Bigger’n a barn!

After taking a look at the classic Lovecraftian tale Call of Cthulhu last week, I thought it’d be good to write up another blog on perhaps my all-time favourite story from Lovecraft that I have read so far, The Dunwich Horror.


Another story that I first read in the summer of 2012, while Call of Cthulhu was a little surprising to me in being so disjointed and just not what I had been expecting at all, Dunwich Horror was a much more conventional story to me, I found myself instantly enjoying it for what it was.

The story involves the strange goings-on with the Whateley family of Dunwich, a small town in the upper Miskatonic valley. Not too long ago, Lavinia Whateley gave birth to the hideously malformed Wilbur, who has grown to adulthood in a shockingly short space of time. The Whateleys have been continually modifying and enlarging their farmhouse, and the mysterious Old Man Whateley has been buying increasingly large numbers of cattle, though his herd has not visibly increased in size as a result. Then Wilbur’s grandfather vanishes, followed not long after by his mother, and still the cattle keep disappearing…

Wilbur ventures to Miskatonic University to consult their copy of the Necronomicon, but the librarian Dr Henry Armitage refuses him permission, and also sends word to his colleagues to similar effect. Wilbur breaks into the library at night, but is mauled to death by a guard dog. Armitage and his colleagues Professors Rice and Morgan catch a glimpse of his goat-hoofed body before it melts into thin air before them. With Wilbur dead, the strange invisible entity in the Whateley farmhouse runs amok across Dunwich, leaving devastation in its wake. The three professors arrive on the scene with the necessary magical paraphernalia to combat the beast, and manage to render it visible just before they destroy it, with the realisation that it was in fact Wilbur’s brother…

The story is one of tremendous suspense as the nature of the beast is gradually revealed to us – though even in the end, we don’t really know for sure what it was the professors disposed of. The description is certainly what we’ve come to expect of something along the lines of Yog Sothoth in the years of RPGs and board games, of course – all tentacles and eyes and gelatinous form:

“Bigger’n a barn… all made o’ squirmin’ ropes… hull thing sort o’ shaped like a hen’s egg bigger’n anything, with dozens o’ legs like hogsheads that haff shut up when they step… nothin’ solid abaout it – all like jelly, an’ made o’ sep’rit wrigglin’ ropes pushed clost together… great bulgin’ eyes all over it… ten or twenty maouths or trunks a-stickin’ aout all along the sides, big as stovepipes, an’ all a-tossin’ an’ openin’ an’ shuttin’… all grey, with kinder blue or purple rings… an’ Gawd in heaven – that haff face on top!…”

(I think it’s important to point out here that Lovecraft often employs dialects in his writing, and the above extract is intended to connote the sort of grungy local rather than the entire story being told in that manner!)

I mentioned in my Call of Cthulhu blog how much better an introduction to Lovecraft’s work this story would be, and I definitely stand by that here. It’s a more conventional story, for sure, but it gives you a better idea of the way Lovecraft writes, for instance his academic types as heroes, his wonderful word-painting when it comes to describing these otherworldly monsters.

The Dunwich Horror is definitely my favourite of Lovecraft’s stories that I’ve read so far, though I do admittedly have a lot of them that I’ve not yet read! But it’s highly worth getting a copy – the Penguin Modern Classics edition has also got a few other worthy mentions, including the delightfully creepy Thing on the Doorstep! Well worth a read!

Come on down to Arkham!

It’s time for Arkham Horror!

Yes, you knew this day would come. It’s a fabulous game, and well worth giving a try. Let me tell you all…

Arkham Horror

I first came upon the game about six years ago now, but only seriously got into it a couple of years back. It’s definitely worth spending some time with, something I didn’t do at first, lamentably. A bit like Runebound, it’s one of these games that takes up the entire table with all the bumph that’s required to play it:

Arkham Horror

Arkham Horror is a co-operative game for 1-8 players, much like it’s younger sibling, Eldritch Horror, where you take on the role of an investigator to battle the evil of one of the Great Old Ones. There are eight of the Elder Gods in the base game, including Yig, Yog-Sothoth, Hastur and Cthulhu himself, of course. Over the course of the game, the investigators are tasked with preventing the Ancient One awakening, which will happen in a variety of ways, usually by letting too many gates to Other Worlds open across the board. If the investigators can seal six gates, they win; if there are either at least five gates open, or if the Ancient One’s doom track fills up, a final battle is triggered between him and the investigators.

Arkham Horror

At the start of the round, a Mythos card is revealed that will trigger several effects, starting with a gate opening to one of the Other Worlds that are arrayed along the edge of the game board. In addition, clue tokens are spawned around the board, which aid the investigators in their struggle. When gates open, they also bring monsters out; monsters have dimensional symbols on them that correspond with those on the Mythos card and, when revealed, can cause the monsters to move about the board. Finally, Mythos cards have an effect that can either trigger once, provide an ongoing effect, or else act as ‘rumor’ effects that force the investigators into a side quest before they cause something awful to happen. Generally, Mythos cards are awful, after all.

Arkham Horror
Mythos card, showing a gate token (top left) and monster marker (on the right)

The investigators start out with a sheet that displays their stats, most importantly stamina and sanity, which can be lost through various means. In addition, there are paired attributes that can be adjusted throughout the game through the sliders:

Arkham Horror

Throughout the game, the players investigate locations around the town of Arkham such as the Unvisited Isle, the Woods or the Witch House. Locations are grouped into neighbourhoods, and when the player arrives at a location he draws an encounter card for that neighbourhood:

Arkham Horror

Arkham Horror

Each location on the board has a broad theme such as providing money, or items, or spells. However, as shown on the card above, investigators must test one of their attributes in order to gain the money, items or spells. The investigator sheet shown above shows Harvey Walters to have a Lore skill of 4, which means he rolls 4 dice when making a Lore skill check. However, if he were to be making the skill check as shown on the above card for Ye Olde Magick Shoppe, the Lore check is -1, so he rolls one less die. Successes are scored on a result of a 5 or a 6, but throughout the game the players may become either Blessed, which makes a 4 a success also; but also Cursed, which means only a 6 becomes a success. (The game actually comes with basic six-sided dice, but you can buy specialised dice sets that are really nice, and have elder signs on the 5 and 6 sides, denoting the successes, as well as Blessed and Cursed sets).

In addition to encounters, if an investigator encounters a Monster token, he can either choose to Sneak past it (a Sneak check, using the modifier printed on the top-right corner of the token) or fight it, in which case the token is flipped over to reveal its stats:

Arkham Horror

To begin, the investigator makes a Horror check against a modifier on the left of the token (although the above monster, a Cultist, doesn’t have anything), using his Will attribute. If he is successful, all is well. If he fails, he loses a number of sanity points, which can potentially drive him insane. If not, he goes on to combat proper and makes a Combat check against the monster, using his fight attribute plus any items that might help. The number of successes rolled is compared to the monster’s health value (the teardrop shape in the centre of the token), and if it equals or exceeds that amount, the monster is defeated. If not, the investigator takes a number of stamina damage equal to the hearts in the bottom right, and if he survives, they do it all over again.

Arkham Horror

If the investigator lands on a space with a gate, however, he is drawn through to the relevant Other World and encounters that place. Classic mythos locations such as R’lyeh, Yuggoth and the Dreamlands are represented. Each Other World is colour-coded, and the investigator draws cards from a Gate deck until he gets a card with the same colour border as his Other World, and follows the encounter from there (see above). The Other Worlds have two steps to them, so you have two encounters there before you return to Arkham and can then attempt to close and seal the gate. Either making a Fight check or a Lore check, using the modifier printed on the gate token, and if you’re successful, the gate is closed; if the investigator also spends five clue tokens to seal the gate, placing an elder sign token there which can prevent further gates opening.

Arkham Horror

As soon as there are six elder signs on the board, the game is over and the investigators have won, preventing the Ancient One from conquering the world. However, if there are ever too many gates open on the board (for a two-player game, eight gates), the Ancient One awakens and the final battle begins! In addition, whenever a gate opens, a doom token (the other side of the elder sign tokens) is placed on the Ancient One’s doom track, and if this fills up the Ancient One awakens.

Arkham Horror

During the final battle, the investigators attack first, using the modifier printed on the left of the God’s sheet, with every success removing one of the doom tokens from the track. Once they’ve all had a bash, the Ancient One himself makes an attack as detailed on the right of the sheet. The Great Old Ones have one or two effects that last throughout the game, some of them affecting Cultist monsters, some of them affecting the game in other ways – for instance, Cthulhu reduces the maximum sanity and stamina of investigators; Yog Sothoth affects the difficulty of closing gates; Hastur demands more clues for sealing gates, etc etc. In addition, there is a Start of Battle effect that can sometimes cause investigators to be eliminated, such as Yig, who Curses every investigator, and those already Cursed are devoured. Should the investigators manage to remove all the doom tokens, they win; if the Ancient One defeats the investigators, the space-time continuum ruptures, the Ancient One is unleashed, and all of mankind suffers for the investigators’ failure. 

Wonderful stuff!

Arkham Horror is one of the classic greats of boardgaming, and frequently cited as the archetypal “Ameri-trash” game. That is, a game that emphasizes theme over mechanics. Basically a dice-fest with lots of cards and tokens, I love such games! Arkham Horror was originally published in 1987, with the current third edition published by Fantasy Flight Games from 2005. Sold as “The Classic Game of Lovecraftian Adventure”, the game plumbs the depths of the Cthulhu mythos, not confining itself just to the works of HP Lovecraft alone. While the investigators are invented archetypes (the doctor, the professor, etc), the Ancient Ones and allies and whatnot all stem from the writings of Lovecraft and the stable of writers who contributed to the mythos over time. The game is set in 1926, with lots of period stuff in the items, and a whole host of eldritch artifacts including the dreaded Necronomicon.

Arkham Horror

Something I particularly like about this is the theme. I’ve mentioned it before, of course, but I’m a really serious theme player, and this game has got theme in spades. A lot of effort has been put into tying everything into the whole, so that you can really immerse yourself in it all. I appreciate a lot of the small things, from the fact that the currency of the game is actual dollar-bill tokens, the fact that item cards have a “hand limit” (shown in the bottom left of the cards), showing how many items you can use at any one time. While the investigators are ‘made-up’ characters, the allies come from some of the stories, including John Legrasse from The Call of Cthulhu and Thomas Malone from The Horror at Red Hook. The investigators allow for greater RPG-style playing, too, seeing as how they are not essentially a part of the mythos.

If I were to make any criticism of the game, it would be that it tends to be a bit too formulaic. You need five clue tokens (usually) to seal gates, and you need to seal six gates to win. So you basically need to charge around the board collecting clues, then dash off through to the Other Worlds and come back. There is very little in-built interactivity for a cooperative game. All of that said, however, the level of mechanics involved does actually help to tell some really good stories in the true RPG style, as once you’re familiar with the rules of play, you can sit back and concentrate on telling the story of what’s happening rather than constantly looking-up rules. Don’t get me wrong, I still play with the rulebook close at hand, but after a couple of games you don’t need it that much. One of the great myths of these sorts of games – particularly, in fact, of Arkham Horror – is that they’re far too complicated and not worth the aggro. While it is to an extent true, as evidenced when I call this one of the more serious of “serious games”, it isn’t really difficult to pick up after a game or two. The constant fluctuations of the six attributes of each investigator can sometimes make things confusing, as the amount of dice you rolled to make a certain test last time might not be the same as the amount you roll this time, etc. But the cooperative nature of the game can mean that help should always be available. The fact that the gameplay is formulaic is therefore a positive and a negative.

There have been a number of novels published by Fantasy Flight that are set in the Arkham Horror universe, featuring the investigators as major characters. There are currently eight such novels, though I’ve only currently read the Dark Waters Trilogy. There has been some unfortunate criticism about these novels as being sub-par, but I thought they were really good! Well worth getting hold of.

And to be honest, the entire line of Arkham Horror products is worth picking up. There are a whole slew of expansions for the game, and while the last one came out three years ago, they’re still pretty much kept in circulation. A mix of big-box expansions that bring new investigators, Ancient Ones and new boards; and smaller boxes that bring new cards around a specific theme. I’ll be looking at these expansions over the coming months, so you can look forward to lots more blogging as the weeks and months go by!

Buy it from amazon:
Arkham Horror
The Curse of the Dark Pharaoh
Dunwich Horror
The King in Yellow
Kingsport Horror
The Black Goat of the Woods
Innsmouth Horror
The Lurker at the Threshold
Miskatonic Horror

Tales of the Jedi

It’s Sunday! You know what that means… well, I’m not quite sure where that is going, but it’s Sunday! And it’s the middle of the three-day-weekend! So I thought it might be nice to go for a bit of a feature-Sunday here (this probably won’t become a thing, but you never know!)

So, after my blog on the Dark Empire series, I’ve been feeling pretty bummed out. I think, more than anything, I feel like I’ve let myself down by being so derisive of what is often seen as a modern classic. It’s tantamount to blasphemy, almost! But anyway. I thought today I’d talk about another classic of the early years of Dark Horse comics publishing of Star Wars, the Tales of the Jedi saga. I’m quite the fan of these books, and read them fairly often, most recently in Feb/March this year, just outside the scope of this blog, hence I suppose why I’m writing this now. Anyway!

Tales of the Jedi

Tales of the Jedi began back in the 80s, when Tom Veitch was pitching ideas for Star Wars comics to Lucasfilm. Initially refused, on the grounds that the franchise wasn’t going anywhere, it was only after the success of Dark Empire that the team managed to get some renewed interest in the idea. George Lucas himself apparently got very interested in the idea of a comic series set 4000 years before the film trilogy, and personally approved the storylines for each.

Beginning in October 1993 with Ulic Qel-Droma and the Beast Wars of Onderon, the series would eventually run to 35 comics that told the whole story of Ulic from his days as a padawan, through his fall to the Dark Side, and his eventual redemption, alongside that of the unwilling Jedi, Nomi Sunrider. Further issues would explore even further back in the mythic past of the Jedi and the Sith. A year after the Onderon story began, the next arc of the saga came out, Dark Lords of the Sith. Opening the universe still further with the Jedi enclave on Dantooine, we are introduced here to the Jedi Exar Kun, who would fall to the Dark Side and unleash the terrible Sith War on the galaxy. Dark Lords of the Sith added the author Kevin J Anderson to the production team, who was currently working on his Jedi Academy trilogy of novels that dealt with the spirit of Exar Kun trapped on Yavin IV. With the comic series, Anderson was able to tell the backstory on this, slotting in his ideas neatly with Veitch’s, to create more of a homogeneous feel to the universe. Despite Veitch’s departure from the project before the end, the series was brought to a suitable conclusion at the beginning of 1996 in The Sith War, before Anderson launched into a prequel story set 1000 years before the saga of Ulic, The Golden Age of the Sith. This was a universe still being discovered, where ancient Sith Lords were more like mad alchemical scientists. Featuring stories around Naga Sadow and Ludo Kressh, as well as Empress Teta and the Great Hyperspace War, not to mention lightsabers that came with backpack power generators, the universe really does feel like a mythic past in this and the following arc, The Fall of the Sith Empire, which concluded late in 1997. Finally, in summer 1998, the saga of Ulic Qel-Droma began its conclusion with the emotionally-charged Redemption arc. In a series spanning five years, the Tales of the Jedi finally reached their conclusion.

I really enjoyed this series. The core of the saga, which follows Ulic on his journey from Jedi apprentice to Sith apprentice, through being stripped of his Force powers and finally to his redemption, is really nicely done. Despite the fact that Ulic falls to the Dark Side in a misguided attempt to learn its secrets and thus to defeat it from within, I still think this is a much better tale than that eventually told by the Star Wars prequel movies. It’s also a lot better than the execution in Dark Empire of Luke’s fall, but I won’t go over that again.

There are all sorts of things in these ‘early’ stories, perhaps most notably the idea that anyone can be trained to use the Force, back when the idea appeared to be more in terms of a mystical religion than a biological phenomenon. Satal Keto and his cousin Aleema are described as “bored aristocrats” with no particular affinity for the Force, and yet through the power of the Sith amulets they find, they are able to control the mystical energy field. Hm. Personally, I prefer this view as being much more, well, sensible. But anyway.

The key to success with any Star Wars story, for me, lies firmly between boldly-drawn characters and epic situations, and the whole saga has that. Even what are, I suppose, the bit-players are really compelling characters, including Shoaneb Culu, the first Miraluka to appear in the universe (perhaps more famous examples include Jerec from Dark Forces, and Visas Marr from KOTOR2). The series is made increasingly rich as we follow first Ulic and then Nomi on their very different paths through the Jedi way. From the beginning, we have incredibly compelling situations, as Ulic, his brother Cay, and the Twi’lek Tott Doneeta travel to Onderon to help mediate in the Beast Wars. Some epic storytelling, including incredible reversals, launches the galaxy-spanning epic. By the time we’re introduced to Exar Kun, the figures of Ulic Qel-Droma and his companions already have something of a celebrity feel about them. By the end of the series, we feel like we know these characters as well as the films of the original trilogy.

I don’t often mention the art when I’ve looked at comic books in the past, largely because I’m not really that much of a connoisseur. However, I have to say that I absolutely love the art of Christian Gossett, who drew most of the Dark Lords of the Sith arc, and whose art was, for many years for me, synonymous with Star Wars comics.

Of course, having grown up with the Bantam books, and the Jedi Academy trilogy were among the first that I’d read, when I eventually got into the comics and started to read these stories, they really were like reading the long-lost history of the galaxy. Reading about Exar Kun’s exploits when I’d only previously known him as a disembodied spirit wreaking havoc on Yavin IV, that was particularly gratifying. Somehow, the names of these characters and locations have a mythic feel to them, too – Ulic Qel-Droma, Nomi Sunrider, Arca Jeth, Vodo Siosk-Baas, Satal Keto, Freedon Nadd, and of course, Exar Kun himself. While we have the classic Yavin IV location, which explains what those jungle temples the Rebel Alliance were using were all about, we also visit Dantooine, but also have new locations such as Onderon and the Dxun Moon, the Jedi training centre on Ossus, and the Sith ‘homeworld’ of Korriban. All of these things are so intrinsically part of Star Wars lore that I can’t help but feel like it’s part of something really special.

Aside from the Jedi Academy trilogy, the events and situations were most strongly referenced in the later Dark Empire stories, where Leia takes refuge on Onderon to escape the Emperor’s attempted kidnapping of her son Anakin. In later media, the novel Darth Bane: Rule of Two features a trip to Onderon in a sort of pilgrimage to find the tomb of Freedon Nadd. The Sith stronghold of Ziost plays a significant part in the Legacy of the Force novel series, while Korriban, as a sacred world to the Sith Order, features strongly in pretty much any story where the Sith are prominent, either by name or an actual appearance. Perhaps the greatest homage was paid by Lucas himself, however, when he modeled Darth Maul’s twin-bladed lightsaber on that of Exar Kun.

Before the advent of BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic reinvigorated interest in the ancient history of the Star Wars universe, Tales of the Jedi sat apart from the rest of the canon, which centred around the original trilogy and, as the prequels came out, ventured no further into the past than forty or fifty years before A New Hope. But now, there’s all sorts of stuff going on at that end of the timeline, including even earlier stories, Dawn of the Jedi.

Ulic Qel-Droma
Ulic Qel-Droma
Nomi Sunrider
Nomi Sunrider
Exar Kun
Exar Kun duels Vodo Siosk-Baas
Cay Qel-Droma
Cay Qel-Droma
Arca Jeth confronts the spectre of Freedon Nadd
Arca Jeth confronts the spectre of Freedon Nadd

It’s a really great series of comics, and I can heartily recommend you take a look!

Buy it from amazon:
The Golden Age of the Sith
The Fall of the Sith Empire
Knights of the Old Republic
The Freedon Nadd Uprising
Dark Lords of the Sith
The Sith War

Tales of the Jedi: Omnibus 1
Tales of the Jedi: Omnibus 2

I bought a new camera

Welcome to my latest blog, a little bit of odd jollity for a Saturday! You know you love it.

It’s been another exciting week, as you may have seen from my blogs posted over the past few days. Perhaps the most exciting event was finishing the Thrawn trilogy, which is always good. In case you hadn’t picked it up by now, I’m a really big fan of Tim Zahn’s work! This morning I finally got round to the short story Heist that was published in the Star Wars Insider magazine. A prequel of sorts to the novel Scoundrels, which I read just before Easter, it features the ghost thief Bink Kitik and her sister Tavia on a job. It’s all pretty standard stuff, nothing earth-shattering or anything, but it’s a good tale, and well worth it if you can still find it.

The most exciting thing to happen this morning, though, was the massive delivery of another of the huge ships for the X-Wing miniatures game: Tantive IV!


This ship really is huge! Remember the last one that arrived? Well this one is even bigger:

X-Wing Tantive IV
“Look at the size of that thing!”

Wedge may have been referring to the Death Star, but it still holds true here! It does look pretty spectacular, I have to say. Of course, as I mentioned last time, sadly I never get to play this game nowadays, so there’s no telling when I’ll ever get to actually give this a go, but hopefully soon…

I bought a new camera last week as well, it’s about time as I’ve had the last one for about six years now. I popped over to Anglesey, which is one of my absolute favourite places in the country, to give it a proper try and whatnot, but no sooner had I got there than it began to rain. Gah! But I did get some good shots at Red Wharf Bay:

Red Wharf Bay

Red Wharf Bay

Ah, marvellous!

Remember Yig, the new Ancient One in the expansion for Eldritch Horror that I received just over a week ago? Well in addition to reading the classic Lovecraft Call of Cthulhu the other day, I also read the Curse of Yig collaborative tale. It’s a pretty good story, actually – unlike quite a few of the Lovecraft tale I’ve read, this one feels very much like a modern horror story when we come to the end. The tale of a couple who move out west to start a new life, where they encounter the local stories of a snake-god who punishes anyone who kills the indigenous snakes, it very much reminded me of the sort of horror films that begin pregnant with expectation, and culminate in something truly horrible at the end. It’s available in The Horror in the Museum, a collection of other collaborative stories, definitely worth investigating! Especially for fans of the many Cthulhu-themed games.




Some cracking news this week, the Carcassonne android app has been updated, and finally we have some of the expansions! Not all of them, sadly, but hopefully this will be the start of seeing more available soon!

It’s a bank holiday weekend in the UK here, and as per tradition, it’s been pouring with rain all day. Also as per tradition, I’m having a bit of a boardgame weekend with that old favourite, Arkham Horror! Stay tuned for more on that soon!

It was a dark time for the Empire…

Hey everybody! Welcome to more musings and ramblings on my favourite theme, Star Wars! Today I’d like to muse and ramble about the comic series Dark Empire, which was the first title to come from Dark Horse Comics all the way back in 1991.

Dark Empire

*sigh* I’m just going to say this, because there’s no mincing about needed here: I don’t like this comic. That might make a lot of you instantly stop reading this post and un-follow me, which is sad, but I can understand. The comic is seminal in terms of the meta, being the first thing produced by Dark Horse. It’s also had the Lucas stamp of approval (apparently), so could have been quite strongly considered as high-level canon until the recent announcement. But there are several issues that I have with it, which ultimately prevent me from enjoying it.

The story has got some really interesting things going for it, but the big plot point of the first six issues is just terrible: Luke Skywalker turns to the Dark Side. Why? Well, because Emperor Palpatine has returned, and has proven himself to be invincible, of course. Luke decides it’s best for everyone if he tries to infiltrate the Sith and learn the Emperor’s secrets, then he can defeat him. For me, this is just a stupid move. There is a huge plot-point in the films that Luke is able to resist the temptation of the Dark Side, which is kinda ignored here. Rather than being the great hero that the films portrayed him to be, instead we get a much more flawed design along the lines that Anakin Skywalker eventually turned out to be. Meh. But then I never really bought it when Ulic Qel-Droma turned to the Dark Side…

The series has been widely criticized, however, for bringing Emperor Palpatine back, thus negating the sacrifice of Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi. Furthermore, in light of the prequels, bringing the Emperor back proves to be an even worse mistake because of what Vader/Anakin was supposed to represent, the Chosen One who would destroy the Sith and bring balance to the Force. Of course, there is a whole argument about the need for the Sith if the Force is to actually be balanced, but I won’t get into that right now. Vader died destroying Palpatine, and yet here we learn that is was a pointless exercise.

What’s more baffling is why didn’t Vader know about Palpatine’s clones? Vader, who was the Emperor’s loyal enforcer and apprentice for 23 years, didn’t know about Palpatine’s contingency plans, and yet Luke, who just says “okay, Palps, I’ll join up with you” gets to learn about such a massive weakness within five minutes? Especially when the Emperor later reveals he expected Luke was going to try to betray him? Something seems off there.

However, apparently, George Lucas himself approved the idea of bringing Palpatine back through cloning. Assuming this to be true, and we have to have a story about a resurrected Emperor and whatnot, I still feel that the execution of the story is quite poor. Part of this, though, could be due to similar limitations as Heir to the Empire. Dark Empire was initially pitched as a story idea to Marvel Comics in the 1980s, but was ultimately turned down until Dark Horse were offered the licence. By then, Bantam were getting Tim Zahn to write the Thrawn trilogy, so some details had to be shifted around, notably the story was moved to 6 years after Return of the Jedi, rather than much sooner after the film – Zahn famously refusing to reference any of the events of the series prompting its placement in the timeline after his books. That said, it still had very little to go on, and the first six issues that form ‘Dark Empire I’ really feel quite lost somehow, like they’re not part of the continuing storyline. Where Zahn strove to insert his story and characters into the history of the universe, providing hints of events that had taken place in the five years between the sixth film and his book, Dark Empire seems to take a step back, and there seems to have been no effort to really dig into the backstory at all.

It’s a shame, because there are some really interesting ideas and situations that are presented over the course of the three story arcs. I categorically refuse to advocate Luke turning to the Dark Side, of course – indeed, the one thing that I can find to appreciate in that particular situation is that, once he’s there, he doesn’t really seem to do that much ‘evil’, which makes you wonder if he did actually shift allegiance at all. However, accepting the return of the Emperor, I thought the idea of him using the Dark Side of the Force so much caused him to rapidly decay, hence the need for clones, into which he transferred his consciousness when required, was entirely fitting for such a devious and manipulative man. Indeed, the idea of the Dark Side causing one to decay from the inside out is a much better explanation of the Emperor’s aged condition in Return of the Jedi that is the fact that he melted his own face when duelling Mace Windu. It also ties in to the idea that was to resurface in the Tales of the Jedi comics that would come out later, of Sith power being based partially on alchemy and twisting the forces of nature.

I also like the idea of him having a cadre of Dark Jedi, although the idea presented in Dark Empire II of the Emperor being able to ‘imbue’ what appear to be ordinary people with the Force seems definitely counter to what we now know to be the case, midichlorians and whatnot. Whereas Mara Jade is acknowledged to have a rudimentary Force ability that the Emperor amplified through his power, these other Dark Siders seem to be given that power much like one would confer a battlefield promotion. It seems a bit odd, to say the least. But Dark Jedi, yeah, that’s a nice idea. And indeed, it’s one that later sources have taken up. When Obi-Wan tells Luke that Vader helped to destroy the Jedi, it turns out he was being figurative in a sense, as he did manage to turn some to the Dark Side to serve as Adepts. It’s a cool idea, that there are two really badass Sith out there, but they also have this army of other Force users, nowhere near as powerful, but powerful enough. It’s also an idea that turns up much later, in the Clone Wars era comics with Count Dooku and his adepts.

Leia has a third child in the course of the series, which has always struck me as a bit odd. Zahn gives the Solos twins, and given how she never gets to see her kids because of the pressures of state, why would she want another? Maybe I have this view because I’m not a mother (obviously), but I’m more inclined to think that this is a holdover from the initial 1980s pitch, and was just never written out. It’s a pretty important plot point, so I guess it makes sense – after Luke sabotages the Emperor’s clones, Palpatine transfers to the only one left, which turns out to be genetically unstable. Hearing of Leia’s pregnancy, he determines that he would be best taking possession of her baby’s body and thus having the powerful Skywalker heritage as well as his own dark power, which would make him even more powerful. Of course, it doesn’t work out that way, but never mind. I must admit, I think that plotline is wonderfully creepy, and should have worked out so much better than it eventually did – unfortunately, like a lot in this series, the execution just didn’t do it for me.

There are more superweapons than you can shake a stick at in Star Wars, and that theme continues here with the World Devastators and the Galaxy Gun (I’m not joking). Both are a bit inept, though perhaps not as bad as the Eye of Palpatine from Children of the Jedi.

I really enjoyed seeing Nar Shaddaa, the run-down, dingy spaceport moon that orbits the Hutt homeworld of Nal Hutta. It was good to see Han revisit his past, and having recently re-read the Han Solo trilogy, seeing Salla Zend and Shug Ninx for the ‘first’ time was a pleasure. Indeed, the smugglers are some of the best parts of the story as-is, for me. But…Boba Fett. Urgh. I’ve never been what you could call a Fett fanboy, and it’s gotten to the point now where everytime I see him pop up I just roll my eyes and sigh. When he was introduced in Empire Strikes Back (because I discount with vehemence that holiday special nonesense!) he was an interesting character, but popularity with the fans has led to this whole legion of insanity that has produced something like a cult of Fett, and now gives us these gratuitous appearances that often have no real bearing on the story. In the pages of the Dark Empire saga, this has never been more true – Fett tries two or three times to collect the ever-increasing bounty on Han and Leia, but fails each time. For the galaxy’s best and most-feared bounty hunter, he’s become quite the failure in that regard, and it’s all down to the fact that authors want to include him to appease the fanbase, but because it seems to have been an unwritten rule that Han should never be held accountable for dumping that shipment of spice, he never gets to collect. I don’t know how many times exactly now, but Fett has failed to bring in Solo so often over the years, his reputation in-universe should be in tatters by now. His purpose in Dark Empire seems to solely be to provide a sense of danger in Han returning “home”, but in reality, given the already-established bounty on Solo, literally any other bounty hunter could have provided that. Why not make a new one? It seems to be just laziness, always relying on the same person. Meh.

But as I said, there is still a lot about Dark Empire that I like. While the execution lets it down, I nevertheless appreciate the ideas behind a lot of the situations. As the series gets going, perhaps around the mid-point of Dark Empire II, we begin to see that sense of history that the first series lacked. Luke has managed to redeem one of the Emperor’s Dark Jedi, Kam Solusar (albeit entirely ‘off-camera’), who has joined the ranks of the New Republic (at least I think they’re calling themselves that again by this point…), and the two head off to Ossus in pursuit of Jedi lore to help reestablish the Order. Ossus appears in the old Tales of the Jedi comics, and we begin to see ties in to that era now that the comics universe has begun to expand (Dark Empire II began publication in 1994). By the time of the third of the series, which came out in 1995, we’re seeing all sorts of stuff, including Korriban and Onderon – we even get the Beast Riders and see descendants from the earlier series! But again, it’s all let down by the execution. Empire’s End in particular seems to have been rushed, a common complaint and perhaps not entirely unjustified – whereas the first two in the series ran to six issues each, Empire’s End consists of just two.

It’s been years since I first read these comics, and now that I’ve read them again, I feel almost sad that I’ve been so down on them. I’m going to give it some thought, then hope to produce what I would have written, with the situations present here. An interesting exercise in creative writing, perhaps, but we’ll see what happens. Dark Empire is perhaps still worth investigating, despite all these criticisms, because of the fact that a lot of subsequent material – most notably, the Jedi Academy trilogy and Crimson Empire comic series – reference it quite heavily. However, if you know the basics of the story, you can perhaps skip the actual comics themselves…

I feel really bad for being so negative about this comic now! What do you guys think? Tell me in the comments!

Dark Empire 2

Buy it from amazon:
Dark Empire
Dark Empire II (also featuring Empire’s End)

Answer the Call!

I’m taking a break from my Star Wars reading schedule to talk about another branch of fiction that has held me in its sway, albeit only recently – weird fiction. The names of Lovecraft and Cthulhu are of course well-known in pop culture, and even beyond, but I only seriously decided to investigate what all the fuss was about in 2012. As it happens, I bought the first volume of Lovecraft tales and left it on a shelf for five months before actually looking to see what it was all about.

Call of Cthulhu

The first story I read was, naturally, The Call of Cthulhu itself. And I must admit, I was a bit disappointed. I suppose I didn’t know what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t that. Lovecraft has a wonderfully gothic, verbose manner that I really enjoyed from the off – lots of high-flung prose overflowing with adjectives and similes like nothing I’ve ever read before. While there is an uncomfortable undercurrent of racism to his works, such things must be looked at in context, and while this is not intended to excuse, I find it difficult to understand people who dismiss him now for writing what was accepted at the time. It’s the age-old thing of judging the past by the present.

However, what I found most unsatisfying with the tale was its presentation, I suppose. The story is basically one of the narrator’s investigation into the cult of Cthulhu, prompted following his discovery of some papers in the possession of his late uncle. As such, it jumps around a bit, from describing events in 1925, to events in 1908, then back to 1925. Essentially, the tale is one long report, because nothing really happens within the story itself – the narrator describes what he read among his uncle’s papers, which leads him on to describing a police raid some years previously, which leads him back to describing a diary he then read. While these events range from the bizarre to the terrifying, there is very little dynamism because we’re seeing them all through the narrator’s filter – and the narrator is clearly in no danger because the events did not feature him.

All in all, I was a little put-out. In particular, I failed to see how this tale could have proven to be the seminal work of gothic horror and weird fiction that it appears to have become, much less spawn an entire “Cthulhu mythos” around it.

That was all back in 2012.

Over the past two years I have, in fits and starts, returned to Lovecraft’s fiction, reading other tales from the three-volume Penguin series. In this time, I have come to gain a fantastic appreciation for Lovecraft as a writer, and also to completely re-evaluate my thoughts on this tale, which I read again this morning.

There are a couple of points which I think need to be understood about Lovecraft, in order for you to really appreciate his stories for the classics that they are. Aside from the fact that gothic horror, I would contend, is not meant to be ‘scary’ in the sense we have come to appreciate the word nowadays, a lot of Lovecraft’s work is first and foremost cosmic horror. He isn’t reliant on supernatural evil such as vampires and werewolves, but instead on the terror of the impossible made manifest, and the threat more to his protagonists’ sanity than to their actual physical well-being. Indeed, there aren’t a great many physical injuries described in the stories I have read thus far. Rather, it is the threat of insanity that is the biggest terror in his work. That, coupled with the fact that his protagonists are usually scholarly, professor-type characters, who are no doubt even more afraid to lose their grip on their mind, all adds to the creepiness.

We have become so much of a visual-based society in recent years that the power of words in the imagination seems to have lost its ability to work as effectively, I feel. Take, for instance, this first description of the god Cthulhu:

It seemed to be a sort of monster, or symbol representing a monster, of a form which only a diseased fancy could conceive. […] A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful.

Is that better at conveying the horror of the story than, say, this:

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Or this:


Personally, I much prefer the written word. While it’s true that Cthulhu is a tentacle-faced demon god as per Lovecraft’s description, there are sufficient blanks in there to allow us to really creep ourselves out thinking about it. Particularly the eyes. But when we see it, it becomes a case of, “Oh, that’s freaky” and we move on. I’ve read a lot of criticism of Lovecraft’s stories that seems to centre on this fact: his stories lead up to a ‘big reveal’ that invariably isn’t fully described because of the horror that the protagonist is experiencing (so far, all of the stories I have read have been first-person narrations), which leads reviewers to feel cheated. To me, this misses the point. Lovecraft’s work allows us to exercise our imaginations in ways that horror nowadays doesn’t require. He gives us just enough that we are left with a sense of deep unease. But anyway.

The story is also one of suspense. Split into three ‘chapters’, the first deals with the narrator’s description of an earthquake, following which an outbreak of group mania occurred within the international artistic community, alongside unrest among what are clearly meant to be more primitive areas of the world. One artist somehow sculpted a bas-relief in his sleep of Cthulhu, and its appearance is strikingly similar to an idol recovered on a raid of a voodoo cult in the Deep South some years earlier. A cult is described as worshipping the Great Old Ones, who are said to lie dreaming, waiting for the stars to align before they return to conquer the earth in a fiery apocalypse. During the period of mania, it transpires that a boat was caught in a storm off New Zealand, and only one person survived. The sailor professed to not recall what happened during the maelstrom, but the fact that he came through it clutching at a similar idol spurs the narrator to find his diary, which describes the boat coming upon an uncharted island of weird geometrical proportions. Unwittingly, the sailors awaken Cthulhu, who chases the ship but is driven off by the one surviving sailor. His heroics unhinge his mind, and he mysteriously dies when he returns home. The narrator, convinced that what he has learnt of the cult of Cthulhu means he too is not long for this world, locks away what he has discovered in a box, hoping that, when he too is inevitably disposed of, his research will remain hidden.

The suspense that is built up from the description of the bas-relief and the inexplicable collective madness, through the voodoo cult ceremony in Louisiana, and culminating in the description of the discovery of R’lyeh and the awakening of Cthulhu himself is quite masterful. I’m only sorry that it took me two years to realise that! But as I said, I feel that it is a greater knowledge of Lovecraft’s work that has enabled me to appreciate this tale more for what it is. To that extent, I would probably not recommend this tale as an introduction to his work – either The Dunwich Horror or The Shadow over Innsmouth are much better in this regard, being more classically-proportioned horror stories. You also need to be prepared for the previously-mentioned prose – take the description of R’lyeh, for instance:

Johansen and his men landed at a sloping mud-bank on this monstrous Acropolis, and clambered slipperily up over titan oozy blocks which could have been no mortal staircase. The very sun of heaven seemed distorted when viewed through the polarising miasma welling out from this sea-soaked perversion, and twisted menace and suspense lurked leeringly in those crazily elusive angles of carven rock where a second glance shewed concavity after the first shewed convexity.

It is wonderful, I have to say! As another blogger puts it, the words flow ‘with a life of their own’, and the result is an imagery that really does leap off the page.

The biggest horror, for me at least, is not in the half-described Shoggoths or other weird creatures that torment Lovecraft’s characters, but in the Ancient Ones themselves, and the fact that they just don’t care about humanity. While later writers would attempt to create a pantheon out of Lovecraft’s gods, for Lovecraft himself, Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth and Azathoth have no interest in humanity. They will bring about the end of the world not because they’re evil, simply because they will. And often, there is little that can be done to stop them. In Call of Cthulhu, the Norwegian sailor manages to drive Cthulhu off while he escapes, and the subsequent storm once more pulls R’lyeh to the bottom of the ocean, but Cthulhu hasn’t been defeated – as the narrator himself tells us at the end of the tale:

Who knows the end? What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise. Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cries of men.

Since Call of Cthulhu was published in 1928, there have been all sorts of tales published within the so-called Cthulhu mythos. While Lovecraft himself is reputed to have preferred the term “Yog-Sothothery” for his work, the label has stuck, and even today weird fiction is being produced that adds to the mythos. For me, my love of boardgames has brought me to such awesome incarnations as Arkham Horror, Mansions of Madness, Call of Cthulhu LCG, Elder Sign and Eldritch Horror, and it is a familiarity with the tales behind these games that makes them all the more enjoyable. It seems Lovecraft’s fiction has successfully permeated most aspects of pop-culture, frequently gaming, though he has never transcribed well to film. Perhaps because most of Lovecraft’s brilliance lies in the way he has crafted his stories through words?



(All extracts are from the Penguin Modern Classics edition, 1999, ed. ST Joshi)

The Last Command

The Last Command

Phew, it’s been a roller-coaster of a ride through the Thrawn trilogy! I’m quite surprised that I finished it so quickly, I normally like to savour these things… Well, anyway, I’ve now finished the final book in the trilogy, so will have a look back at how awesome it was!

As you may remember, we left out intrepid heroes having lost the Katana-fleet to Thrawn, who has been generating clone troopers to crew this new fleet with. In the month since that skirmish, the Grand Admiral hasn’t wasted any time in launching the next phase of his plan to take back the galaxy. Luke is busy trying to track down the source of the clones, though he doesn’t realise he’s following a carefully-laid trail designed to throw the New Republic off the real clone factory.

On Coruscant, Leia finally gives birth to her twins – Jaina and Jacen – but not long after the event there is a break-in by an Imperial Intelligence team determined to capture them for Joruus C’baoth. Mara Jade, who had been injured during the battle at the Katana-fleet, is recuperating on Coruscant and manages to help thwart the kidnap attempt – however, the lone survivor from the team implicates her as colluding with the Empire, and she is promptly placed under house arrest. Thrawn had been concerned that Mara might know the location of the cloning facility on Wayland, and intended to silence her just in case.

As it happens, she had been to Wayland only once, but when Leia reveals the news that Thrawn has been cloning troopers, she feels she must cast her lot in with the New Republic and put a stop to it, lest another round of Clone Wars is unleashed on the galaxy. Luke, Han, Lando, Chewie and Mara set off for Wayland, leaving Leia protected by a group of Noghri, determined to repay their debt to her.

Following a series of attacks against New Republic systems that sees tremendous gains in territory for the Empire, Thrawn launches a siege of Coruscant itself, with a cluster of cloaked asteroids released into orbit around the planet. The Grand Admiral manages to convince the Republic that they have launched a total of 287 of the asteroids, when in actual fact the number is much lower. However, fear of letting even one through the planetary shield puts the capitol world out of the war.

Talon Karrde, doing some snoop work of his own, attempts to form a coalition of smugglers to act as unofficial intelligence operatives for the New Republic, though unfortunately the ship thief Niles Ferrier is invited to the gathering and later reports back to Thrawn. Determined not to stir up the fringe against him at this time, Thrawn decides to leave the smugglers alone, even after one of them attacks the Imperial shipyards at Bilbringi. He does, however, manage to implicate Karrde as being responsible for a raid against the smugglers, one which Ferrier had actually organised – Karrde manages to expose Ferrier for the double-dealing thief that he is, and in the confusion, the ship thief is killed. When Karrde decides to return to Coruscant to collect Mara and Ghent, he brings the New Republic confirmation that the Empire had only cloaked 22 asteroids, which is the number that the government had actually found. However, Leia has had a Force-vision of Luke being attacked by C’baoth on Wayland and enlists his help in going to her brother and husband’s rescue.

The New Republic decides to obtain a crystal gravfield trap in order to confirm that the asteroids have indeed been cleared, but unfortunately the only known traps are held in Imperial space. Colonel Bren Derlin therefore begins preparations for a feint at Tangrene, while Admiral Ackbar organises the real assault for Bilbringi. The smugglers’ coalition decide to try to get their hands on a trap to sell to the New Republic, and with all the evidence pointing to an assault on Tangrene, begin their own preparations to infiltrate Bilbringi. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Thrawn determines that Bilbringi is the real target and prepares to trap the New Republic forces when they arrive at the shipyards.

C’baoth, increasingly unstable, decides to return to Wayland, where he takes personal charge of the cloning facility. When Han and his group arrive, they trek through the forest and come across two groups of natives, who they manage to enlist the aid of in their assault on the facility. Infiltrating the Emperor’s storehouse, the group splits up, with Lando and Chewie trying to destroy the cloning facility with detonators while Luke and Mara try to find a self-destruct button in the Emperor’s royal apartments.

However, they find C’baoth waiting for them. He forces Luke to duel with a clone he has had produced from the hand Vader severed at Cloud City, in an attempt to turn him to the Dark Side. Leia and Karrde arrive on Wayland and, together with Han, attempt to rescue Luke, but the insane Jedi clone manages to fend them off with Force lightning. Mara eventually manages to take hold of Leia’s lightsaber and kills the clone of Luke, finally fulfilling the Emperor’s last command to her. C’baoth, enraged, nearly kills them all by bringing down the mountain, but is eventually killed by Mara. The heroes manage to escape just as Chewie and Lando have set the facility to blow.

At Bilbringi, the battle between the Empire and New Republic is going decidedly in the Empire’s favour when the smugglers start causing havoc within the shipyards themselves accompanied by Rogue Squadron. Forced to split their task forces to defend the shipyards as well, the Empire suffers a massive blow when Thrawn’s Noghri bodyguard Rukh fulfills his people’s desire for vengeance by killing the Grand Admiral. Captain Pellaeon orders the Imperial forces to retreat before they are annihilated.

As with my synopses of the previous two books, this really doesn’t do the story justice. I would go so far as to say that The Last Command is the most complex, and most richly rewarding of the trilogy. Seeing how the story works itself out is, itself, a work of art.

I do, however, have a fairly large criticism of this book – it’s just too much like Return of the Jedi. A strike team under Han’s leadership treks through a forest in order to sabotage an Imperial facility with the help of the primitive natives, to say nothing of Luke’s confrontation of C’baoth in what is pretty much an identical setting to the confrontation with the Emperor on the second Death Star. Part of me thinks it’s a bit lazy, and part of me thinks Return of the Jedi might have been so much better had Zahn written it. But anyway.

Something new about this book is the increased level of detail. I mean, the previous two books are detailed enough, but all of the characters introduced by Zahn are his own creations. Here, however, we see the benefit of the box of West End Games’ RPG materials Zahn was sent by Lucasfilm in order to further entrench the story into the overall saga. Pash Cracken, son of Alliance Intelligence chief Airen Cracken, gets some face time, and some of the planets created by WEG are mentioned.

Something that I love in any Star Wars story is the fringe element. Mos Eisley, Jabba’s Palace – all these wretched hives of scum and villainy hold an eternal appeal for me. Zahn seems to have a particular affinity for creating memorable fringe types. In the last book we were introduced to the ship thief Niles Ferrier, but in this book we get to meet a whole host of other smuggler chiefs and mercenaries, some of whom had been mentioned in passing earlier in the trilogy. What I like most about this is how Zahn shows us a room with about half a dozen smugglers in it, and with a few short paragraphs manages to make each one distinct and individual to the point where we feel like we know them as well as Han and Chewie – or even Karrde himself.

I’ve mentioned the clone thing in connection with the last thing, but it’s here that the issue becomes, well, an issue. Of course, given that this book was released in 1993, Zahn cannot possibly be faulted for the continuity errors that appeared in light of the prequel trilogy that began in 1999. However, as I said last time, I find it odd that Lucasfilm signed off on the trilogy if the plan for the prequels had been there all along. That aside, the prequels really mess with these books perhaps more than any other. Dark Force Rising dates the Clone Wars to 35BBY, and The Last Command has Mara specifically state that the clones were trying to take over the galaxy. We now know that the Clone Wars took place between 22-19BBY, and that the clones were actually the good guys (well, kinda). Furthermore, Zahn provides all sorts of details about maturation cycles, the fact that the Force has an impact on mass-produced people, and also details that clones were produced in something called Spaarti cylinders. No mention of Kamino whatsoever. All of this isn’t Zahn’s fault, he merely pitched a story that was subsequently approved by the people who alleged to have all of the details. We know, for example, that the original idea of an insane clone of Obi-Wan was rejected, and yet the folks in charge agreed that the clones were the bad guys? Hm. The whole point is moot now, of course, because technically speaking, none of the Thrawn trilogy actually ‘happened’. But I find it annoying, all the same.

As Zahn wrote history, the prequels sound a lot more interesting. Yeah, Palpatine was elected constitutionally, and the gradual reformation of the Republic into the Empire seemed to happen a lot earlier than Lucas later decided it did. The Clone Wars sound a lot more interesting in Zahn’s version, but this would have required the Republic to have had a standing army at the time, something Bail Organa later tells us they didn’t have before the clones were created. The idea of clonemasters as an antagonist force seems better than the separatists, though I suppose clonemasters would have been kinda like mad scientists? Perhaps not the most theatrical of villains.

This book, however, still has so much to commend it. I particularly liked the fact that Zahn leaves one fairly major plotline dangling at the end of the story, something that isn’t actually resolved until Specter of the Past – just why is Borsk Fey’lya so damn keen to see Mount Tantiss destroyed? Hmm!

I cannot recommend this trilogy enough! Go on, get yourself a copy and see what I mean!

1. Heir to the Empire
2. Dark Force Rising

A Touch of Evil…

Full of enthusiasm from writing about Runebound, I want to take some more time now to wax lyrical about yet another of my favourite board games of all time, this one a little more easy to get a copy of: A Touch of Evil!

A Touch of Evil

Published by Flying Frog Productions, this game is quite simply awesome. With the Runebound/Eldritch Horror posts that I’ve made in the past, you might get the impression that I like big board games that fill the table with their stacks of cards and piles of bits, and you’d be damn right I do, but FFP manage to produce games that put me in a very happy place indeed. A relatively small company, with a relatively short portfolio of games, they nevertheless have tremendously high-quality stuff that is simple to learn, simple to play, but an incredibly immersive experience all the same. They currently have five board games to their name, and each one, while having a similar system, is nevertheless overflowing with flavour and theme that makes them feel entirely different to each other. Their mission has been to create games that focus on theme and fun rather than overly-complicated mechanics, and boy have they succeeded!

If you’ve seen the movie Sleepy Hollow, you’ll feel right at home with A Touch of Evil, which is about as direct a homage to the early-nineteenth-century American Colonial Gothic theme as it’s possible to be. The game is co-operative, where you take on the role of an adventuring hero fighting to overcome the darkness surrounding the town of Shadowbrook, though you can also play competetively, where you race to be the first hero to defeat the evil in the land. There is supernatural evil there, and it’s up to you to investigate and stop it before it stops you!

A Touch of Evil

The board is an exquisitely-illustrated map of Shadowbrook and the surrounding area, and as in the film, there are classic Colonial locations such as the windmill, the manor, the covered bridge, and the abandoned keep. During the course of the game, the heroes travel around encountering the spaces and uncovering clues that allow them to further their investigation, until they can face the evil and, hopefully, overcome it.

A Touch of Evil

Heroes have three skills – spirit, cunning and combat – as well as one or more special abilities, an honor value, and a life value. These skills are used to overcome tests or to fight while encountering the locations around the board, and can be levelled up through finding artifacts, buying items at the Blacksmith, and skill tests in the town. The currency of the game is investigation (the blue tokens), which are gained mainly through successful skill tests at encounters.

On your turn, you roll a 6-sided die to determine how far you can move, then encounter the space. If it is one of the four corner locations, you draw a card from the appropriate deck. Broadly, the manor and the windmill are safer locations than the abandoned keep or the olde woods, but you can be attacked anywhere, and also find items to buff your skills. Throughout the game you also have the opportunity to draw event cards, which you can play to give your hero an advantage such as preventing wounds, or rolling extra fight dice. Usually you can draw these while in town, but you also get one if you roll a natural 1 for movement.

A Touch of Evil

Skill tests, such as that shown above, are resolved by rolling a number of dice equal to your value in that skill, so for Katrina to make the Cunning 4+ test shown above, she will roll three dice. If she rolls at least one 4+, she is successful, and gains investigation as the card shows. For fights, the same basic principle is followed – fights can be described as Combat 5+ tests – for every result of 5 or 6, you hit the enemy (although, Katrina’s special ability is to hit on a 4, 5 or 6). Enemies – either the villain himself or one of his minions – roll a number of dice at the same time, and hits are assigned at the same time. In this way, it’s possible to defeat an enemy while being knocked out at the same time.

A Touch of Evil

Like heroes, the villains each have an oversized card that shows their combat and life stats, and also any special abilities they have. I’m playing here against The Scarecrow, but there are also such classic villains in the core box as the Werewolf, the Vampire, and the Spectral Horseman (Sleepy Hollow again). The game has two modes built-in, the Basic Game and the Advanced Game. Basic Game stats aren’t particularly easier, they just don’t muddle things up quite so much – usually, in the Basic Game the villain only has one special ability, and in the Advanced Game he just does more. There is also the villain’s Minion Chart. Usually, you will only fight the villain once, at the end of the game, so to make things more interesting, he also has a horde of minions that will interact with the heroes more often. Once the heroes have all acted, there is a ‘Mystery Phase’, where a single mystery card is resolved. These are never good, often bringing more doom to the players. These cards will bring minions into play, will move the shadow track (more shortly), or will generally make it more difficult for the heroes. They can also provide buffs to the villain in the same way that heroes can find objects to buff themselves:

A Touch of Evil

The heroes’ task is to find the lair of the villain, and they do this by buying Lair cards, which show a particular location on them. The shadow track is used to determine the cost of these cards, as well as interacting with the villain in other ways. It isn’t a timer for the game (although one of the mystery cards can make it one), and you might go half a dozen or more rounds without it moving at all. Divided into five phases, with four stages per phase, the track marks the decreasing cost to buy a lair card as the villain grows in power – in the final two phases, it only costs one investigation to buy a lair card, usually because so much craziness is going on, it should be pretty obvious by that point where the villain is hiding!

So when you have a lair card, and you’re feeling brave enough to take on the villain, you can start a Showdown with said villain. First, you need to get to the place on your lair card, then pay the cost shown on that card to start the Showdown. Some cards will also interact with the villains, perhaps giving them bonuses for the first fight round of the Showdown. At any rate, once you’re there, it’s time to stop the evil!

A Touch of Evil

You have the option of forming a hunting party to go after the villain. You may have noticed the six cards across the top of the board originally? These are the six town elders, all of whom have at least one Secret they are hiding. Throughout the game, while investigating for clues as to the supernatural evil stalking the countryside, you can also use your clues to investigate each of the elders, to see if they are working directly with the villain or if they’re just a drunkard or a coward. Each of the elders has a skill value and a special ability that can be used if you bring them with you in your hunting party, though you need to be sure you’ve thoroughly investigated them beforehand. If you gamble on an uninvestigated elder, you could have a nasty surprise when they join your party!

A Touch of Evil
Sophie the midwife joins the Necromancer as an Evil Elder – and what evil, too!

All elders have one life point, and during the Showdown, the villain must ascribe one of his fight dice to damaging one elder with you, so they can be quite useful for soaking up damage if nothing else! When it comes down to it, you and the villain both roll, and if all goes well, you’ll defeat the big bad and win the day! If not…well, there are other heroes…

A Touch of Evil

I categorically LOVE this game! The theme is wonderfully executed, and you can get lost for hours or force a showdown and have the whole thing over in 45 minutes. I’ve played it countless times, in conjunction with all the expansions at one point or another, and I just can’t get enough. Oh yeah – there’s expansions!

A Touch of Evil

Each of these beauties adds something awesome to the game, though it remains perfectly playable and perfectly enjoyable by itself. From the new boards and new stuff of the big boxes, to the addition of new heroes and villains in the aptly-named Hero Packs, there are all sorts of good things waiting to be found here!

I’m constantly impressed with Flying Frog’s support for their games, and A Touch of Evil is no exception. In addition to all that bumph, they’ve also produced two smaller card-packs, and web exclusive villains that you can print off and enjoy! Of these web villains, I think I was most impressed with The Shadow Witch, I was overwhelmed when I first tried her out! There is also the ‘Christmas Special’, The Volgovian Nutcracker, who leads his hordes of toy soldiers and sinister teddy bears against the heroes! I’m also a huge fan of the sheer amount of content they pack into their games. Along with all of the cards and stuff, there’s a whole host of extra counters that have no specific rules for them, but are there specifically for you to do whatever you want with them. You’ve seen, in the images above, counters for the villain, and The Coachman ally, but there are all sorts of other things in the box, and the same with the expansions as well. In idle moments, I’ve come up with a few ideas for utilising the additional content from Something Wicked, but not all of it is forgotten, as some of the web villains use certain counters as well, which is always good to see.

None of this is doing the game any real justice, of course – if I wasn’t so camera-shy, I would have done a vlog with my entire gameplay shown for you! My best advice to you all, though, is to go out and buy this beauty right now. Lose yourself in the fight against supernatural evil, then come back here and tell me what you think about it! I do so love a comment or two!

It’s my fervent hope that, at some point soon, I will also produce some blogs about the expansions as well. They’re each one so awesome that they really deserve special treatment, so stay tuned for that, as well! Until next time…

A Touch of Evil

Smash Up!

It’s a double feature! I told you to prepare for extra geekiness while I was off work! Following on from discussing one of my absolute favourites of the board gaming world, I’m going to bring to you a little feature on a more recent acquisition, Smash Up!

Smash Up

I feel like I could get into trouble for sounding snooty or elitist when I talk about games sometimes. It’s never my intent, but it just kinda happens, because I refer to games like Runebound or Arkham Horror as “serious games”, implying that other stuff just isn’t serious enough for me. Nothing could be further from the truth! To some extent or other, I love all games – it’s not always about the bits on the table or the cards in my hand, it’s about getting together with friends and having a whole ton of fun. But I also play games for escapism, and sometimes I want a depth of involvement that can’t be obtained from anything but a four hour trek through the wilds of Terrinoth or the streets of Arkham. But as much as I would call myself a “serious gamer”, I don’t mean that in terms of a serious attitude to gaming, sat at the table with a poker-straight face all through the game. Games are about having fun, and even my four-hour escapist fight against the Dragon Lords fulfills that! But all of this apart, some games are light, easy to play, and are an absolute riot to play, and Smash Up is one of the best of this category!

The basic premise is simple. At the start of the game, you pick two factions from a fabulous array of classic archetypes such as zombies, aliens, ninjas, pirates, etc. You shuffle the two decks to form your draw deck, and you draw five cards. The game also has one of my favourite methods of determining first player – rather than the usual  roll-off or “pick randomly”, the person who woke up earliest that day goes first! Awesome! The object of the game is to score 15 victory points, which you gain by smashing up a procession of bases. Base cards are fought over between the players by playing minion cards at them: each base can only take so much smashing, and when the total minion strength matches the base’s breaking point, the person with the most strength there wins that base (some bases give the runners-up victory points as well). As well as minions, you can also play event cards, which can alter the gameplay in various ways.

Smash Up

In the above picture, my alien ninjas are currently counting 9 strength, against the Mushroom Kingdom’s breaking point of 20. When there is a total of 20 strength at this base, if I have the most minion-strength there I will score 5 victory points, and any runners-up will score 3 and 2 respectively. You can also see that minions have special abilities, usually allowing you to shift minions around to foul up your opponents’ strategies.

Smash Up

My opponent – playing the steampunk killer plants – is stretched between two bases, playing the long game… urgh, I don’t mean to sound like some sort of tactician or something. There is no hint of derogation intended here – this game is fast, fun and simple, and that’s all there is to it! You can take a tactical view and try to work out where best to play minions and whatnot, but to be honest, the game itself almost fights against such a manner. AEG have made the entire thing so utterly tongue-in-cheek that it laughs at itself. The rules booklet is, itself, hilarious to read through. The fact that the expansions are called “Awesome Level 9000” and “The Obligatory Cthulhu Set” are further proof that you aren’t supposed to take this game seriously! If ever there was a game so completely designed to have you in hysterics at the game table (or, indeed, rolling around on the floor), it’s this one.

Smash Up

I was chuckling a bit too much when taking that photo above. I mean – alien ninjas! Steampunk killer plants! It’s all just entirely too whimsical – and I love it for it!

There’s not a lot else to say about the game, really. It’s just really, really fun, and definitely one of those games that will lighten the day after something gruelling like Horus Heresy or something. It’s pretty cheap to pick up on amazon, too, so you should really investigate! To persuade you further, here’s Wil Wheaton playing the game on his awesome show, Tabletop. Enjoy!


The dark lords are gathering, ancient powers are awakening, and a chill has fallen across the land. Now is a time of danger and rising evil. Now is a time of fear for the innocent and the helpless.

Now is a time for heroes!

Hey folks! Welcome to my latest gaming blog! Today’s entry is a very special one for me, because it’s one of my all-time favourite games ever made. It’s a fantasy adventure board game for 2-6 people who have way too much time on their hands – it’s Runebound!

First released all the way back in 2007 by Fantasy Flight Games, Runebound is a high fantasy adventure game where the players take on the role of heroes trying to rid the land of Terrinoth from the evil of the Dragon Lords. The worst of them all, High Lord Margath, has been returned to the land by the evil of the necromancer Lord Vorakesh, and it’s up to you to stop him!


The game is awesome. I first played it with the now-ex girlfriend in 2008, and was just bowled over by the amount of theme that comes out of it. The whole production is just fantastic, I cannot recommend it enough! The unfortunate thing is, however, it’s been out of print for a while now, leading to speculation that a third edition might be on the way (there was, way back when, an abortive first edition that didn’t make it past the first small expansion pack). If you can find a copy, PICK IT UP! And bask in its awesome!

(The thought occurs to me, now, that a lot of people probably won’t be able to find this game because of its rarity. I just want to say that this post isn’t meant to make people jealous, but rather act as a tribute to a game that I really, really love).

It’s a sign of just how much I love this game, I feel, that I actually own everything for it. Over the course of three years, a series of five big box expansions came out, alongside which came four sets of six smaller expansion packs, as seen above. The first set of these smaller boxes adds more items and allies you can purchase, the second adds more to the encounter decks, the third completely replaces the encounter decks, and the fourth are ‘character packs’ that bring even more of a RPG-element into the game, allowing you to level your chosen hero in all manner of ways.

So let’s take a look at this game.

Runebound Runebound

It’s an adventure board game, which means the hero character that you choose at the beginning travels around the board encountering various monsters, levelling up in order to encounter increasingly difficult monsters before the game is resolved by either beating the most difficult monster of all – High Lord Margath himself – or defeating three of the tough monsters. There are four encounter decks, with difficulty ranging from easy (green) to tough (red). As well as monsters, there are events that can either be good or bad, and encounters, which usually test one of your hero’s skills or act as a sort of mini-quest. The heroes all have three attributes: mind, body and spirit, which also act as combat stats (ranged, melee and magic, respectively). Heroes are usually good at one and not so good at the other two, to varying degrees. In addition, the hero has one or two particular skills which add bonuses to certain attributes during skill tests.

Truthseer Kel

The hero I’m playing above is Truthseer Kel, a promo hero not in the base game and for years one of the most difficult-to-find parts of the game. I’d wanted her for so long because of the absolutely amazing miniature. Anyway, the attributes are arrayed along the bottom of the card, with the larger number denoting the bonus to that attribute, and the smaller number the value of combat damage you inflict with that hero. In addition, there is a special effect at the top, and the skills in the middle. Kel’s life value is in the top right, and her exhaustion value underneath; heroes might be caused to take exhaustion which slows them down by making them roll less dice for movement.

Runebound dice

And what delightful dice they are, too! The icons represent the types of terrain your hero can enter on his turn; only one icon per die is chosen, and if you’re exhausted you roll one less per exhaustion counter. The icons for roads, plains and hills generally occur more often; the mountains and rivers, less often, and the swamps and forests, rarer sill. There are also nine town spaces on the board, the Free Cities of Terrinoth, and you can use any symbol on the dice to move into them. In towns, you get to heal, as well as buy items or the services of allies.


But how do you get the money to do this? Well, you get gold from defeating challenges. Most will give at least one gold, though as you scale up, and some will provide other benefits along the way. To defeat challenges, you must go through all three phases of combat, though you can yourself only attack in one of those phases (there are items that allow you to attack in two phases, however). For the other two phases, you must defend; either way, you roll two d10 dice and add your attribute value to the result – if you equal or exceed the challenge’s value, you succeed. If you fail, you take however many wounds the challenge dishes out. In the above picture, Vorakesh’s Necromancers only deal damage in the magic phase – as I’m also attacking in the magic phase, I get to make my attack but if I don’t succeed, I take the damage as if I’d failed to defend.


As it happened, I failed to defeat the Necromancers, and their damage equaled my life value, so I’m knocked out. I go to the nearest city and lie down, because I need to recover, obviously! The challenge card then goes along the top of the game board – the Undefeated Challenge track – and a marker is placed on the hex where that challenge is. In later turns, I can go back for revenge – which is exactly what I did!

As the game goes on, though, you get to buy stuff in the towns to help in your quest to defeat Margath. Items and allies range from the cheap, kinda-handy stuff to the more expensive, really useful stuff. It’s a good strategy to buy allies as soon as you can, because allies allow you to effectively attack in a second phase of combat. You can have a maximum of two allies (allowing you to attack in all three stages of combat), as well as two weapons (one in each hand) and one item of armour. Within the market stacks, however, there are also artifact items that don’t appear to count towards that limit. Such items include runes (given the game’s name, this might not be entirely unsurprising!), which do all manner of things, from buffing your attacks to healing you and your allies.

When I play Runebound, I usually like to play a magic user, just because that’s kinda my thing. When I’m doing this, there are certain cards that I will go after that can set up a tremendous chain of buffing my attacks, and have frequently allowed me to defeat really massive monsters in the ‘before combat’ phase (oh yeah, some cards have a ‘Before combat’ action, usually testing skills with adverse effects for failures that weaken you for the combat proper. However, there are also weapons and stuff that grant you Before combat actions too).


The above cards are all pretty awesome! Combined with certain allies, you can often guarantee victory in the easier challenges before you have to go through the fight round proper.


As a general rule, if you’re playing a magic user for instance, you don’t want an ally whose best combat value is his magic value. However, Runesmith Shan is an exception here because of his Before Combat ability, allowing you to make two magic attacks between the hero and the ally. However, as a magic user, you need to ensure you’ll actually live to see the magic phase. Unless you spend your time levelling up your other attributes to defend really well, you’ll want to get some allies. Cannon fodder allies are fine, but ones that do some real damage in either of the other two phases are the best. I’ve got Sir Loren here, but the best two – in my opinion – are these guys:


I also think Jirta the Fierce is worth having as an ally simply because of her little quote there…

So what’s all this about levelling up? Well. You may have noticed that the game board is littered with little cardboard tokens? These are the adventure counters, and show a space where you will encounter something. When you end your movement on one of these, you draw the appropriate colour of encounter card and go through the combat stuff as outlined earlier. If you succeed, in addition to the loot, you get to take that counter, and flip it over, where it becomes your experience point total from the encounter. Some of the earlier pictures show Truthseer Kel with such tokens. When you get five XP, you can choose one of your attributes, or your life or exhaustion values, and take a corresponding token to level them up. (If you increase your life value by 1, you can no longer take on green challenges; increase it by two, and both green and yellow challenges are off-limits, etc). Runebound has been highly criticised in the past for this levelling mechanic, as it allows you to buff all of your attributes until you’re essentially generic. Furthermore, there’s no real in-built timer mechanism in the game, so you can essentially go through hours taking on green and yellow challenges, and levelling until all of your attributes are +20 or something, then just decimate the red deck and win.

However, I have mentioned in the past (I think) being a theme-player, and personally I like to level only once or twice in the subsidiary attributes, focusing my main objective on increasing my main attribute. If I’m going to be a magic user, I’m gonna be one kickass wizard!

So you go through the green to the yellow challenges…


…and from the yellow to the blue challenges…


…until you’re ready to take on the red challenges…


…and once there have been three red Dragon Lords – or Margath himself – defeated, the game ends!

It’s an excellent game, the high fantasy setting and theme are just amazing. While it says it’s for 2-6 players, it is entirely possible to solo this game because, basically, it’s a race game. While there are rules for PvP combat, most players will be focused on the task at hand and attacking other players is largely unnecessary. As such, perhaps the greatest criticism of the game is the amount of downtime between turns. Two people playing is usually fine, three is possibly the biggest number you’ll ever want to play with. Simply because you take your entire turn in one go, so you move, you encounter etc without the other players doing anything. The more people you play with, the longer you’ll have to wait for your next turn, and it can make it quite boring. I played it once with four people and we quickly ended it by going for the higher coloured adventures just because it was dragging on so much. While a solo game might sound a bit dull, I have to say I find it really immersive, as you can really get into the RPG feel of the game, reading the flavour text on the cards, and really tell a story of your hero and the fight against Vorakesh and Margath. To this end, I have one or two house-rules to make the game more thematic, my particular favourite being that heroes can only level up in cities. Like they’ve gone there for training or something.


The expansions for Runebound all add so much more to the game. I feel like I want to write more blogs on each one, so I won’t go into vast detail here, but suffice it to say, they’re awesome! Each big box changes the location, so we have an island (with sea travel!), a desert, an ice world, and a jungle world. There is also the Midnight expansion, which is a sort of cross-over with the Midnight RPG setting – basically, evil has won, and you play sort of refugee heroes operating in the shadows. Of all the expansions, Midnight differs the most wildly, as it features one player against the others – the Night King. Consequently, it’s the most difficult to play solo, but I have done it a few times. There are all sorts of cool mechanics involved in this one, such as making sneak tests to get into the towns and whatnot. But like I said, I’ll probably cover each of these in future blogs, because I love them all so much!

Runebound is quite simply my go-to fantasy game. No matter how often I play it, I always enjoy myself – even when playing with just the base game, as I did in order to write this blog. It’s tremendous fun, I only hope we haven’t seen the end of the game yet!

Post script
Unfortunately, though, I feel that we have, in fact, seen the end of the Runebound game. For about two years now, people have been clamouring over on the official forums for a third edition, or just revised second edition. But I don’t really see anything happening there. Terrinoth is a Fantasy Flight Games creation, and they have set a number of their other games in the universe, notably Descent: Journeys in the Dark, but also Runewars, a sprawling war game; DungeonQuest, which has recently had a revised edition announcement; Rune Age, a deck building game that is another of my favourites, and most recently, BattleLore second edition. All of these games come emblazoned with ‘set in the Runebound universe’ on their boxes, but there has been no move to keep this ‘parent game’ in circulation.

Furthermore, the new second edition of Descent, which has been expanding at a rate of knots since it was released in July 2012, has significantly moved the setting away from the tales of Vorakesh and the Dragon Lords. While some enemies persist, Descent has shown us new evils that have arisen, notably Zachareth. Runewars and BattleLore have shown us that Terrinoth is now faction-based (resurrecting the Battle Mist game), rather than hero-centric, and it would be difficult to imagine where a new version of Runebound would fit.

Furthermore, in a more meta-based approach, games like Runebound have themselves begun to fade into legend. None of this subsequent paragraph is meant to sound elitist whatsoever, but unfortunately, it probably will anyway. In the past, it was quite common for “serious” board games like Runebound, or Arkham Horror, to last between 2 and 4 hours. In recent years, there is a distinct move towards quickening the pace of such games, perhaps as gaming has become increasingly mainstream and to entice new faces who might be scared off by being around a table with bits of card for so long. While Arkham Horror’s recently arrived sibling Eldritch Horror has, on paper, the same playing time as the elder game, I find it does in fact play significantly quicker than AH. Battlelore plays in half the time of Runebound, etc etc etc. Perhaps, then, reflecting a trend in general for people to be less inclined to focus on one activity for such a length of time, board games are also shrinking their playing times, but unfortunately there isn’t (to my mind) any way to shrink Runebound down without significantly altering the game so as to be virtually unrecognisable. Perhaps, then, it is this reason that is preventing a new edition from coming.

Hopefully I’ll be proven wrong, and there’ll be new Runebound for everyone to enjoy soon. It’s getting on for four years since there was last anything new for this game, though, and I do find it increasingly unlikely as time goes on.

Hm. I don’t want to end this post on such a downer. Runebound is awesome! If you can, play it now! It’s awesome! 🙂