Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Them Bones: The Poison Serenade

Them Bones, 74-78, 89-90, 97-98:

For the previous entry in this series, click here.

First contact, again.

Madison’s separated Army companions finally meet some of the inhabitants of the era into which they have traveled. A party of Indians, drawn to the soldiers' camp by "Moonlight Serenade" (they call the newcomers "the Music People,") has come in to say a cautious hello. Warrant Officer Smith, who is keeping a diary of the time travelers’ experiences, tells us that “they don’t look like movie Indians.” They wear abundant tattoos, of animals and lightning bolts and more dangerous-looking images; some wear large ear spools, while a few have flattened heads, the result of head binding as infants (a common practice among some southeastern Indians). Smith and CIA officer Splevins determine that the visitors belong to a “proto-Muskogean” confederacy of villages, each led by a Sun Man, with a “Sun King” presiding over the whole. They farm, build large temple mounds, and have a small “death cult” within their larger Sun-oriented religion. In short, they strongly resemble Took-His-Time’s people. There are some subtle differences: these Native Americans have no contact with mysterious “Traders,” none speak Greek, and as far as we know none have met mammoths. Splevins believes that his company has traveled to the pre-Columbian past, but a different past than the one Leake fell into.

Finding themselves at least 400 years* further back in time than planned, the company’s officers decide to prepare a contingency plan, and task Smith and one Specialist Kilroy with the first draft. We remember that Waldrop served as a draftee in the U.S. Army, and acquired considerable familiarity with its foibles, its bureaucratization and tendency to pile dirty jobs on middle management. Kilroy has taken a lot of officerial chickenshit in his time, and he refuses to take the order very seriously, drinking and flirting with Smith while asking when, between “bunker guard and shitburning detail,” he’ll have time to work on the report. Smith expresses similar pessimism: 

"What are we supposed to do, kidnap Indian kids, brainwash ‘em, set up an operation that will elect Stevenson instead of Eisenhower in ‘52?"

Perhaps so.

Relations with the Mississippian Indians remain friendly for a few days, but when Smith writes her next journal entry she reports dire news: an epidemic has broken out in the nearest village. Three people have died from an illness characterized by fever and “running bloody noses,” and many others have fallen sick. The survivors have fled in haste, not even stopping for a proper burial. Smith notes that she and her companions received multiple vaccinations before leaving 2002, but someone might have brought an infection to which the indigenes lacked immunity. (The symptoms suggest influenza but could indicate a number of respiratory illnesses.) Nothing much happens in the Army camp for the next couple of weeks, but the silence is ghostly and apprehensive. What will come of the newcomers’ contagion none can really say, but we doubt it will lead to a good end.    

Coming next: the expedition to Pipe Hill.

* That is, no later than the 1530s, before De Soto’s entrada. Waldrop is pretty careful with his chronology.

(Image above is a 1735 drawing of the Creek chief Tomochichi and his son.)

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Them Bones: Our Catfish Friend Shows Us the Way

(For the previous entry in this series, click here.)

Howard Waldrop, Them Bones, 70-73, 92-96:

Back in 1929, we rejoin archaeologist Bessie and her colleagues on the verge (and, later, in the midst) of a terrible storm, the kind of downpour familiar to anyone who has spent time in the Deep South. Waldrop slowly builds up the atmospherics: high wind, darkening skies, flashes of lightning, promises from the site director to call the governor and keep the upstream floodgates open. Finally a great “gray slab of rain” bursts over the bayou and rolls into the campsite (72). Just before the storm breaks an apparition, a silent man in patched trousers and a tall hat, appears at the edge of camp. William, the chief workman, identifies the newcomer as Bob Basket. Mr. Basket is an Indian who has come to “take one last look” at the mounds. Perhaps he knows something about the coming storm that Bessie does not?

Later, as Bessie and William and the other workmen take shelter from the downpour, Bob Basket tells them about his people (the Choctaws, I presume) and their relationship with the mounds. Six generations ago a three-year-long rainstorm inundated his ancestors’ homeland killing crops and animals and threatening to drown them. They were saved by a giant, totemic catfish, who led Basket’s ancestors to the site of Bessie’s archaeological dig. There the refugees settled, and grew their crops, and lived until the waters receded.

Then things got weird. The mounds, the Indians’ crops, and their canoes all shrank to the size of toys. Basket’s ancestors gathered their shrunken possessions and headed back upriver to their old settlements, to start over. I have read this novel a half-dozen times, and I still can’t figure out the meaning of this development. Perhaps Waldrop is giving Basket’s ancestors a vision of a future in which their temporary home became a museum diorama? Few of us in the modern era have other ways of relating to the Mound-Builder generation.

At the end of Basket’s story, the rain stops. Bessie steps out of the tent into the muddy campground, surveys the dig, and sees a large, slightly depressed area adjoining the three main mounds. A light goes on in her head: “There was some kind of settlement here,” she says (96). No-one is listening, however: the workmen have dozed off and Bob Basket, as mysteriously as he appeared, has vanished.

The storyteller thus becomes one of this section’s disappointments: a cliched “vanishing Indian,” an apparition who moves silently in and out of scenes, tells a story to enlighten one of the main (white) characters, and disappears completely from the narrative. Basket’s implicit message to us is that the Indians of Mississippi belong to the past, which was far from the case in 1929 and far from true today - several Choctaw communities have stood in eastern Mississippi since the Removal era. Perhaps Waldrop didn’t come across this detail in his research; I suspect it wasn’t well known in the early 1980s. Still, it adds an unnecessary bit of melodrama to a story whose strength lies in its historical realism.*

Coming next: The Music People. 

*Even if that sometimes takes the form of magic realism.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

My Action Figure Wish List

Some years ago Your Humble Narrator entered a contest on the late lamented online journal Topless Robot. "Tell us about your own ideal set of (currently non-existent) action figures," invited the contest organizer. I am not a big action figure collector, but at the time I had just finished re-watching a certain classic BBC series, and noticing how often very talented British TV actors wind up taking second-string (and occasionally leading) roles in SF and fantasy movies. This contest submission grew out of my post-viewing reveries. Sad to say, I didn't win, but I think the editor found my entry mildly amusing, and I suspect some of my readers will, too.


At the top of my (rather short) action-figure wish list (I wrote in 2009) stands a set of I, CLAUDIUS / Sci-Fi crossover figures, in which each of the principal characters of the '70s BBC series dually appears as a character played by the same actor in a SF series or movie. Examples would include: 

Dual-action Augustus / Vultan figure, with optional speech module - pull the string and he alternates between bellowing "Quinctilius Varus, WHERE ARE MY EAGLES?" and "Gordon's ALIVE?!"

Dual-action Livia / Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam - each with its own unique methods of poisoning your other action figures!

Sejanus / Jean-Luc Picard. Carries a death warrant in one hand and a cup of Earl Grey in the other. Optional wheelchair for X-MEN crossover action.

Livilla / Magenta action figure - can either shag your Sejanus (q.v.) figure or swan about your Frank N. Furter figure dressed as a maid.

Caligula / Cain figure. Accessories include face-hugger alien figure and aborted fetus carved directly from sister Drusilla's womb. Rosy-Fingered Dawn costume and play-set sold separately!

And Macro / Maximilian Arturo figure - comes with centurion's uniform, three-piece suit, vortex timer, and extra helpings of smug. Also included: detachable limbs and dwarf axeman costume for transformation into Gimli from LORD OF THE RINGS.

I anticipated that this would inaugurate a whole series of action figures based on BBC historical dramas and light comedies. So far my vision has remained a fantasy, but the century is still young.


(In case you don't already know, Gaius Helen Mohiam was Sian Phillips' character in DUNE, Magenta was the maid in the ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, and Maximilian Arturo was the snotty professor in the SLIDERS TV series, played by Jonathan Rhys-Davies.)

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A Classic Game for Those Who Want to Hate Their Friends

Diplomacy was a staple of board-gaming geekery during Your Humble Narrator’s misspent youth. First published in 1959, Allan Calhamer’s classic offered unique features: secret movement scheduling (everyone recorded their moves in advance and revealed them simultaneously), deterministic combat resolution, and role-playing. Each player took the part of one of Europe’s Great Powers on the eve of the First World War, and endeavored, through a series of alliances, counter-alliances, and treacheries, to take control of eighteen of Europe’s 34 supply centers (capitals and major cities). Negotiation, as the rule book observed, was key to success. No-one could win without the aid of other players, secured in the diplomacy phase that opened every turn. Equally vital was duplicity: only one player could win the game, so s/he had to betray his/her allies at some point, usually multiple times. Endurance also proved important. Turns took at least twenty minutes to complete, and a full game could easily last twenty turns. Usually players called a draw before someone met the victory conditions.

I have played Diplomacy a dozen or so times since my D&D buddies taught it to me in 1982. It was one of the first historical games I had tried and probably helped spark my interest in history, as it dovetailed with my social studies class’s unit on the Russian Revolution and my history-buff mother’s introducing me to The Guns of August. By the time I reached college, however, I had learned what Margalit Fox observes in her 2013 obituary of Calhamer: Diplomacy rewards not the diplomatic player but the “aggressive” and treacherous one. I can’t say I was surprised to learn of its popularity with attorneys.

Later I got a hankering to play the game to the bitter end, and this inspired me to sign up for a postal game (1996-99) and a couple of play-by-email sessions. These taught me something postal players had discovered in the 1960s: if a Diplomacy match lasts long enough, the two lead players tend to develop a “stalemate line,” a chain of defensible territories blocking each other’s expansion. The game then turns into an inferior version of chess as the two leaders wait for someone to make a mistake, or for a surviving minor player to play kingmaker. Usually no-one cares to negotiate by this stage, after so many betrayals and broken alliances. A disappointing revelation, but I’m glad I finally found this out myself.

Allan Calhamer turns out to have been an interesting guy, of the genius/dilettente type Malcolm Gladwell described in Outliers. Educated at Harvard, a school nearly as fond of eccentric students as of rich ones, Calhamer attended law school but dropped out before getting his JD. He later worked as a corporate consultant, a park ranger, and a postman, and continued to develop games (none published) and amuse himself with mental puzzles. He didn’t leave a huge mark on American culture, but he did provide an unusual and engaging form of entertainment to quirky-bright people of all classes and many nations.

(First image above courtesy of Roger's Reviews and Boardgamegeek.com. Second image via Wikimedia Commons.)

Monday, March 27, 2017

Games That Don't Suck: Innovation

Civilization-building games tend toward massiveness. The 2002 boardgame version of Sid Meier’s Civilization included hundreds of plastic playing pieces and weighed about ten pounds. Seven Wonders provides a more elegant playing experience but still requires an array of equipment and at least a medium-sized table to play. Roll through the Ages has a compact footprint, but its clattering dice make it less than ideal for a crowded or quiet play environment. Few game designers have managed to create a civ-builder that is light, easy to set up, and covers (unlike RttA or 7 Wonders) the whole of human social development. Fewer still have developed a game that allows for deep play and a variety of strategies. Innovation may be the only offering that combines all of these advantages. The game has its quirks, but its persistent strengths keep my partner and I returning to it again and again, not just at home but on the road.

Innovation travels well. The physical game is itself very compact: four small play mats (which experienced players don’t need) and a deck of 110 playing cards. Five of these are special achievements (see below); the rest are civilizational advances, which form the game’s heart, soul, and musculature. Each of the 105 core cards bears the name of the technology it represents; a description of its unique special power or “dogma”; two to four symbols (castles, leaves, crowns, etc.) from a set of six, representing the classes into which the dogmas fall; the card’s color, which governs how many face-up cards one may have at a time; and the card’s age or era - Medieval, Renaissance, Industrial, and so forth.

Each player, on his/her turn, may perform two actions from this list: draw a new card, meld a card from their hand - that is, place it face-up in front of them - use a face-up card’s power or “dogma,” and/or collect a numbered achievement. Melded cards go onto one of five face-up stacks, sorted by color, and cover any previously-melded cards of that color beneath them. A covered card essentially represents an obsolete technology, and (unless it somehow returns to the top of the stack) one cannot use its dogma again. The new top card will generally have a dogma the player prefers to the old one, and often that card will belong to a later age, which is to say a higher-value draw pile. The age of a top card matters because it determines from which pile one draws new cards: one takes them from the draw pile corresponding to the latest (highest-value) top card in one’s play area. If that pile is empty one draws from the next-highest age. It pays to draw cards from later ages, as they usually have more uses than low-age cards.

Dogmas, or powers, represent the game’s core play elements. When used they allow a player to draw new cards, meld multiple cards from one’s hand, score cards from one’s hand or play area, or inflict damage on another player’s hand, play area, or score pile. Each dogma has a symbol associated with it that determines its power. A player uses all of the visible symbols of the appropriate type, from all the cards in his/her play area, to power a dogma.* The number of symbols used can strengthen the dogma’s effect. It also determines whether the dogma can affect other players. A demand (or attack), identified on the card by the boldface words “I demand,” affects only players who display fewer of the dogma’s associated symbols than the player making the demand. A non-demand dogma, on the other hand, may be shared by any other player with as many or more of the dogma’s associated symbols in his/her display. If another player does share the dogma, they use it themselves, and the active player then draws a card for each sharing player. Essentially, they have traded the use of one technology for the acquisition of another.

In discussing dogma symbols, I use the word “visible” deliberately. Normally, only can only use the symbols on the top cards of one’s stacks to power dogmas. However, some dogmas let players splay a stack of cards - spread them rightward, leftward, or upward, to display the dogma symbols on the lower cards. Splays can dramatically increase the number of visible symbols in one’s play area, especially upward splays (most cards concentrate their symbols on their bottom edge). Splaying represents civilizational investment or development: one is essentially “bringing up” buried dogma symbols like seeds growing into mature plants.

In addition to acquiring and melding new cards, splaying card stacks, burying cards (a dogma action that lets one put cards at the bottom of a stack), and attacking other players, one can use some dogmas to score cards. To score, one takes a card from the top of the relevant draw pile (specified in the description of the dogma one used) and places it face-down in one’s score pile. A scored card is worth a number of points equal to its age - between 1 and 10 points. One may then use the score pile to purchase achievements, analogous to the Wonders one finds in other civilization-builder games. At the start of the game the players create a line of nine face-down cards from the first nine draw piles, which represent the “ordinary” achievements. Each costs five points times the achievement’s age, or from 5 to 45 points total. A player must have sufficient points in his/her score pile to buy the achievement and must spend an action to do so. Score piles are not depleted through the purchase of achievements, and achievements may not subsequently be taken from the player, though a bad result with the Nuclear Fission dogma might destroy them.

Innovation also includes five special achievements, which a player automatically acquires upon achieving their listed conditions: having three visible symbols of each of the six types, for example, or splaying all five of one’s stacks upward or rightward. One does not spend an action to acquire these specials. The first player to acquire a total of six achievements - five in a three-player game, four in a four-player game - wins the game. Everyone else reverts to drooling barbarism.

Actually, that’s not quite the only way to win Innovation. Some of the higher-age cards contain special victory conditions that fire off automatically when a player uses that card’s dogma. A player can win automatically with the Empiricism dogma, for instance, if s/he has at least 20 light-bulb symbols displayed in his/her play area. One might call this the “Rapture of the Nerds” (or Singularity) victory. Some dogmas let the player with the smallest score pile win – if, for instance, a combination of Software, A.I., and Robotics are ever in play. (Presumably, this sets off the Robot Apocalypse.) If the players somehow exhaust all ten era decks without someone winning through achievements, the player with the highest score takes the win.
Innovation sounds like an exhaustingly difficult game to learn. It is not a good offering for beginners, who may find its terminology off-putting and who may struggle to interpret some of the cards. (The manufacturer has a free FAQ file online covering all of the cards in the base game.)  Much of the complexity of the game, however, lies in its strategy and the choices players can make. As in other civilization-building games, Innovation requires players constantly to balance different resources and adjust their strategies to take advantage of opportunities. Players might work on building up their civilization’s “stock” of symbols, by finding dogmas that splay their stacks and melding new cards to those stacks. This can take time away, however, from adding cards to their score piles and using the points to buy achievements. Building up a score pile, in turn, can distract players from acquiring the combinations of symbols or actions that let them acquire special achievements. Focusing on one's score pile and achievements takes time away from advancing up the "tech ladder" with dogmas that let one draw and/or place cards from later ages. Players must also keep an eye on each other's symbol “strength,” since this allows their rivals to “borrow” valuable dogmas or (worse) to attack their civilizations. There are a lot of choices, and none of them are trivial.

I have played Innovation nearly one hundred times, most of them with just my significant other, and no two of our games have been the same. Every game has commanded our attention and all of our mental faculties. The only tacit agreement we have with one another is not to trigger a nuclear war. Nuclear war, we have decided, is kid’s stuff.

Real gamers always go for the robot apocalypse.

* One can thus have a six-leaf dogma, a nine-factory dogma, and so forth, even if the dogma’s own card has only one or two of that symbol.