Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Governor's House

After my first Black Ops game set in Kandahar, one of the other gamers mentioned that the Governor's House looked a bit mundane, made of the same mudbrick as the other compounds.  I considered that and decided that I needed a slightly more impressive structure.  Eventually, I'll add some some flags, a banner or sign and a few more items to spruce it up a bit.  In the meantime, here is The Governor's House!

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Afghanistan movies

I often watch movies while painting, in part to get inspiration for how my figures should look.  I recognise of course that movies are fiction and I try not to take them too seriously. Depending on how familiar I am with a particular subject I may even take offence at particularly egregious errors, or I might just smirk condescendingly.

For Afghanistan, there is only a limited number of films actually available, although that is changing as the past 15 years of Western nations involvement there is making its way through the Hollywood studio machine (just as Vietnam inspired films all through the 1970s and '80s).  With apologies to fans of Restrepo, but none for fans of Ross Kemp, all the films I'm going to mention in this post are fiction; I'm not counting documentaries. 

One of the things I noticed is that most of the films I managed to find were not so much about Afghanistan, but about foreigners who were in Afghanistan.  That is, the protagonist has a journey of discovery (or not, depending on the film), but it often seems to be the case that the film's setting is coincidental:  Afghanistan and Afghans figure as background but seldom touch on the protagonist's journey.

A good example of this is one of my all-time favourite Afghanistan films, The Man Who Would be King.  

The film was made in Morocco, and while it is a great adventure fantasy, it has nothing to teach about Afghanistan or Kafiristan (known as Nuristan since the Afghan king conquered it in the 1890s and brought the light of Islam to the people there).  I watched it once in Kandahar with people from all over Europe.  As the opening scene started, there was a shout of "Marrakesh!" from the others watching!  But still a great adventure and one well known to NWF gamers.

Other films set in Afghanistan (fully or partly), that I have enjoyed include:

Soviet era:

  • 9 Company.  I see this as a Russian version of Full Metal Jacket.  Lots of fun, and there is a great scene where the recruits are instructed in elements of Afghan culture:

  • Charlie Wilson's War.  Lots of fun again, Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman clearly had great fun making this film.  It is obviously from an American view point,and shows how America won the war against the Soviets.  It might give Americans a nice warm and cuddly feeling to know that they provided the means for the mujaheddin to defeat the Soviets, but people who pay the blood price for something seldom respect those who pay a gold price for the same thing!  (didja get the GoT reference?)

  • In an earlier post I mentioned how much I enjoyed rewatching Rambo III and The Living Daylights, so here are their trailers for completeness:

  • And then there is The Beast (aka The Beast of War), about a Soviet tank crew wandering around Afghanistan.  It's a good, taut and exciting action movie, and actually makes an effort to talk about the situation in Afghanistan, including one Afghan character who tries to explain why he supports the Communist government.  

  • There are several more Russian films about the Soviet war, but I haven't yet hunted them down.

Moving on to the Taliban era, there are a few really excellent films, that are actually about Afghans living in Afghanistan.  So obviously I'll start with another Russian film.  Kandagar is based on the true story of the crew of a Russian cargo plane that was held hostage for about a year in Kandahar, before they managed to orchestrate their own escape.  I haven't seen it (haven't found a subtitled or dubbed version yet) but it's on my list to find.  (the full movie in Russian is available on youtube)

Osama and Kandahar are both filmed with Afghan casts.  Osama is the story of a little girl who needs to dress as a boy to earn money for her family to survive.  It was filmed in Kabul in 2002 with amateur actors.  It's grim and depressing and shows just how miserable life under the Taliban was, especially for women.

Kandahar was filmed in eastern Iran, near the Afghan border.  All actors were again Afghan and again amateurs, this time recruited from refugee camps located in Iran.  The main character is played by Nelofer Pazira, an Afghan refugee who became a CBC reporter.  It's almost as grim as Osama, as it tells the story of a woman trying to reach Kandahar to prevent her sister's planned suicide.

After those two amazing films, the Kite Runner almost seems an afterthough.  The main character here is far more self-involved and less sympathetic.  It's still a good lesson on life in Afghanistan, but doesn't measure up to the raw emotional power of Osama or Kandahar.

Moving on to the post-Taliban era, there are starting to be more films made.  Most of these films focus on foreigners in Afghanistan.

Kajaki, released in North America as Kilo Two Bravo, is the gripping and intense story of a British patrol that gets stuck in an old minefield.  It's a fantastic movie, thrilling and exciting and suspenseful, but doesn't really tell much about Afghanistan per se.  

Lone Survivor is about US Navy Seals in Afghanistan.  Again, exciting and thrilling, but more about the Americans than it is about Afghans.

Hyena Road is a Canadian movie (woo-hoo, yay Canada!).  It's a Paul Gross movie, not quite so overblown as Passchendaele.  Mr Gross has found time to fit in a love story, and lots of exposition about the situation in Afghanistan.  It's kind of curious, with some stuff that doesn't fit (the love story is an unnecessary and unbelievable add-on to the story), but overall I liked it.  Mostly filmed in Jordan, Gross' team managed to capture lots of background shots from Kandahar, so it looks pretty good.  I liked and recommend it.

Zero Dark 30 has lots of action in Afghanistan, in addition to Pakistan, Washington and other locales.  Good story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, won't really expand on your perception of Afghanistan (but it might influence how you see Pakistan!).

Within the last couple of months I've seen a couple movies about Americans in Afghanistan.  Rock the Kasbah is Bill Murray doing what he does best, improvising in front of other actors who don't quite know how to react to him.  I like Bill Murray doing that sort of thing, so I liked the movie.  But it ain't good representation of Afghanistan.  Hollywood (or at least the portion represented by directors like Barry Levinson) likes to pretend that anywhere foreign is obsessed with American culture, so we see things like Bill Murray's Afghan underworld contacts driving around in a 1960s American convertable, and the singer that Murray's character is trying to push onto the Afghan Star stage sings Cat Stephens songs.  That sort of thing (plus Kate Hudson's 'hooker with a heart of gold') breaks the credibility gap for me.  It's fun but it sure ain't real.

A much better film is Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, probably because it was based on the actual memoirs of an American journalist who was based in Kabul in the early naughts.  She was also a consultant, scriptwriter and producer of the film.  The main character's experiences seemed authentic to me, and I've just bought a copy of Kim Barker's book that inspired Tina Fey to do the movie.  Recommended, with the qualifier that it's more about expat life in Afghanistan than it is about Afghanistan itself (I have the feeling that a similar film could be made about journalists or other expats in Baghdad or Saigon).

On a similar line, I've stumbled across a French sitcom set in Kabul.  Called Kaboul Kitchen, the stories revolve around a Frenchman who owns a nightclub in Kabul.  He sees himself sort of like Rick in Casablanca, and the show presents him negotiating the challenges of running a nightclub, providing alcohol for his patrons in Islamic Afghanistan, keeping his swimming pool full of scantily clad young ladies whilst dodging the morality police, and then dealing with his daughter, who has shown up to open a girls' school.  Lots of black humour and politically incorrect stuff in this series.  Production values are not as high as in the movies listed above, but it's fun to watch.  Based again on a true story (creator Marc Victor was a journalist who ran a restaurant in Kabul in the naughts), and has some credibility based on his experiences.

My last entry in this list is my current favourite.  It was another surprise finding.  The Horsemen (1971) is a Hollywood epic, starring Omar Sharif and Jack Palance.  IT's the story of a buzkashi player who is injured in a grand match in Kabul.  I started watching it with low expectations, but quickly realised that this movie was actully filmed in Afghanistan back before all the troubles started in the mid-1970s.  The story is ok, but the background scenery is what blew me away.  If you want to see Afghanistan, just watch what's going on when the main characters are not on the screen.  I could not even find a trailer for this one.

I'm sure there are other films I've missed; let me know in the comments if you think I should anything else to my list!  I know there are at least a few out there.

Pulp Figures Cowboys and more

I've taken a slight detour from the Yukon project, but am still painting Pulp Figures.  These are cowboys, which Bob Murch refers to as vaqueros americanos.  Fun to paint, full of character.

I've also painted up a couple of the Sons of the Empire.  I think that these two could possibly end up in northern Canada!

I've also found another inspirational show to watch:  Due South.  I'm amused by some of the deliberate anachronisms that are included in the show.  Constable Fraser spends quite a bit of time wearing Patrol Dress (with a brown uniform tunic); I think this order of dress was removed from service sometime in the 1960's. The RCMP vehicles are the old style with blue bodies and white doors (current vehicles are all white).  I've only watched the pilot so far, and I know the show was filmed in the 1990's, so I might be mistaken on that last one, since I don't remember when they switched to the newer vehicles.

It's fun but not quite the nostalgia kick as the Forest Rangers.  Plus episodes of the Forest Rangers are only half an hour long, so easier to get my fix!

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Black Ops: just another day in Kandahar AAR

I finally managed to have a game set in modern Afghanistan using the figures and terrain I've been slowly building up over the past many months (close to a year, I think!). The scenario was an attempted assassination of the local governor by the insurgents, using Black Ops, a Guy Bowers game produced by Osprey Games.

It was my first attempt with these rules, so I was ready to make mistakes but also ready to learn from them so the next game will be better!  Black Ops plays best with relatively small forces.  The troops on the board were divided into three factions:  
1.  Afghan National Police (ANP), who formed the guard for the governor's residence.  They had an officer, 4 policemen with assault rifles, one with a light machine gun and one with an RPG.  In Black Ops terminology, the ANP are Reluctant Conscripts.
2.  The insurgents had a larger force to deploy.  I gave them a leader, 4 soldiers with assault rifles, one with an RPG, one with an LMG and one with a sniper rifle.  They also had a car bomb (VBIED) and a suicide bomber (SBIED).  The insurgents were rated as 'fanatics'.
3.  The Afghan Border Police were located in their barracks.  I goofed and put the barracks too far away, so even once the alarm was raised, they had no chance to intervene in time to make a difference to the raid.  ABP were rated as Conscript.  The only difference between the ANP and the ABP was a one-point difference in their morale ratings (known as 'DED' or dedication in BO).  Unfortunately, as things turned out, I didn't get a chance to find out if the difference was significant.

Here is the initial setup for the town.  The governor's house is behind the hand, facing the tree-lined 'Grand Boulevard'.  The ABP barracks are in the lower centre, in the sandbagged Hesco redoubt, and to the left of the barracks is a busy market street.

The governor's guards took their positions on the compound roof, while typical activity takes place on the street.

Shoppers on Market Street

The insurgents begin their approach.  BO allows for guards and civilians to move randomly, but with a proviso that any unrealistic moves, such as walking off a cliff, or into a wall, should be changed.  It calls on players to use a bit of sense.

A sniper sneaks up towards Market Street.  I missed taking photos of his dash along Market Street.  Each civilian he passed generated a reaction test and a loyalty test.  More than half the civilians reacted poorly to the insurgent and he earned himself half a dozen noise markers as they tried to alert the authorities.

Insurgent soldiers approach the compound using the walls around the field as cover.

An insurgent gunman dashes to the base of the wall, earning a noise marker (the yellow cube).  Unfortunately, the guard above him fails his roll and doesn't see the approaching danger!

The insurgent runs up to the gate and sets off his IED, killing himself but destroying the gate. A passing motorcyclist is also killed by the explosion.  The detonation earns three noise markers and a cloud of smoke.

The insurgent soldiers' card comes up next and they unleash a volley on the rooftop guards.  This results in a dozen more noise markers and also takes out the unlucky guards.

The shepherd/goatherd and his flock flee the scene!

The remaining guards raise the alarm (more noise markers), and the guard captain awakes. The stealth phase is officially over!

ABP troopers leave their barracks, but ended up being too far away from the mansion to intervene in time.

As the ABP reinforcements run up the Grand Boulevard, the insurgents drive their VBIED through the gate.  It is met with a hail of gunfire which kills the driver, but in the name of drama, I let him test against his dedication.  He rolled a 6, so I allowed him to detonate his bomb, which brought down the building.  The governor however had previously run to his safe room in the house.  I rated the protection of this room to be the equivalent of a tank.  The governor made a saving roll and passed, surviving the day.  Meanwhile, the remaining insurgents escaped into the fields.

I found that Black Ops gave a good, fast game.  I'd say it's important not to overload the table with figures, as there are times that each one needs to test a reaction, so too many would slow things down too much.  My table layout left room for improvement:  I needed more terrain to the rear and sides of the governor's house to allow more options for the attacker, and the barracks needed to be closer to allow a shorter reaction time for the reinforcements.  I also needed to give the defenders more opportunities to test to observe the attackers.  A guard needs to roll and 8+ to raise the alarm, so attackers approaching in broad daylight should generate more chances for a guard to spot them, so I should have given noise markers each time an insurgent moved within line of sight of a guard.  Lessons for next time!  I hope to retry this scenario at the next club night, which won't be until October.

And to finish off, here is a close up of the last Afghan civilian, which I finished a couple of days before the game.  She's from Eureka Miniatures, from an Indian civilians set.

More Yukon Peril

I've finished painting all of the Yukon Peril miniatures that I currently have in my collection.  I like the idea of an 'Old West' type game set in the Yukon, so I think I'll need to organise something soon to give these figures a chance to take to the table.

So here are the latest to come off the painting table!

First, two canoes, one piloted by an intrepid Mountie and his faithful husky, and the other by one of the many fur traders of the North.

I also finished up the Mad Trappers of Rat River set, with the second pair of trappers. I guess they need names, and lacking imagination I'll go with Dan McGrew and Albert Johnson.

And here is the full set of mad trappers with their traps.