Each End of the Rifle

As I while away the hours until that fateful moment when my first book is finally released I still naturally have a normal life to live, though sometimes I forget. This weekend was our own Gamestorm, a very pleasant and surprisingly relaxing experience, located at the Vancouver Hilton, just across the wild Columbia river in Washington. For those who don’t know, Vancouver (known colloquially as “the ‘couv” I’m told) is a marvelously quiet, peaceful little burb just north of Portland, where folks can live in Washington (no income tax) and shop in Oregon (no sales tax). On the other hand, downtown Vancouver often feels almost deserted, and walking along its streets I sometimes feel like Charleton Heston in The Omega Man, waiting for the next mutant attack.
That aside, the con has been at the ‘Couv Hilton for years, but this was the last one, as the gathering has finally outgrown its facilities. I usually attend as a panelist and (when I can remember to register), to play a few games now and then. Gamestorm was the scene of several intensely enjoyable boardgaming and rpg sessions, and among the latter was a particularly exciting Savage Worlds session in which the players took the roles of the crew during a famous ship’s infamous last voyage (you know, that one Gordon Lightfoot sings about), where we discovered that the sinking was caused, not by a storm, but by a particularly nasty Great Old One known as the Witch of November who lurks beneath the frigid waters of Lake Superior. We managed to defeat that one at the cost of our own lives, though all the world believes that we perished in a terrible shipwreck.

Anyway, that’s beside the point. This was one of those weekends when I didn’t preregister, so I mostly worked the con as a panelist, discussing the importance of storytelling (one panelist, a designer of an especially cool-looking rpg called Spirit of ’77flat-out asked the audience “Why did Phantom Menace suck?” It was a serious question, and one that triggered some very good discussion about relatable characters, good plotting, and clear stakes, all of which were, to a greater or lesser degree, absent in the SW prequel trilogy. I also did a very large panel that was a huge game design Q&A, though when the facilitator asked us to start putting topics on Post-Its and gathering into “breakout groups” I started to wonder whether I was still at work.

As I said it was fairly low-key, and the only real game I played was a very exciting scenario of the hoary classic wargame Panzer Leaderwhich our host had designed utilizing new counters and maps that are available online for diehard grognards who don’t mind a little DIY work in their wargaming.

This scenario was set during the hypothetical 1946 invasion of Japan by the Americans, a campaign code-named Operation Olympic which, to the benefit of both sides, was never actually fought. The morality and effects of the atomic bombing of Japan are of course major controversies to this day, and I can understand the feelings expressed on both sides. Despite one’s feelings about how and why America used this terrible weapon, the fact is that it eliminated the need for a long, costly and bloody land invasion. Whether Japan might have surrendered anyway, or whether the bombs should have been dropped where they were remains a volatile and painful subject.

In any event, Dale and I faced off in a scenario from a campaign that never happened. As the Japanese player I was in command of a scratch force of poorly-trained infantry backed up by the last remnants of the empire’s artillery and armored forces. As it turns out, the Japanese did have some decent tank designs, but these were never produced in large numbers and were mostly held in reserve to defend the home islands, which is the position that I was in as defender.

The Japanese had set an ambush for an advancing Marine column — infantry and armor with air support available later in the game. Initial attacks by my artillery were ineffective, since despite Panzer Leader’s great design, its artillery rules were a bit dodgy, and probably one of the game’s weaker elements. My objective was to destroy as many American units as possible while Dale’s was to exit units off the map edge, past my blocking force. He responded to my attack by swinging half of his forces around my left flank while driving his heavy armored units into the bridged city in the center.

And it was bloody. My left flank was held mostly by the aforementioned low-grade infantry, but for the greater glory of the Empire they held out for several turns, refusing to die even when asked politely. Meanwhile my artillery finally started hitting something as I zeroed in on the vital bridges as the marines pressed across with tanks and infantry. I held my heavy armored units back, waiting for Dale to cross the bridges, and when he did, the tanks attacked, inflicting heavy casualties.

Since Dale’s big sweep had left my right flank unengaged, I quickly loaded up guns and troops onto my small remaining reserve of trucks and attempted to shift them to the left, where American Sherman’s were advancing, faced only by light, poorly armed and armored Japanese tanks. As the American advance was getting bogged down in the city, I hoped to delay Dale’s advance as long as possible and hopefully kill the 15 units that I needed for a marginal victory.

My plan was foiled by the arrival of American air power, which swooped in like bald eagles on cringing mice, blasting the trucks and their cargo and also knocking out several of my precious tanks.

We were about six turns into a 12 turn game, but we’d been playing all morning, and the next group was about to kick us off our table, so we called it at that crucial moment. It could easily have gone either way. Despite appalling losses, the Japanese were hanging in there and most of their heavy tanks were intact. Two heavy howitzers were trained on a couple of American mortars and their transport, and if I had managed to kill a mere five more units I’d have my 15. Dale, on the other hand, was in sight of the map edge with very little in the way of opposition from my left flank, north of the city. Though the Japanese had had good luck there, the battle nonetheless tied down their most capable armored elements in a struggle from which they could not afford to withdraw. Had Dale managed to slip his 10 fast-moving Shermans off the map edge before I destroyed the required five more units, he would have salvaged a marginal victory.

In the end, as it is so often when Dale and I play, we ground each other to a bloody stalemate that either of us could have won with the right die rolls. The sheer horror of the scenario, the mounting losses on both sides, and the desperation of both attacker and defender were strong reminders, even in abstract game form, of what a nightmare Operation Olympic would have been, had it actually come to pass.

And so today we carry on, playing games on boards and computers, and read of the terrors that other men and women faced while smashing the obscene travesty of fascism. I game what people lived, and the cardboard or electronic shapes that I manipulate were once human beings who lived and died so that I could be here now. And in that I was reminded very vividly, for also that weekend Beth and I went out to dinner at a pleasant Vancouver restaurant, and while on the way home spied a figure walking down the street with the aid of a white cane.

Beth offered to open the door for the man, but he smiled affably and held up a mug that said “1916”.

“See what they gave me?” he asked. His voice was still strong. “It’s my Centennial mug.”

I admired the mug and bid the gentleman good night, noticing that he had at some time sustained serious facial injuries and probably reconstructive surgery — probably why he was maneuvering with a white cane.

This man was coming home from celebrating his 100th birthday. And from his injuries I speculated that he might have been a veteran — of course I didn’t know for sure since I didn’t ask, but his age would have put him in the thick of things in the 1940s. Our interaction with him was brief but pleasant, and for some reason it made me glad I’d been there. If he wasn’t a veteran, well he was certainly a fit centenarian, and if he was… Well…

“I hate the people who start wars,” I said quietly as we walked back toward the hotel. “But the people who fight them… Well, that’s another story entirely.”

My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell
Each Christmas come since World War I I’ve learned its lessons well
That the ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame
And on each end of the rifle we’re the same.

— John McCutcheon, Christmas in the Trenches

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