Works in Progress

Conquest of the Empire 30 years later

Over the past few weeks I've been doing some housecleaning and that's involved reviewing my game collection.

This in turn has caused me to pull out a few venerable designs and re-examine them.

Those of a certain age will recall that during the 1980s, Milton Bradley made a concerted push into the burgeoning wargaming market with their Game Master series, which combined high production values and plastic army men with a design philosophy that was closer to Risk or Stratego than Advanced Squad Leader.

The most prolific offspring of this project was Axis and Allies, which has spawned endless variants, both official and player-driven.   However, that was not the first offering, and earlier this week I dug into a battered copy of it's predecessor: Conquest of the Empire.

This was a multi-player strategy game of the Roman Empire at its height.  The players are rival claimants for the imperial purple, and they fight out their contest on an excellent map of the Empire.

I bought my copy from a classmate, and it was already well-used and missing all the money tokens.  That didn't bother me because I had no interest in the game as written, but instead used it as a test bed for various alternative mechanics.

Thus my first actual playing of the game was only a few days ago.  It kind of sucks.

I was warned about this from my classmate, and I now see that it was true.  I won't go into detail, but if you are expecting the classical design excellence of the peerless Shogun (since renamed Samurai Swords and maybe renamed again), you're in for a huge disappointment.  Combat consists of single die rolls to eliminate individual units, which is a grossly inefficient way of fighting battles.  Apparently this was before MB figured out that hurling fist-fulls of dice is not only faster, but much more satisfying.

There's also an inexplicable rule for inflation that I won't go into, but essentially it punishes players for capturing too much territory.

All that being said, the game still looks beautiful, and a single page of updates should suffice to make this the high-quality social experience it was meant to be.  I'll post it once I get a chance to try them out.


Well, let's see how 2021 works out

Happy New Year!  As the song says, it's been a long December but there's reason to believe that this year will be better than the last.

Taken as a whole, 2020 has not been without its joys.  The publication of Vampires of Michigan and the subsequent writing of Long Live Death and its success was not something I contemplated a year ago.   The COVID lockdown has put our family under great strain, but we also celebrated the birth of our first grandchild, who has been a source of unceasing wonderment and happiness.

In many ways, how we approach life determines how we perceive it.  What makes a "very good" year versus a bad one?  Folks used to advise people to "count their blessings" and I think it's good advice - though not something sad people want to hear.

That's my other observation this year, something I'd noted before but I've now seen it spread on a far wider basis: misery loves company.  Online places I used to visit have become so unrelentingly negative that I can't even stomach them.  If you bring in good cheer, they boo you right off the network.

I'm not a big fan of New Year's Resolutions but I am going to enhance my efforts this winter to push aside complaints and try to hold onto moments of joy that might otherwise have been lost.

 


Vampires of Michigan: Pandemic

The title of this post is a teaser for a sequel I've been mulling over for a while.  I know, I know, I keep announcing my next project only to bail a day later.

The problem of course is twofold.

The first issue is not knowing how things will turn out.  That's a pretty tough position for a novelist to be in, especially if one wants an intricate plot. 

Then there's the problem that writing about reality cuts into the escapism that is part of why I write.

I suppose I could go all-in on wishcast/Mary Sue type work, but I like to think I'm above such things.

Still, I've got a notion how it would work, so maybe once the vaccine and election work their way through, I'll get to work.  Though it sold less than some of my other books, Vampires of Michigan did get some of the strongest fan response I've seen.  I'm pretty sure people would read it.

Maybe next year.


Music to write by

Last night I was bit by the writing bug, and cranked out 500 words on a new project, but I have no idea if it will go anywhere.

I seem to do a lot of that lately.  It isn't exactly writer's block, since I'm not under any obligation to write anything at the moment.

A big part of writing is mood.  With each book, I've had something of a soundtrack to facilitate creativity.

Battle Officer Wolf was written while listening to Enya's Amarantine album, over and over again.

For much of A Man of Destiny, I had a Star Wars mix of the darker ("imperial") pieces playing.

I had a special mix as well for Vampires of Michigan, which drew heavily from the Blood and Chocolate soundtrack.  (Yes, I know that movie was about werewolves, so sue me.)

Long Live Death didn't really have a soundtrack.  I just wrote it in a manic frenzy perhaps sensing the parallels between the faltering Second Spanish Republic and our own.

As for my other books, there was nothing specific, though Three Weeks with the Coasties sometimes caused me to look up the music that was popular at the time.

In any event, 2020 is winding down and so it will soon be time for me to start my 2021 book. 

Perhaps instead of thinking about topics, I need to think about music?


Another COVID project: a World War I card game

Around the time I was in college the great 90s card game fad started.  Perhaps the two biggest names to come out of it were Pokemon and Magic: The Gathering, but the fascination with custom/collectible card games quickly spilled over into wargaming circles.

The game that got my attention was Dixie by Columbia Games (which is still around).  Dixie was a fun little game of the American Civil War that allowed one to do run a small-scale in half an hour or so.  It was essentially the same combat system as the one used in their 'block games' for tactical combat.

It wasn't in the same class as other card games because while one could 'create' a deck, it had to conform to historical realities (one couldn't create a division made up of Iron Brigades, for example).

There were other card games, whose names I've long since forgotten, but Dixie inspired me to make my own game set in World War I.  I called it "Hymn of Hate" after a German war-song the British appropriated to describe the morning and evening barrages that fell daily.

The game went nowhere, though I did commission some artist friends of mine to make cards for it.  They went on to bigger and better things, and even used the card art, so at least it wasn't wasted.

All of this is the back story to a project that helped me keep Election Madness at bay, which was resurrecting that card game.

Between Hymn of Hate's original development and that last few weeks, I've played a lot more card games.  I got pretty addicted to Decipher's Star Wars card game (before George Lucas nuked it) and still have a good-sized collection of cards.  I've also used cards for some of my military operational wargames.

The result is that I've got a first-run version put together that pits two corps/army level commanders against each other for the mastery of the front lines.  I've been using normal playing cards to work with, but modifying deck composition to suit my order of battle needs.  At present, each side has a 60 card deck which includes the standard 52 cards plus the Jokers, two additional Aces, two additional Jacks and two more Jokers (total of 4 Jokers).

The number cards represent infantry battalions while the face cards represent barrages, trench artillery and recon elements.  I treat Aces as 'wild cards' that can do many different things to give the game more elements of strategy.

My goal is to get this to around 1/2 hour playing time, and it's getting close.  The trick is to balance victory requirements with decision making and also ensure that pure card draw doesn't determine the outcome.

I have a draft set of rules and when I get it cleaned up, I'll post it here.


Lord Jim and other thoughts

I'm most of the way through Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, which I haven't read in 20 years.  Conrad is more long-winded than I remember, but when he picks up the pace, he's great.  I see why he and Ford Madox Ford got along so well: they both really groove to long-form ruminations in their work.

Once I finish, I'll start reading Conrad's Eastern World, a detailed look at the sources for his writing.  My annotated copy of Lord Jim has lots of references to it, so I figured I'd grab a copy.  It's out of print, but I got a very new-looking copy.

I've always found Conrad evocative and getting back into him is a respite from the endless turmoil we're going through.  I'd like to write something soon - if only for the escape it provides.  Our household is currently in a state of transition (one kid moving back in, another moving out) so when the dust finally settles I might be able to write again. 

I've also started a gaming project which will get its own post later.


Leaving Ford for Waugh

Over the last several weeks I've been re-reading Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End series.

I've now reached the final book, The Last Post and it is just as disappointing as I remember.

Ford's series follows the pre-war and wartime experiences of Christoper Tietjens, a Yorkshire aristocrat with an unhappy marriage and outdated scruples.  He's an amusing, well-drawn character and the books are chock full of amusing social commentary.

The first book, Some Do Not- is a bit long-winded because Ford tends to jump back and forth in time and indulge in lavish description punctuated by lengthy internal monologues.

The next two books - which center on World War I itself - are much better.  They are focused, funny but also poignant.

Taken as a trilogy, it's an excellent work, which is why some critics (apparently including Graham Greene) cut the fourth book out of the series.

I agree with that assessment.  The Last Post is nominally about what happens to the characters after the war, but it is told from the point of view of Christopher's eldest brother Mark, who has grown so disgusted with the world that he has faked a stroke and now lies mute in bed, moving only his eyes.

He thinks a lot, though, and we get to follow his thoughts, which loop back and forth, and repeat themselves in a very tedious manner.  The whole book could have been condensed into a short story, but Ford is indulging himself, introducing the perspectives of Mark's wife, the gamekeeper, handyman, maid, etc. 

All of which is painfully detailed and rendered into various dialects.

I simply can't get into it, so I'm quitting early and turning back to one of my favorites, the Sword of Honour trilogy by Evelyn Waugh.  I intend to write a lengthy comparison between the two books because they are very similar.

Given my work and family schedule, I've abandoned serious writing for the time being.  I've begun a series of pieces for bleedingfool.com that will run on a weekly basis and I'll let you know when they go live.

 


The much-needed change of the seasons

A couple of weeks ago I was talking to a friend in Texas and he lamented the sheer monotony of the weather there.

Coupled with COVID precautious, which essentially leech the fun out of just about everything, he felt as though he was stuck on a treadmill, re-living Groundhog Day, as the metaphor goes.

Being a Michigander, he asked how the weather was and I said the change of the seasons was underway, with the first harbinger of fall showing up in cooler nights.

Since then, the weather has taken a more decisive turn, dropping into the 60s during the day and touching the 40s in the evening.

This is what I consider Ideal Weather.  I love it.

Like just about everyone else, I figured the disease would be bad, but short-lived, as such things historically have been.  What I did not foresee is the political leadership deciding to make the precautions indefinite.  It's profoundly disappointing.

Yet, there are some bright spot.  My diocese reports that not a single case of COVID spread can be traced to Mass attendance.  Not one over months.  So maybe we can loosen things up, perhaps?

Also, I'm glad to see Big Ten football is coming back.  I was all-in on the college game a few years ago before burning out, but now I like the background noise and the occasional game.  Plus, the sports pages are a welcome change away from the howling madness of contemporary politics.

Above all, for me autumn is about tradition, times gone by and fond memories.  It is reflective and comforting.  See it locked up and shut down is particularly hard to take.

We are only getting a glimmer of light, but sometimes that all we need.  Like the distant star peeping through Mordor's gloom, it reminds us that evil can never fully triumph: somewhere, light will still shine unsullied.


More thoughts about writing a fantasy novel

The change of the weather is putting me in a creative mood, and once again I'm at a loss for what to write next.

As I've pondered this question, I realized that the main reason I haven't gotten more than a few pages into a fantasy novel is because of Lord of the Rings.

I first read it in middle school and I've re-read it dozens of times in the years since, most recently earlier this year.  Each time I do so, I'm impressed by the quality of the work and instead of inspiring me to write something on similar lines, I am forced to recognize that Tolkien's masterpiece is the first and last word in the genre.

Obviously, there's a thriving market for fantasy books, and I've read more than a few, but they all struck me a second-rate when compared to the work of the master.  The essential problem is that I can't think of anything to say that Tolkien hasn't already said better than I ever could.

I admit that at one point I was gearing up for a Game of Thrones-style work, but my motivation barely got me to to 15,000 words before failing.  I found the Game of Thrones worldview demoralizing and writing something like it was unpleasant.

Since I write primarily because I enjoy it, I dropped the project.

At the moment I'm re-reading Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End series.  Perhaps it will give me some insight on what I want to do next.  I'm somewhat torn between doing a sequel (or prequel) of an existing work, or striking out with something new (hence the ongoing discussion of fantasy).

The advantage of the sequel is that there's a built-in audience and it's fun to revisit an earlier book.  On the downside, that sort of thing requires careful attention to continuity.  Starting from scratch, on the other hand, offers maximum creative freedom.  Having been recently bound by the constraints of non-fiction, that's what I'm in the mood for at the moment.


Where's my fantasy novel?

With Long Live Death moving to final publication, I'm already thinking about my next project and once again I'm pondering writing an epic fantasy tale.

Why haven't I already done one?

It's a good question.  I'm huge Tolkien fan, spent countless hours playing Dungeons and Dragons growing up, and of course I even did a take on Beowulf.  It's not like I'm a stranger to the genre.

So what's the hold up?  I've done sci-fi horror, space opera, vampires, military fiction and even a romance novel.  Oh, and an entire book of fantasy miniatures rules!  Where's the obvious tie-in to Conqueror: Fields of Victory?

The answer is that because I've spent so much time doing gaming and roleplaying, every time I get going on fantasy story, I get sidetracked (and then bogged down) on world building.

It's weird.  I can write other genres without having to explain the setting in meticulous detail, but when it comes to fantasy, I have to be all Tolkien and discuss language evolution and the date of the ruins.

I've probably written more fantasy material than anything else by far.  Almost all of it was background for DnD campaigns.  In my more mature phase as a writer, I've got give manuscripts that could fit into the description, none of which got very far.  They all come to a screeching halt over setting considerations. 

Until I figure that out, fantasy remains closed to me.