Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Inspiration Hack

Last Sunday my Twitter account was hacked. It was little more than an annoying inconvenience, a string of tweets all sent within a minute of each other that I just ran down through and deleted. I trust my friends who follow me were clever enough to spot the spam and not click any links, but I imagine it was annoying for them too. For a minute on Sunday, their feed got clogged up with more than the usual level of junk that I tweet.

I caught it about an hour after it happened, so some friends might not even have seen it. Three of my friends were good enough to contact me about it, and at least one also contacted Claire, just in case.

Over the last few years, I've made my passwords stronger and stronger, but some sites that I've been a part of for a while don't get updated enough. It's worse now that I have my iPad, and everything is always logged in for me, so I don't even have to use my passwords. Rest assured, I have updated my Twitter password, as well as a few others that I neglected recently.

However, all this did serve as my muse for my latest short story, You've Been Hacked, published here. So, for that, thank you, malicious bastard hacker program. I have no idea how you learned of my alpha-numeric, non-dictionary password, but I'm actually kind of glad you did.

Just don't do it again. Thanks.

Shop online for all your Christmas gifts, at, including this Spider-Man Holiday Plush


You've Been Hacked

You've Been Hacked.

I never imagined it would take so little to strike fear right to my core. Just three words on a black background. I opened my eyes and blinked twice.

You've Been Hacked.

It was still displayed on my Message Center, on a red banner, scrolling across my eyes. It took a few seconds before I realised I was shivering, and a few more before I realised why. I stumbled out of the freezing shower, gasping for breath, and fell painfully onto the bathroom mat. You've Been Hacked floated above the back of my hands.

I shook my head, willing my Message Center to close, and had to approve the standard confirmation request in the event of an unread priority message. I looked around, grabbing the towel I kept on the back of the door and wrapping it around myself, without actually standing up yet. Once I felt I had regained enough control of my shaking legs, I tried supporting myself on the toilet and pushed to a standing posture.

My heart skipped half a beat when I opened the door. I could hear low voices from the living area. I didn't remember inviting a guest to stay, let alone enough to hold a conversation without my involvement. My apartment just wasn't big enough for that many people. I inched into the hall, trying to be quiet, but every splash of water from my clothing sounded like a waterfall in my head. I was soaked through. I must have been in the shower for a while.

A moment of brief relief passed over me when I saw that the wall monitor was set to a station, broadcasting a report with someone talking from a studio to a woman standing outside, the honeycomb dome barely visible in the night sky behind her. The sound was turned low, such that, even standing at the doorway, I couldn't make out what was being discussed.

I shuffled, shivering uncontrollably, into the bedroom. I was just pulling on a warm, dry pair of cargo pants when my Message Center flashed up again.

1 Priority Message. 4 Messages. 16 Missed Calls.

I willed my Message Center to display my messages. Two were marked Where are you? One CALL ME, in all caps, and one Have you seen the news feeds? I walked into the living area, expecting it before I saw it.

My face stared, dead-eyed, back at me from the wall monitor. Well, it was almost my face. No amount of rendered pores, blood vessels or muscles could hide the uncanny valley effect of a 3D generated model mask, despite the cost of the police software behind it. But it was definitely me, or my evil, plastic twin.

The woman reporter reappeared, mumbling something just below comfortable hearing level. Lights flashed behind her, reds and blues casting odd shadows across her perfectly retexture features, ruining the effect of a very expensive procedure. Below her, a ticker scrolled past.

16 Confirmed Dead In Terrorist Attack On El-Rail Car

Time to read that Priority Message.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Almost Sleepy Agents

Ask me six months ago what new show I'd be most excited about watching every week and I would have said Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. without hesitation. Ask me today, and it's a different story.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is set in the shared continity universe of the Marvel Studio movies that include Iron Man, Thor and Captain America. Lead by Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), whose first appearance in Iron Man cemented him into the Marvel universe, the team is made up of two highly skilled field agents, Melinda May and Grant Ward, two scientists, Leo Fitz and Jemma Simmons, and a civilian computer hacker and activist, Skye. They operate out of a mobile command centre in the form of a huge retrofitted cargo plane, stamped with the S.H.I.E.L.D. logo everywhere.

References to the movies are natural and common, with mentions of the greater organisation beyond Coulson's team dropped in regularly. While the series is unable to have regular cameos from the principle actors from the various movies, there have been some nice surprises, including Cobie Smulders in the pilot reprising her role as Agent Maria Hill, that give us hope that Robert Downy Jr. or Chris Evans might drop by for a chat in a later episode.

I'm really enjoying S.H.I.E.L.D. I understood from the before the pilot aired that I should expect something closer to Warehouse 13, and I'm loving that that is what we have. Some people are dissappointed that there aren't super-powered beings leaping all over the screen in every episode, but it's a TV series! And the first season. They don't have the budget to do that. Instead, the team investigate strange artifacts or weapons, and occasionally run into someone with powers.

The cast is strong, and the characters are becoming more defined. The writing is clever and sharp, and there's some great dialogue among all the action and tension. And in true Joss Wheadon fashion, there's a deeper mystery at work for the fans to follow and ponder over. Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is lots of fun, and some great weekly viewing.

But it's not my favourite show right now.

Originally, I pretty much ignored Sleepy Hollow outright. I disliked the premise: Injured in his own time, Ichabod Crane wakes up in the modern world and has to defeat the Headless Horseman in a strange, new land. It just didn't sound particularly inventive. But people kept telling me great things about the series, and then Claire started hearing about it and growing interested. Only one male caucasian on the main cast (two, if we assume Headless is one two, I guess), and, pretty early on, the writing staff realised what the fans knew from the seccond episode: Ichabod isn't the main character, it's Lt. Abbie Mills, Ichabods police officer friend who has seen and knows more than she's willing to admit.

So we tried out the first episode, and we both loved it! It's clever, very funny, and wonderfully cast. Ichabod reacts to the modern world in a real way, obsessing over electric windows and the number of Starbuck's within a block of each other. Big things like cars and computers seem almost too much for his brain to handle, so he focuses on the smaller changes, and it's wonderful. At one point, he's handed a pistol for his own protection and told "It's works just like the old ones. Point and shoot." I immediately smiled at the important fact that Abbie took for granted, and, sure enough, after firing once, Ichabod throws the gun away, thinking it spent. A great moment, well crafted.

The show is suitably creepy for it's source material. It's never gorey or downright scarey. It's just that subtle find of creepy that sends shives down your spine and leaves you wanting more, but maybe tomorrow, or next week. The end of the pilot is especially shiver-inducing. If you're a fan of the Dresden Files series of urban fantasy novels by Jim Butcher, then you'll understand when I say that the thing in the mirror at the end of Sleepy Hollow's pilot is how I imagine He Who Walks Behind should be portrayed in a movie or proper series adaptation.

Plus, Sleepy Hollow has Orlando Jones as Captain Irving (a nice nod to Washington Irving, author of the original poem), and he's always great to watch.

And then there's Almost Human, a sci-fi series filmed here in Vancouver staring Karl Urban as Det. Kennex and Michael Ealy as his android partner, Dorian. Rather like Sleepy Hollow, I was unimpressed with the lack of creativity from the trailer for this show. A human cop is injured and his partner killed when their police android decides that they are not a priority based on mission parameters. This leads to him hating on androids, bu being forced to work with one as an active officer. He's given a "defective" unit, an older model that displays too much emotion, and they bond. It sounds like something one of those automated plot generators would spit out:

He's a white cop with an artificial leg who hates androids. He's a black android who feels too much emotion. They fight crime!

And it does hit a lot of the generic clichés: A tough but kind hearted older female superior officer, a young, sexy collegue, a rival officer who thinks the main character is a has-been, and who thinks of androids as lifeless tools, and even a missing ex-girlfriend who may or may not be mixed up in something bigger.

It sounds like it should be unwatchable, but they pull it off. For one thing, it's fun. The banter between Kennex and Dorian is well written and delivered, and I especially liked the discussions on life, love and death from episode two. The "Stop scanning my testicles" was a great character moment between the two. I like their view of a future that is "normal", not a dystopian nightmare, or a utopian paradise, but a world of hope and crime in a big city. The ills of the world have not been solved, but we haven't degenerated into chaos either.

Almost Human is a fun show to switch off and woatch. It has a lot of heart for a sci-fi action show, and, as suggested by the title, it takes a bit of time to discuss the line between human and not human in a world where androids can be programed to be "too human", a "condition" that causes that line, the DRNs, to be discontinued and shelved in favour of more conventional models. I'm really looking forward to seeing more from this series, and hope we at least get a season or two out of it. I think it has glimmers of the fantastic within it's first two episodes, and has a whole lot of potential beneath it's skin. Also, someone must have written fan fiction of how Almost Human is the setup world for Battlestar Galactica![1]

Agent's of S.H.I.E.L.D., Sleepy Hollow and Almost Human are all on my weekly viewing, each providing it's own style of entertainment and surprise. If I had to pick one fo the three to recommend, I think it would be Sleepy Hollow right now, though Almost Human has the potential to usurp that given a few episodes of development. Maybe it's my levels of expectation versus my levels of enjoyment on viewing, but S.H.I.E.L.D. hasn't left me as excited as the other two shows after each episode. It's still a great show, and I'll be watching every episode, I just think the others, for now, are a little greater.

[1] - I'd love to see one of the BSG Final Five actors appear in Almost Human as one of the creators of the androids, with another appearing as the programmer for the too human DRN line! Actually... excuse me a minute. I have something to start writing...

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Cancelling The Dino Apocalypse

When Evil Hat Productions announced they were KickStarting a series of pulp novels set in their Spirit of the Century universe, I was all over it like fleas on a gorilla! I jumped at the chance to support this endeavour to produce new stories in the genre I love so much. While the KickStarter resulted in a whole slew of novels by the time it wrapped, it began as a trilogy by Chuck Wendig. Since then, the first two of the Dinocalypse trilogy have been released, Dinocalypse Now and its sequel Beyond Dinocalypse.

The Dinocalypse trilogy follows the adventures of the core members of the Century Club as they battle strange creatures from beyond time, lead by the villainous Gorilla Khan in his attempt to take control of the world from the hands of man. Dinocalypse Now takes place in the 1930's, while Beyond takes place... elsewhen. I don't want to spoil anything.

Chuck Wendig does a great job of recreating the action of the classic novels that were written when pulp ruled the book stands. The first book opens in the middle of the action, and barely lets up from then until the last page, sending the heroes jet-setting from tall cities of secret lairs. Mysterious artifacts, impossible devices and wondrous weapons from ancient worlds are all presented in classic pulp fashion.

But it is the characters that shine through all else. As well as the larger task of wanting to save the world, each gets their own personal goal. Some simply want to prove themselves more that their progenitor, others want to impress their colleagues, while more simply want the fame and glory. They are real people with real emotions and desires, and they can be hurt, both physically, with punishing blows, and emotionally, with humiliating defeats.

Everything in these books is paired down to a sharp point. Chuck Wendig manages to set up more inthe opening pages than some authors manage in opening chapters. We immediately get a sense of who we're up against, and what's at stake. When the twists and reveals come, it simply reinforces what's already there, rather than taking the story on a wild, unexpected tangent. Dialogue is equally sharp, with every character having their own voice, reading sufficiently differently from each other throughout the story.

The two books available in the Dinocalypse trilogy so far are a blast, taking readers on a thrilling ride through a suitably epic pulp adventure. I have no doubt that the final volume, Dinocalypse Forever will be equally as exciting when it hits bookshelves and e-readers everywhere in 2014.

Edit: The original upload of this post had a mix-up with the names of the second and third books in the series. It has been corrected here. Annoyingly, I didn't notice, despite the correct titles clearly visible on the embedded cover art. Sorry for any confusion caused.

Steel Yourself For Adventure

On January 1st, 1900 a group of people were born across the world that would go on to be a little more than human, a little faster, a little stronger, a little more intuitive. As adults, they would form the core members of the Century Club (along with a talking gorilla, but that's for another story), an organisation whose mission is to protect the world from the evil that lurks in the Shadows. They would stand tall against the darkness, becoming a beacon of hope and of honour. Those who met them would call them heroes, those who knew them would call them friends.

But even heroes and friends have to spend time growing up, learning life's hard lessons and allowing events to mold them into the people the world will come to love. Few heroes start adventuring in their twenties or thirties, and in the world of Spirit of the Century, the best start out as daredevil teens who have a tendency to get themselves into more trouble than your average kid.

Sally Slick and the Steel Syndicate is an action packed Young Adult novel from author Carrie Harris (Bad Taste In Boys) set in the world of Evil Hat Productions Spirit of the Century roleplaying game. It follows the release of other books set in the same world that focus on the same heroes, but later in their adventuring careers, including the first of this wave of pulp adventure novels, Dinocalypse Now, by Chuck Wendig.

Sally Slick and the Steel Syndicate follows the adventures of The Century Club's premiere inventor and gadgeteer, Sally Slick, during her first brush with the world beyond her home and away from racing tractors and tinkering with engines in her fathers garage. In this pulp action novel, Sally is just sixteen years old and unaware of her potential, or her future as a globe trotting adventurer with her childhood friend and co-star, Jet Black.

This first book, in what I hope becomes a series, is a fantastic introduction to the world of pulp heroes and villains, packed with fresh takes on classic tropes. I really, really don't want to spoil a single moment from this book, but if you're a fan of the pulp genre you'll enjoy the twists and turns the story takes as our heroes battle the bad guys to save not the world, just a family member who has fallen in over his head. If you're a fan of the Spirit of the Century world, either from the roleplaying game or the previously published novels, then you'll love seeing the characters grow over the course of the story from imaginative children into the heroes you already know.

There was much to squee loudly about over the course of Sally and Jets adventure, for new and old fans. Reveals were masterfully executed, especially... well... especially one in particular that had me smiling with joy and slapping my head that I hadn't seen it coming, despite the setup that suddenly seemed so obvious! Villains are suitably nefarious, action scenes are daring and dramatic and characters are incredibly well realized, leaping fully formed into my minds eye.

"But Dennis", I hear you asking, "what about if you've never played Spirit of the Century, or read any of the other books in the setting?" First of all, it's Denis. One "n". The French spelling. Secondly, and more important, however, is the fact the Sally Slick and the Steel Syndicate is just simply a great book. The story is fun and fast paced, the central characters are all well crafted, and each gets their time to shine, while even the secondary characters seem more rounded than some big-budget movie supporting cast (I'm looking at you, "Man of Steel").

Sally Slick and the Steel Syndicate is the perfect introduction to the world of the pulp adventurer for the young reader, and a wonderful addition to any library that might also contain Flash Gordon, Doc Savage or The Shadow. It's an easy read, without ever being too basic, an action story that gives its characters time to develop between rounds of intense and masterfully written conflict.

If Carrie Harris is a new name to you, you'll be keeping an eye out for her work after reading this. If Sally, Jet and The Century Club were unfamiliar titles before starting this adventure, then you'll find yourself seeking out their other tales of daring and heroics before you even reach the final page.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, T'was His Intent

Purely because it's been a tradition on this blog since 2007, here's this years Guy Fawkes post. Honestly, it's far less in honour of someone who tried to blow up the British Parliament, and more in honour of my love for V For Vendetta.

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t'was his intent
To blow up King and Parliament.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England's overthrow;
By God's providence he was catch'd
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King


Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Gone Mobile

Traditionally, my blogging and Flickr posting has been done through a desktop or laptop. But with more and more of my online activity done on my iPad, and on the go, I've been moving toward mobile blogging and photo posting.

Unfortunately, both Blogger and Flickr are utterly unusable on a touchscreen for posting, and the new Flickr is just plain unusable on anything. So I had to go searching, and I found the perfect apps for each.


I looked around and this is easily the stand out option for psoting to blogs. It supports a wide range of the most popular blogs, including Google's Blogger platform, which I use. I can write new posts, edit old posts, add tags and drop in images and videos exactly like I want to. There's even a series of support videos linked within the app to help get you over that initial confusing transition period while you learn where everything is.

One of my favourite things about Blogsy is how easy it is to add links and images, alter paragraph formats and font sizes or colours, all without altering the standard paragraph style of my blog. That's something Blogger couldn't even manage when I was posting to it directly!

Rating: Highly recommended. Get blogging!


There was a little competition for my attention when it came to Flickr apps. I needed something that could not only allow me to post, tag and edit descriptions, but also perform batch edits and create new sets, or edit old sets. After reading around a little, I settled on FlickStackr, and I couldn't be happier. It's wonderfully designed, and allows me to do everything I need and more. It's become the only way I ever log in to Flickr any more as the site itself is unusable on my iPad in Chrome.

I love how this app displays my photos, and it includes a basic photo editting suite for minor alterations before, or even after, uploading. I can add single images or whole batches to set or groups, and can add tags to a bunch at once if I need to.

Rating: Picture perfect.


The One Earring

Preface: What you are about to read is utterly unbelievable. It is dependant on nigh impossible odds at key moments, timing down to a single minute within a whole weekend and my inhibitions about talking to anyone and everyone. But every word of the following story is true.

The Saturday morning of PAX saw JP, Stephen, Claire and myself getting up early and into the convention centre ahead of the worst of the crowds. We wanted to do our own thing for a bit, and split up, heading to our various destinations.

We met up again at noon and were all heading across the brightly lit skybridge that connects the two main halls when Claire stopped suddenly. She bent down and picked up a tiny object. As she held it up, we realized that it was a single earring. It was a tiny glass-blown yellow octopus. The little guy must have fallen off of someones ear, but apart from his wire hook being slightly out of shape, he was otherwise intact.

We had a quick glance around to see if anyone was walking around looking at the ground, but didn't see anyone. Claire commented on how pretty the earring was, and how upset she would be to have lost it, then carefully put the earring in her pocket and we continued on our way.

Skip to 6pm that evening, and the main halls are closing. Hundreds of attendees are flooding out of the various exists and down the stairs on their way to evening panels, food or the gaming rooms. We're back together once again, and leave through the exit by the skybridge, one of the busier traffic areas. Everyone is walking along, chatting to each other. There are dozens of bodies within arms reach, and most are talking over each other. It's almost impossible to hear what any one voice is saying.

As we head for the first escalator down, my ears tune into a single word: earring. A girl about two bodies ahead and one to my right is telling the guy she's walking with how annoyed and upset she is that she lost her earring, and how she'll never be able to replace it. She's looking through her handbag for her remaining earring.

Can you see where this story is going?

I ask if it was a small earring, and she turns and says "No, not really, but it was unusually heavy."

Now, I don't have much experience with earrings, and the glass octopus looked like it would fit a "small" descriptor.

"Ah well", I reply. "Probably not the one we found then."

By now Claire, walking just ahead of me, has heard what we're talking about, and reaches into her pocket. She pulls out a closed fist, and opens it in front of the girl, revealing a tiny glass-blown yellow octopus.

Everyone involved stops dead on the spot, and, not to be too romantic about it here, but the entire place seemed to turn silent for just a moment.

The girl removes her hand from her handbag, holding a tiny glass-blown yellow octopus dangling from a wire.

"No. Fucking. Way."

We all have a good laugh, and chat briefly on the way down. It turns out the guy she was talking to is her husband, and they had just celebrated their first wedding anniversary two weeks previously. They had travelled to Vancouver Island, where they had found a man selling tiny glass-blown jewellery he made himself. The octopus was, literally, a one of a kind, hand-made piece she had gotten from her husband on their first anniversary.

True story.

PAX. It's a magical place.

You Gotta Share The Love

I've been a role-player since starting college in UCC in 1998. Before then, I had vaguely heard of the concept, but wasn't all that familiar with how it worked. I got asked to join a once-off adventure with pregenerated player characters, run by one of the taller members of the Wargaming and Role Playing Society, or WARPS. If I recall correctly, it was a Lovecraftian horror, in which I played the wife of a crackpot inventor who ended up being revealed as a clockwork automaton, much to everyones surprise, including myself! At that point I killed my husband and everyone else and escaped into the wastelands with my son who had been locked away in the attic.

Basically, I was hooked.

It was like reading a book with friends and choosing the outcome. Brilliant! I found out much later that those kinds of books existed as well! Amazing!

I spent the next several years playing and running various games, learning various systems and introducing more people to the world of tabletop RPGs, as well as making new friends through it.

Then that tall man with the twisted and uncanny sense of storytelling, who had gone on to write RPG's professionally, told me about a new game on the market, one focused more on storytelling and description than rolling bigger numbers. Gar laid out all the reasons why I should get excited about Spirit of the Century, then hit me with the homerun. It was a pulp setting, based in the 1920's and 30's, styled after the adventures of the Shadow, Indiana Jones, Doc Savage and, of course, the Rocketeer!

Once he got hold of his own copy of the book, he ran a few games, and I jumped at the chance to be in it. Before we were even finished the character creation section, which was most of a session in itself, I knew that this was going to be my system. The system I used for every game I ran. The system I stole elements from even if I was playing with a different rules set. The system I would love and support from this moment on.

I got the beautiful and low print run hard cover edition, read it cover to cover and ran my first successful campaign, including twelve sessions, guest appearances by other players and many, many happy memories.

So when Evil Hat annouced in late 2012 that they were Kickstarting their new edition of Fate, the rules system used in Spirit of the Century, I was stuck to it like gum on a Cirrus X-3! I watched as the Fate Core stretch goals were destroyed as the amount pledged shot through the roof. My own pledge amount rose as more and more was made availalbe as print add-ons. I became involved in the swiftly growing community around it in ways I have never done for anything before. I loved seeing the love Fate Core was getting, and sharing that love with others online.

Jump to PAX Prime 2013.

I'm wandering the main exhibition floor early on Saturday morning. I've decided to cross to the other side of the hall to check out a particular booth when I stumble across a guy chilling out on one of the complimentary seats one of the big booths has lying about its area. His head is stuck in a copy of the recently released print version of Fate Core. I stop briefly to comment on the book.

It turns out he's not a role-player! He saw the book and thought it looked like an interesting read, and already he's about a third of the way through. We chat briefly about the hobby and the book, and I suggest a few places to start, as well as answering a few quick questions he has. Before I leave, I suggest that he takes a look at Fate Accelerated Edition, a companion pick-up-and-play version of the Fate Core book, then I wish him well in his new adventure and keep on wandering.

Saturday goes by and Sunday rolls about. It's late afternoon, and I'm in the convention hall again, but this time I'm looking for my wife. I check my email and discover that she's on the sixth floor, in the Console Freeplay Area. That means having to go up the back stairs, a route I don't usually cover at PAX, as that side of the sixth floor is mostly for various panels.

I reach the fifth floor and sitting on one of the comfy chairs by himself is the guy from yesterday, still reading Fate Core. He's noticably further along in it. I stop and say hi. He recognises me immediately and we both get a good laugh out of running into each other again in a convention of over 70,000 attendees, especially here, as he picked this place to stop and read expressly because it was so quiet and out of the way. I ask him how he's enjoying the book, and he tells me, with much excitement, that he's thinking of running his first game tonight!! I wish him the best of luck in tonights game and many more beyond before leaving to find my wife.

I sit down with Claire and realize my brain wants to tell me something, so I relax and listen. It tells me this:

You have never been monetarily wealthy. You went to college away from home and had to pay for rent and food. Even with a job, you had to borrow money from your parents at times. You finished college with a degree and got a job doing something you love, but for only four hours a day, and you still had to pay for food and rent, as well as now paying back borrowed money to the bank and your family. Any time you thought you had money, an unexpected expense came up to take it all away. And then, you decided to move to Vancouver, so you had less money than ever to spend freely.

In all that time, from your first day in college to today, tomorrow and beyond, you have had amazing friends. They have shared with you all kinds of things, from cards to make your L5R deck better, to board games and books, from video games to comics, to food and clothing. You have long thought about how you haven't often been able to return that kindness to them.

But karma is a universal thing. Others do good things to you, you do good things to others, others do good things to even others. It does not have to be a closed loop. They do not have to be the same people. And





It's not the value, it's the friendship behind it.

You know what to do.

And suddenly I do. I get up and tell Claire I'll be back soon.

I race down three flights of stairs to where I know it will be and I buy it.

Then, I go back up two flights of stairs and find that guy again, still in the same place, still reading the same book. I interrupt his reading one last time and hand him a fresh copy of Fate Accelerated Edition, because I can do that now for someone. It's nothing, I say. It only cost me five dollars. This is incredible, he replies. I've never had a stranger gift me something before. I really appreciate it.

Enjoy the game, I tell him as I head back to my wife. It's the best hobby in the world.

Monday, October 07, 2013

PAX Prime 2013

This was the third trip to PAX for Claire and myself, first in 2008 on our Epic Holiday[TM], and again in 2011 after arriving in Vancouver and getting settled in. But this year was special, as two friends and my brother joined us in Seattle for the first four-day PAX ever, and it was fantastic

Mike had arrived in Vancouver a few days early, and we all travelled south to Seattle by train on Thursday evening, meeting up with friends I had made on the last visit to PAX at the station in Vancouver. It certainly helped pass the time on the five hour trip to have friends to chat to.

In Seattle we met up with JP and my brother Stephen. They had been in Seattle for a day already, and had gotten a jump on us by attending a Microsoft event and playing the Xbox One! Thursday night was pretty much a crash, as we wanted to be up super early Friday morning to get into the hall for a full day of PAX.

The whole weekend was amazing! I got so much free swag, mostly in the form of t-shirts, and spent a not inconsiderable amount of cash on merchandise, again, mostly in the form of t-shirts. We all had a blast trying out and seeing upcoming games, and managed to spend time doing our own thing without getting separated for too long, or at least being able to meet up later without difficulty. It helped a lot that the convention centre wifi stayed working under the strain of thousands of nerds on mobile devices for the majority of the time. We could email and tweet at each other with plans from where ever we were at.

Once again, I didn't do much by way of panels. Stephen and JP came in early some mornings to get into interesting presentations without having to queue for too long, which was the best way to do it, in my opinion. I don't see much point in queuing for five hours to play a 15 minute demo of a game I'm already sold on buying when it's released a month down the line. We did go to the Gearbox Software panel together in the Paramount Theatre, which was hilarious and awesome, and then we got to meet the team after at their signing! Very cool!

But my big lesson from this year at PAX was that I'm becoming less and less interested in the triple-A titles on display and more and more involved with the indy games. I found myself in the indy games section at least once every day, trying out games I've never heard of, from companies that might not even have existed in 2011. My favourite games at PAX this year were all from the indy's, from the colourful and frantic four-player chaos of Speed Runners to the beautiful and hilarious Monster Loves You, both of which I got after the convention on Steam. The only triple-A title I spent any time queuing for was Nintendo's HD remake of Wind Waker, and only then for the free t-shirt. I've already played the game one my GameCube.

Two companies of particular note that I got to speak to this year are Vancouver's own Klei Entertainment, creators of Mark of the Ninja, Don't Starve and the currently on Early Access release Incognita, and the team behind my game of 2013, Gunpoint. I fanboyed out bigtime meeting Tom, John and Ryan at their PAX 10 booth. They were a pleasure to meet, and I'm delighted to have been supporting them since launch, buying my copy of Gunpoint before I even had my own Steam account, and before it became the massive success it is. I've been following Gunpoint since November 2011, and I'll be following this team onto their next big project too, whatever that may be.

And it wasn't just the indy companies that caught my attention. JP, Mike, Stephen and myself spend an hour in the DigiPen section, an area showcasing the best games from the DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, Washington. The games were creative, clever, beautiful and masterfully crafted with love and care, and we spent longer there as a group than at any of the big name booths.

It was interesting to note that more of the Indy games we saw were supporting couch co-op or couch competition. I have many happy memories of playing Mario Kart or Bomberman on the SNES with my cousins, or GoldenEye on the N64 with the garda recruits that stayed with us, each sharing one TV, and having those immediate and intimate reactions only possible when sharing a couch with your opponents. Even from the Xbox 360 era, two of my favourite memories are playing split-screen with a friend. I'd love to see a resurgence in that social gaming with friends in the coming years, and I think indy games might be at the forefront of that.

I hope that the organizers of PAX 2013 noted the heavy foot traffic in the indy section this year and give them a greater space next year. I realize they can't cough up the same amount as the big studios, but they deserve the support and recognition.

PAX was a fun time with fun friends, and I've enjoyed it every year we've been, but Mike "Gabe" Krahulik's recent comments on transgenders and the whole recurring Dickwolves fiasco has definitely soured our interest in ever going again. At the start of September I said we'd probably never return to PAX, but that's a bit premature. I'm not willing to accept Gabe's apologies, as at this point it's clear he either doesn't really mean it, or he isn't learning from his previous mistakes. But I would like to come back to a safer, more accepting, open PAX with my future children and share with them the joy of being a gamer geek.

So never is a long time. But not next year.


Saturday, October 05, 2013

Fired Up

As some of you know, I'm not much of a music person. I have near-zero musical talent, can't sing and just jump up and down to imitate dancing. That doesn't stop me from playing Rock Band to pretend I can play guitar, singing when I'm home alone, and dancing when no-one's watching.

But I love Hanson. I've talked about them before, and I stand with my convictions. They are, simply, an incredible band. They've grown so much in the last 21 years, maturing and developing both their voices, talents and songs.

When they announced their newest World Tour to promote their new album, Anthem, I checked to see if there was a Vancouver date included. Claire had bought me tickets to see them in January 2012 at the Vogue Theatre on Granville Street as my Christmas present the month before, and we had seen them again in the summer of that same year at the outdoor free concerts that were part of the summer carnival in Vancouver, the PNE. The Anthem tour was dated for October 2nd, again in the wonderful setting of the Vogue and I grabbed tickets from the box office the day they went on sale.

It was an amazing night! I arrived super early to get in line, turning up at 3pm for an event that had the doors opening at 7pm! I chatted to some of the others waiting, and discovered that most of them were there for the Members Only Early Access. So when they were all let in, Claire and I were at the head of the line!

The opening act was David Ryan Harris. I can't admit to having ever heard of him before, but I'm delighted to have heard of him now. His set was entirely on acoustic guitar. I really liked his stuff, and he was hilariously funny on stage between songs. About halfway through his set, he was commenting that "my wife and I", at which point he was cut off with an audible "WHAT!" from a lady in the front row, resulting in a good laugh from everyone.

Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the main act. Hanson rocked the stage, opening with Fired Up and a few tracks from their new album, but mixing in all the old classics throughout their set, including Mmmm-Bop and One Second. I was delighted to hear some of my favourites like Give a Little, Thinkin' About Something, and Waiting For This.

By the halfway point, I think I had rubbed my fingertips off from all the finger-snapping[1], I thought my wrist was broken from the clapping and I was convinced I'd have massive leg pain this morning from the ridiculous amount of jumping I was doing. The sweat was running down my temples and small of my back, and, once the music stopped, I realised my ears were ringing, but I loved every second of it!

Given what I discussed in my previous blog post, I was worried I wouldn't be able to keep up with the level of engery for the whole night, but my body taught me otherwise, and proved once again that I don't have to stop doing anything I love just because my brain has decided to not play by the rules.

At the end of the night, I even to to fist bump Taylor, which was awesome! He and Isaac did a quick run along the stage, shaking hands with as many as possible. Isaac only managed to get one half of the stage done, but Taylor swept back to the side I was on, and I jumped forward for a quick "Thank You". I might have fanboyed a little.

Speaking of fanboys, there were noticeably more males in the audience this year over January 2012. I even spoke to one who was here because he had heard the new album and was suitably impressed enough to grab tickets to check them out. He only knew them from MMMBop years ago, but liked what he heard on their new stuff. Good to see!

I wil forever love their music and wear their t-shirts and my new hoodie I got on Wednesday night. I get mocked briefly for it, but people stop pretty quickly once they realise I'm not being ironic, or I manage to convince them to listen to a track or two.
I look forward to seeing them every time they play Vancouver.

[1]- I checked my fingers the following morning, and my index finger definitely felt smoother than the others! Also, my legs and ears were fine, which is always a good sign.


Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Not So Terrific

For some, this is going to be old news, for others, this might be the first time you've heard about what I'm going to say, and for a few, this might just be the first time you've heard me saying it. But, I'm fairly confident that for everyone, myself included, this is going to be a difficult post to read. I'm sorry.

Around February or March of 2012 I noticed I had a slight tremor in my left arm. Nothing too serious, just a small thing. I thought it was stress induced, as we were between our visas and not working. Unfortunately, when I had to get my medical as part of my visa, the doctor said it wasn't stress, or RSI, or any of that, and referred me to a neurologist. As a man, I delayed seeing him for as long as possible.

On October 1st, 2012, one year ago today, I saw the neurologist, and he confirmed that I had early onset Parkinson's Disease. Or at least, he confirmed it as best he could. There's no medical test for PD, but he said I had all the typical signs. He recommended I get an MRI to confirm it wasn't anything else. I got that in December, and it came back clean, so we were back to the PD diagnosis.

Here are some facts:

About 10% of the population will get PD at some point in their lives, but most are over 60 or even 70 years old by the time they get it. About 4-5% of that number get it before 50, so I am in a select group, a fraction of a fraction of the population. I should have run out and done the lotto when I was told, but I didn't. I was devastated. My entire life just crumbled away before my trembling fingertips. For a brief time, I thought I'd lost it all. I thought we'd have to go back to Ireland and give up everything we had worked so hard for here in Vancouver. Going back wouldn't have exactly been a terrible thing, mind you, but we really did love it here by then, and do even more so now. Also, the health care system here is insane, and the University of British Columbia, just a bus ride away from where we live, is at the forefront of research into treating Parkinson's.

I thought I'd lose Claire. I know, that's a stupid thought. But for a moment, I thought it. I even offered to go home without her if it came to it, allowing her to stay here and work on her new and swiftly growing freelance career. She was having none of it, of course, and in the last year, as in the last 13 years that I've been with her, she's been nothing short of incredible.

That's it. That's all the bad news. So here's the good stuff:

It's been a year. Nothing much has changed. I can still work, I still love my job. I'm not taking any medication yet, despite the neurologist telling me in October that I'll probably be on something within 6 months. It's been 12 months now, and it hasn't gotten a whole lot worse yet, which is, obviously, a good thing. It's localized at the moment to my left arm and left leg. My right hand is... yup, just checked now, it's as tremor-free as it ever was. So this doesn't stop me drawing or writing. Even my left arm hasn't gotten significantly worse, as far as I can tell. My leg is fine if I'm walking or even running short distances, but if I try to fast-walk or jog, I notice that it stiffens up a bit. Running and fast-walking must use different muscles, or at least muscles in different ways. Even then, it hasn't been enough to stop me from doing anything. This summer is Vancouver has been astonishingly good, and I've done more outdoor activities than any summer I can think of in recent memory.

And I still have Claire. She's been my rock and my saviour. I know that this kills her at times, but usually, she's fine. She only seems to get upset about it when I'm telling someone about it. When I told the gang back home, I noticed she had to quietly leave the room.

But we're over the shock now. The first week, maybe two, was the hardest. After that, we both realized that not much has changed, or will change for some time. I'm an eternal optimist, so I just picked up the pieces of my apparently shattered lives, discovered that everything was intact, and had, in fact, just been knocked off the shelf for a bit.

I love following the development of technologies, and there is some fantastic stuff coming down the line for PD. This diagnosis 10 years ago would have been a dramatically different story, and in 10 years time, it'll be different again, in a good way.

Why am I telling you this now?

 Despite having a noticeable tremor since February or March, I was diagnosed a year ago today. It's hard to find the right time to tell people bad news, and it's very easy to find excuses why any time is the wrong time. I didn't tell anyone when I first got diagnosed, apart from my family. It was right before Christmas, and I didn't want to "ruin" anyone's holiday. Then we were planning the trip home, so why break the news to my closest friends over email when I'll be seeing them in a few weeks any? Then we were back, and I had work to divert my attention. Then it was the summer and everyone was having a great time. I could find excuses for now too, like, "I'm too busy", "I haven't blogged in months", "I want to write about other things", but that's all just putting it off, when really, I feel like people should know.

I don't want this to be a secret, to be some dirty thing that I'm going through. I want to be open with it, to show everyone that I'm still me, still living my life. And this is the first step to that, telling people.

I'm sorry if reading this has upset anyone, or ruined anyone's mood for the day. It wasn't easy writing it either. I'm sorry if you feel left out because I didn't tell you in person. It's hard to talk about at times, even after a year. I've never been sick before. I've never had to tell anyone I'm suffering from anything that doesn't warrant a "Ya big baby! It's just the flu!", or what have you. I've never taken medication for anything stronger than an over-the-counter painkiller, and even then, it's rare.

I've told people in a reasonably big group, in small groups and individually. I had to tell my mum over the phone. None of them are particularly "easier" than any other. At least in person, people can see how I really am. I mean, for all anyone reading this knows, I can be saying "I'm fine", while rolling around uncontrollably on the floor! I'm not. I really am fine. It's just clearer in person.

We live in a world where we know enough about the brain that I could get a probe shoved in to just the right spot to stop the tremors at the flick of a switch. A world where, excepting some horrific natural disaster, we're moving forward at an alarming pace with technology of all forms. A world where someone somewhere is finding another new way to make us live longer, better, healthier lives.

And I'm going to benefit directly from all of that.

I live on. I look to people like Michael J. Fox, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's when he was 30, and has just started a new sitcom as I write this[1]. He still works, and has a wonderful family, and this brings me great hope.

This is a comma in the story of my life, not a full stop.

[1] - I can't bring myself to watch The Michael J. Fox Show just yet, but I'll be sure to write up a review once I do.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Race To Adventure

Racing across the globe to collect stamps from exotic locales and rescue prisoners from the sunken city of Atlantis, Race to Adventure is a fast playing board game based in the universe of Spirit of the Century, the Fate powered RPG from Evil Hat. You play as one of five characters from the RPG and novels, including the gorilla, Professor Khan, and star of the upcoming Young Adult novel, Sally Slick.

Each turn consists of players choosing from a number of items, such as the Jetpack, Biplane or Raygun, starting with the current First Player and proceeding clockwise. Once everyone has chosen, all players do their actions together, simultaneously. Then the First Player token moves clockwise to the next player and the next turn begins.

Race is a very easy to learn game, with a well laid out, clear and simple rulebook, and lovely colourful cards with big, clear symbols for the actions. Honestly, the most difficult thing about Race for us during our first games was learning that the game really does play that fast! Turns flash by. Players move together, reaching over each other to get to their tokens and perform their daring feats. Because everything is so well laid out and the visual design is so clear, everyone knows what everyone else is doing, and how it might effect their turn this round. The rules are easy, but overcoming that ingrained board game concept that each player should finish her turn before moving to the next players actions is harder. But once you get it, you understand how the game can be over in 30 minutes, despite a lot to accomplish to claim victory.

The board is made up of tiles that are laid out in a 3x3 grid, beside the heroes base of operations in the Empire State Building that makes up the leftmost column. In a move that is nothing short of genius, each tile has a standard side and a Shadow side. This ties nicely into the setting, where the heroes are Centurions, while the villains of the universe are referred to as Shadows. The Shadow sides offer a higher level of difficulty through greater mission requirements and more impassible borders, requiring more thought on strategy for the current and upcoming turns.

As it was funded through Kickstarter, the copy of the game I received included the expansion, adding more tiles that can be swapped in, as well as new enemies and objectives. That said, even just the base game has a lot of replayability, as the tiles play in a different order every game, making it fresh and new with each play. As well as that, you can play on the standard side, the Shadow side, or a random combination of both. Nigh-limitless variation!

Race to Adventure is another fun, fast game that I love to play whenever we feel like something shorter than Battlestar Galactica! In fact, Race can play faster than some games of No Thanks!

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Escape The Curse Of The Temple

Most board games have a suggested playtime printed on the side of the box, helping you pick a game that might last 30-45 minutes, or one that lasts 90-120 minutes. However, this estimate is usually wildly inaccurate, as you lose time explaining the rules to new players, checking the rulebook for a clarification, or getting bogged down in the dreaded "Analysis Paralysis" common when players have a number of choices in order to proceed.

In Escape The Curse of the Temple, players have only ten minutes, and always only ten minutes in which to succeed. It comes packed with a soundtrack CD, and you can download the tracks direct from the games website if you've left the concept of a CD behind in the last decade. You start the game my pressing play on the MP3, and you have until the MP3 runs out to survive. The MP3 lasts ten minutes, with an event at roughly 3m30s and again at around the seven minute mark.

As soon as players here "Escape" in an ominous voice at the start of the soundtrack, they start rolling the five dice they hold, and don't stop! The faster you roll, the more likely you are to survive. You have to match symbols on the dice with other on the tiles that make up the chambers of the tomb, uncovering new rooms, moving and completing objectives. Your goal is to escape the tomb as a team. If even one member gets left behind, everyone fails.

Escape is a co-operative game. You can share roll results to unlock the dreaded locked dice belonging to other players in the same chamber or work together to reach the higher goals in some chambers. If the party gets split, it can be a race against the clock to rush back for lagging members who have been stuck in a chamber due to bad dice rolls.

This is easily the most intense board game experience I've had in a long time. It's pulse-pounding on a level usually reserved for video games and blockbuster movies. Board games are usually more sedate, as players weigh their options and chose the best strategy for the turn. Even horror themed games like Arkham Horror don't really get the players anxious. You have all the time in the world to make your decisions, and can debate with other players at length about the optimal strategy to deal with the current situation. Escape is frantic. Every moment you stop to look at your dice and think about where to go next costs you valuable seconds you are not getting back!

Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, Escape comes with two expansions already in the box, both of which add alternate chambers to the tile deck and new rules, such as treasures or curses. Playing with curses raises the manic hilarity, as players are suddenly forced to play with their left hand on their head, not speak any more, or discard any dice that fall off the table for the rest of the game, a killer curse as you only start with five dice, and any board gamer or role-player will tell you that dice fall off the table all too often!

Escape is a great way to get a gaming night going. It puts everyone in a good mood, and plays fast enough that you're not losing significant time for that game of BattleStar Galactica or Pandemic that is coming up.

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Red November

So, you're on a submarine and suddenly all hell breaks loose! Reactors start to overheat, water starts rushing in everywhere and someone just reported seeing a kraken appear on scopes. Worse, you're all gnomes, and there's nothing you enjoy more than a bottle of grog. There's no disaster so bad that grog can't help. Well, no disaster you've survived so far. This one, however, is looking particularly bad.

Red November is a mostly co-operative game of disaster management on a rusty old submarine. You play gnomes tasked with slowing the constant assault on your metal habitat, lowering flood waters, putting out fires and repairing critical systems. A time track running around the edges of the game board, where your time tokens move to keep track of how long you've spent on your turn. Every Action takes time. some are set, such as opening a door or moving through a flooded room, while other Actions allow you to decide how many valuable minutes you'd like to expend on them, like repairing, or fighting fires. If one of the three disaster tracks fills up before everyone makes it to the end, then everyone dies. Also, that kraken can eat you too. Many ways to die, only one way to win. Man! Co-op games!

I did say "mostly" co-operative, though. In the closing turns, a gnome holding the Aqualung item can chose to abandon ship and swim to safety. If the submarine does indeed sink, then that gnome alone wins. If, however, the remaining crew manage to hold off the rising tide, then they win, the mutinous gnome is executed and everyone apart from that gnome wins! Fun times, and a neat twist right at the end.
This is a fun, fast game. Once you learn the rules, each turn plays out remarkably fast. Players declare what they're doing, then move their pawn for the Action, and a ghost marker moves along the time line to track the expended time. At the end of the turn, the players actual time marker moves up to the ghost marker, encountering any Events along the way, most of which are disastrous!

The game board and pieces are beautiful, and the art is vibrant and funny. I have the big box edition of this game, rather than the first edition mini-box. The submarine board in the first edition is just a thin card, and is hard to make sit flat on a table once unfolded. Unfortunately, I find that my larger scale game board also has difficulty sitting flat once unfolded. A minor quibble, however, and one that doesn't hinder the enjoyment I get playing the game.

Red November is a casual game that runs a little too long to be a night-opener before a more involved game, but it is perfect for an evening with friends who just want to chill, chat and play something light and fun that won't exactly tax your mental capacities, but will definitely elicit a chuckle or two from the players.

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Elder Sign

Fantasy Flight board games are notorious for their number of pieces. They use separate tokens for health, sanity, stamina, coin, treasure, victory points, monster health, enemy movement, player turn order... And if you can use one token to represent two or more elements, don't suggest it to these guys, as it'll fall on deaf, piece-loving ears. Add in expansions, and suddenly you're carrying multiple boxes for a single game, with components and tokens scattered across the various containers.

Arkham Horror is one other biggest board games we own. Even just the base game components won't fit on our 1.25m x 1.25m gaming table, and we require two side tables to hold the elements that don't get used every turn. Heaven forbid you include the Dunwich Horror game board, and suddenly players don't even have room to place their character boards on the main table!

Elder Sign is based in the same universe as Arkham Horror, inspired by the mythos conceived in the deranged mind of H.P. Lovecraft. The story follows the players as they attempt to stop a great old god from being brought into our world, battling supernatural abominations, cultists and powerful occult leaders along the way.

If you've played Arkham Horror, you'll be familiar with the characters and artwork, as player character portraits are reused, giving a nice sense of continuity. Similarly, Health, Sanity and Clue tokens are all identical to those in Arkham, though Clue tokens differ in use between the two games. Amazingly, despite being from Fantasy Flight, and the same family as Arkham Horror, Elder Sign strips the components down, replacing Arkham's enormous board with location cards, and streamlining the experience down to a much faster game overall.

But both games differ dramatically beyond the general look. Arkham Horror is a massive undertaking, regularly clocking it at over five hours, not even including the hour or more you just need for setup! Elder Sign is much closer to 90 minutes to two hours, and setup time is around the three to five minute mark.

This is another of those a co-operative games I'm enjoying a lot recently. The player characters are exploring a museum during the closing hours, moving from room to room and combating the horrors within. The core mechanic is dice rolling, requiring you to complete objectives on cards by rolling matching symbols on the custom dice. Fail to complete a step in the card objective, and you simply discard one of the dice you're using and reroll the rest, a dice down, but still in with a chance. Succeed in getting all the matches and you collect the printed reward. Fail and you suffer the card's penalty. You can use items or spells to add extra dice to your hand for a better shot at the good stuff.

Everyone is working as a team trying to reach a set number of Elder Signs before the elder god awakens. Signs are usually won through the defeating room cards, while the Doom tokens that slowly waken the god most often appear as penalties on rooms. There are a bunch of gods included in the basic game, each with its own required number of tokens, as well as abilities and rules for when it awakens.

The basic game does seem a little easy to me. We've played a lot of games of this, especially in the months after we first go it, and I found I was winning maybe 4 out of 5 games, maybe even more. As you complete rooms and kill monsters, you hold on to the tokens and cards and can use their Trophy value to purchase a variety of things from the entrance sheet. This includes restoring Sanity and Health, finding items or spells and even buying those Elder Signs. What generally ends up happening is that everyone just saves up for the Signs and never buys anything else.

However, the recently released expansion, Unseen Forces, removes the ability to purchase Elder Signs, and adds in Blessing and Curse dice. Characters who are Blessed get to roll an extra dice. Those who are Cursed have a chance of losing a dice in a roll. Get double Blessed and you are gifted an item card. Get double Cursed and you are Devoured!! Although we've had the expansion since the day it was released here, we haven't had a chance to try it out yet, as the weather is unnaturally glorious, and it's hard to find an excuse not to go outside as much as possible. I am hoping that the expansion ramps up the difficulty a bit, but we'll have to wait and see.

Our house has been a big fan of Arkham Horror since we first played it many years ago. It was always one of Claire's favourite games, and she immediately fell in love with Elder Sign. Elder Sign allows us to play in the Arkham world, but in a faster, more accessible game. It hasn't entirely replaced Arkham Horror, which gets pulled out and played every few months, but Elder Sign gets played on a monthly, and at times, weekly basis.

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Forbidden Island

To describe Forbidden Island as "Pandemic-Lite" is accurate to a degree, but does the game a grave disservice. Both games are designed by Matt Leacock, and while they have many similarities, I love having both on my game shelf.

In Forbidden Island, players play a team of Adventurers, co-operatively trying to recover four artifacts before the island they are on sinks into the ocean, taking the artifacts and the Adventurers with them. Players must gain sets of same-coloured cards in order to retrieve the matching artifact, similar to curing the diseases in Pandemic. Also like Pandemic, each Adventurer has a unique ability, and success depends on players maximizing how those abilities play off each other.

The island itself is made up from tiles that are randomly placed in a thick + shape at the start of the game, revealing where the Landing Pad and the four artifacts are in play. Forbidden Island cuts the Infection and Player decks present in Pandemic into a single deck, containing Waters Rise cards in place of Epidemic cards that slow cause the island to flood. Eventually tiles can sink beneath the waves, and be removed from the game. If a critical tile is removed, the players immediately lose. As is common in co-operative games, there are many ways to lose, but only one way to win.

The theme is much friendlier toward younger players than Matts apocalyptic Pandemic, and the rules are lighter. Players can trade any cards simply by being on the same tile as each other, unlike in Pandemic, where you must be in the city named on the card to be traded, severely restricting trade, and making multiple trades in one players turn almost impossible. Also, once an artifact has been recovered, it's yours to keep. There is no equivalent to eradicating the diseases from Pandemic. Everything has been stripped and streamlined. This doesn't make the game easier, but just different. In fact, Forbidden Island has it's own difficulty scale, and it is alarmingly tough to win at the higher settings.

Forbidden Island is a great game. It plays fast, at 30-45 minutes, and the artwork on the tiles is simply gorgeous. I highly recommend it to anyone looking to have a game on hand for either younger gamers or introducing people to board gaming, while still offering a challenge for experienced gamers.

It also makes a great stepping-stone for introducing players to Pandemic...

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Shadow Hunters

In Shadow Hunters players are assigned secret roles, either Shadow, Hunter, or Neutral. Shadows must kill the Hunters to win, Hunters are out to kill the Shadows, while Neutrals have unique victory conditions listed on their cards, such as "You win if the Player on your left wins" or "You win if you're the first to die". Yeah. Neutrals are wacky.

On your turn you roll the two dice to determine what card or action you get this turn. Unusually, Shadow Hunters uses one D6 and one D4 for its dice, and I've had to explain how to read a D4 more than once because of it. There are three colours of cards you can get, White and Black cards are Items or immediate Actions, while Green cards allow you to learn something about the other players.

Green cards are the core of Shadow Hunters. They might say "I think you're either a Shadow or a Neutral. If so, take a point of damage. Otherwise, do nothing." You read the card in secret, decide who you're giving it to and hand it to that player without revealing what's on it to anyone else. Then you just watch how the player reacts. If they take a point of damage, you know that they're either Shadow or Neutral. If they do nothing, they're a Hunter.

Sounds simple, but keeping track of all the possibilities from all the cards you give out begins to tax the memory! Meanwhile, you're fighting off other players who are attacking you, or trying to subtly move toward your victory goal.

Shadow Hunters is an enormously fun game with a larger group. It takes the hidden Cylon element of Battlestar Galactica and makes an entire game of it. If it sounds a bit like Bang!, then that's because it is. You're trying to figure out who's on your team and who isn't, while not revealing your own allegiances too early. Unlike Bang!, if you do get caught out, you can reveal your card and use your characters unique ability to help win the game, but doing so obviously lets everyone know who they can or can't trust.

Unfortunately, Shadow Hunters has its failings. It really doesn't work with smaller groups, despite the box claiming that four player games are possible. Also, I really don't enjoy the theme. The games art and setting are heavily animé inspired. It's an entirely aesthetic thing, but I can't see myself buying my own copy of Shadow Hunters because of it. I love the gameplay, and I've enjoyed many great games with my friends copy. It plays much better than Bang!

I just wish I could take the theme from Bang! and the gameplay from Shadow Hunters and mash them into one, perfect game.

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In designer Matt Leacock's Pandemic from Z-Man Games you play members of an elite team from the Centre For Disease Control, fighting to stop four contagions from wiping out all life on earth. Actually, they're only worried about those filthy, over-populated metropolises that litter the lands. While we're being anal about terminology, you're hardly the CDC's "elite". I'm pretty sure they realized early on that the earth was doomed, and sent your dumb, idealistic ass out to die a slow and agonizing death while they locked the best and brightest into self-contained underground vaults to wait out the apocalypse. And you know they totally took the Jesus Medic, as well. None of you are ever the Medic.

It's A PandemicThe object of the game is to gather cards of a matching colour to discover cures for the various contagions. You work as a team to slow the infection rate, as well as controlling the areas that are already infected. As you play co-operatively, the Infection Deck works against you to spread the nasty stuff, moving you ever closer to those dreaded Outbreaks. Even the Player Deck is seeded with the vile Epidemic Cards that increase the rate of infection across the globe.

Pandemic is a fast and fun co-operative game that is easy to grasp, but difficult to win. There are four or five ways that you could watch the world burn, but only one situation in which you can sit back as the victors. The expansion, On The Brink adds more roles and introduces some new play styles, including allowing one player to act as the bio-terrorist, sabotaging bases and infecting cities of their choosing.

I have the Second Edition of the game, with the new art work and game board. I love the art, especially the blue colours on the game board world map. It makes it feel really like a war-room battle map, surrounded by top men; top men who haven't a clue what's happening. The new edition contagion cubes help as well. In the first printing, the cubes were wooden, but they were replaced with plastic ones in this edition. At first, I was annoyed because wooden pieces feel really nice in-hand. However, the plastic ones look really good on the board, catching and throwing back the light, looking like they're glowing.

This is a tough game. Apart from some early games on the Easy setting, I have yet to win a game on Normal or Hard. We came painfully close several times, the worst of which was when I had the cards in-hand for the final cure to win the game and had ended my previous turn standing on a Research Station. All I needed was a single Action to for our team to win the game. The player immediate preceding me took her turn carefully, then flipped her Player Cards, revealing an Epidemic Card that resulted in three massive Outbreaks, and using up all the black cubes. Double death.

Because it's entirely a co-operative game, Pandemic does fall into the problem of what I can only term "Expert Instruction", when one player instructs the others in exactly how to take their turn, resulting in a session that might appear to be a four-player game, but is actually just a single-player experience with viewers.

If you can overcome this urge to direct, then Pandemic is a wonderful co-op experience, where you can go from cruising along with no sense of immediate danger, to watching a continent melt under the pressure of a dozen cubes in a single turn. It's nice to win, but thrilling to lose.

Before I finish, one of my favourite aspects of Pandemic is getting to name the various contagions each game. You can be as imaginative as you like. Unlike Risk: Legacy, naming these has no effect on the game, and names can change from play to play. So, will you be curing Terminal Runny Nose or Techno-Techno?Will one of your cubes represent the encroaching threat of Terrorism or Capitalism, or will you scratch the massive spread of Crotch Rot from the plants loins? The choice is yours!

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