Frostpunk, a steampunk city-builder from the guys who made This War of Mine about surviving a perpetual winter, recently went on sale to celebrate their one-year anniversary. I picked it up, and spent entirely too much time playing it the past few days (although that’s only partly why Five of Clubs was late – I also spent way too much time waffling on whether or not I wanted to shut the project down before seeking out voice actors). So, safe to say that it’s pretty good.

I’ll be digging into the mechanics in a bit, but what really sells this game is its phenomenal atmosphere. In raw graphics power, it looks good, but not great. It’s in how the smoke from your generators rises above a city clogged with snow. It’s from watching your town sprawl outwards in rings around the central generator, huddling against it for warmth. It’s in hearing the wind howling over the lip of the crater while an automaton nestles against a spoke heater to refuel, its spindly body briefly illuminated by the fires atop the steampunk pillar before it strides back into the darkness to work the coal mine and keep those generators running, while all the squishy humans have boarded themselves into their houses, desperately hoping they won’t freeze to death as the temperature drops to a Hellish triple digit negative.

Screenshots don’t begin to do the atmosphere justice. This image features a mildly intriguing interface, but playing the game makes you feel cold.

It’s one of those games, like XCOM, that keeps the pressure up constantly with an expertly balanced series of static events. The first time through, I got about halfway through before my people became disillusioned with my leadership and banished me to the icy wastes. The second time through, I paid much more careful attention to the hope and discontent meters, but didn’t put much emphasis on research or economy, which led to my creating a fascist dystopia which still lost 80% of its population in the final storm. The third time through, I did what really should’ve been my default strategy, since it’s how you win like 90% of all strategy games, and focused primarily on my economy, which allowed me to swing large piles of resources at problems as they occurred.

Continue reading “Frostpunk”

Conan the Cimmerian

This is a wrap-up post for all the stories covering Conan’s early years, which I am assembling under the banner of “Conan the Cimmerian,” not to be confused with “Conan of Cimmeria,” a collection of short stories only one of which was actually covered by the reviews linked in this post.

Conan the Introduction
Let’s Get The Conversation About Racism Out of the Way
Conan of Venarium is Aimlessly Meandering
Conan the Barbarian (2011): Parenting the Conan Way, Again
Conan the Barbarian (2011): The Battle of Venarium, Again
Conan the Viking: The Frost Giant’s Daughter
Conan the Viking: Lair of the Ice Worm
Conan the Viking: Legion of the Dead
Conan the Viking: The Thing in the Crypt
Conan the Bold Was Ruined By Ancient Aliens
Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Ordinarily these posts gathering up a bunch of reviews in one place are accompanied by an overall review of the complete work (Conan of Venarium and Conan the Bold, linked above, get such reviews). This is not one of those posts. This is a collection not of posts all referring to the same work, but of reviews of multiple different works (two of the posts do relate to the same work, because Conan the Barbarian (2011) is not getting a full review until we come to the point in the timeline where its main plot occurs). There’s not anything to sum up here, except that the quality and tone of the writing vary significantly from one story to another, which should surprise no one, on account of their having lots of different writers.

As such, these are listed not in the order they were reviewed, but rather the order in which they more or less fit into the Chamomile Chronology I’m haphazardly constructing. This project could pull itself apart under the strain of its incompatible objectives at any time, but so far it’s worked surprisingly well, despite Lair of the Ice Worm’s stringent objections.

The basic conceit of the Chamomile Chronology so far is that Conan was left aimless and meandering after Venarium, his ties to Cimmeria cut, and began raiding with the viking Aesir until he was captured by Hyperboreans. After making his escape from there, he briefly cut across the Brythunian and Border Kingdom wildernesses on his way home to Cimmeria, where he soon grew restless again, heading into the Pictish wilderness. After stumbling from there half-dead, he was rescued by some Cimmerians he were then tragically put to the torch while he was out hunting, leading him on a hunt of the slavers who’d attacked them that took him across most of Hyboria. At this point Conan had firmly left his home behind and no longer even used Cimmeria as a home base for his wanderings, but instead became completely unmoored.

This chronology makes a couple of assumptions:

  1. Conan the Barbarian (1982) is tossed from the chronology completely, because it conflicts not only with other early Conan stories, but also my recollection of many Conan the thief stories. When I come back to Conan for the thief era, I may find that this recollection is incorrect, at which point I may swap in Conan ’82 to replace all the other stories from this era, since it is superior to basically all of them. This will also almost certainly require tossing the latter two-thirds of Conan the Barbarian (2011).
  2. Conan of Venarium and the early chapters of Conan the Barbarian (2011) are mutually incompatible. Conan the Barbarian (2011) is way better, therefore Conan of Venarium is getting junked.
  3. The Frost Giant’s Daughter, the Lair of the Ice Worm, the Legions of the Dead, and the Thing in the Crypt happen in that order. After the Lair of the Ice Worm, Conan returns to Cimmeria for a time, but returns to Asgard soon afterwards to raid the Hyperboreans (rather than the Vanir, the target of his first excursion). Three of these four stories are mostly unmoored in time and can occur anywhere, but make sense as Conan’s early travels due to their proximity to Cimmeria. The Lair of the Ice Worm really badly wants to remind you that its authors intended it to occur much later in Conan’s career, but usually because Conan is older and more cunning than he was in earlier stories – even though they also constantly take pains to make it clear that the Frost Giant’s Daughter occurred immediately before Lair of the Ice Worm, and one of Conan’s stupidest acts occurs in the Frost Giant’s Daughter. The constant insistence that Lair of the Ice Worm occurs later in Conan’s career does not affect the story at all and can be excised without losing anything.
  4. Conan the Bold occurs last of the set, and initiates Conan’s aimless wandering, as it takes him too far from home for him to keep to his until-then usual habit of using Cimmeria as a home base from which to make excursions into nearby countries for adventure.

With Conan’s early years wrapped up, I’m going to be taking a break from the Conan series for a bit to instead engage in some blatant nepotism. Well, not really nepotism, since I only briefly met the author at the latest Salt Lake FanX. So, nationalism? City-ism? I’m going to review a book I bought at FanX for no other reason except that I bought a book at FanX, is what I’m getting at, and that book is CJ Olsen’s The Immortal Cure, a steampunk book about the plucky daughter of an immortal overlord teaming up with a sky pirate to try and find a “cure” for the overlord’s immortality and commit patricide. The author said he’d be back at the Salt Lake Comic Con in September with the sequel. We’ll see whether or not I care to drop by his booth by the end of this book.

Heroes of Ramshorn: Touch and Go

Heroes of Ramshorn’s Kickstarter will, as of the publication, be a little over halfway over. As of the writing, it has just under 15 days left and is 75% funded, needing a little under $500 to get the rest of the way, and a little $800 to hit that all-important Pathfinder conversion stretch goal, which will bring in more backers besides. If I can hit that stretch goal by the time the 48-hour reminder emails get sent out, I am reasonably likely to see a major surge at that last minute that could even carry me over the $3,000 stretch goal mark. The trouble is, $800 is a lot of money and my incoming pledges have completely stalled out. I need to find a way to get two or three more decent-sized surges out of the remaining two weeks, and while I’m still trying to post it around and see what I can scrounge up, so far I’ve not had any luck. I’ve still got a few more cards to play before this one is done for, and even the current level of success means I am reasonably likely to hit my base goal. It’s even possible that I’ll hit the Pathfinder goal and find myself suddenly turned around and seeing major success like the last one had (the last one benefited from its Pathfinder goal being a mere $800 – this sequel has to have a much higher baseline goal due to the higher production values the series got from its initial success). That said, every passing day makes it more and more clear that this one is going to be less successful than the last.

Conan the Viking: Lair of the Ice Worm

I’m going to review one more short story, this one written by de Camp and Carter for the 1969 collection Conan of Cimmeria. It takes place in Asgard, but naturally follows the timeline of de Camp, and is thus well into Conan’s career according to its italicized prologue. Most of the time, however, the only thing placing one of these de Camp stories into any particular place in the timeline is the italicized prologue, with the story itself utterly devoid of any particular temporal markers. We’ll see if the Lair of the Ice Worm can’t be fit into a chronology that sets Conan’s northern adventures earlier in his career. The main question there is whether Conan actually leaves Asgard, which would conflict with his leaving Asgard via Hyperborea and then escaping Hyperborea during the Legion of the Dead and the Thing in the Crypt.

Chapter 1

Conan has come to an evil glacier, and scoffs at the idea that glaciers could be evil. Probably all the people who died up there just sucked at mountaineering. In fairness, a mountain is perfectly capable of murdering people without supernatural aid. On the other hand, Conan refers directly back to his recent encounters with the supernatural:

Conan was eager to descend the pass into the low hills of the Border Kingdom, for he had begun to find the simple life of his native Cimmerian village boring. His ill-fated adventure with a band of golden-haired AEsir on a raid into Vanaheim had brought him hard knocks and no profit. It had also left him with the haunting memory of the icy beauty of Atali, the frost giant’s daughter, who had nearly lured him to an icy death.

You just barely had a run-in with a frost giant. Why are you so skeptical that this glacier might be haunted? Or just, y’know, home to frost giants?

The story does firmly set itself after a time when Conan has been south of Cimmeria:

Altogether, he had had all he wanted of the bleak northlands. He burned to get back to the hot lands of the South, to taste again the joys of silken raiment, golden wine, fine victuals, and soft feminine flesh. Enough, he thought, of the dull round of village life and the Spartan austerities of camp and field!

You could make an argument that this fits as well for Conan having briefly raided Aquilonia post-Venarium as it could be referring to his thief years further south, but that’s kind of a stretch. It seems like it’s going to be an ongoing theme and not just a stray paragraph, too. I’m happy to assume Conan of Venarium’s last chapter just never happened and equally happy to ignore a stray paragraph of Lair of the Ice Worm, but in the first case only because that last chapter served no narrative purpose, it was just the final vignette in a series of disconnected vignettes, and in the latter case I’m only willing to discard that paragraph if it ends up being trivial to the story. If “I’m sick of the northlands and want to go back south, a place with which I have extensive experience” is meant to be an ongoing theme, then the whole story is set firmly later on in Conan’s career.

I’m writing a lot more about the timeline than I anticipated.

Continue reading “Conan the Viking: Lair of the Ice Worm”

Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Admin note: I’m filing this under “book review” because it’s part of my review of Conan as a series, which is mostly books. We are, however, reviewing the 1982 movie and not its novelization, which I was unable to find in digital format.

The 1982 Conan the Barbarian doesn’t fit into any timeline at all unless you completely excise every other attempt to depict Conan’s early years. That said, it is quite possibly the best depiction of Conan’s early years of all. Michael A. Stackpole’s depiction of Conan up to Venarium is the only one that’s even giving Conan ’82 any competition, and even then it’s not exactly a close race.

Conan ’82 is not flawless. Several of its flaws can be filed under the header of “fuck the 80s.” The two most prominent examples:

-Early on, Conan very probably rapes someone for basically no reason. I mean, in-universe the reason is that he’s been enslaved since childhood and is now an obedient dog doing pretty much whatever he’s told, and he was told to breed with another slave. Out-of-universe, though, you can excise the entire scene and nothing is lost. If you really need some tits at that point in the runtime, you could’ve just had the woman be less clearly scared of Conan.

-One of the priests of Thulsa Doom’s evil cult is a predatory gay guy, whom Conan lures away from the rest of the cult by pretending to be shy about his body, then kills him and takes his clothes. Killing people and taking their clothes is something Arnold Schwarzenegger does surprisingly often in his movies.

The second one is actually significantly less bad in a modern context than in the era it came out in, at least. Back in the 80s, this was part of an overall trend in which all gay people were depicted as predatory and evil. These days, there’s a growing library of films, tv shows, books, video games, etc. etc. with gay people who aren’t necessarily evil, which means that this movie having a bit part where one specific gay guy is a predatory priest part of a predatory cult is less of a commentary on all gay people and more a way of depicting the predatory nature of Thulsa Doom’s cult. That isn’t really to the filmmakers credit, because it’s not when filming the scene they were thinking “okay, sure, this scene is harmful now, but with our clairvoyant superpowers we can predict that forty years from now cultural context will change and make it better,” but cultural context has changed, will probably continue to change, and eventually this scene won’t even be a problem.

A more enduring problem (and one that can’t simply be completely excised with no harm to the rest of the film) is the shoddy pacing of the first hour. The movie actually begins with really good pacing, and is easily my favorite depiction of the violent destruction of Conan’s Cimmerian roots. Rather than trying to build up our attachment to Cimmeria first, the movie just cuts to the chase and burns the village to the ground. Conan’s parents’ futile defiance of the invaders made me like them more than Harry Turtledove managed with an entire book (or John Maddox Roberts managed with one chapter, but at least it was just one chapter).

After that, however, the movie loses itself in vignettes for a full hour. This isn’t nearly as bad as it could be because all of the vignettes are individually good (except the one where he meets the witch who tries to eat him, that one was terrible, but it at least serves the purpose of establishing Conan’s vengeance quest). From the death of Conan’s parents in the first ten minutes to the one hour mark, Conan wanders from one vignette to another, finally getting a lead on Thulsa Doom and bringing the first act to a close. In between he meets two valuable allies and punches a camel, but you could’ve completely rearranged the order of the scenes in the script and changed nothing. With some clever editing, you might even be able to rearrange the order of the scenes in the existing movie without affecting the flow of the plot at all. Scenes don’t build on each other, they just happen in sequence.

Continue reading “Conan the Barbarian (1982)”

These Kickstarters Also Look Fun

I usually only poke around Kickstarter maybe once a month, but I naturally tend to spend more time there when I have a campaign of my own going, which means it’s usually also during or immediately after a campaign that I see other Kickstarter campaigns which look fun. Here’s the ones I’ve found this time around.

Deniable Assets is a game powered by the apocalypse about being the bad guys in a cyberpunk story. What really sold me on this one are all the stretch goals that have already been unlocked. There’s stuff here for horror, aliens, a fantasy conversion, plus a whole stock of locations and NPCs that I’m hoping will be interesting enough to serve as inspiration for any cyberpunk game.

Spellcaster University is back with a lower goal and, apparently, a more effective campaign, because they’ve raised more money than last time despite a shorter time frame. Just like before, Spellcaster University is a game in which you build Hogwarts in order to train wizards to defeat Sauron. There’s only a few days left on this one and we’re about $6,000 out from the next stretch goal (the goals are all in metric money), but I’m hoping the last minute crush will get that goal unlocked, ’cause that one is orc students and I’d love to see some greenskin wizards at the academy (I’d also like to see dwarves and elves, but those stretch goals are so far out as to be pretty much guaranteed not to happen).

Lancer is a mud-and-lasers RPG that looks like it’ll be worth backing just as an artbook, from the same person who did Kill Six Billion Demons. It’s already made a squillion dollars and therefore needs no assistance from me, but if you hadn’t heard about it and you like great art or shooting lasers while standing in mud, you should probably give it a look. I have no idea how this will be as an actual game, so if you want actually good mech combat rules maybe hold out for when I post a review article at some point in the future. I’m sure they’ll be selling it in .pdf after the Kickstarter is over.

Grand Guilds is like XCOM but with deckbuilding, and I therefore had to back it under the grounds that I will back any project that starts with “like XCOM but.”

Year of the Pig deck is a standard poker deck, but themed after the year of the pig, which is this year. They’re planning to do another eleven of these, one for each year of the Chinese zodiac, and they’re off to a pretty strong start so far. I’ve been collecting cards for over half a decade now, and I’m hoping to collect the whole zodiac set.

Finally, the creator of Quackup actually asked for my help getting the word out about his Kickstarter, which is for a fantasy adventure comic starring an anthropomorphic duck. Despite the ludicrous sounding premise, it seems to take itself as seriously as any fantasy adventure comic. I assume this guy contacted me because we have somewhat relevant Kickstarters and mine is doing slightly better. If so, I have bad news for him: The primary funnel for my project is not my social media or my blog. The primary funnel for my project is my project. I already like making posts about neat-looking Kickstarters, though – they’ll hopefully net a few pledges here or there for other creators and they’re easy content for me to write – so I decided sure, I’ll toss this guy in. When this post goes up, he’ll have just a few days left, but as of the writing he’s already hit his funding goal, and now’s a pretty good time to get the first three issues at once, in digital format or, if your spite for trees is exceeded only by your hatred for money, in print.


Conan the Barbarian (2011): The Battle at Venarium, Again

Chapter 5

The chapter opens with Conan forging a sword, and mostly consists of Corin dispensing more fatherly wisdom. I’m often baffled by people highlighting seemingly random passages from these books, but the highlights here are reasonably good lines:

[“]Men learn in one of two ways. Some observe, ask questions, think and act. Others act and fail, and if they survive their failure, they learn from it.[“]


[“]We all disappoint others. If we never do, it’s because we never take a chance, we never live.[“]


“If you remember nothing else, my son, remember this: it’s not the man who slays the most who wins a battle; it’s the man who survives who wins it.”

You can’t chalk this up to living in the age of widespread internet access expediting research. Michael A. Stackpole is just way better at this than Harry Turtledove.

It’s not completely perfect or anything. Corin’s font of wisdom schtick is pretty incessant, and it’s beginning to grate. I’d be a lot more forgiving if so much of the book wasn’t from Corin’s perspective. Corin is a pretty good parent and is teaching Conan skills he badly wants to develop, so it makes perfect sense that Conan would idolize him like this. Children naturally idolize their parents, usually even when those parents are terrible, and Corin has done nothing that would dissuade that in Conan. The problem is that the narrative is often written from Corin’s perspective, giving us Corin’s thoughts. Rather than an idol to Conan, Corin comes across as though he is literally an incessant font of fatherly wisdom, some kind of weird Platonic ideal of fatherliness with no other qualities.

The whole “temper fire with ice” theme gets laid on pretty thick in this chapter, but it doesn’t seem to be sticking to Conan. Taking a whole chapter to make the point that the “be colder” lesson isn’t taking is a questionable use of pagespace. If this is setting up a major theme of the entire story, or even if just learning this lesson is some kind of critical turning point for Conan early on, that’s fair enough. On the other hand, if Conan just takes a while to learn because he’s stubborn, that may be perfectly realistic, but it’s still wasting time on a lot of repetition that ultimately amounts to nothing.

Continue reading “Conan the Barbarian (2011): The Battle at Venarium, Again”

Four of Clubs: Escape: Curse of the Temple: Colon Cancer

This is the episode where I realized after I’d already shot and written everything that the show may be categorically mediocre without the Commander, without having enough time to actually change anything about this one, which is heavy on plot and light on reasons to care. The limitations of not being able to introduce any new characters unless they’re either bit parts with just a few lines or can be represented with voice modulation is also seriously inhibiting my writing.

Conan the Barbarian (2011): Parenting the Conan Way, Again

Today we’re starting in on the first 11 chapters of Conan the Barbarian (2011), the novel based on the movie of the same name, which got such awful reviews that I didn’t bother with it. These first 11 chapters recount Conan’s childhood up to the eve of Venarium, which makes them basically an alternate account of Conan of Venarium. Conan of Venarium was pretty hit and miss, but this book is based off of an apparently mediocre movie, so we’ll see if it does any better. Initially I had planned to first review the novelization of the 1982 film, but it doesn’t seem to exist in digital format and I’m now debating whether I should order a paperback copy while reviewing this one, so that it’ll show up in time to use that novel to round out the string of Conan origin stories I’ve been reviewing. This whole review thing is much harder when I have to type in quotes myself, and I’m considering just watching the ’82 movie and making a one-post review instead.

For now, though, Michael A. Stackpole wrote a novelization of the lame 2011 reboot. You may have heard of Stackpole because he was behind a lot of the bigger Star Wars novels that sustained the franchise in the 90s, including a couple of the X-Wing novels.

Chapter 1

We’re opening with Conan’s father, still a blacksmith (this seems to have laid down by Robert E. Howard, but I’m not sure where, exactly), here named Corin, watching a bunch of Cimmerian teenagers being drilled in swordplay. Like, actually drilled.

A dozen young men, some showing only the first wisp of a beard, practiced with the fellows in a circle of hardpacked snow. Two warriors circulated among them, snapping order. The youths’ swords came up and flashed out, high cuts and low. Warriors lashed the youths’ bellies when their charges displayed sloppy guards, and tipped elbows up and kicked feet into their proper place. Smiles betrayed boys who thought learning the deadly arts was but a game; and harsh cuffs disabused them of that notion.

Which…what? Cimmerians don’t do this. It’s one of their defining attributes. Barbarians don’t form up and pass on institutional knowledge. If you want to know how to do a thing, you find someone who’s good at it and follow them around until they teach you. If all or most people in your culture have a certain skill set (like being a warrior), then whoever you end up following around will pass that skill onto you. Sure, that teaching is definitely going to involve practicing the same motions over and over until you get good at them (if it doesn’t, then you will suck at sword fighting, full stop), but it’s still built on personal connections that occur naturally to human beings, not an institution of education with a specific age cut-off for joining in. Having formal drills shared by the entire village is borderline Roman in its organization.

I get the feeling that Stackpole, coming from a massive, modern society that uses bureaucracy to keep itself organized despite its immense scale, cannot imagine how a village of just a few hundred people can just do whatever and everything will seriously just sort itself out nine times out of ten. Not because they develop institutional traditions like these combat drills, but because you can build a society that small on nothing but personal relationships.

Continue reading “Conan the Barbarian (2011): Parenting the Conan Way, Again”

The Three Buu Solution

The Buu arc of Dragonball Z is generally agreed to be the weakest of the bunch. The arc contains several beloved plot beats, like the relationship between Mr Satan and Fat Buu and Vegeta’s excellent character arc, and also contains many interesting concepts like fusion, Gohan’s relationship with Videl, and even Majin Buu himself. Unfortunately, it doesn’t gel together at all. Many of the most interesting additions to the story are totally extraneous, and the relentless focus on the rivalry between Goku and Vegeta undermines the conclusion of the Android/Cell arc where Gohan is supposed to be taking up the mantle of Earth’s defender from Goku, who is falling behind the rising power of his son. That passing of the torch lasted all of one fight before Goku shows up, having far exceeded Gohan once more.

Arthuriana thrived on its ability to discard or rewrite bad stories while keeping good ones word for word. I think losing this ability, in part because of copyright and in part because cinema means that cutting together films shot in different eras makes the seams extremely obvious, makes modern storytelling weaker. Given a chance to reboot Dragonball Z, I’d make only minor edits to the Saiyan/Freeza arc, and while I’d revise the early Android/Cell arc (the androids themselves are wasted as villains), I’d want the conclusion to be mostly a shot-for-shot recreation. For the Buu arc, however, I’d go with a total reconstruction with the goal of salvaging the good bits while reframing the context such that they actually matter. In the existing Buu arc, all fusions and every action taken by both Gohan and Mr Satan could both be completely excised and it would change nothing about the ultimate conclusion.

Given the opportunity to rewrite the arc, I’d implement what I call the Three Buu Solution: Having not one, but three pink demon genies, each of Buu’s three different forms being different characters altogether, who appear right alongside one another. This allows for three coterminous plots that can emphasize three different sets of characters without reducing some of them to a sideshow in which a heroic effort is made to defeat Buu and it just doesn’t work, so everyone ultimately may as well have just waited for Goku to do it. Again.

Continue reading “The Three Buu Solution”