Thursday, September 28, 2006

Flying with Kestrels

Tuesday afternoon at Butser Hill, clipped into the harness, with my wing laid out tidily behind me on the grass. Looking westwards out over the Hampshire countryside, watching the cumulus clouds rolling in towards the hill. Each puffy, building cloud represents a thermal, warm air released from ploughed fields baking in the sun. I have already flown once today, a one-minute fiasco that ended with a much-too-fast slope landing and quarter of an hour unpicking my wing from a bush.

There are four of us flying here today, and this is only my second time at Butser. Although this is my local hill I have only recently summoned the courage to join the club. The young guy with long hair - who annoyed everyone by turning up and flying without speaking to anyone - launched a couple of minutes ago and immediately sunk out of sight. This is a narrow ridge with complicated bowls and spurs - it doesn't generate much dynamic lift, you are reliant on thermals for soaring. Last time I was here Shippo, the septuagenarian club coach, tipped me off about the magic tree visible further down the slope from launch - when its leaves start rustling there is probably a thermal on its way up the slope.

Sure enough, the leaves of the magic tree have started frantically waving around, even though it is fairly still up here at launch. I quickly turn to face my wing and arrange my hands with crossed risers. I am nervous of reverse launches - having done lots of winching at Green Dragons I am happier with forward launching. I can feel the wind strengthening on the back of my neck, so I hastily switch the vario on, then pull gently on the risers to inflate the wing. It comes up beautifully with a rushing sound as I take one step towards it, brake gently, then turn and lean forwards in the harness, pushing down the slope as it lifts me into the air. The ground rushes by a few feet below me then drops away as I settle into the seat, then - whoa! - as I approach the hedge I am lifted strongly skywards. Carefully I turn right along the line of the hedge, then follow the contours of the ridge trending away northwards, vario bleeping enthusiastically as I continue to gain height. The landscape is opening up but I am captivated by the sight of a kestrel hovering about 30 feet below me. As I approach his airspace he stoops, and I see him grasping at the grass with outstretched talons, groping for a luckless mouse or shrew, before he gives it up and leaps into the air again.

I make a left turn, trying to keep it flat with some opposite brake, then cruise back down the ridge. Launch looks far below, though it can't be much more than 100ft, and I imagine Pete and Jan are watching me enviously - Pete raises a camera to his face. Ahead to the south I can see clear to the coast around Chichester. There is lots of lift coming off the magic tree, and I turn away from the ridge, trying to make the most of it, then left again into the bowl which funnels the air skyward, pushing me higher as I turn right again for the return trip. And so it goes on for 10 minutes, other flyers joining me in the air to enjoy these moments of grace. Again I watch the kestrel stoop and come away empty-handed. And later a buzzard cruise below me on the opposite tack, only a few feet below. I can see every detail of her mottled plumage and the delicate twists of her tail that control her flight with perfect precision.

Then suddenly it's gone. The warm lifting air has moved on, and I quickly lose height. I decide to try for a top-landing - not something I have managed very often, and come in over launch with lots of ground speed, and the trees approaching quickly. This time I keep my head and as the ground approaches I turn away into wind, keeping the brakes on, and drop gently onto the ground, whooping with exhileration. Back to earth, bound by gravity again, having inhabited - for brief, privileged moments - the realm of the kestrels and buzzards.......

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

I visited my friendly local game shop today - I am currently enjoying 2 weeks, yes 2 weeks off work - and this is the sort of idle thing I can afford to do with this vast tract of empty time. Reef Encounter caught my eye - a nice heavy box of pretty stuff for £27. And I was tempted by another even heavier box - Beyond Valor (£59), gateway to the black hole that we call ASL. And then there was tempting small fry like Tigris & Euphrates Card Game, Gang of Four, and various Age of Steam maps. But, like a long-period comet, I kept returning to the same shelf, and its Runebound (2nd Edition). I picked it up - I turned it over and looked at the blurb - I put it back on the shelf - I returned 5 minutes later - I studied the blurb this time - I went back round the shop - I came back to study the expansion sets and the card decks - they looked really cool - this looks like a hobby in its own right. But do I even like generic-fantasy-themed games? And would I ever find anyone to play this with? But it looks like it could play pretty well solo? But £35 is quite a lot of money.

In the end I walked away empty-handed. But I may well be back......

Friday, September 22, 2006

Book Meme

I just noticed that Yehuda has tagged me with this Book meme. These are just the sort of questions I love to answer, so here goes....

1. Book that changed your life.

The Bible of course, specifically the gospels. Pretty much every word that C.S. Lewis ever wrote. More recently True Conversion (Wallis), The Openness of God (Pinnock) and How Going to the Movies Helped Save My Soul (Higgins) have made a huge impact.

2. Book read more than once.

The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien), War and Peace (Tolstoy), The Worm Ourobouros (Eddison), Tristram Shandy (Sterne), any of Jane Austen's books. Actually I reread books quite a lot, there are many more I could add to this list. Not quite sure what this says about me - I prefer safety? I spend too much time reading? I'm too mean to buy new books?

3. Book on a Desert Island.

BBC rules - I'm allowed the Bible and Shakespeare anyway? On top of those I think I would want the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations - gives you a window into the whole history of Western thought and culture.

4. Book that made you laugh.

High Fidelity (Hornby), all of Patrick O'Brian's books.

5. Book that made you cry.

Hmm. I don't cry easily, but Persuasion (Austen) gets to me every time.

6. Book you wish you'd written.

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (Jon McGregor). I loved this book, then heard the author speak at Greenbelt last month, and he made me feel that writing is not only a marvellous thing, but a possible thing too......

7. Book you wish had never been written.

Very hard to say this about any book - I hate the book-burning mentality. I don't think we ever improve the situation by suppressing ideas - not de Sade, not Hitler even.....

8. Book currently reading.

Empire of the Sun (Ballard), which was my choice for our next book group meeting (I belong to a fabulous book group in Richmond West London).
I have also been stuck in the middle of Boswell for several years now.....

9. Book meaning to read.

Don Quixote (Cervantes). And I really will, soon, it's there on the bookshelf waiting for me....

10 Tags ...

Phil, Rob&Bob, Annie, Mayank, Gareth

Tempus - is it Coffee or is it Tea?

Once I was drinking a cup of coffee and wondering why it tasted so disgusting. Half way through my drink I realized that it was a cup of tea. The second half tasted just fine - once my brain was no longer confused by misleading expectations, I was able to enjoy the familiar beverage as usual.

I have just listened to Tom Vasel's interview with Martin Wallace, and I think I have understood something about Tempus. It's not a WarFrog game, it's a Martin Wallace design that is published by a German games company, and it's aimed squarely at the family strategy games market. So if you sit down to Tempus expecting a Civilization-type gamer's game - you're expecting the wrong flavour. Your brain will be confused and you won't enjoy it. But if you expect a fairly light game that aims to give German-style gamers their first taste of empire-building in a short, slick package, I think Tempus delivers this in spades.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Mystery Game

Smatt (weird name) debuts today at Gone Gaming with a post about the Nepalese game "Tigers and Goats". Which brought back memories of my 2001 trip to Nepal - hence these scans of a couple of consecutive pages from my trip diary. While I was out there I saw this game for sale all over the place, but I never saw anyone actually playing it. Which makes me wonder if it is more for the benefit of the tourists than a popular folk game in its own right.
A game I did see being played, with great enthusiasm by a crowd of idlers in a village called Birethanti (at the entrance to the Annapurna National Park) involved two dice, a bag, and little piles of shells in various places in a semi-circle. You can see below the sketch of the game that I made. A difficult hand-waving conversation with my porter yielded the (tentative) information that it was a Tibetan gambling game called Sho. But I have never found anything about it on the Internet, and if anyone out there knows any more I would be very interested to hear from you.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Think of it as a Game of Darts

This is me last weekend doing a tow launch at the Open National Paragliding Championships. Note the superb technique. It was my first ever flying competition, and I had a great, if low scoring, time. There were about 20 competitors, including some very fine flyers and at least one former world champion, so I was a bit out of my depth!

Think of it as a game of darts - and you are the dart! They mow a 10m radius target on the field, and the idea is for us to release from the winch cable, fly back to the target and land on it as accurately as possible. We got one practise and 6 competition rounds done over the course of the weekend. The sky-gods were making scores like 15 or 30cm. My best two results were 2.1m and 3.1m - that's right, a different unit of measurement for me. All the other rounds I missed the target completely! It is an incredibly subtle and delicate judgement - you are estimating your ground speed and sink rate, the wind speed and direction at various heights, not to mention the little thermals popping off the grass at random intervals. You have to be able to think very fast in 3 dimensions. It boggles me how the sky-gods can consistently make such tiny scores. Unbelievably skillful!

The feeling of achievement when I did manage to get my boots down inside the circles was amazing. It felt almost as good as buying a permanent train in 1830. I definitely want to get some more practise in next season, and compete again.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Maths Trade Madness

Well the UK Maths Trade finished on Wednesday. I suppose I fondly imagined that the trade resolving software would work some kind of magic, whereby I would get rid of 3 items of old tat from under my bed, and receive in return 3 exciting new games in shrink-wrap. It didn't quite work like that - no-one wanted a copy of Dampfross with the pens dried out, or of Slick! the obscure cousin of Railway Rivals, complete with its original tube. However I did get rid of an ancient copy of Sorceror's Cave, with The Sherlock Holmes Card Game thrown in as a sweetener. The trade circle is interesting:

I send Sorceror's Cave to someone who sends...
Shadows over Camelot to someone who sends...
Blue Moon (German) to someone who sends...
Formula Motor Racing to someone who sends...
Dungeons and Dragons the Boardgame to me!

I feel a bit sorry for the guy who swaps his shrink-wrapped Shadows over Camelot for my ancient Sorceror's Cave (perhaps he's a Sherlock Holmes fan?) but the other trades look mostly kind-of reasonable.

An interesting exercise - it's very exciting reading the list every day and wondering what you will end up with. Next time I will try trading something a bit more valuable. Advanced Civilization anyone?

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Like, Wow....

I got a mention on this week's, in their "testimonial of the week", for my posting about Treehouse. So, here's a warm welcome to any visiting hippy-gamers:

Peace Dudes!

My So-Called Games Hobby

I finished another solo game of Ancients last night - sad isn't it? This time it was Ticinus River, the cavalry and light infantry engagement. My impression was that this looks very difficult for the Romans - how are you going to stop your light infantry being overwhelmed by those heavy cavalry lined up opposite? And the back edge of the board is much too close (there's one hazard that the historical commanders didn't have to worry about!) So the very first priority was to get those light infantry forward, even if it was into the face of the heavy cavalry, just to give them some room to evade or retreat. As it worked out the Carthaginian right wing was immobilized for the whole game, through lack of cards, and their assault on the Roman right turned into a disaster - never use light troops to close-assault anything but other lights, no matter how outnumbered the enemy look. In the end, against the odds, the Romans won an overwhelming victory. Rome 6, Carthage 1.

I also downloaded the latest VASSAL module yesterday. After all this intensive training I feel almost ready to risk an online opponent.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Yes to Blogs, No to Consimworld?

Days of Wonder are using a blog to keep us informed about their new Commands and Colors game BattleLore. This is a great idea - fans can add their comments, but the rest of us don't have to read them if we don't want to. Unlike many of the forums on ConsimWorld, the interesting stuff from the design team is not drowned out by a stream of chatter and bitching from the gaming "community".

I gave up reading the GMT Games forum on Consimworld a couple of years ago because of the extremely low signal to noise ratio. I had to wade through so much rubbish - baseball chatter, whining, flamewars, Richard Berg insulting people, dumb suggestions for new games - just to get the latest news from GMT. But I miss a sense of connection with what is going on at GMT. I wish they would just give up Consimworld as a bad job, and start a company blog instead.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

More Ancients News

GMT have also posted a bonus pack with 5 more battles from the Truceless War. One of them uses those war machine blocks we have been wondering about!

New Ancients Scenarios

GMT have posted a new scenario booklet for Commands & Colors: Ancients. As well as the 3 bonus scenarios originally supplied with pre-orders only, it also has two brand-new scenarios: Bagradas and Great Plains. I tried them both solo at the weekend.

Bagradas was fairly evenly matched. The Carthaginian elephants advanced behind their cloud of skirmishers pushing into the Roman screen of light infantry, it was spectacular. Eventually the elephants broke through into the Roman line and did quite a bit of damage. The clincher was a Carthaginian Double-Time card which brought the phalanx into contact with the Romans and won the battle. Carthage 7, Rome 3.

Great Plains seems less balanced. It's hard to see how the Carthaginians could win this one - they are outnumbered and they only have 4 cards to the Romans' 6. They made the most of the slingers' longer range as the battle opened, but pressure from Roman cavalry on the Carthaginian right, plus the relentless grind of the Roman line in the centre, wore them down. Hasdrubal was killed in combat, and their centre dissolved for a convincing Roman victory. Rome 6, Carthage 4.

Ancients is very enjoyable solo when opponents are in short supply. I remove the Strike First and Counter-Attack cards, and don't look at the new card drawn until that side's turn comes round again. I even have a chair on each side of the table - it makes for a lot of getting up and walking around, but it helps me put myself in the shoes of the side whose turn I am taking at the moment.

Friday, September 08, 2006

I watched "A Scanner Darkly" yesterday at Covent Garden Odeon. I left the cinema wanting to see it again as soon as possible - there is just so much to think about and notice in the film. A really striking film - several things struck me in fact:

1) The incredible technique used to create the animated look. Every shot looks stunning. The shifting images and colours are used to build the atmosphere of paranoia and doubtful appearances. The close-ups of Arctor inside his scramble suit use a different technique - they seem to have been drawn, giving an extra intensity to his isolation inside his hidden identity.

2) For a Hollywood thriller, there is almost no violence - just an imagined incident and some horseplay in Arctor's house - except of course for the hidden act of gradual but extreme violence that is at the dark centre of the film.

3) Nevertheless the tension builds unbearably, and is not resolved at the end of the film. You leave the cinema with that tension still stuck in your gut. 24 hours later I'm still processing it.

4) It's a quiet film. Usually at the cinema the idiots next door munching bags of crisps get drowned out by the soundtrack. Not in this film - I heard every rustle and munch. What music there is, is all Radiohead. Very appropriate.

5) Biblical references - I counted four - are used to add resonances not of hope but of despair.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Check out the latest UK Math Trade - I'm hoping to unload some of my ancient history!

(Thanks Iain for the tip.)

It's my PRECIOUS!!

Dave arrived on my doorstep yesterday evening, all the way from Salisbury and full of enthusiasm for another War of the Ring session (with the beautifully painted figures, isn't they, Precious.) I took the Shadow this time - it's quite a while since I was on this side of the fence, and I enjoyed it a lot - brooding in my dark tower, gathering numberless hosts of minions, sending forth my Nazgul to spread terror abroad, and launching waves of dark armies to enslave the world.

There were a couple of highlights in the game: Dave sent Gandalf to Erebor to rouse the dwarves and gather an army, which attacked a large army of Easterlings in the Vale of Carnen and destroyed it! Unfortunately for Dave there was another army of orcs close behind who found the defenders of Erebor nicely depleted by their victory. Another time the Witch King returned to Angmar and marched against Rivendell, taking it after a long and bitter seige.

The struggle ended with the fall of Dol Amroth, sealing a military victory for me, with the fellowship yet to reach Mordor.

I really enjoy the sense of story in this game, the way it follows a narrative arc towards a definite and rapidly approaching conclusion. At the moment every playing is dramatic and different, it's hard to imagine it becoming stale for a long while yet.

Friday, September 01, 2006

OK I know this is a board games blog, but you need to have a look at this.

The machinery of gaming has run amok.

Instead of serving creative vision, it suppresses it. Instead of encouraging innovation, it represses it. Instead of taking its cue from our most imaginative minds, it takes its cue from the latest month's PC Data list. Instead of rewarding those who succeed, it penalizes them with development budgets so high and royalties so low that there can be no reward for creators. Instead of ascribing credit to those who deserve it, it seeks to associate success with the corporate machine.

It is time for revolution.


I had to cancel a game session with my local group last night because I was working late. And a long-awaited Rommel in the Desert session with Iain tomorrow fell victim to Iain's family pressures.

Adult life, eh? My gaming life at the moment seems to consist of reading gameblogs, occasional visits to game shops, reading rules - but never actually playing the games. All foreplay and no main event. Sad isn't it?

Music, Mud and Muesli

Greenbelt was good again. I didn't see so much music this year - I think the real strength of Greenbelt lies in its talks and seminars. However I did spend an hour on stage with a full-on rock band! This was on Saturday morning when I was helping to lead a worship service with The Burn Band - don't worry, I didn't sing, I was just doing a few readings. But with the lights and the mikes and the music - I felt like a star!

Many highlights this year: Andrew Motion doing a reading; sessions from Steve Turner on the Beatles and Johnny Cash; Vic Thiessen on the myth of redemptive violence in film; Jon McGregor ("If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things") on the process of writing; Jim Wallis on God's politics; Juliet Turner singing to an audience of twenty in the Sticky Music tent, with as much commitment as if we were thousands.

No gaming was done, unless you count noodling with an Icehouse solitaire game in a little coffee tent - as always the coloured pyramids drew questions from curious onlookers.