Friday, 10 August 2018

Board Game: 'Spy Club' (2018)

Forty Variations Of Something Nice

With one whole campaign of this co-operative now in the bag, playing solitaire as two players and only going slightly mad in the process, it's time to talk a little about 'Spy Club'.

This board/card game popped up on Kickstarter a year ago, and arrived just a couple of weeks ago. It's a quietly fascinating non-destructive and replayable campaign game, which is effectively a set of forty variations of a basic game, with some extra modifier cards which are persistent once they've been unlocked.

The basic game is about working out the details of a minor crime as a bunch of kid detectives, which is achieved by collecting sets of cards of each of five colours, one at a time. The 'bad stuff' phase, typical of almost all co-operative board games, is managed by a little suspect pawn who moves around the different player boards in a circle, with a set event occurring for each colour of card he might land on.

The base game is pretty hard, but the theme is wonderful and light, with none of the lurking dread common to most co-op games. Even if you don't fully succeed, you will pin down some of the aspects of the crime, to pass on to the police. There is no absolute failure here, but there is a definite race against time in that there will be only twenty-two turns, and several other other fail conditions. The potential for storytelling goodness is very good, as you try to build a narrative between the motive, suspect, location, object and crime cards that you've successfully nominated. What could link the garbage man, the ice cream shop, revenge, a stamp and a prank? What? And how does it relate to the 'master crime' being pinned down in the campaign?

The campaign of variations is a great concept and well executed. My experience is limited to a small number of games, but the ingenuity that has been employed in finding different ways to 'solve' the case using only the equipment provided is clear to see. Sometimes the variations make it harder, and sometimes easier. Sometimes they change the game in a major way, and sometimes just add an extra condition for winning. The only minor gripe I would have after this limited experience is that the campaign persistent modifications seem quite rare.

Aesthetically, it's very pretty, very thematic and very light. There is no gloom or doom here. The illustrations and art are beautiful. This is a recommended game.

Now, we just need a few more co-operative games which are thematically on the lighter side.


Thursday, 9 August 2018

Television: 'The Man From UNCLE: The Deadly Decoy Affair' (1965) (Aired 1x15, Produced 1x19)

Ilya really worked well in this episode. He almost held his own with Napoleon. Of course, it helped that they were both being duped by a far more devious mind, or even two far more devious minds, but it's still nice to see him get his due. Oh, what devious webs these spy masters weave. Actually, maybe there were three far more devious minds, but who can keep count in a spy show?

In 'The Deadly Decoy Affair', which is again a beautifully pretty episode, Napoleon and Ilya are assigned, after an off-duty altercation, to escort a decoy for a captured THRUSH bigwig to Washington, while Waverley takes the real superspy by heavily armed transport. Of course, we know who's going to get all the attention, don't we?

It's a pretty nice caper, on many levels, as our pursued dynamic duo and their prisoner become entangled with the Innocent of the week in a dress shop, unfortunate handcuffings occur and there's a cross-country chase. We even get a stop at an Amish house, and a Hitchcockian moment in passing the bound together villain and Innocent as newlyweds, but of course Napoleon uses his window lurking tendencies to good effect to keep the peace. Also in the category of Hitchcockian twists, we get a train journey which goes awry, and a blind THRUSH spymaster.

The enduring virtues of this first season of UNCLE are all on display here: Beautiful black and white photography, excellently paced and witty storytelling, a charming antagonist (or is he????), some lovely Walter Scharf jazzy music, and of course Robert Vaughn. He is the King Of Cool. Leo G Carroll could well have been the King of Cool in his earlier career, which is why he is perfectly cast as part of the regular UNCLE triumvirate. Witness, for example, the effortless Waverley karate chop and his deeply devious machinations. There should also be a special mention for Ralph Taeger as THRUSH prisoner Egon Stryker, who almost manages to out-cool Robert Vaughn, and another to the blind THRUSH spy hunter co-ordinating their chase. This episode is definitely recommended. I suppose the Innocent of the week is a bit bland, to make a negative.

We're well into our closing straight on 'The Man From UNCLE'. Next, 'The Secret Sceptre Affair', if all goes well.


Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Television: 'The West Wing: Inauguration - Over There' (2003) (Episode 4x14)

This is a joyous episode of 'The West Wing', as if Aaron Sorkin had finally put all the baggage of the election storyline in the past, and focussed on just making the best half-season of television possible before his departure. All the favourite supporting characters are pulled back in, Bartlet is indeed allowed to be Bartlet, Josh and Donna are getting lots of screen time, and my favourite character of Will Bailey is here, punching above his weight for just half a season and putting the departed Sam Seaborn into an almost instant forgotten limbo. Sam who? Rob Lowe who? It's Joshua Malina all the way to the end now, people! It must have been nice to not have Rob Lowe (reportedly) agitating for more screen time constantly. Oh, and Danny and Zoey are back too. It's almost as if season one is picking up all over again.

One of the continuing natural storylines of the series was that of Bartlet allowing himself to do the right thing, despite a lifetime of holding himself in due to the restrictions of his offices and of looking to the future. That was all the limitation we ever really needed in the show, with the rotten MS storyline being an extremely forced method to make re-election look like something less than an absolutely certainty. The daddy issues hampering him in the campaign a bit better, though. Here, we get the ultimate version of the Bartlet dilemma, where the standard policy of only intervening in overseas conflicts when Americans are endangered finally comes to a crunch, and needling from the newly arrived Will and some influencing from Laurel and Hardy finally push him into following his conscience. Thus, we get the best of Bartlet and the best of Will, against the backdrop of an inauguration and several balls, concluding in the formalization of Will's continuing role in the West Wing. It's classical, and there can never be too much of Stan and Ollie.

In other parts of the episode, we get things for absolutely everyone to do. CJ gets to bounce off of the returned Danny, Danny gets to bounce off absolutely everyone delightfully when he's in the party to get a wrongfully shamed Donna out of her apartment and into the balls, Toby and Josh get several wonderful moments of just hanging around and being brilliant, and Charlie gets to assert his love for Zoey Bartlet before realising the battle ahead of him. Everyone gets something to do. Everyone! Well, everyone except Sam Seaborn, who is inexplicably absent and promoted to non-existence at the end.

Ultimately, this could be analysed to death, but the secret to the wonder of this episode is that it's plainly joyous, and increasingly so as the episode goes on. The right thing was going to be done, we all knew it was going be done, and then it was. Tears of joy were shed. Brilliant, and if you weren't already in love with Donna, then here is occasion eighty-four for that to happen. All hail Janel Moloney.


Sunday, 5 August 2018

Book: 'The Black Spectacles' a.k.a. 'The Problem Of The Green Capsule' (1939) by John Dickson Carr

These earlier John Dickson Carr novels from the 1930s really seem to hit a specific button that works with me. The prose is denser, there is more detail, there is a greater tendency to just go off on dialogue tangents, and everything is just a tinge funnier. Ah, 'twas a grand time in the world of mystery writing. On this occasion, in the tenth novel of the Gideon Fell series, an Inspector Elliott (apparently featured in the previous novel) is sent to investigate the goings on and repercussions of a long cold poisoning incident in the village of Sodbury, but arrives to discover a new and even more mysterious murder. Most unfortunately, all the suspects in the murder of Marcus Chesney were witnesses to the event, and one of them is the woman that Elliott loves. Is that a stretch too far, to have the detective be in love with the very definitely prime suspect? In this case, it mostly works.

It's a grand mystery, with lots of minor twists and turns, and one whole character who is a literal red herring, in that we never see him at all! Is that a spoiler? No, of course not. In fact, you could argue that there are two such characters, although that might not really make sense at all. I blame John Dickson Carr for all this foolishness. What an insanely clever writer he was.

One of the games in any Gideon Fell novel is wondering just when the verbose and titanic genius is going to make his entrance. In this case, he doesn't appear until the end of about the first third, and has to be recruited from a spa town after being mentioned at the beginning of the story. He almost gets to give a lecture in the style of that famous chapter from the masterpiece 'The Hollow Man', but it is averted, and he seems to come to grips with the case pretty quickly. The know it all! Fell is actually very diplomatic in this one, withholding information for the inspector's sake, the prime suspect's sake and even just for dramatic effect. The critical twists are pretty good this time, with one being provided by the dead man himself, which will be an inexplicable lure to a reader yet to get through 'The Black Spectacles'.

There hasn't been much on the plot of the novel here, has there? It's partly intentional, as talking about the story of an 'impossible mystery' is definitely not a helpful thing to do. The reveal is very nice, and is best not even approached. It's better to talk about the inexplicable opening in Italy instead.

Thank goodness for John Dickson Carr.