Heard the one about the man who asked for a 69 in his ice cream? It's Bolt Thrower time.
My plan this week was to write a joint review of the Spanish Army expansion for Commands & Colors: Napoleonics and the Spartan Army expansion for Commands & Colors: Ancients as both were too short individually to be worth a feature. Incredibly, it seemed to turn into a long rant about the state of expansions for both base games and Memoir ‘44 as well. But I did get to the actual expansion reivews at the end: I like the Spanish Army one because it brings new strategies and tactics to its parent game, and I don’t like the Spartan one because it doesn’t, although Grecophile Grognards will find plenty to enjoy.
When I started to read Englby, by Sebastian Faulks, I was struck with a horrible sense that he was writing about me, given the similarities between myself as a student at the protagonist, Mike Englby. That sense of horror only deepened when it became apparent through the course of the book that there's something deeply wrong with Englby, even though he's not quite aware of it himself. A curious, masterful book, the plot is largely predictable but derives much of its power from that very predictability: you keep turning the pages, waiting for more of the terrible revelations that you know are waiting to come to pass. It's also a thorough and believable deconstruction of a broken mind. The one issue I had with it is that as part of this thorough exploration of a character, the author sometimes allows his protagonist long and detailed reminiscences of little consequence, and these parts of the book drag toward dullness. I get the point, that in order to properly understand the person, we must endure his bouts of narcissism, but I still feel it would have benefitted from a little tighter editing. Still, that's a small issue: It's an unusual and highly recommended read.
I also discovered that one of my friends has published a novel on the kindle store. It’s called Battle Boys, and while it would clearly benefit from the loving hand of a professional editor, it’s a fun read nevertheless. Falling as it does into the wide and ever-popular genre that pulls fantasy and horror tropes and inserts them into a modern setting, hushed up by a secret society, it understand that it’s not ground-breakingly imaginative and instead goes for a pleasing mix of humour and action and pulls it off well. It never takes itself too seriously but manages to make an occasional serious point nevertheless. It rarely slows the pace of the action but still gives you the odd pause for thought. The author told me that what he was aiming for was to write a graphic novel without pictures, and to that end I think he’s succeeded. The ending, which clearly aims at possible sequels, is a bit disappointing but given that this is a first, unedited effort by an amateur author, I enjoyed it. Indeed, biased as I am I’d say it’s the best self-published book I’ve ever read although, of course, standards in that category are notoriously low. But it represents a good read for a paltry two dollars.
In preparation for something else I’m working on, I’ve gone back to playing board games on my iPad again. Ticket to Ride Pocket, Ghost Stories and Neuroshima Hex remain favourites. Ascension was a lot of fun when I first got it, but after the excitement wore off I’ve felt little reason to go back. With a lot of other titles I’ve found that either the missing social dynamics of the game render them dull (Ra, Bohnanza) or that excessive strategy weight means I can’t be bothered to work hard at beating an AI (T&E, Tikal).
I bought a couple of new ones too. Forbidden Island is a nice implementation of a poor game. I can see it working for kids and families but it’s far too simplistic to drag itself out of the inherent problems with the co-op genre. Played it three times, now bored, waste of money. Tichu, on the other hand is very good. I’m struggling to grasp the strategy but boy do I want to keep on trying. I love the way it splits players between the need to clear their hands fast and the need to capture scoring cards. Unfortunate it takes 30-40 minutes to play, even on the iPad, but you can save games. Still, the option to speed it up by playing to less than 1000 points, and even to play 2 or 3 player games would be nice but I guess you can’t have everything.
One of my few nods toward popular culture in music is being a big fan of Talking Heads. I’m firmly of the belief that their frontman, David Byrne, has had a far wider impact on the development of popular music over the past 30 years than most people outside the music press seem willing to admit. Along with Brian Eno he made one of the seminal early techno records, before techo was even a recognised genre, the outstanding My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, an album I’ve been playing regularly for two decades. And of course with Talking Heads, he pretty much defined the New Wave genre and thus underpinned much of late 90’s and early 00’s alternative rock. But all most people remember is Road to Nowhere and David Byrne being a bit eccentric.
Uniquely, my favourite Talking Heads album is a live album, Stop Making Sense. I normally hate live albums: the sound quality is often poor, they’re prone to technical mistakes by band or crew members, full of embarrassingly under-rehearsed experimental pieces or cover versions and the songs are almost always less interesting than the original mixes. Stop Making Sense stands alone in that every single one of its sixteen tracks actually sounds better than on the original album it came from. A wild ride, full of pulsating energy and borderline madness, it nevertheless occasionally dips into strikingly emotional territory. The music is taken from a concert movie of the same name, which is pretty much the definitive concert movie of all those ever made. For both audio and visual pleasure, check out this extraordinary performance of Once In a Lifetime and marvel at the lighting, the dancing, the shot framing and the music.