Foes & Families: Love & Friendship, Lady Susan, and How Jane Austen’s Victorian Family Built a Squeaky-Clean Celebrity Brand

To talk about the 2016 film Love & Friendship we have to tell the story of Lady Susan, the Jane Austen novella it’s based off of. At the time of Austen’s death, this early work was both unpublished and untitled. Thus changing the name for the film seems fair enough, though exchanging Lady Susan for Love & Friendship, already the posthumously-assigned title of an entirely different piece of Austen’s juvenilia is really confusing. The marketing team probably did it to get that familiar ‘Noun & Noun’ Austen Title Formula on the posters. According to Jane’s Fame, Claire Harman’s excellent survey of the history of Austen reception, this was already a noted, copied characteristic of her work in 1821, only four years after her death.

The exact period of Lady Susan’s composition remains a matter of some debate. William Baker’s Critical Companion to Jane Austen: A Literary Reference to Her Life and Work proposes drafting dates ranging from between 1795 to 1805, as well as providing an incredibly useful synopsis of major critical readings of the novella. What we can know definitively is that Lady Susan was first published in 1871, when it acquired its current title, by Jane’s nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, “as an appendix to the second edition of his A Memoir of Jane Austen”. (p. 124)

Read full review here.

Screen-Shot-2017-08-08-at-2.07.08-PM-702x336.png

 

Advertisements

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, 2016 (film review)

I stared at the Facebook message in horror. Had a uni friend truly linked me to the trailer for the (inevitable) film of the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies on the assumption that I would be pumped about this? Had she, in her sweet innocence, failed to notice that I am a hideous snob put on this earth to roll my eyes at the ‘classic novel and SFnal creature’ book trend? WAS MY BRAND INVISIBLE? Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was the last film on earth I would ever be willing to watch.

But as Austen teaches us, no plan survives contact with one’s sisters. Meghan was born ten years after me because god thought that up until then I’d had it too easy. Twenty years later she sat sulking through our low-key Halloween celebrations, and I felt guilty for dragging her prematurely into my fogeyish idea of a hot night (I had a roast dinner and a full-length black mourning veil to lunge out at trick-or-treating children in—what more could be wanting?). She suggested we watch Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and apparently I am slightly more prone to guilt even than to pretentiousness, because I agreed to let that happen in my home.

Read full review here.

pride-and-prejudice-zombies-banner.jpg

Brighton Fringe 2017

The Brighton Fringe is smaller than the Edinburgh Fringe, and judging by what I’ve seen of them, Brighton’s offerings don’t have quite the production values some (though decidedly not all) Edinburgh shows manage. But if Scotland leaves the UK and becomes an EU member in its own right, the English people who flock north to perform and spectate in August like confused and misdirected migrating birds may have to learn to love Brighton. God only knows what the theatrical work visa situation will look like for small companies then.

This may seem small potatoes compared to the prospect of such an upheaval, but the Edinburgh Fringe is a huge economic event (£4 million in ticket sales in 2016, not counting the 600+ Free Fringe shows which rely on donations [source] or the £142 million the Fringe generated for Edinburgh in 2010 [source]). It’s also a major part of the UK’s theatre lifecycle, the whole shape of which may change if the EdFringe becomes even more expensive and inconvenient to participate in than it already is.  While the EdFringe is great for Scotland’s economy, at present it’s often a loss-leading operation for performers: a risky, sometimes disastrous venture that, if they’re lucky, enables them to establish reputations and set up gigs for the rest of the year off the back of it.

Read full review here.

 

Moondial

T.I.M.E. Stories (game review)

Eurogames, or German-style board games that emphasise strategy, are growing increasingly popular. Gaming cafés, or extensive game libraries that charge cover for several hours’ play and offer food as a convenience/sideline, now crop up regularly in urban centres. London is scheduled to get its third (The Ludoquist, in Croydon, joining Hackney’s Draughts and Richmond’s The Library Pot) later this autumn. As the Anglophone market expands, so too does the range of offerings. The board gaming community, which shares a big ol’ Venn diagram overlap with the SFF community, loves a recent release, and right now T.I.M.E. Stories is one of the hottest games going. It was nominated for a 2016 Spiel des Jahres (the Oscar of gaming, essentially) in the connoisseur/expert category. It combines the core replayability of a Eurogame with a series of stories in which you and between one and three friends are sent traveling through time to stop a disaster. You could re-experience these missions, but as T.I.M.E. Stories is a “puzzle” game; to an extent each story is single-use, somewhat like a pulp mystery novel. It may take you several “runs,” either consecutive or on different days, to complete a given story-mission. If you stop mid-run or mid-mission, T.I.M.E. Stories’ elegantly designed box, which has a place for everything, will allow you to “record” your stopping-point and all relevant details via a series of labeled recesses. T.I.M.E. Stories is also a legacy game, which means that your accomplishments follow you from session to session (to a degree).

Read full review here.

 

board-fr.png

Golem

This was written October 13th, 2014, two months and four days after the shooting of Michael Brown in a part of my home state I spent considerable time in while growing up. I was frustrated and deeply upset by the event, but unable to participate in the political responses because by then I’d already been living abroad for some years. I was further frustrated by what I saw of the media coverage: the blithe continuation of a longstanding local effort to distort the impacts of racist police brutality, coupled with a national effort to downplay and misrepresent the community’s response.

My initial note on the piece reads “a flash fiction story I don’t think I will clean up and send anywhere bc possibly too appropriative”, but I later changed my mind because I didn’t think the BLM movement was being sufficiently seen and understood, and I wanted to generate awareness and empathy. I also hoped to donate any proceeds from a sale to activists back home, because I had very little money to give at the time. BLM’s momentum grew, and I stopped submitting the piece accordingly, once again convinced it wasn’t appropriate to try and occupy public platform space with a story that wasn’t mine to tell. My politics have evolved in the last three years, and if this story, which I don’t expect I would write in the same way now, strikes the wrong note, then I am sorry for that. I offer it here now, in this semi-private setting, largely because it did come from a moment of honest rage and hope, and because I can’t disclaim those emotions or their product.

***

She came to the spot where he’d fallen where they let him lie for three hours without help and she pushed her way through the crowd that had gathered, touched the blood-splatter on the asphalt. She did not doubt for a moment that it would work. Missouri is still warm in October strangely warm and the asphalt has warmth the suggestion of give and she pushed her hand down into it, to the knuckles, to the wrist, to the elbow. People were clay to start with and they can be clay again. Dust to dust to dust again.

She began to pull her hand out and she saw the way the asphalt gaped, yonic around her arm, her palm, she thought of having given birth to him. What she got hold of was a handful of clay, still stretching, connected, to the ground. She kept pulling there might as well have been nobody there. She pulled up and up, slow-spooling. There might have been some noises some screams she didn’t hear them. The head bulged up and the great wedge of his powerful, young man’s shoulders and his arms his torso his pelvis his long legs his great clomping feet that were always too loud and would be loud again now. He would make a noise and there would be too much of him in the world. Good. Good.

She was not a tall woman and she asked help me up and two old women she knew from church, bird small and ox strong, gave her a lift, they knew what she was up to, they knew what a miracle looked like, and she whispered her son’s name into his clay ear, and they did scream for sure now she did hear them and she didn’t know whether it was what she’d done what god had done or the fact that this was a boy they could not kill, they were so afraid that there was something they could not kill and they did not know what else to do with anything. She stood back as he walked out of the drawn-back knot of people and she flinched as they shot and shot at him and he just stood there and lived, and he did not wreak a vengeance greater than change and this:

he lived, and he lived. Until he died old. He just slapped more clay onto himself when he got taller, when he got fat in middle age, when it was time for him to get wrinkles. He and another clay boy got together and his daddy got over it in time. Consign him to the ground not fresh and wet with life but dry, age-cracked, with the stillness that comes of the draining of the water, like the river bank in June, ready. Let us all be taken ready.

His mamma died before him and that was what she wanted that was right.

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.

***

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.

***

PUERTO RICO

51jb0LuMmEL._SL500_AC_SS350_.jpg

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.

puertoricogame.jpg

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?

***

POWER GRID

51HP3ND04VL._SY450_.jpg

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.

***

DIXIT

61apq-6v-mL.jpg

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.

***

STAR TREK: FIVE-YEAR MISSION

pic2560621.jpg

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.

***

THE WITCHES

81hm3YT32IL._SL1331_.jpg

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.

pic1802392_md.jpg

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.

***

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.