Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Flight of the Bat - A Book Review

Hot off the presses (in 1963), Flight of the Bat is the second novel by Donald Gordon. His first, Star-raker, is on my reading pile so I'll come back to that in the future). Set in the early to mid 1960's (probably '63 as it is post Cuban missile crisis), the Soviets land a capsule via ICBM to each of the Western capitals (London, Washington DC, Paris and Bonn) daring them to send a response by a similar method within seven days, otherwise they expect surrender talks  they blatantly have superior technology.

The novel sets out the Soviet superiority in missiles and defence technology in general. The West's missile replies are ineffective or shot down, a Polaris boat is lost in the Arctic and hope seems lost.

Except for the RAF who have managed to husband an aircraft programme (the Bat of the title), to the point where it is ready for service. From its description, it feels like a cross between the Valiant B2 Pathfinder and the TSR 2, though more the former than the latter. With two plucky pilots (one British, the other an American exchange officer) plus a bright young lady in the tech department, Flight of the Bat follows the reaction to the Soviet ultimatum and the sacrifices made for the mission to deliver the reply.

Now before I say anything else, the novel is of its time and it would be wrong to tear into it for that reason alone. Given its age, the novel does have one instance of racism from one main character that is quickly rebuked by another, but that is about it, unlike the Nevil Shute novel "In the Wet", which although one of my favourite aircraft related novels, does lay racist terms quite thickly. There is also smoking galore and whilst some of the technical details ring true, there is a lack of detail that modern day readers might find surprising given that public access to weapons technology information has been quite easy since the late 70's onwards.

Still, I will not be too harsh, it's a briskly written tale and rather enjoyable overall. There is a fault with the characterisation (almost stereotypical but then again, the British are terribly British, even when the character is American). When reading this, I was definitely reminded of the films of the period with their clipped, crisp pronunciation, the stiff upper lip and the stoic fatalism that seems to be an RAF entry requirement. At the same time, there is a techno-thriller vibe that feels very Tom Clancy and the combined spy trawler mission and flight to Moscow feel as if they are from a similar, Clancy-esq vein.

I first read this when I was at secondary school and somehow lost that copy. Replacing it cost a few pounds from Amazon and I am glad I have a copy again. If you have a fondness of Nevil Shute and his aviation novels (as stated before, In the Wet is superb), certainly give this a try.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Computing from the past??? 2 - The Acorn Risc-OS family

Depending upon where and when you went, chances are that, if you attended school between 1989 and 1996, you would have had the pleasure of using an Acorn Archimedes. Following the success of the BBC Micro, Acorn followed up with the Archimedes range to decent praise and sales, primarily but not exclusively to the UK education market.

The Archimedes range was powerful for their cost and offered a viable alternative to the Mac and DOS/Windows computers of the time. However, marketing, perceived abilities plus some god-awful business decisions meant they remained a minnow to other formats. A legacy does, however, exist in the form of the ARM processing architecture, used by a huge proportion of mobile tech today. ARM, meaning Advanced Risc Machine used to stand for Acorn Risc Machine.

As a quick comparison, here are three screenshots, showing the desktop systems of 1993:

Windows in all of it's glory, still residing upon DOS

System 7 for the Mac
Risc OS 3.11
Now, from a personal point of view, I have always liked the way Risc OS looked. It felt clean and relatively uncluttered compared to the other main desktop operating systems of the time. Indeed, apart from the low screen resolutions that people just had to deal with, the current RISC OS is still a pretty sharp looking OS.
Modern day Risc OS

It also had what still to this day seems to be a very straight forward and versatile mouse set up: three buttons - select, menu and adjust. I have used both Windows and Mac systems since the 80's and still, to this day, the slight amount of extra effort needed to deal with three buttons is more than made up for by the sheer versatility of the set up compared to one and two button systems.

Hardware wise, I only ever owned one Archimedes, the A3000, picked up as a surplus machine when my old school was disposing of them. Although large compared to the similarly styled Amiga 500/Atari ST, it was built like a tank and the example I had still worked perfectly even after several years service.

The A3000 - not the one I owned.
The computer carried over the red function keys of the BBC Micro, a look that was discarded by the follow-on A3010 and A3020 where red gave way to a sickeningly bright green. The keyboard itself, as I recall, was a little spongy but it was robust. The operating system and basic apps were held on ROM chips, allowing them to be upgraded by swapping the chips out. The machine came with a single 3.5 inch floppy drive, no hard drive but did have built in networking (Econet). The system itself was very stable and practically crash proof, something that could not always be said of the Amiga (Guru Meditations, they were called on the Amiga, f***ing annoyances was my term).Whilst they were a tad pricey compared to the 16-bit competition, they offered 32-bit/26bit RISC processing power (32-bit internal to CPU, 26-bit address to the rest of the system - I believe, correct me please if I am wrong). This also meant they compared well to the more expensive DOS/Windows and Mac systems of the time. In fact, in some areas, these other formats were left far behind. They also came bundled with BBC Basic, which in my humble opinion, is the best Basic ever to grace a computer. The Comprehensive school I attended had two networks connected by Econet and I gained a decent grounding in networking because of this. Moving to PC's in the mid-90's seemed very much like a retrograde step compared to the Econet days.

As with the Amiga, there is still a Risc OS community in being today, with quite a few hardware options from the likes of Armini and Raspberry Ro and the operating system itself is supported by two vendors, one covering version 4.29 and 6, whilst the other covers the more open sourced version 5. Version 5 seems to be the most up to date and available version of the OS, which may seem strange but there was a fork in the OS history when two companies developed separate versions and they have kind of travelled in parallel. There is also CJE Micros, who stock an exhaustive range of Risc OS related hardware and software.

Modern hardware is based on ARM based dev boards or the ubiquitous Raspberry Pi. Basic systems can be had for a couple of hundred pounds and it's not beyond the ken of many to do it yourself - source a Pi, grab a download of the OS (which is very cheap) and then off you go. The Raspberry Ro Lite is the aforementioned £200 system and whilst it may lack in the area of storage (easily remedied) and Wi-Fi (Risc-OS doesn't have support for this yet), it's a good beginners option and it can form the basis of a decent main system. The low cost of the hardware makes this a tempting hobby machine for anyone interested in alternatives to Windows, Mac-OS and Linux. If you want something more substantial, the Titanium board based systems can be bought which, if you must have the best, are a very good choice.

Personally, I am tempted by the Ro Lite, it being cheap enough but well-spec'd enough to act as a hobby/secondary system to tinker and get to grips with. And, unlike the Amiga, replacement hardware (the Pi) will never be extraordinarily expensive.

What has struck me with the retrospectives on the Amiga and Risc OS is that both formats remain, to this day, very capable alternatives to the mainstream formats. That is not to say you should bin your existing PC, as there are several areas where even the most up to date versions of OS4 and Risc OS 5 cannot compete It is, however, interesting that despite the passage of time since their originating companies closed their doors, there remains a substantial hobbyist market that keeps these older operating systems ticking along. Certainly, I will be keeping an eye on both formats in future. 

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Computing from the past??? The Amiga

Having a rootle around an upstairs cupboard led me to two diskette boxes full of 3.5 inch floppy disks. I had forgotten I had these, they made the move a couple of years ago, been dumped and that was it. Until now...
The dust says it all...

I started having a look through them and soon realised they were the sum total of my Commodore Amiga software collection, some of which dates back twenty seven years! I mentioned this to people at work the next day and had to explain to a couple under the tender age of 25 what a floppy disk was, despite them seeing one everyday when they click save in MS Office. And come to that, why is the floppy disk icon still used when most PC's haven't had one as standard for years?

Anyhoo, amongst the disks were the three pack in games that came with the A500 I bought so long ago: F29 Retaliator (initially the bugged version where the aircraft exploded directly after take off, soon replaced by a working copy), Rainbow Islands (a decent port of a coin-op) and Escape from the Planet of the Robot Monsters (a glorious 50's sci-fi pastiche of a shooter). My favourite at the time was F29 and the developer, DID, went on to make several more impressive flight sims through the years.

Some other gems in the boxes included 688 Attack Sub and Silent Service 2 - both early attempts at submarine simulations. The former placed you in command of a Los Angeles class nuclear attack sub and did a great job too, it's one title I really enjoyed and would happily play again. As a fan of the book and the film, "The Hunt for Red October", this game captured a lot of the atmosphere that the actual THFRO game did not. The manual that came with the game was also quite informative too. Game manuals back in the day used to be, these days, you're more likely to get a one sheet with an advert(!). Silent Service 2 was a WW2 sub simulator that was equally good at the lower tech end, especially when you were caught on the surface by a couple of enemy destroyers charging towards you!
When games manuals were games manuals...

Finally, there were the classic point and click adventures The Secret of Monkey Island (1 and 2) and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. The latter came on ten disks and as a teenager, I stared longingly at the adverts for a GVP 20Mb hard drive that I think cost as much as the computer itself. That didn't matter though, it meant no more swapping!!! Sadly, it was never to be.

There were also a load of cover disks, this being back in the day when computer magazines put demo disks on their front covers. One magazine (Amiga Power as memory serves but I could be wrong), started offering full games but that was frowned upon by the industry and the practice soon stopped. Demo diskettes eventually gave way to demo CD's when the 32-bit console era arrived, whilst PC magazines continued until the late naughties when downloading became the norm.
They look ok, but whether they still work is a different matter

The Amiga cover disks varied between giving utilities, game demos and tech demos, the latter highlighting the best of amateur coders and what they could achieve on the hardware at the time. I remember some seriously impressive stuff for the time.

Naturally, I don't have any hardware to try these disks out on, but it did get me thinking about the Amiga as a platform and what form it exists in today. With a vague plan, it was off to Google...

A couple of quick searches led my to Hyperion Entertainment  (the rights holder to the modern day Amiga OS) and A-EON, the only supplier of hardware currently supported by the modern day OS. There is also an Italian outfit, Armiga Project, who are offering Amiga 500 compatible boxes for a couple of hundred euros which look quite interesting and might be worth a look if you fancy re-living the Amiga during its heyday.

So, modern hardware for Amiga systems is pretty much limited to either the aforementioned A-EON X5000 (Ars Technica ran a review a few months back) or the Vampire accelerator cards that emulate the original hardware at almost current day speeds. The main downside to these is cost: The X5000 costs £1750 as a full system and the Vampire boards are currently just add-ons to existing hardware though that may change in future. Niche stuff indeed.

Having said that, let's put this in context. Commodore went bust back in 1994, so to have any market in 2017 is pretty amazing and a sure sign of a passionate community. It also means there is at least some money in it. The amounts may not be high, buy it has to be worthwhile for business to run.

I do have the option of buying an original (if slightly yellowed) Amiga, with all of the pitfalls that entails. There are issues with leaking motherboard batteries and twenty five years of wear and tear (or neglect) means that is not really a practical option, especially with some of the prices that e-bayers are asking. There are one or two places selling original refurbished Amiga kit, such as Amigakit, but as with the Armiga, you can go through a couple of hundred pounds easily and that is a lot just to have a trip down memory lane.

However, there are two cheaper options. Amiga Forever is the officially licensed emulator, with various versions ranging from £10 to £50. This allows you to easily re-live the software that made the Amiga the computer it was. This is the cheapest and easiest way to experience the Amiga. If you want dedicated hardware, then the way to go is with the Raspberry Pi. You can get emulators that will happily run on the Pi and give you near flawless performance. The Pi is cheap, a starter kit will cost about £60-£70 and gives you the flexibility to run other operating systems as well.

Would I buy a modern day Amiga? Well, no, not at the current cost of the X5000. Hell, £1750 would get me a kick-ass gaming PC so niche versus mainstream means niche loses. There is the up and coming A1222 board, but that is still expected to be several hundred just for the main board when it is finally released, so cost will still be a barrier to experiencing the modern day OS4. That does leave the emulation route which seems the most likely way I will go.

Rose tinted spectacles aside, the Amiga was a cracking computer for its time. That some enthusiasts have kept the spirit and hardware alive for nearly twenty five years after Commodore died is a testament to its enduring popularity. I cherished by A500 for several years before space and utility dictated that it had to go. It was one of the two personal computers of the era that I enjoyed using. The other, another format that still lives on to this day, and the Acorn Archimedes and the Risc-OS family.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

You say Halo, and I say Goodbye... (apologies to Paul and John!)

Finally, after months of aborted attempts, I have finished Halo 5: Guardians. to be honest, I perhaps could have finished this game earlier but it turned out to be a bit of a slog.

Firstly though, a bit of background...

I have been playing Halo games since the original Halo: Combat Evolved back on the original X-Box. Indeed, since then, the only titles of the series I have missed are the two Halo Wars titles (never in 20 years have I gotten used to playing a real time strategy game using a console controller) and the twin stick shooter Spartan Assault.

I shall be honest and admit that I have enjoyed the storyline of the first three games, even forgiving that ending in Halo 2 but, looking back, cracks started to show in thst title that grew progressively worse as the series continued.

Halo: Combat Evolved was a marvellous, self contained adventure which, leaving room for an obvious sequel, did a fine job lof having a beginning, middle and end. Halo 2 pushed that story further yet made a cardinal error that Guardians repeated: you kept being pulled away from the series main character, the Master Chief. Indeed, whilst Halo 2 added to the series mythos that paid off handsomely in Halo 3, the first sequel suffered from a rushed devlopment, off-kilter game design and a terrible, terrible ending.

Halo 3 stepped up the pace when it debuted on the X-Box 360 and gave the first game a close run for it's money quality wise. The extra development time allowed Bungie to properly flesh out the story and add a degree of polish that demonstrated what Microsoft's then new console could do. It's companion piece, Halo 3: ODST provided a nice little side story and offered a different way of playing in the Halo universe as you were no longer a super soldier, just a trained grunt. Having said that, they did feel a little soulless despite the promise that the story would be wrapped up in a proper conclusion. All told, though, the trilogy was complete.

Of course, the success of the trilogy meant that it was worth too much money to let things lie there. Enter stage right, Halo 4. This title introduced a new set of villains to take over from the Covenant and the Flood. This time, it was to be the Prometheans. As the first proper game created by 343 Industries after the handover from Bungie (whose final Halo game, Halo: Reach was perhaps their best after Halo: CE), it had a lot to live up and it tried really, really hard. But... (there is always s but)...

The Prometheans were boring, too much a bullet sponge and just plain annoying. The story piled complexity upon complexity in order to kick start another trilogy and felt undercooked. Halo 4 was both a technical wonder and a sign that the decline hinted at in 2 and 3 had been joined in the move to a new developer by something worse: Hubris.

You see, by this time, there were Halo books, comics, webisodes, limited TV series and the like that built upon and expanded the mythology. And yeah, these were designed to hoover up your money, never mind the quality. I did read a couple of the early novels but soon lost interest. There was a short series, "Forward Unto Dawn", followed by "Halo: Nightfall" that, given their budgets and background, were not too shabby at all. They provided background to the new series of games and, when Halo 5: Guardians was released, the story of that game required a hefty level of knowledge from these additional sources if you wanted to understand what the hell was going on. I didn't have that knowledge.

So, after piling through the missions, watching the cutscenes (and marvelling at gaining an achievement for one mission by walking and pressing X once to talk to a character), I finished the game feeling at best ambivalent and, at worst, like I had wasted my time. I cared not for the characters and the story made no sense, mostly because I lacked the background knowledge that spending a couple of hundred pounds would have fixed. The gane itself had a co-op mode that was of no use to mesonI had three AI colleagues who, no matter what happened to them, remained with me at the end of each level because the story demanded that. There was also the issue that you spent half the game not playing as the titular lead character. It may have helped the story but the whole point of playing Halo (certainly CE, 3 and 4) was that you are the Master Chief. Guardians took another step away from the clean design and style of CE (which itself stands up very well after 16 years or so) and brought in too many extra ingredients that spoiled the broth.

Looking back from every game in the series I have played, Halo CE remains, in my humble opinion, the best of the bunch. Halo's 3, 3 ODST and Reach all stack up pretty well, but 2, 4 and Guardians are poorer relations.

Where does this leave me? Well, I still have the Master Chief Collection so I can see a time where I will have another play through of CE again. Will I play Guardians again? Probably not. Will I buy the next Halo game when it is eventually released? Hmmm, maybe... Maybe not. I picked up Guardians for £15 and that, to be honest, was probably a tad pricey. If Halo 6 (or whatever it ends up being called) follows Guardians in style and gameplay, then I'm out. If they step back from the co-op play and set out a cleaner, more focussed story, then possibly, nay probably, I'll get a copy at somepoint. however, looking at the slaes figures and critical reaction for Guardians, I don't think i am the only one whobmay be leaving the series...

Monday, 14 August 2017

2020 World at War - a book review

Image result for 2020 world of war book

This book neatly and succinctly sets its aims out at the very beginning. What if there were a modern day take on the seminal work "The Third World War" by General Sir John Hackett? Bookending the contributor scenarios, the editor does a good job of highlighting not only the dangers of predicting the future but also the timey, wimey, wibbly, wobbly nature of such works. Sadly, it falls foul of the very goal it aims for.

Each of the sections takes a slightly different take on world geopolitics between 2017 and 2020. Needless to say, Brexit, Islamic terrorism and China feature heavily. To be fair, some aren't bad, though real life events have already taken over several of these scenarios (the 2017 General Election being just one example). As such, it falters in its, admittedly "we are not worthy" comparision to Hackett's work.

The key problem is that Hackett and his contributors had time on their side. Their book was published in 1978 (and the follow up in 1982) and this gave them plenty of time between publication and their speculative future 1985. With 2020, there isn't that gap. already dated in some aspects, it becomes far less interesting when the speculation it provides has already been removed from the bounds of probability by actual events. A similar fate has befallen 2017: War with Russia, although that tome did smack of being an opportunist rather than a more considered approach like 2020.

Still, some of the scenarios are interesting and there are one or two that could have been expanded, rather than just being left as more of a teaser.

Overall, it's not a bad book by any means and if you have any interest in speculative fiction, I advise you to give it a go. Just try not to hold them to their Hackett comparisons.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Cough up, TB is here...

Travel Battle has arrived on the wargaming scene and has garnered mixed views, namely here and here. The first link is a review, the second an opinion piece and, to be honest, I fall firmly in the latter camp.

As I have stated before, I am an historical wargamer. To those of you who don't understand that, it means that my preference in the hobby is in the order of History, then Toys, then (in the far distance) Games. So, when I first found out about TB, I was unimpressed. Having read the above posts, and a few others, I am still unimpressed.

Perhaps it's the facade that it's vaguely Napoleonic, the only link to which I can see is the box art. Pretty as it is, it adds nothing to the game. Identikit plastic soldiers, cavalry, artillery and houses (all in equal number - since when did that ever happen in the real world???), unpainted because, well, it's just a travel game, isn't it(?) and thin of rule book, it comes across as an attempt to sell to wargamers who maybe should know better, £50 for the box set, though judging by some posts and comments here, there are some who have bought multiple copies and are planning mini campaigns! Forgive me, but why the hell would you want to create a mini-campaign for a travel game? You'd need several boards, so at least three copies of the game (unless you can buy them separately). More figures, buildings, everything. Not exactly fitting in with the travel ethos. If you wanted to go bigger, why not a room, tables, terrain cloths or boards and scenics??? Hell, why not get a few friends, some painted armies, a vaguely historical ruleset and a pub. Oh wait. That's what we already do. I am sure you can find several vendors who'll sort out a 6mm or 10mm set up for £50 or so. Just takes a tad more effort on your part though if you've ever painted 6mm, not that much effort.

Maybe it's the gaming side of it I don't get. Now don't get me wrong, I like a good wargame. But take, for example, a weekend show. I go with the rest of the crew, we do our show thing and then, on an evening, I whip out my TB extravaganza. Erm, no! Apart from the fact that one would laugh himself into a coma and the other practice aggressive insertion techniques with said pretty box art (though with that cavalry, my condition would be anything but stable afterwards!), there is only so much wargaming I can take.

Where is the challenge? Everything is determined by dice rolls. By that, I mean, it uses dice rolls to try to hide the fact that it is so limited. Where is the room for tactics, manoeuvre, sneakiness? I can't see it with those rules. For the cost of TB, I could buy a travel chess set (which has a greater variety of units, strategies and no dice) and with the change, pay for a decent meal and a few drinks.

Maybe it's me. I am not a fan of dice heavy games as it is. If you want to dice away for anything, as some gamers seem to want to do, try a Live Action Role Playing game where you have to dice for how your food is cooked. You want to boil an egg? Roll a six, it's solid, roll a one, prepare for food poisoning. Roll low on prawns and I'll send flowers and condolences). TB seems just like that because it is so limited.There is only so much you can do with what the box offers. It is designed to be limited but, and this is how I roll(!), that would just bore me.

TB is yet another step removed from historical gaming that I see at shows these days. I can't see the point of it. Not when, with a bit of a thinking brain, there are far better options for people who WARgame rather than warGAME. It's probably not overpriced for the kit you get, buy in my eyes, £50 could be spent on more productive choices. Or should I say £45. Yep, already discounted by 10% at Carronade. I wonder what they'll be going for at 1st Partizan on Sunday...?

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Battle! Practical Wargaming by Charles Grant - Review

So, hot off the press (in 1970 for the princely sum on 21 shillings (£1.05) for those already in with the decimalisation crows), is a handy pocket introduction to the art of Wargaming as described by Charles Grant in a series of articles first published in Meccano Magazine.

Straight forward and to the point.

I was loaned this copy as Andy thought I would find it interesting, and it turned out I did. Not to say the tone of delivery and the content aren't a tad dated - it is nigh on fifty years since original publication - but as someone who wargames out of an interest in history, rather than gaming itself, it is a very useful tome and one that I recommend anyone with even the most basic interest in the hobby to pick up.

Why? Well, it's a combination of a couple of things. Firstly, there is the style of writing, very polite, at times grandfatherly, wordy compared to modern day writers (although that is no bad thing), a nice line in self deprecating humour (such as he forgets to add the Sherman to an armour values column then re-introduces it in the following chapter or headings on a map change between chapters which he puts down to new intelligence gained from the local peasants!) and a seriously fine number of typo's. That last comment aside, I found this quite an easy read although I can see how younger readers might struggle due to the change of style over the years. Me, I was brought up with that so it's a comfortable blanket of written nostalgia. Another nice touch was a comment regarding the initial scenario detailed in the book where Grant asks the reader to let him know how they solved that particular problem. In an age where reader feedback via social media is practically demanded, the request seems almost quaint from an age where communication could longer than a few seconds (as did the thinking process behind said communication).

Next up, the setting and rules. Grant picks WW2 as his period and does a really good job of introducing a fairly simplistic but effective rules over the course of the book. The aim, as he keeps reminding the reader, is to keep things simple so you actually get to play a game. Again, that is no bad thing. This is an introduction after all, but what sells it for me is that he keeps reminding the reader that they can change things round if they want. They can alter, ditch or complicate the game as much as they want as it is up to them how they approach wargaming. Compared to the almost dictatorial rules sets these days, it's refreshing and very much follows how the games we TWATS play. We use a set of rules, see how they fly, then have at them with pen and paper to fit how we play. Which, to those who don't already know, is with an historical bent.

A good example of this, and neatly tying in with Battle, is the currently popular modern wargaming rule set, Team Yankee. Now I like these and, with certain amendments here and there, will happily continue to use them. Movement, shooting and effect are very, very similar between TY and Battle. Not that it should be considered a bad thing, but the similarities are glaring and, given the difference in publishing dates, shows how much does and does not change over time. Presentation is something else, but since you have to read this book rather than just look at pretty pictures, it definitely works for Battle.

Another positive is the attitude of make do and mend. Don't have the correct figures or equipment? Get that modelling knife out and make it yourself. It's meant to be a representation so let's not get too bogged down here. Similarly, measuring devices, artillery plots and firing cones? Acetate. It is the future! Even to the point where he asks metaphorically, what should we do without it? Compare that to the frankly eye gougingly expensive add-ons for Team Yankee and again, we see how things have changed. There is something to be said of Games Designers/Rule Writing companies trying to extract every penny they can out of you.

Negatives - well, as Grant admits, the rules are basic and a tad generic, but since that is the point, I am not counting that as a negative although some might disagree. The lack of LMG's (Bren, MG42, BAR) is a bit more of an issue but, taking a leaf out of the gentleman's book, this can be easily rectified with an additional firing cone, possibly based on rifle range but a wider spread? After all, he's just giving you the ball, how you run with it is your concern.

Air support is not mentioned, although you could use amend the artillery rules for that, and there is an overall lack of polish (the typo's, although amusing at times, do spoil the flow a tad, especially in the later chapters).

Overall though, I liked this book. Yes, it has dated in style, but certainly not in content. The photographs vary from merely ok to almost impossible to make out (but that is down to the technology of the time, so it would be churlish to hark on about it too much). It is by no means perfect and does not set out to be. It leans towards historical accuracy whilst ensuring a game can be played out of it. The overall message of the book - it is your game, your hobby, you need to think how you wish to approach it. Do with it what you will. That is something that I believe has been lost to a degree with quite a few modern day rule sets.

Many thanks to Andy Copestake for lending the book to me, you shall get it back(!).

And speaking of wargaming, I shall be at the Carronade show in Falkirk this Saturday. It's a cracking show and I recommend that if you can, get yourselves there. Now, I just need to finish that play list for Monday's radio show...

Saturday, 6 May 2017

A Return to Calm

Phew, that was a bit mental!

Tax Year End is usually fun for most people (and I don't mean fun in the traditional sense), and so it is with me due to my job. The last few weeks have been passed in a blur but the majority of the work is done (and I even managed to fit a game in too) and so I have time to think and type.

One thing I have managed to do is catch up with is my YouTube viewing. YouTube is pretty much a microcosm of the Internet, 99% rubbish but with the odd gem here and there. Over the years, I have found a few channels that are entertaining, informative and even a bit of both. As it's been a while since my last post, I thought I would kick off again with a list of the YouTube channels I like.

I'll start off with WatchMojo and WhatCulture. These two channels do pretty much similar things in general - they provide lists based on various topics. Watchmojo is American and played pretty straight. Primarily lists, they also produce new features as well. WhatCulture is UK based (just down the road in Gateshead) and is more anarchic, sarcastic and downright funnier. There are two channels for WhatCulture I follow, the main one as named and WhatCulture Gaming. They also post more than lists, with opinion pieces, reviews and the like and you could do far worse than have a scan through their content.

ScreenJunkies is all about film, though I tend to stay away from their usual stuff and concentrate on Honest Trailers. Words cannot convey how funny these can be. If you want the gaming equivalent, head to Smosh Games with their Honest Game Trailers. They even use the same "Awesome Voice Guy" to narrate them. Absolutely superb.

Moving on, there are a number of military/firearms channels that I follow. This started out with watching the goofiness of FPS Russia, a channel that seems to have stopped posting in recent years but gad amassed a good range of content prior to that. Following the suggested videos led to pretty much all of the rest of these channels.

FPS Russia uses a fake Russian, lots of explosives and a nice line in sarcasm to demonstrate the kind of high jinks you can get up to if you put your mind to it. I particularly recommend the SA80 demo and his comments on the SUSAT!

Next up, Iraqveteran8888. These guys own a gun store in the states and mix up opinion pieces (very pro 2nd amendment by the way), reviews and just plain fun. There is, in particular, a nice subset of Martini Henry videos that are extremely informative from an actual shooting point of view. Whether you follow their politics or not, the team know how to demo a firearm.

TFB TV (short for The Firearms Blog TV) is a genuinely professional channel, aimed not only at the US market but also internationally (they have a mix of presenters from all around the globe) and they are in essence trying to be the one stop shop for firearms related information. Recent posts from the UK have been very good and again, I would recommend these guys if you have any interest in firearms.

Then there is Forgotten Weapons. This is probably my favourite weapons channel. The presenter, Ian McCollum ( I think that's how you spell it), is knowledgeable, personable and plain good at his job. The focus is on firearms that maybe you might not have heard of, a good example of this would be the recent video from the National Firearms Centre in Leeds about the initial studies of what would form the SA80 program. This guy does this channel out of love of the topic and is the most informative of the weapons channels I have seen to date. He does run a Patreon in order to funds his visits so if you like what you see, please pop that dollar in there.

Finally, for the technical people out there, is Digital Foundry. Focussed on the technical side of computing and gaming, if you have any interest in how games perform, how the tech behind them works or the latest in computer graphics, this is the channel for you. There is also a Digital Foundry Retro channel that does pretty much the same thing but for retro games and is truly a labour of love that is definitely worth a visit.

That's it for now, please do visit any of the channels above if they take your fancy. As for me, I have to sort out a playlist for the 15th as I am guesting on Attention Please on NE1fm (102.5) (as well as streaming). I am looking forward to it as it's been over a year since my last visit.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

A blast from the past

My grandmother is having a clear out of the spare room and happened to find some magazine binders from the 1970's. Whilst I have not yet plunged into the seven years worth of Airfix magazines my late grandfather had purchased, I have been given three binders of Military Modelling (one issue from '73, one from '76 and the remainder from '77 to '79) as well as a half dozen issues of Battle magazine from 1977.

I remember reading these in my early teens, and they were of an age back then, but having a quick perusal brought back some very fond memories and also got me thinking (yep, thinking!).

35p! Ah, those must have been the days...
There have been a fair few articles in various blogs about the current state of the wargaming magazine market and more than a few posts on TMP, yet looking through the admittedly small number of issues of Battle, I feel that the more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same.
By that, I mean that whilst today's publications are certainly less wordy and more picturesque, the topics haven't changed much. Indeed, the letters page of one issue is filled with the discussion (conducted by post, no less - POST, having to write or type a letter and have the Royal Mail deliver it. If you don't know what that is, Google it...) of the merits of rulesets and their accuracy towards the reality of battles, and whether "Britain's most popular indoor activity" (honestly, that's what two of the participants called wargaming!), can be classed as gaming first or historical re-enactment. 
The letters page from November 1977 has a corker of a topic: Fantasy gaming.
The debate, it seems, continues...
Apologies for the poor photography, the paper is rather shiny and artificial light is a necessity this time of year, but anyway, there is a divide here that still exists to this day. This is helped along by an introduction to fantasy by a little known gentleman, Mr S Jackson:

Whatever happened to him or GW???
I know that comparing these issues to modern day publications is like comparing apples to oranges, with an added difference of forty years, but I was struck with how much content you got in these. These are not the biggest publications and most of the pictures are black and white (with colour seemingly reserved for the cover pages and the odd plate), yet as you can see, they pack the writing in. Compare that to a modern mag where there a swathes of white space on most article pages and, depending on the magazine, a disturbing low word to picture ratio. No, these are not clean, glossy magazines as most youngsters would recognise but, by gad, they aren't half useful. And not just for the contemporary news (the Briefing section for military enthusiasts is a goldmine of late '70's news, projects and skullduggery!), but also for the adverts. There are loads of them, from Hinchcliffe to Skytrex to Heroics and Ros, all a little time capsule to an age long gone. 
I shall be keeping these in a safe place and will be having a read through the MilMod binders in due course. 

Saturday, 11 February 2017

York - and a question

Last Sunday saw an early start for a trip to York and the Vapnartak show. It has been held at the racecourse for several years now and it's one of my favourite venues. Access is good and the catering is above average. Never underestimate the need for semi-decent scran after a half past bed-time wake up call and a couple of hours on the A1(M).
The show itself pretty much followed previous years, and it must be said that it seemed to be the same old faces in the same old places. That should be expected, after all, the hobby isn't that big, but the biggest concern I felt was that the demo/participation games seemed to be the same as last year. Deja vu indeed. There were one or two new games that did catch my attention, and not necessarily for the right reason - the Airfix battles game on set on terrain in the form of a printed sheet being one. It was one step removed from a board game and having read a few pieces on the gaming system, watching that play out didn't improve my opinion of it one bit.
Other than that, the show did see me drop a few quid at Caliver (the Team Yankee expansions for the British and East Germans - I quite like Team Yankee, even if it is very much a "Bang! You're dead!" type of game but with a few amendments and an umpire guided set up, they are actually quite fun) and Dave Lanchester Books (a lovely volume on air operations at Suez, a conflict that holds my interest but tends to be forgotten amongst the rest of the Cold War shenanigans).
The show was busy (until the usual 1.30 exodus as the hordes depart for Sunday lunch and a snooze), and there were more than a few familiar faces, especially from my neck of the woods. It was nice to see, to be honest, and made me think that if the two larger north-east shows (Border Reiver and Battleground) could attract the same crowd, it would be of benefit to both shows.
Border Reiver has had a drop in attendance since the move to Gateshead International Stadium a few years back (it has certainly felt less busy as the years have gone by), and the organiser of Battleground (Leon), has been more than open on the Pendraken forums about the drops in attendance for that show. So on the whole, fewer people are going to those shows, yet it will cost the same, maybe a little more each year, for the venue. Fewer people means less door money, It also means either the per person spend has to go up or the traders are taking less money. If it's the latter, how long do they keep up their attendance before it becomes financially pointless to go?
As regions go, the North-East is pretty large, and the two shows don't compete for the same venue or date. If you were to compare these shows to, say, Falkirk, they are pretty similar in economic location and catchment area. Yet for all appearances, the two north-east shows (as far as public visibility goes), don't hold a candle to the Scottish show.
So I leave with a question: Is there a point to either North-East show?

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Of Things To Come

So a new year has begun and I feel it's time to take stock as to what is to come this year. Naturally, this year will involve some wargaming, with the aim of a Saturday game once a month, shows permitting. We actually have one today where we should hopefully have a good turnout for the delayed TWATS Tiny Tactica Tournament.

Show wise, I am hoping to get to the usual suspects, York (Vapnartak), both Partizans, Edinburgh (Claymore), Falkirk, Derby and possibly Newcastle (Border Reiver). Transport depending, the Battleground show in November is also a possibility, but we shall see. Last year's shows were mostly pretty good, though I have doubts about the Newcastle show this year. And Battleground for that matter. Both are medium regional shows, and last year, Newcastle seemed to follow a trend of being quieter than the previous year. Also take into consideration that Battleground's organisers actually release customer numbers for their show and it has been taking a 10% drop year on year. I get the impression that both shows have uncertain footing. Part of me really hopes they continue, but with declining attendance, how can you keep a show going if fewer people are spending money with traders? And let us not forget, without the traders paying for stands, the economics of a show are very dicey(!) indeed. We shall see...

When time permits (and the mood takes me), there are a couple of decent TV shows that have new seasons this year. Firstly, Sense8, which had a two hour special released over Christmas to tide fans over before the full second season arrives in May. I have written about the show previously and I am really looking forward the the new one.

Another show that gets a second season release very shortly is The Expanse. Based on the novels by James S A Corey, the show is set a couple of hundred years in the future in a divided Solar System. There is political intrigue, action and more than a little drama. Sort of a cross tonally between the Battlestar Galactica re-boot and Babylon 5, the show has a pretty good handle on realism and my good lady and I got through the first season in pretty short order. It even prompted me to buy the first three books of the series and they don't disappoint.

Gaming wise, the slate is a little bare - there is Mass Effect Andromeda coming in March and that's about it. I still have a ton of games to get through so that's possibly no bad thing. I am not even overly bothered about the release of the Nintendo Switch. It's a tad pricey for the two games I would want to play before the end of the year and not even the thought of portable Skyrim is enough to tempt a purchase. I am hoping the price either comes down or there are pack-in bundles that give a bit more value for money.

So that appears to be that for now. I shall, of course be adding to the blog on a more regular basis than last year, and be adding a few show reports as and when they happen. Toodle pip for now.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Hold on again, I bought two of those!!!

Following on from the Tapwave Zodiac post the other week, it got me thinking about what was possibly my favourite piece of multi-purpose tech from the noughties - the Nokia N-Gage.

Now hold on there before you get pitchforks and flaming torches, hear me out. This was an attempt by the then biggest mobile phone manufacturer to combine said mobile phone tech with a games console, something that still alludes to this day (I am not counting smartphone gaming as  unless the rely upon simple touchscreen/gyro controls, actually playing them is a chore. I believe that physical controls trounce those options pretty much all of the time).

So what was it like? Well, Nokia took their then successful Series 60 software platform and stuck it in this:

The Nokia N-Gage - aka The Taco phone

Now I will be the first to admit that they compromised massively on the design, indeed, one of the key failures was the controls themselves, a phone keypad rather than gaming controller. It actually challenges the Atari Jaguar pad as worst design ever. Still, at the time, it was quite a piece of tech and yes, I bought one on launch day with a copy of Tomb Raider and I loved it. For a while...

Amongst the other compromises brought along on the phone side was the screen, a very (phone sensible) 11:13 ratio vertically orientated display. However, most gaming devices at the time followed the 4:3 ratio that copied televisions of the age. This was awkward and compromised the aesthetics of most of the titles. Another was the game card slot. This was inside, with no access externally. This meant that to change titles, you had to strip the battery out and re-boot the device. To be fair to Nokia, they did improve on a few things with the N-Gage QD but I'll get to that in a moment.

Despite the frankly obvious negatives above, I loved the machine. It allowed me to carry one device instead of several and even if you did look like a complete tool using it for a phone call, it ticked a lot of the boxes for me. Even the battery life wasn't too bad and it took a standard Nokia battery at the time so carrying a pre-charged replacement was easy enough. Plus pretty much everyone had a Nokia charger lying about.

Having said that, a quick check on YouTube shows that time is a harsh mistress and the titles that I remember playing and enjoying have not aged well, either by the technical abilities of the machine or that god-awful screen ratio. I ended up with about ten titles for the N-Gage over the two years I used it and it's follow up, the QD. Alongside Tomb Raider, there were Sonic N, Pandemonium, Super Monkey Ball and Call of Duty that stand out. Not necessarily for the right reasons, but I remember them well.

As per the market at the time, once the 12 month contract was over, I upgraded to the QD, a softer, more sensible re-design that slightly improved the controls, moved the speaker and mic so that you could hold the phone normally and placed the game card slot on the edge of the device. I sold the original which payed for the first five months of the new contract and held onto the QD for pretty much the rest of the following year. It was only when the software releases practically stopped that I turned my attention to newer devices and sold the QD and games off. As a collector, I wish I hadn't done that, but then YouTube is enough to remind me of the games and it's one less thing to clutter the house up.

The N-Gage QD - what the original should have been...

The N-Gage was a bold move by Nokia into the territory then (as now) dominated by Nintendo. That it didn't work, I put down to how the device was sold (this was long before children were given mobile phones as almost a human right - that's a discussion for a much later time) so unless you had deep pockets, a contract was the only way forward, the compromises brought about by trying to be master of all trades and the sheer strength of the competition. It also displayed the first cracks in Nokia's dominance of the mobile market. It failed and it failed badly. The coming of touchscreen smart devices would prove to be an even greater challenge.

The N-Gage was a technological dead end at the time, given that the hardware was probably too underpowered for gaming and the mobile networks were nowhere near capable of supporting the feature rich software we take for granted now, though the time of portable gaming and mobile phone synergy (minus physical controls) was only a few years away the form of Android and iOS devices. Am I please I owned two? Yes, as I said with the Tapwave post, they fitted a need that I had at the time. I do not consider the money spent a waste (what with selling the devices and games on, as well as having the phone contract which I would have had anyway). Would I seek out the hardware again for the sake of familiarising myself with it? No, that ship has sailed, and the rose tinted spectacles can do very strange things.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Hold on, I bought one of those...

Having a rake through a couple of packing boxes that hadn't been touched since the house move, I happened across this:

Tapwave Zodiac 2 with screen cover on

A Tapwave Zodiac 2. Part Palm PDA (Personal Digital Assistant), part games console, I bought this piece of tech back in early 20005. Common with the tech of the time, it uses a custom charging connector that is in another box somewhere, so unfortunately I can't power it up. I can, however, have a bit of a reminiscence about it.

Back of the Zodiac showing logos, charging/sync connector and stylus

I have always had a fascination about technology, and when the Zodiac was announced, it caught my interest as it combined the then popular PDA fad (almost entirely taken over by mobile phones and tablets these days) and gaming. Whilst I justified the purchase because it could replace my failing Palm 515, it was the gaming part of the package that intrigued me.

Looking at the specs now, they seem very anaemic compared to modern day devices, but by the standards of the time, they are respectable. A 200MHz ARM processor, backed up by 10Mb of RAM, the model I have has a massive(!) 128Mb of storage. It also has two SD card slots for additional storage and software. The screen is a not too shabby 3.8 inch half VGA type capable of displaying 65,536 colours.

With screen protector open

What I really like about the Zodiac is the design, rounded so very comfortable to hold and made predominantly of metal, so it feels solid in your hands. It is also just about the right size for my (not overly) hands. It's comfortable to hold for reasonably long periods and, ergonomically, it is as close to perfect as it gets, at least for me.

Still with Duke Nukem game

As well as the touchscreen (resistive, hence the stylus), you get two shoulder buttons, Home, Function, Power and four Action buttons. There is also an analogue stick, spring loaded so resets to centre when not under pressure. Connectivity wise, there's the aforementioned charging/sync connector, a headphone jack bottom left, Bluetooth, an IR beamer and the two SD slots on the top edge (neatly protected a bit by the screen cover when it's closed). So, for the time, not too shabby and it was well designed.

I used the Zodiac for well over a year, and it did a fair amount of travelling too. Indeed, by the time it was replaced, the battery had reached a point where it would be good for just a couple of hours of continuous use. Replacing that was a no-go as Tapwave themselves had wound up by then, so the Zodiac went into a drawer.

Incidentally, the Duke Nukem game that I bought with the Zodiac isn't a port of the classic 3d shoot-em up, rather it is just a generic shooter with Duke artwork. Disappointing as I think the hardware was more than capable of handling the real deal.

In general, use, the Zodiac was great fun, an extra memory card held enough music for the daily commute and back, whilst I would generally get a full days use before needing to charge the batteries. Gaming, however, was a battery killer. With the screen brightness turned up anywhere near maximum, you would be looking at three hours tops (and that was brand new out of the box!). As time went by though, I was using the Zodiac less and less for gaming and more for the core PDA functionality so it wasn't too great a loss when a Sony Ericsson K800i took on music/diary/calendar duties.

In hindsight, the Zodiac was a nice piece of kit that was technologically a dead end. PDA wise, it was up against the newer ranges of feature phones coming from Nokia and Sony Ericsson, whilst gamer's were being targeted by Nintendo's DS and Sony's PSP. Tapwave was in no way big enough to compete with any of those companies, and their target market was relatively tiny. It didn't help that the tech was caught between two stools and truly was a jack of all trades, master of none.

If I ever find the charging cable, I'll fire this puppy up and see if everything still works. Having written about the Zodiac, it has reminded me of another piece of kit I used back in the day, the Nokia N-Gage, but that's another post entirely...