Dead of Winter (board game) – Review

cover

Dead of Winter is a 2-5 player co-operative game with a twist. Set during a bitter winter in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, it tasks players with banding together to meet a variety of objectives. Objectives include things like killing a certain number of zombies, building a number of barricades, or hoarding a certain number of resources. However, each player also has a ‘secret’ objective, and that player only wins the game if they achieve their secret objective, as well as the group objective. Secret objectives aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but normally they require some kind of selfish behaviour that makes the game harder for everyone else. Moreover, each game has about a 40-50% chance that a player will have a ‘betrayal’ secret objective, which is something explicitly designed to sabotage the group objective. If other players get too suspicious, they can vote to exile a player from the game, but if they exile two players who weren’t traitors, the game ends immediately.

The secret objective/betrayal mechanic is what gives Dead of Winter its unique appeal, and it is a very interesting concept. It gives the game a kind of ‘meta’ dimension, as the player dynamics go beyond the actual moves you make in the game and can manipulate the way players interpret rules or behave towards each other during the game. It’s an unusually deep and sophisticated system, and the first time you realize how a player’s behaviour was influenced by their secret objective is likely to be something of a mark-out moment.

Each player manages a small team of survivor characters, and it is possible to recruit additional survivors during the game. However, you have to balance the increased capacity you get from having more people against the drain on resources. This is a theme throughout the game: doing anything, even moving, involves risk, and playing the game is a constant trade-off between risk and reward. This tension is an important dynamic and you’re made to wonder whether a player’s potentially reckless behaviour is just down to their personality, due to a secret objective, or part of a conscious plan to sabotage the group’s efforts.

Dead of Winter’s biggest weakness is that it doesn’t work well with just two players. There are no secret objectives in a two-player game, meaning a major part of the game’s dynamic appeal is lost. The game is still playable, usually using stripped-down objectives and with more characters per player, but it’s really not that much fun. Ideally you want four or five players to enjoy the game properly. This is a bit limiting, as many co-operative games (like Eldritch Horror) work serviceably with any number of players between two and eight. Considering Dead of Winter’s price tag of £40-50, you want to make sure you have enough interested players to make it worth your time and money. With only two players it’s a much worse game and in my view not worth playing over other options.

The game is well-produced, with substantial character cut-outs and cards that are robust and satisfying to handle. The art style is distinctive; not necessarily the most attractive style you’ll ever see, but appropriate enough to the tone of the game and vaguely reminiscent of something like The Walking Dead. The game is generally well-written, with a large pool of objectives, which come with their own introductions and conclusions, as well as a number of text-heavy Crossroads, or scenario, cards that can be triggered during each player’s turn. Players often have to make a choice during their turn; sometimes this is fun, but occasionally it boils down to ‘do this one massively complicated thing that takes a paragraph to describe and consists of multiple stages, or do nothing’. Considering how long these games often take, I know which option I’ll always go for.

While not as long-winded as something like Arkham Horror, Dead of Winter still generally takes 2-3 hours, and the set-up process is fairly lengthy. Again, if you’re only playing with two players, this is another factor that might encourage you to pick something else instead. But with the right group, a game of Dead of Winter is a unique, thrilling, and potentially disturbing experience.

8/10

The Book of Mormon (musical) – Review

The Book of Mormon has been something of a critical and commercial sensation. Its breakout success stems not just from the fact it’s a highly entertaining and effective show; but because it holds appeal for people (like me) who would ordinarily never even consider going to see a musical. A musical satire about religion and Mormonism, written by the creators of South Park? Sign me up.

The show has been running in London’s West End since 2013 (since 2011 in Broadway), but we only just got round to finally seeing it last week. The show’s immense popularity means that getting cheap tickets is a challenge. We managed to get tickets to an evening performance for just under £40 each, which may seem dear but is actually a bargain for a major show in the West End.

Without giving too much away, the plot revolves around two young Mormon missionaries, Elders Price and Cunningham, who are dispatched to Uganda to try and recruit people to the Church. Price and Cunningham are typical odd couple material: Price is driven, charismatic, highly competent, and self-regarding, while Cunningham is socially obnoxious, lazy, ineffective, and insecure. Both of them find it hard going initially in Uganda, where the local population lives under conditions of crushing oppression and poverty. Serious themes, including AIDS and FGM, figure prominently in the plot, and the presence of such themes in a comedy will not be to everyone’s taste–this is from the writers of South Park, after all. However, on the whole there is no question where the writers’ sympathies lie, and any suggestions of racism and so on are wide of the mark.

The Book of Mormon is very funny and entertaining. The songs are good fun, and often work in some outrageous humour that provoked howls of laughter from the audience. As in South Park, the script pokes fun at many of the more absurd tenets of the Mormon faith, and indeed some sections were extremely reminiscent of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s more famous creation. But the music and dancing is top-notch, and it’s an unusual pleasure to be able to enjoy such stellar visual production fused with what is at times an unbelievably foul-mouthed and crude comedy. The highlights for me were clustered in the section just after the intermission, especially the ‘Spooky Mormon Hell Dream’ song.

The main performances are very impressive. One thing that bothered me slightly at the beginning was Elder Cunningham’s really OTT use of a silly voice and screaming; while I get that it is meant to convey an irritating personality, it should be possible to do that without irritating the audience. On the whole, though, the aesthetics of the show were outstanding. My only real criticism–which is really just an observation–is that in the end the show is just entertainment, and doesn’t really have much in the way of  lasting dramatic or emotional resonance. I interpreted the message of the play to be that religion can play a positive role in people’s lives, even with its manifest absurdities; which is fine as far as it goes, but rather shallow. Still, if you get the chance to see The Book of Mormon, it’s not something you should try and deconstruct too deeply: just relax and enjoy yourself.

9/10

Et tu, Owen?

Owen Jones made an unexpected foray into the Labour Party leadership debate today in the form of an article for the Guardian. While making certain obvious criticisms of the right-wing offensive against Corbyn and his supporters, the purpose of Jones’s article was to legitimize ‘left-wing’ criticism of Corbyn on the basis of more or less the same arguments as the Blairites and their allies. In other words, Jones criticized Corbyn’s personal style, and Labour’s failure under his leadership to ‘engage’ the electorate.

This latter smear is particularly insidious and has been a widespread argument by Corbyn’s opponents which doesn’t bear much scrutiny. For one thing, there is plenty of evidence that Corbyn has been successful in energizing widespread sections of the population, not limited just to Labour members. I received an email from my CLP today welcoming the huge number of new members who’ve joined Labour and stating that membership in one party ward was now almost 10% of the electorate! The mere fact of doubling Labour’s membership in the space of a year is an unbelievable achievement, and you might assume that Labour would want to harness that energy rather than deliberately drive people away from the party. But that is exactly what the Blairites and party apparatus are doing: they would rather see people off politics for life, making them totally apathetic or even hostile, rather than witness the Labour Party transformed into a vehicle for genuinely progressive social change. And with his screed in the Guardian, Jones is in effect signalling his willingness to serve as a left-wing screen for that strategy.

Jones make the remarkable statement he has “frequently” been in “utter despair” since Corbyn took over as Labour leader due to his supposed lack of “competence” and “effective communication”. Again, Jones doesn’t really refer to much to back this up, other than reference to a couple of minor episodes, largely relying on the kind of assumed knowledge (Labour appeared “shambolic” and “incompetent”–to whom? when?) that is characteristic of the Blairites’ Big Lie campaign against Corbyn. He dismisses the fact that Corbyn has been routinely undermined and plotted against by his own MPs, never mind that he has continuously had to face down an unbelievably hostile mainstream media. Jones could lend his not inconsiderable literary talents and public profile to bolster Corbyn’s case and help motivate his vision to a wider audience, but instead he’s decided to join the chorus of voices bemoaning Corbyn’s leadership style.

Considering what is going on in the Labour Party at present, that is tantamount to a betrayal. The Party executive has launched an anti-democratic campaign against its own membership, rescinding the voting rights of 100,000+ people who joined the party in the expectation of being able to vote in the leadership election, while also suspending all local party meetings for the duration of the campaign. The party apparatus has effectively declared war on its own members, but Jones doesn’t make a mention of any of this, choosing instead this moment in time to come out as a critic of Corbyn. It’s shameful.

Owen Jones did write one book that was pretty good, ‘Chavs’, a book which was about the demonization of the working class. The thing is, that book was written at a time when left-wing politics and the class struggle in general was at an unbelievably low ebb. It’s very easy and can actually be quite profitable to adopt a sort of house-trained, literary left-wing posture at a time like that. But over the last year Jones has been quite muted and largely irrelevant, and I mentioned before on this blog that he seemed mainly concerned with showing he could ‘brain trust’ for a future Labour government. Now there actually is a massive movement for change taking place within the Labour Party itself, which is blowing apart the established political consensus and threatening even the stability of the party; so the need for a militantly polite left-wing literary posture is much reduced. Instead he needs to pick a side, with those who are joining Labour because they are desperate for change, or with the Blairites, the media, and political establishment. Maybe Owen secretly yearns for things to go back to the way they were. In any event, he is certainly doing his best to establish his credentials as someone who can be trusted by the right-wing and the party establishment when push comes to shove.

 

Blairites reveal £25 price of democracy

The establishment campaign to remove Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader suffered another massive blow yesterday evening when the Labour Party National Executive Committee (NEC) voted 18-14 that Corbyn, as the incumbent leader of the party, does not need to gather signatures from Labour MPs to be on the ballot for the forthcoming leadership election. This is significant because Corbyn would have struggled to muster enough signatures from among the PLP, dominated as it is by Blairites and venal careerists, to be on the ballot that way. He has massive support among the Labour Party membership but not among the Parliamenary Labour Party or its allies in the party ‘elite’, most of whom are ideologically opposed to everything he stands for.  The failure of this latest stage of the ‘Chicken Coup’ was something to be celebrated by everyone who hopes for a kind of politics not dominated and controlled by the rich and powerful.

Yet barely had news about the NEC’s decision got out before the latest Blairite tactic was revealed. After Corbyn and some of his supporters left the NEC meeting, the committee voted to stop anyone who joined Labour in the last six months from voting in the leadership election. This includes the 100,000+ members who signed up in the few weeks since the Brexit vote, most of whom are Corbyn supporters. Supposedly, members will be able to pay a £25 fee to register as a ‘registered supporter’, and be able to vote that way–a tactic which manifestly discriminates against the less well-off, most of whom are likely to be Corbyn supporters; while £25 is small change to the sort of ‘filthy rich’ Blairite who might specifically sign up to try and vote against Corbyn. More generally, the idea of putting a price tag on a vote like this is profoundly undemocratic, and flies in the face of everything the Labour Party is supposed to stand for.

There have also been unconfirmed reports that the NEC voted to suspend all local party meetings in the run-up to the leadership election, which will take place between August and September. If true, this would represent a profoundly undemocratic manoeuvre designed to silence and marginalize the grassroots membership which forms the base of Corbyn’s support, and which is also the lifeblood of the Labour Party. The pretext for this seems to be a supposed campaign of intimidation against Blairite MPs and party functionaries; a campaign which does not seem to have existed apart from in the heads of said figures and their cheerleaders in the media. A brick was thrown through the window of leadership ‘candidate’ Angela Eagle’s office in Merseyside, but it’s still unclear who did it or even what their motive was. Corbyn and his supporters, including Momentum, have been quick to condemn any and all behaviour that even hints at being aggressive or unfriendly, but that’s not enough for the Blairites or the media.

Eagle said it wasn’t enough Corbyn condemnded any intimidation or abuse, refraining from saying what else he is actually supposed to do; while NEC member Johanna Baxter made the risible claim that by voting that the leadership vote should not be a secret ballot, Corbyn was ‘endorsing bullying’. Again, these people who are so quick to denounce Corbyn’s supporters of bullying seem to find it very hard to actually provide any evidence of bullying or intimidation, instead conflating bullying with the idea of democratic accountability. Yet Corbyn is subjected to the lowest form of schoolyard bullying in the House of Commons, including listening to his own MPs telling him to ‘sit down and shut up, you’re a disgrace, while he’s trying to hold to account the Conservative Prime MInister during PMQs. The Blairites and their supporters in the media are suppsoed to be able to smear Corbyn and his supporters, but the mildest criticism of them is denounced as if it’s the worst kind of abuse imaginable.

You know, if you manifestly try to sabotage the democratic structures of the party you’re paid to represent, and metaphorically spit on your own members, then you might eventually find yourself voted out of your cushy position and be forced to actually go and earn a living like the rest of us. The mentality of these Labour Party careerists has become abundantly clear: voters and the membership are just there as electoral fodder who are supposed to vote and keep their mouths shut, allowing the political class to do whatever they want with no possibility of consequences. Well, that’s not how democracy works. The rampantly undemocratic bureaucratic chicanery indulged in by the PLP and Labour Party establishment over the past few weeks has shown exactly how much store they put in the principle of ‘democracy’. It’s a fig leaf to be used only to suit their own interests and as a pretext for bombing other countries.

This attack on new members’ right to vote was actually anticipated by the decision to deny anyone who joined after 24 June a vote in the upcoming elections to the NEC. That was the day before Hilary Benn called Corbyn to tell him he was gathering signatures for a vote of no confidence; the event which forced Corbyn to fire him. This was in turn the event which precipitated the massive surge in people joining Labour. Coincidence? Probably. But considering some of the individuals and organizations involved in these machinations, nothing would take me by surprise.

The details of how new members are supposed to be able to vote in the election are still scarce. However, one of the few ways new members can supposedly guarantee a vote is by joining as an affiliated supporter via a Labour-affiliated trade union. It would be the mother of all ironies if this latest Blairite tactic led to an explosion in union membership–just as it was the change to voting rules, designed to harm the unions, which paved the way for Corbyn’s electoral success last year. For all their malevolent bloody-mindedness, there is plenty of evidence to back up John McDonnell’s assertion the coup plotters are ‘fucking useless’. But at the same time, they are absolutely determined, and will not give up until Corbyn is gone. Corbyn has spent the past nine months trying to conciliate the Blairites within the Labour Party, and all it has done is emboldened them and given them time to plot a series of coup attempts.

Corbyn and his supporters barely have any time to articulate their vision of a better Britain, considering they spend all day every day firefighting attempts by Labour’s right and the media to smear them and undermine the party. But nevertheless, Corbyn has inspired Labour Party to grow to around half a million; an amazing development, as he has said, that needs to be mobilised to work for a better country and a better world. The problem is, there are major parts of the Labour establishment who do not want these members joining the party, and who would be much happier if they left, and the party carried on as the same Tory-lite charade it has been since the 1980s. Then there would be no opposition to their self-serving political perspective, and no threats of deselection to keep them awake at night. But sooner or later, something will have to give. The unions who finance the Labour Party will play a pivotal role. Until now they have by and large supported Corbyn, but history is full of examples of trade union leaders betraying their members when the pressure is really on. Unless Corbyn is going to join the ranks of honest but tragic labour leaders, he is going to have to act decisively to ensure all his support does not just fizzle away.

Ssons of Anarchy send England and Rooney packing

At Euro 16, the England football team once again found a creative way to get eliminated from a major footballing tournament. England were knocked out by Iceland, a country with a comparatively negligible footballing tradition and a population compared by the media to that of English towns like Croydon or, suitably enough, Leicester. The Iceland team’s football and team spirit, and the enthusiasm of their fans, have been some of the highlights of the competition, in obvious contrast to the depressing style of England’s play and the even more depressing conduct of many of their supporters in France.

Of course, the English, and particularly English football fans, have a knack for making everyone else hate them, and so the team’s elimination by Iceland was greeted by hilarity and glee across the world. Many of the more cultured England fans themselves seem to have found the funny side of it as well, and the travails of the national team are increasingly viewed with a kind of wry fatalism by many English football followers. But for the most part, travelling English football supporters remain synonymous with hooliganism and the kind of toxic nationalism and xenophobia that results in their main football songs being about bombing Germany in WW2 and ‘No surrender to the IRA’.

For all the hand-wringing in the media and on the TV over the pitched battles involving England fans in Marseilles ahead of their game with Russia, the media paid scant attention to this aspect of England’s footballing culture. Indeed, the revelations about the role of Russian hooligans in provoking fights with the English fans and French police was a welcome distraction for many who prefer to gloss over the endemic racism in English football, which is typified by the aforementioned songs about Germans and the IRA. Considering the behaviour of their fans, is it any wonder that so many of England’s players–many of whom are black–underperform and find it hard at times to muster the famous ‘passion’ so beloved of England’s moronic football pundits?

The fact is that English nationalism, not least due to England’s historic relationship with Wales, Scotland and Ireland, is a particularly and virulently toxic ideology which tends to define itself against large swathes of the population of its ‘own’ country. In this it is at odds with many other forms of bourgeois nationalism, which tend to have at least some theoretical pretense of being inclusive and progressive, like France. Moreover, as recent political events have revealed, British society is deeply polarized even by its own unflattering historical standards, and there is not much in the way of unitary or unifying ideas for disparate parts of the population to rally around. That’s why, in contrast to small countries like Wales or Iceland, or a country like France, there is no well of national or collective pride for the English players to draw on; why they so often look less than the sum of their often talented parts.

The other major problem for English football is the ludicrous celebrity culture which promotes one or two players at any one time–normally but not necessarily the captain–into some kind of demigod status. We’ve seen it before with the likes of Beckham, then with Lampard and Gerrard, and now we get to witness it with Wayne Rooney. Rooney is a polarizing figure at best among British football fans in general, loved by Manchester United fans and hated by pretty much everyone else. He has always been a talented player but his rambunctious and ‘physical’ style of play does not lend itself well to a corpulent body which finds itself the wrong side of thirty. This is the main reason his effectiveness as a striker is not what it was, and it is what triggered his move from the forward line to midfield.

In the minds of many commentators and presumably in his own, Rooney the midfielder is a sort of visionary English equivalent to Andrea Pirlo, with unparalleled footballing vision and eye for a pass. Problem is, Rooney is not as good a passer as Pirlo, and certainly not as good a reader of the game. That was never his strength. But his tyrannical status as England captain means he is undroppable; and so the entire England formation was re-designed to accommodate Rooney as its creative fulcrum. This meant playing others out of position, or not playing someone like Jamie Vardy at all. On the basis of footballing merit, Rooney would have been much better used as an impact sub coming on for the last 20 minutes of a game. As it was, despite playing the majority of England’s four games at the competition, Rooney finished with no assists and a single goal (a penalty against Iceland). Against Iceland he created one chance, a sideways pass that led to a shot some 30 meters from goal; while in the entire game he only made one completed pass into Iceland’s penalty area, which was from a cross. The English Pirlo indeed. In contrast, the much-derided Jack Wilshere, who only played half the game, actually created two chances with forward passes into the 18 yard box. But don’t expect any English pundits to tell you that. (Stats from squawka.com).

Of course, it was inevitable that manager Roy Hodgson would bear the brunt of the blame for England’s failure, and some of it was deserved. But listening to the self-righteous anger of former England striker Alan Shearer on Match of the Day after the game was sickening. He spent most of the time lambasting Wilshere, who spent the entire season before the tournament injured and wasn’t even a starter during the tournament, as well as of course laying into Hodgson. Shearer slammed pretty much every player on the pitch… with the exception of Rooney, the creative maestro around whom the entire team had been built, but who hadn’t created one chance of note in the whole game. Shearer said then that he wanted the England job, and I wished the FA would give it to him. Because you can rest assured, that with this mentality, they are only guaranteeing future England football failures, and next time it would be Shearer being ridiculed–a man far more deserving of it than Roy Hodgson.

Valve, gambling, and video game addiction

Recent disclosures about the less-than-honest nature of certain eSport gambling websites have heaped pressure on Valve, owner of Steam and publisher of Counterstrike: Global Offensive and Dota 2, two of the world’s most prominent eSport games. Today, Polygon published an article highlighting a lawsuit against Valve which alleges that the company has allowed an illegal online gaming market to flourish around CS: GO.

Now, the lawsuit refers to specific issues which I’m not going to comment on here. Rather, I want to say something about Valve’s broader approach to the issue of gambling and betting. I have never played CS: GO, but until last year I was an avid player of the free-to-play game Dota 2. I noticed, between 2013 and 2015, that Valve was increasingly introducing elements of chance into the game’s economy, particularly around the question of cosmetics. So, instead of buying a particular set of cosmetics for a hero, you’d buy a ‘treasure’ or ‘chest’ with a chance of containing one of, say, four or five sets. To guarantee getting the set you want, you’d have to buy the chest multiple times. They also increasingly used systems where you’d have a small chance of getting a ‘bonus’ item when opening the chest, some of which would be super-rare.

Valve also increasingly allowed players to bet in-game currency, or some kind of tokens, on the outcome of matches, usually in connection with some kind of seasonal event. So, you might get a ‘charm’ as part of a paid-for bundle which allowed you to predict the outcome of a game; if you win three in a row, you get a treasure, but if you get too many wrong predictions (say, two or three), you get nothing and lose the charm. In a game with an already competitive and highly addictive algorithm, such mechanics add another layer of investment and pressure to what is often a toxic gaming experience.

Personally, I strongly object to the casual inclusion of gambling mechanics like this in a video game. One obvious reason is that it potentially introduces children to real-world betting mechanics in an environment where they (and their parents) don’t know what they’re letting themselves in for. Dota 2 is played by a lot of teenagers and grown-ups, but any look at the aesthetic of the game tells you it is also intended to appeal to children. We don’t normally associate this kind of look and feel with such a controversial issue as gambling–indeed, I’m pretty sure you’re not allowed to advertise gambling to kids, and you have to be 18 to gamble in the UK.

Moreover, Dota 2 is already an unbelievably addictive game. You can say that individuals make their own choices about how to spend their time, which is fair enough for the most part; but nevertheless, deliberately or not, the mechanics and aesthetics of Dota 2 lend themselves to addictive behaviour. Adding gambling mechanics on top of that is, in my opinion, irresponsible and damaging. You’re adding another level of compulsion to what is, depending on the individual, an already toxic situation.

I’ve spoken before about my disillusionment with Valve. Over the past few years they seem to have become ever more conceited and self-regarding; and what I have interpreted as their increased use of gambling mechanics in-game in Dota 2 has been one of the strangest aspects of their development (or degeneration) as a company. This year’s Steam Sale was widely derided as offering relatively little in the way of value or incentives compared to previous years; and in general, the company just seems to have lost its compass. Obviously, there’s still plenty of money in the bank, and Valve remains enormously powerful and influential. But as these latest allegations suggest, this is a company which no longer looks to be on the side of the angels. And I’d wager to say there are a lot of people out there who would be quite happy to see them taken down a peg or two.