It’s Just a Ride. My Bill Hicks Tribute

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In 1992, I had just come out of drama school and was on the audition trail, hoping to land my first job as an actor. If I remember rightly, it was a hot summer and I was living in a first-floor flat in Shepherd’s Bush.

At that time, my friends all lived within walking distance; we’d all been at the same college and where we lived was dictated by geography and convenience, rather than choice. But, for me, it was something of a Golden Time: London seemed full of promise and I had my buddies close to hand.

Eating Eggs and Edinburgh

One evening, I got home from a mate’s party, a little the worse for wear. It was late, but still warm enough to warrant chucking all the windows open to let some air and traffic fumes in. And I was hungry; that kind of boozy hungry that won’t let you sleep until you’ve sorted it out. I remember ransacking the kitchen cupboards to find that all I had were some eggs. I boiled them and sat in front of the late-night telly, looking like a slightly dissolute Popeye Doyle.

There was a programme on the box; Live from the Edinburgh Fringe or something like that. Anyhow, a compere in some dark and crowded venue introduced an American comic, called Bill Hicks.

Beyond the Swearing and the Smoke

Now, much as I love laughing, I’m one of those that doesn’t really do it on their own. If something’s going to make me laugh when I’m on my own, it’s got to be really funny.

Hicks was really funny. But he was dangerous, too. Up until then, my comedy heroes were pretty old school, like Tommy Cooper, Frankie Howerd, Morecambe and Wise and the much-maligned Ken Dodd. They told gags that made you marvel at their word-play or timing. They were light inoffensive jokes that made you feel better about life and appreciate its silliness.

But Hicks was different. He presented this persona of a dark force at work, like a chain-smoking, swearing demon, looking get out to the surface and destroy everything. But, beyond the swearing and the smoke was a beautiful message and intelligent thought. Even in my boozy state, I picked up on it; there was something about this guy I’d never seen before.

After he’d done his set, I turned the TV of and did something I’d never done before: I wrote his name down and put it on the noticeboard in the kitchen.

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Dangerous

A few months later, I was walking through Earl’s Court and saw a hoarding, advertising Bill Hicks and the Dangerous Tour – and I remembered who he was, so I rang the Dominion Theatre and booked two tickets: one for me and one for the girl I was seeing at the time.

One chilly night in November, we went to go and see Bill Hicks – and it changed the way I looked at comedy.

There’s been a lot of argument as to whether he was actually a comic or a prophet or a political agitator, but all I know is that I laughed hard and came away feeling energised and enlightened. Hicks is one of those comedians that makes you think about the world around you. And, while he rants a lot, there is this underlying, beautiful – perhaps slightly idealistic or romantic – message that, once you’ve heard it, you want everyone else to hear. It’s almost messianic – but you’ve got to listen past the swearing and the taboo references.

Spreading the Word

A few months after that, I was in HMV on Oxford Street, buying a Bill Hicks CD for a mate’s birthday. I picked it up and looked at it, reading the reviews on the back, like you do. I looked up and, further down the aisle, was a shop assistant. He looked at what I was holding and just said one word:

“Hicks?”

I nodded. He smiled and put a thumb up. It’s all that was needed.

If I’m waxing a bit too lyrical about Bill Hicks, it’s still not enough to convey just what esteem I hold this guy and his work in. I still speak to mates about him, whenever there’s a political scandal or a new, manufactured pop act hits the charts. And one of us always says “Where’s Bill? We could really use him, here, right now.” Or “Where’s Bill? He’d have a field day over this one.”

Where is Bill?

If you don’t know, he died 20 years ago, this very day. I remember finding out and, although I never knew or met the guy, I felt something of a loss.

Revelations

About a year after seeing the Dangerous Tour, I was doing a showbiz job in North Wales. One Sunday, I was reading the paper and saw an advert for Bill Hicks: The Revelations Tour. I checked the dates, but I couldn’t go as every one of his shows clashed with the ones I was doing. But, like I said, once you know Bill, you want to spread the word.

I rang my mate, Miserable Jim, in London. Miserable Jim was the most tight-fisted person I’d ever met; tighter than two coats of paint. So, I told him to buy two tickets to this tour and, if he didn’t like it, I’d give him his money back. I’ve never been asked for it.

If you’ve never heard Hicks, then I sort of envy you: you get to go through that thing that I did 22 years ago: that feeling that someone’s unlocked something inside you and that we are all as important as each other. Yes, it’s sweary, yes, he smokes – but you’re in for the ride of a lifetime.

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Gametesting a Geeky Game

Anyone who’s read my books will know that I love my RPGs and I have more than a soft-spot for war-gaming. I love the release from the Real World and, perhaps more, the fabulous interaction that can only take place between people when they’re committing to game-play.

I was born a little too late to get into the card games that followed – the Pokemons, Yu-Gi-Ohs and the Magics of this world – although I did manage to get myself together for the Talisman game that was released in the ‘80’s.

However, since having a son, Hugh, I’ve now been reintroduced to card-based fantasy games and, being an old gamer, have thrown myself in the deep-end. I think the first one we really got to grips with was Munchkin, which was swiftly followed by things like the Warhammer games and the inevitable Top Trumps. With card games being such a staple of our time together, I was more than delighted to play-test Oddball Aeronauts with Hugh and his chum, Max – both of whom are 10 years old.

The Artwork

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It was one autumn afternoon when I produced the cards and the rules and we settled down to play, around the coffee-table. Funnily enough, both the boys reacted in the same way I did to seeing the cards; the first thing they wanted to do was check out the artwork – and I’m pleased to report that the artwork is superb. It’s a bit hard to categorise; you might say it’s Steampunk, you might detect a drop of Manga in there and you might be tempted to pin a Fantasy badge on it. I think it’s all those things and a little bit more; the Crew, Weapons, monsters and Events are all beautifully realised in crisp, clean illustration that leave you in no doubt as to who’s who. For my two play-testing chums, it sparked some cheerful conversation about back-stories and characters. If there were ever a bunch of cards that have the potential to be given their own comic-strips, then you’ll find them in Oddball Aeronauts.

In fact, I’m quietly hoping that the designers take this as a hint and get their pens out.

Gameplay

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The game itself is fast and easy to play. Without giving too much away, you play the captain and crew of an air-faring vessel and attempt to blow anyone who gets in your way to smithereens. However, just to spice things up, there are Event cards thrown into the mix; cards that can produce an unexpected situation than can affect all the players and scupper even the most tactical plans.

Rounds are nicely ordered, so that you always know whose turn it is to do what. Using Skill Cards, you can opt to do all sorts of swashbuckley things, such as Sail, use or your Guns or Board an enemy vessel and have at the swabs that stand between you and victory. But the features that provided the most air-pumping and cries of ‘Yesss!’ were the Tricks. These are just what you think they are: bonuses that give you the upper-hand, in an underhand fashion. Playing a Trick can be used to augment your Skill Bonus in attacks, defence or, if you’re feeling a bit lily-livered, getting away. For our game, it became a good excuse to backstab anyone who looked like they were doing a bit better than you.

It’s worth remembering that I’m a 43 year-old man, who was playing Oddball Aeronauts with two 10 year-old; we all picked up the rules pretty quickly and, as is the case with the best games, we found that the best way to get familiar with them was to learn by playing.

Off-the-cuff Gaming and Extra Fluff

I think our first game lasted about half an hour and the following two were even faster. Oddball Aeronauts is perfect for off-the-cuff gaming or if you’re looking for a game to get your dander up, without having to roll dice and follow lengthy plots. It’s fast and furious and the closest you’ll get to swashing your buckle without getting arrested! The other eminently-practical thing about this game is that it’s not played on a surface; you all sit round like air-faring gamblers, fanning your cards out, but keeping them close to your chest, meaning you can pretty much play anywhere.

If there’s anything I’d like to see more of, it’s a bit more ‘fluff’. Because the artwork is so superb, I wanted to know a bit more about the characters and the world they inhabit – but that could just be the RPG fan in me. However, if there is the chance for a supporting comic or some extra background material – I’d love to see it.

Oddball Aeronauts is one of those rare games that does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s fun, fast and easy to play, without all those arguments over rules that seem to dominate other games of this sort.

I think it’s fair to say that I’m a fan!

The first print-run is being funded on Kickstarter – click here for the link