I watched a film this week. In this film, a Nazi spider-robot from the future anally raped an American soldier who had been sent back in time to 50,000 BC to kill a dinosaur-lion thing and investigate an alien flying saucer that had crash-landed there.

Yeah, my brain hurts, too.

This piece of sheer majestic greatness was The 25th Reich; an Australian comedy(?), sci-fi, action, horror…thing from deepest, darkest 2012. I’d discovered this film by accident, having been pounding the streets of Southampton looking for new contenders for my semi-regular B-movie horror gatherings. Yet lo and behold! What should shine out from amongst the standard Hollywood schlock and grime but a sparkling DVD case proclaiming the words: “5 men, 25 dimensions, 1 reality”; adorned with a picture of some US soldiers stood in front of some Nazi spaceships and a sticker saying “£0.75”. Before my brain could even compute what was happening, I found myself at the cashier’s register with the movie in my hand and my wallet 75 pence lighter than it was; suddenly questioning whether what I had just done was a good idea.

Well, what I had just done was cheaper than a cup of coffee and would only eat up 81 minutes of my precious life, so what was the worst that could happen? [Oh yeah, a Nazi spider-robot from the future anally raping an American solider, yada yada yada].

Alas, I’m not going to tell you. Y’see, such is the sheer, intense rage and amusement that The 25th Reich managed to instil in me, I’m going to take some time to really delve into the film; dissect it, poke fun at it and, if absolutely necessary, watch the bloody thing again. I tried my best to formulate my thoughts on it with enough turnaround as to post it here in time for today, but I can only deal with so much madness in one go; so, instead, I’ll post it in a fully-formed, uh, form hopefully sometime soon. I think it’d actually be rather interesting to go through the process for other, similarly-terrible B-movies as well; perhaps as a sort of series, I don’t know. Either way, I’m sure it’ll be fun to revisit the madness again one more time. Maybe.

Okay then, so what good things have I watched recently?

Well, I’ve recently tried to semi-resurrect my commitment to #Project500, my personal goal to try and watch all the of the 500 films ranked as ‘The Greatest Movies of All-Time’ as part of a poll in Empire magazine in 2008. As of today, I’ve managed to check off about 370 of them (to be fair, when I started, I had already seen almost half of the list); in the process, discovering a number of films that would now rank as some of my favourites. The last couple of years have seen a bit of a drop in the tick-off rate, so with the passing of the New Year I decided to sharpen my film-slaying sword and head off back into the #Project500 battle:

From Here to Eternity was a fairly pleasant, romantic drama focussing on a company in the US army stationed at Pearl Harbour just before the infamous attack; The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was a tedious horror/psycho-thriller from Dario Argento that, despite the original film being in English, I somehow managed to watch dubbed into Italian with English subtitles; Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was monotonous drudge with some appalling plotlines, rueful acting and some terrible songs; Topsy-Turvy was an entertaining, light-hearted biopic of Gilbert & Sullivan’s struggles to put on The Mikado; and A Man Escaped was a sort of slow-but-tense, black-and-white film by Robert Bresson, cataloguing one man’s efforts to escape prison after being arrested by the Nazis for being a part of the French Resistance. So yeah, films.

In between the #Project500 adventuring, I’ve also returned to my journey through The X-Files: after a bit of a break, I’ve recommenced at the beginning of season two, where the noticeable step up in quality (of both writing and visual effects) is already apparent. I love that the series perfectly combines my three, separate passions for paranormal conspiracy theories, B-movie special effects and detective drama. Also, if I was gay, I would totally try to it on David Duchovny. I’m not, but it’s good to have a Plan B just in case the whole ‘heterosexual’ thing doesn’t work out.

I’m not a person that really goes in for long-running TV series, and I totally shy away from the modern obsession with ‘box set’ TV unless it’s Game of Thrones. It’s like a constantly-repeating mantra that I feel like I have to repeat to everyone: no, I haven’t watched Breaking Bad. I don’t care how ‘good’ people might say it is; I’m just yet to be convinced by the ‘format’ of long-running drama series – I prefer “cinema” as a concept, where drama and storytelling are communicated concisely and character development is progressed more in a way that I enjoy. I’d rather spend 2-3 hours with a brilliantly concise, well-shot piece of celluloid drama than feel like I have to persevere with a bulldozer of a box set in order to eventually receive the payoff about a hundred hours later. In short: Breaking Bad may well be brilliant for its hundred-odd hours, but 2001: A Space Odyssey manages the catalogue the whole of human existence (from prehistory to a science-fiction future) in just two hours.

Speaking of time-consuming television, I’m once again romping through the whole of The Thick of It with gay abandon and unstoppable laughter. TToI is one of the (albeit, very few) television programmes that I could watch over and over and over again, and I’m once again revelling in the monolithic brilliance that is Malcom F. Tucker. [the other programmes that I could watch endlessly being Peep Show, Green Wing, Blackadder, I’m Alan Partridge, Black Books, Father Ted and The IT Crowd]. There’s just something endlessly cathartic about Tucker’s constant swearing and way with words; as if his expletive-filled rants somehow have a emotional connection to the soul and directly expel everything ‘bad’ from the world. He’s possibly the greatest comedy character ever created, and one which I will never tire of listening to.

Three words: Tim. In. Ruislip.


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I’ve struggled a bit, recently, with identity.

This has always been a bit of a weakness for me, partly because I’ve never really felt like I’ve fit in anywhere, and because I’ve sometimes felt like I never will. But given my seven-month break from full-time employment and recent changes to my relationship status, I’ve relaxed into a pattern of feeling merely ordinary.

I know that we can’t all be special gothic snowflakes and, as humans, we have no right to feel ‘special’ through every second of every minute of every day but lately, I’ve felt merely like one of the crowd; yet, a crowd in which I don’t truly ‘fit in’ with. Yes, I am aware of the glaring oxymoron: how can you feel just part of a crowd if you feel like you stand out as ‘different’ within it? I don’t know; maybe I feel camouflaged by the other, regular, shambling humans of the world and obscured by the lights that burn brighter in society. I’m not saying that I deserve to stand out or be praised for my achievements/’me’-ness, I just mean that I’m too keenly aware of my role as merely a bipedal mammal in a overpopulated society of bipedal mammals and so have become disillusioned as to how I can make a meaningful impact on the bipedal mammals in my close proximity or the bipedal mammal population as a whole.

Maybe if I believed in religion – or a higher purpose for each and every one of us – then I could have the faith to recognise that we’re all part of highly connected and social society, and that the network of friendships and familyships (and the love that is transmitted along the conduits between them) is what arguably leads to social (and individual) progress. It’s my background as a scientist and engineer, though, that makes me see human society as simply one of thousands of other species; and that the individual populants have no God- or chance-given right to feel anything but part of the hive. I’m not trying to put an outright downer on anything; I’m just expressing my grounded view that – as humans – we’re nothing special. At least, not in the context of the Universe as a whole.

But: you know what? Even in that functional view of the world, we all still have our place and our unique roles. We’re all cogs in the machine; cogs of all different shapes and sizes and functions. I am different. At the very least, I am unique from all the other bipedal mammals in the world, and I have my own – unique – thoughts, talents and abilities that cause me to mean something to the bipedal mammals around me and, who knows, maybe one day mean something special to someone.

So, in the spirit of self-improvement and recognising all of the elements that make up ‘me’ and ‘me’ alone, I thought I’d set myself some homework: use the alphabet (A-Z) to list all of the things I enjoy and that work together to construct the unique bipedal mammal that is ‘me’; what you’d find if you cut me open and performed some mass spectrometry on my chemical formula (FYI: I’d rather you didn’t cut me open, but it’s really up to you).

[A] AFI, Assassin’s Creed

[B] Board Games, B-Movies

[C] Clerks, Chiptune

[D] Daft Punk, Dieselpunk

[E] Earl Grey, Edgeworth (Miles)

[F] Final Fantasy, Formula One

[G] Game of Thrones, Gory Horror Films

[H] Half-Life, Houmous

[I] Inception, In-Line Skating

[J] Japanese Cinema/Animation, Jam on Toast

[K] Kickstarter, Ke$ha

[L] Less Than Jake, Lovecraft (H. P.)

[M] Monkey Island (the Secret of), Monty Python

[N] Nine Inch Nails, Night-Time City Lights

[O] Okami, Orbital Mechanics

[P] Point-and-Click Adventure Games, Peep Show

[Q] Quizzes, QI

[R] Rush [the band], Rez

[S] Star Wars, Scott Pilgrim

[T] Turisas, Terry Pratchett

[U] Ümlaüts, Unending Sarcasm

[V] Velociraptors, Victorian London

[W] Wes Anderson, WASD + mouse

[X] Xenoblade Chronicles, X-Files (the)

[Y] YouTube Parties, Your Mum

[Z] Zelda (The Legend of), Zombie Nazis


Furthermore to this activity, I also recently started a self-imposed task to enrich my life with more positive, affirming music that encourages me feel good and awesome and other positive words. I called this task #Rule32, from Zombieland’s wise words to “Enjoy the little things”. So, I now have a Spotify playlist with which, each day, or at least every day I remember to, I add a new song that makes me feel like an awesome person. You can find it here:

Today’s song (013 // Foo Fighters – Something from Nothing) has particular meaning for me on this journey, so I’m going to write a few words about it: Foo Fighters were the first band that I properly got into on my journey to rock/metal addiction, around the time of There is Nothing Left to Lose. All of Dave Grohl’s work has properly captivated me (from Nirvana to Probot to Them Crooked Vultures to his drumming with QOTSA, Ghost, Tenacious D, yada yada yada), but Foo Fighters have always hit me direct in the heart.

‘Something from Nothing’ hits doubly hard, because it rings true with me: in truth, I’ve made something from nothing; I’ve made a something of myself, all on my own. Everything I’ve done and achieved in my life, I’ve done on my own. I’ve had very little in the way of leg-ups in life, and I’ve worked fucking hard to make everything I’ve made for myself. I’ve been lucky as well, but everything that I’ve gathered around me and left in my wake is the result of an incredible amount of perspiration, dedication and persistence.

I came from a tiny, rural town in the middle of nowhere, escaped the trappings of being overweight, lonely, picked-on, confused, afraid and whatever-the-hell-else to push myself hard enough to get through ten+ years of hard work to become a Master of Aerospace Engineering (with Astronautics) and, latterly, a full-on Doctor of Philosophy in space-y type stuff. I’m soon going to be starting a new job that continues this career path, and pushes me even higher and harder. Even if my brain sometimes try to convince me otherwise, I’ve achieved an incredible amount and have turned into a person that I’m proud to be.

I am something from nothing. I, more than anyone, need to remember that.


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Café Carnage: Dev Update #1


Ahoy there! I sort of semi-mentioned Café Carnage in my last Friday blog, but since I’ve now had some time to think more about possible ways the game could be improved (as well as getting a few tabletop gaming friends to play it and see what they think), I’d like to document the results of playtesting of Café Carnage v2.0 and offer some thoughts about what changes could be made. These game dev blogs are primarily a vessel for me to screw around with ideas and develop concepts, but hopefully that’s interesting to you guys, too.

So, in that spirit: onwards!


So, essentially, Café Carnage is a party game. A light, card-based game with minor elements of strategy and push-your-luck but, at its base, it is a party game (albeit – at the moment – only a party that only four people are attending). The version of Café Carnage [v1.0] that Marco, Dickson and I developed as part of the Global Game Jam 2015 (#SotonGameJam) was a very simple, party-game for four players; stripped of some of the more fancy ideas that we came up with, in order to get a workable, fun game completed in the 48 hour time limit. To download the Print ‘n’ Play version of Café Carnage [v1.0], take a look at the link below:

Print and play files: Café Carnage – Global Game Jam 2015 game by Marco Caldarelli, Simon George and Dickson Chui // Ages: 8 and above, playtime: 15-30 minutes.

In its primitive state, it’s a short, no-brain, luck-pushing game that essentially boils down to picking the right time to run from your bill-paying responsibilities: basically, picking the right day (of five) to play your “Run!” card and hoping that none of the other players play theirs at the same time – it’s a slightly amplified version of the famous Unscrupulous Diner’s Dilemma. There’s some slight more complexity and decision-making as to when to pick the best time to run, but, in essence, there’s a fairly clear way to victory that sort of becomes obvious once you’ve played it more than once.

But that’s fine: Café Carnage is intended as a party game; one in which you quickly bash out a playthrough in 15-20 minutes, call your friends “bastards” and perhaps have a chuckle or two along the way (results may vary).


The difficult problem now lies in how to develop Café Carnage [v2.0] and take it one step further into a more robust, more interesting game. After last week’s jamming, I’d sort of identified three key areas that I wanted to develop further in Version 2.0:

  • More players (5+)
  • More player interaction
  • More variation in the points/cost balance (and penalty for going over budget)

During #SotonGameJam, we only really tested and balanced Version One with 4 players. The idea of the game was, initially, to be a party game that could be played with a group of up to (say) 8 people who then debate over the bill; much like a large group meal IRL. The main logistical complication in adding more players lies in supplying sufficient number of cards such that, over the five rounds of the game, you’re not endlessly shuffling the discard piles and that there’s enough variety in the various dishes that diners can eat. Adding more players does, however, screw with the rules governing how diners can “Run!” from a meal and how only the ‘slowest’ diner (i.e. the player that consumed the most food that day and hence is the most out-of-shape) gets caught and all others escape without paying their bill – in a four-player game played over five rounds, the chances of 3+ players choosing to “Run!” at the same time is unlikely (in testing, rarely did more than two diners choose to “Run!” at the same time), but in a game with 6 or more players, you’re going to get multiple runners every round. How to ‘fix’ this such that one single diner doesn’t end up having to pay for 3-4 other meals (from successful escapees) is still an open question.

Regardless of any increase in players, a way of stimulating more interactions between the players is an important task. At present, players simply choose their three dishes (starter, main course, dessert) secretly from other players, and then the card showing what they choose to do when the bill arrives, before there is any engagement between the players in revealing what dishes they ate and revealing their chosen SHARE BILL/PAY SEPARATELY/RUN card. That there’s so much time spent simply doing your own thing means that there’s not only the potential for Analysis Paralysis (AP) to creep in, but also that the players are silent through this phase; which is not so fun. In Version One, what players choose to eat and choose to do when the bill arrives is in no way based on what anyone else is doing – you essentially do your own thing regardless of what other players might do, so you may as well be playing a solitaire game or playing against a droid. For Version Two, I’d love there to be more ways in which you can actually play against the other humans; be it by forcing engagement between players and revealing something about what everyone had to eat that day (perhaps, while everyone is eating their dessert, diners can choose to ‘grill’ [pun intended] a particular player about how much their starter or main course cost?), or more directly through bonus action cards or special powers that allow players to sabotage other diners’ meals.


One other thing that became apparent during the #SotonGameJam testing was that, even though Café Carnage Version One was incredibly well-balanced for four players (due, largely, to luck more than any tactical game design decisions), games would often end quite close in terms of the final scores of players. While this is not necessarily a massive issue, it does mean that games can be lost or won based on a single, minute decision (for example, choosing a one-star Starter dish rather than a three-star one); or worse, sheer luck. Furthermore, this also penalises heavily any player that is involved in an unsuccessful “Run!” attempt, because the requirement for them to pay for their own meal in addition to the meals of all other players who successfully escaped means that they’re near-guaranteed to end up way over their budget and heavily out of the running.

Aside from Version Two addressing the problem of multiple (3+) runners during a meal, it is fairly clear that a better cost/star ratio needs to be manufactured: in Version One, a one-star meal costs one ‘money’ (there’s no set currency for Café Carnage yet); a two-star meal costs two ‘money’; a three-star meal costs ‘three’ money, and so on. Because of this (and because any remaining budget at the end of the week contributes to Victory Points), points at the end of the game tend to vary between 35 (for winners) and 25 (for losers) – considering that players start with 30 ‘money’, this is not a huge variation (although not an unreasonable one).

There are some options for making this more interesting, and for elevating the tension as to whether the gluttonous diners successfully share the bill (thereby forcing other diners to share the burden of your expense): one is to modify the “exchange rate” between stars and ‘money’ – e.g. a one-star dish costs one ‘money’, but a two-star dish costs two ‘money’ and a three-star dish costs five ‘money’; but at the end of the game only stars count as Victory Points (not your remaining budget), but you lose Victory Points if you end up in debt at the end of the week. Alternatively, there’s the ‘Tastes’ variant that adds additional ways to earn stars/Victory Points as bonus value-for-money – each player is dealt a ‘character’ that appreciates certain types of food (e.g. Pepper Grylls likes her food to be vegetarian and/or healthy; Josh Rogan enjoys spicy foods, etc.), and bonus stars can be collected by choosing dishes that meet your diner’s requirements.

I don’t know what the solution is to this problem yet, but it’s good to have ideas.


Anyway, last Sunday, I gathered a bunch of my gaming friends ‘round my place to give Café Carnage a few rounds (with differing variants) to bash out some new ideas and brainstorm. I’m still thinking about the findings and feedback of that endeavour so I’ll leave those thinkings to the next post; but suffice to say that, after playtesting, I would like to add the following goals to the initial three that I laid out earlier in this post:

  • Less downtime/AP/potential for decision-making (and less shuffling time)
  • Action cards and during-dinner hijinks (e. stuff happening between courses)
  • Physical money (instead of a money-track)

So yeah, there you have the basis for Café Carnage Version Two. I’m still working hard on thoughts for Penny Black and my binary game, Bit Pattern, but I’m fairly pleased with the progress with “café game” as well 😀 Until next time, then. Godspeed!


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Last weekend, in less than 48 hours, I helped design a novel café-based card game from scratch.

I can scarcely believe that it’s been a whole seven days since the beginning of the whirlwind Global Game Jam 2015 / #SotonGameJam tsunami that wiped out 48 hours of my life last weekend but, evidently, it has. I’ve got a bigger game dev-based post in the works in which I want to write about my various board game projects (Penny Black, Babbage and, now, Café Carnage), so I won’t take up too much time here with them, but yes, in 48 hours Marco, Dickson and I came up with a brand new card game called Café Carnage as part of #GGJ15, and you can download the print ‘n’ play files here ~

Print and play files: Café Carnage – Global Game Jam 2015 game by Marco Caldarelli, Simon George and Dickson Chui // Ages: 8 and above, playtime: 15-30 minutes.

Café Carnage is a party, bluffing-type game where yourself and three friends decide to visit five restaurants with an initial budget of £30, and attempt to eat the most food whilst trying screw your friends over by getting them to share the bill when you’ve eaten heartily, or running away when it’s time to pay the bill. In the end, we actually managed to pretty much come up with the whole of Café Carnage in less than 20 hours after a false start where we focussed on a different concept, which sort of makes it even more surprising that we actually have a game to show at the end of it. And it works! It’s not the world’s best tabletop game nor is it free from minor problems and limitations, but it’s a playable game and (at least from the playtesting we managed to get done during #SotonGameJam) people seemed to be enjoying it 😀

There’s more work that can be done on it towards refining it, but it’s totally playable as it is for four players looking to have a quick, light-hearted bit of fun ordering food and trying to bluff your way out of the bill. So yes: overall, in between the panic-designing and epic exhaustion that were sort of hallmarks of the jam, I had a good time at #SotonGameJam. It certainly proved a dramatic, rollercoaster way of spending a weekend; even if it did – at times – help to fuel the raging inferno of insecurity in my own abilities and ideas.

Recently, a lot of my insecurities have (sort of) come to the forefront of my mind and hammered away at my sanity more often than I’d like. Over the years, I’ve become quite good at burying the insecurity and covering it up with distractions or occupations or (more genuine) stresses and strains; but, with my current situation of being between-jobs and on my own at home for most of the time, there’s considerable time for the insecurity to chisel its tiny way into your sanity and start tinkering away into your confidence and self-belief. I’ve never been particularly affluent in self-confidence and self-esteem but, recently, things have sort of accidentally conspired to erode what faith I did have in myself; causing me to doubt the confidence in my outward persona and the things that I say, make and create. The general result, essentially, is that I’ve had too much time to overthink a lot of things, and to reflect on where I am in life/love/legacy and whether I measure up to the imaginary standards I’ve concocted that I think the world is expecting me to live up to.

Whenever I’m faced with a question of “whether I’m good enough”, I naturally end up comparing myself to unrealistic benchmarks (famous people, fictional characters, people that I perceive to be “winning at life”) and conveniently forgetting about the millions of other people around me that have normal lives and normal expectations set of them; as well as the flaws & imperfections that my beloved ‘benchmarks’ inevitably possess in addition to their positive qualities. My brain knows that, rationally, there is no point in comparing my physical appearance with that of Tom Hiddleston but, for some reason, it seems to interpret the fact that Tom Hiddleston exists – and is uncomfortably pretty and charming – as some sort of sleight on myself and my own looks. I can sort of understand where it’s coming from, though: when Hiddlesexy is wandering about on the same celestial body as I am, who the hell would be physically attracted to me?

The thing is, such thoughts are far from helpful. I might be wholly unconvinced by my physical looks and (most of the time) think that I’m some sort of hideous troll, but that’s not to say that everyone else thinks the same, too. Naturally, I see my flaws and my imperfections because I’m looking for them, and I see them every day in the mirror or in my brain or in my hands and am continually reminded that they’re there. They’re there, right in front of me, all of the time and, because of the way my brain works, they blot out all of the good bits that aren’t flawed or opaque and cause me to forget all that’s good about me and the confidence I have in myself & my abilities. Deep down, I have trust that I’m not a terrible person nor possess the world’s most repulsive appearance, and that I have qualities that People value and want to have around them, but the brain sometimes has rather unhelpful ways of trying to be ‘helpful’.

It’s been a bit of a choppy sea that I’ve been sailing in these last six months out of long-term relationship, and I’m still finding my sea legs. I’m still properly figuring out where I stand in the world, now that I’m standing in it on my own; and, in trying to establish my comfort zone, I’m sort of still feeling around for signs that I’m doing things right and that everything is okay. I’m the sort of person that wears their heart not only on their sleeve but on their every facet, and so it’s sometimes easy for my exposed heart to find itself injured in the process of everyday life – in the absence of corrective feedback or affirmations of “yes, you’re doing things right”, my brain tends to interpret the neutrality as indications of my visible failures or inadequacies. Again: not helpful, brain.

I need to let go of who I think I’m supposed to be, and embrace everything that makes me, me; imperfections and all. Just because I am not some famous, swooning celebrity who’s solved cold fusion and won a Best Actor Oscar and climbed Everest does not mean that I am not still a kind, generous, intelligent, thoughtful, funny person that’s – in his own way – unique and talented and beautiful.

I can do a lot of things that a lot of other people couldn’t even consider doing: I mean, last weekend, in less than 48 hours, I helped design a novel café-based card game from scratch. I bet Tom Hiddleston couldn’t do that, even if he would look infuriatingly pretty whilst trying.


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On Wednesday, I resurrected an old friend and restarted the bi-weekly (ish) ritual of sitting down with a few friends and watching some crappy, cheesy, low-budget horror films. This used to a regular thing that we did a few years ago and many good times were had but, in more recent years, life sort of got in the way and we kind of forgot about it. Anyway, with the turn of the New Year, I felt it was time to shamble down to cemetary again and dig up the corpse of the magnificent ScareFest such that we may, once again, marvel at unconvincing acting, horrendous special “effects” and terrible storylines in the company of snacks, drinks and good friends.

The original idea was to establish a night dedicated to watching pairs of horror B-movies: one properly in the realm of Z-movie horror with crappy budgets; one relatively good one with a moderately bigger budget and fair critical acclaim. Such fun was kicked off on Wednesday with ScareFest #01: Dolls and Dogs, which married the low-budget Doll Graveyard with the minorly-higher-budget-but-still-not-a-huge-budget Dog Soliders. It turns out that both performed pretty much as expected; with much commentary on low-budget actors trying to ‘do’ the ‘acting’ thing, confusion as to why the back of the DVD box for Doll Graveyard recounts a completely different premise for the film than the one shown onscreen, and excitement at the appearance of Davos Seaworth from Game of Thrones as a Special Forces Captain in Dog Soliders.

Anyway, the proposed schedule for ScareFest: Season One is thus:

ScareFest #01: Dolls and Dogs
Doll Graveyard (Charles Band, 2005) and Dog Soldiers (Neil Marshall, 2002)

ScareFest #02: Creaturezoids
Creepozoids (David DeCoteau, 1987) and Feast (John Gulager, 2005)

ScareFest #03: Biohazard Detected
Spiders (Gary Jones, 2000) and The Rage (Robert Kurtzman, 2007)

ScareFest #04: You Had Me in Stitches
Skinned Deep (Gabriel Bartalos, 2004) and Stitches (Conor McMahon, 2012)

ScareFest #05: Cradle of Flesh
Cradle of Fear (Alex Chandon, 2001) and MindFlesh (Robert Pratten, 2008)

If you would like to join in the horror movie fun, then you are very welcome to – give me a shout or something and I’ll add you to the next event! Also, if you have any crappy B-movie suggestions then I’ll add them to the rota 😀

Anyway, onto less horror-film climes: today marks the start of #SotonGameJam, which is part of the Global Game Jam 2015; an initiative to have a whole bunch of people, scattered across the planet, to design a game (digital or tabletop) in 48 hours. The Southampton portion of #GGJ15 is being co-organised by a few people I know, and the jam itself will be happening all weekend in one of the computing labs at the University of Southampton. I don’t really know what my game will end up being about, but thinking about it has already sparked some ideas about designing some kind of card game that revolves about binary numbers and bit patterns – Of course, maybe that’ll go completely out the window when we learn the (as-yet unannounced) theme of #SotonGameJam, but it’s still exciting stuff and I’m mega looking forward to getting involved.

Whilst I’m clearly already getting excited about my next board game design project, it’s notable that I still haven’t gotten much further with my other game-design opus, Penny Black, since I last blogged about it – largely, I’m too scared to play-test it and discover its flaws, lest it shake my confidence in what my creative juices can help to lubricate. Like many artists, I’m often too much of a perfectionist to fully relinquish control of what creative output(s) I manage to spew forth and, likewise, am very sensitive to criticism (even If it’s constructive). I suppose that I should just fucking do it and set up a playtest night with a few friends to give it a try with four players, and see what happens. I’m not sure what I’m really scared of (perhaps it’s finding something game-breaking or fundamentally wrong with what I’ve dreamed up), but I trust the opinions – and compassion – of my tabletop friends not to completely slam it, so I really should just roll the dice, deal the cards and see what happens. Hey, who knows, maybe it’ll be really good? And hey, if it’s not, then the feedback will be constructive and make the game better and, maybe, somewhere along the line, something awesome might happen with it. You never know ‘til you try, do you?

On the subject of game dev that I’m totally taking undue credit for, this week Citizens of Earth came out on Steam and pretty much every console ever, and towards which I very minorly contributing by doing some beta-testing way back in 2014. I’ve not played the most recent build and haven’t played it all the way through (I was involving in bug-testing of the very early section of the story and in combat and stuff), but from what I was involved in, it looked exactly my kind of turn-based (J)RPG-type game and I’m heavily looking forward to actually giving it a bash. I didn’t delve into any code and I was mainly looking at playtesting and usability and in-game bugs/crashes, but it’s nice to feel like I helped to make it better in some way. I considered making a proper video game for #SotonGameJam, but my coding skills are totally not in prime physical fitness for making anything other than a very simple, turn-based/logical strategy-game-thing, and I figured that I could have more fun doing the same sort of thing in the physical realm (with cardboard tokens! And wooden cubes! And 3D-printed Cthulhu meeples!) anyway.

Anyway, I’d better get shiftin’; I’ve got game-jamming to do. Let’s get to it.


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Special Delivery


I’ve been playing a new game recently.

It’s called “When Will My Package Arrive?” and, for almost three weeks, I remained locked in battle with a deliveryperson from MyHermes in a conflict as old as time. But, after a rollercoaster of emotion and a tidal wave of confusion, the battle is finally over.


The game had been going on for over three weeks, ever since I ordered a package from Ebay not long after Christmas from a very pleasant Man in The North. However, despite the best efforts of The Man in The North, my beautiful parcel-child seemed destined never to materialise at my doorstep due to an array of factors that I’m still yet to comprehend. Like many of the problems that exist in my life, the source of bother was board game-related; although, unlike most of said board game-based problems (i.e. that I don’t have enough), it was one caused mainly by the wrath of the Gods themselves.

This all started on Christmas Day 2014, when I decided to try and remedy the ailment of ‘Not Receiving Any New Board Games For Xmas’-itis by picking up a copy of the third expansion to Dirk Henn’s Alhambra from Ebay because, by happy coincidence, someone (the aforementioned ‘The Man in The North’) was selling a German copy of the expansion and I need a version of it in German so that it fits in with my German copy of the original Alhambra game. So far, so straightforward.

Fast-forward a few days, and it’s New Year’s Eve 2014 and I’ve popped out at lunchtime to go and grab some food and coffee. Upon my return, I discover a ‘Sorry I Missed You’ card from the MyHermes person waiting for me, jammed in the metal shrouding surrounding the buzzer system to my block of flats. The truth is, I wasn’t expecting my package to arrive so soon (estimated delivery placed it at around the 4th-10th of January), and so had I known there was a chance of it arriving then I would’ve probably stayed in to receive it. Never mind, though; surely they would try again on the next working day to bring me my package, and I’d soon be whisking myself to Gametown to build my Alhambra with a few friends.

Alas, the next working day was New Year’s Day 2015; a national holiday in the UK. Friday came and went without an appearance from my package [snigger], and the weekend proved equally fruitless. With the coming of Monday, though, I felt sure that the days of my package being neglected [snigger] were numbered and that I would soon be fondling my package [snigger] in the comfort of my own home.

However, Monsieur/Madame Hermés seemed to have a difficult time in finding my house. Despite the fact that they had found it successfully once, I discovered that they had a penchant for listing the parcel as ‘Out for Delivery’ on the MyHermes tracking facility, but never coming to my flat to attempt delivery. Quite naturally, I took to social media to express my frustration, in an open letter:

Dear MyHermes delivery person,

I don’t wish to tell you how to do your job or nothin’, but I think you’ll find that the easiest way of actually delivering my package is to just come to my house and give it to me, rather than listing it as ‘Out for Delivery’ each day and then not bothering to come anywhere near my flat.

I know that it’s likely not that big or bulky, but it’s still going to get pretty boring to see that same package in the back of your van every day. Plus, think of the pennies of fuel consumption and tyre wear you’ll save by it not being in there and having a van that’s 250g lighter.

I appreciate that my package probably hasn’t seen enough of the world, and that you’re doing a sterling job of driving it around and letting it see the sights of Southampton – I imagine the postcards of its exciting trips to St. Mary’s, Millbrook and perhaps even Chandler’s Ford will be something to show the grandchildren.

Perhaps it is simply that you have forgotten where I live, and can’t remember where you were supposed to be bringing my package to after it’d been on its round-the-world adventures. An easy mistake, we all do it sometimes. If that was the case, if you look on the back of my package, there should be – somewhere – a little tracking device called ‘An Address’ that you pop into this thing called ‘A Map’ and where it tells you where my flat is.

I know that that’s not as fun as playing ‘Hot or Cold’ with my package as you drive around Southampton for days on end, trying to get closer to ‘Warm’, but my package is late for his tea and he’s got school in the morning so it’s probably best that he come home now and do all his homework and everything. If you’re having trouble convincing him, tell him his mum said that if he comes home now then he can stay up for another hour and watch another episode of “Monsoon Poultry Hospital” as a special treat.

Anyway, sorry to bother you, hope to see you soon,

Si x

A day or so then passes before I once again remember to check the MyHermes tracking service, and realise that the courier had apparently tried to come round earlier in the day whilst I was briefly out meeting a friend for lunch. Confusingly, the MyHermes tracker lists as being “Not Del’d – 3rd and Final Attempt” (despite it being only the second try) and, even more confusingly, neither did the courier leave a ‘Sorry I Missed You’ card (nor on the imaginary second delivery attempt) so there was no way of contacting the deliveryperson to re-arrange the delivery for a more convenient time or to arrange to collect it myself from somewhere.

Because it’s fairly usual in these circumstances (after, say, 3 deliveries have been attempted to no avail) for the parcel to be returned to the sender, I leapt onto Ebay to message The Man in The North in order to explain the problem and to let me know if/when it turned up at his house so that we could re-arrange a different way of delivery. Speaking to His People™, he was informed that the parcel was – once again – listed as ‘Out for Delivery’ that day, and that I should wait and see if it turned up that day.

I waited in all of that day. I did not leave the house.

Granted, at one point I put one foot outside of my back door to lean out to see if there was someone in the car park because I’d heard a van and wondered if Captain(ess) Hermes had appeared but the door buzzer hadn’t worked for some reason [SPOILERS: they hadn’t]. But no, I waited in all day; driving myself slightly mental and paranoid in the process. And no-one came.

Nor did they come the next day. Or the next day. Or the next day after that.

“This is it,” I thought. “All is Lost.” Gone forever. Swallowed into the void. Fallen over the precipice. I would never see my beautiful package again. I would never know its loving caress. With a tear dribbling down my cheek, I wrote to The Man in The North, explaining that the fruits of our union would never be savoured, and that it was likely that our charming offspring would probably be returned to his address. Since The Man in the North was a lovely man, he immediately refunded my PayPal payment, and promised that he would re-arrange another delivery (via a more reliable carrier) once it turned up with him again.

It was with immense surprise, then, that I returned from a brief shopping trip yesterday afternoon to find a “Sorry I Missed You” card from Hermes, apparently from a driver called ‘Andy’. Was I dreaming? Was this merely a hallucination? Was there going to be a happy ending after all?

Well: this lunchtime, ‘Andy’ dropped by again with a sparkling blue package nestled in his grasp. There was no fanfare; no chorus of angels. I looked to the sky, in case a beacon of light was deigned to shine down from the heavens, but I didn’t see one. Perhaps the Gods had forgotten to set their alarms. ‘Andy’ and I stood, staring at each other, in the rain outside my front door. Looking in each other’s eyes, we both knew that we had found each other. The harsh reality of the modern world may place many obstacles in the way of progress but, in the words of the great Dr. Ian Malcolm: “Life, uh, finds a way.”

Out of the darkness, my package had burst forth, bringing light and hope to hitherto black corners of existence. As I cradled my long-lost package in my arms, the tear once again materialised on my cheek and I felt my lips tremble like the legs of a baby deer as it struggles, hopelessly, to open the blister packaging of a new Black & Decker cordless drill.

“Thank you,” I whispered.

And, in that moment, we both knew that everything would now, forever, be all right. The game might now be over, but a spiritual connection would forever exist between the both of us; a product of our combined journey and our growth as people. With nary a parting word or goodbye embrace, we went our separate ways; destined for diverging paths but always retaining the memories of our beautiful game.

We entered the arena as but footsoldiers, but left as generals. Let’s hope we never have to do battle again.


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I’m a strange collection of parts.

I don’t mean physically; although, you’d not be entirely wrong if you thought of me as a sack of mis-shapen, incongruent limbs through together in same geographical location and fixed together with sticky tape and drawing pins. I mean, in terms of the various aspects of things that I enjoy or which send a buzzing, electrical signal through my body. I suppose, if you conducted the same process of dissection on anyone, you’d find the same broadness of interests and thoughts that inhabit my own flesh and blood…yet somehow, though, I often feel like I’m a bizarre conglomeration of passions and hobbies that don’t often go naturally together, and which I sometimes feel don’t match up with most people that I know.

For instance, I’m a music hound and devour music of all shapes and sizes over a vast array of genres and styles: I have extreme fondness for such diametrically-opposed acts as Cradle of Filth and Ke$ha; chiptune to classical. But then, I’m hugely into movies and cinema, and games of all sizes from digital to tabletop. And then, I’m massively into motorsport: Formula One, touring cars and rallying. And what about the other things that I enjoy, like photography and reading and collecting and eating and and and ? My problem is that I’m literally insane with curiosity about most things in the world, and I have a yet bigger problem in coming to terms with the fact that I cannot do everything.

Thinking about all this sort of makes my brain hurt.

Thinking about all this, though, does make me question how well I ‘fit’ into the world within my arms’ reach, and the people in it. Of course, I have friends that enjoy the same things that I do; at least, aspects of the same things that I do – I have some friends with which I share musical interests; others with which I share passion for motor racing, and others that I discuss cinema and television with at length. Then again, I have friends with which I share very few interests, but get on with very well because we’re similar people or share mutual sense(s) or humour(s). But when I’m meeting new people – particularly those that I would like to make friends with because I respect or are attracted to them – I often feel like I’m an aloof, nervous weirdo that has little in common with Joe or Janet Everyperson.

When people ask me what I do for a living, invariably they respond with something like “Woah, that’s really cool!” and are impressed when I explain that I have a Ph.D in something so awesome as ‘space stuff’. I’m often embarrassed to tell people what I do, in case it makes them build up a picture of ‘me’ that isn’t accurate; that I’m some high-functioning android that’s super-intelligent, or that I am actually a character from The Big Bang Theory. I’m just a regular guy that got lucky with genes and opportunities; not someone that was always built for success. I want people to like me for me, not just for being impressed by the letters after my name or for the career that I’ve lucked into. In any case, I tend to find that other people’s lives and careers are far more interesting than my own, even if my day job is essentially building spaceships for a living.

I get it – I’m a geek. The hobbies that I tend to have the strongest passion(s) for are those that perhaps aren’t the most common or accepted among twenty-something lads and lasses: sure, everyone likes music but most people won’t have heard of the kind of bands I like; there’s no-one these days that doesn’t play video games to some extent, but the ones I enjoy are the more aloof, artful, interesting ones with complex storylines or mechanics and not Call of Duty or Angry Birds. It’s not like I chose to ignore the mainstream: I’m quite happy with many things in the mainstream and don’t feel any urge to condescend on anything that’s socially popular; I just like to appreciate the things outside of it as well.

In short: yes, I enjoy the cinematic works of Sidney Lumet, Akira Kurosawa and Werner Herzog, but I also like watching Clerks II and Dumb and Dumber and Transformers.

The end result, though, is that I feel like I need to try too hard in order to demonstrate the existence of a connection between myself and others, and tend to get disheartened when there’s not an overlap. Perhaps that’s because I feel slightly ashamed that I’m slightly different and have my own, unique interests and ideas; perhaps because I’ve always been on the outside of popular friend groups and have therefore always felt that I was at fault, or that there was something wrong with me. Hence, I’m always nervous and quiet around new people because I assume that they’re going to be judging me and rating me and marking me according to some list of mythical criteria that governs whether they will let me be their friend or not. Invariably they are not (because, in general, People™ are not so fickle) and, in actual fact, would probably prefer that I emerge from my chrysalis in order to reveal the beautiful butterfly that lies beneath.

SPOILERS: I am not a beautiful butterfly, but thanks for asking.

The reality is: I’m far too much of a gangly, awkward, over-analysing bundle of wires to ever truly relax in front of anyone that’s not already an established, close friend that won’t misinterpret my weird sense of humour or judge me for my unconventional interests and facets. Despite all this, I’m a far more confident, ballistic person than I ever used to be and I imagine my trajectory in this manner will, evermore, continue climbing; even if there are often fluctuations about the mean, and that I may never truly reach the summit. But I’ll keep trying, keep evolving, and maybe one day I’ll be comfortable in my own, weird skin. Maybe.

So, dear friends: yes, I’m a weirdo. But if you’ll let me, I’ll be your weirdo.


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Sinister Reviews #14: Gabriel Knight – Sins of the Fathers


Genre: Point-and-Click Adventure
Platform: PC (version tested), Mac
Release Date: October 2014 remake
Developer: Pinkerton Road Studios
Publisher: Phoenix Online Studios

I missed Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers (GKSotF) the first time around. Y’see, I was always a LucasArts brand of adventure-hound rather than a Sierra one; craving the comedy adventures in the vein of Monkey Island, Grim Fandango and Full Throttle (along with other, non-LucasArts games like Simon the Sorceror and Broken Sword) rather than more serious titles, like Gabriel Knight. However, since 2014 marked the twentieth anniversary of GKSotF’s release and saw release of an anniversary remake by Pinkerton Road Studios, the time seemed as good as any to leap into the world of Gabriel Knight and his roguish brand of amateur crime-solving.


Jane Jensen’s Gabriel Knight series still remains a heralded classic in the point-and-click canon, touching upon a tale of murder-mystery stuffed with conspiratorial happenings, secret voodoo cults and suspicious events. The titular Mr. Knight is a brash, book shop-owning novelist from New Orleans, who becomes increasingly involved in police investigation of a case known as the Voodoo Murders through his friend Detective Moseley, before getting in far over his head. Over the course of ten game-days, the player must manoeuvre Knight around various scenes and locales of New Orleans (and, later, Germany and Africa); examining objects, harassing the townsfolk and using objects with other objects in the time-honoured point-and-click fashion. However, what sets GKSotF aside from the average is Jensen’s superb narrative: where my childhood adventuring through the LucasArts catalogue mainly stroked the soft underbelly of light-hearted storylines and comedic set-pieces, GKSotF tackles far more dense subject matter; a true crime thriller, with its fair share of grisly crimes and decidedly ‘grown-up’ themes. It’s reminiscent of a page-turning detective novel, with some excellent story pacing and an array of suspicious characters all, inevitably, involved in a complex web of mystery that maintains a respectable level of tension throughout the experience.

A key part of maintaining this atmosphere lies in the engaging, well-balanced, puzzle design. While some puzzles will have you scratching head for a while, they rarely feel unsolvable; yet, never facile, either. Solutions are never made too obvious (nor is the player ever steered toward them using petty hand-holding), yet pose a median level of difficulty that don’t challenge either the player’s intelligence or stupidity. Furthermore, the puzzles all maintain relevance to the ongoing storyline and police/spiritual investigation, meaning that the game largely doesn’t feel padded out with extraneous hoop-jumping or completely bizarre, shoehorned puzzles. To my knowledge, there was only one occasion where I hit a puzzle that I would never, ever have solved without the hint system (spoilers: it was the exact wording for what I was supposed to write on the tomb wall in the voodoo code) and, of course, the ‘engage with the mime’ puzzle near the beginning of the game is possibly the most tedious puzzle that I’ve ever encountered in an adventure game, but we all make mistakes.


GKSotF should also be commended for not relying too much on the adventure games staple of constant back-and-forth between characters or scenes to progress the action; not that engagement with NPCs feels too much like a chore. Aside from the game’s abrasive voiced narration (which, thankfully, it is possible to mute), voice acting varies from ‘really good’ to merely just ‘acceptable’, and the initially-tedious dialogue animations certainly endear and lose their irritation. Dialogue trees are also well-constructed to avoid too much repetition and deliver the ongoing narrative in a focused, natural way. In this respect, the presence of a physical narrator of Gabriel’s actions feels like an alien concept (at least when compared to the LucasArts style of having the main character comment, narrate and break the fourth wall) since it disengages the player from Gabriel himself, but adds to the feeling of being involved in a detective serial or TV movie. Pretty much all of the dialogue, scenery and storyline are – I’m led to believe – faithfully recreated from the 1993 original version of Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers (except now rendered in prettier high-definition graphics and cut-scenes) and it’s satisfying to find that GKSotF has aged commendably in the intervening two decades.

In general, the updated character models are well-rendered; faithfully-recreated scenes are packed with prettiness to look at and it all represents a fairly solid modern take on Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. If there’s a weakness in the visual and atmospheric update, it’s in the game engine – the commitment to re-drawing scenes from the original leads to the limiting decision to use high-definition, 2D backgrounds with 3-D Unity-driven character models walking overtop, rather than fully-3D scenes. 99% of the time this raises no issues, but occasionally presents unfortunate graphical glitches and evidence that the gameworld is merely a 2D plane with characters pacing around atop a stationary texture. It’s not a game-breaker, but merely leads you to occasionally feel like you’re playing an adventure game version of The Sims.

[FYI, if you want to get hold of the original version of GKSotF, then head over to]


But, I’m nitpicking: the fact that you notice such mild gremlins and glitches is simply because the rest of GKSotF is so solid and enjoyable. Sure, the storyline drifts off a little in the last third – away from the more interesting ‘police’-type investigation and toward a more linear path of “do this, then do this, then do this”, which feels just a teeny bit padded out – but it’s because the majority of the game feels so well-paced and –balanced in terms of both narrative and gameplay.

In truth, I was expecting to be a little disappointed by Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. My curiosity had been piqued by Yahztee & Gabe’s playthrough of the first hour or so on Let’s Drown Out, and I’d expected to be mildly engaged by the storyline but to find fault with the game’s mechanics and object/NPC interaction. Imagine my pleasant surprise, then, to discover that it’s one of the best adventure games that I’ve played in recent years. Despite a few flaws, it’s still a masterclass in adventure game design and well worth a visit for the narrative exposition alone. Perhaps it’s testament to the forward-thinking innovation of the original, or the persistence of the point-and-click genre in being stuck in the mid-Nineties, but if ever there were a time to discover the world of Gabriel Knight (or perhaps just revisit it), then it’s now.


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I used to keep a regular, daily (ish) blog back in 2004-2008ish over at the almighty LiveJournal. In it, I would write down all sorts of random rubbish that would help vacate my brain of all the useless junk that clutters it up on a day-to-day basis.

I thought that I would resurrect that ethos for the year 2015, and maintain some sort of Friday Blog thing where I can just talk about random stuff that I’ve seen or played or done over the week, rant about the Star Wars prequels and salivate over board games that I want to buy but can’t afford. I’ll jot down things during the week and/or blog down little sections each day, and then collect them all into a Friday Blog (inspired by Friedemann Friese’s Friday project) which summarises some of the things that are going on in my own little world. Basically, it’ll just be a little catalogue of whatever’s hitting my brain at the time and what’s important to me.

Since this is the first proper Friday of 2015 (the last one doesn’t count since it only had a day to get prepared, and it sort of overslept), here is Friday_001. Let’s get shifting.


So: 2015, then. For all kinds of reasons, 2014 was a bit of a strange year. Lots of things happened across it; both good, and bad. The climax of the year sparked in me a noble goal of making the best of 2015 and for creating some sort of fresh start; at least, mentally. 2014 was plagued with a variety of struggles and stresses, and so I vowed to make the new year one in which struggle and stress would be minimised, if not eradicated. I see it as an opportunity to make myself a better person – not materially, or in terms of who I socialise with or who is in my life, but as a chance to align myself more closely to the ‘me’ that I’d like to be; better at keeping in touch with people, less susceptible to procrastination, resistant to worry. Simon 3.0, if you will.

I suppose that the success of this endeavour will only become measurable over time, but hopefully it will be measurable, eventually. 2015 marks the beginning of a variety of new journeys for me, so the time is as good as any to embark on a fresh page of ‘me’ and to decouple the feelings, troubles & regrets of the past from the adventures of the future. Too often, I’m my own harshest critic and will chastise myself far harder for my mistakes than I would do for literally anyone else in the world. Well, Twenty-One-Five is my chance to be 100% more awesome and 100% less rubbish, and those aren’t just hollow words. This calendar year will be one in which I cross over the threshold into my fourth decade, and so naturally it lends itself to a convenient excuse to let go of the past and its plethora errors & regrets to think only of the positives that the future will hold. I’m by no means a perfect person, but – again, perhaps with time – I can finally approach the asymptote of the well-rounded, mentally-strong, good person that I strive to be.

So yeah, my Resolutions for 2015 are generally just: be better at stuff; spend less money; eat less crap. Y’know, all the normal stuff that people resolve to do in the New Year, but with a genuine sense of incremental, noticeable change. Simon 2.0 was a solid release but still had a few bugs; Simon 3.0 aims to ship with fewer glitches, more documentation and better usability. Let’s crack on.


Anyway, that’s enough boring talk. What else in new in January?

Well, I’m horribly addicted to board games again. Those people that know me will say: “But…you’re always horribly addicted to board games!” Yes, this is true. I think it’s just amplified at the moment because [a] I’m in between jobs and therefore have a heck of a lot of time to think about them; [b] I’ve still got a bunch of new-ish ones on my shelves that I still haven’t played but would like to; and [c] I’m in the process of designing my own (Penny Black) that my brain is constantly being bombarded with new ideas and potential mechanics to introduce to the game. Furthermore, one of my best friends in Southampton has also just picked up the ‘designer board games’ virus (albeit, from me) and hence we’re spending much time and conversation in playing, and talking about what we want to play next.

Just before Xmas, I picked up Camel Up at Dave’s Comic Shop in Brighton, and it’s badass: not sure yet how it’ll stand up to repeated plays, but it certainly seems to be fun so far. In the pre-Xmas sales I bought The Witches: A Discworld Game and, only yesterday, put in an order for Stefan Feld’s lightweight strategy game La Isla; which is about searching for rare and exotic animals on a newly-discovered isolated island. Put this in the context of the other games that I own but still haven’t played in anger (Lewis and Clark: The Expedition, Asgard, Jamaica, Shipwrights of the North Sea, The Lord of the Rings) and those that I want to break out again (Village, Priests of Ra, Vasco da Gama), and I’m a bit wrapped up in the cardboard world at the moment.

Which reminds me: I would quite like to go to SPIEL ’15 in Essen this year.  Please?

Furthermore, I’m well back into the swing of point-and-click adventure games again. They’ve come and gone in my life, but always been a staple of my most memorable gaming experiences. After a bit of a false start this time last year (I only managed one; in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure), I’m vowing to get back into both adventure gaming and video game reviews; starting with the highly enjoyable 20th Anniversary Edition of Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. In my ample spare time recently I’ve been drafting a review summary, penning some of my thoughts about the game and its comparative ‘good’ and ‘bad’ points. Hopefully it’ll materialise on here at some point in the next week or so.

Anyway, that’s probably enough words for now. Friday_001 is finished; in time, Friday_002 will rise to take its place. All power to the Friday.


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Penny Black: Dev Update #1


For those that aren’t aware, I’ve been working on a board game. It’s been boiling around in my head since May or so; where it initially saw a great flurry of activity but, due to various other things, kind of got put on the backburner until a few weeks ago. However, in the last month I’ve focussed more time on it and into getting it to a position where I (and perhaps a group of friends) might be able to actually give it a try. Hooray!

The title of the game is Penny Black, which some of you might recognise as the name of the world’s first postage stamp designed by Sir Rowland Hill in 1840 for the Royal Mail. As you can therefore imagine, Penny Black is themed around a fictional Post Office; not in Victorian England but in the fictional Republic of Sinestria. So, what’s it all about? 



SUMMARYPenny Black is a strategy board game with a postal theme. Players take the roles of trainee sorting-office workers in the Mighty Republic of Sinestria, where the postal system has recently been introduced. In this role, players compete to serve customers, stamp their letters and process them into the Post-Bot’s mailbag in order deliver these to the intended recipients and earn points. However, the citizens of Sinestria are sceptical of this new postal system, and players will need to meet their various demands and expectations in order to secure the success of the Sinestria Republic Post.

The more letters that are picked up and delivered, the more trust players will acquire from the public (measured in terms of Victory Points) and, at the end of 7 days of training, the performance of the new trainees will be rigorously assessed. If players misplace letters or deliver them late, they will lose trust from the public. Furthermore, fellow players will be aiming to hinder each other or engage in outright sabotage, so players must maintain awareness of the competition.

Due to a malfunction, the Stamp Machine does not output the correct stamps but instead spews them out randomly onto the Sorting Office counter. Players will need to collect the correct stamps, pick the most viable customer letters, and make sure that they are in the Post-Bot’s mailbag at the correct time in order to score Victory Points.

The Chief of Post for the Government of Sinestria has vowed to permanently hire the most successful worker to be elevated to the position of Post-Office Manager, a highly respected position, based on players’ performance in efficiently collecting stamps, sorting letters and getting them into the mailbag at the correct time.


I’ve just reached a point of having the rules for v0.1 of Penny Black pretty much shaped up and written down. I’m yet to get round to playtesting, but I’ll look into doing so at some point over the Xmas period. If you would like to know what the hell Penny Black is all about (and, indeed, what the hell I’m talking about during the rest of this post), then a .PDF of the rules is here:

PennyBlack_v0.1 (December 2014, .pdf)


DISCUSSIONThe main concept of Penny Black is similar to a number of games that require collection of tiles/resources in order to purchase other cards, which require a varying combination of resources – these include titles like Unexpected Treasures (by Friedemann Friese) and Felinia (by Michael Schacht). In Penny Black, these, purchased, cards must then be redeemed by placing them in the mailbag at the appropriate time (and in competition with other players who are looking to do the same, perhaps with some amount of skulduggery) in order to score points.

Hopefully what is unique about Penny Black, when compared to other games based on collecting stuff and using it to buy other stuff (even so far as Alhambra by Dirk Henn), is that there is a ‘timing’ aspect to having the right things at the right time, and in the right place: the mechanic of having a semi-random method of dictating when a letter delivery takes place (defined by a dice roll which may mean that the Post-Bot moves at a steady 1-step pace [most likely], a rapid 2-step pace or does not move at all [least likely]) means that there is, hopefully, unpredictability as to when points are scored; wrestling complete control from the players and adding more tension along with incentive for skullduggery. The unpredictability of what exact delivery conditions (i.e. what earns bonus points for players when a delivery happens) also, hopefully, adds to the variation between games and leaves players guessing as to what will earn them points.


The main method of how players collect stamps is one of the key parts of Penny Black that I still don’t yet have a solid ‘feel’ for. I expect that over various iterations of the game, how stamps are collected by players will likely evolve a bit; perhaps taking cues from other games. For example, Felinia lets you collect similar tiles based on a ‘bidding’/market system, although this requires application of some sort of currency system which would add extra complexity to the game. I thought about some sort of worker-placement mechanic, but this seemed like an overly elaborate way of simply collecting resources. Maybe I’ll look into playing other games with similar mechanics, and see if there’s anything I can borrow or adapt if the current mechanic doesn’t feel quite ‘right’.

In the first iteration of Penny Black, the mechanic to collect tiles is largely similar to that of Ticket to Ride (by Alan R. Moon), yet with some similarities with Splendor (by Marc André): there is a general pool of stamp tiles, drawn randomly from a bag, that occupy six stamp spaces on the game board. On a turn, players may choose an action to activate the Stamp Machine, which re-fills any empty stamp spaces (left empty after previous players have taken stamps), and then choose three stamps to take from the available pool. Players may hold seven stamp tiles at a time. From their collection, players then trade the correct stamps with those depicted on an available customer letter in order to ‘stamp’ it and to prepare it for delivery, or use certain combinations of their stamps to influence the motions of the Post-Bot to speed up or slow down the time until delivery, or to kick out another player’s letter from the mailbag and replace it with one of their own. Yes, I know the Post-Bot is currently R2D2, shut up.


Another aspect that isn’t currently in place in Penny Black is the concept of having ‘special’ stamp cards. In addition to the way that basic stamp tiles are drawn from the bag and players may pick from them, I’m toying with the idea of having additional stamp cards that either allow a player to use them as any individual stamp, or perhaps as a double-stamp of a single colour. Further to this, something that isn’t yet fully-formed in my head is the method by which the Post-Bot either adds incentive (or penalises players) when it has reached the end of the Delivery Track yet the mailbag is not sufficiently prepared. It might be that an elegant way of killing both birds with a single stone would be to have the Post-Bot give special ‘one-shot’ stamp cards to all players that succeed in delivering a letter; although I’m aware that this might leave certain things overpowered, or lead to situations with runaway winners. In the current iteration (v0.1) of Penny Black there’s no facility for this yet, but it might be worth considering in a later iteration to see how it works. Certainly, I feel like a technique whereby players are rewarded for putting letters in the mailbag (not necessarily just for delivering them) could be an option; which might be as simple as taking a stamp tile from the available stamps on the Sorting Office Counter.


So, in a nutshell, that’s Penny Black. Of course, it’s going to take a lot more shaping up and refining before it’s something that could potentially be released to the outside world but, even at this very early stage, I’m bloody proud of how far I’ve gotten with it.

The next stage, really, is to test the game with some actual play. After I’ve fiddling with it myself and an imaginary table of gamers, I’m going to look into recruiting a few friends to giving it a go and providing some feedback on the game (in addition to identifying the glaring holes or errors in design). With a game like this that will require a significant amount of balancing in terms of how many points successful deliveries should be worth, how long there should be between deliveries, how easy or hard it is to collect the right stamps and purchase letters, etc. I feel that there will be a lot of tweaking necessary to weigh out the game so that it brings a balanced atmosphere. I’m intending on documenting the progress fairly methodically to establish what’s working and what’s not, so expect more posts in this series on the continuing development of the game and my thoughts on it.

If you’ve got ideas on thoughts on the status of Penny Black, then I’d love to hear what you think. Hey, maybe it inspires you to think about designing your own game; or just creativity in general. If I can spark some imagination surrounding interesting board game themes or creativity, then that’d be awesome.


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