Friday Jan 13, 2006

Cheap Military History Books

Whenever I go to a bookstore (especially chain stores), I always look in the bargain section. Now, everyone knows that some stuff there is not really a bargain. Also, the bargain section is not where you are going to find the absolute latest or immensely popular titles (something has to be in the regular section too). Nevertheless, there are lots of interesting items which seem pretty tempting due to their low price.

Probably like so many other people, I have gotten into the habit of comparing what I see there with eBay and Amazon zShops. What I am finding is that even with shipping, much of the time Internet sites are undercutting the bargain section of the brick and mortar bookstores. Now this doesn't sound like a huge revelation, but in my eyes this has revolutionized how I shop for used or older books. Now instead of poking around in dusty shops, I am looking over web pages.

If you have read my blog before you know I like military history. New condition military history books can easily cost USD $15 (paperback) to $30 (hardback) or more. In the past 8 months, I have bought 10 military history books (in new or almost new condition) for an average of $5 each. For example, I bought Joe Balksoski's Utah Beach for 24 cents (yes, shipping was far more at $3.50), which is roughly 99% off the retail list of $26.95. Also I bought Glantz's Stumbling Colossus for $2.45, which is about 93% off the list price of $39.95.

Anyway, if you are like me and have far too many unread books to worry about getting the absolute latest release, I would advise checking out the Internet stores.

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Tuesday Sep 27, 2005

Patton: A Genius for War

After reading his excellent Normandy account a year ago, I decided to try another one of Carlo d'Este books. This time I chose one of his biographies, Patton: A Genius for War. First off, I should say that this book is quite detailed and roughly a thousand pages! Patton not only lived an extraordinary life, he documented it extensively and preserved this record. Whether from a sense of vanity or even destiny, Patton carefully kept all of his papers including personal journals and correspondence. While the personal papers of his wife were burned after her death, his sometimes twice daily letters to her are preserved. However, all this material was not made available to researchers until some 30 years after his death. By the time d'Este wrote this book, he had access to an unusually complete record of his subject's thoughts and actions as he personally perceived them.

d'Este points out that Patton's popular image is summarized in the famous opening scene of the 1970 Patton movie. This profane, aggressive, and confident image was what Patton sought to project. At the same time, this image was an authentic reflection of his beliefs. But the picture is incomplete. In reality, Patton was far more complex than that.

Patton was afflicted with dyslexia. He could not even read until he was 11. Unfortunately, dyslexia was not recognized or understood in those times. (Patton lived from 1885 to 1945.) His affliction led to self-doubt and possibly even depression. Patton did overcome his dyslexia through tremendous determination and perseverance. But he also overcompensated and had a need to prove himself and a sense of insecurity. Patton also romanticized and idolized his Virginia Confederate military ancestors as the model for his life. Patton's single minded ambition was to strive to live this idealized military persona. At times, he was convinced of a glorious military destiny for his life. At other times, his ambition led to deep frustration. His overcompensation sometimes led to taking foolish risks with his personal safety both in battle and even while riding horses.

In trying to live up to this image, Patton obscured the other aspects of his life. He was described by some as sensitive child. Patton completely ignored the legacy of his wealthy businessman grandfather. He composed poetry, though sometimes it was rather morbid. And even when he was high ranking general, he was embarrassed to admit he that he cried like a baby on several occasions. Patton could be gracious and warm to friends. But he was awkward towards women and as a father.

True to his legend, Patton was in fact a brilliant commander with an especially keen understanding of mechanized warfare. While meticulous in his analysis of warfare, his temperment was ill-suited to the administrative and political dimensions of senior command. The famous slapping incidents and his problems as military governor of occupied Bavaris illustrate those issues. On a personal level, while many commanders disliked Patton, the feelings were apparently not reciprocated. Contrary to the movie and other accounts, he was not in competition with Montgomery. While Patton's style seemed to grate on Bradley, apparently Patton bore no ill will towards Bradley despite the reversal of their command hierarchy. While frustrated with Eisenhower's actions, Patton regarded Eisenhower as a friend.

Patton: A Genius for War is comprehensive, revealing and is perhaps the definitive account of both Patton's personal and military life. I enjoyed this book both from the military history perspective and from a general curiosity about one of America's legendary figures.

Patton participated in many US Army World War II European theatre operations. So there are numerous wargames that portray his commands. Some of the campaigns include Torch, North Africa, Sicily, the post-Cobra breakout from Normandy and the relief of Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge.

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Friday Jul 22, 2005

A Cardboard Castle

First let me say, this is not a real book review. I haven't read A Cardboard Castle?: An Inside History of the Warsaw Pact, 1995-1991, though I want to. A while ago, I read an interesting review of this book in Newsweek. I haven't seen physical copies of the book yet, but online vendors do have it. Call me cheap, but for now, the book seems a bit expensive for me. But what I did discover is a related website for the Parallel History Project on NATO and the Warsaw Pact (PHP - not to be confused with the web scripting language).

On the PHP website is a set of excerpts from A Cardboard Castle and many related documents. What emerges from looking at the website is a tantalizing peek at the Cold War through the documents of both alliances. I say tantalizing, because only a small portion of NATO and Warsaw Pact documents have been made public. A PHP paper, The New History of Cold War Alliances, talks about the general state of what has been revealed and the prospects for more. But among the piles of documents that have been revealed are some extremely interesting items.

Chief among them are the Warsaw Pact's 1964 War Plan for the Czechoslovok Army. Briefly, the document plans for a high-tempo offensive operation (including airborne units) as part of a general NATO/Waraw Pact war which leads to occupying Lyon (in France) in 9 days. All of this, in spite of possible nuclear war all around these operations. The first question is whether these plans show intent (or wishful thinking) or merely dutiful contingency planning. If the order had been given, the PHP researchers assert the plan would have been taken seriously. Nevertheless, the plans seem to be dangerously disconnected from reality. There are many other questions one could ask. The Czech Front is at the extreme south edge of the Central front area. A small part of the neighboring 1st Western Front operations are shown in the plan near Wurzburg. But I can't help wondering what the complete Group of Soviet Forces Germany (GSFG) plans might have looked like.

Some other revelations include a rather successful penetration of NATO secrets by East German intelligence and NATO's Stay-Behind Armies (preparation for resistance during occupation). All of these items lead me to want to read A Cardboard Castle when I have the opportunity. Further, I would like to also look at how the documents compare with wargames on this hypothetical conflict, like NATO (SPI 1973), NATO (Victory 1983) and Group of Soviet Forces Germany (Decision 2003).

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Thursday Jan 13, 2005

Only military history?

Okay, so all of my reviews so far have been military history. Admittedly, that is a favorite topic of mine. But I have resisted changing the category label because I intend to review some books on other topics. Though exactly when I will get around to doing that is somewhat uncertain ...

Monday Oct 18, 2004

Complete Idiot's Guide to World War I

You have probably seen these orange "Idiot's Guides" and the competing "for Dummies" series in most bookstores you go to these days. So given my interest in militray history, I decided to try the Complete Idiot's Guide to World War I by Alan Axelrod.

To most people, World War I is about a depressing and horrific, bloody trench warfare stalemate. While that is part of World War I (mostly on the Western front), it is not the complete picture. There was a lot more going on. On the purely military side, you can talk about the Russian, Italian, Balkan, Middle-Eastern and colonial fronts. Many of these fronts were quite fluid. Then there is the early aerial warfare and the naval war including submarines. Plus, there is the political background of the interlocking alliances, the Russian Revolution, America's isolationism, President Wilson's idealism, the League of Nations and the Treaty of Versailles.

The Complete Idiot's Guide to World War I is a fairly comprehensive, but somewhat high level history of World War I. The book is interesting to read and contains a lot of sidebars to define terms and provide background biographical data. Most of the definitions are too elementary for any serious military historian, but remember this is history for the masses. As military history, the book is fairly high level. For in depth descriptions of the battles, you probably need to go elsewhere. But the fatal flaw is a lack of maps. Not just too few -- basically none at all. If don't already know European geography of the period (e.g. where the Austro-Hungarian empire is), you may be confused. Having a WWI atlas handy will help a lot, but that is not something you would expect the populist target audience to have. So overall I can't recommend this book.

In board wargames, WWI has experienced a renaissance of sorts in the last decade. I think a large part of this is due to the games that Ted Racier has designed, including the highly rated Paths of Glory. But how can I look at even more games? Maybe Cyberboard will help.

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Tuesday Oct 12, 2004

In Mortal Combat

Next up in the backlog of military history was In Mortal Combat by John Toland. This book is about the Korean War. Now as you probably guess from my name, I am of Korean descent. So there was a certain amount of curiosity about the book just based on my heritage and the stories I have heard from my family.

In the United States, the Korean War has a strange place in the public consciousness as the "Forgotten War" (another book has that title). It does not refer to the generally lamentable state of history education in this country (see an episode of "Jaywalk" on the Tonight show). Rather it refers to a more willful desire to forget the disillusionment that the Korean War brought. Coming only five years after the victories of WWII, it brought home to Americans through their own sacrifice of how grim the "Cold War" struggle might be. Further, it would usher in the shades of ambiguity and doubt which would cling to the Cold War years. In the Korean War, there were issues of being a limited conflict, an undeclared war, shifting goals, press censorship, an unresolved outcome and the persistent shadow of atomic and global escalation with the Soviets. In retrospect, there was foreshadowing of many elements of Vietnam.

In Mortal Combat is a book which relates many personal stories about the Korean War. Passages in book follow the experiences of front line soldiers, commanders, POWs, civilians in the battle zone, spies, political leaders and armistice negotiators. The author has done a great job of capturing the "you are there" feel. He has also done a remarkable job at also relating the story of the North Korean and Chinese participants, given the current political realities. In many places, the stories of Chinese of various levels and defecting North Koreans is related. One comes away with an impression of how brutal and bloody the struggle was and also how unprepared the United States was for this new type of Cold War conflict.

Where the book does not do as well is in the higher level description of the military campaigns. There is not much information about orders of battles and the more detailed quantitative analysis on casualties, logistics and so forth. The maps are poor. First, there aren't enough of them, and they are not very useful to following the campaigns. While clearly drawn, the attack arrows often obscure important geographical objectives. Unit designations and organizational boundaries are often missing.

The book does reveal some interesting information. Mao is portrayed as having a fairly direct role in directing the conflict. The exploits of Eugene Clark are also amazing. But the book is weak on analysis and doesn't really make much of an attempt to resolve any of the controversies of the war (e.g. the Communist claim of US germ warfare). Rather, it only seems to bring up the views from the participants of both sides (who naturally disagree about these issues).

Overall, I would recommend it for the personal stories it relates. But I would not treat it as a definitive military history. As for games, I don't have a definitive recommendation. But reading this book has encouraged me to take a look at The Korean War by Victory Games, which has been sitting in my game collection for quite some time.

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Monday Sep 13, 2004

The Arab-Israeli Wars

In Sepember, I decided to switch gears and read some post-WWII military history. The Arab-Israeli Wars by Chaim Herzog was another case of finally getting around to reading a book that had been sitting on my shelf for a while. Herzog himself was a participant in some of the wars described in the book as well as a former Israeli president. The book covers the period from Israel's independence in 1948 to the Lebanon campaign of 1982.

I don't know many topics which generate as much heated controversy as the conflicts of Middle East. A lot of this has to do with the fact that the underlying issues are still not resolved, and in various ways the conflicts are still on going. Given the environment, it not clear whether the participants can or would really give the detailed candid accounts that one would like. In some cases, it would be politically incorrect, and in others it would betray some military secrets. Further, the public does not have access to the level of documentation that exists about much of WWII (operational orders, daily unit reports, etc.). It's not even clear that the detailed documentation still exists. So any military history about the subject is going to be incomplete and probably without a sense of definitive perspective.

With all these limitations, how does The Arab-Israeli Wars do? I think the book gives an excellent account of the operational level history from the Israeli point of view. The author gives his opinion on many issues such as the cause of the wars, and while he acknowledges other views, it's clear what his viewpoint is. There is nothing wrong with that per se, though some readers may strongly disagree with his views. At various points, he notes Israeli mistakes and some personality issues of the commanders.

The strength of the book is in the accounts describing the Israeli unit operations: where the units were, what they did, their movement, attacks and orders. I found myself wanting to know a similar level of military detail about the Arab military operations. But as noted before, that information was probably not possible to get. However it would have have been nice, if the author clarified exactly what he was able to use in that area. The maps in the book are relatively clear, but there are some passages where it is hard to relate back to the maps.

I did not find the analysis in the book to be as strong as the operational accounts. In particular, the book was written only a year or two after the 1982 Lebanon operation. I think even Israelis may have issues with his analysis of that campaign's results. But even for other wars, I found myself wanting a deeper analysis. For example, the author rarely talks about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the military technology of each side and its impact. A lot could be written about topics such as wire-guided anti-tank missiles, UAVs, ECM, etc. and their effect on the campaigns. Nor does he talk much about tactical doctrine of the participants.

Overall, I enjoyed reading The Arab-Israeli Wars. But at the same time, I realize it is not a definitive account. One fairly old board wargame that covers part of the same subject (1956, 1967, 1973) is Sinai. However, since it has been such a long time since I played the game, I can't really give it an unqualified recommendation. I will need to try it again sometime to see.

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Wednesday Sep 08, 2004

The Battle of Kursk

Since I liked the last Glantz book, I decided to try another one in August. This time I tried The Battle of Kursk by David M. Glantz and Jonathan M. House. I have only read Jonathan House as a co-author with Glantz, though apparently House has some books where he is the sole author. Nevertheless, it was Glantz's name which brought me to this book.

Like his other books, Glantz once again looks into the recently opened Soviet archives to give a fresh look at WWII Eastern front battles. If Stalingrad was the turning point, Kursk is generally known as the battle where the strategic initiative permanently shifted to the Soviet Union. The Eastern front in WWII was full of titanic, intense battles. Nevertheless, Kursk seems to have special legendary status associated with it. It was not just intense, but intense over a very large area. The campaign includes Prohorovka which is reputed to be the largest tank battle in history. The forces included the cream of Germany's mobile forces with the latest weapons rushed into production (including Elephants and the famous Panther with an immature drive train). On the Soviet side, defense was not only in depth to an unprecedented degree, but backed with huge reserves (multiple fronts). The defenses included six defensive belts, including lines that sealed off the entire Kursk salient, guarding against the possibility of the Germans exploiting a successful attack.

The Battle of Kursk gives an interesting description of the battle. What this account provides is a bit more insight into the actions of the Soviet side based on the records from the archives. Of course, it's hard to match the impact of the revelations about Operation Mars in Zhukov's Greatest Defeat. So what unfolds is interesting, but not really that surprising. As expected, the battle was a huge, intense struggle. But according to this book, while Prohorovka was a big tank battle, it is not as big as previous accounts like to paint it. Also, Glantz makes it clear that Kursk is really just the prelude to an overall strategic Soviet offensive plan for the summer of 1943. The offensives at Orel and Kharkov coming so quickly after Kursk are not surprising once seen in that light.

Glantz also tries to address some of the questions surrounding the battle. In this area, I think the book is not as strong as in the descriptions of the battle itself. For me, his analysis is interesting and somewhat convincing, but ultimately not yet the last word on these issues. For starters, why did the German attacks not succeed? In Glantz's opinion, it was the diffusion of effort necessary to fend off the continuous counter-attacks on the flanks. Of course, there is the larger question of whether getting past Obian, Prohorovka or Kursk would really let the German mobile forces break into the open. Even if they did, would that be decisive with the northern pincer stalled? Glantz notes that there were further defensive lines, though they were not as well prepared; but on the other hand, there were still substantial reserves to defend and counter-attack with. So while he doesn't flat out state it, I feel Glantz thinks the Kursk attacks did not have much chance to succeed.

An often repeated claim is that the German Kursk attack could have succeeded if launched in May as originally planned. Glantz makes the point that while Soviet forces were strengthened during the delay, the German forces also were being refitted and equipped with the latest weapons. (Oddly enough, the book has a rather poor picture of the Panther tank.) Perhaps, one part of the delay that was fatal was waiting so long that events outside of the Eastern front (Western Allies invasion of Sicily) had an impact.

The maps in this book are very much like that in Zhukov's Greatest Defeat and When Titans Clashed. Overall they are good, but at Kursk, there are so many Soviet units packed in to the battle that the maps are look very crowded and sometimes hard to read. Overall, though, I found the book very interesting and certainly something any Eastern front military history buff ought to look at.

Again, I would have liked to have mentioned a board wargame tie-in. But I don't have enough experience with the Kursk games out there to recommend one. Further, I am not sure the games will reflect the new information from this book. I am thinking of trying Clash of the Titans which is based on the famous Ring of Fire system. Certainly, I can recommend the latter game, if you want to take a look at the 4th Battle of Kharkov in the aftermath of Kursk.

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Wednesday Sep 01, 2004

Zhukov's Greatest Defeat

Yup, more military history -- I guess I am sort of on a military history kick. Back in July, I tackled another one. Zhukov's Greatest Defeat by David M. Glantz is another one that's been on my shelf a while. Previously, I had read Glantz's When Titans Clashed and was favorably impressed, so I bought some more of his books.

Glantz is known for writing Eastern front WWII books using Soviet archive material which was previously unavailable. This book is in the same vein. The problem with many older works on the Eastern front is that the Soviet side of the story has not been available. Before the fall of the Soviet Union, a lot of official history was propaganda, and often not very credible or substantiated. Even where it was accurate, it was difficult to come by the detailed background information. So it was often the case that Eastern front military history was written based on the German historical records (which the Allies seized at the end of the war and made publically available) or German memoirs. As might be expected, some of these memoirs have revised history to make their authors look better. Only recently, has it been possible to get a balanced look at the historical material. It should also be noted that this process of releasing Soviet archive material is not yet complete. It's not even clear that what has been released has been fully analyzed either.

Zhukov is known to many as the savior of the Soviet Union in WWII. Stalin certainly had the will to survive, but many credit Zhukov as providing the necessary strategic military skill to beat the Germans, especially after the purges of the Red Army officer corps. Zhukov is credited with a key role in defeating the Germans in the Battle for Moscow in late 1941. From that time on, Zhukov is seen as the top Soviet military commander, stopping the Germans at Stalingrad and directing the unstoppable Juggernaut from Kursk on. The impression is one of an undefeated leader. Sure, there were hickups along the way (like Izyum in 1942), but the basic impression remains.

Zhukov's Greatest Defeat challenges this popular view. The book reveals the previously covered up Operation Mars. Despite the vast size of the operation, it has been omitted from Soviet era official writings with only the briefest hints in fragmentary pieces. Only the opening of the Soviet archives allowed the real story to emerge. While the Germans recorded accounts of intense fighting, it seems they also did not know the true nature of the battle either.

Operation Mars was intended to encircle and destroy the German Ninth Army in the Rzhev salient near Moscow in late 1942, just as Operation Uranus encircled and destroyed the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad. Operation Uranus was followed up by Operation Saturn, Ring, etc. to produce the total collapse of the southern Army Groups which was only halted by Manstein's famous Backhand Blow. In a similar way, Mars was to be followed up by Operation Jupiter to totally destroy Army Group Center.

In the end, German reserves held, though seemingly just barely. Many German forces were severely mauled and some of the reserves needed to be pulled out for lengthy refitting. But the Soviet side experienced appalling losses with 335,000 casualties out of about 670,000 committed to this operation. About 100,000 of the total were deaths. And this all in one month of fighting. To put the collosal scale of the Eastern Front in perspective, these figures (both total casualties and deaths) are roughly one third the amount the US suffered in all of WWII in about four years of fighting. In the end, the Rzhev salient was evacuated some time later, so it doesn't even seem like the Germans had a lasting victory.

In this book, Glantz imagines what the commanders must have felt like. And so from time to time, he adds some brief passages of fictionalized first person narrative. But he carefully contains that writing to convey a mood and never to convey the actual facts of the campaign. As you might expect the extremely intense nature of Eastern front combat is very evident in this book. At times, it can feel overwhemling. The maps in this book are fairly good. The geography is done on a gray scale background with the unit designations printed in white in the foreground. And best of all, the maps don't miss items mentioned in the battle descriptions.

While we know Zhukov as a relentless commander, this book also shows his ruthless and sometimes petty side. It's not clear to me though whether this side of Zhukov was simply a product of Stalinist times or whether his inherent human failings were coming out. It is well-known that Stalin pitted Zhukov against Konev in the Berlin campaign. In Operation Mars, Zhukov is jealous of Vasilevsky's success in Stalingrad. Further, Stalin exploits the rivalry by dangling reserve armies as the prize between the two. When Mars starts to break down, Zhukov gambles more desperately by pushing his commanders harder, despite the human and material costs. It seems his reputation is more important to him. And finally, when Mars is a foregone conclusion, Zhukov becomes vindictive and punishes failure by making them continue futile attacks with a horrific cost. To top it off, several commanders are removed to both shift the blame and as revenge.

I would have liked to mention a tie-in board wargame, but I don't know of any published game which covers it. In summary, I would recommend this book to any serious WWII Eastern front military history buff. Glantz has found what is perhaps the biggest revelation yet to be revealed from the Soviet military archives on WWII.

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Friday Aug 27, 2004

Decision in Normandy

So what can you do with a new baby sleeping on your shoulder? Back in June I was faced with this question. You can read military history of course! If you are like me, you have way too many unread books piling up. Years ago I bought a used copy of Decision in Normandy by Carlo d'Este. I am glad I finally got to read this book.

Decision in Normandy is, of course, about the WWII Normandy campaign including the D-Day landings. The emphasis of the book is on trying to follow the thinking of the allied commanders and sorting out the controversies of the campaign. Certainly, the history of battle is there with all the basic facts. But it is not one of those books relating the most minute Order of Battle details and all sorts of figures on daily casualty reports. Nor is it one of those "you are there" books relating all sorts of personal stories of the combatants. For that you should read The Longest Day.

My perception is that D'Este is relatively well-known author (especially his Patton book), though I haven't read his other books. This book has an almost academic style, but it is still very readable. The book seems well-researched and meticulous. I am not sure why there isn't more about the German perspective, except that many of the main participants (like Rommel) were dead. Of course, there are limits to trying to get inside the heads of the commanders and recapturing their thinking from that time. But there is no shortage of material about the Allied side to shift through (the victors always write the histories).

Much of the controversy comes down to Montgomery's claims. Monty receives a lot of criticism in this book, but my personal feeling is that the criticism is fair. As you would expect, there is quite a bit about grabbing Caen quickly, Monty's phase lines, pinning German armor in the British sector and Falaise. But there is also a lot of other fascinating material. Personally, I found the discussion on several other points very interesting, including: the earlier invasion plans, the opposition to Anvil-Dragoon, the British infantry shortage and the use of airpower in a carpet bombing mode.

My pet peeve in reading military history is bad maps. Maps are key to any military history. It's certainly true here too. My personal "map test" is to see if the maps actually show what is mentioned in the text. The most common error here is to have the map depict the general area and all the large landmarks but none of smaller towns and ridges actually making up the battles mentioned in text. Does that happen in this book too? Occasionally it does, but not very often. There are also some passages which would have been helped by having another map, instead of trying to extrapolate from the others. I do have to say the maps are clearly drawn, and this book does better than average.

Overall, I give this book high marks both as relatively in-depth, original military history and as an enjoyable read. I look forward to reading more of Carl d'Este's books, including some of his WWII Mediterranean front books.

PS: My original entry into reading military history was from board wargames. So I certainly can't pass up a chance to recommend a wargame on this subject. There are a lot of D-Day games to choose from, but I will just mention one, Breakout: Normandy. While the game does not cover the period of the historical breakout and Falaise, it's quite a good board wargame about the invasion and trying to secure a breakout. Game units are regiment/brigade level. One turn in the game covers a day using Avalon Hill's "impulse/area movement" system. It's overall complexity is medium, and it plays relatively fast -- and of course, it is great fun. If you really want to delve into it, also take a look at Web-Grognards and on the ConsimWorld discusssion board.

For a game concentrating on the breakout and aftermath, Decision in France looks promising. However, I don't have enough experience with it to give it an unqualified recommendation. There is some discussion of this game on ConsimWorld here.

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