Mania and Mayhem

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Related to the topic of my last political post, Dilbert artist Scott Adams posted an analysis, of sorts, suggesting that something like half the body politic is experiencing “Mass Hysteria” (and isn’t dat sexist right there?)

Earlier this year I called it “fantasy to the point of derangement,” which accounts for it on a case-by-case basis, but begs the question of why it is so widespread. Mr. Adams suggests a cultural phenomenon as a way to explain its breadth.

I guess it goes without saying that I’m one of the ones he describes as being “outside the bubble.” I also find it interesting that, for the purposes of his argument, the actual truth is irrelevant. In other words, even if Trump is proven to be a Hitler-loving, racist, National Socialist who is under direct control of the Russian government, it still doesn’t change the fact that those who assumed the truth have been suffering from a mass hysteria.

Cue the Orchestra

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Clocking in at 3 hours and 44 minutes (for the 1962 edit), the original Ben Hur is more than a movie – it’s a commitment. But I decided to make that commitment when I saw that they were releasing a remake (2016). At first glance, remaking the spectacle of galley fights and chariot races

One of the on-line review I read complained about the painting of historical Israel with the brush on 1950s American. To be sure, there is plenty of that in the movie. The film’s score, in particular, is a jarring cacophony if the modern classical style. Combined with the lengthy “Overture” and pretentiously-named “Entr’Acte“, the orchestra becomes a character all its own.

But part of me wonders if the American culture that this film reflects is of the antebellum as the post-Korean War America.

The novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was published in 1880. It took and held the record for best-selling American novel of all time until 1936 and Gone with the Wind. Even that book fell again in 1960 when the release of the movie spurred a new wave of interest in the book. The book was written by Lew Wallace, billed as “General Lew Wallace” in the film, who achieved notoriety in the battle at Shiloh due to his conflict with U.S. Grant.

While the 1950s saw a far more religious America than today’s, the second half of the nineteenth century was far beyond even that. In a biography, it is described the Wallace began the novel as a reaction to a train ride he took with Colonel Robert Ingersoll, a fellow Shiloh veteran who was known, post war, as “The Great Agnostic.” Wallace was not a religious person, but he felt shamed that he hadn’t the background to form convictions on the subject, whether pro or con. This lead him to study the biblical stories and, ultimately, lead him to write the book.

In  the rivalry between main character Ben Hur and his nemesis Messala biographers have seen a reflection of Wallace’s own struggle with Grant. They go so far as to refer to a story, printed shortly after Wallace’s death, of a horse race between himself and Grant  – a race won by Wallace.

The book was also notable for the meticulous research that Wallace put into his portrayal of the Holy Land. For many American readers, this was the first time they connected a description of the environs in contemporary tongue with the stories of the Gospel which they had grown up with. This was a major factor in the popularity of the book and its effectiveness – it allowed people to see Jesus as a historical figure rather than part of a Sunday sermon (using the language of the King James bible).

Like a joke from another culture, this movie is worth viewing as an artifact from another America. Such jokes can be perplexing and perhaps understood with some explanation and, while one might acknowledge that the joke is funny, rarely will it prompt spontaneous laughter. Likewise this movie, for me, has to be watched with a certain detachment.

Watching it has it’s pain. That orchestra, of course, seeming to fill far to many dreadfully long pauses. But there is also plenty of over-acting, I assume from an era when “serious” film was supposed to reflect the stage. The conversion from page to screen, as always, leaves holes. A scene in the movie where Messala is goaded into betting massively on his own chariot is left without the second half, where Judah Ben Hur reaps a fortune from his victory. I may need, now, to actually read the novel to see just how far Hollywood took the film away from the story. And how much of what’s wrong is 1950s America versus 1870s America.

But it does have it’s pluses. For its time, this was the pinnacle of big-budget blockbusters. The sets are vast – made more impressive knowing that they would be done with CGI today. Naturally, a wary eye can pick out painted sets, or discern when an outdoor scene is being filmed on an indoor stage. Nonetheless, the film is huge. The chariot race and the galley battle are spectacularly done. The size of the crowds are massive, particularly when one considers that those are all extras, not computer-rendered copies.

When I first saw that a remake was in the works, I thought it a brilliant idea. Using a combination of modern technology and, perhaps, better research, I figured such a film could be done properly for today. But at the time, I’d never seen the original. Now that I have, I no longer have much of an interest in the new version. What could be done great with modern effects was already done great, in its own way, in 1959. Improving on the story itself would likely involve deviating further from the original story.

I think I may have painted myself into a corner here, buying a read of the original novel and then a viewing of the 2016 film.

 

Messaging

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Donald Trump’s victory has given both sides of the aisle cause for reflection. Up until the killing of a protester this past weekend, I was seeing a particular theme coming up with regularity. It applies to both sides. The question is, given the surprise of Trump’s victory, how must the parties adapt to this “new” political landscape?

For the right, most of the articles followed immediately after the election. The theme was that the politics of Trump had some significant departures from the politics of the Republican Party. What those difference were probably depend on your perspective (are we talking conservatives, “establishment” Republicans, activists, or what?). But, just to pick an example, Donald Trump’s appeal to economic isolationists seemed at odds with both Republicans and Democrats and (at least initially) aligned only with Bernie Sanders and maybe the likes of Ted Cruz. So should the Republican party shift away from its traditional free trade position to Trump’s protectionism? Would this gain votes or lose votes?

In some ways, it is the same argument that takes place election cycle after election cycle in the Republican party. Different factions, from libertarians, to Christian Conservatives, to “neo-cons”, etc. etc., fight for their positions in the party agenda. The new wild card is the whether Trump has drawn traditional Democrat voters (or perhaps just non-voters) to the Republican side, and whether Republicans should adapt so to keep them. The discussion was most intense right after the election, and has dwindled as the press cycle focuses more on the Donald day-to-day.

For the left, though, the chorus has been growing. Initially the shock that Trump actually won was too great to allow for introspection. The blame came next, and wasn’t very constructive. But recently I’ve seen a lot written about what lessons the Democrats need to learn, and how they need to adapt. The more thoughtful (and lengthy) articles I’ve read (a recent one here, if you can see past the Wall St. Journal paywall) are by center-left Democrats. However, even the party activists are saying roughly the same thing. Which is…

What the Democrats are learning is that they failed to speak to their main-stream supporters in their efforts to push farther to the left. The advice, the goal, is to refine their message to explain to the traditional working class why they need to support Democrats. The article above talks about an inspirational message – one that unites us around our common citizenship and the quest for a better society.

Better messaging.

But what the article doesn’t say – what I’m not sure any of the articles say – is anything about changing their policy. In fact, the recent evidence actually suggests the opposite. When party activists talked about trying to open the party to pro-Life Democrats, the response was fast and furious. So, the party needs to change the tone of their message to convince, for example, the pro-life but otherwise left-leaning voter to come back, but what they will not do is soften their actions to obtain the result that these lost lambs would like to see.

It’s not said directly, but the implication is that, having lost an election (presumably on the basis of the policies they espoused), how do they repackage and sell themselves so that they can win power to, in fact, enact those same policies?

The fact is, I have no idea whether the actual policies, and behavior of the party faithful when in control, is a factor in winning and losing elections. Maybe, indeed, it is all messaging. To me is seems dishonest to get the sale by simply describing your (unwanted) product in different ways until the buyer gets fooled. To me, assuming that you’re doing everything right but people just don’t understand what you’re saying is elitist hubris that is bound to backfire on you.

But I’m probably wrong. I didn’t think Trump could win, either.

 

Anyone Want To Buy Some Poo?

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Is it a black comedy, or is it a tragedy?

Perhaps it is a sign of its quality that one can’t really tell.

Pu-239 was released in 2006. The film was based on a 1999 short story, and was originally shown in the Toronto International Film Festival as The Half Life of Timofey Berezin. Following its positive reception there, HBO picked it up the following year and released it under the films working title, also the title of the short story.

The film follows two characters. One is a technician in a nuclear processing facility who, through the incompetence and malfeasance of the operators of the facility is severely contaminated by a nuclear mishap. The second is a low-level gangster on the streets of Moscow who, through the ignorance of his comrades, takes on a debt to the local crime lord which he is unable to pay. When the two meet, they appear to be perhaps the only way out of each other’s crisis.

The movie gets into the physics of nuclear radiation, and as far as I could tell does so accurately, but it is not a scientific movie. The descriptions of atomic particles are more metaphorical, drawing parallels with the human drama which is occurring. One assumes (again, I haven’t read the short story) that this much was taking from the literary source when the film was created. Likewise, the portrayal of the post-Soviet-collapse Russian society seems pretty spot on, as far as I could tell. But, once again, the focus is not on trying to paint a picture of the time and place.

The story is very vaguely based on actual incidents. The story was set in 1995, and at that time there were several cases of stolen nuclear material from ex-Soviet facilities. Some of the cases were disgruntled workers, and other were just citizens finding themselves in a newly- “captitalist” society and trying to make their fortune (both of which ARE themes of the film). In one incident, some stolen Plutonium was traced to a facility called Arzamas-16 during the Cold War. The town, which did not exist on any map, was the location of a nuclear weapons design facility. Arzamas-16, or sometimes Kremlyov, was renamed Sarov in 1995. As far as I know, the details of the theft were never discovered. The Plutonium was recovered in Munich during attempted sale and was traced back to the Russian facility through its radiological signature.

The city in the movie is called Skotoprigonyevsk-16, which is not a real location. In fact, Skotoprigonyevsk itself is taken from The Brothers Karmazov, where it is revealed (at the very end of the novel) to be the location of “our town.” The name was probably intended to sound “made up” in the Dosotoyevsky and certainly intended to evoke a place apart from the big city (Dosotoyevsky’s St. Petersburg or Pu-239‘s Moscow) – remote, rural, and culturally disconnected. In 1995, the cultural disconnect was between the Soviet hierarchy where scientists and their military research commanded respected and status, and the “New Russian” mobsters who grew instantly rich and became to dominate and, indeed, define modern Russia.

Unlike some of my other recent reviews, this is not a foreign-language production. See the trailer and cover-art, I actually assumed that it was. Although I should have known, the “translated” title is Ru-239 using Cyrillic characters, one of those Hollywood devices that really gets me spun up, although for most of the movie the Russian translations (and the non-Russian actors’ Russian accents) seem quite a bit more authentic. While filmed in Romania, it was obviously intended for the English-speaking consumer. Nonetheless, it is a independent film that, despite critical attention and the backing of HBO (Time Warner), seemed to have mostly slid under the radar.

It’s a shame. This is a fine little story that translates well to the screen. For those that would appreciate it (and it’s not going to appeal to the masses), it will be unfortunately if they never know what they are missing. Even if I don’t know what to call it.

A Doge’s Age

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I’ve gotten on a tear with some of the classic games related to the exploration of the New World.

Age of Empires (the original) is to me one of the keystones of the historical game genre. Created in 1997 by Ensemble Studios/Microsoft, it was touted as Civilization meets Warcraft – and fair enough that summary is. Within the game, you start as a stone age hunter/gatherer and then build and research your way to “Empire,” a civilization at the height of the Classical Age. As an RTS, there is little resemblance for this title to a “wargame” or a “historical simulation” by any stretch of the imagination. It is very much, as the box says, a re-theming of Warcraft. But viewing it so simply sells the experience of it short.

There was something engaging about starting with no technology and a single village and trying to grow it into an empire that felt good and epic. For 1997, creating a phalanx of hoplites and being able to watch them move across the map in formation to your orders, to me that was something else. There were games out there to accurately recreate ancient warfare (Ancient Battles of Alexander was a contemporary), but here was a way to actually watch ancient warfare animate itself on your screen as you played.

I have a confession to make at this point; I didn’t buy Age of Empires until well into the aughts. It seemed too expensive and too “light” for my tastes. Although I had played through the demo some, I didn’t jump all the way in until Age of Empires II was out. Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings came out in 1999, also an Ensemble/Microsoft release. I didn’t know it at the time, but there was a split in the creative types behind the scenes with the one of the developers leaving to create Empire Earth (in 2001). There is a story behind why that fact seems particularly relevant to me, but I’ll leave that for another time.

In the interim between the release dates of these two games, the world of RTS was advancing rapidly. While Age of Empires II was graphically and functionally an improvement, it wasn’t radically different from the original. Obviously by advancing the timeframe of the theme, it introduced new units, buildings, and technologies. It also incorporated “best practices” for RTS games for the time, particularly with the Conquerors expansion (and related patches). Command & Conquer had a sequel out, Warcraft II was very popular and Starcraft (and its expansion) were drawing a massive audience, defining how an RTS should be streamlined and optimized – particularly for head-to-head multiplayer.

Despite all of its pluses Age of Empires II, in some ways, drifts away from the very tenuous hold that the original had on its “historical” claim. While, very abstractly, developing a stone age village into an empire feels historically immersive, does it really work with a middle ages village? What does it mean that I’m growing corn so I can research metallurgy at my local blacksmith’s house? Age of Empires II created addictive and compelling gameplay and had some nice historical chrome in the form of special national units.  The structured campaigns were used to integrate gameplay with a historical narrative. But it also lost something important.

The first time, a few years ago, I tried to dig out my CDs and reinstall, I was very disappointed. Despite this being a Microsoft product, the software doesn’t survive the upgrade to Windows 7 (much less to the current version). With lots and lots of fiddling I got something partly functional, but it was full of graphics glitches. The uninitiated would think that Microsoft wouldn’t be involved with building a game that uses Windows in what, apparently, was the “wrong” way. Windows 7 and its compatibility modes do a pretty good job of resurrecting old games (older than this one, to be sure). Of course, that may be the problem. With direct access to the operating system development team, they probably used trick-upon-trick to squeeze a little bit more in performance. I did feel a bit cheated.

Fortunately, the market will often provide and this opened up the opportunity for a remake. The Age of Empires II:HD release in 2013, is largely identical to the original. The graphics are upgraded to support current screen resolutions. On top of that, you can occasionally pick out some graphics that have been re-done. The blurb claims that there are upgrades across the board, including better AI than the original. Perhaps you can go home again.

What I’ve written so far makes it seem like I have pretty negative view of this game. That’s not really fair. My angle here is how well this game fits into the historical genre. Beyond that narrow view, simply looking at it as a game, it has always been incredibly addictive. I played through all the campaigns as well as many other combinations and I’ve managed to hook a few friends and relatives while I was at it. To this day, the game remains addictive. It is nearly impossible to quit for the night when the enemy has just foiled your assault. First, let’s rebuild our army and tweak our strategy to see if we can prevail, and having accomplished that we then head off to bed. Repeat as necessary.

Among those campaigns is a “Montezuma” campaign, included with the Conquerors expansion. In it, the player plays a lieutenant in the Aztec empire leading fights against other Central American tribes. Eventually, the Spaniards show up and the clash of empires is at hand.

My first thought is, despite being exactly what I played back in the day, my memory of it had softened. It goes without saying that Age of Empires II is primarily (well, mostly) meant to depict medieval Europe. The Conquerors expansion added the Mesoamerican empires of the Aztecs and the Mayans as well as the Spanish Empire, and its Conquistador special unit. Between that and the inclusion of the Montezuma campaign, The Conquerors extended the game into the 16th century and into the New World. However, the basic structure of the game remains unchanged. Specifically, units advance through the medieval European technology tree, with slight variation based on your “civilization.” So while the Aztecs can’t get mounted units or gunpowder, they have all the other nonsensical units in the base game (see below screenshot).

aztec

An Aztec Man-at-Arms patrols his village armed with sword and scale mail.

I’ve said it before, but I never really got down the “strategy” of the RTS. The games are designed around a set of rock-paper-scissors cycles, and (I can imagine, not having mastered it) that this is the key to quick victories – you identify the weak point of your opponents defense, and then target that. Failing to grasp the puzzle leaves a brute force approach where, eventually you win by producing soldiers slightly faster than you opponent can kill them.

cortez

Cortes has arrive in Mexico. Upon landing, he burned all his ships to eliminate the temptation for retreat. Well, all his ships except the vessels armed with heavy siege mortars, which he intended to use on the mighty walled cities of the Aztecs, navigating the crisscrossing rivers of central Mexico.

The campaigns are structure so each level gets a little harder and perhaps eventually brute force is no longer an option. For a non-RTS guy, this leaves one feeling slightly frustrated while stuck in a game with weak connections to the history it is trying to portray. Contrasting directly with the near-contemporary Cossacks, the appeal of that title becomes more obvious. Age of Empires II campaign maps usually limit you to 75 units (it can be set as high as 200). This limit results in a point in the game where you have to start killing settlers in order to create a bigger army. Also, compare and contrast the graphics. I may have had complaints about the graphics in Cossacks, but it does seem a much better fit than Age of Empires. Similarly, I really miss those formations.

cathedrals

I’ve located the Spanish camp. Cortes and his men seem hard at work building cathedrals. Some wonderful stained glass work at that. Perhaps the soldiers are bored.

Researching – Discovery Age…

While the Age of Empires II releases were ongoing, the studio was already at work on a sequel using a new, 3D engine. The product came out in 2002 with the game Age of Mythology. While theme-wise somewhat similar to the original Age of Empires, it expanded into the realms of magic and the supernatural. That release was followed in 2005 with Age of Empires III. In theme and timeframe, it took up where Age of Empire II left off, with the 16th Century and a focus on the New World.

I passed on Age of Mythology and, although bought Age of Empires III back in the day after playing the demo, I never managed to get into it. So opening it up again today, it is all new to me.

At least, it is as new as an Age of Empires sequel can be. The basics of the game remain unchanged from the original. You still build a town starting from a Town Center, houses for raising the population, and specialized buildings for research and military units. Beyond the 3D graphics, there are a number of changes in gameplay. The game has been simplified. There are fewer resources, fewer unit types, and the maps are smaller (particularly obvious when comparing to the HD rework of Age of Empires II). This served to advance trend for RTS in the aughts – for shorter, faster playing games. I believe it was Rise of Nations, released at roughly the same time, that touted that games of epic sweep (from the stone age to the present and beyond) could be played within a half-hour lunch break. This as opposed to the dozens of hours that one might have sunk into Civilization. Age of Empires III would definitely allow you to advance from the voyage of Columbus to the Industrial Age in 10s of minutes, not 10s of hours.

For myself, I prefer the more leisurely pace of the earlier games and, while the 3D graphics look nice, I feel they’re less functional than the isomorphic sprites of old. Furthermore, with complexity comes programming challenge. 3D units can occasionally overlap and basic functions like pathfinding have taken a few giant steps backwards. Trying to send a large clump of units across the board inevitably leads to a traffic jam. The result is an annoying level of micro-management that II seemed to have solved.

Two big additions add to the gameplay and do help out with what Age of Empires II lost from the historical angle. As I said above, the original Age of Empires imagined growing a village into a mighty civilization. In II, that civilization should exist around you, so the original mechanics started to feel slightly off. The two additions help give the feeling that you are but a small part of a larger world. The lesser of the two is the addition of trade buildings, where you can tap into the income streams of passing trade routes that prosper, apparently, with or without you. More strongly, the “Home City” mechanic, reminiscent of similar functions in Colonization and Imperialism 2, provides a renewing source of bonuses to your growing colony which both adds to the game and reminds you are but a cog in a much larger wheelhouse.

stjohn

Chronologically, the first scenario (from the first campaign) takes place in the second half of the 1500s, with the Turkish invasion and siege of Malta.

If one wants to get very analytical, the transition between where II lets up and III begins is probably a little fuzzy. For infantry, Age of Empires II, advances to the “hand cannon” – technically a precursor to the arquebus in use in the late 14th century. By the conquests of Cortes, the matchlock (the defining technology for the arquebus) was beginning to be a significant part of the European battlefield. Of course, the Galleons that one can build in II didn’t become prevalent until the middle of the 1500s. To contrast with Age of Empires III, we start there with the musketeer. At the turn of the 16th century, the term “musket” referred to a very large arquebus. The musketeer units in III would seem to represent the technology of 100 years later. Details aside (I’m sure they’re meant to be very abstracted), the basic theme of the base game – that European powers compete to conquer the New World, assumes we’ve moved beyond the Spanish monopoly on American colonies and into the colonial expansions of, also, the 1600s.

As further evidence of this “start year,” the starting campaign of III begins with a representation of the Siege of Malta, which would start the game in 1565. Given the nature of the game we’re playing here, do such details really matter? I doubt it. But to stick with the theme, I loaded up a the first in a series of user made scenarios which uses the Age of Empires III engine to again represent Cortes’ conquest of Mexico, this time through Spanish eyes.

caribcanoe

On my way from Cuba to Mexico, I was ambushed by a canoe from small island tribe. They tried tossing some lit torches at my ships. I dispatched them with a couple of broadsides.

The initial impression was good. The creator of this scenario decided to represent Cortes’ force almost literally, with some 500 soldiers and a handful of ships to transport them. The Spanish are initially on one island (Cuba?) and have to be transported to the Central American mainland, where victory can be achieved by conquering an Aztec city with the special Cortes unit. In between, there are other native, but non-Aztec, tribes to engage. So far, one might start to look for favorable contrasts with the Cossacks campaign scenarios. But that doesn’t last long.

The feeling begins to slip away almost immediately. On the way to Mexico, I am attacked by “Carib” Indian canoes, and am forced to sail around their Island villages to avoid further canoe versus warship shoot-outs.

Indeed Cortes first encountered non-Aztec tribes and did win military victories over them before allying with them in a move against the Aztecs. As any kind of historical simulation or even historical learning-exercise, this kind of scenario just fails to do it. It has the same flaws as our other two RTS contenders, Cossacks and Age of Empires II, and then some. Like II, the RTS base-building gameplay tends to overshadow whatever else you are trying to accomplish with your scenario. I found myself building a town center (to make up for initially losses in units) and then quickly upgrading to the Industrial Age, mostly because I could. The campaigns that come with the game often have leveling restrictions to prevent this sort of thing. I don’t know if that’s even possible in the scenario editor. Further more, the tighter view and more frantic pace, compared to II, amplify these problems.

Comparing with Cossacks, I’m reminded why the ability to create formations, such as it was, got sold as such a novel feature. While III has some interesting variations in the period units, much of this gets lost at the point where one is forced to send all one’s units in a massed attack against the enemy.

I may well get one or both of these games back out again when I’m in the mood for one of the other campaigns. That dusty old memory that told me “Age of Empires has the Spanish conquest of the New World in it,” however, did not live up to its promise.

Quote

You Know Just What I’m Here For

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You can hide ‘neath your covers
and study your pain,
make crosses from your lovers,
throw roses in the rain,
waste your summer prayin’ in vain,
for a savior to rise from these streets.
Well now, I’m no hero – that’s understood.
All the redemption I can offer, girl,
is beneath this dirty hood
with a chance to make it good somehow.
Hey,  what else can we do now except
roll down the window
and let the wind blow back your hair?
Well, the night’s bustin’ open, these two lanes will take us anywhere.

Parapiglia Generale

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For the War of the League of Cambrai, the first scenario featured in Pike and Shot is of the Battle of Revenna. The battle was one of the larger field battles of the war and, important to this context, one of the more balanced ones. In it the player commands the Spanish, who have a smaller army defending prepared defenses against the French.

In playing this scenario I lost my first play through and only then read an account of the actual fight. What struck me is how closely my reactions matched that of my historical counterpart. My initial plan was to use my defenses to counter the French numerical superiority. The problem is that well-positioned French artillery were able to strike part of my position (the cavalry) and it became clear that simply waiting out the French attack was a losing stratagem. At that point I initiated an attack with the right wing of my cavalry, mirroring the actual battle. As a result of the artillery damage combined with bad terrain, the force of my attack was blunted, my cavalry began to fail, and my center eventually succumbed to superior numbers. I’m impressed by the scenario design which shoehorns the unsuspecting player into the historical, and failed, strategy. Presumably the “game” is to, knowing what failed, come up with an alternative plan that succeeds.

The Battle of Revenna was notable for the extended artillery duel that preceded the battle and, indeed, forced the eventual outcome. It may have been a first in terms of both the extended use of field artillery and its effectiveness in driving the outcome. Gamewise, that is more interesting to me than trying again and again to “beat” the historical outcome.

The League

I decided to go back to the beginning of the war. Europa Universalis has as one of the (relatively few) stock scenarios a War of the League of Cambrai start.

The war that commenced in 1508 continued the Italian War pattern of pan-European involvement in the struggles for control of Italy. At the outset, both France and Spain were entrenched in Italy, with France controlling Milan and Spain controlling Naples. As part of the fallout from the earlier wars, however, Pope Julius II was displeased with Venetian independence, particularly with regard to the cities of Romagna, recently released from Borgia control. Julius called upon first Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian and then France to dislodge Venice from the area.

During the course of the war, sides were fluid. Treaties and alliances were made and remade as the various rulers attempted to maximize their advantage and control. It is a situation that would tend to push the EUIV diplomatic algorithms beyond their limits.

As such, the opening of the scenario has some notable departures from the historical situation. Earlier in 1508, Maximilian had tried and failed to attack Venice with his armies and had thus entered into a truce. In game terms, this would preclude the League of Cambrai from being formed in December of 1508 with a renewed attack from France and the HRE.The scenario opens with Venice (which I chose to play) at war with both France and Austria, with large armies from both closing in.

Similar to the above, League signatories Castile and the Papal States are not at war with Venice. In fact, Venice is on fairly decent terms with both. Given that they weren’t military involved with the war, this may be a necessary hack to the scenario to make sure that those two powers are able to align with Venice, as happened in July, 1510.

As I began, I moved my Venetian army, united, to deal with the French invaders. Historically, the loss at the Battle of Agnadello is blamed in part on the division of the Venetion forces due to an inability of the commanding Orsini cousins to agree on strategy. Given the almost 4:1 French superiority of numbers, it is hard to imagine that Venice could have done anything other than lose completely, faced with the might of both France and the HRE. Such it was in my game, as I eventually lost all territory except Venice itself, protected from attack by my fleets.

It was at this point that the game completely veered off from the course of history.

Historically, Venice’s adversaries had made a pact before the invasion in which they agreed to a partitioning of the spoils of war. In defeat, Venice was forced to give up the entirety of her Northern Italian territories.

In the game, however, the French merely demanded war reparations in the form of both a lump-sum payment and a monthly tribute. While burdensome, this was well warranted by the scale of the loss and considerably more palatable than the historical result.

venice1513

By 1513, Venice is at peace, but with army and navy intact. Despite some rather heavy war reparations due France, we are free to pursue our trading ambitions and seem well on our way to overcoming the loss suffered in 1509.

This lead me to a lengthy period of peace in Italy that was completely ahistorical. I shouldn’t say total peace, because the Pope was up to various machinations in Northern Italy, but peace relative the pan-European conflict that the War of the League of Cambrai was turning into at this same time period.

turkwar

The Peace held on until April, 1516, when the Ottomans declared war over the Venetian administration of Corfu. The War of the League of Cambrai was replaced with a new Crusade.

With less than six months to go before the historical end of the War, my peace was shattered by the Ottoman empire. In an attempt to extend their hold over Greece, they challenged by claim to the Greek island of Corfu. The resulting war was decidedly lopsided. The Ottoman forces were invincible on land, but their navies were quickly dispatched by the Christian coalition, with the huge Venetian galley force being decisive. It took several years, but eventually the Ottoman Empire buckled under the Venetian blockades.

austrianwar

The chickens come home to roost. June 1517, while I am busy putting the squeeze on the Ottomans, Austria (the HRE) decides to once again press their claim for Verona, which (historically) they should have taken back in 1509.

One other fallout from my light peace agreement is that the Austrian claim on Verona was never satisfied. In mid-1517, they again declared war (this would have been after the real war came to a close, so drawing historical parallels is problematic) to make good on their claim.

Dealing with Austria was not so easy as the Ottomans. The continental Turkish holdings (primarily Greece, in this context) was separate from Italy by Hungary and Austria. The Ottomans were unable to bring their considerable land armies to bear against my island holdings. The HRE, by contrast, had land access to all of Italy except Venice itself, making my navy almost totally irrelevant. I did defeat whatever Austrian ships were nearby and, even while still bashing the Turks into submissions, could protect Venice proper. But on the Italian mainland I could only watch as the Austrians took my territories, one by one. Furthermore, in this case, the allies that gladly joined the “Crusade” against the Ottomans demurred when it came to fighting the HRE>

In both cases, balanced land battles were simply not on the plate. In large part, one of my goals in playing this particular scenario was to test out the Total War Battle Mod and this foiled my attempt.

My idea here was to modify the files for “random” scenarios in Pike and Shot, both the campaign version and the skirmish version, and use that to build appropriate armies for EU4 battles. The Total War Battle Mod is supposed to skew the results in EU4 based on a user input descriptor of the off-line tactical battle. I thought my work in Pike and Shot was bearing considerable fruit. I stripped down the army choices in the stock “Pike and Shot” campaign to only those appropriate to the War of the League of Cambrai time period. Then I added back in variants of the armies – no artillery or all-infantry, for example. This allowed me to create roughly armies of my choice, but random on randomly-generated maps. Less successful was the fiddling with the Battle Mod. It may have been working, and I just couldn’t see the results. Suffice to say I’m not quite sure how it is supposed to work.

Snap Back to Reality

In actuality, by March of 1513, Venice had joined with France by entering an agreement to retake Northern Italy and divide it between them. After some initial, rapid advances, the French army was caught by surprise while besieging Novara, in the present-day Piedmont region of Italy.

This battle is included in the stock scenarios for Pike and Shot. The player takes the French side of the battle. The French were alerted to the approach of Swiss Mercenaries, but were caught by surprise by a night march and began the battle unprepared for the Swiss relief force. The French have superior numbers as well as a better mix of infantry, cavalry and artillery. The trick is, and the scenario tells you in the introduction, you are disorganized in the initial deployment. If you simply use your units to fight the nearest enemy, as I did in my first play through, you will lose, just as the French did. The scenario is also a reminder that just because your Landsknechts look the same size as the Swiss pike formations doesn’t mean that they are. Look at the actual count before charging.

The scenario is winnable if you are able to learn a few of these lessons. The French did not have that opportunity. Their loss at Novara forced them to retreat entirely from the Italian peninsula and  inaugurated several years of defeats and left Venice in the lurch.

spurs

There’s just no way this is going to turn out well. While I’m holding my own in the initial clash of cavalry, the English infantry is rapidly approach the front lines. When they come up, I’ll be outnumbered more than four to one.

Two of those defeats are portrayed in Pike and Shot via user-created scenarios. The Battle of the Spurs (above screenshot) models the involvement of England in the conflict. Another user-made scenario depicts the Battle of Flodden (below screenshot).

flodden

The Battle of Flodden pit the English “second string” against a Scottish army trained to fight in German formations. It was a huge loss for the Scots and, by extension, another in a string of losses for the French cause.

These two battles were historically one-sided fights and, likely for that reason, didn’t make it into the released scenario set. For the Battle of the Spurs the set up is so one-sided, it seems designed almost to illustrate how hopeless the cause was. The French had hoped to out-maneuver and surprise the English, but instead were spotted and wound up facing a foe with combined arms outnumbering their horse four-to-one. In this scenario, the battle starts with this mistake already having been made. The designers notes say it is “very difficult.” You don’t say.

For the Battle of Flodden, the player is given command of the victorious English and is asked to reproduce the landslide victory. This is easier said than done. The English “Bill and Bow” units, the backbone of their army, are no match for the Scottish pike formations. Unfortunately this does not jive with the historical result, nor the scant information I’ve read about the battle thus far. It was perhaps the last battle in England fought between medieval armies (albeit with the support of field artillery). Like Cynocephalae for the ancients, it was also a test of the Scots traditional use of pike formations versus the English use of the bill. Although the Scots had been trained in German-style battle, their pike units were not the equivalent of the Swiss “Keils” or the German Landsknecht. Furthermore, the tactics of the Swiss were less than suitable for the marshy ground from which they made there attack. A contemporary battle report notes that “the English halberdiers decided the whole affair” and the battle is held as an example as the end of the era of pike.

None of this is evident when I play the English in this scenario. I have no doubt there is a “trick” that would allow the player to recreate the historical victory. The usual tricks don’t work. Defeating the Swiss can be a matter of picking a wing and gaining local superiority in numbers. Unfortunately, the number of Scots pike units makes it very difficult to out-maneuver them. There always seems to be a couple more ready to jump ino the breach.

Anyway, back to the war.

Eventually, the French King (Louis XII) died and Francis I succeeded him. Francis formed a new invasion force and moved to regain Milan. In an episode that defies rules of most any period game, the Pope made peace with France and returned control of Milan to Francis, according to his royal claim. However, the Swiss Mercenaries were concerned that they wouldn’t be paid for defending Milan unless they actually defeated the French armies, and refused to give up the fight.

The resulting battle once again pitted the Swiss Infantry against a mixed force of French cavalry and artillery in combination with German Landsknecht in a flashback to Novara. Once again, the Swiss stole a march on the French and began the attack before the French were fully organized. This time (in reality and in the stock scenario in Pike and Shot) the French were victorious. The loss of the battle and the subsequent desertion of the remaining Swiss mercenaries meant the end of the war.

 

 

Himmler’s Mother Came Through

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

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

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

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

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

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

Similarly, those characters that are living through depredation genuinely look pretty haggard. I don’t think the actors actually starved themselves for the roll, but a little bit of beard and makeup can go a long way. There have been too many series where the lead characters can be in the wilderness for weeks or months, and still have perfect hair and makeup.

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

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

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