Fantastic!

Hey everybody,
I thought it would be nice to end this week’s birthday celebrations with a look at how the future of the Harry Potter series is shaping up – even if that future is currently set firmly in the past. I’m talking, of course, about the Fantastic Beasts series of movies!

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them

Released back in 2016, the initial movie follows Newt Scamander as he travels to America as he attempts to release one of his fantastical beasts back into the wild. He runs into a problem when his case gets mistaken for one belonging to a Muggle (or No-Maj, as the Americans call them) and pandemonium ensues across 1920s New York, as Newt attempts to recover his lost magical creatures.

Along the way, we have a side story of the Director of Magical Security, Percival Graves, and his investigations into a powerful magical force within the city. The twist at the end of the movie is that this is none other than Gellert Grindelwald, the infamous Dark Wizard who believes in the superiority of wizardkind. Oh yeah, spoiler alert.

The first movie is a fun adventure, and without that little postscript at the end, would have been entirely fine as a standalone movie set within the wider Harry Potter universe. However, it turns out the movie is the first in a series – originally a trilogy, then projected to five films, which deals with the history of Grindelwald and culminating in the mythical duel with Dumbledore.

The second movie, The Crimes of Grindelwald, was released in 2018, and is perhaps a more focused movie than the first, in that the big baddie takes a more central role. The action has been relocated to Paris, with Grindelwald taking up residence with his disciples there as he attempts to track the powerful Obscurial, Credence. Newt is dispatched by none other than Dumbledore to try and get to Credence first. We get some inkling of the history of Dumbledore and Grindelwald, though a lot of it is implied from the stuff we know from Deathly Hallows.

This film has come under a lot of fire, from what I’ve seen – from the continued casting of Johnny Depp following accusations of spousal abuse, to the racial implications of Nagini as a Maledictus. Sometimes, I get the feeling that people are determined to not enjoy something on principal…

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them

At any rate, both my wife and I really enjoy these films for what they are, a continuation of the exploration of the wizarding world, which began back with the first Harry Potter novel in 1997. The fact that the world has been blown right open here, so that we’ve seen New York, Paris, and we’re promised next to travel to Rio de Janeiro, is just simply delightful, and while there are always goofy parts to these stories, let’s not forget how goofy the books could be. I mean, some of the descriptions of Dudley Dursley leap to mind at once as defying all sense.

I do feel that people sometimes are just not happy unless they’re casting shade over popular things – and I realise there’s an irony about that, coming from me writing on a blog where I often criticise stuff quite negatively! But where these films are concerned, a big part of me thinks there may be something more at play here.

The Harry Potter novels have a sense of wonder to them, as we learn about the wizarding world through the eyes of the title character, and share in that sense of wonder that he himself exhibits for the most part. There’s also something quite innocently charming as we do this through the eyes of a child. For the adults among us, there’s a wonderful air of nostalgia as we read these books, as we remember our own childhoods and school days, irrespective of when we came to the series.

With Fantastic Beasts, however, that’s not the point. The world is presented to us from the adult perspective from the get-go, so it doesn’t have that sense of childhood nostalgia and charm. The main characters are all fairly accomplished witches and wizards and so, rightly or wrongly, the films expect us to have some understanding of the world that they inhabit before we begin. Some exposition is given through the fact Newt befriends the No-Maj Jacob Kowalski, the man who took Newt’s briefcase, and therefore gives some background to what is going on. This film series expects more from us, but has so much more to offer in return. We shouldn’t go into this series expecting the same level of charm and enchantment as we get from the main seven-book series, else we’re sure to be a bit disappointed.

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them

As I said, though, the films aren’t without their flaws. I’m not a huge fan of Eddie Redmayne’s hunched, almost twitchy performance – I suppose it has something to do with him being an introvert? That’s nothing, however, to Ezra Miller as Credence, who seems to be trying to out-hunch Eddie, though added to that is a curiously wooden performance. Is he supposed to be trying to shrink out of the spotlight? Is it meant to convey (spoiler alert) the internalisation of his magical power as an Obscurial? Don’t know. He does get a bit better in the second movie, but still, I’m not a fan.

I’m also not big on the fact that (a) Dumbledore is teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts at Hogwarts (when he was said to be the Transfiguration professor prior to gaining the role of Headmaster) and (b) he uses almost exactly the same Boggart lesson during the flashback scenes that Lupin teaches in 1993. I’d got the impression, rightly or wrongly, that Lupin was quite an inventive teacher, and his methods were quietly unique; turns out, everybody gets a go with a Boggart as part of their magical education. I mean, that could be entirely possible, but it just irritated me a little bit!

But that’s no reason not to enjoy these movies. They take the magical framework that we’re used to from the Harry Potter books, and build upon it in new and interesting ways that are really pretty fascinating. There is a part of me that feels as though the final duel is going to be almost impossible to film satisfactorily, although we won’t have to worry about that for a while yet, given that production on the third movie has stalled due to the coronavirus lockdown. More than anything, though, I think it’s just really cool to travel the magical world, and see things that would never have been possible to see in a series set at Hogwarts.

Harry Potter and the Pillar of Storgé

Hey everybody!
Today, I thought it would be fun to go back through the archives and look at some of the crazy fan theories that were doing the rounds during the time the Harry Potter novels were being published. I think I was most aware of these during the period between books five and six, and immediately after six, when we were beginning to learn more and more about the history of the universe, and the various plot threads were starting to be wound together.

Back then, we had some wonderful ideas being expounded over on the MuggleNet forums and editorials, and I would look forward to seeing what people had been thinking up for the way the series could work.

There were loads of theories written down back in the day, as people talked about all of the different nuances of the series, trying to glean anything and everything from the smallest details – I remember one editorial in particular that talked about the significance of toast throughout the series, and reading all manner into what the presence of toast versus toast-with-extras could mean.

Of course, once book five hit the shelves, the main focus was down to the prophecy, and how the final confrontation could go, given that we have almost a confirmation that Harry would be taking part in a fight to the death with Voldemort.

My own theory at the time (well, June 2006) was centred on the psychological idea of Lord Voldemort being a mask for Tom Riddle, and the possibility that Harry would defeat Voldemort by, essentially, redeeming Tom Riddle, which would allow the mask of Voldemort to shatter and be destroyed. I suppose I was planting too much of my Star Wars knowledge on to the series, and imagining a scene much like Luke’s redemption of his father, and bringing Anakin Skywalker back from under the mask of Darth Vader, though with the transformation killing the host. I find it an interesting idea, even now, and I find it quite appealing in a small way. It’s cheesy as hell, of course, but then Harry Potter is one of these “Pure Fool” stories, which are cheesy as hell almost by definition.

I’d always hoped that we’d get to learn more about Harry’s mum than we got to – even with book six showing us her potions prowess. Much like Lupin in the third book, I’d hoped that we’d get a link to Harry’s parents that would show us more about Lily. I mean, one of the few things we know about her is that her wand was good for charm work. I remember wondering quite intensely if she had been the one to cast the Fidelius charm in Godric’s Hollow, and how all of that would interact once we went there in the seventh book. As it turned out, it was sort of unimportant, but anyway!

I think this comes back to the point from earlier in the week, about the depth of the story that we have here leading us to look deeper and deeper still into the background. There is just so much going on in these books, and there are so many tiny details, some of which (such as Sirius Black’s motorcycle from book one) later became such huge plot points, that it led to an entire fan industry of going through the extant novels with a fine tooth-comb, hoping to dredge up some major spoiler for the finale that had been planted earlier.

Remember Mark Evans?

At any rate, the sheer breadth of fan theories, however wild they were, just goes to show how successful this book series was. It had us all talking about it. It had us all theorising about it. It got under our skins, and into our souls.

What other series of books can say the same?

Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle

Hey everybody!
Today is my blog’s sixth birthday – can you believe it?! It’s also game day, so we’re going to be taking a look at the Harry Potter deck-building game from The OP (formerly USAopoly), Hogwarts Battle!

This came out a few years ago now, and I got it for my wife back in 2018 for a birthday present, a little apprehensive as I know deck building games can be a little difficult to get into. Of course, time was I had a plethora of the things, from Dominion through to Marvel Legendary and Thunderstone. Comparisons will be made with several of these as we go through, inevitably!

The game is quite straightforward, really – the core game is for four players, each of whom takes the role of Harry, Ron, Hermione or Neville. There have been expansions that bring both Luna and Ginny in as playable characters, but we won’t be getting to these in this blog.

It is quite cleverly structured over seven “years”, marking each of the seven school years that each book covers. Each hero comes with a starting deck of ten cards, including the currency cards (the currency of the game is called ‘influence’) as well as some special cards that give you an idea for how you might like to take the construction of that hero’s deck. For example, Ron has the ‘Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavour Beans’ card that rewards you for playing Ally cards, so maybe you’ll want to buy some Ally cards from the market.

The market contains these Allies, as well as Magical Items and Spells. There’s no real rhyme or reason to how these cards work – some Spells will allow you to gain attacks, others will give you influence, while others still might let you draw cards. The same is true of the Items and Allies, as well. From game four onwards, there are also dice involved – more shortly – and the ability to roll these dice comes across a variety of cards, also.

But what’s the point of the game, I hear you cry?

There are a series of Villains that need to be overcome by our intrepid heroes, each themed around the point in the story in which they appear for the first time (although there are, of course, exceptions). For instance, in Game One, the enemies are Draco Malfoy, Crabbe & Goyle, and Professor Quirrell. Once Lord Voldemort has made his return, he forms a kind of boss villain for the heroes to overcome, and more Villains are revealed from the deck to attack the heroes through their various means. For instance, in the photo above, we see Fenrir Greyback prevents heroes from healing themselves, which is quite the horrendous effect when you have other Villains, like the Dementors or Quirrell, who cause you to lose health each turn.

In addition, there are Dark Arts cards that get flipped over at the start of each turn. These are basically the game’s way to fight back on a more interactive level – the Villains might be quite passive or situational, allowing turns where they actually don’t have any negative effect on the heroes’ progress. The Dark Arts event cards, therefore, ensure that something will always happen to affect the gameplay.

Finally, there is the Location deck, which shows both how many of these Dark Arts events to draw each turn, as well as tracking the Villains’ progress towards defeating the Heroes. See, when Heroes are reduced to 0 health points, they are merely Stunned – discard half of your hand, rounded down, and then at the end of the turn, reset your health to 10 and continue. Hardly the most grievous of effects! However, the Locations provide something of a clock for the game, making sure that things don’t fall into that holding pattern. As the Villains place more progress markers on these Locations, showing the influence they’re gaining over the wizarding world, more Dark Arts events will be drawn, causing more pain and suffering for the Heroes.

So that, in a nutshell, is the game!

It’s very similar to the DC deck-building game, I feel, in that you have a deck of villains to defeat (although DC brings them out one at a time). However, it isn’t really like any of the other deck-builders that I’ve played, as there are a variety of things that make it fairly unique. For starters, the starting deck each hero has includes more than just basic cards – sure, some of the cards, like each hero’s pet, feel a little basic in their effects, but the starting deck of ten cards covers much more than the basic ‘attack and currency’ style. I really like the fact that these decks provide that sort of base for how you might like to take the deck as you purchase cards for it, too.

The “Year” structure is also something that I really like. When I first opened the box, I had the idea that it might be a game along the lines of these Legacy-style games that started with Pandemic back in the day, giving additional content that is added in depending on what happens within the game. Well, that’s not entirely untrue, of course, though it isn’t quite so “secret envelope” style here – instead, you basically get a base game and all six expansions for it in one box, and you grow the game a little more organically than perhaps some of these Legacy games have it.

Something that I particularly like is how the heroes change over the course of the game, and also the extra gubbins that get thrown into the mix along the way.

As you move up the series of games, your hero “levels-up” twice, at Game Three, and then again at Game Seven. When you begin, you just have your hero; then with Game Three your hero has an effect that will trigger when something happens – for example, Hermione can choose for any one hero to gain one influence when she plays four or more spells. For Game Seven, that ability changes from “any one hero” to “all heroes”.

In addition, in Game Six you get to choose one “Proficiency” that gives your hero more in the way of choices – a second, always-on ability. In the previous picture, we can see that Hermione has chosen the Arithmancy Proficiency, which allows her to interact with cards that make use of four House Dice. These dice make their appearance in Game Four, which is something of a mid-point both in terms of the series as a whole, and the complexity of the game here. We get four dice that give bonuses to all heroes such as giving extra attacks, extra resources, drawing cards or healing. However, some of the Villains and the Dark Arts events make use of the Slytherin die (the one that has more attacks on it), with negative results for the heroes.

These dice are also instrumental in the final battle, as Horcrux cards are introduced. In Games Five and Six, Voldemort is the final Villain to be defeated, with the single caveat that you must have defeated all of the other Villains first. For Game Seven though, you must also destroy the six Horcruxes – that is, roll a House Die and, rather than apply its effect, use it to place a marker on the Horcrux card. These cannot simply be ignored, however, as they also have always-on effects that will often trigger along with the Villains and the Dark Arts events – meaning that, on your turn, it is quite possible that you can go from full health to 0 due to the accumulated horrors of the Dark Side!

It all builds up quite nicely as things progress, although you don’t get to keep the deck that you’ve built up over the course of an entire “campaign” – with the start of each Game/Year, you re-set back to your starting ten, although this isn’t all that much of a handicap when you take account of the fact your hero card has leveled-up by Game Seven, and you also have the Proficiency from Game Six.


For Potterheads, this game is wonderfully thematic, with a lot of cards that kinda make sense when you think about what they do. ‘Expecto Patronum’, for instance, allows you to push the Villains back by removing their progress from the current Location, as well as granting you additional attacks. ‘Lumos’ allows you to draw cards, etc etc. A lot of the moving parts of the game, particularly on the Villains’ side of things, work really well together, too – a shining example of this is Lucius and Draco Malfoy, who interact with the Location cards in a nightmarish fashion. Adding Barty Crouch Jnr into the mix, who prevents progress tokens from being removed from the Location, can cause all manner of problems for the heroes!

However, the game is not without its flaws. For starters, there is no way to thin out your deck, which is a staple of pretty much every deck-builder I’ve played. Being able to cull the basic cards from your deck when you’ve managed to build it up is quite important, but even when you’re playing in Game Seven, and you’re up against Lord Voldemort himself for the final time, there is still the chance that you might draw a hand of five ‘Alohomora’s, which is just a pain in the rear at such a critical point!

There are also no “always on” cards. DC has “kicks”, and Legendary has “Maria Hill”s, where you can (usually) always buy at least one standby card that isn’t really part of the main market. The potential for heroes to be locked out of the market by seeing very high-cost cards very early on is definitely there, and there have been many points where we’ve ended up buying chaff cards simply because they’re the only ones we can afford, or to clear them out of the market stack. I think the game designer has suggested a fix whereby you skip your turn (that is, you don’t purchase anything or assign any damage) and you can wipe the market clear or something. But I’m never really a fan of these kinds of after-thoughts!

There are also a lot of promo cards out there. I’ve talked about my aversion to such cards before, but I find it quite strange when a game like this has promo cards that feature fairly significant characters – the Dursleys and Seamus aren’t top-tier characters, don’t get me wrong, but they’re characters that appear in every novel; I’d have thought therefore that they would be in the main game. Of course, there’s also the issue of the effects these cards have on the game, and a spell like ‘Silencio’ is massive for it to have been left as a promo. This is a co-operative game, for sure, and the idea of there being “chase rares” or something is quite bizarre, but for completionists such as myself, it does feel a little irksome that these cards are out there in the wild!


But the issue of promos shouldn’t, and doesn’t overshadow what is otherwise a really fun gaming experience. There’s a lot to enjoy here, from the straightforward deck-building experience, to the way the game builds up from year one through to seven. I think more than anything, though, I enjoy this game so much because it brings my wife, who is not a gamer, to the gaming table with me, and we can spend the entire evening going through each year and having so much fun. Definitely a winner in my book!

Harry Potter

Hey everybody,
So for my blog’s birthday week this year, we’re exploring the wizarding world of Harry Potter, that magnificent series of seven books by JK Rowling that has held so many of us enthralled since the late 90s. With 500 million copies sold, the Harry Potter series is the most successful book series of all time, with the first book in the series clocking in at 120 million copies alone.

Where the hell do I begin with this?! The series needs no introduction, that’s for sure – and I’m not even going to try to provide one! I’m going to proceed with the assumption that anybody reading this is familiar with the story and the characters, as otherwise I’d probably be here all week on this one blog…

The story follows the put-upon orphan Harry Potter, as we move from his life full of drudgery with his aunt and uncle, through his discovery that he is, in fact, a wizard, and the start of his life at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. In the wizarding world, Harry is quite the celebrity, as the one who caused the downfall of the Dark wizard Lord Voldemort when he was only one year old. Nobody knows quite how that happened, though Harry was left with a lightning-bolt shaped scar on his forehead.

As we follow Harry’s discovery of the world he previously knew nothing about, we learn about the world at the same pace Harry does. Critically, the story is told from Harry’s point of view almost exclusively, allowing certain information to be kept from us until necessary. Most importantly, we don’t understand what it means that Harry has that peculiar scar on his forehead until we get to the final book of the series.

Along the way, though, we learn about the magical world and encounter some of the many peculiarities. One of the most entertaining aspects of the series is comparing and contrasting the magical world with our own, and seeing all of the various substitutes for things that wizards have come up with. A lot of this is shown to us through Harry’s best friend Ron Weasley, who comes from a long line of wizards. As a native to the world, we’re guided through a lot of the more mundane aspects of life at Hogwarts through him. The pair are also friends with Hermione Granger, who was born to non-magical parents but has read every scrap of information that she can find about magic, providing another vector for information to us, the reader.

However, learning about the magical world in general comes somewhat secondary to learning about the mystery surrounding Harry’s life, and the events surrounding his parents’ deaths. As the series develops, we get more information, building up an irresistible puzzle that is only finally solved at the conclusion of the series. Additionally, the series is notable for growing at a pace with its audience, so the 11-year-old who picked up the first book would have matured into an adult by the time of the seventh book, and the storyline grows correspondingly darker and more mature as a result.

Harry Potter

The first three books, while getting progressively darker, nevertheless have something of a lighthearted tone as they start out. I think it’s quite clear to see that, despite the quite fearsome imagery that is described, say, during the Forbidden Forest or the final encounter with Professor Quirrell, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a children’s book. The story is fairly timeless, as we follow this neglected child in his Cinderella-like transformation into a famous wizard, and see him move from a miserable existence to actually enjoying himself and his life among the wizarding community. It’s quite light-hearted, full of gloriously British humour, with bags of adventure and excitement thrown in. While it quite obviously is part of something larger, it’s also one of the more satisfyingly-complete stories in the whole saga.

As can be expected, book two then begins to delve a little bit deeper into the wizarding world, as we see the dark underbelly of things like House Elves, and begin to explore the more shady side of life when we learn about the so-called purity of magical blood. Turns out, the magical community is a lot more bigoted and prejudiced than the first book would have us believe. Of course, there’s still plenty of humour along the way, and despite it all, there’s still a happy ending.

To my mind, it isn’t until the oppressive atmosphere of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that we begin to feel like this isn’t a series of books that is meant purely for children. We still get the comical descriptions of the Dursleys, and plenty more besides, but this is the story where things begin to turn a little dark. The Dementors being physical manifestations of depression is quite a chilling idea, and having these hooded figures with rotting flesh gliding around the school as protection against the notorious mass-murderer Sirius Black leads to quite a grim picture. However, this book is also my absolute favourite of the series. Harry learns so much about his own past, and there’s more than just that abstract sense of “I’m a wizard, I belong here” – instead, Harry feels that pull in the same way that we do, being by now quite invested in the series. Having that connection to his past, first with Lupin, and then with Sirius, it’s the first time that I think we get the sense of really feeling quite at home in this alternative world.

Harry Potter

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire begins to change everything. It blows the landscape open by introducing the concept of magical education outside of Hogwarts, to say nothing of providing the central turning point of the series by seeing the return of Lord Voldemort to a physical body. The books kept getting longer, and book five is by far the longest of the series. Continuing the theme of expanding the wizarding world outside of one London street and a boarding school, we get to visit both the main centre of magical healing in the UK, and the Ministry of Magic itself. Even book four managed to confine itself, for the majority of the story, to the school; I could be wrong, but I do believe that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix has more of its action take place outside of Hogwarts than does within those walls. The storyline, by this point, has gotten pretty huge, but at the same time, we begin to get some significant answers to questions that have been in the background for a while now. While, after five books, A Song of Ice and Fire has gotten so unwieldy as to be ridiculous, Rowling manages here to both refine the story that she’s telling while allowing it that expansion room – the result is nothing short of spectacular, and it continually baffles me how people can say these books are no good.

Harry Potter

The final pair of books feel, somehow, the most adult of the series. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince shows our intrepid hero engaging in some fairly heavy stuff at this point, as Dumbledore begins to really hone him into the weapon that he needs him to be. We also continue that theme of getting answers, as we learn a great deal about Lord Voldemort’s past in an effort to find his weaknesses. We’ve now had six books that have managed to tell a phenomenally detailed, well-constructed and, to top it all, thrilling adventure story that proves, at this point, to basically be one long story split across six books.

If it can be said that the wheels came off this story anywhere, I feel that it is with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Up to this point, as I said, the story is wonderfully linear, despite its epic scope, and you can look back from book six and see quite clearly how things weren’t so much set up, but have just come to be, with a sort of realistic inevitability that is the envy of any author seeking to produce a series of books like this. But then we have the final book, and right away we’re thrown into a story where wandlore is suddenly much more important than we have been given to believe, and an in-universe fairy story is almost the crux of the whole plot.

Now, I’m not trying to say that I dislike book seven – despite it having almost a completely different feeling to it, and there being some ropey parts in the middle where the plot slows down as the heroes try to decide what their first move ought to be, it still manages to provide quite a good closure to the previous six books. I just find myself wishing that we’d been better-prepared for it, somehow, you know? If only Ron had had some cause to compare an adventure to “one of those old Beedle stories”, or if Ollivander had expounded a little more on “the wand chooses the wizard”. It would have helped, I feel, these elements to have felt a little less like they’re tacked-on as a plot device to bring about the resolution to the series.

We do get some element of the importance of wands during the fourth book, when we learn that brother wands will refuse to fight one another. We also know that both Ron and Neville never had much luck with their hand-me-down wands. But the whole thing about ownership and allegiance seems a little too out-of-the-blue somehow. If only Ollivander had said, back in his shop, something along the lines of “your wand will give you its allegiance, though it can switch that allegiance if lost in battle”. I don’t know, but something… The fact that wand lore is so important in the final battle just feels too abrupt, and – dare I say – convenient.

I should hasten to say, however, that I don’t think the ideas of wand lore, or the Beedle stories, are bad. I just think we ought to have had some hint sooner. The idea of horcruxes was given to us in book two, after all – we just didn’t recognise it for what it was. Having merely “the wand chooses the wizard” being the setup for the finale just needs to have been further explored beforehand, in my view, for it to not feel tacked-on.

But hey, I’m just a guy on the internet…

I feel as though I’m beginning to sound too harsh here. The problem, for me, is that the story has been so well-crafted, with such believable characters, and such a phenomenal sense of realism that, perhaps inevitably, we have come to expect such great things from it. The laws of this magical universe have always allowed for things to make sense, as much as you can say a work of fantasy can do so. The plot, while not obvious from the outset, makes sense when you look back on it from the conclusion.

Harry Potter

I’ve read these books so often now, they’re really very much like old friends to me, and re-reading them always feels like something of an event for me. The first five books feel as well-known as the back of my hand, whereas the final two, being a little more recently published, are a little fresher to me. Being so familiar with the storyline, I enjoy reading the books to revel in the details, and ponder all manner of what-if situations – something that tends to rankle with my wife, who is herself a much bigger fan of the franchise than I am! I suppose it’s a problem with the richness of the universe JK Rowling has produced, though – with this much depth, the questions get correspondingly more in-depth. I mean, do Scottish students attending Hogwarts really need to travel to King’s Cross to take the train to Scotland?

I’m just so much of a fan of these books, that I suppose it’s inevitable that I’ll end up picking on these tiny details, and wanting to know more!

Harry Potter!

Hey everybody,
It’s Birthday Week here at spalanz.com, and this week is devoted to that beloved franchise all about the wizarding world, which has captured the hearts and minds of millions of people, young and old, across the globe. Taking off after the first novel was published way back in 1997, it has proven to be more than just an international hit – it’s a force of nature!

Harry Potter novels

I first came to the franchise at Easter 2003, when my folks bought the second film. I don’t honestly remember if I’d watched the first one when it came out, but the folks were having a back-to-back screening in the living room, so I thought I’d see what the fuss was all about. Up to this point, the most contact that I’d had with the series was to read the opening paragraph of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in the local Woolworths, and my cynical, teenage hipster self had dismissed it as “kid stuff”.

Well, questionable child acting aside, I actually really enjoyed the films, once I’d gotten into them. There was still an element of teenage cynicism about me, though, so when I decided to read the third book, and see what happened next, I felt as though I had to almost hide this fact from the wider world!

That Easter break, I read and re-read all four of the books that had then been published, thoroughly enjoying myself and the unbelievable immersion the books offer. I was hooked!

This week, I’ll be taking a look, as ever, at a related game, but my focus will firmly rest on the books. As well as offering my thoughts on this beloved series, I thought it might also be fun to go back through some of the fan theories that did the rounds, and we’ll try to briefly look at the new film series, Fantastic Beasts!

Stay tuned!

Hellboy (2004)

It’s time for Birthday Week to go to the movies! Continuing my obsessive look at all things Hellboy this week, I thought it high time I took a look at the movie that, for me, started it all. Of course, the comics pre-date the movie by more than a decade, but I wasn’t familiar with them before seeing Big Red in action here…

Hellboy (2004)

The movie is basically the origin story of Hellboy, picking out a lot of the threads that we see in the comics, and building on the Seed of Destruction storyline to give a satisfying main story overall.

We start with the Tarmagant Island incident in 1944, with Rasputin opening a portal and bringing forth Hellboy from another dimension, then we fast-forward to the modern day and the BPRD, with a new recruit John T Myers joining the team to work as Hellboy’s liaison. Very quickly, the action moves to a museum break-in where an ancient daemon known as Sammael has been awakened by Rasputin and his disciples, Ilsa and Kroenen. Sammael goes on a rampage, and while the Bureau believe it to have been killed, in actual fact two more have been birthed from its carcass, thanks to Rasputin’s curse of multiplicity.

Myers works to bring Liz back to the team, as she had previously left due to mistrusting her own powers of pyrokinesis. The team are sent into the sewers to attempt to destroy the Sammael eggs, and while most of the agents that accompany them are killed, they also manage to capture Kroenen. In reality, Kroenen had given himself up by feigning death and, once inside the Bureau, manages to kill Professor Bruttenholm. The Bureau is taken over by FBI agent Tom Manning, who directs a mission to Moscow to end the Sammael threat and, hopefully, that of Rasputin and his followers.

In Moscow, the team tracks down the nest in Rasputin’s mausoleum, and while Liz manages to incinerate the eggs, they are captured. Rasputin sucks out Liz’s soul from her body, and uses it to cause Hellboy to use his stone right hand to awaken the Ogdru-Jahad and bring about the apocalypse. Myers manages to reach out to Hellboy, however, reminding him that Bruttenholm raised him to defy his destiny and choose his own path. Hellboy stabs Rasputin, whose death throes release a tentacled monster that Hellboy manages to defeat by detonating a belt of grenades inside the beast.

Hellboy (2004)

For me, this movie really encapsulates the feeling of Hellboy from the comics. We’ve got the half-demon wandering about in graveyards and reanimating corpses, we’ve got him hunting disgusting daemon creatures – it’s really fantastic. While Ron Perlman does steal the show as the titular character, Doug Jones as Abe Sapien, and Selma Blair as Liz Sherman, also have their parts to play – though due to going through the backstory, I think Liz is definitely the more short-changed of the two. John Hurt’s Professor Bruttenholm lends a dignified presence to the movie, though I think it’s really the villains that provide so much of the enjoyment here.

Hellboy (2004)

Rasputin is quite the character, and Karel Roden’s performance is quite chilling at times, especially when he’s in his suit doing his puppet-master routine. Ladislav Beran as Kroenen is a whole different kettle of fish, though – creepy doesn’t even begin to cover it. Beran has a fluid grace that really sets your teeth on edge, and when he’s gliding down those stairs in Bruttenholm’s office… urgh, gives me chills to just think about it!

Hellboy (2004)

Kroenen is definitely the character that benefits the most from his movie incarnation. Everybody comes over from the page to the screen fairly similarly, but for Rasputin’s lieutenant, we have a sort of amalgamation of a couple of the comic book characters. He’s part Nazi scientist, with his surgical compulsion and all, and an expert assassin – a less-mad Red Skull, I suppose. He’s the embodiment of almost the entire Nazi scientist enclave that exists within the comics, and I love how del Toro has managed to distill so much down into the character. Truly wonderful.

Something should also be said for the way the story is handled. It is often said that this movie takes Seed of Destruction as its starting point, but the Sammael threat is so far removed from that of the frog monsters that I don’t really think we can talk about them together. The story is an original one that nevertheless takes the essence of the comic book story and makes it work.

Hellboy (2004)

I’ve not seen the new movie, but while this one exists, I don’t think there’s a need for it. I’ve read the film was a flop, which is a shame, as I think the Hellboy universe really would benefit from a big screen showing, branching off into the BPRD proper and all, but part of me wonders if this failure might then allow for del Toro and Perlman to come back for the Hellboy 3 that we’ve heard teased over the years?

Hellboy: part two

Hey everybody!
It’s still birthday week here at spalanz.com, and all week I’ve been rambling about Hellboy in my own, inimitable style! Today sees a return to the comics that started it all, as I turn my gaze onto the third and fourth books in the trade paperback series!

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Unlike the first two, these books are basically short story collections, bringing together one or two-issue books into the trade paperback format. The stories span a wide expanse of both releases and also points on the Hellboy timeline, with escapades from the 1950s right up to the 1990s, in-universe. They’re a mixed bag, ranging from the two-page Pancakes right up to such monumental stories as Box Full of Evil. I’m not going to attempt to cover all of the stories contained in the books, but instead touch on a couple of what I consider my favourites…

The Chained Coffin & Others collects seven stories, of which we have Mignola’s favourite, The Corpse, as well as three fairly substantial stories that have a long reach throughout the lore. The titular Chained Coffin story tells something of the origin of Hellboy as a half-daemon, following Hellboy as he returns to the ruined church in East Bromwich where he first appeared in 1944. He has a dream of a woman recanting on her deathbed her sins of being a witch, only for her soul to be claimed by the daemon Azzael who then turns to Hellboy, calling him “my favourite son”. It’s quite a short one, but we learn a bit more about Big Red’s ancestry, so definitely worth a mention!

the wolves of saint august

The Wolves of Saint August is a werewolf story that has a bit of a creepy feel to it, but then I suppose that’s true of most of these stories! There is a very definite sense of atmosphere in the tale, as we follow Hellboy and Kate Corrigan as they investigate an abandoned village in the Balkans. It’s really very creepy and atmospheric, and well worth the read to see how the tale unfolds for itself! Finally, Almost Colossus follows on from the events of Wake the Devil, as we see the homunculus from Czerge Castle run amok with Liz Sherman’s powers. The team track it down in order to restore Liz’s powers, as the homunculus has been sapping her will to live. We get a bit of backstory on the whole thing, and the hilarity of the fact that Hellboy names the chap Roger… anyway!

The Right Hand of Doom is a similar collection, bringing eight stories together in roughly chronological order, starting with the two-page Pancakes story and building up from there. There are plenty of short tales that often feel more like vignettes from the universe, as we see a lot of stuff breeze by like the Japanese floating-heads story, the St Leonard’s Wyrm story, and the Vârcolac story. They’re stories that were written for much larger collections, and serve in their original outing to give a sense for what Hellboy is all about. Reading them in this format doesn’t really work, for me, as they all just feel a bit like throwaway adventures that don’t feel like they add too much to the overall storyline, as much as any such thing can be said to exist in this sense.

right hand of doom

The final two stories, however, are a bit more meaty. The Right Hand of Doom does go someway to address the existence of Hellboy’s stone right hand, though it is yet another account of Hellboy’s history up to this point, as Hellboy explains his story to the son of Malcolm Frost (one of the three paranormal investigators present in East Bromwich on the night Hellboy first came to earth). Not an origin story per se, but certainly hitting all of the story points that we’re by now familiar with.

Box Full of Evil is the final story, and finally we get Hellboy and Abe reunited for an adventure! The two are investigating the strange reappearance of Igor Bromhead after his release from prison. Bromhead, using a hand of glory, has broken into an English mansion and removed a small box and a set of tongs, which the two BPRD agents immediately realise have links to the legend of St Dunstan, who is said to have trapped Satan in a box. Bromhead releases the devil, taking the form of the daemon Ualac, and when Hellboy arrives, his destiny to bring about armageddon is once again addressed. The story is really quite involved, and feels like it has a lot more substance to it than the others that appear in the volume, so was definitely a fitting finale!


I think I definitely prefer my Hellboy stories to be longer tales than the sort of one-shot stories we have collected in these two books! That’s not to say that they’re bad, per se, it’s just a lot more satisfying to read a fairly meaty story that can bring the full depth of Mignola’s talent for weaving folklore and myth into his universe. Wake the Devil is the archetypal story at this point in the lore, and I feel like most of these other tales are merely background.

Nevertheless, I enjoy seeing Hellboy taking part in an adventure that manages to pull together one or two elements of folklore and superstition, and it all helps to add to the character overall.

I think it’s quite informative to fans of the board game to read these stories, as they go a long way to explaining a lot of the enemy miniatures that have been included there. I must admit to feeling a bit puzzled when they revealed minis for things like the monkey with a gun, or St Leonard’s Wyrm, as they’re hardly the more important aspects of the Hellboy mythos. However, as I said in my blog about the game, the Hellboy comics are – largely – made up of these sorts of vignettes and short tales that feature Hellboy going up against some aspect of folklore or myth, which is why the modular design of the game and its one-shot-style play fit so well. If you read the comics, you realise that this isn’t really a campaign, but instead a series of standalone adventures with a rough chronology that can, on the whole, be enjoyed by themselves.

They’re definitely worth a read, anyway!!

Hellboy: The Board Game

Hellboy the board game

It’s birthday week, and it’s Hellboy week, so it’s only right for this week’s game day to take a look at the recently arrived behemoth of a board game! It’s Hellboy the board game from Mantic Games!

Originally touted on Kickstarter almost exactly a year ago, the game smashed through its £100k funding goal, eventually getting to almost £1.5million during the funding period. Ironically, of course, this isn’t really that impressive for Kickstarters these days, though I suppose for a licensed product from an established company, it is fairly standard. Designed by James Hewitt, the brains behind none other than the recent Necromunda Underhive from Games Workshop, the game is basically a dungeon crawl, with the heroes going through a series of encounters with enemy minions as they make their way through the board towards the final boss enemy. Pretty standard fare, I’m sure you’ll agree. The system is pretty straightforward as well, without anything as complex as the classic dungeon crawler Descent.

Hellboy the board game

The game begins with the Agent phase, where each hero gets the chance to make three activations. It’s a co-op game, so you can mix and match just how you make these activations – if you’ve got a better explorer character, they might be the best choice to look into a room, before the heavy hitter can then wade into the fray and start punching things.

Once the Agents have had a go, there is the Doom phase, where the Deck of Doom advances (basically the game’s version of an AI, responding slightly to the hero actions) and the Impending Doom marker advances – this can trigger the end confrontation with the enemy boss, so acts as a bit of a timer for you.

After cleanup, the new round begins with the Enemy phase, where any enemy minions on the board get to do stuff based on a keyword activation system. The whole thing is fairly slick, and there is a tutorial game included in the box to run you through the process to get started. I’ve played the tutorial twice now, and think I’ve got a fairly decent grasp of how things go as a result.

Hellboy the board game

The game isn’t really designed as a campaign system, but more as pretty much a traditional board game – you sit down, you play, you pack it all away. There are four Agents included in the game (a whole lot more in the Kickstarter edition, though I believe the game currently only supports four-player tops), each Agent coming with two Starting Gear cards. You also get to choose a piece of kit that might come in handy from the Requisition deck – each card has a cost (such as the Warding Talisman, above, costing 3), and depending on how many Agents are on the trip, you get a budget to spend on these cards. It’s fairly thematic without being overly complex. However, as far as customization options go, that’s pretty much it.

It’s worth noting, as well, that Agents can only shoot if they have a ranged weapon card, whereas they can usually always make a melee attack due to having fists or whatever. It’s something that I felt wasn’t entirely clear in the rules, and while it probably won’t always come up, you may find yourself trying to shoot with an Agent who actually can’t do so.

Hellboy the board game

The game leads up to a Confrontation, usually with the big bad guy of the scenario you’re playing – in the tutorial game, that’s the Giant Frog Monster. These chaps are quite beastly, but with some lucky dice rolling, I’ve managed to survive fairly easily. I think this is probably due to the dice mechanic of the game.

During the course of the game, you get the opportunity to examine clues, which will in turn allow you to advance the Information Gathered track. This track also contains tokens at specific points – if the track is advanced beyond these points, you collect the tokens which, during the Confrontation, allow you to upgrade dice you roll when attacking the boss. The dice system is probably the most unique thing about the game that I’ve come across. On the agent sheet shown earlier, there are four skills shown in colour-coded blocks in the top-left corner. Hellboy has a melee characteristic of red, a ranged characteristic of yellow, and both examine and defense characteristics of orange. The dice system runs from yellow dice (worst) through orange (medium) to red (best), with black dice for super-best. When making a test, you roll three coloured dice plus the blue effect die – this die can be brilliant for you, doubling the highest-scoring die result, or removing it, and all sorts in between. It’s really quite a cool mechanic, and all sorts of in-game effects can improve or reduce your dice efficacy, such as having monsters in the same board area as you, etc.

Having two information gathered tokens during the Confrontation meant that Hellboy was punching the Giant Frog Monster with two black and one red dice, however, and during my second game with Hellboy and Johan, I made some spectacular rolls for both of them, meaning that, even though Johan was nearly dead (well, dead-er), I was able to defeat the monster after only a single activation of the big bad guy.

Hellboy the board game

The miniatures are pretty decent for gaming pieces. Since I became a Warhammer nerd, I’ve become super critical of these things, but even the plastic pieces are really quite nicely detailed, overall. I didn’t get the resin miniatures, but I’d imagine they’re even more detailed.

The Kickstarter box is an absolute beast, and certainly the biggest game I’ve ever bought. It manages to fit the core game and two full expansions inside, as well as a host of the Kickstarter stretch goals unlocked throughout the campaign. I find this quite an exciting experience, and quite interesting in the way that Kickstarter games work. I’ve basically bought a core game and two big-box expansions, with maybe three or four smaller expansions on top. I suppose I’m just used to buying into games at a slower pace!

Hellboy the board game

In addition to the core game, we get the Conqueror Worm and the BPRD Archives expansions in here. Conqueror Worm is a new scenario, alongside Nazi minions and, of course, the giant Worm itself as a boss miniature. The BPRD Archives expansion is a curious beast, as it is basically a whole collection of standalone scenarios that allows you to create whatever game you want. Rules for setting up the board, including which minions and bosses to fight, are all included on tarot-sized cards, and there is a veritable menagerie of enemy miniatures included for you to battle. I’ve not tried that method of play yet, but from briefly looking through the process, it seems quite straightforward, and there are promises for future expansions to include stuff for this deck constructor mode, ensuring that you can always use this expansion to create new games with the mountain of stuff available!

So far as Kickstarter exclusives go, there seems to have been a bit of a redesign for their inclusion in the box, and I do quite like it. There’s a design blog from James Hewitt that talks about how these things work, and the original concept of villains with their own Confrontations has shifted to the more modular inclusion of Fiend cards that allow these Lieutenant-style baddies to show up without waiting for the very end. I like this because the game can otherwise feel like a massive swing – from one minute battling minions to suddenly having a huge beast to contend with.

There is part of me that wishes we could get some kind of reward for defeating such villains, though I suppose I’m just thinking on a simplistic level. It’s not like every bad guy is carrying round bags of gold that they drop as soon as you defeat them!

On a similar note, I’ve seen a lot of people express disappointment online for the lack of a campaign system, and the inclusion of the sandbox-type BPRD Archives expansion seems to have been an affront to such people, who feel it lazy or somesuch. Personally, I think it’s a terrific way to expand the game, allowing for a whole lot of replayability, and the random-encounter feeling of the game is very much in keeping with the fairly random-encounter feeling of the comics. Sure, the storylines do weave in and out of each other, but there are a lot of one-shot-style adventures our intrepid heroes embark upon, and that is quite decently replicated here. It’s great for people who want those kind of one-off games, and you’ve got to remember, Hellboy pretty much exists as he is  in the comics: he doesn’t really level-up and become better at what he does, he just does it all the way through. Not saying he doesn’t learn lessons of course, but that’s what the Information Gathered track is there for.

It’s also how James Hewitt originally envisaged the game design, being modular and customisable like this.

I like it, anyway!

Hellboy the board game

Backers still have the Box Full of Evil to come, which features some more Kickstarter stretch goals and two mini-expansions, not sure when we can expect that to arrive at the moment, but hopefully it’ll arrive soon. In the meantime, it’s not like I don’t have absolute masses of game material to wade through and enjoy!!

Hellboy: part one

Hey everybody!
This week marks my fifth year of blogging here in my quiet corner of the internet, and to celebrate, I’m taking a look at one of my favourite comic books, the classic Hellboy. Let’s start with the first two books, Seed of Destruction and Wake the Devil.

Hellboy 1 & 2

Seed of Destruction is very much the origin story for Big Red, and while creator Mike Mignola had previously written a short story introducing his concept for the character, it’s here that we start his story proper. Back in December 1944, in East Bromwich, England, American troops and three paranormal investigators are drawn to a convergence of energy that seems to indicate something is about to happen, thanks in part to the precognition of England’s premiere medium, Lady Cynthia Eden-Jones. However, at the critical moment, Lady Cynthia realises it is far to the north that a second epicentre has opened – it is there that the Nazis have gathered, led by a mysterious monk figure who is intent on opening a portal to another dimension to bring about the end of the world and allow the Nazis to claim victory in the war: Project Ragnarok.

While the portal is opened, it is in East Bromwich that the agent of that doom appears – a tiny red “ape” with a stone right hand. The Americans dub him Hellboy, and take him with them back to the USA, and the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD).

Years later, Professor Bruttenholm finally returns from a two year polar expedition. Bruttenholm, one of the investigators from East Bromwich and Hellboy’s surrogate father, is recounting some of the adventure to the now-mature half-demon when frogs start appearing, and the professor himself is killed by a frog-monster. Hellboy manages to kill the creature, however.

Following the trail of the frog monsters, Hellboy and his colleagues Liz Sherman and the amphibious Abe Sapien travel to Cavendish Hall, home of two of Bruttenholm’s companions on his polar expedition. Lady Cavendish reveals that her family has been inexplicably drawn to the arctic for generations, but the death of her two sons on the expedition might finally mean an end to this. Further investigation brings Hellboy into direct conflict with the monk-like figure who led the Nazis in 1944, none other than Rasputin. He wishes to awaken the Ogdru-Jahad, the seven gods of the apocalypse, and destroy the earth. Rasputin has captured Liz, and attempts to use her fire-control abilities to augment his own and awaken the Sadu Hem, a mystical totem brought back from the arctic by Bruttenholm and the two Cavendish brothers before they were transformed into frog monsters. The Sadu Hem should then have the power to awaken the Ogdru-Jahad, however Abe manages to spear Rasputin through the chest (with the help of the zombie-like Elihu Cavendish, founder of the dynasty) and rescue Liz.

Wake the Devil pretty much picks up where Seed of Destruction ended, with Rasputin’s disciples from the 1944 project – Ilsa Haupstein, Karl Ruprecht Kroenen, and Leopold Kurtz –  coming out of a deep freeze in a castle high up in Norway. Meanwhile, the Bureau is tasked to track down the body of Vladimir Giurescu, an almost-mythological figure who is believed to be immortal, and was once hoped to head up one of the Nazis many doomsday projects, ‘Vampir Sturm’. The BPRD teams up to track the body to three separate locations within Romania, where Hellboy quickly finds himself at the correct location, coming face to face with Ilsa Haupstein, and her attempt to revive Giurescu.

Others on the team land at different sites in Romania, and Liz’s team discover an unusually large homonculus in the ruins of Czerge Castle. The homonculus attacks them, attempting to drain Liz’s energy, until Bud Waller manages to shoot it, causing it to run off. Meanwhile, Ilsa sets the cyborg Nazi Unmensch on Hellboy, the two having a massive fight that eventually leads Hellboy to a room in the castle where Giurescu is being revived by the goddess Hecate, who turns out to be Giurescu’s mother.

Hellboy battles Hecate, while Rasputin promises Ilsa immortality if she is willing to step into an iron maiden. The torture device kills her, but is placed at a crossroads with a chained Hellboy just as Giurescu comes back to life and tries to kill him. Hellboy defeats Giurescu, a fragment of whose soul then enters the iron maiden. However, in the extraction from Romania, the BPRD manage to lose the body of Giurescu, and the iron maiden mysteriously disappears.

Hellboy frogs

The first two books in the Hellboy series are absolutely cracking. While the first story remains relatively straightforward in the telling, with some folklore thrown in among the tale, by and large it is the story of a mad monk attempting to bring about the end of the world, using frog monster minions to do his bidding. The initial backstory of Project Ragnarok is there, but only to form the initial backdrop to the main tale.

In the second book, we have what Mignola is perhaps best at, weaving mythology and folklore into a story that also takes in the mysticism of the occult and linking strongly with Nazi scientists, to provide a wide-ranging, highly-textured and detailed storyline. While Seed of Destruction is perhaps required reading to give you the background, Wake the Devil is really what Hellboy is all about, and manages to encapsulate the character and the series in just one book.

I think it’s incredibly impressive the way Mignola manages to treat all the various threads of folklore into the narrative, and it’s a bit of a treat to see the way these tidbits manage to make it into the storyline. Overall, the dark gothic feel of the Hellboy universe is wonderful and these first two books in the series really help to put you on the road that the Hellboy books travel.

There is so much to enjoy in these books that I can barely convey the breadth of the story in this review. I’ve tried to hit a lot of the points because I think there will be significant mentions and stuff later on, but I’m now a bit worried that I’ve made it sounds slightly muddled in the re-telling!

I’m 5 years old!

It’s birthday week here at spalanz.com, and today not only marks Easter Sunday for those of you who like to gorge on chocolate eggs (such as myself), but it’s also the 5th birthday of my blog! Who’d have thought, after such inauspicious beginnings back in 2014, I’d be here now?! Well, I’m not exactly sure where here is, as I’m usually just found rambling on about miniatures or books or comics, really.

It’s to comics that we’re going to be turning in the coming week, however, as I return to my time-honoured tradition and mark the birthday week with a series of blogs devoted to a favourite thing in multiple media. For my 5th year of blogging, I’m going to be talking about Hellboy!

No, I still haven’t seen the new movie, but if I’m honest, I liked Ron Perlman’s Big Red far too much to be interested in anybody else trying to don the right hand of doom. You can expect me to ramble about the 2004 movie, it’s 2008 sequel, the comics, and of course, the new board game!

Hellboy

Back in 2004, I saw the original Hellboy movie and was a little bit obsessed. Pretty much instantly I bought up all of the graphic novels that were out – just the first five, at the time – and pretty much devoured them in a weekend. It was glorious. But then, my enthusiasm seemed to shift as Elektra came out, and I started delving pretty heavily into Marvel. It was around the same time as House of M, and so I ranged pretty widely, forgetting about Hellboy and the BPRD. Over the years, I’ve been keen to get back into it and rediscover the first five chapters of the story, but also see what else the comics have to offer – I was pretty surprised to discover how many books are in the library now for the beloved half-demon! This coming week, then, I’ll be returning to my “roots” with the story up to Conqueror Worm, and then in the months and years to follow, I plan to continue my look at the graphic novels for the BPRD, and various spin-offs from the main storyline.

Happy Birthday to me…