We’ve finished watching both seasons of Knights of Sidonia — five years after the first season started. Yes, it has been kicking in our to-view pile for years now, but the CGI animation and the lethality of the setting for the characters put us off — but now that we have seen it, I’m glad we did. It is really under-appreciated.

It is like a very dark version of various Macross series: the setting is a massive ‘seed ship’ built into an asteroid (presumably Sidonia), with a large city inside, as well as manufacturing and military facilities. It was launched to set up colonies throughout the galaxy (a direct parallel with Macross 7 and Frontier), and it is beset by an enemy that can’t be communicated with (also a direct parallel with Macross 7). There is focus on the personal lives (including romance!) of the pilots, and on non-combat inhabitants (though to a lesser degree). And there is even romance with a (variant of) an alien — which we also have in the original Macross and Macross 7.

But it’s more gritty (everything is scratched and dirty), the lethality of the setting is much, much higher than in Macross (pilots fall left and right, especially the newbies) and as the series progress, Sidonia falls into some kind of militaristic fascist dictatorship. The biggest difference however is in the animation. Sidonia is all CGI, with the associated jarring character animation. And with the muted colour palette the show uses, it looks really drab. This is also the main reason cited for why it doesn’t get the popularity it deserves. It’s also why it has been hanging in our backlog for so long.

I was glad we watched it, and if there’s a third season (long rumoured, but the lukewarm reception must have made the business case for that kind of iffy), I’ll be sure to watch it. If it was an RPG, I’d be sure to play it.

Our (semi-)weekly Star Trek Adventures campaign has been completed, after twelve sessions. I made session reports, the first of which you can find here, and each report links to the next one.

I quite like how the game played. I have no idea whether that was because of the rules-system or because of our GM. Thanks to Roll20 automating almost all of the dice rolls, I never had to engage with the rules themselves other than selecting a few options in the sheet and clicking a button! That really made it easy to play as a casual player.

But there were some subsystems that we, as players, engaged with directly. I really liked the Momentum mechanic: you can ‘bank’ extra successes on a skill roll as Momentum, which can be used later to get extra dice (for an extra chance of success) or to make a success worth ‘more’. This is especially important when gathering information, such as using the ship’s sensors to find something out. In tone, it is similar to the Advantage you could get in the new Star Wars games (though those have to be spent immediately) or the FATE mechanic of creating an advantage or Aspect for another player to exploit. And I quite like mechanics of those sort: it’s like the ‘tide of battle’ being with the characters, and it rewards cooperation between the characters, since you can pass the Momentum to the next character. That’s also very in-genre: the crew works together towards a common goal!

I also liked the Values/Determination mechanic. Each character has some Values, and when you try to do something that is aligned with one of your Values, you can spend a point of Determination (you get 1 per session if you have none left) to get two automatic successes. But it gets even more interesting when you think of doing something opposed to one of your Values — and the GM may tempt you with a point of Determination to do so! Next session, you will need to come up with a new Value to replace the one that turned out to be opposed to your character’s goals. A really nice way to reward character development.

Maybe it was just this scenario with this GM, but I think the majority of our skill rolls were actually to gather information one way or the other. I don’t know if that is how the game is designed, but it is very thematic: in episodes of the TV series, most of the time is spent on getting information, deducing what is going on based on that information, formulating a strategy and only then springing into action to execute on that. So using a point of Momentum turned out to be almost always worth it: the extra information allowed us to formulate better strategies.

While the system is good and fast, where it really bogs down is in combat. In the whole campaign, we had one spaceship battle and one “in person” fight, and both bogged down significantly. Sometimes it’s really lethal, at other times it’s a drawn-out slugfest. It doesn’t play fast, which is totally not in line with our experience with the rest of the system. But that’s not too bad: it’s not a large part of the game, which is also in line with the source material. But on the other hand, it’s a missed chance: wouldn’t it be cool to play out a large space battle and have your characters affect the outcome? But with the system as it is, a single round of space combat between larger ships is just too slow, totally killing the mood.

There might be a sequel, what with some of the officers getting a good promotion…

I hardly left the house today, and decided to do some chores to prepare for our vacation. One of those is to brush up on the mailing list: I tend to write long(ish) reports each day which I send to a special e-mail list. Every time, I mail everyone on the list to see if they are interested in the reports of the coming trip — don’t want to spam people who are not interested! (I don’t post those reports on a blog somewhere, because I want to feel free to discuss very personal things in those reports.)

Something we’re going to do for the first time this year is to send quick snaps and small updates through WhatsApp. I’ve hired a ‘Pocket Wifi’, a device that is connected to the cellular networks and offers a wifi signal. So we should be able to use data on our devices during our whole trip. This makes it viable to just pop off a quick snap in between, which should be fun. We’ve made a read-only group, so that only the both of us can post — don’t want to have it devolve in a lot of pointless chatter.

I also updated the Raspberry Pi that I use as a VPN server, and installed all the client software on all devices that we will be using. This way, when we use public wifi signal, we can tunnel to our own Raspberry Pi — so there will be no way to eavesdrop on our communications.

Small chores, indeed, but important to us.

One of the silly things we do is insert the names of some Pokemon that we catch in Pokemon GO in the lyrics of songs. (It’s mostly klik who sings them to me, because her singing voice is so much better than mine.)

In the Valentine’s Day event that just ended, a lot of pink pokemon were spawning all over the place. One of those is the apty-named ‘Luvdisc’, a heart-shaped, pink fish. So when we caught the umpeenth one, klik sang to me: “The Luvdisc soon will be making another run…” But my inner music lyricist sings: “We missed you, hissed the Luvdisc…

Turns out she didn’t know the song, so I looked it up on YouTube and we watched it together — it’s been quite some time since I saw the video myself. It’s a typical product of the 80’s, and it looks like it was all shot in one night. There is a funny scene (which starts at 1:13) with Robert Smith sitting with a little kitten in his lap, singing. You can see the moment the kitten starts to get agitated, but Smith isn’t paying attention to it, so when the moment comes the kitten attacks because it had enough, he gets scratched a bit and seems to yelp out in surprise. And then in the rest of the video, there’s no more kittens — I guess he had enough of kittens for the rest of the night!

The Dark Souls series is known as one of the hardest game series to exist (whether that is actually true is up for debate…). It has a huge following, and some people played the games so much, that they come up with so-called “challenge runs”: playing through the game in a suboptimal manner, like never levelling up, or having to satisfy certain conditions.

One of those challenges is the “hitless run”: to finish the game without getting hit even once. I’ve seen some people stream on Twitch playing Dark Souls 3 with hitless runs, even restricting themselves further by specifying they’d only use the pyromancy attacks, for instance. It’s really fun to see the thought that goes into such runs, as if it’s some kind of puzzle that you need to optimise.

So I thought I might as well try it myself, with a Dark Souls 2 hitless run. DS2 is my favourite in the series — many people will tell you it’s the worst, but something in this game meshes really well with my playstyle. DS2 rewards careful exploration and taking your time to explore every nook and cranny. Just barging in won’t get you far, but positioning yourself in an optimal manner, using ranged attacks and paying attention to what is happening around you, certainly helps.

And a hitless run is a special kind of “cheesy” run. (When you stand at a safe spot and get rid of the enemies with a ranged attack, that’s called “cheesing”.) My love for “cheese at a distance” is well-documented, and so I see a hitless run as a special kind of cheesy tactics.

Of course it’s been done before. So I have started to analyse this video to see what other (successful) people do on their hitless DS2 runs. It’s been a lot of fun to watch and analyse, and it works too! So far, I have managed to get further and get there faster than if I had played the game “straight”.

Once I’ve had some base practice, I think I’ll stream some attempts, just for the laughs.

I like learning new things: I have broad interests and I enjoy expanding my horizons. And there are enough free online courses and MOOCs that it’s really easy to dip your toes into something new for free and without a lot of up-front commitment.

So the course “Japanese Culture Through Rare Books” is right up my alley, in the intersection of my interest in Japanese culture and history, and books/bookbinding/printing. I’m looking forward to learning all about this!

In 2018, we watched 54 series and ‘specials’ — mostly series though. Looking through the list, I see three series that we awarded a score of 9 out of 10. Two of those were actually aired in 2017, and they are continuation of previous series, so maybe they are disqualified? On the other hand, we only watch series when they are completed, so that means that no series from the Fall season could ever qualify.

There is Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu: Sukeroku Futatabi-hen, a continuation of a previous series, and aired in the Winter season of 2017. It is a delightful conclusion to a very interesting series about how Rakugo, the traditional story-telling, fared into the modern Japan. You do need to have seen all the previous seasons. While I recommend the whole trio of series, it’s not quite the AotY.

There is 3-gatsu no Lion 2nd Season, another continuation. Again, a superb conclusion, but again not sufficiently stand-alone.

My anime of the year 2018 is Hataraku Saibou (“Cells at Work”) which is hilarious: it shows cells having every-day ‘jobs’: the red blood cells are dressed like delivery people, carrying boxes of oxygen to other cells. A sneeze is a rocket launch, etcetera. And it’s also quite educational: I learned some things about the human immune system too! Every episode is fun and had us laughing out loud.

Some honourable mentions:

  • Darling in the FranXX: Basically, the second coming of Evangelion. Recommended for mecha-heads who can appreciate a bit of distopian setting;
  • Violet Evergarden: Post-war (equivalent of WW1) drama with a girl who has only known war coming to grips with civilian life.
  • Hakumei to Mikochi: Heart-warming series about a paid of mini-people making their life in a mini-world.
  • Shoujo Shuumatsu Ryokou: A pair of girls travel through the war-torn ruins of civilisation, probably the last two people to be alive… It’s very slow-moving and philosophical at times.
  • Houseki no Kuni: A world where people made out of gemstones live. They are regularly attacked by ethereal beings that look like Buddhist iconography. Super interesting setting.

What’s the best anime you have seen in 2018?

So I have a modest dice collection — certainly not on par with some of the people in the Dice Maniacs Club! But one of them had their dice displayed in a capsule toy machine, and I thought that was really cool. I could imagine people coming over to play an RPG, and having to randomly draw a capsule with dice from the machine for the session…

And the wonders of the internet mean that you can easily find those machines for sale, too. Cheapest I could find was EUR 50, the nicest one was EUR 75.

And it’s a fun idea, but not EUR 75 worth of fun. Maybe, some day, but not now.

We’ve started planning our vacation for 2019. At the end of March, we’ll be flying to Tokyo. After a few days there, we’ll rent a car and drive to the coast near Enoshima.

And after that, Hakone and then onwards to the Fuji Five Lakes area. With a bit of luck, we’ll make the most of the cherry blossom season…

I was reading through a set of articles about things that used to be A Thing and are not anymore — stuff like the walkman, VCRs and i-mode. Another one is the pinball machine.

Of course, being the age I am, I played my fair share of pinball. In my teenage years, we preferred the arcade video games, but during my time as a student, there were some bars that we frequented that had pinball machines. In the early 90’s, pinball machines were feeling the crunch from video games. In response, pinball machines were adding more and more digital effects, often using a LED matrix display. Wouldn’t it be fun to play pinball again?

It turns out that there is a Dutch Pinball Association. Their clubhouse, which houses 120 pinball machines, is in Veenendaal, which is only half an hour by car away… And they had a ‘Funhouse Friday’ coming up, just an open house from 15:00 until 23:00, with all the machines on free play. Entrance fee was EUR 10 for non-members, and I sent them an e-mail to ask if one could just go there as a non-member, pay the fee and play.

It was possible, but you’d have to get invited by a member first. And the person in charge of the clubhouse decided that he’d invite me! Such hospitality, I really liked that. But it turned out that there were more people interested in an evening of pinball: Klik wanted to come, as well as a friend of ours. And I didn’t feel like it was proper to take advantage of the hospitality by showing up with three people instead of one.

So we got a membership. And they have a semi-professional kitchen as well, so you could even have dinner there! Which is what we did.

The view from the bar area. There were three ‘corridors’ like this, and there was also a line of pinball machines along the far wall.
There was a good spread of machines: some really early ones, and more “modern” ones, including some that I played a lot in the early 90’s.
Left: Klik playing Black Knight 2000. Right: Friend O. playing Tommy.

Such good fun! We’ll definitely do this more often, perhaps we’ll get good at pinball eventually…