Himmler’s Mother Came Through


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Coming off of Netflix this week is a Norwegian TV mini-series, The Heavy Water War (originally Kampen om tungtvannet). The six episode series is a dramatization of the Nazi nuclear program, the Norwegian Deuterium Oxide factory that supplied it, and the British operation to disable the program. It is in the appropriate language for the scene and characters which means, variously, English, Norwegian, German, and Danish.

Once again, this is a series pushed onto me by Netflix (using their old rating system), which I ignored until they threatened to remove it from streaming (and it is not available from them on DVD). Once again, I am please that I was pushed over the edge. This series was well worth it.

The story starts before the war and gives the background of the German atomic program and the use of heavy water, which they purchase from Norway’s Norsk Hydro. A single production facility, at the Vemork Hydro-electric plant, was responsible for all the world’s heavy water. As war began, the Allies were aware of Germany’s use of it in their program and, via the French, secured all of the Norwegian stock to prevent delivery. Once Germany took Norway by invasion, they had direct access to the production.

The heart of the story, and most of the episodes, cover the commando raids run out of Scotland, to disable the production through sabotage. After an initial failure to insert British commandos, a second successful raid was conducted by Norwegians.

What I really appreciate about this series is the production value. The props and costumes seem well researched, and the quality is excellent – particularly for made-for-television. The actors match (at least for the most part, I didn’t look them up one-by-one), in language and nationality, the characters that they portray. This adds another level of fidelity. When an American begins shouting about bombing the factory, I know they’re using a real American by the accent. Similarly the Norwegian who “grew up in America” has the right accent.

I wasn’t watching every aspect of the firearms usage, but they appeared to make some extra effort in that regard as well. When the commandos prepare to use their pistols, the hammer is actually back – a detail neglected in many Hollywood usages of single-action pistols. Firearms run out of ammo and otherwise seems realistic when used. The range of weapons used also seems to have been researched. In actuality, the use of Thompson submachine guns by the successful raid was an important part of the plan. The saboteurs left a Tommy gun behind to demonstrate that it was a British-executed attack, not the work of locals – thus attempting to avoid reprisals.

Oddly enough, the scenes sneaking into the factory gave me some Medal of Honor flashback moments. I guess its the combination of the German guard houses and their unique paint schemes, which I only recall from within the video game. It may also have something to do with the similarity of the mission to the final Medal of Honor:Allied Assault mission. I also had a nice James Bond flashback. A dramatic scene has one of the Norwegians fleeing the site of their hideout on skis, where he is pursued by a squad of skiing Germans. Where James Bond did (and many a production would be tempted to do) have active shootouts and stunt jumps punctuating the chases, this one is portrayed in what to me seems like a very realistic manner. For the shootout portion, the German and the Norwegian actually stop, struggle to dislodge their pistols from their winter overclothes, and then somewhat-awkwardly exchange fire.

As nearly always is the case with a historical drama, details have been changed to serve the story. Non-historical characters play a major role in several cases and details of the events have been tweaked. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on where you stand, I don’t know enough about these historical events to realize what I was missing. I was able to enjoy the story and accept it as it was told.

The story set viewing records when it was aired on Norwegian television in 2015. Sadly, it will never get that level of viewing in this country. I’m glad I managed to catch it as I could.

La Conquista


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I’m taking a look at some of the games of yesteryear, focusing again on the conquest of the new world

As promised, I got out my Colonization. Colonization was released in 1994, and that is the version that I’ve played the most. In 2008, Sid Meier’s Civilization IV: Colonization was released. It is developed on top of the Civilization IV engine, which seemed to have been the peak version for user-developed mods and scenarios. One assumes that, being an official product it might have an advantage over a user-developed mod, but it is described as a “total conversion.” Game play in the newer version remains pretty much as I remember it from the original, but with better graphics and other improvements that one might expect 14 years on.


New Spain is off to a fine start. More supplies are inbound from the Old World. In honor of our Queen, we’ve named our colony Isabella.

That game play remains as addictive as even as more years have passed. It also remains, perhaps, as pointless as ever.


Once those natives suprise-attacked me, “just one more turn” became “just 100 more turns.” I cannot go to bed tonight until these double-crossers get the fat end of my genocide stick.

The original came out five years before Imperialism 2. It is the same style wherein the player must build up a rudimentary economy, from the basics to manufactured goods. One difference from Imperialism is that, instead of playing as the European Power (and eventually having to fight a European War powered by your New World wealth), you play as the colonists. So the end game is to declare independence, fight a war, and hopefully win. As with Imperialism 2, the game style of having trying to optimize this supply chain was no longer in vogue by 2008, making the re-release considerably less dramatic than it might have been.

I think I (and we, although I shouldn’t speak for you) have become lazier over the years. Winning the game takes planning.

You have to anticipate where you are apt to buy low and sell high. You have to figure when it is better to recruit new talent, and when it is better to increase your population organically (sans talent). Part of my mistake in the above game is that I made my city of Isabella way too production heavy, and as a result it was sucking food from all my other settlements. As a result, I didn’t expand like I should have. Then, hundreds of turns, and dozens of hours in, I realize that I’m not going to meet the revolution threshold, and the final phase of the game just can’t take place. Or worse yet, I don’t realize, and end up a few “liberty bells” short because I’m not quite clear on the rate than my “revolutionary fervor” is increasing.

In 1994, I’d play the game over and over, and I’d learn the relationships. Better players than I would either do some off-line math, or perhaps develop a sense of how to pursue optimum strategy. But these days, if there is a calculation that the computer requires, I expect it to show me. Pop up a message – “Commander Dooface, you require 300 units of foof in the next 50 turns. In order to do that, you need to recruit more foo-farmers.” Am I spoiled? Am I lazy? Do I have an unreasonable set of expectation, even for state of the art games? Probably yes, yes, and yes, but I still feel like I can do better in my selection of games.

Not that it is impossible to figure out, either. After a couple of replays, you get a better sense of it. You need to work on “Liberty” from near the beginning of the game. Exploration, due to the rewards from discovering tribes and ruins, it a much faster way to generate early money as opposed to trade. The frustration of losing, and the addictiveness of the formula keeps one back at it, but to what end?

And that’s part of what I meant up front about the “pointlessness.” The game ends up not being about competing with various tribes and other European powers to develop a new world. It’s about building the blocks of the economy in just the right way. In the end, I don’t feel like I’ve taken my people through the history of the colonial period, really. Achievement is that you cranked out just the right number of guns, and trained up your units just-so. Where’s the glory in that?

I do have to say in defense of this game, the music is really good.

I also broke out another old game, the expansion for Cossacks: European Wars called American Conquest. This was Real Time Strategy (RTS) released at what was arguably the height of the historical RTS genre. The original Cossacks came out in 2001, not so far behind the 1999 release of Age of Empires II: Age of Kings. In fact, the European release of Cossacks was about six months ahead of the American release. It gave the game a bit of that “underdog” vibe. It was clearly not a big American studio release, with its sometimes-quirky translations, less mainstream countries and units, and just a graphical look that seemed more European, whatever that might mean. I remember wanting it to succeed (and it was ultimately a financial success) in part because it was another Microsoft product.

When it came out, it had several major differentiators. The big pitch was over the extremely high unit cap. Instead of an upper limit in the 100+ range, Cossacks boasted 8000 units per side before maxing out. Another feature, and one that appealed to me, was the use of units in formation. With an officer and other special units, the basic fighting units could be grouped together into tactical forces which the could change formation. This was intended to bring some tactics and command considerations to the “mob rush” of typical RTS battles.

The gameplay is similar enough to its historical RTS predecessors. Various buildings are contstructed in a town to provide the basic resources of the economy. These are used for construction and research. In a minor twist, the “peasant” unit is converted to a soldier, rather than being constructed separately. The name of the game is to build a sustainable economy, protect your “base” from enemy attack, and eventually sally forth to locate the enemy’s base and destroy it. The difference, such as those I mentioned, tend to emphasize a different timescale. An individual game will not be about advancing through the centuries. It is much easier to imagine playing an individual battle – although the mixing of technology upgrades, unit construction, building construction, resource gathering pretty much blows any historical fidelity out of the water. But that’s the case with the majority of RTS games, particularly those of this time period.

And this is, after all, the appeal of the RTS. This was another way that games tried to give a better context to tactical fights. This release (in Europe at least) was roughly concurrent with the release of Shogun: Total War, which eventually redefined the way an RTS did the strategic layer. Up until that point, it was abstractly (through the buildings and technology) or scripted, as part of a campaign – both of which are evident in Cossacks.

I bought the original Cossacks not too terribly long after it came out – I probably waited for it to be discounted before I leapt. Part of my hope was invested in the marketing blurb that suggested the Cossacks battles would be far more realistic than its competitor RTSs. There was some support for this. Obviously, the higher unit count could make for something resembling a large scale, period battles (Cossacks targeted 17th and 18th century warfare – Horse and Musket era). The “formation” function, based on officers, was a nice upgrade on the Age of Empires formations and lead to more importance being attached to facing. It also was pausible, allowing full inspection and commands to be given while paused. In addition, the game speed is on a slider, so it can be played as a frantic click fest, or slowly, with the units languidly responding to your commands.

On the other hand, a number of factors make it clear that this game isn’t even remotely intended to be a historical wargame. While fighting can be in these officer-lead formations, there is no connection between the formations and actual units. Formations can be created to be a number of different sizes (15, 36, 72, 120 or 196 – which one assumes is down-scaled from reality in any case) of like units, but does not correspond to some kind of realistic order of battle*. Unit behavior is also insufficient to model actual battles. There is no consideration of morale. Units can be told to hold ground, but otherwise they pursue the enemy to the last man, either yours or his. Units won’t (and practically, can’t) call back and they won’t break and run. They either kill or are killed. On top of that, as with any RTS (including the best of the today’s like (for example) a Company of Heroes, works by the constant ability to create more soldiers and feed them, usually piecemeal, into the battle. There is no fatigue, no supply, no fixed set of reserves that, once you’ve committed them, that’s it. You send your soldiers to die and, when that happens, you make some more.

I will say, and this applies to much of the RTS genre, and especially games of that time, that with some judicious scenario editing, approximations of historical battles would seem feasible. A scenario does not have to have peasants and farms and the buildings used to advance technology. If one creates only army units and pre-organizes them as needed for the battle in question, it should play out quite differently. There are quite a few user-made scenarios out there, but I’ve never tried to work through them. In the end, I didn’t feel that Cossacks lived up to my expectations as a historical wargame, and as an RTS something like Age of Kings was more fun. I left off without playing too many battles, and never went for the expansions.

Columbus took a…

To fit in with this period, I took a look at the Columbus campaign that came with the American Conquest expansion. I picked up this game fairly recently, as it can be had for quite a bargain.


The Columbus Campaign opens with some fairly interesting and educational intro screens, each focusing on a different New World expedition. The intro has very little to do with the scenario that follows.

The Columbus Campaign would seem to be a tutorial. It starts with extremely easy and simple goals involving exploration and the construction of the basic economic buildings. I say “would seem” because (as far as I can tell) the GOG version of this game ships, not with the original players manual, but only with an editing and multiplayer manual. This is odd. Nevertheless, having played but not for years, it is easy enough to use the tutorial and its in-game help to reacclimate myself to this game.


Some graphics examples. Oddly, this scenario, which is supposed to have me exploring the island of (maybe) Haiti, has me discovering what appear to be Greek-like ruins within and Southwestern U.S. high-desert terrain (off map to the bottom left). At least the scenario starts on a beach.


I’ve never really got the hang of how to play and win the RTS genre. Once a scenario starts to become challenging, I find myself building an army, then losing it, and then repeating many times until I finally get it right. Against an AI opponent, unless there is a built in time or resource limit, this usually will prevail in the long run. I’m pretty sure it’s not the right way to do it, and I’d almost certainly lose against a human opponent. Ultimately, to win the final battle, I notice what both the friendly and enemy AI was doing. They had set the rally point next to the enemy, so a constant line of soldiers swarmed towards the enemy strongpoint. Eventually, I overwhelmed them with numbers and won the battle. Up until then, I was trying to build “formations” and win through superior tactics and positioning. It seemed like brute force was the better bet.


Some of my arquebusiers demonstrate the line formation while the peasants repair the damage to our fortress, nearby.

I didn’t realize, until it was part of the tutorial, that enemy buildings can be captured by sending soldiers in through the front door. Once inside, they battle however many enemy are defending the building and, upon defeating them all, take the building for your own. The computer enemy in all cases uses the standard RTS tactic of, once a building is unprotected by nearby units, attacks the building itself, slowly chipping away at the hit points. It’s a slow process, and is easily countered by sending new troops to chase of the attackers and then workers to repair the damage (see above screenshot). Much faster is to leave the building intact and stream soldiers in to overwhelm the defenders.

All-in-all, this is another old game that is fun to play, although nowhere near the addictiveness of Colonization. However, like the former, the experience leaves one a tad empty. The tutorial campaign provided some structure without being to taxing, so it was nice. But the random maps don’t have that direction and therefore are without context except being another RTS set in the early 16th century. In Age of Empires, you start out as a stone age village, attempting to develop the technologies that will allow you to “win the map.” Here, you’ve got to build a sustainable source of food/wood/iron/stone/gold/coal, and then go fight the enemy. But what does that mean? It has even less of a connection to the actual historical colonization of the New World than even Colonization. What it does bring to the mix, the focus on tactical battles, is tainted by the lack of historicity there. The Spanish defeat the Indians by being able to train up new units faster. What may have worked a little for the 17th century battles of Cossacks, doesn’t quite translate to this setting. On the other hand, judged purely on what it tries to be – Real Time Strategy with historical flavor – it actually does a pretty decent job of it.

Maybe we can come back to this game and see if it does better with, as the original subtitle advertised, European Wars.

*The issue becomes even more apparent when the series moves to the Pike and Shot era, where the mixed-infantry unit becomes a key player on the battlefield. In my own mind, the troop representation is about 4 men to a sprite, so a formation of 15 would be a small company of that time period. That would put the 196 formation at something similar to the large Pike and Shot units, but you have to chose either all (in the case of the Columbus campaign) halberd or all arquebus.

The Mod Squad



I had a complaint about the sound in Pike and Shot. Specifically, I was bothered with the sound of the crossbows. Finally, I found a sound mod for it on the forum.

Links move, so I’ll leave it to the reader to navigate through the forums. I actually found two different Sound mods. The first replaces the orchestral music with more period appropriate music. While I did say I had soft spot for the music that shipped with the game, I think I’m going to like the immersion of something less anachronistic. It’s in a very-recently posted music package.

The other is included in the Unofficial Modding Guide. There are also replacements for the main music files, this time with ambient sounds (for when one finally does grow tired of the music). But it also contains replacements for some of the small sounds, most importantly that crossbow twing. There were several others that I’m happy to replace, also. There is a modern-sounding bugle call that hadn’t bothered me until I substituted a more period-appropriate drum cadence.

The French Disease


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The final episode of the first season of The Borgias has Charles VIII entering the palace at Naples and finding masses of dead bodies, consumed by a plague. He wonders if the “Borgia Pope” knew about this plague when he invested Charles with the crown of Naples.

As I’ve said, I don’t so much mind some twisting of history to advance the story. However, this one might take it a disease too far for me.

Indeed, the army of King Charles was infected by a grande verole, or “great pox,” but it was not related to bubonic plague. What struck his army after the “celebration” of the conquest of Naples was syphilis, albeit likely a much more virulent form of it than the modern disease. Theories differ to this day whether this was a sudden mutation of an existing but relatively unknown disease in Europe, or a new disease brought back from the New World by Columbus and his explorations. (or should that be “explorations?”)

By the time Charles and his army returned to France, it was clear that disease was crippling his army. During the Battle of Forova, the illness was significantly degrading the fighting ability of his army. Upon return to France, the army was disbanded. Charles had drawn his forces from around Europe, and with the end of the campaign the disease had become an epidemic throughout France, Switzerland, and Germany (who provided the backbone of Charles’ infantry force). By 1497, the disease had spread to England and Scotland and by 1500 northeast into Scandinavia, Russia, and Hungary.

It was obviously a huge event, not only to the Naples campaign and the politics of Italy, but to all of Europe. So it surprises me that The Borgias portray the disease as a “plague,” especially given the penchant for sexual content in Showtime series. Although I’ll grant them this – there’s nothing sexy about syphilis.

While we’re at it, this also factors into the plot point, made repeatedly, where the French have “professional” and native armies as opposed to the Italian mercenaries. In fact, the  armies of both sides were comprised of significant foreign, mercenary factions. The use of mercenaries were a critical part of the time’s history and politics, and a key factor in the history of warfare*. It just wasn’t a differentiator for the French versus the Italians.

So there.

*The failure of Spanish troops to match up with the Swiss and German pikeman was what drove the Spanish innovation towards the Colunela and Tercio Pike and Shot formations.

You Will Have Your War…


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You will have your war, but it will be fought the French way.

I downloaded a Campaign, in this case being a trio of battles from the First and Second Italian Wars. It is entitled Furia Francese and covers the same battle played through earlier. These are user-designed battles intended to improve upon the representation in the stock game (or in the case of Cerignola, an earlier user-made version). The scenarios have no ranged weapons and very restricted (as the author describes them cut-to-the-chase) setups.

Unit movement is greatly restricted in a combination of seeking more realistic movement and counter as well as modifying the units to include command and control considerations. The set-up puts units pretty much in contact, and further restricts movement to funnel units into the historically-correct attacks.


The dark rectangles are impassible terrain, representing either literally impassible terrain (e.g. hills) or perhaps just command issues. Very minimalistic. But there are rain effects!

Looking at the above screenshot, from the Battle of Fornovo illustrates a few points. The units are restricted from crossing to ahistorical parts of the battle by the dark gray rectangles (impassible terrain). Movement is further restricted by very low movement allowances on each unit plus, in some cases, further restricted terrain. In the upper-left corner of the screen, the small blue units are immovable. They exist, apparently, to delay the combat between the larger pike units on both sides. Note also the baggage train. After pushing aside some French resistance, the AI is going to go after those baggage units. This simulates the feature of the battle where victorious Italian cavalry was essentially taken out of the fight while they looted the baggage train.

With little choice in movement, there isn’t much strategy. It becomes a game of waiting to see which die rolling will prevail. Each wing is like like a timer with random properties, and if X breaks before Y the player will win, if Y before X the computer. Furthermore, the outcome of the matchups rarely seems to be in question. Most fights are fairly one-sided, the only question being one of timing. The scenario designer also uses a trick common to Field of Glory user scenarios, inserting unusable and unreachable units in to game the engine. Jarringly, they are picked for there stats and no other reason so, the Italians might find themselves with some Ottoman infantry on their side.

From a scenario design perspective, there is some merit in this approach. The game engine is forced to execute the battle according to reality. From a gameplay perspective, however, this is a way of taking away everything that is fun from the game a leaving only what is not.

Court Intrigue

The quote at the beginning is a line delivered by a fictional King Charles VIII. He is foreshadowing what we all know will happen when France invades Italy. It will bring destruction and terror, even to some of those who helped engineer the invasion. Was Charles actually so circumspect?

That story, as told by The Borgias, has advanced to a point where the narrative in the show matches the games I’ve been playing and the battles that I am reading about. I’ve finished with the first season, which ends with Charles’ capture of Naples. It really makes a great counterpoint for my gaming.

Obviously, a detailed drama has got to make much of the detail up out of whole cloth. The historical record is nowhere near complete enough to recreate accurate interpersonal interactions in the public sphere, much less recreate what may have gone on in private. Naturally, when one is creating a story to suit the needs of its telling, it becomes easy to stray away from even the known facts into more appealing fiction. It probably grates on some to see history bent to serve the ratings. I’m fine with enjoying the show while not taking anything on face value.

Another writing detail that may bother some is the mixing of the modern with the historical. Obviously, we need the characters speaking 21st century English, not 14th century Italian, just so we can follow along. But how far is too far? I suspect that the music used is sometimes way ahead of the times, while at other times closer. I suspect similar mixed-performance in costume, sets and, especially, the behavior. However this, done right, can (in my mind) improve a performance. The sensibilities of 500+ years ago, played accurately, would often be foreign to us, where as “translating” them to a more modern situation helps immerse the modern viewer in the situation.

The scene of the (first) wedding of Lucrezia is a case in point. The scenery is very impressive and I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that it wasn’t too far of the historical. The wedding music is probably close enough to historically accurate, but it has some modernity hidden within. Dance club for the 1490s. The dance is similar. It is a formal dance (again, benefit of the doubt) suitable to the period but it is infused with modern flirtatiousness. As I said, I personally find this mix compelling.

A friend was reading a biography of the reformation period and was struck by the similarities between modern “social media” and the methods used to communicate the religious/political ideas of the day. The new technology of the printing press and armies of zealous students were a potent vector for change, and one that has remarkable parallels to today. I was reminded of this when The Borgias presented the 15th century version of Tinder. As various houses present suitors for the children of the Pope, they send a delegation to talk up the proposition and then unveil a portrait. The Pope e famiglia are then left to swipe left or right at their leisure. Accurate? I have no idea, but it all reminds us that people have always been people, even five centuries ago. Framed in the right way, the events of the past can have remarkable parallels to the present and this has been the kind of drama to do it.

My other favorite bit in this show has been the armor. In particular, I love the armor of Giovanni Borgia, Gonfalonier and Captain General of the Papal armed forces. It is a mix between late medieval, Renaissance, and Roman Empire. I am not aware of any contemporary depiction that would support such a style. It’s just a cool (and probably a modern) idea.

The depiction of the armies overall is well done, particularly for a TV series. There are no battles depicted, which is accurate. Except for a couple of lootings, there wasn’t much in the way of fighting during the invasion. But the armies arrayed have a nice combination of period costumes and CGI to portray both the detail and the vastness of the French forces.

Season 2 is queued up.

Rohirrim! To the King!


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When Peter Jackson created the Battle of Helm’s Deep (or, as Tolkien called it, the Battle of the Hornberg), he surely watched Ralph Bakshi’s cartoon version. In that version of the battle, Bakshi substituted the relieving force of infantry that Gandalf leads to the battle with cavalry. Jackson ran with that change, creating a dramatic visual of a dawn charge, led by Gandalf, which singularly turns the tide of the battle.

When Renzo Martinelli created September Eleven 1683, he surely watched Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

There has been online speculation that either the Battle of the Hornberg and/or the Battle of Pelennor Fields were based on the historical battle which relieved Vienna on September 12th, 1683. In particular, Jackson’s version of the battle has a number of key elements that parallel the historical Battle of Vienna. His defenders, initially few in number, are augmented by the arrival of reinforcements as the enemy closes in, included the “foreign” elven troops (a significant departure from the book). Also, Jackson illustrates the books description of “blasting-fire,” portrayed by Bakshi as a magical spell, as a black powered mine, which is then used to breach the walls. Again, a strong parallel with the attack on Vienna, where the Turks were relying primarily on sappers and demolition to defeat the defenses.

Enter the 2012 film, September Eleven 1683. The title itself deserves exposition. The film is a joint Polish and Italian creation of an English-language film, dramatizing the Battle of Vienna in 1683, where coalition of Christian armies defeated a massive invasion of Ottoman Turks, ultimately reversing the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. The original title was 11 Settembre 1683, the date in Italian. The Polish title is Bitwa pod Wiedniem or The Battle of Vienna. Internationally, the English title was one of these two titles translated. In the U.S., the title was Day of the Siege: September Eleven 1683. In some cases, the subtitle was de-emphasized and in some cases dropped. When I watched it on Netflix, the visible title was simply Day of the Siege. On Amazon, the graphic shows the subtitle replaced, offering Day of the Siege: A Battle of Blood and Steel. In the UK, even more oddly, the release title was Siege Lord 2: Day of the Siege, a reference to the director’s earlier work Barbarossa, as it was called everywhere else, but released as Sword of War in America and Barbarossa: Siege Lord in the UK.


One has to wonder what political correctness is involved with all these machinations. The answer may be apparent as the movie opens, quoting French historian Marc Bloch.

Misunderstanding of the present grows fatally from the ignorance of the past.

This is not necessarily a movie about the September 11th back in 1683, but one perhaps much more present. While the filming began in 2011, it was actually conceived in 2001 but delayed by an inability to raise funding. Viewed in this context, the various contemporary messages throughout the film seem pretty obvious.

In a number of ways, the film is a flawed work. For a massive, on-screen epic depicting such a large engagement (including the largest-ever cavalry charge), the limited budget is obviously going to fall short. Many scenes are done with fairly-transparent computer generated graphics, including both the armies and the famous scenery of Vienna and Istanbul. One particular scene looked, as it flashed past me, as if it was using computer generated effects over a water-color background scene.

On top of that, there is my small world problem. How does one reduce such a huge military campaign to a TV screen, big budget or little. This film does it, in part, by telling the story as a personal struggle between Kara Mustafa (the commander of the Ottomans) and Marco d’Aviano (a Christian monk, advisor to the Holy Roman Emperor). The film goes so far as to have former save the life of the latter in childhood, such that their fates are intertwined. It is, of course, easier to film the personal.

I am also convinced that the filmmaker was aware of the similarity with Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, and deliberately parallels the story at least to some extent. Jackson had a lot more money to put into the huge battle scenes, and it probably doesn’t hurt for the viewer to remember. It is notable that the Battle of the Hornberg involves about 10% of the force as the Battle of Vienna, to give a concept of the scale. One trick he probably should have taken from Jackson is the use of maps to allow a character to convey the geographic complexities of the battle to the viewer. A map is briefly shown in a scene where Kara Mustafa declines to defend against an attack from the mountain (Kahlenberg) where, in fact, the final attack actually came. I, for one, was left confused about the nature of the actual battle.

The film, however, does get a few things right. The actors playing some of the major historical characters (notably Emperor Leopold and Jan Sobieski)  very much match the appearance of the real figures’ portraits. It also captures certain period imagery quite well, albeit as snapshots rather than as part of a cohesive view of the battlefield. Important, to me at least, was the depiction of a formation of arquebusiers to defeat a cavalry charge; a depiction of the “winged hussars”; and that same cavalry’s use of single-shot pistols.

We are merely players

Wargaming this scenario is bound to be problematic. What odds table would produce a victory of 11,000 defenders over an attacking force of 140,000-170,000 (the oft-quote figure of 300,000 includes many non-combatants in the total)? Of course, increase that to a total 90,000 or so once the counter attack by the relief force is considered. It would seem to be a situation where Sobieski and the relief force got most everything right and the Turks got much of it wrong. If we didn’t have this historical example, could we ever predict it?

Pike and Shot offers two different explorations of this historic event. There are several user-made scenarios as well as one of their campaigns in the new(er) Pike and Shot: Campaigns product. I’ll start off easy with the user scenario.


The Turks surround the walls of Vienna and seem destined to win the siege.

Just looking at the scenario makes me happy. The battle starts with you, leading Holy Roman Empire and allies, beginning the attack to lift the siege. You control all the forces inside the city, shown in the above screenshot, and outside, shown below. The Ottoman forces are arrayed between in their siege lines (again, above) and arrayed to meet your counterattack (below).


King Sobieski has arrive with his Winged Hussars and begins to move on the Ottoman positions.

It is a nice touch for the scenario designer to have included the commands on the map, to give a little historical flavor to the battle. But only a little. Like many of the Cold War tactical battles, this is more of a “representation” than a “simulation” of the Battle of Vienna. While the makeup of the armies seem proportionally correct, the absolute numbers are scaled down considerably to fit the capabilities of the game engine. Several signature features of the battle seem to be absent. The deployment of artillery in “impossible” terrain seems to be absent. The later arrival of the cavalry to save the day is replace by the Winged Hussars being deployed from the start (they’re that middle line in the above screenshot).


With a final charge of the Polish cavalry, the Ottoman army cedes control of the field to the Empire.

The game scenario did mirror the historical battle in a number of ways. The Ottoman player led with his levies, with many of the Janissaries held back for an assault on Vienna itself (which did not occur in-game). As those formations broke, which they did easily, the disarray spread across the Turkish army. It took 9 turns to arrive at a fairly one-side victory. As I’ve said before, my desire in playing historical scenarios like to more towards historical fidelity than balance and challenge, so an easy victory is not necessarily an indictment. That said, the victory did not feel like an exploration of the unique factors that lead to that success. It was more a simple example of how quality can defeat quantity – definitely a major factor at Vienna, but I want more.


Sobieski’s 6PM charge, with about 18,000 heavy horse, was one of the largest cavalry charges in history. The scenario gives the entire Christian side fewer troops than that, all combined.

Try, try again

At this writing, there are actually two Battle of Vienna scenarios posted on the official download site. The second is titled Battle of Kahlenberg and plays from the other side – as the Ottomans. It’s important to realize, though, these are two different user-made scenarios by two different authors. They are not meant to be mirror images of each other, and each has their own research, implementation and style.


Perhaps the most obvious scenario design choice, besides switching sides, is to place the siege lines and the city walls off-map.

The screenshot, above, shows the representation of the siege lines in this second scenario. It is the very bottom-left corner of the mini-map (that tilted square in the lower right), to give a sense of perspective of the overall battle. The siege-lines itself have only few token units, and no defenders to trade shots with, as in the first scenario. It simplifies the focus, as well as gets a way from the probably-ahistorical integration of the two-different-time-scale parts of the battle into a single scenario. While the Ottomans were rushing to break the Vienna defenses before the relief force arrived, this probably didn’t include literally hoping the cannons would knock over a wall while the Polish Cavalry was charging in from the opposite direction.

In thinking about this difference, I’m reminded of another factor in scenario design. It is particularly obvious in some of the Field of Glory user-made scenarios. In both games, victory is achieved by routing a critical mass of the opposing army before they do the same to you. That “mass” is expressed as a percentage. Therefore, one aspect of scenario design is having the right sized army so that it breaks when it should. In Field of Glory, I’ve played scenarios where there are units in unreachable hexes – they can never take part in the fight, but count towards the math of when their side will break. So the decision to represent a portion, and what portion, of the 100,000-200,000 Ottoman troops on the field needs to be made, just about which units are worth playing, but also about balancing the size, and therefore resilience, of the army.


The battle starts with the Allied Christian forces coming over the hills and through the woods to attack rear of the Ottoman positions.

The next screenshot (above) shows the Christian forces emerging from the Weinerwald, also near the beginning of the game. Unlike the previous scenario, both the height and the difficult terrain from where the attack came is shown, including the Christian artillery set upon the high ground (see below). Compare this to the neatly-arrayed lines of Christian forces in the previous scenario, deployed on fairly featureless terrain. Now, the terrain features may well, in the first scenario, have been considered superfluous. If the battle is to take place after the forces have advanced out of the wood, modelling the wooded terrain is not necessary.


The Catholic artillery fires from its hilltop position, command much of the battlefield. The Catholic forces advance under its fire.

While the terrain lacks the symmetric beauty of the walled defenses and the siege lines, in their place we see some nice chrome with the inclusion of distinctive battlefield locations. The above screenshot shows a monastery, and there are several villages drawn and labeled on the main battlefield.

Perhaps more important, the battle (at least in the opening phases) seems to have rolled out very close to history. Or, it did as far as my uneducated eye could tell, seeming to match maps drawn with positions and movements of troops. Like the first scenario, the Polish Winged Hussars are present on the map from the first turn, but in my game they didn’t become a serious factor until the battle was well under way. And, as it turned out, until it was too late.


The Turk defends his siege lines. The fall of Vienna is all but inevitable. After that, Rome?

As before, I gained a victory. I should add I’m playing on one of the easier levels, so this shouldn’t be taken as any comment either on the quality of the scenario or my skill as a player. What I will say is that the difficulty of this scenario felt much closer to the those provided with the game, in contrast to the first. I also notice the strength of the forces, which seem very close to the actual numbers (depending on your source and assumptions), taking part in the modeled part of the battle. In other words, I don’t think the battle was scaled down, as before. I am also impressed and fascinated by the array of unit types. The battle is characterized by the wide variety of forces present. The Christian coalition had armies from Poland, Germany, Italy, and Austria while the Turks had forces from throughout their empire, including Western infantry. There were Tatar cavalrymen on both sides, prompting the Lithuanian Tatars to wear straw in their helmets to distinguish them from their Ottoman counterparts. I can’t speak for the research into the order of battle, but the variety of forces in this scenario sure seems impressive.

All I want is more

For a third look at this battle, one of the four campaigns that ship with the game is covering the Ottoman offensive starting in early 1862.

At the core of the Pike and Shot: Campaigns is a what so many gamers have demanded from tactical-level wargames for as long as, probably, there were such. The original game provided a way to auto-generate battles with the armies determined by points to get a level of balance. There were done within various “campaign” parameters, so that armies would meet with their historical counterparts or fight in the appropriate terrain. Or I should say, could be done. A player could select a face-off between the English Roundheads and the Ottoman Turks in the terrain of northern Italy. The emphasis was on creating a challenging scenario within those parameters. Remember, too, this is all based on the Field of Glory ruleset, which provides the methodology for building battles from opposing army “lists.”

What’s missing from this is the sense of being part of the bigger picture. If my army is victorious, that’s the end of it… the best I can do is generate other scenarios with different parameters. Tho original game also had campaigns of historical scenarios, where one would play through in an order – but again, the outcome of one battle did not change the setup for the next one.

The Campaigns expansion* adds the ability to take an army from battle to battle. Essentially, it is still the auto-generated battles (called skirmishes in-game) of the previous versions, but results of the battle feed into an operational wrapper.

That operations wrapper adds some intelligent details to add to the experience. Armies are reinforced and improved (based on experience) in between battles. The campaign level also handles sieges and an auto-resolve for smaller battles. There is an economic model whereby armies in provinces will damage their economic output, thereby reducing the ability to raise more units. In turn, armies that exceed the supply capacity of their province will lose units through attrition. Attrition also takes effect when an army retreats from battle or engages in a siege.

The campaign turns cycle through six turns per year, from early spring to late autumn. There is no fighting during the winter, and units must return to an occupied territory (i.e. breaking off any sieges-in-progress). Over the winter turn is also when new units are purchased and added to the army.

Going back to the auto-resolution feature – I haven’t tried it yet, but it has long been a direction I thought multi-level (tactical/strategic or tactical/operational games should go.) Too many games with the “auto-resolve” option have a built in incentive to not use it. Auto-resolve can’t be too good (or a player will not want to risk additional losses by fighting a battle). On the other hand, even trivial or dull battles need to be fought out manually if the auto-resolve hits the player for losses that could be avoided. In Pike and Shot: Campaigns the Auto-resolution is intended to adapt to the players record so that, over time, the difference between playing a tactical battle and letting the computer take it is minimized.

What the campaign is not is an historical simulation of Turkish invasion at an operational level. The campaign does not follow the historical movements of armies, nor will it lead to a battle similar to the scenarios discussed previously.

On the other hand, the campaigns themselves can be edited and modified, including the campaign maps. I wonder if anyone has tried to use that to model forces historically, or, perhaps used it to create fixed armies (not subject to the points system) on variable battle maps. Maybe I’ll try that out, one of these days.

*Chronologically, it is an expansion. If you buy the game new today, it is only available as a the whole package. Although if you have only the original game, the package can be completed at a substantial discount.

Legiones Redde!


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After a false start, it appears that Field of Glory II is well under way with development now being by Byzantine Games, the force behind Pike and Shot. As I mentioned in my earlier post, both Pike and Shot and the original Field of Glory (and all its expansions) are based on the same tabletop ruleset. And yet, where as Pike and Shot is one of my all-time favorite games, Field of Glory fell flat for me.

This is an excellent sign that things are about to change. Matrix shares some screenshots of the work in progress.

Fabricate Claim


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The second of the Italian Wars, also know as the Second Italian War or Louis XII’s Italian War was initiated by Louis XII to make good on the claims that Charles VIII could not.

Louis XII decided to press claims on Milan and Naples. While he had familial ties to the thrown of Milan, his claim upon Naples was rather dubiously that he had inherited the claim from the fact that his predecessor had seized control. If walloping on minor Italian countries with one of the world’s most powerful armies wasn’t unsportsmanlike enough, Louis secured the backing of the other major powers.

With Venice, he agreed to grant them some of Milan’s territories, once conquered, in exchange for a military alliance. To Pope Alexander VI, he promised to back the machinations of Cesare Borgia, Alexander’s illegitimate son who was attempting to build his own fiefdom in Northern Italy.

Louis was also concerned about an attack from Spain while his armies were busy in Italy. To that end, he made a further promise to Spain to split up the conquered Naples in exchange for treaty.

After the combined forces of Spain and France defeated Naples and Louis claimed the crown, the details of the division of spoils proved divisive. War ensued, now between the French and the Spanish. Battles between the Spanish and the French reflected those of the First Italian War, but Spain had learned lessons in the previous conflict. France suffered significant defeats in 1503 at the battle of Cerignola(April 28th) and Garigliano (December 29th). At the outset of 1504, Louis was forced to abandon Naples to Spanish control.


My newly devised pike and shot formations begin the work of driving back the French from Cerignola’s defenses.

The Cerignola scenario is a user-created addition to Pike and Shot. It reproduces the battle where the Spanish armies defended against numerically superior French. Neverthless, the Spanish had several key advantages (in addition the advantage of the defense). Despite the French having superior artillery, that artillery had not yet been brought up for the battle, meaning the French were forced to close at the mercy of Spanish artillery. Also, the Spanish commander had learned his lesson from the First Italian War, and began experimenting (so says the screen shot) with combined pike and arquebus formations capable of holding their own against the French and Swiss pike.

The scenario played out similarly enough to what the historical record suggests. The battle ultimately came down to the close combat between the French Kiels and the Spanish Colunelas. Both effectiveness and flexibility (in the game, the Spanish has more but smaller heavy infantry) seemed to propel the game to an inevitable Spanish victory. There were some moments where I worried that the French would not break soon enough, but eventually they did.

This battle is given the distinction of being the first European fight where gunpowder played the decisive roll. It also marked the end of the French dominance of the battlefields of Europe. For nearly 150 years hence, it would be the Spanish armies that would seem invincible.

About those Borgias

Being Showtime, we open right up with a little Rama-lama-ding-dong. It’s a fine line to walk. Is the soft-core porn just to please the Showtime audience, or is it an important part of establish Bishop’s Cesare Borgia’s decidedly non-ecclesiastical moral fiber.

As the show develops, the gratuitous nudity might even be a tad subdued relative to what’s come to be the formula from HBO and Showtime. In fact, given that I’ve come to expect a discernible difference in quality between the HBO and Showtime -produced series, I will compliment this series saying I might mistake it for the former. I’m only a couple of shows into the series, and I’ve yet to see whether (and if, then how) they handle the large, cinematic battles that have also come to mark the HBO productions since their release of Rome.

So far, the stage is mostly restricted to the inner sanctums of the Vatican, allowing the center of the Christian world to be portrayed by a handful of actors and sets. Costuming, sets and the acting, particularly with Jeremy Irons as Pope Alexander, rises to the occasion. As seems to be the case with series of this kind, the second season earned a more positive reception than the first, which suggests that following through with the series will be rewarded.

The series begins some years before the Second Italian War, opening with Pope Innocent VIII’s death (in 1492) and Alexander’s election. Cesare Borgia is still …

One thing that struck me, actually even before watching the first episode, is the ages at which these historical figures became such. Cesare Borgia was a Bishop at age 15, an Archbishop at 17 and became a Cardinal at 18. Remarking on his daughter Lucrezia, the Pope says that at 14, it is high time she should marry. And he would surely think such a thing. Lucrezia is played by a 23-year-old actress and it described as 14 to soften the impact of the truth. In point of fact, Lucrezia was first married at age 11.

Not that I would advocate for 11-year-olds getting married, but there was a time when teenagers accepted adult responsibilities in the world and accomplished much. While extending the protection of childhood to underdeveloped teenage personalities is appropriate, infantilizing our offspring into their early 20s is absurd. We would do well to remember how different things were a few generations back.

That said, I’ll not be letting my children view The Borgias any time soon.

The Wild, Wild East


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Counter-intuitively, to be a worthwhile historical drama, a film can actually be significantly lacking in historical accuracy. Much like in gaming, one occasionally is reminded that we are talking about a “drama” not a “documentary.” In order to be successful, it must have a good story, good execution, etc. A successful historical drama that happens to get the details wrong often serves as a springboard to get people interested in the “real story.”

Coming of Netflix just in time for the holiday weekend is The Last Samurai (2003), staring Tom Cruise as an ancient Japanese warrior. No, that’s not right is it? But I recall reading reviews at the time the movie came out that seemed to take offense at just that – why does it have to be an American, played by Cruise, that stars in a story of Japan?

It is a familiar structure in film an story to introduce the situation via an outside who, like the reader, must learn the “lay of the land” as the story progresses. That character may be the central one of the story, the person the audience identifies with, or it may just be a minor edition to whom the main characters are forced to explain the situation that everyone but the outside (and the reader/viewer) understands. Particular in Western writings about foreign cultures, this provides an excellent means to introduce new ways of life through a work of fiction.

In The Last Samurai, Tom Cruise plays an American army veteran who is hired by the Japanese Emperor Meiji to aid in modernizing the Japanese military. He quickly learns that Japan is in the midst of a revolt by one of the the emperor’s advisor and prominent Samurai (the titular last one, presumably) who is resisting the rush towards modernization. After having the imperial forces rushed into battle, unprepared, Cruise is captured by said Samurai and, while captive, comes to appreciate the culture of his erstwhile enemy.

Historically, the film has a tenuous grasp on reality. Said “last Samurai” is based on the person of Saigō Takamori, who lead the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877 (probably half a year or so later then events described in the movie). Cruise’s character is based, in part, on Frenchman Jules Brunet, who had similar experiences, but a decade earlier in the Boshun War which restored the Emperor to the throne. While bits and pieces of the story are drawn from history, then, the narrative takes place in what is pretty much a fantasy world. One can either see this as a butchering of history, or as an admirable way of removing the possibility of stepping on historical toes while telling a fictional story.

While the film was criticized for being America-centric, it also draws valid criticism from the other direction. Hints of capitalism replacing feudalism are held up in the movie as obvious targets of disdain. The U.S. military is shown to be interested in helping the Japanese Imperial Army because it would result in arms contracts going forward. The government official who seems to be in charge of the purse is also the owner of a new cross-country railroad and the revolution puts his investment at risk. Thus the “war” is really for his own, personal enrichment.  Bringing in the modern themes of a paradise lost to technology represents a poke in the eye to history, and seemingly for the sole purpose of preaching, rather than just the telling of a good yarn. In reality, the revolts in Japan had far more to do with political power than cultural change. In particular, the attribution to the Samurai as the guardians of traditionalism (outside the fuedal power structure) is misplaced. In the Boshun War, it was the supporters of the emperor who were resisting the influence of the West. In the Satsuma Rebellion, the “Samurai” did not restrict themselves to traditional Japanese weapons as the movie portrayed, but used muskets and cannon as their budget afforded them.

At the end of it all, I can still enjoy most of the movie despite its faults. It works fairly well as a “period drama.” The costumes and scenery are well done – and not just for the traditional Japanese attire. I also enjoyed the Imperial Japanese costumes and the portrayal of the technological revolution in Japan. I do wonder about the outfitting of the Japanese with Civil War surplus rifles; 1861 Springfields and 1853 Enfields. Are we to assume that the U.S. dumped a bunch of now-obsolete muzzle-loading rifled muskets onto the Japanese? Perhaps that is implied. When Cruise returns to Tokyo, the imperial soldiers are now armed with bolt-action Mausers – another odd choice for an American contract. Sources state the imperial army was actually armed with the British-made Snider-Enfield, which was a conversion of the 1853 Enfield to fire a cartridge. The 1853 muzzle-loading Enfield was one of the more common arms of the Samurai.

Oddly enough, a contemporary incarnation of Cruise used a Snider-Enfield at the beginning of the movie Far and Away, but that’s neither here nor there.

Perhaps tellingly, the film was more popular in Japan than in the United States, with box office receipts in Japan actually exceeding the domestic take. In Japan, the film received generally positive reviews and was praised for its use of Japanese actors and the obvious research that went into the historical detail.

The Improbable


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This week, Netflix is removing The Impossible, a 2012 film dramatizing the 2004 Christmas holiday tsunami that devastated southeast Asia and particularly Indonesia and Thailand.

The film made me think about “preparedness,” a concept that gets a lot of traction in the world these days. The real world has a way of undoing all one’s planning. In the face of this natural disaster, it didn’t matter what equipment you owned or what martial arts you may have learned, you were at the mercy of nature and the kindness of your fellow human beings.

It is often said, and probably just as often ignored, that what is important is the most simple. Being physically fit, healthy, and capable of running, swimming, climbing, and otherwise functioning under physical stress was the most important set of skills for anyone trapped in the aftermath of this disaster. Well, second most important. Above all, it was pure luck. Luck to survive the wave without being killed, the luck to be found and treated for injuries, the luck to be standing in the right place when the wave hit.

Something like a quarter of a million people were killed in this disaster, anfd countless more suffered tremendous loss.

The film itself was not horrible, but not really my cup of tea. I guess I’m not a huge distaster/survivor genre fan to begin with, and as purely a story, this was not an exceptional one. What made it stand out is that it was written by the survivor (the female lead, played by Naomi Watts) based on her actual experience. The real drama, perhaps, was the “impossible” circumstances alluded to in the title – which I’ll not dwell on as it kind of ruins the movie.

Reading the reviews of this came out, however, makes me wonder. The movie was critically acclaimed, with a large amount of praise going to the genuineness of Ms. Watt’s emotional acting. Which seems bizarre to me. Bad acting can ruin a movie, but I think it takes more than a believable character to make a good one. On the flip side, the criticisms were equally off. The main criticism is that the film was too “white.” A disaster which impacted millions of Asians is told through the eyes of a Western family and “that’s just wrong.” Oddly enough, the review I read didn’t mention that the main characters were, in real life, Spanish but were portrayed as Australian (I think) for the film. They also failed to mention the half a dozen films made about the tsunami, purely from the local ethnic point of view. Again, if that’s the worst you can say about a film…

Perhaps once again I owe a nod to Netflix for getting me to watch something I would have otherwise passed over.