Saturday, 9 March 2013

Beneath The Magic

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern - A Review

As usual with my reviews I will not go into detail about what the book is about, go read the description by the author if you want to know, I will just give my opinions of the book here.

A fantasy novel about a circus is always going to be of interest to me, as that is exactly the sort of novel I write. So when I saw the Night Circus I was obviously interested in seeing what it was like, to go and have a peek at a rival show in town. Novels about circuses are not thick on the ground so it is exciting to find another one that is putting on a fine show, but unfortunately the Night Circus is not that type of novel.

When you watch a magician perform their tricks you should be taken away from reality, into a world where you don’t question where they are getting those doves from, or how are they able to cut a woman in half without killing her. The minute that you start to wonder how the magic is performed is the minute you are taken out of the world. The writing of a novel is the same trick, and the author must use words to take you away from reality. The Night Circus is an illusion that will try to tantalise your mind with its vivid descriptions of the circus, and make you not consider what is below, but it lost this magic on me half way through the show.

At one point I just stopped and started to wonder what was beneath all the description of the tents and quickly realised that the novel was a shallow illusion. The characters are no more than simple faces and names, which you are given hardly any distinctive characteristics for, with little sense of what emotions or thoughts are going through their minds. Development of the cast and plot are swept aside to make room for more description of the circus, and so the novel relies on keeping your attention on the vivid descriptions within, but as I said before this is an illusion that if it doesn’t work will quickly leave you with a hollow feeling about the tale.

The plot is simple and predictable, with a similar depth as the cast. From the very start it is obvious what is going to happen to the two main characters, and when it does happen there is little reason behind it. The ending is given away early by probably one of the only times a character has a deep thought in the novel, and the period setting of the tale could be any as the story unfolds as it really doesn’t matter. So this predictability with no surprises doesn’t help the illusion that is being performed. The whole show makes it obvious what is going to come and when the illusion is broken we only have the hope of being proven wrong, with what we expect to come, to keep us going. The main plot that brought us to the show is almost discarded before the end is reached, with little regard to its importance, so if it was so little to the writer then why bother hanging a story upon it to start with. No grand plans are unfolding here, and the soul of the tale quickly fades.

This to me was a wasted opportunity to explore the world of the circus and theatre, a shallow show empty of emotion. And a can a circus without clowns even be called a circus? To fully enjoy the performance that is the Night Circus you have accept the magic that is before your eyes, to not question where the rabbit is being pulled from. The descriptions are vivid and imaginative, but if you stop for a second to question the show, to take a peek behind the curtain, it will probably lose you from its spell.

And so I leave the rival show disappointed about what it could have been, but remain hopeful that other, grander shows may come along one day to keep us company with their magic words.

Three Clowns

Sunday, 16 December 2012

A Game Of Thorns

A Review of Prince Of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

Having received the King of Thorns recently to review here, I wanted to do a review of the first book before starting on the sequel. I read it a while ago and came away with prickly feelings about the book, but as I was now going to review it I thought I would give it a second read and see if those feelings remained the same. I am not going to outline the story here, as you can find that elsewhere on other reviews. This is just my opinions on what I read and my feeling about the book.

My initial problem with the book is the voice of the main character Jorg, he just doesn't come across as a 14 year old, but instead it sounds more like someone the age of the writer. It also remains a mystery why a band of cutthroats would follow someone like this. There is no apparent reason why the character had to be this age, and if you were going to do it then you would expect something to be made of the age, and maybe how he could get control of these ruffians at such a young age.

The world building is also strange. It is set in a post apocalypse future that has returned to medieval times, but it seems weird that they can remember Greek philosophers, Shakespeare, and Robin Hood, but have no knowledge of the technology or world from our times. And why have we got this perfect recreation of a medieval world, how did this come about from the ruins of a modern world? You would expect it to be different in many ways, but the weapons and armour all retain exactly the same names and terms.

The violence is of a cold nature, told more in a fashion of bragging about how bad he is. His brothers on the road are merely a series of names with maybe a single distinguishing feature to them if you are lucky, yes we got it that Rike is a big person. And even when you get 300 men going with Jorg on a mission you might still be hard pressed to know it.

We are told that thoughts of revenge were removed from Jorg’s mind until two thirds of the way through the tale, but I am sure he has been going on about it since the first page, so again a bit confused. And when that revenge comes it is very much a rushed execution. I could imagine this would be a great tale for drunken Klingons to share in some faraway place, but it doesn't have much honour. There is little to feel about the character. And despite how evil or nasty someone is there always has to be something in there for the reader to hook onto. It could be humour or their charisma, or even just expecting that they are eventually going to get what they deserve, but Jorge in the way he comes across hold very little hook.

So after a second read I still remain unsure about this book. The writer can certainly write, but I feel there are fundamental problems at the world’s core that make it not gel with me. I am still interested in seeing where the second book goes, and I did read this one all the way through twice, it is not a long read and the short chapters do make it race past, and maybe that is the problem. We don't spend enough time with the tale and are left with the loss of characters that are in the end little more than just names. The world and characters could have been greatly expanded, and a more cohesive setting established with a little bit more work and planning.

These opinions are of course mine and you might think this was one of the best fantasies of 2011, but then that would be your opinion, and I wouldn't dream about  trying to change that.

Two Stars

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Summoner War iPad Review

    Last time on Entertaining to Myself I reviewed Magic Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 on Ipad, I was an old hand at the Magic game so that review was more about the iPad game and how it matched previous versions, today I am reviewing Summoner Wars a game by PlaidHat Games which I have never played before in any format, so this review will be about how I found the game to play and also my opinions on what I thought of the iPad version by Playdek.

Card Wars

    Summoner Wars is a board game that uses cards to represent various individuals in two fantasy armies, a bit like the table top miniature games I used to play years ago but with the cards replacing the lead soldiers. Victory in the game is a straightforward objective, each side has one Summoner and the other side has to kill the opponent’s Summoner while keeping their one alive. During the game both sides can summon various extra units to the battlefield using magic points which are either accumulated by destroying cards on the battlefield or discarding cards from your hand. Once all the cards from your deck have been drawn and either played or discarded you have to finish the game with what is on the battlefield.

    With the way the game plays out you quickly learn that resources are vital. Cast too many small guys early on and you might be left with bigger cards you can’t use later. It is all about planning and trying to judge what you need and when best to do it. You also have to keep an eye on the opponent and what they have resource wise, they might have a lot of units on the battlefield at one point, but if you can ride out that tide then you can get back the initiative later.

    Walls are the other vital element of the game as you can only summon your units next to one of your walls. You also have extra walls that you can play during the game to allow you additional summoning areas, or to replace ones that have been destroyed, yes you can destroy walls. On initial appearance walls to me don’t seem to fit the theme of this magical world, I would really expect swirling vortex that prevent movement and bring the units into play. It just seems like a more natural fit to the game rather than a stone wall.

    You are also limited with actions; you can only more three units and only attack with three units. This makes you have to plan what you are going to do very carefully. You want to attack with everyone but can’t, you want to move everyone but again have to weigh up where to take those actions. Your units can easily find themselves in a position of danger because you have had to concentrate on another area of the battlefield.

    All of these elements come together to represent a very strategic game that can easily get out of your grasp if you don’t keep an eye what is going on. It is the type of game that if you lose too much ground you will just be waiting for the inevitable axe to eventually fall on your Summoner.

iPad Wars

    Now moving on to the game on the iPad I was initially confused by what was going on, dice were rolled and special things were named, so I headed over to the tutorial where the game was quickly explained to me. I had, while waiting for the game to be released, watched a video about how to play the board game so came in with a little bit of knowledge about what was going on, but the tutorial made it all very clear, through playing a game, what I had to do. About halfway through the guidance ends and they let you finish the game on your own, with a rewarding victory to help get you started.

    Armed with this knowledge I then returned to the game I had already started and understood what was going on from this point on. The controls are easy to master; drag where you want a unit to move or attack and it carries it out with no problem, and everything is presented in a clear fashion. The Retina graphics are clear and sharp. Swirling vortexes form the backgrounds to character art, see they should have had them instead of the walls, and the presentation as a whole is well up to previous Playdek games. I did wonder at one point why we couldn’t have all the units in the game facing the same way, as the opponent’s ones are upside down, but during the tutorial it became clear this was the only way to show who controlled what.

    Sometimes the things on the screen did get a bit frantic when the opponent summons a lot of units of plays a series of events. Cards flash across the play area and you either have to click on the discard pile to find out what the card did, or select the new unit to find out about them. The addition of a pause button for new player might have been useful, but obviously after frequent play you will be familiar with what the cards are.

    I only really had a couple of negative thoughts on the initial play. The side bar that shows your hand obscures half of the first column of the board, so you have to make sure you haven’t missed any units lurking in those spaces when you go to put your cards on the battlefield, as I did when playing the tutorial.

    The AI in the first game was a bit questionable at the end as the opponent’s Summoner, Grognack, was the only unit left and had built a series of walls all around the top left corner of the screen. He was standing in the only gap in at the top of the screen but then just stood there and let my archer peck away at him over several turns without moving away or taking actions. Hopefully this was just a rare mistake of the AI and I thought initially there might have been a skill level setting and it was set to low, but there are no skill levels for the AI as far as I can see.

    The rulebook is also a bit thin. Without playing the tutorial you would have no idea of how far range attacks were as it isn’t mentioned in the rule book, not sure why they didn’t include the actual rule book or a more comprehensive version of it here.

Dream Wars

    So with my initial experience with the game on iPad how did I feel about it and what did I think was lacking from the experience?

    With the basic game, which is free, you get one deck of cards, the Phoenix Elves. You can then buy the other seven decks and reinforcements separately or all together at a cheaper price. But even when you have brought these cards you can only play against four decks run by the AI. The only reason I can see why this is like this is they had a set release plan and could only be sure of getting half the factions ready with the AI, getting out a solid initial product. I expect the other decks will eventually be added to the list. You are also only given the default deck for each AI faction, the game has a detailed deck building element for you to use so it would be nice to see the option to maybe load your custom decks for the AI to play or for Pladek to provide additional deck variations in the future.

    As I mentioned at the start of this review my previous review was of Magic on the iPad and I can’t help but compare the two games and think how Summoner Wars could be a more content rich experience. There is no doubt this is a quality version of a board game that seems to have a great following, you only have to look at the level of anticipation at the delayed wait for the game to see that, but I feel there could have been a few extra bit in there. I know I will return to Magic on a daily basis to unlock more cards, work out the puzzles, and progress through the campaign, but with Summoner Wars I don’t think that will be the case. I will load it up for the occasional game against the AI but there is not much outside of the Achievements to make me play it on a regular basis. The game could have done with a campaign of some sort, even if it was just like what Playdek did with Food Fight, an element where you could measure your progress through a series of games. Some sort of mini battles in a campaign map would have been good alongside full versions of the game, where you start the battle with a certain situation, maybe half the number of units available or the enemy in a certain position where you have to work out the path to victory.

    Stats would also have been a good addition, charting who you played as, your wins and defeats against which AI opponents and things like that. It just needs that something extra to show the time you have spent with the game and encourage you back again to explore a game that no doubt has a lot of depth to offer. At the moment it is a very good version of the board game, but I think there could be so much more to make it rival the Magic experience.

    These opinions are obviously just my thoughts as a single player who has not played the board game before. I am sure there are many players out there who will happily play the game multiplayer and come back to the game for their Summoner Wars daily fix. I enjoyed playing the game and look forward to learning the strategies involved in all the factions and am sure that Playdek will add to the experience as it develops, like they have done with their previous releases.

I will give the game five stars as it is a quality product and a challenging game, which I am sure will grow over time through PlaidHat Games and Pladek’s development.

Five Stars

Friday, 22 June 2012

Magic 2013 Duels of the Planeswalkers iPad

      Welcome to another of my reviews and this time I am turning to the iPad and the arrival of the new Magic game. If you have never played magic before then i better try and explain it here. The game involves a duel between 2 to 4 players. Each player has a deck of cards that contain spells and creatures, and they win by reducing the players' lives to zero. That is obviously a basic explanation, the variation of the cards and the strategy involved is vast, but short of having someone to teach you the game this App is probably the best way to learn.

      Magic Evolution

      When I got my new iPad and looked at all the great card and board games that were available on it I wondered why Wizards of the Coast hadn’t brought their Magic game to the device. I then discovered to my joy that the new version 2013 was indeed due to be also released on the iPad.

       I had been playing the card based of Magic since the beginning but hadn't played it for a few years. Duels of the Planeswalkers 2011 drew me back into the game as it was very reasonably priced and I could play against AI players. I got the game on Xbox but quickly moved onto the PC version as he graphic were clearer and you could play other on Steam without a subscription. I stuck with  DOTP on the PC for its 2012 version, formed a group on Steam for Uk players, and got back into playing real Magic again.

       So we now return to the 2013 version and it debut on the new platform of the iPad. The graphics are the crisp retina display so you can see them even clearer than on the PC. The interface is of course touchscreen so you can touch and flick the cards around much easier than with a control pad or mouse, this improvement was clearly shown when I nearly forgot to activate a cards power before the clock counted down but a quick jab on the card saved the day where a mouse would have failed. And of course the other benefit of the iPad is that it is portable, so you play Magic wherever and whenever you want, which actually might not be an advantage after all. You can also come out of a game in progress and return providing you haven't turn the iPad fully off, which is something the others can't.

       So judging the new version to previous ones I would say the iPad is the best platform for this game and shows how it has evolved over the three variations. But let's have a look at what it offers this time.


       Challenges, which are like Magic’s version of chess puzzles, return but are now separate from the campaign map and have been replaced on there by challenges, which I cover below. Archenemy has gone, but is hinted at by Wizards as a possible return in an expansion, and is replaced by Planecase, also covered below.

       So the game will be immediately familiar to old players and should be clear to new comers. There is a good tutorial for the game although it could have explained Planechase better as there was brief text that disappeared before I could read it, although working out the dice was quick.

       You get all the multiplayer and custom option that have previously been available so you can setup multiplayer games between two to four players, and play two headed giant variations, but let's now look at the new modes and what they offer.


       Magic Planechase

        The first new addition to this year’s edition of the game is  Planechase. This mode adds plane cards to the game where one of these cards is in play at a time, with a global effect that alters the game while in play. It also adds a planar dice, which the active player can role on their turn. There are two symbols on the dice and four blank sides, if you get one of the symbols then a new plane card is drawn. If you get the other symbol then the effect at the bottom of the plane card is resolved. The effects are varied and bring a great variation to the game.

        Planechase adds a good twist to the standard duel. After playing one game it seems to be a bit slower to play than a normal duel, but the global effects changing randomly does make the game an interesting variation, and brings with it the choice of if you want to try changing the world you are playing in, to alter the balance.

        Magic Encounters

        Encounters is the other new addition this year and brings more twists to the standard game. The opponent does not draw cards randomly like in normal duels but instead plays cards in a certain order and you have to work out how to beat them before their plan unfolds.

        This mode is very much against the clock as far as beating the opponent, and can involve variations like them milling your library or having an enchantment that gradually builds and gives victory after a certain amount of turns unless you remove it or kill the opponent.

        This mode has a lot in common with the challenges, but is greater in scope and allows you to play deck against them, so they have greater variety.

        Mono Magic

        One of the new game mechanic additions this year is the ability to manually tap your land, which many have been asking for, the only trouble is this is only useful for one of the ten decks you get with the game, as all the rest are single colour decks, so not much use until we get more decks that are more than one colour.

        I think this would be my only negative on the game. There are a lot of interesting new cards in the game but the decks are again mostly mono colour, and the greater challenges come with more than one colour in decks. But as I said, I expect more of these decks will be added soon.

        Unlocking Magic

        So what do you get deck wise? You start the game with two decks of sixty cards and unlock the other eight decks through defeating the opponents associated with them. You also gain cards through victory, one card per win. There are thirty cards to unlock for each deck so you need to win thirty games for each deck. This gives a longer campaign than the previous edition as in that one you gained multiples of one card with one victory.

        Price of Magic

        The price is the same across all platforms and some have complained about this, but I will say that it is value for what you get. If you went and spent the same money of the real cards you wold be lucky to get one 60 card deck. In this you are getting 10 decks and obviously someone to play against. Add in the additions on the challenges and plane chase variation and I can’t argue about the price.

        The iPad version is free, and you can sample a lot of the game for that. There is then an in app purchase to unlock the full game. I think they have done this to let people see just how good it works on the iPad before buying and is a sensible idea.

        Summing up Magic

        So there you have it, Magic 2013 has arrived on iPad and it is the best version so far. I got many months of play out of the previous versions and I see no reason why this should be any different. The game is intuitive to play on touch screen, the graphics look great, and it is Magic. If you play Magic and are looking for a game you can play on your own or against people in far away places then this is it. If you have never played Magic but like strategic games then this is a great way to get into it, learn the game and maybe start playing the real thing, if you can tear yourself away from this version of course.

        Magic Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 is an excellent debut on the iPad, and I expect it will now hog a lot of my time until the 2014 version shows up next year. So its mark from me is of course -

        Five Stars

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

A Game of Thrones Series Two Review

      So the dust has settled on a Game of Thrones series two and we have been left with another dramatic final scene to keep us in anticipation for its return with series three, and what an ending it was. But how has this second series turned out and did it match up to what we saw in the first series?

      Returning to the Game

      Series two adapts A Clash of Kings, the second book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin, and indeed a lot of kings do seem to clash during the tale.

      With this new series we get the introduction of a lot of new characters, most of who seem to be shaggy haired men with beards, or women with not much dress sense for cold climates, yes we are talking about you Lady Margaery. At some points this becomes a bit overwhelming, identifying who these people are and remembering just who was that guy again?

New presenter of the Voice for the BBC ?

      The book is a thick, tightly packed novel, and obviously a challenge to squeeze into a ten part series, and might have benefitted from being a twenty four part one instead. The increase in characters and story lines with this second series must have been something the makers quickly realised was a problem as we soon got a recap section at the start of each episode just so we could keep track of what was going on.

      The series gave us all the story and action we had seen in the first one as the various factions play the game of kings, but as the story expands it comes across as the edited highlights of a much more detailed story, which would be the original novel. We don't spend too long on an individual scene before we are spun back to another part of the story, and the only time we really spend any time in one part of the story is the battle for King’s Landing, a whole episode in fact.

      I have not read the second book yet but I had read the first one before seeing that series and in the novel we had long chapters spent in the company of individual characters, an hour or two developing their scenes and personalities. Obviously the TV series could not do this, and maybe it wouldn't have been so exciting to that type of audience. So we get the edited highlights of an epic story, and if we want to experience to full story then there is obviously the novels waiting for us out there.

      Memories of the Game

      We again got some outstanding moments during this series, and watching parts like the northern mountain scenes you realise the cost that must have been put into this series. The birth of the shadows was an interesting visual, and the ships advancing on King’s Landing was also a visual treat that showed the epic qualities of what we was witnessing and made you realise there probably isn’t anything like this on TV at the moment.

      But there were also some weak moments. The heavy handed mention of a farm having two boys pretty much killed the apparent death of the two princes, but was thankfully only one of a few let downs. On the other hand how many of us were worried when Tyrion seemed to be killed? I think I can safely say that was a large portion of the audience who hadn't read the novel, but I think this could be a weakness of the series.

Not good at the fighting stuff

      Tyrion is a scene stealer, when he comes on our screen he lights it up with his personality and pretty much puts everyone else into the shadows. You can see why his family hates him so much. And this is a problem, if he does get killed off who do we have left to entertain us as most of the others don't come anywhere near his level of character. He is like us, a person who doesn't really take all this pompous stuff seriously, and is eager to show what he thinks of it all with a sarcastic quip of gesture of defiance. He isn't very good at the fighting thing, but that doesn't stop him trying. He is a character we love to see on the screen and without a doubt the best thing in the series.

      Leaving our short scene stealer aside for now the other character who kept our attention was Daenerys, but this is where the edited highlights opinion comes into play. Her story arc in this series seems to be very short, and I would imagine there was a lot more to it in the book. We was given only brief glimpse of this new city and the characters within, but not really allowed to spend much time in their company before being whisked back to other tales.

Where are my dragons, you fiend?

      Summing up the Game

      The series has a lot to pack in, and reflecting upon what we get it all comes across as a very skimmed affair, some parts of the story seem to be left out as we stride forward with the epic tale, and it will be interesting to see how it all develops as I imagine it isn't going to get any simpler as it carries on. There is very much a feeling that other characters are doing interesting things when we are somewhere else and I am intrigued to read the book to see how it all played out there in greated detail.

      So the second series continued where the first left off and gave us more great action and intrigue from this world, and of course a whole lot more scene stealing from a very big actor. If we want to experience the full story then I guess we will have to turn to the books, but maybe this is what the author wants us to do. The TV series works within the constraints of that medium, and forms a sort of trailer for the fuller novels.

      Bring on series three and please don't kill Tyrion as I wouldn't like to think what that will do to the ratings.

Smug, me?

Tyrion gets five out of five stars as always, but for series two as a whole it gets -

Four Stars