Monday, August 28, 2006

Silent War - July 1942 Report

Silent War, a great solitaire PTO sub operations game, finally came out with Cyberboard and Vassal engines so that you can play on the computer rather than having a game set up for months. While the Cyberboard version is nice and all, it's the ability to easily manipulate the draw cups in Vassal that make it truly playable and fun. If only the ports were on a separate window so you could move subs easily between Freemantle and the map, it would be just about perfect. Especially nice is how fast you can reseed the various ship cups - by hand it takes about 15 minutes, with Vassal it takes about 3. Even replacing ships and TDC markers after a patrol is very fast, only requiring a single button press. A very nice module, and highly recommended (although you will need the combat, torpedo improvement, and War Status tables to play - they are not represented in the game). Kudos to Compass Games for getting this out promptly, hopefully it will improve their sales rather than hurt them - don't steal games, kids!

I'm playing the 7th campaign game, which starts just after the transition to WP2 (right after the Battle of Midway), and runs until you manage to transition to WP3, which can take from six to twelve months. War Period status changes as a result of tonnage sunk in conjunction with number of ships sunk, so just going after the big ones isn't really enough. You begin with 70 some ships sunk and need to get around 200 more down as quickly as possible. A big factor is how lucky you get with improving torpedoes - do it early, and you've got a good shot. If it takes a couple of months, it could be a very long game.

I'll be posting reports as I finish each month's patrols, or four weeks (game turns). Each week tells a slightly different story, which is really the whole point of the game. Adding tension is the need to make certain tonnage goals every few months, although just doing that is not enough to even "win" the game (which in this case turns on how fast you can get to WP3). You can improve your level of victory by not losing subs (which can happen simply by moving from one area to another, running into more ASW than you can handle, or just really bad luck) or by sinking over a million tons by game end.

Here is the report for July, 1942, which went pretty darn well - I had my torpedoes improve fairly early, and am well on my way to making my late-August numbers. So you know, "maru" is Japanese for a merchant ship, and I use it even though some of the freighters are IJN flagged ships such as troop transports or oilers. I call out IJN combat vessels as I sink them (or they sink me!)

Week 1

No war event, Ultra in S Philippine Sea, Java Sea.

Ready/Repair goes well in Brisbane, but many subs, including Gatos, don’t make their sea rolls. Only nine subs will leave port this turn.

Trigger does well in her first attack (indeed, first of the game), sinking two marus for 4k tons and stays on station in the Aleutians. Finback repeats the performance.

Dolphin sinks a 1k ton maru in Empire, chooses not to attack again (only subs with tac values of 4 or more will make second attacks for now).

Flying Fish damages a maru in East China Sea, but high ASW activity forces the skipper to choose the better part of valor and RTB.

Aside from a 5k ton maru damaged in the Carolines (skipper unable to finish it off due to increased destroyer presence on re-attack), no other successes. Only two subs damaged, however, and one of those was an S1 boat.

Week 2

Navy wants a sub blockade of Truk, so all available subs have to move to Truk. Worse, no torp improvements despite five ships sunk last turn, improving the odds by 10%. Ultra in Aleutians and Bonins.

Sub crews make up for last weeks’ miserable performance, readying 75% of the subs in broom boxes and successful repairs on all but one sub (in Dutch Harbor). There will be a lot of subs on station next week, making up for the blockade this turn. As many boats deployed from Pearl alone as from all bases last turn! This does create some congestion, but not enough to create problems.

Pickerel diverts to Truk, sinks a 1k ton maru. Otherwise, Truk is a waste of effort.

Snapper, damaged last turn, returns to Freemantle and discovers extensive damage.

In the Aleutians, Finback bounces a torp off of the hull of a 15k ton maru on a re-attack. All three Gato-class subs stay on station for the second straight turn, although with no successes.

Swordfish, transiting into the Philippine Sea, manages to be spotted, damaged, and turned back. In the South China Sea, Gar runs into mechanical difficulties, enough to cause damage, and turns back to Freemantle as well.

In all, only one 1k ton ship sunk the entire week, but with so many boats out the hunting should be much better next week. However, to avoid being sacked the fleet will need to average 13k tons per week between now and the end of August! A daunting task, especially if more war events occur.

Week 3

Excellent news! No war events, and new torps have been installed on all boats (even those at sea!) Ultra gets wind of activity in the Carolines and the North Philippine Sea, which sadly have no patrolling ships, although several are close enough to move in and take advantage of the improvements in torpedoes. With a little luck, the chances of meeting the August goals have improved dramatically.

While the dockside efforts go well in Alaska and Australia, they don’t go so well in Pearl, and only about 40% of repairs are successful, although Dutch Harbor makes progress on all boats in drydock. Twelve boats will be heading out this turn, nine from Australia alone.

To start the week off with a bang, Greenling sinks a 5k ton maru in Empire Pacific with minimal interference from ASW. Tellingly, the torp that sinks the maru would have only damaged her had there been no improvements!

In the Aleutians, things go less well. The trio of Gato subs manage to hit targets repeatedly, but the torps are still mostly bad (obviously left over from the previous batch), and Trigger is damaged. Finback does sink a 3k tonner, and all three stay on station for a fourth week!

Of the four S1 boats in the Kuriles, all come home with damage, either from ASW activity or from the frigid temperatures. However, one 5k tonner was sunk, a fantastic accomplishment for an S1, even with less than awful torpedoes. The two boats out of Dutch Harbor sail to the Kuriles to replace them, as the Gatos are doing such a great job close in to base, although they are sure to head for warmer climes when their supplies finally run out.

A pair of Gatos on patrol in the Solomons head to the Carolines to take advantage of the Ultra intercepts. Silversides doinks a torp off of the side of a 15k ton maru, but heavy response by ASW makes a second shot much more difficult, and the boat heads home to Brisbane. Haddock runs into a small convoy with a very ambitious destroyer captain, and breaks off the attack after a single attempt.

A trio of S3 boats in the Gilberts, Bismarck Sea, and Solomons don’t manage to get any hits, but they do both stay on station. Another S1 stays on in the Bismarck Sea. At least they aren’t running out of torps.

While most areas have been less than spectacular in terms of results, Salmon manages to sink two marus totaling 8k tons in the Banda Sea, getting away clean! Skipjack sinks a 3k tonner in the same area and stays on station. In all, a turn that starts and ends well, with 21k tons sunk this turn, well above the 13k ton per turn requirement if I’m to stay in charge of the sub fleet. Many boats stayed on station, which will minimize the cost in so few boats coming out to sea this turn (other than Freemantle). In all, 33 boats are at sea, next week should be a good one. With only 42k tons to sink in five weeks, the number per week has dropped to less than 9k tons per week. I am hopeful that I can hit my numbers in two weeks instead of five.

Week 4

No war event, Ultra in the Bonins and Aleutians, the latter with the three “old men” Gatos that have been patrolling there since the start of the month, although Trigger decides it’s best to head home for repairs at Pearl (fortunately, the damage turns out to be minimal). It’s unlikely there will be any more torp improvement rolls for a while, although I always look forward to radar showing up in ’43.

Another poor performance week at the docks, although to be fair many of the ships are at sea. Only ten ships will set sail this turn, none from Dutch Harbor. Only a couple of ships in drydock saw progress, even at the excellent facilities at Pearl. Good thing there are a lot of boats, 31, already at sea and ready to sink ships!

In the north, a damaged Trigger heads for home, while Finback, presented with a smorgasbord of targets, manages to be held down and forced to head for home. Grunion, the last of the three Gatos to start in that area, fails to hit anything, but does stay on patrol for another week. The two S1 boats in the Kuriles head for the Ultra’d Aleutians, but fail to make any successful attacks, although one does stay on station with Grunion. No boats sail from Dutch Harbor this turn, so the North will be quiet.

Nautilus, spotted in the Bonins, decides to move to the North Pacific where there is a much smaller chance of encountering ships, but also a much smaller chance of being sunk. She does find a patrol, but fails to sink anything, but stays on station. Gudgeon, in the Marianas, comes across a single maru with heavy escorts, and manages to barely escape with damage.

Haddock gets the first kill of the week in the Carolines, and it’s a biggie – a 9k ton cruiser, making quota for the entire month with one kill. Had the cruiser sunk in the initial attack, it would have been tempting to shoot for a Super Skipper, but that will almost certainly have to wait until the torps improve again, unlikely in the next year. Pompano sinks a 5k tonner in the same area, but hoping for an extra target she is spotted, damaged, and sent home. En route, she is engaged and damaged a second time, barely holding together as she heads for Pearl Harbor.

Flying Fish sinks a 3k tonner in the Philippine Sea, but when aiming for a 15k ton ship comes across a diligent escort and is forced back to base heavily damaged. Sargo sinks a 2k tonner in Banda Sea, but is damaged and sent to Freemantle. In the N Philippine Sea, Drum sinks two marus for a total of 4k tons.

All in all, a pretty good turn with 23k tons sunk, a new record for the week. However, several ships were damaged, reflecting the skippers’ willingness to take on second attacks with the improved torpedoes. Many ships are returning to port in the next week, but many more (including a handful of reinforcements) are setting sail as well. With any luck, we will meet our August goals by mid month.

SouTu Session, 8/22/06

Tim, Dave, Jay, George, and myself joined Mike at his place for an evening of gaming.

On this night, our "summoner" game was Drive, one of the bazillion Simply Fun titles that Mike has. This is a simple set collecting game that has some nice screwage elements that raise it above similar titles. I don't know that it makes a great multi-player game, but I hear it's great with two. Think Lost Cities with easy scoring, and I think you've got it. After one round, I was tied for most points with someone else, perhaps George.

By this time, we had six people ready to game, so out came Elfenland, one of the better six-player games out there. We played with the RGG rules, which means you draw back up to eight cards and you have to get back to your home city (or as close to it) for a tiebreaker, which always seems to be required.

I did not have a single turn when someone wasn't harshing my buzz in a serious way, preventing me from collecting more than five markers a turn. Jay got off to an awesome start, and by the end of the third turn I think that he and Mike were both pretty close to a win with 17 markers each. Dave was off in a corner by himself, with six markers to get, and I found myself deciding to skip the one "in and out" space in the Western mountains in favor of running through the desert to hope that 19 markers was enough. In fact, turn four was the only turn no one messed with me, and I ended up one space away from my home. Sadly, that was enough to take fourth in a game where only one person got 20 markers (Dave, who had no one messing with him and the right cards/tokens at the right time). Jay got 19 and got home, while George and I both were one space away, but George had one card left while I'd had to use them all.

I really like the game (hate Elfenroads, hate Elfengold), but this one left me flat, perhaps because I was constantly getting screwed by tokens placed on the path I'd chosen that I couldn't use. The game is a balance of leveraging other's tokens and having your own little part of the board, but some parts of the board (like the desert) are so unforgiving that if you don't have the right cards you simply won't gain any traction (or markers). Maybe it was just a bad night for me.

George headed home after this game, so we pulled out Zing!, the Simply Fun version of Sieben Siegel, a group favorite. In an apparent compensation for my earlier trouncing in Elfenlands, I had a nearly perfect game, with only one trick taken I didn't want for a total of -3 points after five hands, and even that one was a last-trick fluke. Of course, having a good hand helps, but knowing what to play when will beat anything but a really messed up distribution in the deal. With five players, it is a lot easier to dump off cards you don't want, but it is also easier to be surprised by an early round void when you thought that 15 was a sure bet. Definitely one of the best trick-taking games out there, even if I'm not so fond of the color registration on two of the suits that are difficult to discriminate between.

Thanks for hosting, Mike, despite your earlier chiropractic crisis!

CenTuesday session, 8/15/06

Wow, an entry that's two whole weeks late. It's been a busy time for my family, so while I've been doing some gaming I haven't been doing reporting too well.

Matt was our host, and Dave and Peter joined us for a couple of games. First up was King of the Beasts, a Knizia title from a small company I'd never heard of that sounded like they focused on educational titles (although King was not, by any stretch, educational in the traditional sense). Peter explained the game, which sounded a bit like rummy, and we did things that seemed interesting and then someone won. Clearly a game I want to play again, although it was more a case of it being a quickie "summoning" game than anything else.

Next up was the meat of the evening, our first playthrough of Tempus. This new Martin Wallace title is the center of the latest "buzz blowback" controversy on the 'Geek, with one faction claiming that it is simply an area control game instead of a "civ-building" game, and that it's not up to Wallace's standard. I felt it was a pretty accessible game, regardless of what you call it, and liked it apart from a few rules screwups that I take no responsibility for as *I* played with the right rules! ;-)

In a nutshell, you are trying to control part of an island. Every turn you get a set number of actions, which include moving, attacking, reinforcing, building cities, and drawing cards (that help with all of the above activities). In addition, and this is where the "civ-building" element comes in, different actions can be improved over a turn. For example, you can stack more units in a space on one of the early turns, or have more babies, or move further with a unit. There are little "mini-races" every turn where you want to control certain types of terrain to get to move up one additional space (and get one additional improved action).

The cards (which are called "Bright Ideas") are used in combat, in determining who gets to move ahead in the civ-building race, and also allow bonus or improved actions (Medicine lets you have extra babies). The cards are all dual purpose, usable for the special actions or the terrain background (combat and progress), so they tend to be useful regardless of what you draw.

The board is made up of hexagonal tiles, five hexes to a side, that can be configured and scaled according to the number of players. It is possible to make "lakes" that can be used for movement early in the game, but not for combat. We kept forgetting this, but caught it before we made any real errors. This was not the case with city placement, as Matt managed to place a city next to an existing city, a rule that I had explained but missed when he placed the city. As a result, a couple of cities got placed next to each other.

The other rule we missed, although I must have told Peter at least six times how you scored VP, was that at game end you get a point for each non-mountain *hex* you have units in, not a point for each unit (as you do when figuring progress). Dave didn't get this rule until the very last turn, however, and as such it was a bit hard to evaluate the game, but I'll give it a shot anyway.

The game is definitely playable within a couple of hours, a nice change from most of Wallace's titles, certainly playable on a weeknight. The modular board can be built to give a lot of different looks (lots of lakes for fast movement in the early game, or a monolithic continent or something inbetween). The rules are, despite the problems we had, pretty clean for a Wallace game, most of the info you need (but not all) is on the player sheets. Play moves pretty briskly, at least it did in our game.

What is a bit unnerving (and this is not necessarily a bad thing) is that the game has a pretty small granularity. By this I mean that you do one seemingly small thing at a time, then someone else does the same, and around the table you go. Even that one small thing can take a couple of rounds to set up. For example, you can only put babies on grassland spaces you have units on, and then only one per space. As such, you need to move the units to grassland spaces if they aren't there already, then have the babies. Combat is not movement, so you have to move into position before you attack an enemy stack or city. While movement does improve over the game (on the first turn, a movement action allows one unit to move one space; by the end of the game you may get to move three units five spaces each), this is not a game where you go sweeping across the board a la History of the World. On the plus side, downtime is not much of an issue.

Now that at least some of us have played, I'm looking forward to a second game to see if this is, indeed, the overhyped game that so many say it is, or just a gem tarnished by the usual overblown expectations.

Peter had to leave after this game, so Matt and Dave and I played what may have been my last game of Wyatt Earp. We played four hands total, and the last hand saw so much money on so many outlaws to start the round that it devolved into a game of "Who Can Draw The Right Cards?" I am a Gin Rummy player from way back (I was playing my parents for money when I was 10), so I think I know how to play a rummy variant, but this game drives me nuts. I was better at getting cards on the table before Dave put his entire hand on the table (a favorite tactic of his), but the game is leaving me cold lately. Perhaps it's the Wild West theme, perhaps my least favorite, but I think it's more the high luck combined with the relatively long playing time in the past couple of sessions (45 minutes). Maybe it's better with two, I dunno. I just know that I'm glad we're getting some other "summoner" games to play while waiting for others to show up.

Thanks to Matt for hosting!

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Out Of The Box

Just got in an order for some new games, here are my initial impressions before any actual play -

Tempus - New Wallace title. Certainly the best laid out rules I've seen yet in a Wallace game, they are usually difficult to parse, but now that Cafe Games has the US distributorship and the box has their logo, I expect better rules to be the norm. The game looks to be a very light wargame mixed with euro elements, and a very light civ-building element that doubles as a game timer and secondary goal as being the most advanced gives you a bit of an advantage for the next turn. A reconfigurable map (without any color registration issues! Yay!) and multi-use cards add up to a very positive first impression, assuming that play time is no longer than 2 hours after familiarization. Hoping to get this in tonight.

Blue Moon City - A fairly simple game made interesting by cards that can be used as actions as well as "money". Like Around the World in 80 Days, a ridiculously oversized box for what's in it. Hope to play this evening at RCG, if Tempus doesn't come out. The Mobius-style art on the city tiles gives a lot of flavor, although I'm getting tired of the CCG-style art on the cards, along with the overly-obvious illustration credits. I expect the theme to be pretty thin on this one, as I'm not a huge fan of the Blue Moon card game.

Battles of the Third Age - WotR expansion/mini-games. Typically great components from FFG's Euro printings, although the reinforcement chits may require some trimming to get the dog ears off (and there are a lot of them). With what is effectively three games, it took a surprising amount of work to figure out which parts went with which game, a bit annoying when punching and bagging. From all reports, this is a very good expansion.

Quest of the Dragonlords - Worth buying if for no other reason than I finally have a game with worse rules than Return of the Heroes. This is a second edition printing, too. The rules have entire pages of "flavor" stories between sections, and a layout that gives you rules for movement/combat in no less than three different sections of the book. Punched component quality is abysmal, something I'd expect from a Decision Games release - thin cardboard counters that are supposed to conceal information, but that will require trimming to get the extra cardboard dog ears off. Perhaps the biggest disappointment in the order, although play may be worthwhile - the use of quests (which do have quite a bit of luck associated with them - you roll to see if the gods are amused, angry, or on the phone and that affects what happens in the quest), a "cylindrical" map, and a lot of RPG elements such as spells, items, etc, may save it. I will definitely attempt a solo game or two before inflicting this on the group. Did I mention that I was expecting a bit more from a second edition?

Arkham Horror Pharoah expansion - Like we'll ever play this, but I'm a nut for Egyptology. I expect that we'd play this with the "permanent exhibit" rules (where the cards are added into the existing game rather than replace them, as in the "visiting exhibit" rules). Not quite sure on the logic of "permanent" vs "visiting", but a fine point at best. ArkHor is a fine three-four player game, although a bit long. Perfect for those WBC West evenings when a little horror would round out the evening nicely.

Saboteur - Great filler card game that takes the best part of Shadows Over Camelot (the traitor) and makes an entire game out of it, and does it in about 20 minutes. May replace Wyatt Earp as our "summoning" game of choice, as it will take up to 8 players!

Battlestations expansions - Space Opera RPG with tactical ship combat elements, except that the players actually run stations on the ship. A definite option for WBC West evenings, and very little prep time required for the DM. Plus, you can do player vs player actions, making it more of a wargame (lite, but a wargame) if you want. A definite plus - all components from the expansions fit in the original box quite nicely, although it outweighs Descent at this point and there is no more room for anything other than dice.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

1825 Unit 1

Tim introduced some of us to the 18xx family at Sunriver this past spring, and there have been a few other games that have popped up in the interim. The 18MEX game we played at Sunriver went on far too long for a number of reasons, so I've been loathe to try another one unless the length was shorter. Eric, who is looking at his gaming vanishing into the sunset with the impending birth of his second child about a week away, talked myself, Tim, and Wes into coming over on a Thursday night and giving 1825 Unit 1 a try.

First of all, I think that a serious 18xx habit is more expensive than golf, at least in terms of initial outlay. Of course, you have to buy all of the clubs at once in golf, or at least a set of woods or irons at a time. Most of the good 18xx games are small-print-run publications, and while very nice they are also very expensive. $50 per box, and they don't get discounted much. To play the three 1825 units together with expansions will set you back over $200. Not that I ever want to play 18xx with nine people, mind you. Even I have my limits!

25U1 is set in southern England, skipping the Cornwall peninsula and the midlands west of Bristol. England and Manchester are the big cities. Towns are a bit of a conundrum: you have to count them as a stop, but they don't add anything to your run, and you can't end a run in them. However, you can upgrade towns to cities by upgrading the tile, and this is a critical part of the game. However, I found myself a bit hosed in the late game when I realized that none of the upgrade tiles could be legally placed in one town I wanted to upgrade, and I lost out on about $100 over the course of the game as a result.

The stock market is linear, and you don't lose value for selling stock, only for not giving out dividends. In this particular game, the sole reason not to give out dividends is to build up money to buy trains and stations, and as such you may withhold once or twice per game per company.

Privates are randomly distributed early on, and none hold any benefit other than providing steady income. There is only one minor company in the game which doesn't appear until the end, and only seven majors that come out in a fixed order. As far as 18xx games go, it would be hard to find a version that is friendlier to the novice than this one. Our play finished in three hours with four players, making this an even better choice.

Tim started out by taking the big first company early, the LWNR (I am almost certainly messing up these company names, for which I apologize), and we all dutifully bought shares in it and the GWR, which Wes was running. I got the GER, followed by Eric with the LWSR, me with the SECR and the last major whose name completely escapes me, and Wes got the minor at the end of the game. The LWNR did quite well, as did the LWSR, and the GER did well for me as did the final major. What hurt me was having to sell one of my two shares of the LWNR to finance buying the GER shares, and starting the SECR when I should have let someone else take it (it never paid out particularly well, although my shares were worth quite a bit by the end of the game compared to the initial price).

What really worked, however, was getting into a stock early and watching it go up and up. The market is not exactly linear, with values increasing exponentially as you go up the table, but not always. For example, you might go up 15 points one turn, then 10 the next. If you pay out twice as much money as the stock is worth, you get to move the marker up two spaces, but in one case I managed to gain 25 points while another high-value stock went up 30 with an increase of one space. Understanding the stock board is critical in these games.

As such, Tim managed to win a squeaker with his high-value LWNR railroad, which came in at around $300/share at game end. He beat Eric by less than 40 point in a game where the winner had 5000. That's less than a percentage point. My own total, at 47xx, was 94% of the winning total, and even Wes's 43xx was a very respectable 86%. I could easily see a couple of points where I could have won the game with a little patience, and certainly that extra LWNR share that Tim got was huge for him.

Certainly my funnest 18xx experience so far (not that there have been many), and it's whetted my appetite a bit for this sort of game. While I do worry that there can be a scripting to these games that can make it feel like you're playing a course of study (similar to the way I feel about chess - he who studies the game's millions of books on the subject will have an advantage), there is certainly a fun, quick (relatively), and clever game here that I'll have to try again sometime. Not sure if I'll get this particular title, as there are dozens to choose from, but it has restored my faith in the overall system and I'm looking forward to giving it another try soon.

Thanks to Eric for hosting, and we're all thinking good thoughts for you and Jodi and the Invader To Be Named Later.

Warrior Knights First Impressions

Mel is out of town this week, so I've been getting in a lot of gaming. Besides the solo Sands game covered in the previous entry, I also went to RCG's South Tuesday session last week, went to Eric's for an 18xx game on Thursday, and will go to Matt's for the Central Tuesday session in a couple of days. As if that weren't enough, I also had a few people over on Saturday to try out the reissue of Warrior Knights. I never played the original game, so I can't compare it, but I can say that this is a very promising game. Michael, Chuck, Alex, and Patrick came over to help me find out if the new version was worth the paper it was printed on.

In Warrior Knights, you play a "Baron" who sits in his stronghold for the entire game. Fortunately, you have "Nobles" that you can live through vicariously, and they romp around the board taking cities and getting into all sorts of trouble, albeit sanctioned trouble. There are economies for voting (which allows players to enact laws, bestow offices, among other things), faith (which helps alleviate revolts and lets you decide who gets the benefit or pain of random events), military might (for fighting and taking cities), and influence, which you get for cities and occasional other things, and act as VP to determine who wins.

Along the way, you have a deck of action cards. Each turn, you take six action cards from your deck (all decks are the same), and divide them up into three piles based on when in the turn things will come up - early, middle, or late turn. There are also two generic events that go into each turn portion, so that you end up with 2n+2 total cards for each part of the turn, where n is the number of players. The game moves forward with each card turned over and the player in question taking the action. For example, I might decide that I will have to pay my troops in the very near future, so I might play a Levy Taxes card in the first pile, hoping it will come up before the taxes have to be paid. A bit like real life, actually.

Once an action has been taken, the card goes into one of three discard stacks for Wages (paying the troops), Taxes (making money), and Assembly (voting on laws). When the number of cards in one of those stacks gets up to twice the number of players, that specific special action happens immediately following the action taken by the card in question. A few cards give you a choice of where to discard, but most go to one specific pile. Making this more interesting is that when the next turn comes up, you are unlikely to have gotten back any of the cards you used unless one of the special actions was triggered, so thinking a bit ahead is a good idea.

Finally, there is also a Mercenary Draft, where you can play markers onto a drafting track. Once the track fills up (n+1 spaces), players can purchase mercs from the display, with the option to buy extras if you have other markers further down the track and all of the mercs you buy come from the same country (Tuscans, Poles, etc). It is smart to try to trigger paying wages for the mercs you have first, then triggering the draft, as otherwise you get to pay for the ones you just got twice if the opposite occurs. Unless, of course, you can afford it and others can't.

If you're getting the idea that there is a lot going on in this game, you'd be right. Fortunately, most of the subsystems seem to work pretty elegantly - you can tell that Bruno Faidutti had a hand in keeping the system streamlined, and that's a good thing.

A number of Influence tokens are put in the Game Timer area, 12n is the standard number. Once these have been collected (mostly through controlling cities at the end of the turn), the game ends. I've been told that 15 is a better number in terms of overall game arc, although it does result in a longer game. In our case, I'm sure that another 15 tokens would have resulted in one more game turn that would have seen quite a bit of player combat - I believe there were only about three player combats in our game in total, making it feel like it was mostly about taking neutral cities. As such, those who took cities quicker were the ones who won the game, which was a bit unsatisfying. We only had four Assemblies as well, and I think we could have used one more.

The game moved forward quickly, although it is important for the Chairman of the Assembly to a) keep play moving at a brisk pace, and b) not get his unplayed action cards mixed up with the played cards. We started with instructions around 10:20am, played until 3:30pm with a break for lunch at the nearby pub, so around 4.5 hours total. For a first game, that's pretty good, and I think that a four-player game with experienced players could easily come in under four hours. I've heard lots of comments that 5 hours with 12 influence points per player is optimistic, but I just don't see it unless people are spending too much time deciding what to do with actions and in which order. For those players, I recommend a timer.

Everyone felt like they made mistakes. I personally blew it by sending an army with one too few units to take an overseas area, only to fail my first attack, figure out that I could break the walls down a bit in the next turn, then had Michael zip in, kick me out, and I never did get the space back. By the time I figured out we would be out of influence quickly, I just couldn't get anyone where they needed to be to make attacks (you only get to use a noble once per turn, and only two of your action cards let it move *and* attack in the same turn, both of which were in a discard pile on the last turn). As such, the endgame was a bit anticlimactic, although I think this was more to the learning curve than a game flaw - at least any more than with any other multi-player strategy game. In the end, Alex won with 17 influence, to Michael's 16 (he was beat out by Patrick for the Holy War points that would have given him the game), with Chuck and Patrick at 15 and me way behind with only 12.

For a game with a lot of little subsystems, WK moves very smoothly. We put one player in charge of keeping track of how high the discard piles were getting, one in charge of mercs, one in charge of the assembly motions, and it all moved along rather nicely. I get the feeling that we played a little *too* nicely, and a little too segregated in terms of territory. It's tough to go after a leader if they're off in a corner of the board and difficult to get to - movement is somewhat limited in this game except if moving by road. Understanding exactly how many troops you need and where you need them is important, even early, and so I also recommend playing your first game with 10n influence so that you can see where your nobles need to be - you can't just add in more troops when you feel like it, especially if the unit in question is overseas. No troops for you!

Downtime wasn't really a problem. Even if your cards didn't come out for a while (with five players, that can be 20 cards worst case), most cards are resolved very quickly - you get a faith token, or you place a marker on the merc track. The game slows down when players fight, have to decide which of the five actions on the Versatile Strategy card you want to take, and in planning which events will go where, but even these rarely took more than two or three minutes to resolve at worst. The Assembly takes about 5 minutes, but it only happens a few times a game, and everyone is involved (unless you are voteless - you spend your votes when you cast them, making them more political capital than votes). While I'm not sure that six would be a good number for this game, five is certainly doable, and four is probably optimal in terms of having room to expand as well as allowing for a 15-Influence/player timer and staying under four hours.

All in all, this one is a winner, and certainly something that will come out at Sunriver this fall. Thanks, guys, for helping me give this one a shot!

Shifting Sands Solo

Chuck and I got to try out the new MMP title Shifting Sands at WBC West twice, and learned enough from the game that I've begun to think that the Germans have to make a push into Egypt in 1941 once they get Rommel and a couple of panzer units, and I wanted to give this a try, so I started a solo game. Playing CDGs solo is a bit of a skill, as you have to be able to think in terms of what you would do were you unable to see what cards your opponent had. In Sands, this comes down mostly to whether or not to deploy the Italian fleet, especially later in the game when the penalties for failure are so strong, and holding the 88mm FLAK Guns card that lets the Axis make and prosecute their combat roll first when defending. The entire game took something like six hours, but it's hard to say as I'd play for an hour, then come back later and play a couple more turns, so exact play time is uncertain.

In this game, all of the usual stuff happened: Italians take Khartoum, bring in the Egyptians who provide a speed bump, the Allies bring in units only to have them taken out fairly soon after when the Germans take Greece and Crete. The start of 1941 was a surprise for the Allies when the Axis started not only the Iraqi Revolt, but then brought in the German mountain division in Baghdad which marched all the way to Basra. A full four divisions were diverted to the Near East to deal with the problem, which wasn't completely resolved until early 1942. In East Africa, the Italians held off the Allied attempts to attack into Khartoum, and it fell to the South Africans to clear out East Africa, which they did by the end of 1941 but just barely. In fact, the Axis was at 14VP, just one away from an auto victory, but that was as close as they got.

What happened? First, the German panzer divisions didn't come out as quickly as they might have, and when they did come out and Rommel was ready to roll into Alexandria, the Axis 8 card hand came up with six 2 cards and two 3 cards, one of which was a must-play event. As a result, the Axis couldn't even attack as all of their front line stacks were three-deep and in Limited Supply. Still, they managed to push the Allies to within a space of El Alamein, but once Barbarossa came out it became too much of an attrition battle and they couldn't push any further.

Meanwhile, the fight for Malta wasn't going well for the Allies. E-boats prevented play of a Malta Convoy, and the Germans had drawn every card they needed but Herkules in their first two hands of 1942. Unfortunately for them, the siege of Malta lasted exactly one card play, as the Brits brought in their Spitfires to allow more convoys and require Air Support as well. In the end, the Axis didn't draw Herkules until too late, even though it took a few more turns for the Brits to get their convoys and Malta Victorious (which they held for a turn). As it was, this particular card sequence pretty much doomed the Axis, as they were limited to 6 card hands for seven of the ten turns from 1941-43, and aside from Battleship Convoys, Gigants, and the single GE Battlefield Recovery RP, no replacements.

The Brits were having a tough time getting going in Egypt, taking only Bardia on the Libyan border and not pushing any further on that front. They did play Torch as soon as possible, which was a smart move - even though Patton never showed up, the Vulcan offensive gave the Yanks operational flexibility by putting all Tunisian/Algerian units in Full Supply, allowing frequent attacks at low OPS costs. In fact, this was where the campaign was decided on a couple of fronts.

First, the Allied High Command declared Victory or Death at exactly the right time, giving a VP to the Allies for pushing an Axis unit out of it's space, and then they split the Axis forces to concentrate on both Bizarte in the north and Gades in the south, giving them the two VP they needed for the auto-victory on the last turn. Tunis and Tripoli both held out until the end, despite a last-ditch Allied attempt to push the Axis off the continent entirely.

Games like this demonstrate pretty clearly that much can hinge on how and when cards from your deck sequence. Had the Brits not gotten the Spitfire card immediately, it would have allowed the Germans to make a push in Egypt at a time when the Allies were a bit fragile, but the threat of a war of attrition won out, neutralizing Rommel's combat shift advantage. It's tough to go after units when you know they'll just grow back at the end of the turn while yours will sit there and rot. While the Axis had some good card karma, they didn't ever get the AFR division in East Africa, which could have held off the Allies for a turn longer, giving the Axis a VP. The Malta sequencing certainly killed any chance the Axis had of winning, both in terms of RPs and VP - a three point swing there would definitely have resulted in an Axis win. Even Torch coming out a turn later would have been a death knell, as the Allies didn't take Bizarte until the final game turn, although Gabes went at the end of turn 11.

I still think this is a great game, certainly playable in less than 5 hours by experienced players. I will need another playing to try out the Germans Push East strategy, one where the cards are more in the Germans' favor than they were in this one. Even with the more-scripted-than-usual gameplay, this one is a lot of fun, although it's a shame that it doesn't have the wackiness of Hannibal where literally anything can happen, and sometimes does.

One other thing: I noticed in my second game as the Brits that the red die seemed to be rolling low numbers more often than not, usually ones and twos. After having the same thing happen in this last game, I replaced the die after the fourth turn. In approximately 50 rolls, the red die rolled 4 or higher about 10 times, a significant percentage. Makes me want to go spend some serious money on balanced dice, as the ones that came with Sands are clearly not balanced.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

CenTu Session, 8/1/06

Back from WBC West less than 48 hours, and already I'm hosting a weeknight session. I am officially insane.

Ben H, Ian (friend of Ben's), Tim, Mike, Carey, Ken, and myself sat around doing nothing but having fun for three hours. Here's how it went:

Ben, Carey, and myself spent the evening in the Temple of Conspicuous Consumerism playing some classics. I'd pulled largely classic games from the library for the evening, especially some of the first euros I ever bought, and some even got played. In our three-player session we tried out Schaeppen Jagd, Mamma Mia!, and Durch die Wueste, while the four player table in the dining room played Fifth Avenue and Euphrate & Tigris. You'll have to check out Mike's blog for a full report, all I know is that the E&T game ended up with a very close score, the spread being between 7 and 5 points IIRC.

Schnaeppen Jagd, or Bargain Hunter, is one of those classic titles that never got published in the US despite being perhaps one of the best games Uwe Rosenburg ever put out. The game is at it's heart a simple trick taking game, although trump is decided as players lay cards out for each trick. If you can't follow the led suit, you have to declare if the suit of the card you play is trump or not, and since there are two cards of each rank, you also have to decide if the card you play is higher or lower than the winning card, assuming they are a match. As such, there's a surprising amount of decision making going on.

The first hand starts out with each player choosing a rank they want to collect - each rank is a particular type of "junk" that you are trying to collect. For example, all of the 1 cards are teakettles, the 2's are electric shavers, etc. You want to collect that one type of junk as you win tricks, the rest of the cards go into your face-down "odds and ends" pile. After each round, you can go through your odds and ends, choose one rank that you've got a lot of in that pile, discard three of that rank from your odds and ends, and the rest of those cards go into your collecting pile, meaning that you'll be collecting a new type of junk for the next round.

For example, I've been collecting 5's this round. Any 5's in tricks I take go into the collecting pile, which is face up and will score positive points at the end of the game. Everything else goes in my face-down odds and ends pile, which will score negative points. At the end of the round, I look through my odds and ends, and discover I have four 1's, more than any other rank. I discard three of the four 1's, which go on the bottom of the draw pile, and the rest (one 1 card) goes on my collecting pile face up, and in the next round any 1's in tricks I take will go there. All other cards, including 5's (which I'm no longer collecting, but stay in that pile from previous rounds) go into odds and ends. If I had had only three 1 cards in this example, I could have discarded all three, but kept collecting fives as there was on extra 1 to go on the collecting pile. You can only do this with one rank in all rounds but the last one, where you can get rid of two ranks.

Like most Rosenburg games, it's a bit of a trick to explain, but a lot of fun. I thought I was doing quite well, to be honest, changing over every turn or two. My biggest problem was in one round I took no tricks at all, when you are better off getting a couple of cards that will allow you to make a discard of one rank. Since collected cards sit around, you are much better off changing to un-collected ranks or relatively uncollected ranks if possible, and it's always good to get cards out of the odds and ends pile. As it was, I came in last with a 2 point final total, while Ben got beat out by Carey for the win (I think he had 8 points, not bad).

SJ is a great game with three players, as you have six rounds to go through and the luck tends to even out a bit, although I'd say that it has more to do with what cards others have than what you have. With six suits and only eight cards per round, it's easy to get a void and call trump (or not), but not always. With four players, you only play four rounds and it feels more like a ride than a game. Like Ra and Big City, this is a game best suited for three.

Next up was Mamma Mia!, another Rosenburg classic. This is a game that is very tough to explain, although I felt like I did about as good a job as is humanly possible to do. I usually do quite well in this game, I think it's one of my best win/play ratio titles along with Ra and Hannibal, and this game was no exception. In fact, I did so well that I had collected a full seven of eight order cards going into the final round, and took that last order easily by just keeping the right ingredients in hand for the Making of the Pizza phase. One of my faves that's been sitting on the shelf for too long.

Last up for our table was Durch die Wueste, republished by FFG as Through the Desert. I've rarely played with three, as I think that four is about the perfect number for this game, but it was still good fun. Since the initial placement of your caravans is so critical to this game, we played twice, the first ended by Carey very early when he put down the last of the coconut-flavored camels on the board. In the second game, Ben had a great 16 point section on one side of the board, and I'm pretty sure he won, although I can't say for sure as I've completely forgotton what the final score was! That's a good sign, at least I hope it was.

Thanks to everyone for coming. I'll have a lot of gaming going on next week with Mel out of town, including SouTu, an 18xx session on Thursday, and a Saturday session where hopefully I'll pull out Warrior Knights and we'll see how good that title is.