Saturday 29 April 2017

A Beginner's Guide to Board Games (from a Beginner)

Ah, the humble board game. For decades – centuries if you count games like chess – the board game did sterling work in bringing families together and providing entertainment and mental stimulation (before shattering them apart with arguments over how to spell words in Scrabble or Auntie Joan’s Dick Move in Monopoly which is still controversial ten years later). In the latter part of the 20th Century there was a drop-off in the popularity of board games, largely attributed to the rise of video games and television, but in the last few years board games have returned with a vengeance.

You'll never need to play this rubbish again,

There are several reasons board games have returned to popularity, some obvious, some less so. The number one influence, of course, is the Internet. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter have allowed board games to be created, funded and sold in a manner and scale that was impossible under the old publisher model. The Internet has also allowed board game fans to find other players and set up gaming groups, as well as spreading the word about good games. YouTube videos and review sites like the excellent Shut Up and Sit Down and podcasts like The Game Pit have allowed players to see games in action before stumping up money for them. Message boards and websites also provide rules clarifications, cheat sheets, player aids and things to make the task of playing games much easier and reduce arguments. In rarer cases there are also digital, directly-translated versions of board games where players can hone their skills on the screen before deploying them against other players. Most notably, Pandemic, Blood Bowl and Space Hulk all have digital versions where you can directly translate the rules from screen to board and back again.

A slightly less obvious reason is the rapid and remarkable decline in same-room multiplayer video gaming. Back in the 1990s groups of friends could gather at houses to play Street Fighter II tournaments or Mario Kart championships. Split-screen gaming was a huge thing and, with no set-up time or time spent puzzling over rule books, a tempting alternative to board gaming. However, the last decade has seen a marked decline in same-room video gaming. Technical limitations meant that modern consoles struggle to depict two graphical displays of what is going on at an acceptable level of graphical detail, making it preferable for people to play their games from their own homes over the Internet. Although that’s still fun, it loses the social aspect and enjoyment gained from being in the same room as your friends.

The main reason for why board gaming is back, though, is also the most obvious one: there’s a lot of really good board games around, engaging in a variety of themes and ideas, ranging from very easy and quick-to-play and accessible titles for all ages to hardcore action games using lots of miniatures and complex rules taking entire days to play. Here’s a few games from the so-called “golden age” which might tickle your fancy.

For Beginners

Ticket to Ride
The ultimate introductory game for the new age of board games, Ticket to Ride is pretty straightforward: each player is a railroad magnate building new lines across the United States. The longer the lines, the greater the reward but also the risk one of your competitors might beat you to the pinch at the last minute. You score points for longer lines, but also achieving the secret objectives on your mission cards: the right combination of the right lines and cards can see someone storm from behind to win the game at the last hurdle, making sure everyone is involved right up to the last minute. A very simple game which gains complexity and replayability from the interaction of its different features and the mindsets of the players.

Ticket to Ride is available in numerous different editions, such as ones featuring a map of Europe or Britain, and others which add complexity by allowing you to set up shipping routes as well.

Cosmic Encounter
An old-skool game (originally released in the 1970s), Cosmic Encounter has the players portraying different alien races. Using a combination of diplomacy, bluffing and military might, players have to establish colonies on each other’s planets. Where the game becomes unpredictable is that you have no way of knowing what special powers the other players might have, or what cards (granting bonuses to attack, defence and diplomacy) they may be hoarding. Cosmic Encounter is extremely simple and fast to play, but with a huge amount of variety thrown up by the different alien races and cards.

Four viruses are threatening civilisation, so the Centre for Disease Control has to mobilise its best people to cure them and mop up the after-effects. Pandemic is a co-operative game where the players have to work together against the odds, and the odds can be quite gruelling. It’s not uncommon for players to have a few good rounds and think the situation is under control, and five minutes later be sobbing as most of Europe is engulfed in an explosive chain reaction of outbreaks.

Like Cosmic Encounter, the game’s base mechanics are very simple but the replayability comes from the interaction of the different characters (always pick the characters randomly, as otherwise the game can become quite easy as players work out optimal character combinations and just stick with those) and the ability cards they pick up. Pandemic has two expansions that add a lot of variety to the game, as well as its semi-sequel, Pandemic: Legacy, which is an altogether more advanced game (I’d recommend not even thinking of tackling that until you’ve mastered the original at its hardest difficulty level, with the expansions).

Flash Point
Flash Point is another cooperative game. The players portray firefighters who are trying to rescue people from a burning building. It’s important to get people out, but it’s also necessary to keep putting the fires out. Ignore a growing fire for too long and it may explode, causing a chain reaction that demolishes the building around you. But ignore the trapped people for too long and they may burn or choke to death. Expansions add more complexity (like multi-floor buildings), but this is a reasonably simple game which is much more addictive than it first looks. Watch out for players who insist on rescuing trapped animals at the expense of their owners!

Settlers of Catan
Some people hold this game – originally released in 1995 – as the forefather of the modern board game explosion. This is debatable but it’s certainly one of the most popular board games of all time. The players are colonists on an island and have to engage in diplomacy and resource-gathering to win an economic war of attrition with the other players. It’s peaceful but competitive, with excellent potential for humour revolving around how much wood each player has at any given moment.

King of Tokyo
A lot of players of King of Tokyo are disappointed when they discover the game isn’t about smashing up Tokyo like a board game version of Rampage. Instead, it’s about the monsters getting into fights with one another over who gets to smash up Tokyo next. An elegantly simply dice mechanic and premise belies the addictive replayability that comes from the different powers each creature has and the cards you can draw with extra abilities. An expanded sequel, King of New York, is also available.

For Intermediate Players

Axis and Allies
Another old-skool game (originally released in 1981), Axis and Allies has very simple rules. However, the ways those rules interact with one another and the diverse battle maps can give rise to extremely complex situations. The introductory game could even be said to be a better fit for the introductory section above, but the expansions raise the complexity of the game considerably.

The best achievement of Axis and Allies, though, is how elegantly it replicates the set-up and outcome of World War II, with the Axis players starting with enormous armies but poor resources and immediately forced to expand or lose, with the Allies’ long-term victory assured if they can weather the storm. However, the fun really kicks in when players overturn the results of history and start going off the wall (the German annexation of Brazil can be an unexpectedly effective move, for example). There are more diverse and arguably interesting World War II games, like Memoir 44, and certainly lots of far more complex and hardcore wargames, but Axis and Allies remains compelling for its grand vision of the whole war, particularly with its later variant rules focusing on individual theatres.

Blood Bowl
A spin-off of the Warhammer fantasy game, Blood Bowl is nothing less than American football but with orcs, elves and dwarves (among others) making up the teams. The result is a surprisingly rich and engrossing game of blocks, passes, counter-strikes and breaks which at times becomes as tense and engaging as an actual good sports game. The fact it’s all extremely funny, with Games Workshop’s traditionally beautiful miniatures, helps a lot.

The video game Blood Bowl II replicates the rules of the board game exactly, and may be worth a look for those wanting to practice their ball control without any friends around.

Star Wars: Rebellion
At first glance Rebellion looks like a wargame in space, except the Empire has Death Stars, Super Star Destroyers, normal Star Destroyers, AT-ATs and ludicrous numbers of TIE Fighters, whilst the Rebel player has a few X-wings and snowspeeders. But the cleverness of the design kicks in when you send your Rebel agents to sabotage Imperial production lines, halt fleets in their tracks by raising insurgences across the galaxy and generally win support for the Alliance. The Empire wins if it can find the Rebel hidden base, but this is much harder than it first appears.

The result is a wonderfully asymmetrical game of warfare, espionage and politics, all drenched in authentic Star Wars flavouring. The game’s key weakness is that it is strictly a two-player affair only.

A Game of Thrones: The Boardgame
Originally released in 2003 and based wholly on the books, A Game of Thrones replicates the mixture of warfare, skulduggery, treachery and diplomacy from the novels as five factions (six in the expansion) fight for control of the Iron Throne. Games can be tense as players make alliances with other players, offering military support in return for a mutual victory, but then the threat of a betrayal arises. The game can induce paranoia between friends, but the result is one of the tensest games in existence, a fine modern replacement for the likes of Diplomacy.

Arkham Horror
Some will argue this should be in the Advanced category, but I contend that Arkham Horror is actually a reasonably straightforward game that has been bloated to the point of near-lunacy by a galaxy of (mostly unnecessary) cards, optional rules and expansions. A kitchen table has not yet been built that can comfortably contain a full game of Arkham with all the expansions laid out.

Strip that away and you instead have a cooperative game where a team of investigators has to stop one of the Elder Gods from arriving on Earth through a magical portal in the town of Arkham. The setting’s theme is not entirely respected – this is more Die Hard With a Verichteraraberbuch than evoking Lovecraft’s atmosphere of Earth-shattering horror, with you more likely to punch a Shoggoth in the face than wet yourself to death – but with the right players in the right mood, the game can be a huge amount of fun, helped by the batty (and cheerfully unbalanced) characters you can play.

A more recent version of the game, Eldritch Horror, expands the threat to a global level whilst dialling back some of the unnecessary bloat of the prior game.

Forbidden Stars
A Warhammer 40,000 space strategy game, Forbidden Stars is no longer being made but there are a few copies still out in the wild, so grab one if you can. This is, similarly to Star Wars: Rebellion (with which it shares a few mechanical similarities), a strategy game with different races fighting to win. Unlike Rebellion, Forbidden Stars is suitable for 4 players and is less asymmetrical, with the races having approximately comparable abilities and skills. What makes the game more interesting are the hidden objectives which you have to race to achieve, sometimes requiring you to have to cross half the galaxy through hostile territory with opposing players unsure of what you are doing. Warp storms which close down routes across the board also add to tactical complexity.

But if you want to smash your friend’s Ork battle fleet and land your Space Marine legions (backed up by Titans) on his largest colony world for the hell of it, you certainly can do that as well. Forbidden Stars is also a fine, somewhat lighter alternative to Twilight Imperium for those who don’t have entire weekends they can sink into playing one game.

For Advanced Players

Twilight Imperium
The grand-daddy of big strategy games, Twilight Imperium comes in an insanely-sized box, takes a while to set up and sucks entire days away as players struggle to take control of a star cluster and fend off several other players. The board game equivalent of video games like Master of Orion and Stellaris, Twilight Imperium isn’t mechanically the most complex game around, but it is one of the longest (even a brief game can take 4-5 hours, and long ones can consume entire weekends). The time-destroying nature of Twilight Imperium and its massive size can be overwhelming and off-putting, but a single game of Twilight Imperium can also generate stories and anecdotes your players will be talking about for years. Rewarding, but not for the timid.

Space Hulk
A spin-off from the Warhammer 40,000 science fantasy universe, Space Hulk is the original game of tense, nerve-shredding horror. One player has to direct their squad of Terminator Space Marines through the creaking, claustrophobic halls of a derelict spacecraft, the other has to assault them with a seemingly never-ending flood of ravenous alien horrors. The game can be brutal and often unfair, but replays soon reveal clever strategies and tactics to win (although, of all the games listed here, this is the one that is most reliant on the luck of the dice roll).

The reason I put this in the Advanced section isn’t because it is mechanically complex - it’s actually pretty straightforward – but because it can be gruelling and unfair to the point of playing it can make you wonder if you are a masochist. This is certainly not a game for children or those with short tempers. But beating the game and achieving a tricky mission objective against the odds is an unbeatable high.

Descent: Journeys in the Dark
Descent is a dungeon-exploring game which, if you play it as a one-off adventure, is reasonably straightforward. The game’s complexity and addictive nature comes from its campaign mode, which unfolds over multiple games with your heroes and the bad guy, the Overseer, becoming more powerful and better-equipped between adventures. The beautiful miniatures and seemingly endless array of tokens are decidedly moreish and the expandability of the game is second to none. Many modern board games revel in the tactile, physical experience of having lots of tokens, models and things to play with and move around the board, but none have nailed that aspect quite as well as Descent.

Descent’s key weakness is that it attempts to replicate the appeal of roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons in a boardgame setting, but arguably does not do so as elegantly as the much older Hero Quest or Warhammer Quest, and it does raise the question of why you simply don’t play D&D instead. Then you see the latest miniature your Overseer has bought and painted for the game for the next dungeon, which you need to beat to complete the campaign, and you realise why.

The games I’ve mentioned here only scratch the surface of what’s out there. There are also games like Quadropolis and Suburbia which can scratch that desire to build your own city, or Lords of Waterdeep which allows you to manage a fantasy metropolis. There are very quick-and-simple games like Love Letter and Cthulu Dice or more sprawling epics like Silver Tower. And there’s also zombie games, like Zombiecide and Last Night on Earth. In fact, there’s lots of zombie games, it’s a thing at the moment. If you’re not willing to splash out on a big board game (and to be fair they can be expensive, although rarely much more so than a video game), there’s usually lots of gaming groups around where you can drop by and see games in action and see what takes your fancy. It’s an interesting time for the field and surprisingly engrossing once you get involved with it.

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Friday 28 April 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2

Some months after their triumph over the renegade Kree warlord Ronan, the Guardians of the Galaxy have been hired by the Sovereign to defend their homeworld from a ravaging interdimensional monster. Unfortunately, Rocket manages to offend the Sovereign, leading to a sequence of improbable events culminating in Peter Quill finally meeting his father. Meanwhile, the Ravager faction led by Yondu has been outcast by their fellows for Yondu's dishonourable actions and he seeks to regain his honour in their eyes...which means tracking down and defeating the Guardians.

Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's more laidback and fun movies. Free of the weighty continuity built up by the Earth-bound movies, it felt fresh and inventive. With a top soundtrack, some excellent humour and some great performances, it emerged as perhaps not the most dramatically satisfying Marvel movie, but certainly the most fun.

The second movie sees returning director James Gunn attempt a tricky balancing act of giving the audience more of the same - comedy, action, space battles, quips - and also doing something new that keeps the freshness of the first movie going. It can't quite stretch to do all of these things well and it stumbles a little more than its forebear, but it's still a brave attempt to do something more interesting than a by-the-numbers sequel.

The movie is certainly funnier. Baby Groot gets some great moments but it's Drax and new character Mantis, by themselves and as an unlikely double-act, who emerge with the best material. Yondu's Ravagers also get a bit more definition and the "tough"-sounding name of one of their number becomes a recurring gag throughout the movie. Chris Pratt employs his considerable comic talents better as well, such as his ongoing attempts to explain the dubious premises of mid-1980s action TV shows to his baffled compatriots.

More importantly, the film explores character better than the first movie. We find out why Peter doesn't just go home to Earth, more of what makes Gamora and Nebula tick, and more of what drives Yondu, who emerges as a more complex figure in this movie than the previous one. The film doesn't break new ground - the idea that the Guardians are a family and that's why they hang out even when they argue is hardly revelatory - but it does offer more food for thought about these people in the calm breaks between explosions.

The film does have a fair few explosions, and if the movie does have a weakness it is the protracted climax. The first movie had a long final battle, but that battle was divided into several strands with the goals, plans and motivations of everyone involved clear. The second movie's climax goes on too long, gets a little silly in places and risks being lost in concussive CGI overload. It's nowhere near as bad as, say, a Michael Bay Transformers film, but it does risk losing the audience's interest. Fortunately the climactic moment of the battle may also be the film's funniest moment, and the movie's actual ending is actually quite decent, if perhaps drawing a bit too deep on sentiment.

Remarkably, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 does roll back a little on the scale from the first film. There's no Thanos, no Infinity Stones (although both rate mentions) and far fewer tie-ins with the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe than the original movie. Instead, Vol. 2 is more interested in setting up the rest of the Marvel Cosmic Universe. The first movie teased it, but the second film opens up on the wider SF stylings of the setting, with more character cameos from obscure 1970s Marvel Comics then you can shake a stick at. One revelatory moment will have old-skool Marvel fans grinning from ear to ear, especially if it leads into the spin-off movie Marvel reportedly are very interested in making, whilst the apparent revelation of the villain for Vol. 3 will have fans nodding in approval.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (****) is a worthy successor to the original film. In trying to do more of the same and be different it perhaps bites off a little more than it can chew and the prolonged climax is messier and less interesting than the first movie's, but it wins those points back with more interesting character work, better laughs, yet more quotable dialogue, some great performances and another solid soundtrack (and the well-judged decision to do something different with setting up Vol. 3's). Oh, and it has maybe the most amusing credits Marvel has ever done (I mean the actual credits, not the mandatory during and post-credits sequences, which this movie goes overboard on).

The movie is on general release in the UK now and hits the USA on 5 May.

Monday 24 April 2017

Eliza Dushku to produce and star in BLACK COMPANY TV series

Eliza Dushku, best-known for playing Faith in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the lead role on Tru Calling and Dollhouse, is bringing Glen Cook's Black Company series of novels and short stories to the screen. The actress is attached to produce and star, with her taking on the role of the Lady.

Glen Cook's novel series began in 1984 with The Black Company. It is followed by Shadows Linger and The White Rose, the three books retroactively named The Books of the North (or The Black Company Trilogy). It was then followed a spin-off interquel, The Silver Spike, and The Books of the South, consisting of Shadow Games and Dreams of Steel. The series continued with the four-volume Glittering Stone series (Bleak Seasons, She is the Darkness, Water Sleeps and Soldiers Live). Cook is currently writing Port of Shadows, which is set between The White Rose and the later books in the series.

The Black Company is known for its strong moral ambiguity as the titular mercenary army is hired by the Lady and her Northern Empire to crush its remaining enemies. However, the army gradually realises the threat posed by the Lady and the Empire and betrays her, joining forces with the prophecised saviour figure known as the White Rose. A series of alliances and betrayals follow, until the Lady, reluctantly, is forced to lend her military and magical aid to the Black Company when faced with the threat of an ancient, greater evil known as the Dominator.

The Black Company was dark and gritty at a time when most fantasy was anything but, with a strong cast of memorable characters. Central to the saga is the complex and occasionally tortured relationship between Croaker, the chronicler and sometimes leader of the Black Company, and the Lady, a former arch-enemy turned highly redoubtable ally.

The series is also noted for its profound impact on later fantasy series: Steven Erikson and Ian Esslemont have credited it as the primary influence on their Malazan Book of the Fallen series (and, indeed, they "borrowed" Cook's naming conventions for their series), whilst George R.R. Martin has credited Cook as one of several influences on A Song of Ice and Fire.

The TV project is being produced by Dushku and David Goyer (Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy) and will be shopped to TV networks in the coming weeks.

This is interesting and unexpected news, but Dushku could make for an interesting Lady and the series is different enough from a lot of the fantasy genre to stand out from the crowd. However, the series gets more grandiose as it goes along, with larger battles involving more magic appearing. It'll be interesting to see if the developers can get a network interested who'll be willing to spend the money required to do the story justice.

Thursday 20 April 2017

WHEEL OF TIME TV series picked up by Sony

Sony Television Pictures have confirmed that they are the company who purchased the Wheel of Time TV rights last year and are now actively developing the project for television.

The saga of the Wheel of Time TV rights is long and complex. Suffice to say, a company named Red Eagle Productions attempted to get a film or TV show of The Wheel of Time made for over a decade before their option was due to expire in early 2015. To keep the rights, they self-funded a brief TV pilot based on the prologue to The Eye of the World, the first book in the series, resulting in a legal tussle with the Robert Jordan Estate. Last year we were told this tussle had been resolved and the TV project was moving forwards with an unspecified production partner, now revealed to be Sony.

So far no TV network has picked up the series, but there will likely be keen interest from a number of sources. HBO, I am informed, are not remotely in the running, preferring to develop series of this magnitude in-house and are also not interested in developing internal competition to Game of Thrones and its rumoured, early-in-gestation spin-off series.

The network most likely to show the series is AMC. They have been developing an enviable portfolio of genre programming, spearheaded by the ratings-destroying The Walking Dead, and have previously worked with Sony Television on Preacher, Better Call Saul and, of course, Breaking Bad. They are also rumoured to be the frontrunners to air the Dark Tower TV series (a prequel spin-off from the forthcoming Idris Elba movie), also in development with Sony. The main concern over AMC being involved is that they are infamously frugal, with even the massively popular Walking Dead made on a relative shoestring budget (for its scale) of about $3.2 million per episode. The Wheel of Time would comfortably require $5 million per episode at the start and a lot more later on, which AMC would seem less likely to stump up for. However, AMC likely want their own Game of Thrones-challenging fantasy show and would know that this would come with a much higher price tag.

Starz are also likely a strong candidate. They are more generous with the pursestrings and have likewise worked with Sony Television on their breakout success, Outlander. Showtime are also possible, as Sony has worked with them on Masters of Sex and The Tudors, but are perhaps less likely to stump up the large budget required.

An intriguing possibility is FX. FX and Sony previously worked together on The Shield, Rescue Me and Justified. FX is probably underrated in the TV stakes, but their portfolio of shows is far more impressive than might be first thought: in addition to the above, FX have also produced Sons of Anarchy, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Archer, American Horror Story, Legion, Atlanta, The Americans and Fargo (the latter two both strongly claiming the title of Best Show on TV). FX also showed Red Eagle's self-funded pilot back in 2015. Although that was a self-funded advert with no creative input from FX, FX did pick up a lot of queries about the project and obviously would be aware of the ratings and other feedback.

More tantalising would be a collaboration with an online streaming service. Sony have worked with Amazon on Mad Dogs and The Last Tycoon and with Netflix on The Get Down. Both Amazon and Netflix would likely loosen the pursestrings for The Wheel of Time (Netflix is spending $7 million per episode on Altered Carbon, and that novel is all but obscure compared to WoT) and Sony are likely interested in exploring the streaming space further.

Sony have confirmed that they have already hired the writer and showrunner for the series. Rafe Judkins entered the Hollywood sphere in 2005 as a contestant on Survivor before becoming a writer. He has since worked on The 4400Chuck, My Own Worst Enemy, Hemlock Grove and Agents of SHIELD. Judkins frequently collaborates with screenwriter Lauren LeFranc, so it may be possible she will also write for the show.

The next step will be finding a network partner and beginning the process of developing scripts and casting. I suspect it will be 2019, at the earliest, before we see The Wheel of Time on TV. But although it will be a while before we see Rand, Loial and Nynaeve's Braid on TV, at least we now have a beginning.

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 before it goes live on my blogs.

Monday 17 April 2017

Thimbleweed Park

1987. A dead body has been discovered on the outskirts of the town of Thimbleweed Park. FBI agents Angela Ray and Antonio Reyes lead the investigation and soon discover that there are some very weird things going on in the town. Meanwhile, Delores Edmund has been banished from her family home and fortune after abandoning the family pillow-manufacturing business to become a video games designer, but is summoned back to hear the reading of her uncle's will. And, in an abandoned fairground, Ransome the Insult Clown, dreams of escaping his fate and removing his clown makeup after he was cursed by a mysterious voodoo lady.

Thimbleweed Park is a throwback adventure game, employing the same SCUMM interface as the classic LucasArts video games of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The SCUMM system was created by Ron Gilbert, Gary Winnick and David Fox and employed in their game Maniac Mansion (1987). It would go on to be used in a further seven games in its original form. LucasArts would release another four games with a more streamlined (but less versatile) interface before ditching it in favour of a 3D engine with very awkward controls and more limited puzzle-solving. Bizarrely, Telltale Games (founded by ex-LucasArts veterans) would find great success with an even more limited engine (which almost removes all puzzles and inventory use altogether), leaving fans of real adventure games with relatively slim recent pickings.

Until now, anyway. Gilbert, Winnick and Fox have reunited and created a new game using the SCUMM interface. In Thimbleweed Park you control five very different characters and have to direct them around the town, solving puzzles, picking up useful items and discussing matters with other characters. Early in the game your main focus is on solving the murder, but later on you also have to fulfil Delores' uncle's stipulations so the will can be read and then all five characters come together to try to break into a spooky factory and confront the darkest secrets of the town.

Like the LucasArts games, it is not possible to die and it is almost impossible to bring about a failed state where you cannot continue (and the one main way of doing that does have a warning that you should save the game first). As a result, playing Thimbleweed Park is a relatively relaxed affair as you move around the town trying to solve the game's various puzzles. The game mostly plays fair, with the solutions to the puzzles being mainly logical and straightforward (and of course walkthroughs are already available if you get really stuck).

The game is funny, although it does strike a few bum notes, and the characters are reasonably interesting, especially Ransome the angry clown and Delores, the game's main protagonist. These characters are developed to the point where it feels like the designers lost interest in some of the other characters as development proceeded: Ray and Reyes have relatively limited character development in comparison. Overall, Thimbleweed Park nails the atmosphere, humour and strengths of the LucasArts adventures and improves on them in several areas, such as the addition of fast travel and a "run" ability to move around more quickly.

There are several negatives. The game has a large number of fourth-wall-breaking gags and metacommentary on old adventure games. This starts off entertaining but gets a bit old later on. I also can't help but feel that some of the humour and writing - such as the continued digs at Sierra adventure games when Sierra haven't made an adventure game in that style for over twenty years - is a tad dated and self-indulgent. As someone who's played almost every adventure game LucasArts put out and therefore gets all the gags, I found this vein of humour a little too forced. For younger players and newcomers I can imagine it could get quite alienating. It also doesn't help that a couple of puzzle solutions are dependent on foreknowledge of older LucasArts game (such as the old "Navigator's Head" trick from The Secret of Monkey Island).

Another is a complaint I've had ever since playing Maniac Mansion way back in the day. These games, in my view, don't handle multiple characters very well. Your player-controlled characters don't speak or interact with one another very much (aside from swapping the occasional inventory item), and the puzzles sometimes involve telepathy which has no in-game explanation (one character doing something in one location to trigger an event another character can capitalise on elsewhere). It's also very fiddly to discover that three inventory items are needed to solve a puzzle and you have to manually gather the characters together to swap stuff around. It's not coincidental that the best-regarded LucasArts adventures, The Secret of Monkey Island and its sequel, feature only one controllable character and only one inventory to manage.

Still, Thimbleweed Park (****) is resolutely entertaining. The pixel art is gorgeous, the music is limited but excellent, the voice acting is pretty decent (and can be turned off if you really want to pretend this 1990 again) and the writing is mostly sharp (if occasionally self-indulgent). It's not as good nor as funny as the Monkey Island titles (Tim Schafer's absurdist streak is sorely missed), not as enormous and compelling as Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, but stacks up well compared to Maniac Mansion and Zak McKraken, and is far less obtuse and stonewalling as those games could be. The game is available now on PC, Mac and X-Box One, with a PlayStation 4 version to follow shortly.

Sunday 16 April 2017

The Czech covers for China Mieville's novels are awesome

Behold below the Czech cover art for the novels (and one short story collection) of China Mieville:

On the top row, from left, that's King Rat, Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council and Looking for Jake. On the bottom row, from left, there's Un Lun Dun, The City and The City, KrakenEmbassytown and Railsea.

You may recognise the cover art for Perdido Street Station and The Scar from the original UK editions from Pan Macmillan. The artwork is all by Edward Miller (a pseudonym for artist Les Edwards), also known for his work for PS Publishing (including on the Malazan limited editions and on Scott Lynch's books). After The Scar came out the UK publishers decided to switch to a more generic and standard art style before switching again for the dark, moody covers they are still using today. Although these are okay, the surreal and bizarre imagery from Miller was very appropriate for Mieville's work and it was a shame to see him go.

The Czech publishers clearly agreed, as they retained Miller to keep working on the cover art for their editions of the novels. I couldn't find any information on a Czech edition of Three Moments of an Explosion, This Census-Taker or The Last Days of New Paris, so it's unknown if they will continue to use Miller for their works.

Thanks to Outthere Books for spotting this intriguing development.

Lucasfilm confirm that STAR WARS: REBELS will end after Season 4

Lucasfilm have released the first trailer for Season 4 of Star Wars: Rebels, their animated TV series set between the events of the movies Revenge of the Sith and Rogue One. They have also confirmed that the series will end this season.

Over the course of three prior seasons, we have seen the Rebel Alliance coalesce out of small guerrilla cells scattered all over the galaxy and the Empire expend considerable resources in trying to stamp out the movement before it gains momentum. But they have failed, with many worlds now in open rebellion against the Empire. The crew of the starship Ghost continue to provide support to the Rebellion whilst dealing with their own issues and being hunted down by the Imperial tactical genius Grand Admiral Thrawn.

The fourth season will focus on the Rebellion establishing the base on Yavin IV and will, presumably, explain the fate of the main characters and why they are not around during the events of the original movies. Producer Dave Filoni also promises that at some point we will see the flipside of events in Rogue One (in which several Rebels ships and characters either cameoed or were referenced). There will also be new cast additions, most notably perennial Star Wars favourite Warwick Davis as Rukh, Grand Admiral Thrawn's Noghri bodyguard and assassin (and, as those who've read Timothy Zahn's novels know, quite an important character in the old Expanded Universe).

Season 4 of Star Wars: Rebels will debut in the autumn.

Friday 14 April 2017

First trailer for STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI released

Lucasfilm have released the first trailer for Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.

The Last Jedi is the direct sequel to 2015's The Force Awakens and picks up where that movie left off. The Resistance has won a victory over the First Order by destroying its Starkiller weapon, but the First Order remains very much intact. Kylo Ren, badly wounded in lightsabre combat, is being healed and tutored by his mentor, the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke. Finn remains badly injured from the same battle.

The film's main narrative thrust, however, appears to centre on Rey and Luke Skywalker. Rey has located Luke on a remote planet and is learning the ways of the Force from him, but Luke appears disillusioned by the Jedi ways, declaring that it may be time for the organisation to disappear.

The Last Jedi will be released on 15 December this year.

David Morrissey cast in THE CITY AND THE CITY adaptation

Veteran British actor David Morrissey will head the cast for the BBC's adaptation of the China Mieville novel The City and The City. Morrissey will be playing the role of Inspector Tyador Borlu, a police detective in the city of Beszel who gets caught up in a murder investigation.

The City and The City is a cross-agency murder mystery with a twist: the twin cities of Beszel and Ul-Qoma coexist at the same point in space/time, with people, shops and buildings from the two cities jumbled alongside one another. People can transit from one city to another through special checkpoints, but any attempt to interfere in the operations of one city from the other results in a "Breach" with potentially catastrophic results.

It's a bizarre, dizzying concept to get across in prose and I'm curious how the BBC are going to handle it on screen. I've liked the idea of the "current" city being in colour and all the buildings, people and objects from the other city being in black and white, with it reversing when the characters cross over, but that might be a little too hokey (and expensive).

David Morrissey is one of Britain's best actors, first attracting notice for the 1992 mini-series Framed in which he starred with Timothy Dalton and Penelope Cruz. His subsequent roles included TV shows such as Our Mutual Friend and Sense and Sensibility. In 2008 he starred alongside David Tennant in a memorable Doctor Who Christmas special. More recently, of course, he attracted renewed fame and attention for his role as the Governor in the third and fourth seasons of The Walking Dead.

This is excellent news and raises interest for this already intriguing project. The City and The City is filming now and should air in 2018.

Thursday 6 April 2017

Just Cause 3

Rico Rodriguez has returned to his home island of Medici to remove the brutal dictator Di Ravello. He finds a nascent rebel army that is hamstrung by a lack of leadership and bold tactical ability, so, aided by his childhood friend Mario and the technical genius Dimah, he sets about building them into a more effective fighting force.

In 1999 the epic roleplaying game Planescape: Torment asked, "What can change the nature of a man?" Many answers were offered, such as love, idealism or religion. But, in an unfortunate lack of vision, the game never answered "Standing upside down under an enemy helicopter simultaneously firing two Uzis and then rappelling onto a nearby building and grappling the helicopter to a fuel tank, with predictable results." Doing that sort of thing certainly changes the nature of a man.

Just Cause 3 defies convention by being the third game in the Just Cause series, which is what happens when crazed Swedish video game designers decide to merge the Far Cry and Grand Theft Auto games and see what mayhem results. Like the Far Cry series, Just Cause 3 is set in an exotic location where you have to bring down a charismatic dictator by allying with rebel groups and leading them into battle. Like Grand Theft Auto, the action takes place in an enormous open world with a vast number of vehicles, from motorbikes to jet fighters, to steal ("liberate for the resistance") and utilise in battle.

Expanding on the use of the grappling hook in Just Cause 2, Just Cause 3 also gives Rico a tremendous amount of personal freedom of movement. As previously he has access to an infinite number of parachutes, but also now has a wingsuit that allows him to fly around like a lunatic bat if he so wishes. These can be combined with the grapple to allow him to paraglide up the side of mountains or be towed along at speed by passing trains. A tremendous and satisfying number of giggles can be had by just throwing Rico around the environment and finding out just what he can do with his increasingly bizarre equipment set (which is more impressive than Batman's by this point).

The game's storyline is enjoyable nonsense, although enlivened by much better writing and voice acting than previously. Dimah, the slightly mad scientist of the resistance, is hilarious and there's a growing narrative element as Rico discovers the extent to which his entire life has been manipulated by the CIA. This storyline remains unresolved at the end of the game, and is a pretty big clue that the team are preparing a Just Cause 4 to continue this thread. There's also a lot more story missions (about four times as many as Just Cause 2), with scripted set-pieces to help break up the open-world mayhem.

The game expands on the territorial mechanics of Just Cause 2, with you now having to liberate both civilian towns and military bases to secure control of a region. This is a fine idea in theory but in practice it falters a little bit. Going in and blowing up a base full of bad soldiers and mercs is one thing, but unleashing destruction inside towns without much regard for civilian casualties feels a little out of keeping with the game's storyline (in which Rico is a folk hero and man of the people). It would have been more interesting to have introduced a way of subtly undermining towns, recruiting locals to help sabotage infrastructure and so on, but nope, the only way of freeing towns is to go in and blow away every soldier in sight, topple statues and knock over propaganda speakers.

The game is definitely a step up from Just Cause 2 in how much it hand-crafts each town and base. Although a lot of the previous game's bases were identical in appearance and construction, this third game has a much larger number of assets it puts together in more interesting configurations. Enemy bases are also now defended by SAM sites, making the old tactic of simply raking a base with rockets from a helicopter to destroy it a lot more hazardous and forcing you to engage in much more close-up action.

There's a satisfyingly large array of guns and military vehicles to employ, and more opportunities to call in your rebel friends and fight alongside them, making the war feel more of a genuine, large-scale conflict rather than it just being Rico running around doing everything. As you paint the map blue you can see the front lines shifting and see the rebels gaining access to better equipment. The game sells the idea of a major conflict going on far better than its predecessor or the Far Cry series.

The story is enjoyable, the action is much stronger than in Just Cause 2 and, obviously, it's a more impressive game graphically. On the negative side of things, Just Cause 3 can get repetitive, especially if you choose to focus on the base missions and storyline. Some of the numerous side-missions (like stunt flying or taking part in street races) help break up the monotony of constant combat, even if they themselves can get quite repetitive after a while. There's also the feeling that the main villain, Di Ravello, is a very uninteresting antagonist, especially compared to the likes of Far Cry's Pagan Min and Vaas.

Otherwise, Just Cause 3 (****½) offers an inventive and vast amount of ways of let of steam, blow things up and have fun. It's the brainless action game genre at its very best. It is available now on PC, X-Box One (UK, USA) and PlayStation 4 (UK, USA).

Sunday 2 April 2017

Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division by Peter Hook

On 25 January 1978 four lads from Manchester performed their first gig under the name Joy Division. On 18 May 1980 their lead singer, Ian Curtis, committed suicide, bringing their career screeching to a halt. They later regrouped as New Order, wrote the biggest-selling 12" single of all time, founded the first superclub in the UK, wrote the only decent England World Cup football song, created The Killers (sort of) and broke up acrimoniously. Several times, although their latest split (in 2007) seems to be permanent. But it all began back in the late 1970s with four guys and their instruments playing in dingy, dark pubs in the north of England.

Joy Division are one of the bands that shook the music world. Formed after seeing a Sex Pistols gig and given early encouragement by the Buzzcocks, Joy Division rapidly eclipsed both bands in musical craftsmanship and critical acclaim, although commercial success eluded them for a long time. They only briefly tasted the fruits of success thanks to the success of the single "Love Will Tear Us Apart" and their second album Closer, both released after Ian Curtis's suicide. The band's influence was huge and long-lasting: Radiohead, Manic Street Preachers, Smashing Pumpkins, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Moby (amongst many others) were inspired by Joy Division and would cover their songs or perform alongside them in their later guise as New Order. Other bands, such as Interpol and Editors, would base their sound more directly on Joy Division, to great success.

The story of Joy Division is bound up in the story of Ian Curtis and the story of Factory Records, that great Madchester outfit which brought so many great musicians to public notice. It's a story that has, over the course of forty years, been mythologised to a great extent, with Ian Curtis held up as a tormented soul, a wounded poet and artist-genius too good for this world etc etc. This mythologising would be fine except for the fact that most of it was done by people looking on from the outside or long after the fact. It wasn't until 1995's Touching from a Distance, written by Curtis's widow Deborah, that a more thorough and human perspective was brought to events. Two feature films have also explored the period: Michael Winterbottom's Twenty-Four Hour Party People (2002) is good but its comedic elements and the fact it tried to cover the entire history of Factory in a limited timespan meant the Joy Division era was given relatively little coverage; Control (2007) is far more in-depth and intricate, but it focuses more on Curtis's marital problems than his life in the band.

Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division provides another viewpoint of the band. Bassist Peter Hook, always the band's most garrulous and painfully honest member, delivers a 300-page account of the band's history and does so in a readable and fascinating manner. Having been a Joy Division fan for over twenty years, I was pretty familiar with the story and thought that there was little else to learn. However, Hook's book is packed full of incidents and details that will be new to many readers. This is, after all, the first time we've had a book written by someone who was actually in the room when they decided to pick a new name, when they decided to recruit machine-like drummer Stephen Morris and when they played "Transmission" live for the first time at a sound check and stopped all of the other roadies and technicians dead in their tracks.

It's this inside perspective which makes the book a compelling read. Hook is a great story-teller but also a bit of a geek, having collected various Joy Division bootlegs and unauthorised recordings of gigs over the years. He provides a timeline mentioning every single gig the band played (where possible with setlists) and spends some time mentioning the gear he played with, such as the awful speaker which led to him switching to playing high notes so he could hear himself (and inadvertently giving the band their trademark sound). However, the majority of the focus is on the human story of the band and its curious internal relationships.

From left: Peter Hook, Ian Curtis, Stephen Morris and Bernard Sumner.

Hook and Bernard Sumner founded the band, initially as Stiff Kittens and then Warsaw, in 1976 after seeing the Sex Pistols. They went through an early rotation of singers and drummers before recruiting Curtis and Morris. In early chapters it's very much Hooky and Barney versus the world, old school friends who taught themselves to play guitar and bass and achieved something special. But the long-simmering musical tensions between the two set in surprisingly early on. Hook admits that it was Curtis, initially solely and later in collaboration with visionary (but stark raving bonkers) producer Martin Hannett, who held the band together through these periods of tension and helped mould their sound into what made them so distinctive. The book's focus shifts gradually from the Hooky & Barney Show to being more about Curtis, whose maturing lyrical prowess and his growing ear for a memorable song led to him becoming a more and more important figure in the band.

A lot of the book is taken up by thoughts on the band and their musical direction, but also about their laddish tendencies: the juvenile pranks they'd pull on support acts or their willingness to chat up girls despite having wives or girlfriends at home. Joy Division have a reputation for being an artsy and doom-laden band, but on the road they worked hard and partied harder.

The book achieves a surprising emotional charge once Curtis is diagnosed with epilepsy. The flashing lights at their shows would often trigger fits right there on stage, but Curtis was adamant he didn't want to leave the band and demanded they keep playing. His bandmates would oblige. In the book Hook admits this was a titanic mistake, but their own urgent desire to escape their crappy jobs in Manchester and enjoy life on the road made them turn a blind eye to common medical sense. It's at this point you remember these guys were only in their early twenties when all of this went down, as was their manager. Hook admits to feeling guilty that they didn't do more to help Curtis, but it's also clear (from both this book and Touching from a Distance) that Curtis believed absolutely and utterly in the band and would not countenance leaving it under any circumstances. Ultimately the pressure of wanting to stay in the band, being stricken with a debilitating medical condition requiring a huge amount of medication and being in a failing marriage all took their toll.

The end of the book is abrupt, but then the end of the band was abrupt. In the opening months of 1980 the band recorded the album Closer and the singles "Atmosphere" and "Love Will Tear Us Apart". They'd recorded their first-ever music video and several appearances on TV. They hit a new level of critical acclaim and were booked to play a tour of the United States. They had a series of impressive new demos in hand (which would later become New Order's first few singles, including the magnificent "Ceremony") and they seemed poised to explode into megastardom. Instead, their lead singer hung himself at home whilst listening to an Iggy Pop record. The long-lasting appeal of Joy Division, beyond the fantastic songs, has always been that idea of a band forever trapped in that moment, with no bad songs or phoned-in albums to their name, poised forever on the cusp of greatness but having it denied by tragedy. It's a mythic image that even Hook cannot dispel with his down-to-earth stories of four mates having a laugh on the road.

But Unknown Pleasures (****½) is also a very human book, very funny at times, touching at others and mainly free of rancour (Hook saves that up - with interest - for its follow-up Substance, about New Order). It'll certainly make fans want to reconnect with Joy Division's back catalogue and check out Hook's thunderous live shows where he plays the albums by the band in full. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

How JUDGE DREDD predicted the future

At the start of March 1977 the newly-launched British SF comic 2000AD introduced its most famous, enduring and iconic character: Judge Joseph Dredd. Dredd is a law-enforcement officer with on-the-spot powers of judge, jury and, if necessary, executioner. Over the course of decades, Dredd has appeared in thousands of comics, numerous novels and audio dramas and two feature films. The world of Dredd, a hugely overpopulated American city of the early 22nd Century, is harsh and brutal, but also darkly humorous and bitingly satirical. It was also grossly fantastical and completely implausible from the perspective of 1977.

Almost half a century later and a third of the way from the comic’s launch to the date of its setting, Judge Dredd is starting to look a lot less satirical and a lot more accurate. In fact, a reasonable (and disturbing) claim could be made that Judge Dredd may yet emerge as the most prescient work of British science fiction of the late 20th Century.

A Century of Challenges

The story of the 21st Century is likely to be the story of how humanity comes to grips with three great, interconnected problems: climate change, overpopulation and postcapitalism, the end of the centuries-long paradigm under which people work and get paid for it so they can survive. Improved technology, AI and automation will effectively end the relationship between work, survival and rewards that has been the norm. At the same time a changing climate and rising sea levels – even if kept to a modest degree – will present issues for food supply and mass migrations from affected regions (most worryingly, low-lying Bangladesh where at least 60 million people may be forced to move from coastal regions). The problems associated with the mass, worldwide reduction in the need for workers and a growing population crammed into the cities raises issues related to civil rights, law enforcement and simply keeping people occupied.

Lurking alongside these is the threat of nuclear war. Although the threat of a global nuclear exchange such as that envisaged during the Cold War (when Judge Dredd was first conceived and written) has receded significantly, the chances of a regional conflict using weapons of mass destruction are getting ever higher. The Korean peninsula and the Kashmir region are both potential flashpoints for a future nuclear confrontation. More remote, but ever-present, are the threats from global pandemics and antibiotic-resistant infections.

The World of Judge Dredd

The “classic” Judge Dredd background is that presented between the 1982 storyline The Apocalypse War (which reduced the city from its even larger and more implausible beginnings) and the 2011-12 epic Day of Chaos (which all but destroyed the city altogether). The primary setting for Dredd stories in this time period is Mega-City One, a massive super-metropolis extending down the Eastern Seaboard of the former United States, stretching from Boston, Massachusetts to Charlotte, South Carolina and extending inland to the Great Lakes and the Appalachians. Over 400 million people live in this vast area, many of them crammed into huge tower blocks containing up to 50,000 people apiece.

By the early 22nd Century, AI, automation and robots have replaced all menial jobs in the city and many others related to customer service and even medicine and science. The unemployment rate swings from around 92% to 97%. The overwhelming majority of the population survives on a basic, state-provided income. Some people use their free time productively and energetically, creating works of art or music or literature. Others do not, spending all day in front of the television and eating unhealthily. Mega-City One is prone to fads or crazes, where a new idea sweeps the city and people take it up in droves before getting bored and moving on. Crazes can be relatively harmless to downright unhealthy (competitive mass-eating, reducing people to immobile blobs trapped in their apartments) to extremely dangerous (such as “Boinging”, or bouncing around the city in indestructible plastic bubbles, causing immense property damage along the way). Bored citizens sometimes get involved in crime or tribalism. In the worst cases, this tribalism can boil over into Block Wars: the people from one block blame the neighbouring one for having better food or services, or stealing their water, or being too noisy, and they end up fighting. Mega-City One is a seething cauldron of boredom, tensions and grievances, constantly on the verge of boiling over.
The rest of the Earth isn’t doing too much better. In 2070 a series of nuclear exchanges reduced several large areas into radioactive wastelands. In the United States only Mega-City One on the east coast, Mega-City Two in California and Texas City in the south survived. The rest of the country was reduced to a burned-out ruin known as the Cursed Earth, inhabited by criminals, exiles and mutants. Other mega-cities exist in Asia, Australia and Europe, but most of Africa is uninhabitable. Sea levels have risen modestly, flooding low-lying areas, but the seas are also polluted (the Atlantic, for example, is now known as the Black Atlantic for the garbage and pollution that infests it, with most forms of marine life made extinct).

The world of Judge Dredd is, of course, a massive exaggeration of what could come to pass. But there are nuggets of truth in its setting which are becoming eerily more prescient as time passes.

Postcapitalism, or How a Robot Stole My Job

In the world of Judge Dredd robots of varying degrees of sophistication have replaced menial workers and factories are almost completely automated (with only a few human overseers or supervisors). Computers and AI systems handle everything from food deliveries and transportation to intricate medical procedures. An early Dredd story, The Robot Wars (1977), has one robot named Call-Me-Kenneth become self-aware and attempt to lead an AI uprising to destroy humanity, but he is halted and new safeguards introduced to stop this from happening again. As a result of this automation, well over 90% of Mega-City One’s population is unemployed and surviving on a basic universal income.

This possible outcome has been mooted many times in science fiction but actual economists and politicians have always scoffed at the idea. They point to history: when the spinning jenny was invented in the north of England in the 1760s, the inventor’s house was broken into and his machines smashed by people angry that his increased productivity would lower prices (which was correct) and destroy jobs (which was incorrect), since one worker with a spinning jenny could produce cloth at roughly eight times the rate of a worker by hand. However, market economics always favour increased productivity over reduced costs, so companies with the jennies would rather increase output (and thus profits) 800% rather than cut labour costs. Indeed, the increased profits were used to buy bigger premises and employ more people, resulting in the invention of factories and mass industrialisation as we know it. The same was true of almost every major technological invention and innovation from the middle of the 18th Century to the late 20th.

However, this movement has been reversed in recent decades. Large factories have been built (mostly in Asia but increasingly in Europe and the Americas) which are very nearly completely automated. Cars are constructed and built on assembly lines with minimal human oversight. One computer server can now hold and retrieve records that used to require a battery of clerks to maintain. A company like Amazon can hold, buy and sell goods across the entire planet with a few thousand employees (mostly in warehouse stacking and retrieval jobs which themselves are vulnerable to automation) whilst traditional retail companies require thousands of stores, each with a dozen or more employees, to do the same thing. All of these innovations are built on cost savings: computers, AI and robots are cheaper to build and mass-produce than workers are to train and hire, they never go sick, they never need holiday pay and they’re unlikely to sneak off to the toilet to check on their Facebook feed. Adding more people to these high-tech industries will increase costs and lower productivity and profits rather than increase them. The recent suggestion that jobs outsourced to China could return to Europe and the United States has been surprisingly positively received because many of these jobs have since been largely automated and it doesn't matter at all if a robot is based in China or the USA.

More recently we have seen traditional jobs in customer services requiring human interaction being lost to self-service machines, not just in supermarkets but increasingly in banks. The rise in personal banking over the Internet has also seen thousands of bank branches (with their attendant jobs) all over the world being shut down as people switch to more convenient ways of banking.

The sudden advent of self-driving technology, being pioneered by companies including Uber, Google and Tesla, is an even more alarming threat to traditional jobs. Driving, either taxis or trucks for mass transport of goods, is a valuable source of income for low-skilled workers. In less than a generation, we may see the majority of these jobs disappear in favour of vehicles that can stay on the road 24/7, never get lost, (hopefully) never have accidents and never overcharge their passengers.

Some countries are moving to tackle the issue: Finland is trialling a basic income, where people get enough money to survive from central taxation and anything they earn through work is added onto that amount. A similar trial in Aquitaine in France is also planned, and the Pirate Party in Iceland is advocating for a trial of their own. Economic models in Europe, where taxes are generally higher than the United States, indicate that a basic income is both possible and sustainable, and has positive outcomes (one study showed that only 1 in 10 people on the scheme voluntarily chose to stop working, and most of those were older people close to retirement anyway or parents choosing to spend more time with their children). Such a system would be harder to implement in countries such as the United States, as it would require a near-doubling of taxes to be sustainable. In the UK it would be more achievable due to the UK’s over-complex morass of tax credits and rebates, not to mention the enormously expensive welfare state bureaucracy. Eliminating all of these would move the country some way to affording a basic income (which would replace them).

The idea of a basic income is controversial, since it suggests that during the likely decades-long transitional period there would be people who worked hard to effectively subsidise other people who chose not to work at all: Switzerland rejected the notion by 76% in a referendum last year. Although studies show that relatively few people would voluntarily choose not to work at all, there would no doubt be some who did that make that choice, increasing social division and resentment. There is also the risk that those on a basic income in areas with no jobs would soon find themselves in the “just about managing” bracket with the temptation of engaging in crime to supplement their income. This outcome drives a lot of storylines in Judge Dredd and is also a troublesome outcome in James S.A. Corey’s Expanse novels, where automation has required most of the population of Earth to survive on a basic income (whilst those in Mars and the asteroid belt have to work much harder just to survive, to their annoyance). Still, it is another idea once consigned to SF that is now being more actively discussed in the real world.

Democracy and the Law

One of the more controversial aspects of Judge Dredd is that the system Dredd works for is essentially fascism. There are no elections and there are limitations on free speech. The argument is that in a city of 400 million people, it is simply completely impossible and unaffordable to go through lengthy trials, so the Judges are empowered to punish people on-the-spot and decide if they are guilty or not, with no right of appeal. Judges can fine citizens or sentence them to iso-cubes (small prison cells), suspended animation or even execute them for capital crimes. The Judges also act as officers in the city’s military (although it has both a small regular army and a militia back-up, known as Civil Defence, who also provide local security within the blocks) and fight on the front lines in times of war.

This blurring of the line between police, soldiers and the judiciary is deeply concerning, and it should be. To paraphrase a famous line from Battlestar Galactica, soldiers are trained to obey orders without question and to see their opponents as the enemy. Use soldiers for police work and they may see the civilian population, the people they are supposed to be helping, as the enemy, and react (and overreact) accordingly. The militarisation of the police has become a major concern amongst civil liberties groups in the United States in the last few years, and an issue in other countries where the threat of terror attacks has given police and intelligence services unprecedented powers to investigate, detain and even kill citizens whilst circumventing due process.

Another interesting aspect of Judge Dredd’s setting is that the United States Constitution and its three-pronged system of checks and balances is suspended in 2070 by the Judges (after an insane, populist American president elected to solve people’s economic problems instead starts World War III through his own ineptitude) and never reinstated. Dredd and many of the other Judges believe that democracy has been proven to be a failure, constantly giving power to weak, corrupt and selfish rulers and people are continuously shown to be voting against their best interests. In the loosely-connected Democracy story arc (running from Letter from a Democrat in 1986 to America and Twilight’s Last Gleaming in 1991), Dredd gradually shifts from this position after seeing the corruption possible in the Judge system and eventually convinces the Chief Judge to call a referendum on restoring democratic rule to elected officials. This referendum votes overwhelmingly to maintain the status quo, reaffirming Dredd’s faith in the system.

Writer John Wagner pointed out that this decision was probably wrong from a moral perspective, but he felt having the democratic system reinstated would shift the setting too far away from the satirical points he wanted to make. In addition, it should be noted that shortly before the referendum was held, Earth was attacked by an army of undead forces led by Sabbat the Necromancer which obliterated Mega-City Two and killed hundreds of millions of people before being stopped by Judge Dredd and the other Judges, which may have had a minor (!) impact on swaying the vote. The ultimate message is that, even with real outside threats at hand, the idea of suspending free speech and voting in a strong leader may be attractive but ultimately self-defeating. The comparisons with Nazi Germany in 1933 are of course clear.

From Time Out Hong Kong.

Mega-Cities in the Making
The clearest area of prescience in Judge Dredd is in the Mega-Cities themselves. Indeed, they are already here, and far earlier than anyone was expecting.

In 1985, eight years after the Judge Dredd strip started running, the Pearl River Delta region of China was predominantly rural. The large cities of Hong Kong and Guangzhou were located in the region along with numerous smaller towns, but this area was still dominated by farming and agrarian pursuits.

In 2017, that situation is completely different. Nine cities now exist in the region and are close to amalgamating into one massive mega-city with a population of approximately 54 million, making it easily the most populous conurbation on Earth. Behind it is the Greater Tokyo Metropolitan Area in Japan, with a population of 38 million, which is also likely to amalgamate with Nagoya and Osaka in the near future to form a city dominating most of the country (a forerunner of the Hondo mega-city in Judge Dredd).

Indeed, Mega-City One itself is taking shape. The Greater New York Metropolitan Area has a population of 24 million and is already not far from linking with Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, DC to form a single massive mega-city dominating the east coast, the Northeast Megalopolis (informally, “BosWash”). This conurbation is also likely to extend east to link up with Providence and Boston, and some (such as William Gibson in his Sprawl novels starting with Neuromancer) have speculated it could extend as far south as Atlanta. The Judge Dredd timeline speculates this could happen by 2050.

However, it does not appear likely that the real Mega-City One will ever get close to 400 million people. Current population trends show that the explosive population growth of the 20th Century is already starting to lessen and the world’s population will (probably and hopefully) never exceed 12 billion by the late 21st Century, with it expected to fall modestly after that point. Hopefully that one particular vision of Judge Dredd, with thousands of people crammed into crime-ridden arcology towers surrounded by freeways in near-permanent gridlock, will remain science fiction. But the comic, inadvertently or not, has identified a number of other serious societal and economic issues that will become very real concerns in the near future.

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