Puerto Rico, Power Grid, Dixit, Star Trek: Five-Year Mission and The Witches (Game Reviews)

There’s a stack of games in our house we’ve said at some point or another that we’re probably going to sell. But before we do, I force us to play one or two more times to be sure we’re not making a terrible mistake and to try to think through why we didn’t enjoy the experience (if that’s still the case). THESE… are our stories.

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My partner Katy’s made a great many board game trades recently. All the T.I.M.E. Stories are gone (!), but as I have a review of them coming out elsewhere soon, I shan’t talk about them here. Instead, gather ’round to hear the tale of how we ditched Puerto Rico, Power Grid, Dixit, Star Trek: Five-Year Mission and The Witches.

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PUERTO RICO

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How could we get rid of such an august pillar of Eurogaming? Fairly easily, as it happens. I never wanted to actually play Puerto Rico. I had a positive aversion to the game, and would only participate if someone else in the party really wanted to. Katy thought for a good long while that this meant I hated ‘role selection’ games generally. I think that actually I just find Puerto Rico especially tedious.

I’m finding it hard to identify why Puerto Rico was mechanically such a drag, because I haven’t opened the box in ages–in fact I last played it when we were only somewhat into gaming. Perhaps this means that I should have given it another go, but honestly I wasn’t eager enough to do so to overcome Katy’s manic urge to pack a game the instant a trade’s accepted. Puerto Rico also isn’t considered a good two-player game. We didn’t have the Official two-player version, and you have to jury-rig a sub-optimal variant. Thus it’s not great for our two-person household.

Puerto Rico‘s art’s acceptable, and its components are fine as far as quality goes, but I’m never over the fact that the basic game concept is plantation slavery, and no one thinks that’s weird. That is weird. Calling the black-person-coloured little tokens ‘colonists’ (…) can’t really sufficiently abstract the game from its obvious historical inspiration, especially when you’re directing your ‘colonists’ to do all the productive actions of slave labour. That’s basically necessary in order for you to play. The game thus positions the player as historic overseer and omnipotent controller of fully-objectified workers rather than as participant.

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They could have TRIED, you know? The colour of the tokens could have been green or blue rather than mahogany. ‘Puerto Rico’ could have been a historical location associated with colonists rather than slaves, or it could have been an invented fantastic location. The game’s available, necessary actions could have elided options like ‘work this plantation for me’. The underlying mechanics of colonialism might still have been at work (and ‘Eurogaming as a collection of colonial tropes and engines’ needs interrogated and deconstructed in its own right), but active racism might thus be thwarted.

Of course a racist male relative made a meeeeeal of this when we played because he’s the type of guy who thinks it’s funny to ‘get my goat’. This made the creepy content not just ‘Erin being over-sensitive’, but skin-crawlingly inescapable. Sure, it’s just a game. But I’m not keen on the idea of ‘Holocaust Monopoly’ either?

I do think the conceptual underpinnings made me less willing to engage with an otherwise loosely themed and mechanically ‘basic’ game. I don’t see Puerto Rico as all that similar to Race for the Galaxy, one of my all-time favs. I know they share a developmental lineage, but to me, that’s evidence that Puerto Rico was a key evolutionary building-block we’ve now rather moved beyond.

A friend was shocked that a game this tone-deaf/racist came out in 2002, and that that’s not *the thing* people say about Puerto Rico, which is, let me remind you, *the 12th most popular game on BGG*. Guess that’s what happens when a hobby’s pretty white&male, not self-reflexive and doesn’t give many fucks about inclusion?

As board gaming expands as a hobby, gaining more of a foothold in a broad base of casual players (exactly the sort of people who’ll be introduced to Puerto Rico as a classic game), this is really the kind of thing we’ve got to start critically examining. Are you going to comfortably teach Puerto Rico to your black friend who’s come to the game cafe to hang out with you and maybe get into this? If not, are you then comfortable playing it in her absence?

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POWER GRID

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I struggle to see Power Grid as a Eurogame, really. To me it feels like a representative of the better class of ‘standard American board games’. I almost want to pop Ticket to Ride and Turn and Taxis, both of which I like better, in that category as well.

The theme is well-integrated, and while there’s nothing terribly objectionable about providing Germany with a better power infrastructure than your competitors (other than a demonstration of the massive logistical waste endemic to capitalist competition, I guess), there’s nothing terrible compelling about it either. The resource competition mechanism annoys me a little. I don’t tend to like petty, in-game push-pull shit with other players all that much. I’m fine with competing on a larger scale, but squabbling over resources is kind of distasteful. At ‘about 120 min’ (per BGG), Power Grid is rather long for what it is. It drags somewhat, and there’s not all that much to do in terms of making choices. The box is huge, and as shelf space is a finite commodity, that’s not a plus.

I don’t really know how Power Grid‘s ranked 23rd, other than that it’s not that difficult, so a lot of people must play it and then rank it highly? I suppose it’s a decent intro to more complex gaming and thus has a place in the ‘gaming lifecycle’. Peoples’ interests get more developed and specialised as they get more into gaming, and they get better at games generally. What initially seemed difficult and absorbing might now amount to two hours of going through the motions. Katy also changed her mind about gaming and themes some time after we bought Power Grid, and started to hunger for games with more enticing subject matter. We didn’t play Power Grid that much after we started to find games better suited to our particular developing palates, and I’d be a little surprised if people who’ve gotten deeper into the hobby find themselves turning to it all that often, except as newbie ‘seduction’ fare.

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DIXIT

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People in board gaming have the lowest art standards, I swear to god. Everyone raves about Dixit‘s cards and they’re… fine? You know, a bit fun. Sort of hotel paintingy, but you could almost see some of them on the cover of a mediocre collection of Angela Carter reprints.

Dixit has a simple mechanic. People have hands of cards with mysterious semi-surrealist paintings on them. They go in turns to say a clue, which they hope will lead one and only one other person to guess their card correctly. Everyone else then chooses and lays down one of their cards, and everyone tries to guess the ‘correct’ card that inspired the initial clue. Points are awarded to the clue-giver for having one person guess, and not awarded for garnering either no correct responses or too many. Other players whose contributions fool people into thinking their submission was the one the clue related to receive points. Correct guesses also get you points.

Gameplay is fairly fun, and I like that Dixit relies on intuitive, social intelligences and communal clue-giving. It works more like charades or something than a traditional Eurogame.

The problem becomes, who the fuck do you play Dixit with? In any group of people gathered together to play games, it is really easy, due to the uneven nature of social relationships, to clue one and only one person into most hints. People have varying degrees of shared references, and know one another from different places. It’s not fair for me to play with my girlfriend Katy and anyone else: a giant clam comes up, and I could play badly on purpose and say ‘pearl’, but I can also just say ‘Harry Sullivan’. Katy knows Doctor Who as well as I do and will definitely remember the time in “Genesis of the Daleks” when the companion of that name was memorably almost eaten by a giant clam. If we play with my sister, that favours me, because I know both of them better than they know one another. If we play with Katy’s work friend, that favours Katy. No composition of people won’t be lop-sided. You’d have to all know one another fairly poorly and not have lots in common (in which case why are you playing board games, how excruciating) or all know one another about equally well and share about an equal degree of cultural context. I guess I could save Dixit for a reunion of my uni housemates, but even in that ideal scenario–I still have a bestie? He and I would fucking own? If you played with two couples the advantage would still be with the person better friends with one member of the couple. Dixit might be a uniquely awkward way of making that sort of thing obvious.

I guess you could deliberately try to play Dixit badly by eschewing all ‘personal’ clues, but that sounds difficult to do and like an unpleasant play experience. A game that requires you to fuck it up so it’s functional is a bit broken. Also it’s for 3-6, which makes it not great for our two person (occasionally ‘plus variable numbers of guests’) household.

Maybe Dixit works better for people without really developed shared bodies of knowledge. People without fandoms or anything like them, essentially. But it’s a board game. Played by nerds. So good luck with that, I guess.

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STAR TREK: FIVE-YEAR MISSION

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When I first got this game, the fast pace and relentless cascades of consequences annoyed the hell out of me. We were still often bad at it when we got rid of it. We couldn’t play it that much because it’s for 3-7 people, and we are most often a party of two. Perhaps if we’d played it more we would have gotten speedier, but it’s a dice-based game, so while there are a lot of decisions to make, there’s also a ton of luck involved. We never played it with more than three people–it might have been easier if we had, though of course given that every person must add another challenge to the stack when they begin their turn, more crew members means more problems. However it would also mean more of the die that solve problems in play, so I think ultimately it’d have been in our favour.

I don’t think we were ever in agreement about how collaborative Five-Year Mission was supposed to be. I thought fairly fully, i.e. you can make suggestions to the currently-placing player, whereas Katy thought that was out of order.

Because it necessitated an additional player, this got brought out as a sort of ‘party game’ when we were visited by people who also liked Star Trek: a stressful, random barrage of shit happening while you ran out of time and your beloved ship was destroyed. Welcome to our house, I guess.

Five-Year Mission combined a theme I’m deeply interested in with no plot to speak of, random dice-rolling over engine-building and decisions, timed elements and threat-addition: my only hate sprung from my only love. It was like a pizza topped with sardines, or an ice cream sundae where the chocolate scoop is actually just a big shit. Frustrating. Unhygienic.

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THE WITCHES

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The designer of the excellent Discworld: Ankh Morpork also brought us The Witches, and both games’ theming is on-point. Fun, detail-heavy, integral to the mechanic, worked through the components and play, developed, pleasing to the fan but not alienating for the novice: everything you want theming to be in this type of game.

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It’s unfair to compare the mechanics of The Witches to those of its sister-game, D: A-M, because D: A-M is one of the most mechanically exciting, promising titles in the past several years, and few things are in its league. But if I were going to do that unfair thing, Witches would be a bit of a let-down. It’s fine, pleasant even, but a bit too dice-rolly and luck based. The strategy, card-based, deck-building element is the most successful component of the game, but even that is very ‘luck of the draw’.

The Witches is a goodish game I would happily have played more, but it was never destined to be a perennial favourite, and I wasn’t that sorry to lose it.

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WHAT’S NEW: 

So what did we trade away all those games to try?

A Study in Emerald
Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Boardgame (2002) (not, unfortunately, a game with almost the exact same name, which she thought she was purchasing)
Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Thames Murders & Other Cases (1981)
Near and Far
Marrying Mr Darcy
Lords of Waterdeep
Innovation
Coup
Citadels
Artefacts, Inc
Android: Netrunner

A few of these Katy also found going used/at good rates. One (Near&Far) she bought full price, and on the day it came out (she really liked Above&Below). But in general, this is just the trading system working out well for us.

War Games Proposal

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I submitted a book proposal to the Black Archive’s Doctor Who series for “War Games”, then asked to un-submit it when I realised you only got two goes a year, and that given the upcoming schedule of calls I was already going to have to eliminate Three, Five or “Unquiet Dead”.

I thought you might enjoy the sketched-out book anyway. It’s not my BEST take–I didn’t have time to rewatch “War Games”, as I would have liked (it’s a COMMITMENT), but y’know, it’s some thoughts maybe someone else might like to take up.

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CHAPTER SUMMARY:

Let me begin by saying that I realise asking for The War Games is jammy beyond jammy, a vast vat of the viscous stuff. It’s the biggie: all ten plump little episodes, and all the plot and canon formation that goes on within those confines. Yet because it’s so important, even as one wonders how to do it justice, one is almost obligated to ask!

I love the whole idea of this range, of finally doing litcrit/textual work on Who in addition to production-focused criticism. Not that a production perspective doesn’t yield something valuable, but for so long we’ve been talking about Who as craft and never as art. Black Archive feels like such an exciting, past-due addition to (re-direction of?) the conversation, that chips away at that craft/art false binary and allows these approaches to productively speak to one another.

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1. Intro:

Precis of the serial. We might find this phatic–surely if you’ve bought this book you know this episode like the back of your hand? But often the memory does cheat. Beyond that, an attentive reading often draws my attention to things I hadn’t previously seen in a text, or changes my thinking about the relative weight of given elements. It also gets readers and author on the same page re: thematic concerns.

This is also a good place to nod to other critical treatments of the serial, and to do a quick ‘literature review’. There’s a great deal of spilt digital ink, fanzine material, etc., on this serial that I’d need to read and re-read. (There’s also a fun commentary on the War Chief’s project management skills: https://orangeanubis.com/tag/patrick-troughton/ .)

There’s something to be said here about the choice of periods or war-zones (euro-heavy, relatively temporally compressed), the BBC’s broader costume drama tendencies/this serial as historical fiction, and about War Games’ not wholly unprecedented but still ambitious exploitation of the show’s time-jumping formula.

2. “Man is the most vicious species of all.”

Having set up the plot, we can turn to the War Lords’ endeavours. I’d like to pay particular attention to a line of thinking the War Chief articulates:

“Consider their history. For a half a million years they have been systematically killing each other. Now we can turn this savagery to some purpose.”

Who pulls this ‘wicked, naughty humans!’ business almost as constantly as it pulls ‘x species spurred human development/x sits underneath the surface of the Earth like a fae kingdom’. It appears to be quite a mature critical gesture: the emerging British national epic holds up a mirror to the country which, until very recently, had an empire the sun never set on. Actually, however, I think the ‘savage humans’ accusation functions more like a Bakhtin carnival. This faux-criticism defangs anxiety about whether the viewers are at all implicated by the actions of the baddies: whether they’re ever more Dalek than Doctor. The important thing in this exoneration mechanic is not that the Doctor denies the War Chief’s charge in the next line (it is indeed patently ridiculous in the show-universe, often asserted but simply silly when Daleks et al exist). The important thing is that the charge is made, that we the audience roll around in a moment of liberal smugness at our own ability to see our faults, and then excuse ourselves of them. You can’t look at this instance of ‘consider their savage history’ without examining Who’s long fascination with this topic.

Despite having access to time-travel technology that could theoretically enable them to pluck human soldiers from wars yet undreamt of in our own time, the War Lords only collect combatants from the Great War and earlier. A line about the potential danger of ‘technological advancement’ allows the serial to elide World War II (‘too soon’ for contemporary viewers). This technological excuse is somewhat curious given that while atomic science was indeed playing out somewhere, a great deal of trench equipment, like the Fullerphone, remained consistent across the wars.

But where, in the War Lords’ cavalcade of conflict, is empire? Only five of the eleven conflicts might offer significant numbers of non-white European combatants on either side (and of these, WWI is often perceived, and here depicted, as a ‘white’ conflict—though granted we don’t hear much about the Greek and Roman zones). Imperial examples of human viciousness (the quality the War Chief suggests is being cultivated and selected for by these experiments) are erased because they aren’t classed as true ‘battles’ between equal opponents: war is collapsed down into a chivalry narrative, and history into ‘half a million years’ of people (all people, we must suppose) ‘systematically killing each other’, without particular ascriptions of blame or power imbalance implied. History becomes a sort of evo-psych pageant of inevitability. I think it’s actually fairly powerful that Two treats this as simply stupid: it’s a bad plan based on a bad take.

New Who’s post-empire masculinity crisis in part arises from the Classic Who’s refusal to think about empire during Decolonisation. Arguments that Classic Who was a children’s text (always dicey to begin with) can’t wave away the show’s preoccupations and the subjects it chooses to engage with. For this section I’d draw in part on Aishwarya Subramanian’s work on post-war British children’s fantasy and empire.

3. Kriegsspiel:

I think it’d be interesting to talk a little about ‘war gaming’ in the historical training scenario sense. I recently presented on class in Dickens adaptations over the decades at Historical Fiction Research Network’s annual conference (and there should possibly be a note about class in the war-zones, in this treatment). While there, I heard a rich paper on war games as historical fiction, part of (in this paper’s case) the British navy’s curation of its self-image. I think good stuff could come of returning to that scholar’s discussion of war-gaming as training tool and image curation.

Obviously there’s a doubleness to the serial’s title. The War Lords are engaging in literal war games, while the episode sets up a disturbing picture of war as always essentially homogenous, always run by and conducted at the behest of faceless, interchangeable outsiders. The Security Chief and the War Chief’s petty in-fighting adds to the serial’s sense that this is what war is always like. To the people playing with human lives, the war games might as well be Homeward Bounders. The idea of higher beings testing or playing with humans in this way has a pedigree in fiction and SF that could be usefully illustrated in this volume. (For example I would be a little surprised if Homeward Bounders didn’t derive somewhat from War Games–after all, Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series is so ‘I watch Who with my children’ I’d swear to it, with citations.)

Further thought about the catch-and-release plot business of the episode ought to go here, under the general rubric of the extent to which this is ‘war as game’ for the Doctor and his companions as adventurers, and thus for the audience at home. It’s a counter-intuitive story, more novelistic than reminiscent of modern television. So few of this serial’s events matter in a plot-arc sense, giving rise to questions about what we get out of television, making us question what we get out of television, how a story attains and sustains attention, and the relationship between narrative space and character construction. War Games is a story built on delay, escape, and characters never being in the right place at the right time for the real plot to occur. The serial’s confrontations are ducked and dodged until the last possible moment. This is a story about surviving a situation, not rushing in to face opponents. I wouldn’t claim this as an intentional artistic move, but the kind of Falstaffian attitude about war that emerges certainly suits the second Doctor. Yet the Doctor’s Hal in this story, too: taking up his portentous heritage and claiming responsibility in summoning and then reckoning with the Time Lords, throwing off his joker persona (which is both authentic and a front) even while contesting with the indifferent paternalistic authority of his people.

This element will probably get fleshed out as I think more about the precis.

4. “his own people, the Time Lords”

A really exciting section! Obviously this serial narratively develops the Time Lords, and there’s incredibly rich stuff to dig into regarding their presentation here. Gaiman finds this their only satisfying outing (http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2007/05/nature-of-infection.html):

“In my head the Time Lords exist, and are unknowable – primal forces who cannot be named, only described: The Master, the Doctor, and so on. All depictions of the home of the Time Lords are, in my head, utterly non-canonical. The place in which they exist cannot be depicted because it is beyond imagining: a cold place that only exists in black and white.”

Ultimately I really disagree with Gaiman on this. I love what the Time Lords do in War Games, but for somewhat different reasons, and I wouldn’t give up the sociological function the Time Lords play in other stories (which allows the Doctor’s characterisation to develop by providing him with a contextualising background). This book wouldn’t be complete without a discussion of the serial’s treatment of the Time Lords, and the things this development of them enables the canon to do. It’s far beyond ‘they stick Three on Earth’—the Time Lords’ existence (and increasingly, their culture) illuminates the Doctor’s particular character from here on out. The Doctor also enters a new stage in his relationship to the Time Lords, here.

It’d be interesting to read this discussion of non-interference against Star Trek’s concurrently-developing prime directive. Both are narrative devices with clear story-world functions, but do also signify politically, in alignment with and against the shows’ broader aims.

I’ve previously mentioned the Doctor’s choice to call in the Time Lords at great risk to himself as a particular moral turn for him. I think the importance and severity of this are underscored by that desperate scene of he and his companions struggling to attain the TARDIS as the Time Lords arrive. The power and threat of the Time Lords in the episode merit extensive discussion. We slip quickly from hitherto unseen telekinetic technology (the summoning box) to the terrifying unhappening of the War Lord, galactic exile for his entire species, invasive memory erasure for all the humans involved (including well-loved companions), and a more serious violation of the Doctor’s autonomy and body (and perhaps of the program format itself) than the show will ever again undergo. It’s an incredibly dramatic, daring choice, and in some ways it’s hard to imagine a contemporary program taking these sorts of risks or establishing these sorts of stakes.

And of course, while we’re here, is the War Chief the master? What does such a reading offer, and in what ways is it unsatisfying? This isn’t a question that needs a singular, definitive answer: in fact such a thing is undesirable. Clearly he’s a production-side harbinger of that character, a sort of test-run of the idea. Within the text, however, the War Chief seems to suspect the presence of someone known to him from almost the first sign of trouble. He and the Doctor’s recognition of one another seems intensely specific. It weakens the Master’s character somewhat if the Doctor has a score of such old frenemies, and despite the War Chief’s plan and treatment of the Doctor fitting so neatly into the Master’s MO in many ways, it’s also difficult to imagine the Master subsuming himself for years in a plot in which he was merely a functionary for other forces, losing even his name in the process. It’s also dramatically unsatisfying, in this regard, that the War Chief expends so much of his energy on his rivalry on the Security Chief. There’s a lot to say here about back-readings, why the show wanted a ‘Master’ shaped character, how it came to develop one (which the War Chief, like the Monk, is and isn’t), influences and experimentation.

And of course, courtesy of our aforementioned hirsute friend, there’s that brilliant bit at the end of ep six/beginning of ep 7 with the shrinking TARDIS/SIDRAT. It’s one of a handful to times a TARDIS becomes an alien, hostile, dangerous environment. The Edge of Destruction, the Master’s booby-trapped TARDIS in Frontier and the beginning of Castrovalva also come to mind immediately, of course, but it’s a relatively rare development. The device de-naturalises the semi-domestic space of the TARDIS, stripping back some of the safety the viewer has come to associate with the ship and laying the groundwork for the serial’s deeply unsafe ending. The serial’s conclusion is itself full of de-naturings. By the end of the story the Doctor and the own TARDIS will be deeply divided, and the Doctor will be unable to fully access his own mind.

5. “Memory’s a funny thing out here. Can’t always remember things myself.”

We can’t help but conclude with a discussion of the forced regeneration and the similarly forced removal of Zoe and Jamie’s memories, which echoes the memory-distortion the War Lords imposed on their victims. Jamie is literally released back into his own war zone. It’d be good to say a word on this in terms of the experience of watching Who in that era, without much ability to ‘summon back’ the show when it was gone. This effect has been course exacerbated, or perhaps simply extended, by the loss of so much Two-era footage. Our current reception of the show is laden down with memory. For the modern viewer, Early Who always carries the weight of the intervening years between production and reception on its back. It’s also laden with the reception-drag of and the totality of Who that will come (like a sort of age-reversed Aeneas and Anchises).

This was also an interesting time for traumatic memory loss in the public discourse. Psychoanalysis was in the air and the then-contemporary thinkpieces, getting heavily re-worked by second wave feminists. These thinkers’ emphasis on female sexuality brought Freudian memory-constructions, which were developmentally associated with assault narratives, under particular scrutiny. Psychoanalysis also gave extensive attention of the Great War, trauma and memory. It’d feel remiss not to spend a few pages dealing with the analytic dimensions of the serial’s treatment of extraordinary forgetting.

Questions of agency abound for the human soldiers, the exiled War Lords, the Time Lords, the Doctor and his companions. Canon and paracanon attempt to address aspects of these, as does media fandom to an extent. What do these fictional readings tell us about the elements of War Games that resonated with or continued to disquiet people over the decades?

6. Closing:

A consideration of the aforementioned themes, in cross-chapter conversation, and a word about War Games’ legacy for the Who canon and in broader culture.

Tristan and Iseult, by Rosemary Sutcliff

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Wiki characterises this as ‘a children’s novel’, which feels odd to me. It’s somewhat simplistic and it’s a novella, but it’s not really terribly child-friendly? Like, I wouldn’t call The Stranger a kid’s book because the prose is stripped back. This Tristan and Iseult isn’t so obviously child-inappropriate as that, but neither can I see the youth clamouring for it. I suppose it feels possibly YA or New Adult in that the protagonists are youngish for much of the action? It’s not precisely clear how old they are by the story’s end/their deaths (Arthuriana spoilers). But sometimes we say a thing is ‘for children’ when what we mean is simply that it’s not long or deeply complex (which is, obviously, a bit crap as a generic description).
 
This was a light, pleasant read, but it’s a bit overshadowed by the skill and beauty of TH White’s psychological approach and prose. It does behove writers and critics to ask themselves what a contribution aims to do differently, to expand on, to rethink in a subfield that includes Once and Future King, because you’re never not going to have that signal reworking in mind. White does cut the Tristan arc to keep Lancelot and Guinevere’s story-line neat (as-is, Malory crams in two confusing, conflicting major Iseults, and Sutcliff follows suit), to make it work as a piece of psychological realism/a moral question. Thus Sutcliff is giving something to modern Arthuriana reworking here by even attempting this tale. Yet I sort of wish she’d thrown herself into the project more? I’ve not yet read anything else by her, I just felt a sense of limitation here. Nothing in this reworking really took me.
 
That may be related to how uninterested this novel is in charm as an affect. You don’t get a sense of it from the characters or their doomed love, from the world or moments in the text, or in the relationship it’s trying to stage with its readers. This, along with the story’s unalleviated central concerns–doomed, unhappy love and sad, crunching betrayals that ruin male-male relationships and lives, also makes it hard to think of this as a children’s book. Tristan and Iseult is a blue-gray sort of story, cold and sparsely populated, shot through and sometimes illuminated by the strange copper-blood-purple red of Iseult’s often-referenced hair. It picks up a little on the feeling of some patches of Malory, and slightly anticipates Ishiguro’s Buried Giant. There’s some magic here, but of a constrained variety. The dwarf’s star-gazing could be a kind of Hild-like careful processing. There’s a dragon, but it might be any really threatening mundane animal–its effects are near-identical to those of a series of human conflicts over Iseult of the White Hands/territory.
 
There were quite good elements. That hair, and a time Tristan feels deeply disgusted with Iseult and himself for living a lie and betraying King Marc, and Marc himself, who does honestly love them both. But that itself was frustrating, because (and a friend joked this impulse was very MZB, and fair cop) you did just want them to work out some amenable arrangement, het or queer, nephew/uncle or no, and halt the slow, pointless death-waltz of the oncoming plot. 
 
I often get irked when people even joke that complicated relationships should be resolved, melted down, into the crucible of a threesome, because it seems a stupid way to think about relationship issues and plots, intent on liquidating productive or necessary tensions via artificial means. A threesome could and should have all the tensions of its constituent relationships. But there are some tensions that call for resolutions between characters on grounds of greater and more life-altering intimacy than heteronormative plot structures are prepared to allow. There are also ‘marriage plot’ problems that strike you as more of the moment of their writing than trans-temporal, describing the period they depict and speaking to the present reader. With more embedded social and psychological writing, Sutcliffe might have sold me on the painful irresolubility of the characters’ situation by walking me through it. As is, I’m just ‘why not both?’ing. Or rather, the problem is that Iseult doesn’t love Marc–that’s the central imbalance here. But then I know very little about their relationship, from her perspective. I don’t know the dimensions of their marriage, and what possibilities it affords. 
 
I like and respect that Iseult of Cornwall née Ireland’s an intelligent but difficult woman, who makes Iseult of the White Hands roll her eyes with good reason at the concussion (‘I loved him mooooost’ ‘well idk about that bitch, but he loved YOU more, so sure, be First Wife’). Sutcliff’s decision to eschew the ‘doomed to love one another by fate/an accident with a magical cup’ impetus feels like a good one, but it cuts down on another wonder-element of the text and really, how different was her treatment for having made this change? She wants an irresistible, quick-setting, not deeply motivated pull between these characters (who have reason to be drawn to one another, she just doesn’t end up illustrating this process all that much) and she gets it, cup or no. Sometimes the Olde Timey Celtic dialogue feels odd and lumpy, which is all the odder because there’s little dialogue in the book. I don’t know how self-consistent this dialogue feels, and I wonder what sources she’s drawing from here. The first half works better for me than the second, which meanders a bit. This is somewhat consistent with the source material, but then she’s shaping this telling, so I do hold her a bit accountable.
 
A solid, middle of the road sort of book, but I’m not sure there’s a reader who’ll LOVE it. At least it doesn’t feel as awful, forced and unnecessary as all the on-trend ‘my publisher made me do it’ fairy tale retellings glutting the market.

Freshly Remember’d: Kirk Drift

This is the first instalment of my new Strange Horizons column. “Kirk Drift” is a long-read essay on Star Trek‘s Captain Kirk, popular memory, gender politics, radical nostalgia and the unicorn dog.

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Section 1: What a lousy party!

Good parties diverge widely; all bad parties are bad in the same way. I am trapped at a dull dinner following a dull talk: part of a series of dinners and talks that grad students organise, unpaid (though at considerable expense to themselves—experience! exposure!), to provide free content for the dull grad program I will soon leave. The Thai food is good. The man sitting across from me and a little down the way, a bellicose bore of vague continental origin, is execrable. He is somehow attached to a mild woman who is actually supposed to be here: a shy, seemingly blameless new grad student who perpetually smiles apologetically on his behalf, in an attempt to excuse whatever he’s just said. One immediately understands that she spends half her life with that worry in her eyes, that Joker-set to her mouth, and that general air of begging your pardon for offences she hadn’t even had the pleasure of committing. There is always such a woman at bad parties. She has always either found herself entrapped by a clone of this man, or soon will.

We reach the point of no return when the omnijerk (really I suspect there’s just one vast eldritch horror sitting in another dimension that extrudes its thousand tentacles into our own, and that each one of This Guy is merely an insignificant manifestation of the beast: they couldn’t all be so boring in precisely the same way by chance, surely) decides to voice some Dinner Party Opinions on original-series Star Trek. God knows why. It’s not five seconds before he’s on ‘Kirk and the green women’. He’s mocking the retrosexist trope, but smiling a little weirdly while doing it. His own insufficiently private enjoyment is peeking out, like a semi-erection on his face. A sort of Mad Men effect: saying, “isn’t it awful” and going for the low-hanging critical fruit while simultaneously rolling around in that aesthetic and idea of masculinity. Camp, but no homo!

Read the full essay here.

“Take Care of Him. He Bites.”: Dogs in David Copperfield

by Molly Katz and Erin Horáková

David Copperfield’s idyllic childhood is marked by the absence of dogs. He is brought into the world by Dr. Chillip, “the meekest of his sex, the mildest of little men…he hadn’t a word to throw at a dog. He couldn’t have thrown a word at a mad dog” (Dickens 18; ch. 1). His home explicitly has “a great dog-kennel in a corner, without any dog”, in a garden that is “a very preserve of butterflies” (Dickens 24; ch. 2). This husbandless household is safe, somewhat insulated from class (the servant Peggotty and David’s mother Clara socialise affectionately and co-rule the house), loving and female.

Read the full post here.

Hive (Game Review)

There’s a stack of games in our house we’ve said at some point or another that we’re probably going to sell. But before we do, I force us to play one or two more times to be sure we’re not making a terrible mistake and to try to think through why we didn’t enjoy the experience (if that’s still the case). THESE… are our stories.

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Everyone in board gaming goes on about how high-quality X’s of Whatever’s cardboard bits are, but Hive doesn’t fuck around: it has thick, pleasing Bakelite tiles that stack nicely in the (admittedly shoddy) plastic insert. (My edition does, at least: I know there are some wood ones going as well.) The insect-etching colours aren’t my fav, but overall: noice.

I can overlook the accompanying weird, 90s plastic tile-bag that looks like a soccer ball or a Bop-It accessory. It’s a good thing to include though, for portability’s sake. I just wish it wasn’t quite so Toys R Us.

The game mechanic involves simple strategy. This will explain the rules, though you don’t really need to know them to follow along. Suffice it to say, it’s a bit chessy. Not like the expansive, tactical/logistic chess midgame, more like the tight, ‘move in for the kill’ endgame. Which isn’t my favourite part of chess, really? If I sat down and did endgame puzzles I’d get better I guess, but it wouldn’t be *fun*, exactly. It’s this chessy quality that makes my girlfriend, who is very good at all kinds of the trad Euro games Hive doesn’t really feel like–games that certainly involve thinking and some planning–really dislike Hive. She’s not super-practiced at the ‘causal chain’ thinking chess demands (which might be a native leaning or a learned skill, or both). If you don’t enjoy or have a knack for that, if you’re really more a Eurogames person than someone who could really go for a round of checkers when the mood takes them, there’s a chance Hive won’t do it for you.

Neither of us find Hive that fun–and not just because of the win-imbalance. For me, there’s not enough to do in this game. If I wanted this sort of strategy experience I’d play chess (or I would if bloody anyone in the house wanted to play chess with me*), or maybe like, Chinese Checkers? That’s the sort of game this feels like, and it is interesting to see someone developing games along those lines, even if the result isn’t really for me. The rounds are quick, which was both a bonus and a sign that the game wouldn’t hold my interest. If they weren’t quick, it’d probably be due to analysis paralysis. I feel like if I really learned Hive I could potentially develop strategies etc., but I’m not grabbed enough for that. Hive doesn’t have chess’s complexity, glam lore or variants to draw you in.

VERDICT: We traded it on for ‘Hey! That’s my fish!’ I was not involved in this decision. We’ll see, mate. We’ll see.

* I don’t miss chess in a ‘casual game once in a while’ way, though? Either I’m in a period and situation where I’m playing 5 games a day with people around me or I’m not. I don’t really want the online experience or a game once a month. I don’t NEED chess, either. I think that part of my brain gets, for the most part, satisfied by Eurogaming. But it’s odd–I do feel I have a certain quality of itchy, compulsive thinking these hobbies answer in a way my chiefest pursuits (reading, watching, writing, cooking) don’t, really. I sometimes get the vague sense that it’s ‘healthy’ for me personally to do some gaming, that it gives me a feeling of Having Done Something which is not to be dismissed when you have depression and honestly often don’t. Accomplishment breeds accomplishment.** Maybe.

** I have always thought this and then I ran smack into mad, manic-depressive Dickens saying exactly the same thing in a letter and thought ‘oh christ,’ so I’m er, more aware it may be self-justifying bullshit, at this point.