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.

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.

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.

Five Dickens Articles: the JoJo/Ridiculous Dog Edition

ARTICLE 1:

How Dickens Invented Christmas — and Why it Matters

Dr. Goldie Morgentaler

I’ve very mixed feelings about this lecture.

“I swallowed that book whole. Truly in one enchanted gulp. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I fell in love then and there with the author and his work, and especially with the extraordinary inventiveness of his mind, that still gives me endless delight. And with his use of language, and his idiosyncratic construction of sentences. To this day, although I’ve read through all of Dickens several times, I still get great pleasure out of just reading a Dickens sentence.” about 4:30-4:57

This is lovely, and what’s more it’s useful to me.

“…Christmas had become a holiday primarily of the lower classes, and was largely ignored by anyone with a claim to gentility.” circa 5:55-6:05

Is this true? The Geffrye Museum’s Christmas exhibition really led me to believe the divide was more rural/urban, as did Michael Slater’s lecture on the Christmas books. I’m not sure she’s right about this? I’m not certain she’s wrong, but.

Dickens’ “father was a naval clerk, and his mother came from a family that was in service to an Earl”. 6:10-6:16

Now that’s just wrong. Correct me please if I’m in error, but she’s gotten his parents’ backgrounds reversed.

The pushcart girl in Covent Garden father Christmas anecdote gets aired. (6:40)

“So he established a tradition of specialised holiday stories all by himself”.

This is misleading in a few ways. Slater points out how important Irving was as a predecessor here, and of course the Household Words/All The Year Round Christmas stories, which really establish the genre, are collaborative. Substantially though, it’s true that he popularises/’invents’ this genre, and that we tend to understate his importance as a generic innovator.

“In fact today’s common greeting of ‘Merry Christmas’ only came into wide circulation after the publication of A Christmas Carol.” 7:00-7:11

To the extent I trust her at this point, that’s interesting.

“The plot of this very long short story draws on the tradition in Britain of telling ghost stories at Christmas time. A Christmas Carol is a ghost story with a fairy tale ending.” 7:12-7:26

Nicely put.

“Dickens was, and still is, often accused of being cloyingly sentimental…”

Honest question: was he, at the time? Is this more of an after-the-fact formation? Who was saying it, contemporarily, and to be honest… to what extent did they pronounce that to rhyme with ‘chav’? Were such accusations of sentimentality coded language about how he was popular, uneducated and not highbrow?

“…especially in indulging a fondness for describing the deaths of children…”

This is often repeated, but it’s simply incorrect. Dickens will hardly ever show you an on-screen death. In the whole of the canon, you find it but rarely.  You may–often very quickly–see a body, but the death, especially of a child, you will mostly not be in the room for. David’s being downstairs when Dora dies is, if anything, the model for a Dickens death. It honestly surprises me that specialists, who ought to know better, are so sloppy on this point: it ain’t subtle.

“…Tiny Tim being a case in point.”

Yes. In that you do not fucking see him die. How hard is this?

Perhaps that ‘describing’ is meant simply to allude to the fact that people die in these (at a normal rate for Victorian children, tbh, especially considering the event-centred novelistic context), but I am not inclined to largess on this point. ‘Describing’ means describing, like Brexit means ‘what the shit’. You either see something happen in the narrative or you don’t. People use a word that suggests ‘lavishly dwelt on’ when the reality is that the events in question are ‘only alluded to’. That is so misleading as to be false.

“The fondness caused Oscar Wilde to come up with the witticism that ‘one must have a heart of stone to read the death of Tiny Tim without laughing.” (9:00-9:18)

Look, I know this is a lecture given to a mixed group of non-specialists, some of whom are possibly even barbarians from STEM. But even so, the quote is:

“One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears…of laughter.”

So you’ve got the wrong child there. And it’s too integral to your argument for that to be a voiced typo. And we also don’t see Nell die. People repeat this quote like Wilde wasn’t in active daddy-issues rebellion against the cultural ascendency of Dickens. Chesterton, who is in the same position vis a vis Wilde and is, for this and for personal reasons, inclined to get on better with Dickens, flat tells you this. Why are we repeating this as if it’s not a very specifically contextualised clap-back, as well as not being true? My god, it’s like reading cavalier poetry without knowing about the English civil war or listening to a Drake without knowing who Meek Mill is.

I really admire this woman’s passion and she says some good things, but an abridgement does not need to be active disinfo. I mean this is a shanda fur die goyim, Goldie.

Apparently the “Queen of Norway famously said that no one can be really bad who can cry over the death of Tiny Tim.” (9:50-9:59)

But you know, how much can I believe Morgentaler now, etc. It looks to be quoted in a 1906 newspaper from my home state, but now I am a facts nihilist who believes in nothing, and Bevier’s just in Macon county, what do they know about Norway or indeed about anything? I drive through that town and don’t notice.

Decently funny Tiny Tim does not die joke delivery.

“Dickens actually lost money on [the Carol]”.

Well, yes, though not in the long term, Callow tells us. (Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World) That’s fine, it’s true as far as it goes.

“they represent the underbelly of Victorian society: the desperate poverty lying hidden beneath the outer robes of respectable middle-class Victorian prosperity.”

That is REALLY nicely put.

“To Dickens’ credit, he resists the temptation to prettify these children.” (13:55-14:04)

Why are you so embarrassed to like him? ‘To Dickens’ credit’, like he doesn’t know what he’s doing here. It’s that very common casual condescension where he’s concerned, like you’re surprised he managed to get his shoes on in the morning. It’s his book. This is his point about child poverty. Of course he didn’t sentimentalise them here, the analytic object you are working in is his argumentative conception.

“We know that the inspiration for the Carol had grown out of Dickens’ visit a few months earlier to a ragged school, which is what the Victorians called charity schools for poor children.”

This is what I mean? It suggests that Dickens made such a visit once, rather than being intimately familiar with such institutions in his own country and every one he visited and being mired in the minutiae of his city, as well as extensively researching and working actively on school reform circa Nicholas Nickleby. It makes him into the Sultan of Agrabah: in the animated Aladdin series Jasmine, at the close of one episode, says they need to do something about the poor people in Agrabah. Her father blinks and says, with wonder, poor people? In Agrabah? Dickens isn’t a shocked, sweet but clueless micro-reformer.

I’d forgive these little isolated incidents, but as the lecture goes on they coalesce into something much more substantial and weirder.

Callow also specifically cites the Children’s Employment Commission Reports (pages 105, 138, 142) as the impetus for Carol, quoting letters to that effect. You see the difference between seeing how the other half lives (the implication being ‘for the first time’) and being shocked by an extensive, in-depth report in a field you work on that is also a popular longread in the sector, right? So I’m reasonably confident saying Morgentaler’s wrong here, or at least that her statement is fairly misleading (and misleading in an increasingly clear direction…).

“…he was obliged to do this work in front of a large window, so that the people passing on the street could look in and witness his humiliation.” (16:45-16:51)

Welllllll, not the whole time. Only when the premises moved. But that’s largely true.

I wonder a little whether Dickens suppressed the blacking factory origin story not just because he associated the time with pain and humiliation, but because he had some suspicion of what it might do to the idea of him? Biographers wheel out this period as a major incident in the standard hagiography, and it’s used to turn him into a narrow Personal Interest Crusader. He’s Explained by this. His interest in social justice is somehow excused by this.

Morgentaler suggests the blacking factory period was only a few months. (17:12) Callow (pgs. 19-28) suggests it was something over two years. I trust him much more.

“…he worked with other boys whom he considered his social inferiors.”

That’s… something you could possibly pull out in a reading of that letter, but it’s doesn’t seem that fair, and it’s such an ungenerous reading of him, his general thought and a period of trauma. Why do people who claim to like Dickens so often hate Dickens, or at least engage in some massive performative disavowal? What is going on with that?

“…mention of Warren’s Blacking Factory occurs in almost every one of his novels.” (18:30-18:35)

What? In what sense is that true? How does she mean that? Her explanation doesn’t really clear it up.

Scrooge’s “increasing avariciousness as he grows older can therefore be seen as a psychological defence against the fear of loss: an impulse to horde money because unlike humans, money can never abandon or harm him emotionally. By having the ghost of christmas past take Scrooge back to revisit his childhood, Dickens is anticipating Freud’s perception that one way to lay to rest the ghosts of the past (and I use the word ‘ghosts’ advisedly) is to revisit them, and so try to come to terms with them.” (19:30-20:20)

That’s a good point, though I’d clarify that Freud strongly draws from Dickens, and pretty much tells us that. It’s interesting in light of the weird period where Dickens tries to develop the talking cure early, but Catherine gets annoyed and puts a damper on it.

“the celebration of joyous, unlimited human reproduction” (circa 23:00)

This is a nice argument about reproduction, class, Malthus and an aesthetic of fecundity. Also a good reminder that sex-segregated workhouses imposed abstinence on the indigent, even those who were married.

On this note: “Dickens was writing against the grain of contemporary ideology that blamed the poor for their poverty and defined them as profligate in their sexual indulgence.” (25:50-26:00)

There’s a degree of radicalism in that we don’t fully appreciate as contemporary lay-readers.

At about 24:20 she mentions that Fred’s wife is supposed to be pregnant! I NEVER SAW THIS!

Looking around though, MAN is that oblique:

“Abbey strategically places Fred in front of his wife so that the viewer cannot see that she is pregnant, a fact which Dickens only obliquely conveys by Scrooge’s embarrassment at having “started her” and about her having to keep her feet up (“Scrooge had forgotten, for the moment, about her sitting in the corner with the footstool,” 39). Indeed, Abbey has omitted the footstool, and thereby one of the strongest connections to Scrooge’s visit in company with the Spirit of Christmas Present in Stave Three, when she “was made comfortable with a large chair and a footstool, in a snug corner, where the Ghost and Scrooge were close behind her” (31). Fred in welcome holds out both hands, his arms fully extended as he leans forward on his left leg. Mrs. Fred (no Christian name supplied: she is simply “Scrooge’s niece, by marriage,” 29-30) seems dubious as to how best to receive her curmudgeonly uncle, rather than startled or surprised, although she does momentarily support herself by holding onto the dining chair (left). This interior, like the Cratchits’ in the previous illustration, is decorated with Christmas greenery, particularly around paintings and mirrors; as befits their better economic condition, however, Fred and his wife have decanters and deserts laid out on their table. While Mrs. Fred’s dress is a nondescript white, Abbey has carefully attired Scrooge’s nephew in the fashions of the 1840s, with tailcoat, fob, stirrup-trousers, and high collar. Significantly, Abbey has made Fred resemble Scrooge in height, figure, and facial features.”

Victorians really were euphemistic about pregnancy, hell.

“when he was younger and his children were few, fatherhood seemed to him a rather pleasant state. But as time went on, and his wife was continually pregnant […] Dickens found himself forced to provide for an ever-increasing brood, and his appreciation of the supposed joys of limitless fatherhood underwent a sea change.”

No it didn’t? He was always a good dad? Like you could have a complicated opinion of he and Catherine’s marriage and of his fiscal relationships with the children as (often profligate and dependent) adults, but this is such a reductive, catty framing, and again, god, those descriptions of how much work he put into fatherhood, of how good he made the kids’ holidays, are difficult to imagine bettering. Why invent flaws to dispute with, when the material is complicated enough? I’m sure you could string a few quotes into some kind of support for this, but that wouldn’t make it better than a sad Alternative Facts kinda reading.

She then smugly comments on his having ‘sent the kids off to the corners of the globe’, but to be honest I have some news for you about the British Empire. You know how in Holmes stories literally every other case someone’s going off to make their fortune in the colonies? Yeah. I mean this is seen at the time as securing a post for one’s adult children, and providing for them, especially if they’re struggling to find work and keep themselves out of trouble domestically? It’s like being shocked at the cruelty of people fostering out their children under feudalism. The logistics and ethics of child-rearing change with the period.

At 29:00ish she mentions Dickens’ great description of an onion. It’s so good I’m going to pop it in:

“There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe.”

Good spot on her part.

At about 30:00 she starts talking about the Christmas pudding “the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm” and saying she’s not sure she wants to eat something firm and shaped like a cannon-ball. It becomes clear that this woman does not know much about how one makes a pudding, especially in the 1840s. This becomes inescapable when she says puddings were good food for poor people because they required very little fat. What? What? Suet. Come on.

I don’t think you have to be a great cook or an expert in historical cuisine to write about this, but if you’re going to make analytic points about food in a text, I do think you probably need to understand that food to say something particularly valuable, yes. I remember being 20 and American and thinking a ‘cream tea’ was tea with whole cream poured in instead of milk. (Oy.) This was very, very stupid, but to still make that kind of mistake as a professional specialist is perhaps less excusable.

To really round it off, she comments that in Victorian England even the food you wat for holidays was a matter of class distinction. This is when my notes become a series of furious underlined scrawls. It still is. In modern England. And everywhere. That is how food works. That is how class works.

I wonder to what extent the ‘extraordinary inventiveness’ of Dickens, praised by Dr. Morgentaler and others, is a function of temporal and geographic distance between them and the text?

At 35:30 she makes a fun, good argument about dance as a social equaliser, but it is too late. At 36:55 I lose it completely. This is what alllllll the little sniping de-politicisations have been working towards and building up to. I cannot believe this woman, with her weaksauce liberal Donald Trump quotes and her failure to reckon with class as an active force in the world today, is offering up such a childish, wilful misreading of this text and Dickens’ activist projects, all the while exuding a strong sense of ‘of course we know better now’ that is synonymous with ‘of course I know better’. Y’ain’t a better socialist than Dickens, and I am so done.

At some point I start to ask myself how many flat mistakes are normal and excusable in a prepared lecture by a specialist. I’m not trying to be pedantic and nasty here: the problem’s not just Morgentaler. I could make a case at length, and may yet do, though it’s hardly liable to win friends and influence people. Dickens scholarship is often casual with plots, with readings, with period details. Some of this shit comes in from non-specialist academics using Dickens (though they also ought to know better), but some of it is specialists. Catch Shakespearians being so lazy, they’d be buried and left for dead like Aaron in Titus. It’s a parable of the heap (insert DC pun here) situation: how wrong do we have to be before what we’re doing is unreliable, and without worth? Perhaps more importantly, why is this happening? What about the canon and the biographical personage and the development of academia and this subset thereof creates these conditions?

ARTICLE 2:

Armando’s Tale of Charles Dickens (BBC documentary)

While this documentary comes from a good place and has some fun elements, I can’t in good conscience recommend it because it’s really not to be trusted. It’d take someone who already knows and likes the subject, who essentially doesn’t need this documentary, to identify what’s ‘misleading to outright untrue’ and what isn’t.

Paul Kincaid suggests that now the BBC is liable to buy an out of house, pre-made documentary that’s literally never seen a fact-checker. Forgive me, but the fuck? You’re going to let something go out with your official stamp, as a sort of matter of record, and you have no real idea the goods you paid for are genuine? I don’t really know why this happens: grad students aren’t expensive? All you have to do is let them watch a cut/read your material/vet it on the BBC end? If they did have someone doing this, m’colleague was asleep at the wheel. Too many awkwardnesses to lay before you. Gchat squawked to a friend the way through, making irate goose noises.

There’s pretty good commentary on Mr Dick, and some of the comedians Iannucci speaks to are fun. But ‘core unreliability’ is my bette noir right now.

Also, popular history lays a ghoulish emphasis on Ellen Ternan’s being 18 when she and Dickens met. Not the period between their meeting and their romantic entanglement, and then the period between that and the consummation. Not the professional, artistic and class similarities between Ternan and Dickens (greater than those of he and Catherine), not his relationship with her family as a whole (he knows her sister and mother very well, and in a professional capacity–the sister especially, as she’s a writer married into another famous writer’s family who occasionally does pieces for Dickens’ magazine), not how he’s with ‘the young actress’ for years, so of course after a while she isn’t so 18 anymore. Even Katey Dickens, who hated Ellen and stanned hard for her mom (though that rather ill-conceived early marriage (she was nice but basic, a bit Victorian pumpkin spice latte, and for better and worse he was Dickens) had been breaking down for years due to incompatibility, sexual issues, then-unmerited jealous and the stressful death of a baby), admitted Ellen was really clever.

In all these depictions Ellen becomes a fixed figure of scandal. She’s so young!! Well… she’s been out working as an adult for years by the time they meet, she’s not young for a Victorian woman entering a relationship (age isn’t fully a fixed thing, it’s socially constructed, and to be 18 in the 1850s is in many ways different than being 18 today)–Dickens himself had been out in the workforce for several years by that age, and she doesn’t stay the same age for the 12 years (from 1858) they’re actually together in any form? There’s also thing where we’re at once more Victorian than the Victorians about Dickens, sneering at his marital breakdown (imagine freaking out like this about a modern divorce, it’s laughable), and simultaneously a smug sort of modern, expecting sex and gender norms to work like they do right now in 1857. Why do we fudge Austen’s age differences in adaptations and give them a cheerful pass in books but then turn around and find this significant age difference especially remarkable? You’re either okay with that aspect of Colonel Brandon/Marianne or you aren’t.

Male biographers and fans seem to want Their Dickens to be a sort of conquering Lothario, and are content to make him one out of very little evidence. The guy’s married once, separates from his wife with a big fat settlement, has another LTR that lasts until his death and very probably sleeps with these two people ever. I don’t know what to tell you. So why do they want or need that? What’s it doing? Like… how absolutely pathetic, on the face of it.

ARTICLE 3:

Charles Dickens has been ruined by the BBC

Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson does a wonderful reading of this documentary, an awful-sounding Sue Perkins Dickens special, some of the issues mentioned above and Great Expectations. A solid premise well-argued. Very very worth reading.

ARTICLE 4:

“I and my fellows are ministers of Fate”: Dickens and his beloved Ariel, Priscilla Horton

by Katie Bell

“Ariel is referred to in the play as a mostly gender-neutral character (the pronoun “he” is used only a handful of times) and, up until the twentieth century, Ariel was typically played by female actresses. Perhaps this gender relationship can be best understood with comparison to J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Although Peter is born a human boy, he does possess fairy-like qualities including his ability to be non-gender specific. Thus, Peter has always been played onstage and in film by females, most famously by Mary Martin. As we see, gender constraints do not apply to those in the fairy world, like Peter and Ariel, who are free to change gender forms, or even be gender neutral.”

I think this would work better for me if Bell specified when Ariel started being played by a woman rather than saying ‘up until the twentieth century’. Obviously initially this was not the case (as you almost certainly know, actresses weren’t allowed to perform on stage in Shakespeare’s day). Plus I’m just interested in the answer to this.

“On 26 October 1838, Dickens penned a poem “To Ariel” in honour of Horton’s depiction of Ariel. One can conjecture that Dickens must have been very taken with Horton’s performance to have penned such an impromptu poem for her.”

Hm. Not to nitpick, but is that necessarily true? I’d want to know the context. Is this a done thing? “This work appears in Horton’s autograph book”. Is, for example, her autograph book teeming with such tributes? Is one obliged to do it, really? We know Dickens wrote a similarly-contextualised poem for his first fiancé, in a commonplace book. I’d want to know more about the social etiquette surrounding the visit and the autograph or commonplace book.

ARTICLE 5:

Embarrassing bodies: what did the Victorians have to hide?
by Kathryn Hughes

This is a lively, well-written article, but I’m not sure it’s terribly trustworthy.

Take, for example:

“Dickens, meanwhile, was so self-conscious about his weak chin, especially now that he was besieged by requests to sit for photographic portraits, that he grew his trademark door knocker as a kind of prosthesis (a full beard was beyond him).”

Again, to what extent can I trust this when Callow, who I trust more (who has accumulated his authority with my by extensively showing his work and demonstrating his enthusiasm for the subject), describes the beard-growing as more of a boys’ adventure?

“The walking trip, which started in Switzerland, was on an epic scale; neither Collins nor Egg were ever in the best of health, and the pace must have been severely daunting to them. Dickens, needless to say, was renewed and exhilarated by the challenge. At the beginning of the tour, they all grew beards, or tried to, as if to indicate that they were rugged men of nature; but the outcrop of hair was disappointingly exiguous, so Dickens shaved his off, pour encourager les autres.” p. 225, Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World

This was in 1853. In 1856, while both were acting in The Frozen Deep, Dickens and Collins again grew beards for their characters. Dickens then kept his.

“He and Collins (who was to play Aldersley, the man whose life Wardour refrains from taking) both grew beards: Dickens finally began to look like Dickens.” p. 253, ibid.

Besides, fashion was changing to favour beards anyway. Surely the choice was bound-up in that? Dickens used to be something of a dandy (he once punched a guy in the street for an insult along these lines): he did like flash clothes and keeping himself neat. He can’t have been immune to the great beard craze.

Was Dickens self-conscious? He was always very insistent on his own worth, though self-confidence and a lack thereof can of course co-exist, and one’s valuation of oneself isn’t terribly stable or universal. He was, however, always thought very pretty. Callow cites contemporaries’ enthusiastic praise of him in this regard, and this Frank Stone painting of him when young (the brunette, the blonde’s Tennyson), which is pretty consistent with other depictions, doesn’t really suggest much cause for self-consciousness about his chin (or indeed about portraiture). (Incidentally, the ridiculous dog is also his.)

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If anything, he might share his semi-autobiographical character David’s slight concern about appearing adult and masculine. Dickens was always slight, short, and preserved his almost oddly youthful appearance until suddenly, in late middle age, due to stress and illness, starting to look like the bank-note version of himself. I could see him getting older and being self-conscious about this change (which startled friends), or earlier about still looking somewhat effeminate or boyish, but that’s not quite the same as ‘oh horrors, my weak chin!!’ If she’s working off a specific quote, even (which she doesn’t nod to), there’s a lot of evidence to suggest it was a bit more complex than that (also we shouldn’t necessarily take sources at face value as to why they did things).

This seems a small thing, and the article is but an abridgement of the book, but it is the author’s own document. If I cannot trust her to be sufficiently precise about her subject matter here, on the aspect of her topic I happen to be aware of, how should I trust her where I am less informed?

And a small point from the article: ‘Or, to put it another way, what we are looking at is the first sighting of artistic modernism.’

oh god, don’t let me interrupt the majestic progress to that illustrious end-point, which seems to have its Clear Origin in every action undertaken by man previous to 1920.

Battle Line (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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NUMBERS NUMBERS NUMBERS!!!!

Hey, kids! Do you like NUMBERS??? Just pulling them from a deck and putting ’em down like it’s 1850 and good games haven’t been invented yet?? Well you’re in LUCK!!

Okay, that’s not really fair, but it’s also: why we’re ditching the highly-rated Battle Line.

According to Board Game Geek:

“Two opponents face off across a ‘battle line’ and attempt to win the battle by taking 5 of 9 flags or 3 adjacent flags. Flags are decided by placing cards into 3 card poker-type hands on either side of the flag (similar to straight flush, 3 of a kind, straight, flush, etc). The side with the highest ‘formation’ of cards wins the flag.”

There’s definitely strategy and calculation in this game. You’re making plans, you’re paying attention to what your opponent is doing and what’s on the board, etc. It’s a fairly cognitive game in these respects. But for all that, at its core, I would say Battle Line is about luck: whether you’re going to happen to draw the cards you need, and in time, or whether your opponent will.

And despite the (thin) theming and the possibly-disruptive tactics cards, it remains an essentially dry game, far more concerned with math and logic than with Alexander the Great. This review has it right. I’m beginning to think I need to check whether Reiner Knizia was involved with titles before we commit to them. His name seems almost a sure-fire harbinger of gamed I’ll dislike for variable yet somehow math-and-theming related reasons.

A final word on the formations element:

I kept checking back with the thin paper rule sheet to determine the relative value of the various tactical arrangements of cards. I think I’d have enjoyed this game significantly better (and learned it markedly faster) if the box had included two of those little rule-reminder tiles.

I briefly mentioned tactics cards above. There’s a secondary deck you can draw from each turn instead of the ‘numbers’ deck. This consists of tactics cards that may totally destroy your opponent on a given flag or may not help you much. The incentive to fuck with tactics cards, however, is low. Your opponent can only lay down one more than you do, and if you take but don’t play these cards they just clog up your hand. Taking them slightly diminishes your chances of getting regular cards you really need, while playing them potentially enables your opponent to pull weird unforeseeable bullshit. There’s an arms race mechanic here, and the Cold War has never been my favourite historical era.

I like the idea of a random element in this tightly corseted game, and I suppose more confident or risk-taking players might want to employ tactics more. All in all, though, playing tactics feels like a bad gamble. This mechanic seemed insufficiently supported by the structure of the rest of the game.

Some game mechanics are kind of counter-intuitive and have a way of making you feel like a total moron. I could not wrap my head around the way flags are decided and closed off in Battle Line for the longest time. My girlfriend is typically great at explaining rules and mechanics to me, yet we had little luck here. It made initial rounds of play really frustrating for me (and a bit embarrassing). I only really got the game after maybe five plays, and by the subsequent and final plays, one or two of which I won, we already knew we were trading the game on. I still don’t love Battle Line, but I finally knew saw what was up, could play competently and competitively, and enjoyed the game, like, at all.

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VERDICT:

I liked Battle Line better by the end and could see its virtues as a mechanical system, but I’m still not sorry to see it go in favour of: Hive.

The Grizzled (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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The Grizzled is a war game like no other. Instead of the colourful abstractions of area-control mechanisms and the imperial grammar of exploration, civilisation building, races and conquest (or alternatively, Risk-ish or Twilight Struggle-esque military-political power-play), here you have a focus on cooperative survival. A small group of friends, French soldiers, attempts to get through a variety of ‘missions’. To do this they must deplete their hands without then encountering too many of the same elements either on cards laid down in the centre or on personal trauma cards, while also contending with a variety of other personal ‘hard knocks’.

Essentially the point is not to ‘win the war’ but to endure it as best you can as a small collective. You survive or don’t together. Your characters don’t have much in the way of pre-set personalities, but they have names. More even than the survival focus, this trauma mechanic fundamentally challenges the morality of war-based gameplay, highlighting the weirdness of what we do when we play at combat by shifting the terms of engagement from the machinations of kings and ministers to the effects of conflict on people. The Grizzled is almost a tight survival horror game.

Yet for all that, it is a game. I’d argue that The Grizzled makes more of an effort to be thoughtful about its premise than many conflict-based entertainments, but I’m not sure whether it’s ultimately more or less respectful to gamify trauma. I’m fairly uncomfortable with the premise of The Grizzled, but unsure whether it’s good or bad that I’m more comfortable playing more ‘abstracted’ conflict games, even ones about real events. The game also teaches you to be less uncomfortable with its set up via repetitive play.

Speaking of actual play, thematics aside, Grizzled is rather awkward. Whether you make the attempt with two players or five, it’s murderous if you take a lot of cards in a round in an attempt to rush through the deck and achieve the win condition. However if you play with two people and take the minimum allowable number of cards each turn, it is, if anything, too winnable: the game feels broken, here. It’s just a matter of going through the motions. Three people playing conservatively can also expect to win pretty easily. This strategy will not avail you with a large group: the difficulty ramps back up to ‘incredibly slaughterous, with no obvious way of alleviating that’.

It’s an odd play length. At thirty minutes, in its small box and with its simplistic mechanism, The Grizzled ought to be a filler game. But its difficulty makes it unsuitable for group play with newbies (and if we have a group over, it’s usually at least part newbie), who want wooed into Eurogaming and don’t exactly relish a collaborative ass-whooping. Experienced players will also find themselves unduly frustrated with newbies’ poor play in this collaborative, tense situation. Due to the difficulty and the subject, The Grizzled can make for high-strung gameplay.

If you want a short game as part of a session of short games, or if you’re looking for a filler game to warm you up, The Grizzled is too glum and low-energy for your purposes, really. It’s not that short, at thirty minutes, but neither would I think of it as a medium-length game. It’s got too simple a mechanic to support being treated as one, too. The game can be a desperate grind–even very conservative play is rigid, not admitting errors. The hard knocks can be fierce, and bad luck there could easily destroy your team. Sure that’s an accurate reflection of the horrors of war, but is it the stuff of a good filler game?

I do really like the rallying speech and sympathy mechanisms: they’re effectual, conceptually pleasing, and add a sweet note of camaraderie and support. However the Christmas Truce card throws me right back into my welter of questions about the ethics of the game, and reminds me unpleasantly of Sainsbury’s dubious recent attempt to use the Christmas Truce (a historical event I’ve always found ridiculously affecting) to sell biscuits. I’m not sure whether The Grizzled is unethical, or so ethical that it reveals a moral issue inherent in a lot of gaming that’s more serious than I customarily want to credit it with being, or both. I am sure it doesn’t quite work for its intended market-niche, or as a game generally.

VERDICT:
We traded it for Mr. Jack Pocket. Vive le trash.