Sunday Story Time: The Specimen

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Theresa ended the call, and slid her phone back into her lab coat pocket.

“Everything okay?” Holly asked. They threw away their empty paper cups of coffee and walked out of the break room.

“It’s fine,” Theresa said with a shrug. “Nathan just wanted to know when I’d be getting home.”

Holly giggled. “Well, he can’t have his cake until you get back. He’s… what? Seven now?”

“Yep.”

Holly smiled.

“Seven. That’s such a nice age.”

“Compared to when he was three, definitely.”

The walk to the lab took them ten minutes of keycard swipes, private elevators, and identity checks. Theresa had known some of the guards at the security station for years, but each time they requested her ID card, scanned it for authenticity, locked away her personal belongings in a safe, and asked her to provide the two daily passwords. It was tedious, but necessary. They’d been lax on security before, and it had cost them.

They came to the tinted-glass doors of the lab.

“Are you ready for this?” asked Theresa.

The younger woman swallowed hard. She’d never looked as young and as nervous to Theresa as she did then.

“I think so, Doctor Morris,” she said hesitantly. “But that thing… it frightens me.”

“Fear’s a luxury we can’t afford here,” said Theresa. “It wants us to be afraid of it. Don’t give it what it wants.”

Theresa swiped her keycard at the lab door’s scanner and punched in the security code. The tinted-glass door slid back with a smooth electric purr, and they walked in.

To call the room a lab was probably generous. It was a wide open space, with various items of scientific equipment at the edges of the room. There were four other scientists in the room, adjusting settings on machines, or analysing data.

There was a fifth creature in the room, and although it looked like a person, it certainly wasn’t one. It was restrained, spread-eagled, to a vertical slab. Each time Theresa saw it, she instinctively thought of a pinned butterfly in a display case.

“Subject C77F,” said Theresa, not as a greeting but more of a demand that it pay attention.

The creature’s head had been slumped down in its chest. It slowly looked up at Theresa with large, bright eyes that had become too hurt and too weary to play host to hate.

“My name is Leafwhistle,” it wheezed.

“I’ve told you before,” said Theresa, “the Auspex Group does not recognise or acknowledge the name that your kind use to identify you. You are Subject C77F. You are an Intruder, Titania class.”

The creature’s head dropped again, and it sobbed. Theresa heard Holly make a small, distressed gasp, and she herself felt a small stir of emotion at the sound of the creature’s misery, but she quashed it.

She had to admit, it was hard to remain unsympathetic. The Titanians were good at masquerading as their prey, skilled at wearing their masks of false humanity.

Subject C77F resembled a young teenage girl in many ways; one who was still stuck in scrawny, awkward adolescent limbo, but the resemblance was there, and it was uncanny. Its long hair had been highlighter-pen-green, but they’d shaved it bald since they’d caught it.

They’d not only shaved it; they’d stripped it, plucked off its wings, scrubbed its flesh sterile-raw with chlorine soap, bound it at the ankles and wrists with iron manacles, and surrounded the slab to which it was pinned with a ring of salt and woven red verbena and St John’s wort. The Intruders had such bizarre vulnerabilities; it only served as a reminder to how unnatural they were.

They had other, more mundane vulnerabilities too. Subject C77F’s pale skin was stained with bruises, scabbed cuts, and the marks of electrical burns.

“Look at me,” said Theresa.

Subject C77F did so, and again Theresa had to stamp down on her nascent sense of sympathy. It wasn’t a girl. It wasn’t human. It was a monster.

“Where were you taking those children?” Theresa asked.

Subject C77F breathed deeply and looked away.

“Someplace where they would’ve been happy,” it whispered.

“And where’s that? Your domain?”

Subject C77F shook its head weakly.

“Not my domain. The Queen’s.”

Theresa turned to Holly.

“Holly?”

Holly had been lost in thought. It was easy to become enchanted by a Titanian, even one as broken and pathetic as this one. She snapped out of it with a shake of her head.

“Sorry Doctor.”

“Pop quiz. Who’s the Queen?”

Holly fumbled with the tablet in her hands, swiping through archive documents until she found what she was looking for.

“The Malefic Entity known as Queen Mab,” she said. “Also known as the Queen of Stars and Night, the Dark Fairy Mother, the Gluttonwitch, the…”

“Thank you Holly.”

Theresa turned her attention back to Subject C77F.

“Your queen’s domain then. That’s where you were taking them.”

It nodded.

“What were you going to do to them?”

It didn’t answer. Theresa sighed impatiently, and took a small iron cross out of her lab coat pocket. She stepped into the ring of salt and flowers, and pressed it to the creature’s bare chest. It shrieked in pain, and thrashed in its restraints.

When Theresa took the cross away, there was an angry red weal on Subject C77F’s pale skin.

“What were you going to do them?” Theresa repeated when the screams had stopped.

“Their hopes, their dreams, their joys…” it murmured.

“You were going to take their souls.”

Subject C77F nodded.

“Why?”

The Titanian ran a thin, vividly pink tongue over its scabbed lips.

“We cannot live without them,” it said at last. “The Secret City cannot exist without the joy we take from them.”

“Then maybe it shouldn’t exist at all,” snapped Theresa. “If abducting children is what it takes.”

“They would’ve been happy…” Subject C77F sobbed again.

“Before you drained them dry? Before you murdered them?” shouted Theresa. She wanted to hit it, to kill it, but instead she took a step back, outside the woven ring. She took a deep breath and tried to clear her head.

They’d caught the Titanian a few days ago. It had been masquerading as an assistant at a kid’s activity club. The Auspex team had been lucky to stop it, luckier even to capture it. Like all Intruders, the Titanians were easy to detain when you knew their weaknesses, but catching them in the first place was the tough thing.

Theresa couldn’t help but think of the kids they’d saved. They hadn’t understood what had happened. They’d cried as their young pretty leader was dragged away. The youngest had only been seven.

Theresa thought of her son, seven years old. She thought of the Titanians and their parasitic society, and all the children that had gone missing over the centuries, never to be found.

She took another deep breath, forcing herself to calm down.

Theresa was about to ask the creature another question when she heard a phone ringing. It took a few seconds for her to realise that it was her phone, the phone that she could’ve sworn that she’d left at the security station along with all her other personal belongings.

“Didn’t you-“ Holly started to say.

“I thought so too,” said Theresa, taking the phone out of her lab coat pocket. The screen blinked Unknown.

Theresa tapped the screen and put the phone to her ear. She walked over to the corner and turned her back to the room to have some privacy.

“Hello?”

No one responded to her. The line sounded bad, muffled and crackly.

“Hello?” she said again.

“Mummy?”

Her heart flash-froze in her chest.

“Nathan?” she said. “Nathan, is that you?”

“Mummy? They’re – ”

Her son’s voice stopped abruptly and was replaced with eerie high-pitched giggling. Then the line went dead.

Theresa whirled round and stormed across to Subject C77F. This time she hit it, a tightly-curled fist to the side of its face that snapped its head back.

“What have you done?” she screamed.

For the first time since Theresa had entered the room, Subject C77F smiled. The smile was a sick, ugly thing of sharp blood-stained teeth.

“Lost something?”

“You bitch!” yelled Theresa, drawing back her arm for another punch.

A hand snatched her wrist and stopped her.

Theresa turned, and saw that Holly had grabbed her. The other four scientists were standing behind her in a huddle.

“That’s enough of that, Dr Morris.”

“Holly, let me –“

The words died in her mouth when she looked – really looked – at her young assistant. She saw eyes too large and too bright and too full of mercurial wickedness to be human.

The Intruder that had called itself Holly stepped into the ring of woven flowers, and the remains of her disguise fell away like a curtain.

“Please,” Theresa sobbed. Terror leaked into her chest and down her spine like acid. The Intruder’s grip on her wrist was brutally strong. “My son…”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about him,” said Holly. “He’ll be just fine. For a while.”

She leaned in so that she should whisper into Theresa’s ear. Her breath was hot and smelt like tropical flowers. “Besides, I thought that fear was a luxury that you couldn’t afford.”

“How long have you – “

Always.”

Holly flicked a glance to the other scientists, who stood dumb and glassy-eyed.

“Get my sister down. Now.”

The enchanted men and women undid Subject C77F’s restraints. It fell from the slab, its legs weak and shaky.

“Sister…” it wept.

“The Queen will decide what to do with you, you stupid little failure,” said Holly through a poisonous smile. Subject C77F wailed piteously.

“And as for you,” she said, looking at Theresa, still held firm in her grip. “You’re wrong about my kind, you know.”

She threw Theresa to the four other scientists, and before she could fight back, they’d strapped her to the slab.

“The joy of human children isn’t the only thing that let us thrive,” explained Holly. “The suffering of adults is just as valid. I’m sure you of all people will appreciate a scientific demonstration.”

She held out a hand, and one of the scientists placed a scalpel in it.

 

Gareth

 

Sci-Fi London 2015 Flash Fiction

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“Flash”, you perverts, not “slash”.

It’s that time of year again when Sci-Fi London hold their 48 hour contests; over the weekend, hundreds of budding film makers and writers have been working frantically, ready to submit their entries by tomorrow afternoon.

Since last year went quite well for me with my storyteller submission “Shift”, I thought I’d go ahead and enter again this year. In the flash fiction challenge, you’re given a title, a line of dialogue that has to be included, and a strict word limit of 1,500.

I’ve just submitted my entry; I honestly don’t mean to sound arrogant when I say this, but I found 48 hours to be surplus to requirements to write 1,500 words (it was the same last year; I spent at most six hours writing, recording, uploading and editing Shift). I smashed my entry out in about three hours, and I’ve spent an hour tonight tidying it up before submitting it. Time will tell if I should’ve used the extra time available to me.

For giggles, here’s my entry, “Act of Kindness.” My line of dialogue was “it took four of us last time, and it’s more than doubled in size since then.”

 

Act of Kindness

Mercy is the greatest blasphemy that we commit. I mean this in its most literal, theological sense. I am not saying that mercy is a sin in the way that murder or theft is; I am saying that mercy is a blasphemy. It is going against the will of a higher power. An act of mercy is an act of supreme arrogance. It is you taking destiny into your own hands. It is you declaring that you have the answers and the solutions to another’s circumstances. It is you taking responsibility from another.

Some say that mercy is a weakness. They are wrong. They are so hopelessly wrong. Mercy is hubris, at most. In my experience, it takes the most resolute to show compassion, to cast aside their own selfishness and shoulder the woes and burdens of another. It destroys them though. It always does. Empathy, benevolence, call it what you will. It is the most cruel poison.

There is a common saying; to “kill with kindness”. It’s so very apt. We talk about mercy when we end the lives those who are suffering, to “put them out of their misery”. We talk about it as we take what we want from others, as we tell them “it’s for your own good”.

Mercy is a way of declaring yourself to be a god. An all-knowing, all-powerful creator, who can single-handedly make the world a better place. That is the blasphemy.

You may laugh at this, and call me jaded and cynical. Perhaps I am guilty of those things. I don’t think it matters any more.

Mercy is a blasphemy. By definition, blasphemy is not a sin, as I have said.

Except now.

Except for today, when I have sinned by showing mercy.

 

 

“Seal it!” I shouted at Beledae as the door slunked closed behind us.

“That won’t-” she started to say.

“Seal it anyway! Lock it down! Lock it all down!”

She started fumbling with the console by the door. Her hands were shaking so much that she could barely type.

The others were leaning against the walls, breathing hard. Some were sobbing.

I had a gun in my hand. I hadn’t even had a chance to use it before…

“What now?” Finnes yelled in my face. His lab coat was dappled with blood splashes. “There’s no way out.”

“It’ll be fine,” I said, trying to keep calm. “This is just a temporary setback.”

“A temporary… they’re dead! Didn’t you see-”

“Of course I did. But it’ll be fine.”

Finnes swore and turned away from me.

“Any luck?” I asked Beledae.

She shook her head. She wasn’t looking at me. She was looking at the tight reels of data cascading down the console screen. It didn’t make for encouraging reading.

“I’m locked out,” she mumbled. “I can’t… we can’t…”

I put a hand on her shoulder. She flinched away.

“It’s okay,” I said, keeping my voice low.

“How can you say that?” she whispered. “This is… this was you…”

“I’ll fix this. Okay? I’ll fix it. Let me try.”

I gently moved her aside and started tapping at the console’s lightboard. As the project leader, I knew codes that not even Finnes or Dvoban had access to.

I tried everything. I wracked my mind for every override and countermeasure I knew. It was like spitting into an erupting volcano. They’d gotten into the system and made it their own. I grew more and more desperate, until before I knew it I was punching in the hateful characters for the Zodiac Ultimatum.

“What are you doing?” Finnes asked me.

“Shut up.”

“Tell me! What the hell are you doing?”

“Shut up.”

The console groaned and died before I was even halfway through the code string. The lightboard glitched and cut out, vanishing beneath my fingertips.

Clever. Too clever. They knew what I’d been attempting.

I was almost proud of them.

The lights flickered and went out. Emergency lighting came on and drenched us in red.

“Oh, we’re dead,” breathed Finnes. He shoved me. I staggered, and nearly fell. “This was your fault! You idiot!”

“I can fix this,” I said, trying to making myself heard over his shouting and the high trill of alarms.

“How?” asked Czie.

“I’ll access the Cognisance,” I said. “Cut the neuroconductive relays, or reroute-”

Czie laughed bleakly, cutting me off.

“That may have worked before,” she said. “But it took four of us last time, and it’s more than doubled in size since then! We’ll never disable it.”

“Besides,” put in Kardel. “You’d be dead before you get within a hundred metres of the control room. They’re out there.”

“Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad,” snapped Finnes, glaring at me. “Someone should pay for this.”

“We are paying for it, Finnes.”

“Yes, we. Not you.”

He made to take a step towards me, before noticing the loaded gun in my hand.

“Leave it,” said Czie. “Come on. This isn’t doing us any good.”

I was aware that they were all standing in a loose semi-circle, looking at me. Hating me.

The gun in my hand was a guilty, reassuring weight.

“I’ll fix this,” I said again. Those words were my prayer. As long as I kept saying them, there was a chance that they would come true. “I can fix this.”

 

 

If mercy is a blasphemy, then what is creating life?

Again, I mean this in its most literal way. When organics breed, they are not creating life; they are following biological instinct to ensure the continuing existence of the species.

I am talking about artificial life, and the morality that accompanies it. When is an artificial being “alive”? Can it be held accountable for its own actions, or is that the responsibility of its creator? Questions as old as the technology itself.

My team and I had heard the arguments, the various conflicting opinions. Some of us left. Others stayed; Finnes, Dvoban, Beledae, Kardel, Czie, more. We reeked of ambition, emanated it like low-level radiation. We wanted to be heroes. We wanted to be the ones who created a solution to the problem that we faced.

The Technocracy gave us everything that I said we needed; facilities, people, supplies, funding, and full autonomy. They invested their hope in us. I promised them that we would succeed.

Was that mercy?

 

 

There were repeated thumps against the door; a few at first, and then more and more.

“Oh God…” breathed Beledae, backing away. The shutters were heavy, but they weren’t magnetically locked. Enough raw strength could prise them apart.

They certainly had that. It had been a specific condition of the project, along with all the other requirements. The Technocracy had wanted servants who were strong, healthy, and above all, loyal.

They’d wanted to pave the road to a new future on the back of creatures made for slavery.

They’d wanted that. I hadn’t.

My act of childish defiance had doomed us all.

 

 

I remember seeing the first few in the tanks. Pink, naked, fleshy.

++ They look weak ++ Dvoban had vocalised, scrutinising them with the cluster of sensors that formed his face. Dvoban had been altered more than any of us; he didn’t conform to the standard humanoid frame anymore.

I found the alterations mildly gruesome. I had no wish to pervert the image our makers had given us.

“They’ll suffice,” I’d assured him.

 

 

The noises at the door were growing more ferocious.

The others were milling around the room, shouting and wailing, trying to find an exit that simply didn’t exist.

Beledae grabbed my arm.

“Shoot me,” she pleaded. “Don’t let them get me. I don’t want to die like Dvoban did.”

I looked at her face, at the blend of faux-flesh and polyceramic alloy, at her vividly electric-green occuli. She was young, new-forged only a few decades back. She had dermal implants. Old fashioned. No one had hair any more. Wasteful. Too organic.

“Bel…”

I couldn’t stop her. She snatched the pistol from my hand.

The gunshot shut everyone up. Everyone except them. Our masterpieces. Our mistakes.

Finnes stood with me and we looked down at Beledae’s body.

“Why did you do it?” he asked. He sounded weary. The fight had gone out of him. Now he was just waiting for the end.

“Would you have taken pride in creating slaves?” I replied.

“Funny thing is,” he remarked, though absolutely nothing was funny anymore. “A few centuries ago, they used to tell horror stories about us gaining free will.”

“Maybe they will again.”

The doors were starting to inch open, forced open by strong hands. Strong hands, of flesh and bone; real flesh and bone.

“Do you think they’ll show us mercy?” asked Finnes. He wasn’t referring to the handful of us trapped in that room. He meant all of us; the whole homo cybernetica species.

“I hope not,” I said as the first arm reached through. “We made them smarter than that.”

 

Gareth

 

 

Rules House: Zombies!!!

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Hope you all had a lovely Easter; I myself spent the long weekend gorging myself not only on various meats, savoury snacks and confectionary, but on board games as well! I was lucky enough to have a solid three days of gaming, the highlights of which included a long and increasingly tipsy session of Coup, a big game of Survive! Escape from Atlantis, and a teeth-grittingly frustrating game of Settlers of Catan.

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Move over Risk, there’s a new number one on my Shit List.

Em and I also took the chance to break out a game that I’d bought a few months ago; Zombies!!!

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Zombies!!! is a fairly simple board game; each player is a survivor in the middle of a zombie-infested city. The aim of the game is to be the first player to escape, which is done by exploring the city and finding the elusive helipad. The game starts out on a single 3×3 square tile, but on each player’s turn, a new tile is added, gradually expanding the city. Along the way, survivors can find first aid kits and ammunition to help them fend off the endless horde of walking dead, and gain Event cards to screw over other players.

The rules are simple, and the goal is clear. But somehow, somehow, despite being in its third edition, the makers of Zombies!!! apparently took some game design tips from Games Workshop because they keep making a game that feels shoddy and slapdash.

I have a lot of quibbles with the rules; like how it’s nearly impossible to be caught by zombies (players roll 1d6 + Health for movement, zombies only move 1 space), or how the number of zombies that move is disproportionate to the number of zombie models on the board. Or there’s the Event cards; a lot of them are for gear that can only be found or used in specific locations. A lot of Event cards also essentially do the same thing, with minor variations; compare Brain Cramp, which basically reads “you decide how an opponent moves this turn” to Where Did Everyone Go? which basically reads “move an opponent 5 spaces.”. Lazy, lazy, lazy.

There’s also meant to be some uncertainty as to when the Helipad shows up, but the rules say just place it roughly in the middle of the city tile stack. Oh, okay. Good. So… what’s the point in having the bottom half of that stack then, exactly? Oh, and don’t worry about dying; when your character loses their last point of health, you just go back to the starting area as if nothing had happened.

There’s also a really poorly thought-out “variant” for cooperative play. “All players work together and have to reach the helipad!” Yay! Except that the Event cards and rules for zombie movement simply don’t work if the aim of the game is to play cooperatively, because they’ve been designed for competitive play in mind.

And a final twist of the knife, the tokens that come with the game are by far and away some of the absolute worst components I’ve ever seen in a board game. They’re printed on thin, flimsy card, so they’re difficult to pick up, and they aren’t even double-sided.  At least the zombie miniatures are pretty cool (and handy for D&D).

It’s all a shame, because there’s a decent core here for a fun, casual board game. Enter the house rules…

Behold!

These changes are mostly tweaking with the Event card deck, setting a limit on deaths, allowing for more early-game exploration by having more tiles placed at the start, increasing the threat of zombies by allowing more of them to move and making players slower, and making it less certain when the Helipad will appear. Em and I have tried a few games with the house rules and a few without, and it’s amazing what a difference a few small changes make.

As for the components themselves, I’m using heart and potion tokens from Super Dungeon Explore for health/bullets respectively (nice chunky card and double-sided, plus they were going to waste anyway), and while the survivor miniatures in the game are fine, I’ve needed an excuse to paint up some of the random models I’ve picked up over the years…

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Work in progress. L to R; Jules, Dave, Reena, Chloe, Officer Connery, and Tucker.

Until next time, happy zombie hunting!

Gareth

 

 

New Short Story – No Man’s Land

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It’s been a productive weekend! I saw an amazing production of Hairspray yesterday, introduced Em to one of my favourite bars in Worthing (shout out to the Wandering Goose), and even braved the local Games Workshop to purchase paints so I could start tackling my hideous backlog of unpainted plastic dudes.

Oh, and I published a short story.

NML cover

 

As you may have guessed, it’s a fairly bleak WW1 story in which a lot of Bad Things happen.

If you like that sort of thing, why not give it a read? And if you like it, a nice review would be very much appreciated!

Gareth

Mid-March Melee

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It was Mother’s Day here in the UK last Sunday, so I went up to visit my parents for the weekend, which was all very lovely and nice and what-have-you. Of course being the efficient fellow that I am, I also planned a rendezvous with Ian on the Saturday afternoon so that I could indulge in a craving.

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Well, two cravings I guess.

I don’t know what it is, but recently I’ve had an urge to play some Warhammer 40,000, and I have no idea why. Ian was happy to oblige and he provided miniatures, dice, scenery, the whole works. We just wanted a quick game, so we went with 1,000 points, Dark Angels vs. Orks. I’d specifically asked him the week before if we could play 4th edition rules, which was the last time I’d played; I didn’t really want to have to deal with the whole mess of psychic phases, challenges, and flyers that current 40k has become.

That didn’t go as planned unfortunately.

I took the Lokorsts, and Ian took the Dangles.

The painted stuff.

The painted Lokorsts of Waaagh! RAAM. Shoota Boyz, Grots, a Looted Wagon, and Warboss. Unfortunately Ian had misplaced his converted Orky RAAM model!

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… aaaaand the work in progress stuff. Bladeless Deff Koptas and ghost-driven Warbikes.

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Ravenwing Captain on a flashy bike. Ian usually uses this model as a Librarian, but neither of us could remember the 4th edition Dark Angel Codex psychic powers. DURRRR.

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Because *of course* he took some Deathwing.

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DA Devastators. Ian’s converted their heavy weapons so that they can be represent flashy-looking missile launchers, or stubby lascannons.

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Man, Azrael is gonna be pissed when he finds out that Sergeant stole his hat.

We had no mission in mind; just line up and blast each other to bits.

I can’t remember exactly what we had, but it was something like…

Waaagh! RAAM

  • Warboss with power klaw, kombi-skorcha, ‘eavy armour, cybork body, attack squig.
  • 20 ‘Ard Boyz with shootas, 2 w/ big shootas + Nob with power klaw and bosspole.
  • 20 Grots + Runtherd with grot prodda.
  • 5 Warbikers + Nob with power klaw.
  • 5 Deff Koptas.
  • Looted Wagon with boomgun, two big shootas, ‘ard case, grot riggers, and armour plating.

Strike Force Amael

  • Captain with bike and power sword.
  • 5 Deathwing Terminators; mix of power fists, assault cannon, thunder hammer, power sword, storm bolters.
  • 5 Ravenwing Bikers, 2 w/ melta-guns + Sergeant with power fist.
  • 6 Tactical Marines, 1 w/ melta-gun + Sergeant with power fist.
  • 6 Tactical Marines, 1 w/ melta-gun + Sergeant with power fist.
  • 7 Devastators, 4 w/ missile launchers + Sergeant with signum.

Yeah, my hopes weren’t high. But anyway, we deployed and got down to it.

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The hellish landscape of Tabel D’Ner.

 

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Ian used his e-cigarette to add some butterscotch-scented atmosphere.

The game was mercilessly short. Ian ran the Ravenwing forward and perfect deep-striked the Deathwing who caused all kinds of merry hell. Meanwhile my Looted Wagon ate a trio of krak missiles, and then met its end as it trundled, weaponless and desperate, straight into a Ravenwing Biker’s melta-gun. Whoops.

My Shoota Boys and Grots tried to drown the Deathwing under weight of fire, with some success. Then I sent the Grots in, because even the little guns like a good punch-up.

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Just one of those bone-white bastards costs almost as much as the entire Grot mob.

Meanwhile the Deff Koptas tried (and failed) to dislodge the Devastators, and flew for home after being force-fed krak missiles. In response, my Warbikers swung round and rompastomped a whole squad of Angels.

My Warboss and the ‘Ard Boyz went to go get stuck in with the Ravenwing, and it went okay… sort of. My Warboss got chopped up by the Captain, my Orks dragged down the Bikers, and it turned into a miserable scrum as my Orks, their momentum spent, couldn’t drag the Captain off his bike.

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“Oh boy, 6s to wound! Hurray!” – Me, sarcastically.

My Bikers got gunned down, then the Deathwing polished off the Grots – well, more accurately the Runtherd’s squig-hound polished off the Grots – and waded in to help the Captain, and then it was pretty much a foregone conclusion.

Gosh, I sure am I glad I played 40k again. 

All that said, it was a laugh. It got Ian and I talking about a long-running project we’ve been meaning to do; a sort of homebrewed ruleset of 40k, blending and mixing our favourite bits from different editions to make a smaller skirmish version, similar to the scale to Dawn of War 2. We may work on that in the next few months and playtest it, and post our stuff up on here. Who knows?

We then spent the rest of the afternoon playing Sentinels of the Multiverse. Ian hadn’t played it before, so I was keen to show it off. We played four games; Ra and Bunker vs. Baron Blade in the Insula Primalis (we won), Haka and Tachyon vs. Omnitron in Megalopolis (we won), Wraith and Fanatic vs. Warlord Voss at the Wagner Mars Base (we won), and Legacy and Tempest vs. Citizen Dawn in the Ruins of Atlantis.

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That didn’t go quite as well.

Urgh, fuck Citizen Dawn. I even tried a solitaire game later that day with Wraith, Tempest, and Absolute Zero against her (again in the Ruins of Atlantis), and I lost again!

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More like Absolute Liability.

 

Dawn remains an elusive foe for me in Sentinels, the only one I had not yet defeated. Maybe I just need some backup in the form of new heroes… I do have a craving for the Rook City expansion.

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So three cravings then.

Man, I don’t know about you but I could really go for some McNuggets right about now.

Gareth

At The Table: Palazzo

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Recently I’ve been getting into eurogames, board games that are quick, rules-lite, and player-friendly, the kind of thing that’s perfect for a few games in a lunch hour or in the evening. The most popular of these eurogames are big titles like Settlers of Catan and Carcassone, but just before Christmas, Joe (he of Barry Arrers fame) recommended the following gem to me…

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Aaaah, Palazzo. How I love you.

In Palazzo, players take the role of Renaissance-era architects constructing palaces. The winner is the player who manages to make the tallest, most aesthetically pleasing palaces before the mayor arrives; pretty simple. The players get building materials either by buying them from the main supply, or auctioning for them at quarries.

It’s a fairly simple game, but there’s a lot of strategy to it, which is why I really like it. Each building tile represents a floor of a palace, and is one of three materials (brick, sandstone, or marble), and has one, two, or three windows; the more windows the better. You also get a bonus at the end of the game if you make a palace completely out of one building material, and those points can easily mean the difference between winning and losing. Due to the random nature of where and when certain tiles will appear, it does mean that every game is very different.

The fun comes in when you have to balance your money and your spending habits; if you buy a load of tiles from the main supply, will you have enough money for an auction? If you skip a go to get more money, will one of the other players get a tile you really need? And then there’s always reconstruction/demolition to consider, especially as one-storey  palaces give you a penalty at the end of the game!

As for the end of the game, you’re never sure when it’s going to happen. In the third and final pile of tiles are five special tiles that combine to form a picture of the approaching mayor; if all five of those come out, the game’s over! I’ve had games when the mayor’s arrived when there’s still half the pile left, and others when it’s gone down to the very last tile. It definitely puts some pressure on you, especially if you need to do last minute reconstruction/demolition to get your palaces looking as lovely as possible!

Palazzo really is a great little game and I thoroughly recommend it. It can be a little tricky to get your head round at first, but I’ve introduced it to a few people and they’ve all picked it up and gotten wise to the strategies halfway through their first game. It does start a bit slow, but soon tiles will be piling up, money will be coming and going, and palaces will be getting higher and higher.

A fantastic, quick and casual eurogame perfect as a filler between something more complicated and lengthy. What more could you ask for?

Gareth

At The Table: Sentinels of the Multiverse

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I’ve acquired a new card game for my collection. It’s superhero-themed, and cooperative; two big thumbs up as far as I’m concerned! What could possibly be wrong?

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You do not know true pain. Not yet.

So, Sentinels of the Multiverse. Pretty effin’ rad. The basic setup is thus; each player takes on the role of a super hero and has a deck of cards that represent that hero’s powers, equipment, resources, etc. The players are trying to beat the super villain, who has their own deck of cards and particular methods for winning; Baron Blade is trying to crash the Moon into the Earth, Citizen Dawn is leading a revolution of fanatical mutant followers, Omnitron is trying to eliminate all biological life with his various death machines, and so on. The fight takes place in a hazardous environment, which is another deck packed with traps, additional enemies, and if the gods love you, a benefit. Aim of the game is for the heroes to beat the villain by depleting their HP with powers and attacks. Simple.

Simple, but definitely not easy.

This is ideally a game for three or four players. I’ve tried a few two-player games before, but it’s simply too hard as the heroes are unable to pump out enough damage to deal with the various mounting threats. Thankfully there’s a fairly easy house rule around that problem (see below).

Each hero and villain is given a complexity rating; how difficult they are to play as (if a hero), or defeat (if a villain). For example, the hero Haka (the game’s Hulk equivalent; there are plenty of affectionate homages to existing Marvel and DC characters) has a straightforward strategy of “do lots of damage all the time”, whereas Absolute Zero’s combo-centric “kamikaze” playstyle is a bit more complex; his basic power is to do damage to himself, for Christ’s sake.

absolute zero

More like Absolute Emo, hurr hurr.

Personally I’m a big fan of  Fanatic (a kickass female warrior angel) and Storm/Aquaman mash-up character Tempest, who’s a good jack-of-all-trades character, able to heal himself and team-mates, do crowd control on lots of weak minions, get stuff back from his discard pile, or focus damage on one target.

Tempest

NEXT TIME ON DRAGONBALL Z

The rules are fairly simplistic at the core; anyone who’s played Magic: the Gathering could pick this up quickly. On a player’s turn, they play one card from their hand (for free, there’s no resource or mana system). If it’s a one-shot card, the effect resolves and it’s discarded. If it’s an ongoing card, it sticks around and provides a constant buff. Then the player can use one power. Each hero has a basic power listed on their card (Ra shoots something with fire, Bunker draws a card, etc), but every hero has ongoing cards that give them extra powers to choose from, and some heroes have cards that let them use additional powers on their turn. Then you draw a card and end your turn.

On the environment turn, the top card gets flipped over, and just like with hero cards it can be one-shot or ongoing. If it’s ongoing, there’s usually a way to get rid of it (defeating it if it’s a creature, or discarding cards or suffering some other penalty if it’s a hazard or trap). Then the villain acts; the top card of their deck gets flipped over and played (again, one-shot or ongoing), usually damaging the heroes in some way, or summoning minions. Very simple.

There’s some number-crunching involved to keep track of buffs and debuffs going around, and the real challenge comes from the “spinning plates” style of risk management; does your team divert attention to defeat the rampaging kraken that’s been summoned by the environment? Oh wait, someone needs to deal with that ongoing card that the villain’s got that increases all the damage he does.  But you also need to keep pressure on the villain and do some damage to him! But he’s got that minion out that reduces the damage he takes! But you can’t do damage to him until you destroy the minion! But if his minion is destroyed, he’ll change into his more powerful form! Why is that fucking kraken still alive!?

All this serves to grind you down, exhausting your resources and your options. You need to work together as a team, coordinating your efforts. There’s nothing more satisfying than when you have a finely-tuned engine running, as the first player shuts down an annoying environment card, then the second player gives the third player a damage bonus so that they can windmill-slam the villain for 15 damage.

Of course, then the next villain card is some bullshit that ends the game, but them’s the breaks.

GWVoss

“Kneel before Voss!”

One thing I really like is that when a hero is defeated, the player is not out of the game. Each hero has a “defeated” side with a list of three powers; that player still takes his turn, and can use one of those powers, which are usually very good; after all, the heroes are down one guy, so they need all the help they can get! It’s a nice way of ensuring that a player knocked out early isn’t sitting around twiddling their thumbs for another half hour or so.

As for the actual look of the game? The artwork’s okay; there’s some stinkers but for the most part it’s bright, colourful, and very evocative of the feel of a Silver Age comic book. I really like how each card in a hero’s deck has a cool little quote on it from an issue of the (sadly non-existent) Sentinels of the Multiverse comic book.

On top of that, there’s just the value. I picked up the core game – ten hero decks (40 cards each), four villain decks (20 cards each), and four environment decks (15 cards each) – for under £30. That’s 540 cards. That’s mental. The box also comes with a load of tokens for tracking damage (I prefer using dice but each to their own) and conditions such as immunity, damage buffs/debuffs, etc, and best of all, dividers for organising all the cards in the box!

There’s a ton of replay value in Sentinels, as you can have mix up the combinations of villain, environment and heroes for a different game each time. Plus there’s a truckload of expansions adding more heroes, villains and environments each time. I’ve got my eye on Rook City, because holy shit I want to wreck villain face with Mr Miyagi Fixer.

Fixer Splash

Obligatory “everybody was kung fu fightin'” reference.

As I said, it’s a tough game; sometimes you get lucky as the villain and environment spend their time tearing chunks out of each other instead of you, but most times some new problem will come out while you’re still trying to deal with three other things. Expect a few times when the game gives everyone a royal spanking. That said, the turns go by quickly, so a four-player game should only take about an hour; quick playtime added to a wide range of different heroes, villains and environments gives it a very “just one more” feel.

Like I said, I had some house rules, which are…

House Rule : Two Hero Variant

The game rules advise that if you’ve only got two players, one or both players should play two Hero decks each, which hasn’t gone down too well; you have to split your attention between two decks with different strategies and separate book-keeping.

The problem with fewer players is that it’s harder to kick out enough damage to deal with the mounting threats presented by the environment and villain, as the HP of these threats doesn’t scale with the number of heroes involved; meaning that Omnitron has 100 HP whether you have two, three, or five players. In one game, Trev and I couldn’t deal with all the minions of Citizen Dawn – let alone get through to her – and we got thrashed pretty thoroughly.

This is my two hero variant, which has worked out pretty well after a few test-runs. The game remains hard, but is no longer frustratingly impossible.

Players draw five cards at the start of the game. With only two heroes, you need all the help you can get, so an extra card will be helpful!

H = 3.  Some villain and environment cards do “H damage”, where H is the number of heroes involved. However this “H damage” is usually modified by minus one or two, meaning that if “H” was 2, it would usually do minimal damage or even nothing at all, which makes some villains like Citizen Dawn or Baron Blade’s second form nonthreatening.

citizen dawn

Because God forbid we make that charismatic cult leader who harnesses the power of the sun *non-threatening*, the poor lamb.

 

And the big one…

Halve HP (rounded up) of all Villain and Environment cards. Their damage output remains the same, but now they’ll be less of an ordeal for only two heroes to try and deal with! This doesn’t stop stuff like the Kraken from Ruins of Atlantis or Omnitron’s Electro Pulse Explosive being nightmares to deal with, but it means that two heroes have a chance, rather than none at all!

Other than that, everything’s the same; round structure, turn order, etc.

So go ahead, pick up the game and go save the whole damn Multiverse!

Gareth

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