Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Cardboard Carpenter – City of Remnants

Image courtesy of Plaid Hat Games, by kind permission. Art by John Ariosa. All rights remain his.

It wasn’t the most dramatic or interesting moment of the game, but it was arresting.

A gang of hulking, violent heavies breaks into a stronghold held by a police patrol, directly in the centre of the city. A few cards on the table and a roll of the die. The right cards meant it was almost a certainty, but dice don’t often deal in certainty. It was an aggressive move, rude even. It wasn’t their stronghold. Unoccupied until the police moved in, presumably putting off the gang who built it. A fruit for picking, for the prestige as much as anything.

Three Iggaret scrappers checked their guns, ran round the corner and climbed the walls of the stronghold. They rolled the dice, and set the police on fire.

I realised after I succeeded that I’d basically just done an Assault on Precinct 13.

City of Remnants is a game that deserves a John Carpenter soundtrack. It is threatening, it is tense, it is lean and beautiful. It is just a little scary.

I won’t go deep into the rules, you can find plenty of reviews that do that. The short version is that you are a gang of refugees, dividing along racial lines and fighting for renown in a bleak wasteland of a city.

The game has a backstory only slightly more detailed than that single sentence. The manual provides a paragraph, and a short story at the back. But this is a game full of stories. It makes stories with its mechanics, and it tells stories in little flashes of detail.

Each card in the game has at least a line of backstory, something someone said, a little slice of insight. These fragments build a world. You could miss that world if you didn’t read it, but I don’t think there’s any way you can avoid what’s going on in this game.

You are hard up. You are building yourself up, but you are building by treading on other people’s faces. Not even just the other gangs. There is slavery. There are drugs. There are fight clubs and gambling dens. The game is fundamentally about gangs divided on racial lines, and some aliens don’t play nicely with others. At the end of every round, you will get stomped on by the police. If you fight back, there’s a real chance that they’ll just stomp back harder. Bribery often feels like the safest option.

So much of this comes directly from the rules. The story is clear. Every decision is a fight. Every fight is for your life.

Each turn is a single choice. You can only do one action. There aren’t that many actions.

Each fight is a gamble. You don’t know what your opponent has, and if you have to fight a second round, you may find you’re playing blind. If you lose, you could lose an important linchpin of your strategy. Every item, gang member and ability is a card. If you only put one gang member into a fight and you lose, that gang member is gone. Even if it’s your leader.

Put it in the box. You’re dead.

There’s weight to actions. Choosing what to do is a little agonising, but you’ll almost always get some benefit, so it doesn’t slow down the game. There’s a lot of ways to get ahead. It’s just deciding which one might work. Making a plan. Making it work.

And then it’s gambling, pushing your luck, and playing cool when things get desperate.

Desperate is the word. This world is desperate, and you will be too. You have not got much time, and you can lose momentum quickly.

The game is the theme is the story is the world is everything.

This is a game with a lot of moving parts. Set up takes a while, and once you get there you’re left with a lot of piles of tokens and stacks of cards and a small army of little plastic miniatures. Each person has a gang pool, a draw deck, a discard pile and a hand. You can recruit gang members, buy contraband or build developments. You have to position your people, and your buildings; a rude combination of tetris and chess. Make sure everyone is protected. Make sure everywhere is efficient. You build an economy. You build a gang. You get angry when you die, or you lose ground. You get revenge.

I think this is a lean, taut and brutal game. It is immediately engaging, despite the initially intimidating appearance. It’s straightforward to teach (although probably not enough for boardgame beginners), and it quickly becomes clear how much possibility there is.

It looks complicated. And in a way it is.

But at the same time, each element is simple. You can play these cards any time during your turn. These cards are for battles. Everything does what it says on the card. Positioning is important and clear. Having neighbours makes you stronger.

It’s all a series of simple choices, simple mechanics, combining in a well thought out, solidly balanced way.

And more than all of that. It feels right. It feels like you’re scraping by with very little. It feels like you’re building a precious, precarious empire. It feels like every time you expand you just make it more likely the police are going to knock down your door. It feels like you have a gang. A gang made of remnants. A gang you could lose.

It feels like proper sci-fi. Grim, dirty, desperate and intriguing. Not a story, but a world.

And then you make your own story.

This would not be my game to win people over to boardgames. It’s a bit too complicated (but actually it doesn’t waste a drop of anything), it’s a bit too grimdark cliché (but actually the world is much richer than first glance) and it’s a bit long and slow (but actually it’s tense and pacey and ends just at the right amount of a little bit too soon).

But once someone has taken their first paddle into the cardboard waters, and started to see that there’s more going on than they thought, I think this is the game to show them just how deep the water is.

I can’t stop thinking about it. About the mechanics, about the tactics, about the world. It doesn’t ever feel like just a game. It feels like a City. A place where people live, somehow, and die.

I can’t wait to put that City back on my table, and tell some more stories in it.

Further reading:

I’ve already linked to the Shut Up show video review, which might get you almost as excited as me. I’d also recommend the Cardboard Republic review. I particularly like their explanation of why it is good for different ‘gamer archetypes‘. Not entirely sure I agree with their definitions, but I like the idea, and it’s a good critical tool.

Much of my boardgame enthusiasm and knowhow comes from the chaps at Shut Up & Sit Down, so here’s an obligatory link. They’re great, fun, and informative.

Obviously check out Plaid Hat Games to see the developer, they have great how to play videos, and I think they are genuinely lovely people. The SU&SD interview confirms some of that loveliness. Also, check out Plaid, although they have nothing to do with Plaid hat, and some people even say they pronounce it differently.

Thanks to Plaid Hat for permission to use John Ariosa’s picture for the header. Ace customer service, I’ve had two email responses directly from Isaac Vega, the maker of this game. Which makes me feel cool.

 Oh, and the Escape from New York and Assault from Precinct 13 soundtracks are awesome.

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Hopes and Schemes – The Promise of Fiction

So, I have this problem.

I love reading, I really love reading. I’ve got huge stacks of books left to read and I’ve read huge stacks of book. The one problem is that bigger than either of these stack, is the stacks of books I’ve started but not finished.

I’m terrible at it.

I’ve started two books in the last week. One of them I only got two pages in before deciding I wanted to read something else first. (It’s the second in a series, I decided I wanted a break before continuing).

So instead I read something else. A book I bought on a whim last year because I thought the central idea sounded amazing.

Now here’s the problem.

I am enjoying this book thoroughly. But I’m pretty sure it’s not turning out to be the book I originally intended on reading.

It couldn’t be…that book doesn’t exist.

Yet.

But let me explain further.

The book I just finished reading is the first book in the Riverworld Saga ‘To Your Scattered Bodies Go’. I enjoyed it, despite it lapsing into sexist and old fashioned views quite regularly, it’s definitely a little dated now, though part of that is because the main character is a Victorian Explorer.

Now, the basic premise of this series is incredible. Everybody in the history of Earth has been resurrected. Absolutely everybody. By some mysterious force. On a strange and vaguely Paradisical world. With no idea what’s going on.

Just think about that for a while….think of all the possible stories you can have in a world where everybody in history, from the cruellest dictator to the humblest peasant. From the most modern to the prehistoric. Every person ever.

There’s a lot of fun to be had in that setting.

The book picks a good path and makes for an entertaining yarn. But as the book continues, the options and possibility narrow. A narrative path is chosen and the adventures you imagined become, well…part of what you imagined but no longer part of the world that you’re reading.

I enjoyed the book, but I enjoyed my imagination more.

I guess this ain’t that bad, but it is frustrating.

Now, the book I’ve just started reading is called ‘Dying Inside‘ by Robert Silverberg. So far it’s actually been great, and quite unexpected it it’s route. But I still can’t help but think that the central idea is so fascinating, that I’m missing out on a million other stories that I want to read.

The central premise is that an aging telepath, as he grows old, is losing his power to read minds.

Really simple, but give space to have the whole raft of fears and worries about growing old and fading in a totally new way. It’s even got that Epilogue to The Tempest thing going on for it.

The emotional depth of the book, even just a few chapters in is incredible. It’s winding mid life crisis, with being a bit of a moody bastard, with the touching beauty (and horror) of being able to experience another person’s mind, with losing that, and hating it even more than you hated the power itself.

It’s powerful reading.

But it’s not the story my mind was imagining.

But then, that’s actually the joy of books really isn’t it. Seeing how someone elses mind works. It really is a joy; surprises come from that.

Now, us writers (ha) we know what that’s like from the inside, we’ve been surprised by ourselves, but its still not the same.

You can get so angry at an author when the characters don’t do what makes sense to you. But you remember, the characters aren’t you. The author isn’t you. You’re finding out things that don’t come from you.

Seeing into another persons mind.

Books are great.

***

I’ve kind of rushed this because I have to go to work, but still, what do you think?

“Life ain’t Nothing but Bitches and Money” – A half arsed discussion of Psychoanalytic and Marxist Criticism

God…that title looks boring.

Anyway, basically, I’m going to do a half arsed version of an essay I’ve been intending to do for ages. But because its Sunday, I’m not going to do any research, and I’m probably going to stop halfway through to start tidying up my room.

Still, at least I’ve got an NWA quote in the title.

Anyway, lets get on this.

So, I guess this could be considered an attack on the grand narratives of Freudian Psychoanalysis and Marxism. Which is interesting because It think there are lessons to be learnt from both. Its just the old post modernist thing of attacking the grand narratives I guess. Plus when you try and summarise Freud and Marx using the words of Ice Cube…it becomes much clearer just how much the two can be seen to reducing everything to nothing.

Lets (for some reason) ignore the fact that Freud was a sexist pig who had no idea of anything that happened in the lives of people who didn’t live in Middle class Vienna. This is probably a gross oversimplification of him…but that’s all that everybody ever does with Freud, which is perhaps the problem. My housemate did Psychology at Uni, and she always finds it interesting that I did loads of stuff on Freud (in my Literature degree) when they were taught from the beginning that the whole thing was unprovable tosh. Freud and the interpretations of Freud (we’re talking Lacan’s phallus here by the way) are still prevalent modes of criticism in the field of Literature.

There is genuinely some really interesting stuff going on there. You can compare Freud’s understanding of ‘the dream work’, that is the way our subconscious presents thoughts in dreams but then we encode and disguise them so our conscious mind doesn’t have to face up to the unpleasant truths within, with the practice of writing and creativity. The construction of meaning in writing can be compared to an expression of the mind of the author (who, as we all know, is dead) being transmitted through the veiling and changing process of language. Does that make sense to anyone who isn’t a pretentious wanker? Possibly not. But there’s definitely some interesting stuff going on there. For the likes of Nick Royle, literature is a form of telepathy (I’ll post my dissertation on Philip K Dick at some point for more discussion of this) between the minds of author and reader. In fact this is probably a gross mis-interpretation, but that’s what I always got out of it. In fact I think that its closer to empathy at least half of the time. Good literature has an ability to make you feel a situation, rather than just think about it. That’s why we love reading even when its not the smartest and wittiest and most intelligent pieces of Canonical literature. That’s why ‘trashy’ and ‘lowbrow’ books are still damn good.

Michael Marshall Smith’s Only Forward is an excellent book that essentially deals with psychoanalysis through the medium of a witty and fast paced sci fi narrative. Read it now…its worth it. The writing seems a little stilted at times but the pace and humour is so good that you forgive it immediately…and its a first novel…so its a pretty damn fine achievement. I won’t analyse it now as it would spoil it. First person who lives in my area and e-mails me asking for it can borrow my copy.

Anyway. The point is that you need to get the whole breadth of Psycholanalysis being considered in order to get something useful out of it. I don’t like the way that one tiny element has effectively become the whole grand narrative. Its a simplification. Everything is about sex…apparently…it just becomes a hunt for phallic symbols and returns to the womb. Eye removal is apparently synonymous with castration anxiety…as is almost anything else that can happen. I mean…I can appreciate that people think about sex a lot…I sure do. I can even see how it could be considered one of the primary motivational drives. The reproductive drive (continuance of DNA…the selfish gene and all that jazz) is the obvious motivation. But even Freud had to override that with the Death Drive once he saw the results of the First World War. I don’t know…I guess its the reductionism of most psychoanalytic criticism that pisses me off. It is possible to take note of Siggy and not actually have to make everything about a couple of out dated and genuinely quite ridiculous statements. If most psychologists think that its nonsense…then why is the literary world still so obsessed with the Mother Loving Austrian Prick.

And I haven’t even mentioned Oedipus yet.

Anyway. Marxism is something i like. The key reduction here is viewing everything through a system of economic relationships. Sahil believes that every relationship is a constant series of negotiations…and that applies on International levels and on personal relationships. For Marx it’s about class war (aside: protest on campus once…someone yelled out ‘its a class war’ and got the biggest laugh of the day as everybody noted that in fact the only classes present were the middle…that’s what University protests are all about..middle class kids pretending they aren’t) and the constant dialectic struggle between the oppressor and the oppressed. The important thing however, is that everything becomes economic. The money and the value of goods is exchanged, and this leads to the exploitation and alienation of the proletariat etc etc blah blah blah.

We all know about it. If you don’t (or just like re contextualised works) look at this .

Anyway, I’m talking through a literary lens today…so lets go into what Marxist literary criticism is like. Basically, (I think) literature is considered complicit in the oppression of the ‘people’. It forms part of the ruling hegemony (unless it is subverting it of course) and creates and uses language to promote the status quo. The ideology of the ruling class controls the language and uses its meanings to impose its thought upon people. Language itself is guilty of oppression, which is why people try to screw the system up by subverting language itself. Look for those experimental poets fucking shit up. My mate Jeffers does a fine job of it. I think its all well and good. I kind of tend to agree with bits and pieces of it to an extent. But at the same time…I don’t like the idea that language is to blame. Can we not change language. I mean…I know language and meaning has its limits. But the beauty of language is in the fact that it changes every fucking time you use it. Every time I use a word in the company of someone…then for both of us that word acquires a meaning related to that moment. It adds an extra level to it. A lot of the stuff in my short story posted below (Abort , Retry, Fail) is little words and phrases that only make sense to me and a couple of people who will recognise the original situation. I don’t know if it makes sense to put them in there…but I think it actually challenges other readers to associated new meaning with those phrases. The story isn’t as subversive as I’d originally hoped…but it certainly is a struggle to read…it makes you think…but at no point to I make up or invert language. Everything is in vaguely accurate English. The grammar is disjointed…but you generally understand what is going on.

Anyway, I’m going to edit it soon and hopefully it’ll be better then.

I’ve rambled off topic.

Basically..the general point is that grand theories must be looked at in all their intricacies, and should be only used as a lens. You must be aware that you are making a certain judgement of something using a certain set of rules laid out, by that something.

Life is more than sex and economics. Don’t reduce things to that. Look at everything. If you’re being Marxist..then note that you’re being Marxist and try and think of what the other side is. same for Freud…don’t just glue yourself to his ideas so that eventually all you can see is cocks flying through tunnels or whatever it is that Freud saw everywhere.

Hmm,

I haven’t said anything have I…ah well…any thoughts? Any questions? Want to call me a big shit and tell me I’m wrong? Go on…make a comment…I dares ya.

Edit: Read the commments if you haven’t. My second comment below actually ends up saying what I was trying to say above but couldn’t quite figure out.