The Dead Astronaut (Playboy Press, 1971). Cover by Pompeo Posar
Last summer I came across an intriguing aside on the SF anthology The Dead Astronaut by Playboy Press (1971). I can’t remember the name of the blogger who had re-cracked it, but the person noted that with everyone locked down and socially distanced, these decades-old stories of isolation and lonely death, mostly written between Sputnik and the Apollo landing, felt newly relevant. I agree.
While I admit I don’t have the knowledge base of some of the vintage SF reviewers here, I did like the stories enough highlight the collection and offer a quick review in case others wanted to experience the unintentional “prophetic” element of science fiction, as the editorial introduction labels it.
The collection’s introduction is signed simply “The Editors” but according to The Science Fiction Encyclopedia Ray Russell (1924-1999) edited it, offering a tidbit about each author and a story note or two in his brief introduction.
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I know I’m a broken record about how Alien is, IMO, the greatest ensemble of character actors in the history of SF in movies. Today seems like a good day to say it again.
One of the many things I learned from the huge “Making of Alien” book is that the actors made their characters. They were thinly sketched in the screenplay. You knew that Kane volunteered to go out exploring and wanted to be lowered on the line to see where the hole led, but it was up to the actors to figure out who these people were. Sigourney Weaver wanted Ripley to be prickly, officious, and disliked by pretty much everyone (except the cat), as she poked around in areas outside her official responsibilities. Harry Dean Stanton had Brett follow Parker around and say “right” all the time (in the original screenplay he just backed Parker up at key moments, saying “yeah” in agreement). Ian Holm decided Ash would do every line and make every move like he was on a job interview. Skerritt was driving Ridley Scott nuts by talking so quietly, but then on screen in the rushes Scott saw that it was working and he was clearly in charge.
Yaphet Kotto walked through the sets and knew how he had to play Parker: “Parker was going to be bigger than life. I thought Parker had to be, because one look at Ridley’s sets–I said this character is going to get lost in this and so he’s got to be big. Bombastic and big.”
Ridley also ordered Kotto to ignore Sigourney Weaver as much as possible, make her feel the nervous, inexperienced outsider to the team, or needle her a little. He wouldn’t eat lunch with her, he’d take the makeup chair as far as her from possible. . . even though he liked her from when they first met and felt a little sorry for her as the newbie with a bunch of people who’d been in big roles for years.
Ridley Scott was a collaborator with his actors. He told them the goals of the scene and let the actors work out who would be standing nervously, who would be slumped with their feet up, stuff like that, then Ridley worked out the lighting. They altered their lines, added busyness with their hands. I think that’s the reason Yaphet Kotto is more Parker in everyone’s memory than his other roles, he had the room to make full use of his gifts.
Anyone else feel like we’re living in a Golden Age of board games? Or have I just been playing more because of COVID? We’re spoiled. Gone are the days of cutting out your own cardboard counters and coloring in your own dice with a crayon.
What, none of you ever played Metagaming MicroGames? They were pretty great. I think Sticks and Stones was the first time I experienced a point-buy mechanic.
But enough GenX 80s nostalgia.
The latest in my personal quarantine parade of top-notch-in-every-respect board games is The Captain Is Dead from The Game Crafters (J.T. Smith and Joe Price) and AEG. I tried this game, originally developed on Kickstarter, with the kids the other night. Everyone had a raucous and exciting time. It’s one of those games you end up thinking about after the box is closed and put away. As a matter of fact, the kids are still talking about it two days later. It’s designed for 2-7 players, though after a couple sessions it seems to me there would be no effective difference if you wanted to solo play handling 2-7 crew yourself; no mechanics would need to be changed.
The premise is that you’re in a starship and have just suffered a massive, Wrath of Khan-style surprise attack from aliens out for a bit of the old ultra-violence. Multiple systems are down. Aliens are teleporting in to occupy the ship. The crew may be afflicted with strange disorders. But worst of all, the Captain is gone, crisped without so much as a “Kiss me, Hardy.”
You could say this game beings in medias res.
And if you don’t play tight and co-oppy, it’ll end there too.
You maneuver surviving officers and crewmen around the ship trying to restore function, with the overriding goal being getting the jump drive repaired so you can get the heck out of Dodge. And that’s the first of the many wonderful elements to this game, there are 18 characters to choose from, ranging from a fleet admiral down to a janitor (color-coded according to their role in the starship’s sub-systems, because cost-saving 60s TV production measures live on through the ages like military specs), each with unique abilities that I believe would combine to make this game highly replayable. There’s even an ensign, if for some reason you want the rest of your co-opers to constantly yell “Shut up, Wesley!” at you.
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Every time I tell Brit friends I’m a big fan of the “stiff upper lip” British war films of the 50s like Sink the Bismark and The Dam Busters they always, *always* want to talk about Ice Cold In Alex. I had to confess that I’d never seen it. For some reason it was simply unavailable over here.
Having rectified that today, thanks to Amazon Prime, I can see why. I was riveted.
It’s the story of a group of UK medical officers assigned to pull out of Tobruk and retreat to Alexandria as Rommel makes his last, fateful drive to history at El Alamein. But for a war film, there isn’t really even a battle, this is more of a “man vs. nature” movie of four people — and one tough ambulance that’s the real star of the film (an Austin K2 ambulance lovingly referred to as “Katy,” who you end up rooting for much like the motorboat in “The African Queen”) — against the desert. If “Katy” didn’t inspire Werner Herzog in Fitzcarraldo I’ll eat both of my dad’s old sun hats, the big ones my mom sent me.
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Degenesis, SixMoreVodka’s post-apocalyptic, Europe-and-North Africa-centered tabletop RPG, released its first rules expansion last month. Called Artifacts and featuring the new Degenesis black-and-gold look, it’s the first gaming supplement I’ve ever owned with gilt-edged pages.
But that’s SMV for you, a company “founded by artists and run by artists.”
As I said in my initial review of the game, you can look at Degenesis as an expensive art book which comes with a free game, or an expensive game book with the most lavish art design in the history of the format. So you can convince yourself that even at USD 60 you’re getting a great deal, FedEx shipping from Berlin included, using many of the same mental gymnastics car enthusiasts might when signing for a new BMW.
Degenesis is already a complete game. But one of the 4chan descriptions of it is “90% fluff and 10% crunch.” While I don’t think that’s near accurate – I’d put it at 70/30 — Artifacts adds plenty of crunch. It gives additional rules to build, motivate, and describe your avatar and player group. There are enhancements to your campaign and a good deal of new technology for the players to use and fight over and a bunch of imaginative new rules for clawing advantage out of the much-altered Earth. And of course there’s first-rate art.
Here’s a quick overview of the game enhancements. Artifacts is divided into twelve parts, and I’ll spend the rest of this review providing thumbnails of the contents.
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“You don’t beat this thing, Ripley. You can’t. All you can do is refuse to engage. You’ve got to wipe out every trace. Destroy any clue. Stop its infection from spreading. Make sure there’s no chance of the human race ever making contact with it again. Because the moment it makes contact, it’s won.”
―Marlow (from Alien: Isolation)
Sweden’s Fria Ligan has been running up the score in the tabletop role-playing game industry lately with titles like Tales From the Loop and Forbidden Lands. So when I heard they had finessed a license to an RPG set in the Alien universe, I ran down Grandmaster Games in Oak Park and told Charlie to get me EVERYTHING in my best Gary Oldman voice.
The only absolutely necessary items you need to enjoy the game is the Alien: The Roleplaying Game core rulebook, a couple handfulls of assorted six-sided dice, and an ordinary deck of cards. The game itself is simple to understand yet is role-play heavy enough that seasoned gamers will enjoy it. I’ll go a step beyond and say this would be an excellent game for introducing someone who has never played a tabletop roleplaying game to the hobby.
The world is familiar. There are tons of reference points to explain game mechanics like panic (“you know when Lambert just froze up in terror?”) or a character sustaining enough damage that they are broken (“like after Cpl. Hicks got the acid splashed on him…”). You just need six-sided dice of two colors (or two different sizes) and the usual paper and pencils. The mechanics are simple: take your skill at doing something and add the controlling attribute for that skill and roll a number of six sided dice equal to the total. If you get a six, congrats, you succeeded.
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Little did I know, when I was a pre-tween, that I was growing up in the Golden Age of TV movies. I was there for original showings of Trilogy of Terror, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, The Night Stalker and even Duel. Lucky me.
One that really made an impression on me at eight was 1973’s Birds of Prey. Like Duel it looked like it had a much bigger budget than it actually had. Story involves David Janssen playing a WW2 vet from the AVG in China who is now flying a civilian version of the Hughes OH-6 Cayuse “Loach” for a Salt Lake City radio station doing traffic. After a minimal amount of establishing his character and that of his fellow veteran police officer friend, he witnesses an armored car robbery and a hostage being taken.
The excitement is non-stop from then out, an elaborate chase, as he follows the murderous crooks and cleverly improvises ways to refuel and arm himself. There are hunter/hunted reversals, rescues, and even some dignified bonding with the hostage. Eight year old me was driven wild by the impressive flying and stunt work, including trips under highway overpasses and through factories and hangars by his handy little Loach. I think the pilots had fun making this movie, it seemed pretty clear they were doing crap they weren’t normally allowed to do for obvious safety reasons.
Even though I’d only seen it once, it stuck with me.
Imagine my surprise when I saw it flipping through Amazon Prime. I thought everyone had forgotten about this one, even though every time I came across David Janssen I remembered it.
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I’ve been meaning to write a review of Degenesis, the doorstop of a post-apocalyptic RPG from the “there has to be a story behind that name for your company” SIXMOREVODKA creative team for a while now. The main problem holding me back is that I haven’t played it yet with people, just dinked around testing things. Luckily, John’s editorial standards enjoy a certain amount of flexibility when it comes to old friends, and let ye who have not passed judgement on a game without playing it cast the first stone.
There’s another reason I feel safe recommending this beast. The art alone is worth the purchase of the slipcased two-volume edition of rules Katharsis and worldbook Primal Punk (Retailing at USD “If you have to ask you can’t afford it”). I’ve never seen a game with this level art throughout. Page after page of imagery usually reserved for a couple of splash pages in most game books.
What is this world? Refreshingly, it’s set in Europe and North Africa five hundred years after a 2073 meteor storm changed the face of the world (called the “Eshaton” but I think they meant “Eschaton”). Maybe the year is a hat tip to Fallout, I dunno, but Earth went through hundreds of years of cloudy hell and now there are a few hints of a Renaissance for a radically altered world. To make matters worse, the meteors brought with them a spore-like form of life called “Primer” that is radically altering flora, fauna, and us. Humans who have been taken over by the Primer (the process is generally called Sepsis) eventually become Psychonauts or Abberants, two names for the same deadly syndrome. Some of the spores carrying the primer have been deactivated or neutralized for use in drugs called Burn, because if thousands of years of human history have proved anything, it’s that people will try to get high by any means necessary. A final existential confrontation of homo sapiens vs homo degenesis is building.
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While seeking an escape from the distressing politics of the early Twenty-First Century, I decided to plunge headlong into the distressing politics of the Nineteenth Century and picked up a game I’ve long been meaning to try: Victoria II. It was a good call. This civ-building game is quite an achievement. I find it a good deal more engrossing than the Civ series (admittedly, I have a tough time jumping the mental hurdle of Abe Lincoln building pyramids). Something about the era just hits the spot.
You might wonder how good a Civilization-type game can be if it covers just a hundred years from the 1830-1930s, but think about all the key stuff that happened then. Industrialization. Rise of the nation-state. Colonialism. Marxism. Revolutions in science and industry. La Belle Époque and the Great War.
The challenges in the game are quite convincing, and there’s all sorts of matters to juggle with everything from the immigrant balance of your population to your tech tree (“I’m going to rush Freudian psychoanalysis”). The game is both broad and deep, broad in that you can play just about any nation-state (some require a little jiggering — if you wish to play Poland you first have to control it as a Great Power, then free it. The game allows you to switch nations if you wish every time you do this) and deep in that it allows you to micromanage your economy, if your political regime allows it, that is.
The different nations do have some realistic flavor built into them. You can take Japan out of feudalism, or try to hold Russia together, wake the sleeping giant that is China, unite Germany, or be those miserable fat Belgian bastards in the Congo.
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My first experience with 4x gaming (“eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate”) was a 1989 fantasy game called Warlords. I have many fond memories of the Orcs of Kor and super-mobile wizards and played the bits out of it for about a year, in fact the game probably holds some kind of personal record for cost per hour in gaming in fractions of pennies. I’ve played them off and on ever since, and settled into being a solid Sid Meier fan sometime around Civ III. I’ve played just about everything he’s put out since. Frankly, he’s the king of 4x.
Sid’s throne is resting on an unsteady dais these days, as Amplitude, an upstart indie publisher, captured my imagination and my heart with Endless Legend. Legend is a fantasy 4x that expertly weaves ideas, art, and gaming interface into a synergistic RPG RTS whole that tests brain, bladder, and sometimes marriage (Me: “Just one more turn, hon.” Wife: “So, three hours, then?”). Auriga, the world of Endless Legend, is a place I have a great deal of trouble leaving.
It’s a fascinating tableau, once part of a high interplanetary civilization known as the Endless. They’re gone now – Auriga suffered some planetary catastrophe and the races are just now getting themselves back on their feet. While they have mostly forgotten their higher days, there are ruins filled with secrets that may give you an advantage as you rebuild.
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