Recent firsts

  • A member of my team was diagnosed with the covid.
  • A colleague says he’s received an invitation to go and get vaccinated.

(He is the first person that No-Travel-Companion and I know here who has had such an invitation.

Maybe that’s because as expatriates we don’t know people who are older or more vulnerable? Picking up a takeout from the 13 Balcken, I asked the young waitress if she knew anyone who’d been vaccinated. She didn’t either.)

  • Here in Alkmaar, when spring comes, people come out on the water, on the canal we look out over. Motorboats, rowing boats, canoes, paddleboards. This is the first time I’ve seen someone rowing a boat over the back. It doesn’t look like he’s enjoying it.

The Mission – first impressions

The Boardgames Chronicle

That was certain, that once I unwrap freshly arrived The Mission, I would put it to the table pretty quickly. This is my first title from White Dog Games and also the first one by Ben Madison. The urge to try one of the games by this new to me designer and publisher came from couple of reviews I read on The Player’s Aid blog. I knew I was looking for engrossing, re-playable, deep but not superficially complex solitaire title. The theme was also very important. I looked through all the games by Ben and that one – The Mission – specifically draw my attention.

In below article I would like to tell you a little about the game, provide the session report from my first game-play but also share some of the first impressions. Definitely, after one scenario final conclusions cannot be drawn and the time for…

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History Games 22 – Calgacus vs. the Romans (Infamy Infamy! rules)

One evening last week – in 83 or 84 AD – the Caledonian king Calgacus – my friend the Admiral – led a patrol into the Roman holdings in northern Scotland. These holdings were defended by centurion Pontius Sabinus, leading elements of an Imperial legion. Calgacus’ goal was to scout terrain features in four areas of the wargames table. Focussing on mobility, he increased his 100-point force to 111 by putting more warriors in chariots and bringing along some tribal cavalry. My force was already rated at 110 points, so I only got trivial reinforcements.

The Admiral lives in Edinburgh, I live in Alkmaar. The table was at my house; we fought on zoom. (On Skype, to be truthful, but “zoom” is now a word like “hoover”.) I got a tripod and set the webcam up high. Though it is the first time I have done anything like this, it worked well. I thought the Admiral would want closeups, and was ready to provide them via my phone, but he did not ask for them.

There was terrain in all six areas of the battlefield. Calgacus scouted three terrain features easily with his British tribal cavalry (1) and warriors (2 and 3). Of the remaining three, my legionaries stoutly defended one (4). But the Roman archers (5) got mashed up (partly because they advanced too far into the open). The British chariots (6) rode past them, easily dodged the lonely group of Roman auxilia (7) and scouted the fourth terrain piece they needed (8). Game over in a couple of hours and we didn’t even come to melee.

The Admiral liked the game enough that we will play again next week. I’m looking at different force composition and different tactics!

Roman conquest of Britain using C&C Ancients – Part 1

Interested as I am playing a figures game (Infamy Infamy) around Mons Graupius. Great account as usual.

The Boardgames Chronicle

You had probably noticed that I really like to play C&C Ancients scenarios in logical groups, combining them in mini-campaigns – especially, if they are spread across multiple expansions and C3i publications. To really have a feeling of logical and chronological set of events I would normally read historical accounts, create special maps to depict the locations of battles and try to play the whole set in maximum one-two sessions – so the flow of history unfolds nicely and connect together. That is my way of playing and I get a lot of satisfactions from such approach – not only pure gaming experience but also a historical insight.

Some of my articles regarding C&C system:Commands and Colors games – my 3 favorite[REVIEW] Commands Colors Ancients[STRATEGIES] How to attack in Commands Colors Ancients?[STRATEGIES] How to defend in Commands Colors Ancients?

Exactly that was the situation…

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Living in Holland 14 – first steps out of this lockdown

Out cycling this Friday morning it was bright, still and cold. In Heiloo, at 7.40, I saw the sun – a new thing.

I was on a new bike, too. Yesterday No-Travel Companion and I took our bikes in for a service. Hers was fine. The bike shop called me about mine and said The wheels need replacing. That and the labour will cost €270. We have a similar second hand bike, also a Specialized, in good condition for €450. Owned by an elderly man who has hardly ridden it . “One careful lady owner”, I said. But I bought it.

This week has seen the first softening of the Dutch covid rules. Yesterday, on the way to pick up our bikes, No-Travel-Companion and I saw women having their nails done, a man in a tattoo parlour with his shirt off. This morning, at seven, the friendly hairdresser a few doors down was already at work.

Tanning salons are protesting that they cannot work, as are sex workers.

(Lockdown in your trousers)

Here in Alkmaar bars and cafés held a protest on Tuesday. They laid out their tables, taped them off,

and put up ironic notices.

(Watch out – Life threatening – “Corona danger” on this terrace)

A couple of weeks ago here there was a torchlit march against the lockdown. It was timed to finish before the curfew begins at 9.

There has been a dispute about the numbers. The burgemeester said there were 130 demonstrators. The organiser agreed. The police claimed 170. There’s to be another one soon.

Living in Holland 13

“The hospitals are gearing up for cases of shellfish poisoning tomorrow morning”, Travelling Companion and I would read in the Belgian papers on Saint-Sylvestre (New Year’s Eve), when we moved to Brussels in the 90s.

You can see why. Look at this picture of a New Year’s Eve dinner at the Brasseries Georges on Chaussée de Waterloo.

Last 5 November, No-Travel-Companion and I waved sparklers outside our front door on the canalside here in Holland.

It’s our heritage. Back home, the hospitals were gearing up for fireworks night.

This cold week, the talk among my team has been of whether and which canals are frozen, of the Elfstedentocht, of winters when children skated to school at the European school in Bergen.

On Friday afternoon a couple of men went on the ice outside our house.

Then yesterday there were loads of skaters, concentrated on a few of Alkmaar’s canals. Is it because these canals are known to have safer ice, or because these were the ones that someone went out and tried?

I’m glad to have been in this city at a time when people have got their skates out. It’s now forecast to go above freezing for the first time in a week. I hope the forecast is wrong and we can have days more of this.

“The hospital is prepared this weekend for more skating injuries”, said the local paper yesterday morning. “Extra plaster is brought in for casts.”

Playing Nazis? Ethics, Historical Accuracy, and Personal Comfort in Games with Loaded Topics

Clio's Board Games

Earlier this year, I’ve written a post about my most anticipated games to be released this year. Among them was Weimar: The Fight for Democracy (Matthias Cramer, Compass Games), which deals with the interwar Weimar Republic that was toppled by the Nazis. My fellow blogger Dave (check out his blog!) had asked me a year ago how I felt about the Nazis being a playable side in such a game – as this one does not feature them as such, but The Weimar Republic: Political Struggle in Germany, 1919—1933 (Gunnar Holmbäck, GMT Games) does. I’ve been coming back to that question, as it touches on some important matters: Most importantly, one of ethics, which will form the main part of this post. However, there are also questions of historical accuracy, and of personal comfort, with which we will deal in turn. While this…

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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?