January 3, 2020

Let the games commence!

Pandemic

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.

 

Karen
December 30, 2019

Sunset In Southsea

Sunset in SouthseaWe made an impromptu visit to Southsea on Sunday. It had been too long since we’d gazed upon the ocean.

Highlights included:

  • 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.

Pete
December 28, 2019

Six of the Best

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.

 

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

Karen
December 24, 2019

Gaming In 2019 Review

Here’s a little summary of the computer games that we’ve played through this year, in roughly chronological order.

Hollow Knight

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.

Shift Happens

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.”

Subnautica

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.

Grid 2

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.

Castle Crashers

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.

Heaven’s Vault

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”

The Witness

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”

Tacoma

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.

Overcooked

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.

Sleeping Dogs

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.

Death Squared

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.

Adios Amigos

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.

Pete
November 28, 2019

Have you got a biro I can borrow? – Clive James

Have you got a biro I can borrow?

I’d like to write your name

On the palm of my hand, on the walls of the hall

The roof of the house, right across the land

So when the sun comes up tomorrow

It’ll look to this side of the hard-bitten planet

Like a big yellow button with your name written on it

 

Have you got a biro I can borrow?

I’d like to write some lines

In praise of your knee, and the back of your neck

And the double-decker bus that brings you to me

So when the sun comes up tomorrow

It’ll shine on a world made richer by a sonnet

And a half-dozen epics as long as the Aeneid

 

Oh give me a pen and some paper

Give me a chisel or a camera

A piano and a box of rubber bands

I need room for choreography

And a darkroom for photography

Tie the brush into my hands

 

Have you got a biro I can borrow?

I’d like to write your name

From the belt of Orion to the share of the Plough

The snout of the Bear to the belly of the Lion

So when the sun goes down tomorrow

There’ll never be a minute

Not a moment of the night that hasn’t got you in it

 

Clive James Collected Poems 1958-2015

Karen
November 10, 2019

Alcohol-Free Beers (Part Eight)

(View previous instalments here)

I’ve had three new alcohol-free beers awaiting review for a while, but I’m glad I waited until today to write this review rather than doing it yesterday, as I’ve snaffled a fourth! In order:

A Ship Full Of IPA


This is the alcohol-free beer carried by my local Loch Fyne restaurant. I’ve had reason to end up in said establishment on a couple of occasions recently, and on both occasions have treated myself to one of these with lunch. It’s absolutely delicious stuff, and easily up there with some of my favourite alcohol-free IPAs.

Estrella Galicia 0.0


This was the alcohol-free option available at Cabana at the O2. I went there to see Two Door Cinema Club, who were fucking ace, by the way. Unfortunately, it was such a good night that I have forgotten what this beer tasted like, and I didn’t take any notes. All I can remember is that it was a lager, and it was good enough that I ordered a second.

Inside the O2, the only alcohol-free beer I could find was Budweiser Prohibition, which, as I’ve mentioned before, is basically watery piss. It was so bad that I found myself tempted to get myself a pint of proper beer, a temptation which I succumbed to, and then later regretted.

Bavaria 0.0


I had this one in a (looks at photo) Indian restaurant… somewhere… we definitely had poppadums, and there were some people sat opposite me.

Don’t worry, this review isn’t going to be as light on facts as the previous one. I did have my notebook with me, and from what notes I made, I can convey to you that this one was very similar to the San Miguel. It had a fair heft of that worty flavour, enough that it would have been off-putting when I first started drinking alcohol-free beer, but by now I’m getting quite used to that, and can tolerate it in small quantities.

Shipyard “Low Tide”


And this was my latest discovery, last night in a Brakspear pub in town. Initial sentiments were fairly positive, though I did detect a tiny bit of cabbaginess in the aroma, reminiscent of the Nirvana Sutra. But as the evening progressed, I also noticed other off-scents. I have conjured up the words to describe these smells, and it gives me conflicted feelings – on the one hand, I have delight that I am able to describe it with such accuracy. On the other hand, the description itself makes me want to hurl. Here it comes.

You know at the end of the day, when you take off your trainers, and sometimes you think “hey, as a test of nerve, I’m going to stick my nose in there and take a real good huff?

This beer isn’t too bad as long as you remember to hold your breath before you lift the glass to your face.

Pete
  • Comments: 2
  • In which case it must be the latter, based upon the decor and the appearance of my dining ... - Pete
  • The Bavaria was either in the Haweli in Twyford, or Baranda in Wokingham. We've had a coup... - Karen