I Swear that I Don’t Have a Gun

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By the time I write this, it is already off Netflix.

With only about a half-hour to go, I noticed that Soaked in Bleach was on the verge of being removed from Netflix streaming. In a little trick that one has to be aware of, the “Available Until” date that Netflix posts next to a movie on its interface shows the day that it will be gone, not (as humans would probably assume) the last date that it will be there. So unless you are really close to midnight, if you notice that an “Available Until” date has arrived, you are already too late.

For those so inclined, the film is still available on Amazon Prime streaming.

The much-maligned film presents evidence that singer Courtney Love may have had a hand in the death of her husband Kurt Cobain. Cobain was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. but a private investigator hired by Love just prior to Cobain’s death has found inconsistencies that have lead him to question that finding. The suicide ruling was settled on quickly (perhaps on the same day the body was found), and no investigation of evidence to the contrary has ever taken place.

The film does raise some interesting points. However, the evidence is entire based on the information given verbally to the investigator (much of which he recorded on tape). Several of the “witnesses” in the movie have since denied that they believe the Cobain death is anything but a suicide.

The format of the film is a little rough. Key scenes are reenacted by not-so-look-alikes, sometimes overdubbed by the actual recording. It’s a long way from great, but also far from terrible.

As a younger man, I had a couple of friends who absolutely hated Courtney Love – seeing her as, if perhaps not quite a murderess, someone who latched on to Cobain’s talent to advance her own celebrity. I recall comparisons to Yoko Ono and John Lennon. Even without a charge of murder, she probably represented a toxic factor in his life that contributed to his emotional instability. Myself, I was as much a fan of Hole as I was of Nirvana and gained even more appreciation of Love through her acting efforts. I had heard of the “Courtney did it” theories before, but always assumed it was coming from people who had hated her from the beginning. The film does create a plausible scenario for murder, with the motive being that Kurt was about to seek divorce. It does not really put forth a theory of how Cobain was killed (although their may be some vague hints about a suspect).

There are other accounts of Cobain’s death that I may now feel compelled to review, just so I can judge this movie a little better. I do recall, at the time it came out, the media and talking heads criticized Soaked In Bleach for pushing, essentially, a conspiracy theory. It is, in fact, how the film begins – with a discussion of the meaning and implications of a “conspiracy.” Sadly, I don’t think a resolution to this will ever be possible. All this means is that people will continue to make money from the tragedy that was the death of a young musician, with at least some of those knowingly doing so in bad faith.

While reading about the subject, I came across an assertion that the below video was one of the greatest live performances of all time. After listening to it, particularly in its context roughly five months before his death, I’m inclined to agree.

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Indulgences

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Despite my indignation, I gave The Borgias second season a little more time to develop. Although the start was inauspicious, it settled, by Episode 4, back into the style I appreciated from Season 1.

Episode 4 deals with the retreat of the French army from Naples and the Battle of Fornovo, where the Holy League – a combined force of Venice, Milan, Spain (King Ferdinand of Aragon was also King of Sicily), England, the Holy Roman Empire and, of course, the Pope – formed a army to prevent further French conquest in Italy.

True to the series, the historical events are duly mangled and replaced with the sexual conspiracies that were developed in earlier episodes. The Holy League is shown to have been formed to capitalize on the French retreat, rather than the reality that its formation was a proximate cause of that retreat. The involvement of the Spanish is completely neglected, removing this as the beginning of the wars between the HRE/Spain and France that will be fought in and over Italy for the next six decades.

Instead [don’t read further if you intend to watch], we see Cesare Borgia incensed over the sacking of a French convent by French scouts and determined to take revenge. He forms a motley band of villains and, having captured a few of the culprits, manages to tease out of them Charles’ secret hiding place for the French army’s gunpowder. Thus, the inability of the French to deploy their cannon at Fornovo is credited to, not the rain (although rain it does in the show), but to Cesare and his guerilla tactics.

Yes, it is still a bit silly, but it is a silly I can make peace with.

As before, I was impressed with the style of the armies as portrayed on screen. In particular, the Papal States army again has a combination Roman/Medieval style that, well almost certainly not accurate, portrays at a glance the disconnect between the mentality, at that snapshot in time, of the Italians towards warfare and the reality of the world advancing into modernity. I also really liked how much the actor captured the look of contemporary paintings of Condottiero Francesco II of Gonzaga.

Francesco_II_Gonzaga

Separated at birth?

Can you remember whom this actor played in Game of Thrones? I couldn’t, even after looking at pictures from that series.

All Wede Away

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The song Flowers of the Forest is known to have been played as early at 1615, although it may have been composed even before that. The lyrics in use at that time are not documented.

The “traditional” lyrics of today were composed by Scottish poet Jean Elliot in 1756. They were published anonymously and initially were presumed to be the original, or at least some version of centuries-old, lyrics. Poet Robert Burns, however, recognized a certain modernity in the structure and eventually uncovered both their pedigree and their author.

Those lyrics are a lament to the loss of some 10,000 soldiers (some estimates are higher) at the Battle of Flodden Field on September 9th, 1513, a number that included King James IV and much of the nobility of Scotland.

The song became immensely popular after it was played at the Funeral of Queen Victoria on February 2nd, 1901. It has become a standard, usually played on bagpipes, for Commonwealth funerals for fallen soldiers. It is the official lament of the Canadian armed forces and is currently used regularly by Great Britain, Canada, and Australia. It is likely that the same held true 100 years ago.

The connection between the First World War and the bagpipe tune is cemented, for many, by the words of Australian songwriter Eric Bogle from 1977 in his song No Man’s Land. He wonders at the gravestone of fallen soldier “Willy McBride” whether the pipes played Flowers of the Forest at his funeral in 1916.

Having listened to all of these songs this most recent Armistice Day anniversary, I thought to revisit the Battle of Flodden Field. This was a user-made scenario for Pike and Shot, but one in which I had some disappointment. I wondered if there existed, and in fact found, a user made scenario for Field of Glory covering the same clash.

Flodden Field was a peripheral battle in the War of the League of Cambrai. Scotland had entered that war in support of their French alliance and launched an invasion of England. The lead up to the invasion gave both sides a chance to prepare armies and within weeks those two armies clashed in what is called The Battle of Flodden or The Battle of Branxton. The Scottish army had the edge in numbers and faced an English border guard while the English King and his army was fighting in France (Thérouanne in now Pas-de-Calais). Nevertheless, the result was a massively one-side victory for the English.

Various factors are credited as delivering the victory to the English. James is blamed for several tactical mistakes leading up to the battle. Also, while the Scots were armed and trained, courtesy of the French, in the latest in infantry warfare, they were still an army without experience. Most often the fight is seen as a victory of the English bill over the Scottish pike. The Scots had used pike formations to notable success since the First Scottish War of Independence. They had more recently been trained in the German and Swiss tactics that had come to dominate the battlefields of continental Europe. However, the moors of Northumberland did not support the same kind of battle of maneuver as did the southern-European plains. In particular, the battle was fought across marshy ground and this terrain broke up the Scottish formations, giving the advantage to the English weapons and tactics. Notably, the Swiss themselves would have their pike formations defeated by the French armies only two years latter, at the Battle of Marignano in September of 1515, permanently moving the bar for the state-of-the-art in warfare.

The scenario I played was created by the same user as several other scenarios I’ve played and appreciated lately, so I felt good about giving it a go.

flodden1

The battlefield is a more traditional setup than the Pike and Shot version. If your eyes are up to it, note the additional group of units in the bottom right of the mini-map. Because Field of Glory does not allow phased entry, the player was instructed to forgo moving reinforcements until Turn 3. I honored those instructions.

This battle is evenly matched in points. While the notes say that English longbow units were weakened to account for weather, nothing is mentioned about the relative effect of the marsh terrain (clearly shown on the above screenshot) on the Scottish pikes versus the English bills.

flodden2

I begin to execute my plan. I am advancing to engage the Scots on my right, but to my left I will hold back an wait for my additional arrivals. In reality, it may have taking some taunting to get the Scottish army to advance from their heights into the marshland where the battle took place.

By turn 3, I’ve begun my engagement. I’m trying to to shift the weight of my army to the right, counting on the reinforcements from Sir Edwin Stanley’s force, which I have just begun moving towards the sound of the guns.

flodden3

By turn 9, the Scottish wings have collapsed, leaving only the King defending the center.

While it is not clear whether particular disadvantages of the Scottish formations are modeled, a lack of leadership and tactical skill is definitely baked in. The Field of Glory AI will tend to struggle in an evenly-matched battle, some initial tense moments aside, the English advance inevitably to victory.

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In the end, the result is not terribly ahistoric and probably evolved similarly to the actual battle.

Up Next on the History Channel

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Slitherine/Matrix, over the past few years, has been expanding their offerings. A company that once catered to the hardcore PC wargamer market now has releases in a number of other areas; they sell rulebooks for the table top version of Field of Glory; there is the occasional console offering; and, of course, many of their games have multi-platform releases for both tablet (IPad and Android) and PC.

One such game is HISTORY™ Great Battles Medieval. It was released in 2009, roughly simultaneously for PC, Android, iPad, XBox, and Playstation (3). The game is a Real Time Strategy offering set during the Hundred Years War. Think of it as a Medieval: Total War ultralight version. It was one of (and, as far as I know, the last* one of) several “History Channel” themed games developed by Slitherine in the late aughts.

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The History Channel contribution includes cut-scene videos introducing the historical context of each battle. Cut scenes are a combination of footage from History Channel offerings and battle scenes created using the game’s graphics engine. Unfortunately, the TV show footage may or may not actually relate to the narration, such as this depiction the ships carrying the English force to Flanders, after having traveled back in time several centuries.

Some time ago, I picked up the “free” version for Android. This is essentially the playable demo for the full Android version, although it’s not necessarily marketed as such. The Android version (currently at $4.99), in turn, seems to be a subset of the PC version (currently at $19.99), which adds user-created scenarios and modding into the mix. Some of the reviewers on the Play Store seem a little miffed about the teaser nature of the free version. I, honestly, don’t remember what I was expecting when I got it. There was a long gap between when I installed it and when I first tried it out (waiting for some car repairs), and then another long stretch before I played it through until “the end.”

That end comes quickly. The game shows two historical campaigns: The Hundred Years war from first the English side and then the French. In addition, there is a “skirmishes” campaign, which I interpret as using the army building mechanic, but through random battles rather than historical battles. In the free version, only the English campaign for the Hundred Years War can be accessed and, within that, only the first two historical battles are playable.

raids

After winning the battle at Cadsand, you can chose to “raid” villages. This allows you to build up the money necessary to upgrade your army before proceeding on to the next historical battle.

The game consists of a strategic level, where you as the player can customize your “army” and choose which battle to fight next. When a battle is selected, you move to a tactical layer where your armies are deployed against an enemy on a 3D terrain divided into a square grid. After a set-up phase, you begin giving movement orders to your units. Orders are given while the game is paused, but execution of those orders occurs in real time. Units engage enemy units within their range; one square for hand-to-hand weapons and multiple squares for archers. Engagement is automatic, and combat continues until the units from one side or the other of breaks. They will automatically change facing when, for example, moving into a flanking position on an enemy. In this way, multiple units can attack a single enemy, significantly increasing the odds of success. An additional level of player interaction is in the form of “cards,” which can be played to temporarily enhance the ability of a unit.

The units take both morale losses as well as physical losses. Leaders are also modeled, with the death of a captain dealing additional morale damage to a unit. Once a unit routes, it heads towards a friendly board edge, effectively removing itself from play for the rest of the battle – an exception being that a rally card can return a routed unit back into the fray. When all of the units from a side are routed, the other side wins the battle. If the player has won, he receives rewards in experience and money – which can be used to further upgrade units in the strategic interface.

As I think about it, the battles in this game bear a certain resemblance to the tactical battles in Birthright: The Gorgon’s Alliance. Birthright was released in 1997 has a hybrid strategy, tactical, and role-playing game based on the Dungeon and Dragons** world of the same name. The player assumed the role as a ruler of a kingdom and managed the business of that kingdom in a turn-based, grand-strategy game. That strategy layer had some very interesting detail to it. When nations went to war, the battles were fought on a tactical map with the player directing his armies. Finally, the world had various quests whereby the player and a few henchmen could go on a classic D&D dungeon crawl via a first-person, 3D action environment.

The game was released buggy, and a series of patches never brought the game up to fully-acceptable functioning. The grand-strategy portion was the closest the game came to getting it right, but that was only a part of the game. In fact, given its lineage, one might say that it should have been was the strategic icing on a Role Playing Game cake. That is, the pen and paper version of the Birthright setting was created to flesh out the role playing game, not the other way around. A computer port of just the strategic “side game” was not what the developers were after and may or may not have ever been acceptable to players.

The 3D dungeon crawl was likely its downfall. The game came out after the massive success of Doom and Doom II. That seemed the natural way to portray a Dungeons portion of a D&D game. The problem was that a 3D “mini game” portion of a Birthright was never going to be able to compete with a game designed soup-to-nuts to be a 3D, first-person dungeon crawl. My memory has Hexen as the state-of-the-art at the time, but that was already out a couple of years. Many of the big franchises had either just made the shift, or were making the shift to the Doom-like graphics. I, personally, could forgive the weakness in this part of the game and look at it as a merely a part of the whole. For sales, however, this obviously cut into the appeal.

The third portion, the tactical battles, was a key part of the concept. The player worked at the strategic level to manage the kingdom, zoomed down to command armies in battle, and then zoomed down further to fight monsters hand-to-hand. The battles were a continuous-time fight that had animated units meeting across a battlefield. The battlefield was divided into which was divided into a 5X3 square grid. The control of those armies was done through a smaller grid at the bottom of the screen where you would give commands by moving a block representing the armies from square to square. The corresponding units would then respond to your commands in the upper part of the screen, moving and fighting in full animated glory (circa 1997). The problem was, in playing the game, one had to focus on the lower portion of the screen. Concentrating on commanding the armies, using what looked  like a tic-tac-toe board, meant there was not time to sit back and watch the units execute your commands. Thus much of this features potential was lost simply through the way it had to be used.

I wander down this particular memory lane in part because I thought Birthright was going to be my ultimate game, mixing all the genres into one perfect world. Patches came out, seeming to get closer and closer to the promise of a working game. And then Sierra gave up. Part of me seems to just love the exercise of thinking back and wondering what might have been.

I also indulge myself now because Great Battle Medieval gets right what that game got so wrong twenty years ago. The battle itself is very similar to how they worked in Birthright. You command your units in a square grid, and the fights take place when units move into adjacent spaces. But the modern command interface is set right on top of the 3D animated display, making commanding much more intuitive. Even better, when you start giving commands to your units, the game automatically pauses. This means there is no chance of missing out on viewing the lovely 3D battles because you are busy giving commands.

All of this suggests to me the place that this engine could usefully sit in the gaming pantheon. It would make a great, quick resolution for battles which come about in a detailed strategic level system.

But that is not what this game turns out to be. While it seems to aim for a Total War – lite, too much is “lite” and not enough remains. From Total War, it takes the 3D animations of the units moving and fighting, but does it serve a purpose with so much less under the hood than the Total War series? Total War already leaves one wanting when it comes to historical battle simulations, so what is left if you remove unit facing, formations, etc?

morlaix

Having beefed up your army a bit through raiding, you can choose to fight the Battle of Morlaix.

If the Great Battle Medieval tactical level, relative to Medieval: Total War, has been has been watered down, the strategic level is really gutted. The idea is that your tactical results feed back into a strategic-level game and carry forward to the eventual victory or loss in the war. The problem is that there is very little strategy in the strategic level. Unlike the Total War concept where, unrealistic as it may be, there is a form of operational consideration to the strategic layer. Armies must be raised and placed, and  the infrastructure to support them must be maintained. Great Battle Medieval, on the other hand, is rather more of your basic, casual-games inspired grind. You do choose an order to the battles that are fought, and victories in those battles earn you coin with which you can purchase upgrades or new units. You thus build your army over the course of the game, and work through the named historical battles. It’s a strategic level that owes more to Panzer General than Total War. It could be a nice wrapper over a great tactical package. But in this case, maybe it is all wrapper and no present.

Again, it might all be forgivable if the “History” part of the name were what shown through. If the historical battles themselves were, even if simplified, instructive about the units, weapons, and tactics deployed historically. The problem is that four units (the unit count for Cadsand) on a square grid just doesn’t immerse one into the history.

battle

The Battle of Morlaix begins with an attack by two units of French knights on the English position. Once those are run off, you must defeat the remainder of the French army (in line to their rear). While this screenshot won’t blow anyone away, the graphics don’t look half bad (for a tablet) when zoomed in.

Some attempt is made to move in this direction. For example the second battle, which has you refight the Battle of Morlaix, scripts the battle so that it is split into two phases. The events of that day took place when a French force moved to relieve the the English siege of Morlaix in the fall of 1342. That battle has not been well documented but a key feature is that the French initially attacked the English positions with a division of knights. The results of the mounted charge were inconclusive, but it was enough to cause the English to withdraw from their lines into cover, allow the French army to lift the siege. In game, as the English player, you first must fight off the attack of a mounted force and, having defeated that, then route the remaining French forces.

While this adds some historical color, it doesn’t really lend any gravitas to the exercise. What can be done in scripting a battle (and I imagine the locked battles do even more along these lines) is counterbalanced by the fact that you have a user-managed and upgraded army that you are carrying from battle to battles. Between battles that, in actuality, had nothing to do with each other.

Whew. That was pretty harsh.

Perhaps I’m judging this game a little too rigorously. Instead of asking, does it somehow improve on Medieval: Total War, maybe I should be asking how it stands up as a Panzer General -lite with Hundred Years War chrome? Would it be something that would be fun to have on a tablet for a 5 or 10 minute distraction? Well, my answer is that the demo didn’t convince me it was worth the $4.99, as little as that is, to continue the journey. If the game were a little more about the tactics, and a little less about the grind (buying bonus for your army), I might think otherwise. But from the demo, it just doesn’t seem like there is enough there.

Now, the (more expensive, I should add) PC version seems to offer extra features. How much more it contains above the tablet version I shouldn’t speculate on, as the only demo available is the Android version. I would guess the graphics would be tweaked to take advantage of a PC’s graphics cards. There are also scenario editing functions to allow for more battles beyond what comes with the campaigns.

It probably blows the financial model, but one feature that might move the attractiveness meter on a game like this is if the PC scenario editor could create games that could then be distributed to the tablet players.

Lets go break some heads

hywas

Field of Glory offers a more historically-plausible portrayal of the Battle of Cadsand. Like Tannenberg, it is a clash between quantity and quality. Unlike Tannenberg, it was hardly a contest.

The first battle in Great Battles Medieval, the Battle of Cadsand, is also available for me to play as it was modeled by a Field of Glory user.

It is not a battle that really belongs in a campaign system, as it had little to it in the way of strategic purpose.

The outbreak of hostilities in 1337 largely centered on the southwest of France on the disputed control over Gascony. British King Edward III, however, planned to defeat France by leaving Gascony to its own defenses and invading France from the north. His plans were stumbling, however, as he struggled both with raising the funds for the the English army and corralling his allies from the Low Countries into also supporting his campaign. By late fall, he decided that he needed a show of military prowess in order to bring all parties into line.

Sir Walter Manny was given command of a small portion of the army which Edward was assembling in England and was sent with it to invade the Flemish island of Cadsand. It was of little value, either militarily or economically, except that is was it was across a narrow channel from the port of Sluys, itself garrisoned by a substantial force. Instead of assaulting Sluys directly, Manny commenced a program of rape, pillage, and plunder all throughout the rural island. The force at Sluys was honor-bound to respond, and met the English force on ground of Manny’s choosing.

Surviving details of the battle are scant. We know that it was a decisive English victory and that the English force withdrew to England afterwards. The action did seem to have its desired effect, demonstrating as it did the capabilities of the English army.

hywa1

A victory for England; one that is often credited to the English longbows. Likely this scenario gave the Flemish more troops than they actually brought to the fight.

There isn’t too much to say about the scenario itself. It is a decent example of what Field of Glory does with medieval actions. It is fairly well balanced but, given the lack of historical record, probably doesn’t provide much educational value as to the conditions in the actual battle. One feature I was impressed with in this one is the terrain. The small size and limited scope of the screenshot doesn’t quite do it justice, but the large “island” terrain surrounding the battlefield looks pretty nifty.

*Slitherine distributes a History:Legends of War for the PC, which seems to originally have been a Playstation title from an unaffiliated developer. It’s a turn based, 3D game of squad-level fighting in World War II.

**Yes, I know that what I’m referring to as D&D is really AD&D in every case. I don’t care.

The ‘Tzin, the Tzin!

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It is impossible for me to play Expeditions: Conquistador without making a comparison to Legends of Eisenwald.

Both are historically-themed games which fall somewhere between role-playing, strategy, and adventure. Themewise, they take place only a few decades apart. In contrast to Legends, Expeditions works harder to anchor its details in history.

You are a leader of a small expedition of adventurers from Spain who have set sail for the colony at Hispaniola, with the intention of exploring mainland Mexico. Upon landing, you are told it is May 14th, 1518. There are two campaigns. Completing the Hispaniola campaign unlocks the Mexico campaign. Within the game’s narrative, the Governor of Hispaniola will not allow you to take on your Mexican expedition until you’ve helped him resolve issue on that island, and seizes your ship until you do so.

Like Legends, Expeditions cites Heroes of Might and Magic as a primary inspiration. You move your figure (representing your “army”) on a strategic map, where you might encounter locations with associated events or enemy units also moving about the map. Unlike the other two games, Expeditions depends far more on triggered events than on computer-controlled armies.

When a battle does occur, the game transitions to a tactical map. In Expeditions the game dictates a maximum number of your entourage, based on the type of encounter, that can be deployed into battle. Before the battle begins, you must select a subset of your followers to fight it out. As the leader, you have no representation in battle – the combat only uses your followers. Said followers specialize as soldiers, scouts, hunters, doctors, and scholars. These specialties dictate how they perform in battle and also grant them special abilities. For example, hunters are good at ranged attack and not so good close up whereas soldiers are the opposite. Doctors are not particularly good with either combat style, but have the ability to restore lost damage during a battle.

The fighting is turned based and, while again Heroes is cited as the inspiration, there is some very Jagged Alliance mojo in this implementation. The tactical map is hexagonal and quite variable. Sometimes there is an open battle area between the two lines, sometimes engagements are fought around a camp, and sometimes you face each other through a narrow gorge. The maps can also be quite large (as far as this sort of tactical battle resolution goes). The terrain is made up of obstacles, which impact not only movement but also line-of-fire. In addition, the player (during a setup phase, if initiative allows it) can place additional traps or “barricades,” which are destructible during the fight.

hispantacts

In the heat of battle, literally. One of the interesting features during a fight is the ability to toss a burning oil lamp at the enemy. The fire spreads and then dissipates over a few turns, leaving some lasting burn damage in its wake

The strategic map and tactical map are both done with the same basic graphics look, using what I assume is the same engine but at a different scale. Contrasted to Legends, Expeditions is a chunkier, more colorful 3D rendering that I tend to associate with the Russian graphics teams – for example Nival’s Heroes V graphics engine (itself derived from the Silent Storm engine). On the other hand, Legends renders a much finer looking 3D that, particularly with its particle effects, seems to me to be much more realistic and aesthetic. And unlike Legends, which as I said can be handled well with my older computer, Expeditions really gets the graphics fans cranking during play. Like Legends, the strategic map is still the area “visible” to your expedition’s avatar, with a minimap showing the overview of the entire island. Fog of War is handled very similarly.

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The strategic map, just before the battle depicted above. It looks like the same graphical engine at both levels

One complaint I’ve seen repeated in a couple of the reviews was the steep learning curve of the game. There is quite a lot to manage and, while there is the ability to automatically take care of details, one has to at least know that this is an option. I started out on the “default” settings which was the “normal” difficulty. Unlike many strategy games, this is an option that you set in the “Options” menu, not when you are setting up a new game. As a result, I never really ran across the the choice to play my first game on the easiest level. Design wise, the decision makes sense in that (I assume) it allows you to vary the difficulty during a game, as opposed to only at startup. The point being, I played my first game on “normal” and really took it on the chin.

mexitemple

Tactical fights can also take place indoors. Here I have ten turns left to eliminate the natives from a winding tunnel complex below an abandoned jungle temple.

It was a frustrating game. Again, I contrast to the Legends of Eisengard. There too, one can make some bad decisions and get to point where the game becomes unwinnable. The solution in Legends usually is to just go back an autosave or two, before critical mistakes were made, and then play forward avoiding whatever disaster ended the game. In Expeditions, on the other hand, I was slowly ground down over the course of the game to where I simply couldn’t win any more battles, I couldn’t buy enough supplies, and I realized there were just no more options to move forward. Finally, after trying a restart or too, I realized my only viable option was to restart the game from the beginning. I also figured I had better try it this time on easy.

Between the easy settings (and they are, by the way, customizable in detail with plenty of finer choices between “easy” and “normal”) and the fact that I had started to learn the importance of checking all the details, I found my second playthrough to be no longer frustrating. I’ve had a few close battles, even losing one round, but found myself generally able to advance through the missions.

Return back to the two-game comparison, like Legends, the time of day is important. Night fights include factors for reduced visibility and the location of torches and campfires factors heavily into the combat results. Unlike Legends, your player actual must sleep, and in fact must do so every night. There is a very critical part of the game surrounding making camp each night. Exploration party members must be allocated to one of a half-a-dozen tasks. Shorting any one invites disaster. It is at this time that doctors can be allocated to healing the injuries suffered in recent battles. This means neither the doctor nor the patient is available to working on other important tasks (such as guarding the camp or hunting for food). If the doctor does get sent out on guard duty and fails to treat wounds, they can get worse from turn to turn, eventually resulting in death for the injured character.

In another similarity between the two games, “hit points” don’t equal injuries. In Legends, injuries are tracked (and healed) separately from hit points. Each character is allowed three wounds before being killed. The hit point loss, on the other hand, does carry over into the next battle if not healed. In Expeditions, any hit point loss automatically clears when a battle is over – even more clearly than in Legends, it seems to represent a form of fatigue rather than injury. Actual injuries are then allocated to the characters based on what happened during the fight, and a lingering injury (just like a zero hitpoint level in Legends) keeps that character out of subsequent battles. It’s a mechanism of trying to reconcile the game accounting ease of hit points with the disconnect of it being a realistic description of fighting and injury. As I said in my Legends note, I doubt this stuff it new to gaming – but it is new to me.

A final contrast between the two games. I mentioned that Legends, while a mix of different styles, has a lot of grounding in the “adventure game” genre. The game, while presenting decisions and challenges, wants to guide the player through the story. In Expeditions, the critical genre may be the role playing game. While I’ve not tried to explore the consequences of different decisions, this seems to be at the core of the gameplay. A player who empathizes with the natives and tries to work with them will likely experience a very different game than the one wholeheartedly playing the role of conquistador. In another twist, decisions can meet with the approval or the scorn of your followers. If you are accompanied by a bunch of racist xenophobes, working with the natives is going to reduce morale. If your followers have a variety of backgrounds (as they would tend to do), whatever you do is going to piss somebody off.

If I had to pick the one I like better? It’s a tough call. I like the package of Legends of Eisengard – the look and feel, and the fact that it all runs very smoothly (both technically and play-wise). Expeditions is much more of a challenge, and the battles themselves have quite a bit of depth – particularly compared to the inspirations like Heroes. The depth also extends to much of the strategic-level interaction, although much of it, as I said, tends to be event driven.  Right now, I’d say it is a toss up.

Once Upon a Time

To accompany the game, I found myself a copy of The Fair God; or, The Last of the ‘Tzins: A Tale of the Conquest of Mexico. This is the first novel by Lew Wallace, author of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.

He began writing the book well before the Civil War, in 1843 when he was seventeen years old. The book was not published, however, until 1873. The book did well enough on its own, but sales were greatly enhanced when the popularity of Ben Hur caused readers to seek out his earlier work.

Like in Ben Hur, he makes a point to ground the story in the historical details. He used William H. Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico as the basis for much of those details and the narrative is frequently punctuated by historical citations via footnotes. Of course, it is not clear that the 1840s historical details coincide with the current understanding.

The book has its oddities. It leaves me to wonder how many of those can be blamed on Victorian sensibilities as opposed to an author’s first novel or the fact that it was written over a 30-year span. The story, initially, is told from the point of view of a mesoamerican hunter from Tihuacan (possibly Teotihuacan?) who, notably, travels with an ocelot. The first few chapters I found particularly opaque. The characters name is not given, and it can often be hard to figure out who is the subject of what sentence. In the second chapter, several more central characters are introduced, again described largely by where they are from. More confusingly, the important characters are mixed in with minor characters and, for a reader that can’t quite follow all the place names, the references can become quite baffling. Eventually, we settle in on a handful of (mostly) noble and historical characters, in addition to said hunter, who become the basis for the story. Even still, throughout the novel I was occasionally thrown by the use of “the Tihuacan” or “the Texcuacan” used in place of a name.

The book jumps around between characters, following one for a chapter or two, or maybe even for only part of a chapter. The device is certainly used in modern fiction as well, but in The Fair God, the transitions can be pretty rough. One also assumes that when one encounters a new character, that person is going to be important to the story. Instead, the author here seems to throw in characters and situations just to give the reader a particular angle on the story, and then complete discards this central figure in the next chapter. That ocelot, which seemed so central to the plot in the first chapter, is nowhere to be found by the middle of the book.

The use of language is also interesting to me. While native words are used to describe certain Aztec concepts and items, the natives speak in “contemporary” language, often using Western descriptions of their surroundings. It really stands out to a modern reader, when the Victorian concept is both archaic and from the wrong culture. As a contrast, the Spanish seem to speak a “King James” English.  It is an interesting device, both reminding the reader that these “Westerners” are a 400-year-old culture that “isn’t us,” while developing an empathy for the truly alien culture of the Aztecs. There are also some fascinating word choices that, again, I can’t tell what is Victorian language and what is the author. For example, a priest is observed to have clomb the steps of a temple.

Once Cortes’ expedition arrives in Tenochtitlan, the story begins to shift back and forth, sometimes using the Spanish as a focus of the narrative and sometimes the Aztecs. Often the transition occurs with no warning. Somewhere in here, the author starts breaking the fourth wall, commenting on his own lack of skill as a writer and how someone else might have told the story differently. Fortunately, by this point the writing and the story has hit its stride, and it is not as distracting as it could be. Still, it is hard to imagine any contemporary work, particularly one meant for popular consumption, having so many quirks.

As to the story’s merits, I’ve read worse. The author seems to put a little bit of everything into his saga – fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles… Well, maybe not the giants and monsters, but indeed the idea seems to include any plot point that might make for popular reading. For me, the narrative is at its best when it describes the strategy and the fighting. Perhaps a retired General does best with what he knows? Considerably weaker are the romantic plot lines but, again, it is hard to separate the author from the times.

Both the game and the book stand out as a rare depiction of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico. While games have touched on this subject, most have not done so very well. The developers cited this as a reason they chose the subject for their game. Likewise, except for the Mel Gibson film Apocalypto and its Mayan setting, I’m pressed to think of any historical fiction.

 

 

Silly Season

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The pope finds a giant cache of Roman porn in the woods. This brings a cross-dressing artist named Victor/Victoria into the Vatican, and she catches the Pope’s eye. Meanwhile, the King of France is recovering from “Neapolitan Disease” which, as we all know, is Syphilis, but in the show is a plague that wiped out much of the city in a matter of days. Finally, the Pope has a huge burning man (but, instead, he burns a Papal Bull) festival on the steps of the Vatican. A Ben Hur inspired horse-race highlights the daytime portion of the festival, while the night is consumed by a massive toga party, during which the Bull is burned.

Meanwhile, the college of Cardinals frets about the expense. Because there is nothing else wrong here.

There is suspension of disbelief, and then there is just f***ing with a fellow. I took a liking to The Borgias in Season 1, but if this is going to be Season 2, you may have to go it without me.

O Tannenberg, o Tannenberg

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When looking for the defining events of 15th Century Germany, one stands out.

The Battle of Grunwald, or the (First) Battle of Tannenberg, or the Battle of Žalgiris – all depending, I suppose, on whether you are Polish, German, or Lithuanian-  is not only one of the most important 15th century battles for Poland and Lithuania, but (for them) one of the most important in history. In Poland, Lithuania, and (to some extent) Ukraine, it is a triumphal example of a population throwing off its foreign oppressors. The victory marks the peak of power of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which by mid-century was (at nearly 1 million square kilometers) the largest state in Europe. To the Germans, it came to represent a defeat by the forces of chaos over Western, Christian values. Thus, in the narrative of the 20th century, the Second Battle of Tannenberg was deliberately woven into the historical facts (and fantasies) to portray the Hindenburg’s victory over the Russians in August of 1914 as a continuation of a conflict of civilizations from 504 years earlier.

The battlefield was between the German villages of Grünfelde, Tannenberg (Sztambark in old Polish or Stębark today), and Ludwigsdorf. In Poland, the victory over the Prussian Crusaders was foretold by St. Bridget (of Sweden, not Ireland) and thus, shortly after the victory, King Władysław II Jagiełło ordered that a cloister and church be built near the battlefield and dedicated to the saint. He said it should be at the place called Greenfield. He was speaking in Latin; Grunenvelt. As time went on, the Polish historians assumed that he was speaking German and meant to say Grünwald, and thus the town became Greenwood rather than Greenfield. The Lithuanian, Žalgiris, also assumes this version of the name. The Germans avoided all such confusion by associating the battle with Tanneberg rather than Grünfelde.

So in honor of the release of the new Field of Glory II, I fired up my Field of Glory and the user-made scenario for the Battle of Tannenberg.

negative

The Teutonic Knights engage some ‘Lithuanian Negative Points’ in the opening stages of battle.

My experience reminded me once again why a Field of Glory II will be so welcomed.

The complaints here are many and interconnected, but focusing the blame for them proves difficult. The scenario I played was user-made and some of these problems were added at the discretion of the scenario designer. I hate to be too critical of a fellow player and enthusiast. He created a scenario (many, actually, over the years) to share with the rest of us, and that deserves my thanks. The decisions are well documented, and I’ve seen it both in Field of Glory and in Pike and Shot, as a way to force the game’s AI to make certain historical decisions. In that light, the criticism may be due the game engine itself, if it unable to do what users desire without the creation of odd terrain and nonsensical units.

The reason I bought Field of Glory, after years of hesitation, was because I had grown frustrated with (this should sound familiar) the Medieval: Total War modelling of the battles within its timeframe. I was particularly interested, at that time, in Viking Age battles. Field of Glory did not have a module out for that era, but had one in the works – I think it was in a form of beta when I was looking. Instead I picked up the expansion module A Storm of Arrows, covering Western Europe during the latter part of the Medieval period, a period has the same Total War issues.

Some general background. Field of Glory is a computer version of the table-top rules of the same name. For those who play, fidelity to the tabletop version seems paramount. From comments, I suspect many have purchased this product for use when playing a miniatures game simply isn’t practical. This allows one to play without setting up a table, with armies which are not in your collection, or remotely with someone anywhere in the world. Of lesser importance is the fact that you can play alone against the computer opponent.

The original game, and each add-on module, ships with a number of historical battles. For A Storm of Arrows there are six such battles, from Scotland, the Hundred Years War, and the English Civil War. The modules also contain army setups for the various nationalities of the time period. The point of this is that players can create a variable yet historically plausible battle using a point system that tries to balance the advantages evenly between the two players. In this scenario, there are dozens of “army lists.”  Beyond that, there is a scenario editor that allows a user to create a map and place armies, and that tool is not limited by the modules purchased. As an example, whatever module might be appropriate for a “Tannenberg” scenario, there is no need to purchase it in order to create or to play a user-made scenario for this battle.

What it does mean is that you are reliant on the community to model your favorite historical battle, hopefully doing so to your liking. This problem is further exacerbated by a change in the way Dropbox hosts files. The Field of Glory system was released in 2010 (or thereabouts) and much of the scenario development took place years ago. Earlier in 2017, the file link system for Dropbox was changed and many of the stored files are no longer reachable. For a newer player looking for battles today, it can be hit-or-miss as to whether you can still find them.

So back to that Tannenberg scenario… My first and biggest complaint is that it didn’t give me a good sense of “re-living” the battle. Between the unreal looking terrain, the artificial units, and the channels created to delay units entry on to the battle, it was difficult to connect to the actual battle.

greenfield

A Google Earth view of the battlefield, taken from the monuments. Somehow it is hard to reconcile this with the great field of triangular ponds, as presented in the game.

Part of the confusion is that the scenario doesn’t attempt to simulate the entire battle. It is designed to capture a particular moment of it – right at the time when history could have been changed. The scenario author describes his design in a forum thread. Essentially, the scenario starts after the attack on the German left has been chased off and the commander of the Teutonic knights is about to capitalize on his position by leading a charge into the Polish line. As described by the designer, if the charge succeeds, he wins, but if the assault begins to peter out, eventually the enemy numbers will overwhelm and carry the day.

knights

The center of the German assault. It just doesn’t feel like a center.

As I alluded to at the beginning, this style of scenario bothers me. I don’t find it enjoyable to play a game that doesn’t “look real,” because the terrain or the units have been so heavily modified. The “hacks” bother me while playing, and it makes it that much harder to “relive” the battle in question.

In this case I did, apparently, break the enemy center with sufficient alacrity to carry the day. But with the context of that obscured, it wasn’t a very satisfying win.

Compare and contrast with another user’s scenario design for the same battle.

knightsv2

Now this battlefield and army array feels just about right.

This scenario takes the traditional design route of trying to recreate the armies, formations, and terrain to match the historical situation. For me, it comes out as a much better experience.

It also produces, again as far as my uneducated eye can tell, results in line with historical expectation. In playing this scenario, I did have the advantage of “lessons learned” in my previous attempt, and that probably impacted how I approached this one. As the scenario opens, the computer player’s Lithuanian attack comes as historically happened – on my left flank. I rapidly dispersed it without inflicting any significant losses (or taking any, for that matter). One deviation from reality is that I advanced my entire line so as not to expose my left flank to an enveloping counter-attack from the enemy center. Part of me wanted to hold back and let the Poles take the initiative again, but I wasn’t sure they would. Computer AIs are notoriously weak when forced to coordinate an attack.

knightsv3

Coming right down to the wire, both armies are about to break. On both sides, our right flank has caved, and it is just a matter of who loses heart.

As a result, I fought much of the battle too far forward, over river obstacles and in within the trees. Other than that, the result seemed passably historic. I was overwhelmed on my right and I failed to break the enemy center.

Unlike Pike and Shot, this game does not try to translate the final positions into a casualties screen. What is shown, rather, is simply the point loss, which could be killed, injured, retreated, fled, or surrendered. The heavy losses suffered by the Teutonic Knights may well have been mirrored in this battle, if the end game were played out. As my lines collapsed and my forces were swept up by the enemy, my losses would surely escalate. As a result, any objective evaluation of historicity based on casualties is probably out of reach. This did, however, feel like a nice representation of the battle and, incidentally, a well balanced challenge for the (German) player.

This also got me back to thinking about one of my main criticisms of the game, as far as its usefulness to me. That criticism is how I am hemmed in by the “points” system from using the random scenario function to create a historically-based scenarios. Or perhaps, as I was looking at before, creating battles encountered within a strategic system. In fact, the solution I came up with in Pike and Shot, which is to edit the armies for the randomly generate battles, may also work in Field of Glory. The one additional caveat seems to be that, whereas Pike and Shot allows the points of each army to be selected, Field of Glory requires that the points of the two armies match. What this means is that the player side of a battle can have less points (by leaving points on the table when creating the army) than the computer opponent, but not more.

All-in-all, fighting this battle has renewed my opinion of Field of Glory a tad as a quick simulator for historical battles (assuming the right person has stepped up and made a good scenario for it) and perhaps for what-if battles, at least for the Medieval time frame. I may have to come back to it.

 

 

Nudge

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I’m still only at the beginning of The Legends of Eisenwald, but there is a form of quest that has been repeated a number of times. The player is introduced to three competing factions and tasked with achieving unity between the three. At some point, the game suggests there are three possibilities.

  1. Convince two of them to join forces against the third;
  2. Choose one of them, and help that one defeat the other two; or
  3. Help one grow so powerful that the other two will set aside their difference to defeat him.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (link is probably paywalled) was titled How Obama Nudged Arab Leaders Toward Israel. In their write-up, the authors describe how Obama’s mishandling of the Arab Spring and the Iran nuclear weapons program caused Arab leaders (Egypt, Jordan, and  to form closer ties to Israel.

From the article:

From the perspective of Arab leaders, [the Obama] administration supported the wave of political Islamism that engulfed the region in the Arab Spring’s aftermath. It also threatened their regimes in unprecedented ways by abandoning Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak and slowing military exports to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain under the pretext of democratization. Worse, the administration signed a nuclear deal with Iran that reintegrated the ayatollahs’ regime into the international community while unleashing a wave of destabilization throughout the region.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got the cold shoulder from Obama. This allowed him to use Israeli’s traditional role as an American insider to protest and push back against the administration’s missteps. In turn, this made him a natural leader among the other Middle Eastern states that, just as Israel, were harmed by the Obama policies.

The authors do not frame their piece as a criticism of Obama. It seems more to inform the readers of how the Arab-Israeli peace process has moved forward, while perhaps unwittingly, probably permanently. Reading it, I assume it is a cloaked criticism of Obama, but I could be wrong. Indeed, perhaps the former President out-thought us all. Perhaps he chose option number 3.

But seriously, it hardly seems like a prudent move to destabilize a region in order to goad the powers of that region to work towards peace, even if it turns out that is what has been achieved. The Wall Street Journal piece does not attempt to analyze whether the advance in Arab-Israeli relations outweighs the negatives (as summarized in the above quote).

It begs the question. Does this suggest that sometimes the United States is better off doing nothing? For decades, the U.S. has brought Arab and Israeli adversaries to our table in attempt to force them into agreements. In doing so, were we helping to define their adversarial relationship? I have to wonder if there was any way to achieve the positives of Obama’s result without the negative consequences, or does it really take a crisis before people (both leaders and the rest of us) are willing to rethink their entrenched positions?