Recently I seem to have been taking lots of photos of birds. This is partly owing to a visit to the fantastic London Wetlands Centre at the weekend, and partly because my Yule present from Karen was a photography session at the equally brilliant Feathers And Fur Falconry Centre near Twyford. I felt it only fair to share a few of my results here. I hope you like them.
(View previous instalments here)
A new cinema has opened up in our town, and imagine my delight to discover that they offer an alcohol-free beer that I hadn’t tried before! Sadly I wasn’t bowled over by this one – it had an odd sourness that tasted, while not exactly metallic, still somehow inorganic. Still, it’s not hideously undrinkable, so I probably would consider purchasing this one again under certain situations.
After the film we went round to a nearby thai restaurant which I haven’t been too for a while. And for the second time that day, I was presented with the opportunity to try a new alcohol-free beer. Sadly, my hopes of discovering a new favourite beer were to be dashed again. This one reminded me of those nasty cheap European lagers that come in “stubbie” bottles which you can (if you are so inclined) buy in supermarkets for less than it would cost to buy the equivalent volume of bottled water. For years I’ve had a policy of avoiding that bottle shape, just to be on the safe side, and so I feel quite irked that this piss has sneaked in under the radar. At the time, I decided that I definitely wouldn’t drink this one again.
However, a few weeks later we were in Staines and the restaurant that we went to for lunch offered only this as its alcohol-free option. I was feeling generous, so decided to try it again, and strangely this time I enjoyed it a lot more. It was served a lot colder, which I think may have helped its case. After lunch we then went off to some nearby shops to buy about eight packs of chocolate-covered raisins, which has been one of the recurring themes of this month.
St Peter’s Original
I read an article recently about how St Peter’s have changed the recipe for their alcohol-free beer, so when I saw a bottle on the supermarket shelf with a new label design, I felt I should give this one another go. Whereas the previous recipe was a sickly syrup of unfermented wort, this new one is nowhere near as bad. Yes, there’s still a lot of that unfermented worty flavour apparent, but I’d now rank this one on a similar level to the Old Speckled Hen. It’s definitely far from being one of my favourites, but it’s no longer the laughing stock that it once was.
Big Drop Stout
While I was grabbing the St Peter’s from the shelf, I also saw this, which is another beer that I tried long long ago, and hated it because it smelled and tasted like stale cigarette smoke. I was feeling generous so I grabbed a bottle to give it another try. I found it a little bit less repulsive than first time, but that stale quality was still there and finishing the drink was a challenge.
Adnam’s Ghost Ship
Rounding off the trio of beers that I tried a long time ago, I purchased a bottle of Ghost Ship, one of the first alcohol-free beers that I ever reviewed on this blog, to see if my opinion has changed. My biggest revelation is that my sensitivity to that “metallic” quality that I complained about a lot in my early reviews has apparently gone way, way down. This might just be because I’ve become accustomed to it, or maybe there was something affecting me at the time that caused my brain to interpret certain flavours as “metallic”. Who knows. Either way, I still find the Ghost Ship to be a bit thin and underwhelming, though to be fair I don’t think I’ve found any alcohol-free beer in this sub-genre that does a better job.
Big Drop Hazelnut Porter
It’s become something of a regular routine for us to walk into town on a Saturday morning and grab a drink and a cake at one of the various coffee shops around the place. Our town centre has been undergoing lots of redevelopment lately (witness the new cinema, for example) and so there are a few new options on offer, with more to come.
Last weekend we walked into one place, did a few quick sums and came to the conclusion that there’d be no free tables by the time we got to the front of the queue, and walked out again. As we started to move towards another coffee shop, we noticed that the bar next door had a small sign outside offering cake. Interesting, we thought. Maybe we can find everything we need in here? So we went inside and as soon as I saw the range of alcohol-free beers on offer, I knew we’d be staying.
The cake system wasn’t quite what we were expecting. The barmaid said basically that we can choose any cake from the place next door (the place we were just in) and she’d pop round and get it. So Bernard toddled off with her to make his selection while I contemplated my drink options.
I eventually settled on this. The hazelnut aroma is intense and carries over great distances. The flavour doesn’t quite punch with the same weight, but it’s pleasant and well balanced. Like so many alcohol-free beers, it’s lacking a certain body. If this was coupled with a creamier mouthfeel then I would need to create a new scale to score it. So alas, it merely gets top points.
Coast Hazy IPA
One perk of the site going down over the weekend and me needing to rewrite this review is that I’ve been able to squeeze in the latest addition, which was consumed after the previous post had already gone “to press”, as they say.
This one poured with a very lively head, as you can see from the picture. The smell promises citrusy sourness and an exciting tanginess. Flavour-wise, it resembles a slightly toned-down version of the Nirvana Ananda which is made by blending one of their pale ales with green tea kombucha.
An interesting little drink, probably a bit of an acquired taste to most, and not something that I’d want to drink frequently, but it’s something to make a nice little change once in a while.
I’d also like to take a moment to highlight that it’s almost exactly a year to the day since I published the first post in this series. In that year I have sampled, and reviewed, 39 different alcohol-free beers. I find myself wondering if I even drank that many different beers in the preceding year.
Let’s see what 2020 brings.
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Those of you with eagle eyes may have noticed that the site was down over the weekend.
On Thursday evening I wrote my latest installment of alcohol-free beer reviews and set it to publish on Friday morning. On Saturday morning I wondered why I hadn’t noticed a notification appear on Uborkabot and checked the site manually, only to discover a hideous error message. Upon further investigation, all of the database tables corresponding to the WordPress installation were utterly missing. No wonder the site wasn’t working.
Everything’s now been restored from a backup, so that’s good. However, it’s still an utter mystery how the tables got deleted. It’s not like last time, when I accepted full responsibility. Well, sort of. I think that the UI designers of Movable Type, which we were using at the time, perhaps dropped the ball a bit too.
Anyway, upshot of all this is that the tables are back but without knowing how they got deleted, I don’t know how to prevent it happening again. And the beer review blog post also got lost, so that needs to be rewritten. But I’ll do it, I’ll do it for you, because I love you.
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A year ago there was a Big Boardgame Clearout at Casa Uborka, but it looks as though the shelves are heavingly full once again, with thanks to recent birthdays and christmases. We are a geekily gaming kind of family, whether it’s tabletop games or videogames that we can play together. I could play boardgames ALL NIGHT LONG, and welcome you to come and join me. Here are the most recent additions to our happy home.
Disarm The Base is a deceptively simple-looking co-operative game, in which the team are breaking into an airbase and disarming the planes, while guards patrol the grounds. The mechanism is driven by cards in the draw pile, so like many co-ops, the outcome depends a lot on the initial shuffle; but good planning and communication between the players definitely makes a difference. We had a very successful streak with our standard three-player team, but found ourselves more challenged playing with four players on New Year’s Day. If you like Forbidden Sky, or are have a political streak, this will appeal to you. Pete doesn’t like being at the mercy of the deck; he says “You end up feeling like you’re not playing the game, the game is playing you.” Bernard finds it a bit samey.
Port Royal is a card game in which players are collecting victory points. All the information you need is on the actual cards, making it super quick to learn, and new players very quickly catch up so are not at any disadvantage. There are multiple strategies you can take, so it doesn’t stop being interesting. Works well with three or four players; the only dud game I’ve had was a two-player game, but a single data point is probably not enough on which to make a judgement. Bernard says this is “very fun, definitely.”
Pandemic has been on our wishlist for a very long time, so we were very happy to get it for christmas, and have played it a lot, quickly moving on from the beginners’ level with 4 epidemics, to the next level with 5. It’s like a less oppressive Risk. We had a very good run, and started to think we were really good at it; but since then we haven’t beaten the game once. This is another co-operative game, and the way it unfolds depends a lot on the roles you draw, and the position of the starting infections. This game intrigues me and Bernard and I really want to play it endlessly; sadly, as usual, Pete tires of it more quickly than we do.
In Exploding Kittens, you draw cards until somebody explodes. The non-exploding cards have various actions associated with them, so there is a certain amount of strategy, but this is one that doesn’t captivate me for long. The cards feature silly drawings and descriptions, which delight the younger crowd. Pete says: “underneath the slightly annoying wackiness, this is actually a pretty good competitive card game.” Bernard finds it highly amusing.
Bananagrams has been all over my social media this year, clearly it’s the jeu du jour. Pete describes it as, “strangely antisocial,” because each player is involved in their own puzzle until someone completes; there isn’t even a scoring system, you just get on with it. It passes the time nicely and is more fun than doing a crossword. Bernard enjoys making it difficult for himself by making very long and sometimes surprising words (xenophobia, polyamorous) and holding out for specific letters.
I first played Yahtzee aged about ten, during my christmas in Australia; I can remember well how much I enjoyed it, and it really surprises me that I haven’t picked it up again in 40 years. It’s not like it isn’t at the back of the cupboard in every AirBnB we’ve ever stayed in. This game is unique in the house, in that Bernard and I consistently beat Pete at it, which means he will soon refuse to play it anymore.
We do not own Azul, but played it chez Gammidgy on New Year’s Day, after being stuffed full of delicious curry. It is a truly beautiful game, with smooth pieces and pretty colours. It’s also lovely to play, one of those that I would happily keep playing for hours just for the pleasure of handling the pieces. It’s a game of planning, in which it does help to keep an eye on what other players are up to, and once you’ve got your head around it, is delightfully straightforward to play. Just lovely.
The other game we played chez Gammidgy was Illimat, a game created by The Decemberists (remember them?). This one is Really Gorgeous, with a cloth board and tarot-esque cards. The mechanism starts simple and gets more complex and interesting as you figure out what you’re doing. Really satisfying to play, may have to beg to borrow it.
Today’s honourable mention goes to Wingspan, which we played at Insomnia gaming festival in the summer, and absolutely fell in love with. The beautifully illustrated cards! The charming pastel-coloured eggs! The bird feeder device! Loved it so much, but it’s almost impossible to get hold of, so if you have a copy and would like to sell or trade it for one of our many games, give me a shout.
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I see your fig roll and warm cat,
and I raise you one Caramel Rocky and a sleepy tortoise.
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- Fish and chips
- Helping a pigeon that was treading water in a boating lake
- Eating small doughnuts
- Dumping many tuppences into coin pusher machines
In the past we’ve tended to be reluctant to do day trips to the coast, as we don’t live particularly close to it. But, realistically, 80 minutes each way is about the same as it takes us to catch the train into the centre of London, which we don’t balk at. So perhaps we should indulge ourselves a little more in the future.
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A cursory search of Uborka suggests that I don’t keep you very updated on my reading material anymore; the last decent set of book reviews was some holiday reading from 2014. On tweeting my To-Read Shelf [left], Uborkite Graybo asked if I would be reviewing them all. Not bloody likely, I replied. Then I relented and offered a top five of 2019, and here it is.
- The Heart’s Invisible Furies, by John Boyne
If you have not read this book, then you must. This epic novel circles around the story of Cyril, an adopted child growing up in Dublin, from his birth in 1945 until the present day. Cyril is different, and as soon as he figures out where he fits into the world, the world changes, sometimes with a bang. The twists may seem unlikely, but you want them to happen all the same. This was my introduction to John Boyne, and there is something about his prose that made me fall in love with the book from the opening paragraphs. I tried to read Eoin McNamee’s The Vogue after this and simply couldn’t get along with its sparse staccato style after Boyne’s poetic writing (but did enjoy The Vogue when I came back to it a few months later). Pete’s dad sometimes borrows books from me, and I was in two minds about giving him this, but he told me he managed to enjoy it despite its subject matter, so there you go: high praise.
- The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton
Like The Heart’s Invisible Furies, I passed this book to Pete and insisted he read it immediately so that we could discuss it (it’s handy having your own in-house book club). This one took some figuring out; at first I thought I was missing something, then I realised that I was supposed to feel like that. I don’t think Pete found it as astounding as I did, but his dad did, and as we know, that’s quite the accolade. I’m pretty sure I never quite got the story straight; it’s the most twisted tail I have ever read. Good luck with it.
- The Children of Jocasta, by Natalie Haynes
I really like Natalie Haynes. I try to catch her every year at The Also Festival; she is one of the most intelligent speakers I have ever had the utter delight of listening to, and she makes me cry with laughter. When I read her first book, The Amber Fury, I was utterly disappointed by it. The Children Of Jocasta more than compensates for it; she has found her groove and I’m so in it with her. In keeping with Haynes’ well-established approach of showing us the hidden women of the classics, this is the retelling of the story of Oedipus from the perspective of his mother. Her story-telling is sharp as glass, and these women who are usually relegated to the shadows are full and real human beings with agency and with feelings. I’ve a whole stack of classics retold by female authors, and this was an excellent start.
- The Memory-Keeper’s Daughter, by Kim Edwards
In 1964, Dr Henry’s wife gives birth to twins. One has Down’s Syndrome, and while his wife is still under the influence of ‘twilight sleep,’ he chooses to dispose of the child and tell her that it died. I felt such anger and grief as I read this, while still entertained by it as a well-told story. In the summer my mum and I were going through some old family paperwork and found a letter written by a family doctor, imploring my grandparents not to institutionalise their son, who also had Down’s. They had their own complex reasons for the decisions they made, and at least in this case perhaps nobody was gaslighted about it, as was the wife of Dr Henry. This is a raw first novel, no great work of literature, but impossible to read without being moved by it.
- Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood retells The Tempest, and does Shakespeare proud. It’s witty, vengeful, and modern. He would have loved it. There’s a play within a play within a play; a tight cast; and a storm to end all storms. It will do until I get my hands on a copy of The Testaments.
- This is going to hurt, by Adam Kay
This is the honourable mention, a book I thought I was going to hate because of Kay’s mysoginistic attitude to birthing women, which is undeniably front and centre at this autobiography of the former-obstetrician, turned-comedian. And yet somehow Kay managed to evoke the life of a junior doctor in a way that delivers nothing but empathy and gratitude for everyone working within the NHS.
Maybe if I can be bothered, I’ll go and have a look at the rest of the decade for you later. This should keep you going for now, though.
Here’s a little summary of the computer games that we’ve played through this year, in roughly chronological order.
The three of us played this together, with me on the controls. This was quite an enjoyable collaborative experience, and we felt like we were playing it together, rather than me playing and Karen and Bernard watching. We loved the environments but found some of the boss fights a bit too challenging, and eventually rage-quat on the Soul Master.
(sigh) Bah pe nada.
A very entertaining two-player co-op puzzle platformer. Each of the two controllable characters can be one of two sizes, but importantly at all times one will be large and the other small. A core element of the game is timing your changes, and communicating with the other player, because changing size at the wrong time can mean death. We tried to play this using a rotation system, where we take turns to sit out each level, but Karen started to feel like she was slowing the team down, and ended up handing over the controller with increasing frequency until it ended up just being me and Bernard playing. However, she does say that she still found it funny to watch.
Portal 2 co-op
We replayed Portal and Portal 2 last year (Bernard and I had both played it before, but last year was Karen’s first time seeing it) and this year we did the co-op levels. Again, this was one that was mainly for the benefit of Bernard and I. I didn’t dig this quite as much as the main single player campaign – for me, while the puzzles in Portal and its sequel are great, it’s the storyline that weaves throughout that really gives the games their edge.
Karen says: “occasionally drew me in as you two played”
Grand Theft Auto V
This was one I played on my own, unsurprisingly. I’ve been dithering on this game for years – my XBox 360 died a matter of weeks before its initial release in 2013, and by the time it came out on PC, my initial enthusiasm had dissipated and I decided to wait a few years and grab it in the sales. However, what with the success of the online game, the price stayed high, and it wasn’t until the tail end of last year that I managed to get it for a sufficiently compelling discount. I enjoyed it a lot – it was pretty much the spiritual successor to GTA San Andreas that I’d always wanted, though it utterly failed to make use of the diverse game world in the way that made San Andreas so magical. I logged 80 hours in this and got 100% in the single player story. Gave the multiplayer a quick go but it was utterly devoid of any charm whatsoever.
Return Of The Obra Dinn
This is one of our favourite games of the year. It’s a sort of murder mystery game that takes place aboard a ship, and it’s unlike anything else we’ve ever played. All three of us were engaged throughout, even though only one was holding the controller, as we discussed our theories and deductions. An absolute gem.
Karen says: “took a while to figure out what we had to do, and then was unputdownable.”
This game wasn’t really working for us as a collaborative project. We abandoned it, but a few months later I picked it back up and tried it on my own. It worked much better in this context, and I ended up playing to completion with 35 hours on record. This is an absolutely stunning game. If I had one criticism, it would be that there is a period around the mid-game where it can be unclear what you’re supposed to be doing next, and I found that my enthusiasm started to waver around here. However, I powered through, and I sure am glad that I did.
I picked this up to scratch my itch for a good driving game after finishing GTA V. I’ve been on the hunt for a good racing game for a while, and last year even contemplated buying an XBox One to play Forza Horizon 4, which looked very relevant to my interests. Grid 2 was okay for a bit, but started to feel quite repetitive after about 12 hours – just the same tracks with slightly different cars. Still, considering it only cost me a few quid, that represents decent value for money.
Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons
A nice little single player game that we enjoyed together, quite linear but with a very strong story and with the twist that you control two characters simultaneously on one controller – one with your left hand, the other with your right. It seems to have had very little impact on Karen though, as she can’t remember anything about it.
This is the first three-player game that we have tried and it was a roaring success. Utter chaos as the three of us fought our way through hordes of cartoony enemies with various weapons and magic attacks. All three of us felt completely involved throughout, and when we finished it we immediately wanted more like it.
Karen says: “a barrel of laughs”
Borderlands / Borderlands 2
I picked up Borderlands in the sales and started playing it, before thinking “hmmm, I wonder if Karen would like to play this co-op?” I have put it on hold while we play Borderlands 2 together, in which we’ve logged about 15 hours, but we haven’t played it in a few weeks now. I’m finding both games to be a bit repetitive, and am starting to doubt whether I will finish them.
We started playing this as a trio but Bernard lost interest so Karen and I finished it without him. It’s an interesting albeit slow-moving game, with copious player choice and a very novel linguistic element where you have to decipher an ancient language by inspecting written fragments in context, gradually working your way up from short simple phrases to longer sentences. The ending was a bit of an anticlimax, and I gather that it’s the sort of game that rewards a second playthrough, but to be honest it’s just too painfully slow-moving for me to find that prospect appealling.
Karen says: “kind of hard work and repetitive, but oddly compelling. I felt like I was waiting for some big twist that never happened”
This was a magnificent game revolving around exploring a beautiful abandoned island and solving many many geometric grid-based puzzles. All three of us were immersed and this sucked up 13.5 hours of our time with consummate ease.
Karen says: “loved this. Simple and effective”
Lovers In A Dangerous Spacetime
Our second foray into three-player games, and possibly our most successful to date. In this game, your team is in charge of a spaceship, and you have to fly through the worlds shooting baddies and rescuing friends. The fun here is that you control the characters within the ship, running between the various stations as required. I spent most of my time in charge of the engine, Karen often on the shields, and Bernard usually running between the multiple gun turret stations. This game got quite challenging in places, but never frustrating. And it’s incredibly cute.
Karen says: “probably my fave of the whole year, would play again tomorrow”
A “walking simulator” by the makers of “Gone Home” which was one of the first games that the three of us played together. Karen was baffled by “Gone Home” as I hadn’t really prepared her for what a “walking simulator” entails, and so it is now known as the “picking things up and putting things down” game. Since then, she’s far better educated, and this game hit the mark quite nicely, though Bernard’s attention wavered here and there.
Another three player co-op game, this one was chaotic and frequently infuriating. We got 13 hours into it, and quite close to the end, before deciding that we just weren’t having fun any more, and put it on the bench. The sequel is on my Steam wishlist but I haven’t been able to bring myself to hit the button yet. I might need a while for my stress levels to reset first.
Karen says: “fun but frustrating, mainly because it made us shout at each other”
Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine
A splendid little co-op heist game that I’d entirely forgotten I had in my Steam library. We managed to get about 5 hours of fun out of this one before the difficulty curve overtook us and it stopped being fun.
Karen says: “Frustrating. Felt like we were missing something”
The Wolf Among Us
This is another story-based game with some elements of interactivity and player choice, delivered in 5 episodes which we played back-to-back. We were absolutely wowed by the first episode with its bombshell cliffhanger ending, but unfortunately the way that this was “rolled back” in the first few minutes of the second episode meant that our trust in the game was undermined, never to be restored, and the remaining four episodes were lacklustre by comparison. Every single story twist lost its impact, as we now found ourselves questioning the reality of what we were being shown.
After I finally finished Subnautica, I started playing this game as my solo project. It’s an open world game in a similar vein to Grand Theft Auto, but set in Hong Kong and with a bias more towards hand-to-hand combat than guns. While I do have some criticisms about the game (the DLC missions were uninspiring, the UI for managing your wardrobe and garage could have been improved, and a lot of the story missions were very prescriptive in how you were permitted to approach them) it was a good game with beautiful, varied environments and a substantial, meaty plot.
Another two-player co-op game, reminiscent in many ways of Shift Happens that we played at the start of the year. Not awful, but not terribly compelling either, and our enthusiasm just bubbled away within 3 hours.
To The Moon
This is another “walking simulator”. If you’re not familiar with that term, it refers to a highly linear game where there’s no challenging gameplay. It’s more of an interactive way to experience a story. This one has a fantastic story that really tugs on the heart strings, and the snarky relationship between the two main playable characters is very sharp and funny indeed. Another one where Bernard’s attention was a little shaky in places.
Another little puzzle game, with a similar spacey theme to Lovers In A Dangerous Spacetime but not as well executed. It’s ostensibly a three-player couch co-op game, but it doesn’t quite work, because for a lot of the time you’re in your spaceship and during these sections only one person is controlling it, and the others have nothing to do.
GAMES IN PROGRESS
Metro: Last Light
Another game that I’m playing solo, I really enjoyed Metro 2033 when I played it a few years back and so this one’s been on my todo list for a while. It’s a nice tight FPS with a strong story.
The Crew 2
I bought this to sate my still-present desire for a game like Forza Horizon 4. So far, I’m very pleased with how it’s hitting the spot, though I do find myself fast-travelling to the various events a lot, and not really getting to enjoy the enormous open world.
Life Is Strange 2
We played the first 2 chapters of this a while back, and are now binging our way through the final 3. In my opinion, I found chapters 1 and 2 a little underwhelming compared to the standard that was set by the original Life Is Strange and Before The Storm, but chapter 3 was brilliant and has restored my faith for the remaining two.
Ultimate Chicken Horse
This is a competitive puzzle platform game that can be played with up to 4 players, either online or locally. Bernard loves it, but Karen quite quickly got frustrated because she felt like she never had a chance. The nature of this game is that to score points, you need to complete the level while at least one other player doesn’t, so it was disheartening for her to get no reward for her efforts, just because Bernard and I also finished the level.
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