Monday, 2 March 2015

NYR 2014, the Reckoning

So I've been meaning to look back on 2014, which was a crap year in many ways but also one that may make 2015 one of the best. How did I do with my gaming New Year's Resolutions for 2014?

The Book: I wanted to get 85% of it done, so most of the writing by December. That didn't happen, but 70% was good enough, and next time I can do it more efficiently.

Books read: that proved a serious challenge but I feel I came very close taken all the articles I also read during this period. I had hoped to use Goodreads to keep track of all my reading but it is no good when it comes to old and non-English books. I just didn't feel like adding those manually.

Books bought: I banned myself from buying new books on subjects other than Waterloo and was pretty consistent. What I did buy were some books by people I know personally and a bunch of new Ospreys (which were allowed, I think).

I organised one megagame which was the side project. It pained me a lot not to put on a megagame later in the year when invited to, but it was a wise decision.

New games played: I came a long way, even including the one game I bought last year. But past October my focus and priority shifted to other things.

Old games removed: ditto. Just didn't get round to it.

Essen games played: I managed to play all the Essen 2013 games before Spiel 2014! I have also played quite a few of the games I bough last year.

Shifting focus also impacted on books I wanted to remove. I picked quite a few from my shelves but I didn't get rid of them, so they are still in stacks on my floor.

Lead pile reduction: I gifted my German 1940 paratroopers, which have found the best possible home as they've been painted and used in the brilliant Ypenburg demo game.

Finally, I rationed myself to one blog post per week but went way over that, which is fine.

Next post I will look at my aspirations for 2015 (yes I know it's long started).

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Surprises and Weaknesses

Okay, a nice surprise and bit of weakness here. Last week I received a package that I didn't expect but proved to be the last instalment of the Kensei Indiegogo from last year.

Some excellent sculpts in there but no idea how I will ever get it painted.

But it all fits very well with the Okko skirmish game and miniatures I bought a few years back (the game has 2D cardboard cutouts rather than miniatures), and could easily tie in with samurai. I expect there to be a flood of second hand samurai miniatures in a few years when the Ronin hype has passed.

The weakness is that I fell for the Conan kickstarter. I played the game at Essen and it has real promise, while the minis are beautiful and plenty. So it was good I did away with the ban on buying new games. That was quite the easiest NYR of last year.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Out of Sight

But you are not out of mind. I've been meaning to post stuff, but now that I'm working again, time is very short and deadline for The Book is fast approaching.

So a little snippet from what I've been working on.

Nice to find a letter from the Prince of Orange to his dad on June 13th 1815 saying all quiet on the western front.

Obviously in his best handwriting! The letter is no great discovery, but a nice lieu de mémoire.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Secret Satan: The Strike Back!

After all the hurt inflicted on me by the Dark Lord I was overjoyed to see that I'd been able to do similar damage somewhere in SoCal, the imaginary land that is home to Hollywood, Silicon Valley, The Eagles and Charles Manson.

Have a look here.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Christmas 1989, part II - Under The Sound Of Flutes

That samewinter I wrote a song, inspired by the feeling that something momentous had happened and how it had shaped my generation (although in hindsight it somehow seems to claim that we youngsters had made it happen). 

These are the words:

This is our time
Our place is here and now
We have all the names
To write in the history books

We break away the walls of our time
Just like 2393 years ago
And we sing under the sound of flutes
That this will be the beginning
Of freedom for the world

It was a reference to Xenophon’s Hellenica, an attempt to finish the history of the Peloponnesian War started by Thucydides. The war between Sparta and Athens ended after almost 30 years in 404 BC with the defeat of the latter and the destruction of the great wall that connected the city with the harbour of Piraeus, thus ensuring that as long as Athens’ naval power remained, the city could never be starved by a land army. In the end, the Spartans did just that. This is how Xenophon described the occasion:
“After this Lysander [the Spartan admiral] sailed into Piraeus, the exiles returned, and the walls were pulled down among scenes of great enthusiasm and to the music of flute girls. It was thought that this day was the beginning of freedom for Greece.” *

There was such a sense too in 1990. A great sense of optimism and hope. George Bush later talked of a new world order, Francis Fukuyama declared the end of history. And how I felt, you can find here.

As I studied in the 1990s, that hope was quickly turned to dust. The new world lacked order and saw humanitarian intervention turn to disaster in Somalia, genocide in Ruanda and ethnic cleansing in an imploded Yugoslavia. And that was before the War on Terror. But by that time I had already become a cynic. When I heard the news of the massacre in Srebrenica in 1995 I couldn’t believe it. “They can’t have been this stupid! It would change everything. They’d lose the war.” But it had happened, and they lost.

By 2003, when discussing whether the US were right to attack Iraq, I didn’t believe there really were weapons of mass destruction, while my promotor couldn’t believe the Americans would lie about it.

For some people the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of communism in Europe will not have much significance, but for those whose heart was lifted by that occasion, and who spent the end of that year looking on the future with hope, only to lose it in the face of disaster and genocide, I ask you to reach back to that feeling of 25 years ago. Even if the world seems as dangerous a place as ever, in Eastern Europe the people are mostly free and mostly much better off than 25 years ago. Some things have changed for the better. There is, in fact, reason for hope.


ps I never said the lyrics were particularly good

pps The long walls of Athens were rebuilt a decade later. Just saying...

ppps I'm not equating Athens with the Soviet Union. But it is an interesting change of perspective from the usual assumption in Cold War parallels with the Pelopponesian War that Athens = democracy = The West and Sparta = dictatorship = Soviet Union. There is certainly a case to be made that the Delian League was an evil empire and Sparta was a restrained leader of a 'coalition of the willing'. 

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Christmas 1989, part I - The Christmas Time Blues

It’s been 25 years since an amazing year. After month of protests all countries of Eastern Europe broke free from communist oppression. The last to do so was Romania, and it was touch and go whether it would erupt in violent civil war. Starting from Timisoara, the wave of protests spread throughout late December until a few days before Christmas, dictator Ceaucescu was booed off a balcony during a speech. On Christmas Day he and his wife had been arrested, tried and executed.

It was my last year in school. I had known nothing else than Cold War, although there was talked of detente in the 1970s and the 1980s saw glasnost in the Soviet Union. But there was also Afghanistan, there had been the threat of Soviet invasion of Poland in 1981 and there were always nuclear missiles. I had been protesting against nuclear missiles several times in the last years. I had had discussions on simultaneous or one-sided disarmament. All that I knew, and all that most people under 50 knew at the time, was Cold War. And suddenly it was over, and what was more, we’d ‘won’.

That year, between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, I went on camp with a few dozen kids from my school. The last evening was traditionally closed with some improvised theatre performances, and we came up with a version of Ali Baba and his 40 bandits. In this case, the story ended in the bunkers of the Securitate, Romania’s infamous secret police, where the soldiers were waiting for the Leader to give the sign for the great counter attack. Hunched by the radio, on Christmas eve, in came the call from the Leader’s HQ. The soldiers crowded around the loudspeakers so they could hear his message. It was now or never, what was it that the Leader would ask of them? There came his voice, crackling through the static…:

“Soldiers, long have you been loyal to me and in all difficult moments I knew I could count on you to stand by me. Now is such a difficult moment… But, I’m sorry, there is nothing I can do. I’ve got the Christmas time blues.”

And my friend Jorin set in the chords for a slow and wistful blues. I think that night we sang it dozens of times that night.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Secret Satan Has Arrived!

Look what I found under the Christmas Tree today!

With not a little trepidation I removed the paper cover, revealing the dread...

NOOOOOH... not Beowulf! I was haunted by the Curse of the Returning Game! I gave it away a few years back, because.. because... well, because KNIZIA, you know?

Clearly, Satan knows.

Well... at least the rules were included. Not very Secret Satan 2014, but I count my blessings.

Hoping against hope that Satan was pulling a trick on me and just storing a box load of goodness inside, I delved further into Pandora's box...

Well, definitely Beowulf, then. Sigh. But hey, look at that! At least it seemed like there was something to compensate for the hatefulness that is Knizia.

Oh yes! There's a Lupin III comic: Satan knows I love that game! And then there's the Remember Tomorrow near future RPG! Satan knows I love near future RPG! And knows that Remember Tomorrow is the title of the episode of Jonathan Meade's show that I love. Satan is, it bears repeating, a man of wealth and taste. Obviously I haven't been all good this year

But there was also a reminder of the fact that I've been a good guy. Some computer games, showing that Satan knows I never play computer games unless I'm in between jobs or retired. Full Throttle, The Thing, The Unwhispered Word... well, I guess I'll have to be more of an asshole next year.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

The Sublime

I haven't owned a television in over 20 years, which has mostly been to my benefit, but nevertheless I did get to watch some exceptionally interesting things. Strangely this often consisted of late night BBC movies and documentaries. One of my fondest memories is watching this documentary by food critic* Jonathan Meades about high tech architecture in the 1950s to 1980s. I just never knew that you could make documentaries like this.

It's in your face a personal documentary as Meades is shown prominently, rather than as the all-knowing voice over. It's hard not to love his florid pontificating on British architecture and culture. Especially not when he mentions The Sublime in a tone that suggests it's a close friend of the family.

But apart from the half hour monologue, the visual style of weird angles and dead pan humor work surprisingly well. Of course, it only worked because most other documentaries at the time were standard fare. And probably there were many documentaries like this, but I just noticed this one. By the way, where does that intro remind you of?

So, what if you're a wargamer and you've made it this past all this arty farty mumbo jumbo? Is there a message in this for you? Yes, there is. In fact, there's two:

  • First, mainstream military history is an incredibly backward branch of history. While academics have largely moved on beyond Dead White Males On Horseback in the wake of John Keegan, John Lynn and the like, the main innovation in popular military history books (and war movies) is the partial transition from 'drum & trumpet' to 'drum & gore'. How often does a military historian come up with a TonyBenn-o-Meter? When does he mention The Sublime?

  • Second, we can do more of this in our own work, as organisers of demo games and on our blogs we can try to move beyond eye candy, Dan Snow and Osprey. There is nothing wrong with these three in themselves, I've enjoyed and shared pictures of painted miniatures and I've written loads about Osprey. But we can do even better than that. Yes, a demo game has to look attractive, it has to be easily digestible with much of the rough edges of history smoothed over. But why not reach for The Sublime? Why not leave the hyperrealism of miniatures and move into the abstract? Why not provide a fundamentally different atmosphere by taking a different perspective? Why not drag the player, viewer or reader out of his comfort zone of riding in the boots of a Dead White Male on Horseback?

So while you're at your painting table (scoring points for Curt's challenge), have a look at Jonathan Meades (or Adam Curtis for that matter, or one of these documentaries) and let yourself be inspired! This is after all the time of year for retrospection, introspection and reflection. And feel free to share this post so that others are inspired to push the boundaries!

* I looked that up on wikipedia. I didn't know this at the time.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Guineas and Gunpowder. British foreign policy in the Napoleonic Wars

Sherwig’s well written and researched book focuses on the Guineas and Gunpowder that accompanied British diplomacy in its struggle against revolutionary and Napoleonic France. The book shows how the use of money developed from a contractual agreement on the use of troops like it had been during most of the 18th century to support for cash stripped allies, amounting to 66 million pounds over a quarter century. A considerable a mount in itself, but modest compared to the costs of the navy and the army in this period.

At first the instrument was used selectively as in the Prussian subsidy in 1794, but this caused resentment among other potential allies. Monetary and material support from 1805 was offered to anyone opposing Napoleon. As such the first surge was during the Peninsular War, where Portugal and Spain received support to the value of over 19 million pounds between 1808 and 1815. But the main effort occurred on the European mainland from 1812-5 when Russia, Prussia and Austria together received almost 15 million pounds, and minor states over 6 million. Especially Sweden got a good deal, if you consider it also got Norway out of it and did very little hard work during 1813 and 1814.

After 1805 the British foreign ministers also tried to make it an instrument to influence policy and strategy of allied states but as such it was only successful when foreign troops were under direct control of British generals in the Peninsula. On the other hand this soured the relationships with Portugal and Spain to the point that the former refused to send troops to the Low Countries in 1815.

The weakest link of supplying support to the Continent was that with British trade excluded by the blockade, very little cash and credit was available. Some of Wellington’s tensest letters to London were about the supply of silver and gold coins. But it is hard to fault the effort made by the government on this point.

The material side is astounding as well, showing that British industry became able to respond quickly to large surges in demand. While it had trouble supplying the Prussian army with tens of thousands of muskets in 1807, it supplied a million firearms to the continental allies by 1813. The interesting thing is that these great achievements were quickly accepted by allies as normal, and demands for British support often unrealistic.

While the use of foreign troops through subsidies was cost effective (foreign secretary Castlereagh estimated that a British soldier on the Continent would cost 60 to 70 pounds a year, and foreign governments were offered 10 to 15 pounds per soldier), it surrendered control of those troops to the interests of its allies and also did not help the British public image. Tsar Alexander was utterly disappointed in the lack of British military action where it would have counted in 1805 to 1807. It also allowed Napoleon to paint foreign coalitions as instruments of British policy.

I’d say this is a classic.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Lord of the Mind Bomb

In addition to the recent post on weird connections, I also have this memory of reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy while listening to The The's brilliant Mind Bomb.

It must have been spring 1989 as I was preparing for my final tests of that year. I often had the house to myself. There were beautiful days that I would climb out of the window to the small area on the flat roof where there were tiles to sit on. Shielded from the wind, the spring sun was warm enough to enjoy. I think I read the books in less than two weeks, and all that time I had the album on repeat on my walkman, so it became a de facto soundtrack for me.

The I still feel that Mind Bomb fits the story better than the Howard Shore soundtrack, excellent though that is. Somehow, the OST is more rooted in the Carmina Burana and The Planets while Mind Bomb just gives it that much more contemporary vibe. There was a touch of bombast to it as well, but I guess that just goes with the wide vistas and epic events that Tolkien invokes. But the great thing is that in every aspect it is one whole and not just a collection of songs. So the mood stays with you.

It wasn't just the music but also the lyrics that went along well with the books. Matt Johnson's frequent invocations violence, war and madness influenced my interpretation of the book. The talk of evil, religion and obedience in The Violence of Truth poses an interesting contrast to the two dimensional good and evil of Tolkien's world.    

In combination with the dark atmosphere of the album the creeping dread of The Fellowship of the Ring made a deep impression on me and I still rate it as the best of the three volumes.

Who is it 
that can make your little armies of the left 
and your little armies of the right 
light up your skies tonight?

The looming threat in Good Morning Beautiful and Armageddon Days Are Here Again was just made for the armies massing in the vales of Isengard and Rohan and on the plains of Mordor and Osgiliath.

What kind of man was I?
Who would delay your destiny to appease his tiny mind
Who could delay your destiny to appease his aching swollen pride
Who could delay your destiny to appease his screaming little mind
You're mine

August & September starts out as an intermezzo, with its mellow base and shuffle drums, but then slowly escalates into the manic creed at the end. It will have you at the edge of your seat in every passage of the book. Even Gravitate To Me has a leering attraction to it that closely resembles the working of the One Ring on anyone near it.

There is even a glimmer of hope in the ending of Beyond Love as the organ dies away.

Hard to imagine a better accompaniment to Frodo and Sam's lonely trek to Mount Doom than Kingdom of Rain, where Sinead O'Connor shows what a beautiful voice she has. Not forgetting the thunder at the end of the song reflecting the dying rumble of the volcano.

By the way, this was the song I heard on the radio one night and which made me decide to buy the album.