Thursday 31 January 2019

Wertzone Classics: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 3

Buffy and her allies have saved the world, but at a terrible cost. Angel is apparently lost forever, several key friends of the group are dead and the survivors are traumatised. Worse, Buffy herself has skipped town to try to recover from the chaos of the previous year, leaving her friends to hold down the fort in Sunnydale. Buffy's path leads her from the darkness of Los Angeles back home, where a new threat is rising.

The third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is, arguably, the show's most consistent. There's a very strong, large number of excellent episodes and the season arc is rich with dramatic possibility, pitting Buffy as it does against her own reflection and shows what she could have become if she'd chosen a darker path.

The result is Buffy's most dramatically accomplished season (even if the individual best-ever episodes of the series are still to come in later seasons), with very few weak episodes and several outstanding ones. This is the show firing on all creative cylinders, with the writers, directors and actors all at the top of their game. New castmembers like Eliza Dushku as Faith, Harry Groener as the Mayor, Emma Caulfield as Anya and Alexis Denisof as Wesley all fit into the show with ease like they've always been there, and there's a great mix of stand-alone episodes, arc-heavy stories and even a couple of conceptually bold pieces, like The Wish, an interesting look at an alternative universe where Buffy never came to Sunnydale, instead being diverted to fight the ultimate evils of the world in Cleveland.

The season isn't completely flawless, however. Angel's inevitable return leads to some dramatic angst, but this going on for the whole season eventually becomes a little old, with the writers clearly running out of ideas of what to do with Angel long before the end of the season. Their solution, to spin him off into his own TV show, is ultimately a brilliant one (Angel arguably being a more consistently high-quality show than Buffy itself) but it takes a while to get there. There's also a similar issue where it feels like the writers are keeping Oz (Seth Green) around because they liked the character and actor, but don't really give him very much to do. His somewhat abrupt decision to quite the show early in Season 4 when it became clear the same thing was happening again is understandable, although regrettable.

The third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (*****) is, simply put, the finest run of episodes in the show's history and an excellent showcase of the series at its best. The season is available now as part of the complete Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVD box set (UK, USA).

Tuesday 29 January 2019

Oscar Isaac in talks to play Duke Leto Atreides in the DUNE movie

Oscar Isaac, who is sort of in everything (but most famously Poe Dameron in the new Star Wars movies), is in talks with Denis Villeneuve to star as Duke Leto Atreides in the new Dune movie.

If cast, Isaac would be joining a cast including Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, Dave Bautista as Rabban, Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, Charlotte Rampling as Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam and Rebecca Ferguson as Jessica Atreides.

Some commentators have noted that there is only a 16-year age gap between Isaac and Chalamet, who is playing his son, but it is worth noting that in the Dune universe characters live for considerably longer lifespans than modern-day humans and look a lot younger for longer. This is also following the precedent established by David Lynch's 1984 movie, where Kyle MacLachlan (who played Paul) was only 18 years younger than Jurgen Prochnow (playing Leto).

The new Dune movie, the first of two adapting the first book, is currently believed to be targeting a 2021 release date.

Thursday 24 January 2019

Amazon's WHEEL OF TIME TV series starts shooting in September in Prague

Amazon's Wheel of Time TV adaptation will start shooting in September, it has been confirmed.

Confirming earlier rumours, the series will also shoot in the Czech Republic, with the main production base to be built in Prague.

With the writers still working on the scripts, it looks like casting won't start in earnest for at least a couple more months. Still, it's good to see that things are gearing up and gathering pace. The first season will likely air in mid-to-late 2020.

Joss Whedon's THE NEVERS to start shooting in June for HBO

Joss Whedon is returning to television for the first time in a decade (bar his hands-off producing role on Agents of SHIELD). His new show is called The Nevers and is a period peace, set in Victorian London.

Intriguingly, this will also mark the first time that Whedon has worked for premium cable, in this case HBO. Whedon's previous shows (most famously Firefly but also Dollhouse and, to a lesser degree, both Buffy and Angel) all suffered a degree of network interference during their lifespans, as well as budget issues. With HBO, these should be less damning issues.

The Nevers revolves around a group of women who have unusual powers, the various shadowy forces trying to control them, and their own conflicts in what to do with their abilities.

Whedon will write and direct the first episode and possibly more episodes of the show. He is also working as co-showrunner alongside his long-term collaborator Jane Espenson.

The Nevers will shoot from June 2019 to February 2020 and will air on HBO later in 2020, one of the channel's line-up of new shows that they hope will help fill the void left behind by Game of Thrones' conclusion.

Live-action COWBOY BEBOP to start shooting in April

Netflix will begin shooting its live-action remake of the classic anime series Cowboy Bebop in April this year, presumably to air in early 2020.

Based on the information provided to Production Weekly, the show will shoot from April to September. Locations in New Zealand, Australia, Spain and Montreal have been scouted. With shooting due to start in April, it seems likely that we will start hearing news about casting soon.

The show's blurb has also been unveiled:
In a distant future where resources are sparse and space travel leads to new lawless frontiers, a pair of bounty hunters are in need of a big break. Begrudgingly teaming up with their competition, a small crew aboard the BEBOP find themselves chasing down a high profile target while avoiding mega-powerful businessmen and a violent crime syndicate.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 2

Buffy and her friends have defeated the Master, closed the Hellmouth and prevented the end of the world. No sooner has the dust settled then two new vampires arrive in Sunnydale looking to pick up where he left off: Spike and Drusilla. As Buffy prepares to fight this new threat, she has no idea that an even greater danger is lurking much closer to home.

The first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was promising but, it has to be said, rocky around the edges. It took quite a few episodes to really hit its stride, but by the end of the season it was firing on all cylinders. Season 2 continues in this vein, with a greater confidence in the premise and characters, leading to stronger dialogue and more interesting characterisation.

There's also a nice line in irreverence towards the show's own mythology. Having set up the Anointed One in Season 1 as the heir to the Master's mantle, Spike and Dru showing up instead wrong-foots the audience. This is in the best possible way, because James Marsters (and his masterful English accent) and Juliet Landau (and her...less accomplished accent) fairly explode off the screen with glee and wild abandon, upping the energy level of the series considerably.

The first half of Season 2 is pretty zippy, in fact, with fast-paced episodes mixing action, mystery, backstory and romance. We get more information on Giles's background with the introduction of his nemesis, Ethan Rayne (Robin Sachs), which makes Giles a far more interesting character, and the introduction of a new character named Oz (Seth Green) who quickly becomes a key new ally of our heroes (and a love interest for Willow). This first half of the season does have few disposable episodes (Inca Mummy Girl is a marginally-less-terrible cover version of Teacher's Pet, Reptile Boy is forgettable, Bad Eggs is legitimately awful) but it does more than make amends with episodes like School Hard, which is Buffy's take on Die Hard (kind of) and Halloween and The Dark Age, which expand on Giles's backstory, along with the two-parter What's My Line, where Buffy goes up against Spike and Drusilla, helped by an unexpected ally.

And then everything changes.

Even in the late 1990s, when almost all American TV dramas aired 22 episodes a year, Joss Whedon seems to have recognised the problem in sustaining a single story arc over that length of time (Season 1 didn't have the issue because it was only 12 episodes long). His solution was to simply chop the season in half and have two distinct storylines, the one in the first half of the season leading naturally into the second, usually with an escalation of villain. This trick of upping the ante halfway through the season would eventually get a bit predictable in later seasons, but here it feels quite fresh, mainly because it comes almost out of nowhere. Before you know what's going on, Buffy and her friends are fighting an enemy who knows them better than they do themselves and has no problem killing off major recurring characters on a whim.

This gives the second half of the season a bleak and desperate feel to it, punctuated by real moments of horror and tragedy that you wouldn't have believed the show was capable of in Season 1 (the episode Passion, in particular, is a masterpiece of tension and darkness). The stakes constantly get higher and things culminate in a season finale which even Shakespeare may have drawn the line at for being "too tragic," helped by Christophe Beck's mighty score.

If there is a major problem with Season 2, it's that Whedon may have peaked too soon, and he has since admitted that this storyline should have played later in the series for a much more powerful impact (although in that case we may have never gotten Buffy's spin-off series, which would definitely have been a shame). As it stands, this story gives Season 2 real teeth and leaves the viewer wondering how they can possibly top it for the third year.

The second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (****½) is a huge improvement over the first, adding a strong sense of tragedy to the show's action, comedy and romantic stylings. A string of iffy episodes prevent the second season from being the best, but arguably the season has the most compelling arc of the seven (or twelve, counting spin-off show Angel), it being the storyline that most effectively hits Buffy where she lives. The season is available now as part of the complete Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVD box set (UK, USA).

Wednesday 23 January 2019

Seasons 1-3 of THE EXPANSE hit Amazon Prime worldwide on 8 February

Amazon have announced that Seasons 1-3 of The Expanse will arrive on their Prime streaming service worldwide on 8 February.

Image result for the expanse season 3

Amazon saved the show last year when it was cancelled by SyFy, with Season 4 already in the can and due for release later this year (probably summer or autumn). As part of the deal, Amazon picked up streaming rights to the first three seasons, but had to wait until Netflix's global distribution deal expired before they could air them.

This will mark the first time that Season 3 is (legally) available to view in most non-US territories.

Tiamat's Wrath, the eighth and penultimate volume in the novel series, will also be released on 26 March.

Charlotte Rampling joins the cast of DUNE

British actress Charlotte Rampling, an icon of both British and French cinema and TV, is the latest addition to the cast of Denis Villeneuve's two-part film adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune.

Related image

Rampling will be playing the role of Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, the Truthsayer and advisor to Emperor Shaddam IV. Mohiam is a senior member of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood.

Rampling is an experienced actress with a long history in British, Italian and French cinema, particularly arthouse movies. Her recent credits include the second season of Broadchurch and the drama English Spy. In the US she is probably best-known for appearing on the final season of Dexter.

It is anticipated that the new movie will start shooting in the next couple of months for a 2021 release.

Sunday 20 January 2019

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 1

Into every generation is born a girl with the power to stand against the forces of darkness: the Slayer. In the late 1990s, the Slayer is Buffy Summers, a 16-year-old California girl who tries to balance schoolwork, dating and friends with vampire slaying. Having recently moved to the town of Sunnydale to escape her destiny, Buffy instead finds it enhanced: Sunnydale sits on the Hellmouth, a mystical convergence with draws vampires, demons and trouble to it. Buffy is going to have her work cut out for air.

Originally airing in 1997, Buffy the Vampire Slayer's first season can charitably be called "a little rough." Joss Whedon had originally come up with the concept for a 1992 movie starring Kristy Swanson and Donald Sutherland, but the movie had gone in a campier direction than he'd planned. Offered the chance to revisit the concept, he accepted with alacrity and reworked the premise into a darker and more interesting story.

In this updated version of the premise, Buffy (played with immediate charisma by Sarah Michelle Gellar) moves from Los Angeles to Sunnydale in the hope of getting away from her destiny. Unfortunately, this backfires when she discovers that Sunnydale sits on top of a gateway into hell. This gives the series its best conceit: that demons, ghosts, vampires, werewolves and all sorts of supernatural creatures are attracted to the Hellmouth, explaining why Buffy is fighting a new threat every week.

Buffy is advised and mentored by a Watcher, a stuffy British expert on the paranormal called Rupert Giles (played with veritable aplomb by Anthony Stewart Head). She also makes two friends who quickly discover her secret: Xander (Nicholas Brendon, who shows more enthusiasm than skill in early episodes before becomes a stronger player in later episodes) and Willow (the infectiously joyous Alyson Hannigan). There's also a handsome stranger named Angel (the magnificently broody David Boreanaz) who keeps showing up at the oddest moments and Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), Buffy's would-be high school nemesis who eventually discovers Buffy's secret and becomes another ally.

To be frank, at least in the early going, Joss Whedon and his team should be forever grateful that their casting team hit the ball out of the park for virtually every regular and recurring castmember. The core cast are all well-played and keep the show going even when the individual episode concept falters (particularly during the astronomically terrible Teacher's Pet). The script quality is seriously uneven for the first few episodes, but somewhere around the seventh episode, Angel, when we get the tortured backstory of the mysterious character, things start clicking into a higher gear. This culminates in the season finale, Prophecy Girl, where Whedon both writes and directs for the first time and completely lifts the show onto another level of scripting, directing and dialogue. If you ever wonder why Joss Whedon was A Thing for so long, this is the episode that shows why.

There's still a lot of slow going in these early episodes, which are further hamstrung by budget restrictions (Buffy was picked up as a mid-season replacement, with no time or money to build more than a couple of sets or have more than a few CG vampire dustings in the whole season), but the heart of the show asserts itself early on, as does the show's tendency to get really, really dark and brutal unexpectedly. This was key to Buffy's success: the goofy name and premise put as many people off from watching it as hooked them in, but its ruthless attitude to its characters, its surprisingly high mortality rate and its increasingly complex worldbuilding (moreso in later seasons) added grit and depth to the concept that made it more compelling.

Watching Buffy in 2019, almost 22 years after I originally saw the first season, is also an interesting experience. In some key areas the show has dated badly, but in others (such as Giles's concerns over the Internet as an eroding force on civil human relationships and the metaphors employed for male characters desiring female ones even after being turned down) it feels quite fresh. More of an issue is the show's visual quality: Buffy's first two seasons were shot on 16mm film and definitely feel a bit blurry, especially on larger TVs. Whilst Fox did organise a HD remaster of Buffy, they messed it up by using very odd cropping choices, using widescreen masters featuring boom mikes, light stands and crewmembers standing visibly in shot, over-use of DNR (leading to uncanny valley-looking smooth human faces) and a myriad other problems which, several years on, remain resolutely unfixed. For now, I'd advise skipping the remaster and going back to the DVDs (which at least can be upscaled a bit by running them through a Blu-Ray player).

The first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (***, apart from the final episode which is a strong *****) is rough around the edges but it takes a while for the show to bed in, but when it does it becomes a compelling and enjoyable watch which sets the scene for the almost infinitely superior second year. The season is available now as part of the complete Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVD box set (UK, USA).

Tuesday 15 January 2019

Scott Lynch's GENTLEMAN BASTARD series optioned for film

Scott Lynch's Gentleman Bastard series has been optioned for film by Phoenix Pictures, it has been announced.

Lynch's Gentleman Bastard series got off to a roaring start with The Lies of Locke Lamora in 2006. Since then, two more books have been published: Red Seas Under Red Skies (2007) and The Republic of Thieves (2013). Four more books in the series are projected, with The Thorn of Emberlain having been delayed several times but hoped for release in late 2019 or early 2020.

Phoenix Pictures have produced a number of notable movies over the years, including The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996), Apt Pupil (1998), The Thin Red Line (1998), Shutter Island (2010) and Black Swan (2010).

This is only an option and there is no major studio involvement, but this is a solid first step to getting the books on screen. It'll be interesting to see how this develops.

The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin

Magic is losing its power throughout Earthsea. Ged, now the Archmage of Roke, decides to investigate and embarks on a fateful voyage which will take him to distant corners of the archipelago. He is accompanied by Arren, Prince of Enlad, a young man who is also seeking his own destiny and fulfilment.

The Farthest Shore (1972) concludes the original Earthsea trilogy, which was never meant to be a trilogy; Le Guin started work soon afterwards on a fourth book, Tehanu, but for various reasons it was delayed and not completed and published until 1990. Still, as a wrapping-up of storylines and character arcs from the three books it does thematically feel like the ending of a series.

At its core, The Farthest Shore is the story of confronting one's own demons and recognising the consequences for poor choices. In this sense the book feels like an echo of A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), the first novel in the series. In that novel Ged unleashes a dark shadow of himself into the world and has to find and confront it, which he eventually does at great cost. In The Farthest Shore the threat is more traditional, with Ged having acquired a nemesis in his adventures who now seeks revenge on Ged and domination over all the lands of Earthsea. In terms of the standard, trope-filled fantasy narrative, The Farthest Shore is the most traditional book in the series, with a callow young youth hero (Arren) learning wisdom from his mentor (Ged), who seeks out the enemy who would become a dark lord.

But this is a crude, reductionist reading of the story. As with the earlier Earthsea books and indeed much of Le Guin's work, the tone is melancholy rather than celebratory. Ged is a much older man than the last time we saw him and any hope that he may have found a life of happiness with Tenar (the protagonist of The Tombs of Atuan) appears to have been dashed. His life has been filled with great accomplishments and deeds, but Ged seems decidedly unhappy and bowed with the weight of responsibility. The decision to leave these behind and strike out himself in search of the answer to the mysteries afflicting the islands is clearly joyous. This novel, then, is the story of Ged resolving the lingering issues of his childhood and trying to find a way of achieving happiness in middle and older age; The Farthest Shore may therefore be the quintessential mid-life crisis novel, but with dragons.

As usual, Le Guin's inventiveness with worldbuilding and striking prose makes for an atmospheric and at times haunting story. Her characters are interesting, complex figures, although Arren occasionally risks blandness compared to Ged, his enemy and the dragons. The Tombs of Atuan was interesting in that it presented Ged solely from Tenar's point of view and gave us the external image of the character we spent all of A Wizard of Earthsea getting to know. The Farthest Shore gives us both, with Arren's view of Ged contrasting with Ged's own, less awe-inspired reflections.

This is therefore a sombre and at times dark book, but also one that is ultimately life-affirming, ending on a note that gives Ged and Earthsea hope for a much better future.

The Farthest Shore (****½) wraps up the opening Earthsea trilogy in fine, if occasionally maudlin, form. It is available now in the UK and USA as part of The Books of Earthsea omnibus edition.

Monday 14 January 2019

GAME OF THRONES Season 8 gets air date

The eighth and final season of Game of Thrones will begin airing on 14 April 2019, HBO have announced.

The final season of Game of Thrones consists of just six episodes, although these are all expected to be at least partially longer than the standard 50-odd minutes in length. Assuming no mid-season breaks, this means that the last-ever Game of Thrones episode will air on 19 May 2019.

The last season of Thrones will be written by Dave Hill (episode 1), Bryan Cogman (episode 2) and the team of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (episodes 3-6). It will be directed by David Nutter (episodes 1, 2 and 4) and Benioff & Weiss (episode 6), with Miguel Sapochnik handling the apparently "big" third and fifth episodes.

The season may mark the end of Game of Thrones, but not the franchise as a whole. HBO are already developing a spin-off prequel series, with the working title The Long Night, which has a pilot in pre-production.

CBS commissions fourth STAR TREK TV series

CBS All Access has commissioned its fourth Star Trek TV series, this time a live-action spin-off series focusing on Section 31. Michelle Yeoh will star, reprising her role as the Mirror Universe version of Phillipa Georgiou. As established in Star Trek: Discovery's first season, Georgiou was the Emperor of the Terran Empire in that universe and was brought into the "prime" universe and left there, after helping the crew of the Discovery end a war with the Klingons.

Despite Discovery's own relative youth - the show's second season only starts airing next week - it has already spawned two other spin-off shows. A series set 20 years after Star Trek: Voyager and the movie Nemesis is in pre-production and sees Patrick Stewart reprising his role as Jean-Luc Picard. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon is on the writing team for that series, which promises to be interesting. Apparently it is currently planned as a mini-series with the potential to spawn a further series if it is a success (although the long-term commitment of Stewart - who turns 79 this year - is unclear). An animated series called Lower Decks is also in pre-production.

The news of Michelle Yeoh starring in a new TV show - Star Trek or otherwise - is very interesting and welcome, although there is also a feeling that perhaps CBS is running before it can walk by introducing so many projects so quickly, before Discovery itself is a proven long-term success. Still, it'll be interesting to see what comes of these shows.

Sunday 13 January 2019

Board Game Catch-Up #2

Following on from the previous board game catchup, here’s a few more games I’ve managed to try out in the last few months. 

X-Wing Miniatures
Fantasy Flight Games

This is a pretty straightforward game: one player has X-wings, the other has TIE fighters (approximately three million expansions are available to change this up, of course) and they fly around a board trying to shoot each other. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail and sometimes they crash into an asteroid or one another in a somewhat anti-climactic fashion.

There is a phenomenon in board gaming called “spectacle gaming”, where the quality of the gameplay itself is rendered irrelevant by how beautiful the miniatures are and how cool they look sitting on the table. X-Wing Miniatures certainly fits into this bracket: the pre-painted spaceships are gorgeous and it’s fun moving them around the board. It’s less fun when your game has been going on for ten minutes and no-one’s managed to hit one another yet because of the dice rolls, or the game ends because someone’s flown their X-wing into an asteroid and can’t avoid it because space in the Star Wars universe isn’t three-dimensional, apparently.

I was a bit disappointed by this one, but the good thing about it is that it’s been enormously popular, meaning the model runs are large enough to make the models very well-priced, so if you want Star Wars ships on your shelves for decorative purposes instead (or perhaps to illustrate a roleplaying campaign), this is one of the best ways of doing that. I would be intrigued to give Armada (which is this game scaled up with capital ships) a go, as I suspect the rules work far better with slower ships, firing arcs and other fun elements from big ship combat. 

Zombiecide: Black Plague
CMON Games/Guillotine Games

Most zombie games employ clever mechanics to make for games of gut-wrenching terror and tension. Zombiecide: Black Plague has no truck with this and allows your team of heroes to run around annihilating zombies like there is no tomorrow. This is basically Hero Quest with zombies and that’s enormous amounts of fun up to a point, when the game starts feeling a little repetitive and a bit too easy. A fun and good-looking game, but not one I’d rush out to buy.

Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Ragnarok Publications

An amusing card game designed by fantasy author Mark Lawrence, with guest flavour text from authors including Robin Hobb and Wesley Chu. Basically the four horsemen of the apocalypse are rolling into town and the players have to organise things so that they are left standing rather than the other players. There’s some great tension and ideas here, but the game feels a little fiddly in the rules and the quality of the cards could be a lot better, especially given the price. Diverting but not essential.

Exploding Kittens
Ad Magic/ADC Blackfire

One of the biggest Kickstarter successes of recent years, this is fast-paced comical card game where there are kittens primed to explode and players have to avoid getting blown up by them using a battery of comical cards designed for this purpose. The game is funny (in a dark kind of way), with great artwork from the Oatmeal team and allows for some interesting strategy, although it’s still a relatively lightweight game. Good for kids, parties and after-meal entertainment.

Fantasy Flight Games 

A fantasy take on Richard Borg’s Command & Colours system (also used in Memoir ’44, which we discussed last time and Battles of Westeros, see below), which adds magic, gryphons and undead to the classic C&C gameplay. This is a handsome-looking game with great production quality and some added tactical depth to the C&C rules which makes for a more interesting game, but also a somewhat-longer playing one. This is a very fine game but it does sacrifice one of the main appeals of Memoir ’44, the fast setup and playing time, in favour of somewhat more depth, which arguably it doesn’t quite achieve. As usual, there are also a lot of fairly expensive expansions which you really need to keep the variety and interest up. The game has recently gone out of print, effectively replaced by the somewhat more generic Runewars Miniatures Game, which is a shame.

Fallout: Wasteland Warfare
Modiphius Entertainment

Wasteland Warfare is the second tabletop game based on the Fallout video game, following on from Fantasy Flight’s decidedly underwhelming board game from 2017. Wasteland Warfare is unapologetically a tabletop miniatures wargame whose primary goal is to sell an absolute ton of add-on models, but it cleverly includes enough stuff in the base box to actually work very well as a standalone board game (especially if you access the fan community to download more scenarios and missions). There’s a lot of fun to be had here, especially the mission objectives which are quite varied, but beware getting sucked into the money pit of spending lots of cash on awesome models.

The rules are quite decent (and a major round of applause for including range tokens in the box instead of asking people to bust out rulers and measuring tape), although I think ultimately the game might be more useful as the miniatures component of a roleplaying campaign, with Modiphius rumoured to be working on an RPG behind the scenes. 

Axis & Allies: Zombies
Avalon Hill/Hasbro 

Axis & Allies: Zombies is a variant of the classic WW2 board game which adds zombies to the mix. This initially appears to be gimmicky as hell, but the game remarkably uses the idea to really mix the game up, causing massive land battles to take place where normally there is no combat at all in a regular game (such as the North and South American mainland, or in Africa). The result is a game that overcomes Axis & Allies’ perennial problem – the predictable opening moves of a standard game – and adds fresh life to an old favourite. The game is also excellent value for money, as you can play it as Axis & Allies 1941 (the base “introductory” version of the game) or Axis & Allies & Zombies, and it also includes a deck of cards for use with Axis & Allies 1942 (the current “standard” version of the game) to add zombies to that version as well. An unexpectedly strong game.

Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu Z-Man Games

Do you like Pandemic? Do like Lovecraft’s books? Why not mix the two together? This also sounds a bit gimmicky, but the revamping of the Pandemic rules to account of hordes of cultists and shoggoth running around works really well, with you now having to move around several classic Lovecraft locations shutting down portals instead of curing the virus, with the “outbreak” cards instead replaced by a different Old One arising, their influence impacting on the game in different ways.

Rather than being a silly mash-up game, it’s one that cleverly rewrites the rules to accommodate the theme and is a different enough game to warrant some table time alongside standard Pandemic. Nicely recommended.

878: Vikings 
Academy Games

t’s 878 AD and the kingdoms of England are being overrun by invading Danes. It falls to King Alfred of Wessex to unite the people and rally large armies to throw back the Danes into the sea. The result is an excellent team game of strategy. Team games are surprisingly rare in modern board games, which tend to be either co-op (everyone versus the game mechanics) or competitive (everyone vs everyone), with teams often being alliances of convenience with backstabbing not uncommon (see A Game of Thrones: The Board Game or Twilight Imperium). 878 has two permanent alliances with the two players on each side cooperating (to the point of moving each other’s units around) and using their unique faction abilities to bolster themselves on the field of battle.

The result is a fast-moving strategy game with lots of interesting twists and is relatively straightforward and easy to understand.

The Expanse

Based on the TV show and James S.A. Corey’s novel series, the Expanse board game reflects the space opera influences of its inspiration by…being a worker placement Eurogame?

The Expanse is one of the odder games based on a licenced property to emerge recently. Each player controls one of the four major factions from the TV show and books (Earth, Mars, the OPA and Protogen) and seeks to build up influence over individual planets, bases and their orbital spaces. Space battles aren’t a key part of the game, although it is possible to build new warships and blow up opponent ships, with instead the focus being on point-scoring. In this manner the game is reminiscent of CatanTicket to Ride or Lords of Waterdeep. However, the game’s rather poorly-explained rules make it harder to recommend than those games, which are all faster to setup and play and work the theme into the gameplay much more successfully. The Expanse's rather poor production values - a bland board and murky photography from the show - also feel a bit of a letdown given the game's not-inconsiderable cost.

Still, once the rules were better-understood the game becomes a lot more enjoyable to play, and there are some nice twists on the standard worker placement paradigm, such as scoring only when one of the scoring cards pops up. This makes timing incredibly important in the game, and knowing when to make certain events to happen for maximum impact. It’s still a somewhat fiddly game, it urgently needs a new and better-written rulebook and the theme feels almost incidental (the Rocinante crew “wild card” is rather underwhelming), but there’s enough going on here to make it worthwhile. 

Ticket to Ride: New York
Days of Wonder

Ticket to Ride is one of the very best light or intro boardgames around, a strong title with a fun competitive streak. There are numerous expansions and revisions of the core game, mostly bringing the game to different countries or continents and ramping up the complexity, but New York does the opposite: it streamlines the game right down and the scale with it, being set on a small board depicting New York City.

Ticket to Ride is a pretty light game anyway, so a streamlined version seems redundant. But New York still works, being a fun and small game which works perfectly as a travel game, something you can bust out on a train journey. You can get a game done in under 20 minutes and it's very enjoyable. For home gaming, it's rather unnecessary (and leaves you wanting to play the original Ticket to Ride) but as a travel game it's fun and also impressively cheap.

Battles of Westeros 
Fantasy Flight Games

Yet another game employing Richard Borg’s Command & Colours system, this time in the world of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. The box proclaims this to be “a BattleLore game,” which is quite thoroughly misleading, as the game has a very different ruleset and is not compatible with BattleLore at all.

This game is worthy of a deeper dive at some point, but briefly this game changes the traditional C&C rules by dumping the three sector approach (where the board is divided between a centre and two flanks) and instead making everything about the leaders. Each faction has at least 2 leader characters who are present on the battlefield and who exert control over a “zone of command” around them. Rather than ordering units in each sector, you instead order units within the zone of command. The game also randomly generates (via dice) command tokens which you can use to order remote units on the battlefield outside any commander’s zone of command.

This approach is then given further depth by each commander having special tactics cards which are mixed into the standard command deck, which adds tremendous variety to the game and to each battle.

This surprisingly elegant system immediately addresses the primary criticisms of the earlier C&C games (that they are too reliant on the right cards coming up) by giving each player much more control over the cards they can use and where they can use them on the battlefield. It also creates more interesting choices as your leaders are also combat units in their own right, but if they are defeated on the field, they can no longer issue orders, so you have to decide between throwing them into the fray or holding them back. The result is much greater and more interesting tactical decisions.

On the downside the game is rather fiddly: you have to manually glue the figures into their bases, there’s a lot of unnecessary tokens and the core mechanic of twisting the units’ flags around after they’ve moved will very quickly result in broken flag poles and flags. I just used fire tokens instead to show when each unit had been activated, which was far easier and quicker.

This game has gone out of print, unfortunately, effectively replaced by CMON Games’ A Song of Ice and Fire Miniatures Game, which has much more impressive miniatures but decidedly less engaging rules. Snap up Battles of Westeros (and its expansions) whilst you can.

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Wednesday 9 January 2019

Stellan Skarsgård cast as Baron Harkonnen in the new DUNE movie

Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård has joined the rapidly-filling cast for Denis Villeneuve's two-part adaptation of Frank Herbert's classic science fiction novel Dune.

Skarsgård will be playing the primary villain of the novel, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. The ruler of the dark, industrial world of Giedi Prime and the sworn nemesis of Duke Leto Atreides, Vladimir Harkonnen is a debauched, cruel and monstrous tyrant, but also a clever and manipulative one.

Skarsgård is best-known for playing Bootstrap Bill Turner in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Bill Anderson in Mamma Mia! and its recent sequel, and Dr. Erik Selvig in four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies (Thor, The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World and The Avengers: Age of Ultron).

Skarsgård joins Dave Bautista - who will be playing his nephew, Rabban - Timothée Chalamet, who is playing Paul Atreides, and Rebecca Ferguson, who is playing Jessica Atreides.

It is anticipated that the first Dune movie will shoot later this year for a likely 2021 release.

Tuesday 8 January 2019

GAME OF THRONES prequel series announces more castmembers

HBO has confirmed some additional cast and crew for the Game of Thrones prequel spin-off show that is due to start shooting imminently.

Image result for The long Night

The series, provisionally entitled The Long Night, takes place thousands of years before the events of its predecessor and chronicles the descent of Westeros from the glory of the Age of Heroes into the terrors of the Long Night, when the White Walkers appeared for the first time and the Night's Watch was founded.

HBO previously confirmed that Naomi Watts and Josh Whitehouse would be starring in the show, whilst Jane Goldman will be working on the series as head writer and showrunner. To that they have added Naomi Ackie, Denise Gough, Jamie Campbell Bower, Sheila Atim, Ivanno Jeremiah, Georgie Henley, Alex Sharp and Tony Regbo.

Ackie is an up-and-coming actress who attracted attention for her role in Idris Elba's directorial debut, Yardie. She also has a role in the upcoming Star Wars: Episode IX. Tony Regbo has been a semi-regular on The Last Kingdom, playing Æthelred, Lord of Mercia in Seasons 2 and 3.

Jame Campbell Bower is an interesting addition. He played the role of Ser Waymar Royce in the original 2009 pilot for Game of Thrones, but was unable to reprise the role for the series proper, as he had been cast as King Arthur in Starz's short-lived Camelot series. The role was recast with Rob Ostlere playing the (short-lived, as he dies before the title credits begin) role.

HBO have also confirmed that British director S.J. Clarkson will be directing the pilot. She has shot episodes of series including The Defenders, Jessica Jones, Orange is the New Black, Banshee, Dexter, Heroes and Life on Mars. She is also provisionally booked to shoot the fourth Star Trek movie to be produced by J.J. Abams, although the fate of that film remains unclear due to an ongoing cast payment dispute.

The pilot episode for the new series will shoot shortly, with HBO due to make a decision on the project in the summer or winter. If greenlit, production would resume with an air to the show launching in mid or late 2020.

Game of Thrones' eighth and final season will air in April 2019, consisting of six episodes, although each episode is expected to be significantly longer than normal.

Monday 7 January 2019

Dave Bautista cast in the new film version of DUNE

Guardians of the Galaxy actor Dave Bautista has signed on to Denis Villeneuve's two-part movie adaptation of Frank Herbert's seminal novel Dune.

Bautista will be playing the role of the Beast Rabban, the nephew of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, the story's primary villain. Rabban is a brutal, sadistic murderer who is placed in charge of spice mining operations on the planet Arrakis by his uncle, resulting in a reign of terror that helps spur an uprising by the natives.

The film marks Bautista's second project with Villeneuve, having previously played the small but memorable role of Sapper Morton in Blade Runner 2049. It also marks Bautista's latest foray into genre fiction, having previously starred in films such as The Scorpion King 3 and Riddick.

The movie has already cast Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides and Rebecca Ferguson as Jessica Atreides, with cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, LionStar Wars: Rogue One) also on board. Villeneuve, whose previous two movies Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 were highly critically-acclaimed, is hoping to adapt at least the first novel in the Dune saga and possibly more of the later books if the first two are a success.

Legendary Pictures are producing for a likely 2021 release date. This will be the third adaptation of the novel, following on from David Lynch's 1984 movie and a Sci-Fi Channel mini-series in 2000, both of which ran into problems with either time (in the former's case) or money (in the latter's). Third time, hopefully, will be the charm.

Wednesday 2 January 2019

Night of Knives by Ian Cameron Esslemont

The Malazan Empire is expanding in all directions, consolidating its control of the Seven Cities subcontinent whilst its armies fight a grinding war of attrition on Genabackis against the Crimson Guard and their allies and an ugly stalemate develops on the continent of Korelri. The Empire's expansion has carried the glory and centre of attention away from the place where it was founded, the island of Malaz located off the coast of the Quon Tali continent. The empire was born on Malaz Island, but the empire has grown up and moved out of home. Yet, on the night of a mysterious convergence known as the Shadow Moon, this backwater city once again becomes the centre of attention...

Night of Knives was the first novel written by Ian Cameron Esslemont, set in the world he had co-created with his friend Steven Erikson for roleplaying. The original draft of the novel was written in 1987 but it wouldn't be published (somewhat revised) until 2004, when Erikson was already five books deep into his Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Night of Knives is therefore an odd book, with a different author's viewpoint on a complex fantasy setting. It also kicks off Esslemont's own six-volume Malazan Empire series and acts as a prequel to the entire saga, telling the story of the ill-fated night of the Shadow Moon and what happened to Kellanved and Dancer.

Although, to be honest, it doesn't really, as that momentous event takes place mostly off-stage (and I suspect we won't find out what really happened until Esslemont wraps up his Path to Ascendancy prequel series). Instead, the novel focus on a number of different characters in Malaz City on the night of an ill-omened convergence of magical forces. Our main characters are Kiska, a young thief so desperate to escape the boring island that she even courts joining the Claw, and Temper, a formidable warrior having to hide his true history from his comrades.

Night of Knives is a strange and expectation-defying book. It's strangely minimalist, with sparse descriptions and laidback prose (and a modest page count) that feels very different to Erikson's dense, multi-layered and yak-stunning doorstoppers. It's also not the best book to read without context. Back when I first read the novel, midway through the Malazan Book of the Fallen's release cycle, Night of Knives felt like a viable alternate place to start the series, being much easier to read than Gardens of the Moon. However, on this reread the book felt a lot more random and lacking in background detail. Without having read Erikson's novels first, I'm not sure it's really clear what the hell is going on at any given moment in the book. Temper's backstory also feels really meaningless without the reader knowing who his former commanding officer is.

It's also an odd book in that it sets up multiple awesome confrontations which then happen off-page: Kellanved and Dancer meeting their fate and an awe-inspiring magical battle between Tayschrenn and the Stormriders are both mighty events, but our viewpoint characters manage to miss them both.

On a character level, the book is better in that it establishes Temper and Kiska (who go on to play a role in both Erikson and Esslemont's subsequent novels, particularly The Bonehunters and Return of the Crimson Guard) well, the story is moody and atmospheric, and there's a sense of wandering into a friend's D&D campaign when it's half over and only just about following what's going on but enjoying the action and exploding magical hijinks anyway. Looking at the book from the perspective of having read all twenty published novels in the combined Erikson/Esslemont series (to date), I'm not sure it's a particularly essential read, although certainly not an offensive one.

Night of Knives (***) is a solid but somewhat random first novel which does nicely expand on many plot elements hinted at in Erikson's novels, but does work better when the reader has a more solid grounding in the world from Erikson's books. It is available in the UK and USA now.

Note: The original version of this review was published on 30 August 2007 and can be found here.