Well, it has taken a long time to get Inside Pitch really moving outside of the Sensation environment, but the last month has been a very encouraging one. I have had more letters, comments, reviews and response than ever before, though I can't really work out why. Thanks to everyone for the support and interest. I hope you enjoy the first Inside Pitch letter column. Something that might have been, if Ellis had been able to post the last issue around April 1st, was a spoof article that I had considered. This would probably have reviewed the imminent publication of Statis- Pro Sumo, Lambourne Synchronised Swimming or somesuch silliness. Perhaps it was better that Ellis couldn't publish after all. The next issue of Inside Pitch is number 25 and should, if all goes to plan, be a Hexacon/Origins/USA trip epic plus a few special items. You have been warned.
The first thing I need to do is clarify a few points about my lifestyle and leisure hours therein. After Mr Clifford's witty indictment last time it seems Simpson and Siggins, 'The S-Men', have some explaining to do. I can't speak for Ellis (though I can guess) but I know I cram a lot into every week and, by extension, into Inside Pitch. Nevertheless, despite Mike's accusations of fictional jobs and bank robberies, the reported activity happens in addition to a 9 to 5 job which regularly runs over the usual hours. Additionally, I have that evil which is London commuting, though I can at least read on the tube for an hour each way. This leaves me with five free evenings from 7pm-ish till late, plus the weekend. In that space of time I reckon, on average, to have two or three gaming sessions, see some sport, go out, see a film, play badminton occasionally, run the softball club, do the essential shopping, play one or two postal games, watch some TV, read a book and the ever present pile of magazines, write some letters, write reviews/Inside Pitch and fit in the other less exciting stuff of life like housework and cooking. For a single chap getting by on six or seven hours sleep, this doesn't seem too excessive. Perhaps one of the misleading things is my use of 'month' in Inside Pitch when I really mean six to nine weeks which tends to be the time available between actual Sensation deadlines. I hope that explains it! And as for you Mr Clifford, I do not ramble. Inside Pitch follows a carefully organised pattern every issue. What I do is waffle, not ramble.
That said, this 'month' has encompassed one big con and one small one, a game of 'Science vs Pluck' at Charles Vasey's, one exhibition, The Masters, a rather excellent management course, lots of good new games (see separate review section for more of that ripped cellophane smell) and plenty of other events of varying note. It all started with the visit South of the River to Mike Clifford's housecon and a fine time was had by all. My enduring memory of the day will be the staggering knowledge of sports displayed by most of the attendees and their corresponding intense postal league interest. I just about held my own on baseball but the heated and intriguing hockey debates could, but for the accents, have been taking place in any American bar. Apart from games of Auf Achse and Buck Rogers, I got to meet Roger Seaman and Ted Kelly, had an excellent chat about sports, satellite TV and gaming, took a look round Mike's awesome game collection and, best of all, enjoyed an introduction to Lambourne's Metric Mile. There will be more written about this superb game elsewhere in Inside Pitch but suffice to say it was one of those games, like Sechs Tage Rennen, that had me instantly hooked. Overall, it was an excellent day and my thanks go to Mike and his family for the catering and putting up with us, and to Ted for the interesting lift home!
Something that became apparent from the Cliffordcon was a factor that has been affecting my gaming enjoyment. Sounds a bit deep I know, but it is the reason why I think I like games and then spend months struggling along, especially with review games. The reason was exposed after having been taught Metric Mile. I thoroughly enjoyed playing it, yet when I demonstrated it at the GLC club the following week it didn't seem the same. Why? Because, when I thought about it, I nearly always enjoy games more when I am shown/taught as opposed to me showing others. Basically, the pressure is off me to read the rules, interpret them correctly, worry about missing rules and most importantly 'sell' the game to the other players. I suppose I feel that as I have bought a game and have suggested it for play, it needs to be good which amounts to me feeling responsible for its success or failure. Weird I know, but that is me. I will be better in future.
Sticking with the sport games theme, it has been quite an interesting month. The highlight was a chat with Ellis, during one of his frantic London trips, which concerned his new baseball replay design. I won't give too much away at this stage but I think Ellis has cracked it with this one and if he pushes the basic idea to its logical conclusion, ie an article or rules in Sensation, I will be very interested to get involved with this either by running it (if forced) or preferably playing. More later. Also a sign of the growing serious interest in baseball is the London Rotisserie League. This was advertised in Sportspages and, but for a slight lack of support, was to run with fees of £100 which is probably a bit too much for me but may interest others when the league gets going next year. I have Gonzo Baseball already (a very reasonable $30 annually) and I feel Ellis' game, if run in a full fictional draft fashion, could offer much the same fun for a lot less cash. Also new on the scene is Baseball Bulletin which joins the other fanzines on the floor in Sportspages. Not bad, but rather reliant on printing boxscores which seems a waste of space to me - there was, as a result, a distinct lack of articles. Hopscotch is a rather longer established zine and I greatly enjoyed the comprehensive article on cycling games by Richard Bass which appeared in the latest issue. If Alan Parr is doing back issues then you should get hold of it if you have any interest in the subject, or even better, subscribe and make a man with a family and lawn mower to support happy. Finally, while I still query the odd format of the latest series, I did enjoy the latest Channel 4 screenings of the great sport, Sumo. The news of a potential basho at the Royal Albert Hall in 1991 is of course highly interesting but the thought of getting a ticket in competition with all those Japanese bankers is a daunting prospect.
The big games event of the month was Babbacon '89 which I enjoyed just as much as last year's. It was spoilt slightly by the very poor weather and a bunch of cretins playing Pit in an adjacent room at 2am, although we can hardly hold the organisers responsible for that. While the facilities were good (and hot), the beds weren't marvellous considering the three star rating and the hotel food could charitably be described as a rip-off, though the good nearby restaurants made up for that. Environment aside, the main topic of the con is of course games. The overall message here is that the European games are now firmly entrenched and that the trendy theme is, at last, cycling. At times, aside from the usual 1829/30 and Britannia crew, there were nothing but European games being played - no doubt partially encouraged by the Just Games stand manned by Mark Green. As an example, on the Sunday morning no less than three games of Die Macher were in progress in addition to the usual batch of European crackers. I got through about a dozen new games (many multi-player) which is exactly what I like to do as I don't often have the opportunity at home. My one annual 'biggie' game was Derek Carver's New World prototype which was excellent despite being spoiled for me by an immature (and worse, illogical) oik who decided to stuff me at every opportunity. But even that fine game was beaten out of first place by John Harrington's Breaking Away cycling game which I played on the Sunday morning (see short reviews). Despite the high overall quality of games, and I'm sure John won't mind me saying this, there was no game at Babbacon with the impact that 6 Day Race had last year. Nevertheless, a very good con and I will certainly return next year.
The con was rounded off nicely on the Monday morning by a call that informed me that I had come in a somewhat poor 77th in the Babbacon Victor Ludorum. To say this hardly bothered me is an understatement but as it neatly drops me in a no- win situation I am prompted, in my defence, to comment on the growing trend towards cash awards and 'championships' in the gaming hobby. While these are fine for those who believe such things are important, my personal stance is that I couldn't give a damn whether I come first or last in any such arbitrary points table. I go to cons to enjoy playing games and, as Brian Walker so accurately commented in GI 4, I don't mind much whether I win or lose. However, the fact that I did achieve such a lowly position illustrates both the inherent bias of the points system (I don't think I did that badly - I simply chose to play mainly short games) and the fact that tournament is not fully representative. For instance, I in fact won three games but didn't bother to register the results - modesty and all that, you know. All the same, I suffered from having my poorer performances recorded by unashamed fame seekers. As the man said, there are lies, damned lies and the Victor Ludorum points system.
Illustrating just this point was an excellent game of 'Science vs Pluck' I played at Charles Vasey's recently. This is an unusual set of rules covering the British campaigns against the Dervishes in the late 19th century, written by Howard Whitehouse. They are unusual because they adopt the RPG/kriegspiel technique of an omniscient umpire/GM who runs the game to create a realistic and, hopefully, an enjoyable environment for the players who, in this case, represent senior British generals. I played General Sir Gerald Graham VC, commander of the Tokar relief expedition of around four thousand men. Ably assisting me were my brigade commanders - generals Buller and Davis, alias two of the Ragnar Brothers. As we were to find out, about 6,000 fanatical dervishes were out there in the desert waiting for us and suffice to say I have not enjoyed a game as much in ages. The fact that you have no idea if, when or where the fast moving savages will pop up means you are reliant on scouts and local information. They, correctly, were not at all reliable. The added problems of actually ordering and controlling even a small army were graphically brought home and I am glad I don't do it full time. So, after having had most of our native cavalry scoot off (killing a Major Vasey in the process) and fighting off some probing attacks, the column trudged on blissfully unaware of enemy movements until it came up against a hill full of the buggers. All the while the strained GM feverishly rolled dice in an effort to get his charges to attack at the right moment. Once the Mahdi's men finally closed in, the chaos in the Siggins command got worse and we were lucky to get off as lightly as we did - only the excellence and awesome firepower of the British infantry and artillery saved the day. That said, we did lose a few good men and I have no doubt that questions would have been asked in parliament. Typically, the fort didn't need relieving at all.
So, the outcome is an extremely interesting, atmospheric and educational exercise which probably offers the optimum way of simulating these campaigns. Nobody really 'wins' as it is difficult for the British to lose, it is simply the taking part that is enjoyable. Cue old black and white Olympic footage. While basically intended for miniatures gaming, the rules are playable, as we did, with counters (from SPI's Soldiers of the Queen) and the superb ASL desert maps. Excellent stuff and thanks to Charles for doing the legwork, supplying the rations and putting up with all the damned silly voices. Look out for a full review in Perfidious Albion 69. The game is available, very slowly if at all, from Stratagem Publications (the publishers of Wargames Illustrated) in Newark, Notts.
In the same period but on a larger scale, the annual Victorian Military Society fair was rather good. The usual array of book and trade stands was present but the best feature was the four or five demonstration games going on. The best from my point of view was an excellent Indian Mutiny skirmish, closely followed by a Crimean clash, both of which used the superb Wargames Foundry figures which have been instrumental in me getting the old oil paints and brushes out again recently. I haven't done any figure painting for years but this time I figure I will keep away from the mass painting that put me off originally and will stick to one-offs that the Foundry figures are admirably suited to. If Ellis can come out of the closet and admit to being a secret roleplayer (I always figured him for a 14th level Druid), I can admit to having a secret, but dormant, passion for not only roleplaying but also figures. See the magazine review section for more gory details.
After a few inspirational chats with both Charles and Alan Moon, I have been drifting towards the idea of getting some of my fleeting game design ideas into something more concrete. I have no illusions of going 'pro', I will be more than happy with a production to the good standard of King's War or Drop Kick. While I also have no doubt that it isn't as easy as it looks and that you don't simply become a designer overnight, I would like to give it a try to see what it is all about. I have three main themes/ideas that I would like to further but there is a catch. I suppose ideally I would like to design something as 'good' as some of the recent European games on a subject that interests me and that, I fear, is the rub. I now strongly suspect that the designers producing the likes of Formel Eins, Ausbrecher, Flying Carpet and possibly Metric Mile etc think of a good mechanism first and then apply a suitable subject to it. Where this differs to many designers, especially those of historical games, is that they start with a topic and try to make a system fit. An obvious exception to this is 6 Tage Rennen which, while having a brilliant sub-system, was presumably designed for cycle racing from the start. The same probably applies to Die Macher. The direct parallels of 'bottom-up' and 'top- down' design in computing will be apparent to those in the know. My conclusion therefore is, if appropriate, to take a tried and trusted system and apply it to other fields. This implies a certain amount of idea plagiarism but then that is pretty widespread in the games industry. I will keep you posted but in the meantime if anyone can let me have a copy of Ted Cook's Sumo rules or even think of a way to simulate the bouts in this fine sport, please drop me a line.
It is a very weird sensation to be paging through a book in a shop, only to suddenly see a fourteen year old image of oneself on the page. It was made worse by the fact that I didn't really know what I looked like then. It was not pretty. Only the watch strap, the clothes and the uncanny facial resemblence (well, the nose actually) gave it away. I suppose you are wondering where this is? Well, if you dig out a copy of Donald Featherstone's Complete Wargaming and turn to the first big picture showing an aerial view of a 15mm figure battle at Waterloo Day circa June 1975, you will be treated to the sight of Mike Siggins at the tender age of 13 experiencing an early dose of figure gaming. I am the one with the big collared T- shirt next to the mystery blonde. I have never recovered, but the hair and clothing have improved a tad.
The recent big event musically has been my succumbing at last to a CD player. This has now been installed for about eight weeks and has thrown up a few interesting points as well as improving the quality of my listening enjoyment no end. The first point is the disappointment felt when you realise that all this clever piece of technology does is play music. All those flashing lights, programming features and sliding drawers indicate that it should do rather more than it does. The next point, and by far the most costly, is that I keep buying discs for the bloody thing. The collection stands at thirty plus already and that is too many, too quickly. One of the main reasons for buying the player was to stop me buying records on impulse but it is worse, not better, in that respect - you can even buy discount CDs. Thirdly, even though you can buy cheap discs, it is by no means possible to buy all the discs I would like to get hold of. Presumably this will be mainly corrected as time goes on. I am also rather surprised at the wide variations in quality of the CDs and, finally, the effect that the new medium has on the sound content of records.
The latter point is most evident on classical recordings that improve immeasurably (Hogwood's/AAM Four Seasons is marvellous) but, for instance, Elvis Costello, Graceland, New Order, Tom Waits and Michael Jackson actually sound different due to the extra detail and richness - some of these sound much better for it and others not, though this is of course debatable and subjective. What I can vouch for is that The Smiths and Billy Bragg are markedly better! The poor quality angle is something I had not expected but there really are some duff recordings out there and it is expensive to find out the hard way. A double CD of The Nutcracker has some quite pronounced background hiss - do I have a case to obtain a refund here? The outcome is that I have set myself some loose rules such as not buying anything old like Glenn Miller (ie without the benefit of magnetic tape source), not to buy anything that sounds better 'rough and crackly' (eg Sex Pistols or The Jam) and to listen to most, especially classical, discs before I part with the cash. Otherwise, it is the best thing I've bought in ages. Now I need to get round to upgrading my amp and selling some records.
At long last the BBC got round to showing Repo Man and, like most things that I expectantly wait for, it was a bit of a disappointment. I think I expected something different and certainly the unsubtle editing down to TV Version status did it no favours. Anyway, it was still a flipping good film and one I am glad to keep on tape. Other highlights of the month were The Masters and the masterful programme in C4's Fragile Earth series covering the Grizzlies in Yellowstone Park. The funniest thing I saw turned out to be the Arena special on Heavy Metal; anyone who saw it will know what I mean. It was nearly as much fun as the excellent Roseanne which is easily good enough to follow the Cosby/Cheers tradition now that these two programmes are way past their best. The biggest let down was the non-appearance of the NCAA basketball on ITV, though this will hardly bother all these Clifford-types with their 50-odd channels supplying basketball, baseball, NHL hockey and, no doubt, trotting at breakfast time.
New videos purchased since last time include 100 More Tries which shows that while the BBC are always willing to cash in on a successful formula, they are at the same time running out of decent material. At a pinch, there are only thirty truly excellent tries and the rest are either poorly selected or they just haven't got any good ones left in the archives. Still a good buy though at £10. Also good value are the three tapes of the old Gerry Anderson series UFO. I had actually forgotten how good these were and I look forward to the new releases. I have also bought Thunderbird Six, The Glenn Miller Story and The Natural, all of which I have reviewed before in Inside Pitch.
Just one book review this time in an effort to stop parading out everything I have read recently. Sleeping in Flame by Jonathan Carroll (Legend £5.95) fits squarely in the 'magical realism' category which was so cleverly lampooned on The Late Show recently. It also happens to be the best novel I have read for a long time. It tells the story of Walker Easterling, a foundling and struggling author living in Vienna. It revolves around his love affair with Maris York, a city designer with a nice line in Lego bricks and CAD Architecture, all of which is tainted with an undercurrent of magic, legend and dreams. It is a love story, fantasy and mild horror all at once and works brilliantly. An important angle is that the writing style attains that rare standard that grabs you from page one and holds on to the end. Carroll's writing, especially the dialogue, is superbly done, conveying exactly the mood of the book; harsh realism with the transient magical theme, which is occasionally reminiscent of Tim Powers' work. Events seem quite normal and then suddenly become weird, throwing the plot askew and then, just as quickly, returning to normality. The plot unfolds with a measured pace and gradually all the pieces fall into place, explaining how Walker's life is inextricably linked with the history of Vienna and, oddly, fairy tales. Almost indescribable, an excellent yarn, and a story that acts as a marvellous travel advert; I actually feel encouraged to visit Vienna as a result of reading it. This is an important book of the genre and is Book of the Month by a large margin.
Be seeing you. Mike Siggins, 129 Ardmore Lane, Buckhurst Hill, Essex IG9 5SB.
Inside Pitch is a publication of The Middlebrow Press.
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