Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Doomsday Book

Welcome to the first installment of my next LP adventure, this time into Crusader Kings II. If you have not yet read the review/summary I had previously posted, I would suggest that now. Go on. I'll wait.

Right, caught up? In this section we go over some of the rules and basic strategy of how the game works, and step our character and our territories up, before dealing with the double invasion of the Norwegian king Harald Hardrade and the Norman claimant, William (the Conqueror), for the throne of England. Enjoy!

Part 1: (Largely a tutorial video for gameplay mechanics)

God Save the Queen
- Carvan

Monday, October 29, 2012

Crusader Kings II: I Still Don't Quite Understand All the Rules...

So, now that my Medieval II game has drawn to a close, I have moved on to a game which was largely the reason my Medieval II updates were so delayed. Crusader Kings II is a game developed by Paradox Interactive and set in the Middle Ages as well and covers the course of history beginning with the Norman invasion of England and leading straight up to the cusp of the Renaissance. Over the course of this game, you control one particular dynasty with landed titles, going from counts, to dukes, to kings, all the way to imperial titles.

Furthermore, you have a council of ministers to do your bidding and the way to victory necessitates using both diplomacy, intrigue and brute military force in order to claim what is rightfully yours. This in my opinion is really a step up from most strategy "take over Europe" style games. Typically any characters in the game outside of your military units are at best ancillaries and at worst wholly a waste of time and resources. In Crusader Kings, non-combatant characters are essential to keeping your vassals happy with you, collecting your revenue, ensuring the Church doesn't excommunicate you, and of course leading your men to victory on the battlefield. The holistic nature of the game's setup is really very appealing, though does create some headaches which I will discuss later on.

One of the most interesting things about this game is there is no set "win" condition. It is a truly open ended game and can be mostly whatever the player wants it to be. You want to get a ridiculously high score? Go for it. You want to rise from a count to an emperor? Do it. You want to simply survive the approximately 400 years of history this game spans? Make it happen. (Seriously, simply surviving is a legitimate goal sometimes with this game.) What is winning and what is losing is totally up to the player and that makes for some interesting gameplay choices.

The lack of a end win condition is, I think, both a boon and a drawback. Again, the major plus is that you have the freedom to do really whatever you want within the games system of rules, and that does give you a lot of freedom and can be very fun. However, the lack of something to build towards, or measure success by is also felt, and until you invest a decent chunk of time into the game, you have no idea how to grade your play of the game. Many games are fun because the player is working towards a specific goal (defeating the bad guy, taking over X amount of something, finding the damn princess, etc.) and once that goal has been achieved there is a sense of accomplishment that Crusader Kings II can lack at times.

Another major part of Crusader Kings II is the rules system within the game. This largely comes down to two major groups which I will call the "inheritance laws" and the "claims laws." The inheritance laws basically state who gets what when someone dies, and can be somewhat unforgiving at times. These laws have strict conditions to change them, and maybe it's just my play style, but I find that you are largely stuck with the system you adopt within the first 50 years or so of the game. The claims laws focus on who can call dibs on a particular piece of dirt. These are a little more simple but the game is rather restrictive with information as to why a claim can/cannot be pressed. There have been times where I have had to dig through title histories and family members past and present before I can figure out why I can't attack something I initially thought I could. Essentially my gripe here is that the learning curve is tremendous, and unfortunately I found the tutorial largely unhelpful in these matters. Is it impossible to learn all the rules? Of course not, but as the title would suggest, I still haven't quite mastered them after several months of fairly regular play.

Overall, despite my complaints, Crusader Kings has largely eaten up my free time. It is certainly immersive and addicting if you allow it to grow to that extent. While some of the setup and complexity leaves some additional information to be wanting, fans of strategy gaming will enjoy the various levels of thought that must go into it. It is not perfect, but certainly enjoyable.

Oh, and it is the game which my next Let's Play series will feature.

God Save the Queen
- Carvan

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Kalpar Lectures: Kalpar Talks About Firefly

Little special update for you before October ends. Kalpar gushes for eleven minutes about Firefly by Joss Whedon.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Raiding the Stacks: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne

This week I want to talk about Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the classic novel by Jules Verne. I actually have a personal history with this book, first discovering it in the famous 1954 Disney movie adaptation at my local library back in the 1990's. When I was around ten or eleven I decided to read the original text of this novel and I remember it being a pretty good book. However, I'm afraid I had my nostalgia for this novel dampened with my re-reading.

Now, before I get into the book review proper, I want to admit that I may have gotten a bad translation which my good friend Anya suggested might be a problem with the book. If you do choose to go read Twenty Thousand Leagues I would suggest you explore a number of different translations.

My main problem with this book is it feels incredibly outdated in terms of its subject matter. Significant portions of this book consists of our narrator, Pierre Aronnax, detailing the various aquatic lifeforms he discovers during his adventures on the Nautilus. And I think for the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries this would be downright fascinating for the readers. Captain Nemo, Professor Aronnax, and the crew of the Nautilus go from the warm waters of the Pacific to the ice-choked waters of the South Pole and Aronnax provides incredibly detailed descriptions of the mammals, fishes, mollusks, and cephalopods they encounter. For an audience that has never before encountered the distant locations described in the novel and the strange lifeforms that live there, this has got to be fascinating stuff. However, this attention to detail becomes, in my opinion, a weakness for late twentieth and twenty-first century audiences. Today there are countless documentary films and television shows about the animals that live in the ocean and in Antartica which are widely available to modern audiences. I think that these far more visual mediums are a far better means of learning about the biological subject material covered in Twenty Thousand Leagues.

The other main fascination of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea seems to be with the technology contained within the Nautilus. Again, I think this is a result of time and technology advancing past the novel. The Nautilus is powered entirely by electricity provided by sodium-mercury batteries and is capable of out-performing the conventional steam-powered ships of the era. With electric power still in its infancy, I can understand how a nineteenth century audience could be fascinated by the idea of electric ovens and electric lighting. However, for a twenty-first century audience electric appliances are considered commonplace. Heck, we have submarines powered by nuclear fission now, something that would probably astound Verne's original audience. It's really not Verne's fault that the book has become less fantastic as time progressed, and I am impressed he believed electricity could be harnessed for such every day purposes in the future, but it definitely takes away much of the original wonder in Twenty Thousand Leagues.

There is one comment which I would like to make about this book, and it centers around the character of Captain Nemo. Throughout the novel we learn that Captain Nemo provides funding to various rebel groups fighting against imperialist forces in the nineteenth century. In specific we see Nemo provide a vast sum of money to Cretan rebels fighting against Ottoman occupation and it is heavily implied he provides such support to other rebel groups across the globe. Captain Nemo takes his campaign of vengeance even further and actively attacks the warships of imperialist powers. What is perhaps most important about this conflict is that we are never told where Nemo is from or who the imperialists he fights are. (Granted, in the sort-of sequel The Mysterious Island it is revealed that Captain Nemo was originally an Indian Raj, but we receive no such information in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.) In the climatic battle where Nemo attacks and sinks a warship with the Nautilus it is explicitly stated that the ship is flying no flag. Since both parties have ambiguous origins it remains powerful commentary against European imperialist practices in general and a warning of how far oppressed peoples will go to avenge the injustices suffered at the hands of their oppressors.

Overall, I would say it is best to pass Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by, but not because the book is in any way flawed or badly written. Instead I think that the technology and biological discoveries that were so fascinating to nineteenth century audiences have become incredibly commonplace to twenty-first century audiences. As a criticism of European imperialist and colonial practices, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea simply does not go into sufficient depth and I feel that theme takes a decided back-seat to the biological and technological wonders of Nemo's world. I must sadly consign Verne's work to the category of works informative of past perspectives, but less relevant to modern audiences.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

'Til we Have Built Jerusalem in England's Green and Pleasant Land!

Welp kiddos, here it is. The final installment of my Medieval II Let's Play. I hope it's been fun viewing for you as much as it has been fun playing for me. In this bit we smack the Polish around a bit for their insolence and try to make up for a blunder at Cordoba, all the while sailing for Jerusalem for a... less than climactic battle... Oh well.

Part 91:

Part 92:

Part 93:

God Save the Queen
- Carvan

Monday, October 22, 2012

This is the Penultimate Supper!

At the start of this LP, I incorrectly predict that this will be the last session. Oh well. The English force of arms carries on with a battle here and there as our preparations for the final assault on Jerusalem come to a head. Anchors away as we sail across the Mediterranean!

Part 88:

Part 89:

Part 90:

God Save the Queen
- Carvan

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The German Wars: A Concise History, 1859-1945, by Michael A. Palmer

Today we're looking at a new text that deals with what I consider to be a rather interesting paradox of history. A very common historical stereotype is that the Germans, and the Prussians in specific who forged the modern German nation-state, are a very militaristic people. As Voltaire once said, "Prussia is not a state that possesses an army, but an army that has conquered a state." And you would think that with such a strong military tradition it would be rather difficult to defeat such a nation in the theater of war. However, as we now know from history, the vaunted German military lost two World Wars and lead to the creation of the much more peaceful economic powerhouse of Germany we know today. In The German Wars, Michael Palmer seeks to address this apparent paradox and how a much admired and imitated military could be defeated in two massive wars. 

Overall, this is a very good book and does an excellent job of explaining the development of the Prussian and later German armies during the time period Palmer covers. He first explains the origins of the myth of Prussian military supremacy by going into the mid-nineteenth century German Unification Wars which were fairly short conflicts with decisive victories in favor of the Prussians. Furthermore, Palmer explains how the mid-century wars influenced military thinking and the expectations of nations going into World War I. To provide a short answer for my readers and to summarize the main point of this monograph, the German military failed, in both World Wars, to consider the wider strategic and diplomatic repercussions of military actions. The reason Prussia was able to win the mid-nineteenth century wars was because of the actions of both Helmuth von Moltke, head of the General Staff, and Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian chancellor. Basically, Moltke developed excellent plans for the deployment of the Prussian military and had a well-trained cadre of officers who were competent on the battlefield. However, this was supplemented by Bismarck's ability to negotiate with other nations and keep a small, localized conflict from expanding into a large, industrial, and globalized conflict like the two World Wars were. Bismarck and Moltke understood that Germany was in a precarious central position and could not successfully fight a prolonged war with multiple major powers, so they used diplomatic tools to avoid such a conflict. Later German political leaders, both before and after the First World War, did not really understand the importance of such diplomatic actions and quickly found themselves isolated in Europe and surrounded by hostile states. However, the German leaders gave no such consideration to such political repercussions and threw themselves headlong into wars that quickly brought the might of expansive colonial empires such as Britian, France, and America, into the wars. Against such overwhelming material and industrial power, the Germans simply did not have a chance. 

Another major point that Palmer makes during his thesis is that the German High Command, in both wars, focused on achieving a single, decisive victory that would destroy the enemy's army and break the enemy nation's will to continue to fight the war. Specifically, German military theorists like Alfred von Schlieffen focused on the historical example of the Battle of Cannae during the Second Punic War when Hannibal encircled and destroyed a larger Roman force. What the German High Command failed to realize, and what Palmer rightly points out, is that the Battle of Cannae did not end the Second Punic War, which dragged on for another fifteen years and ended in Roman victory. The Romans were willing to raise army after army to throw at Hannibal and were undiscouraged by such setbacks and gradually wore down Hannibal's military. The same is true of both World Wars where the Allied powers would raise army after army, drawing on their global resources, and gradually wore down the Germans in a prolonged conflict.

This book is an excellent introduction to understanding the developments of military thinking in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, especially in response to the First World War. This book is very accessible to non-specialist, but it still has some excellent points that even dedicated historians such as myself will enjoy reading. I only have two major criticisms, the first being I feel this book has a rather thin bibliography and I would have liked to see a wider range of sources from the author, especially since he is the chair of the history department at East Carolina University. I also disliked how Palmer included sidebars in his monograph. While these sidebars occasionally provided more detailed information regarding specific subjects which Palmer was talking about, sometimes it was hard to see how they connected to his overall narrative. Furthermore, these sidebars usually took up several pages in the book and disrupted the overall flow of his arguments by their positioning. In addition some sidebars could have been placed at better positions in their chapters so they were nearby when Palmer referenced their subject material. 

Despite my two major issues, I think that this is a very good and very accessible history text that a wide range of audiences will enjoy. I highly recommend this for anyone interested in the World Wars and German military history. 

- Kalpar 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Confessions of a D-List Supervillain, by Jim Bernheimer

There are plenty of benefits to being a supervillain, even if superheroes are constantly foiling your plans and wrecking your bases. You get to set your own hours, there are plenty of banks and jewelry stores to knock over if you're short on cash, and if your bases does get blown up there's still a pretty good chance you'll get away. Well, that's if you're a major league villain like the Evil Overlord or General Devious. If you're a minor-leaguer like Calvin Stringel, aka Mechani-CAL, life consists of more scraping to get by and the odd run in the slammer rather than devious plotting and world domination. Cal's had more than his fair share of bad breaks in his life and was trying to get out of the supervillain business for good. Fortunately Cal was in his power armor for a weapons deal when the Evil Overlord's mind-control slugs got released. Now the world's salvation lies in the most unlikely, and certainly not the most ethical, hands.

Overall, I liked this book as well, however I had one or two issues that I want to talk about later in my review. However, first I want to talk about what I think was really strong about Confessions of a D-List Supervillain. The first thing which I really liked was the main character of Calvin, even if I disagreed with some of his opinions on women at the start of the book and his far more...flexible morality. Despite his shortcomings when it came to character, I ended up really relating to Calvin because he's a down on his luck schmuck. Granted Calvin's a down on his luck schmuck with a couple of secret bases and a suit of power armor, but still a very relateable character. And if I'm being completely honest, his utter lack of self-confidence struck a very specific chord with me. Throughout the novel I came to like Calvin more and caring about all the misfortune that keeps following him around. I won't spoil the ending for you, but I was satisfied with how things ended up for Calvin.

The other thing that I really appreciated about this novel is that it became a very realistic deconstruction of the superhero genre. As the story continues and Calvin gets involved in the world of superheroes we find that many of these so-called heroes are no better than the villains they fight, the heroes just have better lawyers. I actually found it very believable that superheroes would be involved in dirty backroom deals and more interested in maintaining the image of their organizations than seeing that justice is actually done. It's very evocative of the internal corruption we frequently experience with our own politicians and I thought it was very well-done by the author.

As for what I disliked about this book, it boils down to two major issues. My first problem was that while Bernheimer has developed a wonderful and complex world of superheroes and supervillains, I still felt it was kind of thin around the edges. I found myself wondering where all of these superpowered people got their powers and some of the finer details about how this superhero economy works. I think Bernheimer could have made Confessions of a D-List Supervillain slightly longer and gone a little further in-depth into his world.

My other major issue was a fairly significant plot-twist towards the end of the novel. Much like the other book by Bernheimer I read, Prime Suspects, I felt like there wasn't a lot of lead-up to the twist and I felt kind of blindsided. The hints are there, but they aren't as well-developed and I think taking more time in the novels would have helped in that aspect.

Overall, despite my issues, Confessions of a D-List Supervillain was a very fun read for me and I'd definitely recommend it to all of my readers. It's definitely a must-read for anyone who liked other deconstruction of the superhero genre like Watchmen or The Incredibles. I definitely will keep Bernheimer on my list of authors to check out in the future.

- Kalpar

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Prime Suspects: A Clone Detective Mystery, by Jim Bernheimer

I normally am not a huge fan of mystery novels, however I do enjoy the genre on occasion. And if there's some pretty cool sci-fi stuff involved then that's just icing on the cake as far as I'm concerned. Prime Suspects: A Clone Detective Mystery is set in the distant future when interstellar travel and the mass production of clones to do the actual work of settling planets has become commonplace. In his day, David Bagini was the best homicide detective on Darwin which made him an ideal candidate for a clone contract. Now his clones make up the homicide department of an entire planet. However, when the original David Bagini is found dead in his home it's up to the newest member of the department, Bagini Forty-Two, to solve the case. The problem is there's only one set of DNA at the crime scene and all forty-one suspects look pretty damn similar.

Overall I really liked this book and I'd recommend it for any of my sci-fi readers who are looking for a good mystery. I think what I liked the most about this book was seeing how the different Bagini clones developed over their lifetimes, which shows that they're not just mass-produced objects but proper people. There's the Bagini that became a dirty cop, the Bagini that became a hopeless alcoholic, and the Bagini that got religion. All of them started in a similar line of work with the same basic personality, but developed differently based on their own experiences. Of course, since this was a rather short book there wasn't much time to develop the idea to its fullest, but I think it did an excellent job in the time it had.

As for the actual mystery, I've got to admit I'm kind of on the fence. Since all the suspects have the same DNA, CSI-style lab wizardry isn't going to be any help, which I appreciate. However this also means that Bagini Forty-Two has to rely on the old methods of who has the opportunity and motive to commit the murder. And while I understand that it's part of good detective work I feel it leads to the detective making their accusation to the perpetrator and then the criminal mastermind spills the beans immediately on how and why they did it. I know I'm complaining that fiction doesn't follow real life exactly, but it always feels too darn neat and tidy for me. That said, it was still a pretty good detective novel and I enjoyed working on the case with Forty-Two.

My only other big complaint about Prime Suspects was the fairly big plot twist at the end. It makes a lot of sense in hindsight, but I still felt blind-sided and would have appreciated just one or two more hints. I think I enjoy plot twists a lot better when I can kind of predict them coming, or at least look back and see the evidence that they were coming but I didn't notice the first time. Again, that's more a matter of personal preference rather than anything else.

I definitely would recommend Prime Suspects for all my readers and I greatly appreciated the small Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy references as well. Come back next week when I talk about one of Bernheimer's other books, Confessions of a D-List Supervillain.

- Kalpar