The Egyptian

I finished The Egyptian by Mika Waltari, and while it was a beautiful journey, it was an emotionally draining one.  It should be noted that the book itself is a product of WWII, so delves into some pretty dark territory.

While the 1954 Hollywood epic made the story of Akhnaton and his god Aton into a proto-Christian morality play in which Akhnaton was perhaps a prophet of the one true god before his time, Akhnaton and the monotheism he attempts to impose on Egypt are portrayed in a much less black and white fashion in the book.  Akhnaton is a benevolent tyrant who seeks to impose his utopia on Egypt for the good of its people though he himself is shielded from any consequences of his policies.  The love of peace and hatred of war makes Egypt weak before its devious enemies, seriously compromising its national security through appeasement and belief in the goodness of one’s foreign foes.  The equality preached by Akhnaton in Aton’s name becomes the rallying cry of class warfare, as the poor and the slaves rise up to punish the rich and bring every man down to their level, and Egypt is turned into a land of thieves and ruffians.  The Pharaoh’s plan to redistribute the wealth of Egypt is a miserable failure, for akin to the seizures of farmland in 20th century Africa, the productive farmers are driven off their lands and replaced by ignorant neophytes whose early crop failures plunge Egypt into famine.  Worship of Aton and the war between the gods Aton and Ammon seem less of a metaphor for any sort of proto-Christianity but a conflict between the corruption of state capitalism and national socialism or Bolshevism.

Sinuhe loves Akhnaton and loves the vision he offers of a world of love, peace and equality, but Akhnaton’s way is awash in blood and costs Sinuhe all he holds dear.  The recurring motif is the failure of the human character which dooms (or at least taints) great enterprise.  It also leaves one with the bleak impression that there is nothing for man but what he leaves behind and that is far from guaranteed, whether it is Akhnaton, who is struck from history, Aziru the Amorite King, who is executed with his family and fed to wild beasts, or Sinuhe, who believes his account will be destroyed upon his death in his house of exile. Though it’s a beautifully told story, imagine if Ben-Hur ended with his family still presumed dead and they never met Jesus.  While I did mention that the themes of the Egyptian are more political than religious, there lurks in Sinuhe’s longing something of a note of tragedy about a pre-Christian world in which all the gods are false and corrupt, demanding endless blood and sacrifice; Sinuhe does cling to hope for the Aton that is a god with and within all men and before whom all are equal.

Of interesting note, the one Karma Houdini ended up being Nefernefernefer, the courtesan to whom Sinuhe gave all of his (and his parents) property leading to his original exile.  Despite ending the book with wealth beyond measure, even Kaptah, Sinuhe’s loyal servant and comic side-kick has gone through his fair share of torment and anguish. In the film, Nefernefernefer returns afflicted with a disfiguring disease (strongly implied to be syphilis) and Sinuhe mercifully treats and forgives her in a grand redemptive gesture.  In the book, during the riots in Thebes where the supporters of Aton are destroying the temples of Ammon, Sinuhe hands her over to the embalmers in the House of Death to have their way with her, only for her to charm all of them and con all of them out of their ill-gotten treasures stolen from the wealthy dead, and that’s the last we hear of her.

As much as I enjoyed The Egyptian, I’m looking forward to decompressing with something a bit lighter.

The Challenge

Circumstances have prevented the Dungeon Crawl Classics group I’m in from having enough folks to run anything, so we’ve been playing various other games during our regularly scheduled nights.  Last time we got together, I decided to bring over “The Challenge”, an obscure card game whose perforated cardstock I’d not even gotten around to separating yet.

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Hey… hey, wait… spells don’t use the numbered cards, there are no 6s and even Axes only go up to 7!

“The Challenge” is a game of quasi-D&D-like PVP action.  Players take turns having their party members fight it out with weapons and magic until one party is eliminated and the player with the most remaining HP + Magic item value + HP of enemy characters killed is the winner.  Instead of the BS backstabbing and indirect conflict of Munchkin, The Challenge is all about straight head to head combat.  As its name implies, a challenge is issued and characters slug it out until one is killed or both players have exhausted their actions.

Each player starts with 5 characters that can be sorted into one or two ranks.  The races of the character (Orc, Human, Dwarf, Elf, Halfling) aren’t particularly relevant unless you choose to let players pick parties by race rather than randomly to get a more balanced party.  More important are the classes and their abilities.  Each character card has three abilities, meaning those are the cards that can be played when they are in combat: Fighters will have three of the four weapon types, Clerics and Wizards will generally have one weapon and two spells or no weapons & three spells, and Thieves will have two weapons + Backstab.

So, you draw a fist full of cards from the Melee and Mystic Action decks.  The Melee Action deck is mostly full of weapon cards, Daggers, Staffs, Axes, Bows, and Swords, but also has a few “Parry” and “Dodge” cards.  The Mystic Actions deck has spells, equipable magic items, some special thief actions (Spy and Hide in Shadow), and some general defensive items/actions.  These cards can be played based on what abilities are listed on the character card.  If you have a fist-full of Axes, chances are, you don’t want to attack with a wizard that turn, but if you’ve got that shiny human paladin, you’re good to go.

One of the neat aspects is the “ranks”; most characters can only attack one rank away (i.e. a fighter on the first rank can only challenge a fighter on another player’s first rank), but characters with bows can attack two ranks away, wizards can attack any rank(or two ranks, I forget), and if you play a “hide in shadows” card on a thief, they exist in special thiefspace and cannot be attacked but can attack either rank (though doing so will cause them to leave thiefspace).  Once we actually figured out how the thief worked, we realized they were pretty badass.  Since hide in shadows can be played as a response, it meant that they could attack with impunity so long as you had an extra hide in shadows card.

We had a lot of fun with it, but we will definitely need to create our own set of explicit rules and clarifications.  For one thing, the rules pertaining to cards were neither entirely on the card nor in the rules’ description of the card, so you had to read both the card and the rules to figure out how something worked, and even then it could be vague.  Dispel Magic was a point of contention because it was so varied in what it did: on a defensive turn, Dispel Magic could be played to neutralize a negative effect, such as Hold Person, on your own party, but on an attack turn, it could be used to destroy an enemy’s magic item (initiating a challenge against that character), remove a Charm Person (initiating and then instantly ending the challenge if the dispel resolves and you regain control of your character), or counter a spell targeting your caster.  The jury is still out as to whether it can negate an Orb of Protection (because Orb of Protection is party-wide and normally targeting an enchantment/equipment initiates a challenge against whomever is enchanted/equipped), but we agreed that it could not negate the Shield Wall action.  And here is where things are confusing: there are things which are actions which common sense tells you is an item.  Healing Potion is not an item; it’s an action that can be played in response to taking damage or to remove accumulated damage.  Similarly, an Orb of Protection is a “Special Defensive Action” which can only be played during a defensive turn.  Note that the categorization of Mystic Action Cards is listed not on the cards themselves, but in the manual’s description of each card.

This is a game that if you have the patience to figure it out and don’t mind having to piece together your own errata will make a great addition to your gaming parties.  It would feel right at home among something like Bang! or King of Tokyo for folks who like their party games a bit more cut-throat but don’t like the more passive aggressive styles of play.  Though the box’s disclaimer “Warning: Don’t Play This Game With Your Friends” is silly and childish, it could just as well read “Warning: Don’t Play This Game With Eurogamers.”  The only way you’re going to win at this is to be unafraid to throw an axe in someone’s face.  Just make sure you’ve feigned with a Sword-3 or something to draw out that Parry before you drop the Axe-7 on them.

I found this game cheap several years ago and regret waiting so long to play it.  Old as it is, this one is still going for under $20 in a lot of places, and I highly recommend it.

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From Boardgame Geeks; not my copy.

Font Features

Everyone has a tendency to take eye-pleasing and appealing fonts for granted until you need them. And while Calibri, Arial, Courier and Times New Roman may hack it for every day stuff, sometimes you need a little bit more.

So, while looking for fonts to use, I figured out what interior text font used by Planet Stories. Well, maybe not the exact font, but pretty darn close.

As you can see, Planet Stories appears to use the Bodoni font family.

For comparison, I’ve included (in descending order) Bodoni MT, Bodoni MT Black, Bodoni MT Condensed, Bodoni MT Poster Compressed, and Bodoni FLF. Bodoni MT Black is the closest approximation so far I’ve found to the title-text font. Note that these are in bold.Fonts 1

Bodoni MT is the closest I’ve found for regular text; the “w” is noticeably wider, and I haven’t yet found a version with that handsome “Q”.  The differences in character height makes the FLF version somewhat unappealing.
Fonts 2

The difference in both the MT versions and FLF is more pronounced in the drop caps.

Fonts 3

I’m pretty happy with using MT, but if I can find a version with that Q, it would be pretty neat!

Fortress Europa pt 3

The Allied push into France may be starting to slow.  I tried to make the most of my early break-outs in Brittany, but now that the shock and awe has passed, the Nazis are beginning to re-trench behind rivers and in numbers that can’t quite so easily deal with.  Odds in Fortress Europa heavily favor the defender, so once the Nazis are able to stack 3 deep in hexes behind a river, it usually takes all of your available air-power (better hope that the weather is nice) to displace them.  This is especially a problem where adjacent zones of control will force you to attack multiple piles, splitting your attack power, at unfavorable odds.  So, I’m surprised that my dad surrendered the Seine.  Still, he’s managed to form an impressive line to slow me down, and, as he pointed out, there’s a lot of ground between Paris and the Rhine he has to work with.

While the Brits keep slowly pushing east across the north of France, the Americans have struck deep into the heartlands; my toughest armored units cut all the way south to the Mediterranean and are coming back up the Rhone/Saone valley.  Hopefully, those guys will be able to disrupt the south flank of the German line.  I’m probably going to just leave a token force behind to keep the Italians from going anywhere.  There’s no point in wasting time on Genoa or Torino, since even though Innsbruck is on the map, you can’t cut through the combat results table* to get to it.  It’s actually a pretty annoying design oversight, as it forces allied troops through funnels and renders nearly ¼ of the map useless.  I’d much prefer to be able to modify my strategy and sneak some elite mountaineer units across the Alps.  I guess I could send an HQ into that little nook and paradrop a couple divisions on the other side of Switzerland, but I don’t know if it would be worth it.

So far, I think the most obnoxious element of the game is the “Defender Retreat” result on the combat table.  In theory, it is a preferable result (achieved by a better roll) than an Exchange (attacker and defender each lose one strength step, defender retreats) or Exchange 2 (attacker loses two strength steps, defender loses one and retreats), but in practice is the “Nazis get away free card”.  Several times, I would have gladly knocked two infantry divisions down to half-strength to knock an SS Panzer division to half strength or to eliminate a fleeing Wehrmacht.  Though the retreat forces the enemy to cede ground, it allows the Nazis to gradually retrench behind advantageous terrain.  The worst thing that can happen is when your once-per-month carpet bombing mission (add +2 to attack roll on one attack at no better than 2-1 odds) yields a “Defender Retreat” result.

Honestly, though, most of the mechanical issues I have (such as ZOC extending across rivers, forcing ‘soak-off’** attack troops to retreat even when stacked with units who “win” their attack, or DR combat results having virtually no downside for the Nazis) are balancing elements to help the German player, who needs all the help he can get.  Early game play is the most interesting, as the Allies have the most options as to where they can invade and what strategy they can pursue.  Midgame ends up being kind of samey, since the Germans can really only pursue the one strategy of forming a line between Normandy/the Low Countries and Switzerland and the Allies don’t have the options to do anything but a frontal assault against said line.  The strategy of trying to land paratroopers in Austria from northern Italy is akin to trying to glitch through a wall.  But it’s interesting, so maybe I’ll mix things up and try it.

Overall, it’s a much quicker paced game than some of the others we’ve played recently, but I think I need to start writing my troop strengths down on scratch paper.  I’ll be having to count upwards of 20 chits in a turn in 3-4 separate engagements to figure odds, and by the time I get around to resolving battles, I’ve forgotten the troop strengths and have to count them each again.  I’m embarrassingly bad at head-math.  Not that I don’t know the math, but while I’m trying to figure out odds in my head for one battle, I’m trying to remember how many guys I have in all of my other piles at the same time.  A part of me almost wants to come up with little cover-counters so you don’t have to recount piles every time.  Lord knows the biggest downside of these games is picking up the pieces every time to count and then accidentally bumping other piles and the next thing you know you have no idea where Army Group West was before you started knocking things over.

*As you can see, this on-map inset takes up an area roughly covering Milan to Venice and the roadways Verona to Innsbruck.pic1041823

**If a stack is in two enemy stacks’ ZOC, at least one other unit must make a screening attack against one enemy stack to attack the other enemy stack.

The Weirwoods, Thomas Burnett Swann

I’m continuing to be impressed by what I’ve read from Thomas Burnett Swann. It doesn’t hurt that I’m a fan of mythological stories from antiquity. While Swann’s stories and techniques are the familiar fare that one will find in his contemporary writers of fantasy, he draws from the wells of Ovid and Herodotus to create his tales. I can say with some confidence that Swann has probably written more stories about the Etruscans than any other modern fantasist. I mentioned once that he reminded me of Frank G. Slaughter, but the only other 20th century fantasy writer that I could compare him to is Dunsany.

The Weirwoods is, at its core, a fairy-tale. An Etruscan lord captures a water-sprite because he thinks it would make a nice slave for his daughter; the daughter wants to free the sprite and return him to his lake and his people; she does so with the help of a travelling minstrel and a water-sprite sorceress. Of course to describe it as such seriously undersells what Swann is doing with this story.

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Not really how the water sprite is described, but the artist got the one-eyed bear with an eye-patch down. Did I mention the hero’s best friend is a one-eyed bear?

Swann explicitly uses the uncanny nature of Fey as part of his “realism”; while the cover depicts the sorceress Vegoia as blue-green and obviously some kind of inhuman fish-person, the sprites in the weirwoods look more or less human except for the look in their eyes, fins at their temples, and their webbed feet which slosh and squish whenever they walk.  This, of course, in contrast with all of the historical (and pseudohistorical) details Swann fills his world with.

Though they’re not “bad”, Fey are certainly inhuman, particularly in their reasoning and in their passions. Notions of love and gratitude as we understand them are alien.  Their behavior cannot be predicted by the standards that one would apply to their fellow man, and that makes them dangerous.

Being busy with the zine and staying on top of my other reading has pushed this off longer than I’d intended and my comments on it are far more shallow than I’d planned, but I still wanted to highlight this, even if I didn’t end up talking about the juxtaposition between Urban vs. the Rustic, Vel the sprite-boy vs. Arnth the minstrel, Tanaquil the good Etruscan girl vs. Vegoia the fey sorceress, love vs. pleasure, freedom vs. bondage, so on and so forth.  I’ll just leave it at saying Swann has me hooked.