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.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Greatest Battle Report 2018: Nominations Open

Welcome back to the second annual Greatest Battle Report Awards!

The Greatest Battle Report 2018

After the success of the first Greatest Battle Report Award in 2017, I've decided to organise another one for this year. The format is much the same, but have introduced a few innovations in the process that I hope will encourage more entries and more visibility for the Nominations.

Stage 1: Nominations

Nominate a Battle Report - for any tabletop, miniatures gaming system, as the Greatest Battle Report of 2018. We're looking for anything and everything great in the world of Wargaming and Tabletop Miniatures, perhaps it has a great narrative, perhaps the table layout and photography was stunning, perhaps the models were just really cool, perhaps the improvisation and counts-as thinking reached genius level, or maybe everyone playing had a really great time and the love for The Hobby™ shines through. Whatever you think makes for a Great Battle Report - that's what we want to see nominated.

If you want some idea of the amazing efforts gamers go to in creating their Battle Reports, feel free to view last years nominations, and last years glorious winner  Pitch Invasion by Nico.

You can easily nominate a Battle Report by a number of ways of doing that:
  • Post a link on twitter using the hashtag #BatRep18 
  • Post on the thread on The Oldhammer Forum
  • Leave a comment to this blogpost
  • Email  Zhu with the subject line "BatRep18 Nomination"
The Battle Report must be publicly accessible. Nominations for Battle Reports behind paywalls, on register-to-view sites or published in magazines or commercial wargaming companies websites will be discarded. The Battle Report must have been published in 2018. All nominated entries will be listed in a blogpost on this website.

Self-nominations are allowed, and in fact encouraged! If you nominate a third party Battle Report, and not your own, please notify the author in some way (comment on the blogpost) that they have been nominated for The Greatest Battle Report of 2018. Feel free to link to this post by way of explanation, but it is by no means a requirement.

In 2017 we had 10 Nominations, which was a great response and an easy number to deal with.  Should we have more than 12 Battle Reports Nominated in 2018, these will be shortlisted to a maximum of 12, on a first-come, first served basis. The closing date for Nominations will be  30th November 2018, so get your nominations in quick!

Stage 2: Voting

Voting will probably be by SurveyMonkey, starting around 1st of December, running to 31st December 2018.

The aim of the Greatest Battle Report is to spread the word, and get more people to read the many great Battle Reports that are out there, so once Voting is under way, it is critical to get as many people to vote as possible, motivate your base and mobilise your clamouring cult of followers to vote for you.

Stage 3: The Award

The Greatest Battle Report remains a stubbornly fannish affair, curated and voted for by the community. Everybody wins because everybody gets to read great Battle Reports they might have otherwise overlooked.

The reward for coming first place and being crowned The Greatest Battle Report 2018 is to bask in the admiration of your peers, and know that your creative endeavours have been recognised as a example of hobby gaming. You can also display "The Greatest Battle Report 2018" banner alongside your blog to honour the recognition your Battle Report has received - although of course this is entirely optional.

Let the well documented, entertainingly written and presented battle commence!

Friday, 26 October 2018

Bored of the Rings

The History of Lower Middle Earth: Part One

"Don't judge a book by it's cover" goes the old cliche trotted out to denigrate the fine and exacting work carried out by illustrators and book jacket designers the world over. But no, book jackets are important. Not only do book covers serve as marketing tools to entice hapless saps to pick-up some half-baked tome of drivel off the creaking shelves of their local black-windowed publications emporium, they also serve as a flag of social stigma and embarrassment should one undertake the social faux-pas of carrying or worse, actually reading a book conspicuously in public. This, of course, explains the popularity of e-book readers. It's not the convenience of carrying 40,000 digital documents in your pocket, which is quite pointless as none of them appear to have that exact recipe for mixing the perfect Pan Galactic Gargle-Blaster that you're looking for when you need it.

I could really do with one of these about now | via

No, the real value of polymorphing books into anonymous grey plastic rectangles is that one can sit in a coffeeshop in Rickmansworth sipping a skinny latte or stand on public transport on the commute to work whilst reading Shifty Shapes of Grey without the risk of anyone batting an eyelid, and avoid being even slightly embarrassed about peering at the grimey print hidden behind the glossily airbrushed homoerotic thews of Gonad the Barbarian, or being pelted with rotten fruit for reading the XXVII tome in the Horribillis Hearsay of the Grimdank Universe series. Or indeed, avoid entirely the intense social stigma and certain ridicule that comes from wielding a mini-placard embellished with the hookah-pipe and mighty bosom of a militant mutant sow riding pig lady and curvaceous elf girl astride  a black ram emblazoned upon on The Harvard Lampoons Parody of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings":  Bored of the Rings that announces loud and proud your lack of literary discernment and pervy stoner nerd credentials.

Bored of the Rings | Michael K. Frith | 1969

Considered in isolation, the cover of the Signet first edition of Bored of the Rings is a thing of finely crafted wondrous beauty. The composition is harmoniously balanced, rendered in jewel-like colours and with  montage reflecting oneric, fantastical vision, oozing with quirky detail and charm. The combination of visual splendour, simple messaging and dubious sexual content make it a near platonic ideal of the most effective persuasion technologies of the commercial arts of Madison Avenue.  But before we indulge ourselves by observing the contents of the cover in  Bored of the Rings in minute yet pedantic detail, it behoves us to turn our baleful eye towards the first American paperback edition of The Hobbit published by Ballentine in 1965.

The Hobbit | 1965

Upon observing this exquisitely wrought jewel of mid 60's pop-psychedelia, the author of the book had this to say (with moderation) on the matter:
I wrote to [his American publishers] expressing (with moderation) my dislike of the cover for [the Ballantine edition of ] The Hobbit. It was a short hasty note by hand, without a copy, but it was to this effect: I think the cover ugly; but I recognize that a main object of a paperback cover is to attract purchasers, and I suppose that you are better judges of what is attractive in USA than I am. I therefore will not enter into a debate about taste – (meaning though I did not say so: horrible colours and foul lettering) – but I must ask this about the vignette: what has it got to do with the story? Where is this place? Why a lion and emus? And what is the thing in the foreground with pink bulbs? I do not understand how anybody who had read the tale (I hope you are one) could think such a picture would please the author. ... 
...When I made the above points again, her voice rose several tones and she cried: 'But the man hadn't TIME to read the book!' (As if that settled it. A few minutes conversation with the 'man', and a glance at the American edition's pictures should have been sufficient.) With regard to the pink bulbs she said as if to one of complete obtusity: 'they are meant to suggest a Christmas Tree'. Why is such a woman let loose? I begin to feel that I am shut up in a madhouse. 
J.R.R. Tolkien Letter to Stanley Unwin 1965 

The Hobbit cover, and the many obtuse excuses used to cover it, was only the beginning of Tolkien being psychologically terrorised by his time-poor, gender confused and cash hungry American publishers. The disliked vignette itself was taken from the left hand side of yet even more grander vista in a painting by Barbara Remington - a woman of the female persuasion, and not as Tolkiens mind-game playing American agent insisted, a male of masculine orientation. Why, as Tolkien asks, are such women let loose? Who knows, perhaps they are simply sent to torment bookish old professorial elf-fanciers of Oxford, but perhaps because in their lack of time, like a Hobbit scrabbling at answers for riddles in their nastly little pocketses, true genius finds its way up, out of the subconscious darkness of the Goblin Mines, out through the dark and twisted passages and past the secret doors, up and into the light of the world.

Indeed, the vignette for The Hobbit was but a prelude to the unveiling to the world of the epic triptych which would be the 1965 Ballentine edition of Tolkiens Lord of the Rings trilogy of books. If the lion and emus and bulbous fruit of The Hobbit had managed to summon such disgruntled bile from the Professor who knows what words of scorn and derision the flying horses and piles of snakes may have spurted forth from the raging nib of his enraged and bitter quill. 

Barbera Remington | Lord of the Rings | 1965
The attention to detail in Harvard Lampoons parody of Remingtons Lord of the Rings cover is second to none.  Not only is the illustration style, colour and tone a dead match, the typography perfectly errs on the correct side of a hugely expensive and drawn out copyright dispute and outright plagiarism.  The book titles are rendered rather plainly and quite handsomely in Goudy Sans, offering an austere yet organic, anti-industrialism echoing the hand-lettered rather than mechanical and authors name in rather florid psychedelic-age redrawing of William Morrises Troy lettering, itself something of a victorian revival of medieval insular calligraphy. Tolkien being a massive fan of Morris should have approved somewhat, but instead, alas, cried 'foul'.

It is clear that whole cover of Bored of the Rings has been near fraudulently designed to entice a mushroom-stuffed hippy student of the early1970s to fumblingly pick it up from the rickety wire carousel of paperbacks on the newspaper stand while buying a pouch of Longbottom Leaf and some cigarette papers  and hand over the loot to the newspaper vendor (played, for some reason, by Richard Prior) without noticing they'd been hoodwinked before it was too late.

As well as setting up the books persistent self-referential gags about being a crass attempt to cash in on the commercial success of Lord of the Rings,  the aping of the Ballentine first authorised edition of The Lord of the Rings cover design serves to tie Bored of the Rings to that very specific time and place, one single Thursday afternoon in the America as the sun slowly set on the 1960s. Nixon was in the Whitehouse, Students were taking over Harvard University, moon landings were on the horizon (of the moon, presumably, but maybe the Nevada desert, who really knows, maaan?), the Manson Family were planning to unleash Helter Skelter upon the West Coast and Bryan Adams was standing on yo mommas porch. Yes, it was the Summer of 69. Ahem ahem.

Bored of the Rings is very much an artifact of those ancient days and is as much about the late sixties or early seventies America as it is about The Lord of The Rings. Besides being a parody of Tolkien work, the novel is riddled with puns and references that mean absolutely nothing to a contemporary reader, many of which have sank so far deep into the collective unconscious as to be completely unrecoverable except by all but the most determined delver of cultural detritus. One such unponderable reference,  Garfinckel, an elf, named for a department store chain that went bankrupt in the 1990s. The contemporary publishers conceit of updating the books cover to reflect the visual language of more recent movie adaptations, while keeping the tongue-in-cheek mercantile humour, lose much of the specificity of the text. Other non-movie tie-in covers attempt to position the book as generic comedic fantasy, glossing over the precise context. What the book really needs in 2018 is not an updated cover, but a critical edition with endless footnotes and meandering commentary that firmly establishes the historical context while explaining the referential jokes for the undereducated and elucidating upon the long lasting legacy of the esteemed work.

The Harvard Lampoon was itself an grotesque overblown student magazine reinvented by Doug Kenny and Henry Beard that served as an exclusive, gentrified breeding pit for their peculiar class of  self-indulgent comedian whose natural habitat - the publishing niche that occupies the cocaine filled valley that lays between the great stone Argonath of Hugh Hefner and Alfred E. Neumann - was about to spill out of the gates of Harvard and take their Lampooning on to a National stage, as the National Lampoon, then promptly set off on the epic quest across strange yet bewildering landscapes of myth that is Vacation with Chevvy Chase. But while all that was in the far future of 1983, which is now the dim and distant past on 1983, the spectre of fantasy genre parody never quite left the Lampoon frat-house.

Conan the Barbarian - Frazetta

The National Lampoons Vacation - Boris Vallejo

It is at about this point when writing an article, when it is traditional for the Scribes of Zhu go off on a third pointless tangent, weaving the text into a kind of pseudo-intellectual equivalent of a bunch of dozey Boggies poking aimlessly at some suspicious looking fungi in their back garden when they said they were going to take the recycling bin out to the Dark Lands beyond Bakdôr. This is usually because the aforementioned scribes have got completely bored with the original subject, but also to pad out the post with as much verbiage as possible in the vain hope that the reader is distracted by the advertisements on the right hand side of the website and decide to buy an Oldhammer T-shirt or maybe some Dungeon Floorplans. And this article will prove, regrettably, no different.

Hobbit Poster via Two Warps to Neptune

Unfortunately Barbera Remington's paintings for the covers of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings gives us the perfect, but also ideal, material for just such a meandering diversion. Having already discussed at inordinate and mind-numbing length the vicereal physical response by the esteemed yet grouchy author of the original book to the artwork, and its profound yet significant influence on the cover of Bored of the Rings  it is perhaps not too far fetched to examine the legacy of this maligned work of genius beyond the confines and out into the wide world beyond the paperbacked borders, and into the nefarious realm of knock-off-publishing and authorised fully-licenced merchandising tie-ins that is the sordid yet mysterious world of Fantasy Gaming.

Lord of the Rings | Jigsaw Puzzle via Two Warps to Neptune

The blotter paper soaked with dramatic blue and magenta splodges of paint expressing a volatile quazi-Hendrixian purple haze, perfectly suited for expressing the contents of what is, effectively, a book about going on a very. long. trip. Remmingtons stylistic flourishes and bold painterly approach continued to have a lingering influence on fantasy art that long outlasted the grumpy outpouring of bitter disdain and reproach from Tolkien. A fact that would have no doubt annoyed him considerably.

War of the Ring | Tim Kirk | FGU | 1977

Tim Kirk's dramatic cover for FGU's WAR OF THE RING is obviously inspired by Remmingtons masterpiece, and skillfully employs the motif of savage Orcs bringing their putrid red stench with them wherever they travel, great steaming clouds of noxious gasses staining the sky and land, laying down some really heavy vibes. The bright clean spring air of the proud upright banners, wholesome trees and noble warriors railed against them. Meanwhile the contrasting FGU logo and the masthead create a yin-yang effect of cosmic balance.

Divine Right | Kenneth Rahman | TSR | 1979

The cover of TSRs tactical wargame Divine Right by "Elladan Elrohir" aka Kenneth Rahman. Mount doom spewing clotted red clouds into the sky populated by a ghostly wild hunt. 

 Lord of the Rings | Ralph Bakshi | 1978

Remmingtons rendering of the power of evil to materially distort the doors of perception and stain the world with evil was something Ralph Bakshi had played with while working on Spider-man, where the  development of the psychotropic mise-en-scene as mirror of a tortured mind was no doubt partly responsible for the lurid evil kaleidoscopic effects seen in Bakshis great cinematic adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.

Mark Rothko | Untitled 'Orcs in Mordor'  | 1961 | via

It's unquestionable that Remmingtons work has had a significant and lasting impact in the genre, but eventually "Tolkien Art" gave way to various forms of naturalism, from the clean bright renderings of the Hildebrandts to the soft, misty drawings of Alan Lee.

Returning to the subject at hand, it is worth noting the Lampoons cover art of Bored of the Rings is an early work by none other than the great Micheal Frith, and it clearly displays the tongue-in-cheek mix of whimsy, subtlety, fantasy and humour that would serve him well as the Creative Director of The Jim Henson Company and as the Concept Artist responsible for the creation of  Muppets such as Scred from Saturday Night Lives Land of Gorch and the frankly maddening and carefree and song-obsessed denizens of Fraggle Rock, who bare more than a little resemblance and maybe owe something of their starey-eyed madcap ways to Bored of the Rings hobbit analogues, the Boggies. In fact it's difficult not to see them as some form of distant yet annoying cousin who only ever phones to borrow money. "In a hole in the ground, there lived a Fraggle."

Look Ma, I caught a Boggie
Micheal Frith with Spam, Frito and Lavalier from the big screen adaptation

Concerning Boggies | Micheal Frith | via

Leaving the unspeakably middle double-constonanted family tree of Hobbit, Boggie, Fraggle (and Hoggle from Labyrinth) aside, not to say, chopping the whole thing down for the sake of all our sanities, we return to the cover of The Bored of the Rings. Here we can see Frith was less following in Remmingtons  esteemed footsteps than creeping up behind her with a cudgle, ready to mug every last ounce of artistic license available. Having waded through the groan inducing pun-drenched excuse for a novel, myself it's clear that Frith either, like Remmington before him, just didn't have time, or just couldn't be bothered with it or thought he had a better idea of what should have been going on. And who could blame him? It's hard to know where to begin, except to say that having a cover so profoundly divorced from the narrative contained within could only be part of a studiously wrought meta-parody - perfectly reflecting the Ballantine editions lack of fidelity to the text. Pure coincidence, or rather pure lack of coincidence, could not have missed the mark so astutely.

Toothbrush that was forged anew.

Starting with the central visual feature of the composition, a dazzling white toothbrush emerging from a river. There is no lady of the lake dismembered arm raising an excalibur-like toothbrush from the waters scene at all. Whatsoever. At all. Unless I missed it, which is entirely possible as I'm not infallible. There are references to tooth-paste, tooth-fairies, and well, just teeth. But no Tooth brush.  If you don't believe me you can go read it yourself, it's like an epic quest, but more pointless "Hunt for the Toothbrush"

C69: Pig-faced Nozdrul on Wild Boar

The Nozdrul - evil servants of Sorhed only dress up in lady pig costumes while they are in disguise in the sordid and provincial village of Whee, but not riding around the country-side on the back of giant pigs, which they do all the time. I suppose this shows Frith had made some acquaintance with the text, but really either didn't care about the basics or couldn't pass up the opportunity to paint a pig riding pig.

The buxom sow-riding pig-woman Nozdrul is a blindingly genius concept of geniusness.  It's hard to overstate the sheer cultural impact and magnitude of this perilous porcine picture. The fearsome yet saucy Nozdrul as buxom pig-lady predates the creation of the fearsome yet glamorous buxom pig-lady Miss Piggy (designed by Bonnie Erickson at the Jim Henson company) by a whole seven years. The Hildebrandt Brothers infamous but debatable Lizard Goblin Pig Orcs by the same seven years and the emergence of the archaic yey porcine  Pig-Faced Orcs of Dungeons and Dragons by eight. All in all this may be the first image of an anthropomorphic pig riding a pig in all of humanoid history. Then again, it probably isn't. But it's certainly an image that joins the dots between Tolkienesque Fantasy and pig-headed humanoid-monsters.

C69: Flying Beasties

I don't recall any giant flying black grinning hippopotamuses, or the Nozdrul  taking winged flight at all, so this seems to be a reference to the original book, or Remmingtons weird crows and sky-leaping horses from her Lord of the Rings cover although the Pegasus-knight does seem to be referencing the Pirated 1965 Ace Paperback cover of The Two Towers. Remmingtons bulbous pink Christmas tree fruit also make an appearance, like a sinister art nouveaux streetlamp triffiding its way onto the page and demarcating the territory for the twisted gods of parody, even if they do not appear in the book.

Frito | Goodgulf | Nudie-elf | Arrowroot
Mounted. on Sheep.

There is something in the round-eyed stare of Frito the hobbit reminds one of the manic stare of Gobo Fraggle, an unfortunate family resemblance that suggests dubious parentage we've already dwelled on for too long, and is probably best to gloss over at this juncture. Needless to say, this is not how Frito crosses any river anywhere in the book.

The general air of wanton smuttyness returns with the rather pink elf-lady riding a sheep. No saucy elf lady rides a sheep in Bored of the Rings. There is a saucy elf lady who tries to seduce Frito into giving her his ring, but that episode itself is presented as a quote from the main story, and doesn't appear in the main story. And there aren't any sheep involved in that bit, fortunately.

Next we have the Wizard Goodgulf. Shades and a dark green speedway-rider motorcycle helmet. Perhaps coincidentally ZZ-Top formed in 1969 the fated year that Bored of the Rings was published, releasing their first sub-Led-Zepplin single - Salt Lick, but wouldn't don the sunglasses and extreme beard image they would become famous for until the late 1970s. Goodgulfs transformation from discredited rosicrucian to southern blues-rock fashion icon may have been his greatest feat of magic, but maybe not. 

Arrowroot Son of Arrowshirt a somewhat ghostly pale-faced impersonation of The Lone Ranger. in his cowboy hat and fringed jacket, a gag that draws Aragorn, and Lower Middle Earth with it into a kind of cheap frontier Americana.

Finally, we see one of Tolkiens hated emus, dead at the bottom. Possibly strangled by a hookah pipe, in the library by Colonel Custard.  The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien  were not published until 1981, some 11 years after Bored of the Rings, so it is doubtful that Frith got wind of Tolkiens dislike of the beast and symbolically slaughtered the bird on Tolkiens behalf. As far as I know Tolkien never read Bored of the Rings, nor passed any comment upon the novel or it's cover, but I can't help thinking he'd have been mildly gratified by the murder of this irksome antipodean intruder, if quite outraged yet incensed by the rest of it.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Furui Hanmā: A Journey to the East. Part Two: The Men of the Orient

This is the second stage of our Journey into the East - looking at the visual and sculptural elements of the Orient in Warhammer. Inspired to finish this write up by the announcement that Dave Morris and Jaime Thompsons Tetsubo - an unpublished draft of an Oriental supplement for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is being resurrected by Daniel Fox's for his  Zweihander RPG.

 The original intent for Furui Hanmā II was to cover all the Orient, Nippon and Cathay material produced for Warhammer in 1984, however there is really too much material to do any kind of justice to in just one blogpost, so this has once again been split into future posts. I also made a quick banner for these posts, based on the Oriental Heroes logo (which we'll get to eventually) and featuring Two Dragons in Clouds by Kanō Hōgai...

Furui Hanma Banner
The story so far: Furui Hanmā: A Journey to the East. Part One covering the Citadel miniatures and Warhammer material produced between 1982-83, where Oriental and Occidental tropes rub shoulders, shake hands and team up in a funky fresh East-West fantasy fusion.

Now read on...

The Men of the Orient 

While a couple of Samurai  do appear in Warhammer 1st Edition Tabletop Battles book in artwork taken from an earlier flyer they not given any separate rules game-wise than any other kind of human in armour with a sword, they are fairly generic warriors, in eastern garb, fighting Orcs, which by the 1980s had become a generic western fantasy genre trope of evil.

All that changes with the publication of the Forces of Fantasy (1984) supplement. The East-meets-West approach is abandoned and instead the fantasy humans based on different historical cultures are split up and  given their own distinct geographical settings to exist within, and given statistics, profiles and special rules that differentiate them in gameplay terms. Forces of Fantasy makes the Samurai statistically the best fighters and archers, outclassing any other humanoid troop type in the game. Alongside the superior Samurai, there are the more mundane Ashigaru or foot soldiers.

Men of the Orient

Hieta Noh mask.

The illustration accompanying the army list (I think by John Blanche, although clearly the style is different to his other work, perhaps intentionally to reflect the oriental feel) with its dramatic moustache and eyebrows resembles the Noh mask called Heita.

Noh masks are found in traditional Japanese theatre, each mask expressing a specific character type that appears across multiple plays in the Noh genre, rather than depicting a single specific character. The Heita mask represents the idea of a mature, heroic, victorious warrior. His bushy eyebrows and ruddy complexion are due to the time spent on the battlefield, rather than at home plucking his brows and hiding from the sun.

Noh masks are extremely influential in Japanese character design beyond the theater, in comics and videogames, from Wario to Ogami Ittō, the Heita expresses a shared language of short-cuts that define characters that can be overlooked by western audiences. The choice here, in using Hieta to depict Oriental warriors seems completely accurate and culturally appropriate and goes some way towards integrating Japanese cultural ideas and visual language, into Warhammer rather than simply providing an image of a western ideal of the pseudo-medieval oriental warrior.

As well as the standard warrior-types, there are several specialist troops. The Kamikazee are obviously named after the suicide bombers of World War Two, and play as suicidal shock troops. These have nothing to do with the 16th century Japan that the Samurai are based on, and have no medieval historical origins. The Kamikazee are as clear an indication as any that the Men of the Orient are grounded in contemporary notions of the Oriental warrior, rather than an attempt to create a strictly historical fantasy.

Forces of Fantasy also introduces Vim-to Monks.  For those readers who may be unfamiliar with British soft drinks that are extraordinarily popular in Arabian countries during Ramadan, Vimto is a mixed fruit flavoured beverage, sold as both a syrup and a carbonated drink. They do sweets as well. I assume "Vimto", being born in Manchester in 1908 and not having any particular relation to the far-east, or kung-fu, seems to have been chosen purely as a pun on "Shinto", the traditional religion of Japan.

This crude punning is somewhat essential to the early Warhammer experience, running throughout the names of Slann, Ogres, Halflings, and other humans, but is also displays a somewhat disrespectful  attitude towards what is an important religion.
C05 Specialists | Martial Arts Monks

Fizzy-drinks based puns aside, the description of Vim-to Monks given in Forces of Fantasy describes them as unarmed, unarmored, or with sword, bo-staff or nagitana, so only cover the C05 Martial Arts Monks miniatures that are derived from the Chinese Shaolin school of kung-fu, wearing tunics and trousers, and not the ones based on the Sōhei Buddhist warrior monks of Japan, who are hooded, armoured and carry polearms.

While Shaolin can be found in Japan - it crossed the sea from China to Japan in the 18th Century, like the Kamikazee reference this is quite a distance from the 16th Century Momoyama period of the Samurai and Ashigaru. As well as contracting historical periods, the Men of The Orient also collapses geography, combining both Japanese and Chinese forms,  a vague concept of The East which blending, or ignoring, of the differences between Oriental cultures and history, strongly shaped by a Western lens rather than any attempt to create any kind authentic Eastern voice or a historically anchored basis from which to build the fantasy.

Forces of Fantasy also gives us a brief guide to the iconography of The Men of the Orient as might be found on their banners and other regalia. Alongside the mitsudomoe shinto symbol for Hachiman - the god of war and archery is the Heita Noh mask, both of which go some way to showing that, whilst wildly historically inaccurate, how well thought out and researched the iconography of the Men of the Orient is. One of the symbols in particular stands out - a rendition of the traditional Japanese manji 卍.

Yurr dere's a swass sticker top left.
The manji can be drawn in either direction, turning to the left, or turning to the right, the manji in a Japanese context relates strongly to Buddhism, is used to mark temples on maps, and seems to mean something like 'good luck' or 'positive vibes' and usually goes to the left. 

Japanese Manji
The symbol appears twice, both in the army list iconography and in the depiction of two oriental warriors.
Samurai Rising Sun and Mount Fuji motifs | John Blanche | Forces of Fantasy 

However, instead of the usual Japanese left-wards manji, Warhammer presents us with the right-wards turning version.

Of course, the symbol is more familiar to western audiences as the one appropriated by the Nazis from the Hindu to propagate the idea of Aryan racial supremacy, and is probably one of the most recognisable and reviled visual symbols in modern European history. There is no necessity for the use of the Swastika in Warhammer. It could easily have been avoided in favour of more obviously Eastern symbols like the yin-yang or any number of Japanese family crests (or mon), but given that it appears twice, and both the Noh Mask and mitsudomoe show some research was undertaken, it's hard to write off the swastika as a mere accident or casual historical reference.

various mon or family crests.

There are number of possible readings of the Warhammer Oriental Swastika, none of which are exclusive to the others.

The Warhammer Oriental Swastika, could be a reclaiming of the Swastika symbol as a Manji or Kamon - the symbol is being deliberately re-aligned away from its association with Nazism and Aryanism, and placed into an previous historical context as an act of semiotic disarmament, robbing the symbol of it's specific power in singular political context, a form of genericide, where a symbol is shown to be so generic that any claims for specific use become ludicrous, and any flag-worshipping power the symbol might have for those gathered under its banner diminished.  There have been periodic attempts at reclaiming the swastika over the years and are generally frowned upon as being 'epic fails' or worse, attempting to normalise the agenda the symbol has come to represent. The symbol itself has no intrinsic value, it's just some geometry, it is purely the narratives that surround it and its repeated use within specific contexts that form meanings, and while signifiers do shift, escaping the weight of history is not something that happens easily.

Then there is a  'punk' repurposing of the Swastika as pure agitprop (in a literal sense of 'agitating propaganda') the symbol only used in it's intent to shock and offend, as instigated by the prime punk provocateur, incidently of Jewish decent - Malcom McLaren, and carried out by future Queen of the Goths and Bromley Contigent superstar Siouxie Sioux.

Siouxie Sioux 1976 | Caroline Coons |via
While the adoption of the swastika by punks may have only been to upset and annoy the previous generation, it was swiftly taken up by far-right youth as an endorsement, with the all too predictable confusion and violence ensuing as the cultures clashed in the gig venues, dancehalls and streets of the late 1970s.

Notably Siouxie herself is no stranger to Orientalism, with the lyrics of The Banshees debut single, Hong Kong Garden, released in 1978 ostensibly being inspired by her local Chinese staff takeaway being abused by gangs of neo-nazi skinheads. The song is by no means unproblematical lyrically, celebration and condemnation ring out alongside crude stereotypes and witty rhymes in something of a stream of consciousness embracing all things Chinese, and there are later forays into 80s Japanomania.

Siouxie 1982 | Sheila Rock | The Face |

Siouxie Sioux Hannya Noh Mask / Onibaba T-shirt | Rabatu Smitu | 1982?

Similarly we could look to David Bowies Thin White Duke persona flirting with fascistic imagery and Orientalism:
Visions of swastikas in my head,
Plans for everyone
It's in the whites of my eyes,
My little China girl 
David Bowie - China Girl 1983
Oldhammerists often talk about the influences of 80s popular culture on Warhammer in a vague way, as if the statement itself provides validation of some innate quality, or that locating something in time is the same thing as explaining it. In Warhammers appropriation of the Swastika / manji in a Japanese context as the Warhammer Oriental Swastika, clear parallels can be drawn with sifting of post-war cultural detritus and ambiguous play as performed by eclectic post-punk magpies Siouxie and Bowie.  Whether Bowie or Siouxies entanglement of the orient and fascism directly inspired Blanch or Priestly or Halliwell, or not, they are part of a broader cultural milieu superficially adopting the appearance of the rejected (fascistic) and exotic (oriental) as a performative, creative strategy, pushing against and challenging the mainstream consensus culture.

The Tale of Sanyo Kawasaki | Book of Batallions

The Warhammer Oriental Swastika can be read as a reference to the Japanese role as one of the Axis powers allied to the Nazis in WW2, as a kind of 'honorary aryan' proxy-nazi. We already have the Kamikaze which establishes Warhammers Men of the Orient as being based on as much post-war stereotypes of Oriental as medieval stereotypes, and this is a further continuation of a post-war influenced theme, rather than a pseudo-medieval one. Then The Book of Batallions which appears in Forces of Fantasy describes Sanyo Kawasaki (named after a well known Japanese electronics and motorcycle company, respectively) - who feels his government is 'weak and liberal' and besieges their capital city for not sinking a 'foreign' ship on sight, a cartoon of a strident insular ultra-fascist, who is ultimately made ridiculous by committing ritual suicide by standing upside down in a bucket of cold water.  The combination of anti-liberalism and violent xenophobia with the Swastika leaves very little room for doubt of what ideology is being pointed at in the character of Sanyo Kawasaki.

Samurai | Sanyo Kawasaki (?) | Forces of Fantasy

There is some irony in this as it takes what is essentially an occidental movement, bundled up with ideas of the racial superiority of Western Europeans and projects it onto a foreign, exotic culture, while swastika waving Nazis themselves were more than happy to use the kinds of romanticised Medieval imagery that Warhammer would produce for the Men of the North and Men of the West to promote their aims - strident norsemen and feudalist society. On one level it can be read as a form of psychological splitting - the externalisation of unwanted or negative traits that can't be admitted to or integrated  and the subsequent psychological projection of those traits on to a foreign or distant Other. Rather than accept and deal with (one way or another) the complex relationships between the fantasy of medieval Europe and fascism they remain hidden, or sublimated, and instead Warhammer renders it 'elsewhere'.

I will insert a break here, just to point out that Evan Webber, in the comments below, notes that the Tale of Sanyo Kawasaki closely follows the story of Yukio Mishima actor, author and militant Japanese nationalist who committed ritual suicide in 1970. The time-frame certainly puts these events within reach of the authors of Warhammer. and reframes the narrative as near contemporary satire, and puts paid to the idea the Orientalist conception of Nippon was born from ignorance or off-handed.

It should also be noted the Tale of Sanyo Kawasaki only describes one clan, or one faction, by no means are all Men of the Orient, nor even the dominant clans, portrayed as fascistic - this certainly wouldn't be the last time Warhammer attempted a cartoon of fascism.