On the Road to Waterloo

The Battles of Waterloo is the Richard Berg design published by GMT Games (1994) on the four battles of Waterloo: Quatre Bras, Ligny, Wavre, and Mont St Jean. Each hex is 210 yards, each turn is half an hour, and each unit is a regiment. Units have strength points at the rate of one per 300 infantry, 200 cavalry, or 6 guns.

The physical components – especially the maps and counters – are very good, but the rules are somewhat troubled. You can play the game with the original rules, but there are some areas where you will have to use your judgement. A later rewrite didn’t completely solve the problems. However, the core design is just so damn enthralling that it is worth slogging away and filling in the blanks. Not ideal, but the absence of any more games using the system meant there was no commercial impetus to fix the rules properly. On Consimworld, Richard said the issues were to do with the complex Allied Army command structure. Unfortunately, that’s only partly correct. The irony is that the game system does quite a good job of replicating command and control issues.

I played it a few times when it first came out, but only tried the Waterloo (Mont St Jean) scenario. It is a bit of a slugfest, and I don’t recall Napoleon ever coming out on top. This time around, I decided to play Quatre Bras – the encounter between Ney and Waterloo that featured the classic non appearance of the entire French I Corps. The historical situation, apart from the I Corps, is that Ney was not aggressive or as forceful as he should have been had Napoleon’s orders been clearer. The special rules handle this well, though it is a bit frustrating for the French side to have the tools to do the job, but be held back by command issues. One good thing about the Quatre Bras game is that there is no guarantee Ney will be so slow as in his real life performance. So, after a first attempt that saw Ney fairly easily rebuffed, it was good to see that in the second run through, the French were victorious.

Here come the French!

Although there were no more in the series, if you look closely you can see how some of the ideas here have been sharpened up and packaged inside the Fallen Eagles system. the scales are similar, though Fallen Eagles allows much more stacking, and uses one hour turns. That series now covers Waterloo, Austerlitz, and Ligny, and seems to be doing well. Also similar in scale is the Napoleonic Battles Series from the Gamers, but there are going to be no more of those as sales, apparently, were disappointing.

The Allies are waiting…

Love Like Blood –

Tom Thorne may be a retired detective, but the author clearly cannot let go of the character, so once again he pops up in an unofficial capacity, becoming central to the story. In this case, matters start with the murder of Detective Inspector Nicola Tanner’s partner, in what seems to have been an attack meant to silence Tanner, working on several ‘honor’ killings. Tanner is taken out of the firing line, but she is not convinced anyone will do enough to find the killer, and she persuades Thorne to get involved. From this point on, the roller coaster ride begins.

Thorne and Tanner are comprehensive and believable characters, and their interaction and involvement are key to the success of the novel. However, the supporting cast are not always mere fillers, and the overall impression is of a well constructed, realistic, gritty crime novel. In other words, a damn fine read.

The honor killing part is handled without sensationalizing this difficult cultural issue. I did, however, think there was a degree of political correctness on show with the attempt at evenhandedly apportioning the sources of such crimes across multiple religions. That was the only very minor criticism I would make.

It’s best to read the Thorne books in order, but if you prefer just to dive in here, you will not lessen the enjoyment too much. It is a solid standalone tale.

True Blue – David Baldacci

True Blue is a typical Baldacci tale with twists and turns, complex intertwined stories, and some great ideas.

The main character comes with an enticing setup: Mason Perry is an ex policewoman who was framed for a crime she did not commit. Released from prison, she is out to get to the truth, but there’s a US district attorney eager to see her back in prison. Matters are slightly complicated by Mason’s sister being the chief of police. It’s a recipe for conflict of interest and loyalties, and Baldacci duly goes to town.

In addition, there’s Roy Kingman, the lawyer who finds the body of one of his partners at his office. Kingman and Perry are, inevitably, drawn together as the plot threads become entangled.

Unfortunately, I found the character portrayal of both sisters less than realistic. With that fundamental flaw, for me the book did not work. The Kingman character was a bit better, but not Baldacci’s best.

As usual, the plot is well constructed, and the pace of the action is relentless. But with my lack of empathy for the Perry characters, I was less than enthralled.

Not recommended.

Eight Minute Empire

Despite the misleading title, this is a decent filler game that does a good job of synthesizing some worker placement themes into a fast, fun, and thoughtful challenge.

It’s designed for two to five players, and the game length varies according to the number of players. If you are super fast, you could finish a two player game in under ten minutes, but I would guess most games will take 30-45 minutes.

There is a double sided board, allowing you to choose what map you want to play on. Each is split into continents and areas. All players start in the same starting area (with three armies) and then the game begins by laying out six cards. The first player chooses a card, plays any price, executes the action, and the player’s turn is done.

You start with a set amount of money that has to last the game. Each card has a price according to its position in the row, varying from 0 to 3. If you run out of money, you have to take the ‘0’ card. Each card has an action – introduce new armies, move armies, build a city, or eliminate an army – and a commodity. At the end of the game you get victory points for areas controlled, continents controlled, and sets of commodities. Control comes from having the most armies plus cities in an area.

You can only add new armies to the start area (which is where every player’s army starts) or where you have a city. And you can build a city where you have an army. That means you need to think about when and where (or if) you want to take a turn to build a city.

The key trick in the game is to watch the available cards, work out what you need, work out what your opponents need, and take the card that best advances your position whilst least advancing your opponents’ positions. You are unlikely to get stuck with analysis paralysis, but the decisions are not always easy.

Susan and I played this a couple of times, once with a third (novice) player, and enjoyed it. It’s a very good example of a filler game, with a nice balance of luck and skill, and is highly replayable, even if it will take you more than eight minutes to play.

The Norman Geras Reader

Norman Geras was a Zimbabwean born political thinker, a Marxist by belief, and a Jew by birth. A Professor Emeritus of Politics at Manchester University, he was a prime mover behind the Euston Manifesto.

I came across him late on in his life, courtesy of his blog. The posts there reflected not only his wide interests (including a love of cricket) but showcased the continually high quality of his writing. Generally, he was clear and to the point. And sometimes that point was the one on which he skewered antisemites with his razor sharp keyboard. For example, see here.

While my political beliefs are not those of the late Mr Geras, I admired his writing so much that I had to buy this selection of his output. Although I have read some before on his blog, it was good to refresh the experience. I don’t normally mention the non-fiction books I read, but I wanted to make this an exception. While there are some passages that only hard-boiled academics and Marxist thinkers will follow, there is an abundance of other, solid, thoughtful material. Geras’ death was a real loss. This reader is a good way to remember and honor him.

The Politicization of Science

The New Scientist (20 January 2018 issue) has an editorial on the cover story: the “worrying signs that civilisation has started to collapse.” The editorial includes the following:

THE idea that we are living in a historic, even apocalyptic, age exerts a powerful pull on the human mind. Eschatology – the theology of end times – is a religious concept, but crops up in many other systems of thought. Marxism and neo-liberalism were both driven by an “end-of-history” narrative. Scientific thinking isn’t immune either: the technological singularity has been called eschatology for geeks, and the study of existential risk even has its own centre at the University of Cambridge. You don’t have to believe in the four horsemen to see the apocalypse coming.

After noting that the end may not be so imminent after all, the editorial points out that a real threat to our world – climate change – has been badly handled. Why? The threat was politicized: used as a stick by political faction alpha to beat political faction beta about the head, and of course the other way round.

The point is not that the activists’ answers are wrong. Business as usual is a sure way to climate catastrophe. It is that they prematurely politicised the science and hence provoked pushback from people on the other side of the fence.

Evidence for an impending civilisational collapse is much weaker, but is already being politicised in a similar way. The causes being offered are familiar bugbears of the left: inequality, population growth and resource depletion. The proposed answers are equally predictable and contentious.

That’s the backdrop.

The main article on the topic includes this:

“The idea that Western power and influence is in gradual decline, perhaps as a prelude to a precipitous fall, has been around for a while. But it has gained a new urgency with recent political events, not least the election of US president Donald Trump. For some, his turning away from international commitments is part of fulfilling his promise to “make America great again” by concentrating on its own interests. For others, it’s a dangerous move that threatens to undermine the whole world order. Meanwhile, over in the old world, Europe is mired in its own problems.”

So the editorial cautions against politicization of the issue, and the main article politicizes the issue!

Let’s be clear: Donald Trump is not the best man to be president of the USA. Will he be the worst? It depends on what media you base your judgement. But the suggestion that it is tenable to hold the end of the world is nearer because of Trump’s election is scaremongering in the extreme. It’s reckless, and panders to the same narrow focus of thought that says only socialism has the answer.

In short, the New Scientist‘s contribution to the discussion is tainted by politicization.

American Gods – Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is a highly acclaimed writer. American Gods is one of his top rated books. I hated it.

The fantastic elements did not trouble me, but neither did they excite or even interest me. The characters did not spark any empathy in me, and I cared not one jot what happened to them. The plot, when it appeared, was a mish-mash of nonsense that took itself too seriously, but lacked the gravitas to carry it off. And, it was slow. Slow as in too slow, too lacking in urgency, and requiring more suspension of disbelief than was worthwhile.

It is a book touted as being a wonderful new, fresh perspective on America. That’s not how I see it. It’s a new perspective on marketing over substance.

In short, a dud.

If the rest of Neil Gaiman’s output is like this, I’ll not be bothering with it.

Let’s Be Careful Out There

I ended my my blog post Secure? You better believe it about the discovery of microprocessor security vulnerabilities with this:

I wonder what Bruce Schneier will say?

The question has been answered. Here are some notable points:

“Throw it away and buy a new one” is ridiculous security advice, but it’s what US-CERT recommends. It is also unworkable. The problem is that there isn’t anything to buy that isn’t vulnerable. Pretty much every major processor made in the past 20 years is vulnerable to some flavor of these vulnerabilities. Patching against Meltdown can degrade performance by almost a third. And there’s no patch for Spectre; the microprocessors have to be redesigned to prevent the attack, and that will take years.

In short, we are all stuck in a hole not of our making.

Later on, there is some practical advice about what you should do:

This isn’t to say you should immediately turn your computers and phones off and not use them for a few years. For the average user, this is just another attack method amongst many. All the major vendors are working on patches and workarounds for the attacks they can mitigate. All the normal security advice still applies: watch for phishing attacks, don’t click on strange e-mail attachments, don’t visit sketchy websites that might run malware on your browser, patch your systems regularly, and generally be careful on the Internet.

As they used to say on Hill Street Blues, let’s be careful out there.

The Guards – Ken Bruen


This is a patchy but interesting crime novel, set in Eire, and featuring an all too realistically alcoholic ex policeman, Jack Taylor.

The central story – apart from Taylor’s battle with the bottle – is about a series of suicides by young girls. Except somebody doesn’t think they are suicides and recruits Jack to look into matters. Thus starts the somewhat rocky adventures of the reluctant, but dogged, private investigator. He faces obstacles in the shape of the law, a powerful local businessman, and his poisonous relationship with his mother and the church.

There is a touch of humor  in places, but mostly this is a gritty and dark and painful story. The writing is good in the sense that it carries the reader along, but some of the pacing is off (that’s the ‘patchy’ aspect) as sometimes I felt things were just standing still for no good reason. The climax is well put together, however, and drew a sharp intake of breath from me with its unexpected twist.

I had never heard of this writer until I stumbled across the television series based on the books. The TV programs were OK, but I suspected the books might be better, and to my mind they are.

I would rate this as a good solid start, promising more, so I’ll be delving further into the life and times of another damned defective detective.