Tuesday, April 30, 2013

150th Anniversary of Chancellorsville

I am a huge student of the American Civil War – I have been since I was a kid.  Heck, my new steampunk novel that I’m writing is set during the Civil War.  And this week marks the 150th anniversary of one of the most pivotal battles of that war, Chancellorsville. 

Why Chancellorsville?  It was the battle where General Robert E. Lee was, in my opinion, his most brilliant.  You may point to other engagements, but it was at Chancellorsville where Lee rolled the dice more often and with more audacity than almost everywhere else. 

Union General Hooker executed a brilliant march, swinging a significant portion of the Army of the Potomac around Lee’s position in Fredericksburg.  In many respects, he caught Lee off guard.  With a forced crossing at Fredericksburg and his army sitting in Lee’s rear, and with Hooker having well over three-to-one odds, he should have been victorious. 

Two things defeated General Hooker. One was General Hooker – the other was Robert E. Lee. 

Dictum of the day would have forced Lee to disengage, fall to the south and hope for better ground and better odds.  Lee didn’t do that.  Instead, outnumbered, he split his army, keeping enough force in front of Fredericksburg to keep the Union convinced he was there, while sending the rest of his troops to the west towards the Wilderness to face the corps that had come against him in his rear.  It defied all logic, splitting your army before a superior foe – yet Lee did just that.  He slammed his forces into Hooker’s and ground the Union drive to a halt. 

Lee met with Stonewall Jackson and came up with an even bolder move.  He would split his army again, sending a force with Jackson to skirt around to the rear of the Union forces.  Again, on paper, it was the wrong call.  Jackson and his men slid to the open-ended flank of the Union force and charged while Lee kept up the pressure and attention back near Chancellorsville.  Unprepared and stunned, the Federal forces collapsed into a massive retreat.  Even as Union forces slowly pushed the Confederates out of Fredericksburg, Lee managed to maintain control of the far-flung battlefield. 

That night, while scouting the Union lines, General Jackson was shot by his own men.  His arm had to be amputated and he would die a few days later.  As Lee said of his favorite commander, “You have lost your left arm, but I have lost my right.” 

Hooker was injured when a cannonball hit a post at the Chancellors house and struck him in the head.  Frankly though the cannonball probably only dragged the fight out longer.  Hooker had lost his spirit.  He withdrew, despite the fact he still had superior numbers. 

If my time machine were working, one of the places I would love to visit would be the night when Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee planned the flank attack.  I want to see their faces, hear the brilliance of their plan.  To me that moment decided the fate of the Army of Northern Virginia.  While Jackson’s assault was victorious and devastating, his loss was the beginning of the end.  Imagine if he had not died – if he had been at Gettysburg and the battles that followed.  I’m not saying that the Confederacy would have won the war, but I think he would have held off some of their following defeats. 

I have visited the battlefield park often.  You can go to where Jackson was wounded, walk the grounds of the great flank attack, and visit the farm where his arm was amputated.  The trenches remain, silent testimony to the great battle that had been fought there.  For me – Chancellorsville represents the true high-water mark for the Confederate military…but that’s just my opinion.  

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Geek Guide For Summer Movies

Simon Peg as Scotty.  You can't go wrong with that choice

Let’s be honest, none of us want to see another wedding movie again in our lifetime.  And the nation’s obsession with Jennifer Aniston died two seasons before the end of Friends – so please Hollywood, don’t send us any more of her “gee I can’t find a man,” flicks.  We’re not buying into it. 

So what are the good geeks looking forward to this summer in the way of movies?  Here’s my short list for the next six months or so, in priority order:

Star Trek Into Darkness
Star Trek inspired me to be a writer and that loyalty has been repaid a thousand times over.  With the reboot of the Star Trek franchise, we learned that we all still love the Kirk, Spock, McCoy series…even with the new actors. 

The new movie looks dark.  It looks like Kirk may be in trouble with Starfleet Command, thus fulfilling his bad-boy image.  We have a villain that talks like a pretty scary villain.  The pre-release footage of the burning USS Enterprise crashing was, well, awesome.  There’s something in there for us die-hard Trek fans too, in the guise of Carol Marcus as a character. 

Even if this is a marginal movie, it’s going to be a big hit.  How do I know?  My wife, who hates Sci Fi, said, “That looks pretty awesome,” during the preview.  Hence it makes the top of my list. 

Ironman 3:
Let’s be blunt – after last summer’s Avengers, we are all looking forward to Tony Stark donning his armor again.  Robert Downey Jr. was born to play this role.  And the villain this time is Mandarin, played by Ben Kingsley.  When I heard his voice over on the preview it sounded downright scary.  Stark is obviously struggling after the events of Loki’s little can of whoop ass opening on New York.  What is hinted at here is what is the key to the Marvel franchise movies – character development.  We see the characters grow, change, and advance with each movie.  Yes, I will be watching after the credits – duh!

Man of Steel:
We haven’t seen a lot of the Superman movie – but what tid bits that are out there are tantalizing.  After the last Superman flick, we’re all hoping that this one is a home run.  The managers of the DC intellectual property have struggled over the years to reach what Marvel has learned from trial and error.  The only downside to this movie is it looks like a replay of Superman II with General Zod.  Sure, it was fun in the 1970’s – but with all of the material available on Superman, why rehash something we’ve already seen? 

Still, I’m a sucker for comic-based movies.  So I’m all-in on Man of Steel. 

Red 2:
Red (Retired – Extremely Dangerous) was a great movie.  If you missed it, shame on you.  Go rent or buy it right now and we’ll forgive your earlier oversight. 

The sequel looks just as good.  Where the Expendables franchise is a retirement home for old action figures to play with new special effects; Red is good storytelling and acting with neat twists and turns.  Red 2 looks fantastic, with Anthony Hopkins coming into the mix as a scientist that built a nuclear bomb that is on the loose in Russia. 

Kick-Ass 2:
Kick Ass was a movie that caught me off guard.  I thought it was going to be different movie all together based on the trailers.  I was pleasantly surprised.  It was a violent, funny, twisted and totally weird romp. 

This movie looks good, despite Jim Carey’s involvement.  Lots of Hit Girl action, and let’s face it, that’s a good thing.  Exceedingly violent, crass humor – I’m all over this

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Anniversary of The Bay of Pigs

Today (17 April) marks the 1961 anniversary of the failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. For those of you that are unfamiliar with the debacle, here's the key elements.

Once Fidel Castro rose to power in Cuba and the US saw his socialist leanings, plans began in earnest to topple him from power. The biggest effort culminated in the CIA-sponsored invasion of Cuba which culminated in the Bay of Pigs. Planning for this operation began under the Eisenhower administration and continued once President Kennedy took office.

The plan called for Cuban refugees (designated Brigade 2506) to be outfitted and trained by the CIA, supported by the US military as needed. They were to invade Cuba - with the Cuban people flocking to the invaders as liberators. Things went badly even in the planning stages President Kennedy was worried about the overtures of the US beating up on a smaller neighboring country. He cut off a great deal of the US military support beyond logistics. He moved the landings from a good beach to the Bay of Pigs, a salt-marsh with limited road network. The heavy equipment for the Cuban freedom fighters was trimmed back as well.  

The invasion was a failure on many fronts. The Cuban Revolutionary Air Force was supposed to be destroyed in the opening attack survived enough to blast several of the key supply ships on the beach and strafe the forces that had made it ashore. The US hopes that the Cubans would rise up against Fidel never materialized. The location of the landing bottlenecked troops enough to allow for a cohesive counterattack.  Castro threw his forces and militia at the attackers and compelled them for surrender. When they called for US air and naval support, the US government turned away from the invaders. The Kennedy Administration stumbled badly. The US came across as weak, indecisive, and misaligned.

Some historians have treated the Bay of Pigs as a footnote, a precursor to the Cuban Missile Crisis. In many respects, the Bay of Pigs was the impetus of that crisis. It was the fear of a US invasion, solidified by the US involvement in the Bay of Pigs, which helped bring the USSR and Cuba together militarily - directly leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The weakness of President Kennedy to support the operation gave Premier Khrushchev the kernel of thought that he could put missiles into Cuba and that perhaps the US would not respond swiftly or strongly.   The placement of the missiles, SAM sites, and cruise missiles on the island were done to repel an attack that Cuba and the USSR assumed was coming – driven with the evidence of the Bay of Pigs.  This botched attempt to “liberate” Cuba laid the foundation for the biggest crisis of the Cold War.  

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Advanced Rules for Sails of Glory – Another Sneak Peek!

I played the basic game two weeks ago and loved it.  The game was quick to learn (15 minutes or so) and really played fast.  For non-wargamers or folks who don’t like games like Advanced Squad Leader (old school) that required a binder for rules – this was a great little sailing combat game.  I like it because in just a couple of years, I can get my grandson to play with me. 

The folks over at Ares slid me a copy of the draft Advanced Rules.  All I can say is – wow! For those of you that were worried that this naval combat game lacked the kind of sophistication you wanted; perish the thought!  I took the time to do a quick run-through with two ships.  Here’s the changes with the advanced game. 

One:  Planning.  In the basic game you pick your maneuver card and execute.  In the advanced game the combination of the wind and the hourglasses on the card determine when you execute your maneuver.  Suddenly more defined tactics emerged.  Where before I was thinking, “hard to starboard,” now I had to contemplate when I wanted to make that turn. 

Two:  More fun with guns.  You get grapeshot and chains-shot here and optional rules for double-balls.  The twist here is that these have different ranges and different damage counters.  Chain shot is nasty against sails.  Grapeshot whittles away at crew.  I like how Ares had done this.  They haven’t create a lot of clumsy written rules, they  have a fairly standard approach and players simply use a different set of counters to pull for the damage. 

Three:  Sails!  In the basic game you ignore your sails.  Here in the advanced rules, masts can be shattered and your need to manage your sails.  These control your speed (via the cards) and really allow the intricate moves you’re going to need to edge in close and prepare your boarding party. 
With the basic rules you use very little of this.  With the advanced rules, your life and your crew's depend on it! 
Four:  Damage gets nastier.  You can get a hole and start taking on water!  Don’t worry, you can have your crew pump it – but still, now you get a sense of realism.  Your sails can be damaged, your mast broken, and your rudder damaged.  Did I mention you can catch on fire?  I also noticed in the rules they sent me a tweak on raking fire which I found lacking in the basic game – thank you folks at Ares!

Five:  Boarding parties.  In the basic game you have rules for musketry but the range is so short with muskets that they don’t really factor in much.  I assumed that boarding parties would really factor in the crew slots a lot more.  In the draft (stress draft) rules provided, the crew slots don’t factor in much in boarding actions.  This was a little disappointing.  In my one-on-one battle, just getting in close enough to board allowed musketry fire to whittle away one of the ship’s crew.  When we boarded however, that ship, despite the loss of crew, was victorious.  That seemed a little too simple for me.  I’m counting on the good folks at Ares to make some modifications before these go to press. 

There’s rules for sandbanks, reefs, ammunition magazine explosions (ouch!) and oodles of other little gems. 

So what is my summary?  Remember – these rules are draft and subject to change.  What I found was a lot of sophistication with the advanced rules.  This goes from a “beer and pretzels” (basic) game to a true wargame.  Digesting the advanced rules takes a little longer but it makes the game really shine.  This is a game that is built on a very solid foundation just like Wings of Glory.  I give it five stars and I want my production copy NOW!!!   If you want the ultra-short version I’ll stick with, “This is Master and Commander on steroids.”   

Monday, April 1, 2013

Sails of Glory - A Sneak Peak and Playtest!

Finally - a worthy replacement for Wooden Ships and Iron Men! 
When I heard a few months ago that Ares Games was going to be doing a miniatures sailing combat game leveraging their Wings of Glory system I was pretty excited. First, I was a big player of Wooden Ships and Iron Men back in-the-day, and have been waiting for something a little faster to pick up and play. Second, my first non-fiction book, Cruise of the Sea Eagle, was about a turn-of-the-century German windjammer, The Seeadler, during WWI. I have played Fear God and Dread Nought and have written for a number of game systems over the years - BattleTech and Leviathans for example. 

The battle quickly became two one-on-one engagements.  The ruler on the table determines not only the range but the damage counters you use.  
The prototype miniatures.  This is like Master and Commander on steroids! 
This gives you a good idea of the size of the miniatures.  I was bummed the prototype didn't come with these, but I can honestly say I can't wait for this game at GenCon or Origins.  
I love miniature games but hate the assembly and painting in order to play. Ares Games get it. Like Wings of Glory (which I'm a huge fan of) they are going to produce preassembled and painted miniature ships with this product line. In other words, open the box and get playing.

The problems that naval games always have is the balance between playability vs. realism. Areas has met this head-on with Sails of Glory. For this playtest I was playing a prototype of the game - one that had cards and chips but none of the really cool miniatures. We squared up with two French and two British ships.

To play the basic game - bare bones really, takes about 15 minutes to master the rules. If you want to make that shorter, there are some videos they have on-line. I'm sure the advanced game will take longer - but how many games out there can you get playing in 15 minutes?

What makes the game work is twofold. One, the miniature base. This determines your attitude to the wind for movement, and what guns you can bring to bear. The other key is the movement cards. Likes their very easy Wings of Glory game, these cards determine you movement plot. There are several different kinds of damage counters. As you take damage you track it on a reference card.

The game is so easy. You pick a card for your movement. Everybody moves. Using a range-finder, you fire. The closer you are determines what damage counter pile you pull from. A typical broadside might have you pull 3-4 counters. These can add up pretty quick in terms of damage...as I painfully learned. Closer range shots seem to inflict more damage - just like they are supposed to. I got my T crossed at pretty dangerous range, and it took out half of the damage slots on my ship. But the smaller ship I was battling got pummeled with a counter-salvo two turns later that left it floundering.

Reloading can mess you up since you can have a great shot but your crew is busy reloading - which hurt me against the HMS Terpischore.

Wind attitude is most important if you are aback to the wind. The movement cards are used differently in these situations, which can really swing a ship around in one round and change the tactical situation quickly. My opponent , the HMS Defense, was able to pivot enough to devastate the Genereux, finishing her off.
With four ships our game ran about a half-hour. There are a few things that we didn't get to test. To use musketry you have to have ships that are at point blank range. We had that happen during the game, but it didn't seem to be as much as a factor unless you were planning a boarding party - which isn't part of the basic game. We played on a three foot by three foot area and the game was remarkably fluid - to the point where we could have used a larger playing space. Despite this we had three collisions. In the basic game there are some nuances with ramming that need to be worked out - but otherwise these are VERY sound rules of play. 

While Ares didn't send me the advanced rules I'm already drooling over them. Based on the individual ship cards, and the counter provided, we're looking at the full gambit of Nelson-era combat. I saw fire markers of some sort, there's chain-shot and grapeshot firing capabilities which I would have enjoyed playing with - and the loss of masts, which don't factor into the basic game. Even if you were to layer in these rules the game is still going to be very fluid and quick to play.

What I like about this system is that I could teach it to an eight-year old and play it, yet the tactics are such that even die-hard gamers are going to be drawn in. Even a ship-on-ship battle can be pretty interesting and with the damage counters, the whims of fate come into play. You can get in a lucky long range shot that wrecks havoc and carnage, or you can get a nice devastating close range shot that does remarkably little. This is going to cost me some bucks, but I want to play some larger battles. Ares seems to think that ships will run $20 each. From the pictures, they look spectacular.

Ares Games is running a Kickstarter on this and I encourage you to check it out. Kickstarter Sails of Glory With people plopping down big money on Zombie games it's nice to see a new view to an "old school" game get some serious backing.   

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The League of WWI Aviation Historians and a few days researching murder

A Nieuport used in the film Flyboys

Last weekend was a research and writer’s weekend for me.  I started out Friday and Saturday at the annual meeting of the League of WWI Aviation Historians.  Our local chapter meets at the Smithsonian throughout the year and this was my first time going to the full national meeting.  Better yet, I was asked to be the first speaker on the subject of my new book, Bert Hall (The Bad Boy – Fonthill Media). 

Now I was in the room with guys that I considered legends in WWI historical writing and research.  Alan Toole was there, as was Jon Guttman, Russell Smith, and Greg Vanwyngarde and others.  I know Jon pretty well but I have never met the other members face-to-face.  Carl Bobrow did a presentation on the technological advancements and I was impressed with the format of his presentation almost as much as the material.  This wasn’t just lectures – we had films (the first full viewing of A Romance of the Air in 90 years) and exhibits. 

What a great bunch of guys.  Oh sure, the discussions could get a little geeky – let’s face it, we’re historians.  At the same time everyone was very warm and welcoming.  If you’ve ever considered going to one of these events, I strongly encourage you to. I made some new friends who are already corresponding with me.  

When I was encouraged by a member to join the League I was hesitant.  I believe it was one of the best decisions I’ve made. 

We had some world-class presentations.  I have to admit, I enjoyed Russell Smith’s discussions on how he does his paintings on WWI aircraft and personnel.  I can barely draw a stick-person, but Smith’s works put you right there – at that time.  His process as a painter is deep and highly structured.  I found there was a lot of common ground with how I approach writing. 

Russell Smith's Discussion

We got to visit Flights of Fantasy and see Kermit Week’s collection of antique aircraft.  I felt like we had rock-star access to the aircraft and it was a special treat to see Kermit fly his P-51 Mustang for us. 

Up close and personal with an Albatros

After that I headed to Michigan to visit my mother and to do the final tid-bits of research on the Daisy Zick book.  I got to meet with one of the few surviving investigators on the case, a former State Trooper, who talked to me for two hours about his experiences and memories of the case.   I swung by Willard Library and ran into Mary Butler from the Battle Creek Historical Society and George Livingston from the local history section of the library.  I culled the library computers for the last few nuggets of information I was looking for. 

Then I returned to home and my day job.  After a few days reliving WWI aerial battles and working on an open murder case, I have to admit – the day job seemed a little boring.