Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Board game review: Carcassonne

What is it?
Carcassonne is an award winning table-top board game published by Rio Grande Games where 2 to 5 players lay down square tiles to build up a large map made up of roads, rivers, walled cities and fields.  By strategic placement of pieces, or meeples as they are known, points are scored for every city, road and farm that is completed.


Carcassonne is classed as a European or German-style board game.  This type of game tends to favour themes of economy over combat and there is more emphasis on skill and strategy than luck.  Also, all the players tend to remain in the game until the very end which for a family board game, is an excellent idea. 

What's in the box?

The game consists of 72 landscape tiles each measuring 1.5 inch square, 40 meeples in various colours, a score track board and a colourful, easy-to-read instruction guide.  The rules stretch to four A4 pages of large text with lots of pictures explaining various scenarios encountered within the game.  The tiles and score track are thick-stock card that will stand up to many hours of gameplay.  The pieces, or meeples, are wooden and are of a cute style, as employed by many games of this nature.


In play

Carcassonne is a very gentle game and the rules are relatively easy.  Expect to play three or four games before the rules become second nature and strategies and tactics become apparent.  When placing tiles, the features on the tile must match up against what is already on the board.  For example, a tile with part of a walled city must match up to an existing wall, roads must attach to an existing road etc.  Meeples are placed onto the various features but not where a meeple already exists.

A city is completed when the outer wall circles the city without a break.  2 points are scored for every tile making up a town so it pays to make the largest town you can.  While a meeple can't be placed in a feature that is already occupied by another player, through judicious placing of tiles, it is possible to sneak into an existing feature and to share the points.  When a town or castle is completed, the meeple is then returned to the player and that feature can't be used again.


Roads are completed when a blocking tile such as a city wall or road junction is placed at both ends.  1 point is scored for each road tile.  When the road is completed, the meeple is returned to the player and the road can't be occupied by any player for the remainder of the game.

Cloisters are completed when they are completely surrounded by tiles.  With a point per tile, a completed cloister is worth a total of 9 points.  Again, the meeple is returned to the player.

Farms are scored differently.  By placing a meeple on a field, any *completed* cities bordering the fields are worth 3 points.  These points are only scored at the end of the game so the meeple has to remain in the field for the whole duration and they aren't returned to the player.

At the end of the game, points are scored for meeples occupying incomplete features as well.  In the case of cities, this is reduced to 1 point per tile but the other features remain the same.  The game is finished when all the landscape tiles have been used up.

The stated game time is 45 minutes but in our experience, games can last up to an hour and a half.  Maybe that's our inexperience and it will improve in time?

Strengths:
  • Easy rules to understand.
  • Every game is different and a completed game board looks great with very colourful and detailed artwork.
  • With a limited amount of meeples, there is a decent element of strategic thinking involved.  While turning over each tile is random, placing them to best effect in conjunction with your limited resources is the skill and strategy needed.
  • With all players remaining in the game until the end, it's very family friendly.
  • The scoring system allows games to be close and it's hard to pick out a winner until the very end.
  • Encourages simple arithmetic in younger players.
  • Quality components

Weaknesses:
  • The farms are quite complicated to score, especially for younger players.
  • It's easy to knock the tiles therefore dislodging the whole game board.  Keep your elbows together.
  • Needs a large table or plenty of floor space once the map starts to grow.
  • The link to Carcassonne, the REAL walled town in France is tenuous at best.  For those expecting a little history lesson in with their gaming will be short-changed in that regard.
  • Takes longer than the anticipated 45 minutes.

Conclusion

Carcassonne is a fun game for all the family to play and easy to understand.  The artwork is well done, of a high-quality and is a lovely-looking game to boot.  I would say it appeals to all age groups and anyone from the age of 7 upwards would enjoy playing.  It obviously takes a few games to understand fully the game mechanics, develop strategies and know the best options for your followers but it's all good fun.  Carcassonne is highly recommended and a good introduction to alternative board games if you've only ever experienced Scrabble or Monopoly before.

Board game review: Carcassonne Princess and the Dragon

What is it?

Carcassonne Princess and The Dragon is an expansion set for the Carcassonne board game, a clever tile-laying game where 2-5 players build up a map of roads, fields and cities by connecting tiles together to form bigger features.  By strategically placing followers, or meeples as they are known, onto these landscape features, victory points are scored.  The bigger the landscape feature, the more points are scored.


Who will enjoy this game?

Obviously, this is an expansion and as such, the original game is required before-hand.  Carcassonne, the board game in general, is very much geared towards a fun, family-orientated game and the rules are relatively easy to pick up.  Euro or German style games such as Carcassonne place the emphasis and theme towards economy and area control as opposed to combat and luck.  Players tend not to be eliminated, rather they stay in the game until the end, allowing for a high level of player interaction.  More importantly, family members aren't left out because they've been knocked out of the game early. 

What's in the box?

The Princess and The Dragon expansion contains a number of new landscape tiles with various features pertaining to the expansion on them, a wooden Princess piece, a wooden Dragon piece and an A5 double-sided sheet of rules.  As with all Rio Grande games, the components themselves are of a very high quality.  The tiles are printed on very thick card and stand up well to repeated play.  The wooden pieces are in the typical meeple style and are also thick and chunky.


How do you play it?

The Princess and The Dragon expansion adds an element of fantasy to the normally grounded-in-history Carcassonne game.  This is not a bad thing but could put off the more traditional games players.  There are several new game mechanics added to the original game with this expansion, namely the Dragon that moves around the map, removing meeples back to their respective owners and the Princess, who provides shelter from the Dragons fiery breath.

The Dragon starts the game on a volcano tile.  If another volcano tile is drawn by a player, it will immediately fly to wherever that tile is placed.  If a tile with a movement icon is drawn, the dragon will move around the board, throwing meeples back to their respective owners. 

There is a restriction on its movement however. It can only move 6 squares, horizontally or vertically only and it can't revisit a square it has already occupied on this movement.  Each square it moves, the responsibility for the move transfers to each player in turn until it can't move anymore.  Any meeples it encounters are returned to their respective owners.  Moving the dragon around is fun and calls for a little forward thinking when it comes to your turn to move it.  You can try and steer it into a cul-de-sac, away from your own players or move it towards your opposition. 

The Princess acts as a protector for a player as the Dragon can't move onto a tile occupied by the Princess.  Players can take control of the Princess at the start of their turn.  An extra point is accrued for the player who is being guarded by the Princess at the start of his or her turn.

To counter-act the effect of removing meeples from incomplete landscape features, there is also a portal tile that allows a player to place a meeple onto any previously incomplete and uninhabited feature, a significant rule change over the original game.  In addition, there are Princess tiles that allow a player to kick an opposing knight out of an incomplete city. 

Does it work?

In play, the Princess and The Dragon expansion calls for new strategical thinking and ramps up the tension, especially when the dragon is moving round the board, closing in on ones unprotected meeples.  The deliberate placing of a volcano tile near an opposing players settlement is also good fun. 

A drawback was remembering to score the extra point on each turn for possession of the Princess piece.  Trying to remember even to claim the Princess piece is a feat in itself.  While there is a small element of luck in the base Carcassonne game, especially when trying to draw just the right-shaped tile to complete a large city for example, in this expansion, if you don't draw any portal or Princess tiles, you're almost out of the running, meaning luck seems to play a bigger part than it originally does.

As with most (if not all) of the Carcassonne expansion packs, they can be combined with other expansions in the range to create one great big mega mega large game.  Just make sure you have the floor space.

Conclusion

Saying all that, it's still a fun addition to the series, my ten year old daughter in particular loves it.  The rule for the extra point seems to be one rule too far but is quite easily ignored.  It does extend the game time from 60 minutes to around 90, mainly because of the extra tiles and occasional rule lookup.  It's a worthy addition to an excellent board-game series.

Priced around £15 and published by Rio Grande Games, The Princess and The Dragon can be bought at any good board-game stockist.  The Carcassonne board game series contains elements of arithmetic, strategic and forward thinking and good old gamesmanship.

IPod Classic 160gb review

What is it?

The Apple iPod Classic 160gb is a personal music player and the sixth generation iPod to be released by Apple.  This model also represents the last in the line for the iPod Classic, a venerable product that proved to be a massive winner for Apple, helping revive their fortunes.

This is a review of the 160gb version.

What's in the box?

Apple are very miserly in their packaging and the iPod Classic is no exception.  The box was merely a small plastic case, only ever-so slightly larger than a packet of cigarettes.  Inside were a few (heavily) folded crib sheets, a pair of the ubiquitous white headphones (that aren't very good) and a USB connector lead.  Don't forget the actual iPod Classic though.  This 6th generation model was named the 'Classic' to distinguish it from the iPod 'Touch' that had just been released.  All previous models were simply called the 'iPod'.

The front of the iPad Classic has an anodized , dark grey metal surface as opposed to the 5th generations shiny gloss finish.  The edges are now slightly bevilled on the front AND back meaning it sits in the hand nicely.  Its dimensions are 10.3cm x 6.18cm x 1.5cm and weighs 140g.  It's hard to believe there is 160gb of storage inside, on a 1.5 inch hard disc drive.

The display screen is covered in Apples scratch-resistant glass and measures 2.5 inches across, taking up half of the space with a resolution of 320x240 pixels equating to 163 pixels per inch.  The other half is the Click Wheel, a touch-sensitive input mechanism that allows the user to interact with the device.  On the top of the iPod is a lock-switch and a socket for a 3,5mm headphone jack and along the bottom is the standard dock connector to allow connection to a computer or docking station.  Interestingly, the headphone socket also doubles as a microphone socket.

Getting started

The iPod Classic is a pure-bred music player and as such, needs some way of getting music onto it.  It doesn't have Wi-Fi, nor access to the Internet so it's a connection to a PC / Mac or nothing I'm afraid.

iTunes is my music organiser of choice.  I have used it for years and will continue to do so.  I am aware that there is other music and media organiser software available, even some that will sync with Apple products but iTunes is what I use. 

Plugging in the iPod Classic with iTunes running and the device is automatically recognised, prompting for registration.  If you already have an iTunes Store account, you can use that as the basis for registering so there's not much to it. 

Once registration is complete (or skipped, up to you), iTunes will then ask you to sync your music.  How much and what you sync is left up to the user which I found to be most useful as I don't necessarily sync my entire collection.  However, upgrading from 30gb to 160gb has meant oodles more space so I just clicked on 'Sync All'.  It takes a while as it's uploading quite a lot of 'giggage' via those little white Firewire cables.  Be patient.

The Interface

Items on menus are chosen by rotating the thumb (or finger) around the Click Wheel and pressing the central button (or Select).  To go back to the previous menu, press the Menu button at the top of the click wheel.  Note: the wheel doesn't actualy move as it is touch-sensitive and registers where the thumb is on the wheel.

While listening to music, rotating the Click Wheel increases the volume.  Pressing the middle button switches to song progress mode and here, rotating the click wheel will move the current position in the song forwards or backwards.

The left, right and button sections of the Click Wheel have the standard music controls and will skip onto the next or previous songs and pause or play.

The Screen

In song mode, the iPod Classic shows a fair degree of information on its colour display.  It shows the current track along with the artist and track number within the currently selected album.  There is a progress bar at the bottom showing progress within the track which switches to volume when the Click-Wheel is rotated.  There is also a picture of the album should it be available within iTunes.

Along the top are the standard battery level indicators and time.

Menu's and Music

Over the old model, the menus have been given a revamp and now appear much clearer and smarter, taking advantage of the higher pixel count in the screen.  There is also the addition of Cover Flow where album artwork is shown in a smooth and snazzy movable image carousel.  As mentioned, moving up and down menus and lists of songs is easy, simply rotating the Click Wheel.

Music can be selected by song, artist, album, genre, compilation as well as searching by word.  Playlists can be created in iTunes and will automatically be synced, accessible from the Music menu.  You can also create an 'On-The-Go' playlist by holding down the Select button (the one in the centre of the wheel) while listening to a song and it will be added to a 'On-The-Go' playlist.  Like any other music player, MP3's or CD's (or whatever), it has a shuffle facility where random songs are playeed.

Apple recently introduced a new feature into iTunes called 'Genius' that groups together songs it thinks you will like based on your listening and purchasing habits.  In practice, it's a bit of a hit and miss affair unless you only ever listen to one genre of music.  But, if like me, you fancy a bit of hardcore thrash metal alongside your funky house or dub-step, it's never going to find a happy medium.

Apps

There *are* apps available for the iPod Classic and it has to be said, they tend to be pretty poor games based around the Click-Wheel.  It comes with 3 as standard: iPod Quiz, Klondike and Vortex.  iPod Quiz is based on the music on your iPad, Klondike is a card game and Vortex is like the old arcade game, Gyruss.  They're *ok* but's that about as fas as I'll go.  They can only be classed as a diversion, at most.  In my mind, the iPod Classic is not a machine to be running lots of apps on.

Sound
The supplied, obligatory headphones with the iPod are notoriously bad.  The sound quality is average at best and worse, for me anyway, they let out a lot of noise as my work colleagues will testify.  All they can hear is that awful tinny thud-thud sound of drums.  I'm going to get a dustbin in the head one of these days, just you wait and see.

The EQ can be changed to suit the playback device and there are numerous presets from Dance to Small Speakers to Spoken Word.  While there is no fine tuning of the settings, there is a little graphical display of the preset so at least there's a vague idea of what it should sound like.  I find the EQ settings don't make a massive amount of difference but then, my headphones are not exactly expensive.

Playing through a loud-speaker such as a speaker dock or auxilliary input on a bigger amp, it all sounds good enough to me.  I'm no expert in sound but I can make out bass drums, middle range guitars and the top range beeps and whistles.  I suppose it's all down to the speakers you're playing it out of but mine all seem fine where I've played it through a small portable speaker dock, a ghetto-blaster kind of thing, a big hi-fi, a car stereo and even a guitar amp.

Video and Photos

It also plays video, surprisingly enough, as well as displaying photos.  The screen is rather small though and while miles better quality than those little Casio handheld TV's all the range in the late 80's, it's still a strain to watch.  There is an optional extra (of course you have to pay for it, it's Apple!) that allows the video to be output to a TV via RGB input sockets.  Viewed in that way and with all its hard-disc space, you could see it as a reasonable portable video player. 

Settings

Here, you can change which items appear in the main or music menus along with other more mundane stuff like the backlit brightness and whether the Click Wheel makes a little 'clicking' noise.  You can find out how much space there is left on the hard drive too.

Battery Life

Battery life is excellent.  The claimed operating time between charges is 40 hours and I would have to concur.  My old iPod 5th Generation had slowly lost its charge over the 4 years I owned it and would only last a few hours in the morning before a recharge was necessary. 

No such worries here.  I listen to music pretty much all day at work and it will happily go all week between charges.  At 7 hours a day for 5 days, that's pretty much up to 36 hours as stated by Apple.  Recharging takes up to 4 hours for a completely full charge or about 2 hours for the fast-charge up to 80%.

In Use

It really is easy to use.  Once the concept of rotating the wheel and clicking forwards and backwards through the menus is understood, there's nothing else to it.

It's the little things, the details that Apple pays attention to.  Taking out the headphones will automatically pause the music.  The UI (User Interface) just seems to have the right amount of information where you need it.  Scrolling through the menus and on the right, a small summary of the menu item is displayed, showing what you can expect to find in there.  It all adds to the experience yet you hardly notice these little things are there - a by-product of great design.

While music is playing and if left unattended, the iPod Classic will switch into a kinda' sleep mode that simply shows the time in big letters and remaining battery life.  On the older model, the screen would be blank so this is a huge improvement.  There would be plenty of times where I would have to click it back into 'full battery' mode just to see the time - now I don't, it's there for me.

It's not without its faults but they are being incredibly picky.  The Click-Wheel seems to have been 'de-sensitized' since the 5th generation.  Sometimes it stubbornly refuses to move where I want it to and that was never a problem I had with the old one.  I don't know whether it's a hardware issue or whether the tiny processor inside the iPod is struggling to keep up with the new graphical demands placed upon it.  Saying that, it's not a huge problem as once I've selected an album or podcast, I'll just let it play and get on with whatever I'm doing.

I'm not convinced with the new Cover Flow aspect to the updated software.  It's nice to see the album artwork but once I've seen it, that's it, just bring on the music baby.  I'm positive Cover Flow is affecting the reaction time of the Click Wheel too, but I could be wrong.

Scrolling through long lists of songs can be a pain.  If you scroll it fast enough, the iPod will start 'jumping' from letter to letter (by design) but because of the delayed reaction time of the Click Wheel, it's actually quite hard to get it do it.

Conclusion


If there's one thing that Apple does well is giving users of their products what they need.  When it comes to a portable music player, there's a few things that need to tick the boxes:
  • Portable - CHECK
  • Easy to use - CHECK
  • Easy to sync music - CHECK
  • Lots of space for songs - CHECK
  • Good battery life - CHECK
Everything else is just filler.  The iPod Touch is a different beast altogether and is more of a portable media / gaming device.  The iPod Classic is simply there to store songs and allow you to listen to them and, well, that's what it does.

The key to the iPod Classic and the main difference between a dedicated music player and a do-it-all device such as a Touch is all it needs to do is sit in the background playing music.  The Classic will happily do that for you with a minimum of fuss.  It doesn't have many frills, doesn't need to and the interface is so clean and intuitive, it's hard not to love.

And I *do* love my iPod, even more so with all that extra storage.  I've had other MP3 players, many others in fact and none, absolutely none, match up to the simplicity of my little iPod Classic.  I don't want to play games on it (even though I can) or watch videos (even though I can), I just want music, *all* my music, and the iPod gives me that. 

I don't know how long Apple will continue to make the iPod Classic.  I've already stated it's the last generation in this model range so grab it while you can.  It's upstart sibling, the iPod Touch is obviously the one making all the waves and grabbing all the sales while the Classic seems to fading away into the background.  I, for one, will be sorry to see its passing as mine, and the 5th generation previously, has been a constant companion for many years.

When I leave the house for work in a morning, my little mental checklist goes something like this: iPod, keys, sandwiches.  In that order.  And that tells you everything you need to know because I *love* sandwiches.

Movie review: Sleuth (2007)

Synopsis

Andrew Wyke is an ageing but successful writer of trashy detective novels whose younger wife has left, shacking up with Milo Tindle, an even younger, handsome actor.  Tindle visits Wyke in attempt to persuade the older man to divorce his errant wife.   Wyke, seemingly in a fit of altruism, suggests a staged robbery of his wifes expensive jewellery.  Milo can keep the jewels and he can claim on the insurance.  Everyone's a winner.  Milo reluctantly agrees and sets in motion a chain of events as the two protagonists indulge in a psychological and dangerous game of cat and mouse.


Opinion

Sleuth (2007) is actually a re-make of an earlier film from 1972 which _in itself_ was a movie version of an award-winning play written by Anthony Shaffer.  In the 1972 screen version Michael Caine plays Milo, the Jude Law character and it's interesting to see him play the 'other' role of Wyke.  This 2007 version sees the screenplay written by the late great Harold Pinter and based more on the original Shaffer play than the film re-make.  This was to be Pinters last screenplay he wrote before sadly succumbing to cancer in 2008.  Direction is provided by famous actor / lovie Kenneth Branagh.

The plot *is* very Pinteresque with many of the literary signatures that that monicker implies.  Two warring parties, attempting to gain an upper hand, physically and mentally abusing one another, a struggle for territorial dominance.  Pinter and Brannagh have brought it up to date with the inclusion of new technology as plot mechanisms.  For instance, Wyke's obsession with cameras and gadgets replaces those giant mechanical toys in the original.  In fact, to call it a remake is doing the film a disservice as it's almost a complete re-imagining of the story. 

Caine and Law play their respective parts to perfection.  Caine is, well, Michael Caine and a cinematic legend (The Swarm aside).  Thanks to the razor-sharp Pinter dialogue (it should be trademarked), the two characters positively fizz off one another, verbally jousting with arid wit, ferocious put-downs and rapacious anger.  They duck and dive and circle warily, literally and figuratively, jabbing and prodding with capricious banter before launching into full-scale attacks.  Only seconds after they meet and after Milo has parked his small hatchback next to Andrews executive motor, Andrew makes a comment about the size of Milo's car.  "Oh, you've got a small car," he says. "It's not the big one," replies Tindle.  "No, the big one's mine," smirks Wyke.  Ouch.

And they continue.  Wyke constantly refers to Tindle as a hairdresser (he was a hairdresser in the 1972 film) and is constantly being corrected (he's now an actor).  This passing nod being a neat touch while demonstrating Andrews wit and candour.  Milo tells Wyke that he hasn't read of any his books, obviously an insult to a successful author.  Wykes response and in answer to Milo's Italian ancestry is, "They're a funny lot the Italians, Culture isn't really their thing."

It's a very claustrophobic film, with virtually all of the film shot inside the stately house that Wyke inhabits.  Glimpses of the outside are via the security cameras that Wyke has obsessively placed in every conceivable direction.  The house in the 2007 version is in contrast to the kitsch nouveau-rich decoration of that previous, being minimalistic and stark and gadget-laden.  A lift, a focal point of the plot, dominates the set and even this contributes to the claustrophobic air.  Kenneth Brannagh states in an interview the claustrophobia was intentional and he believed the viewer would find fascination in the power of the writing and the performance of the actors.

Polling my wife of her opinion, she described the film as 'absolutely brilliant'.  She thought the actors were superb and the unpredictable nature of the story and plot meant she was gripped.  It was a little hard to get into, she said, but it didn't take long for her to grasp the concept.  She also described it as a 'film lovers film' particularly for those who like something a little different, a little out of the ordinary and I wholeheartedly agree.

With such a small cast (only 4 actors are billed, Pinter being one in his last screen role) and limited set, it's down to the writing, direction and character performances to carry the film.  In that regard, it doesn't disappoint.  Every nuance and exclamation mark of the script is carried off with aplomb by Law and Caine and they provide tour de force performances worthy of the writing. 

Conclusion


Overall, Sleuth (2007) is an exceptional film.  It's fascinating and interesting, has a wickedly unpredictable plot, is written with zeal and vigour and the acting is first-class.  A worthy addition to Caine and Law's curriculum vitae and a fitting tribute to the wonderful Harold Pinter whose work will be missed greatly.

You will like this movie if you like well-written, character-led dramas that are a little different.
You won't like this movie if you think Transformers is too wordy.

Running time: 86 minutes.
Certificate: 15 for strong language
Directed by Kenneth Brannagh

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Board game review: Memoir '44

What is it?

Memoir 44 is a combat-based board game designed by Richard Borg and first published by Days of Wonder in 2004.  Its aim is to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings in France 1944 and it does that by allowing two players (or teams) to take charge of a unit-level army of Allied or Axis soldiers and lead them into battle based on a variety of historically-based scenarios.



Table-top wargaming can be a deliberately obtuse hobby with reams of information, lookup charts and any number of rules, regulations and complicated procedures to provide the ultimate realism of a battlefield.  Unforunately, those types of product tend to have a very niche following so Memoir '44 aims to bridge the gap between complicated war game and family fun by providing simple mechanisms for movement and battles without getting bogged down in a swamp of instruction.

What's in the box?

Memoir '44 consists of a huge number of components and includes two opposing armies of small soldiers, tanks, artillery, obstacles, double-sided terrain hexagons, a pack of command cards, rule summary cards, victory point tokens, special unit tokens, a large double-sided board and a well-illustrated, easy-to-follow rule book.  There's a lot in the box and you really feel you are getting value for money.



The combat units are well-sculptured but the two sides are quite similar in colour especially under poor-lighting.  This is easily remedied by painting, should you wish, but a little more colour disparity wouldn't have gone amiss.  Apart from that, the quality of the components are excellent.  The game board is a very heavy cardboard stock but is easily folded.  The terrain tiles and command cards are all well-made and stand up to repeated plays.

The Objective

The objective of the game is to win by gaining a certain number of victory points.  Victory points are accumulated either by destroying an enemy unit or by capturing certain objectives, dependent on the scenario.

How does it work? (the short version)

Choose a card.  Move.  Fire.  Roll some dice.  Retreat.  Draw a card.

How does it work? (the long version)

Ok, there is a bit more to it than that but that is essentially the different phases of each players turn. 

The Board


The board is split into three sections, or flanks, separated by red lines.  Each 'space' on the board is in the shape of a hexagonal (hex) and movement and shooting range is determined by counting the hexes.  No fiddly rulers or tape measures here.  The board is double-sided with a countryside motif on one side and a beach motif on the other.

Command Cards


In a players turn, they first select a command card from their hand and act upon it.  There are two types of command cards; Section cards and Tactic cards.  Section cards relate to a flank on the board such as 'Order 3 units on the right'.  Tactic cards may affect any area of the battlefield such as calling in a bombing raid or move X number of units (in any section).  Each side only holds a set number of cards, depending on the scenario and knowing which card to play in the right situation is part of the skill of playing.  Some of the Tactic cards have quite long descriptions describing the special action and these, in my experience, are the ones that newcomers to the game struggle with the most.  There are alternate rules that allow the Tactic cards to be removed prior to the game commencing.



Units

There are three types of fighting unit in Memoir '44.  Infantry, armoured tanks and artillery.  Each have their own movement and battle charateristics.

  • Infantry: Move 1 hex and fire or, move 2 hexes and don't fire.  Range is up to 3 hexes and fire power is reduced the further away the target is.
  • Armour: Move 3 hexes.  Firing range is 3 hexes.
  • Artillery: Move 1 space and don't fire or, don't move and fire up to 6 hexes away.

Moving

Units move according to their individual characteristic *and* according to the terrain.  For example, moving into forest terrain means the unit cannot fire in the same turn.  Moving into a hedgerow stops the unit from moving any further (until their next turn) but they can still fire, that kind of thing.  Obviously, units cannot move through or over other units and must go round. 



Movement and placement of units according to terrain is a big part of the strategy and tactics involved in playing the game.  Thankfully, Days of Wonder have printed a set of rules cards that summarise all the different terrains and which rules apply.  This is very handy and means the dreaded 'rule-book flippitus' is kept to a minimum.

Firing

The further away a target is and depending on the terrain, determines how many dice are thrown when attacking an enemy unit and this is true for all of the units involved.  Each mini-battle is decided by throwing dice and a unit is reduced depending on the symbols on the dice. 

Each 6-sided has the following symbols;    2 x Infantry, 1 x Tank, 1 x Grenade, 1 x Flag, 1 x Star.  Infantry only reduces infantry, tanks only reduce tanks etc.  If a grenade is thrown that's an automatic hit, regardless of the unit type.  A star can usually be ignored but is used in special circumstances such as in bombing raids. 

Retreating

A unit is forced to retreat when a flag is thrown on the attacking dice.  Retreating involves moving the unit back towards your own lines.  They can't move sideways and if they hit an inpassable obstacle such as a river or even the edge of the board, one figure is removed from the unit per flag.  Certain terrain features grant protection from retreating.  For example, sandbags allow the defender to ignore the first retreat flag shown.  If two flags are thrown, then the unit must retreat.  In practice, this gives terrain with an 'ignore-flag' rule a big advantage.

Terrain

The game board is only part of the picture when it comes to setting up a battlefield.  Terrain features are placed on the board according to the scenario and these features include hills, rivers, forest, towns, hedgerows etc.  Each piece of terrain has its own set of characteristics and rules.  Terrain affects line of sight, the number of battle dice thrown and movement.

Some examples:


An infantry unit is is two hexes away from attacking another unit hiding in a forest.  Normally, the number of dice thrown would be 2 (counting down from 3) but the forest provides cover of -1 to the hiding unit so only 1 die is thrown (2 - 1). 

An armoured tank unit is firing at an infantry unit, tucked well into a town.  A tank fires with 3 dice up to a distance of 3 hexes but towns provide -2 of cover against attacks by tanks.  Thus, only 1 attacking dice can be thrown by the tank.

The Rulebook

It all sounds complicated, but really, it only takes a couple of turns to get the hang and the scenarios included in the box are designed to ease players into the game.  The rule book is very clear with examples and lots of pretty pictures which is always a help.  It explains all the basics of the game along with terrain descriptions and has 16 scenarios to play.

The Scenarios

Set in 1944 at the time of the D-Day landings, there are plenty of opportunities for battle re-enactments.  There are 16 scenarios in the base game covering the start of D-Day including the beach-landings and leading right up to the re-taking of Paris.  Online at the Days of Wonder website, there are hundreds more user-created scenarios using their own scenario editor for the PC available as an extra charge.

For example, the first scenario in the rule-book, based around Pegasus Bridge on the eve of D-Day, sees Allied paratroopers attempting to capture several important bridges that would slow-down a German counter-offensive the following day.  Further scenarios see the Allies trying to storm the beaches against a well dug-in enemy and the subsequent advancement into the French countryside.

The first scenario will take new players around an hour to play, including setting up time.  This is a quick turn around and makes for a fast-paced game.  As Days of Wonder have tried to maintain a fair degree of historical accuracy, scenarios are quite often purposely unbalanced and the instruction guide suggests players swap sides after playing a scenario to enable both players to experience both sides of the conflict.  A neat idea.

Isn't it just down to luck?

Due to the die-rolling nature of combat and the drawing of combat and tactical cards, there is an element of luck involved.  This type of luck does tend to even itself out over the course of a game and success is usually down to the strategy and tactics employed by the commander of the battle.  The game is geared towards two players but more can be incorporated by allocating battle field flanks.  There is an expansion called Operation Overlord that allows up to eight players to play in one sitting, using two game boards joined together.  I can see how even three boards could be joined together, a flank for each board.

Can I expand it?

There are a multitude of expansions for Memoir '44 with Russian, Japanese and British army sets taking the game into the Eastern Front, Pacific and Mediterranean theatres respectively.  There's en exciting Air Pack that introduces air power to the battlefield and a campaign book with over fifty new scenarios to play as part of a larger military campaign.  Days of Wonder even produce a specially-made bag to hold and carry the game and all available expansions in one place.  New expansions are being released by Days of Wonder on a regular basis and along with a healthy online community, longevity is assured.

Come on now, surely it must be difficult and takes ages to play?


Memoir 44 *is* easy and don't let the complicated descriptions above put you off.  It is also quick to play and each session comes in at under an hour, including setting up the board initially.  As more expansion sets are introduced, the rules do become more complex but it's a graded complexity allowing players to gradually build up their expertise and confidence.  It's aimed at players aged 10+ and in our experience, that's a good guide.  My daughter aged 10 picked up the rules in one game and while she didn't fully appreciate the tactics, she still beat me!

There are one or two downsides to the game.  As mentioned, the colours of the components are too similar and luck plays a hefty part in the individual battles.  There's an argument whether games like this glamorize war and it's a valid one but then, there are lots of war games in the market and it would be unfair to single out Memoir 44 for criticism.   You'll either be excited by the topic or you'll hate it.  The scenarios included in the rule-book have been researched well, covering many famous battles of that era and this gives the game much more gravitas.

Conclusion

A great, easy-to-play board game and a good introduction to what can be a fascinating hobby, especially if you decide to paint the soldiers and make your own 3D scenery.  It is also a decent 'bridging' game, that is, it's easy enough for complete novices but is involving enough for more experienced players looking for a quick fix.

The real question is; Is it good value for money?  At £45.00 a pop, it's not cheap but then, there are a lot of components and what's the everage price of an XBox game nowadays?  The purpose of the review is not to compare it to videogames as they are two totally separate beasts.  As far as board games go however, Memoir '44 is right up there and is worthy of anyones hard-earned cash.

Essential Info

The game has elements of simple arithmetic, reading, history, forward planning and strategic thinking.  It is accompanied by a healthy community website, has plenty of options for expansion and there are even resources available to introduce Memoir '44 into the classroom.

Price: Around £45.00 for the base set
Ages: 10+
Time to play: 1 hour
Board Game Geek entry: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/10630/memoir-44.

As of January 2011, it is sitting at number 49 in the list of all-time best board games on that website. 
There is also a French version of the game.

Days of Wonder

Memoir '44 is published by Days of Wonder, a company specializing in family board games.  As well as the Memoir '44 battle system, they are also responsible for many successful games series such as Ticket to Ride and Small World.

http://www.daysofwonder.com

Richard Borg, the designer of Memoir '44 has also developed other games using a very similar gaming mechanic.  Called Command and Colours, it has been adapted into other themes such as Roman battles, Napoloenic wars and fantasy arenas.  Richard won the prestigious Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) in 1993.

Added Extra: Battle Report

It was a tall order: Myself having taken delivery of the game only the day previously and the grizzled, hardened veteran of exactly one mission, and three of my work colleagues who were playing it for the first time to fit it in during our lunch hour.  Could we learn the rules, set up the board and have a decent game to a conclusion within our allotted 60 minutes?  Read on to find out ...

Brigadier Poulter and myself took the side of the Allies and with our opening gambit, we decided to annihiliate the sandbagged unit hiding behind the barbed wire with a ferocious artillery bombardment, a move we were sure, would open the way for an easy stroll onto our target.  It failed miserably with only one enemy casualty.  It did serve to awaken the Axis to our positions and they were able to make a decent fist of it against the Allies' leading unit, reducing it by half.

With true Dunkirk spirit, the Allies made a screaming charge into the barbed wire but were held back by some dogged German defences.  The Axis struck back quickly and were soon in posession of their first victory point.  A smoking crater where the lead Allied unit only moments earlier had been standing.

The Allied High Command were now starting to look worried and issued a direct order, allowing units to swarm towards the enemy positions, at both sides of the battlefield.  Another unit advanced quickly around the pond, a pincer move in mind onto the stubborn dug-in enemy position.  But the Axis unit behind the sandbags held firm and thanks to a nifty probe down the right flank, were able to provide covering fire over the river onto the advancing commandos, eliminating another unit.

Sheer weight of Allied troops were to prove too much for the Axis defences as the dug-in unit were forced to retreat onto Pegasus bridge itself.  Orne Bridge on the right flank was a much easier proposition and after just token resistance, the Allied soldiers were able to force the Axis units into a retreat, decimating them in the process.

The Allied pincer move was starting to pay off, and thanks to a particular gruesome firestorm of flying bullets, the Axis units were being picked off voraciously.  With only seconds left to spare on the lunch-hour clock, a final, spinning die slowly succumbed to gravity, eliminating the last man in the German unit and with it, a hard-fought victory for the Allies.  Score 4 - 2 to Allies.  Time: 60 minutes bang on.

We did it.  Four complete newcomers to the game, setting up the board and having an entertaining game to a conclusion in an hour. 

Overall, we all enjoyed the game and felt the rules were easy enough to follow.  As the Allies, and holder of the rule book, we perhaps cheated a little by invoking the 'remove a unit if no retreat possible' rule without the other side knowing it existed.  We claimed a VP for that as the one-soldier unit was eliminated and it definitely swung the game in our favour.  If our opposition had known the rule, they would not have placed their unit in such a vulnerable position. 

Kapitan Lowson and Oberfurststurmfuhrer (sic) Palmer made the most of their dug-in position, despite some pretty poor starting cards and were able to gain their 2 VP's from that position alone.  When they were forced to retreat, abandoning the sandbags in the process, things definitely went downhill from there.

For a first game, there was a little debate over the rules but the helper cards did their job and were able to provide a nifty reference guide.  By the end, we were all pretty confident in how the battles and movement worked and the turns were progressing quite fluidly.

Although we won the game, the Allies only held one of the two bridges and felt we hadn't quite achieved the objective.  Would it be fairer to make the 2 VP's for the bridges the only condition of victory for the Allies?  Hard to say but saying that, with only another five or ten minutes more of game-time and with far superior fire power, the Allies would have over-run Pegasus bridge, claiming the objective out-right.

That last dice roll was very lucky and seemed to take forever to stop spinning!

We're going to swap sides for the next game.  Can't wait.

Board game review: Steve Jackson's Revolution!

What is it?

Revolution is a board game first published by Steve Jackson Games (SJ Games) in 2009.

Following a revolution, a city is in turmoil and requires a resourceful, head-strong leader to guide the massed throngs back to stability and prosperity, but more importantly, come out on top.  That's the spiel but in reality, it's a Euro-style resource management game using a closed-bid system of vying for the support of various factions around the city.


A Euro-style game is one where no-one is 'knocked-out' of the game and the true winner of the game is not usually ascertained until the final whistle.  There is usually less emphasis on luck with very little dice-throwing, and more on strategy.  Worker placement and resource management as opposed to military endeavours are very common mechanics in Euro-style games.  They are particularly family-friendly as no-one is left out of the action and all players stay in the game until the end.

What's in the box?


The Revolution main game-board is a very pretty, top-down reproduction of a small city with lovely detailed artwork depicting the various areas such as harbour, market place, plantation, tavern, cathedral, fortress and town hall.  Around the edge of the board is a scoring track (or 'support' track as it's called in the game) for keeping track of the scores for all the players.  Also in the box are four plastic bags of support cubes in different colours, four *individual* player boards each with a cardboard screen, numerous 'influence' and player counters and an A4 4-sided rules 'book'.


The components are very high quality, made out of thick card-stock and the small coloured wooden cubes are like those seen in other games such as Agricola.  The bidding screens, on the inside, have a very brief summary of the rules regarding the bidding round (more on that later) which is handy.

How does it play?


The players' aim in Revolution is to gain control of more of the city than other players and this is done by gaining the support of various factions.  Each player has an identical game board upon which are represented various important members of the city whom the player is trying to 'influence'.  Influence comes in the form of Force, Blackmail or Gold. 
  • Anyone can be influenced by Gold.
  • No amount of Gold beats Blackmail.
  • No amount of Blackmail beats Force.
There are four phases to each turn:
  1. Spying - Each player sees what counters the other player has to spend on their influence round.
  2. Bidding - Players then surround their game boards with the screens and secretly place their counters on members of the city they want to force, blackmail or pay gold to.
  3. Resolution - The screens are lifted and everyone can then see what other players have bid.  Reading across, each faction then responds to the highest bidder for their support.  Where there is a tie, no-one wins and the counters are lost.  Depending on who the faction is, they can give the player influence counters, support points on the support track or support cubes for placing in the various buildings on the city map (or a combination of all three).
  4. Patronage - Each player makes up their counters to 5 by taking gold from the bank.
And the next turn starts. 

Each building or area on the city map is worth a certain amount of points at the end of the game.  The player with the most support cubes in an area gains those points.  For example, the Tavern is worth 20 points but only requires 4 support cubes while the Fortress is worth 50 points but requires 8 cubes.  If an area is tied, no-one gets the points.

Some of the factions also allow you to swap and move support cubes on the board which becomes a key tactic towards the end especially. 

Good Points


  • It sounds horribly complicated but it's a very simple mechanic and the rule book (pamphlet really) has lots of pretty pictures.  The game boards are colour-coded showing where the different influence counters can be placed and the rewards for successfully influencing a faction are clearly shown.  In our very first game, after the very first turn, we all 'got' it and needed little to no looking up the rules.
  • As stated, this is a Euro-style board game and all players remain in the game until the end.  Furthermore, each player is given something to do each turn and you are not left hanging around too long between turns.
  • A game will come in under an hour, perfect for lunch break board games.
  • Very quick set up time.  Open the board, hand out the cards, hand out the counters, done.
  • It's fun!  No, really it is.  It's all about trying to second-guess your opponents and trumping their bids for the hotly-sought factions.  You get a real nice warm feeling to see one of your bids win that all-important support cube and the tension mounts as the final scores are tallied.

Bad Points

  • The Revolution theme of a, erm, revolution is merely tagged onto an abstract gaming mechanic.  That is, the rules could easily work in any other setting such as a farm or a sea of islands ready to be plundered by pirates or without _any_ theme at all.  This is quite different to, say, a game like Twilight Struggle where the theme IS the game (The Cold War).
  • It's 3 or 4 players only.  Bear that in mind as the options here on Ciao don't allow this to be shown correctly.
  • With 3 players, there is the possibility of one player shooting into the lead on the very first turn with no chance of the others catching up.  Yes, this happened to us.  Don't ever ask my mate Tim to play.
  • It's easy to fall out of the loop of receiving more force and blackmail counters and having to rely on just 5 gold to make the winning bids.  This makes it very difficult to chase after the higher scoring areas of the city as you are constantly being priced out of contention.
  • After repeated plays, it starts to get a bit 'samey' with no massive variation between games (that could be down to Tim winning every single one though.  Like I say, don't ask him to play, I'm sure he cheats).
Conclusion

Overall, it's a very enjoyable game and a worthy lunchtime filler.  The components are superb quality, the artwork is top-notch and the rules are very (very) simple.  There's an interesting mix of strategies that can be employed and of course, all players stay in until the end.

It has elements of simple arithmetic, logical deduction and forward-planning so would be a good family game.  It is rated as 10+ and I have no cause to doubt that.

Revolution is ranked #655 in BoardGameGeek.com's game ranking chart.  It can be found here: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/34887/revolution
or http://www.sjgames.com/revolution/

Expect to pay around the £25.00 mark.

Expansions

At time of writing (Feb 2011), there is only one expansion available, 'The Palace' which allows up to 6 players, but with SJ Games' track record of releasing expansion for their games, this will surely rise.

IPad app review: Groovemaker D'n'B

What is it?

Groove Maker DnB is part of a series of apps by IK Multimedia in the Groove Maker range.  Groove Maker is a remixing tool that allows real-time mixing of loops and samples as well as step-time sequencing.

It costs £5.99 from the App Store and is a 19.1MB download.  It's advertising literature claims it has over 300 loops and samples to play with, representing an additional 127MB of storage space.


All the Groove Maker apps look the same and it's only the samples and loops supplied that are different.  This is a genius marketing ploy by IK Multimedia.  They are essentially releasing a full version of the software each and every time and charging £5.99 per pop.  Ok, six quid is not a bad price to pay for a nice piece of kit but still, as far as apps in the App Store go, it's verging into 'premium' price territory.

After using two different versions of Groove Maker, I would rather pay extra for a 'base' version then pay less for the add-on packs that simply extend it.  The DnB version reviewed here is graphically and practically no different to the free version from the App Store. 

Groove Maker's origins lie with the iPhone and this version has been re-designed to take advantage of the extra screen estate as afforded by the iPads 9.7 inch display.

What is D 'n' B?

The DnB part of the name refers to Drum and Bass, a genre of electronic dance music typically identified by very fast drum and break-beats paired with heavy, resonating bass lines.  It can also be sub-divided into other smaller genres such as Jungle, Tech-step, Dub-Step, Jump-Up, Atmospheric, Liquid etc.  It very much originated from the hardcore rave music of the late 80's and early 90's. 

Pioneers and exponents of Drum and Bass include Roni Size, Goldie, Shapeshifter, High Contrast, London Electricity, Chase and Status and many others.

The Interface

The screen is split into 4 sections:


  • In the upper middle is the control area and the majority of functions such as mixing, selecting loops and all menu items are accessed through here.  It looks complicated and it's fair to say Groove Maker has a fairly steep learning curve that levels off pretty sharpish.  This is both good and bad.  Good in that patience is rewarded and eventually there's a Eureka! moment as you think, 'So THAT'S how it works'.  Bad, as in, moments after the Eureka! moment, you go, 'Is THAT it?'.
  • On the left hand side is a bank for patterns (or Grooves as IK call them).  Different amalgamations of samples are placed in these banks ready for bringing back into the mix.  Next to the groove bank is a tempo slider.
  • On the right is a Master volume.
  • The bottom half of the screen is taken up entirely by the individual slider controls for each of the 8-tracks available to the user.  Each track has a volume slider, solo and mute buttons as well as a mini sample up/down selector.  Additionally, the current loop name is displayed which is useful to see which samples are loaded into which sample banks.

With all the sliders and buttons and eye-pleasing clean green screen, it's a geeks wet-dream (see what I did there?). 

In Use

Starting off with Groove Maker means to select a 'song'.  A song is essentially a collection of loops and samples categorized into drum loops, bass lines, percussion, lead synth lines, sound effects and additional drum elements such as bass drums.  The first time a song is selected, all the samples are 'unpacked' and this takes a minute or so, a message appearing warning of the dangers of interrupting this process ('Don't turn off or your hair will fall out', 'Your pet rabbit will attack you' and 'Your trousers will fall down in an embarrassingly tedious situation' etc).

Once unpacked, the song loads more-or-less instantly.

On first use, the interface seems bewildering and cluttered.  It took me a while to realize many of the options are 'toggles' and the function the button gives access to is either there or it isn't.  Sounds a bit daft (and probably reflects badly on me) but it's an important lesson to learn. 

Watching some of the video demos on the IK Multimedia website, the main use of the app seems to be in a 'live' mode where a loop is entered into one of the 8 banks while the song is playing.  This works really well and there's only a slight delay as Groove Maker turns on the new loop and syncs it into the mix.  Individual banks can be solo'd or muted.  All very nice and good.

There are some presets, one of which is a 'Randomizer'.  This randomly selects loops and fills the banks with a unique mix.  There are 3 other preset buttons that will attempt to select a certain mix of loops, such as a 'mild' mix.  I'm not sure what constitutes 'mild' when it comes to Drum and Bass but there you go.

Once an agreeable set of loops has been entered, it can be saved out to the 'Groove Bank' by hitting the 'Groove Snap' button.  This worked well _except_ it only ever added new grooves and for the life of me, I can't find a way of editing existing grooves without getting rid of the whole lot and starting again.  Very annoying.  There's a lot of banks though and I'm pretty sure it would never be filled to capacity.

Adding and changing samples in a groove bank is simple enough and the loop selector is dead-easy.  Select a channel, select a sample and that's it.

The step-time sequencer is also easy to use.  It presents a list of the grooves that have been saved which can be dragged onto a time line.  Existing grooves can be dragged off easily enough.  It's all very intuitive and fast, once you figure out how it works that is (which is a bit of a stupid thing to say as anything is fast and intuitive once you figure out how it works).

The volume sliders at the bottom for each of the tracks work nicely, reacting responsively to the users touch.  When a song is playing, all the little gauges and dials move up and down and should you turn the lights down, you could have your own hardcore rave in your living room.  Don't forget the whistles, Vics vapour rub and smiley-face t-shirts.

There's an export facility which will export your current mix to MP3 format.  It tries to get round the iPads limited connectivity by providing a localized web address and downloading it to a PC from there.  This completely baffled me.  Why didn't they just save it to the iPads memory and allow access through the files section in iTunes?  That's just weird.

Drum and Bass

So far, this review can be applied to any of the flavours in the Groove Maker range.  The difference is the samples.  Here, there is a large collection of Drum and Bass samples, split over four different 'songs' (loop packs, if you like).  There doesn't seem to be any way of incorporating samples from one song into another.

The samples and loops themselves are of good quality and quite typical of the Drum and Bass genre.  Drum loops are complex, bass lines are low and deep and heavy, synths are satisfyingly and eclectically weird, pads are dark and ominous.  It's fair to say there's a decent variety, split over the four songs, but not enough in each of the songs by themselves.

The Bad Bits

  • No ability to import other samples.  I can kinda' see why they haven't done this as all the samples in a song are keyed the same, with the correct tempo and timed perfectly.  It does limit the usefulness of the product though.  IK Multimedia claim there are millions of tunes that can be created which, while strictly correct, in practice this is not so as the songs will still _sound_ the same. 
  • An example of this inflexibility is being able to put a drum fill at the end of a bar of music.  In a more free-form package such as Sony's Acid Pro, loops can be placed anywhere on a time line.  Here, they are all synced together with no option of breaking free from that constraint.  This, to me, is the most frustrating part of the software.
  • It crashes.  A lot.  In one half hour session, it crashed 4 times.  Not acceptable really.
  • While the loops are very professionally done, I did notice a few of them that are in the public domain and even some which I've used in my own musical endeavours, years ago at that.
  • The drum loops are a little dated and not quite cutting the edge.  I couldn't find anything to match more current artistes such as Pendulum or Chase and Status.

Conclusion

I mentioned Sony's Acid Pro which is my normal weapon of choice when it comes to home music production.  Groove Maker is a neat gadget but offers little more than that.  The sequencer is good but seriously needs more flexibility as to where samples can be placed on a timeline.  The samples included in this Drum and Bass edition *are* very good and one could imagine including them in some sort of track (or tracks).  The export option, as strange as it is, definitely extends its usefulness and will allow me to use the loops in another package at least.

The iPad offers so much to the aspiring bedroom producer and its touch screen fits perfectly the kind of techno-gadget electronic musicians like to employ.  However, the music production and editing scene is starting to become a little disjointed and I believe the iPad needs a way of unifying all these competing musical production apps together.  If they can do that, Apple will have an absolute 'killer' studio tool.  At the moment, with apps like Groove Maker, it's hard to see how professional studio outfits will regard the iPad as little more than a gimmicky toy.  Saying that, the Gorillaz album of January 2011, _The Fall_ was recorded entirely on Damon Allbarn's iPad during their _Plastic Beach_ tour of America.  Not with Groove Maker, I hasten to add.

Groove Maker DnB is ok, I guess, and at £5.99 I can't complain *too* much.  It's easy to get a decent track going, I like the interface and there's plenty of samples to keep me occupied.  For a while, at least.  Except ... I received a £15.00 gift voucher and I've blown a third of my app shopping budget on this and it's more than a little galling.  I'd already tried the free version and somehow, I'd gotten it into my head the paid version would offer something more.  As it happens, it was £5.99 for what is really just a set of samples.  I can get cheaper than that off Ebay AND use them with my beloved Acid Pro.  They need to sort out the reliability too.

I'm trying hard not to be too down on IK Multimedia as I reckon with a bit of tweaking, they can get this app to be a lot more useful than it is.  Some of their other apps are extraordinary.  iRig, their guitar effects processor as seen on the iPad TV adverts is astonishingly good.  Unfortunately, Groove Maker is not quite as revolutionary. 

A nice idea but perhaps version 2.0 will be much better ...

You'll like this if ... You want to hear what the 2004 Drum n Bass scene sounded like.  You like gadgets.
You won't like this if ... You want a bit of flexibility in your musical arrangements.  You want to hear what 2011 sounds like.

Essential Info

Name: Groove Maker DnB
By: IK Multimedia
Prive: £5.99
Size: 19.1MB plus up to 130MB for unpacking the songs.

IPad app review: Bit.Trip Beat

Introduction

8-bit computers and consoles of the 80's, such as the NES, C64, Spectrum and many others, are considered by some to be the golden era of video games.  Certainly, the cottage industry that started back then has grown into a massive business phenomenon with turnover and profits surpassing even the biggest blockbuster movies.


Looking back at those old video games now, they sure do look basic but they had something in spades that is an important element of *any* video game - Gameplay.  Without it, a game is dead in the water like a duck full of buck-shot and no amount of fancy graphics can change that.

Bit.Trip Beat is one of many games in the Bit.Trip franchise by Gaijin Games and they all follow a similar pattern.  For those in the know, the game is like a horizontal Arkanoid (or Breakout if you prefer) set to music.  For those who don't know those games, it's essentially a glorified game of Pong.  If you don't know Pong, then you control a paddle and you have to hit a 'ball' backwards by moving the paddle up or down.

This being the 21st Century and as we can't go to the shops without being bombarded by anti-gravity cars and time machines, there's a bit more to it than simply moving up and down.

The balls fly across the screen in ever-increasing patterns of complexity.  Some sit just out of range of the bat and then fly, unexpectedly at a great rate towards the end-zone.  Across the top and bottom are two bars.    The top one shows progress through the level while the bottom is a kind of shield 'meter'.  The more balls that are let through, the more this is reduced by.  When it gets near the end, it all becomes rather critical and suddenly the screen switches to a 'minimal' view where the only sound is that of a heart monitor and the graphics are pure black and white, just like, you guessed it, Pong.  A really neat touch and those bods at Gaijin Games have obviously a real affinity with and affection for video game heritage.

Controls

There's a white rectangle at the side of the screen that is moved up and down via the players thumb.  That's it.  There are no other controls.  No fire button or grenade button or having to remember a sixteen button fighting manouvre, it's one man and his blob.  It moves up and down, not side-to-side. 

As the balls (smaller blobs) move to the left, it's the job of the player to return those balls whence they came.


Ease of use: 9

Music

Like _Rez_ on the PS2, the music in Bit.Trip Beat plays an integral part to the game.  The balls hit the bat in time with the funky music.  The music is derived in part from 8-bit heyday of the Commodore 64 and definitely fits a current vogue for blips, beeps and whistles that is cropping up in popular music today.  The style of the music Bit.Trip Beat is a kind of ambient, trip-hop club sound and they've even released an album on iTunes.

Sound: 9

Graphics
The graphics are very blocky, intentionally so, and are designed as a tribute to those old 8-bit games.  It's all very colourful and fluid and at times, the screen becomes very hectic as all manner of things are flying about.  It's set in space and to confuse matters, various background objects appear.  They don't interfere with the game in way except to purposely obfuscate the playing area.  There's no evidence of slow-down either and the iPads little processor more than amply takes it in its stride.


Graphics: 6

Gameplay

As mentioned, a pretty game is naught if it's a dog to play and thankfully, Bit.Trip Beat doesn't fall short.  It's very addictive and it's simplicity is its greatest virtue.  Anyone who can move their thumb up and down can play this game.  Of course, high scores are saved and that's where the biggest challenge lies: trying to beat your high score.

The patterns rapidly become fiendishly difficult and the simplicity of gameplay should not be confused with simplicity of game.  It *is* a difficult game, especially as the levels progress and balls are coming out of your ears.  Figuratively speaking of course. 

Gameplay: 8

Conclusion

Overall, Bit.Trip Beat is a terrific little arcade 'hit-em-back'.  The graphics are charmingly retro, the music is strangely addictive and it's incredibly simple to play.  Doesn't make it any easier though and it's a real challenge.  It harks back to the golden days of video gaming when men where men, thick curly hair sprouted from medallion-encrusted chests, mullets looked hard as nails and anyone with a filofax was lynched by an angry mob of fire-wielding villagers.  Ah, them were't days.

Available from the App Store for £0.59.  That's 59 pence you tight ponce.  37.8MB download.

Thoroughly recommended.

You'll like this if ... You want to experience retro gaming done with love and care.
You won't like this if ... You think Call of Duty is the best game, like, totally ever.
Interesting facts (well, interesting to me anyway)

  • There are 6 number of games in the Bit.Trip series and these are Beat, Core, Void, Runner, Fate and Flux.
  • Bit.Trip Beat is the first in the series.
  • It was originally launched for the Nintendo Wii as a downloadable game but has since appeared on other platforms such as the iPad, Windows and Mac.
  • The music in the game is called 'ChipMusic', a reference to the Commodore 64's sound processor chip (called SID)
  • Gaijin Games were established in 2007.
  • While there is no central 'character', there is an 8-bit picture of a spaceman who will go on to appear in later editions as Commander Video.

IPad app review: Xenon Groove Synth

What is it?

Xenon Groove Synthesizer is a software synthesizer app produced by Icegear and available in the App Store for £2.99.  It's a full-on 68.6 MB download, containing 3 different types of software synthesizer, a drum machine, sequencer, mixer and effects along with hundreds of sound presets.  Its main selling point is that all sounds are produced via software synthesis meaning no samples are used.  Everything is done by pure mathematics and everything can be changed in real-time, while a song is playing.  Does it live up to these high standards?


This is a review of version 1.6.0 and contains:

  • HSX-4 Polyphonic Hybrid Synthesizer with 210 factory presets.
  • 2 x Analogue Monophonic Synthesizers with 45 presets each.
  • PCM Polyphonic Synthesizer with 108 presets.
  • 6-track Rhythm Machine (Drums, basically) with 185 sounds
  • Pattern Sequencer with 16-step step sequencing.
  • Song Sequencer using custom patterns.
  • Mixer for controlling levels of each module.
  • iPad CoreMIDI support via the iPad Camera Connector (available separately)

The Interface

Icegear have made the decision not to make their Xenon Groove Synthesizer look like an actual piece of hardware from a studio and have instead opted for a very clean interface.  Knobs and dials are purely made of a thick circle and the on-screen keyboard is big and chunky and satisfying to use.  It's all very pleasing and immediately gives you confidence.  It's almost like a Fisher Price music box but don't let that glib description mask its intentions - this is a genuinely useful music tool.


The home page gives access to the different synths, rhythm box, sequencer and mixer.  Along the top are shortcut keys that are constantly displayed allowing you to jump into any of the sound modules at any time.  This context-sensitive menu bar changes according to which module is currently being worked upon.  For instance, options for cutting, copying and pasting patterns appear while in the sequencer module.

The Keyboard

For each of the sound modules (except the drum box), there is a piano keyboard located in the bottom quarter of the screenn  It's decent enough and is just like any of the other one hundred bazillion piano apps available for the iPad.  It can be resized and the octave can be changed by flicking to the left or right.  On the largest size, it's just about possible to play like a real piano, albeit with only one octave showing.  'God Save The Queen' perhaps? (a techno, techno, techno version though).  It's nice to be able to change any of the sound parameters and hear it instantly by tinkling on the piano.  That's *playing* the piano, not relieving oneself on the ivories.


HSX-4 Polyphonic Hybrid Synthesizer

This is a polyphonic synth, that is, multiple notes can be played at once.  There are 4 pages of settings that can be applied to any of the included 210 factory presets.  The settings include sound shape, filtering, LFO and many more.  Only two pages of setting are shown at any one time with the extra pages accessed via a quick swipe.  The preset factory sounds are reasonable enough and remind of the kind you get in a high-end home electric keyboard.  They are quite retro-sounding and this fits in well with a current trend in popular music for that kind of tone.  How it will fare in years to come is another question.  The polyphony extends to ?? number of keys at once.

The hybrid part is derived from the second sound that can be played alongside the first, with its own set of parameters.  This makes the module much more powerful and versatile when it comes to creating new sounds. 

ASX-1 Monophonic Synthesizer

Very reminiscent of the mighty Moog, only one note can be played but there are two of them, played and programmed independently.  Again, different pages of options can be accessed by swiping.  The sounds are perfect for deep, crunching synth bass lines. 

PSX-4 PCM Polyphonic Synthesizer

This is a much simplified version of the HSX-4 above.  Only one sound is played (still polyphonic though) and has a limited range of parameters to change.  108 different sounds to play with though.

Rhythm Box

A drum machine by any other name, this ia a good implementation.  Normally, these type of things are crippled by horrible latency but the sounds here are instant and very crisp.  There are plenty of kits to choose from, the ubitquitous TR808 and 909 drum machines being two.  There are also presets such as House, IDM and RnB.  Individual drum sounds can be applied to any of the 6 pads, in deference to the kit they are in.  A neat touch and allows custom kits to be created. 


MIDI

MIDI is supported through the iPads camera connection kit.  Unfortunately, I don't have a camera connection kit so if you'd like to buy me one, I'll be more than happy to update the review.  While you're out buying me stuff, you may as well get me a keyboard or other MIDI-enabled device to connect it to.  And a new car please.  My car is rubbish and the plastic trim has come off the window.  So, to recap, send me a camera connection kit, a keyboard, a new car, a cuddly toy and a big sandwich with lots of cheese in it.  Come on, hurry up ...

The Sequencer

Having been used to other sequencer-type bits of software, I felt immediately at home here.  A sequence, or song (or composition, or tune, or whatever) is made up of 'patterns'.  These patterns are at the sound module level and consist of notes placed onto a scrolling piece of musical notation, rather like an old-fashioned wind-up music box.  Patterns are placed into the structure of a song by selecting one from those available and then tapping onto the module track where you want it to go.  Very easy.  It has the usual standard editing features too such as copy and paste.  Individual patterns can be exported as a WAV file, maing it extremely useful as a musical 'doodling' app then exporting loops into a bigger package.


This key component of Xenon Groove is very intuitve but there are a couple of niggle points.  Scrolling the song track along means having to 'grab' a very small strip along the bottom with ones finger and this proved quite fiddly.  Secondly, it took me a while to realise each track can be toggled off by tapping to the left of the track.  As the track headers are all in shades of gray, I didn't realise I had turned it off.  Took me ages to figure that one out.

User Help

It comes with its own in-built help document, probably PDF but is hard to tell as it's in its own reader.  It's written in a weird kind of broken English and if I didn't know any better, it's as if Yoda, the little green Jedi Master from Star Wars had written it.  An example:

"Thank you for purchasing the Xenon.  The Xenon is designed to compose the music, make the sounds easily for iPad."

It's still understandable though and it's a very comprehensive manual, with lots of pretty pictures.

The Bad Bits

  • A song can only consist of those 5 instruments and neither can a preset be changed midway through a song.  At least, I haven't figured out how to do that.
  • There's no parameter automation i.e. saving the dials as they move.
  • Reasonably steep learning curve.
  • Imagination is needed.  It's NOT a loop or sample-based sequencer and you have to actually know where to put notes and stuff.  I'm not amazingly well-endowed, with musical ability that is, and so my songs tend to all sound the same (think, Blue Monday by New Order).  In the right hands, it could be brilliant.  Speaking of which, this app was one of many as used by Damon Albarn while composing the Gorillaz album 'The Fall' in early 2011.
  • No option to import loops and samples to play alongside your composition.

Conclusion

IceGear have played a blinder by breaking free of the normal convention and presenting an interface that makes use of the iPads capabilities as opposed to modelling it on a piece of static hardware.  This allows them to present many more options than would be available on a piece of electric gadgetry, easily anyway.  It reminds me of how a beatbox such as a Korg iElectribe would be if it were re-done as software (as opposed to a software reproduction, of which the iElectribe already has as an app).

The mobile app market is being flooded with loads of software synthesizer type apps but what IceGear have done is to combine them into a cohesive whole where the sum of the parts adds up to much more than it should.  Individually, each of the different sound modules would drown in the sea of dross out there but when plugged together like they are here, they work really well.  It's so geeky it's untrue and at £2.99 it's an absolute bargain.

You'll like this if ... You want to become the next Chemical Brothers
You won't like this if ... You want to become the next Girls Aloud.

Lego Space Buggy 3365 review

Introduction

It's a hard life here on Moon Base Alpha, some 300,000 miles away from Earth.  Sure, the facilities are good and we don't want for anything but I do miss those little pleasures in life.  The day the space freighter arrives is always a moment of celebration here in the base, it only comes once every six months after all, and with it comes those small personal artifacts that make life here just about bearable.

So it was with great joy I was finally able to take delivery of a brand new Space Buggy, model 3365 made by the Lego Corporation back down on Earth.  Our existing vehicles had long seen better day, cobbled together it seems from any old spare parts from the big bin at the back of the warehouse.

The 3365, while at the bottom of the range of models (what do you expect working for The Company?), is a lovely little motor.  Bertha, my current buggy has been modified so much, I can't remember what she originally looked like.  This first thing I'll have to do is give the 3365 a name.  Brenda seems alright.  My lovely Brenda.  There you go.

 Construction

Like all vehicles from Lego, Brenda came supplied as a flat-pack kit.  Luckily, they also supply full building instructions.  I was glad about that as I didn't fancy waiting another six months for them to arrive on the next space freighter consignment.

I had to call in Little Mel and Big Papa from Stores to help me out though.  While the instructions are very clear, it took a bit of to-ing and fro-ing before it was in a completed state.  Mel and Big P looked on with envious eyes I can tell you.

Putting it together in the workshop

Space Helmet

The first thing I noticed was the inclusion of a brand new space helmet, one of those with the gold-covered storm shield.  It looks right proper bling it does and if only I could get some zero-gravity jewellery, I'd look like Snoopy Snoopy Diggy Dog.  In space.  Word.  I'm a bit suspicious though, as The Company never send us anything as shiny and sparkly as this without a good reason.  There's been rumours flying about they are looking to expand the drilling operations over into the dark-side, and we all know what lurks over there don't we?

A very neat feature is the ability to store the helmet on the back receptacle of the vehicle when not in use using a couple of custom mounting points that fit perfectly.  A nice touch and very well-engineered.

The Wheels

The solid wheels on Old Bertha really weren't up to the job of driving over the harsh surface of the rock-strewn Moon, struggling to gain traction on some of the steeper inclines.  The new chunky wheels on the 3365 are a welcome update and after test driving around the moon-dust dunes surrounding Alpha, I can confirm they are perfectly suited to all-worldly terrain.  Those six-wheels provide plenty of grip and handling is superb and amazingly stable, especially considering the lower gravitational pull here on the Moon.

Suspension, like all other lunar vehicles, is sparse and virtually non-existent.  The extra large tyres do provide a modicum of comfort but really, it's very little and after all, it is a working vehicle designed to be used in harsh climates.

Giving it a test run on the landing pad

New Components

Lego have also updated some of the components and there are two new grill fascias, in a matt-coated tungsten grey which offsets the snazzy Ferrari red axles and forward-facing protective shield.  Not only do the grill fascias provide particle filtering to Jupiter-23 standard, they also claim to improve power to the Kilowatt Inertia Drive (K.I.D) located behind the vehicle.  Whether that's true or not, I can't tell, but that particle filtering will come in most handy.

I'm not too sure about the protective shield on the front though.  It's a bit too small for my liking and dust flying over the top can be distracting.  We were chased by one of the Quaargon Crater Beasts from Sector 4 the other day and if it weren't for the improved blast deflection capabilities of the new helmet and fantastic handling of the 3365, we would have been served up as grilled spacemen with Yorkshire puds faster than you can say, 'Do you want gravy with that human dear?'.

The rock-cutting rig on the back is sturdy and has the new Brinylonium coating to make sure it never gets stuck.  We have a few of the other cutting rigs fitted with Brinylonium and they _never_ go blunt.  I found the arm extenders to be a little limiting and it was tricky pointing it in those hard-to-reach places.  Maybe it's a case of getting use to them?  Saying that, I reckon our mechanic, Matt McFixit, will sort something out.

The communications satellite is a bit flimsy I have to say.  The Company, in paying extra for the hardened drill coating, have skimped somewhat in this regard.  It's literally pushed into one of the connector pegs on the back and I'm sure if we have any more vigorous escapes from vicious crater beasts, it would easily wiggle loose.  I don't fancy having to drive back to pick it up with all those tentacles flailing in my direction.

Drive Unit


As mentioned, the Kilowatt Inertia Drive is located to the rear of the vehicle and is roughly equally to one Actual Realized Mile (A.R.M) of power per cylinder.  That's a _lot_ of power I can tell you.  Flooring this baby over a sand-dune can send you into orbit, quite literally, and a couple of times I've had to deploy the emergency Atmos-brakes just to keep it on lunar firma.

Space Penguins! Run away! Run away!

Conclusion

The 3365, or Brenda as she is now affectionately known, is an absolute marvel.  Compared to our older terrain excavation vehicles, she is well made, powerful, handles extremely well and goes like stink when running away from all the nasty monsters up here on the Moon.

If you're running your own outer-space mining operation, I can't recommend it highly enough.  Big Papa tells me it was bought for 7,200 Moon Credits, roughly equal to about £3.50 Earth pounds, and at that price, it's a steal.

The manufacturers recommendation is from 5 to 12 years of Space Ranging experience, but I reckon with a little supervision and help in the construction, a 3 year old apprentice from the Academy would find plenty of use out of it.

You'll like this if ... you run your own deep-space mining operation
You won't like this if ... you think News at Ten is too far-fetched.