Thursday, July 30, 2009

New Portland Wargamers Group

I just started a new meetup group for Portland-Area wargamers. Come join us to push around some cardboard!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Portland Board Game Store Survey Results... and a new survey!

Thanks to all 24 who responded to my survey on potential new board game store locations in Portland, Oregon! There was not a great deal of consensus on where a new board game store would be most likely to be successful. The top choices were Downtown (4 votes), SE or NE Portland (3 votes each), and Vancouver (2 votes). There was more agreement on the most-favored existing board game store in Portland, with Guardian Games taking top spot (9 votes), followed closely by Rainy Day Games (7 votes), and many others receiving one vote each. As a long-time patron of Bridgetown Hobbies and Games, I was mildly surprised that it didn't garner more support.

In related news, I have developed a new survey to measure support for a new pub board gaming night. There is only one such night in the Portland area of which I am aware, which occurs on Thursday nights at the Lucky Lab on SE Hawthorne. If you have attended one of these Thursday board game nights at the Lucky Lab and wish there were more such nights, or even if you've never been to the Lucky Lab night and think that such an event would be fun, please take the survey, thanks!

Guest Review of The Last Enemy

Today's post is a guest review by my first follower, whose blog can be found here.
Richard Hillary, a young, Oxford-educated Spitfire pilot, wrote “The Last Enemy” as a memoir of his RAF training, his “Battle of Britain” exploits and his slow, painful recovery from severe burns he suffered in aerial combat.

More than that, though, the short book is a reflection on Hillary’s own loss of innocence resulting from the war and the deaths of friends and comrades.

Sentences like “From this flight, Don McDonald did not return” and “From this flight Bubble Waterston did not return” toll repeatedly throughout the latter section of the book.

Ministered to by stoic, often sardonic, and always caring nurses and by a meticulous, brilliant plastic surgeon, Hillary is left to wonder why, despite his horrible burns, he has been allowed to survive. In a sense, he sees himself as his own “Last Enemy.”

It is left to Sebastian Faulks’ biographical introduction to inform the reader of Richard Hillary’s fate.

Partly because of the success of “The Last Enemy,” written in 1941 and published in 1942, the disabled Hillary (his scarred fingers were immobile claws), talked his way back into active service.

From a night-time bomber training mission in January 1943, Richard Hillary did not return.

He was 23 when he died.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Inglorious Bastards

Quentin Tarantino holds a special place in my heart, and he's making a WWII flick. He's calling it Inglourious Basterds (aka Inglorious Bastards, an homage to the 1978 Italian film of the same name) and just released a new trailer, which is worth a look, particularly if you like Brad Pitt.

World War II Propaganda Posters

I stumbled upon this collection of WWII propaganda posters and had to post the link. They make me think about the motivations of their creators, and how propaganda has changed.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

New Portland Board Game Store Survey

I am planning on opening a new board game store in Portland and have set up a short 4-question survey for anyone who has an opinion on where it should be located. Thanks for your input!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Memoir '44

I hate to give out two 10's in a row for fear of diluting my praise, but Memoir '44 deserves it. I have been searching for a WWII-themed board game that even my non-WWII obsessed family and friends would consider playing with me. Axis & Allies is too much of a time commitment, Europe Engulfed is out of the question, but Memoir '44, with its 30-60 minute play time, fits the bill perfectly.

The rules can be explained in about 10 minutes, yet there is significant tactical depth thanks to the combination of card-based play, dynamic double-sided hex-based map, and a constantly growing online library of scenarios. While I have only played one of these scenarios, which takes place on Pegasus Bridge (over the Caen Canal in Normandy during the late hours of June 5, 1944,) even this introductory set-up is fine-tuned and well-balanced, with the German forces dug-in and out-numbered against British units of Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. I can't wait to try out the other scenarios, and with the short play-time and engaging dynamics I shouldn't have too much trouble finding an opponent. Brilliant.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Call of Duty: World at War

This game sparked my current obsession with the second world war, which is the highest praise I can bestow. I played and enjoyed Calls of Duty 1-4, particularly the fourth, which was set in the present day. However, I only decided to purchase World at War after a great deal of deliberation on whether my money would be better spent on Gears of War 2. Needless to say, I am far from disappointed.

The game is divided between a narrative campaign, which can be played solo or with up to three friends, and an extensive multi-player mode which builds on the highly-acclaimed equivalent in Call of Duty 4. The campaign is further divided between two characters: a US Marine fighting to take Japanese-held islands in the Pacific, and a Russian soldier participating in the vengeful push against the Wehrmacht from Stalingrad to Berlin.

What makes the game so captivating for me is that these two stories are so different from each other, and from the vast majority of WWII video games, which tend to focus exclusively on the Allied invasion of Normandy. Playing through these campaigns I began to realize how weakly I grasped the global scope of the War. I was struck by the extent that the Red Army suffered to grind down the bulk of the German Army on the Eastern Front. I was shocked by the guile and ruthlessness of the Japanese defenders in the Pacific, forces that have rarely appeared in the virtual arena.

The multi-player mode only cemented my fascination. The weapons have clearly been given a great deal of attention, and the class system expertly allows the player to tailor her experience to suit individual preferences and play styles. The voice chatter certainly breaks the WWII atmosphere, but the "mute player" option is always available to preserve sanity.

Highly recommended for anyone with a passing interest in shooters or WWII. Please do not allow your under 18-year old children anywhere near this game. Spouses may require that earphones be purchased, in which case I recommend the Turtle Beach Ear Force X4.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway

This is a good example of a solid cinematic video game, recommended for those who place more value on a compelling, well-told story than on gameplay. The game follows the US 101st Airborne Division through Operation Market Garden, the largest paratrooper operation - and the last German victory - in the War. You'll lead a squad through occupied Holland in an attempt to secure a series of vital roads and bridges that came to be known as "Hell's Highway" as a result of the relatively flat, indefensible terrain and the ferocity of German offensive operations.

The gameplay is primarily squad-based, much like the Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon series, which is not my cup of tea. I would prefer to just focus on controlling one soldier well, as in the Call of Duty series, rather than divide my attention between squads. When given orders, the squads in Brothers in Arms tend to not behave as intelligently as in similar games, resulting (perhaps with un-intended realism) in many frustrating and un-nessessary friendly casualties.

That said, the story is top-notch. The narrative unfolds through lovingly-crafted in-game cinematics which explore the close relationship between members of a single squad as the campaign progresses. I found myself growing attached to my squad members and surprised and saddened by losses from their ranks. Once again the message was pounded home: while these men may have enlisted for lofty concepts such as Freedom or Revenge what ultimately kept most of them going was each other. Each man fought so that a comrade would not have to face the enemy alone, a rationale both admirable and tragic.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Man Who Never Was

Released in 1956, this film tells the true story of a plot by British Naval Intelligence to plant a body with false documents off the coast of Portugal in order to divert German military resources from Sicily to Greece. It shows an intelligence service in its infancy, still coming to grips with the basic rules of espionage and counter-espionage. However, the film-making itself comes across as dated as well, with a completely overdone score and an awkward taboo against showing the corpse itself. Like most other films of the era, the actors apparently didn't realize that they were on a sound-stage, not in a theater.

That said, the film offered an interesting window into London during the blitz (plenty of air raid sirens) and fleshed out an oft-overlooked segment of the war effort that saved many thousands of lives. Worth a watch if you're into low-key procedural spy stories. Family-friendly to the point of soporificity.

Hitler: The Rise of Evil

I stand corrected. My previous claim that a truly compelling portrait of Hitler had yet to be created was perhaps too hasty. Hitler: The Rise of Evil is a three-hour mini-series that originally aired on CBS in May 2003, currently available on DVD. It opens with a handful of brief vignettes of Hitler's childhood and quickly moves to his years as a penniless street artist in Vienna, a soldier in the First World War, his rise to power within the National Socialist Party in Munich, and ends with his appointment to chancellor and assumption of the presidency upon Hindenburg's death.

I popped in the DVD with low expectations, but was struck immediately by the high production values and quality acting talent on display. Robert Carlyle is frighteningly good in the title role, demonstrating both the overwhelming confidence and madness
that Hitler must have possessed. Carlyle's eyes are particularly haunting, appearing at times to be impossibly black and demonic, while at other times blue and cherubic.

Some have complained of blatant historical inaccuracies in the film. For instance, an early scene shows Hitler beating a dog for not obeying his commands, but the consensus among historians appears to be that Hitler was a dog-lover and that no account exists of him ever harming a (non-human) animal. However, taken at face value as a dramatized account of Hitler's rise to power, this one sets the bar high. I hope someone rises to the challenge with a sequel following Hitler through the War and his final days in the bunker.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Second World War

When I first caught the World War II bug, about five years ago, I was in England and quickly bought the first book I could find that looked like it could give me a good overview of the conflict: the Penguin History of the Second World War. I quickly discovered that it was written for an audience with an advanced understanding of the subject matter and soon shelved it.

When my latest obsession emerged I sought out a more accessible read to get me up to speed on the basics. John Keegan's The Second World War fit the bill perfectly. It doesn't assume prior knowledge of the War. It opens with a brief discussion of some of the root causes, but quickly moves on to Hitler's rise to power, the Anschluss, and the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland. It spends just the right amount of time on each subject and includes enough maps and photographs to give some flavor without distracting the reader from the prose, which is compelling without being pulpy.

Keegan presents an epic narrative, focusing on the military campaigns and the soldiers' experiences but also addressing the impact on the lives of civilians. Highly recommended for a first-read foundation-level understanding of the conflict.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Battlestations Midway

I'm into turn-based strategy games like Civilization, Axis & Allies, and Chess. Real time strategy games like Warcraft tend to overwhelm me with micromanagement. Battlestations Midway is real time strategy, but most of the game involves the management of fairly slow naval units, so I thought I could handle it.

Everything was going fine for the first few hours. Compelling story, nice graphics, I felt like I was learning quite a bit about the Japanese and US Pacific Fleets in 1942, until I hit a mission in which I took control of the USS Lexington, an aircraft carrier. Turns out that if you give multiple aircraft squadrons orders to land at the same time, none of them land, they just circle the carrier. By the time I figured out how to remedy the situation, the Lexington was on her way to the murky depths. Not fun.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Black Book

This was a refreshingly unusual take on the War, at least from my American media-saturated perspective. Our media tends to focus on America's role in the conflict and largely ignores the dynamic struggles that took place between Nazi authorities and underground resistance movements throughout occupied Europe.

Black Book tells the story of Rachel Stein, a Jewish woman who joins the resistance in Holland at the end of the war, as Allied forces are on the brink of liberating the country. Stein is given the task of seducing the head of the local branch of the gestapo, who turns out to be a fairly decent guy, and complications ensue. Further complexity is injected as each member of the gestapo comes to grip with the fact that Germany has lost the war and regime change is fast approaching. Double- and triple-agentry abounds, with satisfying results.

Another usual aspect of the film is the universally negative portrayal of devout Christians. At the beginning of the story, Stein is sheltered in the attic of a rural Dutch family whose patriarch makes her memorize and recite passages praising Jesus before each meal as a condition of receiving food. He tells her that the Jews would not be in their current predicament if they had just listened to Jesus. Near the end of the film, Stein finds herself in an internment camp where she is again forced to recite Christian scripture before she is literally covered in shit.

The only overtly devout member of the Dutch resistance initially reacts in horror as his compatriots are forced to kill Nazis in self-defense, but is later eager to serve as executioner for the crime of blasphemy. Again, it seemed odd from the perspective of someone who is accustomed to media which tends to offer either universally positive or at least balanced portrayals of devout Christians.

The film also stands out in that it shows a diverse range of opinion within the ranks of the gestapo itself. The Nazis range from psychopathic to sympathetic, and some migrate from one extreme to the other over the course of the film. The members of the Dutch resistance are similarly flawed, which adds to the film's sense of authenticity.

On the downside, Black Book does appear to have been made on a limited budget, with substandard film stock and nothing remarkable in the way of cinematography or special effects. The acting is a bit heavy-handed at times, particularly on the part of the main antagonist.

That said, I would easily recommend this film to anyone who is looking for a fresh perspective on the War, particularly those who enjoy espionage and underground resistance plot devices. Viewers who are offended by nudity or subtitles should steer well clear.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Why World War II?

World War II has proved itself to be a persistent muse. For some reason or another, creative types keep using this particular war as a vehicle to tell their stories. As I write these words there are no fewer than three major motion pictures showing in theaters nationwide that are set during the War (Valkyrie, Defiance, and Good). Remarkable considering that the War ended over fifty years ago.

Adolf Hitler can probably take a good deal of credit for this lasting appeal. The man may be as close as anyone will get to Devil Incarnate, an existential threat to mankind whose defeat justified any and all costs. A single man responsible for the deaths of fifty million human beings and the devastation of the heartland of civilization. Probably the best case to be made against conscientious objection.

Strange then that Hitler appears so infrequently as a main character in popular media. Even Valkyrie, a film about a failed attempt the assassinate the Fuhrer, seems to shy away from giving Adolf too much face time. When will we see a truly compelling portrayal of the most influential figure of the 20th century? Which actor would best play the part?

My first review is coming soon, tomorrow I hope. Probably my thoughts on the 2006 Dutch film Black Book, just to avoid the beaten path as much as possible.

Friday, January 9, 2009

It Happened Again

I see a movie or play a video game dealing with a particular subject matter, become obsessed with the subject, and then seek out anything and everything that has to do with the subject. I played Assassin's Creed and wanted to know more about the Crusades. I watched 28 Days Later and craved all things zombie. I saw a few matches of the 2006 World Cup and can't stop watching soccer. Recently I played Call of Duty: World at War and got hooked on World War II.

So I took to the internet in order to find the media that would best allow me to experience the War, which turned out to be a bit of an undertaking. So I decided to write down my thoughts on these media to allow the next WWII enthusiast to more easily find the best games, movies and books dealing the with subject, all on one handy blog. I'll start with a review of Call of Duty: World at War and follow shortly with reviews of Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway, Battlestations: Midway, the 50th Anniversary Edition of Axis & Allies, Europe Engulfed, The Second World War by John Keegan, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny by Alan Bullock, Saving Private Ryan, Das Boot, Ken Burn's The War, and maybe even a review of the WWII exhibit at the Army Museum in Paris, not necessarily in that order.

If I enjoy it and get enough positive feedback, I'll start blogs on media relating to my other interests: zombies and soccer (I quickly lost interest in the Crusades). Let me know what you think.