Saturday, June 30, 2007

Two books

I'm reading two books right now, which have cut into blogging time a little. I'm not finished with either one, but I'll share some initial thoughts.
Both books (Commander in Chief by Geoffrey Perret and A Tragic Legacy by Glenn Greenwald) are about the disastrous Bush presidency. My initial impression of the Greenwald book is that it's the superior one of the two -- an easier read and a better-argued case. Perret is primarily a historian, and when a historical becomes a polemicist his work usually suffers. His book is largely an attempt to draw parallels between Truman, LBJ and Bush. I've gotten as far as Johnson's initial days in office, but the Truman portion of the book seemed a bit over-wrought to me. Clearly Perret feels a certain amount of contempt for Truman, but I think a more restrained style that allowed the facts to speak for themselves would be more effective. For example, Perret makes a point of calling Truman "Colonel Truman" at various points, especially when trying to make Truman's military acumen suspect.
Now, I don't believe that Truman was some kind of military genius, but calling him "Colonel Truman" seems like a cheap shot when he was acting as president. Truman did serve honorably as a field grade officer in the Great War, but he made no pretensions of being some kind of military strategist. Reading about "Colonel Truman" helps bring the author's prejudices to the fore, but it didn't make me think less of Truman.
More later on these two books.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Counters, blocks or figures

One of the bigger trends in the last few years has been the explosion of board wargames using miniatures, often pre-painted, instead of the traditional cardboard counters. A subplot has been a noticeable increase in the number of games using wooden blocks.
For a long time wargames have been defined in the popular mind with the hex-and-counter presentations pioneered by Avalon Hill and SPI in the 60s, 70s and 80s. A lot of wargame design theory revolved around the best way to use counters, how much information to include and how to show it.
The biggest advantage of counters is their ability to hold a lot of game information in a readily accessible format for play. Depending on how you count it, for example, an ASL Vehicle counter contains as much as two dozen bits of information. This allows for fairly complex game interactions. The drawback is, however, that the information is not presented in a form that is all that visually satisfying or enjoyable in a tactile sense. As I get older I also notice that it's a bit harder on the eyes, due to the very small print needed.
Block games could theoretically hold the same amount of information, although all the extent ones I'm aware of stay away from ASL's excesses and tend to be happy with showing half a dozen to a dozen bits of information. They look better and have a nice, satisfying feel to them. Wooden blocks have enjoyed a growth in popularity recently, although they are still the signature design point in Columbia's line of games. Several recent games have passed on the "fog-of-war" potential of block designs (Worthington Games, GMT's Ancients) , basically making the wooden blocks more solid versions of the old counters.
Miniatures are much more visually appealing, especially when painted, but they're inherently limited in their potential information content, which implies less detailed rules interactions or the use of separate data cards. Despite these drawbacks, this is the area of wargaming that's seen the most growth recently. Helping fuel that growth is the availability of inexpensive labor and manufacturing overseas, especially in China. Comparing the pricing of new games it doesn't seem that cardboard counters currently have a big cost advantage over miniatures or wooden blocks, but there's a clear preference for block and miniature games among players.
One thing that's less clear is whether this represents a temporary state of affairs that could easily change with another shift in economic factors or if this signals a more durable shift in player tastes.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Game of the Week : Seega

Seega one of those traditional games that are popular in game compendium books. For example, it appears in R.C. Bell's Boardgame Book, The World of Games by Botermans et al and even in Favorite Board Games You Can Make and Play by the Provenzos.
While five by five boards are seen carved in ancient stoneworks there's apparently no proof that Seega was played on them and Bell and others apparently think the game is or recent origin, perhaps the 18th century.
On the other hand, it's quite possible it's a very old game indeed. Like many very old games it's very abstract, relying on a handful of easy-to-remember and teach rules suitable for an oral culture. It doesn't require any special materials. The game's grid can be scratched out in the sand and sticks and stones can be used for the pieces.
Like some other ancient grid-based games the exact number of spaces could vary from time to time and place to place. (Go, Latrunculi, Morris also have this characteristic) The main effect of adding pieces is to lengthen playing time, so the most popular version is the simple 5 by 5 grid.
While associated with Egypt, the game is apparently more popular these days in Somalia, according to Bell and others. It's apparently played in West Africa as well, however. as the World of Games has a photo showing a group of boys in Senegal playing the game in the sand.
The game uses the same two-phase organization seen in Nine-men's Morris and Kensington, where the players begin by alternately placing pieces on the board without moving them (and in Seega's case, not capturing them) followed by a second phase when player's alternate moving one piece from a square to an adjacent unoccupied square. The game uses the "custodial capture" technique, where a piece is taken if an enemy token moves next to in such a way as to "sandwich" it between the moving piece and and another enemy piece. If the capture is made then the capturing player can move again.
A player wins by capturing all but one enemy piece. An alternative way to win is by blocking the opponent so he cannot move. In this case whoever has the most pieces left wins.
As one can see, the game mechanics are very, very simple and very ancient as well, which lends credence to the belief that the game is older than believed. I think the fact that it's generally played with ephemeral materials and has no need for written rules has obscured its ancient origins. It doesn't seem to have inspired the religious associations that helped preserve Senet or the urge to create beautiful playing materials that's helped provide evidence for the antiquity of Go or Chess. I think the internal evidence provided by the games rules suggest it's rather older than credited.
As a capturing game, there' s a tendency for a rich-get-richer and poor-get-poorer effect to kick in. The initial placement is vital, with corners and side positions to be prized. A piece in the central square is immune from capture, making this a useful location in the early game.
It's a quick-playing game, but one that will have trouble keeping the interest of adult players, especially those who have been exposed to more sophisticated abstracts. It can be some fun played with younger players, helping them develop some tactical skill in analyzing board positions.
While there are versions available for purchase (such as the magnetic travel set available at there's really no need to buy one as the game is easily fabricated with materials at hand. Simply draw a 5 x 5 grid on a piece of paper, put an "X" in the middle square, dig out a dozen pennies and a dozen nickels out of the coin jar and you have all you need to play. For those who want something fancier, The World Of Games describes how to build a set using a leather board and polished stones.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

No wargames on U.S.-Iran war?

There have been a lot of speculative wargames over the years looking at potential conflicts, but despite all the talk about a possible U.S. strike against Iran no one has tried designing a wargame on it yet.
This is a little surprising because it seems like a natural topic for a S&T magazine game. There were scores of U.S.-Soviet games, not to mention Arab-Israeli, U.S.-N.Korean and Indo-Pakistan wargames. There was even Back to Iraq! (in three editions) before that war.
I'd like to see Miranda or one of our other modern specialists look at this possibility. It might be educational.

Friday, June 8, 2007

I really think I'm going to be sick

According to Obsidian Wings, a Human Rights report suggests that the U.S. has "disappeared" a few dozen people in connection with its war on terror. A distrubing enough allegation, and it's sickening that such reports are now to be taken seriously, rather than dismissed out-of-hand.
But among the "disappeared" are the young sons (under 10 years old) of one of the top al-Qaeda leaders.
At this point the only question left to ask Bush is the one that was asked of Sen. Jospeh Mccarthy so long ago, during another dark chapter of American history " "Have you no decency, sir?"

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Thursday, June 7, 2007

Paris Hilton, the cynic's friend

It would be a lot easier to argue with those cynics of the American justice system who claim that money, power and whiteness will allow you to get away with anything if they didn't have Paris Hilton's help.
On a day with plenty of disgusting news, this tops the list.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Game of the Week: Go

Go is a member of a very select club of "lifestyle" games. Those who play Go, often play it exclusively. The game has its own clubs, magazines and books. It's really a hobby unto itself. (A few other games in this category include Chess, Bridge, Diplomacy and Advanced Squad Leader).
So all a casual player like myself can say is that I've been "dabbling" in Go lately, playing some beginner level matches on Yahoo! games. I took a peek at a couple of my Go books, and it helped a little against some of the equally clueless beginners I've played against, but I have to admit I haven't felt so much at sea with a new game in many years.
It's amazing really. The game is so very simple, really. The rules are spare and elegant. Indeed. the rules are so minimalist that it feels like Go was "discovered" rather than invented. I'm pretty sure that chess is only played on Earth, but I would not be at all surprised if we discover Go-like games played elsewhere in the universe. After all, its just a game of black and white pieces on a grid!
Just. Heh!
I like playing too many different games to ever be more than an indifferent player of Go, but If I ever do have some time to spend on it I would like to rise to the level of ineptness, at least. Maybe after I retire ... .

Midway 65 yers later

June brings many significant anniversaries related to military history. Summertime is prime campaigning season in the northern hemisphere, after all. Among them are the Waterloo campaign, Marengo, D-Day, the Six-Day War and Barbarossa.
But the one that I most associate with early June is the Battle of Midway, I've always had a particular interest in that fight because it was the topic of my first serious wargame, Avalon Hill's classic Midway of 1964.
Since then I've built up a small collection of games on the topic, including, besides the original, the later Smithsonian edition of Midway, plus Command Magazine's issue game, the Second World War at Series game and even the Lightning War: Midway card game. Still, the original is my favorite of the bunch.
It's a fascinating battle because it's a rare example of a truly decisive battle that could easily have gone either way. Actually, despite the deterministic viewpoints popular among many students of history, I would argue that the most likely result, despite the over-complexity of the Japanese plan and the American code-breaking, was Japanese victory.
Had the Japanese won at a similar scale as the US did, sinking three carriers while losing one, (which was a likely result, see Hugh's Fleet Tactics for a discussion why) it would have had a profound impact on the course of the war. While Pearl Harbor ensured that Japanese hopes for a short war ending in a negotiated peace were untenable, it's very easy to imagine how winning Midway would have bought them a year or maybe two. For one thing, I doubt the Americans would have felt strong enough to contest the Japanese seizure of the Solomons.
Australia was probably too big for Japan to conquer, but it could have been neutralized as an offensive base.
Also, the Japanese Naval air arm was decimated by the grueling Solomons campaign. If this fight did not happen, or occurred at a less intensive rate, then the Japanese carriers could have maintained their quality far longer. The large U.S. Essex-based carrier fleet of 1943/44 might have faced a far more formidable Japanese carrier fleet in a new major battle. No "Marianas Turkey Shoot" but another potential Midway instead.
Another major Japanese victory might have forced the U.S. to resort to atomic warfare in earnest as the only means for victory. A gruesome outcome, surely.
A lot was at stake in 1942 at Point Luck. We're fortunate that things worked out as well as they did.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Last drill

Well, later today I'll be attending my last unit drill as an active reservist, although I expect to go in a couple of more days to wrap up a few odds and ends like NCOERs and PBO issues.
I first went through Jackson Gate at (then) Fort Devens in the fall of 1973 as an ROTC Cadet from Northeastern University. It's been an interesting adventure since then. I ended up serving in the USAR, the National Guard and on active duty. I was on the front lines of one Cold War and in the rear during one hot war.
The only time I've been downrange of live ammunition was as a reporter for a daily newspaper, despite being in uniform for so long.
I got to ride in some UH-1s and CH-47s, a C-17 and a C-130, among other aircraft.
I got to see Germany, Crete, Romania and Iraq.
I met many really neat individuals, along with a handful of not-so-neat ones. All-in-all, though, I'd have to say that America is fortunate in that it really gets some top-notch people to defend her, despite the fact that America rarely shows its appreciation. Being a media person, I've gotten to know a lot of people who have, er, generally negative feelings about the military. (A feeling that's reciprocated by military types towards the military). I wish there were a better bridge between the two, because they have more in common than they might think. Both military and media people have an idealistic and principled way of looking at the world that's not really shared by the general population, in my opinion.
But this month I'm closing the chapter on the military side. I think I'll be with the media a little longer. I'll do my little bit to help bridge that gap.
It's been a true pleasure to serve.
Tomorrow I'll pass down that same road from 1973, although the MP gate is long gone and Ft. Devens is now just "Devens," with the Devens Reserve Forces Training Area taking up just a tiny part of what the old post did. The uniforms have changed a lot, too. Back in 1973 we still wore the green fatigues. For most of the time since then I've worn BDUs, but now we're in ACU's. The body inside the uniform has changed a bit, too. There's rather more of it than I'd like, actually, but the years will do that to you.