Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Kickstart some dinosaur board games

I enjoy board games. I enjoy dinosaurs. Sadly, the two don’t come together as often as you think they would. Three new projects seek to rectify this situation.

First up isn’t a board game but a 15mm miniatures line for gamers who love “lost world” and Indiana Jones-type adventures. The Adventures in the Lost Lands miniatures line features a few of the most popular species of dinosaurs as well as some humans in steampunk and pulp-gear clothing, including a very familiar figure with a bullwhip. There are only five days left in the campaign at the time of this post (Nov. 19), so if you want to support it, better hurry. Kickstarter link.

The next two projects make the mistake of confusing archaeology with paleontology, but I’ll let that slide. The board game In a World of Dinosaurs is unique in that it features two boards, one representing the prehistoric past and the other the modern day. Players kill off dinosaurs on the prehistoric board so their teams of paleontologists can dig up the fossils in the modern day. It is not a serious take on the subject, as paleontologists can also find precious artifacts or face dangers such as man-eating plants. But I admit this is the game I most want to see funded as this point. Kickstarter link.

Last but not least we have Artifacts, Inc., a card-and-dice game in which players are rival teams of archaeologists/paleontologists seeking artifacts and fossils in 1929. It is designed by Ryan Laukat, who already has some hits in his belt, such as Eight-Minute Empire. The art on the cards is especially nice. Backers of this project probably won’t see it until late next year, but in the meantime, they can download a print-and-play version of the game. Kickstarter link. 

But wait! There is one more game worth mentioning! I missed its Kickstarter campaign but it is now out in stores. Evolution is a card game in which players “evolve” strange species that they use to gain points and attack other players' species. It is getting good reviews and the art is drop-dead gorgeous. Boardgamegeek link

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Coming next year: The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milan

Do you like Game of Thrones? How about Jurassic Park? If you said “yes” to both, boy, do I have news for you.

First, a bit of housekeeping: Been a while since my last post. I ended up moving over the summer and news about paleofiction is sparse. But I’ve settled down now, and the release of Jurassic World next summer means we’ll see more dinosaur-related news items in coming months as publishers try to profit from the accompanying dino-craze that will likely follow. (More on that in a later post.)

And that leads us to The Dinosaur Lords, which will be released in July, or about a month after Jurassic World comes out. This first novel by Victor Milan is set in a fantasy world where knights ride and joust on dinosaurs. The cover even boasts a blurb by Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin: “It’s like a cross between Games of Thrones and Jurassic Park.” Okay, that’s not so much an endorsement as a description, but I doubt most people will see past Martin’s name.

Here’s the blurb from the publisher, Tor:

A world made by the Eight Creators on which to play out their games of passion and power, Paradise is a sprawling, diverse, often brutal place. Men and women live on Paradise as do dogs, cats, ferrets, goats, and horses. But dinosaurs predominate: wildlife, monsters, beasts of burden – and of war. Colossal planteaters like Brachiosaurus; terrifying meateaters like Allosaurus and the most feared of all, Tyrannosaurus rex. Giant lizards swim warm seas. Birds (some with teeth) share the sky with flying reptiles that range in size from batsized insectivores to majestic and deadly Dragons.

Thus we are plunged into Victor Mil├ín's splendidly weird world of The Dinosaur Lords, a place that for all purposes mirrors 14th century Europe with its dynastic rivalries, religious wars, and byzantine politics…and the weapons of choice are dinosaurs. Where we have vast armies of dinosaur-mounted knights engaged in battle. And during the course of one of these epic battles, the enigmatic mercenary Dinosaur Lord Karyl Bogomirsky is defeated through betrayal and left for dead. He wakes, naked, wounded, partially amnesiac – and hunted. And embarks upon a journey that will shake his world.

The Dinosaur Lords is being pitched as the opening chapter in a new epic fantasy series. It is not the first fantasy novel to feature dinosaurs. In the Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting of Eberon, dinosaurs are used as beasts of burden by Hobbits (in this case called “Halfings” to avoid getting sued by the Tolkien estate). They also can be found in D&D’s Forgotten Realms, paying an important role in at least one Dungeons & Dragons novel—The Ring of Winter.

I’m looking forward to The Dinosaur Lords, even if I find the premise a little gimmicky. Hopefully it won’t be the only work of paleofiction put out by a major publisher in conjunction with Jurassic World.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Danger: Dinosaurs! by Evan Hunter (1953)

Cover blurb

Owen Spencer would never have agreed to lead the time-slip expedition back to the Jurassic period - the Age of Reptiles - had he foreseen the terrifying experiences in store for the small group making the expedition. Chartering the expedition was Dirk Masterson, a treacherous big game hunter, whose alleged purpose was to take pictures of the enormous reptiles that roamed Jurassic times. Even when Masterson smashed the jeep into the force field, destroying the only protection that stood between the group and the lumbering beasts, Owen could not be sure it was an accident.

Evan Hunter has written a fast-moving tale of people stranded on earth in its infancy and forced to pit their ingenuity and strength against mammoth reptiles. It might not have been so bad if Masterson, with his mania for big game hunting had not continued to shoot at every reptile he spotted. But his madman tactics repeatedly aroused the fury of the hideous dinosaurs, whose attacks drove the farther and farther away from the relay area that would slip them back to the present when the week was up.

The weird circumstances that made Owen's brother, Chuck, take over the leadership of the expedition and the even stranger adjustment of the time stream that left the party with the inexplicable feeling that somebody was missing makes DANGER: DINOSAURS! an unusual and fascinating treatment of the ever-provocative time theme. The desperate search for the relay area, interrupted by fierce fights with flesh-eating monsters, and an earthquake that creates a chaos of stampeding animals give this story action that is as alien as any distant planet.

DANGER: DINOSAURS! is a juvenile science fiction novel, published first in 1953 as one of the books in the Winston Science Fiction series. The author, Evan Hunter, had a very successful writing career. He was also prolific and used a number of pen names. As Hunter, he wrote THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, a novel dealing with juvenile crime and the New York City public school system. It and the 1955 movie based on the book were highly acclaimed. He also had a successful screenwriting career, producing scripts for movies and TV, including the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's film THE BIRDS (1963). However, he is probably best known for the crime fiction he wrote using the pen name Ed McBain. His 87th Precinct series is often credited with inventing the "police procedural" genre of crime fiction. The books were turned into a number of movies and TV series.

*Blurb and cover art from the 2014 digital edition.

My thoughts

I’ve dredged up a lot of turkeys in my hunt for obscure paleofiction over the years, so I admittedly didn’t have much hope for Danger: Dinosaurs! when I downloaded the e-book version from Most science fiction novels that have been forgotten became that way for good reason. But it turned out I was in for a bit of a shock: While not a great novel, Danger: Dinosaurs! is a surprisingly good read with some well-researched dinosaur action.

The novel begins with our protagonist, Chuck Spencer, eagerly awaiting the return of his brother, Owen, a guide who leads tourists on photo safaris to the Mesozoic Era. Chuck is to accompany his brother on his next trip – a jaunt back to the Jurassic Period. The client is one Dirk Masterson, a rich blowhard who thinks his wealth gives him the authority to boss anyone around. Journeys to the Jurassic are usually dangerous affairs, but Owen is bringing with him a force field that will keep the dinosaurs out. However, once the time travelers arrive at their destination, Masterson drives a jeep into the force field, shorting it out. To make matters worse, Masterson then reveals he has smuggled in firearms so he can hunt dinosaurs, which is illegal. Chuck and Owen have no choice but to accompany Masterson, who pushes the party further and further away from the point where they need to be in a week’s time to return to future Earth.

The first thing to strike me about Danger: Dinosaurs! was how much research the author put into the book in order to make sure he got his dinosaur science right. While both earlier and later authors would mix creatures from various time periods in the same setting, Hunter’s dinosaurs are pretty much the ones you would expect to see in the Jurassic. His characters also delve into lectures about the Mesozoic that accurately reflect scientific thinking at the time the book was written. And while the dinosaurs themselves are described as dim-witted, they show reasonably complex behaviors, such as herding. Also, Hunter’s descriptions of the Jurassic environment at times border on poetic, with the author avoiding common mistakes made by other writers, like populating their settings with grass. Too bad the same can’t be said about Hunter’s take on the nature of time, which will leave readers scratching their heads once it becomes a central point in the plot. (To say anything more would spoil one of the novel’s most dramatic scenes.)

The story itself is appropriately action-packed with some scenes of real tension. That said, the characters could be better written. At times they make mistakes so easily avoided that it is obvious the author only had them behave in a certain way so he could advance the story. The villains’ motivations, once revealed, don’t make a lot of sense. Also, Hunter’s physical descriptions of a black man who accompanies the team are far from politically correct by today’s standards, although it should be noted the character in question turns out not only to be a hero, but a vehicle the author uses to critique racial attitudes of the era in which the book was written. Sadly the author’s modern views don’t extend to the novel’s sole female character, who we are told can’t handle the rigors of the prehistoric environment because she is just a “girl.”

Flaws aside, Danger: Dinosaurs! remains a fun little read that might surprise you on how well it has aged. The book is definitely worth your time if you’re a fan of paleofiction.

  • As stated in the cover blurb, Evan Hunter actually is a famous author better known for his crime stories written under the pen name Ed McBain. He also penned the screenplay for one of the most famous man vs. dinosaur films of all time, The Birds.
  • Danger: Dinosaurs! is one of several golden age science fiction novels recently reissued by Thunderchild Publishing.
  • Hunter wrote Danger: Dinosaurs! under the pen name of Richard Marsten.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Chronos Commandos: Dawn Patrol by Titan Comics (2013-14)

Cover blurb

When the Allies and Nazis develop time-diving technology that could see the Second World War derailed by creatures from the Cretaceous, only the Sarge and his hand of misfit soldiers can save the future – by saving history! Dinosaurs! Giant crocodiles! Albert Einstein with a machine gun! All that barely scratches the surface of the first issue of this astounding, fully-painted pulp spectacular!

* Blurb from the first issue of the five-issue miniseries.

My thoughts

Chronos Commandos starts with a time machine materializing in the Mesozoic. Out from it pour four U.S. soldiers in World War II uniforms. They are led by Sarge, a cigar-chomping macho man who just wants to complete the mission so he can return home and grab a coffee. After some gory encounters with dinosaurs and time-traveling Nazis, Sarge is the only one left out of his squad. He hops in the time machine and travels back to the future only to find his base under attack by Nazis. It turns out the Germans have stolen a vital piece of time travel technology and have fled with it to the Age of Dinosaurs. It is up to Sarge and a small squad of men to travel back in time and recover the tech or risk losing the war.

Chronos Commandos is a tough comic to review because its creators purposely set a low bar for themselves: It is meant as nothing more than a brainless tribute to the pulp comics of yesteryear, in particular The War That Time Forgot. Taking the comic too seriously would be a mistake. That said, there are some flaws that diminished my enjoyment of the title. First is the main character, Sarge, who is supposed to be a tough guy but instead comes across as a jerk more interested in his own preservation than the safety of the men he leads. Another problem is the depiction of the Cretaceous, with the creators mixing and matching dinosaurs from different eras in the setting. I know it is a bit silly to demand scientific rigor from a pulp comic, but I would have liked to seen a broader range of dinosaurs than your standard raptors, T. rexes, and stegosaurs. As for the art, it is serviceable – it does its job but is nothing to write home about.

My verdict of Chronos Commandos is a resounding “meh.” The comic wasn’t a complete waste of my time, but I wish its creators had been more ambitious. There is nothing wrong with B-grade entertainment, but that’s not an excuse not to shoot for something a little grander.

  • Chronos Commandos was not the only dinosaurs vs. Nazis comic series released in 2013: The year also saw the debut of Half-Past Danger.