IMAT – TIE Pilot helmet and flight suit


I’ve wanted to go to a con in costume since I knew people, you know, did that.  UK Games Expo was that con and this is the story of that costume.  I went to UKGE to play in the X-Wing Miniatures Game regional championship and Yavin Open Tournament.  The former had more than 100 players and the latter nearly more than 400.  I’m also intending to bring the costume along to EMF and spend some time out in costume there, assuming it’s not heatstroke weather in an all-black jumpsuit and helmet…

So I built a TIE Fighter pilot costume.  Mostly this is uncomplicated – a boiler suit, a belt, some boots, some gloves – so the complex bits are the helmet and the chest armour, on which I’ll be focussing.

I wasn’t shooting for complete screen accuracy, more for something that looked about right, was functional, quick, and easy to put together, and wouldn’t fall apart in a couple of days’ wear.  I can try for perfect screen accuracy on future costumes.

raw materials
The raw materials

I built this on the base of a baseball batting helmet which I saw used for a rebel pilot helmet in this tutorial, and picked up a lot of the techniques by osmosis from watching this youtube channel.  The majority of the rest was made from EVA foam as I’ve seen used in a bunch of cosplay and prop-making tutorials, as well as some pipe lagging, foamcore board, duck tape, and a clip top box for the chest piece – which also served as storage for (almost) all the kit I needed to play the game on the day.

This was the first time I’ve done anything like this, so I had a few false starts and wasted most of a sheet of foam getting things wrong, but that’s part of the learning process and I’ve now got lots of scraps left over.  I started out by patterning the most difficult part of the helmet – the curved detailing on each side – by sticking masking tape to the helmet, drawing the piece on, then removing it and cutting darts in the sides to allow it to sit more or less flat.

Lesson number 1: I should have masked the whole helmet, and cut the shape to fit right into the middle, which would then have let me glue it down and cut away the excess rather than needing to fit it on after constructing the central ridge.  As it was, it worked, but was more awkward to do, as the processes weren’t happening in the most favourable order – but conversely, doing them in the order I did let me get more done more quickly, as I was able to work in an sequence that meant I could get started at home before moving to the Hackspace to heat form parts.

It’s also worth noting that the patterning process went through several revisions as I didn’t account for the extra thickness the foam would add – I could certainly do this better another time.

The central ridge was next – I started out trying to make this a couple of different ways, by gluing down flat pieces the whole length of the ridge, then small sections the right width, but all of this didn’t work as the hot glue wouldn’t hold well across the curvature of the helmet and kept popping off.  Version 3 was the one which worked – I glued a thin strip down the lengths of centre and then two taller strips with the bottoms cut at 45 degrees down the sides.  These went on a touch wonky, but that’s life.  Then glued a long flat strip down the top, which worked well and is now holding very firmly.  At some point in here I cut the brim off the helmet and trimmed down the end of the ridge with a hand saw and added some detailing.

Lesson number 2: don’t try to hot glue onto smooth, non-porous curved surfaces, especially without scoring them first, heat forming the parts to be glued, or keeping them very thin and flexible.  Ideally all three.  Well, actually ideally I probably would have been using a contact cement rather than hot glue, but you’ve got to work with what you have.

Next was the mask.  Weirdly this was actually the easiest part to prototype – I taped a piece of paper to the inside of the helmet and drew the mask shapes on.  Then cut them out.  Remarkably, all of them fit first time, and I was able to work out where the bends and details needed to go from looking at the screen reference which is copious and detailed, and masking tape together the first prototype. (PIC OF PROTOTYPE)  I then heat formed the parts to shape and glued them together at the hackspace.  I experimented with a technique I’ve not seen used before to help here – I cut some loose tenons out of plastic packaging and used them to hold the joints in the right orientation whilst the glue set.  This didn’t work *at all* because the holt glue just melted the plastic.  I might try it another time with metal pins or wooden skewers, but I didn’t have any to hand, and some experimenting led me to think that it would deform the shape of the piece – not to mention that in practice, the piece worked out fine without the need for additional support.  I also found it helpful to thin down the foam on the back of tight bends like the one down the centre of the face plate by carving a wedge out of the back of the foam in the relevant place – a technique which I’ve since found on other foam-armour-making youtube channels and tutorials.

initial build
The mask after the initial day’s prototyping.

The eye lenses were made with pop bottle plastic held into rebates in the eye pieces, then coloured using a permanent marker on the back, and glued in with epoxy.  It’s very difficult to see out, but that’s manageable.  If I could have found some sunglasses to fit for cheap I would perhaps have used those for better lenses, but I doubt they would have had the right shape, which the pop bottle plastic was perfect for.

The rest of the curved side details were made up from pipe lagging.  I had some major issues here as one of the hot glue guns I used was WAY too hot for the lagging which immediately melted.  I tried it with my colder gun at home which worked, but still needed to be used only shortly after being switched on.  Waiting too long led to melting again, and I was running perilously low on the right size of lagging (and time to go and buy more) by that stage!

only finishing to go
The mask after completion of the construction – ready for finishing.

The chest armour was quite simple – a single layer of eva foam for each side, cut and heat formed then sealed and painted as below, with simple straps.  I didn’t bother with any of the greeblies on the straps, for time reasons.  The straps were originally going to be clip-buckle luggage straps, but these didn’t arrive in time so I bodged something up at the last minute out of gaffer tape and velcro which actually worked impressively well to the point that I’m not going to be replacing the straps now that the intended ones have arrived, and will instead save them for the next project.  I didn’t take any photos of these unfortunately, but basically I made them by sticking the gaffer tape to itself, sticky side in, then using that and some sticky backed velcro as the basis for the straps, which held very well and looked about right.

I also did some minor work on the belt buckle, which had a recessed Dunlop logo that I filled, sanded, and painted to match the rest of the buckle, but again, didn’t photograph that stage.

The chest box was the other complex piece.  The base of it was a clip top box from Wickes which I spray-painted the top of black – it was clear to begin with.  I should have primed it first, and a lot of the paint flaked off before the end, as did one of the buttons.  The details were made as follows: The square buttons are foamcore, painted with markers/spraypaint and sealed with gloss varnish.  The white lines are printer paper, held down by saturating it with PVA/water mix.  The rocker switches are eva foam with a wedge cut out from the bottom side, sealed and painted as below.  The cylinder is more pipe lagging, covered in black gaffer tape, as are the sockets for the breathing tubes, which are themselves electrical conduit from Screwfix, heat formed to rough shape at the hackspace and just press fit into their places, so they don’t stress the parts too much and it’s easy to disassemble.  The cogwheels on the sides I 3D printed at the hackspace, but I had backups made from pipe lagging just in case.  They would have looked fine at a distance.  The whole thing is held on to the armour with velcro, as it needs to come off to get the stuff out for play.  The cylinder stays on the armour but is also held on with velcro so it can be removed for easier transportation.

3D printing the cogwheel greeblies

13350357_1706573386260697_4523782452409229896_o 13403995_1706573382927364_1178849878762467230_o chest box attachmentThe detail of the chest box and how it contained my gaming gear and attaches to the armour.

And the final shot before finishing, including the heat-formed breathing tubes.

Finishing and painting:

This is a huge process; the EVA foam and particularly the pipe lagging cannot be spray painted until they have been sealed.  The propellant in the paint eats the foam of the lagging, and doesn’t cover well or provide a good finished surface on the EVA, which is quite porous, though not actually dissolved by spray propellant the way some foams are.  So the process is thus:

0: (Optionally) go over all the surfaces with the heat gun.  This smooths them slightly and seals them a little so the glue doesn’t absorb quite as much.  But be careful going over surfaces you’ve already hot-glued, as the heat gun is more than hot enough to melt the glue.  Also take care to keep the gun moving, it’s more than hot enough to scorch the surface if you stay in one place too long.  Which I did in a couple of places.  Blaster burns!

1: Smooth any rough edges and fill/radius the internal corners using latex mastic/caulk.  I used latex because of its flexibility though it’s a little harder to paint, but epoxy putty or even polyfilla would do at a pinch.  Ideally a sandable filler is good, but sandable, flexible and quick-setting is very difficult to get in a single filler.  I also coated the pipe lagging bits with two or three layers of mastic, before the PVA coat, both to seal and smooth them.  It might be tough to get the curved surfaces which had to have darts cut in them smooth, but don’t worry, it’ll look fine when painted.  If you have time and have good patterning skills, it’s more than possible to get them perfect, but I had neither!

2: Coat with as many layers as you have time for of PVA glue mixed 50:50ish with water.  5 layers minimum, preferably more, I think I was up to nearly 10 by the end.  The more layers, the better, too, it was noticeable to me that the surface finish on the helmet was better than on the chest armour, which received about half the number of PVA coats.  Drying with a hairdryer can help, but don’t use the heat gun, you might melt your joints, and that would be bad right now.  I understand that you can also use Plasti-Dip or latex for this stage, with which I have yet to experiment.

The helmet after sealing with mastic and PVA.

3: Spray paint.  I primed grey then used gloss black for the majority, including giving the whole helmet a once over to cover any of the marks and layout lines.  I used gloss white for the white rocker switch, and gray primer for the grey switches and buttons; these just happened to be what I had on hand, then gloss varnish over the whole caboodle.  Make sure you mask any areas of exposed foam, for instance the inside of the helmet and the inside of the tubes.  I should, as noted, have primed the box lid first though, the black paint peeled very easily.  And the foamcore buttons got eroded by the propellant/solvent from the varnish, but that’s not a huge issue.

The helmet after priming – please ignore the expanding chaos of my workspace!

The whole thing was done… ooh, hours before I had to leave for the expo, as the straps for buckling the armour hadn’t arrived in time so I completed the makeshift straps the day before leaving.

The finished product:

The photos with green-screen background are the photos taken for the cosplay competition by Thanet Cosplay, used with their kind permission.

13350534_1706573249594044_3282413408630284085_o 13346244_1706573246260711_1704801998831445427_o

painted - front 13340229_1706573329594036_8790161538539721659_o

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I didn’t produce detailed plans for this, and what plans I did produce were very specific to the helmet I bought, but what the hey, I traced around them before I glued it all together.  There’s a rule in the photos for scale, which are available on request.  Please comment or post on the hackspace boards if you’d like to get access to them.

During and after the con:

It went down a storm with my opponents at the tournament, and with the con in general.  I entered the cosplay competition, coming in the top 10 in a very strong field with which I was extremely pleased.  It wasn’t actually too hot to wear, because it was easy to remove the bulk of the hot parts and take the top half of the boiler suit off when necessary to cool down.  Te worst part of wearing it was the blister from the boots which I hadn’t worn in a while.

There were some casualties as a result of the con.  Quite a lot of the paint, both gears and one of the buttons on the chest box popped/flaked off – 5 minute epoxy glue did an OK job but was never going to be amazing at holding these things down – and the helmet got a bit bashed and dinged in places, but mostly these bashes could be covered up with permanent marker.  Beyond that, the costume actually stayed basically undamaged.

The overall cost was about £150, but much of that was in the big parts – the gloves, the original helmet, the boiler suit which between them accounted for around half the cost of the costume, and the straps, plus the glue gun which I bought as we didn’t have one at home.  Many of these parts can be re-used or will be useful in other contexts, and I ended up with a lot of scraps of more or less usable sizes, and a full sheet each of EVA and foamcore left over.  The only pieces that were used as bought were the gloves, the motorcycle balaclava that went under the helmet and I ended up not bothering to wear after all, and the boots.  Even the boiler suit received some minor alteration – I added a button and buttonhole to the point of the collar so I could pull it up around my neck.

Minor issues: the helmet was a bit the wrong shape; it would have been better if it had descended a little further down the back of my neck.  I could have fixed it with some more foam, but I didn’t really feel inclined to add more enclosure to something that’s already hot and poorly vented, and it would have made it a lot harder to get on.  The faceplate was a little long.  This is just a drafting issue I think, I could have shortened it by nearly an centimetre further in total and made it look better, and that’s having shortened it a centimetre or more from the original plans.  It was at least partly related to having made the eye piece a touch too large, but I’m glad I did that – any smaller and it would have been almost impossible to see out.  Finally, I should have taken way more photos, but time was short, and this is the first time I’ve tried to fully document a project like this.  It’s surprisingly hard to remember to take photos when you get into the flow of making things.

But really, this went about as smoothly as I could have hoped, doubly so for a first attempt at doing a project like this.  In particular, I’m amazed at the solidity of the construction of the helmet – youtube viewing had led me to believe it would be flimsy and deform easily but it’s remarkably rigid, possibly because of the base helmet being a lot stronger and more rigid than the all-foam constructions I’ve taken inspiration from.

10/10 would build again.  Hopefully with more time next time though!

I’m already planning next year’s costume!

29 November: This Week In…

RPGs: more Phandelver, more 5e being mediocre and uninteresting. Meeeeeeh.

Board games: little happened other than a game of X Wing, which prompted me to buy the core set and probably to spend a loooot of money over the next few months/years on X-Wing.

TV: this season of Who finally managed to hit one out of the park, at long last; Heaven Sent was awesome, at least until the last 5 minutes.  Proper spooky Who in the vein of Blink.

Books: finished The Phoneix Code by Catherine Asaro, which was good.

Not much more to report.

14 November – This Week In…

RPGs: continued with Lost Mine of Phandelver.  5e continues to precisely meet my expectations, which are that it will be a mediocre system that doesn’t actually help to tell interesting stories, but that it will be enjoyable enough to finish the mod.  I won’t go back to it, though; I could stand to cut something out of my rather busy hobby life anyway.

Board games: tried out Fury of Dracula, as Dracula, which I enjoyed a lot, though I found it very difficult.  The starter game advises removing most of Dracula’s powers, but leaves the Hunters at more-or-less full strength, which made it really quite tough to play the game effectively.  Plus I didn’t really get a couple of the mechanics properly.  I’m looking forward to playing it again though.

TV: Doctor Who continues to be mostly meh as hell this season.  It’s just… not lived up to its potential at ALL with Peter Capaldi.  I’d’ve liked to see it go to much darker places, to really use his acting chops more, and it’s just not got there for me.

Books: finished Starfarers by Vonda N McIntyre.  Definitely an enjoyable book, a neat combination of tense politics and fun space travel, plus interesting characters and relationships.  Really nothing to fault it on, and I’ll be picking up the rest of the series if I can.

Making: the Ada Lovelace Hackathon took place at OxHack today.  I wasn’t up to much making, but I facilitated where I could, helped out with finishing the 3d printed difference engine carry, and mostly constructed a paper automaton, and a balsa wood ornithopter, though I actually completed neither project.  A number of others did, though, which was gratifying.  Plus, we got out second hand Roland CNC mill up and running, which I’m really looking forward to trying out.  A good day overall.

4 November 2015 – This week in…

OK, so it’s more like this fortnight in, so sue me.

RPGs: The Lost Mine of Phandelver 5e starter pack campaign.  So far, so mediocre.  The combat is quick, but very, very dull.  The intention of the mod seems to be that combat should be avoided, and out of combat stuff done instead, but thus far we have been ambushed no less than 4 times, including once when we successfully negotiated a settlement beforehand.  And even when we do try to do stuff out of combat, there’s no avoiding the fact that a: the majority of character resources are combat-based, and b: out of combat stuff is dull as piss, there’s nothing new or different to any prior edition here.  It’s still the same old high-variance d20 roll under.  I doubt I’ll carry on much longer, but I’ll give it at least one more week.  And the less said about the Moon Druid the better…

It’s not that I’m not enjoying it.  I am.  But the system isn’t helping in any particular way; there’s not enough optimisation and tactical nuance to the combat to satisfy my tactical brain, and there’s almost nothing to really help with the non-combat, so… what is there?

Before that, also played a round of Fiasco (White Hole) which was highly entertaining, and really shows up the flaws in D&D generally, especially with prewritten mods.  There was a lot more invention in that one evening than there has been in three sessions of Phandelver so far, and a lot more enjoyment as well.

I really need to learn some more systems.  And we as a group need to get used to more group-driven storymaking.

Board games: Codenames rocks, it was great fun, and crucially, my wife enjoyed it, which is a rare and precious thing!  We played with 3 and 4, and whilst it worked with 3, it was definitely better with 4, and I can see it improving still further with more.  Train of Thought was OK.  Between Two Cities also arrived, albeit in French, and we played a quick 3p game, but I suspect it’s at its worst with low player counts.  It was nonetheless interesting and tactical and quick.  And Jamey was outstandingly quick in resolving the accidental Frenchness.  Also played Pharoah’s Favour again.  Plus a few other games that have long since slipped my mind.

Finally, am growing rapidly more obsessed with X-Wing having finally been able to try it out once, and been list-building on my phone ever since.  I’ve really enjoyed it thus far, it’s good a good balance of skill and luck, although I have to say I’m really not much of a fan of dice-based combat resolution.  But it does have a decent amount of dice manipulation, and there’s a lot of strategy and tactics in both manoeuvring and list-building.  Good game, but very expensive in the long run.  Still not sure if I’m going to invest.

Making: I put together a quick drawstring bag for the Between Two Cities bits using my wife’s sewing machine which went very well and quickly.  Also did some chocolate covered shortbread for office cake rota which went OK but I suck at piping.  Need to do some more making, lots of backburnered projects that haven’t seen the light of day in months, and EMF 2016 is fast approaching…

Hackspace move

So, this is a big one for me; OxHack, my local hackspace, has finally, finally moved to its new premises.  We’re working in partnership with Science Oxford; they get a functional prototyping service and a lot of expertise, we get a shiny new space and plenty of nice tools.  The nice tools will be ordered soon, once the air handling is in place.

So, there’s a lot more still to do, sure.  And I’m looking forward to doing it.  But the important part is that a HUGE weight is off everyone now; the move has happened.  We’re in, and now we can start building a relationship with the folks at SO, and start working with them to do more cool things.

I’m looking forward to restarting the Dalek project, especially as the Dr Who anniversary is coming up again shortly, and I really want to get  it ready for EMF next year.  I’m looking forward to picking out the woodshop tools and finally getting started in learning the practical knowledge I want to go with all the theory I’ve been immersing myself in in my free time recently.

I’m really looking forward to the A0 laser cutter.  I need to spend some time designing the furniture I want to make with it, and working out where to source the plywood.

Overall, it’s a time of fairly major change for us.  We have a bigger, brighter future ahead of us, and I want to know where it can take me.  It’s going to be quite a ride.

It’s already been quite a ride, for that matter.  I’ve done a decent chunk of work to get where we are today, and I’m well aware that there are others who’ve done far, far more.  We’re still in progress on any number of minor things, including the logo competition which I’ve spent a lot of time on, and come out with some ideas I’m really pretty pleased with both alone and in collaboration with fellow hackers.

I need to spend more time on making.  I’ve gotten out of the habit since the Summer when I put our wedding clock together.  But I’ll get back into it soon.  I hope.


paperbackPaperback is a neat little game based heavily on Dominion, so of course, I like it.  But, oddly, I like it for rather different reasons than I do Dominion; I like it in large part because it’s an entry-level game.  I can play it with friends who I normally wouldn’t play board games, in the hope that that might change.  Like Ticket to Ride before it, it’s an excellent gateway game.  People can play it who are used to playing Scrabble on Facebook, and they can enjoy it for the word-game aspects, whilst I enjoy the deckbuilding aspects, and hopefully, they learn a bit about them as well.  Plus, I actually quite like word games anyway.

So, the meat of the thing:

Size and price. The game is small enough to be chucked in a backpack and brought out at need, though it’s a little large for that compared with say, Hanabi or Love Letter.  It takes a bit more room to play, but that’s not usually a problem for me.  It was also cheap enough to be an impulse purchase, and one I was glad I made.

Speed.  It’s a word game, so it could go a bit slow if people aren’t creative/vocabulacious, or the luck of the draw happens to be against you, but mostly it’s a lot quicker than, say, Scrabble.

Quality.  I got both the first Kickstarter printing (then donated it to the Hackspace), and the later retail printing, and aside from some cosmetic damage to the box on the first, and a couple of errata being needed on it too, they were both excellent.  Solid box construction, nice, weighty cards, some nice cubey cubes, well-printed and well-written rules and, well, some space for expansions, I guess.  There’s not a whole lot to the game, but what there is, is good.

Balance.  It feels like a game that’s been well playtested and is mostly well balanced, though there are some issues in places.  The kickstarter bonus Common tiles feel a bit off, in particular the space bar one, to the point where I’ve stopped using it, because it just makes the person who gets it SO much better.  And the (kickstarter bonus) special power tiles are similarly a bit off-balance.  So I guess the lesson here is that kickstarter bonus stuff in a game like this is often less carefully playtested and less well-balanced.  And that’s borne out in a lot of games.  Meh, it plays well just fine without the bonuses.

Errata.  The errata were only minor, but they were kind of irritating nonetheless.

That about covers it really.  A short, sweet review for a short, good game.  It’s of less value for my gaming group, we don’t play it much and tend to go for crunchier mechanical stuff over word games, so in that context not more than a 6 or 7, but it gets 9 out of 10 for me personally, as a gateway game my wife is willing to play!

11 October: This week in…

Books: I finished the biography of Alexander Graham Bell which I’ve been reading.  It was long, a bit of a measured pace, and deeply inspiring.  Bell is far from the one-trick pony history seems to make him out to be – the telephone was among the earliest and is certainly the best known of his inventions, but he pioneered thought and invention in so many other areas from flight to tetrahedral frame construction, from the precursors of fibre optic technology to among the earliest thought on climate change and non-renewable resources.  The biography was also very well-written, and a highly enjoyable read, and I’d probably pick up something else by that author again.

I also read my first Pratchett since his death; it really affected me, and I’m going to write a longer post on it at some point soon.

Board games: Played Roll for the Galaxy twice and Navegador once.  I continue to not quite GET Navegador; I just couldn’t get my head round the trading mechanics in it, so I did a race to the finish on exploration tokens.  I didn’t do BADLY, but I came 3rd of 3.  It’s a game I don’t mind, but I don’t think I’ve played it enough to grok it, and I don’t think I’m inclined to either.  Roll ftG I really like; it takes the fun tableau building elements of Race, and removes the awkwardness of handling and assessing massive hands of cards and shuffling massive decks.  I really enjoyed it and I’m looking forward to expansions.

I’m also pumped for two Stonemaier games which will be going through major developments soon – Between Two Cities should be delivered before the end of the month, and Scythe goes into kickstarter next week, and will be a day 1 back for me.

3 October 2015 – This Week In…

RPGs: Descent counts right? Right?  Anyway, finished Act 1 of D2e, which is more than we’ve previously got to, and with the same set of characters too.  However, I’m mildly regretting choosing the Spiritspeaker Healer, it feel a bit weaker than even the other base set option.  Also, having finished the last encounter of the last quest at about 2130, we thought we could do the interlude – how long can an interlude be?

Four fucking hours later.  It was great fun, but it was long and sloggy.  Longer than a single quest.  Arg.  Still looking forward to act 2.

Board Games: Played Caverna again for the first time in a while.  It’s still enjoyable.  I continue my unblemished record of never coming in better than second.

Making: gearing up to redesign my version of the OxHack logo.  Also made another Dobos Torte for my sister and her husband to celebrate the birth of my nephew, which went well.

Books: continuing to enjoy the biography of Alexander Graham Bell.  Fascinating man, fascinating book, but I’m not finding anywhere near as much time as I’d like to actually READ it.

Why I like the games I like, part 1: Games I enjoy losing

Let’s face it, whilst I like playing board games, I’m not that good at them.  It often takes me several plays to get even basic strategies, and a LOT of practice to get good.  My gaming group are mostly a LOT better at them than I am.  So I lose. Frequently.

Accordingly, I really value a game that it’s enjoyable for me to lose.  So, what does that mean?

1: No player elimination.  This one’s fairly obvious; I really don’t like a game where the person behind (or anyone for that matter), can just be knocked out of the game, without any means to recover.  It sucks when it happens, in any game, but especially in a mid-length game during a long afternoon, where it’s not clear whether it’s worth sticking around until the end because something else might be played.

2: Limited kingmaking ability.  I really dislike being behind, and having my only options be ones which will benefit one or other opponent more, and make them win.  One of my group likes threatening in these games – if you screw me now, I will make it my business to take you with me, to the exclusion of all else including victory.  I don’t like games that allow that.  So, targeted attacks are difficult, as are games where it’s really obvious what each player’s best options are (i.e. ones which lack any hidden information), and where it’s easy to then screw with someone just by doing a single thing.  I have to say, this is a very difficult thing to avoid with any player count other than two in competitive games, because in those games what you do ALWAYS impacts what other people can do, purely by playing a competitive game with four players.  But it’s certainly possible to make it harder to mess with people.

3: No death spiralling.  This one’s important, and can really ruin an otherwise very enjoyable game – when early in the game, a single player can be easily prevented from accessing a critical resource, particularly early on, and then has to either resign – see point 1 – or spend the next 2 hours watching the game screw them over due to the lack.  Often, this is actions in games where extra actions can be bought, or workers in WP games.   In some cases, it’s resources, particularly in bidding games.  If you get behind in money and money is how you get ahead, it can result in you never getting ahead.

4: No doing less because you’re losing.  AKA, no de facto player elimination, as opposed to point 1.  This is probably the one with the highest ratio of importance to obviousness – I only really came to the realisation recently, and I’ve not really seen it mentioned anywhere else.  It’s kind of covered under all the others but it bears pointing out specifically – it’s important that you don’t have less to do just because you’re losing.  It’s important that to me even when you’re losing, you still feel like you have an engine to fiddle with, parts to reposition and optimise, about the same number of actions to take to improve your score as everyone else, *things to do*.  I really dislike games where, because I’m losing, my turn is ‘I do three things for no points and I’m done’ and the leader’s takes twenty minutes and involves doing fifteen things and jumping ahead another 30 points. Which brings me on to…

5: Discreet rubber-banding mechanisms.  This kind of falls under points 3 and 4, but it’s the inverse – the game should have some means for those behind to have a chance to catch up.  This is perhaps most elegantly demonstrated in Dominion – you get the engine going, then you gunge it up with victory cards, and it slows down, so the people behind might have a chance to get back into competition and even out luck spikes, or for their slower but more reliable strategy to pay off.  Runaway victors can be just as bad as death spirals, and good rubberbanding mechanics aren’t obvious, but make for nail-biting finishes where it’s really not clear who’s winning.

It’s worth pointing out, by the way, that a lot of these are flexible; a lot of games can manage when only one or two of them are violated (Through the Ages springs to mind and hits a lot of potential low points, as do a number of co-op games), and the number of them that are violated can increase the shorter and less serious a game is.  I’m fine with player elimination in Bang!, Guillotine, Love Letter, or other quick party-style games because the next round will start in a couple of minutes, and they’re entertaining to watch played anyway.  I don’t care if there’s a runaway leader in The Big Idea because it means that someone’s being funny and interesting, and the group’s enjoying it so who cares who it is.  But if I’m half an hour into a 3 to 4 hour game of Nations and I’m the only one without any stability or food buildings, I know at that point I’m quite unlikely to pull back the early deficit, but I can’t leave easily because that messes with the game for everyone else.  So I either suffer in misery, or I ask for the whole game to finish…

Overall, there’s a lot of repetition here, so congratulations if you’ve made it this far.  Just one more, I promise…  Make it fun for the losers, as well as for the winner.  Fun is a dirty word in reviewing, I grant you, but it’s the one I’m using, so there – there are a tonne of ways to do it well, and a tonne of ways to do it badly, but do it.  Make those who are behind able to enjoy the game if not quite as much as those in front, then still enough that they go home satisfied.  If ½ to ⅚ of your audience goes home pissed off because your game sucks to lose – and make no mistake, that’s what happens when your game sucks to lose – your game is poorly designed.

On hobbies

I have a lot of hobbies.  I collect them, like I collect books, and miniatures, and tools, and clutter and boredom.  Part of me thinks they’re mostly reactions to the latter.  I get bored easily and I spend a lot of time bored.  My job doesn’t interest me much, much of the time, and the times when it does are few, far between, and painfully short.  So I collect hobbies, instead, in the hope of filling my own time with creativity and productivity and enjoyment.  Since this blog is about my hobbies, then a short run-down of the main ones seems like a good place to start.  They fall into a few categories:

Woodworking and general making of things.  Again, this is something I did at school, and which lay fallow for many years until it sprang back up around 3 years ago after too many sessions binge-watching Matthias Wandel on youtube and thinking ‘I think I could do that, with some practice, and I’d love to try’.  I’ve made a few successful projects thus far, but many of them have stalled at the ‘almost done but usable’ stage, and now need repairing or replacing, or finishing in the ‘put some varnish on it’ sense of the word.  I’m particularly pleased with the jigsaw tables (though in practice their joinery was pretty poorly done, and would have been much better with a rabbetting plane), and the still-distinctly-nascent Dalek project.  Again, problematic due to space – my 8’x8’ shed also contains all the patio furniture and the dryer, as well as all my stores of wood, two wheelchair ramps, and my tiny shopvac – and weather, as I have to do a lot of my work outside for the aforementioned space reasons.  Some of it’s also lack of tools – they say a bad craftsman blames his tools, but in this case… the things I want to build are big, and the tools I have are mostly small and cheap.  It’s close to impossible to accurately build something like a full-height bookcase in the space and with the tools available to me.  And whilst I could fill the house with (more) tiny wooden knicknacks (candle holders, decorative thingies, more coffee tables etc) I don’t like to build stuff that doesn’t have a purpose, and to be honest, we have more than enough clutter as it is!

Reading.  This is one of the few hobbies I’ve retained all my life, and it continues apace, with 70+ books read last year and I’m well on the way to the same for 2015.  I enjoy reading, particularly sf/f fiction, but I’ve usually found it less easy to actually think clearly about what I’m reading and why I’m enjoying it.  I’ve been trying to write reviews for exactly that reason, again without much success recently.  I hope to write more of those in the coming months and years, and/or republish a few old ones for a new audience.

RPGs.  I got into RPGs because I wanted to find something creative to do in person with other people who share similar interests.  I have to say, I’m still looking for the right RPG that mixes creative storytelling with real room to invent and come up with a fun tale, with a mechanical system that I like and enjoy playing in.  I found the latter with D&D 4e (not that it’s without its flaws) but I’m still to some extent looking for the former.  My 4e group is great fun and certainly we have our creative moments… but Living Forgotten Realms (and living campaigns in general) really tend not to lend themselves to creative problem-solving and character-driven stories, so I’ve yet to really satisfy the part of me that just wants to… invent.  I hope to eventually, but… life is busy, and invention tends to take time.

Board gaming.  Board gaming was an offshoot of RPGs.  I started playing designer boardgames with people from my 4e group, and that really shows in the games I like and the ways I like playing them – there’s a longer post coming on this point, but suffice it to say I like 4e’s character building system a lot, because it’s deep and fiddly and highly optimisable without being broken (well, not too much), which reflects in the board games I really like – worker placement games and engine builders, games with lots of competing strategies for victory, and things you can tweak and fiddle with the try to make them work better or worse according to how the game goes.  I LIKE boardgames; something visceral within me really enjoys sitting down with some friends with a structure for the afternoon.  I don’t get on anywhere near as well when I just sit in a pub or a park or whatever and natter, I really need something to direct the conversation and fill the low and quiet spots.  Board games hit that just right for me.

Miniature painting and modelling.  I started this hobby with GW games when I first went to secondary school, persisted with it for nearly 5 years as it and I became progressively less cool, then abandoned it when I moved out of home, mostly due to space issues.  I took it up a few years ago after spending too much time reading painting and modelling threads on SomethingAwful, and after playing D&D (more on that story later).  When it goes well I’m quick, accurate, and produce reasonable results, though nothing outstanding most of the time.  I struggle, however, with finding time for it – it requires good lighting, which I don’t really have in my home office, so it’s mostly a summer pursuit, and mostly a weekend pursuit, and my summers and weekends are usually full…  And when it goes poorly, I’m often disheartened by how difficult I find it.  I don’t find it easy to get enough practice to get good, and I often find that the colour I need has dried up or gone sludgy, or the brush I wanted to use has gotten screwed up, etc etc.

So, this is more or less going to be about those things, with some other bits and pieces thrown in here and there.