Fixed series, Linda Grimes

So here’s the plot of the one book in this series I read: the main character has a pregnancy scare, but it could be due to her magical powers, so she puts off taking a test. Afer the funeral of a murdered relative, she has to make all these excuses for why she can’t drink anymore, then more to her mom at home for why she isn’t guzzling coffee.

After beating up a guy trying to kidnap her, her boyfriend finally helps her take a test. It’s positive and he freaks out and runs. Then she stays with her mom after bad guys kill another relative and burn down her apartment, and there are all these cats from a third murdered relative.

Later she gets blood all over herself from killing a bad-guy, so the other man who might be the father of her baby takes her home and lets her wear his clothes. She tells him about the baby, and he’s excited about being a dad, and they bang.

But then she finds out her boyfriend only freaked because of a dark secret about his own mom. He asks to marry her, even after they find out she’s not really pregnant, and they almost have a courtroom marriage with their new bodyguards as witnesses (the first bodyguard was lost in another bad guy attack.)

Then they both get kidnapped by a different guy who’s kids are being held by the Mob, so they use their magical powers to rescue the kids and catch those badguys. Back at home, Mom has even more cats from murdered aunts. Then her boyfriend proves she can count on him, by helping capture the main bad guy. Finally, she and the other guy who wanted to marry her agree to stay friends. The End.

As you may have figured out, this is just a straight Romance novel. What should have given it away for me was the traditional romance cover: woman in front, two male models flanking, both a little too close to her. The publisher is TOR, which doesn’t have a specific romance division.

What’s interesting is how a Romance author decided to borrow from Urban Fantasy Detective. The secret world part is that some people can shape change, but only into people they’ve met. But, the ability to copy a particular person is an Aura, and you can show an Aura you know to another shape-changer. Even that tiny amount of detail is still more than Romances need. I think it’s touching.

Dresden series, Jim Butcher

The Harry Dresden series is a neat counter-example of why it’s the urban fantasy female detective romance genre. He starts out the same as the women: a broke wizard/detective who protects humans from monsters. Along with werewolves and necromancers we get three crazed sub-types of vampires (blood, sex, and, uh, torture?). The whole fairy world thing has plenty of detail, plus demons and so on.

Then onto the story. He’s a junior member of the Wizards’ Council and resents it. Hmmm…a female character would have fought for that bit of recognition and ability to contribute. The stories focus much more on the main baddie: Harry doesn’t visit his mom, check out his sister’s possibly seedy new boyfriend (he has no family), or find a clue while searching for a spaghetti recipe in an ill-fated attempt to cook for a new love interest. In fact, he doesn’t worry about maintaining his friendships and normal life since he has neither. He’s more of a traditional burnt-out gumshoe. Back to the friends, he doesn’t even get out much to talk to contacts for info. There’s a magic skull in his basement for that.

His main problem solving skill is blasting things with magic. He has both kinds — fire bolts and force bolts. That’s his defining character trait (Harry Dresden — as in the city that was famously firebombed at the end of WWII — and he’s a fire mage. Tasteless, but makes its point) Otherwise he rushes towards the most obvious clue and is easily distracted by anything shape-changed into a curvy body (of which there are lots). Like all true men, his magic is powered by rage. Sure, female detectives experience rage but it makes them do something unlady-like — not merely punch harder.

All-in-all it’s a huge difference. The Dresden series is about a stereotypical schluby male. It’s mostly an action series. Nothing wrong with that. The author sure goes all-out to develop the secret world and to follow up in future books. But it makes you realize how much the “real” UFDR genre is about how women can fight monsters as well as men while being true to 3rd wave feminism.

Agent of Hel series, Jacqueline Carey

The backstory for the Agent of Hel series is that Niflheim, home of Helheim and the underworld ice-goddess Hel and her dog Fenrir, also popular in 1980’s Marvel comics, is now in Wisconsin. A big chunk of the North country is Hel’s territory as far as secret magical things go. Newly chosen to represent Hel is a sweet, charming 20-something woman who doesn’t really understand her job. She’s supposed to resolve disputes and in general make sure nothing supernatural bothers Hel. Despite this all being Norse myth, we get the usual hodge-podge of non-Norse monsters.

As you’d guess, she’s bad with boyfriends and extremely insecure, especially that she’s just faking her new adulthood. She doesn’t really have any powers except for her “Agent of Hel” badge, but is secretly a half-demon (Norse mythology doesn’t have demons, but whatever.) The town is pretty much Stars Hollow from Gilmore Girls. Lots of friendly people, many of whom know magic and are glad to help; or brew tea; or just talk since everyone knows everyone else.

We get a lovely minor plot involving a misunderstood “Monsters Inc” type creature which is supposed to be harmlessly frightening kids. We get another which takes lots of careful listening to witnesses, help from her friends, and having to trust a guy with whom her relationship may be going too fast. The main plot gets violent near the end — big rockets, mercenaries, and an exploding giant monster — but it’s really the result of an argument between the bad guy (the bad woman, it turns out) and her husband, which our heroine helps smooth out.

Something that snuck up on me: Hel has given her a unique magical relic dagger. She just tucks it away. Much later, she realizes it’s meant to be flashed like a badge. It never occurs to her that she could, you know, stab people with it, since violence never solved anything.

Devious Dr. Jekyll, Viola Carr

This is another steampunk mashup in a “League of Extraordinary Gentleman” vein. The heroine is a free-lance police investigator who sometimes changes into her alternate aggressive form because her father is “Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and she inherited it. Changing shape instantly heals her, but her “Miss Hyde” form is extremely impulsive and constantly second-guesses herself.

Besides Dr. Jekyll, this swings for the fences in mash-ups. Jack the Ripper is in love with her; real-life computer pioneer Ada Lovelace is a robot who runs the secrete police along with an immortal Sir Isaac Newton. Her boyfriend is merely a werewolf secret policeman. Bad guy #1 is “A Picture of Dorian Grey”, while future bad guy#2 is an evil version of reclusive government mastermind Mycroft Holmes.

The plot follows the rules pretty well: lots of personal problems, some are clues; stupidly impulsive behavior which sometimes advances the plot; romance which also advances the plot; worries about money. She even gets to attempt to reconcile with her partly estranged father.

Clockwork Wolf, Lynn Viehl

This one is a little too Romancey – two men are fighting over her the entire book – but otherwise it hits the bizarre secret world mash-up elements extra hard, including a SteamPunk setting.

The heroine is a female detective in Victorian London trying to make a name for herself, but insecure about being a commoner. And, of course, far too impulsive. She’s human but somehow immune to magic, and heals very quickly. Later it’s teased she may be part fairy creature. She can get advice from an all-powerful ghost wizard who haunts her, or have devices made by her (non-ghost) genius SteamPunk engineer friend.

Romance-wise, a powerful (also non-ghost) wizard is in love with her, along with her childhood friend who is now a police chief (in other words, her beaus are a rich noble and a brawny working man). She sleeps with the policeman to try to cure him of robotic were-wolfism (an old folk remedy?), but seems to prefer the sexy wizard.

The bad guy is a masterpiece of crazy mash-up: an (1)Ancient Evil banished by (2)Celtic shamen, who is trying to (3)impregnate women with demon babies using (4)robot (5)werewolfs recruited from a (6)secret nobility sex club. Take a moment to think how this begins. You’re correct if you said “she’s called in to investigate women being molested by robot werewolves”.

SteamPunk tends to handle female characters in 2 ways. One is having them smarter and stronger than any man. Yawn. The other is what this book does: she’s told what women can’t do at every turn, is treated like a fragile flower, but does all she can within those confines, including a few things a Victorian man couldn’t get away with. If you like clever oppressed women, this has got it.

Seanan McGuire, Cryptid series

I saw Seanan McGuire at a convention. She was in full “act like a fabulous author GoH” mode, and could not stop giggling about exploding hawiian rats and the tapeworm she ate on purpose. So, she doesn’t take herself all that seriously, which is the right attitude for her books.

The world starts as the standard “every mythical creature you’ve even heard of is real”. The twist is that the secret society keeping humans safe succeeded hundreds of years ago and are now killing harmless, even useful beasties (cyptids). Our heroine is from a break-away family devoted to the study and preservation of supernatural ecology, and hunted by the now-evil monster-killing group.

The rest of the twist is inventing crazy creatures – talking mice (that’s all they do) and dragon princesses which look human, breed asexually, live in groups and single-mindedly collect gold by working regular jobs, then buying the gold.

Personality-wise, our heroine fails to be insecure or mousy — rather the opposite — but she’s got money problems and has trouble meeting guys since she works so much: protecting the harmless monsters of New York; a waitress in a non-human topless club; and a contestant on “So you think you can dance.” That feels sufficiently weird to make up for her being 100% human with no special powers. But she’s trained in ninja skills since birth to where she spider-mans (parkours) everywhere over rooftops, and her famous renegade family name is like a magic spell to make monsters cooperate.

The plot is a fine sprawl of mostly personal problems mixed in with the adventure: she has to help her telepathic non-human sister; the guy from the evil monster hunters is in town, and he is smoking hot; and humans mutated into lizard-men are using monster blood to power a world-blasting magic spell. What really puts this over as an urban fantasy female detective book is the big baddie: he turns out to be friendly. The evil lizards were worshiping him, but also keeping him sedated. A little friendly conversation, which no man would have considered, solves the crisis.

The rest of the series gives us more books with this character, but then we get more family members. There’s her roller-derby younger sister, and then her brother. He’s a non-violent researcher, clumsy around women, with strong female role models — but he’s still written as a guy, blundering through his book as a big, dumb ape, occasionally listening to his girlfriend who’s the brains of the operation.


Short descriptions of interesting features of some clash-likes:

  • LegendBorne: You need to “rescue” your troops. Suppose you unlock vampire bats. That’s nice, but you can’t train any until you “rescue” bats, by beating certain special bases. That’s fun at first, but pretty soon you max out and it’s done. Has 2 sides — good and evil — with different troops and leaders. This was before we realized how much extra work that was, that never pays off.
  • Compass Point: West: Beautiful old-western-style art and sound. Boom-Beach-style map (including computer bases and special missions: train and cow rescues). Unique buildings for your town. The troop selection is based on poker-cards you slowly acquire, then merge to make stronger versions. That gives big spenders a definite advantage, since the stronger versions cost the same points.
  • Titan Empires: Original features: impassable river squares (with a check so you can’t surround anything); a complicated clan war map (each enemy clan base has a point value and sometimes a bonus); clan-mate’s can reinforce one of your buildings for a day. Made in Wisconsin. Invented having a wide selection of heroes (like an ogre who’s special ability is making one big jump) with gambling chests for extra gear.
  • Space Miner Wars: Attacks are flying one fully controlled Asteroids-style spaceship, while their base sprays bullets. But the rest is standard clash-like (town hall, upgrades, storages, builders… ).
  • Dawn Of Steel: Another non-clash offense: 3-4 fully controllable robots, each with a special ability. Bases have monster-spawning defenses (mini-robot factories). Monetizes by selling you special robot weapons at each level for a few bucks. At first players were randomly given different entrance patterns for their bases (2 small gaps or 1 larger one). But everyone complained until they added the option to switch.
  • StarWars:Commander: Play as Rebel or Empire (everyone plays Empire) with very different forces. The big innovation is you get generic defensive towers and can put any weapon in them. Weapons get bonuses against troop types so you get to guess which army you fear most. Damage is low and troops are slow, so attacks need to worry about the time limit.
  • Samurai Seige: One of the first Clash of Clans imitators. Samurai-themed, sillier, more events and specials (I suspect this game convinced Clash of Clans to start adding events).
  • Lords and Castles: medieval-themed old-style clash-copy. Adds terrain elevation — troops walk slower uphill and weapons fire further downhill. Fun, but too much work. Uses the new “post-style” walls. Research is a tech-tree, which also unlocks things like “+25 walls”. Rare Heroes come from Gambling chests. For no reason, the heroes are historical politicians: Abraham Lincoln can duke it out with Catherine the Great or Gandhi. With no joke intended, US leader Trump’s ability is to strengthen walls.
  • SeigeFall: Boom Beach style area map. Attacks have a fully controllable hero and squads of troops. As you destroy buildings, you get points to summon more troops. Spells are from a pre-done semi-random card-draw (you get lots of so-so spells, which you may as well use). Walls come in just a few long sections. Weekly computer-controlled base quests.
  • Royal Revolt: Defense is a real tower-defense — you create a path lined with upgradable defensive towers and barriers, with waves of selectable troops. Attacking is a fully controllable hero, with squads of troops summoned through a refilling energy bar. Nice selection, and pretty fun. Strong pay-to-win component — several ways to spend gems during an attack (for example, you have a spell that costs gems to cast).
  • OlympusRising: Greek-themed copy of RoyalRevolt (made by the same company.)
  • Dungeon Keeper: place upgradable rooms in a dungeon, connected by carved-out hallways. Some defensive monsters. Attacks come from 4 fixed entrances. Some monsters can walk/shoot through walls. Reasonably fun. This is a clash-like port of a much older game. It was hated as a cash-grab, but it’s no different than any other clash-like.
  • Batman:Arkham Underworld: Similar to DungeonKeeper, your buildings are connected rooms and hallways, with two fixed “garages” as entrances. Later you can bust through a window. Terrific AI to make defending goons dive behind your placed sandbags or sofas. Gold is in a vault room, with a very heavy door. Your HQ has “you”, a super-villain, defending. Attacking is your fully-controllable super-villian, with the usual dumb clash-like army coming with. Limited spells. Boom-Beach style map. This was a Suicide Squad movie tie-in, and was much better than it needed to be.
  • Raid HQ: Attacks are non-clash-like. Each defensive room is a level by itself — a stationary bullet-hell. Things like: one big robot, lots of waves of troops, or a tough laser bunker. Nearby rooms may add extra bullets. Attacking has a team of 4: use only 1, but freely tag in and out. The heroes are gotten and upgraded using gambling-chests, but they’re fairly generous – you can find free “S-class” heroes. At first 1 path leads to the HQ, but eventually you have to split your defenses among several. Uses the Clash Royale victory chest system (get 3 victory chests, then wait hours for them to unlock).
  • Drop Assault: WarHammer 40K-themed Boom Beach-style game. Uses a point system for defenses: you get 50 defense points per level, and defenses cost different amounts. Build and use whatever defensive buildings you want. Extras can even be put in a storage area, at no cost to you. Adds a live player-vs-player area. Gambling chests for heroes, some of which could be upgraded to be far too powerful.
  • Transformers: Earth Wars: attack team is 5 non-controllable robots. Each robot carries a spell, using a Boom Beach energy system to cast and recast. Robots are won through gambling chests. There’s a whole system with levels and stars — basically a collectable hero game.

[Game]Boom Beach

IBM is famous for missing out on PCs because they made mainframes and didn’t want to compete with themselves. Supercell went the opposite way. After Clash was a success for them, they experimented with an entirely different clash-like, which turned out to be almost as influential. Some of the things Boom Beach did:

  • The only goal of an attack is to kill the town hall. You get all the rewards for doing that, and nothing if you don’t. In Clash often the best plan is quick raids for easy gold with no chance of winning. That’s boring. In Boom Beach, every attack is real – study how to get to the HQ, against defenses made only to defend the HQ.
  • Instead of Nexting through targets, you have a short list. You can attack only them until you win or Give Up. Either way, new players appear after about a day. It’s kind of fun to try a few things until you finally beat someone. It’s also nice to spend more time planning an attack then looking for someone weak and rich.
  • Attack squads. Instead of training 40 archers and tapping 40 times to place them, you train 3 archer squads and place a squad at a time. You still have pretty good flexibility in what you select.
  • Traps (1-shot bombs) are visible instead of hidden. That seems bad, since attackers can avoid them, but they act as deterrents. Overall, it’s better.
  • Fun computer bases, that don’t run out. They’re these weird special things that break the rules. They might have only a few mega-weapons, or lots of machine guns, or huge minefields … . Most are pretty fun, and you’ll recognize tougher versions of them as you go. It’s a nice break from player-bases, but totally optional.
  • Weekly mini-campaigns. One day a week a series of increasingly difficult computer bases opens up, resetting each time. There are cut-scenes about a mad scientist.
  • Upgrades takes multiple types of resources at once – wood, stone, and iron. Getting enough of each can be a challenge.
  • Spells use an energy system. You can cast any spell, all you want, as long as you have spell-energy for it. You get more energy for destroying buildings. That allows you you to cast plenty of spells, but not all at once. Repeating a spell also increases its cost. Even your least favorite spell eventually becomes worth casting.
  • A beacon spell that makes all troops walk towards it for a short time. It gives a crude way to control troops during a fight — for example you can lead them around to a different side of the base.
  • Enchantments. You can gradually acquire parts to make magic statues that give some special bonus. You can only have a few, and switching is slow, so you need to choose. There are a several that buff offense, or defense or how much you loot, or how fast you produce (or how fast you find new statue parts).
  • You can’t drop your ranking to fight super-easy opponents. In most other clash-likes you’re always picking on weak people. You can easily lose on purpose to drop your ranking and face even weaker ones. In this game, you’re always fighting people your own size. It’s not perfect — it’s possible to get semi-stuck with opponents you can’t beat.
  • More flexible base upgrade strategies. In Clash of Clans you were heavily penalized for not upgrading evenly. Everyone’s base had pretty much the same buildings. In Boom Beach it’s much easier to focus on only some, making your base a bit more unique.
  • The “Resource Base”. When you conquer some special island bases, a limited number, you keep them. They produce extra wood or stone or whatever. But 1 other player can see it and take it from you. You can take it back, and so on. The base’s defenses, which you can arrange, get a little more powerful each time. Eventually one of you gives up. It usually lasts about a week, and is sort of a fun mini-rivalry. New opponents come after a few days. If you’re a slow player, fast-risers will tend to steal your Resource Bases, but after a while you’ll find one where the old owner doesn’t care.
  • Only one builder, who works faster. You start to realize how annoying managing 5 builders can be.

Some clash-likes borrow only a few of these things, but they go together pretty well. You’ll general see the “Clan of Clans” model, or the “Boom Beach” one. Both original games coming from the same company.


It’s possible to appreciate clash-likes for the way they make money. The standard trick is to ruin a perfectly good game with a bunch of limits, then charge for skipping. They usually feel fake: “You’re out of daily attempts. Spend 12 gems for another?” Clash-likes make them feel natural — of course I have to pay to attack more — how could it be otherwise?

Clash-likes make the daily free gem dispersal into a little game. As we know, giving free gems is a vital part of convincing players to spend cash, so this matters. Your base starts cluttered with “obstacles”: rocks, trees, bushes, funny stone monoliths … . A builder and some spare gold can clear them, possibly finding some gems. This is a clever way to shower you with starting gems. Most games say “here’s 50 gems”; a clash-like seeds the ground with 50 gems in little piles. Later on, obstacles randomly appear, and may have gems when cleared. The game is giving you a few gems each day, but making it fun. I like to stockpile just the trees, then dig them up all at once when I need gems fast.

Clash-likes have one of the best monetization tricks of all, built-in. The idea is that people hate losing more than not winning. The classic experiment is playing a game to win $5 vs. getting $5 and playing a game to keep it. Both are the same, but the one where you can “lose” $5 hurts more. This is great news, since in a clash-like, people are always trying to steal your money. Every morning you pray you didn’t lose too much; and certain flukes can spike your loses. Everytime you have to go to school with $2 Mil sitting in your vaults, terror makes you buy a shield, or rush a builder, or something, anything! Other games need to artificially add a fear of less, known as “inflicting pain” (what a charming term).

An old trick to sell anything is providing a “bad” option, or giving lots of options. If you want to sell a cow for $4, offer them for $5, 2-for-$8 and 3-for-$18. Clash-likes have so many cute ways to do this. For example, buying immunity to attacks is turned into a game. The week-long shield is only available once-a-month; the 4 hour shield, once a day; and so on. You can almost cover every hour of the day, if you work at it. There are also three different ways to buy gold. You’d think that one of them would be something simple like “spend 50 gems for 10K gold.” Nope:

  • There’s the standard “Not enough gold. Buy the rest?” button when you try to upgrade. The cool part is, in a game where people can steal the extra, buying only what you need feels smart.
  • You can buy gold directly into your gold vaults, but only funny percents: to the max, fill up to half, or fill by 10%. It doesn’t even tell you the actual amounts those are. And clearly, 10% and 50% are there to make “full” look like a better deal.
  • You can buy a 2x speed-up for your gold mines. They get a little glow for 8 hours. That feels more fair, like you’re working inside the game, but you’re still just paying for gold. It’s the best, right? It has to be, since it takes longer. But no one will ever really know.

Training times have 2 ways to speed them up. You can pay gems to instantly have your army ready. Yawn. Or you can buy a 2-hour x4 speed-up. That’s enough to attack almost constantly, unless your army is all dragons. Maybe you think other ways to spend gems are cheating, but this seems fair — you still earn all of your gold by stealing it from strangers. Serious players will always buy it, adding up to maybe $5/month. It’s basically a subscription, but more fun.

Every other type of game makes money with gambling chests, the ones that give a random Common, Uncommon, or Rare item. Those are super-annoying, and Clash-likes don’t have random stuff to win, so good riddance. But some clash-likes find a way to add them: take the identical Giant Barbarian Guardian everyone gets, and turn it into a random collectable hero. It’s the worst, but you have to respect the ingenuity.

Many freemium games use something known as pay-for-progress. Reaching level 10, where the game gets good, takes either a month, or $10. That’s considered fair if every level 10 player is on an equal footing. Clash-likes cash-in on this. You can’t pay to jump ahead, but you can rush each of the 100’s of steps, paying each time. I think it’s over $1000 to get to level 10. People have done it.