Currently Reading

Summer’s coming, we’re getting settled in the new house and the whole family is working in the garden. What better time to bury oneself in books?

I’ve decided to start a small new project I’ve been thinking about for a long time now: The French and Indian War. Several of my wargaming chums have started collecting and painting FIW miniatures for Sharp Practice and, what’s even better, they are doing it in 15mm! How could I resist? So, apart from getting a couple of the nice Blue Moon figures, I bought Empires at War by William Fowler.

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Fowler aptly gives an overview of the conflict, setting it firmly into the context of European power politics while still dealing fairly detailed with the actions in North America and Canada. He outlines the quarrels between the different colonies, the role of Native Americans and even the impact of events in Europe, the Caribbean and in India. There are moments when his style almost becomes ironical, but considering some of the whimsical events of the war one can easily understand the temptation and it makes for an entertaining read. Highly recommended if you want a first overview of the FIW.

My main reading diet is still the American Civil War. Having recently finished Noah Trudeau’s excellent book on Gettysburg, I looked for other titles from the author. Trudeau writes very well, he builds up a narrative and tension without getting carried away by his subject. In Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, he manages to tell an engaging story while still keeping an analytical distance – not something that can be said from all authors writing on battles in the ACW…

 

Trudeau has written a couple of other books, all of which look interesting and most of which can easily be found at second-hand booksellers. I’m now finishing Out of The Storm, an account of the last weeks of the Civil War. Starting with a fairly detailed retelling of the events that lead to Lee’s surrender at Appomatox Court House, he presents several episodes, among them famous events such as Lincoln’s assassination and the capture of John Wilkes Booth as well as less famous but equally dramatic affairs like the sinking of the steamboat Sultana. The book is a bit episodical as there is no real overarching story. However, Trudeau manages to capture the atmosphere of an epoch ending very well, not the least because he is very apt at chosing quotes from contemporary sources – something he also showed in Gettysburg. I’ve already ordered his book on black soldiers in the Civil War.

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In contrast, Earl Hess’ new study Civil War Infantry Tactics looks like a rather dry and scholarly affair. I haven’t had chance to read it yet, but my cursory browsing nevertheless left me looking forward to delving into it. Being very much interested in how small units operated, I hope to finally learn all about the intricacies of infantry drill and formations.

I read most of my science fiction books on my e-book reader. Sometimes, however, I’m in the mood for a ‘real’ book. A trip down to the bookstore got me Andrew Bannister’s debut novel Creation Machine. Although I follow forthcoming sci-fi books on the excellent tor.com blog, this one seems to have escaped my attention. At the moment, I’m about two-thirds through and like it very much. The world-building is great, with some grand and at the same time whimsical ideas, and the main protagonist is engaging.

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The evil guys may be a bit too much over the top for my taste, but the story is developing nicely and I’m curious to find out what’s going on with the strange setting. In some of its ideas and in the general approach, it reminds me a bit of Charles Stross’ early space operas, which for me are still among the most imaginative of the genre. Highly recommended if you fancy a sci-fi adventure with an original background.

Review: Empires in America

My last trip to the FLGS ended with an impulse purchase: I got myself a copy of Empires in America from Victory Point Games. What appealed to me was not only the theme – the French and Indian War – but also the fact that it was a solitaire game. Now gaming is a fundamental social activity for me. However, I thought that it would be nice to have something to play if my regular partners have no time and I fancy a game.

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Empires in America comes in a box with a couple of counters, dice, cards and a board. The design is very nice, although I would have prefered the board to be mounted on cardboard. This is a strategy game where you take the role of the French defending their colony against British attacks. It is card-driven: so-called ‘historique cards’ are drawn at the beginning of each turn and determine events as well as possible actions. The British are controlled by the game’s mechanics and basically advance towards your capital, Montréal. In your turn, you can attack the British armies to throw them back, build fortifications and trading posts and take a couple of other actions from cards.

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My first game in progress.

I lost my first game before the Seven Years War even broke out! There is a very clever timing mechanic built into the game, which escalates events after the Seven Years War cards is played. For the second game, I did better but still couldn’t hold out against the British – in the end, Murray’s army captured Montréal.

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Montréal is lost to the British.

It seems that it was evident how much fun I had playing those games, as K. asked to join in for the next game. We both like cooperative games, so it was natural that we would try to play Empires in America in that way. And it worked a treat! We pondered and planned together but still lost the first game. The second, however, we managed to win! One decisive event was a Battle of Ticonderoga, pitting the army of Wolfe against Montcalme. Both sides had a lot of action cards in the battle so we rolled buckets of dice, making it feel like an epic struggle. We managed to throw Wolfe back and he never really recovered from that blow.

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Victory!

Empires in America works great as a cooperative game. As there are no separate roles, like in Pandemic, it probably won’t work with more than two (or at a stretch three) players, but for those it’s great fun.

I am very impressed by the game. The mechanics are very clever and the narrative is captivating. The short paragraphs with background information printed on the cards are a great idea, as they give a succinct historical context to the event or action happening.The game is difficult enough to require good planning and some hard decisions. It may be more difficult to win than Pandemic, but due to the event cards and the dice rolling there is also more luck involved. Still it always feels as if it’s your decision that matters – for example, I lost my second game due to neglecting Murray’s approach along the St. Lawrence and realising too late that he was at the gates of Montréal. Our victory felt like a real achievement and had some dramatic and memorable events.

Empires in America is a fantastic game and highly recommended if you fancy a solitaire or cooperative board strategy game.

Review: Zones of Control

Zones of Control. Perspectives on Wargaming is an ambitious 800-pages volume published last year by MIT Press. It is a collection of 60 essays by a great variety of authors which covers a lot of ground. Hobby and professional wargames, board games, military simulations, computer games and miniature games are all discussed. Articles from designers are paired with articles by historians and people from the humanities who investigate the cultural impact of such games.

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Coming myself from the humanities, I found those articles the most fascinating. The historical overview on the development of hobby wargames by Jon Peterson is an excellent read. Bill McDonald’s vindication of Toby’s garden wargames as described in the novel Tristram Shandy is great fun, while Ian Sturrock’s and James Wallis’ short history of Games Workshop is quite enlightening. Unfortunately, it’s also the only text dealing explicitly with miniature wargames.

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Cpt. Toby Shandy, the original wargamer!

I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed when I discovered that the book’s emphasis definitely lies on board wargames of the hex-and-counter variety – not something I’m particularly interested in. Most of the designers’ texts are by people working in that area and many of the scholarly articles also cover them. This leads to a bit of tunnel vision, as the development of board wargames is treated as a pretty closed tradition. I’m sceptical about the claim that the concept of the ‘scenario’ (in contrast to ‘monographic’ games dealing with one specific battle) was invented by Avalon Hill in 1970 – the idea that rules are ‘War Engines’ which can be applied to different situations has been a part of miniature wargames since H.G. Wells’ Little Wars.

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Not really my cup of tea…

The book gives the impression that the most important innovations happen in board wargames design. However, while there is a lot of discussion about combat mechanics and Combat Resolution Tables, there is not that much on command and control. Concepts such as friction, which have become central in miniature wargames, are barely mentioned. It would have been nice to read a contribution by, say, Richard Clarke of TooFatLardies and get some discussion of innovative rules design in miniature wargames.

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C&C, Lardies style.

Still, due to the sheer amount of information in it, reading and browsing through Zones of Control is a rewarding experience. It’s fascinating to get so many different perspectives on wargaming and there are lots of surprising and inspiring discoveries to be made. Also, I felt like I could glimpse something like a big picture in the end. One thing I found especially interesting is the repeatedly uttered observation that there is a “strong manual and tabletop ethos” in wargaming – even in professional wargaming. Several authors stress that despite the availability of computers, tabletop games offer many advantages. One of the most important is that they are not black boxes: Design choices are immediately visible and can be discussed while rules can be changed and tinkered with – and all this without spending lots of time and money on employing programmers. The tenor of the book is that tabletop wargames still have a future – something I find rather encouraging.

Review: Tabletop Wargames. A Designer’s & Writer’s Handbook

Being interested in the design aspect of wargaming, I ordered the new book by Rick Priestley and John Lambshead: Tabletop Wargames. A Designer’s & Writer’s Handbook. It’s a nicely layed out volume of 157 pages that was penned by experienced designers, so what could go wrong?

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Let me start by stating that there is, indeed, useful stuff in there: Some of the discussions of rules architecture and probability are interesting, the presentation of different mechanics provide a good overview of what’s used by many game designers and there are practical hints on writing and organising rule books. Also, the book is well structured and written in a clear style.

I was, however, flabbergasted by the conservative streak that runs through the whole volume. In the end, the authors’ advice boils down to this: If you want to sell your rules, use “tried and trusted mechanisms” because you might “risk […] putting off players of a more conservative disposition” or publishers that “are somewhat suspicious of the new, fearing that it will limit the potential customer base” (all quotes from p. 44).

If you compare the book with a volume on board games design – such as the Kobold Guide to Board Game Design – designing wargames looks like an almost reactionary venture. If you play any modern board games at all, you know how contemporary game designers continously push the limits of their medium (for example with cooperative mechanics or the ‘legacy‘ format).

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Changes are permanent in a ‘legacy’ game.

But, you might wonder, aren’t there lots of wargames designers out there which do the same? Of course! To name just three examples: SAGA has very successfully introduced EuroGame mechanics in the form of resource management, Dan Mersey’s The Men Who Would Be Kings includes solo (i.e. cooperative) mechanics and TooFatLardies have been at the forefront of innovative rules design for more than a decade. And they all seem to sell their rules rather well!

As a look at the contemporary market in wargaming rulebooks show, wargames design is much more diverse and innovative than using “tried and trusted mechanisms”. Sure, you might not sell many copies of your uber-innovative rules with all their new-fangled mechanics, but then, on the other hand, if Alex Buchel had heeded that advice he might not have written SAGA, and he – and many others – have proven that the audience is interested in innovative rules design if the game is actually good.

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SAGA: Innovative and successful!

With its limited perspective, Tabletop Wargames. A Designer’s & Writer’s Handbook is a missed opportunity. It’s full of ‘don’t try that, play it safe’ – post-ancient naval wargames are complicated and boring, so keep away (instead of trying to find mechanics to make them fun, like Nick Wright or Dave Manley do), X-Wing might be innovative but is only a passing fad, games dependent on cards are not real wargames (Richard Clarke and Sam Mustafa might disagree there), skirmish games are a “niche” (I’d think they have become the dominant format…), and so on. And most of all: never push the boundaries (“don’t cross the streams”, as the authors say when they recommend to keep movement and shooting phases separate). The image of wargames design Priestley and Lambshead present is one of a conservative and timid enterprise, where you always have to look over your shoulders to make sure you won’t put off a single potential customer. It’s never about implementing and communicating your vision of the game.

This conservativism extends to issues like gender-neutral language: The authors dismiss it as “confusing”, warning to “avoid at all costs if you value your readers’ sanity”, showing again that they think that wargamers are basically dumb people incapable of grasping new (or not-so-new outside the authors’ bubble) concepts.

I guess this does represent the approach taken by some of the few large companies out there. When reading the book, it suddenly struck me that the original manuscript might have been an internal training handbook for Games Workshop or Warlord Games. The chapter on weapons ranges is especially telling because the authors advice weapons ranges to be shortened according to a ‘complicated sigmoid curve’ so as to sell models of assets that would normally not fit unto the table. What a cynical surrender of game principles to the dictate of the market!

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In short: If you want to become a rules writing drone for Games Workshop or Warlord, by all means buy the book. If you want to get ideas and inspirations for implementing your own vision, get a volume on board games design or listen to Richard Clarke or Sam Mustafa talk about games design on the Meeples & Miniatures podcast.