Category Archives: Tracer Rounds
What do you do with a backlog of reviews? ~
Brant, 04 April 2016
We get all kinds of games sent to us, along with the ones we pick up one our own. Some good, some bad, some gorgeous, some not so much. We try – we really do try – to get to all of them for review purposes, but it doesn’t always happen. There’s a reason I’ve got a weekly blurb here called “What I’m doing this week when I should be playing games”. Moreover, when I play a game for review, I want to play it multiple times to ensure that the review I’m writing is accurate based on how the game is balanced, and how it plays over time – especially if replayability is one of the key factors we want to discuss.
Among the reasons I’ve made it a point to start republishing a bunch of the ‘classic reviews’ are that I don’t want my reviews to be dependent on someone else’s site continuing to exist, as well as wanting folks to be able to find opinions on older games that they may want to take for a spin. Additionally, many of those older reviews (some of which I’m going to get to soon) were longer borderline-investigative-journalism pieces that really dug into the games through repeated plays. That was a lot easier when I was in grad school. Working 3 different teaching jobs, plus being the editorial director here, makes all that a lot tougher.
So, this episode of Tracer Rounds is designed to catch up on those reviews – with a twist.
How smart is too smart? ~
Brant, 28 March 2016
I’ve been thinking a lot about education lately, perhaps a little too much. It’s no real secret that wargamers tend to be over educated, but let’s face it, for many of us school was more of a formality than anything. Most of us weren’t the most studious of pupils, and a lot of our classes were merely checking the box on something we could breeze through in our sleep.
But we’re not the key consumers in the American education system either. And that’s the struggle that I’m wrestling with right now as I have two kids in public schools and I am teaching at several very different colleges. What this adds up to is that my thoughts on this are rather disjointed, but I don’t feel like writing a book to fully explore every one of them, so this is going to be a bit of a brain dump of several different concepts all related to education. Please bear with me and I hope it comes out to a coherent whole by the time I’m done (but let’s face it, the odds of that are pretty slim).
First off, I’m really wrestling with the issue of what we expect education to accomplish. There is certainly an underlying shared experiential component to our education system, as if it’s a massive continental-wide team building exercise for 12-year-olds. To that end, the shared pain and sacrifice somewhat makes sense. Ostensibly, the public education system in the US is designed to turn out citizens with a minimal set of survival skills for the rest of their lives. That said, it’s hard to make the case that it’s succeeding in that regard. There are so many minimally-necessary skills that are not taught, or even touched on (balancing a checkbook, typing, managing a credit score, how to be fucking polite in public!), that it’s not insane to wonder if we should completely jettison the current model and rebuild from the ground up. However, if it’s all just skill building for future societal needs, then we are doing our students a serious service by failing to intellectually engage them. Subjects such as history and literature serve vital functions in providing context in today’s society, as well as important emotional engagement points for many students, even if they do not have an immediate tie into any future career endeavor.
What do you see when you’re watching TV “operations”? ~
A friend of mine – who might eventually read this column and recognize himself and then furiously email with a string of “that’s not what I meant and you know it”s – was posting on social media about The Walking Dead. After the episode where they go room-to-room clearing the radar facility where they think Negan is holed up, he proclaimed “TWD is OAF”.
From the point of view of the room-clearing tactics, which our TWD heroes have perfected over several seasons, he’s probably right. It jives with everything I’ve seen, and the limited amount I was taught. (Remember that I was a tanker back in the ‘90s, before all the MOUT/FISH ops of the past 15 years; if we had to ‘clear’ a house it involved pancaking the place with 55 tons of rolling steel.) But the whole time I’m watching TWD my mind is usually back to the more practical matters.
Allow me to explain…
Telling a story that needs room to breathe ~
One of the things I drop on my students every semester in an introduction to the idea of long-form journalism. I already know that I’m the weirdo in most already-weird wargaming crowds in that I’m the one with the journalism degree, not the history/poli-sci/sociology degree, or an engineering background, but I do believe that long-form journalism, when done right, can be a powerful tool for telling real stories about real people. And I wish someone would take the time for a solid, serious, long-form article about our hobby, and give it the same kind of exposure that other long-form articles get from big media.
Long-form journalism is hard to do, as it takes a long time, and possibly a lot of travel, to thoughtfully explore a topic in that level of detail. It takes time – which means “money” – to truly dig into the nuances of a topic, to get to know the people, to tell the stories that are necessary to understand how the topic affects people, and how it can matter to you. Some of these stories, quite frankly, don’t matter one whit. They are simply intriguing and interesting looks into the lives of something you thought was completely mundane, or never knew existed, or had no conception of. But all are tales worth telling, when told well.
Long-form journalism isn’t simply an exercise in length, which can occasionally end very, very badly. It’s an exercise in depth, which often requires length to achieve its goals. And that depth doesn’t come from a deadline-induced chaotic dash to the presses to beat everyone else to the punch. It comes from the thoughtful, methodical, and intelligent analysis of a situation, and that’s much harder to do in today’s world of aggregated-blog-posts-on-brand-name-websites-for-free world of “journalism” that’s taking over our public discourse. And since it’s getting harder to do, it’s much easier to appreciate it when it’s done well.
Evangelizing the hobby ~
Who was the last convert you brought into the (Dis)United Church of World Wide Wargaming? Seriously, when was the last time you talked with someone about wargaming (or heck, even more broadly – strategy gaming) and they displayed enough interest to actually take a plunge and try a wargame, and then stuck with it, at least for a while?
It’s an odd hobby we have, right? There’s a certain barrier to entry just based on the level of detail in most of these games. Put another way: there’s an amusing “how to choose the perfect board game” flowchart that’s focused on Eurogames, and to get to Axis & Allies you have to answer “yes” to the question “hardest rules ever?”. And most of us consider A&A to be an entry-level wargame, right?
So we’re already starting off from a position of disadvantage. Or are we? In most cases, the level of detail in the rules is there for a reason. These are complex phenomena that we are trying to quantify and get a handle on. “Elegance” in wargame design is one of the highest forms of praise in that it indicates an ability to capture challenging and amorphous concepts in such a way that one can easily understand their effects on the battlefield of the game. Morale, leadership, training, esprit de corps, and basic task competence on the battlefield are all difficult to assess, and ever hard to quantify, and games that can do so in a plausible mechanism are ones that tend to garner high praise. So how do we explain that to a new player?
How does one “create” culture? ~
I was reading an ESPN column about the demise of Grantland, when this exchange caught my eye.
There’s an old saying — attributed alternatively to management guru Peter Drucker and auto executive Mark Fields — that culture eats strategy for breakfast. I’ve always felt that statement was off the mark because culture also eats strategy for lunch, dinner and snacks.
Now, part of what made Grantland the awesome destination for smart writing was the culture that the editorial team inculcated in the staff. Grantland was a perfect example of how a great set of editors can mold already-talented and -established writers into a coherent voice that gives the reader a sense of the culture of the organization.
There are more ways to communicate the culture of an organization than just in the formal presence of that group. There are the rituals they hold on to, the titles used among themselves, the recursive self-references that permeate long-standing organizations, and the attitudes they exhibit toward outsiders. How is dissension tolerated? How are new participants welcomed into the fold? Are there demands for overt displays of allegiance? How about voluntary self-identification?
While many of you are probably still chuckling over the idea that I actually teach a class about interpersonal communication, the idea that I also teach one on Media & Culture probably doesn’t seem too far-fetched. We spend an entire hour on the first night of class just talking about the attributes that can define a culture, from language to food & music to geography to shared interests. But how does it develop, and how does it manifest itself when it does?
This isn’t easy stuff, is it?
How The Impostor Phenomenon Gets In The Way ~
In my interpersonal communication classes, we talk about something called “the impostor phenomenon.” (Now, let’s all just pause for a moment and marvel at the fact that they actually have me teaching a class about interpersonal communication and yes my wife is laughing her ass off right now but that’s neither here nor there.) The impostor phenomenon is best summed up this way: even well-accomplished individuals sometimes doubt their achievements and fear being ‘outed’ as a fraud in areas in which they are no way ‘faking their way’ along.
The impostor phenomenon hits me rather personally. Let’s face it, I’m here helping run a wargaming site, and some people might mistake that for having some level of expertise in the wargaming field. But my track record in the wargaming field has honestly been pretty spotty along the way. I’ve legitimately had wargames in print that I sold through conventions and mail-order, but they were entirely self-published, so I never had to polish them enough to get them through a gatekeeper. I’ve also legitimately had RPGs in print that were sold online and through conventions, and through a few brick-and-mortar stores. But again, they were self-published and self-financed, and I probably lost money overall on them before the momentum dried up and let them languish. Yes, I worked on a wargame project on for the NSA, but I was brought on to coordinate playtesting and tweak variables in an existing game engine, not develop from scratch. We had a contract with NDU to create the GEMSTONE system, but after only a few iterations in use, it fell by the wayside, and I don’t think it’s even in use at NDU anymore with any other contractor. Sure, I’ve written reviews for a bunch of places like Scrye and RPG.net and that other site, but I was never a full-time paid staffer with a regular deadline and set of responsibilities and all the trappings of the professional writing trade. I’ve put together some events and presentations at game conventions (like the GrogHeads Central Command at Origins – product placement for the win, baby!), but they were always within the broader context of someone else’s event.