Monday, 15 October 2018

Doctor Who Series 11.1, 11.2

The outgoing Doctor Who showrunner, Steven Moffat, was the best writer of stories that the show has yet found. As showrunner, he was less successful, taking the show in a wrong direction and gradually losing his audience by trying to be too clever. He tended to write fantasy rather than science-fiction stories, and seemed to see the Doctor as a superhero figure with a magic wand; whereas I much preferred him as a travelling eccentric with a screwdriver.

The new showrunner, Chris Chibnall, has given us two stories so far, which have been very well presented and well acted: they look good. I'm not sure how much credit he's due for that, but he may turn out to be a better showrunner than Moffat. He's trying to write science fiction rather than fantasy, which is good; unfortunately, he seems to have little understanding of science or technology, which is a significant handicap when writing sf!

The 13th Doctor seems to be less of a superhero (good), but still has a magic wand: the sonic screwdriver, originally a humble gadget with very limited functionality, can now apparently do almost anything the Doctor wants it to do (sigh).

Chibnall's Doctor Who stories in the Moffat era were adequate but unexciting, and his first two stories in his own era are also adequate but unexciting. There's not much in these stories that might tempt me to watch them again, except to remind myself later how the 13th Doctor started her career. Various other writers have been engaged for Series 11; I hope they'll have better stories to tell.

Now that the Doctor Who team has the collective ability to tell stories so well, it really needs some good stories worth telling.

At first sight, I'm not keen on the new TARDIS interior. The TARDIS is the Doctor's home: she lives in it. Would you like to live in that? Do you think the 13th Doctor would really like to live in that? And the user interface of the new console seems very 1940s. Perhaps it'll grow on me, but I'm not very hopeful.

Friday, 28 October 2016

La Paradoja de Pacino

El capítulo 10 de El Ministerio del Tiempo es uno de los mejores capítulos, pero ilustra un problema con toda la serie: los guionistas no han desarrollado ninguna teoría consistente de cómo funcionan los viajes en el tiempo.

En el capítulo, Pacino descubre el Ministerio siguiendo un criminal, entonces viaja al pasado y le impide convertirse en un criminal, por lo que nunca se producen sus crímenes. Sin embargo, esto significa que Pacino nunca debe descubrir el Ministerio y nunca debe viajar al pasado. Tenemos una paradoja. Los guionistas ignoran la paradoja y esperan que los espectadores no se darán cuenta.

¿Cómo podemos resolver la paradoja? Por ejemplo, podemos decir que la alteración en la historia no cambia Pacino, porque él es el agente del cambio. En este caso, Pacino 1 del Universo 1 se convierte en un inmigrante en el Universo 2, que él ha creado. En el Universo 2, la gente del Ministerio no conocen Pacino, y existe un Pacino 2 que nunca descubre el Ministerio.

Pacino 1 es la única persona en el Universo 2 que conozca la historia del criminal y sus crímenes, que ocurrieron sólo en el Universo 1.

El tatuaje de Pacino se mantiene, porque Pacino 1 no se ha cambiado. Pero Pacino 2 nunca ha tenido el tatuaje.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

A timeline of New Virginia

Here is a combined timeline of the two alternative worlds described in S. M. Stirling's novel Conquistador (2003). The timeline is intended as a summary for people who have read the book, and therefore omits explanatory notes.

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't read the book yet, and would like to be surprised by it, leave this page immediately!

356 BC: Birth of Alexander the Great (as in our history)

323 BC: Alexander the Great recovers from illness (died in our history)

280 BC: Death of Alexander the Great

000 AD: Alexandrian Empire starts to decline

300 AD: Alexandrian Empire no longer exists

1585: Birth of John Rolfe I (as in our history)

1622: Death of John Rolfe I and his wife Matoaka, also known as Pocahontas and Lady Rebecca

1862: Colonel John Rolfe III, Stonewall Brigade, loses a leg in battle

1922: Birth of John Rolfe VI

1942: John Rolfe leaves the Virginia Military Institute

1944: John Rolfe is seriously wounded in the Battle of Okinawa (1945 in our history)

1946-04-17: The Gate opens

1946-12-31: New Virginian population less than 200

1947: Birth of Charles Rolfe

1949: Import of animals begins via San Diego Zoo

1950-01-01: Settler population over 15,000

1950-06-07: John Rolfe first visits Sierra Consultants

1955: Import of animals stops

1962: Sorenson retires, Sierra Consultants closes

1962: Arrival of the Chumley and Devereaux families (29th and 30th)

1968: Hawaii added to New Virginia

1971: Kidnapping of Ralph Barnes

1990s: Arrival of the Batyushkov and Versfeld families (31st and 32nd)

1998: Kidnapping of Henry Villers

2001: Adrienne joins the Gate Security Force

2003: Arrival of Sergei Lermontov

2007: Secret recruitment begins for revolution

2009-06: Capture of condor, Tom meets Adrienne

2009-06: Kidnapping of Tom and Roy

2009-06: 150,000 Settlers, 3,000 in Families, 50,000 nahua

2009-07: Start of Owens Valley expedition

2009-08: Revolution; the Gate closes

2009-12: The Gate reopens, but there's a problem

The birth date of Adrienne Rolfe is indeterminate. In Chapter 3 she says she inherited Seven Oaks in 2001 at the age of 18, but in Chapter 9 the author himself locates that event in 1996. So, either she's lying about her age in Chapter 3, or the author made a mistake in Chapter 9; both possibilities seem rather uncharacteristic; take your pick.

Monday, 19 October 2015

The Commonwealth of New Virginia

The Commonwealth of New Virginia is a country described in S. M. Stirling's novel Conquistador (2003). It exists in an alternative world (let's call it World 2) with a different history, in which Europeans are technologically retarded and never discover America. Instead, a young Virginian ex-soldier called John Rolfe accidentally creates a gateway between World 1 and World 2, in the basement of his rented house in California in 1946.

Rolfe decides to keep his gateway secret and turn it to his own advantage. Accordingly, he recruits trusted friends and relations, and later others, to start his own new country in World 2. Money is not a problem, because there's plenty of unmined gold and other resources in his new country. California in World 2 is still in much the same state as it was before European discovery in our history.

Stirling describes it all in considerable detail in the novel, and from here on I'll assume that you've read the novel and don't need more background from me. I'm writing this to give my own thoughts about the scenario.

  • Recruiting is a problem. The Gate and the existence of World 2 are top secret, so recruits can't be told about it until they're there. How can they be persuaded to come?

    "Would you like to live in another country? No, we can't tell you where it is, and we can't tell you much about it."

    Would anyone agree to this? Stirling suggests that people could be recruited who were keen to escape World 1 for some reason, but they'd have to be very keen to commit themselves to the unknown. I suspect that, in practice, New Virginia would have to look for people unlikely to be missed (but with useful skills), kidnap them, and hope that they accepted the situation on arrival. Of course, people can't be allowed ever to return to World 1 unless they're well trusted.

  • Some of the bad guys in the novel were clearly put there to make Rolfe look good by comparison: Stirling wanted to paint Rolfe as somewhat ruthless but relatively benign, and that comes over better if there are worse characters around.

    However, New Virginia wasn't so desperate for warm bodies that it had to take people however bad they were. Rolfe already decided to avoid possible future conflicts by recruiting only white people; for the same reason, he could have avoided recruiting whole groups with a language other than English, he could have avoided recruiting people accustomed to political power, and recruiting a whole group of Nazis was just asking for trouble.

  • The novel doesn't say so, but money is used by New Virginians on World 1 and World 2, so I suppose currency conversion would be routine, and recruits could convert whatever cash they had into New Virginian money.

  • The novel doesn't say so, but I suppose all the creative works of World 1 would be public domain on World 2. New Virginia would have no interest in enforcing World 1 copyrights and patents, the stuff would be freely copyable; which would be helpful to the economy.

  • John Rolfe has a hobby: he imports from World 1 large animals not native to America (lions, tigers, elephants, rhinos, etc.) and spreads them around on World 2. In the novel, all these animals have established themselves in the wild.

    To do that successfully, I think he'd need to bring hundreds of animals of each species through the Gate, which would take a lot of manpower and surely attract attention on World 1. While he's building a new country with scarce recruits, it would be hard to spare the manpower, and it would be really inadvisable to attract attention. So, if he managed to do it at all, I think this expensive obsession would fatally damage his reputation with his companions. It might be feasible to do it very slowly, on the back burner, but that's not what the novel describes.

  • The device set off by Adrienne near the end of the book is dramatic, but poorly designed. It would have been almost impossible to install in secret; it's necessarily untested and very fallible; a simpler and more reliable method could have been used. It's activated from Nostradamus, which was already known to be insecure; it should have been activated by wireless transmission, independent of Nostradamus. And the five-minute delay is unnecessarily long.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

El Ministerio del Tiempo

El Ministerio del Tiempo (the Ministry of Time) is the title of a new Spanish television series, of which two episodes have so far aired.

It's based on the familiar sf idea of a Time Patrol: time travel exists, and a police force of sorts is trying to stop rogue individuals from changing history.

In this series, there's no time machine. Instead, there are doors between different time periods, many of them existing (why?) in a cavern under a building in Madrid (?) belonging to the top-secret Spanish Ministry of Time. Other doors exist elsewhere and are sometimes found by random individuals.

The series concentrates on the adventures of three new recruits to the Ministry who are sent on missions into the past, to preserve history as we know it. The recruits are Julián from 2015, Amelia from 1880, and Alonso from 1569. The strange thing about it is that they don't seem obviously qualified or suitable for their role as intertemporal secret agents: they just seem to be people plucked at random from the time stream. Julián is some kind of medic, Amelia is a university student, and Alonso is a soldier. All of them have some reason to accept employment with the Ministry: Julián was depressed after losing his wife in a road accident, Amelia was an early feminist in a man's world, and Alonso was about to be executed for losing his temper and attacking his superior officer.

We don't see them undergoing any kind of ability test or training, they're just recruited and sent out on missions. What if they fail? I wonder whether some future episode will consider this possibility.

Apart from the strange business of using untrained amateurs for important missions, this is a high-quality series. The actors, the scripts, the sets, the costumes all suggest that no reasonable expense was spared to do a good job. Compared with watching Doctor Who, Blake's Seven, or Star Trek decades ago, this is a leap up in quality. Even the supporting actors are good.

The episodes that have been aired are all available on the Web at

Unfortunately, the series is in Spanish with no translation at all. You can display a transcript of the dialogue in Spanish, and you can even copy it to Google Translate and auto-translate it if you like. There's also a little button for subtitles in Spanish. Subtitles in English would have been nice, but no, at least not at this stage.

If you have some Spanish, it's not difficult to follow. I'm not fluent, but I can follow it well enough, missing some details.

Of the three main characters, I'm most impressed by Alonso, who's fairly convincing as a patriotic 16th-century soldier doing his best for his country in unfamiliar circumstances. Julián is an experienced actor and an amiable fellow, he's fun to watch, but he seems surprisingly cheerful considering that he's supposed to be severely depressed about his dead wife. Both Julián and Amelia seem rather too self-confident, given that they've been suddenly recruited into a totally unfamiliar kind of job and repeatedly moved from one time period to another.

It's interesting to see what the characters contribute to the missions. Alonso is a soldier, capable of dealing with violence and connecting with ordinary people in the past. Julián knows 21st-century technology, has medical training, and seems adaptable. Amelia is presented as intelligent, and seems capable and self-possessed, but she's the youngest and least experienced of the team.

The first two missions are to 1808 and 1588 respectively. I suppose that all missions will be in Spain, which has a good deal of history to explore. I found it helpful to check out a little background info about the relevant parts of Spanish history in Wikipedia. I don't think there will be any missions to the future: we've already been told that there are no doors into the future. Which is rather odd, as years previous to 2015 clearly have doors into the future.

Friday, 13 June 2014

He walked around the horses

It was long ago that I first read H. Beam Piper's 1948 story with the above title, I've read it from time to time over the years, and I read it again with enjoyment recently. It was one of his first published stories, but he was already 44 at the time, and it seems to me higher in quality than much of his other output, although it takes the unusual form of an exchange of correspondence, rather than a conventional narrative.

It considers the well-known mysterious disappearance in 1809 of Benjamin Bathurst, a British diplomat passing through Prussia, who disappeared during a coach stop and wasn't seen again. This is a genuine event known to history, although the real Bathurst was 25 years old and was probably murdered and robbed, at a time and place when this wouldn't have been surprising or unusual.

Piper's Bathurst is in late middle age, for reasons known only to Piper, and finds himself transported to an alternative world, in which the American and French Revolutions both failed. The interaction between him and his new world is then described by means of letters between Prussian and British officials.

The point at which the alternative history diverged from our own occurred during the American Revolution, when Benedict Arnold was shot dead near Quebec, and was therefore not present at the Battle of Saratoga, where the British forces under Burgoyne went "through Gates' army like a hot knife through butter", and then went down the Hudson to join Howe.

I'm not a student of the American Revolution and have never before bothered to look up the Battle of Saratoga. Doing so now, I'm rather disappointed. There were probably tipping points in the American Revolution at which something small could have made a difference, but it seems to me that this battle wasn't one of them.

Burgoyne was simply too ambitious. He had already taken casualties and was facing a superior force in difficult terrain, but he decided to attack that superior force in a prepared defensive position. This is something that you just don't do, unless you have a death wish. I don't think it mattered whether Arnold was there or not, Burgoyne was doomed to lose. I don't know whether he was gravely misinformed about the opposing force, or just insane. As it happened, he survived the battle (unlike many of his officers, who were picked off by American riflemen), but his career was dead, and likewise British hopes of retaining control of the colonies.

Sadly, I think Piper's alternative history is a non-starter as given, although one could surely find more plausible ways for the American Revolution to fail. As for the French Revolution, I know even less about that, and couldn't say whether it might have been easily stopped.

In the alternative history, there's another Benjamin Bathurst who is the King's lieutenant governor for the Crown Colony of Georgia. Napoleon Bonaparte is a Colonel of Artillery and a brilliant military theoretician, whose loyalty to the French monarchy has never been questioned. Cardinal Talleyrand is regarded by Sir Arthur Wellesley as being "the sort of fellow who would land on his feet on top of any heap". I'm fond of alternative history; though I do like to see a well-chosen, elegant, and plausible point of divergence.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Crusader Kings II: How long it takes

I've just finished playing Crusader Kings II to completion for the first time, from 1066 to 1453 AD. It took me three weeks, during which my workload was relatively light, so I was able to spend plenty of hours on the game. This is a very long game.

Starting as the Duke of Barcelona, I worked my way up to Emperor of Hispania, playing as 16 different characters from the same Catalan dynasty, one after another: two dukes, ten kings, and four emperors. By the end, I ruled (a bit precariously) over the whole of modern Spain and Portugal, plus part of Morocco and the Balearic and Canary Islands. It was a lot of work, but much of it was absorbing and interesting, although some of the detailed work I could have done without.

Bear in mind that the game includes the whole of Europe plus northern Africa and a large chunk of Asia, all of which is playable area. Ruling the whole map is a fantasy, although I hear that some players have managed to rule quite a lot of it.

Arranging marriages is an interesting task, there are various factors to be considered, and the results are important. Educating children is a more mechanical chore; I can see why this is done manually, but I think it was a wrong decision: I don't think it adds enough to the game to justify the time spent on it. If I were designing this game, children would just inherit their parents' characteristics with some random variation, and that would be that.

I also find plots more trouble than they're worth, and some of the random events are tedious and could be better designed.

Warfare works quite well. It's not designed with the usual obsession with realism, which may offend some people; but from a game-player's point of view it's quite simple and straightforward to operate, and it's vaguely realistic in broad terms, compared with something like Sid Meier's Civilization. This is more of a royal role-playing game than a wargame.

It is frustrating, having played other wargames, to have to find an acceptable reason for war before you can attack someone; especially as this tends to be quite difficult and time-consuming. However, you can attack people of another religion whenever you like: free pass! This does of course mean that they can attack you, too.

At the end of this long and laborious game (2nd of January 1453) there was no fanfare or orgy of celebration: just a simple window announcing my score, with a list of the characters I'd played and a list of dynasties in real history and their scores as imagined by the game designers. I scored 80,893 points, narrowly ahead of the Rurikid dynasty at 80,000, but coming in behind the von Hapsburgs (90,000) and the Capets (100,000). The Plantagenets, I noticed, were assigned a score of 40,000.

I should note a couple of things, especially for people who are familiar with the game:

  • If I make a bad mistake after investing many hours of work in the game, I don't scrap the game and start again from 1066: I go back to a saved game from before the mistake, and restart from there. Strictly speaking this is cheating, and it invalidates my final score, but I'm afraid I don't care. I play this game for my own amusement, not in competition with others, and it doesn't amuse me to have all my work wasted by a single mistake. If I make a lesser mistake that I can live with, I live with it.
  • Up to now I've been playing with the original game plus all the free patches. I haven't paid for any optional extras. In future, I think I'll pay for the Legacy of Rome DLC, because it provides the additional feature of retinues (standing armies), which are referenced in the patched game but unimplemented unless you buy the DLC. The game works well enough without them, but I feel I'd like to try them. I don't feel a need of the other DLCs so far, which mostly enable you to play as dynasties outside the European mainstream: most recently, the Rajas of India DLC enables you to play as an Indian ruler.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Crusader Kings II: The importance of being allied

Having had less work to do than usual for the last two weeks, I've accumulated more experience of the Crusader Kings II game, and I'm gradually learning more about it.

From the standard starting point of 1066 AD, I've played repeatedly as Murchad of Ireland and repeatedly as Harold of England, and I'm currently playing for the first time as Ramon-Berenguer of Catalonia: an obvious choice for me as I live in Catalonia, but I held off for a while because Ramon-Berenguer has a rather awkward strategic position: squeezed into a few provinces of north-east Catalonia, with south-west Catalonia and southern Spain occupied by the Arabs.

This is not an impossible situation, because what you have to do in this game is to get alliances. In Europe in the 11th century, the major power was the Holy Roman Empire, which (despite the name) consisted of just about all the German-speaking peoples put together. If you play as anyone else, you're a relatively minor power, and you have to watch your step. Anyone with allies can overwhelm you; conversely, with enough assistance from allies you can overwhelm anyone else.

I soon learned that rulers with no allies are easy prey. I learned later that I become easy prey myself if I inadvertently run out of allies. There are two good things about an ally:

  • It won't attack you, as far as I know.
  • It may come to your aid if requested. However, it can refuse if it likes your opponent better than it likes you, or if it's too far away, or if it has more important business elsewhere.

You get allies through arranged marriages. You can do this only if you and your intended ally have unmarried relations of opposite sex who are at least 16 years old, and if the intended ally is willing. The unmarried relations have no say in the matter, unless they have lands of their own, in which case they pass out of your control. (Of course, you can also get an alliance by marrying yourself.)

But arranging marriages is a rather tricky decision because you also want to arrange good marriages that will produce useful children. If you arrange marriages to idiots, you may get some useful alliances in the short term, but you'll raise a generation of idiots in the process, because the traits and abilities of a character are influenced by their genes.

When you pick a character to play at the start of the game, the game gives you an indication of the difficulty of playing as that character: usually a number in the range 40 to 60, with a comment such as "Hard" or "Relatively easy". When I tried picking the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, I found that the number is zero and the comment is "Pointless", which I take to mean that I'd be wasting my time because there's no challenge in winning with that character.

I find the game interesting, even absorbing, and it really has a flavour of playing your way through history. However, it has some drawbacks from my point of view:

  • This is a very long, life-eating game: a single game can take up your life for days. To be sure, you can save the game and continue later, but I'd prefer a game that I could start and finish in one session.
  • Wars are fast and active, apart from sieges. Peace is static and rather slow, although things continue to happen in a rather slow and static way. You have to spend most of your time at peace because soldiers die in war (sadly) and it takes time to replace them. Furthermore, peace allows you to build up your economy, and you can't make war at all without some suitable excuse, which usually takes time to arrange; unless your neighbour is of a different religion, which is in itself a suitable excuse!
  • There are a number of random events, which are realistic enough but can be painful. In one game, I had a fairly mediocre character with a talented son, and I was looking forward to playing as the son. However, a random event intervened: the son got injured while training troops (not even in battle), and then died young, leaving me with a baby grandson as my heir. It's very useful to have plenty of legitimate children, but that's partly a matter of luck; unless of course you're unmarried, in which case you should be looking for a spouse.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Crusader Kings II: The Normans repulsed

Please see my previous post for an introduction to Crusader Kings II.

Rather cheekily, for my third game I decided to play as Harold II of England in 1066 AD, aged 44, defending against simultaneous invasions by King Harald of Norway and Duke William of Normandy. As any English child used to know, the real Harold II defeated the Norwegians emphatically and killed Harald, but then died himself losing the Battle of Hastings against William.

I see that the real Harold left a good chunk of his victorious forces behind in the north of England, presumably to defend against more incoming Norwegians, when he marched south to fight William. Harold under my direction ruthlessly took every man south, also recruiting further troops on the way, so that the English army usefully outnumbered the Normans when they came to battle in Somerset. Weirdly, the William in my game sailed his ships all the way around Cornwall and landed them in Somerset, so that's where the crucial battle was fought; though after winning that one I had to chase the Normans from one county to another in order to wipe them out completely.

That wasn't the end of it. The Norwegians landed more troops in the north; the Normans landed another much smaller army in the south. I went around with my one large army beating them all up in turn, and then made peace with both invaders. As I hadn't touched their home bases, I couldn't insist on reparations, but a simple peace agreement gave me a hefty gain in prestige at their expense. At the start of the game I had a prestige level of 40; after less than two years of successful war, this rose to 737. And it wasn't even particularly difficult. Perhaps I should have tried to invade Normandy or something; but I have little experience of the game, no experience of invading across water, and it seemed prudent not to push my luck. People tend to get fed up with long wars, even in this game, which has a war-weariness mechanism.

CKII isn't designed primarily as a wargame, and it shows. The warfare works quite well and isn't hard to manage, but a wargamer would regard it as over-simplified, and it's quite unrealistic in various ways. Here are some examples:

  • Orders to my forces around the country apparently go by radio and are received instantly (I noticed this when recruiting fresh levies from various counties).
  • Orders are obeyed instantly and accurately without question. "I say to one, go, and he goeth; and to another, come, and he cometh."
  • My large army marched constantly here and there across the country from one battle to another, mainly between the north-east and the south-west, and must have worn out a good many pairs of shoes, but seemed to suffer no significant penalty in terms of slower movement, impaired combat ability, desertion, etc. No supply problems, either, although I believe that supply problems can arise in the game in some circumstances.

The real Harold would truly have thought himself blessed by God if his forces had responded to his orders as mine did.

Harold's army at the start of the game was commanded by a strange assortment of military leaders, including one of his incompetent teenage sons; I took care to select the most skilled leaders available and put them in charge. As military skill gets a numerical rating in the game for all to see, selecting the best leaders was a good deal easier for me than it would have been for the real Harold. Furthermore, if I assign a leader to a force, he's right there and ready to go immediately, having apparently travelled at the speed of light from wherever he happened to be before.

So, if you want a truly realistic wargame, look elsewhere. This game is of course a good deal more realistic than Sid Meier's Civilization, but that's not saying much! CKII is a role-playing game of royal dynasties; warfare has to appear in it, but it's not what the game is about. Bear in mind that a truly realistic wargame is likely to be much more complicated, harder work to learn and to play.

However unrealistic my achievement, I do feel quite chuffed at having beaten off the Norwegians and the Normans all by myself. The game warned me in advance that Harold is more difficult to play than William. Really?

Three cheers for Jonathan the Conqueror!

Of course, having defeated the initial invaders in less than two years, I still have three and half centuries left to play in the same game, if I decide to finish it. This was just the beginning...

Crusader Kings II: first impressions

Crusader Kings II is a computer game that was released two years ago, so it's not new, but I heard of it only recently, and ventured to buy it yesterday, as I have a temporary lull in work.

The game is a historical simulation running from 1066 to 1453 AD, in which you play the successive leaders of a royal (or at least aristocratic) dynasty, attempting to maintain and extend your dynasty and gain prestige points. Whenever the character you're playing dies or gets deposed, you continue playing as the successor, as long as the successor is a member of the same family. If you're succeeded by someone from outside the family, oops, game over.

For many years I've been playing Sid Meier's Civilization, a game loosely based on human history, but which isn't a genuine simulation and has little to do with reality. Crusader Kings II is very different: it makes a genuine attempt to model the situation in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa at the time, gives you all the real characters that were in play, and represents with some degree of accuracy the ways in which they interacted with each other.

At first sight the complexity of the game is intimidating, but playing it turns out to be feasible without excessive learning, although doubtless there's much I have yet to find out about it. There is a downloadable PDF manual that gives you the basics, plus a tutorial, and if you have particular questions you can Google them and get answers from the Web (some people have two years' experience by now). The game seems to have been popular, and the company (Paradox) continues to release expansions and patches for it.

I started my first game as Murchad, King of Munster in Ireland, having read that Murchad is a good choice for a beginner as he doesn't have any major problems to cope with. Murchad rules over a mere two Irish counties; with a bit of a struggle and by hiring foreign mercenaries I managed to conquer a third county, but any further military conquest would be difficult, as Munster is short of both money and soldiers, and in order to go to war you need some reasonable excuse. You can't just attack because you feel like it.

In any case warfare is merely one part of the game. Probably the more important part is juggling with your family relationships, making advantageous marriages, and coping with treachery. You and your heirs are all in danger of being murdered or deposed by some disgruntled relation. In my first game, the ruler of the county I conquered reluctantly agreed to become my vassal, but then started a faction to put my half-brother on the throne. The faction gained over 50% support and I decided to accept defeat rather than fight and probably lose a civil war over it. I could then continue the game, taking on the character of my half-brother. However, at that point the game automatically updated itself with the latest patch and refused to open my saved files from the previous version, so I was obliged to start a second game.

I started again as Murchad. In 1066 he's aged 39 and already has an 18-year-old son called Brian, but no wife. Oddly, the game doesn't reveal who Brian's mother was or what happened to her, although it does maintain family trees which could show that information. Presumably the real woman has gone unrecorded in history; Murchad himself is pretty obscure as historical figures go.

Of course I promptly married someone else, and found a wife for Brian as well: having plenty of children is useful to maintain your dynasty. However, it can also be dangerous, and six years later the ungrateful Brian poisoned me, so I had to continue playing as Brian; being a kinslayer, he was pretty unpopular with everyone. I was hoping that someone would get rid of him somehow, but no, he survived into fairly old age. In an effort to make him even more unpopular, I allowed him to convert from a Catholic to a Lollard, but what happened then was that the Pope excommunicated him, and later Munster was invaded by the Scots in overwhelming force.

King Duncan II of Scotland installed Artur (a much younger and inoffensive son of Murchad) as Duke of Munster, now a vassal of Scotland, and I could continue playing as Artur, but I paused the game then, at 1108 AD.

I see that Brian the Obnoxious survived the Scottish invasion and is listed as a mere courtier, aged 60, in the court of Duke Artur. He and Artur (who remained a respectable Catholic throughout) naturally have strongly negative opinions of each other.

So far, I find this a slow-moving game. Even with the speed cranked up high for most of the time, it took me hours to get through 42 years of play, and of course children take a realistic time to grow up, so managing your family is an activity for patient people. I suppose the King of Munster naturally doesn't have a lot to do, which is why he's suitable for beginners picking up the mechanics of the game. Doubtless it will be more exciting (though even more difficult) to play the ruler of some larger domain.

I should explain that CKII is a pausable accelerated-real-time game, so it runs continuously at a speed you can select, but you can also pause it at any time and take an unlimited number of decisions while time is stopped.

The idea of regenerating as your successor, almost in the manner of Dr Who, feels a bit weird and takes some getting used to. Brian poisons me, so I find myself playing as the nasty little ratbag.

Looking over the rest of the map in 1108 AD, it's a fascinating sight if you like alternative history. Duncan II of Scotland (son of Malcolm III) has managed to conquer the whole of Scotland, plus the Isle of Man, three counties in northern Ireland, and my three counties in the south of Ireland. England is united under an Anglo-Saxon King Osulf, so the Norman invasion evidently failed. In fact, Normandy is merely a duchy under the Queen of Brittany.

Christian Spain remains fragmented but has already begun to take land back from the Muslims. Much though not all of Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and the Tyrol are united under the Holy Roman Empire; Venice is an independent republic. Topically, the Crimea is cut in half: northern Crimea and southern Ukraine belong to the Khanate of Pechenegs, and southern Crimea to the Byzantine Empire. Northern Egypt, eastern Libya, Palestine, and chunks of land further east are under the Fatimid Sultanate. The Kingdom of Rus is relatively limited in size and divided into two separate chunks by the Kingdom of Ruthenia in the middle. Sweden is eaten into on all sides; Denmark occupies southern Sweden and a bit of northern Germany.

In case you're wondering, yes, the game does include crusades, but I haven't been involved in one yet, and haven't found out how they work.