Death or Glory

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I had previous complained that Alea Jacta Est falls into an unhappy medium between a tactical and a strategic representation of the Roman Republic. My comments about the game’s treatment of the Pyrrhic War is that it left the player with too little of value to play with, focusing primarily on the operational level of that war. It occurs to me that one of the issues is that the Pyrrhic War scenario may be better played as Pyrrhus, not Rome. Rome won the war, in part, by fielding new legions* when the existing ones were defeated in battle. So the Roman strategy is one of replenishing their forces, throwing them into battle, and then see who wins. If it’s a loss, then repeat. For Pyrrhus, however, he has more operational decisions. He is more limited in his resources and so has choices to make. How can he fight his enemies in detail, particularly once Carthage is involved. Does he focus on Italy or take the fight to Sicily?

Similarly, in the early part of the Second Punic War a gamer may be better challenged by taking the part of Hannibal. He too has the single but large invading army which he can use against the Roman forces wisely to break the Roman will. Yet from the Roman side too, the operation strategies may be more interesting. While there are similarities between the invasion of Pyrrhus and the invasion of Hannibal, the Second Punic War is far more complicated. While Hannibal leads the main Carthaginian force, his brothers have forces in Spain. As the war progressed, Italy, Spain, Sicily, Africa, and even Greece all became potential fronts in this conflict. Given all that, it might be worth looking, again, at the war from a higher view.

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Cooler heads prevail and I hold off engaging Hannibal until August.

As I briefly described before, the meat of Alea Jacta Est family is managing army operations. This consists of movement, the resulting combat, and the management of supply. In this case, the movement is implemented as a planning phase followed by a month’s worth of simultaneous execution. In addition to all of that, the make-up of armies must also be managed. In the AGEod family, this is more than just creating “stacks” of units subject to supply limit. First, the mix of the army’s units drives the tactical level and provides one of the player’s main methods of impacting the detailed battle results. In addition to balancing the combat unit types, the commanders must be chosen to be sufficiently capable of managing the army for which they are responsible. This can imply balancing the military with the political as poorly-performing generals inevitably make their way up into senior command positions. It’s a complex system, and one that (for the Second Punic War) I’m jumping into with inadequate preparation. Rather than think about the game as a simulation of the war as a whole, I’m going to look at it more as a framework playing Hannibal’s early victories, but seen from the Roman side.

I started the scenario that begins in the late fall of 218 BC. Hannibal is across the Alps and the stage is set for the showdown across the river Trebia. Modern politics is often (and annoyingly) compared with warfare. In the Republic of Rome, however, success at the ballot box was often tied to one’s success on the battlefield. Sempronius Longus’ eagerness to engage Hannibal, even when at obvious (particularly as seen in retrospect)  disadvantage, is in part because achieving personal glory on the battlefield would translate to political and financial success in Rome. It was therefore easy enough for Hannibal to draw Sempronius into a fight across a river in winter conditions, where he was defeated.

Taking on the vague persona of “Rome,” I’m under no such pressure. I was slow to relocate Sempronius’ forces from Sicily** and then, once they were in northern Italy, moved them into camp to properly prepare for battle. I was so slow, in fact, that Gaius Flaminius and Gnaeus Servilius Geminus replaced Sempronius and Publius Cornelius Scipio as consuls. Maybe Sempronius was on to something? I also waited a few more months for reinforcements to arrive (which, frankly, I was still trying to get figured out) and for the weather to be good. I wouldn’t make my move until August.

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I moved my camp to the same side of the river before fighting, but you can’t argue with the numbers.

Having fully assembled both consular armies and beefed up my forces, I first crossed the Trebia River at an unopposed crossing so that I could attack Hannibal on even ground. As it turned out, it didn’t do me much good. Despite my organization, I came upon a Carthaginian army which significantly outnumbered and outclassed my own. All my preparation wasn’t for naught. The loss wasn’t a disaster; my losses were only about double that of Hannibal and more than half my forces remained in fighting order. I was able to retreat back across the river and keep my army intact, ready to fight against Hannibal (and, yes, lose) another day, as he moved south through the Italian peninsula. Publius Cornelius Scipio, meanwhile, although many months behind schedule, moved back to Rome in preparation for leading his historical command in Spain.

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As Scipio returns to Rome, Hannibal catches my weakened army near its camp, again giving about twice as good as he gets. Problem is, I can handle the losses but he can’t.

I’ll not dwell on the campaign that followed except to note one thing. As I continue my chase of Hannibal through Italy, I’ve yet to experience the massive defeat and resulting loss of all legions that marked Hannibal’s greatest victories. Part of this may be due to my more pensive operations; the Romans have yet to be caught out with the consuls split and defeated in detail. Also, by the time I actually did lose a single legion to Hannibal, I already had a replacement waiting in Rome. I suspect that was triggered in the scenario by the historical defeats that never actually happened in my game. It is also, I imagine, due to a leveling effect that comes from the random resolution of battles. Statistically speaking, this should tend to avoid the outliers in terms of extreme victories or defeats, as a Cannae or Lake Trasimene would seem to be.

The end result of all this is that, because Rome never has a catastrophic loss and because I’m recruiting replacements in anticipation of heavy casualties, the pace of my campaign picks up rapidly. In the game, I can force a major battle every two or three months through the seasons with favorable weather. I lose, sure, but each time Hannibal also loses forces he can’t replace while Rome is able to patch up her legions in short order, ready to send them out again. What is it about the modeling that causes this departure from reality? Am I allowed to beat the cycle of military defeats followed by Senate reaction by anticipating my losses? Is this a reasonable result of my losses being lower than the historical ones? I have no idea, but it does have implications with respect to exploring “what ifs.”

*In the Pyrrhic War, it was less an issue of creating replacement legions as rebuilding the ones that had been depleted. I use the terminology because, isn’t a unit which has had the bulk of its soldiers replaced in many ways “new?” Plus, I want to make the comparison with the actual destruction of legions from which Rome suffered in later wars.

**In another historical note, I came across a telling detail regarding the relocation of the Sempronius’ consular army from Sicily to Italy. In game, I marched them by land, a procedure that took time and cost me through attrition. Sempronius himself dismissed his army after having them swear an oath to reassemble at Armenium (right edge of the top-most screenshot). Essentially “strategic movement,” as it is sometimes called in other games, was left as an exercise for the individual soldier. It must have worked, at least to some extent.

I Know of No Reason Why

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I have a place in my heart for alternative sources of TV or movie entertainment. However, long before this current environment was what it is, there was the BBC. Even before the time of cable TV, we here in America looked to BBC-created productions as an option, whether more intellectual or just a different brand of funny, to what we got here at home. These days, I don’t know how productions get funded under their auspicious, but it seems to be a variation on that national-government-supported production theme that has produced foreign titles we’ve previously enjoyed. Still today, the BBC output trends toward a cultural or educational merit that the open market may sometimes neglect.

We are reminded of this as the BBC miniseries Gunpowder, Treason & Plot is being removed from Netflix. This compelled me to watch it before it goes away. It’s a two-part, made-for-TV piece, with each of the two episodes being movie-length. The mini-series of years gone by.

My first impression was that it was made for a particularly British (or maybe Scottish) audience. The opening scenes consisted of a year and a date and then a few quick lines of dialog, followed by a hard cut to the next scene. I felt as though I should have known what the date/city combinations meant, had only studied harder in school. I was beginning to wonder how much more of it I could take when the show settled into a more comfortable pacing.

Episode 1 begins with the death of Mary of Guise, Queen Consort to James V of Scotland and mother and Regent for Mary, Queen of Scots (aka Mary Stuart, Mary I of Scotland). It also begins with a twisting of historical facts to support the simplified version of history used to build Gunpowder, Treason & Plot. The implication from the show is that Mary of Guise was actually Scotland’s queen and had spirited her daughter and heir away to France in order to protect her from political dangers while a mere princess. Neglected is that fact that Mary Stuart already was Queen of Scotland from her father’s death, only six days after her birth. Also ignored is that fact that Mary was, at the time of her mother’s death, Queen consort of France.

The first episode spans the seven years until Mary’s capture after the Battle of Carberry Hill. The series rephrases the events of that time in terms of Mary attempting to solidify the claim of her line to the English throne and Elizabeth I attempting to foil that effort. More specifically, the fight for control over the succession of the English throne is portrayed as one of sexual politics. Although her marriage to Francis II of France is ignored, her marriage to the soon-to-be-murdered cousin Henry Stuart, subsequent marriage to James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell are central to the show, events which did, indeed, cause Mary’s downfall.

As the relationship between Bothwell and Mary began its development, I started to think that this was lifted from Game of Thrones. Specifically, the story seemed to be following fairly faithfully the non-love affair between Ser Jorah Mormont and the Dragon Queen. This is aided by a not-so-passing resemblance between Clémence Poésy (15 years ago*) and Emilia Clarke. Problem with this theory is that Gunpowder, Treason & Plot preceded Game of Thrones by seven years. Now, I wouldn’t discount the possibility that George R. R. Martin based his fiction, in part, on this historical episode. It’s even possible that the Martin’s books influenced the on-screen portray in Gunpowder, Treason & Plot, the book being out four years before the show.

Conveniently, the book Moment of Battle which provides a relevant overview to the strange religious bedfellows of this time. Mary I (of England, this time), a devout catholic, had taken the English throne upon the death of her (Protestant) half-brother. As part of her efforts to return England to the Roman Catholic Church, she married the soon-to-be-King Philip II of Spain. After Mary’s death, Philip began to consider an invasion of England to depose Elizabeth I, again a Protestant. England had become both a commercial as well as military rival of Spain, the latter primarily through piracy. In addition, Philip saw himself as the defender of the Catholic faith and ridding England of Protestantism would be seen as a righteous crusade, particularly after England had joined with the Netherlands in a protestant alliance and armed rebellion against Spain. After Mary Stuart’s imprisonment, she became a focus for Catholic rebellions in England. The idea was that freeing her and replacing Elizabeth with Mary on the throne would restore Catholic rule while not upsetting the succession apple cart. While it would seem natural for Philip to back this plot, there was a problem. Mary’s family, the Guise, were also maneuvering for the throne of France. Philip was concerned that backing Mary Stuart in England would only strengthen the power of the French throne, who remained his main rival for power in continental Europe.

Back to Gunpowder, Treason & Plot, the second episode begins with the betrothal of James VI of Scotland to Anne of Denmark, anachronistically interposed with James visiting his mother just prior to her execution. It also introduces having characters narrate the story, which has just picked up again more than 20 years later, by turning and speaking directly into the camera and to the TV audience. This begins with James VI himself and would have been considerably less jarring if it hadn’t been introduced as a narrative technique halfway through the course of the film.

Like the first episode, history has been recharacterized as sexual in its nature. James is a thoroughly unpleasant man and a homosexual. This combination directly leads to the Gunpowder Plot, after mixing with a desire for higher tax revenues. He is portrayed as having a severe physical deformity, a la Shakespeare’s Richard III, such that his inner ugliness is foretold by his physical ugliness. While James had severe health problems late in his life, I am unable to find consistent information about any significant physical issues at the time of his coronation. I have found a modern analysis that suggests a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome. Of note in terms of today’s politics, this one of the few diseases to which it is still politically correct (in some circles) to affix with stigma.

Last, I’ll comment on the lack of favors that Netflix did in how it listed this work. The preview image for the show is taken from the second episode. It shows a scene where the three main plotters (Guy Fawkes, Thomas Percy, and Thomas Wintour) are in their undershirts preparing to test the efficacy of their gunpowder. Wintour wears a red felt hat that doesn’t look too out of place on the characters when fully dressed but sits oddly on a man lying in the grass in his underwear. In this context, it looks like a setup for some slapstick comedy. Because this was what I saw every time I scrolled by the listing on Netflix, I always decided that this night would not be a good night to watch it. Until it expired, of course.

Ignoring for the moment the departures from historical fact, the show is mildly entertaining. It’s a made-for-TV BBC production, which give some implication as to its quality, both pro and con. The shift in focus from the national and religious to the person and, well, sexual helps to limit the scope to something that can be portrayed on the small screen. While sometimes I feel that all of the outdoor scenes were shot in the same 1 1/2 acres in Romania**, it mostly does a reasonable job within its limits.

Perhaps this is more interesting as a preview of what was to come. As I’ve said before, Game of Thrones indicated that there was an appetite for historical fiction on the television. The Tudors has run concurrently with Game of Thrones, dramatizing many of the same characters albeit in the previous generation. Reign focused on Mary, Queen of Scots, but more on her time in France. Seasons 3 and 4 cover the same timeline as that of episode 1 of Gunpowder, Treason & Plot. Just to make clear the nexus with Game of Thrones, 2017 saw the TV series Gunpowder released, with Kit Harrington in the producer’s seat as well as staring, in this case, as his own ancestor, Robert Catesby. While I know nothing about Gunpowder, I suspect that the anachronisms in the first two will make Gunpowder, Treason & Plot look like a documentary.

*Oddly enough, the two actresses are only, themselves, four years apart in age. Poésy was 22 when she played the, initially, 18-year-old Queen (aging to 24 over the course of the show). Clarke was 25 when she first appeared as the 13-year-old heir to the Iron Throne.

**One particularly strange choice is that all the scenes showing horseback riders traveling across country has them make a 90-degree turn when they reach the middle of the shot. It was odd even the first time I saw it. Why did they half to turn? Then I noticed that they did it in shot after shot.

Carthago Delenda Est

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The third battle in Moment of Battle‘s list of the 20 pivotal battles of history is the fight between Rome and Carthage at Zama.

As I read some of the reader reviews of Moment of Battle, I noticed some common criticisms. One is similar to my own; some readers seem bothered by the apparent assertion that these are the twenty battles that shaped the world. One even said he couldn’t bring himself to actually read the book, having been so irritated by the premise. Of course, as I speculated, this is likely just a form of marketing slapped on top of an already completed work.

Another angle of criticism is in the actual selection of the twenty battles. Framing history through the depiction of a list of battles is no new idea. In fact, I’ve come to see that it may be an unstated goal of the writers to make a modern point by deliberately following the template of The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: From Marathan to Waterloo (1851). This structure has been repeated many-a-time since then. This category of criticism ranges from the book having fallen short compared to earlier works, to simply the wrong selection of battles, to the Western Civilization -focus of this work. Again, I think the mistake is one of expectations rather than execution.

One obvious departure from the theme, as promised by the marketing hype, becomes evident in the selection of Zama as the key battle. Clearly, it is the Second Punic War as a whole that really makes the turning point in this case. One might debate about which is the key battle in the conflict, but that hardly changes the overall thesis. One could go so far to argue that, because no one battle in the war stands alone, it does not make sense to look at Zama, or any other individual battle, in isolation. In terms of the world-changing impact, we are mostly looking at the overall conflict between Rome and Carthage and the consequences of Rome emerging as the victor. Consistent with the title and the theme, the tactics of the battle as Zama are discussed in detail, but the chapter also walks us through bigger picture.

Perhaps more than anything, it is the ability of Rome to recover from setbacks, raise new armies, and renew the fight which was the decisive factor in its triumph. Rome’s persistence, both in defeat and in pursuit of final and total victory, propelled some 80 years of war, diplomacy, and great statesmen towards the seemingly inevitable conclusion of Carthage’s total destruction.

The authors also begin to hint at another factor that was key to the centuries of Roman ascendancy; the Roman military system that could field highly-disciplined armies. A key to Scipio’s victory was that he could could field Legions similar in capabilities to those lost at Cannae. The Roman training system and the tactical use of the formations allowed Rome to raise new legions and deploy them effectively. Contrast that with Hannabal’s army at Zama, where his infusion of inexperienced infantry hampered the ability to use his veterans to their full effectiveness. The legionary fighting system, according to the authors, is one of the key pillars holding up the power of Rome. Future chapters in the book tie the fall of Rome to the deterioration of its military as well as the rebirth of Roman drill in the gunpowder age.

The battle itself is described in sufficient detail to be interesting and informative. More along the lines of Marathon (as opposed to Gaugamela), Scipio’s victory did not have one particular decision which determined the outcome. If anything, Hannibal may have made some mistakes that might have cost him the battle. More accurately, the Roman system simply outclassed and outlasted the Carthaginian one. That is, Rome was able to continue raising effective legions and project their power onto the African continent well after Hannibal’s army reached its zenith and began to decline.

Grand Strategy

Even though the chapter is called Zama it is, as I said above, clear that this is really about the Second Punic War. The story is first how Hannibal was ultimately unable, despite brilliant generalship and decisive victories, to translate his victories in battle into defeating the Roman Republic in war. As such, it is tempting to want to step back and look at the bigger picture. For whatever reason, the Punic Wars were never a major focus for either my reading or my game playing in years past. If I wanted to get started now, what is available from a “campaign” standpoint?

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Laying siege in Spain and Italy.

One game that I’ve long thought getting into but just never have is Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War. It’s been out for nearly a decade and has a free demo version. By my reckoning, the demo consists of the full game but without save capability.

I long ago downloaded the demo but for years never found the time to install and play it. When I finally did get it installed, I found even the tutorial scenarios to be pretty detailed, being new to the system. I played a little bit of the tutorials but even these simplified games would have benefited from being able to save progress to pick back up on another night. I’ve always wound up giving up before really getting into the game.

Hannibal: Rome and Carthage is a strategic-level representation of Hannibal’s campaigns in Italy along with the associated fighting in Spain and Africa. The game is limited in that you can only play as Carthage against the AI’s Rome. As the Carthaginian, you build armies and move them from province to province in an attempt to defeat Rome’s forces. When opposing armies meet, there is a multi-round combat involving some minor tactical decisions, the result determining which side is victorious on the strategic map.

On the plus side, I really like the art style. To me, the hand-painted map look is more aesthetic than all but the best of animated, 3D graphics. It draws me in to the period. The short-and-sweet tactical battles also would seem to be a big plus. However, a little experience with them suggests there is actually less to them than meets the eye. Each round in a battle results in either losses, routs , or both, as determined by the game’s algorithms. I havw to assume it is related to the relative strengths of the two armies, but the variability is pretty high. If losses are inflicted upon you, you must remove the number of units indicated. Also, if your army is large enough, you may have to chose which are your “front line” units and which wait back as reinforcements. There are no true tactical considerations based on things like terrain or unit type.

I realized that what it all feels like is a board game mechanic. It is complicated enough to be engaging but yet simple enough that you could play out a battle in 5-10 minutes with cardboard squares and a pair of dice. As a matter of fact, there are card-drive board games depicting the campaigns of Hannibal but I’ve never played them. Nothing I’ve read, though, suggests Hannibal: Rome and Carthage is a computer implementation of a board game. Still, it does have that feel. It is also worth pointing out that the simple mechanic means that an AI can handle and even optimize play, making for a more challenging single-player experience.

Which brings me to the show-stopper. I often come really, really close to buying and playing this game but one of the on-line reviews complains that that AI is too challenging. Even on “easy”, the reviewer says, the game is very difficult to beat. If true, this would make the game unplayable for me. I don’t want a new part-time job trying to master a Punic War computer game. Given its look and these mechanics, I had hoped for some lighter game play that would nevertheless allow me to explore the historical arc of Hannibal’s triumphs and ultimate defeat. A game that’s impossible, even on the easiest settings, would quickly frustrate me.

At the same time, I already have an handful of games that offer one form of Hannibal campaign or another. Alea Jacta Est: Hannibal Terror of Rome is another stab at this same space, but at a considerably greater level of detail. Both The Great Battles of Hannibal and Field of Glory II have campaign wrappers that generate detailed battles based on strategic-level decisions. The problem is, reproducing the brilliance of Hannibal’s campaign is no easy feat and is particularly challenging to do as a casual exercise over a weekend. Even Hannibal was unable to make it work. Reproducing Scipio’s achievments might be a little easier. The problem is that, in either case, if you’re going to have to be reproducing not only their successful tactics but the right strategic choices as well, you probably need to read up quite a bit on the 2nd Punic War. Moment of Battle did not present that level of detail.

The Great Battle of Scipio?

The Great Battles of Hannibal was the second in the three-part Great Battles series, following a year after the release of The Great Battles of Alexander. It contains a dozen scenarios for significant battles of the Punic Wars. The engine is improved from the first version of the game and the Romans have new features, but mostly we’re looking at the same game we saw with Alexander.

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The battlefield catches the eye much better than Alexander’s. Terrain like this is also difficult to use. How does one find the Celts for the trees?

Before jumping into Zama, I wanted to try some of what lead up to that key confrontation. Shown above, I take Hannibal’s side in the ambush at Lake Trasimene. This fight is one where Hannibal nullified much the organizational advantage of the Roman legions by attacking while Flaminius had his legions in column.

Myself, I was unable to beat the scenario in my first go-through. I was also reminded how difficult it was to manipulate the circa-1997 graphics with semi-3D units hidden among the wooded terrain. I do see it is easier to get that sense of perspective by playing the sequence of historical battles, as opposed to engaging with a strategic layer that randomly generates battle scenarios. Not only does it take an extra level of synchronicity to achieve the historical result, but in most cases the historical outcome was the unlikely product of a particularly brilliant general who as also, perhaps, lucky.

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Africa is better for Panzers and Legions. Disrupting the Carthaginian right at Zama.

With some Italian battles under my belt to put me in the mood, I jumped into the Zama battle, this time playing as Scipio. Once again, I lost the first time through, but for different reasons. While playing I thought to myself that the scenario was too easy. Perhaps it was only intended to be played as Hannibal? I thought that right up until I was declared the loser. The reason I lost is that the computer Hannibal in this battle is extremely passive. Taking one’s time, slowly picking away at the Carthaginian flanks (see screenshot above), isn’t an option when the scenario itself is turn limited.

The Zama scenario makes for a nice comparison between Great Battles and Field of Glory II. In Field of Glory II, I did win the first time through. That always makes me happy, although it doesn’t mean it is necessarily a better game. The Field of Glory II version of the battle played out more like the real battle. I’ll come back to that, but first to what Great Battles gets right.

You may remember that Great Battles is structured around a command system. Rather than simply taking turns, the players’ generals are activated in a semi-random order. Generals, generally, move their own units, although they can also direct other troops outside of their command hierarchy, but within their zone of control, at additional cost. In Alexander, one key to Alexander’s victories is his superior command capabilities. The flank where Alexander operates has a significant advantage, particularly when the player is able to coordinate command between Alexander and his subordinates.

Scipio’s Roman army functions very differently. Scipio himself start the game in the back directing the Triarii, who typically would be held in reserve for most of the battle. The core of the legions, the Hastati and Principes, are commanded by very weak generals. However, these formations are different than the commands of Alexander’s generals. As before, the group move commands allow the entire line to advance in formation. There are also legion-specific commands. One such is the “manipular line extension,” which creates a solid infantry line from the checkerboard-style formations in which a legion initially deploys. The group actions simulate the superiority of the Roman system when operating according to standard drill.

In Great Battles of Hannibal, running one’s commanders back and forth, trying to finesse a tactical maneuver, such as a flanking or an echelon attack, just won’t work. The commanders of the Hastati and the Principes don’t have the command points available to them. On the other hand, simply executing group attacks over and over will break up your lines and cause sections of your formations to route and, again, the weakness of the generals means they can’t rally those running troops. You have to be willing to give up fine-grained control while also anticipating what the computer is going to do when you turn over to it the authority to move your units.

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Only two units of elephants? Surprisingly, it actually worked out better.

By contrast, Field of Glory II doesn’t have a particular representation of the manipular system. The Roman army is deployed in its historical three-class staggered lines, but there are no special rules to make you keep it that way. The group command, of course, still exists, but it works identically to how it did with Alexander’s army in Field of Glory II. Beyond that, the most obvious difference in this scenario is the much smaller number of elephants. In Great Battles, in HPS’s Punic Wars, and any other depiction of this battle that I can remember, the Carthaginian army is deployed with a solid line of elephants at its front, prepared to assault the Roman line. In Field of Glory II, as shown in the above screen, there are only two elephant units, across a frontage where one would expect, maybe, seven or eight of them.

Despite that initial oddity, Field of Glory II seems far more able to track the historical arc of the battle. First, the Carthaginian AI is not passive, as in Great Battles. The battle opens, as it should, with a charge forward by Hannibal’s elephants. When they do charge, there is a fair bet they’ll take off after the Velites, heading through open channels rather than assault the heavy infantry of the Roman main line. This key aspect of the Roman victory, their ability to defuse the elephant charge, helps to give this battle its unique characteristics.

Similarly, the cavalry in Field of Glory II felt more like the actual battle. At Zama, Scipio used Masinissa’s Numidian cavalry on his right flank similarly to how Hannibal had deployed the same to defeat Rome. Initially, Scipio’s cavalry chased the numerically-inferior Carthaginian cavalry from the field, leaving the an all-infantry match-up behind. Hannibal believed his weight of numbers would allow him to prevail at that point. Scipio had anticipated that the Carthaginian cavalry would flee and had instructed his cavalry not to abandon the field. The timely return of the Roman horse was critical to victory. In Great Battles, the cavalry engagements feel pretty standard. In Field of Glory II, by contrast, although the horses never left the map, it did feel a bit more like forces in the wings were fighting their own fight. Field of Glory‘s pursuit system helps out here.

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The battle will come to an end before the Triarii engage.

The progression of the infantry battle in Field of Glory II also follows the historical description. After the elephants and skirmishers scattered, the Hastati engaged, initially having an advantage. As the second line of Carthaginians came into play, however, those newly formed militia units began overwhelming the Hastati, who were already worn down after defeating Carthage’s front line. Before Hannibal could obtain the advantage, I moved up my Principes to shore up my attack. At that point, the use of fresh troops plus the returning cavalry put me over the top in terms of the game’s route threshold. Notably, and this was the case with both Field of Glory II and Great Battles, the Carthaginian army broke before my Triarii engaged. In Field of Glory II, in fact, I believe the line of Hannibal’s veterans, his reserves, were also uncommitted.

The route threshold-based victory does cause the history buff to miss out on one last feature of the Battle of Zama. To win, Scipio did commit his reserves. He reorganized his forces into a single line of infantry, Hastati in the center, Triarii on the wings, and Principes sandwiched between them. Moment of Battle criticizes* Hannibal for not taking advantage of this window, during which the Romans were disarrayed, to launch a counterattack. Once Scipio had his full force in a lien of battle and, at the same time, his cavalry back in play at the rear of the nemy, Hannibal’s fate (as well as that of Carthage) was sealed.

While the rise of Rome is distilled down to a single battle, at least as far as the chapter heading goes, the fall of Rome gets three chapters. We are presented with three great battles which, the authors explain, lead to the fall of Rome.

At Battle of the Teutoburg Forest (9 AD), Varus’ loss of three legions marked the end of Roman expansion. It also marked an end to the inevitability of Roman victory. Per the book, however, Rome’s dominance would continue for almost four more centuries until the Battle of Adrianople (378 AD) saw Germany, again (this time in the form of the Goths), defeat the forces of Roman Empire. The importance of Adrianople is how it eliminated the core military might of the Eastern Roman Empire. The failure of Emperor Valens to simply wait for reinforcements from the Western Empire (because he underestimated the strength of the Goths) also led to the permanent separation** of the Empire into its Eastern and Western halves. From a military technology standpoint, Adrianople is seen as a shift from infantry to cavalry as the driving force of the ancient battlefield, leading the the supremacy of the medieval knight. In Scipio’s time, it was the superior doctrine and training that caused the Roman legion to dominate the western world’s battlefields. In Valens’ time, the abandonment of the doctrine blunted the effectiveness of the legions.

Of interest, the credit for the rise of Rome belongs entirely to Rome. Scipio’s victory is attributed to his brilliance as a commander, not to whatever mistakes were made by Hannibal. Similarly, however, the loss in the Teutoburg Forest and again at Adrianople are credited to Rome and her mistakes as opposed the brilliance of the Germanic commanders or the technology of the barbarian armies.

The final nail in the Roman coffin, at least per Moments, is portrayed with the Battle of Yarmouk. Nevertheless, despite the massive defeat at Adrianople, the Byzantine Empire soldiered on for another two-and-a-half centuries before their third defeat. At Yarmouk, the forces of Islam defeated the Byzantine empire after a massive, 5-day battle. Again, Constantinople would live on for another six centuries, but this marked the end of the dominance of the Empire-formerly-known-as-Rome in the Middle East. More importantly, it marked the beginning of the dominance of Arab/Muslim civilization, a dominance that continues in the region to the present day. The victory was also the start of Muslim expansion. Conquering armies of Islam would flow through Europe itself, threatening the heart of Christianity. Moment of Battle argues that the Caliphate may have been lucky in its timing, hitting the non-Muslim empires at the moment of their lowest ebb.

They say its better to be lucky than smart. Hannibal and Scipio both may have explained that it is even better to be both.

*The book also criticizes Hannibal for not having come to the battle with a strategy other than attempting to win through his numerical superiority. Hannibal had employed brilliant tactics in his great victories over Rome but, at Zama, it was left to Scipio to demonstrate superior generalship.

**In Valens’ reign, he controlled only the Eastern Roman Empire, a split that had existed for almost a century. However, his successor, Theodosius the Great, was the last emperor to rule over both halves.

It’s a Timeline!

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Recently, I was trying to find some information about the various adaptations of The Shining, and I came across an offering of three Stephen King made-for-TV adaptations in one DVD package for an almost-reasonable price. In addition to The Shining, the set contains the Rob Lowe version of ‘Salem’s Lot, and It. I’ve watched all three of them before. The Shining is a much more faithful adaptation of the book, which is why I want to watch it again. Salem’s Lot pales in comparison to the 70s version which, itself, didn’t really do its source material justice. I’ll probably want to watch them both fairly close together so as to compare on a fair basis. As to It, well, until recently it had the advantage of be the only adaptation of the book out there.

I read the book shortly after it came out in paperback. I can’t remember exactly when but, in any case, definitely before the original, TV version of It was aired. As a fan of the book, I made a point of catching the two-part movie (miniseries?!?) when it was on. I can’t say I was entirely thrilled.

But first, something not about the what and how, but about the when. The story ITself (ha ha, right?) is about an ancient evil that awakes every 27 years (give or take*) to feed on the fear of its victims, preferably children. The “present” of the book is the fall of 1984 into the summer of 1985.

Whenever a story is updated, the author/adapter often feels the need to update it vis-à-vis current events. A story about terrorism written before 2001 would feel like it was ignoring something important if 9/11 wasn’t subsequently included, wouldn’t it? Stephen King gives us fine examples of both what to do and what not to do when he rewrote The Stand to take place after AIDS. This seemed to be necessitated by the fact that the book is to take place in the “near future” (the original hardcover was published in 1978 to take place in 1980s). Does it make sense to write about a “near future” that has already long passed and, obviously, didn’t actually happen? Or is it better to keep moving your near future forward, while you’re at it, so the reader (at least the ones who have rushed out and bought your revised book as soon as it came out) still gets the sense that your possible future remains possible?

I guess it depends.

In any case, when the made-for-TV-movie treatment came out four years after the book, It, was published, the narrative was advanced five years, to still take place in “present day.” Again, it probably felt more natural to engage the viewing audience with their own “near future.” It also avoids anachronisms. A story set four years in the past has the problem the writers know what happened in the intervening four years but the characters don’t. Maybe not a problem, but putting the characters and the audience on equal footing feels natural.

Even at the time, the mini-series was somewhat disappointing. Part of it was the gap between “made for TV” and “movie” budgets, circa 1987. These days, we expect our TV “events” to look polished. Not so much in the late 80s. Even by those standards, however, watching a badly-done stop-action monster fighting on screen felt a little off. With its TV origins, this production had a strike against it, although it wasn’t entirely its (or Its) fault.

Second strike is that it is a Stephen King novel. With one or two notable exceptions, converting Stephen King’s material to film has not worked out well. The Shining is often seen as an exception although, having just read Dr. Sleep, I now know that King didn’t much care for Kubrick’s interpretation. Its success has more to do with the Nicholson/Kubrick vibe and, in that regard, it is unlike any other King-derived film. Stand By Me is my personal pick for the exception that makes the rule. Based on a King short story, the movie is both faithful to the original and exceptional in its own right. I’ll state that, for what its worth, there are plenty of adaptations that I haven’t seen. Although, to a large extent, this is because so many of them are so bad. The King stamp on a movie frightens me off and not in a good, Stephen Kingly sort of way.

I’ve thought a lot about this phenomenon. For me, I think the answer is that Stephen King’s writing is extremely visual. I talked about this before when it came to his ability to describe the indescribable, and this is part of it. It also applies to simply to his ability to create an image in the readers mind, whether that be the look of Randall Flagg, the creepiness of a House, or just the view down an empty highway. When his writing does so well in using the imagination to paint a picture, translating that to two-dimensional images on a screen will invariably fall short.

With regards to It, there is a similar failing in translation. For example, King uses the repetition of certain words and phrases to help establish the alternative world in which his stories take place. It works well within the books. It works considerably less well when written in as dialog in a screen adaption. In the book, a phrase like “Beep-beep Ritchie” implies a long history between old friends. They’ve known each other for so long that they’ve established their own language when they talk to each other. King lets us see this history by showing them using that language. It illustrates the depth while avoiding creating that depth (extensive portrayals of their relationships before the narratives of the book) or outright describing it (“the children had been friends for so long that they…”). However, when phrases are put on the screen “Beep-beep” or “We all float down here,” they fall flat. Why? Part of it is the shortcomings of the screen relative to the imagination. Part of it is a lesser ability of an on-screen portrayal to create that depth, that history in the way that books can. Part of it may just be bad acting. Or maybe the key is that what makes a good combination of dialog and acting on screen is very different from what comes off well in a book, all of which is very different from what would seem natural if encountered on the street between real people.

Folks often refer to Tim Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise as a strength of the original It miniseries. I find it telling that his best lines (“Kiss me, Fat Boy!”) were written entirely for the screen whereas the signature lines from the book (“Beep-beep” and “float”) come off as awkward. Unfortunately, its the awkwardness that dominates. Again, the production isn’t that out of whack for 1980s made-for-TV, But it struggles more as it ages.

Produces and directors sure saw where 80s It failed. These very reasons must have contributed to seeing the remaking of the movie as a feature film as a good idea. If nothing else, top notch special effects using 2017 technology should be a huge improvement.

Once again, of course, we have to shift the timeline of the story. The “past” episodes of the narrative now take place, as a matter of fact, in between the two presents of the original versions, in Fall of 1988 through the summer of 1989. The new film makes less of an effort to track the book but, even setting that aside, there is little** that shifting the story forward some 30 years impacts. The story does seem to suffer a bit, even when compared to the miniseries. Perhaps the strength of the special effects detracts from the human angle of the story. Especially in the book and carried over into the miniseries, the monster plays on the weakness of each individual child, requiring individual character development. A theme is that the group can achieve together the triumph that, as individuals, would be a failure. As the new film focuses on special effects, with longer and more visual horror scenes, it leaves less time for setting up the characters.

There is also the big shift in the presentation. The original miniseries, like the book itself, tells the story by alternating between the past and the present. In the miniseries, the first “episode” introduces the adult characters and has them remembering their encounters with the clown as children. So by the halfway point, we know both their young and grown selves. The new movie is also filmed as a two-parter. The first movie, and the only one out as I write this, focuses entirely on the children. The adult characters are not present in any way. In fact, the story stands alone. Even if the second film were never to be made, except for those of us who know the original story, the audience wouldn’t feel like they’d been left with half a tale.

Another difference that struck me in particular was the ages of the characters. I don’t recall if, in the miniseries, the ages of the kids are made explicit. I do know that the ages of the actors are around the 11-year mark and that matches the explicit ages within the book. In the new film, there are several clues that the children are meant to be older. First, they look older, as the actors are in the 14-15 range. It is clear that the characters portrayed are also older, although again I don’t recall their ages being explicitly stated. Henry Bowers has a car, which makes him at least 16. His victims need to be at least close to his age, high school at a minimum, to make his bullying of them plausible.

They also don’t act quite like 11-year-olds or even 14-year-olds. The boys emit a constant stream of obscenities and sexual innuendo that seems more appropriate for freshmen in college. While I’m the wrong age to have “been there, done that,” my own memories would suggest that boys aged 11 (or even 14) would not have a ready sexual joke for every occasion, particularly not “the losers.” A year or two later or maybe some locker-room mentality might make a difference, but that language seems rather out of place for the characters that speak it. It also may be that, despite setting the film in the late 1980s, they act more like kids of the twent-teens. Is it also possible that the kids of today are that much different, perhaps vulgar, from kids of the 80s? Maybe. Look at Freaks and Geeks or even Stranger Things for a much more plausible portrayal of boys at this age and in this age.

The older actors and older characters also change the tone of the attraction/romance component of the story. The new Beverly, the actress, was 15 or 16 at the time of filming, an age that can look pretty adult in some circumstances. That impacts the way the various “crushes” play out, even without changing the actual situations or the dialog. Society has changed, but biology does not. Within the books timeline, Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13-year-old cousin in 1957. In 1959, Elvis met and fell for 14-year-old Priscilla. Granted, adults dating 13-year-olds was frowned up even then and, by 1985, even more so. Nevertheless, the sexuality of teenagers was at least acknowledged to such an extent that we can use an 11-year-old unpopular girl interchangeably with an attractive 15-16-year-old while blithely pretending we don’t know what we’re all on about.

On this point, I’ll go back to the book. Around the time the book came out, I remember there was something of a kerfuffle in terms of media and its treatments of the sexuality of teenagers. I wish I could recall the titles in question, but I cannot. I think it involved movies. The situation involved the transport of non-pornographic films across the Canadian-U.S. border; films that depicted minors in sexual situations. Doing so exposed the possessors of such media to severe penalties under child pornography laws. It also caused something of a moral crisis among polite society. I recall thinking at the time that the moral crusaders had some real blind spots in terms of what they found offensive and what wasn’t worth noticing. It, at the time, receiving no particular negative attention except that which Stephen King generally garners for trafficking in witchcraft and devilry. Put it on MTV, and it was an international crisis. Write something many times worse in a book (one that exceeded 1000 pages at that) and nobody notices.

You see, the book version of It contains explicit descriptions of sexual congress among the 11-year-olds. This never made it into either movie version, even in the newer one where it might be considered at least age appropriate, if not still forbidden. It‘s [again, !] a real mixed-up set of values we have, applying different rules to different circumstances. Maybe that scene could never be written today, whether for a book or a movie; that I don’t know. Maybe in a few years, It will be republished with the sexing stuff removed. Or maybe we’ll continuing as we always have; feinting in horror at one reference while accepting it as mundane in another context, or perhaps even edgy somewhere else. In this, I suppose, the new Victorians aren’t all that different than the original ones.

*My hyperlink takes you back to an earlier post where I discussed the synchronization of the timelines in Stranger Things, Dark, and Back to the Future. It‘s present day, as well as its 30-year-or-so cycle, fits in well with this theme. The death of Georgie Denbrough likely comes very close to the November 12th, 1984 date that seems to repeat. In this case, however, I’ll not accuse King of paying homage to Back to the Future. I think the key here is that the Losers’ Club of the story, and in particular famous horror author Bill Denbrough, are exactly the age of King himself and when their characters become adults, they are returning take on the monster at the age of King, himself, the age at which he is writing the book.

**Maybe one, just because thinking about it made me think about it. A key factor in the original stories (and miniseries) is that Eddie’s mother forces him into hypochondria and insists that he treat himself with ineffectual asthma medicine as a means of controlling him. The “prescribing” of a placebo inhaler makes sense in a 1950s plot. Not so much in 1989.

A Momentary Lapse of Reason

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The book Moment of Battle: The Twenty Clashes That Changed the World, in some ways, defies categorization. It is non-fiction on a historical subject, but it isn’t quite a “historical” book. At least not in the scholarly sense. The style and depth approach entertainment. Though you should think less History Channel, and more the better-done PBS documentaries. Yet even that comparison misses the point.

In their forward, authors Jim Lacey and Williamson Murray set forth a purpose for their project. Modern academia* has attempted to remove, or at least de-emphasize, the role of wars in the course of history. Indeed, it is not uncommon (and may even be the dominant opinion) to insist that wars, battles, and the influence of “great statesmen” of the past should be ignored in the classroom because they are an irrelevant to “true history”, which consists of cultural and social change. Even when the study of warfare is not eliminated entirely, it should at least be taught from an anti-war angle. The authors counter that, in some cases, wars and pivotal battles truly did “change history.” Under dispassionate, unbiased analysis (one would think) this would be blindingly obvious. To demonstrate the obvious, they have selected twenty battles where the outcome DID matter, where it DID change the course of history, and discuss these battles in detail.

As often happens, the marketing pitch (e.g. the subtitle) is a bit misleading. The intent is not to recount history as told by twenty battles. Picking one particular battle as being more important or significant than another is an inexact science. Rather, the idea is to talk about twenty battles (because that is a nice number) but select those twenty battles according to their impact upon world events. This does, specifically, contrast with perhaps the more common way of choosing history’s greatest battles. For example, a military historian might choose as his “most significant” battle one that showed brilliant tactics or a decisive outcome. Lacey and Murray give examples, such as Austerlitz or Cannae, which are typically found on lists of “the great battles of history.” They argue, however, that these battles, while tremendously interesting to the military strategist, did not alter the ultimate path of history. To misuse (slightly) a phrase, Napoleon and Hannibal won the battle but lost the war.

Likewise, the audience for this book is difficult to categorize. It is not written to be a textbook for a United States Military Academy class, or even for high school AP History. If nothing else, this could never be approved as a course book in our current political environment. Where the liberal bias is in place, academic policymakers would not even consider this thesis as appropriate for teaching. Where it is not, you’ve probably already incorporated this kind of information into your studies, but at a deeper level of detail. Hence the target for this work is the casual reader; but perhaps someone who has been educated in our current system and realizes that this has left an important gap in their knowledge of history. This book fills in that gap and does so in a way that you don’t mind reading it on your own free time. However, the authors also acknowledge another segment of their audience. In presenting their thesis, they add the line, “We suspect the reader may agree with us.” I took this statement personally. I think it indicates that they expect that many of their readers have already studied most, maybe even all, of the twenty battles. This reader is simply interested in another take on what we already know. Of course, we expect the occasional new insight along with much that we already have a familiarity.

Given this audience and this goal, the style makes sense. It mixes well-referenced factual text with something that verges on historical fiction. For example, I look at their first clash the Battle of Marathon. This battle’s primary sources are both limited and have been extensive analyzed for hundreds of years. The description of the battle mixes a summary of known facts with some commentary regarding the conflicts between primary sources. It also tosses in the occasional dramatic narrative. We are given a description of the Persian commander’s emotional reaction when the Greek phalanges hit his flanks. Obviously, this is made up; Herodotus did not enlighten us about the emotional state of the commanders. In this, I see a similarity to The Killer Angels, where artistic license is obviously taken but also without taking leave from the known facts.

How the Ranks Have Grown

With a list of twenty historic battles before me, how can I not find games to match up with what I am reading?

The first battle the book looks at is the Battle of Marathon. Marathon is used as the first of the world-changing battles in that the Greek victory at Marathon and the subsequent prevention of a second Persian landing near Athens not only won the war, but saved Western Civilization. The argument is that, had Darius defeated Greece, he would have sought vengeance upon both the nation and its culture. The subsequent ascendancy of Greek ideals such as Democracy, philosophy, and even Christianity may not have been possible in that alternative world.

To experience Marathon myself, I take out my copy of Field of Glory II. That game’s Immortal Fire expansion features Marathon as one if its “Epic Battles.” Having just read the account of the battle in Moment of Battle, I play acutely aware of any departures from history.

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There’s no hiding from it, so let’s just cut to the chase.

First, let me say that when I attempted to play this scenario, I lost. I lost pretty substantially. The Greek losses alone rivaled the total for both sides taken from the actual battle. Both my left wing and my center were completely obliterated and even my right wing was pretty much defeated by the time my army broke and ran.

My experience with Field of Glory II is still somewhat limited but, if Pike and Shot is anything to go on, the scenarios can get pretty tough once you move beyond the introductory ones. However, it wasn’t clear to me whether my loss was due to a difficult scenario or just incompetent game play. So I played again, and lost again. Then I did it again. It took me four tries before I was finally able to get a victory. In every attempt, I modeled my strategies upon those which the Greeks used at Marathon. Particularly on my first try, this was a big part of my problem.

As Moment of Battle describes it, the Greek victory can be credited to two tactics. The first is specifically represented in Field of Glory II.

Miltiades, the Greek polemarch**, knew that he was facing a numerically superior army but he also knew he had time on his side. The Persians were trapped on a plain, hemmed in on three sides by the sea, marshes, and other terrain. There was only one way of the beaches and toward Athens. The Greeks had established fortifications to prevent such an exit, fortifications which the Persians were unwilling to contest. That left the Persians with only one route of retreat, back onto the ships upon which they had come. The problem is that, while boarding, the Persian army would be vulnerable to attack. The Persians waited to see if the Greeks would face them in open battle, but eventually had to move.

The size advantage of the Persian army was enough that, even while their cavalry was boarding, the infantry that remained to screen the withdrawal still outnumbered the Greeks. The Persians remained confident that they could react to and defeat a Greek sally with only their infantry. For their part, the Greeks had to compensate for their inferior numbers. Their solution was, at the center of their line, to deploy the Greek hoplite formations at double width and half depth. On the wings, they were deployed in normal formation. The effect was to present the Persians with a similarly sized battle line, which prevented it from being easily out-flanked, but one with all its power weighted in the wings. As I said, this is explicitly modeled in the game.

The other key tactic was in Greeks’ advance, which took the Persians by surprise. Ancient tactics expected the lines to approach each other and begin the fighting with skirmishing and missile attacks. Only after this initial phase would the heavy infantry march forward to engage their counterparts in an attempt to break the enemy lines. The Persians advantage in raw numbers was multiplied by an advantage in number and quality of archers. When the Greeks began to advance on them, the expected that they could decimate the advancing ranks with long range fire and then overwhelm them with their superior numbers on engagement. The Greeks did not do what was expected of them.

Instead of marching steadily forward, the Greeks broke into a running charge supported by neither cavalry nor archers. According to Moment of Battle, the initial volley of arrows went long, falling harmlessly behind the Greek lines. Because the Greeks were moving much faster than they should have been, they weren’t were they were supposed to be when the archers chose their targets. Before the bowmen could become effective, the Greeks had moved into direct contact with the enemy. At this point, the better trained, better organized hoplites were facing Persian infantry fighting with wicker shields against the powerful phalanx formations. While the weakened formations at the center of the Greek lines were disadvantaged by the Persian numbers, they knew their job was to give ground and bide for time. On the wings, it was no contest.

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The battle lines converge. My goal is to rapidly engage my flanks.

Field of Glory II will not reproduce this dramatic victory. The opening sees the Persians moving forward to engage with the Greeks. When they get within range, the Persian archers begin their attack and can achieve several turns of effective fire before contact ensues. Similarly, the Persians will not fall into the trap of throwing the majority of their army into the center to be cut off and surrounded. Each time I lost (and even when I won), the computer split their line to deal with the more serious threat on their wings rather than plunging forward after my center.

The key to victory as the Greeks (as usual, ignore this if you want to discover the game by yourself) is the rapidity with which you can break the wings of the Persian army. In every game I lost, I initially gained a significant advantage in points by causing the Persians on the wings to break. At some point, the clock turns against you and your own forces tire out and begin to fall back. When that happens, the Persians’ advantage begins to snowball and it becomes impossible to catch back. The first time through, my mistake was assuming that, in a one-on-one match-up, the Persian infantry wouldn’t be able to stand up to my hoplites. They can. They’re definitely inferior to the Greeks, but they can hold out for a time. As the Greek player, it is necessary to be smart about engaging the Persians on your own terms to break their line as rapidly as possible.

Even once I realized my mistake, victory didn’t come easily. My last play through, when I finally won, I broke enough Persian units, and quickly enough, so as to get a 25% lead before most of my center was significantly engaged. It was partly due to a refinement in my approach (after the series of failures) but may also have had something to do with luck; I saw a rapid cascade of broken units on the Persian left that looked a bit like “lucky dice.” After being declared the victor, something didn’t feel right about winning the battle without having broken either of the Persian flanks.

Again relying on the Moment of Battle narrative, the moment of truth in the battle came as the Greeks were victorious on the flanks but nearly collapsing in the center. The authors credit the superior training of the Greek troops that allowed the wings to recover and reform facing inward. The Greek infantry rapidly redeployed toward the flanks of the Persian center. The Persians, they speculate, would have been unable to anticipate this maneuver, given the combination of their experience against lesser armies and the fog of war. In just the nick of time, the Greek wings crashed into the Persian center and prevented a Persian victory.

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A bloody mess. The casualties are pushing double that of the actual battle.

Since I felt cheated by my “points” victory I decided I would take the option of pressing onward. The battle went on for many more turns. I eventually had routed more than 60% of the Persian army, the next threshold for victory, and stopped the game there. By then, my own left flank had fallen apart although my right flank was steadily grinding towards victory. That initial 30%-plus advantage wound up being my high water mark. Although I remained ahead in points for the rest of the game, I never again held the decisive numbers that I did at the moment of declared victory.

The points-trigger for end-of-game is supposed to represent how an army will not continue fighting once it seems like they have lost. Soldiers will not willingly press on into a meat grinder as I forced them all to do in the game. So pressing on after the game was declared over probably drove up my casualty count. Herodotus tells us that the Greeks lost only 192 to the something-like-6,400 that the Greeks killed as they chased down fleeing Persians. Modern scholars wonder if that might not be a bit of Greek propaganda and suggest the truth might be closer to that of the screenshot above. For what it’s worth, Moment of Battle references only Herodotus’ number.

As the book describes, the battle was not a total victory. Although the Greeks broke the Persian army, killing or capturing thousands, the bulk of the enemy reembarked upon their ships. This shifted the advantage back to the Persians. The entire Greek army was now sitting along on the beach while the Persians afloat and able to land anyplace that the Greeks were not. The Greeks had summoned all*** available forces so Athens was left completely undefended. For most of us, our first knowledge of the Battle of Marathon comes from the messenger who ran, in full battle armor, the 26.2 km from the battlefield to Athens to tell the city of their victory, only to drop dead from exhaustion. More importantly, the bulk of the Greek army also marched those same 26.2 km so as to be present when the Persians arrived by ship. The prospect of another battle against the army that had just defeated them was enough to convince the Persian commander, Datis, to give up and go home. While the victory at Marathon was necessary to win the war, one has to figure that the incredible operational achievement of moving an army on foot to outmaneuver a fleet (a fleet with a head start, at that), may have been the more decisive factor.

One World. It’s a Battleground.

The second battle in the book is Gaugamela. Marathon may have saved the Greek civilization but it was Gaugamela that destroyed the Persian one. Or rather, it established the influence of Greek culture in across the entirety of the eastern Mediterranean through Roman times.

I’ll not play my Guagamela scenarios again, but Moment of Battle similarly emphasizes the issues I had with trying to reproduce that fight in a game. The book describes a handful of key factors in Alexander’s victory.

Guagamela, among other things, is a classic showdown between quantity and quality. Darius’ forces massively outnumbered Alexander’s, but the troops Alexander had were probably the finest in the world. Alexander was further helped by the fact that Guagamela followed his victories at Granicus and Issus; Alexander’s victorious veterans faced Darius’ replacements. Second, the book describes that, immediately before the battle, Darius kept his forces on alert, ready for a possible night attack from Alexander. Alexander, having determined that fighting at night would not be to his advantage, got a good night’s rest along with his army.

Alexander’s skill as a battlefield commander obviously was a major factor in his victory. Moment of Battle describes several of the ways that this made a difference. They note that when Alexander chose to lead his Companions in an unexpected direction, several of his subordinates moved their own infantry or cavalry in support. This is obviously a major command advantage, allowing Alexander to seize initiative in ways that Darius could not. Great Battles of Alexander explicitly attempts to simulate this with their command system. Lacey and Murray also describe in some detail the pivotal moment in the battle where Alexander realized there was a gap in the Persian lines and exploited it. They also describe whey the Persian cavalry did not and, perhaps could not, exploit the corresponding gap that this opened up in the Greek lines. Not to rehash it, but it came down to the superior training and discipline of Alexander’s army which allowed the Greeks to remain in good order while the Persians set to looting the Greek camp. These factors, as I complained, no game seems capable of reproducing.

I wonder whether Alexander had any chance of winning the battle except for his exploitation of the “gap.” Gaugamela was by no means a sure thing for Alexander. Even after charging through the hole and disrupting the Persian center, the fight still hung in the balance. He had Persian cavalry in his rear that, fortunately for him, chose to loot his camp rather than turn around and charge the Greek formations from behind. He had a left flank that was on the verge of disaster, resulting in his famous decision not to pursue the fleeing Darius. Had that gap never opened, though, it could easily been argued that Alexander’s force would have slowly ground down by the Persians’ superior numbers.

So what does that say? Does this mean any game treatment of Gaugamela should consist primarily of determining whether the hole opens in the Persian lines and whether Alexander is ready and willing to exploit it? That probably wouldn’t be any fun.

*I stretch the term “modern” without trying to nail it down. What I’m trying to identify certainly isn’t purely a twenty-teens phenomenon. The ideas probably follow the arc of most political thought which has come to dominate the universities. I suspect it started with a few scholars in the 1960s, outliers in their respective fields who pushed a revisionist interpretation of history. In doing this, perhaps some merely wanted to counter what most saw as rote and counter-productive learning; memorizing the dates of famous battles is not “learning history,” especially if one totally ignores the context in which wars are fought. The authors, again in their forward, explicitly acknowledge this. What was a few isolated opinions in the 1960s becomes a significant fraction of professors in the 1980s. By the 2000s, such ideas not only represent the new orthodoxy at the university level, but the influence extends down through primary-and-secondary education and societies understanding of our own history.

**The term polemarch translates to “warlord” but (and was) used to designate the supreme commander on a battlefield. Because the Greek armies were coalition, generals often found themselves among equals, so one of their number had to be designated for overall command. In this case, command was rotated among the different generals, each taking their turn on a different day. Miltiades was recognized for having the most experience fighting the Persians. Some juggling may have been required to defer to his experience without slighting the other generals who were also due a turn at command.

***Much is made of the absence of the Spartans. The timing of the battle conflicted with a religious holiday (one that forbade fighting) leaving them unable to attend. In the end, it seems, this was neither here nor there.

 

More Abstractions

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Playing some more Fire in the Lake, I had some additional thoughts on the abstractions that make this game.

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

 

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U.S. buildup in Vietnam, represented as little square cubes.

The screenshot above shows the second “Coup round.” This is important. The event cards are played in groups called “campaigns” separated by special, non-standard rounds when a Coup card comes up for play. That round has a series of prescribed actions which may result in an end-of game victory or, failing that, involve a sort of restructuring and refurbishing to prepare each of the four factions for the next campaign. When playing either the full war or one of the longer scenarios, after two campaign segments have completed, the players become eligible to play their respective “pivotal events.” (The pivotal events for North Vietnam and the United States are visible in the above screenshots). Before the completion of those first two campaigns, these special, dedicated, extra-powerful events are unplayable under any circumstances. After, they can be triggered by certain other conditions.

To set the stage in the above game, North Vietnam has an event “Easter Offensive” which is triggered when the NVA troops (the red cubes) on the map outnumber the U.S. troops (green cubes). For contrast, the U.S. triggers their card, Operation “Linebacker II”, when the U.S. score approaches the level required for victory (40 triggers the event, 51 wins the game). Historically, these are mid-to-late game events; both cards refer to actions from 1972. Part of this late-game comes from this requirement for the completion of two campaigns before eligibility. However, a campaign (again, per the rules) is meant to represent 1-2 years. Combining that with the events that have already been played in the above game, I would estimate we’re looking at an early-to-mid 1966. Both the Easter Offensive and Operation Linebacker II should still be a long way off.

I’m fairly new to this game, so I have no experience to tell me about what happens typically as a game progresses; whether what we’re looking at is common or rare. What has happened is that as we’ve hit the card-count trigger allowing pivotal events to be played, off the four, only one is even close to be triggered and that’s the NVA’s Easter Offensive. Furthermore, given the situation in the game, the NVA’s offensive is almost impossible to avoid. Up until this point, the NVA have had little interaction with the other players. When given an event, they have exercised it, but have otherwise used their turns mostly to build up troop levels in North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  They were also able to improve the Ho Chi Minh Trail to an extent where they could accumulate something close to their maximum allowable buildup.

The turn shown in the screenshot has me, as the U.S. player, executing my “Commitment Phase.” As I talked about in a previous post, the U.S. player cannot purchase reinforcements in the same way the other players can, using operations in lieu of events. The one chance American has to bring in new units is at the end of the campaign turn during this “Commitment Phase.” The player may either send troops into Vietnam, withdraw them, or just shuffle them around a bit geographically. In any case, the total for all three categories must be limited to no more than 10 units. I’ve now found myself, as I contemplate my options, behind the NVA in troop buildup. At this snapshot, the NVA outnumber me (the trigger for the Easter Offensive) but, if I bring in my maximum commitment of new troops, I will once-again out number them.

At first, it seems lucky that I have enough commitment points to stay ahead of the NVA, even if only just. What you need to remember, though, is that the NVA player can continue to augment his forces each time he gets a turn. The U.S. player is mostly restricted to that commitment phase. What this means is that even if I can avoid the NVA triggering their pivotal event on their first turn, they’re bound to get it a turn or two later.

My initial thought when encountering this is “boy, is this game out of whack.” Something that historically occurs in 1972 becomes an inevitability, possibly as early as 1965. Then I thought a little more and realized it does make sense. At the beginning of 1965 it dawned on the top leadership in the U.S. that they were potentially only months away from actually losing the war in Vietnam. The U.S. was aware of the rapid build up of NVA forces and by the Honolulu Conference (February 1966) Westmoreland had specifically indicated that staying ahead of the NVA build-up was a prerequisite to winning the war. It may not have been apparent until later, but the Pleiku Campaign of 1965 may well have headed off, essentially, the Easter Offensive of 1965. The NVA did believe they had the capability to overwhelm the forces of South Vietnam before the U.S. could commit. Both sides, at that moment, had underestimated the capabilities of the other.

Now, a major NVA offensive early in the war may be possible, but it isn’t inevitable. The numerical strength of the NVA developed because they had used their (non-event) turns mostly to infiltrate troops along the Ho Chi Minh trail. In doing so, they did not come into contact or conflict with the U.S. and the U.S. did not attempt any incursions into Cambodia or Laos. A slightly different draw of cards, or even different choices made with the same set of cards, would see us at this same point in the game but with the U.S. easily outnumbering the NVA.

This lead me to another observation about this game. While activity in the game, building up your own side and taking down the other, comes from use of operations, the advancing of the “story” comes from the playing of events. By this, I don’t simply mean that the context of historical events provides a narrative. While true, that’s also obvious. What I’m saying is the order of the events already played creates the structure that makes one game different from another game. My experience, also, is that while one scores one’s points through operations, gaining the advantage necessary for victory comes from events and the choices made when using them. A particular aspect of this may be seen by contrasting with Twilight Struggle. In Twilight Struggle, high level play often involves forgoing events in favor of operations, which can be directed towards one’s particular strategy. Events, by contrast, are to be used in combination with each other and a greater plan to create a game-changing moves. The advancement of time in Twilight Struggle is often in terms of which of these critical event cards remain in the deck. In Fire in the Lake, the passage of time can be noted through the accumulation of persistent effects, and particularly those produced by event cards. Capabilities, as the long-term effects of cards are called in the rules, more often than not remain for the rest of the game. This contrasts to Twilight Struggle, where that games “underlined events,” as the rules describe them, have a cancelling effect somewhere in the game. On the other hand, a Fire in the Lake capability, once put into play, will frequently remain for the rest of the game. Furthermore, these capabilities can accumulate. As a result, an early-war operation will be very different that that same operation in the late war as all the applicable capabilities come into play.

Now for one last, a pretty much unrelated thought.

As I was eyeballing the game, trying to decide whether or not to spring for it, one set of graphics that caught my eye was a user-made sticker sheet. These stickers could be applied to the games blocks, there by decorating and designating those blocks with official unit graphics. They look very nice and would seem to offer an extra bit of historical chrome on top of the game. The more I think about it, though, the less appropriate I find this.

By placing stickers on the units, one designates the (for example) U.S. cubes, not just as “troops”, but as brigades. As I said, initially this made some sense. A brigade was often the core unit when creating an operation to be assigned to a particular command. In many cases, smaller operations would still be managed by the brigade commander, allocating individual battalions, and larger ones would see multiple brigades acting in concert. However, having a little bit of game play under my belt, I now think this entirely misinterprets the meaning of the pieces in this game.

A better way to think of the blocks, rather than as formations, is in terms of command and control. Think of them as the resources necessary to commit to an operation. Those resources certainly would include the soldiers themselves; the count of brigades, battalions, or divisions. However, the blocks also indicate supplies and supply chain support. They also designate the attention of the command structure, which would never be infinite, even in the most leadership-heavy of militaries. In this last, if you are familiar with the now-ancient computer game The Guns of August, think in terms of that game’s requirement to declare which Corps command structures would be active as a prerequisite to using them in any sort of attack.

To give an example, imagine a turn where you move half the blocks on the map from one province to another and then engage in some operation (maybe a sweep or an assault). Should you think of that as physically relocating half of forces currently in Vietnam? Similarly, should you think of the U.S.’s “Available” box as units sitting stateside waiting to be deployed to Vietnam? I think the answer is no and, maybe sometimes, yes. Certainly relocating forces on the map implies physical movement of combat forces. However, I think it is a mistake to think of the blocks on the board as representing the location of all forces. Instead, think of it as representing all the forces which are active. So a unit represented by its block that is given a few weeks of down time might see its block removed from the map to be placed somewhere else representing a different unit which is receiving active direction from the command structure. In that way, “available” could mean available back in the States or already in Vietnam, but currently not being used or at risk of use.

This distinction becomes particularly obvious when you have to work with the Casualties box. Various actions allow the communist players to send U.S. units to Casualties, those casualties being a major factor in chipping away a America’s ability to fight the war. Does it really mean, though, that the 3rd Brigade of the 7th Cavalry was destroyed in the field? Or does it just mean that casualties in that battle were unacceptably high? It should be pretty obvious that the game means the latter. The pain of seeing a brigade disappear from the map would not contribute to the immersion factor for this game.

Similarly even the colors of the blocks can be misleading, at least occasionally. The green irregulars are identified in the rules as “U.S. Special Forces.” Most of the time, however, that means they are native units managed and directed by U.S. special forces. In fact, in some cases there may be only a subtle difference between those green octagonals and various yellow or orange units. The difference may be based on which player gets to control them rather than the actual makeup of the forces. In other cases, the green irregulars are meant to be U.S. units such as U.S. Army Rangers or Long Range Patrols. As in the previous paragraph, a given unit may even swap back and forth in terms of what it represents, without being actually removed from the map. A similar situation applies to the red and blue irregulars. In many cases, particularly when a red unit it substituted for a blue one, the force represented by the block may not change. Rather, it may indicate simply a change in political control; who has the upper hand, the locals or the officials back in Hanoi. In other words, in may cases, the red guerrillas and blue guerrillas both represent Viet Cong recruited in the South. The difference is who is pulling their strings.

I don’t know how much immersion one really gets while playing a game, particularly after one has learned the rules and plays using more complicated plans and longer-term strategies. I suspect that, like Twilight Struggle, the better you get at playing the game, the more you’ll want to ignore the game’s chrome, it being a distraction to your goal of winning. Fact is, I’m not that good. The events still provoke some thought about what unexpected card draws might mean in terms of alternate paths that the war might have taken. Those stickers, though? They do look good you probably shouldn’t be sticking them on.

Wake Up, It’s Time to Die

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When Blade Runner was released in 1982, its Cyberpunk dystopia seemed like a plausible possibility for the future. Indeed Blade Runner, along with the magazine-published story Johnny Mnemonic from one year earlier, may well have created the Cyberpunk cultural movement. When I first visited Los Angeles, several years after first having seen Blade Runner, it was easy for me to see how 1980s LA would become Blade Runner’s LA within a few decades. The imagery of overcrowding, poisonous smog, and a dehumanizing of society in favor of technological advances looked to be a fair warning about where we were headed.

Similarly, the years around 1980 were at the height of our fears about Japanese corporations eclipsing the economic power of the U.S. Again, it seemed a reasonable assumption that if corporate America became a subsidiary of Japan, Inc., then so would Japanese culture come to overshadow American life, particularly where the two intersected. I remember 1989, when Mitsubishi bought Rockefeller Center, as peak fear of Japan. It would only take a few years more for Mitsubishi to lose their shirt, forced to sell out to Goldman Sachs at a huge loss. With that, Japan no longer seemed so scary.

There are two aspects of Blade Runner‘s warnings that seem particularly jarring today. First, is those predictions themselves. America has its worries; Global Warming, China, Mexico may top the list (particularly depending on whose fear-mongering you put your stock into) but pretty much none of the bugbears of Blade Runner are on our horizon. Japan is just a minor economic partner, at this point, and mostly one of the “good guys.” Environmentally, we’re more worried about “carbon” than actual pollution (sulfur dioxide, nitrogen  dioxide, and particulates) and cheek-to-jowl overcrowding. And despite coming ever closer to the realization of sentient AI and post-uncanny valley robots, our fear of these technologies may have actually diminished. Perhaps the realization of just how difficult the technology will be to realize lets us put our fears into perspective.

The other shocker is that Blade Runner is set in 2019. That future, that seemed plausible 37 years ago, has arrived. Instead of flying cars, artificial wildlife, and acid rain we have a future that doesn’t seem all that different than 1982. Blade Runner seems to have missed the cell phone thing, even though the technology was up and coming even in 1980. More understandably, they failed to anticipate graphic processing units*, with even advanced computer vision technology being rendered on tiny, staticky screens. The ubiquity of small screens and President Trump aside, I don’t think 1980s me would be terribly surprised by a sudden glimpse of 2019.

Upon release, the reception for Blade Runner was mixed. The studio sold it as an action/adventure but the films pace doesn’t quite live up to that billing. Some critics found fault with the over-emphasis on special effects and imagery over character development and plot. Audience response was luke-warm and the box office take of the movie barely exceeded its budget. It would take years and the release of different “Director’s Cut” versions of the film for it to really come into its own. Most critically, in those alternate versions, the removal of the narration added a feeling of depth to the movie.

I dug out my DVD (what version?… I can’t keep track**) and watched it again to prepare myself to watch Blade Runner 2049. It can be difficult to watch this move, now, without focusing almost exclusively on the question as to whether Decker is an android himself. After this pass-through, I’m going to have to say “no.” Your mileage may vary.

I would also say that some of those original critics do have a point. The story takes a back seat to the “ambiance.” Put aside the is-he-or-isn’t he question and it is hard to build a consistent world around what story you have left. But let’s give it a try, shall we?

The story that remains also persists in the popular imagination because of its questions about what it is to be human. The returned replicants, or at the very least Hauer’s Batty, are portrayed as superior in every way except lifespan to those who created them. While Batty is told by his “maker,” Tyrell, that the two come together we know from earlier exposition that the limited lifespan was deliberately engineered to halt the emotional development of the replicants before they can become independent. If we see ourselves as (allegorically) replicants, the quest of the Nexus-6s to seek out their creator and ask for more life becomes a stand-in for modern, scientific man’s struggle with the border between our advancement in thought and the realm previously occupied by religion.

The other theme is the one explored by Les Revenants: If you are not human, how would you know? We know Rachel is a replicant, but she does not. She is unable to the fact without being show proof from someone who is human. Assuming Deckard is, in fact, human, we are shown similarities between him and the replicants which he hunts. In Decker’s case, could his job (killing living beings) and the dehumanizing system in which he works siphon away his humanity? Is that why he sometimes seems less human than human?

Next to these symbolic themes, the story itself takes second fiddle. Although Decker does manage to kill all but two of the replicants, he is unable to prevent Batty from killing Tyrell – seemingly the whole point making replicants illegal on earth. For the most part, the replicants have inserted themselves seamlessly into society and, but for the Blade Runners hunting them down, cause no trouble or violence. As to Batty himself, Decker is unable to best him and, in the end, only wins when Batty dies of “old age.” The machine, as an individual, has triumphed over the man but, in the end, mankind still wins. Or is it that we, ultimately, will be defeated by the divine (or nature, depending on how you interpret it) no matter how much we can advance ourselves?

For all of the iconic position attained Scott’s cyberpunk imagery in the decades that followed, his world is surprisingly ill-developed. We have no idea what exists “off-world” much less outside the city limits of Los Angeles. As I said, the world seemed like a plausible future, circa 1982, but (or maybe because of it) the film makes no effort to explain how we got there. Los Angeles shows some signs of massive overcrowding and, also, depopulation. Despite the fact that Earth has been declared a haven, protected from replicants, it also seems to be an undesirable place to live. Several times it is mentioned that only those who aren’t healthy enough to leave earth remain on the planet. Yet, there are those like Deckard and Tyrell who seem to be on Earth as a matter of choice. The technology is particularly vexing. We see a combination of futuristic advancements along side apparent decline. The space exploration (particularly in combination with the Replicant’s five-year life span) hints at man’s having discovered faster-than-light travel. Yet, for whatever advancements we have made, our world has become less livable and less human. Again, it seemed a plausible future in 1982.

But importantly it is that lack of definition that allowed us, the 1982 audience, to make of it what we would. We could suspend our disbelief for what we saw on screen because we were being asked to accept it at face value.

There appears to be a general trend with respect to films today when compared to forty years ago. Today, audiences like their details. While I can see why, indulging them within feature-length films comes at a price. One particular bone stuck in my craw is the Star Wars “universe.” In the original Star Wars, we knew very little about that “galaxy far, far away.” We encountered only three planets (with one of them in pieces) and, beyond that, knew practically nothing about the rest of the inhabited parts of the galaxy. There was, we could surmise, an “empire” with an “emperor,” but we knew nothing about him except through a few of his minions. One might assume, if the minions were as scary as Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader, some vast imperial hierarchy only hinted at by the cryptic  names and titles we did hear. The empire seemed powerful indeed. When we do travel between worlds, we have little sense of the distances involved. The various planets that featured in the movie are supposed to be “remote,” suggesting both far and inaccessible from the seat of this great empire.

From sci-fi angle, th civilization of Star Wars understands faster-than-light travel. But unlike, say, Star Trek where that was quantified with “warp factors,” in the original Star Wars we have no idea how fast “hyperspace” movement actually is. We’re know little in the way of details of how it works. For example, the Millennium Falcon can travel over vast distances using hyperspace drive and Tie Fighters cannot. Why would this be? One question I’ve tried to ask people is this. First, imagine that you’ve just seen the original Star Wars for the first time, and no other Star Wars cannon exists. Using only what is in the movie, how long do you think it took the Millennium Falcon to travel from Tatooine to Alderan? At the time, I believe I would have said “weeks.” I’ve had that question answered that it is essentially the time consumed by the action as portrayed on the screen; a couple of hours at most, maybe less. Whatever the right answer is, the more salient point is that there is no way to know.

Enter, now, all the Star Wars stuff that has come since. We’ve learned that travel is near-instantaneous (it ignores relativistic effects, of course) between any two points in the galaxy. We also understand the nature of that imperial hierarchy and it now seems a lot less than I had original imagined. I don’t know if, somewhere, someone has counted up governors and/or other administrators but it has to be related to the size of the imperial senate, which we have seen. As to the title “Darth,” we now understand that applies to exactly two entities in the entire universe; a fact that I found particularly disappointing. The more that Lucas, and now Disney, fleshes out this “universe,” the smaller it becomes. Eventually, we have, literally, generations of space travelers bouncing around between a mere handful of planets, most of which seem to consist of one city.

I go off on this particular tangent because Blade Runner, like the original Star Wars, was left pretty vague. In terms of the science behind it, it leaves a lot of holes. It may even be that those holes are impossible to fill. However, by leaving those holes unfilled and the unimportant parts of the world undefined, the film invites the viewer to just ignore the gaps and go with the flow. Assume, we say to the viewer, that this all could be made sense of if you put your mind to it, but lets not put our minds to it just now. Let’s just sit back and enjoy the film. However, when a film is no longer a stand-alone piece but part of a series, it becomes harder and harder to ask this of the audience. At a minimum, the film should be required to connect the dots between the different installments shouldn’t it? Well, maybe or maybe not back in the late-70s, early 80s. But in the twenty-teens, yes, that is something we expect.

So now on to Blade Runner 2049, the 2017 sequel. But before we do, let’s think about sequels in general. Why make one?

I guess one obvious answer is “to make money.” We certainly see, these days, a primacy of the “franchise” as a basis for the major releases from the big studios. It’s a question of marketing as well as a way to eliminate some of the uncertainties. If everyone loved Splendiferous Man 1 and Splendiferous Man 2, Splendiferous Man 3: The Rise of Splendiferous Man should be an easy sell. On the other hand, if everyone hated Splendiferous Man 1 and it failed at the box office, it might be reasonable to assume that further Splendiferous titles will have a tough time turning a profit. One detects a certain level of this reasoning when it comes to Blade Runner 2049. A lot of people LOVE Blade Runner. A good chunk of these people are going to be guaranteed consumers of Blade Runner 2049 based on the title alone. There may be some hurdles you have to jump to execute this well, and we’ll come back to those later.

But first, lets try to be just a little less cynical. Sequels are made when a film is particularly successful but it used a curtailed form of its source material. Think The Godfather II, made largely from the parts of the book which didn’t make it into the original film. This obviously doesn’t apply to Blade Runner as the short story upon which it was based had no additional material to use. The connection between Philip Dick’s original and the Blade Runner story is tenuous enough already.

Sequels might also come from original screenplays where an audience is left eager to find out what happens next. For examples, it is easier for me to come up with examples in the television world, where a TV series continues adding new seasons as long as it draws viewers. This too, however, wouldn’t seem to apply to Blade Runner. Would you bring back Deckard to battle it out with even more replicants? That would be contrary to the film’s ending where we think (maybe, maybe not?) that Deckard has finally gotten out of the life?

Where Blade Runner does kind of fit, again cynical interpretations aside, is the case where you’ve created an appealing “universe,” as they say these days, and there is an audience that craves more stories taking place in that world. Lucas’ claims that Star Wars was a 9-part story from the get-go aside, this might be the perfect example. Even better if you and I had creative control over the Star Wars franchise before Lucas and then Disney ****ed it up. What else might have happened, long-long ago in this galaxy far-far away? Similarly, Blade Runner created such an iconic representation of the future that it would stand to reason the fans want to know more about what that future holds.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be where the production went, forcing us to fall back on the “more money” verdict when it comes to this sequel. When the original Blade Runner‘s future is only a year-or-two away, fleshing out that world makes considerably less sense. 2049 didn’t go this direction at all, creating several massive disruptions between that past-future and the present one. Consistent with our twenty-teen mentality, those disasters, one ecological and one electromagnetic, are described in some detail. In the original Blade Runner, we were willing to accept that the dystopia on our screens was merely somehow a result of stuff in that intervening 30 years, and it worked. In the new version, we’re are told what that stuff was. If it doesn’t make sense, well, too bad.

Also, to make sure the money connection works, the producers used Deckard’s character and actor Harrison Ford to bridge the gap. In doing so, the story itself has to, despite 30 years of time having passed, start right where we left off in the first film. The result is a number of contortions which, in the end, produce a story with even less narrative depth than that of the original. The search (and I’ll stay vague, here, so as not to ruin what story there is) seems to be for more of a MacGuffin than a meaningful artifact, either within the Blade Runner world or as modern-world allegory. As little sense as it might make narratively, it makes even less sense in terms of the science fiction. There is also some serious logical issues, particularly when it comes to information and awareness. The “government” of that future seems to be nearly omniscient, except when it comes to things about which they know nothing.

So far, I’ve been running down the new movie, but what it does get right is updating the look and feel of the original. In terms of visuals and special effects, everything that worked in 1982 can be done better with today’s technology. Beyond the visuals, I consider the Blade Runner 2049 soundtrack as a high point. I hesitated bit before writing this. It’s fairly minimalistic and sometimes a bit incongruous with the film that it is enhancing, but what modern CGI has done for the visuals, Hans Zimmer has done for the Vangelis soundtrack of the original.

So for several decades, the original Blade Runner helped define one way we thought about the future. Because of this, it grew in importance as the film aged. Effects-wise, it has aged better than one might expect. As its future is approached by our present, it allows us to think about how things have changed unexpectedly and how other things haven’t changed at all. Cyberpunk might have been a cool future for the imagination, but it wasn’t a very realistic one. I don’t expect Blade Runner 2049 to have any such cultural longevity. The movie says little about our future or even our present, except maybe that we live in fear of an environmental catastrophe (as if that isn’t going to be obvious from every work of fiction from our time).

*The exception is the massive, animated billboards ubiquitous in Blade Runner‘s landscape. These have actually come to pass. Today’s Time Square looks far more like Blade Runner than 1980’s Time Square, perhaps not entirely by coincidence (at some point, this was our image of futuristic). Animated billboards are a feature even of small towns these days yet Ridley Scott did not anticipate that this technology was the same that would produce cheap and available personal computer graphical displays.

**Actually, I can, if I just look at the the cover of the box. I have the original “Director’s Cut,” which is the first of the reedits to come out. It primarily fixes the narrator problem but does not include the alternate ending.

You Better Take Cover

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

I recently read a statement, but I don’t remember where I read it. It referenced the often-used statement that “the internet never forgets,” generally used as a warning about posting things on social media. However, as explained, the internet does forget. For example, all that wonderful content archived for posterity on Geocities and Wargamer.com’s forum file storage is being lost to the ages, and more disappears each day.

Such attrition becomes apparent when re-installing old games like the Squad Battles series. As I discussed before, at the time it came out it looked (at least in part) like a contender for the Age of Rifle‘s space, a sandbox World War II and beyond. HPS was often criticized of hindering modders in the service of not allowing the customers to turn into their competitors, but even still, Squad Battles was designed to be moddable. Particularly at the time of its release, the ability to expand the default scenario range was seen as a key to the success of a new game. A game like Squad Battles: Vietnam, perhaps because it was one of many variants and settings, would never have the range of scenarios that the true sandbox games had. But it did get some.

Pursuing what looks like an approximately ten-years-old “unofficial” Squad Battles site, I found a listing of scenarios for the various versions of that series, including Squad Battles: Vietnam. I can’t speak to whether the listing of user-made scenarios is definitive, but from what I could tell it does cover a lot of the ground. The problem is that the links where the scenarios were stored all those years ago are no longer functional. In some cases, there does not appear to be any alternate source for them. I’m sure somebody, somewhere, has copies of the files on their own computers, but they do not appear to be internet-accessible. The author of that site seems to have drawn this same conclusion around the time I did (perhaps even my digging through his site made him wonder what I was up to), and he posted, himself, about the problem. One can only hope that as he deletes references to dead links, we don’t lose even the record that such scenarios ever existed at all.

Now, some of the scenarios referenced on his site he posted the downloadable version himself. I actually have a little bit of trouble accessing his files due to some combination of scripting, account credentials, and/or blocks on .zip files. I had actually started thinking, before I saw his post, that the files may no longer be there or just be inaccessible. In any case, I can’t get them. The plus side of this is when I try to get them and can’t, I realize that sometime (perhaps a year ago, perhaps longer) I made a monster download of a whole stack of scenarios including many of the non-Wargamer hosted files linked on the above pages. It always takes me a while to figure out where I’ve hidden away those downloads, but eventually I do and often find what I’m after. I honestly don’t remember where I got them in the first place, try as I might.

I drag you all through this history because, in between the two Steel Panthers scenarios in the previous gaming post, I played another Australian scenario. There is a user-made scenario called ANZAC, Sweep which takes place the morning of August 16th, two days before the Battle of Long Tan. As near as I can tell, this is entirely hypothetical. The scenario uses a nearly-identical Australian order-of-battle as the real Battle of Long Tan, but on a non-historical map against a different enemy disposition. It is true that there were Australian patrols attempting to locate the VC position on August 16th, but I don’t believe that these two companies would have been working in tandem.

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The Australian side includes two companies of infantry (off the screen), mechanized support, and off board artillery.

The scenario has the B and D Companies of the 6 RAR, supported by three M-113s and off-board artillery, attempting to locate a VC mortar position. This is essentially the real mission of D Company on the 18th, with B Company and the M-113s being the equivalent of A Company’s historical reinforcement effort. This jiggering of the historical situation has the advantage of being able to be played, despite the lack (at least, in Squad Battles: Vietnam) of a historical map, and without preconceived ideas of the nature of enemy forces.

My initial reaction upon starting the scenario was one of horror. As I said, I had downloaded the scenario from somewhere a year-or-so back and then installed the ANZAC, Sweep before playing. When it started up, I was unable to see any of my units. After some poking and prodding, I realized that the silhouettes my units were still there, but the background (the tan square background of the “counters”) was not. I fiddled with the settings, to no avail, before finally finding a highlighting option that worked. Sort of. The were highlighted in a kind of pink which made them easy enough to spot on the map but also three-times as ugly. So ugly, in fact, that I began digging through the installation on my own hoping to find some way around this mess. Because, clearly, the person who created this scenario had not intended it to look this way.

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After a bit of ad hoc patching, my Australians are visible and moving forward across a broad front against the enemy mortar position.

Eventually, I found a solution. I’ve said before, but it bears repeating, the program is remarkable modable. It can be extended to include entirely new nationalities, such as these Australians, absent from the original package. It also happens that the Australians are part of the base package for Squad Battles: Tour of Duty. The solution was as simple as copying the support for Australian counters out of Tour of Duty and pasting it into the right place in Vietnam. The result, having nicely colored units advancing againts an enemy mortar position, is pictured above.

I assume that when this scenario was first posted, somewhere there was an ANZAC mod, upon which the scenario depends. Whether that came out before or after the Tour of Duty release, I won’t begin to speculate. What I will say is the mod almost certainly had more to it than just the background color of counters. For example, still missing from my game are the nationality-specific sounds that accompany actions such as rallying the troops. Honestly, some of these sounds can get a tediously repetitive, so I didn’t feel I was missing out on much. I felt that way up until I actually played an Australian scenario in Tour of Duty. The Australian voice acting is, shall we say, considerably more colorful than that of the Americans. I quite enjoyed it, although one of the commands sounds a little more like a Schwarzenegger line than an Aussie. Did someone mix up Austrian and Australian*?

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Finally we have some appropriate artillery support.

As I said above, I question the authenticity of this scenario. It looks to me that it used a hypothetical encounter to approximate the actual Battle of Long Tan, using the “hypothetical” part to free the scenario from trying to simulate that which it couldn’t. Obviously, using the Squad Battle: Vietnam maps, the terrain isn’t going to be right. Likewise, this gets you around the problem we saw in the Steel Panthers version. The Steel Panthers scenario doesn’t last long enough for the M-113s to be a factor at Long Tan but, since this one is hypothetical, we can just assumes that M-113s are already on the battlefield even before contact is made.

Another plus for this scenario, as I happily highlight in the above screenshot, is the availability of artillery support. The scenario starts with the brigade closing in on a, first suspected and then identified, enemy mortar emplacement. Doctrine of the time would likely have given that brigade artillery support which, upon located the enemy position, would have been called in. So often the use of artillery removed from Squad Battles scenarios. Possibly the reason is because it throws off the balance for most any scenario, I don’t know. Including it here makes for a nice change of pace.

There is a twist to the scenario which keeps it all quite interesting. I’ll not dwell on the details except to suggest that this, too, is a proxy for the situation at Long Tan. Let’s just say ANZAC, Sweep makes for a decent Squad Battles scenario by of my metrics. Hopefully we haven’t lost too many similarly-decent scenarios into the fading internet of yesteryear.

Return to the master post or continue forward in a return to Fire in the Lake and the way it abstracts the complexities of the war into its relatively simple game mechanics.

*That’s a joke. It just sounds a little like Arnold. I don’t really believe that an Arnold voice (or an Austrian voice) was used in this game.