computer games

Yesterday I wrote a post about the ways in which online teaching and supervision can be superior to physical teaching and supervision, and today I want to follow up with a short post about what aspects of online gaming can be transferred to physical gaming. I finished my Coriolis campaign online, and we have started the Archipelago campaign online too. Gaming online at this time has been necessary to avoid a physical TPK[1], but it has had several advantages:

  • We were able to include a former Coriolis player who moved overseas in the final part of that campaign, which was a good way to end the campaign and reconnect with an old player
  • One of our players is managing a very young child and another is living a large part of their time outside of Tokyo, so we’ve been able to include them in sessions
  • We’ve been able to meet more regularly because we can set weekday evenings without having to worry about commuting or finding a convenient venue

In Tokyo there are lots of venues you can hire on weekday evenings for gaming, so we can find a mutually agreeable location, but the physical meetings are short and interrupted by eating, commuting and so on. When we game online during the week we can start later – 8pm to enable children to settle – and have already eaten and relaxed after the day. I also don’t have to lug my gaming material through the summer heat, and if we finish at 11 with a solid 3 hours’ gaming done, we can still be to bed early without worrying about commuting. We usually start an hour earlier for socialization, and people just join when they can.

For Coriolis we used roll20, and for the Archipelago campaign we are using a system called RPG Sessions for characters and dice, run partly through discord, and roll20 for mapping[2]. As the number of coronavirus cases stabilizes in Tokyo and maybe begins to curve down, we’re thinking about returning to physical gaming sometime in September, but I think we are going to continue with some online sessions permanently, because it’s difficult to gather the whole group regularly on weekends and easy to gather them on a weekday night. Also I think when we do game physically we will retain a few aspects of online gaming.

In particular I aim to keep using roll20 for mapping. There is this constant problem with maps and tabletop RPGs that they have to be put in the centre of the table, where there is usually a huge pile of snacks, and some people always have to stand to look at them, and then also the map is oriented towards half the group and upside down to the rest. I think we can get around this by having each person see the map on their own tablet, and also have it on a big screen at the end of the table (I have a tv in my kitchen that I can share with chromecast). Thus we will all be able to see the map but have a shared map at the same time. Players can move their own PCs on the map, and we can maintain the sense of physical space without having to invest in horrific things like miniatures and the like[3].

Using roll20 for mapping also avoids the annoying situation where players are supposed to navigate their way around a physical map based entirely on my descriptions, when I can just use the fog of war on a map software to immediately reveal the rooms they can see, and the monsters they can see, when they see them. This is a vast improvement over physical maps or – worst of all – the horrible 1980s tradition of having a “mapper” who mapped out the dungeon as you explored it and always got it wrong. Having virtual maps also enables us to flick between them quickly, to have pictures of enemies and so on. Why go back to printed stuff?!

I think we will also continue to use RPG sessions for character sheets. It is very nicely integrated with the Genesys system so that for example it even records criticals, which is great. Instead of having my PCs note down the name of the critical and its details they just hit a button and roll one up and it gets added directly to their character sheet. I am using onenote to track campaign sessions, so now we just put the date of the crit into the character sheet and we know exactly when to attempt crit recovery, etc. There is also no risk anyone will ever forget a character sheet, since there’s zero chance they’ll leave home without a phone.

I have recently subscribed to the new Twilight 2000 kickstarter (and I suggest you do too!) which funded in 7 minutes, and is now up to its 9 billionth stretch goal. One of those stretch goals was the development of virtual tabletop tools for all the major applications, so that when you receive the game it is ready out of the box to be played online. I hope all new RPGs will do this in future, so that we can have a fully integrated virtual mapping, gaming and dice rolling system all in one. Of course some players like to roll dice (even though they’re shit at it[5]), which they will still be able to do, but the availability of ubiquitous online gaming platforms also opens the possibility of arbitrarily complex dice systems, since there’s no reason to physically assemble them or calculate the results. Who needs ideal polygonal forms for your dice when you can just roll d73? We could have dice systems based entirely on prime numbers! Or just go straight to arbitrary probability distributions … why go back?

This pandemic has forced the world to deal with the fact that the internet is no longer an ersatz reality. It’s no longer the case that things done online are not relevant to or close to real life. We should accept this, and instead of seeing online experiences as inferior to physical experiences, things we were forced to compromise on for our health, we should see them as ways to improve our past physical experiences to make them better. Rather than going back to how things used to be, let’s use the improvisations we had to make during this time to improve our physical lives when we are able to reconnect. I am trying to do this with my teaching, and I aim to do it for my gaming too!

fn1: Touch wood none of our players have got coronavirus, though two have been through some health scares, but some of us are older and some of us overweight, so we’re in the risk group for getting it badly if it does happen, and a gaming group is a perfect scenario for a cluster

fn2: Roll20 supposedly has an api for genesys dice but it is completely broken so I had to give up on using it. This was frustrating!

fn3: I’ve never been a great fan of miniatures for gaming, because I can’t paint them and they’re an absolute bastard to lug around, and for the first 15 or so years of my gaming experience they were only available in lead[4], which was heavy and ugly

fn4: Yes in the 1980s parents willingly allowed their still-developing children to participate in a hobby that involved casting lead, and playing with things made of lead. WTF

fn5: Jesus christ people, have some dice discipline will you!

Dalton lay on the ground panting, shifting glances between his discarded gun and the power-armoured thug stomping on his arm. Later he would reflect with pride on the way he largely ignored the massive gun pointing in his face, but at this moment he was squirming in terror and introspection was not at the top of his list of emotional states.

Dalton was good at cataloguing his emotional states; his last girlfriend had told him he spent too long thinking about them and not enough time feeling them … if she could see him now …

“You’re not as good as you think, Dalton,” the man grunted in a kind of hissing, angry mid-western accent. “You’re fast, and smart, but you lack any kind of … combat sense. And you’ve got tics, you make mistakes that are easy to read.” He waved his (massive) free arm in the general direction of the receding battle. “You’ll never make it at this. Sure, you’ll make a bit of money but you’re never gonna make the big leagues, and there’s no room here for small fry, you know that.” The gun didn’t waver.

“Then just shoot me already! You’re wasting both our time.” Dalton surprised himself with his bravery. “It’s not a movie, cut the soliloquoys and -”

The big dude kicked him, a stinging strike across the face with the sole of one powered boot. It stank of dirt and burnt things, but somehow the smell was stronger than the pain. “Shut up! We don’t have time for banter. Listen, you’re never gonna make money here but I’ve got a job for you where you can use these skills to make real money. You want real work or are you gonna keep hustling with your busted crew? You wanna be something?”

Dalton worked his lips in a way that probably looked amusing to the thug. He was confused. In this world instant execution was the norm, there was no bargaining or negotiating, let alone job offers. Best take the chance. “Um, sure … How can I contact you?”

“No problem, Dalton. We know where you live. I’ll see you tomorrow.” The man lifted his foot from Dalton’s stiffening arm and ran away, remarkably fleet for his size. Sighing, Dalton picked himself up and reached for his gun.

How did that man know his name?

The raid: Ground floor

They went in through the chocolate shop windows, a specialized explosive net taking the entire glass pane down in a flash and the two assault guys leaping straight in after, spraying bullets wildly. Dalton came in the second wave, their medic/comms guy on his right and a heavy weapons/explosive guy behind them. There were three people in the shop but they went down before Dalton hit the room, and their corpses were already still by the time he got to the inner door. Here they had a short hallway, exactly according to the plans, and now Dalton was first, the two assault guys setting up a cordon at the far door so he could dive through. As promised the door was unlocked so he just charged through, firing from the hip into the room and hitting the right hand wall between the cabinet and the sink as planned. From here they were in the museum proper, and as expected the first of the plain clothes guards was in this room, pistol out, in cover behind the statue on the left of the door.

From Dalton’s perspective in the middle of the room the statue was no cover at all, and the guard was still adjusting his position to take account of Dalton’s rush. Dalton fired first, a slightly uncontrolled fusillade that chewed up the statue and tore the man apart in a cloud of blood. When you’re pretending to be a museum invigilator you can’t wear armour, so you have to shoot first. This chump didn’t.

There were three customers screaming in the room, trying to hide behind some glass installations in the opposite corner. Dalton gunned them down as the rest of his crew ran through and hit the main room. The glass didn’t protect them.

The main room was some kind of photography exhibition, a maze of cardboard walls with pictures hanging, all passing by in a blur as they sought out targets and put them down. Dalton checked his watch as they got through the third turn, but he didn’t have to, because as they headed for the stairs the Controller spoke in their earphones. “Too slow, one target missed. Get up fast before the guards assemble a barricade. Make time.”

They hit the stairs.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

The thug lived up to his word, and next morning Dalton found himself having breakfast with a man who looked remarkably like the soldier he had met yesterday. They were in Tiffany‘s, the greasy spoon cafe across the road from Dalton’s flat, and the man had promised to pay so Dalton was enjoying Tiffany‘s best pancake pile, with gene-engineered maple syrup and (allegedly) real cream. There was a lot of coffee.

“You read the news article I sent you?”

“Yeah,” Dalton stuttered through a mouthful of steaming batter. “Not pretty.” Words were difficult, mostly because of the pancake but also because the situation he’d stumbled into when he moved to America was kind of crazy. Yesterday the Red Tide had hit a football stadium in Spokane, killing a couple of hundred people before they were taken down. The Red Tide had soon claimed responsibility, and promised more attacks to come.

The Red Tide: since the collapse all politics in America had gone local, but the Red Tide had gone national. The USA had fragmented into a bunch of different countries, made up of groups of states or single states that decided they were better off going it alone. Communal violence, purges, sometimes genocide, had accompanied the crash, but one group had risen above it all to fill the power vacuum at the national level: The Red Tide, a violent native American liberation movement that could lay claim to members from as far afield as New Mexico and New England, Seattle and Miami. While the past colonial powers squabbled over petty local political victories the Red Tide had consolidated nationally, formed a national movement, and armed itself. Now it was moving to take back what had always been its members rights, and it had been stunningly successful in the past few years. Fragmented local governments couldn’t cooperate to defeat it so it had scored striking victories, and recently declared its goal of establishing a sovereign native territory in America. People had scoffed, but since the stadium attack the laughter had died down. People were starting to realize something new was here.

Dalton shrugged. “Nothing I can do about that. National politics.” He liked to pride himself on being a man of few words.

“Actually Dalton there is something you can do about it. A lot. And we’ll pay a lot. Are you interested?”

Dalton finished his pancake, pretending to maintain some calm. Dalton really needed money. He didn’t care at all about America’s stupid politics, but like every 20 year old he saw himself going places, and like everyone in America he understood that money was the ticket to those places. “I am. Sure. Yes. Tell me more.”

The man reached across the table and gently, but firmly, and decidedly threateningly, grabbed the front of Dalton’s t-shirt. “I can tell you more, Dalton, but I don’t tell you nothing if you don’t agree to help us. You understand? I can’t have you leaving here and blabbing to your friends about this. You agree to work for me and you’re mine, you get that?”

Dalton coughed and looked around nervously. The waitress was unsurprisingly absent, and there were no customers. A car parked outside looked like it was suspiciously full of ugly men. This man was decidedly ugly. He guessed that there were going to be no hints forthcoming, and he needed the money. “Is it gonna be dangerous?” He asked meekly.

“For you? No.” The man gave a wicked little grin that suggested it would be very, very dangerous for someone.

So long as it wasn’t Dalton. “Sure.”

The man let go, and the waitress miraculously reappeared with coffee. “A good decision Dalton, very wise. Let me tell you a story …”

The Raid: Exhibition Hall

This museum had its masterpieces on the second level. Everyone knew the layout, but the big problem was the guards. As a state institution the museum had the right to armed guards, who were at the back of the main exhibition hall. This hall was a labyrinth of small rooms and installations, with the guards likely scattered throughout the chambers, so they could hope to get to the doors before the guards assembled. It was a quiet time of day but this mission was planned for a class visit from a high school named after a famous killer of Indians[1], which would be likely spread around the exhibition hall. Their job was to kill them all and the guards.

The first guard was at the top of the stairs, firing down at them as they mounted the stairs. He scored a couple of hits on Spider, who went down and stayed down. Dalton was coming in second but had enough time to think: he took what cover he could and fired up into the doorway, driving the man back. The other assault squaddie, Snake, drifted across the stairwell, firing as he went, and crouched behind a statue. They waited. Spider was gone.

“Time running out. Move.” The controller’s voice sounded in their ears. Dalton had a translation bot installed but the language they were using, Sioux, was not available on most translation software and the open source chip he was using was pretty poor. He knew some of the other soldiers were not fluent Sioux speakers – none of his team were Sioux, in fact – but they at least knew some, and his chipset was essential. He doubted any of them realized it was a chipset though. The controller, however, was fluent in several Indigenous languages. He needed to be careful of the controller. “Ghost, get up and take that man.”

He grunted. “Sure boss.” He moved, firing as he went up, drifting right and left. The guard tried to spring him on the way out but moved to soon and Dalton hit him, four or five times. Dalton fell through into the first chamber of the exhibition hall, firing off the last of his magazine as he did. He didn’t have to call backup; Snake and the other two, Grass and Doc, were through before he had come to a stop. They were in the hall.

The students were screaming a lot and running, pretty hard to find. They took their time stalking and killing, probably after the event some Red Tide propagandist might say they were like hunters of old but cornering a pimply fifteen year old near a vending machine and shooting him full of lead is not what hunters do, it’s the work of an entirely different sort of personality. It didn’t phase Dalton.

The Controller gave his orders in Sioux, but he had a strange and alarming habit of giving advice in English. Dalton couldn’t figure out why, but as they rampaged through the Exhibition Hall the Controller berated them in Sioux and advised them in English. The Sioux came through Dalton’s chipset in a kind of rough and stupid patois, broken by the vicissitudes of digital translation, but the advice came as cute and abrupt information.

“Ghost-san, you should crouch more! Let’s enjoy crouching together!”

“Ghost-san, standing tall is dangerous. Let’s enjoy belly movement! 1, 2, 3 drop!!”

“Ghost-san, your back is exposed! I love your back, don’t get it shot! Guard that back!”

“Senpai says run faster!”

“Ghost-san always drops his right elbow and moves right! That’s a bad pattern! Let’s make exciting new moves!”

This strange didactic manner confused Dalton, but he moved through regardless, killing high school students. Near the end of the Exhibition Hall was a big chamber with a huge sculptural installation. The guards were in cover at the rear, firing on them as they entered. There was no way to the back of the building except through the guards. Dalton hit the room second, and prepared to make a break for cover.

Mission Statement

They had drunk a lot of coffee. The man was talking. His card was on the table. It said John Doe, Central Intelligence Agency (Des Moines).

“Did you know there’s a schism in the Red Tide? No, most people don’t.” After a lot of coffee, John Doe was big into monologues. Dalton just listened, didn’t even get a chance to nod or move his face before John Doe assumed his answer. “Apparently lots of these redskins don’t like killing people, they want to have some other kind of revolution where people don’t die. Haha. So we found a member of one of their assault crews who’s big on peace, and also pretty serious about heroin. It’s a good mix. Now he’s giving us the info we need, and he does what we ask provided he’s stoned.

“Thing is, he’s a member of one of their assault crews. They’ve got a bunch of missions under planning but we don’t know where. But we found out some things from this guy. Main thing we found out is how they train.

“They train virtually. They’ve set up a system of private servers for an old first person shooter called Call of Duty. This private server, it has maps of all the places they’re planning to hit, and tactics for how they’re gonna do it. The trusted team members log on every couple of days and go through assault scenarios, so when they hit the target they don’t just know the map – they’ve been through it in person, they know it right down to the lighting. Apparently this Call of Duty system is old but that means it has really good maps, a real network, it’s an industry standard so you can access maps for almost any public building.

“Fucking game designers, eh? Traitors, you ask me.

“Thing is, we’re not so good at computer games. But we’ve got some good hackers. What we need to know is where the server is, so we can get our hackers to it, and maybe get to its physical location and grab the backups. But to do that we need someone in the system, drawing a trace. And they need to be continuously logged in. They need to be good enough that they can stay alive for the couple of minutes we need to run a trace.

“The plan is you go in using our turncoat’s account, which is still trusted. You stay alive in there long enough to run a trace, and you leave without anyone knowing you’re an intruder. Then we go in and get their server, either virtually or physically, and we have the full list of their targets plus hopefully the IP addresses of all their members. All you need to do is stay alive in their virtual world. So it’s completely safe for you, and we’ll pay you a fat load. Then you clear out of America and no one ever knows you stopped the Red Tide. King fucking Canute. What do you say?”

He didn’t wait for an answer.

“Good, thought you’d agree. All the activists, they speak in Sioux, because they’re crazy, but it’s been a real problem up till now. We’ve designed a chipset that translates to and from Sioux but it’s not so great so don’t talk much, okay.” He laughed. “Guess that’s not a problem. Also they like to use Kinect Sensory systems, so you’ll feel a bit of physical effort – a bit of pain from being hit, a bit of dizziness or confusion where it gets busy, but nothing dangerous. We’ve set up a training session for this afternoon. You go in tomorrow, okay? No time to waste.

“By the way, this turncoat. His online name is Ghost. So you’ll be going in as Ghost. Good luck.”

The Raid: Timing

They hit the back of the Exhibition Hall. The installation was a large room full of wax statues of zombies, some kind of commentary on modern society and consumerism. The three armed guards were clustered behind the entrance to the Museum Shop, firing light weapons into the room. The team fired back, chips of wax flying as they fired past and through statues. They moved fast and forward, taking cover behind statues.

“Ghost-san! Always dropping that right elbow and moving right! Too predictable!”

The Controller’s language was too weird. Dalton was sure he’d heard it before somewhere but he was kind of distracted.

Screaming from behind the desk, someone hit. The other two fell back. The Museum shop was full of floating feathers and dust kicked up from all the stuffed toys they had shot. One guard was hiding behind the stuffed toys, firing madly. They wasted him when the magazine clicked empty, but number three had run away somewhere. Beyond was the walkway to the shopping centre.

“Timing is too slow.” The controller spoke. “Police will arrive at the shopping centre in two minutes. This is not a suicide mission. Push forward.”

They nodded agreement. The controller spoke again.

“Ghost-san! Hold gun lower before firing, recoil pulls up and right! Let’s ensure a solid shooting base!”

This incongruity of styles was really beginning to bother Ghost. The Controller spoke again. “Ghost, there is a group of academics on the third level. You go and kill them. Two are famous historians. The rest of the team enter the shopping mall and make your escape.”

Was this a test of Ghost’s suicide drive? It didn’t matter, this wasn’t a real mission. Going up would keep him alive longer. “Okay. Good luck comrades.” He assumed the chipset could handle that. They parted. Everyone was inscrutable and identical in their combat armour, so their leave-taking was perfunctory. Ghost headed up the stairs.

Why we fight

“You’ve been doing the Call of Duty combat circuit for a year now Dalton, you’re good but you don’t have the touch.” John Doe was doing the arrogant boss act now. “We also know that you did the hit on Wells Fargo Insurance two months ago. We don’t know who the solos were but we know you ran cyber-shadowing duties, you left a trace. You really need a better rig.”

Dalton understood now why they’d chosen him. He was looking at a world of trouble. He’d come to the USA to make his fortune because legend had it that after the crash the US had a terrible security system and robbery was easy in cyberspace. He thought he’d got away with a few jobs. So long as this guy didn’t know about Rapid City Nuclear Systems …

“Of course, Rapid City Nuclear Systems was a plant. None of that data is real. But you really gave yourself away there. You really need to improve your hacking if you’re gonna make it in this world.”

Ghost tried to look nonchalant, but he didn’t like where this was going. John Doe was leaning forward, his ugly brick-like face contorted into what probably resembled rage to a man with so much cyberware he was barely capable of real human expression. “Personally I think your kind should just be flatlined, you know? Bang! Another coward in the ditch.” He looked around conspiratorially. “In the New America that sort of thing’s okay, you know?” Sat back. “Governor was going to tick the box for me to deal with you properly, until this Red Tide rose. We don’t have much use for second rate hackers but right now we’ve got a big use for second rate Call of Duty players. So here’s the deal.

“You succeed in this mission, we let you go with a fat wad of cash, you vacate the Iowa Free State and get out of America. You fail and I take great personal pleasure in flatlining you. Great. Personal. Pleasure.”

He grinned. “Got it?”

Ghost nodded, flushed and sweating. “Got it.”

The Raid: A kind of recognition

He ghosted up the stairs. The controller spoke in his ear.

“Ghost-san always charges into a room. Wisdom arises from restraint! Try pausing!”

The top of the stairs opened into a small room. Dalton charged into the room, crouched low and moving fast. Someone fired at him but he picked them off. A last guard, unexpected by everyone. He hit the wall next to the archway leading into the next room. Where were the academics?

“Ghost-san! Always on the right side of the door! Your competitor will shoot through once they understand your patterns!”

Dalton sagged against the wall. Why did the controller care about his repetitive patterns? No one at the target zone was going to know about his previous history of fighting. And why did he always give his assessments in stupid weird English, but his orders in Sioux that got manged in translation?

It was deadly silent up here. Something was nagging at Dalton’s memory, a game a long time ago with a friend. He ducked around the corner and ran down the hallway to the cover of a vending machine.

“Ghost-san! Every time you run down the right hand side of the corridor. Let’s enjoy creative fighting together! Move left!”

Dalton thought “fuck it!” and moved left to hit an uncovered area. Bullets shattered the air around him, hitting the wall and glass above him. He dived but he’d been a fraction slow and the bullets hit his target area. Fuck! He’d been led into a trap by the controller’s instructions! What was that? He rolled back into the space he’d vacated, firing madly as he did so.

Then he realized: the manic English was not the controller, it was an Analysis Bot. Software that studied patterns of behavior in combatants. That software was illegal in all professional games, so Dalton and his friends never used it, but a year ago in casual gaming he’d noticed it. All Analysis Bots had a database of existing players loaded up, and they compared the players they were analyzing against the database to get ideas and advice.

The controller was using an Analysis Bot to give advice to his soldiers. But the Bot had identified Dalton’s combat profile from his history as a gamer, and the controller had realized he was an imposter on this account. He’d brought Dalton up here to kill him.

The Bot, of course, was ignorant of all of this.

“Ghost-san, good work! You broke a pattern!”

Too right! Dalton ducked back the way he’d come, and into a doorway. He smashed the window to the right of the door and hurled a grenade out into the hallway, then ducked and ran to an inner door. This door opened into a narrow, dark corridor, parallel to the main corridor. Something blew up back where the grenade was, but Dalton was running. There were no schematics – this was some kind of hidden level invented just for him. He ducked left into a big room, bizarrely an abattoir, completely different to the room he had left. Robot-like figures worked on screaming, dying cows and pigs. In the far corner a hulking shadow fired at him.

He ducked and dived. The shadow was big.

“Ghost-san, faster than usual! Adrenaline can – ”

The chirpy bot-voice cut off. Someone had noticed he understood. He fired a burst and cut left towards a large freezer. The big figure was moving towards him, firing as it went. He ducked behind a twitching cow corpse and opened a new comms channel. “John Doe are you in yet? I have trouble.”

A brief second that felt like an eternity. He fired over the cow for good luck.

“I don’t care about your trouble. Stay alive. We’re very close.”

The huge figure hit the cow at a run. It had come much faster than he expected. It was bigger than he expected, some kind of gleaming red power armour with a rifle in one hand and an insane chain saw in the other. He fell back, shooting madly, but the thing’s armour was immune to his assault rifle. It picked him up and hurled him across the room, into a block of ice. The kinect system sent twinges of pain up his back, nothing serious. He fired again but the thing just kept coming. It was wearing power armour, so he couldn’t see anything about it – no eyes to look into and plead for mercy. Just red death. He ducked as the chain saw cut into the ground with a huge burring roar. Rolled away and fired again. No luck.

“John Doe, it knows I’m here. Get in here, do something!”

The thing grabbed him with its other hand, lightning fast, a huge clawed glove getting him by the neck and raising him above the ground. Electricity flowed, his body twitched. In the confusion Dalton recognized ICE, software to hold him captive and unable to exit while the system traced him back to the source. He had been uncovered. Red Tide warriors were more than he had expected or been led to believe.

“Got it. Get out!”


Fortunately for Dalton, the Red Tide’s local troops were further away than John Doe’s team, and he was able to get away before they mobilized to his apartment, where they met John Doe and some of his friends. In the ensuing battle someone leveled the block, but Dalton was out and safe so he didn’t pay it much attention. They also found the location of the server, and although some kind of failsafe physically destroyed the server their hackers got there first and they were able to get both a list of targets and a couple of names. For his couple of minutes of Call of Duty success Dalton got a lot of money, and a new sense of humility.

He left America, aware that he had drawn a lot of heat.

He left America with a newfound awareness of his vulnerabilities. Not a great hacker, he realized, easily caught by second rate governments like John Doe’s. That was going to change. He devoted himself – and John Doe’s money – to learning better techniques, getting better decks.

Two years later, he arrived in New Horizon, polished and ready for the big time.

He never looked back. Except for one thing: he chose a street name that suited him.


[This short story was inspired by a news article a friend showed me about the Paris terrorists using Call of Duty or some similar game to communicate their plans. Cunning! So I imagined how this might work in the future. I swapped Islamic terrorists for Native Americans because this is the future, and an American connection ties Ghost to our group through the people he was involved with or enemies with in our first session.

I like cyberpunk histories!]

fn1: Hard to believe you say? Iron arse himself has a school district named after him

The final roll call

The final roll call

So we were sent in by ‘is high and mighty lordship to kill the Swine Prince. Ain’t nuffink to it, ‘e says, not that ‘e’d know since ‘e don’t never go down there ‘isself, prefers to stay all lordy and poncey in the ‘ighest room of the inn but ‘e sure ain’t shy about sendin’ in others to clean up his sweet dad’s mess. “Singular and unsettling rumours abound,” says ‘e in ‘is oity-toity way, “Of an experiment of my father’s that went awry, and in the doing of it trapped some antediluvian outsider in the grossly misshapen body of a tortured pig. It falls upon thee – ” oh yes ‘e likes ‘isself some Shakey Spear does our lordship, ” – to cleanse the warrens of this foul monstrosity. Be warned, it is accompanied by a much smaller, runt-like pig that it is said to hold very dear and precious, and one should not harm the little one until the big one is done for. Or so I have heard in talk about the hamlet, from those who came before you.”

So that’s that, there’s the promise of a fat stash of glinties and a nice little magic ring when we get back wiv the Swine Prince’s ‘ead, so off we go. It’s a slightly dodgy marchin’ order this day because all the Vestals are down the brothel lickin’ wine off the tits of their fallen sisters, and the last crew wot got back from some big reccie job think this kind of slaughter and jiggery-pokery is beneath them, everyone says they’re gearin’ up for an attack on the Necromancer ‘isself. Wot means it’s me, Gael, your very one and only Plague Doctor; then there’s Thibault, the Occultist wot gives me the creeps and gets a leery look in ‘is eye every time ‘e calls down those ribbons of extra-dimensional ‘orror; then we’ve got Gomboult the Crusader, ‘andy chap to ‘ave around in a pinch though ‘is sermonizing and heretofores get a little bit tiring down there in the deeps; and at the front we’ve got Mr. Middleton ‘isself, Man-at-arms, wot everyone says made a motzah smackin’ Russky arse in the Criminalean, though I don’t credit it myself – methinks ‘e’s put in a few years’ time at the bars and flophouses round the Criminal Sea, but not so much elbow grease on the front line, if you get my drift.

The plan woz pretty simple stuff. Mr. Middleton and Gomboult stand at the front, whackin’ anythin’ wot gets in arms reach; Thibault stands at back where every Occultist luvs to be, workin’ ‘is Wyrd Reconstruction on anyone wot ‘as the misfortune to get bit, and occasionally ‘aulin’ those extra-dimensional death ribbons out and whackin’ the enemy’s arse with ’em – ‘e calls it Abyssal Artillery, but I just call it the Tentacle Slap. Thibault’s Wyrd Reconstruction works a charm for stitchin’ up big cuts but it’s a bit … unreliable, and sometimes it, ah, it makes ya ooze, know wot I mean? But I’ve got a sovereign remedy for when mortal bits come unstuck, so on the occasion that ‘is Reconstruction goes wrong I ‘astily throw on a bit of Battlefield Medicine, and when I ain’t patchin’ up Thibault’s extra-dimensional mistakes I’m givin’ the same sovereign remedy for acid, poison and other cuts – ’cause my medical skills are rough but effective, don’t ya know? – and the rest of the time I’m lobbin’ little grenades of unpleasant goo at wotever takes my fancy.

And there’s a lot down there in the warrens that you want to cast some acid on, if you get my drift. This day it woz extra mean, wiv all manner of nasties crawlin’ out of stone and sewer to whale on us, but we made it right through a real long set of tunnels to where we fought that old pig might be. Sad to say, but Thibault got done in by a nasty little spider right outside the Swine Prince’s lair, just took one dram too much spit from the nasty bugger and I didn’t get to ‘im in time. ‘E’s an Occultist too so ‘is eyes went real wide right before ‘e went, and he started beggin’ us “No! They’re coming! Don’t let them take me! These aren’t the angels I was promised!”

‘S kind of funny when you think about it, innit? Those Occultists make some kind of skeezy deal with the Big Gentleman At The Tentacle Farm, and ‘e promises ’em glory and power and greatness, but they die faster ‘n anyone else and they all do that little chorus ‘o regret right before the end. Whenever a new one turns up I wonder if I should point out to ‘im my ‘istory of watchin’ his colleagues die gibberin’ in terror at their Inky Boss, but I just don’t ‘ave the ‘eart, me. No, and I figure they can’t back out o’ the deal anyway – why spoil it for the little blighters? Maybe if they didn’t all come from stinkin’ Eden College, wiv airs o’ nobility about ’em, I might be a little more forthcomin’ wiv me tears, but I can’t bring meself to shed none for such as them. Still, he stitched me up good a few times, didn’t ‘e? Shame to see ‘im go like that, all smeared wiv spider goo and smokin’ and cryin’ and beggin’ his mummy to save ‘im from the big scary octopus. You’d ‘ve thought his teachers might ‘ve shown ‘im a picture of his boss, eh?

Anyway so once we’d given Thibault a proper burial (well akchually we woz pretty close so we just stripped ‘im of ‘is stuff), we girded ourselves and went in for the Big Pig. ‘E was slummin’ it inside this mighty girt cave wot woz completely stinkin’ of pig shit and dead bodies and there woz a dozen corpses and ‘im and ‘is little bum-buddy chowin’ down on the remains ov wot looked like a grave robber though I can’t be sure, on account of it bein’ ‘alf-eaten and smeared in pig shit. But Mr. Middleton, ‘e’s all gee’d up for a stoush after Gomboult gave us all a mighty inspirin’ speech at the camp, and so ‘e yells “I’m gonna make you squeal like a pig under a gate!” and then the shit-show’s on for real like, innit? And the little pig-runt goes and cowers be’ind ‘is master, who is like this towerin’ pig from another dimension, my friend, ‘e is absoLUTEly monstrosterous. ‘E must ‘ave been 20 feet ‘igh and 10 feet wide, and ‘e was standin’ on two legs and ‘oldin’ this massive meat cleaver wot could carve a whale in twain, and ‘e’s got this feral glint in ‘is massive piggy eye, and ‘e don’t squeal but grunts and roars and comes shufflin’ forward but Gomboult and Mr. Middleton are all gee’d up for a fight an’ let me tell you it was quite a stoush. But the little runt pig would throw mud on us and wotever one the mud stuck to, the Swine Prince would rain a storm of meat-chopper death on ’em, and I ‘ad me work cut out keepin’ ’em patched up enough to go back into the fight.

We did wot we were warned and didn’t ‘it that little runt, though once or twice Mr. Middleton let rip wiv a sly spankin’ just to remind ‘im whose boss, but the little runt didn’t do nothin’, and we woz startin’ to look good. But then the Big Pig dropped such a storm ‘o choppery on us that you would not ‘ave seen your way through it no matter wot, and when the mud and pig-shit ‘ad settled both Mr. Middleton and Gomboult were lookin’ seriously the worse for wear, and there were bits of ’em fallin’ off. I patched up Gomboult, and Mr. Middleton went valiant back into that fight, and got in a big ‘it, but then the Pig rained down more o’ that stompage just as Gomboult was wadin’ back in, and when the festerin’ slime was cleared Mr. Middleton ‘ad become unfit for ‘uman consumption, if you get my drift. ‘E woz just bits of old campaigner, rainin’ down on us. But this made Gomboult quite the mad Crusader, mortal wounded though he woz after that last rain ‘o death, and before I could patch ‘im up ‘e ‘ad charged forward and let rip such a blow wiv ‘is sword that the Swine Prince didn’t ‘ave no chance, and fell dead as a Sunday sucklin’ roast, right there at our feet. Victory!

But then no sooner ‘ad we felled the big bastard than that little pesky runt came heelin’ over the corpse, set down in front of us and let rip with the most god-awful pig squeal you ‘ave ever ‘eard. And wot wiv Gomboult bein’ in a right mortal state, he just upped and died there on the spot. That squeal ‘ad some infernal power in it, ‘coz it turned my legs and arms to jelly and I couldn’t do nothin’, not even run away through all that swirlin’ mud and Middleton mush. And ‘e just kept screamin’ at me till I passed out!

So I’m glad you found me when you did, sirs, ’cause it’s mighty stinky in their and I could’a drowned in the mud, but I’m sad to tell you I’ve got nothin’ left in me. I’m done for, I’ve already lost most of meself in that there mud. You’ll find the Swine Prince just down there in the hollow, dead as a demon doorknob and stinkin’ up ‘is own mud pit. As for that runt, if you find ‘im, kick ‘is arse for me. But I’ve got nothin’ left to run on. I’m just one more corpse for the wagon now …


In your bases, pWning your Austerity

In your bases, pWning your Austerity

Following up on yesterday’s post about the new Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, today I investigated his involvement in computer game economics a little more. I found this article by Brad Plumer, written for the Washington Post in 2012, which describes the growing role of economists in computer gaming. Modern online multiplayer computer games are now so complex that they have their own economies, and small decisions by the game company can have major effects on the economies operating in the game and, by extension through the money players invest in some products, on the real world economy. The decisions can be political decisions – such as a decision by Second Life to ban certain kinds of gambling – or they can be god like interventions, such as when the people running Eve Online decide to change the distribution of resources in their galaxy. Some companies have recognized that they need to understand the consequences of their decisions if they want to keep players happy, and the company running Eve Online appear to have led the pack by assembling a whole team of economists.

Into this fray in 2012 stepped the new Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis. Valve, the company now running Steam, wanted to join together a bunch of different games so that players could trade between game worlds. I’m not sure how this works or why one would want to do it but they seemed to think it was a good idea, but in essence what they were trying to do was set up a kind of European Union, in which different games are sovereign in their own resources and political decisions but not in their own currency. So they employed an expert on currency zone economics – Yanis Varoufakis, the new Greek finance minister. According to Varoufakis in the article, his academic colleagues

know I don’t have any actual interest in video games. But I only need to talk to them for a few minutes, and they quickly get excited, asking, ‘Well, what if you tried this . . . ?’

and I can see the appeal of this. You can run experiments, and learn about how decisions will affect the economy, which can provide useful information outside of the computer game world. Varoufakis has apparently used this to show interesting things about General Equilibrium theory, but interestingly the players quickly realize an experiment is being conducted, and game it. What does that tell us about the way ordinary people react to economic policy even when they don’t know it is coming?

Besides being a fascinating field of study in itself, this tells me interesting things about Varoufakis. While some people seem to see him as a threatening radical, and the Guardian‘s initial reaction to his appointment was to publish a whole run of “sky is falling” quotes from German bankers[1], in the world outside of politics it appears he is seen as a serious and intelligent judge of how to manage monetary unions, to the extent that people who depend on getting this right have paid him to help them do so. My guess is that his work on computer game economics will not register at all to Europe’s deep thinkers, or will even constitute a black mark against his name – further evidence he is not a “serious” economist – but it seems to me that he is someone they should listen to, and probably the only finance minister in Europe who might know something about the fundamentals of the EU process. Perhaps all of Europe could benefit from listening to the experience of Greece’s new finance Minister – if they can see past his party and their biases about Greek.

Varoufakis’s ascension to power politics in Europe also puts computer game economics in the spotlight. Maybe it’s time computer game companies started taking the possibility of economic experiments within their worlds seriously, and presenting their virtual worlds to world leaders as an opportunity to study economics in a safe environment. It appears we can learn a lot about the shortcomings of real world theories by testing how they work in worlds in which we can control the fundamentals, right down to the raw materials. There are many questions in economics that could be answered through interventions in these worlds.

My guess is that the European Union will ignore Varoufakis’s expertise, and even if they wanted to computer game companies will have little intellectual impact on the economics world, even though they offer a unique opportunity to test a wide range of economic theories. A shame, for both Europe and the economics profession. Let’s hope the Europeans listen to the economic aspirations of a bunch of dragon slayers and space pirates, and use the lessons learned to fix their most intractable problems!

fn1: They put these on their execrable blog-formatted “live” news section, so I can’t find them or link them now. Why they thought German bankers would be objective commentators on Greek political appointments is beyond me.


Eerily romantic

Eerily romantic

I have recently been exploring the shadowy and terrifying world of the Neath, in a fascinating and quite engaging game called Sunless Sea. This game is set in a location called Fallen London, an scattering of island archipelagos on a vast underground sea, which was formed at the conclusion of a previous game from the same company, Fallen London. This sunless world is an ocean in a deep cavern, full of horrors and strange stories. The game is viewed from above, essentially on a map, and you play the captain of a steamship who is plying the Neath (the name of the underground ocean) trying to become famous or rich or both. Based in the town of London, you travel between islands trading, picking up stories, fighting pirates, and doing the bidding of mysterious powers. Travel across the darkened seas is fraught with risks, however: in addition to the risk of running out of food and fuel and having to eat your crew, there are also pirates, monsters, and the ever-present growing fear of the darkness. Journeys have to be carefully spaced to ensure you can return to London before the fear mounts and your crew mutiny on you, or the nightmares consume you. There are also mysteries to unravel, and stories involving different organizations and kingdoms.

Strange shops in a strange world

Strange shops in a strange world

The game is viewed from above and there are no animations for battles or encounters, just text-based interaction as shown in the picture above. However, despite the lack of animations the graphics are very stylish and engaging, and very carefully build the sense of terror and weirdness that pervades the game. Drawn a little like a comic, but with a grim wash, and with a writing style that is a mixture of dark humour, Victorian prose, and elegant horror, the narrative really gets you involved in the world. It’s also quite challenging, and if you play it the way it is intended, death will be a common event. As the game progresses and the stakes get higher, the struggle with terror also becomes quite consuming, as you try to balance your need to travel the dark reaches of the farthest-flung islands with the compulsion to keep your terror from overwhelming you.

The game has a few flaws, however. First of all it has quite a sedate pace, so if you’re the kind of gamer who needs edge-of-the-seat energetic game play, it will probably bore you. Also, sometimes the mission details are hard to access, and the game doesn’t tell you when you have completed a task (in some cases), so you can feel lost at sea (literally!) when in fact you have met the conditions of a quest. It is also difficult to piece everything together into a coherent story, so sometimes it feels like the game just intends for you to grind, grind, grind – I still don’t have a sense of a unifying story or theme to the game, and I’m not sure if it will hold my attention if it does not have a theme. It is also quite hard to make money, though I have begun too, and the rules aren’t very deeply explained, so you spend a lot of time making pointless mistakes at first, and I suspect some players have given up early on because of this. However, once you’ve died a few times and googled a few things, the peculiarities of the world and its systems will begin to make sense.

With that in mind, I thought I’d produce here a list of tips for how to play, based on what I have learnt so far.

  • Always have good stocks of fuel: at first you will only be making small amounts of money, and may find it difficult to purchase things like weaponry; don’t give in to the temptation to spend your cash on a bigger gun when you don’t have much spare, because if you don’t have much fuel, you will find yourself unable to travel to make more money. Always retain enough fuel to at least be able to do a tomb-colonist run, so you can replenish fuel on the return. And always ensure you have enough fuel for the return journey when you head away from London – it is expensive everywhere else (except Palmerston) and if you run out on the high seas you are in big, big trouble
  • Keep your terror down: It is extremely hard to get your terror down from high levels, and/or expensive, so keep your terror down. The main way to do this is to sail through lighted areas, or close to shore. Sure, the pirate raiding requires that you sometimes sail away from the buoys, but you need to make sure that when you travel you stay in the light as much as possible. Especially on long missions, or missions which are going to themselves raise your terror (and many do!) you don’t need to also be burdened with terror built up through frivolous course-tracking
  • Take the blind bruiser’s gift: the only consequence is that later he will ask you to deliver some souls to a far-away place, and you will make your first big cash of the game when you do that
  • Build up admiralty’s favour: it gets you more lucrative and interesting missions, and access to cheaper repairs
  • Keep visiting Hunter’s Keep: Hunter’s Keep is very close to London, and spending time with the sisters will get your terror down. It may seem boring to drop in on a place where you keep having the same conversations, but that soon changes. Hunter’s keep is one of the first stories to reach its resolution, and if you play your cards right you can emerge from the ruins of the story a lot wealthier than you were at the start
  • Watch your nightmares: When you return to London with terror>50 points it automatically resets to 50 (which, btw, is not good!) but your “nightmare strength” increases. Nightmares on the high seas can lead to trouble, including higher terror and ultimately mutiny. It is extremely hard to get your nightmare strength down, but there is one surefire way: travel to the Chapel of Lights north-east-east of London, and visit the well; you can make a sacrifice here and though you incur a wound, you lose nightmares. Do this twice and you can get rid of almost all your nightmares (though having 2 wounds is very risky)
  • Go bat-hunting: bats are easy to kill, and if you throw their corpses overboard you lose a few points of terror. This is the only relatively reliable way I have found to get terror down a lot, though it is not cheap. Basically if you hang around a buoy near Venderbright (or the island of Tanah-Chook, near Venderbright) you will be regularly attacked by bats, but will gain no terror from your location. If you kill 10 or 20 swarms of bats you will get your terror down by 15-30 points, which is really useful. It will cost you in fuel and supplies, though you can recoup the supplies from bat-meat, so make sure you have spare money and fuel before you do this. I think terror affects your abilities, so it’s good to keep it low
  • Torpedos are useful: keep a few in reserve. I was ambushed by a Lifeberg on my way back from the Avid Horizon, and in a moment of desperation I unleashed some, that did it a lot of damage. I took some hull damage but it kept me alive. They cost a lot, but they can be fired early in the battle and do a lot of damage. Combat in Sunless Sea works by increasing illumination until you can see your enemy enough to shoot them, but for the bigger enemies (like Clay Pirates and Lifebergs) you need illumination 100 to get in a really good salvo against them. Getting to illumination 100 without getting sunk is extremely difficult, but torpedos do damage similar to a powerful gun salvo at illumination 50, so if you get ambushed by something much tougher than you they can be a handy way to get out of trouble
  • Keep visiting the old dude in Venderbright: At some point in Venderbright you will get the option to talk to the head of the tomb-colonists, who gives you a mission to explore and find the colours from 8 or so pages of a book. I found two of these colours but the game didn’t tell me I had them, and it took me ages to visit the old dude again. When I did I got an item worth 500 echoes as a reward. So my advice is, once this mission has been unlocked, visit the guy regularly because you can’t be sure you have achieved one of the goals, and the money is worth it. A lot of people say that trips to Venderbright aren’t worth it, but I don’t agree. Not only can you make a bit of money selling news and colonists, but when you explore you can pick up quite valuable artifacts, and as a stop on the way to places further afield, it’s a good way to make a bit of money and get your terror down a bit. Plus some of the story options (the Bandaged Poissonier, Jonah’s revenge, the old dude with the book) can be valuable for you later. So I recommend continuing to visit here.
  • Always go coral-picking at Port Cecil: a single scintillack is worth 70 echoes.
  • Always collect port reports: they can fund your trips, and the admiralty will pay for them no matter how many times you give them
  • Grab stray chances: someone left a coffin on the docks for me once. I took it, and it opened up a whole new island for me. Take any chance you are given!
  • Avoid fights with bigger ships: sure, you can defeat the clay pirates, but unless your mirrors stat is very high you will take hull damage, which will cost about 50 echoes to fix, and all you will get in exchange is a few supplies or a bolt of parabola-silk or something – the maximum profit will be 20 echoes. You can make 20 echoes from a steam pinnace with zero risk. Avoid them.
  • Use the alt-f4 cheat: I’m playing on a mac, I don’t know how to do alt-f4 but I can still do control-command-escape or whatever, and kill the game when I die. Once you are a long way into the game, dying is not such a great idea, so be ready to do this – when you die, kill the game or load before you save, so that you can restart from your last port of call. Otherwise, you have a long upward climb ahead of you …

I think that’s it. I’m slowly gathering stories and trying to find out where the game goes, and I’m not sure if I will finish it (or if it can be “finished”, per se) but I’m enjoying the experience of this new world. I think it would also make a disturbing and evocative role-playing world. If you’re into cthulhu-esque horror and don’t need fancy graphics to make your games fun, I strongly suggest this game. It can be a bit irritating at first, but once you get up and running it’s a really rich and pleasant experience!

My dearest daughter,

Once again, I must begin a letter to you with apologies. First I must apologize for the time since my last letter – it took a long time to get here and, though by the grace of Allah we did not suffer any trouble on the journey, nobody had prepared for our arrival and the first six months have been chaos as we establish our place here. Secondly, I must apologize as always for my Italian. Though I have always respected the wisdom of our great Padisha Mehmet II (did I not serve in his wars for 40 years with no greater word set against him than complaint about my blisters?!), and I have no doubt that his westernization program was of great benefit to all of our Empire, this old soldier’s brain cannot come to grips with Italian, and I fear I will never be as proficient with it as my children. So my apologies for the clumsiness of my expression.

But no matter! Why am I wasting your precious time with my shortcomings, when I have so much to ask you about your studies? How is the university in Firenze? Are you enjoying Italian life? Your grandfather spent a year in Firenze, but mostly digging latrines for a tent city as the siege engines pounded the walls. Do you remember that small glass perfume bottle your dear mother used to use on special occasions? That was his sole and single memento from a year in Firenze, which he bought during the two days he had free before his forced march to Siena. When he looked at that bottle he would become strangely still, and I think something happened in that one night in Firenze … Anyway, because all I know of the city is my father’s romantic memories and the smell of your mother’s perfume, it has always seemed especially romantic and faraway to me. Ha! But it could not be further away than it is now, could it?

It is unseemly for a man of my age to speak of his own deeds before affairs of family and state, but I know your restless and quicksilver mind, and I think that you are eager to hear reports of life in the colonies. So let me tell you a little about this place that I have come to, which is so strange and alien and yet in so many ways such a paradise. In truth it is a pleasure for me to tell you this (please do not tell others how this old man has begun to brag so), for although I cannot confess to understanding our purpose here, I have fallen in love with this place and I am beyond proud that our new Padisha has chosen me of all people to lead our troops in protecting it. It is unseemly to speak of regaining the garden of eden, but it feels as if I have been put in charge of protecting a new world that is within our Padisha’s care. Such a responsibilty! God willing, I will not fail our glorious empire.

But enough false humility (oh how this old man has fallen that he would try and cover his prideful boasting in such a tawdry cloak). To the story! We arrived (thanks be to Allah the Merciful) without incident on a mighty fleet of 40 ships, though truth be told my men and I only occupied four of them. The ships sailed into a sheltered bay that I am told is called “Cayenne” after the French word for a spice that they grow here, and I beheld the most verdant and unforgettable scenery that one can imagine. Our colonists have carved out a quaint little town on the flat land at the beach, but beyond that stretches a line of hills cloaked in the strangest and most ridiculous trees you have ever seen. Beyond that is a forest so thick that were one to fire a cannon into it, the ball might sink to a stop as if one had flicked a pea into a sponge. Truly amazing! And the heat! I must tell you now, it is as if every day one wakes up in a Turkish bath, and spends one’s day working and drilling and exercising and eating all in that bath. Oh, how I missed the breeze off the Aegean when I first came here! For at night, the weather does not change – it is just that the punishing sun disappears, but the heat does not relent. And I am told there is no winter, nor spring – just a time of rains, and a time of less rains. Truly, Allah the Creator has an imagination beyond that of his loyal subjects, that he could think of a whole land devoted to torture.

I am lucky though, for I have a huge house of two levels, set on a hill looking over the town. It is built in the Spanish style, for the Spanish have been colonizing this land longer than us, and have learnt of how to make a home habitable in a sauna – and being a resourceful and open-minded people, did we Turks ever see any idea we liked that we would not steal? So it is that I have a home fit for a family I do not have, and the ballroom now is devoted to maps and exploration plans, and my captains trek mud over the polished floors, and drink wine slouched on the expensive ironwood chairs as we discuss which place to explore next… but my study! Oh, it is a match for anything I had in our old home, a corner room with a view of the bay and this great mountain in the distance, which is so thickly forested that it turns a kind of bluish colour in the afternoon sun, and is darker than the pit of hell at night. The wind blows through here, and I can look out over the pretty little bay and keep a weather eye on the shipping as I pore over maps and supply plans and try to make myself busy … for in truth there is nothing to do here now that we have our barracks and our order.

I think you have probably heard wild stories of the natives, but I beg you not to credit them. They are a shy and reclusive people, who speak a quiet and dignified tongue and comport themselves with dignity when they are not hiding from us. I must say, they dress in a way that would bring shame to you were you to see them, and though tiny in comparison to my Maurician soldiers, they are tough beyond measure. As I write I can look out of my study window and see a group of them gathered by the quay, waiting for a fishing boat to come in that they might unload it. They work for small trifles but especially for weapons of steel, or guns; they return to the hills at night and have some fiendish magic by which they can work their way through the impenetrable forest of the inland, and though I do not speak their language my Italian linguist tells me they have enemies inland, who have never seen a Turk, and who cower and flee at the mere sound of a rifle. Our Austrian biologist warns me we should not give them guns – he claims that these people are like animals, and asks what would happen if we gave the wolf a rifle? – but I do not credit his strange imaginings. Whatever next, will he claim Turks are like unto the apes that the romans kept in their circuses? No, these people are but humans, humans who have strayed from the sight of god. We give them guns, and they will use them to kill other humans. Is it not like Europe?

In many ways though the colonists are more fascinating than the natives. Walking through our little town is like being in a souk in Smyrna, or the armies I told you about in the height of the conquest era! There are a thousand races, and a thousand languages being spoken, and everyone trying to make their little piece of home here on this strange wet land. And the army even more so! When I was a lad, our army was all Turkish, and it had no form or substance – just a gang of young men really, our lances glinting in the sun, intoxicated on bravery and conquest but with no sense of order or discipline. I remember none of us wore the same clothes, or even used the same weapons, and for a year somewhere in Hungary I wore a Hussar’s blue jacket with a Tatar hat I had taken somewhere in Sarai, and I never gave a thought to what anyone in my group was doing – I just went to war for the joy of it. But my men now, they all wear the same clothes, they march in line and they are scared of fighting. There is not a lance in sight – just muskets – and I think many of my men have never met a horse. But they would fight a dragon if they needed to! These tall dour Austrians, and my short but feisty Hungarians, and my laconic Italians – they have no courage, any of them, when they are by themselves, they would rather write poems and lie in bed than fight, but when they fight – my god! Had I met them when I was young, I would never have survived long enough to feel the pride of being your father. As our Mehmet westernized, so he dragged his army forward, and old men like me have to take up the habit of command, or we are forgotten – because our old habits are no good in a soldier.

But I must confess to you, I do not really understand why I am in command here. This land is verdant, but we do not know what to grow or do with it. To the east are the Castillians; to the west, the British. We have come to this colonial game far too late, and most of this land is already taken by the three great European powers. My Padisha tells me that we are not here to take land from the natives, but to take land for the natives – because if we do not, someone else will. But I think it is a pitiful effort – we cannot take but a scrap of land that has been left for us by the Spanish and the British, and meanwhile huge tracts of Asia lie smothered under the suffocating rule of barbaric empires like the Horde or the Nogai. If we must rescue someone, should we not rescue our Muslim brothers from barbary, rather than bringing western enlightenment to a people who will eventually meet the Spanish? And I am told that in the British quarters the natives die in their thousands from British disease. Is this what Allah the Merciful intended for the future of Islam, that most of its people would labour under barbary while its chosen people strived to bring the teachings of our holy book to a handful of benighted souls on the edge of the world? I think we should be looking to Asia if we wish to extend the munificence of our empire!

However, please do not mistake my cynicism for a lack of will – of course I serve our Padisha’s will. And I must confess, being here changes one! I know before you went to Italy I told you I would never accept that a daughter of mine would study, let alone work, but every night now when I take my evening walk I stumble on some marvel – a plant no one in our kingdom has ever seen, or a pretty spotted cat slinking away in the gloom, or some new flower – and I think that your impatient mind would find satiation here. Are you still planning to continue studying biology? Because if I comport myself well in the next few years of defending our colonists, I could perhaps ask our Padisha to send you here, and have you document some of these new flowers. Is that not the purpose you saw for yourself when you fought with me to study? And is not the central focus of Turkish life the collection of new knowledge? I bid you come here if you wish, to further your studies and collect knowledge of this strange new world for the glory of our Empire and Allah the Creator.

Please tell me more of your life in Italy, and reassure this aging soldier that your studies are going well. I will be here, sweating and cursing and making a new world for Islam. I hope that I can share it with you someday.

Yours in piety,

Your Father

ps I enclose some of this spice “cayenne”, taste it warily for it is deadly. Also a local drug called “coffee” that is rather good for when one needs to stay awake; and some sketches of the plants and animals I have seen. None of them have facility like yours, so I beg of you to consider coming here to further your studies. But, bring a fan!!!


Aggressiveness: 10. Ferocity: 10.

Aggressiveness: 10. Ferocity: 10. Come visit his country …

As some of my readers know, I have been having fun conquering the world as Japan in Hearts of Iron 2, and that I’m reporting it all cynically in the tone of a Japanese leader forced to war to defend Asia against colonialism. Before I played Japan I had a go as Germany and didn’t do very well – the Soviets declared war on me in 1942 (I can’t think why!) and I got wiped out because my army was busy trying to secure oil in Africa.

Something noticeable about Hearts of Iron (HOI) and its successors is that there is no genocide option, even though some people believe the Holocaust was crucial to German war aims and so should probably be in the game. I understand that there is some debate about whether the Holocaust was a net benefit for the Nazi war machine, but some historians argue that the Holocaust policy developed slowly, piece-by-piece, in response to changing economic and industrial demands, and was actually primarily driven by the need to secure economic resources, especially food. Taking this as the basis for the Holocaust, it’s easy to imagine that a mechanism to represent it could be included in the game, to make it easier for certain countries to develop rapidly in the run-up to total war, or to respond to war needs.

The easiest way would be to incorporate a slider, that runs from 0 to 100 representing just how horrific your intended genocide is. Maybe 5 just means marriage and employment restrictions, while 100 is the fully mechanized destruction of entire races. The process is abstracted, and essentially represents a transformation of money, manpower and transport capacity into a reduction of supply needs and an increase in industrial capacity (or even an increase in supplies). This is pretty much what the historians I linked above argue: that the Holocaust was designed the way it was in the steps it was because it was aimed initially at seizing the economic assets of European Jews, to make production more efficient, and then at restricting their food consumption in order to ensure that other Germans didn’t starve. This is also what Stalin was doing with his “dekulakization” in the 1930s – forcing small, unproductive landholders off of their smallholdings into large collective farms, and because these farms were intended to feed many more people than those who worked in them, the excess population of smallholders would have been an economic deadweight – hence they were sent to the camps to die. Plus of course, when Germany invaded Eastern Europe they expropriated huge amounts of food and money, and essentially instituted a policy of starvation to ensure that no untermenschen used food that could have been feeding Germans. Under this analysis of the Holocaust, it was beneficial for the German war effort. If so, it should be modeled in the game in the interests of historical plausibility[1]. Wouldn’t it be great if when you were starting to lose you could slide your slider up to 100 so that you weren’t vulnerable to blockades? The computer could even use the demographic composition of your empire to give you options about which race to exterminate. We’re all about historical plausibility, right?

Suggesting such a process sounds kind of sick, doesn’t it? Which is why Paradox Interactive made a specific, explicit decision not to model this in the game. I remember somewhere a statement from Paradox about this, but I can’t find it any more – maybe it was in the Hearts of Iron manual that I no longer have. Anyway, we can find this on their forum rules for HOI3:

NOTE: There will not be any gulags or deathcamps (including POW camps) to build in Hearts of Iron3, nor will there be the ability to simulate the Holocaust or systematic purges, so I ask you not to discuss these topics as they are not related to this game. Thank You. Threads bringing up will be closed without discussion.

NOTE: Strategic bombing in HoI3 will be abstracted and not allow you to terror bomb civilians specifically. Chemical weapons will also not be included in the game. Any threads that complain about this issue will be closed without discussion.

Not only did they decide not to model these things, but they make very clear that they aren’t going to talk about their decision. We all know why: games that model the holocaust are beyond poor taste, and any gaming company that included such a mechanic in their wargame would be toast pretty fast.

It is, however, okay to model genocide in Europa Universalis 3. Yesterday commenter Paul pointed me to this post in which someone trying the game for the first time talks about how uneasy the colonization process makes her feel. I agree with a lot of this writer’s criticisms of the way the Native Americans are portrayed in the game, and I would like to add two.

  1. Terra nullius: by making colonizable land grey and devoid of units or cultural structures of any type, the game essentially buys in to the legal fiction of terra nullius – that no one owned the land or had a use for it before white people came. This legal fiction was overturned in Australia in 1994, and where not openly declared the general principle often underlay the willingness of white invaders to breach treaty agreements (as they did again and again, for example, when dealing with native Americans). In the game, although the natives are known to be there (you get a count in the colony window), they are not represented as unit types and structures the way Europeans are – the land is not owned in the sense that European land is owned, it just has some people on it. Terra nullius is a pernicious and evil concept that does not reflect the actual state of indigenous life, only the racist perceptions of the colonizers, and it’s sad to see it being reflected so clearly in this game
  2. Elision of native struggle: A common phenomenon in western popular and academic depiction of colonization is the minimization or dismissal of indigenous struggle. This is very common in Australia, and until the publication of Blood on the Wattle, popular understanding of Aboriginal history was that they didn’t really fight back, a belief that derives from early 20th century racial ideas of Aborigines as “weak.” Obviously in the US this is not so readily done, but for example the Sand Creek Massacre used to be referred to as the “Battle of Sand Creek,” though there were very few Indian soldiers involved, and popular lore about Custer’s Last Stand doesn’t usually include awareness that he was attacking a civilian camp at dawn when he was beaten. In the game, native struggle is implied in the aggressiveness and ferocity statistics for each province, and the effect they have on colony growth, but it is not actually visible or witnessed through the need to coordinate military actions against active opponents as happens in any European conflict between even the most irrelevant powers – it is a low background noise to your successful colonization, mostly

I think these two points show that the designers of Europa Universalis haven’t just implemented a game with a colonization strategy; they have implemented a game with a colonization strategy that implicitly reinforces common modern misconceptions about how colonization worked that tend to underplay its genocidal and military aspects (see also the way natives are absorbed into your population once it becomes an official province – this takes about 20 years and is in no way reflective of how colonization absorbed real native populations – such absorption took more than 100 years in Australia, for example, and only occurred at all through massive force and state coercion). I don’t really think this is a moral decision, but I also don’t think it’s defensible. There are lots of other ways that the game could have been designed, from making America the same as Asia to having a single Native American “state” and a different conquering mechanism – or, as April Daniels suggests, just a better and richer experience playing the Natives. There is DLC for this, but that’s not a defense, and neither are the butthurt bleatings of the gamers in the comments. It’s also noteworthy that the people attacking Daniels in comments of that blog are tending to subscribe to the same misconceptions that are buried in the game itself – there wasn’t much war, might makes right, smallpox did it not us!, natives really did get merged into the colonial population without a fight! This kind of response just shows that the west hasn’t come to terms with its colonial past yet.

So here’s what happened: Paradox spent years developing a game set in Europe in which they explicitly avoided modeling a genocide that occurred in Europe and that was crucial to the historical plausibility of the game; they also spent years developing a game set in Europe in which they explicitly developed a model for genocide that occurred outside Europe and that is crucial to the historical plausibility of the game. The former decision was probably (to the best of my recollection) made for moral and political reasons; defenders of the latter decision want me to believe it was for game mechanical reasons, even though the model they developed happens to reproduce some common misconceptions about how the native American genocide unfolded. I’m unconvinced. I think the designers didn’t consider one genocide to have the same weight as the other. Which isn’t to say that they consciously made that decision, but neither did all the cowboy movie directors in the 1980s who made multiple movies that included the Sand Creek Massacre, but didn’t ever get around to depicting Babi Yar from the Nazi perspective. Our culture makes some stories acceptable even though they are steeped in evil, and some stories unacceptable. Many people reproduce those stories without thinking, and that is what the designers did. (It’s also worth noting that Paradox is a Swedish company, and Sweden was not a colonial country in recent time; maybe for them the horrors of world war 2 are much closer than the horrors of genocidal America, and everything that happened in that period in those far-flung places is just a story).

I think there are some big questions buried in EU3, which we also need to ask when we play GTA or watch some nasty slasher pic, and April Daniels asked some of those questions in her blog post. Those questions are also relevant to the genocide issue in EU3 but they’re bigger than that. Why do we make games about war and killing at all? Why do we think it’s okay to drive around LA killing cops but we universally object to rape stories? Why are we so complacent about the destruction of whole cultures in Australia and America, but so touchy about mass murder in Europe? And why do some fanboys get so stupidly butthurt when people who enjoy the game (or the movie) analyze it a little more critically than wow!wow!wow!? My Ottoman Empire has begun its colonial project, in Cameroon and Cayenne and St Helena, and I’m playing that part of the project with the same sarcastic amusement with which I describe the Empire’s “reclamation” of knowledge in Northern Italy; I will probably kill a lot of natives if I have to, and convert the rest[3]. I’m not particularly fussed about this. But I’m also aware that this game is racist on many levels, and it includes genocide as a central mechanic. Some people may not be comfortable doing that, and they may want to write about it. I think it’s possible to simultaneously enjoy the game and accept these things, but I also think the game could have done better on this issue. If I’m going to kill natives and steal their land, why should it be different to the way I kill Germans and take their land – is there something the designers want to say here? There is a long, long way to go before people in the west can accept and understand the genocide that made America and Australia possible, and the deep wounds colonialism left on Africa. Until we do, I guess we can expect that games like EU3 will fall short of genuinely trying to describe the histories and cultures of the people who were exterminated.

fn1: though actually a very interesting experiment would occur if paradox were to include the Holocaust as a single historical decision that was actually bad for the German war effort, and secretly spied on players[2] to find out how many clicked “Yes, do it!” even though the decision is negative.

fn2: or used NSA data

fn3: actually since I westernized[4] I’m so far on the “open-minded” slider that I can’t actually generate missionaries, so I can’t convert anyone. I’ve conquered so much of Europe that my culture is more christian than Muslim. What to do…?

fn4: racist much?

How to flay an Austrian dog: 1, Make a careful incision along the belly

How to flay an Austrian dog: 1, Make a careful incision along the belly

From reading forums I have got the impression that I am not the only one who found defeating Austria difficult, and now that my war machine has got to the point where beating Germans is not so tough, I thought I would explain the tactics I used. For the Ottomans, defeating a European power (and the leader of the Holy Roman Empire) is not easy, despite our large manpower – they are far more technologically superior, they have allegiances, and they have a lot more men than one expects. So here is how I did it, and a little bit about why.

Why take Austria?

Well, because it was there …

There are easier European powers to defeat than Austria (Naples, for example, or Lithuania) and I could have spent my time laying waste to my Muslim rivals, but there are several reasons why I wanted to get started on Austria.

  1. History: I suspect that this game follows history, and historically from the beginning of the 17th century the Austrians began to work on uniting Hungary with Austria, which means taking it back from me. I wanted to get them first
  2. Tech lag: the longer you wait, the more Austria’s technology advances, and unless you’re lucky enough to Westernize earlier, they will get further ahead (especially in infantry). They also begin to grow in size as they absorb smaller kingdoms, and it’s not a good plan to lose the one advantage you have (numbers). Also, the more provinces you have the slower your research gets, so if you try to grow into muslim lands you will be able to keep up the manpower effects but you will gain a lot of low value provinces that drag back your research progress but don’t provide enough money to compensate for that effect; so growing into Austria is a good way to avoid this. Also, Austria holds a Weapons Manufactory, and taking that Manufactory gives me an army research bonus
  3. Completing the University Blitz: Austria held Parma in Italy (the Northwest tip of my possessions in the above map), and was allied with other university cities, so targeting one of those allies would be a key part of the war and means that if I was forced to a white peace I would still increase my university possessions
  4. Killing people and taking their stuff: Austria has 3 or 4 provinces with gold, which is a really big income boost. Taking them early (and also one trade centre) will really boost my attempts to catch up with Castille and France.

Austria also held claims on a bunch of my cores, and in the period just before this war started I was spending a lot of money sending gifts to them just to stop them declaring war on me. If it’s going to happen …

The basic strategy

Capturing Austria will take several wars, because even after total defeat the game won’t let you annex a multi-province nation and with a maximum warscore of 100% you can only grab a few provinces each time. So my basic plan was to lure Austria into a war with an attack on an Italian ally, and take the central provinces (splitting the nation in two) and the Italian universities on the first battle. I would then use an attack on another weak member of the Holy Roman Empire later to get a second war going, and use it to take the gold-holding provinces; then I would finish the last parts in subsequent, easier wars. It actually only took me three wars, but this was because the Netherlands stole some of Austria’s Baltic provinces at the same time. Luring Austria into battle is essential because it is always allied with another big power, and I can’t fight two big European powers at once; but because it is the leader of the Holy Roman Empire, Austria is obliged to come to the aid of even the smallest, shittiest Imperial member, so is very easy to lure into war even when it is not ready.

I also could not beat Austrian armies in a straight fight, but needed to be numerically superior to them by a factor of 4 – and then to have reserves since I would lose something like 25% of my men in the first engagement. So I built up my armies over a long time, to ensure I had manpower sufficient to reinforce an army of 180 divisions over a two year war. Also, after my previous University Blitz I had rapidly improving government research, and I used my new national ideas to ensure I had a big army as capable of taking on the Austrians as possible: I took Grand Army and Military Drill.

In order to defeat Austria in a war I used a strategy of separating the armies, to ensure that I didn’t have to fight two of their biggest forces at once. This meant using Italy as a lure, and getting them to send one whole army over there and capture my provinces, while I destroyed the other one on a war in my own provinces. I could then rebuild my existing armies quickly with reinforcements, and go smash the second army while secondary units of mine would take on any newly-formed units. But this meant I had battles of about 75,000 men vs. about 20,000, and was still losing 30% of them.

War 1: The Italian Trap

The first war started with an attack on a minor Italian state – Modena, I think. Modena is part of the Holy Roman Empire and is not allied with Naples, so made a perfect target. Soon after the war started Austria moved a large number of troops into Northern Italy, where I had a large army laying siege to Modena, but I removed my forces by sea before they could get bogged down in battle. The Austrian army then charged around Northern Italy razing my cities (another point worth noting is that the Austrians reduce cities very quickly, so don’t count on getting even a month to recover in a fast war with these people – they will have opened your city up and moved on before you have time to reinforce – which also means you need to build troop units far behind the lines to avoid losing them to rapidly moving siege units). However, in the time they were charging around “liberating” my Northern Italian possessions, their second army moved into Pressburg and then Pecs, central provinces in Hungary. This army was about 30,000 strong. They had other forces of 1-2 divisions (1000-2000 men) fanning out through other provinces, but these did not concern me. In total I would say they had 50-70,000 men, to my 140-180,000. But a lot of my men had to be fanned out to guard my eastern approaches and prepare for the inevitable uprisings, or were in reserve to be rushed in as reinforcements after the first destruction. For example, I had 8000 men in Nis to handle uprisings in Macedonia, and another 10,000 or so in Athens (also covering against seaborne assault). I also had a line of single divisions on the frontier. But in Pecs and all its adjoining rearmost regions I had armies of 10-25,000 men. When the Austrians attacked I used the scorched earth strategy – which is why I had single divisions on the frontier – and withdrew my men, though most got caught in the Austrian advance and ground into the mud. The main Austrian army then laid siege to Pressburg, but the scorched earth meant they lost perhaps 4000 men waiting for the city to fall. They then moved on to Pecs after about a month, with Pressburg safely in their possession (bastards). I was waiting though, with a base army of about 20,000 in Pecs and armies moving in from every adjoining province[1]. When the Austrians arrived in Pecs they found themselves caught by an army of 70-80,000 men, and their own demoralized by marching over scorched earth for weeks, and now numbering only perhaps 22-25,000. The result was a victory for me, though a fairly costly one – I think I lost between 30-40% of my men, while they only lost 20% of theirs. Fortunately for me though this ill-fated army retreated into one of my provinces, so I could pause to give chase to ensure my men arrived after the end of the month (with morale and numbers restored) and I think also some Serbians got in on the action. This second battle was pivotal, with my forces dropping only perhaps another 25% while the enemy was routed and lost half its numbers. They then had to retreat back through three provinces, being chased all the way, and when they returned to Austrian territory they numbered perhaps only 4000 men. I was then able to send my surviving army to mop up the small Austrian armies (of 1000-2000 men) laying siege to my northern cities, and rush in the reinforcements I had held in reserve earlier.

By now my men from Northern Italy had arrived and, confident that I had no need to defend Dalmatia I could move a reserve from there into Austria proper, so another force of perhaps 50,000 assembled and began marching across the border. To my surprise, the remaining major Austrian army had stayed fast in Parma after reducing my northern Italian cities, I think because in a sea battle I had accidentally sunk all the Austrian transports[2] and the soldiers did not walk across all of Italy and Austria to join the campaign. I tried drawing them out by destroying their cities in southern Austria but they weren’t tempted, and now my window of opportunity was closing – if I didn’t deal with them quickly a new army would form in Austria while I wasted time in sieges (maybe this is what the Parmiano army was waiting for?) and then I’d be toast, since I didn’t have enough manpower (or money) to build up another army of 70,000 men within a year, having spent most of my available manpower reinforcing the huge losses from the first battle. Did someone say “Human Wave Attacks”? That’s my army’s killer app…

So, we marched into Parma, and left behind a veritable horde of small units, 1000 men per province, sieging every city we could get our hands on – the sooner we bring down their cities the sooner we forestall the development of a major army. This behind-the-lines siege strategy is essential bookkeeping because once the first army was liquidated and its survivors marched to the cliffs of Herzegovina to meet their fate, Austria would have to raise soldiers simultaneously across many provinces. This means stationing a single troop unit in each province enables these new units to be killed all at once as they emerge from their little Austrian cocoons, before they are properly able to fight, and 20,000 manpower get washed away in a storm of blood before they can harm anyone.

The battle in Parma went quite quickly, possibly because the Austrians had forgotten to take over Firenze before they retreated to their Parma castle, and so my armies could reinforce after each battle. I think it took four or five battles before we finally drove them into the Papal State; but before they returned to attack me, my siege units completed the siege of Parma and my conquest of Austria was complete. Result! I demanded Karten (Weapons Manufactory), Streirmark, and Parma (university), as well as the liberation of Riga. That brings my warscore up to 99, and that’s all I get for a year of war – after which I have to settle down to several years of putting down insurrections and rebuilding my manpower. Oh Austria, were you worth it?

How to skin an Austrian dog: 2, carefully peel back the flesh from the left flank

How to skin an Austrian dog: 2, carefully peel back the flesh from the left flank

War 2: The Croatian Trap

I used a similar combination of diversion and scorched earth on my second war, and again started it by attacking a small Italian state. This time I chose the rump of Naples (see the map above), because it gets me the high value provinces south of my university cities, and by now Naples was becoming increasingly isolated on the world stage, protecting me from retaliation from France or Poland. Although this happened only a few years later, I noticed my Land technology had increased in this time – this is because of the effect of having France as a neighbour, plus the Kranten Weapons Manufactory (see below for more about this). I also had access to Austrian infantry units, recruited in Streiermark and Kranten, which are vastly superior to even my Condotta infantry. This eased up the challenges in battle a little, but I still had tough fights ahead of me and this time the Austrians were much less surprised – by the time I had quelled dissent and rebuilt my armies they had a force of some 35,000 men in the northern section of their divided kingdom, and 20,000 in the south. That’s not pretty. However for this battle I had an advantage – a brief alliance with Persia, which meant that halfway through the battle a whole horde of Persian soldiers came stomping in to take over siege duties. These guys died in their multitudes if they so much as caught sight of an Austrian soldier, but they were good for capturing territory.

This time I set a trap for the southern Austrian army, with the full intention of destroying it as quickly as possible. In the map above, the large grey province sticking into my glorious Empire is Croatia, and the green province beneath it Dalmatia. The salmon-coloured nations are Bosnia, my vassal, and to their east Serbia. I positioned a large army in Dalmatia, and another in Bosnia, then more in the provinces north, south and east of it. I then scorched the earth in Bosnia, and waited. Austria lays claim to Bosnia as a core, so leapt straight into my trap, sending its 20,000-strong army to get it back. Once they moved into Bosnia I used the same tactic as before, pouring soldiers in from all sides, but now I also sent my men into Croatia to seal the trap. The Austrian army was beaten more effectively this time, and simultaneously suffering attrition from the scorched earth. When it retreated, it fell into the ambush I had set, and was completely annihilated in the valleys of western Croatia. I immediately withdrew my men into my own territory to get resupply, and lined up the same wall of troops around Pecs in central Hungary, to face off against the Northern army. This time my troops had not been so badly mauled, and I rushed up reinforcements, but I still only outnumbered my enemy perhaps 2.5:1. Luckily those new Austrian troops, plus a slightly better land morale, made the difference, and I won at Pecs – though I think I lost 60% of my men trying. I couldn’t press my advantage but had to rush in more troops from far afield – again, the Italian troops who were on anti-partisan duty in the north of Italy had to be shipped in. This is a dangerous tactic, since even if Naples capture all of Italy they cannot force me to surrender, but if Italian partisans hold a portion of a historical state for long enough they can declare independence. I also, of course, left my northern borders undefended against Naples, but Napolitan forces were much reduced and I could be confident that they would not be a threat. With this new force brought in, and also moving up my southern Greek anti-partisan forces, I was able to quickly return to the offensive, and spent a few months chasing that army around western Hungary until, finally, I cleaned it up.

This time I took the remaining states bordering France, and – most importantly – Tirol, which has a large gold supply. I also forced further concessions from Naples. Now Austria was reduced very much in size, and had lost all its manufactories and universities, as well as its trade centre and gold resources (all located in Tirol).

How to skin an Austrian dog: 3, gently draw out the flesh intact, and throw the remains over your right shoulder

How to skin an Austrian dog: 3, gently draw out the flesh intact, and throw the remains over your right shoulder

War 3: The Cake-walk

After the second war there followed another couple of years of pushing down revolts and rebuilding armies, but then I noticed that Austria had somehow become embroiled in a war with several neighbouring states and the Netherlands. Not wanting to lose the best chances, I declared another war – this time on Ferrara, which had foolishly reneged on its alliance with France and stood unprotected right there by my other northern Italian states – and led a rapid invasion party. This time Austria capitulated quickly, and gave up all its provinces except the capital, Wien. Wien itself capitulated after a further short war, and I was gracious enough to annex them into my empire. Austria thus no longer existed, and it only took 40 years including all the preparation and recuperation. I also seized all of Northern Italy, a province next to Lithuania, and a couple of small German states (like Salzburg) that had to suffer necessary collateral damage as part of my war. At the end of this war, as the map shows, I have captured all of Austria, Salzberg, a province south of Riga, most of Bohemia, Thuringen, and have nearly stomped Hesse. I also now have all the northern Italian university cities except Liguria and Venezia, most of southern Italy, and have lost nothing. The only problem is a single province that the Dutch took from Austria as a peace settlement before I could win the war. Notice the large number of small city-states and one province principalities that got absorbed into my empire during this titanic war – I’m sure they’ll thank me 100 years from now …

A few lessons about fighting technologically superior forces

Fighting significantly stronger forces can be devastating, even if they are numerically much weaker than your own – just as I experienced when I slapped the Golden Horde all the way back into Asia. It’s particularly tough if your war lasts more than a few months, since you will inevitably draw down on the forces that are responsible for maintaining civil order. So here are some tips:

  • Lure them into war by attacking weak allies, so they are isolated from alliances
  • Don’t underestimate even small allies – a two province German state fielding an army of 10,000 highly trained infantry will be enough to turn the battle in their favour
  • Get yourself an ally, even a terrible one. They can do siege work while you do the hard work of smashing the enemy, and although siege work is often seen as something to do after you destroy enemy armies, it is crucial for keeping a lid on reinforcements if you are fighting a war of attrition. If your enemy has money and manpower and you leave his provinces unguarded, expect him to raise another 15,000 man army in a couple of months – just after you lost 30,000 or 40,000 men
  • Fight him on your land, not his, so you get resupply bonuses and he doesn’t. If you can use the lure tactic (I am terrible at this) then use it to draw your enemy far away from resupply
  • Pay attention to tiny things: the date you arrive in a province makes a huge difference to resupply and morale (always arrive after the last day of the month); attrition rates in a large army can be equivalent to losing a whole division; when your army tradition is up, hire better generals and take the time to load them onto your biggest armies.
  • Be very careful to ensure all your armies converge at once – even a day of difference can be a disaster. These Austrian juggernauts tear through small armies like a threshing machine, and if your grand army of 80,000 arrives 20,000 apiece staggered a few days apart, you’ll lose the battle and 60,000 men
  • Hire advisors who can keep revolt risk down, if you can, because you don’t want to lose a core province permanently to some nationalist bigots while you were chasing the bigger prize
  • Once you own a province from your powerful western enemy, rapidly generate their best troops from that province – they will be far better than yours and can form a bulwark in the next battles, and you will lose access to these units after 50 years, so you want to generate them during the period that the provinces are not core, and spread them through all your armies
  • Save before peace agreements and check which land you want very carefully – take the provinces of highest value to your enemy first. You may not be able to find out the best approach (e.g. where universities and manufactories are) without signing a peace treaty and checking, so be willing to reload and try again
  • Keep an eye on Great Britain and Castille – as your reputation tanks from multiple small wars you may need to spend a lot of money keeping them on good terms with you
  • Keep an eye on your manpower – if it begins to get really low you will need to bring reinforcements from anti-partisan duty, or else you won’t be able to field sufficiently sized armies
  • Preparation! Go to war with a full manpower complement and your army already built (it may take two years to get to this point) so that you can guarantee resupply and the ability to build another 30,000 man army within two months – your casualties are going to be horrific
  • Remember you’re fighting a war of attrition and your soldiers are just peasants. Be ready to throw them away – digital men love to die for a cause
  • Save often, because even the smallest mistake is going to lose you 70,000 men in a month
  • Avoid war taxes and try to fight on savings. War exhaustion really soars up when you are fighting a war of attrition, and you don’t want to load taxes on top of that
  • Design your strategy so that you capture a province neighbouring France early – the neighbour bonuses from France are staggering

Now that I’m used to this strategy I’m much more confident about taking on technologically superior opponents. I have the men, they have the guns, but I can do it if I’m careful and methodical in my planning.

A brief note on neighbour bonuses

I was really shocked to notice after I captured some provinces bordering France that the neighbour bonuses on research had shot up to 30 or 40%. Now I have 6 universities and neighbour bonus from France for a total government research bonus of 60%, equivalent to an increase of 60 ducats a month in research – I get research outcomes in all my research fields of up to 40%, equivalent to 200 ducats a month in income just from neighbouring France. This has been particularly effective in my Naval research, which had been lagging. So get this early in your strategy.

If you’re playing the Ottoman empire this can be done early by grabbing Liguria (of the Kingdom of Genoa) before France gets it. This option arrives early when you get the mission to take the Crimea, which Genoa holds – with a good navy you can grab Liguria after two wars, and they aren’t actually militarily so tough, nor do they have good allies. I didn’t do this but as I understand it they have a university and maybe a manufactory. They become a neighbour of France 100 years before you can complete the capture of North Italy, and they also have a centre of trade (5 ducats of income a month from harbour fees).

I’m also wondering if this tactic could be an effective way of making yourself a huge power in Asia. Take a small Asian country and send a force early on to take a piece of land adjacent to e.g. the Ottomans. Then use this neighbour bonus to get a huge research bonus over all your Asian neighbours. Then use this land as a stepping stone to grab a single state adjoining France (anyone would do, North Italian is best) and your neighbour bonus will be huge. Then you can dominate Asia. I would say that for the Ottomans or any Islamic state, having a province adjoining one of the major western Europeans is worth expending a lot of blood and treasure on. In fact now in my game Syria adjoins the British province of Alexandria, and is developing its land and naval forces faster than e.g. Persia or the Golden Horde (who adjoin Muscowy). These neighbour bonuses now have me stellar distances ahead of my Islamic brother states – I think the Golden Horde are still stuck on Land 16 or 17, while I’m on 23. France is on 27, so I’m catching up.

I think these tactics are key to catching up and competing with the western “lucky” countries. When I started playing the Ottomans I didn’t know about the crushing disadvantage of being Islamic (slower research, inferior units) but if you use the neighbour bonuses and careful strategy, these disadvantages can be turned into challenges rather than game breakers. Dragging myself up through Austria to threaten the entire Prussian north has been a really enjoyable part of the game, and it certainly has been a challenge! But now I’m beginning to feel I’ve turned a corner, and my empire is nearly ready to take on the majors …

fn1: You can’t have more than a certain number of units in any one province without suffering serious attrition, and I couldn’t spare any incidental loss of men, so I had to fan my men out until the key moment.

fn2: 41 of my ships to 18 of theirs, and I sunk 6 of theirs and barely won… another example of the devastating effect of huge tech differences. Never split your fleet if you are in a war against a western power.

[This being the victory speech of Padisha Mehmet II, made at the Gates of Vienna in May, 1628]

Oh my Brothers in Arms, peace be upon you that are righteous in the path of the One True Faith! [cheers] [raises arms for sudden silence] I see you now as we all have become in these 40 years of continuous war. We are all wearied, brothers, by this great war that was brought upon us, and by the things that we have been forced to do in the service of Allah, the Source of Peace. I know many of you thought this day would never come. You have marched the mud and snows of this bitter land for so long, some of you have forgotten the feeling of sun on your back, or the sound of the sea. I know you thought you would never see your Mother again, or pray on a mat that was not frayed and worn and splattered with the blood of the infidel.

Oh my Brothers in Arms, peace be upon you now that have won a great victory for the One True Faith! [cheers] Look behind me at these gates, my brothers! [cheers] [turns to face the shattered walls of Vienna] Behind these ruined gates the people of Austria cower in advance of our measured tread. They are not just weary in body, as are you my brothers: no! They are ashamed, my brothers, as are all the infidels! For they waged war against us in the name of a false belief. They thought to crush us, but their efforts broke against the rock of our faith! [cheers] Now do they not know that God is Great, and there is no God but God?! [cheers] [raises arms for sudden silence]

Oh my Brothers in Arms, is this not right and good? For our Prophet, may peace be upon him, did he not warn us of this day? Did he not say,

So when the sacred months have passed away, then slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them captives and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush, then if they repent and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, leave their way free to them; surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.

Have we not done as he bid in all things, my brothers? We were unjustly attacked by the pale wretches of Christendom, and did we not defend ourselves? [cheers] Did we not rebuke them justly for turning their greedy, godless gaze to lands that are and always have been ours? [cheers] Did we not punish them justly for making war against the children and women of the Empire of Peace?! [cheers]  And do they not now repent!!? [cheers]

[waits for the crowd to fall silent – it is a long wait]

Oh my Brothers in Arms, let us now be frank with each other. I know that many of our people questioned my father’s judgment when he first declared war on the Austrian dogs all those years ago. No! Do not protest! Are we not a free people, that our fathers can voice their opinions and their fears without trepidation or restraint?! And are our fathers not wise? Are we not an Empire of Peace? Well then, behind these gates the greatest threat to that peace schemed our end, and now that threat is done! There are great powers in Europe, but we have proven ourselves equal to the most ferocious of them, and now it cowers before us like a terrified dog. We are free to do as we like, and all of the unbelievers in Europe shake with the realization that the people of the One True Faith will not bow down to them, but will fight to defend that which is ours. And let us not doubt this: Europe is rich, rich from conquering other lands and stealing their wealth. Now we have taken those riches for ourselves, riches such as I know many of you could not have imagined these unbelievers would hold. Now we have the gold of the great mountains, we have rich fleets and salt mines and we possess all the industry of this land. Where once that gold bought arms to kill believers, now it will buy bread! [cheers] Where those fleets harried merchants trying to sell the fruits of your hard labours, now they will carry oyur products to trade with the world. Where that industry built cannon to break our cities, now it will make ploughs for our fields. Where that salt was horded for fat, rich Austrians, now it will be shared with shepherds and herders across our Empire! For we have brought peace to Europe, and now Europe will begin to join our Empire of Peace!!! [cheers]

[waits for the crowd to fall silent – it is a long wait]

Oh my Brothers in Arms, let us now think of peace and unity. Before me I see gathered faces from all of our vast Empire of Peace. There, a doughty Georgian sapper – over here, yes here! [points] I see a squad of archers from the plains of Dagestan! You have come far, have you not?! There, a Hussar from Vilnius, still weary from carrying his lance so far and fighting so long! And here before me a Turkish man, whose family has held faith with our empire since the Turks first discovered the One True Faith. And all of you united under our crescent banner! Behind me, cowering behind these gates, a new people wait in fear of you. Would you have those people unwelcome in our empire? Did we not welcome the Tartars, the Hussars, the Hungarians who for so long demanded their liberation from Bohemian oppression? Then let us also welcome these pale-skinned infidels! Show them peace and treat them according to the teachings of our Prophet. Soon those gates will be broken down, and I will enter the city to take possession of Austria in the name of Allah, the Victorious. When you enter the city with me, remember our Prophet’s final sermon, and his injunction as to how to behave well towards unbelievers. For did he not say

All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.

We know that our enemies in Europe do not believe this, or any of the words of the Prophet (may peace be upon him). Let us show them that we are better than them, that we are moral where they sin; we are peaceful where they make war; we are generous where they are greedy; and we are just where they are cruel! Be as good and peaceful muslims when we enter this city, and show no anger or resentment towards these people who made war on us. For we have subdued them, and have no further need of anger – for we are victorious.

Oh my Brothers in Arms, let us throw open the gates of Vienna, and make our triumphant entry into Europe!!!

[long cheers; the Padisha holds his arms aloft for some time, then climbs atop a white horse, and rides towards the gates. Explosions sound from the walls, and the gates fall inward in a cloud of smoke and flame. To the sound of cheers and the thunder of many cannon, Padisha Mehmet II enters the city of Vienna, trailed by whisps of smoke from the shattering of the great gates. He takes Vienna, and our Empire takes history!]

There is no worse calamity for knowledge and its people than when outsiders intrude

There is no worse calamity for knowledge and its people than when outsiders intrude

Everyone knows that the people of Christendom are lazy and morally weak. What else is to be expected of people who have been led so far from the path of righteousness as to believe Jesus is the son of Allah, the One and Only, who begets not nor is begotten? These people show themselves in all things to be misguided and confused; to eschew work where leisure could suffice; to revile hygiene where baser instincts can take hold; and to turn away from all enlightened thought to superstition and idolatry. Yet, it cannot be said that they are ignorant; for in Northern Italy and distant France lie almost all of the greatest institutions of learning in the modern world. How can it be that such idle and debased people – so weak of thought and ideals that even their skin is pale – could be in possession of all the greatest institutions of learning in the known world?

Of course they did not build that; they inherited this legacy of great thought from their predecessors in the Islamic world, and then they debased it. Their learning comes from the ancient Greeks through those most barbarous of idolaters, the Romans; and from the Arabs did they learn all they know of mathematics and science. Yet in the long dark era of our subjection and chaos, we allowed this learning to slip away, and a golden age of knowledge tarnished irrevocably, so that all that is great about modern science and philosophy is held in trust by the faithless sinners of western Europe.

Have we not sinned as a people, to allow this knowledge to pass from us into the hands of infidels? Did not Ibn Taymiyyah say that the people of the One True Faith should

Seek (beneficial) knowledge,
because seeking it for the sake of Allah is a worship.
And knowing it makes you more God-fearing;
and searching for it is jihad,
teaching it to those who do not know is charity,
reviewing and learning it more is like tasbeeh.
Through knowledge Allah will be known and worshiped

Sadly we have failed to respect this Islamic ideal for many years, and in the midst of our internecine strife we have allowed the unbeliever to take hold of all beneficial knowledge, and to keep it from us. Does our worship of Allah the Most Merciful not suffer because of this lapse in our vigilance over jihad?

However, those times of internecine strife have been replaced with a time of prosperity and glory, under the great Mehumet I, and now we are able to look to the west, to those nations near us that hold so much of the lost knowledge that is our rightful legacy; and we are able now to reach out, and to take that knowledge back. Of course, we cannot take knowledge from the minds of men, even of infidels; nor can we exert control over how new knowledge is found in the hearts and minds of men (and does not Allah decide in His infinite power, as the Great Teacher, what all men will know and when they will know it?) But we can control the physical spaces in which knowledge is gathered, taught, and protected for future generations. We cannot reclaim the mind of the unbeliever, but we can strike out to take physical possession of the places that teach that mind, that form it; and in so doing we can establish  an Islamic Enlightenment, that ensures all knowledge is right and proper, and attendant to its legacy of Islamic principles.

Of course, to do this we must invade and subjugate Northern Italy. But such are the trials of jihad.

Huseyn II reigned for 16 years after he conquered Hungary, and during this time he made some more small gains, taking islands in the Aegean sea that had long been home to pirates and crusaders. Rhodes, Naxos, Crete and Corfu fell to our glorious soldiers, and in the twilight of his years Huseyn II’s scholar and archivist was able to take ship from the most southern edge of the Aegean sea all the way to the tip of Croatia without ever losing sight of the Empire that Huseyn II had built. However, this was not enough for Huseyn II, who had glorious visions of reclaiming not just the physical domain of Islam, but also its cultural legacy. For this reason late in his reign he declared war on the newly-founded state of Naples, which incorporated the city-states of Firenze, Romagna and Siena. Though Naples had military technology far in advance of our own, and was protected by powerful allies, through Huseyn II’s cunning diplomacy we were able to fashion a war in which Naples was isolated from its powerful friends, and through bravery and force of numbers we subdued the entire Italian peninsula in a brutal two year war. Though our brave soldiers faced warfare against modern cannon and forts, in mountains and forests unfamiliar to them, as ever the Christians wilted before the heat of our righteous fury, and the university cities of Firenze, Romagna and Siena were taken. Thus, in the year 1560, did the Islamic Enlightenment begin …

In his wisdom, Huseyn II recognized that to rule all these lands would be impossible, so he opted to carve off only the Northern states, and to vassalize Sicily and the Papal State; he then cast the lesser pickings of Southern Italy back to the Napolitan dogs. All praise should be given to Huseyn II for his tolerance: here he stood, at the doors to the Vatican itself, in possession of the very centre of the unbeliever’s faith, but recognizing the value of art and history for itself, he chose not to raze the city and put all its infidels to the sword, as all accepted to be his right; instead he gave the city its freedom, and allowed the curia to remain as a symbol of the lower status of Christianity. Perhaps when intelligent Catholics look upon their vanquished city, they will reflect on who is the One True God. If they do not, perhaps in future they will be chastised again by our glorious armies. For does our Holy Book not say,

If they desist not from their word (of blasphemy), verily a grievous chastisement shall befall the blasphemers among them.

And are not our emperors just in offering this chastisement?

Before his death in 1564 Huseyn II implemented imperial rule across this whole vast land, but sadly his successor Seyfetim I achieved nothing with the fruits of Huseyn’s work or the new-found enlightenment, and died leaving only bastards. After a brief struggle amongst them, Mehmet I cousin of Huseyn II took the throne, and he rules to this day in glory from the centre of our Empire. In his wisdom Mehmet I realized that it is not enough to take possession of the great centres of learning in Christendom, and thus to restore the legacy of Islamic thought to the Empires of Islam; like a wise and learned father, the Ottoman Empire must also chastise those of its more junior and less educated Muslim brethren, and bring the true fruits of Islamic thought to them. Nowhere was this more the case than with the Golden Horde, that great seething sea of barbarity spreading east of our holy land, which was barely Islamic except in name, and ruled by degenerate horse-loving wretches from beyond the great deserts. This Horde was a constant problem on our borders, and served to destabilize all it was in contact with. What the folk of the Horde needed was discipline and education, in equal measure. And who else should offer such, but a loving and firm-handed father?

Thus it was that in the early years of his reign Mehmet I began war upon the Golden Horde. In this war the wisdom of Huseyn II’s belief in the power of education was made manifest. Our soldiers and our culture were so far in advance of the Horde that even our smallest army had but to stride onto the battlefield, and countless throngs of our enemies would be banished. In but two years of warfare a handful of divisions of our mighty army spread out across the Horde, taking its lands in our grip from Dagestan south of our Empire all the way to India. Behind us we left a trail of vanquished armies and unsettled local warlords; as the Horde’s client system fell apart under the pressure of our armies, and the subject peoples saw the vulnerability of their former masters, they rose up against the Khanate. By the time our armies had rampaged across these vast distances to India the land was aflame with rebellion. We retreated again, choosing instead to take only the lands closest to our own; and at the end of this huge crusade, the peoples of Dagestan, Qarabagh, Azow and Astrakhan had been brought into the loving embrace of the Ottomans. Closer to our own shores, those foolish nations that had previously allied with the Timurids, then turned to the Horde for protection, were suitably chastised, their lands taken and their leaders executed; the rump of the kingdoms of Crimea and Candar was left an empty shell, vassal to our will; but the rest of their territories were absorbed into ours. Now our grip on the Black Sea was complete but for those ports held by Poland, and the nearest of our Islamic neighbours who had fallen to the degeneracy of the Horde were back within our grasp. We also possessed the great trading posts of Astrakhan, and were within striking distance of the gold mines of Samara.

Of course I joined this crusade across the steppes of the Horde. From my vantage point on horseback, as I stood outside my Yurt staring up at the vast Eastern sky, or when we stood in the ransacked rooms of the Khans’ shabby castles, smelling the smoke and hearing the screams of dying prisoners, it became clear to me that the Ottoman Empire offers all of the Islamic world a better, more enlightened way to live; those that do not take it must one day be forced into it for their own good. It was also clear, as I looked into the eyes of freed slaves, or witnessed the violence-charged resentment of ordinary citizens of the Horde, or saw the explosive violence meted out to vanquished armies by the peasants they had previously oppressed, that the Horde was collapsing. Barely an empire any longer, it was held together by the twinned tyrannies of low men and huge distances, and was an anachronism in the modern era. To its north Muscowy grew in confidence; to its East, the Ming empire; to its south a brace of new empires jostling for power. The Golden Horde was going to collapse under internal division, and then be torn apart by these powers; and at some point we, the Ottomans, would have to step in to assure peace and to prevent the worst excesses that we saw in the end times of the Timurids, and were then powerless to stop.

But for now, we can do no more. Exhausted after two years of campaigning on those vast and open spaces, I returned to our capital to discover talk of a new and greater threat than any we had faced before: the Holy Roman Empire was looking eastward, to us; and the head of that greedy and evil Empire was none other than the King of Austria, our closest neighbour. Rumours grew that Austria hoped to retake Hungary from us and forge a new, larger Austro-Hungarian kingdom that would no doubt spell disaster for all Europe. It was our obligation to ourselves and also to all of Christendom to stifle that ambition. In the Autumn of 1582, war with eastern Europe’s greatest power loomed …



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