Friday, December 05, 2008

A shocking turn of events!

It's the creative urge. The need to go it alone. Build your own future.

This blog, it's contents and all associated entertainment magic have moved to a new neighborhood. To continue following the adventures of a balding dad and wargamer, please visit my new blog at the following address:


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Just another American story

November 11, 1918 found Rutherford B. Edwards laid up in a military hospital in Kansas. About six weeks earlier, the corporal in the US 1st Infantry Division had gotten a whiff of either phosgene or mustard gas when his crappy issue gas mask had failed during a German gas attack. He never made much of an effort to find out exactly what had happened – he was just damned happy to be alive.

After his discharge from the hospital (and from the Army) some months later, “Red” (so nicknamed because of his thick, red hair) didn’t immediately head back east to his hometown of Ashland, Kentucky. He was a brother or two down the totem pole from taking over the family farm, jobs were scarce back home in the post-war wind-down and, besides, there was an influenza epidemic raging that he figured somebody with gas-damaged lungs should probably try to avoid.

Kansas and neighboring states still offered plenty of opportunity to work in the wide-open spaces, so Red knocked around a bit working farm jobs, punching cows and mending fences. A lot of Great War veterans did essentially the same thing – just with different details in different parts of the country – because it was difficult for them to settle in to work-a-day America after what they had just been through.

War has never been a pleasant experience for those on the pointy end, but World War I was warfare as men had never before seen. The tools and systems of industrialization enabled slaughter on an unimaginable scale. Mass conscription kept the technological abattoir freshly stocked, and simultaneously insured that tens of thousands of survivors were exposed to war’s most soul-shattering horrors.

In 1919 they didn’t call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but many veterans wrestled with the horror just the same. Fortunately Red had a good religious grounding and a common-sense understanding of human nature that helped him cope. He knew other men who weren’t so fortunate, however, so until his dying day he thanked God that he always had the ability to face his wartime experience and not allow it to dominate his life.

Red had a gal back home, but he wasn’t able to lure her westwards. When the American Rolling Mill Company announced construction of a new plant in Ashland in 1920, Red headed back home to take both a steady job and a wife.

By the time I came along, my granddad Edwards was already 70 or thereabouts and long-retired from Armco Steel. “Papaw” always carried a bit of the war around with him – although no one else in his family would really ever know it.

Except for me, anyway. He had plenty of grand-children (6, I think), but I guess of them all I was the best listener. I wonder to this day if he thought I understood what he was talking about all those afternoons we spent sitting on that old concrete culvert down on the back of his property. My guess is that he knew, at least a little bit, his experiences would help shape my view of the world.

So today, as on every Veteran’s Day, it’s with a mixture of awe and sadness that I think about my Papaw Edwards and all of the veterans who stood for their country during the Great War and in every American war since.

I am awed by their courage and their sacrifice. And I am saddened that the War to End All Wars… wasn’t – and that none of the wars since then have been, either.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Distraction 5: Block games

Block games – wargames that use wooden blocks for their primary playing pieces – aren’t exactly a new product on the market. Columbia Games has been producing them for over 20 years. In the last five or six years, GMT Games has also taken up the concept.

Columbia has produced some very good games over the years. Their game “East Front” remains one of my favorite titles on World War II in th East. But GMT’s entry into the niche has brought in some welcome new ideas. I think Europe Engulfed was their first block game, followed more recently by Asia Engulfed. They’ve also produced Fast Action Battles: Bulge and the very successful Command & Colors: Ancients series.

Thanks to GMT’s recent half-price sale (for P500 buyers), I now have all four of those games. FAB: Bulge and CC:A arrived last week – and I’m quite impressed by both of them.

It’s weird. Both games cover topics of interest and I enjoy block games quite a bit but I never got around to buying either one of them. They couldn’t quite manage to make it to the top of my game list. Maybe because they made a big splash when they were first released and I am by nature a contrarian? After seeing them both up close, now I feel kind of dopey.

Typically, the use of blocks makes for a game format that’s very friendly to limited intelligence rules (your opponent can’t see ‘your’ side of the block) and to easy step reduction (each edge of the block representing a different strength). CC:A is the exception – it uses blocks for units where other Richard Borg-designed games (Memoir 44 and Battlelore, for example) use plastic miniatures.

There’s a tactile ‘something’ about playing block games that scratches some indescribable gaming itch for me. Maybe it’s because I started playing block games 15 or so years before the industry started producing all of those fancy-pants plastic miniatures, but I think I prefer blocks over miniatures. Or maybe in my addled little pea-brain I equate blocks with ‘serious’ wargaming and plastic minis with ‘lite’ wargaming.

Also of note, as with the other Borg-designed games Command & Colors: Ancients is also a ‘franchise’ system with a number of expansion packs available that add new forces to the original game. The various expansions available (three to date) probably triple the number of blocks available in the system. Catchy idea.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Distraction 4: Memories

Three years ago today – Halloween 2005 – my wife and I, along with our newly-adopted son, found ourselves sitting in the lobby of the US Embassy in Guatemala City. The issue at hand was the approval of our son’s visa, which would finally allow him to travel home with us.

Earlier in the day we had completed the last bits of paperwork and tendered final payment for the processing of our son’s immigration packet – a receipt hastily scribbled on note paper said as much. We were all a bit aggravated and apprehensive because the embassy employees seemed to being devoting much more time to decorating for a Halloween party than they were to anything else. In fact during our adoption process we had encountered enough seemingly random embassy re-scheduling that I firmly believed they were going to chase us all out and close for the party before issuing our visa – which would have really been a problem because it was a Friday and our flight home was scheduled the following day.

It’s difficult to join in the merriment or laugh at people in silly costumes when your main thought is that they’re screwing off instead of helping you get your child back home to America.

Can I have a moment to be grumpy? Thanks.

Over the last couple of years I know that immigration has been a hot topic for political discussion. Here’s the deal: If you have never been through the process of dealing with US Immigraton – please shut right the hell up, because you don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.

Just in case you think a US Embassy is a shining beacon of freedom and democracy to both citizens and those wishing to legally become citizens, I’ve got a little reality check for you. A US Embassy is a fortress of bureaucracy, surrounded by razor wire, full of bureaucrats, working on their own schedule to do whatever suits them whenever they choose to do it. Period.

The only embassies that get US Marine guards are the ‘prestige’ embassies and those in the movies. The rest of them get locally-hired, unfriendly, unhelpful, shotgun-toting Whackenhut security guards who think nothing of keeping a mother and her 7-month old infant standing in the rain for an hour at 8 in the morning.

On the whole, our process was easy compared to what the average immigration applicant from Guatemala endured. It only took us about 5 months of dealing with the Guatemalan and US governments to bring our son home. You want to know why so many people resort to illegal immigration? How about this: An embassy waiting room full of families dressed up in their finest clothes, ready for the 5-minute immigration interview that they have been waiting TEN YEARS to get.

Is that a no-shit, life-changing moment? You’re a skilled worker and this is your one shot to immigrate with your family to a country where you can find a decent job and make a living for them. Good luck, screwhead. Hope you don’t blow the interview or catch your immigration agent on one of those ‘headache’ days.

Whatever happened to “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses”? See, the crap you get taught in school isn’t always the way the real world works. I probably wouldn’t be such a lefty on the topic, except that I understand that Guatemala is one of those central American countries that we’ve screwed with (just for fun) for over 50 years, sucking away their resources and wrecking their economy.

Anyway, it seemed a minor miracle at the time – but the embassy issued our son’s visa that afternoon. I’d like to think it was just an efficient moment, but I also know that a coordinated phone-call campaign from family back home had generated ‘concerned faxes’ from the offices of our US Representative AND one of Florida’s US Senators. Never hurts to twang the strings of power every once in a while.

Democracy in action, right?

So. Forgive me if I have a slightly different attitude toward Halloween than a lot of other people. It’s a day of special memories for our family – and a day that serves to remind me how much better America can become.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Distraction 3: Kiev-to-Rostov

Barbarossa: Kiev to Rostov landed in the swamp toward the end of last week. I ordered it on P500 from GMT some time ago, so I was happy to see it finally arrive.

Eastern Front games typically rate high on my list of favorites. War for the Motherland/Red Star Rising tops them all, I think, but various PanzerGrenadier and ATS modules set amidst the titanic struggle aren’t far behind. Other favorites from the period include GMT’s Ukraine ’43 and most of the East Front games in the Operational Combat Series (MMP/The Gamers).

I have all of the games in the EFS, with the exception of Typhoon (which was more of a fore-runner to the ‘series’). It’s been a couple of years since I’ve messed with any of them (Army Group North most recently) so picking up on all of the changes to the rules isn’t that difficult because I basically don’t remember any of the ‘old’ rules. One of the advantages of being an old, bald guy I suppose.

While the series is built around a map scale similar to OCS (5 miles per hex), there are few similarities beyond that. I find it rather interesting to play both systems and compare the different treatments given to operational combat in the same theater at the same ground scale.

EFS has a number of mechanisms that are slightly more abstract, which means it plays a bit more quickly on the tabletop (or in Cyberboard, whatever). What it sacrifices is flexibility. The system is highly tailored to the situation found at the opening of the war on the eastern front. The sequence of play is assymetrical and favors coordination on the part of the Germans, while it also imposes headquarters-bound restraints on the Soviets that their counterparts do not face.

OCS, on the other hand, is a system flexible enough to be used across theaters and time-frames – although it can get a bit complicated in spots. I also happen to believe that OCS works best for the games set on the eastern front and begins to break down a little bit when applied to theaters with either low density or high positional attrition.

But my point today isn’t to compare the two systems. I really just want to observe and report that Kiev-to-Rostov appears to be a worthy addition to the series. Half a bazillion counters and four well-done maps continue eastward with the action from Army Group South. The box also includes a couple of ‘mini’ maps printed on cardstock that reproduce small slices of the main maps for use with the game’s introductory scenarios.

I want to dwell for a moment on the mini-maps. It’s a concept that I can’t praise highly enough. It’s a single 8.5 x 11 inch bit of cardstock, each side printed with a different mini-map AND the setup charts needed to play the scenario. The scenarios cover fairly small areas, use small forces and are 3-4 turns long. The mini-maps couldn’t make setup or gameplay any simpler. They seem the perfect setting for a manageable introduction to a fairly complex, sprawling game system.

Maybe in future ‘monster’ games we’ll see some more of the same. Hope springs eternal, etc.