Paper Time Machines: Live Stream with Volko Ruhnke

Hello everyone! It’s my pleasure to announce here on the blog that Sunday September 19th and 9:00AM EST, Jack and I will be hosting the Paper Time Machines talk by legendary designer Volko Ruhnke!

Please come check out the stream for an enlightening talk about science fiction and historical simulations! Here’s the official description:

“Boardgames can transport us to different worlds by showing us on a tabletop how these worlds work. This is as true of fantasy and science fiction boardgames as it is of historical simulations, because great fantasy and science fiction draws from knowledge of human history to make its alien worlds work in coherent and realistic ways. Historical boardgame designer Volko Ruhnke will show how science fiction and fantasy boardgames and historical boardgames all share and can reveal facets of human affairs, including:

• The flow of resources in warfare: DUNE and Falling Sky (Caesar in Gaul).

• Medieval military operationa: War of the Ring and Nevsky (Teutons and Rus).

• Insurgency and counterinsurgency: Star Wars Rebellion and Fire in the Lake (US in Vietnam).”

We’ll be there to moderate questions and comments so if you want to get some words in with the big man himself about wargaming and conflict simulation, drop on by!

Link to the Event

Sunday, September 19 2021, 9:00AM EST

-Joe

Field of Glory II: Medieval – The Battle of Crug Mawr

One of my favourite features in Field of Glory II: Medieval is the included historical battles. I’m no medievalist, so most of the battles covered here, except for the extremely famous ones like Hastings or The Battle on Lake Peipus, are new to me. It’s a wonderful excuse to pop open wikipedia and start doing some reading to go along with playing the scenario. (Modern Edutainment!) Since research is twice as fun when you share it with people (or so I keep telling myself) here’s my after action report of the Battle of Crug Mawr, where in reality the Welsh pushed back the Anglo-Normans in 1136. Will I do as good a job?

Beautiful Wales

Crug Mawr: Field of Glory II: Medieval and Historical Recreation

In 1135 King Henry I of England died without a male heir, his only legitimate son having drowned in 1120. He nominated his daughter, Empress Matilda to take the throne, but a succession crisis quickly broke out leading to a civil war known as the Anarchy.

In Wales, already uneasy about Anglo-Norman advances into their land, the tiny Welsh kingdoms took the opportunity to act. In Southern Wales a large scale revolt wrest control of the region from Norman forces. An attempt to reestablish control by Ricahrd Fitz Gilbert de Clare, the Norman Lord of Ceredigion, was met with another defeat and de Clare’s death. Things were looking up for the Welsh.

De Clare’s death sparked further action by the Welsh Kings, and a combined force set out to plunder Norman holdings in the region, which they managed without much trouble. In the fall of 1136, the combined Welsh force set out again and moved on towards the town of Cardigan.

Outside the town the Welsh force encountered a Norman army that had set out to stop their advance. Meeting on the slopes of a great hill battle was joined and ended in a decisive Welsh Victory. Demonstrating the importance of the Welsh longbow as a battlefield weapon, Crug Mawr was an overwhelming victory and saw the Norman forces pursued to the River Teifi where hundreds apparently drowned.

The great hill (probably)

Why Doesn’t Mine Look Like That!? An After Action Report of Crug Mawr

Firing up the scenario in Fields of Glory II: Medieval leads to a straight forward engagement. The Welsh army, longbows arrayed before spearmen and flanked by cavalry, face off against a line of Norman troops, complete with Flemish mercenaries, atop a steep slope. The lines are long and there isn’t much room to maneuver, so I decide to trust in my longbow and advance towards the enemy.

Welsh Longbows quickly scattered the Norman skirmishers

In the beginning, I was quite proud of them. They quickly scattered the enemy’s skirmishers and began doing some real damage to the armoured Flemish mercenaries. I was sure to focus as much fire as I could on the same units to maximize the amount of morale rolls I could get them to take, but they managed to hold firm, despite a few of them becoming disordered and fragmented.

My flanks were not so great, I didn’t think my horsemen could take their levy’s without assistance from the spearman line, but there were so many units I found it difficult to position them meaningfully. Instead I focused on the center, hoping to do enough damage to nullify the armoured Flemish before allowing my spearmen to take the hill.

The Norman line, including the heavy cavalry, waiting for my advance.

It worked…for a few turns. Eventually my supply of arrows ran low and the damage each unit was doing dropped significantly. Perhaps I shouldn’t have even bothered with the skirmishers, and saved my arrows for closer range? Eventually the Normans got tired of being shot and charged downwards, forcing my bowmen to fall back, mostly in good order, to behind the spearmen. Here I thought I could meet them head on, but in a series of disastrous rolls, (even earning me an achievement for rolling double ones on a morale test) the Flemish mercenaries rallied and broke my archers and spearmen.

Then the Norman knights arrived. At first held in reserve, they managed to smash my already wavering spearmen and drive them from the center. The wings soon collapsed and the battle was over.

It only got worse from here

Sorry Wales, I failed you this time! I guess I’ll have to reload and go at it again! Though I think I’ll try and be a little smarter with my deployment and engagement ranges.

Vietnam’s Call of Duty- 7554: Glorious Memories Revived

With a prayer for accuracy from the artillery-gentlemen on the hill, Hoàng Đăng Bình and his allies in the Viet Minh 204th regiment charge forwards to liberate Đông Khê from French colonial forces. Over the next hour the dedicated band of heroes liberate prisoners, assault bunkers, hold off waves of attackers, and finally liberate a small town from occupation. It could have been a level in any Call of Duty or Medal of Honor game, and that is the most fascinating part of playing 7554.

I may be terrible at First Person Shooters, but diving into Vietnam’s only major historical videogame production is worth my repeated (probably avoidable) deaths. From the Battle of Hanoi in 1946 to the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ in 1954, 7554 provides the perfect fodder for exploring how non-western companies and governments navigate historical memory and the business of selling videogames.

If you’re interested in watching the playthrough that inspired this article, head over to our Youtube channel.

7554‘s availability makes it one of the few non-western, non-Japanese historical war-themed games available for consumption outside their own domestic markets. This gives 7554 a unique and interesting seat amongst the many domestically produced propagandistic games that have been appearing around the world for nearly 20 years. (My repeated attempts to track down playable versions of Chinese produced wargames for the home market are a testament to the difficulty in finding anything working).

A brief overview: 7554 takes place during the First Indochina War, or the Anti-French Resistance War, placing the player as a Việt Minh fighter attempting to oust the French Colonial forces from their homeland. The game does its very best to present the conflict in purely those terms, with the focus on the Việt Minh’s tactical and strategic decisions over any attempt to engage with the political component of the conflict. It makes sense, 7554 was developed with help from the government of Vietnam, and they were very clear about what could and couldn’t be represented, according to the developers.

For instance, there is no multiplayer in 7554. Chiefly this is due to the fact that there cannot be any instance of shooting Việt Minh soldiers by the player. This extends much farther to the fact that the French forces on display in 7554 don’t include any of the 10s of thousands of Vietnamese who fought against the Việt Minh. Instead the French Forces are comprised of white and black Frenchmen, clearly indicating the colonial nature of the player’s opposing forces.

Materially, the game does an excellent job of portraying the hodgepodge of weaponry that would have been available to both sides. Weapons of Japanese, French, American, German, and Soviet make are all scattered throughout the game. The missions themselves play out in well done environments and are generally playable, though feel trapped in a world made in 2003. This is no real fault of the developers. They were working with the tools they had at hand a managed to make an interesting game with it.

Scattered throughout 7554 are key moments, usually cutscenes, that show the main characters or their comrades performing over the top heroic deeds. This initially struck me as hammy. But the more I played the more I realized that this is exactly the same kind of thing players see every time they boot up Call of Duty or any of the other myriad of shooters from the decade of the 2000s starring American soldiers. The propaganda is definitely tailored to the audience, with over the top heroics in 7554 replaced with awesome shows of technical force in later Call of Dutys.

There is a lot to talk about with this game, and I might make a second piece once we reach the conclusion of the main campaign. For now, I’d highly recommend checking out our Let’s Play if you have any interest in how this game portrays the conflict.

Joe

Images from Hiker Games Website http://www.hikergames.com/vi/game/pc/7554-69.html

Way of Defector: Exploring North Korea’s Defectors through Gaming

By Joe Fonseca. Originally posted on ‘Overactive Academic’ in 2018

Though the humanitarian aid worker tried their best, bribing the public security officer and eventually securing my release, their efforts were for naught. Two days later, unable to shake off the intensified searches put on by the police, I collapsed somewhere on the road outside Changchun, starvation and exhaustion overtaking me.

So ended my first attempt to escape from North Korea. An experience that, despite the simple mechanics and presentation of Way of Defector, allowed me to really reflect upon the danger some North Koreans face for a slim chance at bettering their lot in life. It also made me think about the way this indie game, produced by the small South Korean studio Dev Arc, portrays North Korean Defector stories and the uses such a simple game can have in an academic setting.

Set up like a board game, Way of Defector allows players to choose, “various scenarios based on true stories to create your own defection story.”[1] The game progress in turns of four phases, wherein the player can make decisions for their character about how they spend the day. This can include resting to eat and regain health, working illegally to earn money, or inquiring after the whereabouts of brokers who can help secure you passage to the South. The success or failure of each of these attempts is resolved by throwing dice, which are modified by the player character’s skills, the amount of time dedicated to the task, and any potential helpful items, (heavy work pants, for example, make physical work easier). Throughout the game, during any action, random events may occur. These take the form of small narratives, the outcome of which the player can influence through their choices. As this game simulates the most common escape path through Northern China, the player character is also pursued by Chinese public service agents, who wander about the map in periods of calm, or else ruthlessly track defectors while executing a ‘crackdown’. Meeting one (or more) at a location requires every action to be done with extra care, represented by opposed dice rolls, to see whether the player character can outwit or outrun the authorities.

The mechanics of play are simple enough for those without gaming experience to quickly pick up the basics after tool tips and pop ups explain character stats and potential actions. This leaves the player able, in my own experience at least, to become more engrossed in the emerging narrative of the escapee. The way this story forms is based in part on the character you choose and on the actions you decide to take.

Several characters are available, each with their own starting location and a specific ability that affects the game. When players begin, only the first character, Kim Young-sung, is available, with more unlocked as the player makes progress. These characters are fictional, but based on developer conducted interviews, according to a developer’s answers on Steam’s discussion board, “It is based on real defectors. We did interviews with defectors cause we’re Korean. But this game don’t have specific storyline. You’ll make your story within various random events.”[2] This is perfectly reasonable given the potential danger and added restrictions of using an actual individual’s lived experience. This decision allows players to feel less confined by any individual’s real life choices and instead allows them to experience their own journey, however brief it may be. Yet it is worth considering the accuracy and authenticity of the experience offered.

Though the physical appearance of the game may not engross players the way a high profile and highly graphical game may, the simple construction and minimalistic mechanics allows players the ability to lose themselves in their imaginations. It is impossible, of course, to fully experience what a North Korean defector would through playing this game; I did not die from exhaustion after a two-day pursuit near Changchun, nor is my leg broken or my stomach empty. Yet as a way of developing empathy in players, Way of Defector succeeds.

I played cautiously, avoiding those who offered shelter or information, believing it could be a trap. I stayed in the countryside, avoiding patrols to the detriment of my health. And at the back of my mind through all this was the understanding that the greatest danger that could befall me was being sent home. After a forty-minute session, I had ended my first attempt in failure, but the game had succeeded in making me try to approach a situation from the perspective of a fugitive, and in so doing humanized the too-often maligned people of North Korea, who are, by and large, mere victims of the unforgiving wiles of history and modern power politics.

As a learning tool, Way of Defector’s position as a mixture of biographical account and narrative fiction allows it to serve as a launchpad for discussing the dangers facing North Korean defectors and the issues surrounding North Korean Defector texts, depending on the class level.

Debates about the accuracy of defector texts and their use as political tools in South Korea bear mentioning. In one of the most high-profile cases, Shin Dong-Hyuk’s admission of mistakes in his immensely popular narrative Escape from Camp 14 cast doubt upon the veracity of these survivor stories as a whole. Not only did foreign observers question the truth of his story, the mistakes was quickly pounced upon by North Korea in an attempt to discredit defector stories wholesale.[3]  Around the same time, the harrowing story of Yeonmi Park was damaged by the conflicting interviews she gave. Mary Ann Jolley, writing for The Diplomat, laid out these inconsistencies, but included Park’s own response, that the language barrier and mistaken childhood memories contributed to errors.[4]

While these revisions engendered suspicion, North Korea’s possession of family members, fears of reprisal, shame and psychological blocks, are all factors in hindering the veracity of these narratives. Added to this, the history of defector narratives, including immediate post-war defectors being utilized by South Korea as propaganda tools, and the skepticism that can come from the modern celebrity lifestyle of some defectors makes dismissal easy.[5] Yet accepting and using cross-referenced defector narratives remains one of the best ways to obtain information from North Korea, as maintained by North Korean Specialist Bradley K. Martin.[6] Finally, the argument remains that inconsistencies matter less than the creation of the narrative itself. John Cussen of Edinboro University argues that these works form the core of a new genre of North Korean literature, that they are necessary counterpoints to North Korean centric fiction, and that, “the experts are wrong to disdain the memoirs… because the border between fiction and nonfiction is not the imporous, thread-narrow, determinate line that they imagine.”[7] Way of Defector plays into potential discussions of all of these topics, and makes a case of the utility of games as a not just a story telling tool, but as a way of engaging with historical and current events.

In a high school history or social studies classroom, Way of Defector can serve alongside lecture as an excellent introduction to the struggles of the North Korean people, as it possesses such a low skill barrier and cheap cost. Students can attempt to complete a single run through, documenting their troubles and successes, and reflect upon the hardships faced or the specific struggles that were heretofore unknown, like the role of churches or the dread of being told you will not be paid for your labour because your secret origin was discovered. For better or worse, the game does not hit upon the more vicious dangers North Koreans may experience in China, including sexual slavery and human trafficking, though the end game loss conditions are accompanied by paintings of a firing squad or your collapsed body.

In first or second year university courses, I can envision this game being used along with others to discuss the impact and value of propaganda in interactive media, examinations of North Korea in media, especially if the instructor decides to contrast North Korean representations in the West and South Korea, or to discuss the arguments that surround the validity of North Korean defector stories. In any case, the length of the average game (30-60 minutes) and the easy of entry, both financially and in relation to game skill knowledge, makes this an interesting candidate for classrooms as well as personal exploration.

What do you think about these kinds of touchy subjects in video games? How about their use in the classroom? Please let me know what you think about this kind of article, if you’d like to see more, if I’m completely off base, of if there are other historical video games that you think I should take a look at. All the best,

Joe

References

[1] “Way of Defector on Steam.” Steampowered.com. http://store.steampowered.com/app/658660/Way_of_Defector/ (Retrieved December 15 2017).

[2] Beautifullcastle[developer]. “Game length?” Way of Defector General Discussion. http://steamcommunity.com/app/658660/discussions/0/1500126447404387168/ (Retrieved December 15 2017).

[3] Shoichet, Catherine and Madison Park. “North Korea slams defector over inaccuracies in story.” CNN World. January 20, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/01/20/asia/north-korea-responds-after-defector-changes-story/index.html (Retrieved December 15 2017).

[4] Jolley, Mary Ann. “The Strange Tale of Yeonmi Park: A high-profile North Korean defector has harrowing stories to tell. But are they true?” The Diplomat. December 10, 2014. https://thediplomat.com/2014/12/the-strange-tale-of-yeonmi-park/ (Retrieved December 15 2017).

[5] Martin, Bradley K. “The problem with North Korea’s celebrity defectors.” Global Post. January 22, 2015. https://www.pri.org/stories/2015-01-22/problem-north-korea-s-celebrity-defectors (Retrieved December 15 2017).

[6] Martin, “The problem with North Korea’s celebrity defectors.”

[7] Cussin, John. “On the Call to Dismiss North Korean Defector’s Memoirs and on Their Dark American Alternative.” Korean Studies. 40. (January 1, 2016), 148.