Rattenkrieg: Assault on the Tractor Factory

Through his excellent wargame podcast, Wargames To Go, Mark Johnson introduced me to the concept of postcard wargames.  These are mini-microgames that make One Page Bulge look like Fortress Europa, but don’t let that fool you.  They might not fill a table or a weekend, but the right mix of mechanics can make for a challenging and pleasant session of pushing cardboard chits around a mapboard.

Turning Point Simulations has a collection of free postcard games listed on their website.  They include one, complete with die-cut counters, with every purchase you make from their website.  I played the first one, the solo game Rattenkrieg, and after a quick read through of the rules, me and my youngest were ready to start slaughtering some Nazis and Commies.



 
As you can see, the game uses just ten counters for each of the two armies, and takes place on a map with just ten spaces.  Despite these limitations, it includes rules for all of the following: air strikes, ambushes, hidden placement, snipers, generals, leadership, home field advantage, and supply considerations.  Not a bad list of variables to juggle.
 
So how does it play?  Fast and fun.  It’s not a terribly deep game, but what it lacks in depth it more than makes up for in sophistication.  There are little subtleties to this game that took me two or three play-throughs to suss out.  As the German leader, you’ve got to cover as much ground as possible, while converging on those pesky Russian forces that keep popping up all around you.
 
Your units start off strong, but every combat depleted their strength, and you’ve only got four air strikes available.  The Soviets, controlled by the game mechanics, have six units on the board to start the game, only five of which have known locations.  Each turn one more pops up in a random location.  If you are sitting there already, it won’t arrive.  This means that you have to balance overwhelming firepower placed in enemy controlled spaces with covering empty spaces to keep them quashed.
 
The game relies a fair amount of luck, and the first three games were handily won by the Germans.  A very suspicious outcome.  A closer read of the rules, and I noted that the Soviets start with five units on the board – duh.  That makes a first turn win impossible, and even a second or third turn win unlikely.
 
The first play through with the proper set up still went to the Germans:
 


This was a fast win, but it was still a close-run thing.  It required a lot of luck, and in subsequent plays where the dice didn’t so heavily favor the Germans, they were slowly ground down by the surviving Soviets.  As such, this seems like a historically accurate representation given that the Germans have to win fast or they won’t win at all.

So far, I’ve gotten 90 minutes of table time out of a free game that fits on a postcard.  Even if I never play this game again, it was already time well spent.  Especially given that it served as a chance to show my three year old how these games work.  (She likes the green ones.)  Try pulling off that trick with a round of Advanced Squad Leader.

Edit to add:  The Australian Wargamer has a second review that I found just after writing up my own experience.

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Most Writing Advice Sucks

The original purpose of this blog was to catalog a journey from the cubical farm to the easy life of a career writer.  It seemed like a legitimate purpose for a blog, a way to take constant stock of my writing progress, and maybe give a little something back to the writing community.  Over time, I’ve slowly come to a couple of important conclusions.

The easy one is a variation on the theme of, “Don’t take financial tips from a broke guy.”  As a guy just out of the starting blocks, there’s not a whole lot I can tell writers that they can’t find from far more credible sources elsewhere.  So there isn’t much writing advice here.  It’s mainly thoughts and commentary directed towards media, with a focus on pimping the high quality independent works that don’t get the attention they deserve. 

Some day I hope to be a Pulp Revolution hipster that was there before it was cool.

The major conclusion I’ve reached about the culture of writers is that most writing communities are terrible places.  They are filled with pretentious people who aren’t half as clever as they think.  They were probably in the top two percent of the smartest kids in their small town class, and never graduated from Dunning-Kruger University.  That doesn’t stop them from presenting long lists of copied and recopied “No Shit Sherlock” advice about reading what you like, finding a quiet place to write, and just writing already. 

The inspirational advice that grinds my gears the most is the accurate but over-used idea that you should only write if you can’t not write.  For a couple of reasons:

  1. When somebody comes to you asking for help with something, telling them not to do that thing if they don’t have to smacks of self-serving condescension.  If you don’t want the competition, don’t offer advice to help the competition.
  2. It doesn’t offer any real guidance or path forward.
  3. It isn’t consistent with the advice that normally accompanies the phrase.

Specifically, regarding the last point, when that phrase is used in the opening of an article that lays  out the ground work for a detailed, step-by-step process by which you, yes you, can earn enough from your writing to earn a living.  It happens all the time, and frankly, if you can’t come up with a more creative way of writing your advice than the hundred and first iteration of, “Don’t, but if you must, try this,” then maybe creativity isn’t your strong suit, and just maybe creative writing isn’t the field for you.

Look, I get it.  It’s nice to be paid for your writing.  The knowledge that a stranger would sacrifice a bit of his time or cash to partake of the sweet honey of your writing is both financially and emotionally rewarding.  But if you really believe that you write because you can’t not write, then why are you stressing out about how to write full time?

I got a list of hobbies as long as my arm that earning a living from would be a dream come true.  Of course, the market for people who sing bass in a barbershop quartet is limited, so that’s right out the window.  As it is DMing old school D&D, or pushing cardboard chits around a hex map, or running a lot of ten minute miles in a row without stopping, or playing video games ten years past their prime.  These are all things, just like writing, that I can’t not do, so I just do them anyway.  I do them for the sheer pleasure they bring.  Just like writing.

You can’t claim to be a writer who writes because he can’t not write, and claim that you don’t write because you can’t make enough money at it.  That makes no sense.  If you want to be a writer, go  write already.

Let me conclude with some writing advice written by an underappreciated master, by way of Two Gun Bob at Two Gun Blog:

Go forth and multiply those words.
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The Shallows: A Female Protagonist Done Right

The Seagull does not talk about movies very often.  For the most part, he only looks at Hollywood through the rearview mirror. 

They clearly don’t like me.  They’ve made that fact abundantly clear over the last few years.  They might want my money or attention, but until they stop berating me and mocking me, they’ll get as little from me as I can manage.

For various familial reasons, my daughter wanted to see the shark attack suspense movie The Shallows, and sometimes family movie night takes the wheel and kicks principled objections into the back seat.

It’s a great suspense movie.  The threat builds, the reveals steady, and the resolution fast, violent, and brutal.  The most impressive part of the film is the successful use of a genuinely feminine protagonist who survives by dint of cleverness and determination.  The decision to cast the survivor as a female might have been driven by the more appealing cheesecake factor, but it adds to the suspense given her relative weakness.  That vulnerability heightens the suspense, and makes the viewer care even more about her fate. 

It might be accidental.  It might be patriarchal.  It might be a lot of things, but one thing it might not be, is bad film-making.  Worth note is that the violence is particularly well done.  Most of it happens off camera or is obscured by waves or rocks, and leaving the gore to the viewer’s imagination is a refreshingly effective throwback to earlier film-making techniques, while leaving the movie accessible to more mature pre-teens.

There are a few idiot moments early on the story, but the producers made a few token gestures to explain the motivation behind them.  The viewer, having seen the trailer and understanding common safety rules, knows these are mistakes, but can at least understand why the girl in the water puts her desire to get into the water ahead of basic water safety.  Besides, the few mistakes she makes are critical to putting her in the dangerous situation that she spends the next eighty minutes struggling to escape.

And boy does she struggle.  Every time she solves one problem another one rears its ugly head.  The universe clearly has it in for her, and she frequently pauses to acknowledge these little moments with a slight, “You gotta be kidding me,” look.  It’s endearing and makes her a far more sympathetic heroine than another cut and paste badass dude with boobs and a womb.

All in all, this is a tight little movie with great pacing, and just the kind of believable and sympathetic female protagonist that Paul Fieg, JJ Abrams, and Joss Whedon only wish they knew how to create.

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Hopping on Brown Beauty

Joe needs a little push to sit down and get cranking, so this Pulp Revolutionary is pointing to the church tower and shouting, “One if by blog, two if by Gab!” 
 

I don’t know whether this kernel might grow into a book that qualifies as part of the pulp revolution or not, but Joseph Moore doesn’t realize that he is really on to something here.  He’s asking for feedback on a outstanding writing sample.  Go check it out, I’m confident you’ll want to pepper him with encouragement to continue this narrative.

This is what encouragement looks like, revolutionaries.  Don’t be afraid to show people the cool stuff and the potential that’s out there considering an end-run around the grasping claws and fatass offensive linemen of the Big Five publishing houses.  They encourage doubleplusgoodthink through cold hard cash. Without the globalist bankroll encouragement like this is the only power we have to nudge people to engage in crimethink (like that contained in the story above).  Let’s show him we’ve got his back.

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Scanning the New Pulp Horizon

For those of you who don’t read footnotes, Rawle Nyanzi, a young man writing his own survey of Appendix N literature, is writing a book of his own.  As mentioned previously, I’m looking forward to seeing how a millennial approaches pulp writing.  He is a self-professed follower of the “new pulp revival”, so I’m optimistic that he is familiar with the fundamental premises of pulp writing, and will present us with an interesting new take on the pulp genre. 

(Even if he does use the tepid term “revival” instead of the more accurate “counter-reformation” or my preferred belligerent sounding “revolution”.  Give me a second to climb down off my hobby-horse here, and I’ll continue…)

It’s not clear to me how somebody born after the great purge of the 1980s will view old style fiction, nor even how his exposure to media from the last two decades will influence his own work, but it’s something to look forward to.  As Brian Niemeier showed us in his Soul Cycle series, pulp-style fiction can work even within a framework that draws heavily on influences as modern as anime.

(Not a big fan of anime, so my analysis would be infantile in its depth.  Somebody with a better understanding of anime could produce a lot of hay by measuring classic anime series against the yardstick of the Five Pillars of Pulp.)

Today I’d like to use Rawle as a jumping off point for another observation about the Pulp Revolution: it inspires people to pick up the pen and get writing.  Aside from myself and Misha and Rawle, there are at least another three authors that drift through the haze of my social media awareness who have all started writing, or resumed writing as is the case with Misha, in the past year.  To say nothing of guys like Cirsova.  And in each case it is due in no small part to a desire to join the Pulp Revolution/Revival/whatever you want to call it.

 

Setting aside the usual disclaimers about observation bias and positive feedback systems, it’s worth noting that something is going on here.  For some reason, the talk of new pulps, and the desire for more of them, is happening at a time when more people have the time, the wherewithal, and the inspiration to just shut up and do it themselves already.  It might be the influence of the Puppies both Sad and Rabid.  It might be Chuck Tingle inspiring us to kiss the sky.  It might just be that the trickle of new material* demonstrating proof of concept was enough to break a dam of long pent-up desire among the would-be pulp revolutionaries.

Whatever the reason, brace yourself for incoming, because 2017 is going to be an exciting year for long under-served fans of science fiction and fantasy.

* For my part, it was the first issue of Cirsova that really inspired me to sit down and start slapping the keyboard in earnest.  I’ve read the best and worst of the original pulps and the latter attempts to ape them, but it wasn’t until I read great stories in Cirsova that I realized that it could be done, that a market existed, and that I might be able to sell a bit of it myself.

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Three Body Problem

Luke Daniels read Three Body Problem to me during my daily commute, and he is an excellent narrator.  I’d have taken physical notes on his performance if I wasn’t busy driving, texting, and eating, all at the same time.  (I kid.)  As it was, I did take a lot of mental notes on ways to improve my own performances.

The title itself is one of the few Puppy-related works available for download from my local public library – I use Overdrive to pick and save titles – so it’s only natural that it wound up in my queue.

This is a very strange book.  It’s one of those books that nobody ever talks about, they just tell you it’s great and that you should read it.  You won’t understand why until you read it yourself, and then you’ll be one of us.

There are a few things that I can say about it that won’t ruin anything.  It starts with a young girl watching her father murdered by the Red Guards during Mao’s Great Leap Forward.  My son listened to the first two chapters with me, and I was grateful for a chance to show him how socialism and communism really operate.  It took longer to get through the first few chapters because we paused the audio to review how China got to the point that mobs of college students could violently assault their college professors with no repercussions.  He got half-way through the observation that such a thing could never happen here before he remembered such things already happen here. 

That may have been the most chilling part of the book for him.  Even more so than the slow burn reveal of the main antagonist of the book.  He also was surprised that a science-fiction novel would spend so much time talking about the past, and it was only later – much later – that it became clear how the opening third of the book drives the action for the remainder of the book.

Cixin Liu has a gift for making likable characters that are irredeemably evil and good characters who are hard to like.  Sorting out which is which is half the mystery of the book.  A few of the mysteries are easy to solve right out of the gate, but even those are fun to watch unfold.

The last two chapters get really weird.  Like, end of 2001: A Space Odyssey: The Motion Picture weird.  The shift is gradual enough that you don’t notice until things have already gone completely trippy, and soon enough the narrative circles back around to explain the import of the weirdness.

The book, the narrative, and the characters, are all so complicated, it’s hard to know who to root for through most of it.  That kills a lot of the emotional punch that the book otherwise have had, and it’s only Cixin’s gift for characters and mystery that kept me plugging through to the cliff-hanger ending.

Although not the best book published in 2015, it certainly stands head and shoulders above some other Hugo Award winning novels I’ve read over the years.  It’s well worth a read (or a listen), and the less you know about it going in, the better your experience will be.

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Wargame Wednesday: Crisis 2000

My latest guest post over at the Castalia House blog was published today (clicky for linky).  It’s not often you see a fourth-generation wargame, and this one was published long before I had ever heard of the concept of 4th generation war.  Well worth finding and playing a few games of Crisis:2000.

As of this moment, Amazon has a copy of the magazine that contained this game in stock. 

It turns out (hat tip to Karl Gallagher, author of the highly recommended novel Torchship, for this information) that an updated version is available.  Crisis: 2020, was released in 2007 and from the pictures shown on Board Game Geek, looks a lot prettier than my old copy.  At this point, it’s not clear to me if this was anything other than a cosmetic upgrade.  More on this story as it develops.

Of course, we’re talking about updates to story about a nine year old update to a twenty-two year old game, don’t expect much.

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McPublishing

The major publishing houses mass produce literature that starves the soul.  It provides no nutritional value – it just shoves ideas into you with no real concern for your well being.  When you’re done, you feel like maybe you read something important, something that might have made you a better person.  Instead, all you did was consume a facsimile of real literature.  It pretends to be satisfying and filling and to have been developed by the finest minds in the industry, but what you consume barely meets the general criteria for literature.  It’s all word games and parlor tricks, methods and exercised designed to elicit a mood or opinion backed by no healthy philosophy.

Daddy Warpig called it misery-porn, and that’s a tight a summary as any I’ve seen.  It blindly accepts the lies of moral relativism and the belief that science negates religion, often at the same time.  It ignores real, fundamental truths about men and women and man’s place in the universe in favor of a stunted view of mankind as both insignificant and the center of all things, again at the same time.  It ignores the reality of mankind as fallen from God’s grace and his struggles to even understand his place in the universe.  It favors sex over romance and violence in service of their lies.  It’s many things, clever, erudite, and even technically savvy, but it isn’t very good for you.

Not even once, kids.

On the other hand, you’ve got a bunch of little independent producers – mom and pop shops – making fine fare that’s fit for the whole family.  It’s robust fare, a little daring, and it gives you something meaty, something that really sticks to your ribs.  Some of it might not be to your taste, and some of it might not taste all that great, but unlike restaurants, the small publishers and self-published writers charge less.  And you can stop after a chapter without wasting any more time on them.

Why would anyone eat mass produced garbage that costs more instead of taking a chance on cheaper fare that’s probably a lot more filling and healthy?  Marketing is the only answer that comes to mind, and its the only explanation for the continued existence of the brain poison peddlers of the Big 5 Publishing houses.

This isn’t a very nice blog post.  It’s really not fair to McDonalds to compare them to trash mongers like the Big 5 publishing houses.  McDonald’s produces low cost fare that makes for a fine sometimes food.  Maybe it’s better to compare Big Publishing to Big Tobacco.  They both sell products that kill you – one your soul, the other your body.  They both rely on savvy marketing to convince that they are the coolest kids in the room.  They both suffer when consumers notice what they are really selling in their packages.

Yeah…Big Publishing is much more like Big Tobacco – stay away from it kids!  It might seem cool, but it’s not healthy, and over time it makes you smell funny.

Hugo Delenda Est

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The Cargo Cult of New Pulp Media

Those of us laboring in the trenches to drag science fiction and/or fantasy (sf/f) literature onto a new track spent decades lost in a desert wasteland with only the occasional Cryptonomicon or Eifelheim oasis to slake our thirst.  And even those novels, great as they are, can’t hope to satisfy the urge for adventurous fun that the pulps and their immediate descendants still provide.

Many of us experimented with small house publishers producing contemporary attempts at modern pulp sources only to find their writing fell into the same traps and pitfalls as those that had ensnared the big publishing houses.  Sure, they wrote stories that tried to emulate the pulps, with 1920s slang and fast action and a little weirdness thrown in for its own sake.  But these did little to slake a thirst for the sort of pulp feeling that Misha Burnett so ably describes on his blog. 

The elevator pitch for Mischa’s post is that the five pillars of pulp writing are Action, Impact, Moral Peril, Romance, and Mystery.  Being the clever fellow that he is, Mischa includes a caveat that the list is neither authoritative nor definitive.  My summary of that position is that pulp is like porn, it’s hard to define, but I know it when I see it.  It’s a fairly broad spectrum of media that meets a few important criteria, no single one of which is mandatory.  A pulp mystery might lack action, but still feel pulpy.  The tale of one man struggling to escape the pull of the sun’s gravity has little room for romance, but can still contain action, impact, mystery, and moral peril – suicide is an immoral act, after all.

Most of the more modern attempts at pulp writing emphasize the pillars of Action, Impact, and Mystery, with a dash or Romance, but include only the barest hint of Moral Peril.  Unfortunately, it’s that last one that really lends weight to the rest.  An immoral hero with no code who triumphs…just because…or to save others for external reasons, lacks the gravity of a Batman or Superman honor bound to capture villains rather than kill them. 

Note that the villain doesn’t have to struggle to honor his code – moral quandaries can be fun, but most heroes have a code they honor and that’s the end of the story.  The question is never, “should I break my code to score the win”, but, “how do I score the win without breaking my code?”  That’s an important distinction.  Heroes who know right from wrong, and act unhesitatingly to do the former rather than the latter, are compelling and attractive in ways their more spineless and weaselly brethren are not.

To take one forgettable example, a few years back, I read a series of superhero novels set in a vaguely steampunk setting.  Although it featured a lot of action and impact, the moral peril was presented solely in terms of god-like supermen moping about and refusing to save the day because of guilt or some other feeble excuse.  They weren’t heroes who fought, they were angsty hipsters (beards and all) suffering from the crushing weight of responsibility placed upon their shoulders.  These were characters who faced moral peril, and failed – not heroes.  The fact that I can’t remember the book’s title or a single character’s name speaks volumes about the quality of its writing and plot.

At the time, the explanation for the book’s failure escaped me.  I didn’t notice that the lack of Moral Peril left the book as a hollow shell.  In the words of the greatest film critic of our day, I didn’t notice it, but my brain sure did.


Which brings us full circle to most modern attempts at recreating the feel of pulp writing.

Whoops, first we need to go back to Melanesia in the early 20th century.  The natives there watched white men show up, build runways and aerial antennas, and then accept gifts from the sky.  Clearly, they reasoned, clearing landing strips and building rotating circles pleased the gods, resulting in gifts from the sky.  They lacked the deeper understanding of things like radar waves, supply chains, and logistics that would have allowed their crude attempts to bear the same fruit as those of the newcomers.

Most modern day pulp writers are like those islanders.  They look back to the Bracketts, Hammetts, Howards, and Burroughses, and enact the same ritual writing, but lack the understanding of the deeper underpinnings that give the Loreleis, Contintenal Ops, Conans, and John Carters such emotional punch.

The writers in the latest Pulp Revolution – the Hernstroms, Burnetts, Niemeiers, (and hopefully Nyanzis*) – are the first ones I’ve encountered that aren’t simple engaging in superficial copying of the old masters, but build their tales on the firmer ground of Moral Peril, and they are the first ones that I’ve actively sought out more, more, more from.

I’ll keep looking for other authors that stand on the five pillars, naturally, but it’s nice to know somebody out there gets it.

* Rawle Nyanzi has been writing on his survey of Appendix N works from the perspective of a millennial.  He recently announced that his survey was slowed by the writing of his own novel.  It will be interesting to see how somebody born another two or three decades removed from the pulps’ original publishing date approaches writing pulps of his own.

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Down the Dragon Hole

Click to buy

After the heavy mythic fare of Thune’s Vision, Make Death Proud to Take Us serves as a light chaser – at least the stories I’ve read from it so far.

Down The Dragon Hole, by Morgon Newquist, is a fun romp of a fantasy tale featuring…well, just what it says on the tin.  A bookish wizard teams up with a burly and clever soldier to kill a dragon.  That one sentence description dorsn’t do the book justice, but the tale features enough little surprises and twists that saying anymore would do you a disservice.

There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking or profound about Down the Dragon Hole, and that is no slight.  Not every story needs to be a grinding statement about the tragedy of life on this mortal coil or an epic tale of the clash of civilizations and the rise of dark lords thwarted by small people.  Sometimes a jaunt through a smaller adventure with a few gratuitous explosions, clever twists, and lighthearted settings is just what the book doctor ordered, and this story definitely fits that mold. 

This is a fun read with compelling characters who start shallow but display a slowly revealed depth that is a delight to read.  One of the characters performs a neat little heel-face turn – or face-heel, depending on your point of view – about half way through.  They might be heroes, they might be regular people thrust into a dangerous situation, and they might be the best of both, if Morgon’s blog is to be believed, their adventures aren’t over.  The ending certainly leaves that door open in a very natural way.

One thing I would like to highlight is that the point-of-view character is a woman.  She is not a badass chick with only one tragic flaw – that no one understands how truly wonderful she it.  She’s a real, three-dimensional character, a bookish type with some moderate level of ability forced to push herself in ways that she never though possible.  She strives against the odds, possesses deeper reserves than she knew, and yet retains the feminine characteristics that allow her to be a fully realized woman rather than another cookie-cutter flawless and boring don’t-need-no-man kind of hero.  It’s a refreshing change from the usual fare.

On the downside, the story does contain a couple of minor anachronisms that jangle against the medieval fantasy backdrop, giving the setting the midwest-American feel that one sees in most fantasy literature these days.  I prefer a more historical feudal-with-magic, and if the language isn’t high medieval English, it should at least avoid modern phrasing.  But this criticism is a personal taste and again, no slight against the author.

So if you’re in the mood for a good dragon hunting adventure with a fun pair of heroes, then give Down the Dragon Hole a look.  This is the second story I’ve reviewed from the series – look for the rest here sometime in the near future.

And if you liked Down the Dragon Hole, you might like my own dragon-hunting novella, The King’s Dragon, available at Amazon.com

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