Fishcop

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Any movie that opens with the dialog “Gun’s always loaded, even if it ain’t…” and features a hand-loading scene, well, that’s going to buy it an extra star or so in my ratings.

Wind River is the third in an ex-post-facto trilogy from screen writer Taylor Sheridan, who also wrote Sicario and Come Hell or High Water. Unlike the first two, Sheridan was the director on this one. It is a solid piece of storytelling, well shot and well acted. Wind River is framed as “inspired by true events,” drawing attention, as it does, to the difficulties of law enforcement on Indian reservations.

For once, Netflix did me a favor on this one. It came up under recommendations as a DVD that would appeal to me. Based on the synopsis, it sounded a little weak… something about Fish and Game getting involved in an FBI investigation. It did not mention the writer/director connection with the other two films, both of which I’ve seen and strongly appreciated. But the old rating system, still in place for DVDs, ranked it very highly, so I had it shipped out.

The synopsis isn’t wrong, but it doesn’t capture the film at all. My first read through made it sound like a murder mystery taking place in the offices of some obscure governmental agencies. Then I began to imagine North Woods Law: Wyoming -styled action film. The pejorative of my title is a reference I’ve heard used on Fish and Game enforcement personnel who aspire to broader law enforcement jurisdiction. Fortunately, it was none of these. Had the reference to the earlier films been made explicit, I would have anticipated an atmosphere and pacing that are very much in line with the previous works.

The lead character in Wind River is a U.S. Fish and Game hunter working in Wyoming. He is responsible for removing predators when they encroach upon the population and their livestock. This identity is critical to the story in that Indian Reservations have a rather bizarre patchwork of law enforcement jurisdiction.

The theme an ambience is similar to Longmire, which I finished watching a month or two ago. The TV series often focused on the lack of jurisdiction of the county sheriff’s office on tribal reservation land, and that is part of Wind River as well. Additionally, the tribal police only have jurisdiction over their own tribe. So if the perpetrator of a crime on Indian land is non-Indian (or simply from a different tribe), the tribal police lack authority over the person and the local police lack authority over the place. The only remaining authority are the Feds. FBI or perhaps some other Federal agency involved, such as the Bureau of Land Management or, in the case presented in the movie, Fish and Game.

While, in theory, Federal jurisdiction on Federal lands is all well and good, in remote areas of the west the availability of Federal law enforcement officers (also a theme in Longmire, I might add), can often not be up to the task. For a remote wilderness, needing to ship FBI agents in from two states over probably isn’t that much of an issue. However, if that wilderness has a sizeable population in the form of an Indian reservation, a lack of on-site people who actually have jurisdiction is going to be felt.

The result is a movie that mixes social commentary, slow-burning drama, and a (welcomed) subdued action into an excellent mix. Well worth the watch. It also has me all the more excited about Sicario 2, on its way. I had wondered whether Sicario was something of a one-off, a bit of luck for a relatively unknown writer, but this guy is clearly on a roll.

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Lame

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Charles the Lame, that is.

Crusader Kings was the last of the Paradox games that spawned from Europa Universalis. Earlier I was thinking about the release of that engine as it tied into the Civilization and Age of Empires advances, with each pushing the other forward. The original EU release was not too long after Age of Kings and shortly before Civilization III. EU and EU II were barely more than a year apart, making EU almost a paid public beta for EU II.

Following on the heels of the success of EU II, Paradox moved the engine to the Second World War with the release of Hearts of Iron. This was not a mere re-skinning of the EU engine, however. Unlike the EU clock, which ticked through the centuries represented in that game, Hearts of Iron played strategically but simulated hour-by-hour. Thus, operations could be planned to coordinate attacks from land, sea, and air, scheduling them all to hit their target at a given H-hour. The series became very successful in its own right and is the most recent of the Paradox games to be reworked as a new version.

The next of the EU spin-offs was Victoria: An Empire Under the Sun. Vicky, as fans like to refer to it, returned to the the massive scale of EU but added in the more complexity to account for the economics of the Victorian era. Rather than simulate a population of a territory as a whole, Vicky breaks down the population into different categories: the wealthy versus the poor, the skilled versus the unskilled, the soldiers versus factory workers, etc. Managing the economy, then, involves managing this detail.

The final (unless you count Stellaris) branching of the the Paradox engine came in the spring of 2004. This game started with the invasion of England by William the Conqueror (in 1066) and lasted until 1452, just before the fall of Constantinople. The focus of the game was less on nation states and more on dynasties. The player has control over a middle-ages noble and his court and must manage the lands and armies to which that noble has title. Those titles can be lost in battle, so maintaining and growing one’s domain requires alliances and warfare. Upon death, titles are redistributed according to the hereditary rules in effect for that place and time (and they can be altered by the player to suit). So another important part of the game was ensuring suitable heirs were present when the current noble shuffles off this mortal coil.

This became a complex and critical part of the game. Too few heirs and you might find your only heir to the throne wiped out by the plague just as you need him to inherit. Too many heirs and the mighty kingdom you’ve painstaking built up shatters as it is divided among squabbling children. Furthermore, the “stats” for each noble is also hereditary. So “good breeding” became a matter of selecting wives and husbands for your family and was necessary for prevailing in future battles.

It was a game monumental in its scope. While in many ways based on its EU roots, there were several areas of departure. In addition to the need to manage your family, there was considerable less reliance on that historical timeline and the event system that kept things somewhat on track. All it takes is one extra boy being born, and a pivotal succession crisis will never take place.

One more very popular addition was to allow a game completed in Crusader Kings to be exported and used as a starting point for EU II. All of the games in the EU family have been fairly open and modable, granting them a lot of attention both in terms of improvements and also “total conversions.” Shortly after the game started covering different eras, users took an interest in moving a given game-produced world from one product to the next, chronologically. EU games were ported to Vicky, although there is quite a gap between the two. The post-World War I ending of Vicky can be sent on to Hearts of Iron for the WWII, and that game was modded to extend into the Cold War. With one of their Crusader Kings patches, Paradox got in on the action and officially made it possible to continue playing with a CK world in EU II.

While on the topic of mods, one of the most popular for CK was the Game of Thrones conversion. That popularity exploded with the conversion of the novels to the HBO series. I recall reading, back in 2011 or 2012, how Crusader Kings was the best Game of Thrones game available, and it wasn’t even a Game of Thrones game. It seemed ideally suited to model just the sort of politics/warfare/sex battlefields that people love about the show, and that was part of what created the medieval history that we know.

But all was not perfect. The game progressed at essentially two different speeds. Personal interactions could be happening rather frequently whereas realm development took place over years and decades. Speeding the game up meant being innundated with messages about various characters and their interactions within the game. Like EU, CK allowed the player to customize the handling of event notifications. The problem was, even a minor character looking for a suitable wife could be critical to the game. Because character statistics of newborns were based on the statistics of their parents, selective breeding was necessary to create a competent court from which to draw your generals and administrators. I recall, back in the day, likening it to a computerized version of whack-a-mole.

My other huge complaint with the model was the handling of ships. Unlike the other games of the EU pantheon, the handling of ships was abstracted. In the time before sea-going warfare, it made sense not to model ships as combat units. What shipbound fighting existed at the time was very different that what the Age of Sail would bring in the timeframe of EU. The problem with abstracting it entirely way is there were significant factors limiting sail and oar powered shipping, particularly outside of the Mediterranean. I often played my games somewhere on the British Isle, and inevitably at some point the Muslim hoards would sail to my island and attempt to covert me. It was a historical impossibility, but why?

This game, and pretty much all games for that matter, fail to model the effects of currents and prevailing winds on medieval sea travel. In this instance, traversing the points at the tip of Brittany, near Brest, or the south-eastern tip of England, near Dover, might involve waiting patiently for the forces of nature to help you around the bend. If the “you” in this case is a massive fleet sailing from Tripoli for the purposes of conquest, that would provide a point where the invaders are particularly vulnerable to interdiction. For example, the details of the (much later) defeat of the Spanish Armada cannot be fully comprehended without understanding these limitations on sailing routes.

Mercifully, Crusader Kings skipped over the EU III engine and, instead, became (as Crusader Kings II) the first of the games built on the current engine. And while it started its distribution through multiple channels, it eventually became sold exclusively through Steam.

Paradox has long had a reputation for releasing games with initial bugs. Crusader Kings II seemed to live up to that promise. This was a game that I wanted, badly, even before it came out. I was very much into Crusader Kings and saw a promise in the sequel to fix some of the issues I saw above. It took some time before I finally pulled the trigger. Even then, I refused to buy through Steam or any of the Steam-like services. I like to own the games I buy, not rent them. I finally found a sale through GamersGate, which offered a DRM-free version and happily began enjoying the new version.

Some months later, however, Paradox announced that they could no longer support the product through GamersGate and I had to move my license to Steam. This caused me to actually get a Steam account, which has grown nearly-uncontrollably ever since. It also started my relationship with Paradox and their DLC model for supporting their games.  It fixes, from the game companies’ standpoint, a long standing issue with game support. When a game requires ongoing maintenance, particularly for new features and other improvements, it is done at an increasingly uncompensated cost. Eventually, the company must release an expansion or a new version to generate the necessary revenue, often frustrating users who can sometimes feel they are being forced to pay for a bug-fix patch. The DLC model, while in some ways exacerbating the situation, may actually make it more palatable by seeking revenue more regularly, but in smaller chunks. In any case, I’ve resigned myself to periodically buying newer content for Crusader Kings and EU, and have been rewarded with not only years of active support, but sometimes game-changing improvements in the features.

DLCs have also been used to expand the chronological scope of the game. Add-ons have extended the starting point backwards some 500 years. A player can start, not just with the Norman domination of England, but back to the viking invasions or further back to reign of Charlemagne.

Charles the Lame

Earlier, I contrasted Crusader Kings with EU particularly in the area of historical fidelity. In the discussed game, I played a scenario and highlighted a particular place where the game (through an invasion of France by the HRE) departed substantially from history.

Continuing on with that game, I also continue to drift away from an actual tracking of historical events. On the other hand, gaming in the same medieval “world” will always mean there are some parallels between what the game creates and analogous situations that really happened.

As before, I am still playing as the Duke of Upper Burgundy, where I have hopes of expanding my power and possibly once again ruling over a Burgundian kingdom within the Holy Roman Empire.

In the real world, from the late 1270s into the early 1280s, the counties that would comprise the Kingdom of Arles, a kingdom of Upper and Lower Burgundy, were under the control of Charles of Anjou. In addition to these titles (the counties of Provence and Forcalquier) Charles I held claim to Anjou and Maine in France. He had been invested by the pope as the King of Sicily, after killing the previous ruler, Manfred (a bastard son at the end of the Hohenstaufen line), at the Battle of Benevento.

The son of Charles I, also Charles (II) and known as Charles the Lame, was at the time Regent of Provence and heir to the titles of Anjou. A plan was hatched between the elder Charles, Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph I, and Pope Martin IV. Charles the Lame’s son, Charles Martel would, upon marrying the daughter of Rudolph, receive the title of King of Arles and preside over that historical kingdom. In exchange, Charles I was to back the an inheritance of the title of Emperor to be passed through the House of Habsburg. Finally, the pope’s family would be granted a Kingdom located in northern Italy. Instead, Sicily revolted against Charles’  (I) rule in the War of the Sicilian Vespers and the marriage and the creation of the new kingdoms was never to occur.

That’s a lot of Charles.

In my world, Sicily is controlled not by the French (as was the case in 1282), but by the Holy Roman Empire. By 1286, a war has begun between two claimants to the title King of Sicily. The conflict has drawn in the Emperor himself, and fighting has spread far enough north to impact my own duchy and, in doing so, drawn my attention.

sicily1

The year is 1286 and a war has broken out in a Sicily divided over who is to rule them. This may be a chance for my family to press their claims in Italy.

With Sicily in chaos, I have decided to advance an imperial claim on one of the central Italian counties. Unlike in the real world, where the Hapsburgs have begun their ascendancy to pan-European power, in mine  Rudoph von Habsburg is a count in Upper Burgundy and my chief administrator. I am married to a princess of the empire, the sister to the predecessor and cousin of the current Emperor Václav II.

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I’ve moved my army into the war torn peninsula, but I am without friends.

I have forgotten a key feature of Crusader Kings II and civil wars. It may seem like a rebellious lord is easy pickings, and making a claim on a pretender’s holding will allow you to pile on to an already winning side. But that’s not quite right. As I have made a claim on a county claimed by both sides in the war, they actually both consider me an enemy. In the above screenshot, while I was biding my time, waiting for the pretender king (whose claim I have challenged) to weaken before I deal with him, I was ambushed by the loyalist armies. The king who is still recognized by the Emperor as the true King of Sicily still believes the title to the usurper’s lands lay with him. I had a chance against one of them, but not both.

The screen above represents one of the major features the Crusader Kings II introduced, and one that has been enhanced since the original release. From the beginning, the EU franchise resolved battles using a pop-up screen where the armies would attrit in “real time” as the strategic clock advanced. Interaction is minimal while the battle was ongoing, with the ability to send reinforcements (if another army is close enough) or retreat from the battle before forced to by the battle engine. Obviously the timescales don’t quite work, but it provides a workable interface for both the strategic game and individual battles that occur within it.

In Crusader Kings, that battle engine now has considerably more depth. Each fight sees the the units involved divided into three “battles,” as the language of the time would describe them. If there are insufficient sub-units, only two or maybe only one of the battles will be populated. Each battle can be allotted a commander, which will improve performance when fighting. As the enemy forces engage, each wing attacks the corresponding wing of the opposing army and goes through various types of combat. In the previous screenshot, the armies are beginning an engagement in skirmish mode (see the blue bow-and-arrow icons for all six battles). A unit will progress through that skirmishing into an infantry mode. Once one side breaks, the opposing side will have a pursuit phase. As the opponents wings are eliminated, a winning army will engage with multiple-on-one attacks among those forces that remain.

There is additional detail in the model. I occasionally see special indicators during a fight, like a “shield wall” icon popping up. One presumes that the effectiveness of the unit during the different phases depends, not only on the commander, but on the mix of weaponry in the component units. More and better archers should mean more effective skirmishing, and so forth. As before, you have little interaction once the armies are engaged. But the depth of the battle model is engaging, with an effective user interface to show progress. It is also limits the engagement to that of a supreme commander. In doing so, it encourages you to control the things that a supreme commander could control – better leaders and a better mix of weaponry – rather than having you micromanage every unit in every battle, Total War -style.

Back to the battle within the context of the game. As the attack started I made an assumption, which turned out to be correct, that numerical advantage (albeit a slight one) of the Sicilian army would be all it took to tip the odds against me within Crusader Kings II. It seems like it would set up an even battle in FoG(U), with the slight numerical advantage countering any weakness in UI play. In fact, I assumed that the battle would produce the opposite result given the nearly even armies. So much so, I was afraid that the fight wouldn’t even be close and the results would be entirely misaligned with what I saw in the strategic level.

sicily3

I used the army-building tools to recreate the fight from Crusader Kings. The two armies clash on Turn 4 of the battle.

As the armies moved to contact (screenshot above), my fears seemed to be realized and then some. While I made an effort to keep my lines organized as I moved them forward, the AI charged pell-mell across the open field, hitting my lines piecemeal just as I was moving out of my own encampment. It appeared that I would easily defeat the enemy in detail.

sicily4

My left wing is utterly collapsing and any hope I have of salvaging the battle on my right seems to have slipped away.

As it turns out, the AI may have been aggressive but was not “too aggressive.” Despite the fact that my lines were better ordered, I was overwhelmed by the enemy assaults.

This is no organized analysis, but there seems to be a clear difference between AI performance in the original version and the Unity version. In the old version I had scenarios where holding back to draw the enemy into assaulting my position would result in running out of turns before the enemy was even engaged. This new AI seems to want to being killing me as fast as possible. Furthermore, it is effective at doing so.

sicily5

I stand corrected. The Sicilians have obtained a decisive victory over me and come pretty close to matching the results I saw in the Crusader Kings resolution of the battle.

This was effectively the end of my campaign to gain influence on the Italian peninsula, although I refused to admit it at the time. Like so many commanders before me, I figured that I had weakened the enemy even as he had weakened me, and that one more push would put me back on top. I assembled a second army, this time made mostly of mercenaries, and moved them in for a reprise. The problem, however, remained that I was outnumbered by both sides of the Sicilian Succession War combatants when they were combined and I was again forced to to wait out the enemy, hoping to see him weaken himself. In this case, the enemy was able to wait me out. As funds to pay my mercenary army ran low, an enemy was able to bribe them to flip sides and my next battle, instead of being a nearly even fight, turned into a massacre. So I had to return home, not just a loser, but a broke loser.

A Ship and a Sea to Sail Upon

Fighting up and down Italy doesn’t require much in the way of sea transport, but given the vehemence of my complaining, I had probably better mention that aspect of Crusader Kings II. In this iteration, ships have returned to an explicitly-modeled factor in the game. They are available to be raised in the same way as land armies, based on the counties you control, or hired as mercenaries. Either way, they are terribly expensive.

What it means is that, if there is a sea-transport component to your campaign, you’re going to have to have a lot of extra money set aside before you start. You’ll also want to plan appropriately. Having fleets sitting around idling will mean your treasury quickly runs dry. You’ll want to get your transporting done as rapidly as possible and then release those ships back to wherever they came from.

It still doesn’t model sailing in a realistic detail, but from the games I’ve played so far, it seems to create realistic end results. Sea invasions are huge deals, even over short stretches of ocean. While I usually end up at some point during a game paying the cost to send a Crusader army across the water to the Holy Land, I almost never bring them home again. And I’ve never seen the marauding north-African hordes laying waste to the shores of England and Wales in Crusader Kings II.

Similarly, the frantic dating game into which the original Crusader Kings could descend has been largely fixed. This latest engine (CK II, EU4, and the new Hearts of Iron) has added in a better user interface which is particularly effective when it comes to the decision-making aspects of the game.  A player no longer has to keep their eyes glued on dozens of different factors as time goes by, hoping not to miss a critical event. Instead, many of the decisions are presented as alerts to the player.

Add to that some better browsing tools, and the marriage game becomes easier to stay on top of without the frantic effort of before. The model for marriages has become more complex as well, meaning that unless you are marrying off a particular enticing child, you’re not going to be able to scour the world for a tall, barrel-chested woman to breed a race of warrior-giants. Furthermore, the “mini-game” of influencing your children’s statistics has become deeper and more multi-dimensional. There are the statistics and there are traits, which each influence the other. These come from not just who the parents are, but also decisions that are made during their upbringing. It is, at the same time, both a more interesting game and one that is no longer critical to overall success or failure.

Charles may have been called lame, but Crusader Kings II is not.

I Never Thought I’d See..

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I an “I never thought I’d see the day” moment, the Wall St. Journal this weekend has an article on the historical genre of board gaming. It’s more of a side bar format, really, than an article. After a brief orientation about how Settlers of Catan is a better experience for adults than Candyland, they recommend five strategy games based on historical events. In the original order:

1. 13 Minutes,

2. Freedom: The Underground Railroad,

3. Memoire ’44,

4. 1960: The Making of the President, and

5. Fire in the Lake.

The article features a nice picture of the Freedom board, set up for play. (I can’t see any of this on line – you may need to have the printed Wall St. Journal to see it at all). What drew my interest most is the first title on the list. I’ve seen all the others at some point or the other, but their #1 was new to me.

On Amazon, 13 Minutes is sold for (at present) $10 and is also suggested as a three game package, together with 13 Days:The Cuban Missile Crisis (this I’ve glanced at before) and a game called Twilight Squabble. Together, the trio offer ways to play Cold War in very short game play. 13 Minutes is described as the time it would take missiles to reach the U.S. from Cuba, and also the typical length of a game. 13 Days is described as a 45 minute game, but online reviews discuss whether it can be finished in 30 minutes. Twilight Squabble offers the entire Cold War in 10 minutes.

While the third may be overdoing it a little, the first two receive fairly good marks on Board Game Geek. In fact, not at all obvious to me until I began reading, the two games are made by the same designers. Further it would appear that the former is a deliberate condensing of the latter (although, remember, I haven’t played these games – I’m just looking at them on-line).

In addition to that bit of enlightenment, the mix of the games in the article is also interesting. First, with the exception of Memoire, the games’ pedigree all flows back to Twilight Struggle. 13 Days is obviously an attempt to streamline the Twilight Struggle gameplay, and 13 Minutes is a further streamlining of that. 1960 was another GMT release, a few years after Twilight Struggle, and (at least at first glance) looks like a variation on the theme. Fire in the Lake is one of the COIN-series games that followed on from Labyrinth, itself and extension of Twilight Struggle mechanics to the war on terror.

The most tenuous connection is Freedom. It is from different designers and different publishers that the children of Twilight Struggle. However, Freedom shares with Twilight Struggle the card-driven mechanics as well as the point-to-point mapboard. I’ll go so far as to say that, appearance-wise, the components resemble those of Fire in the Lake. I suspect that Freedom was also included in the list because it is a cooperative game, a novel concept to those who abandoned board gaming with one two too many games of Candyland.

Likewise, Memoire ’44 is an obvious inclusion. It predates Twilight Struggle by a year. It was not entirely a novel concept at that time. Memoire followed the Battle Cry civil war game using similar mechanics, a game system that would eventually be the Commands and Colors series. Likely the World War II theme of Memoire had a broader appeal making  Memoire an entry point into the hex-and-counter wargaming genre for the non-wargaming public.

Seen this way, the list can be examples of various genres, using the American History theme to unite them. The micro-game, the cooperative game, the wargame, and a political game. The only obvious missing element is an economic game (unless the lead-in introduction to Catan counts). In this, the odd man out becomes Fire in the Lake.

Fire in the Lake has the best Board Game Geek scores of any on the list. It is also ranked as the most complex on this list. In fact, even by the standards of the COIN series (themselves something of a master-level gaming experience), Fire in the Lake is one of the more complex of the bunch. The giant leap from Candyland to Fire in the Lake would likely give Neil Armstrong pause. Maybe this game is included for readers like me. While familiar with strategy and historical boardgaming, 13 Minutes was something new for me to ponder. For others already primed for a very deep boardgame experience and interested in Cold War history, perhaps they just never realized that there was such a game as Fire in the Lake. More importantly, one might realize realize that Fire in the Lake is due up for a reprint and is discounted for pre-order.

As a final personal note, while I’ve fairly recently been playing at Candyland, I’ve never played The Settlers of Catan.

 

Right Is Good; Left Is Evil

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A friend used to say that. It was during Dungeon and Dragons games when he would come to a fork in the way. “Let’s go right,” he’d say, “because right is good and left is evil.”

I doubt that.

But for me, when it comes to mouse buttons, I wholeheartedly endorse the phrase.

I am right handed, but I have all of my computers configured for a left-handed mouse. I’ve found this to be a very effective solution for staving off carpel tunnel syndrome while engaging in extensive computer use. I don’t know why it works – and maybe it is 2 parts psychosomatic to 1 part physiology – but it does.

But not all games support a left handed mouse. I’ve not tried to be analytical about it, but it seems like there is a particularly bad period in the early aughts. Before that and games will, assuming they have been adapted to run on a modern system, simply carry through the system configurations. Move closer to today, and games are more tightly integrated with the operating system, also avoiding gaps. In that middle is where the concept (first) of using hotkeys to enhance gaming and (second) allowing the reconfiguration of those hotkeys to the user’s pleasure came in. Perhaps it has to do with the nature of the programing to go straight to the keyboard and mouse and redirect the inputs, but configuration of the mouse is often left out. The more intensive the configuration needed for a style of game, it seems, the more likely that the mouse buttons are hard-coded to the righty mouse. So Flight Sims, CRPGs and First Person Shooters from a certain era probably have the best chance of being wrist unfriendly for me.

The problem does not skip over strategy games, though. I’ve mentioned the Shrapnel offerings before. I will remain eternally bitter over the strategy game Salvo!, which was exactly the game I wanted to play when I bought it (tactical Age of Sail). It was also unplayable for me. Not only does it hard code the right-handed mouse, but the UI is filled with mouse-down gesturing. One or two games in, and I was afraid I’d have to give up computers for good. (Much better now, though).

Da ‘Hood

Shift gears for a moment, and let’s go back to those early aughts. The game Robin Hood: The Legend of Sherwood was released in 2002. It rode on a wave of the, by that time, popular “stealth” genre of game play. I recall being introduced to stealth games with the 1998 release of Thief: The Dark Project. At least in the reviews I was reading, Thief was touted as a “more intelligent” alternative to the first person shooter genre. Rather being the fastest with your click and twitch, success would flow from careful forethought and NOT engaging in the high speed slaughter of your enemies. Also in 1998, an RTS version of the genre was available in the form of the game Commandos.

By 2002, much had advanced in graphics and game play, particularly in the RTS genre. Robin Hood came out, was fairly well received, and moved into a 2nd or 3rd place spot on my game wishlist. I don’t remember what kept it from the top, but I do recall giving it some serious thought, and then a pass, a number of times over. It has an aesthetic that I’ve come to associated with being “European.” Or perhaps, to be more specific, German. The graphics portraying medieval Europe are, to my mind, very attractive. (It’s a similar style to what I recently praised in Legends of Eisenwald). The game wasn’t as cutthroat as some of that time’s more popular titles, weather from the “real time tactics” genre or the “stealth” genre. The developers promised more of an emphasis on “fun” rather than “challenge.”

I never did wind up getting it, though. I’m not entirely sure why, but there it is. Until, that is, some time last year when I found it on sale and finally picked it up.

Imagine my horror when I opened it up and realized that none of the buttons worked because the game is coded to use a right-handed mouse only!

It is a shame the game hates me so much right from the get-go, because the design has a lot going for it. In addition to the aesthetic, which I mention above, it combines features from a number of other genres. First, the “missions” are encapsulated within a strategic layer. For each mission, you choose a subset of Robin’s band to go, and other stay behind, performing various tasks while you are gone. The missions themselves are selected from a map, providing a certain amount of variety along with advancing the game’s story line.

Second, it is one of the early, and good, examples of the “stealth” tactical game. Playing it successfully means avoiding just fighting your way through the levels. The missions have strong puzzle-like elements, where you need to discover the pathways that allow you to sneak past or behind the enemies. Unlike Commandos, where almost immediately I find myself getting stymied by the difficulty, the puzzles seem not only simpler but have more room for trial and error. Even when spotted by the sheriff’s soldiers, it is often possible to run, hide, and make another go at things. In the worst case (and this is on the easiest setting), it is generally possible to forego the stealthy method and fight your way through the level. Points-wise, the player is punished for slaughtering too many of the enemy when a less lethal strategy is available, but it is not an automatic loss.

robin

Despite its age, this is a very attractive game to look at.

A third genre represented is the “pixel hunt” -style puzzles that were popular, particularly at that time. That’s not necessarily a plus in my view, but it does add some variety. After dispatching with all the enemies; the money, extra-arrows, and other goodies are hidden within the terrain. Some screen-hunting is necessary to maximize your haul for a given mission.

The last innovative feature that stood out for me is that, once a character is engaged in fighting, a mouse-gesture based fighting system is activated. It isn’t a necessary part of combat, but adds one more feature – popular at the time – of adding special “moves” to the combat system. As with the last feature, it’s not one I would look for in the games I generally play. In fact, I seem more likely than not to invoke roundhouse smashes that do as much damage to the friendlies surrounding me as to the enemy. As a game-design feature, though, it seems like a nice extra that adds to the appeal of the package.

It all comes together well enough for me to fight through the mouse issue and try a handful of the missions. The right mouse button (the real one, not mine) doesn’t seem to be that important, so just gripping the mouse a little funny and using it as if it were a single-button mouse seems to work OK. It’s alternatively intriguing and frustrating. Intriguing as I notice one special path where I can get through some guards by sneaking around and knocking a them on the heads from behind. Then frustrating as I stumble onto to another guard while trying to manage my clicks and get sucked into a 10 minute cycle of combat, and then carrying away the dead bodies.

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Here’s where I’m stacking all the dead bodies. Let me see if it looks any less gruesome from the rooftop.

His Merry Men

All this Robin Hood stuff got me thinking back to my Robin Hood experiences as a child. As far as I remember, I didn’t watch any Robin Hood shows on television. I also don’t think I’ve ever seen the Disney cartoon in its entirety, although I know I’d watched a few scenes of it, probably as part of the Wonderful World of Disney weekly show. My Robin Hood source was part of set of volumes called Children’s Classic Books probably, from what I’ve been able to divine from the internets, from the 1920s. What I recall most vividly were the full-page color illustrations that accompanied the story.

The publisher of this book (I suspect) capitalized on the lack of copyrights on classic works such as this one, taking a well-known publication and, with some minor editing and touch-up, republishing it without any attribution for the original author. This Classic Robin Hood book only has a credit for the illustrations (and also one for the introduction). Since I no longer know where these books are, and the only examples I’m seeing of them are a handful of people trying to pawn off their grandparent’s collections on Ebay, I’m left very much to conjecture about all of this. My suspicion is that my book was based on the 1883 novel, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown in Nottinghamshire by Howard Pyle. I’m currently reading my way through a copy of that so as to relive my childhood.

Pyle’s Robin Hood was very influential, shaping the popular conception of Robin Hood as a children’s tale. His book is written in an odd mix (particularly to modern eyes) of Victorian English, pseudo-Medieval English, and children’s prose. It tones down some of the sinister twists of the source material, making it more palatable as a children’s story. In doing so, he altered the image of Robin Hood as an (albeit lovable) thief and scoundrel to a noble hero, engaging in criminality purely in defense of the underdog in the face of tyranny.

Pyle’s source material is almost certainly Francis James Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, a compilation of and commentary upon the traditional oral storytelling of the UK. I also am reading through some of Volume 3 of that series, which contains a number of the Robin Hood stories as lyrics and often map one-to-one with Pyle’s chapters.

Using the opening story, How Robin Hood Came To Be An Outlaw in the Pyle book, corresponding to Robin Hood’s Progress to Nottingham in Child’s, we can see an example of this. By the 50s and 60s, a common explanation of how Robin Hood became an outlaw is that he was outlawed by the evil powers-that-be to cheat him out of his inheritance. He is forced to join up with, and then lead, outlaws of Sherwood Forest in order to battle these obviously bad powers who are subverting the cause of justice. When reading Pyle’s description of how he became an outlaw, it is far less pure. Robin, at the age of 15, is goaded into illegally shooting one of the King’s deer on a bet. When his tormentors refuse to pay him, the situation escalates into the murder of the man who wagered (and reneged on) the debt. Because the man Robin shoots actually shot first, it may all be justifiable as self-defense. While Robin may be undeserving of the punishment for murder, he is clearly culpable (through his own hot-hotheadedness and pride, if nothing else) in creating the situation which sends him away from polite society.

But that version is far more gentle that the ballad from Child. In that one, having lost the bet to Robin, the band of some 15 foresters not only refuse to pay him, but continue to chide him for his youth and inexperience. They order him to take his bow and get out. Robin, laughing at the irony (he takes up his bow, for sure), slaughters the entire bunch. Subsequently, he may also maim a number of residents of Nottingham who attempt to apprehend him for his mass-killing.

Incidentally, Child is scornful of the attempts to place Robin Hood in a historical context. It was Ivanhoe, in 1819, that connected Robin with King Richard the Lionheart and there were plenty subsequent to that who wished to discover the story’s true origins, based on written records. Child points out that the “scholarly” references to a historical Robin Hood during the reign of Edward I are almost certainly drawn from the ballads, not historical documents. By the time we see actual records of the name “Robin Hood” in a legal context, it is well after the time when we know that the Robin Hood stories were popular. Any reference is probably do to the use of the the name “Robin Hood” as a way to refer, generically, to an outlaw. Any attempt to discover the nature of the “real” Robin Hood is, therefore, pointless, as the stories were likely just stories created to entertain.

Reading through Pyle’s version, I come to a couple of conclusions about my childhood. First, I’m going to guess that the 19th century edit “modernized” the language from what I’m reading now, and probably did so considerably. As written, Pyle’s prose would have been off-putting for me as a young teen. Second, I probably never read this book all the way through. I imagine I spent some time with the images, and probably read some chapters to put those images in context, but I probably took in the book piecemeal. Even if the book was updated to “twenties” language, I don’t think I could have digested it all. Given what I know about my young self, I believe I would have required, at least, some more contemporary styling.

Big Screen, Little Screen

Robin Hood again became a personal interest in 1991, when Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was released. This is the one staring Kevin Costner, at the time on a Hollywood hot streak. It came with a lot of expectations, many of which fell short with its audience. Personally, Sean Connery’s cameo at the end caused me to laugh out loud at the theater. It is hard to explain why, but that seems to summarize the film for me.

 

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves: Sean Connery as King Richard? LOL.

a 1-line review

It did, however, reinvigorate the characters and we continue to see takes and retakes on this story to the present day. Another major Hollywood treatment was released in 2010 (with Russell Crow this time), although it was also received pretty negatively. I haven’t seen it.

To try to relive some of the screen treatments of this one, I pulled up two of the older TV series version. The Adventures of Robin Hood ran for four years in the 1950s. It was an English produced, fairly conventional treatment of the matter and was likely iconic for the generations raised on black and white TV. I also watched, or at least I’ve made an honest effort to watch, Robin of Sherwood. This was another English treatment of the show, this time for three seasons in the 1980s.

A fifties action-TV-show is going to fall short of modern expectations and there is practically no way around that. 1950s film-making holds up best when the focus is on drama and dialog. The “teleplay” style of the time makes everything seem a bit flat and confined. I also think I noticed, in one scene, someone bumped into the “castle wall” from the rear causing the whole castle to wobble a bit. It is played with fifties earnestness and style, and can be appreciated if taken within its context.

The second show has not been treated so well by the passing years. Robin of Sherwood seems to have praise lavished upon it from around the internet. A bit of copy that is used for the Amazon review, comes from a Role-Playing gamer’s website.

Robin of Sherwood is, for many people, the definitive modern version of the Robin Hood legend. Moody, atmospheric, superbly written and acted, with a haunting soundtrack by Clannad (later released as the album Legend), it was the inspiration for a generation of British fantasy roleplayers.

I don’t know if 1980’s D&Ders are a reliable source for television reviews. Imagine the typical BBC (circa 1984) camera work backed by an 80s synth soundtrack. Now mix in weird fantasy elements portrayed by cheap props and low-budget special effects. Put the iconic 1980s “male model” in long-haired, fantasy form in the lead and… there you have it, now you don’t have to watch the show.

It is said that this series was the inspiration for the rush of Robin Hoods in the 1990s. I can only imagine that many in the business could take a look at the raw material and say “I can do better.”

The moral of the story is that the Robin Hood of the day is a product of the times in which it is made.

Ivanhoe popularized the Norman versus Saxon cultural wars in a context of post Napoleon English-French relations. Another theory is that Scott (a Scot) was attempting to parallel the cultural enmity between the Scots and the descended-from-Normans-English which was prevalent in the politics of Scottish Independence of that time.

Growing up I heard the “robbed from the rich to give to the poor” which fit well within the 60s and 70s socialist/communist counter-culture movements. A better read of the Victorian version is more likely characterized as returning the taxes taken by church and government and returning it to the people from which they stole it. In the early versions in Child’s compilation, Robin Hood is a lovable outlaw that, while not completely disconnected from our modern understanding, still quite different. Rather than engaging in an active redistribution of wealth, it is more of a populist mentality that sees him picking on the privileged and pompous and sparing the simple, hardworking folk. He is admired for his religiosity, particularly his devotion to the Virgin Mary. But also, his penchant for murder never seems to wane and yet does little to dent his popularity.

The 90s saw a rush of Robin Hood treatments, both attempting to get more serious and ridiculing those attempts. It is both an attempt to root the stories in the “gritty realism” that has become popular as a style for historical dramas, while necessarily creating fanciful story lines out of  whole cloth to create something the the requisite depth for he modern consumer. The Robin Hood story of my adult life has the addition of Muslim/Black characters, the implications of which I will leave to you, my dear reader, to reflect upon.

The Glorious Sword of Authority

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I occasionally make the effort to alternate between reading books for pleasure – often current mass-market fiction – and books for my own betterment – more often that not, historical works. With a best-selling novel, I often whip through it in no time, having to cut myself off so I don’t stay up all night reading. A more scholarly non-fiction work is the opposite – I have to push myself to read enough every day that I don’t draw out the exercise into eternity. Alternating between genres (fiction/non-fiction or pleasure/scholarly) helps motivate me to keep at it with the latter categories.

Every once in a while, a book I’ve chosen simply to learn about a period in history ends up being, additionally, a real page turner. Often unexpectedly so. The book Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War fits that bill. It is well written (from the standpoint of a casual reader), aimed as an introductory history, and is written from the very perspective that I, myself, am coming from. It is the story of the last decade or so of the Taiping Rebellion (which the author prefers to call the Taiping Civil War), considered within the context of the major Western events of that same time.

The author, Stephen Platt, begins his work with an explanation of how he came to write it. As I mentioned briefly, I have no memory of learning the details of the Taiping Civil War (a term that I will use as the author has) in any of my history classes or historical reading. In his Preface, the author explains how he got “through twelve years of public schooling, four years of college, and the better part of a year in China before reading about [the Taiping Civil War] for the first time.” He speculates that part of the reason, in the United States, is that this civil war was concurrent with our own. He also adds that there is a misconception that the events in China at that time were isolated from global politics. With his book, he endeavors to correct that.

As I peruse some of the criticism of the book, there are complaints that it is too much of a Western-centric narrative of a Chinese-centric event. While the author gives his explanation (putting it in the global context), a critic brings up another factor. In victory, the imperial government eliminated all records of the rebellion. It is telling that for this war, contemporary with the American Civil War and its vast photographic record, there remains no images of any of the rebellion’s leaders. Thus, the book focuses on the interaction with Western actors and the theater in the area of the western treaty ports in part through necessity. It is not through Chinese records (because they were obliterated), but through the Western press and politics, that we understand what we do about the Taiping organization and personalities.

It least to this reader (and I’m pretty sure to the author as well), two characters in this tale stand out as particularly sympathetic. Hong Rengan is the cousin of Hong Xiuquan, who was the instigator, spiritual leader, and “Heavenly King” of the Taiping movement. Hong Rengan spent some time as more-or-less second-in-command of the Taiping government, and seemed to be the source of practicality and reasonableness of a philosophy that threatened to be the opposite. Zeng Guofan was a Beijing bureaucrat sent, in an hour of despiration, to raise a militia army in his home province. His army went on to be a keystone for the eventual imperial victory. While both “good guys,” Hong Rengan and Zeng Guofan are on opposite sides of the fight. This leaves the reader conflicted over for whom he should be rooting. In the end, history favors neither of the two. While Zeng Goufan was pivotal in defeating the Taiping forces and putting an end to Hong Rengan’s designs for a new government, in doing so he ran afoul of the imperial system. The central government was always wary of its underlings building up regional power, but Zeng was allowed a fairly long leash due to the emergency the State was facing. Nevertheless, the power that came with success would always be eyed with distrust by his superiors in Beijing.

Zeng suffered further at the hands of later history. While the history of the Taipings was wiped clean by the Qings, the Chinese Communist Party portrayed the Taiping movement as a proto-Communist revolution and demonized the imperialists, including Zeng Goufan. Zeng’s reputation has seen a resurgence in China, and particularly in his native province, in recent years.

Having walked us through his tale, Platt in his afterward (and if you prefer to read the book in the order the author presents it, skip over the following and start up with the next heading) summarizes in a conclusion that the reader has probably already drawn. First, there are several points in the war (specifically, this portion of the war in the 1860-1864 time-frame where the theater included a British presence) where choices made by officials of the British government may have been pivotal to the outcome of the war itself. Second, and in contrast to British opinion circa 1870, said choices were likely made counter to the interests of the British Empire, the West, and the Chinese people themselves.

The reader likely also concludes that the Qing Empire, while victorious, cannot take credit for said victory. In addition to foreign intervention, or lack thereof, forces such as Zeng’s Xiang Army (aka Hunan Army) seemed to succeed in spite of, not because of, the central government. Further, the case is made that Hong Rengan had both the vision and the competence to have created a better China following a Taiping victory. The book leaves us with a feeling of opportunities squandered, particularly in light of the massive scale of war and death seen in China over the century that followed.

To Arms

Recall that I picked up this book after seeing a movie and wondering how the Taiping Civil War would fit into the world of wargames. Based purely on the portrayal of battles on-screen, it seemed that the style of fighting in this war was closer to the Pike and Shot era than that of the American Civil War. The book did not much focus on units and tactics; it was more about strategy and motivation. While I have been enlightened considerably, the original question still remains.

While reading, however, it occurred to me that I do have one tactical engine specifically tailored to the time period and with scenarios from this war. Age of Rifles has, within its user-created universe of scenarios, a number of battles from the Taiping Civil War. The engine, such as it is, allows for modeling the simpler technology available to the Chinese at the time and so is potentially suitable despite some of the archaic features of this conflict.

While not comprehensive on the subject of weapons and tactics, Platt’s book does support the idea that the war was fought largely with weapons from another era. One incident he describes is the discovery of a cache of arms – muskets that were already some 200 years old and in terrible condition to boot. These were immediately put to use, being better than what the soldiers were using up to that point. One wonders how faithfully the engine can really handle these peculiarities, particularly in a battle (like the one below) where such matchlocks may have been facing off against “modern” muskets fielded by European troops.

Shanghai_1884s

A Chinese map of Shanghai from 1884 shows the American (top red-shaded region), French (blue), and British (pink) International Settlements. (Map borrowed and resized from Wikipedia image)

The Taiping assault on Shanghai is portrayed in Platt’s book as a drama of diplomacy, personality, and dumb luck. Shanghai was a treaty port per the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, making it one of the few gateway cities where Chinese markets were open to foreign international traders. The area to the north of the city walls were settled by Western traders, shown in the picture above drawn in 1884. Initially the Taiping leaders, preparing to capture the city in 1860, wanted to make it clear that they merely wanted to take control of the Chinese-administered portion of the city from the Qing government. They had no plans to attack the foreign settlements nor to disrupt their trade. In fact, they had hope that the powers of the West would take their side as fellow Christians in their fight against the “pagan” and foreign (Manchurian) minority which was ruling China. Letters were dispatched to the chief British envoy making clear that no foreigners or their property would be harmed and promising friendship and improved trade relations going forward. In a gesture made to appear neutral, he refused to open the letters from the Taiping and the Europeans forcefully defending the walls of Shanghai.

When the Taiping campaign again approached Shanghai, at the end of 1861, the supposed neutrality of England could be ever increasingly called into question. Nevertheless, it was the intention of the Taiping to engage only the Qing imperial forces if at all possible. By that time, however, the Europeans had committed to defending the city. As told in Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, that confrontation was postponed indefinitely by a most improbable (for Shanghai’s relatively warm climate) snowfall. By the time the weather permitted a major assault on the city itself, relief forces had arrived in the area shifting the balance of forces.

While this multi-year operation around Shanghai is generally called The Siege of Shanghai or the Battle of Shanghai, Platt refers to it as a “long distance siege.” After the first attempt, the British had warned that they considered Taiping operations in the immediate vicinity of Shanghai to be an act of war, over which they would violate their professed neutrality. While fighting took place within a hundred-mile radius of the city, I am not aware of any assault on the city walls beyond that initial attempt in 1860.

The Age of Rifles scenario proposes just such an assault on the city walls by a force of something like 10,000 rebels some time in 1861. While I cannot connect this scenario directly to a historical battle, I also must point out that the book is not a military history and is not necessarily comprehensive.

shang1

Not seeing a lot of options, I decide to throw my entire army at one section of wall.

Seen above, I’m zoomed in on a portion of the map where I intend to concentrate my assault. The mini-map, once again for those with good eyesight, puts this corner of the defenses in the perspective of the larger battlefield. Compare and contrast that mini-map with the drawn map higher up in the article. The representation of the Shanghai Old City is close enough to acknowledge it as such, but obviously contains a lot of differences.

Similarly, the modeling of the battle is close and yet so far. As my soldiers approached the wall they are, as expected, devastated by the cannon and rifle fire coming from the defenses. However, if I can survive that initial volley or two, I find that I can take out the enemy positions by charging over the wall with my pike.

shang2

I’ve breached the walls of the old city, and am advancing beyond.

Even more helpful to my troops, as can be seen in the screenshot above, in an attempt to drive off said attackers the enemy cannon blew a hole in their own wall. It makes you wonder what the model is assuming about the defensive positions. Clearly one thing it is not modelling is the medieval-style assault on, essentially, stone castle-walls.

I seem to recall it being not that uncommon when working with these open-ended scenario creation games to include various kinds of sieges and assaults in the mix. I’m probably think of my recent experience with Lords of the Realm as well as the Total War games. Crashing a gate or crossing a bridge add diversity to a game where the typical fight is using armies in lines, facing each other across an open field. The problem is that, while a bridge or a wall or a tower can be included, an engine designed for line battles will sputter when trying to deal with these special features.

There are few PC games that deal with siege warfare and probably few to none that handle it in anything resembling a realistic manner. Part of it is the issue with a the timescales.  A siege may take months or even years with the “battle” portion of it being fairly anti-climactic. Often sieges ended with a breach created using cannon or mines, and then culminated in the attackers charging through a hole in a wall and looting the city beyond. There are a handful of board games that try to address this specifically, but none that I have yet to play. At the operational level, a common solution is to simply have a time that it takes for the siege to succeed; subject to attrition, relief armies, and perhaps some random factors to keep the besieger guessing. For anything except a purpose-built siege game, this might be the best solution. After all, for most sieges, the outcome is never really in doubt; it is merely a question of when.

Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom portrays the actual fighting has having occured mostly through a series of sieges or, at least, the attempts to maneuver armies into position to effect a siege. There are interesting “game” factors involved. For example the siege which left open a supply route into the besieged city seemed like it wouldn’t have a chance to succeed at all, as it did not. In another example, Nanjing was able to provide its own food supply via gardens within the city walls whereas the besiegers, having devastated the surrounding countryside, had to go without. A simple battle of attrition looked to ultimately break towards the besieged.

Back to the battle. While it wasn’t the best “simulation” of a siege, playing this scenario had one unexpected benefit. The behavior of the AI was very clear in its reactions to my moves giving me a chance to think about how the AI handles battles and reacts to particular events.

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Having breached the walls, I charged to take possession of the city center.

Once I broke through the defenses at one location, I moved as many forces as I could in to try to come at the other defensive positions from inside the walls. What I found was that every position that was defended was difficult to attack, regardless of my direction. The path of least resistance was straight towards the center of the city, where a walled building was flagged as a victory location (see above screenshot).

I’ll point out here that I was playing the computer on the default setting for AI difficulty, which is toward the low end of the possibilities. I don’t know if the AI gets smarter as you push the slider, or if it is given other advantages.

If you squint at the mini-map in the above screenshot, you can see my plan coming to fruition. The bulk of my army (the little white squares on the map) attempted, and then achieved, a breakthrough in the upper-left quadrant of the city walls. They then pushed diagonally to the center right of the city, through the area of no resistance. You can also see that many of my own formation broke and ran in the attempt. Those white squares trailing off diagonally to the left. I also kept a secondary force in reserve, seen gathered near the bottom of the map. My intent was that a threat of a second attack from the south would deter the enemy from pulling forces off walls not under assault to reinforce the positions which I was attacking.

From the turn immediately following, when I took the city-center objective, the AI abandoned its defensive positions on the outer walls and moved towards the objective on the center. The AI managed, for a turn, to retake that objective and begin preparations for defending it. My response was to move in to take the outer-wall objectives that were now left undefended. Once that was done, the AI began to send forces back to retake those objectives. By this point they were in disarray, reacting to my moves without an overarching direction, and I was able to easily win a decisive victory.

The AI made several mistakes, and they are mistakes that I’ve made as a wargamer more than once. The first is the decision, probably baked into the scenario design, not to have any forces in reserve. Military doctrine demands that one hold reserves in any battle plan. But particularly when you are outnumbered, it seems like preventing the enemy breakthrough in the first place should take priority of having a reactionary force ready for when they do. It is also probably true that many a walled-defense has fallen to pieces immediately once the walls are breached. Second, had an overreaction upon losing victory locations while seemingly little planning not to lose them in the first place. Whether a particular location is a priority to take/hold should not be entirely dependent on who the current owner is. I’m sure I’ve done the same – ignoring a location until it becomes a crisis and then scrambling for cover. It is also probably fairly well represented in reality. As a defensive position falls apart, conflicting orders to rush from one defensive position to another has probably hastened the end to many a battle.

Sadly, the ability to watch the AI aside, I didn’t get what I had hoped for in playing this scenario. That is, I never did answer my question; is there a potential for historical wargaming in the Taiping Civil War conflict? Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom does not highlight any open-field battles that would fit into a tactical engine (whether Age of Rifles, Pike and Shot, or something else). The book also does not offer enough of a big picture to determine the whether an operational-level treatment of the war would be interesting. We can see that Age of Rifles isn’t suited to siege warfare and, not having any non-siege battles to play with, evaluating the engine’s suitability to the conflict isn’t possible.

I did really enjoy the book, though.

 

Parliamentary Procedure

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Many of the earliest PC games had their roots either in war board games or with the Dungeons and Dragons, pen and paper gaming. What that meant was that the bulk of “serious” strategy games were probably in one of three categories; The Second World War, The American Civil War, or The Wars of Napoleon. Conversely, if a game had kings and swords in it, it was also extremely like to contain dragons, magic, and princesses.

Lords of the Realm, released in June of 1994, therefore was something of a novelty. It had castles and knights in armor, but there was no magic. Battles were between armies using only the technology of the time – ranged arrows and crossbows, or hand-to-hand combat using an array of weapons.

The original release was followed by Lords of the Realm II, a sequel covering pretty similar ground. The rapid pace of improvement in Windows gaming circa 1995 meant that even a year or two could see a big improvement in things like graphics and user interface. I’ll speak of them largely interchangeably, as I had some difficulty getting the original to run on my system and, anyway, Lords of the Realm II  is all-around much closer to meeting present day expectations for a PC game.

The other innovation of this time was the Real Time Strategy genre. Dune II was released at the end of 1992 and through 1993 (depending on the platform) and began popularizing the genre where battles were fought in running time, commanded by the player’s clicks on screen. By the time that Lords of the Realm II was released, the massive franchises of Command and Conquer and Warcraft had seen their initial releases.

In this context, Lords of the Realm stood out (but was, again, not unique) in that it combined the tactical fighting with a strategic layer. In the turn-based strategy level, the player was responsible for creating his offensive (armies) and defenses (still armies, but also castles) capabilities to be used in battle. He also had to manage the economy – food, money, and the raw materials (wood, stone, iron) necessary to sustain that army.  In this sense, it was a predecessor to the genre eventually dominated by Total War (Shogun Total War was a year 2000 release).

Indeed, one contemporary review of Lords of the Realm II discussed its promise of combining the best of Civilization II (1991 for the original, although Civilization II was out 9 months before Lords of the Realm II) and Warcraft. That review seemed to suggest that Lords of the Realm II didn’t quite live up to that promise. One way to appreciate the title 22-years on is to consider it within the context of the environment in which it was released.

The Lords of the Realm series is now available and easy to get running through outlets like Steam and GOG.  On those platforms, you can now read modern reviews of the games, presumably written within a modern context. Surprisingly, some of those reviewers tout the game’s merits as a stand-alone entity. It’s hard to take that too seriously. Yes, we can fondly remember how the limited technology of yesteryear focused gameplay on important strategic elements. With no 3D animations or complexity-for-complexities’ sake (put in when the computing power is there), the strategy elements may well have had more thought put into them than what we’ve come to expect today.

But don’t think that Lords of the Realm is going to “stand up” to a modern title. The Real Time Strategy portion saw rapid development in the years that followed making the battles in Lords of the Realm primitive, not only in graphics, but in gameplay. I can deal with the pixelated, top-down rendering of my units. I had forgotten about the computers struggle with path-finding for these early games, and the annoyance of having to nurse units around obstacles. Likewise, the strategic layer – nostalgia aside – has been vastly improved in the interim. The management of your economy very much reminds me of the 1999 title King of Dragon Pass. While that game is not constructed as a strategic layer for turn based battles, the management (while similar) has a lot more strategic depth than Lords of the Realm.

93961-lords_of_the_realm_2_1996sierra_online-1459041523

The Lords of New England. The expansion for LotR2 includes the ability to fight on a large variety of “real world” maps. Screenshot via emuparadise.me

The way the graphics are rendered in Lords of the Realm II, it does not capture with the built-in tools for Windows. So, unable to take my own screenshots, I’ve borrowed some from around the web. I don’t think my own brilliant gameplay demonstrates any features that aren’t visible in random players’ screens from throughout the years.

Mad Parliament

I’ve mentally placed this game in the Second Baron’s War. Technically its starting point is several years too late to really be historically simulating that conflict. Further, the lack of concrete ties to history mean that it could represent many succession wars that took place during the thirteenth century. One might imagine it representative of the Great Interregnum and the struggle to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor taking place in that time. Or even the fight for the crown of Sicily. The first in the series explicitly has you choose a campaign for England or Germany. Nevertheless, the game seems to be themed pretty “English” to me and therefore, despite the lack of real historical context, I place myself in the politics of 1260s England.

At that time, England was engaged in yet another struggle between the powers of the lesser nobility and the power of the king. There were a number of ways in which Henry III incurred the ire of his barons, many involving the compiling of debt which would have to be paid, ultimately, by the English nobility. By 1258, a group of leading nobles pressured Henry into signing an agreement establishing rule through a privy council overseen by a thrice-yearly parliament. While Henry suffered under this reduction in power for 3 years, he eventually had first the Pope and then Louis of France declare that he was not responsible for honoring his agreement, due to his divine right.

By 1264, this turned into an open revolt, lead by the organizer of the 1258 Parliament (sometimes referred to the “Mad Parliament”, due to its disruption to the Monarchy), Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester. The first critical battle of this war was the Battle of Lewes, on May 14th, 1264. At that battle Henry’s forces were defeated and the King, himself, was captured. Henry was not deposed, but he was once again forced into the government outlined in the previous agreements. One might imagine, however, a number of ways he could have been removed from the throne, sparking an actual succession war.

For our Lords of the Realm game, we’ll just go with that.

The scenario above seems to fit the mechanics of Crusader Kings II quite well, and I am disappointed to find that no scenarios start in this environment. Of course, as I have already lamented, Crusader Kings isn’t particularly suited to replaying an episode of history. The structure is there – vassals demanding a change in government, you the king reversing those changes, and then a civil war between the various factions of the government. But the odds that the game would choose the historical path are probably slim to none, assuming things like having the French king adjudicate the English form of government wouldn’t flummox the engine from the get-go. I’d actually be really interested in trying to use the event system to create such a thing, but I expect it would be a huge amount of work.

So instead, I will try an even less realistic approach and play through that basic scenario in Lords of the Realm II.

Unrealism

The above screenshot shows a basic view of the strategic layer. The map is divided into counties and each county will have a town center, a castle (if built), farms, and several industrial resources. Your population must be balanced between the production of food and industry. Industrial production can be activated or not. So above, the peasants who are not working to raise cattle are working to harvest wood. It is from that population that armies are raised. Converting peasants into soldiers (including knights – so much for historicity) creates an army, which will cost upkeep. It also removes those peasants from being able to produce for the economy, as well as detracting from the “happiness” of those peasants remaining. The happiness is also influenced by taxes, food rationing, and dramatic political events (e.g. change of ownership of the county).

It’s a slightly complex, but still comprehensible, economic system that ends up being reasonably fun to play with. I talked about this when I dug out my copy of Imperialism 2. The original Imperialism came out a year after Lords of the Realm 2 and went further into the “economic” game weeds. As I said then, this portion of the game presents as a puzzle which requires that the gamer learn the balance, and vigilantly maintain that balance, as a prerequisite to supporting his victorious armies in the field. It makes the games “challenging” for sure and was part of what made them popular back in the day. But it goes against the design philosophy of today’s games, where the focus is on directing players straight towards the meaningful decisions and removing the tedium.

Lords of the Realm 2 did simplify some of this from the original. As the player, you set economy via a fairly limited number of sliders. It appears that there is some computation going on behind the screen to allocate the players food-versus-industry setting into the details of those two categories. In fact, sometimes it seems necessary to “jiggle the handle,” to shuffle some setting back and forth, to force a recalculation of the actual allocation behind the scenes. For example, when there isn’t enough iron to produce armor, the computer will reallocate blacksmiths to work in the mines, but you need to give the engine a kick so that it knows to do so.

It actually feels like a “light” game by today’s standards, but it also needs to be remembered the game starts out easy and ramps up the challenge. As a player, you start out with a single opponent, some decent starting resources, and a limited economy manage, even at the end game. Winning a “level” sends you on to the next challenge. The design again emphasizes the placement of this title as a “computer game” and not a “historic wargame.” Nonetheless, I’ll continue to plunge ahead treating it as something of the latter.

While the economic portion of the game has its charms that garnered positive attention at the time, contrast the experience to Crusader Kings, or even a non-simulation like Civilization. In those games it is often obvious that war is expensive and rarely pays for itself. If possible, I try to get myself into peaceful stretches where I can build up my economy instead of throwing resources away on battles. In LofR, and the similar games of this genre and time, there is nothing but the battles. One can’t really focus on building an great economy and ignoring the battles, because the computer will bring the fight to you, like it or not. In one three-way scenario, I tried making an alliance with one of the factions only to find his army taking my counties while still allied with me!

I don’t yet know how deep the “campaign” goes and this is also just the basic game and not the expansion. So while the gameplay seems a little simplistic, it does provide entertainment value as it progresses. Remember that at the time of the game’s release this was a tier-one title and was considered quite deep and complex. It also made the top 20 in computer game sales two years after its release, making $3 million in sales that year. Total sales were about 10X that during the games prime.

So back to that initial scenario. You have only four counties to ultimatetly deal with and start with one of them under your control. See the screenshot below and the mini-map in the upper corner of the  picture for this initial configuration. As I alluded to above, this means the economy really isn’t that complex. Armies are also fairly limited, with perhaps 400-500 men being a game-dominating army. Its all quite manageable and would even be more so were not the interface, both at the strategic and tactical levels, kind of primitive. As I stated above, the economy requires more micromanagement than I’d prefer and the RTS battles require controlling individual soldiers (although they can be roped together into a group). This is before hot keys, so control is rudimentary and occasionally not what you would expect. But all things considered, it doesn’t hold up too badly.

One oddity, compared to similar games is the way the warfare, as it draws out, slowly destroys the land over which you are fighting. On an easier level, I first noticed it with my computer opponents. In most RTS or 4X games, the course of the game sees you building gradually stronger armies both in size and composition. Maybe it comes through technology or maybe it is through just better units and more “upgrades.” Here, I started to see the opposite. The first enemy army I encountered was pretty formidable, but subsequent armies began to sport higher and higher concentrations of peasants and lower numbers of quality units. By game end, I could easily build similarly sized armies that simply outclassed the enemy. On harder levels, I find myself in the same trap as the enemy. Fighting over lands results in the destruction of their economic value. War means reduced population, unhappy populations, and a growing shortage of the wealth and materials necessary to equip your army. I find myself fielding more and more peasants and also fighting enemy armies similarly composed. Perhaps it is my own poor game play, but in this, the “simulation” seems accurate. Medieval warfare wrecked the lands over which it raged.

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This is the standard campaign for the game, with four counties. This time, showing is the blacksmith interface. To change production, you select your weapon of choice from the wall. Screenshot via small-games.info

One design decision, and one that was probably common in games at that time, is happily no longer part of the modern game. Remember, this was the time when game started releasing on CDs rather than stacks of floppies. That, combined with the standardization of Windows APIs, meant that it was easier to include nice looking graphics; both stills and animations. Using that, and drawing from the computer game’s  role playing game heritage, a favorite user interface became the “room.” Look at the main view in the above screenshot. To designate the product of a county’s blacksmith you must engage in a multi-step process. First, if the blacksmith isn’t working, you find the blacksmith on the main map and click to activate his production. Next, you find the county’s village on the main map and click on it, which displays a detailed graphic of how the villagers are allocated to different tasks. On that screen, find the blacksmith’s yard and click on that. Doing so takes you inside the blacksmith’s shop (above) where, by selecting from the weapons hanging on the wall, you task the blacksmith with forging a particular weapon.

That path is cool to navigate the first couple of times, and gives you more of a first-person feel. But as you’re engaged in playing, the immersion factor goes away, and its just a bunch of extra actions, first hunting for the right location and then “drilling down” through the menus. Add to that, each turn has multiple screens to navigate through. For example, after you’ve manufactured these weapons, you can then go to the army screen (mercifully included on the main interface – it’s that shield and helmet under the “www” in the lower right corner), where you build your army by picking weapons hanging on the wall. If you don’t have a particular weapon available, it won’t be there on the wall. Conceptually, kind of cool. User interface-wise: tedious.

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The tactical battles have some interesting features. Castle sieges provide a foreshadowing of Total War, where the siege engines can be built over multiple turns in the strategic engine and then used tactically to assault the castle. Screenshot via porcupinecolors.com

The detailed battles also have some nice features, compensating for the datedness of the interface. The terrain is randomly generated. Sometimes a battle is fought across a large, open field and sometimes there are obstacles, to movement or to line of sight or both. Some maps have rivers and bridges that must be crossed, although this seems to have little relation to the terrain on the strategic map. Sieges are resolved on maps where a castle has been included – the design of which depends on to what extent you’ve upgraded your castle back in the strategic game. The siege interface was where I really saw the extent to which Medieval Total War borrowed from this design. Like M:TW, to lay a siege, you pick what types of siege engines you need to construct (in this case, catapults, battering rams, and/or siege towers). A certain number of strategic-level turns is then required to implement the construction. At the end of it, the castle is assaulted where not just your armies, but the constructed engines, take part in an RTS fight. The look feel and tactics are really very much like Medieval Total War, and even M:TW2.

Advancing through the campaign, the difficult does quickly ramp up. More enemies and more towns means more complexity, but not necessarily more depth. Furthermore, as you move from scenario to scenario, the calendar resets and there is no real continuity, no “story.” It’s nothing special about this game, I was a Heroes of Might and Magic II fanatic at the time, and those campaigns were structured the same way. Having won one challenge, you then start over – build an economy, a castle, and an army up from scratch to take control of another chunk of land. It’s standard stuff, but any feeling that your actually part of a larger world does tend to get quickly squashed.

Quickly Squashed

The reality of the Second Barons’ War was a political struggle that dragged out over decades but, warfare-wise, was concluded by two major battles. In 1264, the rebel forces under Montfort’s command prevailed at the battle of Lewes, capturing  King Henry, Prince Edward, and King Richard (King of the Romans and Henry’s brother). Within slightly more than a year, a second battle saw a victory for the king, the death of Montfort, and (after a few more years of sporadic fighting) a re-balancing of royal power.

lewes1

I had a plan. On my left, my intention was to hold back until my right was engaged. Alas when de Segrave saw those enemy banners coming up the slopes, he charged ahead. I had to commit the entire wing.

Back in the original Field of Glory, I am once again playing a user-designed scenario, this time depicting the historical Battle of Lewes. As an anti-monarchist in real life, I chose to take the side of Simon and the Barons.

Having done so, the battle’s setup seems a fair representation of history. Henry started that morning with his back to the town of Lewes facing an lesser number of enemy, but situated on the high ground to the north and west of town. As Henry attacked, his forces became divided and his assault broke apart against prepared lines defending a slope.

lewes2

While my left did a little better than planned, on the right my son Henry’s force fell apart after charging the royalist knights. This is a reversal that will be hard to overcome.

As might be expected during given the background, this scenario quickly became dicey. While my original plan was to engage starting from my right, my over-eager left charged into battle without orders. But while that left wing did better than expected, my right wing’s perfomance left much to be desired. As the fight wore on, I found the battle trending slowly towards a conclusion that would not be my favor.

lewes3

On turn 7, I captured (or killed) Prince Edward on the enemy’s far right. Turn 8, I captured (or killed) King Henry, which caused his retinue and several surrounding formations to break and run. I’m still behind, but defeat no longer seems a sure thing.

To me, at least as important as the victory at Lewes is that the battle resulted in the capture and ransom of King Henry and his son Edward. Whether by dumb luck, normal statistics, or something special in the scenario design, the fortunes of these digital armies hinged upon the status of their leaders. While Lewes was a military defeat for Henry, it was the fact that the rebels held, in their persons, Henry and Edward that made this battle so definitive, and resulted in Simon governing, at least for a couple of years.

Field of Glory doesn’t actually export the narrative that details the disposition of individuals in a unit. However, combat resolution does entail a number of different factors. The result of combat could be simply a decline in combat effectiveness of a unit. Additionally, that effectiveness may be from actual combat deaths (as opposed to organization and morale). Finally, it is possible for a leader to be killed or incapacitated during a combat resolution. In game terms, an icon of a Roman helmet pops up and no more is ever said. It does have fan out into gameplay, however, as the death of a leader may also reduce morale and effectiveness of a unit going forward, under that leader’s replacement.

So it was on turn 7 as I engaged the knights led by Edward, I saw that little white helmet pop up. Then, on the next turn, against the force led personally by Henry (and rather successfully I might add – I had little hope of breaking it), I again saw the little white helmet. With their king down, his retinue of knights fled the field causing much of the royalist center to falter and retreat.

Over the next several turns the tide of the battle had shifted. What had seemed like an inevitable defeat slowly swung to an inevitable victory.

As far as I know, the actual outcome of the battle was considerably less dramatic. The defeat of Henry’s own retinue was not the moment the battle turned, but rather it was something that came at the end of a battle that had gone against him. Thus the evaluation of whether this result “matched” history is one of great interpretation. I’d like to think that, playing as Simon, I captured Henry and Edward and did match the historical outcome.

Another interpretation is that the “white helmet” actually meant the leaders were killed. What might have been the historical outcome if both Henry and Edward were cut down at Lewes? Who can tell. But it does open up the possibility that by 1268 the crown of England would be entirely up for grabs, as the introduction to Lord of the Realm II posits.

The End

The fruits of Montfort’s victory would prevail for barely more than a year. Roughly one year after his capture at Lewes, Edward I (in a rather amusing tale*) escaped from his captors. In August of 1265, Edward led an army which forced Montfort into battle at Evesham.

The victory of Edward at Evesham was more strategic and operational than tactical. Simon’s son, also Simon, was tasked with raising a new force to help counter Edward. Enward, in turn, defeated the parts of Monfort’s army in detail, first catching and crushing the younger Simon’s forces while unprepared. Subsequently at Evesham he managed to trap the elder Simon’s army in a bend of the Avon river, as Simon was moving to join the younger’s army, not knowing that Edward had already scattered it. Montfort was forced into battle on a field of Edward’s choosing and was outnumbered by perhaps 2:1. Montfort attempted a bold attack to try to shatter Edward’s center, but given the situation any stratagem was perhaps doomed to failure. Montfort was killed on the field of battle and his body mutilated by Edwards troops.

One might not expect this to make the best tactical scenario but, nevertheless, a user-made scenario for Field of Glory is available. In contrast to the previous, this shows some of the weaknesses of the engine.

The Battle of Evesham (from 1910)

A drawing of the battle as presented on dailymedieval.blogspot.com. Simon’s trapped army is forced to fight Edward who is arrayed on the high ground beyond the Abbey.

First (above) is a sketch of the battlefield for perspective. Edwards superior numbers face Montfort from the Greenhill, some heights to the north of Montforts position. Meanwhile, a contingent of Edwards army, under Baron Mortimer, blocks Montfort’s escape over the bridge back across the Avon. One might speculate whether fighting his way out against the lesser forces could have been successful, but it appears that Simon, realizing he had been outwitted, decided that the honorable thing was to fight Edward in open battle.

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As Simon, I’ve decided to defend the rocky ridges surrounding the Abbey.

Compare and contrast the drawing with the Field of Glory representation of that same battlefield (shown in the screenshot above). The image is focused on the view surrounding the Bengeworth bridge and the location of the Abbey. If your eyes are up to the task, the mini-map shows this view in the context of the Avon river horseshoe bend itself.

Although an attempt was made to faithfully reproduce the terrain, I think this is a good case where Field of Glory simply fails to convey any sense of “there”. In particular, the scenario-building tactic of creating terrain walls was used to construct the Abbey proper. I don’t know whether this was meant to model the defensive advantage of a walled abbey and surrounding village or it was done this way simply to constrain movement (and particularly AI movement) through “urban” terrain, but it does create a nonsensical battlefield feature that detracts both from the aesthetics and the game play.

I’m quite sure that a gallant charge up the hill at Edward, à la Simon, would leave me dead and mutilated, as it did my historical counterpart. Given the digital battlefield as it is, I decided to use the terrain to limit the numbers advantage of the enemy, forcing him to fight it out on a very narrow front. Meanwhile, that frees up some of my army to engage the blocking force on the other side of the river. As the scenario is created, I have control over the bridge proper and, therefore, I am able to transfer units back and forth across with relative ease.

In the end, the scenario timed out and produced a draw. Unlike the Lewes battle, whose alternate outcome invites speculation, I see this result as entirely an artifact of the way the battlefield was constructed.

Of course, none of these games are particularly connected to this history. Instead, consider it an opportunity to do a little reading into a chapter of English history that just isn’t that well known.

*As related by simon2014.com, roughly a year after his capture at Lewes, Edward escaped his custodians. Edward challenged his minders to a day of horse racing and, once all of the horses had been worn out, he took the last fresh one and made off to a waiting party, sent by the Welsh Marcher Lords who were in rebellion against Montford’s government.

If It Keeps on Rainin’ Levee’s Goin’ to Break

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The films that Brad Pitt produces are, insofar as I’ve watched them, universally interesting.

These include a number of top-tier releases (The Departed, Kick-Ass 1/2, Moneyball, World War Z, 12 Years a Slave, Fury) as well as some “indie” type productions (Killing Them Softly, The OA).  One gets the impression that he is personally backing the type of films that he believes (and it seems that I believe) that Hollywood should be making, but generally doesn’t. Of course, his production list includes many I haven’t watched, and probably more than a few I wouldn’t care to watch. That said, Pitt’s involvement is starting to feel like, if not an instant mark of approval, at least a mark of “this could be interesting.”

In this case, however, I had no idea until the opening credits started in that I was watching one of the above. The movie The Big Short was slated to come off of Netflix just after the first of the year, so I jumped on it before it disappeared.

Likewise, Pitt as an actor continues to surprise, also in a good way. I had dismissed him as a pretty boy without any real acting skills until I saw him in 12 Monkeys. Much like Depp and DiCaprio (of whom I had the same opinion back then), he has grown on me as the years have gone by. As one measure of acting ability, if I am unable to recognize the actor from movie to movie (Frances McDormand was my classic example of this), I assume I’m looking at a job well done. In this case, despite the fact that Brad Pitt’s face is actually on the “box cover,” I actually did not place him until several scenes in for him. Pitt plays Ben Rickert (based on real life ex-trader Ben Hockett) and does so convincingly enough for me that I just didn’t make the connection.

In fact all the actors (except maybe Christian Bale, who has blown me away more than once) are delivering performances beyond anything I expected from them. They are mostly light and/or comedic actors in a fairly serious movie. Furthermore, with the script jumping between characters whose lives only casually intersect, it would seem that the ability of the multiple lead actors would be critical to a successful film. The professional film critics seemed to agree; praise for the actors is a common theme in reviews of the film.

I believe I saw a review somewhere that suggested the film would have been a dud except for the excellent acting. With that I cannot agree. I actually have praise all around for this picture. Other reviews concentrated on how the film, like the book it was based upon, was written to help explain to regular folks how the mortgage crisis happened. Some praised or critiqued it on that account. Myself, I’ve read quite a bit on the subject already, so the level addressed by this movie wasn’t really over my head. Some have said that, despite efforts to make it easily digestible, many viewers still didn’t understand the “what” of the crisis and were only left with the sense that what happened was a system gone terribly wrong. That in itself might also be a measure of success.

The film uses a number of devices to help serve up the technical subject. In another context they could be considered cheap tricks, but I think they added to the real-life-as-black-comedy feel that made the movie. Frequent breaking of the fourth wall seems to be common these days, almost to the point of being overused. Yet it is some of my favorites that do it (I’m thinking House of Cards and Mr. Robot, right this second). The Big Short adds a flourish where the character turns to the movie audience and says, “it really didn’t happen that way.” By explicitly drawing attention to the artistic license used to make a real life event into an on-screen drama, I felt it enhanced both. Another trick is to use real celebrities, as themselves, to explain the technical details of Wall Street’s financial products. I don’t know how many finally understand mortgage backed securities having had it explained by a hot babe in a bubble bath, but to me, that’s entertainment.

I saw in an interview promoting the movie where Pitt expressed some admiration for Hockett in his willingness to prepare for difficult times. The admiration seems genuine, although Pitt says he is “too lazy” to actually put in the effort to (for example) be self-sufficiently growing food. Contrast that with the description of the character on Wikipedia as ” a paranoid and germaphobic retired former trader.” Maybe it says more about me than about Rickert/Hockett, but his level of paranoia and germaphobia seemed reasonable and prudent to me.

I seem to have a take on this movie perhaps a little different than the average Neflix watcher. One Netflix review begins “You’re not supposed to like the protagonists…” Another describes the characters as “An assortment of despicable people…” Is it simply that, as the villains of this tale are bankers, and the lead characters themselves are all bankers, most assume that the they are all bad to some degree? Or maybe it is a societal prejudice for those on the Asperger’s Spectrum?

Yes. Both. But I think there is another factor at play here. Imagine with me a situation.

We have a neighbor who is always talking about how this place where we live is long overdue for a huge storm; a hurricane of epic proportions. He has all kinds of stories about shifting ocean currents and how the powers-that-be-are ignoring the obvious, and how we’re all fools not to prepare for what is bound to happen. He’s mostly ignored – dismissed as a crank. He is not on the top of most lists for neighborhood party invite lists.

Imagine also, though, that as he describes what is going to happen when the storm hits, and the levee breaks, and we’re cut off from electricity for weeks on end – it is not fear and trepidation in his voice. No. He actually seems to be looking forward to this mini-apocalypse that he is predicting. In your mind, that probably adds to his unpleasant qualities.

Summer rolls into fall, and a Cat. 5 hurricane rolls right over our city, just as our unpleasant neighbor said it was going to do. All of his predictions (and presumably much of his advice) turn out to be dead on.

Think of it… do you know say “Boy, that guy was right all along. I probably should give him more respect than I have in the past?” Or do you hate him even more. Be honest.

Now imagine that you come to find out he was actually hoping, praying for his prediction to come true. As the hurricanes track seemed to shift from a harmless pass out to sea to smacking you right in the gut with its full force, he was watching the news saying “Please, please, please, please… YES!” Don’t you really hate him now? Do you even blame him for your own suffering? Just a bit?

Now, you know full well that no amount of sitting in front of your T.V. saying “please” is going to impact the track of a storm. Even if you do believe in the power of prayer, do you really believe that one man’s quest for schadenfreude drew God’s attention over the 10s if not 100s of 1000s of those praying for God to spare them? The rational part of your mind knows that full well, but the emotional part says, “It’s this guy’s fault. He WANTED this to happen.”

Now, imagine, in addition to stocking up on extra water and canned food, he bought some financial instruments the netted him a massive profit when the storm hit. He not only seemed to want the storm to come, he saw to it that he would profit from that storm. What do you think of him now? Do you hate him more than ever? Do you, perhaps, feel entitled to some of what he has… either the water and food he saved for his family, or the many, many millions he’s got from cashing in his Cat Bonds? If the power is out, and the police have fled, and nobody else is around, how far would you go to take your due from him?

After all, he is profiting from your misery. Right?

When I watched the movie, I have nothing but admiration for Dr. Burry as a visionary who saw what nobody else would see. The data right in front of everyone said that a collapse was inevitable, but he was one of the first to see it. Furthermore, he put himself on the line to prove he was right. I say this even though I, like most, personally suffered from the the crash from which he profited.

Part of why I respect this film’s characters is that, in a properly functioning financial markets, money is information. “Betting” on truth is itself a way to correct market failures, and perhaps a more effective one than just trying to warn people. Recall that the players in this tale did both – they not only invested against the mortgage market, but they explained why they were doing it. What is truly scary about the movie is to the extent it demonstrates that the markets were not, and almost certainly still are not, properly functioning. If being smart, or good, or right are all irrelevant, what is left that is relevant and what does that say about the next time we’re all about to get screwed over by the system?

Nothing good. That’s all I know.

Oh yeah. I still have yet to watch Fight Club. Sue me.

No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition

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I am playing out a game in Pax Renaissance, trying to analyze the end moves. Having just put some thought into the time surrounding the conquest of the Emirate of Granada, it leads me to consider how the various options for fit into a historical narrative (either similar to or departing from actual history.)

For this turn, we are considering the options of the Fuggers. In the late 1480s the Fugger family, while established in Augsburg, were not yet players on the world stage. They had only begun their financial relationship with the Habsburgs, a relationship that would soon see them financing Charles V’s election as emperor. Indeed, the card layout fairly represents the Fugger’s interests at the time, with some market concessions in Germany and some heavy investment in Hungary. The Fuggers actually did, within this same time frame, control copper mining operations in Hungary and mines elsewhere in Silesia and Tirol. Perhaps not enough to actually “control” the throne of Hungary, as in this game, but – well – close enough.

Fugger Tableau

The only empire under control is Hungary. On the other hand, look at all that law prestige accompanied by “vote” operations in both tableaux. No money, though.

By contrast, my rivals (the Medici bank) dominate the Silk and Spice trade from the East with control of the trade routes through the Mediterranean. Despite heavy influence in the courts of the Ottomans and Byzantium (which quite ahistorically has not fallen to the Muslims), they are unable to substantialyl profit from the Silk Road trade, which is no longer fully reaching Europe. The Medici also have their fingers in the court of Portugal, but despite some exploration of the African coast, there is no alternate sea route to the east. The Medici do control the more accessible trade through the Black Sea port of Tana, although it is more difficult to profit from those investments.

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Medici (yellow cubes) dominate the trade routes. They also have substantial influence in the Muslim controlled east. But the future is in Republicanism.

In building this powerful position, the Medici let one opportunity slip by.

Medici Tableau and map

The Medici have control over Portugal, the Ottoman Empire, and Byzantium, in addition to their trade dominance.

Recall that the victory conditions in Pax Renaissance are determined dynamically by the players.  Within the theme of the game, a comet appeared in 1472. Rather than superstitiously dwelling on the portents, astronomer Regiomontanus of Nürnburg (Johannes Müller) used geometry and astronomy to estimate the size and distance of the comet from the earth. He failed by orders of magnitude, but at least he tried.  Gamewise, the Fuggers were able to declare a “Renaissance Victory” which measures the advancement from the Medieval Age to the Early Modern Age by the ascendancy of Republican-ruled nations and city-states. It was largely a defensive move, as the Medici’s have two types of victory within their grasp. Their control of the Ottoman empire gives them a “Holy Victory” (for Islam) and their additional control of Portugal and Byzantium gives them an “Imperial Victory.” Fugger really didn’t have a Renaissance Victory in sight when choosing it, but there is now an opportunity for them in the West.

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While the real money is in the spice and silk trade with the Far East, that wealth is largely inaccessible to the merchants of Western Europe.

What Fugger does have some influence over is the clergy on the Iberian peninsula, particularly the zealots of the Office of the Inquisition in Castile and an anti-monarchy faction in Aragon. This can be deployed strategically to substantial advantage. By critiquing the pace and enthusiasm of Castile’s commitment to the reconquista I will provoke a new crusade to be declared charged with wiping out the Muslim occupation once and for all. In doing so, I can force a upheaval in the ruling powers of that nation (and, of course, replacing the Medici people with those loyal to myself). As an added bonus, a crusade will draw in knights from France and Aragon, potentially weakening those powers and making them vulnerable to the inquisitors of Castile and Portugal. Having gained control of Castile, Portugal, and perhaps France or Aragon, I can now go after the monarchs themselves. Shifting the power from those nations’ kings to republics will win me the game.

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The Emirate of Grenada is a black mark on the heart of Christendom. It is here I will make my move.

Given the choice between France and Aragon, it is France that presents a weakness. At first glance, they are the strongest of the three empires bordering Castile. However, in additional to co-opting their knights into my crusade, I have another card up my sleeve (almost literally, as we are talking about a card game here). In the north-west corner of the area of French influence, there are several provinces that have eschewed feudalism for centuries. It will be easy enough to provoke conflict between the republican sentiment in Friesland and Groningen and the nobility who see an opportunity to be granted hereditary control over those territories. Such a conflict would also draw in the forces of the French king and, combined with the crusade, leave France open to invading armies.

The Turn of a Friendly Card

That’s quite a tale and I’d like to walk through it again in gameplay terms. Cast in those terms, the Renaissance Victory is active and I already have 3 cards with “Law” prestige. That means to qualify for victory, I simply need to have more republics than my opponent. In this case, neither myself nor enemy control any Republics thus far. So as it stands right now, converting one of my monarchies to a republic will be sufficient to win.

There is one caveat in this. Claiming victory in itself is a move. Each player turn consists of two actions, so in a way one player takes two turns and then the other player takes two turns. If you are able to achieve conditions for victory in one move, you then use your second action of the turn to declare victory. If, on the other hand, it takes two actions to put you into a winning position, you then must allow two turns from your opponent. In a way, it disadvantages the “offensive” player in that “defender” always gets one extra move to stave off defeat. It also means that a victory is often a multi-turn plan that can go wrong any number of ways in the interim.

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The Spanish Inquisition card can launch a Crusade.

Considering this, although I only need to convert one empire to a republic, I’m going to target two to give my plan some redundancy. Target number one is Portugal, given that the card in my hand has the ability to capture that empire via a Crusade. Target number two, as I discussed above, is France. If you look at my tableau (the first picture in this article), I have a card for France with the “Siege” operation. With that, I have the ability to weaken the defenses in France to a point where I can invade and capture it. Assuming, of course, that I control an empire from which to invade. Like Portugal.

The Grand Inquisitor card is playable immediately and would transfer Portugal from the Medici tableau to my own. But there is a problem. I don’t need to just control the Portuguese government (and remember, back in the narrative, Portugal and Castile are both represented by the Portugal designation within the game), I need to further be able to unseat the monarchy. I have the means to do so in the form of two “Vote” operations in my tableau, but I can’t win that vote. To be successful with a vote, I need to have a plurality of the concessions bordering the empire where the vote is taking place. Right now, the Medici have the one and only concession. The black pirate blocks a second concession from being place. So while I am entitled to place one concession upon taking control of Portugal, that would require repressing the existing Medici merchant first. Repression costs money and, again looking at that top picture, I don’t have any money.

Therefore, before I consider playing that card I’m going to need to generate some cash. The Trade Fair is out because the Western market doesn’t have money and the Eastern market is completely under the Medici’s control. What I do have is a “Commerce” operation in my Tableau, courtesy of a secret organization of guilds based in Aragon which is anti-monarchist, anti-feudal, and anti-Islamic. The “Revolt of the Brotherhoods,” the event in “The Hidden” one-shot, will never take place in this game (and is anyway some decades in the future), but were they around already it might make sense that these folks would support my own play. If I play that Commerce operation before launching the Crusade, I’ll be able to fund the it properly.

As an action, executing operations is special. Rather than launching a single operation the player, using a single action, can play any or all of their operations within a single tableau (East or West). This obviously opens up the possibility of some complex moves, particularly in the end game when there are a lot of cards on the table. It also means for some complex interactions you have to not only carefully choose which operations to execute, but also the order.

My plan for the turn is to use three operations to pave the way for my use of the Grand Inquisitor for the crusade. First, I get some advantage from the existing Medici influence in Portugal/Castile. With the tax operation, I warn the Grenadians of the impending assault upon them and cause them to tax the Medici merchants to build up their defenses. It costs the Medici all of their remaining money and will make the impending crusade all the more bloody, which I think will be to my advantage. Next, as I suggested, I draw on the Brotherhoods to raise funding for my own army. Finally, the Frisian Freedom card is used to eliminate the rook from Lyon.

That opens up the play for the seizure of Portugal. With this setup, the ensuing battle will see the loss of the two defenders (the rook in Granada and the black pirates), and I will sacrifice the crusading knights from Paris and Valencia, thus preserving the Catholic army in Toledo. The Portugal empire card is transferred from the Medici tableau to my own, eliminating their influence via Elżbieta of Bohemia in the process.  In order to facilitate the republican surge that I intend for the next turn, I will place my concession from the regime change on the border with England, repressing their existing merchant, and set up ready to support a vote.

That repressed merchant may cause problems going forward, as the residual influence of the Medici would try to block my disassembly of the Castile monarchy. Fortunately, I have the Spanish Inquisition and two operational cards to facilitate it. Upon placing the Grand Inquisitor in my tableau, I will deploy the bishop on that card. In the following turn, I can move the bishop to Portugal and pacify the Medici serf. With two inquisitor operations, which I have, I can also move the bishop back, freeing up the Kingdom of Portugal and its armies to pressure France into my camp.

These move are enough for me to set up a win for next turn, but the Medici has a turn to foil my plan. Indeed, they have a path to do so, even though it may not by obvious at first glance. (Actually, it is not obvious at all to you, because my screenshots don’t show my opponents hand, which holds two “one-shot” cards). The secret to saving himself relies, not on countering my moves and blocking my conversion of France and/or Portugal to be a republic. One of those two is enough for me to win and, anyway, there is no means for the Medici to influence either. Instead, he needs to control a Republic of his own, insuring that I need, not one, but at least two republics to claim victory.

But that drama is going to have to wait for another article.

I’m Feeling Lucky

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Why are word clouds so fascinating?

If I look at my own most-used tags and categories, it left me wondering what are the top articles in the WordPress universe that use those same tags?

review

wargames

History of Games

Cold War

Fascinating.

Number 5 on my own list is Netflix, which is largely me griping about my own experience with their service. Part of me really thought that I’d find similar content associated with the Netflix tag elsewhere. Of course that is silly. It’s pretty much reviews of Netflix’s in-house content.