Friday, January 28, 2011

Appalachia, island continent

During the late Cretaceous, shallow seas divided what is now North America into several continents. Much of the east lay on the island continent of Appalachia. Here's one map of 75 million years ago.

Here's another, drawn from National Geographic's 1993 "North America in the Age of the Dinosaurs" map. It's in their print map collection under North & South America, here.

Paleontology of North America has some other world maps, including the Cretaceous. There are no dinosaur fossils from Kentucky in this period, but a few plant fossils. The Cretaceous saw ammonites and mosasaurs along the coast, flowering plants like willow and walnut in Illinois and Sequoia in Virginia, hadrosaurs in Missouri, New Jersey, and Tennessee, the sauropod Astrodon in Maryland, and Pteradon in Delaware. Fossil hunting in New Jersey was particularly important in the early history of paleontology, since the state from 1858 yielded the first nearly-complete dinosaur fossils from North America: the duck-billed Hadrosaurus and the tyrannosaurid Dryptosaurus (1, 2, 3)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Thieves' House

It may be that Fritz Leiber's stories about Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were the origin of the thieves' guild trope. In any case, the Thieves' Guild of Lankhmar is a great adversary to these characters. A close reading of the stories can suggest some details about their headquarters, though perhaps fewer than a building from a movie such as the "Night of the Living Dead" farmhouse.

"Thieves' House" is chronologically later but the first published of the stories, from 1943. Thieves' House lies on Cheap Street, an empty alleyway. Its door is always open, its entry is lit by torches, but such false hospitality only heightens the foreboding of the place. The thieves on watch signal warnings with ominous whistles. Immediately inside the entrance, a shaft stretches up so thieves can attack intruders from the ceiling, and trapdoors in the floor allow thieves to surprise foes from below. Accessible from the entry corridor is a winding stairway leading up. On the second level of the building, the stairway opens onto a chamber lined with curtained alcoves. One of these alcoves has a secret stone door leading to a safehouse outside the building.

This alcove-lined room is the main setting for much of the story's action, since it is here that the Master of Thieves first examines the great treasure. From here, Fafhrd and the Mouser speed through mazy corridors, up and down several stairways, to egress through the roof or to deep cellars accessible only through ancient, forgotten stairs and passages lined with spring-blade traps.

"Ill Met in Lankhmar", published in 1970 and winning the Nebula and Hugo awards, revisits Thieves' House and its ever-open portal on Cheap Street. Fafhrd and the Mouser disguise themselves as beggars to infiltrate the building, since the Beggarmasters of the Beggars' Guild report to the Thieves' Guild. The front doorway is very low, since a niche is hidden above it on the inside from which two hidden guards may attack intruders. The front door opens into a corridor lined with four doors: three open into training rooms for thiefly skills such as lockpicking, pickpocketing, and dodging artfully, while a fourth opens into a dining hall. At the end of the corridor, a stairway winds up with curving balustrade.

On second story stretches a corridor identical to that of the first floor, except for its luxurious appointment, lined with seven doors. The first room contains costumes, wigs, and equipment for disguises. The next four doors are shut. The sixth door opens into a map room with a round meeting table and seven chairs, as well as numerous models of Lankhmart buildings. The seventh room contains the eldritch equipment and workspace of a felonious sorcerer and his imp.

Past the second floor, the winding stair continues up two more stories past two more empty corridors. On the fourth floor, a portable ladder leads up to a hatch in the ceiling leading onto the slate roof. A guard is posted below the hatch, and a thief on the roof passes signals to distant buildings with the light from a lantern.

These descriptions do contradict somewhat; in one, the characters go up the stairs to find a corridor, and in the other, they find a room. However, "Thieves' House" makes it clear that the building is rife with secret doors, traps, and secret passages unknown even to its residents. Perhaps such a secret door sometimes conceals the second-floor corridor or room.

Games to Try

Last August, during my GenCon recap, I expressed some nostalgia for the old hex-and-counter conflict simulation wargames from Avalon Hill, SPI, and other companies that I remember seeing, but never getting a chance to play before they largely faded away. I've spent a couple days trolling through Board Game Geek and elsewhere exploring this subject, and have happened on a couple of games that I'd really like to try.

"Hammer of the Scots" (2002, Columbia Games)(img) is a block wargame that explores the Wars of Scottish Independence, which simulates a fog of war in a manner reminiscent of "Stratego". It seems to be well-regarded, covers an interesting topic, and hopefully looks enough like a Euro-style game that I may be able to rope some family into playing. Unfortunately, it's a two-player game; I suspect that part of the reason so many interesting games get played so rarely is that they're very particular about the number of people who may participate in what is an inherently social activity.

"Age of Napoleon" (2003, Mayfair Games)(video) is a grand strategy game overviewing the Napoleonic wars from 1805 to 1815, with a counters and a card-driven system to represent combat events and shifting diplomacy. It seems like a game I'd enjoy at the same level I enjoyed "Axis & Allies" back in the day, with a history theme I have a nascent and developing interest in, an interesting representation of the vagaries of diplomacy, and grand-strategy-level play light enough to play in an afternoon or evening. Sadly, it is also only a two-player game.

Battle Cry (2000, 2010, AH/WotC) spawned the Commands and Colors system that drives several popular history- and fantasy-themed strategy games. These games, like Command and Colors: Ancients (2006, GMT Games) seem to be very popular and fun, but more game-y than simulationist. I'm a little burned out on WWII and fantasy battle games, and would like a more hardcore take on ancient and American Civil War combat, but this is probably a good game to get, anyway: there's a sesquicentennial coming on, and my interest in the Civil War will likely be high for some time. A game-y system is more likely to attract players, and the 150th anniversary edition includes a lot of battles from the western front important to the Ohio River Valley (Fort Donelson, Perryville) that receive scant attention from wargames.

Entdecker: Exploring New Horizons (2001, Mayfair) is a prequel to "Settlers of Cataan" by the same designer, which uses tile placement to represent the exploration of an archipelago and create territory to be claimed by the players. My family enjoys playing Cataan and Carcassone a lot, so this game may garner some similar interest while being a nice change of pace from those games. It's also the first multiplayer game on this list. =/ There's also a bunch of children's games, like "LEGO Minotaurus", "Max", and "Blokus", that may be a worthy step up from "Candyland".

But I started all this by looking into what historical wargames people are playing these days. Going through all these games, I've started to turn against some of the games like C&C:A that make compromises with historical accuracy for better gameplay; Who wants to play a historical wargame if it doesn't accurately represent the personalities of individual Roman commanders or the interaction of rampaging elephants with pre-Marian legions at Cannae? Terribly unbalanced scenarios, stacks of chits, and endless consultation of combat results tables are a small price to pay for the historic verisimilitude only an old-school hex-and-counter game are supposed to provide!

So perhaps for ancient-era wargames something like SPQR Deluxe (1992, 2008, GMT Games)(img) might be the way to go. It covers most of the Punic Wars and several battles through the Roman Republic era. And ancient tactics are kind of interesting; the way units are laid out in lines and blocks is kind of "chess-y".

A better idea to dip toes in this water might be to try one of the old free or introductory low-complexity wargames, like "Battle for Moscow" (1986, GDW; 2009, VPG)(img) or "Napoleon at Waterloo", an introductory game put out in 1971 by SGI before it was acquired by TSR, and now freely available.. The NAW system was the basis for "Blue & Gray" (1975, SPI; DG), a relatively lightweight Civil War wargame, as well as Napoleonic games. "Battle of Honey Springs" (2007, LPD) is another free introductory print-and-play wargame that cover most important ACW battles in Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. And if ~that~ is any fun, then try to something newer like "Three Battles of Manassas", Perryville, or other series (1, 2, 3) before considering a monster game like "Three Days at Gettysburg".