Archive for May, 2011

Happy? Hour – May 13

As if readying for the arrival of a vast and distant hurricane, I have been fortifying myself for the impending loss of my car and girlfriend. Yes, my life is one dead dog or jail bid away from being a bad country song as of tomorrow, when MK takes off for a summer internship. By midday Saturday, I expect I will be adjusting to a strange, old way of life.

The last time this happened I put on twenty or so pounds that I still, sadly, carry. With no one to cook for, and nobody to serve as a check on my limitless appetite for pizza and hard liquor (like a vagrant Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, I am), it was not long before I found myself drinking a grenadine, orange juice, and vodka clusterfuck at six in the morning on the stoop of my apartment after playing Take Command: 2nd Manassass all night.

Hopefully this summer will not see similar dissolution. To keep myself in the proper frame of mind, I will watch costume dramas and begin every day with the question, “What would Mr. Darcy do?” Then I will remember that I’m a sodding freelancer, and that his excellent itinerary of riding, fencing, and managing his vast holdings does not give me much guidance as to how I should spend my day.

To start this summer with the right foot forward, I will hopefully be playing some multiplayer Portal 2 shortly after MK leaves. Then I will move on to Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword, and play around with some serious time-sinks in the Elemental, Civ V, and Victoria II vein.

For those of you who need something worthy to do with your weekend, may I direct your attention to this piece on strife and mutual distaste within nerd culture. Oh, and Quintin Smith and I deconstructed tower defense games over on Three Moves Ahead this week.

Now, to go make sure the bar is fully stocked and my “Christ, I’m So Alone” playlist is fully up to date.

Happy Hour – May 6

It’s another busy weekend here. I just shut the door behind J.P. Grant after hours of great conversation and drinking, although I’m not sure I sold him on NHL 11. Or, more to the point, I’m not sure NHL 11 sold itself to him. The bottom line is that J.P. was dropped into a game with a huge number of controls and almost no explanation of how the pieces are supposed to fit together. And honestly, there was no easy way for me to explain what he was supposed to be doing.

I’m still climbing NHL 11′s learning curve, and it took me several hours with it before I began feeling comfortable with the controls.  This is not ideal for a game you’re trying to show to a friend and a fellow hockey fan after several rounds.

If there were not so many damn menus and sliders, I would have liked to set up a game where we were locked to our positions, maybe wing and center or wing and wing. Instead, we just dived right into a game where controls kept passing to whoever had or was receiving the puck, or whoever was closest to the puck carrier. That is a jarring shift, especially when you’re just trying to understand how to do something as simple as slap a pass across the ice. It also illustrates why I may never really outgrow Be a Pro: constant flipping between players just doesn’t feel like hockey to me. It breaks up the flow of my game, and tears at the edges of the illusion. Hockey isn’t like football, where you can break plays and positions apart. Hockey is too fluid

Anyway, this weekend is likely to involve more board games with friends, the Turkish Grand Prix, and some Mount and Blade: With Fire and Sword for a review. That doesn’t leave much time for other gaming, or setting up the next 3MA, which I desperately need to do.

My Tuesday column for Gamers With Jobs struck a more reflective note as I try to figure out what I want to do with myself over these next few, crucial years. This week’s Three Moves Ahead covers Revolution Under Siege, a surprisingly solid wargame about the Russian Civil War. And finally, I just saw that GamePro published a piece I did for an ongoing series in which writers advocate on behalf of their favorite series. Mine was, naturally enough, Civilization.

Communism Works

War in the East was one of those wargames that sent me across town to the local library so that I could grab a stack of books on the Eastern Front. I finally finished off the last of them, Leningrad 1941: The Blockade by Dmitri Pavlov, yesterday morning. In many ways it was the most unexpected of the books I read, because so much of its subject was both new (t0 me) and uniquely presented.

Pavlov was a Party bureaucrat who helped managed the distribution of food supplies to the Leningrad Front during the German blockade following Operation Barbarossa. His book is, in some ways, nothing more than a simple report on the food situation in Leningrad during the siege. He describes the city’s pre-blockade food consumption and supplies, the impact of the German advance, the rations provided during the siege, and finally how the city was resupplied by water and, after Lake Ladoga froze, by ice.

The book is full of tables and detailed calorie counts. Just from a mechanical standpoint, the work of maintaining a defensive force and a large civilian population during a near-total encirclement makes for fascinating reading. The type of things I don’t really think about, like how much food an office worker needs to sustain himself as opposed to a front line soldier as opposed to a longshoreman. This was the stuff of life and death in Leningrad as Pavlov and the Soviet officials he worked with cut rations to the bone.

But it’s also an amazing story of endurance and ingenuity, and one of the threads running through Pavlov’s account is a nostalgia for this brief moment when the ideals of the Revolution were manifested in the people, soldiers, and government of Leningrad. He describes how, as the food supply dwindled, researchers in Leningrad were furiously trying to find new ways to stretch the food supply. He goes into detail on how the loaf of bread was reinvented with other grains and low-quality food products, and then reinvented again with cellulose once the other grains ran out.

While Pavlov is no naif (he describes how ration-card fraud required some brutal measures and regulations that were often unintentionally, unavoidably cruel), he is struck by how often the siege brought out the best in people. Order never broke down, even when things were at their most desperate. He draws pictures of starving people holding down a man who attempts to start a bread riot, or standing guard over an overturned bread truck in the dead of a winter night until the authorities can collect the shipment. He frankly admits that when the road over Lake Ladoga first started running, theft was rampant on the part of the drivers and loaders. The operation was so haphazard, the packing materials of such poor quality, and the pace so fast that there was literally no way to police the supply line. But after a week or so, as drivers realized just how desperate things were in Leningrad, supply loss stopped almost entirely.

The suffering on display is also astonishing. During a chapter simply titled, “Hunger”, Pavlov writes:

Cold had settled down to stay in the unheated apartments of the city. Remorselessly it froze the exhausted people. Dystrophy and cold sent 11,085 people to their graves during November, the first to fall under death’s scythe being the old men.

…More and more adults and children died every day. First a person’s arms and legs grew weak, then his body became numb, the numbness gradually approached the heart, gripped it as in a vise, and then the end came.

Death overtook people anywhere. As he walked along the street, a man might fall and not get up. People would go to bed at home and not rise again. Often death would come suddenly as men worked at their machines.

Since public transportation was not operating, burial was a special problem. The dead were usually carried on sleds without coffins. Two or three relatives or close friends would haul the sled along the seemingly endless streets, often losing strength and abandoning the deceased halfway to the cemetary, leaving to the authorities the task of dispoising of the body. …There was not strength enough to dig into the deeply frozen earth. Civil defense crews would blast the ground to make mass graves, into which they would lay tens and sometimes hundreds of bodies without even knowing the names of those they buried.

–May the dead forgive the living who could not, under those desperate conditions, perform the last ceremonies due honest, laborious lives.

Over 600,000 people died of starvation-related causes during the blockade.

Well, I’m Back

Weekend gaming was a huge success. It’s always good to come back from a game break knowing how to play four of five new games, all of them ranging from good to excellent. Oddly enough, this time it was the lighter games that really caught my attention. No Thanks!, a quick card-passing game, and Abandon Ship!, a Knizia joint where players try to guide a pack of multicolored rats off a sinking luxury liner without betraying which colors they are backing. We played some heartier fare that was quite good, but I think I was just in the mood to kick back with a beer and play a counting game.

Naturally, it wouldn’t be a trip to Rabbit’s warren without some reflection. I wrote about some of the things I’m working out over on Gamers With Jobs.

Reading that you might ask what I’ve got on my mind, what I intend to be pursuing next. I guess there are three things that have been bugging me on and off for the last few months. The first is whether my work adds up something to greater than individual reviews and features. Am I accomplishing something beyond meeting my deadlines?

The second is my general ignorance, particularly about matters spiritual and religious. My concern here is not that I am an agnostic and I view that is a problem. It is that I am an agnostic without having given the matter much thought. I think I would rather begin working out the puzzle of existence and the soul right now, when I am in good health and have the future before me, than later when those answers become of immediate existential import.

The third is my own health and physical well-being. A few days in the country and I am invigorated and in the throes of wanderlust. I come back to the city, and I’m back to my sluggish, sedentary self. Yet I’m discontent with that. I’m out of shape, yes, but not as much I as believe myself to be. Wandering the hills, I am surprised by how fast I get used to the steeper trails and the broken ground. I’m young enough that I could, if I made the effort, get in shape enough to enjoy the sports and activities I used to, or have always promised to try.

In a word, I know I will, one day soon, no longer be a young man. And shortly after that, I will be middle-aged. I would like to enter that phase of my life in good mental, emotional, and physical health. But I sense that the best way to guarantee that is to put these late 20′s turning early 30′s to good use.

Partisan Because We Have to Be

Just a quick thought here before I go to bed. It’s prompted by my (over?) reaction to something someone said on Twitter. He was admonishing partisans on the left and right who were using Bin Laden’s death to make political points. In so many words, he said they should grow up, that an historic event like this one isn’t the time or place. I took issue with that.

I have no stomach for laments over “petty politics” or the divisions that manifest themselves at important moments. In most cases, our differences are not petty. We are divided by deeply-held and opposed points of view. I have spent years listening to warnings about liberals’ “pre-9/11 mentality” and a GOP that insisted it was responsible for “keeping America safe” while rejecting criticism of misguided wars, failing strategies, and unconstitutional policies. The specter of 9/11 and Osamba Bin Laden were evoked again and again to justify or defend decisions that I and many other Americans found utterly repugnant. They were evoked to discredit alternate points of view, to defeat every effort to alter the broad outline of our national security strategy from the template established during the Bush administration.

So when Osama bin Laden is killed during a Democratic administration, the moment is already loaded with implicit partisanship. There is nothing beyond the cold comfort of a murderer’s death around which the country can come together. Every other aspect of this war has been defined by political conflicts that have had very real consequences here and around the world. The illusory unity produced by Bin Laden’s death cannot and should not change that.