Moving to Holland 10 – sitting in a sunny square in Brussels on an evening last week, talking about the rain

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(Man with umbrella and shopping trolley, Brussels, 2017)

What I noticed when I came to Belgium from Germany, said my old colleague A.W., is that people don’t raise an umbrella as soon as there’s a drop of rain. They toss up their hands and carry on.

Well, said R.N., in Dutch we don’t even have a word for umbrella. We use a foreign word, paraplu. [From the French parapluie, against rain.]

Well, said M.P., in Polish we don’t even use the right foreign word. We say parasol.

(Does anyone remember the Monty Python Four Yorkshiremen sketch?)

Moving to Holland 9 – our house

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We’re renting a canalside house in Alkmaar. Yesterday afternoon I was loading the dishwasher. I heard It’s Raining Men through the front windows. Sailing past our house, for Alkmaar Pride, was a 20-vessel armada. The pink balloons tethered to the shopping street pavements that morning were explained. I sat at the low window and enjoyed the parade.

On the top floor of our house are two bedrooms. On the first floor we have a kitchen/living room and a north-facing terrace. At ground level there’s a three-car garage and no car. That’s where lots of the boxes are.

A month after we moved in, as I was emptying boxes, I found some plastic flowers in a dry pot at the back. A few days later, Emigrating Companion struggled the pot up the stairs. It contained, in fact, the hostas she’d brought from Brussels for the north-facing terrace. Pale, leggy (Where, O where, can we seek out the light?) and shiny, here they are, liberated:

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History games 5 – Origins: how we became human

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This Phil Eklund game is more engaging than American Megafauna, the last game I played, which he also designed (History games 4). It begins as an evolution game: this time, of humans. Players represent different species of homo sapiens. Each works to “open up” areas of their brain such as language.

When a species’ brain evolves enough, though, the game shifts into “eras” during which they try to develop metallurgy, access to energy sources and immunity to diseases (etc). Thus it morphs into a “Civilisation” game, a descendant of the board (1980) and computer (1991) games of that name.

Like American Megafauna and unlike the three evolution games I played before that, players have different starting characteristics and positions. I played solo with the Hobbits (white cubes, starting in Indonesia), Cro-Magnon (red, East Africa) and Archaic Homo Sapiens (black, Nile Valley).

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I felt a sense of history as the game went along. Where species started off influenced where they ended up when I stopped the game. At that point White was cut off (by rising sea levels, caused by climate change) in Australia; Red had established cities in North Africa, the Middle East and central Asia; and, in doing so, had pushed Black north and west to the edges of the world (Siberia, Europe and what is now Morocco). The ebbs and flows of population were pleasing.

A lot goes on. You need to build cities, acquire wise elders, domesticate crops and animals. You can draw cards that may help with these tasks or directly give you victory points. You can “imitate” your rivals, taking the top card from their discard pile and using it yourself – or you can attack them with satisfying force. (This is not one of those games where the participants, like toddlers at playschool, indulge in “parallel play”. In this game they can and do do things to each other.)

For most of the game these interlocking cogs clicked along together nicely. I admired and enjoyed the process.

At the end, though, we got stuck. Red had the most cities. This, and its lead in metallurgy, meant that it could win all the fights and coopt all the elders. These elders allowed it to gain most of the victory point cards that came up. However, Red needed “maritime” to get out of Era II – a scarcer technology than that needed by the other players. So, Red was just waiting from turn to turn for the right card to come up.

Black  and White, by contrast, had made it into Era III. Their best chance of winning was to enter Era IV – which ends the game – before Red could get its hands on the benefits of being in Era III. To do this each needed a better energy technology. That was why Black was in Morocco, waiting for the card that would allow it to “domesticate” olive oil as an energy source.  (The other sources of “biofuel”, in Hawaii and Mexico, weren’t accessible without global cooling – to get across the Bering Strait – or ships.) As for White, it was sitting safely in Australia, drawing cards and hoping that something would come up.

The game took me 20 minutes to set up and 6½ hours to play. I enjoyed it until the last hour or two, when it subsided into the fruitless card-drawing contest described above and I decided to stop.

(I admit: one reason for stopping is so that my army of miniature Assyrians, going out to battle next weekend, has a hope of keeping this series of history games in time order.)

Score: 6 points.

The answer to the who-am-I question – I am a species, that then turns into a civilisation – is a bit more coherent than in the previous evolution games. The components are fit for purpose and I find the blue board rather beautiful. Bidding elders’ wisdom to obtain victory point cards is a mechanism that makes sense (like deploying scientists on a project today) while the equivalent in American Megafauna (bidding genes to obtain species characteristics) didn’t ring true. I know little about this period of (pre) history but nothing I came across jarred. My main negative point is that game play, subtle at the start, seemed to break down in later periods.

I’ve never played this with other people. (I once played it solo, during a week I spent at my mother’s sheltered housing development in Didsbury. I laid it out on the guest room floor, and listened to the Clash on my computer while playing it.) I’d like to play it again, with others, to find out if my criticism of the game play is fair.

Next: History of the World, then De Bellis Antiquitatis with the Assyrians.

 

Game Subject Designer Date Blog post Score/10
Origins Evolution (human) and Civilisation Phil Eklund 2007 History games 5 6
American Megafauna Evolution (animals) Phil Eklund 1997 History games 4 4
Evolution Evolution (animals) Dominic Crapuchettes, Dmitri Knorre, Sergei Machin 2014 History games 3 5
Эволюцияи Evolution (animals) Dmitri Knorre 2010 History games 2 1
Primordial Soup Evolution (amoebas) Doris and Frank 1997 History games 1 3

 

Moving to Holland 7 – eating and drinking

Brussels, where Emigrating Companion and I used to live, has better restaurants than anywhere else we know. People love to eat out. At parties people share restaurant recommendations. My fear about moving to Holland was that all this would be gone. It would be like Leukas in the Ionian islands, offering “bad Wine, bad Bread, and worse Cheese” (George Wheler, 1675).

Luckily, not. To our certain knowledge there are at least three good restaurants in Alkmaar (Fnidsen, 13 Balcken and Rue de la Plume). There’s at least one beach café at every beach, and while they aren’t posh they offer decent and varied food. I like uitsmijter (cheese, eggs and vegetables on bread or toast) – though it’s hard for your words to be understood when you order it.

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People like going out.

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They may not go out as much in the week as they do in Brussels, but on Fridays and Saturdays the restaurants are all booked up.

Unlike in Brussels, you get tap water spontaneously, for example to accompany a glass of wine. Unlike in Brussels, it tastes OK (though of course not a patch on the tap water of Manchester). Unlike in Brussels, you only get bread if you ask for it and you may, as in Britain, have to pay.

Restaurants and cafés generally have pepper grinders. Oddly, though, they often need to be turned the “wrong” way (clockwise) in order to grind.

Apart from Gouda au cumin, Dutch cheese is not the cheese for me, but yesterday in a shop in the old town of Alkmaar I bought Belgian Herve and French Camembert.

On a hot day we went to an icecream shop. It only had one flavour of icecream (vanilla). It did have a lot of toppings.

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At the coffee bar on Alkmaar station a range of drinks is available, including double espresso but not espresso. There’s more South African wine here and  less French than in Belgium. Except in our local pizza restaurant, you can’t get a quart or a demi – it’s either a glass or a bottle. There are quite a few local beers that are stronger and tastier than the general pils – but they seem to me less satisfyingly bitter than their Belgian equivalents. Gerardus Tripel is the beer I’ve liked most. I had one today in the beach café at Camperduin. (Companion, Dog and I went there on a Sunday trip on the bus. I ate a tuna salad sandwich and a delicious apple tart.)

History games 4 – American Megafauna

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Phil Eklund is a libertarian American game designer. His rulebooks have footnotes written in a know-it-all style that reminds me of Nassim Nicolas Taleb. His games are often clunky. They are about interesting subjects, though, and are not derivative.

Eklund’s game American Megafauna is “DTP” (desk top published). The creature counters, which you have to cut out, are fiddly. The previous time I played it, also solo, I liked it enough that I started collecting sets of toy animals to make game play more satisfying. This time I expected that it would be (a) complicated and (b) rewarding, the best of this first bunch of five evolution games.

It was neither.

Two things most distinguish American Megafauna from Primordial Soup, Эволюцияи and Evolution.

First, its creatures (genotypes) start out different from each other. I played with the Dog-Faces (which I represented with toy dogs), Two-Tuskers (frogs) and Rabbit Crocs (dinosaurs).

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Second, the game has geography. There’s a map of North America. A biome card – such as tree ferns or plankton upwelling – is placed on each space on the map. Different biomes suit different creatures. As the game proceeds, each biome gets filled up with the creatures it suits best. Some creatures become carnivores in order to sustain themselves on the others.

As games of history, it’s obvious that evolution games have a who-does-the-player-represent? problem. I have been wondering whether the solution is for players to perform actions that are automatic, representing the blind operation of natural selection, and for the pleasure to lie in observing the results.

If that is an ideal, this is the game that, so far, comes closest to it. When creatures need to “decide” whether to migrate or stay put, whether to graze or predate, the right answer seems obvious enough to be, in effect, automatic.

However, observing this process turned out not to bring as much pleasure as anticipated. I enjoyed it at the start. But after 1½ hours setting up (looking for the right biome cards) and 3 hours of play of the shortest (14-turn) version, I found I didn’t care, as I had in the three previous games, and gave up after 8 turns.

What didn’t work? Deducing what to do – especially inspecting the biome cards – was fiddly. The fact that being preyed on by carnivores doesn’t harm the herbivore populations on which they feed makes scientific sense at this scale but makes the game less interesting. The most interesting part was when chance or climate change made the biomes change, but this didn’t happen often. And the part where players had to make a non-automatic choice – deciding how many of five available “genes” to bid in order to “buy” characteristics and other cards that came up – felt jarringly unlike any real-world process.

This is a game that makes elaborate assertions of historicity. Each turn represents five million years; each herbivore counter represents thirty million tons of biomass; etc. I like this; but the claims are undermined by the fact that the short, Tertiary-era scenario I played begins with the continent just as underpopulated as in the main, Triassic-starting scenario.

I’m inclined to give it 3 points, but award one more for ambition. The best element is the hundred different biome cards, I think.

Game Subject Designer Blog post Score/10
American Megafauna Evolution (animals) Phil Eklund History games 4 4
Evolution Evolution (animals) Dominic Crapuchettes, Dmitri Knorre and Sergei Machin History games 3 5
Эволюцияи Evolution (animals) Dmitri Knorre History games 2 1
Primordial Soup Evolution (amoebas) Doris and Frank History games 1 3

Next, another Eklund game, Origins – on the evolution of humans.

You’ve had some right cowboys in here (Moving to Holland 7)

I need an extra centimetre on the sole of my left shoes. I also have flat feet and wear down the insides of the heels. Yesterday I took my favourite old brown shoes into a cobblers in Alkmaar, to be repaired for the Nth time. It is not only the heels that need doing, said the cobbler. The sole also needs replacing. It is worn and badly done in the first place. Who did this work? Ah, a Belgian. I am not surprised. Anyway, these shoes are no good. I could repair them for a hundred euros. But they are no good.

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So after taking their photograph, I have thrown them away.

“This work is badly done. To put it right will cost a lot.” – this is a lovely example of “You’ve had some right cowboys in here”, I said to Emigrating Companion as we left the shop. But Emigrating Companion was smiling. She thinks I wear old things long past the point that is reasonable.

(“You’ve had some right cowboys in here” is what, classically, an English builder will say when you ask them to come and carry out some necessary repair to your home.)

And another thing, said the cobbler before we left. You say you need an extra centimetre. That is something you need to get checked regularly. When are you going to a doctor about it?

At least I had a small triumph. At three o’clock this afternoon, I said. It was true. I had an appointment with a podoloog. (In Belgium, where we lived before, I’ve never had an appointment for a routine health matter on a Saturday.)

A couple of hours later I stood on a platform on my flat feet in my underwear while the tall and jolly podologist (Call me René, can I call you Paul?) looked long and happily at my back. He looked at my shoes, he looked at my insoles, he called in a colleague to have a look at my back too. Normally a single check on someone is enough after I make them a new pair of insoles, he said – but you, I’m going to have to see three or four times at least. You’ve had this so long, it hasn’t been treated right, you are overcompensating so much that it is impossible to see what is really going on. This is the kind of work I like.

So once again, “You’ve had some right cowboys in here”.

But: both the cobbler and René seemed to make their remarks our of sheer pleasure in their job – unlike the builders, for whom it is a reason to charge more. The cobbler wouldn’t take my money. And as far as I can tell, there’s a standard price for fitting new insoles, regardless of how many sessions you have.

Making conversation as I got dressed, I told René that living in Holland is turning out to be good for my health. I exercise more, I said; I eat and drink less. Just wait till you get a social life and start going to the pub and going out to eat, he said. Here are some good restaurants I recommend to get you started…