Thursday, 31 January 2013

Django Unchained - Hell Yeah!

Went to see Django Unchained last week and enjoyed it a lot. The latest movie by Quentin Tarantino is again a masterpiece of imagery and storytelling.

The outstanding points for me were the fantastic story, another great musical score, the performances by Leonardo di Caprio, Samuel Jackson and Christoph Waltz. Especially the first two seem to revel in the opportunity to play a bad guy, while Waltz makes an almost sentimental volte face from his Hans Landa role.

He´s bad and he likes it
There's many other good bits of acting. Don Johnson continues his silent comeback with hilarious redneck cameos (like in Machete). Jamie Foxx is good, but he isn´t allowed much room for manouver as the stoic avenger.

The action scenes are very good and the hyperrealism (splatter) matches the incredible story. Also, Django is less a movie about western movies than Kill Bill was a movie about classic martial arts movies and Inglorious Basterds was a movie about 1960s and 1970s war movies.

Tarantino pulls no punches on Southern slave society. The abominal treatment of blacks is in your face, with the brutal mandingo wrestling not even the worst. The white people in the movie generally have few redeeming qualities, if any. You feel like cheering when they die. And regarding the supposed controversy of the use of the n-word, why is nobody complaining about this:  "killing white people and get paid for it. What's not to like?"?

One of the weaker points, to me, was the ending, with the sale to the mining company and the unlikely escape (and terrible acting by Tarantino!). Jackson's monologue on saving Django's life doesn't come out as good as Christopher Walken's brilliant watch monologue in Pulp Fiction.

There isn't a scene to match the shocking dynamics of the opening of Inglorious Basterds, or the "Dick, dick, dick, dick, dick" discussion from Reservoir Dogs. Nor does it have the one-liners.

Maybe the parts with Di Caprio are a bit too long as compared to the rest of the story. I can see how the excellent acting could tempt Tarantino into giving it as much room as possible, but to me it unbalanced the movie. They could have taken longer to find and deal with the Brittle brothers, as far as I´m concerned.

At times Tarantino even seems pretentious, trying to link it the story to the Siegfried saga, bringing up Mahler and Beethoven and showing his knowledge of European classic culture: "by the way, Alexandre Dumas was black".

It´s a bit of a pity that this isn´t Tarantino´s first movie, because were used to the continuous references to other movies, his choreography of violence and the dialogues. We start nagging about the less delightful bits and lose perspective of the whole.

So, in all this is a great movie, with great acting but with fewer stand out moments than we´re used to with Tarantino.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

What I´ve been up to

January has been a bit of a quiet month for this, with holidays and new week schedule messing up my rythm. A backlog of sessions and reviews built up, frustration set in. But I'm finally getting back on track of more frequent postings.

All this doesn't mean I've been idle. On the contrary, I've done a lot of reading, among which a great master thesis on the French cavalry in the 1813 campaign which challenges the current consensus that Napoleon's shortage of cavalry was a problem of supply. Included is a very useful explanation of the Napoleonic system of acquiring horses and its success to rebuild the army after the catastrophy of 1812.

Picked these up last week. On the left book on the Dutch revolution.
Yes, that's right. Before the French one
I've also read one or two articles on the Dutch army of the Batavian Republic (1795-1806), continued in Lieven's Russia Against Napoleon and started in Zamoyski's Rites of Peace. I've gone more than halfway now in a few day because it's such an pleasant read.

I've also played Manhattan Project and 7 Wonders last weekend, so I'm even occasionally enjoying my games.

Prize of the auction: a stack of Al Qadim expansions for AD&D

My club organised a very successful auction, where I picked up a few miniatures. Afterwards we had a drink with our new roommates from Societé La Grande Armee, another miniature wargames group that has lost their home. They might move on to a new location, but there´s also a chance they´ll join us for good in a few months. It was a lot of fun getting to know each other, and talking to people we hadn´t seen in a while.

Furthermore, my reading of stuff on the 1812-15 period makes me eager to game that period as well. I've seen some beautiful 28mm Prussians from Calpe Miniatures and some excellent rarities from Westfalia. These are both small, parttime initiatives with high quality sculpts and I feel good about supporting them, even though a box of plastic Perry or Warlord would be cheaper..

Westfalia Prussian medical team, pic from their website
I've given in to temptation on the understanding that all I'm going to do is a bit of skirmish, so I can limit my purchase to around 50 miniatures. The Calpe Landwehr are excellent and having Westfalia's Prussian doctors around will make that complete. I´ll worry about painting later. There's no rush

I noticed last week that I´ve passed the 10,000 hits barrier, which is still a miracle to me. I´m still picking up new followers, so that´s good too. Thanks to all of you, reading and commenting.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

The Magnificent Monsters of Anthony the Abbot

On a trip to Antwerp over a week ago, we visited a few interesting places, like the excellent MAS (Museum aan de Stroom), with a rich combination of four collections stretching from anthropology (international and local) to local history. And Antwerp has a illustrious history as the greatest and richest port of Europe in the late Middle Ages.

A 17th century interpretation by Antwerp painter David Teniers
You can still find many remains of that golden age around the city, and one of the best places is the Mayer van den Bergh house, which holds a small but excellent collection of medieval and early modern art. The collector after whom the house is named started to buy all these art objects on business trips. He didn't think like a museum director, pursuing a direction and filling in gaps, but bought what was available through local traders and other collectors, all based on his personal preferences.

This means there is stuff from the Low Countries down to France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy and the objects range from religious objects to bourgeois furniture. I stood amazed watching a piece of beautifully crafted ivory from the 10th century, which had been carved in the back of an Byzantine original from a century earlier.

The Dulle Griet
But the top stuff are a couple of paintings by Pieter Bruegel, the most famous being the Dulle Griet, an apocalyptic view with an armed and armoured women carrying her spoils across it. I easily spent a quarter of an hour enjoying this.

But there's another bit that I found interesting, which were a couple of paintings showing the temptation of Anthony the Abbot, one of the founders of the Christian monasterial tradition. It was a theme I hadn't noticed before, but which happens to have been popular in the Middle Ages, but also inspired Dali.

Bruegel's take on the temptations of Anthony the Abbot

The reason why I was so interested is because it shows contemporary views on what monsters and demons would look like and I am fascinated. The monsters are all a bit comical, rather than scary. There´s a brilliant site on Anthony with lots of illustrations of paintings over the ages. Below I post one from 1490 that I actually like best, because it is so different from contemporary paintings. The colours are so bold and the monsters so stylised! It made me think of Indian art.

Giovanni Pietro da Birago, ca 1490. Incredible

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Return to Lonely Mountain - more thoughts on The Hobbit

I was led (I forgot by whom, but thanks) to a really interesting article on Peter Jackson's interpretation of The Hobbit, by Kristin Thompson. I can agree to it in most cases. I urge all fans of Tolkien to read it (after they've seen the movie). There's a few peeks at cut scenes as well.

Still from the cut scenes where Bilbo sees broken Narsil in Rivendel

But it also made me think about what will be in part 2 and part 3. From the point where the party is rescued by the great eagles on, the following plot main parts from the book are still to come:

Meeting with Beorn, the forest road, the spiders, the elves, the lake town, entering mount Erebor, talks with Smaug, slaying of Smaug, Battle of the Five Armies and the return home. It is to be expected that the encounter with Smaug and the Battle will be in part 3, so you can see the problem for part 2, because it will be pretty lean on spectacular moments.

Apart from the fight with the spiders and the escape from Lake Town, there isn't much high drama. So it is to be expected that a lot of the stuff from outside the book will be included here.

Most important, I guess will be the attack of the White Council on the Necromancer in Dol Guldur. This can involve some spectacular CGI, even if there isn't a full scale battle with ghouls, skeletons and other undead creatures.

Azog, unwelcome as always
We can also expect Azog to feature at some point, although I don't see an easy point where he can be injected in the story. Maybe as he tries to make his way towards the Lonely Mountain. Or worse, if Jackson has him chasing the dwarves through the forest. As Thompson notes, the creative team around him are very fond of the Defiler and he will probably mess up the whole story more than in part 1.

The only intreaguing thing that he could be involved in are the sparse references to a plot against the dwarves ('who have you told of this?'). It is an interesting take, but I don't see at this point who could have been behind it at this point.

Another thing we might see is Gollum leaving the realm of the Goblin King to find his Precious. In Tolkien's version, this happens later, but I could understand if Jackson advances this point. On the other hand, Gollum has no further use in the plot and no immediate interaction with Gandalf. On the other hand, it could be a way to have Gandalf encounter Aragorn and have him search for Gollum.

But chances are that part two will start slowly with Beorn and the forest road and then see a tumble of action scenes, possibly culminating in the siege of Dol Guldur. That's not a bad thing to look forward to as a fan, but it would probably not be enough if this movie were to stand on it's own.

Saruman, victim of hindsight
Also, I still think they've not set up Saruman in the right way. He is depicted as too dodgy, while all he is is extremely arrogant, which he has every right to be, considering that he is the most powerful being in Middle Earth at the time. Why not show Saruman like that? Dismissing Gandalf's evidence of the Necromancer not because he doesn't believe it, but rather because he doesn't like that Gandalf found it rather than him. His pride becomes his folly only after he tries to use the Palantir of Orthanc. I'd preferred if Jackson had kept it that way. Now, because we all know he joins the Dark Side in the end, it is set out too deterministic. Saruman is a lot less interesting that way.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

A Taste for Books on Food

Since Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World became a hit book in 1997 many authors have tried to emulate this concept. Main characters for example have been nutmeg, tea, potatoes and salt and similarly books have appeared about related goods like indigo or conservation methods.

The success of Kurlansky’s book goes further than the popularity of its protagonist. The book came heavily spiced with anecdotes and historical recipes. The chapter on the Founding Fathers is hilarious and the Cod Wars between Great Britain and Iceland challenge our ideas about peaceful diplomacy in post-war Europe.

The great thing about books on food is that they give a unique platform for storytelling. Providing almost every possible angle on history and touching on many parts that fire the imagination and interest.

I’ve put a few of these angles in mind maps arranged about the three stages of the food chain: production, distribution and consumption.

What is immediately apparent is that food is closely connected to culture and identity, from the peasants’ close connection to the soil, to the religious rules on which products you can eat. In some cases ethnic of social groups were closely tied to trade of certain products. Think of Jewish in the 19th century European cattle trade. However, their identity seemed to be more important in determining their trade than the other way around, as in the case of production and consumption.

The economy of food is fundamental to any story. Almost all foods covered in these books are tied to agriculture or horticulture. Fishing and hunting are less universal in appeal and perhaps therefore not as popular as subjects (although the craze was set off by cod). This evolves in first instance about the means of production such as labour, land and capital.

Production in certain places becomes based on certain types of labour, with far reaching long term social consequences. The landed gentry and yeomen farmers of England were a major factor in its political development, while slavery still casts a shadow over the Caribbean. The high risks of the local climate and social restrictions prevented South East Asian peasants from devoting more land to profitable export crops.

Production was also determined by land ownership and quality of the soil. The shift to cheese production in medieval Holland was partially the result of the loss of arable land. The land owning nobility was the motor behind Romania’s grain exports in the late 19th century, whereas at the same time Danish farmers started export cooperatives for bacon, butter and eggs. The Irish famine could become as devastating as it did because of farming marginal lands and high rents.

Trade seems to be less of a subject in these books. Trade ties in to important questions about international networks, transport and conservation technologies and access to markets. In the 19th century it becomes linked to cooperative production and export, chain retail and accessibility of products to new groups of consumers.

The specific location of production can determine distribution. The Dutch monopoly on nutmeg was a vital element in trade and the profitability of the East India Company, the first modern multinational (semi-)private enterprise.

But social subjects are also in very much scope. Hunger, obesity and health are intimately related, while most tropical products have a history of plantations and slavery or migration and indentured labour. As such they are also related to imperialism.

Women’s and men’s roles in food production, distribution and consumption are very different. In some cultures men till the soil, while women focus on the smaller animals nearer home, cheese production and selling products on the market. Anorexia nervosa is an almost exclusively female condition, while masculinity is stressed by eating red meat and spicy food.

A field that I think is fascinating is the relationship between food and emotion. We eat different foodstuffs at parties than when we’re in need of comfort. For many people certain products have become closely identified with liberation (chewing gum), freedom and progress.

Lately eating healthy has become a quest for some (eg the boy who is only allowed to eat uncooked food by his mother) which goes beyond the immediate health issues and is now part of a broader health culture that takes on obesity, genetically modified crops and professional health organisation. Is a glass of wine each day good for longevity or not? What about garlick? And chocolate?

You can probably come up with things I haven’t even touched on in these mind maps, so feel free to come up with suggestions. Alternatively, you could help me coming up with similar mind maps for military history.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Britain After Rome: Lots Going On in the Dark

Robin Fleming’s book is a great counterpoint to the political histories of the period. Because of the archeological evidence the book is strong on demographic, social and economic developments, and this allows stronger focus on the general population and women in particular than the written record. 

My battleworn copy
Especially the last chapter is a showcase for the power of archaeology to (re)create real stories of common people from physical evidence. The first part focuses on the high number of women dying before their 35th birthday (often in childbirth) and its effects on society, like the many orphans. The second part, recording a live burial of a struggling woman suggests punishment or ritual burial of slaves with their masters. And the last one shows the high death toll in towns and the terrible hygienic conditions of people living close to their neighbours and animals.

And there's a host of similar episodes spread around the book that I haven't got time to mention here, but give a fresh look at what we call the Dark Ages based on relatively new evidence. But while the firm foundation in archaeology is the strength of this book, the long, speculative interpretation occasionally becomes a grind.

The archeological data frequently challenges the written record. Fleming suggests that the coming of the ‘Saxons’ (as most scholars now accept, it was a very mixed population of Germanic people from present day Northern France up to Denmark) was a lot less violent than suggested by the literary sources which were written later, sometimes centuries, than the actual events and who had their own agenda. According to Fleming the kingdoms of the 7th and 8th centuries used conquest myths to stress their legitimacy.

Archeological finds also point towards the conclusion that Roman economic decline started a few generations before the legions left for the continent in 410. Population had been declining during this period and continued even faster as Roman presence ended and political and economic fragmentation set in.

This suggests in Fleming’s view that there was room for newcomers, while few graves from this period show violent deaths, nor a heavily militarised society. However, I think even the smaller Romano-British population would maintain a claim to the land and it is unlikely they would have relinquished it totally without struggle. Also, men dying on the battlefield would not be buried in their home villages. 

The newcomers mixed easily with the Romano-British. Based on the lack of high status burials in this period, Fleming concludes that the 5th and 6th centuries saw a remarkably egalitarian society. It also contained a wide local variation of combinations of Romano-British and Germanic elements, with individuals picking and choosing elements from different cultures to create their own styles. Identities became very local, as opposed to the Romano-British elite which had focused on the fashions of its continental counterparts. The immigrants also, even though they described themselves as Saxons or Angles, were in fact leading very different lives from their grandparents. 

Would social structures be imported from the continent with the immigrants or would they assimilate into some sort of ‘melting pot’ as in the United States in the 19th century?

From the late 6th / early 7th century there are signs of economic recovery and rapid political concentration. First, a few dozen regional powers developed, which then coalesced into stronger kingdoms, like Mercia, that dominated the others. However, the subjugated kingdoms retained a high degree of independence. But the high level of competition forced all kings to find ways to stay on top of the political food chain. This found expression in increasingly high status burials.

Kings stimulated urban renewal by granting lands (hagae) to lords and monasteries. Two new sources of income for kings in the 7th century were the tolls levied on town markets and industry, as well as coin minting. The increasing number of locally produced coins found in hoards and around commercial buildings shows that money returned to the economy. 

Christianity also offered several boons to ambitious kings. First of all, clerics could provide a powerful administrative force to a king, increasing the utility of his resources. Secondly, Christianity became a fashionable status attribute, and as it became more accepted by powerful lords, it became expedient for their followers and subjects to convert as well. This would lead to a chain reaction of conversions down client networks. But the archeological evidence suggests that many pagan symbols and rituals continued or were incorporated in Christian burial rites.

While during the 7th and 8th centuries the general tendency was towards concentration and consolidation, the coming of the Vikings overthrew the status quo. In certain parts of Britain it seems that regular institutions collapsed, and in others it forced them to adapt to the crisis.

The coming of the norsemen for example strengthened the power of the Saxon kings, as they found clerical and secular lords more easily accepted their protection. In the 9th century, the resurgent Saxons strove to bind the recovered territories more firmly to them and transferred their institutions as well as their authority (unlike the 7th century kings).

A major new Saxon institution was the burh, the fortified town. The support for protection of these towns was linked to landholding. The burhs developed into central places, combining trade and administrative functions, with the sheriff (shire-reeve) as the representative of royal authority. Finds reveal commercial expansion and increasing sophistication.

While the Danes had been able to bring a large area of England under their control, and many of the erstwhile raiders settled, archeological finds suggest that the norsemen mixed as easily with the Saxons and other people in Britain as the Saxons had done with the Celts and Romano-British in the 5th and 6th centuries. And again the genetic mix was matched by social and cultural interaction that defies orderly generalisation.

Fleming puts much store on bottom up agency and tends to interpret developments not as the result of kings' decisions, but of social phenomena driven by local lords and townspeople. Money in this period was not primarily a means of market transactions, but a means to monetise tribute, so lords and kings could easily buy status goods and pay for communal works. Local lords were able to impose tribute on their subjects. The physical evidence for this development shows more high status burials, suggesting more elaborate social stratification. By the 11th century the Saxon thegn had become more like a gentleman farmer than a warrior elite. That role was increasingly played by royal household troops like the huscarls.

For wargamers the eclectic mix of genes, cultures and identities suggests that we have a lot of freedom to create our own stories. In the fragmented and dynamic societies of these two periods, any story we can come up with can probably have occurred somewhere. 

What chronicles call Saxons, could also be Franks, Frisians or even germanified Britons. Vikings can be Swedes but also assimilated inhabitants of the Orkneys. Clerics can be academic abbots sent from Rome but also local priests with little knowledge of the scriptures and their own ideas about dogma. Fact will often prove stranger than fiction.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Battlestar Galactica with revealed Cylon player

Last Friday we played Battlestar Galactica. I've gradually introduced some of the elements from the Pegasus expansion over the last months, like the new characters, crisis cards and treachery cards. These all work fine and add a bit to the experience of the game. This time we thought it would be nice to use the option to have one of the players revealed as a Cylon at the start of the game.

How could one object to having Caprica Six around?
Because this makes life a lot harder for the human players (who still have to guess the other Cylon, but bear the full brunt of Cylon obstruction from the start) the revealed Cylon gets a hidden objective. This consists of a side which must win (human or Cylon) and a special condition, for example that the Galactica must be heavily damaged and some resources at a very low level.

The hidden objective should keep the other Cylon on its toes, while the objectives should tend to prevent the Cylons from pressing their advantage too soon. We only concluded that only at the end though.

My personal moment of glory: taking down Scar
Which meant that we, the humans, had an extremely tough time. I'm pretty sure it wasn't all due to the revealed Cylon but things went from bad to worse in no time. We never even managed a second jump, such were the crisis cards. And we failed so many of them we wondered if we'd succeed for any of them. You could feel the depression taking over.

Not that the Cylons (Andries especially) enjoyed their luck in silence. The constant happy chatter added insult to injury. It all seemed too easy for the frackin' toasters to obstruct our bids. I always seemed short of cards to play, while others had their hands full but pretty useless.

This was one of the easier moments in the game, really
Likewise we couldn't get rid of the raiders and heavy raiders, which meant centurions on board and rapid loss of civilian ships. This cost us the game in the end as humanity faced genocide.

As a small consolation this shut up the revealed Cylon player, because he hadn't been able to fulfill his victory conditions yet. This meant that Paul, the other Cylon, won the game alone. No mercy from him, so well played.

Gerard in a pose characteristic for the humans that night
I'm not overwhelmed with the revealed Cylon as it puts a lot of pressure on the humans from early on, but mostly because it takes away part of the atmosphere of paranoia that is central to the game. The best games are the ones in which the last Cylon stays hidden till the end and keeps fracking with the minds of the humans. I guess we'll give the revealed Cylon another try some time, but don't see it as a regular guest appearance.

Next time we might try the New Caprica ending. I've been waiting with this one because it seems to make the game longer and short length is not a problem of the game. On the other hand, I'm curious how it will pan out. It is an interesting episode in the series.

And after that, the Exodus expansion...

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Excellent painting again from Rene

Quick! Have a look at the blog of René van den Assem to see pictures of the new Saxons (by Musketeer Miniatures) that he painted for me. And the alternative versions. Stunning!

Friday, 11 January 2013

The Hobbit squarely hits the comfort zone

It was only to be expected that Peter Jackson would extend the line from the Lord of the Rings trilogy to the Hobbit and the first part of the Hobbit fully meets these expectations. That is probably why reviews are generally quite flat. This movie shows craftsmanship rather than genius. You can admire the skill with which it's been made but you won't be shocked, overwhelmed, surprised or moved.

This is not a problem as long as you liked the Lord of the Rings, book or movie, and all that goes with it. You can then just continue in that cozy, plush rose garden that you've been looking forward to over the last decade. And that feeling will continue for a few more years as parts two and three appear, followed by extended versions. And then the long wait will start anew, for some adaptation of the Silmarillion or whatever Tolkien's legacy has in store that can be adapted with any chance of commercial success.

As a huge fan of Lord of the Rings since I was 17 I'm one of the core audience for this movie, and Jackson delivers first of all to us, staying true to the imagery of the sequels.  The movie has the dark undertones that Tolkien sought to inject into the Hobbit after the LotR had come out. Luckily the book was saved from that treatment and I can appreciate it for what it is. But the movie, as a prequel, is better for adopting that atmosphere. The setting is pretty grim, but not overburdened with the forboding of the later saga.

Of course, I have my minor qualms about changes to the book. Some are unnecessary, in my opinion. Like the way the trolls are handled. As far as I'm concerned the solution in the book is much funnier. But that is peanuts, especially compared to the Arwen fiasco in LotR. The only thing that comes close is the Rhosgobel Rabbit Express, which is totally ridiculous but thankfully not a recurring item.

The movie is certainly not too long for me, but then again I'm the core audience. I could have stayed there all night if Jackson had so willed it, but if this movie wants to make money it needs to draw in a lot of people who will not just lap up anything about Tolkien. They might think this is overwrought and three movies about this short book is a bit much, even when the movie draws in some stuff from other books.

I read The Hobbit in English first time, but later acquired a Dutch translation. Reads very well

But most of all this movie is a reason to experience it all again. We played Middle Earth Quest again.  It made me reread the Hobbit, much of the early parts and the appendices of LotR and even bits from the Silmarillion. It's wonderful to step into an entire universe with so much behind it and to look at it like a historian or a game designer would, not just as the reader of a novel.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

The Joy of Rampaging Through the Roman Empire

As much as I like my civilization games, there's a type of games I like even better: games which bring decay and destruction. I've always dreamed of a version of Avalon Hill's Civilization in which the players start with a fully developed civilization and then get hit by barbarians and other troubles and see their empires decay. That itch is scratched a little by Struggle for Rome, known in these parts as de Val van Rome.

In terms of mechanics the game is familiar but quite different from basic Settlers of Catan. The fixed map is an obvious change, but also the theme is much more warlike than other versions. The players have two tribes with which to invade the Roman empire, lay waste to its cities and establish kingdoms of their own.

The board is an abstraction of the map of Europe, with areas like all Settler boards. However, there are cities at some of the intersections, and some intersections are connected by sea. Also the map is divided in five regions (roughly Germany, France, Spain and Southern and Northern Italy).

Struggle for Rome combines stationary (cities) and mobile (tribes) centres for resource gathering. The randomness of the dice rolls is limited by having four different numbers rolled each turn, and turn order is changed so that all players gather resources, spend these on units or developments, take actions with their tribes in turn, rather than combining all these in their own turn.

There's four resources in three terrain types (mountain, arable and pasture) in this game. There's a neat twist when you draw pasture cards, because they give you either horses or oxen, and you may need one and not the other at this particular moment. Arable land offers you grain and mountains bring stone.

Movement is based on arrows on hexsides. In theory you can move as far as you like, but withing limits of your available resources. You may cross one arrow for free but pay for all the following. Arrows on land cost a grain card or three gold, and arrows at sea cost one gold.

You can pillage or conquer cities. Both require that your tribe has enough tribesmen to overcome the defences of the city, expressed in the number of its towers. When a town is pillaged, the countered placed on it before the start of the game is revealed. This shows whether tribesmen are lost in the attack and what the loot is. This may be gold, a pasture or a development card. When conquering a city, no loot is received, but the town now constitutes a victory point and generates resources in the bordering areas. However, it also ties down tribesmen. A tribe cannot conquer until it has pillage cities in three different regions.

As in many Settler variants, you strive to collect 10 victory points. As we've seen, each conquered city brings you one point, but there's a few alternatives that can determine your strategy for the game, as you can see in the two examples below.

Notice that southern Britain is included, but as two areas of wasteland

The first victory  last week was rather haphazard, as I bought a bunch of development cards early, that handed me two victory points on a plate. I then decided to go for Scourge of Rome by plundering cities in all five regions. After that I had some trouble to build enough towns, as my resources were coming in only slowly. In a neat move I denied my main competitor (who had extra points for his diplomats) the points for Scourge by conquering the last available town before his eyes. I won, but not far ahead of the competition.

The second game I ran for the extra points for conquering four cities with both my tribes. This strategy has the advantage of bringing in generous amounts of resources by the end of the game. Even though the competition was pretty fierce here as well, I managed to win again.

Don't be fooled though. Despite the warlike theme, the game does not call for much interaction between the players. You can't conquer or pillage the cities of other players. That allows for a bit of screwage by hemming other players in, but direct conflict is not on the cards.

So the game is still firmly in euroland, but much more dynamic than the original Settlers. There's less screwage and complexity than in Cities & Knights, but this is probably the best stand alone version of Settlers out there.

There's a small expansion involving the bigger cities, which you can download here.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Wandering in the past in the Czech Republic

I spent last week near the Giants' Mountains in the Czech Republic. On account of most people opting for alpine joys, there was little in the way of cultural refinement. The surroundings would have been promising, since our base was near Jicin, the main town in the famous Imperialist condottiere Wallerstein´s domains.

At least I had a closer look at the local brewery on a hike I managed to make. It looked pretty old.

A neat but disused building just outside Nova Paka

There was a hint of the old imperial legacy in this war monument to the fallen in WWI. Not a conflict many Czechs would feel proud of.

And in downtown Nova Paka, the once glorious Hotel Central had now been taken over by a nice Vietnamese textile salesman.
Note the plastic flowers at the entrance
And even though I didn't get to taste the local beer, I tasted another. It still had this pilzner taste, but carried 11% of alcohol.
It's all a blur now

Such time as I could spend, I dug into Britain After Rome, Robin Fleming's account of the years between the Roman 'occupation' and the occupation by the Normans. There's a lot of interesting stuff in there, mostly because it has a firm grounding in archeological evidence. This often trumps the historical 'evidence', as I also noticed earlier in my review of Edge of Empire, which deals with the Roman presence in the Low Countries.

Gamewise, I managed a game of chess and a few games of Dobble (or Spot It) with the kids. But I pride myself on two victories at de Val van Rome (Struggle For Rome) my favourite version of the Settlers line. More about that tomorrow.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

My Secret Satan of 2012

Well then, returned home today and lots to tell and so little time to tell it. So let's start with this:

One of the joys of Fortress Ameritrash is the annual Secret Satan ritual performed around Christmas. It's similar to Secret Santa, but instead a great way to get rid of the worthless crap you compile through bad buying decisions and unwanted gifts. If you feel a bit sentimental, you might slip in a few nice bits to soften the impact of your satanic evil.

But you also receive a load of junk yourself.  Last year I received a copy of Ascalion, the German version of Borderlands, but also a puzzling cd of country songs performed on a Moog synthesizer. So I was pretty apprehensive of what would befall me this year.

Oh boy, was I glad my package turned up late for Christmas…

This meant I would be on holiday when it arrived and I wouldn’t have to touch it for some time. Who knows what hand Lucifer would’ve dealt me?

So when I got back today, I picked it up at my neighbour’s. There was a bit of a wait at the door, but my apprehension was soon soothed when the old men appeared and happily handed me the package. He seemed in fine feather.

Much relieved I returned home, but decided to take precautions anyway. The box was sealed pretty tightly and I consulted a friend of mine who’s in waste disposal about the best approach. I improvised a hazmat suit.

Better safe than sorry, let´s move this MoFo outdoors

Then on to dissecting the box of doom.

This time Satan had not been beating about the bush. The hate was in my face as I stared at the behind of Reiner Knizia’s Modern Art in a dilapidated version. Many a time have I lamented my knowledge of this game and Satan throws it right back at me and my suboptimal talent for In Die Faust bidding. I left the box there to whither for some time and to let the foul stench wear off.

OH NO!!! I've been Kniziad!

As I returned I decided to dig deeper and removed Knizia´s Bane from the box, revealing a stunning edition of Jodorowsky’s Weapons of the Metabaron, a classic French comic. Of course Satan wouldn’t spare me a treacherous trick, as I lapsed on the series some time ago and have no clue where all this fits in the greater story line.

And still deeper down the box, I found this accursed amulet. Taunting me, Satan obviously despises me for my lack of needling skills. In fact, this proves to be the badge of the Colonial Marines in Aliens! That is awesomely cool! I will become a seamster, no matter how and sew this badge of honour on some fitting sleeve!

Bug Stomper: "We endanger species".

And then to top it all off: a kick in the shins on what first appears a friendly Christmas card…

It proves no such thing

Well, I guess I had that coming….

But then... much later, when I sat down to write this post, I thought of actually opening that box of Pandora, and found that apart from containing the accoutrements to the accursed Modern Art, it also held Mission; Red Planet! It looks almost complete, only missing the rules. But that can be fixed. That makes this year´s haul actually kind of awesome. And Satan rather like a big ol´ soft puss...

This game has been on my 'this must be really cool' list for a few years now

PS if you want to know what I inflicted on an unsuspecting victim, look here