Tuesday, June 28, 2011

I've Been Diced! episode 18: Twilight Imperium

Ever wanted to play Twilight Imperium? We dedicate this episode to you. Tom, Paul, and Scott give an overview of the game for beginners, with a summary of the core mechanics, tips for beginners, and even a few strategy suggestions. We've finished sessions of Twilight Imperium on a weeknight (really!), so why not you? Plus, the games we've been playing, and a run-down of some notable "great sweep of galactic history" games like Twilight Imperium.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Civil War, day by day, and our perception of history

One of my favorite iPad apps is The Civil War Today, the History Channel's day-by-day accounting of what happened 150 years ago. It's not the typical "This day in history" app, which is usually forgettable. In fact, The Civil War Today is not only memorable, but in its own way, surprisingly profound.

Every day, there's a relatively small amount of information, but very well-selected. There's a top news story, a few photos, the current casualty numbers, a few contemporary maps, a feature story, and excerpts from the lives of the famous (for instance, selections from Lincoln's daily correspondence) and the unknown (for example, John Beauchamp Jones' diary of his life as a Confederate War Department clerk who saw Jefferson Davis on a regular basis).

Day by day, the details accumulate. John Beauchamp Jones marvels at how much paperwork is piling up, in an infant government that just bawled out its secession. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Roger Taney, declares that the president has no right to suspend habeas corpus. General Benjamin Butler declares slaves to be contraband, freeing him from any obligation to return escaped slaves to their former owners.

In other words, the app provides an experience of Civil War history that you don't get from even the best books, a medium in which you look backwards in toto. It's hard for historians to make it seem as though the conclusion is already decided, which is why there's always a brisk interest in any counterfactual history or historical fiction that seems credible.

The Civil War Today is a completely different medium that avoids this problem. Events don't seem terribly connected with each other. Was Butler's controversial "contraband" policy going to create trouble for other Union civilian and military leaders? Once the Union army moved south, would Taney's decision have any effect on Union generals?

At this point in the Civil War, casualties were 57 on the Northern side, and 45 on the Southern. Those numbers make it easier to understand why people on both sides were willing to believe that the war could be shorter and less bloody than it turned out to be. We can see how hard it was, from the minute and scattered details of news stories and casualty numbers and photographs of eager young men, the hungry machine of destruction that both sides were building.

The only other medium that shows the uncertainties of war is wargaming. At the start of the game, you have some idea of how the war might progress (more, certainly, than did the Northern and Southern leaders at the start of the war), but the outcome is anything but predictable. You have some control over events, but a bad die roll can be as damaging as a division that gets lost in the middle of a battle, and a poor hand of event cards can be as confining as the debate between abolitionists and those who wanted just the return of the Southern states to the Union. We need to understand history as viewed forward by the participants as much as viewed backward by the historians.