Doctor Who Project: Horror of Fang Rock

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You said I would like Brighton. Well I do not.

Doctor Who may be lovingly needled for its reliance on multiple sequences of people running down corridors. Long-time writer and former script editor Terrance Dicks opens Season Fifteen by slightly altering that formula, with “Horror of Fang Rock” (Story Production Code 4V) featuring multiple sequences of people running up and down a spiral staircase. To his and veteran director Paddy Russell’s credit, it is a very nice staircase.

A very nice staircase

The action of this fear-tinged story takes place almost exclusively on the four levels of an isolated, fog-shrouded lighthouse off the English coast in the Edwardian era, roughly around the turn of the century. Carrying on from the last story, the BBC’s fog machines get quite a workout, with most of the first half of the four episode story shot in low light suffused with haze. Sporadic electrical faults in the lighthouse provide further narrative justification for the omnipresent darkness. Given the lackluster quality of the special effects, the dimness works to the story’s favor, concealing, for instance, the obvious nature of the model ship that provides as the first episode’s cliffhanger—which, in motion, does not so much wreck against the rocks as bounce off them—to say nothing of the actual “horror” that lurks on Fang Rock.

Shipwreck on Fang Rock

The overall effect of the confined space and limited cast of characters (nine total, including the Doctor and Leela) does lend itself to a claustrophobic anxiety. Russell strives to keep the camera close to the action, shrinking the area further, as though the viewer were leaning into the shot; her solid work with blocking and camera angles adds more menace to the proceedings than Dicks’ tale of unseen horror frankly deserves.

As ever in Tom Baker’s era, the Doctor and Leela arrive on the heels of an unexplained murder, this time in the lighthouse. Just prior to the TARDIS materializing on the rocky shore nearby, a purple flash of light streaks through the sky into the surrounding sea. After dismissing the strange occurrence, the three lighthouse keepers spend several minutes debating the relative merits of oil versus electric light sources for lighthouses. The story’s pacing doesn’t pick up markedly from here, at least until the final episode.

The Lighthouse Lads, in happier times

After the pro-electric Ben (Ralph Watson) dies at the hands of an unseen assailant in the boiler room, much of the first episode focuses on keeping those boilers stoked. The electricity goes on and off unexpectedly throughout the story, drawing individuals to the boilers, where more often than not they perish, with no clue as to the assailant’s presence besides a chill in the air and an ominous green glow. Often the audience is granted a wider understanding than the characters in Doctor Who, but here there’s a real resistance to unveiling the culprit, which is only first seen in a blurry long-shot near the end of the second episode. This approach undoubtedly builds tension, but the fact that it’s just a green ball of goo may also have something to do with it…
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Table for One: James Bond 007 Assault! Game (Victory Games) Review

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Though best known for their complex, incisive wargames, some of which remain the best simulations of their subjects to date, Victory Games also needed to pay the bills. This assemblage of ex-SPI staffers, working as an imprint under Avalon Hill, produced far more than just wargames during its nine-year existence, and they were by no means averse to license work. Whether a a “couples” trivia game featuring Dr. Ruth or a cooking-based roll-and-move made in conjunction with spice merchants McCormick-Schilling, the Victory Games catalog features a wide range of topics and game types that one might not expect from the same company responsible for conflict simulations with thousands of counters and dense rulebooks.

Their most famous licensed game came in the form of a role-playing game, the James Bond 007 RPG, arguably the finest spy RPG of all time. But Victory Games’ James Bond license wasn’t restricted to role-playing games; they produced a range of board games using the license as well. Most of these were children’s games, fairly simple point-to-point races loosely incorporating moments from the movies, but one marks a valiant attempt to create a wargame in the world of 007: the James Bond 007 Assault! Game.

Overview

James Bond 007 Assault! Game
Victory Games (VG), 1986
Designed by Gerard Christopher Klug

James Bond Assault! Game, Cover Detail

The James Bond 007 Assault! Game comes in a cardboard slipcase box with the same dimensions as Avalon Hill and Victory Games’ boxed wargames, which, at 8 and 3/8″ wide and 11 and 1/2″ long, annoyingly do not fit a standard Letter-size sheet of paper. The game includes one and a half die-cut countersheets with 264 5/8″ counters, plus a small third sheet with three specialized die-cut markers. The single map, of standard 22″ x 34″ dimensions, is matte printed on thick paper. A lidded plastic counter tray, much like those in other VG offerings, two d10, a single black-and-white saddle stapled rulebook, and a folded paper range stick round out the package.

Units portray individuals, either Soldiers or Leaders. Soldier units are numbered and have icons indicating their weapon type, while Leader units are all depicted with a central star icon; the named Leaders, heroes and villains alike, carry the character’s initials, while unnamed Leaders have a generic identifier. As a result, there’s nothing really distinguishing James Bond or Tiger Tanaka from other MI6 leaders beyond a “JB” or “TT” on the counter, something of a disappointment.

James Bond Assault! Game, Counter Details

Indeed, the counters lean heavily into the functional, acceptable in a more traditional wargame but less forgivable in a man-to-man tactical combat game based on a license noted for its strong visual iconography, from the gun-filigree on “007” to the Walther PPK. Perhaps space issues played a role, as even with the larger 5/8″ counter to work with, the numbers tend to the tiny, the legibility not helped by some of the color combinations.

The counter graphics are immediately identifiable as being from Victory Games; the unit counters, featuring numbers around the perimeter, with a central icon, could come straight from the Fleet series, if there were spies and ninjas in those games. Ted Koller, in charge of art here, helmed the graphics direction for many of the Fleet games as well, so the similarity makes sense. Counter quality in my copy was acceptable, with several counters coming close to losing text off the side due to a lack of printing margin and/or poor die cutting. (Monarch Avalon strikes again.) Side nibs do make a regrettable appearance, but only on a few counters per row, the majority of counters held to the tree by their corners alone.

James Bond Assault! Game, Partial Map Overview

The color map, covered not with a hex grid but with center-dotted 5/8″ squares, depicts the volcano lair from You Only Live Twice, where Blofeld and SPECTRE—er, make that Karl Skorpios and TAROT—have been launching rockets to steal American and Soviet spaceships. Due to the long-running dispute regarding the ownership of SPECTRE at the time, Victory Games was unable to use the nefarious organization or its members in any of their licensed products, so they dropped in Skorpios and TAROT as one-for-one replacements. (Karl Skorpios is not, of course, to be confused with Hank Scorpio…)
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Doctor Who Project: The Talons of Weng-Chiang

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I will now ask my eager volunteer kindly to step into the Cabinet of Death!

Take one part Pygmalion, one part The Phantom of the Opera, stir in a healthy dollop of Sherlock Holmes, then rent a fog machine, and you have Robert Holmes’ “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” (Story Production Code 4S), the most interesting story of Tom Baker’s run thus far. Though many a threat from the future has found its way to Earth’s past in Doctor Who, the setting in Victorian London feels fresh; there’s no invasion here, no plan to take over the planet, just individual greed, hubris, and tragedy on a smaller stage. Characters grow and change within the span of six episodes, and Holmes (also the series script editor) and veteran director David Maloney deploy the large cast with skill, slowly unveiling new plot dimensions without the audience being cheated or blindsided by sudden revelations. One even feels charitably inclined to overlook the dodgy giant rat. It’s a shame, then, about the blithe portrayal of the Chinese as a stereotyped other behind which a stranded time traveller works his malevolent plans.

A foggy Victorian night.

The historic verisimilitude of Victorian attitudes towards the Chinese notwithstanding (and, indeed, verisimilitude has often taken a back seat to dramatic necessity on Doctor Who), the overall treatment of the Chinese by the script feels at odds with the ethos of the series; the Silurians, the Ice Warriors, and even the Daleks have come in for more nuanced portrayals than the Chinese in “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” with their supposed servility, fanaticism, and lack of individuality serving as plot points. Overbroad pastiches of Victorian England also feature prominently here, but the invocation of Cockney rhyming slang and overwrought fishwives is played for self-knowing humor rather than the slightly meaner presentation of the Chinese. To his credit, Holmes writes the Doctor as being above such beliefs. While not directly countering the prevailing attitudes, the Doctor does display an abiding respect for and interest in Chinese culture and language.

John Bennett as Li Hsen Chang

Casting John Bennett as the key character of Li Hsen Chang requires the use of extensive facial prosthetics, to the extent that the actor could not blink for fear of disrupting the heavy makeup; the overall effect is jarring and likely could have been avoided through casting an actor with a Chinese background. The casting seems stranger still given that many of the other Chinese characters are played by actors who seem to have such a background. This is not to take away from Bennett’s performance, which carries some depth of nobility amidst the stereotyped mannerisms and thick prosthetics, but rather to note that the casting, like the incessant stereotyping, creates an unpleasant dissonance in an otherwise engaging tale.

On the positive side, it does prevent one from spending too much time wondering why there’s an entire sub-plot devoted to giant rats in London’s sewers…
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Table for One: The China War (SPI/S&T) After-Action Report

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The China War (SPI/Strategy & Tactics 76, 1979)
Scenario Two: Objective: Hanoi! After-Action Report

Overview

The second of three scenarios in SPI’s The China War, Objective: Hanoi! covers a hypothetical Chinese attack on Vietnam and Laos in the 1980s, designed to preemptively prevent potential Vietnamese intervention in a wider Sino-Soviet conflict. The scenario lasts for ten turns, each of a week, with both players receiving Victory Points for eliminating enemy units and controlling six hexes, mostly large cities. The Vietnamese side controls all six victory hexes at game start, giving them an initial 57 VP advantage.

No optional rules are used, and the rules-as-written guide play, meaning that the barest sliver of mountain in a hex turns the entire hex into a mountain hex, with commensurate penalties for movement, combat, and stacking. In effect, the entire Sino-Vietnamese and Sino-Laotian border becomes ringed with mountains. Suggested house rules—basically boiling down to appeals to common sense—would use predominant terrain, or crossed-hexside terrain, as determinant, but the rules-as-written hold sway in this playing.

Initial Thoughts

Objective: Hanoi! features fewer than twenty units on the Chinese side and a scant eight on the combined Vietnamese/Laotian side. Almost all of these units are corps/army in size. While the Chinese player can break down armies into three divisions each, the Vietnamese player cannot do so, almost certainly due to countermix limitations rather than any real-world tactical inability. As a result, the initial Vietnamese setup cannot cover all possible avenues of approach. Combined with the game system’s lack of zones of control, the Chinese will make headway somewhere right from the start.

The China War, Objective Hanoi!, Vietnamese/Laotian Setup

Vietnamese/Laotian Setup

I opt to place the strongest Vietnamese unit, a Mechanized corps, in Hanoi as a mobile reserve, with three Infantry corps lining the eastern border, from Haiphong through Cao Bang. The mountainous northern approach remains open. On the Laotian front, a Vietnamese Infantry corps sits in Dien Bien Phu, with the three weak Laotian Infantry divisions screening Vientiane.

The China War, Objective Hanoi!, PLA Setup

PLA Setup

Stacking limits in mountain hexes, three divisions or one army/corps, severely restrict the Chinese ability to mass firepower, so the main invasion thrust, some eleven first- and second-line PLA Infantry armies, will be directly towards Hanoi from the open region near Nanning. A “flying squadron” of two third-line PLA Infantry armies, backed by a lone Armored division and an Airborne division that can’t actually airdrop, will attempt to race in from Kunming in the north, hoping to encircle Hanoi from the west. The remainder of the Chinese forces set up to attack Laos, but the strong Vietnamese unit in Dien Bien Phu poses a threat to an already precarious supply line on that front. They may need to initiate another siege in that famous village.
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Doctor Who Project: The Robots of Death

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Failure’s one of the basic freedoms.

Odds are good in Doctor Who that the robot did it. And if the robot is a butler, as in Chris Boucher’s “The Robots of Death” (Story Production Code 4R), then there’s no question who the murderer will be. Though the title sort of gives it away, too.

A robot of death (because of the red eyes)

Boucher’s second story, following “The Face of Evil” just prior, even manages the neat trick of keeping the real villain hidden until the third of four episodes, sadly with the unfortunate side effect that the events of the first three segments serve mostly as action-flavored filler.

After the Doctor gives Leela an impromptu lesson on trans-dimensional engineering, the TARDIS materializes inside an enormous ground vehicle, a sand miner crawling across a forbidding desert landscape in search of zelanite, a rare and valuable mineral. Staffed predominantly by robots, with a small, coddled human crew to oversee them, the miner has been trawling these wastes for eight mostly uneventful months, but the moment the TARDIS arrives, one of the human crew is murdered.

Robo-vision

There’s no mystery in it—veteran director Michael Briant films the attack from the robot’s blurry point of view. Given the establishing scenes of the crew discussing how utterly impossible it would be for a robot to harm a human, cribbing from Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, the story’s primary question becomes how the robot was able to kill one of the human crew. The violation of this prime directive would mean the end of their civilization, dependent as it is on robot labor for most of its functioning.

The hat makes the man

Boucher and the production team go to great lengths to sketch out a decadent human culture primarily concerned with the acquisition of wealth and prestige. Surrounded by opulence and art, the crew dons unwieldy headgear when performing their assigned tasks on this two year expedition, the symbols of their individual status and position never far from hand—or head. Even when alerted to a murder, the commander of the miner, Ulanov (Russell Hunter), insists that they continue pursuing a rich zelanite deposit before focusing on the fact that someone in their isolated environment has evil intent. He’d sooner return to base with full ore tanks than a full crew, and he almost gets his wish…

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Table for One: The China War (SPI/S&T) Review

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Forty years on, it’s easy to forget that the Cold War trended hot in China in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The beginning of 1979 saw the Sino-Vietnamese War, a Chinese invasion of Vietnam ostensibly in response to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. Though relatively brief in terms of actual fighting, the political ramifications of the conflict lasted for years and raised the specter of a clash between the Soviet Union—Vietnam’s erstwhile benefactor—and China.

Having already published one game on a potential Sino-Soviet conflict in 1974’s The East is Red, the fervid design and development team at SPI revisited the concept in 1979 in light of contemporary developments, coming out with The China War. Far more than a remake of the earlier game, The China War attempts to model the state of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) after the end of the Cultural Revolution and with regard to its performance in the Sino-Vietnamese War, with the aim of envisioning what a war between the Soviet Union and China might look like. The resulting game is not quite subtle, but then neither would the conflict have been.

Overview

The China War: Sino-Soviet Conflict in the 1980s
Simulations Publications Inc. (SPI), 1979
Strategy & Tactics 76
Designed by Brad Hessel

The China War, Cover Detail

The China War saw publication in two forms, as an issue game in Strategy & Tactics 76 (September/October 1979) and in a boxed format, a not-unusual publication approach for SPI’s magazine games at the time. The game comes with a single die-cut countersheet of 200 back printed half-inch counters with a matte finish and a single matte map that, in the magazine version at least, comes in slightly smaller than standard at 21.75 by 32.5 inches. The boxed version includes the rules and accompanying magazine article from S&T as separately staple-bound booklets.

Units are either Armies or Divisions, with the Chinese Armies equal in size to Corps in Western military parlance. The counters display particular unit types using standard NATO symbology. Surprisingly, none of the units have any formation designations; perhaps sufficient order of battle information was not available, as the earlier game The East is Red also lacks specific unit designations.

The China War, Counter Details

The counters themselves keep to the standard, pleasingly yeoman-like Simonsen-era SPI style, though the presence of cadre notations on the left side of the Soviet and Chinese counters results in an off-centered presentation for the unit symbol and combat factors, making those counters all seem slightly askew, with a fair bit of wasted space in the middle. The typical SPI counter color bleed on the countersheet at color transitions remains in effect here, as does the occasional counter that is a bit more or less than half an inch wide due to some wobble in the likely overworked cutting die.

Of note, the rules actually specify that these “variances” are acceptable and to be expected, such that “SPI cannot replace counters displaying these minor manufacturing innacuracies.” If it’s in the rules, I suppose one can’t complain…
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