Myst V : End of Ages   (PC Game)    55/100

Rating :   55/100

Aaaargh, and not in the kind of way that you expect to experience at some point with the puzzle based Myst series of games, that began with the seminal Myst in 1993, but rather aaaargh in the sense that this installment, despite being released a decade ago in 2005, has a game destroying bug in it that all but ruins what otherwise would have been a pretty strong addition to the canon.

This was the last of the official series, and was only followed by the online multiplayer game (currently titled ‘Uru Live Again‘ and free to play). I finished, and loved, the first three games but missed the fourth – happily there is a sort of recap with this one via collecting various journal entries (everyone in the Myst universe has inherited patriarch Atrus’s less than desirable calligraphy skills) and it looks like part four essentially involved you arriving to save the day as usual.

The premise of all the games is that you are in a mysterious land that you know nothing about and you must solve, via a point-and-click style of interface (basically you can see the mouse pointer in first person, like in the header pic above, and the only button you have to worry about is the click on the mouse as you hover the cursor over objects), various puzzles to work out what’s going on. For example, you’ll encounter a machine that lacks power and then have to find a way to start it up, then work out how to operate it, and then work out how to use it to decent purpose – all with an overarching storyline involving a family that have the power to create these lands, or ages, by writing them into books, but it’s a lost art relating to a lost civilisation, the D’ni, and the power can corrupt – leading to some pretty serious familial disputes which you land slap bang in the middle of.

A major plus for the series was the atmosphere of each game, with lots of natural diegetic sound and lustrous graphic visuals giving each age a very distinct feel – and indeed making each a joy to wander around as you continually push and pull levers this way and that hoping the fucking things will finally do something. Here, there is a new concept – a race of beings, the Bahro, who are somehow enslaved by magical tablets, tablets you must take and write on in order to have the Bahro perform physical and mystical duties to help you solve the puzzles in four main ages. It’s not a bad core dynamic, but alas it is here that the flaw lies – in the first place the intrepid among you will immediately begin trying to guess the symbols you are supposed to find through effort, and you’ll likely have some success, and secondly the game can get into a state where it won’t recognise the correct symbol, leaving you with an insurmountable problem.

The first issue isn’t so bad, it is after all player choice and doesn’t necessarily break the concept nor prevent a replay to do all the puzzles, indeed I’m all for trying to break games in a fair way – here I think there is a very common way to guess one symbol to skip an entire age and in the fourth I managed to skip to the second last point. To be fair, my guesses didn’t really look that similar to what they were imitating, but after the second correct guess I was thinking to myself ‘Ha! In your face Myst!’ as I casually opened the door beside me and stepped into a dark passageway, humming to myself victoriously until, to my horror, I watched as the door clanked shut behind me and wouldn’t open again, and then I realised not only was I trapped inside having walked backwards into some kind of puzzle, but it was also a COLOUR BASED LABYRINTH – eliciting a shrewd observation of ‘Fuck. Fuck! FUCK NO! NO Nooooooooooooooo…….!

Yes, I became one of the characters I make fun of all the time in films. Of course, I could have reloaded to another save point but I was suitably amused by my own stupidity and so I decided, using my favourite catchphrase at the moment, to ‘science the shit out of it’, and it was entertaining enough in the end, if somewhat unnecessarily protracted. However, not being able to correctly input what I was sure must be the final symbol was not in the least bit fun, as of course you waste several hours trying different things and reloads before eventually having to check your hypothesis on the web. Restarting the game several times and going through various save points I managed to get the thing to work – but then there were problems with one of the symbols that previously had worked fine, thankfully it eventually succeeded but you really get the feeling you could get stuck at any point with them and not have the apparent good fortune for it to work properly – and given this was a download in 2015 and the problem was flagged by people a decade ago it really should have been debugged by now.

There may of course be suitable patches available online, and if you can find and are willing to trust them and give the game a go then probably two or three lengthy casual sittings will see you through the game – minus the bug I could see it as being satisfying, and would probably have rated it at around seventy percent. It hasn’t put me off giving the spin-off instalment, ‘Uru, the Complete Chronicles’, a try at some point in the future …

Diplomacy   (Board Game)    93/100

Rating :   93/100

Diplomacy. There are few other games more likely to see a group of civilised, well mannered, Homo sapiens devolve into a murder of squawking scurrilous beasts, at one another’s throats over who promised who control of The English Channel, which coast of Spain was supposed to have been written down, and the various meretricious long term benefits of the temporary and unexpected secession from a trusted alliance and, unfortunately, sometimes real world relationship. Once touted as the favourite, or perhaps favorite, game of both John F. Kennedy and Henry Kissinger, and no doubt many other diplomats since its first release in 1959, ‘Diplomacy’ has treachery as a major component part of its gameplay and it is often used, though not strictly necessary, to achieve victory.

The simplest way to think of the game is; if you like strategy games, then you will love this. Conversely, if you don’t like them then you probably won’t enjoy playing it – though there may be an exception to this rule depending on the style in which you do so. The board is based on Europe shortly before the outbreak of World War I, although the setting begins in 1901, and you take control of the armies and fleets of one of the ruling powers of the day. The objective is to take over as many supply centres on the board as you can until more than half of them are yours, and the number of troops you have is determined in equal measure by the number of centres you control. This in itself doesn’t make the game different from many others, what distinguishes it from the competition is that everyone makes their moves at the same time, and before revealing their orders there is always a round of diplomacy where players are encouraged to have secret, or open, discussion with one another and make, or break, alliances. Then, when everyone’s orders are revealed you find out just how well placed your confidences, or well oiled your machinations, were.

It really is a fantastic game, nerve wracking and exciting with plenty of scope for intricate plan making and deviancy, which is why if you are perhaps more into social interaction than spending hours around a board game working out all the permutations of possible moves, you could focus entirely on the diplomacy section as one’s people skills, or perhaps manipulation techniques, are every bit as important as your military tactics. Indeed, working in teams to combine the best of both worlds is to be encouraged. Players are welcome to play ‘gunboat’ diplomacy with no tactical communication between each other should they wish, and the simplistic rules, with only a few moves available for each piece (attack, support, hold, convoy), mean that it works as a fantastic pure strategy game, with no chance element (such as rolling dice or drawing cards) whatsoever. Similarly, there are guidelines for play with less than the full quotient of seven players.

‘Diplomacy’ is the brain child of Allan B. Calhamer, who came up with the idea whilst studying at Harvard university and had to finance the production of the first five hundred games himself, having been initially rejected by every publisher he approached. He sold all five hundred with relative ease, publishers were somewhat more welcoming afterward. Given Calhamer studied law, nineteenth-century European history, and political geography, it is a little disappointing to say the least that the political geography of the board looks like it was created by an uneducated school boy. Some of the regions have been geographically altered for the sake of game dynamics, but others are plain wrong, such as the United Kingdom being labelled England for example. The Red Dragon has deducted points for this. The rulebook has undergone several revisions over time, but it still could be written in a much clearer way, and with more, and indeed better, examples used throughout. Sometimes, since the idea is ultimately to win for yourself, it can feel like a negative experience – you know the alliances you make will probably end badly at some point. However, the cunning player can find ways around this, draws can be agreed upon by surviving players at any point, and the popularity of the game on the internet allows for the accruing of points per supply centre, and table rankings by points – so that as long as you gain something from your starting position you will still climb up the ladder, even if you don’t end up winning (you still have to survive until the end though).

Prior to the internet, ‘Diplomacy’ became the first commercially produced game to be played by mail, and its popularity continues to grow with several international competitions, including a world cup and world championship, and thousands of fan based (and a couple of official) variations published – check out the ‘Diplomacy’ wiki and the variant bank for a huge variety of different versions to try. In fact, ‘Diplomacy’ style rules were adopted for one of the earliest documented forms of both traditional and live action roleplaying – Slobbovia, played by post but ironically dying out just prior to the internet age that would have saved it. Playing ‘Diplomacy’ online also has the advantage of being able to choose how often to make a move, anything from once a few minutes to once a few weeks, but the disadvantage of not being able to try and read people through body language as the game goes on. There have been experimental attempts to create decent AI to represent missing players, but so far they have been universally easy to defeat and most online games, such as the server used on Facebook for example, require seven human players to sign in before the game will start, though play is anonymous via the adoption of usernames.

Easy to become obsessed with and, once again, if you are a fan of pure strategy, quite likely to end up taking pride of place on your games shelf. Make a point of emphasising to new people before you play that back stabbing is a perfectly legitimate part of the game and, hopefully, you will avoid the main pitfall of having players fall out over nothing, or everything depending on how in the moment they are. If you manage this, similarly encourage everyone to be creative with their style and, once everyone is familiar with the core game, with taking the rules and/or scenario to ever more interesting and rewarding levels.

For a look at the official rules click here.

Wonder Witches   (Android Game)    71/100

Rating :   71/100

‘Wonder Witches’ is an apt name for a lovely little android game currently available for free download from the Kindle app store, and Google Play for your pc. It hails from Johann Digital Works in Seattle, and the developer has stated it was a personal project worked on at weekends and evenings after his full time job, so it gets instant credit for that. The premise is for you to guide a series of witches on their broomsticks up and down vertically  by tapping and holding down the right hand side of the screen which then causes a boost to be injected into your wee witch on the far left of the screen as she desperately swoops and dives to avoid an increasingly difficult onslaught of birds, bats, randomised walls that appear, clouds that obscure your vision, light changes as day turns into night, and random scrolling speed fluctuations all designed to keep your intrepid teenage witch on her flighty aerial toes.

The ultimate goal is to reach the moon, though no one seems quite sure whether that is actually a possible goal, or if it just keeps on generating more obstacles. Having logged in around 12.7k points on easy in one sitting, I can confirm there is a little change, in that the wildlife disappears altogether, but there was no end in sight for the ever deadly series of walls (the graphics of which could really do with a lick of digital paint). The dynamics of the game are nothing new, but what makes it really appeal is the endearingly cute witch icons and the sound effects of them whizzing around, and indeed the fairly humorous crack and squeal as one of them nose dives into something. Speaking of ‘which’, the collision detection is excellent and even allows for an element of grace, so that when your hat or the bristles of the broom touch something it counts as a mere scuffle and you can continue your journey unabated. It is only really when the tip of your broom bashes into something that are you plummeted to an unknown fate on terra firma.

As you accrue points you unlock more witches to play with, each with their own broom and its special power that can be utilised by collecting special power icons – three per broom use. The icons are regular and easy enough to collect, best saving them for liberal use later on. Currently the final broom, ‘The Whizz’ is not available, and whereas mostly points and power ups are cumulative over games, the second last broom, ‘The Wunderbar’ no less, can only be unlocked by gaining 4000 points in one go. It’s quite fun once you get it, but the ‘Firestorm’ before it is much more useful when the going gets tough. There are three difficulty levels, easy, fun, and hard, and the difference between them has been well judged. A good way through to the Wunderbar would be to school it on easy where you don’t really need to use the power ups, then once you’ve unlocked the Firestorm you could play on easy or fun and just blow everything out of the way.

Initially this was pretty tiring for both the eyes and the right thumb, but after a warm up it’s easy to last a short while – repetitiveness sinks in after about fifteen to twenty minutes, but it’s still a great game to have stored on Kindle or your hard drive and it was pretty exciting unlocking the more difficult Wunderbar. It’s possible that there is a way to get to the moon, getting so many points in one sitting on hard with a certain broom maybe, but hopefully updates will flesh out the groundwork that has been done, and add The Whizz too of course.

Woohoooo!           (Witch clarion call)