Wednesday, February 28, 2007

When The Physical And Virtual Blur

Oooo, deep title Douglas!

Tuesday showed what can happen when you have a lot of discretionary time on your hands - six hours of WoW online. Everything seemed to go pretty smoothly, with me getting up to 11th level and completing quite a few quests. I also moved on to the Loch Mordan region and took my first flight path to Ironhold.

Still, six hours. I did stop for lunch and a shower, fortunately. I would have played even longer but the servers were down for maintenance until 11am PST, although that didn't stop me from trying to log on every ten minutes until I got lucky at 9:30. It did not help that Mel was working that day, so no one to tell me I was playing too much. Which I was. Today I'll be forced by events to avoid playing more than a couple of hours at most, and in fact my intention is not to play at all. Hello PS2 and Guitar Hero!

Hmm, that's a lot like trading in cocaine for morphine. Which is really a pretty good idea, believe it or not - one of the founders of Johns Hopkins saved his life and career through exactly that strategy.

But enough about my supposed drug use. On to boardgaming with actual people! A Tuesday night Rip City Gamers session! At Matt's! Playing WoW the Boardgame!


Matt and Laurent had expressed an interest in playing the board version, and so I brought my copy thinking there would be four of us (including Chuck. Silly me, I forgot about the unholy trinity of Alex, Liz, and Dana. However, they all were interested in giving the game a try, so we set up for six players with me "game mastering" and teaching the rules as we went.

Six players takes a long time to play this game, and in fact we were about two thirds of the way into the game when suddenly it was after 10pm and we needed to pack it up. I was glad we'd tried out the six-player competitive version as it really showed some interesting characteristics that I've typically missed in my usual solitaire or two-player games. In the latter, the game is pretty much about the race (against your opponent or the clock) and developing your characters. In the six-player game, while there was a lot of focus on those elements, it seemed to me that the social factor was very strong, with both sides spending quite a bit of time planning out their moves to their best advantage. I saw this to some extent in the game I played with Dave and Chuck at WBC West last year, although I was the guy who was healing up much of the time while they were running around in tandem killing everything in sight.

Unfortunately, WoW is an experiential game rather than a true competitive game, and there was little interaction between the two groups other than a little quest poaching thanks to a Subterfuge card. Dana ran smack into the same problem I alluded to in the last paragraph, where if you blow a couple of battles you can find yourself in a world that can and will kick your ass at the slightest provocation. There are a few things in the expansion that help here (giving at least the opportunity of XP for independent critters) but as in many development games a bad turn at the wrong time can kill you. Worse, it puts you in a position where you have little control over your fate - if you have no money to upgrade your powers, for example, you can end up in a cycle where you attack a too-strong quest monster over and over, spending four or five cycles for every iteration.

On the plus side, this didn't happen to anyone else. In fact, Chuck (who was also on the Alliance side) was screaming ahead, hitting level 4 before we'd finished turn 12, which is perhaps the most impressive XP collecting I've seen - that's only 12 actions on his part, including training, movement, etc. He got the benefit of a war fought by Liz and Dana that benefitted everyone, but still quite a feat.

Playing with two experienced WoW online players, Matt and Laurent (who apparently will show up if I offer to bring this game), it was nice to hear that it did indeed invoke the spirit of the online game quite well. Jesse had commented on this too, but since that was a two-player game I was interested to see if it worked with more.

Playing time was a bit of an issue, but to be honest I think we could have finished had I been able to set the game up ahead of time and had everyone been familiar with the rules. There is a lot of planning that can go on during the other faction's turn, and I did encourage this. However, I had to teach the game as we went, so the first few combats went quite slowly, but by the third or fourth on each side everyone had a very strong grasp on how combat worked. Considering the complexity of the system, I think it is quite impressive in how intuitive it is. There were a few questions coming up over the course of the game, but in general I was able to answer almost everything without checking the rules, and when I did I actually found the index to be useful! Amazing.

All in all, I'm more impressed with this game the more I play it. I think that the expansion is a must buy, as it does give you something to do with the Blue monsters and gives every character a broad range of choices for development. It's almost like running two concurrent role-playing games on a common board, with a strong race element (we used Nefarian, who demands the players move as quickly as possible as he may end the game sooner than the full 30 turns). While I think you need the right people, temperment, and fairly large table (Matt's extended dining room table was not large enough, to be honest), it worked well and I think everyone enjoyed the game with the possible exception of Dana who (rightly) felt that he was put into a difficult situation by the game itself. My opinion is that this is a risk in an experiential game, and while it doesn't thrill me I can live with it, and in fact have been in that very situation myself. At that point, you have to start scaling down your expectations of your contribution, and help out with planning for the rest of your faction. In a two-player game... well, that's why we have concessions.

Thanks to everyone who was willing and eager to play this monster. I suspect that this game will start to see more playings in our group in the future, even if they are two-player sessions (which Laurent has expressed a strong interest in).

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Die, Walmart, Die

Did I really think that Walmart would ship their Wii bundle for $100?

Try $215. For seven games and a video game console that weighs about 10 pounds. For the *cheapest* shipping option.


Walmart, always looking out for the little guy. I guess Sam Walton is a midget.

Hitting My Head Against The Wii Wall

I have now completed four solid weeks of Wii hunting, primarily by going to Fred Meyer's on the days they receive shipments. Eight trips, no success. This is particularly distressing because I know that both Best Buy and Circuit City (at the least, probably more) have put Wii's on sale very recently. The guy at Fred's even said he's stopped looking for anything from Nintendo as all they've gotten in were three Wiimotes in that time. I'm beginning to suspect that this particular Fred's is selling the Wii's out of the back of the truck, and that perhaps I need to be throwing some bribes someone's way. Almost.

The other avenue I've been pursuing is an online ad from Walmart. They offer a Wii, an "accessory" (extended warranty, worth less than the price of the paper it's written on), and *seven* games for $630. At $50 a game, plus $250 for the base Wii set, that's $600, so you're paying $30 (plus shipping, which I'm assuming will top $100 for reasons soon to be revealed) extra for the set.

There are so many reasons I haven't gone ahead and done this, despite my wife's nagging that I should just shut up and buy the damned thing. First, I have a real problem with Walmart's employment practices - for a particularly eye-opening account of how they run their stores, check out Barbara Ehrenriech's "Nickled and Dimed" book - and I have only purchased a handful of poster frames for wargames from them (they seem to be the only decent source in my area).

Second, while there are arguably seven decent (note that I don't use the word "good") games for the Wii out there, they aren't all in the list of games you can get. The Rayman Rabbit Rampage game is missing, as is the obvious WiiPlay choice (which, while having somewhat lame games, does get you a Wiimote), and certainly not the new Sonic game. As such, you are left with three or four good games and three not so good ones.

Finally, there is this little disclaimer that states that items will be shipped as they arrive. This means that they will send you the games, and maybe the Wii in a couple of months. My guess is that they'll also trickle the games out one or two at a time, tacking on $8 for shipping each time, with another $40 for the Wii itself. That's an extra $100 if they choose to be completely nasty about it. Make no mistake, companies often make a significant profit from "handling" charges that are hidden from the customer until the actual purchase point when said customer is already emotionally commited to buying.

Still, it's more tempting than I may be willing to admit to myself. We'll see how I'm feeling in another week.

Monday, February 26, 2007

This Is Why I Don't Gamble

Thursday - Buy World of Warcraft (basic game, no expansion). Spend two full hours getting it installed/updated. Five minutes into the game I no longer care. Play for about an hour, figure out the basics of the interface. I'm a gnome rogue, btw. Apparently not a great choice if you want to join a lot of groups (and I'm a bit surprised that I've been invited to so many), but I'm more interested in getting to know the game on my own.

Friday - Play for about 90 minutes. Pretty much exhaust all of the quests in Coldridge Valley, I think I'm around 4th level by this time, which seems to have gone pretty quickly. Ran into my first "challenging" quest in killing trolls in the cave.

Saturday - Play for about two hours. Move into Dun Morgain (or whatever it's called). Get used to the area in that time, do a few quests, hit level 6 after killing a lot of critters.

Sunday - Play for about 2.5 hours. Trolls in this area are a lot tougher to kill. I figure out that I can get Shimmerweek up on Shimmer Ridge by camping, going into stealth mode, then poaching from the troll baskets while the other players in the area fight the trolls. i decide some time later that maybe this was on the rude side, but hey, I'm a rogue. I also spend a *lot* of time dying in the troll cave in the area, at one point I have to wait about 15 minutes for some more players to come into the cave and kill some of the 12 (really) trolls that are roaming unmolested around my corpse. Make a really dumb decision to exit the game in the cave when I realize I have to go to a choir concert in 40 minutes and I haven't showered yet.

Sunday evening - read parts of the manual, so some online reading while Mel watches Grey's Anatomy. Fall asleep thinking of how to kill that last troll headhunter to complete my quest and avoid dying for the 90th time in that dumbass cave. BTW, I'm really bad at sneaking up on monsters, they always turn around when I get just a smidge too close.

Monday - Play for about 2 hours, maybe a bit less. Finish the headhunter quest, learn to cook, spend a little time looking for copper to mine but just end up getting killed by animals who wander by and I have to spend a very long time remembering how to get to using a dagger instead of my pickaxe. Take a cask of ale up to Loc Morgan, take a keg to delive into the area, but decide to head for Ironforge to deliver a map of the troll cave. Wow, Ironforge is cool. Wow, this game is taking over my life. My wife asks me how I'm doing on limiting my playing time, I mumble something about that I'm doing quite well but privately have to think for a minute as to when I actually started. Amazingly, I *do* stop when I tell myself I will, but mostly because it's dinner time. Finish at 8th level, starting to work on my various skills (especially mining and cooking, engineering just seems to happen for some reason). Oh, and I start learning first aid.

Monday evening - Think about how Mel will be at work much of the next day and how I can get in a good four hours of play and go looking for mechanical parts amongst the leper gnomes. Consider joining a 12-step program but decide it would cut into my playing time. Wonder how long before Mel insists on a one-hour-per-day limit (my entry in the betting pool is this time next week). Think about what I'll do tomorrow in the game.

I am in serious trouble.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Simple GBoH Face-to-Face

At last! I play an actual Great Battles of History game with someone else!

I discussed my efforts to learn/solo this game a few weeks ago, when I played the Bagradas Plains scenario from SPQR twice. In the meantime, I have also tried to play the two scenarios in the Phalanx module for Great Battles of Alexander, although the first was thwarted by an incredibly poorly colored map where it was very difficult to distinguish between the lower level hexes (although there were nine different elevations levels, so maybe they were running out of shades of greenish-gray), the second cut short by time limitations.

For our regular game session, I brought my copy of Alex plus expansions to Jesse's on Thursday, and he was willing to give this game a shot, mostly to compare it to C&C:Ancients. I personally don't think there is any comparison - the games both cover specific battles in the Ancient world, but the underlying mechanisms are very different. We played one of the scenarios from the Tyrant module, which is well-thought of and covers the battles between Syracuse (on the SE tip of Sicily) and the early expansion of the Carthaginians c. 450 BC, so it predates even Alexander the Great and thus uses Hoplites rather than Phalanxes.

I took the Syracusans, while Jesse's units (mostly Libyan MI and Celtic HI, with a few double-sized HI/HO units in the center) were backed up to a forested rise that played no part in our game. We missed the special rule that minimized the effect of the Libyan MI javelins (my units effectively got a +2 modifier when he tried to hit them, which would have helped a bit). However, this was a good scenario to try out the rules and learn the problems inherent in fighting with large and inflexible formations, which I had in droves compared to his mostly single-unit HI/MI units.

We started the game with our skirmishers trading fire, and Jesse clearly got the good end of this deal as he had about twice the skirmishers that I did. The trick to use with these units is to run forward, fire, then slowly drop back as your opponent moves forward. At some point they will die, but at 2VP apiece this isn't really a big issue - I had a whopping 8 points of skirmishers total. Archers are significantly better than slingers, but you'd expect that.

After Jesse's archers had messed up the Greek Allied contingent of HI/HO units on my right flank with a few hits here and there (and some significant damage to a Peltast unit guarding my far right flank), I started bringing both that formation and my center formation forward. His Libyans rushed forward and actually did quite a bit of damage with their javelins, which might not have been the case had we been using the correct rule (the idea is that irregular infantry formations in this period were less effective with the pointy sticks against Hoplite formations). What really hurt me, though, was when he managed to kill that formation's leader with his javelins, which only happens on one in a hundred rolls, a very unlikely outcome. With no leader (and me losing 25 Rout Points as a result), and about half of my army unable to engage or disengage with the enemy, it was just a matter of time before Jesse would roll up my flank like a cheap sleeping bag.

At this point it was time for my cavalry to advance on my left flank. Despite some shortcomings unit size, my units were of higher troop quality and heavier cavalry in general. After two turns of shock combat, he was down to one of the five units he had started with in that formation, but my leader had pursued his cavalry off-board and I was unable to get them back in time to attack his line from the rear. I will admit that my turn seizure attempts had been very successful over the course of the game, while all of Jesse's had failed, but with five HI/HO units unable to do anything but take hits on my right it really didn't matter much.

I did make a last attempt to close with his army's center, although I rolled quite poorly and had to devote the right flank of this formation to guard duty as the Greeks weren't helping any. My rolls chose that moment to fail me utterly, and while I never lost any of these units I was unable to do enough damage to his units to catch up in points.

The worst part, however, was when he managed to get his final two Rout Points by killing a lone skirmisher left behind out of position and routing him outright. That was 85 points and the end of the game.

This scenario was supposed to take about an hour, but for us it took more like three. Part of the problem was an unfamiliarity with the game (I'm still looking up rules), but also the fact that setting one of these things up takes quite a while what with finding the right units in the original game vs the module. Once I figured out that Jesse had the *blue* units, things went a bit quicker. Sigh.

Jesse enjoyed the game quite a bit, and he's planning to pick up the Alex/Tyrant combo soon. He also has the Caesar: Civil Wars game, although I understand that these games tend to be a bit one-sided, although not so much as Caesar in Gaul. We may try a Cataract scenario next time, or maybe another Tyrant game. I think it's worthwhile to get used to playing with a particular type of army rather than jump between the various legion variations, and with all of the C3i scenarios it shouldn't be hard to get at least six or seven good balanced games in just with the Hoplite/Phalanx era.

No Joy In Wiiville

When I started this whole "Wiihunt" thing, it seemed like it would be kinda fun. Show up at Fred Meyer's every Tuesday and Friday early, start looking for the elusive nunchuk peripherals, that sort of thing. What has happened is a long slow slide into frustration and not a little apathy as three weeks have passed with little success. I'm not exactly sure what is going on, but my sense is that there are significant production issues that have finally caught up to Nintendo and they've decided just to ship them all at once rather than in dribs and drabs.

As such, I'm going to make one final Freddy's trip next Tuesday, and after that I'm going to simply wait until the supply channels are such that stores actually *stock* the damned things instead of the current trickle-down model. Very frustrating when there are piles of PS3 boxes all over the place. Of course, there are really only four or five decent games for the Wii at present, so that makes it a bit easier to call off the hunt.

It's easy for me to do this, as I finally gave in and purchased a PS2 and Guitar Hero 2 the other day. I've been kind of waiting for the PS2 prices to drop, but since that's not happening I decided to just go get one. Imagine my surprise at my having to travel to *six* different stores before I could find a controller/game bundle for GH. For those of you who know me well, you can imagine what my blood pressure was doing.

One of the advantages of buying a retiring system is that you get the games for pretty cheap, and you have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight as to which ones are worth buying. As such, I've purchased seven games besides GH2, including the original God of War (which is freakin' awesome) for less than $120. This should keep me occupied for a little while, so not so much desire to get a Wii at this point.

I also made what could have been a titanic mistake - I bought World of Warcraft as well. I've put off doing this for some time, mostly because I know that I've got an addictive personality and this is just like putting a can of gasoline and a lighter in my hands. However, I learned that my daughter, who lives in Vegas, is really into the game, and I'm looking at this as a great excuse for me to have more contact with her. I plan to spend a couple of weeks getting so that I know the system. I didn't get the Burning Crusade expansion (although I expect that's not a terrible idea at this point), I just want to learn the very basic part of the game first and see if I can manage my time effectively.

Imagine my surprise when the initial installation and update procedure took two.... full.... hours..... The updates alone were half of that, and on a broadband connection. I ended up with about an hour of play for the afternoon. Even the account registration was painful - I must have put in the access code eight times, and every time I missed something (usually some vague character in the security portion of the screen) I had to start over. At one point I got as far as clicking the last button and was informed that I'd taken too long. Fuck you, Blizzard. I shouldn't have to take more than five minutes for registration, and this process was filled with learning that case mattered, that I needed a numeric in my password (which I hate), and you tell me that I've "taken too long?" Fuck you.

Now I'll give you oodles of money for the next year. F*cking pushers.

Sorry for so much profanity, but sometimes it's cathartic.

Anyway, the game seems pretty cool so far, although mostly I just look for a particular variety of critter, kill a bunch of them, then go get a pair of gloves. Or nice boots. It's a lot like shopping, which is why I suspect my daughter likes it so much. I'm not a level whore, so I really don't care if I get to level eighty bazillion, so I'm hoping that this is the crack-like quality that so many people forsake work, family, and lives for. At worst, I've blown $20 and some time.

As such, one more Wii Hunt update next week, then I suspect I will give up and concede the game to Nintendo. F*cking pushers.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

SouTu Session, 2/20/07

A lightly attended session this week, largely because so many plan to hit Chris's beach place over the weekend. Sadly, I am unable to attend due to a choir concert, but I expect everyone will have a marvelous time without me. Still, I'm trying to get in as much gaming as I can in the meantime, so I was delighted to learn that the "Far South" session (usually held in Sherwood or Newberg) was going to be held instead at Mike's place just north of the Tigard-Beaverton border. For God's sake don't tell him he lives in Tigard. Also present was Jay Farrell, who has been absent of late, as well as a drop-by from Peter who was apparently in the neighborhood.

Unfortunately, Peter picked a night to come by and socialize when we were trying out Die Säulen der Erde, or Pillars of the Earth, a recent release based rather loosely on the Ken Folliott novel of the same name. At first blush the game looks quite a bit like Krieg und Freuden, which is another 4-player game where the object is to build a cathedral, and you actually build it as the game goes on. Aside from both games requiring players to think ahead to a good extent, that's about all they have in common. K&F was a neat game with an interesting mechanism, but there was definitely a "hang back and wait for the right time to make a push" element, as the game was determined by who built the most parts in the cathedral and it took a lot of time to build up enough resources to do so.

Pillars, on the other hand, is a game where the cathedral is really just the excuse for playing. It gets built in six turns regardless of how well individual players do - instead, players get victory points for contributing various resources, based on the craftsmen they hire and the resources they collect. I have heard that the game has a lot in common with Caylus, and I think that there is some truth to that statement - Both games have a sequence of things that happen, and you want to be aware of what happens first and what second. Unlike Caylus, the order does not change from game to game, although there are elements that do change and keep things fresh, so you don't have that extra dimension of thinking to deal with. Pillars seems to strike a pretty good balance in my book, and it worked well with three players (although I think it is a much different game with four). Poor Peter - we were so busy trying to figure out our strategies that we weren't very good company for him, I'm afraid.

Here's how it works in a nutshell: Every turn you assign your 12 workmen to collect resources that vary slightly from turn to turn. If you wish, you may also spend money to hire a small pool of extra craftsmen. Next, everyone's Master Builders are drawn from a bag to determine what special actions they will perform on that turn. These actions vary from gaining a free metal resource (more useful later than earlier), more craftsmen, special event cards, protection from bad random events, extra VP, the ability to buy and sell at the market, extra workmen for the coming turn, and getting the right to go first on the next turn.

The first MB may be placed anywhere on the board, but at a cost of 7GP, which is pretty steep in this game's economy. If the owning player wishes, or cannot afford to pay, they may instead go into the "loser queue" of MBs that will be placed later in the turn. The second MB will pay 6 gold if they wish to be placed, the third 5, and so forth. The eighth MB, of course, will not pay any gold at all, nor will any of the rest coming out of the bag. After all MBs are out of the bag, then the loser queue may place their MBs in turn. The starting player also gets one mulligan where they can replace their own MB back in the bag if they drew it too early for their tastes.

Once all MBs are placed, the various actions are gone through in order, which also include playing a random event, getting the resources that your workmen were assigned to collect, paying between 2-5 gold in taxes, and getting gold for unassigned workmen. The order is is fixed, so you will always get your gold for your workmen before you pay taxes, and your goods before you go to market. After all of this folderol is over with, each player may then assign the resources they have in their possession to the various craftsmen they have (no more than 5), and from this they get victory points and occasionally gold. As the game goes on, resources produce more and more VP based on you getting better craftsmen, although there are a few interdependencies. It is how well you choose your craftsmen that has the biggest effect on the game, as I learned quickly. At this point, it is assumed that the next part of the cathedral is built, and it's on to the next turn. After six turns, the cathedral is completed and the person with the most VP wins.

I fell into a pretty good set of craftsmen early. I figured out that money was likely to be pretty tight as the game went on, so I picked up a craftsman who let me exchange two wood for eight gold, as well as the action card that let me keep six craftsmen. I'm not sure that this was a great "buy" for me, as I never really used more than five and never produced a single stone in the entire game (and so never used that craftsman), but I also had a bit more flexibility. As such, the money-making craftsman was a very wise buy early on, and I rarely was low on cash compared to the other players.

In the second and third turn I began to get craftsmen who were good at converting sand into VP (glass, I guess, maybe concrete), and soon had a little machine going that would let me grab lots of sand which was cheap for my workman to produce. I also bought a craftsman who gave me one free VP every turn. By the fourth turn I was beginning to pull ahead a bit, producing up to eight VP on that turn. The next turn, I got a craftsman who let me convert metal and sand into 3 VP, plus another craftsman who let me convert every 3 gold into a VP, which was extremely handy given my relatively easy ability to generate income. On the final turn, I had a craftsman who could convert the metal and sand into 4 VP, and do it twice a turn, so I was pulling down 15-17 points each of the last two turns. Despite a few setbacks (losing the use of an MB on turn 4 or 5), and Mike having a card that got him extra points just for putting MBs on the two VP spots on the board, I pulled ahead to an easy lead on turn 5 (I believe Jay's comment was, "Holy crap!"), and never looked back.

In our game, people rarely went to the market (I bought some sand there, as well as sold one metal), and no one tried to be the first player - if no one went to that spot it simply rotated around the table. With three players, there was always something you could put your MB on that was even slightly beneficial - I suspect that with more players there is more of a chance that you will have an MB that is going to market, but on the other hand there are still the same number of resource cards at the start of each turn so I think that some would be harder to get. Going first would be more important as well - that ability to have the first pick of the resource cards and the MB pull mulligan would be critical at times.

In all, I found the game to be much more interesting than Caylus, if only because we got it played and explained in 90 minutes. Good play requires you to understand what resources you need based on what craftsmen are available, not only in your play area but also for that turn. Smart use of your money is also important - if you don't have an income stream you will need to be a bit more frugal - mostly that means you won't be able to buy craftsmen along with the resource cards, as you'll need a good 7-10 gold to pay for potential MB placement, not to mention taxes.

This one is a winner, and I've asked Mike to include a copy for me in his next order from you friendly neighborhood internet game store, as there is no English version available, and may not be (I suspect there may be some copyright issues in the US, similar to those faced by Traumfabrik). Highly recommended for both three or four players, although the games will definitely feel different.

With about an hour left, Mike asked us to play a game he'd won at the recent Eugene game get-together he went to last Saturday, Cobras in the Cockpit. Really. This is a DTP publication that exploits the truly awful and notorious "Snakes on a Plane" movie/phenom from 2006, which frankly I'd already forgotten about. You are one species of snake that is going from the cargo hold to various other parts of the plane, then spooking or harming the passengers/crew and getting points when that section falls into chaos. You can also take out engines by squeezing them (for the Pythons only) or by getting sucked into them. Really. The game ends when the entire plane is in chaos, which I can only assume results in all of the snakes dying as well. Alternatively, you can just not even get started, as this is one of those games that is cute for about 30 minutes, then relegated to the auction/sell/white elephant gift pile. We played for nearly an hour, and with so many wild action cards that constantly changed the game situation there was very little you could do to plan ahead. Strangely, by the game's end, we found ourselves all sitting out at the tip of a wing waiting for me to take out the engine as I was ahead in points and with two snakes in the area was extremely unlikely to get shut out for points.

Really, I've given this one too much press as it is. However, I would play it before Rocketville, especially if there was alcohol involved. With Rocketville, it would require opiates. And high-end hookers.

So there you have it - one winner, one loser. Actually, one winner and two losers, as I won both games. Sure, there were only three of us and you can hardly count CinC as an actual "game" as much as a chance to demonstrate how truly worthless games won in raffle drawings are. Still, I'll take the wins any day. Thanks to Mike for hosting, and let me know if you need to borrow some lighter fluid.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Birthday Gaming

I stopped "celebrating" my birthday when I turned 40. That was a truly "wonderful" year for me - my country invaded Iraq on false pretenses, I lost my singing voice weeks before I was to tour with a choir in Cuba (and didn't get it back for several months), my marriage went through a particularly rough patch, and to top it off I hit 40, all within the span of about a month. As such, I've never really been big on celebrating my birthday - we don't go out for dinner, no parties, I even prefer that I don't get cards or calls (except from the dogs and my mother).

However, I am not above leveraging the situation to get in a pass for a day of gaming! And so it was that Chuck took up the call and came over to play a few wargames.

First up was The Great War At Sea. Or, as I have decided to call it, The Somewhat Boring And Extremely Confusing War At Sea.I'll call it GWaS for short. In retrospect, I selected a scenario that was in some respects a poor choice, the Baltic Diversion scenario from Jutland/Northern Waters (Op13). I'd played a battle scenario with Jesse a little while ago, which we were surprised that we liked as much as we did given the rather limited strategic and tactical choices one had. We found that the game went fairly smoothly, although the Referred Pain rule seemed to give a huge edge to ships that had primary but no secondary guns. In Baltic Diversion, none of the ships had similar configurations, so we thought things would go better. Hmm..

The whole point of this scenario is for the Germans to invade the Russian coastline. Seeing as the German invasion fleet starts one space away from said coastline, but the Russian fleet (or at least the useful part of it) is a very long way away, it seemed prudent to go for what was close by rather than make a run for a more distant space. Oh, sure, I suppose I could have done some trickery to try to have my ships divert or divide his fleet, but that would have been complicated. Given how difficult it was for me to separate the idea of "plan your moves in advance" I wasn't sure that I'd be doing myself a favor. However, I did divert half of my pre-dreadnought battleships to shore bombardment duty, working their way up the coast, which guaranteed me at least as many VP as sinking a decent B-class boat, while the other half and a set of torpedo boats (mostly useful for suicide attacks on capital ships, should they appear) were guarding the transports.

We got as far as deciding that having my torpedo boats (which didn't have tertiary guns, and so were useless after firing off their single shots of torpedos) were less than wisely used against Chuck's Russian destroyers (which did have tertiary guns, and because of the rules had an excellent chance to just keep shooting at the TBs until they killed them once in range). Oh, and a suicidal attack by the destroyers on my transport fleet - although they did knock one of my battleships out of action, if not sunk. At that point, we went to lunch and were less than enthusiastic to continue play.

GWaS is one of many games that I dearly want to like. The era and milieu is not often simulated, and when it is the effect is almost miniatures-like. The rules are the usual Avalanche mess - the design is for effect, not for simulation, which means that things you do in the game and the results they get may not seem to make sense - and there are several unclear or missing sections. For example, it took us about 15 minutes to figure out whether or not ships that were interrupted in mid-move for contact and combat could continue that move that turn, or whether they continued on the next turn. The rule was in a section on "early contact" which in reflection makes some sense, but in practice should be at the very least referenced in the section on ending combat.

To make things more interesting, we discovered that ships with no guns (my TBs, for example) could only be hit on tertiary gun or hull hits, and in fact Chuck had a terrible time landing more than a few blows. In contrast, ships with only tertiary guns that had been destroyed got hull hits on *any* gun hit (per the FAQ on the Avalanche web site). That decreases their survivability by a factor of 2x or so. While I guess you could say that boats with tertiary guns are much larger than boats without them, and thus easier to hit, that seems to be a pretty big disparity. Of course, the TBs are useless once they've fired off their torps (you get one shot, regardless of how many factors you have, then it's back to port to reload for a couple of days - game time), and the destroyers will easily crush the torp boats in anything resembling an even fight, but they are easy pickings for anything with even secondary guns.

Also, the record keeping is a nightmare - you have to be very careful in marking your hit record sheets so you remember which ships had which hull/gunnery/torp factors at the beginning of combat, as it's all simultaneous. And I'd gone to the trouble of making up my own sheets to avoid having to have sixteen sheets of paper to shuffle through for the relatively small fleet.

To sum up, this is a game *screaming* for a VASSAL module. Almost every one of these issues could be dealt with in software (except for the design for effect wackiness). As such, I've decided to stick with Battle scenarios only, or perhaps a good commerce raider operational scenario, until I get the chance to play this with someone who really knows the game. I'm also fairly interested in trying out Jim Dauphnais's house rules, found in the GWaS:Mediterranean folder on the 'Geek. That discussion is also an excellent thought exercise in the difficulty in trying to reconcile a design-for-effect game with what seems to be a tactical solution. Sometimes this gets done right (Silent War is a great example), but I'm not sure GWaS does the trick. To be fair, Chuck has some of the Plan modules (various unexecuted plans based on hypothetical situations, such as the British attacking Virginia in the '20's), and he says there are some great scenarios there. I think I'll let him buy those and try them out before I invest more in this "system".

After lunch, I really wanted to get in some Combat Commander, so we tried out Scenario 10, which features six elite German units trying to get across an urban landscape in Russia. I'd set up with my units preparing to block all possible routes, but with the idea that I had enough mobility to get from point A to point B in the backfield if necessary. Things went well enough until I used a Fire card to try to use up some actions in my hand, but then couldn't draw another Fire card for three turns. Chuck had enough mobility to skate half of his units right through my lines and off my end of the board, a 15 point swing given the open preset victory condition that exiting units were double-points. That put us at around 5 points, and even my defensive posture didn't help. However, I was finally in a position to start taking out his units when he managed to get a radio and put smoke all around my .50cal MG. By the time it got cleared out, we hit the sudden death marker at turn 6 and I rolled low without having the initiative card.

Chuck had never used the card, but to be fair he never really was in a situation where he needed it. He lost no units, and the only weapon that was destroyed (a flamethrower) he "found" in the hex a few rounds later. Sheesh. Me, my hero tried to throw a satchel charge into a major German position on three or four different occasions, failing to make the range throw each time, a statistical improbability right up there with Mike's dice rolling. :-) I also had trouble finding Recovery cards later in the game, although to be fair only one Guards SMG unit was lost in this way. At game end, Chuck managed an extra four points for Objectives, although even had I kept the one I started with (#5), there was no way I was going to take the tower space at #4, so that would have been a wash and he still would have won with 4 VP.

Nevertheless, always an interesting game, and this one went very quickly (less than two hours). I was surprised by how many little rules I'd remembered (no opfire with ordnance, leaders can use weapons, smoke hinders along hex spines, etc). So, in that sense at the very least, I did give Chuck a bit of a schooling. Sorta.

By now it was only 3:30pm, and with nothing really planned I went into the vault and came back with We the People, the original Card-Driven Wargame. As the original design, it leaves a lot to be desired - I drew three British events the first turn as the Americans, and only three Op cards worth four points total - but on the other hand it plays quite quickly and has a lot of decision points that make the game very enjoyable. We did require a certain amount of rules review, but even so our game took less than 90 minutes.

Chuck began (and, frankly, ended) in the deep South, with a plan to roll up the colonies starting with Georgia and moving north. On my first turn, I mostly tried to place a couple of PC markers to hook up my areas of influence, but it was a paltry effort given my hand. On turn two, things went better - I got the Declaration of Independence card that allows me to place an additional PC marker in every colony, resulting in 12 more markers on the board, and a near lock-up on the NE seaboard. To make things tougher on the Brits, Washington attacked Howe in Boston, forcing him to retreat to Quebec to avoid winter attrition.

In the next turn, Washington took Boston and New England would never be threatened again by British troops. Meanwhile, the British attacked a strong army led by Benedict Arnold (who thought better of treachery in our game than in real life), and was repulsed soundly. To make matters worse, the Brits lost three CUs and lost their Regular Troops bonus in combat. Shortly thereafter, Cornwallis reinforced the British in the south, pushing Arnold out of the area, but with his troops largely intact.

On turn four, Chuck was forced to allow the French to intervene, and they helped root the British out of Virginia, shutting down every port north of the winter attrition line. We then engaged in a "Race to Long Island Sound" in the New York Colony, with Chuck managing to take the colony by one marker, but an advance by Green to the area and a lack of British staunchness (no 3 ops cards or campaigns) turned the area back over to me. At this point, we were in 1779, and I'd drawn a North's Government Falls card for that year, so if Chuck didn't have a NGF card in a later year (he was going second, as I'd needed to take a couple of PC spaces), and if we could trade PC counts in NY, I'd have the game won. In fact, that's exactly what happened - he was forced to fight in the south, which did nothing but lock up the Carolinas, states he already controlled, and I won at the end of the turn with exactly 9 colonies firmly on my side.

This is definitely a game that needs to come out more often for me. There are problems - a bad Strategy hand can kill you at the wrong time, there are no Reserve cards in the Battle Deck to give players more options, and a good reference card is sorely needed to cover things like where you can move to ports, where you get reinforcements, interceptions and withdrawals, and retreat rules, as well as victory conditions. However, considering we went from 0 to 60 and finished the game within two hours means that you can always just turn the board around and play the opposite side again if you end too early. Compare with Twilight Struggle, where you can play for four hours, *then* get the Hand Of Death. Hard to enjoy that sort of game!

Thanks again to Chuck for making my birthday pleasant, especially as I am forced to miss Chris's Beach Weekend retreat next week because of a choir concert I'm involved with.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Thursday Nooner Gaming

It's every other Thursday, so I was out at Jesse's trying out more stuff. Today we played a battle scenario from the Jutland module for Great War at Sea, as well as the Zama scenario in C&C:Ancients.

While I've owned one of the GWaS modules (Plan Orange, the one that supposed a naval war between the US and Japan circa the early 30's and includes early carrier action), it's just never gotten out on the table. Most of the problem is that Orange had very early rules for the air game, and I really wanted to get more of an idea of how the non-air part of the game worked without fiddling with those rules. Since none of the operational scenarios skipped the air game, and Chuck didn't think the tactical game was that interesting, we decided to put it on hold at both of the last two WBC Wests.

However, since I'd gotten the Jutland game (the re-write of the Northern Waters module), this seemed like a good time to give it a try. Chuck is coming over on the 18th to play, but Jesse also wanted to play the game. However, neither of us really felt like we had a good grasp of the operational game, and I wanted to get comfortable with the tactical game, so we tried out one of the battle scenarios that had a handful of battle cruisers each. Note that because of the stacking restrictions, you pretty much end up with one stack of ships each, so not a lot of maneuver, but on the plus side the ships had decent range and power to make it feel like you were driving really big boats around.

The game features a lot of dice. And I mean a lot. With our two stacks, we were firing up to 34 dice worth of guns early on. That's a lot of dice, and while some deride this technique for resolving combat, I would reply that it gives a broader range of results that is more likely to follow the statistical model over time than rolling single dice at the same frequency. However, you want to have a lot of dice on hand. Keep in mind that this many dice were needed for five Brit battle cruisers, so not even a huge number of ships. The other advantage is that combat moves along pretty quickly.

I won't go into detail on how the game went, other than to say that it was pretty interesting compared to what we were expecting. Lots of wild dice rolls (Jesse seemed to roll low on hits, but what he did roll was deadly - I'd say a full quarter were plunging shots that just killed me - I on the other hand seemed to roll tons of hits that did no damage whatsoever) - at one point my BC Moltke was pretty much dead in the water waiting for him to finish me off, and survived a couple of attacks on what seemed to be a prayer. In the end, the very high VP amounts for my ships (which did, it must be said, hit on 5 or 6 as opposed to just 6's) and Jesse's ability to do significant damage on a small number of hits did me in, and he won 220 to 134.

Which brings me to a very strange rules artifact that I need to look into. When you roll a hit, you then see exactly what you hit, based on 2d6. If you hit a gun that doesn't exist on the ship, you end up instead hitting the gun beneath it. However, if you hit a gun that did exist but has been destroyed, you hit the hull instead. If you hit a tertiary gun (the lowest of the three types), nothing happens. This creates the following situation: Jesse's ships had no secondary guns, so according to the rules I could not actually do any meaningful damage if I hit his secondary guns as the tertiary guns weren't powerful enough to do any damage at all. Considering that a result of 6 and 8 hit the secondary guns, that's 10 out of 36 dice results that are meaningless to anyone shooting at the Brits.

By contrast, when Jesse shot at me, he not only got the chance to knock out my secondary guns, but once they were gone those hits went toward destroying my hull, the part of the ship that, you know, keeps it floating. Which is important to ships, I hear. In other words, Jesse had better than a 1 in 4 chance of getting rolls that would hurt me, but if I rolled them they wouldn't hurt him. While I suppose that you could say that this meant that the shells were getting farther into the structure of the ship because of the damaged components, but to completely ignore the hits if you didn't have the gun to start with... This is very strange and something that doesn't sit right with me (especially as I got the benefit of this). To be fair, we did mistakenly assign half of the secondary fire shots I hit Jesse with against one of his lighter battle cruisers, but I really took the brunt of this rule and it's a bit beyond me as to how I could ever have won with the rule as we interpreted it.

I'll also note that we neglected to do excessive damage (when you hit a part of the ship less armored than the type of gun you are firing with, you may do extra damage), but this was such a minor effect with so few secondary guns that we just skipped over it.

Regardless, I really enjoyed the tactical game, even if it was a dicefest. I'm looking forward to playing this on Sunday. BTW, I also plan to put together an Excel spreadsheet containing all of the ship data that I can then put together to use rather than the awkward data sheets that are shipped with the game. Avalanche really should make this available to owners, there are are a lot of ships and it will take some time to get all of the data incorporated.

Next up was Ancients, which gave me a chance to compare this game with Simple GBoH. We picked the Zama scenario as it has a decent amount of units, fairly even units and command, and very little terrain to get in the way. I was hoping to see if the Roman legions could function as they did historically. The answer, of course, is not really. To use your Velites as would have been done requires you to have the Move-Fire-Move card to start with, then a Move Medium Troops, then a Move Heavy Troops card. With a couple of extra cavalry cards in case you need them. Of course, the cards don't really allow for this, so the game is more of a disappointment to me having played a "realistic" game of ancient warfare on the same scale.

Which is not to say that the game doesn't do an excellent job considering the limitations of the system, and still much better than Battle Cry or Memoir '44 ever did. I still sent my elephants into his line, hoping to soften up Jesse's Romans a bit, he still brought his Velites up to try to do the same to me. We ended up meeting in the middle of the field, but the game was decided on the flanks. We both did a lot of damage to each other, and when his light cavalry exploited a break on my far left flank (I really couldn't have extended this line any further), he was able to get to a one-block light infantry unit to win the game. Also helpful was my Warrior attack on his medium infantry that netted me a single block of his in return for my entire unit - he rolled four swords and blue squares, killing them outright. Final score was 8 flags to 6, with me having to look hard for units that were beat up enough to kill easily.

I was glad we got this game in, we learned a lot about some of the special units in the game, particularly elephants. Important note: Elephants can't ignore flags when bolstered by adjacent units, so when the first Velites through missiles at the elephants in my front line, they ended up rampaging my own troops, killing three LI total before I even got to play a card. Clearly the right play - if you have the card! This would be an interesting game to play with each side getting to pick one card from the deck, maybe from a menu of choices, or perhaps based on what era and what nationality you are playing. Worth a thought.

Thanks to Jesse for having me over!

PS - Wii update: Stopped by Frye's on my way to Jesse's, as well as the local GameStop. I didn't expect any Wii's at Frye's, but I did score some grip sleeves in different colors for the controllers I am (hopefully) soon to own. The clear one fit over the nunchuk I do have quite nicely, and this will hopefully prevent any flying controllers. No Wii's at GameStop either, but I did get an interesting piece of information: They had gotten their last group in on Monday, and were expecting to get more in about three weeks. This makes me think that perhaps Nintendo is shipping them out on week A to one set of retailers, on week B to another. Given that Fred's got in a bunch of Wii's two weeks ago, I'm expecting that they will get more in next week. However, I do plan to stop by tomorrow morning just in case. I will prevail!

CenTues Session, 2/13/07

Tuesday night, and it's my wife's birthday. So what am I doing? Hosting game night. Whoops.

A new record, or at least tying an old one - we had 12 people here to game. I definitely need a bigger house. Definitely a record - we had four games going at once, although I think that Blokus Trigon may only have lasted for five minutes. Still, that's quite impressive given the dearth of flat surfaces to play games on. We were down to using the teeny tiny table in the living room (about 2 feet across and round), as well as the dining bar between the kitchen and family room. Still, everyone seemed to have a good time.

First, some of the games going on that I wasn't a part of: Alex and Dana playing Battlelore on the dining bar. Tim, Carey, Liz, and Peter playing Blue Moon City in the dining room, KC and Rita playing a short game of Blokus in the living room, and Tim, Carey, Peter, KC, and Rita playing a game that KC is designing to aid people in the developing world who don't have access to computers do urban development. Really.

But the real fun was to be had in the family room, where Ben, Mike, Chuck, and myself took on Catan Histories: Struggle for Rome. There's an acronym for you: CH:SfR. Sounds like something you'd see in a doctoral thesis on genetics. Fortunately, Struggle is not nearly as difficult as all that, although for those who are used to dozens of Catan games it does have many significant differences, which I think are all to the better. See my previous posting on this game for the details.

I was set up to go last, which seems to be to be a fairly large drawback. While I still say that there's something to be said for just hanging back that first turn with one of your tribes and sticking around the valuable area while getting a resource of your choice, there is less thrill when the resource turns out to be a cow. Now cows are great and everything, but they also are easily the least valuable resource in the early game. And I drew three cows for every horse in this game, starting early. I also made a big mistake in sending my warrior tribe down into Italy for his second plunder marker. Big mistake - I ended up stuck down there for turns and the seemingly great resource intersection I was on (which included two wheat spaces) never panned out over the three or so turns I sat there.

Nonetheless, I felt like I was not too far out of it, especially when Ben managed to steal Chuck's Diplomat points and prevent Chuck from winning the game fairly early in what was looking like a runaway (although it could have been anyone, we were all pretty close). However, I'd run out of gold early and was having a lot of trouble getting more as I kept having to use it for a needed resource instead of being able to use it for development cards. I did get a lot of dev cards early, including the nice 1vp variety, but three diplomats is useless if that's as many as you get - I think the other cards are much more useful, and I did get a couple of traitors, but in the end I suspect that they were less useful than I'd have liked.

Once Ben got his 2vp for the Diplomats, it was off to the races between him and Chuck, with Mike completely stalled (too many wheat spaces in his kingdoms), and me about two turns from getting to 11vp, one on a good set of rolls. I had built my kingdoms on a great set of resources that guaranteed me cards on all but four rolls (2, 12, 4, and of course 7). It was a good effort at a comeback, but in the end not enough. Chuck was the first to hit 11vp, but Ben managed to eke out the win with 12, and 7 gold pieces from a late Goth Gold card would have certainly meant the tiebreaker would have gone to him anyway.

Our game took a good 2.5 hours, mostly because everyone was playing for the first time but me. I felt like I was able to play briskly on my part, as the map isn't all that complicated and with a little experience you learn to read it efficiently. Despite my loss, I feel that good placement of kingdoms is critical in the endgame, and in my case it nearly got me to 11 points which is usually enough for a win. Regardless, I think the game is playable within the stated 90 minutes. We will certainly get another few games of this in, as everyone but Mike thought it was fantastic, while Mike thought it was Settlers, but a bit better.

I did think I made a couple of mistakes early on that I hope not to repeat. One was using a traitor card very early in the game with my warrior unit. I was going fourth and felt that taking plunder would be a better choice than not (all of the two cities in reach had been taken), when I should have stayed in the barbarian hinterlands and gotten some good swag after the next resource roll. The second mistake, perhaps the big one, was with the warriors in southern Italy. There, I used another traitor card to plunder a 4 city, netting me yet another cow. I should have taken two gold, enough to get me up to the French Riviera where I could have gotten my third plunder color one or two turns earlier, which very well may have put me in the running for the win.

One other thing I wish I had done but did not, more because of a lack of opportunity, was to get more than one wagon on one of my tribes early. You'd think that with the cows that would be easy, but the truth was that wheat and horses were scarce resources for me the entire game, and I almost always needed those resources to build up my tribes and for movement. That's also why I had so much trouble with gold - I was using it to move or for horses to build up the tribes. This game is a lot like Formula De - it's all a matter of hitting the corners with the right rolls, and a bad roll will set you back one or more cycles, while a good one will actually gain you cycles by setting you up for a favorable gear in the next roll. Struggle is a lot like that, and the good news is that good play will mitigate that more than in any of the other Settlers variants I've seen.

Thanks to all who came and played games!

PS - Wii Hunt Update:

Wii needed to run by the mall today, so I did what had been suggested by the drone working at Babbage's a few weeks back and stopped by on Wednesday before noon. While I did score an extra nunchuk controller (very hard to find), I was also told that (contrary to previous information) Wednesday is not "the" day for shipments, that they come in every day and the Wii's are randomly scattered with some coming in on Mondays, some on Thursdays, etc. No way am I camping out at the mall on a daily basis, so I guess it will be me checking in at the Game Stop near Jesse's store on alternate Thursdays, perhaps a stop at a convenient location if I'm there around 11:30am. That and the Fred's Tuesday and Friday strategy, although clearly I will need to ask them again when the shipments come in as I've been misinformed once already.

At least I got the Nunchuk, which is good. I'd nearly ordered one from Nintendo just that morning, but was lazy. More on Friday after the bi-weekly AM run to Fred's.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Wii Hunt, The Sequel

Time for my bi-wiikly update of the Wii situation. I've been looking in the video game department of various stores whiin I'm in them for other reasons for the nunchuck controllers, and have found very little in the wiiy of anything other than memory cards (Wii's use SD cards or some other commonly available flash memory device, so this is not surprising) and carrying cases. And the games, of course. That must really piss off the stores, who are devoting all of this shelf space to a console that is still difficult to keep in stock for more than a few seconds almost two months after the holidays because the distribution channel is so spotty. Stores I've looked at include Target, Fred Meyer's (a regional chain in the Northwiist), and Best Buy.

This morning I made my bi-wiikly early morning trek to the local Freddie's, and fortunately the guy who is running the electronics department was getting his pre-wiirk smoke. He asked if I was waiting for a Wii, and told me they hadn't come in. I said something like "Wii-Negative again!", and he asked if he'd said that the wiik before. Next time I wiill get his name so that I can give him the credit he deserves, assuming he actually came up wiith it.

BTW, if you're getting tired of the double-i joke I'm pounding into the ground in these entries, you can put a prompt stop to the insanity by picking up a Wii for me if you get the chance. ;-) A squeaky whiil gathers no moss, or something to that effect. Hey, I'm not proud.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Bagradas Plains Redux

After getting in one game of Simple GBoH yesterday, I decided to play the same scenario again to try to reinforce what I'd learned the day before. One problem with learning games solitaire is that you don't have someone else to help you notice when you're doing something wrong. Although I did pretty well in this regard, there were some other ideas I wanted to try out.

First off was how to deal with the Velites, who really don't have the ability to do a "hit and run" from any distance, although they are allowed to fire missiles (only, no movement) if they start two hexes away from their targets. So, instead of running the units right up to the elephants, this time I stopped them two spaces back to force the elephants to move first, and also to allow them to use reaction fire as the elephants advanced. While it might appear that the Velites are better off getting the moving unit drm during Shock, especially as opposed to the elephants getting it when they move, the bonuses actually wash out because of the weapons matrix giving a -3 for LI attacking EL vs +2 for EL attacking LI.

The thing that did screw me up a bit was that the elephants managed to break through the line to some extent on their move and do some damage to the Hastati formations, forcing the Romans to fight the elephants in their ranks rather than advancing on them. Of course, having the Velites completely whiff on their missile reactions (only two elephants routed) didn't help, although the elephants then whiffed to a large degree in shock. As a result, half of the Velites survived combat, which was a bit better than before. I'm still not sure how to do this. Of course, in most battles the elephants aren't right out in front (I think), so this may change as I try out different Roman scenarios.

Second was my attempts to try stacking the legions. My thinking was that I could bring more force to bear on the MI and PH infantry. By bringing up the HA/CO units in front in alternating hexes, with the PR/CO units of the third line right behind them, I could keep the HA units in place attacking, then bring up the PR units after. This worked to some extent, although there had been quite a bit of damage from the elephants and so my units were more beat up than I'd have liked. The other problem that I never anticipated was that my line quickly disintegrated as far as command went, so that the flanking units were soon out of command and unable to move more effectively. I guess this is historical, and it went both ways - half of the Phalanxes were out of command within an activation or two, and a third of the Celt MI.

Of course, the real problem for the Romans was failing their seizure rolls, only making 1 of 3, while the Carthaginians made all three they attempted. As such, the Phalanx and MI were the ones hitting the HA units, not the other way around. Those elephants really did quite a number on the Romans! Also, I learned again just how hard it is to do damage to a phalanx unless you have the ability to get an effective flanking attack in, which never really happened.

I did feel that I had a much better feel for dropping off CO alae units to watch my flanks, which were tied up with the cavalry never really getting past the initial clash stage anyway. If I ever try this game out ftf, I'll definitely want to push with the cavalry a bit more just to see if it makes a difference, but in this game I was too busy moving up the heavy infantry. I never did get the Carthaginian light infantry going, it just seemed that you got very little bang for your buck, and their main purpose was to prevent a premptive strike by the Roman Cavalry on the Carthaginian Heavys.

A brief synopsis: After the Velites and Elephants had their initial clashes and the Velites headed for the hills, the elephants did a little tapdance on the second line of the Romans, but only really enough to keep them busy. In the meantime, while the Romans were getting the pachyderms out of the way, the Carthaginian cavalry tried to rout out the Roman cavalry, but to no avail on either wing. The Romans reformed with stacked units, and the Carthaginian main line deployed into battle, taking advantage of a seized turn to charge the Roman line. The African phalanxes did very heavy damage, while the Celts had mixed success. The Romans responded by bringing up their Principes, who managed to break the command line (if not create any holes) in the line of phalanxes, as well as do some real damage to the Celts.

However, the problem with engaging the phalanxes is that your units can't really get away, and the Romans started routing on that flank. On the other side, the Celts were starting to give way, and had the Romans had another turn they probably could have created some real problems for the African phalanxes, but time ran out and the Romans were forced to withdraw. I think the game could have gone either way had Regulus had better luck trying to seize the turn, or Xanthippus failed (especially when he brought up the main line - that +1 can really make a difference). I'll definitely want to play this one when I manage to get Jesse up on the rules and playing. Hint.

I'm unlikely to get another game of this in short term, too many other things coming up this week. However, I'm definitely glad I took the time to figure the Simple rules out and I'm looking forward to a "real" game in the near future.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Simple Battles for a Simple Mind

Like many wargamers, I've owned a copy of SPQR for years. In my case, over ten. I bought it back when I was in grad school and seriously considering a career in academia, that's how long ago it was. So long ago that I laminated the maps thinking I'd actually play the damned thing.

Now it's 2007, I have ten games in the series, plus every GMT expansion and C3i scenario, and I still haven't even set one of the games up. Even after getting both Simple GBoH scenario books, I simply had never given the games a try. As part of my New Year's "Resolutions" (as though that meant I'd actually *do* what I said I would), I decided I really wanted to put at least one game on the table. Rather than deal with a complex ruleset that changed by varying degrees from game to game, I chose to try out the Simple rules as they are shorter, have less Berg-ese in them, and allow you to play something like 100 different scenarios without anything other than a few small scenario-specific special rules. Today, after digging out SPQR and sorting through the 30 baggies of counters that I'd amassed over the years (and what a mess *that* was), I fought the Battle of the Bagradas Plains to completion. And you know what? I'm really glad I did.

Simple takes a lot of the clutter out of SPQR, both in the rules and on the board. Leader activations become very easy to do - when it's your turn, you pick a formation and activate it. You can continue to activate the same formation turn after turn if you wish to, and in some cases that seems to be a pretty good idea, although it does wear your units down pretty quick. Instead of trumping, each side has a certain number of "seizures" they can attempt, sort of like throwing out the red flag in American football - if you fail the attempt, you've lost it for good. Even all of the numbers on the leader counters are largely ignored - for most leaders it's just a question of command range, plus the initiative for your overall commander when you try for a seizure.

Also simple are the missile rules, which get rid of things like elephant missile screens. Inactive units can react in specific ways to active units movement, but it's pretty low key. Unit types are differentiated in how they "shock" combat (melee) with other units, and any special capabilities or limitations are nicely summed up in a small chart. Although shock combat can be a bit more involved because of all of the DRMs (troop quality, size, movement, terrain, etc), it's generally a pretty quick affair to figure things out.

What didn't seem so simple was the amount of markers in the game. I know that the original was called "marker-heavy" and I can't imagine how cluttered the board must get. In Simple, every unit takes cohesion hits during combat, and even during some movement (through woods, for example), so most units have a numeric marker on them once things get going. When you activate a leader, you have to figure out which units in that formation are now in command (can move/turn if in a ZOC, can enter a ZOC), and that takes more markers, although only for as long as it takes to move the units. For Shock combat, you have to put more markers on to show what units are attacking, and which ones moved into place for the drm bonus (again, these get removed as you go). If you have missile units reacting to the other player's movement, that's more markers to be sure they don't fire twice. That's a lot of placing and removing markers, but the worst is that you can't see your units with the numeric markers on them! As such, I spent quite a bit of time each turn figuring out which units were even in my formations (made more difficult for the Romans, who have cohort legions in the wing formations that are only differentiated by a teeny little letter on the counter). If there was ever a game screaming for a VASSAL module that would arrange this information in a convenient and readable form, this game is it. I cannot imagine what the original game was like.

But that's a fairly minor nit in the overall picture. What is really important is how well the game works. I am the first to say that I have very little experience with tactical practice with Republic-era manipular legions, although I know the basics:

1) Watch your flanks. Really. The drms change dramatically for attacking a unit from it's front vs the flank or rear. You see quite clearly quite quickly how important it is to have cavalry guarding the flanks of your army. In fact, Bagradas Plains is an object lesson in how only a single cavalry unit on each flank will result in a routed army in no time at all (the reason I used the option rule to increase the Roman cavalry to four on each flank). Phalanxes are incredibly powerful and difficult to wear down, but only if you go at them from the front. If they stay in line they are truly formidable.

2) Use your units correctly. Duh. Light infantry and skirmishers should avoid shock combat with anything bigger than they are, and instead hold off and force the enemy to come to them (and get reactive fire). Key note: Elephants really don't like pointy things like javelins. However, in Simple javelins only have a range of one hex, which puts you in shock combat (which eats up these units very quickly). Better to move two hexes away, wait for the heffalumps to move to you, throw missiles as they come, then avoid combat and head for the rear. Other units have similar strengths and best practices, and this game does a decent job (if not as strong as the original rules).

3) Leaders are huge, but so is cohesion. There are no rally rules in Simple - if you rout, that's it (unless you are an elephant, then you take a lot of units in your general location with you). Since you can't be in command unless you have a cohesive line, that means that you need to keep that line intact until you meet the enemy. Even then, if you're out of command, you can't even rotate in your hex so long as you're in an enemy ZOC. The other nice thing about a cohesive line - it's hard for anyone to get on your flanks. Did I mention the flank thing?

4) You may have a big army, but if you have a low rout withdrawal amount it won't matter. Funny story - I'd mistakenly thought that units were worth one point each for rout points, elephants worth two. So I sent all of my Roman Velite light infantry right up against the elephants, thinking that if they each took out one for each loss, I'd be doing well. Whoops, the Velites are worth their troop quality in rout points - 5 each. Not such a good deal. In fact, that's exactly what the *elephants* were for!

From setting up to getting through the entire scenario (including numerous rules look-ups, which were easy to do - the rules are very well organized), including looking at the SPQR Player's Guide to see which leaders and light infantry units I should be using, and leaving the game for 15-30 minute breaks at times, I figure it took me about three hours to get through. I also felt that I'd gotten most of the rules down, which was nice, and I'm looking forward to giving it another go with better LI usage in the next few days.

What was apparent was what a big difference troop quality makes, how important keeping a cohesive line is, and why you should get to know the Weapons Matrix well - medium infantry, for example, has no drm attacking legions, but legions have a +2 when attacking medium infantry, so the legions need to be making the first strike against this unit type if they can.

In the end, the Carthaginians won during a last ditch attack by the Romans to try to take out their overall commander's phalanx (they came within two cohesion hits), but ended up going over their 120 rout points in the process. I underused the cavalry, misused the velites, didn't keep a cohesive enough line with the Carthaginian phalanxes, and could probably have gotten a better result with the elephants had I been able to get them into second and third lines of the legions where rampages would cause a lot more damage. I think I'd also try to keep my Hastati and Principe legion units in formation right up to the point where they came into contact with the enemy, although there is something to be said for watching one's flanks. Heh.

Aside from the aesthetic and somewhat functional problem of having all of my units covered by numeric markers (I suppose I could put them *under* the units, it's not like many units in this game stack), I really enjoyed the game. While many if not most of the scenarios tend to be blowouts (mostly because the historical situations they are modelling were the same way), that's OK for a game I'll mostly play solitaire, and those that are well-balanced are the ones I'll play face-to-face. Who knows, maybe I'll even give the original rules a go, although this is a rules complexity level that I'm very comfortable with. Hopefully it won't take me another 12 years before I actually play a human being in this game...

Friday, February 09, 2007

Let The Wii Hunt Begin!

Whiile technically not about boardgaming, I've decided to use my copious amounts of free time to try to score a Nintendo Wii. Unlike the PS3, which is pretty easy to find around town, the Wii remains rather elusive, arriving in relatively small quantities at various locations and selling out wiithin hours if not minutes. And it is this quality that I have decided makes it wiirthwhiile to put some effort into finding one, as there are relatively few games specifically made for the platform that are decent(Madden, Rayman, Wario Ware, Zelda, Sports). I also blame Ben, who has taunted me: first with an actual Wii, then he keeps sending me e-mails on where to find them. Curse you Red Baron!

The story so far:

I check out various stores for stock when convenient - for example, a quick stop by Fry's when I'm in Wiilsonville. This strategy is something less than useless.

Checking out a tip from Ben, I go to the local Target early on a Sunday morning. Hey, when you don't really go to work the rest of the wiik, getting up early on a Sunday isn't such a bad idea. I stand in line dutifully for about 20 minutes before the store opens, noticing that there are relatively few people in line in front of me. Which seems like a great deal, except I then learn that they gave out 24 numbers about two hours earlier, and no number no Wii. OK, I'm not getting up at 5am for one of these puppies...

Asking around at Wiishington Square, I learn that the Babbage's there gets shipments in around the lunch hour on Wiidnesdays, and that's a good day to swing by. Except that the past three Wiidnesdays have had other things going on and I haven't tried this yet.

Ben sends out mail saying he's scored an extra Wii at a local Fred Meyer's and that the first person to contact him gets it. My email is read literally seconds after he hangs up with the guy who gets it. I decide that I should just go all out wiith this particular obsession and make a personal goal out of it.

Turns out Freddie's gets their shipments in on Friday and Tuesday mornings, so I rise bright and early at 6:45am on Friday (today), and am rewarded by being the first in a long line of three people with a shot at the prize. Sadly, the store is (as the clerk tells us) "Wii-negative". Sigh. I plan to try this strategy again on Tuesday and possibly the following Friday if the aforementioned Babbage's strategy fails as well. Biggest advantage of Fred's: minimal wiit time. Biggest disadvantage: freakin' early. Biggest advantage of Babbage's: Not doing anything else that day (usually). Biggest disadvantages: Have to go to the mall. Wiit time could be a few hours if the shipment is delayed or the guys working there want to f*ck with me.

I also hear that the nunchuck controllers are very hard to find locally, I may bite the bullet and order an extra direct from Nintendo rather than play Hunt The Nunchuck (as I wiill almost certainly be exhausted from playing Hunt The Wii).

Not that this is a threat or anything, but there wiill be more as the story unfolds...

Thursday, February 08, 2007


Despite my enthusiasm for Combat Commander, I've had trouble getting a game up since I got back from Mexico, and indeed I was even thwarted by icy road conditions on the game I was supposed to have just before I left. Even at Chris' Superbowl party, I was unable to get a game up (despite two games just getting started when I got there). So it was with great gladness and joy that I went over to my friend Connor's house to get in a game at long last.

Poor Connor - he's not a "gamer" in the same sense as I am a "gamer". While he's had extensive experience with RPGs (D&D and Traveller, primarily), and I've introduced him to various CDGs over time (Hannibal, Wilderness War), he isn't the kind of guy who will learn 20 different sets of rules at his fingertips. As such, I keep introducing him to the new "it" game with the idea that we'll play it a lot and he won't have to learn a new game next time. Before Combat Commander came out, I thought that he'd really enjoy World of Warcraft because of the character development rules, but I have to admit that as a two-player game it's just a bit lacking.

Connor, you may rest easy old friend - from now on it's gonna be CC, and I think he's now a convert. We played a shortened game using the first scenario a few weeks ago, and while he seemed to like it well enough, Connor is the kind of guy who really needs a couple of plays under his belt to get a good feel for the game. Wednesday, we got in another play, this time using scenario 7, which pits a handful of second-echalon German squads against wildly varying Russian partisans (from very effective SMG squads to barely effective Militia squads and Green teams) which are nevertheless fairly well armed with LMGs, satchel charges, and even a captured German mortar.

This is an excellent learning or solitaire game for a variety of reasons. First of all, there are only two types of terrain on the board - forest and a railroad line. Second, the Russian partisans start the game spread out all over the board, placed according to random card draws. Since the Russian deck only has hexes that end in even numbers, the dispersal is impressive. Third, the Russians only get a single Order each turn. You cannot believe how limiting this is for the Russians, and makes for a great handicap for the teaching player.

The stated objectives are double points for eliminated units, making this a priority (in addition, there are no points for exiting the map other than "bad" points), and also for controlling all five objectives at sudden death. The objectives are spread out all over the map, with both ends of the straight rail line, a hex in the middle of the rail line that goes right through the forest, and the two path intersections in opposite corners of the board. As such, for the Germans to take all five objectives would be very difficult, but for the partisans (who start everywhere) there is an excellent chance. The Germans, in contrast, start the game in any part of the board they choose, but they must form a cohesive group with no empty hexes between units. Also, both sides start with two weak leaders. Since the Russian leaders don't start the game in a hex with squads or teams, you can see how getting the Russians going with one order a turn can be a challenge.

Connor placed his units on the middle of the board, right on the railroad track. At first, I thought this was a huge mistake, but as I looked at the overall situation, I realized that the Russians had very few options as to how they could shoot at them. The lone exception was the captured mortar, which became an early focus of Connor's fire and an eventual melee that I lost after several exchanges of the Initiative card. Even though I took a precious German squad with me (which had an LMG, no less), the loss of that mortar was big given I had very few decent long-range weapons (all squads had a range of 2!). He also killed off one of my two leaders that was in a lone woods hex right next to his set up. I did bring up a Militia squad with a satchel charge, but he advanced into the space on the next turn with two squads and a leader, and with a five point differential and no initiative I never stood a chance. Even though he ended up losing the equivalent of a Team in the process from overstacking, these two advances put me in a deep hole for the rest of the game. Even when I managed to bring in a medium mortar Russian team with my Hidden Units action card (which the Russians are given at game start), it didn't last long either, only getting one good shot in before it too was destroyed.

I did come back to some extent. Since the Russians don't actually control any of the objective hexes, and my secret objective was 2 points for each, I figured that six points at game end might just win it for me, and started using my precious move cards to take each space, most of which were quite a ways from any German units other than the one in the middle of the board. I also brought up a Militia unit with a satchel charge to first kill another German squad near that objective (5), and then moved into the space, as he had moved up one of his leader/squad/LMG groups into a foxhole with the intent of going for one of the objectives on the end of that board. I even had the Demolitions action ready to remove the wire I'd placed there earlier. By now, Connor had a seven point lead, and I had three of the five objectives, with only two move orders needed to take the others, and we were very close to reaching the Sudden Death marker on the time track (at 5, which meant I could expect a couple of time rounds before the game would really end).

Connor was meanwhile moving another leader/squad/LMG group towards the team/LMG I had at one of the two paths crossings, clearly intending to advance and take it from me. I had a move card ready to bring a militia squad into play, which would have meant a fairly tough fight for the space, but Connor managed to pull a Timer! event, and then rolled a 4 for the Sudden Death points. Since he had the Initiative card at that point, it was up to him. By my count, he would be one point up depending upon what his secret objective was, so it was possible that the game could go either way. He decided that the game was over, and I learned that his objective was 1 point for the space he was one hex away from moving into. Since I controlled it, we were tied, but since he had the initiative, he ended up with the win in a squeaker.

Like I said, this one would make a great solitaire scenario. The random setup for the Russians combined with their single order per turn makes it easy to "play" them since there is so little they can do. For those who want more tension, you can always roll to see if the Russians hold a fortification or opfire card, and if you can live with a little more info than you'd normally have, you can always assume that the Russians control all five objectives at game start, with that and killing Germans as their primary goal (and recovery, of course).

And that is really the big headache of only having one order. No longer can you move a unit into harm's way knowing that you have a recovery card waiting to at least give them a shot at rallying. With units spread all over the board, it is unliikely that you'll be able to activate more than one unit, perhaps two, with a given order. There are a lot of Russians (twelve to the German's six), but you will probably not move all of them in the course of the game - that would take twelve individual move cards, and you are likely to move at least one or more of them more than once, and that assumes you have ready access to move cards. Me, I think I had 12 moves the whole game, and most were forced by the tactical situation.

This isn't to say that the scenario isn't a good one anyway, both sides are working at a disadvantage (the board is mostly forest, but the Russians only pay one MP per hex). Even though the Russians rarely can fire at a long distance to any effect, the forest blocks most firing lanes. The Germans will need to understand that some parts of the board are more useful than others for long range attacks, but if the game comes down to controlling forest pathway intersections, the Russians will have a big advantage.

In all, an excellent game and an excellent scenario. Play this game!

I'm A Deputy!

The title of this entry refers to the tendency of everyone in my group who has played Bang! to claim repeatedly and often that they are, indeed, a deputy. Even the Sheriff, on occasion. Sadly, Bang! was one of those games that was really really fun exactly once, and after that it was just tedious. So, no report on Bang, but instead on a fifth cousin: Shadows Over Camelot.

SoC is one of those games that suffers in a game sense from having more players, but gains in an experiential sense. By that, I mean that while the game seems to have more of what you would technically call "downtime," at the same time, it's more fun. So there we were, six of us at Mike's on SouTues, trying hard not to pull out Medici *again*, when someone suggested SoC. I looked at Dave, fully expecting the patented "I rode on the bus for an hour for *this*" look, only to be met with enthusiasm. It must be that new car smell that's affecting him.

Characters were dealt (I got the guy that can play Special White cards easily, Liz got Sir If You See Kay, Dana got Arthur, Dave got the Special Bonus Character that came in a magazine or something, and Ben and Mike got supporting characters. I just can't keep track of who's who in this game, which really didn't matter much as I was blissfully dealt the traitor. I really like being the traitor, as I'm nothing like that in real life, and I find it to be a wonderfully cathartic experience. In fact, I hope and pray that at least someone will be the traitor, as this game is not nearly as much fun without it (although I do like the idea that we may all be looking for a traitor that doesn't exist).

Things started out promisingly for me, with Excalibur sinking at a record rate into the lake. Sadly, Liz took Launcelot's Armor, and the Grail quest went far too well for my tastes. We did have a nice Saxon and Pict invasion going, but I was forced to hold it off a bit longer as Arthur finally figured out that he could give me special cards that I could then play on my turn. Sadly, I was then forced to play them or be exposed.

And therein was the rub. You see, the rules for the traitor are only on the back of your character card, and turning it over to look at it repeatedly tends to make you look like maybe you're the traitor. So, I waited for a little while into the game while others were debating how best to find the Grail, took a look as though I was bored and wondering what would happen if someone else were the traitor, and singing a little untraitorish song to myself, which went something like this:

"Hum-de-dum, hum-de-dum, I'm not a little black traaaaai-tooor, hovering over your catapult,"

And so forth.

As such, it surprised everyone as much as me when, near the game end, I exposed *myself* as the traitor, mistakenly thinking that I had some extra bonus stuff I could do (like pull two black cards and pick one). Whoops. I also didn't realize that I lost the two-sword-shuffle that happens if the traitor is still alive *and undetected*. Whoop-whoops. Man, was that annoying. Clearly, there needs to be traitor rules somewhere that it's a bit less obvious to check as the game progresses. And believe me, I did look in the rules, although a few at the table said they suspected me because I was, you know, looking in the rules a lot. Which I was, but only once for the traitor rules.

The other thing that nearly gave me away was my lack of playing special cards. Sadly, aside from the Merlin I got at the start of the game, and the two Merlins passed me by Arthur, I never drew a special card. That meant that I couldn't play a couple to look like I was fighting the good fight, plus I never got to horde them. Sigh.

The really dumb thing was that I may have been able to pull out a win had I not revealed myself, as I would have been able to switch two swords. If I'd timed this right, like with a false accusation (another way to point out that you are the traitor, the "you smelt it you dealt it" factor), I could have swung three swords if I was lucky and won the game. Seeing as both Dave and Mike died before game end, it was a clear possibility.

Perhaps I liked this game because I got to be the traitor, but it certainly felt more like Arkham Horror than when I played with four players (or even five). Having six is a great number because there is a chance there will be no traitor, but not much of one. And yeah, you don't usually get a lot to do during your turn, but with a group game like this, it really doesn't matter so much. I will admit that had I been loyal, the game would have really sucked because I wouldn't have gotten any special cards and so not gotten to use my special power, but that's the way it goes.

Oh, and we also played a couple of hands of Frank's Zoo while waiting for Peter. I wasn't winning that game either.

Thanks to Mike for hosting my black-hearted alter ego and everyone else!

Monday, February 05, 2007

Another Year, Another Stupor Bowl

Mike is usually the guy in our group who hosts Super Bowl parties, but this year Chris took over the duties. Last year we had a really cool Pizza Box Football tournament (where I got about as far as the Seahawks did this year), but nothing like that to be had this year. I arrived about 15 minutes late to find two games of Combat Commander (both learning games, taught by Tim), and Jesse and I decided to wait a bit to see if anyone else would show up. Sure enough, Ken and his son Brandon did, and we all decided to try out the new Catan Histories title, Struggle for Rome.

And here I didn't even know there *was* a Catan HIstories series! Apparently, in a revised history sort or way, Settlers of the Stone Age has become the first game in this series, despite the fact that it's several years old now, and one of the lesser Catan titles. I found the game had many flaws, the worst being that one player would get in trouble early because of how the dice landed. Out of five games, I found one competitive - not a good sign. I sold my copy to George, and would actively refuse to play if asked - it's far too long for what it is.

However, Struggle seems to have overcome quite a bit of the problems that Stone Age had. The milieu is the "barbarian" invasion of Western Europe, when tribes from NE Europe flooded into Germania, Gaul, Italy, and Hispania and brought about the fall of the Western Roman Empire. As a theme, it's genius and works exceedingly well in this game.

Each player has two tribes, one represented by a horseman, the other by a warrior. The strength of each tribe is represented by a holding box on the side of the board, where you also keep track of what cities you've plundered in each region. Movement is quite fluid - it is quite possible for a tribe to move from one end of the board to another during it's turn, with the only limitation being that you have to have the resources to pay for the move and you can't move to a space another unit occupies.

Once your tribe has moved, it can plunder a city on an adjacent vertex, provided that the tribe's strength is equal to the strength of the city. When you plunder, you turn over the plunder marker on that city, gain gold (a welcome addition), and perhaps cards, and perhaps lose a little strength. You are limited to plundering two cities in each region (of which there are five, eight cities per region) per tribe. There is a 2VP bonus for each tribe that plunders at least one city in each region - considering you need 10 points to win, that is a valid strategy for success.

On the other hand, you may decide that the Romans have fallen far enough and start building your own kingdoms once you have three cities from different regions plundered by a given tribe. Once you do this, you actually start putting your units in cities proper (up to this point you can only be nearby), and start a Kingdom. No more roaming for this tribe, now they expand in a more Settler-like fashion, although no need for roads - in this case you have to start building up both strength *and* wagons to expand. At this point in the game, resources stop being on the scarce side and start becoming plentiful. As such, the game speeds up quite a bit - about 70% of the turns are spent wandering, 30% expanding kingdoms. Also, no need for roads - as long as you have a wagon and the necessary strength, and the city is close enough, you can take it. One big thing about conquering as opposed to pillaging - no more pillage markers as they leave the game instead of being added to your total. If your tribe hasn't gotten five different regions plundered, they won't ever get this bonus. However, you do get two VP if you can conquer four or more cities with each tribe.

Movement is handled in a novel fashion. Some hexsides on the board have blue movement arrows, and you have to spend either three gold or one wheat resource to move across them. There are also sea lanes, which cost one gold to move across. Your first movement arrow is always free, so even if you don't have any wheat or gold you can get somewhere. If you choose not to move at all with a tribe (and also don't plunder, conquer, or play a development card), you can get two gold or one resource card of your choice. It is also important to keep in mind in the early game that wherever you move will dictate what resources you may or may not get on the next rolls. Movement is the tricky part of this game, and learning how to parse the board for the various options you need to be aware of is a skill that takes at least a few turns to develop. as such, expect your first game to take closer to two hours rather than the stated 90 minutes.

Resources and trade also have some changes from other Catan games. First, resources are rolled for once, then all players trade and build in turn, then all players activate their horsemen in turn, and finally the same for the warriors. As such, you are unlikely to spend three turns building up a ton of resources only to have the robber rolled just before your turn and lose half of them. Also unlike other games, the dice are rolled until four different resource numbers are rolled, making it more likely that you will get a positive result than in other Catan games (yes, it's the same number of rolls, but you won't see three 8's when all you have are 6's).

Trading and building also have twists. There are only three types of resource spaces - forests don't produce resources. Also, pastures produce a random resource, either a horse or a cow. Horse and ore let you improve the strength of your tribes (both) by one, good for pillaging and conquering. A gold and a cow will get you a resource card, which give VP, allow you to pillage/conquer on the cheap, grab extra pasture cards, move anywhere on the board, or gain a diplomat (the same as soldiers in the original game). If you have a horse, a cow, and a wheat, you can add a wagon, useful for gaining extra gold while pillaging, and essential for expanding your kingdom once it's established.

Trading is always 3:1 for resources, but whenever you want a horse or cow card you instead have to draw blind from the pasture deck, which makes things interesting. Fortunately, you can spend three gold (earned through inaction, development cards, or pillage) instead of a resource once per turn, so you don't have to draw blind as it's done in lieu of a resource. In the early game, gold will often substitute for either horses or ore to help build up your tribe's strengths as all of the 2 strength Roman cities go away pretty quickly.

Finally, there is a legionnaire, analagous to the robber with a couple of changes. First is that the legionnaire can't be placed in the barbarians' starting area, so no need for an early game "no-whammies" rule. Second, there is no hand limit to worry about when a seven is rolled. Given that the odds are good that a seven will come up every turn, this is a good thing. Instead, if you ever run out of resources to hand out after a given resource roll, that's when *everyone* has to lose half of their cards! This did not happen in our game, apparently it's a rare occurence.

It's hard to give a good account of how the game went, as tribes went all over the board early, and after that it was a matter of trying to build up strength to attack the stronger cities. Everyone started their kingdoms after getting to three regions plundered with the single exception of me, who went for having one tribe conquer early and the other go for the 2 point bonus. In retrospect, this makes for an interesting strategic choice. On the one hand, if you are going to do this with one tribe you might as well do it with both, as you are unlikely to get the four-cities-per-kingdom bonus and might as well get 4 points total. However, you are also left with fairly bad choices for where to place kingdoms - the better resource spaces tend to be hard to take (having strength 4 cities on them), and there are fewer unplundered cities as the expanding kingdoms remove any plunder markers in their path.

However, it turned out to be a good strategy in this particular game. I had my horsemen tribe going great guns in Central Gaul, blocking off Brandon's tribe on the Bay of Biscay. Meanwhile, my warrior tribe managed to get to 5 plundered regions, then settled down near Denmark, although they were only able to expand to a single city. Expansion is tough, as you use up both a strength and a wagon to expand, so if you're able to expand at one city between both tribes per turn you're doing well.

What helped me out was a Culture card that gave me an extra VP, so with my bonuses I only needed seven cities to get to 10 points. Of course, everyone else gets the chance to finish the round, and Brandon expanded with his warrior tribe in the penultimate move (I went last) to get the 2 points for four cities in each tribe. However, since I didn't need to do anything with my warriors, I collected 2GP for inactivity and won with the gold tiebreaker! Ken had six points (having lost the Diplomats to Jesse), while Jesse was very close behind with nine points but nowhere to expand.

Cooley's Law states that I really like this game, and it's true. In fact, I will go on record as saying it's my favorite of all the Catan games so far. I think there is less chance of getting shut out early as compared to the other games (Brandon had a slow start and nearly won), the game is much more fluid early, and the theme is tightly integrated into the mechanisms. Once players have had a chance to get used to the board, I think the 90 minute playing time is about right.

One knock I can see being made is the randomness of the plunder tokens. While you always gain a gold (and a plunder token to move the game along), if you gain a resource or pasture card or extra gold you also lose a strength point. However, there is no correspondence between the strength of the city and the rewards you get. Also, if you want to trade three wheat, say, for a horse, you actually end up rolling the dice to see if you get a horse or a cow. Fortunately, cows are useful for getting development cards, and development cards will almost always help you in some way - more gold, more pasture cards, all sorts of stuff. There is a limit of playing one development card per phase per player, which is another good design decision, but in general you have enough options to allow you to at least do *something* that aids your position, even if it's just drawing a resource card that you know you'll need next turn.

I can't imagine pulling out any of my other Catan games anymore, other than maybe a Das Buch scenario. This game does for Catan what Carc: The City (or Discovery) did for that venerable but flawed franchise, and takes it into the realm of greatness rather than solely commercial success. Kudos to Klaus for finally producing a great Catan game that I will want to play over and over.

After we finished our game, I wandered downstairs to see if I couldn't get in a game of Combat Commander, but Mike was actually waiting for the football game to begin, so that was it for gaming for me.

A few notes on the Super Bowl (as that was the excuse for the party):

1) The game was literally two plays from being a complete snoozer: the Bears touchdown runback on the opening kickoff, and the long Bears run to set up a TD in the first quarter. Without these, the game would have been over by halftime. As it was, the outcome was in some doubt until the end of the third quarter, when it became clear that the Bears had no offense. A big part of the Bears' success this year was their powderpuff schedule, and the league must do something to prevent strong teams with good records from the previous year playing nothing but bad teams. If I wanted to see this sort of thing, I'd follow college ball. At least the game was exciting in the sense that neither team could hold onto the ball for long.

2) The president of the Colt was a dolt. He began with a solemn "our thoughts are with those in Central Florida who have lost their homes and/or lives" statement and without taking a breath he then started whooping about how the Colts had won. It was a bit jarring to be sure. To put the icing on the cake, he then thanked God for the win, perhaps the most short-sighted and dumbass statement made regularly by jocks. Here's a hint to the long line of players, coaches, and owners who seem to think that the Creator of the Universe gives a rat's ass about who wins an over-hyped game played with any seriousness in one country of the world - He doesn't. You were not more pious, not more faithful, not more deserving in any sense other than that your team won the right games at the right time with the right people. Don't get me wrong, I love NFL football and follow it through the entire year (the only pro sport I devote any attention to). But this strange egoistic fascination with mistaking prowess in ritualized mock combat for some sort of Divine favor makes me ill. Get over yourself. At the most you can thank God for the opportunities She has given you personally and for inspiration, but don't think for a second that He has had even the slightest influence over your piddling little game.

There's my little rant. Not that anyone in pro sports will read it, but it makes me feel better.

Thanks to Chris and Julie for an awesome party, great food, wonderful company, and a very nice HD picture on their TV!