Recent Work – 29 November 2015

When I went to Blizzcon this year, I had an odd and fun assignment: I wasn’t supposed to do any game previews or news posts. Instead, my job was to focus both on what it was like to be there, and what it represented as a cultural event.

It wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. Greater freedom is actually harder to deal with as a writer, especially now that I’ve written up so many short interview features in which a developer explains a new feature for an upcoming game. Being given a free hand to do something else can induce a bit of paralysis… especially when every Blizzard person I met was there to talk about a new feature for an upcoming game.

Still, I tried to capture two important moments from the event: the first was the opening keynote and the crowd gathered for it, which marked a stark departure from other Blizzcons I’ve attended. Blizzard always seemed to be speaking to me and gamers of my generation, reminding us of the glory days of Warcraft and Diablo while promising more of “the same but better” in the future. This year, I realized that Blizzard were aiming their pitch at fans of a decidedly more recent vintage, and those fans have different reference points than I have.

The other moment, and this was probably the highlight of my Blizzcon, was the StarCraft final between Life and sOs. I tried to break down both their games, and also why the meeting of these two players in particular was an important and redeeming moment for StarCraft and the flawed Heart of the Swarm expansion.

Overall, however, this has been a quiet week due to the holiday. The most momentous thing to happen was that Three Moves Ahead broke $1000-per-month on Patreon, which is a huge source of pride and relief this time of year.

I’ve been on break since Wednesday morning and this is the first day where I’m really trying to get back in the swing of things. I did have one bit of good news this week: despite a slip and fall last week, my leg is healing quite well and I may be off crutches a couple weeks earlier than I thought. I can’t wait: while I’ve been slightly pampered lately, and a friend dropped by with a small feast to take some cooking pressure of MK, I’m officially getting a bit stir-crazy. So even if it means a return to housekeeping, I can’t wait to get back on both feet.



A Month on Patreon and Giving Thanks

This week, we hit the one-month mark on the Three Moves Ahead Patreon. We’re off to a good start: about 150 listeners have put up almost a thousand dollars a month for 3MA, which is a pretty amazing vote of confidence and a sign of how much the show’s audience has grown in the last few years.

Patreon was something Troy, Bruce, Michael, and myself put a lot of thought into over the past several months. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some hesitation. But there’s no getting around the fact that the time the show demands increased significantly over the past couple years.

I think that’s been time well-spent. Looking at the recent history of Three Moves Ahead, I’m not sure the show has had a better run than what we’ve been doing over the past eight or nine months.

We’ve had a great mix of guests and topics, covering everything from the overall state of the 4X genre with Austin Walker, to examining the strange and unique magic of the new Nobunaga’s Ambition with Nicholas Vining from Gaslamp Games.

Bruce has contributed a terrific series of interviews with board wargame designers that explore some interesting corners of strategy gaming.

I think you can hear we’re having more fun doing the show these days, too. Some of my favorite episodes have been the ones that were practically thrown-together. Troy and I can find a good conversation about just about anything and everything: I think one of my biggest surprises as a game and as a topic was Total War: Attila.

Our expanded pool of regulars have also made the show a lot more enjoyable to record, like with our discussion of how developers go about fixing and saving fallen franchises, where our friends Rowan Kaiser and Fraser Brown contributed to a great discussion that feels both relaxed and insightful. It’s one of those shows where eventually I just forgot we were recording, it felt so natural.

So as we begin the Patreon-supported era of 3MA, I’ve never been more confident that we’re producing something that’s worthy of our fans and their support.

But I don’t think we could keep up that level of quality and commitment without some income from the show. I know I couldn’t: I’m having to spend more time on freelance work this year, and unfortunately, that work is becoming less and less tied to strategy games. Even though I’m always happy to put my spare time into this podcast, the brutal truth is that there’s less and less “spare time” to go around.

So for me, this Patreon represents time and stability. That translates to more hours each month that I can put into playing a strategy game, or booking special guests, or planning special events. 3MA makes me as proud as anything else I might do, and I’d love for more of my working life to be spent on something so personally satisfying, that reaches so many people.

For the first time, we’re able to compensate our producer Michael Hermes for the hours he’s put into producing the last couple hundred episodes of 3MA. I like to think we’ve gotten pretty good at giving him good source material, but there have been a lot of times we’ve basically dumped at his feet a pile of random audio recordings full of background noise and said, “Fix this.” Even when everything goes right, he’s working in the background to smooth out all our rough edges.

We’ll finally be able to just buy new games outright without worrying whether we’ll get PR help. Hopefully, we’ll be able to put together enough extra cash to maybe meet up for a boardgaming weekend and generate some cool show topics, or host fan meetups around convention season.

Since it’s Thanksgiving time, I should also mention that the Patreon already represents a huge source of relief and peace of mind for me personally. Especially this month, where I had ankle surgery and have had to reduce my workload quite sharply around my recovery. Losing a week or so of work would have been a hard blow, except that Three Moves Ahead listeners have had my back.

This Patreon lifts real, meaningful burdens from off of my shoulders. Last 3MA brought in enough to pay for my insurance. This month, it might even manage to cover the extra costs of my surgery. I can’t even begin to tell you what a relief that is.

At a time when ordinarily I’d be scrambling to do extra work to make up for lost time, I’m able to relax, focus on games like Chaos Reborn and Prison Architect, and maybe enjoy an actual holiday break. That’s an incredible gift to get from our listeners. Patreon backers have taken a lot of worries off my mind and let me focus on being creative with the show. For that, I’m incredibly grateful.

In the end, I hope this Patreon is a foundation from which Three Moves Ahead to grow into something even better, reaching more people. I think we’re better than we’ve ever, and with help from our listeners, I’m excited for where we’ll go next. In the meantime, I hope you’ll keep listening and keep supporting Three Moves Ahead.

Recent Work – 22 November 2015

It’s funny to see how my feelings have evolved toward StarCraft 2 over the years. When it came out, I was almost obnoxiously contrarian in my skepticism. I thought it was old-fashioned and frustrating, ignoring pretty much every innovation in RTS games that had occurred since Brood War. We were sharply critical of it on Three Moves Ahead at the time.

Cut to this week, in which I reviewed Legacy of the Void for IGN and absolutely loved it. Part of me is troubled by the inconsistency. It’s still the same game at heart, right, so have I just stopped questioning it on anything other than its own terms? Or does Legacy of the Void represent a successful evolution and expansion into something greater than existed before? I think it’s the latter, but part of me still worries that this review is as much about Stockholm Syndrome as it is about Legacy of the Void.

Outside of StarCraft, it’s been a busy time of late. We launched a Three Moves Ahead Patreon to help support the show and give us a little more time to work on it. Plus, I just had surgery on my left ankle to take care of a bone spur that was cutting into my Achilles tendon, so I’m back on crutches for the first time since I played high school football. I did a lot of work in the weeks leading up to it, knowing I’d be off the board for a while, so let’s take a look at the best stuff I’ve done lately.


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Recent Work — 7 September 2015

Don’t be fooled by the fairly short list of things that I’ve been working on of late. The last week was a marathon sprint through a bunch of upcoming stories, but you’ll have to wait a little bit longer to read them. However, my review of Eugen Systems’ Act of Aggression did go up on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, so you can go read that right now.

It’s tough to review a game like Act of Aggression, both because it’s an incredibly difficult game with which to come to grips, but also because I came to it with a ton of expectations and hopes based on the developer’s recent output. This happens a lot, but it’s always a difficult thing to correct for, because I am constantly asking whether I’m reacting based on what I’m seeing and experiencing, or based on the gap between that and what I expected to see.

With Act of Aggression, it took me a long time to start meeting the game on its own terms. That has its own dangers: knowing that my opinion might be shaded by disappointment, I probably err on the side of being forgiving. A lot of my friends, I think, are more frustrated by Act of Aggression than I am. Even so, it’s a game that I am continuing to play and learn long after the review has been filed. It doesn’t make itself easy to enjoy, but it does start paying off if you’re willing to put in the hours to tease apart its overall design and how it wants you to play it.

The same could be said for a lot of RTS games, which is why I’m increasingly worried about the genre as a whole. The problem is that RTS games are uniquely miserable when you’re not good at playing them. I remember, when  he was trying to get a Kickstarter project off the ground, Chris Taylor (who designed Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander) remarked that he felt like RTS developers were constantly misreading the audience. When stats are available, most people play RTS games for the campaign, or they skirmish against the AI. Few spend a lot of time playing ranked games on a ladder. Yet RTS developers, Taylor said, always looked at that trend  and said to the audience, “We hear you! Here’s your hardcore competitive RTS.”

I like RTS games, but this is a hard problem to solve. I think Eugen have come closer to solving it with earlier games than they have with Act of Aggression. That’s why it was so frustrating to see Act of Aggression be so defiantly old-fashioned and cryptic. This is the first Eugen game I’ve played where my friends started bailing on our multiplayer sessions after just one game. I stuck around because it was my job. But for most people, why is this a journey worth taking? RTS developers need to start offering better answers than a hand-wave in the direction of skill and mastery.


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Recent Work – 23 August 2015

Some people have asked me where the hell they can find all the stuff I’m working on and the answer is, or is supposed to be, this blog. But that only works if I update it.

I think one of the things this entire blog unwittingly demonstrates is what happens when you become a working writer and the job becomes less of a pastime and more of a career. Five years ago I saved every link to every article I published. But for the last couple years, I’ve been cranking out so much work that there scarcely seemed time to document it all, and I certainly stopped feeling like every story was a special snowflake the deserved to be memorialized. Especially when I was pulling gaming news shifts, and 1/4 of what I wrote was notes on trailers and patches.

That’s also a warning sign, of course. When you’re forgetting about half of what you’ve done within minutes of doing it, it’s probably time to shift gears. I’ve gotten away from news writing and am focusing more on feature work, which is both more interesting and pays better.

The downside is that a lot more of my life is spent transcribing now. There are services for this, of course, but unfortunately I find it’s in the act of transcribing that I really get a handle on an interview and how it should be used. I wish my brain worked differently, but there you have it. On the other hand, there is a sort of meditative pleasantness in transcription. It’s the writing equivalent of long-haul driving. You just point the car down the road and zone out while miles and miles of blacktop whiz past. With transcription, you just fly through the audio and at the end you’ve got 5,000 words of text to use for a 2,000 word article, and your job just got a lot easier.

Anyway, this is a sampling of what I’ve been up to lately. This isn’t quite everything I’ve done in the last month or so, but it’s close. These are all my major stories, as well as the podcasts I’ve done lately.

The big news is the launch of Esports Today, a podcast I co-host with Andrew Groen that’s aimed at people who like esports but struggle to follow them. When I got into esports coverage, it was a constant struggle to stay on top of  events, and it’s only gotten harder. There are more games to follow these days, but the coverage that’s aimed at esports fans tends to be a little too obsessed with inside-baseball. It’s pitched at people who don’t need to hear news because they already know all the news.

Esports Today gets away from that. We do a tight, half-hour show every week covering most of the major events and stories in professional gaming, with enough to context to get you up to speed and ready for the next event. It’s probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever worked on, thanks in large part to Andrew, the gang at Idle Thumbs, and our producer Michael Hermes.  I’d love it if you checked it out over at Esports.Today

Beyond that, I’m taking a sort-of, kind-of vacation at my friend Julian Murdoch’s. Just a week of living according to my own rhythms and enjoying things like quiet time, reading, and games with friends. It’s hard to get real breaks as a freelancer, but at least this once I’ve managed to get a few days off. Come Monday, I’m still on break, but the late nights and treating beer with chips and salsa like a meal replacement is going to end as I get back to the slightly healthier habits of my regular schedule and life in Cambridge.


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Book Review – Mark Thompson’s The White War

I never thought much about Italy’s experience in the First World War. What I knew about it was an offhand remark from the narrator of The Sun Also Rises, who was emasculated on “a joke front like the Italian”. I knew Erwin Rommel had first come to glory there, putting into practice the theories of warfare that would drive German success early in World War Two, at a time before those theories had even crystallized. And I knew that Italy performed in-line with jokes about its military incompetence..

But it turns out there is a remarkable and important story to be told about the Italian front. I only happened on it by chance in the remaindered section of the Harvard Bookstore, where I picked up a copy of Mark Thompson’s The White War for $5, after it had likely sat ignored on the history shelves in the same way that “history buffs” like me tend to ignore its subject matter.

In the main, Thompson’s book fulfills its most important obligation: it tells an interesting and unfamiliar story, and it tells it very well. The White War is stocked with scarcely believable characters, like the proto-Fascist poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, who styled himself as the poet laureate of the Italian right and was basically allowed to treat the battlefield as a kind of muse-for-hire. One day he is seen giving pep talks to headquarters staff, the next he is flying over Austrian lines, dropping propaganda leaflets. The next time he pops up, he is arranging some kind of absurd raid to capture a distant castle and raise the Italian flag over its ramparts, thereby boosting morale across the entire front.

In a way, a character like D’Annunzio is laughable, and stereotypically Italian. Look at him bluster, look at his vainglory. Look at this failure.

But the horror of Thompson’s book is that millions of men and women were caught up in this joke, and at the mercy of the pure viciousness that lay behind the strutting vainglory. As the Italian raid on the Austrian castle fell apart at a river crossing, under heavy Austrian fire, stranded Italian troops began advancing toward the Austrians to surrender. D’Annunzio, watching from across the river, was disgusted by their “cowardice” and orders the artillery to execute a fire mission against the Italian “traitors”. And such was the poet’s power in this Italian army that the batteries did indeed open fire and on the victims of D’Annunzio’s own folly.

But all that pales next to the character of Luigi Cadorna, a general whose name I had never heard prior to this book.

Discovering Cadorna and his place in the annals of history’s worst commanders is like discovering there is an extra planet in the solar system that nobody ever mentions. He’s so profoundly awful, as a general and as a human being, that the mind reels.

In fact, The White War warms to its task as Thompson really begins dissecting Cadorna’s record, and shifts focus from the front lines to the rear echelons and headquarters. Cadorna revealed himself to be an ineffectual martinet in the opening stages of the war, as he squandered massive opportunities and then, for good measure, squandered immense numbers of lives trying to crack impregnable Austrian positions across the Alps. Yet he was so arrogant, and so coddled by an Italian government that feared his prestige, that he was neither shaken by his failures nor fearful of their consequences.

But as the war dragged on, Cadorna’s lack of accountability and belief in iron discipline began going to darker and darker places, and Thompson follows right along. Cadorna, so contemptuous of the soldiers he was charged with leading, became convinced that Italian setbacks were due to poor morale, poor discipline, and outright cowardice.

His solution, at first, was limited to trying to remake the Italian soldiery in his image: ascetic, hard-working, and fanatically dedicated to duty. Soldiers barely received any leave and, on the rare occasions their units were rotated off the front lines, they were sent not for R&R but for hard-labor behind the lines, lest they become soft. The theory was that soldiers should greet their return to the front with zeal and relief, and go about each day without a thought of home and peacetime pursuits.

But as years of hopeless slaughter took their toll (Thompson’s descriptions of combat along the varied and universally forbidding terrain of the Austro-Italian border are frequently jaw-dropping, like when he describes Italian “lines” where soldiers were living in tents anchored to cliff faces), the Italian troops became increasingly hopeless and their performance seemingly declined. There were more instances of indiscipline and routing.

Cadorna escalated matters, taking a “the beatings will continue until morale improves” approach, instituting an entirely extralegal regime of summary executions for all manner of infractions, to be pursued at the discretion of officers in the field. Courts martial, he decided, were too lenient for the weak, slovenly Italian army. He openly called it a policy of decimation.

The incidents Thompson brings to light are shocking. Cadorna is a real-life version of General Broulard in Paths of Glory, only far worse than even Stanley Kubrick could plausibly make out. Under his regime, subordinate commanders began looking for reasons to execute soldiers, so that they could demonstrate their fealty and zeal to the generalissimo’s vision.

In one gut-twisting example, Italy’s Ravenna Brigade “mutinies” when it discovers it is being sent back to the line after only a short respite. A few drunk soldiers fire guns in the air, and many soldiers refuse to go. Then the assistant division commander and brigade CO hear out the men’s grievances, summon military police to restore order, and pack the brigade on its way.

Except the division commander and eventually the corps commander get wind of the incident and began demanding executions. First a handful of men are shot and then, as each higher-ranking officer hears of the incident, ever more executions are demanded. In the end, Thompson writes, “29 men died to punish a minor rebellion in one battalion that lasted a few hours, causing no casualties.” (p. 265)

This is just one, unusually well-documented example, Thompson writes. The actual death toll for Cadorna’s summary executions goes as high as 750, if not higher.

Months later, in the autumn of 1917, Cadorna was stunned when a joint German-Austrian offensive hammered his lines at Caporetto and his army collapsed, with entire formations refusing to obey his order to fight to the death.

The Undertow of Progress

This would all make for a riveting account of a disastrous military campaign, but what elevates The White War is Thompson’s broader interest in Italian politics and culture. Cadorna as a general is a villain. But Cadorna’s absolute authority in Italy, his aimless brutality…. all these are harbingers of what is to come.

Over the course of The White War, Thompson shows the seeds of Fascism taking root in a soil rich with political, social, and cultural dysfunction. Italy, a young state in 1915, immediately began drifting toward militaristic hyper-nationalism and authoritarianism as soon as war was declared. The press was promptly muzzled, and happily went along with the policy of official censorship. Civilians were denounced and jailed for defeatism and lack of patriotism. Italy would not become formally fascist until 1924, but its slide in that direction started early in the war.

This had real consequences during the war and lent Italy’s ultimate victory a toxic legacy. There were always more delusions and excuses that enabled Cadorna’s mismanagement of the war. Socialist agitators sapped the soldiers of their will to fight. Italy’s allies weren’t helping enough. Unpatriotic politicians were shaking the army’s belief in itself every time they raised questions about the campaign. The soldiers were weak, lazy, ignorant who broke faith when victory was at hand. Each of these stories became a part of the right-wing’s founding myth of fascist Italy.

Cadorna himself was called “Il Duce” long before Mussolini (who lurks at the margins of his narrative, a minor player in the unfolding political drama, and not yet sure of his own beliefs). He was actively indulgent of suggestions that he be made dictator. Cocooned by a restricted press that parroted his own propaganda back at him, and a quiescent general staff that had been conditioned to flattery and mimicry, Cadorna became convinced of these “facts” that he’d helped invent.

Thompson also shows how Cadorna’s mindless credos, his oft-disproven and oft-repeated belief in the power of the offensive and the “irresistible spirit” of a good army, had their underpinnings in a widely-shared, somewhat incoherent set of beliefs called vitalism, which valued intuition personal character over intellect or material goods. In an insightful and important passage that helps explain the entire era, he writes:

“Vitalism appealed to the anti-intellectual bent of intellectuals who already doubted the rationalist rules of their game. Trapped in the vast dynamics of nationalism, imperialism, militarism, industrialisation and commerce, and by the theories of natural evolution, human history and the unconscious mind discovered by Darwin, Marx and Freud, what room was left for individual reason and moral will? How should men not succumb to the dark currents running below Progress (justly called ‘the political principle of the nineteenth century’), namely a gnawing sense of degeneration and impotence, merging fear of technology with fear of women? In hindsight, vitalism was a resistance movement, a late-romantic defence of the individual male and his solitary resources, a consolation after the ‘death of God’ in the mid-nineteenth century and before the birth of ‘human rights’ after 1945. For the vitalist vision is self-deifying, promising to restore mankind to his rightful place in the scheme of things, able to master all species and materials through mystical life-force.” (p. 229-230)

This is a passage that immediately helps crystallize a lot of the thinking that went into World War I, and even more of what came out of it. It’s fascinating that the Italian Front provides such a perfect window into the 20th century, in Thompson’s telling.

The ultimate tragedy of The White War, beyond all the lives lost, is that Thompson convincingly demonstrates that this incoherent mix of self-loathing and denial never really left Italy. Italy, a young country at the time of World War 1, was traumatized by its monumental failures against the Austrians. It promoted the idea that Italy itself was broken and needed to be fixed, and Fascism took advantage of that impulse when it sought to rehabilitate the war and sell it as a “founding myth” of Mussolini’s fledgling empire. When that was discredited, the self-doubt crept back into Italian politics.

In Thompson’s view, Italy is stuck with the memory of Caporetto, and the sudden disintegration of their army, their confidence, their view of themselves as a nation. In one form or another, the Italian front unleashed forces and beliefs that have twisted Italian politics ever since.