Double Secret Probation

Tags

, , , ,

Approximately one year ago, Netflix released a new film directly (after a premier at the 2018 Sundance Festival) to their streaming service. It was called A Futile and Stupid Gesture. Their marketing pushed it on me and, I have to say, they had me already at the title. In case it isn’t obvious, the name of the film is a line from the movie Animal House. The film is based on a book with the same title and is a dramatization of the lives of the men who founded National Lampoon. The movie breaks the fourth wall by speaking of its sometimes-less-than-believable casting for the celebrities of the story by having “modern day” portrayals of the characters acknowledging the actors portraying their younger selves. Based purely on the trailer, it looked like a clever premise and a must see.

Netflix, however, after some initial brilliant successes, is now known to mix a fair share of stinkers in with their “Netflix Original Content.” Before committing to this one I decided to dig around and find out what reviews were available* and what they said. Unfortunately, the reviews have been decidedly mixed. One in particular said something to the effect that “this is OK, but you should really watch National Lampoon: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead instead. I dutifully added that second title to my list and, in short order, forgot which version was which.

The confusion was resolved for me when Netflix decided to take Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead off of their streaming service. This one is a 2015 film done as a true documentary. A number of the key players from the 1970s do on-screen interviews. “Flashback” content is presented both with photos and film footage from the time as well as clever animations using iconic National Lampoon content art. The interviews cover a wide range of the actual players in this tale and, occasionally, get rather intimate and personal.

Beating Netflix to the punch, I’ve now watched the latter but have not watched the former, although I may yet watch it some time in the future.

I never really knew how much of the comedy of the eighties and nineties grew out of the National Lampoon‘s soil. My own experience of the film’s subject, when I was a young’un, was ten to twenty years behind the actual events and very filtered and fragmented.

My first taste of Doug Kenney and Henry Beard was after I had discovered The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and Dungeons and Dragons. Somebody passed me a well-used copy of Bored of the Rings and I ate it up. Decades later the occasional phrase from that book will still pop into my head. I also clearly remember when it was given to me. The presenter explained earnestly that “Harvard Lampoon” is actually the “National Lampoon” people. I nodded just as earnestly and filed that away as a very important fact, even though I didn’t quite follow.

I suppose that in the early 1980s, most teenage boys knew what National Lampoon was. Many, like myself, probably only knew it through reputation rather than experience. I could probably recognize the art style of the publication and knew it was supposed to be really funny. I also knew that my parents would tan my hide if they caught me reading it. By that time, the magazine was already well past its prime, but the use of the brand name was still going strong. So I might have been able to associate, through the title, National Lampoon with Animal House, although I’d yet to see the movie. I would not have associated Caddyshack with National Lampoon despite the name of the author of my borrowed book having writing and production credits for that movie. In fact, at that point, I’d not even seen Caddyshack despite the fact that my high school year book would soon declare it my senior class’ “Top Film.”

Eventually I watched Animal House, Caddyshack, Vacation, and more. I watched This Is Spinal Tap, almost all of John Hughes’ comedies, and Groundhog Day without knowing how they all tied back to the the early National Lampoon. For most of these films, I’ve watched them many, many times over and I’ve realized these things keep growing on you the more you’re exposed. Certain imagery, like the “We’ll shoot this dog” magazine cover have become a cultural foundation, a part of this nation’s historical tapestry. For me, this documentary finally reassembled all those jumbled references into a coherent (as far as that’s possible with such a subject) narrative and more of an appreciation of what it may have been like to live it; to have been ten to twenty years’ younger and perhaps have read Bored of the Rings in 1969.

I don’t know whether A Futile and Stupid Gesture will be worth it or just live up to its title. Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead was well worth the investment. It was illuminating, it was really funny, and it was a chance to see the story told by the people who were there, many of whom (Chevy Chase, Kevin Bacon, and P.J. O’Rourke to name a few) you already know well.

*One drawback of a “Netflix Original” is its not going to have the reviews on Amazon or other video outlets to help provide a balanced opinion. Especially with the streaming content, I’ve noticed that Netflix likes to push the favorable reviews to the front making almost every movie seem better than it is.

Advertisements

I Will Let You Down

Tags

, , , , ,

Since I opened that can of worms, I figured I might as well compare my more serious efforts with one of the big reasons that I’m desperately seeking ancients PC games to begin with: Rome: Total War just can’t handle the period.

totalalex1

Alexander the Great assembled a vast army, numbering 966 souls, and marched upon Babylon.

The graphics and animations, of course, look as you would expect them. This is from the previous decade’s version of Total War. Despite the fact that it was actually released subsequent to Total War: Rome II, it doesn’t look substantially different from the 2004 version. I still think circa-2004 animations look pretty good but will depend on your expectations.

By the time this title came out, I had already given up on Rome: Total War in frustration. However, a few years after release I managed to pick Alexander up as part of a package deal, so I’ve had it sitting around in my library for ages with no intention to play.

Given that the battles of antiquity, at least those whose records have survived to the present, tend to have been massive affairs, the modeling (graphically and mechanically) down to the individual soldiers in Total War is always going to present a problem. One could, of course, assume that like the units in Field of Glory or Great Battles of Alexander, these are mere “stands” of soldiers representing much larger formations. While this could work in theory, the game engine really doesn’t play along. The individual soldiers show on-screen tend to act like individual soldiers, not like plastic models abstractly representing a formation.

Even if we allow that each soldier portrayed on screen represents, say, 50 men a piece, the unit count still seems too small. The number of discrete formations is probably a third or a quarter that of the Great Battles version, once you set aside the Macedonian phalanx units that make up the front line. The ratios are also way off. Outside of that big phalanx center, there aren’t enough support formations. For skirmishers, for example, the Greeks sport a single band of archers. Cavalry is limited to two units of Companions plus one other horse unit. Even if we were hoping to treat the little-on-screen men as “miniatures,” the scenario still seems underdeveloped.

totalalex2

The horrors of (Total) war.

And then, of course, it’s still Total War, isn’t it?

Maybe you can accept the scaled-down version of the scenario. Perhaps you’ve even gone into the scenario and edited the unit balance to have the proper historical mix. In the end, you’re still going to have Alexander leading a pair of phalanges tear-assing around the battlefield routing, one-by-one, what remains of the Persian army. Total War: Alexander was designed to please on-line, competitive RTS players, not history freaks.

And that’s why I don’t play it.

I loath to even open up the campaign game where I am forced to juggle city management on top of those unrealistic battles. On the other hand, Total War might (accidentally, more than anything) come close to approximating the strategic considerations of Alexander’s conquest. His entire campaign was only, roughly, a dozen years. He moved with the core forces of his original army mostly in one direction; having left Macedon, he never saw it again. While his army grew, it was largely using foreign troops recruited from the provinces of the nations he conquered. Whereas for, as an example Roman campaigns, the build mechanism of Total War is a gamey misrepresentation of how empires actually field armies, in the contest of Alexander’s conquest of Asia, it might be as good a model as any.

Heck. Maybe I’ll look at it after all.

Long Form

Tags

, , ,

This is the thirty-first in a series of posts on the Vietnam War. See here for the previous post in the series and here to go back to the master post.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I am reading Combat Operations: Stemming the Tide, May 1965 to October 1966 written by John M. Carland. This is another series of books funded by the U.S. Army chronicling the Army’s experience in Vietnam. Like the two shorter works I looked at before, these are for sale by the government (roughly the same price as on Amazon) but are freely available as a download. After all, we here in American did already pay to write the thing so we might as well have access to it.

In contrast to Buying Time, 1965-1966, which covers the same period, Stemming the Tide is a full-length book. As such, it talks both about the high-level, strategic issues but also gets down into individual engagements with far more detail. It’s not quite the level that a book dedicated to an individual battle, like The First Fight, would be, but it is obviously (with five times the page count) more detailed than my previous foray.

It is a good read and a fairly easy read. Still, it does impress me as a book written by the military for the military as opposed to the outreach to the public that the U.S. Army Campaigns series seems to be shooting for. Of course, that is an opinion coming from a non-military person so take of it what you will. The fact is, the book details items, like command structures, that would seem to be far more interest to someone “in the biz” than an outside observer. There were also a number of cases* where I noticed the use of “insider” language.

Like before, this one also is a very informative companion to the Vietnam 1965 Combat Operations scenarios. I’ll not dwell on that any further.

One unique insight I got from reading this book is the amount of effort that goes on behind the scenes to make the war happen. This book gets into a level of detail that begins to demonstrate the amount of work involved with moving, for example, the 1st Infantry Division from the U.S. into Vietnam and to begin operations. Whereas the shorter versions did talk about “security operations” and the like, Stemming the Tide gets into more specifics. It gives me a new appreciation of the difficulties involved.

A division doesn’t just move, load up their rifles, and start hunting commies. Locations have to be chosen and then the actual base must be constructed. When the division in question is one of the early deployments, that means that the engineering and construction support isn’t available yet, so arrangements have to be made. Local contractors, from a third world country mind you, are needed to construct a base that not only must serve as a secured military outpost, but also as a home to gaggles of teenagers and young-adults for up to a year. Supplies have to be sent in from overseas and delivered across inadequate infrastructure. Most critically, somebody has to figure out all the things that need to be done and the right order in which to do them. The role of a commanding general, in this, is far more than any combat planning required of him.

It also explains the outsized requirement for support forces over combat forces. Stemming the Tide explains, “[o]ut of a total of 82,300 U.S. soldiers and marines in South Vietnam in August 1965, no more than 20,000 served in maneuver battalions. By the end of the year 155,000 soldiers and marines had arrived, but only about 31,000 were in maneuver units.”

The book also includes political factors. One that stood out for me is the polling data collected toward the end of 1965. In Vietnam, the U.S. had entered a sort-of-truce and was preparing a series of sticks in case the North Vietnamese were unwilling to come to the peace table’s carrot. The plan, which was very much what was subsequently executed, was presented to the public at large and was polling at about 60% in-support.

We’re too early in the war (and I’m still only part way through the book) to decide whether the U.S. had already made the fateful decisions that will ultimately cost them this war. At the start of the year in 1966, the Generals assumed that, given the resources they requested, they would prevail. The civilian leadership had promised the resources as requested. It is evident that the text criticizes Johnson for not making the acceleration of force build up happen, though either the call-up of reserves or an extension of commitments. The analysis of the book is that the slower build-up of forces, constrained by political considerations, allowed the communists to match and exceed that build up with additional forces of their own. Therefore, the U.S. never achieved the advantage in forces that the plan was counting on.

From the flip side, we also can never know whether Johnson was right. Perhaps it is true that the avenues available to him that would meet the requested force build up were, in fact, so politically unpalatable that they would have caused a collapse in support for his presidency, his social programs, and (likely) his prosecution of the Vietnam War.

*One that I just now remembered to look up is the repeated use of the laager. This is a Afrikaans variation on the Dutch word for army camp that describes the result of “circling the wagons.” For students of Boer history, this might invoke the 1838 Battle  of Blood River where the use of the laager defensive formation resulted in an overwhelming defeat by the Voortrekkers of a Zulu army 20-50 times their number. It’s an intriguing word to use in the context of small U.S. formations holding out against superior Vietcong numbers, but perhaps not one that most people without a West Point history class under their belts would readily understand.

Great Battles

Tags

, , , , , , ,

In the years since I stopped playing Great Battles of Alexander (and its two follow-ons, Hannibal and Caesar), I longed for something to take its place. As I started have compatibility issues between the game and newer PCs, it seemed like Great Battles would be a fairly easy game to re-implement. It played pretty easy, and didn’t seem all that complex.

We Beg You, Tell Us Who

A deeper look led me to believe there is more there than meets the eye. Or, at the very least, more than I would be able to replicate if I were to program it on my own. This applies both to the rules (a glance at the Great Battles of Alexander, the board game, and its rulebook gives some hint, even if you don’t know how much of that was included in the computer model) and to the AI, which may not be brilliant but it does seem competent. I know I spent some time looking at the easier rules for Ancients and its potential for a home-brewed computer game. Eventually, Tin Soldiers: Alexander the Great came out and I figured I had something satisfy my fix, at least momentarily.

One of the more esoteric solutions I played during that time was actually an idea I had myself. I realized that one of the more difficult parts to programing an intelligent opponent is the fact that the map is in two dimensions. This is difficult for the AI, because of the number and complexity of paths from Point A to Point B and, at the same time, makes it more difficult as a historical simulation. Macedonian phalanges didn’t whirl around to face new directions, willy-nilly, or race around an enemy to hit them in the rear. The action was pretty linear. So, I wondered, what if you could play the game simply as opposing lines rather than maneuvering on a hex grid?

In fact, while we’re at it, do we even need the board part of this boardgame?

One conversion of the Great Battles series I played with for quite a while was Hoplites. Instead of a board, each unit is draw as a card from an army deck and then deployed a linear battle line, either in the center or on the flanks. The opponent has an identically-sized line opposing you. Units engage their counterpart or, if unopposed, gain additional options. It made for a nice quick play when the ancients theme was desired, but fell short of replacing the experience of Great Battles. If nothing else, recreating historical battles was impossible without a variable battlefield.

The First of Its Name

It is an interesting coincidence that the year Field of Glory became available, development and support of Hoplites stopped. For those less skeptical than I, I suppose Field of Glory offered to be the new incarnation of ancients battles for the PC.

gauga4

Same players, different field.

The Field of Glory package for the ancient Greeks, Immortal Fire, included the Battle of Gaugamela. At least one user made their own version of that battle, based on the board game’s setup. So as a comparison, I downloaded a version of that Great Battles conversion to FoG, a modification of that user-made version by prolific scenario developer Kilroy.

So how does it compare?

The battle plays faster in this format. Field of Glory uses a system for extra movement per turn when units are outside of engagement distances, to minimize the counter-pushing involved as the lines close in on each other. On top of that, there is a certain inefficiency to Great Battle‘s leader activation. In FoG, the simple one-side-then-the-other structure is going to make each turn a little shorter, even given the same number of units to move.

There are negatives as well. As I’ve noticed before, the Field of Glory units lack character. Yes, there is no double-wide phalanx formation, but that’s not all I’m talking about. The units just don’t seem to have the individuality that they did in Great Battles version. In Great Battles, I was genuinely afraid when that formation of chariots began heading toward me. In Field of Glory, I noticed my first chariot after it was already running away. I’m not saying there is no difference between units. In fact, the handling of phalanx melee is probably a little better – in Field of Glory, it isn’t until the phalanx have closed and engage that they start doing their real damage. It’s just that Field of Glory doesn’t have the atmosphere.

gauga5

The Macedonians were able to dominate the field from one end to the other basically by charging forward and hitting the Persian lines.

I don’t know whether to attribute it to a lesser AI or the fact that bringing the same units mix over to Field of Glory threw off the game balance, but whereas in Great Battles the game always seemed to be close, this one felt like a pushover. The scenario was explicitly designed to open the door for the historical breaking of the Persian center by Alexander himself, but I found the tactic neither necessary nor convenient. It may be that this scenario design goal was part of the problem; player-versus-player game with scenario might have the understood limitation that the Macedonians are to emulate Alexander’s historical strategy (counterintuitively) adding to the challenge for the Greek side.

More importantly, despite some obvious improvements in user interface and the like, the game does not feel like an upgrade to Great Battles of Alexander. Much like Hoplites before it, Field of Glory seems to get a few things right, but falls short in many other areas.

Worthy Successor

But now, finally, we have Field of Glory II. Perhaps we finally have a computer program that can get this period right? The mere hope that it could be was enough to break out the game I’d bought a while back, but had yet to play. What better battle to try it out upon than the Battle of Gaugamela and get its take on history.

gauga6a

Alexander’s opening moves. First impression is that the battlefield is huge. Might be that fog effect for distant units.

I think it goes without saying that this is the best looking of my current options. Of course, it isn’t Rome: Total War: Alexander, nor should it be. One almost assumes that an emphasis on 3D animations is going to come at expense of historical fidelity.

My initial impression, as I mentioned in the above caption, was that the virtual board was huge. After some scrolling around, I realized that the unit count matches pretty closely both of the other versions of the battle. Since this version wasn’t build specifically from the Great Battles of Alexander board game order of battle, there are some differences in the detail, but not enough so that we wouldn’t recognize the setup.

Or, at least not from the Macedonian side. From Darius’ perspective, the setup has changed. In Great Battles of Alexander (the PC game, this time), one challenge the Persians have is that, while their numbers are superior, their generalship is not. It will take many turns for them to advance the main body of troops at their center into the fray. In fact, the player (or the AI in my case) must prioritize whether to advance or whether to attack with what comes up, as it comes up. In my games, the battle was decided while may of the Persian units were still maneuvering to engage. In Field of Glory II, on the other hand, the Persian units that would never engage are left off the map entirely. The forces that are to play an active role in the battle are themselves placed in close proximity to the Macedonian lines.

gauga7

Heavy infantry clashes really field like heavy infantry.

My general complain with Field of Glory was that the unit types lacked character. This complaint does not persist with Field of Glory II. While there are no double-sized phalanx units to be found in this game, the differentiation between units types, as driven by the rules, give each their own character. Skirmishers not only retreat from fighting, but can pass through the ranks of heavy infantry. Two opposing units of heavy infantry facing each other, on the other hand, engage in an escalating slugfest, possible with the weaker getting pushed back before it starts to break.

Also, as was the case with Pike and Shot, command and control issues, while not explicitly modeled through leader activation -type rules, do translate through in a believable way. At the outset, all of your units (absent some special scenario configurations) are available for you to control with the full ranges of options. As the battle proceeds, you begin to hit constraints. Engaged units and units undertaking pursuit of enemy forces cannot be controlled. Units that have suffered losses of order and morale have considerably fewer options, as do units that are under threat by an enemy. By the end of the game, it may be that less than a handful of your units are still under player control.

The system has notable improvements since Pike and Shot was released. There’s the skirmisher thing I mentioned above. The system now, also, allows you some additional control when units are already engaged in combat. In Pike and Shot, any units that were already engaged would be cycled through automatically at the end of each player’s turn. Now, a player can force the resolution of a combat during his own turn and, perhaps, change his plans depending on the results. Also, the game now includes leaders in the game, something notably absent from Pike and Shot. In perhaps one of the better implementations so far, leaders are attached to a specific unit but they can be reassigned by the player. This can be done during the scenario deployment phase or even during battle (under a more limiting set of circumstances).

gauga8

Alexander leads his companions in a charge to the rear of the Persian center. Have I finally found my hole?

The technical changes aside, though, does Field of Glory II handle historical scenarios well? I’d say, as good as some and better than most.

The feeling of the battle was reasonable. As the Macedonians, I had an advantage in part of the field while simultaneously worrying about the opposite wing. Unique to all my attempts so far, it was my Companion cavalry that was first to break their wing of the Persians, a first in all the versions of this battle I’ve played to date. In the above screenshot, you can see Alexander leading his Companions as they crush some Iranian cavalry, leaving the way open forward and towards the center (the top of the screenshot) and Darius.

gauga9

Somebody is missing.

This resulted in a win for me. Given the configurability of the game, this can’t be taken as any indication of either my skill as a player, the quality of the AI, or the balance of the scenario (from a historical perspective). I’m playing on one of the easier settings where I’m able to keep a pretty fair hold on my AI opponent. But this victory screen also illustrates clearly the way this scenario was configured, as I described earlier on in the article.

The Macedonian order of battle is at the very high end of estimates I’ve read for Alexander’s forces at this battle.  The Persian force is not only much smaller than any historical estimate, but even smaller than Alexander’s. As I said, I believe the intention was to simulate Alexander’s ability to break the Persian will to fight before the center of their army was even engaged.

So based on this battle, I have to give Field of Glory II its place as a worth successor to Great Battles of Alexander. There are still a few features* of the old program that FoGII hasn’t created a substitute for, but in general this appears to be a good way to relive these ancient battles with modern graphics and user-interface. Once you also consider that Field of Glory II has tools to create both new scenarios and random match-ups, it is clearly filling in the spaces where Great Battles was lacking.

*One, in particular, I’ll mention is the “group move” function. Field of Glory II also has a group move, but it is more of a UI improvement (over, say, Field of Glory) than a game function. In Great Battles, the group move would allow a commander to move more of his army if it stayed in formation than he could if he commanded each unit individually. That is, doctrine would allow command of larger armies by sacrificing flexibility. In Field of Glory II, the group move does give you any advantage; it allows you the same moves available unit-by-unit, but with less clicking.

Ambuscade

Tags

, , , , , ,

This is the thirtieth in a series of posts on the Vietnam War. See here for the previous post in the series and here to go back to the master post.

The day after securing Landing Zone X-Ray, American units moved out and away from the battlefield on foot. Having defending the landing zone decisively, a B-52 strike was called in on the Chu Pong Mountain, where their North Vietnamese opponents remained dug in, while the Americans moved safely away from the bombing targets. Doctrine dictated that friendly forces be outside of a 3 km safety zone. A march, rather than a helicopter evacuation, would provide less indication to the enemy that the airstrikes were coming.

The two battalions were to march to two other areas. The 2/5 was to assemble at LZ Columbus and the 2/7 split off and headed for LZ Albany.

After reading We Were Soldiers Once…, it remains unclear to me what the bigger plan was. The men of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry had been sent into LZ X-Ray as to reinforce Moore’s battalion as the fight developed. They had been marching and fighting for over 50 hours straight as they made their way to Albany. In some cases, the unit orders indicated that their goal was assemble at LZ Albany to be evacuated from the combat area. Others suggest that Albany may, instead, have been a temporary halting point, and a further march would follow. Some commanders’ orders indicated they were to expect to encounter the enemy in the vicinity of Albany while others anticipated an uneventful march followed by a ride back to base camp.

Whatever the higher-ups thought would happen, its seems clear that the North Vietnamese were far more prepared and organized than the Americans understood. Shortly after noon, as the lead elements of the 2/7 were arriving at the clearing designated Albany, an NVA ambush hit them all up and down the marching column.

iadrang13

Here they come. My lead elements have made it the “copse of trees” in the center of the clearing, but they’re going to be stuck there, alone.

As the scenario opens, I get a feeling of “being there” that exceeds most Steel Panthers scenario implementations. The map feels like a reasonable depiction of the ambush area, based on Moore’s description, and the sudden appearance of enemies from everywhere at once and my almost instant inability to respond is very much what happened. My own situation quickly became worse than the historical situation. When the attack commenced, I moved my command units forward in the landing zone into the “copse of trees,” as shown in the above screenshot. While things don’t look too bad so far, in was only another 10 or 15 minutes before everyone forward was wiped out along with any other unit who tried to cross the clearing.

Following the scenario instructions, I attempted to move all my subordinate commanders backwards to reunite them with their commands. This turned out to be another big mistake. In the actual fight, only one commander, Captain Forrest of the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry, returned to his unit. The 1/5 was at the rear of the column and Forrest sprinted the distance to return to get his people organized. In my game, not a single headquarters unit survived long enough to make to their “zone.” By about 10 turns in, there are no longer any command units remaining on the map.

iadrang15

I’m really feeling surrounded and helpless. This is one heck of a fight.

As the battle progresses, though, some of the usual Steel Panthers problems creep in. I’m realizing in some of the Vietnam scenarios (where I have a detailed written account of the battle to compare), the time as determined by turn number probably shouldn’t be taken literally. In most of these battles, there are various lulls in the action as the attacking side regroups and prepares for a fresh assault. In most tactical games, however, the player needs to maximize the pace of his attacks if he wants to get the most victory points within a fixed turn count. So, for example, at Ap Bau Bang, where the Viet Cong attacked in several waves, one might image that a turn or two of “quiet” could, in fact, represent a much longer pause between attacks. Nevertheless, there are limits to such an indulgence.

At LZ Albany, there was a good hour of chaos before US forces could organize a defense. Just like the American battalion was caught by surprise, brigade and division support were also unprepared. It took about that long for air support to be called into the area, followed soon after by artillery. In the game, however, air and artillery support is delayed by only two turns (six minutes), plus a few more turns for the requested support to respond. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to allow that with this distortion of time, the scenario still reasonably simulates the confusion immediately following the VC assault.

On the other hand, it took all afternoon and into the evening until it was determined that LZ Albany was secure enough to allow reinforcements by helicopter. With the attack beginning about noon, it was near 6PM before helicopters brought in men and supplies  and began to evacuated wounded. Yet, on the computer, an additional company (and then some, I think) is flying in on helicopters before that first hour is up.

This goes too far to be considered just a “distortion” in the clock. The only way that I might be able to square that circle is if I read deeply between the lines within the scenario instructions. It is possible, I suppose, that if the U.S. had completely secured LZ Albany at the outset of the attack, reinforcements via helicopter could have come in much sooner. Of course, I don’t know how one might determine what would have made the landing zone safe, nor does this scenario have any kind of dependency of that sort. In my case, I figured there was no way I was getting my helicopters safely down in the main landing zone and, instead, I found a three-hex clear spot near the center of my column (it’s just left of center in the above screenshot). So, in addition to the timing, I’m landing forces in an area that, in reality, is way too small to support them. Even when a perimeter was finally established in the Albany clearing, it was initially too small to support helicopter landings. A hex, at this map’s scale, just wouldn’t do.

Another problem impacts all ambush-type scenarios and “base defense” settings in general. Steel Panthers has a system of automatic retreat when a unit begins to waiver. The idea is that a unit will back away from the line of fire, often using smoke to cover its retreat, and do this during the enemy’s turn. On a good day, particularly if you’ve retreated back into the security of your own lines, that unit can recover morale and cohesion and perhaps get back into the fight. On the other hand, if the unit is cut off or surrounded, retreating will only expose it to additional fire and eventual destruction.

In this scenario, however, where there is an inner defense of Americans beset on all sides by attacking North Vietnamese, there is no clear “backwards” direction. What is, on one side of the perimeter, a retreat to safety is to units on the other side a blind charge into enemy lines. This is exactly the fate of many units in this scenario, both U.S. and NVA. Units wavering will advance towards and often through the enemy lines to inevitably be eliminated. In fact, it seemed like a fairly decent percentage of unit losses, on both side, were due to them wandering out of cover, stunned, right into the fire of their enemies. On a small scale, one can write it off as simply a higher lethality of fire, and ignore the details. Happening so regularly, it is frustrating.

By the end of the scenario, I was left less impressed than I was at the start. These oddities detracted from that feeling, at the outset, that this one was coming close to getting things just right. But it is still a well-done attempt.

iadrang17

The WinSPMBT map seems a bit too big, but this one looks too small. The scenario seems to small as well.

Switching over the Squad Battles: Tour of Duty, the most obvious difference is the size of the map. Comparing, side-by-side, features depicted by these two programs should look similar on the screen. Steel Panthers uses 50m hexes and Squad Battles features 40m hexes. If anything, that should expand Squad Battles to be the larger of the two.

When I first opened up the Squad Battles take, however, my thought was that this one is the correct scale. Accounts describe as LZ Albany as a fairly small clearing, even compared to the other sites in the Battle of Ia Drang. The Steel Panthers version did just seem too expansive, although the obviousness of the error didn’t hit me until I saw the Squad Battles take. Setting helicopters down in Albany was challenging enough. Finding 3-hex landing zones all along the trail tells me the map was a little too detailed.

As I played, though, I realized that the scenario feels too cramped. Part of it, yes, was coming off Steel Panthers, which set my expectations just so. However, as I’ve been playing, I’ve also been reading Combat Operations: Stemming the Tide. While fighting the Squad Battles LZ Albany scenario, I plunged forward to the section on LZ Albany in the book and found the battlefield dimensions given therein. Captain Forrest, it is written, had to advance 500-600m from the position of his company at the rear of the column to meet with commander Colonel McDade, at its head. This figure roughly matches the total size of the battlefield in Squad Battles.

Stemming the Tide also describes the LZ Albany clearing as such: “An irregular square from three hundred to four hundred meters in length and width, the landing zone had a grove at its center measuring about one hundred fifty meters west to east and one hundred meters north to south.”

Counting hexes, so you don’t have to, the Steel Panthers map has the “grove” just about right, but has way too much clearing surrounding it. For the Squad Battles map, it is almost as if someone found somewhere the size of the grove and assumed that those dimensions were for the total clearing. On that map, the “grove” is but a single hex (40×40), covered in the screenshot by Colonel “Lopez.”

The feeling of being “too small” extends to other areas. To simulate the ambush, initially all U.S. forces are “fixed” – they cannot be moved by the player. This is intended to simulate the surprise factor in the ambush, which is fine as far as it goes. Some units remain fixed even by the scenario’s end. Again, the idea may be that some of the column remained unable to maneuver throughout the first 45 minutes of fighting (5 minute turns, 9 turns). But removing a percentage of the units from the control of the player makes for that much less of a “game.”

iadrang18

Defense of the LZ clearing is accomplished primarily through air-delivered napalm strikes.

Even those units that are there already seem a subset of the American forces. Missing is any off-board artillery support. Granted that came after the air strikes, which are part of the game, but it is a noticeable omission particularly for someone who has just completed the Steel Panthers take. Also missing are the mortar companies that were part of the 1st Cavalry company structure, as well as any other support platoons that one finds (accurately or not, it is hard to say) in Steel Panthers.

Along with everything else that went missing between Steel Panthers and Squad Battles, gone also is the sense of narrative. In Steel Panthers, as I said, there is that sense of shock and confusion. There is the mad rush to seize the grove and to reunite the command structure. Then the air and artillery begin to arrive, and you can attempt to organize your defense. Chronologically, the Squad Battles version is probably the more accurate one, but it doesn’t bring the player into the battle.

Just to wrap up this post, I’ll toss in one more screenshot for the Plieku Campaign, this time from Boonie Rats 1965-1972. The last time I was playing it, I halted just before the major November Army operations, with the intent to return later. Having brought Campaign for South Vietnam through into 1966, I thought I’d just catch up Boonie Rats to the same date.

iadrang14

Leaving operation planning to the computer means that the NVA struck Pleiku, not Plei Me, in late November 1965.

Notable here, in the above screenshot, is the drift away from the historical Plieku Campaign (and the direction of that drift). You can see, if your eyes are sharp, that the NVA (gold highlight on red) has launched a major operation against Plieku City itself, defended only by ARVN (red highlight, with yellow on a tan background). The recently-deployed-from-the-US 1st Cavalry is riding to the rescue, but in this case is assembling in force to save the provincial capital, rather helping to lift the siege of a military outpost. I’d say the ahistorical situation is a result of the natural aggressiveness of the Operational Art of War programmed opponent and the hex-and-counter mechanics that emphasize taking territory.

Consider it one more data point showing what works and what doesn’t in TOAW.

Return to the master post for Vietnam War articles. The next article discusses a book on this period of the War.

Grist for the Mill

Tags

,

One interesting historical exposition in The Pillars of the Earth is the nature of medieval taxation. A major source for taxation was through the milling of grain. With bread being the staple food, everyone needed flour and this opened up the door to a “broad-based tax.” It was simply made unlawful for anyone to privately grind one’s own grain. To comply with the law, you had to use the facility owned by the local lord, or local monastery, or whomever – the taxing agency. The miller could then extract a portion of the milled flour as payment for services and then such payment would be split with the “government” either as a fee for the license to operate the mill or, perhaps, a combination of that and the use of the government-owned facility.

It had something of an advantage, morally, of not being a taking. The user was simply paying a fee for services rendered. Force only came into play in that circumventing the requirement to use the government’s mill was subject to a fine that exceeded the cost of paying to have your grain milled in the first place, and this was far from voluntary. In the book, Prior Phillip (a main character) lectures a woman who is caught and fined for illicit milling of grain. She pleads that she is destitute and cannot afford the fine which, by the way, is why she didn’t pay the mill in the first place. What’s interesting is Phillip attaches no moral implications to evading the levy. He doesn’t tell her that it was her civic duty or her ethical obligation to pay her “fair share,” or that communal milling makes flour more economical for everyone. He does defend the necessity for (in this case) the monastery to raise money and that, while it is her natural right (my words, not his) to evade the taxation, when caught she shouldn’t complain about penalties that she knew full well in advance. The alternative, of course, is that she seek charity to obtain food when the cost of milling grain becomes prohibitive. The Prior acknowledges that breaking the law may be less debasing than begging for food, but that it is was her choice.

I, first of all, have to acknowledge that this is fiction. The words of the characters and even, perhaps, their circumstances are penned by an author of our present age. This should not be mistaken for medieval fact. Details may well reflect the sensibilities of our time rather than the reality of 850 years ago. That said, I do have some reflections on our duty to support government and how far we’ve come in recent generations.

It is true that, for the time covered by this novel, that the nobility generally couldn’t just show up at people’s doors and demand significant portions of their money. Even kings obtained their income through controlling particular governmental monopolies and “earning” the fees associated therewith. Local lords, in addition to such possible licenses, would typically own a significant portion of the land within their domain and, therefore, extract rent from those who actually worked the land. Like today’s rent, the cost of the rental is a combination of money for services rendered by the landowner, compensation to the landowner for (in the modern case) capital investment, and taxation. It gets hard to quantify but I think it is safe to say that tolerance for outright taxation was lower than what it is today.

Another angle to this is the accounting aspect – the ability of a lord and his ministers to keep track of all they needed to track to extract the tax in question. Applying a tax to “income” would have been difficult, if not impossible, in medieval times simply due to the required record-keeping. By way of contrast, head taxes (be they in the form of licenses or otherwise) or rents were doable, as they taxed static entities. Very specific levies, like taking a percentage of the profits from a single mill, could also be managed in that the monitoring required was discrete. One lord (or his agent) can keep some kind of track over the workings of a single mill. Doing the same for every non-farmer in a county, on the other hand, would have been impossible.

Today, of course, it is possible to monitor nearly every financial transaction that we enter into and each passing year we are getting nearer to the ability to track pretty much everything. In Europe, there is a concerted effort to stomp out cash and governments are likely going to resist Bitcoin-type economies, especially if they become widely popular. At the same time, our tolerance for ever higher taxes seems to grow in response to the demand for ever higher taxes.

Just to get a sense of where things are, in Denmark and France, taxation is approaching 50% of GDP. Even this significantly understates the level of taxation in those highest-taxed of nations. First of all, government spending is part of GDP, so if you make the assumption that all government spending ultimately has to source itself from taxation upon private incomes, the percentage will easily shoot into the 2/3rds or 3/4ths range. Also, taxation does not take into consideration compliance costs, some of which are directly equivalent to taxation. Requiring that a business spend X% of it’s income doing Y is, functionally, no different than taxing it X% and paying for Y from the government coffers. However, its not the absolute number we’re after here, but a relative one.

In the United States, we are close to the bottom of the OECD average. At 26% (Federal, State, and local combined), we are higher than only Korea, Turkey, Ireland, Chile, and Mexico (itself an interesting list). The OECD average is often used because, like the medieval feudal lords, undeveloped economies simply don’t have the sophistication to administer OECD-levels of taxation. America’s low rank in the list, and the significant gap below countries like Denmark, France, and Belgium, are cited as evidence that the U.S. can significantly increase taxes without damaging our economy. A more specific calculation of a desired tax level comes from looking at current spending. The Federal portion of that 26% tax take ranges around 17%, give or take a couple of percentage points. Analysts have calculated that it will be necessary to raise that to the 25-27% of GDP range in order to cover our deficit spending and “meet our obligations” going forward. That still wouldn’t make us France.

However, I’ve been fascinated with a chart I first saw a chart a couple of years ago that may be instructive. That 17% (give or take) has been constant since the Second World War. Before that, there were some wild gyrations during the Great Depression, of course, but tax rates were below 5%. It took the redirection the economic might of American against the Axis to bump us up to 20%+ before settling into our current band. What is amazing is that that 15-19% remains constant despite massive changes in tax rate policy through the years. In 1962, the top Federal Tax bracket rate was 90% and the Feds took 16.5% of GDP. In 1987, it was a post-WWII low of 29% and the Feds took 17.6%. So while tax policy, obviously, effects tax revenues, it is historically considerably less of an effect than one might surmise.

Finally, I note, that for the charts that also plot projections show the revenue percentage growing going forward, exceeding not only the historical trends but usually also the historical record. What are the chances that’s really going to happen?

To put it another way, what are the factors that have historically kept the U.S. tax rate near to constant, and what is changing about that, if anything? There is a mathematical portion of this equation that is somewhat independent of other factors. If we transition to a government that does more, that’s going to alter the relationship between tax rates and tax percentage of GDP, even with all else remaining equal. Remember, GDP includes government spend and, therefore, effectively includes the tax rate in the numerator and the denominator both. Simply shifting an economy from capitalist to socialist will require higher taxpayer rates just to maintain the same tax revenue percentage. But setting that aside, we have a cultural resistance that is part of keeping that tax take at 17% (even if that’s not how we perceive that limit). In medieval times, I have read, that a lord that took more than 10% from his subject would be considered tyrannical. I don’t know if that’s true, or even what that means given what I’ve said above, but do we have this hard limit of 20.5% that “the people” will fight if it is broken? Or is a big part of that limit technological? As government and “big data” is ever more capable of tracking every transaction, will that limit the ability of the “black market” to serve deterrent to ever-higher taxes.

Whatever it is that has held tax revenues steady is fighting an inevitable push from the other side. I’ve routinely seen a defense of a steady 3-5% increase in tax rates; Both that it is reasonable (in line with inflationary measures) and necessary (costs associated with government, such as health care and education, tend to grow faster than the economy as a whole). On the other hand, if you grow a percentage by 3-5% in perpetuity, it eventually hits 100%. Furthermore, at some point before it hits 100%, the “denominator” upon which that percentage is based starts to crumble and fall apart. There would seem to be some first-order math that would project a breaking point, at least far enough to tell the difference between “not in my lifetime” and “time to buy canned goods.”

The Pillars of the Earth has been great for these details of medieval life, which it integrates into the story so well. It has also been good as a novel – toward the end, I was driven to get to the “whodunnit” answer that remained throughout the book. I also, as I wrote earlier, have been impressed with its integration of the fictional story with the grand history of England. At the end, it is the Thomas Becket’s service as Archbishop of Canterbury that entwines with the story of our fictional builders and their Cathedral to propel this chapter to its conclusion.

I guess I’ll have to read the next book.

Get in Line

Tags

, ,

This past weekend, I read an editorial (“Baby, There’s a Chilling Effect Outside”) today by Peggy Noonan in the Wall St. Journal. As I write this today, the entire article can be read on-line. That may or may not be true by the time you read this.

She begins by focusing, as the title implies, on the recent brouhaha over Baby, It’s Cold Outside, framing the topic of artistic expression with the words from a 1999 papal letter (hey, it’s Peggy Noonan). She then moves on to what, apparently, is one of her favorite record albums from the 1970s, Good Old Boys by Randy Newman. Focusing on a few lyrics she points out, quite correctly in my opinion, that songs like these could not be released today.

Just yesterday I was reading about how now Seinfeld is drawing ire for its political incorrectness*. We needn’t go back very far into our memories at all to find examples of art that would no longer be tolerated.

Noonan’s argument, in the last third of the article is that, in order for us to recover from this malady, it is the left that must lead the charge. As she says, when someone from the right points out this deterioration of our culture, they are dismissed as merely covering for racist, sexist beliefs. Near the end she states, “[T]here is hardly an American the past quarter-century who hasn’t been shamed for saying, doing or thinking the wrong thing.”

I can’t speak for other Americans, but I don’t think she’s too far off base here.

Americans are being cowed in terms of our speech and our thought. It has gone on for most of my life but, at present, it seems to be moving into a new and universal phase. This is the antithesis of what it has long meant to be “an American.”

Immediately after reading the Journal editorial, I remembered a story told to me decades ago. The company I worked for, at the time, was involved with an effort by the U.S. government to constructively engage the Russian defense technology infrastructure to prevent bad things from happening as a result of the unraveling of the Soviet Union. My company, and many others, were encouraged to engage in joint projects involving technology with the Russians (OMG!!! He has ties to Russia!). As part of this, a number of employees traveled to Moscow for tours, meetings, and glad-handling. Mostly it was the bigwigs, but the occasional regular person also got to go, including someone I worked with closely.

This coworker told me a story. One day, when he was free to roam about a bit in Moscow, he decided to go to the newly-opened McDonalds. It was extremely popular, for the novelty if nothing else. Lines were long and seating was short. After my coworker got his Big Mac, he sat down at a table to eat. Fairly soon, he was approached by a woman, a Muscovite, who asked to share his table, as no empty tables remained. While she did speak some English, It wasn’t a lot.  Still, she was able to make herself understood to my coworker, who didn’t know any Russian**. After sitting down, she asked if he was an American. He said, “Yes, how can you tell?”

She mimed the answer. She pointed around to the other tables, said “Russians” and assumed a meek stance; Head down, legs together, hands tight to the body. Then she said “Americans,” and she leaned back, spread her legs, stretched out her arms, and held her head high.

Americans are not supposed to fear our government. The resultant mannerisms extend to when we travel abroad. This creates a caricature of rude Americans who seem unable to express a polite humility in the face of other cultures. It can also mean that we fail to have a healthy respect for the danger of truly-tyrannical foreign governments. It also means that we have internalized our natural right to individual freedom in a way that projects forth when we walk into a room. Good and bad, it was even in the way we sat down to eat our hamburgers.

Yet today, we are being trained in the same way the Soviets trained the residents of Moscow under a generation of totalitarian rule. We now must always be careful what we say and how we say it. We must be careful about how we sit (no manspreading!) and how we stand. As we change the way we speak and act, we’re also inevitably have to watch what we even think and feel. The Soviet Union didn’t just police truly subversive thoughts, they tried to be in your head all the time. In your religion, in your culture, and in your entertainment.

It works. If you are constantly second-guessing even your most trivial of thoughts, there is no way your going to be able to form an opinion that is contrary to the will of the State.

*I have this theory about the phrase “politically correct” itself. In our current lexicon it has an actual, specific meaning. Part of that is the words don’t have concrete meaning outside of the context which we use them. I have yet to be able to back up, but wasn’t the original phrase “politically correct discrimination?” In other words, the idea is that “discrimination” is not always bad. If you discriminate against a racial minority, that’s bad. Evil, even. If you discriminate against a “privileged” white male, yes it is still “discrimination” but it is good discrimination. “Correct” discrimination. I sometimes think about his because I think the origin of the phrase is instructive about its present impact, even though the meaning of “political correctness” has grown and morphed through the years.

**This, by the way, was a sore point with a number of us who had actually taken some Russian language instruction in hopes that we might be able to participate in this effort. Bah.

Up and Up

Tags

, , ,

This is the twenty-ninth in a series of posts on the Vietnam War. See here for the previous post in the series and here to go back to the master post.

I finally swung back around to pick up the last of the large-scale Vietnam War scenarios for The Operational Art of War. This one is called Campaign for South Vietnam and covers the war stretching from May 1965 to April 1975 (give or take, depending on certain scenario parameters). Campaign for South Vietnam takes Operational Art in an unexpected direction, adding in strategic-level decisions atop the operational engine. In fact, one might go so far as to suggest that the strategic level is the game and the actual, TOAW combat resolution is just discovering the implications of your strategic-level decisions.

If this is reminiscent of my commentary on Vietnam 1965-1975, this should be no surprise. Campaign for South Vietnam has its roots in converting the old board game to TOAW. At some point in its development, the scenario took on is own personality. The mechanics of Vietnam 1965-1975 would never convert over one-for-one and this scenario builder doesn’t try, but neither does he make any secret that he borrowed heavily from the Victory Games design.

TOAW Scenarios

Vietnam 1965-1968

Hex side: 5 km
Turn length: 1 week
Unit: Battalion/regiment

Vietnam 1965 Combat Operations, Vol. 1

Hex side: 4 km
Turn length: 1 week
Unit: Company/battalion

Boonie Rats 1965 – 1972

Hex side: 10 km
Turn length: 1 month
Unit: Regiment

Campaign for South Vietnam

Hex side: 5 km
Turn length: 1 month
Unit: Battalion

Vietnam 1965-1975

Hex side: 10 km
Turn length: 2 turns per season
Unit: Battalion/regiment

One disclaimer I’ll toss in up front is that I am playing with the version of the scenario that shipped with TOAW III. Forums discuss a newer Version 5.1. A notable change has to do with a particular design quirk in the original whereby the on-screen clock ticks by in weeks which are actually months. The update tries to rescale everything to make the scenario calendar match the game engine. I’ve always wondered why it was necessary to fudge the scale in the first place.

That forum also seems to contain some playtesting trial-and-error involved with getting the scenario to run in TOAW IV. As much as that would seem like a great step forward in playability for this scenario, it is not clear that they could get it working. It isn’t included in the installed scenarios for TOAW IV. If problems remain without some version-IV-specific editing, I wouldn’t be surprised. Campaign for South Vietnam tortures strategic-level play out of the engine and there is bound to be some level of reliance on quirks and specifics that throw things for a loop when going to the upgrade.

As a test of all this theory, I did give TOAW IV a try myself and ran into at least one problem. Part of the design of the scenario is that the player can trigger, through the disbanding of dummy units, the deployment of additional U.S. formations to the theater. Once you request deployment, there is a variable (at least, I think it is variable) delay and then the units are placed in a deployment zone in the Ocean. When they arrive on-map, they are only at 50% readiness. They player, therefore ,has to make a choice between “rushing” the units into Vietnam at partial readiness or waiting a month and then transporting them at, or near, full proficiency. Neither the delay nor the reduced proficiency are working when I request units in TOAW IV. This could be due to a change in the way something is calculated after the update, or it could be a mismanagement of the game options (which would be my fault, not the scenario’s). At this point I don’t know if it is readily fixable, nor do I know what else might be wonky in the newer version.

I’ll stick with TOAW III.

sixfivesevenfive

My hypothetical Operation Starlite and more-or-less the right time and place.

Like Vietnam 1965 Combat Operations (although in an entirely different direction), this is a unique use of the TOAW engine and one that creates a genuinely novel game. Victory is, like other full-war scenarios, determined by the Engine Event Variable (EEV), but not directly. Victory is governed by the victory points as computed by TOAW, and the EEV comes into play only indirectly, but has a huge role in the course of the game. Management of that variable, furthermore, is simpler than in Vietnam 1965-1968. Changes are driven mostly by what Vietnam 1965-1975 called commitment. So requesting additional units and requesting them rapidly will drive up the EEV. Conversely, sending the boys back home (if you will) will bring it back down.

Playing against the management of commitment (via the EEV) are the victory points. Traditional objective hexes, of course, provide victory point awards as do combat results. Thrown into the mix, however, are transient victory points awarded for “pacification.” This variable award is based on communist occupation of provinces. Effectively this requires the U.S. player to not only hold the cities but also actively seek out enemy units concealed in the rural areas. Finally, the losses also get some special treatment. Losses in battle count against the suffering side but the U.S. is much more sensitive to losses in the field. So U.S. losses hit the victory point accumulation disproportionately but they also contribute to the commitment (EEV) level.

The various simplifications seemed to have improved gameplay over the similarly-designed Vietnam 1965-1968. The method of requesting additional forces not only gives the U.S. player complete control, but it is easier to wrap your head around than the Vietnam 1965-1968 method, which uses the Theater Options to manage forces. The tedium of “running the roads” that I complained about before is mitigated by the month-long turns. Movement allowances are big enough to allow U.S. units extensive movement within a single turn. The same movement/turn length also fixes the supply problem. When it only takes a single turn to get into your operational area and start fighting, you don’t need to plan 4-5 turns ahead to keep units resupplied. The unit count also seems more reasonable, which helps reduce excessive counter pushing. Finally that month-long-turn scale again helps to mitigate the issue with turns’ timing-out before you complete a multi-phase battle. More often than not, you can count on begin able to spread your combats out over multiple rounds according to your plans, not some capricious internal variable.

So, in a number of ways, this seem to get things right where other scenarios struggled. I wondered before if the TOAW engine was capable of handling a Vietnam-style war but, so far*, it seems to be doing well. In particularly, the use of the Event Variable to drive events (namely, the point at which the U.S. will be forced to withdraw due to political considerations) is a much better use of the TOAW infrastructure than Vietnam 1965-1968‘s EEV-driven victory conditions.

Since I’m pausing here to keep all my historical what-ifs in sync, I’ll repeat something that is mentioned in the scenario document for Campaign for South Vietnam. The author points out that this game will almost certainly not re-enact the major battles of the Vietnam War. In order to do that, both players would have to be attempting to recreate the historical conditions. In a single-player game, the programmed opponent is going to do things that will certainly deviate from history and I, as the opponent, will have to react accordingly.

That said, this game really has a feeling that it is guided by meaningful decisions at the strategic level which then are implemented operationally. The operational tail isn’t wagging the strategic dog, as Vietnam 1965-1968 felt like. Neither is this, like Boonie Rats, simply a “grand-operational” game where the units come into and leave South Vietnam on the predetermined historical schedule, all but blind to what is actually happening on your game board. While I don’t expect my game to actually track historical outcomes, I get the sense that attempting to win the strategic game will force me into making similar decisions as happened 50 years ago.

Return to the master post for Vietnam War articles or move on to the next article, finishing of the Battle of Ia Drang with LZ Albany scenarios.

*As with Boonie Rats 1965-1972, I stopped my strategic-level play at roughly the same spot I’ve halted with my other games and reading; early 1966.

Stone in Love

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

Oliver Stone release Alexander in 2004. It had been more than 10 years since his string of box office hits and around the same length of time (depending on what you count as “his film” and how you feel about Nixon) since he collected awards from his filmmaking. Nevertheless, at that time, I was pretty impressed with Stone’s oeuvre and felt sure that he could make this a good, if not great, movie.

Then I watched it.

The first impressions this one left on critics, professional and amateur, were a bit rough. Alexander’s Northern-European skin and shiny-blonde hair upset many, although one could argue that it is a reasonable portrayal based upon how he’s been described and represented through the ages. Then there is Colin Ferrell’s accent. I recall trying to defend the Irish brogue. Given that Greeks are nearly always portrayed speaking British-accented English, couldn’t it be a deliberate point to have Macedonia’s suns speaking with a slightly-foreign accent? Of course, I’ve also read it all came about based upon Farrell’s inability to completely drop his native accent and deciding it would just be easier to have his generals sound like him.

Then there is the bisexuality. Much was made in the run-up to the release of this picture of Stone’s willingness to openly depict Alexander’s relations with his General, Hephaestion. Many touted this as enlightened and a challenge to the backwards morals of the film-going public. A group of Greek lawyers, on the other hand, threatened to sue for deliberately misrepresenting history. After the film was released, it again came under fire, this time from gay-activist groups, who thought Stone had failed to live up to his promise. Although there is much hinting and Jared Leto does wear a lot of eye-liner in the movie, no actual man-to-man-sex-stuff was shown on film (in the theatrical release, that is). In contrast, Alexander was shown in a steamy sex scene with his wife, Roxana (Rosario Dawson). Stone, meanwhile, blamed prudish morality for torpedoing his film.

But that wasn’t what did the film in for me. It was long, it was a little weird, and it was difficult to follow. I wanted to like it (and had no opinion on the gay thing) but I just couldn’t.

As the years went by, Stone continued to return to Alexander to try to salvage it. Preparing a “Director’s Cut” for the DVD release, he cut 25 minutes from the theatrical version and then added 17 additional minutes from the cutting-room floor. Two years later, he created a “Final Cut” where he added back the 25 minutes taken from the “Director’s Cut” and then an additional 40 minutes of previous-edited-out footage, creating a mind-boggling 214 minute version (don’t try to do the math, there were some other things cut out as well). I think I read about this stuff going on at the time but, for me, Alexander was bad enough when it pushed 3 hours, I really couldn’t see dragging it out to almost 4.

Can’t help myself

Enter, as it does, Netflix and its mighty axe.

I actually narrowly-missed watching this one earlier in the year when it was pulled before. As it happened, I had to get my fix watching a German-language, History-channel style docu-drama. And while, in that earlier piece, I called the removed Alexander version a “Director’s Cut,” it was really Alexander (The Ultimate Cut). Oddly enough, this “Ultimate” version made its way back onto Netflix streaming later in the year only to be removed again as the calendar flipped to 2019. For all the reasons I mentioned back then, I decided I better hunker down at make my way through this one, the 3-and-half hour version that Stone put together in 2014, ten years after the original. He swears this will be it.

Despite my meager expectations, this version really is better. This won’t make the lists of great American cinema masterpieces but this version of the movie really was worth watching. There are moments where Stone’s genius shines through. Then there are others where it does not, such as the decision to dub in lion noises when for Alexander’s cheering army. Or that red filter. Ugh.

One decision Stone made for his extended versions was to reorder the film. Rather than being simply chronological (not including the opening, 40-years-later, narration, which begins all versions), the movie is now ordered more thematically. The narrative begins with Alexander’s triumph at Guagamela, arguably the high-water-mark of his career for him personally. We see him about to take on the impossible, facing Darius III’s numerical superiority on the ground of Darius’ chosing. He delivers a speech which rivals Braveheart‘s cinematically and probably is more effective than the former in establishing Alexander’s character. Stone shows us, in a few opening minutes of film, some of what made Alexander “the Great.” Charisma, military genius, and audacity are all combined in several-minutes and a few dozen lines.

In the film, we are being told about Alexander by Ptolemy who attempts to explain to us what made him one of the greatest of men. Within this story-telling format, a new theme becomes obvious*. Stone was criticized for showing a historically-inaccurate version of Alexander. But what is the historical truth? We hear Stone’s Ptolemy’s truth, but that’s just one version, and not necessarily even Ptolemy’s version. The end-titles remind us that Ptolemy’s memoirs were destroyed in the fire that burned the Library of Alexandria, so we can’t really know what was written there. Furthermore, this isn’t necessarily even Stone’s Ptolemy’s version. At one point, Ptolemy orders his scribe to just throw away what he’d said about Alexander and then dictates a different version.

So was Alexander gay? Stone’s Ptolemy says so. Plutarch does not. Whom do we believe?

Those Crazy Nights I Do Remember in my Youth

Watching the Battle of Gaugamela inspired me to get back out my copy of Great Battles of Alexander. Technically, it’s not “my copy” that I played from the CD back in the day. I have repurchased this series from GOG recently.

gauga1

Alexander is trying to keep the left flank out of reach while the phalanges move forward.

Like Alexander (The Ultimate Cut), Great Battles of Alexander is even better than I remember. Also, like the film, part of the reason for this is that the game has been changed. Last time I played it, I had the original store-bought CD and was playing on an operating system years beyond that which it was designed for. Some of the edges are rough. I’m now playing the GOG version, which which works very well on the modern machine.

The graphics are obviously from another era. Great Battles of Alexander was released in 1997, which means Windows 95. Even still, these graphics have a certain beauty to their simplicity. As suggested in a review, the art is stylized to resemble the mosaics of antiquity. An occasional confusion about unit facing aside, they are not only attractive but functional.

gauga2

Action shot. The dead pile up while the cavalry clash to the Macedonian left.

There are two particular graphical details I really like. First, as shown in the above screenshot, the riderless horses that run from a battle when a mounted unit takes casualties. There is actually an even better animation, which I didn’t manage to capture, where a fleeing chariot drags a dead body behind it. It all combines to allow the rather simple graphics to depict an ongoing battle in a visually-engaging way. A close eye can make out the ebb and flow of the battle and maybe guess, a few seconds ahead of the results dialog, the outcome of a close battle. The second detail is how units that are ordered to advance in a straight line along a hex spine actually do advance in a straight line, rather than wiggling up the staggered hexes.

The modelling of the battles is also simple, yet effective. The game is a computer version of the 1991 GMT board game of the same name (released in 1995 as a Deluxe Version and since then going through various reprints) from creators Mark Herman and Richard Berg**. After Alexander, the series branched out into other Ancient Warfare periods to encompass 15 different games (plus expansions) in the series. Even by the time the computer version was released, five games into the series, the game already had the feel of a boardgaming classic***.

In my mind, the system had two special features. The first is that turns are executed through the activation of leaders. The order is random (although driven by leader quality) so in a given turn, you don’t know which player, or which units of which player, will get to move first. The second innovation was to make phalanx units occupy two hexes. This added a certain physicality to represent the size and bulk of the Macedonian phalanx. I can’t say whether it actual “simulates” the battlefield qualities of the unit better, but it has a visceral impact while playing.

The conversion to a computer game exemplifies a concept I’ve discussed before, where conversion to digital format simplifies what once seemed like a complex game. The board version of Great Battles of Alexander is a meaty game. It’s a big board with lots of units and a rather extensive set or rules to cover a plethora of historical details, although I should point out that newer versions of the game have been released with a simplified ruleset. Upon converting to the computer, the details were generally kept in place but, being automated and managed by the computer, they get abstracted away from the player.

As one example, while a diligent player can still track the combat effectiveness of each unit and count cohesion hits,  it is also possible just to get a “feel” for the strength of each unit by looking at its graphic. The units’ graphics tend to be representative of their combat strength and those graphics deteriorate as the cohesion of the unit deteriorates. The actual numerical values can be ignored in favor of just interpreting the visuals.

This, and other simplifications for the player, means that it is possible to whip through the computer version in short order. Short especially when compared to the major investment of setting up and playing the same scenario on the board. The computer manual, in fact, warns that the Gaugamela scenario might take more than one gaming session, as it is bigger than the others.

This also implies, if you plan to play Great Battles of Alexander fast and (let’s say) superficially, you need to learn all the subtle differences between units types and how they interact. Pushing cardboard, you’d need to understand all the details just so you could play. On the computer, though, you just let the game engine guide you. For example, I’ve learned through playing that the elephants in Darius’ army are pretty resistant to frontal assaults but can be quickly dispersed through missile attacks. I could have also figured that out by studying the mechanics of the game, but I didn’t bother.

My point in all this, is that a computerized version of this game can either make the game much more casual or be treated as a digital way to play the board game. There are advantages as disadvantages to each. The downside of learning, more or less, through experience is that your concept of the game won’t be comprehensive. There are certain to be rules that you aren’t considering or, even, are misunderstanding. That means that your experience of the game might be lacking. On the other hand, the player that does master all the game’s rules will probably find that the programmed opponent doesn’t present much of a challenge.

Now, I personally didn’t get this game to be played as a board game simulator. My interest is in the battles and being able to very quickly get myself into them. The game serves this purpose adequately. However, this does remind me of the one downside to playing the Battle of Guagamela in this game. It is something that has always bothered me, even when I played Great Battles of Alexander way back when.

gauga3

Nope. No gap in the Persian left flank.

The key to Alexander’s victory in this battle was the moment when he perceived, and was able to exploit, a gap in the Persian lines. Despite being significantly outnumbered by the mounted enemy on the Macedonian right flank, Alexander disengaged his elite Companion cavalry and lead a charge against the Persian center where Darius’ was directing the battle surrounded by his royal guard. Darius fled the field and the morale of his army went with him. In all my play-throughs of the Gaugamela battle, the Persians have never given me that opening.

Even without that tactic, the battle is winnable as Alexander. Gut feel is the sides are pretty well balanced although I haven’t really tried to test that theory. It’s not really about winning so much as to question how well one can “re-live” a famous battle when the key aspect of that battle won’t make it into play? But is there an alternative? Would any player controlling the Persians, especially one who knows something about the battle, actually leave themselves open to a decisive, killer move? Could you respect an AI that did the same?

My other frustration with Great Battles of Alexander was the limits built into it. I seem to recall that the CD version I had contained a scenario editor. As far as I can tell, that is not part of the GOG package. In theory, the editor opened the game to a wide range of ancients tactical combat, historical and hypothetical. In practice, I never played anything outside of the campaigns and don’t recall ever coming across too much in the way of user-made libraries. We certainly weren’t headed down, for example. the route that Field of Glory took, presenting both user-made historical options as well as quickly-generated competitive-play scenarios. After once or twice through the campaign, I felt like I’d got all I can out of this title.

Now, 15+ years later, this package is once again fresh to me and, with GOG having solved the compatibility issues****, it is worth another look. I think I’m going to find newer options out there that do what I want done here, and better. Stay tuned.

*Well, sort of obvious. I admit I read this elsewhere rather than having picked it up by simply watching the movie.

**It is only as I am typing this that I realized that Richard Berg and Richard Borg are, in fact, two different game designers. Richard Borg is the developer of the Command and Colors series, another ancients tactical gaming system, subsequent to Great Battles of History. I’d never thought about it too specifically, but part of me always considered these two games to be connected. I’ve also confused both games with the tactical game Ancients (1986) at times. It is probably obvious at this point, but I own none of these board games.

***Arguably the real “classic” which Great Battles of Alexander expanded upon was Avalon Hill’s Alexander the Great, which I also never played. Alexander the Great was designed by none other than Gary Gygax in his pre-Dungeons and Dragons days.

****There are some complaints in the GOG reviews for this game about compatibility. I am running this on Windows 7, so I may be avoiding some of the problems that users of newer operating systems are having, even with the GOG package.

The Storm is a’Coming Across the Hills

Tags

, , , , ,

This is the twenty-eighth in a series of posts on the Vietnam War. See here for the previous post in the series and here to go back to the master post.

Only after I had written some complaints about the historical setup for the LZ Blue scenario, I realized that I’d downloaded a user remake for that battle some time back.

The modified LZ Blue is called The Battle for Hill 43. The scenario clock shows it starting at 7AM which, like the original scenario, is at the time of the initial landings. What the scenario actually depicts, however, is action that took place later in the morning. Perhaps close to 10AM.

When Company H* landed they were unaware that they were within the area held by a battalion of Viet Cong. Taking fire from multiple directions the company commander, 1st Lieutenant Homer Jenkins, ordered his platoons to separately attack in multiple directions so as to quickly secure the landing zone. Despite some initial success attacks on Hill 43 and Nam Yen (3) became bogged down. Jenkins decided to regroup and concentrate his forces on the threat to his rear, Hill 43, from which the majority of enemy fire was coming.

Ironically, the decision to regroup and cover that withdrawal with an artillery strike, a sound tactical decision I think, was part of the problem with linking up with Company I on the right flank. The less-than-perfectly-accurate artillery fire came too close to the advancing Company I and wounded two marines near An Cuong (2).

hill1

The assault on Hill 43 begins.

By mid-morning, Company H was now supported by armored vehicles and made a concentrated assault on Hill 43 and was this time successful.

This revised scenario has a roughly-accurate order-of-battle and a proper time scale for the assault depicted. The drawback is that, unlike the original, there isn’t room for maneuver. The fight is a rather straight-forward advance up the hill toward the three victory locations at its top. While 12 turns isn’t a short scenario, by Squad Battles standards, dismounted infantry advancing under fire need nearly all of that time to make it to and engage the victory locations. Tactics come down to the rather complex lines of sight covering the approaches to the hill.

It is fortunately for me that there are those who don’t just complain about the game’s shortcomings but actually do something to fix them.

Return to the master post for Vietnam War articles or move on to the next article, for a look at one more strategic level version of the Vietnam War, as depicted in TOAW.

*I had some extended discussion about the units involved in the original Landing Zone Blue scenario. Important here is that, while Companies H and I were assigned adjacent zones in the attack, they were from different parent formations.