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.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Political correctness

By chance, I just came across a Web page on which all people using the term political correctness were dismissed as sexists, racists, or otherwise unrespectable.

I don't use the term often myself, but I have probably used it occasionally. I'd define it as mindless adherence to political opinions and attitudes because they happen to be fashionable, whatever they are and whether they make sense or not.

Thus defined, the term is relative to current fashions. Whenever sexism and racism happen to be fashionable, as they often were in the past, sexists and racists may be described as politically correct.

When socialism is fashionable, people who adopt socialism unthinkingly may be described as politically correct. Likewise people who support dictators unthinkingly when dictators are fashionable. And so on and so forth.

If you support the current fashion because you've thought it out and and can explain why it makes sense, then in a literal sense you're politically correct, but you don't deserve the label as I've defined it.

Friday, 3 January 2014


The other day I happened to see on television the beginning of the third Narnia film, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and found myself puzzling over what it is I don't like about these stories.

I normally like good children's stories and some fantasy stories, so I don't have a problem with the genre. Indeed, I rather like the sense-of-wonder aspect of suddenly travelling to a magical world through the back of a wardrobe (or the other methods used in later books). The problem is that I don't really like Lewis's stories.

I first read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in childhood. When I read it as an adult in 1999, I commented that the children are less convincing than (say) Arthur Ransome's or Rudyard Kipling's, and seem more quaintly old-fashioned, even though the book is relatively recent, dating from 1950. I think Ransome and Kipling were drawing on vivid memories of their own childhoods, whereas Lewis seems to be looking at children only from an adult's point of view.

In 2008 I saw the film of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe on television, dubbed into Spanish, and then read the book again (in English!). I commented that the film was well made, but found it hard to think of anything about the story that I actually enjoyed.

My feeling is that these are stories written by a man trying and failing to remember what it was like to be a child. They come over as childish stories, and not in a good sense.

I really dislike the way most of the children outgrow Narnia by the end of the series, and Susan discards it as a childhood fantasy. How could anyone live through all that and then manage to suppress it all? I point out that, on their first visit, the children lived well into adulthood in Narnia: for fifteen years according to Wikipedia, though I don't find that specific figure mentioned in the book. You can't just dismiss fifteen years of your life as a childhood fantasy. If they didn't outgrow it then, why later?

Incidentally, having grown into adulthood as kings and queens in Narnia, they would surely have had massive problems trying to readjust to life as children in England. If I were thrown back into my schooldays from adulthood (even without having been Narnian royalty), I don't think I could tolerate going through all that again. As an ex-adult, I'd be a Problem Child with capital letters.

The only way to account for it would be if their memories of life in Narnia were mostly obliterated on return to England, as happens with dreams; and yet they do seem to remember at least to some extent. I don't think Lewis explained this adequately; and it strikes me as a bit of a cheat anyway. What happened to them wasn't a dream, and it lasted much longer than any dream.

Kipling, in Puck of Pook's Hill, used magic to make his children forget their adventures completely. Rather a shame, but at least he explained it explicitly, and it avoided any complications.

There are other problems with the stories that others have commented on, but I won't bother here.

If I liked the rest of it, I could probably tolerate the obvious parallel between Aslan and Jesus Christ, but I find it somewhat irritating. This is a fantasy story about Narnia: I don't want to find this kind of contrived analogy woven into it.

I read Prince Caspian for the first time recently, out of curiosity, and found it amiable enough, but a very slight novel with nothing much to it. In the end, the bad king's forces are defeated by Aslan, and nothing else that happens really matters. The Pevensie children are supposed to be important, but in fact their contribution to the plot is negligible. Lewis seems to have been a curiously amateurish novelist who was more interested in Christian fables than in telling good stories.

I like Tolkien better than Lewis, but even Tolkien, when writing The Hobbit for children, had a slightly patronizing tone that I find irritating. Fortunately, Tolkien didn't attempt to write about children (all of his characters are adults), and by the time of The Lord of the Rings he wasn't even writing for children any more: it's a book for and about adults. It's not unsuitable for children, but it's not aimed at them.

Some people may regard the hobbits as child figures because they're physically small; but Bilbo is 50 years old at the start of The Hobbit. Frodo is 33 when we first meet him in The Lord of the Rings, but he's 50 by the time the real story starts.