Iberian Honeymoon Part 1

Greetings! I’ve decided to take a break from posting fiction-in-progress, and reminisce about some of our recent adventures in Portugal and Spain. For those of you who don’t know, I recently tied the knot with my amazing wife Abi Nighthill. Months earlier we planned a honeymoon to the Iberian Peninsula. We chose Portugal to fly in and out of, because it was inexpensive, and were told by multiple people that it’s a very underappreciated vacation spot. We were both really curious about Spain as well, so we sandwiched it in.

The trip lasted around 10 days, and consisted of three major portions.

  • Lisbon (Lisboa) – Lovely capitol of Portugal.
  • Bilbao (Bilbo) – The largest city in the Basque Country of Spain.
  • Porto (Oporto) – Portugal’s second largest city, home of Port wine.

We flew in and out of Madrid, and then connected to Portugal

I’m hoping to write a few posts about each leg of our journey, and cover the highlights. My purpose here is more to recount our experiences, and not necessarily to make recommendations or paint an accurate picture of what these places are like. We tried to go off the beaten path whenever possible, and we skipped some of the usual “must-see” attractions in each place.

To start with, here are some cool things we did in and around Lisbon.

Lisboan Fado

fado

The traditional music of Portugal is called fado. It contains the “soul of the Portuguese,” embodied in the Portuguese word “saudade.” There is no direct English translation of this word, but basically it means “longing,” or the feeling that follows after one has experienced great loss. It is definitely very sad, but quite beautiful music. Traditionally it is performed with a vocalist (male or female), and two musicians on classical and Portuguese guitar.

Abi and I went to two different fado shows in Lisbon. Our first night there (after sleeping the better part of a day), we went to a hip sort of bar that attracted a younger crowd. The interior was loaded with local artwork, and even our place mats were creatively styled. Our singer for the evening was male, and his performance seemed to be geared toward easing tourists into what can be, for some, a challenging style of music. He was actually pretty funny, and didn’t fit my image of what a fado singer was. Still, it was a great introduction to the culture, and the excellent wine and Portuguese tapas didn’t hurt either.

Our second fado show was a little more traditional. The space was small, dark and intimate. We were right up front for the performance, and this time we had a female singer (a fadista). She had the shawl, the saudade vibe, and really belted those sorrowful tunes.

Sintra (Quinta da Regaleira)

At one point we took a day trip out to a neighboring town, Sintra, which is a popular spot for locals and tourists alike. The trip was easy enough, since there’s a commuter rail line that connects with the city. Sintra is located west of Lisbon, in a range of hills not far from the coast. It was a popular place for the royal family of Portugal to spend their leisure time, as well as an assortment of aristocrats, rich capitalists, and so on.

There’s a lot to see in this seemingly small town. The royal family had two summer palaces here, there’s a ruined castle dating back to the time of the Arabs in Portugal, and more summer homes and palaces than anyone could see in a day. We hit the Pena Palace, and the Moorish Castle, and that managed to take up much of the morning and the afternoon. These were fascinating in their own way, but in the middle of August, they were packed with both local and foreign tourists.

But the true highlight of that visit was the strange and mysterious Quinta da Regaleira. This mansion and the surrounding gardens were bought in the 19th century by an eccentric millionaire who was obsessed with the occult. He hired an Italian architect to transform his whole estate into a bizarre work of esoteric symbolism. The grounds feature twisting pathways, carved figures from mythology and different religious traditions, underground tunnels, and an “initiation well” that has a winding staircase built into it, allowing visitors to venture underground and explore secret caves.

Abi and I were most excited about the well, and our journey through the grounds was built around the goal of finding it. Even with a map, we got hopelessly lost, and we ended up visiting nearly every strange place in the estate before we found it. After descending and wandering through dimly lit caves, we found another, unfinished well, that we could climb up and return to the surface. As she put it, we were “initiated,” then “uninitiated.”

We also found, inexplicably, a field full of cats.

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Literary Lights of Portugal

While we were visiting Portugal (and before we left), I tried to immerse myself in the local literary tradition. I didn’t know much about Portuguese literature, and I find reading the great works can add another layer of fun onto seeing the sights. I sampled Jose Saramago, probably the best known name because of his novel Blindness. Eca de Quieros is a 19th century novelist who wrote in a realist style, and his work is both insightful and sometimes really funny. Luis de Camoes is the Shakespeare or Cervantes of Portuguese letters. He wrote an epic poem in the style of the Odyssey called the Lusiads. He also had possibly the craziest life of any writer I can think of, complete with battles, doomed love affairs, and shipwrecks.

Image result for luis camoes

But the writer I chose to read throughout most of the trip was Fernando Pessoa. He is associated with the Modernist tradition, and did most of his writing in the early twentieth century. He is most famous for inventing dozens of alternate writing personas, or “heteronyms” for himself. More than simple pen names, these people he wrote as had complete fictional histories and identities, and sometimes expressed very different opinions from one another. His longest work is the “Book of Disquiet,” which I am still currently reading.

Abi and I visited the cafe that Pessoa was known to spend time at. The Cafe a Brasileira was a hot spot for artists and bohemians in the olden days. I also found out from reading signs that the word “pessoa” in Portuguese means “person,” which is kind of ironic. His name sounded like “Fernando Person,” but he was really lots of people!

Pastel de Nata

We tried some decent food in Lisbon, but my favorite culinary experience was the pastries. One kind in particular is incredibly popular all over the country, the Pastel de Nata. These are little tarts filled with sweet egg custard, baked in the oven. I must have tried these at 8 different restaurants throughout Portugal. The best ones I had were at La Brasilieira, but supposedly the best of all are located in the neighborhood of Belem, where the Pastels were invented by monks. I heard there were crazy long lines, so we avoided them. These tarts are so popular that there’s even a chain of bakery/restaurants called “I Love Nata.” I’ll have to find a place that makes them stateside…

Anyway, those are my personal highlights for Lisbon. My next post will be for Basque Country and Bilbao!

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Screwing with History for Fun and Profit

Ironclads

Here’s the next part of my Xmas game reviews. Last time I covered the marvelous complexities of Crusader Kings II, and now on to the sequel, Europa Universalis IV. I’ll also cover Victoria II, which is sort of the grand finale to a trilogy of awesome games (even though it’s the oldest of the three). Quickly though, I must address the question: why is this a good time to try these games out? They’ve been available for years after all, so what’s the deal?

First of all, they’re wicked cheap right now, duh. But also, many of Paradox’s titles are continuous works in progress. With each new DLC comes free patches and changes to the basic mechanics. They are always tinkering with their product, always rebuilding. And they listen to their customers (usually) and respond to what they like and don’t like. A Paradox game is a living, breathing experiment in game design where something interesting is always happening.

ALSO, if you’re not sold on the base games, the modding community is HUGE for each entry in the series, and they have done some stellar work. I wish I had mentioned it for CK2, but there are some mods out there that are arguably better than the basic experience. I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones mod. That’s true for EUIV and Vicky 2 as well, speaking of which-

EUIV

This one came out in 2013, I tried it out in 2014. This is kind of like Paradox’s big name game, or at least it was before Crusader Kings created so much buzz. It focuses on the time period from 1444 to 1820, a time of empire-building, exploration, the shaping of the modern world, and so on. It’s a grand strategy game like CK2 (real-time with pausing, lots of menus, a map composed of provinces). Here are some of the big attractions (for me) when it comes to EUIV.

  • It’s the most accessible of the different Paradox games. It has a great tutorial, and it’s usually pretty forgiving as long as you don’t pick a tough starting nation (in this case, DON’T start with Ireland). Hardest thing to pick up on are the battles. My tips, don’t lag on technology, and numbers aren’t everything.
  • The mechanics are very deep, mostly easy to learn but hard to master. I would say EUIV has the most interesting and detailed system for diplomacy that’s out there.
  • In spite of the title, this is a well-researched historical setting where you can play almost any country in the world from that time period. Sure the Europeans make for a rich and interesting play-through, but have you ever wondered what might have happened if the Native North  Americans had banded together and drove back the European colonists (successfully that is)? You can play to find out.
  • You can convert games from Crusader Kings II, making for an epic 1000+ years of alternate history.
  • If you try some of the DLC’s, you can create your own custom maps and civilizations, although they still play out on our familiar planet Earth.

EUIV also has, at this point, quite a bit of downloadable content to choose from. Here’s what I think of each of them, using the three-star system I employed last time.

  • Conquest of Paradise (***) – Maybe it’s my American background, but this one just speaks to me. The added content and flavor for the Native Americans alone makes this one worth it. It also comes with expanded options for Colonial Nations (start your own Revolutionary War!) and a “New World Randomizer” which replaces the Americas with a collection of new continents and islands.
  • Wealth of Nations (**) – The expansion that focuses on trade. It’s pretty good, all around. The new features are fun, and are worth it if you’re planning on a mercantile sort of game. The basics of trading are already pretty fun though, in my opinion, and you aren’t missing that much if you skip this one.
  • Res Publica (**) – I kind of wavered with this one between one or two stars. It adds a lot of cool options if you’re playing the Dutch. There’s also a new government type and some national ideas, but that’s about it. If you’re into the Dutch, go for it, otherwise there ain’t much to it.
  • Art of War (**) – It is as it sounds, the war DLC. Honestly, all of the best features for this came with the free patch. The rest is all about stream-lining the process of building armies and giving you more diplomatic options to start shit with people. In terms of content, it expands the 30 Years War and the Napoleonic Wars to a greater degree, so that’s fun. But like with Wealth of Nations, warfare is already fun, and this expansion doesn’t improve on it that much.
  • El Dorado (***) – It’s kind of like Conquest of Paradise, but for Central and South America. It expands the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas, and lets you do some fun things with them. It also comes with the Nation Designer, which alone makes it worth the purchase.
  • Common Sense and The Cossacks (?) – These are the more recent 2015 releases, and I haven’t tried ’em yet. They haven’t gotten great reviews unfortunately, although a lot of that seems to stem from a misunderstanding about new mechanics. Time will tell if they are worth your moolah.

Vicky2

Oh yeah! Look at Beefy Otto von Bismarck leading the way to victory! Victoria II is the timeline-sequel to EUIV, although it was released in 2010. It covers a span of history from 1842 (I think?) to 1939. You can play through the Industrial Revolution, and eventually get wrapped up in the World Wars. The graphics are a little more flat, but they also feel appropriate to the old-timey historical setting. Vicky 2 plays more like Europa Universalis, with a stronger emphasis on managing a complex economy (this is when Capitalism and Marxism both became a thing after all).

It’s a lot of fun, and you can pick up the basic game right now for $5. There are only two DLC’s, focusing on the American Civil War and the colonization of Africa. They both enhance the game is numerous ways, and I would recommend picking them up. Steam (and Humble Bundle, among others) will frequently release all of this content as a bundle, so keep your eyes peeled for that.

Vicky 2 is, in some ways, the most complex of all the Paradox titles. But it’s also the most forgiving. It features an incredibly complicated system that simulates a world market, your country’s economy, and the political system that drives it all. But many of these systems are automated, so you can kind of let the game run itself, and then take over gradually as you learn more about how it all works. Even when you have (inevitably) pissed off your populace to such a degree that they rebel against you, it doesn’t result in much more than a changed form of government (socialism and communism, unfortunately, kinda suck). The warfare and diplomacy is a little more clunky compared to EUIV, understandably. But there are also some exciting possibilities that are specific to this time period, like the concept of Great Powers, spheres of influence, and global crises. And you get to build trains, SO MANY TRAINS!

So check it out, it’s not that much of a time commitment (although I would play the tutorial), and like the others, it makes for a rich playing experience. There is one other Paradox game in this “family” that I haven’t mentioned, and that is the Hearts of Iron series. This focuses on World War II, and it’s kind of all about… war. I tried the most recent one, Hearts of Iron III, and I wasn’t all that thrilled with it. There’s a new one coming out, and who knows? Maybe that one will be awesome. I will probably let you know if that’s the case.

Before the big winter sale closes up on Steam, I hope to post more mini-reviews of my favorite games of 2015, so my readers can have some recommendations for 2016. Until then.

Deus Vult!

Dunluce

Guess what? There’s a big sale on Steam right now. For those of you who are not familiar, Steam is an online marketplace for DRM-free games, and it has some unbelievable sales right around this time of the year. So I feel compelled to do some more mini-reviews of PC games, to better guide friends and canny bargain-hunters this holiday season. In particular, I’ll be focusing on two of my all-time favorite strategy games, Crusader Kings II, and Europa Universalis IV. These games are some of the flagship titles of Paradox Interactive, a Swedish group of developers and publishers who are devoted to making deep, complex, interesting games, the kind that you can devote hours and hours to playing. But I realized something as I looked over the Steam page for both of them: there’s so much downloadable content, that even on sale at 75% off, they’re a bit pricey. So not only will I be addressing the worth of the base games, but I’ll touch on each DLC, and let you know which ones really enhance the experience.

Crusader Kings 2

CK2

Crusader Kings II is a grand strategy game set in the Early to Late Middle Ages (the base game covers 1066 to 1453). Unlike most strategy games, you play the head of a dynasty with medieval holdings, anywhere from a small county to a huge empire. You play out your initial characters remaining lifespan, and then move on to their descendants. I picked up CK2 a few years ago around this time, because I was intrigued by the mix of strategy and role-playing elements. My first attempts at learning the game were… frustrating. It seemed really slow and the mechanics were totally obtuse. But I stuck with it, and once I adapted to the pacing and learned the rules, I was completely addicted. Here are some general tips for those who are thinking of trying this game out –

  • Accept the pacing– Sometimes you have to wait for things to play out: your kids won’t come of age until their 16th birthdays, that peace treaty won’t expire for another 5 years, my character just won’t die, etc. Play the game on the fastest setting, and familiarize yourself with the different characters and countries who live around you, and it’ll feel a lot faster.
  • Start with Ireland – That little island where my ancestors came from is a good place for beginners. It’s isolated, safe, and sort of its own little microcosm with almost every county being ruled independently. If you only have one county to start with, the game might feel even more slow, but just save up your resources for mercenaries, and things will start happening quickly. Good goals for an Irish game are to create the a-historical Kingdom of Ireland, and maybe even dominate the British Isles.
  • Accept and Enjoy Failures – This game has a tendency to generate wonderfully random and ridiculous stories, and a lot of these rise out of failure. I don’t mean the kind of failure where you lose a battle, and thus your entire kingdom (I find that kind of failure stressful). More the failure to grasp the subtler points of mechanics. My first game took place in Ireland. By the end I had really screwed Ireland up, and I didn’t really understand how or why, but it was awesome. My ruling dynasty was Norwegian-East African, half the island had converted to Greek Orthodoxy, and as a result I had a dozen factions forming that were divided on ethnic and religious lines. I also inherited about half of Spain at one point, don’t remember why, but I gave it up to my vassals.

So it’s a crazy game, and if you give it a chance, you’ll love it like no other. Now I’ll go over the DLC, because unless you have cash to burn, you don’t really need all of it. I’ll give each expansion a rating based on one-to-three stars. One (*)means skip it, two (**) means buy it if you don’t mind spending the money, and three (***) means it’s necessary for full enjoyment of the game.

  • Sword of Islam (**) – This is the Muslim expansion for the game. It opens up more than half the map for choosing characters, and it adds a ton of options for playing Muslims. It’s a good expansion, but it doesn’t really affect the game outside of the Muslim sphere, so if you’re not interested in playing those characters, skip it.
  • Legacy of Rome (***) – The Byzantine Empire expansion. This one wins three stars because of all the great features that enhance the base game. Retinues are a standing army that you can build up over the course of the game, very useful. The Faction System makes for more intrigue and plotting, always fun for everyone. Also, the Byzantine features are pretty sweet.
  • The Republic (*) – Play or create merchant republics, a la Venice or Pisa. This one just isn’t that great, the mechanics for a republic are not as much fun, and there isn’t really anything added outside of the republican play-through.
  • Sunset Invasion (*) – Adds a big event in which the east coast of Europe gets invaded by the Aztecs. I would skip this one, it’s pretty lame, and it makes playing Ireland a lot more frustrating (guess where the Aztecs land first).
  • The Old Gods (***) – A huge expansion that extends the timeline back to 867 AD, adding nearly another 200 years to a play-through. This is the best DLC, hands-down, and the reason that a lot of my friends have gotten hooked on the game. It’s the vikings, they’re too much fun. You can raid, get wrapped up in tribal feuds, and sacrifice enemies to Odin (including the Pope, if you’re lucky). It also opens up other pagan groups for play, and the remnants of the Zoroastrian faith hiding out in Central Asia. Don’t miss this one.
  • Sons of Abraham (**) – Adds a bunch of options for the Abrahamic religions, and introduces Jewish characters to the game. I really liked this one for the opportunity to play the Jewish Khazars, and the chance to create a medieval Kingdom of Israel (this was my favorite play-through). Still, it’s not essential by any means.
  • Rajas of India (**) – This one is kind of like Sword of Islam, but bigger. It opens up the Indian subcontinent, and allows you to play Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain dynasties. I didn’t find it to be mind-blowing, and is very India-focused.
  • Charlemagne (**) – Another giant DLC in the fashion of the Old Gods. It pushes the start date back roughly another 100 years to 769. It’s not quite as good as Old Gods, the time period is less interesting, and there aren’t as many new mechanics overall. An extra 100 years of gameplay might seem tempting, but trust me, the basic 400 years is plenty.
  • Way of Life (***) – This one gets 3 stars because it’s cheap, and fun. It adds some new lifestyle mechanics where you can have a “focus,” which means your character can pursue personal projects, seduce people, fight duels, and so on. It makes the slower parts of the game less slow, so that can only be a good thing.
  • The Horse Lords – I haven’t tried it yet! This one is about steppe nomads (the mongols for example). It adds a lot of new mechanics, expands the map, and you can try to control the Silk Road! It’s gotten great reviews, but it’s also not on sale, due to its recent release date.

Okay! I guess EUIV will have to wait for another post. In summary for CK2, the only expansions you really need, if you’re buying any at all, are Legacy of Rome, the Old Gods, and Way of Life. The Horse Lords looks good, but I plan to wait until the Spring when it will likely be on sale.

Image by Carlos ZGZ, no known copyright restrictions

Current Projects, part 1

BurntColumn

So, above all else, this is supposed to be a writer’s blog. It’s becoming more and more things (I changed the subtext to “a blog of many things“), and I had the realization that I shouldn’t get bogged down in maintaining the blog if it’s detracting from actual creative projects. Much as I love talking about my hobbies…

Anyway, for this post I want to lay down some persistent ideas that I’ve had for stories, worlds/settings, or just experiments in form and medium. Some of these I’ve actually started working on. So here we go.

Gettin’ Busy with the Byzzies

I’m fascinated with the Byzantine Empire, and I always have been. It’s a unique time, place, culture, collection of characters, etc, very different from what you’d find in the ancient or medieval western civilizations. And many people in the West have either never heard of it, or know next to nothing about it, which boggles the mind! It lasted for over a thousand years, so it’s hard to understand why it’s become such a footnote in history.

Anyway, it’s been a favorite subject of mine for years now, and I’ve probably read enough material on it to write a solid research paper. I recently began work on a Storynexus game set in Constantinople, but it’s on hiatus for the foreseeable future. Way too big and ambitious, and it would end up being a free-to-play game. I’m at a point in my life where I have less free time, and it grows increasingly more valuable. So it would be nice if I could get paid when I give it up, y’know?

SO, the big story that I wanted to tell in the Purple Chamber was of the Fourth Crusade, and the events leading up to it. This is one of the most tragic events of the era, with thousands of innocent people killed, and the greatest city in the world more or less destroyed. Although the Byzantines survived for roughly another two centuries, this was basically the end for them, everything kinda sucked from that point on.

So why does it make a good story? It’s the stuff of Greek tragedy for one thing. Everything leading up to it was caused by hubris, greed, misunderstanding and misplaced faith. It also has a cast of fascinating characters, readily supplied for me to use. For one there’s the corrupt Angelos family, the rulers of the Empire. They include an incompetent Emperor who blinded his brother and stole the throne, his scheming wife who is the true power behind said throne, and his lascivious daughter who is in bed with the man plotting a coup. The only problem is that everyone is named Alexios, but that’s what nicknames are for.

This particular set of events also has a compelling set of mysteries to explore, mainly concerning how much of it was accident, and how much was… CONSPIRACY (gasp)! When you read the story of how the Crusade happened, there’s a lot that doesn’t make sense, but you tend to notice how well everything worked out for the “villains” of the story, meaning the Venetians. The shrewd merchants of Venice are represented by the cunning Doge, Enrico Dandolo. This guy is the perfect antagonist, and I feel like I have to make this project, if just to tell his story.

Okay, so currently, I’m writing a screenplay on-and-off. It’s a total fantasy project, I don’t know how it will ever get made into anything (I envisioned it as an animated web series). But I love this stuff too well to just let it stew in my head. Maybe I can turn it into a play, or a comic, or something, we’ll see. But I’m having fun with it, and hopefully it continues that way. I’m focusing on many of the events and characters I mentioned, and also adding a few of my own. My current protagonist is a young eunuch slave, recently brought to Constantinople. It seemed like an interesting way to explore gender stuff in a new way, and also shake things up with a non-traditional main character. I think it also helps to have an outsider perspective in this setting, which is kind of unfamiliar and weird to contemporary Western audiences.

More? More.

This is but one of many ideas I’m working on, but apparently I need to share every bit of minutia, so I think this is going to be another “serial” set of posts. There’s still plenty of great stories to share about the Byzantines, but that should probably be it’s own thing. Until next time…

Image courtesy of the Cornell University Library, no known copyright restrictions