Wednesday, May 31, 2006

South Tuesday Session, 5/30/06

Carey and Tim joined me at Mike's for an evening of close calls. For me, anyway.

First up was Quo Vadis, a game I've never been fond of. As the baby in my family, I tend to avoid confrontation, and negotiation often feels very confrontational to me. I really hate buying cars. In this game, however, I felt less threatened by the particular mix for reasons I'm not clear on myself.

In this game, my third playing, I had an actual plan: focus on the lower right side of the board (there's a committee of three in the corner), start working up the path of singles just to the left, and try to clog up the single path out of the lowest "five" committee (which worked really well). I was very aggressive in getting the first piece into the top committee, and was successful when I'd put Caesar in the path from the rightmost three committee feeding into the top slots and everyone else apparently had other things to do. At that point it was all about getting laurels, and I felt that I was doing well catching up to Mike and Carey, who had the tallest stacks of counters.

In the end, everyone had gotten someone into the top committee, although Carey got there last. We didn't need the tiebreaker as it turned out, darn it, as Carey edged me by a single point, with Tim and Mike right behind. The final scores, IIRC, were 35-34-33-30. A very tight game, certainly a "half-turkey" if you are using the Dave definition.

Next up was Evo, Joe Steadman's favorite game. Tim got off to a very strong start in this game, getting the first egg and thus the only one to produce two dinos per turn for a while. I went for a balanced strategy, ending up with three legs, two fur/parasols, two eggs, and a long tail. I also had one of the two horns (the other showed up at the end of the game), which I used my card that forced people to pay three more mutation points to keep bidding, a ploy that worked.

Sadly, I was paying one or two more mutation points and not getting extra dinos early on, so I was falling behind. Also, I wasn't being aggressive with my horned dinos early, and on my second attempt I lost a dino that shouldn't have been moving anyway (I ended up screwing up the move and losing an extra dino to climate). Getting knocked down to four dinos at that point ensured that I needed to hope for a long game.

Indeed, I did a good job of coming back, being within two points of my closest competition and six behind Tim when the meteor got to the 1-2 space. And, of course, it hit the planet. Carey had a +2 point card to give him second. I think I'd have been right in it had I not made that one poor decision in the midgame.

Also odd in this game was the climate: other than a single roll that moved things backwards, and a couple of climate cards that skipped over the beach or mountain climates, everything went like it was supposed to. Every other time I've played the game there were as many wacky climate changes as normal ones, but this one went in the right direction.

Having made it this far to be thwarted in my efforts to win a game, we next tried out a wacky little title Mike got in Essen called Fruit Thief. I could be very wrong in remembering this title. Clearly a very light title (each player turns over one of their set of 10 cards, then secretly choose which of the cards you want to visit, then get points based on who went where). That's the whole game. It was cute, and very light, and would be a good family game. I was once again within a point or two of winning (IIRC, the scores were almost identical to Quo Vadis), but Carey edged me again. Damn you, Carey!

We had time for a couple of hands of No Thanks, also called Geschenckt. This is another very light game, but one that requires a certain amount of triage, which I really like. This is the game I am most likely to teach non-gamers to play, as it teaches very quickly and plays fast as well. In our first hand, I started out with a lot of almost-neighbor cards, and managed to get a few of them connected up to save points, but more important was not running out of chips. In the second hand, I ended up with one of the 30 cards early, then proceeded to draw a few more in sequence - guess I should have shuffled better! I let one go around the table a couple of times before raking in the chips and the card, but decided to just take the next two in the sequence. There was one more card that I nearly took later in the hand, but Carey had run out of chips just before I was going to pick it up. I ended up winning the two hands by about 10 points. Finally!

The whole key to No Thanks is simply not to allow yourself to run out of chips. Taking a few larger cards early actually gives you a little flexibility, not to mention chips that give you time as well. Light it may be, but there is enough depth, suspense (you never know what cards aren't available), and speed to make it perhaps my favorite quickie game, certainly better than For Sale.

Thanks to Mike for hosting, as always.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Weekend Wargaming, 5/27/06

Cruelly trapped at home with my dogs while my wife is out having three martini lunches in San Francisco, Chuck was kind enough to come save me from an afternoon of trying to sink Japanese shipping in a solitaire session of Silent war. So what did we play?

First up was Twilight Struggle, which Chuck has compared to dating for personality. The game went to turn 9, and I as the US was actually doing pretty well considering. Chuck bid 2 for the USSR (a low bid, I have learned, although I don't believe the bid had an effect on when the game ended). However, getting the two scoring cards for areas I was going to lose in killed me, again through no real fault of my own.

I made one or two errors, the first being not playing Defectors for the headline phase in the mid game, although the effect of this was minor. The bigger mistake was playing Allende instead of another card in my hand that let Chuck into South America (although, frankly, all he needed was a successful coup). When I got the South America and Asia scoring cards in that last hand, I knew I was dead as Chuck was going to pull down tons of points, enough to win handily.

Chuck, for his part, misplayed when he got the chance to order my hand (the one full of his events) and left the one that allowed me to discard a big card early in the mix. His card got discarded, of course - I had Suez Crisis, Muslim Revolution, and The Reformer, none of which I was anxious to play, and got away with just Suez getting done (when Chuck already controlled France and Israel).

What totally killed me was having Red Scare after Red Scare played on me, at least three of the nine turns. That's about 20 OPS points lost, and the space race suffered as well when I wasn't drawing sufficiently large enough cards. How I made it into turn 7 only a handful of points down, I don't know, but none of it mattered when the scoring cards started coming out.

I'm afraid that this game lives or dies on the deal. While I'm the first to admit that Hannibal has the same problem in close games (what you draw on turn 9 will determine the winner, I've found, but again only in close games), TS seems to have that problem throughout the game. Combined with the double punishment of scoring cards that can hurt you, I am ready to pronounce the game broken as a wargame, even with bidding. What a disappointment after such an exciting first game played with the incorrect rules!

Still, it was fun up to that point.

After lunch, we tried out Decision Game's ACW card-driven title "Battle Cry of Freedom". Despite the usual Decision "rules" and enough text on your hand of 13 cards to require 5 minutes of reading every turn in the early going, this seemed to be a fun little title. Yes, the luck of the draw is much larger here, although I think it's better than in, say, Blue vs Gray, where you are dependent upon drawing both useful combat units and generals. Cards have multiple uses, which is nice and makes hand management important. While the Union generally dictates pace, the Confederacy has the chance to mix it up a bit with certain types of cards.

Why would I like BCoF and not TS if they're both luck heavy? The answer is that BCoF allows you to get into trouble in a specific battle, but you are not likely to lose the entire game because of one bad hand. Plus, every card in BCoF is usable for at least a Frontal Assault at +1, so you get something for your trouble even if the cards aren't playable.

What I did notice (and would like to see if we got this part wrong, we seemed to get a lot wrong), was that bad generals seemed to be clogging up my hand much of the time. Given the South's leadership advantage, this seemed to me to be a problem with not much of a solution - you can only discard one general per turn, and when half of your hand is useless cards (they can't be used for the Frontal Assault, they are just generals), you are in trouble unless your opponent has the same problem.

Also, there was no way to differentiate generals that had been pulled from a theatre from those just drawn (the latter *must* be placed in specific theatres initially), which is why I'm wondering if perhaps that particular element was played incorrectly. Not that it mattered, we played through about a third of the game and I had done well at holding Chuck off up until my generals became a problem. Hard to say who would have won, although Chuck's infrastructure was doing much better than mine, creating a snowball effect that would almost certainly have doomed the South.

Regardless, we had fun playing both games, and it was a nice way to spend a rainy spring Saturday in Oregon. Thanks, Chuck!

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Silent War - Dutch Mini-Campaign

It is no secret that I find Joe Steadman to be a horse's ass, and while many disagree with that opinion, I find as many or more people that found his presence on the Dice Tower to be a, uh, problem. A closet wargamer who found time to play an astonishing amount of games while teaching at an American ex-pat school in Korea, I found most of his reviews of wargames to be fanboyish and not containing much in the way of useful information.

Joe, all is forgiven. And all because you pimped Silent War, one of the premier titles from Compass Games. I was ready to pass this one over, largely because the designer is Brien J. Miller (damned hippie parents, you'd think they'd have learned to spell by the time they were fertile, plus do we really need the middle initial to distinguish you from that other Brien Miller?), late of Avalanche Games. Avalanche has a crap attitude toward customers, refusing to put out anything more than the most essential errata and pumping out games with a kazillion unplaytested scenarios. Plus, he did Airlines, perhaps the most pointless game ever. And I'm extra bitter because I bought that dog at $38 retail. But I was young.

But no, Joe said that this was a great little game, if a tad expensive ($70 retail, and I can't find it anywhere retail in Portland). And you know what? This will be the game that ends my marriage. It's the wargame equivalent of Sid Meier's Civilization (the first one, the one that nearly killed my master's degree).

The game is about the US submarine campaign in the Pacific in WWII, and it includes every sub that saw action in that theatre. That's a lot of subs. They go out, they find stuff to shoot at, the damned torpedos either miss or bounce off the damned hulls of glorified dinghies, they get sent home to sit in the damned broom box for umpteen turns while you miss those rolls too, and then you realize that it's 10pm and perhaps the dogs should be fed and taken out to poddy, and instead you PLAY ONE MORE FREAKIN' TURN.

Damn you, Brien J. Miller. Damn you to hell. I'll have to forgive you too.

The basis of the game is pretty easy, and there are lots of little "patrol" missions where you have a single sub trying to sink a certain number of ships/tonnage in a set amount of time. These are great learning scenarios, and even better if all you have is an hour or so to play. Assuming you can find the sub in the mess of, what, 150-200 sub counters. I strongly recommend you bag/sort these bad boys by entry date. When the sub is heading out, all you really do is check to see if anything goes wrong (which is unusual, especially if you are staying close to base). While the sub is out "on patrol" you generally roll to see if you get a contact, easier to do in some portions of the war (and there is a very clever mechanism to figure out when things start changing). If you do, you also roll to see if it's a large/small convoy or a task force, then cross reference the size of the contact with the type to determine what ships make up the convoy.

To do this, you have a set of ship counters, some warships/anti-sub aircraft, some supply ships/tankers/troop carriers. Based on what part of the war you are in, they are divided up into four groups, placed in cups, then drawn based on how the search came out. Task forces tend to have fewer merchants, and a larger proportion of capital ships, most of which are in the "D" cup.

No wonder I like this game, it has a cup size for everyone.

The ships are placed face down on the combat display, sorted by which cup they came out of. Merchants tend to have "meatball" flags on the backs, warships have "rising suns". You pick which column (ABCD) you want your sub to go after, then flip as many ships as your sub's tac rating (typically 4, at least in the early game). You then assign modifiers (TDCs, simulating things like attack angle, distance, etc) randomly to as many ships as the tac rating, which do not have to be in the same column or even revealed at that point. You then distribute your attack factors among the ships you wish to attack (in the early war when the torps were produced by the mid-century equivalent of Halliburton, you want to aim for a single ship unless you get two really good targets), and roll the dice to see if the torp manages to hit. Factors such as the robustness of the target, ASW in the area, distance from the sub (based on attacking adjacent or the same column), and the quality of torpedos play a big role. If you get a hit, you then get to see if the torp bothers to explode, or if it does so in an effective manner and place. The bigger the tonnage of the ship you are going after, the less chance a single shot will kill it, but it does happen. There are also "ships" that produce random effects, perhaps the most unsettling is when a torp is defective and circles back to take a shot at the sub that launched it! Now THAT is a bad day at sea.

After you get your shot off, the convoy gets a shot back at you. This can be no big deal if you didn't manage to turn over meatballs that were really very effective destroyers or aircraft, or the end of your submarining career, at least for that boat. Assuming you survive (which can include being spotted or damaged), you can turn over more ships (although you have to start with "rising sun" ships this time), and try again. If you've got a Super Skipper (seriously, that's what they're called), you can even try to take another shot. While second/third attacks have a slightly better chance, assuming no new ASW forces, the counterattacks are also more dangerous as well. However, given how tough it is to sink a ship in the early going of the war, you may want to take some chances.

There are also semi-randomized methods for determining how long a boat can stay out, how badly damaged a returning sub is, how long it takes to service a boat (including those coming into play), sub tenders, random war events such as the Fall of Manila, Special Mission Zones that suck up your subs from doing useful work, ULTRA intercepts that improve your chances of finding that really big convoy, wolfpacks, and who knows what else. And all of it flows so quickly that you will finish your game only to realize that you should have left to go to work three hours ago, and you started playing when you got home.

Damn you, Brien J. Miller.

I have played a single short patrol (you get 1-2 shots at finding/sinking ships, although patrols can last for several turns), as well as the Nederlander sub campaign in early '42 out of Surabaya in the Dutch East Indies. At four turns to the month, with up to eight subs in action (rare), it took me about two hours to finish this mini-campaign, and I've started another one with considerably more subs that is limited to the Solomons in late '42/early '43. A full campaign game, assuming you aren't sacked at one of the "got tonnage?" points, should last you about a month solid, assuming you don't, you know, work or eat or say hello to your wife/SO/family.

Compass, unlike Avalanche, has done a great job of including not only additional scenarios (the Nederlander and Solomons mini's were found online), but also additional counters if you don't feel like ever using the modern nuclear sub counter they included in the game. There are also additional counters from various nationalities, including one US boat that was originally a Type XIX Nazi sub captured off of Norway. In all, I think there are seven campaign games that will use the entire map and take a solid month or eight to play, ten or twelve patrols, and six or seven mini-campaigns, enough to keep you busy for a while.

While there are rules for two-player play, it basically means that you get a certain number of bases each that you operate from. I can't imagine that this would be fun unless you were doing it with a younger relative, such as a pre-teen that wanted to get in on one of "Dad's games" (and we grab those opportunites every time), but as a game for two grognards, I just can't see it. What I can see is tournament versions where one player takes the role of the Loyal Opposition while the other plays a short campaign, then they switch and compare scores. That could be cool.

So, there you have it. The Next Big Thing That Will Eat My Time. And I've got Joe Steadman and Brien J. Miller, people I would gladly sucker punch if I ever met them in public, to thank. Sigh.

Now I have to go play the Solomons campaign, all of the new boats are in and I'm hoping to get a Gato-class out there and see what it can do. That, and start a 12-step program for Silent War addicts.

Saturday Gaming, 5/20/06

Mike, Chuck, and Ben Harris (whom we will assume for now qualifies as "Ben" until Ben Fleskes shows up regularly again) showed up for some multi-player goodness on Saturday. The only planned game was Princes of the Renaissance, a Wallace title that I'd missed out on during the initial buzz. Chuck wanted to give it another go, Mike had played once some time ago, and Ben had yet to play a Wallace title, so this was an excellent choice.

Like most Wallace titles, the game focuses around players gaining control/interest in a set of common resources, in this case five major cities in Renaissance Italy, represented by six "city tiles" in each city that give you VP at the end (based on status, which is controlled through "wars" and by placing certain Event Tiles on a given city. You buy troops and treachery tiles, auction off city and event tiles, and declare wars that then auction off who controls which side in the war. Interestingly, there are two currencies in the game: Influence, typically rarer, and money. Troops and city tiles are paid for with money, the pope tile and the "condotierre" roles in wars with influence (although you then gain back money regardless of how you do), event tiles depend on the specific event, and treachery cards are one of each.

The thing that makes this game is the treachery tiles, at least in my book. Nothing like watching Mike's army once again unable to use his cavalry in the attack because of bribed troops. Hehe.

Not that any of this mattered. Mike creamed us all, mostly by declaring wars every chance he got, and by making use of his family tile and a city tile that lowered his costs of becoming condotierre. As such, he did quite well at wars, gathering six laurels, four more than anyone else and twice as many as the rest of us combined. The 21 points he gained from that was enough to put him well over the top. Also interesting was that only a single city got more than 3 VP per city tile at the end of the game, largely because I smacked Venice with a French Invasion for the final play of the game to bring it into a three way tie with everyone else but Milan (the 10 pointer) and Rome (the big loser, only I had ever purchased a Roman city tile and paid for it). Ben came in second, myself in third.

A fun game, and one I'll have to try again. I prefer this to Liberte, as it is easier to parse the game situation - all of those pastel control markers and primary color faction blocks make the board look like the floor of a Tilt-A-Whirl compartment on Free Cotton Candy Day at your local amusement park. Definitely not a problem in PotR.

Ben had to go, and Mike only had about an hour, so we tried out my new copy of Bollide, which I described in my Sunriver report (Day 3). We each played two cars, ostensibly for one lap. About 2/3rds of the way into the game, Chuck and Mike both called the game on account of boredom. They both felt it was a puzzle game, which in a way it (and about 3/4ths of designer games) is. True, I was doing well, but there is usually a strong leader in about 1/2 of the games this group plays, so I don't think that was it. We were playing at a brisk pace, too, although not fast enough to make it feel like you were under pressure to make a decision.

I think the real problem is that racing games become boring quickly if you aren't into racing games. Formula De has the same problem, as did Circus Minimus. Either you like these kinds of games, or you don't. Me, I love 'em.

Mike had to go, so Chuck and I grabbed some pizza, discussed the pitfalls of having 20-year-old daughters, and then came back to play the North Africa campaign of Rise of the Luftwaffe, an old GMT title from the early 90's that uses cards to simulate WWII era air battles. The campaign game has some interesting mechanisms and concepts that were expanded over the following three titles that covered the late ETO, early PTO, and late PTO. Dan Verssen came up with a very clever idea, but it became apparent as time went on that he really didn't have anything planned, especially as he started making more money in the CCG market. Still, there were improvements and the game has been pretty popular, with new campaigns in GMT's house magazine C3I. Chuck and I both enjoy the game, although luck can play a pretty big factor.

We started out with a dogfight that saw most of my fighters go down (a common occurrence, unfortunately - I tended to have attack cards most of the game), followed by a couple of raids by Chuck on airbases and factory complexes that went either very well or not so well. In the end, Chuck was up 35 points going into the final mission, but I had the benefit of having two elements of aircraft in my resource list while he was down to reducing FLAK over the target. Sadly, he drew a dogfight for the final mission, and I had no chance to recoup enough points to do more than go from "Miserable" to "Poor", so we called it a game. One of my favorite short wargames, although one that seems to be an acquired taste for many gamers.

Thanks to Chuck, Mike, and Ben for saving me from a boring Saturday stuck home with the dogs.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

South Tuesday Session, 5/16/06

Mike and I made the trek out to Sherwood and Chris' place for Tuesday gaming. I'd recovered from the Sunriver retreat (I am getting too old for this little sleep over this much time), and was looking forward to some distractions from my 20 year old daughter's delusions of grandeur.

Chris wanted to burn down his unplayed games list, so out came Liberte. Plus, Dave wasn't there so other people had a chance to win. This is your classic Wallace title, with multiple people controlling three different political "parties" (it's hard to think of them as parties when a major part of campaigning involves chopping off the opposition's heads) in revolutionary era France. Despite color registration issues between one region on the board and the corresponding cards, plus a missing line in the rules, and that I had played a couple of times in 19-mumbletysomething and that was as good as it got, we did pretty well.

My initial hand was split between the reds and the blues, while Chris clearly was gunning for the white Royalists. I had exactly one chance before the fourth turn to get a white card without drawing randomly, and in fact I didn't have one in my hand at all until the final turn. Because this color has the fewest blocks, it actually gives the person with those cards an excellent shot at pulling off the counter-revolution, and my Reds were working hard to get this across to Mike, who was predominantly blue.

A critical mistake was when I chose not to play a general down and kill off Chris' general with a Purge card, but as I wanted to wait as long as I could, I held off one card play too long and Chris won an easy battle. Sadly, despite drawing about six generals in the game, I was unable to get one deployed and win a battle, and the tied battle in turn 3 was truly critical. Because, you see, Chris managed to get six more CR spaces on the board at the very end of the game to win an automatic victory. Me, I stalled out after turn 2 and only scored 2 points total for Langedoc. Very frustrating.

We did run through the voting process, as Chris hadn't realized he would win a counter-revolution, and it turned out that Mike pulled out a squeaker win due to cards still on the table. Had there not been a CR, of course.

I think that this is a great game, but you need more than three. It's too easy to just focus on one color, and Chris had enough white on the board that a CR victory was almost assured given the free extra space because of the battle. He was able to whip the pile of white blocks down in five or six rounds in the last couple of turns, and you just can't recover from something like that. Of course, if a couple of people are pushing white and you've got five players, the game can end in two or three rounds, so maybe that wasn't the problem. Regardless, this is a game that should come out more often. Too bad we have about a bazillion games like that.

Next up, Mike and I take on Dave in Return of the Heroes this Saturday (assuming I can talk Dave into it).

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Sunriver, Days 3 and 4

I'd finally gotten some decent sleep on Saturday night, so I was looking forward to some better gaming on Sunday. Sadly, most of the folks had to leave at some point, but there were a few things I was looking forward to playing.

A Die Macher game had started up the night before and was still going Sunday morning, so those of us not involved (Tim, Carrie, and Dave) played the latest Ticket to Ride game, Maerklin. Maerklin is much like the original with the addition of both long and short tickets and the ability to score points with passengers. I've discussed the basics in an earlier post, so I won't repeat that information here.

I do pretty well in TtR games, as I'm able to focus on what needs to be done, do it, and then move on. In this game, I planned to get my passengers out of the way early and shrink the points later players would get, and this worked to an extent. I was fortunate enough to keep all four of my starting cards, two long and two short, that worked in a fishhook from Frankfurt south, then east, and finally north to Berlin. I had a few options in terms of alternate routes, so I picked up the critical ones immediately then went about picking up others as things got crowded in that particular section of the map.

The biggest drawback was that I had quite a few short routes, and no 8's at all. Also, my passengers were typically scoring only 20 points or so, while Dave managed to score one run at 59. That can be hard to beat, so as soon as my track was completed I began looking for extra short routes to exploit. Of the three extra tickets I picked up, one was already completed, one only required a single linkup, and the third was a problem (and the best choice of the three I'd drawn). It was enough, however, to score the most tickets points.

Sadly, Carrie beat me, despite realizing at two or three points in the game that she hadn't connected to the city she thought she had. I think Dave managed to sneak by me as well, as he had done well in points during the game while I had done well in tickets and was well behind by the time we finished. Still, this is a great version of the game, perhaps my favorite so far, although I'd still consider using Europe to introduce new players because the stations help save busted tickets. This is a franchise that I think still has a couple of good iterations in it.

By now Die Macher had finally finished up, and both Eric and I were interested in trying one of the kinder, gentler, and theoretically shorter 18xx games, so Tim pulled out his copy of 18MEX. Eric and I had at least gone through the motions with other 18xx games (mine is 1835, so I'd seen the private/public shift). At the last minute, George jumped in, so we had to start from scratch with the rules as he'd never played before.

Right out of the box I made a couple of big errors. First, I put a token on the second private to be sold, and someone then put a token on the first company and I ended up only having the choice of the final private after everything else had been taken. This put me at a bit of a disadvantage early, as I was only pulling in $20 a turn for the first few turns. Second, my first major purchase was the black railroad (most of the companies have the word "Mexican" in them, which made for more than a little confusion), and then I set the par value one step too high to be able to float it that turn. I had to get my income on the next turn, and in essence lost one turn to the other players.

To make matters worse, George was the other player in my immediate vicinity, and we don't call him X Factor for nothing. At one point he refused to build rail that would have generated money for him, and I simply built it on my turn and collected the money anyway. This started a pissing match where we were creating problems for each other instead of cooperating, although by game end I'm not sure it mattered much.

Things went along pretty well until the six trains came out, and suddenly I found my prime railroad without any trains and without enough money to buy one. One of the end conditions in this game is that you have to have a train with every railroad, and if the company doesn't have enough money you have to spend your own money, and if you don't have enough you have to sell stock, and if that doesn't do it the game ends. While I had little cash in pocket, I was able to sell three shares of the company in question while keeping three more, was able to buy a 4D that doubled income, and bought enough shares back in the next turn at the lowered value to make that company a major producer. A great trick!

Meanwhile, my initial private had become the Big Kahuna in the game, the Something de Something de Mexico. I built up Mexico City, and ended up with a 6 and a 4D and was I bringing in about $1000 per turn to my pocket after paying dividends. At this point, we'd been at the game for six hours (so much for short), and since Tim needed to head home we called the next operating round as our last. In the end, Tim scored $2100 and change, and I wasn't all that far behind with $1700 and change. Tim felt that had I gotten a better start and the game had run another operating round that I may well have beat him.

I have to say that I'm just not a fan of these games. I like the overall complexity, but there are just a few too many things going on that I have trouble tracking. With wargames, things tend to fall into at most four or five areas of the board that you have to watch carefully, but in an 18xx game you have to keep your eye on all of your opponent's companies (especially garrison markers), the board, the stock market, and the bank. For me, it adds up to too many things in a financial game where I'm not terribly keen on most financial games (Acquire is a noted exception). Plus, six hours was ridiculous. Tim swears that the game is playable in three, and I suspect that had there only been three of us that we'd have finished in four hours. I'm willing to try one more, given players familiar with the basic system to speed play, but I think that this is just one more gaming system that will stay out of my collection.

By now it was down to just the four of us, George, Eric, Dave, and myself. With a little time before dinner, we pulled out Power Grid and played the French map, closing off the NE and SE sections to put Paris on the edge of the map. Dave started out in Paris, I started on his Western flank, and George started just west of me, making me the jelly in the sandwich. Eric started in the Alsace region on the border with Germany and didn't have much competition for cities early on, although they tended to be more expensive to build to.

Eric and Dave went for the early nuclear stations, and I went for a diversity strategy with garbage, oil, and coal. George went for the green power strategy, and by the end I believe he was using no resources at all for power, although he was only able to generate for 11 cities. In the final turn, it was clear that Dave would have enough cities and resources to power 17 cities, and I forgot that I would need to actually pay for resources, and I knew I'd have to dump my big coal plant as Dave was going to get to those resources first. I was very sneaky and bought one more garbage plant, screwing Eric out of being in contention, and snuck in for second with 15 cities, all powered. I think Eric was stuck with nine, although I'm not sure.

Dave felt that this game was too easy to win in just the last couple of turns, and I think he's probably right as he wasn't strong at all until the very end. However, I find that this brings a lot of tension to the endgame, and like most Friese games it's really more of a ride than anything else. Still one of my favorite mid-length Euros.

After dinner, Eric showed up Bolide, a momentum based racing game. It uses a clever method of placing a marker that corresponds to how you moved in the last turn. If you moved three spaces in the horizontal direction and two spaces vertical, the marker is placed that many spaces ahead of your car when it finishes movement. On your next move, you place your car within two spaces vertically and/or horizontally of your marker, which is then moved itself. In practice, this means that you can change speed +/- two spaces in each axis per turn, although the momentum marker tends to confuse the general idea. There are rules for hard braking, which we tried out as we got further into the game, but it seemed that good planning was more valuable in the long run. We each played two cars on a single lap, and while it took a while to finish, I'd think that experienced players could play it in a decent amount of time. There is a timer included to encourage fast play, something that Formula De sorely needs, so the whole game feels like it's going by quickly. I will probably pick this one up as it seemed to be pretty fun. My only complaint was the jigsaw-joined board, which puckered a bit at the edges, I'd prefer Formula De folding maps instead.

Our final game of the night was Tower of Babel. No one could believe that the turn order track was as useless as it seemed, so everyone spent time going over the rules to see if there was any purpose to it. Nope. The only thing we did differently from my previous game at our Central Tuesday session was when you tried to build a portion of a wonder and failed. In our first game, you lost your turn. In this game, you got to go again. Is it just me, or are games rushed out too quickly these days?

Regardless, somehow we'd just gotten going and then someone built the final ship token to trigger the end of the game. I'd done poorly in my token collecting (again, four different types, only one with three), and someone other than me won the game. I've soured on this one, perhaps we're doing something wrong and the 'Geek has a clarification.

Now it was time for bed, and while I was in my room by midnight, I slept horribly, with one nightmare after another. In fact, the next day I got a very strange feeling whenever I went into that room. I'm not one to believe in ghosts, but I think I understand how people feel when they say a place is haunted. As such, I was not really in the right frame of mind for gaming the next morning, and was a bit concerned when we pulled out Magna Grecia as our final game of the retreat.

Sure enough, the first tile pull had me going first. Everyone else built off of my city, and the second tile pull had me going last, giving Dave the chance to start a large city in the middle of the board. I immediately saw that I was doomed in this game, and sure enough I was. Think of a game of Settlers where you get cut off from most of the board immediately, and have to sit through the rest of the game unable to do anything to help your position. I made the most of what i could, but that first turn order was too much to overcome and I finished well into last place while Dave cruised to first. I like this game, but when bad luck early kills any chance of success, I have to wonder if I'll be willing to play the next time it's suggested.

On the plus side, my "to sell/auction" pile is getting bigger, making way for more new games that will underwhelm me.

If that sounds cynical, perhaps it is. Britannia, which I thought was a great game, couldn't have been a lot of fun for Michael, who simply hadn't gotten enough points with the Romans to have even a small chance at victory, and it lasted for six hours. Me, I used the downtime in Magna Grecia (as did George) to start getting things cleaned up and packed for the ride home.

This Sunriver started strongly, with only one bad game played in the first 24 hours that we had more than two people, but by Sunday afternoon I was starting to think that we had too many weak games. Perhaps I've been spoiled, perhaps I was just seeing the effects of getting older and crankier leaking into the fun (I simply can't go on such small amounts of decent sleep anymore), but I think it's deeper than that. I think I'm becoming a game snob, and am willing to put up with less slop in a game, from the rules writing to how well it plays to arc to just having a shot at winning. That's a bad sign, and one I hope will be rebutted at the next long weekend. Because I like three full days of gaming, and to think that I'm really only good for one or two is, frankly, depressing.

Which is not to say that this was anyone else's experience. As I've written at the Gathering of Engineers blog, hosting has it's own rewards, and we had very few problems with having too many people crammed into a house built for 8 tops. People told me they had a good time, and in the long run that's my primary concern, but it would be nice to attend a long weekend and not feel like I need several days to recover, plus enjoy myself as much as I want my guests to enjoy themselves.

I've rambled and whined enough, I should save this sort of thing for Fun With Mr. Whiney in the future. Thanks to all who attended and put up with me not at my best and had fun anyway.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Sunriver, May 06, Day 2

Saturday broke sunny and early for me, having the bedroom directly underneath the great room where four people had slept and were now stirring. One thing Sunriver is not about is sleep, and I'm finding that it is harder to get by on that much less sleep for more than one or two nights. Time to get better drugs.

After playing our Fury of Dracula game for a few more rounds, we decided to bag it and move on to other things. For me, that meant getting in a three-player game of Here I Stand, the new card driven wargame from GMT on the Reformation, with Chuck and Eric. This was my second "real" game, and it felt much different from the six-player version we played a month or so ago. I took the Hapsburgs and the Papacy, Chuck took the Ottomans and the French, while Eric took the English and the Protestants. We played the three turn tournament game, beginning on turn 5 and running through turn 7. I'm not sure this is a good six-player game, although I felt it worked well for three. The problem is that a good hand can really set you up for success with a given power, as a weak hand can nearly kill you, and only getting three hands can really skew the luck factor in this game.

My first turn went quite well. I thwarted the Ottomans at Vienna, the French in Italy by taking Florence with the Papacy, and enlisted the Genoese to the Hapsburg cause. England had trouble siring a male heir (although he did take Edinburgh), and the Protestants were having trouble making any serious headway, and the first turn ended with the Hapsburg/Papacy with a serious advantage.

In the second turn, the English decided to declare war on the Hapsburgs, and the Turks had enough treachery cards to take Vienna easily, and things began to turn for the True Church. In fact, things went so well for the Turks that they were a single key away from an automatic victory. England was still struggling to conceive Edward, but the Protestants were doing pretty well in converting Germany with their Printing Press. Meanwhile, having lost Charles and Ferdinand, the Hapsburgs were forced to try for New World gains (I had a single successful colony roll in eight attempts), and the Papacy spent a lot of time trying to hold back the Protestants.

In the final turn, Chuck began with a large scale Turkish invasion attempt on Naples to grab the key that would give him the game. Somehow I was able to thwart his plans thanks to professional rowers although my own Hapsburg navy was bloodied. England managed to pop the boy out, and the Protestants were making serious headway in England. Despite weak cards, the Protestants were kicked out of England, only to learn that perhaps I should have taken that other North Sea port when I had the chance with the Anabaptists - you can travel over a sea zone for purposes of reformation attempts. At least I had Urban as my pontiff, so I was able to win ties on counter-reformation attempts. It wasn't enough, however, as I spent a lot of time trying to prevent an English invasion of Spain, largely repelled when Eric realized that Navarro wasn't a port.

in the end, Eric got to draw so many cards and had so many ops as England that he was impossible to stop, and he won with 24 points by game end. While I felt I did a great job with the cards I had, I simply couldn't compete with the fantastic draws Eric and Chuck got on the final two turns. As such, while I had a great time playing, I have to say that I can't consider this a competitive version, and I think I'd prefer playing the full game from the beginning, although I did enjoy playing with three players.

George had asked me to bring my copy of Phalanx's Alexander The Great, and I'd read up on the rules ahead of time. Alex, Dave, and Chuck had joined us to give this game a try, and I have to admit that the rules made me wonder who had thought this was a good idea. Once we started play, it became apparent that the movement rules were not fleshed out enough. On the one hand, it appeared that a "move" consisted of taking a group of units from one location to another, paying all necessary costs as you did so. However, it was not clear that you couldn't drop off units, although the rules could be interpreted in that way. The Geek provided no clues, and a quick note to Phalanx by our resident Dutchman George only confused things even more - they said that a move was to an adjacent area, which made the whole idea of picking up and dropping off (picking up was mentioned in the rules) moot.

Unfortunately, we were already souring on the game, although I think that there may be a good game in there somewhere, although not one with obvious moves. By the time we played the short game (using, sadly, the full value of the endgame points instead of half), no one was terribly interested in giving it another try. While it is unfortunate that badly written rules can ruin a game experience to the point that the game is only played once, it is true more often than not, and European publishers printing English versions, notably Phalanx, really need to make sure their rules are well done. Every single one of their titles I've owned has had confusing rules that required some close reading or errata, and not one of their games looks to be one that will see a second playing, with the sole exception of Maharaja. They join Avalanche as a publisher I will avoid in the future.

We were getting close to dinnertime, and so I wanted to try something shorter, so I pulled out Big Manitou, the reprint of the five-year-old card game, to play with the same set of folks as Alex. By now I was very tired and while I'd read the rules just a few days before, they were organized so badly that it took me several minutes to re-orient myself and teach the game effectively. Seriously, guys, this is ridiculous. There are so many English speakers in the US that will proof-read English rules for free, there is absolutely no reason for rules to be written this poorly. Unlike Alex, however, we were able to get past them and play an effective game.

BM (what a great acronym) is a card game where everyone is working from an identical deck. You pick roughly half of your cards (the rest are used in the next hand), and then bid for the right to choose tiles in one of three groups. You have hunter cards, that are simply ranked 1-10, as well as hero cards that beat or lose to other hero cards. The hunters stay for the entire hand, but a hero card immediately removes the competing hero card in the group it's played in according to the ranking shown on the cards. Three of the heroes use a rock-paper-scissors scheme, while the other two are a chief that beats everything except the (rather alluring) squaw card, which loses to everything else. Sort of like the Spy in Stratego.

Once we got into the game, it was fairly straightforward, although people had a lot of trouble figuring out that you get the points for Buffaloes and Teepees (spelled "Tipi" in the rules, very confusing) based on which type of tile you collect the least points in. I think we completely forgot to increase our hunter points based on tomahawks held. In a nutshell, we stopped early so I could start grilling burgers, and no one seemed to be very upset.

I think that there is a pretty good little game here, but not with five players (four looks to be a good number), and not if you aren't really aware of how the game works. After Alexander, though, it was just one more huge disappointment in a row after several great games.

Because of my chef duties, I only got one more game in, and that was Circus Minimus from The Gamers. This is an attempt to simplify the old AH chestnut Circus Maximus, and in that respect it is very successful. The only problem with teaching the game, which is really very simple at it's core, is that you first check speed to determine change to fatigue, then check fatigue to determine change in speed. As such, the first few rounds are very counter-intuitive for new players, and the game went very slowly at first.

Because of the way that the skid rules work, a turn can go very badly indeed if you get unlucky with the dice, and Tim immediately ran into trouble in the very first turn and fell far behind. Because I was trying to keep things simple, I'd skipped over the Cocky Leader and Cranky Followers rules that are intended to keep the pack fairly close (and thus entertaining), and so he was pretty much out of the race from the start. Too bad, as there is a lot of fun to be had in this game, and that includes reading the rules out loud. Really.

Just when I thought the game was going to be a complete loss, I managed to roll not one but three unfortunate dice in a row coming out of the final turn in our one-lap race, pulling a hard skid to point me at the wall, then pulling a dangerous skill that ran me into the wall, flipped my chariot, and saw my driver pulled along behind my team. On the next turn, I foolishly cut myself loose (foolish because my horses got to move first on the next turn and crossed the finish line before anyone else, which would have won me the race), thinking I would jump onto Matt's chariot directly in front of me. Unfortunately, you can only jump into an adjacent chariot to the side, and George then ran over me and killed me instantly on a roll of 5 for injury. As the rules say, sq-WHIT. I thought it was hilarious, but everyone else was having too much trouble working the fatigue/speed connection and feeling screwed by early dice to be having any fun. Me, I thought it was a pretty elegant and entertaining little race game, you just can't take it seriously. Definitely use the Cocky Leader rule, though, it makes a lot of difference to keeping things close and allowing for people to catch up to the pack.

At this point, I had turned into a pumpkin so I headed off to bed early while everyone else stayed up and enjoyed the games for a few more hours.

Day 3 to come...

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Sunriver, May 06, Day 1

Dave and I arrived at Sunriver sometime around 10:30pm on Thursday night to discover that all of the deck furniture, and there is a lot of it when you see it all in one place, had been put in the great room by the painters and not returned. Plus, our handyman had been doing some work on the wall above the fireplace, and so there was plastic sheeting over the furniture. Just the sort of thing you want to see after driving for four hours. As such, we didn't get started gaming until around 10am the following day after I'd put the furniture back and cleaned up the area.

Dave had wanted to play all six of the GIPF series, and I foolishly agreed. You see, Dave has played most of these games several times, while I have played most of them a handful at most. As such, I was Gipfed, Zertzed, Dvonned, and Yinshed rather handily, although I did have a shot at Yinsh for a while. I was able to soundly Tamsk Dave twice, the only victories I had in games with him the entire weekend. Puenct, which I have to say was too much at the wrong time, coming last in our series of games and coinciding with George and Eric arriving, ended up in a tie, although to be honest I was getting my hat handed to me here as well. All of these games other than Tamsk require learning what moves work and what don't, and two or three playings over a two or three year period isn't going to make for a pleasant gaming experience unless you are into spanking.

Thank goodness that Eric and George arrived to save me from a rematch. Someone, not me, suggested Phalanx's First World War, designed by noted wargamer Ted Raicer. Ted is the author of several WW1 era games, including what is perhaps the most widely played wargame on the subject, Paths of Glory. The game is essentially a series of 11 games of tug-of-war played across the various fronts. Different nationalities of units can be placed in different fronts, and some fronts are close enough to allow unrestricted movement between them, while otherwise there are strict limits on movement. Combat is a matter of comparing lead units (usually the best you have on that front), any additional units you have committed (the defender must reveal all of their units and remove dummies), and a die roll from 0 to 4. As a consolation, 0 rolls get you a chit pull, which may help or hurt you in a future combat. As you lose areas in a given front, you sometimes lose the ability to replace units, and if the enemy takes your base, you may lose the game outright at the end of the turn in a surrender roll.

As an extremely light wargame simulation, TFWW is a success. There are few rules (although the usual Phalanx Dutchglish requires more than the usual read-through to figure out the mechanisms), and the basic tenets of the war are modeled appropriately. You must avoid major breakthroughs that force surrender rolls, a lot of the time everyone loses, and the Germans and German Allies must fight hard early or face overwhelming odds as the game (and the reinforcements) go on. As a euro, or even it is a dismal failure. Tremendous success in all fronts but one can result in you losing the game on a surrender roll, which is not exactly a satisfying win for the other guys.

In our game, which was marred by Dave not realizing that you got all of your reinforcements and only some of your deadpile replacements every turn, the German Allies (me) walked through southern Russia (Dave) to take his home base on the third turn. Meanwhile, both the Western Allies (George) and the Germans (Eric) lost bases as well on turn 3. To be honest, I wasn't paying that much attention to what was going on in the West, other than Italy which saw no action at all. While Dave's mistake hurt him and allowed the Austro Hungarians to win repeatedly in Russia (not so hot in Serbia), it was all for naught when George rolled a 1 for the Western Allies and lost the game. I beat out Eric's Germans by having more VP, after the +3 modifier for balancing, although it is far from clear that this would have been the case had Dave gotten all of the units he was due on turn 2. Winning because of a single surrender roll just left a bad taste in my mouth, and it was just as well that Michael, Alex, and Matt showed up about that time.

I understand that TFWW is an attempt to blend wargames with euros, and in many respects it is successful. However, I can only conclude that the subject matter does not lend itself well to a blend of simulation and light game, and this one is hitting the "sell" pile. The general mechanisms are good, but that surrender roll is just too much of a crap shoot even if one should be trying desperately to avoid having to make one.

Knowing that three more people would be joining us shortly, Eric showed us the cute little card game Saboteur. Think of it as a cross between the Clever Pipe Game and Shadows Over Camelot. Players are trying to play down a path of tunnels between the starting spot and the one of the three destination cards that has the gold, but one or two of the players is a sabotuer. If the Dark Dwarf manages to prevent the group from running a path to the gold, they get the gold for themselves. Right after we'd gotten started, Michael, Alex and Matt arrived, but since the game can handle seven, that wasn't a real problem.

This is a fun little game, the first really good card game to come out since Sieben Siegel and Geschenkt. It scales well, it's easy to teach, it's a lot of fun for a short amount of time, and you can easily get seven or eight players involved. Matt ended up winning by being on the right side of the team in all four hands. While I've yet to be the bad guy in Shadows Over Camelot, I managed to be the Saboteur twice, which was a nice nod to my dark side. Definitely a winner.

Next up, Eric joined Michael, Alex, and myself for a game of Brittania, using the new Fantasy Flight edition. I went over the rules in a minimal fashion to allow people to understand the basics, and this seemed to work pretty well. The only drawbacks are the complicated "submit" rules that are different for different nations and that the Romans really need to make hay while they can and a new player can make suboptimal plays (meaning they don't get far enough to the north). I strongly recommend that anyone teaching the game to new players run through the rules to decide exactly what needs to be taught at what stage of the game. There also needs to be a spreadsheet showing what nations require what areas for points, although I did try to point out the really big point totals for my own nations as they came up.

Michael took the Yellow nations, including the Romans, Alex took the Blue "Wait For Half The Game For Something Interesting To Happen" nations, Eric took the Red "Saxon Steamroller" nations, and I took the Green "You Won't Win But You Won't Lose Either" nations, thinking they would be a good fit for me. What nation you take as a teaching player will really depend upon your players. Green is great for those who get bored, as they always have something going on. Yellow is good if you want to hook someone in by letting them crush everything in sight, Blue is good if someone wants to see how the game works early on, and Red is good for people who complain if they don't win as they are usually strong contenders in the late game.

The Romans did what they were supposed to do early on, but didn't blitz hard enough into Scotland, preferring to control everything in the South before pushing North. The Welsh, on the other hand, had great luck in burning Roman forts, and the Belgae did their usual "We Submit! Never Mind! Whoops, We're Wiped Out!" thing they do so well. The Brigantes did quite well, sticking around and getting lots of points for Eric in the late game until someone woke up and wiped them out.

In the middle game where nations are popping out of the woodwork like crazy, the Saxons did pretty well, but were not as incredibly dominant as I've seen them. The Welsh, despite my warnings of 24 points to be had in York, managed to drive out not once but twice. Tough buggers! The Angles were also successful, but the Scots were merely annoying and Yellow fell further behind. It is important to note that point totals are not scored on a scoresheet, as with the AH version, but use coins (which we immediately replaced with poker chips). While these totals weren't secret, Eric's placing his points on the nation's player sheets, a great idea for seeing how well each nation did, masked his total to some extent unless one was willing to do addition and so we were effectively using semi-hidden scores.

Eric did manage to use his nations to great success in becoming Bretwalda and King at least twice each, his Saxons dominating the south, his Irish sticking around despite not a lot of luck in non-Cornish Wales, and the Brigantes holding on for quite a long time. In the end game, where all of the kings run around trying to kill each other off, Alex's Normans defeated the last Saxon holdout on the last turn while the Danes (who were decimated in their invasions, although successful enough to score points), Norwegians, and whoever it was that Red got at game end managed to kill off each other's kings, giving Alex the final kingship at game end. Critically, Alex also killed off the last Saxon, so Eric got no more points for that particular nation. In the end, that was the difference for me, and I pulled out the win 243 to Eric's 241 to Alex's 237. An astonishingly close game, and one that could have gone either way with just a handful of points scored or not. I attribute the win to my Welsh, who scored almost all of my points, while the Jutes and Caledonians did average and my Danes, while successful in the short term, were too bloodied to give me any serious points. Definitely a winner, even if it did take nearly five hours to play.

By now there were two or three games going at any one time, so I will leave it to the reader to read some of the other blogs connected to Gathering of Engineers for more details on those games. I can barely remember what it was I played.

The next game on the table for me was Titan: the Arena, one of the true classics despite rules issues with the Avalon Hill edition (but not as bad as the color issues with FFG's Colossal Arena reprint). This was Carrie's first game, and Matt, Chuck, and Michael joined us. I started out strong with bets on the Cyclops and Hydra, with my secret bet on the Warlock, and all three were still alive going into the fourth round. Carrie had, based on our general advice of betting on the same critters as the people across the table from you, was also tied up in those two, and had even revealed her secret bet on the Hydra early to take control and end a round.

Once the Hydra was eliminated in round 4, however, I realized that I needed to take out the Titan to kill Carrie's shot at a win, not to mention Chuck. Matt managed to kill the Ranger instead, leaving me with 9 points to Carrie's 10. Matt, however, managed to sneak in with a successful secret bet to tie for 10, and won the tiebreaker by being the last person to play a card. Definitely the closest game I've been in, it's hard to take third being only one point out of the lead! One of my top 10 favorite designer games, almost certainly of all time.

It was getting late, and we wanted to get in one late night game of the new edition of Fury of Dracula. Only Tim had played the old edition, and he was very interested in seeing what had changed and if it was for the better. In short, it was a fun game even though we didn't finish despite some play the next morning. I was Dracula, Matt was Lord Gotterdamerung, Tim was Van Helsing, George was the Good Doctor, and Mina was played by committee.

I started out in the middle of the board and snuck by a couple of investigators quite handily. A couple of events made my position known, and I had to run down the Italian peninsula to Rome to take a ship, running back to Salonika. Unfortunately, I'd been fooled by a figure in my line of sight into thinking that one of the routes I took was a road when it was a rail, so I got pushed down to 10 blood points fairly early.

After leading the investigators on a merry chase through the Balkans, night once again fell and I took a shot at Van Helsing. The dice did not go my way, however, and I was able to escape with only a couple of blood points left despite it being a battle at night. Not a good game for the Drac-meister, but overall a very entertaining game, and one I'll look forward to playing again sometime. I may bring this to Sunriver when my family goes next month, as it is a pretty easy game to teach even if it takes perhaps a bit more time than it should. Tim tells me that the changes to the game (a big change is how Dracula keeps track of movement, it's now done with cards). I wish that there were a cheat sheet for the various icons used in combat cards, but to be honest you only need a couple of rounds before you understand how everything works. I also wish that Dracula's event tokens had icons rather than art, which can sometimes be hard to differentiate unless they are oriented correctly, but these are very minor nits in what is a very strongly themed and entertaining game. As Dracula, I was kept busy figuring out my next move and event pick, as well as demonstrating that I was not, indeed, where they were hoping I was. Good fun, although really more of a ride than a game.

We left the game hanging at 1am as several people were making loud throat clearing noises and unrolling their bedding on the floor.

Part 2 to follow...