I Didn’t Want to Do It But…

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…there is this thing called the Steam Summer Sale.

Lurking on the edges of Steam’s recommendations for me is a title called Cuban Missile Crisis: The Aftermath. No, not that aftermath. This is a 2005 game, published by 1C and created by independent developers G5. The game was added to Steam in 2015, and so sort-of shows up as a “new” title, depending on how you’re looking at it.

Obviously, the game has some appeal to me, based on the other articles I’ve written recently. The game is sparsely played on Steam and so doesn’t have all that many reviews. The reviews are “Mostly Positive” (in Steam’s own terminology) with both very positive and very negative reviews. When the Steam sale came upon me, the game was discounted to $1.24 with further discounts available if purchased in conjunction with the games sequel (Cuban Missile Crisis: Ice Crusade). Hard to say no to that.

The game might be considered a follow-on to the Blitzkrieg series, taking the World War II combat into the Cold War. Both games have been described as extensions of Sudden Strike, a game originally released in 2000 by CDV (the German publisher of Robin Hood: The Legend of Sherwood, whom I referred to albeit indirectly). Looking at screenshots of Sudden Strike, it is certainly easy to imagine Cuban Missile Crisis as a reskinning of that World War II title. However, the development of Sudden Strike, Blitzkrieg, and Cuban Missile Crisis have all proceeded independently and concurrently, with different developers working on them, despite the commonality among the publishers.

Perhaps in 2000 (for reference, this is the same time as the release of the original Total War), the mechanics of Sudden Strike felt novel for the RTS genre. Building bases, mining resources, and purchasing/upgrading units were no longer part of the battles. The games were intended to be much more “realistic” and were lauded for the effort. From the beginning, terrain was important both for sighting and cover. At some point on the way to Cuban Missile Crisis, the terrain itself became destructible, adding to this sense of realism. Of course that’s relative. None of these games are reasonable simulations of small unit actions in World War II or otherwise.

There is a closer link between Cuban Missile Crisis to the Blitzkrieg series. The former uses the latter’s Enigma engine as the basis for the games graphics and physics.

As I said, looking at all the riffs on this theme, a key motif was the praise about the increased realism. The combination of the addition tactical factors (line-of-sight) and the removal of classic RTS features (base-building) meant that this was considered more of a hard-core “strategy” title than your typical RTS. But as I said, this is by no means translates into a realistic depiction of combat. While some of these factors might combine in ways to reward realistic strategies and tactics, you have to suspend quite a bit of belief before you start to feel that you’re in command of actual units in a historical war.

Cuban Missile Crisis makes a big jump away from even that tenuous hold on “historical war” with its setting. The game assumes that the U.S. did invade Cuba and that during the (mostly successful) invasion, some of the Soviet launchers attacked the continental United States before they could be taken. That further escalated into a full-scale nuclear war between the United States and Russia. The game begins after the nuclear war has completed and has you fighting a conventional war in the post-Armageddon world.

Part of this might be exercising the imaginations of the developers. After all, there are dozens of ways that World War III might have played out and while games usually start with a conventional war with the risk of going nuclear superimposed on top of it, the reverse is also possible. We can imagine leading with the nuclear strike and then whoever is left has to squabble over the rubble. In supposing such a scenario, it also frees the developers from having to adhere to any historical plans, make-up of armies, supply issues, etc. The units on the battlefield are whatever they want to say they are, because the narrative is created from whole cloth.

In this spirit, the various campaigns assume some re-alignments of the major powers, post-destruction. The U.S. is closely aligned with England such that units of the U.S./U.K. mix the unit types of the two nationalities. Likewise, Germany and France have united. Russia and China remain independent.

Lastly, the imagining of a post-apocalyptic world allows certain RTS mechanics to be made part of the story. The idea that supply of your units comes about from seizing enemy supply dumps is a staple of the RTS world, but makes a lot less logical sense when trying to match it to reality. In this game, we have to accept that the nuclear war has created shortages in fuel, units, and ammunition. Any odd construct of a scenario – be it a mixing and matching of units or a goal to seize a fuel supply – can be attributed to this greater theme.

So enough blither-blather. How does the game actually play? Well, that’s the bad news.

It’s Not the Real Thing

First, some good news. Or at least, the news isn’t as bad as it looked like it was going to be. After the initial install, nothing worked. Clicking on buttons didn’t perform an action. I realized I had another hard-coded right-handed mouse game on my system. I spent a while combing through all of the options, but was unable to find any solution. I spent some time Googling for solutions, but I don’t think this game ever became popular enough to generate an on-line “community.”

Finally, I took a look at the installation itself and I realized there were *.cfg files, composed in XML, that contained references to controls including MOUSE_0 and MOUSE_1. Without bothering to look at all the setting in detail, I reversed every reference to these variables in two different files. Surprisingly enough, this seems to have no holdouts. Firing up the game, everything seems to play correctly. Absent a simple in-game interface, this would be the way to go. +1 for the developers.

Now I was ready to play the game.

In the review that I linked to above, the game comes under some heavy criticism. If I had read that review before I bought the game, I probably would have kept my $3. The criticism there pretty much aligns with my own experience, with a few notable deviations.

First of all, if you just figure that you know how to play RTSs and start playing (yes, I did this), you’re going to get walloped. Even experienced players are going to need to start with the tutorial campaign to understand what needs to be micromanaged and what needs to be delegated.

The tutorial scenario wasn’t bad, but it is pretty much without challenge. There is no actual battle to “win” using the demonstrated tactics. The scenario only takes you through how to use the controls for each unit. An intermediate version, where your hand is held while using different units in combination, might have been a nice addition.

The tutorials also highlight some fiddliness of the game. Even the simple selection of units can be difficult. Often I have to forgo clicking on them and “rubber band” whatever unit I’m trying to control, which itself doesn’t work when units are bunched together. Similarly it is difficult to be sure that you are selecting the target which you intend. Part of the game is managing depletion of fuel and ammunition. To give one example, an ammunition truck is provide in-game to transport resupply to fighting units. To make this work, you select the ammunition truck (left-click) and then the unit that requires supply (right-click). But just as selecting the ammunition truck can be hard, so can selecting the target, meaning I’m never entirely sure that my order is going to do something until waiting to see if the ammo actually arrives at its destination.

Then there are other pieces that I’m not sure if I just don’t know how to use them or if they don’t work. Parked there next to the ammunition truck is a medical truck. The manual states “[t]hose who are seriously wounded lose the ability to move and shoot, and remain still in their places waiting for medical assistance.” Medical assistance, again per the manual, can be rendered by regular units or the medical truck. However, there is no command to order the truck to provide such medical assistance. I’ve also never witnessed that my injured soldiers are somehow recovering from their injuries. Is it working? Would it work if I knew how to do it right? Who knows.

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While struggling with one of the early scenarios of the campaign, I have to admire the faithfully-dreary reproductions of 1960s mass housing. It’s almost as depressing as the nuclear war itself.

The linked review explains how the AI is instantly-deadly under certain circumstances. A unit which is creeping forward is suddenly blown up. By something. You now have no idea who shot at you or from where. The only way to find out is to move another unit forward to get blown up and hope the shooter is revealed. Maybe there is a certain realism to this, but it is not a fun game. The worst culprit may be, as the review explains, the enemy artillery. In this case, once your unit is spotted, artillery fire rains down until your unit is pulverized. In this case, there is no returning fire as the spotting unit is likely not even shooting and thus can’t be spotted unless you roll right up on top of it.

The tutorial teaches that one of the keys to this is to command your units to advance under an “auto-engage” setting. It’s not the default, so you have to be meticulous in making sure to choose the setting before each command. In this way, you leave it to the computer AI to identify and engage targets, which would otherwise destroy you before you realize what’s going on. On the other hand, when you are on the offensive, the enemy AI will still have a jump on the friendly AI, and can probably destroy you anyway.

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After about 5 tries and realizing there was an “easy” setting, I manged to muddle my way through the first battle of the campaign.

Fortunately, there is one more setting that said review didn’t mention. The default setting puts friendly and enemy units on equal “toughness.” There is an easiest setting that gives the advantage to the player. For me, this tilting is necessary to win battles from the offensive (and also makes them a cake-walk while on defense). I can now move into the range of enemy fire and, while absorbing a few hits, identify the enemy and organize a plan to destroy him.

Another welcomed design feature is the speed setting is very adjustable. By default, the motorized vehicles can whip around pretty fast and so slowing down the clock helps a non-RTS guy like me to take it all in better. Even still, I end up playing the game by hitting pause every time something happens. “Giving orders while paused” is a feature I pretty much require to make an RTS playable, but when I spend more of my time paused than running, I begin to question how much “fun” I’m having.

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The strategic interface. Key positions are captured on the way to taking the operational objective (the circle with the arrows). Each “tank” is a Kampfgruppe of mixed units, the total being worth a platoon or two.

Fun or not, there is something oddly addictive about this gameplay. With the speed toned down, the balance on “easy,” and with constant hits of the pause button, I can make my way through, and even win, the scenarios. The offensive scenarios present themselves as puzzles that need to be solved. Given the initial unit mix, it seems like the only unit that counts is your main battle tanks. You move them forward to identify enemy units and then hope they kill the enemy before he kills you. Sometimes there is a chance to bring up some artillery to help out, but do that within the range of the wrong enemy unit and you’ll lose it within a few seconds.

The connection to any kind of reality is tenuous and occasionally weird. Artillery on hills, as an example, remains unspotted by units on the ground (that’s a hill in the lower right corner of the middle screenshot). There’s a logic to it all, but as I said, the net result seems more to represent realistic factors rather than in any way simulate them. The game makes much ado about its physics simulation, but with the extremely short engagement distances (and even shorter spotting distances), it is not really a “simulation” of anything. It is just the way that spotting, trajectories, and damage are calculated internally. Now as I said, virtually any of the game’s mechanics can be rationalized as another effect of the nuclear devastation. If you are so inclined, you are invited to accept the game world as it comes.

As a simulation of anything to do with Cold War combat circa 1963-4, we don’t have much to work with here. As a pure RTS with some 60s period chrome, it has its charm. But most of the charm is drowned in the confusing interfaces and the walls of badly-translated text.

 

 

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I Can Always Find My Cuban Skies

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I’ve read two mutually-exclusive assertions in articles about the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The first is that we were within a hair’s breadth of a full-scale military invasion of Cuba.

Essentially, the U.S. had created three responses to Soviet missiles in Cuba. The first was the blockade, redubbed a “quarantine” so as to make it not an act of war. The second was airstrikes against the missile launch sites to destroy them. The third option was an airborne and amphibious invasion of Cuba which would involve capture of the missile sites plus a regime change for Castro’s government.

The non-response of taking no-action at all was ruled out. As the positive response that was least likely to lead to all-out war, the quarantine was put into place. Some advisors felt that the quarantine would be insufficient – that the Soviets were already well on their way to having first-launch capability from Cuba, even if no additional ships arrived from Russia. This faction demanded that, absent Soviet capitulation, immediate military action was required before the missiles could be rendered operational. Failure to act would surely mean that the Soviets would initiate a first strike. Furthermore, in this analysis, air strikes were probably not a solution. No matter how thorough the bombing campaign, one could never know whether the missile threat was eliminated without boots on the ground at the actual missile sites. Thus the airstrike option would probably, inevitably, be followed by invasion.

Those backing this solution likely did not see World War III as inevitable. Many did not believe that Russia would enter a global war over Cuba. Instead, the assumption was that the Soviets would leave Cuba to her own defense and retaliation would come elsewhere, perhaps via the closing of Berlin. Recovery from the situation could take place after the nuclear missiles in Cuba were no longer a threat. As proposed in Back Channel, there may have been others that figured the U.S. had such an advantage that the case where the Soviets actually decided to go to war, that too would be a win for the U.S. Then we could bomb them back into the stone age and be done with it.

So that’s one version that is suggested by a modern analysis.

As we know, the Russians did not challenge the quarantine and a 24-hour deadline before escalated military action was threatened, a negotiated solution was reached.

Other sources, however, suggest a second interpretation of the facts as they were.

In this analysis, an invasion of Cuba was never on the table. Not really. This view is that, as the military ramped-up preparations for the invasion, the U.S. found problems. Now, ramp up they did – Marines were actually floating on transports ready to hit the beaches right up to, and beyond, when the Russians said they were withdrawing their missiles. But in this analysis, the sources say, the infrastructure to support an invasion just wasn’t ready. For example, there was a shortage of the amphibious craft necessary to establish and maintain bridgeheads in Cuba. Similarly, sources suggest that the plan for “regime change” wasn’t mature enough to be implemented. The lack of an ability to replace Castro would have been a show-stopper when it came time to call Go/No Go on an assault. We wanted to neutralize the threat from Cuba, not entire a quagmire of a new Cuban civil war.

Take whatever opinions have been held about what almost happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis and mix in information recently extracted from formerly-secret Russian archives which have now become available. Certainly, we amateur historians know things now that the politicians and planners didn’t know then (or even in 1998*). We know that the Russians had considerably more troops in Cuba that the U.S. realized at the time, meaning the U.S. would have had a tougher time than they thought invading Cuba. The U.S., while concerned about the strategic nuclear missiles, was unaware of the extent to which the Soviets had also deployed tactical nuclear missiles. In fact, part of the defense plan against amphibious invasion was to use tactical nuclear weapons against the invaders as they came onto the Cuban beaches.

We also know that nuclear war was averted by the obstinance of a single man. A Russian submarine had been targeted by signalling depth charges (depth charges with the explosive power, roughly, of hand grenades) which did some minor damage. In 2002, the Russians revealed that their submarine was on the verge of launching a nuclear torpedo as a response to the perceived attack, but this particular submarine required concurrence of three officers (the captain, the political officer, and the detachment commander) instead of the usual two (the commander happened to be on this particular submarine). While the captain and political officer were ready to launch, the deputy brigade commander demurred. In the end, no nuke was launched and the Russian sub surfaced and was able to flee the battle zone.

I was a little bit surprised not to find wargame simulations of the quarantine and the engagements that might well have broken out if the Soviet and American ships confronted each other directly. Perhaps there would have been no “fair” or interesting fights, at least at that time. What CMANO does have is a scenario of finding and confronting Russian missile sites that is imagined to take place in the aftermath of the initial crisis, so I will use that one.

Before that, however, I look at the full-scale invasion scenarios that are available in The Operational Art of War and in Steel Panthers, exploring the opposite ends of the scale.

I’ve Got a Chance to Make It

One of the original scenarios shipping with The Operational Art of War is “Cuba 62,” a modelling of the U.S. invasion of the island. It is this one that is grounded most in “reality.” We are given approximations of the American invasion forces and the Cuba/Soviet conventional defenses and are set loose.

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I tried to implement the actual U.S. invasion plan, at least as far as I could understand it.

The American plan was to concentrate all forces on the beaches between Havana and Matanzas. Following bombardment and aerial bombing for preparation, airborne units would drop inland of the assault locations and then the Marines would come ashore across a stretch of (at least what once was) resort beaches. This would allow rapid seizure of the port in Matanzas and the seat of government in Havana. At that point, army units could arrive via ship and secure the rest of the island. In the above screenshot, I am attempting to follow that plan, at least insomuch as I comprehend it and can cause it to be implemented in The Operational Art of War.

Despite having owned the game for decades, I’m still not really sure exactly how amphibious operations are implemented. In this scenario, it seems possible to simply disembark in a Cuban port, assuming it is unoccupied by enemy units. Assaulting a beach? I’m not sure that is actually possible. I ended up moving all my Marines in via Matanzas and then all my Army units via the same port. This is the only option that matches the plan I’ve just outlined.

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The Marines have responsibility for East of the bridgehead, the Army for West. My 101st boys pretty much got stuck behind enemy lines for the whole game, but came out none the worse for it.

As it turned out, concentrating everything at one point made for a slow-but-steady march towards victory. But it was a little too slow and steady. While I was gradually able to isolate and eliminate one commie strong point after another, progress wasn’t rapid enough to score a victory within the scenario’s parameters.

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Victory required a rapid conquest of much of the island. I did not do that.

My first instinct, before looking through some details of the actual invasion plan, was to try to hit the island at multiple sites at once. I also assumed that the Guantanamo Bay force would be used to maximize initial success. The real plan, to contrast, called for a single point of invasion and had the Gitmo forces hold back until they could coordinate with the invasions ground forces. I think a multi-pronged invasion would be more successful within the TOAW construct, although I’ve yet to try it out. Even if it is, I don’t know what that says about it’s practical utility in the real world of 1962. One assumes the military planners knew things that a sandbox computer game wouldn’t.

“Cuba 62,” per my experience, is one of those scenarios where the U.S. has a decisive technological/organizational advantage and must use that to “beat the clock.” Back in 1962, Americans almost certainly assumed that such an advantage was there. The knowledge about Russian forces in Cuba far exceeding our estimates came later and one wonders how much that might have flummoxed the invasion plans (ignoring those tactical nukes, as we must). I didn’t try to see which “order of battle” this scenario uses for Russian units.

Another twist on this is that we now know that as Russia began moving towards a peaceful solution involving the removal of the missiles, it was Castro who pushed for open conflict. Have fended off the Bay of Pigs, he was happy to deal the U.S. another whooping. The Russians tried to explain to him that he would have very different results against the actual American Army and Marine Corp. So it is also possible that, while Soviet forces were present on the island, they might have refrained from direct involvement.

For some reference, the map is the same scale as for the Korean War map but with half-day turns (Korea was week-long turns). The scale does work as a game, but I’m not sure it really captures the feel of the fight as well as it could.

It’s Time for Me to Take It

Another version of the amphibious assault on Cuba is part of the vast user-made scenario library in Steel Panthers (WinSPMBT). The beach scenario is the first of four scenarios authored to explore a what-if invasion of Cuba. The full suite consists of the Marines on the beaches, two airborne landings, and one infantry fight. The scenario notes say the series was inspired by the Cuban Missile Crisis -related campaign “Red Thunder”, made for the flight simulator package Strike Fighters 2.

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Hit the beach! Marines come ashore on the swampy beaches near Matanzas.

This is a big scenario. It is a big map, for Steel Panthers (see the size of the tactical map versus the mini-map in the lower right corner, above, which is only about a quarter of the entire map), and a large unit count. Note that the screenshot is only about a quarter of the US forces. There are two invasion forces, one to the west and one to the east of the town of Cardenas, and we are only seeing about half of the western wing here.

It also is taking me a few turns to remember all the quirks of Steel Panthers. Checking every unit for suppression is something I’d forgotten about (maybe willfully). The multi-turn process of using indirect artillery requires acclimatization as well.

The Steel Panthers take on this is much the same as Steel Panthers always is. Controlling the units down to the platoon level is generally fun. Steel Panthers is also big enough to capture the full scope of a tactical battle without necessarily scaling down the unit size and map scale. Even though battles often do just that. This being purely-hypothetical, there is no way to say whether it is “to scale” or abstracted. The scenario requires that Marines take a coastal town by landing on the beaches to either side. They then must rush to seize the town within about an hour and a half of landing. Is that a feasible plan? Maybe, if we are relying on shock and awe to achieve quick victory. It also might be better to establish organization upon landing, and then advance in an organized way. Take 5-6 hours instead of 1.

The downside to having the ability to play with every weapon in every unit is that you’ve got to cycle through every unit, every turn. That isn’t so fun. Beach landings can be especially tough because once you’ve emptied your transports, they are still there waiting to be “visited” every turn. For me, when I play Steel Panthers, I’ve found its more important to play the units in the order that the game has them in (next unit) than to try to use them by function or command organization. Otherwise, in a large scenario like this, it becomes too easy to lose track of which units have moved and which still have yet to be commanded.

I can only imagine that the Command Ops engine would be a wonderful treatment for this fight. In many ways, an invasion of Cuba looks similar to Crete (a major focus in the Conquest of the Aegean product.) Besides the fact that it would be an awful lot of work (a map of Cuba plus a 1962 Order of Battle!), the Cold War combatants circa 1962 may have advanced in technology enough to make a World War II game engine unsuitable. In playing the TOAW version I used, with as much frequency as I could, the helicopter insertion capability available in the scenario. As I’ve talked on about before, TOAW a key gameplay element in the game is to occupy all six hexes surrounding an enemy position before attacking. Helicopter becomes a great way to get a just-strong-enough unit into that sixth hex to allow an enemy to be eliminated. I’d imagining that modeling helicopters, and getting it right, is something that the Command Ops engine is just not going to do without further development.

I Know What I Would See There

So lets switch over to Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations.

As I said, there aren’t any currently-available scenarios covering the crisis itself. What is available is a user-made scenario dealing with a similar crisis, something just under a year after the real events. The player commands a naval task along with air support to determine what the Russians have lurking around the Caribbean and to check whether there really are missile launchers on Cuba.

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Almost a year later, and the CIA still suspects the Russians of putting missiles in Cuba. I guess the resolution didn’t take.

This is a hypothetical, and one pretty far afield from the actual missile crisis. Set aside the fact that the Russians complied with the missile removal and then some**, if I had to speculate on the nature of a follow-on to the Cuban Missile Crisis, I would expect it to be fast and furious. If the U.S. became aware of Russian non-compliance, they probably wouldn’t have poked around with a few air and sea assets. Given that Russian non-compliance came with an threat of immediate nuclear war, I’d expect a second Cuban Missile Crisis to escalate far faster than the first.

Of course, another way to interpret this scenario is that what the Cubans have there are those same assets that the Russian removed even though we didn’t know about them. One could imagine that, as a year passes, we slowly develop suspicion about them and once again start the process of identification. Then, once again, we might try to deal with them through diplomatic channels with military action only as a last resort. No matter what, I have to think that once a Cuban/Soviet let off a missile aimed at U.S. aircraft, we’d be limit our response to four ships and a dozen or so aircraft. But this is the scenario I’ve got and I’m going to play it.

In many ways, the scenario is really a Vietnam situation on a “hypothetical” map. The mix of aircraft is that of the early escalation of the Vietnam War. You have your Douglas F3D flying with an electronics warfare package. They support Vought F-8 Crusaders, the bulk armed for combat but others stripped down to be used for photo-recon. We expect to face a enemy force of MiG 15s, 16s, and 17s. The naval support is sparse, particularly given the availability of assets this close the continental United States. Much like Vietnam and Korea before, the United States assumes complete superiority in sea assets.

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Fidel shot first. MiGs are rapidly dispatched with surface-to-air missiles from my destroyers.

The instructions, as is common for CMANO scenarios, have us trying to located the hostile materiel located somewhere in Cuban waters. The instructions say I should find them and then “wait for further instructions***.” In the meantime, the MiGs decide I’m becoming annoying and try shooting down some of my aircraft. Already, this war is going far further than the original Cuban Missile Crisis ever did.

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They mostly come at night. Mostly.

After some back-and-forth shooting, in which I had the upper hand, the sun set on the Caribbean and decided I’d try to wait it out until the next morning to resume the search in the light of day. My fears that this would be another scenario where I simply would be unable to complete the objective were unfounded. Once night fell, two unknown ships began approaching my task force from out of the blackness. The fact that they were emanating weapon targeting radar pretty much let me know they were bad guys, but being the good guy here, I couldn’t really go after them until I had a positive identification.  Or until they began shooting at me, which they did.

A few minutes later I identified the ships as Russian, a frigate and a light cruiser. Yikes. I had terrible flashbacks to the Waller Takes Charge scenario where I ended up begin thrashed by the larger Soviet gunnery. It also means I’m in a shooting war, not just with Cuba, but also with the Russians. You’d think the President would release more air and naval assets, wouldn’t you?

Anyhow, there is a point where you are toe-to-toe with your enemy and you’ve just got to duke it out, because turning tail and running won’t leave you any better off. In this case, numbers prevailed over size. I won’t go into all the details, because the core of this scenario is discovering what’s out there, but I did manage to pull of the “Major Victory” as defined by the scenario author.

As far as these scenarios go, this one was pretty enjoyable. I have to say it was on the easy side, given my win. In the end, I lost a few planes and took a lot of damage to my ships (3 out of 4 were dead in the water by the end, although all could be repaired), but I gave quite a bit more than I got. Of course, now we’re in a hot war with the Cubans AND the Russians, and Cuba has nuclear missile launchers ready to go. I guess its time to roll out that invasion scenario from the top of the article.

All of these “might have been” scenarios, while maybe not that much of a possibility, are still grounded in the real world. In my next article, I’ll take a look into the realm of pure fantasy regarding the outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

*The passing reference to 1998 refers to the initial release date of The Operational Art of War.

**There were missiles in Russia of which the United States was unaware. The Soviets could plausibly have kept them there and, if caught, simply said that they weren’t part of the original deal and pushed for more concessions from the U.S. Further, evidence suggests the Russians were driving for an avoidance of escalation by threatening to abandon Cuba, all outside of U.S. diplomatic pressure.

***For what its worth, no “further instructions” were forthcoming. I took the scenario description at face value and did not take any action against the Soviet missile sites. I don’t know if the intent was execute an airstrike.

Women and Men

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The film world is full of pictures that were put together using the hottest young male stars of the moment to create an instant box office draw. Less prevalent is the same formula done the young females.

I have long pegged Little Women (the 1994 film starring Winona Ryder) as exactly that, and never had an interest in it. I also never read the book, having somehow skated around when it was assigned in school.

However, as it is being taken off of Netflix, I decided to give it a whirl. It was a much better movie than I though it would be. It doesn’t exactly track with the book (As I said, I’ve never read it, but can read a plot summary), but is a faithful representation of the original work.

Not a bad story, if I may say so. I’d imagine the impact on the current generation of girls is considerably less than in the past. If anyone even reads it anymore.

Goodbye, Vietnam

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In contrast to the previous documentary, the PBS documentary Last Days in Vietnam is lives up to its 4+ star rating on Amazon. (4.2 on Netflix – 4.4 for me).

Last Days in Vietnam was being removed from Netflix, so I managed to catch it before it went. I am glad I did, although I had to forego a number of other movies being removed on July 1st.

This is a PBS-made documentary about the evacuation of the American Embassy in Saigon. It starts its story with the Paris Peace Accords and the invasion of the South by the North in the spring of 1975 and continues through to the fall of Saigon and the aftermath. Focus is on the decision of the U.S. ambassador, Graham Martin, to not organize an evacuation in advance. At first, his decision was driven by optimism that the Peace Accords would prevail and a solution found. Later, he was afraid (as was pretty much everyone) that hints of an evacuation would cause panic. The narrative also focuses on efforts of lower level officials to salvage what they could and save at-risk Vietnamese – those who had aided the Americans during their time in the country – during a time when such actions were unsanctioned.

The documentary is well put-together. Interviews with participants are mixed with explanatory narration along with film and photography of the events. In some cases, we see the same person who is being interviewed on period film, taken while the events are unfolding.

Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese were evacuated from Saigon and other parts of the South in advance of the North Vietnamese take over. But even more hundreds of thousands were sent to re-education camps or into hard labor by the communists. While not documented, it is believed that tens of thousands were executed. Those left behind include those who worked for the Americans, those who were placed in the South Vietnamese government, and the wives, mistresses, and children of Americans who were stationed in Vietnam.

The story told is a sad one. Largely the blame is shouldered by Ambassador Martin, who was asked repeatedly to prepare for the need for an evacuation but would not. A better organized evacuation, started in advance, could have been much, much more effective. Besides the human factor, the task of destroying classified documents and millions in U.S. currency was left to the final 24 hours. It is not discussed in the program, but one wonders how much U.S. information and material was taken by the North Vietnamese invaders and how much of that should have been avoidable through advanced planning.

While Martin is criticized, we see that his heart was in the right place. When the evacuation is called to a halt (by Ford and Kissinger – the latter of whom is interviewed in the show) it is not through lack of concern for the refugees. Miscommunication and misunderstandings across the Pacific likely caused decisions to be made in error.

This would not have been the first time in the Vietnam War, but it would be the last.

 

Oh Havana I’ve Been Searching for You Everywhere

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After writing about the startling mention of a Cuban Missile Crisis board game in the Wall St. Journal, I decided I’d go ahead and pick up 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis.

First, however, to get into the mood, I found the book Back Channel by Stephen L. Carter. (For what it’s worth, the hard cover is considerably cheaper than the paperback and actual 30 cents less than the e-book right now). This is a book about the Cuban Missile Crisis, fictionalizing the details of the secret deal between Kennedy and Khrushchev that staved off a shooting war.

As I was trying to decide whether or not to read this book, I was put off by the marketing pitch. Without naming my source, I’ll just say that I got the recommendation for this title from a list which seems to have a considerable political bias. While the books listed should be for a general readership, I notice an emphasis toward progressive-leaning books (and, oddly, Romance Novels) while the list deemphasizes the kind of books in which I’d actually be interested. Before jumping on board, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t being sold a pig in a poke.

Some further searching only confirmed my initials concerns. Blurbs for Back Channel mentioned how Carter was the recipient of awards from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and the NAACP. Reviewers on Amazon praised the book for its insights about black America. Now that may be all well and good, but what I want to read right now is a book about the Cuban Missile Crisis (involving black characters is fine), not a book about being African-American in American in 1962. It turns out my suspicions were misplaced. From all the misdirection, I can only assume that there is a segment of the reading public (a bigger segment than that to which I belong) that would prefer the latter to the former.

Carter is a Law Professor at Yale and, from what I can tell from his bio and from reading Back Channel, has no obvious dedication to one side or the other of our current political wars. Back Channel is the seventh novel that he’s written and he seems to specialize in historical fiction associated with government and politics, in particular included significant historical figures. Right from the beginning, we are introduced to the story President Kennedy himself involved in a secret meeting with the (fictional) teen-aged main character of the story.

The mixing of the historical, the plausible, and the fictional is very well done, making it difficult to know where one ends and the other picks up (although, at the end of the book, the author tries to explain where the boundaries lie). The combination of real history, historic drama, and spy thriller works well. So well that I’ve added some of his other works to my list of books to read.

Also, to my amusement as I read through, I keep encountering the Strategy Cards from 13 Days. It’s an interesting reflection from the chrome of the game. Not only that, I’ve started to see words, phrases and themes from the book popping up in the news (North Korean summit) and fiction (The Expanse).

Twilight Tussle

With even just a glance at the game, there can be little doubt that this design is based on Twilight Struggle. The board looks like a reduced version of Twilight Struggle‘s global map and the timeframe is compressed from decades into the titular 13 days. Even where components do not translate from Twilight Struggle into 13 Days, components are used in similar functions within the new structure. For example, China does not play a role in the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, the China Card mechanic from Twilight Struggle is very similar to the Personal Letter card mechanic in 13 Days.

One of the twists of 13 Days is that there is are two separate decks of cards. The Strategy Cards in 13 Days correspond to the deck in Twilight Struggle. Each card has an operational value (command, in the 13 Days lingo) and an event, which is usable by one side, the other, or both. 13 Days has a second deck. This deck is played in a separate phase. In many ways, these cards are analogous to the scoring cards in Twilight Struggle, but the use is simplified. At the beginning of each round, each player is dealt three cards from the Agenda deck and chooses one. These two cards are now the map locations that will be scored that turn, but each player only knows the identity of the one they, themselves, have selected. Similarly to the way cards are restricted in Twilight Struggle (in that game, by early/middle/late war designation) though, each player is informed as to the three cards the other player was dealt, so they can make educated guesses about what their opponent’s agenda might be.

Within the strategy phase, play is similar to Twilight Struggle, but simpler. Players take turns playing one card from their (hidden) hand, each playing all but one. In 13 Days, the last card in your hand is placed in an Aftermath pile, which is analogous to the Space Race mechanic of Twilight Struggle. The four active cards can be played for points or, if the event is neutral or your own, for the event action. Like Twilight Struggle, if the card you play for points is an enemy event, the enemy gets to play that event (in this case, the enemy always plays their event before you play your points).

So the game is compressed in scope and scale, and that simplicity is reflected in the game play itself. The box says it is a 45 minute game (as opposed to several hours for Twilight Struggle) and, as I said in the previous article, many players say it is more like a 30 minute game once you learn the rules. As one review points out, the game consists of twelve cards played per side and that is it.

Several on-line reviewers agreed that 13 Days lacks the “bite” of Twilight Struggle, without going into detail as to what they meant by that. Based on my initial experience, I would say this. 13 Days does not have the the kind of complex traps that one player can set for another. In Twilight Struggle this may be exemplified by the “DEFCON suicide card,” where you win by forcing the enemy to allow a game ending move on their turn. 13 Days does not allow the game to end prematurely, except in the 3 scoring phases at the end of the round. There is no surprise event that a player can produce that would result an immediate victory. Furthermore, the events are less complex. As far as I can tell, they are mostly slight trade-ups from the operational value of the cards themselves. You get to do just a little more, but may be limited in where you can do it. Also, as far as I can tell, 13 Days doesn’t have the opportunity for a complex series of card plays to achieve a multiplier effect. In Twilight Struggle, playing card X as a headline can be very valuable if you can follow up with card Y and maybe card Z.  I’ve yet to see a clear “one-two punch” in the 13 Days cards.

In addition, the design of 13 Days is far more a “game” with Cuban Missile Crisis accoutrements, versus a game that simulates the Cuban Missile Crisis – even in comparison with the design of Twilight Struggle. I talked before about how the designer explained that Twilight Struggle is not meant to be a simulation – it is first and foremost a game. Nevertheless, the mechanics are very much tied to the the historical situations and outcomes that they portray. Take, for example, Cuban Missile Crisis event in Twilight Struggle. Until deescalated, the game is put on the edge of a nuclear-war-induced end. It may not be a simulation of the Cuban Missile Crisis in any meaningful way, but it clear that the event represents the situation that occurred in 1962.

Contrast that with almost any event in 13 Days. It takes quite a bit more imagination to see the events described as “simulated” by the adding an removing of influence blocks. Yes, playing the game may put you in the mood to think about what happened and what might have happened surrounding Cuba, but the game in no way allows one to explore those what-ifs. I would imagine that any number of settings could have worked just as well for playing similar cards and placing blocks. Practically speaking, the purpose of the setting may be to focus the minds of the players, allowing them to mentally sort the card events. As to portraying the conflict itself? Probably not.

All that said, the opinions from players of 13 Days are generally positive. On Board Game Geek, it currently has a rating of 7.6. This isn’t Twilight Struggle‘s 8.3, but it ranks it among the better games, especially if you are looking in the war/historical genre. While simple, it the interactions are complex enough to keep it interesting. The simplicity has another advantage. The game, even at full price, runs half or less of what most “serious” board games go for.

The game also removes the dice that are a key factor in Twilight Struggle. Randomness is only through the shuffles of the two decks. Nobody can predict what cards they will be dealt nor the 5-10 cards that may remain unused at the end of the game. This means that the key differentiator between players is the knowledge that each player has about their own cards. What cards they have in hand that have yet to be played and which card has been selected as the agenda for that round. In this way, the key competitive factor in the game is the bluffing involved in moving entails. Did that play I just make tip off what agenda I selected? Or am I deliberately trying to make it look like I have played one particular agenda, when it is really something else?

One funny aside I noticed about my own gameplay, when I was doing a solitaire run-through of the tutorial. When I set out blocks, I tend to like them in symmetrical patterns. The fully-influenced battlefield would either have a square, such as the typical five-side on a die, or be in a pentagonal arrangement. However, if I know I have no intention of completing the full five, I don’t start making one of my two “five” patterns. Instead, I’m apt to make a triangle or diagonal shape suited to the total number I intend to eventually leave there. If I did that in a real game, I’d be telegraphing my moves.

I’ll Have Us a War with Those Sons of Bitches and I’ll Make it Look Like Their Fault!

Going back to those DEFCON suicide cards, there is something I wrote about a little bit in my Twilight Struggle article and its philosophy on a nuclear end-game. In this respect, 13 Days sees and raises Twilight Struggle‘s treatment of nuclear war. Twilight Struggle uses the concept of a single DEFCON track to represent how close the world is coming to nuclear war. The concept has been adopted and reused in other games so that for a game player, DEFCON is apt to associate with its Twilight Struggle meaning rather than its historical meaning. DEFCON was, of course, an internal indication of the US military alert level, meaning that the Soviets would have had an equivalent but (not necessarily) equal level. Furthermore, DEFCON 1, rather than being the onset of a nuclear attack, was merely the maximum alert status in preparation for an imminent nuclear war. While the U.S. has never entered DEFCON 1, it is not a forgone conclusion that doing so would mean a missile launch.

The other meaning of DEFCON, championed by Twilight Struggle, is that entering a “hot” war meant a loss. As my previous article discussed, the Twilight Struggle designers credited Balance of Power with the inspiration for this mechanic. I also discussed, though,the curious feature of this in that if you can force the other player to start that war, you don’t lose – you win.

13 Days elaborates on this. Rather than a single DEFCON, there are separate tracks for each side. Furthermore, each side has three different categories (Military, Political, and World Opinion) for which DEFCON is tracked separately. Clearly DEFCON doesn’t mean the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s military readiness rating. Unlike Twilight Struggle, entering DEFCON 1 is not an instant loss. The effect of DEFCON doesn’t occur until the scoring phase at the end of each round. Then, and only then, if you have any one of your three tracks in DEFCON 1, you lose. Furthermore, if you have all three of your DEFCON tracks in DEFCON 2 or higher, you lose.

This serves to model the real “game” during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Both sides didn’t want a full-on nuclear war. So the question was how to avoid that fate while still maximizing your own side’s position.

However, the flip side of the DEFCON mechanic in 13 Days is that, if you can somehow force your opponent into a DEFCON loss, you win. In other words, launching nuclear Armageddon is fine and dandy as long as you can plausibly blame the other side for starting it. This is even more so than Twilight Struggle, where I speculated about the meaning of forcing a DEFCON suicide on your opponent. In 13 Days, it clearly means starting a war – a war whose outcome probably won’t vary all that much depending on who started it.

On the subject, however, Back Channel actually addresses the subject, although from a slightly different angle. Considering the importance of plausible deniability if the black operation goes wrong, the National Security Advisor explains realpolitik to Bobby Kennedy,

‘If it goes wrong,’ said Bobby, ‘nobody will care about who’s to blame.’

‘I beg to differ, Mr. Attorney General. Nowadays, historians hardly care about anything else.’

I’m not sure it really answers the question, but the book is full of indications that “who started it” is a major consideration for many, if not most, of those involved.

Particularly when I consider this game in concert with a detailed narrative like Back Channel, I tend to interpret all the Strategy Card events as political maneuvering. Placing military blocks is less about actual military action than about appeasing or displeasing certain “hawk” factions within your own government. Most events can be interpreted as internal maneuvers or (e.g. U-2 Downed) an actual escalating event that may either be controlled through other actions or spiral out of control. But the abstractness of the game leaves that, I suppose, as an exercise for each player. Does the “Invasion of Cuba” U.S. event imply an invasion of Cuba, or is it merely Kennedy’s readiness and willingness to exercise it as an option? That is, is Cuba only invaded if card play results in a DEFCON loss?

Opposition Research

Having spent some time (and, to date, not finishing) a computer opponent for Twilight Struggle, I figured it wouldn’t be a huge thing to adapt that computer opponent for 13 Days. Naturally, it has been more of a project than I expected, but it was in fact adaptable.

To date, I have a programmed opponent that can play the tutorial scenario, as printed in the manual, from either side. With only a little bit of fudging, it will make all the same decisions as outlined in the explanatory text, with one exception. I’ll get to that in the next section.

It was actually surprisingly to me how easy it was to reproduce the tutorial’s logic. Most of the logic goes through a pair of algorithms that rank the choice of what card to play and the choice of what battleground (in the 13 Days sense, not the Twilight Struggle sense) to play it on. More surprisingly, I found that the tutorial does not have any dynamic dependency in the decision making.

I’ll explain. The logic that I use looks only at the current state. Going into this exercise, I assumed that it would be necessary to react to enemy placements, altering one’s best guess as to what the enemy agenda is. And while the tutorial text hints at just such a bit of figuring, it turns out that it doesn’t really change the selection over what to play next as compared to static logic. To put it another way, the fact that I just added two blocks to a space doesn’t make contesting that space particularly more appealing than if those blocks had already been there from earlier.

Now, I have no doubt that superior play comes from analyzing combinations of moves and creating plans which are carried out over multiple moves. But at the tutorial level, that isn’t really what’s happening. Similarly, I have a theory based on limited play that the order that cards are played in, in contrast to Twilight Struggle, doesn’t have a big impact on outcome. The biggest reason to chose cards in a particular order is more about what information might be tipped off to the other player as opposed to optimizing card combination. Again, an experience player may know otherwise.

Logic and Argument

I’ll indulge myself by going into the details of a couple of moves as the tutorial plays them. If you don’t play the game, it probably won’t make any sense at all. The rules, which includes the sample play-through, are available on-line, so anyone is free to follow along. If you’d rather not, skip to the next header.

So, as I said, the AI program I adapted is good enough to reproduce the tutorial game from both sides, with two exceptions. There are two moves that the computer considers downright dumb and there is no way I can get it to make them (absent just randomly picking from legal moves). I have to say I agree with the machine here.

The first of the two is a Soviet move, and it comes in the first round of the game. I believe it is meant to illustrate the value of misdirection when playing.

In selecting the Agenda card, the narrative explains how the U.S. is lucky with the draw and chooses Italy as the easiest path. Italy is worth the most points and the setup has the U.S. one-up in Italian influence. The playthrough has the U.S. making several moves to “misdirect” the Soviets. The problem is, the Soviet has all the same information that the U.S. player has. He too knows the U.S. drew the Italy card and can see the advantages of using it. Nevertheless, the tutorial suggests that the Soviets do not believe that Italy is the agenda – could happen. Several times during the round, the Soviet player forgoes the option of taking control of Italy – which is OK, given the premise.

The problem comes with the last card played in the round. The Soviet uses the event “Intelligence Reports,” allowing him to take an American card (at this point, the only one he has). The pilfered card, “Suez-Hungary,” allows the Soviets to take control of Italy with very little downside. However many cubes are required to take control are played by the event at no DEFCON escalation cost. Furthermore, as the last card of the round, if it happens to be the right move, there is no opportunity for the U.S. to counter it. The only downside is that each player can only have a maximum of 17 cubes in play on the board. Adding two more cubes now means either having to “waste” a card in a later round to remove those cubes or perhaps having to forego the placement of cubes in a future round because you have run out. To me, unless you are 100% sure that Italy is not the U.S. agenda, taking Italy now with 2 cubes is an obvious play. And of course, there is no way to be 100% sure.

Allowing the AI to play this card as it would like would substantially alter the remainder of the game, so to complete the tutorial requires skipping the event. Furthermore, there is no way that I could figure to reprogram the AI to decide to skip the card, at least not in a way that made sense. (Logically, I could have the AI make a guess as to which agenda the opponent picked and bet everything on that guess, but I don’t think I want to do that).

The other mistake is more obviously wrong, although in the context of the tutorial it doesn’t change the end result. The U.S. holds an event card, “Eyeball to Eyeball.” For operations purpose it is worth one cube, but if the U.S. has the lead in Military DEFCON (which he does), three cubes can be spread over the two Cubas. Escalation still applies, however, so placing more than one has its downside. With this in mind, the player uses the event to place just a single cube in the Cuba Military. It is one of the U.S. agenda cards, but not the one selected. The tutorial notes explain that this deception causes the Soviet player to make what seems (particularly in retrospect) like a bad counter move.

Notice, however, that if the event is used to place just a single cube, the command operation value of the card can also place that single cube. So if the card is to be used, it could be used either way with the same result. However, if you’re going to use the card for its operational value only, then it doesn’t matter whether you are using a U.S. event or a neutral event. So it is absolutely foolish to play a U.S. event for its command value and then place a neutral event in the aftermath when you can do the opposite for no change except to pick up (in this case a single point, but in general) points at the end-of-game scoring. As I said, in the tutorial the Soviets are far enough ahead in the aftermath victory point tally that it makes no difference. But in principle, it is entirely the wrong move.

I dwell on this here because, as a player following along with the tutorial, it was not obvious. When trying to get an AI to make the same “mistake,” however, it became impossible and therefore clear that making the “wrong” move should never be selected algorithmically.

Eyeball to Eyeball

While I now have a copy of the game to play with, finding opponents is a little harder.

To the rescue comes a website created by Alexander Rymasheusky. With permission of 13 Days‘s creators, he has made a browser-based online version of the game.

cube2

I open with a heavy hand in Cuba and wait to see how my opponent responds.

It’s really an impressive system. I’m even more impressed having struggled through programming an opponent for the game myself. The program provides a gaming lobby with chat and the ability to create new games or join an already created one. For games that have two players signed on, you can follow on as an observer.

During play, and this is the impressive part, the program enforces all of the rules. As a result, there are no concerns about cheating (or, more likely, just misinterpreting the rules). One can just follow the prompts. Given the way each event can be interpreted as an exception or special case to the rules, this is a pretty deep feature for a free, web game. In fact, I would venture to guess that the combination of a decent UI and rules enforcement may be more than half-way there, if you are talking about programming a full single player mode. Restricting the programmed opponent to playing only legal moves is at least as important to trying to get him to play good moves.

I’ll Return Before the Fire Dies

I was pleasantly surprised to find some good, high-level treatments of the Cuban Missile Crisis in historical fiction and in gaming. As critical as the event was as a piece of history, it doesn’t fit into the mold of your typical wargame. But a little bit of innovation and some stretching of the imagination, and look what we’ve got!

Next up, however, I’ll come at it from the other way. Traditional wargames can explore potential what-ifs. Namely, what if the Cuban Missile Crisis turned the cold war hot.

The Not-So-Great

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I’ve come to rely upon the five-star rating system in Netflix. I know there is no guarantee I’ll like a five-star movie nor hate a 2-and-a-half star one, but it is a good guide to at least point me in the right direction. This is somewhat mitigated by Netflix’s decision to give the “for you” rating which differs from the actual rating. Frequently, when I notice a movie is rated much lower than I think it would be, I notice that Netflix has discounted the rating “for me.” Even more frequently they are right to discount a title that, while popular, just isn’t for me.

With Amazon, on the other hand, ratings can be problematic. This is not just a streaming-video problem – similar issues involve all the products on their site – but it seems more acute when it comes to their video offerings. In particular, it seems hard to find a movie, show… what have you… that isn’t rated somewhere between 3 and 4 stars, give or take.

When it comes to Amazon users, it seems there isn’t a product out there that doesn’t have someone who loved it (no matter how bad it would seem to be objectively) as well as someone who had an absolutely terrible experience (again, even if they were the only one). Add to that, there are the users who give one star because the particular shade of blue didn’t match the other appliances in their kitchen. Others might say “the product is fine, but I really didn’t like the packaging. Two stars.” Finally, there are those five-star reviews that say, “I haven’t assembled by product yet, by I was really impressed with the prompt delivery.”

I won’t even go near the accusations of cheating within the product rating system though the use of phony user-reviews connected to the seller. I’ll leave it to the wizards at Amazon to figure that one out. But even if the reviews are “honest,” they are tough to rely upon. But with so much stuff being sold through Amazon, one needs at least some ability to triage the offerings to narrow things down to a reasonable set of choices.

Anyway, back to the matter at hand.

Having missed the “Director’s Cut” of Oliver Stone’s Alexander before it was removed from Netflix, I wanted to look for something to get me into that ancient Macedonian mood. Field of Glory II has extended its reach back to the wars of Alexander the Great. Mare Nostrvm covers a similar period, but on the sea. Both titles are subject to sale prices in the Steam summer sales.

Amazon has a half-a-dozen or so possibilities that are available with Prime video. None of the available choices are particularly well known, so I decided to go with the highest rated. Alexander the Great is a two-part series that seems to fit the bill. Three-and-half stars or so with a number of very positive written reviews (and one terrible one, naturally).

What this show turned out to be was something else.

It is a made-for-TV German production following the standard History Channel formula. The video mixes head shots of various academic experts cut in with sweeping Aegean scenery and a dash of live action reenactment from key points in the life of Alexander. So far so standard.

The problems, however, kick in immediately. The voices have been re-dubbed. For the first “talking head” they didn’t completely remove the German, so you have this odd effect of hearing German softly in the background and English in the foreground. But I can live with that.

The re-dubbing of the narrator seems decent and professional, except where he occasionally slaughters some pronunciation*. The re-dubbing of the various academics is a real mixed-bag. Some of them sound OK and some of them sound just weird. I also have to wonder if the translations are really accurate, or are they skimping on the translations to try to match the words to the video. Part of the way its done makes me wonder if there is an effort to obscure the fact that this is a non-English production.

Then there are the reenactments, which are probably on par with the lesser History Channel offerings. The dubbing, however, is not. If the academics voices seemed weird, some of those ancient Greeks are even more so. Reviewers on Amazon were impressed with the scenery and costumes. The main figures indeed have decent costumes, although given the haphazardness of the rest of the production I don’t know whether to accept them as correct for the period. Several of the background figures, on the other hand, stood out like sore thumbs. They appeared to be wearing t-shirts printed with a shimmery material so as to look like metal breastplates. I guess its better than nothing.

Alexander the Great – I guess its better than nothing.

I got so far in Alexander’s life to where he and his mother fled into exile after Alexander insulted his father’s drunkenness. Flee this production, too, shall I.

*The one that killed me is he referred to Alexanders cavalry as “Calvary.” Oddly, that one got hammered into me in public school, I think an elementary grade. I had a teacher that got rather angry when some of us kids were saying “Calvary” when referring to horses. She told us we were wrong, and explained to us what Calvary means. You probably can’t do that in today’s public schools, can you?

You Breathe into Me At Last

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Without food, adequate shelter and warmth, how long can Alive remain on Netflix streaming? Unlike the subjects of the film, Netflix gives this one only a few more days.

I recall when Alive came out in 1993. It received reasonable reviews and seemed to be worth watching, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to take in a movie about (even tangentially) cannibalism. As a result, despite being very aware of the movie’s existence, I knew absolutely nothing about it. So when I saw it was being removed from Netflix, it was not only the first time I ever watched the film but also my introduction to the details of the crash in the Andes which the film portrays.

The movie is based on the 1974 book Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors by Piers Paul Read. At the time the movie came out, the story was already over 20 years old. At the time of this viewing, the movie is 25-years-old and about events that happened 46 years ago!

This lead to one distraction I had while watching. Except for Ethan Hawke, I really wasn’t sure who any of the actors were, although many of them looked familiar, I could not place them. It didn’t help that everyone looked the wrong age – 20 years or so too young. While I remember Ethan Hawke as a fairly big star in the 90s, when this film came out all of the actors were relatively small potatoes. Again surprising, because memory has it that it was “Alive” starring big Hollywood names like Hawke – but that wasn’t how it was at the time*. So not only was it hard to place the other actors, I kept feeling like I should be able to place them, because aren’t they all big names?

The other thing that bothered me is how robust the actors looked after 70 days (or 30 days for that matter) of starvation. Of course, there is only so much you can accomplish when portraying the physical limits of human existence with real actors. Reviewer Roger Ebert noticed the same thing. Perhaps he and I are more food focused that the public at large.

That aside, it was a decent film although not earth-shattering.

Reviews at the time criticized the film relative to the book, which is rarely fair. Specifically, the book (which I haven’t read, although I probably should) contained narrative about the social structures of the subgroups and these sociological details were omitted from the film. This was a reasonable (and perhaps smart) decision from the writer/director. I had a hard enough time keeping track of all the people. With two hours to introduce the subject, create an emotional connection with the characters, and then tell your story, some things have to be abbreviated. Glossing over individual personalities may well have helped make the story digestible in movie format.

Sorry. Pun neither appropriate nor intended**.

Another criticism that was raised at the time the film was released was the use of religion. Clearly, this is meant to be a major theme within the film. The film starts and ends with a talking-head John Malkovich discussing the spirituality of the experience. Both prayer and faith feature throughout the story.

Again, without having read the book I can’t speak to whether this portrayal was meant to be realistic accurate, or symbolically accurate, or was just a motif placed in by the filmmakers. I will say that I would expect Uruguayans from the early 1970s to appear to be extremely religious to the eyes of the 2018 consumer of Hollywood fare. In fact, I would expect that 1970s Uruguayans would appear extra-religious even to 1970s Americans. Portraying that on-screen means not literally using the full language of the time, but representing it in a way that modern viewers don’t find over-the-top. I recall reading about this in the context of The Killer Angels, where the author decided that using, literally, the amount of religion-focused language that was common at the time would make the characters seem like religious fanatics. He had to tone it down sufficiently so that the modern reader would get a sense of the piousness of society during the Civil War without being overwhelmed.

A bit of praise is also due, I think, to another artistic choice of the director. Despite all the characters being Spanish-speaking Uruguayans, the (American) actors portray them as straight-up Americans. Again, 25 years on we fret about “cultural appropriation” and the like. However I, for one, am thankful they didn’t try to show the Spanish-speakers as such by giving them all affected Spanish accents.

Finally, the cannibalism. It actually was unpleasant for me. Remember, until it actually unfolded, I didn’t know how it would manifest itself in the story. I have not been having nightmares since watching it, though.

At least, not about that.

*One might make the case that Ethan Hawke’s breakout role was starring opposite Winona Ryder in Reality Bites. This occurred the following year.

**Seriously. I didn’t notice the use of food allusions until I went back to proofread.

 

Pside by Pside by Pskov

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As a follow-up to my follow-up, I decided to give Medieval Total War and XIII Century a try side-by-side.

First, I fired up Medieval.

Medieval: Kingdoms, the first add-on for Medieval 2: Total War, came out only a month or two before initial the XIII Century release. The package had four new campaigns, each focused on a smaller segment of the world. One of those campaigns focuses on the portions of Northeastern Europe controlled the Teutonic Knights and begins in 1250. I had never installed nor (obviously) played this campaign before. But being co-incidental with the original Death and Glory campaign in XIII Century, it seemed the ideal starting point. I chose to play the Teutonic Knights because, well, it is the Teutonic Knights campaign.

The campaigns from the expansion have, naturally, additional cities (due to the map scale) and units specific to the campaign at hand. In additionally, there are events to nudge the historical path in generally the right direction. In my campaign, this has meant a crusading English lord who brings an army to my territory with which to slaughter the heathens. Beyond that, it is pretty much just another Medieval: Total War campaign game.

If you’ll recall, one of my complaints about the specialized campaigns in Total War is that they are still Total War campaigns. Whatever chrome is added, whatever special events contribute flavor to the period, at the end of the day, you are still trying to build up cities so as to create bigger and better armies. So it goes with this one.

Specifically, if I am trying to move towards the battle portrayed in XIII Century, I’m not going to find a lot of help in this campaign. The real 1268 saw the Danes, the Russians (Novgorod), the (pagan) Lithuanians, and the Teutonic Knights involved in a four-way shuffle as one attempted to use conflicts between the other players to one’s own advantage. That year’s battle saw the Russians attacking a Danish city but (unexpectedly?) facing the Teutonic Order, who appeared in support. In my Total War world, things turn out differently.

On the diplomatic side, the Danes are more closely aligned with Novgorod than they are with me, and Novgorod is actively supporting the Lithuanians. While I’m not at war with the Danes, I am fighting both Novgorod and Lithuania. In my game, Novgorod has taken a shot at Riga with a sizable invading army, which I was able to defeat in 1267. However, my own army is (via the campaign-specific event) lead by (see picture below) Charles, a crusader from England. I can expect prizes if I can help him defeat the heathens and fighting Novgorod does not advance his cause. So after the fight outside the walls of Riga, in 1268 I fight a larger battle against the Lithanians near their stronghold at Šiauliai (then called Saule by the Germans). This second battle is the more interesting, so I’ll use it here, despite the change in players and location.

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The big battle of my burgeoning campaign takes place in 1268. My Teutonic Order is fighting the Lithuanian heathens rather than the Novgorod/Pskov armies.

This should be a win for me. Despite being outnumbered, Total Wars algorithms say I have a significant advantage going it. It is also interesting in that we both have forces coming in from multiple directions, creating a tactical battle resolution on the larger side for Total War. I’ll have almost a third of my forces under computer control.

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As the enemy attempts a flanking maneuver, I break off a wing to deal with them. Close up for comparison between 3D engines.

The advantages of the Total War system become clear in this fight. With almost 5000 men on the field total, the fight feels quite epic in scale. Patience and careful maneuver are need to defeat the enemy, despite the initial advantages. Furthermore, the fact that this is but one battle in a campaign means I need to be concerned not just about victory, but obtaining a victory that preserves my army to fight the next battle. Even after defeating the Lithuanians outside of Šiauliai (the victory actually gave me control of the city), I’ll still have other Lithuanian armies coming at me, and no time to raise a fresh force. Even a lopsided battle can still be quite meaningful.

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As fast as I sweep the heathens from the field, more will always appear.

Within the “story” that the campaign created, “Charles,” my crusading English friend, prevailed in battle. His triumph was short-lived. Or rather he turned out to be short-lived. Charles was killed later that winter while leading his army to another victory against the heathens. His name will be adorned with glory and the priests will surely talk about how his sacrifice served the greater glory of God, but his estate will not be sending me any money for having killed their patriarch. This all is to emphasize the downside. The only uniquely “Teutonic” event in almost 20 years of campaign game ended abruptly without having any influence on my empire. So, despite the chrome, I’m just playing another Medieval Total War campaign after all.

So let’s move on to XIII Century.

In my previous discussion, I mentioned that I didn’t like the structure of the XIII Century campaign. Specifically, I had a problem with the “locked battles” in a historical campaign. I offered that such a structure was perhaps more appropriate for a fantasy setting, where it is used to control the flow of the story.

In the original XIII Century: Death or Glory campaign, it actually makes more sense. I suppose the developers did not expect I would play the expansion before ever attempting the original release. Perhaps if I had already completed the Death or Glory campaign, I wouldn’t mind so much the way the expansion rapidly locks one out of options, at least until one starts beating the scenarios.

This original campaign puts the player in control of Daumantas of Pskov, where just the name is a mix of nationalities, cultures and religions. Daumantas was Duke of Nalšia, part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In 1250 or so Mindaugas of Lithuania was baptized as a Christian and was recognized by the Pope (Innocent IV) as king of Lithuania. During a period of factional struggle in Lithuania, the Queen Consort died and Mindaugas claimed her sister, who was the wife of Daumantas, for himself. Daumantas conspired with Mindaugas’ enemies, who included Alexander Nevsky of Novgorod, to assasinate Mindaugas. When, in the following year, the son of Mindaugas, named Vaišelga, in turn killed one of the co-consipirators, Daumantas took his followers to Pskov.

Once in Pskov, Daumantas was baptised as an Eastern Orthodox Christian and took the name Timothy (Тимофей in Russian). His Lithuanian name is also Russianized as Dovmont (Довмонт). He married into Alexander’s family and lead the Pskovian armies against the Lithuanians.

It is here the campaign begins, introducing us to Daumantas/Dovmont/Timothy and his skill as a leader of the Pskovs. Extensive introductory text with each scenario gives the historical context. We initially lead Daumantas through a series of small skirmishes as he builds his reputation as a leader in his new nation. The scenarios are heavily scripted. They are set up in such a way to “teach” the correct way to win them and will result in defeat if you ignore the correct solution.

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An extreme closeup of the Russian horse, for 3D engine comparison purposes. Note they are fighting in out in the ford.

The above screenshot, of the second scenario, shows an example. The basic lesson of the early scenarios is that you must concentrate your forces against portions of the enemy army to maintain a continuous local numerical advantage, even when you are at a global disadvantage. In the far distance of the screenshots, you can see the bulk of the enemy is held back (through scenario scripting) while I take care of the portion of their army that tried to advance on me across a river. The player learns that a qualitatively superior force can decisively eliminate enemies of similar numbers, but get yourself surrounded by even a low-quality mass of enemies, and attrition will eventually be your undoing.

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Another feature of the campaign allows you to “win” coin from successful battles, which then allows you to augment your forces in future battles.

In the campaign’s third battle, we get to an engage in a fight of historical note. The Battle of Rakovor (Rakvere in Estonian and Wesenberg in German) took place in the Danish Duchy of Estonia. The Danes responded to a raid by Russian forces from Novgorod and Pskov by summoning help from their neighbors in the Bishophric of Dorpat and other Livonian Order strongholds. Historically, the Russians were likely outnumbered, much as indicated in this scenario, but forces engaged on both sides were probably an order of magnitude greater than represented in this game.

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Knyaz Daumantas arrives on the battlefield as the Novgorodian forces are already engaged.

I chose to play the battle with Fog of War checked. Between that and a little confusion about which side of the field was mine, I ended up moving my army to “form a second echelon in support of the front line.” I actually intended to “attempt to flank the enemy” but misjudged where the enemy flanks would be.

In any case, similarly to the battle in Medieval, this scenario has friendly forces under computer control. I suggested, in my previous article, that this wouldn’t apply as a method of simulating medieval battles. This scenario does not use the fact that you’re in command of only part of the field to make up for the reduced numbers. As I said, the total number of combatants is still down by about an order of magnitude. The scenario is, once again, about how to use local superiority and flanking maneuvers to defeat a larger army.

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Unlike Total War, castles are not represented on-map in this game. We see a (anachronistically large) fortress in the background, located beyond the boundaries of the map as I attempt to defeat a larger force of Teutonic Knights.

Having a computer-controlled ally to do some of the “grunt work” made this scenario a lot more fun for me. It gave me the freedom to move about and find where I wanted to engage. This was easily the best experience I’ve had from the game yet. I also won with with a minimum of frustration and restarts.

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Running down the routing Brotherhood on my way to a final victory.

Still, my previous thoughts on the game remain valid and were reinforced by this exercise. Even taken alone, the flow of the battle in Total War seems a bit more realistic, allowing for the losing army to retreat rather than fighting to the death. Add to the that the context that a campaign provides, and Total War battles prove to be a lot more interesting.

Another contrast becomes particularly noticeable in a side-by-side comparison. Recall that one of the major complaints among historical wargarmers with regard to Total War is the speed that units can rush about the battlefield and their supernatural ability to fight effectively after doing so. In XIII Century, the infantry is quite a bit slower. It can be painful on a larger map to wait until infantry moves up into their positions. Mounted units, on the other hand, move faster than in Total War. In both cases (assuming I understand the unit data that I’m looking at), fatigue is recovered very rapidly. It would appear that units can race hither and thither across the battlefield, rest for a minute or two, and be as good as new. If the crowds that played and complained about Total War actually took to XIII Century, I assume the dissatisfaction with the latter would be even greater. For me, it is annoying how foot and mounted units separate, when ordered into a formation, rather than moving in a rough group as they do in Total War.

Following victory in the Rakovor scenario, I moved on in the campaign. The scenario that follows imagines some “mop up” after the (ahistorical) victory. The map seems something very much out of those fantasy games I’ve been referencing. The map is an S-Shaped valley through mountain passes, forcing a linear progression from start to finish. Along the way are various enemies, with scripts holding them back until you hit the trigger condition. The key, as before, would seem to be preservation of your core, elite units to allow them to carry each of the mini-battles. Succumbing to attrition to win an early battle will like make then next battle “down the line” unwinnable. As it stands, I think I’m going to give up on this, being a bit stuck in one of these traps.

 

 

All That We Destroyed, You Must Build Again

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I looked at a number of things over the past weekend. They all seem to me to fit into one grand pattern.

In The Wall Street Journal was printed a review of Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition by Roger Scruton. The reviewer is Richard Aldous, a professor of British History at Bard College and an author of works of his own on conservative themes (Reagan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship and The Lion and the Unicorn: Gladstone vs. Disraeli are named in his bio). The review leads in with much exposition on the nature and history of conservatism.

I’ll likely not be reading the book any time soon. Although it is only 164 pages and, apparently, a good and quick overview conservative philosophy, my list of “must reads” has grown rather lengthy.

According to the review, while the book itself is not “dour,” the message of Scruton is that the conservative tradition is dying. Aldous goes on to suggest that, if there is a hope of survival, conservatism must draw upon its best traditions. Scruton himself, much to the delight of Professor Aldous, suggests that it is the liberal-arts colleges where conservatism can remain alive, no matter what happens in greater society. For those following the news, this may seem particularly improbable.

Also over the past week, I have seen some defenses of conservatism as the election of 2018 gets up to full-speed. William F. Buckley opined that “A Conservative is a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!'” That surely resonates with conservatives, but doesn’t that explain to a progressive exactly why conservatives are wrong?

Aldous draws a quote from the book that makes, perhaps, a clearer argument.

Speaking about the progression of conservatism from defense of monarchy through its anti-materialism and finally the alignment of conservative and “classical liberals” (libertarians) against socialism.

In all these transformations something has remained the same, namely the conviction that good things are more easily destroyed than created, and the determination to hold on to those good things in the face of politically engineered change.

This quote seems very much on point in today’s political environment.

Also this weekend, I started watching the BBC series from 1985, The Day the Universe Changed.

This 33-year-old show is about the discoveries that shape our view of the world and, in doing so, shape who we are as a society. It goes without saying that much of technology has seen tremendous change over the past three decades. In a particularly glaring example, narrator and creator James Burke makes a statement about how “the telephone” still looks the same as it always has (pointing to the standard issue AT&T model of the early 1980s) but has far more capabilities. But does that even look like a “telephone” to the teenager of today? Or does it look it merely look like an antique that she knows to be an “olden times” telephone because she’s seen it identified as such in pictures?

But oddly enough, his commentary on technology (if not the examples) still seems relevant. The comment about the form and function of telephones is a lead-in to the potential of the “microchip” to enable telecommuting. And while, indeed, technology enables telecommuting today, the discussion of pros and cons in which he engages remains relevant.

Counter-intuitively, the ideas that conflict with modern sensibilities are the philosophical ones. The ideas that most of us, and certainly 1985 Burke, would consider to be far more timeless.

The opening show is about the foundations of Western Civilization in Greek thought and particularly the pursuit of practical knowledge and understanding of the world over superstition and religion. This pursuit not only changes our understanding of the universe that we live in, but changes in a fundamental way who we are as a culture and even as individuals. The foundation is an argument for “Western Exceptionalism” that immediately hits the 2018 viewer as bordering on “crimethink.” Could someone get on TV today and say that Western Culture is superior to (as is his example) the Eastern traditions of Nepal? I don’t think so.

Towards the middle of the show, he talks about the rituals and institutions that we have. He specifically dwells on marriage, universities, and courts of law. He explains that we have made these institutions particularly conservative, both in traditions and in trappings. Each of these, we are shown on screen, have examples of its participants dressing up in archaic costumes to participate in the proceedings. Burke explains that this reliance on extreme conservatism in particular corners of our lives is a critical part of what allows our society to progress and flourish. Our culture is built upon the disruptive change that comes from scientific inquiry. A large part of the way we manage the change, and the individualistic thought that drives those changes, is by having certain cornerstones of society upon which we can rely. Deeply conservative institutions – like marriage, universities, and the law – anchor today’s tumultuous world in the ancient traditions of Western Civilization. Our identity can persist in a way that keeps us all sane even as our surroundings change at an astounding rate.

James Burke was not trying to be politically provocative with these statements and these examples. He did not mean “conservative” in the political sense. I would say he meant to draw examples that were self-evident to all his viewers.

Yet, to the viewing in 2018, each of these examples is indeed controversial and very political. Marriage is being devalued across the board while its conservative traditions are being systematically dismantled by the law. In the Law itself, we are moving away from the self-evident situation where law and order was a bastion of conservatism. Political control of the machinery of government remains heavily contested, particularly in America. But recent years have seen opinions abound that progressive has reached (or, at least, is on the verge of) a “permanent majority.” Law an order no longer is no longer the symbol of conservatism.

We also see that Burke absolutely agrees with Scruton and Aldous in that liberal-arts colleges are conservative foundations of Western Civilization, an idea that made far more sense in 1985 than in 2018. While universities were already rapidly changing in the 1980s, one could still identify as their purpose to insure that the instruction of the new generation of minds – the minds that are to go on and create the science, law, and culture of the future – had the same foundation in the Greek, Roman, and European traditions in common with generations of their predecessors. Yet today, it seems that the goal is to teach the new, progressive orthodoxy and stifle any opinions that might cause that orthodoxy offense. Certainly the “dead white males” from whom we learned in the 1980s must be offensive to the students and teachers today.

If Burke is right and these conservative rituals are part of what keeps society sane, what are we doing to ourselves in 2018? Progressivism is replacing these historical and universal truths with the “new truths.” Will we have to sacrifice society’s advancement in science and knowledge? Will we go insane? Or are progressives the ones that are right? Is there no virtue in going through the old motions for no better reason than that is the way they’ve always been done?

The last article I read, yesterday morning, finally throws a glimmer of hope athwart the steady march toward dystopia. The Wall St. Journal, again, published an opinion piece (Emily Esfahani Smith of the Hoover Institution) about the Heterodox Academy. A self-described “politically-diverse group” of professors and graduate students has identified and targeted the free-speech stifling environment of 2018 universities. If, truly, we are seeing a broad-based understanding that our society’s understanding of freedom may be hurtling in the wrong direction, we may be able to correct our course.

Hope remains that the twenty-teens may be seen as a weird cultural outlier where, very briefly, political discourse in the West was seized by the politically correct and became a black comedy. As long as the comedy sputters out allowing cooler heads to prevail, we may yet return to the path of progress that we all once enjoyed. But a few dozen professors at a conference is just one small step.

Finally, all this talk of revolution reminds me of a picture that popped up on my Facebook feed yesterday, courtesy of a political activist. The imagery here gives heart to conservatives who feel, one way or another, victory will be theirs. I have no illusion that the Second Civil War will be brief – it will be awful. However, if the recognition of the absurd imbalance between the warring philosophies becomes mainstream, we may yet walk away from this in one piece.

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I think Motorcycle guy has an earring. I like that.

Fire Burn and Cauldron Bubble

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Last week I managed to catch, at the last possible moment before it was removed from Netflix, the movie The Sisterhood of Night.

As you may know, I studiously avoid reading the summaries of movies before I watch them. If I can at all help it. In this case, I was successful. I read a vague description of the film, but it was missing the major literary connection (which I am about to discuss, so if you too want to avoid plot giveaways and intend to watch this one, stop reading now). The connection, when I made it, was a surprise to me and I wondered why it wasn’t made obvious upfront. When I finished the movie and saw the summary, it was right there.

I do have a suspicion that Netflix has some different descriptions that it shows under various contexts, so it might be true that what I read before the movie was very different from what I read after.

The film is about a trio of teenage girls who are engaged in some kind of a secretive activity. Secretive in that we, the audience, are shown only hints of what they might be doing (some of them suggestive) and secretive in that what we are shown is that they swear to each other to keep the secret between themselves. The girls are in high school in Kingston, NY and each are show as having a troubled background.

At this point, I began to suspect a connection with actual events. There was something about the details of the location (it was, indeed, filmed in Kingston) that made me think it wasn’t pure fiction. I was right but, at the same time, way off.

Another major character, Emily Parris*, feels left out of the high school groove and attempts to fulfill her need for attention by writing a blog (which, we are told, nobody reads). Due to a fight with the leader of the trio (Mary Warren), she indirectly inspires the “Sisterhood” by driving Mary off of social media. She then discovers the Sisterhood’s existence and wants desperately to belong. Instead, she outs them on her blog, instantly making the blog popular. When confronted in real life, she faints.

That’s when it hit me. It isn’t a ripped-from-the-headlines current story, but a ripped-from-the-headlines 300+ year-old story. It is a modern retelling of The Crucible. Without that link, I was having a harder and harder time placing it. While the references to Facebook and blogging suggest a present-day (it is a 2014 film), one girl’s mother drives a vintage Volkswagen Beetle, in excellent condition. To me that suggested a 70s or 80s setting. Indeed the assumption that the girls had formed a “Satanic cult” and the religiosity of the town in general seem to be about a generation off, at least for coastal “blue state” America.

Now, the movie isn’t simply The Crucible in a modern setting. The story, the characters, and the morality tale are all changed a bit. It is no longer an allegory about Cold War relations, it is now an allegory of social media. Ironically, I think the it was the fact that it meant, not just to reimagine (as they say) The Crucible, but to reach for something greater prevented it from achieving something greater.

The movie could have just been satisfied with retelling The Crucible for the internet age, which is a bit of a hit-or-miss proposition. It also might have tried to put its own twist on the story. Done right, this is probably the best chance for success. This seemed to be the direction it was taking up until about the last half hour. But then, it seemed to shift gears and try to become some kind of spiritually-uplifting story of – well I don’t know what. We are shown how each of the characters gets what they’ve wished for in a series of rather drawn out epilogues. For me, it took what was looking to be a pretty good movie back down into so-so territory again.

And all of this after I was expecting a vampire movie. Go figure.

*I did not make the connection between the characters’ names in the movie relative to the play until well after noticing the connection via elements of the story. Honestly, I don’t remember the play well enough that any of the characters names would have tipped me off. Maybe John Proctor, but that’s it. A couple of funny things though. The film is based on a short story. It’s a short story that I haven’t read, nor have I found a synopses of it to tell how much the film deviates from the original material. However, I do see that there was an earlier (2006) short film also made from the book. In that version, the names of characters do not match those from The Crucible.

Furthermore, the names in The Sisterhood of Night do not line up with their roles in The Crucible. The Wikipedia entry draws connections between the Sisterhood characters and the Crucible characters – not very accurately, in my opinion. Point is, Mary Warren in The Sisterhood of Night is by no means Mary Warren in The Crucible.

This leads me to wonder how much more the film version tried to tie the story to The Crucible versus what was in the original story. The only way is to read the story, but I just don’t see myself doing that.