Sunday, November 11, 2012

Third Reich, Romney's defeat, birch beer

Thanks for stopping by! Short days and soggy weather make for good movie watching. It’s looking like a good holiday movie season--I caught Skyfall just on Friday, and I have to say, it’s definitely in the top five James Bond movies ever. (For the record, I’d round out that group with From Russia with Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Casino Royale, and Goldeneye… or maybe For Your Eyes Only. Seems like at least one Roger Moore film ought to sneak in there somewhere.) Only a month and three days until The Hobbit!

Anyway, this time: Third Reich, the election, and birch beer.  

Gaming: Today is Veteran’s Day, and that of course leads me to reflect on my favorite Big Crunchy Wargame of a Thousand Counters, Third Reich. This WW2 strategic wargame was first published in 1974 by Avalon Hill as Rise and Decline of the Third Reich. Avalon Hill went on to publish the updated Advanced Third Reich in 1992, and a companion Pacific Theater game called Empire of the Rising Sun (or just Rising Sun) in 1995. The game is a super-crunchy strategic overview of the whole European theater, played out in three-month turns. Third Reich was built around the strategic role of armor and combined arms, and the exploitation rules let you break through enemy lines and encircle whole armies. It’s probably the best theater-level WW2 wargame/simulation ever done, and still widely played by diehard wargamers.
(Funny story… first time I met Peter Adkison when he came to TSR during the process of Wizards buying TSR, we got to talking about wargames. Turned out he was a huge Third Reich fan. I wound up playing half a dozen games with him and a couple other WotC old guard over the first few years of my time at Wizards.)

Anyway, the game was picked up by Avalanche Press and updated again in 2001 as John Prados’ Third Reich. This version completely discarded the 3R/A3R game engine. Speaking bluntly, I found it unplayable. The revised map could have been great, but it was printed in such a small board that you couldn’t physically manipulate the counters. The naval rules were indecipherable. And the core of the game, the CRT (or Combat Results Table) was replaced by a combat system in which units received d6 attack dice equal to their strength. A 3-3 infantry therefore rolled 3d6 to attack, scoring a “hit” on a 6. In the original 3R system, four 3-3 infantry attacking a single 3-3 infantry defending had a 97% chance to kill the unit and take the hex—the question was how many losses they’d take doing it. In the revised combat engine, that same attack dropped to about 32%. Since the classic opening of the game was for Germany to make two 2-1 attacks to take out Poland in the fall of 1939, your odds of pulling this off went from 95% to 10%. You’d think somebody would have caught that. I understand they’ve published several expansions and accessories since, including a bigger map.
The rules engine was picked up by GMT Games, which published the successor of Advanced Third Reich and Rising Sun in 2003 as A World at War. The GMT Games version is basically Third Reich on steroids, designed to be played on two gigantic maps and provide a down-the-rabbithole simulation that includes research, espionage, diplomacy, oil supply, naval rules for individual capital ships, and scores and scores of specific exceptions and special rules to maximize the strategic simulation—for example, each major power has its own special surrender conditions and procedures. Whew! If you want the full-on, no holds barred, deep end of the pool Third Reich experience, this is the game you play.

While A World at War isn’t for everybody, GMT Games did a couple of very interesting things that offered some lessons a lot of different games might take to heart. First, the rules are “living” rules that are routinely updated and tweaked on line—sure, you get a rulebook with your gigantic game, but the “real” rules are the current PDF posted on the game’s support site. At Wizards of the Coast we often lamented the fact that we couldn’t reach out and update everybody’s rulebooks after they took ‘em home, but the A World at War community is small enough and dedicated enough that this is exactly how they play. Another interesting resource: Not only are the rules available in a PDF, they’re also available in a Windows help file format which is completely hyperlinked within itself. Need to chase down all the special rules about escort carriers? Click, click, click, you can dart around from strategic warfare to amphibious invasions to what-have-you and see everything CVE’s can do for you. Boy, I’d love to see a set of D&D rules that worked like that.

Politics/Current Events: Obviously, I’m surprised and disappointed by the results of the election. I was for Romney because I feel that the best way to get out of our current slump is to unleash the engine of small business, and I thought Romney was the guy who would do more of that. As the election drew near, it seemed to me that Romney’s apparent edge among independents meant that he had the election in the bag. Not only was I wrong about that, but it was clear that the Republicans were hammered up and down the ticket; they lost ground in the Senate when conditions seemed ripe for a potential takeover, and the only reason the GOP didn’t get decimated in the House of Representatives is that they had the chance to gerrymander the congressional districts around the country in 2010. (Before you get up in arms about that, the Democrats do the exact same thing when they have the chance; like the Electoral College, it’s just the rules of the game.) All that said, the election was fair, and Barack Obama is the president for four more years; there’s no point in continuing to fight against his reelection.
So what now? While the results showed clearly that the electorate wasn’t convinced by the GOP’s candidates or message, there are elements of the conservative agenda that are still very popular. Exit polls show that people support the idea of smaller government and a repeal of Obamacare, and oppose raising taxes. Voters know that we’re not on a good trajectory, and we need to make adjustments. But culture-war issues and unrealistic positions on immigration doomed the GOP in this cycle.

I’m not a Republican, but I do favor conservative approaches to many of our country’s challenges. I think it is vitally important for the country to have a party of conservatism near the levers of power, to check the liberal impulse to perhaps try to do too much. I hope that the cold hard reality of the 2012 election forces the Republicans to up their game. Off the top of my head, adopting a “tall fences but wide gates” approach to immigration would be a good start. Get off the culture wars: They’re over, and traditional values lost. Finally, adopt strong platforms for *fixing* entitlements, not getting rid of them. That means working with Democrats to correct the perverse incentives in the ACA (Obamacare), bend the curve on entitlement spending, and close the deficit. We can’t spend a trillion dollars a year more than we take in, and we can’t make up the entirety of that gap by socking the well-off.
We have a chance to see a deeply reformed Republican Party emerge from this loss. I’m excited about the prospect, because whether you’re a conservative or a liberal, a better party is good for the country.

The Finer Things: Pennsylvania Dutch Birch Beer. A lot of people have no idea what birch beer is; basically, it’s like root beer, but better, and I say that as a root beer fan. The real bummer is that you can’t get it out here in Seattle. There are other brands of birch beer around, including a couple of specialty sodas, but you know? None of them taste exactly right to me. Birch beer has to be Pennsylvania Dutch, or it’s just not birch beer. The proper accompaniment for birch beer, by the way, is Mack and Manco’s pizza, from the boardwalk of Ocean City, New Jersey. Fortunately Hurricane Sandy left the Ocean City boardwalk mostly intact, so you can try this for yourself at the first opportunity.

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