Clippings: From the Horse’s Mouth

A mix of interviews and retrospectives this week:

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Clippings: Post-E3 Edition

No EU4: Common Sense update this weekend, I’m afraid – real life has intervened. The adventures of Meiguo will resume next week.

Between Dishonoured 2, Fallout 4, and The Last Guardian, this E3 was my favourite in years. You’ve probably already seen the high-profile stories; here are a few that slipped through the cracks:

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Musical Monday: “Drunken Sailor” (Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag)

One of the things I love about AC4 is its use of … well, not quite period music – Wikipedia dates this song to the 1800s, well over a century after the game takes place – but pre-existing folk music and shanties. For me, that does a lot to root the game in a sense of time and place. Enjoy!

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Oriental Empires Q&A, with Bob Smith

OE1

Oriental Empires is an upcoming 4X strategy game that will cover most of Chinese history, from 1500 BC to 1500 AD. My interest piqued, I conducted an email Q&A with developer Bob Smith. Read on:

 

About the developers

1. Hello, and welcome to the site! Please tell us a bit about yourselves.

Development of Oriental Empires is being led by R.T. Smith and John Carline, two veteran strategy game developers with more than 30 years’ experience between them. Previously they worked together on the Total War series of games, in roles including Project Director and Lead Artist, and have credits on many other AAA titles from studios including Crystal Dynamics, Pandemic, Frontier Developments, and Slightly Mad Studios.

 

2. Your best-known previous work was Total War. What lessons have you learned from your experience with those games?

That you can’t please everyone, that you’ll never ship the perfect product, and that the bigger your team, the more features you’ll have that don’t quite join up.

 

About Oriental Empires

3. At first glance, Oriental Empires looks like a cross between Civilization V, Endless Legend, and Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI. What are your influences and how have they shaped the game?

The initial inspiration was to create a civilization building game based on Eastern civilization, and having an interesting combat system. Superficially this is similar to Civ, but I don’t think the games feel alike to play. The battles obviously have some similarity to Total War games, but again, the resemblance is superficial as you don’t directly control them. History, reality, space 4X games, and miniature and board games are also influences.

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Clippings: Belisarius, Dolphins, and Woolly Dinos

Big week in strategy game news – CA has announced The Last Roman, the first add-on campaign for Total War: Attila. TLR will cover Justinian and Belisarius’ attempt to reconquer the West; here is the announcement video (complete with developer interviews) and here is Rob Zacny’s summary.

Meanwhile, a new round of Hearts of Iron IV previews is up; Three Moves Ahead has a detailed discussion; and quill18 has posted almost 30 minutes of gameplay footage. My take-aways are: (1) the current (alpha) build needs a lot more work; (2) beneath the glitches, there is a lot of potential; and (3) I’m glad the game has been postponed until 2016.

In other news:

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Let’s Play EU4: Common Sense! Part 1: Welcome to Meiguo

In 1402, the Ming Emperor’s uncle usurped the throne.

The imperial palace burned.

According to one legend, the Emperor survived, and fled overseas; Zheng He’s fleets were dispatched to hunt him down.

What if the Emperor made it further than Zheng could have dreamed?

Hello, and welcome back to my coverage of Europa Universalis IV. Since I last wrote about EU4, it has received a further two expansions – El Dorado, which added a custom nation designer, and the newly released Common Sense. For my current game, I will play as Meiguo, a Chinese custom nation on the west coast of North America.

This is Meiguo in 1456, 12 years after the game began:

EU4 Welcome to Meiguo

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Very Early Impressions: Battle Academy

So far1, I’m impressed by Battle Academy, the 2010-vintage World War 2 TBS. The vibrant, comic-book aesthetic charmed me straight away, while the game mechanics present tactical concepts in a clear, elegant manner. Light tanks are zippy and thinly armoured, making them best suited for reconnaisance or mopping up. Infantry is horribly vulnerable in the open, and lethal when striking from ambush. Armour and artillery can suppress defenders, allowing friendly infantry to safely close in. Bunkers and concealed anti-tank guns are potent force multipliers – in the screenshot below, my entrenched Tommies gutted an Afrika Korps charge:

Battle Academy - 8th Army DefenceCurrently, the base game, which includes three campaigns (North Africa, Normandy, Ardennes) is available for $1 as part of the weekly Humble Bundle. For those interested, that price makes it a screaming buy.

  1. I’m three missions and 2-3 hours in.
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Clippings: Special Strategy (and RPG) Sequel Edition

The big news is 2K’s announcement of XCOM 2, due out for PC (and only PC) this November – IGN has the details. Highlights include randomised maps, secondary mission objectives (hopefully this will make missions a bit less grindy), various refinements to combat, and a novel premise – XCOM lost the war; Earth was overrun by aliens; and decades later, the remnants of XCOM are continuing the fight. I will most probably cover the game – although this time, I might turn the difficulty down!

Meanwhile, Paradox has announced a new Crusader Kings 2 expansion focused on Mongols, nomadic tribes, and the Silk Road; you can read the first dev diary here. From what I can see, reactions have divided into four categories: (1) “Woo! Mongols!”; (2) “Woo! Dothraki for mods!”; (3) worries that the larger map will lag the game; and (4) “Paradox should deepen/refine the existing mechanics instead of enlarging the game’s scope”. Personally, I loved the time I spent on the steppes in CK2, and I’d like to see how Paradox can build on that.

Speaking of Paradox, a press preview event is currently on for Hearts of Iron IV. The preview embargo lifts next week, so I’d expect to see articles and footage then.

Finally, at the time of writing, Bethesda is a few hours away from a Fallout-related announcement. Here is a 2010-vintage interview with the developers of Fallout: New Vegas, an excellent game that I still need to finish!

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What I’ve been reading

I’ve taken a break from European political/military history (Iron Kingdom, Frederick the Great: A Military History, Britain’s War Machine) to power through several fantasy books:

  • A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan – the adventures of a young woman who sets out on an expedition to study dragons. Continued in The Tropic of Serpents. I quite like these – decent, easy reads with a distinctive first-person voice. I also like their meandering tour of the setting, which seems analogous to early nineteenth-century Earth.
  • Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed. Fast-moving sword and sorcery yarn, in which an ageing, world-weary monster-hunter battles necromancers in a fantastic Middle East. Would make a great game.

I’ve also started The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han, the first book of the Chinese history series whose Ming Dynasty entry I included in my recommended reading list. Very good so far… with one exception. Kindle readers be warned – the ebook edition is missing most of the illustrations! “To view this image, refer to the print version of this title,” it says – and had I known that, I’d just have bought the print version.

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Musical Monday: The Byzantine Empire (Crusader Kings II), composed by Andreas Waldetoft

Last Christmas, I spent some very pleasurable hours in the shoes of Alexios Komnenos, Emperor of Byzantium, trying to rebuild my battered empire. This week’s song, added as part of the “Songs of Byzantium” DLC for Crusader Kings II, formed part of that experience. Enjoy!

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Strategy Games and the Post-Apocalypse

Just as I associate post-apocalyptic video games with one franchise, Fallout, so I associate post-apocalyptic strategy with one game, Vic Davis’ Armageddon Empires. It’s an excellent game, whose design I dissected several few years ago. It’s also a unique game – both in the sense that it’s original, and in the sense that it’s the only “strategic level” post-apocalyptic game I can think of. Even adding a few strategy games that take place at smaller scales produces a very short list1.

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  1. Fallout Tactics is a squad-based tactical RPG. Convoy is a new (and apparently flawed) indie game billed as FTL meets Mad Max. And if zombies count, Sarah Northway’s Rebuild was a Flash game that took place in the aftermath of a zombie invasion.
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Clippings

In the last few weeks, I’ve dipped into a variety of games, without spending much time on any one:  Assassin’s Creed 4; Shadow of Mordor; Counterspy; Order of Battle: Pacific; Kerbal Space Program; and Castlevania: Dracula X Chronicles.

Mostly, I like them. AC4 is as enjoyable as ever. Kerbal captures the wonder of spaceflight when I see the horizon before me, and the terror when I try to get my Kerbonauts back down. After a few hours, I’m comfortable calling it one of the best science fiction games I’ve played. Mordor, Counterspy, and Order of Battle: Pacific, so far, live up to their strong reviews and word of mouth. (Or, in one case, live down – I agree with the consensus that OOB: Pacific‘s naval battles are the weakest part of an otherwise strong game.)

Dracula X is the odd one out. I had never played a Castlevania game before, and I wanted to see what the fuss was about. Unfortunately, I think I started with the wrong one. I am not good at platformers… and this is a difficult platformer with limited continues. After beating my head against the first two levels, I am about ready to download a saved game that will unlock the other included Castlevania release, the well-regarded Symphony of the Night.

In this week’s news:

  • The Witcher 3 is out, to rave reviews. Pick your favourite gaming site, and odds are it’ll have a favourable review.
  • Logic Artists has announced Expeditions: Viking, a sequel to Expeditions: Conquistador. This is great news! Conquistador was an original game in an original setting; I’d love to see what the developers do with Vikings.
  • Firaxis has announced Rising Tide, an expansion for Civilization: Beyond Earth – here are interviews with PC Gamer and RPS. After being disappointed by Beyond Earth, I am reluctant to part with any more money…
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Musical Monday: The Faction Themes of Endless Legend (composed by Flybyno)

I love Endless Legend‘s soundtrack, and I love its imaginative, distinct factions. This week, I thought I’d bring them together. Below, I highlight one theme from each of the three factions that I’ve played (there are eight factions total, each with two themes). Enjoy!

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Guns of Icarus Online: Adventure Mode Follow-Up Q&A

Guns of Icarus Online is one of the most unique games I’ve played – a team-based dieselpunk airship game, in which rival crews try to shoot each other out of the sky. When it launched in 2012, it was strictly PvP. The following year, developer Muse Games launched a Kickstarter campaign to add PvE (“Adventure mode”), and it seems to be coming along nicely.

Read on for my follow-up email interview with Howard Tsao, CEO of Muse Games, about Adventure mode:

Peter Sahui: Hello, and welcome to the site!

When I last spoke to Muse Games in 2013, you were running a Kickstarter campaign for “Adventure mode” — a large expansion pack that would add PvE and co-op to the game. How is that coming along?

Howard Tsao: It’s been a long journey, with the scope of the expansion arguably larger than the original game, but we’re constantly making progress. Right now, in addition to iterating on some of the game modes and honing AI director as well as AI enemy movement and behaviour, we’re also doing work on player, faction, and world progressions. A lot of the in mission or in match feedback and progression are being designed and worked on as well. We’re creating factional airships, boss ships, and wardrobe as well, and we’ll soon move into designing more maps and game modes as well.

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Clippings

This week’s biggest news item is a movie – Mad Max: Fury Road is out, to rave reviews. It deserves them. Fury Road is what Mad Max movies should be. It’s what Mad Max movies can be, given a reported US$150M budget. It’s thrilling, visually spectacular (sometimes downright beautiful), and features a tough, capable female lead – I can sum it up in one phrase: “Holy @*&%, that was cool!” If the upcoming Mad Max game can live up to the movie, it will be a blast.

In other news:

  • There are plenty of upcoming space games; Rebel Galaxy‘s unique features are (1) a country music soundtrack and (2) that it gives players a capital ship instead of a fighter. Here is USGamer’s video preview; here are written previews.
  • Brief but interesting – USGamer takes a look at genres that did better outside their home countries.
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Clippings

  • Hearts of Iron IV has been delayed again, with the new date to be announced after the team is done working on “a large milestone”.
  • Still on the subject of WW2, reviewers are glowing about Order of Battle: Pacific, a new game inspired by Panzer General and Unity of Command.
  • PC Gamer reviews Kerbal Space Program, version 1.0. The game has been available in pre-release form for ages — I wrote very briefly about it years ago — and so the PC Gamer piece reads more like an appreciation.
  • In adventure game news, reviews are uninspiring for Broken Age: Act 2. I’d held off buying until the entire game was out. Perhaps I should keep holding out for a better discount?
  • And finally, a game I never knew existed: A-Train 3D, a crunchy train management game for 3DS.
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Musical Monday: “Travesuras De La Vida” (Tropico 4), by Alex Torres and his Latin Orchestra

Have I got a treat for you this week! The music of Tropico 4 is fantastic, both in its own right, and as a way to bring the setting to life. Enjoy – and check out artist Alex Torres’ other work. I’m listening to his catalogue on Spotify as I type…

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Endless Legend & Age of Wonders 3: One Year On

The two expansions to Age of Wonders 3 have brought new races, a new character class, and (together with patches), assorted features and balance tweaks. They have also addressed my single biggest complaint with the game: the victory conditions (and their effect on pacing).

At launch, there was one way to win AoW3: destroy all opponents. This made the endgame a slog. Now, there are several other options:

  1. Beat down the AI players to the point where they surrender (added via patch). Per the developers, this is meant to happen after the “epic final battle… in situations where the AI is substantially outmatched and just lost a great number of its forces in a battle.” Based on the two AI players who surrendered after I crushed their multi-stack main armies, this works as promised!
  2. Territorial control, added in the first expansion. Similar to the Thrones mechanic in Dominions 4, this requires the player to take several “seals of power” defended by independent monsters, and hold them while progress towards victory ticks up. As the monsters periodically respawn, the seals have to be garrisoned – I suspect this is a risk/reward mechanic. Do you grab many seals, and risk spreading yourself too thin? Encouragingly, AI players do realise the importance of the seals; I lost my second game post-expansion when the AI flattened my armies and then captured the seals.
  3. A new, Wonder-style victory condition, added in the second expansion. I’m still getting a handle for this one; the developers describe it as “a great option for more defensive players”. Unlike the seals victory, aiming for this will provoke the AI players into declaring war, so it’s a defensive victory rather than a peaceful one.

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Clippings

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What I’ve been reading

I wanted to go into a bit more detail on this week’s books – Night Soldiers, by Alan Furst (novel) and The Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu (novel).

Night Soldiers is billed as a spy novel. I say ‘billed as’ because it’s really a collection of vignettes, loosely linked by the 1930s-1940s world of espionage. Here, a Bulgarian lad comes of age as a trainee spy in Moscow, amidst the terror of Stalin’s purges. There, a lethargic American joins the OSS, parachutes into occupied France, and discovers his talent for sabotage. It’s a vivid, immersive read – although as with the novels of Patrick O’Brian, the emphasis is on atmosphere rather than plot, so it may not be to everyone’s taste. If you’re interested in the era, give the sample chapter a look.

The Grace of Kings is a much-hyped epic fantasy inspired by Chinese history. It’s interesting, both for its setting and its style. It also tells a pretty good yarn!

Grace of Kings is the story of two men, Kuni the trickster and Mata the warrior, as they rise to power. Their adventures are, essentially, a fantasy retelling of the fall of the Qin Dynasty and the rise of the Han. (Seriously, knowing a bit about the period was enough to let me guess where the plot would go. I even guessed how specific incidents would unfold.) The Chinese influence extends beyond the setting – the mythic tone, the occasionally detached prose, and the willingness to tell rather than show remind me of the pre-modern literary conventions of Three Kingdoms. My main complaint is that one or two character actions felt contrived, seemingly so as to stick to “history”. Overall, a recommended read for fans of epic fantasy novels and grand strategy games (and maybe even Konami’s Suikoden RPGs).

Finally, I read Terry Pratchett’s Maskerade (novel) – his parody of The Phantom of the Opera. Decent, amusing, with some pointed comments on superficial beauty. Recommended for Discworld fans.

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A spiritual successor to KOEI’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms?

That is my initial impression of Oriental Empires (press release here), a newly announced 4X game that will be set in China between 1500 BC and 1500 AD. The bullet points and especially the screenshots remind me of Endless Legend/Civilization V meets Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI – it looks like all combat takes place on a hex-based strategic map, rather than being divided between a tactical and a strategic layer. The developers, R. T. Smith and John Carline, do have experience – both men have previously worked on the Total War series, with Smith’s experience stretching all the way back to the original Shogun. With the game scheduled for Early Access in ‘summer 2015′ (northern summer, I assume), the finished product is still some ways off.

Personally, I think the idea has potential. I’m always up for a novel setting, and China is badly underused in (Western) games. I’m trying to line up an interview with the developers, and will report back with any findings.

 

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Musical Monday: “Restriction” (Tactics Ogre), composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto

Tactics Ogre might just have my single favourite soundtrack of any game. This week, I present the hero’s theme, appropriately heroic. Enjoy!

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What I’ve been reading

  1. Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert Massie (non-fiction). Finally finished after several months. Good book! Perhaps better in its first half, which deals with Catherine’s life before taking the throne — as the title suggests, the emphasis is definitely on Catherine the person rather than on Catherine the ruler. Recommended for fans of Europa Universalis 4.
  2. Iron Kingdom: The Rise & Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, by Christopher Clark (non-fiction). A dense political history comprising a chronological narrative (interesting) broken by the odd thematic chapter (rather dry). I’m about halfway through, and so far, so good.
  3. Sagittarius Rising, by Cecil Lewis (non-fiction). Another book I finished long after I began, this is the beautifully written memoir of a WW1 British fighter pilot, containing some beautifully poignant moments — at one point, the author recollects his mother making him sit for a new photo before he went off to war, so she’d have something to remember him by if he never came back. (Happily, the author lived on to a ripe old age; he wrote this book in the 1930s.) A brief coda deals with his post-war career trying to establish aviation in China.
  4. The Mechanical, by Ian Tregillis (fiction). Clockpunk fantasy set in a world where the Netherlands invented and enslaved clockwork robots, then used their new toys to dominate the world. It’s a dark, entertaining read; I think I preferred the author’s earlier Milkweed Triptych, but this is worth a look if the premise interests you.
  5. Wyrd Sisters, Witches Abroad, and Lords & Ladies, by Terry Pratchett (fiction). The delightful adventures of three witches: stern, practical Granny Weatherwax; bawdy old Nanny Ogg; and idealistic young Magrat, as they romp through skewed versions of fairy tales and Shakespeare. I’d rank these amongst Pratchett’s better novels, due to their humour (Witches Abroad is especially hilarious) and engaging cast. If I had to pick one, it would be Lords & Ladies, which is the best plotted and has my favourite “character moment” of the three. Highly recommended to fantasy fans!
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Clippings

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Musical Monday: “Trisection” (Final Fantasy Tactics), composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto

I cannot believe that in almost three years of Musical Mondays (how time flies), I have never presented this song. It’s the first battle theme heard in Final Fantasy Tactics – arguably it’s the signature battle theme of FFT. Unfortunately, there has never been an orchestrated or remastered version of the FFT soundtrack; the song below is what you would hear in the original Playstation or PSP game. Enjoy!

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The Roman Experience in Total War: Attila

After 100 turns, I threw in the towel on my attempt to save the Western Roman Empire. The legions, and my treasury, had finally reached their limit. The barbarians never stopped flooding in, from the north, east, and the hitherto quiet south. City after city had gone up in flames. The Roman Empire was dying by a thousand cuts, and there was no more point in slogging on.

I had a great time.

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Thoughts on Cities: Skylines

Skylines - Sterling Park

My first city made as much sense as a noodle-bowl.

At one point, I went nuts building high-rise apartments without ensuring adequate road access. The result was a mess. Commuters clogged the roads. Fire engines, delivery vans, garbage trucks, and even hearses couldn’t get in. Burnt-out buildings, rubbish and dead bodies accumulated. I had to demolish much of that district and build it all over again.

I learned my lesson. Sterling Park, my new high-density district, would be a marvel of urban design. Before the first resident moved in, I ensured all my infrastructure was laid out. New subway lines connected Sterling Park to the rest of my city (and let residents move from one end of the district to the other). Parks and gardens provided green space. A new freight train ensured that the shops could receive goods. I even built a new university campus — my existing one was all the way at the far end of the map. The towers went up. The citizens moved in — and loved it. The land value shot up. I was delighted.

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Clippings

  • Sid Meier’s Starships is now out, and reviews are mixed. Apparently, it places a bit too much emphasis on the “light” part of “light strategy”; I will probably give it a miss.
  • The developers of Endless Legend are planning a new free update, to be followed by an expansion pack in April.
  • Another new expansion has been announced for Age of Wonders 3. It will add the Necromancer class and two new species, the Frostlings and the Tigrans,
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Remembering Terry Pratchett, 1948-2015

I discovered Terry Pratchett when I was a teen.

I knew of him before then. I spent a lot of time in bookshops, haunting the fantasy & science fiction aisles, and the garish, glorious covers of his books stood out. I think I even played one of the spin-off adventure games. It wasn’t until The Last Hero, released in 2001, that I actually read one of his books. I’ve been a fan ever since.

Pratchett was very funny. I still laugh when I think about the unhygienic frying pan (containing one single nutrient, crying because it was all alone). As observed in many obituaries, he was also remarkably humane. Fantasy and science fiction are packed with unreasoning monsters — “always chaotic evil”, in the old parlance of Dungeons & Dragons. Not Pratchett. Everyone in his novels is a person: sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes bigoted or stupid, never mindless. Sometimes, Pratchett played this for laughs, as with vampires who’ve given up drinking human blood. Sometimes, it could underpin an entire story, as in the case of troll vs dwarf racism. And his talents extended beyond Discworld. Readers of this blog might be interested in Only You Can Save Mankind, a clever riff on Wing Commander (and video games more generally). What happens when the aliens decide they’ve had enough of being slaughtered by the player?

Individual Pratchett books were hit or miss. As a whole, his work was great. If asked to pick favourites, I would name two from Discworld: Guards! Guards! and Night Watch, written thirteen years apart. Both star the same character, veteran policeman Sam Vimes. When we meet Vimes in Guards, he’s a pathetic drunk, worn down by a thankless, dangerous career; amongst other things, Guards is the story of Vimes rediscovering his duty. Guards isn’t very deep, and it doesn’t delve into the serious themes that the later books do. It’s also, for me, the single funniest thing Pratchett has written, spoofing everything from secret societies to heroes who always win when the odds are a million to one. Night Watch, in which an older, tougher Vimes finds himself caught up in a revolution, is a different beast — topical, in light of the last few years, and far more serious. The Vimes of Night Watch wears a lilac to commemorate fallen friends; I thought it would be appropriate to use a picture of a lilac to accompany this post.

We are the poorer for Pratchett’s death. I find myself thinking of his take on the afterlife, and specifically, what happens (spoiler warning) to an old schoolteacher who tags along with a group of ageing barbarians. The deceased barbarians can look forward to Valhalla, the teacher knows, but he’s rather surprised when after dying a hero’s death, the Valkyries carry him away to the barbarians’ afterlife. I’m sure the Muses themselves would have showed up for Pratchett.

RIP, Sir Terry. By now, I bet you have the Muses crying with laughter.Lilac

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