Gaming: While I was down in Phoenix, my buddy and I played a game of Victory in the Pacific, an old Avalon Hill classic. I managed to fit my battered old copy into my carry-on, figuring that killing an hour or two in the evenings after watching baseball might be a good way to go. When I was a kid, I would save up for months and months to mail-order games full of bazillions of cardboard counters, reference charts, and hex maps. My collection included titles such as Third Reich, Ricthofen’s War, Luftwaffe, Jutland, War at Sea, Arab-Israeli Wars, Titan, and many others. I laid out huge solo scenarios on the floor and drove my mom nuts by leaving square yards of my bedroom impassable for weeks at a time. Every now and then I’d find a friend to play Panzer Leader or Squad Leader with, but honestly, many of these games were my own rainy day activities. (You have to remember, when I was a kid of thirteen or fourteen, there were three channels on TV and video games were things you found in the arcade.)
Avalon Hill, SPI, and other manufacturers of classic hex-and-counter “wargames” managed to drift along into the 80’s and 90’s as the most exclusive niche of a niche hobby. I can’t even imagine what the business model must have been: Publish scores of titles with extremely narrow focus and appeal, each requiring scads of tricky components and countless hours of playtesting and development time, and sell them by catalog and mail order in the days before the internet. But back in the day that WAS the gaming hobby. RPGs came along, then ever-more-reliable and detailed computer games that could out-simulate these massive simulations, and eventually that was that. A handful of boutique publishers such as GMT Games and Multi-Man Publishing sell counter-and-hex wargames now, with sales of a thousand or fewer copies in many cases, but that’s it. An entire category of the gaming industry, with a few exceptions, went the way of the dodo.
Anyway, Victory in the Pacific was always one of my favorites, because it was light and fast by the standards of the genre but did a fine job of letting you line up big heaps of carriers, battleships, and cruisers, and just bash the tar out of them. One of the very clever things the game did was to separate naval combat into “day actions” (airstrikes) and “night actions” (surface battles). If the two players couldn’t agree on what kind of battle they wanted to fight—usually because one guy had planes, and the other guy didn’t—you’d roll a die, and the high roll got the battle he wanted. If you tied, then you got a doubleheader, a day action followed by a night action. I always felt it was an elegant way to make carrier forces and battleship forces distinct from each other, and I even borrowed this old idea when creating the darkness rules and scenario guidelines in the revised Axis & Allies Naval Miniatures game.
If I could tinker with Victory in the Pacific now, I think I might use some kind of initiative roll instead of forcing the Japanese to always move first; that’s a real beating for the Japanese player. No reason that couldn’t be weighted in favor of the Allies, or even weighted by turn one way or the other in order to reflect different levels of Allied codebreaking success through the war. And I think I would also add some more robust targeting rules and screening rules, so that you can’t have twelve cruisers all gang up on one mission-critical enemy ship while leaving most of the enemy force unfought. But, tinkering and home rules aside, it’s still a darned fun game.
Oh, and my buddy won. I managed to grab a lot of territory early as the Japanese, including the Coral Sea, but I just lost too much fleet doing it, and I rolled ‘1’ on damage dice about six or eight times in the course of the game. Enterprise should have been sunk like three times—ridiculous.
Politics/Current Events: Okay, not very political, but certainly a current event: Has there ever been such an earthshaking week in the NFL offseason as the one we’ve just watched? First Peyton Manning hits the market as the single highest-profile free agent in I don’t know how long, an instant ticket to contention for any of a dozen teams. Major quarterback signings in Miami, Tennessee, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, and New York are caught in the crazy rippling spread of consequences. And then, to cap it off, the NFL comes out and hammers the New Orleans Saints with the most draconian set of penalties that I think any pro football team has ever been subjected to. If there’s another example of such an overwhelming beatdown from the commissioner’s office, I’d love to hear about it.
The sad truth of the whole business is that lots of players (and some coaches too) from many teams have set bounties of one sort or another. Why the league hammered the Saints for something that is really not that unusual, I don’t know. The penalties strike me as really over the top.
The Finer Things: I was pleasantly surprised by John Carter; the film was surprisingly faithful to many details of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stories, including things that I never would have expected, such as radium rifles in the hands of the green Martians, the sobriquet Dotar Sojat, ships flying on “light,” two towers in Helium, banths with tails that “widen toward the tip,” and so on. I liked Zodanga as a moving city, although I was less fond of the liberties the film’s writers took with the therns or in making Dejah Thoris an action star. Dejah Thoris is supposed to be legendarily beautiful—tough enough in her own way, but more of a Helen of Troy type of character than the 21st-century warrior princess scientist the movie made her out to be. She is, after all, the incomparable Dejah Thoris!
Anyway, that take on Dejah Thoris put an interesting thought in my head: Who are the ten most beautiful women of fiction? The ten women whose beauty is recognized throughout their world as the very paragon of femininity, women for whom whole nations would gladly march to war? Helen of Troy, whose face launched a thousand ships, seems like a shoe-in. In Middle-Earth, you’ve got Galadriel, Arwen Undomiel, and Luthien Tinuviel. Doc Smith’s Lensman books brought us Clarissa MacDougall, the culmination of fifty thousand years of guided evolution and the owner of one of only two perfect skeletons in existence. I’m sure there must be dozens more out there. So what other stories or myths claim to feature the most beautiful woman that ever existed? They can’t all be right, after all!