Thursday, 28 February 2013

New version of Netrunner cardgame: first impressions

FFG has rereleased the Netrunner 2-player cardgame. This is an original design by Richard Garfield, and the game is licensed by Wizards of the Coast. FFG have set the game in the Android SciFi universe (based very much on the Bladerunner movie). My first impression is that it is a tight and tense game with a lot to learn.

I never played the original game, but the broad outlines appear similar to what friends tell me was in the original. The best part of the game is still that it's asymmetrical, with a very different experience for the 'Corp' player and the 'runner'. There are four Corps in the game and 3 runner factions to choose from. 

The former tries to complete a number of 'agendas', while the latter tries to steal these agendas to score. To do this the runners amass hardware, programs and additional resources. The programs are mostly 'ice breakers' to gain access to the corp servers, the hardware determine the overall performance of the programs and the resources

The corp tries to defend its agendas by defending the servers with different forms of 'ice'. Some of that ice will just obstruct or deflect attacks, while other cards will set traps to hurt or tag the runner so that he can be counterattacked. But the most effective part of the corp's strategy must be hiding and bluff to tempt the runner into costly attacks while securing the agenda's.

The game hand book is pretty clear although it took me considerable time to read and digest the rules. There's a lot of terminology and the different types of actions available to corp and runner also take time to sink in. But you're good once you're going and we didn't do a lot of referencing during the game.

The main resources in the game are the credits needed to buy or activate cards and the clicks of activity, which limit the amount of things a player can do in a turn.

Add in a number of events available to both sides and you have a widely varying experience where the balance of the game can shift during the game, as I experienced on Saturday playing against Tom in the role of corp.

View from the Runner's side, late in the game

Early on I was able to capitalise on Tom's weak defence of his root server (ie card hand) and archives (ie discard pile). This allowed me to inspect and sometimes discard from his hand*. In this way I had very good information on his card hand  and could limit his actions. Linked to a reward of two credits for every time I accessed his root server (a special ability of Gabriel), I had set up a very powerful combo that allowed me to steal two agenda's early on, on the verge of winning.

However, by then Tom had realised he should plug the gaps and I soon ran out of helpful cards to evade the ice. This gave me less information on Tom's card hand and I had to spend more time on building up capital for runs. Tom also took his time to set traps and decoys. With limited information I was forced to take calculated risks, which backfired so that he was able to level up on agendas.

We then entered a long phase of hide and seek, where Tom tried to reduce my stock of credits and I built up my attacking power. I was saving a special icebreaker card for the decisive attack, but then lost it as I got bitten by a trap. By the time I had gotten a new one, I was too low on credits to use it effectively.

In the final turn it was clear that there was an agenda card out there, but I didn't have the money anymore to break through the defences. I could try three desperate things: break into the archives, R&D (draw pile) or root server and hope for an agenda card. I thought I had a fairly good chance to defeat the ice on each of them, so I weighed the chances of the top cards of the archive and R&D being agenda cards or one of the five cards in Tom's hand.

So I went for R&D on the hunch that there weren't many cards left there and I hadn't seen too many appear yet. Turns out my assessment was correct and I got LUCKY! So I won the game, but not through superior play. Maybe Tom could have delayed bringing the agenda card into the game a bit, but he told me he had another one in his hand so there was a real risk I would get lucky attacking his root. I think he recovered very well from being on the back foot early on.

First impression is that the game is tense and offers a lot to learn. On the other hand, if every game ends in a long stand off, that would make it less enjoyable. And I need to see how the play balance is between runners and corp. There might be a faction effect, in the sense that some corps deal better with certain runner factions than others.

I look forward to finding out.

* I played with the Gabriel Santiago cyber criminals faction. This deck includes the Sneakdoor Beta card, which allows you to access the root server from the archives.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Grierson's Raid through Mississippi 1863

My first experience of the new Osprey Raid series has been positive. Roughshod Through Dixie about Grierson's raid through Mississippi in April 1863 is well written, well presented and a useful tool for wargamers. I hadn't read anything by the author, Mark Lardas before and so assumed he was new to Osprey, but it turns out he's done lots of naval and Civil War stuff , especially in the duel series. I had just not run into him because I don't focus on those subjects.

The book takes ample time explaining the strategic situation and planning for the raid, showing how the raid was to divert confederate commander Pemberton's mind and resources from Grant's proposed outflanking of Vicksburg and was supported by other diversionary raids. These helped to conceal the real intentions of the raid from the enemy for five days.

Lardas shows also that careful attention was paid to the composition of the force and its equipment so as to balance speed and fighting power. This meant for example that six light guns were added that would have been easily overpowered on a Civil War battlefield but proved their value against local scratch forces encountered on the raid.

The description of the raid itself focuses on the tactical decisions made by Grierson. He successfully kept the confederates of his tail by speed (around 40 miles on a good day), diversions and active disinformation. This for example involved a section of troops disguised as southern soldiers, the detachment of several hundred less mobile troopers (the 'Quinine brigade') early on to suggest he was returning to Tennessee and releasing southern troops on parole after overhearing planted information.

This part also shows how hard it was for confederate troops to catch these highly mobile troops. All the information reaching Pemberton was outdated, and local commanders had to deal with Grierson's methods of disinformation. And yet they almost managed to ensnare the raiding force.

A few other fine points I took away were the great care taken by the Union troops to treat the local civilians well, the importance of rivers as obstacles for movement and the use of parole to deal with confederate prisoners. I have no idea how well parole was observed over time, but in a society with high emphasis on personal honour as in the South, this may have been effective after the campaign.

In the final part Lardas draws up the balance sheet which is almost exclusively positive for the Union force. Great damage had been done to the Mississippi railroads, telegraph and war materials. A significant number of troops had been tied down that could not be used against Grant. Also a number of slaves had been freed and a great moral victory had been scored, showing that Union cavalry could score achievements similar to their southern counterparts.

The illustrations are overall very effective, reinforcing the narrative by mixing contemporary engravings and photographs with new paintings. The high point for me was the photographs taken of the brigade at their arrival in Baton Rouge by a southern spy. That kind of attention to detail sets this book apart.

The conclusion must be that not only was Grierson´s raid a massive success, but also that the quality of this book does it all the credit it deserves.

Monday, 25 February 2013

I Joined the Colonial Marines, boarding Sulaco tomorrow for LV426

Remember how I got the awesome Colonial Marines badge from my Secret Satan last January? Well, I finally found time to patch it to some sleeve, doing the necessary needlework yesterday at the club.

Wear it with pride, Marine!

And here's a better look at the badge.

If you don't remember this picture, check the link at the top of the page!
Secret Satan is a great story

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Zero Dark Thirty: the collateral damage of torture

This Friday I saw Zero Dark Thirty, the movie about the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Actually I had wanted to see Lincoln, but Diederick had already been to that and since this was also on the nominations for and Oscar and an interesting subject we diverted.

A victory for the Free World and Capitalism!

I don't understand the Oscar talk about this one. Apparently much of the praise for this movie comes for its realism. This says more about the sorry standards of Hollywood. Yes, the explosions and fighting are not glorified or messed up with silly explosions (although the images of the blowing up of the crashed heli at the end of the movie are traditionally melodramatic). The atmosphere is gritty, but hard to discern from other gritty fiction.

As a wargamer I have of course watched the break in to the Abottabad compound with great interest. It was much slower and more methodical than we get the impression from action movies and therefore very useful. I would have been interested in the planning of the raid, which maybe isn't great material for a movie, but would help understand the approach and tactics chosen. Maybe some day this will turn up in a director's of cut scenes edition.

There is no great acting in the movie and the nomination for Jessica Chastain I don't understand. Her depiction of the main character stays close to the archetypal American whodunnit inspector, totally dedicated and single minded to find Bin Laden. Her confrontation with the station manager over resources for her quest is typical of the genre. I really expected somebody to come up with the classic 'I'm getting you off the case' to finish it off.

You might want to ask whether Bin Laden did have a more than symbolic function in the Al Qaeda networks by early 2012, but of course even that is enough reason to take him out. I have no problem with that decision, but you have to argue how this operation justified its great costs.

As somebody who did a bit of reading around the attack at the time, maybe the details weren't as new and surprising to me. And of course, like in Titanic, we already know how the story ends. So it wasn't a gripping whodunnit to me. Also, not being an American, the death of Bin Laden wasn't as much of a personal reckoning. When I received the news I didn't run into the street waving the star sprangled banner. So the movie didn't touch me that much personally.

Reincarnated Carthaginian / buffoon

In all I get the feeling that had this movie been exactly the same, but just not about a real raid on Osama bin Laden it would not have been considered for any prizes. Maybe it's similar to the Patton movie, as laughable as any 1960s 1970s war movies with silly battle scenes, which also scored Oscars for Best Picture.

George Scott´s performance puts Patton on like some buffoon from a Western, but maybe this looks more credible to contemporary movie audiences than the opinionated intellectual that I get the impression Patton was. I just can´t see how this is a great movie, but it obviously touched a nerve in the American psyche (I wouldn't be surprised they needed a bit of encouragement after Tet).

Much of the talk about this movie revolves around the depiction of torture (you know they know it is torture when they have to come up with managementspeak like 'enhanced interrogation'.

The movie offers some read between the lines explanations for the desperate resort to torture. Maybe the CIA really was stuck in the Cold War frame of mind, and was unable to understand the jihadis, and the pressure was on the CIA to come up with information on the terrorists and possible new attacks, and  fast. So that the only alternative to handing out cash in this high pressure environment was physical and emotional abuse. But at best, this only a part of the explanation of how torture came to feature so prominently in the 'War on Terror'. Political and high administrative condoning played its part.

As always, reality is stranger than fiction

But at best the evidence is that apart from some useful information, the tortured detainees also told a load of rubbish in desperate attempts to let it stop. Matt Taibbi has shown some good examples of this on his blog at Rolling Stone.
"So while torture might have found us bin Laden, maybe, it also very well might have sent us on one of history's all-time pointlessly bloody wild goose chases, invading Iraq in search of WMDs."
Even the movie admits the ineffectiveness of the torture methods although it was probably not intended as such, when the Washington chief comes to Pakistan chastising the workers that they have caught only four out of twenty known Al Qaeda leaders.

In the end, the exact position of bin Laden is not revealed through torture but through old fashioned research, employing hard and soft intel, that is satellite search and telecom scanning as well as observation and informers. The invention of a inocculation programme to get blood samples from the people living in the compound was a classic, even if it failed in its objective.

Critics of the movie have rightly noted that the effectives of torture has been accepted without context in the movie. But even if it had been more effective in getting information from suspects (ie faster and more accurate than by tried and tested, but non-violent methods), there are two points that should have provided better judgement.

First of all, the use of torture degrades you to the level of the terrorists and is a moral defeat of the highest order. I can understand the need for revenge after the attacks, but fear is a bad councilor. After all 'we', the West, the United States of America, the beacon of liberty, were supposed to better than that. And this war against terror was supposedly in name of defending these freedoms.

But even if you think revenge makes it okay to throw your moral standards overboard, you can see that it will affect your standing among your peers and among a large mass of people who try to stay out of this conflict. I am afraid many Americans have no idea what damage the invasion in Iraq and torture have done to their efforts.

While the spirit all across Europe in September 2001 was that we were all New Yorkers now, and there was massive support for military intervention in Afghanistan and cooperation with the Americans in the struggle against terrorism, this had all gone by 2004. The sympathy and trust had been repaid with deception and constructive criticism had been met with 'if you're not with us, you're against us'. It made me and many others reluctant to be seen as on the side of the US.

This meant that the US was finding it increasingly hard to find military and political support in Iraq and Afghanistan just when it became clear that it had fucked up there. It now had to negotiate hard for troops and money that would have been supplied eagerly if the US had kept the moral high ground. It must count as one of the biggest wastes of political capital in history.

But more so, on September 12th 2001 the mass of muslims in the world was not part to the conflict. They didn't like US presence in the Middle East, or it's support for Israel against the Palestinians and they may even have deplored the effects of consumerism, liberalism (rights for women, gays and religious and ethnic minorities) and corporations (oil). But that didn't make them supporters of terrorism.

Showing who has the moral high ground
But Osama's attack on the US elicited just the response he would have wished. A text book example for Mao's and Che Guevarra's theories of popular insurrection. Retribution has come to anyone, whether member of the tiny minority of terrorists, illicit supporters or innocent bystanders. And it was out there for anyone to see. That must have been very easy recruiting for jihadis.

The only saving grace for the US is that the jihadi are even worse than them when they get in power. I can't see how the US could have turned around the situation in Iraq if the tribes hadn't experienced the rule of the religious nutters first hand. I'm also afraid that when first hand knowledge of Taliban rule in Afghanistan disappears, the US will face an impossible task of keeping the present regime in the saddle.

Think of it in this way. We Europeans have gone through this before in colonialism. We were full of the Mission Civilisatrice of the White Race and the need to help raise the poor darkies from their economic and moral depravitity. But if you have seen the great French movie The Battle of Algiers, you can see how the very effective methods of the French army against the insurrection just proved to Algerians that the French weren't morally fit to rule them and decide on their destiny. Add in the slaughters at Amritsar and Lombok, or anywhere else.

So the costs of the torture programme have been much higher than any results, even if it had been as effective as some assume. That question is not answered, not even posed in this movie. Timothy Egan in the New York Times probably has expressed it best:

"It’s not just the torture and its inherent message that young, attractive Americans got the ultimate payoff in part by doing what German bad guys used to do in the movies.
It’s the omissions. In “Zero Dark Thirty,” several larger truths — the many intelligence mistakes, the loss of focus and diversion of resources, and the fallout from the folly of the Iraq war — are missing." 

In that sense, Django Unchained, not a movie that gets cheered for its realism, posed more uneasy questions. Or take Three Kings and Jarhead about the first Iraqi War, which force those questions on us by being surreal and overtly fictional.

ps In case you're wondering why I'm breaking my mind at all over the Oscars, you're right. It's silly. I've never watched the ceremony, and more often let a nomination deter me from wachting a movie than actively seek it out. Why bother about it now? Dunno.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Slavery: 50 shades of grey

Jumped into the subject of slavery over the last couple of days, because coming July 1 it will be 150 years since slavery was abolished in the Dutch colonies (although I'm not 100% sure this also was the case in the Dutch East Indies, that needs figuring out).

I'm hoping to do a little bit on this subject for work, but that requires that I can find some official statistics to anchor the story on. Preferably some source the Statistics Office has digitised and is publicly available. There is some stuff in trade statistics (ie the products made by slaves) and in taxes (slaves, like all property, were liable to taxation), but I'm actually hoping for something on real numbers of slaves. If I figure out how, I'll put on some stuff here.

Since the British had abolished the slave trade while they held the Dutch colonies during the Napoleonic Wars and this was confirmed by the reinstated Sovereign Prince William in 1814, there are no statistics for the slave trade in the 19th century.

On Saturday I bought De slavernij, mensenhandel van de koloniale tijd tot nu (Slavery, trade in human beings from colonial times to the present) by Carla Boos. She was the chief editor for a 5 part television series on slavery that was aired on Dutch television in 2011. The book is therefor aimed at a broad audience and covers lots of ground with not a lot of depth. It has some great illustrations but sometimes it´s clear that it was hard to translate the action on screen to paper.

But what struck me most in this book is that the history of slavery is (as most of history) pretty resistant against black and white, right and wrong interpretations. Very few of the people covered in the book are utterly evil and very few are all in all good.

Look for example at Jacobus Capitein, a freed slave who grew up in the Netherlands in the 18th century and became a reverend. He wrote a book defending slavery on the basis of the bible (not surprisingly, given that it's full of rules on slavery). He died in one of the slave fortresses on the Gold Coast after having failed to convert slaves, age 30.

Or Philip Quassie, a black Surinamese professor of botany, who brought the medicinal effects of Bitterash to the attention of Linnaeus in the 18th century. But he also hunted runaway slaves.

Even Bartolomeo de las Casas, the 16th century Spanish bishop who wrote his book to stop the terrible treatment of the Indians of America, thereby condemned black Africans to work in their stead. Even when he realised his mistake, he was unable to undo it.

Willem Bosman, a Dutch employee of the a Dutch slave trading company had very low esteem of the mulattoes and mixed race, but on the other hand fathered a number of children who to this day live in Ghana carrying his name.

The two great communities of marrons, or runaway slaves, in Suriname signed peace treaties with the colonial authorities in 1758 and 1760, recognising their freedom but also agreeing to return any further runaways to their masters.

Or E.J. Bartelink, a black supervisor of Dutch plantations in Suriname before and after abolition, with great deferrence to his white employers and often low esteem for his black slaves or labourers.

From the 1770s the Dutch employed black troops, known as het Neger Vrijkorps, de Zwarte Jagers or redimusi (for their red hats). They gained their freedom and some land by chasing runaways and fighting the marrons.

Europeans were as much victims as perpetrators of slavery. Hundreds of thousands were taken by Barbary Pirates from the coast of North Africa. Special insurance societies were set up to buy the freedom of sailors, but most never saw home again.

Many Africans were involved in the slave trade, such as the Ashanti tribe and 19th century Ghanese trader Mohammed Babatu. The Zanzibar slave trader Tippo Tip ruled an area as large as the half of Europe and was employed by the Belgian king Leopold for a time to administer areas in the Congo. In all, muslim slave traders may have taken as many black Africans to the Middle East as the Europeans.

On Dutch ships on average about 1 in 7 of the slaves died during the trip from Africa to the Americas. This rate was the same as the death rate among the European crews on these ships.

Although there never was a Dutch abolitionist movement like in Britain, when it took off it was quickly successful. Especially after the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, the decision to abolish slavery was quickly taken, but it took almost a decade to dismantle it completely.

The most prominent abolitionists, Julien Wolters and Wolter baron Van Hoëvell, were not great lovers of the black race and displayed prejudices common for the age, for example against Jews and non-christian slaves.

I'm not making moral judgements here, because I don't know what emotional conundrums these (mostly) men faced in many cases with the choice between poverty and great riches or survival and death or a life of forced hard labour. Most of them were religious and must have struggled with their consciences.

That is the real world. Muddied, fucked up, hypocritical, delusional, hopeful, bittersweet, guilty, melancholy.

Treasure it in your work.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Megagames in the UK in 2013

For your interest, my friends and supporters of Megagame Makers will be putting on half a dozen games in the UK this year, both in London and Leeds. If you get the change to participate, I highly recommend it.

Saturday 2 March 2013
ENDGAME, the campaign in Tunisia 1943

The slots are filling up for this one. If you're interested in seeing what roles are still available, see the provisional cast list

Saturday 13 April 2013
INVASION FROM MARS, a military / political game about interstellar conquest of a single world
Leeds Armouries

Saturday 1 June 2013
Rehearsal For Armageddon - The Balkan Wars 1912-13

Saturday 21 September 2013
Master of Europe 1813 - Napoleon's campaign in Germany (Yes, that's the same one as will be put on in the Netherlands)

October 2013
The End of the Beginning : El Alamein 1942
Leeds Armouries

9 November 2013
'Alea Iacta Est Iterum', megagame of crisis in the Roman Empire - 60 BC.

To get an idea of what it is like to play in a megagame, read this great report of last year´s Urban Nightmare game, which pitted an urban administration against a zombie outbreak. Or check out some of my reports here.

You can also join Megagame Makers facebook page, and see how the development of these games is progressing or read player´s experiences

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Master of Europe - Megagame of the Leipzig campaign

Given the 200 year anniversary of the Battle of Leipzig Megagames Nederland will be running Master of Europe, a megagame designed by Brian Cameron and Jim Wallman that brings you all the drama of the autumn campaign of 1813.

On the one hand the military campaign throwing the Russian, Prussian, Swedish and Austrian armies against the rebuilt Grande Armée in a struggle for the control of Germany. On the other hand the political manoeuvring between the four allied monarchs and their ministers and Napoleon and his German underlings. Can the allies force Napoleon back and will they be able to wrestle away his control over a continent?

This game was designed by Brian Cameron and Jim Wallman and played before on several occasions in the United Kingdom. Brian and Jim have been so kind to allow us to use their design.

When & Where

The game will take place Saturday 22nd of June at Activiteitencentrum Doddendaal in Nijmegen, The Netherlands. This is the same place as last year’s Barbarossa game.

Costs to participate in the game are 25€ for players and 12,50€ for umpires. You can enlist individually or as a group. To register, follow this link to our website. We will try to fit players to their preferences where possible.

Have a look at our website for the roles and nations involved
and register for the game!

For more information see our website, or contact

I’ll be bringing you updates in the coming months.

You can also follow us on Twitter @megagamesnl
and on Facebook at the Megagamesnl page.
Apart from upcoming games we also bring you a lot of stuff about military history and innovative ways of gaming

Hope to see you in June!

Steampunk is the new Dark Ages

While 2012 was pretty much the year of the Dark Ages revival led by SAGA and Dux Britanniarum (with Dux Bellorum and others in their wake), 2013 looks to be the year of steampunk. Not only did the Polish Wolsung setting set its first steps in the miniatures market last autumn, Northstar has entered the fray while West Wind is including them in their Gothic Horror series.

I've been severely tempted over the last weeks by the new In Her Majesty's Name miniatures and rules (sponsored by Osprey). But they're just a bit too expensive. Just like most of the current steam punk miniatures, including the new West Wind Empire of the Dead kickstarter most seem to be going at about just below €3 apiece on average. I'll be interested to know which overlapping characters from these two sets will prove the more popular.

My well worn copy
The late 19th century does have a pull on me because of the way it links up to crime and horror (Frankenstein, Dracula, Cthulhu) novels of the age. Kellow Chesney's The Victorian Underworld is one of my best second hand buys ever. I paid 2 pounds 50 p for it and enjoyed it from cover to cover. Gonophs, cracksmen, beggars, pension holders and of course the exploits of Bendigo, the great boxer for whom thousands would gather in the countryside to see him win against Ben Caunt.

I actually don't care for the steampunk elements much. Then again the Chinese Tong and Egyptian brotherhood factions in IHMN have no steampunk weapons at all. The real steampunk parts of EotD are also few and far between. I'm sure the rules will reward machinery when players start to power up.

I would just as happily roleplay with the civilians, small time crooks and bobbies. Venture into some gang wars and Lovecraftian horror. Luckily there is ample supply of miniatures from this age, ranging from pulp adventure to Victorian Britain and from wild west to colonial (ah, the Darkest Africa series...), but none of them exactly cheap.

If possible I'd like to run a Cthulhu based RPG campaign once around Dutch colonial history with elements of piracy and Indonesian witchcraft from Dutch colonial literature. You could use quite a few of the Anglo-Saxon miniatures for the Dutch setting, but there would be a couple of specifics you can't find now. For the long run though, because I have no clue about this setting at all.

But my question to you now, dear folks, is what will 2014 be the year of? I have a hunch myself, but will not reveal until next weekend. Looking forward to seeing your ideas!

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Links for the weekend

Some of the stuff I've been reading online in late January

Board games



Friday, 15 February 2013

Last stuff coming in for a while - a junkie's lament

I didn't use to buy much stuff online. I've always liked holding games, books and minis in my hand before buying them. I also like to reward FLGS and producers for their creativity and service rather than webshops. Also, my book and game shelves are full enough as it is.  There's stuff from years ago that I haven't looked at. This aspirational side of purchase I've noted before. I don't NEED to buy more stuff. I need TIME to play and read.

Westfalia Kielmansegge Jaeger and Prussian medics

And in some ways, buying online is a pain because package delivery is still a 20th century craft. Postal services always come by when I'm at work. So it always creates a fuss with neighbours instead of delivering at a nearby post office.

What I did do over the last few years, was pre-order board games. I liked supporting games on subjects not so well covered, or designs that seemed novel to me. So I have received maybe a dozen games from MMP and GMT.

However, I shrank from directly ordering stuff online. For the above reasons, but also because I could see the junkie reflected in my monitor. This all went splendid for years, but I've let my guard down. Buying online has become too easy. As easy as buying in shops.

So when I succumbed to Dux Britanniarum and the Gripping Beast miniatures, that set in motion other buys (additional Saxons from Musketeer, a bunch of Welsh, a late Germanic army). My rising interest in Waterloo saw more books coming in and then there were other shiny toys beckoning. The last bits that have come in are the wonderful miniatures from Westfalia and GMT's Great Northern War block game Pax Baltica on pre-order.

Then I was coveting more Napoleonics (Calpe Prussians, the Perry Retreat from Moscow set), steam punk and the entire collection of Plaid Hat games. Saliva was dripping from my mouth. I was going "yeah honey, I'll be along in a minute. Go to bed." Just press this button and it'll be on its way. Easy as pie, just do it. Press that button, pick it up in a few weeks time gaze at it in delight put it in the cupboard forget about it press the button for something else... hey wait!

So I'm putting a stop to it for now. Let's get some stuff painted and played first!

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Cranking up the Pulp-O-Mizer

Okay, you might not get what half of these are about, but that doesn't matter: over a dozen entries to my request to use the Pulp-O-Mizer for the greater good of the world! And a few excellent ones I hope to see again in some other place.

Most of these refer to Jim Wallman´s Universe campaigns and should leave innocent bystanders clueless as to the names and places mentioned. Don´t worry about it. If you are intreagued, try the Universe Encyclopedia or the Interstellar News Network for an update of major events that are being allured to. See for example Senator Antoinette Banderas from the Martian Union.

They reflect an ongoing debate in a far flung galaxy some time in the future about the dangers and potential of artificial intelligence, by some messed up with a renunciation by some (obviously less enlightened characters) of entirely harmless forms of AI found in useful applications such as the dombot (domestic robot).

Enjoy (and try for yourself!).

By Jim , Universe campaign

By Andrew, for political incitement

By Barbara, for the heck of it

By Barbara, for the heck of it 

By Jeff, for his movie reviews

By Jim , Universe campaign

By Tom , Universe campaign

By me, for an occassional meeting of Dutch wargamers

By Richard , Universe campaign

By Richard , Universe campaign

By John , Universe campaign

By Jim , Universe campaign

By Richard , Universe campaign

By Jim , Universe campaign

By me , Universe campaign

By Richard, Universe campaign

By me, for work
By Rob, Universe campaign

By Rob, Universe campaign

By Jim, Universe campaign

And an example from Trebian, who probably found the Pulp-O-Mizer by himself.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

All is fair in war and love... and history

History can be harsh on the powerful, and it's part and parcel of being up on the hill. But some 'great men' (and a disproportionate amount of great women) get a worse treatment than others and that may be a bit unfair.

Even redemption at the hands of the press may come in unfair ways. King Richard III owes much of his new popularity to the novelty of his discovery under a car park in Leicester. A surprising PR move for a man more used to riding horses on unpaved roads.

Humble Scribe, in another excellent post, asks the question why King John has not received a similar revival. While the historical record has been very negative for him, this is largely due of him not being around and his haters holding the quill. John was an able administrator and general as recorded in Ralph Turner's King John: England´s Evil King?, but this is overlooked because of his major character failings.

Popular perception might have to do more with representations in literature and movies than history books. As many people have noted, Shakespeare has been instrumental in demonising both Richard III and John, while Walter Scott's depictions of John and his henchmen in Robin Hood confirmed this in the 19th century. 20th century writers and directors have used these images rather than provide reinterpretations.

This durability of historical stereotypes is also manifest in the appreciation of Willem, Hereditary Prince of Orange and later King Willem II of the Netherlands. Demetrius Boulger, in his 1904 article on 'the Belgians at Waterloo' notes that Siborne, Maclachlan and Alison have been the principal culprits in attributing the failures of the campaign to the Netherlands troops and Willem in particular.

But according to Boulger the greatest damage was done by Thackeray reproducing them in Vanity Fair. And it is easy to see when British writers in the 1960s and 70s uncritically adopt this perspective. Luckily, the image is now being rectified somewhat (of course, Willem hasn't suddenly become a great commander) by closer study of individual accounts of the battle.

By the way, if you're on facebook and have an interest in restoring King John to his rightful place in history, why not join the King John Appreciation Society?

And as a fitting farewell to King Richard, the song dedicated to him by Supergrass. A fittingly brilliant one!

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

The Politest Mutiny

Despite the generous amounts of rum and cutlasses going round in this game, it is very well behaved. In fact, it's a bit dull.

Don't be fooled by the box, no violence in this game. At all
This is a worker placement game, where players bid their doubloons and rum on the favour of five members of the ship´s crew. Each of them offers different rewards for the highest and second highest bidder. Cutlasses which you need to win, rum that you can use for bidding, the ability to give extra resources to players, or to take them away, a tie breaker, and extra doubloons. The first of the crew members also allows you to move some of your doubloons around, allowing you to win a tied bit later on.

The turn is straightforward: first five blind biddings on the characters. The bids are then resolved one at a time to determine the winners and second places, who get their rewards immediately before resolving the next character. Then the next turn starts. You get your doubloons back every turn, but rum used for bidding is lost.

When one or more players have gathered at least 7 cutlasses, the game ends. The player with the most cutlasses wins, with the doubloons and rum as tie breakers.

The game should balance itself through the bidding system, but that doesn't always work. When you've got five or six cutlasses, it's easy to bid everything on the crew member that rewards you with cutlasses  because it is unlikely that all other players will be committing all their resources to stop you. There's a good chance you'll gain at least one cutlass or even two.

The advantage of this game that it is easy to learn, and quick to play. It is a streamlined design (by Kevin Wilson) with no fat on the bones, but therefor it also not so rewarding.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

A good laugh with pulp fiction covers

This is a laugh. The Pulp-O-Mizer design your own pulp magazine cover.

First attempt

I did this first one from their site in 5-10 minutes, and it was so much fun I had to share with you. Let me know in the comments if you made one as well! To the Pulp-O-Mizer!

And another one!

Monday, 4 February 2013

How the tales of old men have democratised the experience of war

A few days ago I went to Michiel's place and together we watched the Tankies documentary by Mark Urban followed by a Dutch documentary Prikkeldraad (Barbed Wire) by Bob Entrop.

Cover of the Prikkeldraad book
In Tankies, Urban follows a number of troopers from the 5th Royal Tank Regiment through France, the Western Desert, Italy, France, Belgium and Germany based on diaries, letters and interviews. There´s lots of talk about experiences fo combat, but also of the training, the type of tanks they used and how it compared to their opponents.

The Prikkeldaad documentary was based around a book with the same name, published shortly after the war. It held the reminiscences, water colours, songs, sometimes photographs, of many men that had gone gone through one of the main Dutch POW camps, between Berlin and Magdeburg.

My granddad claimed to have contributed some photographs to the book, but he lost all his stuff on his trip back. As far as I understand he spent time in the Ukraine and was liberated by the Soviets somewhere in Bohemia. He then made his way back home through Saxony. After the war he never bought the book, but much later I found a copy and gave it to him.

There were interesting differences and similarities between the documentaries. Both concerned WWII and featured interviews with survivors, men in their 90s. The image they paint of war is not a rosy picture and sometimes very emotional. Only few of them didn't show emotion at some point. Guilt, anger, relief, pride, joy and loss were all there, even though many of them tried to remain calm and dignified most of the time. However, seeing people killed around you and looking death in the eye affects you.

There were differences as well. While the British soldier talked mostly about combat, the Dutch POWs were always talking about food. The food they loved most and the food they needed to get and the ways to get it. Some entered the black market, many stole. From the Germans, but also their comrades.

But the most marked difference is probably that between victors and vanquished. While the British tankies may have lost battles or at some point admitted they felt that they'd done their bit, overall they looked on that period with pride and satisfaction. One even remarked that some of the happiest moments of his life were in the war, being young and having large amounts of time where you had nothing else to think about.

On the other hand all the Dutchmen felt a need to justify their decision to move back into German custody as POWs in 1943, to work in the Nazi war industry. Why didn't they try to elope and hide, as some were able to do?  Given that hiding 10,000s of men would have been impossible in a small, urbanised country like the Netherlands, I can't really blame them. They were also made to understand, implicitely, that their absconding would be taken out on their families.

I understand a bit how hard that decision must have been on time because my grandfather had been a soldier in 1940 too, and he went to Germany when called up. I know he felt he needed to justify that decision. He bore that decision with a sense of shame.

A water colour made by Bob Entrop, author of the book
and grandfather of the guy who made the documentary

But let's not make light of the plight of the Dutch POWs. Even if they weren't imprisoned as long as the Poles or the French, and not nearly treated as bad as the Russians, only a third of them came back. Hunger and illness weakened and killed, but so did hard and sometimes very dangerous labour. Dangerous labour means recovering unexploded bombs in German towns and working in strategic facilities that were bombed themselves.

My granddad told a story of two comrades who refused to leave their barracks during a raid and got killed. In another instance, the Germans guards that had denied the POWs access to their shelter had been drowned and cooked in petrol. My grandmother added that he used to have nightmares long after the war.

But the experience of losing a war and becoming a POW seems rob you of a sense of pride and accomplishment. Strangely enough, little attention was paid by Urban to the two guys that were taken POW during the war, because their story might have been much more like that of the Dutch.

The democratisation of the memory of war

But what these documentaries told me is the incredible change we´ve seen in the ´writing´ of history since that war. The initial version of the war was based on the wartime propaganda, which was then filled in with official histories and the books by leading generals which appeared in the 1950s the 1960s.

But then the cracks appeared in the story, with a new generation of historians lancing the boils of controversy that had been hidden from public view until then. And after that we saw the first books by and interviews with the ´ordinary´ men involved. This was partly driven by a wish among some historians to write the history of common people, and so of the rank and file of the armies. And when these memories started disappearing as veterans started retiring and dying of old age, there developed a need to preserve their stories for later generations.

Stills from Tankies
This need was especially felt among holocaust survivors, because in many ways they provided proof of what had really happened. It spilled over towards resistance fighters servicemen, in the Dutch case by men like Brongers who felt that the stories of heroic deeds would off set the sentiment that the Dutch army had been weak and just fell over when attacked.

Later the historical record became more nuanced, and more room appeared for grey areas, like the killing of POWs (see for example Saving Private Ryan). This also mirrored a change in military history writing that focussed on the experience of battle of the rank and file, and from there on spread to tactics, doctrine and leadership as opposed to the (grand) strategic questions which seemed settled by the debates of the 1960s and 1970s.

But this also involved the black sheep, for example in the Netherlands men who had joined the Waffen SS were interviewed a book by Armando in 1967. It was shocking then to many people on principle of giving these bad people a voice at all. Since then more books and documentaries have appeared, like this 2011 documentary with interviews with Dutch SS members.

The focus on people´s memories has its pitfalls, because our knowledge of memory has made us much more suspicious of the truth we can wrest from them. I remember a story my granddad told me of a major walking upright in the middle of the field during an attack on the Ypenburg airfield in May 1940. It matched a story I had read in a book on the fighting and I wonder whether my granddad had really seen this happening, or later included it on the basis of stories he'd heard or read.

And looking back years after the events will cloud the story in more ways. But that doesn´t mean that memories are useless. A good historian should at least try to corroborate the facts. And the memories themselves are valuable, the emotions and the justifications.

I sometimes wish we´d have that kind of memories for many more ´ordinary´ people in history. It might look something like this....

 ... Peter Watkins´ Culloden from 1964.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Target for Today, a WWII bombing movie

Watched Target For Today, the 1944 propaganda movie on the 8th Army Air Force, although it does well as a documentary. It runs one and a half hours. The great thing is: it's on Youtube.

Amazingly, the movie spends most of the time on the ground. The first half of the movie describes the planning of the raid, from the Air force level down to the groups and planes. Very instructive to know at what level certain decisions were made, eg choice of targets, bomb type and load, setting of fuses etc.

It also shows what a professional and administrative machine this force was.

And when the planes get airborne, there's pretty extensive discussion on formations. The movie explains how wing formations are broken up on approach to the target and reformed afterwards. It ends with lots of stuff also on Air Sea Rescue and debrief of bombing effect and enemy tactics.

As far as I'm concerned a must see for anyone interested in WWII bombing.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

The Swashbuckling Approach to the History of the World

History of the World is a fun game, with little pretentions. In its original version (which I once owned) it had cardboard counters and a cloth map, but the later Avalon Hill version has got a mass of plastic dudes and a proper reinforced mapboard. 

Opening stages of our game before Christmas
The game is driven by the repeated appearance of new peoples on the map. In each of the 7 ages (from the Bronze age to the Industrial), as many new peoples enter the map as there are players. As there are ample peoples per age, not every civilization will show up, so you can have a game without the Romans making their mark.

Every time your civilization appears, you place an army in its starting area (eg Nile Delta for the Egyptians) and then try to conquer neighbouring areas in a combat system reminiscent of Risk. You go on until you run out of armies and collect points for that civilization, but also for your earlier civilizations still on the board.

As the eras change, so does the value of areas. While the Middle East areas score high early on, China is worth a lot in the middle of the game, and Europe by the end.

Halfway through the game. My high point, with the Romans (purple) hanging on for some time.

The Sung dynasty doesn’t come with as many armies as the Persians, and the Dutch come with a pathetic few. So which civilization you get determines your combat power. 

The mechanism that balances this out is the fact that the player with the fewest points draws first from the deck of civilizations for the next era, and decides to keep it or to give it away. If you get a good one you keep it, if you draw a bad one you hand it to a front runner.

On the other hand, the French come before the Germans in the turn and thus get to score points before them as well. If you’ve just made a big splash at the end of last turn, even a weak civilization can help you to score big again if it occurs before others can destroy the old civilization.

So the allocation of civilizations is the central issue of the game, and because you can’t know which civilizations will be picked, you sometimes get it wrong. You pass on the Greeks because the Romans are still in the deck and someone else might hand them to you, but instead you end up with the Celts.

Late in the game. The map has filled up, even towards Australia.
Red has done well despite being almost taken out at the end

There’s some influence you have over results through event cards, and in this game a +1 on the dice roll can significantly improve your success. A few extra armies as well. So use them for the best possible effect. There’s also a few minor civilizations that allow you a few extra points, or even a lot when you can set them up in the right position.

The game is mostly about combat, although some culture has been injected by the monuments you can build for every two resource areas your people control.

With all the dice rolling, direct conflict, asymmetric capabilities of the different peoples and possibility of kingmaking and runaway leaders it is an Ameritrash classic. However, it has remained in the shadow of its contemporary rival Civilization, although I imagine that in terms of sales and games actually played it might have done better. In many a sense World Conquerors, which I played in Essen, is similar in concept and complexity.

The benefit of the game is that it can be played in an evening, but the drawback is that it hasn’t got much strategic choices. The situation on the board changes rapidly, which means you have to think before each new civilization and this causes some analysis paralysis and downtime. A game you can draw out once in a while, but won’t play to death.