Friday, 29 January 2016

Antigonus the One-Eyed, by Jeff Champion

I’ve read a couple of books about this period, and a few years ago got Jeff Champion’s biography of Pyrrhus, so I was intrigued to see what I’d make of this biogaphy.

Antigonus Monopthalmus was one of the most important characters during the Diadochi (Successors) wars that followed the death of Alexander the Great.

The paucity of sources for the 4th century BC means that there’s little on Antigonus until his middling adult life. However, his critical role in the disposition of Alexander’s empire in his latter decades means there’s a lot more to chew on later. Whilst there are still gaps, the twists and turns (on both political and military levels) ensures that what the author writes is engaging.

After a short-lived attempt to keep Alexander’s empire whole, it fractured into numerous massive chunks. More than that, Alexander’s (and his father’s before him) military accomplishments meant there were a huge number of incredibly capable, ruthless, bold and ambitious men willing and able to fight over the enormous territory he bequeathed (to put it into context, Alexander reigned over land from modern day Albania to the eastern border of Pakistan).

There’s a natural focus on the military aspect of Antigonus’ life, particularly the epic tussle with Eumenes of Cardia, but this is inextricably linked to the political shenanigans and manoeuvrings of Antigonus and his fellow Diadochi.

Despite having read something of this period there were quite a few instances of new information, or different interpretations of generally agreed events. I found the relationship between Antigonus and his eldest son Demetrius particularly interesting (on both personal and military levels), which stood in stark contrast to the strained [and occasionally filicidal] relationships of the other kings with their sons.

Being picky, there were occasionally small omissions (the author mentions Antigonus had Antigenes killed, but didn’t mention the poor fellow was burnt alive). However, none were glaring or material omissions.

It’s fair to say the Diadochi era, despite being fascinating, is not the best known of periods. I would encourage people to give it a crack, however.

Those interested in this era might also find my review of Ghost on the Throne, by James Romm worth a look.


Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Review: The Banner Saga (PS4)

The Banner Saga is a crowd-funded game that came out a couple of years ago for PC, but has just come out (digital only, for now) for the Xbox One and PS4, with a Vita version in development. Banner Saga 2 is also in the works, though there’s no release date as yet. It’s also the first game I’ve acquired without a CD (well, not counting the cartridges for my Mega Drive. Or the cassette tapes for my Amstrad).

This will be a spoiler-minimal review. I’ll give away only the barest premise of the story, as well as some combat info.


Because this is crucial to the game, I’m going to be vague here to avoid spoilers.

The story is cut into chapters, sometimes focusing on different characters. The world is essentially mythical Nordic (albeit with original god names and so forth), and feature three races: men, varl (horned giants, all male) and dredge, (metal creatures who are antagonists for both men and varl, to the extent two previous wars forced the previously warring men and varl to form alliance against the dredge).

The writers have done an excellent job with creating dilemmas that have no right answer, and avoid the Good, Bad, Neutral options pretty well. More than that, being nice (with one character I was largely nice) can lead to bad consequences.

It’s also not clear (in a good way) whether a decision you take will have a minor impact, a serious impact, or a delayed but significant consequence. 

The characters you acquire, or put off, through story decisions also have a gameplay impact, as it can increase or decrease your roster of potential fighters (up to six per fight), which is important as they can get injured and it’s better to have an unwounded line-up.


Combat is turn-based, and has some interesting strategy elements that can, with cunning, see the battle shift in your review. Every character has an armour stat, and a health stat (which doubles as strength). So, if your character loses health, they also become weaker. However, hitting an enemy’s armour can make sense, because damage is the difference between the attacker’s strength and the defender’s armour.

Not only that, humans take up one space on the 2-D isometric grid that comprises battlefields, whereas the varl (giants) take up four. This means you can use the varl to try and crowd your enemy and make it harder to reach your humans.

The turns are alternate between player and enemy, until you reduce the enemy to just one unit, then you enter Pillage mode. This means every character has their turn, so you might have three consecutive turns (if you have three characters left) before the enemy can move.

You also have a limited resource, per character, to either enhance movement beyond the usual range or do increased damage. You get one more of this per slain enemy, and can then allocate the points to your character(s).

It’s a clever but easy to grasp battle system. After the first few battles, I felt completely at home with it.

For winning, you get renown, which is the in-game currency (also acquired by some out-of-combat decisions). It can be used to buy things, including supplies, items for characters to wear (just one each), and for promoting your characters to make them stronger.

When in camp, you can pause to rest. This boosts morale and gives time for people to heal if injured, but also costs supplies. It’s a realistic decision that’s simple but means even the smallest choice puts you on the horns of a dilemma.


This section could be retitled ‘art’. The scenes of trekking across the frozen land, which could be tedious, are very attractive indeed. Not only does it give a real sense of journey and progression to the characters and plot, but the vistas are beautiful.

During dialogue, as well as often not speaking (see Sound, below) characters often stand there, facing one another, with a slight animation to indicate wind etc. This didn’t bother me (I still hark back to the days of Phantasy Star IV) but it might be a bit off-putting to some.

The map looks properly Norse, and lore-junkies will rejoice at being able to scan over the whole thing, getting more information about a bridge here, or mountains there. It also might be useful (at the time of writing this I don’t know) to check the area you’re heading towards.


Sound is limited. I enjoy the music, which helps (along with the excellent art) make the simple act of marching from place to place feel epic. Music is common, but voice-acting is very rare, and without subtitles.

In-game sound effects seem limited to combat, where they’re reasonable. Definitely scope to add more.

Bugs and Other Issues

Early on, I had a combat bug whereby an enemy moved, but didn’t attack or end their turn. I loaded up the last auto-save (which immediately preceded the battle) and everything progressed normally. In the whole first playthrough, this bug happened twice.

I like the language options (I might try a German playthrough. As I discovered with Dragon Age: Inquisition, my German is currently at the stage perfect for gaming comedy, as I can understand quite a lot of stuff, but not everything). However, the lack of subtitles for the voiced parts of the game is a little disappointing. I’m not hard of hearing, but some people are.

Longevity and Replayability

I’d guess the game took me about 12-14 hours. My understanding is that the forthcoming sequel will be available for consoles as well as PC upon launch, and that (on all platforms) decisions can be imported.

In a few weeks, I may well replay the game, taking a more ruthless approach and seeing how that turns out. I got a fair share of stuff right, but also made a few massive mistakes.

So, what score? I’d give it 8/10.


Friday, 22 January 2016

Review: How Britain Kept Calm And Carried On, by Anton Rippon

This book is a collection of anecdotes from the Home Front during World War Two. For those unaware, the Home Front refers to the organisations and activities devoted to protecting people in the UK itself (so, the Home Guard, ARP Wardens, AA-gunners, and so on).

The little stories have been collected over a prolonged period of time, but only published quite recently. This is helpful, as the war was quite some time ago now, and if the book’s contents had been collected today the stories would’ve been far fewer.

A few of the stories I’d heard already online, but the vast majority (over 95%) were completely new to me. All have a light-hearted or downright comedic slant, so this is not a book for those after solemnity or poignant memories.

The anecdotes, as you might expect, vary a bit. Some are paragraphs, other last a couple of pages. Some are hilarious, many are amusing and a few fell slightly flat, but given the nature of the book a hit-and-miss result is to be expected.

The book is divided into various themed sections, including some from the perspective of children or women. Each section is introduced by the author with a rough outline that sketches out the situation for that particular group, which is handy for those (like me) whose knowledge of WWII is pretty limited.

Although modern history really isn’t my thing, I did enjoy this book. It’s easy to either read a slew of stories at once or just dip into it for a little while.


Friday, 15 January 2016

Review: Very British Problems, by Rob Temple

This book is based on the Twitter account SoVeryBritish, of which I’m a follower.

The brand of humour is a mixture of old-fashioned British understatement and absolute repression, mingled with the new-fangled brevity of Twitter.

Not unlike the Darwin Awards, or the book I shall review next week (How Britain Kept Calm And Carried On, by Anton Rippon), it’s more a book for diving into for a little while rather than one to be devoured at once. More a handful of Dolly Mixtures than a Yorkshire pudding.

Most of the book consists of lines taken straight from Twitter, carved up into themed chapters. Whether you enjoy the book will be apparent almost from the off. If you like the humour on page one, the odds are you’ll enjoy the whole thing. Personally, I found it to be entertaining generally, and occasionally very amusing. As comedy’s very subjective, I would advocate checking a sample.

In addition to the tweet anthology approach, there are a few sections which I think were written just for the book. The humour is in the same vein, and these bits offer something extra to ardent followers of the Twitter feed (I’m both a lazy tweeter [ @MorrisF1 for ‘serious’ stuff and @HeroOfHornska for drunken nonsense from Sir Edric] and so most of the tweets were new to me, despite being a follower).

So, if you enjoy reading of the inherent awkwardness of Britishness, you may very well enjoy this book. I did.


Friday, 8 January 2016

The Illustrated Herdwick Shepherd, by James Rebanks

A slightly unusual but charming little book, this. It’s a hardback strong enough to kill a rhinoceros, festooned with snippets about a shepherd’s world in the Lake District.

It’s a very beautiful part of the world (the picture at the top of this blog was taken there, incidentally), and the author’s photographs, all caught on his mobile (which may surprise, given the quality) capture its changing moods brilliantly.

As well as the landscapes, border collies, sheep and (occasionally) humans, the book has nuggets of text, from concise poetry to a few pages on the sort of individuals who live there. How to prepare potentially prize-winning sheep for sale or show, and anecdotes from the rural world of the Lake District feature within.

The writing is eloquent, the photography superb. It’s entirely possible to devour the whole book in a single sitting.


Friday, 1 January 2016

Review: The Greatest Knight, by Thomas Asbridge

As is usual with books of this nature, there’s some context set up by outlining the background (in this case the political background of 12th century England as well as William’s own personal background, the two being closely connected).

Knowledge of William’s personal history begins when he’s a very young boy, and his life is endangered. His father had surrendered him as a hostage to King Stephen during civil war, only to immediately resume fighting the King. Stephen, furious, intended to kill William, but was apparently turned from that course by the boy’s innocence (asking a guard if he could play with his spear).

And so his life was spared. It’s no exaggeration to say that if Stephen had been a more bloodthirsty or vindictive man, English history would have been very different.

William lived just past seventy years, and during that time served five kings. The book details how he grows from skilful but headstrong as a young warrior, to a wise old owl with retainers and land of his own to worry about.

During his life he rose from being the landless younger son of a warlord to guardian of the realm. Whilst exhibiting self-interest, pestering for preference and sometimes a stubborn streak, William was intensely loyal to his patrons and valued his reputation for loyalty more than all else. He was also faithful to his followers, and more forgiving than other men might have been when he was betrayed (both by King John and his own followers).

The book is very easy to read (I’m not familiar with this period of history and didn’t come across anything difficult), and the author makes occasional use of footnotes to elaborate on points. There are several maps, and two collections of photographs, as is common with this type of book.

So, what didn’t I like? There’s a fleeting reference to CE rather than AD (a pet hate). There’s also a small factual error late on, when Asbridge asserts that the Black Prince established the Order of the Garter (it was his father, Edward III, although the Black Prince was one of the founder members).

It is worth pointing out there are many biographies of William Marshal. I can’t comment on whether this is better than the alternatives, but I enjoyed the book from start to finish, and would recommend it to anyone interested in reading about this period generally or William Marshal in particular.