History games 16 – China the middle kingdom

In civilisation games a single turn covers decades or centuries. A classic which came out in the 1980s is Britannia by Lewis Pulsipher. It covers British history from 43 to 1066 AD. China the middle kingdom is a game by another designer (Tani Chen) that uses the same rule set. It starts in 403 BC – slotting in nicely after the Peloponnesian war, which ended in 404 – and runs to the present day.

In Britannia games each player has a set of counters of the same colour with different designs to represent a series of nations/tribes/countries that appear and disappear in history. Some nations have many counters, some few. The place they come onto the map – a particular space in China, or over the frontiers, or from the sea – is specified.

Britannia games have area movement, simple combat rules and population growth that is a function of the number of areas the nation occupies.

Each nation has its own objectives. Most often they score points for occupying certain areas at the end of certain turns.

I played China the middle kingdom with three friends – the game is designed for four – on a visit to Brussels in January. (Remember when that was a thing?) I sorted the counters out in advance. This was a fiddly job and took a couple of hours because last time I put them away in a big heap . The game itself took an afternoon., We played the variant that ends at the halfway mark, turn 12 (907 AD), after the rise of the Tang dynasty.

I love Britannia. I was disappointed with China the middle kingdom. The nations felt samey and the pace of the game, repetitive. Partly this is because I’m British on the one hand and don’t know much about Chinese history on the other. But I think the situations depicted in this game may be genuinely less diverse. There’s no equivalent of the Welsh,  who hide in their mountains, sallying snortingly out from time to time. Nor of the Caledonians, who hide in their mountains and don’t. Nations have less staying power and this means that some players are little involved for periods of the game.

Apart from this, it plays well – the Britannia rules have been well tested.

I can’t comment on how historical the ebbs and flows of nations are. I suppose they are reasonably so. This game, like History of the World, obviously has no answer to the question, who do I represent? The playing materials are of reasonable quality. I liked the bright colours, others didn’t.

I should add that I lost by a mile. I got less than I should have out of my best nation (the Qin) and nothing out of the others (e.g. the Shu and the 6 Dynasties). But the other players, who fought it out narrowly for points at the top, did not seem overwhelmed by the game either. 4 points.

Screenshot 2020-05-26 at 22.39.44

 

Going to a restaurant (working a bit less at home, 10)

Our societies are gradually taking steps out of lockdown. It’s interesting to compare. This is our experience today (Monday 1 June, a bank holiday in the Netherlands) and yesterday.

The rules softened today. Yesterday, already, Once-Again-Travelling-Companion and I cycled to Bergen aan Zee, the nearest beach, twelve km from our home in Alkmaar. We got takeaway fish and chips and wine and beer, sat on a low wall to eat it then walked on the beach. There were quite a few people there but only this – still distanced – café queue looked to me to be breaking the 1,5 metre rule.

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A few people swam.

Today in Alkmaar restaurants and terraces could open again.  There were plenty of officials on the street to make sure it went OK – police, council enforcement staff (handhaving), young volunteers distributing hand sanitiser.

We wondered if people would rush to bars and restaurants or come back cautiously. It looked more like the latter. This is the main square at lunchtime: plenty of empty tables.

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Is it the weather (less good than yesterday) or FOGO (fear of going out)?

Travelling Companion and I went to the 13 Balcken, our favourite restaurant. My starter, with Messeklevel cheese and vegetables, was particularly good. Inside, where we were, and out there were plenty of empty tables.

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The waiter was careful to keep his distance.

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A nearby bar, Pluim, has doubled the width of its tables.

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In the Bolwerkpark the council has drawn circles for people to sit in.

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I’m off back to work (probably just for one day this week) tomorrow.

 

History games 16 – China the middle kingdom

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In civilisation games a single turn covers decades or centuries. One of the classics, which came out in the 1980s, is Britannia by Lewis Pulsipher. It covers British history from 43 to 1066 AD. China the middle kingdom is one of several games by other designers that reuse the same rule set. It starts in 403 BC – slotting in nicely after the Peloponnesian war, which ended in 404 – and runs to the present day.

In Britannia games each player has a set of counters of the same colour with different designs to represent a series of nations/tribes/countries that appear and disappear in history. Some nations have many counters, some are limited to few. The place they come onto the map – in China, over the frontiers or from the sea – is specified.

These games have area movement, simple combat rules and population growth that is a function of the number of areas the nation occupies.

Each nation has its own objectives. Most often they score points for occupying certain areas at the end of certain turns.

I played China the middle kingdom with three friends – the game is designed for four – on a visit to Brussels in January. (Remember when that was a thing?) I sorted the counters out in advance. This was a fiddly job and took a couple of hours because last time I put them away in one big heap . The game itself took an afternoon., We played the variant that ends at the halfway mark, turn 12 (907 AD), after the rise of the Tang dynasty.

I love Britannia. I was disappointed with China the middle kingdom. The nations felt samey and the pace of the game, repetitive. Partly this is because I’m British on the one hand and don’t know much about Chinese history on the other. But I think the situations depicted in this game may also be genuinely less diverse. There’s no equivalent of the Welsh, who hide in their mountains, sallying snortingly out from time to time. Nor of the Caledonians, who hide in their mountains and don’t. Nations have less staying power and this means that some players are little involved for periods of the game. Apart from this, it plays well – the Britannia rules have been well tested.

I can’t comment on how historical the ebbs and flows of nations are. I suppose they are reasonably so. This game, like History of the World, obviously has no answer to the question, who do I represent? The playing materials are of reasonable quality. I liked the bright colours, others didn’t.

I should add that I lost by a mile. I got less than I should have out of my best nation (the Qin) and nothing out of the others (e.g. the Shu and the 6 Dynasties). But the other players, who fought it out narrowly for points at the top, did not seem overwhelmed by the game either. 4 points.

Screenshot 2020-05-26 at 22.39.44

 

When we go back to work, how will we get there? (Working at home 7)

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(Brussels, 2015)

When this thing started we all said When will we go back? It’s interesting how an understanding can roll through our society. Now we’re saying How will we go back?

Trying to maintain our distances, presumably. A metre and a half in the Netherlands, two in Britain.

That cuts the carrying capacity of public transport.

If seats on public transport become scarcer, people who used to go by bus or tram or metro or train may go by car instead. Or they may walk (a short distance) or cycle (could be further).

Cars take up a lot of space, moving and parked. Big cities like London, Paris and Brussels depended, before the crisis, on public transport. They are so dense that they have no room for public transport users to switch to cars. These cities are now looking at making more room for ex-public-transport users by transferring street space from cars to walking and cycling, which are less space-intensive. That will, incidentally, make these cities better places to live.

In smaller towns and the countryside the situation is different. Here there’s generally room for more car use and I fear that’s what we’ll see.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Plenty of commuting trips that currently go on public transport are quite short. Even for the longer trips, plenty could be made by bike. In the Netherlands, where I live, bikes were used in 2016 for 15% of trips in the 7.5-15 km distance band*; and the rise of e-bikes is making cycling more competitive over that sort of distance.

But the Netherlands has cycling infrastructure. It’s 22 km from my home to where I work. As a cycle ride it’s longer than I’d like, but it’s doable. When I go back to work I’m sure that’s how I’ll travel, at least at the start. (My alternative is the bus.) Of the 22 km, 12 km is on separate cycle paths; 5 km on traffic-calmed roads (like in the picture);

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4 km on a farm road that runs beside the main road; and just 1km on ‘ordinary’ roads where cyclists have the protection only of a marked cycle lane.

In places that don’t already have something like this, I don’t see it being laid out before we get back to work, and I don’t see many people with the use of a car switching from public transport to cycling if it isn’t.

Talking to friends and colleagues in Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Brussels, to friends and Son in London – and then to Sister in Dunbar and C. K. in Kenmare – I think No-Travel-Companion and I have been lucky to be locked down in a smaller town and not a big city. No queues at the supermarket. Fewer missing items on the shelves. Easy to reach the countryside and anyway, more people have gardens. B. R., who lives in a flat in Brussels with three under-5s, told me about crowds trying to give their children fresh air at the Etangs d’Ixelles while keeping their distance.

But: fewer car trips makes places better. As we go back to work it looks as though big cities may come out of this as better places to walk and cycle, better places to live. The smaller towns that have been good places to be during the lockdown risk coming out car dominated, worse.

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* Netherlands Institute for Transport Policy Analysis, Cycling Facts, 2018

Electricity pricing in Mexico City in the 1950s (according to Señora C)

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(London, 2017)

Señora C at a tea party in Mexico City: “You don’t pay for the current you consume, you pay for the number of sockets you have in the house. Of course the system is quite mad. It comes to as much for a ballroom chandelier blazing away all night with hundreds of watts as for the bulb on your attic steps. So far so bad. Now comes the collector, who is so ill-paid that he couldn’t exist without bribes, literally not exist. You have just taken a house, he goes into your living-room and counts the sockets – ceiling-light, standing lamp, side lamps, unos, dos, tres, cuatros… “Nonsense”, he says, “you must put in one point and connect all your lights with extension wires.” It saves you four-fifths of the bill, and you split the saving. This is where your troubles begin. The one point is overstressed, your lights fuse, you keep tripping over wires. Then a controller appears and threatens to denounce you for what he quite correctly calls fraud. You bribe him as expected, and at the end of the year you are fined by the company anyhow. If you refuse this arrangement to begin with – we all did – you never get any current at all.”

(Sybille Bedford, A visit to Don Otavio – one of my favourite travel books)

Having a fire at Christmas

When we visited California this summer I found, in one and then another of the houses we borrowed, a couple of books about the cookery writer Julia Child. They were her memoir My life in France, written with Alex Prud’homme (2006), and Julie and Julia (2005), whose author, Julie Powell cooks, over a year, all the recipes from Julia Child’s book Mastering the art of French cooking (which could also be found in the Aptos beach house).

Julie Powell lives in New York. She goes back home to Texas for Christmas. It’s always nice to go back to the folks’ house, she writes. There’s no mildew in the bathtub, and you can shower for as long as you want and the water will stay hot. There’s a queen-sized bed to sleep in, no roaring semitrucks passing in the night, a hundred channels on the television, and broadband on the computer. On Christmas Eve we jack up the air-conditioning so we can light a fire. 

Even if my energy-efficient soul is in revolt, I know what Julia Powell’s family are thinking of with the fire.

In the late 1990s we moved to a house, here in Belgium, with a little old metal stove. The people who sold us the house tried to claim that the stove was a mere content of the house, not a fixture or fitting, and to take it away, but we won the argument. (Compared with England, what’s odd in Belgium is that aspects of house purchase, like this, are still debated on the day the house changes hands.) That Christmas, Daughter and Son wrote letters to Father Christmas. We lit the stove and used it to propel their letters up the chimney.

Not long after, when the stove was lit again, we saw that its metal exterior was glowing red. We were unnerved. We never used the stove again. We unfixed it, or unfitted it, and left it in the cellar. I’m afraid that the people who bought the house from us probably chucked it away.

Son is grown-up now. We spent last Christmas with him, in London. He had a dog basket in the fireplace and a nice fire on his TV screen.

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Peter Hitchens on “The railway lines that are so perfectly fitted to our intimate landscape”

Peter Hitchens writes about the English country railway line he took as a child:

Since it closed, I have often walked or pedalled along its course, finding much of it needlessly neglected and overgrown, something which grew much worse after privatisation. If you did not know there had been a station at Marsh Gibbon and Poundon, you would never guess it now. I listen sourly and sceptically to vague, unfunded political promises… to reopen it. What I hear instead are plans to make the same mistake we made in the 1960s yet again – more roads, instead of the railway lines that are so perfectly fitted to our intimate landscape, and so cleverly and gently connect the ancient and the unspoiled to the modern and the busy.

(Spectator, 2.12.17)

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This picture of a child and a ball in Belarus was taken from a train travelling the length of the country, from Orsha to Brest, in the summer of 2015.