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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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 were 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!

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What I did during the last weeks…

Life has been busy, but in a good way. I’ve got a new job and still have to settle into the new routines. I haven’t actually neglected playing games and painting (though it’s going slower), but I didn’t find time or leisure to write blog articles.

Here’s a quick update on my gaming-related activities. I hope that in the future, this blog will again resume a more structured appearance.

My painting has been rather eclectic. I really enjoyed painting the mole at the Vienna Nerd Institute painting workshop, so I’ve continued to work on the fantastic anthropomorphic animals from Oathsworn Miniatures. Here’s my collection so far:

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Inspire by our recent sci-fi game, I’ve also finished a landing party for an IPU (Interplanetary Union) starship:

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It get’s even more idiosyncratic. I recently met a very old friend again. When we were youngsters, we played a lot of games together, among them Man O’War. Now he wants to rejoin the hobby and bought a whole load of Man O’War stuff. I couldn’t resist and by chance found a couple of second-hand Orc flyers, so I decided to give them a coat of paint:

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I haven’t yet committed to build up a fleet, but I did get some Renaissance galleys from Navwar, which might do double duty as Orc ships if I can convince anybody to play the excellent Galleys & Galleons

And my final product shows that I haven’t completely lost my sense, as it leads back to my perennial obsession. Using the Busch maize field sprues, I built a corn field for the ACW. I’ve made it modular so troops can be placed inside.

 

I’ve also played a couple of games. Most of them Sharp Practice, but we’ve also started T.I.M.E. Stories, an interesting cooperative game about which more in another blog post.

And I had a game of Flashing Steel, still one of my all-time favorites!

A Scrap in Colony Town – 15mm Sci-Fi AAR

K. and I have been playing a lot of Sharp Practice recently, as we’ve been playtesting scenarios for the booklet I’m preparing. We suddenly felt like we needed a change and wanted to play something completely different. Remembering the whimsical and colourful figures of my 15mm science fiction collection, we got them out and set up a game.

We used our home-brewed rules Wandering Star and started with the pre-game phase. Dicing for forces, K. got the better end, having better quality troops and one additional group as a bunch of trigger-happy locals joined her forces. The scenario we played was number 9, Follow the Clue.

The small colony town is still peaceful… The two objectives are situated in the middle of the table, one to the right of the creek opposite of the communications building, the other to the left of the creek between the bunker and the hill.

K. deployed a lot of her troops on her left flank: The fierce Brunt, a group of Pasiphaeans, her special operatives and the eager locals. On her right flank, her Sharkmen advanced threateningly.

I had one group of Quar and a bike on my right flank, while the rest deployed to the other side of the creek. I decided that I would go for the objective to my left and advanced cautiously while K.’s Brunt rushed forward. Having put my teams on overwatch, it was not too hard to discourage the Pasiphaeans to keep their hands off the crates. They fell back severely mauled, but meanwhile, K. had brought her second wave forward. Also, the groups from her left flank had positioned themselves to shoot at my guys covering the objective, causing some casualties among my Auxies. I was now on the defensive while K. brought her Brunt forward to capture the objective.

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Across the creek on my right flank, the Quar on the speeder bike had first added to the covering fire targeting the objective. When K. advanced her other troops, it fell back. As I saw that I was stuck on the left flank, I decided to try to speedily grab the other objective in a surprise move. The bike and a lone group of Quar rushed forward. However, the bike suddenly came under fire from K.’s special ops.

When her pesky locals joined the fray, the rickety vehicle blew up.

With the bike, my hopes of achieving the right-hand objective went up in smoke.

On the other riverside, the Brunt needed a couple of rounds to figure out how to open the crate – they had to perform and intelligence check, which is not their strength – but there was not much I could do to stop them.

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The game ended with a victory for K.!

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It’s been a while since we’ve played Wandering Star. There are some things that bug me about the rules, but K. thinks that’s just because I wrote them myself. She’s happy to play them and they give a fast and fun game, so I guess I’ll stick to them.

The game also motivated me to rummage through my lead pile looking for more 15mm sci-fi figures. I realised that I’ve got enough to create a whole new force! I’ve already prepared a couple for painting…

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.

Fowler

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.