Aug 13, 2018

Let's Play Star Wars: Rebellion

“My lord,” said Anakinn, “The Jedi Fjord men cast their magic openly. They are not such men as cut runes in the roots in the twilight, but rather they use their magic for prophecy and for healing. But the Seith-men cast dark spells and dissemble; and if they give men help, it is only because they expect that they will then help them.”
- Tattúínárdǿla saga, Chapter 12: Concerning the Secret Counsel of King Falfathinn


Back in May, we had the distinct pleasure of trying Star Wars: Rebellion: an epic board game that's kind of like War of the Ring, but in space.



There's a huge map, covering a bunch of systems outward from Coruscant, and a boatload of figures from stormtroopers to Death Stars, and of course, several decks of cards and piles of tokens. Below, the map.


The two sides have different objectives. The Empire has to find and destroy the secret rebel base; if the rebels survive long enough and gain enough prestige while doing it, they win. Both sides have their fleets and armies, but everything revolves around leaders: only they can move forces on the map or complete missions. This both limits the number of available actions and is great for theme, because you're never moving, say, a star destroyer to this square; you're sending Vader to Geonosis. The leaders all have unique abilities that affect how likely it is they'll succeed at missions or how effective they'll be as commanders, and they can be captured, converted or even frozen in carbonite.

**

Our first attempt would be a three-player game, which works the same as War of the Ring, with two players sharing control of the bad guys. Since I'm something of a fan of General Tagge (he was right about the Death Star!), I elected to play the role of the Imperial General, with my brother-in-law, a TIE Fighter veteran, joining me as the Imperial Admiral.

The Empire, of course, starts with a crushing military superiority, and we cheerfully made use of this, happily humming along to the Imperial March as we wiped out the rebel military. However, we were having no luck finding their base...

At one point, Princess Leia went on a mission to Mygeeto, which was either a ploy to draw us away from the rebel base, or a ploy to make us think it was a ploy to draw us away from the rebel base. However that was, we'd just recruited Boba Fett, so we sent him to capture her, and succeeded!

Soon, Tarkin's Super Star Destroyer and the Death Star we were building at Dagobah spooked the rebels into abandoning their base at Utapau, but now we had no idea where they were. Tarkin was at Geonosis; Vader and the Death Star were at Nal Hutta, wondering whether to head for Kessel or Tatooine; Tagge was looking for the rebels at Yavin; our forces on Mygeeto were stuck with no transports and we couldn't deploy them any because of a very inconveniently placed sabotage marker, and Colonel Yularen was getting nowhere interrogating Leia. Everything was threatening to unravel; by now, I was convinced that the rebel base was on Dantooine and we'd never make it there in time with enough forces. That is, until, guided no doubt by the Force, the Emperor personally led a single Imperial Assault Carrier and one unit of Stormtroopers to Malastare, where he found the newly relocated rebel base, and won us the game.

We made several mistakes, and no doubt played very unoptimally, but we had an absolutely tremendous time doing it. Even when you don't know what you're doing, the game is wonderfully Star Wars in its execution, and it really feels like an epic story unfolding. We simply loved it.

**

I also got the chance to try a two-player game over Midsummer, again with the first game rules as it was my opponent's first time playing.


I decided to utilize my previous experience when picking a base location.


I was determined to use the Rebel fleet aggressively and take the fight to the Imperials, drawing them as far away from my base as possible.


To that end, on my first turn, Mon Mothma secured the loyalty of Utapau, and I massed the fleet at Rodia. This drew an Imperial response immediately, with one fleet attacking Utapau and another subjugating Naboo.


It was time to go on the offensive. Jan Dodonna had been captured infiltrating Naboo, and Admiral Ackbar led the rebel fleet there to rescue him and liberate Naboo. Despite the Emperor himself commanding the occupation force, they were wiped out in the First Battle of Naboo.


That victory, however, would be short-lived, as Grand Moff Tarkin led the Death Star to Naboo. The rebels lost a Corellian corvette in the space battle, and while the rebel ground force managed to take down an AT-AT, they were wiped out by a devastating bombardment from the Death Star. There was nothing to do but fall back on Rodia, but the sacrifice was worth it: the Death Star was moving ever further from my base.


While the rebel fleet regrouped, I deployed some forces at Nal Hutta and scattered ground units at various systems like Kashyyk and Cato Neimoidia, which even got the Coruscant garrison moving. At this point, pretty much the entire Imperial fleet, bar a single star destroyer at Felucia, was east of Coruscant. Even better, I managed to hit a jackpot: using the Infiltration mission to churn through the objective deck got me the Death Star plans, and I drew General Dodonna's mission card, which allows you to attack a system with an Imperial ship in it with units from the Rebel base. My fleet had already destroyed half of the Death Star's fighter screen at Second Naboo; I now sent Chewbacca on a sabotage mission to blow up the last two TIEs, and the coast was clear. The Death Star's defenses shot down our Y-wing, but the two X-wings finished the job, and that's how Jan Dodonna blew up the Death Star.


Meanwhile, part of the Coruscant garrison had made its way to Alderaan, and the Imperial fleet at Felucia advanced to Dathomir, searching for my base. My fleet destroyed the Imperial ships at Toydaria, but we lost the ground battle. At this point, it was only a question of time until the Empire found my base, but I had high hopes that I had killed enough time to stop them from gathering enough forces to overrun it before the game ended. With that in mind, I used Rapid Mobilization to move the remnants of my fleet to the base.


Thus, when Moff Jerjerrod's task force found my base on Dantoiine, we wiped them out.


Now that the base was revealed, it was a question of time: would the Empire be able to mass enough forces to destroy the base before time ran out? It didn't look good, but they had one fiendish trick up their sleeve: Boba Fett captured Admiral Ackbar and delivered him to Darth Vader, who had him frozen in carbonite! This cost us one reputation and actually extended the game by one turn.


Still, even that wasn't enough: a huge Imperial force was bearing down on Dantoiine, but time ran out for them and the rebellion was victorious.


It was a damn near-run thing, but the rebels held out and we had a great time seeing it through. I should also mention that while none of the Imperial forces could reach my base in the last turn, what they did have time to do was convert Admiral Ackbar to the dark side.

**

As with War of the Ring, I think the three-player experience is excellent. With both games, though, I wish there was some incentive for the players on the bad guys side to not co-operate; a prestige tracker or something like that. Even without it, though, I think the three-player game offers the best possible combination of strategy and social interaction. Mind you, this doesn't mean the game isn't great fun with two players!

In my opinion, there are a couple of things that really elevate the Rebellion experience. First and foremost, theme. The game does a great job capturing memorable moments from the original trilogy, but in a freeform enough way that the people and circumstances around them can change: this time, Jan Dodonna destroys the Death Star. The leaders are really important for this, but so are the units: from a gameplay perspective, it's not necessary to have both AT-STs and AT-ATs, but it does wonders for theme. Also, the miniatures are excellent, and really contribute to the feel of the game.

Second, I can't see two games ever being exactly the same. There are at least five good choices for the rebel base location based purely on geography (astrography?), and that's without factoring in the psychological aspects. Similarly, the way the missions amd objectives come up will change games a lot; our second three-player game was completely turned around when we drew and succesfully played Homing Beacon.


More importantly, there's a great psychological game going on with the Imperials trying to guess where the rebel base is, and the rebels trying to guess where the Imperials think it is, and both trying to mislead the other, and I don't see this playing out the same way many times either. The psychological and social dynamics are an absolute treat.

**

We've also got a copy of the Rise of the Empire expansion, so we'll be returning to Rebellion later! For now, suffice to say that this is an absolutely tremendous game, and I'm looking forward to playing it many, many more times. It's like War of the Ring, but not nearly as stressful or complicated, while still being a wonderfully intriguing strategic challenge. It also seems to be excellently balanced: you can find threads on Boardgamegeek where people are convinced the rebels win every time, and another where someone sold their copy of the game because it's so boring when the Empire wins every time. All I can say at this point is that I've thoroughly enjoyed playing both, and I highly recommend this game.

Aug 6, 2018

Let's Read Tolkien 47: The King of the Golden Hall

They rode on through sunset, and slow dusk, and gathering night.

Gandalf and Co. ride through the night, and as dawn breaks, they catch sight of the town of Edoras, and overlooking it, the golden hall of Meduseld. They pass the burial-mounds of the kings of Rohan, and get a history lesson and some poetry from Aragorn. At the gates of Edoras, the guards challenge them in the language of the Rohirrim, demanding their business. Eventually the companions are allowed through, only to face another questioning at the doors of Meduseld. Háma, the door-warden, demands they leave their weapons behind. In a reversal of our heroes' previous attempt, this time it's Aragorn who seems keen on suicide by Rohirrim when he won't leave his sword behind at the door. Gandalf defuses the situation, but in turn refuses to leave his staff behind. Eventually Háma allows them through.

Inside Meduseld, it is dark. An ancient, decrepit man sits on a throne, attended by a young woman and a counsellor. When Gandalf greets them, King Théoden receives him scornfully, saying he had wished Gandalf was dead. His counselor, Grimá Wormtongue, agrees, and insults Gandalf. The wizard shuts Wormtongue up, and speaks to the king alone. Gandalf's words cut through the despair Wormtongue had the king sunk into, and he casts aside his walking-stick. Revitalized, Théoden realizes the malice of Wormtongue, and Gandalf denounces Grimá as an agent of Saruman. At Gandalf's advice, Théoden resolves to go to war against Saruman - or rather to admit that Saruman is at war already. Éowyn is left behind to lead the Rohirrim, and Théoden, Gandalf and Co. and the host of the Rohirrim rides west to war.

**

What is it with these guys and picking fights with the Riders of Rohan?

In his capacity as Professor of Anglo-Saxon, Tolkien was something of an expert on Beowulf, and this chapter has what I think is the most direct homage to that epic poem in the Lord of the Rings: the double introductions at Edoras. When Beowulf lands in the country of the Scyldings, he is first challenged by a coast-guard, and then by the door-wardens of Heorot. He has to explain himself to both of them before he is allowed to see the king. Similarly, Gandalf and company are first questioned at the gates of Edoras, and then at the doors of Meduseld. Háma the door-warden eventually comes to the same conclusion as the Scylding coast-guard in Beowulf: the new-comers are friends.

Weard maþelode, ⁠ðær on wicge saet,
ombeht unforht:⁠ “Æghwaþres sceal
scearp scyld-wiga ⁠gescād witan,
worda ond worca, ⁠sē þe wel þenceð.
Ic þæt gehyre, ⁠þæt þis is hold weorod
frēan Scyldinga.

I also read a reference to this in Aragorn's words to Éomer and his riders on their first meeting: a man's part is to discern deeds and words; good and evil. Crucially, Éomer and Háma both succeed at this, even when the malice of Wormtongue deceives so many others. Háma, by the way, is the namesake of a hero mentioned in Beowulf, strengthening the parallel. The distinction between worda and worca also fairly prefigures Saruman!

**

Éowyn, first introduced here, is a character I'll be returning to later, but I thought I'd take this opportunity to provide some context for her. As I've mentioned before, Rohan is based on the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, and it's noteworthy that women played an exceptionally strong part in Mercia (see Pauline Stafford: Political Women in Mercia, Eighth to Early Tenth Centuries, in Michelle P. Brown & Carol A. Farr (ed): Mercia: An Anglo-Saxon kingdom in Europe, Leicester University Press 2001). Tolkien says of Éowyn:

Though not a 'dry nurse' in temper, she was also not really a soldier or 'amazon', but like many brave women was capable of great military gallantry at a crisis. (Letters, 244)

Even though Éowyn is left behind to lead in Théoden's absence, she does so wearing armor and bearing arms, and this is in no way commented on as unusual or strange. Tolkien must have been aware of the shield-maiden tradition in Scandinavian sagas, and clearly this is who Éowyn is intended to represent - with the added psychological dimension of Saruman's influence through Wormtongue. Again, for all of Tolkien's supposed rampant misogyny, there is absolutely no trace here of the kind of categorical statements on gender that one finds even in Ursula le Guin's Earthsea; no-one insists that women cannot fight or lead because they are women. Neither is there the leering mockery of George RR Martin's treatment of Brienne. Yes, Éowyn is left behind; however, she is specifically requested as a leader because "[s]he is fearless and high-hearted. All love her." I read Háma's words as a veiled rebuke to Théoden, who thinks the House of Eorl consists of himself and Éomer, forgetting Éowyn. Éowyn is a tragic figure, but never a comical one or an object of derision. But she isn't presented as in any way transgressive, either: she simply is. Looking back, Éowyn made a strong impression on me as a boy for exactly this reason.

Sticking with the House of Eorl, Gandalf's revitalization of Théoden is still one of the most moving moments in the books for me. While he banishes Wormtongue, more importantly Gandalf restores hope to Théoden. The entire episode of Wormtongue's influence on the court is a powerful Tolkien moral on corruption and hopelessness, and the power of words: in this, Wormtongue prefigures his master. There's also a fairly unsubtle Christian message in Wormtongue's speech to Gandalf: "Why indeed should we welcome you, Master Stormcrow? Láthspell I name you, Ill-news; and ill news is an ill guest they say." Grimá, of course, is saying the opposite of the truth. Laþspell is Old English for bad news; its opposite is gōdspel, or good news - or more specifically, gospel: εὐαγγέλιον. So Wormtongue is pretty much straight up calling Gandalf the Bible. There's a sensus spiritualis for you!

**

Next time: war. What is it good for?

Jul 9, 2018

Middle-earth: Shadow of War review

I talked about Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor before, and I quite liked it, because I thought it was a very succesful take on Middle-earth, and great fun to play. Eventually, I also got around to picking up the sequel, Shadow of War.


John Howe: Shelob, 2000.

**

To start with the least surprising stuff, the timeline is still all over the place, as it was in the previous game. The watch on the Black Gate ended in the year 1640 of the Third Age; Minas Ithil falls in 2002. So 360 years separate the initial events of both games. In Minas Ithil, Idril (again everyone, even Gondorian warriors, have high-elven names!) is told to take some items to the refuge of Henneth Annûn; quite a task, seeing as how it was built nine hundred years after the fall of Minas Ithil. The player character finds artifacts from Rohan in a city that fell hundreds of years before Eorl the Young was born. They even manage to mention Eärnur, the last king of Gondor - who died in Minas Morgul. So, y'know.

The plot is also just a complete mess. There's a new ring, but there's also Shelob, who readers of the Lord of the Rings will know as a giant fucking spider, but who is represented in the game by a bizarrely beautiful barefoot woman. I mean it makes sense that she's barefoot, because a spider wouldn't wear shoes, but the rest of it I'm not so sure about.


Another interesting character is Baranor, who was the subject of some hype for being the first person of color in the Lord of the Rings "universe", which is certainly not true as Kahliel beat him to it. But more diversity is always appreciated!


Now, I certainly don't think any kind of justification is necessary for including a person of color in a Tolkien-derived work - the "all-white" Middle Ages are a white supremacist fever dream and nothing else - but interestingly, there is one in Tolkien's letters. Namely in letter 211, where he briefly describes Gondor:

The Númenórans of Gondor were proud, peculiar, and archaic, and I think are best pictured in (say) Egyptian terms. In many ways they resembled "Egyptians" - the love of, and power to construct, the gigantic and massive. And in their great interest in ancestry and tombs.
(Letters, 211)

Minas Ithil in this game is quite Roman, but I would absolutely love to see a heavily Egyptian take on Gondor. All obelisks and pyramids and giant mortuary temples. Baranor is also a very proper Gondorian name, which is refreshing.

Unfortunately, that was the good stuff. Shadow of War has started taking considerably larger liberties with the background material, and it's just plain silly at times. We learn the identities of several Nazgûl, for instance, and they're completely ridiculous. In general, where Shadow of Mordor mashed up the chronology to tell a story that was surprisingly Tolkienian, Shadow of War throws together a hodgepodge of elements lifted from the books and makes a mess of it. This becomes a problem for reasons that I'll return to.

**

As for gameplay, all the good stuff from the previous game is there: the combat system is brilliant, the orc-captains have even more personality, and the settings are very well done. A particular peeve, though, is that the designers seem to have fallen in love with their dialogue: some of the orc-captains give massively long speeches that feel like they take forever.

At first, the game is great fun, just like its predecessor: roaming around the different areas, fighting orcs and being ambushed by captains while picking up collectibles, is wonderfully diverting and probably worth the price of the game on its own. What lets the whole thing down are the missions. For starters, there's so much going on and the plot is so incoherent that at times it's difficult to understand what it is that you're supposedly doing again and why.

The far bigger problem, though, is that the missions become repetitive. At a point not that far into the game, you've fought the Nazgûl so many times that it becomes boring. You know how to parry their attacks while fighting orcs, and it just stops being interesting. So yes, they've managed to make Ring-wraiths boring, but it gets so much worse than that. There's an entire questline where you fight a Balrog, and it's... boring. There are several quicktime events, a couple of bossfights and eventually a sequence where you fight a Balrog while riding a dragon and it's boring. Honestly, that's kinda impressive.

About halfway into the game - at least in terms of my completion percentage - the problems of gameplay begin to meet the problems of plot. The game is drifting further and further from Tolkien, which means my interest in the plot is dying, and the repetitiveness of the missions begins to make them into a chore. What ended up happening is that I never finished the damn thing. I couldn't be bothered.

**

So, to sum up: Shadow of Mordor's bigger sequel is more bloated, less Tolkien, and a lot more boring. There are hours upon hours of fun to be had, so if you finished Shadow of Mordor and were left wanting more, then you'll definitely get that here. But in the end, the incoherence of the plot, the loss of theme and the sheer repetitiveness of the missions got the better of me. This could have been a great game, but in the end it collapses under its own weight. I've understood that there's a bleak and dramatic finale, but sadly, I can't be bothered to find out.

Jul 2, 2018

Let's Read Tolkien 46: The White Rider

"My very bones are chilled," said Gimli, flapping his arms and stamping his feet.

We find the Three Hunters at dawn, looking for traces of the hobbits on the battlefield. Soon enough, they find the tracks of the hobbits, and Aragorn correctly deduces how they escaped both the orcs and the riders. He also reasons that the orcs must have been commanded to capture hobbits, which is why they set off for Isengard as soon as they had Merry and Pippin: telling orcs about the Ring would have been far too dangerous.

The hobbit-trail leads into Fangorn Forest, which Gimli is loath to enter, but with at least one missing hobbit to track and no horses to go anywhere else with, there's little choice. Aragorn tracks the hobbits to Treebeard's hill, and as the Three Hunters ascend it, they spot an old man below, who they take for Saruman. Gimli tries to persuade Legolas to shoot him, but Aragorn has to make the eminently reasonable point that they can't just shoot old men on sight.

The old man climbs up the hill, and after a short riddling conversation, Gimli decides the old man is Saruman, and confronts him. Instead of Saruman, though, the old man is revealed to be Gandalf, clad all in white. He and the Three Hunters catch up, and Gandalf talks about his battle with the Balrog. He reassures the hunters that the hobbits are fine, and asks that they rather go with him to Edoras, where the King of Rohan reigns. Gandalf summons his horse, Shadowfax, who is accompanied by the horses Éomer lent Aragorn and Legolas. They ride for Edoras.

**

So, Gandalf is back. Earlier, I talked about the way Eärendil prefigures Christ in Tolkien's theological scheme. Here, we encounter another Christ-figure: the resurrected Gandalf, sent back from the dead to finish his mission. To me at least, the failure of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli to recognize Gandalf recalls the way Jesus's disciples fail to realize his status in the Gospels. Like Eärendil, though, Gandalf is not an analogue of Christ, but rather a partial representation. Like Christ, Gandalf descends from heaven to bring hope to mankind; however, unlike Christ, he preaches no gospel, and crucially, unlike Christ, he is subject to the Fall and therefore temptation. Eärendil was human; Gandalf is divine - Christ is both. As I've said earlier, if anything, Gandalf is an angel. Both the Balrog and Saruman are fallen angels; Gandalf remains true to his mission. His resurrection prefigures Christ, but he is not a Christ-analogue in Tolkien's terms.

Apart from Gandalf's return, the function of this chapter is to direct the story firmly at the war in Rohan. The hobbits and the Ring are gone: the matter at hand is Saruman.

Next time: door-keeping and king-healing.

Jun 11, 2018

CKII: An Empress of Mercia

Fennis mira feritas, foeda paupertas: non arma, non equi, non penates; victui herba, vestitui pelles, cubile humus: solae in sagittis spes, quas inopia ferri ossibus asperant.
- Tacitus, Germania, XLVI


Emperor Éomer I (1056-59) inherited both the Mercian empire and the crusade in Finland. With his son, Éomer Éomersson (I did not pick that name), coming of age on his succession, we now have three consecutive generations of crusaders against the Finnish pagans. I was all set to write up our conquest of Finland, with an appropriate epigraph and everything, but then:


God may have been pleased, but I was not. Looking at the map, you can see why I was excited by a foothold in the north: the Seljuk juggernaut still blocks our way east. If you squint a little, you can see a splash of Mercian purple on the Baltic: that's where the Queen of Scotland, Wærburg the Daughter of Satan, conquered a chunk of Prussia. With my ambitions in Finland thwarted, maybe we could look into expanding there.


First, though, Spain. With the collapse of the Iceling kingdom of Italy and Africa, there were suddenly a lot of small independent counties and duchies in the Iberian peninsula, and at some point several of them were taken over by Vikings. We got some of them back.


Sadly, in addition to smiting the infidel, Éomer I also liked eating, and he passed away at the relatively young age of 45 from the gout. We barely knew him.


**

Éomer Éomersson succeeded to the throne as Emperor Éomer II (1059-1083), and got some help:


In his capacity as King of Jerusalem, Éomer II immediately vassalized the Templars, giving us almost ten thousand holy warriors to call on against the infidel, and most importantly, a massive force of heavy cavalry. Having been on the receiving end of the Catholic holy orders, I assure you they're no joke. Éomer put them to work in the Baltic.


Meanwhile, the Kingdom of Jerusalem completed its de jure drift into the Mercian empire.


One aspect of Éomer II's reign, however, stands above all others. We finally gathered enough cultural technology points to raise Tolerance in Leicester to VI, which meant that once enough members of the council were persuaded, Éomer II enacted full status of women in Mercia.


With that done, it was time to change the succession law in the empire, and in every damn kingdom I still held in it. Luckily, this doesn't require council approval; unluckily, it requires something even worse. To change the succession law in a kingdom, no dukes in it can have a negative opinion of you, nor can they be fighting each other. That's a tall order!

The problem is that if you get some but not all succession laws changed, the inheritance may get split. I had this for a long time, with the duke of Jerusalem fighting an interminable war with the King of Ireland for Jaffa. It eventually ended before Éomer died, but it made for a nervous time.


While that was getting sorted, we declared a holy war on the pagan Lithuanians. The supply limit in pagan counties is very, very low unless you have enough Military Organization tech. We don't, so we had to split up our army into several detachments. They had to be small enough to not take horrible losses from attrition, large enough to succesfully besiege the tribal holdings, and close enough to each other to take on bigger pagan armies together. As a sign of our new realm laws, the empress is in command of her husband's army.


Our superiority in both quality and quantity was crushing, so the outcome was never in any real doubt.


Eventually, Éomer II succumbed to severe stress. He left behind the core of a Mercian Lithuania, and more importantly, achieved my most cherished goal for this playthrough: full status of women and equal succession.


**

Now that we have equal succession rights, Éomer II was succeeded by his oldest child, Empress Éowyn the Great (1083-1123). As you can see, this is starting to be more like it.

To start off her reign, Éowyn expanded Mercia to the Persian Gulf by snapping up a county from the Aramid Empire.


Then, as we were busy fighting in Lithuania, the Pope called another crusade.


Sadly, crusades seem to be out of fashion, as no-one except a couple of tiny independent states joined in. Since it looked obvious that this was a lost cause, Éowyn sent in the holy orders, and rotated her commanders and vassals through so everyone got a Crusader trait. Meanwhile, domestic affairs intruded:


I don't know where the kid ended up, but I did have her mother killed.

In her younger days, Éowyn picked up the Poet trait, which nowadays has uses I never knew about:


However, in the middle of all this fun and games, we had no idea that the greatest challenge to Mercia since the Vikings was just over the horizon.


I said before that I was shocked we were able to hang on to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, but with both Abyssinia and Byzantium conquering Muslim realms north and south, we were mostly ignored. Now, though, Islam was resurgent: the Seljuks had reconquered most of Mesopotamia, and now their co-religionists were coming for us.


We met the first major enemy force at Rafha, in the Nefoud. After a tremendous battle and some dicy moments in the skirmish phase, our massed heavy cavalry rode them down. Empress Éowyn led her troops in person, and paid a price:


She would eventually recover from her wounds, but was left permanently disfigured. But what mattered was that we won the war: the jihad failed.


With Arabia secure, we were free to expand our foothold in Lithuania far enough to create the kingdom.


As a good hermeticist, Éowyn also spent a lot of her time studying the stars, and eventually wrote her magnum opus on astrology.


I realize in retrospect that while the Hermetic Society missions are a bit repetitive, it's the magna opera that make it worth it. They're essentially hereditable stat bonuses, and the ability to pick your apprentice lets you ensure your heir also has access to them. Éowyn eventually became head of the whole society.


While fighting to expand our holdings in Lithuania, Éowyn was seriously injured again, this time losing a hand.


Look, being Empress ain't easy. She fought in one last great war, this time against a Shia jihad for Arabia, and won.


Finally, in 1123, Empress Éowyn the Great left us. I really feel that along with Éomer the Strange and the demon-emperor Gedalbert, her reign was one of the high points of the game. After securing the Kingdom of Jerusalem and expanding all the way to the shores of the Persian Gulf, we finally faced not one but two serious Muslim counter-attacks - and defeated them. Our northern expansion seemed foiled, but Éowyn ended up Queen of Lithuania, alongside her other titles. She was valiant, succesful and as the first Empress of a newly gender-equal Mercia, set an example that will never be forgotten.

Jun 4, 2018

Let's Read Tolkien 45: Treebeard

Meanwhile, the hobbits went with as much speed as the dark and tangled forest allowed, following the line of the running stream, westward and up towards the slopes of the mountains, deeper and deeper into Fangorn.

Merry and Pippin have escaped both the orcs and the Riders of Rohan, and are now well inside Fangorn Forest. The air inside the forest is stifling, and as the hobbits stop for a drink by a stream, they exchange impressions. Pippin compares the woods to a room in the Smials of Tuckborough, where the furniture hasn't been moved for centuries; Merry points out that the forest doesn't feel evil, like Bilbo's description of Mirkwood. Perhaps oddly, the Old Forest isn't mentioned.

As they're talking, the sun comes out. Merry and Pippin make for the sunlight, and find a steep hill with something like a stair cut or weathered into it. It takes them to a high shelf with a single gnarled tree on it. As the hobbits look over the forest, Pippin luckily says that he almost likes it. Luckily, because what they had taken for a tree is, in fact, a fourteen-foot troll-like tree-creature that introduces itself as Treebeard the Ent. He admits that he almost took the hobbits for tiny orcs and smashed them, but a conversation is had where they establish that not only are hobbits not orcs, but that they have a mutual friend in Gandalf.

Treebeard carries the hobbits to one of his homes, where he gives them ent-draught to drink and has them tell their story. In return, Treebeard tells them all about ents. He describes them as tree-herds, tending to and protecting the trees of Fangorn, and protecting outsiders from dangerous trees. He recalls the old days, when a thick forest stretched from Fangorn to beyond the Shire in the north, but now there are far fewer ents, and many of them have become quiescent, almost trees.

Treebeard, in turn, is very interested in the hobbits' story, which they tell him, carefully omitting any mention of the Ring. As he puts it, he has stayed out of "the Great Wars":

I am not altogether on anybody's side, because nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me: nobody cares for the woods as I care for them, not even Elves nowadays.

Saruman, though, merits Treebeard's attention, as he realizes that he, too, has been deceived by the wizard. Treebeard becomes quite angry as he recounts Saruman's misdeeds, but calms himself down and begins to think about whether enough ents are left to resist him.

Before they go to sleep - apparently ents sleep - Treebeard tells the hobbits about the entwives, who the ents used to live with but lost. The next day, Merry and Pippin are taken for an extended walk through the woods as Treebeard summons the Entmoot: a huge and ponderous meeting of ents. The hobbits are soon bored, and Treebeard sends a young ent called Quickbeam to keep them company.

On the afternoon of the third day of the Entmoot, the Ents reach a decision: they are marching on Isengard.

**

Sticking with our Beowulf theme, last chapter we had the orcneas, and now the hobbits meet the eotenas. The Old English word eoten, meaning giant, gave rise to both the ettin of Dungeons & Dragons, as well as Tolkien's tree-herds.

They owe their name to the eald enta geweorc of Anglo-Saxon, and their connexion with stone. Their part in the story is due, I think, to my bitter disappointment and disgust from schooldays with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of "Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane hill": I longed to devise a setting in which the trees might really march to war. (Letters, 163, footnote)

The phrase eald enta geweorc, old work of giants, is, unsurprisingly, from Beowulf, but the association with trees and their unique way of speaking seem to be purely Tolkien's, and they've given rise to a marvelously memorable character in Treebeard. There's something quintessentially Tolkien about the sad tree-herds vanishing into the mists of time, but coming together one last time to defend nature against wanton destruction and infernal machinery. Add their penchant for song and the complete absence of their women, and you could well argue that if any one chapter of the Lord of the Rings is a microcosm of the whole work, it's this one.

At 26 pages in my copy of the book, it's also a long one, and because I was very busy during the last several months, I've felt totally unequal to the task of writing about it. There's quite a bit of exposition here, with Treebeard telling the story of the ents and their relationship with Saruman. He also explains that the trolls were made in mockery of ents, harking back to the Boëthian idea that evil can't truly create on its own.

The Entmoot and the march of the ents are also one of the first big iterations of one of the key morals of the Lord of the Rings, and an expression of Tolkien's northern theory of courage, a notion he developed in his Beowulf lectures and that I mentioned in passing earlier: the idea that when evil is afoot, at some point you have to stand up and fight it, whether you think you're going to win or not, because it's the right thing to do. As Treebeard remarks, the march on Isengard may well be the last march of the ents, but a last hopeless battle is better than quietly submitting and wasting away.

**

All in all, though, this is a chapter that has even more to it than usual compared to my tiny blog posts. As I said, I've been very busy and subsequently exhausted during the time I've had to write this, and I'm afraid it shows. However, I felt it was important to keep this series of posts running, so this is what I had.

Next time: a wizard.

May 14, 2018

Let's Play Twilight Struggle

I was reading something on fivethirtyeight.com last year, and came across a link to their article on designing the best board game in the world, which turned out to be Twilight Struggle. Since we were making a trip to Stockholm in January, I took the opportunity to visit the Science Fiction Bokhandeln, where board games are consistently cheaper than in Finland, and pick up a copy.


Twilight Struggle is a card-driven board game that covers the global Cold War. The board is a map of the world, divided into countries where you place influence, mount coups and generally vie for control and thereby victory points with the opposing superpower. Whoever reaches 20 victory points first wins - unless DEFCON drops to one, in which case the game ends in global nuclear war.


Everything is done by playing cards. Here's an example:


The red star in the upper left corner tells you that this is a Soviet event. If the Soviet player plays it, they can either have the event happen, or play it for Ops, which are used to spread influence, mount coups and that sort of thing. The number inside the star is 2, meaning Liberation Theology is good for 2 Ops. If the US player finds this card in their hand, they can only play it for Ops - but if they do, the event occurs as well. Therefore, one of the key skills in the game isn't just figuring out when to play your events, but how to time your opponent's events optimally for yourself.

The other kind of cards are scoring cards, which, when played, score their region in victory points. Below, an early victory in the Mid War from a judiciously played Africa Scoring.


Much as in other card-driven games, like War of the Ring, for instance, the cards direct gameplay. One way is structural: some scoring cards, for instance, only show up in the mid-war, and while the Soviet side is considered to have an early advantage, the late war cards tilt toward the US. In a recent game, I found myself with a hand of powerful enough Europe-focused cards, like Suez Crisis, Socialist Governments, and Europe Scoring, that a blitz on Europe seemed like a worthwhile shot. This is as far as I got:


One key thing new players should know is that in the Early War period, the only scoring cards in play are Europe, Asia and the Middle East. This tends to focus play; while I was mounting my assault on Europe, this is what Southeast Asia ended up looking like:


You can believe I did poorly when my opponent drew Southeast Asia scoring! However, Africa and the Middle East went my way, somewhat evening the odds. Finally, late in the Mid War, while my opponent's attention was focused on Latin America, I used Willy Brandt to break his control of West Germany, and snuck in enough influence to grab it, leading to a victory through controlling Europe.


**

All in all, Twilight Struggle is a tremendous game. Not only is it great fun, but it also does a brilliant job of evoking the Cold War mentality of a superpower game of geopolitical brinksmanship, where all other countries and actors in the world are just pawns and battlegrounds for you to utilize to get the upper hand in a zero-sum battle against your opponent - all while staring down an imminent nuclear holocaust. That all the events are actual Cold War people or episodes gives the game great thematic strength, but it's not tied to the historical constraints of the Cold War, but can unfold very differently indeed. As a history teacher, I very much appreciate the little historical vignettes about each card provided in the rulebook; they add a very real educational dimension to the game.

If you want a better handle on how the game works, head over to Twilight Strategy; I especially recommend one of the annotated games.

So, simply put, Twilight Struggle is great fun, and does a wonderful job of capturing the Cold War mentality. While I wouldn't go so far as to call it the best board game in the world - that's a much bigger conversation - I will say that if you're at all into board games, it's definitely worth experiencing.