2009-10-28

It's never too late to ride your bike

I saw this wonderful news item, about an 84 year old woman who has been riding a 150 mile charity ride for Multiple Sclerosis, every year for the last 26 years.

She rides in a dress and high heels, on a single speed bike with upright bars and a basket. She's slow, but she finishes.

My favorite quote from the piece:

"I have the most pressure out of anyone on the tour," Sim adds jokingly. "I know I can't quit, because my grandmother's behind me somewhere!"


To ride a bike, even for long distances, you don't need the right bike, the right clothes and equipment, or ideal fitness. Mainly, you need to want to do it.

2009-10-22

Realism in wargames

The short version of my discussion about realism in wargames is: "There isn't any." That may not be entirely true, but it's a pretty good approximation. This doesn't stop people from trying to make wargames realistic, though.

When I use the word "realism" I include "verisimilitude," by which I mean the degree of similarity to fictitious works (even though I now see that may not be exactly what verisimilitude means). Wargames attempting to recreate the War of the Ring or the Battle of the Five Armies can get it just as right or wrong as recreations of the Battle of Thermopylae or the Battle of the Bulge. On the other hand, by "wargame" I'm only referring to board games and miniature games, not video games.

The idea of making a game realistic treats the game as a simulation. But a simulation of what? Different game designers emphasize correctness and realism in different areas, while accepting a greater degree of abstraction in other areas. This can result in very different gameplay for different games.

The most visible kind of realism is in the way the game pieces look. Eurogames and board game wargames typically use very abstract pieces: wooden cubes or square cardboard counters. Ameritrash games emphasize the look of the game and usually include molded plastic figures to represent troops. Using pieces which look realistic is the main reason to play a miniatures game instead of a board game.

The way game pieces look doesn't need to affect the way the game plays, even though sometimes it does. The visual differences define broad categories of games because they're the first thing you see. To me, the more interesting difference is the way gameplay changes depending on how a game attempts to achieve realism.

Some wargames are described as "reductionist." An army is reduced to a specific number of individual men and the machines and equipment they are using. Statistics are collected about the real life performance of these men and their equipment. The game defines strict time scales per turn and well-defined distances on the playing area. The hope is that if you introduce enough detail into the rules, accurate results of the battles they model will emerge (nevermind that whole die-rolling thing...).

I read a good statement of my main criticism of the reductionist school of game design: it confuses "detail" with "realism." Fine details seem to provide justification for the results the game produces, but they also obscure areas where abstractions have been made, and hide the ways in which the game is unrealistic.

Some common flaws with reductionist games are:
  • they require fiddly rules with special cases for all details the game attempts to model
  • games are slow or take too long
  • rule complexity and slow gameplay cause the game to lose the "feel" of the activity it's attempting to simulate
  • too much bookkeeping
  • complex rules can shifr game play emphasis from using period-appropriate tactics to taking advantage of "flaws" in the rules in order to win
As an example of reductionism and its limitations: it is possible to calculate all aspects of the velocity, orientation, and position of an airplane in flight, and to track changes in these over a series of steps in time (game turns) in reactions to the actions of players. However, doing this typically does not feel like flying an airplane: it feels like completing a physics problem set. That's not my idea of fun.

I know I said I wasn't talking about video games, but reductionism is something computers can do a lot better than humans. Bookkeeping is not a problem for computers, calculations can be done much more quickly, and no player needs to remember the rules.

Details are not bad by themselves. The important aspect is matching the level of detail with the scale of the game. In a World War II skirmish with 10 guys on each side, it's important exactly how many men there are, what kind of guns they're using, and how many bullets they have left. If you're wargaming the entire European Theater of Operations, these minutae are not only less important to the general commanding the entire army, they aren't available to him whether he's interested or not. Learn to delegate.

Other games push detail into a secondary role, and instead emphasize making the game "feel" right for the player, in the context of the role they are playing in the game. In a WWII air combat game, the emphasis might be on making it feel like fast-paced combat where you must react quickly to avoid being shot down. An infantry skirmish might put you in the role of a platoon leader, where you have a few dozen scared kids with guns who would rather hide behind a tree than advance on the enemy machine gun net. Playing General Montgomery attempting to push a long line of troops and tanks down the road in Operation Market Garden is going to be a lot more about logistics and attrition than individual firefights.

Some benefits and optimizations that can be more easily achieved when you emphasize a realistic "feel" while omitting detail are:
  • Fewer rules
  • Less bookkeeping to do during the game
  • Faster gameplay; this is often necessary for a game to feel right
  • It's easier to encourage use of appropriate tactics instead of "gaming" the rules
It has been observed that in the last decade or so wargames have been trending towards cleaner, simpler rulesets instead of the lumbering behemoths of yesteryear. The old guard laments the lack of attention span of "those kids today" and might blame video games for what they perceive as reduced quality in rulesets.

I also invoke video games as a possible reason for this change, but I credit them instead of blaming them. Computers are much more able to reach the logical extreme of reductionist rulesets than humans are. Anyone interested in pursuing extreme detail is generally better off teaching a computer how to follow the rules than a human, and so those game designers with this propensity are creating video games instead of board games. I have no problem with that.

As for how these theoretical preferences affect the games I play in reality...

I enjoy playing video games, becuase they often combine an extreme degree of detail with the "feel" I'm looking for in a game. But of course, I still enjoy a good face-to-face board game or miniature game. I have limited time, so I tend to choose relatively short games, but I don't often let rule complexity be a limiting factor. I've enjoyed playing all kinds of wargames: some more reductionist, and others which emphasize the gameplay instead of the detail. So maybe I'm just in another phase where I don't like the idea of reductionism?

I also like reading game rules, sometimes without ever playing the game or even owning enough parts to play it. I like to see how designers translate real-world situations into playable game mechanics. These rulesets are solutions to problems of modelling, and it is interesting to me to see the different ways they create abstractions of reality. (In contrast, pure abstract strategy games aren't interesting to me. One reason for this is becuase the rules exist in a vacuum: they are abstract, but they aren't an abstract representation of anything.)

Regarding the realism of the way a game looks on the table: I run the gamut in this area as well. I play euro style wargames, ameritrash, and hex and counter games, but right now I'm on a miniatures gaming kick. For me, miniatures games are as much about the modelling as the playing: the prospect of playing a game is an excuse to paint the figures.

Another unintended side effect of the visual detail in a miniatures game is that I am encouraged to learn about the period I'm gaming. Some of this is required to accurately paint figures or plan and set up for a specific battle in history; but some of it is accidental, when I get sucked into books I'm reading on related subjects.

So, don't fool yourself into thinking any of these games are realistic, but do have fun trying!

Midas Touch

6 months or so ago, Daniel sent me a link to an announcement that Dogfish Head brewery was going to be reproducing some ancient beer (or other fermented beverage) recipes, and I was very interested to try them when they were finally available. Then, a week or so ago Dad sent me a note about Midas Touch, an all-year-round brew that fits the category of "ancient beer."

I finally managed to remember to pick one up at D's, and tonight we tried it. I like it, it's my kind of beer.

The beer is a crystal clear rich gold color (hence the Midas Touch) with a light head that doesn't stick around. There was no yeast in my bottle. It has a bit of the malty bitterness of a barley wine or most American made Belgian style trippels. It's malty, slightly sweet, and bitter but with no hoppiness. I'm reminded of some kind of wine, but I don't pay enough attention to my wine to be able to place it. The flavor is very interesting, without slapping you in the face with "different." I'd definitely get this again.

I also picked up a bottle of Palo Santo Marron, which seems slightly interesting, and a big bottle of Chateau Jiahu that I am very interested in trying. Now that I'm looking at the Dogfish Head site more carefully, it looks like I'll have to try to find Theobroma and Sah'tea as well.

Unfortunately it looks like I'll have to go to Delaware or Maryland to taste any of their distilled spirits. Maybe they could teach me to enjoy rum.

2009-10-18

Game report: Double DBA

DBA, or De Bellis Antiquitatis, is a miniature wargame for recreating battles from the ancient through medieval periods (aorund 3000BC-1400AD). Each player chooses an army of 12 elements from the list of 300 or so armies in the book. It takes only about an hour to complete a game. The rules are easy (though the rule book is unintelligible), but the tactics can be subtle.

The Double DBA variation allows playing larger games: two 12-element armies are used per side, and it facilitates more than 2 players a lot better than normal DBA. The rules don't change, but the additional tactical complication can make the game take a lot longer.

Last night, 3 of us played a game of Double DBA for the first time. I played the Skythians (I/43a) and Later Achaemenid Persians (II/7) against Frank playing the Alexendrian Macedonians (II/12) and Andy playing Later Spartans (II/5a). These are all historically contemporary armies: Alexander was the enemy of all three of the others, and Persia and Scythia were allies at some times. I don't have Alexander's only ally army, so we faked it with the Spartans.

I chose the most infantry possible with my armies: only 10 out of 24 elements. In contrast they had as much cavalry as possible, which is only 4 out of 24. So they were very different armies: theirs was a long, slow, strong infantry line, and mine was mostly highly maneuverable light horse lacking any real punch.

My other big choice in army composition was whether to use Auxilia or Spear for my Persian infantry block. The rest of my foot is Auxilia and Psiloi, which are both good in bad terrain. Spear wouldn't be good in bad terrain, and with such a short infantry line, they'd be easy to outflank and kill out the open. So, I chose the Auxilia, since I could probably hide them in some bad going to keep them safe.

I ended up rolling as the defender, and setting up terrain. I put bad going in the middle front of each deployment zone, and some on each flank. This allowed me to guarantee hiding my infantry, while putting a hole in the enemy line. The terrain on the flanks wasn't that big of a problem, but they did constrain deployment more than I thought. I shouldn't have put the bad going in the middle of the table on both sides: this caused their army to gap exactly where my infantry was placed, instead of encouraging them to confront me in the bad going.

The bigger mistake I made was in deployment. I put my light horse too close to the center, with no efficient way to move them out to the flank. That wasted a lot of PIPs and caused trouble.

The Spartans are almost entirely spear, and Alexander's primary infantry is Pikes. Those cannot kill my Light Horse or Cavalry at all, without flanking them. Their other option for killing my elements was to go into the terrain to push out my light infantry. They're easier to kill, but it would require a lot more commands to get into combat because of the bad going. On the other hand, I had to set up some really useful combats in order to get any chance of killing any of his elements with my weak Light Horse.

For a while, the lines approached each other uneventfully, and I tried to extract a few light horse from the center around to the flank. I lost many combats, as I expected, with my light horse fleeing. Eventually Andy and Frank exploited gaps in my line to flank my elements that hadn't fled yet, and I started losing some units. However, exploiting a hole with a pike block means breaking your line, and this helped me get into a much better position against them.

8 elements or both generals dead means you lose. I lost about 4 elements before I killed anything. It got pretty grim: I was behind by about 6-3 at the worst. But then things started turning around when they stopped getting any PIPs (commands) for a while, and I was able to more effectively fold Frank's flank. I eventually caught up, killing 8 (including a general) to their 6.

Overall, it was very enjoyable, but it took closer to 4 hours than 1. I admit, a lot of this was involved in not actually playing the game, and we could be a lot faster with more experience. I'd certainly play again if everyone was interested, but I'd be almost as happy playing a few ordinary DBA games, since they'll make everyone better at playing more quickly.

I liked the very different feel of the armies, but I think this particular matchup created a quite slow game, since most of the combats were numerically very unlikely for me to win, but also impossible for them to kill me. Clearly I need to paint a few more armies so we can have more double DBA options!

2009-10-17

DBA Army II/7: Later Achaemenid Persians

Here is the Later Achaemenid Persian army, finished. These are Essex 15mm figures from their DBA army pack. The only optional elements I didn't paint are the scythed chariot and the cavalry general.

The color schemes are all based on images in the Osprey book on the Achaemenid Persians, which are taken from the Alexander Sarcophagus and the Alexander Mosaic. "Yes, they really did wear that much purple and (saffron) yellow." But also notice that almost everyone is wearing expensively dyed fabric instead of armor.

Here is the general on his light chariot. Since this army will be playing primarily against Alexander the Great, I consider him to be Darius III, king of Persia. I almost displayed him facing backwards, since he always seems to be fleeing from Alexander in historical images.

Two Cavalry elements. I'm least happy with the shading on these guys' hoods. I should've used a lighter ink, but I didn't. It's not as obvious in pictures. I'm also not sure about the armor; it doesn't match anything I've seen in books.

These are the two elements of Light Horse.

Here are four elements of spearmen. I'm not very happy with the choice of figures here, because I'm intending to use this for a very late army. These "Dipylon" shields are a hundred or more years out of date by Alexander's time. The rear ranks are "immortals" from earlier Perisan armies, and it's kind of weird that they're carrying bows as well as spears and shields. They're shown wearing older long Persian robes instead of the shorter Median style tunics and pants they adopted later. The front ranks are painted like Darius' spear bearers (bodyguard).

They look nice, and work the same way on the table, but they aren't likely the spearmen faced by Alexander.


In the front are 4 elements of Auxilia, Takabara. These are fairly good figures, but I think the shields are too small. I made an attempt at adding a few shield designs, but it didn't work very well. In the rear are three elements of Psiloi: Persian slingers and javilenmen. I'd rather have bows tha javelins.

Overall, I'm happy with the way it turned out. I can't bring myself to spend a lot more time on 15mm figures, but with only rudimentary shading.

2009-10-15

Persians, almost done

Here's an in-progress picture of my latest painting projects. This is another DBA army, II/7: Later Achaemenid Persians. There are also three frigates from Uncharted Seas in there, they aren't Persian ships.

This shows how I hold the figures for painting. Similar figures are hot glued onto a stick, far enough apart that I can reach all parts of the figure. Horses are primed in brown or grey since that's the primary color they'll be when they're done. The rest are primed in white, grey, or black depending on which color I think is best that day (and somewhat depending on what color is going over the primer).

For cavalry, sometimes I glue the riders on before painting, but sometimes I stake the riders on pins and paint them separately before epoxying them onto the horses.

These figures have just come in from being sprayed with matte varnish. After that, they're removed from the sticks, and glued to bases. Then I paint and decorate the bases. These will fill 16 stands of figures (4 cavalry, 1 chariot, and 11 infantry elements).

I'll have pictures of the finished army soon. This looks like it'll be a fun army to play with, except for the fact that they'll always have to lose against Alexander the Great.

Fort Ligonier Day 2009

In August, we visited Pam and Bob in Ligonier for the weekend. While I was there, I learned there was a reconstructed French and Indian War fort there: Fort Ligonier. Who knew!

Every year, they have a weekend long celebration in Ligonier called Fort Ligonier Days. We went down last weekend, and went to Fort Ligonier Days on Sunday. There were a variety of arts and craft vendors around town, as well as special events at the fort itself.

Most of the craft vendors were't my thing. Some of the artists with shops in town have much better work than the people they invited for the weekend. They did have an interesting blacksmith doing demonstrations, though.

I was more interested in the events at the fort itself. Besides reconstructing the entire fort in its exact original location, the owners have also crafted reproduction cannons, wagons, and other buildings on site. They held an artillery demonstration twice each day during the weekend, when they fired the reproduction Big Guns. They fired a wall gun, a swivel gun, a 6 pounder cannon (shown in the picture above) and a 12 pounder. I wouldn't have wanted to be driving by during the demonstration: the guns are set up in "SUV hunter" positions on the highway side of the fort, and they're loud!

Later, they held a small reenactment of a French and Indian attack on the British-held fort. During the war, the fort was attacked twice but the British held it both times. In the fort there were British and provincial troops, and the attack was made by a group of French who were camped outside the fort (as shown in the image to the right).

The French grenadiers threw grenades over the wall to get the defenders away, scaled the wall with ladders, and then blew up the gate to open it for the rest of the troops to enter. They then demonstrated standard European style combat with two firing lines. They fired their muskets (with blanks) but didn't simulate casualties.

The fort is quite interesting. It's located literally across the street from Bob and Pam's house, right in the middle of town. It is completely unrelated to the government: privately owned, privately funded, and not a park of any sort. They allow tours through the reconstructed buildings on the premises (for an entrance fee), and have reenactments by volunteers several times per year.

Just before Fort Ligonier Days, I learned a bit more about the French and Indian War. Have you ever heard of "Braddock's Last Stand," aka the Battle of the Monongahela? Neither had I. But it happened only a few miles away from our house! Unfortunately the "battlefield" (it was woods, not a field, at the time) is now under a hundred years of city and steel mill, near the appropriately named Braddock, PA.

General Braddock was marching from Fort Necessity towards Fort Duquesne. Just after crossing the Monongahela, his slow-moving column was attacked by French and Indians. They were decimated because they maintained their European line formation and tactics during a wilderness skirmish. Braddock was wounded, and died shortly afterward outside Fort Necessity. A little-known officer named George Washington led the retreat, and learned from the mistakes made that day.

I'm not sure if I learned more about the American Revolution as I was growing up, or if I just remember more of it; in either case I'm sure it's because New England seems to have a much greater affinity for the Revolutionary war than the French and Indian war.

2009-10-12

Halfway here...

I was born in fall of 1971, and started living in Pittsburgh in fall of 1990, when I came to school at Carnegie Mellon University.

Now, it's fall of 2009, so I've lived in Pittsburgh for half my life (approximately, not counting tings like summers home and 6 months in Washington state). Wow!

We've lived in this house since 1998, which means there are only 4-5 years until I've lived in this house longer than anywhere else. It seems a lot more recent than that. So much for this only being a "starter house."

2009-10-03

New Elements

I painted up a few extra elements to augment my existing DBA/HotT armies.

First is two elements of Greek cavalry. This is intended for use with my later Spartan DBA army. It turns out I may have needed some allied cavalry instead of greeks, to be strictly correct; and I really only need one of these. But they'll help me fake a non-Spartan later greek hoplite army. These are 15mm Essex figures. I got one pack of medium cavalry and a few packs of light horse, so there is one unarmored cavalry figure per element. The rest of the light horse figures would eventually let me paint up 3 2LH elements.

The other recent additions are 10mm Dwarven cannons. These are Citadel Warmaster figures, based as Hordes of the Things artillery elements.
I based these up years ago when I painted the rest of the Dwarf army, but only got around to painting them now. I think I still have a few elements of blades to paint, but that's not on the schedule yet.

I'm making some progress on my Later Achaemenid Persian DBA army, but not enough to take pictures of yet.