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!