Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

I've got a ticket to ride...

but I don't care.

Really. Train games do nothing for me. Preussische Ostbahn, Age of Steam, 18XX and Stephenson's Rocket leave me cold. And I'm not even talking about Transamerica. All train games I had, I've given away at some point. Most of these games become boring optimalisation exercises. The 18XX games just become huge stock speculations. It doesn't move me.

What surprises me most is that the games keep on coming. In evergrowing mutations of the last hit, and replacing the map of Great Britain with that of Germany, or Italy, or the U.S. Yes, I know, I have been telling people not to just stress the lack of innovation in gaming but to see the sunny side, look for a hidden gem. I'm sorry, I can't always live up to that myself. I don't find the theme appealing enough to sift through the shitpile to reach it.

But I can tell you what I would like, and maybe you will even tell me that that game already exists, although I doubt that my grail train game can exist as a competitive multiplayer game.

Six years ago, as I visited my brother in Vancouver, we made a roundtrip to the Rockies. And as we returned we came across places like Rogers' Pass, Revelstoke, Craigellachie and through the Fraser canyons. Inspired by the rugged terrain and the stories of the railway, I picked up Pierre Berton's The Last Spike, a gripping story of the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway in only four years. It has it all.

As the railway started out, the owners had no idea what the exact route would be. Routes through the Rockies and the mountain ranges further west still had to be surveyed. This led to the exiting story of Captain Rogers finding his way through the Selkirk Mountains, more terrifying than the Rockies in appearance, with a gradient that would hamstring trains going up for years while under threat from numerous avalanches.

In summer, the area is pestered with Devil's Club a plant truly deserving of the name. I experienced the ordeal of Rogers and all those working on that part of the rail line as I climbed up to Glacier Peak. And while the view up there is of breath taking beauty (once you've recovered it from the the steep climb), it is still awe inspiring.

From the west the building had to follow the Fraser River valley, so treacherous in places that (mostly Chinese) labourers died in droves from falling rock, avalanches, slippery tracks, cold and dynamite. And if they weren't dying they protested their meagre wages or appalling working and living conditions.

The insecurity about the exact trace of the railway line also led to ridiculous land speculation in the prairy as the the building moved slowly, then more rapidly, west. In the first years plots of land around potential sites for stations multiplied many times in value only to drop after the final choice was made. Poor men became rich and destitute overnight.

And although the railway was racing to the Rockies, thanks to the brilliant organisation of Andrew Onderdonk, at several times all seemed lost as money ran out and shady political deals were necessary to lend the required sums for investment.

A game which could portray that kind of excitement, of political dealings, rail building, operations, land speculation, rebellion and near bankruptcy I would play. Does it exist? Could it exist?

This post was published earlier on Fortress Ameritrash

Gun from German destroyer UJ-126

The UJ-126 Steiermark was sunk near Terschelling on 10 July 1940 by British submarine H-31

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Control panel from German cruiser Lützow

Apparently a panel controlling emergency pumps on the German cruiser Lützow which was sunk during the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

Picture taken in the Wrakkenmuseum on Terschelling. Probably ended up there because of the diving club going abroad, as I don't think the panel would have been found near the island.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Spanish gun

Made by royal foundries in Brussels in 1623, by Johannes Sithoff. Probably captured by the Dutch and then used as naval gun.

Ship probably from Amsterdam admiralty and sunk around 1630 near Terschelling

All the latest naval bits were recovered by the Ecuador diving team of Terschelling

Saturday, 21 July 2012

18 pounders from the 1620s

Lifted from an unidentified ship of the Amsterdam admiralty which sank off Terschelling. The guns were probably made in the early 1620s by the Amsterdam master armourer.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

London Under by Peter Ackroyd

When I got Peter Ackroyd's London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets for my birthday, I didn't know what to think of it. Ackroyd is famous for his ‘biographies’of London and the Thames, but that could mean anything. Maybe this was some weak spin off of his other work or a new thing. I had no idea.

Just to give you an impression of the difference in street levels between now and the Middle Ages: the ruins of the Palace of the bishop of Winchester in Southwark
In the book Ackroyd moves along a series of subjects beneath the top soil of London: first archeology, then wells, rivers and streams. Followed by sewers, tunnels, pipes and of course the Underground. Finally, there's underground storage (eg gold vaults Bank of England) and government agencies. This is extended into the use of the tube for shelters and storage of art treasures during WWII.

It's really well written so it flows past you fast. Ackroyd quickly sketches the history illustrated by many examples and anecdotes. The chapters on the sewers and the construction of underground tunnels are the best, evoking the danger and technological pioneering.

This makes it the kind of book you could take on a trip to have a look at some of the examples of inconspicuous entrances to underground systems, architecture of tube stations and whether you are on top of something special.

However, because it is highly anecdotal it's not all tied together. I have many questions about the underground world as a whole after reading this book. After reading this book one gets the feeling it must be crowded down there.

How do all these underground networks interact, or conflict? Are there maps showing them together or are they separate? Do they operate at different levels to avoid congestion and collision?

Is there a planning or regulation of the underground world, like the surface world, the sea and the skies? Is it allowed to just dig beneath your house? I thought as Ackroyd mentioned people more frequently extending their cellars, sometimes by upto 4 levels.

And the underground world is even more congested with networks Ackroyd doesn't even mention, like TV cables and fibre glass wires.

To Ackroyd, what binds it all together is the dark, the cold, the fear of water, poisonous gasses and fire. Ackroyd paints the underground world as a lonely, scary place, the home of ghosts, monsters and degraded humans. But he doesn't sound very convincing because the stories he tells have the opposite effect.

Because the underground fires the imagination: art, myths and legends, and futurism. It's a terra incognita on which humans project their hopes and fears.

In the respect of art I missed a reference to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, one of the best novels on the underground world, directly linking it to London landmarks.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

One month in, already looking back

Well, only looking back to look ahead.

When I started this blog I did have an urge, and a bit of direction of where I want this to go. I decided it would be games and history, rather than me. So it excludes a lot of personal stuff, or other interests, like music. Not that I don't want to talk about it, it's just that focussing saves me from getting overwhelmed by stuff I need to write about.

Working on it has sharpened my ideas of where this blog's headed. I've found that even editing blogs I'd written in the past or just adding images is a pretty laborous job. Keeping up a steady flow of posts is hard. One might also wonder whether it's better to have daily updates or a fewer updates of higher quality. I'll have to see. I also need to build up some reserves for holiday gaps.

There's been a lot of discussion on boardgaming sites about criticism, that is in the sense of critique rather than railing against games you don't like. Of course, this has been a longer standing issue from people at Fortress Ameritrash, but it's gaining a wider recognition. Jesse Dean, Pete Ruth and Matt Drake have been vocal recently in that debate.

Interesting about boardgaming (and to a lesser extent wargaming) is that many people fancy themselves as designers and reviewers and to have a game published is a true source of status withing these groups. Designer badges are worn with special pride on BoardGameGeek, some established reviewer have committed followings. That also means there is great support for those attempting to design, write or review games.

However, the enthusiasm is not always matched by critical skills. Many don't go beyond the recapitulation of the rules and most don't give an outspoken opinion about the quality of the game. Of course no reviewer wants to hurt the feelings of a fellow gamer who's spent so much time and effort in creating a game. Others can progress past the failings of their favourite designers.

And if reviewers are outspoken, the reactions by fanboys will quickly put them in their place. It takes some backbone to maintain an independent view and not everybody wants to risk ostracism for his opinions. It's given rise to the "weak 7 / strong 7" rating practice.

But that's not in the interest of prospective buyers, and in the end, also not in the interest of game designers and publishers. Players disappointed by games with really good reviews will be turn away from gaming, or at least from reviews. In the long run, that will lose publishers money and have designers waste time on mediocre designs that could have gone better spent on playing games.

I've found that I'm not exceptionally good as a reviewer, neither of games nor books. I think I'm still rooted to much in the immediate experience and the content to appreciate the way a game or book is crafted. So maybe I shouldn't aim my efforts in that area, but stick to the content and the immediate experience. It's just the way I'm wired. Others can do the criticism better than I can.

Derk's beautifully painted Romano-British 28mm Gripping Beast

So far I'm pretty happy with the level of attention for my blog. All in all over 800 hits in the first month is decent in my book. Given the wide array of subjects, I don't expect everyone to like every post, and I will need to build my tribe one member at the time. I'm not sure I will travel the path of give aways to gain followers, but at least not for the immediate future.

My Dark Ages skirmishing, Waterloo and Last Crusaders posts stand out as the best read with over 60 hits, which says a bit about my distribution. A lot of the traffic comes through Facebook, which is fine. Not so much through Twitter just yet.

Finally, when looking at the future of this blog, I've got a couple of people in mind whose ideas on games I find interesting and worthwhile but who don't want to take on the effort of maintaining a full blog themselves. I have invited a few already to join in here, and I will be asking others.

Also, I do a fair amount of grazing on board and wargaming blogs, so I could occassionally drop a few links here as well.

So, what do you guys think? Am I going in the right direction? Suggestions? Requests?

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Jazz under the guise of history

Went to North Sea Jazz festival yesterday for the first time in my life (yes, that's what turning 40 does to you!) and although I'm no jazz afficionado, I was quited eager to go.

I must admit that I had a bit pessimistic view about jazz festivals and jazz festival-goers, but was happy to be proved wrong. The programme was highly varied, showing all forms of jazz (except dixieland, thankfully) but also including blues, soul, klezmer and the latin adaptations of heavy metal songs by Rodrigo y Gabriela.

One of the highlights for me was the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, who performed parts from their Race Riot Suite. The performance was a steaming, energetic collection of dirty jazz pieces inspired by the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots, which destroyed a vibrant black community (this is the bit of history that provides me the excuse to post about it here).

Bought the album straight away and it doesn't disappoint. A good combination of 1920s jazz, klezmer brasswork,steel guitar and driving bass and drums. But of course, if yet ever get a chance of seeing them live, don't pass up.

Another inspirational performance was put on by three Dutch youngsters from Kapok. The trio of drums, guitar and horn showed they were in charge of their instruments but more importantly, that their creativity and joy in playing showed the magic of live performances. They played courtesy of winning a competition for Dutch jazz artists. Of course I don't know how well the other contestants did, but I can believe they earned it.

Ahmad Jamal showed that you don't get too old for playing jazz. Seun Kuti managed to enthrall through his sustained rythms and melodies. The Harold Lopez Nussa quintet performed some powerful latin jazz that we saw too little of. Esperanza Spalding didn't live up to the hype, but possibly because I don't like 'doobedeedaaboopiedoopie' jazz, especially not when done with skill.

All in all a very good evening in all respects!

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Jim Wallman, my favourite game designer

My game designing hero is Jim Wallman, a friendly guy from South London with a warped mind and the English sense of humour. He has a good grasp of (military) technology and history, of popular culture and of gaming. One of my fondest memories of him is sitting together on the ground in a wargames convention hall and trying to design a game on global crime networks.

Jim started out playing ith the likes of miniature wargaming icons Paddy Griffith and Donald Featherstone, then became involved in Wargame Developments, an innovative English game design group. Their foremost inspirations were miniature wargames and Kriegsspiel and the games mostly assumed pretty good knowledge of the subject to play. The club was a fertile ground for aspiring game designers and has done a lot in the development of matrix games for example.

Jim was one of the founding members of Chestnut Lodge Wargames Group in South London, which over the years has dedicated itself to the design of new games. I find it a very inspiring club of people that are supportive and critical of game design and I’ve played some of the most fun games ever there.

The range of game formats and mechanisms Jim has used is just astounding and he really uses the form he thinks fits the theme and approach best. They range from WWII company actions and samurai skirmish to 18th century English colonels leading their regiments and large scale space battles. Jim has put most of his game designs online for everyone to benefit and has been glad to assist and discuss with aspiring game designers and players like me. It's even led to a translation by an Italian group.

His designs assume that players don´t try to bend the rules and play ´historically´, mostly assisted by umpires. Also he doesn´t believe in complex rules, because player interaction is more important to him. A lot of effort is taken to give perspective through player briefings. Of course, the use of umpires allows rules to be kept to covering only the most likely events, and let wizard wheezes and exceptions be handled separately. As a result, Jim hasn´t designed many board games as he finds the medium too restrictive, but I´ve got a fine example below.

In the early 80s Jim also started doing megagames and over the years has designed and organised dozens of them. After a couple of years he and a couple of friends/designers set up Megagame Makers. In 2005 the organised their ‘hundredth’ megagame, The Last War, with about 150 players and umpires fighting WWII from January 1942 to the bitter end in two days. Search out their archive of megagames and stand in awe of the number of games they actually put on over the years, especially if you consider what a shitload of work these games take to organise. I’ll go deeper into megagames elsewhere.

And these are my favourite (non-mega)game designs of his:

Tank duel: a double blind tank dog fight. The teams are on opposite sides of a curtain with the terrain duplicated. They only see their own tank until the enemy gets into the line of sight. Both teams consist of commander, gunner, loader and driver (depending on tank type of course). The commander has to order each of the other crew members on direction, type of ammo use, firing etc etc. By keeping the pace of the game up it becomes extremely tense and fast, with most games done in under 15 minutes.

My worst session was against an experienced team that used an antitank gun. All the time I was wondering why they hardly gave any orders. Until they hit me while turning the corner.

Decapitation: a boardgame of the ‘Freedonian attempts’ to take out an ‘Evil Dictator’ before they invade his country to bring peace, democracy and prosperity. The Freedonians have intelligence teams on the ground and radio listening to pinpoint the dictator’s whereabouts, but the latter has a few stand ins to deceive them. Of course, bombing and cruise missiles can have collateral damage that will lower public support for the war. This game shows what is possible in designing and producing a game as it was ready before the Iraq war was over. The map is here.

The Universe: the Universe is actually a living background to a whole range of games, including a strategic campaign Humanity will Prevail (running for over 10 years now), pirates (erm… independent traders), space marines and ships’ crew role playing campaigns, large space battles, and sports.

The major polities in the campaign have gained an eerie level of realness over the years as players have added their political styles and popular cultures. Political summits are hosted, battles fought, propaganda wars waged and elections rigged.

I used to sort of rule the government of the postcommunist Sirian Socialist Republic, an egalitarian bureaucracy that has greatly expanded its robot workforce to lessen the burden of human labour. When not in a meeting, the SSR leads the opposition to the Evil Empire of Sol, unless distracted by piracy, terrorism, natural disasters, alien invasions or out of control AIs.

Do have a look. And enjoy!

This was posted earlier to Fortress Ameritrash

Friday, 6 July 2012

New Ospreys for 2012

Browsed through the new Osprey catalogue (a archaic sensation). These books I'm looking forward to in the next half year:

The Spanish Tercios (July) as an old time favourite. I think it was long overdue. Now wait for the Dutch army of the 80 years war.
Incomparable about Napoleon's 9th Light Infantry (September)
Macedonian Armies after Alexander (November)
Portuguese in the Age of Discovery 1300-1580 (November) because of The Last Crusaders
Last Ride of the James-Younger Gang (October) because I liked author Sean Maclachlan's book on Adowa and I want to try out the new Raid series

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Return to LV223 - Not that you'd want to

I got some interesting reactions to my Prometheus post on Fortress Ameritrash and I'd like to share some of that with you. Obviously I made some mistakes.

Here's the Engineer, trying to make sense of the movie

My reaction to the many inconsistencies in the movie has been done much better by ComicBookGirl at the basic level and about the ideas and mythos behind the movie.

A longer list of basic inconsistencies by Red Letter Media

This guy Cavalorn has tried to make sense of the mythos, tying it in to the Prometheus story. Quite probably a lot of this works, but I think he overestimates Scott's consistency and thus drives off into the ridiculous. Good try and interesting take, though.

The Film Crit Hulk makes short work of the pretentious script of the movie and shows the inconsistencies in the movie go beyond the ones I pointed out. There's even inconsistencies in the mythos behind it. Although this is way too long and the CAPS might piss you off, have a try at parts #2 and #3,

The planet in Prometheus is LV-223, which is not the same planet as LV-426 where the Nostromo lands. So no continuity problems there.

It seems logical that the black goo in the movie is the same in all instances but acquires different characteristics in different circumstances. But breaking down the DNA and then dissoving the Engineer is really something different than turning you into a violent monster. Can't get my head around that.

I now think that indeed the movie proposes some kind of Space Jesus theory. However, even if the Engineers decide to erase humanity for dismissing and killing Space Jesus, that does not explain how the Engineers got infected with something they were creating themselves. What could the humans have done to cause this outbreak?

And finally, this is just a teaser, cut parts from the opening scene?

So what does that leave me with?
1) Shaw is a droid. No human being could have gone through all that and fly off into deep space without as much as breather. And it is a bit of a give away that she's not able to breed...
2) to be revealed in the mequel (ie inbetween Prometheus and Alien) to make sense of it all

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Essen 2011 - Games that I played

Before I get to the games from Essen 2011 that I still need to play, let's look at the stuff I did play. Apart from the stuff that I bought, there's a number of games I played but didn't like or that one of my friends bought. I put some quick thoughts on Twitter, and it's probably best to stick to what my first impressions were then. I've ordered them from Wow! to Meh.

My kill pile! Cave Evil #Spiel11 #Essen on Twitpic
Cave Evil by Mat Brinkman, Jochen Hartman and Nate Haydn (Blast City Games)
A real blast! Necromancers slugging it out underground, cool monsters, nice combat system. Was the first wizard to get killed, but had a neat kill pile!

Arctic 2019, political-economic conflict over natural resourc... on Twitpic
2019: Arctic by Andrzej Kurek (Sinonis)
Political-economical conflict in the Arctic after global warming. Influence Russia, Norway, EU, US and Canada like in Imperial, but without the rondel. Sink a few ships and oil rigs. Incite strikes. Ameritrash in disguise. My hidden gem for Essen 2011. Should have lots more fans!

And other inspired naming of cities. Remembering the great...... on Twitpic
Risk Legacy by Rob Daviau and Chris Dupuis (Heidelberger)
awesome. Intro game played in under an hour. Got to name a continent. What more can you want?

Unsuccessfull in Iron Sky. Small dent in European defence. Ni... on Twitpic
Iron Sky by Juha Salmijärvi (Revision Games)
It doesn't get more Ameritrash than Nazi's on the Moon. Based on the upcoming movie. The game prototype has some nice mechanics, eg the combat cards, which are quick and clear. But right now it doesn't reward aggression, which is totally the opposite of what it should be. Slogging, bloody, destructive.... Nazi-like!

Yup. It's a bit of a fucked up world in Dominant Species... on Twitpic
Dominant Species by Chad Jensen (GMT)
A brutally competitive evolution game, which is cool. Nice mechanics, but takes way too long.

Flash Point, first move into burning building #spiel #Essen on Twitpic
Flash Point by Kevin Lanzing (Stronghold)
Nice coop game on firefighting. Some specialised tasks, some ideas on HazMats etc.

New species evolving in Evolution. Dinner game #spiel #Essen on Twitpic
Evolution: the Origin of Species by Dmitri Knorre and Sergey Machin (RightGames)
Nice card game. You try to give your species extra survival traits that might help reproduction, predatoring or survival.

A game of 7 wonders #spiel #essen on Twitpic
7 Wonders by Antoine Bauza (Asmodee)
A euro for a change and neat design although it doesn't get my blood flowing, despite me winning.

Rumble in the House, dinner game with great artwork. Flatline... on Twitpic
Rumble in the House by Ken Rush (Flatlined)
Fun filler with great cartoon artwork.

Druid takes on goblins. Lego Heroica #Spiel #Essen on Twitpic
Heroica by Nicolas Assenbrunner and Cephas Howard (Lego)
Lightest of light dungeon crawlers but probably good fun for 7 year olds. And forget about the rules in the box. Lego wants you to make your own. Use the convertible dice! As long as you have fun.

This game of Ventura looks a lot more balanced on Twitpic
Ventura by Alberto Menoncin and Silvio Negri-Clementi (Stratelibri)
Simple Italian renaissance game, but with room for conflict rather than impressing the king. Bit too abstract for me, though.

Test of Fire by Martin Wallace (Mayfair)
What a disappointing grind! Nuff said.

Here I Stand Up to My Ankles in the Med - The Last Crusaders

Last year I spent my holiday with the family on Rhodes, the smallish Greek island with a grand history, just off the Turkish coast. Cities sprang up here around 3,000 years ago, providing legendary Olympic boxing champions and some great classical philosophers. Later, its rethorical schools provided crucial stages in the education of the Roman elite, among whom Caesar. However, the civil war that ended the republic of Rome also led to the destruction of Rhodes.

The island never returned to those glory days, but slowly recovered under the Byzantines and the Genoese. A third golden (or rather silver) age occurred under the rule of the Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem between 1309 and 1522. The Knights ended up on Rhodes after choosing the better part of valour by leaving the Holy Land in 1291. Although they first found shelter on Cyprus, the destruction of their fellow crusading order, the Templars, by the French king in 1305 suggested that they'd better get a place for themselves and prove themselves still relevant as a crusading force.

In 1306 a small expeditionary force took two strongholds on Rhodes and in 1309 the Hospitallers agreed a deal to take over the whole island, including its strategic port in the capital. From then on they preyed on Muslim ships (and a lot of Christian ones as well), expanding their outposts to surrounding islands and the Turkish mainland. The Mameluke rulers of Egypt tried to retaliate by besieging Rhodes unsuccessfully in 1440 and again four years later.

But the fall of Byzantium in 1453, the position of the island so close to the Ottoman mainland and across its commercial arteries effectively doomed the Knights' presence. And this is where my choice for holiday reading nicely intersected. I brought along Barnaby Rogerson's The Last Crusaders, which covers the struggle for control of the Mediterranean between 1450 and 1590. What better excuse than to put the great sieges of Rhodes in 1480 and 1522 in the bigger picture? Also, I had just received my copy of the reprinted boardgame Here I Stand, which just begged for some background knowledge to the game.

For players of Here I Stand, the Mediterranean may appear like a minor theatre compared to the epic struggle of the Reformation. And true, the climax of the struggle between Spain and the Ottomans lies beyond the scope of the game. But the southern conflicts already drew much of the attention of the Habsburgs before the big climax of the 1560s and 70s. Francis I, king of France, entered into an alliance with the Turkish Sultan to keep Charles V off balance. The great advance of Suleyman through the Balkans occurred at the same time as the battle of Pavia and the sack of Rome. Later, Charles himself chose to organise his own crusades to Tunis and Algiers rather than take on the Protestants in Germany. Therefore, The Last Crusaders is an excellent companion for putting the game in perspective.

The book is a well written narrative of the developments in the major powers in this conflict: Portugal, Spain, and the Ottoman Empire, as well as the Moroccan dynasties and the Barbary corsairs. It first describes their rise in the late 15th century and then the clashes in the 16th century, culminating in the epic sieges and battles of the 1560s and 1570s, such as Malta, Cyprus and Lepanto. After that, Rogerson contends, all parties involved decided that the cost of control of the Mediterranean were too high and diverted limited means from other crucial conflicts. They either disinvested their overseas commitments or accepted a de facto truce that would never be broken.

Not only is the book fully within the narrative tradition, it also is heavily dependent on biography. All the main players' life and character are sketched in detail, while even the relatively minor cast gets ample attention. In this book, their ideas, childhood trauma's and anxieties determine policies, rather than geopolitical considerations. This provides for a much better read than more analytical studies, but tends to obscure a few larger developments that Rogerson has skilfully woven into the book. Rather than summarise it all, I'm going to pick out those from the book that drew my attention and are relevant to Here I Stand, but I think there is a lot more in the books than what I touch upon here. For example, there's great stuff on the famous corsair captains such as the Barbarossa brothers, Dragut and Uluj Ali and the role of Jewish merchants in the markets for military goods.

Rogerson is a travel writer and historian with long experience in Africa and the Middle East. I only realised while reading the book that I'd already consumed another book by Rogerson, The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad, which covers the history of the first Caliphs and the schism between the Sunni and Shia in the years immediately following the death of Muhammad. A very engaging and interesting book in itself, the main point for my story here is that Rogerson has a pretty good understanding of the Muslim world and the political implications of religion.

This is especially relevant when it comes to the initial weak legitimacy of the Ottoman dynasty, having no direct hereditary links to the Prophet. On the one hand it influenced their plans for conquest to the point that they strove to control religiously important centres like Jerusalem, Mecca and Medina and to appear as defenders of the faith. On the other hand it also increased the intensity of the conflict following the Shia revival of Persia under sha Ismail, which posed a powerful millenarian alternative to Ottoman rule.

Considerations of religiously founded legitimacy also played its part in the rise of the dynasty in Morocco in response to Portuguese expansion. The Sufi brotherhood traditionally organised communal charity and education and mediated between warring tribes. The authority they derived from these religiously valued activities gave them greater legitimacy when taking up the struggle against the foreign invaders, be they Portuguese, Spanish or Ottoman. It allowed them to first usurp the role of the traditional rulers of southern Morocco, and later to unify the country under their rule.

Religion of course also played a role for the Christians. On the one hand in the crusading tradition of the knightly orders, but also in the sanction of royal rule. After the conquest of Granada in 1492 the pope elevated the Spanish monarch to 'Catholic Kings', which was a major boost to the weak claims of Isabella of Castile to her throne. The crusading tradition strongly supported the position of the Portuguese kings against their Braganza rivals. This could also have negative effects when viewed from a geopolitical perspective, as attempts to strengthen control over Morocco for a long time came at the expense of expansion into Asia and the New World.

But apart from legitimising new and older ruling dynasties, the holy war also became political and part of the process of state formation. Both in Portugal and Spain the knightly orders were put under royal control, and even mere promises of crusade could garner Papal and noble support for extra taxation. The pope granted the 'Catholic Kings' unprecedented control of the clergy and the Inquisition, which became an important tool in keeping the nobility and commercial classes in order.

And strengthening the state was crucial to participate in the game of power and conquest. Access to the new technology and the ability to use it on a grand scale now determined the outcome of military conflict (showing the influence of Rogerson's former tutor Geoffrey Parker). The period covered in this book is that of the military revolution, which was driven by the increasingly destructive power of siege guns which in turn necessitated improved fortifications.

Also, the power struggle required larger armies for longer campaigns, including more specialised troops like gunners and engineers. This necessitated the use of mercenaries rather than noble contingents. Major campaigns now took years of preparation including fleet building programmes and the establishment of vast arsenals.

The Ottomans built up the most powerful siege park which allowed them to blast through the walls of Byzantium, Cairo, Rhodes and Belgrade but also field artillery that won them battles like Mohacs. Use of ships as gun platforms gave the Spanish, Venetians and their allies victory in the climactic battle of Lepanto in 1571. But the large scale use of state of the art machinery drove up the bill and made states seek sources of revenue and intensify the pressure on traditional sources.

By the end of the period all players in the book had mastered the new rules of the military revolution. The Portuguese were driven from Morocco by improved gunnery which made the cost of maintaining their trading posts on the coast prohibitive. Spain was driven from Tunis and Tripoli. The Ottomans were stuck at the end of their logistic lines and economic ability to support expenses.

All this conflict was accompanied by large scale destruction of human lives and property. Sieges with horrendous casualties were followed by brutal sacks which left cities depopulated. Religious minorities were force to convert or cast out with similar results, although the refugees from Spain and Portugal repopulated cities abroad such as Tetouan in Morocco and Thessaloniki in Ottoman Greece (as well as Antwerp and later Amsterdam). Ironically, this greatly damaged the Portuguese and Spanish economies in the long run.

Rogerson is keen to point out that at this time the Muslim world was more civilised and sophisticated than the Christian. Standards of personal hygiene and personal modesty were higher, but also tolerance for other religions. To me this kind of discussion of moral high ground is always touchy, especially because Christianity and Islam have gone through different developments since then which tend to cloud our interpretation. The picture is mixed at best and bleak in any case by today's western standards.

The added taxation of the Jews and Christians in the Ottoman Empire and especially the forced release and conversion of part of the youth if Christian communities surely didn't mean life under the Turk was hunky dory, but for Jews it was certainly better than forced conversion or expulsion as in large parts of Europe. In some cases, as on Cyprus in 1571, the Ottomans were greeted as liberators by Christians. As far as slavery was concerned there was little difference in attitude between Muslims and Christians, and the Ottomans would persecute the heretical Kizilbas movement as bitterly as the Habsburgs would go after the Protestants.

According to Rogerson, the Hospitallers came out on the worse side of the spectrum, contrary to what present day tourist guides of Rhodes would like to you to believe. Some Byzantine possessions refused their offer of protection and rather faced the Ottomans unaided. They raided Muslim and Christian shipping indiscriminately and used the captives to row their galleys. Jewish refugees from Spain were sold by them into slavery. To their merit, however, they provided some of the best medical care to everyone.

All in all the behaviour of the order and the strategic position of the island made Ottoman attack inevitable. The knights withstood the first Ottoman siege in 1480 by a whisker, and were only saved by the struggle for the succession of Mehmet the Conqueror a year later. A rebuilding programme significantly strengthened the defenses but the next attempt in 1522 ended with the honourable retreat of the Knights of St John to Malta, where they withstood yet another Ottoman siege in 1565 and continued their activities until Napoleon conquered the island.

Rhodes spent several mostly quiet centuries under Ottoman rule until the Italians conquered it in 1912. Apart from a sprinkling of nice old mosques in the capital and a colonial extension of the town the impact of these two peoples seems limited. Rhodes is now a Greek holiday island much like the others in atmosphere, but with that historical bonus of a few largely intact fortresses. I heartily recommend a visit.

Full disclosure: I have no connections whatsoever to the Greek Bureau of Tourism.

This post appeared earlier on Fortress Ameritrash.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Red Empire: an apocalyptic prophecy

There is a magic about the year 1989 that is difficult to explain. The disintegration of the communist bloc generated a sense of opportunity and hope that was lacking in the dour Eighties. It affected us all, with Francis Fukuyama proclaiming the end of history and George Bush proclaiming a new world order.

Of course soon we were all disappointed with what history had in store for us: Somalia, the Yugoslavian Civil War, the genocide in Rwanda. By September 11th 2001 the presumed new world order was dead in the water. But in blessed 1989 few of us saw the writing on the wall.

Published by GDW in 1990 Red Empire was prophetic in showing how Soviet Russia would be impacted by centrifugal forces on the margin while the factions within the Politburo vied for power. This weekend I dug it out of my cupboard and we played a couple of games. It was a blast.

Basically Red Empire is Kremlin meets BattleStar Galactica in 30-45 minutes. The Kremlin side of the game is of course the theme and tit for tat interaction between the players. The BSG side is that the game is semi-cooperative as you face a number of crises that must be solved by players together. And you will all lose together if too many crises remain unsolved.

Every faction starts with a 3 to 5 leaders (depending on the number of players) from three backgrounds: the party, the KGB and the military. Each leader has a starting status level from 5 to 9. A party leader of the faction with the highest total status holds the title of President of the Soviet Union. Should the President be removed, the position falls to the next eligible party leader (which can be from the same faction).

The main resource in the game is the action card, valued 1 to 4, which comes in the same three colours as for the leaders (party, KGB, army), plus action cards which can only be played by the President. You can only play action cards if you have a leader of that background on the table.

The game is set in the final death thralls of the Soviet Union, a true empire that spanned from Kaliningrad to Sachalin and consisted of numerous republics and autonomous regions. Combined with ethnic mix ups in all these areas, there was great potential for conflict once the communist boot was removed. During the game these conflicts will come up as crisis cards.

Crises are resolved by players contributing an action card. If all the action cards played add up to equal or more than the value of the crisis card, the crisis is dealt with successfully. All players get to place their contributed card into their victory point pile, and the President receives the crisis card as a bonus.

Should the players fail to deal with the crisis, the President is ousted in disgrace. The leader card is discarded and a new President is appointed. The crisis cards that have not been dealt with are also stacked together and once their combined value reaches 18 or more, the Soviet Union collapses and everybody loses.

Meanwhile players try undermine their opponents by purging their leaders. To purge a leader, action cards can be played on him. Once the total value of the action cards equals the status of the leader, he is purged. The player to play the last card puts the purged leader into his victory pile and gloats.

Purges can be helped by KGB investigations in corruption and the odd scandal that will temporarily lower the status of a faction or the party, KGB or military. On the other hand, there are a few cards to protect your leaders. For example, the Hero of the Soviet Union card removes all challenges from a leader and increases his status by 2 and the Junket card allows your faction to go on a mission abroad, making it immune for challenges. However, it also means they can't contribute to crises.

You have noted that the main resources for both resolving crises and undermining your opponents are the action cards. This brings about an interesting dilemma for the players, especially the President: do you keep action cards to deal with a possible crisis or do you go after your opponents?

As you can see, the artwork in the game is nothing special, but functional.

There´s a few issues with game balance, as the KGB Exposes Party Corruption card can be hideously effective in removing leaders from the table when it is played early in the game and the dice are lucky. On the other hand, your opponents can choose it isn't worth saving the Soviet Union in that case..

The rules aren´t very complex, but work well enough for a light game. It offers enough in terms of trash talking, pompous speeching and straight faced backstabbing to make this an Ameritrash classic. To anyone but a funmurdering bean counter, this game is a hoot. I think it deserves a bit more exposure as such.