It’s been said that there’s more to life than music and, while we remain sceptical, we’ve decided to test the premise with our new bi-weekly Cool People Column!
Noyan and Eden already bring you great pop culture recommendations and discussions each week on Heavy Pod is Heavy, but why should they get to have all the fun? (Just because they essentially maintain and run the blog itself? I think not!) Now it’s the rest of the staff’s turn to share all the cool things from beyond the world of music that have been tickling their fancy over the last fortnight; everything from books to films, TV shows, video games and beyond!
We also want to know what all you cool people out there have been getting up to as well, so make sure to let us know in the comments.
By John Scalzi
I assume, and hope, that I don’t have to introduce John Scalzi to any of you. His name is bound up with that of large, successful, and over-the-top science fiction over the last three decades, being one of the major (and one of the most prolific) proponents of the genre. And with good reason; while his books might not be the most cerebral or experimental science fiction around, no one writes a page-turner quite like Scalzi. His stories are tight, his characters are memorable, and his settings are always extremely believable and well fleshed out (except when he chooses them not to be in the interest of suspense).
All of these are incredibly true about his latest trilogy of books, which he wrapped up this year, The Interdependency Series (2017–2020). The story goes like this: far in the future, an offshoot of humanity lives in space, supported by The Flow, a series of faster than light paths that connect seemingly random systems. In order to survive political upheaval, the Interdependency was formed. Part religion and part empire, the Interdependency survives by, you guessed it, being interdependent; noble houses hold monopolies on certain goods (like ships or food or habitats, floating space stations on which most of humanity lives) and they trade among each others, each specialized house propping up the other. This creates a prosperous and rigid system, overseen by the emperox, a mighty ruler who is also the head of House Wu, the house in charge of ship-building.
So far, so good; but here’s the thing: not only does an incredibly ill-suited emperox take the throne (the excellent and likeable character of Cardenia) but The Flow is also about to collapse. Yeah. If and when that happens, every human system will be cut off, unable to survive on their own in isolation. Oh, and here’s another catch: in all of these systems, there’s only one habitable planet. 99% of humanity lives in floating space stations or in bunkers deep underground on frozen/hellish planets. This catastrophe sends the Interdependency on even more of a tail-spin, as nobles, commoners, traders, pirates, scientists, and more all start to vie for survival and control.
We get to follow that struggle through three riveting books. Seriously, I could not put these books down, tearing through the first back to back on a transatlantic flight, staying up through two nights to devour the second, and absolutely demolishing the third on a weekend. They are light, incredibly well written, funny, action-packed, and just in general written as elegantly as only Scalzi can. If you’re looking for your next fix of science fiction and you want it sleek and with plenty of action, you should really pick this one up. You won’t regret it. Plus, no talking ships! OK, one talking ship.
Monumental (2018) is a 1–4 player, civilisation-themed board game designed by Matthew Dunstan (Elysium, Pioneer Days) and published by FunForge as a KickStarter exclusive. While the game is not available to purchase retail, you will likely be able to find some second-hand as backers are always taking a risk by purchasing a game they’ve never played before and may not enjoy. It’s also available to play for free on Tabletopia (though it can be quite tedious on there).
At its core Monumental is a deck-builder embellished with dudes-on-a-map gameplay. Each player has a deck of cards which they draw from, but instead of drawing into their hand they arrange the top nine cards into a 3×3 grid. On each turn a player chooses one column and one row to “activate”, with each card granting resources or abilities. Resources can be spent to move pieces around on the board to conquer new territories, to use more actions, or to acquire new cards from a central display (“market”). Interestingly, each new card acquired goes directly on top of your deck. As you know which row and column of cards will become vacant at the end of your turn, you can strategically purchase new cards in a sequence that, when drawn, will place the new additions in just the spots you may want to activate next turn.
The ‘market’ is composed of various buildings, technologies and wonders of the world, split into three distinct ages. The first age is the ancient world, the second the middle ages and the final one modern times. The cards become increasingly powerful and expensive as you advance through the ages and the market serves as an in-built timer, with the game ending when it is almost depleted. The player with the most victory points is the winner, with points based on the number of wonders built, territories controlled, unique faction cards (called cultural policies) deployed, and technologies developed.
There are three main things I love about this game (so far, I’ve only played twice). The first is the production value. The artwork is great, the choice of wonders is cool, the board / hexes is really colourful and looks great on the table. But most importantly, the miniatures are fucking awesome – they look so damned great. This game is expensive, and the miniatures are absolutely unnecessary from a gameplay perspective, but I just love looking at them and couldn’t imagine taking the cardboard token version instead.
Secondly, I really enjoy the puzzle-nature of the game. To contextualise this, a couple of drawbacks need to be made clear. There is a fairly limited amount of player interaction: you can fight one another on the map, but that doesn’t really contribute a heap towards end-game scoring until the end of the game. Other than that, the most you can do is buy a card someone else may have wanted. Another drawback is that the turns can be quite long, as any new resources you acquire throughout your turn (through card effects, discovering things on the map etc.) can be used immediately. The flip side of this is that you can treat your turn as a bit of a puzzle as you try and find out what to do and in which order to maximise your turn’s value. While long turns can drag when other players are moving, when it’s your turn you feel like there are heaps of things that you can do, and when you pull off a great combination of actions within your turn it’s incredibly satisfying – I love it.
Finally, I think the civilisation theme is quite strong here. Each player chooses one of five factions: Chinese, Greek, Egyptian, Japanese and Danish; each with unique powers and cards. The artwork on all the cards is nice and each faction has unique, faction-specific artwork on their stock cards. The progression through the ages is also exciting, as you see all the great new things you can make and how much more they allow you to use – it’s a lot of fun.
Overall I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my plays of Monumental. Given the long turn lengths, I think it works best with 2–3 players, certainly 4 would appear too much. One of the expansions allows 5 players, but I’m not sure anyone would really want to do that. On the plus side, the expansions have introduced some rule variants (some of which you can adopt with the base game) to counter these drawbacks. The variable faction abilities and different gameplay modules listed in the rulebook mean replay value should be good, though it’s too early for me to comment on that personally. So there you have it, If you like deck-building, miniatures, and civilisation themed games: check out Monumental.
RuPaul’s Drag Race
All Stars 5
At the time of writing, there’s only one episode left of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars 5 (2020). I haven’t written about it before now becacuse; a) I’ve been incredibly busy trying to finish my damn thesis; and b) there hasn’t been that much to write about to be honest. Although All Stars‘ second outing (2016) might be the best season of anything ever made, by anyone, ever, the format has been producing diminishing returns with each iteration since, and seems to have well and truly run out of steam with Season 5.
Survivor-style voting has been implemented in an attempt to shake things up, but the results have been tepid at best and largely distracted from the show’s inherent appeal. Now, each week the top All Star selects one queen to eliminate and must compete against a mystery “Lip-Sync Assassin” from the show’s history, who holds the rest of the group’s vote, for the right to eliminate one of the remaining queens. As much as Werk Room drama and reality-show rivalries contribute to Drag Race’s appeal, the whole thing is still framed as a talent completion, with the coveted crown, theoretically, being awarded to the strongest and most deserving contestant.
Under previous All Stars rules the top two queens from each week would face off in a lip-sync battle with the winner getting to elimate one of the weeks’ bottom queens. Although production shenanigans and “Riggor Morris” were still certianly in play, it was still ostensibly one of the weaker queens being eliminated each week, with the opportunity to do so being well fought for. Sure, there have been some upsets (Shangela/Aja on All Stars 3 (2019) and Manila on All Stars 4 (2019), chief among them), but each one has also been circumstantial and hard-fought for. For all its reality TV shenanigans, with few exceptions, Drag Race has usually been very successful at elevating it strongest competitors. It’s not a game of scheming and strategy like Survivor, and the attempt to make it into one undermines a satisfying narrative.
On top of that, the voting has been completely ineffective. With the exception of Ongina‘s effective self-elimination, and Alexis Mateo constantly being robbed and going home a week before she arguably should have, the season has played out more-or-less as predicted, with the queens usually voting on merit—any incentive at strategy quashed by the potential of fan backlash, and the fact that they have to work with each other, and therefore maintain friendly, professional relationships outside the show (which is something Survivor doesn’t have to worry about). Most of the season’s drama has been built around boring accusations about inconsequential scheming that demonstrably didn’t happen, and that not one, but two queens (out of ten) have voted themselves out of the competition only adds to the sense that their hearts aren’t in it.
Ironically, the season’s strongest performances have come from the Lip-Sync Assasins. Both Season 11 (2019) winner Yvie Oddly and Season 5 (2013)/All Stars 2 finalist Roxxxy “Drag Perfection” Andrews both turned out powerhouse performances that just go to show how far above All Stars 5 middling cast they truly are. The season’s cast themselves have been severely under-performing. Even winner-in-waiting Shea Couleé—outside of her phenomenal performance on episode two—has been largely coasting, with her sense of entitlement becoming increasingly off-putting as the season goes on (which isn’t at all to detract from her inspirational conduct outside of the series). All Stars 5 has had its moments, sure, but its overall return has been minimal and I, for one, am very ready for it to be over.
Canada’s Drag Race
…It also doesn’t help that, at the same time All Stars 5 is running out of steam, a younger, fresher, more authentic-seeming competitor has arrived on the scene in the form of Canada‘s Drag Race (2020). The Canadian spin-off’s first season has a real old-school drag race feel to it and, while the odd format is still finding its feet, it’s first three episodes have been a blast. It’s also been entirely unpredictable—if only because the judging seems to be a bit out of whack, although it seems to be falling more in-line as the episodes go on.
Still, how has Jimbo not won any of these challenges? I didn’t like Jimbo at all in their “Meet the Queens” trailer, where their overly kooky delivery reminded me a lot of Season 5 winner Jinkx Monsoon (one of my least-favourite Drag Race queens). On the show, however, Jimbo has continually come across as focused and self-assured in a way none of the others (with maybe the exception of fellow-veteran Rita Baga) have. I don’t want to be the basic straight guy who just defaults to the weird one each time but, whereas previous season-favourites like Yvie and Crystal Methyd have won me over through the raw appeal of their off-kilter approach, Jimbo’s looks and characters has been continually polished and professional, in a manner the season’s other contestants simply have not.
Initially I’d tipped Ontario veteran Tynomi Banks to run away with it, although she’s been under-delivering so far, to say the least… At this point I’m predicting a top-three of Jimbo, Rita Baga and charming ex-children’s television host Priyanka, whose been killing both the confessionals and the competition so far. If they end up having a top four, I don’t know who would fill the other spot and that feels exciting. Drag Race doesn’t need a shake-up, it just needs to keep putting compelling competitors and stories on the screen and let the competition play out. It’s also been getting really hard to stand by the franchise (what with RuPaul being a Captain Planet villain and one of the season’s most important and iconic winner turning out to be a literal monster); the least it can do is be fun and interesting, and Canada’s Drag Race seems exactly like the breath of fresh air it needed.