Archive for General

Talk at University of Maryland

I gave a talk at the University of Maryland today (that’s where I work) as part of its “Semester on War and Representations of War.” A little odd to come out to friends and colleagues as a (war) gamer, but generally an interested and receptive audience. I had copies of several different games out to show, including Avalon Hill’s hoary Afrika Korps and something more recent, Bowen SimmonsNapoleons Triumph. One of the byproducts of the event was getting to meet a couple of new local gamers, including the gent behind Flash of Steel, where there is a nice write-up of the proceedings. From there I also stumbled across this entry on Soren Johnson’s Designer’s Notes blog (such an obvious title for a game design blog too—now why didn’t I think of it?).

I offered three reasons for my interest in table top wargames in an academic setting:

  • that they are a forgotten piece of ludology, the lack of knowledge about them today disproportionate to their historical influence and market share;
  • their function as “paper computers,” that is open systems (or models, the term I prefer) to take apart and put back together again, very different from computer games where source code and the underlying model is often out of reach;
  • finally, the new spaces they open for representation and rhetoric, to which end I briefly discussed War on Terror, as well as the computer game September 12th.

Of course what goes unstated in such a setting are the other reasons we play games, which have a lot more to do with sociability and something called “fun” than these higher minded rationales. But it was a good discussion, if a bit scattered at times—lots of people wanted to talk about first person shooters, for example. (Unexplored question: what’s the difference between a war game and a violent game?)

Lots of good feedback afterwards, including people asking if this is something I write about. Speaking of which, I see Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s Third Person, in which I have an essay on board wargames, is listed as out in May 2009 from MIT Press.

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Roman d20

From Christies, a recently auctioned authentic Roman twenty-sided die, c. 2 A.D.:

roman_dice.jpg

“Several polyhedra in various materials with similar symbols are known from the Roman period. Modern scholarship has not yet established the game for which these dice were used.” Apparently it was from the collection of a Maryland Fine Arts professor. Hmm.

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In Memoriam: Gary Gygax

RIP Mordenkainen, and a fantastic adventure.

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My Spring Seminar

Syllabus for my graduate seminar this spring:

SIMULATIONS

Is simulation the consummate genre of the 21st century? How can we negotiate between simulation as a trope of science fiction and cultural fantasy (the Matrix, to name one obvious example) and the non-virtual reality of the Strip in Las Vegas, or the best-selling video game franchise The Sims? The objective of this seminar will be to range freely between simulation as the essential focalizer of the postmodern, between practices of applied modeling in humanities research online (such as the Virtual Vaudeville project, which painstakingly recreates a performance in a turn of the century Manhattan theater), and between simulation as an established mode and form of digital gaming. We will read widely in the literature and theory of simulation, from obvious high postmodern candidates like DeLillo, Baudrillard, and Haraway to more exotic sites of engagement, such as military technology, theoretical mathematics, artificial life, and the philosophical discourse of modeling. Indeed, our goal will be eventually to adjudicate among three interrelated terms: simulation, modeling, and gaming; and to come to grips with their import and distinctions in the contemporary milieu. To what extent are these forms and practices rivals or competitors to the literary? Can a simulation (or a game) sustain a narrative? Is the virtual merely the latest act or art of wish fulfillment in an age-old progression of mimetic conceits, or is it something else? Something new?

A key component of the course will be a set of hands-on explorations using the popular virtual world Second Life. You will engage with the cultures and sub-cultures of Second Life by creating avatars and participating in the communities and events of this thriving virtual world (current population: 10 million). With only slightly greater investment, you may also learn to “build” in Second Life, contributing your own objects, structures, and experiences to the world. Part simulation, part model, and part game, Second Life will be the social arena in which we seek to activate and literalize our weekly conversations.

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Damage Control

No, the title of this post doesn’t refer to my feeble effort to reverse the drought here. Real life, including a house move and the start of a new academic semester has significantly curtailed my ZOI activity. But I did want to post this shot of an experimental home-brew game created by one Jonathan Miller, spotted in play at TriaDCon 07.

A commentator who saw the game writes “It’s a naval battle between the Bismark and the Prince of Wales, but the focus is not on moving ships and comparing armor to broadside weight. The real game is about keeping the ship afloat after it starts to take damage, and how you allocate damage repair resources.”

How brilliant is that?

(Damage Control, btw, is my title, not the game’s.)

Game Played at TriaDCon 07

Photo by Walter O’Hara.

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Larry Bond’s New Site

Larry Bond, co-author (with some guy named Tom Clancy) of the classic military fiction Red Storm Rising and designer of the Harpoon series of naval wargames (on which episodes in the book are based) has a new Web site.

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Grognards Invade Terra Nova

Nice thread on board wargames unspooling on Terra Nova, a group blog that serves as a hub for the virtual worlds brain trust. They give a shout out to the first piece of online writing I ever did about wargames, “I Was a Teenage Grognard,” which originated as a blog entry over on my MGK site and which seems to have found a good audience. That same piece garnered an extended reference over at Scratchpad a few weeks ago.

I’m glad to see the interest in board wargames in the mainstream ludology community, and that more and more folks are picking up on what’s seemed obvious to me for a while now, that these games remain relevant and have things to teach designers, players, and game scholars.

That’s basically the thesis of a longish piece I have forthcoming in Third Person, the follow up to the First Person and Second Person volumes already published by the MIT Press, and, like its predecessors, expertly edited by Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. My chapter, called “War Stories: Board Wargames and Vast (Procedural) Narratives,” argues that it is procedural granularity that stimulates what Marie-Laure Ryan has termed narrativity, i.e. a game’s potential to serve as a narrative agent. The volume should be out in late 2008.

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The Good Old Days

Picked up an old issue of The Avalon Hill Game Company’s house organ The General on eBay (May-June 1977) and was amused to read this response from the editor in the letters column:

Although S&T [Strategy and Tactics, SPI's rival mag] delights in passing along news of our impending games before we do, you’ve got to keep in mind that their “Gossip” column is aptly named. Much of the information they pass on in reference to our operations is inaccurate, if not pure fabrication. It’s sort of a friendly game we play. They try to “jerk our chain” by printing our “news” first and we get our jollies by feeding false reports to their “spies.”

Ah, the good old days, when there were only two companies and three numbers on the counters.

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Napoleon’s Triumph on Pre-Order

Napoleon’s Triumph, Bowen Simmons’ follow-up to his unique Bonaparte at Marengo, is now available for pre-order. As previously discussed on ZOI, Simmons’ designs are distinguished by their graphical fidelity to “the look,” the distinctive visual aesthetic characteristic of battle maps and military cartography.

Napoleon's Triumph (photograph by Bowen Simmons)
Photograph by Bowen Simmons. 

The Austerlitz game (pictured above), which is about twice the size with twice as many pieces as its predecessor, promises to remain faithful to the core elements of the previous design, while also introducing hidden units, leaders (note the battle flags above), and corps-level formations.

Bonaparte at Marengo has come into criticism in some quarters for typically bearing scant resemblance to the actual battle, either at the tactical or the operational level. In the case of Austerlitz, the game will need to convey some sense of the shambles that was the Austrian/Russian command hierarchy, without straitjacketing the Allied player (the tension between the desire to preserve some evidence of historical fidelity without making the game run on rails is ubiquitous in wargame design). The game will also need to account for the literal fog of war that covered the battlefield at the beginning of the day and screened the initial troop movements on both sides, dispositions that sealed the fate of the respective armies.

Napoleon’s Triumph is due to ship on August 15; I am looking forward to playing it.

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Peter Shulman’s War

Peter Shulman's War
Photograph by Peter Shulman. 

. . . the story of an outdoor war game that artist Peter Shulman has been playing for more than forty years. It has some very unusual aspects to it that make it totally unique. It is in fact a huge installation type work of art. At the present time the war contains over 60,000 hand sculpted soldiers and more than 4,400 scale models, vehicles in 1/35 and 1/32 scale aircraft in 1/48 scale that cover over 20 acres.

Read all about it at Peter Shulman’s War; see also an interview with Shulman.

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