Friday, 22 March 2013

Assaye, or how Anglo-centric history can be a pain in the arse

I Read Simon Millar's Osprey Campaign book on the battle of Assaye. In this battle Arthur Wellesley defeated a Maratha alliance to establish British control over a central part of India. I was hoping this would give me some background on Wellington's formative years as a commander.

And while the book is probably okay in terms of explaining the campaign and the battle, it has a fatal and unforgivable flaw. It's completely anglo-centric. We have no clue about the motivations and actions of the Indian commanders other than through English eyes. Just look at the bibliography.

Millar seems oblivious of this and even strengthens the bias of his sources by adopting their language and mindset. How can he not see that his perspective language is extremely coloured? All the adverbs used for the Indian rulers are negative: sullen, vengeful, indolent, corrupt. The Brits (and often their allies) are always disciplined, resolute, gallant.

Look at this description of the preliminary negotiations to the campaign, which has the English supporting one faction of the Maratha Confederacy against another. According to Millar,Wellesley's brother and governor of the East India Company 'played his diplomatic game with consummate skill' which comes down to 'he demanded absolute submission from him'. Not even the slightest hint of reflection on the fact that this was the legitimate ruler of a foreign country.

All the pretty excuses of colonialists to intervene  pass by: bad administration, the fear of French influence etc. As if that is enough reason to take over a country. Because the EIC was not an institute with the aim of civilisation, but of profit making and exploitation.

Besides this guy is a Wellington fan boy. He even has Wellesley leaping 'nimbly' from his wounded horse.

While this is probably not a badly researched book it falls hook line and sinker for imperialist (orientalist?) reasoning. I could have understood this if this had been a book published in the 1960s, but not in 2006. It would be funny if it wasn't bad judgment.

Trouble is of course that this is just a stronger expression of presumed superiority that a certain strand of Anglo-Saxon historians displays when writing about foreigners (I will give some examples concerning Waterloo in the future). It makes it easy to understand the exasperation many of their allies have felt in the past. It also makes it hard work to read these kinds of books.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Pretty colours: kids' games

Had a quick game of some Disney princess game, which was fun, actually, especially with the magic wand that did the dice rolling. It was all pretty pink.

Admit it, this looks good

It all went smoothly and fast for me, but of course I was captured by the evil queen just before I was about to enter the castle. No dancing with the prince for me!

Okay, maybe I was taking it all a little bit too seriously...

Also had an introduction to Skip-Bo junior which worked surprisingly well with two 5 year olds! There's some depth to this game, and they handled it well. Something to remember.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Twilight Companions

I may have remarked sometime before that I spent many a rainy wednesday in the local library when I was young. I didn't read books but went through the collection of comics and quickly shifted to the adult section when I was about 10.

One of the comics that made the biggest impression on me was what I thought to be a two part series about two youngsters in the Middle Ages hooking up with a lone knight and wondering into some half fantasy world with kobolds and dreadful monsters. It was pretty dark. The style reminded me of the Passengers of the Wind.

I did try a few times to remember what the name of the series had been but got confused with les Tours de Bois-Maury by Hermann, or de Torens van Schemerwoude in Dutch, which also features a knight and some youngsters. Not a bad series at all of course, but not what I had been looking for.

Then I was in the comic shop on Saturday and I had the insight to just ask the proprietor, who immediately knew what I was talking about. I had been right about the style because it was the same artist: Francois Bourgeon. The series is called The Twilight Companions (De Gezellen van de Schemering in Dutch, no wonder I got confused!) and actually consisted of four books. So much the better!

The series is now sold in a complete edition
The books are still brilliant and reading it had a profound sobering effect on me. The story, set in Hundred Years War France, is of a former mercenary captain trying to make amends for his cruel past. He is accompanied by two survivors, a boy and a girl, he rescues and serve him in return.

There´s lots of bickering between the two kids and all characters have their flaws. But Bourgeon manages to make us care about them: foolish, cowardly or vengeful. Their ultimate fate struck a very powerful chord with me and is on my mind very much still. Likewise, very few of the supporting characters are solely evil, but rather twisted, wounded, corrupted or victims of fate.

The peasants and townsfolk are not hapless spectators or victims, but often willing accomplices and fickle. Most of them are cruel but pitiful survivors of a pretty hopeless age. That fits pretty well with my world view, but given that this is what I read when I was 10 or 11, who knows to what extent these books shaped it?

The main theme in all these books is revenge and redemption. Most characters have devils from their past, and must make difficult choices to accept new ones. The fact that often they have little influence on those decisions, or the outcomes, makes it  a tragic story.

The drawings are stunning. Facial expressions are rich and subtle, the monsters terrifying, the countryside, towns and castles atmospheric. The many 'extra' images, for example the owl in one of the later books, are subplots that effectively convey the atmosphere of the story.

Now I've found them back, Mariotte, Anicet and the knight will forever be my Twilight Companions.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Book shoppping: comics and Ospreys

Some good book shopping on Saturday with Michiel!

The best time was actually spent in the comic shop. Hadn't been in a long time and I got myself the new Okko (part 8 in the series), a new collection of short reports by Joe Sacco, published in the Anglo-Saxon world as Journalism, a book of pretty easy football jokes which may spur on one of the kids into reading (so with as few words as possible), a collection of Lovecraft stories adapted to comics by a Dutch cartoonist and finally a long lost prize from my youth: The Twilight Companions by Francois Bourgeon.

The bonus prize was the free comic for the national comic week. Good timing!

Look out the coming weeks for reviews.

Also bought a few Osprey's at Atleest in my hometown, a specialised bookshop combining anthropology, archeology with Chinese, Japanese, Middle Eastern, Indian and Egyptian studies. And a nice section of military history, among which the various Osprey series.

I picked up the new The Portuguese in the Age of Discovery 1300-1580, The New Zealand Wars 1820-72, British and Prussian Napoleonic Tactics and the Fortresses of the Peninsular War 1808-14.

Left a lot for later as well (eg the one on castles of the Teutonic knights in the Baltic), and there was some stuff out of stock that I would have liked (the Raid series on the James-Younger gang  and the Napoleonic Cavalry tactics). And there's been a reprint of Arthur and the Anglo-Saxon Wars, which is expected to arrive soon.

The good news is of course that I will have to go back some day.

Ps Musical accompanyment for this week: Black Rebel Motor Cycle Club. This Friday I'll be seeing them live!

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Evo - my kind of evolution game

Apart from F├╝rstenfeld, last Friday we also played Evo. And while I was pleased but underwhelmed by the former, I was very pleased and impressed with the latter. Evo combines some sound mechanics with ample interaction and conflict.

The box art tells the story of the game: life is a war of all against all

Every player in the game leads a species of dinosaurs on its way to the ultimate crash down of the comet that will only leave one species standing. If you have gained the most evolution points by then, you survive (=win).

As in all evolution games (eg Ursuppe/Primordial Soup, Evolution, Dominant Species), you acquire new traits over the course of the game that will help your species to prosper, either by adapting to your natural environment, increased speed, higher birth rate or superior combat skills than your competitors, either offensive or defensive.

In Evo, there's a couple of main traits and a load of special ones. The most important are extra legs (you start with two) for movement, heat or cold resistance and horns for combat. And there's a trait that will keep the costs of other traits down (a genetical talent for adaptation). These will turn up randomly at the start of the turn, so you can't count on them being available all the time.

My player board after the first round, in which I acquired an extra (3rd) leg 
The turn starts with the survival roundel which indicates which areas on the board are safe, conditionally safe or outright dangerous. This is determined randomly with the general direction being clockwise, but there's also the odd counterclockwise movement or double step movement. This may suddenly leave your species bound for destruction at the end of the turn.

But the action really takes off with the bidding contest for the new traits that become available. This also helps to establish the turn order. The starting player puts his pawn on the evolution board, normally picking the trait of his preference, with the lowest bid of 0. Bidding is done with evolution points (=victory points), so you must try to keep your bid as low as possible.

The bidding board on the left and the survival roundel on the right
Other players then also place their pawns, but if one of them also wants the trait one of the previous players has chosen, he can overbid. That releases the pawn of the player being overbidden who then place his pawn somewhere else.

You can imagine that this triggers a round of replacements as players move to their second best option, freeing up other pawns. You can also imagine that some players will place their pawn strategically to force other players to bid higher and to move to another place (and point in the player order) they actually prefer.

The action then moves to the map board, where you can move around (based on the number of legs (=movement points) you have and attack others.  The special combat dice determines the outcome. Your chances of destroying your opponent are improved by having more (or bigger) horns.

The map, late in the game when players had scattered.
My pinko'saurs waiting to make their move
After movement and combat, your species procreate into free, adjacent areas. But the game ends with all animals in the wrong place dying. Having heat or cold resistance gives you more options, although the number of animals that you can save this way are limited. It all remains a balancing act.

At this point you score new evolution points based on your population.

Rob won the game by increasing his population quickly and adapting to cold and heat. He also got the trait allowing him to flee his enemies, so we could not go after him to cull his numbers. He ended up with 36 point IIRC. Jeroen was close behind by skillful bidding (I think 31 points).

My board at the end of the game: 4 legs, 3 horns and some cold resistance at last

My strategy of mobility and aggression did work to some extent, because I kept most others at a safe distance, but it invited some retaliation as well.  As I rarely managed to keep more than four of my dinos alive, you can imagine that betting power at the start of the game was limited, especially by the end of the game when new traits were less worthwhile than early on. I sucked at bidding however, and got my traits only late in the game, settling for event cards which in the end proved of little value. Still 25 points or so.

Everybody was so scared of Gerard's killer babies that he received some preemptive attacks. And because he didn't have horns, he lost most of them. Andries got himself stuck in a corner despite having useful traits, especially the adaptation bonus (ie discount on new traits).

But this is a good, fun game. Lots of meaningful and bloody interaction, tough choices and mechanics that work within the theme. Go fetch!

Monday, 11 March 2013

Euros and beer - not a winning combination

Played Friedeman Friese's F├╝rstenfeld last Friday. This game is a true euro: it is about selling resources to breweries so you can build a palace. It has deckbuilding, optimisation and is essentially multiplayer solo, the only interaction is through the market.

Beer, an inspired choice of theme!
Not that it matters much in a euro

The basic challenge is that you need all the space on your player board to build the six parts of your palace. It is also all the room you have during the game for fields and buildings. So by the end of the game income can become really tight.

Crappy pic of the player board. Note that there are six spaces on it.

The amount of  hops, barley and water  you gain each turn depends on the fields on your player board. You then sell them all to one of the breweries on the central board. Each brewery has its own beer recipe, and so a different demand for ingredients. The mechanism to represent supply and demand is pretty straight forward but works well.

Not such an inspiring board, but it hides a good market mechanism
On the far left you can see the coloured discs which indicate player order. Players with the lowest income go first.

Each turn you draw three cards. You can build a maximum of two on your player board on your turn and hold on to one af the end. This means that on a normal turn you'll have a choice from four cards, although you can use buildings to increase your draw (and thus go through your deck faster) and the number of cards you can retain.

The deck contains the six parts of your palace, improved fields and all kinds of buildings that will give you cash, or allow you to draw more cards, have discounts on other buildings etc. The choice of buildings allows you to pursue different strategies.

We saw Rob building parts of the palace as soon as he could, which limited his income. Andries got a building that allowed him to keep more cards in hand so he could save palace parts until he was able to build them.

I tried to go through my deck as quickly as possible, discarding stuff and increasing my number of cards drawn. This allowed me to build up a large war chest, but meant that I was too late getting to my last three palace parts in hand.

I think Andries was first to build all six parts, but since others built there six part in the same turn and I'm not sure who had most money left (the tie breaker) I'm not sure he actually won.

[edit: in fact it was Jeroen who first built all six parts, but both Rob and Andries also did on the same turn. Andries had the most money (tiebreaker) but had misplaced one of his palace tiles earlier in the game. Rob and Jeroen had the same amount of money so both finished first.]

The game is good fun, not too long or too mathsy. It is easily explained and picked up while the deckbuilding strategies will help replayability. Its appearance is traditional euro design. All this makes it an okay game to play but not one I would feel the need to own given the dozens of alternatives.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

How to lose an Empire

The Defence And Fall Of Singapore 1940-1942,  by Brian P. Farrell

Although Farrell presents his case very well, it gets repetitive and would have been better if shorter. But the narrative is shocking. At almost all levels, the British empire proved incapable of living up to the expectations it fostered in the Interbellum.

The British Empire based it's Far Eastern and Pacific strategy in the Interbellum on the defense of Singapore, but never committed the resources to put the plans into practice. The target of moving over a major battle fleet within a short span of time also quickly became an empty promise. The Empire's elite knew this but didn't dare reveal, because that would have lost them the trust and support of the colonies and especially Australia.

Then when war breaks out, it becomes even harder to build up in East Asia. Troops even get withdrawn to the Mediterranean Theatre, with Indian and Australian contingents following. There is a slow strengthening of defenses in the Far East as Japanese attack becomes imminent. Troops are shuttled back, but planning is poor. The airforce bases are built too far forward, which in turn spreads the ground forces too thin. There is even an idiotic plan for a spoiling attack into Thailand, which puts the troops on the wrong foot. And when the Japanese attack the scheme is abandoned.

Fleet Force Z (Prince of Wales and Repulse) arrives just in time, but is nothing like a major battle fleet. It's immediate loss is futile, while air cover (which was the reason for forward positioning of air bases and accompanying infantry) is bungled.

British forward forces are pressed back by Japanese aggressive attacks. The Japanese are weaker in numbers, but take the calculated risk of keeping up the pressure. British units gradually unravel. The defensive lines nearer Singapore are also broken through, mostly because no there's no strategic guidance and cooperation between divisions.

The Empire troops retreat in confusion to the island of Singapore, where reinforcements have arrived. Imperial forces still outnumbers the Japanese, but there still is no higher level co-ordination and the distrust between senior command and (Australian) sub commanders reaches bottom level. So when Japanese attack, there is no effective answer to a local breakthrough and Japanese achieve a remarkable victory.

The British lost the conflict on all levels: political, strategical and tactical. The politicians made promises they knew they could not keep (nothing new there), but even then the collapse of the defense was much worse than necessary. Empire forces were defeated by lack of coherent strategy resulting in dispersal of forces, lack of higher level co-ordination, mutual distrust, insufficient training in local circumstances, low quality of training for modern war in general.

Japanese succeeded despite being a smaller force working along tenuous supply lines. They made the right decisions about the nature of warfare in Malaya, despite not having previous experience in jungle terrain (contrary to the myth of Japanese being natural jungle fighters), and about keeping pressure on British forces. Also the troops and leadership had battle experience and good morale. This meant they were better able to deal with battlefield fluctuations than their untried and amateur opponents.

The loss of Singapore shattered the illusion that Great Britain could effectively defend its East Asian Empire, which meant that from then on the dominions looked to U.S. for help and the nationalist movements worked towards independence.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Good Horse / The Cardigans

Okay, this blog is about games and history, officially like. But this song just rocks. I've played it dozens of times over the last week, figured out the tabs and played and sung with the worst western twang, swallowed tears when ms Nina Persson builds up to 'but things remain no different than before' and cried 'These are the promises i can keep´ over and over again while riding my bike with the dust in my face.

It´s that awesome.

For those insisting on a military history angle, there´s a video of this song with scenes of the charge of the Australian cavalry at Bersheeba in 1917 from the movie Light Horse under it. You can find it easily. I just prefer the version with Ms Persson in it.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Doing Sean McLachlan a small favour - and you

I 'met' Sean McLachlan through his excelent Osprey book on the battle of Adowa. I then found out he's been doing lots of interesting stuff in distant places as a travel writer as well as writing some weird American Civil War and WWII horror fiction. He's also done other Osprey books on the James-Younger gang, Shelby's Raid and Civil War guerilla tactics that makes him tick several boxes of curiosity in my book.

Now it happens that his old blog, under his own name, has been hijacked by Chinese squatters. And because he's an interesting and independent author, this was a good occasion to draw your attention to him, as well as helping his new blog up in the google rankings so the squatters lose out.

And because Sean is such an interesting guy, I think you will forgive me for that.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Scandinavian crusades in the Baltic

Michiel bought a bunch of second hand Ospreys from the Dutch equivalent of eBay. And this one he already had, so I got it from him (it's good to have friends!). It's a quick read, but not necessarily a very worthwhile one.

For me the book was badly organised and confusing. The language is a bit convoluted sometimes, and David Nicolle might have done a better job editing his Swedish (?)co-author.

It already starts with the exposition of the Baltic crusades. This doesn´t go much farther than generalisations about causes and motivations you can find everywhere. Then you get a chronology and a very short introduction about the organisation of the armies, which basically says we don´t know much about it. Strangely, much of this context is stuck on at the end of the book.

Most of the book is about weapons and armour, broken up in four time periods for both the Scandinavians and their Baltic opponents. This leads to fragmentation and repetition, because in every one of these some development in the make of swords must be mentioned, even if it is irrelevant.

The part on strategy and tactics, despite the terrible writing style, offers the best bits of the book. The influence of the terrain and the very small size of the forces involved explain how the campaigns were slow and grinding and stuck to main rivers and siegecraft. And unlike the west, the winter was a season suited to campaigning.

As always, the illustrations by Angus McBride are the real boon. But that won´t save this book. It doesn´t inspire further research, nor does it give you the barest necessities to start a wargame army. It could have done with a couple of examples of important campaigns.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Birthday list

I've drawn up a list of stuff I would like for my birthday. It's a few months in coming, but since I never have an idea when the question is asked, I now have collected a few things, from the mundane to the slightly silly. I may add new things later, but this seems at least enough for now.

Martin Bossenbroek, De Boerenoorlog
A history of the Boer War from the Dutch perspective, which is very different from the British. When I was a student I did work for this guy, collecting street names connected to the Boer War. I now live in just such a neighbourhood.

Dick van Galen Last. De Zwarte Schande
A book on African soldiers in Europe in WWI, not only looking at their recruitment and role in combat, but also on the social impact of black men 'at loose' on a different continent. Since I hope to some day finish my French colonial troops for Through the Mud and the Blood I'm highly interested in this.

Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don't
I love Nate's blog FiveThirtyEight which does such good work on US elections. As a wannabe scientist, the business of predictions is endlessly fascinating.

Delicious cookbook
I used to buy the magazine occasionally and always liked the recipes. Special, but manageable for an untrained cook like me. It is easier on my shelf space if I get the book.

Electric toothbrush 
Yup, I can actually use two

 Hermann, Jeremiah comics
When I was in primary school I´d spend rainy wednesday afternoons in the local library and read comics. I was quickly bored with the kids´stuff and went on to the adult French stuff, like MacCoy, Blueberry and Simon of the River. But I never read the post apocalyptic Jeremiah series until I picked up a single copy a few years back. It was very good and really gets the mood right.

 Lead Adventures miniatures, The Last Project
These guys make beautiful minis, and their post apocalyptic Last Project series nails the genre.

 Joe Jackson, Beat Crazy.
For me this is his best album, more angry than ever, less polished than later and as good songcraft as anything. Although not a commercial success, the album is great for its combination of punk, ska and reggae (not particularly rare at the time). I used to own it for a while but gave it away, to a girl of course (no didn't work), thinking I could easily find it again, but NO! I keep looking out for it occasionally, but haven't tried online.

Just a taster: called B.I.O.L.O.G.Y.