Monday, 29 December 2014

Christmas 1989, part II - Under The Sound Of Flutes

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

These are the words:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


ps I never said the lyrics were particularly good

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

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

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Christmas 1989, part I - The Christmas Time Blues

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Secret Satan Has Arrived!

Look what I found under the Christmas Tree today!

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

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

Clearly, Satan knows.

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 20 December 2014

The Sublime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Guineas and Gunpowder. British foreign policy in the Napoleonic Wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d say this is a classic.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Lord of the Mind Bomb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

From Dynasty to Banzaï to Matchbox

There’s weird connections in your brain, ya know? Stuff that apparently has nothing to do with each other but makes sense because it all came together at some point in your life. One of those weird connections to me is this one.

The memory came back to me playing Kiss' best selling album Dynasty. It connects me to a holiday on Schiermonnikoog, late 1979 or early 1980. Schiermonnikoog is a small island just north of the Dutch coast and a regular place for our spring or autumn holidays around that time.

Right then my brother and I had discovered a series of comic books depicting the history of WWII. At the time of this holiday we had just bought the volume on the war in the Pacific, and I remember reading it while listening to Dirty Livin’, a Peter Criss song which would be called a guilty pleasure now. I never got all the volumes of the series of eight comic books, and some only a decade ago. But the ones we had then, they’re worn out and very dear to me.

I also remember my brother and me playing with our Matchbox American infantry on the wooden floor of our holiday house with Ace Frehley's Save Your Love, another of my favourites from the album, in the background. I still love those Matchbox plastics although I gave almost all of it away a long time ago.

Monday, 3 November 2014

In der Beschränkung zeigt sich den Meister

Brendan Simms has written a beautiful short book on the defence of the La Haye Sainte farm during the Battle of Waterloo. Its garrison throughout the day consisted mostly of Germans and Simms adds new life to their story by introducing a lot of new first hand accounts and academic literature.

The book focuses on the events during the battle, but also offers a good introduction to the King’s German Legion and its role in the long struggle against Napoleon, and a very interesting post-script on the legacy of Waterloo in Hannoverian military history.

My only and minor quibble is that it overemphasises the importance of the farm to the outcome of the battle, but I guess that to justify the writing of the book.

In the torrent of English language books published leading up to the 200th anniversary it stands out for fresh perspective and research. Probably the final account of the struggle for La Haye Sainte from the allied perspective for the foreseeable future.

Take away: given that all three farms across the allied front (La Haye Sainte, Hougoumont and Papelotte) fell or almost fell due to a lack of ammunition, you wonder why arrangements for supply hadn’t been made. Didn’t the British army encounter this problem in their battles in the Peninsula

Brendan Simms, The Longest Afternoon. The 400 Men Who Decided The Battle Of Waterloo.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Review: Verzet tegen Napoleon

Verzet tegen Napoleon
Verzet tegen Napoleon by Lotte Jensen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Nice book about the cultural side of the resistance against French domination of the Netherlands. Jensen shows that Dutch writers, poets and playwrights tried to maintain a separate identity by emphasising ‘typically Dutch’ characteristics like homeliness, frugality and . Under Napoleon’s brother Louis that separate identity was still officially promoted, but after the ‘reunion’ in 1810 it was increasingly subjected to imperial standardisation.

There were also attempts to express the resistance and grief caused by the loss of independence. These harkened back to historical parallels like the Batavian Revolt against the Roman Empire and the Revolt against Spain as well as Biblical references to the struggles of Israel.

To current readers the poetic qualities of these works will not have much value in themselves and they are mostly interesting for their social significance.

Best read in conjunction with Joor's Het Lam en de Adelaar

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Monday, 27 October 2014

Review: The Prussian Army of the Lower Rhine 1815

The Prussian Army of the Lower Rhine 1815
The Prussian Army of the Lower Rhine 1815 by Peter Hofschröer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A pretty solid effort by the Hof, building on previous work. There's a few jibes against anglo-saxon historiography, as expected. What I liked best was the section quickly detailing the origins, uniform and equipment of each regiment, showing what a hodgepodge the Army of the Lower Rhine was. Bonus is the information on the North German Federal Corps.

Excrutiatingly, there are no references anywhere in the booklet!

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Review: The Cognitive Challenge of War: Prussia 1806

The Cognitive Challenge of War: Prussia 1806
The Cognitive Challenge of War: Prussia 1806 by Peter Paret

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Excellent combination of military, art, social and intellectual history of the Prussian defeat at Jena and Auerstedt in 1806, and how it affected Prussian (and German) society, army and politics. Finally Paret distills this in an discussion of Clausewitz' theories on warfare, which he shows were influenced by much more than just military events.

I love how Paret weaves books like Kleist's The Prince of Homburg and paintings like The Chasseur in the Woods into his argument. Fascinating in their own right, especially in their relevance at the time they were made, they also have a wider significance.

One of the bravest books by a military historian.

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Saturday, 25 October 2014

Review: De Adelaar En Het Lam: Onrust, Opruiing En Onwilligheid In Nederland Ten Tijde Van Het Koninkrijk Holland En De Inlijving Bij Het Franse Keizerrijk

De Adelaar En Het Lam: Onrust, Opruiing En Onwilligheid In Nederland Ten Tijde Van Het Koninkrijk Holland En De Inlijving Bij Het Franse Keizerrijk by Johan Joor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Joor looks at the level of civil unrest in the Kingdom of Holland (1806-10) and the 'Dutch' departments of the French Empire (1810-13). He shows that it was pretty high by European standards (despite never reaching full scale armed revolt such as in Spain or Southern Italy) and by Dutch standards of the 17th and 18th centuries. This contradicts earlier books that assumed resistance to French and French backed authority was low.

The highest levels were recorded in 1809 and 1813, with higher levels from 1810-13 than before. Most important source of unrest was military service, followed by tax and smuggling and general opposition to French or French-backed authority. Religious and civilian disputes were rarely behind large scale unrest.

In terms of participants and modes of protest, there is strong continuity with 18th century forms of unrest. Mostly lower middle class craftsmen and farmers (rather than urban and rural poor), a high participation of women and mostly very local and disciplined. Where the protest were non-traditional was in their opposition to expanding role and power of the state (conscription, taxation).

Excellent, based on extensive research of primary sources. Includes lots of case studies, background information on policies, and on the means at the disposal of the authorities to deal with unrest.

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Thursday, 23 October 2014

First Impressions and Final Thoughts on Spiel 2014

There was some stuff that I hardly saw but quickly formed an opinion about:

Good impression: Historia was very much enjoyed by my friends. It offers a two-axis take on civilization with room for conflict.

Battle of the Five Armies: looks great as ever (but many of the miniatures are the same), and similar to Battles of Middle Earth. But maybe we should play those more before buying this one.
Greenland: the premise is great, but it’s three players.

Quartermaster General: this could still be Axis&Allies with less combat
Raid & Trade: didn’t see it played or explained but looked as if it had a lot of numbers on counters and the board. Excellent minis and artwork though.

Lord of the Ice Garden looked great, but the unpainted miniatures expansion adds €40 to €55 for the basic game.

Bad impression: Athlas, Empire Engine (cube producing micro game), Swedish Parliament (although the policy axes were nice), The Walled City (looked like Carcassonne the City and ignored the contentious history of Londonderry), 8 Minute Empire expansion (there is something contradictory to a micro game expansion)

Missed: Night of the Grand Octopus (but it will be in stores at some point), €uro Crisis, Airborne Commander, Fantastiqa, Fief: France 1429, Luchador, Nothing Personal, Pamietne Historie, Patchistory, Pocket Imperium, Samuari Spirit, Shinobi Clans, Stimmvieh, Tiny Epic Kingdoms, Wir Sind Das Volk, Battle at Kemble’s Cascade

It seems like I’ll need to play less to see more. I did that the last few years but I think I prefer playing to running around.

So how did I feel about this Spiel?

Even though I’m no longer excited by this year’s euro offering (Arler Erde looks too much like Agricola and Panamax might be another multiplayer solo hit) and Sci Fi and Fantasy have become mainstream (almost everybody has by now jumped on the zombie bandwagon) there is still room for excitement and surprise.

The Polish publishers have blossomed by adopting euro mechanisms but they keep applying them to historical theme. Now Greek, Romanian, Spanish and even Indonesian publishers are following in their wake. There is still so much unused and unique theme around one might despair of the next generic fantasy game. Wallace still produces interesting games, even if they are occasionally flawed. And there are still publishers wanting to take risks.

It’s been a good year.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Mythotopia and Spiel 2014 shopping

Saturday's 'one more for the road' game was Mythotopia, Martin Wallace's new offering. It's a bit of a cop out, really, to apply a mechanism to a fantasy (or sci fi) theme, but it works out well enough. As in A Few Acres of Snow the deck building mechanism is subordinated to the map manouever. You build the deck from 4 basic cards and 6 area cards, which gives every player a unique set of resources (grain, gold, bricks and military goods). You can add to your hand by conquering new areas and buying cards from the market for gold. What cards are for sales changes from game to game.

Another familiar feature of Wallace games is that you can take two actions, chosen from a wide variety of options. Some of the cards in your hand provide extra options (instead of playing them for resources). Most actions require playing resource cards from your hand. When you invade an area, the war is only resolved by a player ending it as the first action of her turn. This can protract wars as players keep adding resources to an area and tipping the balance.

There are challenges to your hand management once your deck grows, but the game offers the opportunity to place cards in a 'reserve' so you can use them for permanent effects or to save them for a better opportunity. But placing cards into the reserve counts as an action. There are also a few cards that help you draw extra cards or search your discard pile. Let's see about killer combo's...

You score victory points for the number of areas you hold and a range of achievements, the standard three being castles, cities and roads, and possible other special conditions: areas conquered, successful defense or dragons killed. However, for every type of achievement, there is a limited amount of times they can be claimed.

Victory is determined by a player claiming victory as the first action of his turn. Any running wars are resolved then, but you can only claim victory if you end up with the most points after resolution. We ended up very close to each other which made it impossible to clinch victory in the end. So we decided on a four way tie. I hope this is a one off bug, and not a feature. Despite the ending a good finish to the gaming side of the weekend! With the varying selection of cards available on the market and the changing set of victory conditions ensures a fair amount of replayability.

So what did I buy?

My buying strategy this year was focused on games I was pretty sure would make it to the table. I think I’ve managed that well. I’ve shied away from the overly complicated, and 2 and 3 player games, leaving micro games and multiplayer. Lost Legacy: Starship, Unicum, Auge um Auge, Mat Goceng and Verone have all been dealt with in the previous posts.

 Lost Legacy: Flying Garden looks very much like the Starship game, but with another ending. The cards of Flying Garden and Starship can be mixed for variation.

I was torn between First to Fight and Race to the Rhine. The latter is a game that is very close in design to what I had in mind myself about the breakout from Normandy to the Rhine in autumn 1944, as a logistic struggle between three allied players, rather than two player campaign. It also looks good, but I didn’t take time to see how it plays because there were always people playing the demo.

First to Fight has all the players controlling Polish forces over the course of WWII. Because the Polish forces were few and widely scattered, I felt it is a great challenge to get all that into one game in a coherent way. In the end the decision was based on Race to the Rhine being three players which made it unlikely to hit the table regularly.

Marchia Orientalis and 15 Dias are both games with a strong historical theme, which I like. Maybe they end up being forgettable additions to the genre of tile laying respectively influence building games, but I’m eager to find out. 

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Just another day at Spiel 2014

After our pretty successful first day in Essen, we returned still burning with curiosity and enthusiasm.

Our first stroke on Friday was to try out Fire in the Lake at the UGG stand. We were quickly into the game as we’ve already played Cuba Libre. But while the mechanics are familiar, FitL is much more complex. There’s more units, more areas and possibly longer scenario’s. So we did a couple of enjoyable rounds, but not really knowing what would be a good strategy for each faction.

We then split up as two of us had arranged to play a prototype of Mahardika. This game about the Indonesian independence struggle has the feel of Pandemic, with a similar engine running ‘the Enemy’ (ie the Dutch colonial state and its allies) as the outbreaks. The main interest is how it ties in the history into the objective cards. You either solve two series of objectives, or you get defeated by the Enemy. It is hopeful to see this game coming from Indonesia.

Mahardika will not be published until later this year, but the publisher had Mat Goceng available, a simple card game where you duel your opponents with hidden identity and hidden objectives as the catch. I hope to play it soon.

We then reconvened to play Euphoria, a worker placement game that owes most of its appeal to the brilliant application of the theme to the board and game pieces. Brilliant green and orange, suitably dystopic locations such as the Incinerator of Historical Accuracy (it sounds even better in German).. It is also neat that the workers are dice and you roll for their value every time they are taken off the board. Some of mechanisms neatly tied into the theme such as the risk of too much knowledge leading to workers escaping, but the layer of theme remains thin overall. So if you like worker placement games, this might actually be one of the more fun to have around.

Then Tragedy Looper. One that has good reviews from folks at Fortress Ameritrash so I wanted to try it out. I was cast as the MasterMind, ie the bad guy/gm. I think it is a wise move that Z-Man have included a introductory guide for the Mastermind in the first game because it really is tough to play it straight off the bat. I still made a clumsy mistake on the second day of the second loop which cost me the game. The players did well in deducting several of the character roles but not all.

As a treat we got to play the prototype of Conan Hyborian Quests, which will Kickstarter in January. The mechanism seem fine for a skirmish game, with the players spending energy and deciding whether they recover fast or slow. As all the scenarios have a time limit these are important decisions. The Bad Guy/Mastermind has a similar mechanic, and he uses energy to activate units or to roll emergency defense.

The evening was started with a quick game of Lost Legacy: Starship. It is strongly modeled on Love Letters with a slightly different ending (players having the opportunity to guess who has the ‘starship’). Nice, but I’m not sure that it will be worth it having several of these.

The main feature was Onward to Venus, a solid Martin Wallace steam punk fiction design. Ranging between Venus and the Kuiper Belt, the great European nations of the early 20th century take to the exploitation of these planets’ mineral resources, and some occasional big game hunting. The joy is in the possible crises on the planets (eg Martian attacks) and the bonus cards. After a tight finale we retired to bed well satisfied with another long and hard day’s work.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Spiel 2014 day one

I went to Essen with a rather long list of games I looked out for but it always proves hard to check everything you want and luckily you also run into happy accidents

Hyperborea was a great start to the show. It allows for different strategies, offers some interesting events and sets up for conflict. It’s rightly been likened to Eclipse. We went through a few rounds and then decided it was a winner.

Run, Fight or Die is the umptiest zombie game and I realized I was suffering from zombie fatigue after a decade of exposure. And although there is some kind of a challenge in there, it is mostly multiplayer solo.

Spartacus is one of the first games by Gale Force Nine and although it probably isn’t the edgiest design, the intrigue is fun. Trash talk flows naturally and you find yourself booing gladiators that don’t try hard enough.

Theme and the fact that it is published by a Greek company drew me to Gothic Invasion. How can you not get excited for the war that inflicted one of the heaviest defeats on the Roman Empire and saw the death of an Emperor? The designer gave us an overview. Play is card driven with 2 or 3 options per card. Forces and objectives are asymmetric, so there is a lot of maneuver on the map. You can see there is a lot of promise in there. Although it can be played with more than two, there is no rivalry or separate objective. It just didn’t do it for my friends so I was faced with buying a game that wouldn’t get played.

Time Masters tries a new approach to deck building by making time the key unit. It works, because the game speeds up and slows down. But I didn’t feel like I was achieving anything worthwhile by building the deck. Somehow I couldn't find a way to hold the cards due to the horizontal design. And who asks €35 for a card game these days? [edit: apparently I was misinformed at the booth or I misunderstood the price: the publisher has informed me the price in stores should be €30 and would have been €25 in Essen] 

The evening in the bar and restaurant was spent with Unicum, Verone/Council of Verona and Auge um Auge. All three are excellent for beer and pretzels. Unicum offers a small box for a short game with a neat betting war hidden in it. This is fun, but I just wish the ‘uniqueness’ argument mattered a bit more. If you can get into the spirit of bogus arguments that helps.

I think that Verone is a truly great microgame, with all trying to influence the outcome of the feud between the Montagues and Capulets. It is worthwhile getting the French edition because I like the art better (and it automatically includes the Poison expansion, which is a neat addition). Pic above is the English version.

I’m not sure about Auge um Auge though. It is mostly a dice rolling fest with an alliance system. There are some abilities that help you create series, which you need to inflict black eyes on your opponents. But the alliance system is what makes the game interesting, because ganging up and keeping the front runner out of fist fights is the key. It may be a bit long for the amount of fun it holds. Art work nice, as always with Sphinx games.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Spiel 2014 longlist

Having browsed the lists of games coming out at Spiel this week, and with some suggestions from others, I have come to this list of games I will be looking for. It's adding up to about fifty, so I've narrowed it down to over a dozen games that I really would like to know more about and the rest would be nice. Of course I've now got an idea what they are about.

Stuff that gives me a good feeling

  • 15 Dias. My old time friend: el Conde-Duque de Olivares
  • 1944: Race to the Rhine. Always been fascinated by the logistics of this campaign. Check out Matt Thrower's review
  • Coup: Reformation. I just loved Coup.
  • First to Fight. will be interesting to see what they can make out of this
  • Gothic Invasion. great subject, plus multiplayer. And good to see Greek publishers attending!
  • Luchador! Mexican Wrestling Dice. Dice rolling, and looks good.
  • Battle of the Five Armies. The guys from War of the Ring at it again. Not an Essen release but who cares?
  • Mahardika. Fascinating to find a game about the Indonesian War of Liberation. As a Dutchman I'm used to watch it from the other perspective so I should learn a lot from this (maybe more about current perceptions of the war in Indonesia than what actually happened). But I'll be curious about their handling of British troops, Dutch internees in camps, Dutch atrocities, Moloccans etc
  • Marchia Orientalis. As a fan of the Holy Roman Empire (although I do not seek a return to it), this could be right up my alley
  • Mat Goceng. Interesting piece of Dutch/Indonesian colonial history from the Indonesian viewpoint.And good to see Indonesian publishers attending!
  • Mythotopia. Wallace's multiplayer version of A Few Acres of Snow
  • Raid and Trade. theme and minis promising
  • Samurai Spirit. The 7 samurai in game form, with a very postive review from SU&SD
  • Tragedy Looper. See Charlie Theel's review on 2D6
  • Wir sind das Volk! Interesting to see that somebody thinks East Germany could have beaten West.

Check out my list on boardgamegeek if you want to have a closer look at the games. 
And the Spielbox overview of all the games released at Spiel. So you can figure out stand numbers if you intend to visit yourself.

I will be tweeting @jurdj as always.

Stuff that might be good, but perhaps not

I might pick up one the cheaper ones

  • €uro Crisis
  • Abraca... what?
  • Abyss
  • Airborne Commander
  • Athlas: Duel for Divinity
  • Conan: Hyborian Quests
  • Corto: The Secrets of Venice
  • Cyclades: Titans
  • Dixit: Daydreams
  • Empire Engine
  • Fantastiqa
  • Fief: France 1429
  • Fresh Fish
  • Greenland
  • Guatemala 1954
  • Hyperborea
  • Illegal
  • Lost Legacy
  • Memorable Stories
  • New Dawn
  • Night of the Grand Octopus
  • Onward to Venus
  • Patchistory
  • Pocket Imperium
  • Quartermaster General
  • Romans Go Home!
  • Stimmvieh
  • Swedish Parliament 2014
  • The Walled City: Londonderry & Borderlands
  • Tiny Epic Kingdoms
  • Unicum
  • Uruk II: Die Entwicklung Geht Weiter
  • Vérone

Review: German Infantryman vs Soviet Rifleman – Barbarossa 1941

German Infantryman vs Soviet Rifleman – Barbarossa 1941
German Infantryman vs Soviet Rifleman – Barbarossa 1941 by David Campbell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Describes the fighting of German an Soviet troops in the opening stages of Operation Barbarossa, so a combination of first line Soviet troops and the new armies that were hastily thrown into battle in July.

There's a lot of Glantz but not much in terms of accounts by Soviet participants, which would have been a great boon in understanding what it was like for Russian soldiers.

The choice to show three encounters from this early phase of Barbarossa can be defended although I think a comparison of fighting in June/July, August/September and October-December would have better shown the development of fighting capabilities of the Wehrmacht and Red Army over time.

I guess the Combat series is picking up for me, but it has not reached its potential.

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Friday, 10 October 2014

Review: The Autobiography of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper

The Autobiography of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper
The Autobiography of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper by Scott Frost

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

With the return of Twin Peaks to the screen I could help picking this one off the shelf. Ranging from the weird to the hilarious. How can we not be interested in how Dale Cooper came to find his strong mental powers, when he first discovered coffee and pie, the letter he received from J. Edgar Hoover, how he lost his cherry or how he met Windom Earle?

Some of the stuff on the Teresa Banks murder conflicts with what happens in Fire Walk With Me, but small beef.

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Monday, 6 October 2014

Return to Dux

It had been a long time since my first game of Dux Brittaniarum, and I was glad to get another go last Saturday. My knowledge of the rules was rusty and although I picked up the basics soon enough, I didn't get the finesse of card hand management.

Dick and I set up a campaign in the kingdom of Caerwent, where former Saxon auxiliaries had turned on their former Roman employers around 550 AD. In spring my Saxons under lord Artelric ambushed a Romano-British waggon train. And although I successfully distracted some good enemy units with some warriors, I always found myself one step behind in a tit for tat with the rest of the enemy. It had been a pretty chaotic raid, and by the end Artelric's men were slowly rounded up in a small area. A last ditch attempt to capture the wagons failed and the remnants of his force fled.

Later that summer the rejuvenated warband returned to raid a village but just as his men started to search the houses for loot, the Romano-British appeared out of nowhere. Again, I was on the receiving end and despite some serious retribution again Artelric's men left the field empty handed.

By now Artelric's nickname The Martyr has raised some suspicion among his following about his chances of success in the future. Getting wounded every time surely doesn't help although his willingness to get into the thick of the fighting stands him in good stead. It is to be hoped that he and his devout henchmen One-Eyed Aelfwyn and Ine the Pious will be able to turn around the series of bad luck, because there is little time until winter and payment to king Cwichelm is due...