The Best (Worst) Director for Halloween Movie Night !

If I told you writer/director James Wan built a career off incredibly cheesy low-budget horror would you be scared? If I told you Mr Wan launched a marathon of terrible Hollywood sequels would you hide under your covers? What if I told you James was at the peak of horror monsters that are more silly than scary?

And what if I told you James Wan was the only director I recommended for you this Halloween?

Though the man often changes jobs between productions his name keeps cropping up on movies that have struck my interest this year, and I don’t just mean recent films either. Anyone who knows me understands that I Love my horror films- with a capital L. So what happens when all horror on the silver screen and the small screen is mulched for the masses and watered down until it’s barely recognisable? What happens when ‘Ouija’ is the current standard for scary movies?
I get very upset. That’s what happens.

So imagine my surprise when I dipped my toes into some flicks I’d overlooked in the past, only to be taken on quite a ride! When I sat down to watch Insidious (2011) I expected nothing more than a poorly constructed mass-market horror… and at first that’s exactly what I got. Typical family home setup, the usual creepy angles and long moments of silent tension. Eventually the film deciding it’s time to switch over to jumpscares at the one-third mark. Usual stuff. That is until the film decided to get weird. The usual spooky, atmospheric moments were replaced with oddly comedic exchanges. Side-characters the likes you might see in a Marx brothers comedy start popping up. The big spooky ghosts actually get revealed in quite vivid detail, and were so bizarre I actually laughed out loud. And most important of all? I was having FUN.
I don’t wish to spoil Insidious in particular so believe me when I said the first two films really do go in directions you would never have expected, and you haven’t experienced true horror film making until you’ve seen the devil himself dancing to jolly music and doing his nails.

What else has Mr Wan done you might ask? What else might you have heard of?
Well SAW, for one. Yes he was the writer for SAW (2004) and invented the creepy Puppet everyone recognises, even from the terrible sequels. Looking back on it some of his colourful touch was seeping into that movie too before they drained all the fun out of it.
Personally? I recommend his movie Dead Silence instead, a picture much closer to his later experiments and an incredibly fun watch. Especially if the aforementioned creepy puppet was one of your favourite things about the SAW movie.

This year for Halloween I really have to highlight this man’s work as being the ‘Best of the Bad’. Meant with all the tongue in cheek enjoyment that it entails. Where his actual scares and monsters can be more comical than actually frightening I do find his characters and their on-screen relationships to be consistently great, probably the one thing that made Anabelle a decent movie in my eyes (and that one elevator scene, my god). It’s rare to see the slow moments in horror treated as anything but a checklist that the director needs to fill out before he’s allowed to apply the next pop-out screamer. It’s refreshing and very pleasant to see writers willing to make use of this downtime. Not to say his films don’t have their share of creepy imagery or atmosphere when the time calls. The smiling family in the Conjuring, the elevator in Annabelle (my god) or the dog scene in his latest Conjuring 2, these moments show a genuine understanding that actual scares are not born of loud noises but from something much deeper. That is, until you see what’s actually causing the scares. Bearing in mind we are talking about a man who’s ‘horror’ features no less than a dozen tacky looking puppets, an old man with dentures and a little boy dancing a jig to an old-timey radio.
Once you realise you’re sitting on a carnival spook ride and most of the baddies are indeed people in rubbery looking masks it gets SO much more fun. Kind of like the festive season itself, no?

Whereas other directors who rely on their cheese-factor like the great Sam Riami haven’t delivered on their signature styles in some time Mr Wan has perfected the corny spookhouse horror… so much that it takes half the movie to realise that’s what you’re in for. I think this is why so many people are luke-warm on his films, because the first third usually follows all the common rules of Hollywood horror, framing it to be exactly what we expect- Bad jump scares and being way too serious. That isn’t what we receive however and a part of me wonders whether being up front with his goofy kind of horror would increase their notoriety, or land him back making SAW sequels?

Speaking of which, SAW: Legacy, Insidious 4, The Nun (Conjuring 3) and…. Aquaman?… will all be hitting cinemas soon. So while the Hollywood sequel machine keeps burping them out, take some time this Halloween to enjoy a real spook-house. I recommend Insidious, Dead Silence and Conjuring 2 for a couple of scares, and a whole lot of giggles.

Happy Halloween.

What Makes Great Horror?

What Makes Great Horror?

 

With Halloween just a few days away I’ve indulged in one of my favourite pastimes- Thinking about stuff that scares the crap out of people.

I’ve given thought to some of my favourite scary books, movies and campfire stories. Which of course led to the obvious question… why is so much of our horror media so bad?
You’ll hear it all the time from scary movie buffs and avid readers. Horror is an incredibly difficult thing to balance, often falling flat especially around the October season where terror becomes the flavour of the month. So why do we still hold it so close to our adrenaline filled hearts?

Because horror lets us explore a part of ourselves we keep locked away. It celebrates the part of us we hide away. But first, let’s first address the elephant in the room…

When we experience something scary in the comfort of our homes or a crowded cinema we do so expecting two things- to be at least startled in the moment, then to walk away from the experience. Probably forgetting it soon after. That is because modern horror is built to make us feel ‘safe’. There is always a moment to relax behind the scares, a time to cool off and laugh at what makes us jump. Horror contains comedy relief, fake-out moments and the opportunity to feel distanced from the art when we walk away. Sadly blockbuster movies and videogames do not want their audience feeling disturbed by what they’ve seen, and funnily a movie that is perceived as “too scary” will be watered down before release to a wide audience (see; ‘Event Horizon’ 1997 for a great example). This approach does not leave anything that sticks with us on a psychological level, and allows us to feel safer about the world we live in- rather than the possible world the story alluded to.

If that’s part of the issue, what are some of the essential building blocks of true horror?
Well just as important as the scare itself, perhaps even more so, is the tension cycle. This is the point in a movie or book where our minds are led into a vulnerable place. The creaking of doors, the rustling of windows, the sound of a running tap. Between the point where our expectations are made and the fright is actually delivered is an incredible stretch of time where our brain’s cannot feel safe- every small thing becomes a possible threat. Shadows on the walls, images in mirrors. It is here where horror geniuses will do work.

I give a classic example of The Exorcist (1973), which not only paced its tension across long periods but also snuck haunting images and unsettling things out of sight. If you pay attention to the shadows behind doors and furniture in this movie, you’ll see faces hidden in the dark watching the audience- now THAT is well done.

The tension cycle is also what allows us to feel that sense of dread even if we’ve already been startled. After enough build-up the payoff of a scare will actually relieve some of that stress, making us feel relaxed despite ourselves. That’s when the pace can begin building up all over again.
The scare itself doesn’t always need to be a jump scare- despite what some movies would have you believe- but instead a slower payoff can add to the creeping feeling. Like the girlfriend rising in the night to watch her partner sleep in ‘Paranormal Activity’ or the dog that isn’t really a dog in ‘Conjuring 2’. Watching that uncertain threat open before our eyes instead of just jumping out at us is not only more subtle, it makes it impossible to find that feeling of rest. We are still trapped in the unease.

Limiting perception also plays a part in the emotions of the audience. As viewers we should never see everything that’s going on, because knowledge breaks the tension. Uncertainty is a weapon of horror, and lots of movies fall into the trap of letting us see too much. Effective horror will often use restricted viewpoints- cameras, hallways, darkness, even just showing an image for a fraction of a second only gives us a limited idea of what’s out here.
Possibly one of the greatest lessons of horror is tied to this very fact- People will always scare themselves worse than you can scare them. Showing only pieces of the greater whole and letting the audience or reader fill in the rest, whether they want to or not, will always be more powerful than showing something on screen.

Outside of the terror itself there are three pillars that determine how much we are willing to care about the scares presented to us: Setting, Mystery and Character.

Setting sounds like a simple concept, simply what spooky place these events are happening in. But creators should never limit themselves to letting a setting be a backdrop; some of the greatest locations in film are the places where horror takes place. The Overlook Hotel from ‘The Shining’, the spaceship Nostromo from ‘Alien’, even the mall from ‘Dawn of the Dead’ are iconic landscapes for cinema. Why else is setting important? Because it builds toward a core element of Horror…

Disempowerment.

The isolation a setting can create is an incredible tool for making us feel disempowered and vulnerable. Humans are a societal species, as a group capable of overcoming any problem no matter how immense, but alone we are fragile. This is why stories often have characters alone in hospitals, cabins, mountains or abandoned towns. These places make psychological connections. Places like asylums and prisons all have negative images tied to our psyche that just the word alone, let alone the visuals, can invoke. By stirring the shared fear of these places the superstitious part of the human mind will fill in a lot of the horror just from the setting.

There are also locations like space, the ocean, the Arctic or even jungles and lost villages; these are great for horror because a primal part of us knows we aren’t supposed to BE there. That the area around us is hostile, sometimes even immediately fatal, and only a thin barrier of security is keeping us alive and safe. A setting like this can create horror without even needing an antagonist, such as in ‘Gravity’ (2013) where the threat of the Where far surpasses that of the What.

So what then of Mystery? As I’ve stated already the unknown is a terrifying place. It’s the part of horror that allows us to fill the gaps and build expectations. The unknown is always scarier, and this is why many horrors lose their edge after the monster/killed is exposed- fading into the mediocrity of sequels. For a master class of mystery I raise you the master of the macabre; H.P. Lovecraft.

Most Lovecraftian tales revolved around a simple concept, the unknowable.
Not the unknown, something we have not yet come to grips with, but forces which cannot be understood. Stories like the Music of Erich Zann and The Shunned House revolve around frightening elements that not only aren’t displayed in full, they are portrayed as being impossible for the words on the page to convey, making it very difficult to frame in movie format (which accounts for very few good Lovecraft movies). But even in his more subdued pieces mystery was core to his work. There was always a question present that rarely- if ever- got a complete answer. How can this effect be used to narrate good horror? That is the work of the Uncanny.

The uncanny is the creeping sense that something is not as it should be. Even if we can’t put our finger on it. This type of mystery can help construct a world around our characters without a single word of exposition, and leave the audience with the question, “”What is wrong here, and why?”
M. Shyamalan conveyed the uncanny to surprising effect in his 2015 film ‘The Visit’ where the suspense came not from blatant danger, but simply the sense that something was… off.
Stephen Lynch is the celebrated master of uncanny with shows like Twin Peaks relying on strange imagery and unnatural speech to convey unease when everything should otherwise seem safe. This makes us question our understanding of what we’re so sure the world is, and how it operates.

This sensation goes even deeper when it comes to human beings. Ask yourself, why are dolls so creepy? Why does the idea of a smile with too many teeth freak us out on such a basic level? Because we have a base understanding of what a human being is. So when faced with something that brings our understanding into question we feel unsettled, unsafe. We’re no longer as certain of ourselves as we once were, meaning anything becomes a possibility.

Any time a horror story leaves us with these feelings of doubt we are victim to its mystery.

The final pillar of our investment comes from the Character. These are not just the buffet of faces we will see offered to the monster over the course of two hours, they are our vessel into the story. How much we engage with a work is largely down to how much we are willing to invest, emotionally, in what we’re being told. Like in all storytelling a character is key to this- but what’s special to horror? What do characters do best here that no other medium can brag?

Characters in horror allow us a proxy. A chance to explore a darker, more fearful part of ourselves that our minds shy away from. The space between what we believe ourselves to be and what we actually are is a terrifying place that horror has always taken advantage of. To use Jung’s psychological term this place is The Shadow. This is where the illusions we put up around ourselves, as a person and as a society, are broken down. Our honest thoughts, true fears and most basic (and horrid) desires? Those are all found in The Shadow.

So these characters allow us to explore that darker side of ourselves. The monster that reflects the worst parts of human nature.  When in horror, either by the threat or the actions of the characters within it, we are faced with the reality of being human.  Some of the deepest horror can make us face these questions we’d rather hide from. This is what made ‘SAW’ (2004) so engaging- what would we do in that situation? Are we so noble to give up our lives, or would we commit atrocities?

Perhaps the best example in popular fiction is James Sunderland from ‘Silent Hill 2’. During the characters plight the town and all the residents met within reflect some element of James’s psyche, mirroring parts of his past and alluding to the mystery of why he’s there. Even the spotlight monster- Pyramid Head- is a representation of his violence and sexual anger. Having every element of the world reflect the conflict of the main character is a very difficult thing to pull off, hence why there aren’t many examples of it, and most stories will simply use characters as a relatable vessel for the audience to hide behind. Both these methods are acceptable, it largely comes down to one question: what are we really meant to be afraid of?

Too many fall into the trap of thinking the threat of the spooky monster is all horror can be. Consider a moment, are zombies all that scary? As a monster themselves, no. They are slow, rotting bodies with ugly faces. We might not want to be trapped in a room with them but comparatively they are much less dangerous than actual humans! But change the focus for a moment- what if it’s not the zombies we’re supposed to shy away from. What if it’s the realisation that the seven year old girl we’ve gotten to know as the audience has been bitten? There is no longer need for creepy hallways, moving shadows or jump-scares from the dark. Just a quiet moment of a parent cradling a 9mm pistol and all the true horror that represents.

So if there are so many options for good horror, why are many scary stories today so weak?
At a purely business level; Hollywood doesn’t want to scare off its paying customers. Movies trying to cater to broader audiences with PG-15 sell in much larger numbers than R-rated, and relying too much on jump scares for that ‘screaming audience’ effect has led to a generation of horror cinema that feels very one-note. Ultimately, it comes down to copying the tropes of spooky stories without understanding the essence of what makes them stick. That horror isn’t just about things that go bump in the night but questions that go much deeper.

Ultimately there are many root issues that unsettle us as animals; Sexuality, insanity, parental issues, racism, even loss of control in our lives. When these issues are brought to the surface they create a genuine unease which is a blanket for horror. One of the most popular horror films of the last few years, ‘The Babadook’, spent most of its run time establishing a painfully uncomfortable relationship between a mother and her disabled child before bringing out the scares.
Why? Because these issues claw at us and make us more susceptible to the basest fear- death. If we’ve already been forced to face issues that so many of us shy away from as human beings we can’t help but experience everything that comes along with it. Which is when the greatest of horrors will present us with a fear for life itself.

That is where terror is found.

 

Happy Halloween.

 

The Cartoon Museum, London

It is worth a visit if you’re around London and fancy something different. Just a shame it cannot be more of it 😞

W.U Hstry

On our research day Alex, Michael and I decided to do a quick stop in the Cartoon Museum of London, a little hideout regarding cartoons, comic strips and British comics. This small gallery is not very well-known to the public. It forms part of the London Museum Mile, and it is literally just around the corner from the British Museum. The tour around it barely takes 40 minutes, and there is a small entrance fee.

I must admit that the little historian and comic enthusiast inside me died a little to see the state of the gallery. The museum has two floors. The direction of the exhibition was not extremely clear so we kind of guessed, and hoped for the best. this was also the moment in which we got to know that, like many other small museums and galleries the Cartoon museum does not receive a great deal of funding…

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What Is The Best Trading Card Game (Ever) ?

 

Being a geek implies many things. You still like cartoons even though you pay taxes, video games are a qualified form of art, and lords have mercy if you try and discuss your hobbies at the water cooler. You’re also required by law to think Star Wars is cool or they come and take your badge away.

Being a geek from the 80’s or 90’s also has one more commandment. When you were growing up you played trading card games! These things were everywhere, you couldn’t visit the supermarket without being awed by the colourful shiny wrappers for things your parents KNEW were a waste of money but you couldn’t be talked out of it. My younger days, like so many, were surrounded in the most addictive drug sold to children… cardboard.
But man did we love it. I played anything I could get my hands on and (tried) to be a collector. Of course having no disposable income at the time did make that a damn sight harder.

Why did I get so hooked? Well a part of me blames that on my fascination with toys and board games. Another part of me thinks back to that first pack of cards I ever opened, and just so happened to pull out a Shiny Charizard card. Which I still have to this day packed away somewhere.

So the real question for today; Which IS the best collectable trading card game?

For this debate I will be excluding any of the ‘boxed set’ games that are becoming more and more frequent today. Games like Netrunner, the Game of Thrones card game, Dominion and so many more. These are entire sets of cards which don’t come in booster packs but are bought in expansions including every usable card in the set. If I might be so daring; this is a MUCH better system for players and means you’ll never be without the cards you need to have fun, and almost every game features interesting deck building mechanics and variation. If you’ve never played a boxed set game, I highly recommend going out and grabbing one today.

But now, let’s talk boosters.

As you’ve already guessed my first fixation was the Pokemon trading card game back when it launched around 1998. Like many kids I was more focused on the cards than the actual game and never played a proper match until I picked up the Pokemon TCG Gameboy colour game!
So what did I like about it at the time? Well the artwork was always really cool. Unique drawings or 3D renderings of monsters made exclusively for the card game. Sometimes they look more like street art than official pieces, and let’s not forget the famous Ancient Mew card which was drawn as a hieroglyph… including all its text! You literally couldn’t read the damn thing, but that’s what made it cool.
Not to mention the thing everyone wanted as a kid, Shiny cards! It didn’t matter if they were actually rare or not, that holofoil was everything when you were nine years old. This is a trend we’ve seen carry through to most card games since, with shiny cards upgrading the value of paper in thousands of sets around the world- but we’ll get to that.

So what do I think of the Pokemon card game now?
As child-friendly as it is and based on a nostalgic cartoon property most serious players wouldn’t give this the time of day. However it features some of the best core mechanics of any card game I’ve seen, solid deck building options and a very neat and tidy method of play. Added features like coin flips, card lotteries and tokens give it a very ‘board game’ feel which is perfect for the simple ruleset.
Power creep is not so much the issue as a Power Revolution. Cards of a decade ago are not nearly as viable as newer cards, mostly because the game has evolved and become something quite different since then; with new card types, energy colours and even entire rulesets coming in. New sets released today in the 2010’s keep power creep manageable, just with some cards notably better than others (isn’t that always the case?)
They’ve kept true to the old system of shiny and rare balance- for the most part- with some interesting exceptions. Anyone who knows the Pokemon games is aware that ‘shiny’ Pokemon actually exist outside of the cards, as uniquely coloured monsters. These have been brought in as super-rare cards, but with a cool gameplay twist. All shinies are actually re-prints of the older versions of some monsters. So the Shiny Pikachu from a 2016 set might have the text and rules of the 2009 set Pikachu. I think that’s pretty neat.

So what did I play after Pokemon cards got banned in all schools (everywhere) and the cost of new sets turned me away? Actually I hopped between systems for a while, and I dare say none of them quite matched up. So for the sake of today’s article I will present to you my three honourable mentions before the next ‘big thing’ took my attention!

The Digimon TCG. If there was one card game I wish more of my friends played as a kid it would probably be this one. Not just because I enjoyed the cartoon when I was a tyke, but because this became the most affordable card game of them all. As an attempt at competing with Pokemon cards these didn’t pick up as a fad and quickly became sales products- I still remember picking up a booster box for less than five pounds!
Sadly this meant the game collapsed quickly and didn’t get much of a follow up, which is amusing since the simple colour-matching gameplay of it strikes me as very familiar in the modern world of facebook and mobile app games. The artwork also lacked the varied and stylised touch of its popular counterpart, but the drawings were still nicely done (and no doubt used on a variety of other promotional material as well). Ultimately the Digimon cards were an imitator that didn’t have the star power of its competition, nor the star power of its publisher. But that’s not something I learned until later…

My second mention goes to the Dragonball Z Trading Card game. Yes, this was a thing. Yes, pulling a shiny Super Saiyan out of a booster pack is still the coolest thing I can imagine. No, I am not ashamed.

There’s not an awful lot to say for this one- mostly because its arrival in the UK was a short lived experiment around the time of the Android Saga (in the west). The cards were very simple and featured a rather clunky method of using separate cards for attacks, often with a quote from the series plastered on them. This was also the first example of ‘screengrab syndrome’ I noticed in a TCG, where all of the art is just ripped off the TV series, a trend that I’d see time and again among a lot of the lower-budget collectables.
It was crude and silly, but I still get the feeling a lot of love went into designing it. Even though it didn’t catch a strong international release, research tells me the game lasted a solid six years on market with no less than 18 expansions! It was eventually discontinued in 2006 and replaced a couple years later by the Bandai version in 2008 with completely different rules … and is still being played today! Good on you, Dragonball.

The last and possibly least of my three mentions goes to Monster Racher. A game and television series most people probably forgot existed and just got a jolt of nostalgia at the mention.
While the video games still continue to this day my introduction to ‘Rancher was through delicious booster packs. Nowadays finding information on the card game is difficult but I can express a nostalgic joy remembering all the weird variety it offered. Sadly a poorly designed system and insistence on screengrabs for artwork led to a quick decline that stole them off my Toys R Us shelves. Younger me mourned their loss, but perhaps it was for the best.

So what emerged after this long drought to quench my need to throw cardboard at my friends and yell ridiculous phrases? Well if that wasn’t clue enough, it was the shelf invasion that was the Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters game. A name so embarrassing to say at a book store checkout I still can’t believe it sold as well as it did.

Still the most popular trading card game worldwide YGO pioneered the marketing goldmine that was launching cards based on a TV show… which was also about trading cards! A devilish strategy made all the more tragic when you know Yu-GI-Oh’s original run had nothing to do with Duel Monster cards, and was actually much darker and adult in tone. But money talks and the fandom walks, so today there are literally HUNDREDS of expansion sets for this game.
Personally I had the biggest involvement in the first five years or so, coming back later on to play in the tournament scene around 2011. To say the game underwent changes is an understatement; YGO is probably the most mutating card game in the world. Why? It’s not just because the television show has to create new important cards and strategies to remain interesting… though that is a part of it…
The card game never had rules to begin with! As in, when the show began and the basics of the game were demonstrated (and then adapted to real world cards) there was no official rulebook. It was made up to fit the needs of each episode, with some examples being frankly ridiculous.
Because of this so many old concepts were scrapped and the first dozen sets of cards are truly unusable! That hasn’t stopped them from cherry picking the few good (see; broken) cards with the help of the most complicated ban system in any competitive TCG. Why just have banned cards when you can have semi-banned, restricted and limited cards for each standard?

Its popularity can be justified though- more than just saying we were all teenagers once.

They have managed to squeeze a healthy amount of game out of the original concept, with various spell types that don’t just imitate the popular systems that came before. They also have free range to create weird and epic art for each card, probably the best stylised since the original Pokemon card run!  If I had to speak honestly though, it stands out more for its negatives than positives.
Because it began life as a pretend card game it had to retrofit long and complicated rules into most of its cards. Because it needed to build a brand in an oversaturated market it relied on speculators and collectors, issuing FAR too many ‘rare’ editions of its products; Shinies, holo shinies, star shinies and so many more… the apex of which are GHOST shinies- artwork printed entirely in silver to the point you almost can’t see the image! And ultimately, it’s greatest issue, power creep.

Yu-Gi-Oh! has suffered more from power-creep between editions than World of Warcraft. If you’re playing casually this won’t bring you down, but for anyone who prides in collecting or showing off at tournaments this means every new release will be a reset from zero.
Though it is the most popular of card games in stores today, for these reasons and more, I cannot award Yu-Gi-Oh! the crown for TCG’s.

As a side note, one of the few games I was introduced to but never indulged was Cardfight Vanguard- which exploded in Japan and the US but bombed in Europe. In find myself in group B, as it didn’t take long before I wrote off the game as ‘Not for me’.
On the surface there is a lot to like in Vanguard; It’s method of play is one of the strangest you’ll find among card titles,  there are several stylised factions to indulge in (including an evil circus) and because the card game and TV show were made in tandem neither restricted the creativity of the other. However there is one word that comes to mind when speaking of Vanguard- Overload.
The game takes the tropes of cartoon based TCGs and pushes them all to eleven. Too many rules, overdesigned cards, a rarity system requiring a flowchart and so much text on one piece of cardboard people without 20/20 vision will have trouble playing it- which is a problem when marketing toys to nerds. Ultimately the same drawbacks that apply to Yu-Gi-Oh! also darken the waters here.
I can’t say that I dislike this game- but it’s a true testament to “acquired taste”.

With that we hit the tipping point. The time-tested monster that is Magic: The Gathering.

So what’s my exposure with this one? Could it really compete for the title of ‘Best TCG?’
My first attempt at Magic was when I was about fourteen years old and still casually collecting Yu-Gi-Oh!. I picked up a starter deck along with a friend from school and he showed me the ropes.
Not being able to direct attacks, having to manage mana resources, only having twenty life when all the cool monsters had 10 or more in attack. I thought it was stupid.

That was young me, though. Back when wrestling still looked real and Sonic the Hedgehog released good games. So how has my opinion aged with maturity?

As it happens the elements that turned me off the game have returned as some of my favourite parts now that I’ve learned to appreciate design. Handling in-game resources to control the flow of the game is a graceful mechanic, and appreciating that bigger numbers on cards do not equate to your strongest tools is something that took time and patience.
The art style also has improved with new releases, moving away from the dull colour pallets of old and taking advantage of the digital age of artwork (and all the artists who can’t get work elsewhere). In fact I was shocked to discover this game launched in 1993! It’s so ingrained in geek culture I think of it being a game our parents could have played growing up. Or maybe it just reminds me of Dungeons & Dragons since they’re both by Wizards of the Coast- the Kling of Dorito fuelled Friday evenings.

This game does step into the traps of other collectables- with some cards notably better than others, and a reliance on a rarity system for better decks. In fact these can be considered the biggest downfalls of Magic and the reason many move away from the game. But if you’re willing to accept that playing in the pros is considerably more expensive than playing for fun there isn’t much else to complain about. Even shiny cards- the bane of some marketing ploys- are very reserved. With the occasional pack having a completely random card in foil. You’re just as likely to get a shiny swamp as you are a mythical creature!

MTG also has famous stories of ‘lost’ cards emerging and selling for tens of thousands. This isn’t the case any longer, since the hobby is now haunted by the boogeyman called ‘speculation’ which turned comic books from a collector’s goldmine to only so much paperback ink. (But I’ll discuss that another time). For some people Magic is all about the money value on the card. For most of us, it’s about the weird and wonderful things you can do with thousands of toys at your disposal and all the lego-like ways you can put them together!
Unless you have cards from 1993. Then we’re talking real money.

You’ll notice these are all TCG’s I first discovered before my 20’s. So, as an old and grouchy man, what was the last card game I picked up?

A little spectacle called Romance of the Nine Empires. Never heard of it? That’s because it’s not real. Not entirely. The only playable edition was the special promo release that distributed alongside the 2013 independent film ‘Gamers 3: Hands of Fate’, which followed the adventure of a jerk named Cass who gets roped into playing a TCG tournament at Gencon in order to win a date from a fiery redhead. The game they play is none other than R9E, a surprisingly fleshed out game featuring multiple factions, food and resource management, quest systems and unique heroes. The movie is great and you can watch the whole thing on their Youtube channel, and the card game is fun- if clearly an alpha model for something they hoped would take off. As far as I’m aware it never got much further than the promo sets, but it’s a delightful relic all the same.

As we get deeper into the early 2000’s people are moving away from the physical cardgames that were so rampant in the 90’s. A part of that may be because new alternatives are hitting the scene. I already mentioned ‘boxed set’ games that make buying boosters a thing of the past, but what for those who enjoy the thrill of random cards? Is there a modern interpretation for them?

In many ways, yes. A lot of digital games have stepped in to fill that gap, both as their own exclusive title and even as add-ons to existing products. While ‘The Witcher 3’s Gwent cardgame could be its own title it’s delightful to see nerdy TCG’s work their way into different worlds and settings, much like Triple Triad did way back in Final Fantasy 8!
The most proliferous game of this type being Blizzard’s famous ‘Hearthstone’, a mobile and tablet card game that uses very simple rules to create a smaller edition of the kind of games we used to see sold in booster packs. Of course they still have those too, they’re just digital (and sold for game currency as well as real cash). I spent a good amount of time with Hearthstone and found it to be enjoyable as a casual game; however it lacks the depth and deck variety to catch a hook in more seasoned TCG players.

It does however open the door for new games going forward- will they find a happy medium between the bloated table games and the minimalist virtual counterparts? I for one would love to see how the best of both worlds could change the landscape of games nights everywhere.
But that is the future! This is now! Which leaves us with the important question…

Who makes the best cardboard in the land? Or at least, which do I think are the cream of the crop when it comes to trading cards.

Speaking from the heart I believe there are two options- if you’re looking to play casually and have tonnes of fun, while also enjoying the glee of shiny rare things, the game you want is the Pokemon TCG. Its design is simple and beautiful, with mechanics that make it fun to master even if you aren’t a fan of the overall franchise.
If you’re looking to dig your teeth in deeper, get into some serious Nerding, then I call Magic: The Gathering the time tested winner. It has some of the flaws that ape all large-scale competitive TCG’s but the core of the game is still as solid now as it was in the nineties. Thanks to decades of industry knowledge they’ve managed to keep the game consistent and every new set interesting. With the strongest professional pedigree out there you’ll never be short on help with the tournament scene. The more expensive older-brother to the Pokemon TCG, but also the more in-depth, this is your pick if you’ll accept no substitutes in your card gaming.

I guess what I’m saying is- you can’t beat Wizards of the Coast. Much as we try.

So those WOULD be my choices for best trading cards… but there is another. Without doubt the most prestigious and long running trading card collection out there. A trading card game so beloved around the world it managed to pull off an international release in the 1800’s!

I am of course, speaking of Baseball cards. Now wait- put down your lightsabers and foam He-Man swords. I’m not turning in my geek membership badge just yet. Here is why the phenomena of Baseball cards is probably the coolest set of collectables ever, even if there isn’t much of a table game to go along with them.

We all remember stories from our grandparents about cards being sold in old bubblegum packets back in the day. Those were the forties when stuff like that wasn’t weird. But did you know baseball cards were a TCG as early as 1868? You read that right, eighteen sixty-eight! Originally they were given away alongside products that had nothing to do with baseball due to the sports increasing popularity and the cards being an easy way to promote their goods. Just imagine that- your new windshield wipers coming with a pack of Pokemon cards!

But no, not even official cards. These were cards made by the businesses that gave them away! Imagine something like that happening now, lawyers would have a field day.

Sports equipment outlet Peck and Snyder gained enough popularity with their cards to largely be considered the ‘first’ recognised set! Making their way into cigarette boxes and related tobacco products across America before seeing a Japanese release in 1898!
So yes, the first TCG had to be imported TO Japan, not from them. How bizarre is that with today’s market?

So what slice of brilliance has survived to this day? Baseball cards are still sold now, just over the counter instead of inside cigar boxes, and I dare say my favourite element is still alive now.
For a long time, much longer than we’ve been alive, baseball cards have included signed copies in rare packs by the players themselves. You might ask why this is important- but consider this.
You open a pack and find a Joe DiMaggio card (trust me, that’s a big deal) but not only that, it’s a special card signed by the man himself! Now you’ve got a collector’s item on your hand that no amount of holofoil can compete with.
The same is still true today, with the added bonus of ‘rookie cards’. Baseball cards printed with newcomers to the playing field who haven’t made a name for themselves yet. Meaning if you snag a rookie card with a signature on it, you’ve got yourself a lottery ticket. Will that player fade into obscurity, or be the next Daryl Strawberry? It’s a level of engagement with your collection no other card games today can boast.

And if you thought Jace the Mind Sculptor was expensive … Honus Wagner’s baseball card sold in 2007 for $2.8 Million.

Now that’s a card I would trade my Charizard for.

The Skyrim Diaries – Los Diarios de Skyrim: A Building Interlude – Intermedio&Construccion

“I know you may think being the Dragonborn is all about going into the wild and explore. However, it is also about knowing yourself. Finding peace, and serenity”.

“Sé que estaréis pensando que al ser Dragonborn, mi vida se basa en ir a la aventura, explorar…Sin embargo, también se trata de conocerse a uno mismo, y alcanzar la serenidad y armonía interna que pueden ser perturbadas frecuentemente por las cosas que suceden a mi alrededor”.

“I have a family: my wife and my two children. I do not get to see them as often as I would like…But I try to provide for them to the best of my capabilities. One of the things that I must do for them is making sure they are safe and warm. So I have taken it upon my shoulders to build them a new house”.

“Tengo familia: mi mujer y mis dos hijos. No les veo tanto como me gustaría, pero intento proporcionarles con las comodidades necesarias para tener una buena vida. Una de las cosas más importantes que debo proporcionarles en un medio ambiente como el de Skyrim es un refugio, calor y comodidad. Así que he decidido construirles una casa con mis propias manos”.

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“I must admit, I am not the best builder, but I would like to think I have put enough effort to make it worthy. Our new home started as a modest cabin up north between Morthal and Dawnstar. I had always been captivated by the beauty of the surroundings: they are nothing like the forests I knew in my childhood. I wanted my children to grow in an environment that would mark them. I always thought there is much one can learn in the snow”.

“Y debo admitir que tal vez no seré el mejor constructor del mundo, pero he puesto muchísimo esfuerzo en hacer que esta casa valga la pena. Nuestro nuevo hogar empezó siendo una modesta caseta de leñador  en las tierras del norte, entre Morthal y Dawnstar. Los paisajes de esos lares siempre me han cautivado, pues no tienen nada que ver con los bosques que vagaba cuando era una niña. Siempre he querido que mis hijos creciesen en un ambiente que dejase huellas en su experiencia del mundo y de la vida, y creo que hay mucho que aprender al vivir entre la nieve”.

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“As I became more knowledgeable in the art of building, I grew ambitious. Why craft just a simple cabin in the woods when my family can enjoy a delightful summer morning walking around a complex with towers, forges, materials…Every day could be a new learning experience. Perhaps one day my daughter would be as skilled smith as her mothers. And my son; my son will here learn to be a mighty warrior”.

“No obstante, al volverme más diestro en el arte de la construcción, mis ambiciones para esta cabina crecieron exponencialmente. Por qué conformarme con tan poco cuando mi familia podría pasar el tiempo disfrutando las mañanas del verano paseando por un complejo de torres, forjas, con cualquier tipo de material y herramienta a su alcance…Así todos los días se convertirían en una nueva experiencia, algo nuevo que hacer. Tal vez, mi hija se convierta en una gran herrera como su madre. Y mi hijo…Mi hijo se convertirá en un poderoso guerrero”.

“Taking advantage of what these northern lands give us, I decided to find another source of livelihood for the homestead. Therefore, I started a fishery just by the waterside a few yards away from the house. It has not hatched anything yet, but I hope we will get some interesting fish from it. Hopefully tasty too”.

“También he buscado otra forma de proporcionar a la economía doméstica de la casa, usando los recursos que nos ofrecen las tierras del norte. Por tanto, he creado una especie de poza natural donde poder pescar y criar peces. Esta solo a unos metros de distancia de la casa. Todavía no ha salido nada de ella, pero espero que con el tiempo consiga producir buenos peces – y sabrosos con un poco de suerte”.

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Batiburrillo de Juegos: del King of Tokyo al Rattus

!Hola Hola! Bueno hace tiempo que no os dejo nada sobre juegos, y menos en español. Así que retorno con el tema. Esta semana pasada he estado visitando a mi familia, de vacaciones, y como es costumbre, hemos estado pues jugando a cosillas. Algunas ya me las conocía, pero hubo algunos que era nuevos y que tenía ganas de probar. Aunque la verdad, no salieron todos como había esperado…Así que os cuento:

Por fin probamos el King of Tokyo. Yo había oído hablar bien de ello, y sabía que el juego era chulo desde el punto de visual, y la verdad es que lo es: los bichejos que manejas, los dados y el mini escenario están bien hechos. Echamos una partida a 5 jugadores. Los primeros turnos más o menos bien, hay algo de vidilla, le das de zarpazos a la gente, te subes vidas, ganas puntos de victoria. Vale. El problema vino al quedarnos con 3 y 2 jugadores, entonces el juego se vuelve muy repetitivo, casi pierdes las ganas de jugar porque una partida que siguiendo el espíritu del juego debería ser rápida y solucionada en un par de tiradas, se convierte en algo eterno…Por tanto, me parece un juego que estaría bien pues para empezar con gente que no ha jugado nunca a juegos o con los peques de la casa. Pero nada más. Y bueno, que decir que fue una decisión un poco unánime…

Otro día jugamos una partida de 3 al Mauna Kea, y la verdad es que estuvo bien. La verdad es que es un juego en el que hay que tener algo de estrategia pero de forma un poco relativa, porque al final tienes que estar pendiente de tus meeples, de los de los demás, y de que no te coja la lava. Así que se hace entretenido porque realmente nunca sabes que va a pasar, y no es fácil pronosticar quien va a ganar hasta que se acaba la partida. Quiero suponer que con 4 jugadores ya se complique incluso más el asunto porque habría otro par de manos poniendo ficha, provocando lava, y más competición por los bloques que te dan puntos. Así que me parece bien. Tiene jugabilidad, vidilla, es divertido, e impredecible.

Por último, jugamos al Rattus – que yo había jugado una vez anterior – pero con la expansión Rattus Africanus, que tiene un considerable impacto sobre el juego. También fue una partida a 3 jugadores. He de reconocer que no es el típico juego que se me dé especialmente bien: con tantas cartas y posibilidades, terrenos, fichitas y pestes múltiples a veces me aturullo un poco. Pero me gustó mucho la combinación de cartas de personaje nuevas y las opciones de juego y estrategia que abren. Y es que hay combinaciones que pueden ser muy peligrosas (el de la caravana puede liarla parda por lo que he visto y he podido comprobar). Por otro lado, se me comentaba que las cartas de personaje que salen también pueden ser unas combinaciones extrañas o no igual de efectivas desde el punto de vista del combo (la bruja no parece hacer mucho entusiasmo…), y por tanto pueden alterar de forma significativa la dinámica de juego.

En resumidas cuentas, dos buenas experiencias y una que se quedó por el camino, por así decirlo. Si alguno de vosotros ha jugado también a estos juegos que os comentamos, nos encantaría que compartieseis vuestras experiencias. Y si habéis probado algún juego nuevo últimamente, pues compartidlo igualmente.

Nos vemos en la próxima 🙂

Revisiting GameDev Tycoon

I have always loved GameDev Tycoon. I remember when it came out, I spent and entire evening playing with my friends. We will make a studio and collectively make decisions about what we were making, how we were doing it, who we would hire, and the rest of the creative decisions you need to take during the game. But there has always been one thing that puzzles me about the game, and I think it is one of the reasons I keep coming back to it over and over.

Unlike with many tycoon games, if you find a winning strategy once, you just need to repeat it. But it doesn’t seem to be the case with this game (either that or my memory and capabilities are worse than expected). And that is because of the aleatory nature of the game: there are different trends, different platforms, different audiences, and combinations. So what may work once, may not work always. And, if you think about it, that is true of the video-game industry itself. Regardless of how similar games may be, not all experience the same success. So I decided to have a quick play through: just a couple of hours or so, and share my game with you.

So I started my little company called Valinor (yes, there will be lots of references in here…).

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Medieval RPG combo – first game so text-based…

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