Booknotes – Science Fiction & Fantasy

I’ve recently finished reading one of the best fantasy series I’ve come across lately: Jon Skovron’s Empire of the Storms trilogy.

skovronStarting with Hope and Red, it tells the story of two people, a girl who grows up to be a fearsome warrior and a boy who becomes a thief. However, what could easily have become a cliché-ridden ‘team becoming couple’-story develops into a much more exciting thing. The books are set in an interesting world, namely an Empire made up of islands in a vast ocean. This alone is great, as I love nautical fantasy (and I have to admit that this was the reason I got the book in the first place). But if I came for the ships, I stayed for the characters: Skovron introduces a plethora of compelling and complex characters. Each of them has his or her own motivation and, most importantly of all, they all change and develop as things happen to them. Best of all, the changes within the characters actually drive the story and define the stakes – which, in a way, become higher than in most other fantasy novels. Highly recommended!

220px-the_lost_fleet_dauntlessI also finished another series, the reading of which was a sort of guilty pleasure. I’m talking about Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet. Clocking in at eleven volumes, this military sci-fi soap opera had a strange pull – as soon as I finished a volume, I wanted to read the next one. It’s not that the books are especially gripping per se, and several times when I was halfway through one I decided that this would be the last. However, Campbell has what could be called an economical way of storytelling: there is lots of repetition, but in the end there are just enough new developments that I became curious how the overall plot would work out. And, for being military sci-fi, it is refreshingly free from the trashy right-wing ideology often found in this genre. Recommended if you like space battles mixed with a dose of exploration and romance.

artarcanaFor Christmas, I got myself the new history of Dungeons & Dragons, Art and Arcana: A Visual History. This is a huge coffee-table book full of spectacular artwork from all editions of D&D. The accompanying text was co-authored by Jon Peterson, who is the authority on the history of role-playing games. What I like about Art and Arcanais that it not only covers Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson and the coming-into-being of D&D – something that has already been the subject of several books – but that it delves deeply into the evolution of the game through different editions and settings. If you are a fan of D&D, give yourself a treat and get this book!

blAs I write this, I’m halfway through Nicholas Eames’ Bloody Rose, the sequel to his fabulous Kings of the Wyld. I started with some trepidation, as I really loved the first book, but was unsure how sustainable the analogy between fantasy adventurers and rock bands would be. However, Eames manages to weave an engaging story around Fable, the band led by Rose, the daughter of one of the lead characters of the first book. Again, there are great characters and as the story develops, we get a much more nuanced perspective on the world, especially on the monsters that hitherto served only as the backdrop and cannon fodder for the exploits of the bands. And now some really wild things happened and how will they get out of this and sorry I have to get back to the book…

Advertisements

Queendomino & Lords of Waterdeep

I recently had twice the opportunity to play eurogames. The first one was Queendomino. As I understand it, it’s an enhanced version of Kingdomino, though I’ve never played the latter. Queendomino looks like a typical specimen of its kind: There is an intricate scoring system, so you only know if you’ve won (or even if you’re leading) at the very end of the game. There are no dice, chance is limited to drawing the terrain tiles. There are many different ways of acquiring points and many strategies are possible. The mechanics look well thought-out and balanced and I’d say that, objectively, it’s a very good game.

queendomino_coverHowever, I didn’t enjoy it that much. I don’t play many eurogames, and when playing Queendomino I was reminded of the reason for this. There is a theme, but it is irrelevant. Everything is very abstract. There is no story, the only purpose of the game is to understand and exploit the mechanics well enough to accumulate the most points. In the end, it feels a bit like a lesson in accounting.

Waterdeep_coverThe other eurogame I played was Lords of Waterdeep. One could call this a eurogame disguised as an adventure game, and of course I liked it. There are all of the usual eurogame mechanics: worker placement, set collection and resource allocation, as well as the intricate scoring system. However, there is an actual story behind the game: The players are, well, lords of the city of Waterdeep, famous from D&D lore. They assemble and send out adventurer parties to do all kinds of jobs while also building their influence within the city. While it’s still about accumulating points, it feels more like a story is developing. The players are actually invested in the game world and not just trying to be better at exploiting the mechanics. It is also a surprisingly friendly game: Although there are intrigue cards, there a few opportunities to actually harm another player – most of those cards just give an advantage to you, without taking anything from the opponents.

IMG_0782

Now I’m not really into games where backstabbing and being mean is the only way to win, as I prefer to play in a friendly and relaxed atmosphere. However, one thing that I notice about eurogames is that player interaction tends to be rather low. People tend to play parallelly instead of with or against each other. Everyone is concentrating on optimizing their moves and collecting points. Sometimes, there is a short interaction when a sheep is exchanged for some wood, but that’s about it.

Apart from the narrative aspect, which is the single most important aspect of gaming for me, the centrality of player interaction may be the reason miniature wargames and co-operative games are my favourite types of games. In wargames, player interaction stems from direct conflict. You are constantly engaged with what your opponent does (or doesn’t) do and you have to react to each and every of his or her moves. With co-op games, the conflict is between the players and the game itself. This, however, means that the players have to interact and coordinate their actions so as to beat the game mechanics.

Eurogames have been at the forefront of the boardgaming renaissance and have been an area of innovation for many years. And don’t get me wrong: I like games that use eurogame mechanics. I’m just not interested in the bare, abstract mechanics in themselves. If there is a well-integrated theme and a story, like in Lords of Waterdeep, I enjoy them very much.

7 Games That Changed My Life

Now that you have clicked on this, I can correct the title to a more laid-back version, like 7 games that had a profound influence on me. But who knows, some might even have changed my life!

1. Scotland Yard

scotland-yardOur family had always played board game. However, this was the first game I played that wasn’t like any traditional game I knew, like chess or Nine men’s morris or even Monopoly. It was asymmetric! And playing it produced a story! When playing as a detective, I had to cooperate with my fellow detectives to catch the criminal, and when playing the lone criminal, I could imagine myself as a mastermind, deceiving my hunters and eluding them by moving through the city. And what city it was! I really learned my way around London by playing this game.

2. Die Fugger

Fugger_Animation2Were there better games for the C64? Sure. But this trading game was the one we came back to time and again. I remember the summer holidays when my brother and I would ride our bikes to a friend’s place and spent the afternoon playing Die Fugger. It showed me that I’m fundamentally a social gamer: even computer games are much more fun when played with friends.

3. Space Marine

spacemarine1989eThe Christmas I found the box of Space Marine (and of Adeptus Titanicus) under the tree – it must have been 1989 – probably really changed my life. This game made me into a miniature wargamer and showed me that gaming can be a hobby. It unleashed my creative side: I painted the figures, I built terrain, I devised all kinds of wonky scenarios and campaign ideas and I even wrote a short story set in the 40K universe. And of course I had hours of fun playing against my mate’s orc horde.

4. GURPS

BasicSet3rdEdI’ve played RPGs once or twice before I got GURPS around 1990. However, with GURPS, it became a constant in my life. GURPS became the focal point for a group of people who probably wouldn’t have found each other without it. It created friendships, provided a welcome escape from a dreary school routine and showed me that with RPGs, there are no limits – every world is open to you.

 

5. X-Wing

swx01_sampleAfter school, I took a long break from gaming. Due to a series of events, I started to re-connect with my nerdy past and came across this game. Fortunately, my girlfriend was also interested, so I bought it on a whim. When I played my first game, it felt like coming home. However, X-Wing also showed me how far miniature wargames had progressed since I left them: it’s beautifully produced, the rules are elegant and the game is very thematic. But best of all, my partner K. liked it, starting a shared journey into gaming that has been a fun and rewarding experience for both of us.

6. Pandemic

220px-Pandemic_gameWhen I stopped gaming, cooperative games were virtually unheard of. So I was quite surprised when I first played Pandemic. However, I liked it very much and it introduced me to what became one of my favourite type of games. It also gave me a great gateway game to introduce friends to the joys of boardgaming.

 

 

7. Sharp Practice

SP2-Cover-smallI played the odd historical game before I discovered Sharp Practice, but Sharp Practice made me into a historical wargamer. It led me to doing in-depth research and, like nothing since Space Marine, inspired  my creativity. It’s my longest running favourite game – I’ve been playing it regularly for five years now and I can’t see myself losing interest anytime soon. It also got me to think about games mechanics and gaming and history and the relation between those more than any other game I know.

 

So, do you have games that changed your life or that had a profound impact on you?

Booknotes – Historical Books

One of the things that keep me running with ACW is the fact that there are so many good books on the subject. Not only is the quality of academic research very high, many of the books are also eminently readable.

TomblinOne of those is Barbara Brooks Tomblin’s Bluejackets and Contrabands: African Americans and the Union Navy. While there is substantial research on African-American soldiers, sailors have for a long time been neglected. Tomblin provides a comprehensive overview on the activities of African-Americans in relation to the Navy’s war effort. Her decision to not just deal with the 18.000 black sailors that served the Union during the Civil War, but also to include the wider context, is very rewarding. She deals with the Navy’s contraband camps, with informants and pilots as well as all sorts of informal help provided by slaves and escaped slaves. It is really fascinating to see how the Navy’s policy towards African-American fugitives developed in the field. One case in point is Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont, commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, who had ties to rich Southern families and had started the war as a defender of slavery. However, when confronted with the realities of slavery, he changed his mind: “God forgive me – I have seen nothing that has disgusted me more than the wretched physical wants of these poor people, who earn all the gold spent by their masters at Sarasota and in Europe”.

In turn, African-Americans soon realised that the Navy offered them sanctuary and protection, and they help Union operations whenever they could. Tomblin’s book is full of incidents showing the determination and bravery of African-American spies and informants, pilots and sailors – and many of those incidents would make great scenarios for Sharp Practice.

donelsonTimothy B. Smith is an author I discovered when researching the Battle of Fort Donelson for my Altar of Freedom project. I’ve since read both his books on Grants operations to clear the Mississippi. Grant Invades Tennessee. The 1862 Battles for Forts Henry and Donelson deals not only with the fights for those two forts, but also with the wider context of the operations. It’s a very well written book that is characterised by a clear narrative, stringent analysis and a masterful use of source material. Smith managed to get into the details of tactical manoeuvres without being confusing or boring, and he at the same time never loses view of the big picture. And if you thought that political generals were a problem of the Union, the cringeworthy actions of Confederate Generals Pillow and Floyd will show you that stupidity, self-importance and sheer incompetence could also be found in the Southern armies.

shiloSmith’s Shilo. Conquer or Perish continues the story by describing what was then the largest battle in American history, with a number of casualties that came as a shock to the public and dispelled any lingering romantic notions of war. Again, he masterfully managed to make sense of a confusing battle fought as many separate encounters. He argues that the terrain shaped much of what was happening and also argues that the Union was not as surprised as it was made out to be in later accounts. 

Those books got me interested in Grant’s early career, so I also read The Battle of Belmont. Grant Strikes South by Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes, Jr. Belmont was Grant’s first battle and a rather small affair. Unfortunately, Hughes has difficulties conveying the importance of the engagement, and when halfway into it I caught myself asking if this battle really needs a whole book. In the hands of a better author, it might have been an engaging volume, but unfortunately it falls short of the standard I’m used to by now.belmont

Still, all three books make for a fascinating glimpse into the personality of Ulysses S. Grant. As Hughes writes, “he made mistakes and took risks and got away with it”. In all three battles, he was more or less surprised by Confederate actions, but still managed to turn something that could have been a disaster into an orderly retreat (at Belmont) or even a victory (Shilo). It seems that he has learned that the battle’s not over until it’s over and that tenacity can win or at least save the day. This is best encapsulated in the famous encounter between Sherman and Grant after the first day at Shilo. Sherman initially wanted to suggest a retreat, but when he saw Grant calmly smoking a cigar in the rain, he became embarrassed and just said: “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” To which Grant replied: “Yes, lick ’em to-morrow, though.”