Saturday, 16 January 2077

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Saturday, 15 December 2018

The SFF All-Time Sales List (revised)

It's that time of the decade again when we dust down the SFF All-Time Sales List, the probably-definitive and at-least-half-accurate guide to the sales figures of as many SF and Fantasy series I could find. We previously did this in 2008, 2013, 2015 and 2016, so welcome to the fifth outing for this list.

The usual caveats and rules: these figures came from a mixture of publishers, authors themselves, agents, Wikipedia articles and an awful lot of PR copy. In many cases they failed to distinguish between "in print" (including copies sitting on bookshelves or in a remaindered warehouse somewhere) and "actually sold", although as e-book sales take off this is becoming less of a problem. Some authors update their figures regularly and others do not, so some of these figures are cutting-edge and up to date, and others may be years out of date.

There are 367 authors on this list, 277 of whom have sold more than 1 million copies each. The lower reaches of the list is extremely incomplete (and for future lists I may drop authors under 1 million sales, as it's getting far too hard to cover them all).

This version of the list has benefited from studies of German sales via my colleagues at, as well as increased knowledge of sales in China.

1) J.K. Rowling (600 million)
J.K. Rowling may have completed Harry Potter, but the series is still selling phenomenally well. Coupled with the success of her adult novels and the Harry Potter stage play, her position at the top of the table is maintained and her lead increased.

2) Stephen King (c. 400 million) 
As said in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1996), King's worldwide sales are totally incalculable and the above figure remains fairly conservative. King's Dark Tower series has also sold more than 30 million copies by itself.

3) J.R.R. Tolkien (c. 350 million) 
Tolkien's sales are likewise incalculable: 100,000 copies of a pirated version of The Lord of the Rings were sold in the United States alone in under a year, so the figures for unauthorised versions of the book in other countries are completely unguessable. What remains certain is that The Lord of the Rings is the biggest-selling single genre novel of all time, and possibly the best-selling single novel of all time. More than 50 million copies of the book have been sold since 2001 alone. The 100+ million sales of The Hobbit alone have also been bolstered significantly by the Peter Jackson movies. If anything, the above figure may well be the most conservative on the list and Tolkien's sales may be vastly more (and possibly more than King's).

4) Stephenie Meyer (250 million)
The Twilight series has sold a quarter of a billion copies in a decade on sale. An impressive and startling achievement.

[Dean Koontz (c. 200 million)]
Dean Koontz's official website claims sales of 450 million, which seem hard to credit for an author with a big profile, but nowhere near that of King or Rowling. Other figures suggest 200 million, which seems much more credible. However, Koontz's eligibility for the list is questionable given that he has written numerous non-SFF novels (though many of them still within the horror or suspense thriller genres). Thus his placement on the list is for those who consider him to be a genre author.

[Michael Crichton (c. 200 million)]
Michael Crichton published 27 novels during his lifetime, selling more than 200 million copies. Only eight of those novels are SF, but these include most of his best-known novels (including Jurassic Park, The Lost World, Sphere, Congo and The Andromeda Strain). His placement here is for comparative purposes and for those who consider him to be a genre author.

5) Anne Rice (136 million) 
Anne Rice's vampire books were a huge phenomenon through the 1980s and 1990s, bolstered by the Tom Cruise/Brad Pitt movie.

6) CS Lewis (120 million+) 
No change here, though Lewis's sales have likely increased somewhat due to the movies based on his books.

7) Edgar Rice Burroughs (100 million+) 
Edgar Rice Burroughs was a hugely prolific author. He has sold more than 100 million copies of his novels, including the SF Barsoom, Pellucidar, Venus, Caspak and Moon series and the non-SF Tarzan series.

8) Sir Arthur C. Clarke (100 million+) 
Sir Arthur C. Clarke gains the distinction of being the only author on the list to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and have an orbit named after him. Clarke was already a well-known, big-selling SF author when the film 2001: A Space Odyssey and his television coverage of the first moon landing catapulted him into becoming a household name. A steady stream of best-selling, high-profile and critically-acclaimed SF novels continued into the 1980s, when his profile was again boosted by his TV series, Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World. As well as his SF novels he also published a large number of non-fiction books and volumes of criticism on matters of science.

9) Suzanne Collins (100 million+)
Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games hadn't even been published when I created the very first list. The trilogy has been published in full, sold over 100 million copies (over 65 million in the USA alone) and generated four hit movies since then. Very impressive.

[Jin Yong (100 million+)]
The late Jin Yong has sold over 100 million copies of his wuxia novels in China, which cross the boundary between fantasy and historical fiction.

10) George R.R. Martin (91 million+)
A Song of Ice and Fire's sales have exploded in the last eight years. From circa 12 million books sold in 2011, the series sold more than 9 million copies in the remainder of that year alone. Though Martin's sales were starting to noticeably take off anyway in the mid-2000s, the main reason for the boost has been the remarkable success of the Game of Thrones TV series on HBO. Sales have now eclipsed 60 million in the United States alone and 90 million worldwide, and continuing to rise. He has also sold 1.2 million books in Spanish. He has also sold 1 million copies of The World of Ice and Fire.


Some cool art of the Seven Ajahs from THE WHEEL OF TIME

Artist Sofia Augusto has posted some excellent artwork depicting the Seven Ajahs of the Aes Sedai from Robert Jordan's fantasy series The Wheel of Time.

The artwork depicts, from left to right, Alviarin of the White Ajah (and Black); Yukiri of the Grey Ajah; Nynaeve of the Yellow Ajah; Cadsuane of the Green Ajah; Moiraine of the Blue Ajah; Verin of the Brown Ajah; and Elaida of the Red Ajah.

Friday, 14 December 2018

Two new TV series confirm the existence of a shared WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS universe

Cult 2014 movie What We Do in the Shadows, which brought the genius of Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi to a worldwide audience (leading to the latter's involving in directing Thor: Ragnarok and working on the new Star Wars TV show), has now spawned an entire related universe, with two TV shows already in production and a sequel movie in the planning stages.

First up is New Zealand-based Wellington Paranormal, which follows hapless cops Kyle Minogue and Officer O'Leary as they investigate weird goings-on in the Wellington area. Minogue and O'Leary appeared several times in the movie as the easily-hypnotised cops constantly getting involved in the vampires' misadventures. A first season of 13 episodes has already aired and a second season has been commissioned for 2019. So far an international distribution deal has not been signed, but I wouldn't be surprised to see this showing up on Netflix or Amazon before too long.

Next in rotation is a more direct TV version of the movie, also called What We Do in the Shadows. Production of Season 1 is already complete and this should air on FX in the States in early 2019, with Netflix or Channel 4 likely to pick up the UK transmission rights. What We Do in the Shadows is set in New York City and stars Kayvan Novak, Matt Berry, Nastasia Demetriou and Harvey Guillen. Despite early reports that the TV show will be a remake of the movie, it's actually an all-new story with a new cast of characters. The events of the TV show are set in motion when a minion of the old vampires of Europe arrives in the New World to see how the vampire conquest is going after 400 years, only to find they haven't managed to get off Staten Island. Shenanigans ensue.

Waititi and Clement are also developing a sequel to the movie. Called We're Wolves, the film will catch up on the wolf pack established in the first move and explore their lives in a similar mockumentary style.

Clement and Waititi have confirmed (albeit possibly with tongue firmly in cheek) that they see the movies and TV shows as all taking place in one big universe (possibly Waititi's exposure to the Marvel and Star Wars universes coming through there) and there's a chance characters from the original movie may show up in both TV shows in some capacity.

Season 1 of HIS DARK MATERIALS wraps shooting

Filming has been completed on Season 1 of His Dark Materials, the BBC/New Line co-production based on Philip Pullman's novels of the same name.

The new TV series, planned to span five eight-episode seasons, will adapt the three books of the trilogy (Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass) in full. It is the second attempted adaptation of the series, following on from the 2007 movie The Golden Compass. This new series is a total reboot with no relation to the movie version.

A second season has already been greenlit and will now enter pre-production. Season 1 will undergo a heavy period of post-production and will air on BBC-1 in the UK and HBO in the United States, most likely in the summer or autumn of 2019.

The series stars Dafne Keen (Logan) as Lyra, Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) as Lee Scoresby, James McAvoy (X-Men) as Lord Asriel and Ruth Wilson as Ms. Coulter.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Axis & Allies & Zombies

Axis & Allies & Zombies is a new variant of the classic WW2 strategy board game, which is rapidly approaching its 40th anniversary. As with most previous versions, the game pits the Axis (Germany and Japan) against the Allies (the United States, the Soviet Union and the British Empire) in a recreation of WW2, with both sides conquering territory to gain resources and using those resources to build more military units. A simple dice-rolling mechanic resolves combat and makes for a somewhat simple game, but where complex strategies can emerge.

As the name suggests, this game throws the classic paradigm into disarray by adding zombies. Rather than forming a third faction, the zombies emerge as more of an environmental hazard. Fresh zombies are generated by an outbreak card deck (vaguely reminiscent of Pandemic's outbreak cards) and arise in combat, with every killed infantry unit generating a new zombie unit. Massed battles with lots of infantry, particularly on the Eastern Front, can therefore become very unpredictable with tons of zombies arising mid-battle to attack both sides.

If this sounds gimmicky, well, it is. However, it is also entertaining and strategically intriguing, causing even seasoned multi-decade veterans of the game to switch to new tactics to deal with the new threat. The zombies can capture territory and, although they can't build anything, they can infect the civilian population as identified by a zombie marker on the IPC tracker. If they hit 25 IPCs, the zombie outrbreak has hit an exponential, unstoppable curve and the world ends in a zombie apocalypse. This means avoiding the zombie hordes is a bad idea as it can result in both player-controlled sides losing, but you also want to think hard about attacking them (especially with infantry). Canny players may also prefer to attack a territory, generate lots of zombies and then withdraw, leaving the defender with a huge problem to contend with. Whilst you do not need to attack zombies in your territory, any zombies in your territory get a free single attack every go they are present, forming a constant annoyance. They also block blitzkrieg moves by tanks, which especially on the Eastern Front can become a major headache as both sides try to rush reinforcements to the front lines.

The card mechanic also adds a wonderful random element to the game. Those small British forces in Africa can suddenly get bogged down in fighting zombies instead of mobilising to meet the Desert Rats, and the normally-unreachable US mainland can suddenly see heavy fighting as zombie hordes surge up from South America. New technologies also allow for one (or both) sides to manipulate the zombies into fighting for them, or generate new weapons more capable of defeating the zombies en masse (like chainsaw tanks) or stopping fallen soldiers rising to join their ranks.

The result of this is a fresh spin on an older, fun but, it has to be said, somewhat predictable game. Furthermore, the game package also allows for a few other options. First, you can completely ignore the zombies and play this as an introductory game of Axis & Allies. The map is much smaller, with fewer territories (although not quite as few as 1941, which streamlined things a bit too much) and more simplistic strategies. The game plays faster (without the zombies; with them it lasts about as long as a standard A&A game, 3-5 hours depending on dice rolls) and also drops units such as AA Guns and Cruisers whilst also ignoring rules such as air drops and building new factories (veteran AA players can, of course, reinstate these if they wish). In short A&A&Z has enough in the box to play as both the zombie game and Axis & Allies 1941.

Secondly, the game has a second deck of cards which can be used (in conjunction with the zombie pieces) with Axis & Allies 1942 to play the zombie game on a larger scale, which should also be enjoyable for those who want to make their standard base games more unpredictable and complex. There aren't any rules for adding the zombies to A&A Anniversary Edition or the 1940 Europe/Pacific/Global games, but I daresay fan-made variations will emerge in time.

Thirdly, the game reintroduces paper money to the mix, which was missing from both the 1941 and 1942 editions of the game and, of course, can be used with those games without any problem.

Minuses are somewhat limited. If you hate zombies and find the idea gimmicky, you'll already have moved on. The game is a bit stingy with pieces and the poker chips (to represent multiple units), but not as much as the WW1 and 1941 versions of the game. On the reverse side, this keeps costs down, resulting in, by far, the best value-for-money Axis & Allies game to date.

In summary Axis & Allies & Zombies (****) is a fun, fresh and a great way of introducing new players (who might otherwise be put off by the serious theme and perceived complexity) to the game, and creates new tactical situations which veterans may find interesting to deal with. The game is available now in the UK and USA.

Revisiting the Wasteland: Modding FALLOUT 3

Since 2002 Bethesda Softworks have been making 3D roleplaying games set in large, open worlds which encourage exploration. Despite vast improvements in graphics technology, these games are notable for using the same basic game engine, GameBryo, throughout. In 2011 Bethesda renamed this engine "Creation" in an attempt to make it appear they were using newer technology, but it was in fact the same engine with different rendering and lighting modules. In one form or another, this engine has now powered seven games: Morrowind (2002), Oblivion (2006), Fallout 3 (2008), Fallout: New Vegas (2010), Skyrim (2011), Fallout 4 (2015) and Fallout 76 (2018), and will apparently still be powering their next two games, Starfield and The Elder Scrolls VI.

Despite the weaknesses of using the same basic codebase for twenty years (to the point where code referencing Morrowind can still be found in the files for Fallout 4 and 76), it does provide a very stable platform for modders, fans who use the engine's open nature to tinker with the makeup of the game. By adjusting files, modders can add new quests, weapons and locations, adjust the world map, fix bugs (especially useful for Bethesda games, where Bethesda are notorious for fixing just a few game-breaking bugs in an early patch and then leaving myriad minor problems unfixed, sometimes ones that recur from game to game) and - most importantly - improve the graphics of the games to keep them relevant later on.

My recent and ongoing playthrough of Fallout 3 - a game more than a decade old which frankly already looked a bit dated on release - would not have been as pleasant an experience without the presence of mods to help fix up the game. These mods do everything from dramatically improving the game's textures to reworking blades of grass so they feel more realistic and making the characters look more like people and less disconcertingly like drunk mannequins. There are limits on what can be done - no amount of modding can totally remove the slightly stodgy movement, clumsy jumping or imprecise shooting outside of VATS mode, or alleviate the vast number of identikit ruined buildings in DC - but it is the difference between the game being a cluster of microfrustrations and something that is much more enjoyable to play by 2018 standards.

Modding Fallout 3 is, fortunately, not a ruinously complicated procedure. Most of the modding process is automated these days and it's relatively simple to do or abandon and revert to the base game if you feel like playing the game in its old-skool incarnation.

In order to mod Fallout 3 you need to do the following:

1. Have a PC (modding to this scale is not available for the PS3 or X-Box 360 versions of the game).

2. Secure a copy of Fallout 3 Game of the Year edition from You can mod an original 2008 boxed version of the game or a Steam version of the game, but it's far, far more work and it will be constantly challenged by the original version of the game's use of Games for Windows Live and the Steam version's flakiness when played on Windows 8 or 10, and will probably crash a lot more. The GoG version of the game also comes pre-modded to remove the GFWL launcher and also adds the LAA (Large Address Aware) Patch, which allows the game to make use of more of your PC's RAM (the 2008 version was hardcoded to use 2GB of RAM only for the game, which was ridiculous). Fortunately Fallout 3 is ten years old and quite cheap (especially if you wait for the next GoG sale around Christmas). It's probably a good idea to grab a copy of New Vegas as well from them for the same reason.

3. Bookmark the Fallout 3 page on the Nexus Mods web page. You're going to be spending a lot of time here.

4. Download the Nexus Mod Manager. This will make the process of downloading and installing mods far easier than it will be otherwise.

5. Watch this video (the same as embedded above). There are many, many videos on modding Fallout 3 out there, but this one is notable for being concise and focused solely on stabilising and improving Fallout 3, not adding loads of fan content or doing whacky stuff with the graphics that move the game away from Bethesda's original intentions.

Once you've done that your're set to go. The video (by "Some Kind of Elephant") is pretty good and will take you through the basis of modding the game. The Nexus Mod page contains most of the mods you need to use. It should be noted that some of the links in the YouTube video have expired, so to find the mods just type the name into the search function on the Nexus Mod page. I'd also advise not using the DLC retexture pack addresses in the main description, as they lead to sites which triggered my antivirus software. Instead get those files from here:

One mod not mentioned in the video but which - frankly - is essential is SpeedMod v2. This mod can be used to improve your character's base walking and running speed by one of several presets, which is essential because the base speed in Fallout 3 is insanely slow. Adding this mod will prevent you from hurling something through the screen in horror at how slowly you (and everyone else) moves. The game does increase everyone's movement speed, so monsters and other characters in the game will also get a speed boost (so it won't let you "cheat" by running much faster than anyone else).

It's worth noting that the UI mod (which makes the on-screen information like health and ammunition) is only desirable if you are playing the game on a monitor which you're sitting right next to. If you're outputting the game to a TV and you're playing from the couch, you may want to leave the UI as it is for clarity.

Once that's all done, launch the game via the Nexus Mod Manager programme using the "Launch FOSE" option and you should be all set to go.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs. A History of the Wheel of Time, SF&F Questions and The Cities of Fantasy series are debuting on my Patreon feed and you can read them there one month before being published on the Wertzone.

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Happy 15th Anniversary to BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (2.0)

On 8 December 2003, the Sci-Fi Channel aired a two-part TV movie based on Glen A. Larson's 1978 space opera, Battlestar Galactica. This new show had been preceded by very low expectations: none of the cast or crew of the original show was involved, and two previous reboot pitches which had been direct sequels to the original show had been cancelled in favour of a total remake. Redesigns of iconic ships and vehicles had annoyed the original fanbase, as had the "gender-swapping" of established characters like Starbuck and Boomer. However, early critical reviews were positive and some of the casting for the show, such as Edward James Olmos as the new version of Commander Adama (in the role played by Lorne Green in the original) and Mary McDonnell as the new President of the Colonies, seemed promising.

A promotional image for Battlestar Galactica's third season (2006-07).

The road to relaunching Battlestar Galactica had been a long one. ABC had commissioned Glen A. Larson to create the original show back in 1977, keen to launch on the bandwagon of space opera and impressive visual effects generated by the release of the original Star Wars movie. They even brought in John Dykstra, who had created Star Wars's special effects, to work on the show. Borrowing heavily from Egyptian mythology and Mormon theology, the show told the story of the annihilation of the Twelve Colonies of Man at the hands of a hostile alien race, the Cylons, consisting of cyborg leaders and fully-robotic soldiers. The last surviving human warship, the battlestar Galactica, leads a "ragtag fugitive fleet" in search of the mythical Thirteenth Colony, also known as Earth. Despite schmaltzy acting, the presence of cute kid and animal actors (including the still-bizarre decision to have a chimp playing a robot dog) and whiplash-inducing shifts in tone, the show built up a strong following for its impressive effects and its emphasis on family.

The show launched to enormous ratings, but these fell drastically over the course of the first season. Combined with the show's eye-watering cost, ABC decided to cancel it and resurrect it two years later as Galactica 1980, a much lower-budged show meant more to appeal to kids. Galactica 1980 holds a strong claim to be the worst TV show ever made (with the solitary exception of a flashback episode set during the original series) and was quickly put out of its misery.

The original Battlestar Galactica had spectacular visual effects for 1978 but less impressive scripts.

Larson moved on to other projects, but always felt there was more mileage in the Battlestar concept. Richard Hatch, who'd played Captain Apollo on the original series, agreed, and with Larson's blessing undertook various attempts to relaunch the show. Successful novel and comic series followed through the 1980s and 1990s and in 1998 Hatch produced a proof-of-concept video dubbed Battlestar Galactica: The Second Coming. Ignoring Galactica 1980, this would have been a "next generation" concept picking up on the story twenty years later with the Galactica crew still searching for Earth with a whole new generation growing up in the fleet. Despite being popular at fan conventions, the idea did not find fertile ground with a studio. A year later Glen A. Larson started developing a movie concept which would have followed up on the fate of the battlestar Pegasus from the original series, but again this didn't get very far.

A much more serious attempt followed in 2000. Producers Bryan Singer and Tom DeSanto were the hot flavour of the month in Hollywood for the success of their movie X-Men and Singer, a huge fan of the original Battlestar Galactica, was determined to get the show launched again. His concept was similar to Hatch's and would have been a next generation reboot. Fox TV signed on, but were somewhat sceptical that BSG's relatively small fanbase could help propel the show to a larger audience, especially as it was a continuation. Nevertheless, the project moved to within a few weeks production starting (including some early set construction and lots of concept art being produced) when Fox put all new projects on hold in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Fox were slow to get the show moving again, so when Singer and DeSanto left the project to focus on the next X-Men movie, Fox let the idea lapse.

Promotional artwork for Bryan Singer and Tom DeSanto's planned Battlestar reboot (2001).

Universal Pictures, who held the rights to the original BSG, decided to push forwards with a new version of the show themselves. Whilst 9/11 had disrupted Fox's plans, Universal saw it as an opportunity to tell a very different kind of story. Critics of the original BSG - and even some fans - had felt that the original series had massively undersold the darkness and trauma that would have resulted from the destruction of twelve planets and billions of human beings on the survivors. Universal asked producer David Eick to work on ideas for the new series, but the first directive was that this was going to be a page one rewrite and remake set in a new continuity. Eick decided he needed to bring on board someone who really understood science fiction and in particular space opera and brought on board a writer named Ronald D. Moore.

Moore had cut his teeth as a very young writer on Star Trek: The Next Generation, which he'd joined in 1989 in its third season. He was just about the only staff writer to survive the chaotic third season into the fourth, and became a key creative lead on the show in its latter five seasons. When the show wrapped, he co-wrote the movies Generations and First Contact as well as moving over to Deep Space Nine for its third season, again playing a key creative role on that show. When Deep Space Nine wrapped in 1999, he moved over to Star Trek: Voyager but immediately found a much more restrictive creative environment. Moore was in particular frustrated by the fact that the starship Voyager was still clean and pristine despite being trapped on the other side of the galaxy with very limited chances for resupply. His feeling was that the show should have been darker, more challenging and engaged in more morally murky discussions about the morality of the Federation when a ship was put in a difficult position. The producers disagreed, feeling that cookie-cutter philosophising and constantly hitting a big red reset button at the end of every episode was the way forwards instead. Moore duly quit, going to work first on Roswell at the WB and then Carnivale at HBO.

Executive producer and showrunner Ronald D. Moore on the hanger set of Battlestar Galactica.

He was still working on Carnivale when Eick called. Moore had watched Battlestar when it first aired and seen great promise in it, but had also disliked the campy and sillier elements of the show (such as the cute kids, robots and the "casino planet" in the pilot). He rewatched the pilot movie and realised there was a lot of strength in the basic premise and agreed that it could be reworked in a post-9/11 environment for greater emotional impact. He agreed to write a new pilot for Universal's subsidiary, the Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy). This ballooned into a (relatively) high-budget three-hour mini-series which could also work as a backdoor pilot for a full series.

Moore penned the pilot and oversaw some elements of production, including exercising his desire for a slightly darker aesthetic than Star Trek and to have a completely new (for SF) way of shooting the action with handheld cameras, even the space scenes. Director Michael Rymer immediately locked into what Moore was thinking of and his directorial style immediately became a hallmark of the show. Moore also wanted a more understated and less symphonic way of doing music for a space series and lucked out when Richard Gibbs also picked up that idea and ran with it. A young composer named Bear McCreary also assisted Gibbs on the pilot.

Edward James Olmos as Commander William Adama and Mary McDonnell as President Laura Roslin.

Casting proved interesting but controversial. Moore wanted distinct actors with gravitas and experience, but was aware that it was very unusual for producers to get their first choices. In this case, he wanted Edward James Olmos for Adama and Mary McDonnell for Roslin and was flabbergasted when both said yes, sold on the quality of the scripts. The casting department also scored a steady series of successes when they found a lot of fresh young talent for the series, from Jamie Bamber for Apollo to James Callis for Baltar and, most iconically, Katee Sackhoff as Starbuck and former model Tricia Helfer as Caprica Six. Established fans of the show were furious to learn that both Starbuck and Boomer (to be played by Grace Park) had been changed from male characters to a female one for the show and some of the original castmembers agreed with them: Dirk Benedict (who played Starbuck in the original show) scathingly referred to the new character as "Stardoe".

For visual effects, the team at Zoic were called in to produce the huge amount of CGI needed for the mini-series. Zoic had just come off the back of Joss Whedon's newly-cancelled Firefly so the commission was good news for them. The CG team included many veterans of both Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine, who relished on rendering effects on a new, more powerful hardware and having the ability to design lots of new ships, although honouring the designs laid down in the original show.

The Battlestar Galactica mini-series was critically acclaimed on its release. The reviews were excellent across the board, with a lot praise for the actors, direction and acting, and the ratings were very high, setting new records for SyFy. It was an easy choice to commission a full first season, especially once Ron Moore confirmed he would drop Carnivale (which was being torn apart by corporate politics and would be cancelled after its second season) to move over as full-time showrunner. When the first season proper debuted a year later, with 33 (the episode that won the show a Hugo Award), it was even better.

Of course, the show could not quite sustain that early acclaim and eventually went off the rails, but that's another story. Battlestar Galactica did for space-set science fiction what Game of Thrones later did for epic fantasy, making it grittier, more real and more resonant with a wider audience previously dismissive of the art form. It's a shame we haven't seen more shows come along in its wake, but finally, with shows like The Expanse, it seems that promise has come good. Battlestar Galactica remains, despite its declining quality later on, one of the strongest SF TV shows ever made, and essential viewing for any fan of the genre.

Get COMPANY OF HEROES 2 free until tomorrow

Relic are giving away their 2013 real-time strategy game Company of Heroes 2 free for the rest of the weekend.

Set in World War II, Company of Heroes 2 focuses on the confrontation between Germany and the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front. Although not quite as accomplished as the original Company of Heroes (2006), Company of Heroes 2 features superior graphics and new gameplay features such as simulating freezing cold weather and the impact of that on troops and vehicles.

Relic have also bundled Company of Heroes 2's numerous expansions and DLC into a single bundle for less than £5, including the very large, game-sized Ardennes Assault expanson which adds a persistent campaign map mode.

You can get Company of Heroes 2 here and the DLC here.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Art & Arcana: A Visual History of Dungeons and Dragons by Michael Witwer

In 1974 Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson created a different type of tabletop game. Dungeons and Dragons became the world's first and most popular roleplaying game. For thirty-four years it ruled supreme and unchallenged, until a problematic fourth edition and the rise of the rival Pathfinder game knocked it off its perch. However, with its fifth edition the game has regained its crown. A key ingredient to the game's success has been the phenomenal roster of artists who have worked on the game for almost forty-five years.

Art & Arcana is a visual history of the Dungeons and Dragons game, taking in every edition and campaign setting the game has produced, as well as many of its novels, calendars and video games. Artwork from the very first prototypes right through the latest 5th Edition expansions and modules is featured, along with lengthy histories and interviews with key personnel.

Arts & Arcana is massive: more than 440 pages in length, it features over 700 separate pieces of artwork along with a significant amount of text detailing the history of the game in some depth. It starts with Gygax and Arneson playing miniatures wargames in Wisconsin in the late 1960s and rapidly hitting on the idea of moving from large armies of lots of figures to small parties of just a few figures exploring dungeons, and later wilderness and towns. Dungeons and Dragons was born, with Gygax and Arneson founding the company TSR to sell it all over the world.

This is where the fun began.

From there the game exploded, selling millions of copies and inspiring spin-off novels, board games and a TV show. Several times the management of the game became fraught and complicated, with Gygax forced out in a corporate takeover and TSR later collapsing before being rescued by Wizards of the Coast. The game's struggles in the face of competition from video games and card games such as Magic: The Gathering are also documented, not to mention the attacks on the game in the press by fundamentalist Christians in the 1980s. The book brushes over arguably the game's nadir, the problematic 4th Edition (2008-13) and the rise of rival products to challenge the game's supremacy, but it does end strongly with the game's return to recent prominence in a new era of podcasts, YouTube videos and Twitch streams.

The one constant throughout the book is artwork. The initial artwork for the game was simplistic, sourced for very little money from whatever artists were on hand. As the game boomed in sales, so the quality of the artwork increased dramatically, with iconic artists like Larry Elmore, Clyde Caldwell and Keith Parkinson joining the company. Later on younger artists arrived with radically different styles, ready to reassess the game for its later editions. As well as artwork for the core game, they also produced art for tie-in novels and video games.

The githyanki, created by future-bestselling SF author Charles Stross, using a name he borrowed from future fantasy megastar George R.R. Martin.

The result is a splendid coffee table book and the perfect gift for a fan of Dungeons and Dragons specifically or fantasy artwork in general. In fact, it's a tribute to the artistic strength of Dungeons and Dragons that so many brilliant pieces of artwork aren't even in the book, as there wasn't enough room.

In fact, that's probably the book's biggest weakness (along with the somewhat dry and mostly controversy-ducking text): the sheer amount of material produced for D&D over the past forty-five years means that some elements get fairly short shrift in this book. Ravenloft feels a bit hard-done by in particular. There's also, somewhat bemusingly given their prevalence in and for the game, very little material on maps, although perhaps there's enough material there for a completely separate book later on.

If you can accept the fact that the book isn't exhaustively complete (and isn't meant to be, and would be far too unwieldy even if it was), there's still a huge amount to enjoy here, and the book forms probably the best and most concise history of the D&D game to date for the beginner. Art & Arcana (****½) is available now in the UK and USA.