Review: Catan the board game

I’m late with this review and the reason behind it is a bit silly. Catan just sort of looks intimidating. As someone who never really board gamed past the classics like Cluedo and Monopoly, even I’d heard of Catan because it’s such a big deal. From what I’d heard it’s a game that’s best with 4 players and can take around an hour and a half to play. That sounded a bit intimidating but I wish I’d not seen it as that because once we cracked it open with some chums, the game time just flowed by and we were all sad it was over; pulling out our phones to try and work out when we could schedule another game (pro tip- you can fit a game in during the average run time of a kids movie, even allowing for the interruptions down to complaints like “he looked at me funny”, or “he’s sitting on my private sofa”).

Catan comes with one of the best instructions booklets I’ve seen. Everything is illustrated with pictures, so there’s none of the usual Alex process of struggling to pick out the right meaning (I’m terrible following instructions- to me if a car says it needs servicing at either 10,000 miles or 12 months, I’d have it serviced when it hit 10,000 miles at 14 months).

The Catan board is a bit of a novelty, made up of large hexagons. Or is that hexagonal pieces? I’m going to stick with hexagons as it’s easier to type. Each hexagon is a different type of land, and every time you play they go together in a unique order, which gives the game a lot of variety. Each hexagon has different attributes assigned by a number between one and twelve, omitting seven, which is kept apart for something more sinister! We used the beginners set up, which sees each of the 19 hexagons (aside from the desert) given a number. Some numbers appear more than once, which comes into play when rolling the dice later in the game (it’s all to do with the probability of rolling certain numbers you see).

The Catan board fits together nicely as you can see from the game we played the other night:

Thankfully the blue sea border slots together nicely and makes it easy to put together, as well as being stable on a table.

Initially I felt a bit overwhelmed by the set up of Catan; there is a lot to do and think about, hexagons, numbers, villages, roads, resources and the Robber who starts off in the centre and moves whenever someone rolls a 7. But perhaps surprisingly, Catan is really easy to play for beginners. Each turn involves a roll of two dice, anyone who has a village (or later a city) adjacent to a hexagon with that number in it gets a resource card with the material shown in the hexagon. Using the above as an example, if I’d rolled a twelve, white (me) would get two crop resource cards as I have two villages next to the hexagon with a 12 in it. If other players have settlements around a rolled number, they also get resource cards, regardless of whether they rolled the dice or not.

The game is about resource management basically, trading cards for roads and villages and cities, you can also trade cards with other players when it’s your go. Being captain obstinate, nobody would trade with me as I was winning but I didn’t let that stop me!

The aim of Catan is to collect 10 valour points (each settlement type you can build gets you a certain number, as does having the longest road and the most knights). This effectively puts a timer on a game that is pretty open ended but it’s still not a quick game to play. Our first couple of outings with only three players still took almost and hour and a half (with constant tea rounds contributing to the running time no doubt).

Catan is easily the best game that I’ve discovered on my journey with the Board Game Club. It’s simple to set up, despite all the components, and allows for great interaction between the players. The ability to randomly place the hexagons makes for an almost unlimited landscape and the player interaction via bartering makes for an interesting twist too. This is a game that works as well over a couple of bottles of wine as it does several rounds of tea. It’s really great fun!

You can buy Catan from all good retailers, it’s RRP if £44.99, Amazon currently have it for £35.99.

 

 

I asked my kids for their favourite song and the results were gratifying

It’s a universally held fact that music was better in the day. It doesn’t matter which day you’re talking about, it was just better. Our parents complained about the rubbish we listened to, and no doubt their parents did too, just as we think most of the guff our kids generation is in to is rubbish.

So, over dinner the other night, preempting the 10 year old’s any questions session, where he likes to go round the table and ask people an either/or question, I decided to ask the kids what their favourite song was.

The boy, aged 10

I was impressed. I thought he might go for some Nerdest (they do songs based on videogames and are particularly popular on YouTube) or some bloke in a white suit with a plastic bin on his head called Marshmello but he actually picked Wonderwall by Oasis. Wonderwall is 23 years old now, and if a ten year old me had to pick a 23 year old song, it would have been from 1962 and probably If I had a Hammer by Peter Paul and Mary.

Fifi, aged 9

I have to admit I had no idea what to expect from my daughter. She quite often puts on My Old Man’s a Dustman by Lonnie Donegan, and does a little dance to it. Equally she likes current pop and rock. She initially gave one song but then changed it to another, so I’m going to include both here.

Dido I can deal with in the sense that it’s a nice song. Bobby Vee’s Night of a Thousand Eyes though?! It turns out her granddad gave her an iPod Shuffle that had both songs on it and those are the two that she really liked. How awesome is that? Not least because the Bobby Vee video is a bit bonkers.

Ned, aged 6

Although Ned has now progressed to the “confident reader, aged 5-8” section of Waterstones, getting things like song titles out of him still remains a challenge. And it was no different here as his choice was “the song with an elephant in the video”. That doesn’t narrow it down much, so we had to fire up the TV and let him browse the YouTube music videos. Just as well we did as I’m not entirely sure we’d have got to Paradise by Coldplay on our own.

There is something very cool about hearing a 6 year old sing along to pop songs.

The runners up

We spent the rest of the evening playing our favourite songs on YouTube, taking it in turns to pick a song out and make everyone else listen to it.

The kids came up with some great songs:

  • Bastille by Pompeii (or the aaaa,aaaa,aaaa song as Ned calls it)
  • Symphony of Destruction by Megadeth (the boy was born to this, it’s his anthem)
  • Wolves by Selma Gomez and Marshmello
  • The Chain by Fleetwood Mac
  • All the Small Things by Blink 182

And we had an entire evening without television!

The best thing about the whole impromptu music evening was the lack of really contemporary music, because lets face it, music today is rubbish

The Daddacool guide to attending the Royal Ballet

We went to the Royal Opera House to see some ballet at the weekend and I thought I’d share my top tips in case you want to seem some exciting ballet yourself as part of a programme of self improvement and culture. We love culture in our house, we’ve dragged the kids round more museums, galleries and theatres than you could shake a stick at in a no doubt stylised ritualistic fashion, and they’re even beginning to enjoy it now.

So without further ado, these are my top tips for attending the ballet with your children. Or without them, it’s entirely up to you. It’s cheaper if you leave them with their grandparents. Should that be a tip? Who knows…

  • If you have vertigo, don’t book the upper slips. They might be (relatively) cheap but if you have to spend two hours feeling the clarion call of the void pulling you towards a long drop to oblivion, it’s probably not worth it.
  • Take the time to find out how the ballet you’re attending is pronounced. For example Giselle isn’t pronounced like chisel and you’ll get some funny looks if you repeatedly get it wrong in front of people who aren’t in the cheap seats.
  • Take some time before you go to read up on the story. Ballet is at best interpretive dance and at worst just people prancing around on a set. What they dance doesn’t give much away of what is actually happening and I’ve yet to decode what a chap jumping up with his arms by his side, scissoring his legs frenetically actually means in the context of story/emotion or anything else.
  • Ensure you find out where all the toilets are and make sure any accompanying children have been toileted three or four times before the ballet starts. The seats are quite closely packed and the amount of tutting that will ensue if you have to get up during part of the performance is astonishing but rest assured, if you do have to go out, you won’t miss anything critical to your understanding of the story; it’ll just be some prancing about and funny jumping, which whilst nice isn’t critical to your enjoyment as the whole thing is made up of prancing about and funny jumping.
  • The ladies doing ballet get to do all the cool stuff and the men look a bit daft. All the chaps get to do is the aforementioned jumpy thing (like a posher form of Riverdance), some long strides and a few lifts. The ladies get to do all the spinning around, graceful jumping and stand with their leading foot at a funny angle.
  • The ballet we saw was around 100 minutes (with an interval in the middle), followed by about 2 hours of applause and bowing, presumably on a pre-agreed rota to give the performers a chance for a cup of tea or a wee, which meant that the troupe had about 45 seconds before they had to do the performance all over again for the next bunch of punters. Try to moderate your applause or your hands will sting and you’ll swear all you can hear is clapping for the rest of the day.

We had a lovely time, even if Ned, 6, asked in a loud whisper at one point when were they going to start talking because he couldn’t work out what was happening. There is also a nice sandwich shop round the corner that’s good for lunch.

Upcoming PS4 update will allow better parental controls

Up until now I don’t doubt that the Xbox ecosystem has been much better than Sony’s Playstation set up when it comes to parental controls for kids using their own profiles. This is however about to change quite dramatically, you can read the full details of this change and all the others, in the following PS blog:

Play Time Management

We’re introducing Play Time Management, which will allow family managers (and adult family members who are set as guardians) to manage PS4 playtime for child family members on family on PSN. Managing Playtime is easy; go to Settings > Family Management on your PS4, or log into your PlayStation account on your web browser from your PC or smartphone, to check and manage your child’s playtime each day. If needed, the family manager/guardians can apply playtime restrictions to make sure that the child is only playing for a set amount of time or within set playable hours. Notifications on PS4 will be sent to the child during gameplay so that he or she knows when they should save and quit. The family managers/guardians also have the option to add extra game time via their smartphone or PC. In addition, the family manager/guardians can choose whether or not to automatically log the child out of their PS4 once their playtime is over.

This is big news for parents, and finally lets us exercise the sort of control over access without it coming down to a fight every single time.

Heck, my most sure fire way of ensuring my eldest gets ready for bed usually involves me messaging him on the PS4 via the Playstation app on my phone, so the addition of another weapon to my arsenal that he can’t actually completely ignore is only a good thing.

The PS4 already has some good age related restrictions but being able to set time limits per day is a real killer function, even though I can see it leading to some tears and arguments. It’s a heck of a lot better than stealing the controllers and hiding them somewhere (and forgetting where you put them)!

MS already have a family timer on the Xbox One, so now I just have to decide the split between the two for the kids…

My life is ruled by batteries

Whether it’s Christmas Day spent putting triple As into toys that will only be used over the Christmas period, my smartphone battery anxiety as I head out for the evening with only 35% charge left, I’m increasingly becoming a slave to batteries. Even my watch needs charging every couple of days for goodness sake.

I’m spending a couple of hours out this morning, going straight from extra maths for the boy to guitar for Fifi. I had my laptop with me, left on to charge overnight, so I could catch up on some email, do some admin and done writing. Except that the wall switch wasn’t turned on so I was faced with 3% battery and a morning off sitting around twiddling on my phone. It’s not the end of the world but it’s a waste of a couple of hours where I can guarantee that I can’t feel guilty about what I should be doing and won’t be interrupted by kids.

Battery technology hasn’t improved inline with other technology. This has led to a lot of technology starting to stagnant in terms of actual processing power as they focus on keeping the power level constant while improving the battery life. I’m a heavy tech user and on a “bad” day I’ll need to charge my phone mid afternoon, despite every mainstream review saying that they get a day easily out of it. The obsession with thin hasn’t helped this; add three or four mm to the thickness of my phone, it’ll make it easier to hold and give me better battery life.

I’ve written this on my smartphone and the one thing it’s taught me is how badly I’ve ruined the predictive text with lazy thumb movement.

Scottish Friendly’s Payday Mayday challenge

I was invited to take part in Scottish Friendly’s Payday Mayday challenge this January. Scottish Friendly is a British financial services group. Their mantra is to make investments more accessible to everyone.

January is a bit of a nightmare month generally, as most of us get paid just before Christmas, spend a good chunk of our salaries on Christmas (and the sales!), before having to survive January on a meagre pittance. It’s small wonder that apparently 44% of of people make a New Year’s resolution to spend less then.

We were challenged with reducing our discretionary spending by 25% (that’s after the mortgage, which is our biggest outgoing and not something we can change as it’s about as cheap as we can go, and other fixed costs!) and although that’s something that sounds daunting, we were up for the challenge.

There’s a bit in Terry Pratchett’s Mort where the titular character has to clean out the stables (it’s a parody of one of the 12 Labours of Hercules, but you probably guessed that), and Mort uses a tried and tested system to break down the task into smaller bits:

“After a while he got into the rhythm of it, and started playing the privet little quantity-surveying game that everyone plays in these circumstances. Let’s see, he thought, I’ve done nearly a quarter, lets call it a third, so when I’ve done that corner by the hay rack it’ll be more than half, call it five-eights, which means three more wheelbarrow loads …. It doesn’t prove anything very much except that the awesome splendour of the universe is much easier to deal with if you think of it as a series of small chunks.”

Rather than baulking at the fact we’ve got to economise by hundreds of pounds, we decided to look at lots of little ways to save a few pounds here and there. So without further ado, here are my top tricks and tips for saving and cutting out that unnecessary spending.

Firstly we took the time to install the Hertfordshire County Library app on our iPads and tablets. Most counties do something like this as part of the library service but they don’t advertise it very well. As you can see the choice of magazines you can borrow is staggering, and given that magazines can cost £5.99 and more each, this has probably saved us over £30 a month on casual magazine purchases. A small step but one that takes us in the right direction.

Secondly, and one that appeals directly to my DIY ethos, we’ve made a pact to ditch all those coffee shop coffees. I got a bean grinder from my parents for Christmas (although if you want to buy one, it’s only the cost of a few Americanos). If you’re addicted to say your Starbucks, you can actually buy the beans in the supermarket (£3.55 for 200g of Starbucks house blend medium Arabica coffee). 50g of beans is enough to make a litre of coffee, so 200g should get you about 4 litres of coffee. A tall coffee is 350ml, and costs £1.95. Your £3.55 of beans can make 11 cups of  “tall” coffee, against the coffee shops price of £21.45. That’s a saving of almost £18 for ever 11 coffees you make at home! If you pick up a coffee every day on the way to work, that’s going to save you about £35 a month per person, and a lot of time queuing!

Encouraged by the fact I can now sip a freshly home-brewed coffee as I walk through the sleet and snow to work, we decided to move on to the other big daily cost, lunch. Neither of us particularly ever made a packed lunch, preferring to grab a meal deal or something that tickles our fancy. That’s £3-£6 each every working day, and that soon adds up over the course of a month- £120-£240 for the pair of us. This is it chaps! The opportunity to save a huge wodge of cash!

Enter Hugh “Fearlessly Eat It All” Fearnley-Whittingstall. A quick look on the River Cottage website showed his DIY pot noodles. They looked absolutely yummy, and about as dirt cheap as you can get to make. Yes, actual Pot Noodles aren’t expensive but they’re not filling either, these DIY ones can be big enough to constitute an actual meal and leave me deciding on a sandwich for tea. Some sliced carrot, spring onions, cabbage, chilli, ginger and (obviously) noodles are we were good to go. The cost was minimal, especially once we’d twigged stopping off at the market on the way home.

That’s three changes we made and we’re already over £300 a month up (and at best £350), without having to ruin the kids (or our) quality of life either!

The biggy that I wasn’t sure I was ready to make though was losing my gym membership. It’s increasingly difficult to go enough to get value for money as the kids have so many clubs and activities they go to. Even though it was our local authority gym and I get a discount through work, making it less than half the price of some of the premium gyms in the area, it was still £40 a month. I’ve made a promise to myself to do the four mile round trip to work on foot and have installed Couch 2 5K on my phone (as well as Runkeeper) and I’ve got my 9 year old daughter training me. It’s a good bit of father daughter time, even if she has to constantly stop to let me catch up!

So there you go, four changes, almost £400 a month saved. The trick will now be keeping up with it, otherwise I’ll have to cancel my sports TV package to make up the difference, and if anyone ever needed an incentive, that would be it!

Own your fears in 2018 with AXA PPP healthcare

A post shared by Alex Walsh (@daddacool) on

AXA PPP healthcare are launching a new campaign called Own Your Fears, looking at the way we can use our fears in a positive way to motivate us to change the way we live for the better. While fear is a natural instinct, we needn’t ‘fear’ fear or let it hold us back. If only there was a way to positively harness these fears and use them as a springboard into something better…

I can vividly reminding lying in my bed at the parents when I was ten or eleven, the realisation that my parents were mortal and one day would die striking me with such force it was almost akin to a physical blow. I’d been on the Junior Four (year six in new money) activity week at Butlins on Barry Island, back in the day when there was a Butlins on Barry Island*, it was the first time I’d been away from home and I missed my mum. When I came home they seemed older than I remembered, and it had me worried.

The only good thing to come out of the Phantom Menace was Yoda’s comments on fear:

Fear is the path to the dark side…fear leads to anger…anger leads to hate…hate leads to suffering

It can control you if you decide to let it.

Lets not.

I might not be ten or eleven now, in fact I’m actually 43 but in a funny way things have come full circle in terms of fear of a loved one dying. I’ve now three children and a lovely wife (or is that three lovely children and a wife? Probably both, just to be on the safe side) and my thoughts have turned more frequently to what would happen to my little family if I suddenly die. Part of this has been precipitated by both our sets of parents getting older, and in the case of my parents, battling illness, part of it by the realisation that my epiphany of mortality that struck me as a child happened at exactly the same age that my eldest is now.

I had a minor health scare myself last year that saw me get a ECG to ensure that the hyper-mobility I’d be diagnosed with hadn’t affected my heart. It hadn’t but there’s nothing like a heart scare to act as a wake up call is there? Every 40 something that works in an office environment, has three children and a wife is probably carrying a few extra pounds- offices are sedentary places, kids drive you to comfort eat and wives cook lovely lovely food- and things like that, along with the advancing years don’t help allay the fear.

I’m lucky in a sense that my family wouldn’t be financially ruined if I passed away tonight. There is enough in life assurance and death in service payouts to ensure that the mortgage would be paid off and my family would have about 5 years worth of my wife’s salary left over. The thing that causes me genuine gut wrenching fear is the idea that my family would be bereaved and have to live without me. That sounds a bit big headed but I found it difficult dealing with the death of my grandparents a few years ago and we weren’t even that close. I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose a parent in your formative years. It certainly never seems to go well in those gritty Channel 4 dramas when that sort of thing happens.

Our littlest wouldn’t have me there to cling to my leg and whimper “I want Dadda” whenever I take him to a party round a friends house that he’s been to hundreds of times. My daughter wouldn’t have me there is give her a cuddle and tell her she’s brilliant when girl playground politics get too much for her. My eldest wouldn’t have someone to nod in (feigned) understanding when he talks incessantly about Warhammer. And my wife would be stuck if the router needed rebooting. Parenting is hard, I find it incredibly difficult at times, and I know I’d struggle without my awesome wife there, so I sort of figure that more or less the reverse is probably true (it might not be, she does make it look easy at times).

I have a choice, I can comfort eat my way through this fear, putting it to the back of my mind and having another bacon and egg muffin, or a I can face it, use it to motivate and empower myself and make a difference. People, it’s time to make a difference.

It’s too easy to make New Year Resolutions and then watch fatalistically as they slide when real life gets in the way. Besides, my kids aren’t going to feel safer if I tell them I’ve been out running a bit and my lower back aches as a result. No, to do this properly I’m going to have to enlist my family to help, give them joint ownership of Project Me, and trust that they can help me see this through. After all, we’re all in this together aren’t we?

I’m aiming to get fit and involve my family in getting me fit. I might exceed the weight limit for the mini trampoline we’ve got by a third (75KG maximum!) but that doesn’t stop me putting Eye of the Tiger on and doing my own training montage of press ups, sit ups and running on the spot, with one or more children either joining in or shouting encouragement (or insults). Nobody is immortal but being fit can help me live longer with a better quality of life.

I’m lucky of course that it’s fairly easy once you get over the initial hurdle of embracing it, to tackle a rational fear like your own mortality. Irrational fears are harder to tackle but AXA PPP healthcare can help you there too, as articles like this one on resilience show.

As I begin my journey, inspired by AXA PPP healthcare, they’re going to provide resources, like their Own Your Fears microsite, and support to me, to top up what my family can do. Together we can ensure that my kids won’t have to face the same worries about their parents dying that I faced, and I can harness the positive aspects of the fear of leaving them all to fend for themselves in the big mean world…

 

*it actually closed after Christmas that very year. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.

Hori ONYX Bluetooth Wireless Controller for PlayStation 4

I love my PS4. I also love my Xbox One. I don’t really love the Dual Shock 4 controller though, the thumb sticks are in the wrong place for me and the overall ergonomics of the pad sometimes suggest to me I’m not doing as well as I might. I have no such issue with the Xbox One controller (any iteration of it), so when I saw that Hori had an officially licensed controller due out with what they helpfully refer to as “Offset Analogue Stick Layout”, I was excited.

Offset Analogue Stick Layout is another way of saying, hey! We’ve copied the thing that makes the Xbox One controller better!

I have several cross platform games on both the Xbox One and the PS4 (I have the X version of the Xbox One and the Pro version of the PS4 if you’re interested), and in some games, Star Wars Battlefront, Geometry Wars Evolved and Ultratron being the three that spring immediately to mind, I find them much easier to play on the Xbox One as the left analogue stick, usually the one used for movement, is situated slightly higher on the controller. View Full Post

Review: Spendor the board game

We had busy Christmas with a bumper delivery from the Board Game Club comprising of Splendor and Catan. We had fun with both over Christmas but today I’m going to run you through Splendor because who doesn’t love a bit of the Renaissance (even if the spelling is lacking in a “u”)!

Splendor is a card/token/resource building game played without a board (don’t know why I referred to it as a board game in the title, perhaps I didn’t want people to confuse it with an artificial sweetener) for two to four players. The instructions are almost entirely written for blokes like me in so far as they only take up about two and a half pages of paper. This is my cup of tea because I get very confused by instructions (just ask my wife).

The instructions say the game plays best with three players but we spent an evening playing it quite happily with two players. It takes a bit of time to get going but once you’re into the swing of the game, it speeds by- games last on average about half an hour.

The aim of the game is to collect 15 prestige points to impress the nobles. You do this by collecting tokens, trading them for development cards, which you can use to subsidise the purchase of further development cards. There are 6 different sort of tokens, and each development card has a different purchase price on it. To further add to the decision making process, some development cards don’t have prestige points on them. The strategy comes from deciding whether to forgo purchasing a card with prestige points on it for something cheaper that might aid you getting something better the next turn. There may very well be cards out to buy that will cost you more than the total number of coloured tokens available- this is where purchasing a cheaper level one development card with the right colour will help.

That might all sound complicated but it really isn’t, and it only took us a single solitary run through to get the hang of it.

The 30 minute game time means you can fit a game of Splendor into the smallest nook of spare time imaginable. Since it’s card based it doesn’t take much setting up and out of all the games we’ve had from the Board Game Club so far this is probably the one we’ve returned to the most.

Although the game is themed around the Renaissance, the mechanics of the game would work pretty well with anything right up to space trading. Now there’s an idea!

Splendor retails for £24.99, and is available from all good retailers, Amazon included.

Digging behind Star Wars Battlefront’s PEGI rating

I’ve always loved (most of) the Star Wars movies. The prequel trilogy don’t count but the new films are pretty good and our kids seem to agree, they’re all big Star Wars fans too.

EA have the video game rights tied up and the visuals that a big budget studio can create are stunning, as this mash up of the speeder bike chase from Return of the Jedi with the actual game shows:

Although the movies have strayed into 12A terrotry with The Last Jedi, overall (running from Phantom Menace to Last Jedi), the ratings run like this: U, PG, 12, U, U, U, 12, 12A, which shows that the films are pretty family friendly. I love how the original trilogy are all U certificate, despite the arm severing, smoking skeletons, hands being chopped of and so on. Kids in the 80’s could deal with that sort of thing.

Star Wars Battlefront 1 & 2 are both PEGI 16. PEGI is the Pan-European Game Information age rating system, it aims to give consistent ratings to video games much like the BBFC does for films. Rating a game significantly higher than any of the movies it’s tied in to is an odd decision. Especially when the game doesn’t contain any blood or gore. You shoot people with blasters and use lightsabres. View Full Post