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.  

Saturday, March 9, 2013

A Busy Year Ahead

My wife Cyndi lovingly refers to my office as, “The Factory” at night.  That is exactly what it is – a writing factory.  This year is already a big year for me as an author and it is going to only get bigger.  I thought I would share with you what is coming. 

Already out, The Bad Boy, Bert Hall, Aviator and Mercenary of the Skies, (Fonthill Media).  Let’s face it, Bert Hall is a neat character and tackling his story, as well as that of the Lafayette Escadrille, was a true challenge.  I’m pretty proud of this book because of the complexities of getting Bert’s story straight.  As a historian, Bert is one of the ultimate challenges.   http://www.fonthillmedia.com/article_978-1-78155-130-1/The-Bad-Boy

I am just wrapping up work on A Special Kind of Evil.  This is the story of the murder of Daisy Zick in Battle Creek Michigan back in 1963.  This 50 year old crime remains unsolved and this book will reveal, for the first time, the depth of the investigation as well as the persons of interest.  Because the crime is unsolved, readers will be left to form their own opinions as to who committed the crime.   As of this week a major publisher has expressed an interest in this book.  More on this to follow. 

Coming any time now is Business Rules: The Cynics Guidebook to the Corporate Overlords.  This is a very special pet project for me – a return to writing business leadership books.  My book Cubicle Warfare was a bestseller and landed me on shows like Bill O’Reilly’s, MSNBC, CBS and others.  I was even interviewed by Fast Company magazine.  This book is a snarky, fun, yet stunningly serious guidebook to how work gets done.  This book is a departure for me, because I’m going to be publishing it via Kindle Direct Publishing and Amazon’s print on demand solution. 

I’m going to be writing the first book of a Steampunk trilogy – Confederacy of the Damned.  The first few chapters are done but I hope to see this book out this summer.

I will be going to Scotland this June to do research on a book I’ve sold to Fonthill Media on Sawney Bean, the legendary Scottish cannibal.  I love writing true crime and covering a mythic tale of highwaymen, cannibals, incest, and murder is far too tempting to pass up. 

Coming this autumn – The Fires of October, (Fonthill Media) This is my book on the planned invasion of Cuba (Operation Scabbards) during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The missile crisis is one of the most studied aspects of the Cold War.  This book breaks new ground, with first-time published research on the air, sea, and land campaign that was planned to overthrow Castro and “liberate” Cuba.  The book will release in the UK in June with an estimated August release in the US. 

And this fall, I have another novel planned (a contemporary thriller called Good Old Boys) and another military history project on deck for the late autumn.  I even have another business book done in draft – I simply have to find the time to fit it in with all of this other stuff.  I'm also doing some fiction writing for Leviathans, the awesome steampunk flying battleship game from Catalyst Games.  

I would tell you more, but I’m needed here on the factory floor.  Gotta fly! 

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Alamo!

Between February 23 and March 6, 1836 approximately 182 Texans held off roughly 1500 soldiers of the Mexican Army.  Few battles in American history have had such an impact on the psyche of people.  There are a lot of reasons we find ourselves drawn to this battle. 

First, it was a battle against the odds and that is something that appeals to Americans at an almost genetic level.  We are a country built by underdogs and admire nothing more than someone facing incredible odds.  These men didn’t have to make a last-stand, they could have departed.  It is part of our culture and the besieged men of the Alamo represent that to all of us. 

Secondly what appeals to us is the characters involves.  I've read William Davis's book, Three Roads to the Alamo which is the definitive biographies of the main characters (Crockett, Travis and Bowie).  While Hollywood has painted these men as heroic, they were all flawed in some way.  Yet they made a stand and fought until they were killed. When you read the stories of these men you discover that Bowie and Travis were flawed, they are like every other human being, caught up in extraordinary circumstances.   
Colonel David Crockett in particular resonates with people.  Here was a man that had made a mark in the world already.  Yet somehow events conspired to put him at the Alamo at the time of the siege.  It is hard for us to imagine a modern-day former congressman putting his/her convictions on the line the way Crockett did. 
Third, there is a spirit of independence in what the fighters at the Alamo fought for.  I have always maintained that one of the mystiques of Texas is that it was its own nation and never forgot that.  The Alamo was a struggle for freedom, which the US still manages to embrace from time-to-time. 

Militarily when you study the battle, there isn’t much to it.  When you look at any heroic last stand from a pure military standpoint, they seem cut and dry.  But last stands like this are rarely that simple or easy to comprehend looking at weapons, tactics, or manpower.  They are about bravery and conviction in the face of death.  That is why the Alamo appeals to us to this day. 
So, as you wait for March to come in like a lamb or lion - remember those brave men who fought to buy their country time and for Texas to be free.  

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame – Harriet Quimby Award

Sometimes life throws you a pleasant surprise.  In my case, I recently learned that I was to be honored by the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame with a Harriet Quimby Award on May 11. Also receiving the award will be Warren Benjamin Kidder.  I’m deeply honored by this award. 

Harriet Quimby was a Michigan-born journalist writing for magazines like Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly.  An adventurer at heart, she became the first female to be given a aviator’s certificate and the second female to be given a pilot’s license.  She was the first woman to fly across the English Channel in 1912 and died later that year in an airplane accident. 

The Kalamazoo Air Zoo, where the Hall of Fame is located, is a great museum and when my books on aviation come out, I always make a point to speak there.  I will be there at 1:00pm on May 11 discussing my latest aviation history book, The Bad Boy

When you are a writer the honors and accolades are few and far between.  I’m glad I’ve been able to draw attention to aviators of the Great War in the books that I write, especially Lost Eagles which is about a Galesburg Michigan airman of the Lafayette Flying Corps, Frederick Zinn.  Zinn went on to create the system for tracking, locating, and identifying missing airmen. 

If you are in Kalamazoo on May 11, please feel free to stop by my presentation or better yet, grab a ticket and show up for the dinner and awards ceremony.  http://www.airzoo.org/news.php?menu_id=9&news_id=1&article_id=358

Monday, February 11, 2013

Review of Balance of Power

Okay I’ll preface this review with a disclaimer.  I do freelance writing and game design with Catalyst Game Labs.  Now that that’s on the table, let me also say I didn’t have anything to do with the game Balance of Power and I’m actually a little ticked they didn’t include me on the playtest.  Why?  This game rocks. 

I’m an old school Risk player and on the surface this looks like Risk.  It’s allegedly set in 1815, but that only provides you with the context of the game map.  The game comes with a hard backed map of Europe.  Each player (up to six) has a bag of 45 game pieces broken down into Kings, Generals and Bankers.  These three pieces represent the balance of power in the game – yes I realize I used the title of the game in the description – cool eh?

There are six quick reference cards to help you with the rules.  The rules are pretty darned simple.  You can move – duplicate – or attack.  Generals eliminate Kings.  Kings can take out bankers.  Bankers can take out Generals.  Simple so far?  The pieces are thick wooden material – top notch quality. 

Winning the game is done on points.  You get a point for controlling enemy territory.  When you occupy a capitol with one of each of the game tokens, you get three points.  Depending on the number of people playing you need to have anywhere from 30 to 18 points to win. 

The rules are remarkably easy – I’ve actually covered almost all of them above.  This is the kind of game you can jump into in about fifteen minutes.  Best of all, it’s more simple than Risk which means you can play it with your kids (or grandkids). 

When I dug into the rules I kept wondering, “where are the dice?”  There aren’t any.  Attacks take out the enemy, plain and simple.  But you don’t need them.  This game is all about strategy.  Despite its simplicity there are nuances to this game that are important.  You have to have the right kind of units in the right place in order to successfully attack.  Play is fast, for the most part, and can be vicious.  The games I’ve played with it have lasted no more than an hour.

This is one of those sleeper games that is a great guilty pleasure.  More importantly there’s a bit of cunning and strategizing that comes into game play.  It’s fast – it’s fluid – it’s fun.  Balance of Power trades accuracy for ease of play and does it remarkably well. 

My rating – five out of five stars.  

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Bad Boy is finally released!

It has been a long journey but my book on Bert Hall (The Bad Boy, Fonthill Media) is out in hardcover. The digital version will be forthcoming shortly. This book was one of the more challenging ones for me to research and write given the colorful nature of Bert Hall. Hall was a chronic exaggerator and teller of tale tales, which made getting to the truth (or as close as you can get with Hall) a difficult exercise.  Difficult - but fun.

Hall was a member of the French Foreign Legion at the outbreak of the war and transferred into the French Air Service - eventually becoming one of the original members of the Lafayette Escadrille. Hall was at one point or another a movie star, producer, technical consultant, writer and director; an aviation mercenary in China; an arms dealer; a convicted felon; a race car driver; a gambler; a bigamist, and a few dozen other roles in his life. He had the distinction of being kicked out of the Lafayette Escadrille, yet was an accomplished aviator. Hall managed to find himself at the right place at the right time throughout his life. He was in Paris when WWI broke out. He was in Russia during the revolution. He was in China during the civil wars there.

I'll be doing a presentation on Hall's life at the semi-annual meeting of the League of WWI Aviation Historians in March and an event on May 11th at the Kalamazoo Air Zoo.

I was drawn to writing his life story after my work on Lost Eagles. He was a lifelong friend of Frederick Zinn, the subject of that book. I came to appreciate that Bert Hall was a force of nature. If I could sit and have a drink with any members of the Lafayette Escadrille, Hall would top my list (followed closely by Thaw and Luftbery). He was, by all accounts, a "bad boy," and there is something romantic and fascinating about such a man. A reprobate? Yes. Despicable? At times. A rogue? Of course! An adventurer? Definitely.

Writing about the Lafayette Escadrille is intimidating. It is the holy-of-holy's in terms of WWI squadrons if you are American. Putting my foot into that water was something I was excited about and dreaded. At the same time it was impossible to tell Bert's story without telling the story of the formation and early months of this unit. Over the decades some historians have diminished Bert's contributions, usually at the prodding of Paul Rockwell. I had to go back to source material and really reconstruct what truths I could find about Hall. In the end, I was pleased with my results.

People have asked me do I admire Hall? I certainly don't admire how he led his personal life. Professionally, Bert Hall was the Howard Stern of his day - the master of self promotion. He did remarkable things in remarkable times - which makes him interesting. I admit a tinge of envy at how he literally lived in the moment and changed his career with wild abandon. He was a man that did not perceive limits and lived his life accordingly. Bert lived his life by not dwelling on what others thought of him - how many of us could do the same?If he were alive today I have no doubt that he would have a reality TV show of some sort…and it would be a damned sight better than many of the other shows on.

I Invite you to read the book for yourself and form your own opinions.   http://www.amazon.com/The-Bad-Boy-Aviator-Mercenary/dp/1781551308/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1359832473&sr=8-1&keywords=the+bad+boy+pardoe

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Review: JonBenet: Inside the Ramsey Murder Investigation

This book was penned by one of the lead detectives on this infamous murder case, Stephen Thomas. Like many people, I figured that I knew a lot about this case. I was wrong. I only knew the snippets that the media presented over the years. I personally always suspected the Ramsey's as the culprits. The fact that they shielded themselves from prosecutors and police with a wall of lawyers seemed suspicious to say the least. But in fairness, I didn't really know the inside story until I read this book.

First off, the officer who penned this book tells a story of prosecutorial misconduct in the handling of the case that is appalling. Yes, the police made mistakes - those are detailed too. But in the end this is the real story of a six year old girl killed on Christmas Eve whose killers were never brought to trial because of the egregious failings of the DA's office. The police, in this telling, were hindered at every turn by the DA's which should have been working with them towards a common goal.

The Ramsey's most assuredly were responsible for the death of their daughter. They lied, misled, and misdirected the media and the public with false cries of being cooperative. The case has been so badly handled it is doubtful that a conviction will ever occur.

My only critique of the book at all was that by the end, I almost felt that the author was beating a dead horse. Then again, from his perspective, I'm sure it felt that way. Yes, we got it, the prosecutors were morons.  It's a minor nit on an otherwise outstanding book.  

The book contains new information we didn't know about the crime, the circumstantial evidence that points to the Ramsey's, and a real insider's perspective of the crime. It is well worth picking up and reading.   I give it four out of five starts - a worthwhile read.  

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Leviathans Mega Battle

The opening move - British on the right, French on the left 
I was one of the writer's and consultants on Leviathans from Catalyst Games Labs. Some close friends of mine and I decided to do a big game to really get a better feel for fleet actions. By big, I mean two of the game sets and boards - one each of the fleet boxes, and the ships we had won at GenCon over the last two years. We're talking eight battleships six cruisers and twelve destroyers facing off. We went with two even fleets, French (run by the dads) and the British (run by the kids). I'd love to tell you about some glorified scenario I had crafted for this battle, but in reality it was designed to be a slugfest on a squadron/fleet level.  We wanted to toss everything we had into the fight to see what a massive engagement was like
Both sides entered the map on the first turn…out of range. It became apparent that we should have used two more map boards because it was tight quarters for both sides. The British attempted to maintain some sort of line formation where we broke the French into three groups. We were not into formations but broke our force into three squadrons.  We charged up the center with three of our battleships, a flanking fleet of destroyers and cruisers on the left - with another pack of destroyers and a battleship on the right. The ships on the left, with only one exception, were devoid of torpedoes. Their mission was to draw off the smaller ships, we knew the boys could not resist what seemed like easy prey.

The nimble French destroyers skirt to the rear of the Leviathan I 
Turn three as seen from the French side of battle.  Notice that  Jean Bart creeping up the right side of the board in the upper corner?  
The boys attempted to maintain a staggered line formation with the larger number of their destroyers on our left.  Line formations are great, until torpedoes start to streak across the table.  The formations were shattered quickly as the dashing French admirals unleashed these deadly weapons.  The second turn unleashed the first round of "torpedo hell" God love the French - our destroyers are fast and we have lots of torpedoes. Both sides took a little damage and gained some respect for torpedoes going forward.  The damage that the torps inflicted would linger for many turns. 

On the left, one of our French destroyers, the Pelletier, was completely surrounded by the enemy. Everyone poured in shots at point blank range, but she only lost an armor slot! Thanks to the nimble French speed, this minks sprinted out of the cluster of enemy ships on the next turn and swung around to the rear of the British battleships on the left.

You learn to respect bracketing and saturation fire with the big ships. Respect it - fear it.

In the center, a nasty spread of British torpedoes hit the French battleships - especially the Paris, taking out her forward guns in just a few salvos. Attempts to evade the torpedoes only left the battlewagons hugging each other. Across the board the French torpedoes hit their marks all over the British fleet, including one that hit one of our own ships (such is the fate of those in war!)

On the right, the French squadron commander Kevin drove his fast moving destroyers behind the Leviathan I (we had a couple of Leviathans out there!) and savaged her aft. Likewise on the left, a pair of French destroyers did the same to anther British battleship. The British were learning the hard way that the fast French destroyers could wreck havoc in their rear. Engine slots on the battleships were getting mangled quickly, slowing the beasts down which the British sent a pair of destroyers to attempt to deal with this threat.

The British, as it turned out, drew first blood. One of the French destroyers, the Grenadier, wandered out in the middle of crossfire from two British battleships and was horribly mauled but still in the air. She was one or two shots away from a keel breaking.  Her captain, valiantly swung around and rammed a British battleship. While brave, it was a pointless gesture that only scared the crap out of the British captain and scraped the paint on her bow. The destroyer, already on her deathbed, went down with all hands. Rumors have circulated that her captain was seen personally at her wheel as she careened downward.  If you look really hard at the miniature, I swear you can see him.

I broke off one of our lesser cruisers on our left flank to get the attention of the British destroyers.  Oh, it got their attention all right.  For three turns three-to-four destroyers circled her, firing at every angle.  The ship must have looked as if it had been dropped in a running garbage disposal, the damage was so bad.  Yet somehow, she managed to shrug off the assaults.  More importantly, she occupied the British destroyers, tying them down in a pointless battle, preventing them from doing what we were doing, getting in behind the battleships and wreck havoc. 
The fact that this was still in the air after three turns of this abuse was amazing

They were surrounding me like sharks
For three turns our destroyers peppered the British battleships.  Of the four, three had suffered at least three engine hits in the aft, turning them into massive, slow moving targets.  By turn four, the battleships began to get into range of each other.  The torpedoes…well, both sides got hit by at least one of their own shots while trying to dodge the enemy.  The torpedoes were whittling down the big ships, especially the British. 

When the big-boys got into action, the results were staggering.  The Medusa I, already limping from destroyer shots to her aft, was the first to go down – a victim of one of the Paris class ships we had run up along the right side of the board.  The image of the ship crashing 10,000 feet down into the French countryside was very cool. 

The British responded brutally.  I had run the Paris right up between two of their ships.  I managed to get in my salvos before the Paris got hit on both sides with massive broadsides.  Her keel shattered and she too plunged down on the unsuspecting French cows in the fields below! 

We came up on the Leviathan I which now limped along at one movement point, and savaged her from one end to another  Cries of “I want her penetrated!” and “savage her!” were made but we quickly realized that out of context, they were the wrong things to say (My bad).  In the end, a French destroyer with a mere 75mm cannon, plunged a salvo in that shattered her keel (the only thing still intact on the ship) and broke her.  In fifteen minutes, three battleships had dropped from the skies, leaving big holes in the map. 

The British destroyers still circled my poor cruiser on the left, but failed to take her down.  Our destroyers on both flanks riddled the remaining two British battleship rear-ends, killing their boilers and leaving them moving at one movement point. 

The remaining three French battleships were slightly damaged but in no danger for another turn or two.  The same could not be said for the British ships which had been hit by the Paris and Jean Bart II and our spunky destroyers.  We toyed with continuing the game but with most of the French ships still having torpedoes, and the British ships only able to limp along, it was going to be slaughter.  Victory to the dads – victory to France! 
The final look of the battle.  Those huge gaping holes once were filled with the pride of the British and French Air Fleets

Lessons we learned from this.  We could have used another map or two for movement.  That would have changed the nature of the game.  Also we used two full sets worth of torpedo markers for many turns.  Two identical sets of launches and targets made for some confusion.  We came to the conclusion that attempting to mentally calculate each torpedo launch and target and trying to move around them is impossible when you have that many.  Sure, we got hit with our own weapons, but it was realistic-ish.  We didn’t use the screening rules this time, but we will next time since that will change the dynamic of the formations. 

The biggest lesson which I knew from playtests was to get to the rear of the battleships and tear them up.  Sure, it will cost you a ship or two but if you can hamstring those battlewagons, they cease to be as big of a threat. 

The total time to play this was six hours.  Six hours of pure fun!  

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Geek Magazine - A Review

A review of a magazine?  Sure. Finally those of us out there that are proudly self-proclaimed geeks have a magazine that can embrace as our own – Geek.  They have cranked through four issues so far and the magazine is proving itself to be iconic in the nerd community. 

What makes Geek tick?  First off, it’s unabashed in its embracing the lifestyle of its readers.  What that means is that the magazine has coverage of movies (sci-fi, fantasy, and action/thrillers), television, comic books (bingo!), space technology, online/mobile/system based gaming, music, technology toys and gadgets, and even books.  Yup, all of the elements of the geek lifestyle get some sort of play in the magazine. 

The articles are crisp, picture/graphic laden, and really add to the articles.  The writing is top-notch but is far from dull.  Many of the articles are laced with pop-culture references that often leave you chuckling, even when the tone is serious.  Thanks to Geek, I learned about the Polar Lights 1/350 scale model of the USS Enterprise which I now proudly own, and I’ve jumped back into reading comic books after a year hiatus.  I find their articles on cosplay to be entertaining, even though I don’t indulge in this aspect.  This is the only magazine I read cover-to-cover. 

Are there any shortcomings with the magazine?   Two come to mind.  I’m a fan of the hard copy of the magazine.  When you subscribe, you can only get it online for your mobile device.  No biggie.  The other is that it doesn’t cover RPG’s or board gaming yet…though the last issue did have an article on Dungeons and Dragons in NYC.  I would love to see a standing column covering this part of my nerdish lifestyle because it’s an aspect of our geeky-community that is deeply ingrained.  Not to mention I write in that industry.  

I give this magazine five out of five stars.  Go buy Geek, or check them out online.  http://www.geekexchange.com/  You will NOT be disappointed.