Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Science Fiction Hobby Games: A First Survey

Before I begin, I should be upfront: I’ve known the author for many years, so I’m inclined to be favourable. Readers should be skeptical of reviews anyway, but there’s good reason to be in this instance.

That said, I’m going to tell you why this book is worth your time.


Science Fiction Hobby Games: A First Survey (hereafter SFHG) follows the style of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (and its sibling, the Encyclopedia of Fantasy). Unsurprising, as Neal Tringham contributed to the Second and Third editions of that book and indeed some of the game content in the encyclopedia has been collected into this book.

However this book isn’t a stripped down encyclopedia; it’s more a catalogue of games that fit under the broad heading of “Hobby Games” that includes RPGs, board games, wargames, and even PBM. It doesn’t include video games although there are numerous references in the text concerning the influence of/on video games and parallel development.

Citation is thorough (as is found in its sf-encyclopedia parent). Individual entries are longer than encyclopedic ones and presented as short essays. There’s a bibliography, and a nice glossary that includes not only roleplaying terms but definitions of many SF tropes, which are then used in the entries to differentiate the sub-genres each game emulates. These include entries on genre taxonomy (Cyberpunk, Transhuman), game terminology (“massively multiplayer”, “interactive narrative”), and references to fiction in fantasy, SF and even comic genre. If you have the epub version, these are all nicely hyperlinked from entries to glossary.

The book is split into several sections: initial essays on How To Read This Book (citations and naming conventions), brief discussions on games and game worlds, and then several large sections on types of games. RPGs come first, then Wargames, then Board Games, Gamebooks, and PBM. The glossary and bibliography completes the book. Here I confess I’ve only read the RPG section and dipped into the others as I have little interest in wargames (aside from WH40K).

It’s not complete. John Snead’s Eldrich Skies and VSCA’s Diaspora are not included, for example (although Shock: Social Science Fiction is). But it’s a first survey, and the main value is commentary on titles that have either disappeared into obscurity (e.g. The Morrow Project) or ones with a diverse heritage that benefit from a thorough analysis (Traveller). Each entry covers the objectives of the game, literary heritage, game system, SF themes and other related works (board games, video games, etc.). Overall I found the approach to be very consistent and mature, although some games have more to say about them than others.

There are several types of gamer this book might appeal to. If you really love SF and if in particular you want to either (a) pick a game that emulates a particular type of SF or (b) read more widely on the sub-genre of a particular game, this book is very worthwhile.

If you’re interested in the history of our hobby, and particularly in SF games which usually play second fiddle to D&D and other fantasy games in historical analysis, this is also very good. There is plenty of stuff from the early days of the hobby to satisfy both a young player’s curiosity and an older player’s need for gratification and self-congratulation (ahem).

What about the future? It would be nice to see a second survey to expand the initial group of games. Since Neal has included Call of Cthulhu perhaps the Superhero or Pulp genres are ripe for inclusion too. I would love to read Neal’s take on Synnibarr (and he does cover some obscure stuff, for example Continuum: Roleplaying in the Yet). But sourcing these games and much less playing some of them (shudder) is not a trivial undertaking.

In summary: there is nothing like this book anywhere else. If you want a wealth of information and opinion on our hobby games (especially the more obscure elements) from an author who has contributed to entries to the SF Encyclopedia, this is worth your time.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

New Thief

The new Thief game is apparently not good. I am Jack’s complete lack of surprise.

Some say it’s a calamitous disaster. A woeful disappointment. There’s a complete roundup of reviews but I mostly went straight to the Zero Punctuation review:


Another good review, slightly less acerbic but just as sweary:

There goes my last reason for buying a new console. Oh, wait, there’s Dishonoured…

I would like to be the last person in this post to say “taff”.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Thief Reboot

One thing that has driven my PC upgrades — the Thief series. Of course, Deadly Shadows was released in 2004 which means my most up-to-date PC is a single-core clunker that runs on steam and Pedigree Chum.


For the past five years I’ve been putting off buying a new console until I heard news of the fourth instalment, which is a difficult thing to imagine. The third game closed the narrative loop very elegantly, and the three titles focused on the three factions of Pagans (Dark Project), Hammers (Metal Age), and Keepers (Deadly Shadows).

So, there’s not really a fourth faction. Knowing that and the amount of time since DS,  it should be no surprise that Eidos Montreal are rebooting the franchise — the refuge of an artist devoid of ideas or any connection to the original source material.

Seriously, I do not believe this reboot will be worthy of the Thief legacy. For one it looks like Garrett is multi-classing into an assassin which ignores the basic premise of the original TDP: you’re not a soldier, not a superman, and if the guards catch you they have a good chance of doing you in. But OK, I can live with that.

Second issue: Stephen Russell will not be voicing Garrett. Obviously there will be fan outrage, and justly so; but this is a reboot, not a straight-to-DVD fourth sequel. Huge shame, but that’s not the worst.

The big head-scratcher is the decision to abandon the Pagan/Hammer mythology in favour of “aristocrats vs rebels”. One of the most compelling parts of the series, the thing that contributed to the fantasy atmosphere the most was the concept of the Pagan wild outside the city against the Church-sanctioned industrialisation inside. Perhaps there will be more depth to the regime in the reboot, but at the moment it sounds like “just” another corrupt city state, a tiresome clone of various other assassination-themed franchises with a bit more personal larceny this time around.

The mythology and atmospheric elements were a big influence on a couple of my RPGs (City and Square, my current work in progress being influenced by the notions of inside/outside), so the abandoning of all that was good in the original franchise is a bit of a disappointment; on the other hand the series was past its peak with the third game (mainly for the unnecessary simplification of the city map) so it was time. I can hold the reboot at arm’s length, like the recent Total Recall.

I wonder if Eric Brosius will have anything to do with the soundtrack. I’d buy that. Just not the game.

Probably not.