Sunday, 19 February 2017

Not Quite The Sum of All Fears

** Opinion Alert**
For many years, I've been morbidly fascinated by books that have been called "Negative Utopias." These are not happy, up-beat books; in fact, some are quite hopeless. I'd be willing to guess that many of those who read this ramblings have read them as well. What I write will not do justice to any of the books.

"Utopia" means "nowhere", plain and simple. It is a term used to describe a wonderful place of justice, sweetness, and light. (Maybe a little Christian Communism, too.) This goes back to a written work of Sir Thomas More (known many places as St. Thomas More), an English writer/lawyer/politician/philosopher who served as Lord Chancellor to King Henry VIII. He objected to Henry's ecclesiastical policies and serial marriages and was executed in 1535. I'll leave aside all the ins and outs of his life and just say he coined the term "Utopia" as it is used now. To be honest, I haven't read his book.

One of my earliest reads was George Orwell's 1984. Orwell went to Spain to fight the fascists/nationalists in that confusing conflict. He volunteered to fight with the militia of the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista or the Worker's Party of Marxist Unification), the non-Comintern Communist group. Since they didn't toe the line of the more orthodox/Stalinist Spanish Communist Party, Orwell's group was denied supplies and eventually purged due to somewhat imagined treason. Orwell became disillusioned with the authoritarianism he saw there. This influence his later writing, especially in 1984. One of the main tenants in the book was "the mutability of the past" and how the present controlled the past. A new language was developed ("Newspeak") which would eventually wipe out thought not permitted by the "Party."

Aldous Huxley's Brave New World posited a world where social/occupational classes were structured around pre-natal conditioning that permitted them to be completely happy in the roles society assigned them. Moods were controlled by means of chemicals (Yeah, let say drugs) and sexuality was strictly for pleasure and never for procreation. The castes (Alpha to Epsilon) usually didn't mix and conditioning reinforced that. A religion of sorts (all action and no content) was conditioned into the lower classes, like Gammas and Deltas.

Jack London is known for his "dog stories", but he was an enthusiastic Socialist and wrote a very dark negative utopia, The Iron Heel. In this book, the United States is controlled by an oligarchy made up of major capitalists who oppress the working class through the use of hired thugs at first, then through a class of soldiers - the "Mercenaries" - who live apart from the workers in their own cities. The working class was also controlled by the threat of replacement by the very poor who could be moved by the oligarchs to take over the work and even rebuild wrecked cities. One of the main characters calls these poor, "the people of abyss." The book is written from the viewpoint of future history researchers who note that the story is incomplete and the fate of the main characters is unknown.

Every few year, I re-read Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, the story of a United States in which all books are banned and in which fireman don't fight fires but burn books as well as the houses where they are found. Books cause people to think and thinking makes people unhappy, so books are forbidden. Entertainment is delivered by huge wall size television screens. The main character's wife is far more interested in the TV shows than she is in her husband. The main character, Montag, is a fireman who begins to question the present way of things. As a nuclear war begins, he escapes into a wilderness of sorts where he meets people who have memorized books... like him, since he has memorized part of the Judeo-Christian Bible. 
I like Bradbury's writing; it almost seems like poetry.

451° Fahrenheit is the temperature at which paper burns.
Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale uses the same literary device as The Iron Heel, that is, a scholarly review of a journal of past history. Her story tells of a repressive Christian state in which women are kept illiterate and sequestered for the most part. Certain women, still fertile after some sort of sterilizing plague called "handmaids", are assigned to men in leadership positions so they can bear children for them. The children will then be credited to the man's wife rather than the handmaid, who remains in a "holy" state. (By holy, I mean the woman is revered and feared, despised and untouchable.) The handmaid in question was married and had had children prior to being forced into her handmaid role. As a handmaid, she may not read and often may not speak. The wife of the "commander" hates her, the rest of the men in society dare not look at her, and she is not to remember her previous life. References are made to insurrections in various place in the country and to massive missionary endeavors through-out the world which appear to be propaganda. 

V for Vendetta is more of a graphic novel than a literary one and many of us have seen the film of the same name. There's lots of mind control and religious-political intertwining in an oppressive Great Britain, just about all of which is hypocritical and sordid. Plagues are used to push undesirable people into subservient positions, if not out of the country all together. Cynical religion is used to prop up a dictatorship. The structure is rotten and one man, a victimized person in a Guy Fawkes mask, who can feel no pain and has a huge revenge fixation, is able motivate the mass of citizens to pull it down. Of course, the houses of Parliament are demolished in an explosion and the story ends (at least in the film) with everything up in the air and in potential.

I know I've missed any number of similar novels and those that I've described are not done justice. I've just been struck lately by how current many of these themes are in modern life in the United States. A sense of religious fascism... a whiff of  oligarchy... a distrust of institutions and the conditioning they carry... among many others. The present talk of "alternative facts", of leadership-not-to-be-questioned, and a naked resurfacing of Goebbel's Big Lie are disquieting.
As a Christian pastor, I'm more than a bit disturbed by the equating of Christians with a power-hungry cynicism, fear of "the other", and twisting of Scriptural and doctrinal ideas that should lead to freedom to make a justification for oppression.

Well, I know I'm probably wrong and more that a little half-a**ed, but I felt I need to say what I needed to say.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Res judicata, causa finita.

(From Neidersachen-tourism, with than ks.)

On Saturday, February 4, the Hamilton Road Games Group did another play test of the Battle of Teutoburgerwald scenario, something we plan to host in a few months at the premiere wargames convention in Southwestern Ontario. Some "tweaking" was done in set-up, play, and setting.

The game worked very well. One could even say "excellent" or "optimam" or even "ausgezeichnet" you prefer. Both sides had to sweat it right to the end.

The table was set up in just about the same manner as the week before - a dirt road flanked from one end of the board to the other with dense forest. The Roman force was stretched out along the road and the German tribes attacked from the forest. The Germans received a "free move" to start the battle. Points were awarded for surviving legion units or German warbands, for units destroyed, for units making it off the board, and for the baggage train getting off the board.

What differed this time was the fact that the Romans were in march column at the beginning of the game. In the prior game they had been deployed in battle order. When the Germans attacked, the Romans received a disadvantage for being flanked. Here the Romans fought back from march column and received only one d6 to defend themselves. (Usually Roman legionaries use 6-7 dice to fight in the first turn of melee.) The Germans still received the "Wild Fighter" bonus on only the first turn of combat for that unit. The Roman command was still confused (rightfully so!), so when Varus assigned his subordinate generals to their commands, there were two command values - an "8" if the unit has originally been assigned to that general and a "7" if the unit had had to be reassigned to that general's command. Varus was assigned an "8" at the beginning of the game. The German commander, Arminius ("Hermann") was given a "9" by the scenario. Another difference was the deployment of the German warbands. If the table were divided into thirds, a German player was assigned a separate third for deployment: in the prior game, two players were deployed in the same third on either side of the road. The Roman vanguard was unapposed and was able to scoot off the board OR turn around and attack the attackers.

Steven, Matt, and I officered the Romans. Andy, Eric, and Ralph ran the Germans with Rich taking over for Ralph part way through the game. Ralph and Andy are preparing to be game-masters for this offering at the con, so Ralph stepped back to take that roll. Andy and I took the photos. I used my phone, but Andy used his real camera on a tripod. He took a long-ways photo at the beginning of every turn.

Looking down the line of march. I think this was before I arrived.
Somehow, the rumour mill had put me down as sick for the day.

A closer view.

The "veteran" cohort using Praetorian Guard figures.
My friend, Dr. Mike Pavkovic of the Naval War College, has taught me to have little
respect for the Praetorians, who were described as both parade ground soldiers and the
city of Rome's fire brigade.

The vanguard of the legionary force -
my command, Andy's figures

The Germans get revved up for the battle.
Can't you almost hear the Zulu chant from Gladiator?

The baggage of inestimable value
The centre one with the scorpion bolt thrower was Ralph's.
The two hay wagons are from my wife's collection. (Used with permission)
The German warbands (with the exception of the cavalry who balked) slammed into the side of the columns and damaged them all. Some were reduced to small units, and most had to give ground. In giving ground, they could turn to face their attackers. The German warbands took some damage as well, one even evaporating on the second turn.

Turn one... taken from orbit.

Turn two. Steven looks SOOOO bored.
Trouble for the Legion! One of Andy's warbands hits one of my cohorts.

More of the same.

Ralph's charge against Steven's marching troops.
The playing cards were used to randomly deploy the Romans.
Since their commanders didn't appear until Turn #2, the confusion was multiplied.

Matt and Eric's end of the thing.
Eric's cavalry balked but Matt's cavalry alae took a beating from the infantry.

Ralph needed one more warband to complete the army.
These Germans were my contribution to the lead on the table.
The amazing standard for the Germans is "not safe for work" as it were.
You really can't see it here.
The baggage train was not attacked directly and it sped down the road. At the end of the road, the way was blocked by an intact warband and the wagons attempted to do an end-run... but they were caught, sorted, looted, destroyed, and names were taken. The warbands attacking the cohorts kept pushing and finally pushed some of the Romans into the woods, destroying them. Other Romans pushed the warbands into the woods with the same effect. Varus' bodyguard of auxiliary archers was one of the first to end up in the woods, although Varus had attached himself to a cohort on the road.

Turn #3  Rich is now sitting in for Ralph while the carnage continues.

Turn #4  Some of my Romans are teetering on the edge of the woods. Andy was pushing hard.

One cohort. ready for battle, is about to flank a warband.

The sideways stand of figures indicates the unit is disordered and cannot receive a new order.
They can fight, but at a slight disadvantage.
The single die in it's little throne shows the number of casualties taken by the unit.

Ralph makes a point.
In all honesty, the German archers - who were actually javelinmen, were more
annoying than effective.

The wagons begin their race to the table's edge.
That's Varus on his horse behind them, by the way.

A warband mouse-trapped! If I recall, they were destroyed.

Eric and Steven check the rules for something, I don't know what.

The wagons leave the road to pass the warband.

Another charge.
This unit of legionaries was tough as nails and kept fighting right to the end.
Turn #5  the wagons set a scorching pace.

Turn #6  The wagons skid off the road only to face the warband.

Turn #8   No more wagons!

End of game   Here's roughly how we left it.
At the end of the game, the Romans were scattered all over the board while the tribes had suffered quite a bit as well. When we totaled up the points. The Germans won by about 4-5 points. Had the wagons pulled free and left the board, it would've gone the other way. In any event, no Romans fought free of the ambush and left the table - the ultimate goal.

I found the game to be tremendously enjoyable and it was a nail-biter at times. There were a few small details I'd have done differently, but too few to mention. The road column beginning and the confused Roman command required the Romans to really scuffle to keep things intact for the early turns. Once they could turn to meet the warbands face-to-face, their quality and staying power showed. Historically, the barbarians were seen as tough to stop initially, but they had no staying power. There were a lot of supporting units in this game, more on the Roman side, but that made sense considering the Romans were drilled and more used to supporting other units.

I think we intend to play-test this scenario at least one more time before the con, so expect more dispatches from the Rhine.

"You can smell 'em as they charge."
These Romans are in trouble - disordered, close to their "shaken" point of 6 casualties, and no let-up from the barbarians. 

Two of my cohorts and one of Steven's , with Varus in tow, manfully ignore the German skirmishers.