And Now For Something Not Completely Different…Taking Stock and Plans for the Future

For the best part of a year now (could be more or less, I’m a bit hazy when it comes to the passage of time) I’ve been posting daily to this blog. The vast majority of these are movie and book reviews, with the odd game review or miscellaneous post sprinkled in. Since it’s coming up to Christmas and the end of the year I thought I’d just take a brief moment to talk about my blog and how I hope to make it grow in the future.

You may or may not know that I’m actually a writer. I do have books available on Amazon, and you can find more details about these by clicking to the relevant tab at the top of the page. Aside from those I write freelance for a number of clients so I use this blog as my ‘fun’ writing, that is to say the writing that I do to relax. I genuinely enjoy writing reviews and offering my thoughts on a variety of topics. My goal with all the movies, aside from offering my opinions about the big releases, is to champion those obscure movies that fly under the radar, and warn people against boring, rubbish films. I watch a hell of a lot of movies and I like to think I do a good job at bringing attention to a variety of films. The books and other reviews I do are basically to break things up a little bit and offer something different, because I don’t read enough books to make one review per day!

But I just thought I’d throw it out there – if anyone wants to respond and give me a bit of feedback it would be appreciated. Is there anything else you think I could offer with my blog? I’m going to be doing a top 10 of the year after Christmas. I was thinking of doing some more top 10s in the future, as I think they’d be fun to put together (I might do a top 10 worst films of the year as well). I’d also love to do a Q&A type thing as well, although I’m not entirely sure how that would work logistically. I basically want to try and encourage more interaction on my blog, because I’d love to hear what other people think.

One thing I’m considering is to start a podcast, although I have no idea how to go about doing that. But I would like a co-host because I think the dynamic would be much better with two people. If anyone is interested give me a shout and we’ll discuss it, it’s just something I think would be fun, and I’d be able to talk about recent news in the movie world as well as doing a few different things.

Other than that I’m still going to post the reviews. I’m still going to watch a lot of movies, at current count I’ve seen just over 2700 so even if I stopped watching movies now there are plenty that I haven’t reviewed. I might start going through my favourite films and reviewing them at some point, because at the moment I review films as I watch them. I want to get more board games reviewed as well because there are a few cool ones I’ve played since I did my last one, it’s just a bit of a pain to set them up for pictures. I’m going to be getting a whole load of books for Christmas as well so you’ll see a lot of book reviews coming in the New Year.

So yes, I just wanted to say thanks for those who read my reviews and I hope you enjoy what I have to offer. If there are any ideas you have for ways to improve my blog please let me know! I know it’s not for a few days yet but I sincerely hope everyone has a merry Christmas (or happy holiday celebration of your choice) and a very good New Year.

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Board Game Review – Havana

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Havana is designed by Reinhard Staupe with artwork by Michael Menzel. The version I have is published by Rio Grande Games. It takes between 30-45 minutes to play and supports 2-4 players.

Say hello to the friendly Cuban walking up to greet you to Havana!

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In this game you are attempting to build buildings to score victory points. The number of points you need to win changes depending on the number of players involved. As you can see in the picture there are two rows of six building tiles placed on the table. You have to buy from the outside in, and once there are two left in a row these are moved to the edge and four new buildings are taken from the stack and refresh the row. In the top right is a victory point value and at the bottom are the resources needed to build that building. You are able to build as many buildings as you can on your turn.

The resources are building materials, which are coloured cubes (red, yellow, brown and blue), debris (grey cubes) pesos and workers. At the beginning of the game four pesos are placed in the middle as are three random cubes. Each player will take a random cube from the bag and will also receive a peso. At any point on their turn a player is able to exchange five pieces of debris for a cube of their choice, and/or five pesos for a worker.

Each player has a hand of thirteen cards. These all have different actions and values ranging from 0-9. On the first turn players will place two cards, face down, on the table, then once all players have done this the cards are revealed. Each player orders his from lowest to highest, (for example, had I played a ‘4’ and a ‘1’ they would be arranged as ‘1, 4’). The totals are looked at (in this case I have 14) and the player with the lowest total goes first, followed by the player with the next lowest and so on. Players perform the actions on the cards and then, if possible, build buildings. After all players have completed their turns three pesos are added to the middle and three random cubes are drawn from the bag. Then, the player who went first that turn plays a new card and discards one of the cards he has in play. In turn, everyone else follows and then reveals the new card, adjusted the order accordingly. The player with the lowest total goes first, and this continues until someone reaches the victory point goal.

I’ve been really impressed with Havana. I haven’t played the four player game yet but I have played it with three and two players. It’s surprisingly meaty for a short game and it offers a lot of tactical choices and decisions. I love the method of choosing which cards to play, as you have to assess what other players need and what they’re likely to play, as some cards are quite useless if someone else has played a similar card ahead of you. So you have to weigh up whether it’s better to go first or take a risk and hope that you won’t lose out if you go last. It gives you a lot to think about and I also love how you can only buy the tiles on the edge of the row, as this adds another layer to think about and plan for. It also helps to keep track of what cards your opponent has already played, so even when it’s not your turn you can be engaged, but really it’s not a long game and the turns come around quite quickly.

So far the vast majority of the games have been very close so there’s not a runaway leader problem. It’s quite easy for a player to build to or three buildings on one turn and catch up even if they are lagging behind. In one of the three player games I played it was possible for all three of us to win on the same turn and it just depended on who played the lowest total cards to allow them to go first. I wish more games implemented this system because so far it seems well-balanced and I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it in another game.

Unfortunately, the wealth of options available can lead to a form of analysis paralysis, especially as you have to weigh up what is best for you with what  you think other players are going to do. However, this should be taken in the spirit of a light game and it’s not as though a two hour heavy game is going to depend on a decisions. If you do make an error then it’s very easy to set up and play again straight away. There are different strategies available as well, like are you going to hoard pesos, workers or resources, yet you also have to be careful to not make yourself a target for thieves and tax collectors.

Speaking of thieves and tax collectors, Havana does allow you to be a douche to the other players. There is also a card that allows you to remove one building from the edge, so if you know someone is hoping to build that building then you can totally screw them over. I quite like this because I can take it all in good spirits and again, it’s not like you’re ruining two hours of meticulous planning, but I know some people don’t like conflict so it may be an aspect of the game that people find unappealing. The good thing is that you don’t have to steal from people if you don’t want to, and there are ways to protect yourself from being stolen from.

I’m really enamoured with this game. It offers a lot to think about, a lot of options but it’s short enough that it doesn’t burn your brain too much and it can still be considered a light game. It’s also a good gateway game to teach people about resource management and thinking about how to anticipate other people. The artwork on the cards and tiles is nice as well. I was hoping that the bag was a little bigger so I could toss the box and keep everything in the bag to save space, but alas that was not to be. The rules were written well and it’s very easy to teach. The only thing that takes a little time for new players is to understand what all the cards do, but none of them are overly complicated and a new player can beat someone who has played it a lot (which I have found out, unfortunately). All the components are of a good quality and one little thing I like is that the backs of the cards have a picture of a door, so when you reveal them it’s as though you are opening the door to them.

Overall I really enjoy Havana and it hasn’t gotten old yet. There’s a lot of choices, it’s easy to get new people involved and it’s something that is accessible to people of various ages. It’s a relaxing, casual game that offers a lot of engagement and I would recommend it highly.

30 Day Challenge – Day 1

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I saw this on the LittleBookBlog and it seemed to be a fun idea! So Day 1 is the best book I read last year. Since my memory doesn’t go back that far and we’re almost at the end of this year I’m going to adapt the question slightly to the best book I read in the last year. There are a few contenders here because I received a Kindle Fire last Christmas and I’ve worked my way through a lot of the free classics available, and my reading habits have steadily increased over the past year anyway so I have a wider array to chose from. 

I could choose a work of Rafael Sabatini, W. Somerset Maugham or Jack London. I’ve read a lot of their works through Kindle. One I have very high praise for is People of the Abyss by Jack London. It’s an account of how he lived in London as a homeless person, and he documented his experiences. It’s a harrowing, depressing book, made all the worse by the fact that a lot of issues he talks about are still prevalent today. 

I’ve become a massive fan of Sherlock Holmes over the last year as well, so much so that sometimes I forget he’s actually not a historical figure. The Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes collects all of Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels and short stories, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading them. Given the cultural impact of Moriarty and, to a lesser extent, Irene Adler I was surprised at how little they appeared in the original stories. I think it’s more of shock when compared with superheroes, since their enemies return and re-appear regularly. 

The Walking Dead Compendiums 1&2 are also really good. I was a huge fan of the tv show. It’s gone down in my estimation now, but the comics were awesome and I devoured them far quicker than I should have. 

Two recent books I’ve read and reviewed, The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear would come close. They’re complex works with so much depth it’s ridiculous. 

I was really impressed with the Locke & Key series of graphic novels, and I’m looking forward to the last couple of collections to be released. There were some shocking moments and the story was captivating. 

I’m going to choose two possible answers here because one of them is cheating a little. 

The first is the series of A Song of Ice and Fire. I know, it’s not one book, but it’s kind of hard to separate them, especially since I read them all back to back and was completely engrossed. I was hooked on the series and then I was hooked on the books. Some fantastic storytelling, and the world is given so much depth it’s incredible. I was in two minds about starting them because I wasn’t sure if it would change the way I feel about the show, but they are insanely good. I find myself liking (or at least sympathising) with all of the point of view characters, even some that I dislike in the show. The only regret I have is that now I’ve read them I’m hating the wait for the next one! 

The next one may strike some of you as an odd choice because you may not think of it as a book at all, and in some ways it’s surprising that it beats out all of the other novels and short stories I’ve read. Marvel have an Essentials line where they reprint old comics in black and white. Typically it’s 500-600 pages to a collection and they’re very good value for money, if you don’t mind the fact that it’s black and white. I resumed collecting them this year and added some more Spider-Man, X-Men and Daredevil to my collection. It’s the Spider-Man one I want to talk about though, and I’m not even choosing the whole selection, just a couple of issues #121 & #122.

Issue #121 is when Gwen Stacy dies and it’s such a powerful moment. Spidey’s sorrow, frustration and anger leap off the page. It’s made all the more traumatic by the fact that he came so close to saving her, and yet there was nothing he could do. It piles more tragedy and more angst on Spider-Man but it never strikes me as a shock death or one that’s done just to boost sales of the comic. It’s a purely storytelling decision and one that has ramifications, beginning in the next issue. The reason why I’m choosing this as well is because of the last page. Peter is desolate after Gwen’s death, and in the last page he shouts at Mary-Jane, insults and tells her to leave him alone. It would be completely natural for her to leave him alone, but instead she closes the door and chooses to stay with him. It’s just a pure moment. Despite what he says MJ knows he needs her in that moment, and she’s there for him. It’s a theme that was played up in the Raimi Spider-Man films to great effect, but here there’s so much emotion contained in in nine panels that it tops everything else. I do have to admit a caveat, obviously I’m a huge Spider-Man fan so this has more resonance to me than a lot of other things, but it’s so powerful and so simple that it’s the best thing I’ve read this year.

Red 2 Review

It’s been a while since I’ve seen Red. I remember liking it but not as much as I thought I would, given how everybody raved about it. I have to say I really enjoyed the sequel. It was fast paced, funny, and everybody got a chance to shine. Even Bruce Willis, who sometimes can be a tad…subdued, seemed like his heart was in the film. The story wasn’t anything special (Willis’ and Malkovich’s characters are framed for being involved in a secret mission and they have to find out the truth all the while being hunted by various governments) but what sells the film is the chemistry between the cast and the slick direction. 

With a number of characters in different countries it would have been easy to lose focus, but there was a nice animated cut to show the country we’re travelling to. The action set-pieces were dynamic and visceral, and at no point did the action seem repetitive. All of the cast were on top form, even the supporting characters (Brian Cox in particular did a lot with just a few minutes on screen). At one point I thought there was a danger that some of the main players would be put to the side, but those doubts were swiftly dealt with. 

Despite all the big names included in the film I think Mary-Louise Parker stole the show. I loved her jealousy of Catherine Zeta-Jones’ character and all the comedy that came from her relationship with Frank Moses (Willis). Anthony Hopkins was great too, and after his performances as Storm Shadow and now this movie I’m becoming quite a fan of Byung-Hun Lee. Also, Neal McDonough really resembles William Shatner. He almost looks like someone melded the two Captain Kirks. 

The only negative thing I do have to say is that the resolution of the plot was a bit predictable and arbitrary, and it seemed to happen because they needed the film to end, not because it felt organic. It didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the film though because the plot was secondary to the chemistry between the actors. It’s a fun two hours and it’s well worth seeing.