Bridges for Sale

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bridges

No not that bridge. Not this time. We’re going back to the wargames now.

We’ll put an end to our Korean War gaming similarly to the end of the Korean War fighting. Rather than a great battle to determine victory and settle the peace, we’ll simply peter out and move on to something else.

The theme for this article is the Bridges at Toko-Ri, and several games which address the subject.

Chronologically speaking, the first to deal with it is the series of scenarios created for IL-2 which I started in my earlier article. One of the battles created for the 1950s F9F Panther scenarios features said bridges, but is set in 1950.

The real life events that James Michener used in his novel are almalgamated to make a single story. The heroic helicopter pilot, plated in the movie by Mickey Rooney, is based on partly on posthumous Medal of Honor recipient John Kelvin Koelsch, who was shot down and captured by the North Koreans in July of 1951. He died while a prisoner of war in October of that same year. Details of the missions where taken from attacks taking place on February 8th, 1952 and missions flown against railroad bridges at Majon-ni and Samdong-ni in North Korea. The CMANO scenario models this historical battle.

Finally, the movie takes place sometime in the late November or December of 1952.

Best Special Effects

I’ll start, as I did myself, with the movie.

The movie can be evaluated in several contexts. First from a purely technical standpoint, as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did in giving it the 1955 award for Best Special Effects. It can also be looked at purely as a story told on film. Finally, it is also worth looking at it as a contemporary Korean War commentary.

The parts of this movie that use actual footage of U.S. navy operations is superb. The editing of actual aircraft with models is occasionally obvious to the modern eye, but is still excellent, even after nearly 65 years. It’s this that makes the movie worth watching – a picture of what was then state-of-the art naval warfare portrayed on film. A Top Gun for the 1950s.

While the movie came out after the armistice was in place, the story was published in the book shortly before the cease fire.

I have not read the book, so I can’t speak to what parts of the story are from the book and what was added by Hollywood. I can guess, and I’ll probably be wrong at least some of the time.

As just a movie, devoid of context, the story would be somewhat weak. The basics are pretty glum – and I’m going to give away the entire movie here. We meet two characters, one enlisted – an irreverent helicopter pilot who is loved by the pilots because he pulls them out of the water – and one an officer, a World War II pilot who was called away from his Law practice to serve in Korea. After some standard Hollywood characterizations, and some nice flight footage, we see some scenes between the father-figure Admiral (who sees in our pilot his own son, killed in combat in the earlier war). He warns the pilots wife about facing the reality that is the dangers of combat because if she is confronted, unprepared, with the death of her husband, it could destroy her. Then everyone dies.

Within the context of when it was made, however, it takes on more meaning. The key mission, the bridges in the title, is known to be potentially deadly but necessary because it may bring about the end of the war. In 1952, when the action supposedly takes place, this probably wasn’t a reality (although one supposes it is always a hope). In 1953, when the book was released, the situation may have been very true. In any case, it addresses that horrible feeling that any warrior has, as war nears its end; “Why should I risk my life now when the war is all but over anyway?” The movie’s answer is, basically, because that is what good men do.

It also addresses an oddity of the Korean War, when compared to the Second World War that preceded it, where life in the United States (and most of the world) continued on oblivious to the fighting, killing, and dying going on in Korea. In one scene, the men on the (fictional) aircraft carrier take a break and listen to a football game in Los Angeles over the speakers. Clearly those fans have little sense of being in a country at war. It’s this that makes sense of the rather depressing story. The movie is looking at this phenomenon where a few men (and families) were ripped away from their normal lives to fight in Korea while, in fact, most of the country continued on as if nothing was happening.

In this way, the movies questions, and answers such as they are, are very topical to today. To the families whose members are in Iraq or Afghanistan, or Syria (oh, don’t kid yourself) these “wars” are an all-consuming fact of life. To the rest of us, it is an occasional mention in the newspaper. The country is not “at war” in the sense that we were in the 1940s, or even in Vietnam. We just have a segment of our population off fighting and dying while the rest of us go on with our lives.

The Big Picture

To get a nice look at the operation that events of the film might be, we can start with the user-made scenario in Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations (CMANO).

This scenario gives a better overview of what is going on, certainly compared to a movie but also compared to the flight simulator missions, below. In the scenario, a carrier group is provided for preparing the area surrounding a pair of railroad bridges for bomber attack by suppressing the air defense guns. Unlike the film, the naval ground-attack aircraft did not carry the kind of heavy ordinance for destroying the bridges, and thus were relegated to the suppression mission.

Again, not having read the book, I can only compare to the movie. If I misrepresent what was included in the novel – apologies.

The CMANO scenario takes place on the date of the actual attacks upon which the book was based. If I understand, it is a mix of real, fictional, and simplified for game purposes data. This scenario corrects one glaring misrepresentation of the movie. In the film, the attack (on the bridges themselves) is carried out by 3 squadrons of F9F Panthers. In reality, the fighter/bomber jets used were McDonnell F2H Banshees. The Panthers were used for fighter cover, not ground attack. In fact, the range of aircraft on the carriers also includes a number of F4U-4 Corsairs and AD-2B Skyraiders armed for ground attack.

1ststrike

My first strike is headed for the Bridges just after dawn. This is going to get ugly, fast.

In stark contrast to the previous scenario I looked at, this scenario does not showcase scenario design. In my first play through, I’m losing a lot of aircraft during ground attack, which at this level seems like just watching a random number generator. I haven’t figured out any strategy to it; I send in my planes loaded with bombs and maybe they hit their target and maybe they get shot down. I did make a huge mistake when two planes I had on Combat Air Patrol ran out of fuel unexpectedly. While I was waiting for refueling, an IL-28 snuck in a sunk a destroyer.

Slightly more engaging, I often have radar lock on a few communist airplanes in the distance. When one starts to get close in (and they seem to come one or maybe two at a time), I divert my fighter escort (4 Panthers) and see how the dogfight works out. As a rule, it seems like the MiG-15s can usually knock one or two Panthers down in a four on one engagement before eventually going down themselves. Even the IL-28 managed to drop a Panther before I was able to bring it down.

As before, the losses are much higher than in the historic operations. Obviously, the book was written and the movie made because our guys were shot down, but I’m losing not only ground attack aircraft to enemy guns, but also losing my fighter cover fending off the technically-superior aircraft of the Russians. I’d think in planning an operation like this one, the first order of business would be to secure air superiority. Or at least attempt to do so. I also am left wondering if the combat is more deadly due to the modelling. Reading accounts of various battles, it seems that the norm was for aircraft to make it home after sustaining battle damage. Even this story in particular is about pilots who tried to make it, and had to ditch and be rescued. The fights in CMANO seem to almost always result in a kill. Could it be that the guns are modeled to be overly deadly, or maybe just the engagement algorithms keep fighting unto the death, rather than retreat to fight another day.

The Small Picture

I also opened up the IL-2 scenario included as part of the Jet Age mod.

The year aside (probably altered simply to fit in the timeline with the campaign), the setup is very much like the CMANO scenario – except for the Panthers. Like the movie, but for a different reason, the player is flying an F9F Panther loaded for the attack on the bridges themselves, with the prop-planes targeting anti-air suppression. In part, the problem is the the Jet Age mod does not include the F2H Banshee. The other obvious problem is that, if the player is to be part of a carrier strike, history dictates that he miss out on the money shot – the actual demolition of the bridges.

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The 3D, full-color version is pretty much the same what’s set up in CMANO. There go the last of my bombs. I missed.

As I’ve indicated before, I’m just not that great of a simulated pilot. And like the CMANO scenario, there seems to be certain luck of the dice when it comes to this scenario. Initially, the player’s flight of Panthers come in high over the targets. Each of several times I played through, at least one of the squadron was lost to ground fire, and including several times my own plane. Not much to do about that.

It is also interesting that, although the scenario is slated for 1950, the model of Panther is designated as a 1951 availability. It appears the scenario designer was attempting to add as much flavor from the scenario as possible, without be completely anachronistic. For example, when the enemy planes do appear, they are the propeller aircraft of 1950, not the MiG-15s of 1952.

Migs…

Given that the fun part of the CMANO scenario was the 4-on-1 fights between the Panthers and the MiGs, that was an easy scenario to set up with a quick mission.

Once again, I am handicapped by my inability to play the game. But once again, the results from the IL-2 simulation come in on par with what I saw playing CMANO. I ended up losing one of my compatriots before getting an awesome tail shot on the enemy as he attempted a second kill. Alas, I missed. However, I’m pretty sure that the actual U.S. pilots of the Korean war would have made the kill.

f9mig

Blew it! Looks like I’m yankin’ the stick the wrong way.

… and Sabres

Of course, one wonders whether pilots would have been forced maintain air superiority with technologically inferior aircraft. Could the Air Force have put up some Sabres to counter those MiGs?

While exploring the issue, I found a great download package called The Korean Files. It is a set of missions, packaged as a campaign, going throughout the Korean War and covering a wide range of different aircraft. This includes Sabre versus MiG battles, other jet combat fights, and propeller-plane showdowns as well.

Each battle in the package is based on actual historical encounters. Included documentation details the background of each scenario. There are also several scanned documents covering aerial combat in the Korean War. Wonderful stuff that really fills in the details about the “Forgotten War.”

Coup de Chat

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The crisis in Iran in the early fifties is something that still resonates through international events today. Many in Iran justify their blood feud with the United States on the basis of the CIA’s intervention in their government, propping up the Shah back in 1953.

The game The Cat and the Coup was created to tell that story, and from that particular angle. It is a game that receives pretty high praise on the internet, probably not least of which because it is a free offering. It is quite different from anything else I’ve talked about on these pages, but it the subject matter and timeline fits very well within my Cold War theme.

It is a simple 2D puzzle game with very fanciful graphics illustrating the historical events in question. It’s not a genre with which I have a lot of familiarity, but it immediately reminds me of Samorost (also free) in tone, feel, and play style. It is considerable shorter and simpler, though, than Samorost. Like other games of its genre, part of the “puzzle” is figuring out what you’re supposed to be doing in the first place. There are no instructions, no back story, except that “you” can move (the cat) to coax the former Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh out of each room. We also find him on his deathbed.

The game is charming in its simplicity. You won’t be needing to google up walk-throughs to solve this one. Each puzzle uses similar mechanics, and has the same goal (moving from one “room” to the next). There’s no ability to save, perhaps because the game itself is so short. In reality, the game is unrelated to the “history,” and it is the latter that is the point of this exercise.

On this one, I try not to spoil the experience. If you want to see what the game is like, just play it. It’s short and its free.

The detail here are the scenes surrounding the game as Mosaddegh and his cat progress through it. In them are depicted the events that made up the crisis in Iran. It is a one-sided telling (justified or not); Mosaddegh is the only personage portrayed accurately as human. The CIA, for example, is a giant lizard and President Truman as a rabbit and the American Military (perhaps?) as a giant, mechanized pig being driven by a Nazi-hat wearing eagle, begin controlled by an English bulldog.

While the modern interpretation of events certainly does not put the West in the best of light, it is worth noting that Mosaddegh himself came to power after the assassination of the previous Prime Minister by a radical Islamist group, Fadayan-e Islam. Prime Minister Haj Ali Razmara was something of a moderate figure. Although a former General and appointed by the Shah, he proposed a plan for both decentralization and modernization. He managed to anger both the right and left; the former by cutting government patronage and the latter for failing to get good enough concessions in contracts with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the British owned controller of Iran’s oil which was seen by the left (and many if not most Iranians) as profiting at the expense of the poor of their country. A particular thorn was it was known that other countries, such as Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, were operating under better terms.

After the assassination, Mosaddegh was appointed by the Shah, a long-time political opponent, with the backing of the Parliament. His policies emphasized social reforms benefiting the working poor and a reduction in the power of the Shah. On May 1st, 1951, Mosaddegh nationalized the Iranian oil industry, long a goal of his party the National Front, with an improbably unanimous support of the Parliament. This lead to a stand-off with the British government, who prevented Iran from selling its oil internationally without them.

The oil embargo had a terrible impact on the Iranian economy, and the political situation in that country rapidly deteriorated. Immediately preceding the coup, Mosaddegh attempted to dissolve the Parliament to give himself direct law-making powers. This was used a pretense for supporting his overthrow. While today most agree that the CIA had stepped out of bounds with its “Regime Change,” the events are hardly as clean as the modern interpretation would have it. Policy makers at the time saw the Soviet Union’s hand in an increasingly radical Socialist moving coming to power, and I’m not sure they’ve been proven wrong.

Within the greater Cold War contest, the success of the operation in Iran was probably a catalyst for future CIA operations throughout the world. Within a year, the CIA engineered the removal of Colonel Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán who had nationalized the land of the United Fruit Company in Guatemala.

All that aside, the Cat and the Coup is an nice little artistic piece telling a story about which most of its target audience (the English-speaking, first world game players) have little or no knowledge. Whatever shortcoming it may have, it was worth the time to play through.

Take the Cannoli

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The Godfather is one of the greatest movies ever made.

From the story, to the casting, to the technical details, it manages to get nearly everything right. But it is more than that. Far from being a great telling of a story on film, it uses the medium to perfection. The piece is neatly framed between the two religious celebrations; the wedding and the christening.

It is also a practically unparalleled cultural phenomenon. It redefined the “gangster” cinema genre. No longer do we expect the exaggerated, one-dimensional villains played a la James Cagney. Instead, our mobsters are the deep, complex characters that, yes, they are criminals but they are also the heroes and protagonists of our stories.

Since then, any Mafia-related movie takes place in the shadow of Coppola’s work. We “know” how the mobsters of the 40s and 50s behave, because we’ve seen the film (and its sequels). It provides an implicit backstory to any new characters that are created.

Mafia II (Spoilers included, no extra charge)

The game Mafia II starts using some similar hooks, but is clearly not going to be a simple retelling. The main character (your character) is caught in the course of a minor robbery. Rather than serve jail time, he agrees to go into the Army to fight the fascists in Europe.

Similarities to the back story in my earlier article are present, perhaps because of the automatic game-goodness that comes with including some World War II combat in a game. Unlike L.A. Noire (and Hot Springs, for that matter), our character is not a hero (flawed or otherwise) returning victorious in the war against Japan, but a flawed-or-otherwise-hero* dodging future service in Europe. The war service seems to serve main three functions. First, it allows the introduction of the game world to the main character because, well, we’ve been away at war and missed out what’s been happening. Second, a gratuitous MG 42 level, a la Medal of Honor, can be included. Third, and rather weakly, our character is saved from certain death in Sicily at the hands of Mussolini’s soldiers by the local mafia Don, who convinces the Italians to surrender. Thus, we come to understand the power of La Cosa Nostra.

Returning from the war, the game begins a sequence taking place in the fictional city of Empire Bay (very similar to New York) in the final months of the second world war. The Mafia II begins taking place a few years before L.A. Noire. However, the majority of the story actually occurs in 1951 during the Korean War (which takes place via radio news reports within the game).

L.A. Noire and Mafia II were released within a month of each other. They are also broadly classified within the same action/adventure genre, in the style of Grand Theft Auto and its sequels. However, whereas L.A. Noire (as I discuss in my article) actually draws heavily from the puzzle/adventure style of games, Mafia II is a more straight up drive/fight/shoot game. Given the similarities, some compare and contrast is surely in order.

In terms of resource use, Mafia II seems to make better designed in terms of system resources. The facial expression modelling aside, Mafia II is probably the more visually impressive game, but runs with less apparent stress on the system. The games are similar. Fairly realistic, 3D characters in a fully-explorable city – what is sometimes referred to as the “roaming” genre. The fairly realistic Los Angeles/Hollywood of L.A. Noire is considerably bigger than the faux-New York of Mafia II. Whether this is an advantage is limited by the difference in game-play. In Mafia II, one could spend significant time earning money/cars, etc. throughout the city. In L.A. Noire, there doesn’t seem to be much point (a few minigames aside) from deviating too far from the script. In fact, the long driving distances sometimes got a little tedious, factoring in the sometimes-long waits a stoplights. (I did say fairly-realistic version of Los Angeles!)

I often make the comparison with Grand Theft Auto, although my own experience with that series is limited. Years ago, I had a copy of “Vice City” (faux-Miami) which I played for a while. In that game, I was far more interested in simply driving around, stealing cars and interacting free-form with the game rather than following the scripted missions (which were often leaned too much toward the puzzle). Mafia II seems to be designed for that kind of gameplay (includes mods that enhance the experience), but in this case I find myself playing strictly by the scripted story. In fact, it is even sometimes surprising when some of the GTA-style mechanics (changing clothes stops police pursuit) pop-up in the middle of an immersive story.

Suprisingly, the story itself seems more engaging in Mafia II. I would have expected that L.A. Noire, being more story dependent, would have won this contest. But its the Mafia II story that draw me in better. Also, unexpectedly, the Mafia II story seems to be more linear. It is also more dependent on the in-between-action-sequence cut scenes. By contrast, the “dialog tree” feature in L. A. Noire allowed the story to advance with more direct player interaction.

turlet

Can it get more real than scrubbing urinals? You can’t complete the level until these babies are clean.

Driving, again, is a major feature of Mafia II. Again I am using the steering wheel. In this case, the wheel is not supported out of the box. Instead, I found some XBox emulator software that interfaces a variety of controllers for a broad array of games. This solution works great, and almost “out of the box.” After installation, I had to do a little fiddling to get the pedals mapped, rather than the hand-held controller buttons.

That done, the driving experience is easily better in Mafia II relative to L.A. Noire. Overall, the wheel and pedals feel far more natural. In addition, different effects are added to the driving experience. Initially, the driving takes place in the winter on ice and snow. Sliding and spinning are included, of course, but so is the rotation effect that happens when you gun an rear-wheel drive vehicle on an icy road.

Other details are modeled. There is a noticeable difference when driving on cobblestone versus pavement, for example. In the more powerful 50s cars, the effects of a manual shift are built into the “feel” of the driving, even though you are not required to actually shift yourself. One example – when starting off going uphill, you initially slide back a little bit before the clutch engages. I wonder how many younger drivers, never having actually driven a manual, wouldn’t understand why this is happening? The different makes of car are noticeably different in their models. Better cars aren’t just faster and more controllable – they actually feel different. A truck has to be driven quite differently from a sedan which is different from a sports car.

puke

A new standard for realism in driving simulation: pulling over to let your drunk passenger throw up in the street.

Another area where Mafia II outshines L.A. Noire is in the combat part of the action. First of all both shooting and punching is a little less wonky. In L.A. Noire, I frequently found myself unable to do what I wanted when hand-to-hand fighting, and having a terrible time aiming with the gun. Mafia II responds much more naturally. Further more, the degree of the modelling is much more in line with what is expected from big-budget action games. Punching combos are included, to add some “strategy” to the fistfights. Shooting includes a modeling of the inaccuracy of follow-up shots and the total inaccuracy of automatic fire after the first round. Clearly Mafia II emphasized the action end of things, where L.A. Noire was pushing the puzzle end.

Unfortunately for L.A. Noire’s scorecard, even in the depiction of the characters and social environment, Mafia II has the edge in a number of areas. I’ll admit that in some cases that facial expression modeling in L.A. Noire seems a lot more realistic. But for the most part, modeling of the “ambient” environment is probably a little more believable in Mafia II. One example that struck me was while I was driving down the street in a snowstorm, and passed someone shoveling snow onto the street. It just seemed like such a natural detail to include.

Consolation

It is also worth mentioning, although I won’t dwell on it here, that as another console port, it also has the same issues (and same mitigations) relative to the mouse. The game does not use the system mouse configuration, which is a pain. It does allow reconfiguration of all of the “buttons,” which include the fighting functions programed into the mouse buttons.

Can we get back to Korea?

Lastly, much like L.A. Noire before it, I put this game into my rotation at this place because it does take place (at least about 2/3rd to 3/4s of it) during the Korean War. In another neat little feature that stands out, the radio news has time-period appropriate news items on it, mixed in with local news perhaps related to your own play. In 1945, this includes news of the end of the Second World War in both Europe and Japan. In 1951, this includes reports of the fighting in Korea.

It’s a neat touch that nicely puts me in the mood to cycle back to Korea War gaming in one of my next posts.

*At some point in the story, the hero mentions that he earned a Purple Heart (obviously, he is back in the States due to a war wound) and a Distinguished Service Cross. Strangely, the backstory for what might have earned him such a significant award is not included, nor evident from the gameplay that is included. The character is cast much more as a reluctant conscript rather than a hero.

Banana Republic

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The term Banana Republic was coined to describe the country of Honduras at the turn of the 20th century. The country was dominated by the interests of several fruit companies engaged in the export of bananas from that country.

“Bananas” is also the scenario of the campaign game in Tropico 3.

Tropico 3 is a city builder. It is set in the Caribbean, where you play a ruler of a single island nation named Tropico. Like any good game of its genre, it builds nicely on the theme with tropical landscapes, buildings, and society. It also came about at the height of popularity of the genre, and tends to get the mechanics of the game right as well. The micromanagement is limited and the presentation is clear.

What sets this particular city builder apart, however, is how it integrates the theme with the game mechanics. In a modern city simulator, who are you playing as that you are allowed to build housing, roads, stores, industry, etc? Well, in Tropico, you are a populist dictator who micromanages whatever he wants to, proving random bits of the economy for free (food, healthcare), collecting from other bits of the economy in taxes, allowing the “citizens” to maintain their own individual economies, plus grafting a little off the top for your own personal account. Add to that some more historical themes, such as balancing your relationships with the Cold War superpowers and the political hot potatoes of socialism versus crony capitalism, and you have something can sit along side some of the more serious historical games in my list.

Not to imply there is anything being realistically simulated here. It’s still the same house-of-cards system, where you gradually build up an economy by layering more complex buildings and cycles on the simple. You need to balance ramping up the cost to match your income, and prevent mismatches that might cause a collapse. The additional factor in Tropico is that there are various political factions, with which the citizens align. Keeping the factions happy is necessary come election time so that you can get voted in for another term.

Tropico 3  (year developed) is really an re-implimentation of the original Tropico. Tropico 2 was a pirate-themed game, a path that was abandoned. Incidentally, both Tropico 4 and 5 are also incremental upgrades to Tropico 3. I had to start with one, and Tropico 3 seemed to be the right place. At some point, I’ll have to return and compare versions.

The “Bananas” game begins in 1950 when you take over the presidency of the island from a strongman who has “retired” under unstated but seemingly suspicious circumstances. Historically, this corresponds with the departure of dictator Tiburcio Carías in 1949 and his replacement via (a somewhat rigged) election by fellow National Party of Honduras (PNH) member Juan Manuel Gálvez. After his election, Gálvez departed from his predecessors policy, emphasizing education and giving more leeway to the  political opposition.

The scenario begins with the initial building of several banana plantations, for the purpose of exporting via an American fruit company, Fruitas Ltd. Some of this mirrors the longer history of Honduras (banana export under the control of large fruit concerns predated the period by at least half a century), while some of the events in the game a remarkably similar to the Gálvez administration.

During the scenario, I am offered a significant infusion of development money in exchange for a long-term contract freezing Banana prices. This is remarkably similar to the 25-year contract Gálvez signed with the the United Fruit Company at the beginning of his term.

I found myself investing in schools and housing, much like my historical counter-part, as well as raising wages. One of the triggered events involves a push for a minimum wages (to which I acceded), which was apparently the doing of one of the fruit conglomerate rivals to my partner, Fruitas Ltd. I don’t know what facts this might be based on, if any, but it certainly sounds plausible. The scenario also had a lot of focus on immigration issues, a focus of Honduran politics (although mostly in decades preceding the timeline of this scenario). In the first half of the century, labor for the plantations was imported from elsewhere in the Caribbean. This was countered by restrictive immigration policies immediately preceding the Second World War.

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The Caribbean as re-imagined by Tropico. I’ve completed the “Bananas” scenario, and am ready to move on.

In reality, Gálvez was overthrown by his own vice-President in 1954 following . In game, I managed to avoid having to face either re-election or extra-democratic removal before I achieved victory. The first scenario was very easy, but moving forward turns out to be considerably harder. In attempting a second scenario, I have twice found myself invaded and deposed by the United States before I could complete my objective… a situation that occurred a half a dozen times in the history of Honduras.

On-line reviews of Tropico do refer to the difficulty of the game. Some indications are that Tropico 4 eased up on some the difficulty levels. I’d probably enjoy a slightly more casual game. I may have to try the other versions.

Shall not be infringed

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Suppose I am convicted of securities fraud, insider trading, and a host of other crimes.  My fraud was clear, and it was very damaging.   The amounts involved were in the 10s of billions and some people lost their life savings.

Let’s imagine that, while I am in prison, I am not allowed access to the internet.  While this is clearly a violation of my Constitutional rights (freedom of speech, freedom of assembly), I am after all in prison.  It is well accepted that by committing a serious crime, and having been convicted, I am no longer entitled to certain rights protected by the Constitution.

What about as a condition of parole? Perhaps a little more constitutionally squishy, but probably still very defensible. As a parolee, I am still within the prison system and still subject to the curtailment of rights which my conviction has earned me.

What after I am released from parole?  Now, this is starting to look like a genuine violation of my Constitutional rights, as well as my non-enumerated natural rights.  Freedom to communicate, freedom of speech (in the constitutional sense) and the freedom to earn a living are all being restricted, despite the fact that  I have been punished and/or rehabilitated. While society does treat ex-convicts differently from the never-convicted, basic human rights, such as the right to vote, are not curtailed.

Let’s change the scenario again.   Imagine there is a law that says that no person convicted of securities fraud may have access to internet in prison, or on parole, or possibly for life.   At each step, I’m sure I’m losing some support as compared to the previous example.   After all, not all perpetrators of securities fraud used the internet to do so.   And not all are likely to commit further crimes given the opportunity.   Finally, it’s worth pointing out that even in the original case, where we’ve established that I’m a risk whenever I’m on the internet, I can still commit crimes even without the internet.   I can use the phone, I can use in-person meetings. The law may be unreasonable/unfair. The law may be unconstitutional. Add to which, the law may be fairly ineffective.

Now let’s change it one last time.   Imagine that we pass the law above, but all felons are now prohibited from using the internet.  Perhaps as a condition of parole.  Perhaps for life.

I think most of us would consider this a serious violation of rights.   After all, for most felons, the use of the internet is unrelated to their crime.

When it comes to gun laws, one area that is commonly accepted is that criminals shouldn’t be allowed guns. Why should that be such a given?

Particularly if the use of firearms is unrelated to the original crime, does it make sense to restrict a constitutional right for life? Is that reasonable punishment? Is society even served by this?

It is repeated, perhaps overly so, that criminals don’t follow [gun] laws. It does seem unlikely that a felon, intent upon committing a crime with a gun, would be much deterred by legal restrictions on gun possession.

It’s likely a third rail of politics, but the “prohibited person” restriction on gun ownership could be relaxed while both serving the interest of justice and not endangering public safety in any significant way.

Send Whiskey

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Netflix is creating an ever-increasing amount of content, much of which is both popular and critically acclaimed.

One fairly recent addition is The Siege of Jadotville, which turned out to be both a decent watch and an interesting subject for a film treatment.

The film is based on the book The Siege at Jadotville: The Irish Army’s Forgotten Battle, from 2005. It concerns an action of an Irish light infantry company under UN command in the Republic of the Congo in 1961. [Spoiler alert] The Irish were isolated at an outpost in Jadotville, facing attacks from aa much larger force. The unit eventually surrendered and were taken hostage. The commandant (equivalent to the rank of major) initially refused surrender despite the overwhelming odds, but eventually gave in after expended nearly all of his supplies, including ammunition and food.

The movie portrays how the unwillingness of the UN command to come to the aid of the Jadotville meant that the Irish ultimately had to choose between surrender or a pointless death. The action was downplayed by both the UN and the Irish government. In 2004, a retired soldier who had fought at Jadotville succeeded in a campaign to obtain recognition for the veterans of this battle. The Irish Defense Ministry reviewed the circumstances of the battle, cleared the commandant and company of any misconduct, and paved the way for positive recognition by the Irish government.

The story provides an interesting background for the movie. It is a conflict that many viewers likely know little about using facts that are coming fully to light now, half a century later. Far from being simply a story about an isolated firefight in an obscure corner of the globe, the action was actually part of the critical events of the world at that time.

Following the withdrawal of the Belgian government from Congo, the country fell into chaos including several regions attempting to establish independent countries. The UN deployed peacekeepers to the country but, feeling that support for the new nation was insufficient, the Prime Minister of the Republic of Congo, Patrice Lumumba, sought aid from the Soviet Union. The civil war became a focus for the cold war itself, including the risks of escalation between the Soviets and the United States

The movie begins with the execution of Lumumba and also includes the crash that killed UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld. It also discusses the politics at the UN that lead to the escalation of UN involvement in Congo. The film is not shy about showing declaratively the details of events which remain controversial. The portrayal of the UN is also less than flattering, suggesting that the self-interest of the organization trumped fulfillment of its intended mission.

The movie is entertaining to watch, although perhaps repeating a common theme. The small band of brothers outgunned and outnumbered fighting against the odds. Of course, being largely a true story, it’s tough to accuse it of merely rehashing some other film. The quality of the acting, writing, and direction put it on par with the current movies of the genre and elevate above, for example, the pre-Private Ryan movies of the 70s.

While it was, in fact, released to theatres briefly before being available on Netflix, it isn’t exactly a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster. As such, it risks the “small world” problem I’ve written about here before. In my opinion, this film solved it adequately. While there are a few scenes where the use of CGI to increase the number of on-screen combatants shows through, for the most part the film limits the focus. One obvious trick is that while, several times, the company defending Jadotville is described to be around 150 soldiers, the total number of actors for the Irish never exceeds around 25-30. The approach works well enough to keep the movie working. It just has to be recognized that what is portrayed on screen is a scaled-down representation of the actual events.

I’ve not read the book, but nearly every adaptation of a full-length book to a feature-length movie involves condensing and cutting the action. This film, obviously, is no exception. Events before and after the battle are simplified so as to create a coherent narrative. One measure of any dramatization of a historic event is that a good film, while incomplete in its historical treatment, encourages the viewer to look deeper into the “true” history. This worked on me: I’m writing this article.

One last point of interest. The “mercenaries” are represented by a portrayal of French Foreign Legion veteran René Faulques. In the story, he represents a number of mercenary commanders that were sent in by the Belgians and other Westerners to defend their interests against the communists by assisting the separatist movements. It is unclear to me whether Faulques was even present at the battle, much less involved as a central figure. Nevertheless, he probably was at one or more of the battles described in my previous entry, as he was a Lieutenant in the 1er Bataillon Etranger de Parachutistes during the conflict in Indochina.

Small world, indeed.

Referenced:

The Siege of Jadotville

The Siege at Jadotville: The Irish Army’s Forgotten Battle

Ancien Régime

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It’s been said before, but there is an argument that any new wargame that is released has to improve upon the available scenarios for the existing “sandbox” games. The holy trilogy for the Cold War era is likely The Operation Art of War (TOAW) for (you guessed it) Operation Scale land ops, Steel Panthers MBT (for tactical), and Harpoon for Sea/Air.

I would further argue that Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations has surpassed Harpoon, so we’re left with the two old war horses TOAW and SP. Of course, there are far better systems out there, both for World War II (which were the original targets for those games) and for other eras, but little that is moddable and has the actual range of user-made scenarios to cover a wide range of battles.

The time when this type of sandbox games were made, sold well, and were well supported by a user base creating scenarios seems to be a thing of the past. Expand the scope beyond the cold war to all eras and you’ll find that most of the game (I’m thinking of something like Age of Rifles) are not only many years behind us, but not really up to current standards.

Part of the issue is that current games have details, particularly in graphics and maps, that tie them to particular battles. This might be a design/marketing issue (such as with the HPS/Tiller games where user-created maps are simply not allowed), a techical issue (in Graviteam tactics, the detailed maps may simply be beyond modding) or a simple technical hurdle (Command Ops provides the ability to create new maps, but there is a huge amount of work involved).

One added advantage of these sandbox games is that they will cover wars/battles for which no dedicated game might ever be made. This next set of battles cover the struggle of the French to maintain their hold over Vietnam, post Second World War. For most of us in American, the story of the French in Vietnam is merely a prologue to our own war in Vietnam. This neglects nearly a decade of fighting using the same technology as the Korean War.

Battle of Vĩnh Yên

For tactical sandbox games, the trap is that high fidelity information is rarely known about a particular battle. The maps and troop dispositions can be put together, but a tactical scenario involves approximately 1 hour – so is what you’re playing a simulation. Or is it an abstraction of a larger battle, played out on a reduced scale?

The battle of Vĩnh Yên took place over several days. A brigade of Foreign Legion troops (the 9th), consisting of two Groupement Mobile (mobile groups, or GM), defended the town of Vĩnh Yên. North Vietnamese General Võ Nguyên Giáp commanded on the order of 50,000 soldiers, equipped by the Chinese. At the outset of 1951, he planed to deliver a decisive blow to the French army and chose the village, some 30 miles north of Hanoi, as a target. He would seek to overwhelm the French force of about 6,000 defenders with 2 Division totally approximately 20,000.

The first phase of the battle commenced on January 13th with a diversionary assault on an outpost north of the town. As one of the GMs  (GM3)was dispatched to deal with the attack, they were ambushed by the remaining Việt Minh. While the French successfully withdrew under the cover of air and artillery support, they suffered significant losses and the Việt Minh took possession of key hills in front of Vĩnh Yên.

The next day, the French counter-attacked. Linking their second Groupement Mobile (GM1) with GM3, opening the access to the town and ultimately retaking the hills occupied by the Việt Minh. A third Groupement Mobile (GM2) was ordered from Hanoi to aid in the defense, bringing the defenders total to around 9000.

The third phase, taking place on the 16th into the 17th, saw the Việt Minh’s fresh division assaulting the French position on the hills with massed human wave assaults. These were initially repelled by the dug-in French defenders with overwhelming artillery and air support, including the use of napalm. However, the attackers reformed and continued their attacks through the day of the 16th, into the night, and again on the morning of the 17th. As the French ran low on ammunition, they were forced to give up ground. By the next morning, the French committed the last of their reserves to hold their position on the left end of their line (Hill 210) and continued air support drove off the communists and inflicting over 8000 casualties (killed, captured and wounded).

The battle, as modeled in Steel Panthers, is a compressed and downsized approximation of that third phase of the battle. As the French, we have two platoons of infantry holding the key hills north of the town. Two additional platoons have entered the map on trucks, with the support of one platoon of light tanks. There is also air and the support of one artillery battery. The battle last for approximately 48 minutes, and we are exposed to an attack with superior numbers by enemy infantry backed by artillery.

Each Groupement Mobile typically consisted of two or three infantry regiments, a light tank squadron, artillery, and perhaps other support (engineers, for example) totally around 3000 men. For any significant portion of the battle, therefore, it would seem that representing the engagement as a platoon-sized confrontation would be greatly under-estimating the available forces.

vihnwave

The Communists are assaulting my positions using human wave tactics. Things are looking bad and are about to get far worse.

The scenario seems to be combining several of the key elements of the battle; the human wave attacks, the artillery and air strikes, and the reinforcements by GM2, all in one 45 minute summary of a 24+ battle.

I’ve read long ago, perhaps in the Designer Notes for one of the old Avalon Hill games such as Panzer Blitz or Squad Leader, why a tactical level battle typically runs under an hour. Beyond that, the fuel, ammunition and other supplies of an active unit will run low, and the simulation needs to be of resupply and reinforcement. So the key to modelling with these scenarios is to pick the right section of ground and timeframe to capture the action.

This can be particularly difficult in these lesser-covered conflicts, where a blow-by-blow description of a tactical battle is not available. It is also difficult to capture the right kind of scenario in an asymmetrical warfare or counter-insurgency campaign. This particular battle was notable in that the Việt Minh came out in the open and fought a traditional battle, allowing the French to use their technological superiority. A similar scenario probably would not exist of a “meeting engagement” of platoon-sized forces, but with a similar mix of armor, artillery, air.

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A sketch from a Vietnamese site provides a better perspective on the battlefield.

In the end, this scenario does what it can to represent the battles of that time and place. For my own performance, I ended up fighting it to a draw. I made a big mistake in overestimating the number of turns I had. My plan consisted of bringing my tank platoon across country to immediately relieve Hill 101 while bringing the trucks carrying infantry around the dirt road (202) to reinforce Hill 210 from the rear. The trucks were about to arrive as the scenario ended.

Battle of Nghĩa Lộ

The Operational Art of War address a similar situation in its scenario for the Battle of Nghĩa Lộ. General Giáp again, in the fall of 1951, saw an opportunity to capitalize on the successes of his guerilla tactics by using larger forces and more conventional tactics. The valley surrounding Nghĩa Lộ was an strategic location to overwhelm the French defenses with numeric superiority.

The Việt Minh attacked with a full division against a handful of French outposts. The French quickly reinforced with 3 battalions of paratroopers. The battle continued for a week, but the combination of elite troops and superior support again won the day for the French.

The Nghĩa Lộ scenario that shipped with the original comes at the other end of the simulation spectrum from the Steel Panthers scenario, above. The scale is that each counter represents a company (approximately 10X the scale of Steel Panthers) and turns last a full day (nearly 500X the time scale of Steel Panthers). Like the Czechoslovakian battle, this is a small scale for this engine. More so, in fact, with smaller units (company versus regiment), hex scale (2.5 km to 5 km), and map size (the battle was restricted to the immediate vicinity of the town).

Thus, my earlier criticisms still apply. The style of game play seems unsuited to this scale of modeling. Especially as applied to the asymmetrical warfare we see here. This seems to be born out by the results – Wikipedia cites the actual casualties as a fairly low percentage of forces engaged. 300 KIA for the Việt Minh and 60 KIA for the French. The historical Việt Minh slipped away into the mountains when the battle turned against them. In game, they dug in and fought to the last, with massive casualties on both sides.

nghialo

My paratroopers have arrived. After relieving the pressure on the town itself, I try isolating and defeating the numerically-superior enemy piecemeal.

The scenario stretches over two weeks (twice as long as the actual engagement). After an initial Việt Minh on the on board French outposts, the French begin to parachute in reinforcements. The screenshot, above, shows my strategy. Initial drops came in near Nghĩa Lộ and I used the reinforcements to force the attackers away from the town to the south. Further reinforcements I dropped north and west of the enemy positions, and used them to encircle and destroy the enemy formations. At all times, I was outnumbered and outclassed on the battlefield, so my approach was to achieve local superiority to defeat and move on to the next area.

TOAW combat victories can be achieved by occupying the six hexes surrounding an enemy (more, obviously, if the enemy has multiple contiguous hexes) and then attacking when they have no opportunity to retreat. Depending on the scale of the battle, it is often effective to let the isolation from resupply reduce the enemy before the assault. What the Soviets in the Second World War called Cauldrons (or Kettles). This seems to be an unlikely depiction of a company-sized engagement in French Indochina.

In the end, I isolated the enemy into two such cauldrons along the SW to NE line in the upper left quadrant of my screenshot. Throughout, the game told me I was on track to achieve an overwhelming victory. Near the end of the game, the Việt Minh began receiving extensive reinforcements to the southeast, and were overwhelming my defenders there. It became a race to see if I could free up my forces, by eliminating the pockets, in time to rescue my own isolated forces. The combination cost me heavily in casualties, and the prediction was that I was now going to “draw.” Nevertheless, the final screen declared victory for the French.

I also find it notable that the two scales, TOAW versus Steel Panthers, don’t ever meet. For any combat resolution on the TOAW map, it simulates probably several hours of combat (multiple games in SP) and, even with only two counters involved, a company-on-company attack, at the upper end of SP scenarios. In fact, given TOAW’s mechanics, one would rarely initiate an attack with only a single company against a similarly-sized defender.

Take 2

Perhaps recognizing issues with the original Nghĩa Lộ scenario, TOAW III includes a newer version of the same battle. The most obvious difference is the turn length, which has been reduced to six hour turns, introducing a day/night cycle. The game length has also been shortened to a week, corresponding to the recorded dates of the battle.

The map was also redone. On the screen capture below, we can see something that occurs with user-made scenarios. Knowing the mechanics of the games, maps are made to get the desired results in gameplay and not necessarily to visually portray the area being mapped. The combination of multiple rivers coming together in the vicinity of Nghĩa Lộ combined with irrigation structures creates a number of islands near the town. The effect of this is modeled with an impossibly-angular series of interconnected minor rivers.

nghialo2

After the arrival of my paratrooper reinforcements, I attempt to isolate the attackers in the southeastern corner of the operation.

The revised scenario played very differently than the original. With six hour turns, the wait for reinforcements seems terribly long. During this time, the enemy captured most of the road (where the objective points are, see below screenshot), eliminated the defenders from the town proper, and cleared out the center of the valley. Even when my initial paradrops began, I was unable to do anything except try to stay clear of the enemy.

Once all three of the paratrooper, I was able to concentrate my forces and obtain local superiority, and began taking back ground. In the end, I achieved a major victory, having forced all of the enemy out of the valley and into the mountains.

nghialo3

Final victory. I think the commies may have been repairing bridges during their brief occupation.

The balance of the forces is also obviously redone, although I didn’t look at the details. The French forces seem much weaker in the open, but tougher in prepared defenses. Several of my outposts remained intact through until the end of the scenario, despite enemy assault. While the casualties are not directly observable in the screens, the rate seems to be closer (though still higher) than the historic casualty rates for this battle.

Once again, despite the narrowing of the focus, I am struck that the operational scale of this game doesn’t touch the tactical scale of Steel Panthers. Even if the troop concentrations worked out, going from a six hour battle to a one-or-more 1 hour battles would require a summary of supply, rest, and reinforcement that isn’t accounted for in most tactical engines and is abstracted in the TOAW mechanics. Also, this being an all-infantry battle, it probably wouldn’t be the most fun scenario for a game that has a tank reference right there in the name.

One game that does try to model the details between these two levels the the Command Ops engine from Panther Games. While units are, as with this scenario, represented down to the company level, the lower level of detail is modeled. Time is a pausable continuous time, meaning a much more detailed calculations of what happens when. Also, the details of the deployments of the companies are represented – as opposed to simply placing them in a hex.

Supply is modeled much more explicitly. In TOAW, supply is important, but it mostly involves controlling hexes between the supply source and the units to prevent unit combat factors from degrading. In Command Ops, the flow of materiel is accounted for so as to show up in the ammunition numbers of the resupplied units. I have read no information on the supply operations of this particular battle, but with a geographically-isolated fight taking place over the course of a week, I imagine it was critical.

The Command Ops engine was original designed for paratrooper operations (Highway to the Reich, Conquest of the Aegean), and would probably make an excellent engine for this particular scenario.

Despite my victory in this scenario, I wonder if it was partially an artifact of the programmed opponent not being tuned quite right. There were several occasions during the battle that I was very sure that I was about to be wiped out in the next turn, but I was allowed to withdraw my forces and concentrate them. At the end of the game, there is an enemy company in good order, dug in on the eastern edge of my screenshot. Unopposed by my forces, that unit could have grabbed several victory locations and there would be nothing I could do about it. It makes me wonder if a French victory would have been feasible against a human opponent.

The Battle of Hòa Bình

Following the victories earlier in the year, the French commander Jean de Lattre de Tassigny wished to repeat his earlier successes. By forcing the Việt Minh to fight on their terms, the French were able to use their superior technology, logistics, and fire support to defeat the Việt Minh in open battle.

To force the situation, the city of Hòa Bình was targeted. It sat on key road and river transportation routes through Indochina and had been taken and used as a major logistics and communication hub by the Việt Minh. By disrupting their supply lines, the French would force the Việt Minh into open battle at the place of their choosing.

Of course, the French would also create logistical problems of their own. To keep Hòa Bình in supply, the French were forced to upgrade and garrison the road leading to the city. Supply via the Da (Black) River was also used. Although a considerably longer route, it was easier to secure. Outposts were created along the river to protect those convoys.

In December of 1951, General Giáp began attacking these outposts in an attempt to overwhelm the French. One such battle, at Tu Vu, is included in the Steel Panthers scenario list. The garrison of a river outpost came under the assault of a numerically-superior Việt Minh force.

The Việt Minh attack came at night, to nullify the French control of the air. At 9:30 PM, the French positions came under enemy mortar fire and shortly after 10PM the waves of infantry assaults began through the French wire and minefields.

buvu

On my southern wing, the Viet Minh have just breached my minefields and are headed for my entrenched positions.

The outpost straddled a tributary to the Black River, meaning the two positions needed to be defended separately. The defenders consisted to two companies of Moroccan infantry. The northern wing also had a platoon of tanks.

auvu

On my northern wing, I have tanks. But can they come into play before it is too late?

In contrast my other scenarios, this one seems sized about correctly in terms of units. The French seem to be lacking historical artillery support, which in the real battle was directed onto the minefields.

The Steel Panthers scenario lasts around an hour, and seems represent only the initial assault on the French positions. I ended up with a draw. I used little in the way of strategy. My units were initially in entrenched positions and dug in, and so I figured moving would only hurt me. Some enemy scouts had slipped in behind my lines (probably initial placement?) and I lost a victory location to that. I do wish I had tried to get those points back before the scenario ended. It may also have helped to give ground a little earlier, so as to bring my second line of defenses into play. Though deliberately letting the enemy advance seems like a bad idea.I do note that this scenario is included in the HPS/John Tiller product Dien Bien Phu. That scenario, according to the notes, lasts for 2 hours and also appears to be intended to last until the French withdrawal from the their southern outpost. It would be interesting to play the two scenarios side-by-side, although not interesting enough to drop $40-$50 on the product. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to return to the Squad Battles series in another war.

In the real battle, the southern defenders were forced to withdraw across a narrow footbridge to the the northern strong point after some three hours of attack. The wire and minefields and been neutralized by a carpet of dead enemy attackers, and the defenders had run out of ammunition to shoot them with. Two hours later, the overwhelmed defenders of the northern outpost withdrew through the river onto an island, where they prepared themselves for a final stand that never came.

tuvutuday

The battlefield as it appears today (via Google Map).

The greater battle for Hòa Bình continued until the following February, with the results from Tu Vu writ large. The French suffered high losses while inflicting far greater losses onto the communists. While they were ultimately able to maintain control of the ground, the cost of that victory proved too dear. The French withdrew from the area before a final attack from the Việt Minh came.