Tuesday, 22 May 2018

GOTHAM and AGENTS OF SHIELD reprieved for another year

With cancellation-ageddon scything down shows by the dozen (although Brooklyn Nine-Nine has been saved and The Expanse looks likely for a last-minute move to Amazon), the fates of superhero dramas Gotham on Fox and Agents of SHIELD on ABC had looked dubious. Fortunately, both shows have been saved.

Image result for agents of shield

Gotham has been given a fifth season order, which will also be the show's last. The showrunners have confirmed that the series will finally see Bruce Wayne become Batman, with the show loosely adapting the Zero Year comic storyline (having dabbled with both the Killing Joke and No Man's Land storylines in Season 4). An episode count for the final season has yet to be decided, but given the nature of the show's reprieve it may only be 13 episodes.

Agents of SHIELD has also been given a 13-episode order, although this is plot-related: the opening of Season 6 will apparently reflect on events in Infinity War II, which is not due to hit cinemas until May 2019. The half-season order means that Agents of SHIELD will not return until shortly before the movie arrives in cinemas, allowing them to play out the aftermath of the cliffhanger before the sequel comes out and then continue afterwards. This will also be accompanied by the first movement of the Agents of SHIELD cast back to the films: Clark Gregg, who plays Agent Coulson on the show, will reprise the role in the Captain Marvel movie due for release in February 2019.

The long-term fate of Agents of SHIELD and the Netflix Marvel shows are in question: ABC is unhappy with the relatively low ratings of Agents of SHIELD and allegedly both the fifth and sixth season renewals came at the behest of their owners, Disney, to help their Marvel brand. ABC have objected because they could have a new and hopefully better-performing show in the timeslot instead. Disney are also launching a new adult-oriented streaming service at the end of 2019 which will include a Marvel track (including a brand-new live-action show, the details of which have not yet been revealed, and a Star Wars TV show helmed by Jon Favreau), and rumours are circulating that Agents of SHIELD may be moved over to that service. It's also possible that Disney will pull their six Netflix shows (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke CageIron Fist, The Defenders and The Punisher) to transfer to the new service, as they likely don't want to be making shows for the competition.

Monday, 21 May 2018

Amazon in provisional talks to save THE EXPANSE

Amazon has reached a provisional agreement with Alcon Entertainment to save The Expanse.

SyFy dropped the show last week after disappointing ratings for the first few episodes of Season 3, despite the show scoring a rare 100% positive review metric at Rotten Tomatoes. The Expanse is the second-highest-rated show on the network (behind only The Magicians), but SyFy's deal with Alcon Entertainment means they only get first-run US broadcast rights. Streaming rights go to Amazon US and international broadcast rights go to Netflix. DVD and Blu-Ray sales also go to Alcon. This means that in order to monetise the show, SyFy needs the show to be a big hit on first-run broadcast or on reruns or DVR recordings watched within three days. And of course, that's not how people consume media any more.

Amazon's deal is provisional and apparently dependent on a financially suitable package being worked out that is agreeable to everyone. Potential sticking points relate to the show's international rights and whether it's possible for Amazon to pick them up for Netflix without it breaking the bank to do so, or even if it's possible for Amazon and Netflix to do a shared distribution deal, which would be breaking new ground.

The Expanse is an appealing pick-up for Amazon: it's critically acclaimed but also has mass appeal (which neither SyFy nor Netflix have fully realised), it is relatively cheap by Amazon's standards even as it was quite expensive by SyFy's, and it already has a production team and cast in place, along with standing sets and a shooting schedule. The show's team has also been surprisingly good at getting seasons out the door with only 12-14 months between them, unlike the 18-24 months being taken by other streaming shows. Amazon has picked up a whole raft of SF and fantasy projects based on books recently (including Lord of the Rings, Conan the Barbarian, Ringworld and a show based on Iain Banks' Culture novels), so The Expanse fits into that wheelhouse perfectly. The good news is that with all of those projects at least three years away, The Expanse could get at least another two seasons on TV before they hit, giving Amazon some much needed original content.

Apparently Jeff Bezos is a fan of the books (the guy is a massive SFF fan) and was keen on Amazon getting involved in the first place when the US streaming rights came up, and is happy to shell out the money for the entire show as long as it makes sense to do so. It now looks like the deal will hinge on whether Amazon can extricate the international rights from Netflix, but so far the noises sound positive.

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

The Second Poppy War between the vast Nikara Empire and the island-bound Federation of Mugen ended in victory for Nikara...just. The cost of victory was high, so the Empire has established an elite military academy at Sinegard. Open to everyone, nobles and commoners alike, the academy is training the next generation of warriors who will defend the Empire. For Rin, a war orphan from the provinces, the academy is her only hope of avoiding her arranged marriage. But the path she sets out on will take her to far stranger places, and in the maelstrom of an unwinnable war involving forces she does not comprehend.

The Poppy War is the debut novel by R.F. Kuang and is an Asian-themed epic fantasy. War, magic and dark forces beyond mortal ken are all present and correct, as are angst, training montages and moral mazes the characters find impossible to travel through without getting blood on their hands and their consciences.

The novel doesn't do anything particularly new, but it does have an interesting arc for the central character of Rin. Normally these kind of stories feature a plucky young hero who is tempted by dark forces but nobly avoids them and wins a great victory for the forces of the light anyway. The Poppy War doesn't do that. It's message is consistently one of choice and consequence: the easy option is always the more costly one, and Rin, being a teenage orphan with no real experience of how the world works, makes pretty much the worst decision at every turn. It's a human and realistic response that moves The Poppy War away from its opening chapters - where it veers a bit too close to every fantasy school drama you've ever read - more towards psychological horror and a bloody-minded war story. Imagine Joe Abercrombie taking over Harry Potter halfway through the series before handing off to R. Scott Bakker for the finale and you may have an idea of the dramatic tonal darkening the novel undergoes on its way to one of the more memorable fantasy finales of recent years.

There's an interesting magic system, based around the summoning of god-spirits into the world, although this is not developed perhaps as fully as it could have been. The worldbuilding is fine on a macro level but on the level of fine detail it is lacking. The best fantasy worlds draw you into them, making you eager to learn more about them, but Nikara and Mugen are drawn in very broad strokes. The modern language (including a fair bit of swearing) and nomenclature are reasonable language choices, but doesn't do much to bring you into the mindset and shoes of the characters. The map, for once, is a hindrance rather than a help as it is drawn with apparently no mind to scale (Nikara is supposedly enormous but the islands of Speer and Mugen - widely separated on the map - are within eyesight of one another) and ends up being more confusing than enlightening.

These elements are negligible compared to the fine character work that's employed, especially as Kuang has very little truck with telling yet another version of the hero's journey. There's also a relentless pace to the novel. In 500 pages it covers more ground than some 2,000-page trilogies, with dramatic shifts in setting, cast and tone as the book proceeds. Compared to fantasy sagas that take a thousand pages to clear their throat, there's something to be said for how quickly and determinedly The Poppy War gets down to business.

The Poppy War (****) is an accomplished fantasy novel, especially for a debut, with an unusually bleak and cynical tone to it that becomes much more pronounced as it continues (to the point where I'm glad the next book I'm reading is the much more positive Space Opera). The characters are interesting and well-developed, but the worldbuilding and magic could be a bit more developed. Hopefully we'll see this in the sequels, as The Poppy War is (as you may have guessed), the opening volume of a trilogy. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

HD version of BABYLON 5 may be possible after all

In a surprising move, Babylon 5 creator/showrunner/writer J. Michael Straczynski has revealed on Twitter (whilst announcing the news that B5 will be available on Amazon Prime next month, at least in the USA) that it may be possible to remaster the show in HD after all...with a few caveats.

The original Babylon 5 and EAS Cortez CG models re-rendered to modern HD standards (with a new background). Whilst the Warner Brothers film masters wouldn't look this good, they'd be big improvement over the DVD versions of the show.

To reiterate the previous situation: Babylon 5 was shot in widescreen on Super 35mm film - from which a HD image can be extracted from the original film stock rather easily - and then mastered (having CGI, sound and music added) on standard-definition video. The SD video master tapes of Babylon 5 have been the source for the original broadcast version of the show, the VHS and DVD releases and the various streaming options available over the last few years. It is not possible to extract a HD image from video, so that was assumed to be it for Babylon 5.

The only way to get a HD Babylon 5 would be to go back to the original film stock and extract a new HD image of all the live-action footage - which is time-consuming and tedious, but straightforward - and then re-render all of the thousands of CG effects and composite shots* in the show from scratch - which would be mind-bogglingly time-consuming and expensive. Star Trek: The Next Generation took this approach, but the show didn't have much CGI to re-render, as most of the effects were handled in-camera on film, so it was straightforward to remaster. It still took four years and cost $20 million, and took years to break even across multiple media releases and years of streaming on Netflix and CBS All Access. Babylon 5 would cost around twice that as it had far more CG than ST:TNG and in fact far more effects shots in total, despite being almost seventy episodes shorter in length. Given the relative obscurity of Babylon 5 compared to ST:TNG, this would appear to be commercially unviable.

(* a composite shot is one that combines live-action footage with effects, so any shot which has weapons being fired, the characters standing in front of a green or blue screen, interacting with CG characters etc)

However, Straczynski has completely upended this understanding of the situation with new information.

It turns out that at the end of every season of Babylon 5, Warner Brothers requested that every episode be completely re-mastered on 35mm film. This was for an archival copy to sit in the WB archives and to match the show as broadcast. This process involved taking the digital elements - including the original CG shots in their original resolution (noticeably higher than what we saw on TV from the video master) - and putting them on film.

So in order to get a full HD version of Babylon 5, all one has to do is extract a broadcast copy from each film reel, and since everything is on there already - including CG - that's all you need to do. It's extremely cheap.

This may sound too good to be true, and there is a hitch. Because this was an archival copy of the episode as already aired, it only involved the 4:3 TV format, not the widescreen master which only exists on video. Or to put it another way, Babylon 5's HD edition would only be available in 4:3, not widescreen, despite Babylon 5 being the first TV show ever filmed directly in widescreen. Which is both ironic and immensely frustrating. As long-term B5 fans know, the CGI for Babylon 5 only exists in 4:3, with the widescreen CG shots seen on the DVD release coming about from cropping the image (which is incredibly annoying, and loses information from the top and bottom of the image), so this would both restore the original CG image and in a much higher resolution, but at the cost of losing the live-action widescreen shots.

There is the possibility of going back to the original film stock for the live-action-only shots and combining those with this new master to get at least some of the show in widescreen HD at a still-reasonable price, but the series would need to switch to 4:3 for every CGI and composite scene, which would be rather distracting.

Whilst it's not a perfect solution, it does open up the possibility of seeing Babylon 5 in high definition, at level of visual quality never seen before. Whether Warner Brothers are prepared to invest such a remaster remains to be seen, but at least now, in the long, twilight struggle of rewatching your favourite twenty-year-old SF show, there is the possibility of hope.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

LORD OF THE RINGS TV series will focus on Aragorn

The One Ring - the largest Middle-earth fansite with numerous, decades-long contacts inside the Tolkien Estate, publishers, Weta, New Line Cinema and Amazon - has confirmed that Amazon's new Lord of the Rings TV series will focus on the adventures of Aragorn some decades prior to the events of the novels and movies.

This news was not unexpected, with Aragorn's adventures as a young man - partially related in The Lord of the Rings' appendices - serving as the most logical basis for a Rings prequel story, given that the Tolkien Estate, despite a warmer attitude to this project, has not sold the rights to Unfinished Tales or The Silmarillion.

Meanwhile, Andy Serkis has confirmed that he is not interested in reprising his role as Gollum for the project, although given that a "young Aragorn" series would predate The Hobbit, Gollum would not be expected to appear anyway. However, if the series moves into the timeframe between the two books, there is scope for the series to include the "Hunt for Gollum" storyline from Lord of the Rings, where Aragorn and Legolas track Gollum down in Mirkwood on Gandalf's orders to keep him away from the Shire.

The Lord of the Rings TV series is expected to enter production in 2019 or 2020 to air in 2021.

SyFy hints at a rethink on THE EXPANSE cancellation...if ratings improve

According to Expanse actor Cas Anvar, SyFy has suggested it might reverse its decision to drop The Expanse is there is an improvement in the show's ratings for the remainder of Season 3. This is on top of positive noises from Amazon that they are at least aware of the situation, with Netflix having passed on it.

According to Anvar, SyFy's metrics for measuring the success of the show are down to its first-run viewing figures (it's "live" figures when it first airs on SyFy). They also count all DVR recordings, as long as they are viewed within 3 days. Apparently - and SyFy themselves have rather oddly confirmed this (suggesting they're happy to game their own system) - if you do both, it counts as two viewings of the show.

Fans of the show paid to have this banner flown over Amazon HQ for four hours yesterday.

This is only helpful for American viewers, since international viewers won't be able to see Season 3 for another six months thanks to the (dubious) international distribution deal that was worked out between SyFy and Alcon Entertainment.

The window for saving the show is unclear: there are six episodes of Season 3 left to air before the season ends in June, but some reports have suggested that Alcon won't be willing to pay for storage for the sets and props beyond a few more weeks, so that if the show isn't picked up soon they'll strike the (very expensive) sets and that will make the cost of remounting the show much greater.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Netflix passes on THE EXPANSE, Amazon interested

According to Jim Murray, who works behind the scenes on The Expanse, Netflix have indicated they are not interested in continuing the series on their streaming service, despite already having the international airing rights. However, he also confirms that Amazon have shown an interest in picking up the slack.

Amazon already stream the show in the United States after the initial broadcast on SyFy. The show also arguably fits Amazon's original programming more than Netflix's. Amazon are on a major SF and fantasy binge, recently taking out options on the novels RingworldSnow Crash, Consider Phlebas and The Three-Body Problem, as well as developing new fantasy series based on the Dark Tower, Wheel of Time, Lord of the Rings and Conan the Barbarian series. The Expanse is also based on a best-selling SF book series and some fans have noted that the show's focus on (relatively) near-future Solar system colonisation even makes it a good fit for promoting Jeff Bezos's Blue Origins space project.

You can contact Amazon Studios directly here, using the "For Your Consideration" tab.

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency: Seasons 1-2

Bellboy Todd Brotzman is not having a good day. He is in trouble with his landlord, his sister is suffering from a disease that leaves her housebound and he's just discovered some dead bodies in the penthouse of the hotel he works in. Just as things can't get any worse, he meets an eccentric Englishman named Dirk Gently who insists that he is Todd's best friend and gets embroiled in an increasingly bizarre detective case.

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency is a BBC America production that ran for two seasons in 2016-17. The series is inspired by two novels by British comic SF author Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (1987) and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (1988). The TV show's relationship to the novels is ambiguous: references to the events of the novel in the show suggest this is a sequel to the books, but Dirk Gently's backstory, character and age are at extreme variance with his book incarnation. Given Douglas Adams' own predilection for rewriting his stories every time he moved them to a new medium, it's probably for the best to consider this series to be more inspired by the books than directly adapting them.

The TV show comes across as a bizarre, madcap adventure which borrows a lot from the work of Noah Hawley (Fargo, Legion), with the same offbeat tone and odd dialogue choices. It's much more overtly science fictional though, with time travel, body-swapping and parallel universes playing a role. It's also surprisingly violent, with death, explosions and gunfights being a common way of resolving plot threads. In that sense the show feels like it's trying to be cleverer than it actually is - scriptwriter Max Landis (Bright) is not a particularly subtle or nuanced writer - but it's still an eminently watchable show.

The main success of the series is its casting: perennially confused everyman Elijah Wood (Lord of the Rings, Wilfred) is perfect as Todd the reluctant sidekick, Samuel Barnett is excellent as Dirk and Fiona Dourif is oustandingly growly as holistic assassin Bart. Rounding off the regular cast is Jade Eshete as badass bodyguard Farah, Hannah Marks as Todd's sister Amanda and Mpho Koaho as IT expert (and reluctant advisor to Bart) Ken. Their characters all initially appear to be fairly broad archetypes - Todd as the sceptic, Dirk as the kooky Englishman - but quickly gain new layers as their backstories are explained. Todd, in particular, gets fleshed out impressively over the first season and we learn more about what drives him.

The two seasons feel like novels in a series, with each season having its own distinct storyline and secondary cast (including the likes of Battlestar Galactica's Aaron Douglas and Firefly's Alan Tudyk) which means each can be watched and enjoyed individually, with important character arcs continuing between them. The first season delves into a weird cult operating in Seattle, whilst the second focus on a town in rural Montana which has been plagued by strange events. Both stories are strong in their own way (Season 1 has the cleverer mystery, Season 2 has the stronger supporting cast), although the tonal difference between them can be a bit jarring if you watch the whole series right through.

There's a lot to enjoy about the series, from the characters to the offbeat writing to the meticulously-constructed plot. However, there are some issues. The show seems to be channelling the likes of Fargo but isn't quite as good. Being based on a pair of Douglas Adams novels, you also expect the writer to either base the story on the books or at least bring some of Adams' sensibility to the screen and doesn't really do either. There may be no two finer writers to crib from than Noah Hawley and Douglas Adams, but doing so overtly and not coming up to either's standard is a bit disappointing. The very vague connections between the books and the TV show also make the connection feel worthless: Landis may have been better dropping that connection and just creating his own completely original property rather than leaning on these well-known books.

Still, if you can move beyond that there's a lot to enjoy. The performances are exceptionally good (Fiona Dourif - daughter of Brad - offers up some next-level intensity and weirdness), the stories are clever and make sense (eventually) and it's great to see a show that leans in and embraces its weird side. The biggest issue is that the writers were setting up a longer-term arc for the series and its cancellation after Season 2 does waste some of that setup work. Still, the primary storylines of the first two seasons are resolved and there's much less of a cliffhanger ending to the story, so it can be enjoyed as a completed entity.

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (****) is available now on Blu-Ray in the US and on Netflix in much of the rest of the world.

The Good Place: Seasons 1-2

Eleanor Shellstrop is killed by freak accident involving shopping trolleys and an erectile dysfunction advertising truck. She wakes up in a surprisingly non-denominational afterlife and is told that, thanks to a life dedicated to charity and selflessness, she has made it to "the good place." Unfortunately, there's been a mistake. Eleanor is superficial, selfish, self-centred and cynical. Terrified at this mistake being discovered, Eleanor sets out on a quest to become a better person...whatever that means.

The Good Place is a sitcom riffing on some pretty weighty themes: life, death, religion, morality, existentialism and ethics. Fortunately, it's also an extremely funny show. Created by Michael Schur, modern American TV's sitcom-whisperer (he cut his teeth on the American Office before co-creating Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine), it's a high concept that the show repeatedly explores and deconstructs. It's also, startlingly, a heavily serialised show. The Good Place is not a status quo sitcom, it's an ongoing, continuing narrative. The fact that each episode is called a "Chapter" and the numbering continues between seasons confirms this.

Thematically the show is an exploration of whether our characters are set in stone by immutable factors, or if we can change ourselves for the better, and if doing so out of fear (in this case, the fear of going to "the bad place") is still morally a good thing if the results are positive and beneficial, for the individual or the community. Students of ethics and philosophy will get a buzz out of some very funny jokes revolving around Kant, Plato and Aristotle.

Schur knows that such musings aren't going to be for everyone, so also grounds the comedy through the character of Eleanor, who has no particular interest in such ideas. The exceptionally-talented Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars, Heroes, FanboysFrozen) is as watchable and funny as ever as Eleanor, depicting her as a selfish woman who is only out for #1 but rapidly evolves as a person when she finds herself in the afterlife and having to make up for her mistakes after the fact. William Jackson Harper is also exceptional as Chidi, a neurotic ethics professor whose help Eleanor enlists to become a better person. Rounding out the main cast are Jameela Jamil as uber-socialite Tahani, Manny Jacinto as Jianyu (a Buddhist monk who is more - or less - than he seems), D'Arcy Carden as Janet (a personal assistant who constructs and maintains the good place) and the mighty Ted Danson as Michael, the sort-of angel who designed this particular version of the good place. The cast is exceptional, with great chemistry.

The show's continuously developing plot and short-order seasons (each season is only 13 episodes long, each only 22 minutes in length) makes it both easy to catch up with and addictive to watch. For a high-concept sitcom not to exploit its ideas until they're dry but instead relentlessly finding new ground is unusual, but works very well.

The show does have a couple of weaknesses. First, it moves so fast that sometimes it feels a bit too fast, and a couple of holding-pattern episodes to let viewers catch their breath might be welcome. Secondly, and this is mildly spoilerific, the show presses a big reset button at several key points in the story, junking the character (but not story) development we've seen over multiple episodes and resetting the characters to their Episode 1 status. There's a good story reason for this and the cast copes with it quite well, but it can be frustrating to see our characters playing "getting to know you" again when we've already seen that twice before. Hopefully this will stop with the upcoming third season and the writers will let the characters grow more effectively.

The first two seasons of The Good Place (****½) are funny, well-characterised, cleverer than you'd think and extremely enjoyable, with the writers and actors on the top of their game. The Good Place airs on NBC in the US and on Netflix in much of the rest of the world.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

On the continent of Genabackis the Malazan army lays siege to the city of Pale, which sits under the protection of Anomander Rake, Lord of the Tiste Andii. As the final battle begins, the elite Malazan unit known as the Bridgeburners and several High Mages suffer a calamitous betrayal. Their next mission takes them to Darujhistan, City of Blue Fire, where an even more dangerous showdown awaits...

Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen began unfolding back in 1999 with this divisive novel. Strongly hailed by authors from Stephen Donaldson to J.V. Jones as an important, breakthrough work and found utterly baffling by others, Gardens of the Moon has acquired a bit of a reputation over the years as a hard book to get into.

I've always found this suggestion to be overstated, just as much on this fourth reread as on my first fifteen years ago. Gardens of the Moon is a busy, bustling and striking novel which has little interest in slowing down to providing worldbuilding infodumps. You cling on for dear life and follow the story through or you don't. Still, the benefit of fifteen additional years of books from both Steven Erikson and co-creator Ian Esslemont means there are now other, gentler introductions to this world and this story: you can also jump on board with Erikson's Deadhouse Gates or Esslemont's Night of Knives or Dancer's Lament, which all have somewhat easier opening sections.

Gardens of the Moon opens with a bang and doesn't stop for 700 pages. In that time it introduces a whole, vivid world dominated by a powerful empire, dozens of characters, a whole new (and rather vague, at this stage) magic system, a dozen races, multiple gods, a prophetic Tarot card game, undead Neanderthals, a race of elves who are also dragons and more nods to other authors (from Leiber to Donaldson to Cook) than it's possible to parse in one read. It's a mess, without reasonable exposition or grounding in the reality the characters find themselves in.

But it's also a glorious mess. Erikson's imagination here is bigger than a planet, his prose is erudite and far wittier than any first-time author has any right to be (this was Erikson's second-published novel but was written many years earlier), and through the confusion the chaotic charisma of characters like Whiskeyjack, Anomander Rake, Quick Ben, Tattersail, Ganoes Paran, Kalam, Fiddler, Rallick Nom and Caladan Brood is clear. Yes, Gardens of the Moon sometimes feels like starting watching a movie that's already been on for an hour, but that can also be quite good fun.

Once you get through the opening, confusing section at Pale, the action moves to Darujhistan where nobles scheme, assassins plot and thieves fight a clandestine war on the rooftops and things become a lot clearer. From there on it's an easier ride to the big climactic showdown, which is epic, impressive and random (not helped by a deus ex machina resolution, although on rereads when you know what the hell's going on this is much less of a problem).

There are other niggling problems, mainly relating to "GotMisms", worldbuilding and character tics that Erikson put into this book which he changed his mind about in the nine years that passed until he wrote the second volume, Deadhouse Gates. In particular, if the key theme of the Malazan Book of the Fallen is compassion, that theme feels a bit absent in this book as Anomander Rake shows an uncharacteristic amoral ruthlessness (compared to later books) and no-one seems to know anything at all about the ancient races and history of the world whilst later on everyone seems a lot more clued up (one of the more relatable things about this novel is that the characters are often as confused about what's going on as the reader, which is less the case in later volumes of the series). Still, these continuity issues are minor and understandable given the protracted genesis of the series.

Gardens of the Moon (****) is by turns bewildering, confusing, rewarding, exciting and intriguing. It will bewilder a lot of people, but out of that bewilderment will come understanding. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is the most accomplished work of epic fantasy published (predominantly) in the 21st Century to date, and this remains the best place to start, setting the scene as it does for its two successors, which are simply two of the finest fantasy novels ever written. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

BROOKLYN NINE-NINE saved by NBC, more shows cancelled

NBC have swooped in to save Brooklyn Nine-Nine after it was cancelled by Fox yesterday.

NBC cited the enormous outpouring of affection for the show as a reason for rescuing the show, along with their excellent relationship with the show's creators, Michael Schur and Dan Goor, whom they previously worked on with Parks and Recreation. NBC is also currently producing Schur's newer series The Good Place.

The sixth season order is for 13 episodes, which will allow NBC to assess how well the series is going before ordering further episodes.

Meanwhile, cancellations are coming thick and fast. Last Man on Earth has also been cancelled after four seasons and Wayward Pines after two. The X-Files has also been cancelled, or more accurately to say, Fox have no plans to continue the show's soft renewal after Gillian Anderson indicated she was done with the series. Producer Chris Carter is still planning more X-Files movies, however. The Exorcist has also been cancelled after two seasons and Lucifer after three. The outpouring of anger over the cancellation of the latter has matched Brooklyn Nine-Nine's, with fans hoping for a similar reprieve on another network.

Meanwhile, Batman prequel show/hallucinogenic fever dream Gotham is in the bizarre predicament of having its future decided by what happens to another show, the Lethal Weapon reboot. Fox was forced to fire Lethal Weapon's star after on-set drama and is now scrambling to recast with just days left before a final deadline. If it is unable to do so, it will can Lethal Weapon and renew Gotham, otherwise Gotham will be axed, despite some recent ratings boosts as the show has focused on the Joker as a villain and the teenage Bruce Wayne taking more definitive steps towards donning the cowl.

Also in an unusual state is Agents of SHIELD. ABC tried to kill the show last year, but owners Disney stepped in and overruled them, citing the show's importance to their overall Marvel Cinematic Universe. This still seems to be the case this year, with Disney and Marvel leaning on the season finale to tie in with Avengers: Infinity War and help build intrigue for next year's sequel, as well as Captain Marvel (which will see Agents of SHIELD actor Clark Gregg rejoin the movie cast for the first time since the original Avengers movie). On that basis, it seems unlikely that Disney will kill the show, especially as it could make a great fit for their new streaming service launching in late 2019 (allowing them to take it - and possibly their entire Netflix roster - out of another company's hands). With ABC unhappy about the ratings, however, it might be that we get a compromise, with a half-season order with the show not to return until after Infinity War II hits our screens next spring.

Over at the CW, executives surprised industry observers, their own fans and the creative team by confirming they would not be proceeding with Wayward Sisters, a spin-off from their long-running series Supernatural. After a well-received backdoor pilot earlier this year, the project looked good for a season order and it's a bit of a puzzle why the CW has not proceeded with it.

Meanwhile, the fate of The Expanse remains unclear. Alcon Entertainment own the show outright so can sell it to Amazon, Netflix or another network much more easily, but this is likely to be a more involved process, where we likely won't know the outcome for a few weeks at least.

Over at Netflix directly, the streaming service seems happy with the performance of Lost in Space (despite lukewarm reviews) and on course to renew. The fate of Altered Carbon is much less clear. The cyberpunk epic aired to generally good reviews (after more mixed early previews), but its viewership seemed weak, with the show charting up less than one-third of the streams of Lost in Space in its first week available, despite an apparently higher budget. However, Netflix themselves have to bear some blame for this by sabotaging Altered Carbon's launch with news of their Cloverfield Paradox deal (complete with a major Superbowl ad campaign). With Altered Carbon airing three months ago, it is unusual for Netflix to wait so long before confirming the show's return or cancellation, suggesting it's a tough decision for them.

Friday, 11 May 2018

RICK & MORTY renewed for 70 episodes

In an unusual move, Adult Swim have ordered 70 episodes of Rick & Morty without a season commitment.

Darn Harmon and Justin Roiland's series has only aired three seasons and 31 episodes since debuting in December 2013, with Season 4 not expected to air until 2019, meaning this order will more than double the existing number of episodes and potentially last for another ten years given current production rates.

Harmon and Roiland's deal, which specifies episodes rather than seasons, came after a chaotic production process for the third season, which saw fewer episodes produced than originally planned and an extended writing period. The new deal raises the possibility of the series being continued in batches of episodes made a few at a time rather than large numbers of episodes ordered on a tight deadline, and gives Harmon and Roiland more flexibility in how to handle the show going forwards.

Ryan Reynolds is playing Pikachu in the DETECTIVE PIKACHU movie

I mean, that's it, I can't even parse that headline or believe I went six months without being aware of this news, so that's it really.

This is a thing that's happening.

Jon Favreau reveals more about the live-action STAR WARS TV show

Jon Favreau has been helping publicise the new Star Wars movie, Solo (in which he voices an alien creature), and has taken time to talk about the new live-action TV series he is helming for Disney's new streaming service.

According to Favreau, the new Star Wars series will take place seven years after the events of Return of the Jedi and twenty-three years before the events of The Force Awakens. The series will draw on some of the CG technology pioneered by his movie The Jungle Book to depict truly unusual and weird aliens.

Half of the first season for the show has been written already. Disney are hoping to use the show (alongside an unspecified Marvel Cinematic Universe project) to launch their new streaming service in late 2019.


Two of the most critically-acclaimed TV shows in their respective genres have been cancelled, including SF darling The Expanse.

Image result for the expanse

The Expanse's cancellation was slightly unexpected, with the show drawing immense critical buzz of the kind that SyFy has not enjoyed since the second and early third season of Battlestar Galactica, well over a decade ago. First-run ratings were not as strong as might be wished given the show's relatively high budget (at between $4 and $5 million per episode, the show cost almost twice to make as BSG), but of course the metrics of how ratings are measured have changed dramatically in the last few years. By all accounts The Expanse also enjoyed healthy streams and sales through Amazon.

A key factor in the decision was the show's overseas performance and how it's finances are calculated. SyFy was not produced inhouse but was instead financed and produced by Alcon Entertainment and sold to SyFy. SyFy only had first-run transmission rights in the United States, with Alcon able to sell streaming rights to Amazon and international rights to Netflix. However, SyFy insisted on a six-month delay before Netflix could stream the show, despite overseas viewers having no other legal way of watching the show and thus there would have been no cannibalising of SyFy's US viewership. This decision seems to have cost the show international viewership, with hardcore international fans of the series downloading and torrenting the show long before it could be seen legally.

As a result, SyFy's deal meant that The Expanse's success was extremely dependent on first-run viewing figures and with these running at around 1 to 1.2 million per episode in Season 3, these figures were insufficient to support the high cost of the show (compared to SyFy's inhouse programming, such as the considerably cheaper - and vastly cheaper-looking - The Magicians).

Alcon Entertainment are shopping the show to other networks, which means that they may be able to find the show a new home elsewhere. Netflix may or may not be interested, given the lukewarm international figures. Amazon, who have recently been picking up almost every single SF and fantasy property of note (including Wheel of Time, Conan the Barbarian, Lord of the Rings, Ringworld, The Three-Body Problem and Snow Crash), may be a safer bet. Amazon in particular would find The Expanse's budget to be relatively cheap by their standards and they would probably prefer to have a show they can get on the air every year rather than waiting 18-24 months between seasons (The Expanse has gone about 14 months between each season). The momentum of just being able to continue production immediately rather than ramping up on a new show may also be attractive.

Image result for Brooklyn Nine Nine

Meanwhile, Fox have cancelled Brooklyn Nine-Nine, their most critically-acclaimed comedy series. Brooklyn Nine-Nine's cancellation was more widely expected, with the show's viewing figures dropping by over half over its five-season run. Some fans were hoping for a reprieve, as viewing figures held relatively firm from Season 4 to Season 5 and the show enjoys widespread global popularity (in the UK it unusually has both reasonable audiences on Channel 4 and then again on Netflix). However, Fox have decided to swap out one of their TV drama nights for sports, which rendered the point moot. A whole swathe of other shows (such as Last Man on Earth) have also been axed to make room for this change in the schedule.

There has been hope that the show might be saved. Netflix are a possibility based on their success with the show internationally, and compared to most of their shows Brooklyn Nine-Nine would be incredibly cheap to make, as well as easily being able to get on the air every year. However, it's unclear if Fox would be willing to make the show for a company they are increasingly seeing as an adversary in the marketplace.

Possibly more likely is US streaming service Hulu. Hulu are are looking to beef up an original programming lineup strengthened by The Handmaid's Tale. Provisional talks between Hulu and Fox have already apparently taken place, with interest from other parties.

Hopefully both shows are saved, particularly The Expanse which was roughly only a third of the way through adapting James S.A. Corey's novel series.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

More writers announced for Netflix's WITCHER TV series

More writers have been confirmed for Netflix's upcoming adaptation of Andrzej Sapkowski's Witcher series of novels.

Joining Lauren S. Hissrich (The West Wing, Jessica Jones, The Defenders), who has already written the pilot episode are Jenny Klein (Supernatural, Cloak & Dagger, The Tick), Declan De Barra (Funky FablesThe Originals) and Sneha Koorse (Daredevil, Constantine, The Americans).

There will be seven writers for the first season in total, along with several writer's assistants (one of whom is Clare Higgins). With eight episodes in the first season, it sounds like each writer will helm one episode apiece.

The Witcher will enter production later this year to air in (presumably early) 2020.

Monday, 7 May 2018

The City and The City

Beszel and Ul Qoma are two cities that share the same space. The people, the buildings and the institutions of one city must be ignored by residents of the other, on the pain of arrest by the secret police, Breach. When a young woman from Ul Qoma is found dead in Beszel, Inspector Tyador Borlu must investigate to see if a Breach has occurred...but the case reminds him of the disappearance of his wife some years earlier. As Borlu investigates, the trail leads him to Ul Qoma and the chance to solve more than just one mystery.

China Mieville is one of Britain's finest novelists, a writer of the macabre, the strange and the weird who writes in an accessible but memorable style. The City and The City, originally published in 2009, is one of his most stripped-back and accessible novels, the weirdness dialled back to just the idea of the two cities coexisting in the same space. That backdrop is then used to explore the characters and the central murder mystery.

This 4-part BBC television adaptation is a fine take on Mieville's work. David Morrissey (Britannia, The Walking Dead) plays Tyador Borlu, imbuing him with just the right mix of world-weary cynicism, hope and even romanticism as he tries to find answers to the puzzles in his life. Katrynia, played by Laura Pulver (Sherlock), is a new addition to the story and at first glance the inclusion of a "dead/missing wife" as a motivational factor for the main character feels a bit cliche. It does help in giving Borlu a personal connection to the mysterious relationship between the two cities, rather than having it remain an abstract background phenomenon (as in the first half of the novel), and it also creates more storytelling possibilities through flashbacks.

The rest of the cast is accomplished, with Mandeep Dhillon exceptional as the sweary Constable Corwi and Maria Schrader doing a great job as Detective Dhatt, Borlu's Ul Qoman opposite number. Production is also of a high standard, with a great musical score and some very impressive set dressing to sell various parts of Liverpool and Manchester as the twin cities. Some might argue that using two of Britain's best-known cities to serve as the backdrop for a series playing initially to British arguments is a bit weird, but for the most part it works, transporting the viewer to an imaginary microstate on the borders of eastern Europe.

At four hours to adapt a 350-page novel, the drama is just the right length and doesn't outstay its welcome. There are some issues with pacing and exposition, however. The premise is unusual and the series goes pretty far in the first episode in ensuring that viewers get the idea. Given the number of viewers who reported feeling extremely confused, it clearly didn't go far enough for some, but for others (and particularly those who've read the novel), the constant reiteration of the twin cities idea and "unseeing" started getting in the way of telling the story at hand. Also, and this is really minor, the novel ends on a pitch-perfect line and I was surprised that the TV show did not do the same thing.

Overall, The City and The City (****) is a fine slice of television drama, with an accomplished cast and some great visual storytelling. The handling of the unusual premise could have been handled more elegantly, perhaps, but overall this is a great first adaptation of a China Mieville novel and hopefully not the last. The series is available on DVD in the UK and to watch via Amazon Video, but bizarrely a Blu-Ray release has not been listed. There is also no American release listed at this time.

Franchise Familiariser: Axis and Allies

One of the most notable and popular board games around is Axis & Allies. Originally released in 1981, the game was designed to depict the full scale and scope of World War II in a concise board game form but with greater complexity and depth than Risk, the then-dominant popular wargame. Since its release almost forty years ago, the game has sold many millions of copies to become one of the most popular board games of all time.

However, several changes of ownership, several edition changes and the release of a series of related-in-name-only spin-off games have left the casual gamer potentially confused over which edition to pick up or check out. If you fall into this bracket, this Franchise Familiariser may be of some use.

A game of Axis & Allies Anniversary Edition in progress. German units are shown in black, British units in tan, Russian in red and Italian in brown. American and Japanese forces not shown.

The Basics

Axis & Allies is a series of board games which attempts to depict major military conflicts (predominantly World War II) from a military and economic perspective, but in a relatively straightforward and streamlined manner. The Axis & Allies franchise is at heart a deliberately asymmetric game which intends to replicate (in broad strokes) the key difference between the two main sides in the Second World War: the Axis powers start the conflict with enormous and formidable military forces, but if the Allies can withstand their initial onslaught, their superior economic might will, in the long run, turn the tide of the conflict. Whilst modern board games attempt to reduce the role of randomness by substituting card choices for dice rolling, the Axis & Allies games revel in rolling enormous numbers of dice. The dice mechanic is very simple: the game uses a standard six-sided dice and you want to roll as low as possible to inflict enemy casualties.

Games of Axis & Allies usually revolve around the combined use of ground troops (infantry, artillery and tanks), air forces (fighters and bombers) and naval units (submarines, destroyers, cruisers, battlecruisers and transports) to win battles and seize territory. Territory zones have an economic income, which allows the victor to increase their supply of money and buy more units for the next turn. Victory goes to the side which achieves either an unassailable position (agreed by mutual consent) or seizes its military objectives, usually key cities and enemy capitals.

The core factions of each game are the Axis and Allies. Most editions of the game feature the Soviet Union, United Kingdom and United States as the Allied side with Germany and Japan forming the Axis. Some editions of the game adjust this, introducing Italy as a third Axis side and China, the ANZAC forces (Australia and New Zealand) and the Free French as additional Allied factions. Depending on the edition, the game can be played by anything from two to nine players, although nine would be considered excessive (and the ANZAC, French and Chinese players would have relatively little to do). The most common variant is a four-player game with one player controlling each of Russia, Germany and Japan, and a fourth player controlling the USA and UK.

Recently the franchise has expanded to cover the war from three levels of play (beginner, intermediate and advanced), as well as developing spin-off games of varying quality, from the very well-received World War I 1914 to the poorly-received Guadalcanal. There are also video games inspired by the series and a more hardcore miniature wargame which shares the name.

The traditional Axis & Allies logo.

The Series

The Axis & Allies series consists of the following games:

The Core Game
  • Axis & Allies (Nova Games Edition, 1981)
  • Axis & Allies Classic (1984)
  • Axis & Allies Revised (2004)
  • Axis & Allies Anniversary Edition (2008)
  • Axis & Allies 1941 (Beginner's Game, 2012)
  • Axis & Allies 1942 (Intermediate Game, 2012)
  • Axis & Allies Anniversary Edition, Second Printing (2017)

Individual Theatres
  • Axis & Allies: Europe (1999)
  • Axis & Allies: Pacific (2001)
  • Axis & Allies: Pacific 1940 (2009)
  • Axis & Allies: Europe 1940 (2010)
  • Axis & Allies: Pacific 1940, Second Edition (2012)
  • Axis & Allies: Europe 1940, Second Edition (2012)

  • Axis & Allies: D-Day (2004)
  • Axis & Allies Miniatures (2005)
  • Axis & Allies: Battle of the Bulge (2006)
  • Axis & Allies: Guadalcanal (2007)
  • Axis & Allies Naval Miniatures: War at Sea (2007)
  • Axis & Allies: WWI 1914 (2013)
  • Axis & Allies & Zombies (2018)

Video Games

  • Axis & Allies (turn-based strategy game, 1998)
  • TripleA (2001)
  • Axis & Allies (real-time strategy game, 2004)

Franchise History

Larry Harris (1948- ) is the son of Lawrence Holiday Harris, Snr. (1920-2010), a former US infantryman who fought in the Pacific Theatre of WWII, taking part in battles at the Solomon Islands, New Guinea and the Philippines. Harris himself saw military action in Vietnam, serving with the 82nd Airborne Division.

Harris developed the original Axis & Allies for Nova Games in 1981, inspired by long talks with his father over his military service. Harris was inspired to create a WWII game which was more complex and true to history than, say, Risk, but was still approachable and easier to play that a detailed, full wargame. In 1984 he re-released the game through Milton Bradley as part of their "Gamemaster Series". This edition of Axis & Allies, known known as the "Classic Edition", became iconic for its colourful map and strong theme. This edition sold over a million copies by itself.

Harris moved on to develop other games (including Thin Ice in 1989) and for some years resisted revisiting his best-known game. In 1999 he relented and released a much more focused version of the game, concentrating solely on the European Theatre. In 2001 he did the same for the Pacific. After experimenting with a series of spin-off games using all-new rules and focused on single battles, not to mention a miniatures of game of dubious connection to the main series, Harris and his team (now working for Avalon Hill, an off-shoot of Hasbro) returned to the original game in 2008, releasing a series of new editions for all levels of play, as well as re-releasing the European and Pacific variants in new editions which could be combined into one massive new game of unparallelled size and scope (featuring over 1,000 miniatures).

More recently, the team has been working on spin-offs which actually use the core Axis & Allies rules but in new settings, resulting in Axis & Allies: WWI and Axis & Allies & Zombies (2018). Future games which take the Axis & Allies gameplay into new settings are also in the planning stages.

Axis & Allies: Nova Games Edition (1981)
Factions: UK, USA, USSR, Germany, Japan.
Units: Infantry, Tanks, Fighters, Bombers, Aircraft Carriers, Submarines, Transports, Battleships, Nuclear Bombs.

The original Axis & Allies was released in 1981 by Nova Games. This version of the game is noted for its paper map and its use of counters rather than miniatures. Despite its primitive presentation, the gameplay is surprisingly close to that of the "classic edition". The biggest and most startling change is the presence of a nuclear bomb: each side can research nukes either as an alternative win condition or to actually use (the nuke obliterates every unit, friendly or hostile, in a single game space). Later editions of the game removed the nuclear bomb, although some house rules sometimes incorporate the race to acquire a nuke as an optional win condition.

Axis & Allies: Classic (1984)
Factions: UK, USA, USSR, Germany, Japan.
Units: Infantry, Tanks, Fighters, Bombers, Aircraft Carriers, Submarines, Transports, Battleships.

The classic edition of the game was released by Milton Bradley in 1984 and remained in print for almost twenty years. This version of the game remains iconic for many people due to its colourful, well-delineated world map and its relatively straightforward gameplay. Aside from getting rid of the nuclear bombs, this edition didn't change too much apart from introducing a tech tree where each side could develop new and better weapons as the game progressed, such as heavy tanks, V2 rockets and jet aircraft. Later editions of the game either removed or reduced this aspect of the gameplay.

Axis & Allies: Europe (1999)
Factions: UK, USA, USSR, Germany.
Units: Infantry, Artillery, Tanks, Fighters, Bombers, Aircraft Carriers, Submarines, Transports, Destroyers, Battleships.

The first theatre-specific edition of the game focused on Europe and North Africa. This version of the game is arguably the bloodiest - the German and Russian players can expect to lose dozens upon dozens of units apiece in the fighting on the Eastern Front - but also arguably the most strategically interesting, with various variant strategies available (including the Axis diverting more troops to the Middle East or the UK mounting an assault on Norway). This edition of the game also introduced artillery, which dramatically improves the effectiveness of infantry in attacking, and destroyers as an urgently-needed counterbalance to German submarines. These improvements would be incorporated in most future editions of the game.

This game also features some cities which are entire spaces on the board by themselves (Leningrad, Moscow and Stalingrad) and convoy routes which the Axis player can raid with U-boats to interrupt the flow of resources to the beleaguered UK and USSR.

Axis & Allies: Pacific (2001)
Factions: UK, USA, Japan.
Units: Infantry, Marines, Artillery, Tanks, Fighters, Bombers, Aircraft Carriers, Submarines, Transports, Destroyers, Battleships.

This version of the game focuses overwhelmingly on the Pacific Theatre, naval combat and the clash between the Allied powers and Japan. This version of the game introduces Marines (as special troops with a bonus for storming islands) and Naval Bases (which give naval forces a boost to movement). Although very popular, this edition of the game has some problems, most notably the simplistic combination of India, Australia and New Zealand under the British banner and the US player taking control of Chinese forces.

Axis & Allies: Revised (2004)
Factions: UK, USA, USSR, Germany, Japan.
Units: Infantry, Artillery, Tanks, Fighters, Bombers, Aircraft Carriers, Submarines, Transports, Destroyers, Battleships.

The third edition of the core game is also the least popular. The introduction of the new rules from the theatre games into the base game - such as destroyers and artillery - are welcome, but this version of the game features a particularly hideous world map which is not enjoyable to play on.

Axis & Allies: Anniversary Edition (2008, 2017)
Factions: UK, USA/China, USSR, Germany, Japan, Italy.
Units: Infantry, Artillery, Tanks, Fighters, Bombers, Aircraft Carriers, Submarines, Transports, Destroyers, Cruisers, Battleships.

Released to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Avalon Hill Games, Axis & Allies: Anniversary Edition was the first attempt to create a "big" version of the standard game. The game takes place on a map which is over 33% larger than the original with many more territories. It also adds Italy as a sixth faction and introduces new rules for China (which is still controlled by the US player, but is now handled as a separate military power). The game also expands the "victory city" idea, identifying 18 cities which are of strategic value. The first faction to capture a certain number of cities wins. This edition also retains the tech tree from the Classic edition that was omitted from later versions of the game. The only new unit introduced is the Cruiser, which sits between a Destroyer and Battleship in capability.

This version of the game has been cited by many Axis & Allies fans as the definitive version of the game. Out of print for many years, it was recently re-released in 2017 and, at this time of writing, remains on general release.

Axis & Allies: 1942 (2009, 2012)
Factions: UK, USA, USSR, Germany, Japan.
Units: Infantry, Artillery, Tanks, Fighters, Bombers, Aircraft Carriers, Submarines, Transports, Destroyers, Cruisers, Battleships.

The new "standard" edition of the game, replacing the unloved Axis & Allies: Revised and Axis & Allies: Anniversary Edition (when the first printing sold out). This game features a new, more realistic map and incorporates Cruisers from the anniversary edition, as well as new, faction-specific sculpts for units (rather than everyone using the same tank and same bomber models, etc). A welcome return to form for the core game, praised for its presentation. However, this edition of the game has been criticised for unclear territory boundaries on the map, cardboard tokens for factories (rather than the plastic units of previous editions) and the removal of bank notes from the game to allow players to track their money, not to mention a highly inadequate number of provided dice.

Axis & Allies: Pacific 1940 (2009, 2012)
Factions: UK, USA/China, ANZAC, Japan.
Units: Infantry, Mechanised Infantry, Artillery, Tanks, Fighters, Bombers, Tactical Bombers, Aircraft Carriers, Submarines, Transports, Destroyers, Cruisers, Battleships.

A revision of the 2001 Axis & Allies: Pacific game, this edition features a greatly expanded role for China (in line with the Anniversary Edition) and introduces the ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand) forces as a distinct faction. 

Axis & Allies: Europe 1940 (2010, 2012)
Factions: UK, USA, USSR, France, Germany, Italy.
Units: Infantry, Mechanised Infantry, Artillery, Tanks, Fighters, Bombers, Tactical Bombers, Aircraft Carriers, Submarines, Transports, Destroyers, Cruisers, Battleships.

A major revision of the original 1999 Axis & Allies: Europe game, this edition is similar but also incorporates most of Africa (rather than just the northern coast) and adds some improvements in the form of mechanised infantry, tactical bombers, airbases and naval bases. This game also features an earlier starting position, with Germany considerably weaker than in the original game and with more work to do, as France is still extant and needs to be defeated before the Axis turns its attention towards the Soviet Union.

Axis & Allies: Global 1940 (2010, 2012)
Factions: UK, USA/China, USSR, France, ANZAC, Germany, Italy, Japan.
Units: Infantry, Mechanised Infantry, Artillery, Tanks, Fighters, Bombers, Tactical Bombers, Aircraft Carriers, Submarines, Transports, Destroyers, Cruisers, Battleships

Axis & Allies: Global is not a separate game but is instead created by combining the Pacific 1940 and Europe 1940 boards and units into one massive map almost six feet in length. This version of the game can be best described as the "ultimate" Axis & Allies experience, with over 1,000 plastic miniatures and eight factions (with potentially nine players, as the USA and China can be played separately). With a play time of 10 hours, this is a game for players with lots of time on their hands and an urge to go truly epic with their game.

Although undeniably impressive, this version of the game is possibly a bit "too much" due to the overwhelming number of units and the huge number of territories on the map which can result in dead spans of time in which not much happens. In addition, whilst you can go for nine players, the people playing China and France may find themselves with not much to do. This version of the game should be approached with the same caution reserved for tackling, say, Twilight Imperium with half a dozen players.

Axis & Allies: 1941 (2012)
Factions: UK, USA, USSR, Germany, Japan.
Units: Infantry, Tanks, Fighters, Bombers, Aircraft Carriers, Submarines, Transports, Destroyers, Battleships.

With each edition of Axis & Allies getting bigger and more insane than the previous one, someone at Hasbro had the brainwave of developing a "back-to-basics" version of the game. This version of the game is stripped back and streamlined: Cruisers and Artillery have been dumped, most of the optional rules have been junked, the map is much smaller and there are far fewer territories, which are now also larger. The focus is on the five original factions and the idea is to get games done and dusted in two hours or less.

This version of Axis & Allies is fast-moving and short-lived, perfect for game nights where people want to get several different games down or for beginners just starting out in learning the game. With far less features, options and units, the game is also exceptionally cheap, going for a quarter of the price of Anniversary Edition or a third of 1942.

Axis & Allies: WWI 1914 (2013)
Factions: British Empire, USA, Russian Empire, France, Imperial Germany, Italy, Ottoman Empire, Imperial Russia.
Units: Infantry, Artillery, Tanks, Fighters, Aircraft Carriers, Submarines, Transports, Battleships.

The first attempt to depict a different time period with the core Axis & Allies rules, WWI 1914 is a major success. The game depicts trench warfare through a very simple mechanic: instead of units constantly attacking one another until the battle is won or lost (as in the standard game, to depict fast-moving battles taking place over weeks or days), only one exchange of fire takes place, allowing players to pour more troops into an ongoing battle in a static line. This allows players to fight battles lasting many months for relatively small amounts of territory, which is historically accurate (whether it's fun or not will depend on the players and their ingenuity in how they overcome the stalemate). Optional rules can bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union through the Russian Revolution of 1917 or the early entry of the USA into the war in force.

Axis & Allies & Zombies (2018)
Factions: UK, USA, USSR, Germany, Japan.
Units: Infantry, Tanks, Fighters, Bombers, Aircraft Carriers, Submarines, Transports, Destroyers, Battleships, Zombies, Zombie Control Ray, Chainsaw Tanks, various new units (unconfirmed).

Axis & Allies & Zombies is the forthcoming, and possibly inevitable, first edition of the game to add zombies. Adding zombies to WWII has always been a (somewhat inexplicably) popular idea in film and other games, so seeing them show up in an Axis & Allies title is predictable, but possibly interesting. The game will apparently be based on the 1941 edition, with a focus on fast play, and will see the standard WWII game interrupted by the arrival of zombies, who are a force of nature (not under anyone's control). A new card mechanic will allow players to destroy zombies or possibly funnel them towards the enemy, whilst new units like chainsaw tanks and zombie control rays will make for new and interesting strategies. A gimmick? Sure, but potentially a fun one. The game will be released in time for Halloween this year.

Larry Harris's next game, War Room, is a ground-up reinvention of the WWII war/board game with a focus on diplomacy, morale, resources, propaganda and terror weapons, all of which are missing from the more streamlined Axis & Allies.

The Future

Axis & Allies is an older game, but it's popularity remains undimmed. The key to the game's long-term appeal has been how it recreates WWII in broad strokes that are surprisingly accurate whilst not going in the direction of being a hardcore wargame. The game has been credited with inspiring a greater interest in the conflict and encouraging people to read up the actual history of what happened, which was (and remains) one of Larry Harris's original goals. Since Hasbro took over the franchise, there has been some concern of over-exploiting it, with the number of different editions currently available being potentially too confusing (my advice: buy 1941 if you're a total newcomer with limited time, Anniversary Edition if you want a good all-round experience, 1942 when Anniversary Editions goes out-of-print, and the Pacific/Europe 1940 combo if you're a hardcore, experienced Axis & Allies player with lots of gaming time available). Axis & Allies & Zombies could be fun, but it may be a sign of the bottom of the barrel being scraped, although I must admit I'd be totally down for a well-designed Axis & Allies: Middle-earth or a Game of Thrones variant.

Larry Harris's next game is potentially more interesting. Many of the criticisms of Axis & Allies stem from its limited economic model (which ignores resources such as oil and metals), the absence of diplomacy (although that does make sense, as the game opens with the war in full swing) and factors such as propaganda, resources and weapons of mass destruction. Introducing these elements to the existing game would create a confusing and unbalanced mess, so Harris has sensibly designed a new game from the ground up incorporating these elements. War Room is the result of that design process. The game is superficially similar to Axis & Allies, but features more factions (the UK, USA, USSR, China, Germany, Japan and Italy are the base factions), resource types (such as oil and iron), trade (between allies and with neutral nations) and morale (defeats overseas may trigger unrest at home).

Featuring a large circular map and lots of new features, War Room was successfully funded on Kickstarter last year to the tune of half a million dollars and we should see the game on the shelves in the next year or two. Whether it's any good or not remains to be seen, but it's good to see the spirit of Axis & Allies is still alive and being furthered by its creator.

See Also

A handy tool for Axis & Allies fans is TripleA, an open-source video game based on the board game which features a large amount of variant rules and ideas. This is useful for both practice (although make sure you're using the game version which matches the correct edition of the board game), and playing with friends who live far away.

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