Going it alone: The phenomenon of solo gaming

Solo gaming is popular on YouTube. Perhaps not as popular as videos involving cats or the latest pop star whose record company has thrown a ton of money at the platform in order to become ubiquitous, but popular nonetheless. I have found this trend rather comforting because it validates something that has been a part of my life for many years. My cousins, Alison and David, introduced me to Dungeons & Dragons in the very early 80s, and I started reading the Fighting Fantasy books by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, which are, of course, designed to be played alone. Later, I played Warhammer and its sci-fi variant, Warhammer 40,000, with friends at high school. But when I came across Advanced Heroquest and Rogue Trooper, these games advertised the ability to play solo. With Advanced Heroquest, the solo rules were included with the game, but with Rogue Trooper, the solo rules were made available in an issue of White Dwarf magazine. I found playing Rogue Trooper on my own particularly absorbing. I would travel across Nu Earth trying to uncover the traitor responsible for the Quartz Zone Massacre, and get lost tackling enemies, meeting companions and finding useful equipment to help me on my quest.

At university I played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons with a group for a while, but after I started work I began to drift away from the hobby, veering more towards video gaming instead. But a couple of years ago I became aware of the board game community on the internet. I discovered that we are in a golden age of board games and I was amazed by how beautifully made the games were. I began to start collecting, but soon realised that, as most of my friends were middle-aged folk singers, I would find it hard to be able to play in a group. It was then that I became aware of some of the excellent multiplayer games that had solo variants, and also of dedicated solo games.

My game collection now consists almost entirely of games that work well solo. I have also subscribed to some excellent YouTube channels dedicated to solo gaming, showing playthroughs, reviews and explanations of how to make games work for a solitaire player. Some of my particular favourite channels are Geek Gamers and Solo McLaughlin, both of which are channels belonging to American ladies whose styles differ a great deal. Solo McLauglin is very jolly and enthusiastic in the way she presents her videos, whereas the lady who presents Geek Gamers is a lot more laid back in how she speaks and seems to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the hobby. What makes them similar is that the games they are demonstrating are always the star of the show, with the camera concentrating solely on the components and gameplay, with the presence of the hosts only evidenced by their hands. I really like both of their styles and find their videos very engaging.

Artichoke Dip is a channel dedicated to solo roleplaying, and the host, Rob, has a laid-back and sometimes humorous approach to how he presents his videos. He throws out a lot of suggestions and shows resources which other players might find useful. He only puts out new content sporadically but his videos are so enjoyable that they stand repeated watching.

There are also some very good channels if you just want to see the game being played, or if you want a playthrough that will also be a tutorial. Ricky Royal and Doug Herring are particularly good at showing how the games are played, and Callasmar (the Lonesome Gamer) does very long and in-depth playthroughs, although I wouldn’t recommend his videos if you suffer from motion sickness as the camera does move around a lot.

But what is the appeal of playing a board game solo, and isn’t it a bit sad? I think the appeal for me, when it comes to gaming in general, is that a game is a self-contained world with a constant set of rules. It is comforting to know that this game world is not out of control, it has boundaries and limits to what can or can’t happen. And if I don’t like what’s happening I can stop playing and start again. A lot of the games I tend to go for also have fantasy, sci-fi or horror themes which are pure escapism. There are no real-world worries here, only adventure and fun. You lose yourself in a solo game the same way you would lose yourself in an elaborate puzzle. After the Brexit vote, anti-intellectualism, anti-feminism, revelations of the sinister misuse of power and influence in Hollywood, the rise of Trump, and all of his despotic international counterparts, it is easy to see why an escape from the real world is sometimes necessary in order to preserve one’s sanity. Getting hopelessly lost in a world of dice and counters gives me that.

My favourite games are ones with a strong theme and rules that aren’t too complicated, so that you don’t have to re-learn them every time you play. Runebound (Second Edition) by Fantasy Flight Games is particularly suited to solo play and gives you the experience of travelling across a fantasy land in order to become stronger so that you can eventually take on the evil that is threatening the world.  You can take on companions to assist you in battles and find special items to make you more powerful.

DungeonQuest (First Edition) by Games Workshop is from the mid-eighties which I only acquired recently. There is a new edition from Fantasy Flight Games, but I went for the GW version with its delightful, quirky artwork. Your mission is to travel through Dragonfire Castle, one chamber at a time, trying to overcome traps and monsters as you make your way to the dragon’s treasure chamber. Then you have to grab what treasure you can and safely make it out alive. There is a time-limit and the game is incredibly hard, but some of the ways you can meet your demise are so entertaining that I never feel frustrated by the game, just that I’ve had a fun adventure that didn’t end well.

Rogue Trooper, another Games Workship mid-eighties classic, is still a favourite of mine, and is based on the comic character from 2000AD. Travelling across the colourful board is very enjoyable as you encounter enemies, find useful equipment and meet companions. But once the traitor is uncovered the game becomes a chase across the planet and beyond as you try to track him down and defeat him.

Some of my other favourites in my collection are inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft.  Elder Sign by Fantasy Flight Games, The Cards of Cthulhu by Dan Verssen Games, and Pandemic Reign of Cthulhu by Z-Man Games all have the objective of preventing ancient evil monsters from entering our world in order to destroy it. All three of these games are rich in theme and are elegantly simple which means you can just lose yourself in Lovecraft’s mysterious world without the rules giving you a headache.

Space Hulk Death Angel by Fantasy Flight is a card game where you lead a squad of space marines onto an alien-infested spaceship and have to survive long enough to overcome your objective. This is a game I have never won but have come agonisingly close. It is very tense and atmospheric and comes in a tiny box so you can take it anywhere.

Also on a sci-fi theme, Tiny Epic Galaxies by Gamelyn Games, has you sending out rockets in order to colonise planets. The game features lovely components and a very elegant system of artificial intelligence with an adjustable difficulty level, so that as you get better at the game you can select a stronger AI opponent. As the name suggests, this game also comes in a tiny box and enables you to enjoy the idea of galactic conquest in a way that doesn’t take several hours or too many square feet of table space.

The final game I’m going to mention is a new one, Ravage Dungeons of Plunder by Beardy Brothers Games. This was the first and only game I’ve ever backed on Kickstarter, firstly because it looked good value, and secondly because it sounded exactly like the kind of game I would enjoy. You play the part of an orc travelling into a dungeon in order to fight monsters and find useful items. The dungeon is mapped on the back of cards which makes the footprint of the game nice and manageable for those of us with small coffee tables. The game can become quite intense as more monsters appear turn by turn and threaten to overwhelm you. The artwork is superb and the components are lovely and colourful, especially the custom dice.

With so much content on YouTube and the website Board Game Geek, it is easy to find out if a game will be right for you before you buy it, and then you will be able to allow yourself a little excursion from the cares of the real world, and perhaps save a land from a dragon or take over a galaxy.

My gaming blog can be found at: https://paul-carden.blogspot.co.uk/

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Leicester Comedy Festival 2017 review part 2

The problem with Josie Long’s show at The Y Theatre was caused by six people in the front row who had come because they had heard that she was good. They then insisted on talking throughout and making bar runs during the show because bizarrely the bar was somehow serving while the show was on. They seemed to think the show was just for their benefit and didn’t care about anyone else. They were rude, selfish and ignorant. With a narrative comedian interruptions disrupt the show a great deal and Josie Long was too nice to pounce on them and tell them to shut up. Perhaps the before-show karaoke removed an important barrier between performer and audience that should have stayed in place. Despite this, Josie Long’s show was good, but I preferred her Cara Josephine show which was less political and less evangelistic about political activism. Support act Grace Petrie was excellent but selling CDs on the stage during the interval for an awfully long time made an already late-running show even later.
Zoe Lyons at Peter’s Pizzaria was a thoroughly enjoyable show with a very enthusiastic audience. It’s a great little venue and Zoe Lyons’ performances are always really funny, whether she’s doing a tour show, a guest spot or a new material night. This show was part of her Little Misfit tour and was a great showcase for her quirky observations, silly voices and characterisations. She makes important points about politics and social issues but never in a preachy way and she always makes it funny. One of my favourite comedians and a great way to end the festival for me this year.

Stewart Lee, Sue Perkins, Zoe Lyons and Mr B The Gentleman Rhymer were really enjoyable shows. Josie Long’s show was only spoilt by rude audience members, and I just felt Tiff Stevenson’s show was too preachy.

With more people going to shows than ever before in 2017 it’s great to see Leicester Comedy Festival doing so well.

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Leicester Comedy Festival 2017 Part 1

Mr B The Gentleman Rhymer

The Leicester Comedy Festival is always one of the highlights of my year and I always book the shows I want see as soon as they are announced. This year I only booked to see six shows and this blog covers the first four.
My first show was Stewart Lee: Content Provider at De Montfort Hall. In his show last year he was running-in half-hour blocks of material for his TV show but this year was his first themed show since Carpet Remnant World. It was excellent stuff, dealing with the state of flux in the world of politics and other more unusual topics.

The second show I saw was Mr B The Gentleman Rhymer’s Dandy Valentine at The Y Theatre. I’m a huge fan of Mr B and enjoyed the fact that he played a lot more of his original material, whilst also including a couple of his hilarious mash-ups. The Y’s grand piano was brought into service and one of the songs he played on it was It Doesn’t Pay To Turn Up Late To An Orgy which was hilarious. I also bought his new album, There’s A Rumpus Going On, after the show.

I don’t like to be negative in my blog if I can help it but I’ll just say that a show I saw at The Cookie on Friday 17th left me feeling like I’d been preached at rather than cheered up. Perhaps the comedian concerned caught me on a bad day, but I watched Katherine Ryan on Netflix when I got home so she ended up cheering me up instead.

The last show I’ll mention in this part is Sue Perkins’ show Spectacles, based on her autobiography. It was wonderfully funny and ended with a hilarious Q&A where she would answer each audience member’s question by launching into another hysterical story. I think if the questions had been allowed to keep coming she would have had everyone in stitches all night.

My next two shows will be Josie Long and Zoe Lyons.

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Gary Delaney ‘There’s Something About Gary’ review

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I have seen Gary Delaney quite a few times over the past couple of years and have never come away disappointed. I booked to see his new tour as soon as I heard about it and deliberately avoided seeing his stand-up performance at this year’s Leicester Comedy Festival as I wanted to hear all his fresh jokes on the tour show, although I did see his panel show, Panel Beaters, at Firebug during the festival which I’ve reviewed previously.
Gary’s support for this show at Loughborough Town Hall was one of his co-panellists on Panel Beaters, Andy Robinson, who was terrific.
For anyone who doesn’t know, Gary is a one-liner comedian who is often on Mock the Week and his shows are crammed full of jokes but with other items now and then to give a bit of variety.
The material he has in this tour show is hilarious and for someone like me who writes one-liners as a hobby it’s great to see a master of the art at work. I also like the points where Gary breaks character to chat between the batches of jokes as he comes across onstage as really likeable.
I always enjoy Gary’s shows and this one was particularly great. His ‘There’s Something About Gary’ tour continues so catch him if you can.
http://www.garydelaney.com

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Charnwood Minstrel Part 4: The Songmistress

Autumn at Queens Park2.jpg
Since her first appearance there, Autumn Dawn Leader has become an integral member of the Loughborough Acoustic Club family. She has a rich, powerful voice and plays piano as well as the lyre and various other instruments. Her songs include beautiful piano ballads, delicate harp songs and the occasional happy song which sneaks in when she isn’t looking.
She has recently released an album called ‘The Other Side‘ which was produced by Amos Parkinson and features Amos on drums, Bob Breeze on guitar and Asher Rossell on bass.
Autumn is originally from Chicago, grew up in Florida, and moved to the UK in 2004.


Not only is Autumn a terrific solo performer but she was also lead vocalist in a band called The Chairs. She performs in a duo called String Theory with Mark Pimperton on guitar and vocals, and has recently been collaborating with Steve Cartwright in a duo called The Way Out.
Autumn’s songs deal with heartbreak, sadness, loss, dreams, mythology and fairy tales, a really rich mix of subject matter for her beautiful music.
Autumn’s new album ‘The Other Side’ is available here.

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Dragons Ten

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I love a fun B-movie almost as much as I love an awful pun. Some of my favourite low-budget films are from the fantasy genre. When I was young there was very little to whet this particular appetite. A very rare appearance by Beastmaster or Krull on TV was nothing like the fantasy film smorgasbord we have available today. So I would like to take this opportunity to direct your attention to ten of my favourite low-budget fantasy films. Please bear in mind that they may not be amazing films by normal standards, but what they lack in the quality of their special effects or acting is usually counterbalanced by heart and enthusiasm.

1. Merlin and the Book of Beasts
The dream of Camelot is dead, Merlin is nowhere to be found and a mysterious sorcerer is beginning a reign of terror. Only a small band of knights have any hope of restoring peace to the ravaged land as the sorcerer begins to unleash the terrible power of the Book of Beasts.
This film is one of my favourites. James Callis plays an excellent grumpy Merlin as he and the knights go up against a fun selection of monsters in their quest to overcome the evil sorcerer. It’s a really enjoyable adventure, the FX are fun and the acting is fine.

2. Mythica: A Quest for Heroes

This is the first film in a series starring Marek, who has emerging magical powers and seeks to escape a life of servitude, and her band of companions which she meets along the way.
This is a film made with real heart and passion. The FX and acting are absolutely fine, the heroes are likeable and the heroes battle some excellent monsters. The script is a lot of fun and keeps things light-hearted without going into parody. Marek is a very engaging hero and her developing friendships with her companions are very believable. I look forward to seeing more from the series.

3. Dragon Hunter
This is a film by The Asylum, who, when they get it right, create some very fun films. The dragons in the land are getting out of control and causing chaos across the land. Only the prophecy of a mythical dragon hunter holds any hope for human survival.
A little of the acting is a bit below par in this film but it is shot really nicely with beautiful forest locations and some good characters. There is also a neat extra ability that the dragons have in this movie which adds more danger.
The story of someone realising and trying to fulfil their destiny is very satisfying and all in all it’s a really fun film.

4. Dragon Quest
This is another Asylum film and stars Marc ‘Beastmaster’ Singer as a crotchety old warrior who has to train the chosen one so that he can try to battle an evil monk who is trying to take over the world with the use of a terrible dragon. The young Arkadi must try to overcome many trials to win the stones of virtue in order to defeal the evil monk, Krill.
The acting is pretty okay, although Arkadi’s accent sometimes seems difficult to pin own, but it’s not too distracting. The tests that Arkadi has to overcome are nicely thought out and although the monsters aren’t amazing they don’t detract from a very fun adventure.

5. The Dragon Chronicles: Fire and Ice
A terrible fire dragon begins to destroy the kingdom of Carpia whilst leaving the neighbouring kingdom untouched. Could the wayward Princess Luisa possibly find a banished knight, if he is still alive, and get him to help?
This is another nice-looking film with some very interesting dragons that look a little like manta rays, which adds a unique touch. John Rhy-Davies is excellent as the young hero’s companion. I couldn’t accept him as a baddie in Dragon Storm, a film which fails to put across why you should care about any of the humans as they all seem pretty awful, but in this he plays a wise and ingenious old warrior and inventor. There are some weak points in the acting but it doesn’t detract too much from the story and overall it’s an exciting and fun adventure.

6. Dungeons and Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God
I think I can say without fear of contradiction that the first Dungeons and Dragons film was awful. It totally went against the teamwork principle of the game and Snails was the most irritating film character since Jar-Jar Binks. This second film, however, is an entirely different kettle of fish.
The evil Damodar has returned to wreak revenge upon the kingdom of Ismir and only Lord Berek and his companions have any hope of stopping him before he wakes the Night Dragon and lays the world to waste.
The acting is fine and some of the monsters are excellent. The story is really enjoyable and the whole adventure is a lot of fun with some ingenious ideas for tricks and traps which the heroes have to overcome. A proper tribute to the game the film is based on.

7. Dungeons and Dragons: The Book of Vile Darkness
The third D&D film has a much darker tone and more adult feel. A young knight has to infiltrate a group of evil warriors in order to find out where his father is imprisoned and to take revenge on whoever wiped out his chivalrous order.
Some of the acting is a bit ropey but the monsters are excellent, one in particular being genuinely terrifying. Some of the characters are very good and the exploration of the young knight, Grayson’s, conflicted loyalties are pretty interesting.
This isn’t the joyous fantasy romp that the other films are but it is very intriguing to journey through a fantasy world from the point of view of a powerful group of warriors who use their power for their own selfish ends.

8. The Four Warriors
This film was written by its star, Christopher Dane, and has only two major problems. Most of the cast are fine and the story is that of a village under attack where some brave souls turn up to help the villagers fight back. Standard stuff but nicely done nonetheless. There is character development and believable friendships between the heroes.
The first problem is that the baddies and their leader look like an afterthought. Their masks just look cheap, uninspired and ridiculous. It’s hard to take a chief baddie seriously when he looks like a pre-school art project gone wrong, despite his cool flaming sword.
The other problem is the cameo role by Kristian Nairn whose acting is so much worse than the rest of the cast that it detracts horribly from the film. Clearly he is only in it because of his association with Game of Thrones. I don’t like being negative but his performance and the poor baddies almost ruin an otherwise fun film.

9. The Dark Knight
The DVD cover of this film gives the impression that it is set during the crusades but, thankfully, that is misleading, as it is a lot more interesting than that. It opens at the advent of a battle where a warlord’s warriors are preparing to destroy their enemies and steal a hoard of treasure. However, some of his soldiers have other ideas and make off with the booty into a forbidden land, supposedly haunted by terrifying monsters.
It is hard to like the protagonists at first but after a time the band’s leader’s true plan and motivation is revealed. It is a film which grows more likeable as it goes on.
The monsters aren’t great and the assasin’s masks look a little cheap and silly, but they don’t detract from the intriguing post-apocalyptic world and exciting story.

10. Dragon Crusaders
The final film I have chosen for this list is another by The Asylum. It is a film that has many flaws, not least the universally poor acting, but there is also a lot to like about it. The main highlights are the excellent fight sequences choreographed by Cecily Fay. She is an absolute hurricane as her mysterious warrior character dispatches the baddies left, right and centre. She also wrote and stars in a film called Warrioress which almost made this list but missed out due to even weaker acting than Dragon Crusaders, despite it also having great fight choreography and some very neat ideas.
Back to the film in hand, the evil wizard character is a lot of fun and the way the dragon’s curse works is pretty good. The only thread seemingly left hanging is who the mysterious guy with the bow is. He seems to be the wizard’s henchman but his character just seems a bit incongruous and the point of his presence in the film is somewhat vague.

I won’t claim that you will enjoy all or any of these films but some are definitely worth a look if you like a fun bit of low budget sword and sorcery.
Some fantasy films you might like to avoid are: Dragon Storm, Red Reaper and Age of the Dragons. The only crime a B-movie can really commit is to be boring and these three are guilty as charged.

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Charnwood Minstrel Part 3: Monkey Business

This third part of my Charnwood Minstrel blog focuses on those acts who don’t take themselves terribly seriously.
When I first came across Phil Doleman and Ian Emmerson they were performing as a ukulele duo called The Re-entrants. They would perform pop and rock classics with all the intricate arrangements of the original songs included, but on two tiny soprano ukuleles, and they sounded wonderful. Since that time Phil and Ian have dropped the Re-entrants act and moved on to music that is perhaps much more dear to their hearts, that being early jazz and blues. Phil plays ukulele, banjo and banjolele with Ian accompanying on guitar. Their gigs are joyous affairs and they have recently recorded a new CD together called Can’t Get Enough Of That Stuff.
You can see a video of Ian and Phil performing a track from that CD below.

When I first started playing there was a duo on the local music scene called R.A.F. (Roger and Frank). They started being accompanied by a wonderful harmonica player called Nigel Lawson. Nigel also started playing gigs with me and we played across the East Midlands as a duo. When Roger lost interest in performing Nigel and Frank started playing as a duo with Nigel doing most of the singing and Frank singing a few songs as well. They also recorded a CD called Straight From The Harp. Lawson/Johnson Ltd soon took on a percussionist, Brian Rodwell, and bass player, Andy Chorlton and became The Dangerous Dogs. They played blues songs, their own original songs, mostly written by Nigel and Frank, and also more quirky stuff like songs from The Jungle Book and the theme to Dad’s Army. They recorded a CD called Bark to the Future and later accordion player Fiona joined the Dogs’ line-up.
Sadly, Nigel passed away in February 2015 and left a huge void in the local music scene. His love and enthusiasm is terribly missed. He never thought much of himself as a singer but when I hear other arists playing songs that The Dogs have played I always think “Nigel did it better”.
The Dogs still perform now and again with Frank, Fiona, Brian and Andy. The video below features Frank singing Monkey Business.

When I first set out to perform in the turbulent maelstrom of the East Midlands music scene, the first musician I came across with Eric The Turtle. Eric is an exceptionally talented songwriter, specialising in quirky, humorous songs, but also venturing into more heartfelt and serious songs, like his tune ‘Man Made Of Smoke’. Eric is also the frontman of his band Dead Man’s Handle who recently performed Eric’s epic show To The Edge Of The World, which is a Viking Saga telling the tale of Silas, a bold adventurer seeking a new home for his people. I’ve seen Eric play electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin, ukulele and bhodran. He’s a terrific songwriter and To The Edge Of The World is an excellent piece of work. There is a link to the title track below.

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