Lying Out There Like a Killer in the Sun

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

Steel Panthers presents us with another “base defense” style scenario. In this one, it isn’t the base of the previous example, but rather an temporary defensive position that is part of a larger road clearing operation. The local Vietnam commander attempted to grab a propaganda victory. By concentrating his forces on one element of the the U.S. operation he could defeat U.S. armor with his Viet Cong guerrillas.

Like that previous scenario, this one seems to be correctly scaled in terms of an accurate representation of the battle. Lengthwise, this scenario lasts for 45 minutes out of what was several hours of battle. It also seems to represent only the initial portion of the Viet Cong assault and seems to restrict the actions modeled to that portion of time. Again, it seems a bit counter-intuitive to give the player the static-defense side of the scenario. Unlike the earlier one, though, there are only a couple of turns where the automatic defensive-fire becomes annoyingly extensive. One it settles down, the turns become very playable.

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Here they come.

Although this is a “user-made” scenario, the author of this one is long-time wargaming Veteran “Wild Bill” Wilder. The purpose of this creation is to demonstrate the effective use of armor in a war where deployment of armor units ran counter to doctrine. Seeing a name like this attached to a scenario makes me think of it more in terms of a “stock” scenario than a fan production.

The actual fight was another early engagement of the recently arriving units from America. The Third Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division (the Big Red One) was in the area and high command wanted to see them tested in live operations. In the area north of Saigon, the ARVN units were hampered in their operations by Viet Cong ambushes, which would plague them as they attempted to move along the roads. This, in turn, prevented ARVN units (in this case, the 5th ARVN Division) from engaging and displacing the enemy. U.S. assistance was required to clear and secure Highway 13 for a pending 5th Division operation. Someone began referring to Highway 13 as “Thunder Road,” a name which would seem ever more appropriate as the war unfolded.

The site covered by the scenario was located central to the operation and thus provided a good location for artillery support (not represented in the scenario) and command elements for the operation. Units had been positioned there already for a day when they drew an Viet Cong dawn ambush on the morning of the 12th.

The scenario’s written introduction in Steel Panthers emphasizes the employment of maneuver and its role in the success of the American defense. Indeed, the time-period within this scenario concentrates on the initial dawn assault, which was repulsed by a series of armored-vehicle counter-charges.

Unfortunately, that’s not how I played it.

Never quite sure how Steel Panthers applies its defensive bonuses, I always figure that a moving unit is more vulnerable than a stationary unit and that this applies double when it comes to initial scenario positions. Furthermore, not knowing where the attack was coming from or how extensive it might be, it seemed most effective to use my units to neutralize the enemy attacks with fire to the greatest extent possible rather than move. While I lost some M113s in the chaos of the initial mortar barrage (historically, the enemy mortars were not effective) my gut feeling was backed by the fact that I tended to lose vehicles to enemy anti-tank teams only when I moved them. My early movements involved only pulling back to more defensible positions and only moved forward again to secure victory locations once the enemy attack was broken up.

I’m not sure that the U.S. command learned the lesson expounded in the scenario description, that armored units could be effective in Vietnam. I’m also pretty sure I didn’t learn the intended lesson. Tanks can really good against infantry, especially if they can fight from well-supported positions on the defense and not be unduly exposed to anti-tank teams. Blind charges with armored vehicles against unseen and unknown enemies is generally not effective in Steel Panthers.

But about those tanks.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the scenario developer made a mistake when creating the order of battle for this one. At the Second Battle of Bàu Bàng, which would take place in March of 1967, Troop A (of a different Cavalry unit) had six M48 Patton tanks. From all the reading that I’ve done (though I’ve still got a source or two waiting to be read), Troop A of the 1st Squadron of the 4th Cavalry Regiment operated, on November 12th of 1965, only M113s, no tanks. The Viet Cong’s intelligence identified the armored personnel carriers (and some mortar carriers) as “tanks” (a mistake that continues to the here and now), but I don’t think any were actually there.

In my game, I found the M113s extremely vulnerable to hidden anti-tank positions and did, in fact, rely on the Pattons to dominate the battlefield. In real life, the initial M113 charge was a tremendous success, running off the Viet Cong attackers without the loss of a single vehicle.

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Second Thoughts

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I spoke too soon about the CGI effects in Magnificent Century.

For the Siege of Belgrade, the pitched battle was depicted by showing (effectively) still shots of the major characters accompanied by waves of blood splashing across the screen. It was not tasteful, nor pleasant.

I do give the show some credit, though. They tried to balance portrayal on screen of both the goings-on within the royal palace and with Suleiman and his court in the field. This requires somehow portraying a massive army on the march and huge battles, all on a TV-series budget. They did try.

The other effect that smacked me across the head is one that I’ve seen before in 80s shows (or maybe it was 90s. The Sharpe series is one that springs to mind). Magnificent Century‘s use of electric guitar to score a period drama is also not a good production choice. To me, it made the show seem at least 20 years older than it is.

I’m also surprised at how thoroughly the soap-opera plot has grabbed me. The episodes tend to have cliff-hanger endings, particularly when it comes to the conflicts between the various female main characters. I find myself craving to find out how the latest cat fight is going to turn out. It is embarrassing to admit it, but it is true.

I’m also continuing on with The Pillars of The Earth, and this is a story that seems to snowball in intensity as a rolls along. Where I had started with reading a handful of pages at a go, I now find myself staying up to all hours to advance from chapter to chapter. I also notice the author pulling in more and more of the significant events of the time period, directly linking them to his narrative. Maybe a bit obviously, the White Ship plays an active role in the story.

In another part of the story, our hero finds himself working that the Toledo School of Translators, whose existence I only recently became aware by having watched The Day the Universe Changed. The flood of Greek scholarship that flowed from the completion of the Reconquista and the subsequent Western access to Muslim libraries is a tremendous event in the development of Western Civilization. It is also one that I really was unaware of until I saw it in the TV series. As The Pillars of the Earth wanders around Europe a bit, the story begins to feel every bigger and bigger.

Likewise I soldier on with Blood and Beauty. It may be a mistake to read this particular book intermittently. Each time I come back to it after reading something else, the disorientation of present-tense narrative returns in full force. As always, I get used to it after a while, but at first I feel less human for having read this style of prose.

As I get further into this book, I realize that details of Blood and Beauty and the details in Borgia come pretty close to each other. I don’t think one used the other as a source. Rather, I suspect that they both have relied on the same, or at least similar, contemporary histories. Even in some cases where the story is different, you can see how one has made a slightly different interpretation of the knowns and unknowns than the other. Who killed Juan Borgia? In Blood and Beauty, we know it is not Cesare because the narrative of the book has access to his inner thoughts. We also know it is not Lucrezia, because her motive (the killing of commoner and confidant Pedro) doesn’t occur until after the killing of Juan. In the book, however, it is clearly shown how history will fault Cesare once other bodies pile up. Once you start killing one of your own relatives, it stands to reason that you’d be willing to kill another.

One surprise in Blood and Beauty is the prominent featuring of syphilis to the story. It is particularly potent here, at least to me, because unlike the characters in the book we are aware of both its transmissible and its potentially fatal consequences. In the book, a surprising number of major characters struggle with the disease. On TV, they were merely made gay.

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What Hump?

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I’m a rather brilliant surgeon.

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

In Vietnam 1965 Combat Operations, Operation Hump takes place over two turns. Typical of the smaller operations in this scenario, once I found the enemy (predictably, I figure in retrospect, located at Hill 65) there was only one other turn of combat. The “battle” ended with the VC unit being removed from play through the TOAW event system.

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Fire from the skies. I’ve isolated the enemy at Hill 65 and I’m fixin’ to rip him a new one.

Playing at this operation back-to-back with the Ia Drang valley lead-up, another strength of this scenario series is demonstrated. Any number of the battles in Vietnam are familiar to me through my reading or (as likely as not) other games, but I don’t have it integrated into a comprehensive picture. This scenario does that for me. It helps place battles in their chronological order and their proper scale (both time and distance). This allows me to get a better sense of how two different battles in different parts of the country might compare, contrast, and relate.

In the case of this operation, it puts into perspective a Squad Battles: Tour of Duty scenario that would otherwise be, pretty much, without any anchoring reference.

Tour of Duty has a fight from the greater Operation Hump battle which, at least if you go by the introduction to the scenario, is used in that game to introduce American participation in the Vietnam War. It is, date wise, the first Tour of Duty scenario between U.S. forces and the North Vietnamese Army, although only by a matter of a couple of days.

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I encounter the enemy with what I presume is the head of my column. Casualties come fast and furious.

The battle, actually, could be one of many, many patrol/ambush situations throughout the Vietnam War. The player starts off with what looks like a pair of companies moving along a jungle trail. Not that they are really moving; the scenario begins with the Americans already located at the scenario objectives. I only know this is Operation Hump because of the scenario description. Neither the units or the terrain have any unique features that might otherwise place them historically.

I contrast with the Steel Panthers scenarios. Where as Steel Panthers tends to have big scenarios that try to capture as much of the interesting parts of the the battle as possible, Squad Battles tends to have very small and tight focus. Part of this may be the Steel Panthers is drawing from a user-made library and hobby scenario builders have a habit of going big when they model a favorite battle. Whatever the cause, the fact is that Squad Battles scenarios tend to be much more limited than Steel Panthers, despite the scale between the two being very similar.

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Through the fog of war, I make a decision. It looks like the enemy is attack from the north, so I’m throwing everything I’ve got in that direction.

This scenario is all about the enemy’s hidden movement. The uniform coverage of jungle in the battle area means that the enemy can only be spotted when they are adjacent to one of your own units. You don’t have the mobility to do much in the way of scouting, so your job is to anticipate where the enemy are going to materialize and then react or not as necessary (or possible).

While I may well have played this scenario before I had no memory of how it went. So I’m going into the setup cold and, I think, that’s how it must be. The initial contact comes (see first screenshot) down and to the left of my column (WSW, if you assume the map oriented with North being up) and, combined with the assumption that this is “forward” in terms of my column facing, I begin to try to deploy in line facing where I think the enemy is. As I move, I being to encounter more enemy all along my column, but always to the “north” of the trail. In the second screenshot, I’ve made the decision to engage the enemy forward of the objectives, assuming that I’ve come in contact with the bulk of who is out there.

The end result was a minor victory. Despite the devastation of a couple of my squads and the loss of one of my company commanders (a captain) to friendly mortar fire, my kill ratio was high enough to call this one a win. At the end, the game does a complete reveal of all hidden units. Surprisingly, the were two intact enemy companies with good morale located on the final map and, I might add, not quite where I thought the remaining enemy would be. I’ll not show a screenshot of that position because it will ruin this scenario for anyone who is intending to play it. Also, without many replays through the scenario (which I don’t intend to do), I’m not sure if the enemy positions are more-or-less determined or whether some random AI factors put them where the ended up.

Even so, this clearly highlights the two criticisms I have of Squad Battles scenarios in general. First, replayability is low because the tight scope of the scenario often allows only for a single solution. Second, the AI is weak relative to the task its required to perform, standing out in this regard even among its peers. I’ll grant that the non-cheating AI couldn’t have known I’d left all three victory point locations relatively open. Given that it had two uncommitted companies left over at the end of the game, it seems that it should have at least been making a play for those points.

The problem may be in the requirements. The HPS line of games seems to cater, first and foremost, to players playing each other rather than solo play. This requires that scenarios generally be equally winnable by both sides. Gamers in general, but particularly wargamers, also don’t like AIs that cheat – giving the non-player side an advantage by knowing things that a human playing that side couldn’t possibly know. In some ways it seems like, given the impossibility of making an effective computer opponent under these circumstances, the developers may have given up even trying.

Contrast that to the last game I played, where virtually no fancy footwork is required due to the design of the game purely as a single-player experience. But in that case, there is a distinct lack of connection to reality and no battles are “simulated.” Is there a way to have our cake and eat it to?

Return to the master post for Vietnam War articles or go on to the next article, which compares and contrasts how two board games handled aspects of the war.

 

 

Valley of the Shadow of Death

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

I’ve logged an inexplicably large number of hours playing Arab-Israeli Wars lately. It’s not really a good game, in fact, it is barely even a game. The rules are designed to be played solitaire with a custom deck, but I’ve been playing it on the computer. It tends to start up really fast, so it is something I can run while my system is churning away on other things. Add to that, a game can be finished in, usually, 5 to 10 minutes. That makes it ideal when I want to momentarily distract myself while my computer is preventing me from doing anything important but I don’t want to get up an walk away. The fact that at least half of the games are not challenging, either impossible to win or impossible to lose, doesn’t seem to deter me.

I bring this up now, because I’ve just started playing Vietnam ’65 from Slitherine/Matrix Games. As I’ve been thinking about the design of Vietnam games recently, my first focus was on its design.

Vietnam ’65 is also a “solitaire” game, in that it is meant to be played only as the Counter Insurgent side (the U.S.) against the communists. Normally, we would call this “single player only” or some such, but having in my head this explicitly-solitaire game design, I realize the similarities.

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While the manual is non-specific, the tutorial indicates this game represents the Ia Drang valley campaigns of Fall 1965.

Don’t get me wrong. Vietnam ’65 is not a trivial or simple game that I’m trying to compare directly to the first example. There is plenty under the hood to make this game worthwhile and I, for one, find it incredibly addictive. The comparison here is more about game design decisions than the game itself.

Vietnam ’65 is a very abstracted representation of the Vietnam War some time toward the end of 1965. In fact, pretty much the only way I know the timeframe of the game is that this what it says in the title. When you start the game, you are given a randomly-generate piece of real estate, peppered with villages, roads, rivers and jungles. Obviously, being randomly generated, its not going to correspond to a specific geographic location. Neither does the manual get more specific. The tutorial, however, explains that we are operating in the Ia Drang Valley in the Central Highlands, further fixing time and place to the fall of 1965 and something like Operation Silver Bayonet.

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My randomly-generated province. The mini-map shows everything on one screen. It will be hard extending my forces to the eastern edge of this map.

The goal of the game is to achieve the “Hearts and Minds” strategy of the American military. Each of the villages have sympathies that lean toward the Americans, toward the insurgents, or somewhere in between. Throughout the game, the communist units’ activities will attempt to influence village sympathies their way while you must trying to bring them back over to you. Whichever side succeeds in moving the needle wins the game.

Villages are influenced, incrementally, by visiting them. Some villages, when visited by the player, will also give up intel on enemy positions. Greater influence can be had by achieving military victories in the vicinity of a village. Villagers want to be on the side of the winner, so defeating communists near a village will provide a relatively larger boost. In addition to the village scores, the player also manages “political points,” which provides the currency through which he purchases and manages his units. Simplified, when the player operates successfully that allows him to allocate even more resources going forward. But the opposite is true. One can get into a death spiral where failures in the field deprive you of the resources you need to recover.

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On this map, the remote villages present a challenge. They are hard to reach and the units sent to the remote corners of the map, once there, become hard to supply.

As simple as it is, the game is (as I said) incredibly addicting. Once I got the hang of it, the 45 turn default game can be run through in one sitting*. Let me get back to what I started off this article with and that is the game’s simplicity and how it applies to the design.

Even after a good many games under my belt, it seems like the win or lose can go either way. In the particular game portrayed in the above and below screenshots, I wound up losing. The winability of any given game is very much dependent on the initial layout of the map plus a dash of luck when encountering your enemies. Good decisions and good outcomes in your combat tend to reinforce success, which you grow to a win. I will add that setbacks don’t have to be fatal, and this is another plus for this game. In some cases, a very bad situation can be reversed and turned into a win.

That initial random setup places the villages, rivers, and jungles and shows it to you on a map before you start. In addition the visible placements there are also”Ho Chi Minh Trail” locations which you can’t see. These hexes are the “spawn points” (to genre-mix my gaming terminology) for the Viet Cong units. Those units are assigned a “mission” which they try to complete, typically moving toward a designated location. A common mission would be to move a unit to a particular (the closest) village, at which point the unit is expended in order to move the influence in the village slightly toward the communists. Another mission involves moving towards an ambush point so as to subsequently attack passing U.S. units.

As the game progresses, the challenge posed by the enemy’s missions grows. The quantity and type of enemy missions conducted against you are determined by the influence score, again reinforcing previous successes or failures. The more successful the enemy was in the past, the more aggressive he’ll become in his future missions.

Executing these missions don’t require any particular smarts on the part of the AI. Having selected the unit and mission, completing them can be very formulaic, as far as the computer’s programing is concerned. There are a couple of missions that involve NVA units seeking out and destroying the player’s assets, but even these don’t involve much in the way of computer player strategy.

In this case, it is the complexity of how a number of simultaneous missions combine to create a hazardous battlefield that creates a tough gaming for the player, not the “AI” of the enemy. In particular, because enemy locations are hidden unless “spotted” by some fairly restrictive sight rules, you are often left feeling around in the dark for the enemy. Because of this, the mindlessness, if you will, of that enemy, isn’t apparent or particularly relevant.

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Artillery adds dignity to what otherwise would be a vulgar brawl. The remote firebase lets me extend my reach.

I’m imagining that there is a higher level of gameplay, a strategy of an “expert player” if you will, that works to anticipate the movement of the enemies based on their rules. If I were to try to ferret out the locations of the Ho Chi Minh Trail points and actively interdict them, and then try to intercept NVA movement from their spawn point (the Western edge of the map), I could probably be a much more effective player. As it is, I tend to be stretched thin enough that I’m mostly reacting to the enemy as I find them rather than dealing with them as part of some strategic plan. I’ve handed the initiative over to the enemy and I rely on the fact that that enemy isn’t really capable of much in the way of initiative.

One last point about this game. I’ll not go into too much detail here, although it might perhaps be worth returning to some day. On one hand, this is a very abstract game, difficult to connect in any significant way back to the historical operations that it approximates. At the same time, it captures certain essential features of counter-insurgence warfare and aspects of the asymmetric nature of the fight between the U.S. and the NVA/VC. Bottom line, I think there is more to this game, perhaps, than meets the eye.

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With the U.S. 1st Cavalry in support, the ARVN move to reinforce Plei Me.

As a point of comparison, the alternative for operational level Vietnam warfare is The Operational Art of War. At the same time I’m looking at Vietnam ’65, I have my tablet out so I can work through the Silver Bayonet operation as presented in the Vietnam 1965 Combat Operations series of scenarios. This puts the operation in the context of the larger war and gives the perspective of the units which were allocated into and out of the particular theater of operation.

Playing this scenario takes some effort. Each turn requires the review of the notes and careful plotting of the historical movements. Having completed the first volume with a rather unsatisfying draw, I’ve been making an effort to take victory locations beyond what is specified in the narrative, if I can do it without significantly re-purposing units away from their historical assignments. At the same time, though, I am still trying to accomplish every mission that instructions designate plus satisfy the described historical actions, even when they don’t count for points. The uniqueness of this scenario design makes for a nice compare-and-contrast with another TOAW scenario covering Operation Silver Bayonet.

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The ARVN relief column has been ambushed on its way to Plei Me. The fight is on.

One of the original scenarios that came with TOAW was Ia Drang ’65, a treatment of Operation Silver Bayonet at the operational level. As one of the original scenarios, it is limited and focused in its scope- so many of the user-made scenarios lean towards the monster end of the scale. It also makes use of a few of the special game features (reinforcement and withdrawal and hidden objectives are two that stand out) without trying to force the game engine outside of what it is capable.

The map is limited to Pleiku (City), Plei Me, and the Ia Drang Valley westward to the Cambodian border. Units under control are only those that were tasked to the operation in question and the game engine takes care of adding and withdrawing those units as appropriate. Game turns are half-a-week and are played on 2.5 km hexes. In a sharp contrast to my recent immersion in Vietnam 1965 Combat Operations, units are represented per company rather than battalion, making for finer grained command.

I’ll come back to this all to discuss the intense fighting that took place in mid-November during the two battles detailed in We Were Soldiers. Commenting merely on the province-wide, operational-level representation of Vietnam in 1965, though, we’ve got some different methodologies that produce very different experiences.

Vietnam 1965 Combat Operations, with its focus on reproducing the historical war, still makes for the best historical experience but at the price of the effort the player must put into bookkeeping. It is also somewhere between the strategic and operational levels (albeit with much of the strategy suggested to you via the accompanying narrative). It is a country-wide simulation at a scale where the real drama of a particular operation might come and go in a turn or two, with most of the action taking place off-line (e.g. Silver Bayonet is completed, +5 victory points is not as satisfying as directing the units as they duke it out).

Ia Drang ’65 both gets down to a more interesting level and gives you much more control, but the price here is that you quickly fly off the historical rails. Like I’ve said about other TOAW Cold War treatments, the turn length and TOAW system doesn’t quite match Vietnam’s fighting style. TOAW tends to drive you towards continuous and maximized operations up through the end of the game. While rest and resupply are a factor and must be managed, actually having units sit idle just means you’re leaving victory points on the table. Contrast this with a the way Vietnam 1965 Combat Operations regulates the country-wide allocation of units. At any given time, in most of Vietnam, units are just sittin’ around and you’re not driven either to move everything into the “front line” or constantly being prepared for the enemy to pop up out of nowhere. Ia Drang ’65 doesn’t match the cat-and-mouse nature of most of this campaign. Once the sides are engaged in this fight, it’s pretty much a month-long engagement using traditional hex-and-counter methods until units are eliminated or withdrawn per the rules.

This brings it back to the unique place that Vietnam ’65 fills as an operational simulation. This one really gets you away from that opposing lines of counters situation that most operational boardgames (and their digital equivalents) seem to exhibit. The intention of the game is to integrate a much fuller gamut of actions that might have been taking place in an active province undergoing counter-insurgency operations. In TOAW, unless at least company-level engagements are taking place, actions would be “below the radar” on the map. In Vietnam ’65, on the other hand, we have to send troops out to try to intercept enemies. Even if we’re not actively finding the enemy, we need to just to drop in on the villagers to ask for information about recent enemy movements. This is integrated with a representation (as abstract as that may be) of larger unit engagements with the NVA and the penalties that escalating commitment imposes on your ultimate victory.

I’ll end with a thought experiment for the reader, although a reader who has some familiarity with Vietnam ’65. What would an LZ XRay/Albany engagement look like implemented in this engine? Is it even possible? Or is the best we can do with this game is, when we want to approximate an NVA major operation, toss in a tank and call it good?

Return to the master post for Vietnam War articles or go on to the next article, which compares and contrasts how two board games handled aspects of the war.

*There’s a saying that any pizza is a “Individual Pizza” if you’re willing to apply yourself. Likewise, its less that the game length is all that short than that I seem to be unable to get out of my chair until I’ve finished.

 

A Hand and a Heart and a Brain

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Some months back, I came across a recommendation for several period films that were “must sees” by whatever criteria this particular article (or maybe it was a video) was discussing. I honestly don’t remember the details. But I dutifully added the titles, including the mouthful The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, to my list of movies to watch.

The months rolled by and, despite a generally positive reputation of the film, I avoided actually watching it. Something about that monster title seemed to frighten me off. Finally, last night, I did watch and I have to say that this movie is something else.

This is another movie with Brad Pitt leading the production credits. Once again, this is a movie that likely never would have been made without someone like Pitt giving it the push. I have to keep in mind that while this movie is new to me, it is not new – it is now more than a decade old. Its release precedes some of the other Pitt movies that I’ve talked about above. In the case of Jesse James, Pitt had an interest in working with the director based on the director’s one previous film (Chopper) and that interest along with an offer to star brought with it big-studio backing.

The film was made in 2007 based on a book of the same name from the early 1980s. The director, Andrew Dominik, apparently came across that book in a second-hand bookstore and was inspired to create the film. The book had been reasonably popular in its time and had received the 1984 PEN/Faulkner award for fiction (an award granted to American authors), but it wasn’t anything that was just aching for a movie treatment. With Warner Brothers support, however, came the funding to do it up right.

The production is very high quality. It has an army of top-notch names thrown at it with, for example, Ridley Scott also leading the production credits. Nick Cave did the music and even sings The Ballad of Jesse James onscreen for good measure. The director, himself, was not exactly a household name at the time, although he would go on to work with Pitt again on Killing Me Softly, lending him (particularly in retrospect) a little more weight. The style of the film defies convention. The pace is slow, emphasizing beautiful and artistically-framed shots over action. A frequent device is the use of shots with the outer edges of the frame blurred created, not digitally, but with some unique lens work.

The actor’s list is filled with top-named talent, particularly given the obscure and art-house feel that the film projects. Throughout the piece I had several instances of “that couldn’t be X playing Y? Well, yes, it is.” The lead figures were outstanding. Brad Pitt dominates the screen in a way that challenges the medium. A large part of the “story” here is what is going on inside the characters heads. What does Jesse James suspect? What does he know? What are Bob Ford’s real intentions? As reader’s of history, we can’t really know the answers to these questions – they died a long time ago with the individuals. The movie also approaches it this way. The narrator speculates, but even he doesn’t know the whole truth.

Part of it may be that Brad Pitt is playing to his “type” – the charismatic outlaw figure upon which he earned his fame. I have to think, though, that there is some skill involved in being able to dominate a room (and a room that is really an on-screen set, at that) entirely through subtext and expression. Yes, he is speaking his lines, but often the content of those lines is irrelevant. We the audience have to ignore what he is saying and try to figure out what he is thinking. I think Pitt really does this just right.

Likewise the supporting actors, playing the Fords and the other members of his gang, supply to these characters a psychological aspect that goes far beyond the dialog. In these cases, it is the weaknesses and simplicity of the characters that must be portrayed, but not as caricature. Again, it feels to me to be spot on and it amazes me how well I’m drawn in.

The result was a film that drew praise and awards from across the board. This comes at a price, though. Domestic box-office gross was a mere fraction of production costs and, after factoring in international sales, the movie barely brought in half of what it cost to make. No wonder the studios like to limit their focus to comic book franchise sequels.

When it is all said and done, are we left at the end of the film with more answers or more questions? Even that is left as an exercise to the audience after the film is over. Was Bob Ford really a “dirty little coward?” Could he have been the hero? Was he simply a tool that Jesse used to, essentially, go out of this world on his own terms? How much of the film is “real” and how much is pure speculation? Things to think about for months after watching this one.

This movie also hits a couple of my favorite movie themes, in which I’ll indulge myself by discussing.

Even in 2007, Brad Pitt had already outlasted Jesse James in terms of longevity. However, Brad Pitt, now in his mid-fifties, probably looks better than many Civil War veterans did in their early 30s. Consider that James was hounded and haunted at the end of his life, and Pitt seems a reasonable (even optimistic) choice for portrayal based on age. But Jesse’s brother Frank is portrayed (also very well, in my opinion) by Sam Sheppard, an actor twenty years Pitt’s senior. Yes, Frank James always appeared more “mature” than Jesse and, having outlived him considerably, eventually did look genuinely “old.” Nevertheless, the obvious gap in ages is a bit of shock. Initially, I couldn’t figure out who the hell Sheppard was portraying. He is (and looks) old enough to be Pitt’s father and it took a bit of dialog to convince me that I was looking at Jesse’s older brother, older by a mere four years.

I also noticed, in writing up this article, that Casey Affleck really looks a lot like Robert Ford if I use the one photograph of Ford that is out there on the internet. It’s no separation-at-birth but the similarity is there. I will add that Affleck, like Pitt, is about 10 years too old to “be” Bob Ford at the time of the story. Affleck also, even at the time the movie was made, had already outlasted Ford, who himself lived only until 30.

Taking on another favorite topic of mine, I had to watch the shootout between Wood Hite and Dick Liddle to make sure I got it all. Not to go into overmuch detail, it is a gunfight that takes place in a bedroom that leaves all involved (up to a point) with only minor injuries. Not only is this accurate because it’s true but it is one of the oddities of fighting with guns. There is the true story of a (modern) gunfight in an elevator in which nobody was hit. The number of bullets that can sometimes fly without much effect can be astounding. Rewatching the scene, I took in and appreciated some of the detail. You can actually see the absolute lack of aim as the two characters are blasting away at each other while only a few feet apart. Were they instructed on how to plausibly miss? Or were they simply, as actors, as bad at shooting as their characters were 137 years ago. Does it matter?

It’s a shame this movie wasn’t more popular. I almost feel like I have it all to myself, which is cool, but not productive. Rare is the investor who would be willing to lose $15 million on a movie production just so they can win lots of awards and the admiration of critics. Unless people watch good movies, good movies are not going to get made.

 

When Will this War be Over and the Madness Leave the Air

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I had originally intended to comment, to whatever extent necessary, within the context of one big Operation Starlite post. The more I thought about my experiences with Steel Panthers and Men of Valor, the more I wanted to address these games individually. (See also the Master Post for Vietnam).

Operation Starlite was the first major engagement of U.S. troops in Vietnam. Yet, as a subject of popular culture, it receives short shrift relative to Ia Drang, Tet, and even the non-specific chaos of the period of maximum U.S. commitment. Perhaps the quick and one-sided U.S. victory lacks the requisite drama. Still, this operation was no walk in the park. U.S. casualties were within an order of magnitude of those at, for example, Landing Zone X-Ray.

While I’ve looked at it before as the operational level – a turn or two within a full-Vietnam game, I though I’d take a look at some details. Starlite is included in both the Steel Pathers and Men of Valor selections as a scenario and an operation respectively.

First to Steel Panthers.

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A Hot LZ, and a fictional one to boot.

A quick summary of the fight on the Van Tuong Peninsula might be that the U.S. Marines used a combination of amphibious landings, helicopter insertions, and good, old-fashioned infantry marches to surround the VC position on all sides and then squeezed in upon them until the enemy was defeated. The Steel Panthers Starlite scenario incorporates all of that, but on a map that is roughly an order-of-magnitude too small. In shrinking the the battlefield, we can (and do) also compress the timescale. The bulk of the nearly-week-long operation is expected to be completed in about two hours by the game’s clock.

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The battleground in perspective. The actual battle was scaled down by an order of magnitude to fit the game engine.

Steel Panthers remains a fun game engine to play with and what is nice about this scenario is you get to fiddle with the range of assets used for the operation. Amphibious units, tanks, close air support, and off-board artillery all play a role in helping your backbone of infantry capture a series of villages. However, I feel like a major opportunity to do better was squandered here.

It seems like there should have been ample opportunity to find battles within the operation that fit the scale of Steel Panthers. Should someone have taken the time to model that, playing the games would have been instructive as a unique view on the challenges of various, specific pieces of the battle. The problem, of course, is that a realistically-sized battle won’t have all the nifty pieces. The helicopter insertions weren’t “assaults,” in that that the landing zones were heavily defended. At its worst, debarking troops were subject to longish-range fire while they began moving forward. Certainly, this wasn’t a case of having to take and hold landing zones as would happen later in the Ia Drang valley. While fighting did occur on near the amphibious landing locations, in that battlefield sector, night came before significant number of the enemy were engaged.

The point of the “insertion” part of the operation was to get the units are in the right place to make infantry and combined-arms attacks against the VC positions. The primary reason the Steel Panthers treatment fails to reproduce the historical situation is, again, due to the compressed scales. The order of battle seems to be fairly accurate as is the placement of defenses. Just for one example, Landing Zone White was under fire from machine gun and small arms fire from a position over a kilometer away. While this caused some casualties, the Marines still spent nearly the next two hours completing their landings and organizing for an assault. In Steel Panthers, the main objectives are barely over a kilometer away from the landing sites and two hours would be the end of the game.

First (Person) to Fight

From Men of War, I don’t expect any kind of realism or much of a reproduction of history. But if Steel Panthers was bad, the opening sequence in the Starlite operation may be worse. We kick off our scenario conducting a helicopter assault on a defended beach.

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RPG got one of my helicopters.

At least, that’s what they tell me in the mission briefing. While the terrain looks fairly beachy, I can’t spot any actual ocean, so I’ll have to take their word for it. Immediately upon exiting the helicopter, my squadmates start getting hit and I see that the beach defenders are using rocket-propelled grenade launchers (RPGs) to clear the skies of the inbound marines. This sets up the first part of the mission. The player is to wipe out all RPGs so as to allow the follow-up helicopters to land intact.

The connection to the actual operation is made with a narrated video sequence which precedes the actual gameplay. This does provide an accurate summary of Starlite as well as some (presumably) footage from the battle. Back in the game itself, we rapidly depart from reality. The missions are tenuously related to the operation, but only tenuously. After scrambling off the beach, the player is required to capture several hill-top bunkers, which sounds like something Starlite-related, but the time and geography is all too compressed to imagine this fitting into the historical fight.

It is a far cry from Medal of Honor (and I’m thinking of the D-Day sequences) where the missions were so evocative of the their historical counterparts it became possible to forget that you were running through a linear mission. Then again, it is a linear mission that consists of gather “power-ups” from the ground as you run through the jungle, so any failure of expectations is probably more my problem than the game’s.

It also tosses in the “good lieutenant, bad lieutenant” story that it cribbed from the movies, augmenting the racial angle introduced in earlier parts. It’s an attempt to add a high-production value type of “drama” using a medium that no longer supports it. It’s easy enough to ignore. If only there were a way to skip over the cut scenes after you’ve seen them, it would be even easier. On the plus side, the game introduces the bunkers and tunnel systems that we realized were part of the Viet Cong’s operation, probably for the first time in the war.

True Accounting

I’ve dwelt on this before but I’ll use it again here – the mid-sixties represent an inflection point of sorts in transitioning from the post-World War II weapons system development to the institution of the modern weapon systems. I can also see an introduction of modern management thinking into the operation of the army. Going back to the Second World War and earlier, details of battles can sometimes be hard to come by. In reconstructing a battle for gaming purposes, one generally has to rely on the research of professional historians and published history books to get the details. For the battles of Vietnam, we have much better access to detailed after-action reports. Is this qualitatively different that Korea? Or earlier? I don’t have the expertise to judge, and some of it may be the way records were preserved as opposed to the way they were created. In any event, the War in Vietnam has been well-documented.

Furthermore, the military has made an effort to turn the data the it has on Vietnam into history-book style narratives for the purposes of training and memorialization. Perhaps, here, we are also seeing an effort to preserve the perspective of aging veterans before their knowledge passes on from our society along with the individuals who remember. The military may also be reacting against the contemporary narrative of the Vietnam War which, as often as not, was written from an anti-Government, anti-Military perspective.

Whatever the case, I was able to accompany my gameplay with a reading of the U.S. Marine Corps’ pamphlet The First Fight: US Marines in Operation Starlite, August 1965. It’s a solidly written summary of the battle, absent any obvious moralizing or slant. In addition to helping me make sense of the distortions in the several game treatments of this battle, I learned a thing to two more.

According to this book, the concept that has the basis for explaining this entire battle is apparently not true. I’ve seen in source after source that the U.S. stole a march on the VC, pulling off a rapid attack on them just as they were preparing to hit the U.S. base. In here we read that the VC were nowhere near ready to assault Chu Lai. In fact, it is questionable whether they were intending to do so at all. The concentration of the 1st Viet Cong Regiment was for the purpose of resting, recovering from earlier losses, and recruiting new troops. We now know that the unit had no specific or immediate plans to attack the American base.

There is no indication that the intelligence was deliberately twisted nor willfully, selectively misinterpreted to create the “need” to launch an offensive by U.S. Marines directly against the VC. Intelligence was simply incomplete and, in this one key aspect, inaccurate.

Another enlightening tidbit, given the mission structure in Men of Valor, was within the section analyzing how well the different pieces worked or didn’t. One area of weakness was in the directing of indirect fire support, especially naval guns. The fire support, when it arrived, was generally accurate and effective. The biggest problem, the book explains, was in the communication which resulted in delays between when fire was ordered and when it landed. Artillery support that is delayed 15 minutes against a moving enemy is not going to be effective.

There were a number of instances where friendly fire casualties were narrowly avoided. Many of these close calls were likely due to the multitude of simultaneous moving parts present on the battlefield. Throughout it all, again, we are seeing a consequence of the communication difficulties and the delays. It can be easy for an area recently occupied by enemy forces to, 15 minutes later, have friendly forces in it. There was also a theory, which has not been positively confirmed, that the VC had access to American communication networks and were directing naval fire and airstrikes onto American positions. It is also possible that communication errors were responsible, but the book makes a strong cases that there were a few too many coincidences to not point the finger at VC penetration of U.S. communication systems.

It is said that one learns more from one’s failures than from success. The difficulties the U.S. faced in an overall-successful operation made for some solid learning opportunities that improved the effectiveness of American warfighting power going forward. It is fortunately that lessons regarding close artillery support were learned without tragic friendly-fire casualties. This aspect of the battle adds a little more meaning to the plot point in Men of Valor where the player’s unit is unable to move artillery bombardments off of friendly positions. It did actually happen (although probably nothing like in the game) and was, truly, a defining feature of the Operation Starlite fight.

Return to the master post for Vietnam War articles or go on to the next article, which compares and contrasts how two board games handled aspects of the war.

I Went Spinning Back in Time

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The phenomenon that is The Pillars of the Earth was in my consciousness long before I knew what it was about. It is a book, a TV show, a game, another game, and more.

I had probably heard of the book because of the miniseries. I must have noticed somewhere a marketing push that mentioned it was dramatizing “Ken Follett’s best-selling novel.” I didn’t watch any of it and didn’t really pick up much about the content. It sounded kind of soap-opera-ish to me. I imagined the grand miniseries interpretations of novels from the 1970s and really had no desire to go there. I didn’t know who Ken Follett was besides his, apparently, being a best-selling author. I didn’t know what these pillars were, when the story took place, or pretty much anything about the setting of the novel.

Move forward a half-a-decade and I found myself trying to find a good board game that dealt with medieval economies. The Pillars of the Earth popped up in my search. I was confused. First, because I think I was constantly mixing up The Pillars of the Earth with Pillars of Eternity. The latter is a fantasy RPG, itself based on a science fiction novel from the early 80s (predating, for what its worth, The Pillars of the Earth). To add to the confusion, the success of the Pillars of Eternity computer game spun off some board games based on that theme. None of that seemed particularly medieval or economic.

That got me to realized, no, this is not a D&D type thing, its that romantic mini-series from 2010, and that left me even more befuddled. How to you take a miniseries (remember, I’ve got The Thorn Birds or North and South in my mind’s eye) romance and turn it into a board game, much less one that simulates the medieval economy. Nevertheless, this is one of the better-rated games on Board Game Geek and stands in some pretty good company, particularly within the strategy game subcategory. So I began to look at some pictures of the game in motion.

I was genuinely taken by surprise to see a game about building a cathedral. The players cooperate (while competing for points) construct a grand church in 13th Century England. Game pieces represent workers, resources, and a miniature cathedral that is built up over the course of the game. Where is Richard Chamberlain? Where is Patrick Swayze? Not that it is the lack of romantic situations that deter me, but for whatever reason the game looks really nice but I’ve never felt the urge to give it a play.

Another couple of years pass, and now I have a copy of the novel available to me. I started with the forward and was again surprised to see that see that, in a very fundamental way, this really is a book about building a cathedral!

Author Follett had long taken an interest in cathedrals. As a young man, he had read a book called An Outline of European Architecture which talked about the invention of the pointed arch. This technical innovation allowed taller churches to be built but also created the beauty which we identify with the Gothic cathedrals. Shortly thereafter he had the opportunity to visit the cathedral at Peterborough and, from that point on, visiting, studying, and admiring cathedrals became a hobby for him.

Before he had even written his first best seller (Eye of the Needle), he had proposed a medieval novel along the lines of The Pillars of the Earth. His agent said the concept was not ready and, in retrospect, the author agrees that he, as a writer, was not mature enough to complete the project. It would be another decade before he again proposed the Pillars concept which, by now, was greeted with trepidation because he was well established as a “spy novel” writer. This time he persisted and the rest, you might say in more ways than one, is history.

So at its foundations (!), this novel is very different than what I’ve long expected. Of course, if you simply skip over the preface and dive into the story, perhaps without any preconceived notions about Ken Follett or the themes of the book, what you have is a fairly solid piece of historical fiction. Focus is on the characters and interpersonal drama. Like good historical fiction, the story illuminates life in the middle ages in a way that informs the reader. Reading the book, it doesn’t seem to be “about” the building of a cathedral, at least not in the straightforward way that its genesis might imply.

He does talk about the art, architecture, and engineering of cathedral building. He doesn’t delve into the technology to a level of detail that it drags on the story, but it is there. Also included are the concepts of how a medieval economy works, showing how the cathedral is financed and the ways in that the town prospers as a result. I have in my mind a particular section where the abundant availability of semi-skilled labor creates a shortage of non-skilled laborers – a problem that in the book a character overcomes by inventing an automated machine to perform the labor. It’s a bit of economics that is as least as relevant to the here and now as it was to medieval England.

But the book is also about the cast of characters whose lives come together over the project of building a cathedral. It shows details of working-class life, from food to culture to what makes up a productive life. It also describes some details of combat, in particular small-scale encounters between no more than a handful of combatants. In addition, though, the book describes the Battle of Lincoln as witnessed by several of the major characters, with one as an active participant.

I Have Taken the King

The anchoring historical fact of The Pillars of the Earth‘s historical fiction is the period of the English monarchy known as The Anarchy. This was a succession crisis that followed the untimely death of the heir of Henry I in 1120. While Henry would reign for another 15 years, he did not sire another legitimate son. Henry favored his daughter Maude (or Matilda*) as his heir, but after he was gone, many of his barons backed his nephew Stephen. Maude’s marriage to Geoffrey the Count of Anjou combined with the historical fact that a woman had never inherited the throne of England gave the nobles of England cause to choose Stephen over Henry’s daughter. Add to that, Stephen was a good-looking and likeable fellow who easily won support. Maude was difficult to like. Her campaign to claim the throne was supported by her half-brother (an illegitimate son of Henry) Robert of Gloucester and some assumed that he would be the real power behind Maude’s rule.

Following several years of civil war, during the winter of 1141, Stephen had moved his army to Lincoln to besiege the castle the and eject its occupiers who, themselves, were contesting Stephen’s award of Earldom seated in that city. While undertaking the siege, Stephen received word of an approaching army commanded by Robert of Gloucester, an army that was a near-equal to his own.

Per The Pillars of the Earth, Stephen’s advisers suggested he simply abandon the siege (which was of trivial strategic value) and forgo fighting Maude’s army in open battle unless he had a clear advantage. Stephen’s sense of chivalry compelled him to engage in the even fight that presented itself, even dismounting his own knights so as to face the dismounted entourage of Gloucester on a fair basis. Other accounts suggest that the odds were clearly against Stephen but that he fought anyway, against common sense and advise to the contrary.

I took the opportunity of the now-ubiquitous black Friday cybersales to buy the Field of Glory Battle Pack for a mere buck-and-a-quarter (U.S.). Among the 24 scenarios, spread across the range of Field of Glory‘s expansive coverage is a representation of the Battle of Lincoln. It also includes (for what its worth) the Battle of the Standard, which had taken place three years earlier between Stephen and the Scots in a sort of adjunct to the succession civil war.

The Battle of Lincoln scenario is of interest to me for a couple of reasons. First off, of course, is that I play it at the same time I’m reading Follet’s description of the battle. But as a Field of Glory scenario, I am interested in the fact that this is an official release. That is, it is part of a package that costs real money. I will expect balanced scenarios that also play well with the AI and the scoring system as opposed to the best effort of a fan.

With this scenario, it does match the FoG template better than a lot of the user-made scenarios. It is on the smaller side (and maybe even seems more so because user-scenario-designers love to go big). The battle is fought on relatively clear terrain. I’m also relieved to see no odd quirks of terrain used to shoehorn some aspect of the battle into a non-cooperating game engine.

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I spot the banner of Usurper King Stephen across the field of battle.

I take command Empress Maude’s army because that’s default setup. I was tempted to side with King Stephen because, knowing he actually lost the real battle, he would seem to be the underdog. It is also from the perspective of his side of the field that we view the battle in The Pillars of the Earth. However, he does have a larger army to start (in the book, it is due to the timely arrival of fictional antagonist William Hamleigh with a small force. I’ve also learned the hard way that the default designation of sides for Player and AI often is an indication of which side will be easier to play for the programmed opponent.

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Both sides are close to breaking. Stephen bodyguard is also at the verge of collapse with Stephen himself having fallen.

I’ve not seen too much detail about the battle so I can’t comment too deeply on whether the game play had historical fidelity. Like the description in the book, the fight ultimately came down to the center as the two wings fell into chaos. One contrast to the book is it looks, in that last screenshot, that King Stephen himself may have fallen in battle. Or maybe he was just hit on the head with a rock. I’ve said it before that the Field of Glory engine only indicates the “loss” of a commander without specifically saying whether it is due to death, injury, or capture. The result, above, may just be a mirroring of the historical outcome where the battle came to an end with the capture of Stephen and the shout from William de Keynes (equally appropriate during a tense chess tournament), “Hither, all of you come hither! I have taken the king!”

*King Stephen’s wife was also Matilda (Matilda of Boulogne) and continued to fight Maude/Matilda after Stephen’s capture, ultimately securing his release in an exchange for Robert of Gloucester.

Quote

Flip of the Switch

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[F]or most people on the left political violence is a knob, and they can turn the heat up and down, with things like protests, and riots, all the way up to destruction of property, and sometimes murder… But for the vast majority of folks on the right, it’s an off and on switch. And the settings are Vote or Shoot Fucking Everybody. And believe me, you really don’t want that switch to get flipped, because Civil War 2.0 would make Bosnia look like a trip to Disneyworld.

The quote is author Larry Correia relaying a conversation he had with a friend. It’s part of a larger article where he tries to articulate, for a reader who might lean to the left, why gun confiscation is a terrible idea. It is in response to a tweet by one of California’s representatives to the U.S. House, Rep. Eric Michael Swalwell Jr. Salwell replied to a gun activist that the apparent “war” he wanted with gun owners would be a short one because the government has nukes.

Salwell has been mentioned as a potential 2020 presidential candidate and has expressed an interest in running.

I know a few “folks on the right.” This analysis rings true.

Starlite, Star Bright, First Star I See Tonight

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Wherein we begin to look at more variations on the Operation Starlite theme.

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

 

My starting point is the second entry in the Vietnam 1965 Combat Operations series of games continuing, obviously, where the previous one left off. Again, I am impressed with just how different of an experience this is from any other TOAW scenario I’ve played. It goes beyond the detailed, tutorial-like guide to which operations are historically appropriate. The events are also there to fix issues that I’ve complained about in other Vietnam treatments.

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My tablet is again in front of me.

To give an example, I’m told to commence Operation STARLITE with the probable location of the 1st Viet Cong supplied to me. Remember, turns are a half-a-week so the mission is expected to take something like two turns. I’ve complained about short operations getting drawn out over weeks and weeks as the algorithms of TOAW create ahistoric outcomes. In this series, however, the event engine is used to make sure that the operation completes within the correct timeframe. Two turns after it begins, Operation STARLITE comes to an end. The enemy units that remain on the map disappear.

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Sure enough, the intelligence was about right. I catch the readying VC off their guard.

My execution of the operation was a little off. The real planners pulled off quite a feat, planning and executing the operation in a few short days to capitalize on the captured intelligence. My own planning was sloppy. I wasn’t sure what the “SLF 3/7 Marines” were in the instructions (see the first screenshot) and saved them until last to deploy. Having done so and, as I always do, getting confused about how amphibious landings are modeled in TOAW, I left the VC an escape route to the north. The way the scenario scores it, my operation was a success, but I probably lost some points because I let the headquarters fade into the jungle rather than destroying it.

Having now the option to play in TOAW IV, I am missing some of those new features. These battles could really use the updated calculation of partial turns. My battles seem to always consume an entire turn, rather than giving me a couple of phases, except when I really don’t need the extra time for anything.

I checked up on the Matrix forums to see if there is some progress being made in getting these scenarios ported to the newer version. The answer is, yes, there is progress but no, nothing is ready (and probably won’t be in the immediate future). While scrolling around there I came across a comment that this series of scenarios, ported to TOAW IV, might in-and-of-themselves be worth the price of the new version. I think that might just be the case.

To be continued (or back to the Master Vietnam post, if you prefer). But before I do, a comment about the spelling of “Starlite,” with which I’m having fun with in the titles. The operation was originally to be called “Satellite,” but a insufficient lighting and an old typewriter resulting in a misspelling that then became, for posterity, the name of the operation.

Adventure and Whatever Comes our Way

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Coming off of Netflix at the same time as the Magnificent Century is the long-running series Sons of Anarchy. Mercifully, in this case, the show remains available on Amazon Prime.

Not to dwell on the details, but alternating between Sons of Anarchy and Magnificent Century is illuminating. They are both created for broadcast (commercial) television and so episodes are of very similar length. However, that forty-some minutes seems to fly by so much faster when I’m watching Sons of Anarchy that when I’m watching Magnificent Century.

What does that say about the relative qualities of the shows? What does that say about me?