Sunday, 26 June 2016

Total Cults Total Tabletop: Game of Thrones

Overview

Battle for control of Westeros as one of the six most formidable families in the land in this strategic game based on the series of fantasy books. Build your armies and move them by land or sea pillaging and attacking your enemies, seizing their castles and reaping the rewards all the while bartering for influence and building supplies to fend off an attack from the savage Wildlings!

Table Play



You play over a giant map of Westeros that has been divided into various spaces named after locations from the books. These spaces can contain a number of symbols that have particular effects: Strongholds score you points and allow you to build armies, crowns win you tokens to barter with and supply barrels allow you to grow your armies. Your armies consist of footmen, knights, ships and dreaded siege engines (all with different combat strengths) that can be moved into spaces fighting off whoever has control and claiming the symbol(s) and their rewards. Whoever controls a designated number of strongholds (the number of which is kept on the victory tracker) or whoever has the most under control when the round tracker reaches 10 is the winner.
The game is divided into three rounds. Round one sees the drawing of three Westeros cards that trigger a randomised series of events. These events can allow you to use the number of barrels controlled to grow or shrink (if you've lost some) your army and, build your armies or entering a bartering phase for three special tokens. These cards can also push the Wildling tracker closer to triggering a Wildling event, but more on that later.
Round two sees each player laying an order token face down on each space that contains their armies. Orders can include marching (where your pieces march aggressively into other spaces and initiating combat with whoever they meet), support (where your pieces lend support to those in neighbouring spaces) and defence (where you prepare to be invaded by other pieces). There are other orders but I'd be here forever explaining them all. Once all the orders have been given they are flipped up and resolved accordingly. The final round features combat where the total combat points of all the pieces fighting over a space, plus any supporting pieces next door, are added up. Each player then draws a random hero card (based on the most iconic characters from the books) and throws them into the mix. The person with the higher number wins and the defeated army has to retreat. Finally, everything is tidied up, trackers adjusted to represent who has control of what and the game moves back to round one.

Above the Table


What makes this different from your average Risk knock-off is that it encourages players to form uneasy alliances. One of the Westeros cards drawn in round one requires players to secretly bid tokens on a series of special tokens with powerful abilities. Tokens are placed in the palm of each players hand for each of the three abilities (extra combat points, being able to change an order once all have been revealed and being able to decide the outcome of draws) and then revealed. Whoever has bid the most for each one wins the token and has those abilities for as long as they hold it. This system allows players to drive the cost up for people who really want a particular power, deplete other's tokens so you can outbid them later or aim for second place and earn the chance to use more special orders (like normal orders but stronger). Strategy is key here as the Wildling phase requires players to pool tokens, working together to defeat the invasion. When a Wildling attack is triggered the players must all secretly bid tokens but the total must equal more than the Wildling's current strength. Your enemy might be trouncing you but driving their bids up over power-ups might make them less able to get you out of trouble when Wildling's invade
In battle players can pledge support for each other, form alliances and/or betray each other at the worst possible time. Leading a rival player's army into a tricky situation with the promise of help and then pulling out your support at the last minute to reward the other player who you'd been secretly plotting with all along is actively encouraged and wonderfully satifsfying.


Craft


As with all Fantasy Flight Games the board, cards and pieces are beautifully constructed. Thick card, amazing artwork and sturdy pieces are the norm. Yeah, it would have been nice to have some sculpted figures to move around but the wooden meeples are a little more conventional for this kind of game and actually make you feel like you are commanding an army from a tent.



Experience Level


The rules are tough to get your head around at first, however once you start playing they not only become clear but amazingly simple. I've played this twice, each time with brand new players on the team, and it hasn't taken long at all to get it going. There is fair bit of setting up and I wouldn't recommend it for younger children as there are a few terms to wrap your head around. It can also go on for a while. That being said the round tracker means it will only ever go on for 10 rounds meaning it is quicker to play then some games of a similar nature. It does require something of a gift for strategy and although I seem to suck at this kind of thing the game is so fun to play I don't mind at all.
The game is meant for 3 - 6 players. I've played with both 3 and 4 players and have found that Although the 3 player game requires a good chunk of the map to be off-limits it works better than with 4 where one player is free to roam the south pretty much unchallenged. A game with all 6 players sounds like it would be the most interesting and would get the juiciest above the table action but you'd need a massive table and best part of an afternoon to play.



Overall

It's a deeper version of risk that balances its complexity with a finite playing time. Fans of the TV series shouldn't expect their favourite actors to pop up as this is firmly based on the books. At times the game really feels like your commanding an army that are invading Winterfell or laying siege to King's Landing. Gorgeously produced and with levels of strategy so deep yet simple to grasp it is probably once of the best conceived and balanced games I've ever played.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Dollman vs. Demonic Toys (Charles Band, 1993)


I had been obsessed with the cover of Dollman for sometime. The image that adorned the front of the big box VHS cassette that sat upon the shelf of local video rental store, a big yellow card ticket dangling from the sleeve like a loveable but needy dog's tongue, was both amusing and badass. The premise (a space cop the size of an action figure who had a gun that could explode people) suggested it would be a riot, though for some reason I never got an adult to rent it on my behalf. Maybe there was something that wasn't quite clicking for me; a child hood sixth sense if you will.

Fast forward a couple of decades and on a nostalgic whim I bought a DVD copy and would you believe my childy-sense was pretty much on the money. Like most Full Moon movies Dollman was a movie full of fun ideas that although were executed terribly (mostly) still managed to be faintly enjoyable. In the good column was a goofy concept, a self awareness that doesn't spill into smarmy irony, Tim Thomerson and some generally good performances (an early turn for Jack Earle Haley included). The rather fuller bad corner featured very poor production values, the more enjoyable gore and sci-fi elements (exploding people! Gun retrieval via magnetic palm!) restricted to one scene and the usually reliable Albert Pyun just kinda phoning it in.

It's fine, but as is nearly always the case it didn't live up to the movie in my head. So you'd think I'd learn my lesson when I discovered a sequel existed and one that not only promised to capitalise on the science fiction mini-asskicker concept but that would also piece together some characters from other Full Moon movies to create a post-Universal pre-Marvel shared universe. You'd think.


In Dollman vs, Demonic Toys Tracy Scoggins (who sounds like the kind of character Northern working class actors would lust over in 80's British sitcoms but looks like a the kind of character Gene Wilder or Dudley Moore would lust over in 80's American "romantic" comedies) is a tough cop who is working an unresolved case involving possessed toys that began in the movie Demonic Toys. She seeks the help of Brick Bardo AKA Dollman, stranded after his original outing and his new girlfriend Nurse Ginger who had been miniaturised by aliens in the movie Bad Channels.

These Z-list Avengers heads off to a warehouse to take on the satanic toys where the film... ends. The movie barely makes it past the hour mark and when you consider a chunk of that time is taken up with length flashbacks to the previous films you might be looking at only 45 minutes of original footage. This is not necessarily a bad thing. All the best bits of Dollman are present in this movie meaning you don't actually have to go back and what the original, padding and all. I haven't seen the first Toys or Bad Channels but I'm going to go ahead and assume the case is much the same. As a result this movies manages to cram in a flying evil head, space ships, aliens, a cool robot, exploding people and other such frivolity simply by montaging all the better bits of previous movies.


Not only do you get the best of three movies but you also get some fun (and effective) miniature sets, a wicked stop motion spider and Tim Thomerson having a fist fight with a GI Joe figure in the movie's satisfyingly silly finale. The part where the giant baby doll tries to forcibly impregnate Nurse Ginger in a doll's house is flat out weird and unpleasant (and is saved only by virtue of it being so utterly fucking bizarre that it proved difficult to correlate with any real human experience). In short, it's bonkers.


The original Dollman had charm and some of that carries over into this fun mess. I dunno, maybe not seeing Dollman could leave you wondering what the hell any of this nonsense is about but at 60 minutes and change it isn't' going to suck up a whole lot of your life. There is an odd, possibly masochistic, side to me that would like to see a series of Dollman vs... movies but I suspect this might already be the pinnacle. That notion, that this scrappy piece of shit might be the pinnacle of its kind, gives you an idea of how low the bar is but like the original Dollman, sat alone on the shelf, even the scruffiest, neediest dog in the pound could do with a pat on the head and the experience, however superficial and fleeting, can be rewarding for both involved.

I may have taken damning with feint praise to a whole new level.




Thursday, 2 June 2016

Supergirl (Jeannot Szwarc, 1984)



You may be wondering why I'm reviewing such a well known and mainstream movie. As a kid I remember being distinctly confused by Supergirl. It was clearly cut from the same cloth as the Richard Donner Superman movie yet for some reason it never quite felt right. Lately I've been in the mood for some early 80's fantasy movies and when Jerry Goldsmith's amazing Supergirl theme shuffled on I decided to revisit the film. The quality of the movie was exactly as expected (doesn't quite work but is fun none the less) but what I wasn't expecting was how downright weird it is. Supergirl may have the production value of a mainstream superhero adventure (well, ahem, at times anyway) but some of the creative choices made feel like cult cinema though and through.

The opening scene makes a bold statement about the way the film will work. The camera travels through a dark and uninviting world until it reaches what looks like a giant anthill made of cobweb. Inside, the camera continues to swoop through the set, carrying us through an enormous practical set that extends both horizontally and vertically. Its reef-like organic structures criss-cross in a network of walkways as hundreds of extras, draped in simple robes, go about their business. Kara (Helen Slater) runs through the busy streets to meet her mentor Zoltar (Peter O'Toole).


This world is not the gleaming but doomed sci-fi civilisation of Krypton glimpsed in Superman but a kind of commune. As impressive as the set is the lack of natural light makes it feel oddly oppressive, like a cross between a refugee camp and a hospital waiting room or asylum, rather than the utopian society it is trying to communicate. As a child this place weirded me out and it did the same as an adult.

Zoltar, a designer and artist, is building a sculpture using a massive glowing sex toy and reveals that he is able to do so because he has borrowed the city's power source: The Omega Hedron. We are lead to believe that doing such a thing is a bit naughty. He gives it to Kara to play with who, during one of those freak living drawing of an insect accidents we've all experienced, manages to get the Hedron sucked outside the walls of their city. It is then we are informed that the loss of the Hedron will result in the city and all its inhabitants perishing in mere days. Thats right, Zoltar put the safety of every living being in the city at risk to build a model of a tree. More than a bit naughty then.

He assures the assembled people he has just doomed that he'll participate in a dangerous journey in a space craft to retrieve it. A spaceship that has been left lying opened a few feet away from the conversation he's having. Kara, feeling responsible, makes the utterly baffling decision to take this deadly journey herself. She leaps in the space ship, it closes around her and launches off into space. Kara, and the city's, day just went from fun and frolics to loneliness and certain doom in mere minutes. With the level of negligence on display (literally anyone could have jumped in that ship at any time and been carried out of the city) and Zoltar's cavalier attitude to the lives of every living thing in the city it is a miracle the whole place hadn't exploded decades before. The last survivor of Krypton is a simple and clear legend in the making. Dickhead child accidentally exiled by negligent Uncle figure less so.

Logic (narrative or otherwise) is far from the movie's strong suit. We are told that Kara is from inner space, an entirely different universe from the one Earth and Krypton exists in. Yet Kara emerges from her space pod wearing an exact copy in all but the skirt of Superman's outfit. She flies out of a lake (?) into a park in the US and discovers she has all the same powers as Superman with the addition of being able to change clothes and hair colour at will. Despite not even existing in the same universe as Krypton (a planet which was obliterated many years prior) and this being her first time on Earth Kara knows who Superman is, who Clark Kent is and where he works and that the two are somehow cousins. Has Clark and her been cross dimensional pen-pals or something? Does some poor kid have to travel across time and space every morning to deliver the Daily Planet to inner space to keep its inhabitants up to speed on current events? How does she know all this stuff? How can she know how to type a convincing letter of recommendation for a school in seconds of being introduced to the term but doesn't know how to shake hands? The fish out of water stuff that the film relies on making her endearing doesn't work because she seems to already know so much she couldn't possibly know. This intellect, her powers and the bestowing of the costume doesn't conform to any sense of internal logic established either by the movie itself or the Superman films it claims to be part of. It is as if all of the science fiction elements are treated as if they were magic.


Magic is vital in understanding the thinking behind this movie. The villains of the piece, played with relish by Faye Dunaway and Peter Cooke, practice witchcraft. They also have no identifiable plan or motivation. They are out having a lavish picnic on a tiger skin rug and talking about how they will rule the Earth with magic when the Hedron lands in a pot of sauce. Selena (Dunaway) takes it back home where we find she lives in a run down fairground and is essentially bankrupt (despite the luxurious lunch). The two of them dabble in spells that are at times minor (love potions, embarrassing people at parties) and extreme (summoning giant demons). There is no real logic to the way the magic works and Selena's plan veers from world domination to making some random bloke fall in love with her. It's all a bit confusing but you can brush it off with a "hey, it's magic". Unfortunately the same license is used to explain Supergirl's powers. This all started to make sense when I realised the writer, David Odell, also wrote The Dark Crystal. The film almost works as a fanciful fairytale adventure full of witches and love potions but by trying to make it canonical with the Superman movies the two genres create a wonderfully bizarre friction.


So the best way to shepard this weird mix to the end credits is by throwing in some abrupt tonal swerves. Let's see, I dunno... how about making Supergirl's first human interaction be with a couple of rapists? Yeah, that'll be fun. Supergirl lands in the middle of town and a truck pulls over. The drivers get out and begin eyeing her up and down and invading her body space. When one gets a little two frisky she throws him back and the other pulls a flick knife. Yeah, this isn't two drunk or leery perverts shouting from a building site, one of them was willing to stab her to death for not putting out. She quickly puts them in their place and the inclusion of Goldsmith's theme as she does suggests the scene was designed to engender some form of female empowerment from the defeating of two would be rapists. This is somewhat undermined by the their reaction as she flies off: a kind of sub-Laural and Hardy eye rub as one says to the other "let's keep this to ourselves". It's an unwanted comedy beat on the end of an unwanted scene.

It's nice to have a movie in the early 80's with a tough female lead and a supporting cast almost entirely filled with women. Which is why it is even more disappointing when the plot suddenly revolves around falling in love with some random guy (a gardner at the school Supergirl masquerades as alter ego Linda Lee). Selena slips him a love potion but he accidentally falls in love with Linda (but not Supergirl) creating an odd love-triangle (love-square?). A love-square that generates no tension because we don't know who this guy is. Short of looking good without a shirt on his character is almost entirely under some kind of drug or spell and wanders around with the expression of a stunned Alpaca for the majority of the movie. When he finally comes out of the spell he asks Supergirl where he can find find Linda and she assures him she is safe. "Don't make me get rough with you" is his response. Yep, the object of female affection in this movie is a guy who is willing to threaten people with violence just because they... um... just because. He isn't even trying to find information out, he threatens her because she tells him not to worry.


In order to have the character-less lunk for herself Selena finds a way to banish Supergirl into The Phantom Zone (a prison dimension seen in the Donner movies) where she meets Zoltar again. Despite being a prison world full of the worst criminals they manage to escape fairly easily (well, Supergirl does) but it is here we learn her city is still alive and she can still save them if she returns the Hedron. To be honest in all the magic, romantic plots and threats of violence against women I'd entirely forgotten about those poor suffering bastards.


With a ticking clock providing some urgency to the plot we are thrust into the finale. This involves fighting a giant monster (cool) and Supergirl whipping Selena into a self-made tornado and then flying her into a broken mirror which assembles and traps Selena inside. The reveal of Supergirl standing in the reflection of the now assembled mirror is a badass reveal, but I don't remember depositing criminals in broken mirrors being amongst her power set. Its the mostly oddly specific power since Superman's giant plastic symbol throwing.

Anyway, the abusive love interest realises Linda and Supergirl are one and the same, wipes a crumb off of her face and smiles like his skull is sliding out his mouth. She tells him she is going back home and that he'll need to explain the disappearance of Linda Lee. Good luck with that - A guy who gardens shirtless at an all girls school, has a habit of randomly threatening women and who was seen snogging a school girl days before she vanished off the face of the earth is going to explain that one away easily. Supergirl then flies off back to her under the sea world. Thankfully the film ends there and we never actually have to see the damage or loss of life caused by Zoltar and Kara's fuckwittery.

This may all sound very harsh but I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a lot of fun. The brazen disregard for logic was actually refreshing and I actually found myself happily dismissing leaps of logic as magic. Plus, there are a lot of genuinely good things in the movie. The fantasy visuals are at times excellent and we are treated to a battle with an invisible monster as a storm rages, a giant mountain lair and a cool looking phantom zone. Both the opening and credits are awesome, the former being achieved by creating actual models of the credits and having them whizz by motion controlled cameras. The flying effects are generally good with a couple of sequences in particular being convincing. This goes for the scenes where Supergirl is on wires as well - a moment where she performs a loop and skims a lake is actually breathtaking. Cook, O'Toole and Dunaway are all having fun. The Ghost Train house that Selena lives in is awesome and points should be awarded for at least attempting a shared universe (even in this hamfisted way). And Goldsmith's score is thrilling.



Supergirl is a weird mish-mash of canonical super-heroics and logic-less fairytale peppered with bizarre tonal shifts and strung together by the most random of villainous plots. It may not work as a traditionally enjoyable narrative but it is a fun and bizzare experience.