Happy Free Comic Book Day!

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Happy Free Comic Book Day! Support your local comic book store today by heading in and seeing all of the shiny pop-culture it has to offer. If you’re not part of the “Wednesday crowd” already, today is a good chance to go see a comic book store at its busiest. Look around and bear in mind that in most large stores Wednesday mornings hold a similar kind of buzz, where you’ll meet like minded people and can chat about what’s going on in the 616.

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As the title suggests, if you turn up today, you’ll get a pick of some free comics, and often some free posters, badges, stickers etc to boot. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re already too late to get into the queues for the rarer, more sought-after stuff, but most stores will stock enough to keep fans at bay til closing time.

For a list of all of the comics that’ll be free today, click here.

Personal favorites include the Skottie Young Teen Titans Go cover, Street Fighter #0, the Sonic The Hedgehog x Megaman Flip Book and the 2000AD Special.

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April 5th – International TableTop day!

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April 5th is International TableTop day!

Spread the word, pick a game, throw a party; do what you can to make TableTop gaming a stable part of your social life and get your friends to geek out! You can host a games session of your own, or find one to join in on at tabletopday.com or by searching for the hashtag #TableTopDay

I think for this International TableTop day I’ll be trying out the Game of Thrones board game, as I’ve heard it’s really well designed and comfortably complicated 🙂

Let me know you ITTD plans in the comments 🙂

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Coin Operated

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Growing up, every other window on my sea front was an arcade. Not the pretty kind with boutique shops and indoor gardens and a violinist for a busker…the other kind.

Going back some decades, when the average Brit could only afford a couple of holidays in a lifetime, (and even then, only within mainland United Kingdom), they chose to spend their downtime in the likes of Whitley Bay; a seaside paradise, known for family beach holidays, and blushing honeymooners. A few of these resorts have survived thanks to the heritage and reputation of their Victorian glory days, such as Brighton, Newport and Blackpool, and up until the late 1990’s Whitley Bay was one of them. People would still flock to the seaside Bed and Breakfast Inns, in search of classical, British grandeur, English cream teas, gold-leafed Wedgewood china and the still-standing tradition of fish and chips on the beach.

For this reason, the entire North East coastline, from South Shields, through my hometown of Cullercoats and up into Whitley Bay, was still illuminated with the lights of arcade galleries and Bingo halls, and the rattle of loose change, jackpots, and one-armed bandits in full swing.

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The arcade was very much a babysitter for the working-class child, and me and my friends would spend a couple of hours there every day, from school ending at 3.30 to our parents returning home from work at 6.30, it was a solid anchor on our attention and safety, and the recipient of our squandered lunch money.

Some kids gambled, others watched, but for me, it was always the coin-op videogame cabinets. Street Fighter, Outrun, Mortal Kombat and Puzzle Bobble devoured my time and captured my thoughts for every moment; whether i was playing them, or in school, cruelly kept away from them.

At the time, consoles like the Sega Mega Drive, Neo Geo and SNES (pronounced ‘snezz’ in the North East) were widely considered luxury items, and held only by the wealthy and addicted. For the average kid, it was actually cheaper to play at the arcades; a concept lost in modern gaming.

A couple of arcades still stand, hollow and unattended, with most of the games replaced with more profitable gambling machines. Of the two arcades I regularly garrisoned at, one is now a block of flats, and the other a gourmet, gastro-pub, selling chicken goujons and tapas from the same geographical spot that I would collect my change, and exchange my tickets.
I still crave the noise, the lights and, unbelievably, the smell of these bastions of JAMMA, MAME and retro gaming.

My hope is to someday put arcade gaming back into my local community, but until then, I’m here, attending conventions, blogging and taking part in any fragment of eSports journalism I can find, as it’s the closest ancestor of the nomadic culture of venue-based, head to head, competitive gaming. Hopefully one day, I’ll be able to Insert coin(s) and continue.

How the BioShock community killed Irrational Games…

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I’m a huge fan of the BioShock franchise, and have been glued to the saga from the moment I first played the original, back in 2010. BioShock actually came with my Xbox 360, in 2009, and admittedly (also, ashamedly) I knew nothing about it…so I sold it on the spot, without ever playing it. It wasn’t until the following summer that I gave the demo a go, and the moment I’d finished it, I was downloading the full title.

Since then, I’ve become somewhat obsessive. I’ve played all of the games to death, read the novel, scheduled a Big Daddy tattoo for my left calf (Rosie, if you’re interested), invested hours of my life into reading the work of Ayn Rand, in particular Atlas Shrugged, a senior inspiration in the founding fabric of BioShock and the concept of Rapture. I’ve even traveled thousands of miles to stay at the Biltmore Hotel and drink in the Engine Room of the Edison in Downtown LA; simply to immerse myself in the closest, real to life, art-deco/diesel-punk experience that could in some way hold semblance to life in a pre-crisis Rapture on Earth. The entire franchise had me wrapt, like it had many, and will forever hold itself in my rogues gallery of games that have struck me, and disturbed me to my core.

That said, I think we, the fans, have some significant responsibility in the recent demise of Irrational Games and BioShock as we know it.

I remember playing through BioShock, and the excitement that followed. I remember when the official Xbox webizine, SentUaMessage featured preliminary footage of BioShock Infinite, complete with Vigor descriptions and even props. I promptly cracked my knuckles and prepared for the most avid PR hunt I’ve ever embarked on.

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Not a scrap of footage, not a screen-shot, not a single interview slipped, unseen, through my grasp. I remember Ken Levine proudly showing off Columbia, describing Tears for the first time, explaining the relationship between Booker and Elizabeth and how their roles would affect the very way in which the new, uncharted territories of Infinite would play out. Then, I remember seeing the follow-up interviews, and the looks of sheer confusion, disappointment and alarm on Levine’s face as the questions poured in; he had lovingly crafted an entire new lovechild in Columbia, and, time after time, the journalists and fans kept asking the same questions:

Where’s Rapture?

What’s happened to Rapture?

How does Rapture fit into the new game?

Will we be seeing more of Rapture in BioShock Infinite?

Have you given up on Rapture, Ken?

Granted, Rapture was very much a feature character in the first two BioShock Games, as much as the Little Sisters and Andrew Ryan himself, but Ken had created a brand-new character, inspired by the fan reactions towards Rapture, and was keen to show the world what it had to offer.

With the original BioShock, Ken Levine and Irrational Games created an intelligent videogame. It provoked questions and learning, philosophy and debate; springing forth gamers, who not only enjoyed the game, but lived it, and continued to live it long after the game had finished; in discussions of morality, art, creative freedom and the concept of a true, limitless, industrial revolution. Levine created the game, probably feeling alone with his thoughts, and in needing of a canvas to express them. What he found with BioShock, was that he infact was in the center of a harmony of like-minded people, and he’d inadvertently created a collective of keen, equally inspiring fans. Cosplays and fan-fictions roared across the internet. Artwork, concepts and speculation ran amok within every cobwebbed corner of the gaming community and a true, cult game was born.

Irrational Games surely had big plans for BioShock, but nothing quite like the movement that followed. Out of nowhere, adolescent gamers, were enjoying the sounds of The Ink Spots, discussing the objectivist movement and libertarianism, and learning the grotesque truth about early, wartime, experimental plastic surgery; minds had opened.

Overwhelmed by all of this, Levine would have been inspired to the core and ignited with ideas to create his next big endeavor, and a new BioShock was imminent. In the same way that Dagny Taggart named her John Galt Line; as a way of promising the unobtainable, Levine named his new fable, Infinite. In naming it Infinite, he was promising his fans the world, and he had every intention of delivering it. It was to be a statement, to the fans, of, “Okay, you got BioShock, now, try this.”

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His previous success and the community behind it both inspired him and alleviated any inhibitions that tied down the original. Infinite was to be bigger, more complex and more personally demanding; pushing the player’s decision making and morality in a way that a videogame had never managed. The sky was literally the limit, and Columbia was a testament to that, towering leagues above it’s predecessor, in ambition and in altitude.

After months and months of work, Ken and the team presented their master work, complete with gameplay footage and a battery of concepts, and, you know the rest. Instead of being embraced with enthusiasm, the communities faces twisted…where was Rapture?

Levine, at no point, considered that fans of BioShock would doubt, or even resind him for trying something new. In the minds of Irrational Games; visiting the same territory over and over again would be the most damning thing, not pushing the game forward!

Ken Levine learned a harsh truth that day; that his perception of the BioShock nation had overshot. As much as players willfully bathed in the new with BioShock, they were still slaves to the familiar, and weren’t ready to let Rapture go. Even though Rapture presented an aggressive, unnerving and inhospitable environment, gamers were afraid to take the leap, and fly from its thorned and twisted nest.

Stunned, unsure of what to do, and with the floor crumbling away beneath their feet, Irrational Games faltered, and returned to the drawing board. Ken Levine, BioShock Infinite and the entire Irrational Games family retreated into the shadows. Milestones were pushed back, previews were delayed and, for months, nothing else was said. Just as fans began losing hope, a new Infinite, and a very tired looking, seemingly disappointed Levine emerged.

In many ways, it was the same game, but somehow, even in early footage, it felt more nostalgic, more linear and more like the Rapture-bound original. Homages and references were already appearing, and, incidentally, due to the huge leave of absence, interests were at an all-time high.

Spurred on by their new lease of life and final acceptance from the fans, Irrational Games powered through with their adjusted, compromised Infinite, and on March 26th 2013 it was released into the wild.

BioShock Infinite was, and still is, incredible. Accruing widespread popularity and critical acclaim, the game has achieved almost a year, so far, in the upper echelons of modern gaming; awards galore. It is, however, unmistakably different from the originally proposed Infinite. After playing the game through entirely and comparing it with the original gameplay trailers, you can feel a sea change in tone.

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BioShock Infinite is, without a doubt, a magnificent game, and a game to be proud of, but I think that Levine may have been disappointed; both for compromising on his ambition and in his discovery of the resonating needs and demands of his fans. Like the inhabitants of Rapture, Levine doctored and spliced his creation, with the best intentions (and in the image he perceived in the expectations of his fans), but in reality, he was creating, what would always be to him, a monster.

I feel that despite the beauty of the game, Levine saw the deranged splicer that shouldn’t have been toyed with underneath its shell. Even though we didn’t see it, and fearing a second Rapture uprising, he stepped into his Bathysphere, leaving BioShock deep beneath the ocean, to fend for itself.

Afraid to fall into the pattern of so many other developers; of succumbing to a crowd-pleasing formula, whilst never pleasing yourself, or trying anything new, Levine and Irrational had to step away, for the sake of their own reputation as leading developers. Their own “Rapture” was lost, and they could only hope to leave unscathed and try again elsewhere.

I can only wonder if things would have been the same, had fans been more trusting, more faithful and more positive when Infinite first emerged. Would we still be looking at only two, roughly circular, Levine titles?

Sadly, that answer is beyond another Tear.

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Games Night – Catan Seafarers

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The Settlers of Catan fast became one of the most popular board games of our time. Launching in 1995, it rose to tabletop fame and popularity and has now sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

Wil Wheaton’s TableTop and BlameSociety’s Beer and Board Games sessions had both been appealing to me, but despite its popularity, I couldn’t find a big enough group that was interested in playing the modern European classic.

Finally, last week I was invited to my first, rather serious, 6-player Catan session.

Considering I’d never played any of the Catan games, playing a doubly expanded version straight off the bat was daunting. Not only were we going to play with the Seafarers expansion, but also the additional 5-6 player expansion on top of that!

Armed with only a couple of Youtube vids worth of info, and some strong, Czech beer, I marched my settlers in, to see how I’d fare.

There’s tonnes of different versions of Catan out there now; from regional editions, to junior editions, to inter-planetary Star Trek editions, but from what I can tell, the Seafarers Edition has a lot to offer, in terms of what new things it brings to the table.

For anyone who hasn’t played Catan, there are many rules, but a single, simple goal of getting 10 Victory points (14 in this expansion, explained later). Points are typically earned by building settlements, expanding settlements and by building and owning the longest roads. All of these tasks are perfromed by reaping the land around your settlements for building materials, and trading your local wares with your opponents. In addition, you can trade materials in for “Development Cards” which can grants bonus points, bonus materials and an additional metagame of accruing the largest army, a process which grants a bonus Victory Point, and occasional control over the games common foe; the robber. The robber ceases development of the tiles around it, and steals from nearby players.

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You can still play your traditional game of Catan with the Seafarers Expansion, depending on what starting scenario you pick. In our scenario, we began with a large, standard Catan board “island”, with several satellite islands surrounding it, some containing the first of Seafarers’ new features; Gold. Gold acts as a wild card, which allows you an instant draw of any raw material you want, and you could quickly see roads and shipping routes plotted in its direction.

 In Seafarers, there’s also a Pirate, which, (you guessed it) acts as a robber on the seas, putting your shipping routes in equal peril.

Shipping routes are the other big addition in Seafarers Edition, represented by adorable little wooden sailboats, and grant access to the distant islands. Settling on an island grants a bonus Victory Point, and for this reason, the target score is raised from 10 to 14, to keep the game the same length as its predecessor (typically 60-90 mins per match).

I’m a big fan of other European board games, such as Carcasonne, but dynamically, Catan seems far superior. The interaction between players, making cutthroat trades and silently conspiring against each other reminded me of Munchkin, where you must maintain sound relationships with certain players, or risk being fed to the lions later in the game. There are 3 distinctive parts to a Catan game; an opening gambit, a large bout of trading and hoarding, and a political race to the finish line, as players become aware of their opponents’ scores. Each segment of the game transitions smoothly, but not without an almost audible “clunk”, as the pace of the game rapidly shifts each time.

After 2 back to back 90 minute matches, I learned a lot, but still finished near the bottom of the pile. I can see a long, treacherous future for myself in Catan, and I’m already hooked, but it’s a game, like poker, where you can only improve by playing more and more and more.

Settlers of Catan retails at £39.99 ($67), with the Seafarers expansion costing around £28.99 and the 5-6 player expansion costing a further £14.99. I was very fortunate to get to play such a big, expensive Catan build straight out the gates, but the standard game, which I’ve played since, is equally rewarding, with its own ebb and flow, and in hindsight, a much better starting point if you want to grasp the basics. They are also readily available online second hand, with a smaller, Travel Edition available for £24.99 new; if you don’t want to dump a pile of money on the game right away.

For £40, with the right company, I can see it being a worthwhile investment, and a great way to sink beers in the living room without getting a TV involved, making for memorable stories of settlement success and setbacks, for many nights to come.

Otona no Kagaku – Science for Adults

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I first saw this series on a webisode of Adam Savage’s One Day Builds on Tested and was instantly hooked on the concept, not to mention; slightly jealous of the Japanese “Otaku” culture.

Gakken’s Otona no Kagaku series is a magazine that focuses on “Science for Adults”, which is aptly what Otona no Kagaku roughly translates as.

The “Magazine” is infact a huge box with a magazine on the back of it, and each episode contains a kit for one of the magazine’s feature projects; from build-your-own theremin kits to cameras, to electromagnetic engines. The entire spirit of the magazine is great. It makes experimenting and learning scientific fundamentals something that can be done outside of a classroom, and more specifically, outside of your teenage years, as many of us grow away from the desire to learn academic skills when we hit adult life.

The part of the series that Adam Savage focused on, and the part that I’ve slowly become enamored by, is the “Strandbeest” magazines, which feature working, miniature models based on Theo Jansen’s wind-powered robots.

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The kits cost 3,500 Yen (£25/$35) out in Japan, and to get them imported, new, into Europe can be costly, typically ranging from £40 to £60 per magazine. For this price, you could actually buy a really nice, European model kit, but the Otona no Kagaku series is a work of art and worth buying, just for the sake of wonder.

I ordered my first Strandbeest immediately after Adam Savage’s speed-build aired last year, and have now bit the bullet, and sank another £60 on it’s sequel, the “Rhinoceros”.

The kits are relatively simple, taking between 45 and 90 mins depending on how you build and which kit you buy. Personally I like to file down any evidence from the molding, and can take up to an hour just preparing and knolling the pieces.

Everything you need comes in the kit, and no cutting, measuring gluing etc is required. If you like, you can simply snap each piece out of its lattice and  get to building, there and then. Due to the fact that nothing needs to be glued, and everything snaps in place, the kit is also quite forgiving, and you can typically undo any mistakes without damaging the pieces, (which is reassuring at £60 a box). Many pieces look almost identical, and due to the instructions coming entirely in Japanese, require a keen eye, and strict attention to detail.

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It’s worth noting, that the instructions are available in English online. The official site, otonanokagaku.net is extremely helpful, and some sellers of replicas even offer CDs with English instructions, so fear not, if you want something in text. I’m a relative novice to model making (although an expert at not finishing them), and I’ve built both of my Gakken models by solely using the pictures from the Japanese magazines, with only minor hiccups, so it can be done.

The kits themselves are good quality, fast, simple builds, and the magazine itself is great to look at, even though I can’t read it. Some of the fan-made builds are incredibly inspiring.

All in all, it’s an expensive build, but it’s a lovely little piece of otaku, and due to it’s impressive appearance and how well it works, it’s well worth splashing out for every once in a while.