Axis and Allies: A Fan’s Perspective

Author: Jeff Rosbrugh  //  Category: Jeff's Musings

I’ve been a fan of board games my whole life. Many of the classics like Monopoly, Clue, Sorry, Battleship, and Life occupy spots on my game shelf even today, often in multiple editions. When I was in junior high school, I discovered Risk and thought it was the greatest board game ever. And it was, until I went to a youth group party and was introduced to Axis and Allies. Since the party was on New Year’s Eve, everyone planned to stay up late anyway, but only our group managed to stay up all night because we were so into this game. From that day, I was hooked. All of the themes of Risk (troop placement, reinforcement, economic management, border protection, global conquest) were amplified and refined into a historical setting of World War Two to create a game unlike anything I’d seen before.

Fast forward to today. I’m still a big fan of the game, which now exists in many different versions and updated editions. Some focus on one specific campaign, such as D-Day, Guadalcanal, or the Battle of the Bulge. Others focus on just the European or Pacific theaters. Still others encompass the entire globe, demonstrating how truly widespread that war was. For diehard fans of the game, there are websites, blogs, forums, and videos that discuss strategies, weigh the pros and cons of each edition, and time-lapse actual gameplay. I’ve decided not to add to the considerable amount of demo material available, at least not here. All I want to do today is review the versions I own. Without getting too far into the rules (which can sometimes be rather complicated), I will operate on the assumption that you may have played the game at least once and understand the basic rules and weapons properties. If you haven’t played before, I’ll briefly touch on a few of the basic elements. On the other hand, maybe you have one version and were thinking about getting another. My goal is to inform you and help you decide which one to acquire next.

Classic: 2-5 player global version featuring Russia, Germany, United Kingdom, Japan, and United States. Ground forces are made up of infantry and tanks; air forces are fighters and bombers; naval forces consist of submarines, battleships, aircraft carriers, and transports. This one opened up a new world for me. Still a fun game after all these years, but things were just getting started.

Europe: Smaller map limited to American East Coast, Atlantic Ocean, European continent, western Russia, North Africa, and Middle East. 2-4 players (Germany, UK, Russia, USA). Introduced artillery and destroyer, which are both big improvements over Classic. Artillery increases infantry attack. Destroyer neutralizes submarines for much less money than battleships. Improved tank properties encourage combined arms and discourage stockpiling of infantry. As the game designers began to see the drawbacks in the Classic game, they began to make rule changes and upgrades to correct them. This version was the first of several expansions designed to balance the two sides, encourage new strategies and do away with old ones, and generally make the game even better than it already was.

Pacific: Smaller map of East Asia, Pacific Ocean, and American West Coast. 2-3 players (Japan, UK, USA). Introduced naval and air bases, which improve mobility of ships and planes. Also introduces China as a separate power from US (though still controlled by that player). Probably my least favorite of the versions I own simply because I feel the game is unbalanced, making it nearly impossible for Japan to win. (I did read one review which disagreed and said if Japan can’t win, you’re not playing the game right. But I have yet to witness a game where Japan even came close.) The designers were onto something with Europe and Pacific, but it took the next version to see where the game could really go.

Revised: Updated global map. 2-5 players (same as Classic). Takes the improvements of Europe and Pacific and adds them to the original version. Improves weapons development and victory conditions. Also adds optional National Advantages, giving each player special abilities. Probably the version I’ve played the most and definitely the one I’ve taught to the most people. Effectively replaces Classic to the point where I don’t really play the older game anymore. This is the first one where it seems they “got it right.”

1941: Smaller global map. 2-5 players. A very scaled-back version of Revised. Fewer territories, simpler rules, less money, and much shorter. This is the one I would use to introduce brand-new players to the game. The best thing about it is that you can finish quickly. One of the only aspects of A&A I wish I could change is the playing time: most games take way too long and become less fun toward the end after the outcome is all but inevitable. This version plays fast enough that you don’t get bored with it. However, once players experience the larger-scale games, this one seems like a lightweight. I’m glad I have it for instructional purposes, but I don’t know how much I’ll play it compared to the bigger ones, time being the main determining factor in that decision.

Anniversary: Large global map. 2-6 players. Introduces Italy as third Axis player. China’s role is much expanded. Adds cruiser to navy, with powers between destroyer and battleship. Weapons development and factory damage rules are improved, and National Objectives are introduced. This is “the big one,” second only to Global in size and number of pieces. It had a limited print run, so it’s much harder to find and is consequently much more expensive to buy. But it’s worth it. This is easily my favorite version: best map, best game mechanics and rules, best-looking pieces, everything. The only reason I haven’t played it more than Revised is that it takes a lot longer: unless you have a whole evening to devote to it, you might not finish the game in one sitting.

Global 1940: Massive global map. 2-6 players. Introduces separate colors for ANZAC (Australia/New Zealand) and adds France as a separate playable power. Adds tactical bomber to air forces and mechanized infantry to ground forces. Improves abilities of anti-aircraft guns. New rules are added for neutral territories, naval and air bases, factories, and declaration of war. This one really is the “biggie”: the board itself is 3-4 times larger than most gameboards you’ve seen. It won’t even fit on my regular coffee table–I have to commandeer the dining room table! One reason it’s so big is that Global is actually two games combined into one: Europe 1940 and Pacific 1940. These games were designed both to play separately and for the maps to fit together, unlike the first Europe and Pacific versions. I’d recommend this only for serious players. There is a considerable investment required to purchase both boards. (Incidentally, there are first and second editions of both printed. Supposedly the second fixes most of the errors from the first.) There is also the issue of physical space–is your table large enough? Lastly is the question of time. One online reviewer said he and his buddies played Global for 11 straight hours and still did not finish. As I mentioned before, games that are overly long can require too much time for the fun you get out of it. If Anniversary takes a whole evening, Global could take a whole weekend or even longer. But if you’re into the A&A world like I am, you might love the idea of playing the game for that long.

Learning A Song By Eating Pizza

Author: Jeff Rosbrugh  //  Category: Jeff's Musings

Does learning new music seem intimidating? It doesn’t have to be! Most music is actually very simple, but it’s how it is put together that can make it seem harder. By taking apart the song and breaking it down into smaller pieces, music is much easier to remember. Let me give you an example of how quickly a song can be learned.

In a beginning art class, one of the first things students learn is that every shape in the world is some form of a circle, a triangle, or a rectangle. Ovals, octagons, and pyramids are simply variations of the three basic shapes. Similarly, all colors come from the three primaries: red, blue, and yellow. For another example, when we learn language, we start with words, then we build the words to form phrases. Phrases become sentences, sentences become paragraphs, and so on. Knowing the basics gives you the tools to form anything.

In music, we start with notes and rests that fill a measure. Measures are used to build musical phrases. Phrases are strung together to make songs. Recognizing the patterns of these phrases is how we learn and remember music.

I used this technique to teach “Jingle Bells” to a class of third graders. Up until that point, they had been learning songs like “Hot Cross Buns” which were only four measures long. So when I showed them 16 measures of music at the beginning of the lesson, some of them were a little freaked out. Then I asked them this: “If you were eating a pizza, would you try to eat the whole thing in one bite?” (Some of them wished they could try!) I went on: “No, of course not. You eat the pizza in slices. And even then you don’t eat the whole slice at once; you take one bite at a time. Music is like that too: each note is like a bite; take several bites and you’ve eaten a slice; and enough slices make a whole pizza. So here’s what we’re going to do: I’m going to teach you this song one slice at a time. Then you can see that songs are like pizzas.”

I had arranged the music into four lines on the board, which I then numbered. As we finished the first line (Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way), I said, “This is Slice Number One.” Slice Two (Oh what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh) didn’t take them long to learn either. When we got to the third “slice,” I asked if it looked like anything they knew already. Of course they quickly saw that it was identical to Slice One. Finally, they saw that Slice Four had the same beginning as Slice Two but a slightly different ending. Thus armed with the knowledge that One and Three were exactly the same, and Two and Four started out the same, we played through the entire song. And so, in a 30-minute lesson, they had learned a song that was four times longer than anything they’d learned before. “And you were worried!” I teased them at the end.

When you are learning a new piece of music, find the patterns. Maybe the melody repeats a group of notes. Maybe the chords are played in the same order through the whole song. Maybe every verse is the same and all the choruses are the same. While it’s true that some music follows no discernible pattern and never seems to repeat itself, almost all of the music we will ever hear in our lives contains patterns of phrases.  Recognizing these patterns is one of the keys to learning a song. Break it down into smaller pieces…and eat the pizza one slice at a time.

How To Improve Your Sight-Reading Skills

Author: Jeff Rosbrugh  //  Category: Jeff's Musings

Being a lifelong musician, I have had countless opportunities to read a piece of music for the first time, many of those with people watching and listening…and sometimes with the Record button on. I always thought that such a skill was part of being a musician, but as time went on I’ve discovered that I have an ability to do it better than a lot of very talented players I’ve worked with.

As with any ability, some of it is a natural talent and the rest is a learned skill. I know that I have some natural musical gifts, or I wouldn’t have pursued the career I have. But I believe most of my skills have been earned by years of study and application, meaning anyone with a little talent and a lot of ambition tempered with patience can achieve them too. So I hope that by sharing a few of my methods, you can hone your ability to look at music you’ve never seen before and play it like it’s been part of your repertoire for years.

DISCLAIMER: Most of what I’m saying relates to the piano, since it is my main instrument. Some principles will work on any instrument, whether playing solo melodies or backing up another performer. But my bread and butter skill is as an accompanist. I’m also taking the approach of reading a condensed chart, or lead sheet, as opposed to a fully realized accompaniment. Again, there is a great deal of overlap, but I’m focusing on the world of jazz and pop for now.

1. Know your theory. I’m not saying you have to go to Juilliard and earn a Master’s in music performance to be a great sight-reader…I’ve done neither. But a few years of instruction, whether in private lessons or university, will go a long way to improve your musical skills. Even a rudimentary knowledge of scales, modes, chords, and harmonic structure will help make sense of all the numbers, letters, and little black dots. Music is a language, and printed music is simply a road map to tell a performer how to speak.

2. Study the piano.  There is a reason why music majors around the country must pass a piano proficiency exam to earn their degree: it is the most foundational instrument in all of Western music. It doesn’t matter if you’re a singer, guitarist, drummer, or trumpeter. A basic understanding of the piano is crucial to any well-rounded music education. Two reasons for this are because you can see all the notes available to you, and you can play several notes together. It’s easier to visualize intervals like half steps, whole steps, and octaves on a keyboard than any other platform. It’s also much easier to understand chords and harmony on a keyboard. For example, a C major chord will have the same hand position on the piano no matter what octave it’s in, but a guitarist must memorize several hand positions to play the same C chord in different octaves. A sax player may know every note in a scale, but unfortunately they can only play one note at a time, so which scale or chord they’re playing is not immediately apparent.

3. Look for patterns. The more music you are exposed to, the more patterns you will recognize. Here is an area where theory will help. I couldn’t tell you how many thousands of songs use a I-IV-V progression, or a 12-bar blues pattern, or I-vi-ii-V. (If you don’t know theory, don’t worry about the Roman numerals–they are simply used as part of a way to understand the relationship of notes in a scale to each other. But that’s for another time.) It won’t take long playing tunes before you start to see how common certain chord progressions are. Players in jam sessions often need call only “Blues in E” or “Rhythm changes in B-flat” and they are off and running, with no other instructions.

4. Expect the unexpected. The beauty of music, of course, is that not every song follows such a predictable pattern. There are no rules which say that after playing a Dm7, your next chord must be G7. However, the reason why these patterns are so common is because they make sense to our ears. Look ahead in the music and anticipate what is coming next. If you’re on that Dm7 and you feel like it’s leading to the G7, if your intuition is right, you won’t be fumbling for the next chord. But if the harmony goes somewhere else, by looking ahead, you’ve given yourself (we hope) enough time to allow yourself to catch it.

5. Use all your senses. Music is an auditory art. Reading is a visual skill. Playing an instrument is a tactile experience. An effective sight-reader uses all three together. Seeing what note or chord comes next, the player can hear it before it occurs and knows what fingering or hand position to use. On the piano, chords feel a certain way; one term for this is called “grip.” In other words, a minor chord has a different grip from a major chord. A dominant seventh has a different grip from a major ninth. Experienced guitarists know hundreds of grips for different chords, inversions, and octaves. They often don’t think about where their hand is going–it’s muscle memory taking over. A pianist doesn’t have as many grips to contend with but the idea of muscle memory is the same. I know how far to stretch my fingers to reach an octave without being near a keyboard. Likewise, I can place my hand in position to play a major 7th, a minor 9th, a diminished 7th, a 13th, etc. without looking at my hand. When I see a chord coming up, my hand is already creating the grip for it.

6. Jump in the water to swim. I’ve had to learn not to fear the unknown when it comes to music. Often the best way to learn anything new is just to do it. Yes, I mess up that way and play a weird chord here and there, but it doesn’t take that long before I see the familiar patterns, feel those grips I already know, and by the time the song is done, I’ve pretty much got it. A great quote I learned years ago is “You can only read a piece of music for the first time, once.” If it’s a jam session, a “new” tune is played several times, so after the first or second reading, it’s not new anymore, and by the end of the song it’s yours.


Improvements in the Works

Author: Jeff Rosbrugh  //  Category: Jeff's Musings

It’s been quite a while since I posted anything here. Just to reassure you, I am still around. But while the blogging is a great way for me to communicate, and I do love to talk, the main purpose of the site is to share music with you, not just my opinions about music.

So I’m excited at the prospect of adding .mp3 files of my own original compositions. I have a few software programs I need to purchase first, so when that money comes in, I’m there. But it’s fun to anticipate. In the meantime, I hope you will enjoy listening to my songs as much as I did making them.

Christmas Music

Author: Jeff Rosbrugh  //  Category: Jeff's Musings

The day after the Oscars, I came across a friend’s link about how women are under-represented in movies. The author of the video essay has a series of these short films related to that subject. Here’s one about holiday music:

My comment on the YouTube site was limited to 500 characters, so I kept it short (and very neutral, I hope). But here I can speak a little more freely, so I will.

The reason why people get so sick of “holiday” music is because it isn’t “Christmas” music. There are only so many songs about snowmen, reindeer, and Santa we can listen to before we want to run away screaming. And it’s because we have lost the joy and spirit of the season. It’s all about commercialism, materialism, and selfish motives, and less about family, love,
and peace. Even less emphasized is the real “reason for the season”…the birth of our Lord and Savior.

Oh no, you’re thinking. You had to go there, didn’t you? What are you, some kind of religious nut? But before you click away and never listen to another word, let me assure you that I am not a nut. I’m not going to try to convert anyone to my way of thinking, but if you’re so closed-minded that you won’t even attempt to read something you disagree with, that’s your problem, not mine.

Christianity is a big part of who I am. I was raised in a Christian home and hold many of its values dear to my heart. I am not especially religious in the sense that I follow the rules and regularly attend services. In fact I do not attend church every week, although sometimes I feel I should. I even do a few things that my mother would not approve of in her own life. She might think, “I didn’t raise my kids to behave that way,” though she has never said so out loud. But if asked directly, I would answer, “Yes, I am a Christian.” And as such I try to live my life in a way that reflects that.

Along with that belief and value system, then, there are a few principles of Christmas I hold to be true in my own life. The main one is that God sent His own son to Earth as an infant to experience human existence and save the world from its sin. The whole world has the ability to accept its salvation through Jesus, even if not everyone in the world chooses to accept it. That is the true message of Christmas, and my favorite songs of the season embrace that: “Silent Night,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Gesu Bambino,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” or anything from Handel’s “Messiah.” Many of these songs (or more properly, carols) are hundreds of years old, but they have endured for the beauty of their melodies and the power of their message. They may use a style of language that people do not speak anymore, but the essential meaning is simple and straightforward.

I never tire of listening to or singing these carols. Some of them can give me goosebumps or other signs of an intense spiritual experience. It’s still hard for me to sing the “Hallelujah” chorus without choking up in the middle of it. If I could pick the music that malls would play in November and December, it would be these carols and sacred songs. But we live in a society of political correctness and secularism where nothing religious (particularly Christian) can be mentioned without offending someone. Sing all you want about snow, Santa, and reindeer, but don’t dare mention angels, shepherds, wise men, or mangers.

It’s because of this watered-down, secularized version of Christmas (or to use the PC term, holiday season) that I grow tired so quickly of being anywhere with piped-in music. The selection of songs is so limited, and the message they convey is so shallow and meaningless. A few songs really will make me leave the premises as quickly as possible, without buying anything. I won’t mention the titles here, but let’s just say that while Paul McCartney and John Lennon were great songwriters, their Christmas music won’t ever find its way onto my iPod, nor will that of Elmo & Patsy or Gayla Peevey. Look them up if you must, but don’t hate me if you say, “Aah! I hate that song too! Why did you have to remind me?”

Granted, there are several 20th Century songs about Christmas I like: “The Christmas Song” has the most generic title (which is why we know it better as “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”), but the melody and jazz harmonies are lush and beautiful. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is a sweetly nostalgic love letter from a WWII soldier to his family back home. “Carol of the Bells” is based on a 19th Century Ukrainian melody, but it didn’t really become popular in the US until the 1950s or so.  None of these songs has any overt religious imagery, but I love them almost as much as my favorite carols.

However, many of my favorite modern Christmas songs have some sacred underpinnings. “Little Drummer Boy” is set the night of the first Christmas. “Grown-Up Christmas List” wishes for the return of Christian values in our society without naming them as such. “A Baby Changes Everything” draws a parallel between a teenage mother today and the teenage Mary.

I wonder if stores would play any of these songs if they were presented in an instrumental format. Then the lyrics would only be understood implicitly by those people who already know them. Surely a smooth jazz or R&B mix would not offend anyone’s sensibilities…well, those who can tolerate that style on a daily basis anyway. If companies like Muzak can take any pop song and turn it into easy-listening mush, why not do the same with a sacred carol? The religious overtones will be lost on most people, and this way we can expand our repertoire to the whole canon of Christmas music, not just what’s been written in the last 50 years.

It’s a compromise, and even if it doesn’t turn the trend of Christmas back in a sacred direction, at least I could stand in the store and hum along without the need for earplugs or my own private mix.

Inverting Maslow’s Triangle

Author: Jeff Rosbrugh  //  Category: Jeff's Musings

While thinking about my life, I started wondering about my priorities and began to think that maybe I have it backwards. For example, is it more important to have job security or job satisfaction? Doing what I love or loving what I do? Appreciating the accomplishments of others or accomplishing something myself? Do I spend so much time taking care of the basics that I never get around to doing anything I consider fulfilling or fun?

Anyone who has taken a beginning psychology course probably had to learn about the hierarchy of human needs, described by Abraham Maslow. Maybe you have never taken psych, or maybe it’s been too many years to remember. (Don’t worry, I had to look it up too…Maslow? Maslowe? Self-something?). Anyway, here is a wikipedia link to enlighten us and refresh our memories: (if you remember nothing else about psych, you might remember the pyramid)

He’s probably right in his research as far as importance of those needs. However, I’d like to talk about the amount of time spent at each level. I don’t personally believe that the pyramid indicates how much of your day you need to spend where. I think it’s more a degree of urgency. If you’re hungry, you’re probably not going to think about fulfilling your destiny, at least not until after you’ve eaten. We’ve all seen babies, kids, and grownups get cranky when they’re tired. And it’s almost funny how the urge to pee will override EVERYTHING else you’re doing or even thinking about. You could be one step away from saving the world, but when you gotta go, you gotta go.

I’m not saying that the lower levels are not important, because they are. Nor am I saying that Maslow was outlining a regimen for our daily lives. But I think we spend too much time dealing with the bottom “stuff”, and we don’t reach the upper levels often enough as a result. So many of us are trying just to “get by” with the basics of food, shelter, and clothing that we forget about creativity, achievement, or even family and friendship.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could invert the pyramid as a reflection of the portion of time spent each day at those levels? Well, I suppose it would have to be waking hours, since we do sleep almost a third of our lives, and if you’re like me, you don’t just need sleep but enjoy it. So let’s not count that. Even so, I think people would be happiest if they spent the largest amount of time doing what they truly love, what their gifts are, what makes them feel unique, what their calling is.