The SongPop Remains the Same

A few months back I started playing Wordle, lured in like millions of others by mysterious coloured squares appearing in my Twitter feed. That ability to share the results of a game without spoiling it is really smart, combined with the simple core mechanics and once-per-day limit to stop you binging until sick it’s become the first game that my entire family have all been on board with, pinging results through on the family WhatsApp group of a coffee or lunch break. Variants, knock-offs, and deliberate rip-offs inevitably proliferated like green and yellow algae, and I dabbled with a few; Quordle, guessing four words simultaneously, was an interesting version, mutating into Octordle and Sedecordle for 8 and 16 simultaneous words, and presumably by now someone’s constructed a version where you get 160,000 guesses to try and complete every single five letter word from the dictionary at once, though the replayability might be a bit limited there.

I saw a post about Heardle, an audio version where you guess a song from progressively longer clips (more Name That Tune than Wordle, but still) and thought I’d have a go. I heard a snippet of guitar vaguely reminiscent of Van Morrison’s Wild Night, so I searched for that in the possible answers and hit upon the slight snag. Apparently the songs are taken from popularly streamed artists, and my post-2000 musical knowledge is appallingly shoddy (how amusing and eccentric!); I didn’t even recognise half the artists that popped up, let alone any of their songs. It did tickle a faint memory, though, of a Facebook game called SongPop, which apparently I was playing back in January 2013 when I first fired up War Thunder. Turns out that closed down, but SongPop 2 lives as a standalone application including a Windows version, so I installed that; it even carried progress over from the Facebook version, including matches that had been awaiting my turn for 452 weeks (sorry about that, PopDude 68).

Each match consists of rounds where you have to identify five songs, with players taking it in turns to select the playlist used. Playlists are bought with in-game currency, and where I seem to recall they were pretty limited, there’s now a vast selection of genres, eras and artists – rock, pop, country, blues, reggae, TV and film themes, nursery rhymes, even (to my great delight) Monty Python. When looking for opponents the game pops up two or three suggestions where you seem to have some commonality, but there’s also the option of picking a random opponent, which I’ve used a fair bit. That’s resulted in some good matches with both players having a good shot at the other’s playlists, and some definite mismatches. I generally try and start fairly broad (something like Rock Classics), but if the other player gets specific, so do I. I’m currently in a drawn-out battle of attrition with somebody who picks K-Pop or BTS every time (not a hope), so I retaliate with Monty Python and UK TV Themes. You can finish a match at any point, so I presume they’re just as amused/stubborn as I am about the absurdity of it.

On the face of it there’s not much similarity between guessing songs and a Second World War deck building game, but there are some parallels with the way I’m playing KARDS. As with many card games you can build a fairly generic deck where most cards have some value in most circumstances, or very specific decks built around certain mechanics – discarding cards is usually a bad thing, but some cards kick off a positive effect when discarded, for example. Climbing up ranked play the decks that really employ synergy (or cheap gimmicky decks, if you’re on the receiving end) are more common and can be rather frustrating to encounter; I thought I was in a pretty strong position against one opponent until suddenly he slapped down two cards and played a whole bunch of cheap infantry – one card damaged each of his new units as they were deployed, normally a Bad Thing, until the second card damaged my HQ every time one of his units was destroyed, and that was game over.

The devs seem to do a reasonable job of subtle adjustments when a particular deck is really dominating, and ensuring there are ways to counter particular tactics. Of course sod’s law says that if you gear up with a bunch of cards that are good against hordes of cheap units then you encounter a deck that massively buffs one or two powerful units (on top of the general sod’s law of card games when you have the perfect card in your deck but don’t draw it when you really need it). On the flip side I know that if I adopt a particular deck that’s always easily beaten me, every match I play will be against opponents perfectly tailored to deal with it. Still, I thought I’d give it a bash so had a browse of the user-submitted decks on the main website. A lot of them need a bunch of rare units, so require either incredible luck with random rewards or some real-money investment. One jumped out, though, that mostly used cheap common cards. It’s an ‘aggro’ deck that tries to get a bunch of low-cost units onto the field and buffed before an opponent can deal with them. It’s very much all-or-nothing, if you haven’t won in the first few turns there’s no Plan B, so at least it’s quick either way. It’s been pretty effective, I’ve climbed the furthest I’ve got to in ranked play, but it gets a bit stale doing the same thing every game so I mix things up with unranked matches using various decks that are more interesting to play, if less optimal, and draft games. Maybe if I had to identify military marches from brief snippets while attacking and also guessing five letter military words it would be a one-stop shop for all my gaming needs…

Do you feel lucky, Cyberpunk?

Cyberpunk: 2077 is going strong; nudging up to the 100 hour mark and it feels like there’s a fair bit more to do, with at least a couple of strong side missions chains in progress alongside the main story. I haven’t been rushing; some evenings I don’t feel like delving too deeply so I’ll noodle around clearing up a bit of crime or doing some clothes shopping, others I’ll settle down and push on with the plot. Noodling feels a little wrong considering there are somewhat pressing matters to deal with, but it’s a very RPG matter of life and death that allows for plenty of chasing after rogue taxis in between preserving your own existence.

It took me a while to find a decent sniper rifle, but a crafting template and sufficient perk points got that sorted, so that’s my weapon of choice for starting most encounters. An array of hacking skills to confuse, blind and generally irritate foes can generally keep me stealthy, and if all else fails a shotgun makes for a pretty sound Plan B. With gear pretty well sorted the old RPG Rainbow of Excitement has reached its inevitable conclusion; a splash of green used to be cause for celebration, then only blue was enough to quicken the pulse, eventually purple barely raised an eyebrow and orange is worth a quick glance, though usually no more than that. Another old RPG standby, Getting Captured and Losing Your Stuff, made an interesting change for a bit; I was a little surprised that my captors had fitted an entire arsenal of weaponry and fourteen spare outfits into a single locker when I recovered my gear, but probably not as surprised as they were that I’d somehow carried it all in the first place.

It feels like a long time since I’ve been pulled into the story of a game, and I’ve been having a browse to see if there might be something else once I’ve wrapped up Cyberpunk. The remastered Mass Effect trilogy, perhaps, with Baldur’s Gate 3 still in Early Access. Then again I might have had enough of story for a while, so waiting for its full release might work out after all.

Buddy Holly Never Wrote a Song Called We’re Too Cyberpunk

It’s been a while since I really sunk myself into a new game, but Cyberpunk 2077 has properly hooked me. Melmoth gave it an enthusiastic thumbs up so I picked it up in the Steam sale; about 30 hours in I’ve just hit the title card having spent plenty of time pottering about Night City tackling random criminals and side quests before cracking on with the main story.

It feels very Deus Ex, more so than the actual sequels in many ways (which were fine in themselves, but didn’t really capture the sprawling openness of the original). It’s comfortingly familiar in its systems; stealth, tech/hacking and a variety of firearms presenting different ways of tackling problems from tiptoeing around piling up unconscious bodies in wheelie bins to silenced sniping to the more straightforward shotgun to the face. It’s comfortingly familiar in setting as well. I never played the pencil and paper RPG but have enjoyed plenty of similar media like Blade Runner, Neuromancer, and Altered Carbon; having been around for the first two editions of the RPG, set in the wildly futuristic years of 2013 and 2020, the cyberpunk genre seems oddly retro in many ways now, even with the subsequent updates.

It seems to have absolutely hit my Goldilocks spot. The city has the open world elements so there’s always something to do, but with distinctive enough side missions so it doesn’t always feel like you’re just doing yet another instance of the same activity. Combat is challenging enough that I can’t just wander around blazing away with impunity, but not head-smashingly frustrating (mostly; the level based nature of it meant I inadvertently got into a couple of scrapes with nigh-invulnerable opposition, but the good old RPG standby of coming back a few levels later sorted things out). The main story is strong enough to pull me along, but loose enough to allow for meandering diversion. It feels like there are choices to be made in that best RPG way, where you know you’re going to end up in the same places but with subtle enough differences that it feels like your own version of the story. There’s plenty of loot to be had, and crafting and upgrading if the things you find aren’t quite right, but it’s not the be-all and end-all, it’s not like you’re repeating activities solely for the chance of an almost-identical-but-very-slightly-better gun. As many have pointed out the armour system does force a bit of a choice between selecting the item with the best stats in each slot versus not looking like you’ve clothed yourself from a charity shop reject dumpster, but I haven’t found that too much of a hindrance (there’s usually something decent looking that’s not too far off, stat-wise, or you can just avoid mirrors if it really comes to it). The stats and perks system seems intuitive enough with a plethora of interesting-looking options, I’m not sure how many I’ll be able to ultimately acquire but I’m looking forward to trying out a few different options.

I’m also greatly appreciating the single player offline nature of it, particularly after Fallout 76. I’m not missing a cash shop or season pass goals or daily login rewards at all, they have their place, but not everywhere. Being able to pause at any point is quite the blessing; I was playing a PvP match of KARDS, which only allows communication via a limited series of emotes. That’s a thoroughly sensible system, cutting through language barriers and removing the possibility for the usual online unpleasantness (you can even shut them off if someone starts spamming them in a desperate attempt to be mildly irritating). The downside is the absence of a “My dog’s been sick on the carpet!” emote (understandably, it’s a bit specific), so I could only use the more generic “Sorry!” after I’d inadvertently let the timer run down on a couple my turns.

Of course this all comes with the caveat that I’m still early on in the story and entirely reserve the right to fundamentally change my mind as things go, but so far it’s looking good. I’m sure things will get a bit stale after a while, but I’m hoping the combination of narrative and gameplay will at least see me through to the end of the main story; plenty of previous games with similar open world/RPG elements (Red Dead Redemption 2, Far Cry 5, Assassin’s Creed Origins etc.) have fallen at that hurdle, maybe there’s something about an SF setting I need (the (offline) Fallout and Mass Effect series being cases where I did actually finish the story).

The end of the world has been postponed

Looks like Fallout 76 has run its course for a while, as I’m not really getting a hook to pull me into a session. There are quests all over the place, often interesting little self-contained stories as in the previous games, but in the face of the not so great combat and all the MMO-ness outlined in the previous post it’s not really enough. It might be something to head back into, or it might stay parked in The Great Library of Eternal Promise, we’ll see.

In the meantime Destiny 2 perked up slightly after a couple months off, with a wave of Bungie’s 30th Anniversary stuff and the Dawning event. Neither are wildly innovative; there’s a 6 player activity from the former that, shockingly, consists of a bunch of waves of minions then bosses, the latter is a lot of schlepping across the galaxy handing out gifts, but they manage to stay the right side of “giving a gentle incentive to do other stuff, which is pretty fun anyway” without straying too far into tedious admin. It’s not long term, even with some randomised elements the new event got same-y pretty quickly, but it was a nice little diversion with some shiny outfits on offer. It hasn’t been enough to get me to pre-order the next expansion, I think I’ll still be taking a longer break before heading into that.

KARDS, the Second World War themed online CCG, has proven quite compelling, I’ve been playing a round or three of that most days, veering between the usual CCG emotions of smug satisfaction at my incredible tactics and incandescent fury at the appalling cheese decks my opponent uses, the latter augmented by the AI quite deliberately dealing the perfect card to the enemy at just the right time while putting all my potential match winners at the bottom of the deck. A quick browse of forums suggest the current meta swings heavily towards issuing a lot of irritating orders, something I’ve seen a bit of myself, hopefully the tide might shift as it’s enormously frustrating to get into those matches. I’m quite happy bibbling around at a low rank with other players who haven’t invested a vast amount of time or money into building up masses of fancy cards. Much like War Thunder, where I also hop into low-to-mid ranked planes and boats for a match or two most days, even tanks a bit recently, though that’s mostly reminded me that I’m really not so keen on ground forces. Idle Champions of the Forgotten Realms continues to be inexplicably compelling as well, but I’m missing something to really get my teeth into. Cyberpunk 2077 might be the very thing from the current Steam sale, I’m strongly tempted to pick it up after Christmas.

A hundred and ten cornets close at hand

Things have calmed down a bit with puppy ownership, so I’ve finally got a bit of time in Fallout 76. Giving it a few years seems to have been a good decision as there’s been plenty added since launch, not least NPCs; I’m not surprised that the game world felt a bit dead at launch, even the light smattering of other characters make things feel more alive, unlike (ironically) human players who (at best) add nothing to the experience. My only interactions have been getting rapidly killed by high level players after claiming workbenches, an action that flags you for PvP. The game makes it clear, and it’s worth doing at least once to get a bunch of plans, but it gives me absolutely no desire to participate in more general PvP. There are messages here and there about teams forming up, though usually at much higher levels again, but I’ve no interest in that faff either.

In fact, other than content updates, the online elements are pretty universally negative. Combat follows the pattern of the previous games – sneak around, carefully line up a high-damage sniper rifle, and hopefully one shot opponents with a critical hit, otherwise revert to Plan B (for Benny (Hill)), chasing around and blazing away randomly. Here it seems a bit jankier, with mobs sometimes stuttering around, and as VATS no longer pauses time Plan B is even more chaotically “Ruffle his hair up, hit him with a bucket, run, Charlie, run!” Not being able to pause is less than ideal when the pup needs a bio break (or indeed when I do), and with some instances not preserving progress until they’re completed it’s pretty annoying if you get called away and have to repeat everything next time around. The Atomic Shop is far from the worst item shop, but still a minor annoyance to have it pop up every time you start the game.

I guess the key question is why I’m even bothering with Fallout 76 rather than going back to one of the previous games, with added DLC or mods to freshen it up. I’m not entirely certain myself, to be honest. Cost is one issue – all the DLC for Fallout 4 would be about three times as much as I paid for Fallout 76 on sale. I’d also have to either start from scratch or pick up a long-forgotten save game, not the end of the world but still. If the DLC pops up on sale I might consider it; for the moment, though, Fallout 76 scratches that Robinsonade itch with plenty of world to explore, mutants to battle, and crockery to break down into useful components.

It’s too dark to read

After previously posting about fancying a go at Fallout 76 but thinking it a bit pricey, it conveniently turned up on sale for less than a tenner. Instant buy! I haven’t quite got around to actually playing it, though, on account of a new arrival – Lyra the Miniature Schnauzer puppy, an adorable fluffbundle. Not entirely conducive to PC gaming sessions, though, she’s a fan of rather more old school entertainments like Tug On A Rope, Run Around A Lot, and the ever-popular Shoe Eating.

Normal service might resume in a while…

Lyra the Schnauzer

All I gotta do is survive

I was poking around the bonus loot available in Prime Game, and one of the offers was for Last Day on Earth. Never one to turn down free stuff I gave it a click, it turned out to be a mobile survival-type thing with crafting and zombies (incidentally, if you haven’t seen GamePitchBot on Twitter it’s well worth a look for hilarious, terrifyingly accurate, and occasionally that-would-really-work game pitches; random example: “I’ve got a world that’s something like He-Man but set in Shakespearean England only furry. This game is a rail shooter with a strong survival horror layer, and has authentically mocapped strippers, a penguin army and occasionally crafting something that blows up in your face”).

My mobile gaming tends to be more puzzle-type stuff to kill a bit of time when away from the PC, this was a real time ARPG with virtual joystick, but surprisingly easy to get on with. Movement was smooth, it was easy enough to point the right way and engage with crafting resources and/or enemies (often the same thing), and while not the deepest of combat systems (TAPTAPTAPTAPTAPTAPTAPTAP) it did the job. Gameplay was a familiar enough routine of gathering materials to craft tools to gather more materials to build a base with crafting stations to craft materials to gather tools to base buildings, or something along those lines. As you’d expect the process of building is made more difficult by lengthy planning disputes with the neighbours, though as they’re mostly ravening wildlife and shambling zombies the arbitration process involves fewer petitions to the local council and more shotguns. It was all fun enough, but didn’t take too long for the standard free mobile game foundations to be laid bare – an energy system restricting actions unless you pay or watch adverts, and no shortage of stuff to buy in a cash shop to overcome irritations like a very small starting inventory. Fair enough, that’s how a lot of mobile games sustain themselves; the freebies from Amazon included a larger backpack, so that made things a bit more bearable.

I bimbled around the starting area, explored some of the nearby sites, died once or twice but managed to get back to my body to retrieve my gear (shades of older, more hardcore MMOs). Then I bit off a bit more than I could chew and ended up in the middle of rather more zombies than I could handle, especially when my weapon broke mid-fight. A couple of gear-rescue attempts went equally badly, until I finally managed to kite the horde around in full Benny Hill Chase mode and pick them off individually. By that point, though, my lovely well-equipped corpse seemed to be no more, taking that oh-so-useful large backpack with it. So I furiously quit, and uninstalled the game.

I very much doubt it would have become a long term thing anyway, it seems a little pointless playing an action game on a phone screen while sitting right next to a decent PC. From a bit of reading around it seems once you get out of the early areas you can also attack other players and nick their stuff, which has never really been my thing. It was an interesting diversion, though, a good showcase of how a game like that can work on a phone, and there’s something about gathering stuff to build and fortify a base that scratches a real Robinsonade itch, so I started looking around for a PC game to do the same.

Obviously there’s good old Minecraft, but maybe something a little less blocky with a bit more of a combat system. Valheim gets pretty universal thumbs up, and with a recent update and a sale I grabbed that, certainly seems to have potential though (from a very brief start) the crafting seems a bit fiddly. I’m sure I’d get used to it, but it’s not quite what I’m after for now. Something with guns, ideally; maybe zombies, they’re always a handy guilt-free foe. Definitely not a PvP focused corpse-loot-o-thon, we all know who the *real* monsters are, ahhhh. A bit of digging suggested a few possibilities, 7 Days to Die and State of Decay 2 being towards the top of the list, but nothing so inspiring as to warrant an immediate purpose. I think Fallout 76 might be just the ticket; not exactly a survival game, but with plenty of the elements. It didn’t have the best of starts but subsequent updates seem to have raised it to the heady heights of “not too bad”, so I was all ready to give it a lash until seeing it’s still £35. Seems a bit steep for a three year old game, even with a bunch of updates in that time. It probably shouldn’t, with the price of everything else going up it’s unreasonable to expect games to get ever cheaper. If it was labelled a Super Deluxe Edition, usually £70 but down to £35, I’d be a lot more tempted even if the content was exactly the same, which doubtless says a lot more about me and susceptibility to psychological manipulation than anything else, but hey. I’m sure there’ll be a sale soon when I’ll grab it, and sod’s law will doubtless dictate that I don’t really fancy playing it by then but have a real hankering for a game that’s currently on a once-in-a-lifetime sale. Such is life!

The song remains the same

It’s been pretty consistent on the gaming front since the last post. I wrapped up Shadowrun Returns, a nice straightforward slice of magic cyberpunk; by all accounts Shadowrun: Dragonfall builds on the promising start, with a less linear story, so I’d like to get around to that, but maybe after a little break. Destiny 2 is coming to the end of the current season, I’ve been in my traditional soft cap ennui zone where the ever so incremental increases in gear score hardly seem worth it, new seasons are usually enough to perk me up again, but I might be heading for a longer break there; we’ll see what the Season of the Lost brings.

Idle Champions of the Forgotten Realm continues to be diverting, though, I can’t really put my finger on why; I guess it’s just not-idle enough to present interesting challenges of formation building with the various limitations and challenges imposed, then after settings things going you can wander off and still be scratching that loot-earning itch in the background.

Kards, the Second World War themed digital collectible car game, has also kept me hooked. A Battle of Britain event certainly helped, how could I possibly resist? It gave a few objectives: playing British and German aircraft, issuing Orders and such, which meant for a while I might not always have been playing optimally as I tried to spam out as many aircraft as possible regardless of whether they were the most suitable card, but it’s the sort of thing that encourages a bit of experimentation and stands you in good stead for learning what works and what doesn’t. The standard battles are against other players, but having built up 100 gold (the in-game currency) I bought the British PvE campaign, a short series of missions with slightly different set-ups in terms of objectives, starting positions and such. I thought I’d prefer playing the AI to other people, but after wrapping up the campaign I’m not so sure; either way you bump into those old imposters of Triumph and Disaster, but it’s somehow more galling when the computer pulls out cards that perfectly counter your planned attacks. I had a match against another human where I was on the verge of winning, they had no units on the board, and they drew and played a card that had the exact combination of abilities to finish me off first. Irritating, but at least they got a war story out of it. The PC? Unless the AI evolves to the point where it can head down to the pub with its AI mates and regale them with that time it pulled an Attack 5 Blitz card right when it was about to lose a match, it’s not really the same. Communication with other players is limited to a small set of defined phrases, and you can even turn those off if someone’s getting spammy, but the vast majority of time I’ve only seen “Good luck, have fun!” and “Thanks for the game!”, or their equivalents, so there isn’t much difference between PvP and PvE at the end of things. I think it might slot into my regular rotation, a match or two here and there alongside War Thunder.

City of Heroes has also slotted seamlessly back, like the good old days. Jumpers for goalposts, Positron task forces, isn’t it? Wasn’t it? The nostalgia rush briefly made me consider going back to World of Warcraft, following that original MMO-trajectory, but I snapped out of it pretty sharpish, there’s more than enough to keep me going in CoH with my occasional dabbling.

There is no armour against fate

Being a bit disconnected from the gaming zeitgeist I almost missed this year’s Steam summer sale, which would’ve been a shame. Not for any sort of shopping bargains but the associated Forge Your Fate adventures, 14 little vignettes associated with various genres. Selecting options gave an animated sticker reward, with a badge on offer at the end of it. They’re worth catching up with, the writing had a good dollop of Old Man Murray about it; I felt particularly singled out by the RPG story of spending a full day in the character creator, then another to finalise the hairstyle and waistcoat colour selections.

It particularly struck home as Melmoth had pointed me to an article about private servers resurrecting defunct MMOs including City of Heroes. I’d read about the Homecoming project a couple of years back when there was a bit of a kerfuffle as it was revealed, didn’t have the bandwidth for it at the time, but I’ve got such fond memories of it as my first MMO I had to give it another go. The Homecoming launcher is very slick and easy, it was a quick process to get everything up and running, and sure enough the character creator (particularly the costume design) can still keep me occupied for hours. Launching into the game itself was quite the Proustian trip, talking to those same contacts in the tutorial from 20-odd years ago. The game itself does feel a bit dated in some areas, those initial few levels with a limited number of powers are quite slow (Shoot… miss! Wait for recharge… in part a legacy of working with all sorts of connections including dial-up, I guess). There are things to help, a vendor to supply many of the temporary powers made available to veterans later, and you can get a proper travel power at level 4 which is a blessed relief. Perez Park isn’t such an inescapable trap of doom once you can fly. It doesn’t take long to round out your power tray and get back into frantic mob-pummelling fury, as well as planning any number of character concepts; just seeing Magical as one of the character origins popped Magical Trevor into my head (and once there it’s awfully hard to shift), so I had to roll a quick Beast Summoning Mastermind (the opposite of disappearing a cow, I guess, but close enough for government work), though someone else beat me to the name.

It’s still eminently playable and looks pretty good, though the odd interface quirk and low resolution texture remind you of its age; I did try and delve a bit further back into my formative gaming with 1989’s Curse of the Azure Bonds in Good Old Games, but the pre-mouse interface was just too much to grapple with. The main reason I’d fired up the GOG launcher was that they were giving away the Shadowrun trilogy, which got a good write up. I’ve made a start on the first game and it seems a pretty solid turn based RPG, not a vast amount of tactical depth in combat so far but then I’m low level so don’t have many abilities to employ. The story is pulling me along nicely, there have been some fun investigations/puzzles, and it’s told in sensibly-sized chunks of dialogue that convey what they need to without dragging on excessively. There’s no voicing; while a good voice actor can make a tremendous difference to a character I’m more text-oriented and certainly read faster than I can listen, sometimes I prefer to get on with things rather than settle in for lengthy conversations, so it’s not something I’m missing.

Over in idle world I’m still kicking off adventures in Idle Champions of the Forgotten Realms in the background. Having progressed from initial bafflement to getting a handle on the mechanisms it’s now settling down into the everlasting grind of progression, earning various forms of currency, unlocking characters and gear. On a previous post Jeromai pointed me to Crusaders of the Lost Idols, a sister game from the same studio; I gave it a try, but having unlocked a fair number of bits and pieces I didn’t fancy starting over. I could’ve switched between them, but running both in the background seemed like another rung on the ladder of impending madness (why not not play two games at the same time!!!) I wasn’t actively looking for another free to play game with endless grinding potential, but PC Gamer had a piece on 9 card games better than Hearthstone and one of them was the intriguing looking (but terribly named) Kards, a Second World War themed CCG. Being a sucker for that sort of thing I’ve grabbed it and played a few matches, and quite enjoyed it for the most part. It can have that inevitable frustration where you just draw situational cards in entirely the wrong situation and/or your opponent pulls out perfect combos that really complement each other, but either through luck or exceptional skill (I think we all know which) I’ve been winning more than losing. It’ll probably be a different story if I get matched up against more experienced players rather than other rookies. Steam reviews are a bit mixed, with a fair number of complaints about expensive/rare overpowered cards (people on the internet in “Annoyed About Game Balance” shocker), so I’m not sure I’ll throw too much money at it just yet, but I might dabble a while longer.

Destiny 2 ticks along; I sank a bit of time into the Solstice of Heroes event for the shiny armour, it needed a good mix of different activities for the various tasks, some of which I hadn’t run for an age. I think it might be time for another break, though, as there’s plenty of competition on the gaming front; Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is still there on the back burner, along with The Division 2 and any number of other titles accrued in Steam, the Epic Games store, Origin, UPlay etc. Time, my old nemesis, we meet again!

Chalke Valley History Festival 2021

We’re not out of the Covid woods, with a third wave brewing and the prospect of further variants, but after both doses of vaccine we’re confident in getting back to events with suitable precautions in place – like the Chalke Valley History Festival. 2020 would’ve been the tenth festival, but obviously Covid put the kibosh on that; this year’s festival would’ve been after the lifting of restrictions, after that was delayed it was still able to proceed with reduced capacity (being mostly outdoors), with open-sided marquees for the talks. Tickets sold out quickly for a lot of the talks, so I branched out (slightly) from the Second World War – no bad thing.

First up was A Marvel to Behold: Gold and Silver at the Court of Henry VIII with Timothy Schroder, Prime Warden of the Goldsmiths’ Company. Though few of the actual objects remain, the majority of Henry’s collection being melted and remodelled numerous times during and after his lifetime, archive records give a vivid picture of the role of precious metals; gifts for wives (when in favour) and the court, a means of impressing, then in later life as he became more vindictive a way of exercising power, exemplified by the destruction of the shrine of Thomas Becket with a large ruby from it turned into a ring.

Next was The Mountbattens: Their Lives and Loves with biographer Andrew Lownie. Archive material was a vital element again, in revealing the less edifying predilections of Louis Mountbatten, though Lownie is still battling for the full archives to be opened in the face of Cabinet Office opposition. Quite the astonishing cast across decades and continents, from Charlie Chaplin to Jawaharlal Nehru, and mysterious circumstances in both of their deaths – seems like there might be further revelations to come.

Finishing up the formal talks was Codebreaking Sisters: Our Secret War, the story of Pat and Jean Owtram. Unfortunately Jean was unable to make it, but Pat’s conversation with Simon Robinson was wonderful. Growing up their family employed Austrian Jews as housekeeper and cook, a lifeline after Kristallnacht, so Pat and Jean learned German from them (with a Viennese accent, still identifiable 75 years later in an interview with German radio). After taking a secretarial course in London at the height of the Blitz, Pat rejected the advice of a relative who suggested joining the Foreign Office whose secretaries were a “jolly bunch of girls”; Pat’s preference was for “a jolly bunch of sailors” so enlisted in the WRNS, where her knowledge of German was invaluable for the “Y” Service who collected signals intelligence from German transmissions. Post-war Pat moved into media, producing University Challenge and The Sky at Night as well as developing Ask The Family. The rest of the family had an equally eventful war; Jean joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry and worked with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in the Middle East and Italy, while their father was captured at Singapore and became Camp Commandant at Chungkai, a prison camp on the river Kwai. It’s always a privilege to hear first hand accounts from the ever-dwindling number of veterans.

Around the site there’s living history from the Iron Age to the Cold War with constant talks and demonstrations at the forges, kitchens and camps. Particularly good were the Time Traveller’s Kitchen and the Romans of Leg II Avg (who also recently assisted Phil Wang with his invasion of Britain).

Finishing off the day were a couple of events at the open stages. James Holland and Al Murray’s Second World War podcast We Have Ways Of Making You Talk started shortly before the 2019 festival, and has grown into quite the Patreon-supported behemoth; a live recording attracted a large crowd for a whistle-stop run through Britain’s worst blunders and greatest triumphs of the war (lubricated with a few pints). Murray was then on the panel for Histrionics, a panel show chaired by Charlie Higson, teaming up with Alexandra Richie against Harry Enfield and Dan Snow in a raucously ramshackle quiz. Historical charades were particularly entertaining, especially with the host seeming to have different answers on the card. A fine way to end the day as the sun set over the rolling Wiltshire countryside.

T-34 at Chalke Valley
Cold War Armoured Brigade HQ
We Have Ways of Making You Talk – Live!
The Histrionics Panel Show
Al Murray re-enacts… I’m still not quite sure what