Thursday, February 28, 2008

Bye-bye, Bill

Even now that he’s dead, I would not presume to debate William F. Buckley Jr. His intellectual training was much superior to my own. My daddy wasn’t a depression-era multi-millionaire who sent me to some of the finest schools – although, notably, not to American public schools.

Neither would I presume to attempt authoritative commentary on the man’s life. But his passing does bring occasion for me to share some personal opinions about some of Bill Buckley’s political thinking, and the modern conservative movement that he helped shape.

First, let me set the record straight: I am a conservative in remission. After 30 years fancying my own politics as those of an ‘Eisenhower Republican’, I have given up on the Grand Old Party. In a way, Buckley’s movement to eliminate Eisenhower’s brand of moderate politics from the Republican establishment is responsible for this. If the Bush years – with their rampant corruption, moral relativism, arrogant elitism, boundless administrative incompetence and complete disregard for the American Constitution – are the highest expression of Modern Republicanism, then I want nothing to do with it.

So, with that out of the way I’d like to examine an issue or two.

In the finest traditions of intellectualism, Buckley and his publication National Review had the luxury of not having to be ‘right’. Lawmakers and government institutions have a burden to get things ‘right’ – else the people will suffer unnecessarily – but intellectuals do not. Which is probably why intellectuals (of every political stripe) so often get things wrong.

Buckley was erudite, clever and charming. And, often, wrong. Some of his opinions were, in fact, not just wrong (as proven by history), but wrong-headed and mean-spirited. That he in later years subsequently reversed many of his ‘wrong’ opinions is of little consequence. It’s easy to switch opinions once history has written its judgements. It is much, much more difficult to be ‘right’ on the first pass.

I believe getting it ‘right’ is indicative of the central moral premise and the intellectual honesty of any given political philosophy. By this I do not mean the morality they purport to espouse; I mean the real morality of which their actions speak most loudly. Just off the top of my head:

Bill Buckley supported Joe McCarthy and his witch-hunts.

He opposed desegregation in the South.

He opposed civil rights legislation.

He supported Barry Goldwater for president. Twice.

He supported the Strategic Defense Initiative

He supported Pat Buchanan for president.

He supported the invasion of Iraq.

While it’s laudable that he had the wherewithal to come around (at a later date) to the ‘right’ opinion on most of those issues (save the SDI and Goldwater), in the moment when the opinion counted most – at history’s tipping point in each case – Buckley’s conservatism was wrong.

(Now, I realize that many conservatives will argue that support for the invasion of Iraq was not wrong. That is a topic for another day, but at this time I will simply counter that history has not yet offered its judgement on this point – but my opinion is that given the general track record as listed, the odds in favor of the conservative view do not look strong.)

Granted, as the years passed Buckley and his National Review were wrong less often – but this is largely due to a reduction in hard-core stands on matters of national policy. He supported individuals (notably Ronald Reagan), anything that opposed the Soviet Union (regardless of expense) and the rise of the so-called ‘neo-conservative’ faction in the GOP.

Truthfully, I haven’t kept up with Buckley’s writings to the degree that I can assess his influence on the current state of affairs. In many instances, I fail to see how he could reconcile his brand of almost libertarian conservatism with the Big Brother brand of quasi-fascism engineered by the Bush administration.

And that, I believe, points to the central fallacy of the conservative movement that Buckley helped shape. He purported to act upon the direction of a strong, personal moral compass. Modern conservatism purports the same moral values. In both cases, however, it appears to me that the true motivation was more in the nature of self-serving expediency. The results appear to me, largely, the product of de facto moral bankruptcy.

Of course, your mileage may vary.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Another February flashback

Gaming flashbacks. What causes them? The advance of old age? Weird February weather? A side-effect of pushing too much cardboard around over the years?

I don’t know, but whatever the reason it looks like February is a good month for flashbacks. First there was the trip to the old FLGS in Orlando. Now I’m having more gaming flashbacks, triggered by the arrival of a Moldie Oldie that I bought on Ebay.

SPI’s old “Mechwar 77” is a game that, somehow, I managed to miss on the first orbit around Game Planet. In the SPI production cycle, it sits between “Red Star, White Star” (1973) and the imaginatively named “Red Star, White Star 2” (1979).

Mechwar 77 was published in 1975 and used the same game system as their “Panzer 44” game. The system was extended and improved in the Strategy & Tactics issue game “October War” (1977). I consider October War pretty much the pinnacle of tactical moderns development under SPI because, unfortunately, “Red Star, White Star 2” bodgered the whole thing with some very over-the-top and needless design complexity.

But back to my recent acquisition, Mechwar 77. I owned and played all of the above-listed games – except MW 77. It (and Panzer 44) are exactly the kinds of games I was devouring in the 70s, so I have no idea how I overlooked them. Probably because I never saw them in a store anywhere. Remember, this was the 70s and there was no Internet. Maybe I missed the ads for them in Strategy & Tactics. Maybe I was just too busy playing the games I did own to scout around very much for new ones.

The copy of the game I bought (for cheap) was bare bones – the flatpack and box-cover were long gone. The counters were punched, although some were still ‘strip punched’ in threes and fours. The map is in good shape, the rules are a bit ‘used’ but not bad.

While they were punched, the counters were not ‘trimmed’. For the novice, I’ll explain. Cardboard game counters are printed in sheets and die-cut in ‘trees’. When you get one of these things, you have to punch the counters out of the trees. Typically, this leaves little fuzzy nubs of cardboard on the corners of the counters where they were attached to the trees (the die doesn’t cut out the entire counter). If you don’t trim the nubs, your counters look sloppy and they become harder to stack and move around the map.

So my ‘new’ Mechwar 77 counters had to be trimmed. That’s when the real flashbacks started. SPI had an identifiable graphic ‘style’ in the production of their maps and counters, so it brought back quite a few memories to sit there and fiddle around with counters that were printed in the wayback before I graduated from high school. I still have a few SPI flatpack games (and old issues of S&T) sitting around the game closet – including the first two wargames I ever bought – but the close encounter of trimming was a process entirely different from, say, playing a game of my old “Barbarossa” (see an earlier post on this).

Flashbacks included some of the games of October War and the“Modern Battles” quads that I played in college. Game-mastering double-blind games of SPI’s “Fulda Gap” that were played by officers attending the old Naval Logistics School. The three-player game of “Outreach” that I screwed up by forgetting a key production rule. The six-player game of “Terrible Swift Sword” where the Confederate player attacking my Union cavalry on day one did even worse than his historical counterpart. Countless games of “Squad Leader”. A game of “Wellington’s Victory” that my Allies won before noon because the French player got stoned and played stupid.

Funny. Those silly cardboard counters can sometimes be very cheap substitutes for a time machine.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Flashbacks from the old FLGS

The other day I had the opportunity to make one of my rare (apparently bi-annual) visits to my old Friendly Local Game Store – Sci-Fi City on the east side of Orlando. Back when I was a young goober, they were my source for wargames. They also carried almost all of the ‘wargaming’ miniature lines. But not so much any more.

As I’ve probably written before, they’ve really cut back on the old-school gaming stuff. Most wargaming minis are gone. They carry the relatively new-fangled World War II Flames of War miniatures, but I noticed this trip that they’re not stocking as much as they used to. FoW is pricey, so maybe sales are tanking. Pride of place still goes to their Games Workshop minis, but they also stock tons of fantasy minis and lots of the ‘hot’ lines of almost-a-wargame type miniatures (Warmachine, Hordes, AT-43).

As with most game stores these days, I’m sure they do a lot of business in the various Collectible Card Games and Collectible Miniatures Games. But I’m a wargamer, so that that’s what I look for.

The Big Box ‘lite’ wargames – Memoir 44, Tide of Iron, Axis & Allies, Battlelore – get a lot of space, along with all of the popular new lots-of-plastic-minis-in-the-box crossover games like Dust, World of Warcraft (the boardgame), Twilight Imperium and whatnot. Those all have retail prices in the $60-plus range, by the way.

Last time I was there, ‘regular’ wargames still occupied about 80 percent of one aisle. This trip it was all compressed into about 15 percent, max. Oddly, they still carry nearly a full line of Osprey-style reference books (mostly used by miniaturists). But all that’s left is a few of the top titles from GMT, a few games from Avalanche and some titles from Decision. It looks to me like they may not be re-stocking the APL stuff.

Sad, in a way, I guess. But those games can’t really compete with all of the ‘lite’ wargames that are being produced with zillions of shiny plastic bits in every box. Tide of Iron, for example, is a really impressive package. And, truthfully, it probably is a better playing wargame than SPI’s old “Tank!”, which was my introduction to the hobby over 30 years ago. Not the feeling of ‘hard’ simulation data in the box, but definitely a lot more bling and good play value.

So what am I bitching about? I dunno, dammit. When I was a boy, we didn’t have those fancy double-sided geomorphic mounted boards and those minis and color rules and cards and crap. We had a hexgrid on paper and some cardboard chits all printed in three colors, with a rules folder and a Si-Move pad. And we were thankful.

Of course, we didn’t pay $80 for a game, either. But when you consider a largely disposable video game cartridge sells for around $60 these days, not so bad I suppose.

$7 in 1974 money would be how much today? OK, I found an inflation calculator and answered that myself. $32.33. I think $7 is what I paid for “Tank!” at a bookstore in the Altamonte Mall in 1974.

Hey, now there’s a flashback for you.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Red Banner Black Sea Fleet arrives

The SWWAS supplement Black Sea Fleets arrived yesterday. Personally, I think Avalanche Press using FedEx for all of their shipping is a bit of overkill – especially for shipping single supplements – but there you have it.

Nice book if you’re interested in Commies, Turks and Greeks. It uses the Bomb Alley maps and counters, although a couple of 1946 ‘what if’ scenarios use British units from East of Suez and US units from Leyte. A few of the scenarios are historical, most are at least ‘possible’. Interesting mix, I think.

Two half-sheets of counters in the package, which make it a pretty good deal for the price tag. One sheet of long ship counters, one sheet of mostly aircraft with a few destroyer escorts thrown in.

The Soviet Black Sea Fleet is an interesting assortment of old battlecruisers, a few heavy cruisers, some not-quite-state-of-the-art light cruisers and a whole bunch of destroyers, most of which are very, very fast. Only a few Soviet ‘hypothetical’ units are included – one of each of the three classes of aircraft carriers they tinkered with (but never got close to finishing) and a rather powerful battleship that was laid down but never got off the slipways.

There’s a mob of Soviet land-based air, along with a few units of carrier air for their hypotheticals. Some more Italian stuff, some more Greek stuff and what passed for the Turkish navy and their naval air support. The Turkish units feature the refitted German battlecruiser SMS Goeben (Yavuz in Turkish service) – which remained in commission until 1950 and wasn’t scrapped until 1973.

Of course, I have loads of time to play this.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Remembering the Bronze Age of wargaming

In one of the blog threads that I follow over on Consimworld, we were having a little discussion about personal gaming history. The idea was to name the game that ‘got’ you back into gaming again – provided, of course, you had strayed from the True Path to begin with.

I noticed a number of the guys who responded fell out of wargaming either during or right after college. Many others put gaming on hold during that mid-20s-plus stretch when they were building careers and families. That got me to thinking (always a dangerous thing).

I never really stopped gaming at any point in my life, although I did go through a period of significant slow-down during the late 80s and early 90s. That corresponds roughly with what was for other folks their ‘family building’ phase. But not in my case. My main issues were career-building – and the general malaise in wargaming that struck after the fall of SPI.

As an official member of the Living Life Backwards Club (i.e. starting a family in my late 40s), the wife-and-kid issues weren’t in play. Rather, during the mid-80s (before the arrival of the Internet now, mind you) the place where I was living and working was a good 2-hour drive from ‘my’ FLGS and any kind of gaming scene.

And – adding to the problem – that distant FLGS was carrying an ever-shrinking line of what appeared at the time to be ever-growing games (like GDW’s Europa stuff) or TSR recycled flubs of classic SPI titles. I still had storage shelves stacked with old flatbox (and soapbox) titles from SPI – this was also before Ebay – but the new stuff just wasn’t very exciting for me. S&T Magazine was heading into its sub-par encounter with 3W ownership. It flat sucked being a wargamer holed-up in a backwater swamp who worked nights and weekends.

The industry itself caught some new energy in the early 90s, IMHO. I was very interested when Command Magazine started publishing in 1989. Ty Bomba’s mag produced a number of very interesting and playable games, and I think to an extent his XTR publishing venture played a role in reinvigorating the wargaming business.

The Internet, such as it was at the time, certainly helped re-engage some of us backwater gamers. Gaming bulletin boards and, shortly thereafter, Genie groups and the like started putting some of us grognards back into communications with our brethern. Jim Dunnigan served his short second tenure in charge of (then struggling) Strategy & Tactics, and those early incarnations of digital communications actually gave me an opportunity to do some editing work for him.

In 1992 I paid a visit to my buddy Keith up in Georgia. He showed me a game he’d recently purchased (while visiting the big city of Atlanta) called “Guderian’s Blitzkrieg”. It was the first game in what would become the Operational Combat Series from Dean Essig’s The Gamers. And it was sufficient to hook me back into gaming full-time.

Complete ‘re-engagement’ (and the shedding of much cash) I blame on the modern Internet. Without e-commerce, Yahoo Groups, Consimworld and company web sites, where would wargaming be? The same FLGS is still over two hours away. Most gamers I know are even more distant. Maybe with those Internet discounters hanging around a truly local FLGS might be feasible, but it’s hard to say. But it’s interesting how things work out, isn’t it?

20 years ago, who would’a thunk it?

Friday, February 01, 2008

Flailing Into February

“for such a beastly month as February, twenty-eight days as a rule are plenty” (Pirates of Penzance).

Let’s maintain a positive attitude here. At this stage of the proceedings I have know idea whether February will be beastly. All things considered, however, it has potential.

January has ended with much spasmodic flailing at nothing in particular. Business has been, well, busy, resulting in some recent evenings spent on actual ‘homework’ for a couple of projects – with a consequent reduction in temporal resources devoted to All Things Gaming.

I’m entering the month with no particular focus on any single game or topic. A scenario of Eisenbach Gap is still in progress, and the new World at War supplement “Death of the First Panzer” has arrived with a new 11 x 17 map and about 40 new counters for the Bundeswehr.

Lunch break reading has been the rulebook for GMT’s Asia Engulfed. At some stage the compulsion will strike and will start ‘stickering’ the blocks for that game. It’s predecessor, Europe Engulfed, I enjoyed quite a bit – but I’ve been delaying any encounters with AE because my brain has been too lazy to tackle the complexity. Soon, though.

And while the Incoming Queue has been greatly reduced over the last few years, it hasn’t been eliminated entirely (doh!). Within the next week or so I anticipate arrival of the newest PC game in the Squad Battles series from HPS – The Soviet Afghan War.

If you’re not familiar with it, stuff from HPS is pretty much board wargaming translated to a PC screen. Hexgrid, square ‘units’, turn-based play. No fancy graphics at all – not even by the standards of 10 years ago. That said, the programs are all low-impact as a result, and given to easy scenario and mod creation. The Squad Battles engine is pretty good – not great – but the subject matter in this case is pretty compelling. And I expect a lot of end-user mods to take advantage of the programming changes made to accommodate ‘modern’ warfare in the 80s.

A few other Incoming Queue items may or may not hit in February – more on them if they show up.