SPIEL is the world's biggest boardgame fair. Specifically, it's 86,000 square metres in size, spread out over six halls of the Messe exhibition centre in Essen, Germany. This year, when I visited for the first time with friends from Witney Board Gamers, there were 209,000 recorded entries; 19,000 more than in 2018. It's clear to anyone paying attention that boardgames are growing rapidly as a hobby, with gaming groups and cafés popping up all over. The sheer size and popularity of SPIEL is even stronger evidence of this trend; the global boardgames market was already estimated to be worth $4.6 billion by 2018.
While SPIEL - or "Essen" as it's often called - is the most important boardgames event in the world, it also fills a relatively specific niche. It is first and foremost a trade fair, and so it isn't so much playing games that is emphasises, but buying and selling them. The strong retail focus is clear as soon as you arrive; seasoned visitors are already dragging trolleys piled high with the latest releases and older games at bargain prices. Publishers are not only selling games to the public, but also holding meetings with designers and distributors behind the scenes. For that reason, booths often have their own hidden meeting rooms and business suits are as common attire at SPIEL as cosplay.
British writer Stephen Baxter is best known for his sprawling Xeelee Sequence, which he has been working on intermittently throughout his long career. Released in 1991, Raft is the first of his novels and is only tangentially related to his magnum opus.
Drawing heavily on Baxter's background in physics and on the hard sci-fi tradition, Raft is based on a simple but thoroughly mind-bending idea: how would humans survive in an environment where the force of gravity was a billion times stronger than in our world?
In 2017, the BFI published an article about the "17 rare times when a director made five or more great films in a row". This being the BFI, their choices were mostly on the Criterion-approved, arty end: Anderson, Tarkovsky, Antonioni, and so on. For me, one name sprang immediately to mind, one much less adored in cineaste circles: Walter Hill.
Now more or less retired, Hill has had a fascinating and varied career which began in the late 1960s. As an uncredited second assistant director on Bullitt (1968), he was responsible for keeping bystanders from walking out into the street while the car chases were being shot in San Francisco. Later, he decided to focus on screenwriting, explicitly as a route to directing. By 1975 he was in the director's chair, having written a number of scripts including for Sam Peckinpah's mid-career hit The Getaway (1972).
There's a ton of memorable scenes in Brian de Palma's Scarface (1983), but one of the best sees Miami drug lord Tony Montana (Al Pacino) making his drunken, drugged exit from a fancy restaurant. "Say goodnight to the bad guy", he slurs at the shocked diners, "it's the last time you gonna see a bad guy like me, let me tell you." De Palma's lurid film of '80s excess is smarter than it is often given credit for, and this scene is one reason. It's about how we're simultaneously fascinated and repelled by "bad guys", both in real life and in the movies.
David Ayer is another director who is as fascinated by bad guys as De Palma - he has a special interest in bad guys that ostensibly should be good. Corrupt cops have featured in several of the films he has written and directed, including Training Day (2001), Dark Blue (2003) and Street Kings (2008). Of these films, Training Day is the most reputable - it earned star Denzel Washington a Best Actor Oscar, and made Ayer's name. At the other end of the spectrum, there's Sabotage (2014).
To celebrate the tenth anniversary of their SF Masterworks series, in early 2019 Gollancz launched a counterpart dedicated to older classics of science fiction: the Golden Age Masterworks. Of the initial tranche of books, Galactic Patrol by E.E. "Doc" Smith is one of the earliest. A very early example of space opera, the novel was originally serialised in six parts in the pages of Astounding magazine in 1937 and 1938.
A food engineer by trade - with a specialism in doughnut mixes, of all things - E.E. Smith was a fairly prolific author of science fiction. Galactic Patrol forms a part of his Lensman series, which had quite a complicated publishing history, not least because he later retrofitted an existing novel to serve as a prequel to this one.
Prolific author Alastair Reynolds is a major presence in the British science fiction scene, best known for his expansive Revelation Space universe which he has published since 2000. For its part, Slow Bullets is a standalone novella which exists outside Reynolds' various fictional universes - instead focusing on the unfortunate passengers of the "skipship" Caprice.
Formerly a luxury liner, the vessel has been retrofitted as a prison transport in the aftermath of an interstellar conflict between factions of humanity. Outside of a limited number of civilians, the Caprice mainly carries the "dregs" of the now-ended war: military criminals of all kinds, drawn from both the Central and Peripheral sides.
Belatedly continuing on from my looks at season 1 and season 2 of The Next Generation, here I'll be giving some brief thoughts on season 3. It's often thought that this is the season when TNG really began to fire on all cylinders, but for me the first half of it is dominated by very average episodes. Things do step up a gear in the second half, and builds towards the widely acclaimed two-part story "The Best of Both Worlds", which I'll deal with in its entirety here, even though its second part is actually the first episode of season 4.
Season 3's episodes are set in 2366, the third year of the Enterprise-D's mission. Notably, Beverley Crusher returns as ship's medical lead after her unfortunate absence in season 2. Several characters introduced here will recur in later seasons, including rogueish archaeologist Vash, Romulan commander Tomalak, and the villanous Klingon warlord Duras.
While TNG never really does full-blown story arcs as we know them, there are some recurring threads which begin in season 3. One is the Federation's very uneasy relationship with the warlike Romulans, who appear in three episodes. Another is the machinations of Duras, an enemy of Worf who has designs on seizing power within the Klingon Empire. These threads will join together in season 4. In any case, there are 26 episodes to look at, and little time to waste - engage!
The unexpected and and immense success of Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines meant that the development of a follow-up was an obviously good move. While a sequel would eventually materialise in 2001, the first step for Pyro Studios and publisher Eidos was to design a standalone expansion: 1999's Beyond the Call of Duty.
Introducing eight new missions, superior graphics, more interactive environments, and new skills which slightly balance out the responsibilities of the characters, Beyond the Call of Duty is an excellent expansion set that should be seen as integral to the main game.
Newcomers to the games industry, Spanish developer Pyro Studios expected to sell about 15,000 copies of their first game. Within six months of its release in June 1998, it had shifted a massive 900,000 copies and topped the charts in the UK and Germany for over a dozen weeks. For a stealth game, Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines had made a big noise.
A confirmed surprise smash hit, Commandos instantly established Pyro as a studio to watch. Their polished execution of a novel and distinctive gameplay style made Commandos a template for a small but enduring wave of similar games; German studio Mimimi breathed new life into the subgenre as recently as 2016 with their excellent revival Shadow Tactics.
Soon, Liandri discovered that the public matches were their most profitable enterprise. The professional league was formed - a cabal of the most violent and skilled warriors in known space, selected to fight in a grand tournament...
The original 1999 Unreal Tournament has been a favourite game of mine since I picked up a copy of its "Game of the Year" edition in Toys 'R' Us for £10 - that is to say, for a very long time. As a kid, I was unaware of the fierce rivalry between fans of UT and Quake III as to which game deserved the deathmatch crown; I'm not sure I've ever played UT online.
For me, it was the single-player that mattered - ironic, given the intense multiplayer focus of the game's design. As with Quake III, the solo portion of UT is not prioritised. A thin plot is used to link together a series of arena battles against AI bots, as one bout of grisly bloodsport follows another.
Suprisingly, the worldbuilding and background detail in UT, a game essentially without a story, is for me one of its best and most fascinating aspects. With only Unreal to build upon, the game summons up an engaging, half-glimpsed world using only one cutscene, flavour text, and the design of its maps. That this world is never explored properly only serves to make it more tantalising. How can this work?