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Topics - Jubal

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The World of Kavis / A Storm Over Gemiscare - Second Run
« on: Today at 12:03:25 AM »
Second time I've played this story. Notes this time will make sense mostly for me, unless you read the previous writeup to get the thread of the adventure.

Spoiler (click to show/hide)

General Gaming - The Arcade / The Witcher games - combat systems query
« on: November 24, 2019, 04:43:28 PM »
People who've played the Witcher: Wild Hunt, what's the combat system like? I liked the top-down system in the first game, but I gave up on the second game pretty shortly after the prologue because I just found the combat controls and style to be both a mess to handle and creating rather boring combats even when one could get them to work. So I'm wondering about just skipping to the third game.

Doctor Who / Series 12 DW Trailer
« on: November 23, 2019, 11:40:21 PM »

OK, this looks genuinely really good. Hope the series lives up to it :)

I have been reading games studies journals a lot today and I now have a stack of studies I'd like to do. In particular, I've seen some experimental attempts to look at active reception of historical ideas from games - sitting some players down in front of a game for a bit and then asking them how they feel about it as a historical source - but I can't find anything on passive reception which would seem like a much more interesting, and also eminently testable, area.

One would need to survey a number of active players of a particular historically themed game (or fantasy game) and then ask them to rate a series of propositions according to whether they thought this was a plausible or valid interpretation of the past. The majority of the propositions would be false or at least very arguable, with some true as a control: the question would be whether the interpretations that were logically encoded into or reflected in the game they played regularly were accepted as true at a noticeably higher rate than those that were not. It may be that the signal would be too noisy, certainly for controversial statements - I don't think you could use "Medieval Europe had almost no white people in it" as a false statement to throw at players of The Witcher, for example, because there's been enough surrounding public debate that gamers might well hold a view regardless.

Statements like "Medieval merchants tended to make more money by taking their goods further afield" for a player of Age of Empires II would be more interesting - there's no particular reason to assume that taking your goods further made more money in the majority of cases: of course taking your goods to somewhere with a shortage and demand for the product might lead to going further, but getting to a centre of demand was the important thing. Age of Empires, however, having no mechanic for trade goods per se, relies on a simple distance mechanic that encodes the idea of distance being fundamentally linked to increased profit, and that's the sort of thing where I think you could validly test if the mechanics of a historically themed game conditioned people to accept statements about the past that would fit those mechanics.

I'm kinda surprised not to have found any studies of this kind - if anyone knows of any, do poke them my way.


Korsakoff's Rome Total War: Vanilla Extended mod has been released! This mod replaces a number of the vanilla Rome: Total War factions with additional historical realms, from the post-Macedonian mediterranean Kingdoms of Pergamum and Epirus, to the tiny Bosporan kingdom and mighty Media Atropatene in the east, or the Celtic Tribes on the northwest fringes of Europe. There are also reworked unit rosters for a number of factions, with an extended range of troops available to Numidia, Thrace, and Dacia among others, as well as tweaks to the campaign map. The whole mod retains the feel and balance of classic vanilla RTW, giving you its classic gaming experience that gamers have enjoyed for the past fourteen years - do check the mod out at the links below:

The Boozer / Cute and Wholesome Picture Thread
« on: October 18, 2019, 10:35:28 PM »
I think we used to have one of these but it's buried in the dim and distant past, so here's a new one. Post nice and cute and sweet and good things  :)

Firstly, a few more Frankfurt photos I found whilst editing the piece I just posted:

And a couple of things I thought were cute from The Webs:

The Boozer / Of regrown leaves: three months in Frankfurt
« on: October 18, 2019, 10:30:14 PM »
Of regrown leaves: three months in Frankfurt

Spending three months in a city is a very different proposition to spending a few days there for a conference or visit, and it likewise leads to a very different feeling when considering the prospect of writing up such a stay. The plotlines and platitudes and brief histories with which one weaves together a brief impression of a city can no longer suffice so well, as bits of a place seep into you and you into them, memories left littered around municipal parks and emotions left tangling around tram station pillars when you finally leave. Between that, and life getting in the way, this piece has coalesced awkwardly over some months since I last set foot in the city – but I think is nonetheless better than if it had not been written at all, and that, sometimes, needs to be the bar one sets.

To say that Frankfurt-am-Main has a long history would be an understatement. The name derives from “Ford of the Franks”, hinting at its early medieval roots from before “Frankish” and “German” were really understood to differ. Even then, the first settlements in the area of the modern city were ancient, with a Roman complex present in the area. The period after the Roman retreat to the Rhine is shrouded in mystery, but by the late eighth century it was known as a significant settlement, and in the ninth it was the seat of Louis the Pious, becoming effective capital of the East Franks for a century, and further into the Middle Ages was the place where Bernard of Clairvaux called Conrad III to his place in the Second Crusade. Over time, it took its place as the major city in the region of Hesse, which gives its name to hessian sacking and was the source of many if not all of the feared Hessian jaegers who served as British-aligned mercenaries in America’s War of Independence.  Frankfurt itself was an Imperial Free City for many centuries, and at the end of the Middle Ages became the coronation site of Holy Roman Emperors (replacing Aachen) before being more properly merged into Hesse in recent centuries.

Old and very, very new together in the centre of Frankfurt.
That process was not, of course, smooth. Goethe, one of the city’s more famous sons, lived to see the end of the Holy Roman Empire, Frankfurt’s brief existence as a Napoleonic principality, its return to free city status and it becoming in effect the federal capital of Germany, all within the last three decades of his life. A decade later, Frankfurt would host Germany’s first elected parliament, whose unhappy two year attempts to form a constitution were eventually crushed by the might of Prussia. In the 1860s, Prussia did much the same to Frankfurt itself, whose intellectual cross-currents and harbouring of anti-Prussian writers and satirists needled Bismarck. How quickly Frankfurt could turn from refuge to place of fear was tested too many times over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – perhaps one of the last and most famous cases being that of a family whose name reflected that of their city, among many who fled Germany in the 1930s. Just one of them – Otto – was still alive twenty years later. That his daughter, Anne Frank, is one of the twentieth century’s most famous diarists would never be a consolation for his unspeakable loss. Nor for Frankfurt more widely could the loss be retrieved; until the 1930s and 1940s, Frankfurt had hosted one of the largest and oldest Jewish communities in Europe, first referred to in documents in the 1070s, although one which had suffered numerous pogroms and ghettoization at the hands of the city’s Christian residents at various points. Frankfurt Jews included the pioneer of international banking Mayer Amschel Rothschild and his family, and the liberal politician Ludwig Landmann, who became mayor of Frankfurt in the 1920s. Unlike the Franks, Landmann was never caught by the Nazis, but nor did he see the end of the war, dying malnourished and in hiding in the Netherlands in 1945.

Frankfurt was badly wounded in its physical as well as its human and moral fabric by the trials of the twentieth century, but it’s a fact only made obvious today by the comparative lack of older buildings and the more modern repaired nature of those that remain around the centre. The past is remembered, but it is by no means on display. It feels like a new city, not an old one, with skyscrapers continually shooting upwards and building works frequently visible in well maintained, wide streets, the latter (compared to, for example, Vienna) being one of the things I noticed most in my early reconnaissance of the city after arriving. Whilst the old centre is there, with some museums and old wood-frame buildings and cobbled areas, it feels very repaired, polished, and tourist-focused compared to the centres of more southern and eastern European cities. Parts of it reminded me of the towers and blocks of Chicago more than anything, complete with chattering suited groups of men and women swishing between glass-panelled offices - modern Frankfurt, in short, is back in business, has money and is very happy for you to know about it.

Ginnheim, in northwestern Frankfurt, where I lived.
The centre was not for the most part the main thing of interest for my stay, however – another difference to when one only has a short time in a city. I stayed in Ginnheim, northwest of the centre. This was once presumably a separate nearby village with its own cluster of older buildings, including its chapel and a very good restaurant which specialises in almost terrifyingly large portions of very good Balkan food. Public transport took me easily to and from the Bockenheim campus where I worked by tram, and the Airbnb I stayed in was a pleasant one-room rent from Dave and Suki, a respectively Dutch/Korean couple who worked between Frankfurt and Utrecht. The nearby shops other than the Lidl and Rewe supermarkets were largely run and owned by families of east Asian or Middle-eastern origin, including a grocer which did excellent baklava and a bakery café where I spent several pleasant afternoons working. The city outside the slickness of the centre has a quiet, comforting internationalism to it, displaying the multifaceted face of modern Germany.

My time in Frankfurt was inextricably bound up with another country entirely – Georgia. I was there to learn the language, and learn I certainly did. ახლა მე ვლაპარაკობ ქართულად, მაგრამ ცუდად - ფრანკფურტი კარგი იყო! Whilst to my knowledge there are no particular long term connections to Frankfurt or Hesse, German-Georgian relations have an almost surprisingly long and chequered history, including in the nineteenth century the presence of emigrant groups of Swabian Lutherans and other German settlers in eastern Georgia, whose architectural legacy can still be seen even if Stalin forcibly relocated the majority of them in the 1940s. Frankfurt is now, in any case, one of the main centres for linguistic studies of Georgian in Europe, and it was the academics there who I mainly went to see, particularly Professors Jost Gippert and Manana Tandaschwili (the latter surname transliteration being here in Georgian to German form – Tandashvili might make more sense for an English speaker)! To Manana in particular I owe a very great deal of gratitude for her time and for what limited ability with this complex but enchanting language I have been able to attain.

This family of Egyptian geese were regular sightings in Frankfurt's parks.
It was early in my stay when I first decided to go to the Gruneburg park, one of the more obvious locations on the map of Frankfurt and next to what is now officially the university’s main campus, which I never had occasion to go to. This is a fairly sizeable park, with wide grassy spaces at its southern end but also tree-shaded walkways around which red squirrels could often be seen, a cafe (which I never tried but looked very nice), and a pleasant Korean garden which contained bundles of tiny baby moorhen. In a small northern appanage (the first part of the park I actually came to), there was another a long pond which hosted various water-friendly birds and animals. Here man of my best wildlife pictures were taken, with a good diversity of habitat and animals relatively relaxed in the presence of humans. The first and most noticeable of the long pond's water-birds, on that initial visit, was a family of Egyptian geese, with a group of tiny ducklings (the nomenclature is confusing, but Egyptian geese are most closely related to shelducks rather than true geese). This family seemed to stay happily in place by the pond about as long as I was in Frankfurt, and I was able to see the chicks grow week by week from tiny balls of fluff into sleek young adults. Grey herons were also visible both on this pond and in the Korean garden’s pond, and the northern pond occasionally had small numbers of painted turtles – an American species originally which now via pet releases has stable populations across parts of Germany. It was not, after all, just the human inhabitants of Frankfurt that had an international diversity to their origins.

Just across the road from the Gruneburg park lies the botanical gardens, which I only visited rather later in my trip - whilst often packed with people, these sizeable gardens are also well worth a visit, and offer much more impressive bedding and ranges of plants than the other park areas in the city, as well as a fairly large array of food outlets and even a boating lake, one end of which is protected from boats and instead covered in a sizeable painted turtle colony (the Gruneburg park tortoises may well be an extension of this main colony - painted turtles can move a surprisingly long distance in search of places to live). I always tend to enjoy the greenhouses most - perhaps because the range of plants is more different to what I grew up with - and the one here did not disappoint, with an especially lovely range of bromeliads, which I have always had a soft spot for, only in part due to Terry Pratchett's memorable lines about them. In my one visit there, I also saw a bar-headed goose - which fitted with the Egyptian geese and painted turtles as a non-native, though a rarer one as bar-headed geese aren't thought to have significant European breeding populations. They are very pretty and regular escapes from private collections make them a not too uncommon sight in Europe, but Frankfurt is a far cry from their standard trans-Himalayan migration routes all the same.

Marie-Bittorf-Anlage was home to many fieldfares like this one.
Walking to or from the parks, another feature that was very noticeable about Frankfurt was the streets. These were wider and far more traffic-heavy than their Viennese equivalents: large arterial roads blazed their way through the modern city, with the aforementioned northern appanage of the Gruneburg park being connected to the larger southern section only by a thin footbridge over a multi-lane highway. Whilst Frankfurt’s public transport network is well maintained, slickly run, and inexpensive, this does not seem to allay the fact that it is a car-heavy city all the same.

It was a week or so more before I discovered two other parks. One, was the closest little patch of green to my house, was named in 2015 for the twentieth century trade unionist and socialist Marie Bittorf, a consistent feature of local politics from the 1920s to late 1950s except during the 1933-45 period when she was forced out of office by the Nazis. This small pocket of grass and a few trees was far from expansive, but it was frequented heavily by fieldfares, a winter bird in my native UK but nesting and breeding down here in Germany. Treecreepers, blue-tits, goldfinches and chaffinches were also all common enough sightings, as were the ever present red squirrels, which seemed to be considerably more common in Frankfurt than I have ever found them to be in Vienna. Later in the evening, glimpses of bats whistling past were common, though unlike many of the other common animals of the city I never found a way to capture the sight of these wonderfully nimble fliers. It was the other nearby park to Ginnheim, however - the Niddapark - that perhaps most captivated me of all the green spots I found in the city.

The Niddapark, named for the Nidda river which runs through its very northern end, is the largest of Frankfurt’s urban parks, containing several blocks of woodland, some orchard-like areas of planted trees, and wide open spaces largely used by Frankfurt’s many dog owners. The area had been proposed as a park as early as the 1910s, and was later debated as a site for Frankfurt’s zoo, but it was not until the 1980s that a federal garden show became the impetus for its eventual turning into a public park. It is now popular with dog walkers, runners, and cyclists, though the high footfall and dog presence does not seem to have hampered the wildlife much. The river itself is sadly not as exciting as it might be, with steep canalised banks and little of the water-side vegetation that might be needed for a more interesting range of wildlife. It is the woodland that is probably most interesting, though much of the grassland is also rarely cut and as a result hosts butterflies, solitary wasps, and other insects at the right times of year.

Buzzards, one of the Niddapark's most characteristic birds.
The range of animal and bird species on offer in the Niddapark is wide, and plenty are quite easily visible, the most spectacular being European buzzards whose wide wings are very rarely lacking from the skies overhead. I got a particularly good glimpse of one that led to a decent photograph just once, a chance sighting of one on a tree branch deep in the shade of a hot day. Most of the time, they move too fast or are simply too far away for an amateur photographer, but their wheeling flights are nonetheless a majestic part of the skies above the park. Jays are also a beautiful and fairly common sight as are both great spotted and green woodpeckers, not to mention the omnipresent red squirrels and a wide variety of small birds. Perhaps my most interesting record of the latter was a single sighting of a hawfinch, the reclusive powerhouses of the finch world whose heavy beaks are adapted to crack through cherry and plum stones. In the evenings mice were also quite easy to see, especially in Ginnheim wood on the east side of the park, with a little patience.

Whilst I spent much of my time in Frankfurt with my nose to the proverbial grindstone (and literal pages of Georgian notes), I was fortunate enough to meet some of its residents as well, including running two one-shot games of the Savage Worlds RPG system, which I was trialling for the first time. My hastily assembled gaming group hailed collectively from four countries across three continents – modern Frankfurt at its finest – and all happily settled in to the two mystery adventures I played through with them, and I was pleased how those went. The setting I was working on had already grown out of two small computer games I’ve written, most notably a text adventure mostly written about seven years ago called Adventures of Soros. More recently I’ve been returning to it and expanding it, and these sessions were an opportunity to test-run a few of my ideas and remind myself of the basic skills needed to take players through a game – there’s a couple of creatures I definitely now think of as the “Frankfurt monsters” as a result!

A part of the city forest - mandarin ducks were common here.
The museums of Frankfurt are also well worth a mention. There were several I didn’t get to, including unfortunately the main museum of the city’s history, but I saw some, mainly by joining some friendly locals for the Long Night at the Museums (a “one ticket, one evening, many museums” arrangement that a number of Frankfurt’s museums take part in). Those I did see included the natural history (Senckenberg) museum which is a well presented medium sized museum of its kind with a wide range of impressive fossils and taxidermied animals, near to the city’s astronomical museum which hosts an observatory at the top with excellent views. The other thing I managed to do during the Long Night at the Museum was to pay a visit to the city’s cathedral, St. Bartholomew’s, which hosted a choral music performance. Frankfurt Cathedral is quite modern, having been rebuilt after its destruction in a nineteenth century fire and then heavily repaired after twentieth century bombing. There has been a city church on this site since the seventh century or so, and the modern building represents the third complete reconstruction of the building – a cycle of renewal that perhaps makes the cathedral fit the city all too well. I nonetheless found it quite a beautiful building, perhaps partly because the somewhat sombre pseudo-medievalism of the experience was a relief from my usual feelings about overly visually busy, over-decorated baroque styles of church and church art, which I’ve never quite managed to reconcile myself to liking. Curiously, the building is not in the true sense of the term a cathedral, despite it usually being referred to as such, being the city’s main church and the previous coronation seat of Holy Roman Emperors. It is nonetheless not a bishop’s seat and not the centre of a see, being traditionally a collegiate church linked to the city’s former Imperial residence.

One of Frankfurt’s final beauties, and one I should perhaps have discovered earlier than I did, was the city’s forest, an ancient part of Frankfurt’s amenities that was the subject of a century or so of fourteenth and fifteenth century legal wrangling between the Teutonic Knights who held the grazing rights and the city who had purchased the land itself back from the Emperor. The forest is vast, and my single day’s explorations of it barely scraped the surface, besides it being a hot summer’s day and thus poor for seeing much. Various features are tucked away in the woods – of particular note is the Konigsbrunnen, a rushing spring with a picturesque nineteenth century stone setup around it, though other oddments like an unexpected well with old heraldic stonework around the rim were certainly charming too. Parts of the forest at least are quite accessible: trams can be taken right into the middle of the forest, with a restaurant and some other buildings close to the tram stop. Large ponds and watercourses create a good level of habitat diversity, though the most noticeable birds here which I hadn’t seen in Frankfurt itself were some mandarin ducks, the males just starting to head into their dull “eclipse” winter plumage but still startlingly beautiful. Doing poorly in much of their native range, especially in China, the prospect that the introduced mandarin ducks of Europe may in a decade or two have a larger population than their native cousins is by no means unthinkable.

Frankfurt is an old city and a new city alike, but perhaps more than anything it feels like a city that is about turning over new leaves. It’s a feeling both born out of the intense, deep pain of the city’s past that makes it a struggle to look backwards, and out of the changing needs of the city’s chrome and glass rebirth going forward. Standing prosperous, and hopeful that it can be the city that it wasn’t able to be at times in the past, Frankfurt’s memories are as barely visible as my own after I left – which of course I had to, as the crickets chirred louder and louder in the trees, their leaves now fully grown, and the high summer came in to the sound of their strigillating violins. Britain and Georgia both loomed near in my future, but the train on which I alighted out of the city, after a few last days of final walks, last buzzard sightings low across the Niddapark, and rounds all too brief farewells, was the direct one to Vienna. Even if a shadow of a shadow of my footstep still sounds below the breeze in Ginnheim wood, some days, Frankfurt had to look to its future, and I had to do likewise. Southward, homeward, and on.

The nearly full grown Egyptian geese - this is the same family shown above, taken a few days before I left Frankfurt.

Recent sad news from the world of webcomic: Rob and Linda Balder's Erfworld, one of the big classics of the fantasy & gaming webcomic world, has shut up shop after many years because of unspecified personal problems for the authors. There had I think been family illness issues before this, but it sounds like something else grim has caused a very big shift in how they're approaching things - they've gone so far as to take the blog down entirely, they've asked Rich Burlew to remove his site's mirror copy of Erfworld Book One and shut down the GITP Forum thread on the subject, and generally it's all completely locked down except for the core Erfworld community.

Whatever's happened, it's a sad loss - Erfworld was a unique, quirky look at the rules of wargames and how worlds built around them could operate and be a basis for storytelling. The way that the tight-written game rules were interwoven with the story was definitely an influence on how I think about things like game design and appreciating the ways that mechanics can channel and create constraints that make for good stories.

The past archives are still available on Erfworld's website, as well as the rather minimal info about what's occurred. I've no idea what's happened, but I hope there's a light at the other end of the tunnel for all the people involved, somehow or other. :(

I found this article pretty interesting and mostly wanted to share to see if anyone had any thoughts:

Especially this sort of bit:
At the core of the difference between how game designers and players speak about difficulty is the fact that we discuss it in terms of skill progression. All difficulty design is essentially that: crafting how players will learn, apply skills, and progress through challenges.

Game designers don’t actually talk that much about difficulty; we talk about things like progression systems and mental load. None of these things are strictly questions of “difficult” versus “easy” — they’re more about how we guide players to greater competency, and what that journey should be like, ideally.

And here is a unique progression system in Souls-like games such as Sekiro: Instead of teaching players the skills they need to beat a sequence or challenge beforehand, Souls-like games require you to progress by trial and error, learning by doing, understanding the rhythm of a fight while being in the fight itself.

In Souls-like games, death is not failing; it is growth. That has been the case in many games in the past, but this genre makes the connection between learning and failing explicit. It’s easy to understand, which is part of the reason players find it so welcoming despite the “difficulty” it creates. It feels fair to them.

Subsequently, what is at the core of a Souls-like game, from a designer’s perspective, is the importance of trust. We call this the player-developer contract. So much more is possible if the player trusts what we’re doing, and is comfortable failing in order to get better.

It's a perspective I've not really thought about before, perhaps partly because I don't play quite those sorts of games, but I thought it was interesting.

The Town Crier! Announcements! / Updates from the Forge 35: Autumn 2019
« on: September 30, 2019, 10:01:08 PM »
Issue 35: Autumn 2019


Autumn browns and damps are seeping into the forests across the northern hemisphere, colder winds are beginning to blow, and the slow days of summer are coming to an end. And with that comes your Autumn edition of Updates from the Forge, Exilian's newsletter of creative geekery! This issue contains news from across the site for July, August, and September - since the change to a quarterly schedule we're ending up with very packed issues, and there are several projects, including some fantastic game dev work, that haven't made it in this time, but we'll prioritise those for the next issue of course. We've got two entirely new projects on Exilian this time, which is always nice, and a great array especially of medieval themed game dev going on - appropriate as your editor is about to start teaching a university course on medieval topics in computer game design!

There's not much news from across the site this time - the summer months are usually quiet - but there've been some discussions starting on some MUCH bigger news for 2020, so keep an eye out for that in the Winter/New Year edition. We'll also have elections coming up in December and we'd love to see some new faces on the team, so if you'd like to help make this newsletter happen or otherwise support our work helping creative projects out, do give one of the admins a shout or ask about it in Questions & Suggestions.

And with that, here's this issue's nine projects in the showcase...


  • Editorial
  • Game Development
    • Tourney: Fools and Foibles, Statues and Surgeons
    • Mostly Intense Monster Defence
    • Introducing: HEUSS!
    • Onto the grid - AI tactics from Heralds of the Order...
    • Rome:Total War - Vanilla Extended Returns!
  • Writing & Arts
    • New Exilian Music Releases!
    • Meeting Megiumi in Aviarium...
    • Mountain Leopards: One Year On
  • Miscellany
    • Let us know what you're reading - and find recommendations!


Tourney: Fools and Foibles, Statues and Surgeons

Exilian moderator Tusky's wonderful project Tourney continues to come along, with several new additions to announce. One notable one is the surgeon's tent, where injured knights can get "fixed up" after a joust goes wrong... though with the standards of medieval decidedly medieval, they may have to hope that the cure isn't worse than the injury! As well as the surgeon, the jester has also arrived to the tournament ground to wander around and entertain - or perhaps make fun of and annoy - your various tournament guests. More detail has been added to many of the characters as well, including subtle tips that may help you annoy enemy knights in critical banterous moments. With all this, and more features like statues starting to be added, there's a great deal to be looking forward to - and you can find regular updates on the Exilian devlog thread.

Mostly Intense Monster Defence

New Exilian member Patsui has recently released Mostly Intense tower defence, a game with bouncy pixel graphics in which you must defend your dungeon from hordes of downright impolite "heroes" (who do they think they are) who are showing up to ruin your day. Skeletons, goblins, mages, and other monsters can be summoned to bolster your defences across a sixteen level story mode or, if you're feeling the long haul, an endless mode with an eternity of randomised waves of foes to be thrown at you! With lots of humorous dialogue through the campaign as well, and an interesting "tactics wheel" control system that allows you to switch the focus of your defending troops at speed, there's plenty to look at in this new title.

Introducing: HEUSS!

Another new project, this one from Manic Arts, Heuss (pronounced roughly rhyming with "goose", in case you were wondering), is an upcoming medieval themed combat game inspired by One Finger Death Punch which involves a centred player being attacked by enemies from both sides, with the combat arts and skill of dodging, blocking, and of course swinging a sword being the core focus of the gameplay. As well as basic spear-wielding grunts, enemies will include sword-and-board heavies capable of defending themselves, archers whose shots you will need to dodge, and sneakier quick-attack foes among others.

Heuss is especially well worth looking at for any aspiring developer as well thanks to its exceptionally well crafted series of YouTube devlogs, the "Road to Steam" series which is a core part of the project. These take the watcher in great detail through the process and design decisions in making the game, relating them to other games and showing the production process and results clearly on the screen in bite-sized episodes of just a few minutes each. The short format and effective delivery make these a particularly good playlist for the aspiring developer. Well worth checking out!

Onto the grid - AI tactics from Heralds of the Order...

We've had some fantastic new devlog posts from Archaean Games, creators of Heralds of the Order, on their grid-based tactics system. There are some really interesting insights involved on how their AI calculates units' tactical options, and the necessity of building an AI that provides for a fun game over and above one that gives the greatest effectiveness via tactics that feel wrong from a human perspective. How the range of units and gameplay style functions in is also discussed, as well as the underlying systems of influence maps and behaviour trees that allow the AI to calculate what it thinks is the correct move for its unit in any given circumstance. These new articles are a really good under the bonnet look at the constricution of a game AI and are very well worth having a read through. With an upcoming improved demo release apparently likely, we're hoping to hear much more from the Heralds of the Order in weeks to come!

Rome: Total War - Vanilla Extended Returns!

Korsakoff has recently returned to Exilian with some cool new updates on his Vanilla Extended mod for RTS/TBS classic Rome: Total War! This mod keeps close to the classic game but extends it to better showcase the wars of Alexander's successors, the diadochi. RTW: VE's faction list has recently undergone some changes, with the Briton-only faction being switched out in favour of a broader "Celtic Tribes" faction straddling the English Channel that will have more room for expansion on the European continent. Another change is the removal of Parthia in favour of Atropatene, one of the actual historic counterweights to Seleucid dominance deep in the Middle east.

Exilian grew out of the Rome Total War and Mount & Blade modding scenes more than anything else, having provided support for mods including Rome Total Realism, Warhammer Total War, Persian Invasion, Valar Morghulis, Narnia Total War, and more - and it's really good to see some RTW modding continuing here. Please do head over to the RTW modding forum and discover many new options for playing one of the greatest classics in strategy gaming!


New Exilian Music Releases!

We have new music from Jubal on the Exilian Media YouTube channel, with two new songs including the above new original sea shanty "Salt Horses", written in a traditional style as one of two poems produced for Tusky as a prize from one of our creative competitions. The other new song is another of his long series of Game of Thrones themed pieces, a long House Arryn themed ballad called The Falcon Knight. Jubal's Game of Thrones song cycle project started several years ago, but new GoT themed music keeps emerging from it now and again, with nearly all of the major houses having their own songs up on the channel now!

Exilian has two YouTube channels - The Exilian Channel for vlogs and news, and Exilian Media for songs, convention talks, drama/audio projects, and more besides. Please do subscribe to both: we'll hopefully be updating bits of them more in the coming months and we'd very much like you to be along for the ride.

Meeting Megiumi in Aviarium...

In Aviarium, Ierne's world of fantasy and flight, we've been introduced to new character Megumi. Enigmatic and blunt-spoken, her role as guide to the new world that Winter must explore will no doubt be important, aided by her wide array of expertise as a time traveller and adventurer and her apparently very limited array of expertise as a void ship pilot. There's also her folding bed. There has been little detail as of yet about the folding bed, but the folding bed undeniably exists, it is undeniably Megumi's, it may or may not have been heavily discounted, and it may prove crucial to the fate of the multiverse. Or it might just be a folding bed. Who really knows what secrets lie in a creaky set of easily foldable bedsprings?

Aviarium is the setting for some upcoming fiction by Ierne, but is also getting setting updates and periodic art releases on the forum which are well worth looking at, with some lovely creative bits of world building that are worth looking at for inspiration. It's a multiverse fantasy setting with the eponymous focus on flight, but with a gentle undercurrent of Pratchettian/Adamsian whimsy that brings its characters all the more to life. With other time travellers, mages, and dragons all appearing in watercolour in the Aviarium thread, as well as side discussions on Ardan Shakspeare and the logistics of magically generated wings, this is a great project for lovers of light hearted fantasy to go and follow.


Mountain Leopards: One Year On

Jubal's fantasy webcomic, Mountain Leopards, reached one year old in August, with 22 episodes released so far. Based on a mix of Caucasus culture and world folklore, in a style inspired by comedic fantasy titles such as The Order of the Stick, this comic follows Botso Kakhaisdze and his friends - or at least, his acquaintances - as they stumble across adventure in the wild mountains of the far-flung kingdom of Datvieti. Complete with scheming priests, murderous assassins, an unexpected visit from Annie Lennox, and a very great deal of banter, the comic romps on into its second year of existence with many new pages planned and the main plot really beginning to get underway. Read on!


Let us know what you're reading - and find recommendations!

In Exilian's Storytellers' Hall, we've got a long running "What Are You Reading" thread where Exilians have periodically over the last ten years been posting about their recent reading matter, giving thoughts, reflections, and recommendations. It's well worth a leaf through to find thoughts on books from N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth to Sholokov's cossack epic The Don Flows Home To The Sea, and much in between. We'd like to hear from you as well - giving recommendations and discussing recent reads is a great part of our community, and we hope you'll head over and take a look...

And there you have it. Hope you enjoyed this issue, take care as the year turns colder, and see you in December!

Computer Game Development - The Indie Alley / Free game creation software
« on: September 03, 2019, 03:39:52 PM »
What do people use/can people recommend on this front? Looking for things that are free to download and super easy that I might be able to get students to have a play around with.

Amusing little extract from an upcoming XKCD book, in which they got one of the world's greatest tennis players to see how well she could fend off a drone invasion. Answer, better than expected :)

The Town Crier! Announcements! / Fringe Planet Kickstarter is Go!
« on: August 13, 2019, 06:08:25 PM »
Fringe Planet - The Kickstarter!

The Fringe Planet kickstarter is happening! As of today, you have 30 days to go and back Beebug Nic's horror-themed block-based game set on a floating rock in the dark void of ethereal space. On this strange frozen world, a small band of peons will struggle for existence. They may not make it through the trials that their harsh and barren existence throws at them - but those that do will learn to harvest and live alongside the nightmarish spirits that inhabit the void alongside them, and grow stronger - and, just maybe, discover something of the lore of their new home and the secrets of their own past!

As the player, you must shepherd your peons through their attempts at survival, building new constructs, protecting them from the horrors of the void, and hopefully not having them go too mad... click the image link below to see the kickstarter campaign and back the game, with rewards including the game soundtrack, the ability to name and provide backstory details for peons, and at higher backing levels even to design creatures for the game!

Exilian Articles / Exilian Interviews: Eric Matyas!
« on: August 08, 2019, 04:47:53 PM »
A Conversation With: Eric Matyas!
Your Interviewer: Jubal

Eric Matyas is a long-standing Exilian member best known as founder of SoundImage, a website that provides a free to use archive of thousands of music files, images, and sound effect clips for use in games and other projects. We sent Jubal deep into the heart of SoundImage's archives to find Eric and ask him about how this huge library got started, some of the things that have happened on his journey since, and his thoughts on the future... read on!

Jubal: Firstly, tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into producing sounds and images for people to use.

Eric: I’m really an indie filmmaker at heart…one of my goals is to make my own sci-fi and fantasy films (and for them to actually be good…lol)…but I’ve been playing piano and creating music compositions since I was a kid. I got my first synthesizer, a Korg Triton, quite a few years ago and was interested in maybe making ambient albums although I had no idea how to go about it. So I concentrated on learning the synth, mostly by trial and error since there wasn’t much online help available, and I started recording some few pieces which sat on my hard drive for a long time. Then the DSLR revolution hit…indie filmmakers could finally obtain really good images in a way that was cost effective…so I borrowed a friend’s camera and started making nature documentaries. I had never tried scoring any of my own films so I looked around online for royalty-free music and discovered Kevin MacLeod’s site where he allows people to use his tracks for free with attribution. I thought, “What a great idea…I wonder if I could do this?” I contacted Kevin with some questions and he was very encouraging, so I decided to give it a try.
I didn’t know anything about making a website, especially not one for sharing music files, but I found an article in which another musician recommended creating a WordPress site. He mentioned that google likes WordPress sites so I thought maybe that would make it easier for people to find my music.

The site didn’t get much traffic at first, so I joined some forums for indie filmmakers and began posting weekly announcements as I released new tracks. Then, somehow, indie game developers began to find my site and use my work. They started sending me links to their finished games and writing to thank me for making my music available. That’s when I realized that there was a larger audience for this than indie filmmakers. Today, most of the people who use my tracks are indie game developers and they are a great community to be involved with.

As for the images, I’ve been slowly teaching myself 3D modeling and animation for several years and texture images are a big part of that so I started creating them on my own. Once the game developers found me, I thought that these images might be helpful as well so I began expanding the site to include them. They’re really meant to be building blocks rather than finished textures. 

The SoundImage homepage.
Jubal: On your about page, you say that you're a great believer in the "democratization of media". Can you tell us a bit more about that, and the vision behind SoundImage as a site?

Eric: The vision of Soundimage has always been to make good-sounding music and other assets available to anyone regardless of their budget. Call me an idealist, but I think anyone should be able to produce quality creative work, connect with an audience and be paid for their efforts without having to raise enormous amounts of money to do so. Here in the U.S., popular media is controlled by a handful of mega corporations which, in my opinion, severely limits the range of content that’s available for consumers. On a more philosophical level, we face many daunting problems as a species and I think the world needs more creative problem-solvers so I support anyone who is doing creative work.
Jubal: Did you have any idea when you started how big an archive the site was going to end up with?

Eric: I started the site with 100 tracks and tried to add one new track every day. I had looked at Kevin’s site which had over 1000 tracks at the time and it really blew my mind so I decided to try to work toward that. Then I started adding other things, like texture images, and the site grew pretty rapidly. I think it’s getting a bit out of control now… lol!

Jubal: Have you had any problems with capacity or hosting costs as the site has grown?

Eric: Not really. My hosting service doesn’t limit the number of files I can upload, but they do restrict the file sizes. That’s why my music tracks are in MP3 format…the original WAV files are usually too large. 

Jubal: What's your favourite track you've composed, and why?

Eric: I don’t really have a favorite, per se, but I like “Stratosphere” from my Aerial/Drone page a lot. I thought it came out really well.

Jubal: ...and what's the most surprising use you've seen someone put SoundImage's files to?

Eric: I don’t know about surprising, but one of the projects I’ve seen that I feel the very proud about is a documentary about a struggling wildlife rehabilitation center in South Africa. Here’s a link if anyone is interested:

Jubal: What other projects have you become involved in via SoundImage - have there been any particular highlights or failures of those?

Eric: Well, more and more indie game developers are hiring me to create custom music and sound effects for them because I can do it so affordably. The synthesizers I use (there are 3 of them now) are built for rapid music creation so tracks that might take days to create can be done in a matter of hours. In that sense, I guess the website is like a giant demo reel.

I’m very passionate about science, so I’ve been combining that with my love of filmmaking and creating short films that teach kids environmental stewardship in a fun way through stories and characters rather than as informational documentaries. In essence, I’m taking learning concepts and building stories around them that kids can relate to. I’ve done seven films so far and am working on two more this fall. The organization I made them for uses them all the time with visitors, but schools have started using the films in their classrooms as well which is really cool too. One school district even put together a team of educators and created their own curriculum based on the films. So now I’m working on creating my own activities and things to share with the rest of the world. Eventually I’d like to create software and make the whole thing an interactive learning world. It’s all experimental at this point so it will be interesting to see where it leads, if anywhere, but I love the idea that the films can be used for years and years rather than being watched once and forgotten.

Three out of the many texture and image files found on SoundImage.
Jubal: Smaller creators continually worry about things from a financial perspective, and your work is very much part of that scene. Do you worry, though, that free repositories like yours mean fewer opportunities for smaller scale paid texture artists or composers?

Eric: As I said, I do paid tracks as well, at pretty low cost, so I’m one of those smaller-scale paid composers. Do my free tracks take business away from my paid work? I honestly don’t know, but a lot of folks who use my free assets seem to be indie game developers and filmmakers who are learning or just starting out…often one or two-person teams…and original custom assets can be prohibitively expensive for them…especially music. The current going-rate for custom music (I am told) is $100 per finished minute of music which, in my opinion, just isn’t doable for a lot of people. I certainly couldn’t afford it for my films. I’m not saying that composers shouldn’t be properly compensated…they absolutely should…but content creators who are just starting out probably can’t afford them anyway, so I don’t see free music as taking away business. Looking to the future, I imagine there will always be people who will opt for free assets as well as those who will raise the necessary funds to pay for them. 

Jubal: SoundImage has its own license which is a variant on a creative commons license - was it difficult for you to produce that, and what would you advise to anyone who might want to produce similar open-with-restrictions type licenses for their work.

Eric: My license was very easy to create because it was identical to the creative commons license…I simply added a restriction that prohibits my music and such from being used in works that are obscene or pornographic in nature. I think that anyone considering doing something like this should think about situations in which they don’t want their work being used and be very clear about it.

Jubal: Do you think there's space for SoundImage's model to be used more widely and for more photographers and composers to start open media archives like yours? Do you think there'd be any scale issues if many more people tried to do so?

Eric: I think sharing assets is a great way to network with creative people. As for scale issues, I really don’t know, but the internet is a pretty big place so I would hope that there’s room for everyone.

One of Eric's tracks, Still of Night, from his Urban collection.

Jubal: Finally, any upcoming plans for SoundImage - what can we look forward to seeing more of?

Eric: Besides using my music in their games, developers have written to me and said they enjoy listening to my tracks while they work on their projects. Some have even said that my music inspired them or gave them ideas for games which is great. With that in mind, I may put together some albums and make them available for a small fee. I’ve also had requests for the original super high quality WAV recordings of my tracks, so I’m looking at doing something similar with those as well. If you think the MP3 tracks sound good, wait until you hear the original WAV versions!

As I said, I’m really a filmmaker at heart and shooting footage is something I love to do… whether it’s for my own films or just to explore the world through my lens…so I’d like to see if there might be a need for that. I’ve visited some stock footage sites while working on my own projects and the prices seem pretty prohibitive so perhaps that’s something I can help with in a way that’s actually affordable.

On the graphics side of things, I’ve started experimenting with other kinds of game art besides textures…backgrounds and sprite objects mostly…but I’m always trying to find out what kinds of things might be useful to the community. If anyone has any suggestions, please let me know!

Jubal: It's been great talking to you! Thanks for doing this and best of luck with everything in SoundImage's future.

Eric: Thanks for having me on your website…I sincerely hope that some of my work is helpful to everyone. Keep being creative! 

Eric Matyas' work is free to use with attribution in both commercial and non-commercial projects: non-attribution licenses can also be purchased. You can get updates on new work from Eric via his forum threads for music/sound effects, textures, and game art, or via his twitter @EricMatyas. We hope you enjoyed this interview, and do stay tuned for more interviews and other articles in the near future!

The Boozer / Stories and histories: A Trip to Tbilisi
« on: August 04, 2019, 05:10:55 PM »
Stories and Histories: A Visit to Tbilisi

It is said, in the folklore of Georgia, that when the lands of the earth were divided out to the different peoples, each came and received their appropriate allotment of land from God. Just one group were missing, and God found them resting under a tree, forgotten, some time after he had apportioned all the remaining lands. Naturally, he asked them who they were and why they had failed to come. They told him that they were the Kartvelians, and that they had set out, but first seen a river, and stopped by it drank a toast to it for giving water and life; then, they had passed a mountain, and stopped, and drank a toast to it for its strength and beauty. Finally, they had kept walking, but it was hot, and they found a walnut tree, and drank a toast to it for giving them shade and food. For their appreciation of the natural world, God found a mountainous area, small but beautiful, that he had been saving as a garden for himself, and gave it to them to care for – and so Sakartvelo, the land of the Kartvelians (known as Georgia to outsiders), came into being. At its centre, Tbilisi – the city’s name is rooted in the Georgian word for warmth, a reference probably to hot springs nearby – has been one of the cultural hearts of the Caucasus for centuries. Like in many cultures, the springs of Tbilisi were said to have had healing properties, and there are still bath-houses near the old town. The myth of the city’s founding is that Vakhtang Gorgasali was out hunting and either shot a deer which jumped into the spring or saw a falcon drop a pheasant into the spring, depending on the version. Either way, the animal is said to have emerged unharmed, and the impressed king marked the site out for a new city – a city and a country and a bundle of stories and subsequent histories in which, some millennium and a half later, an aeroplane landed. It was carrying, among other things, me.

Part of the manuscript centre's collections.
This trip to Tbilisi was my first and rather belated visit to Georgia, the country whose history I had been studying for two years and whose language I had recently gained a basic grasp of, and I was undeniably nervous as our plane rattled in the late evening through turbulence and down into Tbilisi airport. It was not perhaps the most auspicious of arrivals – exhausted, late at night, with a taxi driver I was fully aware was overcharging me and then the discovery that I would in fact be sharing a hotel room and had not been told this in advance by the organisers of the event I was at. That said, being overcharged in Tbilisi still feels reasonably priced for a resident of Vienna like myself; the exchange rate is very good for European tourists. Exhausted, I settled down for the night, with the Georgian stories I had been reading on the plane still rattling around in my head.

Once the morning arrived, it was time to turn my thoughts to more concrete histories and begin the summer school programme I had come here for, which lasted eight days with a two day conference at the end. To transcribe all of the details would be to write a textbook on Georgian manuscripts rather than a travelogue, but suffice to say that the range and detail were both impressive and useful. It was hard work – I have noticeable difficulties coping with having too many simultaneous streams of sound input, so listening to lectures in simultaneous translation through long days was tiring – but it was undoubtedly worthwhile. With me were an impressively diverse cast of characters, from an American former nun who’d at one point undergone an exorcism and later single-handedly canonised nearly a hundred women, to a larger-than-life Circassian independence activist who’d spent time being brutally treated in a Russian jail for his politics. The Caucasus is a land of contradictions, divisions, and eclectic diversity – perhaps most of all, a land of mixed and complex stories – and this seems to be reflected in those who are drawn towards it.

The Georgian alphabet’s earliest attestation is from the fifth century AD, with the earliest records of the old Asomtavruli script being found in Palestine rather than Georgia itself, likely thanks to its origination in already widespread Georgian monastic communities. Two further script variants were developed over subsequent centuries, the Nushkuri manuscript hand largely used for religious texts and the secular chancery script of Mkhedruli which is still used as the main secular Georgian alphabet today. The long history of manuscript books is dominated in its earlier parts by religious texts of various kinds, with translations of Greek philosophy and eventually Persian-influenced courtly romances becoming more prominent by the twelfth century period which I study, culminating in Vepkhist’q’aosani, the Knight in Panther Skin, which the Georgians to this day regard as one of the greatest literary works in their language. We had closer encounters with the Georgian script than expected during the course thanks to the tutelage of calligrapher Davit Maisuradze, who gave us a number of classes on ink-pen style Georgian calligraphy, which I have to say was unexpectedly useful especially in its explanations of Georgian mkhedruli ligatures – classical Georgian handwriting is a rather different beast to the modern script.

Georgian khinkali, salad, and wine at Cafe 38, Betlemi Street.
During the course itself there were only scraps of evening time with which to explore Tbilisi – often the evenings really only afforded much chance to explore the Old Town’s selection of restaurants, though I did manage to wander the streets a bit and at one point got up to the Nariq’ala fortress to take some panoramas of the city. Georgian cuisine is definitely very distinctive from others I’ve tried, and even before I arrived (since Vienna does at least have Georgian restaurants, and since I’d made my own varyingly successful attempts at making everything from khachapuri to pelamushi myself) it was one of my favourites. Wine is the pre-eminent drink – amusingly, the word for it is even an irregularly declined noun in Georgian – and both reds and whites are available, including many made with the traditional kvevri process in which the juice, pulp, and stems are all left in large earthenware jars to undergo natural fermentation. This gives a very distinctive flavour, and in some cases colour, to the resulting wine. For soft drinks, lemonades are common, especially herbal lemonades with for example basil added, or even more commonly tarragon. Processed commercial tarragon lemonades are a popular soft drink in Georgia (one I have to say I actually quite like the taste of), and these are usually coloured with distinctive emerald green food colouring.

As for food, the broad category of khachapuri covers a wide range of breads with cheese baked into them, usually sulguni – a cow cheese prepared in brine, with a distinctive slightly salty flavour. The most common of these, from the respective regions of Imereti, Samegrelo, and Adjara are the imeruli, a flatbread with cheese in the middle, the megruli, similar but with a second layer of cheese baked over the top, and the acharuli, a distinctive boat shape with cheese in the middle, usually served with an egg fried on top. The other dish to specifically note are khinkali, the Georgian filled dumplings: these are traditionally eaten by holding the knob on the top, without cutlery, something I have just about trained myself to do though the often juicy fillings of meat khinkali do present something of a challenge to the newcomer in this particular art. Other common dishes include aubergine with walnut paste, which is lovely, Georgian salads (typically tomato, cucumber, and onion with a walnut oil dressing), some cornbreads, and a number of meat dishes including kebab style skewers and shkmeruli garlic chicken.

Tsughrughasheni, prettier than it is pronounceable.
If Tbilisi outside its restaurant doors was left partly unexplored, this was counterbalanced by us going on several excursions outside the city. The first of these was to Bolnisi, in lower (kvemo) Kartli, the province that runs to the south of Tbilisi. Kvemo Kartli is nearly forty percent Muslim due to the large ethnic Azeri population in the south of the region. It is also, among other things, the only region of Georgia to have records of porcupines (which have one of my favourite names in Georgian, mach’vzgharba, roughly translatable as “badger hedgehog”). Of course none were obvious on our visit there, but the fifth century basilica church at Bolnisi, which mostly fell down and was substantially reconstructed in the twentieth century, was well worth going to see, with numerous extremely old inscriptions (the oldest asomtavruli inscriptions can be noted because many of the loops in the letters are more closed in the oldest variants of that script). The church additionally played host to a very large population of tree sparrows appearing and disappearing from the walls, and one large raptor overhead which unfortunately disappeared before I could identify it. We stopped for lunch at an as yet unopened fish restaurant where the proprietor was happy to let us use the tables, and then continued uphill to the monastery church of Tsughrughasheni, not the kindest of names for non-Georgians to pronounce but nonetheless a beautiful example of thirteenth century decorated Georgian architecture.

Our second trip took us west, first to the basilica church at Urbnisi, equal or perhaps older in age than Bolnisi though itself the subject of many renovations. The roads here are modern highways with roadside stops that sell Wendy’s burgers alongside tarragon lemonade – but they also stubbornly display signage to places in the separatist occupied regions, and government-constructed settlements for the largely ethnic Georgian groups expelled from South Ossetia can be seen from the roadside. The Russian-dominated separatist regions are a raw wound from Georgia’s perspective; South Ossetia in particular forms what is in effect a permanent hostile beach-head for the Russian army in the country, a constant geopolitical source of instability that in practice is disturbingly close to Tbilisi. A bitter legacy and cycle of violent flare-ups since the 1990s, when Georgia’s first wave of post-Soviet nationalism clashed forcibly with the regional autonomy demanded by some of its minority groups, has led to widespread displacement of people pushed out on both sides of the conflict over time, and Tbilisi as a result now plays host to a wide range of “in exile” institutions from both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russian influence tended to progressively expand over the separatist regions over time, especially after the 1990s once the Putin regime was established, and Georgia’s official position after the 2008 conflict is now that they count as being militarily occupied by Russia. It must suffice here to say that whatever the nuances of the past they have emerged from, the human tragedies and political instabilities of these frozen conflict zones exist very prominently in the present, and their impacts on residents on either side of the dividing borders show no sign of abating.

A valley near Ateni, in central Georgia.
After Urbnisi we headed up southwards into the mountains, passing south through Stalin’s birthplace in Gori, which retains a somewhat uncritical Soviet era museum where something little short of a temple was built over the house he grew up in. We did not stop, however, because further south we were headed for Ateni, a beautiful monastery with spectacular mountain views. Excitingly for me, these included several wall paintings of medieval monarchs, notably David the Builder, great-grandfather of Queen Tamar whose court has formed the main focus of my research so far. On the outside of the church, more curiously, there was a very wide range of graffiti including a large number of depictions of horses and deer (with many being so rudimentary that it was hard to tell which was which). There were some quadrupeds in the outer decoration as well, but the story behind these scratched depictions was far from clear; we were seeing the memory of a story, without the story itself.

Leaving Ateni was somewhat slower a process than anticipated for, when we went to go and look at some very cute dogs, we stumbled upon an ongoing supra, a traditional Georgian feast, and were obliged to make at least two toasts by our very friendly accidental hosts before we got back to our bus. The supra is a strong Georgian tradition, and indeed earlier the same day our translator, Lado, had given us an introduction to Georgian toasting culture, in which we were further instructed at the supra feast at the end of the conference. Toasting culture – the fact that in Georgia the tradition is to drink only when toasting, with a tamada (toastmaster) selected or elected to propose the toasts and thereby set the drinking pace – was something I’d been aware of well before my trip, but it was definitely a different and very worthwhile experience to be in the middle of it. As for myself, I proposed two toasts – one in the valley near Ateni to departed colleagues, remembering my own former supervisor Ruth who died suddenly earlier this year, and one at the banquet to four difficult friends that many of us were trying to get along better with – Mkhedruli, Asomtavruli, Nushkuri, and the Georgian language!

Svetitskhoveli, the Cathedral of the Living Pillar, seen from the Holy Cross monastery.
The final day of the summer school programme before our two day conference began included a trip to Mtskheta, once a Georgian capital city and today one of the country’s most important religious centres. The holy cross monastery overlooking the city was our first stop, with a cluster of shacks selling food and goods outside the ancient structure following in what one imagines must be a long tradition of hangers-on seeking to make their living outside places of wonder and pilgrimage. The views that the wind-blown (indeed, on one side, heavily wind damaged) monastery affords of the valley are striking, especially the view down to Mtskheta itself. After – to my eternal surprise – being given a prize certificate for good Mkhedruli calligraphy, we then piled back into the bus (after having to send our resident priest out to find a lost lamb from the flock), and headed down to Mtskheta.

If the holy cross monastery had a ramshackle collection of hanger-on shops, Mtskheta had an industry. Well kept, neatly built streets were rammed with sellers of food, wine, and souvenirs. I managed to resist the temptation of a drinking horn, this time at least – I do already own one after all – and we passed the offer of horse & cart trips to get to Mtskheta’s real centre, the cathedral. According to legend, the tunic of Jesus Christ is buried under it – brought back from the crucifixion by a Georgian Jew called Elias, and given to his sister Sidonia who died holding it: it was impossible to remove from her grasp, and so she was buried with it. The tree that grew over her grave was the foundation for Georgia’s convertor St. Nino to much later build a church there, and one of the seven pillars she cut from it had magical life-giving properties – hence the cathedral’s name of Svetitskhoveli, the Living Pillar. The present church is eleventh century though with many layers of reconstruction, and it’s an immensely impressive sight. Huge numbers of house martens live around the spire and were floating around it like an amorphous, moving crown as we arrived: its outer walls are mostly fairly recent but contain some surviving twelfth century buttresses and other elements in places. Inside, what can best be described as a giant stone reliquary stands over the supposed spot of Sidonia’s burial, with grave markers for a number of the later Georgian monarchs (and for several older ones such as the much-mythologised Vakhtang Gorgasali, though these may in some cases be more memorials than marking actual grave sites).

Once the conference was over, I was feeling unwell for most of the latter part of the trip, but resolved to do my best to explore Tbilisi anyway. I moved from the Kalasi hotel to an Airbnb on Betlemi Street, which provided a reasonably inexpensive and central base from which to look round. The upper parts of the Old Town include some steep slopes and steps, better navigated on foot than with a vehicle, but are very pretty and provide nice views over the city and up to the fortress and the dominant Soviet era “Mother of Kartli” statue that stands watch, wine bowl and sword at the ready, over the city. The fortress area consists essentially of two levels, with the upper level lacking a particularly good path up to it: in the lower section, the wall walks are reconstructed in a lot of places and can be walked along without too much difficulty, and the fortress’ church, its one fully restored building, forms a nice centrepiece. The whole setup is probably most of interest for the spectacular panoramic views it offers, especially as there is little by way of historical signage and explanation offered, though the walls are in and of themselves impressive to look at as well as look out from.

A laughing dove - Tbilisi is at the northwest edge of their range.
Observing the city’s inhabitants and its other tourists and why they seemed to be there was an interesting pastime. The streets of the old town are packed with cars, doves, feral dogs and cats, and tourists. In general, it is hard not to conclude that Tbilisi has a car problem, with most streets heavily lined with vehicles for hire and the roads often slow and belching exhaust fumes, and a decrease in vehicles in the old town would make the streets feel rather more pleasant and less crowded. In the long term, the more difficult issue is that Georgia’s major east-west highway routes pass directly through the centre of the city, but thanks to the valley-bottom nature of the place any idea of re-routing them would be difficult. The feral and wild animals meanwhile are generally delightful, with the dogs usually carrying bright yellow ear tags to show that they have received some basic level of veterinary attention. The city has some rock doves of the sort familiar as city pigeons in any European city, but there is also a large population of laughing doves, a species that was new to me (and, surprisingly, confusing to some Georgians I talked to, none of whom appeared to linguistically distinguish between it and the turtle dove – whilst I’ve not found detailed information on the history of the species, it’s possible that this lack of a native Georgian word implies it’s a comparative newcomer in the Caucasus, and indeed the core of its native range is much further south).

The tourists, probably now the lifeblood of the city’s economy, are a mix of western European, American, Russian and middle-Eastern, and often there for quite different reasons. The potentially inexpensive nature of Georgian holidays and the apparently famed quality of its nightlife (shockingly enough, dear reader, I did not attempt to investigate) are perhaps more of a likely draw for Russians who can drive there than it is for those who come at greater expense from further afield attracted by Georgian wine, culture, or wildlife, though this is clearly by no means universal on either side. The middle-Eastern, mostly Arab, tourists meanwhile are a very different set. One of Georgia’s largest selling points for them is that it’s the only country that permits legal gambling in the entire region, and apparently many of them come to do just that, drink alcohol, eat pork, and generally take a “what happens in Georgia stays in Georgia” attitude to life for a while. One couldn’t help note that this attitude seemed to be largely taken by men and not extended to their families: a gaggle of veiled women following a sunglasses-toting middle aged Arab man dressed not unlike any of the western European tourists himself was a jarring but not uncommon sight whilst I was there.

Underground shops selling fruit and churchkhela.
Down in the city itself, I was finally able to get beyond the old town a bit, though my explorations did not take me much further than Rustaveli Avenue and the area between it and the river. Numerous markets are bundled into the streets, often second hand, or specialist such as the flower market I found at one point or the clusters of book-sellers, usually hawking mid twentieth century volumes in Russian or different editions of the Knight in Panther Skin alongside a small eclectic assemblage of other titles. The subways to walk under the city’s major roads are stuffed with tiny shops as well, selling fruit, shoes, sunglasses, and just about anything else one could think of. I was able to enjoy a number more eateries as well, especially Café Leila in the Old Town which had a good vegetarian selection and which I particularly liked for its herbal lemonades and its wall decoration, mostly comprising figures from one of the early modern Knight In Panther skin manuscripts, and Seidabadi on Gorgasali Square where I was generously hosted by a friend’s father one evening and was able to watch some Georgian music and dancing alongside some very good food and wine.

Rustaveli Avenue itself includes a number of attractions, including the very good book/coffee shop of Prospero’s Books, the rather beautiful opera house, and the parliament building, outside which a sleepy protest camp could still be seen – protests have been ongoing in Tbilisi for some time, largely calling for the resignation of the interior minister who presided over an excessive police response to an earlier protest that left some people with lost eyes; the symbol of an eyepatch, or covering one eye with a hand, has become a rallying icon for the protest movement, which tends to be backed by younger and more pro-European Georgians in particular. Georgian pro-European sentiment is loudly on display, and I don’t think I’ve seen a city in the EU that flies the EU flag quite so much as Georgia aspirationally chooses to. The need for stronger European trade integration to help diversify the Georgian economy, and western support as a counterweight to the ever-felt fear of Russia, are both clear psychological drivers behind this process, but its heavy public manifestation, backed up by a public perception of history that very heavily stresses and investigates Georgia’s western connections, is interesting nonetheless and highlights one of the difficulties in Georgia’s ongoing debates about its identity as a country.

Inside a traditional east Georgian house, buried into a hillside.
Of course, being myself, I also found time for some more museums, including a kind invitation to the Ethnographic and National Museums (the latter being another of the features of Rustaveli Avenue). The former, which one of the staff kindly gave me a tour of, is essentially a village of transplanted houses from different areas of Georgia, among pleasant hilltop scrub terrain where butterflies and reptiles can be found. The houses are in an impressive range of styles and display a range of environmental and situational adaptations – reflecting practices such as the fact that west Georgian kvevri are typically buried outdoors whereas east Georgian ones are buried in a building, thanks to the far harsher winter climate in the east which can crack the jars. The east Georgian houses with earth-covered roofs and high octagonal cones leading up to a skylight window beneath them were a particularly interesting sight, especially with their tiny (stooping height) doors which may have been a past adaptation to the threat of raids. These houses often had escape tunnels at the back, too, to allow family members to get out in the event of trouble. Georgian adaptation at times needed to take into account not just the physical landscape but the human geography around them.

The National Museum meanwhile is also well worth a look, with galleries on everything from ancient metalworking to natural history. The prehistoric Trialeti culture goldwork on display, especially one particularly famous goblet, is particularly beautiful and the glimpse into Georgia’s long prehistory of artefacts and metallurgy is worth going for. The museum also contains the Soviet occupation gallery, which felt to me less like a historical exhibit and more like the Georgian intelligentsia’s memorial to their own losses, covering the Russian destruction of the nascent westward-facing social democratic Georgian republic in 1921 and picking up the subsequent thread of pro-democracy underground organising and undermining of the Soviet state. Georgia’s numerous Soviet communists are notable for their absence – Stalin, the most famous of them, is mentioned just once in the exhibition, and that for having died. It is half a story, told truly with passion and grief – another thread in a tapestry of overlapping, occasionally contradictory, but nonetheless powerfully real stories that, together, make Georgia.

Chuniri and Changi, traditional Georgian stringed instruments.
The last museum I reached in Tbilisi was the folk music museum, for which I was fortunate enough to have company in the form of Nutsa, friend I had managed to make rather randomly via Facebook. As a rather amateurish folk musician in my own right I was duly fascinated. Like in numerous places in Tbilisi, the ticket was low cost but a tour was really required to understand the exhibits. These included traditional Georgian bagpipes, drums, harps (changi), and other stringed instruments including the strummed panduri and the bowed banjo-like chuniri. This last is said to have been attributed various mystical properties in the mountain regions of Georgia, being used in healing ceremonies among other things. The museum also has an impressive collection of nineteenth and twentieth century crank-organs and other clockwork musical boxes, which the guide will happily demonstrate for you.

Tbilisi’s status as a centre of specifically Georgian culture is an interesting one – it has long been the Georgian capital, but it has far less often been a majority Georgian city in cultural terms. The modern city in which ninety percent of the population consider themselves ethnically Georgian is the result of rapid urbanisation and in historical terms may be almost an aberration: in 1801, Tbilisi was probably majority Armenian by a significant margin, with Georgians only becoming the largest of the city's ethnic groups in the 1920s and forming over half of Tbilisi's total residents only from the 1960s or 1970s onwards. It seems likely that similar shifts and diversity have long been part of the city’s history; in the period that I study, it had only ceased to be an independent emirate a few decades earlier, and it seems very likely that there would still have been a sizeable percentage of Muslims in the city in the later twelfth century. Jewish communities among others (Yazidi, Ukrainian, German, Russian) have had long histories in the city too; the aforementioned Seidabad restaurant is named for an historic name of the district, which was at one point the Persian part of the city. The Jewish museum of Tbilisi is one of the highest ones on my list that I didn’t get to on this visit – another time, perhaps.

The lush valley of Tbilisi's botanical garden.
Beyond the museums, and beyond the main valley of Tbilisi, there was one other jewel of those last days in the city: the botanical gardens, whose tree-covered slopes I had looked down on from the fortress a while previously. Entrance to the gardens is cheap, and they are large enough that even a casual walker can happily spend half a day in them, filling more or less an entire valley south of Tbilisi proper. A road from the entrance leads to a beautifully picturesque waterfall which is something of a tourist trap and seemed to consistently be surrounded by a gaggle of observers, but climbing the steps round above it led to hillsides full of trees and no small amount of wildlife. As well as sections for the flora of different parts of Georgia there are flower areas, a small Japanese garden, a large Mediterranean section, and other areas including a section on rare crops of Georgia which I didn’t manage to reach. Much of the garden takes quite some walking to reach, though there did seem to be vehicle rides available to many parts of it as well. If from stone-bound Tbilisi you want an easy example of the extent to which Georgia could be considered God’s garden in their myths, the botanical gardens are not a bad starting point at all.

The amount of wildlife I saw was probably decreased by the time of year – it was desperately hot, and Tbilisi itself gets extremely humid thanks to its location in the middle of a tight valley, such that probably even for reptiles it was getting rather too warm. Invertebrates, an array of spectacular dragonflies in particular, were nonetheless out in force, and the fast-flowing stream that fed the waterfall was the home of grey wagtails and dippers – both species that I had last seen not so long before darting down a similar looking stream on a far, far cooler day in the UK, but no less welcome a sight for that. At other times of year I imagine the gardens are far busier with avian life: a large flock of jays and a couple of Tbilisi’s omnipresent feral cats were the main wildlife I encountered on the hot, dry hillsides, though in places where there were ponds, frogs and butterflies were also very much present. Lizards were also not too hard to find; not perhaps desperately abundant but keeping a careful eye on cracks in the walls I found two or three and managed to get some photographs.

One of the spectacular dragonflies in the botanical garden.
About my last morning I can say little other than it arrived too soon - all I had left to do was get some souvenirs and head for the airport (where my suitcase ended up just a kilo under the weight limit, largely thanks to my book collecting habits). I headed to Khurjini, a spice shop close to the Kalasi hotel, which I can absolutely recommend for souvenir purchases – the wide and impressive range of spices and teas on offer make lightweight and inexpensive souvenirs, and sweet foods are on offer too. Whilst Georgians do not have much of a sweet tooth in their cuisine compared to, for example, Turkish or Greek cooking, there is nonetheless a very specific traditional set of Georgian sweet foods, mostly based on boiling down fruit in various ways. Notable among these are muraba, essentially the application of a jam-making process to large chunks of fruit or whole charries, tklapi, large sheets of fruit leather traditionally made from grape juice/pulp, pelamushi, a thickened grape juice and cornflour dessert with a slightly-thicker-than-jelly-like consistency which I tried making once, and above all churchkhela. This last is the mother of Georgian desserts, a string of walnuts or hazelnuts dipped-and-dried several times in a thickened grape juice mix to form what can best be described as a sort of grape and walnut sausage. Churchkhela are available absolutely everywhere in Tbilisi, but most are somewhat looked down on by Georgians I talked to – mass-produced with sugar syrup and artificial colourings for the tourist market – but khurjini at least offers them both unsweetened and sweetened with honey, and in the brownish colour that the grape juice naturally provides.

The end of my stay, in my head at least, was not really the plane home, bumping once again against the turbulence blown up from the mountains below. It was the night before, with a last plate (for now) of khinkali and a wide view over Tbilisi. It had been a voyage of observation of things I knew from my own reading as much as it had been a pure journey of discovery for me, but I had appreciated it no less for that. It was strangely like walking into my own readings, amending them and reshaping them to the real landscape upon which they were based. This was Tbilisi, a city full of stories in a land wrapped so tightly in myth that every street carries the threads of another tale. Even the harsher facts of this city’s raw present – protests, casinos, European flags lining car-filled streets – are rooted deeply in the stories its people choose to tell themselves from the vast bundle of myth and history they live around, stories about who they are, where they come from, what differentiates them and what they share.

Both as a historian and as a storyteller, in two (at least) very different ways, I felt that after my fortnight in Tbilisi I knew more and understood less and was glad of both things. The curse of an academic perspective on any subject is that one strives to know more, and in doing so uncovers gaps in understanding that one could never previously have known existed, but every time that stage is reached it provides a deep satisfaction, for therein lies the spark to go and discover more. My storytelling eyes meanwhile are drawn ever on and in to the web of ideas and tales that I find as I do so, and if on the way I cannot help but weave them a little differently, I would hardly be the first traveller in Tbilisi’s past to add my own voice to the centuries of bright cacophony. I end, then, on the knowledge of how little perhaps any of us will ever know about the depths of Tbilisi’s stories. What I do know, at least, is that I have no intention of this being my only trip to the city or the country – and that when I go back, far more of the treasures of Georgia’s stories and histories await, along with some khachapuri, a good glass of wine, and, most importantly of all, the friends I made in this beautiful, complex city. გმადლობთ, თბილისო - მე ისევ მოვალ!

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