• Written in Sand - AAR Review

    Written In Sand – AAR Review By Swaeft

    Hello, one and all! It's your friendly AARtist cum Gamer, Swaeft! Today I'll be reviewing the latest blockbuster - Written in Sand by Kilo11. Grab some popcorn/coffee/tea (whatever you fancy, really) and strap yourselves in!

    The Basics

    Written in Sand is a narrative style AAR set in the Hellenistic Age and it uses the polished and well received mod Europa Barbarorum 2 for the game Medieval 2 Total War. Written in Sand follows the perspective of a few main characters in the Arabian desert. In the beautiful world Kilo11 has created, he showcases the adventures of characters from various peoples such as: the Nabateans, the Sabaeans, and the Lihyanites. A Nabatean warrior dreams of uniting the tribes and taking on the colossal empires of the time, yet his journey will be hindered by numerous trials and tribulations. Enemies stalk the characters wherever they go, for the desert is a harsh and fickle place, where only the strong and the wise survive. Can the Nabateans see their endeavours through? Or will their ambitions consume them, and pave the way for ruin? The answers to these questions are all written...in sand.

    Brief Overview
    This review aims to analyse Kilo11’s AAR, and give an unbiased and detailed review of the good, the bad, and no, there is no ugly, sorry folks. By unpacking Written in Sand (trust me, that was really hard, those fine grains kept slipping out of my fingers) and reviewing its various elements, I hope to give all who have yet to read it a balanced assessment.

    This review was completed on the 26th of January 2019, and covers Chapter 1 Part 1 to Chapter 4 Part 1.

    Writing Style

    Kilo11’s Written in Sand (or perhaps, quicksand, for that is how easily it sucks you in) engages the reader right from the get-go, with beautiful and vivid descriptions of the setting and the characters. Take this example from Chapter 1, Part 1:

    Quote Originally Posted by Kilo11 View Post
    An hour after the rising of the sun a great cloud of dust was seen climbing in the depths of Wadi Musa, the sand and earth flashing gold and orange where it caught the young light.
    I personally feel that comprehensive descriptions such as these allow the reader to very easily visualise what Kilo11 is writing about, something that is very helpful, especially when there is a dearth of pictures (more on that later). All too often AARtists fall into the trap of over-describing (too many synonyms, unnecessarily flamboyant words) or under describing (lack of attention to detail, basic vocabulary) the setting. Kilo11 has deftly avoided this problem, and it is a joy to read about the Hellenistic world in his words. Another example I would like to point out, from Chapter 2, Part 1:

    Quote Originally Posted by Kilo11 View Post
    South of the plentiful vale the land quickly recovered its unforgiving aspect, throwing broken hills across their way, separated only by sun-blasted plains and fields of shattered lava-stone, terrain fit to burn soles and wills and lame the horses and camels.

    I am not just picking the best of his descriptions to quote, for if you read his AAR for yourself, which I do hope you will, you will find that the quality of his depictions and descriptions are consistently solid, to the point, and not overly inflated.

    That is not to say, however, that his AAR is perfect. Occasionally, one can stumble upon an odd expression or an overly complicated description which makes one pause and re-read that particular portion in order to better understand its meaning.

    From Chapter 1, Part 3:
    Quote Originally Posted by Kilo11 View Post
    The men continued forward without break or word of complaint, but their brows dripped heavily and each began to pitifully pant in his own private world of fire.

    It took me a while to understand that "private world of fire" probably referred to the men suffering in the desert heat, and "pitifully pant" should perhaps be "pant pitifully". In my humble opinion, there are clearer ways to express this without sacrificing the quality of vocabulary. Possible alternatives could be: "Each began to pant pitifully under the uncompromising heat of the Sun" or "The Sun’s attention to the desert never wavered, but the will of the men to continue marching under the sweltering heat did.”

    It is not a very big problem, and authors are of course encouraged to write in whatever style suits them the best, these are just potential alternatives to writing which can be good to think about.

    From Chapter 2, Part 3:
    Quote Originally Posted by Kilo11 View Post
    Mun'at knew that the desert does not hold with the casual convenience of compartmentalized professionalism.
    This sentence was vexing because it was a peculiar way of saying "armies in this region did not adhere to a set specialization". Granted, Kilo11 could have been going for the alliteration of "casual convenience", but it just seems like an odd expression. In addition, I believe that Kilo11 meant to say that it was the non-professional way of the desert that was casually convenient – any man could play any role in the army – because compartmentalized professionalism is not casual to begin with, it is rigid and strict. A man who has trained to be an archer for years, for instance, cannot suddenly be asked to join the heavy cavalry.

    These mild annoyances are few and far between, and are often followed up by an explanation that somewhat alleviates the confusion, and thus does not detract from the reading experience all that much.

    Attention to Detail
    I believe that this is a strong point about Written in Sand. It is common for many AARtists to, in the pursuit of great battle reports and dramatic chapters, neglect the finer details of the story, little things that at first seem inconsequential, but over time build up a wealth of information about a particular character or place, as well as providing a sense of realism and continuity.

    A good example of this would be from Chapter 2 Part 5:

    Quote Originally Posted by Kilo11 View Post
    Mun'at's eyes grew suddenly wide and he dropped his blade, raised his horn to his lips, and gave three sharp blasts, the signal to withdraw. His men, however, continued onward heedless of his call, and so again he blew once, twice, and by the third time they reluctantly wheeled about and broke off their mighty charge.
    In another AAR, the author could have kept it simple, and simply stated that "the general ordered his troops to withdraw". However, by showing that the troops took some time to comply with the order, Kilo11 allows us to imagine why this could be so – were they creating a din whilst charging, preventing them from hearing the signal the first time around? Were they worked up in a battle frenzy, their minds set to the task of eliminating the enemy and nothing else? All these are extremely plausible scenarios, and Kilo11 does well by showing us that not everything was simple and clear cut as we believe it to be.

    Another good example would be when Kilo11 succinctly portrays the difficulties of manoeuvring across rough terrain, both for the rider and the mount:

    Quote Originally Posted by Kilo11 View Post
    As he began moving the slope ahead of him slid and flowed, the shifting sands forcing him to slow his mount or risk wounding her.
    Oftentimes, an AARtist feels the need to focus heavily on important events in their chapters, and whilst that is not a bad thing, it often results in missed opportunities to further the plot or character development in subtle ways. In a single sentence, Kilo11 shows how the rider, Mun’at, knows how to care for his mount, as well as the danger of the treacherous terrain he is currently in.

    Kilo11 makes use of archaic language, which to me, really helps to immerse the reader in the ancient era he is writing about. These words are used sparingly, so as not to overwhelm the reader, and at important junctures, such as character titles or locations.

    Some examples include: Wadi Rum, Rabi’ah, and Elath. Their meanings can be found in the glossary Kilo11 has helpfully included in the OP.

    The dialogue is also wonderfully written, and is consistent with the times. For example, in today’s world we would say: “It would take us a week to get to the city.” Whereas in Written in Sand, people say things along the lines of: “And between us and that city still lies a quarter turning of the moon or more.” (Chapter 2, Part 2) Language like this helps to transport the reader into the past, enhancing their reading experience.

    Character Development
    In my opinion, Kilo11 provides us with consistent, believable and enjoyable characters. For the sake of remaining spoiler-lite, I shall only discuss the main protagonist, Mun’at, who is a general in the Nabatean army. In Chapter 1, Part 1, where we are still being introduced to Mun’at, it is said that:
    Quote Originally Posted by Kilo11 View Post
    Mun'at Ha'Qadri knew that a commander who set himself apart would earn only distrust and baser suspicions besides, all dangerous sentiments to foster in fighting men at world's end, and so he placed his abode at the center of their small camp and left the outer flap always open.
    This immediately lets us know that Mun’at is a seasoned commander, who prefers being amongst his soldiers, and one who cares about his men, as he tries his best to deal with any potential problems before they crop up.

    Furthermore, in Chapter 2 Part 4, further light is shed on Mun'at's character right before a major battle:

    Quote Originally Posted by Kilo11 View Post
    "No, Haza'el, you are wrong." Mun'at responded. "To let such fiends strike at what they will does harm to us all, for we through inaction allow evil to be done and the fragile protections of law and goodwill to be thus undermined. Even if their violence is aimed only at our enemies, it does harm to us all. Besides, we come not to sack or enslave the Lihyanites, but to add their tribes to our number. How will they ever trust us if we leave them to such a fate? No, we ride at once to liberate Dedan and then to take it."

    This is an important moment, as it shows the distinction between a commander who cares for his men and a commander who cares for men. Many generals and leaders seek to rout or destroy their enemies utterly, yet Mun'at recognizes the oft overlooked fact that soldiers are humans too, and in this desert life, might be citizens defending their homes, forced to take up arms against their will. He also seeks to end the conflict quickly to minimize casualties, and gain the Lihyanites' trust. This sets Mun'at apart from other generic generals, and shows that he is more of a person rather than another mindless killing machine.

    Afterwards, in Chapter 3, Part 1, we are exposed to another part of his character:

    Quote Originally Posted by Kilo11 View Post
    It was a task utterly mundane and moreover poorly suited to a foreign general ill at ease in sedentary life, all of which left Mun'at bitter and malcontented.
    This clearly shows that Mun'at is a man who doesn't like to idle around or deal with administrative matters. He is a person who prefers activity, who feels more comfortable on the field of battle rather than sitting in some building watching over the populace. This corroborates the sentiment that Mun'at is an ambitious man, as portrayed earlier in Chapter 1 Part 2:

    Quote Originally Posted by Kilo11 View Post
    Mun'at longed for a true metropolis, to ride down wide avenues fronting on temples and squares too large for the mind to hold. He had heard tell of Thebes Hekatompylos, of Gaza, of majestic Alexandria with her tower of light, and he wished to see such marvels, to call them his own.
    The readers too have picked up on this:

    Quote Originally Posted by Turkafinwë View Post
    On the tale itself, it seems Mun'at is a very ambitious man and a man who, I think, will never be satisfied in his greed for more cities. A dangerous ambition to be sure. First of course he must complete his King's ambitions, which are by no means small. Conquering the entire Arabian Peninsula is no small feat.
    Quote Originally Posted by Caesar16 View Post
    Mun'at is really ambitious! He has already begun dreaming of conquest of faraway lands of Aegyptos and Aithopia which I am sure is no easy task.

    This shows that Kilo11 is able to effectively convey the traits and characteristics of the individuals in his AAR to his audience. Later on in Chapter 3, Part 4, it is said of Mun'at:

    Quote Originally Posted by Kilo11 View Post
    With a cry of joy the general leapt from his mount and ran to embrace Rana'in and Wayyuq, for the moment utterly forgetting the cares and worries of war.
    This shows that Mun’at, despite his steely exterior, has a soft spot for his men – a commander that cares and views his men as more than just expendable troops, rather, they are seen as friends and kin.

    Through these examples, Kilo11 gradually reveals to us the nature of Mun’at, and his character and principal traits. He portrays other characters similarly, never letting their full character show at any one point of time, but rather, encourages us to read further in order to find out more about the beloved characters through a certain scenario or a particular response.

    Plot Elements (No Spoilers)

    The AAR’s pacing is well balanced, with the storyline easy to follow, and subtle reminders in the chapters about what the current objective is in case the readers forget. Kilo11 does not dawdle too long on a single event (another common trap for AARtists), and proceeds at a pace that is invigorating and inspires you to read on. Battles, of course, are accorded their due attention, and some of the more major ones can take two chapters to resolve.

    There are few AARs that explore this region (Arabia) of the world, and even less set in this particular time period. Anyone with an interest in the happenings of the region in Hellenistic times would find this AAR attractive, and a refreshing change from the numerous Medieval 2 AARs set in the High and Late Middle Ages (yes, that’s a rather confusing description, high, late, middle...who the blazes came up with those terms? For clarity – High and Late Middle Ages refers to the period from 1000 AD to 1250 AD, and 1251 AD to 1500 AD respectively).

    Drama and Action
    There are a few battles and skirmishes, but for the most part Kilo11 writes about how Mun’at aims to achieve his goals by settling this problem, addressing that issue, his style of leadership, as well as the motivations of the other primary and secondary characters. It does not make for a boring read, rather, it is a welcome departure from the constant barrage of battle-heavy AARs.

    This AAR uses little in the way of screenshots. It is more plot-heavy, and relies on eloquent writing and realistic dialogue to carry it, both of which are done remarkably well. There is nothing wrong with having only a handful of images, though readers who are eager to see how Kilo11 is doing in the campaign may be mildly disappointed. He has his own stand on this, however, and I find it logical and reasonable:
    Quote Originally Posted by Kilo11 View Post
    I want to try to showcase how precious and rare good information was at that time, and that is best done (in my opinion) by not giving campaign map updates, but rather sticking to exactly what our characters know.
    For the battle screenshots – Kilo11 utilizes just two, and both are found in Chapter 2, Part 4. From a graphical standpoint, they leave a lot to be desired, however, this is not the fault of Kilo11, but rather the engine that Medieval 2 runs on, which has not aged very well. Nevertheless, Kilo11 does a good job of editing them, cropping out the unnecessary UI elements and focusing on the characters.

    Battle Screenshot Example 1 (Chapter 2 Part 4)

    Battle Screenshot Example 2 (Chapter 2 Part 4)

    Next up, we have a very big upside to this AAR - the pictures that are not from the game. For people unfamiliar with the Europa Barbarorum 2 mod (not to mention the geographical layout of Arabia), Kilo11 helpfully provides maps of the locations in the region that he has made himself, and has masterfully edited. Check these out:

    Region Map Example 1 (Chapter 2 Part 2)

    Region Map Example 2 (Chapter 1 Part 4)

    I cannot overstate the usefulness of these maps, without them I would be lost, constantly Googling for locations and alt-tabbing furiously as I struggle to keep up with who went where. With the maps, that are strategically inserted in certain chapters, I don’t even need to worry about this problem. A suggestion for Kilo11 would be for him to place the map of Arabia in his OP, which would make checking out the map and reading the story just a little bit easier. (Right now you have to refer to the chapters in which he has uploaded the map, a minor inconvenience. They are currently located in Chapter 2 Part 2, Chapter 3 Part 1 and Chapter 3 Part 3.)

    Kilo11 also provides us with tactical overviews of the battlefield, complete with the surrounding topography. Whilst his descriptions of the environment and troop movements are detailed enough to stand on their own, the tactical maps improve the reader’s experience and clarifies beyond a shadow of a doubt what is going on.

    Battle Map Example 1 (Chapter 1 Part 6)

    Battle Map Example 2 (Chapter 1 Part 7)

    Organization of an AAR is important, as whether the reading is easy on the eye or not plays a big factor in whether readers decide to follow the story, and Kilo11 does not let us down. In his Original Post, he outlines:

    • His motivation and general information about the AAR,
    • the settings he is playing with,
    • general notes and questions for the reader,
    • and a glossary of the terms that we might be unfamiliar with.

    Furthermore, he keeps large images in content boxes, something that helps those with slower internet speeds, or those who would prefer to focus on reading only the words. (Please don’t, Kilo11 spent a lot of time crafting those images!)

    In addition, glossaries are placed at the end of the chapters that necessitate their inclusion. This is important because if Kilo11 were to explain the meaning of some of the more archaic/region specific terms in detail in the chapter itself, it could cause readers to feel that the author has disrupted their reading process. I for one do not find this to be a problem, as long as the explanations are short, and the more detailed definitions are reserved for the glossary.

    Not only that, author’s notes are included at the end of almost every chapter, in which Kilo11 shares more useful information about the chapter, as well as his own thoughts on the subject.

    One thing that Kilo11 could improve on is the switching of perspectives. In Chapter 2, Part 2, Kilo11 switches the perspective from Mubsamat to Mun'at with no warning, except for a content box in the middle of the two paragraphs. He does this again (with different characters) in Chapter 3, Part 1, and once more in Chapter 3, Part 3. This may or may not be confusing for readers - but why take the chance? A simple border such as ********** that divides two paragraphs when the perspective changes, like what he has been doing in the other chapters, will solve this simple issue.

    A somewhat similar issue crops up in Chapter 4, Part 1. Despite the arguably shorter chapter length, Kilo11 writes from the perspective of four different people, of whom three of them are new (these characters have been written about before, but never from their perspective and they were never formally introduced). Introducing characters in two or three short paragraphs without fleshing them out adequately may result in unnecessary confusion for the readers. Actually, doing so on its own, (say, introducing one character very briefly) can create a mysterious atmosphere and get the readers intrigued to find out more about that character, but it is my humble opinion that doing so for three characters at the same time is a bit too much to take in.

    AAR-Reader Engagement
    Kilo11 strikes me as a very friendly person who is passionate about his work, and the work of others. This is evident in his comments, replies to other people, the quality of his work and the depth of his research. He will always respond to any comment on his AAR, and in great detail. He is also all for reader participation, and is always eager for readers to provide him with suggestions and critique about how he can improve his work. (Don’t forget the praise!) He is humble, hardworking, and it really is a pleasure to read and comment on his AAR, knowing that he values your opinion seriously and will always be there to answer your queries.

    If you haven’t read Written in Sand yet, I strongly recommend that you do. And if you are reading it, I do hope that I've given you a fair and objective review! I read all of it in one shot on the 7th of January (yes, it managed to capture my attention for that long), and I have this to say: Written in Sand is a very enjoyable read, and is an experience certainly not to be missed. As with every AAR, it is not perfect, with relatively minute hiccups here and there, but the Pros far outweigh the Cons, and it shows. Written in Sand has amassed a loyal following of readers, won the MAARC LXXVI and the MAARC LXXVIII, and it has grown into something truly special.

    Comments 7 Comments
    1. Swaeft's Avatar
      Swaeft -
      I also owe huge thanks to Alwyn and Caillagh for their constant guidance and support throughout the process of crafting this review. Without their help, this article would not have been possible.
    1. Turkafinwë's Avatar
      Turkafinwë -
      Congratulations on your first published article Swaeft and a mighty fine one at that! I think you have captured the essence of this AAR perfectly and agree with you on most things. Well all of them except it is my firm believe that Medieval 2 has aged wonderfully and noone can convince me of the opposite, though I must say that Kilo11's descriptions are far better in conveying the scenery into my mind's eye than any screenshot possible coming from the game could ever achieve. (Forgive me Medieval 2)

      I think this article will be a great asset for both readers and probably soon-to-be readers of this AAR. It gives all the information for non-readers to decide if they want to check it out and it gives the readers another take on the story, which is always enjoyable. In my opinion of course.

      A great read Swaeft! Well done!
    1. Skotos of Sinope's Avatar
      Skotos of Sinope -
      I love this AAR. Straight up love it. (I've actually done fan art.) I'm so jazzed that it's getting a proper review, as it's the type of story that cries out for a deep analysis. Loving the sand puns, Swaeft. And those passages perfectly illustrate the attention paid to the setting that makes the AAR a joy to read. It's poetry without sentimentalism, perfect in describing such an unforgiving environment.

      One minor quibble, though: Written in Sand is set in the hellenistic period, not the medieval one.
    1. Flinn's Avatar
      Flinn -
      awesome review, impressive I have to say
    1. makanyane's Avatar
      makanyane -
      Great review! ...but this is why I don't get anything done around here, now I need to go and read the AAR too!
    1. Kilo11's Avatar
      Kilo11 -
      Swaeft, I have been meaning to respond to this for a while now and keep getting sidetracked by real work (Seriously, why are we even doing real work when this site is what we really want to be contributing to on a daily basis? ).

      First things first, that was a lovely review, and I think you've done most of it extremely fairly, and moreover, far more positively than I might have anticipated, and for that, I am very grateful (and slightly relieved). There were a couple very small factual errors (those pointed out by Skotos), but they have also now been remedied, so no harm done there. And also, the fact that you read it one day is INSANE! That is more compliment than I think anyone could probably give, and also a pretty good vote of confidence/piece of advertisement as well. So thanks for that too.

      Now, I'd like to go through a couple of the points in the review that I think a response might be helpful for.
      I can see how some sentences might be a bit long or require more effort, but is something that I would stand by. One of my personal goals when writing is to get more toward the style and flow of older authors that I love (e.g. Jules Verne, Tolkien, T.E. Lawrence). Part of that is because I just love that type of writing, and part is because I see that in almost no contemporary works. So in general you will probably need a slight bit longer with my work than with other AARs, because I aim to deliver a more elaborate writing style, which does not usually lend itself easily to quick reads. I would imagine that some confusion actually started to creep in because you read it all in one go. I mean, I wrote the thing, and I don't think I could read it all in one go, in the same way I probably couldn't read 100 pages of the Lord of the Rings in one go.

      So, in short, it is a stylistic choice, and one which I hope you readers can enjoy. However, that being said, do say so if something is overly confusing or you just can't parse it out, as I could surely simplify things here and there.

      One final point on phrasing, which is more of a correction about the part where I say "the desert does not hold with the casual convenience of compartmentalized professionalism". There, I am not talking about military things at all really, but instead trying to develop more fully the culture and lifestyle of the area/time. In Arabia up until the 20th century, to be honest, it was very common for most everyone to be competent in a variety of skills, as otherwise you'd die. The point of the quoted sentence was to make that idea come out more and also to more strongly emphasize the sentence following that quoted (which I won't put here, as it is a bit of a spoiler). But again, I can see how a phrase like that might make on trip, but I also think such phrasing holds a certain elegance that I like. In sum, tell me when these things trip you, but bear in mind that I might have been aiming to create a stumble point, to slow all's y'all's down.

      You are right that there are probably not enough images, and it is something I've been struggling with for a while. Personally, I don't need them, but I know many readers like them, and I therefore have been wanting to put more in. The issue is mainly just that the screenshots from the game are not of a high enough quality for me to be happy with them. To be sure, EBII is masterfully done, and while playing I never have a single complaint about graphics or presentation there. But once you take a still image you can see just how old the Medieval II engine is, and that has been giving me pause.

      But I have been hammering out a deal with Skotos about images, and hopefully he and I will be able to start putting ones in bit by bit, starting with the beginning and working out way forward. We are still discussing what styles would be best, and how to get images that are "right", but hopefully at some point that will all be remedied!

      Also, thanks a million for the suggestion to put the map in the OP. I will do that right away, and also try to start working on a map of the eastern Mediterranean, to complement the one I've been using so far.

      There were two points above about clarity. The first was about the scene breaks (versus simply breaking it with a contentbox), and the second was about introducing too many characters too quickly.

      To the scene breaks, I didn't realize that would trip anyone, but that is good to know. I will come up with some pretty line design to insert between each scene, and hopefully that will clear things up. To the introduction of characters, I hope that just becomes more okay as the current chapter fills out. I also felt that was a bit much for one go, but I was concerned that if they did not all get in right then, they would come in too late and not have time to become "real" characters before they were important (which will likely be later in that chapter for 3 out of 4 of them). But that is something I'd love to hear back about from more of the readers (preferably on the Written in Sand thread, to keep everything organized over there).

      So those are the responses, and I hope they are all clear and also don't seem defensive or anything. I think this review did a fine job, and the points above are more for clarification, not to object to anything Swaeft has said. On a final note, I would love to see more of you folks over at the AAR's thread, and also, do take your time with it, and don't try to fire through in one go. So far I have a bit over 100 pages (standard paperback formatting) posted, and that is a bit much to hit in one go. But I hope that when you have read through it, you feel the effort was worth it all! And as always, any comment is much appreciated, and will certainly be considered carefully. I have rewritten whole sections before because someone pointed out a missed opportunity for character development (Cookiegod, you give me so much extra work! ), and though that is work, it improves the final product a great deal (Cookiegod, you so much improve my final work ). So come over, have a glass of tea, and step into the desert!

    1. NorseThing's Avatar
      NorseThing -
      So good of a review, I need to go back and start reading this AAR from the beginning. A very good first published review. I cannot but must wait for more of this fine quality work.