He Who Peace and War Held in his Hand


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Season 3: Now with double the gay sex and three times the incest!

As before, it seemed to take four or five episodes for the story to get to where I wanted it to be; dealing with the historical elements (at least as far as The Borgias can be perceived as doing so). Unlike before, it only seemed to fizzle from there.

Once we hit about Episode 5, we find Cesare Borgia assuming his historical role in bringing France into the Second Italian War.

For me the high point of the season is when the French army arrives on the coast of Italy. I was impressed with the historically accurate depiction of the ships in the bay, in the background as the army gathered on shore. The style of the papal armies again show that mix of the Roman empire and the early modern that, while I don’t know how accurate it is, really appeals to me.

The war, the season, and ultimately the series ends with the siege of Caterina Sforza’s castle. Consistent with the rest of the series, no attempt to rely on the historical arc of the battle is attempted. Instead, a story of a secret cave below the walls is inserted, perhaps due to its relation to the gay sex at the beginning of the season. In the end, Caterina is captured, imprisoned in Rome, and the season comes to a screeching halt that was obviously unanticipated by the writers.

The series was suspended due to the expense of  production. A backup plan involved a two hour “movie” treatment to wrap up the story, but that also did not acquire the necessary funding. In the end, the movie script became available for purchase as a e-book to give closure to fans and Showtime’s Borgias called it a day. One wonders whether the downward trajectory was due to the waning support for the series, or support was vanishing due to the perceived loss of direction. To my mind, the series comes to an end just before the payoff – the point where Cesare begins to exert political control on his own.

All the focus on the gay sex did have one payoff. I actually looked up the name Micheletto Corella to find he was actually a historical persona although, in the fashion of The Borgias, not very much like his on-screen portrayal. The series has him a shadowy rogue who meets Cesare Borgia after being hired as an assassin to kill the Borgia family. Cesare senses his quality and brings him on as his most trusted servant. We later find out he grew up (gay) in the streets of Forli, a plot element important in the final episode. While Corella’s true life is not fully documented, it is known that he was a childhood friend of Cesare and probably of a similar social status. They attended university together and certainly would have had a very different relationship with Cesare during his rise to power.

While reading this, I also read that Mario Puzo’s The Godfather was, in some ways, a contemporization of the Borgia story. Puzo explained in an interview how he saw parallels between the family of the pope and the structure of current crime families. For decades, he had considered writing an actual story based on the Borgias, but died before completing it. His girlfriend released, posthumously, the book The Family based on those notes. I am tempted to read it, but I’m very wary of books purportedly by an author but really based simply on notes that he had made.

In a little tidbit for the watchful eye, Pope Alexander is shown getting his portrait painted during several of the Season 3 episodes. Portraits of Alexander are preserved and the man looks nothing like Jeremy Irons. The painting in the show attempts to bridge that gap. We see that the painting could be of the posing Pope on one hand, and it really resembles the actual portrait of Alexander.

One other interesting diversion. Upon entering Milan, we find Leonardo Da Vinci’s workshop abandoned when the ruling Sforza duke was forced to flee. In the workshop, we find an arquebus, which Da Vinci has outfitted with an open iron gun sight, presumably of his own invention. I am not aware that Da Vinci did work with gun sites, so that part seems entirely fabricated. He did, in fact, invent a multi-barreled cannon and a machine gun, proposed within the context of Italian Wars. One assumes this particular plot point was a lead-in to Season 4 and the introduction of a Leonardo Da Vinci character into the series. Cesare did, in fact, employ Da Vinci as an engineer in 1502 and 1503. Leonardo’s main contribution was not, however, designs for weapon systems, but rather a detailed map. Maps were rather rare at the time and a detailed map for use in planning battle tactics would indeed have been a treasure for a commander.

For all its faults, the production values of The Borgias remain high. I’m now tempted to find if anyone else could have done better. A French TV series (although filmed in English) was created concurrently with the Showtime series and shows some promise. It also ran for three seasons, but may have advanced the story further. I notice that Alexandre Dumas wrote an essay on the Borgia family, but I’m not sure if I’m ready for another Victorian read. There are some contemporary historical novels, some of which are well regarded, that may be worth a try.



Is Your Name Not Bruce?


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Once again, I’ve made a mistake. When looking at the battle generation capabilities of the Unity version of Field of Glory (FoG(U)), I assumed that the user-made scenarios created for the previous version of Field of Glory would only run in that older version. While strictly true, it didn’t take that much poking around to find that FoG(U) has a built-in tool that will upgrade a scenario from the old version to the new version with a rather obscure key combination. (Alt-Right + F5 if you don’t want to look it up, although you need to do so anyway to figure out the file structure).

Having made this discovery I’ve decided to test out my theory about improved AI in FoG(U) by playing the same scenario in both the old and new versions. For this exercise, I’ve chosen The Battle of Bannockburn.

For the Braveheart generation, we remember Bannockburn as the final scene of the movie. It is also the close of the book The Scottish Chiefs (although I despair ever getting through to that point in the book, as painfully slow and utterly ahistorical in is proving itself). Naturally, Braveheart had it all wrong. It depicts the battle as a spontaneous affair, taking place as Robert the Bruce finally gives up and agrees to swear allegiance to Edward II in exchange for support for his claim to the crown – a depiction that has no basis in reality. In fact, I have read that the Battle of Stirling, as shown in the movie (sans bridge) was more a representation of Bannockburn. While superficially the case, I think it is more an indication of the contortions through which a fan of Braveheart must go to connect the movie back to historical reality.


The initial setup of the Bannockburn battle in the original Field of Glory. The Scots have prepared an ambush from the woods while the English are moving by in column.

This is another battle that simply can’t be reproduced within the Field of Glory engine. The actual battle was fought over two days but the way the game is set out will necessarily fight it as a single day. As deployed, the battlefield mostly resembles the second day, and the introductory text gives the date of the second day of battle. Of course, having just fought the Scots on the previous day, the English would not find themselves ambushed as depicted in this scenario.

Like the campaigns of Wallace, the details of the Battle of Bannockburn are preserved through a mix of written histories (some of which have only partially survived) and the heroic tales of Scotland’s independence. There is room for different interpretations of the orders of batttle, the tactics, and other details. I found a fairly extensive description of the battle that I am using as authoritative, mostly because it is sufficiently detailed. It also includes some excellent maps, made by one of the website’s authors.

In undertaking this exercise, I was hoping to obtain a clear victory in the old Field of Glory, one which I could attribute to the AI mistakes. That would then give me a way to compare the experience to the new Fog(U) AI. Unfortunately, that is not what happened.

I chose to play the Scottish side because, well, “Freedom!” and because I assumed, having won the actual battle, they might have an advantage in the scenario. Part of the problem is that (and you can see this in the above screenshot if you look at the minimap), the English are spread out backwards through rough terrain. This creates for the English AI a problem in that, to develop a decent attack, they must first consolidate and coordinate their forces in front of the enemy.

Against an aggressive English player, the Scots could play a defensive battle. I would think this would be a significant advantage to use both the terrain and their initial good order. Against the AI, however, the Scots need to go on the attack themselves. The first day of the real battle, the Scots aggressively attacked mounted knights with their schiltron formations, so as a representation of the whole battle, Scottish maneuvering makes sense. Day two, however, probably did follow more the Scottish defensive strategy that a English player versus Scottish AI might produce.

As the Scottish player, I was required to wheel my infantry out of the woods and form up a new battle line running parallel to the Bannock Burn. In doing so, the right side of my line got pretty badly mauled by the English knights. Towards the end of the game, when my left wing finally engaged with the rear of the English, I began to catch up in points. In the end, however, a battle based entirely on a Scottish attack is going to have a tough time resolving itself within the time allotted. My battle was a draw.


Sixteen turns was not enough to complete the battle, although it was getting close.

My next attempt to was to try playing the battle from the other side. As I discussed above, I anticipate the some of the difficulties in playing the English would be easier to figure out as a human player than for the AI. I also anticipate that if the battle was a draw for the AI English, it would be an absolute blowout for a human English player.


It took four turns to get my English into place for what looked a lot more like the historical battle than when I played as the Scots.

Sure enough, both of these were true. In my first four turns, I deployed the English knights facing the Scots in the woods, resulting in something that looks a lot more like the historical Battle of Bannockburn (more on this below) than the “ambush from the woods” that the scenario describes. I also realized that the English foot (see the green units at the lower left of the mini-map) take a long time to bring into play, because they are initially trapped by rough terrain. It was also a lopsided English victory.

My next attempt was to try to put together (quickly) something that I could play as the Scots, but was much closer to the historical battle. As I said above, this was a battle fought over two days. On the first day, the English began converging on the Scottish position and, assuming they had a decisive advantage, moved into battle piecemeal in an attempt to relieve a Scottish siege of Stirling Castle. Referring to the screenshot above, day one saw the Scots deployed in the woods facing to the left of the screenshot. They had prepared their position, including a series of hidden pits on the right side (in the screenshot, that is) of the Bannock Burn (the blue creek on the left side). As the armies engaged, the English were surprised by the effectiveness of the Scottish spear formations, which broke up the relief force.

At the point where the main English force was moving forward to, they believed, scatter the Scottish position, Sir Henry de Bohun road ahead of the army and challenged King Robert (the Bruce) to single combat. In something that reads more like fiction, the two fought and Robert smote Sir Henry with his axe. Cheered by their king’s victory, the Scottish spears surged forward and trapped the English before they could form up among the pits, rough terrain, and Bannock Burn ford. Unlikely as it seems, the Scottish foot scattered the English knights and caused extensive casualties. Both sides retired from the field for the day.

Again, a better written and almost certainly more accurate account of the battle can enjoyed here.

Realizing that the ford where they had originally crossed was well defended, the English used the night to begin crossing the Bannock Burn further downstream, away from the Scots’ defenses. While demoralized, the English still had both numbers and a professional army, and assumed that they would win any fight.


Editing the scenario, I’ve deployed the English closer to where they may have begun the day, facing the Scottish line. I also shuffled the Scots around to match their Day Two deployment.

As the battle began on the second morning, the English knights were arrayed against the Scots, themselves formed up in the woods. To reproduce this, I’ve edited the scenario to move the English army forward and array them in a prepared battle line. There is an issue that is apparent in the above screenshot. One of the factors behind the Scottish victory was that the English had hemmed themselves in between the creeks to either side and the bad terrain to their rear. We can see these physical limits on the Field of Glory map, but by no means are the English “crowded” into that area. Reworking this aspect of the scenario is far beyond what I’d like to do here. My edits consist only of moving around the initial placement of the existing armies – no modifying terrain or order of battle.

While I was obvious wrong about the ability to convert scenarios to the new version, FoG(U), there was another feature I had wondered about. The editor in the new program does not appear selectable, and I never knew why. I finally looked it up. The editor function in FoG(U) was not completed. As a result, creating a user-made scenario for FoG(U) requires first creating it in the original Field of Glory, and then converting it to the new system using the process I’ve now just learned. I’m generally not a big scenario maker, but it is good to know how it all works.

The result with playing the newly-edited scenario was an improvement. As with the first time through, I played as the Scots against an English AI. Overall the battle felt much better than the original version. The English engaged immediately, and the nature of the battle was similar to the historical progress. As a result, the fight did not run out of turns ads it did my first time through. Instead, I lost.

A second try through backed up my experiences with the original version. In this try, I took no initiative with the Scots, only engaging when I had the advantage. Working this way, I established an early lead and was moving steadily towards victory. Once again, however, I ran out of turns before a victory could be established. What seems to be the key to this result is that the AI English are not particularly aggressive but the slightly shorter scenario (15 turns) requires that engagement begins as soon as possible. On the basis of this observation, I moved ahead to look for difference in the AI.


By turn 2, the English knights had charged the Scottish lines. This took four or five turns in the old Field of Glory.

By the time I got this far, I was pretty sure what I was going to see and I was neither surprised nor disappointed. In the new AI, the English charged the Scottish lines immediately. When playing the Scots defensively, the results were pretty similar to those we saw in the old version of the program, they just happened a lot faster. The rear lines of foot did move forward more than in any of the previous games, but that did not seem to make much of a difference in the outcome.


Final results are within the range of historical possibility.

Also of interest, the finally tally of casualties not only had a margin of several turns allowing a finish in the allotted time, but the figures are within a range that matches the historical outcome. While these casualties are perhaps on the low end for estimated losses in that battle, remember several factors. First, this is the second day of a two day battle, so (particularly the English) start out already in the red. Second, the Field of Glory battles end when one side “breaks.” This means there is little in the way of pursuit of fleeing forces, when much of the casualties of a medieval battle took place. Historically, the English were killed and captured as they attempted to retreat back across the Bannock Burn and were trapped by the Scottish infantry.

Finally, in this version, unlike any of the other attempts at this scenario, the Small Folk actually played a roll. One part of the tale of this battle is how Bruce’s camp followers, non-combatants traveling with his army, rushed forward as the English became trapped in the bad terrain while trying to recross the creek. Waving sheets and brandishing knives, the fell upon the panicked English army. At the end of this scenario, I brought the Small Folk (represented in the scenario) forward and they managed to route one battered English unit that had been reduced through combat with Scotland front line.

Apparently, there is some dispute about the exact location of the battle. There is a Visitor Centre, not too far from the location that we’ve mapped out in this scenario. A main feature of that attraction is a “3D Game” which allows visitors to fight the battle, and then receive a debriefing on how the battle actually played out. It appears to be quite popular, requiring tickets in advance and having already sold out for the academic year for school tours.

That Smarts


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When Enron collapsed, I knew a couple of people that worked there. I don’t remember entirely, but I may have even held some of their stock. I do remember asking, when the Enron stock price started tumbling, whether this was a serious flaw in the business model, or just the “rumbling of elephants” in the executive offices. I actually used that phrase. I was told it was “elephants.” A few weeks later my friends were unemployed (albeit with a decent severance package, all things considered).

Not too long after that, a coworker told me I “just had to read” The Smartest Guys in the Room. The author of this book, Bethany McLean wrote one of the few articles critical of Enron when it was still the hottest stock around. Based on an attempt to analyze their cash flows, she felt there was something serious missing in what they were reporting, and called into question the valuation of the company. In retrospect she vastly underestimated the scope of the problem. She says that while some of her analysis indicated the true depth of Enron’s financial difficulties, she just didn’t believe that they would engage in that level of fraud.

I wanted to read this book and put it on my list, but I never seemed to get to it. Two years after the book came out, a movie with the same title was made. I put that on my list too, but once again never got around to watching it. Now, however, it is being pulled from Netflix streaming and so I finally took it on.

Although much of what is presented I’ve picked up in bits and pieces, I really had no idea what was going on. The premise of the documentary is that Enron was built upon fraudulent numbers from almost its very beginning, and the end, far from being some kind of “long tail” failure of a complex financial structure, was simply the inevitable failure of what was essentially a form of pyramid scheme.

The movie got my goat a little bit. It starts of with some harsh criticism of capitalism and deregulation. It also tries to bring the Bush family into the conspiracy on scant evidence. Apparently the Bushes were friendly with Enron Chairman Ken Lay, on a personal and professional level and, flowing from that, as a source of political contributions. Whether one or both Bushes may have done something untoward to help their friend isn’t really explored. Mostly it is guilt by association. This may have been seen as effective in a time (and for an audience) when simply saying “George Bush” was a way to rile people up, it reduces the effectiveness of the film for me. Of course the Bushes were friendly with the owner of a Houston-based business that happened to be one of the largest in the nation. That’s not a scandal. If anything scandalous was going on, it doesn’t seem to be connected with the larger part of the story.

Similarly, the effort to tie utility deregulation to the Enron scandal and beyond really hit its stride by the end of the piece. Again, this seems a viewpoint that the filmmakers pushed, somewhat to the detriment of what really happened. Yes, it is true, a large part of the Enron scandal involved California, the power price spikes, and the rolling blackouts. Yes, too, this happened following California’s changes to the market and an attempt at deregulation. One can easily extrapolate that simply keeping the old regulation scheme would have prevented the entire misfortune incident.

On the other hand, California’s deregulation was an attempt to allow very limited “free market” influence into what remained a highly-regulated market. In fact, as described in the film, the new allowances for competitive power sales also came with many, many new rules specifying additional rules for those sales. The movie then describes how Enron traders studied the new law looking for money-making opportunities within its definitions.

One could just as plausibly argue that it was the over-complicated regulation within this “deregulation” that was responsible for creating the crisis in California, not the deregulation itself. While I’m no expert, I think that the “power trading” market that Enron pioneered has, since their bankruptcy, become fairly standard for how the wholesale electricity markets operate. Blaming Enron makes sense. Blaming California politicians and bureaucrats for the specific failures in their system makes sense. Blaming “deregulation” as a concept smacks of a greater ideology.

While were talking about greater and lesser ideologies, at the end of the California energy crisis segment, they make one more attempt to drag George Bush into the fray. President Bush the younger was elected to office just as the problems in California were apparent to all. Governor Gray Davis blamed, among other, the Feds for not intervening more aggressively to help California control the price swings in their market. The film goes so far as to suggest not only did George Bush probably deliberate help California to fail due to his ties to Ken Lay (see above), but also because he saw in Gray Davis a rival for the next presidential race, four years into the future.

The film should have remained focused on Enron’s failings and the implications for our larger society. What is it that creates a company culture which incentivizes wrecking your own customers in order to boost quarterly numbers? Was Enron just a perfect storm of the wrong people at the wrong time? Or is our system loaded up with big and little Enrons grinding away at us, but most never coming to the head that wiped out The Enron?

Distilled to a few lines, Enron’s sins seem simple. The film portrays a company consisting mostly of physical, but money losing, assets. This failing company was propped up, quarter-by-quarter, year-by-year, with a series of “big new things.” Many of these were ethereal, boosting the financials without adding any long-term value to the company. Others were self-defeating, such as the massive money grab from the California electric rate payer. When even this house of cards became too unstable to keep up, the ever-growing debt was hidden away in a complex set of financial arrangements. Essentially Enron was a highly-leveraged financial firm engaged in risky short-term investments, much like an investment bank. However, because they hid behind the facade of an energy company, with power plants and pipelines on their books, they could portray themselves to the market as a “safe” utility investment. It was a fairly straight-forward fraud, despite its high-tech trappings.

So what should we have done to prevent Enron? Or is the Enron collapse part of the antidote? A few players made off with a significant fortune based on their suspicious dealings at the company, but the major players did serious jail time. Perhaps the ultimate backstop is that, occasionally, when businessmen decide to engage in this type of fraudulent activity, they need to wind up in jail for it. And on simple charges to boot.

Simply trying to regulate the opportunities out of the marketplace, on the other hand, is a losing proposition. It also creates an environment (which arguably dominates much of business today) that the laws set the parameters within which you try to maximize your profit. Where nothing is wrong if its legal.

In the end, the movie was worth watching because I learned a good bit about the details of the Enron scandal and had it put into a manageable context. Points for the subject matter. As a documentary, though, I’ve seen better.


Benevolence of the Butcher


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The game Patrician II was released in 2000. It came at a time of popularity for trading games.

The favorite setting for such games seemed to be the Caribbean and the colonial period. The various towns in the Caribbean, controlled by their colonial masters, provided an economy connecting by shipping. You played as a ship’s captain, capable of “buying low, selling high” to make a steady income transporting goods between nodes. This was integrated with a possible career as a pirate, either stealing goods from merchants or engaging in the various colonial wars as a privateer. Sid Meier created his Pirates! in 1987, but by 2000 there were a number of similar games based the then-modern “strategy” interface.

Patrician II was a variation on the theme that moved the setting to the north of Europe during the 1300s. Obviously, it is a sequel. The original Patrician was a similarly-themed game, but with a very different looking interface, released in 1992. I’ve never actually played it. The focus on Northern Europe means you now are one of a number of competing merchants in the Hanseatic League cities of Germany, the Baltic Sea and the North Sea. The open warfare of the Caribbean is gone, but pirates remain in play. Just not for the player.

In 2003, Patrician III came out in the U.S. The Patrician series was developed in and original targeted to Germany. What was released as Patrician III in the U.S. was actually an expansion to the Patrician II release in Germany. Patrons (heh) not paying attention could easily be deceived into thinking they had a new game on their hands, whereas at least one review described it as a glorified patch. Looking back some 15-18 years later, however, it is the Patrician III release that we consider relevant.

So how does the game hold up?

Games like Patrician III promised to be a departure from the RTS fare of the day. Still played in “real time,” there is copious room for leisurely decision making (at least for the most part of the game). The build building to construct units to conquer territories is jettisoned in favor of the economic underpinnings. This means that the martial “theme” of most games is replaced with a more peaceful structure. Being by and for Germans, it has a unique look and feel that I will always associate with the German-produced games circa 2000.

The “game” is in the model that underlies the system as much as it is in the player interaction. There are several layers of interaction. First is that dynamic market model, where prices rise and fall with the law of supply and demand. Cities sell cheaply what they produce and can pay high prices for what they demand. Arbitrage between the comparative advantages among cities is what allows you to make a steady profit. But this is mitigated by the fact that you aren’t the only trader in the northern seas. Between the time when you see a shortage (e.g. that lack of whale oil in Lubeck) and when you actually go and collect those goods to sell them, an AI opponent may have already supplied the needed product and reduced the opportunity for profit.


The basic interface. The ship is in port. Trade can be either with between the ship and town, or the ship and office.

The second level is the interaction between the town and the player. Townspeople respond to the availability of goods, or lack thereof, by coming to or leaving a town. Thus, keeping the range of goods supplied has the effect of nurturing the town and growing the population. That population is divided between the poor, wealthy, and middle class, all of which respond to different incentives and goods. As you please the people, your reputation in the town also can grow. This can mean the prestige of “promotions” or inclusion in the town government. In this, he game borrows a bit from the “city builder” genre. Your cities are populated by little sims-like people, that can be clicked on for color commentary. Keeping all of them happy is the key to city growth.

Yet another level is that you can build the supply chain infrastructure. While the town and your competitors are building structures, you can too. So not only can you profit off of trading but you can help drive the market and profit from the production end as well. Similarly, as you grow your town, you are also growing the consumption end of the equation. You can further support the population by creating additional housing for them. Going further, you could expand beyond your original towns into others.

Once you shift your focus from trading to building, you’ve also got to refocus your trading. In order to build a building, you need a sizeable supply of the raw materials (bricks, wood, etc) to construct that building. You can always simply buy those materials on the local market, but the law of supply and demand says if you suddenly make a massive purchase on the open market, you’ll pay through the nose. So your ships need to be changing their focus from turning a profit to one of gathering those needed supplies from the four corners of the Baltic Sea, thus bringing down the average price.

One final piece to the game draws from that history of the genre in the pirate game. As I said, there are pirates in the Baltic and North Seas as well. When they set upon your ship, you are put into a real-time, sailing game where you manage your ships sails and cannon. At the time it came out, there were a number of games trying to perfect the Age of Sail experience, and this has the components. Armaments with reload times. The importance of wind gauge. Ship upgrades that increase speed, maneuverability, and firepower. But this part of the game underwhelms. Not only in retrospect, but it was considered the weak point at the time. It is a departure from the rest of the game, a leisurely and thoughtful process where you are now forced to click-click-click over and over until you win or lose the battle.

Pirate fight clicking aside, it’s a model that is complex enough that it would seem a player can only grasp small snapshots of it at any given time. So, perhaps, given a handful of favorite goods, you could learn to recognize the right price points to buy and sell, getting pretty efficient at moving that product around. Or you focus on production and consumption of a particular set of goods in your home town, enhancing that ability. It seems unlikely that anyone could keep it all in their head at any one time. So the model is complex enough to be just out of the player’s grasp, at least in its entirety.


Harder than it looks.

The result is a game that is strangely addictive. You might wonder how much fun it can be, buying pig iron at 956 and selling at 1415, and then repeating that process over and over. But once you get going, it is difficult to stop. Maybe just one more port of call before calling quits for the night turns into just five more, or ten more, or twenty. I think I played a lot of this when it was new, and it remains addictive.


Ten years on, the original developer was out of business. Enter the developer Kalypso (of the Tropico series, among others) who purchased the intellectual property and developed a new version of the game, I would assume using their Tropico 3 engine.


The opening screen. It does look pretty.

Right from the starting gate, things started to go bad, though. The first warning was when Steam started to install the game, a pop-up warned that there was a product key that needed to be entered later. This turned out to be fairly seamless, although I recall having a problem with another installation. But it is a warning that there is a sort of double DRM involved with the purchase, both the Steam system itself and the the self-rolled DRM from the developer.

Having passed that hurdle, some button (hard to read, as it was fighting with the Steam popups) said something about installing an update from within the Patrician configuration system. I’m assuming this was just whatever patch was pushed through by Steam, so I said OK. But then it required that I enter an email account and password.

So now I’m looking at DRM level 3. Not only do I have it on Steam, and had to enter my product code, but the game is unplayable unless I register for Kalypso account “to receive product information!” What am I going to do? I signed up for the account, got my confirmation, and it finally allowed me to see the “play” button.

So far so bad, but the worst is yet to come.

I get to the main menu and nothing is working, and I realize why. The right-handed mouse configuration (I use a left-handed mouse) is hard-coded into the game. There are some minimal reconfiguration options available, but nothing to remap keys or correctly configure the mouse. I can tell now this game won’t be long for my system.

So we finally can get to the game. From appearances, this is the same game as Patrician III, with the primary update being to the interface. One assumes there are some difference in the events and economics engine as well, but I would also assume that this is nothing game-changing. The interface is “modernized.” The “table of numbers” style interface in the original game is replaced with more icons and graphics. International marketing of games does favor graphics over text, so the impetus for this is clear. The result is less so.


The interface looks nicer, but doesn’t work so nice. Instead of click-to-buy, purchasing is done through holding down and moving a slider. Not fun, especially with the mouse buttons reversed.

The graphics and updated interface seems to keep more information hidden. In the old game, the market conditions were readily available just looking at the screen (see the topmost screenshot to compare and contrast). Goods with short supply or high demand show a large gap between buy and sell prices. Clicking on the price to buy (or sell) seems intuitive and natural. Contrast to that above. There is now only a single price (which may be a difference in modeling – I haven’t got out the manual), so until I learn “the market” I have no way of knowing that price is high or low. Dragging the slider is awkward and easy to make a mistake. The icons will also take some learning, now that beer isn’t “beer” but a picture that may or may not be so obvious at first. Finally, notice that unlike the original, there is a slider to show the rest of the market goods. Whereas the original allowed to player to see the entire market at one glace, the Patrician IV player is forced to scroll around just to get the full picture.

Patrician IV lacks the tutorial that began Patrician III. That may be a big factor, but with the original once I got into it, I felt I had a handle right away on how to do everything that I needed to do. With Patrician IV, the interface seems harder to grasp. Especially since almost half of my clicks are with the wrong mouse button, I end up confusing myself more as I go along. Where is that button to go out to the “world” view? I know I found it once, but I forget where it was. Some of this would be overcome with some playing time, but as I said, this one is not going to be staying on my hard drive.

One feature I stumbled across that does look like an improvement is better auto-management of trade routes. At some point, chasing every ship around the North would seem to get tedious, and moving to the game’s next level (politics and such) would benefit from pushing the lower-level stuff onto the computer. I’m not going to be playing long enough to get there, but it looks like a good addition. I also wonder how much improved the pirate-fighting interface is after ten years, but again I dread trying to manage a mouse-heavy fight with the buttons reversed.

Overall, the promise that this game held out wound up being majorly disappointing. My only consolation is that I got it with a really, really deep discount.

Vote for Me and I’ll Set You Free

One review that I looked at (of Patrician IV, although it probably applies across the board)  said that the best part of the game is at the highest levels – when you’ve built up enough power and influence to enter the political game. There are new features to play games of intrigue against your rivals. In addition, the market itself can become a weapon. Want to destabilize a mayor of some other city? How about sailing in and buying up all the meat, driving his market into chaos and causing riots in the streets. That review, however, pointed out the downside that you’ve got to play through hours of “leveling up” to get to that part of the game.

In 2013, Crusader Kings II entered this historical space with a new DLC called The Republic. It allows players to enter the game as part of a merchant republic rather than a feudal hierarchy. While Venice is probably your key player in this regard, Lübeck and the Hanseatic League are one of the playable factions. However, true to the Crusader Kings scope, you do not play as a merchant with a handful of ships. Instead, you lead one of five merchant families who are all attempting to expand their influence in the burgeoning markets of Northern Europe. Essentially, you start out as the end-game “Patrician,” already active in politics.


Management at a much higher level. Things are about to go very wrong.

Rather than controlling a county, the player’s base is a really nice house somewhere in Lübeck. The plus is that you are protected from envious counts in neighboring territories from coming to conquer your palace – it commands no territory. The down side is that, well, it commands no territory. While you can upgrade your palace, it is just a matter of pay-the-money and wait. There is no opportunity to rise through the ruling class by obtaining titles. In addition, each merchant family can building trading posts in eligible cities with which they will trade. For the Hansa, these are coastal cities in Northern Europe. Other merchant republics have different rules, including land-based trade routes. These too are pay-the-money-and-wait affairs. Of course it all interacts; more trade posts means more income which means more prestige which means the ability to control more trade posts.

The five patrician families also elect one as a Lord Mayor of Lübeck, allowing that player to also control the county, in a slightly more traditional style of play. Election has to do with building up prestige, which comes mostly with age, and being the most popular at election time (when the previous Lord Mayor dies). Again it becomes mostly a waiting game. As a side complaint, I did get myself stuck in a glitch of sorts the first time I took held the higher office. Having won the election, I still remain mortal. Upon death, one would presume, I again take over the merchant family as my own heir while another more prestigious patrician wins the next election as Lord Mayor. The game seemed to have a lot of trouble with the succession, losing track of the heir and deciding that, in fact, I had no successor and the game must be over. With lots of saving and reloading, I did manage to get past it. It seems an obvious bug, so perhaps it will be repaired soon enough (if it hasn’t already).

I’ve mentioned it before than when it comes to the standard Crusader Kings, and Europa Universalis as well, it often seems to pay to do as little as possible. Avoiding wars, grooming your family, and trying to increase income is a lower risk way of slowing gaining power. Pouring money into frequent wars was generally a bad strategy historically and that can often show up in the game. But avoiding all the fighting and backstabbing also means a less exciting game. The Republic seems to take that to another level.

As a merchant prince, there is little productive to do except invest in your operations and slowly watch them grow. While there is the occasional fighting, removing the incentive to capture titles through warfare means that battles are high risk, low reward. There is some chance of gaining skill and prestige, of course, but there is also the chance of being killed or maimed in battle. That means thinning out the number of heirs, which also hurts on the operations side. The ability to control more trade routes is, among many things, a function of how many males their are in the family.

In the screenshot above I am about to be thrust into a much more tenuous position. The early 1300s (in game, at least) saw the Black Plague sweeping through Northern Europe. As a result, I lost a good chunk of the male members of the my merchant family. Following this, I find myself playing on the thin edge of extinction. I seem only to manage to keep the last male member of my line alive long enough to have a single male child, setting up a decade or two of new succession crisis while we wait to see if he can produce an heir before dying. While there is a game here, it is a long game played over generations rather than in weeks or months. Building up a trading empire ship-voyage-by-ship-voyage in Patrician III just seems to connect with the period a lot better than sitting around waiting for one’s wife to get pregnant.

So surprisingly, it is the oldest of the games that still has the most addictive qualities. Just last night I was up an extra hour making just “one more” trade before I went to bed.  It’s a different gaming style than most of what is successful in the gaming market, but at least for me, it works. Crusader Kings inclusion of merchant republics is a nice change of pace from the original, but also doesn’t really compete with the original in its appeal.

And as to Patrician IV? Frankly the mere fact that it exists makes me a little angry.

On this Desert Land Enchanted


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Last night I watched The Wall on DVD. No, not that The Wall*, this The Wall.

When I write about something I’ve just watched, I’ll usually try to spare you, the reader, by not giving away the plot twists and endings. You may read what I write and decide to watch the movie and it wouldn’t be right to ruin the experience for you. In this case, however, I feel that in order to discuss this film, I’ve got to give away all of the plot points. So if you want to watch the film, I’d say stop and go do it, and them come back and analyze it along with me. It is a short film, only 1:21 minutes, so I don’t mind waiting.

Alternatively, if you figure that you’ll never really want to watch the film at all, you might go to this site and read a plot-blowing synopsis of the film. Then when I refer to the content, you at least know about what I am talking. The film has a lot of violence and a lot of profanity so clearly it is not fare for everyone.

If you are going to watch the movie first, I would also recommend you not read reviews or plot summaries. If you’re going to watch the movie, just watch the movie. That’s what I did. I knew it was something about Iraq and some American soldiers getting pinned down behind a wall. I also saw it got almost four stars in the old Netflix rating system, and so I decided to give it a try.

What I didn’t know until I started watching was that the movie was produced, in part, by Amazon. Seeing that, I wondered if it hadn’t been already available for free on Amazon Prime, which it was. As I looked at the Amazon listing I noticed that the reviews on the site were very, very low with a huge number of one star reviews. So I began reading them. That turned what was a decent, but not particularly remarkable movie into a subject for extensive analysis. Why does this movie make so many people so angry?

So watch the movie. Get angry, get bored, get entertained… whatever it does for you. Then come back here to discuss your reaction.

Here Be Nothing But Spoilers

The move could be classified in any number of ways. It is an Iraq War film. It is in that “sniper duel” subgenre of war movies. Or maybe it is none of these. For almost the entire movie, there are exactly two characters on screen, and one of them dies about halfway in. Not much of a war movie.

Perhaps it is instead a psychological thriller, and the setting in the Iraq war is incidental?

It may have more in common with some kinds of horror flick, where the enemy sniper takes the role of monster.

In many ways, the whole film needs to be digested before your can start to consider these things. I know that, for me, I watched the movie and had a fairly non-nuanced impression of it. It wasn’t until I started the reading the angry reviews that I began to think of the film on some additional levels.

This is a little bit surprising. The writer is relatively unknown and has no significant pictures to his credit. The budget was low. With the money coming from Amazon, it seems like a perhaps a fairly low-investment attempt to pad the availability of movies for Amazon Prime streaming customers. Granted the director is well known for his Borne movies, but that doesn’t exactly create expectations for a movie containing hidden meaning.

So while we need to start our analysis at the end to get the “big picture,” let us still start with the story as it begins. Opening shot has an American sniper team observing the site of an ambush.  We learn they are trying to determine whether any of the enemies are still present in the area and have, so far, waited some 22 hours without seeing any hint of activity. The sniper thinks what he is looking at is an attack that is long since over, a feels they are being overly cautious by waiting and watching. The spotter, on the other hand, feels something is off. He throws out the name “Juba,” which the sniper quickly dismisses.

This casual reference will come back later and will be significant both in the plot and in why the film has elicited the reaction that it has. The Iraqi sniper named Juba is real – or at least was claimed to be real. Iraqi propaganda claimed that such a super sniper was loose in Iraq, and claimed he was responsible for a large number of American forces killed. Several videos were released apparently showing the sniper at work.

American intelligence figures it is more likely that the Iraqis were combining unrelated attacks into a single “Juba” story and that there was no such person, and the videos were pure propaganda. Likely the absolute truth can never be known. But for servicemen worried about sniper attacks, the possibility of a master sniper out there and gunning for them would certainly have been unnerving.

The mere inclusion of the reference to Juba at the beginning of the film combined with a jab at George Bush is probably a large part of what accounted for the extreme reactions against the film as anti-American. The idea being that the Iraqis, in their own low-budget, low-tech way tried to create this sniper myth (perhaps not so successfully), but here is “Hollywood” doing their work for them with Amazon’s deep pockets to make it look good.

I can understand the sentiment, but given the years that have passed been the existence and non-existence of Juba, it is hard to attach malice to making him part of the story line. The cut at Bush was a little gratuitous, but it may also have just been an attempt to establish the mindset of the soldiers. They are fighting in a war that is essentially over. That means that the risks, whatever they once were, have really dropped off. If a scene looks like it is non-threatening, it probably is, especially after 22 hours of staring.

Having decided that if something hasn’t moved in 22 hours, there is probably nothing out there to move, the sniper moves down to the scene of the attack, with his spotter remaining hidden. Once he gets close, he realizes that the spotters fears were right; the attack was very different then what he thought it was. He then comes under sniper fire himself and is disabled. The spotter rushes down to rescue him and gets pinned down, himself, behind “the wall.”

This scene provoked further ire in the reviews. First, the gap between actual operational procedure of American troops (who try to use their depth of support to the best advantage) and two lone soldiers walking into the ambush. The second is the skill of Juba who, as we are soon to find out, struck our main characters water bottle and radio antenna precisely from a range of a about a mile. It is seen as evidence of movie that emphasizes American lack of competence against a impossibly skilled Iraqi enemy and, therefore, is a fundamentally anti-American message.

To the first, I again point out why the setup is important. The mission is believed to be low risk. Is there any situation imaginable where a sniper team would be called to walk in, alone and without backup, into a scene of a firefight? I don’t know, but the setup seems to say if it could happen, well, here is that situation. By the end of the film we are to learn that Juba has complete control over the friendly communication network and could have set up pretty much any back story necessary. By not making that back story explicit the authors are allowing us room to suspend our disbelief, should be we inclined to do so.

But, as I ask at the beginning, is this a war movie or just a psychological thriller set with the Iraq War as its background? Should Juba even be thought of as a man, an adversary like our main characters? Or is he the boogeyman? His he like the slasher movie villain who manages, time after time, to do the impossible and keeping coming back no matter what the heroes manage to throw at him? In the film, there was some discussion of the rifle Juba might be using and more angry, on-line discussion developed over the unsuitability of the .308 cartridge to mile-long shots. Yes, shooting a radio antennae at one mile is impossible for perhaps even the world’s best snipers from any nation. But for the bogeyman, it may just be a possibility.

The nature of Juba then begins to come clear to both the main character and to the audience. First Juba pretends to be part of a friendly unit coming to the rescue, but suspicion catches him in that lie. Juba then reverts to himself and discusses a few details about his life while eliciting information from the main character. Again, the suspicious mind starts to see holes between the backstory of Juba and his superhuman skill set.

But consider this; Juba is constantly lying in an attempt to trick information out of his victim. We don’t see the full scope of it until the end, but once we do, why should be believe that anything Juba has said at any time is true. Maybe he is actual a Soviet sniper posing as a Iraqi? Maybe he’s Iranian? The fact is, nothing we may have assumed was true may in fact be true and when the movie is finally over we are left to wonder what, if anything, we really knew while we were watching.

In this latter part of the film the final piece of “anti-American” plot comes to the fore. Throughout the film, we see there is something going on with his spotting scope and its former owner. Under pressure from Juba, he admits that he killed his former partner in a friendly fire incident and then covered it up. Once again, one might read into this the insinuation that Americans are the type to not only shoot one of their own (although this, at least, sounds like a genuine accident) but lie and cheat to get away with it. It is also an indictment against an American military that can’t, in an investigation, tell the difference between friendly fire and an enemy kill.

The importance of this particular plot point is less obvious to me than the others, but still on its own I just don’t see it as an attempt to sully America. I suspect it was just a way to add depth and drama to the story and wasn’t meant to have a secret meaning. But if you’re already seeing bad intent in this movie, I’m sure this is another brick in that wall.

Interesting to me, the ending of the movie was not the original. In the first ending, our main character is successfully rescued and is choppered away. After screening this for a test audience the director decided to re-shoot and end with Juba bringing down the rescue helicopters. This is interesting to me, because it is hard for me to see the film working any other way.

Of course, this might be one last nail in that anti-American coffin. We’re used to movies where the “good guy” prevails, so if Juba has won doesn’t that make him the “good guy?”

Well, no. In those slasher movies, however close the heroes think they have come to defeating the monster and saving themselves, just before the final credits we see that the monster is still out there. So is Juba.

With that final scene, it all comes together. This was part of a chain of events that Juba, with his tap into the American communications, has been orchestrating from the get-go. Some pipeline workers call in support from a contractor team. The contractor team asks for sniper support. Helicopters fly in to back up the snipers, and then… One can criticize that, having seen a dozen people already killed, the military would stop sending in folks to be killed piecemeal. But what we are missing – what we’ve just realized we’ve been missing all along – is that Juba is controlling the story of what happened. He can describe the situation to downplay the danger and set up the next ambush. We don’t know how, but if we’re willing to suspend our disbelief for a short hour and 21 minutes, one might imagine there is a way to make it all work.

I’d never claim that I’m looking at the next Godfather here, but there does seem quite a bit more to it than initially met the eye.

*Although I haven’t watched Pink Floyd: The Wall in quite some time, I also (last night) just happened to view a bit of a Swedish documentary where Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters is a guest. The title of the You Tube video is revealing in that in comes from an underlying assumption about the “Trump voter.” Watch, if you care to, how the assembled discuss “Trump voters” as a sort of mythical beast. Surely nobody here is friends with one of the creatures, but have you perhaps seen one in the wild? Knowing that they exist, can you see them as fellow human beings? Can you empathize with them?

Roger Waters does get a few points for using Comfortably Numb lyrics within his talking points, but that aside, am I wrong to find this disturbing? When people can sit in full public view and dehumanize a significant fraction of the population, how can this ever end except in rivers of blood?

Every Man Dies


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In 1995, the Mel Gibson movie Braveheart was released to theaters. Famous as Mad Max and bankable as Martin Riggs in the Lethal Weapon series, Gibson was by then established as an A-List celebrity. Despite his status, Gibson found it nearly-impossible to raise money for his new film.

Gibson did not want to play the main role of William Wallace, as he felt he was too old (then 50-year-old Gibson portrayed what is likely a 30-year-old Wallace). Gibson was eying then 40-year-old Jason Patric in the part he ended up taking, but no studio could see backing the project without Gibson’s name as the lead actor.

The film was criticized when it came out for its violence (Gibson cut scenes to avoid an NC-17 rating and the ultimate R rating came with a warning for “brutal medieval warfare”) and subsequently for lack of historical fidelity. Yet another round of criticism came into play accusing the film of being provocatively anti-English. Despite offending almost everybody, the film has become the iconic image of William Wallace and has been a measurable inspiration to the modern Scottish independence movement.

Gibson has defended the glaring historical inaccuracies by saying that his duty was to make an entertaining film, not document history. The film’s writer, Randall Wallace (no relation), said that he wrote the script before doing any historical research specifically because he didn’t want the details of history to interfere with the telling of his story. He has gone on to say, because so little factual information from the actual battles are preserved, that while his version of William Wallace’s life is obviously made up, so is any other telling of his life’s story. We just don’t know, so why not make it entertaining?

While I’ve defended the mangling of history in pursuit of story, it a fair accusation that this film takes it too far. The battle of Stirling Bridge (which CNN, in a 2007 best-of list, included as one of the top ten battles of cinema), most notably, lacks a bridge. Apparently, Gibson was asked during filming why he shot the Battle of Stirling Bridge in a big open field and responded that the bridge got in the way of the battle. “That’s what the British found” was the comeback. While only #9 on the best battles list, The Times ranked Braveheart as #2 on their list of the most inaccurate historical movies of all time.

While I am in no position to measure such things, Braveheart seems like it was one of those movies that infused the culture and grew in influence as the years went by. It was certainly fairly popular in theaters when released and went on to be within the top 20 grossing films of 1995. But as the years went by, one saw bits and pieces of the movie becoming more-and-more part of the popular culture. Not to analyze it too deeply, but I’d say peek William Wallace was probably several years after the film came out. Furthermore, a character in a kilt with woad-warrior paint on half of his face (both glaring anachronisms from the film) is, to this day, clearly identifiable as being Wallace.

As I’ve said, I don’t want to try to map William Wallace enthusiasm in pop culture, but I will point out that just days ago, as sequel to Braveheart called Robert the Bruce was announced to being production. I note it is being floated as a sequel to Braveheart, not simply a historical drama about Robert I of Scotland (about whom, incidentally, the term “braveheart,” was likely originally intended).

A Dug’s Age

This brings me to 1999 and the release of The Age of Kings. Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings was a sequel to Age of Empires which brought that semi-historical strategy game into the era of medieval warfare. When I looked at the game before, it was in the context of the early 15th century. While the expansion for Age of Kings clearly was created for including New World exploration, the time period and technology were pushing the limits (such as they were) of what the game reasonably simulated. With the First War of Scottish Independence, we are firmly back in the 13th Century, to which Age of Kings is (such as it is) well suited.

Given Braveheart‘s popularity, it surprises me that there weren’t more games at that time trying to capitalize on the popularity of the movie. William Wallace via Age of Kings was my first shot at gaming the movie. Are there other games that I’ve never tried that cover this ground? Perhaps. But I’d be surprised to find games that predate Age of Kings. I’m also surprised that there haven’t been more and better games since then. Am I simply missing some games that attempted to explore this territory? That I don’t know. But I do recall being pleased with the inclusion of Wallace when I first installed my Age of Kings way back when.


I had forgotten it was the “Learning Campaign.” Hopefully nobody is trying to learn Scottish geography. That map is way off.

The William Wallace campaign is the one included as a tutorial. Back when I originally played this, Age of Kings was entirely new to me (I had only ever played the demo version of Age of Empires) and it was also the first time I’d ever seen Wallace represented in a game. I did not remember the silliness involved.

As you might derive from the above screenshot, or remember if you also played this game, the campaign starts out in the usual way of Age of Empires tutorials. You have a scenario or two that involves you following a well-marked path, engaging some enemies in fairly isolated and one-sided battles, and building a few buildings. This path leads you to the two historical battles presented, #5 The Battle of Stirling [Bridge] and #7 The Battle of Falkirk.


The Battle at Stirling Bridge… or something. I guess it is not that much further off than the battle depicted in Braveheart.

The story up until Stirling Bridge merely presents Wallace as some other entity, fighting the English for Scottish freedom. The player is cast as some nameless Scottish Chief, ready to join in the fight. At Stirling, we are told we will join with the army of Wallace.

But we don’t meet Wallace and we don’t engage in the Battle at Stirling Bridge. Instead, the tutorial is about locating and destroying the enemy headquarters, which is the normal way of winning any Age of Empires game. The scenario end matter goes on to say that, having completed this tutorial, you are now prepared to embark on any of the random scenarios. As a nod to the ahistorical nature of the outcome, you are described as having engaged in some sort of side action. By taking an English strongpoint, you helped facilitate Wallace’s historical win at Stirling Bridge.

Fair enough.


Finding the English running short of supplies deep in Scottish territory, we’ve decided to… build a new castle.

After one more tutorial about working with allies, we engage in the final scenario, The Battle of Falkirk. This was pivotal point in William Wallace’s story. He has, thus far, defeated and humiliated the English, been proclaimed the Guardian of Scotland, and seems poised to gain Scottish independence. At Falkirk, though, he faces Edward himself (a veteran commander of the crusades) and the English first string, if you will. Braveheart (the movie) tells his defeat as a story of betrayal, but the reality is that the Scots were simply out-maneuvered and out-fought. Will Age of Kings attempt to follow a historical telling of the battle or depict it as Gibson did in the movie?

I know, silly question.

The Falkirk scenario is a fairly easy win, provided you follow through with the instructions. At then end, the victory panels describe how we (the Scots) have torn down the English castle at Falkirk and intend to build a Scottish one in it’s place.

In the context of writing this, it is almost painful to think about.

U Can’t Touch This

A few years later, in 2002, perhaps the best game treatment to date came out. It was not a computer game.

I am thinking of the Columbia Game’s Hammer of the Scots. Hammer is one of Columbia’s “Block Games,” a style that uses wooden blocks with stickers to implement a combination of hidden movement and step reduction. Unlike cardboard counters, the wooden blocks can be set on end so that the face with the unit information is hidden from your player opponent. Similarly, the block can be rotated, to show up to four different strengths (also hidden from the opponent) as opposed to the two that might be indicated by flipping over a counter as a measure of reduced strength.

Hammer of the Scots was not the first block game. That distinction would seem to go to Quebec 1759, released in 1972. Hammer is cited by Wikipedia as being “among the best-known” block games, without attribution for that analysis. Assuming it is accurate, this is also likely due to Gibson’s influence as much as anything.


The start of the Braveheart scenario from the viewpoint of England.

Hammer of the Scots concentrates the play at the operational/strategic level. Each block represents the forces raised from a county or a clan. In the case of the Scottish nobility, that force is represented as a “noble” block. In most cases, these blocks can switch between the English and Scottish sides, representing the nobles propensity to switch their allegiance between an independent Scottish ruler and Edward’s claim to the throne. Other blocks represent the county or clan contributions as either horse, archer, or infantry. Each noble in the game has a home county (or two), and either loss of that home county to an enemy occupier, loss of the noble block in battle, or political action (via card) will cause the noble to switch sides. In this way, the blocks are doing a double duty as both military and political representations.

A glance at the map and the representative units obviously indicate a level of abstraction. Not all counties or nobles are represented, and what is there is fairly one-dimensional. For example, an English army might enter battle consisting entirely of Welsh long-bowmen.  That seems unlikely. If you compare the map board, you can see that while simplified, it remains slightly more detailed than Crusader King’s map of Scotland from the same time.


The initial setup as an overview. Compare and contrast with the Crusader Kings II map.


The Crusader Kings depiction of Scotland is slightly less detailed than that of Hammer of the Scots.

Battles are also fairly simple, but in an engaging way. Blocks have three different ratings when it comes to battle. They have an initiative, which will determine the order they get to exert damage. They also have a numerical combat rating, which determines essentially their “to hit” percentage. It is the fraction out of six that an attack to will do damage to the enemy. There is also the aforementioned strength, which represents a combination of manpower, supplies, and readiness. Each strength point is worth one die to be rolled on the attack, and reducing strength to zero removes the block from the fight. Battles are fairly straightforward, but a little deeper than the single roll on a combat table. It also is more engaging as far as the theme goes. A powerful block – be it William Wallace, Robert the Bruce or King Edward I – becomes a key determinant in the outcome of the battle. “Yes, I am losing,” I may think “but William Wallace is up next to roll, and he may turn the battle around.”


Early movement in the war for Scotland sees the Scottish clans forcing the nobles into the independence movement.

All in all, it is a nice representation of the Scottish War of Independence and a decent game to boot. But the biggest reason this game stands out for me is the treatment of winters.

Many games (and perhaps even computer games particularly) factor in weather these days. At the strategic/operational level, campaigning during the winter months entails penalties. Perhaps it is a loss of supplies, or may it involves an attrition applied to armies in addition to, or even when not engaged in, battle.  No doubt there is a disincentive to moving and fighting in the wrong season, but rarely is it decisive. Honestly, I find these factors hard to keep track of and I would get pretty upset if an army just vanished because it got too late in the year.

In fact, fighting (and especially pre-Napoleonic fighting) had to ebb and flow with the change of the seasons. Weather aside, when raising an army from the productive males of the population, it was often necessary to conclude the fighting in time for them to return home for the harvest. Certainly keeping your army fed over the winter months must have often been second best to just letting everyone go home, and come back in the spring. Not every campaign or theater had these concerns in the same way and modeling it needs different approaches given time and place.

Hammer of the Scots keeps track of the years by assigning a hand of cards for each calendar year. Once all five cards are played, a winter phase is entered where units either have to find sufficient winter quarters or they must be disbanded. The year’s campaigning can also end early if both sides play an “event” card, meaning careful planning for the winter can be foiled by the unexpected. A key strategy, as mentioned in the rule book, centers around the fact that England can’t normally move armies far enough North in a single year to take all of Scotland. Thus a plan to extend an invasion though the winter is a necessary factor. Incidentally, the King of England block (a key factor in increasing the strength of the wintering army) cannot spend two consecutive winters in Scotland. It is a great way to acknowledge the overarching impact of the seasons on the war while minimizing the record keeping and the unit losses to bad bookkeeping. While it is realistic to consider that managing supplies and logistics might be the critical factor in winning a war, it doesn’t usually make for fun gaming.


The Battle of Stirling Bridge produced the historical outcome. While the Scots continue to consolidate in the North, Edward is moving his army for a replay of Falkirk. The outcome, perhaps inevitably, will be similar.

The main feature of a block game like Hammer of the Scots would seem to be, at least at first glance, the Stratego-like ability to hide your units from your opponent. It may be surprising to consider that this was not the original intention of the design.  The designer said his original design was to have six steps, essentially using 6-sided dice for the blocks. The cost of producing such a six sided piece, however, turned out to be prohibitive. A co-designer came up with the idea to only print one side, which still leaves four steps. The change not only brought costs under control*, but introduced the fog of war concept. With that feature, the ability for players to deceive opponents as to the location of their strongest armies would seem to be a major factor in play. For a high-level player, the ability to remember the results of battles and extrapolate those to the possible future states would seem to be an advantage.

Strip that away, and I still think there a worthwhile approximation of the history in there. I’ve talked before about converting a board game to the computer can make it seem far simpler than the board game version was. Strip away the (rather elegant) representation of battle strength, and how much do you think is left? So, for example, imagine that the three level combat rating was a hidden resolution performed by the computer.  How big a part of the game is working those details? Either way, I still giving this one the gold star for its treatment of winter.

Grooving with a Pict

I was a fairly early adopter of the Total War series. I picked up Shogun: Total War (released in 2000) and was immediately enthralled by its mixing of the strategic and tactical into one, unified game. It also seemed to be a fairly realistic portrayal, given the parameters. Yes, the strategic/operation layer consisted of moving something like chess pieces on what was portrayed as a table-top map, but this could simply be interpreted as that “general simulator” I’ve talked about earlier. Did Sengoku-era generals move representations of their armies around on a giant table map? Maybe not, but it still feels natural.

Likewise the tactical part of the game. While it probably wasn’t really all that “realistic,” even by the standards of the time, it was a huge step up relative to much of the RTS genre. The results took into account factors such as unit facing, cover (such as woods), and height. It’s all the same factors we’d find if we were looking at a highly-detailed tactical system in the miniatures or the board game world. It also helped that it was a relatively lesser-known subject for a wargame. Because few gamers know too much about Feudal Japan, there was less of a expectation out there that could be disappointed.

Of course, that works both ways. As someone who really hasn’t given much thought to the history of that time and place, it was difficult to connect to Shogun. So when the Medieval: Total War follow-on was released (2002), I became even more enthralled.

When it first came out, the game immediately offended some of those in the large and growing player community. The accusation was that the developers had realized their bread was buttered more by the real-time strategy community, and the head-to-head online players at that, than by the serious wargamers. The feeling was that they had somehow dumbed down the game to appeal to the click-and-twitch crowd.

While their was something to the criticism, part of me also wonders if there wasn’t a nostalgia factor involved. As the game became more complex in the newer iteration, issues not so obvious with the older game maybe just became more so. Was the AI really worse in the newer version, or was the game just harder to play (both for the human and the AI).

Mitigating all of this was the fact that Medieval: Total War was very modable. It wasn’t much more than few months before user-made mods were available that fixed some of the “realism” problems. The primary focus was on increasing the rate and effects of fatigue and, more generally, slowing movement so that battles were not just a 3-minute clicking race. The openness extended to scenario files, where they were stored in a plain-text, structured (XML-like) format. I seem to remember an extensive amount of user-made mods for historical battles. I also seem to remember that the stock package had a Stirling Bridge scenario and perhaps a Falkirk as well.

In 2004, Rome: Total War was released, changing the face of the Total War franchise. The big change was the move away from the “chess pieces on a map” strategic interface to a map where armies can move to almost any location in the world. The regions still existed, but only for the purpose of control, no longer as “spaces” on a map board. Armies in the same region could move to engage, or avoid each other, or just coexist in two different places within the same region. Further, the location on the strategic level would determine the terrain for tactical level battles.

Rome also made obvious, by contrast, another feature of the Medieval: Total War system. When creating a historical battle in Rome, it is clear that you had to abstract the unit sizes so that each Rome soldier was representative of dozens or maybe even hundreds of men. The size of the armies in the great battles of the Roman Republic and Empire simply exceeded the capacity of the game system, in a number of ways. While Rome awed users with the number of soldiers animated in real-time 3D on the screen as an impressive cinematic feat, getting, for example, 130-140,000 soldiers to fight an historical Battle of Cannae was simply beyond the capabilities. Even if you assumed a reduced ratio, the number of units cap is also exceeded by these large battles.

While the period covered by Medieval: Total War also had large battles, easily exceeding the capacity of the engine, the game did seem to be capable of simulating the smaller unit action that were likely common during, for example, the Hundred Years War, on a one-to-one ratio between rendered soldiers and actual men on the field. I even took a look at using the openness of scenario editing to refine this further. For example, fielding units with a number of soldiers matching some sort of roster, or even creating “hero” units, that consist of a single man with custom stats.

When Medieval II: Total War came out at the end 2006, it was certainly highly anticipated. The graphical capabilities of Rome simply blew the original Medieval right out of the water. Furthermore, the Rome expansion Barbarian Invasion brought Rome awfully close to entering the Medieval era. As a matter of fact, mods for Rome covered a huge range of time periods, including the Medieval time-frame and beyond.

The release of Medieval II once again met with complaints from the “realism” crowd. Once again, the emphasis on graphics and head-to-head online play seemed to detract from the ability of the system to actual simulate period battles. After all the effort that modders had put into tweaking the Medieval game to achieve realistic results, here came a version that went in entirely the opposite direction. Furthermore, the system was considerable more closed. While graphical modding was still in an open and openly encouraged system, the grognard level of the game was more closed. Very upsetting to me personally, the scenario files were no longer text based, but required editing in a supplied scenario editor that, frankly, I’ve just never been able to get the hang of.

After some time figuring out the capabilities and limitations of Medieval II, there were many online extolling the virtues of the original Medieval as a tool for replaying historical battles. At that time I even got so frustrated as to reinstall the original Medieval and play it to see if it was really the superior system we all remembered. It did not stick. As I suspected with the nostalgia around Shogun, I think part of the fond remembrance of the original Medieval is misplaced. Again the simpler system probably made the AI seem better, and just memories being the way they are, the older system is remembered as better than it actually was. I returned to the Medieval II installation and eventually many extensive mods came out that contributed to the game’s ability to better recreate history.

One thing that did not seem to come from the community is a range of historical battle mods that accompanied the earlier games. The Historical Battles section of the menu is also remarkably underpopulated. The focus has obviously shifted to include that integrated strategic/tactical engine, although randomly-generated “quick battles” remain an option.

Back to the subject at hand, this version of Total War seemed to be ready to give William Wallace his due with the release of the Kingdoms expansion. That expansion focused on three new campaigns; one for the Teutonic Order and north-eastern Europe; one for the European conquest of the New World; and a Britannia campaign. The last restricted the map to the British Isles and pits five nations against each other; the English, the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish and Norway starting in the year 1258.


That’s not Mel, is it? This looks like a promise of a focus on the War of Scottish Independence.

Much like the main release, the expansion does not have much in the way of historical stand-alone scenarios. Playing as the Scots, there is a choice of a couple of pre-made scenarios that are more of an enhanced random map than any kind of historic battle reconstruction. Similarly, and despite the prominence of a William Wallace in most every introduction screen, the 1258 start means that the details of the Scottish War of Independence are not configured into the campaign. In order to get to 1296+, it is necessary to play through the decades that precede it.

Initially, there is a hopeful sign. The starting year puts us right at the beginning of the Second Baron’s War. A few years after I started playing Scotland, an event split the English nation into two factions, one for the king and one for “the Barons.” Also, immediately, the Welsh sided with the Barons in that conflict. Perhaps the event triggers in the game would drive us towards the various important conflicts of this era? Unfortunately, the Medieval II: Total War engine isn’t really suited towards the political subtleties. Even by the 1314 or so, the Barons retain some territory and continue to duke it out with generations of English monarchs, despite the utter impossibility of such a scenario. The Second Baron’s War was never about splitting up England. It was a fight for political control that moved to the battlefield. The Baron’s War event is probably somewhat useful to an English player, who will be highly motivated to take out that extra “nation.” Within the context of a Scottish campaign, it becomes a distraction.

Likewise the open-ended nature of the campaign produced another distraction. While the real Scottish War of Independence saw Norway allied with Scotland against England, in my game the Norwegians decided to try to grab some territory from me. What ensued was a decades long war between Norway and Scotland, with some minor participation from Ireland and Wales. The war with England (perhaps because of their own endless Baron’s War) never broke out.

Within this context, William Wallace still rose up with an army of highlanders prepared to protect Scotland from the Viking hordes. But he co-existed with not only the Scottish King Alexander III (who, in this reality, apparently survived the fall from his horse) but Alexander’s son, who showed himself to be a great field commander. Absent the context of Scotland’s struggle for independence, one wonders what the point of including William Wallace even is. Still, here he be, and just in time too.


Spears twice as long as a man. Young Prince Alexander see’s his army crumbling, but Wallace’s highlanders are about to save his hide.

The critical series of battles for Scotland’s survival indeed took place in the 1290s. The Norsemen swarmed across the northern borders and had me well outnumbered, threatening several cities simultaneously. Scottish finances prevented the raising of armies to counter them, so it was only the arrival of William Wallace and his highland army that saved the Kingdom (or at least the northern part of it.). The battle above shows an engagement where Prince Alexander has attacked the marauding Norwegian army, which was considerably larger in number. He did so, however, knowing that Wallace and his troops would arrive in time to reinforce the fight. As you can see, my (Alexander’s) army has crumbled, but Wallace’s forces are coming up the hill to hit the Norwegians in the flank.

So in the end, the campaign really doesn’t entail that much in the way of immersion. The battle show above was the first in a series whereby I seized the initiative and recaptured all my lost territory and then some. Having weakened them, my fight against the Norse has settled down. I wound up spending most of the early 1300s growing the size of my towns, building castle walls, and trying to make money in the wool trade. In other words, the shape of the map aside, it isn’t that much different than any other Total War campaign. OK, I’ve got a couple of special Scottish units (that wheel of red arrows on green in the schiltron formation) and my leaders have Scottish accents. Well, most of them. There seem to be a few Russian accents thrown in for good measure.

So Medieval II shows us some pretty pictures, but just doesn’t align real well with the Scottish war. Even the pretty pictures probably owe more to Gibson’s Braveheart than a serious portrayal of that war. Did you really expect that much from Total War though? I didn’t think so.

Take ’em to the Bridge

Field of Glory (2009) has the distinction (among the games I’ve played here**) in that there is actually a bridge in the Battle of Stirling Bridge scenario. It is a user-made scenario, and it is a “land bridge.”

The scenario maker here wanted to capture the desperate struggle of the English to get their armies across the River Forth using a bridge that was wide enough for only two knights to cross abreast. The Scottish commanders waited until enough of the English were across that they could still outnumber them, and then commenced the attack. They were able to isolate a portion of the English army on the north side of the river, cut off reinforcements by blocking the bridge crossing, and cut down the trapped portion of the army. Likely as much as half the army was destroyed while the other half watched helplessly from the opposite shore of the river.

The tactics of this battle take a back seat to the pre-battle maneuver, where this engagement was truly lost. The English lost several days, dithering on their side of the river, a mistake which may have squandered their first-to-the-field advantage. They also had an opportunity to cross upstream at a ford and perhaps prevent their army from being trapped, but this stratagem was rejected by the English commander. It seems like the battle was lost through decisions made well before the fighting even started.

Of course, the English didn’t feel they needed these advantages. They knew they outnumbered the Scots and figured they had them well outclassed. English and Welsh longbowmen along with English Knights faced a force they considered to be mere rabble. One wonders, also, if they may have expected the Scots to follow good manners and wait until the battle lines could be fully formed before engaging in a one-sided battle.

In any case, Field of Glory does not support a river crossed by a wooden bridge. So the scenario added a few hexes of land and made it rough terrain to simulate the difficult in moving soldiers rapidly across. Given the difficult predicament in which the English find themselves at the start, I figured I had better take their side to have a shot at approaching the historical results.


Betraying my heritage, I decided to play as the English. Given the scenario setup, this seems the only way to get a fair game.

Once again, we see the perils of pushing Field of Glory outside of its comfort zone. Besides the aesthetics of having a wooden bridge represented by a lump of marsh, the battle did not approximate reality in a number of ways. I quickly moved my forces to try to break up the Scottish attack. This had an unexpected effect of having retreating forces battling fleeing back across the bridge while my reinforcements were attempting to cross forward. The result was a further slowing down of my crossing and the disruption of my formations before they could enter into battle.

It was also clear that the AI just didn’t understand the terrain. No attempt was made to duplicate the historical move of surrounding and cutting off the forward English. Rather, the Scots began lining up along the river to the South of the bridge, apparently flummoxed by the impassible river terrain and the “land bridge.” In the end, the scenario timed out before the forces could engage enough to produce a decisive outcome. Given the difficulty in moving forces across the river, it is hard to see how the English can win within the timeframe.

The answer might be within the scenario text suggesting an alternate victory condition. It suggests that the Scots can win if no non-routed English remain on the north side of the river. This duplicates the historical win, and would cause a human Scottish player to likely follow the historical strategy. It may even be that if the Scots attempt such a strategy and fail, the losses would drive the outcome to an English victory. Or, perhaps, in a two player game with this alternate victory condition, one might agree that the draw should go to the English as a win.

Only a few miles away from the Stirling Bridge battlefield, the Battle of Falkirk has the advantage (for Field of Glory) of not featuring a bridge.


I will fight the English in detail. I advance my armies on my right to try to disrupt the English knights as they cross wet ground. It almost looks like the strategy will fail when some enthusiastic Englishmen charge my lines.

The terrain is probably looks a little less contrived than the marshy land-bridge of the previous scenario. I’m pretty sure the large pond in the middle wasn’t really there. Rather, it is Field of Glory‘s best representation of impassible terrain. If you can figure out how to see the screenshots at a larger size, you might pick out the overall battlefield in the mini-map. If so, you’ll see that the “pond” breaks the battlefield into two wings. On my left, King Edward I leads his men forward. On my right, I’m facing a lesser number consisting of almost all horse, and realize they are going to separate themselves off from the rest of the army once they cross the burn (stream) and put the pond on their flank. I also notice that AI Edward’s men are a bit timid when it comes to crossing that marshy terrain.

As shown in the screenshot, I therefore move my schiltrons forward to meet the English as they drag themselves out of the muck. Better still, my John Comyn and his cavalry do not flee the field. Rather, I am swinging them around to my far right flank to support the infantry. In all of this my hope is that by holding back on my left, I can engage and perhaps run off the English on my own right flank, and then turn that back in toward my left for support.


Edward, with the Green flag in the center, has led his wing forward and broken up all of my left but for a core around Wallace himself. But here comes the cavalry.

The next screenshot shows my strategy working. While my left wing has taken a beating, Wallace and some followers have held together long enough for half of my right-wing infantry come into play. My horse is also more or less intact and is once again supporting my flanks. Victory is in sight.


The AI has held the Welsh in reserve, even as they begin to lose the battle.

In a rather strange AI behavior, captured above, the Welsh have failed to move forward in support of the English knights. Strange because it seems that even when the AI isn’t aggressive, it at least likes to shuffle units around just because it can. Watching them hold formation, as they are, except for the occasional loss of cohesion when a routing unit charges through their lines – well, I think it is a first.

One might muse that an alternate Falkirk where Comyn stayed the course, but the Welsh refused to die for Edward was not entirely outside the realm of plausibility. But did it mean victory for my digital Wallace?

It did not. While I moved forward and was actually able to either kill or capture the King himself (again, Field of Glory doesn’t model that detail), the heavy losses on both sides and the scenario turn limit ended the game in a draw. I was a couple of points up on the AI and I think I could have put them over the edge with one more turn, but it wasn’t a blow out.

Although to a lesser extent, I think again this pushes the battle beyond the comfort zone of the programed opponent. The obstacles in the center of the battlefield seemed to prevent the AI from coordinating its attack. And while I can imagine a historical explanation for the lack of participation by the Welsh, there was no in-game announcement of some sort of event indicating they were frozen.

Kings, Dukes, and Earls

Every so often, one of these wars just seems like it would fit perfectly into Crusader Kings that it surprises me to not find a scenario for it.

I know I’ve complained about this a couple times before. I realize, however, that I forgot about one of the features of Crusader Kings. The game has several scenario starting dates, with particular countries recommended fitting the them of the scenario. There are also “bookmarked” dates; dates of particular interest, again with the relevant countries highlighted. But in addition to start from one of the pre-packaged dates, it is possible to select any date and any country and start playing from wherever and whenever you’d like.

One can scroll through the years preceding the events of the Scottish Independence War and select Scotland under various rulers according to the disputed succession. King Alexander III is replaced with Margaret, Maid of Norway. Upon her death, John Balliol rules for a few years before being followed by Robert the Bruce. The problem is, nowhere built into the system, are the events that would trigger the involvement of King Edward I and England in the fight over the Scottish throne.

I played starting at the date of the Hammer of the Scots scenario, which already sees Robert I as king. Further, he is king over a united and peaceful Scotland not at all in conflict with England. I tried starting a little early, as Robert the Bruce with John Balliol as king. Once again, the involvement of England is absent, and Balliol decides to commit Scotland to the ongoing Crusade in the Holy Land. While waiting to see if any sucession crisis developed, Edward I died with Balliol still firmly in power in Scotland leaving a underage Edward II in charge of England and unlikely to embark on any kind of expansion.

So while I was mistaken in my earlier assumption that the historical figures weren’t available for arbitrary starting situations in Crusader Kings, that still leaves quite a gap relative to what is needed for a scenario. The triggers necessary for Edward I to press claims on Scotland need to be included in addition to having all the appropriate Scottish claimants ready and willing to go to war. I’m also not sure the diplomatic system could handle the switching-of-sides needed to properly convey the politics of the situation. Finally, and this is what the on-line discussion of such a scenario focuses on, the involvement of Wallace doesn’t really fit into the Crusader Kings model. One obviously can’t play as Wallace, as he was not an earl (the minimum rank for a player). While an army and commander could be created for him, it would probably take some tweaking of events to produce suitable gameplay.

Flowers of the Forest

Perhaps the best historical fiction writer in the market today is Bernard Cornwell. His novels delve into the day-to-day routine of the period in which his stories take place, with a result than sometimes makes them seem more real than actual history. Cornwell has yet to write any novels based in the War of Scottish Independence. He did, however, write a four book series (although I think I’ve read only three of them) taking place in the Hundred Years’ War, following the fate of an English Longbowman who joins the British armies in Britany and fights at Crecy. The first book in that series is called Harlequin. The name refers to a “devil” figure from medieval plays but, in this case, is the antagonist of the novel. Harlequin is a mysterious knight, dressed all in black, who provokes the hero into joining the war.

When the book was released in America, it was deemed unwise to keep the name Harlequin, under which it was already being sold in England. Instead, it was called The Archer’s Tale, it being indeed a tale about an archer and the Chaucer-like title putting it into its medieval setting for unwitting readers. The original title, publishers worried, would bring to mind for Americans the Harlequin Romance novels and thus not attract the intended audience.

Whether or not one finds this scenario plausible, if one were to try to imagine a Harlequin-style romance novel about medieval warfare, one might come up with something close to The Scottish Chiefs.

The Scottish Chiefs is a historical novel, one of the earliest examples of that form, written by English author Jane Porter. In many ways it may remain the definitive, modern telling of the story of William Wallace (especially once you start poo-pooing Braveheart). Few facts are known about Wallace’s life beyond his victories (and defeats) in battle but speculation and embellishment upon those details form a critical piece of the Scottish identity.

Once again, this book has as much to do with the time in which it was written as opposed to the time about which it was written. The time saw Walter Scott and Robert Burns establishing a Scottish identity in literature and we see that going on in this work as well. It casts the “revolutionaries” of Scotland as heroic figures while portraying them, in many ways, in a modern context. For example, the phrase “Live Free or Die” is used, connecting the Scottish Independence war with the then-fairly-recent American Independence War. In fact, the Scottish Independence War has considerably less similarity to America’s political movement than contemporaries might liked to have imagined.

As to the story itself, once again I’m left wondering how much of the writing style is simply that of the time versus the quirks of this particular author. The publication of this book precedes The Fair God by several decades and in certain ways it is more single-dimensional than that work. A character, it seems, must be of the purest and sweetest virtue or consumed by vile, contemptible tyranny. No subtleties of character can be allowed to exist.

As to Wallace himself, each knight or earl that lays eyes upon him realizes his manliness and virtue and falls deeply in man-love with him, willing to follow him to the end. For the women, they immediately desire to possess him based on that initial vision, or even less. One woman seems intent on dedicated herself to Wallace, sight unseen.

The writing itself is modern enough in its use of vocabulary, but the structure is not. Sentences are extraordinarily flowery, with exclamatory adjectives and adverbs heaped on like so much rich gravy. At times it seems like an elevation of the prose to a form of poetry. At other times, it seems like someone who took Creative Writing 101 earnestly trying to add a unique set of words into each and every sentence.

As before, I’ll point out this was no obscure work. This was one of the most popular books in Europe when it was published (1809) and remains read in Scotland to this day. So the weakness in literary style cannot be passed off as the product of some unknown amateur. If I wanted to be truly scholarly, I compare the writing to a contemporary like Byron, but it is enough of a task to wade my way through this prose. The issue is not that the writing is so terrible as much as the florid descriptions slow down the pace of the actual story to something of a crawl. I am eager to see Wallace get at it in Stirling, but there are so many admirers to fawn over him between here and there.

One he finally arrives at Stirling, we find (as always, it seems), the author is fast and loose with the historical facts. The fight at Stirling Bridge is a side action to Wallace’s siege of Stirling Castle, similar to my Age of Kings training scenario. As a relief army arrives (under the historical commanders, but 4-5 times the strength), Wallace lays a clever trap, jury-rigging the bridge over the river Forth to be pulled down by some hidden soldiers. His opponent thus fooled, he manages to defeat an army nearly ten times his own strength, returning to complete the taking of Stirling castle later in the evening. It is quite a tale, and also quite unrelated to the actual battle.

In the end, it looks like I’m stuck with Braveheart and finding someone to play Hammer of the Scots with.

*In the same story, the designer explains that the simplified battle system was also created for cost savings. The original design of Quebec 1759 had ten different tactical areas, so different battles would each have a different feel. The decision to streamline battle resolution allowed the elimination of the extra boards, and reduced production cost for the games.

**As I pointed out, I recall playing a Stirling Bridge scenario with an actual bridge in Medieval: Total War, the original. The fight may have even started with the armies on opposite sides of that bridge, the typical “bridge battle” that features in many random maps. I did not try to reinstall that game on my current machine though. My memory suggests that this version of the battle may have also included the ford which the English didn’t use, but might have allowed their horse to outflank the Scottish attackers.



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Any movie that opens with the dialog “Gun’s always loaded, even if it ain’t…” and features a hand-loading scene, well, that’s going to buy it an extra star or so in my ratings.

Wind River is the third in an ex-post-facto trilogy from screen writer Taylor Sheridan, who also wrote Sicario and Come Hell or High Water. Unlike the first two, Sheridan was the director on this one. It is a solid piece of storytelling, well shot and well acted. Wind River is framed as “inspired by true events,” drawing attention, as it does, to the difficulties of law enforcement on Indian reservations.

For once, Netflix did me a favor on this one. It came up under recommendations as a DVD that would appeal to me. Based on the synopsis, it sounded a little weak… something about Fish and Game getting involved in an FBI investigation. It did not mention the writer/director connection with the other two films, both of which I’ve seen and strongly appreciated. But the old rating system, still in place for DVDs, ranked it very highly, so I had it shipped out.

The synopsis isn’t wrong, but it doesn’t capture the film at all. My first read through made it sound like a murder mystery taking place in the offices of some obscure governmental agencies. Then I began to imagine North Woods Law: Wyoming -styled action film. The pejorative of my title is a reference I’ve heard used on Fish and Game enforcement personnel who aspire to broader law enforcement jurisdiction. Fortunately, it was none of these. Had the reference to the earlier films been made explicit, I would have anticipated an atmosphere and pacing that are very much in line with the previous works.

The lead character in Wind River is a U.S. Fish and Game hunter working in Wyoming. He is responsible for removing predators when they encroach upon the population and their livestock. This identity is critical to the story in that Indian Reservations have a rather bizarre patchwork of law enforcement jurisdiction.

The theme an ambience is similar to Longmire, which I finished watching a month or two ago. The TV series often focused on the lack of jurisdiction of the county sheriff’s office on tribal reservation land, and that is part of Wind River as well. Additionally, the tribal police only have jurisdiction over their own tribe. So if the perpetrator of a crime on Indian land is non-Indian (or simply from a different tribe), the tribal police lack authority over the person and the local police lack authority over the place. The only remaining authority are the Feds. FBI or perhaps some other Federal agency involved, such as the Bureau of Land Management or, in the case presented in the movie, Fish and Game.

While, in theory, Federal jurisdiction on Federal lands is all well and good, in remote areas of the west the availability of Federal law enforcement officers (also a theme in Longmire, I might add), can often not be up to the task. For a remote wilderness, needing to ship FBI agents in from two states over probably isn’t that much of an issue. However, if that wilderness has a sizeable population in the form of an Indian reservation, a lack of on-site people who actually have jurisdiction is going to be felt.

The result is a movie that mixes social commentary, slow-burning drama, and a (welcomed) subdued action into an excellent mix. Well worth the watch. It also has me all the more excited about Sicario 2, on its way. I had wondered whether Sicario was something of a one-off, a bit of luck for a relatively unknown writer, but this guy is clearly on a roll.



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Charles the Lame, that is.

Crusader Kings was the last of the Paradox games that spawned from Europa Universalis. Earlier I was thinking about the release of that engine as it tied into the Civilization and Age of Empires advances, with each pushing the other forward. The original EU release was not too long after Age of Kings and shortly before Civilization III. EU and EU II were barely more than a year apart, making EU almost a paid public beta for EU II.

Following on the heels of the success of EU II, Paradox moved the engine to the Second World War with the release of Hearts of Iron. This was not a mere re-skinning of the EU engine, however. Unlike the EU clock, which ticked through the centuries represented in that game, Hearts of Iron played strategically but simulated hour-by-hour. Thus, operations could be planned to coordinate attacks from land, sea, and air, scheduling them all to hit their target at a given H-hour. The series became very successful in its own right and is the most recent of the Paradox games to be reworked as a new version.

The next of the EU spin-offs was Victoria: An Empire Under the Sun. Vicky, as fans like to refer to it, returned to the the massive scale of EU but added in the more complexity to account for the economics of the Victorian era. Rather than simulate a population of a territory as a whole, Vicky breaks down the population into different categories: the wealthy versus the poor, the skilled versus the unskilled, the soldiers versus factory workers, etc. Managing the economy, then, involves managing this detail.

The final (unless you count Stellaris) branching of the the Paradox engine came in the spring of 2004. This game started with the invasion of England by William the Conqueror (in 1066) and lasted until 1452, just before the fall of Constantinople. The focus of the game was less on nation states and more on dynasties. The player has control over a middle-ages noble and his court and must manage the lands and armies to which that noble has title. Those titles can be lost in battle, so maintaining and growing one’s domain requires alliances and warfare. Upon death, titles are redistributed according to the hereditary rules in effect for that place and time (and they can be altered by the player to suit). So another important part of the game was ensuring suitable heirs were present when the current noble shuffles off this mortal coil.

This became a complex and critical part of the game. Too few heirs and you might find your only heir to the throne wiped out by the plague just as you need him to inherit. Too many heirs and the mighty kingdom you’ve painstaking built up shatters as it is divided among squabbling children. Furthermore, the “stats” for each noble is also hereditary. So “good breeding” became a matter of selecting wives and husbands for your family and was necessary for prevailing in future battles.

It was a game monumental in its scope. While in many ways based on its EU roots, there were several areas of departure. In addition to the need to manage your family, there was considerable less reliance on that historical timeline and the event system that kept things somewhat on track. All it takes is one extra boy being born, and a pivotal succession crisis will never take place.

One more very popular addition was to allow a game completed in Crusader Kings to be exported and used as a starting point for EU II. All of the games in the EU family have been fairly open and modable, granting them a lot of attention both in terms of improvements and also “total conversions.” Shortly after the game started covering different eras, users took an interest in moving a given game-produced world from one product to the next, chronologically. EU games were ported to Vicky, although there is quite a gap between the two. The post-World War I ending of Vicky can be sent on to Hearts of Iron for the WWII, and that game was modded to extend into the Cold War. With one of their Crusader Kings patches, Paradox got in on the action and officially made it possible to continue playing with a CK world in EU II.

While on the topic of mods, one of the most popular for CK was the Game of Thrones conversion. That popularity exploded with the conversion of the novels to the HBO series. I recall reading, back in 2011 or 2012, how Crusader Kings was the best Game of Thrones game available, and it wasn’t even a Game of Thrones game. It seemed ideally suited to model just the sort of politics/warfare/sex battlefields that people love about the show, and that was part of what created the medieval history that we know.

But all was not perfect. The game progressed at essentially two different speeds. Personal interactions could be happening rather frequently whereas realm development took place over years and decades. Speeding the game up meant being innundated with messages about various characters and their interactions within the game. Like EU, CK allowed the player to customize the handling of event notifications. The problem was, even a minor character looking for a suitable wife could be critical to the game. Because character statistics of newborns were based on the statistics of their parents, selective breeding was necessary to create a competent court from which to draw your generals and administrators. I recall, back in the day, likening it to a computerized version of whack-a-mole.

My other huge complaint with the model was the handling of ships. Unlike the other games of the EU pantheon, the handling of ships was abstracted. In the time before sea-going warfare, it made sense not to model ships as combat units. What shipbound fighting existed at the time was very different that what the Age of Sail would bring in the timeframe of EU. The problem with abstracting it entirely way is there were significant factors limiting sail and oar powered shipping, particularly outside of the Mediterranean. I often played my games somewhere on the British Isle, and inevitably at some point the Muslim hoards would sail to my island and attempt to covert me. It was a historical impossibility, but why?

This game, and pretty much all games for that matter, fail to model the effects of currents and prevailing winds on medieval sea travel. In this instance, traversing the points at the tip of Brittany, near Brest, or the south-eastern tip of England, near Dover, might involve waiting patiently for the forces of nature to help you around the bend. If the “you” in this case is a massive fleet sailing from Tripoli for the purposes of conquest, that would provide a point where the invaders are particularly vulnerable to interdiction. For example, the details of the (much later) defeat of the Spanish Armada cannot be fully comprehended without understanding these limitations on sailing routes.

Mercifully, Crusader Kings skipped over the EU III engine and, instead, became (as Crusader Kings II) the first of the games built on the current engine. And while it started its distribution through multiple channels, it eventually became sold exclusively through Steam.

Paradox has long had a reputation for releasing games with initial bugs. Crusader Kings II seemed to live up to that promise. This was a game that I wanted, badly, even before it came out. I was very much into Crusader Kings and saw a promise in the sequel to fix some of the issues I saw above. It took some time before I finally pulled the trigger. Even then, I refused to buy through Steam or any of the Steam-like services. I like to own the games I buy, not rent them. I finally found a sale through GamersGate, which offered a DRM-free version and happily began enjoying the new version.

Some months later, however, Paradox announced that they could no longer support the product through GamersGate and I had to move my license to Steam. This caused me to actually get a Steam account, which has grown nearly-uncontrollably ever since. It also started my relationship with Paradox and their DLC model for supporting their games.  It fixes, from the game companies’ standpoint, a long standing issue with game support. When a game requires ongoing maintenance, particularly for new features and other improvements, it is done at an increasingly uncompensated cost. Eventually, the company must release an expansion or a new version to generate the necessary revenue, often frustrating users who can sometimes feel they are being forced to pay for a bug-fix patch. The DLC model, while in some ways exacerbating the situation, may actually make it more palatable by seeking revenue more regularly, but in smaller chunks. In any case, I’ve resigned myself to periodically buying newer content for Crusader Kings and EU, and have been rewarded with not only years of active support, but sometimes game-changing improvements in the features.

DLCs have also been used to expand the chronological scope of the game. Add-ons have extended the starting point backwards some 500 years. A player can start, not just with the Norman domination of England, but back to the viking invasions or further back to reign of Charlemagne.

Charles the Lame

Earlier, I contrasted Crusader Kings with EU particularly in the area of historical fidelity. In the discussed game, I played a scenario and highlighted a particular place where the game (through an invasion of France by the HRE) departed substantially from history.

Continuing on with that game, I also continue to drift away from an actual tracking of historical events. On the other hand, gaming in the same medieval “world” will always mean there are some parallels between what the game creates and analogous situations that really happened.

As before, I am still playing as the Duke of Upper Burgundy, where I have hopes of expanding my power and possibly once again ruling over a Burgundian kingdom within the Holy Roman Empire.

In the real world, from the late 1270s into the early 1280s, the counties that would comprise the Kingdom of Arles, a kingdom of Upper and Lower Burgundy, were under the control of Charles of Anjou. In addition to these titles (the counties of Provence and Forcalquier) Charles I held claim to Anjou and Maine in France. He had been invested by the pope as the King of Sicily, after killing the previous ruler, Manfred (a bastard son at the end of the Hohenstaufen line), at the Battle of Benevento.

The son of Charles I, also Charles (II) and known as Charles the Lame, was at the time Regent of Provence and heir to the titles of Anjou. A plan was hatched between the elder Charles, Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph I, and Pope Martin IV. Charles the Lame’s son, Charles Martel would, upon marrying the daughter of Rudolph, receive the title of King of Arles and preside over that historical kingdom. In exchange, Charles I was to back the an inheritance of the title of Emperor to be passed through the House of Habsburg. Finally, the pope’s family would be granted a Kingdom located in northern Italy. Instead, Sicily revolted against Charles’  (I) rule in the War of the Sicilian Vespers and the marriage and the creation of the new kingdoms was never to occur.

That’s a lot of Charles.

In my world, Sicily is controlled not by the French (as was the case in 1282), but by the Holy Roman Empire. By 1286, a war has begun between two claimants to the title King of Sicily. The conflict has drawn in the Emperor himself, and fighting has spread far enough north to impact my own duchy and, in doing so, drawn my attention.


The year is 1286 and a war has broken out in a Sicily divided over who is to rule them. This may be a chance for my family to press their claims in Italy.

With Sicily in chaos, I have decided to advance an imperial claim on one of the central Italian counties. Unlike in the real world, where the Hapsburgs have begun their ascendancy to pan-European power, in mine  Rudoph von Habsburg is a count in Upper Burgundy and my chief administrator. I am married to a princess of the empire, the sister to the predecessor and cousin of the current Emperor Václav II.


I’ve moved my army into the war torn peninsula, but I am without friends.

I have forgotten a key feature of Crusader Kings II and civil wars. It may seem like a rebellious lord is easy pickings, and making a claim on a pretender’s holding will allow you to pile on to an already winning side. But that’s not quite right. As I have made a claim on a county claimed by both sides in the war, they actually both consider me an enemy. In the above screenshot, while I was biding my time, waiting for the pretender king (whose claim I have challenged) to weaken before I deal with him, I was ambushed by the loyalist armies. The king who is still recognized by the Emperor as the true King of Sicily still believes the title to the usurper’s lands lay with him. I had a chance against one of them, but not both.

The screen above represents one of the major features the Crusader Kings II introduced, and one that has been enhanced since the original release. From the beginning, the EU franchise resolved battles using a pop-up screen where the armies would attrit in “real time” as the strategic clock advanced. Interaction is minimal while the battle was ongoing, with the ability to send reinforcements (if another army is close enough) or retreat from the battle before forced to by the battle engine. Obviously the timescales don’t quite work, but it provides a workable interface for both the strategic game and individual battles that occur within it.

In Crusader Kings, that battle engine now has considerably more depth. Each fight sees the the units involved divided into three “battles,” as the language of the time would describe them. If there are insufficient sub-units, only two or maybe only one of the battles will be populated. Each battle can be allotted a commander, which will improve performance when fighting. As the enemy forces engage, each wing attacks the corresponding wing of the opposing army and goes through various types of combat. In the previous screenshot, the armies are beginning an engagement in skirmish mode (see the blue bow-and-arrow icons for all six battles). A unit will progress through that skirmishing into an infantry mode. Once one side breaks, the opposing side will have a pursuit phase. As the opponents wings are eliminated, a winning army will engage with multiple-on-one attacks among those forces that remain.

There is additional detail in the model. I occasionally see special indicators during a fight, like a “shield wall” icon popping up. One presumes that the effectiveness of the unit during the different phases depends, not only on the commander, but on the mix of weaponry in the component units. More and better archers should mean more effective skirmishing, and so forth. As before, you have little interaction once the armies are engaged. But the depth of the battle model is engaging, with an effective user interface to show progress. It is also limits the engagement to that of a supreme commander. In doing so, it encourages you to control the things that a supreme commander could control – better leaders and a better mix of weaponry – rather than having you micromanage every unit in every battle, Total War -style.

Back to the battle within the context of the game. As the attack started I made an assumption, which turned out to be correct, that numerical advantage (albeit a slight one) of the Sicilian army would be all it took to tip the odds against me within Crusader Kings II. It seems like it would set up an even battle in FoG(U), with the slight numerical advantage countering any weakness in UI play. In fact, I assumed that the battle would produce the opposite result given the nearly even armies. So much so, I was afraid that the fight wouldn’t even be close and the results would be entirely misaligned with what I saw in the strategic level.


I used the army-building tools to recreate the fight from Crusader Kings. The two armies clash on Turn 4 of the battle.

As the armies moved to contact (screenshot above), my fears seemed to be realized and then some. While I made an effort to keep my lines organized as I moved them forward, the AI charged pell-mell across the open field, hitting my lines piecemeal just as I was moving out of my own encampment. It appeared that I would easily defeat the enemy in detail.


My left wing is utterly collapsing and any hope I have of salvaging the battle on my right seems to have slipped away.

As it turns out, the AI may have been aggressive but was not “too aggressive.” Despite the fact that my lines were better ordered, I was overwhelmed by the enemy assaults.

This is no organized analysis, but there seems to be a clear difference between AI performance in the original version and the Unity version. In the old version I had scenarios where holding back to draw the enemy into assaulting my position would result in running out of turns before the enemy was even engaged. This new AI seems to want to being killing me as fast as possible. Furthermore, it is effective at doing so.


I stand corrected. The Sicilians have obtained a decisive victory over me and come pretty close to matching the results I saw in the Crusader Kings resolution of the battle.

This was effectively the end of my campaign to gain influence on the Italian peninsula, although I refused to admit it at the time. Like so many commanders before me, I figured that I had weakened the enemy even as he had weakened me, and that one more push would put me back on top. I assembled a second army, this time made mostly of mercenaries, and moved them in for a reprise. The problem, however, remained that I was outnumbered by both sides of the Sicilian Succession War combatants when they were combined and I was again forced to to wait out the enemy, hoping to see him weaken himself. In this case, the enemy was able to wait me out. As funds to pay my mercenary army ran low, an enemy was able to bribe them to flip sides and my next battle, instead of being a nearly even fight, turned into a massacre. So I had to return home, not just a loser, but a broke loser.

A Ship and a Sea to Sail Upon

Fighting up and down Italy doesn’t require much in the way of sea transport, but given the vehemence of my complaining, I had probably better mention that aspect of Crusader Kings II. In this iteration, ships have returned to an explicitly-modeled factor in the game. They are available to be raised in the same way as land armies, based on the counties you control, or hired as mercenaries. Either way, they are terribly expensive.

What it means is that, if there is a sea-transport component to your campaign, you’re going to have to have a lot of extra money set aside before you start. You’ll also want to plan appropriately. Having fleets sitting around idling will mean your treasury quickly runs dry. You’ll want to get your transporting done as rapidly as possible and then release those ships back to wherever they came from.

It still doesn’t model sailing in a realistic detail, but from the games I’ve played so far, it seems to create realistic end results. Sea invasions are huge deals, even over short stretches of ocean. While I usually end up at some point during a game paying the cost to send a Crusader army across the water to the Holy Land, I almost never bring them home again. And I’ve never seen the marauding north-African hordes laying waste to the shores of England and Wales in Crusader Kings II.

Similarly, the frantic dating game into which the original Crusader Kings could descend has been largely fixed. This latest engine (CK II, EU4, and the new Hearts of Iron) has added in a better user interface which is particularly effective when it comes to the decision-making aspects of the game.  A player no longer has to keep their eyes glued on dozens of different factors as time goes by, hoping not to miss a critical event. Instead, many of the decisions are presented as alerts to the player.

Add to that some better browsing tools, and the marriage game becomes easier to stay on top of without the frantic effort of before. The model for marriages has become more complex as well, meaning that unless you are marrying off a particular enticing child, you’re not going to be able to scour the world for a tall, barrel-chested woman to breed a race of warrior-giants. Furthermore, the “mini-game” of influencing your children’s statistics has become deeper and more multi-dimensional. There are the statistics and there are traits, which each influence the other. These come from not just who the parents are, but also decisions that are made during their upbringing. It is, at the same time, both a more interesting game and one that is no longer critical to overall success or failure.

Charles may have been called lame, but Crusader Kings II is not.

I Never Thought I’d See..


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I an “I never thought I’d see the day” moment, the Wall St. Journal this weekend has an article on the historical genre of board gaming. It’s more of a side bar format, really, than an article. After a brief orientation about how Settlers of Catan is a better experience for adults than Candyland, they recommend five strategy games based on historical events. In the original order:

1. 13 Minutes,

2. Freedom: The Underground Railroad,

3. Memoire ’44,

4. 1960: The Making of the President, and

5. Fire in the Lake.

The article features a nice picture of the Freedom board, set up for play. (I can’t see any of this on line – you may need to have the printed Wall St. Journal to see it at all). What drew my interest most is the first title on the list. I’ve seen all the others at some point or the other, but their #1 was new to me.

On Amazon, 13 Minutes is sold for (at present) $10 and is also suggested as a three game package, together with 13 Days:The Cuban Missile Crisis (this I’ve glanced at before) and a game called Twilight Squabble. Together, the trio offer ways to play Cold War in very short game play. 13 Minutes is described as the time it would take missiles to reach the U.S. from Cuba, and also the typical length of a game. 13 Days is described as a 45 minute game, but online reviews discuss whether it can be finished in 30 minutes. Twilight Squabble offers the entire Cold War in 10 minutes.

While the third may be overdoing it a little, the first two receive fairly good marks on Board Game Geek. In fact, not at all obvious to me until I began reading, the two games are made by the same designers. Further it would appear that the former is a deliberate condensing of the latter (although, remember, I haven’t played these games – I’m just looking at them on-line).

In addition to that bit of enlightenment, the mix of the games in the article is also interesting. First, with the exception of Memoire, the games’ pedigree all flows back to Twilight Struggle. 13 Days is obviously an attempt to streamline the Twilight Struggle gameplay, and 13 Minutes is a further streamlining of that. 1960 was another GMT release, a few years after Twilight Struggle, and (at least at first glance) looks like a variation on the theme. Fire in the Lake is one of the COIN-series games that followed on from Labyrinth, itself and extension of Twilight Struggle mechanics to the war on terror.

The most tenuous connection is Freedom. It is from different designers and different publishers that the children of Twilight Struggle. However, Freedom shares with Twilight Struggle the card-driven mechanics as well as the point-to-point mapboard. I’ll go so far as to say that, appearance-wise, the components resemble those of Fire in the Lake. I suspect that Freedom was also included in the list because it is a cooperative game, a novel concept to those who abandoned board gaming with one two too many games of Candyland.

Likewise, Memoire ’44 is an obvious inclusion. It predates Twilight Struggle by a year. It was not entirely a novel concept at that time. Memoire followed the Battle Cry civil war game using similar mechanics, a game system that would eventually be the Commands and Colors series. Likely the World War II theme of Memoire had a broader appeal making  Memoire an entry point into the hex-and-counter wargaming genre for the non-wargaming public.

Seen this way, the list can be examples of various genres, using the American History theme to unite them. The micro-game, the cooperative game, the wargame, and a political game. The only obvious missing element is an economic game (unless the lead-in introduction to Catan counts). In this, the odd man out becomes Fire in the Lake.

Fire in the Lake has the best Board Game Geek scores of any on the list. It is also ranked as the most complex on this list. In fact, even by the standards of the COIN series (themselves something of a master-level gaming experience), Fire in the Lake is one of the more complex of the bunch. The giant leap from Candyland to Fire in the Lake would likely give Neil Armstrong pause. Maybe this game is included for readers like me. While familiar with strategy and historical boardgaming, 13 Minutes was something new for me to ponder. For others already primed for a very deep boardgame experience and interested in Cold War history, perhaps they just never realized that there was such a game as Fire in the Lake. More importantly, one might realize realize that Fire in the Lake is due up for a reprint and is discounted for pre-order.

As a final personal note, while I’ve fairly recently been playing at Candyland, I’ve never played The Settlers of Catan.


Right Is Good; Left Is Evil


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A friend used to say that. It was during Dungeon and Dragons games when he would come to a fork in the way. “Let’s go right,” he’d say, “because right is good and left is evil.”

I doubt that.

But for me, when it comes to mouse buttons, I wholeheartedly endorse the phrase.

I am right handed, but I have all of my computers configured for a left-handed mouse. I’ve found this to be a very effective solution for staving off carpel tunnel syndrome while engaging in extensive computer use. I don’t know why it works – and maybe it is 2 parts psychosomatic to 1 part physiology – but it does.

But not all games support a left handed mouse. I’ve not tried to be analytical about it, but it seems like there is a particularly bad period in the early aughts. Before that and games will, assuming they have been adapted to run on a modern system, simply carry through the system configurations. Move closer to today, and games are more tightly integrated with the operating system, also avoiding gaps. In that middle is where the concept (first) of using hotkeys to enhance gaming and (second) allowing the reconfiguration of those hotkeys to the user’s pleasure came in. Perhaps it has to do with the nature of the programing to go straight to the keyboard and mouse and redirect the inputs, but configuration of the mouse is often left out. The more intensive the configuration needed for a style of game, it seems, the more likely that the mouse buttons are hard-coded to the righty mouse. So Flight Sims, CRPGs and First Person Shooters from a certain era probably have the best chance of being wrist unfriendly for me.

The problem does not skip over strategy games, though. I’ve mentioned the Shrapnel offerings before. I will remain eternally bitter over the strategy game Salvo!, which was exactly the game I wanted to play when I bought it (tactical Age of Sail). It was also unplayable for me. Not only does it hard code the right-handed mouse, but the UI is filled with mouse-down gesturing. One or two games in, and I was afraid I’d have to give up computers for good. (Much better now, though).

Da ‘Hood

Shift gears for a moment, and let’s go back to those early aughts. The game Robin Hood: The Legend of Sherwood was released in 2002. It rode on a wave of the, by that time, popular “stealth” genre of game play. I recall being introduced to stealth games with the 1998 release of Thief: The Dark Project. At least in the reviews I was reading, Thief was touted as a “more intelligent” alternative to the first person shooter genre. Rather being the fastest with your click and twitch, success would flow from careful forethought and NOT engaging in the high speed slaughter of your enemies. Also in 1998, an RTS version of the genre was available in the form of the game Commandos.

By 2002, much had advanced in graphics and game play, particularly in the RTS genre. Robin Hood came out, was fairly well received, and moved into a 2nd or 3rd place spot on my game wishlist. I don’t remember what kept it from the top, but I do recall giving it some serious thought, and then a pass, a number of times over. It has an aesthetic that I’ve come to associated with being “European.” Or perhaps, to be more specific, German. The graphics portraying medieval Europe are, to my mind, very attractive. (It’s a similar style to what I recently praised in Legends of Eisenwald). The game wasn’t as cutthroat as some of that time’s more popular titles, weather from the “real time tactics” genre or the “stealth” genre. The developers promised more of an emphasis on “fun” rather than “challenge.”

I never did wind up getting it, though. I’m not entirely sure why, but there it is. Until, that is, some time last year when I found it on sale and finally picked it up.

Imagine my horror when I opened it up and realized that none of the buttons worked because the game is coded to use a right-handed mouse only!

It is a shame the game hates me so much right from the get-go, because the design has a lot going for it. In addition to the aesthetic, which I mention above, it combines features from a number of other genres. First, the “missions” are encapsulated within a strategic layer. For each mission, you choose a subset of Robin’s band to go, and other stay behind, performing various tasks while you are gone. The missions themselves are selected from a map, providing a certain amount of variety along with advancing the game’s story line.

Second, it is one of the early, and good, examples of the “stealth” tactical game. Playing it successfully means avoiding just fighting your way through the levels. The missions have strong puzzle-like elements, where you need to discover the pathways that allow you to sneak past or behind the enemies. Unlike Commandos, where almost immediately I find myself getting stymied by the difficulty, the puzzles seem not only simpler but have more room for trial and error. Even when spotted by the sheriff’s soldiers, it is often possible to run, hide, and make another go at things. In the worst case (and this is on the easiest setting), it is generally possible to forego the stealthy method and fight your way through the level. Points-wise, the player is punished for slaughtering too many of the enemy when a less lethal strategy is available, but it is not an automatic loss.


Despite its age, this is a very attractive game to look at.

A third genre represented is the “pixel hunt” -style puzzles that were popular, particularly at that time. That’s not necessarily a plus in my view, but it does add some variety. After dispatching with all the enemies; the money, extra-arrows, and other goodies are hidden within the terrain. Some screen-hunting is necessary to maximize your haul for a given mission.

The last innovative feature that stood out for me is that, once a character is engaged in fighting, a mouse-gesture based fighting system is activated. It isn’t a necessary part of combat, but adds one more feature – popular at the time – of adding special “moves” to the combat system. As with the last feature, it’s not one I would look for in the games I generally play. In fact, I seem more likely than not to invoke roundhouse smashes that do as much damage to the friendlies surrounding me as to the enemy. As a game-design feature, though, it seems like a nice extra that adds to the appeal of the package.

It all comes together well enough for me to fight through the mouse issue and try a handful of the missions. The right mouse button (the real one, not mine) doesn’t seem to be that important, so just gripping the mouse a little funny and using it as if it were a single-button mouse seems to work OK. It’s alternatively intriguing and frustrating. Intriguing as I notice one special path where I can get through some guards by sneaking around and knocking a them on the heads from behind. Then frustrating as I stumble onto to another guard while trying to manage my clicks and get sucked into a 10 minute cycle of combat, and then carrying away the dead bodies.


Here’s where I’m stacking all the dead bodies. Let me see if it looks any less gruesome from the rooftop.

His Merry Men

All this Robin Hood stuff got me thinking back to my Robin Hood experiences as a child. As far as I remember, I didn’t watch any Robin Hood shows on television. I also don’t think I’ve ever seen the Disney cartoon in its entirety, although I know I’d watched a few scenes of it, probably as part of the Wonderful World of Disney weekly show. My Robin Hood source was part of set of volumes called Children’s Classic Books probably, from what I’ve been able to divine from the internets, from the 1920s. What I recall most vividly were the full-page color illustrations that accompanied the story.

The publisher of this book (I suspect) capitalized on the lack of copyrights on classic works such as this one, taking a well-known publication and, with some minor editing and touch-up, republishing it without any attribution for the original author. This Classic Robin Hood book only has a credit for the illustrations (and also one for the introduction). Since I no longer know where these books are, and the only examples I’m seeing of them are a handful of people trying to pawn off their grandparent’s collections on Ebay, I’m left very much to conjecture about all of this. My suspicion is that my book was based on the 1883 novel, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown in Nottinghamshire by Howard Pyle. I’m currently reading my way through a copy of that so as to relive my childhood.

Pyle’s Robin Hood was very influential, shaping the popular conception of Robin Hood as a children’s tale. His book is written in an odd mix (particularly to modern eyes) of Victorian English, pseudo-Medieval English, and children’s prose. It tones down some of the sinister twists of the source material, making it more palatable as a children’s story. In doing so, he altered the image of Robin Hood as an (albeit lovable) thief and scoundrel to a noble hero, engaging in criminality purely in defense of the underdog in the face of tyranny.

Pyle’s source material is almost certainly Francis James Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, a compilation of and commentary upon the traditional oral storytelling of the UK. I also am reading through some of Volume 3 of that series, which contains a number of the Robin Hood stories as lyrics and often map one-to-one with Pyle’s chapters.

Using the opening story, How Robin Hood Came To Be An Outlaw in the Pyle book, corresponding to Robin Hood’s Progress to Nottingham in Child’s, we can see an example of this. By the 50s and 60s, a common explanation of how Robin Hood became an outlaw is that he was outlawed by the evil powers-that-be to cheat him out of his inheritance. He is forced to join up with, and then lead, outlaws of Sherwood Forest in order to battle these obviously bad powers who are subverting the cause of justice. When reading Pyle’s description of how he became an outlaw, it is far less pure. Robin, at the age of 15, is goaded into illegally shooting one of the King’s deer on a bet. When his tormentors refuse to pay him, the situation escalates into the murder of the man who wagered (and reneged on) the debt. Because the man Robin shoots actually shot first, it may all be justifiable as self-defense. While Robin may be undeserving of the punishment for murder, he is clearly culpable (through his own hot-hotheadedness and pride, if nothing else) in creating the situation which sends him away from polite society.

But that version is far more gentle that the ballad from Child. In that one, having lost the bet to Robin, the band of some 15 foresters not only refuse to pay him, but continue to chide him for his youth and inexperience. They order him to take his bow and get out. Robin, laughing at the irony (he takes up his bow, for sure), slaughters the entire bunch. Subsequently, he may also maim a number of residents of Nottingham who attempt to apprehend him for his mass-killing.

Incidentally, Child is scornful of the attempts to place Robin Hood in a historical context. It was Ivanhoe, in 1819, that connected Robin with King Richard the Lionheart and there were plenty subsequent to that who wished to discover the story’s true origins, based on written records. Child points out that the “scholarly” references to a historical Robin Hood during the reign of Edward I are almost certainly drawn from the ballads, not historical documents. By the time we see actual records of the name “Robin Hood” in a legal context, it is well after the time when we know that the Robin Hood stories were popular. Any reference is probably do to the use of the the name “Robin Hood” as a way to refer, generically, to an outlaw. Any attempt to discover the nature of the “real” Robin Hood is, therefore, pointless, as the stories were likely just stories created to entertain.

Reading through Pyle’s version, I come to a couple of conclusions about my childhood. First, I’m going to guess that the 19th century edit “modernized” the language from what I’m reading now, and probably did so considerably. As written, Pyle’s prose would have been off-putting for me as a young teen. Second, I probably never read this book all the way through. I imagine I spent some time with the images, and probably read some chapters to put those images in context, but I probably took in the book piecemeal. Even if the book was updated to “twenties” language, I don’t think I could have digested it all. Given what I know about my young self, I believe I would have required, at least, some more contemporary styling.

Big Screen, Little Screen

Robin Hood again became a personal interest in 1991, when Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was released. This is the one staring Kevin Costner, at the time on a Hollywood hot streak. It came with a lot of expectations, many of which fell short with its audience. Personally, Sean Connery’s cameo at the end caused me to laugh out loud at the theater. It is hard to explain why, but that seems to summarize the film for me.


Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves: Sean Connery as King Richard? LOL.

a 1-line review

It did, however, reinvigorate the characters and we continue to see takes and retakes on this story to the present day. Another major Hollywood treatment was released in 2010 (with Russell Crow this time), although it was also received pretty negatively. I haven’t seen it.

To try to relive some of the screen treatments of this one, I pulled up two of the older TV series version. The Adventures of Robin Hood ran for four years in the 1950s. It was an English produced, fairly conventional treatment of the matter and was likely iconic for the generations raised on black and white TV. I also watched, or at least I’ve made an honest effort to watch, Robin of Sherwood. This was another English treatment of the show, this time for three seasons in the 1980s.

A fifties action-TV-show is going to fall short of modern expectations and there is practically no way around that. 1950s film-making holds up best when the focus is on drama and dialog. The “teleplay” style of the time makes everything seem a bit flat and confined. I also think I noticed, in one scene, someone bumped into the “castle wall” from the rear causing the whole castle to wobble a bit. It is played with fifties earnestness and style, and can be appreciated if taken within its context.

The second show has not been treated so well by the passing years. Robin of Sherwood seems to have praise lavished upon it from around the internet. A bit of copy that is used for the Amazon review, comes from a Role-Playing gamer’s website.

Robin of Sherwood is, for many people, the definitive modern version of the Robin Hood legend. Moody, atmospheric, superbly written and acted, with a haunting soundtrack by Clannad (later released as the album Legend), it was the inspiration for a generation of British fantasy roleplayers.

I don’t know if 1980’s D&Ders are a reliable source for television reviews. Imagine the typical BBC (circa 1984) camera work backed by an 80s synth soundtrack. Now mix in weird fantasy elements portrayed by cheap props and low-budget special effects. Put the iconic 1980s “male model” in long-haired, fantasy form in the lead and… there you have it, now you don’t have to watch the show.

It is said that this series was the inspiration for the rush of Robin Hoods in the 1990s. I can only imagine that many in the business could take a look at the raw material and say “I can do better.”

The moral of the story is that the Robin Hood of the day is a product of the times in which it is made.

Ivanhoe popularized the Norman versus Saxon cultural wars in a context of post Napoleon English-French relations. Another theory is that Scott (a Scot) was attempting to parallel the cultural enmity between the Scots and the descended-from-Normans-English which was prevalent in the politics of Scottish Independence of that time.

Growing up I heard the “robbed from the rich to give to the poor” which fit well within the 60s and 70s socialist/communist counter-culture movements. A better read of the Victorian version is more likely characterized as returning the taxes taken by church and government and returning it to the people from which they stole it. In the early versions in Child’s compilation, Robin Hood is a lovable outlaw that, while not completely disconnected from our modern understanding, still quite different. Rather than engaging in an active redistribution of wealth, it is more of a populist mentality that sees him picking on the privileged and pompous and sparing the simple, hardworking folk. He is admired for his religiosity, particularly his devotion to the Virgin Mary. But also, his penchant for murder never seems to wane and yet does little to dent his popularity.

The 90s saw a rush of Robin Hood treatments, both attempting to get more serious and ridiculing those attempts. It is both an attempt to root the stories in the “gritty realism” that has become popular as a style for historical dramas, while necessarily creating fanciful story lines out of  whole cloth to create something the the requisite depth for he modern consumer. The Robin Hood story of my adult life has the addition of Muslim/Black characters, the implications of which I will leave to you, my dear reader, to reflect upon.