Saturday, 20 April 2013

"There are two kinds of folks who sit around thinking about how to kill people: psychopaths and mystery writers."

He's the kind that pays better.
Castle was one of those TV series which I figured I'd get around to watching eventually, because it sounded  interesting and had an actor I knew in it (In this case, Nathan Fillion), so I figured it might be interesting. Eventually it came to a night when I felt like watching something, something I hadn't seen before, so why not try the first episode of Castle to see how I liked it. A few weeks later I'd watched every episode which had been broadcast up to that point, which was all of four seasons. So you don't need to be a master of deduction to realise I liked it. I also made sure to get the DVDs and to specifically show at least the first episode to a few people just so they'd understand if I started talking about the show.

Before I started watching, all I knew about Castle was something along the lines of "Millionaire novelist Richard Castle ends up working with (and aggravating) the NYPD when a serial killer starts staging murder scenes like ones from Castle's bestselling books." Which sounded interesting, but limited. I mean, how many times can it realistically happen? Fortunately, it turned out that's just how it starts, and the ensuing episodes involve non-Castle-themed murders (albeit rather strange ones), and Castle gets to stick around because, y'know, he's rich and has powerful friends.
The other surprise which comes out is that the show isn't exactly about the murder investigations. I mean, obviously, they make up the bulk of the events of each episode, but they're not exactly the focus. They're just the context. The setting. The background against which we witness the real story, which is about the people involved. Their various quirks, odd things going on in their lives, and most particularly the tension between Castle and Detective Kate Beckett.

I mean, obviously, this sort of thing can't be unique to Castle. All shows have to have characters, many of them have well-written characters, but these are just the observations I kind of made while watching. I suppose one of the big lessons I got from watching it is... actually, come to think of it, it's something I've blogged about before, along the lines that regardless of extreme circumstances, people remain people, or something of the sort. I mean, obviously homicide detectives have to take their jobs seriously, but equally, they're still people, and people joke and laugh about things, so regardless of the tragedy around them, they do those things.
Actually, I'm going a bit out of sequence on what I meant to say. I initially thought it would be more that Castle brought the light-heartedness intot the mix, since he doesn't really seem to take anything seriously most of the time. And so it is, he's certainly more frivolous, but it's not like the detectives are a bunch of misery-gutses or anything. Because, particularly if death is an integral part of your day-to-day life, you can't just put things on hold and act solemn about everything. You'd probably go crazy or something. Or get really depressed, or just generally have a terrible life.

OK, so this leads me onto one of my other things - obviously, by the nature of the show, people die. Every episode (with occasional exceptions), there's been a different murder. It can get a little wearing at times, especially if you're watching lots of episodes back-to-back, as I was. I felt a little burned out at times, because regardless of the fact they do keep things a lot more light-hearted than you might imagine, nevertheless they don't shy away from periodically giving you that emotional kick in the gut, as it were, with victims' families and such. For which I definitely respect the writers.

The whole setup is interesting in that of course Castle provides a different perspective on things, though sometimes I think not enough is made of that point. Because while the others are police detectives, Castle is a writer. A storyteller. He's a clever man, he can make some fairly impressive deductions (He does his best Sherlock Holmes impression in the very first episode deducing Beckett's backstory), but he looks at it from the  point of view of telling a story and making it make sense. As if he was writing it. So there are cases of him saying things like "Obviously he didn't do it. He's the  red herring!" The place where this falls down, however, is that in a lot of stories you can watch and think "Surely it's obvious that this is dangerous/that guy can't be trusted/insert plot twist here?" And the counter to it is "Well, they don't know they're in a story. Experienced in first person, in real life, these things wouldn't be so obvious. Castle doesn't have that excuse, since he is supposed to be treating things as a story. And sometimes it seems like he should see some important things coming because of that.

The one other real criticism I can come up with is that they do like reusing some ideas. Such as "Castle gets a criminal to talk by claiming he's doing research for his new book and wants it to be authentic." Makes a certain amount of sense sometimes, but when he's literally getting them to explain specific details about the crime being investigated, whiel they're in a police station and when they already know Castle's working with the police... it seems like at least one of them would be smart enough to figure out it's a ruse. The other problematic reused idea comes in later on and it's a thing they do where the episode starts with a scene setting up some sort of a cliffhanger moment, and then rewinds and the action shows how they arrived at that moment. Now, the first time they do it it works well. Other times, less so, because the cliffhangers are less interesting, they didn't necessarily need to be previewed, they're not teased and played with at other points in the episode, sometimes they're not that far into the episode, and so they kind of fall flat. The episodes in question are still good, but they'd be just as good or better if we just saw everything in chronological order rather than previewing a snippet of one later scene at the beginning.

I think that's all the general stuff I can say. I suppose there's a bit of an ongoing plot, but other than a couple of backstory mysteries to be solved, it's all to do with the characters growing together, their interactions and relationships, or lack thereof. And I don't know if I really want to go through the characters here. Some of them I'd find hard to describe in a way which would get across how interesting they are. I really just would recommend that people watch it. I might be willilng to lend you the DVDs if you ask nicely, or watch it with you some time.
Secretly I'm just cutting this blog post short so I can get back to my DVDs. Shh, don't tell anyone.

Friday, 5 April 2013

The bigger they are, the harder we fall on them...

...was the motto of my brother's Blood Bowl team years ago which I came up with. Since I've had Blood Bowl on the brain for a while now (pretty much since starting watching youtube videos of the TGS Blood Bowl League), I figure I should write a blog post about it.

OK, so people may not be familiar with Blood Bowl, but I imagine they're more likely to have heard of Warhammer. Blood Bowl is basically a cross between Warhammer and American Football.
A tabletop representation of a fictional ball game which puts more or less equal emphasis on actually getting the ball and scoring touchdowns on the one hand, and beating up the enemy team on the other, set in a fantasy world which is incredibly similar to that of Warhammer, if not intended to be quite the same.

Blood Bowl, thinking about it, was actually one of my first ever regular gaming sessions, when I joined in a league with my brother and his friends. Though we house ruled some aspects of the game without (I think) realising we'd done so, which somewhat changed the dynamics of it, making it an interesting experience for me now coming back to it and observing how it works when you play it properly.

Of course, in considering my liking of Blood Bowl, I must inevitably compare it to that better known money-producing juggernaut Games Workshop game, Warhammer. But, leaving aside that I seem to recall there were some bits of Warhammer rules which simply didn't appeal to me, Blood Bowl is simpler and therefore both easier in some ways and more immediately strategic in others.
To explain, Blood Bowl obviously is easier than Warhammer in that you need less models, there's therefore less to keep track of (And pay for if you want the proper ones), the playing area is smaller, no need for terrain features, and so on. And then there aren't so many weird and wacky specific units with their own individual rules and restrictions - the basic stuff is simple. You can move, pick up the ball and throw it around, and hit the enemy team. There are more details, and there are some weird and wacky individual things, but you don't generally start with them. Oh, also to return to my comment on the expense, Warhammer is continually bringing out new versions of the rulebooks which you have to keep buying if you want to keep up. The Blood Bowl Living Rulebook has been updated a fair amount, but it's available for free on the internet.
As to the strategy comment, as I said, there's less to keep track of in Blood Bowl. Only 11 players on the pitch for each team. Because there is less to keep track of, it's easier to keep track of it, and you're generally free to move your players around to fit with whatever strategic considerations you feel are most important at the time. Now obviously I'm not saying Warhammer is too much to keep track of, or that you can't be strategic with it - obviously there's a lot of strategy there, in manoeuvring your units around the battlefield, trying to flank your opponent, pick your fights, etc. It's fairly complicated, which is my point really. Because it's more complicated, and seems to me to require more knowledge of the rules, I feel it must be harder to just jump into and have some idea of what to do, and I can't be bothered. Whereas Blood Bowl is easier to jump into, but does still have more to it, for someone looking for the learning curve and skill ceiling.
Oh, and you get to level up your players over time in an ongoing league. Much more interesting than picking units with fixed stats for each battle. So goes my personal preference.

I think I went a decent way there to explaining why I like the game. It seems to me sometimes that it shouldn't be too complicated, and I should be able to just figure everything out, but then it's never that simple in an actual game even without allowing for the ability of the dice to screw you over with bad luck. In the end, it all comes down to managing the risks you have to take, preferably forcing your opponent to take bigger ones, and quite crucially, doing things in the right order, because some things will end your turn prematurely if they go wrong (i.e. if the dice decide to screw you over).
Dice screwing you over is another important point I'm coming to consider now. I think when I was playing Blood Bowl regularly I took it too seriously and got too frustrated when I lost (Partly because of my aforementioned feeling that I should be able to just figure everything out). One shouldn't really be too serious and competitive and incredibly invested in a game where luck can make everything go wrong for you in so devastating a fashion. If you're less seriously invested, you can take it in your stride and laugh at the ridiculousness of it when the 1/46656 chance happens and your star Troll manages to kill himself trying to beat up a Halfling.

The game is clearly designed partly with the intention of being funny - in fact one of the more disappointing points about it is that there isn't scope in the rules to do some of the crazy stunts described in the fluff text - though obviously it would unbalance the game somewhat if it was possible to use explosives to blow up the opposing team's dugout with them in it, during half time... On the other hand, there are rules for fielding players with chainsaws, bribing the referee, hiring wizards to throw fireballs at your opponents, throwing your smaller team-mates around the pitch (Or in some cases, eating them, if you roll badly) and so on, so one can't complain too much on that count.

I'm not sure what else to say, since I'm not going to get into explaining the rules. Oh, of course the above-mentioned TGS Blood Bowl League which I've been watching is using the computer game version made by Cyanide Studio. I've never actually played it, and see little reason to, because I understand it's exactly the same as the board game, which I have in the house. I suppose it does have fancy animations, you get to see nice looking versions of the different players (Which is nice in some cases, since there aren't actually official Games Workshop models for some of them...) and one can play against the AI rather than having to find an opponent. So maybe I might get it if I have the money spare at some point. On the other hand, apparently it doesn't explain itself very well - not a problem for me because I already know the rules, but I understand it didn't try that hard to be easily accessible for new players. If you have a friend who plays the game (e.g. me), going for a tabletop game with them might be an easier way of learning it if interested.

...I wasn't entirely sure when I started this blog post what the point of it was. I suppose it's ended up as kind of a review of the game? But not a very clearly directed one, with the result that I'm not really sure how to conclude the post. I guess I'll just have to go for it.
Oh. Damn.

I am stunned, and therefore unable to finish this blog post.

(Going for it is a thing you can do in Blood Bowl to move further but if you roll a 1 you fall over and can potentially injure yourself it is a hilarious joke)