I will probably have mentioned in the editorial that I have recently ceased writing for Games International and, having become a fully fledged editor (with a whole two issues under my belt), I am in a position to reflect on the resulting changes. The first big lesson I have learned is to steer clear of controversy. While there are many editors who can handle both sides of a nasty argument, I really am a fish out of water. Although I have few problems handling the situation, I always feel bad about it and don't really want to see it in Sumo. Perhaps I need a designated feuder. I am also convinced that very little positive benefit accrues from such public slagging matches so, as a rule, there won't be any more appearing in Sumo. My apologies to anyone concerned for the occasionally bitter & twisted tone of the last Sumo.
Secondly, I have sadly worked out that although a proper newsletter (as opposed to my previous subzine) generates an awful lot of welcome correspondence, it isn't always easy to get personal replies off to everyone. This may be blindingly obvious to all the veteran editors out there, but I had not foreseen lack of time for letters to be a problem. The catch is that if you write anything worthwhile to a correspondent, and you may have several letters to do, it can take a couple of hours or more to do properly and two or three hours is a lot of free time for me at present. Obviously I am not going to discourage letters, in fact I love to receive them and normally fire off a reply in short order. Also, some will appear in the letter column. I would just like to say that I will reply where possible and I apologise if, very occasionally, a short note or silence is all you get back.
Straight after the last Sumo was posted, I dropped everything and headed over to New England for a short holiday and a three day games get-together organised by Alan Moon in Chicopee, Massachusetts. The gathering and the holiday were memorable. I can recommend the Maine coast, Bar Harbor, Acadia National Park and New Hampshire to anyone wanting a civilised break from it all. As for the gathering, about thirty gamers and other halves turned up (including a few from the Avalon Hill/Baltimore area) and apart from the 90 degree April weather, everything went rather well.
I had three personal highlights: firstly, I won the Liar's Dice tournament which was my first ever competition win in over fifteen years of gaming. I guess that says a lot, but it hasn't really sunk in yet. Hoho. It did help that on three occasions I rolled five of a kind (with stars) and seemed to keep hitting the bids bang-on. I guess I was just hot.
Secondly, Mike Gray of Shogun fame took us on a tour of the nearby Milton Bradley factory which was a real eye-opener. Although the finished product is bright and immaculate, the factory, workers, conditions and noise were right out of those satanic mills. Unlike many game companies who source in the Far East, MB make pretty much everything themselves including boxes, plastic pieces and boards. The machines they use are old and of the Heath Robinson school, but they do work after a fashion. The overall effect was impressive, but one somehow felt that Sir John Harvey-Jones should get right in there and start troubleshooting immediately. Nevertheless, the chance to see mountains of play money, massive jigsaws being made and hundreds of boxes of Axis & Allies rolling off the production line was not to be missed.
Finally, I satisfied my ambition to go to the Basketball Hall of Fame which lies in Springfield, just down the road from the gaming. This is an excellent visit for the fan, covering the college game as well as the pros. The museum has everything from the earliest balls and kit to Bob Lanier's pair of size 23 shoes, most impressive of which is the NCAA hall which is festooned with basketball shirts from every single college. I think its only drawback is its location; Springfield may be an nice place, but it isn't exactly near anywhere big on the normal holiday routes. The Hall was actually all but empty on the day we went which was fortunate as the last section of the exhibits is an area where you can shoot baskets, something I haven't done for a few years. I wasn't too bad, hitting about 50% before the arms gave out, but needless to say, my admiration for the Larry Birds of this world who pop in three pointers without touching the rim has soared.
The gathering itself was pretty much what you might expect if thirty Alan Moon inspired gamers and Avalon Hill 'names' get together; lots of German games, Karriere Poker, Acquire, Civilization, Titan and Railway Rivals tournaments. Easily the most popular game of the weekend was Adel Verpflichtet and my copy is now very worn around the edges. I still don't see the attraction of this one, but everyone else loved it. I was also introduced to the marvelous Micro Machines, little Formula One toy cars (wrinklies can imagine inch-long Hot Wheels) that are perfect for Grand Prix, Speed Circuit and The World of Motor Racing as long as their tiny wheels are glued up. At about 50p each they ain't cheap, but the aesthetic effect is rather pleasing. I spent the rest of the holiday scouring Toys R Us for them. If anyone knows of a reliable UK source, please let me know as I need a few more.
One the most interesting, and worrying, games was the Railway Rivals tournament on the Saturday evening. The idea was to run the game using postal rules, that is with plotting of simultaneous builds rather than the usual sequential system. Surprisingly, this worked very well, not adding much to playing time. I'm sure the large, difficult Middle Earth map helped no end though. The drawback was when we came to the runs. One of the players, well known as an experienced American postal RR GM, took control of the runs and started to make some very odd-looking rolls. Basically, if the runs generated were not interesting, 'region to region' runs ie town 6x to 3x, he would re-roll them. This meant there were no runs within the same local town code. As soon as this was, innocently, explained there was uproar. Those of us, like me, who had built local networks were not amused but the game rapidly lost importance when it was revealed that this chap has done the same with every game he has run as a postal GM. Aside from being wrong per the rules (the minimum length run should cover this), this manipulation of the runs is a fundamental problem for network designers. The irony was that he thought he was improving the game by doing it this way. One wonders how many other self- appointed game enhancers are out there and how many of them bother to tell the players what they are doing!
Otherwise, the States continues to offer the same personal attractions though once North of Boston, the usual amenities such as malls, baseball, cable and Best Western style hotels have to be searched for. Civilization tends to get a bit thin on the ground as you head toward the Canadian border and the comparison with California, still my favourite holiday destination, is marked. Even this has its benefits though as New England is the land of the factory outlet. These are everywhere, sometimes comprising entire small towns (North Conway for instance). The idea is simply that the local factories sell off their 'seconds' and normal goods without the hindrance of retailer margins. The savings are incredible. Timberland boots, UK retail £100+, sell for nearer £40. Reebok trainers, Converse basketball boots, jeans, designer clothes and chinaware can be had for about 40-50% of normal prices. All this would have been enough but then I found Rawlings and Wilson stores from which I had to be dragged drooling. Major league-standard baseball gloves for £40? Jeez.
Although I sadly didn't get to see a Red Sox game, the TV coverage of the world's greatest game has improved mightily since my last trip. ESPN now show live games four nights per week with commentators and camera crews that really know their stuff. Add this to TNT's coverage of the NBA playoffs, the Phillies performing something near their best and a blueberry muffin or three, and I was a happy man. Returning home, I find that London Weekend TV have seen fit to cancel their early morning baseball (replaced by Stanley Cup ice hockey, a small mercy) which leaves me with no baseball coverage at all this year. Looks like I'll have to wait at least eighteen months for Buckhurst Hill to be cabled or go and rent that dish.
After the Saturday dinner at Beer & Pretzels (report elsewhere), around a dozen of us got to chatting about games. Logical development, I suppose. Anyway, Terry Goodchild, a gameshop owner before he went solo with Lambourne Games, was quizzing people on their all-time favourite game (of course, everyone apart from me chose Lambourne titles) and then how often that game had been played. Terry's advice when at the gameshop was often that browsing buyers should go back home and play a game extensively, thus really getting to know it well, rather than keep buying new ones. This sounds like fairly dodgy business sense to me, but I can see his point. As someone who flits around between types of games as well as those within a category, I know there are very few games in the Siggins collection that get the benefit of repeated play. Those that I do go back to tend to provide greater enjoyment but then, more often than not, go a little stale.
The subject came up again recently at Charles Vasey's where four of us tried to work out how many games we had played five, or even ten, times. These appear to be very low thresholds but are surprisingly useful indicators of good, replayable games and personal favourites - ten times is actually quite a lot of gaming. For me, the five level produces a worryingly low number from my collection, while games played ten times or more number just eight. Although I can see that there may be something wrong here and will probably attempt to redress the balance, I remain a fan of playing most games once or twice and trying out lots of systems rather than getting to know a few intimately. For those interested, the members of the five and ten club follow (I bet you were wondering how I was going to sneak in a list this month).
Fives: Abalone, Ace of Aces, Acquire, Flat Top, Up Front, War & Peace, March Madness, Pro Golf, Das Borsenspiel, Escape from Colditz, Sechs Tage Rennen, Liars's Dice, Risk, Pennant Race, Pursue the Pennant, Ausbrecher AG, Grand Prix, Wildlife Adventure, Railway Rivals, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, Tales of the Arabian Nights, Modern Naval Battles, Ironclads.
Tens: Football Strategy, Statis Pro Baseball, Statis Pro Basketball, Squad Leader, Traveller, Metric Mile, AD&D, Fleet series.
I suppose the above is a little misleading as many of the tens have been played a lot, in some cases hundreds of times. Nevertheless, this is depressing stuff for sure. But if you think about it, there is an awful lot of rubbish out there that you wouldn't want to play twice, let alone five times. Interested to hear if I am alone in this.
One of the treats of the unending World Cup previews was Channel 4's screening of the Subbuteo world finals. Apart from brief forays at Midcon, this is a game that I haven't touched since the great Subbuteo scandal rocked us as twelve year olds. One mate of mine, eager to win the summer holidays tournament, introduced a team that looked a little different to the usual spindly figures. The kit was fine, Hamilton Academicals apparently, the bases were similar and the goalie was quite standard, but something felt strangely wrong. Not least that his players looked like a team of bodybuilders in comparison.
He proceeded to win the tournament with players that didn't fall over, slid better, shot faster and won almost every ball. Suspicions aroused, close inspection and mild torture brought forth the truth. It turned out that instead of being regulation soccer figures they were recruited from the then new Subbuteo Rugby for their heavily weighted bases. Tut tut, such initiative for a young mind. The adult course would have been to strip him of the title (and relegate him to the third division) but all it caused was a long, inconclusive argument as to whether or not he had cheated. After that, the game faded quickly and the marvellous Striker and Crossfire gained dominance.
Such petty arguing was always a big element of our games and it seems that even at World level with a referee the old disputes over handball, fouls or moving goalposts continue. Subbuteo is certainly a game that can draw out the childish tantrums, whatever the player's age. For all that, the skills on display by the junior and senior players were quite incredible. It is apparently de rigeur to hit a moving ball and to place inch perfect passes, and the shots, often cleverly lifted, were so fast that slow motion was needed to see the goals. The two-hand moving ball trick, which Paul Oakes can perform with devastating effect from corners, is particularly impressive.
For flavour, Channel 4 trooped out the usual tales of secret base-polishes, insured fingernails and out-psyching of opponents and the whole event sounded pretty exciting. Certainly, Latin tempers became rather frayed and threats, accusations and tears were the order of the day. This was good television. Whether I can be bothered to buy one of the new astroturf sets with the miniature VIP boxes and Swindon Town audit team remains to be seen, but I bet the modern players' ankles break just as easily when squashed by a stray elbow.
Having survived the Subbuteo, TV, newspaper and radio previews, the World Cup was with us at last. Regular readers will know that I hardly ever watch soccer but, like the Olympics, I make the effort every four years and normally enjoy it. Yes, I know this puts me dangerously close to that subset of wallies who have been conducting uninformed discussions in pubs. For these reasons, would any soccer fans please excuse any glaring errors or opinionated comments in the following.
Overall, I was sad when it ended and only the thought of lots of summer evenings having disappeared persuaded me it was a good thing that it was all over. Taken as a whole, I think it was a fairly weak tournament as far as quality football went, which is what I am watching for, but the England games were certainly edge of the seat stuff and, in the end, I felt unusually proud of them. The semi-final was a great game of football and because of Gascoigne's situation it was actually no great disappointment that they didn't make it to the final. Mawkish sentiment for sure, but we love it. I also suspect the right team won in the end but any combination of Italy, Germany, Cameroon and England in the final would have been both fair-ish and exciting.
In the first round, the occasional good game was heavily outweighed by the boring draws and negative attitudes, but perhaps I watched far too many games. The Scots are quite amazing aren't they? I thought the refereeing was poor throughout and the linesmen worse. I also have to agree with the hordes of pundits - something really is needed to make the game more offense oriented. Conversely, I believe penalties are OK to a point but not if England are involved because my ticker won't stand it next time round. My brother, not a frail type, actually hid behind a cushion at one point in the Germany shootout. On balance, replays in the later rounds seem to be a good idea, if not an easily workable one.
Perhaps because I normally watch so little soccer, I have no real complaints about the match commentary (Motson in particular seems to come in for undue stick) but the studio experts were a disaster area. I speak of the marginally superior BBC team here; ITV were way off the scale (Elton Wellsby is a truly horrible little man). With the probable exception of Des Lineham who I do think is good value, the range of goons on display was incredible. Wilkins had obviously been to elocution lessons, most displayed patriotism verging on the fanatical, the standard of English was appalling (I love the obligatory 'He's done marvelous' construction) and Hill and Venables arguing was plain embarrassing. Hill gets on my wick anyway, but he seemed to produce extra opinionated rubbish for the special occasion. Most games were worth watching just for his drivel.
Isn't it hard to talk about football without using cliches?
The positive result of Italia '90 was that it provided enough inspiration for Ellis Simpson, Terry Goodchild, Mark Green and myself to devise soccer games that may actually work. My problem is that again I seem to have re-invented the wheel again as the game may unfortunately bear some relation to the old Pepys game, Penalty. I am investigating this now but I am sure something will come of it anyway. Expect something concrete from one, two or all of us in the next few months.
Inevitably, this year's Tour de France proved a bit of an anti-climax. Fignon did himself, his country and his team no favours, Lemond remains an incredible rider who was obviously under big-money pressure and Chiappucci pleasantly surprised everyone, including, I suspect, himself. The Channel 4 coverage was as good as ever and I quite enjoyed the 'behind the scenes' features. Doesn't Gary Imlach love himself though? Anyway, with Lemond looking favourite after the Pyrenees, as a race it lacked the closing excitement of the last couple of years but the closeness of the leaders' times and the exciting individual stages made up for that. For once, the always mystifying team tactics of slowing up the bunch could actually be seen in practice. The simple measure of the 'Chateau D'Ax boys' lining up across the road showed this in action!
John Harrington and I were chatting recently and he mentioned an article that appeared in the Herald Tribune. In keeping with numerous recent 'how to improve the World Cup' pieces, this one suggested applying the British relegation/promotion system to American sports. I like this one. Every year, instead of a negative struggle for the best draft choice positions, there is a fight to avoid the CBA, the CFL or the hockey backwaters. Baseball should offer the best competition with the already established 'divisions'. What price the Murphy-less Braves in Double A within five years? It is an interesting concept. Every negative point (disenchanted owners, loss of big names, dispersed TV coverage) seems to have a positive balancing item (higher overall quality, leagues contested right to the end, a break up of the franchise monopoly, top level teams for Denver etc). Of course there are flaws, not least for the owners, but it's a nice idea to toy with.
If any entrepreneurs out there are wondering what to get into next, try mountain bike retail. This is known as a growth market. All but a couple of producers can currently sell everything they can make without any discounting, delivery times for certain models are two months plus and even at £400-500+ for basic models, they are selling like hotcakes. The reason I know is that I have recently replaced my old one with a super little Mongoose machine that took a hell of a lot of tracking down. This one has round chainrings and an upright frame that suits me much better than the 'stretched out' Saracen Trekker which my brother has now inherited and, presumably, will pay me for at some stage. The amazing thing is the gulf that has opened up between mountain and road bike prices. For £400 (deemed the absolute minimum for a decent off roader) you can get a embarrassingly well equipped racing bike, but, of course, these just aren't as popular anymore. Now all I have to do is get some heavy riding in on the thing and hope this fabulous weather holds.
After a very quiet winter and spring, the number of new game releases seems to be picking up. Origins was apparently the best for years in the new titles stakes (if not actually in boxes), but disappointingly attended as a convention. Upcoming releases include Showbiz, Wrasslin', New World, 3rd Fleet, Republic of Rome, Carrier Battles, Fighter Bomber, Napoleon's Battles expansion kit (!) and Sea Hawks all from Avalon Hill; Shattered States from EMS; Red Empire, And Kill Migs and lots of Harpoon and Space 1889 stuff from GDW; Force Eagles War and Operation Schmidt from The Gamers; Eurorails from Mayfair; Carrier War, Napoleon at Leipzig and Last Battle for Germany from Omega; 1862 and Dead of Winter from SDI; Preussich-Eylau from Clash of Arms; TSR have loads of releases but precious few non-RPG - only Berg's Battle of Britain, WWII, Elixir and Mage Stones seem to offer any boardgame interest. West End have nothing scheduled except Torg piffle.
Avalon Hill have stylishly re-packaged Superstar Baseball, Pro Golf and Bowlbound, the latter with virtually all the team sheets ever issued and GDW have Captain's Edition Harpoon and a new edition of Imperium in the shops now. ADG have finally got round to launching Days of Decision, their prequel to World in Flames but this one looks to be a lot of charts and little fun. Close, but no cigar. Further good news is that Chessex, the big Californian distributor, have picked up the rights to Sleuth's Sherlock Holmes games and will be issuing Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective II this summer at around $30. Apparently, the kit will contain the long awaited Eastend murders cases which were to be the fourth expansion kit before Sleuth went down with all hands. This one will be a must purchase.
In the UK, Rostherne Games have three new games out which, for David Watts, is impressive. They include Bus Boss (a national bus network game with Scottish and English maps and optional rules for bus spotters), Send! (a simple distribution game) and Winchester (an abstract, chess based race game). These look good (I particularly enjoyed Send) and will be reviewed as soon as I can get round to it. Terry Goodchild tells me that he is now carries CCS Ltd's computer simulation games for the Spectrum. Terry was so impressed by the quality of these that he stocked up on the whole range which includes such titles as Arnhem, Waterloo, Austerlitz and Zulu War. Terry can be contacted at Lambourne Games, 8 Waters Ave, Carlton Colville, Lowestoft, Suffolk NR33 8BJ.
Endangered Games alert: rumours are starting to leak that Avalon Hill may have discontinued 1830. Incredible as it may seem that AH should delete a classic, this may be a good time to pick up that extra copy, especially if you wear your board out every six months like Dane Maslen. Then again, it could just be a rumour. I don't suppose AH would care to confirm this one?
A couple of plugs while I think of them. Stephan Valkyser of Boxgraben 53/57, D- 5100 Aachen, West Germany is thinking of re-starting a Statis Pro Baseball postal league and interested parties should contact Stephan as soon as possible to establish likely interest. Secondly, Donald Spivey has put together a set of postal baseball rules which are currently in the playtest stage. I have seen a set of the rules, which are based on soccerleague-style systems, and they look very reasonable if a lot of work to GM. Donald is looking for playtest managers and will probably send a set of rules in return for an SAE. Donald is at 14 Chestnut Grove, Stony Stratford, Bucks MK11 1JZ.
Not much to report as I have severely cut back on CD purchases recently. Madonna's Vogue is a damn good pop song and but for the visceral Nessun Dorma it could have been another Summer anthem. I'll never forget walking around hearing Into the Groove everywhere. Not sure about the rest of the Breathless album though and the Funki Dreds over at Soul II Soul have really blown it with their second album. Too big an act to follow I suppose. It seems the B52's have finally made it big in the charts with Roam. Considering they have been around for ten years or so, the public certainly took their time to catch on. The main benefit is that all the old records, including the excellent Party Mix, are now on CD. The drawback is that any upcoming concerts will be packed solid.
I'm also rather taken by The Pasadenas first album at the moment but am unsure why. They are very much a sub-par soul band with naive lyrics but the tunes are infectious, their voices aren't bad and Tribute is superb. Oh well, I suppose we are all allowed musical anomalies. Considering that I have been sampling and re- sampling Guns and Roses, R.E.M., Michelle Shocked, Prince, Tom Waits, Suzanne Vega and The Carpenters recently, obviously someone is slipping something weird into my tea. Album of the month is The Essential Pavarotti (as Alexei Sayle (?) once said so eloquently, "Pavarotti? He is the dog's bollocks.") and biggest disappointment are De La Soul. Aside from the three memorable singles, the 'Three Feet High and Rising' album stinks. Another one for the 'All Overrated' list.
While in the States, I rolled along to see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and almost instantly regretted it. Apart from the three to ten year olds that filled the cinema, the film was a B-movie in every sense. With the potentially funny source material and the admittedly well-done turtle costumes, given the Batman treatment (with Sigourney Weaver and Kurt Russell in the lead roles?) this could have been an excellent film. Instead we got bad pacing, a confused plot, third rate actors hamming up a script written for children and lots of pizza jokes. The combat sequences were OK. Good for the kiddies, but save your cash and avoid the inevitable wave of merchandising. Film of the month then is Tenue de Soiree, a superb film fortunately spotted tucked away on Channel 4. Depardieu at his impassive best in a film oozing with restrained anarchy and sensuality. Marvelous stuff.
At long last there seem to be some decent cycling videos appearing in the shops. Some appear to be pretty duff, such as the Phil Anderson tape, but the seventies footage of Paris-Roubaix (including Merckx, de Vlaeminck and Moser) in 'A Sunday in Hell' and the 'La Course en Tete' Merckx profile are well worth buying. Their only drawback seems to be the price which has put me off sampling as many as I would like. Most retail at over £20 and some at nearer £30 which is, frankly, a bit of a rip off. I note that most of them come from Italy and France - are they likely to be any cheaper over there and is there a larger range of titles available? And am I right in assuming they will run on UK videos if bought abroad? Any advice on this one? Michele? Giorgio?
Non-sport TV has been terrible, saved only by Clive James' Postcards, The Wonder Years, the excellent film on underground comics and the recent Horizon on cellular automata. It is also good to see the Rough Guides back, albeit in some pretty dumb locations, but those presenters should be drowned in Perrier forthwith. Selective viewing is currently called for I think, even the upcoming Cosby series is not likely to be as good as the earlier ones. Check out that highly pretentious opening sequence for starters.
Thought for the month. I was asked recently by a friend 'What are gamers called?'. Blank look from me. 'You know, as in stamp collectors are philatelists.' I had no idea though I suppose ludophile might work from a classical angle. Then there was a game designer chappie I met in Germany who had Homo Ludens on his business card which I thought a tad pretentious, but I guess there is a proper word out there somewhere. Any offers?
The unluckiest man in recent baseball history must be Andy Hawkins of the Yankees who threw a no-hitter last month and, thanks to his team mates' errors and lack of runs, still lost the game 3-0. OK, that's it.
I have been having some trouble with sequels recently. These mainly involve books that I have enjoyed immensely, only to find the follow up is far weaker and thus a major disappointment. Specific examples that spring to mind are Hughart's Story of the Stone (to Bridge of Birds), Niven's Barsoom Project (to Dream Park), Reaves' The Burning Realm (to The Shattered World) and, most disappointing of all, Jonathan Carroll's A Child Across the Sky (to the marvelous Sleeping in Flame). Similarly, Tim Powers has never really matched The Anubis Gates and virtually all the cyberpunk writers (now very much a dying breed) have shone brightly and then faded fast.
So what is happening here? Do these authors pour all their ideas and effort into one book, in some cases their first, luckily hitting a winning formula, or is my reaction simply a result of overly high expectations? On balance, I tend to go with the former explanation. Most of the sequels are noticeably weaker in plotline and characterization and in two cases (Hughart and Reaves), it would appear that the authors have had their writing skills and sense of humour surgically removed. Hughart in particular seems to be a completely different writer in the second volume which represents something of a fall from grace allowing for the reception of his first published work.
Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the above books are all science fiction or fantasy, both of which I have been gradually moving away from. Not uninfluenced by cutting (and almost accurate) comments from Charles Vasey along the lines that 'It's all mind-rotting crap', I have become more and more disillusioned with the field and have cut right back on purchases. It has now got to the point where I read very little SF, buy nothing at all on spec and rely very much on familiar authors or good reviews for guidance. I must admit that I find the BSFA publications useful in this respect, even if they do take themselves a little too seriously at times.
Although I think I have always exercised some sort of discretion in the past (no Donaldson, Eddings, Pournelle, Heinlein or their ilk have ever made the cut with me), the bottom line is that most of the bookshop shelves are indeed full of rubbish. I suppose, with advancing age, one also moves on in literary appreciation and expectations so the days of my being engrossed by Larry Niven's Known Space, the Stainless Steel Rat, Fafhrd & Grey Mouser and Brunner's minor epics are probably gone forever. They were good stories, full of ideas for the young mind, but their shortcomings compared to even very poor mainstream literature are now glaringly obvious. Ten years on, I strongly doubt I will ever go back.
Nevertheless, I believe there are a few authors that rise above the average schlock and are thus still worthy of my time. Philip K Dick is one author (regular readers will consider this obvious), William Gibson, John Crowley, Gene Wolfe, Lucius Shepard, K W Jeter and Steve Erickson are others. So, in tandem with some lesser known authors, there is still enough good stuff to be read selectively. Even Greg Bear has his moments. Perhaps it is significant that some of these authors produce work towards the 'mainstream' end of SF or, in Dick and Gibson's case, a body of work of such generally good quality that it hardly matters into which genre it is lumped. I am also currently enjoying some of the fringe magazines such as SF Eye, Journal Wired (surely the ultimate in fanzine production) and Dave Langford's Ansible/Sglodion which are well written, are low on modern, pretentious fiction (as peddled in Interzone) and tackle subjects far wider than SF alone.
The final area that retains my interest is Phil Dick. I am still an avid collector of his books and critical works and have recently been tempted to part with cash for a six volume set of his letters. The novels, interviews and articles are good for insight, but the letters should really expose a few talking points. Further details when I track down the first volume.
Meanwhile, the best books to come along on the subject for a while are Divine Invasions and Mind in Motion. The former is a straightforward but engaging biography that is pretty hard to get at present, so I will review it next time when it is hopefully more widely available. Mind in Motion by Patricia Warrick (Southern Illinois Univ. Press, £13) is a scholarly work (probably a published thesis) that tackles Dick's works in chronological sequence, slotting each novel into the several phases of his writing and analysing each with that phase in mind. Each notable book is summarised neatly, which I always find useful, and the theory is proved point by point in sometimes dry, academic prose. Frankly, despite her claimed personal friendship with Dick, I doubt that the theories Ms Warrick proposes are any more revolutionary than those I've seen in various fanzines over the years, but she argues a good case and even if you disagree, there is plenty of information and insight. I am sure Messrs Whyte, Birks and Oakes will get something from this one even if everyone else has fallen asleep by now.
These books, as well as Journal Wired mentioned above, are available from Alphane Moon Books, Greg Pickersgill, 7a Lawrence Road, South Ealing, London W5 4XJ. Greg is aiming to provide a lot of unusual works from the States (including a broad range of SF criticism) and as he is another Phil Dick fan, many of the books available concentrate on this author. Finally, for the real Dick aficionados ('I love a good Dick'), the May edition of Book & Magazine Collector has a lengthy feature covering first editions, prices and collecting Dick novels. Back issues are available.
Another author suffering from sequel failure is Tom Clancy. Yes, thankyou, I am aware of all the ethical and political dodginess of the books, but they can be a rattling good read. Anyway, I started off with Red Storm Rising and then Hunt for Red October and have progressed through the unintentionally funny Patriot Games and now, the latest blockbuster Clear and Present Danger which deals with the States going hostile against the Columbian drug barons. You have to give Clancy some credit on writing such a predictive novel as he hit the shelves just as the Columbians made the headlines. Whether this was pure good fortune or a leak from his friends at the Pentagon, we shall probably never know.
The book deals with a potentially interesting scenario. The Pentagon gets sick of drug running and being sniffed at by the cartels so decides to take low-key but definite action. Fighter pilots start shooting down drug planes at night, various covert action teams are trained for high altitude combat and the counter intelligence pressure is stepped up. All very exciting but the book fails to get it across apart from in very small doses. Much is promised, little is delivered and Clancy takes most of the first three hundred pages to get anywhere. This is unacceptable for a book-style that relies on dramatic action and excitement. Thirty pages on altitude training or coastguard family problems can tax one's patience.
When the action does start, it is almost worth the slog as Clancy really does know how to put some great action onto paper. However, the book doesn't have enough of it and what does appear is mainly towards the end. The other drawback is Clancy's gradual drift into high fantasy. Clear & Present sees not only an unbelievably good Cuban spy bedding a senior CIA secretary and Jack 'Mr Perfect' Ryan rapidly climbing the ladder toward the president's office, but also the introduction of the so-called 'Superman' character. This man is truly amazing; he can do literally anything but his most useful skill is the ability to get Clancy out of some sticky dead-ends in the plot. These aside, it's not too bad, probably the best since the first two, but is overlong (it could comfortably be half its length), badly paced and still possessed of Clancy's uniquely weak, almost laughable characterization. I'm going off them fast. Perhaps they should be sold with a plot summary and the action pages marked in highlighter pen.
As a relative youngster, the first time I saw The Prisoner was when Channel 4 ran it a few years ago. I liked it a lot, it made me think a bit and I am rather keen to watch it again. For me though, the infamous final episode was both obvious, in that I had unusually worked it out ahead of time, and disappointing because it took way too long to get round to the meaty stuff. It was also pretentious to say the least and represented a fine example of one of those noisy, aggravating pieces of drama with lots of unnecessary shouting. Neverthless, the rest of the series more than made up for this and I am a buyer of anything halfway interesting on the subject. The latest such book to show is The Official Prisoner Companion by Matthew White and Jaffer Ali (Sidgwick & Jackson, £7.95).
The book starts out with an in-depth episode guide which manages to develop a few new slants on the storylines and how they fit in with the series as a whole. Throughout the book, there are interesting little historical facts and asides mixed in with the opinions which makes it a good light read. This is followed by a section on anecdotes and myths surrounding the series and finally, just before the comprehensive appendices, 'What does it all mean.'
This latter is the most refreshing part of the book in that it tackles all the theories and arguments emanating from the programmes in a down-to-earth style. This is the first book I have read on the subject that avoids the vague, pretentious and inconclusive debate on 'what's it all about?' and lays it on the line in plain English. The waffly articles and discussions of the last twenty years are compacted into single paragraphs which actually make one think about them, accepting or discarding as appropriate.
In general, they conclude that although there is obviously a strong sub-plot and large dollops of subtle allegory, there may not have been quite as much to the series as the intellectuals would like us to think. I'm sure McGoohan himself was quite clear what it was all about but he persists in the zen-like 'It means many things to many people, grasshopper' routine. It is possible that he revelled in the pseudo-philosophy and heated controversy and made the most of it, such that he is now comfortably retired in California and really hasn't worked much since the series and the earlier Danger Man. Nevertheless, this is a good book that is well researched with plenty of interesting views and a realistic approach. Recommended.
There currently seems to be something of a backlash in the hobby against Terry Pratchett and his books. As someone, along with the Electric Monk, who has plugged them shamelessly in the past, I feel I ought to offer a few words in my defence. Firstly, perspective. I don't think anyone is making Pratchett out to be the new Dickens. Pratchett deals solidly with piss takes of fantasy cliches and trades in humour at a fairly low level (I have used the Carry On films analogy before). He is comfortably ahead of most of his rivals in these fields. His aim seems to be to write funny books and to make lots of money to support his gin addiction. In the main, I believe he succeeds.
By reputation, this type of writing is difficult to do consistently well yet Pratchett makes as good a job as anyone, Douglas Adams definitely included. If there is a slight drawback with the books, it is pacing. Frequently, his novels start well and contrive a decent end, but the middles tend to drift a bit. Pratchett claims that he finds short stories a problem, but I can't see why - if he shrunk the middles he would have a tighter plot and plenty of room for the jokes. Perhaps the novella would be his forte; certainly Truckers benefits from being that little bit shorter. Whatever, the outcome is that Pratchett is one of the few authors I will buy in hardback, who normally delivers 80-90% value in terms of filling the book with some sort of humorous plot and original jokes and, above all, often gives me a damn good laugh. The best so far in this respect has to be Mort (or Pyramids, or Equal Rites...), the worst easily the disappointing Wyrd Sisters.
The underlying problem, as I see it, is that the knockers seem to be getting agitated about the frequency and similarity of the books and reviews, the paroxysms of delight they arouse in certain readers (which admittedly are often a little exaggerated) and, perhaps, that Pratchett is starting to show all the signs of a populist, get rich quick author. This in itself can seemingly provoke a negative reaction in some quarters. To an extent I see their point but surely in the end this is a matter of taste, tolerance and moderation. As long as the middle-brow Pratchett books don't exclusively constitute my reading matter and he remains on something approaching Pyramids form, I have no current fears that my brain will turn to jelly. I will continue to buy and read the increasingly frequent books with pleasure. Reviews? Well, I'll leave those to Andy Key. However, as soon as the standard drops or he shows signs of Piers Anthony's diminishing returns disease, that's his lot. The existing books would quickly be put on the shelf next to the first three Xanth books, the early Stainless Steel Rats and the Hitch Hiker's Guide, but, importantly, he has already produced more decent work than any of those series and I hope it continues.
Robert Coover's Universal Baseball Association Inc is one of those books that you imagine just might exist if the world were a perfect place. How else do you explain a book about a man who lives in his own dreamworld based on a dice baseball simulation? For me, it represents one of those annoying 'knowledge gaps' that can also apply to general knowledge or pronunciation. I could have gone for years without discovering it, were it not for an unrelated chat with Ted Kelly about the statistical accuracy of baseball games. Yes, I know. Yawn City, Missouri, but I enjoy it. Anyway, unlikely as it may be, the book exists and can be bought from Sportspages for a few pounds.
Knowing the subject, many of you will be instantly writing it off but it is far more than a book about a baseball game and its engrossed creator. It is a novel about life and foibles in smalltown USA, displaying almost believable characters and a sad, moving storyline which I can't reveal for fear of spoiling it. It also has some incredibly accurate insights into the mind of the replay gamer (which strongly indicates Coover was one or knew one), that devoted creature who will sit there for evening after evening recording strikeouts, steals and walks. For sure, it helps to know a little about the game but it is far from essential; the characters come over on human levels as well as from the stats angle. Although I don't believe this one in any way lives up to the ridiculous puffs on the cover, it is a rewarding, clever novel with a subject that strays rather close to home.
So, Games International is dead. Long live Strategy Plus. Issue sixteen confirms that GI can no longer survive as an up-front games journal so it is to become a computer magazine with games 'at the back' in a brown paper wrapper. A name change to Strategy Plus is also planned to aid the re-launch. This seems to be the only logical survival step which I tend to go along with. However, and I may be horribly wrong, I suspect the games coverage won't last long in any great volume and I also have grave doubts as to whether there is room out there for another computer magazine. Brian Walker rightly digs at Ace readers for being spotty oiks who expect sub-Sun English in their articles, but I fear that is exactly who makes up the bulk of the market. Sure, the oiks might buy the magazine anyway (they tend to be well-off oiks) and there are undoubtedly 'adult' gamers out there looking for good simulations, strategy and economic games. I just don't think there are very many of them.
Anyway, enough of trying to predict the future, what has GI done for the games hobby? Plenty of people have said to me that GI was the best ever general games magazine. This is undoubtedly true. As a magazine it struck a good balance for the wide variety of games and gamers and as a news source it was unmatched. But, as someone sitting firmly in a glass house, I thought some of the reviews were decidedly dodgy (especially towards the end) and this standard of writing in what was the meat of the magazine should not have been tolerated. Overall, despite the apparoach, it brought a lot of games to the gamer's attention, most of them pretty good.
The drawback for me was its amateur image, both in writing and editing (myself definitely included), which compounded its undoubted 'fanzine with a laser printer' feel. This may have had a bearing on the lack of support from the market but if it did it was just one of many factors contributing to its downfall. Not least among these was the volume of sales. My guess is that GI was selling 4,000-6,000 copies at the peak which just isn't enough. This figure can be looked at in two ways: it represents a surprisingly high number of gamers who were willing to buy a £2 non- specific games magazine but, most importantly, it is not a figure from which newsstand sales and subs can keep one afloat. On balance, I enjoyed at least the majority of articles within the sixteen issues (which, candidly, was eleven more than I thought it would survive) and I also got some mileage from writing the odd piece. Leaving as it does the heavily RPG-centred GRiM alone in the games market, the old format will be missed.
One of the highlights of of the last few weeks has been the appearance of the Cold Morning Collector. This is a new game collecting magazine that grew out of a straightforward dealer list and is now becoming a wider operation with classified ads, collecting articles, con reports and suchlike. Amazingly enough, Thomas Sudall who runs the whole affair is willing to pay for articles of a decent standard. I would gues that, with support, CMC could progress to the levels of Book & Magazine/Record Collector. I certainly hope it does as it is something that has long been missing from the second hand games market. The idea is that the bulk of the newsletter will be filled with personal wanted or for sale ads for games, magazines or whatever. The asking prices are reasonable and you pay for the space rather than a word count. Although already strong on RPGs and general games, this sort of undertaking obviously needs a wide range of subscribers to succeed so I would strongly suggest that anyone remotely interested in game collecting or picking up the odd second hand bargain should drop Thomas a line at CME, 74 Hulme Hall Rd, Cheadle Hulme, Stockport SK8 6LF.
A lot of the interest in Sumo has come from Germany and a quarter of my subbers are from that country. The trouble is, as one gets further into the details, it is quite obvious that 'the hobby' in Germany is very different to the British one. For a start, the magazines are much bigger, more frequent and almost always devoid of chat and letter columns. The overall impression is of efficiency and not a little uniformity. There are exceptions (notably Die Abseitfalle and Interzine, below) but in the main there are game reports, some press and the odd review. I wonder if the size and frequency of the output can be put down to the slower pace of German life or more fanatical editors? Perhaps John Webley can help with some views here. The German hobby can also be seen as hanging off the 'amateur PBM' concept rather than Diplomacy and, encouragingly, much use is made of computers for running games.
Consequently, in an effort to improve my German as well as my awareness, I am trading with Interzine, Abseitfalle and Europa 2000. Interzine is close to our Mission from God in concept but appears monthly and runs to over sixty pages of small type. It is a listing of all the magazines in Germany and elsewhere in Europe (showing the usual price, frequency etc), plus reviews, gamestarts available and a central hobby forum in the shape of a unusual letter column - writers send letters to the editor and he gives a personal reply ('Editor to Mike Siggins...'), while only sometimes quoting the questions. Interzine is big, impressive and, of course, entirely written in German. As a frequent, inexpensive guide to the European PBM hobby, it is indispensable. Lukas Kautsch, the editor, also manages to produce three other publications including a United league so his social life must be one endless disco. He can be reached at Waldstr. 71, D-7500 Karlsruhe, FRG. Send the man some IRCs. Now can I get on the list, Lukas?
Georg Frynas' multi-language Europa 2000, mentioned last time, is now up to issue four and seems to be growing in popularity judging by the number of foreign subbers and players on waiting lists. It is already running several games (including the very popular Golden Strider) and covers all aspects of PBM but, sadly, little else at present. To an extent, Georg seems to be printing almost anything he is sent on postal gaming and, as such, the magazine lacks a broad interest base and a degree of editorial bite. On the other hand, I am sure this will improve as the circulation rises and Georg takes more of an active role.
Interestingly though, as someone who aims to promote international gaming contacts, Georg recently took a pop at the layout of British magazines which he appears to consider inferior to the German A5 litho booklets. Neatly skipping the classic failing of tarring everyone after seeing only a few examples, I dispute strongly that Prisoners of War, Cut & Thrust or Electric Monk (to name a few) aren't a match for German graphical standards. I suppose the unexpected receipt of your average Nertz or Mission from God might shock anyone unused to mimeo, but they do have bags of the individuality sorely lacking in the German format. Along with Mr Ridley, another step forward for international relations!
Rounding out the three foreigners is Die Abseitfalle (The Offsidetrap) from Stephan Valkyser. This is much more up my street as it not only looks a bit more British (not unlike The Church Mouse in fact) but also has a varied range of contents. It is again entirely in German, but it is that staccato 'zine language that is quite easy to pick up. The heart of the magazine is a soccerleague but it also carries several other games (including one that seems to be entirely press-based) and reviews of German games, books, CDs and so on. The game reviews are good, reminding me of those in Spielerei which is no bad thing, and Stephan uses the GI stars system to rate the games. Adel gets a four star rating, which I guess is about right. Die Abseitfalle is a product of a severely warped mind and comes highly recommended. Stephan is at Boxgraben 53/57, D-5100 Aachen, West Germany.
It is a long time since I mentioned Electric Monk in these pages and, strangely enough, it's endearing qualities haven't changed much since last time. Andy and Madi, the joint editors, continue to effortlessly produce a five-weekly magazine that creates a friendly atmosphere and includes some highly interesting articles on apparently dull subjects. This environment encourages a thriving letter column on lightish topics and a good range of contributors, many of whom produce some quality book reviews to complement those of the editors. It also looks damn good; Andy is one of the few people who knows how to get the best from a DTP package. Games run include Diplomacy (yawn), Railway Rivals, Crossword and Tring Central. Recently accused (unfairly) of tardiness, I can't say I'm at all fussed. I'd rather something as good as the Monk turned up infrequently than not at all. Andy Key is your man, at 70 William Street, Kingshill, Swindon, Wilts SN1 5LE.
Baseball Times is the new nationally available baseball monthly from the publishers of Touchdown. It is essentially a professional version of Mike Ross' Transatlantic Baseball Bulletin mentioned ages ago in Inside Pitch and, despite a rushed first issue and some proofreading problems, it is starting to look good. The second issue is a great improvement, uses colour well, has some good writers and unlike its predecessors, is actually reasonably informed. I found most of the articles of interest in both issues and it has the balance about right. Stat count is thankfully low by the way. Given the lack of non-satellite coverage of the sport, I have my doubts whether the release of Baseball Times is timed correctly but we must assume the marketing boys know what they're about. Given that First Base was presumably targetting the same market and that one died a lingering death, one has to wonder. Anyway, Baseball Times is better than its pathetic predecessor, has some heavyweight backing and looks to be worth supporting at this stage of its development.
Not quite as refreshing is Baseball UK, the new plush house organ of the ludicrously incompetent British Baseball Federation. The first issue of a magazine intended to push British amateur baseball onto the world stage was forced to reveal that its long-time president had been discovered paying himself an extra salary from federation funds. Having come across the culprit in all his reactionary, boorish glory this doesn't surprise me in the least. This man alone has done enough in his reign to ensure baseball in the UK went nowhere fast. His removal, for the wrong reasons in the end, was way overdue. Thanks to a number of cock-ups, British baseball now finds itself back to where it stood five years ago, the travesty of a National League excepted. The Scottish Amicable sponsorship has gone along with Channel 4 coverage, both of whom cited lack of organisation and support from the BBF and public as reasons.
All this is very obvious to me, having been sickened to the point of despair by the petty committee-ism and politics of the regional baseball and softball bodies, both just small parts of the BBF. The mind boggles as to what goes on at national level. One argument that keeps them busy concerns a North-South imbalance of players (derr, I wonder why) and a perverse failure to promote anything much South of Hull (spookily, the BBF HQ is located here). This chestnut has been kicking around for at least six years and still has no solution. Even worse, the paranoid non-welcome extended to helpful Americans has to be seen to be believed.
From the spectating point of view, if it weren't for the likes of Alan Bloomfield and other homegrown players of exceptional skill, the UK game would have no redeeming features. To expect the UK squad to qualify for the 1992 Olympics is a bad joke and will continue to be so while there is a minimal schools programme, no decent club level coaching, no national excellence centre, competent umpires counted in units nationwide, poor facilities and organisation, non-existent publicity and an uninformed public. At the end of the day, I strongly fear that baseball just isn't going to make it in the UK as football did and the BBF must be held at least partly responsible. Much of the rest is probably due to the fact that the game doesn't seem to ignite the British interest, for which I still have no explanation. However, John Harrington still claims baseball is the most boring game on earth which may be a subtle pointer.
Err, yes. Somewhere up there I was reviewing the magazine. It is tough to review it impartially as it is inextricably linked with the BBF and all it stands for. Anyway, Baseball UK is well produced but is suffering from an inexperienced editor and a lack of interesting features. The core of the magazine is scores and news from the various divisions telling us of 43-2 routs and great performances of less than six fielding errors. Not too rivetting. Then we get coverage of the UK team selection procedures and the build up to the Olympics. Hoho. The letters page is also pretty grim and highlights lots of youngsters trying to start teams on their own. I find this ironic, and very sad. Save your money and get out there and start a rebel team of your own.
Well Phil is the first cycling fanzine I've seen. Given that Sportspages apparently carries no others at present, it is probably the only one. Thank heaven for that. Sadly, because I would have welcomed a good product, Well Phil highlights most of the areas in which a fanzine can go horribly wrong. It seems to be the classic 'let's do a fanzine on cycling' (and make some money?) and in five issues it will be dead from lack of content. The presentation is acceptable, just, but comes at a ridiculous cost for what you get. Normally, an otherwise weak fanzine can get by on good writing but Well Phil has none. There are no articles worth reading, no genuine letters and no real biting comment beyond astutely spotting the obvious fact that McLaughlin is a hard-as-nails bastad, Fignon admires himself intensely and Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen lack, shall we say, incisive commentary skills. It relies solely on this sort of humour, which is again fine if done well, but regrettably Well Phil is about as funny as Steve Martin. Leave well alone.
At the other end of the scale, Mike Clifford recently told me about New Cyclist, essentially a pro-fanzine that has been around for a while now but has only just secured widespread distribution. Predictably, this has promptly lead to it selling out to a big publisher which I hope retains its image. New Cyclist is very much a magazine for the commuter rather than racer and for the environmentalist rather than the retarded cycle courier. This approach leads to some fascinating articles that are always pitched at a practical level. The magazine covers such esoterica as human powered vehicles, the campaign for cycle paths and the 'caring' cyclist and is a consistently good read, even if the issues are sometimes a bit airy-fairy and unlikely to gain acceptance in parliament. It seems to be written by cyclists who actually ride instead of indulging in stationary posing; the recent article on wheel building was worth ten times the cover price. Compared to the growing number of cycling magazines out there reviewing the same mountain bikes and deciding which iridium shades are in fashion this week, New Cyclist is a breath of fresh air. Available from your local bike shop or WH Smiths.
'The Canadian Wargamers Journal: The Voice of World In Flames' has a rather unfortunate title, strongly indicating that it covers only those games that involve panzers, production spirals and corps level counters. In reality, as well as the monster games, it covers a whole range of subjects ranging from wargames, miniatures and science fiction to sports and PBM. The articles are well written to an amateur standard, each issue has a good spread of subjects and they try to include the occasional free game insert. For instance, the latest issue has a simple but workable ice hockey game which has some neat ideas. There are also some new cards and optional rules for Junta and much more of interest to the 'general' gamer. Unlike many of the American pro magazines that are now pushing £4 over here, CWJ can be had for about £1.50 an issue and is well worth a look. Second Chance Games can supply back issues if you are converted to the cause.
If anyone can help, I am looking to buy the following books or for advice on availability of the same:
I am also looking for a book that will tell me about the history of national insignia and the national colours of various countries and states. Eg why the Argentinians wear light blue and white, how the Swiss cantons got their symbols and so on. This is not quite heraldry and not quite flags but combines elements of both. I have drawn a blank at the library (aside from the obvious sources of French red, white and blue etc) and am at a complete loss. Any suggestions?
Sumo - Mike Siggins