Last weekend, back home in Alkmaar

Last Saturday it snowed, for the first time in the two years we’ve lived here.

The snow even stuck. It was almost gone, though, the next day…


… as No-Travel-Companion, Dog and I walked in sunshine from Alkmaar to Heiloo, the next town to the south.

Disappointingly, the Alkmaarhout clock no longer tells the right time (it was five to eleven).


Along the path there is a flooded field. If it freezes, this will be the Heiloo skating rink. I hope it does.

I liked this old bus stop…


… but we walked a bit further and came back on the train, nice and empty, everyone masked.

In normal times Heiloo must be a commuter town for Alkmaar and Amsterdam.

History games 21 – Pyrrhus Imperator


Playing in chronological order the history games that I have, I’m discovering that Vae Victis, the French wargame publisher, makes clever games with the small maps they use. Pyrrhus Imperator depicts Pyrrhus of Epirus’ attacks on southern Italy (Roman) and Sicily (independent/Syracusan/Carthaginian) in 280-275 BC.

I played Rome and Carthage; the Admiral played Pyrrhus. We played three sessions, a couple of hours each, on Zoom in the hot afternoons of last June.

Like the other games I’ve been playing of this period, Pyrrhus has randomly selected Roman leaders (consuls); and like those other games, losing Carthage or Rome means losing the game. Distinctively, though, Pyrrhus’ hubris is tracked.

Learning the game, we each played incompetently. In the first years (280-279) Rome avoided fighting Pyrrhus. We attacked the Samnites but found they were also hard to harm. Then we dithered. Pyrrhus captured Capua and other cities. Some of his victories were Pyrrhic (e.g. 4 units lost on each side).

Later on, I noticed too late that Pyrrhus had built up his fleet until it was stronger than Carthage’s. I’d left Carthage itself almost undefended. Luckily, in 277 my outnumbered fleet first intercepted and then defeated Pyrrhus’ invaders. In 276 I defeated his forces on land in Sicily and Taranto and won the game.

Looking back in January 2021, I realise that I have spent a good half year fighting, in different games, over this territory – Rome, Capua, Syracuse, Lilybaeum, Carthage.

The game is quick and light but rich.

Aesthetically, though, I find it clunky and over-detailed. And I don’t like VV’s A5 rulebooks.

It works satisfyingly as a game. One thing that is odd is the hard 10-unit stacking limit. Successors has a stacking limit but not such a fierce one. Other games of the period have no limit, or (as in RRR) bigger stacks suffer more attrition. Historically, commanders built killer armies and went for it, so the rule in Pyrrhus doesn’t feel right.

For a strategic game, it has unnecessary differentiation of unit types – compared to RRR and, even more so, Hannibal. This makes combat needlessly complicated.

Pyrrhus doesn’t have the super-long moves of RRR and The Punic Wars (reviews to come). The option for some leaders – like Pyrrhus – to move twice, and for some moves to be double, whilst most moves are only from one province to another, creates a similar though weaker effect.

Money (booty, butin) is represented by icosahedra. Some is kept in Rome and Carthage, but much of it travels with leaders. They use it to force march, buy reinforcements, etc. I like this.

Historically it is clear who you are (the leader(s) on each side). The game seems to reproduce what happened during those years, though I don’t know much about the campaigns.

Five points.

History Games 20 – Successors

On 18 April 1981 Nancy Banks Smith, the Guardian’s TV reviewer, wrote of “that happiest of men who was heard to say in the interval of a Hollywood Hamlet, ‘I bet I’m the only son of a bitch here who doesn’t know how this thing comes out’”.

I think, in fact, that Hamlet should be experienced repeatedly. The same is true of most good wargames.

Playing Successors, though, has made me realise that there is a category of games that, to maximise the sum of human happiness, you should play “not knowing how this thing comes out”. Everyone should play them once and not much more often than that. If you play such a game with a wargamer who’s played before, that person should be a herbivore (like me), not a carnivore (like my friend J.P).

Twilight Struggle, a brilliant card-driven game of the Cold War, falls for me into this category – though it has carnivore fans who play it like chess. Successors falls into the same category. Everyone should play it because it tells an interesting story in a fresh and unpredictable way. Everyone can be a first time player because its mechanisms are simple.

The story* is that the Macedonian ruler Alexander the Great, having built a vast empire in Asia, dies aged 33 at Baghdad in 323 BC. He has no named successor. The game covers a 22-year period of contestation between his generals.

It’s interesting how sets of games, by different designers, have leitmotifs. If it’s a game of the Roman republic, two consuls are chosen by chance each year from a pool of leaders. If it’s a game of Alexander’s succession, the question of which player controls which generals and which forces is decided by chance at set-up.

I have three Successors games. I rejected two**, sending them to the games-I-will-sell-if-I-ever-get-round-to-it pile***, because they seem to offer nothing more than an arbitrary division of the territory of the empire between undifferentiated players. That’s not true of Successors. It’s a four player game. There are eight initial generals, each of which starts in a historically specific place with a historically specific force. (Antipater in Macedonia, Craterus in Thrace, Leonatus at the Hellespont, Antigonus and Lysimachus in Asia Minor, Perdiccas in Babylon, Peithon in Media and Ptolemy in Egypt). Each player controls a random pair of these generals. This doesn’t seem ahistorical given the shifting alliances that occurred in practice.

(It made me want to experiment with an eight player game, though.)

The victory conditions portray the break-up of a polity. Initially, Alexander’s generals competed to take over his empire by taking over his position. They tried to be, or to control, his successor. This gradually mutated into a struggle to control as big a part as possible of the territory of the empire, rather than the empire itself. The game allows you to win either way. Players can win by collecting legitimacy points (e.g. by burying Alexander or controlling his putative heirs) or victory points (by fighting for territory). If, in a quest for territory, you attack a general still loyal to the idea of empire, you will often no longer be able to win through legitimacy – and in battle, some of your phalangites may refuse to fight.

The game is joyful and playful. Game play is simple and smooth. Like Sword of Rome (History Games 17), it uses House Divided–style point to point movement. It doesn’t take long. (I played a game on Zoom last autumn with Carnivore, Admiral and Mr M. It took two evenings. Carnivore won. I came, deservedly, last.) It is physically pleasing with big counters, though a bit garish.

From a historicity point of view, multiplayer games suffer from the bring-down-the-leader problem. If one player takes the lead, the others plot to bring them down. In Successors this is not a problem – it is an exact description of the historical reality. The game even encourages bringing down the leader – each turn, the player with the most victory points is labelled the Usurper, and can be attacked without loss of legitimacy.

The incentives to go for a “legitimacy” win, and the constraints on players trying to do so, do no more than postpone the war of all against all that is coming in the game and came historically.

The generals act as if they think it is a winner-take-all game, and gradually realise it is not.

Successors looks good, gives a historical result, feels historical and is a superb game. 10 points.

__________

*  Told in Mary Renault’s novel Funeral Games (1981)

** Alexander’s Generals (1992) and Successors (Strategy and Tactics 161, 1993). At the same time I rejected two other games for an apparently similar lack of historical crunchiness: Emperor of the Steppes (‘any time between 300 BC and 1300 AD’, 1996) and  Empire – the Macedonian and Punic Wars 350-150 BC (Phil Sabin, 2009)

*** A couple of years ago I lovingly listed nine games, better than these, on ebay. I received no bid on any. Is there another way to sell games?

Fourth and fifth Covid tests, Kigali, Rwanda – hopefully the last for a while

Travelling Companion and I spent time with Family at their house in Kigali. We went up to the nearby Convention Centre to sit on the grass, play hide and seek and look at ibises. We all gathered round Baby as she had banana, her first food. Travelling Companion and I made German biscuits with Grandson.

One morning I woke up coughing. I looked up the symptoms of Covid coughs. Mine wasn’t a dry cough or a deep cough or a cough that went on for an hour or a cough with untransparent phlegm. But you want to be careful. Son-in-law made an appointment for me at the Rwanda Biomedical Centre testing centre for my fourth test and drove me there. $50. I didn’t have to queue for long. Same business with my wimpy unwillingness to have a thing in my throat; the doctor, though he laughed at that, gave the thing a second twiddle to be sure. The result, negative, came back the next morning.

Rwanda’s Covid infection rate is rising quite sharply. It is still low compared to countries in Europe, though. It is one of eight non-EU countries from which you do not need a negative test result when travelling to the Netherlands, or to self-quarantine when you arrive.* Travelling Companion and I felt more comfortable going for another test before we came home. Entering Kigali airport our temperatures were checked; our test results were checked; and it was checked that we had filled out the Dutch government form asserting that we had a negative result.


It was a night flight. These lit rectangles near Rotterdam may be the heated greenhouses where tomatoes are grown. Or flowers.

We landed at Schiphol at 6.30 last Sunday morning. The checks done in Kigali were not repeated on arrival, even though the plane stopped and picked up passengers at Entebbe, Uganda. What did happen is that the young immigration official jauntily said Well, here’s your first stamp in your British passport.


Travelling Companion has checked. This is not supposed to happen. We were residents of the EU before 31 December 2020 and remain so; we showed proof of this at the border; under the Withdrawal Agreement we are entitled to come in and out as we did before. We do not have to leave every 90 days; our date of entry does not need to be recorded.

Later on Sunday morning No-Travel-Companion looked out of the window that we’ve been looking out of all these months. It’s so monochrome, she said, so brown.


The streets of Alkmaar are almost empty. The Dutch lockdown is firmer than last spring. For example the newsagents and art shops are closed, though florists are still open. But the days are getting longer. In a pot on our terrace, some snowdrops have come up.

____________

* The others are Iceland, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand.

Fourth and fifth Covid tests, Kigali, Rwanda – hopefully the last for a while

Travelling Companion and I spent time with Family at their house in Kigali. We went up to the nearby Convention Centre to sit on the grass, play hide and seek and look at ibises. We all gathered round Baby as she had banana, her first food. Travelling Companion and I made German biscuits with Grandson.

One morning I woke up coughing. I looked up the symptoms of Covid coughs. Mine wasn’t a dry cough or a deep cough or a cough that went on for an hour or a cough with untransparent phlegm. But you want to be careful. Son-in-law made an appointment for me at the Rwanda Biomedical Centre testing centre for my fourth test and drove me there. $50. I didn’t have to queue for long. Same business with my wimpy unwillingness to have a thing in my throat; the doctor, though he laughed at that, gave the thing a second twiddle to be sure. The result, negative, came back the next morning.

Rwanda’s Covid infection rate is rising quite sharply. It is still low compared to countries in Europe, though. It is one of eight non-EU countries from which you do not need a negative test result when travelling to the Netherlands, or to self-quarantine when you arrive.* Travelling Companion and I felt more comfortable going for another test before we came home. Entering Kigali airport our temperatures were checked; our test results were checked; and it was checked that we had filled out the Dutch government form asserting that we had a negative result.


It was a night flight. These lit rectangles near Rotterdam may be the heated greenhouses where tomatoes are grown. Or flowers.

We landed at Schiphol at 6.30 last Sunday morning. The checks done in Kigali were not repeated on arrival, even though the plane stopped and picked up passengers at Entebbe, Uganda. What did happen is that the young immigration official jauntily said Well, here’s your first stamp in your British passport.


Travelling Companion has checked. This is not supposed to happen. We were residents of the EU before 31 December 2020 and remain so; we showed proof of this at the border; under the Withdrawal Agreement we are entitled to come in and out as we did before. We do not have to leave every 90 days; our date of entry does not need to be recorded.

Later on Sunday morning No-Travel-Companion looked out of the window that we’ve been looking out of all these months. It’s so monochrome, she said, so brown.


The streets of Alkmaar are almost empty. The Dutch lockdown is firmer than last spring. For example the newsagents and art shops are closed, though florists are still open. But the days are getting longer. In a pot on our terrace, some snowdrops have come up.

____________

* The others are Iceland, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand.

Cycling and car free Sunday in Kigali, Rwanda

I’ve hired a bike for our stay in the city; go out on it most days. My average speed has been 9 kph – half what it is for my rides around Alkmaar. I don’t go for a ride so much as take the bike for a walk. Rwanda is known as the land of 1000 hills; as a corollary, it is the land of 0 plateaux. Many of the hills are too steep for me to ride up, even with a mountain bike’s low gears, and too steep for me to happily freewheel down.

Also, it’s a car orientated city. (And motorbike orientated – moto taxis everywhere.) I stop at junctions and peer panting at the map, my mask fogging up my glasses, looking for routes that don’t involve the main roads.

Two days ago, though, it was the first Sunday of the month. Son-in-law said that till 10 am it would be car free day in Kigali. Out riding at 8, I discovered that the side streets stay open to traffic. But the main roads I have been avoiding – KN 5 Rd, KG 11 Ave, KG 17 Ave and so on – are delightfully closed to motorised traffic. Police turn cars back from entering these roads:

Stewards direct bikes to use one carriageway while walkers, joggers and roller skaters use the other.

Normally bikes are rare here. On Sunday there were plenty. Some of the runners looked like athletes, but many looked like I would’ve looked if I’d been running beside them – like someone who jogs once a month. A couple of fathers were teaching daughters on big bikes to ride.

Some people, like this gymnast doing sit-ups with a trainer, looked like they were doing it in the road just because they could.

My average cycling speed that morning went up to 12 kph. A tentative conclusion: a third of the difference between my cycling speed in Kigali and in the Netherlands is because in the Netherlands you can cycle like it is car free day every day of the week. The other two thirds is the hills.

Third Covid test (Musanze, Rwanda)

To recap: Daughter and Family live in Rwanda, where the incidence of Covid is low. (The death rate is currently 1/126 that of the Netherlands, where we live.) We have come to visit them for Christmas. Daughter is vulnerable and so is Granddaughter, because she is a baby. So, to make doubly sure we are not bringing the disease from the Netherlands, we have spent 11 days quietly in the country before going to them.


Last Saturday morning we got a boat up Lake Kivu from Kibuye, where we’d been staying, to Gesenyi at the head of the lake. The young guide stopped along the way to point out birds – hamerkops, pied kingfishers, ibis and egrets.

At the bottom of the deep lake there is methane. These buoys mark the route of a new pipeline being built to extract it.


At Gesenyi, after taking a temperature check to get in, we stopped over in the rain at the posh Serena hotel for lunch. It has a private beach and is a holiday destination from both Kigali and Goma (just over the border in the Democratic Republic of the Congo).


In Gesenyi there are plenty of frontier crossings down side roads:


To enter national parks you need a negative Covid test within the last 72 hours. We planned to go into the Volcanoes national park, so Mr C drove us to the hospital at Musanze. Rwanda’s national cycling centre is up in these hills. We saw racing cyclists out training on the road.


At the hospital we were confused, of course. A young soldier showed us and others where to queue, outside the clinic at a guichet. Then a military vehicle drew up. An older man got out in civilian clothes. After a while he escorted the solder round the corner of the building. We were told to follow. There tests were done in a caged space on the building’s edge, open to the air. First the soldier was tested, the man in civilian clothes in attendance. Then that man left and the soldier sat on a stool, observing, while the English-speaking PPE’d health worker tested Travelling Companion, then me.


(You need to imagine the same kind of blue railing to the left, behind the health worker.) Throat only, again. I felt she probed deeper, more skilfully, than the previous test we had in Rwanda. My resistant shouting made her laugh. The test cost Rwf 47200 (€39). The result came in 24 hours – negative again.

We spent a couple of nights in the foothills of the volcanoes at Kinigi (1900m). The land is fertile. We saw “Irish” potatoes growing in the volcanic soil beside pyrethrum, the main cash crop there. (Elsewhere it is coffee or tea).


We went on a guided nature walk, seeing a bird which is rarely seen at such a low altitude. Readers will surely be able to pick it out and identify it from this photo:


(on top of the tree, a malachite sunbird).

But it was wet and cold. The place we were staying wasn’t really set up for that, even though they provided a brazier


and hot water bottles.


In the open-sided dining room Travelling Companion could see her breath while eating.


So we didn’t go into the national park. We left the high hills and came back to Gesenyi for a couple of days. There we walked around and looked at big bouses from the Belgian colonial period


(the façade is of painted brick, reminiscent of houses in Waterloo and Rhode-St-Genèse).

We went on a nature walk in the grounds of a Benedictine convent. Quite a big proportion of the time was spent looking for a bul-bul in this tree. Travelling Companion saw it before I did.


I can’t see it in the photo either, though I know it should be there. Shown a sparrow, neither of us identified it. But I did identify a whydah.

Before we could walk much further on, the sole of Travelling Companion’s boot came off – then the other one. There’s a shoemender on the bridge, said a passer-by.


He mended the boot with glue and a needle and thread, using soap from a small tin to help the needle pass through the sole. While we waited, a girl and boy played knucklestones. Half a dozen women carrying pails of fruit and vegetables on their heads gathered at the bridge to walk together to Goma (ten km away), sell their produce and walk back.

Then Mr C drove us to Kigali in time for Christmas.

Kibuye, Rwanda

Travelling Companion and I arrived in Kigali last Saturday night. We quarantined there in a nice hotel room, living on room service and waiting for the results of our second Covid tests. We hoped to get out on Sunday morning. In fact it was Monday afternoon before we could each boast a negative result (my sample had to be retested) and leave the room.

The hotel had two staff stationed at the lifts on our floor. They asked me to show my negative result before getting in the lift.

Mr C, who we know from our last visit to Rwanda, picked us up at the hotel and drove us in a 4×4 to Kibuye. It took 3½ hours, hilly all the way.


In the city and the towns most people had masks on. In the countryside some did, though not all.


It came on to pour. Some people had umbrellas; others walked along under big leaves they’d picked; others acted as if there were no rain.

We’re staying at the Cormoran hotel on Lake Kivu. The slopes are steep on the side of the lake, underwater too: the lake is 475m deep.

It’s not water all the way down, though.

On the lake bottom lie methane and carbon dioxide.

This makes the lake an “exploding lake” subject to what Wikipedia excitedly describes as “outgassing events”, “limnic eruptions” and “lake overturns”. Since these cause “massive local extinctions” in the lake and 50 metres up the lakeside, it is lucky that they seem to happen no more than once every thousand years. It is also lucky that “local extinction” has seen off crocodiles and hippopotami for the time being, because this makes it safe to swim in. There are fish in it – in the distance in the picture is a three-dugout fishing boat *


– but local fish are generally small:

Isambaza.

In the water, you still have to be careful of bilharzia. The worms that cause this live at the edge. You avoid them by diving in from a jetty and, after your swim, clambering out quickly. That’s what I did early yesterday morning when I went for my first swim here. (I’m not good at clambering, though.)


I remember, one March morning, attending a packed meeting in the office of my director-general. He had a corner office with a long and a short wall of windows. It began to snow. Everyone must have seen it; no-one said a word.

The restaurant here at the Cormoran has a long terrace where we sit to eat. It has french windows opening to the inside. In the evening numerous bats, with a six or eight inch wingspan slalom along the terrace, in and out of the french windows, coming half a metre above your head, not hitting you or anything else. No-one says a word.

______________

* Here’s a slightly clearer picture of a three dugout fishing boat, taken this rainy Friday afternoon. The boat stayed out after it got dark, lighting two lights on the central dugout.

Second Covid test (Kigali, Rwanda)

Sunday morning. We’re quarantining in a hotel room in Kigali; we have a view over the city and the hills.


Yesterday morning, back home in Alkmaar, our taxi arrived at 6.15. The driver loaded our six big bags (85 kilos of Christmas and supplies, 30 kilos of stuff for Travelling Companion and I on our trip) in the boot, and got in. I’ve got a plastic screen, he said, and we are more than 1.5 metres apart, so we can take off our masks.

When did I last go in a car? I think Ms C.L gave me a lift from our research site at Petten to Alkmaar on 13 March, to get a train onwards to London. Not since then.

Brandishing our negative test results from Tuesday (brandishing them often) we made our way through the airport. Nearly everyone wore their masks properly at the airport. Everyone did on the flight. We could take them off when they came round with food and drink. We flew across the western Alps,


reached the Mediterranean near Toulon,


(I recognised the Giens peninsula, there’s an energy efficiency summer school there that I went to a couple of times), and flew across the Sahara.


The thin black lines in the next picture look artificial (there must be a better non-gender-specifying equivalent of “man-made” but I can’t think of it – suggestions welcome).


They could be roads, but surely the sand would blow over them. I wondered if they are Algerian oil or gas pipelines, mounted above the desert floor.

We landed at Kigali airport at 6.30 Alkmaar time, 7.30 in Rwanda.

My colleague S.H. landed recently in Dublin. The scrum to stand up and get bags from the lockers was like normal. Things were much better, distancing was maintained, on our flight – easier, maybe, because ours was about half full while his was full.

In the airport building we queued in six columns to be asked health questions by people in full protective gear. At 1.5m distance (marked on the ground) I could hardly hear, through her mask, what the soft spoken Rwandan woman asked. Then the passport desk. That’s one of the new British passports, Mr Paul, said the young immigration official. Unlike on previous visits, we didn’t have to get a visa ($50)  – this exception applies to all the Commonwealth countries, it seems.

Then our temperatures were taken. Travelling Companion recalled that they were already doing this when she visited in early February. Wait for the bags (on the carousel there were no rucksacks, only suitcases). Taxi, past Christmas lights, to the hotel.


The taxi driver pointed out the Parliament. Just near it live Family, but we can’t visit them yet. The Covid rule is that you must stay in a nominated hotel for 24 hours after you arrive in the country, quarantining in your room. A test is administered there, and you get the result the next day. If it’s negative you are free to leave. Then, Daughter is “immune system compromised”; and babies, like Granddaughter, if they get Covid-19, can get it bad. So we will make doubly sure by not going to them until we have been in this country, where the incidence of the infection is low, for ten more days.

We got a call to go to the test venue at nine thirty or ten in the evening. It was a room down the corridor in the hotel. Between appointments the young test-giver was watching Chelsea-Everton on the room’s TV set opposite his desk. Everyone in this country has to support a Premier League team and either Real Madrid or Barcelona, he told us. Most people support Arsenal (who wear Visit Rwanda on their shirts) and Real. I support Manchester United (because my father did) and Barcelona. I don’t think the United manager sets the team up right.

Then he put on his gear and did our tests. Throat only, not nose. $60. Now we’re at the stage of waiting for the result.

Covid test

Daughter, Son-on-Law and Grandson live in Rwanda. Travelling Companion visited them last February. Since then, Granddaughter has been added to the family. I haven’t seen them since June 2019.

The Rwandan Covid rate is low (53 deaths in a population of 13 million – 1/141 of the Dutch rate). We’re flying there, nervously, tomorrow.

Under the Rwandan rules you have to have a PCR test within 120 hours of setting out. This cost €150; we paid an extra €35 for antibody tests. We had to go to Amsterdam for the tests, and also to get a prescription for anti-malarial tablets. We got an early train on Tuesday morning, travelled round the city by bus, walking, tram and metro, and were back home in Alkmaar in time for an early lunch, feeling biffed – partly, I think, because in these present days we rarely experience so much variety.


The Covid test place we went to is in a science park in the eastern suburbs. It was well organised. There was clear signing and instructions, careful attention to safe queueing.


The language regime was English, the test was not pleasant, and I was not brave.

Four testers were working there, each doing a test every five minutes. This small business unit may be bringing in €50 000 a day.

To get malarone tablets and travel injections, I used to love going to the shabby travel clinic on rue des Alexiens in central Brussels.

(It’s the second building on the left in this photo taken on Car Free Day 2014)

It was always full of young, fit, interesting-looking people, heading out on a journey or heading home. Like all Belgian hospitals it had a café that had virtues. It stands for the start of a good trip. If Daughter didn’t live in Africa we’d probably never have been there.

Its Amsterdam equivalent was sprucer and had vending machines. Maybe it usually has the same buzz. Now it was almost empty.

Back home, wound up, the PCR results came in mid afternoon. Travelling Companion was clear. It took another half hour for me to access my result, also clear. Lifting of pressure.

(By the way, the instructions from the test provider say that if you have a positive test you can expect to be contacted by the authorities within 24 hours. No more than that.)

The antibody results came in the evening. Not so obvious, with this test, what you want the result to be. They were, in any case, also clear.

Next morning I felt ropy. Travelling Companion had a headache. We knew it couldn’t be Covid. We were allowing our bodies to feel ill, I think.