High King

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

Shortly after I was fiddling with Medieval II: Total War in relation to the William Wallace campaign, I loaded up a generic campaign just to give it a go. There are a couple of mods that I’ve installed and played with over the years. My main interest has been towards those which are intended to improve realism and historicity.

In this case, I loaded up the mod called Chivalry II: The Sicilian Vespers. The “Grand” campaign of that package begins in 1311, which is right about where I was leaving off with the death of Wallace. Now, my point wasn’t specifically to pick up where that last game left off in any way – I just wanted to refresh my memory about what the Chivalry II mod was all about. But because I was in the mindset, and because it did seem to be the “featured” campaign of this package, I decided to play as Scotland in that campaign.

irish1

Scotland and England struggle for dominance over Ireland.

First things first. The campaign is clearly not set up to represent the situation for Scotland in 1311. Scotland and England start the campaign at peace, even though we’re smack dab in the middle of the First Scottish War of Independence. Wallace remains alive and at the head of an army, even though he should have been dead three years. On top of this it is, of course, a Medieval II: Total War campaign, so the emphasis is on building up cities to unlock a tech tree, not the politics and personalities of the time.

As the campaign opened up, I had little to do. I thought I’d be trying to fend off the English, but they seemed interested in remaining at peace with Scotland. I waited a few turns watching the English do nothing much and then began looking for something else worth doing. I realized that Ireland was a “barbarian” civilization, meaning (in game terms) ripe for the plucking. So I sent off an army to the Emerald Isle to make them part of my future Great Gaelic empire. Little did I know…

My own ignorance of the period meant that I’d never heard of the Bruces’ Invasion of Ireland in 1315. In my defense, it is not something that gets a lot of attention. To get there, let us start back a century-and-a-half before to develop some context.

The title “Lord of Ireland” (Dominus Hiberniae) was created in 1177 for Prince John (yes, the Robin Hood guy) by King Henry II. Henry became involved in Irish affairs as a reaction to old rivalries.

From 1166, Diarmaid Mac Murchadha, king of Leinster, was fighting to regain the title to the throne he inherited after his brother’s death. Toirdhealbhach Ua Conchobhair, king of Connacht and High King of Ireland feared the power of Leinster and so encouraged his ally, king Tighearnán Mór Ua Ruairc of Bréifne to displace Mac Murchadha. In turn, Mac Murchadha sought English assistance in regaining his throne and struck an arrangement with Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, in which de Clare would would marry Mac Murchadha’s daughter Aoife in exchange for military assistance. Said marriage put de Clare in line for succession to a recaptured Leinster.

De Clare’s invasion of Ireland met with success and when Mac Murchadha died in May of 1171, de Clare claimed the throne of Leinster. This put him at odds with Mac Merchadha’s son as well as Irish succession law, sparking further Irish-Norman warfare. At this point, Henry II sent an army to Ireland. De Clare had been a supporter of King Stephen in opposition to Henry’s mother’s claim to the English throne and so Henry still viewed him with mistrust, despite decades of water under the bridge. Henry was particularly concerned with de Clare consolidating power in Ireland.  The English king took control of the lands de Clare had seized, Dublin, Wexford and Waterford, in exchange for concessions in France. In 1175, an agreement was signed formally granting Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair (son of Toirdhealbhach) dominion over Ireland except for Leinster, Dublin, and Waterford, which would be controlled by England, in exchange for tribute and fealty from the High King of Ireland to the throne of England.

It was this piece – Leinster, Dublin, and Waterford – that was transferred to Prince John in 1177. The Gaelic lords under English control were never entirely happy about the arrangement and, despite fairly successful administration from the standpoint of the English overlords, conflict remained a possibility.

In 1315, the Bruces came up with what they felt would be a win-win. The Scots would come to the rescue of their Irish brethren and help them to dislodge the English from the Emerald Island. The English, in turn, would have to divert their attention away from Scotland and over to Ireland, thus giving Scotland an edge in their fight with the English. Finally, Edward Bruce, the brother of King Robert, was proposed to be the new High King of Ireland.

In the end, it turned out not so well for Edward, but passably for Robert. The invasion of Ireland corresponded with the Great Famine of 1315-1317, causing poverty, starvation, and disease to spread throughout Europe. The farms of Ireland were unable to support the local population, much less an army from across the sea. So despite initial military success in 1315, the army was worn down by disease and attrition in the following years. In 1318, Edward’s army was defeated and Edward himself killed at the Battle of Faughart. Strategically, the cause of Scotland seems to have been served. Pressure was taken off of Scotland and redirected toward Ireland for the duration of the campaign, and Ireland ceased to be a base for military operations against the Scots.

irish2a

The old Field of Glory interface has a description of the scenario as you are selecting it. The Unity version does not.

A series of user-made scenarios covers the most significant battles from the Bruce campaign for Scotland in Field of Glory. The package starts at the end of May with the first battle, immediately upon landing at Larne, which took place just north of Belfast. Next is an ambush scenario, taking place between Newry and Dundalk, as the Bruce armies advanced southward from the vicinity of Belfast. Historically, this ambush failed and the Scottish armies continued on. In early September, a battle at Connor resulted in another Scottish victory and the capture of Richard de Burgh, 2nd Earl of Ulster. In early November, Bruce again met an Irish army in battle, this time at Kells, and won another victory. The Scottish army then sacked and burned Kells, as well as an number of other towns, as they marched through the Irish countryside.

irish3

The setup for the Battle of Connor. The Bruce Campaign maps feature difficult terrain.

Such destruction did not endear them to the Irish people, making them less inclined to see the Scots as liberators from the English. While Scotland was military successful in open battle and captured stronghold after stronghold (razing those belonging to those that did not support Bruce for High King), they were unable to hold the territory after they moved on.

irish4

All of the battles were fairly well balanced, but the Battle of Connor was the closest. Here I’m one broken unit away from a total rout for myself. However, I was about rally enough forces to turn the tide on the Anglo-Irish and pull out the win.

The next battle modeled took place in late January of 1316. It was again a Scottish victory and was again followed by plundering of the local area. The scant accounts of this battle that exist suggest this may have been a close affair. It is suggested that the Irish may have had a significant numbers advantage in this case, but internal divisions allowed Bruce the victory, albeit with heavy losses. In game, the scenario models this as an advantage of 1,200 men (in armies of in the 8,000 ballpark). But in game, this was not the toughest scenario. The Battle of Connor (see the previous screenshot) was the only one that came right down to the wire for me. I did not monitor losses closely. In the context of the records of the time, losses likely meant the deaths of important nobles, as opposed to foot-soldiers killed in battle.

Edward’s final battle, at Faughart, wraps up the scenarios in this series. In this battle Edward met a numerically superior force and was defeated by it, losing his own life and bringing to an end the dream of a Bruce as High King of Ireland. Ultimately Robert’s true views on Irish independence became clear when, after King Edward II’s death, he offered to Queen Isabella that, in exchange for acknowledging Scottish independence, Scotland would never aid Ireland in any rebellion against English rule.

Focusing on the scenarios themselves, this is a nice group depicting a the major fights within a campaign. It provides a context and continuity that can be hard to come by in Field of Glory, consisting as it does of only stand-alone scenarios. While working my way through them all, I discovered another problem with Field of Glory (Unity). If you go back to the original FoG screenshot (the very brown one, and the first of the three above), you see that when browsing the scenarios, there is a description by the scenario author that is displayed. When these scenarios are converted to FoG(U), alas, the scenario description does not convert. In a set like this, this leaves the player blind as to important information like the date of the battle (anything more specific than the year) and setup information. Of course you could always load the battle selection screen in the old version to decide which one to play and then load it again in the newer version to actually play it. But that provides a tough reminder of how the latest version is broken.

In this case, I did not play the two versions of the software side-by-side. I am assuming that FoG(U) is going to give me the better game. It is suitably aggressive in play, and I think that such aggressiveness is important for an AI player, so as to make the best of these scenarios.

I did a little reading of the forums surrounding the playing of these games and noticed some commentary about the different Field of Glory versions. From the looks of the forum, it looks like FoG(U) has hit a dead end. Experienced players are suggesting that new users interested in Field of Glory I purchase the new version only as a means to get access to the older Field of Glory – skip over the Unity upgrade entirely. With much of this, it may be as much related to multiplayer use of the software as anything else. While I understand that bringing Field of Glory II into the middle ages may be a better future than trying to fix FoG(U), it is a shame if this software path were to end in failure.

Advertisements

You Will Learn by the Numbers. I Will Teach You.

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

As I am finishing the first book in the Accursed Kings (Les Rois maudits), I came across a particularly interesting paragraph or two.

The setup is that Philip IV has just lost his advisor, the Keeper of the Seals. In the fictional account we, the reader, know that there is foul play involved. Historically, that is not evident and even within the story the assassins seem to have got away scot-free*. Upon said minister’s untimely death, the King moves quickly to seize his important papers so he can get abreast of any critical issues facing the kingdom. While reading, the King begins to see himself as others see him and, in doing so, has difficulty recognizing himself. The remarks from the letters he reads in the fictionalized scene are actually real descriptions of him that have survived to this day.

Now hold that thought.

Recently, there has been a transgender activist in the news. She(?) has been traveling around the country, visiting various legislative buildings, and holding up a sign that says ANAL SEX. Someone I know actually went up and asked her why she was doing this. She explained that she is advocating for First Amendment rights. This set off some private discussions as well as a news article** or two, all wondering about the appropriateness and effectiveness of this particular demonstration.

It is a common for recent expressions of “activism” to involve vulgarity, similar to the well-publicized wearing of “pussy hats.” Left-wing demonstrators carry signs, sometimes related to the cause and sometimes just because, with explicit language on them. “Slut” and “vagina” seem to be particular favorites. I’m sure I’ve seen others but, in general, creativity does not seem to be valued. Having seen it more than a few times, I think I have an idea of what they are trying to accomplish. There is a feeling among a segment of the left that their political opponents will lose their shit if they see certain words or phrases in writing, in public. What the endgame is beyond that, I’m not sure. I guess conservatives, driven stark raving mad by the word “slut,” will no longer be able to effectively advocate for the conservative agenda.

While this view of conservatives is apparently common, I’m not sure I can think of a single conservatives who falls into this category. An example of the yawning gap between how one sees one’s self and how others see us, despite the absolute belief that the image that we hold is the correct one.

Of course, this led me to reminisce about my own youth. When I was but a teenager, I had a girlfriend who was convinced that I was both religious and a prude. She delighted in playing me some of her favorite recordings; Ozzy and Iron Maiden, for its devil imagery, Rocky Horror Picture Show, for its explicit expressions of sexuality, and various other songs/bands which contained expletives in one form or another. I never tried very hard to dissuade her of her conception of me, but I also never quite understood from whence it came. After all, like Philip the Fair, I was familiar only with the me I grew up with.

I had a, I suppose, typical teenage boy’s fascination with the occult, despite never really getting into bands like Iron Maiden (I was a Pink Floyd guy). While I may not terribly prone to public ejaculations of using profanity, I was generally game taking in an explicitly-sexual reference. I also considered myself something of a connoisseur of the swear word.

My father, a military man, had a colorful vocabulary when provoked and, at some point in middle school, I had taken to trying out his (perhaps somewhat dated) arsenal on my fellow students. While the reception was less positive than I expected, I continued to appreciate the ability to express oneself with color all through high school. I also liked stumbling across a good round of swearing hidden in popular media; the movie Patton or the Back in Black album come to mind as particular examples.

The pious and prudish boyfriend of my young girlfriend simply bore little resemblance to my own self-perception. So it goes.

Oddly enough, that titillation that comes with finding a naughty word tucked into the every day didn’t end with my teenage years. Well into my thirties I recall the joy of finding the hidden f-bomb at the beginning of a Green Day song and my adult siblings not particularly sharing my amusement. It is a little strange and not entirely sensible. Let us just say that I am one to appreciate a good bout of cursing, particularly when done with style.

When I use a phrase like cursing with style, the first thing to come to mind might be R Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. His portrayal of a drill instructor defines for many what boot must be like, at least for those who haven’t had the pleasure of being treated to actual drill instruction. The character’s ability to weaponize profanity is frequently quoted and will surely be for generations to come. To paraphrase Sergeant Harman (and mix up a few movies to boot); Marine Drill Instructors die. That’s what they’re there for. But the tapestry of obscenity that they weave will live forever.

Sadly, Gunnery Sergeant Ermey left this earth on April 15th of this year.

To honor his passing, I re-watched Full Metal Jacket last night. I occasionally watch clips of his performance on YouTube and even have some of his insults mixed in with my digital music, but it has been a few years since I watched the whole film. His is an outstanding performance.

He almost didn’t play the role.

I’ve read or heard the story a number of times and in a number of different ways. Ermey was brought on board with the Full Metal Jacket production as an advisor and had to convince a reluctant Stanley Kubrick to give him the part. Some of the versions of these stories conflicted with others, so I found an interview he did shortly after the film was released so as to get the details of the story straight from the horses mouth, so to say.

He was not, as I had always assumed, a newcomer to filmmaking at that time. After his release from the Marines, he went to Manila to get a college education. While trying to make ends meet, he did some acting in various Filipino television commercials. That work eventually led to several acting roles in Filipino productions and a modicum of local fame. When Ermey heard about Francis Ford Coppola and the Apocalypse Now production coming to the Philippines, he was eager to get involved. He got some of his connections in Filipino show business to get him onto the Apocalypse Now set as an extra. Apparently, because he looked the part, that got him into an impromptu speaking role as a helicopter pilot in the signature Ride of the Valkyries scene of the movie, giving Ermey his first Hollywood acting role.

When Kubrick started filming Full Metal Jacket, Ermey had already played a drill instructor, portraying Sgt. Loyce in the Hong Kong production of The Boys of Company C. That movie was also filmed in the Philippines immediately after Ermey finished working on Apocalypse Now and is similar in structure (boot camp then deployment) to Full Metal Jacket.

Some of the story that I’ve heard attached to Full Metal Jacket actually comes from Ermey’s experience on The Boys of Company C. Specifically, there was a story about his being hired as an advisor to coach the actor playing the drill instructor and that his demonstrations were so impressive that he was moved into the actual on-screen role. This experience was from the earlier movie and its director Sidney J. Furie, not Kubrick.

As with The Boys of Company C, Ermey was hired by Kubrick as a technical advisor on Full Metal Jacket. Ermey was familiar with the source material, however, and greatly desired the on-screen role of the drill instructor (Sgt. Gerheim in the novel). Part of Kubrick’s objection to Ermey in a lead role was that he didn’t think he could be mean enough, based on having seen his performance in The Boys of Company C. Anyway, he was told, the part had already been filled and a contract signed.

Several stories that aren’t true are nonetheless somewhat based in reality. One story goes that all of Hartman’s scenes are improvised, something Kubrick would never have done. Another says that he made his own audition tape, involving performing the lines while having things thrown at him, and that tape sold Kubrick. Also not true.

What really happened, as told by Ermey, was that the staging of the Paris Island scenes came at the end of filming, after the Vietnam scenes were completed. At that point, well into the project, a team (including Ermey) had to select a new group of extras to portray the background characters in the barracks. Rather than interview recruits one-by-one, Ermey decided to dress as a drill instructor and basically act out the opening scene from the movie. The reactions of the recruits were then filmed, allowing the best to be selected and hired. After the first set of “interviews,” Kubrick laughed at Ermey saying that he had told him he couldn’t audition, but he saw he found a way anyway. He had Ermey’s version of the scene sent to be transcribed so as to replace the scripts dialog with Ermey’s version. He also asked Ermey to record the other major Hartman scenes, ad-libbing the dialog, so that the script could be revised there, too. After seeing Ermey as Hartman in all those scenes, Kubrick finally gave him the part.

When I read his obituary, one phrase that stood out a description of him as “kind and gentle soul.” Such words seem quite out-of-place for those who only know him as Sgt. Hartman and for his TV personality. But watching him in that old interview, the description clearly matches his demeanor. I guess that says something about the duality of man.

Full Metal Jacket is divided into two parts. The first half shows the main character, Private Joker (Mathew Modine), and his platoon attempting to survive boot camp under the instruction of Sergeant Hartman. The second half takes place some indeterminate time later in Vietnam. Joker is now a seasoned Marine and has been promoted to Sergeant himself. We find him acting as a combat correspondent for Stars and Stripes. The movie portrays a few days around the Tet Offensive and the reoccupation of Hue City (events distributed over about a month of real time).

For me, the first part is all Hartman/Ermey and is enjoyable to watch in that light alone. The second part is something of a mixed bag. I would have to characterize Full Metal Jacket as an anti-war film, although not  your typical anti-war film. Yes it focuses on the dehumanization necessary to turn a young man into a soldier, a killer. It also portrays the American soldiers in a less than flattering light. At the same time, it also includes the slaughter of civilians by the communists, leaving the impression that for all our flaws, we Americans remain the good-guys. The soldiers themselves are generally patriotic and ready to do their duty, including being eager to kill the enemy.

I suppose, more than being anti-war, it may being trying to suggest something about the duality of man. The Jungian thing.

From a technical standpoint, a few things really bother me. The trigger discipline is for shit. Every soldier runs around with their fingers wrapped around their rifle’s trigger. It’s a good thing the guns are obviously replicas. Now, I’ve actually seen a number of Vietnam era photos with triggers inappropriately covered, but I can’t imagine anything like what we see in the film could have happened without a lot more friendly-fire deaths. Especially since (problem 2), the soldiers are constantly aiming their rifles at the backs or sides of their squad-mates. That bothers me even more. I guess I’ve been well-conditioned. The mere sight of a gun-barrel sweeping across living person gives me the heebie jeebies, and that horror occurs throughout every combat scene in the second half of the movie as well as some of the meandering around scenes. Sgt. Ermey, where are you now?

The third thing that bothered me, although it was not a all atypical for war movies pre-Saving Private Ryan, is the use of special effects for gunfire without regard to how the actual gunfire would look. Bullet strikes on flesh occur with an explosion of red paint. There are also several scenes where the platoon peppers a building with fire directed at an unidentified target. Obviously, filming did not actually involved shooting up a building. Instead, pyrotechnics would have been placed on the target to simulate it being hit. And quite a pyrotechnic show it is. The 5.56 rounds from the M-16s are apt to explode upon hitting wood, creating a fiery spectacle. Afterwards, those same rounds have left grapefruit-sized holes in the outer wall of the building. Kubrick was known for his perfectionism, and things like this just really get to me. Of course, I didn’t really think about it so much in previous viewings. Kubrick was aspiring to maximal realism but, as I said above, the bar for war movies in the 1980s was lower than it is today.

Like me, critics generally found the second part less satisfying than the first part. Their criticisms were different that those above, of course, and I can really agree with many of those complaints. A common theme was a lack of cohesion in the second half of the film. Some were concerned about the lack of a clear moral message. One must remember that Full Metal Jacket was released in a wave of late-eighties Vietnam-themed films. It was said, at the time, the enough distance had finally intervened post-war that it was a finally a suitable subject for film-making. Pronouncement like these come with expectations.

I think the key problem is trying to view the two parts of the film separately. A motif in the second half fits together with something from boot camp. Because, as we hear, being trained to be a Marine does not make you a combat veteran. You are not changed – are not born again – until you are “in the shit.” The second half of the movie is necessary to complete Joker’s training; to complete his transformation. To finally find his war face. Similarly, Animal Mother essentially is the same person as Private Pyle. Just in Animal Mother’s reality, he didn’t snap before he went to Vietnam.  And so on.

Attempting scholarly analysis of Kubrick’s films spending only a few hours on a Saturday afternoon is a fool’s game. I should really read the book.

*The term scot-free has nothing to do with Scotsmen, notwithstanding jokes to the contrary. The term is one that rattled around between Old French and some Germanic languages. In England, a sceat (pronounced “shat”) was a Anglo-Saxon silver coin or, as sceatt a term for money. As variations of the term, by the Normans, began to be associated with land, a “scot” could be used to mean a tax or a fee. Thus, getting of “scot-free” means that you’ve successfully avoided paying taxes.

**It occurred to me that, essentially, asking my readers to google “ANAL SEX” would be a tad cruel. Here is a link to an article.

Ce n’est pas le Nom du Groupe

Tags

, , , , ,

Coming off of Netflix tonight is the Irish movie Sing Street. It’s another film that had been on my list for some time, but the threat of taking it off finally made me watch it.

Before watching it, I a saw a piece of someone’s review of the movie, where they called it a “feel-good film.” That’s a phrase that’s hard to get out of your head once it gets in there.

Indeed, Sing Street is a feel-good film. It is a good feel-good film; as good as some and better than most. I also, while watching it, couldn’t help comparing it with We Are The Best, which I watched a couple of years ago. They both have the same subject; teens in (for me) a foreign country who decide, under difficult circumstances, to form a band. They both take place at the same time (1982 for We Are the Best, 1985 for Sing Street, although the kids are probably the same age). But beyond that, the movies are very different.

Unlike We Are the Best, which seemed to try for an accurate portrayal of 1982 Sweden, Sing Street is more of an “80s themed” movie. It uses the cars, the music, and the recession of that time to set the stage, but it’s not exactly a realistic “period drama.” It also isn’t an accurate representation of the high school rock band experience. The Sing Street band goes from non-existent to writing and recording radio-quality pop tunes in a matter of days. While it works for this movie, it isn’t reality.

I was actually shocked to realize, at the end credits*, that the actors really did do their own music. I was sure, watching, that the music was some professional (and famous – I thought I recognized a voice at one point) singer being dubbed in. In fact, I had started to wonder if they used different singers for different styles of music. I am very impressed to see that Irish actor/musician Ferdia Walsh-Peelo actually sang the songs (although he had professional writers to create them).

So if the movie isn’t We Are the Best goes to Ireland, then what is it?

Well, its a feel-good film. The story is about a young man who suddenly finds his family on hard times and moves to a new, rougher school. He meets a beautiful girl and, in order to get her number, tells her he is in a band and they need her to film a video for one of their songs. Having said this, he now needs to form a band, write some songs, and come up with some video concepts.

The movie is a story that’s been told many times, but doesn’t really grow old. A young person, growing up in difficult circumstances, has to overcome those circumstances and find their own way. It is hard to define yourself, for yourself, but not doing so means you’ll forever be held back by those circumstances that you did not create.

The main character’s older brother, Brendan, explains the importance of a “vocation.” By this he means the meaning and purpose of a life (explicitly contrasting it with a job that does not have meaning). Driving a cab can be a vocation, says he (who never leaves his parents’ house) as can music or art. Finding your way and not being defined by your problems is how you become the person that you should be.

As is so often the case, I think the movie is really about the twenty-teens, and not the eighties. The music sounds way too modern. The bullying theme, emphasizing that bad kids are just starving for some positive attention, would not have been treated that way in an 80s movie to be sure. With its meta-references (the songs, speaking about the characters life, are reflected in the film itself), the film is very much a twenty-teens creature. Let me say, too, that the singing often reminded me more of Green Day than Duran Duran.

Also, don’t step in the plot-holes. As I said, the speed with which the band was created is a bit silly. One also might wonder how a kid who can’t afford a pair of shoes can suddenly be in possession of several Boy George outfits. I also had misgivings about the lead female character, Raphina. She’s a beautiful actress and played the part very well, but I’ve met my own “I’m going to be a model.” Let’s just say I predict that relationship is going to turn out very badly in the end.

Other elements of this movie speak to me, particularly. I was of an age, and interested in music, during this time. I had grown up listening to what we know would call “classic rock” and discovered, sometime in the mid-eighties, what we would come to call “alternative rock.” Reading reviews on Netflix, I think many fans of the movie are of a similar age and circumstance. My Raphina didn’t quite look as good as Lucy Boynton does, but life rarely lives up to the fantasy. There was also one scene, where my initial reaction was utter disbelief. At some point our main character (Conor, by the way) is confronted again by “the” bully. He defuses the situation with some existential musings about who exists in whose reality and whether existence without purpose is true existence. “Yeah, that would work,” thought I, sarcastically.

Except that it did. Somewhere around middle school, I figured out how to defuse violent bullying simply by speaking, using a vocabulary far over the heads of my tormentors. I don’t know why it worked, but it did. When they realized they couldn’t understand what I was saying (but, importantly, realized I was in fact making sense using the King’s English), their urge to violent aggression ebbed away.

The movie, and I don’t think one like this can be spoiled, turns out very well in the end. The boy gets the girl, and they head off into the sunrise**, perhaps to fame and fortune. They make friends with the bully and give him a purpose. All is well, and we heard some good songs on the journey. The movie is also fun it a lot of little ways. Little bits, from bits of costumes to a large number of rabbits, weren’t really part of the story itself, but made me laugh out loud as I watched.

How could anyone not love this movie.

I really like this song. It is not an 80s song.

*Another Netflix complaint I’d like to register. Like network TV, Netflix has now decided that rather than watch the credits of a movie, viewers would rather see some previews for something they might like to watch next. You can’t even enjoy the end-credit music while watching indecipherable pixels float by, because they also cut the credit sequence short when the preview is done. I don’t know why, but I’ve always enjoyed sitting through the credits when I rent a DVD or, especially, when I go to the theater. So, in this case, as I always do with Netflix streaming, I had to look up the credits on-line after the movie was over.

**The filmmaker said this scene was deliberately meant to be unbelievable – something out of a music video. He is not suggesting that Conor and Raphina will live happily ever after, or perhaps not even that they went to London in a fishing boat. He said he was surprised that the audience took it so literally.

 

You See? Death Comes to Us All

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

The title of this article is a line from Braveheart. It is delivered by soon-to-be Queen Isabella to the dying Edward I. While witnessing William Wallace’s execution, she tells him that her unborn child is not the offspring of her husband, Edward II, but is the result of a tryst with Wallace. She lets the King go to his grave knowing that his line will die with him.

Now, we all know that fictionalization of history can be used to add character and depth to a series of historical facts. We can’t know what the kings and queens of the 11th and 12th century said to each other, so a film must create entirely fictional dialog. This is understandable. Often, we don’t mind a dramatization going even further afield, advancing a compelling drama that capture the flavor of the times, if not the details. But sometimes a situation goes beyond even the absurd.

When William Wallace was executed, in 1305, Isabella was ten-years-old and still living in France, as of yet still 2-3 year away from her marriage to Edward II. It is unlikely she ever met Wallace. But on the outside chance that she did (when he was visiting France seeking political support), she was probably closer to the age of 5. Although Edward I arranged the betrothal of his own son and the daughter of Philip IV of France, the father had passed on before the marriage ever took place and he, likely, never met his future daughter-in-law either.

Stuffing Isabella into the Braveheart story is entirely unnecessary. She makes an interesting subject on her own and has been the subject of dramatizations starting from Christopher Marlowe’s 1592 play The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer and continuing to the present day. It is one of those present-day accounts I will turn to now.

Lost in Translation

When I was young, I had a bad experience with foreign novels.

There is no language, except English, where I have the proficiency to read anything of complexity. So any non-English novel that I want to read, I must read a translation of it. The first problem is that relatively few books are translated. I don’t have a handy source for my speculations, but I think that the number of non-English books published each year, which are subsequently translated to English and made available in the American market, is in the single-digits (percentage-wise). I’m talking in general, not classic literature, where the scholarly treatment is considerably different. I would think 5% would be a reasonable figure to use.

Once a book is translated, there is then another factor. Not only is the quality of the writing important, but the quality of the translation as well. Again, with classical works, academics will, over generations, work on refining translations to capture various aspects of the original language. But for a popular work, there is likely one translator, hired by a publisher, to do the work. That leaves us, as English-only consumers, as dependent on the translator as we are on the original author for a quality read. A really good translator needs to be not only proficient in both languages, but also should be a skilled writer (of the translated genre, one might imagine) in his own right as well as something of a literary critic.

I honestly don’t remember what caused it, but for years I simply assumed all translated books were going to be tough reads, and avoided them wherever possible. This finally changed in college when I was assigned a rather nice translation of Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir. But even with my prejudice lifted, there are still so many native language books to read that it is rare for me to take up a non-native work.

An Iron King for an Iron Throne?

I digress so because I was looking at some of the more modern dramatizations of the life of Isabella and I found that there are many. One that stood out for me was the author Maurice Druon and his series Les Rois maudits in that, despite being something like six decades old, the novels are receiving current attention. Most noticeable, the author and the series come recommended by George R. R. Martin, citing it as an inspiration for A Game of Thrones.

This last would seem to be more than just coincidental. As Martin discussed his appreciation for Druon and his works, the series was being re-released in English by Martin’s publisher. The “original Game of Thrones” line could be put on covers and sold to fans waiting, desperate and disappointed, for the next book in the actual Song of Fire and Ice series. Whatever the behind the scenes, it works out well for me. Instead of having to try to find used copies of translations from the 1960s, I can order a newly-printed, English version of The Iron King to be delivered to me two days’ hence and enjoy these books that were, until a couple of years ago, decades out of print.

The book is well written and an enjoyable read. This is a compliment not only to the author, but to the translator. The latter is the original translator of the book; it does not appear that the series was re-translated for the current printing, except that the final book in the series was never translated in the first place.

The opening book of the series ties together the execution of the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar (Jacques de Molay) with the crises of succession that began with the Tour de Nesle affair, the death of Philip IV of France, and the questions of inheritance that ultimate fueled the Hundred Years’ War. Historical events are convincingly, while also entertainingly, told. They are also almost certainly not accurate.

The relationship between Edward II and Isabella, as I said, has been developed over the centuries, creating a narrative of how the “She-wolf of France*” was ignored by her weak and homosexual husband, leading her to resent, hate, and ultimately kill him. While she did indeed play a major role in dethroning her own husband, there is plenty of evidence that their marriage was a happy and loving one. They had, together, four children and, when apart, addressed each other in  letters using affectionate pet names. Written signs of this affection extend even beyond the date when Edward had abdicated and was imprisoned. Isabella’s role in his death is by no means proven. More likely, established story of today is a combination of political rumor of the time combined with fanciful storytelling from future generations.

Even the titular “curse” may be a combination of a several different, yet similar events. There are even historians that doubt the veracity of the accusations of adultery. The proof of them are confessions obtained by torture, which is not the most reliable source of information.

As improbable as the narrative of Les Rois maudits matching the true events of the day may be, it is nevertheless impossible to prove that things did not take place in such a manner. The story fully fleshes out the tale in a way that is believable, compelling, and fun.

Agreed to Have a Battle

The Tour de Nesle was a political event which would not have counterparts in wargames. It is easy to trace the impact of what happened into the future of Europe. For example, with the parentage of the grandchildren of Phillip IV in doubt, French inheritance would come to emphasize the male relatives over closer relatives through the female relations. The difference in French and English interpretations led to Edward III’s claim to the French throne, a claim that led to the Hundred Years War. It is harder to find a companion game to share in the flavor and timeframe of The Iron King.

Instead, I’ll return to the alternate timeline that I had started earlier. My House Neuchâtel continues to rule Upper Burgundy with an eye to either independence or further prominence within the Holy Roman Empire. By this point we are obviously pretty far afield from any direct relation to historical events.

In fact, in this reality, we find ourselves with the Holy Roman Empire at war with England. King George (350 years too early) of England has managed to get himself excommunicated.  Holy Roman Emperor Bořivoj Přemyslid declared war on the Heretic, probably with good reason, but those reasons weren’t shared with me. I saw an opportunity to advance my position.

I managed to “discover” that I had a strong claim on the County of Auvergne, near enough to my coveted “Greater Burgundy,” but currently under the jurisdiction of King George. Having done so, I offered to send my forces in support of Emperor Boris. Now, as far as I know, my claim was rather irrelevant to the whole process. Unlike Europa Universalis, Crusader Kings does not allow a negotiated peace drawing from all sorts of potential concessions. The conclusion of a war results in exactly the peace conditions that were specified when the war was declared. However, I figured coming in on the side of the Emperor would improve my standing in his court, earn me some prestige from my victories, as well as smack England around making it easy to capture Auvergne in some future war. On top of that, the Emperor seemed like he could use the help.

bores1

August 1319. I have sent my armies into Auvergne to occupy the castle to which I claim title. While I got smacked around a bit at first, I managed to win a siege. The Emperor’s main army, besieging Toulouse, is about to face a larger English relief force.

This setup leads a to a battle that is interesting from a strategic perspective in that it engages the vast majority of the troops available to both sides. It is also interesting in that the outcome is by no means preordained. Because of the close match, I’m going to once again create a tactical version of the battle in Field of Glory.

bores2

The armies have engaged. The English have a slight advantage in numbers, but the Germans are operating from a semi-permanent siege camp.

Bringing my Burgundians into the battle gets the two armies very close to evenly-matched in numbers. As the main battle commences, my money was against the Empire. The English have a slight edge in numbers and in organization, although other factors work against them. Reconstructing this fight in FoG(U) creates an even bigger gap.

bores5

I array my army with the flanks anchored against two large hills. It proved to be sufficient to stop the English.

My first and obvious mistake was that I chose a map too big for the armies and the battle. It having been a while since I set up a random battle, I thought the two armies sounded really big. In fact, they are to the large end of medium. With the large battlefield, it took 7 turns for the two armies to move forward into a reasonable engagement distance. As we’ve seen before, the FoG(U) AI moves aggressively forward, without attempting to keep his armies in line. I, on the other hand, did my best to retain my formation until engagement. In addition to its size, this terrain is probably too flat and open for Southwestern France.  In FoG(U), random battle maps are not autogenerated. You must chose from a subset of the existing scenario library.

The last time I tried this, I thought the haphazard AI attack would be their undoing. It turned out not to be. In this case, my own line held together throughout the battle, and I was able to defeat the enemy as the waves came at me. In the end I won a solid victory.

bores7

The English line have broken, and the remnants of their armies flee the field. I cut them down with my pursuit.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the tactical result again matched the strategic result. Now, I’m not saying this is anything but dumb luck. While there may be factors that predicted a German win in Crusader Kings, there is nothing that translated those factors to the tactical battle. I just find it surprising that this exercise has worked, now, twice in a row.

Death Comes to Us All

In the end, everyone died. First King George, then the Emperor, and the my own Duke. The Emperor’s death, in particular, shook all of Europe. With the child heir now nominal Emperor, factions rose up across Europe trying to place a more capable successor on the imperial throne. Suddenly, the war with a now-dead excommunicated English king seemed like a minor worry. England’s armies had been beaten down enough that, while they were left to retake their lost castles rather unopposed, a truce was eventually declared with no clear winner (a White Peace in EU terms).

Somewhere in here, my aging Duke died leaving  his inheritance to his grandson. The claim on the English county died with the elder Duke, leaving the whole episode an exercise in pointlessness. Welcome to the twelfth century.

*The epithet was used by Shakespeare in History of Henry VI, Part III to describe Margaret of Anjou, but was reapplied to Isabella by Thomas Gray in 1757. Isabella is probably most associated with the term today.

Rollercoaster

Tags

, , ,

It was a struggle, but I finally made it through The Scottish Chiefs. To reward myself, I decided to read a modern (of sorts, it was written 16 years ago) thriller. The book is Utopia (renamed Lethal Velocity, perhaps to entice readers to buy it again 16 years on) by Lincoln Child.

Reading a book like The Scottish Chiefs is like reading poetry. In this particular case, not very good poetry, but poetry nonetheless. You can’t really race through it and much of the time the “story” seems to take a backseat to the exposition. Done right, one imagines, would allow the reader to wallow in the prose and appreciate the beauty of the imagery while, at the same time (still being a novel), being told a story of value. A modern thriller, on the other hand, is like a drug. The text seems to have been weaponized, propelling you through the story as fast as you can read for as late as you can stay up at night.

Lincoln Child has written a few dozen dozen books at this point, many of them as a joint effort with co-author Douglas Preston. The authors (the pair) were recommended to me almost five years ago by a friend who described it as “beach reading.” My first impression on digging into the novel Relic was the similarity to the writing of Michael Chrichton (also considered beach reading, I suppose). I may or may not have been influenced by a suggestion in one of the blurbs that compared Relic favorably to Chrichton’s writing (maybe even specifically Jurassic Park). This, too, was my impression – A more intelligent version of a Chrichton novel.

At some point (unrelated to Relic), I realized there was a formula to Chrichton novels. They will start out with a “prologue” mini-story, related to the events of the book, but absent any of what will come to be the main characters. Those who do appear in the first section are free to be slaughtered, maimed, or otherwise misused, the reader having not yet invested any attachment in them. Then the “real” chapters start andwe meet the main characters. Usually (at least at this point), they removed from whatever the action is. Continue another chapter or two and the main characters begin coming into contact with whatever we, the reader, encountered in that first bit. Often there are multiple characters, multiple story lines, such that the book can jump back and forth between as the story advances. As the reader, many chapters are left with a cliff-hanger ending, meaning you are loath to stop at the convenient break, instead eager to start into the next chapter, just to see what happens. But that next chapter is a different character/story-line, so now you’ve got to read a couple more chapters before turning off the light for the night. Lather, Rinse, Repeat.

Chrichton’s works often have a “moral” lurking below the story itself. If you agree with the moral (think the global warming critique of State of Fear) such deeper meaning may add to the experience. If you’re not quite on board with his thesis (the fundamental uncontrollablity of complex systems in Jurassic Park), then it becomes a distraction.

Utopia shares the subject matter, high-tech control of complex systems, with Jurassic Park. A keystone of the story is the self-learning network that controls the robotics in a (slightly beyond) the state-of-the-art theme park. Unlike with Chrichton, there is no deeper analysis of the societal implications. Cool technology is cool technology – no stern pontifications needed. In terms of the structure, it almost seems like someone picked apart a Chrichton novel and built this one to match. There is a particular cliff-hanging technique used in both Utopia and Jurassic Park. One of the primary characters, either the hero or a close advisor to the hero, has an epiphany and announces to everyone that he sees the big picture and has figured it out. Just as he is about to explain, something else happens and he is cut off in mid-sentence. As they rush off to deal with the sudden crisis, the chapter ends. The next chapter is a jump to another thread in the story, leaving you with a good chunk of the book to read before you can know what the character apparently has figured out. Both books (and many others) follow this formula to the T.

With Chrichton, it was noticeable because it was also frustrating. The “reveal” when it eventually came (many, many chapters later) was often so much less than the promise of it. Indeed, there are more than one of Chrichton’s works where the story just kind of fizzles out at the end. For all the build-up, the ending feels a little tacked on. On this, Child’s writing seems to be an improvement. The endings seem more worthy of the build-ups. And yes, the overall writing style is just a notch more “intelligent” than the Chrichton thriller. One glaring tick in the Child and Preston/Child novels, though, is there is occasionally bits that just seem that they’re trying too hard to be “intelligent.” The example in Utopia is some detailed discussion of fine wine by one of the main characters, attempting to lead into an analogy about a fungus present in wine making versus the rot that is the bad guys who are in the theme park. The analogy pretty much flops and, instead, seems just to be in the book to show off the author’s knowledge of top-tier wines. A little broadcast that “this book is not just beach reading, it’s for smart people!”

That last bit aside, I’ve never turned away a Chrichton novel and don’t expect I’ll turn away a Lincoln Child novel either.

 

 

We’re Burnin’ Through Your Town

Tags

, , , ,

Part 3 of a 3 part post. Back to Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

In the previous post, I was disappointed with the CMANO scenario I played. It was too hard for me, yes, but I also didn’t feel like I was learning anything by playing it.

This time I tried the scenario Deter, Detect, Defend, which takes place in 1962. I also got completely destroyed by it (the game said it was a disaster), but in this case it was a fun experience. Why the difference?

This scenario places you in command of NORAD Region 25, headquartered at McChord AFB near Tacoma WA. You’re charged with the defense of the major metropolitan areas of the U.S. Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. With several different types of fighter planes and interceptors (along with batteries of Nike Hercules Surface-to-Air missiles) you must stop what the Soviets have in store for your zone. It is a kind of slow-motion, low-tech Missile Command.

Part of the challenge is that the scenario poses that the nuclear war has escalated so suddenly, you start out on peacetime alert. You must make your initial defense with what is ready at the moment, rather than the full complement of forces.

norad1

I have my fighters up, and I’ve been alerted to some suspicious formations headed for Seattle. Smoke ’em?

This scenario is rated as more towards the easy side. If it weren’t for the low alert, the player would have more than enough interceptors to do everything he needs to do and more. What makes the scenario a bit challenging are a couple of surprises hidden away in it. Likely, reading through this, you’ll discover those surprises, which may ruin this scenario if you’re thinking of playing it. Consider yourself forewarned.

Even on easy, as I said above, I lost miserably. In stark contrast to the previous scenario, it is easy to tell why I lost and what needs to be done differently to not lose. Basically, there are a few incoming flights that, if you don’t have fighters in the air and covering the correct sector, you won’t have time to intercept them. Until they were on top of me, I did not realize that their direction was one of the approaches for the enemy.

For some reason, getting Vancouver nuked loses you the game. Hey, I didn’t lose any American cities! Shouldn’t that be a minor victory? (Just kidding, Canadian readers).

norad2

Whoops. Didn’t United Airlines tell their pilots that there is a war on. Good think I didn’t just blindly start taking out everything coming in from the East.

What’s fun about this scenario is not just that it is tense without being overwhelmingly difficult. It is also the array of weaponry you have at your disposal (and facing off against you.). The way the scenario starts, with your bases not being on alert, means your initial task is to chose the loadouts for your idle and reserve aircraft.

Some choice it is.

In this confrontation we ,the players, have at our disposal the latest in air-to-air missiles (AIM-4 Falcon) as well as a few exotic beasts. There is the AIR-2 Genie (sometimes called the Ding-Dong), a nuclear-tipped air-to-air missile. I guess that’s one way to be really, really sure you get the kill. You’ve also got your Folding-Fin Aerial Rocket Mk 4, aka Mighty Mouse. This rocket designed for bomber intercept missions was modeled after German WWII systems successfully used against American Bombers and intended to compensate for the extreme high speeds of intercept. Sadly, it wasn’t very effective. While the rockets’ detonation could do plenty of damage, accuracy was a problem. I wanted to give them a try, but never got the chance.

norad3

Caught with my pants down. Those little red specks over Vancouver and points south are nukes. I’ve got a pair of Delta Daggers on afterburner headed for intercept, but they didn’t make it in time.

norad4

Boom.

Carrying these instruments of the Atomic Age are an array of interceptor planes whose names are scarcely remembered. The F-102 Delta Dart, F-106 Delta Dart, and F-101 Voodoo were, at the time, the top of line. They came as part of the rapid innovation that occurred prior to the Vietnam War. In a few years, we will see technology start to settle into much longer development and operational times. Once you know a country’s platforms, you won’t need to know the exact year. But up through the early sixties, it sometimes could feel like a free-for-all.

When I was a little kid, I had a sticker book for aircraft. It took me from the first aircraft and the First World War up through “modern” designs, which in this case happened to be the early 1960s. It was not just warplanes; there was also an emphasis on some of the experimental planes pushing the speed and altitude records at the time. I can still recall the fascination with the shiny , futuristic jet designs with their exotic-sounding names. For the imaginative, this may have been the height of the “jet age,” or the “atomic age,” or whatever description captures the cusp-of-the-future state of technology of that time.

norad5

Ground batteries are locked on to the incoming cruise missiles. Now we wait to see which side’s systems actually work.

I am ignoring, in my narrative, the enemy’s technology. During play, you don’t get the focus of the details of the other side as you do on your own equipment. The fog of war often hides the opponent, eluding precise identification. Coming at us, we see a range of bombers carry nukes as well as cruise missiles, presenting an equally appealing view into the other side of the arms race.

One thing to remember, and it is highlighted in the scenario notes, this situation is all-but-impossible. The politics of the 1960s focused on the Bomber Gap, and that beautiful array of American weaponry was likely made available through this fear. But the fact is, well before this attack took place, the upper echelons of command were aware of what the world now knows. It was the U.S. that had the vast superiority in terms of strategic resources. The USSR simply didn’t have the capability of launching a massive first strike in 1962, of the sort depicted here.

So a simple and fun scenario for playing some global thermonuclear war to pass the time.

 

My Gypsy Road Can’t Take Me Home

Tags

, , , , , ,

Part 2 of a 3 part post. See Part 1 here.

Having failed to find any historical meat to chew on in my strategic-level games, I will instead look at two different CMANO scenarios set in 1961 and 1962. These specifically deal with nuclear weapons. The first of the two scenarios takes place during the Berlin Crisis of 1961 and involves positioning a nuclear armed submarine. Think of it as a CMANO-as-subsim scenario. The second is an imagining of a World War III nuclear scenario, circa 1962. It is an equivalent of the WarGames first strike/defense scenario, except set in a time when strategic bombers were still the core of the both sides’ nuclear capabilities.

A little CMANO aside, first. Matrix/Slitherine has been regularly updating the core program along with their DLC mini-game releases. That’s a good thing. What’s not a good thing is that every time I try to update, I manage to mess up my installation. It all seems to trace back to the fact I have two versions installed from my original disk. There’s the version as it first was delivered. Then there is a second version, the Wargame of the Year edition, which was a (free) upgrade from the publisher. It is that second installation that seems to be the operative one, and yet it is the first installation that seems to have a hold on Windows’ fiddly bits. Ultimately, I have always been able to go to the Slitherine website, download the updates directly, and manually correct the mess I’ve made with the auto-update program. Probably, if I remembered everything that went wrong, I’d also remember not to get into the same problem the next time. But by the time I’m ready to update again, I’m sure I will have forgotten what happened this time.

cman1

That IS an improvement!

So back to that first scenario, called Regulus, after the nuclear weapon featured therein.  It isn’t quite the “subsim” that I alluded to above. In the scenario, you actually command three different boats: one, the Growler, armed with Regulus nuclear missiles and two GUPPY class (1960s versions of the World War II Tench class), armed with torpedoes. The three need to maneuver through Soviet-patrolled waters in order to threaten Soviet land targets (with the nukes) and Soviet launch platforms (with torpedoes, one presumes) in the international, but isolatable, waters near the Kuril Islands. So commanding three subs simultaneously is not exactly subsim territory, it is still a game of slinking along blind and listening for signs of threats from the enemy.

Still playing, as I am, Bioshock, I can see some real contrasts between these two game styles. I consider both Bioshock and CMANO to be great games; the state-of-the-art for their genre. However, those genres are very different.

As I said in that earlier article, one of the tricks of the First Person Shooter genre is to take a linear game and present it in a way so that it feels non-linear. Bioshock does a good job with this. The world is fairly open, you can ride around in the underwater Metro going visiting any of the locations that you’ve discovered so far. However, the story moves you forward through the locations and through key events that are structured and preprogrammed. To put it another way, you are free to go backwards to previous levels in any way that you choose to do so, but you cannot skip ahead. The game has various artifices, a broken transport system or a locked door, that help to keep you on track without necessarily seeming like it does so. In this way, you are at almost any time facing exactly the environment that the developer intends for you to face. He has prepared you in both (player) knowledge and (in game) capabilities for the challenge you are about to face.

Contrast that with a military simulation. In the game engine as a whole (distinct, for the moment, from scenario design) you want the player to be free to take nearly any action. The program’s job is to simulate the “world’s” reaction to the player’s moves. The more varied its response, the more unpredictable (while still remaining effective), the better the simulation for most purposes. Of course, that unpredictability can be programmed in from the start – think of scenarios with triggered scripts – but the best of CMANO‘s genre stand out in their ability to handle the widest variety of situations and hold up throughout gameplay, whatever the player decides to do.

When it comes to the generic “sandbox” style wargames, the onus for a good battle will tend to fall onto the scenario designer. If the game can take an arbitrary pair of adversaries and reasonably handle one of them under a multitude of conditions, then obviously that initial setup might well be a bad one. One side or the other could have an edge that makes the game unwinnable (or unlosable). The forces could be so far out of contact that the game times-out before they get a chance to fight. Or perhaps it is just the that choices that you are required to make, while all reasonable, aren’t particularly fun within the parameters of how the game plays. Good scenario design is required to balance all these things that could go wrong in the hope that it will all go right.

Again, focusing on the sandbox games, the developers often depend on the the user community to develop such scenarios in order to fulfill the value proposition of their game, a proposition for which quality control becomes nearly impossible. So for a game like CMANO, there are a handful of scenarios (plus DLC add-ons) from the developers themselves. With those the customer might expect a certain quality. But developer-designed scenarios can’t possibly, of course, cover the whole range of the capabilities of the engine. So for a particular era I’m interested in (say, a war going nuclear circa 1961-2), I probably have to rely some hobbyist about whom I don’t know anything and who probably didn’t have me in mind when he made his scenario. Will it be too easy? Too hard? Focus on parameters different that the ones I’m interested in?

One example, I recall a CMANO scenario I played years ago where the key to it was organized around choosing the initial load-out for your attack aircraft. Perhaps an interesting question to some. But what if you don’t know and aren’t particularly interested in solving that puzzle? Does it leave the scenario unplayable do you? And when do you find out – how many times through the scenario might you play before you realize you are doing it all wrong(ly).

cman2

Approaching one of the possible passages through the Kuril Islands through to the Sea of Okhotsk. It’s going to take the better part of the day to approach the “hot” zone.

Going back to the top. Let’s say you’re playing a shooter that wants to choose between one of three approaches. That choice is probably presented, you take it, some cuts scenes might explain your choice, and then you’re in the action. It is also unlikely that, by making the wrong choice, you automatically lose the game. But it any case, you would expect the decision to take you right back into the action. Compare and contrast with the Regulus scenario. As the commander, you need to choose between several different passages where Russian patrols and minefields may lurk. Some are less heavily guarded and others have more natural advantages (e.g. deeper water or wider channels). So which do you take? What if many of the answers are outright wrong?

Suppose, too, that you’re not really up on the technology of this period. How easy or hard is it going to be to avoid detection? Is there a speed/depth combination that will outright kill you every time? And its not simply a case of knowing the technology (as big a hurdle as that might be itself). How “alert” is the enemy? How many assets are deployed looking for you? What kind of research, experience, pre-planning does it take to know what choices to make?

In the Regulus scenario, the way the choices are presented are by placing you far enough out, away from the action, that you can freely choose how you want to approach. So far so good. How could it be done any other way? CMANO simulates the details and that means approach. The problem comes is that your are at least a day away from whatever action might take place. So even running at 1 minute = 1 hour, that still a minimum of a half-hour of doing absolutely nothing except staring at the screen and waiting for something to happen. It’s made worse by the fact that you (or at least I) don’t know where that “action zone” is. And if things start happening while you’re running at 1 minute = 1 hour, you can suffer a whole lot of losses before you find the pause button*.

The reason I wanted to dig into this scenario in the first place is I remember when I saw the actual USS Growler. It is currently  (I think) on display in Manhattan along side the USS Intrepid floating museum. The boat has a Regulus missile on the deck. The Regulus is a design based on the German V1 rocket and was the first ship-based nuclear missle deployed by the U.S. Navy. I recall the protests in the early 1980s that brought the cruise missile technology into the public eye and, up until I saw the Growler, I associated the technology only with “modern” weapons. Just seeing the technology on display got me thinking about the differences between the nuclear age of the 1960s versus the nuclear age of the 1980s.

How about another genre comparison? Since my reinstall of Patrician 3, I’ve been playing it way too much. I’m in some 71 hours in less than two months can be explained, perhaps, because Patrician is a good go-to game when I want to engage in a kind of low-stress but non-trivial game/time waster. As I said, it is quite addictive, for what it is, which is basically a dynamic spreadsheet. It takes some time to learn the layout of land – where to buy, where to sell, and what are fundamentally good prices for each. After that, you’re engaged in a a repetitive cycle of small decisions that gradually build up your wealth and prestige. Each time you feed a town that has run out of meat or improve mood of the poor, it feels like a little bit of victory. It doesn’t take any deep analysis to make good decisions, and the nature of those good decisions are wide open. There are certain goods that I use to make most of my money, and others that I only trade to fill demand. Those decisions I can adapt to my own style while other players are equally (if not more) successful with a different set of choices. Regrets, I’ve had a few. But small mistakes are easily absorbed by all the good decisions you make.

Forward 950 years. For Regulus, it is the opposite. It seems that even one or two mistakes will spell the end of the game. Since you can’t make mistakes and learn from them, without restarting the scenario, you need to learn about the “right” way to do things (really) before attempting the scenario. If you don’t, you fail, and really have no way of knowing why.

cman3

An hour or so into the game, this is the first feedback of any sort I’ve received. Game Over, Man.

In the above screenshot, taken from my 3rd attempt at the scenario, I’m attempting to run my submarines deep through a channel between the islands. After painstakingly waiting for them to move into position, they are finally approaching the choke point. So far, I have no contact with any enemy. No sonar search, no depth charge patterns, no engine noises of the enemy moving about above. Then my first message appears – Boom! you’re dead. The scenario does not give any significant feedback about what went right and what went wrong. Likewise, while there is occasionally forum discussion on user-made scenarios, there is also often not.

With this one, I find it not fun and not educational. I think all my issues could have been solved, however, with a nice “debriefing” at the end. Making it dynamic (here’s what you did wrong) might be beyond the capabilities of the CMANO scenario creator, but at a minimum a set of hints about what you need to do right would be helpful. If indeed it is a scenario about how effective the anti-submarine warfare of the OPFOR was and, for even a good strategy, a bad “die roll” can kill you, then make that explicit. If there is a right way to detect when you are in danger of being detected, explain that.

During the development of this scenario, one user explained how he won. He waited for the hot war to start and then began nuking airbases, wiping out the capabilities of his enemy. I suppose that once you’re giving the “weapons free,” anything is fair target, but I would think I should be taking seriously the operational instructions which designate specific targets. Using nuclear cruise missiles as defensive, tactical weapons not only seems like bad form, but a quick way to end civilization as we know it.

(on to Part 3).

*As an aside, at some point (after I finished with this scenario) I finally realized that the Enter Key will shift you back to real time, which does give you a fairly good way to halt time compression in an emergency.

Attack Ships on Fire

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

The movie opens with a Rutger Hauer death scene.

From his accent, it never occurred to me that Hauer was anything other than raised in America. In fact, for more than a decade before his first role in a English-language production, Hauer made his acting career in Dutch television and film. Probably you knew that.

With the movie Michiel de Ruyter (titled as Admiral in America) Hauer is back to his roots playing, briefly, the role of Admiral Maarten Tromp in a scene that introduces (then) Captain Michiel de Ruyter to the screen. The movie is being removed from Netflix in a few short days, I so I’ve taken the opportunity to watch it before it goes.

The Dutch Republic was formed in 1588 while attempting to gain independence from Spain. While the States General of the Netherlands had declared independence from Phillip of Spain some seven years earlier, attempts to find a new royal head for the confederation were exhausted before the republican government was adopted. It wasn’t until the conclusion of the Eighty Years’ War, in 1648, that Spain recognized Dutch independence.

This movie focuses on some of the national heroes who defended the independence of the Netherlands and the republican structure of government the decades following independence from Spain. The Republic spent several periods without a stadtholder (roughly translated, Steward) – a personage of noble birth who served as head of State for the Netherlands. Absent this office, the Prime Minister (then raadspensionaris, or Grand Pensionary) was the political leader for the nation.

The movie opens with an explanation that the Netherlands, absent a monarchy, drew the negative attention of the Kingdoms of Europe, interested in suppressing Republican success. Furthermore, the Dutch were at the height of economic power. Their East Indian Company had grown to be the largest private company in the history of the world. That wealth, and the domination of world trade that produced it, was also targeted (particularly by the English), resulting in several naval wars.

I didn’t know this movie was available. I’ve always been fascinated with the maritime art of this period, and have wondered why (in the era of modern technology) the industry doesn’t produce epic sea battles like I have the vaguest of memories of enjoying in my childhood. This movie takes on that challenge, and succeeds (uhhh) Admirably. Certainly more than I could hope for from a non-Hollywood produced (and financed) film. The budget for the film, at 8 million euros, was a factor of 20 below Master and Commander. Yet, it creates probably the best representation of Age of Sail warfare I’ve seen in a movie – probably far better than the wooden-models-in-a-bathtub I was probably watching when I was 7 years old.

Let’s take the Four Days’ Battle (as depicted in the film). This parenthetical disclaimer is important because the movie’s battle deviates significantly from the course of the actual battle. For starters, the battle in the movie seems to take maybe four hours, not four days. But let us work with what we’ve got.

As I’ve said, the representation of period sailing and combat is to be commended. The live-action sequences are excellent and don’t over-rely on CGI, as can happen in some lower-budget films. The CGI effects are (mostly) not noticed and the other tricks probably would have slipped by me if I wasn’t looking for them. For example, when portraying a pair of ships side-by-side, repeatedly only the masts and sails of the second ship are visible, probably because of the impossibility of staging a battle with multiple, full-sized period sailing ships.

One effective use of CGI, and its a very realistic looking effect at that, is to occasionally show the proverbial 30,000′ view of the battle. The tactics of the battle can be seen quite clearly in a way that is utterly impossible from the ship level. For the Four Days’ Battle, we are shown several key moments in the fight; the initial deployments into line, the development of a gap in the Dutch line and its exploitation by the English, and then a battle-winning countermove by the Dutch. It is just the stuff you want to capture in an epic strategy game.

The question is how do you do it. By and large*, the depiction of Age of Sail in the gaming world is to give the player control over sails (using wind speed, direction, and the amount of sail) and cannons (through broadsides and reload times). This would seem to capture the essence of commanding a fighting ship, particularly when some management of the crew is tossed in for good measure. The vast majority of Age of Sail PC game designs seem to have been based upon miniatures rules (or, perhaps, cardboard counter games very similarly structure), enhancing for real time or perhaps just additional tracking of resources. This gives you some sense of the thrill of trying to manage the wind, and the waves, and the gunpowder to get an upper-hand on your opposite number, although less so than perhaps I’d always hoped for**. At this level, however, there is an upper limit to the number of ships you can command in battle. Either it gets too frantic to keep track of every ship in a real time game, or in a turn based environment, simply tedious to have to visit dozens of ships each turn.

In theory, there is another level of command that could be modeled.  Developing strategies, maintaining formations, and managing the weather gauge for a fleet as a whole seems it would be full of strategic possibilities. Command issues abound, from the communication difficulties of the time to the need to coordinate between ships, each with their own sailing characteristics and capabilities. Such coverage would open the possibility of reliving the major fleet actions of the time.

Many of these issues are managed well before the battle is underway. For example, the experience of a captain and crew are going make a big difference in ship effectiveness. Most sailing games take into account crew rating, but just saying the crew of The Revenge is a “B,” that seems to miss the point. It means your “die rolls” will need to be a little better to be successful, but usually there isn’t much you can do about that.

In the film, the battle is preceded by a sequence where, as De Ruyter takes command of the navy, he institutes a number of innovations that become the key to his later victory. Some are accurate – it really was at this time that De Witt and De Ruyter formed the Netherlands Marine Corps. Other factors seem to be rather embellished to help the story, and fit directly into the depiction of this particular battle. The movie shows the two of them inventing a new signal flag code, constructing a new set of ships based on modernized design, and instituting additional training regimens. This preparation had as much to do with victory as the implementation of that strategy on the day (ahem) of the battle.

So is it possible to create a “Admiral Simulator” and make an effective game of it? Food for thought.

As to the film itself, it does pretty well, considering it is a big film on a (relatively) small budget. It was filmed on location in the Netherlands and uses style and a color palette to evoke the Dutch art of the 17th century. The story told by the movie is greatly truncated, limiting the (massively expensive) battle scenes other difficulties that might have been required to actually depict dozens of battles over a 25-year period. Observing the characters themselves, and particularly the children, it would appear that no more than 2-3 years pass over the course of the movie. While the film necessarily focuses more on the personal drama that took place between actions, that drama is considerably less insipid than what I’ve seen from similar works. Yes, the film wanders considerably from the historical facts, but stays close enough to succeed as a representation of history, if not true accounting.

I will say that this film has less excuse, compared to those taking place some 200 years before, because the details of history are much more available. And I do have to weigh in on  the scene near the end where de Ruyter is killed, as it pushed me almost to my limit. Contrary to the historical evidence I’ve seen, his on-camera death is directly caused by the betrayal of Prince William (on the advice of the Orangist politicians). De Ruyter is shown fighting his last battle, at a massive disadvantage, apparently set up for such by his opponents. In fact, while he fought his final battle at a numerical disadvantage, it seemed to be fairly slight. For dramatic effect, De Ruyter’s wife and William himself both feel the moment of his death, despite being half a continent away. I guess, artistically, depicting how the “whole nation” felt his death.

Whatever its faults, I’m glad I caught this one before it disappeared.

*The term “by and large” is actually derived from nautical language.

**I don’t know I’ve seen good handling of some of the edge cases of sailing, and it would seem that these are what would make a game come alive the way the classic novels and movies do. For example, one feature of most maritime movies is a chase where ships try to eek out an extra knot out of their ship. Precise alignment with the wind or handling of the sails can make all the difference. Also, few games allow tacking into the wind. Granted, coming about across a wind was risky, and a lesser crew could not only easily find itself “in irons” (without power or steering, facing directly into the wind), but the huge shift in forces could also damage masts and rigging. But all good sailing stores feature masterful handling by the heroic captain. Indeed, Admiral features De Ruyter lulling the French into a wind-and-tide trap, and then bringing his entire line of battle about, to double back and destroy them. In most sailing games I’ve played, this would be impossible.

And Do the Other Things

Tags

, , , , , ,

The 2016 film Houston, We Have a Problem! was released as an English/Slovene language film, premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival. It received some attention at various film festivals at which it played and was nominated as Slovenia’s entry for the Academy Awards Best Foreign Film category. However, it received far more attention for its premise.

The film purports to be an American-made documentary made based upon newly-declassified documents. Those documents show a previously-unknown historical basis for the U.S. manned space program; that it actually was intertwined with Yugoslavian-developed space technology.

As a foreign made film, Houston is bound to appeal to a much smaller audience right of the bat. Also, despite the attention it has received, seems to be difficult to get a hold of. I watched it on Netflix* streaming, but don’t see it available in the other usual places. Amazon doesn’t seem to have it for sale, either as a DVD or as a download, and Netflix has streaming only, no DVD. Netflix must have pushed it on me at some point. I’ve told you all before how I try to avoid reading the synopses of a movie before watching it. In this case, I kind of misread the blurb and thought it was going to be a “the moon landings were faked” film. Once I watched it, I realize the premise is both a lot more interesting, and a lot more complex.

If you want to watch the movie before I discuss it, do so now. This isn’t one of those films where there is a “big reveal” somewhere towards the end. Nevertheless, I believe that most films are meant to be presented in a certain way and are therefore enjoyed best coming into them cold. Fair warning.

So the first half the film develops a premise that the Yugoslavian came into possession of engineer Herman Potočnik‘s advanced rocketry work in the aftermath of the Second World War. The engineering has designed, on paper, a launch vehicle capable of sending humans to the moon. Using this work,  they jump start a space program which, initially, is competitive with the superpowers, getting so far as to launching a pig on a sub-orbital trajectory. At some point, Tito realizes that an expensive space program is a liability, particularly to a nation whose socialist policies are failing to provide for the basic needs. At the same time, the U.S. program is experiencing difficulties in their manned space programs and so Tito markets the Yugoslavian efforts to the Americans.

What’s interesting here is that the film is done absolutely straight. Comparisons are made with This Is Spinal Tap, but while that grandfather of all mockumentaries was made for obvious comedic effect, this one gives only very subtle hints that it is being less than truthful. The packaging material (if you can call it that for a streaming film) heavily emphasizes that the movie is “fake.” Perhaps such warnings are felt to be necessary given how believable the film might be to the unforewarned. The style is exactly what you would expect in a true documentary on the subject. There are current interviews with the participants mixed with archival footage mixed with the documentary crew visiting the key locations in the narrative.

The film proposes that the U.S. and Yugoslavia came to an agreement to transfer the entirety of the Yugoslavia space program to America for a substantial financial sum ($2.5 billion). It then explains that the April 8th, 1961 visit of Tito to Morocco was actually a coverup for the physical transfer of the Yugoslavian space assets to America. In Yugoslavia, the result is that the country succeeds above all the other countries in the Soviet orbit using this injection of Western cash. Meanwhile n the U.S., NASA engineers find out that the Yugoslavian technology is not a solution and, in fact, it has put them even further behind the Russians because now they have dumped billions of the space budget into propping up Tito.

The second half of the film characterizes the entire history of Yugoslavia, from 1961 through to the breakup of the country thirty-one-years later, in light of the ongoing conflict between the President(s) of the United States and Tito to either make the space technology work, or return the money. Again, there is heavy use of period footage shown in a way that clearly (?) supports the proposition. The narrative includes, amusingly, the sale of the failed Yugo automobiles in the U.S. and, ultimately, that the CIA engineered the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1992 so as to make it easier to recoup the payments made for the space technology.

So the film isn’t really about the space program, U.S., Yugoslavian, or otherwise. In some ways it is about Cold War Yugoslavia, but even that is somewhat incidental. I see several themes here that are what this movie is really about.

First of all, it can be seen as a commentary on “fake news.” As the small print at the end of the credits finally says, some parts of the movie are real and some are utterly false. Watching the movie, could you spot the difference? The only way to discern between the two is to know, a priori, the true history for yourself. An early You Tube teaser for the film apparently resulted in leaving more than half of viewers convinced that, indeed, Yugoslavia had a space program and sold it to the United States.

On top of that, there is another level, presented by philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who opens the film and comments frequently throughout. He is portrayed on a set nearly identical to the one in The Matrix, where Morpheus instructs Neo as to the true nature of the world which he thought was real. Throughout, Žižek questions the nature of reality, deception, and conspiracy theories. One amusing scene has him reacting to his own involvement in the Yugoslavian space story, where he is portrayed as being on the payroll of the CIA.

At least one reviewer also suggested the film is a stab at jugonostalgija (Yugo-nostalgia), the sentiment that life was better under Tito as well as perhaps a hope that someone like him might restore the region to better times. Yugoslavia was a gateway between East and West during much of the Cold War. Tito was allowed some political independence, with which he was occasionally critical of Russian policy. Yugoslavia was allowed more economic interaction with Western Europe which, in part, accounted for a greater level of prosperity compared with the Soviet Republics. Being open, it also served as a showcase for the success of Socialism and thus it was in Russia’s interest for it to have a higher standard of living than the rest of the communist world. As the movie suggests, at least part of that prosperity resulted from playing both sides of Cold War game – itself one of the jugonostalgija legacies of Tito as a shrewd statesman and negotiator.

All-in-all, this is an excellent piece of filmmaking. The same article linked above suggested that the film might pass over the heads of even the more intelligent of viewers, both in the former Yugoslavia and in the United States. That may be true, but the filmmakers have cut a gem for those that can appreciate it.

*Since this post is largely appreciative of Netflix for providing access to a work that might otherwise be unavailable, I’ll mitigate that with a complaint. Netflix has changed the way they display search results. I don’t know how new the change was, but this movie made it obvious. Searching for a movie in the DVD panel will not turn up any results that are streaming only. Likewise, searching in the streaming panel will not turn up the results for available DVDs. When looking for something you want to watch, therefore, it is necessary to search both places.