War in 1987

The box is full...

The box is full…

On the table is Jim Day‘s game MBT, about the Cold War going hot in 1987, published by GMT. It is a tactical game (units are single vehicles or squads, and each hex is 100 meters) using the same core engine as Panzer, Jim’s WW2 tactical game, also from GMT.

I have the same issues with MBT as I do Panzer (see here) but was always going to get the game and try it out.


I have now played the initial two scenarios several times, using the basic rules, the advanced rules, and then my own mix of basic and advanced rules. I have also tried out some house rules (or variants, if you prefer) to try and fix bits and pieces. I have not come up with any magical solutions, but it is great fun trying things out.

Three Stations – Martin Cruz Smith


Investigator Arkady Renko is a loose cannon, now even more than before because he has been suspended from the Moscow prosecutor’s office. Apparently people in high places do not like him uncovering their dirty deeds. But Renko is an unstoppable force for good (in truth, a fair assessment of the power of this character) and when he is inadvertently at the scene of what looks like the suicide of a young addict and prostitute, it sets him off.

Renko moves from the underbelly of organized crime, through the abused population of Moscow, to the high society of equally organized crime, tracking down the clues and the links, unraveling the murky fog, and catching the bad guy. Through the hunt, there is a sort of side issue of a mother searching for her stolen baby, aided and abetted by Renko’s almost adopted son.

Once again, the author delivers a crisp, fast, and sharp tale. The plot is well paced, the storytelling is masterful, and the characters grow and grow. All the while, the setting – observed with empathy despite is gaping flaws – stacks up like some gothic, threatening, monstrous shadow.

If the book has one disappointing part, it may be the ending. It’s not a bad ending, but I was not convinced it had the same gravitas as the preceding narrative. Still, it was a cracking read.

Fast Fast

Yom Kippur starts tonight.

For those that mark the day, and fast, I wish you an easy fast.

For those that just mark the day, I wish you a worthwhile day.

To all, I hope that you will have a good year, with an Almighty seal of approval in the Book of Life.

70 years of Israeli peace attempts wrapped up into two short hours

The excellent David Collier blog – Beyond the Great Divide – has an insightful (and shocking) post about events at Lichfield Cathedral:

I have just spent a weekend at Lichfield cathedral for a conference “on the Israel/Palestine Conflict and the prospect of peace”. And what a weekend it was! A naïve Dean, antisemitism, conspiracy theories, global control, blood sucking Jews, child kidnappers, Arabs in 100ad. and of course, Jesus the Palestinian.

I do recommend you read it all, though I want to highlight the following extract:

We then heard from a dutiful liberal Zionist. And what a talk it was. Professor Yossi Meckleberg presented to the audience a very accommodating position. A man anyone could make peace with. Like most liberal Zionists he is talking to himself. *if only* such voices could be heard from the other side. Another break. More pamphlets to read. All about a fictional place called Israel/Palestine. Or Palestine/Israel for those who KameL Hawwashwant to belittle Israel’s legitimacy more thoroughly. A group called ‘Lichfield Concern for Palestine’. All talk was about Israeli brutality. No mention of Arab violence anywhere. Another talk was about to start. Then came the storm.

See how good a pundit you are. The liberal Zionist has put down a marker for peace. (In the lions’ den, perhaps, playing the part of the Christian?) What do you think the response was?

Here you go:

Next up was Professor Kamel Hawwash, Vice-Chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. For every hand that Meckleberg had extended in friendship, Hawwash pushed one away. I am always thankful for people like Hawwash because they expose why there is no current chance for peace. There is no room in Kamel’s world for the Israelis, a group of people he describes as randomly deciding to invade the region. These two speakers presented the entire conflict in a microcosm. The Israeli Jew, ‘let’s make peace, let’s find a way, let’s accommodate’, the Palestinian Arab, NO, NO, NO. I have no doubt that people failed to see what had just occurred. But in truth, it was 70 years of Israeli peace attempts wrapped up into two short hours.

Collier’s observation is bang on target.

First, he’s correct (in general terms) about how the interaction summarizes Israeli peace attempts.

Second, he’s also right in suggesting that people didn’t notice what had happened. They seem to have accepted the outright rejection as acceptable, normal, and – dare one say it – understandable. If ever there were an acid test to determine whether Israel and its people were being delegitimized, demonized, and defamed, that would be a candidate.

What an obscene event Lichfield hosted. It will be interesting to see what Michael Ipgrave, Bishop of Lichfield, and Chairman of the Council of Christians and Jews, says about this. He dare not be silent, after this statement of his.

Expiration Date – Duane Swierczynski


This is a weird book; it takes the classic crime fiction setting of the big bad city, where there is a mystery to solve, and injects some elements of fantasy and science fiction. And it does it all with some crisp writing, an absence of literary pretentiousness, and an effective storytelling technique.

The central character is Mickey Wade. He is an out of work journalist forced out of his own apartment by his changed circumstances, and drawn back to the neighborhood of his youth where his sick grandfather’s apartment lies empty and available. Once he thought he had escaped from this bad area, but it has clawed him back. Not only that, but it also gives him the springboard for his adventures as he strives to find out more about the death of his father.

I won’t spoil things by offering any more description of what happens, but I will say that this was a book that surprised and entertained me. I found it fresh and engrossing, and was truly sad when I got to the end.

The author is heavily involved in the comics scene which may explain why he felt the need to include a few illustrations in the body of the book. As for the excellent pacing, it seems that the book was written for a twelve part serialization that was canceled. So, we get to read the whole thing in one package.

Difficult to categorize, but easy to recommend.

Powerful use of language

No, I don’t mean the current USA presidential candidate debates…

I saw this at the BBC and was intrigued:

How a few words can make people hand over millions

Sometimes people don’t behave as we expect – big differences can come from tiny tweaks that can save lives or add millions to the public purse.

After reviewing the actual effects of a couple of publicly praised policies – prison visits by delinquents, and mandatory seat belts – there is this:

Sometimes what seems like a fairly good plan may become problematic due to factors you’re not aware of,” says Michael Hallsworth, who works at the UK government’s “Nudge Unit” – but more on that later.

In the real world, our actions are a minefield of hidden motivations and psychological quirks. “We used to think that people take into account all of the available information and then weigh up the costs and benefits of different options. And there’s increasing evidence from the last 40 years that that’s not correct,” says Hallsworth.

For example, the prison visits by delinquents did not keep the delinquents from offending, and mandatory seatbelts increased deaths on the road.

The Nudge Unit mentioned above?

Back in 2010, former UK prime minister David Cameron set up the “Nudge Unit”; a crack team of scientists, psychologists and policy experts tasked with using the technique to improve education, health and the state of public finances.

The Nudge Unit was responsible for improving the amount of money collected by the taxman. How? By applying scientific techniques to come up with language that affected the behavior of taxpayers. It’s a fascinating insight to human behavior. (Just like those USA presidential candidate debates, but from a different perspective…) It made me stop and think

Read it all, here.

Stalin’s Ghost – Martin Cruz Smith


Arkady Renko, at one time a high flyer in the Moscow Police, is now an outcast. He gets crap jobs to do, and is kept away from the important stuff. So, that’s why he is asked to look into reports of sightings of Stalin’s Ghost in the Moscow underground. But being Renko, it turns out to be more than a fringe event.

Renk is a great, complex character, and this author can write. He tells a story with such cracking economy, but manages to fill the reader’s imagination with the atmosphere of Moscow and the cultural challenges that it offers, as well as the crime, the corruption, and the wheeling and dealing of day to day life.

There are other characters of note: Zhenya, the young tearaway who is also a chess prodigy is a fine example, as is Victor Orlov, the somewhat alcoholic detective firmly on Renko’s side. Meantime, Renko has other cases, and his love life is somewhat on a downward spiral. But the book still keeps us focused on Renko, and brings in the disparate lines of the plot when necessary.

The action moves from Moscow to Tver (formerly Kalinin) as Renko tries to get to the bottom of Stalin’s Ghost. If Renko was an outcast in Moscow, in Tver he is the enemy. It all races along towards the inevitable conclusion.

This is a dark, authentic, powerful novel dealing with the evil underbelly of the former Soviet Union in a sympathetic, but judgmental fashion. It’s well worth reading.

This is the whole Torah

Torah Tidbits is a regular publication put out by the Orthodox Union Israel Center, and widely distributed throughout the religious communities. It has a mix of Torah relevant articles, with notes on the week’s parsha, candle lighting times, and more. It is quite popular – so much so that for some people, their Shabbat is not complete without a copy to read over Shabbat during the boring bits in shul.

Last week’s issue included an article – Yom Kippur’s Magic Moment – by Rabbi Ephraim Sprecher, Dean of Students of the Diaspora Yeshiva, which had a thoughtful piece about introspection and Yom Kippur.

I was struck by the following:

The great tragedy of our generation is that for many people, even on Yom Kippur, there is no longer a feeling of fear or trembling before G-D. Even when we fast and pray we are not bothered by the question of having been created vs not having been created.

You could have a whole discussion on that paragraph alone. For now, let’s accept that – from a religious perspective – fear of G-d is desirable, and that it would be worthy to at least wonder about whether the world would be better off if we had not been created. How does Rabbi Sprecher explain this? He says:

In secular society, there is no longer a feeling of shame and guilt regarding what we do with our lives. Anything goes! We have been degraded by our desires and pleasures.

One way of summarizing his explanation for the lack of fear of G-d is that it is all the fault of secular society. I will admit he seems to include himself in that group by saying “We have been degraded…” but it is possible he is making two separate statements: on the one hand, secular society has lost its shame. On the other, we have all been degraded by pleasure.

What I found particularly offensive was the reference to secular society. Sure, there are parts of secular society that are not a great example. But equally, if not more so, there are parts of religious society that are just as awful. Have there not been orthodox people in positions of leadership and power that have been imprisoned for offenses of dishonesty or corruption or sexual or physical abuse? Did they maintain a sense of shame or guilt?

What about the religious protests against army conscription? Are they a positive example? Even the protests against those who do not keep Shabbat are a disgrace. Since when was it a part of Judaism to behave like that?

On a less serious level, how common is it to see obviously orthodox people behaving badly – driving like lunatics, dropping litter, queue jumping, being rude and aggressive, and so on and so on?

It should be patently obvious that not all orthodox people are bad people. Far from it. I know many who are outstanding examples of good, honest, selfless people. They do not discriminate in their dealings with people based on their religiosity. By the same token, of course, I know many secular people who are also good, honest, and selfless. So, it ill behoves the author to put the blame on secular society. That is wrong. That is offensive.

I would go further. It would do the religious community a power of good if the Rabbinic leadership of the country took a good, long, hard look at themselves, and realized how deficient their behavior is – not only personally, but in setting an example by publicly and prominently denouncing the behavior of religious people where it is lacking. No (so called) religious person should feel it is right to behave badly. They should, indeed, be trembling and in fear of G-d.  They should remember Hillel’s declaration:

What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.

Unconditional Surrender


On the table is the Sal Vasta design Unconditional Surrender, a game about WW2 in Europe published by GMT. I bought this when it first came out in 2014, but it has only now made its way to the front of the ‘to be played queue’ and on to the table.

The game gives a high level focus on matters, with army sized ground units, doing battle on a lovely map (with each hex representing 30-60 miles) over monthly turns. There’s an interesting set of diplomatic and political rules, but that part probably works best for two player games. The rest of the action is highly playable solitaire; the only slight challenge is the need to decide if each side in each combat will or will not pile in support. In my play, I make the decisions for one side, and let the dice decide for the other side. Then, in the next turn I swap things around.

Ground action uses a single unit activation at a time, delivering something rather different. Moving units can do mobile assaults on their own – repeatedly, with each one costing movement points – but cannot assault. An assault can be set up, but the attackers can only do that one attack. The other notable point of difference is that units do not have combat factors. Instead, units generally act as modifiers on the combat results table. The CRT uses opposed totals, so the system can build in the effects for attacker and defender, and other stuff like weather, and isolation, all very neatly.

Economics is handled in a refreshingly simple way: count the factories, make deductions for strategic warfare (and that is easy, too) then calculate the available production points. That is the currency for buying stuff. However, the game doesn’t seem to allow non historic builds, and neither can you save, because if you don’t use the stuff that month it is gone forever.

There are additional markers and events that add in some detail. For example, Netherlands and Belgium can use a Ground Support marker to help them in combat. The chit returns 1d6 turns later. As another example, the main factions can buy Surprise Attack markers that are needed for invasions.  The Political and Diplomacy system uses markers with a neat mechanic that prevents players from guaranteeing the outcome of their efforts, providing a decent amount of tension.

I am impressed by the way the thing hangs together. There are lots of scenarios, including some easy ones to get your feet wet. But after Poland and Norway, the Western Front in 1940 is a tough nut to crack. The scenarios do include the whole package should you so choose. It is suggested that would take 50-60 hours of play, but I would double that estimate. However, the time is not because of the complexity of the rules; it’s because of the need to master the ever changing situation. Although the builds are limited, this is not a scripted straight jacket, and the action can go off on strange tangents (in a good way).

It’s a long, long time since I played anything at this scale.  I have fond memories of the original Third Reich from John Prados and Avalon Hill, but not the monsters that it spawned. I liked the old SPI game WW2, even though it was much simpler and very much more a game than a simulation. But this game has given me a real buzz, and it’s a definite contender for convention play if I ever make it back to Consimworld.

The Last Days of Jack Sparks – Jason Arnopp


There was little chance this book could live up top the hype accompanying it. Here are some examples from Amazon:

Takes a frenetic and self-obsessed modern world in its confident stride. The Last Days Of Jack Sparks gives us ingenious and funny diabolism, repurposed for the 21st Century. A magnificent millennial nightmare (Alan Moore)

Wow. Seriously hard to put down . . . Chilling and utterly immersive (M. R. Carey, author of THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS)

This is The Omen for the social media age (Chris Brookmyre, author of the Jack Parlabane thrillers)

An absolutely great read. It scared the bejeezus out of me! (David Schneider, comedian, director and actor in I’M ALAN PARTRIDGE and THE DAY TODAY)

Super spooky and addictively written (HEAT)

So now you know what I think the book isn’t

Jack Sparks is a journalist investigating the supernatural. His method is to get down and dirty, so he starts by arranging to see an exorcism. He thinks it’s a setup, but from that point on things start to go bad for him. He feels haunted, despite rejecting the possibility it could be happening. And a strange video appears on his social media page, but he didn’t put it there. It terrifies viewers, goes viral, then disappears.

He continues his investigations, getting deeper and deeper into the mire and a cocaine addiction. His fall from grace is also narrated with additions by his brother, with whom he has a somewhat combative relationship. The reader gets taken along a strange journey, though what is real and what is not is not entirely clear. And you know how it ends.

The central character is smart, sassy, and has some great lines. His observations on social media and life are often sharp and funny, but also inconsistent in quality. So, funny in places. But such humor didn’t always seem relevant to the story, or the development of the character. And the observations were not enough to draw me in to the character or the story. I thought this was a limp tale. It meandered, doing its best to be funny and threatening at the same time – often achieving neither – until it came time to deliver a half hearted cliffhanger. And then on to the next encounter. Now, if I were a horror fan, perhaps some of the references and story would have resonated more. Instead, it was something of a disappointment.

One to avoid, unless you want to join the cool crowd, or want to mine some snazzy comments about social media.