Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Aggression from Leapfrogs

Recently came across this abstract war-game in Leapfrogs Action Book: Doodles written by the mathematics education group Leapfrogs, published in 1976.  The Leapfrogs group consisted of Ray Hemmings, Derick Last, Leo Rogers, Dick Tahta, and were probably most famous for their radical and occasionally surreal reinvention of educational television in the Leapfrogs and subsequent Junior Maths Independent Television programme for Schools and Colleges series in the 1970s, featuring the mighty talents of Fred Harris Sheelagh Gilbey, Anni Domingo and the scary hands and voice of Sylvester McCoy, the then future and now past seventh incarnation of Doctor Who, who taught children how to count on their fingers using a combination of number bonds and satanic hand gestures.

Aggression. Page One
Aggression Page Two
Unfortunately the Leapfrogs did not credit the original designer, perhaps because like Noughts and Crosses or Battleships, in its simplicity Aggression has the appearance of a traditional game. However, Aggression was originally published in 1973 in  Games with Pencil and Paper by mathematician and game designer Eric Solomon (who along with Don Turnbull, Albie Fiore, Steve Jackson and Gyles Brandreth was a frequent contributor to the seminal 1970s gaming magazine Games & Puzzles).

Aggression clearly has some conceptual relationship to Albert Lamorisse's 1957 game  La Conquête du Monde or Risk but strips it down to its bare essentials, dropping the dice and manoeuvring as a diceless pen and paper game. It should be obvious just by reading the rules that some quite higher mathematical principles underly the strategy of Aggression - the topological spaces and the number of borders of a Country (or 'region') in Stage 1 and the Army (or 'weight') placed in them during Stage 2 can all mathematically described and strategies optimised along mathematical lines, as well as the determining the optional sequence of battles in Stage 3. Pursuing such an exercise could lend itself to the development of strategic algorithms and the design of artificial intelligent players. Although, of course it can just be used to practice arithmetic skills and strategic thinking in a much looser and freer way.

After an initial game Aggression quickly opens up it's strategic depth, the placement of armies in turn and the sequence of attack.  But the simplicity of the game invites tinkering, what if weight were allowed to move into adjacent or captured regions? What if regions were allocated resources? what if there were a random element to combat to simulate factors out of the players control?

Then there is also the aspect of talking about the game, and what things get called and how that frames further thinking. What names develop as the game is played to describe certain types of regions and their properties, borders, n-boundaries, edges. What might the 'regions' represent  - countries as Solomon initially expressed it, or perhaps parliamentary constituencies, gang territory, biological cells, magnetic fields, ideological categories, markets? Likewise what might 'weight' represent, army size and quality as in the original, or perhaps virulence of disease, Russian internet troll farm activity, propaganda, expression, capital, asteroids, buckets of water. Does thinking with these themes produce insights or creative responses?

Variant: Counter-Aggression

You can watch some school-children negotiate play a variant of Aggression using a pre-drawn map and counters rather than written numbers in between stuffing their faces with crisps and practicing for the Water Bottle Flip Championships, via the magic of youtube. I call it Counter-Aggression, because it uses counters rather than written numbers.

Although this variant does looks fun and tactile, I can't help but think the mathematical fluency that The Leapfrogs were keen to develop in players becomes a little lost when counters and visual estimations make adjudicating the outcome of battles over easy. As an aside, I find the almost complete removal of mathematics from contemporary games somewhat tiresome, I'm not a mathematician by any stretch of the imagination, but can enjoy playing with numbers and find practice useful, the game also enlivens practice when knowing number-bonds to 10 and 20 is expected of certain halflings I know, reinforcing that practice becomes important, and doing so whilst having fun - playing games makes it more painless. As does pretending to be a spooky wizard.

Unfortunately commercial games companies seem only interested in shifting plastic toys, big boxes of cardboard and endless glossy books to an existing market whose mathematical skills are atrophied,  Expecting mass-market hobby-games to encourage and reinforce numeracy in the late 2010s in the same way they accidentally did in 1980s is a bit much, game culture has been increasingly geared more towards spectacle and conspicuous consumption than it is about strategy or system mastery. And lets face it Aggression is hardly maths-heavy to play, it's certainly not Phoenix Command level, not even Monopoly for that matter. But really, all this dumbed down nonsense should be ashamed, roll under / over target number mechanisms and hand-wavey 'just because' numerical attributes isn't going to level anyone up. We get the culture we deserve I suppose.

Variant: A Little Bit of Aggression

There is a great presentation of a variant A Little Bit of Aggression  (ALBA) which uses Punic Wars as an example on their website.
The isle of Sicily | Aggression in the Punic Wars
The accompanying PDF has maps for several conflicts, including Europe and the Middle East, although written by an American, ALBA does not have the American Civil War, the American War of Independence or Tribal conflicts of the First Nations. Perhaps this encourages some knowledge of world history, or perhaps because gaming warfare often, but not always, needs some distance. Two of the maps supplied are Ireland and Gaza, personally I'd feel a bit comfortable gaming those for entertainment or diversion.  I'm not sure how useful or entertaining considering real-world historical or speculative conflicts in such abstract terms devoid of the conditions, logistics or political realities might be, but perhaps using the game in a context where they are discussed, and the game just encouraging familiarity with the geography and the general conflict is enough.

However interesting the historical element might be, by using a pre-determined map, the game does miss out on the region drawing in Stage 1 which is a tactical and strategic element of the game where the players create both opportunities and threats for Stages 2 and 3. By removing the region defining aspect, the players lose an opportunity for thinking about how they create the conditions that drive the later zones of control.

All variants and grumbles about gaming and mathematic culture aside Aggression is an engaging little game and worth a half-hour of your time.

Monday, 3 December 2018

The Greatest Battle Report 2018: Vote Now!

Here's a run-down of this years 9 fantastic Greatest Battle Report Nominations (in alphabetical order),

The Greatest Battle Report 2018

Assault on Viadaza

Cinematic visuals and historical fiction combine in Padre's epic battle report, Cultists of Morr against the armies of undead in this mighty Warhammer Fantasy Battle.

Chaos vs. Law

Law and Chaos clash in this mini campaign that escalates from small skirmishes to mass battle campaign in the frozen lands of the North of the Known World.

Cursed Isle of Morwen

The Undead, Slann clash in this adventure in an age of Middle-Earth as yet undreamed.

Dream of Gold

Brigands vs. Prospectors fight for their long forgotten gold in this silent-movie era Wild West Rogue Trader shoot out!

Five Parsecs Campaign Part 3

Clawdaddies vs. Skullcrackers in the far future of gang warfare using Nordic Weasels Five Parsecs from Home.

Fools Rush In

Dark Angels face Thousand Sons battle it out across a river in an 8th Ed 40k Maelstrom mission.

Read: Fools Rush In

The Siege of Graveskul 

Black Vaskens army of chaos defends the Castle Graveskul against the mighty Bretonian forces in a comic-book style play report.


An ancient Orkish teleporter has been discovered in a desert - can the Orks recover the lost technology or will they end up killing each other in the process in this Gorkamorka bolt-fest?

Read: Teleportas

Workorcs of the World Unite! 

When unscrupulous bosses decide to sack all their orcs, and raise the dead to take their jobs, industrial action ensues on a massive scale.

Read: Workorcs of the world Unite!

Vote Now!

A massive thanks to everyone who nominated a Battle Report this year, a great crop of entries with flavours to suit all tastes. Voting for the final winner is open from now until December 31st 2018 - using our simple as pie Greatest Battle Report 2018 Voting Form

So cast your vote, spread the word, show your support, call your followers to arms, mobilise your mob, and cheerlead your favourite battle report to victory - there can be only one!

Saturday, 17 November 2018

Furui Hanmā: The Kappa Sha Wujing Side Trek

This step in our ongoing series exploring the Far Eastern lands of Warhammer, is a bit of a departure, as it's not really about any form of Warhammer at all.  What it is about is Nippon TVs 1978 adaptation of Wu Ch'eng-en great Chinese story Monkey one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese Literature.

Sha Wujing or Sandy as he is known in the TV series. Here's a quick sketch of Sandy, I've added a backpack, pouch and gourd to make him look a little more like a typical overburdened Dungeons & Dragons adventurer.

Sha Wujing / Sandy Rough Sketch [ZHU]18
For those unfamiliar with the story of Monkey, Sha Wujing or "Sandy" was one of the Heavenly court who was thrown out of heaven for breaking the Emperors Jade Cup, which like opening Pandoras box, unleashed all the troubles into the world.  As punishment, Sandy was sent to earth to live as a canibalistic water spirit (he wears the skulls of nine buddhist monks he has eaten around his neck) and eventually he  joins the holy prilgrim Tripitaka on his quest to retrieve the scrolls of Buddism from India to teach Buddism to the Chinese and releave them all from suffering of the world. One of the main themes of Sandy is the tension between action and inaction, of interfering in the world and philosophically nullifying ones existance through over-thinking, option paralysis and apathy. Of course, he isn't entirely overcome by his overly-pretentious philosophical moods and also carries a Monks (or Shaolin) Spade, with it's broad axe head, and crecent moon - supposedly used for dog-handling, which he uses to bash the various  demon-monster-spirits determined to prevent Tripitaka from completing his quest.

It should be clear that Sandy is a monster, a cannibal, who nontheless becomes a hero in the story by trying to overcome his monstrous nature, as is true of the other pilgrims - Monkey, Pigsy and Tripitaka (although his monstrous adherence to principle over practicality, is not so easy to discern). It is also easily observed that most of the demon-monster-spirits that Tripitaka and his entourage encounter are aspects of human nature exaggerated to monstrous, demonic form, but who nonetheless, are all souls on the path of Karma heading towards enlightenment. The lazily simplistic 'good vs. evil' or 'us-vs-them' tropes found in modern western fantasy depictions of monsters such as Orcs and Chaos Ratmen as Other (often based on historical cultural racism and bigotry) in  media are quite absent, and there is something to be learned there, not only in dealing with some of the more problematic ideas in Western Fantasy, but also in structuring an approach to Oriental Adventures that doesn't simply reproduce the tropes of Western Fantasy in Oriental drag.

Anyway, let's have a look at how Sha Wujing is traditionally portrayed:

Sha Wujing | Bejing Opera
Sha Wujing | Beijing Opera Mask

Sha Wujing | Bejing Opera Maks | Cigarette Card

Sha Wujing in Xiyou yuanzhi (西遊原旨) 1819.

Sha Wujing, a blue faced, heavily bearded monk. Here's a friendly reminder of how Sha Wujing as Sandy is portrayed in Monkey.

Sha Wujing | Sandy |  Shiro Kishibe
It should be reasonably obvious that the 1970s Nippon TV character design of Sandy bears very little to no resemblance to traditional Chinese depictions of Sha Wujing, and most of Sandys notable features, such as the peaked hair-style and hat have no basis in traditional Chinese imagery at all. So what is going on here, why is the Nippon TV character nothing like the traditional version od Sha Wujing?

Well, I think the answer appears to be in the Japanese Oni known as Kappa.

Japanese Kappa with a cucumber
Kappa from
Gazu Hyakki Yagyō ("The Illustrated Night Parade of a Hundred Demons") by Toriyama Sekien
Kappa Kappa

These mysterious and strange turtle-people are, like Sandy, canibalistic water creatures.

  • the over-all dark green colour, 
  • the fringe creating a visual 'beak' 
  • bald head, which is covered with a dish-hat 

Kappas head-bowl must contain water, and if it dries out they die. In the TV series Monkey very often the four Pilgrims run out of water, and Sandy, rather than drinking it, takes his bowl-hat off and splashes it on his bald pate, much to the comedic annoyance of his brethren.

Kappa are known to lead horses to drown, indeed one of the many names of the Kappa is Komahiki or "steed-puller". If so,  this is played up as something of a joke in Monkey - Sandy is most often the one seen leading Horse by the reigns - who is herself (or himself, in the second series of Monkey ) is actually a water-dragon, a river-spirit transformed into a Horse.

Kappa pull ones shiridama (or bum-ball, an imaginary internal organ) out of peoples bum-holes. This doesn't seem to have influenced Sandy, but maybe there are some bum jokes I missed. Also, on the subject, Arthur Waley's abridged translation of Wu Cheng'ens  Monkey, does contain much of the crude, frenetic energy and boisterous humour of Monkey, it's a folk-tale infused with humour culture and philosophy, not a dry studious work. Unfortunately Sandy isn't in it much, which probably suits him quite well.

Sandy | Jamie Hewlett

Of course, Sandy isn't by any means the only example of japanocentric re-visioning of other cultures. We can think of Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood (1957) - a retelling of William Shakespeare's McBeth transporting it to feudal Japan.

And we can also see below a illustration of George Washington fighting the British by Utagawa Yoshitora. While George himself is rendered as a Japanese gentleman with 19th Century western clothing and armaments,  probably the most striking element is that the British are dark skinned. Perhaps based on the illustrator hearing some anecdotes of Black British fighting in the American Civil War on the English side, but more likely to represent the British as Oni - a mythological rendering of that signifies sympathy with Washingtons cause than his adversaries. Putting aside the problematic Japano-African racism that gets thrown here, a mainly folk-mythological reading is supported not only by the large number of mythological and folkloric figures - dragons, giant eagles, that Washington fights off - but also apparently by the British Officer being named Asura - the sanskrit name for the buddhist-hindu kind of stubborn wicked demon-monster-spirits who will not change their ways...

George Washington fighting the British | Utagawa Yoshitora | 1861| via
To return to Sha Wujeng - what we're seeing in NHK/Nippon TV series is a Classical Chinese work and filtered it through Japanese folkloric as a kind of "Interpretatio Graeca" - the ancient Greek practice of polytheistic syncretism - seeing other pagan gods as the same your own (so Amon / Zeus / Odin for example) - which when recognising the different tropes, underpins thinking of comparative mythology and in its creative expression - as we see with Monkey - keeps  a living, mythology that grows and adapts as it encounters other cultures, rather than a static text bound to a specific time and place.  When considering Orientalism in the context of fantasy. there is a strong case for rejecting of the idea of a strict, po-faced idea of 'cultural authenticity' as being less actually authentic to the creative practices of Oriental cultures, than a strategy that embraces complexity and cultural interchange in a more playful, emphatic way.