OSS Games Celebrating Launch of ARES Magazine First Issue



Mission Viejo, California (April 17, 2014) – One Small Step Games announced a contest to give away a free copy of SPI’s vintage Ares Magazine signed by bestselling science-fiction author Timothy Zahn, who wrote a short story featured in the 1983 issue.

The contest coincides with the premiere of the first issue of OSS Games’ Ares Magazine, which shares the same name as the vintage 1980s publication but proclaims a new vision—one updated and streamlined for today’s reader and tabletop gamer. The first issue of the science fiction magazine with a standalone tabletop board game in each issue comes out next month.

“Many of those who have shown support for our venture have fond memories of the SPI magazine,” says OSS Games owner and Editor-in-Chief Michael Anderson. “This contest is a way of both honoring the past as well as celebrating our vision for the future.”

The contest features issue #13 of the vintage science fiction and gaming magazine that was published in the early 1980s by SPI, a popular game publisher at the time. Zahn’s short story, “Damocles Mission,” appears in that issue.

Damocles Mission Countersheet

The six-week contest runs through May 31, culminating in a drawing for the autographed copy on June 1. People can increase their chance of winning through options like posting about the contest on social media and referring others to the contest. Subscribers to Ares Magazine, which launched after its successful Kickstarter in January, get an additional chance to win.

While Anderson appreciates the nostalgia for the vintage magazine, he is looking forward to getting his own magazine into the hands of subscribers.  The first issue features nine original science fiction and fantasy stories, an interview with game designer and author Bruce Cordell, and an article on singularity written by best-selling science fiction author William H. Keith (who also writes under the pseudonyms Ian Douglas and H.J. Ryker).

The issue also includes Bill Banks’ War of the Worlds, a two-player game of conquest and survival that pits the military forces of Queen Victoria against Martian forces under the command of the evil Martian overlord. The game also includes a rule book, die-cut playing pieces, and a large map.

“All of that wrapped up and delivered to subscribers next month,” says Anderson.

Contest information, rules and the online entry form are on the website of Ares Magazine. To enter the contest, go to http://aresmagazine.com/?page_id=364. To subscribe to Ares, go to http://ossgamescart.com.


One Small Step Games has been around since 1996 and has published dozens of games, including designs from Bill Banks, Dan Verssen, Joseph  Miranda, and Richard Berg. More information is available at www.ossgames.com.


OSS Games website:  www.ossgames.com
Ares Magazine website: www.aresmagazine.com
Inquires/Press: rules@ossgames.com
OSS Games Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/OSSGames
Ares Magazine Facebook: www.facebook.com/AresMagazine
Twitter: @AresMagazine www.twitter.com/AresMagazine

Short Review: Inferno 2, Escape from Hell by Larry Niven

Escape from Hell (Inferno, #2)Escape from Hell by Larry Niven
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m not given to being a big fan of sequels for sequels’ sake, but as I had some distant memory of enjoying the previous book in this sequence some 20 years ago (!), I thought why not, it’s in the library. (Spoilers) If you remember the previous work, Inferno, the protagonist, Allan Carpentier (aka Carpenter), a somewhat down at his heels Science Fiction writer, dies in a very preventable, stupid accident while he was drunk. He wakes up in the vestibule of Dante’s Inferno. That’s right, the one with the nine circles. His guide is memory of Dante’s poem and Benito Mussolini, who is redeeming himself by guiding souls out of hell. I don’t want to get into the particulars of the previous book– it was light, it was fun. The theme was a rationalist (Carpentier) trying to explain a very supernatural version of Hell and not coming a suitable explanation beyond “This must be a giant theme park being put on by aliens for their own twisted amusement”. At the end of Inferno, no great spoiler, Benito escapes and Allan seeks to redeem himself further by trying to rescue souls from Hell. Which leads us to this book, which begins almost directly after the previous, in the Vestibule area of Hell. Allan begins trying to prove to himself that this medieval conception of Hell is fundamentally unjust and that everyone in it should theoretically be able to escape like Benito. The thing is most people he encounters don’t want to risk their little petty sinecures in Hell to even consider leaving. Carpenter meets Rosemary, a New Orleans prosecutor who stays with him until he reaches the Great City of Dis, then she takes a job with the Infernal prosecutor’s office. Much of the book is taken up with the protagonist replaying the same scenes of the previous book, but with a refined viewpoint of Hell and the reason for why he is there. After Dis, he finds himself in the wood of the Suicides, where he encounters Sylvia Plath, who becomes his primary companion and motivation for the rest of the novel. The plotting is somewhat patchy in spots, but added new elements I personally liked. The reaction of Allan Carpentier (who died in 1974) to events like 9/11, and suicide bombers, and laptops and the internet is pretty amusing. The first INFERNO was definitely light fare for Niven. The sequel has a much harder, almost bitter edge to the humor and social commentary– aside from the classic “is it just for a finite life to earn infinite punishment, even when they repent?”, there were some interesting interpretations of sins and some very unlikely sinners that appear as fellow travelers for Carpentier. I liked the previous Inferno for the Science Fiction interpretation of Hell, but I found myself liking this one more. Perhaps the characters were less two dimensional than the previous work, or perhaps I thought the story had more depth. In any event, Escape from Hell is a good read, still pretty light for a hard space writer like Niven, but sufficient to be entertaining and very engaging. I think I finished it in two days.

View all my reviews

On the Bad Vicarage, by Frank Key, read by Walter O’Hara

Read by.. me! (repost from Airy Persiflage)

“The vicarage is bad indeed, as bad as any vicarage in Christendom. But the vicar whose sinecure it is is, shall we say, a fair to middling vicar. I would not call him good, but he is by no means as bad as the Bad Vicar of old.”

Click on the picture to go to Airy Persiflage

Not for the faint of heart, Mr. Key’s spine tingling tale of a monstrous vicar of old and the evil that he wrought!

It was high time we did a Frank Key piece here, and this tickled my fancy when it was written two years ago.

To Listen:

(If this does not play quickly or hangs up, click on the picture of the vicar above and go to Aery Persiflage for the original recording.

Visit Hooting Yard for the originals..

An old dog tries out Mutant Future, by Goblinoid Games

My friends and I played the early versions of TSR’s  GAMMA WORLD and METAMORPHOSIS ALPHA to death when we were kids– generating tons of campaign material some of the most memorable games ever.  These early SF role-playing games had lots of things going for them– none of the minutiae associated with D&D but roughly the same structure we were already familiar with and a conversely lots more open ended than their older brother, D&D.  Sadly GW and MA went by the wayside as I got older and my RPG group kind of drifted apart.

With the advent of the Internet and streaming cameras, Google Hangouts and a decent webcam and Mic, much of the problems of distance and time that drive someone out of roleplaying are solved. I have written about my adventures trying something new with remote play of RPGs before with a RPG called Labyrinth Lord from Goblinoid Games.  LL is a fairly obvious D&D clone that harkens back to a time when TSR/Wizards of the Coast allowed for outside development by putting D&D out as an open license.  The result was a multitude of RPG games similar to Labyrinth Lord– the most famous being Pathfinder.   Mutant Future was Goblinoid’s second product.  To say it’s “just a Gamma World clone” is perhaps overstating it.. the mechanics of GW were not released under open license, after all.  So Mutant Future is essentially a post-apocalyptic RPG skin of Laybrinth Lord, which is based on the D&D license.  With that stated up front.. yeah, it’s a lot like Gamma World.

Lone mountain bunker, where the adventure starts

We played members of a village called Lone Mountain, which is built around some ancient bunkers that still have a few tech items left from the pre-apocalypse days. The Eldars are concerned about the encroachments from the outside and sent out a scouting party that never returned. The preliminary returns from the reconnaissance brought back the map fragment you see above. We were sent out to determine who lives around us and to assess the threat situation more accurately.

My character was a mental mutant with four mental mutations, only one of which appears to be much use:

Larc Killstrike

Larc is a dark-visaged youth, in his early 20s who is apparently human, but for some reason he exudes a sort of anti-charisma not usually associated with humans. His negative empathy generation has caused him to grow increasingly paranoid and defensive as he has gotten older. As he spends a lot of time alone, he talks to himself a lot and he frequently fidgets. He favors dark colors– another culture might accuse him of being “goth”.

STR — 17 +2 mod TH, DMG, Door
DEX — 12 0 Mod
CON — 13 0 mod
INT — 13 +5%
WIS — 12
CHA — 13 -1 RA, 5 Ret 8 RM
58 HPS

Mutations: 1D4
Mental Mutant

1) Vampiric Field
2) Negative Empathy
3) Neural Telepathy
4) Metaconcert

110 GP starter


2 Ball Bearings

 L Crossbow 17 GP
+ 20 quarrels 1d6 dmg
Longsword 10 GP 1d8 dmg
studded Leather Armor 30GP
Shield 10GP
- clothes
- small items
- bedroll & blanket attached
- rope wrapped around
- mushrooms

Unless stipulated, in pack:
Bedroll 1 sp
Blanket, winter 5 sp
Crowbar 2GP
Flint Steel 2GP
pole 10 ft 2 sp
lantern 9GP
rope 10GP
9 days trail rations at 5GP
Waterskin 1GP

=102 GP
8 left

Vampiric Field This mutation grants the mutant the ability to absorb the life essence (hit points) from all creatures (friend or foe) within a foot radius equal to 30+WIL. This power absorbs 2d4 hp per round from all creatures in the radius, and these absorbed points go into a separate reserve for the mutant. All damage to the mutant is taken from these reserved points until they are gone; after this point the mutant’s regular hp begin to be affected. Stored hp will disappear after 24 hours.

Negative Empathy The mutant sends out waves of negative mental energy, causing anyone with less than 17 Intelligence within a 90’  radius to have a 15% probability of attacking the mutant.  Only one check is necessary per person until they leave the field and reenter it.

Neural Telepathy Using this ability, the mutant can connect his mind with another creature’s mind and communicate directly, even if the two creatures speak completely different languages or are of different species. The range of this ability is 30 feet.

Metaconcert This ability allows the mutant to link its mind with other
mutants of a similar type or those who have the same mental mutation. These include those with the Metaconcert mutation, or other mental mutations that facilitate control between the minds of two beings. The
mutant may combine his WIL with the WIL of other mutants for conducting a mental attack, or some other joint  purpose.?

That’s right.  I’m playing a guy named Larc Killstrike who essentially can leach the vitality out of everyone in the room and automatically makes stupid people hate him.  This is going to be hilarious.  I’m playing him as shy and kind of anti-social, as he would be very self conscious of the hostility he creates just by walking into a room.  Fortunately our “Mutant Master” (GM) ruled that the party members know Larc and are used to him by now.    Of these mutations, Neural Telepathy came in handy (once) and I never used the Vampiric Leech thing.  Metaconcert seems nice in theory but really I’m not sure what we could use it with.  I have nothing that really “Attacks” mentally– and I don’t think any of the party members do either.

Our party headed toward the river (see map above), discovering some delicious truffle mushrooms on the way.   They turned out to be edible so I filled my pack with them.

We avoided an encounter with some cubs of a really awful monster called a vile slasher or something like that.  Sadly when we went north to the next riverside hex and tried to cross, one of our guys (Johnny Walker) got shreddded by mutated piranha fish.   We fished our volunteer out and headed north some more.. only to discover a group of friendly little pig men called the Suidioi or something like that.  Fortunately they were telepathic and we conversed easily– it helps to have telepathy.  They were a nice bunch.  I tried not to think of bacon too much.  We did some trading and one of our guys got a chain mail outfit out of it.    They turned us on to a building “that was very dangerous and had led to the death of many suidioi” or something like that.

where we were by the end of the night.. Southern edge of the lake in the north end of the map.

There’s also a lake with a human-ish village North of the drawing up top.  We got to the location of the single building and encountered a compound of sorts, with a large “box on treads” patrol in a very predictable path around it.  I tried to break into guard shack but failed twice, making too much racket and attracting the attention of the box.  I ran for it and it went back to patrolling.  The other guys did a circuit around the building to map it out for us.  When we got back together (behind the dumpsters in the drawing below) we called it a night.

The Compound, end of session. Yes, as you can see we had quite a crowd.

This game went well. It definitely had that old Gamma World, “exploring in the ruins of the ancients” without a lot of the paperwork modern games put you through feel to it. The GM, Eric, is a good referee, funny, and he admits when he doesn’t know something, and is creative enough to improvise as we move along. I’ve gamed with these guys (remotely) before, or at least many of them, and they are a good bunch. Technically I was beset by some problems. I got the impression that SOME people heard me over the mic and some didn’t. I think the problem came from RollD20 (the app about which I’ve spoken before– it allows you to run a RPG game over a browser) taking control of my mic when I was already using Google Hangouts to communicate– then when I muted it on RollD20 nobody seemed to hear me. Stuff happens. I communicated as best I could.

I’ll definitely play Mutant Future again. It’s a real blast from the past. I’m liking Goblinoid Games more and more these days.


Short Review: The Steel Remains by Richard K. Morgan

The Steel Remains (A Land Fit for Heroes, #1)The Steel Remains by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Steel Remains is a book I’ve been meaning to get around to for a while.. it’s been staring at me on my Ipad for about a year without me cracking it open. I’ve been a fan of Joe Abercrombie for about three years now, and his gritty, realistic hardboiled fantasy introduced in the First Law trilogy, so I was hoping for a new series similar to that one. Richard Morgan is an author that I’m familiar with, having read Altered Carbon and tried to start Market Forces for a Goodreads book club but failed miserably. I like Richard Morgan’s style, too, and discovered he is quite capable of lending his sparse, hard boiled prose style to an epic fantasy setting. How well does he execute this transposition? Well, it’s a mixed bag, really. The Steel Remains takes place in a world that is recovering from a cataclysmic war with some Reptilian race that featured Lizardmen and apparently dragons. I liked that the story starts at least 15 years after the big “Epic Event”.. imagine a Lord of the Rings novel taking place 20 years after the One Ring was destroyed. The story is told through the primary POV characters Ringel, Archeth and Egon, all of whom were heroes of the previous war. Egon (Dragonbane) is a doughty Viking-like northman who has become to urbanized for the tribe he has returned to after the wars. Archeth (Lady kir-Archeth Indamaninarmal) is your elf-standin from the Elf-Standins in this novel, the Kiriath, who have “departed these lands” after the end of the last big war (does that sound familiar, Tolkien fans?). And the PRIMARY focus of the plot is on one Ringil Eskiath, the tough as nails warrior type and anti-hero who did something big and impressive at a place called Gallows Gap during the big war. Right up front, it’s clear, Ringil is gay, and that’s a huge driver in his character. Ringil lives in a world that isn’t very live and let live about homosexuality. Much of his plot line is influenced by societal rejection of Ringil, and society’s grudging respect for his battlefield prowess. The plot was a lot of stuff we’ve seen before in fantasy.. an ancient race called the Dwenda returning to reclaim their world. The Kiriath, their ancient enemies, have long departed these shores. Predictions of dark lords rising, etc. Morgan really amps up scenes to “Noir up” his fantasy, including explicit gay sex scenes told in explicit detail and a very modern argot that I found more off-putting than any sexual references. The casual use of “Fuck” and “Yeah” and other linguistic 20th century speech nuggets took me out of the setting.. frequently. Not a terrible sin. After all, Joe Abercrombie can sling the F-bomb on occasion too, and I love his work.

In general, the plot is decent enough, and I won’t dispute that Morgan is a good writer in the SF genre, at least. The Steel Remains reminded me of a SF novel full of genre archtypes putting on a fantasy costume. Mysterious demigods or demons. Hardbitten heroes.. we’ve kind of seen this before. Maybe Morgan intent was to play with the genre a little and experiment. I liked it enough to try more in this series, but it’s nowhere near as good as Joe Abercrombie’s novels. I’ll give it a solid mezzo-mezzo.

View all my reviews

Ancients (Freeware Ed) as an Epub, in Digital Rules

Click on the cover to go to the Digital Rules page

Correction:  Ancients isn’t freeware after all.  Had to take it down, ONE SMALL STEP complained..

Howdy!  Many years ago, Bill Banks published a tidy little boardgame focused on Ancient warfare.  It was called “Ancients” and came in multiple editions– the basic edition, edition 2 that added naval rules, a third edition and a combined 4th edition.  3w imploded many years ago, and when the rights reverted back to Bill, he very generously offered them up as freeware.  For many years the files for Ancients were hosted on Mike Nagel’s excellent Relative Range site.  They were recently taken down, possibly to avoid confusion with his game Ancient Battles, which is being published by VPG.

Anyway, I have just converted the entire package (sans maps and counters) to EPUB format.  This includes the rules, the naval rules, the scenarios for both land and sea.  It’s a pretty big EPUB file compared to most of the ones I’ve posted so far, but it does have dozens of ancient battle scenarios included.




WARLORD Soldiers and Strategy

WARLORD Soldiers and Strategy

You knew it had to happen sooner or later.

Emphasizing the story aspect of wargames

Conflict goes hand in hand with drama; and military conflict generates dramatic moments by the bushel load.  Very rarely are games presented as stories; as players, we tend to get caught up with either the history as it really was or the tactics of the situation we are in, or the mechanics of the game simulating the event.  There are all kinds of players out there.  One kind that I admire is the kind that can recognize the story aspect of a game and does what he or she can to try to communicate that to you in some fashion.  Like “Stuka Joe”, for instance.  Whomever that is.  Check out his video of a recent B-17: Queen of the Skies game.  Joe invested in a component upgrade and took pains to give the game a multilayered three dimensional look– and shot the event as a dramatic narrative instead of a series of dice roles (which is mostly what B-17 is– looking things up on a table and rolling a number of D6s).  Dice rolls aren’t even mentioned, just the results.  The result is a fun, dramatic narrative as “Diamond Lucy” makes her second trip over the skies of Occupied Europe.

I particularly liked the idea of inserting the faces of people the author knows as crew members on the “Diamond Lucy”, instead of just a nameless Ball Gunner, Tail Gunner, Flight Engineer, etc. Nice touch!


How they come up with these results is beyond me.

The Draco Tavern by Larry Niven, a review

The Draco TavernThe Draco Tavern by Larry Niven
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Draco Tavern is Larry Niven’s version of the “Space Bar” trope of science fiction. The main star is the setting; a nexus where alien species of a startling variety come together to interact and tell stories, and short stories ensue. The Space Bar isn’t startlingly original as a literary idea; Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon and Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grille, and earlier, Tales From The White Hart could lay claim to exploring the concept before the publication of The Draco Tavern, though Larry Niven has been writing these stories in the Tavern setting for quite a while.

Perhaps the core concept isn’t original, but unlike those other collections, Niven has invested a lot of creativity and thought about the setting and universe surrounding the Draco Tavern, and he really seems to be having fun with the alien species in particular. Almost every one of the short stories centers around the humans (often just the bartender/narrator, Rick Schuman) encountering some nugget of truth about life by interacting with a race of beings that does something entirely differently and is shocked or amused with homo sapiens and their quirky ways. It’s a good theme; and the deeper theme of acceptance and good natured hospitality instead of xenophobia is a timely one these days.

Stories in the Collection:

“The Subject is Closed”
“Grammar Lesson”
“Assimilating Our Culture, That’s What They’re Doing”
“The Schumann Computer”
“The Green Marauder”
“The Real Thing”
“War Movie”
“Table Manners”
“One Night at the Draco Tavern”
“The Heights”
“The Wisdom of Demons”
“Smut Talk”
“Ssoroghod’s People”
“The Missing Mass”
“The Convergence of the Old Mind”
“The Death Addict”
“Storm Front”
“The Slow Ones”
“Cruel and Unusual”
“The Ones Who Stay Home”
“Breeding Maze”
“Losing Mars”
“Playground Earth”

Of these I rather liked The Wisdom of Demons, The Green Marauder (which posits the existence of a predecessor to humanity that lived on the pre-oxygen Earth), and The Schuman Computer (where the narrator builds a super computer that grows so powerful it gets bored with helping humanity…)

In summary, The Draco Tavern isn’t Niven’s greatest work, and maybe not even his best collection of short stories. I liked his milieu quite a bit and found the alien overlords (the bemused, 11 feet tall “Chirpsithra”, which look like kind of like willowy lobsters) very entertainingly written. This collection isn’t Ringworld, or even close, but it is worth a read for Niven fans. I found the stories a bit abrupt and even a little preachy at times. The reader is often left in a position to draw his own conclusions as the story abruptly ends. That can be a little jarring from time to time.

View all my reviews



Mission Viejo, California (March 26, 2014) – The last day to enter One Small Step Games Tabletop Day Contest isFriday, March 28.

The three week contest, which began March 7, celebrates gaming and International Tabletop Day’s worldwide effort to promote gaming and connect fans and publishers.

When someone enters, they get to choose from a list of seven OSS Games. The first six are sets of Millennium Wars, a strategic-level, two-player simulation of possible current and near-future conflicts including Ukraine, Iraq, Kashmir, Air War, Korea and America. Entrants can also choose the notorious Politics as Usual, a wild, multiplayer card game that lets players run the campaigns of their favorite candidates in a bid for the White House.

Winners will be chosen on Saturday, March 29. One winner of a Millennium Wars title will receive theMillennium Wars: Six-Pack, all six games in one package. Up to 10 winners of a Politics as Usual game will also receive a Politics as Usual—Unusual Suspect Expansion set.

For every 50 entrants, OSS Games is giving away one game. People can enter the contest up to four times through options like posting about the contest on social media and referring others to the contest. Subscribers to Ares Magazine, OSS Games’ latest project which launched after its successful Kickstarter in January, get an additional chance to enter.

Contest information, rules and the online entry form are on the website of Ares Magazine. To enter the contest, go to http://aresmagazine.com/?page_id=341.


One Small Step Games has been around since 1996 and has published dozens of games, including designs from Bill Banks, Dan Verssen, Joseph Miranda, and Richard Berg. More information is available atwww.ossgames.com.


OSS Games website:  www.ossgames.com
Ares Magazine website: www.aresmagazine.com
Inquires/Press: rules@ossgames.com
OSS Games Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/OSSGames
Ares Magazine Facebook: www.facebook.com/AresMagazine
Twitter: @AresMagazine www.twitter.com/AresMagazine

Quadrotor Hijinx

It was a nice day, so we pulled out the Quadrotor and practiced flying.

Watch this space; we’ll figure out the camera, too.


I’m sure there are honest Kickstarter promotions..

The thing is, I’m one of those naive UP FRONT backers on Kickstarters. It’s totally on track with that comment about empty promises and lots of G-D D-mned emails. So I don’t want to be cruel or anything, but this is funny!

Olympica added to the Digital Rules Library

Long term readers know that I’m a bit of a fan of old Metagaming Microgames from the early 1980s, and particularly the seventh microgame, OLYMPICA, a tense and fun game of combat on the Martian surface.   I’ve certainly posted on the topic before and I have tried converting this game to miniatures.  In general, I liked the result, though  I admit I’m still not satisfied with that conversion, so you might be seeing more posts about that subject in the future.

Olympica Cover. CLICK the picture to visit the DIgital Rules section, under “Commercial, Out of Print”

Since I had an involuntary snow day Monday (along with a lot of other people on the East Coast), I decided to port Olympica to the Ipad as an Epub file.  I like EPUB as a format for low-complexity games over PDF as the footprint is much smaller and it works on a wide range of devices.

I don’t plan on doing many more Metagaming conversions to epub (see previous posts on WarpWar, Melee, and Wizard..) because there aren’t many more I want to make an effort over (possibly, I might do ICE WAR at some point), and I don’t just want to concentrate on formerly commercial products– it would be too easy to trample someone’s property that way.  Still, Oly is a favorite of mine, so I had to do at least one more!

It took a little effort.  My PDF scan of the old rulebook was as good as I could make it– meaning the 1982 era typeface, being a bit faded, smudged and wrinkled in places, didn’t always scan well.  When I ran OCR using Adobe Pro, I created dozens of “styles” from the bad images. Also, tons of badly OCR’d words. I tried to convert ALL of the style sheet references by hand, and that did exactly nothing to the look and feel of the document.  Oh well, more to learn.  I ended up pasting sections into notepad in Windows, pasting it back into SIGIL and fixing the inevitable OCR errors one by one, section by section.  It wasn’t hideously tedious, but it took some time. THEN I went and killed the  confusing stylesheet and replaced it with a “plain vanilla” one I have used for an earlier conversion. That worked fine! So the final product (as of last night, 3/17) looks pretty good, font-wise, but might have one or two misspelled words that I missed here and there. So it goes– it’s a pretty good conversion for all of that.

In sum, If you want to read Olympica on your tablet, Kindle or Nook, here it is as an EPUB file (or click on the Olympica Cover above).  It’s on the Digital Rules Page, as usual.

If you want to peek in on the Olympica Miniatures Game Project, look at these two posts:

The Many, Many Sins Against History in “300: Rise of an Empire”

300: Rise of the Empire: Clio, the muse of history, stifles her outrage.  WARNING: the following is FULL OF SPOILERS! 

Be sure to read: The 300 sequel is Zack Snyder’s greatest  intellectual masterpiece by Analee Nevitz at Io9 for undiluted snarky joy!!

Themistocles: an oily, muscled version. There’s a lot of that in this flick.

For the record, I’m not one of those guys.  You know the type.  If the uniform facing colors are wrong in a historical movie, than of course the whole experienced is ruined? You know the guy, right?

Honest, I’m not that guy.

I realize a movie’s primary function is to entertain.  Seven years ago I did NOT walk into a darkened theater to watch this film’s predecessor (300) and expect that I was going to watch the cinematic equivalent of reading Herodotus.  That movie did not disappoint– it was a rip-snorter, full of odd, tortured imagery, a world where 300 thong-wearing, oily Spartans with chiseled pectoral muscles could hold off a Persian Army reputed to be one million strong (poppycock.. but more on that later).  300′s unique visual look to the story was due in great part to its source material, namely 300, the graphic novel by Frank Miller.   300, in part, draws from Herodotus’ The Histories as well as an earlier motion picture entitled The 300 Spartans.   A movie about a comic book and another movie, then.  300′s unique visuals– with its attendant monsters, freaks of nature, and armored war-rhinos, were explained (by Miller) as a visualization of “the Persian Behemoth” as the Greeks saw it at the time.  If you activate Miller’s filter in your brain, you can enjoy 300 for what it is, which is a movie made from a graphic novel, NOT history.  For me, 300 is a movie that is kinda hard not to like– Gerard Butler’s magnificent scenery chewing lit up the movie and makes it a guilty pleasure to this day.

So what about 300: Rise of an Empire, then?

I’ll admit it up front, since it will sound embarrassing later.   I really wanted to see 300: Rise of an Empire for a few reasons.  Paradoxically, since I know better, most of those reasons were historical in nature.  300RoaE, you see, “historically” depicts events in a space and time that is sometimes concurrent with 300, roughly speaking, and then it explains what happens directly after the earlier movie.   The subject at hand is the great naval battle of Salamis, and I presume its prequel, Artemisium.  Only Salamis is named.  While Thermopylae, the famous standoff depicted in the film 300, was occurring, the naval Battle of Artemisium was also occurring.  Historically, the Greeks lost half as many ships and men as the Persians, but that hardly mattered, so it was a “stalemate” battle.    An indeterminate amount of time later, though probably no more than a few days to a week, the naval Battle of Salamis occurred.   Both of these battles are depicted in 300RoaE.   And that’s why I bought a ticket, really.  There just aren’t that many movies featuring galley combat from the Ancient period out there, bad or good, so when they announced what this movie would be about, I was very interested.  This is a favorite time period of mine.   Imagine doing Salamis with modern CGI technology!

Uh huh. Hrm.. I really need to stop listening to myself.

It didn’t quite work out to my satisfaction, so I might as well start the histrionics and “be that guy” for a while.  Here goes:

1) Really, Gorgo? Really?   The movie starts with the redoubtable Lena Headey (Queen Gorgo of Sparta, Circe of Lannister, and grown up Sarah Connor) performing the standard expository trick as has become standard for Snyder (and now, Noam Murro).   She is standing .. somewhere.. narrating the events that have got us to this point.  Time jumps around a little, we see some 300 flashbacks, but it’s important to note that David Wenham is next to her, wearing an eyepatch, so Thermopylae has already happened.  She describes events at the great Battle of Marathon, a decade before, where the Athenian General Themistocles, seeing the Persians disembarking from their ships, pressed the attack in the center that they were not prepared for, causing them carnage, retreat, and failure.  In the process, Themistocles (in flashbacks) spots the Persian King Darius I  in a ship offshore, picks up a bow and fires an arrow at him.  The young prince present, Xerxes (with a head of hair) delivers the standard dramatic “Noooooooooooo” as it hits Darius clean amidships.  All very fine dramatic material, except it didn’t happen.  Darius I (and needless to say, a younger Xerxes) wasn’t even at the Battle of Marathon.  He delegated the seemingly minor task of wiping out those truculent Greeks to his Admiral, Datis.  No bowshot, no dramatic death, no pain-wracked tearful farewells.   Datis was allegedly one of the 6,200 Persian casualties from that battle, but even that is disputed by Herodotus, who claimed he lived afterward.   As I’ve stated, Gorgo recounts that Themistocles is the brilliant general that pushed the assault forward onto the Persians at Marathon, but that interpretation probably would have come as a surprise to Miltiades, who was actually in command at Marathon, though there are some accounts that also place Themistocles there, but not in overall command.

Did I mention that Greek Soldiers (Spartan or Athenian) looked more like THIS than bare chested, with chiseled abs and a color coded cloak (red for Spartans, blue for Athenians?)? It’s true!

2) Womanly Wiles… The movie now introduces the character of Artemisia.  For me, the Artemisia character as depicted by Eva Green, will forever make this movie a guilty pleasure– she’s a far better villain than Xerxes, and really, this movie needs some over the top action to make up for no Gerard Butler.  In the movie, Artemisia is depicted as a Greek villager whose parents were killed by Greeks, then she was kidnapped as a girl, sexually brutalized (offscreen, in flashbacks) and then discovered by none other than Peter Mensah, the nameless Persian Ambassador that got kicked down a well in 300!  Naturally he takes a shine to her, rehabilitates her, turns her into the Persian killing machine!  She becomes Darius’ right hand gal (in flashbacks), trusted general, and head-lopper. Well, that’s all well and good (if a bit trite by action movie standards), but it commits some major historical blunders.  The historical Artemisia would have been offended at this depiction– she was the daughter of the King of Halicarnassus and actual ruler of Caria (near modern Anatolia).  She took the throne after the death of her husband.  She certainly was of Greek heritage (as were a lot of people living in the Persian Empire and serving in the Imperial armies– nationalism wasn’t such a driving force then).  So.. no peasant girl, no grudge against the Greeks, per se.  The actual Artemisia was present at both Artemisium and Salamis (both depicted in the movie) but she commanded a squadron of five ships.  Artemisia was a subordinate to Xerxes, and performed her duty as she saw it, and did very well indeed– but she was not an uber-Admiral/General of the invasion force.  If anybody was, it was Ariamenes (the older brother of Xerxes) who was nominally in charge of the naval contingent and who died at Salamis, pin cushioned by Greek spears.  Artemisia comes off as a realist from what history records of her.  When Mardonius (the Persian land commander) was sent to her from Xerxes to get her opinion of committing the Persian fleet to a decisive battle against the Greeks, she responded by advising against it– as the Greeks were clearly the masters of the ocean, and the Persian naval allies (particularly the Egyptians and Cyprians) were worse than useless.  History records Xerxes’ decision, and that she did her duty to her overlord– her squadron may have sank as many as 4 galleys at Salamis.  Other than at the day of the battle, Artemisia isn’t mentioned very much in history.  She certainly was NOT the “kingmaker” she is depicted in flashbacks.  There certainly was a woman who advanced Xerxes’ as successor after Darius I died (of natural causes, not an arrow) in 486.  That was Atosa,  his mother and Darius’ widow.  A formidable woman, who, like Ariamenes, isn’t given any screen time.

Where everything was, and when it happened.

Eva Green’s depiction of Artemisia as a sadistic, power mad, head-lopping devoted follower of Xerxes (who secretly has the hots for Themistocles), while entertaining in a campy sense, is about as different from the real Artemisia as she could manage.  Eva Green can act large on screen and I appreciated her performance as “giggle-inducing”, but that’s about as far as it goes.  The real Artemisia wasn’t in charge of the naval forces (just one squadron of it), had no burning hatred of Greeks, didn’t casually lop off heads for no reason, didn’t have sex with the enemy commander (we’ll get to that), didn’t engage in epic sword duels on the ships’ deck, and had no forces of the Imperial Guard under her command– just a lot of backwater yokels who actually did very well indeed for the Persian side.

3. Our whey-faced non-hero.  And now, for Themistocles himself, the architect of Greek naval victory.  As played by Sullivan Stapleton in the film, Themistocles isn’t so much inaccurate as he is a bit of a dud.  Here is where the manic scenery chewing of Gerard Butler is missed the most.  Stapleton portrays Themistocles as a martial hero (with an inferiority complex about Spartans, apparently) and cunning strategist. The real Themistocles was both of those things, to be sure, but his character was far more complex than the blank-faced automaton given to us by Stapleton.  Themistocles was a politician by trade, a consensus builder and powerful persuader of groups.  If any one person is responsible for the Greek naval victory at Salamis, it’s Themistocles.  He not only persuaded the Athenians to build a very large fleet (by Greek standards) but he also roped in most (but not all) of the naval forces available to the Greeks to join together in an allied fleet to confront the Persians.  INCLUDING THE SPARTANS, who sent a token force of 5 ships, then demanded to be in charge!  Themistocles allowed a nominal Spartan commander (Eurybiades), understanding that even with such a weak commitment from their side, he could claim that the Spartans were with him and get even more reluctant allies to join in.  The movie shows Themistocles in the Agora one time, trying to convince the delegates from other city-states to join the defense forces, and twice trying to appeal to Gorgo for assistance (unsuccessfully each time).  Of some interest are her motivations– she doesn’t want to see a “United Greece” as a future rival for Spartan dominance.  Oddly enough, that’s exactly what happened in real history, but that was after the second Persian invasion was repelled.  My biggest problems with the filmic Themistocles were that he wasn’t nearly charming enough and just seems to going through the motions when trying to exert leadership.  His inspirational speeches were flat and unemotional and hardly inspiring.   His so called tactical genius, alluded to many times by Artemisia, was difficult to follow the way it the two great naval battles were depicted in the movie.  (shot in that by-n0w-irritating grainy film with a rainstorm to hide the CGI lines, a trick we all know from the Matrix era, thank you very much) We know a trick is being played at one point in the Battle of Artemisia, but it’s not clear what’s going on.   Sadly the Persian galleys didn’t look hugely different from the Greek ones (except bigger with more ornate prows), which led to the visual confusion.  I guess the worst part about Themistocles is that he doesn’t convince us that he is anywhere near as clever and tactically superior as his historical counterpart, although the facts of the battles aren’t grievously divergent, if you can shrug off things like Armored Tankers spewing oil and Suicide Swimmers.

What was the point of the most un-erotic sex scene ever between Themistocles and Artemisia the night before the conclusive battle?  Just to show off Eva Green’s considerable natural charms?  You’ll be shocked to discover that nothing like that ever happened, though what actually  did happen would have made a better story– the Persians made an offer to switch sides to Themistocles the night before the battle which (apparently) Themistocles convinced them that he was considering.  People switched sides a lot back then, it wasn’t such a bad tactic when you’re outnumbered 5 to 1.  The next day, the Persians were convinced there wouldn’t BE  a battle and weren’t in formation at the onset– yet the Greek fleet was already singing the mighty Paean to the gods and rowing out to meet them at top speed and in formation.  Wouldn’t THAT have made a better visual?  Come on, Hollywood!

I could go on and on about the little things I found were howlers in 300: Rise of an Empire.  I don’t think that’s much of an exercise and the movie is just too easy of a target, bloated and rotting like an apple that’s been hanging for too long on a dead branch.  I will address the worst bit– the ending.  Salamis ensues.  By this point, I was drumming my fingers.  Ships crash together.  The Persians have discovered metal SHIP ARMOR and Greek Fire.. before the Greeks did!   Wait, what?  Really?  Was the giant flame ship the naval equivalent of a the armored rhino?   Of course we have to have a stunning denouement, at which point Themistocles RIDES A HORSE from his boat to the Persian flagship (they’re all smashed together you see, and they make a wooden path right to the enemy flagship…) where of course he fights Artemisia in deadly hand to hand combat.   And wins.  Even with that small victory things look bleak for the Greeks  as they have taken so many losses.. but of course.  the curtain rises and here we find Gorgo and the Spartan fleet, rowing in to save the day.  Remember how she started the movie by providing all the background narrative?  Well, she was doing it on the deck of the Spartan flagship all along, as they were speeding in to battle to save the Allied fleet form destruction!  Of course.  Because we can’t have a movie in the 300 franchise without having SPARTANS in it, can we?  All of it is poppycock– the Spartans couldn’t come to the rescue .. they were already there (five ships worth).  They certainly wouldn’t have been led into battle by Gorgo the Warrior Queen– whose historical accomplishments were considerable, but she never led troops in any battle.

I could go on and on, but really this is a pointless exercise.   The original 300 got a lot of things wrong but I was willing to forgive most of them for reasons stated– it was a movie based upon a comic book that was about Thermopylae.  THIS movie is a movie based upon ANOTHER movie based upon a comic book which was based upon another movie.  In the original 300, I still had the impression that someone (Frank Miller, really) read an actual history book at some point in his life.  In RISE OF AN EMPIRE, not so much.   I only marginally enjoyed the movie for the non-fantastical galley fight sequences, even when they were hard to follow.  My main problem with Snyder as a visual stylist is that he insists on filming action sequences in a gray grainy haze, or pouring rain.  In reality, NO SHIP FROM EITHER SIDE would have taken to sea in those sea conditions!  They would have been swamped!

IN CONCLUSION, At best, 2 stars out of 5.  If you’re a fan of this historical period, you’ll be chewing on your beard at the mistakes, omissions and hollywood dreck that’s jammed into this film.  If you’re a fan of light hearted action pablum, you might rate it higher.

Some points to ponder, if you decide to go:

Keep in mind that the “Empire” in the title.. what does it mean?  Not the Persian empire.  It’s a reference to the (eventual) ATHENIAN empire, which was an outgrowth of the Athens-led Delian League, set up to defend greater Greece against the Persian threat.

The Persians didn’t have another cataclysmic encounter with the Greeks again.  They remained enemies, but their strategies changed after Salamis and Plataea.  The Persians recognized that they could foster the rivalry between Sparta and Athens by supporting political divisions within the alliance, and thus achieve greater security without risking their army in a third great defeat.

VERY briefly we see the greatest achievement of the whole Second Invasion happening over Xerxes shoulder in one scene– namely, bridging the Hellespont and moving his gigantic army over it to attack the Greek mainland.  By the standards of the day, this was one hell of a trick– with logistics as primitive as they were back then.  The movie could have done so much more with this!

Did you know that this was Xerxes last visit to the homeland of those troublemaking Greeks?  You see Xerxes (as portrayed by Rodrigo Santoro) trudging away “Godlike” after his fleets were defeated at Salamis.  The real Xerxes didn’t style himself as a god, by the way.  He went home to a rebellion in Egypt, then a palace coup which killed him and placed his son Ataxerxes on the throne.

Did you know that that Greek nationalist, hero and military genius Themistocles ended up disgraced, persecuted and finally on the run from his erstwhile friends and allies in Greece?  Exiling leaders who had done particularly well was part of Greek political life– early democratic systems had a distaste for leaders who were *too* popular.  Themistocles’ Spartan enemies pursued his exile to the point of mania and he ended up having to flee for his life to none other than the Persians who made him a governor of a province, where lived out the rest of his days.

The real story, the real history– was so much better than the hackneyed, action hero glop served up by 300: Rise of an Empire, it makes my brain hurt.