Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Category Archives: History

Happy Robert E. Lee Day!

It’s that time of year again– and a good time to reflect on a truly great man.

Here’s a little something he penned himself:

The forbearing use of power does not only form a touchstone, but the manner in which an individual enjoys certain advantages over others is a test of a true gentleman.

The power which the strong have over the weak, the employer over the employed, the educated over the unlettered, the experienced over the confiding, even the clever over the silly–the forbearing or inoffensive use of all this power or authority, or a total abstinence from it when the case admits it, will show the gentleman in a plain light

The gentleman does not needlessly and unnecessarily remind an offender of a wrong he may have committed against him. He cannot only forgive, he can forget; and he strives for that nobleness of self and mildness of character which impart sufficient strength to let the past be but the past. A true man of honor feels humbled himself when he cannot help humbling others.

Here’s something Lord Acton wrote to the man personally:

Without presuming to decide the purely legal question, on which it seems evident to me from Madison’s and Hamilton’s papers that the Fathers of the Constitution were not agreed, I saw in State Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy. The institutions of your Republic have not exercised on the old world the salutary and liberating influence which ought to have belonged to them, by reason of those defects and abuses of principle which the Confederate Constitution was expressly and wisely calculated to remedy. I believed that the example of that great Reform would have blessed all the races of mankind by establishing true freedom purged of the native dangers and disorders of Republics. Therefore I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization; and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.

April 9, 1865: Lee Surrenders at Appomattox Court House

“When Robert E. Lee met with Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia, on the momentous morning of April 9, 1865, the Union commander insisted on introducing his staff members to Lee individually. The Rebel leader, ever courteous, shook each man’s hand. Among the men in Grant’s entourage was Lieutenant Colonel Ely Parker, a Seneca Indian. Lee hesitated upon meeting the swarthy Parker, apparently mistaking him for a freedman or mulatto; however, he quickly realized his error, extending his hand to Parker with the gracious comment, ‘I am glad to see one real American here.’ Parker accepted the proffered handshake, responding, ‘We are all Americans.'” — Ely Parker: Iroquois Chief and Union Officer

“When news of the surrender first reached our lines our men commenced firing a salute of a hundred guns in honor of the victory. I at once sent word, however, to have it stopped. The Confederates were now our prisoners, and we did not want to exult over their downfall.” — The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant

Lee on Failure, Hope, and Steadfastness

Today is the 150th anniversary of Pickett’s charge, which occurred on the third and final day of the Battle of Gettysburg. This is Lee’s assessment, from a letter to President Jefferson Davis:

“No blame can be attached to the army for its failure to accomplish what was projected by me, nor should it be censured for the unreasonable expectations of the public. I am alone to blame, in perhaps expecting too much of its prowess & valor. It however in my opinion achieved under the guidance of the Most High a general success, though it did not win a victory. I thought at the time that the latter was practicable. I still think if all things could have worked together it would have been accomplished. But with the knowledge I then had, & in the circumstances I was then placed, I do not know what better course I could have pursued. With my present knowledge, & could I have foreseen that the attack on the last day would have failed to drive the enemy from his position, I should certainly have tried some other course. What the ultimate result would have been is not so clear to me.   Our loss has been heavy, that of the enemy’s proportionally so. His crippled condition enabled us to retire from the country comparatively unmolested.” — Robert E. Lee, July 31, 1863

A week later, Lee would follow this up with a letter of resignation, which included this oft-quoted section:

“We must expect reverses, even defeats. They are sent to teach us wisdom and prudence, to call forth greater energies and to prevent our falling into greater disasters. Our people have only to be true and united, to bear manfully the misfortunes incident to war, and all will come right in the end.” — Robert E. Lee, August 8, 1863

Italics are mine. Contrary to the “Lost Cause” view of the war, that particular sentence seems to indicate that Lee at least still thought that ultimate victory was possible even at that late date.

[Click through to see these quotes in their full context.]

Rock-Paper-Scissors in Warfare and Game Design

“The reason why Cyrus opposed his camels to the enemy’s horse was because the horse has a natural dread of the camel, and cannot abide either the sight or the smell of that animal. By this stratagem he hoped to make Croesus’s horse useless to him, the horse being what he chiefly depended on for victory. The two armies then joined battle, and immediately the Lydian war-horses, seeing and smelling the camels, turned round and galloped off; and so it came to pass that all Croesus’s hopes withered away.” — Herodotus

The interesting thing about those camels is that they were not an actual military unit. They were pulled out from the baggage train at the last minute to make this battle-winning move.

This sort of paper-rock-scissors is a major flaw in a tactical game. The emergence of this dynamic pretty well makes it pointless to bother playing everything out. You see this in big Car Wars events where the vehicle designs chosen pretty well determine the winner. You see it in High Guard games, too. I also remember the Federation Commander judge at Origins 2011 fretting over whether or not there was a paper-rock-scissors effect in the fleets than had been preselected for tournament play. Cleaning that sort of thing up was a very high priority for him.

But a flaw in a tactical game can turn out to be the bread and butter of a strategic game. Space Empires: 4X gives you the option of building fighters, raider ships for sneak attacks, and mines for defense. If you take the time to research the counters to these, you can pretty well roll through them when they rear their ugly heads. Your other option is to wait until you the enemy reveals his strategy, and then counter it. The question then becomes, how much time will it take you to adapt and how much will he be able to leverage his advantage? This is the biggest reason that the game tracks ship tech on a counter-by-counter basis. If you simplify the game to allow all ships to be updated simultaneously, you ruin one of the game’s more interesting features.

The reason that this works so well is that the game is made up of many battles instead of just one engagement. Paper-Rock-Scissors itself can become a very different game when it is played in sets and rounds. The simplest illustration is in the baseball variant. If both players reveal a one, it’s a single. If both throw twos, it’s a double. If both throw threes, the player at bat gets a triple. If both players reveal fours… home run! If the players have different numbers, that’s an out. Nine innings of this very simple game can be surprisingly fun.

One thing I recall from elementary school was that we added our own options to Paper-Rock-Scissors… sometimes even in the course of play. I definitely recall dynamite being countered by scissors– the fuse got snipped off. We also had a superman throw that could beat everything… except kryptonite.

For role playing games, there is almost no real rules to cover the sort of thing that Herodotus describes. That is of course exactly the sort of thing that good players will try to pull off. I call this the “A-Team” approach. The players come up with some harebrained idea and then try to implement it. Sometimes getting the individual pieces of the puzzle can turn out to be adventures in and of themselves. One of the more irritating qualities of skill based systems is that they can turn all of this zaniness into a single roll-and-hand-wave affair. What’s worse… the Gamemaster might feel that he needs to figure out what awesome thing is was that the players came up with. The way I deal with that, though, is to look at the roll and then put it back on the players. “You rolled an eight for your tactics. Hmm… looks like some sort of paper-rock-scissors type of temporary advantage. What do you think you guys have done now…?” Alternately, you can force the players to describe exactly what they’re doing before rolling… and then judge the initial set-up for the tactical maps based both on the quality of the roll and the quality of the idea.

One side effect of this style of play is that the players will be encouraged to kill every last one of their enemies. If any survive, they are sure to get word out about the players’ killer tactics. Not only will things not work out the same way next time, but the players might even have to deal with monsters that pull the exact same dirty tricks!

Patton on Winning, Bravery, and Fear

Today is the anniversary of D-day. Below are a excerpts from the speech that George S. Patton delivered to his troops in the days before the invasion.

On winning:

Men, all this stuff you hear about America not wanting to fight, wanting to stay out of the war, is a lot of bullshit. Americans love to fight. All real Americans love the sting and clash of battle. When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, the big-league ball players and the toughest boxers. Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. That’s why Americans have never lost and will never lose a war. The very thought of losing is hateful to Americans.

On bravery:

One of the bravest men I saw in the African campaign was on a telegraph pole in the midst of furious fire while we were moving toward Tunis. I stopped and asked him what the hell he was doing up there. He answered, ‘Fixing the wire, sir.’ ‘Isn’t it a little unhealthy up there right now?’ I asked. ‘Yes sir, but this goddamn wire has got to be fixed.’ I asked, ‘Don’t those planes strafing the road bother you?’ And he answered, ‘No sir, but you sure as hell do.’ Now, there was a real soldier. A real man. A man who devoted all he had to his duty, no matter how great the odds, no matter how seemingly insignificant his duty appeared at the time.

On fear:

Some of you men are wondering whether or not you’ll chicken out under fire. Don’t worry about it. I can assure you that you’ll all do your duty. War is a bloody business, a killing business. The Nazis are the enemy. Wade into them, spill their blood or they will spill yours. Shoot them in the guts. Rip open their belly. When shells are hitting all around you and you wipe the dirt from your face and you realize that it’s not dirt, it’s the blood and gut of what was once your best friend, you’ll know what to do.