XCOM: The Board Game

XCOM: The Board Game is interesting, as – factoring in an app to add time limits and so increase stress – the players can feel the tension of actually defending the world from an invasion.

As a cooperative boardgame, it shares much in common from games like Z-Man Games’ Pandemic, which assigns each player at the table a critical role in achieving a common objective against the game itself.

  • The Commander sends interceptors to shoot down incoming UFOs and manages the budget, allocating cash to all of the other players. Everything in the game costs money, and money is always scarce. The commander will never be able to give everyone all the money they need.
  • The Chief Scientist researches new technologies that act as buffs for other members of the team using card game mechanics. Each other player has buffs that can provide enormous benefits, but she only has so many scientists to deploy, and more scientists cost more money.
  • The Squad Leader assigns specialist troops (assault, sniper, special ops) to both defend XCOM home base and achieve the missions required to actually win the game. But troops get killed in combat, and recruiting new ones or leveling them up costs money too.
  • The Central Officer manages satellites and communications infrastructure. But the enemy is always targeting satellites, and new ones are expensive.


But it’s the Central Officer that sets the game apart. Instead of a traditional fixed turn order (I go, you go, the game goes), the Central Officer uses an app (iOS, or browser-based) to tell each team member what to do, when, and to relay the new information that comes in from the computer controlled AI. She also manages the satellite network to make sure that the best possible information is coming into the team. And it all happens on a timer.

Here’s how it worked in practice, in my demo game:

“Commander, assign your interceptors. You have 15 seconds.”

Africa’s about to fall into panic. Europe’s no better. I have six inbound UFOs, and six interceptors, but I’m short on cash. If I move to defend, I’ll have nothing to give my ground troops, who are repelling a base-invasion at XCOM HQ. And the Science Officer won’t shut up about wanting to get more salvage.

“Five seconds!” screams my Central Officer.

I let Africa fall, assigning three interceptors to Europe.

“Done!” I cry. He presses a button on the iPad next to me. “Squad Leader, Defend the Base! You have 13 seconds.”

It would be interesting, modifying this to a defense of an Imperial world – or even the Battle of Terra, at the close of the Solomani Rim War.

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Mission-Type Tactics


From Wikipedia:

In mission-type tactics, the military commander gives subordinate leaders a clearly defined goal (the mission), the forces needed to accomplish that goal and a time frame within which the goal must be reached. The subordinate leaders then implement the order independently. The subordinate leader is given, to a large extent, the planning initiative and a freedom in execution which allows a high-degree of flexibility at the Operational and Tactical levels of command. Mission-type Orders free the higher leadership from tactical details.

For the success of the mission-type tactics it is especially important that the subordinate leaders understand the intent of the orders and are given proper guidance and that they are trained so they can act independently. The success of the doctrine rests upon the recipient of orders understanding the intent of the issuer and acting to achieve the goal even if their actions violate other guidance or orders they have received. Clearly, taking the risks of violating other previously expressed limitations as a routine step to achieving a mission is a behaviour most easily sustained in a particular type of innovative culture. That culture is today often associated with elite units and not a whole army.

Mission-Type Tactics are a natural fit for the small-units of most Traveller games. PCs are given

  • A specific, clear goal
  • A set of resources that can be used, and
  • A set timeframe

Now, as high-tech interstellar warfare against a nebulous menace (or a small, skilled team of terrorists; or a major competing corporation; or the more powerful Solomani Security networks; or a pirate band with way-too-much ‘luck’) is rather difficult and money-consuming, the amount of resources the PC team will need will be larger: certainly including a starship and some battledress, but there are other costs as well, including information-gathering, handling liaison with local powers, making sure financing is good and public relations are on a steady keel, and setting up safehouses and hidden ports.

(Most PCs won’t see what is going on behind the scenes most of the time, but they can be given a peek, every so often. If it’s interesting to them, then open the door and let them step in…)

 More Detail! More Detail!

Lost in Translation

Mission-Type Tactics is a translation of the German word Auftragstaktik. As usual, there’s quite a lot hiding behind that multi-syllable word:

It does not describe a set of tactics per se; it is certainly not limited to the tactical level of operations, nor is it a method of leadership, but it does encapsulate a style of command – in English (perhaps): Tactics focused on accomplishing the task/mission as opposed to Befehlstaktik, i.e. Tactics focused on executing a set of orders. Direct orders are an exception in the German armed forces, while “tasks” are the standard instrument of leadership from high command down to squad level.

Not direct, restricting orders, but particular tasks, are the focus of Mission-Type Tactics.

Dealing with Fire

Again, from Wikipedia:

For a mission-focused command to succeed, it is crucial that subordinate leaders:

  • understand the intent of their orders
  • are given proper guidance and
  • are trained to act independently.

The obverse of this, is the implicit requirement imposed on superior commanders:

  • to give their subordinates no more orders than are essential (every order given is regarded as an additional constraint upon its recipient), and:
  • to be extremely rigorous, absolutely clear, and very succinct in the expression of their commands.

The success of the doctrine rests upon the recipient of orders understanding the intent of whoever issues the orders and acting to achieve the goal even if their actions violate other guidance or orders they have received. Mission-type tactics assume the possibility of violating other, previously expressed limitations as a step to achieving a mission and are a concept most easily sustained in a decentralised command culture. This is quite alien to any organisation in which, at every level, a subordinate commander is only expected (and, therefore, trained) to follow detailed orders.


To clarify, the classic German approach called for every commander to be trained to function effectively at two levels of command above his appointment (a platoon commander would be expected to control battalion actions, if need be – and platoon commander was – and is – an NCO appointment in the German Army).

Basically, in order to truly put in the intent of the commander’s orders, you sometimes have to violate specific orders. This is a dangerous habit to build into an army, for exceedingly obvious reasons.

The Power of Fear

The British Army attempted to put Mission-Type Tactics into operations, but a review of its development in the Iraq War (2003) demonstrated that there were far more restrictions – and more detailed restrictions – on the Army in 2003 than in 1983.

While Mission-Type Tactics is usually tied to elite units (like the PCs), it has on occasion been used on the scale of an army. if you can train your army to reach the required standard – as Generaloberst “Hans” von Seeckt pulled off in the Wehrmacht (“Defense Force”, ha, ha, ha) – you have a very nasty offensive weapon on your hands. At times, the Israeli Army has also met this level of effectiveness – and the deep internal trust needed to really get it to work.

Both Prussia and Israel saw/see themselves as a small nation, surrounded by enemies, in genuine threat of extinction. Such fears have a way to clarify the mind, and build up internal trust forged in fire and fear.

Continue reading

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Post-apocalyptic Tokyo Scenery

A selection can be found here.

(And Tokyogenso’s blog – with a cute version of devastated Tokyo – is here.)

Just to compare the abandonment of a city with the destruction of a city, think of the devastation of the firebombing of Tokyo or the conquest of Berlin. If those cities were permanently abandoned, then you’s see something like Tokyogenso’s blog above, in a decade or more – with all the green everywhere.

But in reality, even after such destruction, the cities survived, and were rebuilt, and then repopulated. Interesting, how tough people can be, even in defeat.

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Humans Need Not Apply

Humans Need Not Apply

THIS is a hint of how an actual stellar-tech+ society would work. I an curious to learn how such a society can employ billions.

Most likely, they do not employ them at all: instead, they just laze around in the sun… or fight each other in the ghettos.

A Swarm of One Thousand Robots

This is just one more step to a very interesting world in the future…

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Dubai, and a More Mellow Islam


The proto-Far Future city of Dubai:

Dubai City As You've Never Seen It Before. WOW!!!

(No massive domes or antigrav: but that’s because the Emir’s scientists are slacking off. A common problem in the Imperial Empty Quarter, BTW.)

Now, Dubai is built on a monocrop economy, oil. But the plan is for Dubai to become a local financial centre, so when the oil is gone, trade and finance can keep things going. Will it work?

If you want more trade – and the wealth that comes along with trade – you need peace; stable laws; a good, transparent regime of property rights; a fairly reliable, timely and unbiased judicial system; and some sort of entrepreneurial culture, which honours contracts and looks for new ways to serve people (and profit by doing so).

If the surrounding major states – Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq especially – would cease their mutual hostilities, then there is a chance of a real economy growing. Due to religious/cultural rivalries and mutual contempt dating right back to the early successors of Mohammed and the Sunni/Shia split, that simply isn’t going to happen.

A Different Future

The Empty Quarter is heavily influenced by the harsher elements of Arab culture, largely to its detriment. The reasons for this can be traced back to the early Rule of Man era, where the interstellar government routed the Salafi/Wahhabi Terran colonists to a portion of space as far away from the rest of humaniti as possible.

But compare this blighted region of space with other regions closer to the Imperial – or even the Solomani – Core. Suleiman Subsector in the Solomani Rim is solidly in the mainstream of wealth and technology, and (as of 993 Imperial) not particularly committed to the Solomani Cause, despite their official allegiances and Islamic-derived religions: and should (when) the Imperial fleets break into this region, the population can easily be persuaded to broadly support the Imperium, assuming a ruling Duke of even middling competence.

An analogy can be drawn between today’s Arab Muslim and non-Arab Muslim states. In Turkey, industrialization has actually taken hold, and they are now a fairly decent industrial power: below Canada and Indonesia (another fairly successful, and increasingly Islamitized state), but above Australia and Taiwan. Malaysia is another fairly competently-run Islamic state, with a large unbelieving minority whose existence is broadly tolerated, ‘if only for financial reasons.’

Note that Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia are all increasingly under the cultural sway of the Salafi’s of Saudi Arabia. This isn’t going to happen in Traveller, as the Emptyheads have no equivalent of oil to give muscle to their views. Instead, the less puritanical Islamic systems of Charted Space will tend to look down upon their more religious, more impoverished, and more theocratic cousins.

The Party

A special note should be made of the Solomani Party, which has worked quite hard over the last several centuries to keep the peace between the competing Solomani religions, especially between Christianity and Islam (but also Islam and, well, everyone else). A policy of “Good Fences make Good Neighbours” has proven to be the key here, as well as the refusal to recognize religious freedom as an inalienable right (thus pleasing Muslims), while tying voting rights to wealth (thus pleasing Christians).

A steady propaganda push of “the Children of Abraham, standing together, protecting all True Humaniti against the Satanic and unbelieving Fake Humans” has also helped keep the peace. “Better to keep their guns pointed at Imperial scum than at each other!”

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More Robots, More AI

Fast Food Self-Ordering Replaces Cashiers

One of the comments are:

I love that within 20 years time people will look at this video and think “why is he filming an order kiosk?”


Meanwhile, at your local starport:

Automated Ports, Container Automation

Spot the humans?  I didn’t see any.  Looks like cargo ports have been automated for quite some time now.

Megastructures – China's Ultimate Port – HD 720P – 中国终极港口

Men are still being used to manage hair-raising docking procedures at busy ports: but not for long, I suspect. Once all the cars are robotized, it will be time for the planes and ships as well.

Very strange: from 2050 onward – for the rest of human history, assuming there is no die-off or universal collapse – all ship & people-moving will have been handled by robots.

  • Animal muscle for about 6000 years,
  • Man & machine symbiosis for ~200 years (1850ish – counting trains and steamships – to the 2050s),
  • And all robots forever after (excluding those fleshy legs of yours, assuming you don’t go cyborg)
  • [If you assume that 'spirit = information', as I do, then there might be a fourth stage, assuming a massless, organized bundle of analogical information can be transmitted. That involves some fierce technological gains (theological advances?) that I don't expect to see in my lifetime. Transmittng digital information should be - and is - much easier. (See radio, fiber-optics, etc.)]

Will anyone even consider playing a roleplaying game like Traveller, with some seriously aging technical assumptions? Probably – but for the same reasons why people play Dungeons & Dragons. “Oh, for those glory days of galactic empires and ray-guns!”

And then comes the rise of the “neuromorphic (brain-like) computer chip “. A nice imitation of a tiny neuron net, and we may well expand it to human-sized by the 2030-2050 period.

IBM's TrueNorth Chip mimics the Human Brain

And yet, as one commentator (Benny X) noted:

First off, you can name the components in this Truenorth chip ‘axons, neurons, and synapses’ all you like, but please don’t mistake them for a real brain’s components. To actually build a brain-like machine, we have to actually know how the brain does what it does. We’re nowhere close to that, and we won’t be close to it for decades yet. Scientists have been chasing this problem since before any of us reading this site were born. It’s great that this tech shows vastly improved power efficiency, but the real test will be in real-world applications. Are there any yet? This article says nothing about what kinds of practical things this architecture can do – if anything – yet.

At many levels, we are still looking for the right questions, when it comes to the human mind. And if you can’t get the right questions, you have no hope of getting the right answers.

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Bringing Down the Big Boss

Bloomberg provides a useful schematic on how proper corruption investigations can be used to bring down even extremely powerful men, like the head of Solomani Internal Security. “Destroy the supports, and the peak must collapse.”

Certainly this kind of thing can be done in Imperial politics, but it tends to be tied to an innovative move or procedure: if it was well-established, then the most powerful would have already obtained insurance against it.

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From Thin Air

Entrepreneurs turn pollution into plastic

Very cool, making plastic from thin air. Even a minute before I saw this, I would have tagged it as Ancient-tech.

(And it’s not as weird as the translucent mice…)

Now, for an encore, can get free metal from the air (or the oceans) in useful amounts and timeframes?

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Art: New Gods

This isn’t really suitable for the Empty Quarter, as it’s Buddhist vibe clashes with the local religions too much. Still… the multi-armed Kali is an important part of Hinduism, a religion with a strong presence in the Quarter.

Having the Hindu Goddess of Power & Death visit a Buddhist monastery in the Empty Quarter would be big news. The reaction of unbelievers (including this writer) would also be of note. And then there is always the possibility that what we really have is a poser – possibly a non-human imitator – of this goddess that I shan’t be kneeling to.

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The Traveller Equivelant

I was considering the Traveller equivalent of this work A Father’s Workshop, but in the end I don’t think that there is… yet. Mainly, because we need a strong connection and familiarity with the tools of a workman, and those tools don’t exist yet. Also, there is something natural and familiar with workshops that a good robot shop, for example, just doesn’t have.

This could well change, once we’ve been working with robots for a good thousand years or so. Even the artwork above includes one thing – the goggles – that didn’t exist 50 years ago. (Everything else, including the hand plane, has been around since Rome at least, and more likely since Ancient Egypt.)

The (fictional) Vilani would disagree: they have been working with electricity, plastics, etc for thousands of years, so certain things would be natural to them and unnatural to Terrans/Solomani. This definitely includes tales, proverbs, their equivalent of Aesop’s Fables, etc.

I am unsure how to boil all of the above into something useful, that can be put into a story that would get the PCs to instantly grasp how old and how different the Vilani really are. But perhaps you can think of something. A really good artist might be able to make the Vilani equivalent of A Father’s Workshop, but it’s hard to work with things and people that don’t exist.

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