Happy New Year!
We're at the one year anniversary of this newsletter. It has been… a year. For me in particularly, both the universal and the personal have been very bad! I would like them to not repeat again please!
I started the very first newsletter by writing in cryptic terms that there was a reason why I was starting it in January 2020, beyond the desire to have a place to write.
That reason was my impending fatherhood. Except, as events unfolded, it was less impending than it seemed. As I've written here before, a bad ultrasound revealed that our foetus had a developmental deformity, one that was incompatible with a healthy birth. We decided to terminate.
The Guardian gave me time off for compassionate leave – something I'll be eternally grateful for – and I returned to the office on 2 March, where I worked for precisely two further weeks before being sent home like everyone else in the world.
So. Yes. I'm not hoping for a repeat of 2020.
I don't yet know how this year will turn out for the pandemic (obviously), but I am hopeful. Vaccination has started, and it's the sort of logistics problem the British state is good at: one where the individual problems can be successfully atomised, and dealt with by competent administrators on the ground, with few difficult decisions to be made at the top level of politics.
I'm also hopeful about how this year will turn out for my family. Details TK.
I started this newsletter with capsule reviews of things I liked from 2019. Here's a few more.
XX: A Novel, Graphic
"A sci-fi House of Leaves" is as good a way as any to describe this book, the first novel by designer and illustrator Rian Hughes. It is, broadly, about the invasion of earth by an alien idea, and it is emphatically a book. You can buy this on Kindle – I checked – but to do so would be a huge mistake.
Some novels are medium agnostic. Their canonical existence is as 35,000 words, thrown into whichever container will hold them: a print book, an ebook, an audiobook.
XX is not. Every page is sweated over, from the typefaces (each and every one of which is credited) to mixed-media inserts, ascii art, and even a map in the inside back cover.
It's also a good story. Easy to overlook, but for a 900 page novel (though a lower word count than that sounds, given the above) it's important that there's something to get you through to the end.
The gaping flaw is that Hughes is a fantastic designer, and a great storyteller, but not a textual chameleon. The book contains in-fiction excerpts from BBC News, Wikipedia, Scientific American, and so on and so on, but all are such poor imitations of reality that it hurts to read them. The one exception is an eight-part piece of pulp sci-fi, a story-within-a-story, which is executed perfectly.
A lot has been written about this roguelike video game, out for Switch and PC. It's been (correctly) dubbed game of the year from a bunch of places, because it's great.
But there's two things I want to add.
The first I that the game works so well for people who don't normally like the style of game because it's a diagetic roguelike. Each run through Hades exists in the same chronology; each death is a real death experienced by the characters, and commented on accordingly. That not only allows the game to have a story which spans the individual runs, providing motivation to carry on playing beyond getting a high score or reaching the end for the first time; it also removes the pain of failure, far more than the in-game rewards of being able to spend accrued currency on upgrades does. No run is a wasted run; no player is a failure.
And the second is that Hades is a game for people who say they don't have time to play games. Which is – and I don't know if I'm unusual here – me, over this past year, despite the fact that objectively I have more tiem than ever. In this, it's no different from many other roguelikes: a single run takes less than half an hour, and the Switch is the perfect console for people who get interrupted in the middle of things. But the game's welcoming atmosphere, smooth difficulty curve, and friendly features like God Mode (an easy setting that still encourages you to get better at the game).
So, yes, play Hades!
Weird to get into a card game in 2020, but after a friend nudged Keyforge my way a couple of weeks ago, I've not been able to stop thinking about it.
The new game by Richard Garfield, the designer of Netrunner and Magic: The Gathering, Keyforge does two interesting things.
The first is the USP of the whole game: rather than being a collectible card game, Keyforge is a "Unique Deck Game". What that means is the game comes in 47-card decks, randomised and pre-sorted. You buy a sealed pack, which contains a single ready-to-play deck, and a code to register it online.
What that means in practice is that the game is immune to "net decking", the common practice in games such as this of looking up good decks to build and then assembling them yourself. The deck you receive is the deck you play.
For the hardcore, that's sort of a disaster: if you really care about winning tournaments of Keyforge, your only answer is to buy endless decks until you receive one that has just enough synergies to be powerful.
But for everyone else, it's a godsend. Suddenly, the game is playable for casuals, in a way that a traditional CCG is impervious to. If you want to have the occasional game, buying a single deck is all you need.
And alongside that comes the other thing I like about the game: you actually play it. For all that I have a soft spot for games like Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering, a key flaw of them is that, particularly at the mid-tier of play where I fester, they can be remarkably passive games. The skill of the game is in the deck building, while the actual play is often little more than following a simple script (there's a reason the verb frequently used is 'pilot', rather than 'play', such a deck): play cards "on the curve", either "control the board" or "go for face", and perhaps build up for one or two combos you planned ahead of time.
Keyforge, by contrast, forces interesting decisions on you every turn. The game shares similarities with both the above, but rather than a mana curve, it presents you with three factions in each deck, roughly evenly balanced by card count. Each turn, you pick one of those factions to play with – and that's all you can play with for that turn. Any played creatures from other factions sit there uselessly; any cards in your hand from other factions can't be played; and every turn, you draw back up to your full hand of six.
That means it's always a difficult decision: do you play cards from your hand, which probably come from a different faction to the ones you played last turn? Or do you use the creatures on the board, which means you'll likely have few cards in-hand to help them?
Also it's got great (unofficial) online support.
scattered thoughts over, I'm out. See you next week!