Monday, July 28, 2014

Book Review--Swords of Rome, Vol 1: The Conquerors

Swords of Rome, Volume 1: The Conquerors is an historical graphic novel chronicling the rise of the infamous Nero.

In this volume, the Emperor Claudius is about to divorce the avaricious Agrippina (his fourth wife--and niece), write Nero out of the will, and name his 14-year old son Britannicus heir to the Imperial Throne. 

But Agrippina, Nero's mom, beats Claudius to the punch and poisons him at a banquet, before the orgy commences.  The will conveniently disappears, thanks to Agrippina's minion Pallas, and Nero is sworn-in as the new emperor, thanks to some hefty bribes to the Praetorian Guard, the Senate, and various sycophants.

This, along with some well-placed murders of minor conspirators, secures Nero's position among Roman society.

Just when Agrippina feels she's the true power behind the Imperial Toga, Nero begins to assert himself, and rebel against his mother's wishes.  While taken down a peg, Agrippina is not out and schemes a way to re-insert herself into Nero's life through the prostitute Acte he's smitten by.

Got all this?

I hope so.

I had to troll Wikipedia conduct extensive historical research in order to boil the plot down to something resembling a bite-sized synopsis.

There's a couple of sub-plots involving imperial friends & relatives, senators, gladiators, slave girls, Praetorian Guardsmen, more prostitutes and a witch. 

Readers would benefit greatly if there were a Cast of Characters pages and scene-breaks ("Meanwhile, back at the Lupanar..."), to better understand who's-doing-what-to -whom. There is a footnotes page at the end of the book, which is more interesting than helpful.

Other than these quibbles, along with some bending/omitting of some historical facts, Swords of Rome, Vol 1, is an outstanding book.  It's a graphic novel version of I, Claudius

The story arc is a yardstick authors from Machiavelli to George R. R. Martin base their work on.

Nero is initially depicted in sympathetic light, who feels more comfortable with his doting aunt Domitia than his own mom.  There's a touch of foreshadowing about his fascination with fire, then Nero cuts the apron strings immediately upon the sudden death of Britannicus, thanks to poison administered by one of Agrippina's minions.  (Historically, Nero himself may have been behind it).

The lavish artwork pays close attention to historical detail.  Clothing, arms & armor, along with architecture are accurately portrayed in every panel.

Now if you've seen I, Claudius; or read any of the Game of Thrones novels, nothing in Swords of Rome, Vol 1 won't shock you.  However, the material is definitely for mature readers, due to the violent murders and assassinations, along with sexually explicit scene, which border on an "X" Rating.

Speaking of ratings, I give Swords of Rome, Vol 1, half a point shy of 5-stars because of it's lack of character reference page.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Comic-Con Staying Put, Uh, Maybe?

(Image by Steve Breen)
Today was the last day for this year's Comic-Con International: San Diego

For years this con, deemed to be the biggest & best of the comic book conventions, has been held in California's second-largest city since 1970.

So it came as a surprise when I stumbled across the above cartoon Steve Breen posted on the Comicon's first day. 

(In case you have aging eyesight like I do, I used a magnifying glass to read what was printed on the redhead's skirt.  It reads:  Bigger Cities).

When I tried to investigate further, the only articles I've come across were posted in 2010 and 2012.  

I guess with nothing posted recently, it's safe to assume Comicon will remain in San Diego forever.

Uh, Right?

Friday, July 25, 2014

Book Review--Praetorian

It's 2009, and Special Agent Kasandra Rodriguez of the FBI, is on the trail of a serial killer whose modus operandi is to decapitate the victims, and carve arcane symbols on the each victim's chest, while leaving no trace of the severed heads.

Soon Special Agent Rodriguez realizes she's in over her own head.

About 2,000 years over her head.

She seeks the aid of Professor Julian, an expert in ancient languages, only to find out he's more than just a mild-mannered scholar.  Julian is one of four Praetorian Guardsmen, who've been made immortal by Jesus Christ, and charged with protecting mankind.

As it turns out, these Praetorians have been trying to stop this "Judgment Killer" for the past 20 centuries.

Praetorian, obviously isn't the first story about immortals: Highlander, the film and the series come to mind. 

Nor is this the first story about someone made immortal by Christ:  Casca, the Eternal Mercenary has been alive and kicking since 1979.

 I've never read any of these books, only the back cover synopses.  As a writer and "cafeteria Catholic," I felt it was out of character for someone who preached we should love our enemies (Matthew 5:44), to turn around and curse one of his executioners. 

Praetorian differed from Casca on this principle of divine grace:  The immortal Romans were all accomplices in Christ's crucifixion, and yet were later forgiven by Him when he rose from the dead.

Despite the tie-in to Christian beliefs, I'd be surprised to find this novel in the Christian Literature Section, due to the graphic violence depicted in the story.

While I found Praetorian somewhat predictable, it was still a satisfying 3-star read.  I figured out who the killer was, and how the story should end; but I wasn't sure about the motivation behind the killings.

My only quibble is--it was unlikely that any of the Praetorian Guard took part in crucifying Christ.  Their primary duty was to safeguard the Caesars--when they weren't assassinating emperors they were displeased with, or selling the Imperial Throne to the highest bidder.  It's most likely the legionnaires stuck on execution detail that first Good Friday were from Legio VI Ferrata.

But hey.  No matter what legion they were originally assigned to, having some Roman soldiers kicking bad-guy butt in the 21st Century is a pretty cool concept, no matter how the story's told.

The artwork reminded me of illustrations you'd find in Heavy Metal magazine--minus the partial, or "full-monty" nudity.

The final page hinted at more stories to follow.  Unfortunately, Outlaw Entertainment, disappeared from the comic book scene near the end of 2009, after releasing several promising titles. 

The only on-line presence remaining of Outlaw Entertainment is a dormant Facebook page, and a single comic trailer advertisement.

You can find used copies of Praetorian in bookstores, or on-line, and often for $5 or less.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Studio's First Restaurant Review

This being a wargaming and writing blog, I never thought I'd be doing a restaurant review.  That is, until my sister Roxanne (aka, Rox of Spazhouse) and I went to eat at AFK Elixirs & Eatery

AFKE&E, opened a few months ago, and is associated with The AFK Tavern in Everett, WA.

We discovered AFKE&E last week during Rox's visit, thanks to my friend Daryl, who works for Wizards of the Coast.  Which by the way, is just a few blocks away from AFKE&E.

So with highly placed recommendation in mind, we stopped-in for lunch.

Normally, themed restaurants tend to be heavy on the theme and light on the eats & elixirs.

Not so with AFKE&E--who's clientele aren't known for their normalcy.  Gamers want good food, and lots of it.

Rox had The Hatchling, and I ordered the Cucco Panini.  Both came with more tater tots (Hatchling) and French fries (Panini) than either of us could finish off.  Rox washed down her meal down with a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster...

...which she must have liked since she took a picture of it. 
I'm not a drinker, so I can't comment personally on the quality and quality of AFK's alcohol-based elixirs. (You can see my "muggle cola" in the background).
Of course a good meal at AFKE&E is only part of the experience.  Rox and I spent several minutes taking pictures of the sci-fi/fantasy decorations adorning the tavern.
Here's Rox next to a stand-up of her "Tenth Best Friend."
I had a bunch of photos I was planning on including in this post, but I lost my camera somewhere between the tavern and home.  I'd love to blame my loss on too much Gargle Blasters, but I was sober, and Rox's chauffeur for this outing.

Anyway, lost cameras aside, AFKE&E isn't just a place for geeks & gamers to eat & drink.  It's also a refuge for gamers to game.  Events are posted regularly on the AFKE&E's Facebook page.

Their website is currently under construction, and from reading other reviews; this isn't the only teething problems this new restaurant has had, or may still be having. 
Rox and I had a solid 4-star experience.  But to be honest, since we haven't actually seen each other in several years, we were focused on catching up on "life, the universe and everything."  So if anything was amiss, we didn't catch it.  Our elixirs and eats arrived in a timely manner, and our waitress Nikki was professional and pleasant. 
Reviews on sites like Yelp are however, awash with "critical hits and fumbles," regarding every aspect of the tavern.  Comments on Foursquare are about 80% positive, while on Trip Advisor and Urban Spoon, it's a 50/50 hung jury. 
The only difficulty I experienced occurred when I tried calling the tavern back to inquire about my lost camera.  My initial salvo of phone calls, at about 6 PM, went to voicemail.  A couple hours later, I tried again and got one of the staff members.  The following day, shortly after 11 AM, I contacted Nikki on my first attempt.  She remembered us, even after three days, but didn't recall seeing a camera left behind.  (I didn't realize my camera was missing until a couple days later when coming home from work).
So there you have it.  The next time you're feeling adventurous for your next meal, give AFKE&E a try.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Book Reviews--Tankies/Firefly and His Majesty

A few months ago, my friend Joe and I discussed comic books.  We agreed that, with few exceptions, like Spider-Man for me, the superhero comics were our least favorite.
I leaned mostly towards war comics.  My reading ranged from the two-fisted tales of Sgt. Rock and Sgt Fury and His Howling Commandos...
(Image from DC Wikia) the supernatural with The Haunted Tank, and Weird War Tales.
(Image from Comic Vine)
Not very realistic stuff to be sure, and when I discovered wargaming, my sporadic comic book collecting took a back seat.
Then a few weeks ago, I stumbled across a couple of issues of Garth Ennis' Battlefields
First up is Tankies
In this story, an inexperienced crew of a Churchill Tank loses it's commander and figure they've done their part for King & Country.  That is, until hardcore veteran, Corporal Stiles, takes over.  The not-so-merry band then spends the rest of the story trying to catch up with their regiment, while not getting "brewed up" by prowling Tiger Tanks.
In the sequel, we find the indomitable Corporal Stiles commanding a new Sherman Firefly, with a new crew.  This time, while passing through the American sector, the Firefly crew take a detour from rejoining their regiment, and stalk an even greater menace-- a King Tiger tank.

Both story arcs follow a similar trajectory:  An allied tank with an inexperienced crew vs. an experienced German crew manning a tank with a better gun and thicker armor. 
While it may seem redundant, both stories reflect the tactical reality GIs and Tommies faced from the moment they tried breaking out of the Normandy Beaches to VE Day. This was a common theme in a lot of war movies I watched with my dad.  Later, I would see this played out repeatedly in all the Western Front wargame I participated in. 
Despite such repetitiveness, Garth Ennis tells both stories well, and far more realistically than the war comics I read in my youth.  There's a hefty dose of humor in the finale of Tankies, while the ending of Firefly and His Majesty is intense.  Notice, I didn't say the ending was happy.
There are some graphic depictions of violence, like when an armor piercing round ricochets around inside a tank, but I didn't find it gratuitous.  Instead, the artwork done by Carlos Esquerra, and John Cassaday (for Tankies only), illustrate the horrors of war.
Since these novels came out four-five years ago, there's literally only a few copies left on at the time of this posting:  One copy of Tankies and two copies of Firefly and His Majesty.   You might be able to find issues on sites like E-bay, or in used bookstores, like Half Price Books.
I give both stories a solid 4-stars for memorable story telling.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Zero Chemistry Couples

(Promotional Image for Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones)
It's been a long time since I posted anything about writing, mainly because I've been working on gaming projects, and finishing-up some post-Enfilade material.  While working on said projects and material a few days ago, this article on bad movie couples caught my attention.

I've only seen three of the "Bottom 17" mentioned in this article.  Two of them, Speed 2: Cruise Control and The Matrix (the first movie only), I didn't mind so much.  But by far, the worst couple chemistry has to be Padme and Anakin Skywalker.  Even in Star Wars: The Clone Wars...

(Image from Star Wars: The Clone Wars)
...these two are fingernails-scratching-the-chalkboard painful to watch. 
In fact, similar "Mismatched Pair" lists I've read, gave Anakin and Padme First Prize as the most cringe-worthy couple on the silver screen.
While I could go on and on about these two Star Wars-crossed lovers,  the point I'm really trying to make here is this:  On-screen/screenplay romance can be difficult to portray in a genuine fashion.   It's very easy to fall into stereotypes, tropes and clich├ęs. 
One of the leading writing mantras is:  Write what you know. 
And since I know very little about romance, I'll stick to honing my craft writing stuff like this...
(Image by Kai Lim)
...before attempting to conjure-up anything like this:
(Image by Isabella Morawetz)
I'm in no hurry to usurp Anakin and Padme from their high throne. 
Oh, it's not that I'm shying away from the sizzling stuff, though.  I just need a ton bit of help when it comes to writing romance. 
So while I'm working on my military-style mayhem, I'll do my romantic research on the side.  At any writers conference I attend, if there's a Sex & Romance Workshop of any type being offered--I'm there--in the front row. 
I also follow such blogs as the Romance Magicians, and I've actually become a fan of Jane Austen-based web series, like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries
I'll just be sure to run any romantic ramblings by my writing peers first...
...The Studio will now return to its regularly scheduled Anakin & Padme bashing:
(Image from: Georgette's World )

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Opening Shot of the Great War Centennial

I wanted to post this on Saturday, 28 June, but I wasn't feeling well and ended up staying off line.

Three days ago marked the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie.

Even commemorating the event is still a divisive topic. 

I've noticed an increase interest in The First World War among wargamers over the years.  Games like:  Wings of Glory and the Great War at Sea have become popular, along with classics like Richthofen's War and Jutland, which can still be found second hand and played.

One friend has committed himself to reading The Great War

Fourteen years ago, while I was still on active duty, I had the pleasure of being stationed in Sarajevo for three months.  One day, I managed to drive by Latin Bridge.  Unfortunately, due to my work schedule and the movement restrictions that were in-place, I never got a chance to du a proper historical site walkabout.

At least I was in the vicinity, and I have a vivid memory of the bridge and surrounding neighborhood, which I can recognize in a stock photo such as this:


Saturday, June 21, 2014

Enfilade 2014: 6mm Napoleonic Wargaming


After the SAGA tournament, I left the Dark Ages behind and tried my hand at a some horse & musket action.  I was one of six players to sign-up for 6mm Napoleonic Wargaming, hosted by Bill Hughes and Josh Transen.  (There was a third gamemaster, but I didn't catch his name).

A Note About Scale:

6mm; also known as 1/285th, 1/300th, or micro-scale, is one of the smallest gauges played by gamers.  (Yes, there's one even smaller:  Pico-scale, or 3mm).  Micro armor burst on to the gaming scene in 1967, and is still a popular venue for playing World War II, Modern and Science-Fiction tank battles.  Since then, 6mm has branched out into every other historical era--like Napoleonics--along with heroic fantasy.

The benefits of 6mm are:

You can fight bigger battles in the same amount of space used for larger scales (10-25mm+).
Less detailing is required in painting.  That is, often just a few colors are needed to make your figures presentable, especially when massed together, like this...

On the flip-side, one of the main issues with 6mm is: 

That "less detailing" is often hard for those of us with aging eyes to see--let alone paint.

Now, on to the game:

The scenario was an Austrian vs. French fight, somewhere in central Europe.  Both sides had an equal number of infantry battalions.  As for the other arms:  The French had three cavalry regiments, matched only by a single Austrian regiment; while the Austrian's had three artillery batteries (two foot and one horse) against a single French foot battery.

I ended up playing one of the Austrian commanders, leading the forces, one foot battery and three infantry battalions, on our left flank.

Here, two of the three French commanders making their plans and conducting their opening moves:

Within the first turn, the French cavalry began toying with our infantry on the right flank.  The horsemen would simply parade around the field, always within striking distance, forcing some of our infantry into squares as a precautionary measure.

Meanwhile, in my neck of the woods on the left, the French deployed in columns and line and "came on in the same old style."

Back on the right, more of our infantry formed square when a French cavalry regiment crested the nearby hill.  The right flank commander's gun battery went into action firing canister shot (note the triangular template).

As the French on our left drew nearer, my fellow commanders and I felt it was prudent to anchor our flank onto the Hougoumont-style chateau. 

During this time, and throughout most of the game, our other two gun batteries became embroiled in an artillery duel with the solitary French battery--and more often than not, got out-shot by the French gunners.

Despite being outnumbered 3:1 in sabers and horseflesh, our cavalry went to work and charged a French infantry battalion, previously pounded by some of our guns.

While our horsemen were harrying one French unit, the other two battalions swung around and readied themselves for assault action.

Our cavalry finally managed to cut down the fleeing French battalion.

In the center, our horse battery limbered-up and bugged-out of the cannonade, while another infantry battalion formed into a precautionary square.  By this time our center foot battery was down to two serviceable guns, out of six.

Once our horse battery galloped out of the way, one of the center battalions re-formed into column and advanced up the hill, while another battalion formed square. 

As the French assault columns on the left advanced, our horse battery unlimbered across the river and unleashed several salvos of canister shot into the packed ranks of Frenchmen.

Meanwhile, the packed ranks of French cavalry trotted around our right flank.

Despite suffering 30% casualties from shot & shell, the French columns assaulted "Chateau Point d'Ancrage" (Chateau Anchor Point). 

After a couple rounds of combat on both flanks, the situation still hung on a saber's edge. 

Unfortunately, the game was halted at this point due to time. 

Final Thoughts:

Despite the dire threat to my chateau bastion, this was an enjoyable event to participate in.  Bill, Josh and "the Gamemaster with No Name," were a congenial bunch to game with.  The figures and terrain pieces were well-crafted, providing a mass-battle spectacle with minuscule space restrictions.  The scenario was well-balanced and presented numerous challenges to both sides.

My only room-for-improvement comment would be directed at the rules used during the game.  It's a home-brewed set called, The Conflict, which I believe was written by Bill. 

And from what I could see, The Conflict weighed-in at 60+ pages.  Which is actually rather good, compared to a lot of the published tomes out there.  I liked the unit cards, seen here in a pile on the lower right portion of this picture:

These were handy playing aids encased in heavy laminate, that contained most of the information a player needed regarding a unit's combat effectiveness and movement orders.  Speaking of which, since orders were easy to jot down, The Conflict utilized simultaneous movement, which I happen to favor over the usual IGO-UGO method.

However, none of us players knew the rules, so Bill was barraged with questions and even validity challenges.  This slowed the game down at various times throughout the entire period.

Maybe one of the following suggestions might help improve a session's play tempo:

--Post the rules as a PDF prior to the event, so would-be players can do some homework before the game.  Or--

--Write "The Conflict Lite" version for conventions.  Players then, can  read through the few pages as they sit down and admire the miniatures, while the gamemasters make their final preparations.

Hopefully these, or other constructive recommendations players may have, will help minimize the downtime needed to research rules questions and answer challenges.

Post-Enfilade! Reflection:

Because of my work schedule, I was only able to participate in two games:  Bill's 6mm Napoleonics, and Sven's SAGA Tournament.  

Deciding what to play, among so many options with a limited amount of time, was nerve-wracking and difficult for me...

(Image from: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade)
...but this year, I think I "...have chosen wisely."

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Enfilade 2014's Saga Tournament

Despite my table-top fight-for-survival, I managed to take a few pictures outside my arena during this year's SAGA Tournament.  The Tournament was hosted by Sven Lugar and a dozen players took part in it. The grand prize, shown above, was a drinking horn hand-crafted by Sven himself.

While everyone who participated in the tournament received a runestone also crafted by Sven.  

The tournament was held during the first two Saturday periods of this year's Enfilade! convention (Game Periods C and D).  Each player was encouraged to bring his, or her, own warband, but Sven brought all the terrain.

The games were based on various scenarios found in the SAGA rulebook:  

Round 1:  The Escort (Scenario 6, page 67 of the SAGA core rulebook).
Round 2:  Homeland (Scenario 5, page 66 of the SAGA core rulebook).
Round 3:  "Escalade" (attack/defend an incomplete fort)

Each round was about an hour long, which gave everyone time to help Sven set up terrain for the next bout. 

Everybody played the same scenario during each round, but often with different armies. 

Sven has a firm grasp of the SAGA rules, was always on-hand to answer questions from pesky players, and kept things moving at a good clip.  

So if you hear of a SAGA Tournament, or any other game for that matter, hosted by Sven, be sure to sign up!

Tournament Results:

Points were awarded for inflicting casualties upon your opponent and achieving certain objectives within each scenario.

And this year's tournament/drinking horn winner was:  Stephen Radny-McFarland 59 points (pts), with his Anglo-Saxons

Followed by:

2) Daryl Nichols, 52 pts, Anglo-Saxons
3) Tom Wanerstrand, 51 pts, Viking
4) Marky, 49 pts, Viking
4) Gary Greiss, 49 pts, Welsh
5) Darcy Town, 45 pts, Vikings
5) Denise Mauldin, 45 pts, Vikings
6) Scott Abbot, 39 pts, Norman
7) Ted Henkle, 21 pts, Welsh
7) Ambrelle Coy, 21 pts, Anglo-Saxons

Plus two additional players that didn't, or forgot to, turn in their tournament tally sheets.