Huge Things Coming Soon

I’m about 2000 words into a post in which I expand on my ideas for Ogre-Suit Gundam.  It includes sample stats for 2 Zeon and 3 Federation Mobile Suits as well as a few suggestions on how to adapt Ogre’s engine to accommodate battles with giant robots.  Now, I need to finish the second half in which I propose how the SPI engine could be adapted for operations level war gaming.

As such, my Fortress Europa post is being bumped to next week.

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The Robert Morgan Effect

Have you ever entered an online (or real world) space where you were absolutely certain that you were right about your position and everyone else was wrong? You may have had truth, facts and statistics on your side, but the sheer fact that the position you held or the idea you were espousing was so opposed to the consensus that you were seen as an outsider, an outcast, a troll, a reprobate, a lunatic, etc. In the eyes of those people, you are more than just a fly in the ointment, you are an aberration that must be cast out in order to create a homogeneity of thought, a safe space.

It doesn’t matter if you’re right, because if you’re the only person expressing that viewpoint in a given area you are wrong to everyone else in that space; you are so ‘other’ that you will not be engaged with but struck down.

This is a common phenomenon in discussions of religion, politics, science and even fandom, apparently, when a single ideology or viewpoint is the only one espoused or tolerated by a large group of individuals and a lone individual with an opposing viewpoint attempts to engage in that space.

I propose a name for this phenomenon, calling it the Robert Morgan Effect.

Watch the last minutes of this classic Vincent Price movie.

(Begins at relevant segment 1h24m53s; warning, spoilers for ending of a 50 year old movie that’s been remade 3 or 4 times)

Robert Morgan is the Last Man on Earth. He is the only person who is not a shambling cannibal vamzombiepire. But because he is not, he represents an existential threat to the world the vamzombiepires have set up for themselves. It doesn’t matter that he’s a Man. He’s the ‘other’ in this case, and his destruction is necessary to maintain a safe space.

Addendum: If the matter is simply a disagreement on a matter of opinion, it is not the Robert Morgan Effect.  It is the Robert Morgan Effect when the topic in question is a subject of falsehood, evidence proving the falsehood of a popular claim is dismissed out of hand, and a good-faith effort to engage and correct falsehood is met with attacks against the messenger, often ad hominem.  Presentation of evidence to correct a falsehood is perceived as trolling. It is something of an inversion of Poe’s Paradox.

Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin. Military Sci-Fi at its Finest!

I’m a pretty big fan of Universal Century Mobile Suit Gundam stuff. For the longest time, though, I’d put off reading Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin, in no small part because of the outrageous price ($30-ish, 3 times the normal price of most manga) of the hard-bound, partially colored, full gloss collections. Plus, I sort of assumed it to JUST be a retelling of Mobile Suit Gundam. In a way I was right, but in so many ways I was TOTALLY WRONG!

Awhile back I snagged the first four volumes from the library, and they are AMAZING!

The Origin is done entirely by the original series character designer, Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, and he uses the opportunity to tell a far more mature and compelling version of the One Year War. Though the story and themes are primarily the same, Yasuhiko strips away the cartoonish trappings of the 1979 series, taking it even further than Tomino did* with the compilation movies in which he’d sought to remove a lot of the sillier elements. Some might cry foul, but Yasuhiko succeeds in polishing off the last of the super robot elements which Gundam was so important for having begun to erode. What we’re left with is an incredibly gripping hardcore military sci-fi story that just happens to involve giant robots. Minor characters get more time to make the White Base crew seem more filled out and less understaffed. Additional Guntanks and Guncannons in its mobile suit arsenal makes the White Base feel a lot more like a functional combat unit than just Amuro and two mooks who sometimes get assists. This also means that we lose a lot more characters that we meet; with the exception of Job John (a VERY minor named character from the original series who did survive) I fully expect all of the other named Federation Mobile Suit pilots on White Base to die. While this could’ve taken away from Ryu’s big-heroic-sacrifice death, it ends up making it more meaningful as he’s the senior most pilot who, already severely injured, has to come to the aid of other pilots, some of whom were already kia.

The biggest change to the story, however, is that Yasuhiko opted not to use the batshit crazy semi-canonical route that White Base followed from its landing in North America to the Earth Federation HQ in Brazil. Instead he manages to fit the entire original earth arc narrative into a far more sensible direct route.

The White Base’s Journey to Jaburo in Mobile Suit GundamJourney to Jaburo Anime1. The White Base lands deep in Zeon Territory, somewhere in the American Southwest, later proposed to be near the Grand Canyon. Attacked by Garma’s North American Zeon forces.

2. Somehow, the White Base ends up the ruins of New York, fighting Char & the NA Zeons. Garma killed in battle.

3. The White Base’s Quantum journey to Asia.

4. The homogeneous wasteland geography makes the first part of the Ramba Ral arc difficult to place, but it’s generally assumed to be mainland China near the Taklamakan Desert.

5. Isle of Kukurus Doan; while this episode was not nearly as terrible as people have said it was (Time Be Still was much worse), it does make fuck-all sense having White Base back in the Pacific at this point, at least based on the episode’s production number. If placed before the Ramba Ral arc, it would resolve the quantum journey issue.

6. Battles explicitly set in or near the Taklamakan Desert (retroactive continuity), though easily could have taken place across Afghanistan and Persia on the White Base’s trek toward Europe.

7. The Odessa Offensive is one of the few places (along with the battle of New York, the refit in Belfast and Jaburo being in the Amazon basin somewhere in Brazil) that has an explicit tie to a real world location. It is, however, a large regional operation.  White Base’s exact location in all of this is unclear other than that they are behind enemy lines and in an arid region somewhere near the Black Sea.

8. The White Base encounters the Black Tri-Star somewhere in the forests of central Europe. This is held to either take place in the Ardennes or the Black Forest in Germany.

9. Following the Odessa Offensive, the White Base is given refit in Belfast, Ireland.

10. The White Base crosses the Atlantic Ocean, pursued by Zeon marines led by Char.

11. White Base finally arrives at Earth Federation Supreme HQ Jaburo in Brazil. After the Zeon’s all out assault on Jaburo is repulsed, the White Base returns to space, where it is involved in combat operations near Side 6, and Space Fortresses Solomon and A Baoa Qu.

The White Base’s Journey to Jaburo in Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin

Journey to Jaburo Manga

1. White Base lands explicitly in the American Southwest in Arizona and spend some time following the Colorado River Valley. They fight Garma’s North American Zeon forces, though the geography is much more concrete.

2. Since one of the few things that was explicit about the location of Garma’s HQ in the original was that it was based in California, North American Zeon Command is placed in partially ruined L.A.; Zeon leadership staff occupy the hoity-toity parts while partisans hide in the ruins. The White Base receives orders to coordinate with the partisans in an effort to break Zeon’s North American command structure. Hence the Battle of New York is moved to L.A. The results are more or less the same, however instead of a brief arc about Icelina wanting revenge, we get to see the Zeon military police put a bullet in her father’s head.  (He was changed from mayor of New York to mayor of L.A.; he’s still a supporter of the anti-Zeon partisans).

3. Rather than take a crazy route circumnavigating the globe to get to Earth Federation HQ, White Base heads directly toward South America, fighting their way towards…

4. Neutral space in Lima Peru. The Ramba Ral arc is moved to the South American highlands, though some may have also taken place in the Mexican desert. It should be noted that in this telling, Lima essentially replaces Belfast, moving up White Base’s refit to before the Tri-Star arc. The Miharu subplot is replaced with Hayato beating the hell out of some Zeons in the street with his Judo skills (which are more relevant in the manga than they were in the Anime).

5. The battle with the Black Tri-Star is moved to near Cuzco. White Base therefore does not take part in the Odessa Offensive for geographic reasons; M’Quve is demoted from his arc-villain status and replaced with rather enjoyable new character General Garcia.

6. White Base arrives at Jaburo in time to assist in the defense of Federation HQ against an all out assault launched by General Garcia. He tries to use an Adzam underground and it goes about as well as you’d expect.

As you can see, the route taken in The Origin is significantly shorter and, despite losing/moving the iconic fights at Odessa and the forests of Germany, makes a hell of a lot more sense.

I cannot recommend Mobile Suite Gundam: The Origin enough.  Even for non-anime fans of Mil-SF.  I mean, I love MSG, but I will admit that there are so many cringe inducing moments as well as slow spots and bad episodes that keep me from making an unreserved recommendation to someone who doesn’t already like Gundam or giant robots.  That is not the case with The Origin, however.  There’s really nothing I would qualify my recommendation for this with.  If you like Mil-SF, you will at least appreciate if not love this retelling of the most significant military sci-fi tales of the 20th century.

Anyway, it’s inspired me to revisit my ideas for OGRE-suit Gundam…  Coming soon…

*:Another reason why I was hesitant was that I was worried it might be like Tomino’s novelizations, which were pretty terrible.

Fantasy General

Because Panzer General is freaking hard and turned out to not be relaxing at all, I moved on to something that was a bit more my speed. On Sunday, I started a Fantasy General campaign as the Knight Marshal Calis.

This is the mustache that will lead mankind to freedom from tyranny.

This is the mustache that will lead mankind to freedom from tyranny.

I really need to dig out my cd copy because without the epic soundtrack, it’s hard to get the full experience, but for now tossing on Striborg or Burzum in the background while I play sufficiently fits the tone of pressing across the Ice Continent of Pothia.

Fantasy General was the third game in SSI’s 5-Star General series. After the obnoxious Windows release of Allied General, SSI got their head on straight and put together a game whose interface was usable right out of the box. The most obvious differences between Fantasy General and Panzer General are of course the fact that you’re playing in a gonzo fictional setting with everything from werebears to steam powered automatons instead of Europe and you’re fighting against the dark lord instead of for him. But there are a number of significant mechanical changes. Some were thematic, others are not, but are improvements nonetheless.

Unlike Panzer General, which takes place at operational level, Fantasy General uses a squadron-based scale. Most units represent 15 individuals, though “hero” and “single entity” units represent a single powerful individual worth 10 strength points. The higher strength value of units meant that a single unit might survive two fairly harsh attacks and be able to recover (or at least survive a battle), unlike in Panzer general where losing 3 or 4 SP following a disastrous attack almost certainly means losing that unit to a counter attack on the opponent’s turn. It also introduced a system of tracking losses as either “killed” or “wounded”. This system replaced Panzer General’s distinction between regular and elite replacements. Killed troops could only be replaced by recruits in cities or between missions and would count against a unit’s experience. Wounded strength points could be recovered by resting for a turn or by use of some sort of healing magic. One major advantage of “single entity” units is that they can always heal up to full-strength so long as they’re not in a ZOC. Units in Fantasy General are far more prone to retreating, which in this system has a two-fold effect: survivability of units is improved, since resting outside a ZOC replenishes all “wounded” points, and use of mixed units becomes more important to keep enemies on their toes; it’s often more prudent to not attack a fleeing unit if you can’t finish it off before it’s out of range.

The second major mechanical change, which was a huge improvement that would be carried forward to most successive General games, was the ability to manage your troops in between missions. After each battle, you’re given a chance to upgrade units, fill out your core, distribute magical swag (somewhat similar to assigning ‘named’ commanders to units in later PG games) and allocate your troop research levels. Though early game the cost-leap between some of the lvl 0 and lvl 1 troops can break the bank, at least you’re presented with the opportunity and don’t have to sacrifice an entire turn to upgrade troops and buy new recruits.

The third major change was a shift from the rather opaque initiative rules to a fairly cut and dry system of attack priority. Units in Fantasy General have 3 types of attack: Melee, Skirmish and Missile. The highest attack value is used as a units primary attack. If a Melee unit attacks, the defending unit uses its Melee to calculate damage it does as a defender. If a Skirmisher attacks, unless the defender has Missile or Skirmish, the defender cannot deal damage to the Skirmisher. If a Missile unit attacks, unless the defender has a Missile attack, it cannot deal return damage. What this ends up meaning in practice is that you need to throw your melee troops (heavy infantry and heavy cavalry) in hard against enemy skirmishers or archers to break them up, use your skirmishers (skirmishers, light cavalry and to a lesser extent casters) to soften heavy infantry, pursue stragglers with light infantry, and use archers to provide missile support to exposed troops. PG’s artillery role is split between archers and siege engines; archers will add pre-emptive missile fire to defending units adjacent to them while siege engines will add pre-emptive missile fire to units adjacent to them that are attacking cities.

Now, I said that Fantasy General has something of a gonzo setting. Though the whole ‘united armies of good vs. the evil hordes of the dark lord’ is pretty typical of 90s fantasy, FG at least mixes it up with some pretty weird units. In addition to “mortal” units, there are magic, beast, and mechanical troops. So your Pikemen could very-well be marching in formation with companies of animated armor, lionmen, elephants mounted with steam guns while flying metal barges float overhead ready to drop naptha on the armies of darkness. Upgrades can be pretty silly sometimes, because it’s an everything-and-the-kitchen sink setting. Your Pikemen will eventually upgrade to legionnaires, who will upgrade to Samurai who will upgrade to Heavy Spearmen (take that orientalist primacy!) And while the shadow lord’s forces has its staples of orcs, goblins, trolls, ogres and undead, there are also ratmen, cobramen, mastodon riders, rhino-knights, hydra, serpent riders, and more. There are also some pretty cool (if poorly implemented) evil heroes, like the Leech King or Claw the Assassin (a catman, naturally).

One of the reasons FG was a better choice to relax to than Panzer General is that it has a much slower “ratcheting up” period. While the first mission on the second continent can be something of a wake-up call, the game gives you plenty of time to get the hang of things. The only down-side to this is that sometimes it feels too easy. I can finish most missions with anywhere from 5 to 10 turns to go, rolling across the continents one after another. It’s a game that I wish were revisited and tweaked a bit with more varied units at each grade and with improved enemy AI. I can’t possibly complain about the maps, because there are so many of them and they’re so varied, but it would be nice to see the AI make better use of the terrain to mount their defense. In some ways I almost think that after the brutality of the early games, the computer is a bit nerfed. Still, it feels more like a game in which one is meant to play a campaign rather than a series of set-pieces that would work as individual ‘games’ but do not work as well when played in subsequent order while forced to use surviving units from the previous fights.

There’s so much more I could go into about Fantasy General, but I’ve already gone way long on this post.  If you want more, here’s a pretty nifty faq from almost 20 years ago! Tomorrow, I’ll be talking about Gundam, so will probably talk way too long about that too. More Fortress Europa later this week.

Panzer General

Among all of the other things I need to take care of this week, I’ll be taking care of some zine related stuff, clearing my queue and hopefully be ready to move into phase 2. The stress may have gotten to me, and I was laid out on both Sunday and Monday, but I’m doing a bit better now.

When I was convalescing, I spent my time revisiting a few old SSI favorites. Inspired by playing Fortress Europa with my dad, I downloaded and got Panzer General running on my PC. The 5 Star General series was one of my dad’s favorite gaming franchises, because it brought his favorite style of war gaming to the PC in a way that was recognizable to a classic board gamer, but enhanced with all of the glitz and glam of vidya games. It also had cool play-by-mail features that were much more convenient than writing down a spreadsheet of hex-numbers and checking the daily stock-market for your dice rolls. Now, they were incredibly dumbed down compared to the earlier V For Victory series, which in many ways was one of the most ambitious translation of hex and chit war gaming to PC port ever attempted*, but they definitely scratch an itch for someone who wants real strategy games and not real time strategy games.

Now, when I was a little kid, I sucked at Panzer General. And it turns out I still suck at Panzer General. Why? Because it’s HARD! I always thought my dad was amazing at it, but to my knowledge, even he never “beat” it; the difference between major and minor victories, even in the hypothetical scenarios would usually mean that he’d be set on the defense and have to play though all of the fighting retreat scenarios until managing to force a favorable armistice with the Allied Nations. I don’t know that I ever managed to get past the conquest of France. And it looks like that might still be the case.

Unlike many of the later General games, PG 1 ratchets up the difficulty incredibly quickly, with almost no real ‘tutorial’ warm-up type battles. I mean, sure, there’s Poland, but even those two missions aren’t a cakewalk by any means. If you do well in the battle for Warsaw, you’re put in charge of the forces invading Norway, where you will be getting hammered constantly by the British Navy which you can do almost nothing about. Italy 1943 (Allied conquest of Sicily) is probably the most brutal starting scenario; even when I’ve ‘won’, my forces would always be so wiped out that in the follow-up break-out at Anzio scenario, I’d be overrun in less than five turns.

The biggest issues contributing to difficulty in PG1 are:

  1. Low strength values of the units: early in the franchise history, the 5-Star games used a 10 strength baseline for units; elite units could be (very slowly and at great cost) made overstrength up to 15 (1 SP per grade; good luck having a unit survive long enough to become a 5 star veteran). This often meant units could be wiped out incredibly easily in one unlucky turn. More on that in a bit. Later general games made the unit strength base 15, which meant a much greater chance of front-line units surviving long enough to gain experience and be rebuilt.
  2. No upgrading/overstrengthing in between missions. This is one of the most frustrating aspects of PG 1. Despite promises that doing well in such and such a mission would give high command time to replenish, resupply and retrofit your troops, you never had the opportunity to do so between missions. Therefore, you would have to spend the first turn of any mission upgrading units (because god knows that Panzer IA isn’t going to be useful past 1939) and buying replacements. Again, this is something that later 5-Star games addressed, allowing you to upgrade and purchase core units between battles.
  3. Rugged Defense. This was the equivalent of rolling a 1 on the combat result table. Before you made any attack, the game would display an approximation of the casualties both sides would incur. Due to how initiative and suppression worked in PG1, these numbers were often incorrect, but typically gave one a reasonable idea of whether an attack would be suicide or not without having to check both units hard attack/soft attack and hard defense/soft defense stats. Sometimes, however, you would see a warning message stating “Rugged Defense!” This usually meant that a weaker or understrength unit that you were attacking because the predicted odds were incredibly in your favor could somehow kill half or more of the guys in the attacking unit, which would often be wiped out next turn. This result was always frustrating and disheartening and felt like the game was cheating, since you couldn’t see under the hood.
  4. Lost Cause scenarios. The defensive scenarios very much feel this way. The Allies often have just breathtakingly overwhelming superiority in numbers at times, and their losses do not hurt the way your losses do; unlike the Allies, you are only taking with you whomever survives the battle. Therefore, in a case like the start of the 1943 Italian campaign, when treated as a single scenario, you can fight to the bloody end, with the last of the Panzers heroically stalling the Allied advance into the toe of Italy after having survived both the ground onslaught and constant naval bombardment. But then you go to the next mission with your 6 surviving units and immediately lose because you just cannot make up for that difference in power. It’s like those fighting games that don’t reset BOTH players’ health bar after each KO. You can’t catch up.

Tomorrow, perhaps, I’ll go into Fantasy General, the other game I spent a lot of time this weekend fooling around with (and also ended up enjoying more), but as this has gone on fairly long, I think I’ll wrap up here.
*:The most audacious feature of the V For Victory games was the simultaneous execution of movement, something that would only be possible, especially on the enormous scale these games used, with a computer; players would painstakingly assign each unit’s action for the turn and hope that their opponent’s movements did not somehow muck up whatever they had planned. For instance, an infantry unit could be programmed to be packed up into its trucks and travelling down a road (strategic movement) while an enemy unit is slowly moving perpendicular to it crossing that same road in proper marching formation (tactical movement); depending on where and when the units will cross paths, the infantry in their trucks may end up cut off and not only fail to reach their destination but be ambushed and possibly wiped out by the unit moving in formation; neither player knows what happened until they see how their planned moves resolve.

Minor update: I’m apparently the first person on wordpress to talk about Panzer General since 2013.  How punk rock is that!?