Winter Offensive 2020 After Action Report

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The essence of Winter Offensive, the premier Advanced Squad Leader tournament on the East Coast, resides in the well-worn flip chart at the entrance to the convention rooms. A similar giant pad of paper has welcomed attendees for as long as I can remember. The sign is both casual and matter of fact, just like the tourney itself. There’s no pretension on display at this annual assemblage of wargamers in Bowie, Maryland; if you show up, you’re welcome, part of the gang, a member of the club. Fancy printed banners and elaborate registration procedures have no place here. There’s not an attendance lanyard or wrist band in sight, unlike just about every other gaming convention around these days. You’re on your honor to pay the registration fee, as hosts Multi-Man Publishing would rather be gaming themselves than babysitting would-be scofflaws.

Winter Offensive 2020 on Thursday

Attendance came in at 214, a record number by far, though the room didn’t seem quite so crowded on Saturday this year as last year, when table space was at an all-time premium. The threat of inclement weather on Saturday might have driven away some of those who attended on Thursday and Friday. Having all four sections of the big convention hall open from the get-go helped greatly in spreading people out, leaving the atmosphere cozy but not cramped.

Croix de Guerre counter closeup

Two ASL products made their debuts this year, the Deluxe ASL Module and the new edition of Croix de Guerre, the French extension to the game system that now includes dedicated counters for Vichy and Free French troops and Dan Dolan’s long-awaited Dinant Campaign Game. The large-format Deluxe ASL maps were much in evidence this weekend, as the new module reprints all existing DASL maps in the “new” thin-format style and includes revised editions of practically every official DASL scenario ever published.

Croix de Guerre, by contrast, didn’t seem to garner much table space, at least on my peregrinations through the room, though they were flying past the cash register. Perhaps this can be chalked up to the fact that CdG comes with eleven countersheets, all needing to be punched, corner-rounded (for those with discriminating tastes), and integrated into existing counter storage systems. It’s a monumental task, one that I, personally, decided would be better tackled at a later date. The package looks superb, with a bevy of updated scenarios, a crisp look for the French, and a meaty campaign game in the large box. There’s lot of play in that box.

My own game tally for the weekend came in at six plays: two Advanced Squad Leader scenarios and one playing each of Greenland, Pax Porfiriana, Pax Pamir (2e), and Brass: Birmingham.

Staring the festivities, I squared off against one of my oldest gaming buddies (in terms of years known, though none of us are getting any younger!), John Slotwinski. Continuing our Korean War theme from the last WO, we trotted out 210 This Is Where We Stand from Forgotten War, pitting forty-five (seriously) Chinese squads against a mere sixteen USMC squads, at night, in extreme winter, with steep hills. My troops needed to completely clear the hills of John’s Marines, and while I pushed him back a bit, he and his copious firepower outlasted my onslaught for the win. The rules overhead involved ranks as perhaps my most daunting Advanced Squad Leader experience in at least a decade, with ordinary actions, like simply schlepping from one hex to another, taking on new dimensions because of the weather, the darkness, and the special traits for Chinese infantry movement. An exhausting, but thoroughly enjoyable, scenario against a one-time Winter Offensive winner.

ASL 210 at Winter Offensive 2020

Long time gaming buddy Doug Bush and I then tried out a scenario from Bounding Fire’s Blood and Jungle pack, BFP 35 Mai Phu, set in Tonkin in 1940, with Japanese troops supported by six tanks assaulting the French forces holding a garrison in French Indochina. Though not a huge scenario, we spent some time with this one, as many tactical puzzles presented themselves. Doug’s IJA troops ground steadily forward, attempting to take buildings, and one banzai assault in particular resulted in a massive counter stack, topped, as though by a cherry, with a large residual counter that almost never leaves the Plano.

BFP 35 at Winter Offensive 2020

This scenario came down to the final die rolls, with Doug needing to win four Hand-to-Hand Close Combats to secure the victory. I managed to hold two of them for a very narrow escape. Of eleven total vehicles in the game, only one was still standing at the end, pretty much par for the course in our playings. Lots of interesting moments in this one; games against Doug are never dull!
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Doctor Who Project: The Hand of Fear

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Yes, just like Andy Pandy!

The Doctor has certainly been wrong before, but seldom does a story actively use the Doctor’s curiosity and comity against him—and against the audience—like Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s “The Hand of Fear” (Story Production Code 4N). Right from the start, the viewer sees Eldrad, owner of the eponymous appendage, sentenced to obliteration by a people desperate to see him gone, but subsequent events in the story go to great lengths to convince the Doctor, and us, that Eldrad just might be misunderstood.

Maybe evil, maybe not!

That it doesn’t quite work that way, at least for the viewer, has much to do with the general tenor of the Fourth Doctor’s stories to date; only once, in “Planet of Evil,” has the trope of “humans are the real monsters” been tried with Tom Baker at the helm, and there the nominal monster was a force of nature rather than an individual. Here, Eldrad’s ability to control the minds of humans who interact with his ring signals to the viewer that he is an evil force, responsible for two deaths by the story’s halfway point. One could see the Third Doctor being moved by Eldrad’s later protestations that he was overthrown and betrayed, but for the action-prone Fourth Doctor to so readily accept this possibility comes across oddly, a discordance that feels more plot driven than organic to the story. The viewer often knows more than the Doctor on Doctor Who, but rarely does the viewer know better.

A helping hand (of fear!)

The story itself spends an inordinate amount of time in the first of four episodes setting the stage, with the Doctor and Sarah Jane inadvertently arriving in a British quarry—which is finally just a quarry—right as a huge explosion takes place, burying Sarah Jane and unearthing a disembodied stone hand in the process. The Doctor and another scientist, Carter (Rex Robinson), discover the hand to be based on a silicon life-form matrix that regenerates in the presence of radiation. Meanwhile, Sarah Jane wakes up in hospital with a ring clutched in her hand that causes her to think, over and over, “Eldrad must live.” A few quick blue blasts from the ring later, Sarah Jane has knocked out Carter, stolen the hand, and overpowered the woeful security at a top secret nuclear research facility located conveniently nearby.

Have ring, will travel

Once she has broken in, Sarah Jane takes the plastic container with the hand to the nuclear power core, locks herself in, and then waits in her red-and-white striped overalls for something to happen. She’s not the only one waiting; in place of the traditional monster revelation at the end of the first episode, we have part of a monster instead, as the hand (of fear!) comes to life—in Tupperware…
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Beer Notebook: 2SP’s Wawa Winter Reserve Coffee Stout

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In terms of true confessions, this one doesn’t have much significance beyond the Philadelphia area: I’ve never had a Wawa coffee.

Oh, sure, I’ve been in many a Wawa, which is still the source for some of the freshest TastyKake products around, but it’s not an integral part of my life here, if only because parking at or near any Wawa in the city proper, any time of day, is as rare as a sports championship in this town. Still, my neophyte Wawa ways aside, I couldn’t help picking up a four pack of Winter Reserve Coffee Stout, a collaboration between nearby Delaware County brewers 2SP Brewing and Wawa, utilizing Wawa’s signature seasonal coffee bean blend.

Though technically an oatmeal stout, this deep mahogany beer feels more like a porter in terms of viscosity, with a strong initial foam head that dissipates quickly and with little lace. The taste arrives as aggressively coffee forward, reminiscent of a pot of morning coffee steeped to just this side of bitter, with a hint of chocolate thrown into the mix. It’s an easily drinkable beer, hiding its modest 6.5% ABV behind a dense flavor and a slightly sweet aftertaste. Winter Reserve Coffee Stout is a coffee lover’s beer, no mistake, and it’s easy to forget you’re actually drinking a beer rather than a coffee beverage of some sort.

It’s a shame this is a season-limited beer that probably won’t get wide distribution, because it’s a refreshing take on that old standby, the oatmeal stout. The collaboration between 2SP and Wawa also opened my eyes to the rest of 2SP’s beer lineup; given the huge number of choices on the shelf of the local beer distributor, it’s hard for an independent brewer to get noticed, but 2SP has managed to stand out with this beer. I’ll definitely be on the lookout for their products the next time I’m beer shopping.

Doctor Who Project: The Masque of Mandragora

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The stars will not be mocked!

Typically, the Doctor arrives in media res, the disaster at hand already set into motion. Louis Marks’ “The Masque of Mandragora” (Story Production Code 4M) instead posits the Doctor as the proximate, though unwitting, cause of all the story’s problems. The series to date has rarely employed this technique, and seldom with such drastic consequences; one must go back to the First Doctor and “The Ark” for an analogous example of the Doctor being so directly responsible for so much death and destruction.

The pull of Mandragora

While the Doctor gives Sarah Jane a belated tour of the TARDIS, complete with stop in a Victorian-inspired secondary control room, a mysterious force pulls the wayward police box into the Mandragora Helix, a vortex of conscious, malevolent energy. When the TARDIS finally thuds to a stop against a pitch black backdrop, the Doctor and Sarah step out to explore, allowing a mote of Mandragora to sneak aboard unseen. That bit of Helix energy then directs the TARDIS to the pseudo-historical city-state of San Martino on the Italian peninsula in the fifteenth century.

Trapped in the Mandragora Helix

The Doctor dismisses the detour as an interesting side effect of their stop in the Helix, occupied as he is by the fact that robed cultists kidnap Sarah and knock him unconscious scant minutes after landing. It’s not until the Doctor sees a peasant roasted by a glowing red orb that he realizes that he has brought sentient Mandragora energy to Earth. He’s rather aghast at the prospect.

Pitchforks against the Helix

If the kidnappy cultists and the scarlet orb of doom weren’t enough, the Doctor must also contend with courtly intrigue. Giuliano, the young heir apparent, struggles against his uncle, Count Frederico, for control of San Martino in the wake of the Giuliano’s father’s death, which had been foretold (and caused) by the court astrologer, Hieronymus. The first of four episodes, having established all these forces, ends with a double cliffhanger, Sarah about to be sacrificed by the cultists and the Doctor captured and facing beheading on orders of Frederico. No pacing problems in this story, as season fourteen starts with drive (and doublets).
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Bill Lyon: 1938-2019

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Ordinarily when moments of great cultural significance occur in Philadelphia, Bill Lyon can be counted upon to provide measured reflections on them; who, then, will provide such commentary at the passing of Bill Lyon, as reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday, November 17, 2019?

Bill Lyon’s work at its finest made clear the connections between sports and life, respecting the ardent fervor of this city’s fans while illuminating the beauty and truth in both winning and, more often in this city of occasionally benighted teams, losing. He saw the ways that sports can reveal something of the essential human condition, elevating them from mere games to morality plays with a quick style and keen insight.

One of my favorite pieces of his, from 2008, reminisced about the Spectrum in advance of its 2009 demolition:

When a Philadelphia team was playing, you could stand out in the parking lot and the crowd noise would tell you how the home team was faring—if they were winning, the passion was as raw and bone-deep as a January night, an unrelenting, urging surge of support.

And if they were losing…ah, well, then it was a mournful wail, so haunting that wolf packs a thousand miles away lifted their muzzles to the heavens and bayed at the moon in sympathetic reply.

His final columns, focusing on his struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, make for powerful reading. The city is diminished by his loss and enriched by his words.

(Image by and courtesy Kevin Burkett via a Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 License.)

Doctor Who Project: The Seeds of Doom

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I’ve heard of flower power, but that is ridiculous.

It took until 1976, but Doctor Who finally turned the Doctor into a secret agent, replete with a loquacious super-villain who commands an army of uniformed henchmen for a foe, in Robert Banks Stewart’s “The Seeds of Doom” (Story Production Code 4L). Aside from the alien plant creature bent on consuming the planet, this story could have featured Roger Moore or Patrick Macnee with little alteration. The Fourth Doctor’s scientific knowledge advances the plot but does not inform the resolution in the least; he’s an action hero, through and through, jumping through windows, donning disguises, brandishing pistols, and wrestling with bad guys mere inches from whirring blades of death.

The Doctor with an unlikely accessory

“The Seeds of Doom” could not have been made during Hartnell or Troughton’s runs. Indeed, the analogous Second Doctor story, “The Seeds of Death,” which also features deadly alien seed pods finding their way to Earth, centers around the dangers of technocracy, the Doctor having to match wits with bureaucrats and Ice Warriors, the former being perhaps the more difficult foe. In Stewart’s tale, the Fourth Doctor confronts a chlorophyl-thirsty megalomaniac who composes orchestral overtures for his beloved plants and commands a giant garden estate patrolled by flunkies with matching jumpers and submachine-guns. No subtle disquisition on humanity’s increasing tendency towards centralized thought, this.

Harrison Chase, friend to all plants

It wouldn’t be a Robert Banks Stewart story without world agencies, and here the World Ecological Bureau’s Antarctic expedition finds a giant seed pod buried twenty thousand years deep in the permafrost. The Doctor is dispatched by UNIT to assist the investigation, but before he can arrive, the pod releases a tendril that infects a researcher. The hapless man turns into a Krinoid, a “galactic weed,” in the Doctor’s parlance, that has the nasty side effect of consuming all non-plant life on any world where it germinates. They always travel in pairs, and the Doctor helpfully digs up the second pod to prove his point.

Meet a Krinoid

Harrison Chase, the wealthy hortiphile, learns of the pod through a corrupt contact at the WEB and sends two henchmen to retrieve it (and dispose of any pesky witnesses). Given that the story starts in Antarctica, at a weather-isolated base, one feels at the beginning that the action will take place in this small space, with a dwindling number of survivors fighting against the plant-creature and Chase’s thugs. Stewart has other ideas, though, and by the end of the second of six episodes, the initial Krinoid is destroyed in a blast triggered by the bad guys, killing the last of the researchers as well. Only the Doctor and Sarah survive, because of course they do.
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