Saturday, 31 May 2014

Megagames and LARPs: Food for Thought

Two weeks ago I was invited to do a demonstration of a megagame at the PLAY Masterclass by the Dutch Society of Play. The Society of Play aims at increasing the use of games in Dutch education and heritage institutions. The day provided a number of examples of game forms, but also three interesting talks on the subject.

In the following posts I want to go into a few things that I took away from the talks by Morgan Jarl, a Swede with long experience of designing and running games and especially LARPS. His first talks focused on using LARPs for educational purposes. You can find the presentation slides here.

Short aside: it is good  to realise that there is more to LARP than fake pointy ears and foam swords. Especially in Scandinavia there has been a development towards different settings and more emotionally involving story lines. There is an inspiring  collection of examples from Nordic LARPs available online for free.

Megagames and LARP

Although megagames and LARPs are strands of the larger family of ‘real life gaming’ and that these strands can occasionally come very close (because both focus heavily on human interaction) , there are some general distinctions you could make between the two. LARP which lays more emphasis on immersion, collaboration and artistic vision and such comes closer to theatre. Megagames tend more towards hierarchy, decision making and conflict. But as said, some megagames have come closer to mass role playing and some LARPs contain hierarchies and conflicts.

The different levels of immersion in the role might roughly be described in terms of role and character. Players in megagames generally adopt a role like prime minister, general or staff officer while in LARP they more often adopt a character, where players find further motivation in the personal life. Again, many megagames have personal briefings for players, or invest their personage with additional motives during the game, and this is a generalisation.

You can try to add as much character to a game as you can, but that might not work for your purpose because...

Types of games… and gamers

Morgan identified four types of game, whether they were based on a narrative, on immersion, on simulation or on the mechanics. I then realised that this might match players' preferences for types of games. Some people like story telling, others role playing, others want to recreate and still others focus on mastering the rules and winning. 

I'm used to being on the part of the spectrum where you argue between simulation and mechanics, ie where you balance the model between the two or try to find solutions where you can retain as much of both. But one of the problems in many board and miniature wargames is that you spend your effort on that instead of immersion or narrative and it becomes empty, a pure puzzle and in a sense devoid of meaning.

This is probably why LARPs recruit easily from tabletop rpgs and megagames recruit from boardgames and miniature wargames. But both can relate closely to Ameritrash games because they combine these four elements. In can't see a megagame like Operation Market Garden gaining as enthusiastic a response from the board gaming crowd of Shut Up & Sit Down as Watch the Skies! did.

So a good thing in design is thinking about which groups you want to engage and in what way and how to write it accordingly. Do you go for one type or do you try to cater to several groups?

Game structure

As all games have at least a few rules (if only on conduct and setting), each game needs an introduction or briefing. After the game, it is also necessary to have a debriefing, not only to bring all the strands back together, but also to discuss experiences and learning. 

You can do this as one cycle, but there’s also the possibility of using debriefs halfway through the game or more often to bring every player up to the same level of information or to insert new elements into the game. As an alternative you can do this between games, like in a rpg or miniature wargames campaign. But I like the idea of using this halfway feedback loop in a game.

Next up: learning through games…

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Review: Europe Under Napoleon 1799-1815

Europe Under Napoleon 1799-1815
Europe Under Napoleon 1799-1815 by Michael Broers

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a great book! Broers offers an overview of Napoleonic Europe, bringing together the experiences from the coasts of the Baltic via the North Sea, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean to the Illyrian.

This is not a book about Napoleon, but about the international system he built out of the revolutionary inheritance. While the first expansion of the French empire had been mostly a result of revolutionary conquest and sister republics, the superiority of French arms between 1800 and 1812 brought new areas into imperial orbit. From 1806 the economic blockade against Great Britain became a driving force behind expansion.

The empire is not so much described as a political unit but as a system of political control in which the relation to the Napoleonic state was determined by the level to which the area was able to produce administrative results: conscripts, taxes and economic blockade of British goods. If the results disappointed, Paris increased control. So while the reforming south German states retained their independence, the Batavian Republic was put under ever closer oversight.

Local elites were forced to choose between collaboration and resistance. The empire offered benefits to its subjects, the most important being public order and equity before the law. Napoleon offered the inclusion of the local elites in his system administration. In easily accessible areas these factors proved powerful enough by themselves to obtain collaboration of the notables.

But there were inherent contradictions in the empire. The economic blockade destroyed many coastal areas. The burden of conscription was felt to be greater than the benefits that the empire brought. In areas where the struggle against the catholic church was unpopular and the terrain offered deserters, smugglers and bandits enough room to evade the marechausées, the imperial hold was strenuous.

The inner empire was not synonymous with France. Western France delivered lower numbers of conscripts than the western bank of the Rhine and Northern Italy.

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Sunday, 25 May 2014

Review: Blücher: Scourge of Napoleon

Blücher: Scourge of Napoleon
Blücher: Scourge of Napoleon by Michael V. Leggiere

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Probably now the best account of Blücher's life as a commander in English. It didn't shock my view of Blücher after reading Henderson and some other stuff. Blücher was not the charging madman he has sometimes been made to be, but a rational and aggressive commander. Although his great strength lay in the maintenance of the ultimate objective (defeating Napoleon decisively on the battlefield) and inspiration of the men under his command he was clearly more involved in the running of the army than his detractors have suggested.

Driven by his sense of personal pride and urge to show that he loved the Prussian king more than the Prussians he was often more hurt by suggestions of disloyalty on his side or royal disfavour than loss on the battlefield. However, it seems he sought death on the battlefield at Vauchamps at the end of the disastrous week when Napoleon beat his dispersed corps 4 times in 6 days.

Strategically he showed his best during the fall campaign of 1813, when he managed to occupy Napoleon by keeping in close touch and reading his opponents actions well. His pursuit of MacDonald after the Katzbach forced Napoleon to break off the pursuit of the Army of Bohemia and prevented the emperor from moving against Berlin. His move to unite with Bernadotte´s Army of the North was the decisive move of the campaign, but his choice to evade Napoleon by crossing the Saale was of similar brilliance.

In all these cases the question is of course whether the genius was his or Gneisenau´s. To me it appears that Blücher's letters show enough comprehension of the siutation to suggest that he was heavily involved in the decisions. As his moves during 1814 and 1815 show, he was not afraid to try the unconventional, and this seems to have confounded Napoleon.

As one of the few allied commanders not afraid to take on the French emperor himself and because of his ability to draw others along he is probably the single most important military commander on the allied side in the defeat of Napoleon after 1812.

In his personal life he showed many traits of the 'hussar' lifestyle, but he was also a committed husband and father. Leggiere stressed that he also wasn't an uneducated boor, but that the connections made during his period outside the army and especially with the Freemasons, made him socially flexible.

Hats of to Leggiere for this great work, but I think I would have preferred if he had finished his account of the 1814 campaign first.

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Saturday, 24 May 2014

Exciting Megagame News!

All kinds of good news on megagames these days. Of course I had a good demo of the Monsters game Friday a week ago (will provide more info later).

A Global News Network Bulletin

But it gets better. The guys from Shut Up & Sit Down participated in the Watch the Skies megagame in London and were hooked. See the excellent video they made.

Really good impression of what it's like to be in a megagame. Also, the Global News Network bulletins are up on the Megagame Makers facebook page. Fun to read!

There will be a megagame in the Netherlands on August 30. In the spirit of tradition it will be Operation Market Garden, just like we did in 1994 and 2004. The game will run in Nijmegen. Run to the MegagamesNL webpage for more info and registration.

The game will also feature a planning game for the allied HQs to determine the plans of attack and more detailed instructions for Corps Boundaries, Supply Routes, Drop Zones, Landing Zones etc etc. Should be lots of fun!

The next megagame in the UK will be Iron Dice on September 20th, the opening moves of WWI. Highly recommended as well!

Friday, 16 May 2014

Godzilla comes to Amsterdam

No! Not the crappy remake of the movie, but The Game! Designed by Jim Wallman, it first ran in 2002 with man made destruction outdoing Godzilla.

Today I run a smaller version (about a dozen players) as a one and a half hour workshop for professionals in education and culture.

Should be fun!

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Panther Camouflage and decals

In the meantime, I've added some camouflage to the Panther tank. The pattern was inspired by an example used in Italy in 1944 (stolen from an Osprey). So it's decals and done.

It took some days before I got to the decals, but the are now applied as well.

And by now the tank has got to the birthday boy!

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Review: Napoleon's Other War: Bandits, Rebels and Their Pursuers in the Age of Revolutions

Napoleon's Other War: Bandits, Rebels and Their Pursuers in the Age of Revolutions
Napoleon's Other War: Bandits, Rebels and Their Pursuers in the Age of Revolutions by Michael Broers

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Excellent book!

Broers shows that Napoleon's hold over Europe was contested in almost all places, but that rebellion could only survive at the edge of his empire, in southern Italy and Spain. In the plains, the empire ruled, and often with the consent and collaboration of the elites.

However in the rugged areas the resistance to the new laws of the empire and most importantly against conscription continued, merging with older traditions of local self rule, smuggling and banditry.

Broers uses the stories of famous bandits and tries to separate the truth from the myth. But equally interesting is the story of Napoleon's henchmen who ruthlessly crushed rebellion, drove the mobile columns that chased the bandits and took whole villages hostage to achieve their goals.

Interestingly, there is also a chapter on Spanish America, a reason to return to this book at some other time.

Invaluable for anyone that tries to understand Napoleon's empire, how it worked and why it failed.

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NYR April Update Update

Just because I like graphs, I've visualised my New Years Resolutions, which forced me to make some of them SMART (uche). I've tried to set them all to 100% for ease of comparison.

So I want my part of The Book 85% done by the end of this year (meaning a concept, but lots of editing to follow in 2015)

New Games Played and Old Games Removed is fairly easy, but any games bought this year (8 Minute Empire) increase the target I'm actually putting off the removal of games and lead pile to the latter third of the year.

Books read is based on my Goodreads Challenge of 150. Buying books is  tentatively set at 100 books for ease of counting. Actually not a target, but I have assumed that I would buy some books that aren't Napoleonic or non-Napoleonic second hand below 10 pounds.  So there have been some trangressions, but not many.

Blog is fairly straightforward: once a week is 53 in 2014. I am doing (too) well.

Each non-Waterloo project picked up is -10%. An arbitrary figure but useful.

Monday, 5 May 2014

More about the Holocaust in the Netherlands

After my moral story of yesterday, some more on the Holocaust in the Netherlands as today my country celebrates its liberation 69 years ago.

Below are five 15 minute online talks on the Holocaust given by my former colleague Bart van den Boom, assistant professor at the University of Leiden. He's written a very important book on the Dutch reaction to the persecution of Jews, for which he was awarded a major historical book prize. It also sparked lively debate, because the Netherlands saw the highest level of deportation, and thus the death, of its Jewish population of all occupied countries.

The book argues that because (most) people didn't know that transport to the east meant instant death in most cases, the Jews often chose transport over the perils of hiding (where the consequences of being found were well known to be severe). It also meant that the non-Jewish population didn't offer as much help and put up as much resistance as they might have otherwise.

Van den Boom bases much of his argument on a study of 160 wartime diaries by Jewish and non-Jewish Dutch.

I'm sorry that these talks are only available in Dutch.

The first part asks whether the Holocaust was an act long in planning or an improvisation

The second part deals with the question why so many Germans cooperated in the Holocaust.

The third part talks about the attitude of ordinary Dutch towards the persecution of the Jews

In the fourth part van den Boom deals with the reasons behind the high rate of Jews that were deported from the Netherlands. Using new research, like the book by Griffioen and Zeller, comparing the reaction and resistance to the Holocaust in the Netherlands to that in France and Belgium.

The fifth part question whether ordinary Dutch (both Jewish and non-Jewish) knew about the Holocaust

Sunday, 4 May 2014

The Holocaust and boredom

Today in the Netherlands we commemorated those killed, wounded or otherwise damaged by war since WWII. So a bit of a different post this time.

I went looking for this movie a couple of months ago because a miniatures company had posted the box art for its new Elite German Infantry 1939-1943 (read: SS) accompanied by 'hot' and 'awesome'. Some people commented that is was bad taste, others ended up saying something on the line of 'war is hell', and referred to war crimes by allied armies in WWII and Guantanamo Bay.

As worried as I am by Guantanamo Bay and drone attacks in Afghanistan, and although I am aware that there were serious war crimes perpetrated by Allied forces during WWII  I think that it goes to far to equate this to the Holocaust. In terms of principle and size, the mass murder of 6 million Jews and hundreds of thousands of gypsies (and other 'unwanted') is of a different order.

The following movie for me sums up why.

This movie gave me a profound insight into the Holocaust. I saw it first in the Imperial War Museum exposition on the Holocaust, without the commentary. But the commentary is spot on and ends with the same thing that I took away from it: the soldiers involved look kind of bored. I can still see the guy throwing down his cigarette and stamping on it as he moves of, shoulders sagging, to fetch another batch of victims.

Yes. Mass murdering German soldiers were bored while doing it.

It shows an emotional withdrawal, but also a routine. How this works has been described in general by Milgram's sociological experiments, but detailed in Ordinary Men by Brown and Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners.

Since the 1990s historical research has shown that the Holocaust was not a matter of a few SS Sonderkommando's and a few Vernichtungslager. No, it was a massive organisation. About half of the Jews murdered were shot close to their homes, not gassed. Many Wehrmacht units were involved as well as police battallions.

But the cigarette flicked away by a bored soldier shows why this could happen again easily (as it has already in Yugoslavia, Rwanda and the Sudan): we humans have an incredible ability to adapt to the most deplorable circumstances. I hope that soldiers had nightmares for the rest of his life (like my grandfather had of his wartime) but I doubt it.

The only hope we have is to make that kind of moral autism as difficult as possible. Tell your friends, tell your kids that this happened and how, and why it could happen. Don't take their moral compass and courage for granted.

Friday, 2 May 2014

NYR April Update

I have been busy modelling and painting: finished of the Panther, assembled M3s and M5A1 Stuarts. Also started on my bats and rats.

Collected my WWII Yanks in 20mm last weekend. They are awesome. Thanks again René for a painting job well done! Pics after the weekend.

Blogwise I came up with a fair number of posts and with quite a lot of variety. Happy with that too.

I also played more games than I expected to. Three new games: Mice & Mystics, Mission Red Planet and 8 Minute Empire (4 times). Also another game of Civilization and two of King of Tokyo. A good score, which made up for my lapse in NYR by buying 8 Minute Empire. I'm now at 6 new games for this year, halfway the target. But I need to get rid of another 24 games before the end of the year.

As a result, in terms of books, this was a slow month. I only read 6, of which three Ospreys. Two old skool Men At Arms on the Dutch army of the Napoleonic Wars and the King's German Legion, and a better though still not perfect one on the Bayonne and Toulouse campaign.

The main course were the two volumes of Hofschröer's Waterloo campaign. I finished off the month with John Sweetman's biography on Fitzroy Somerset, or Lord Raglan.

Slipped up from my reading target, but there should be enough catching up later in the year. I ordered a bunch of Waterloo books by the end off the month which I think will be very interesting.

No new projects started. But I have been thinking of a 'Napoleonic' rpg, mostly set in the period 1813-1821, that is the decline and fall of Napoleon's empire and the conspiracies afterwards. Ample space for Cossack mission for French booty, assassinations of important people, duplicitous dealings, duels and the sense of soldier's honour. Throw in some Italian carbonari and Austrian secret services at the congress of  Vienna and you have an unlimited source of backgrounds and storylines to pursue. I don't think the actual mechanics matter that much, but the setting does.  Might be named 'In the Shadow of the Eagle' or something ominous like that.