Thursday, November 25, 2021

Reflections on STRIKE TEAM ALPHA, 30-Odd Years Later

Staying over at my grandparents' house when I was a child in the early 1990s, I found my uncle's trove of 1970s and 1980s geekdom. We're talking Doctor Who novels (I specifically remember Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion), Dragon magazine, etc. And in particular a lot of tabletop war games, including Strike Team Alpha from 1978. That one was my personal favorite, largely because they had a dinosaur-like antagonist race called the T'Rana. Uncle John eventually let me take it home, but I misplaced it somewhere in my parents' house.

Well, after years of sporadically looking for a new copy (including finding and calling up the original creator, who sent me some pictures of game-manual artwork), I found one on eBay and ordered it (as part of a two-pack with Full Thrust, a British space-fleet tabletop game that's still in production today). Although I don't really like playing tabletop wargames, I do really enjoy the lore and I do remember liking Strike Team Alpha's storyline.

So on this merry Thanksgiving, I got the manual out of the plastic sleeve they sent it in and re-read it for the first time in close to 30 years. How did it hold up? Well here goes...

*The backstory predates Warhammer 40,000's "every faction is evil" darkness by nine years. Earth demands a 95% tax rate from asteroid colonists due to the massive self-importance of the people, or at least their leadership ("Earth being the self-acknowledged center of the Universe decided that its asteroid colonies were not paying the proper respect to the birthplace of humanity"). Colonies that cannot or will not pay are wiped out, prompting the surviving colonists to convert their habitats into generation ships and bug out for another solar system. Earth's population, rather than realizing their own greed and tyranny provoked this and failing to acknowledge the sheer courage this took, call this "the Exodus of Cowards." And when the belters foolishly reveal where they've set up their new homes, the result is the founding of a united Earth government that launches an incredibly destructive war of conquest. Like seriously, three-quarters of the colonists on Tau Ceti are killed in the opening nuclear attack and the subsequent "War of Reclamation" is specifically described in the manual as "a war of terror." One gaming scenario involves miners being used for forced labor rebelling and offering the metals they'd mined to mercenaries to help them re-establish self-government. And that's before the wars with the cat-like Sha'anthra (who wage wars almost for fun with other species or with each other) and the T'Rana (who are genocidal Explosive Breeders) kick off. And the outlying colonists, though they're clearly higher on the moral food chain than the Terran Federation, will often fight each other.

(The more I think about it, the more this sounds like Joss Whedon's space Western Firefly and its film adaptation Serenity.)

*Per the above, although the back-story isn't preachy and annoying, you can tell the politics involved. Not only is the initial exodus from Sol driven by a greedy centralized government that taxes people literally to death, but the Terran colonial occupation regime explicitly forbids ownership of energy weapons by private citizens or even local governments. As a result, colonial militias are equipped with broadly late 20th or early 21st Century assault rifles, machine guns, etc. despite the presence of literally predatory alien races, human pirates, etc. And many of the scenarios the game-book provides include colonial rebels and their hired mercenaries fighting collaborators and the Terran Federation years afterward. Live free or die, indeed. The game came out not long before Ronald Reagan became the U.S. President and reflects some of the zeitgeist of that era.

*There's an apocryphal quote out there that says amateurs talk about tactics and dilettantes talk about strategy, but professionals talk about logistics. And the logistics make sense. The game emphasizes small-unit combat because supporting a large army across interstellar space would be a nightmare. The frontier colonies are underdeveloped (likely intentionally, to keep them from rebelling) and the core industrial worlds are so far away. The supplies and gear for super-advanced weaponry used by the Terran Federation's Marines would have be carried across light-years. So campaigns would need to be short and sharp.

*Speaking as someone who is now vastly more knowledgeable about history than when he was eight, the war with the T'Rana looks a lot like WWII, particularly the last madness of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. We're talking an overly-aggressive enemy that fights to the death, literally eats their enemies, picks unnecessary fights that ultimately doom them, will destroy conquered territory rather than allow it to be liberated, etc. The end of the war looks like what would have happened if the U.S. had rejected both the atomic bomb and invading the Home Islands and decided to continue the conventional bombing/blockade...something that wouldn't work against something as large and self-sufficient as an entire star system. The T'Rana are (mostly) contained, but there are still raids.

*The game features tactical nuclear weapons, not just small nukes delivered by missile or aircraft that one might expect, but nuclear weapons deployed by individual soldiers. We're not just talking something like the infantry-operated Davy Crockett recoilless rifle that seems like something that would actually be useable (albeit unbelievably risky to due the fact a single infantryman or combat team could start a nuclear war), but nuclear hand grenades. The game was clearly devised in a time before precision-guided weapons that would allow more-accurate conventional weapons to be used in place of battlefield nukes. There are also fusion-beam weapons called "sunguns" that are sort of like flamethrowers, except one needs to wear anti-radiation protective gear.

*However, the game does feature something called a "battlerob," which is essentially a semiautonomous robotic light tank. Groups like Amnesty International have already spoken out against "killer robots," so this is something that's going to be a political issue in the future.

*The game also features rocket-propelled explosive ammunition, much like Warhammer 40,000's bolters.

*One of the play-testers was George Alec Effinger, a noted science fiction writer and winner of both Hugo and Nebula Awards.

*There are quite a number of typos in the manual.

Verdict: Still a fun world to blow things up in (and it was interesting that many concepts were used in later, more successful games), but finding a copy (and especially finding the Ral Partha figures designed for the game) is going to be a real pain. It'd be nice if there was licensed fiction set in this world (that's one reason I reached out to the original creator), but that seems a bit...unlikely at this point.

More Alternate History: The Latin Empire of Constantinople Thrives? The Yamato Goes Out Like A Boss?

Two more interesting alternate-history scenarios from the Internet's premiere forum. Just because I had myself banned from there six years ago (except for a brief drop-in back in mid-2017 to plug The Thing In The Woods) doesn't mean I can't read the public forums and funnel people to some worthy stories.

Yet Another Roman Empire: The Latin Empire of Constantinople-During the Fourth Crusade in 1204, the vindictive duke of Venice redirected the crusading army to Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. After various intrigues they ended up seizing control of the city, sacking it, and creating a Catholic empire controlling the city and its environs while Greek lords or Turkish invaders grabbed the rest. Although the "Latin Empire of Constantinople" was terminated after a century or so, many historians believe this was the point of no return for the Empire even though it didn't fall until 1453.

But what if the Catholic rulers of the "Latin Empire" had more outside support and were more competent? There are many historical cases of an empire ruled by a foreign conquest dynasty thriving, with Qing China being a major example. In this scenario, the intervention of France and Holy Roman Empire allow the Latin Empire to wipe out one of its major competitors early on, giving them a stronger territorial base and greater independence from the Italian merchant princes. The Latin Empire's ruling family also seeks to intermarry with the leaders of the various breakaway regions like Trebizond, playing the game of thrones in Anatolia.

How does it work out for them? You'll have to read the timeline to find out. :)

The Final Japanese Mass Naval Sortie: Operation Ten-Go-During the historical battle of Okinawa, the Japanese launched Operation Ten-Go, in which they dispatched the enormous battleship Yamato and much of their remaining surface fleet. The idea was that the ships would fight their way to Okinawa, beach themselves, and support the defenders with their massive guns until they were destroyed. In real life, the fleet was intercepted and utterly destroyed by air attack in one of history's great anti-climaxes. Here's a computer recreation of the Yamato's obliteration (complete with what might be gun-camera footage from the planes involved), complete with the absolutely ridiculous numbers of carrier-based aircraft that were brought to bear on the world's biggest battleship and its escorts.


However, in this scenario, the Japanese fleet is able to get more fuel from Singapore to Japan itself and dispatch more ships on the mission. This allows the Japanese fleet to weather the carrier attacks that in real history destroyed it and have one last surface engagement with the American battle line.

How does it go? Read to find out.

Monday, November 22, 2021

West African Socialist Federation? President H.P. Lovecraft? More Fun Alternate Timelines

The good old alternate history forum serves as another place where I can find content to blog about, even though I'm no longer a member. Here are a couple interesting ones I found over the last couple weeks.

African Yugoslavia: A West African Story-In this one, a mutiny by French African soldiers who haven't been paid for their World War II service kicks off a war of national independence in what's now Mali beginning in 1944. The French's heavy-handed response (in real life this resulted in a massacre) turns more and more of their African subjects--and in particular their African soldiers--against the government. Various rebel groups unite under a clique of intellectuals advocating "African socialism" who in real life became the leaders of independent Senegal, Mali, etc. Faced with a prolonged war in the interior of French West Africa when they've been bled white by World War II and fighting against rebels in Southeast Asia as well, the French ultimately cut their losses and concede independence. What results is an authoritarian left-leaning African federation that refuses to cooperate with the Soviet Union--as the title suggests, basically Yugoslavia in Africa. The author appears to be from West Africa himself and has very detailed knowledge of the history, cultures, and personalities involved, so it's a pretty interesting read.

The King In Yellow: The Presidency of H.P. Lovecraft-In real life, author H.P. Lovecraft was a socially-inept recluse and starving artist, but this is one of many things that change as a result of the dying Dowager Empress failing to poison her imprisoned reformist nephew, the legitimate Qing Emperor. He regains the throne and purges Manchu reactionaries, provoking a three-sided Chinese civil war and ultimately the partition of China. Ripples from these changes include a healthier and more prosperous family life for the young Lovecraft, who serves in this timeline's version of World War I, begins publishing his own political magazine, and ultimately runs for office. 

Although it would be easy to portray Lovecraft as essentially an American Hitler (after all, they were both starving artists in their younger days and extremely, extremely racist), Lovecraft's real-life views were a lot more complex, especially as he grew older. What happens is interesting--he governs as functionally a New Dealer, with a secret society/government agency whose member use his real-life fictional creations as titles (in deliberate mockery of the Ku Klux Klan) that serves as his muscle. There are a lot of in-jokes pertaining to Lovecraft's real-life fictional writing, although in this timeline that exists only as poetry books he writes to deal with wartime PTSD. The wider geopolitical situation is addition to a divided China, Mussolini stays a socialist and becomes dictator of Italy after WWI as part of a wider Communist bloc that includes the Soviet Union and a Communist Germany where historical Communist leader Rosa Luxembourg (who tried to overthrow the nascent Weimar Republic and ended up getting shot and thrown into a river) is ultimately succeeded by none other than real-life Nazi Joseph Goebbels. This is less bizarre than it sounds--earlier in his Nazi career, Goebbels was part of a more left-wing faction (which emphasized the "socialist" part of National Socialist) before throwing in with Hitler and his more right-wing clique that was supported by the military and the industrialists.

Oh, and Nikola Tesla is heavily involved in this world's Manhattan Project. :)

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Chamberlain Grows a Spine and a German-Soviet Truce: Two WWII Alternate Timelines

The premiere alternate history forum on the Internet once again doesn't disappoint, with two interesting new timelines for your entertainment. Both are set during World War II, one beginning before the war actually starts and the other in 1942 or so. Here goes...

Defying The Storm-The mighty CalBear, the gear-head who wrote a post on this blog about the failure of the Iraqi Army against ISIS and a book-length alternate history on how the Nazis taking Stalingrad could have extended the war into the 1950s, came up with a somewhat more subtle scenario. The divergence is that Dr. Morrell, Hitler's doctor who was feeding him all sorts of drugs, is killed by Allied bombing and Hitler's new doctor discovers just what his predecessor was doing. Hitler is weaned off the various drugs and is much more clear-headed and not so nuts. Meanwhile, Stalin develops a kidney infection, ignores his doctors' advice, and dies just as the Soviets win the Battle of Kursk. As a result, the vague talks of a separate peace in 1943 that didn't go anywhere result in a compromise peace. Germany keeps the Baltics and parts of Ukraine and returns some territory to the Soviets, who in turn resume their pre-war trade with Germany. There's also some puppy-kicking by both sides--the Germans agree to return all Soviet prisoners of war, with those who fought for the German army specifically identified, while the Soviets in turn deporting all Soviet Jews into German-occupied Poland (!!).

(Just in case we forgot just how malignant the totalitarians were. CalBear's book depicts what the Nazis wanted to do to the Russians if they won, which would have been vastly worse.)

Now Germany is able to rely once more on Soviet oil and grain and can move its forces into Italy to contest the Allied advance and into France to deter a large-scale invasion. But the United States is about to unleash the atomic bomb and neither the Germans nor the Soviets think this peace will last. Things are about to get very interesting. This whole scenario was inspired by this depiction of a naval battle between the 1945-level U.S. Navy and what the Germans could have had if they'd won--or at least not lost--the war in the East, so we might be seeing that scenario at some point.

(EDIT: Owing to some forum drama about whether the USSR would have made such a peace treaty, the thread may have been moved to a members-only section. If you click on the link above and you go to a log-in screen, that might be what happened.)

Munich Shuffle: 1938-1942-This one diverges from our history during the Sudetenland Crisis. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain is injured in a plane crash upon returning from a diplomatic visit to Germany. This delays the Munich Conference until after the Nazis' infamous Kristallnacht, which disabuses Chamberlain's notions that Hitler could be reasoned with. Although Czechoslovakia cannot be saved, British rearmament starts earlier than in real history and this has consequences, most obviously when the Germans attack Norway. The Germans also don't get Czechoslovak assets in British banks, something that will likely have some negative economic consequences for them.

(The book Wages of Destruction describes just how much of the early Nazi economy was smoke-and-mirrors nonsense kept going by loot from their earliest conquests, like the Austrian and Czechoslovak gold reserves.)

So if you're interested in World War II and in particular things that could have gone differently, these are both worth a read.

Friday, November 5, 2021

Movie Review: THE BLOB (1988)

Once upon a time in elementary school, I was a regular reader of the Crestwood Monsters series, a series of children's books in which the tales of the classical movie monsters (Dracula, the Wolfman, etc.) were retold using black-and-white film stills as illustrations. One such book was centered around the 1950s horror film The Blob. I was aware there was a remake in the 1980s, but never got around to seeing it until Myopia Movies did an episode on it. I wasn't able to participate, but I saw it later when the episode came out.

The Plot

In a ski town in what's probably Colorado, a meteor lands, bringing with it a very hungry life-form that gets bigger the more it eats. A bunch of small-town types like earnest high school football player Paul (Donovan Leitch), cheerleader Meg (Shawnee Smith, who later went on to play Amanda in the Saw films), and biker delinquent Brian (Kevin Dillon) now have much bigger problems than who's going out with whom and who needs tools to work on their motorcycle.

The Good

*In a lot of horror movies, the characters make bad decisions in order to move the plot along. In this film, most of the characters make good decisions and the bad decisions make sense in context (i.e. Brian storms off because he has a big chip on his shoulder and feels disrespected). This makes the titular Blob especially dangerous--in order to deal with people who are mostly not complete fools, it has to be pretty cunning itself.

*Some characters who could be clich├ęs have surprising depths and twists.

*The movie seriously goes for Anyone Can Die. Not going to go into detail for reasons of spoilers, but they definitely avoid the horror-movie problem of the audience pretty much knowing who's going to die from early in the film.

*They use late 1980s practical effects and minimal if any CGI. It looks good. And definitely gross--they were going for ghastly here and it works.

*There are some laugh-out-loud moments, such as one of the football players figuring out who his date's father is.

The Bad

*There's a prolonged opening featuring shots of the town and then we cut to the high-school football game. There are two actual meet-cutes. There's no hint we're dealing with a threat from beyond until at least fifteen minutes in. Some of the stuff is necessary because it introduces the characters but it could stand to be tightened up, like the shots of the empty streets. If that was intended as some kind of fake-out to make the audience think the Blob had already eaten the town, it didn't work.

*There's a subplot involving the town's Catholic priest (at least I think he's supposed to be Catholic based on how he's dressed) that doesn't make a lot of sense and eats up too much screen time. Not going to go into detail for possible spoiler reasons, but his Biblical interpretations and later actions sound more like an End Times enthusiast Protestant, not a Catholic.

The Verdict

Well-made and definitely worth a watch. 8.5 out of 10.