Oct 26, 2015

My thesis: Forests, nationalism and Finnish armored doctrine

For those of you that read Finnish, my master's thesis in political history should now be available for download at the University of Helsinki digital repository. The title is "Onko hyökkäysvaunuilla mitään tulevaisuutta meillä?" Suomalainen panssariajattelu ja puolustusvoimien maastokäsitys 1919-1939; roughly translated: "Do tanks have any future with us?" [the title of a 1924 article]: Finnish armored thought and the armed forces' conception of Finnish terrain, 1919-1939. I use the term "armored thought" to capture the fact that the way the military sees the potential use of the tank influences more than just tank doctrine proper, but also anti-tank weapons and organization, and the whole role of both friendly and enemy tanks in battle.

The starting point for my thesis was a question: what happened to the Finnish armored force? In 1919, the newly founded Finnish government brought a stack of surplus war materiel from France, including some thirty Renault FT tanks. These were organized into what was officially called the Tank Regiment, but was actually a battalion. At the time, this gave Finland the largest armored force in Northern Europe, and that distinction was maintained for several years; Finnish armor outnumbered and outclassed the Soviets well into the 1920's. However, by the time the Winter War rolls around, the main strength of the Finnish armored forces is still those same Renaults. They were dug in as armored strongpoints and destroyed in battle. The Vickers 6-ton tanks that should have replaced them were bought too late; only a handful of them saw combat, and most were lost. At the same time, the rest of the army was suffering terribly from a complete neglect of anti-tank defenses that had only begun to be remedied when war broke out.

So what happened? How did the Finnish army go from being at the forefront of armored warfare in North Europe to facing the mechanized Soviet onslaught in 1939 with a handful of completely obsolete World War I tanks and desperately improvised anti-tank weapons? Why did we drop the ball on this so spectacularly? That's what I aimed to find out.


Previous research held that Finland's ex-czarist officers were to blame for the neglect of armored warfare. In the years before the Second World War, the Finnish army officer corps basically consisted of three groups. There were some older Finnish officers who had served in the Imperial Russian Army when Finland was a part of Russia. Their political opponents were the Jäger officers, who as young activists had left Finland covertly during the First World War and enlisted in the German army. The third group were some youg officers who had joined up during the Finnish civil war in 1918, and those joining up through the Finnish army itself. This last group were obviously very junior in the 1920s, but their influence would naturally grow.

The accepted story of Finnish armor has been that the ex-czarist officers were hostile to armored warfare and were convinced that tanks couldn't be used at all in Finland's forests. The trouble is that this claim is very poorly sourced. The better histories of the Finnish army tend to all refer to the same sources on this, chief among which is a 1924 article in Suomen Sotilasaikakauslehti, a military periodical. Written by a young lieutenant in the Tank Regiment, it obliquely refers to a general notion that tanks are unusable in Finnish terrain. The more specific claim that czarist officers were responsible can be found in the armored corps' histories, and most directly in the memoirs of Aarne Sihvo, the highest-ranking of the Jäger officers and a bitter enemy of the "czarists".

These sources aren't very persuasive, and there is also evidence against them. Moreover, in the "Jäger revolt" of 1924, the Jäger officers effectively staged a coup in the army and had the majority of the "czarist officers" thrown out. If the ex-Russian Army officers were to blame for the neglect of armor and the notion of the unusability of tanks, surely things would change when they were sidelined. But they didn't. So there are several problems with the accepted story.

My goal was to find out how Finnish officers thought about armored warfare between the world wars. Interwar armored doctrines are interesting because they're a great showcase for the relationship between technology and doctrine: technology sets a framework for doctrine (the tanks can only go so fast, for instance), but different armies with access to the same technology will create very different doctrines. I started from Elizabeth Kier's idea of an army's culture determining what doctrinal options it "sees". Did the Finnish army not see tanks as viable weapons of war in Finland? If so, why not, and why did their opinion change?

As material I used articles published in Finnish military periodicals from 1919 to 1939 dealing with armored warfare. When it became obvious that I was dealing with a wider matter than armor, I also looked at articles that dealt with the military geography of Finland. My method was discourse analysis. I wasn't all that interested in what the articles were saying about armored warfare, but rather how they were saying it: what kind of arguments were being used, what was not being said, and so on. My main perspective was the history of ideas. Military thought is often quite wrongly segregated from the rest of society. Especially the majority of earlier studies on Finnish doctrine tend to view the development of doctrine as simple, apolitical, technical problem-solving, where field regulations neatly succeed one another. I wanted to see if Finnish military thought and even armored doctrine could be linked to broader Finnish politics and culture of the era.

Another perspective I used was critical geopolitics. Critical geopolitics maintains that concepts of terrain and geography in general aren't objective reconstructions of natural facts, but rather ideological and political constructs. Geographical ideas are created for various reasons, and they both influence and are influenced by culture and politics. In this case, the Winter War did demonstrate rather conclusively that tanks could indeed be used in Finnish terrain. So why would Finnish officers think differently?

As a curiosity, I happened to read James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State while working on this thesis, and it definitely had an influence. Military doctrine is also a product of "state sight"; the war of the future that doctrine is created to fight is necessarily imaginary, and based on theoretical abstractions. For a cadre conscript army like Finland's, even most of the army's own formations only exist in theory before actual mobilization. What my thesis ended up being was a look at one abstract model: the Finnish army's changing concept of the military geography of Finland.


I found that the accepted view of the ex-czarist officers' hostility toward tanks is almost certainly wrong. While these officers ran the army high command, the Tank Regiment featured in their wartime planning. Hell, they're the ones who bought the damn things in the first place! In the early- to mid-1920's, there are several articles on mechanization, machine warfare and armor in the periodicals, expressing a variety of views from a Fulleresque obsolescence of the infantry to a dogmatic rejection of armor as unsuitable to Finland. Several young officers from the armored regiment took to the pages to defend their branch of service. It's also at this time that Sihvo adapts the French 1919 tank regulations to Finnish use, publishing several books on the subject. There were both pro- and anti-tank views being aired, as it were.

By contrast, after the "Jäger coup", this discussion dies down. A consensus forms that tanks can't be used in Finnish terrain at all, and both the armored corps and anti-tank defences are completely neglected. It's paradoxical that the Jägers, many of whom strongly identified as a young, dynamic force sweeping away the old, stagnant "Russians" and their outdated military thinking should have been so hostile to modern warfare. During the civil war, Sihvo had called the ex-czarist officers the "men of the retreat system", as opposed to the fervently offensive-minded Jägers. Elsewhere in Europe, young, dynamic revolutionary movements often went together with a modernist cult of the machine and the future; it's no accident that J.F.C. Fuller was a Fascist, or that armored doctrine was developed in such forward-looking ways in Germany and the Soviet Union. In Finland, by contrast, a system of military thought developed that almost harked back to the attaque á outrance of early World War I days. Why?

The key is terrain. Finnish officers formulated a view of Finnish terrain as diametrically opposite to Central Europe. One writer compared it to a photograph and a negative: compared to Finland, Central Europe had exactly the opposite proportion of forests. Central European tactics and organization were developed for this open environment, while Finnish tactics and doctrine had to work in the Finnish forests. The officers of the 1920's held that positional and machine warfare were impossible in the forests, as the dramatically reduced visibility drastically favored the offensive, and the tree cover effectively neutralized artillery, both by detonating the shells too high and early, and making resupply so difficult that sustained barrages couldn't be fired. Tanks couldn't be used in the woods at all, so neither armor nor anti-tank defences were necessary. So in effect, in the Finnish forests it would be as if the First World War had never happened.

This view is quite extraordinary, and completely wrong. Below is what a Finnish forest looks like after heavy artillery fire in the Winter War (SA-kuva):

Tanks were also used by both sides, and en masse by the Soviets. Both the Winter and Continuation wars saw prolonged periods of positional warfare, and the deployment of the entire conventional arsenal of machine warfare. While the war to the north of the Ladoga was very much forest fighting, in the crucial theater of the Karelian Isthmus, a brutal battle of attrition was fought that was exactly the kind of warfare Finnish officers of the late 1920's and early 30's had considered impossible.

I believe there are several reasons why they thought this. One was a lack of funding in the 20's, and a lack of ambition by officers, which led to most marches being carried out over roads and most battle exercises being fought over exercise grounds. There were very few large-scale manoeuvres. So it seems likely that many officers actually had very little practical experience of forest fighting. Similarly, practical knowledge of the effects of modern artillery fire on Nordic forests was in short supply.

Bizarrely, what little practical evidence there was contradicted the notion of the military exceptionality of the Finnish forest and the unique ability of the Finns to operate in it. In the Finnish civil war, both sides had effectively been restricted to the roads for both movement and combat, since poorly trained Finnish troops were entirely unable to operate effectively in the woods. The Renault tanks of the Tank Regiment had not only been tested in the terrain of the Karelian Isthmus and found usable, but the regiment had regularly toured Finnish military bases, demonstrating the tanks' ability to function in all environments. Yet this practical experience was ignored.

More importantly, though, there is a long tradition of Finnish thought (pdf) that identifies the Finns as "people of the forest", as opposed to Swedish-speakers or Russians. The unique nature of Finnish terrain has been synonymous with the uniqueness of the Finnish people, and still is: in his unprecedented televised address last month, Finland's current prime minister appealed to Finns' "unique relationship to nature". Finnish army officers, after all, weren't just concerned with training conscripts for war. The Finnish nation had only very recently been invented, and one important reason why Parliament had chosen a cadre system of conscription over several other alternatives was that a centralized national army would be more effective in indoctrinating conscripts into a proper Finnish nationalism. In order to achieve this, army officers used nationalist writings from the 19th century, which were steeped in the mythology of "forest Finland". The majority of the officers, especially the Jägers who stayed in the army after the civil war, were fanatical nationalists. Most of them also had at best a rudimentary military education.

Like I explained earlier, in order to formulate doctrine, a model of the terrain and forces involved has to be created. In the mental model of the Jäger officers, their Finnish conscripts were natural forest fighters, and the Finnish landscape was composed almost exclusively of impassable forests where "Central European" tactics and machine warfare wouldn't work at all. This "mental forest" was one where tanks simply couldn't operate. It was this that led to the idea often expressed in the late '20s and early 30's in the periodicals that tanks were unusable in Finland. So far from the former Imperial Russian officers being to blame, it was in fact the nationalist ideology of the Jägers that gave rise to the "anti-tank fallacy" of the interwar period.


Previous research has maintained that Finnish thinking on armored warfare changed in the 1930's, when Finland's military attaché in Moscow, Aladár Paasonen, reported on the growing mechanization of the Soviet army. In response to Paasonen's report, trials were arranged in the Karelian Isthmus, which demonstrated that tanks could, after all, be used in Finnish terrain. This caused a complete shift in Finnish doctrine, but the re-equipping of the army was still a work in progress when the Winter War broke out.

Again, this is at best partially true. The shift in thinking had actually started earlier, because the decade of neglect for the armored corps ended in 1933 when field trials were arranged to determine the successor of the obsolescent Renault FTs. Similarly, an anti-tank regulation - a translated Soviet manual! - had been published, along with a program of anti-tank training for the infantry. On the other hand, it's puzzling why it took the Finnish army so long to react to Soviet mechanization, which had started in 1928. While Finnish periodicals had actively followed international discussions on tank doctrine in the earlier 1920s, by the time of the internationally influent Salisbury Plain experiments in 1928-29, the Finnish defence press was ignoring tank warfare.

What we do know is that in the early 1930's, there was a cultural shift in the Finnish army. The Finnish army had been massively influenced by Germany, both through the military training of the Jägers and the numerous German army officers who acted as consultants in the early years of the Finnish army. Interestingly, Sihvo was a prominent critic of the German influence: he felt that the Finns were nothing but expendable colonial troops to the Germans. His biographer believes this is the main reason why Sihvo, an illustrious public figure at the time, was forced into resigning from the army in 1919. In the early 30's, concerns similar to Sihvo's were given official acceptance in a memorandum drafted by the army high command, under two successive Jäger chiefs of staff. The memorandum decried the fact that more than a decade after independence, Finland still didn't have its own army, but rather a force created to serve the needs of a foreign power. I believe that this reorientation gives rise to the change in Finnish military thought in the 1930's in general. Later in the decade, the first actual large-scale trials of forest fighting demonstrated that the Finnish army regimental organization was unsuitable to forest warfare. It was also found that the effectiveness of artillery in the forest was far greater than had previously been assumed.

This general shift in thinking seems to also have led to the armor question being re-examined. This didn't actually mean that any new information was produced. The 1934 trials in the Isthmus were held using some new Vickers tanks and the single Carden-Loyd tankette in Finland - but the majority of the tanks were Renaults. Effectively, the Finnish armored corps demonstrated in 1934 what they had already demonstrated in 1920 and the following decade: that Renault FTs could be used in Finnish terrain. What was unacceptable in the 1920's became acceptable in the 1930's, and Finnish armored thinking changed.


The fact that practically identical trials in 1920 and 1934 had opposite effects on Finnish doctrine highlights the way in which military thought cannot be seen as simple, technical problem-solving. As Elizabeth Kier said, understanding military culture is crucial to understanding the development and change of doctrine. Specifically, an examination of the army's conception of Finnish terrain through critical geopolitics and the history of ideas is crucial to understanding how the army saw the useability of tanks and the necessity of anti-tank defenses. To understand what doctrines armies arrive at, we have to understand how they see.

And that, in brief and unscientific form, was pretty much my master's thesis. It clocked in at 97 pages, and was both incredibly stressful and incredibly rewarding to write. The whole project took off in a completely unexpected direction by the time I found myself reading articles on the effectiveness of various kinds of artillery munitions in forests, but it was worth it. Overall, though I'm very much a fan of new military history, I feel that my thesis also demonstrates that re-examining topics of "old military history" like doctrine and tactics with a cultural studies approach and apparatus can be worthwhile, at least in providing new perspectives.

Oct 19, 2015

LotR LCG: The Mirkwood cycle

Ever since we got into the Lord of the Rings living card game over midsummer, we've been collecting the various expansions in some kind of order. The first releases after the core set were the Shadows of Mirkwood adventure packs, so you only need the core set to use them. In fact, our very first LotR LCG purchase included a Shadows of Mirkwood pack, namely The Dead Marshes, because my partner was keen on Boromir. Overall, the Mirkwood packs are tremendous value for money: not only are there some excellent player cards for all spheres, but almost all of the quests are good fun as well. If you're just getting into the game, I can't think of a better way to start collecting beyond the core set than the Mirkwood cycle adventure packs.

For this post, I thought I'd go through the packs one by one, sharing our experiences with the quest and discussing a player card or two.


The Hunt for Gollum - DL 4

The overall theme of the Shadows of Mirkwood cycle is Gollum: your heroes have been recruited by Gandalf to find the slimy bastard and bring him to the Elven-king's halls in Mirkwood. The first quest finds us searching for signs of Gollum along the banks of the Great River.

As I mentioned before, the notion that this quest is as difficult as A Journey Along the Anduin is ridiculous. The Hunt for Gollum is a fairly leisurely stroll along the river looking for clues. It's not a complete pushover; if, for instance, the Hunters from Mordor show up when there are several clue cards in play, things can get nasty. I have been defeated by this quest a few times! Most of the time it's fairly easy, but not boring; a basic, fun enough quest that's a nice introduction to further adventures in Middle-Earth, especially for new players devastated by A Journey Along the Anduin.

Card spotlight: Winged Guardian

I think there are some Eagle cards in just about every Mirkwood adventure pack, and my partner's deck is pretty much based on them by now. Winged Guardian is one of the best defenders in the early game, with a defence of 4 that's almost surreally high right after the core set. The cost of 2 is incredibly low, but the only downside is that Winged Guardian leaves play after defending, unless you spend a resource. Still, though, it's a brilliant card, and I don't know where we'd be without it. The Eagle cards are a great addition to any Tactics deck.


Conflict at the Carrock - DL 7

After finding Gollum's trail by the Great River, we hear that a group of Trolls has taken up residence at the Carrock, and Grimbeorn has gone to kill them, so off we go to give him a hand!

I've heard Conflict at the Carrock (which, by the way, sounds exactly like a WWE pay-per-view event) described as a quest that can't be beat on the first attempt. Well, I'm here to tell you that isn't true. This is basically a prequel version of the Hobbit saga expansion quest We Must Away, Ere Break of Day: there's a benign first stage, and then suddenly trolls, sacks and mayhem. This time, there are four trolls, and you have to defeat every troll in play to win.

Rather like our first multiplayer experience with We Must Away, our first swing at Carrock went disastrously wrong. We were playing three-handed (my Spirit/Lore, my partner's Team Boromir Tactics Eagles, and a Leadership dwarf deck), and not only did we pretty much barge straight into the quest trolls, but managed to draw a Hill Troll from the encounter deck as well! So now there were five trolls to deal with.

Strangely enough, we did just that: the dwarf deck laid into the Hill Troll and finished it off with a bit of help, just in time before the dwarves' threat got high enough that the trolls came in. To stop them from having to take on all four at once, both other decks voluntarily engaged one troll each. I had to chump block mine at first, but hell, I actually managed to do some damage in return with the help of the invaluable Haldir of Lórien! Meanwhile, the Tactics deck was holding its own quite nicely and using Horn of Gondor to benefit from all the chump blocking and, very appropriately, summon Beorn himself to help out. Over at the Leadership end, it's amazing what Thorin Oakenshield can do sometimes, and an improbable dwarven Steward of Gondor got enough resources in play to get us Grimbeorn's fantastic troll-fighting help.

Long story short, even though our situation looked worse than dire at one point, we defeated the trolls! This is a really, really good scenario, and we had a hell of a time. Although I can't imagine how I could ever manage to beat it solo, I was pleasantly surprised by how well my deck did in combat. I would highly recommend buying this adventure pack for the quest alone.

Card spotlights: A Burning Brand, Song of Wisdom

Having said that, if you use Lore, you want to get this pack for the player cards as well. A Burning Brand is a mainstay of Lore decks for its shadow-canceling ability; defending becomes that much more predictable, and you can laugh at Dol Guldur Beastmasters. The Khazad-dûm expansion already has some pretty damn nasty shadow cards, and they start getting nightmarish by Lost Realm, so this is a must-have.

I wanted to highlight Song of Wisdom as well because I use it myself in combination with A Burning Brand. The Mirkwood packs include four Song cards, one for each sphere, which you can attach to your heroes to give them that sphere's resource icon. This is obviously great for multi-sphere decks, since that hero's resources can then be used to pay for cards from both their original and new sphere. My heroes are Éowyn, Eleanor (both Spirit) and Beravor (Lore); giving Eleanor Song of Wisdom lets me use her resources to pay for both Spirit and Lore cards, which makes my life a lot easier. The Song cards can also let you do all kinds of other stuff that's dependent on your heroes' spheres. In my case, Song of Wisdom also means I can give Eleanor a Burning Brand, which, along with Protector of Lórien, makes her a reasonably competent defender.


A Journey to Rhosgobel - DL 6

After defeating the trolls, we follow Gollum's trail further along the Anduin, where we encounter Wilyador, a badly wounded great eagle. We can't save him, but Radagast can, so off we go to Rhosgobel.

This is another three-stage quest, where you race against time to get an Eagle ally to safety before time runs out: poor Wilyador takes two points of damage at the end of every round, and at the end of the quest, you have to heal him completely to succeed. To do this, you gather Athelas objectives, each of which will heal five points of damage from Wilyador. The trouble is, they don't tell you that. When you clear the second stage, the quest is over, and only then are you told that if you don't have at least one Athelas objective for every five damage on Wilyador, sorry, game over! Obviously this was the end of our first three-handed attempt, none of us having any idea this was coming as I absolutely refuse to spoil quest cards. This is just terrible, terrible design! Once you know this, though, you'll know you have to pace your questing appropriately.

A Journey to Rhosgobel may require the most specialized deck of all the Mirkwood scenarios; not only will some healing come in real handy, but there are also enemies in the encounter deck that can only be engaged by Eagles or cards with the "ranged" keyword. Luckily, we've got both eagles and healing in our decks; even more luckily, we didn't really need either on our two-handed attempt. This is a fun and different quest: threat is a complete non-issue, and deck abilities like healing and ranged combat that are normally just nice extras are suddenly vitally important. We like it!

Card spotlights: Escort from Edoras

Where my partner has eagles, I have my Rohan allies. Since Éowyn is one of my heroes, including Rohan characters feels thematically appropriate, but it's also extremely useful: since I mostly play two-handed with a Tactics deck, the questing tends to be mostly my responsibility, and Rohan allies are excellent questers. Case in point: Escort from Edoras. For a measly two Spirit resources, you get a one-time questing ally with four willpower. It's like having Gandalf along! When I started out with my Spirit/Lore deck from the core set, questing power and allies were my most immediate need, and Rohan is the answer.


Hills of Emyn Muil - DL 4

We here at this blog aren't afraid to voice controversial opinions. This is largely because no-one reads this blog, but unafraid we are nonetheless. Here's what the Tales from the Cards blog has to say about the Hills of Emyn Muil: "I’ll be blunt, this quest is widely regarded as the weakest of all the LOTR LCG scenarios, and I would have to concur." Or: "unremarkable and tedious". A bear called it "obnoxious" and "a tedious experience".

Well, they're all wrong. We like the Hills of Emyn Muil a lot. It's a different quest, both in terms of mechanics and theme, and stands out to its advantage in the Mirkwood cycle. The plot of the quest is that the heroes have lost Gollum's trail in the Emyn Muil, and have to search the area to find him again. There's only a single quest stage, and you don't clear the quest by getting enough progress, but by gathering victory points: the win condition is that you need to have twenty victory points and no Emyn Muil locations in play. In practice, this means clearing quite a few locations. The high initial threat can make this a bit tough, but if you can get rolling, the quest is challenging, but not frustrating. We've beaten it twice three-handed, but two-handed (Amazons/Tactics) took several attempts; we had an excellent time. Playing solo, I found the quest quite easy, but fun. The gorgeous art on the Emyn Muil locations deserves a special mention.

I fully understand that if what you love about the game is desperate, fast-paced combat or whatever, you won't enjoy this quest. To me, though, geography is vital to Tolkien's works, far more so than hacking and slashing your way through orcs and trolls and whatnot. I guess that's why this quest feels so thematically strong and satisfying to me. I strongly recommend it. Don't listen to the naysayers and enjoy yourself.

Card spotlight: Descendant of Thorondor

Yup, another eagle. What distinguishes Descendant of Thorondor is a great direct damage effect: you get to deal 2 damage to an enemy in the staging area when the Descendant enters or leaves play. This is a great combo with Meneldor's Flight, effectively letting you do 4 damage in the staging area for 4 resources (3 if you have Horn of Gondor). When you're up against a Goblin Sniper hiding behind high-threat enemies you really don't want to engage, or, Eru forbid, Hummerhorns, having a way to do damage in the staging area is absolutely brilliant.


The Dead Marshes - DL 5

Set in a very memorable part of Middle-earth, this adventure pack provides a climax of sorts to the whole cycle: we finally catch Gollum! Or, well, it's meant to, at least. I already talked about this quest before, so I won't repeat myself; suffice to say that it's boring, poorly designed and far too easy. You're chasing down Gollum and have to keep making escape tests, effectively questing twice, or he gathers enough resource tokens to escape. Theoretically, this is a bad thing, but in practice it just absolves you of bothering with the escape tests until he pops out of the encounter deck again - an encounter deck weak enough that you can hang around waiting for him. We once had him escape and then get discarded as a shadow card, meaning we had to work our way through the entire encounter deck and then some - and still won. This is easily the worst quest in the whole Mirkwood cycle.

Card spotlights: Boromir, Elfhelm

As I've mentioned, Boromir is the reason we bought this pack in the first place, and he's worth it. Not only does he have excellent stats, but his ability to ready at the cost of a threat increase can really save the day, letting him either defend multiple times or both defend and attack, for instance. A very powerful Tactics hero who's a great fit with the core set heroes as well.

Elfhelm is another fantastic Rohan ally with heroic stats, but more importantly, he negates threat gain from encounter cards and failed questing. Together with Éowyn's willpower boost from card discards, Elfhelm can negate damage from a failed questing phase, and he lets you laugh at Doomed 1 treacheries. Also, since his ability requires him to be ready during questing, he's also there to provide emergency defence or an extra bit of offensive punch in the combat phase.

The player cards aren't half bad in general, so even though the quest is the weakest in the whole cycle, the pack isn't a complete waste of money. Oh, and if you're looking to build a Hobbit deck, you'll need this pack.


Return to Mirkwood - DL 7

Having finally caught Gollum, our last task is to deliver him to King Thranduil. This is by far the most difficult quest of the cycle, as it should be. One player has to guard Gollum, which comes with all sorts of unspeakable treacheries, attacks and a constant increase in threat. As if that wasn't bad enough, the quest itself is difficult enough, and many of the enemies are just awful.

We gave this three attempts two-handed; we won once, but twice we drew a Hill Troll, Ungoliant's Spawn and Attercop, Attercop (or two) right off the bat, and there was just nothing we could do. So I'd say that while this is an appropriately epic quest, I find it a bit too dependent on the luck of the draw. One Attercop we can deal with; two (Attercop, Attercop, Attercop, Attercop?), Ungoliant's Spawn and a Hill Troll? No chance. When you do manage to beat a quest like this, it's immensely satisfying, but the other times it just felt pointless, because we never had a chance. That can be massively frustrating. I would think that as a general design principle, you wouldn't want people to walk away from your game thinking "why did I even bother".

Card spotlights: Dáin Ironfoot, Eagles of the Misty Mountains, Support of the Eagles, Mirkwood Runner, West Road Traveller

Yeah, there's a couple of these, for the simple reason that there's something in this pack for everyone. I absolutely agree with Tales from the Cards that if you're going to buy one Mirkwood pack for the player cards, make it this one.

First, the lord of the Iron Hills. I haven't covered any Leadership cards so far, for a simple reason: I play Spirit/Lore, and my partner uses Tactics. Dáin, though, is so essential a hero that we can hardly ignore him: he's the mainstay of the Dwarf deck, one of the most powerful theme decks in the game. As long as he's ready, Dáin provides all Dwarf characters with +1 attack and +1 willpower. This is an incredibly powerful effect, especially in multiplayer. Dwarf decks generally benefit from having several dwarven characters in play, and Dáin makes them all that much better. An absolute must-have if you want to build a Dwarf deck.

If Dáin is the keystone of dwarven synergy, Eagles of the Misty Mountains and Support of the Eagles complete the Eagle deck provided by the Mirkwood expansions. The Eagles are a great ally in their own right, with the added bonus that other Eagle cards leaving play can be attached to them to boost their combat stats further.

Support of the Eagles, on the other hand, lets you lend any eagle ally's attack or defense abilities to your heroes. These are both tremendous cards that give eagle-themed Tactics decks a whole new dimension.

How many good things can I say about Mirkwood Runner? At the moment, there are exactly two (2) Spirit or Lore allies with an attack higher than two. This pretty much means that even Mirkwood Runner's base attack of 2 is considerable, but it's the special ability that makes this card so noteworthy: when attacking alone, Mirkwood Runner ignores an enemy's defence stat. So you can either lay down two damage on just about any enemy, or add an extra two attack to Elfhelm and whoever else you've got on hand for the job. In our usual two-handed setup, the combination of one point of initial damage from Thalin and a guaranteed two from Mirkwood Runner is enough to see to quite a few enemies, letting me help out with combat so the Tactics deck can concentrate on the nasty stuff. When I play solo, Mirkwood Runner probably accounts for 80% of all combat damage I inflict, my favorite tactic for taking out large enemies being to Forest Snare them and let Mirkwood Runner look after the rest. An absolutely essential card go make Lore decks a bit more fighty.

And finally, West Road Traveller. Two willpower for two resources is still a fantastic deal. How I could ever have made it through We Must Away without my three West Road Travellers, I don't know. Their location-switching ability is a bit marginal, but it can be useful to avoid some nasty location effects that are keyed to the refresh phase, like raising threat. Mostly, though, these ladies do the legwork on questing along with Éowyn, and they're absolutely indispensable. It would be a very strange Spirit deck that left them out, unless there was a very specific theme that for some reason excludes incredibly useful cards like this one.


Overall, the Shadows of Mirkwood adventure packs are excellent. We quite liked both Conflict at the Carrock and Hills of Emyn Muil. A Journey to Rhosgobel is very good, despite the last quest stage being glaringly stupid the first time around. The Hunt for Gollum is fun, but a bit too easy; Return to Mirkwood is a good quest that suffers from being randomly murderously difficult. Dead Marshes is the only dud in the whole cycle, and even that pack comes with some very good player cards to offset the disappointing quest. All in all, this is a really good set of expansions for a truly fantastic game.


Finally, a deck update. We're aiming to sort of more or less get the various expansions in order, but I do have to admit that I cheated a bit and grabbed a copy of The Lost Realm. Eriador is a region very dear to me, not least because my first role-playing campaign ever was set there, so I was really keen to get Lost Realm, and eventually succumbed to the temptation. And hey, it comes with Neil Young Aragorn. So far, I've only included a couple of cards from it; I switched my copies of Lore of Imladris for Athelas, if only to have a way of dealing with Condition attachments after a traumatic experience with Watchful Eyes, and included a side quest. Side quests are a new card type introduced in The Lost Realm: you can play a side quest from your hand to the staging area, accumulate progress on it like on any other card, and reap benefits when you complete it. This one, Gather Information, lets each player search their deck for a card of their choice and add it to their hand. For a measly four progress, that's brilliant in multiplayer! It also comes with the added bonus of being a reliable way to delay advancing a main quest in scenarios like We Must Away.

I've wanted to stick to a single deck as much as possible, and so far I feel I've been quite successful with it. Obviously some quests would become much easier if I customized my deck to suit them more precisely, but to me, that takes away so much of the fun of deck-building. I did at this point decide to make one exception. I've found that solo play is in many ways quite different than playing with several others; so far, one key difference has been that multiplayer games tend to take far less turns. This is especially true since my deck has both a lower starting threat than the others I tend to play with, and because I have the most powerful threat management tools. At one point, I've actually managed to lower my threat below 20 in solo play! Given that Beravor and Gleowiné provide me with plentiful card draw, it hasn't been uncommon for me to work through my entire deck in a solo game. This was obviously why I included a copy of Will of the West, which lets me recycle my discard pile into my deck. In multiplayer, though, Will of the West is pretty much a waste of space, because the discard piles rarely get big enough to justify using it. On the other hand, the Gather Information side quest is fantastic in multiplayer, but not really very useful in a solo game where I end up drawing my entire deck. So what I've decided to do is have a sideboard of cards that I can swap in for solo play. In addition to Will of the West, I decided to include Resourceful for a laugh, just in case I have another brush with Secrecy!

Next time around, I'll be sharing some of my solo experiences. Until then, here's my deck as of this writing:

The Amazons

52 cards: 26 Spirit, 21 Lore, 5 neutral; 3 heroes, 25 allies, 10 attachments, 13 events, 1 side quest


Allies: 25 (13/9/3)
Elfhelm (TDM) x2
Northern Tracker x2
Arwen Undómiel (TWitW) x2
Escort from Edoras (AJtR) x2
Westfold Horse-Breaker (THfG) x2
West Road Traveller (RtM) x3
Haldir of Lórien (AJtR)
Daughter of the Nimrodel x3
Mirkwood Runner (RtM) x2
Gléowine x2
Henamarth Riversong
Gandalf (Core)
Gandalf (OHaUH) x2

Attachments: 10 (1/8/1)
Unexpected Courage
Forest Snare x2
A Burning Brand (CatC) x2
Athelas (TLR) x2
Protector of Lórien x2
Song of Wisdom (CatC)

Events: 13 (10/3)
The Galadhrim's Greeting x2
A Test of Will x2
Dwarven Tomb
Hasty Stroke x2
Elrond's Counsel (TWitW) x3
Radagast's Cunning
Secret Paths x2

Side quests: 1
Gather Information (TLR)

Solo sideboard:
swap one Daughter of the Nimrodel for Resourceful (TWitW)
swap Gather Information (TLR) for Will of the West


And my partner's Tactics deck:

Team Boromir

51 cards: 49 tactics, 2 neutral; 3 heroes, 19 allies, 18 events, 11 attachments

Boromir (TDM)

Allies: 19 (17/2)

Landroval (AJtR)
Radagast (AJtR)
Descendant of Thorondor (THoEM)
Eagles of the Misty Mountains x3 (RtM)
Bofur (OHaUH)
Gondorian Spearman x2
Winged Guardian x3 (THfG)
Vassal of the Windlord x3 (TDM)
Dúnedain Hunter (TLR)
Gandalf (Core) x2

Events: 18

Swift Strike
Thicket of Spears
To the Eyrie (AJtR)
Blade Mastery x2
Feint x2
Quick Strike
Tireless Hunters (TLR)
Goblin-Cleaver x2 (OHaUH)
The Eagles are Coming! x3 (THfG)
Foe-Hammer x3 (OHaUH)
Meneldor's Flight (THoEM)

Attachments: 11

Citadel Plate
Support of the Eagles x2 (RtM)
Dwarven Axe x2
Secret Vigil x2 (TLR)
Blade of Gondolin x2
Horn of Gondor
Born Aloft (CatC)

Oct 12, 2015

Sipilänomics, part 2: Unit labor costs, competitiveness and the export fixation

In my previous Sipilänomics post, I talked about how the Finnish ideology of national competitiveness continues to drive our economic policy to a short-sighted, if not actually ultimately disastrous, focus on reducing labor costs at the expense of cutting the deficit. Indeed, successive right-wing-led cabinets have cut public spending and immediately spent the dividend in reducing employers' labor costs, so that in spite of extensive cuts to the public sector, government spending has actually increased in real terms. I managed to provoke some macroeconomic analysis, which I urge you to read.

This time around, I want to look more closely at the specific issue of unit labor costs, and whether reducing them is a sensible goal for national economic policy or not.


First, to give some context, I want to throw out some ballpark figures on government spending that the current administration isn't cutting. Remember that our net deficit is around five billion euros.

Wealth transfers to corporations obviously start with direct corporate subsidies, which, according to the Cabinet office's report on corporate subsidies, total 1.3 billion euros a year. The current administration is not making any significant cuts. In addition, Finnish businesses receive six billion euros' worth of tax breaks every year.

Incidentally, total tax exemptions in Finland are a staggering twenty-three billion euros annually. Every third tax euro is exempt. You'd think the tax system could do with some streamlining.

This is a slightly artificial number, but if you want to talk about eliminating the deficit, we can total up all the money we're throwing at businesses. One billion in direct subsidies plus six billion euros' worth of tax breaks is already a larger sum than the entire central government budget deficit. Add to that the three billion dollars of tax and social security payment cuts I talked about in my previous post, and you can argue that as a ballpark figure, over the last decade or so we've been giving Finnish businesses ten billion euros per year.

Another massive money sink we're not touching is farm subsidies. The 2015 government budget lists some 1.8 billion euros in agricultural subsidies, 400 million to forestry and fisheries, and another 400 million to rural development, totalling about two and a half billion euros annually. We pay more in farm subsidies than we do in unemployment benefits.

Again, though, this two billion figure doesn't capture anything like the whole expense of Finnish "area policy". The cabinet office report on corporate subsidies points out that all subsidies and tax breaks are created for a variety of political reasons that are difficult to untangle. It's impossible to even estimate how much of the seven billion euros of corporate subsidies and tax breaks are in practice area subsidies. A far greater challenge would be in trying to come up with some notion of the opportunity costs of agricultural and area subsidies, as well as untangling municipal finances and state interventions in them. So the direct budget expenditure of two billion is barely scratching the surface of what our illusion of agricultural self-sufficiency and "area equality" actually cost. These subsidies have all been increased during our so-called austerity, including by the Sipilä cabinet.


So we're not cutting any of those expenses. We're not even really talking about them. Instead, the constant focus has been unit labor costs. In his farcical, patronizing televised speech last month, Sipilä again insisted that labor costs must be reduced by 5%; his cabinet and party have repeatedly made it clear that they're willing to negotiate on how this can be achieved, but not on the reduction itself. The idea of reducing vacation compensations and/or lengthening working times amounts to the same thing as the pay cuts the cabinet has suggested: reducing labor costs.

For a company, unit labor costs are an important figure. Obviously the less a company has to pay out in wages to produce a given quantity of product, the better. On the national level, though, unit labor costs are a completely different animal: effectively, national labor costs are the share of national income that goes to workers. So when a company says it wants to reduce labor costs, it's saying it wants to produce more efficiently; however, when you say that a country has to reduce its labor costs, what you mean is that income has to be distributed less equally: less needs to go to workers and more to, effectively, shareholders. So in a sense, the literal meaning of lower labor costs is greater income inequality.

What's more, as is explained in some detail here, unit labor costs are actually a terrible indicator of national competitiveness. Unit labor costs are in many ways an unreliable aggregate number that can give a serously misleading picture of the development and competitiveness of an economy.

The World Economics Association newsletter I linked to includes a graph of real unit labor costs in selected EU countries, including Finland (orange):

As you can see, real unit labor costs rose dramatically in 2008. At the same time, though, there was no corresponding rise in real incomes, which rose steadily until 2009 and have since plateaued.

So whatever it was that made Finnish unit labor costs suddenly rise in the late 2000's, it wasn't wages. It's also worth pointing out that in the context of plateaued real wages, the Sipilä cabinet's wage cuts combined with continuing insistence on extremely low raises will mean that real incomes will actually decline.

What happened, then? According to the Labour Institute for Economic Research, what happened was a dramatic decline in the electronics and paper industries, not to mention a global financial crisis. This would seem to be in line with the criticism of unit labor costs linked above, where change in one industry can give the misleading impression that the entire economy has become less productive. Elsewhere, aggregate productivity statistics have been misleading.

So effectively, what we're trying to do now is compensate for losing Nokia, and the continuing decline of our paper industry, by lowering everyone's wages.

Further, as Jesus Felipe and Utsav Kumar argued in 2011, unit labor costs don't explain Germany's strong exports, but rather, complexity and diversity of exports do. Attempting to compete with Germany solely by lowering unit labor costs is, in their view, completely misguided. Especially if our unit labor costs are actually already lower - it does strike me that most presentations on Finland's diminishing competitiveness focus on change in unit labor costs, which can be tremendously misleading; see also Haaparanta. Moreover, it's a generally accepted fact, known as Kaldor's paradox, that low unit labor costs don't correlate with increased output. Therefore, their conclusion is: "Wage reductions would do probably cause more damage through a compression of demand." When real incomes haven't risen for five years, this seems inevitable.


But if reducing unit labor costs isn't an effective way to boost exports, how do we do that, then? Because if there's one thing pretty much every political party and public commentator in this country agrees on, it's that we need to boost exports.

Here, from Finnish Customs, is our trade balance over the last couple of years:

Here are monthly figures for imports and exports:

What I am going to say now is so heretical that I need to warn any Finnish readers in advance. Make sure you're sitting down, not eating and drinking at the moment, and brace yourselves.

I don't see why we need to worry about exports.

Seriously. Our trade balance is all right. Other things being equal, exporting more would always be nice, so I'm certainly not in any way opposed to anything that can enhance our foreign trade, but there doesn't seem to be any reason at all why we should panic about the state of our exports. Certainly no reason to make massive cuts and depress domestic purchasing power in favor of a minute, theoretical boost to exports.

So to sum up, not only are lower unit labor costs not a sensible way to enhance our exports, but there isn't even anything in our foreign trade balance that suggests we should be particularly concerned about exports at all - especially when what we should be concerned about is our government deficit and national debt.

Unfortunately, our decision-makers seem to feel the opposite way. MTV3 interviewed the head of the Finnish Federation of Enterprises, and asked him to explain how cutting nurses' salaries helps Finnish exports. A good question! His reply was that cutting public sector salaries reduces the deficit, which will allow more tax breaks for exporters. So when I said in my previous post that we can only conceive of cutting the deficit through increasing exports, I may have been wrong. Instead, the only reason we want to cut the deficit is so that we can increase exports. This isn't so much putting the cart before the horse, but rather harnessing a horse to a cart so that we can lighten the cart to make the horse go faster. Amazing.

This is how deep the cultural fixation of prosperity through exports goes. As far as I know, not a single Finnish party questions the need for Finland to concentrate on exports and international competitiveness.


How bad is our competitiveness, then, since our cabinet constantly insists on such drastic measures to restore it? According to the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report published last summer, Finland is the second most competitive economy in Europe, ranking fourth worldwide. This is no fluke: Finland consistently ranks very highly in international competitiveness surveys. This makes the massive sense of doom propounded by the right about our competitiveness somewhat difficult to understand.

The World Economic Forum uses 12 pillars to assess a country's competitiveness. Some of these are being dismantled by our right wing. The third pillar, for instance, is the macroeconomic environment, prominently including government fiscal deficits and debt levels, which we've seen continue to get worse. The fourth pillar is health and primary education, both targeted for sweeping cuts. The fifth pillar is higher education and training - also cut. The twelwth pillar is innovation:

This progression requires an environment that is conducive to innovative activity and supported by both the public and the private sectors. In particular, it means sufficient investment in research and development (R&D), especially by the private sector; the presence of high-quality scientific research institutions that can generate the basic knowledge needed to build the new technologies; extensive collaboration in research and technological developments between universities and industry; and the protection of intellectual property, in addition to high levels of competition and access to venture capital and financing that are analyzed in other pillars of the Index. In light of the recent sluggish recovery and rising fiscal pressures faced by advanced economies, it is important that public and private sectors resist pressures to cut back on the R&D spending that will be so critical for sustainable growth into the future.

My boldface. Perhaps coincidentally, on the same day that the prime minister's pre-recorded speech was shown on television, the University of Helsinki announced they're cutting staff by approximately 15% over the next five years. Overall, university funding is being cut by half a billion euros annually. So our R&D spending is being cut quite massively.

The four pillars of competitiveness the Sipilä cabinet is so intent on toppling can be summed up in one concept: human capital. If there's one thing we do know correlates strongly with economic performance, it's human capital. If nothing else, a more highly skilled workforce is more productive and more innovative. Finland, for instance, can hardly claim to owe its present prosperity to abundant natural resources or other accidents of geography. Nokia came about because of the high level of human capital in the Finnish economy; if we want to see similar success in the future, we need more investments in human capital, not less. Unfortunately the Sipilä cabinet is committed to doing exactly the opposite. According to some statistics, the quality of Finnish exports is already so low that attempting to compete through cheaper labor is doomed to fail. Reducing our human capital would seem to be most likely to lower that quality even further. The new head of the government's economic research institute agrees, and points out that the few investments the government is making are minuscule and misguided.

The WEF report divides countries into three groups based on their economic development, in ascending order: factor-driven, efficiency-driven and innovation-driven. Right now, they place Finland at the very top of the innovation-driven economies, but the current administration's goals are focused on efficiency at the expense of innovation. In that sense, you could argue that they're actually trying to drastically reduce our competitiveness by downgrading the entire economy.


So, some conclusions. First of all, the Sipilä cabinet's monomaniacal fixation on reducing unit labor costs doesn't seem very likely to actually increase the competitiveness of our exports. What's more, it isn't at all clear why we so desperately need to enhance either our national competitiveness or our exports right now. I, for one, would much prefer trying to actually cut the deficit.

What makes everything much worse is that barring some completely unexpected chain of events, the negative effects of this labor cost policy are likely to be substantial. In the short term, cutting wages will necessarily reduce domestic demand, depressing the economy even further. In the long term, making large cuts to health care and education will severely diminish our human capital, which means that future growth will be less than it otherwise would have been. Furthermore, the hardships inflicted by the cuts, disproportionately borne by lower-income citizens, will rebound in larger problems in the future - just like after the last recession. At this rate, though, the deficit will land us in serious trouble before any long term effects make themselves felt. I strongly agree with Björn Wahlroos: our sustainability gap is never going to be a problem, because at this rate we'll go bust long before it hits.

In my previous post on the subject, I tried to demonstrate that there hasn't at any point been, and still isn't, any austerity or deficit-cutting going on in this country, because all Finnish parties agree that exports are more important than the deficit. In this post, I've done my best to examine the particular strategy of export-boosting adopted by the Sipilä administration. At the very least, there are strong doubts that a focus on unit labor costs is going to produce the results the cabinet claims; it seems far more likely that in the long and short term, this is a disastrous strategy. The only people who will benefit are corporate shareholders in the short term. That should make it pretty clear to everyone whose interests this cabinet represents.

In general, it's tremendously imporant to understand that right-wing rhetoric relies heavily on a srategy of depoliticizing economic policy, where political decisions and value judgements are presented as the only possible course of action, when in fact this is almost never the case. A further problem that arises from this is that too many critics of right-wing economic policies believe this, and imagine that politicians slavishly obey the dictates of some imaginary worldwide cabal of economists. This is complete nonsense, and dangeous, because it abandons the rhetorical playing field to the right. The economic policies of, say, the Sipilä administration, are very much open to challenge from the same paradigm of economics that they purport to draw on themselves. Don't let them get away with equating their policies with economics in general.

If there is an ideology that our current administration follows, it's the same one that the entire rest of the political field shares: national economic competitiveness through exports. My opinion is that both this strategy, and the specific means chosen to advance it, are disastrous for this country in both the short and long term, both in general as well as on its own terms. Our tragedy is that our political discourse needs to be fundamentally unpacked to address this, and this is far from easy.


It's definitely true that our fiscal deficit is a problem. However, the current administration, like several preceding ones, refuses to address this problem by looking at structural problems in the Finnish economy. Instead, their solution is to sacrifice our human capital and degrade our long-term competitiveness in order to, at best, improve our economic prospects in the short term. The current policy of cutting salaries, health care, social services and education to improve competitiveness is robbing the future to pay the present - and is entirely contingent on a growth of world trade that may not happen, and may pass us by. The damage will be done regardless. To call this kind of policy irresponsible is putting the matter very, very mildly.

Oct 5, 2015

Let's Read Tolkien 13: Not at Home

In the meanwhile, the dwarves sat in darkness, and utter silence fell about them.

Smaug is gone, leaving the dwarves and hobbit huddled in the pitch-black corridor. They stay where they are, barely daring to move or speak, for what feels to them like days, in complete silence. Eventually the waiting becomes unbearable enough that they try the door, but Smaug's assault on the mountainside has jammed it solidly shut. The dwarves despair, but Bilbo again takes charge and decides that the only way out is down. The entire party heads down toward Smaug's lair, with Bilbo going the last stretch alone and invisible.

Admittedly, the chapter title gives away much of the tension: Smaug is indeed not in. Realizing this, Bilbo calls for light, and the dwarves produce some torches, but they're either too afraid to go into the chambers of the mountain yet or too willing to sacrifice the hobbit, so Bilbo goes out on his own. This turns out to be a costly decision for the dwarves, because as he wanders around the dragon's deserted lair, Bilbo finds a fabulous jewel: the Arkenstone, lusted after by the dwarves and Thorin in particular.

This, if you like, is the first payoff we see from the tragic conversation between Bilbo and Smaug, and the first real working of the curse of Smaug's hoard: Bilbo decides to pocket the Arkenstone. He reasons to himself that he was, after all, promised a share of the treasure, so why couldn't this be it? He knows full well that this would never fly with the dwarves, but grabs the jewel anyway and pointedly fails to mention finding it, although he guesses Thorin is looking for it.

Once they've established to their satisfaction that Smaug is gone, the dwarves join Bilbo in bumbling about the deserted dragon lair. Here I have to say that Tolkien's descriptive powers fail him; it's actually a bit difficult to get a handle on what the dragon lair is really like, or how the dwarves are moving about in it. But move about it they do, poring over the mounds of treasure. They find themselves weapons and suits of armor, and as an advance payment for his services, Thorin presents Bilbo with a coat of mithril armor that they find in the hoard. The dwarves, bewitched by the dragon's hoard, would gladly stay sifting through it forever, and it's up to Bilbo again to recall them to the present. Thorin and Company make their way through the deserted halls all the way to the front gate; again, we only get the barest impression of corridors and stairways of stone, and it's tough to form any real impression of what the inside of Erebor is actually like. This is a bit of a shame.

Eventually, the company treks as far as the Front Gate, where they stand in a chilly breeze, overlooking the ruins of Dale and a valley conspicuously empty of dragons. Finding no news of Smaug, Balin takes the lead and directs the dwarves and hobbit to an abandoned watchpost on Ravenhill, one of the spurs of the Mountain. The company camps out there, still completely ignorant as to the fate of the dragon, as is the reader.

Next time, we'll fix that.