Games

Unreliable sources

The research for writing Long Live Death was quite challenging.  I quickly learned that there was lots of information on the Spanish Civil War, but much of it was false.  It is one thing to be biased, and portray various actions in the most negative way possible, but it another thing entirely to simply state things that are not true.

For example, Hugh Thomas has a clear bias in favor of the Republic, but his information is meticulously documented and generally reliable (though I did catch a couple of errors in his very complicated narrative).

Antony Beevor, on the other hand, is a total hack.  If he told me the sun was shining I would assume it wasn't until proven otherwise.  His bigotry and deception by omission renders everything else has written suspect.

The Romans recognized this the logic of this, enshrining the phrase: falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus (false in one thing, false in everything) in the Western legal tradition. 

I'm sad to say that when working on Walls of Men, this same principle destroyed my trust in a web site I had visited and enjoyed for years: strategypage.com.

I'm not entirely sure of who posts there now, but back in the day it was product of the longstanding collaboration of Jim Dunnigan and Austin Bay, two old-school wargamers who had collaborated in the best-selling A Quick and Dirty Guide to War.

During the Global War on Terror, the site had been very useful in providing updates on Iraq, Afghanistan and other hot spots typically ignored by the mainstream media.  However, over time I noticed that the site was often irrationally optimistic about American operations. 

To be fair, it was possible that their sources were simply lying to them.  After all, we know that a great deal of internal communication within the US military was fabricated to justify ongoing operations and conceal the magnitude of failure from the American public.

However, when I began to dig into the inner workings of the Chinese military, the errors were too glaring to ignore.  The breaking point for me was a post which described the Peoples' Liberation Army as being "all-volunteer" since the 1980s.  This is absolutely not true.  (I can't find the specific post because the site's organization is abysmal.)

Multiple published sources (which I used in my book) confirm this, and reputable web sites also state that conscription still happens, though no one is sure exactly what percentage of the PLA is recruited using it.  Either way, it's just plain wrong, and that kind of error casts doubt over everything on the site.  I now have to wonder how much else they go wrong, and while there may be some value to determining whether it was due to bias or ignorance, the inescapable fact is that they simply cannot be trusted.

 

 

 


Days of Wargaming Passed - West End's R.A.F. and the Heyday of Gamer Geekdom

This past weekend was drill for my old unit, so in addition to sleeping in, I set up a wargame I haven't time to play for years.

The game is question was R.A.F., a solitaire game of the Battle of Britain.  Designed by John Butterfield and published by West End Games, R.A.F. is somewhat unique insofar as there is no option for a second player.  Once wargaming became big enough for market research, it was clear that most games were played solo and many of them had ratings for both complexity and solitaire play included in their advertising.

I'm not here to do a review per se - you can find a complete inventory on boardgamegeek.com or grognards.com, the point here is that this is how I spend much of my youth - playing wargames, with or without human opponents.

Wargaming could be competitive, but for me it was a way to interact with history.  Instead of just reading a book, I could become and active participant (usually while reading books on the topic).  Much of what I know about military history was acquired by playing a wargame on various conflicts.

West End Games was an eclectic outfit, and one without any particular focus.  In addition to R.A.F. it published the brilliant Imperium Romanum II, a wonderful and sweeping study of the Roman Empire.  Yet much of the company's product line centered on less erudite topics, such as sci-fi roleplaying (Paranoia) and some licensed products.

It seems incredible now, but back in the 80s, obscure lightweights like West End obtained the licenses for both Star Wars and Star Trek gaming systems.  At that time, both franchises were assumed to be "kid stuff" and so anyone willing to try to make a buck on them in the new niche hobby of gaming was welcome to try for a relatively modest fee.

West End took the ball and ran with it, particularly in the Star Wars Roleplaying Game.   A plethora of supplements, adventures and other aids flooded the marketplace and were eagerly devoured by fans left high and dry by the end of the original trilogy. 

I was not one of them.  I bought a couple of the wargames, but by that time I was putting Star Wars in the past, along with other 'kid stuff.' 

How times have changed!  Now even superheroes are unabashedly followed by people well into adulthood.  We truly live in an age where childhood never ends and the phrase "act your age" had no apparent meaning.  Back in the 1980s Bill Shatner could infamously tell a bunch of Trekkies in a Saturday Night Live skit to "get a life," but fandom is here to stay.

I don't think that's a positive development.  Many of my contemporaries are developmentally locked in the late teens, and have abandoned relationship formation and child-raising in favor of a perpetual adolescent emphasis on hobbies.  On a personal level, I haven't talked to most of them in many years - precisely because I have so little in common with them.  On the macro-scale, we see plummeting birthrates and a culture where people are sharply divided in large part because they have so little in common.

A childless ever-teen isn't going to have the same approach to political questions as parents trying to bring up a family.  Indeed, the oddly casual attitude to sexualizing children is part of this - people without proper adult formation see no need for such boundaries.

Meanwhile, West End ultimately lost its licenses and went out of business, along with most of its contemporaries.  Gaming continues, but it is both more accepted and also more fragmented, sustained in large part by advances in print-on-demand services and online communities.

Thus, gaming and geekdom are still growing strong and have never been more accepted - which is a serious problem.

 


The dead of winter

After a cold snap around Christmas, winter turned unexpectedly mild.  January was gloomy and chilly, but temperatures generally got above freezing during the day, causing all the snow to melt and given the world a brown and dreary appearance.

I think one of the things that makes winter in Michigan tolerable is the snow.  Not only is it attractive, it reflects light, and since the latest snowfall, things are a lot more cheerful.

Snow also absorbs sound, amplifying the natural quiet of winter.   Before the weather changed, it felt like late November - no snow and the scattered holiday decorations hinting that Christmas season had just begun.

Now it's bitterly cold, with temperatures threatening to go below zero and fine powder wafting through the thin air.  This is as it should be this time of year.

At least in this part of the state, bitter cold also brings brilliantly clear skies, and I'll happily trade sub-zero wind chills for some sunlight.

This is very much indoor weather, and I'm making use of it in terms of modeling and painting.  When spring comes, it will be time to set up the garden and then the fleeting joy of summer will keep me outside.  But for now I don't have to feel guilty about watching a movie or playing a game.


New gaming forum found

After a brief search, I found that dakkadakka.com is still around and has decent traffic, so I joined.

I think I was a member there 15 years ago or so.  I recall there being a pie fight amongst moderators at Portent or warseer.com and people looking elsewhere, only to come back when things settled down.

Dakkadakka was mostly for orc (and ork) players, but now it seems more open to other points of view.

It is nice being able to talk about apolitical hobbies, and the minutiae of game mechanics.  There was a spirited argument a few days ago about aesthetics of the various Warhammer 40k factions, which was enjoyably trivial.  My first flame war in years.

Society needs more of this.  Everything is political, and people don't debate or even argue, they just insult and cancel.  That's why I've embargoed myself from the news.

The fact is, posting about gaming stuff makes me want to game, and that in turn causes me to work on my collection or come up with new rules.  Conqueror: Fields of Victory was born in a gaming forum, and while it's not a runaway financial success, I enjoyed making it and playing it.

By contrast, nothing positive comes of political or news commentary.  People just get worked up and stressed out. 

It's been a few weeks, and the results are clear: cutting out news makes me more productive around the house and happier in general.

That being said, I'll continue to post columns at bleedingfool.com in part because it's more cultural/entertainment commentary, and often I'm just watching old movies and writing about them.  That's a pretty stress-free environment.

 


Time for a new 40k discussion forum?

For two decades, I got my 40k fix at one of two discussion sites.  First there was Portent, which started in the 1990s and was for a time the premier news and discussion site for all things Games Workshop.  Sometime in the Aughts, the proprietor had enough, and sold the site to some of the administrators.  That became Warseer.  There was a seamless transition - new accounts were needed but everyone kept their handles and so things went.  I eventually lost interest in being "current" in 40k, but continued to chat with 2nd edition enthusiasts.

I also developed Conqueror: Fields of Victory on Warseer, and the site hosted a "sticky" threat where one could actually read how it came about and discussion about what mechanics it should use.

Alas, a few years ago there was an attack on the site that knocked it down for months and when it came back, most of its users had gone away.  Since then, a few straggled back, but it was mostly a ghost town, a vast site populated with conversations that were frozen in time.

Further complicating efforts to revive it, the site owners refused to authorize a much-needed reorganization, nor were they punctual about updating site credentials, which meant users had to click through warnings to even get there.

It's been down for a bout a week now, and while it has not year reached the "site not found" stage, I fear the end is not far off.

It's a reminder that the internet is by its nature a very temporary thing, and a beloved site with thousands of users can vanish in the blink of an eye.  Warseer may yet come back, but I think it will only continue its zombie existence. 

A large part of the problem is the competition by facebook (the site has a page) but I have no interest in giving my content to tech billionaires.  I guess I should check to see if any of the other contemporaries are still out there.


Warhammer 40k: a second look at psykers?

For reasons known only to themselves, during the 1990s the Games Workshop design team decided that both their flagship fantasy battle game and their rising space opera spin0ff, Warhammer 40,000, needed to use the same sort of card-based magic system.  For the 40k version, the term "magic" was discarded in favor of "psionics" or "psykers."

It was not popular.  During the entire time Warhammer 40k 2nd Edition was current, I only used the psyker rules twice, both against the same Eldar player.

It really came down to efficiency.  The psyker rules added a lot of complexity to the game with little to show for it.  In a medieval fantasy environment, throwing fireballs is a big deal; in a game with tanks, rocket launchers,  and flamethrowers, a fireball is just another hand grenade.

I should add that in both 40k games where psykers were used, they were ineffective.  Again, D&D style magic doesn't make much of an impression on people throwing miniature black holes around the battlefield.

[The opposite was true in the 5th edition of Warhammer Fantasy Battles, where magic came to dominate the game - much to its detriment.]

So why am I taking a second look after all of these years? 

The answer is that there are technically two sets of psyker rules for 40k 2nd edition.  The deluxe set with all the cards does not interest me, but in the core rule book, there is a simplified system that would add minimal complexity but allow psyker characters to assume a battlefield role.  That's why I'm interested.

You see, as the years have passed, I've gotten interested in exploring more aspects of the game.  One area that I've never even touched on is using the basic psyker rules.  I don't think these will make much of an impact on game play, but I like the idea of it adding some color to the campaigns we run.

It also presents the opportunity to use previously sidelined unit and character choices.  Many of these had aspects beyond psionic use, but since they were priced with psyker abilities in mind, they've been idle.  This provides a chance to expand my battlefield options a bit. 

Yes, it also opens some space to collect a few additional models, but that's not much of an issue.  I generally don't use GW models and I've got so much stuff kicking around the collection that I don't think it will amount to much.  The most likely impact is that I will get out some of the unfinished stuff and repurpose it as psykers. 

The longer one collects, the larger that 'reserve' becomes.  Mine is not as big as 25 years of collecting would indicate because when we moved into our present house, I sold off a lot of the excess.  Indeed, I've continued to do that periodically as part of my drive to reduce clutter.

In any event, I think it offers some interesting possibilities and look forward to seeing what happens.

 


Mad Max and Warhammer 40,000: A transition from Orks to Chaos Marines

Over the course of watching the various Mad Max films, I've noticed a peculiar shift.

The aesthetic in the 1980s was one of biker junkyard tribal punks - spiked mohawks, salvaged hotrods and a callous, barfight-level ethos.  The villains in both The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome are brutal, but not particularly sinister.  They laugh when the other side is hurt, but they laugh when their own lads get smashed.  All in good fun, mate.

They consciously copy J.R.R. Tolkien's visions of orcs as callous, bullying Cockney louts.  There is a scene in Lord of the Rings where one orc leader tells his counterpart about a time they thought one of their soldiers had been killed by Shelob, only to find him quite alive, but hanging in a web.  Oh how they laughed, and of course they left him there because they are callous, cruel and also cowardly. 

This vision clearly informed Games Workshop's background for Warhammer 40,000.  The space orks (note the spelling) are entirely based on the biker types from the Mad Max films.  In fact, GW goes even farther, with wildly improbable machines, all described in Cockney terms.

With Mad Max Fury Road, the aesthetic changed sharply.  The vehicles are still modified, but they are built with a far more sinister purpose, and instead of tribal warriors with strong individual identities, one sees homogenous shaven-headed dark-eyed fanatics serving a skull-mask wearing leader. 

Or, as anyone familiar with 40k would say: a Chaos Lord.

Indeed, there is a vehicle in Fury Road that could have been cribbled from one of the Chaos rulebooks - I'm speaking of the vehicle with a helmeted guitar player surrounded by a wall of speakers wielding a flame-throwing instrument.  If this guy isn't a Champion of Slaanesh, I don't know what is.

Is George Miller a 40k fan, or is it mere coincidence?  I have no idea, but I find the similarities to be striking.


Space Marine inflation

I started playing Warhammer 40,000 back in the 1990s.  In those distant halcyon days, one could buy the Warhammer 40,000 starter boxed set and the included figures were a good start on a combat-ready army.

In fact, if you and a friend both went in on boxes, you could trade the figures and each would have a pretty decent force.  Buy a few extras, maybe a tank, and you were ready to go!

Plastic Space Marines ran about a dollar a figure back then, and I remember my disgust when Games Workshop raised the prices until they reached $2 each.  When the price hit $3, I was done with the game, which was not only expensive but devolving into a never-ending upgrade cycle.

I see now that the marines are $5.50 each, and while one is tempted to blame overall inflation, this is pure greed on the part of GW.

A clear indicator of this is that as the rules continue to churn every 3 years, new units are created and old units are rendered obsolete.  It's like buying vaporware that never finishes getting upgraded.

A major reason I stick with 2nd Edition is that I no longer care about the current rules cycle.  I own the rules outright.  Similarly, I developed Conqueror: Fields of Victory as a way to getting off the upgrade treadmill.

I mention this because I've decided to part with some of my 40k figures which have seen zero use over many years and are better off in someone else's home.

I'm still building armies, but I prefer out of print figures on the secondary market and I'm happy to use ones that don't originate from Games Workshop.

Anyone interested in picking them up?  Keep your eyes peeled on ebay for some Blood Angels in varying stages of completion.


The ideal family-friendly strategy game

From time to time, I come up with various game designs.  Conqueror: Fields of Victory remains my only published work, but I lots of other projects in various stages of completion.

It seems to me that the ideal game should have some potential for direct conflict between players, use a little bit of resource allocation, including enough randomness to keep things interesting, and be finished in an hour or less.

That last part is key.  If a game is interesting but ends quickly, you can also give it another try.

Euchre - the semi-official card game of Michigan - is like that.  It's possible to do a couple of hands of Euchre in a few minutes.  In high school, people would do a hand or two between classes or a full-on game over lunch.

Perhaps I'm showing my age, but standard kit by my senior year was a Euchre deck in your backpack.  Find three other people, and it's game on.

That portability and ease of play was a major factor in the rise of games like Magic: The Gathering and Pokemon.  No need to set up a game board, place pieces and so on, just give me some table space and a pack of cards and we can sort things out.

One of George Lucas' many crimes against humanity was his decision to end the licensing agreement for the Star Wars Collectible Card Game.  This was a fun and very successful system, but Lucas had by this time bought out Hasbro (which had acquired his original merchandiser, Kenner) and he wanted to consolidate toy and game sales.  Hasbro by this point owned Wizards of the Coast, so they were directed at coming up with a suitable replacement that is entirely forgotten today.

At any rate, my mind is turning towards a new game design, and with the holidays coming up, the potential for playtesting is pretty good.

 


The joy of miniatures

A few weeks ago I noted that I was rediscovering my interest in Warhammer 40,000.   The necessary first step was revisiting the baseline post for the game on this site, which includes a series of rules changes/clarifications that improve what I consider to be the definitive edition, the 2nd.

I should clarify that I'm not one of those people that enjoy painting miniatures for their own sake.  I paint to play, period.  Absent a gaming environment, I wouldn't own any models at all.  The only model kits I retain from my childhood are the ones I adapted to use in wargaming.

That being said, if I know a game is coming up, I will throw myself into the act of creation and few things bring me more joy that watching a unit go through the process of acquisition, assembly, priming, painting and final finishing.  My painting table had languished for months, collecting various sundry items I was too lazy to put elsewhere, but now the main space is cleared and groups of models are staged around it, waiting their turn.

Amidst the current turmoil, it's a welcome escape to put on some music and focus my thoughts entirely on what shade of blue will suit the unit of Swooping Hawks I am working on.  Yes, the Eldar army is my current focus.  While I remain a 2nd ed. loyalist, I have no particularly affinity for Games Workshop's overpriced kits.  Many of my armies are built around equivalent figures from other manufacturers.

For example, my Imperial Guard is largely WW II historical models, and I've used some creative color choices on weapons finish and the rim of the base to indicate weapon types in the 40k environment.  The armored vehicles are modified Tamiya kits and these have been more extensively altered to feature weapon sponsons, crash bars and other features necessary for combat ops in the Grim Dark Future.

The determinative factors for me are cost and aesthetic.  For example, my Tyranid army is only a few years old, the last one I collected.  It is exclusively made of GW figures because these fit the bill and older kits are now selling for very reasonable prices.  My Eldar, on the other hand, is almost entirely Void models. 

Void was a short-lived competitor to Warhammer 40,000 that collapsed after a very ambitious launch sometime in the Aughts.  The parent company's demise (i-kore) coincided with worsening economic conditions in Michigan, and the result was many of the independent hobby stores went out of business.  As a result, I was able to buy a huge collection of figures for pennies on the dollar.  The Void aesthetic was more streamlined and less steampunk than GW's, so these models worked well as the advanced but declining Eldar. 

In fact, I only recently bought some actual Eldar models (jet bikes).  Again, prices for older edition kits are now quite reasonable, even as the current game's prices soar.

It's axiomatic that miniatures collections are never "finished."  People might sell them off, or they might stop using them, but no one ever proclaims the thing complete.   There's always room for one more model - and in fact, there's probably more than one model that still needs to be assembled or painted at any given time.

This means that if you take a month or a year off, when you come back, there's something ready and waiting for you to work on, which is nice.