Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Boardgames for one

When I post about boardgames played I rarely mention solo games. That is mainly, and unsurprisingly, because I don't often play them. However I have recently acquired another one, which in turn made me dig out the couple that I already own and play them again. I'm not talking about playing multi-player games solo, nor co-operative games alone; what I am referring to are games specifically designed for only one, single, sad, Billy No-mates such as myself.

The one I have owned the longest (and previously wrote about here) is 'A Blood-Red Banner', in which one has to attempt to defend the Alamo against Santa Anna. Naturally this always results in failure and the measure of success is how badly one fails. While I know that it's thematically appropriate it really does get depressing after a couple of plays. There is a game from the same publishers about Rorke's Drift which I'd like to try, but wonder if it has the same problem in reverse. Production values - at least in the version I own - are a bit cheap and cheerful and the AI is nothing more than a D6 and a deck of pre-printed cards which march the Mexicans up to the walls and invariably, following a very simple combat resolution mechanism, inside.

The second game, Hostage Negotiator, at least gives some chance of succeeding in one's task, although as victory can be obtained even if half of the hostages die success is a bit relative. Once again the AI is cards and a few D6, but the designer has done an excellent job of replicating the paradox and tension of simultaneously trying to keep the hostage holder calm whilst at the same time rescuing those he is holding before time runs out. Play takes the form of a series of conversations during which cards are played both to achieve results now and to set up favourable conditions for future actions. A random selection of demands, threats and events gives it high replayability. There are expansions with extra bad guys etc, but I play it so infrequently that I have always found the three in the starter pack to be sufficient.

The new game I have acquired is 'Black Sonata', in which one wanders around Elizabethan London trying to establish the identity of the dark lady of Shakespeare's Sonnets. It features a very clever mechanism by which the lady herself moves. I'm always on the lookout for ideas that could be utilised for wargaming and this caught my eye immediately as a means of replicating hidden movement in campaigns or even on the tabletop. It doesn't merit the description of AI; rather it seems to be more of a random selection from among a series of pre-programmed routes, with a reset mechanism if you get close, but not close enough. The deduction puzzle at the heart of the game isn't so sophisticated and I can't help thinking that the movement mechanism deserves a better game to go with it. Certainly I have never failed to solve it quite quickly, although one has still to catch the lady even then.

Anyway, all three - when one remembers one owns them - provide a pleasant distraction for fifteen or twenty minutes and I shall endeavour to get them on the table more frequently. In the meantime here's Karen:

Thursday, 25 April 2019

Edgcote 1469

I have been reading 'The Battle of Edgecote 1469' by Graham Evans, who you may be familiar with as the man behind 'Wargaming for Grown-ups', on which he features a whole range of stuff, from Ancient Assyrians (with plenty of chariots) right through to the Spanish Civil War. He makes wide use of 20mm plastic in his games, which is obviously a good thing. He is the secretary of the Northamptonshire Battlefields Society and they are the publishers of this book. You may have possibly, as I have a couple of times, had a go at his clever participation game of the Battle of Northampton which he regularly takes to conventions. And on top of all that he rocks the bald head and glasses look, which I always think is de rigeur for a distinguished wargames blogger.

The book is subtitled 'Re-evaluating the evidence' and that's what he does, explaining how he comes to his conclusions and how much conjecture is involved. He also reproduces a fair number of his sources including some fifteenth century Welsh poetry. As with pretty much all Wars of the Roses battles there is uncertainty about where it was fought and why some of those in the vicinity took themselves off rather than join in as they were expected to, and the author's conclusions are persuasively argued. He also clears up an issue that I previously had no idea was even up for debate, namely the date the battle took place. He makes a good case that it was on the 24th July, two days earlier than traditionally believed, and driven by the new chronology puts forward a plausible narrative for the period either side: from the skirmish as the vanguards met until Edward IV was arrested in his bed by the Archbishop of York. I think it's fair to say that he is agnostic as to the identity of Robin of Redesdale, the leader - assuming he existed in the first place - of the rebel forces on the day. I rather liked the option he explores of it being a sort of pseudonym for the collective leadership; reminiscent of the P O'Neill who always communicated on behalf of the Provisional IRA.

Anyone who has read his blog will know, Evans has a minor bee in his bonnet about the Battle of Towton not having been the largest and bloodiest battle in England after all, and he manages to inveigle that in here as well. However, unless one is strongly invested in the generally accepted view I don't think it makes much difference and I certainly agree with his overall point that these battles really cannot have involved as many men on either side as the chroniclers suggest. To quote from the book: "The willingness to accept that armies larger than the population of London marched and fought in a small area of the East Midlands should give us all pause for thought.".

Overall, it's an interesting and enlightening read which I thoroughly recommend to those keen on the period. Edgcote may well be creeping up the list of games to be played in the annexe. Most importantly I have just the figure to represent the Barmaid of Banbury:

If you want to know what role - or indeed roll - the barmaid performed then you'll need to read the book yourself, although here's a clue:

Arglwfdd difwynswydd Defnsir
A ffoes - ni chafas oes hir!

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

I'm working like a Trojan

Although clearly not at writing blog posts. Partly that is because the Seven Years War campaign is not currently happening  - not dead, just sleeping - and also I have been, in a small way, engaged in trying to prove that democracy in this country is likewise merely resting with its eyes closed rather than completely moribund.

Indeed, the only thing that has appeared on here recently is a comment from Iain that 'Arms and the Man' was also set in the Balkans. I haven't seen the play for many years; in fact the more I think about it the more it seems to me that I am confusing it with 'Man and Superman' and that I have probably never seen it at all. Shaw's plays do still get produced these days - I have seen both 'Pygmalion' and 'Saint Joan' in the last couple of years - so let's hope it comes round soon.

There are a couple of tenuous connections (and you know that's the way I like them) between the play and the specific opera concerned (which was 'Idomeneo'), with a second opera as well plus a tiny, tiny bit of wargaming relevance. The phrase 'arms and the man' comes from the opening line of the Aeniad, Virgil's poem in which a member of the Trojan royal family sails off after the fall of the city to follow his fate by indirectly both founding Rome and causing the Punic Wars to take place. In Mozart's opera it is another Trojan, Aeneas' cousin Ilia, daughter of King Priam, who, having been brought back as a captive to Crete by Idomeneo, provides the romantic sub plot and causes Elettra, daughter of Agamemnon,  no end of grief; although as I pointed out previously her family have already done more than enough to tip anyone over the edge.

Kurt Weill wrote an opera called 'Der Kuhhandel'. A literal translation of that is 'cattle trading', but a more idiomatic one might be 'horse trading', e.g. of the kind that politicians are prone to. Anyway, the plot about arms dealing actually does prominently feature a cow. Its original English title was 'A Kingdom for a Cow', which is, of course, a Shakespearean allusion. Opera North performed it some years ago, but changed the title to 'Arms and the Cow', a Shavian reference which rather nicely sums up what the work is all about. At the time I rather annoyed my ex-wife by going on at length about how accurate was its depiction of the world of weapon sales based on my own experiences of the same; but let's face it, if I hadn't been that which irritated her then it would have been something else.

Enough of that, let's have Dido's Lament:

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Lamentations Chapter 5 Verse 6

And so to the opera. I thought I was done with the Great War now that it's 2019, but I have been to see a production of Vaughan Williams' 'Pilgrim's Progress' which is set on the Western Front and will admit that even though they had missed the centenary boat it all worked very well. In particular I must mention the use of No Man's Land to represent the Valley of Humiliation, with the unburied dead of both sides rising up as the Doleful Creatures. Appolyon, whose part is sung from the wings, was manifested on stage as coils of barbed wire which pursued and hemmed in our pilgrim until he overcame them. By the time he got to Vanity Fair the theme had become less specific, although in my experience the Madam Wantons of this world look and behave the same whatever the setting.

Opera directors presumably choose the setting for the same reason they make all the other decisions: in order to make themselves seem interesting, intellectual and sophisticated. That's not a criticism - if it were your bloggist would be setting himself up for some finger pointing in return - but it does lead to to some slightly strained designs. If there was an award for the most obscure setting then English Touring Opera's 'Idomeneo' might be in with a shout; it's the Balkan Wars of the first decade of the twentieth century. Now we're all wargamers so we've heard of the period, indeed we probably have a half-formed plan in the back of our mind to game it at some indeterminate point in the future, but I not sure how many others in the audience had any real idea as to where and when we were supposed to be. The costumes weren't much help to them being mainly sheepskin waistcoats and baggy trousers - except for the soprano playing Idamante, who looked as if she was playing Buttons in Cinderella - and if they had guessed it they might then have been thrown off track by the sea monster which rather abruptly invades the land and starts eating people. Unusually for an opera these minions are the only ones to die, with the principal characters surviving more or less intact. Elettra goes mad of course, but when you consider that her backstory includes her father killing her sister, her mother killing her father and her brother killing her mother and then himself, then you might think that she's entitled to.

One means of identifying the period being portrayed is by the weapons in use. In 'Pilgrim's Progress' they had Lee Enfields (Germans as well, but let's not quibble), in 'Idomeneo' they didn't bother (probably wouldn't have been much use against the sea monster anyway) and in Macbeth most of them had AK47s, so presumably modern then. Having said that, one poor sap had been lumbered with what appeared to be a fowling piece, one of those that are about eight feet long and intended to be fired whilst lying in a punt hidden among the rushes; I freely admit that the only reason I recognised it was because they have one on display in the Royal Armouries in Leeds. Now no actor carrying a rifle on stage ever appears to have handled one in real life, but on this occasion I think we can cut him some slack, and his constant tripping over it did at least provide some amusement in what is otherwise not a light-hearted piece. Observant readers may be asking themselves whether I didn't see this opera recently, and I did indeed, just a couple of months ago. In that production - as described here - there was a mishap during the fight between Macduff and Macbeth. Well blow me down, but there was a similar incident this time round at exactly the same place. Notwithstanding the fact that everyone has spent the last two hours cradling Kalashnikovs while singing, these two decided to use knives when they came face to face with each other. What was obviously meant to happen was that after dispatching the king Macduff was supposed to bend down, take the crown from his head and carry it to Malcolm, rightful heir of Duncan. What actually happened was that he dispatched him so violently that the crown flew off and rolled across the stage into the orchestra pit and Macduff had to sing his final lines hanging off the edge being handed it back by one of the orchestra. Still, as before, they played on.

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Time is, time was...

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

              - T.S. Eliot

Thursday, 4 April 2019


Does anyone remember the old boardgame L'Attaque? Charlie - my old schoolmate, wargames opponent and colleague in the worst band ever - used to have a copy which I can remember us playing avidly in our early teens. Boardgamegeek describes it thus: "The game is played with 36 pieces each on a 9 x 10 square board. Each piece has a numeric value, which is hidden from the opponent and only revealed when an attacking piece moves onto a square occupied by an opponent's piece. In most cases, the piece with the highest value wins and the losing piece is removed from the board."

In other news, the Seven Years War campaign continued with Frederick, who seems to be doing all the fighting for the Prussians, catching the Russian contingent of the allies under Fermor as they tried to cross the border. Unsurprisingly the much bigger and better army carried the day, not helped by the initiative swing being completely the reverse of what had happened the previous week. The fact that chance evens out over the long run doesn't do much to ameliorate the impact on one's entertainment of its short term fluctuations.

I haven't yet received the umpire's report for the end of Turn 3, so I'm not entirely sure how things stand, but my guess would be fairly even. If I have a small army being beaten up in one place then I must have larger armies on the move somewhere else.