Thursday, March 22, 2012

Apache Trail, Victory in the Pacific, Dejah Thoris

Greetings, all! My apologies for a late post; I’ve been out of town since Sunday the 18th, so I’m just now getting around to my March 20th blogging. I took a few days to fly down to Arizona, meet a buddy of mine, and check out Cactus League spring training. Arizona now hosts the spring training camps of 14 major league ballclubs, and they’re well into the process of tuning up for the season. We checked out the camps for the Mariners, Reds, and Indians in the mornings, and took in a couple of M’s games in the afternoons. Then, on Wednesday, we decided to take a break from baseball and sightsee in the Arizona desert, taking in a scenic drive known as the Apache Trail. Theodore Roosevelt called the road/trail “one of the most spectacular best-worth-seeing sights of the world.” He might have been exaggerating a bit, but it was still one heck of a stretch of country.

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!


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  2. Rich,

    AH War at Sea and VitP were two of my favorites growing up as well, along with some of the other titles you mentioned. I had a small circle of friends that would play and we spent many an hour duking it out in the Pacific. To this day I hold the title among our group of being the only one to win with Japan in a 9 turn game. :)

    These games were the primary reason I jumped at AANM War at Sea sight on seen based on the title alone and have not looked back.


  3. I sometimes feel a bit sad at the state of the old-style wargames. I own a few, but can very rarely find opponents. The only one that sees even a few plays a year is Conflict of Heroes. Commands & Colors is popular (both Ancients and Napoleonic), but I don't really consider it to be the same type of game.

    As to most beautiful women of fiction, I don't really know. The ones I always picture the most beautiful are the ones from the books I read when I was young, none of which are described as the most beautiful in their world/time. Eowyn from lord of the Rings, and Haydee from the Count of Monte Cristo would be the two I always pictured as the most beautiful. The third of my favorite childhood/middle school stories, Treasure Island, doesn't really have any women to speak of, aside from Jim's mother.

  4. I was a hex&counter wargame junkie too. When the S&T magazine arrived every couple of months I was in heaven. Squad Leader, Third Reich and Great Battles of the ACW were big. Later I liked many of the things Victory Games came out with--Ambush, Fleets, NATO... Now they're all gathering dust in the garage (to my better-half's ongoing chagrin)

    Spring Training must have been great. I'm glad the Mariners are FINALLY doing the things you need to do to build a competitive team. There's just so much digging out to do in the wake of Bavasi. Maybe this year we will find out if we have the nucleus of something, or just a bunch of overhyped rookies...


  5. I got to see Jesus Montero play twice. He made a laser-like throw to catch a basestealer who had a good jump off first, which was impressive since he doesn't have a rep as a great defensive backstop. And he belted a long home run to right center, too. All Justin Smoak did was hit the ball HARD every time I watched him bat; I think he is in for a big year. And Kyle Seager also did a lot of good hitting. The team is young, and they have potential. I think they're the real deal.