Monday, November 24, 2014

Civ: Beyond Earth, Chuckit!

Hello! Thanks for dropping by. My apologies for a dry spell between posts—I have been insanely busy with a Secret Project the last few weeks. Finding time to ruminate on things (in what I hope you find to be an entertaining or enlightening manner) can be tough when deadlines are shouting and stomping their feet. Anyway, read on for this week’s edition of my blog on gaming, politics, and the finer things in life.

Gaming: Over the last few years, my biggest personal time-waster has been Civilization. Today I’m going to reflect on Civilization: Beyond Earth (hereafter abbreviated Civ:BE). I buy each new entry in the Civilization series pretty much without question, and I’m a sucker for the downloadable content and the expansion packs too. When the game starts feeling a little stale, I go cruising for interesting mods. So overall, I play a LOT of Civ, and I do crazy things like “make sure I play as every country,” and “make sure I win in each possible victory type,” and sometimes even “make sure I win every possible victory with each country.”

Civilization: Beyond Earth takes the skeleton of Civilization 5 and continues on from where Civ 5 leaves off (if you win through the space race, anyway). Your “nation” is now a fledgling colony established on an extrasolar planet. You have a whole new world to tame, filled with strange new types of terrain and dangerous aliens (they replace the barbarians who trouble you in the early turns of the Civ 5 game). If you’re a longtime fan of the Civ franchise, this may sound familiar—conceptually, Civ:BE is very much like Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri game from 1999.

Since there are dozens of real reviews you can find online, I’m just going to point out some things I like and don’t like about the new Civ:BE. First, the positives:

  • Pretty. The graphics and animations are really nice. I love watching my worker units build stuff. And I freaked a little the first time I saw the parts of a siege worm that are normally underground.
  • Quests. Civ:BE introduces a robust little quest system. The quests let you decide which bonuses your key buildings provide and provide you with fun little opportunities for making storytelling decisions about your colony. (I did hit a buggy quest with Cultural Burden, though. The FAIL icon mocked me throughout the game.)
  • New Resources. It feels like there is something interesting going on in almost every tile. The resources are very alien-planet mysterious and pay off huge with the right tile improvements.
  • Explorers. Civ:BE basically combines the Scout and Archaeologist units from Civ 5 into one piece. I love these little guys. There’s a mod out to make them more useful in the late game, but I haven’t tried it out yet.
  • Victory Steps. Six types of victory are possible, and each (other than conquer the world) comes with a quest chain of techs to develop, things to build, and special events that happen while you’re driving for the win. It adds a lot of great SF narrative to the endgame.

And a couple of things I am not so crazy about:

  • No Luxury Goods. All special resources appear to be strategic. I miss the luxury goods from Civ 5. First off, it was always handy to manage happiness by getting your hands on new luxuries. Second, the luxury goods drove a *lot* of trade with NPC leaders. I feel like there is nothing I want from the Civ:BE NPC leaders.
  • Technobabble. It’s a sci-fi theme, so of course a lot of the technologies, buildings, and wonders are things we haven’t invented yet. But I found a lot of the names and descriptions pretty unconvincing. What’s the difference between a cytonursery and a xenonursery? A node bank and a network? I don’t know what I’m building, I just know it’s +2 Science.
  • Tough Aliens. It’s a bad strategy to fight the aliens. They’re a LOT tougher than your early units and they outnumber you. I guess it’s okay for the game to tell players chasing the Harmony alignment to make nice with ET, but I wish that some game conditions made it a good choice to interact differently with the aliens. I don’t like it when you need to play something the same way each time.

There are a number of other changes as compared to Civ 5 that I could dwell on—for example, the new “orbital layer” on the map, customizing your faction right at the start, more espionage options, no Great People—but those are things I don’t really like or dislike, they’re just different.

Anyway, Civilization: Beyond Earth is overall a very handsome game, and introduces things I would like to see in the civ franchise going forward. I think I would like it better if it took the interesting new twists on gameplay (quests, for instance) and used them to build a “classic” Civ game with historical nations and buildings—I feel a lot more engaged by building Libraries and Knights and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. But, I suppose that would make it Civ 6. In the meantime, I’ll play the heck out of Beyond Earth for a while.

The Finer Things: Chuckit! and playing fetch with my dogs. The Chuckit! is basically an atl-atl for tennis balls. It is amazing how much more leverage you get on a throw. I think I can throw a tennis ball 70 or 80 yards with the Chuckit!, which is a problem since I have a 30-yard back yard. Oh, and if you do really want to heave the ball, make sure the dog is looking when you throw it. More than once Boomer looked away just at the instant I flung the ball 70 yards down the beach, and he had no idea the ball was no longer with me. Led to some long walks to get the ball and throw it again when he was looking.

Monday, October 6, 2014

My Take on Awesome Mix Vol 2

Welcome! This week, I think I’m going to devote some wordage to a puzzle that has been troubling me for the better part of two months now. At odd moments I find my mind turning to this conundrum over and over again, demanding my attention no matter what I’m doing—running errands, puttering around the house, exercising, or even when I’m trying to work. The question is simply this:

Which songs deserve to be included in Awesome Mix Vol 2?

If you are so culturally unaware that I have to explain this to you, well, Awesome Mix Vol 1 was essentially the soundtrack for the recent movie Guardians of the Galaxy. It was a cassette tape of songs that the hero, Peter Quill, carried around and listened to on a Sony Walkman or played in a cassette player in his starship. It was loaded with a mix of early ‘70s one-hit wonders, Motown, rock classics, and a couple of just goofy old hits that, frankly, were a complete blast. Thousands upon thousands of people have rediscovered these songs on iTunes thanks to this movie. And, best of all, we discover that there is indeed an Awesome Mix Vol 2 – and we don’t know what might be on it.

The Rules: Spoiler Alert!
I’m now going to explain what we know about The Rules for Awesome Mix Vol 2, and I can’t do it without spilling a few spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’ve been warned.

We can learn a lot from a careful watching of GotG and some consideration of what’s on Volume One. First, Peter Quill’s mother made the tape for him. It includes the songs she loved when she was a teenager. Everything in Vol 1 was released between 1969 and 1976, with one outlier: “Escape (the Pina Colada Song),” from 1979. So, we want to stay in the same time range. While there were some gigantic acts going in the early 70s—the Rolling Stones, the Who, Wings, Zeppelin, etc.—we’re not really looking for the biggest hits or the most recognizable names from the target era. We want to focus on one-hit wonders, B sides, and things that are just a little bit goofy. And of course we want recognizable tunes with extreme earworm potential—there is a reason “Hooked on a Feeling” was used in all the movie trailers.

Finally, we know that “Ain’t No Mountain” and “I Want You Back” are already on the tape. Cassette tapes of the day couldn’t hold more than a dozen songs, so we only need to add ten more. Accordingly, here are my nominations for Awesome Mix Vol 2. I guess we’ll find out how close I got when Guardians of the Galaxy 2 comes out! This is going to be fun.

“Long Cool Woman” (1972), the Hollies. The opening guitar riff is pretty darn ear-wormish, and the Hollies are exactly the right amount of famous. They only had a couple of big hits, but those were really darned good.

“Right Place, Wrong Time” (1973), Dr. John. If you can’t find a moment in a Guardians of the Galaxy story when Starlord is in exactly the kind of trouble this song suggests, you’re just not trying.

“Dancing in the Moonlight” (1973), King Harvest. Goofy, mellow, almost totally forgotten now. It’s my “Escape,” but it’s dead-center in the time range. It should be choreographed to an intense fight scene for the same delightfully inappropriate contrast.

“Bang a Gong” (1972), T Rex. This one is sort of like “Spirit in the Sky” in Volume One – a great rock tune everybody knows from a band that just didn’t record a lot of songs that got air time.

“Make It With You” (1970), Bread. We know Quill enjoys the let’s-get-it-on ballads; it’s hard to find one that does it more earnestly than this one. And, so, so, so ‘70s.

“Some Kind of Wonderful” (1975), Grand Funk Railroad. A first-class earworm, and the gospel-like refrain of “Can I get a witness?” catches just a bit of those Motown overtones I think Mama Quill grooved on.

“You Sexy Thing” (1976), Hot Chocolate.  Sort of like “Come and Get Your Love” in the first movie; it’s a super-recognizable opening, demands some serious dancing, and really captures Starlord’s love of all the galactic ladies.

“Panic in Detroit” (1973), David Bowie. We know Quill’s mom was a Bowie fan thanks to “Moonage Daydream” on Vol 1. In my opinion, that’s the best track from Ziggy Stardust—great stuff. So, we’ll move one Bowie album over to Aladdin Sane (boy, could Bowie do album titles – a lad insane, get it?) and scoop the best track off that one. “Panic in Detroit” rocks. Might be a personal favorite I’m giving too much love to, but hey, it’s my list.

“It’s Your Thing” (1969), the Isley Brothers. So we’ve got a traveling group of roguish galactic misfits determined to do things their way; find me a song that better expresses being your own person.

“No More Mr. Nice Guy” (1973), Alice Cooper. We know that Quill’s mother had a little bit of a bad girl streak in her music taste. If you were a teenager in the early ‘70s and you wanted to drive your parents crazy, I think there were two artists you listened to: David Bowie and Alice Cooper. Strong opening riff, and it just screams out for use in a soundtrack.

“Papa Was a Rolling Stone” (1972), the Temptations. We need some more Motown to round out the list. There is some absolutely outstanding Marvin Gaye stuff from this era, but I think Marvin Gaye is too big. The Temptations were fading from perennial chart-toppers by this time, so I think we can slip it in. And, given the mystery of Peter Quill’s parentage, it sure seems appropriate, doesn’t it?

I could put together a pretty good Awesome Mix Vol 3 from the songs I thought about including but didn’t. “Superstar” by the Carpenters or “December 1963” by the Four Seasons would have hit that 1970s vibe pretty well. No doubt my choices won’t match yours – but I maintain that this would be a pretty good selection for the further adventures of Starlord and his crew.

Monday, September 8, 2014

What Was Your First Book?

Hi, folks! Just one topic this week: How I got started as a writer. The question arose because I was driving around with my daughter today, and she asked, “What was the first book you wrote?”
I realized that it’s actually a complicated question. Is it the one I actually wrote first? The first one I sold? Or the first book to actually be printed and distributed? Those are three different answers. So, here’s the story!

I wrote a handful of short stories in college, mostly for creative writing classes. The first novel I wrote was an epic fantasy called Kingslayer, which I started in the fall of 1988 (shortly after I graduated college). As a longtime devourer of all things fantasy and sci-fi, I felt that I could write the sort of books I liked to read, so with the confidence of youth I set about it.  I was an ensign in the Navy at the time, and I made writing my book into my hobby. When I finished it, I sent it off to a literary agency that charged me $600 to read it. (I was pretty wet behind the ears and back before the internet it was harder to figure out how to start doing things.) They said they saw potential, but declined to represent me and suggested that rather than trying to rework the story, I ought to set it aside and try something new. With some reluctance, I set aside the book—although a year later I showed it to Jim Ward at TSR during my job interview to prove that I could write a lot of words and see things through. I never asked Jim if that was a difference-maker in my hiring or not, but I did wind up with the job!

Working as a designer at TSR, I soon learned that the Book Department occasionally opened up novel auditions to the R&D types. I took a shot or two at various opportunities that came around, but no luck. Then, in 1993, I got a chance to design a whole new D&D world – Cerilia, the world of the Birthright campaign setting. I pestered the Book Department for months about writing a novel to go with the RPG release. They passed me up, going with Simon Hawke instead. But a few months later, Brian Thomsen (managing editor of TSR's Book Department) decided to give me a shot. I got a contract, and I knocked out my first professional novel: The Falcon and the Wolf.

That turned out okay, so TSR’s Books team gave me a second Birthright novel: The Shadow Stone. That turned out quite well, in my humble opinion: On my third try, I think I wrote a pretty good book. By the middle of 1996, things were looking up for my writing career. I had two books in the pipeline for publication, and I was hungry for more.

Then TSR stopped printing things. I mean, everything. The entire production line of games and books was put on hold as the company’s difficulties deepened into a complete death spiral. Months went by, and neither of my Birthright books saw print. If you’re acquainted with the history of the gaming hobby, you know that Wizards of the Coast (working through Ryan Dancey and Five Rings Publishing) purchased TSR. In the spring of 1997, many business meetings were held, and the fate of TSR’s various lines and properties was determined. The first few books in the Birthright book line hadn’t done well, so the decision was made to kill the line outright, with both my novels still waiting to be printed. To put it another way: My first two novels, complete and ready for printing, were canceled in the same meeting.

(Brian Thomsen did something damned decent then—he excused himself from that meeting, and came and told me in person so that I wouldn’t hear of it through the rumor mill.)

So, by the summer of 1997, I’d finished up something like 400,000 words of novels, and I had nothing but two small kill fees to show for it. I was getting kind of discouraged.

Later that year I moved out to the Seattle area with a bunch of the other TSR creative types, and I went to work for Wizards of the Coast. A few months later, Peter Archer (my editor from The Shadow Stone) approached me with another opportunity: The Double Diamond Triangle Saga, a group of nine novellas modeled after Stephen King’s Green Mile “chapbooks.” They needed someone to write book #8, Easy Betrayals. So I immersed myself in the story materials they’d put together up to that point, and knocked out the novella Easy Betrayals. That ended up becoming my first published novel, debuting in 1998.

After Easy Betrayals, Peter Archer suggested taking The Shadow Stone and converting it to a Forgotten Realms novel. It required a top-to-bottom rewrite and a ton of work to make it a Realms book, but I wound up with a decent Realms novel. From there I got a chance to do a book for the Alternity science-fiction line: Zero Point, published in 1999. (Zero Point remains my only sci-fi book; I mean to do something about that soon.) Then I got a chance to return to the Forgotten Realms with City of Ravens. That was an odd duck, because the Book team was obligated for some reason or another to set a novel in Raven’s Bluff, the home of the RPGA’s Living City campaign. Creating a story that fit in such a densely detailed locale and touched on the major storylines of the campaign was pretty challenging, but it worked: City of Ravens is one of my best.

Following City of Ravens, I got the opportunity to join in R.A. Salvatore’s War of the Spider Queen. My contribution was Condemnation, the third book in the series—and (just barely) a New York Times bestseller in 2003. That led to The Last Mythal trilogy, and then the Blades of the Moonsea trilogy. Finally, I returned to Raven’s Bluff and the roguish Jack Ravenwild in 2012 with my novel Prince of Ravens. To my intense disappointment, Wizards of the Coast elected to publish that only as an e-book; their publishing business was in disarray at the time, and they didn’t know what to do with the book.

On the bright side, I’ve got a new book I’m looking to sell in now, and a start on the book that will come after that one. It’s a strange business and it is very far from stable… but I guess I’m still in the game. So that’s the story of how my writing career has unfolded so far!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Returning from a Long Absence

Hi, folks –

I know, I know, it’s been a long time. Over the last four months or so I have been as busy as I have been in many years, and things like keeping up with a casual blog just haven’t been on my radar lately. On the bright side, I am now emerging from the worst of my crunch, and I can maybe start to catch up with the many things I’ve been putting to the side since April.

So, what’s been keeping me busy? The first thing was the Primeval Thule Campaign Setting, which debuted at GenCon. As you might know, last year I started up Sasquatch Game Studio, a small game publishing company, with my friends (and former WotC colleagues) Dave Noonan and Steve Schubert. After many months of nonstop effort, we managed to get Thule printed in time to bring copies of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game version to GenCon. Other versions of the book will follow in a few months; the main print run is on the presses in China, and it will take a while for the books to find their way back here to the States. Primeval Thule looks terrific, and I couldn’t be happier with how the book has turned out. If you’re interested in a copy, PDFs should be available on DriveThruRPG quite soon (they could go live at any time), and we’ll have a small number of books available for distribution shortly.

The second big project was prepping a decent prototype for a new boardgame I’m working on. It’s called Ultimate Scheme, and it should be appearing on Kickstarter around the end of the year (we need to make sure we fulfill all the Thule Kickstarter promises first). Ultimate Scheme is a game of world domination in which you play the part of a mad scientist, evil genius, or sinister society and do your best to pull off a string of nefarious plots such as hijacking a nuclear submarine, building a freeze ray, stealing the crown jewels, marketing evil soda, or creating a dance craze. We brought our prototype to GenCon and showed it off in the First Exposure Playtest Hall, and we also hosted a few games for our excellent Thule backers. So far, it seems like it’s working and it seems like it’s fun, so me and the other Sasquatches are looking to publish Ultimate Scheme next year. It should be a blast!
Finally, the third big project was going to GenCon as an exhibitor for the first time. I went as part of the big TSR and WotC contingents many times over the years, but this time, the Sasquatches and I had a booth of our own. (Well, we shared a booth with Wolfgang Baur and the excellent crew at Kobold Press.)  We learned a lot about what we’ll need to do to make a bigger splash next year, when we’ll have half a dozen different products to sell and a booth of our own.
I’ve got a couple of other secret projects I can’t say much about right now. More on those as soon as I can say something! For now, suffice it to say that I wrote a *lot* of words over the last four months, which made the rollout of Thule and Ultimate Scheme  and the preps for GenCon as challenging a stretch as I can recall in my professional career. Now it’s time to get back to some of the writing I shelved for the last few months and finish up some important projects I just couldn’t find time for. It’s good to be busy, but this spring and summer were just nuts!

The Finer Things: I confess, I bought the Awesome Mix from Guardians of the Galaxy. There is some good stuff on that old cassette tape. Come and Get Your Love is so freaking stuck in my head, it hurts.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Lasers, Mi-go, Defense Budgets

Welcome! As usual, I’ve been keeping myself quite busy with a mix of Sasquatch projects and some writing on the side. So, let me share a couple of things that have been occupying my attention lately!

I spent a number of hours just in the last couple of weeks reading everything I could find about spaceship weapons, because I’ve got an idea for a military SF series and I’m starting to get serious about it. I spent days reading about particle beams, lasers, rail guns, mass drivers, and lasers again, trying to develop a real sense of what would work well in the universe I’m imagining. I’m a big fan of David Weber’s Honor Harrington stories, but missiles are the primary weapon in the Honorverse, and I want ship-to-ship combat in my story to feel a little different. So I’m going a little retro and thinking hard about direct-fire weapons. If Weber’s stories capture the tactics and feel of Nelsonian naval combat, I’d like mine to capture some of the tactics and feel of the pre-dreadnought era, like Tsushima or Santiago or Manila Bay. I think I’m leaning toward rail guns at the moment, possibly using molten metal projectiles (there is real-world research going on with this now), but a serious treatment of lasers and the tactics they would imply is fascinating too.
In Thule, we’re making slow progress. Just this week I jiggered the outline a bit to make room for some more monsters: the mi-go, moon-beast, and nightgaunt. Other parts of the campaign setting reference these Cthulhu Mythos creatures, and at first we weren’t going to include stats for them (especially since most are available in Pathfinder already). But on reflection we decided that we had enough unique things to say about these critters in our world, and that it wasn’t really fair to keep name-dropping them without giving the GM the corresponding monster descriptions. I’d like to shoehorn shoggoths in too, but we’ll have to see. Space is tight, and they’re high-level monsters that might not see a lot of play.

Anyway, things are progressing!

Politics/Current Events: Today, I’m going to poke a couple of holes in a bit of common “wisdom” that’s been getting a lot Facebook posts lately: “The United States spends as much on our military budget as the next 15 countries put together.” The first implication, of course, is that we so far outspend any possible rival power that we are in a position of complete military superiority, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is a dinosaur. A second implication is that we could dump 50 percent or more of our defense budget to make room for important social welfare programs, and we would not be less safe than we are right now. If Obamacare costs hundreds of billions more than it was supposed to, well, the defense budget can make up the difference, and the dinosaurs who are worried about Russia or China will just have to grow up.
Well, here’s why the “spend as much as the next 15” viewpoint is dangerously deceptive. First of all, the natural response when you see a number like that is to assume that if X (the US defense budget) is equal to 15 of something else, each of the other things must have a value of about 1/15th of X. The US defense budget in 2013 was about $682B; ergo, every other country in the top 15 spends about $45B, right? That, however, is not remotely correct. The real values at the top (I took these numbers from Wikipedia’s military spending article, which is certainly accurate enough for this discussion) look like this:

1.       United States ($682B)
2.       China ($166B)
3.       Russia ($90.6B)

So, as you can see, our spending is not 15 times greater than China’s, or Russia’s. Our spending is about 4 times greater than China’s, and 7.5 times greater than Russia’s. That seems like a comfortable margin still, but it’s not entirely accurate. Military spending in China and Russia is a lot less transparent than it is in the US, and a dollar of defense spending doesn’t buy the same thing in every country. We get a much more accurate picture when we adjust the numbers for “purchasing power parity” which squares up the different currency values and monetary policies to the same standard. With PPP-adjusted figures, the top spenders actually look like this:
1.       United States ($682B)
2.       China ($249B)
3.       Russia ($116B)

Now we see that our spending vis-à-vis China is not 15 times greater, or 4 times greater, but actually a little more than 2.7 times greater. Still plenty of an edge, you would think. But I’m not so sure. Our spending is spread all around the globe, but China’s is quite concentrated in East Asia. If you assume that current spending is a close correlation for military power (it probably isn’t), maybe half of our $628B is in East Asia, but all of China’s $249B is. Now we’re talking about a regional margin of maybe $314B to $249B, which looks awful close to parity to me. Our ability to stop the PRC from doing something we don’t like in its own neighborhood is far from assured. Likewise with Russia, although I would guess that our “regional budget” in Europe is a lot less than half our total budget since the end of the Cold War.
I also worry that we don’t spend our defense dollars as wisely as our potential adversaries might. I suspect that China gets a lot more “teeth” and a lot less “tail” out of each dollar it spends, whereas we make a lot of Pentagon functionaries very comfortable before we begin to buy anything that goes bang. But that’s beyond the scope of my little rant today. For now, I’ll just finish by saying that if we don’t like the way Russia or China is acting, we’re not likely to deter them by slashing our defense spending.

The Finer Things: Charles Smith Vineyards Velvet Devil Merlot. It’s a nice Washington State blend, 90 percent merlot, 10 percent cabernet-sauvignon. My wife and I discovered it at Ruth’s Chris a couple of months ago while enjoying a rare night on the town. To my surprise, I happened across it at our local Haggen just the other day. For $11, it’s a great bottle of wine.


Thursday, February 27, 2014

Great boardgames, Ukraine, Carmina Burana

Hi, folks! So much for my New Year’s resolution to blog more frequently and keep it more pithy. I actually felt like I was running short on things to say on the gaming front, and as long as I was having a hard time coming up with something, I was dragging my feet about a new post. Anyway, this time around: My favorite boardgames, the Ukraine, and Carmina Burana.

Gaming: When we can’t get a full table at our regular Thursday D&D game, we almost always fall back on a great boardgame or two. One of my secret schemes for Sasquatch is to publish some good, Euro-style games or even some old Avalon Hill-style wargames if we ever get the chance. In fact, I’ve been working on a couple of game designs over the last few weeks that have a lot of promise. Since I’m not ready to say too much more right now about that, I thought I’d tell you about a couple of the games that are the Thursday “backup plan.”

One of our favorites is Mission Red Planet, by Asmodee Games. It came out in 2005, and it’s currently not in print, so it is pretty hard to find. But I picked up a copy at GenCon a few years back, and I’ve played it dozens of times. What you do on your turn is determined by which character you pick—if you choose the Pilot, you get to send 2 astronauts to Mars, and change the destination of a spaceship, but if you play the Femme Fatale, you send 1 astronaut to Mars but you get to change one playing piece on Mars from another player’s faction to yours. The sneaky part of the game is figuring out which of your characters to use when, since you can’t use the same character twice (until you play the character that recharges all your character picks). Plus, the board and the artwork are gorgeous, and have a wonderful steampunk/Age of Exploration vibe to them.

Steve (our usual game host) is a big fan of Lords of Vegas, by Mayfair Games. It’s a little more recent (2010) and definitely more of an American-style game than Mission Red Planet. You compete to buy empty lots in Las Vegas and build the biggest, richest casinos you can. The competition can be pretty cutthroat, since one of the most effective tactics is to force mergers and reorganizations of competing casinos. Protecting yourself against hostile takeovers is key!

The game we play more than any other these days is Lords of Waterdeep. As a Forgotten Realms author and fan, I appreciate the flavor and attention to detail that goes into the game. But even more than feeling like a good Realms intrigue game, Lords of Waterdeep is an outstanding Euro-style worker placement game, with scads of really fun and interesting combo plays—if you can set up a turn engine or cycle that gives you bonus “X” when you do “Y,” it’s pretty sweet. Rodney Thompson and Peter Lee did an amazing job with this one; it’s my personal favorite these days, and will probably remain so for quite some time!

Politics/Current Events: I’ve always had an interest in Russian history, and I’ve been following developments in the Ukraine with some interest over the last few weeks. I can’t say that I’m sorry to see Yanukovych go—by all accounts the regime was extremely corrupt, and he was clearly Putin’s stooge. But it’s not clear to me that the West should be trying to pull Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit. I guess when it comes down to it, I hope the Ukrainians get a chance to decide for themselves where they stand between Moscow and the West, and that it won’t take a civil war (or a Russian invasion) to work that out.

Basically, Ukraine:Russia::Texas:United States. Rather like Texas, Ukraine was a border region that was fought over by its neighbors. Like Texas, it’s home to a peculiarly national culture or icon—the Cossacks are to Russia like cowboys are to the US of A—and it has a tradition of independent statehood at various times in its history. And, like Texas, Ukraine fought against its parent country in a civil war. When we think about what we could or should do in the current Ukrainian crisis, we should ask ourselves how we would feel if Russia was mucking about with Texas secessionists and trying to tell us what to do there. Other than encouraging restraint on all sides, we probably can’t do all that much.

If I had to take a guess on what the likely outcome is... I think it’s bad. Putin has shown that he is not afraid to use force to make sure that former Soviet republics stay in line, especially if there is an ethnic Russian population living under someone else’s government. I think Putin arms Yanukovych to the teeth and turns him loose to conquer the Ukraine and make sure it stays in Moscow’s orbit. Putin controls western Europe’s energy supply, so I doubt the EU will be able to say much about it. And he knows that Obama is a nonfactor. (To be fair, it’s not clear that any US president ought to get between Putin and the Ukraine right now.) To me, that adds up to a mess that we haven’t seen in Europe since the Serbian troubles of the 1990s.

The Finer Things: My daughter performed in her university choir production of “Carmina Burana.” If you’re a fantasy movie geek like I am, you probably know the piece best as “the music from Excalibur when King Arthur was riding through the apple blossoms.” They did an awesome job with O Fortuno, and really knocked it out of the park. Here’s what I never knew before reading the program at the concert: “Carmina Burana” was written by Carl Orff in 1937 and first performed in Frankfurt, Germany. (Apparently the Nazis loved it.) Excalibur came out in 1981, and Orff lived until 1982. Weird, huh? I always thought that it was a much older piece of music.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Top 5 Lunchtime Games at TSR/WotC

One of the awesome things about working at TSR and WotC as long as I did was that I got to play a lot of games. Several times a year we’d set up some game or another as a lunchtime game, leaving them “in play” for a week or two or three of lunch-hour play. As long as you kept up on your deadlines and didn’t stretch the lunch hour too long, it was generally not a problem. David Eckleberry once referred to me as “Julie, your cruise director” because I was one of the principal ringleaders in starting the next lunchtime game, whatever it was. If you ever get the chance to work someplace where you can play your favorite game with good friends every day at your lunch hour, I highly recommend the experience!

Working out of my house these days, I don’t get the chance to indulge the way I used to be able to. But here’s a little look at the top 5 lunchtime games I played across my TSR/WotC career.

5. Blue Max. I was introduced to this excellent little WW1 dogfighting game by GDW back in Lake Geneva. We only played about three or four times, but it was always a ton of fun because we’d get 8 or 10 people at the table at the same time, puttering around and shooting each other down. It’s a plotted movement game, so the fun was figuring out where your opponent would expect you to go, how they would move to clobber you in that spot, and where you could *really* go in order to get them instead. I was fiendishly good at that.  

4. Axis and Allies. We played various iterations of A&A about once or twice a year. Back at TSR it was the classic edition, of course, but at WotC we also played Revised, Europe, Pacific, and the Anniversary Edition. I always liked A&A as a “light” strategy game—perhaps a little cut-and-dried once you learn what the right opening moves are. Over the years I managed to capture every capital from every position, except I’ve never captured England while playing Japan. It’s a long ways!

3. Pursue the Pennant. We had a crew of truly dedicated baseball fans back at TSR, and my friend Bill Connors introduced me to PtP almost as soon as I walked in the door. Thomas Reid, Dale Donovan, Stan Brown, Bill Slavicsek, Dave Wise, Bill Connors, and myself played a *lot* of PtP (and its successor, Dynasty League Baseball) back in the day. The best baseball boardgame ever, in my opinion, and a tight sim that only takes about 40-60 minutes to play. I still remember Dave Wise calling a Jim Gantner homer on me, a 1-in-500 shot. Good grief.

2. Third Reich. When Peter Adkison visited Lake Geneva in the spring of ’97 during WotC’s purchase of TSR, he asked me whether anyone at TSR was a Third Reich fan. As it turned out, I was. So during my first few years at WotC, I wound up playing Third Reich a couple of times a year with guys like Peter, Skaff Elias, William Jockusch, Chris Galvin, Gordon Culp, Mons Johnson, Scott Larabee, Frank Gilson, and Rob Watkins. We started off with Advanced Third Reich, and moved on to GMT’s A World at War. A Third Reich game might take three or four months of lunches! I never had the patience to be really meticulous about attrition on the Eastern front, but I was pretty good at attacking.

1. Empires of the Middle Ages. Our all-time favorite at TSR and WotC. We played the old SPI version a couple of times a year. EotMA is a fascinating exercise in crushed expectations and cascading failure. Things start off poorly, and soon spiral into decades of unrelieved misery. It’s sort of a collective schadenfreude, where the real entertainment is watching castles burn down and sink into the swamp, even when it’s your own castle. I played dozens of times with Steve Winter, Dale Donovan, Jeremy Crawford, Scott Larabee, Jennifer Clarke-Wilkes, Rob Watkins, Jon Pickens, Steve Miller, and many other longtime veterans of TSR and WotC. Empires of the Middle Ages teaches some interesting lessons about playing with what the game gives you—hitting the ball where it’s pitched, so to speak. And because it was so often each individual player against the crushing hopelessness of the game system, it was a cooperative game (of sorts) before cooperative games really became a big thing. There’s nothing quite so disheartening as beginning a game of Empires, drawing your position, and discovering that you have once again drawn Poland. Have a happy century!


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Books That Inspired Me

Hi, folks! I’ve been super-busy with a zillion Thule things, so I’ve been a little lazy about keeping the blog up to date. The good news is that we’re building something really special with Primeval Thule, and I think people are going to be really pleased when they see what we’ve put together. Anyway, now that we’re finally getting the upper hand on our savage and intense world, I’ve made it one of my small New Year’s resolutions to do a better job of keeping up with the blog.

Recently, some of my friends on Facebook posted their 10 most influential or inspirational books. I’ve found myself thinking about what books I would put on my list. I didn’t want to try to cram this into a Facebook post, so I decided to take a few minutes and reflect on the books that have really made an impression on me. These aren’t necessarily the *best* books I’ve ever read, or the most important ones—as much as I would like to tell you that A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or For Whom the Bell Tolls made me a writer, well, sorry, it’s not so. These are the books that fired up my imagination and made me want to write adventure stories.

10. Strange Stories, Amazing Facts: The only nonfiction book on my list, this was actually a Reader’s Digest collection that introduced me to hundreds of legendary monsters, strange events, and unforgettable people—basically, an assortment of Forteana. I think my parents got it as a throw-in for subscribing to the Reader’s Digest condensed books. This is the book where I discovered things like Spring-Heeled Jack, the Mary Celeste, Tunguska, and a hundred other fascinating things. Back before the Internet and Ancient Aliens, this was where I learned about Weird Cool Things.
9. The Road to Science Fiction #2: A great collection of old sci-fi short stories and excerpts from early SF novels that introduced me to writers such as Olaf Stapledon, Jack Williamson, and A.E. van Vogt. My favorite in the collection was A.E. van Vogt’s “Black Destroyer,” although A. Merritt’s “The People of the Pit” is one of the creepiest stories I’ve ever read. I later tipped my cap to Merritt in my Last Mythal series when I sent my characters into the abyss of Lorosfyr.

8. Beau Geste: One of these things is not like the other, I know, I know. Beau Geste is just a great adventure story, and the narrative is masterfully presented through the framing device of Major Beaujolais’ story of the events at Fort Zinderneuf. I just learned that there were sequels—I guess I need to go find ‘em!
7. Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea: When I was only 6 or 7, I had a copy of 20,000 Leagues that I read over and over again. The story was hard for me at that age and I didn’t understand it all, but through sheer repetition I managed to soak up most of it.

6. A Wizard of Earthsea: Before Harry Potter, there was another story about a talented boy who went off to a wondrous school of wizardry and learned amazing things. I feel that Earthsea is one of the finest bits of fantasy worldbuilding ever done, second only to Middle Earth.
5. The Doom that Came to Sarnath and Other Tales: This was the first collection of HP Lovecraft stories I read. I came by it in high school, and went on to read just about every Lovecraft story I could track down. For Christmas my daughter gave me a complete collection of Lovecraft’s stories, so I can stop playing the crazy game of buying anthologies for that *one* story I don’t have anywhere else.

4. The Hunt for Red October: Tom Clancy’s first, and his best. I’ve always enjoyed a good thriller, and Red October is a great example of the genre—plus, the naval theme always had a special appeal to me. I really liked Red Storm Rising, too, one of the best WW3 books around, and still a damn fine read.
3. Starship Troopers: The best Robert Heinlein story in my opinion. First off, it’s a great action story. Second, this is the book that gave us our notions of powered armor and space marines. But more importantly, the thoughtful exploration of the rights and costs of citizenship and military service affected me deeply. I know people who seem to think that Heinlein was a fascist because of this book, which amazes me—that’s the same guy who wrote Stranger in a Strange Land, after all. What they don’t realize is that Heinlein was asking a very important question, one that we would all do well to consider from time to time: What do we have to do to earn our right to participate in our democracy? Throughout human history, the vast majority of people have *not* enjoyed the ability to have a say in how they are governed. Maybe we should appreciate it more.

2. Galactic Patrol: When I was 11 or 12, I found a copy of Galactic Patrol on the shelves of my local library. It didn’t take me long to tear through the adventures of Kimbal Kinnison, Lensman and commander of the Galactic Patrol cruiser Dauntless. I went and read through the rest of the series as fast as I could find them. No one has ever outdone E.E. “Doc” Smith in sheer scale: A war lasting billions of years, fleets of millions of ships, a cosmic confrontation against a galaxy-spanning anti-civilization. I don’t know if Doc Smith invented the idea of “the so-and-sos are working for the other guys who are a secret front for the Big Bad,” but boy did he do it better than anybody.
1. The Lord of the Rings: I suspect this is at the top of a lot of lists like this. I know Middle Earth better than some towns I’ve lived in. I could go on and on about what I love about LoTR, but I don’t think I need to convince anybody why it’s great. Not only is it a personal favorite, it’s been the foundation of my career for the last twenty-three years—modern fantasy and RPGs wouldn’t exist without Tolkien’s work. It’s hard to imagine what I would have done with my life if Bilbo hadn’t found the One Ring in the goblin tunnels. Strange to think that an imaginary place should exert such a real influence not only on myself, but on so many other people too!

I’m already thinking about great books I left off the list—Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson, Tarzan of the Apes, and so on, and so on—but I guess I’ll leave it at that. If you haven’t read one or two of these, maybe my list will inspire you to try it out!