fought; I was outnumbered from the start, but gave as good as I got as I was pushed back to Toulon and eventually beaten. Shouts of victory and despair went up as the dice rolled. Cards were slapped down with gusto and discarded in disappointment. Many old in-jokes were rolled out for the umpteenth time. At least one uncontrollable fit of laughter was inevitable. My friend had spent the last week painting the little plastic pieces on his kitchen table, and the game looked great. To an observer it looked like some little army men, a colourful board with terrain pieces on it, some cards—but to us, we overlooked a sweeping battlefield alive with desperate combat.

(And in the case of this particular game, you can learn a little bit too—about the battles where men fought and died so we can laugh and joke with our friends well into old age.)

But next week, it might be gangfights in an undercity of the distant future, or steam-powered giant robots smashing into each other with spells crackling overhead, or marines battling aliens in the depths of a drifting space hulk, or cars bristling with weapons speeding across a post-apocalyptic landscape, or hunting Dracula and his minions the length and breadth of Victorian Europe, or …

Wednesday nights—I love ’em.

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