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?

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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.”

Review: XCOM: The Board Game

Last week, Sigur introduced Virago and me to XCOM: The Board Game. In contrast to my mates, I’ve never played the computer game, but when I was a kid, I avidly watched the British TV series UFO, which seems to be the inspiration for the world of XCOM.

cover

XCOM is a cooperative game where the players take to role of the staff of an international organisation defending the earth from aliens. To start with, I have to say that the artwork is not my style. I was a bit surprised by the dark and serious tone, as I expected more of the cheerful camp of the TV series. But then again, contrary to what I might wish this is not an adaptation of the TV series. I like the look of the models though, and Sigur’s paint job transformed them into stunning playing pieces.

The innovative and (for me) new thing about the game is that it is app-driven. That means that an app is taking the role of ‘game master’, pacing the game, declaring events and helping to resolve them. I was first pretty sceptical about such as set-up, as I enjoy the tactile element of tabletop games and wasn’t sure if I wanted digital devices to intrude into this.

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When you start a game, you first have to choose a scenario and a difficulty level. Each turn is divided into two parts: a real-time phase were things happen (declared by the app) and an evaluation phase where you see if everything you did actually works out. This is a similar mechanic to Space Alert; however, this is also where the similarities between the two games end.

In XCOM, there are several roles for the player to take: there is an Operations Chief, who distributes the funds needed for every action, there is a Captain, who choses missions and sends out soldiers, there is a Chief Scientist who organises research and finally the Commander is responsible for space and air defence.

The interesting thing about this game is that the roles are not only very distinct, they also force you to really concentrate on your job. Conversely, you have to rely on your fellow team members to do their job, as you usually don’t have the time and the information to help them in their decisions. This leads to a kind of tunnel vision, which probably models pretty well how large organisations function. With a good team (and our team was good!) this is also a mode of cooperation that seems to agree with me much more than that of Space Alert, where each action has an immediate influence on each other’s actions and you have to coordinate basically everything all the time. However, the drawback is that player interaction is rather limited, and player interaction is what usually makes cooperative games fun as well as challenging.

Nevertheless, thanks to its strong theme and the interesting mechanics, XCOM is a fun game. With the real-time element and the clearly defined roles it is also unlike other cooperative games I know. I’m sometimes still flabbergasted by the variety of good coop games out there!

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In the end, the only thing I’m still not completely comfortable with is the app: While it works well in the game and is not intrusive, there still remains the fact that, in a couple of years, the game will no longer be playable. I still don’t like this idea. But I guess this is a topic that would deserve its own blog post…

Currently Reading

For our Gettysburg Battle Day, I read a couple of books on the battle. One of them was Edwin B. Coddington’s The Gettysburg Campaign. A Study in Command from 1968.

gettysburg-campaign-study-command_1_4f6f6b28bc839e78e6e37eed0f9b9c40

This is, in some ways, a book that shows its age. Published eight years before John Keegan revolutionized military history by writing about the experiences of the common soldiers in The Face of Battle, Coddington firmly concentrates on the higher levels of command and on the decisions of the commanders. He is also quite judgemental, voicing his opinion about who made which mistake and how it could have been avoided. However, it still is a very good and rewarding reading. Coddington presents a clear narrative, making it easy to follow the action and his analytical approach helps to clarify many decisions.

The one thing that impressed me most however, was the ending, specifically the last sentence of the book. Usually, you expect from an ending a wrapping up of the whole narrative, a closure that gives the whole thing a meaning and makes you feel that something has been achieved. He describes how General Warren, after Lee had crossed the Potomac back into Virginia, sent a message to the War Department ordering maps of the Shenandoah Valley. And then he ends with the sentence: “And so the war went on.” No closure, no wrapping-up or bestowing meaning – instead the sobering, even bleak reminder that Gettysburg, something that today is remembered as a highly significant turning-point, at the time was just one episode in a war that was far from over.

CoddingtonAAF

Ronald S. Coddington’s African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album is a very different book. It presents 77 photographs of African-American soldiers from Coddington’s own collection. Each image is accompanied by a short biography of the soldier depicted. This is quite an achievement all by itself, as it is not easy to get biographical information about men who, in many cases, had been illiterate slaves who left no written evidence by themselves. One of the great things about this approach is that it puts the individuals, their choices and their actions into the foreground. This provides a much-needed contrast to the stereotypical description of African-Americans even by well-meaning white officers like Thomas Higginson. All the variety can’t, of course, conceal the common experiences. Most of the men were scarred by slavery and the war and few grew old. But one of the saddest thing was their treatment after Reconstruction: time and again, you read how in the late 1870s and 1880s, when white suprematist groups crawled back out of their holes after Union occupational forces had left the South, African-Americans were driven from political offices and terrorized, many of them ending in an abject state of poverty.

McGinty

Touching on the subject of African-American experience, Brian McGinty’s The Rest I Will Kill is a short and dramatic retelling of an astonishing event that happened early in the war: In July 1861, a U.S. ship was captured by a Confederate raider. The prize crew wanted to sail the ship to Savannah, where it would be sold off. The ship had a free black cook named William Tillman, whom they planned to sell into slavery. What happened next took them by surprise, though: Tillman, aided only by a German sailor named William Stedding, overpowered the prize crew and single-handedly sailed the ship back to New York. At the time, Tillman became a celebrity and was hailed as a hero in the Northern press. The book is an easy read, telling an exciting story while also providing background on the political situation as well as on the biographies of the people involved. It clearly shows the desperation, but also the courage African-Americans showed in the face of a regime that treated them as chattel.

And now for something completely different, as they say. I’ve also read a lot of science-fiction and fantasy lately, but most of it left me rather disappointed. I have to say that I’m wholeheartedly sick of the whole ‘dark and gritty’ thing. Not only is this a childish view on life (it’s laughable how people think it is ‘realistic’), it’s also full of rather disturbing torture porn – seriously, what is it with those people and sexualized violence?

Eames

Fortunately, I hit upon some real gems. The first pleasant surprise was Nicholas Eames’ Kings of the Wyld. Imagine a classical D&D-like fantasy world where adventuring parties are treated like 80s rock bands. This is basically the analogy Eames bases his story upon and to my surprise, it worked really really well. It’s the well-known story of an old hero and the effort to, one last time, get the band together. It seems Eames couldn’t decide if he wanted to write a funny book or a tragic one, but both facets actually work equally well. Of course it’s overdone and sometimes corny and a bit of a lad’s story, but hey, so’s glam rock! Certainly the most captivating, most original and most fun fantasy novel I’ve read for a long time.

Chambers

 

For science-fiction, the same is true for Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. I know I’m late to the party with this one – I’ve seen it before, but I was always a bit apprehensive as I usually enjoy action-oriented sci-fi. Now I finally started reading it and wow, it’s good. There is almost no shooty stuff, but the story is still captivating and exciting. A lot of original ideas and about as far away from dark and gritty as you can get. It’s a feel-good novel about community and tolerance and living together despite being different. Highly recommended!