Exciting Times! Board Game Cafe Soon to be Opening in Southampton!

Yes! I can finally share the news. So for the past year I’ve been involved in a community interest company that has been trying to open a board game cafe in my hometown of Southampton. There are only two in England at the moment so it’s very exciting to be the third that opens. We’re a little different to the others as well in that we are active in the community, taking out games to youth groups, schools, and soon the hospital as well. The cafe is going to be a hub for this, offering a place where anyone can come and play games.

It’s been a big year. While Hayley had been working with a school for about six months, the company was formed around April so we’ve seen a lot of progress. There have been a lot of difficulties and we’ve learned a lot over the months, especially through the Kickstarter campaign we did and the media appearances. But we’ve secured funding and a property near the heart of the city, and I’m proud to be a part of it.

We’re expecting to open in the first quarter of next year so there’s a lot to sort out in that time, and the next few months are going to be hectic (especially given that Christmas is going on as well). There’s so many games to play and things to figure out to make sure that the business is a success, but we’ve had some wonderful support already and I can’t wait until we finally open our doors and welcome everyone in to play games. So if you’re ever in Southampton please come down to visit!

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Doomsday – Helping out With a Megagame

I’m not sure how popular megagames are around the world but I know there have been a few in the UK and I’m sure that there have been some in America. If you’re not familiar with the concept the idea is basically to take a roleplaying game and watch it explode into a massive, frenetic ball of chaos. The guys behind the Southampton megagame, Zane, Barry, and Martin, have run a few games previously, their most notable being Watch the Skies, which was about an alien invasion. I think about 300 players took part, divided into teams of countries and the aliens. I would highly recommend watching it here and here as the great reviewers at Shut Up & Sit Down chronicled their experience.

I’ve mentioned it before but I’m involved in a company called Board in the City, my managing director got in touch with the guys and offered our help in running the game. There were forty people playing, most of them trying to bring about the end of the world. These teams were split into arcane, political, and scientific organisations and were opposed by a Global Response Organisation. Also present were a few media outlets, reporting on the outbreaks of plots happening across the globe.

Now I had a rough night and only had about three hours sleep so I wasn’t really prepared for anything that required cognitive ability. I ended up being paymaster and helping out with a few admin duties, and I’m glad that we were there to help with the load because there were so many things to keep track of that it would have been easy for things to descend into complete anarchy.

But everyone took to their roles well and while I’m sure there was plenty of stress to be dished out, it seemed like all the players had a lot of fun. I’m not going to go in depth into the rules here, but basically the hall was split into different sections. The mastermind came up with plots and then sent out minions to get them resources in order to carry the plot through. The players could go around as they pleased and make deals with the other teams, basically like a massive role-playing game, and control were the DMs.

Obviously with these games it’s impossible to playtest them, so we had to adjust things on the fly and from our point of view we only met these guys a week ago so we weren’t complete gurus on the rules, but once we got through the first couple of rounds things ran pretty smoothly. The whole thing took about six hours and at the end there was a wrap-up where everyone got to speak about the plots they were trying to complete and the stories they were printing etc. It’s amazing at the grand narrative arc these players concocted amongst themselves, and I’m pleased that I can say I was a part of it.

Zane, Barry, and Martin did a tremendous job in coming up with the game and if you have the chance to participate in a megagame then I strongly urge you to do it. I don’t know if we’ll be helping out or not next time  but if not I’m going to see if I can play because it looked like being in the game was something special.

Book Review – The Exodus Quest by Will Adams

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After the adventure in The Alexander Cipher, Daniel Knox is back. This time his partner Gaille is along for the ride as well, and the mystery revolves around an ancient theory surrounding Moses and the Jewish people.

The Exodus Quest is a similar length to the previous book, although there’s no indication by the author this time about how long it took to write. The overall quest here is intriguing and I really enjoyed the parts in which the various characters put forward their thoughts and theories and discussed the possibilities in front of them. But, like with The Alexander Cipher, I found some of the subplots uninteresting and I’m not sure the book needs to be as long as it is.

But what really cripples the book is that I found Gaille’s portion of the story much more interesting than Knox’s. His story arc was mostly a lot of chasing and all I wanted to do was get back to the main search. I suppose its a backhanded compliment in a way – Adams is able to craft an intriguing story and his writing shows a great love and passion for the material, but the story that’s wrapped around that isn’t gripping.

I also felt it strange that there’s no resolution to the romantic angle between Knox and Gaille, when it seemed that, at the end of the first book, that they were going to end up together. So, the central quest is good and I admire Adams’ passion and ingenuity in coming up with conspiracies, but the rest of the book is weak, filled with repetitive chases.

Movie Review – Love is Strange (2014)

Director: Ira Sachs

Stars: John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Marisa Tomei, Darren Burrows, Charlie Tahan

After George (Molina) and Ben (Lithgow) get married, what should have been a joyous occasion quickly turns sour as George is fired from his job teaching music at a Catholic school. Unable to pay for their apartment, Ben stays with his nephew while George stays with his friends as they look for a cheaper place, but the stress and tension get to them all.

Molina and Lithgow are really good here and carry the film, although it feels like it’s more Lithgow’s film than Molina’s. Love is Strange does make some conceits in order to tell the story it wants to, for example George doesn’t even apparently consider taking his former employers to court for his dismissal. The story isn’t really about activism. It’s more about a relationship and how people deal with unexpected circumstances. There are other relationships in the film and these have their own problems…buuuuut they’re only hinted at and there’s not enough time in the movie to properly compare and contrast all the different types of relationships.

It’s actually quite a pleasant movie to watch. It’s soothing in a way, but it gets towards the end and it basically falls apart. There are a few subplots introduced that don’t go anywhere, like two kids stealing French books, tension between a man and a wife, and other tension between two gay cops that George is living with. It feels like there are parts missing from the film and I’m sure that Sachs is trying to say something but I’m just not at all sure what it is.

Book Review – The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

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Over the course of seven nights Balram Halwi dictates an e-mail to a visiting foreign dignitary about his own rise from a rickshaw driver to an entrepreneur.

After reading Between the Assassinations (which I enjoyed) I went back to the library and found Adiga’s debut novel as well, which had received much praise. However, I’m glad I came across Between the Assassinations first because I never would have read it if I had started with The White Tiger.

I found the character of Balram completely unlikeable but, more than that, I found him uninteresting as well. I found myself questioning the device of dictating the message, as it just made me think of the poor man who would receive it. I couldn’t stop thinking about how he would just turn it off and not even bother to listen to the ramblings. Perhaps that’s symbolic of how the wider world ignores or is apathetic to the problems that plague the streets of India, but I just found the whole story to be an exercise in monotony. At no point did I care about what happened to the protagonist, and in a book like this you really need to be invested in the protagonist’s life.

As with Between the Assassinations there’s no real plot here, it’s a series of examples of life in India and the differences between the classes and the castes. There are a few moments of suspense, like when Balram discovered a secret about his fellow driver, and Adiga drops in the mention of a murder early on as well. However, this latter example just struck me as a cheap device to hook people in, and keep them reading through a largely forgettable story.

Now, it’s obvious with these two books that Adiga has much to say about India and the structure and attitudes of its society, and while it’s somewhat interesting to see the ground-level view of the country it doesn’t make for an interesting story, at least not in The White Tiger. With Between the Assassinations the vignettes worked well to give snapshots of the city, but with this one I didn’t feel entertained, and it’s fine it Adiga wants to offer a critique of India, but I want a good story to go along with it.

Movie Review – Not Another Happy Ending (2013)

Director: John McKay

Stars: Karen Gillan, Stanley Weber, Ian De Caestecker, Amy Manson, Henry Ian Cusick

Jane (Gillan) is an unhappy writer who finally gets a break with a small publishing house run by Tom (Weber). After her book receives much critical acclaim she’s all set for the follow-up, but there’s a problem. When she’s happy she doesn’t write, so Tom has to try and make her miserable without her knowing.

Not Another Happy Ending is an abysmal movie that I feel insulted by. It’s flawed on so many levels that it’s difficult to know where to begin, and I honestly felt dumber after watching it.

Firstly the whole romance between Jane and Tom is based on a montage at the beginning of the film, and after this we’re supposed to believe that they had some deep feelings for each other. Then, when he changes the title of her book without telling her there’s a big argument and the two swear that once their contract is done they’re not going to have anything to do with each other. But the whole film relies on the conceit that they have this strong romantic bond, and I never felt convinced of this, which made the whole thing a pointless exercise.

Jane ends up with another man played by Henry Ian Cusick who is working on the screenplay to the movie adaptation of her book. But again, they’re only together because the script calls for it. They have no chemistry and there’s barely any interaction between the two of them, so this love triangle collapses before it even begins. There’s no tension and no drama.

Gillan actually manages to salvage some grace, especially in the scenes with her father, but overall it’s all so lacklustre. The attempts by Tom to generate a state of melancholic bliss come off as mean and cruel, and it seems unnecessary since she wrote the bulk of the book without those methods. Oh yeah, and one of her protagonists comes to life and starts talking to her, but since I had no idea what the book was actually about this had zero impact as well.

There’s just no charm to this movie at all. It really frustrates me as well because why are movies like this being made? The characters are flat, the dialogue is bland, the plot beats are hackneyed (ooohhh a film about a writer struggling with writer’s block how f**king original).

This movie is a complete waste of time and space. It feels like less than a first draft. I’ve put more effort into writing this review than the people that wrote the film. Hang your head in shame people behind the scenes for Not Another Happy Ending is going in the pile of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. At this point I’ve seen almost 3100 and this is definitely in the bottom five at least. Another thing I hate as well is that the title makes you think it’s going to subvert expectations but in fact it’s clichéd and predictable.

Do yourself a favour and do not waste your time on this sorry excuse for a movie. Shame on Netflix as well for even having it available to view!

Book Review – The Death of King Arthur by Peter Ackroyd

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The Death of King Arthur is a modern re-telling of Sir Thomas Malory’s original Le Morte D’Arthur. It spans the life of King Arthur and includes the sword in the stone, stores of Merlin, Lancelot and Guinevere’s love, the quest for the Holy Grail, and the classic romance of Tristram and Isolde among others.

I picked up The Death of King Arthur largely because it’s the focus of the current storyline in Once Upon a Time, but also because I’d never actually delved into the legend properly, and as I’m English I thought I should rectify that. I was surprised to learn that Camelot is said to have been in Winchester, which I live very close to, and there were a few other things that I was unaware of, like the fact that the sword in the stone isn’t actually Excalibur.

But I have to say that I found the book a struggle to get through. While it’s a modern re-telling, the style of the prose is historical and I found it to be monotonous. The stories themselves are interesting for the most part but they feel like a collection of stories chopped down and stitched together rather than one continuous narrative with arcs and subplots. There’s not much to be said for character depth, and the motivations of the characters leave a lot to be desired. In his introduction Ackroyd says that he trimmed a lot down because Malory tended to be repetitive, which I’m glad he did because if he hadn’t then I don’t think I would have made it through the whole thing.

There are some amusing parts, and it did make me laugh at how often Merlin disguised himself for no reason at all, but ultimately I found the story lacking in dramatic grandeur. It really felt by-the-numbers ‘A man woke up and he went to a tree and then this happened and then he was tired so he ate and slept but then something else came along and blah blah blah,’ and perhaps you think I am being too harsh since there’s obviously some merit to the legend as it has lasted to the present day, but when you compare it to other ancient texts, like the works of Homer, (and really, in the grand scheme of things The Death of King Arthur isn’t really that ancient) it’s lacking in a number of dramatic aspects.

On the one hand I’m glad to have read it for the sake of reading it, and there are parts that I genuinely enjoyed and found interesting. It is a part of my cultural heritage and I always find it interesting to go back and read the original legend of something after it has been adapted etc over the years, but purely as something to read I found it mostly dull and if it had been any longer I wouldn’t have continued reading it.

Movie Review – The Motivation (2013)

Director: Adam Bhala Lough

Stars: Various personalities from the world of street skating.

The Motivation is a documentary that takes a look at the Street League Championships in New York. There are eight competitors and the film explores their lives and their preparations for the competition, as well as examining the history of the competition and the rise in popularity of the tournament.

I found this documentary to be fairly good but I feel that it lingers too long on the lives of the skaters. While it was necessary to show their lives, some of their stories became repetitive and it lingered too long on certain skaters. However, I’m coming at this from a layman’s perspective so if you’re into the world of skating then perhaps you’ll appreciate the behind the scenes look at these personalities a little more, because you’ll already be familiar with their reputation as skaters.

So I found it middling for the most part, but where it really explodes into life is the final ten/fifteen minutes when the competition begins. I wish that there had been more footage of the tournament and less time spent with the skaters, for the competition was exciting and exhilarating, and it was incredibly tense as the film showed the competitors being eliminated one by one.

One aspect that I particularly enjoyed and is worthy of note is the attitude of the skaters. At the end they all rushed over to congratulate the winner, even though they had just endured the bitter taste of defeat. It showed great professionalism and great heart, that these men are not just rivals but a community.

Movie Review – The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

Director: Francis Lawrence

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Natalie Dormer, Elizabeth Banks, Willow Shields, Sam Claflin and a surprising amount of other people.

In this final part of the third film, Katniss (Lawrence) is ready to assassinate President Snow (Sutherland) for everything he has put the districts through. The rebel forces are also preparing for a final assault on the capital, but while the fate of Panem will be decided on the battlefield, Katniss is still torn between Peeta (Hutcherson) and Gale (Hemsworth).

Okay, so The Hunger Games has been a big phenomenon and through it we also saw the rise of Jennifer Lawrence as a huge Hollywood star, and this film is the culmination of the journey and yet while Lawrence’s star continues to rise Mockingjay Part 2 peters out in an uneven, most dull and drab conclusion, and it seems that Lawrence has outgrown the role that made her the star.

The film picks up from where it left off with Peeta having undergone torture. The film quickly moves on to the task of uniting the final districts, and then the assault on the capital. But Katniss is still kept away from the front lines, used more as a weapon of propaganda than as a soldier. This is a concept and an angle that I really enjoyed, and it was interesting to see Katniss’ struggle between her personal desires to be fighting alongside her brothers and sisters of the district, and her awareness that she’s more than a simple soldier.

But one major problem of the story is that it pays a lot of lip service to the rebel armies and the attack on the capital, yet the camera rarely leaves Katniss. Even in action sequences its often focused on her face, and I get it because Lawrence is that big of a star, but it’s to the detriment of the overall world. In the same vein, the franchise has been blessed with a wide cast of great actors, yet in this final film most of them are sidelined to cameo roles. Even Sutherland, who is the main antagonist,  doesn’t get much to do aside from make some sinister remarks.

Of course Hutcherson and Hemsworth get a fair amount to work with, and I feel that Hutcherson actually outshone Lawrence in the film. The love triangle has simmered throughout the films and it’s finally resolved here, but in a way that feels unsatisfying and I’m still not entirely sure why Katniss made the choice that she did.

On a technical level the film is often dark and there were many times when I could barely tell what was going on. The pace is uneven too. Much of it felt slow, and then the action was rushed through. There are a couple of notable set-pieces, one underground and the other in a courtyard, but other than that Mockingjay Part 2 consists of Katniss talking, walking, resting, thinking, sleeping. It doesn’t make for compulsive viewing, no matter how magnetic Lawrence is.

Not helping the pacing problem is the ending, or I should say endings. It just keeps going and going and going, until eventually it just got painful. Even then it doesn’t feel like a triumphant resolution and the dark tone of the franchise leaves little room for joy.

The focus on Katniss also means that the conflict isn’t as well-realized as it should be. We see the side of the districts but the people of the Capital are not developed or fleshed out, meaning that the war feels empty, and that’s the big problem with the film as a whole, it just feels empty, like everyone just wants it to be over. Perhaps that’s a symptom of splitting the last book into two parts, but it left me rolling my eyes and with a foul taste in my mouth.

I suppose if you’ve seen the other films in the franchise you might as well finish it off, but I can’t recommend it as a good film in its own right. Telling was the fact that before the film there was a trailer for Joy, Lawrence’s next film directed by David O. Russell. She’ll go onto bigger and better things, while The Hunger Games may just be a footnote in her career thanks to a lacklustre conclusion.

Book Review – Pig’s Foot by Carlos Acosta

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Pig’s Foot takes us on a journey through the history of Cuba through the eyes of a man who is the last in line of his family.

Continuing my globe-trotting adventure through literature, I end up in Cuba. I’ve never been to Cuba before and don’t know much about it, so I appreciated the history lesson here (even though it’s not entirely accurate since the author admits at the beginning that he sacrificed historical accuracy for the sake of the story). The book is told in a long narration, and at times this does get exhaustive, but the narrator is charismatic and pops up occasionally to give his own thoughts, which are usually blunt and humorous.

The characters are vivid and so well-written that I found myself liking those that I was probably supposed to hate.

But, unfortunately, there comes a point in the book when I started to wonder where it was going, and it started to turn into a ramble rather than a story. I kept going to the end because it is well-written, but the ending left me feeling underwhelmed. The twist is something that has been used a thousand times before and comes out of nowhere. It feels slapped on and I’m not even sure what point it serves.

If you are interested in Cuba, or you like historical fiction, then this may be a book that you will like. From reading some other reviews it seems that it’s a book that people either love or hate. I fall somewhere in the middle, so I’m not going to say completely avoid this, but it does turn into a bit of a pointless ramble so be wary of that.