Friday, April 13, 2007

Wow, a Wii!

My search for a Wii came to a sudden hiatus a few weeks ago after I'd gotten tired of showing up at 7am at Fred Meyer's stores for a month with no joy. I did make an attempt to score one at Toys R Us in mid-March, only to be, literally, number 38 in line that gave out 37 Wiis. At that point, I made a decision not to buy one until I could walk into a store at any time of the week and just get one then. Fortunately, the supply constrictions seem to have lessened, as I'm seeing lots of controllers, even nunchucks, at all sorts of stores.

In fact, even the consoles must be coming out regularly, as Ben found six at the Tualatin Fred Meyer's early Sunday morning, which tells me that suddenly the pipe has opened up (Fred's takes deliveries on Fridays and Tuesdays, so that means they sat there all day Saturday). Still, it was darned nice of him to think of me, and I gratefully took the standard set, plus an extra remote/nunchuck pair off of his hands this past Sunday. Fortunately, I'd bought a couple of games plus neoprene sleeves a month or so before, so I had plenty to play with. Since then I've gotten a few more games, and I have to say that this is the only console gaming that's successfully pulled me away from World of Warcraft for more than an hour or so.

Of the games, I'm particularly taken with Wario Ware: Smooth Moves, which is just crazy but very fun. Most of the fun is not knowing what micro game will show up next, but the ersatz zen koans that tell you how to use the remote are a scream. Trauma Center seems interesting, although it's your typical Japanese muted sexual tension roleplay game, except instead of killing monsters you remove broken glass and stitch up lacerations. The Godfather is just crazy, think Grand Theft Auto in 30's Manhattan. You even get to buy clothes, decide on a hairstyle, and initially have a fairly good amount of control over your character's personal appearance (nose, monobrow, etc). Of course, I'm also enjoying Wii Sports, which has been my sole source of exercise for the past week. I'm getting in 30-45 minutes a day, mostly baseball, tennis, and boxing. I've gotten my fitness age down to 38, but I'm really having trouble figuring out how to swing a golf club well.

But enough of the Wii, on to WoW. Have I mentioned I really enjoy this game? Enough that I now have *five* characters playing, although two are intended to be "bankers" and alternate goods producers. Unfortunately, they are all on different servers, so that's why so many. Had they all been on a single server, I'd almost certainly only have three at most. The good news is that the alt characters come up *very* quickly at this point, even for classes I've not played before. My Tauren hunter got to sixth level and out of the newb area in Mulgore in less than 90 minutes, and I figure I'll work on a few more levels to allow him to go after more leather goods (for my shaman on the same server), then he'll primarily become a banker to save travelling back and forth to the big city for Chanya.

My primary character, my rogue gnome HVAC engineer, has gotten to level 28, scampering back and forth from the Wetlands to Duskwood to Redridge, even up to Hillsfar. All with no instances played, I've only done that with Chanya and Ragefire Chasm (with Matt, Jen, and Jen's brother). I'm tempted to run the Deadmines just to see how it goes, perhaps solo, perhaps in a team. I know it can be done at 32nd level, and the fact that the gnome can vanish makes it much easier to get the things done you need to instead of having to clear everything out. Still, I need to get more health potions, but that's what the human warlock is for on that server. I'm not quite sure where things will go from here with the gnome, who is my favorite character just because he's this teeny little guy running around in the weeks, occasionally coming up behind a critter that's taking on someone that can't quite handle it and pulling the old ambush trick. Good fun. I just wish I didn't have to run from area to area just to get quests that are within my range of expertise so much. Maybe I'll hop on a ship and head for Kalimdor, although I suspect Loraedon will be cool too.

So that's my video gaming update. Gotta go, a mob just aggro'ed me....

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

CenTues Session, 4/10/07

Tuesday night, this time at Matt's. An evening of aborted games, games with significant rules missing, and a little confusion as to why everyone raves about the Spiel des Jahres winner.

To start with, Mike, Jim, and myself were at Matt's a little early, and so we pulled out Thurn & Taxis to get things going. The second we had the pieces set up and were about to start 'splainin', Chuck showed up. Back in the box went the Thurn & Taxis bits, out came Around the World in 80 Days. We'd gotten three player turns in when Liz and Dana showed up, so Matt (who had not taken a turn yet) bailed and went to play Ra with them.

Our 80 Days game was not very exciting. To start with, I asked rather pointedly early in the game when I'd drawn a balloon card whether or not you had to play a travel card to use a balloon (as stated on the action card) even if you were doing it from the board action, and the answer was that you did *not* have to play a travel card in the latter case. Which was wrong. While I only got one or two of these board actions in, there was no question that it helped me get to London very quickly, and with gold to spare. To make things worse, we'd also been playing that you spent a gold to draw an extra travel card, when it's *two* gold to take that action.

As I ended up with three gold, and never had less than two gold in hand from the early game on, I figure that the latter rule didn't hurt me so much, although I'm certain I used at least two non-card balloon actions (although I also ended up with extra cards. So my win, clocking in at 71 days including using the 12 days through India, feels a little tainted although my closest rival, Chuck, finished in 73 days. Still, I wish that we'd gotten at least one of these rules correct from the beginning.

The Ra game was still going, so the four of us pulled out (wait for it) Thurn & Taxis, the game that *must* be played. And, after five or six outings, I'm not sure why. The game has some interesting mechanisms, especially figuring out how you'll play your houses and the occasional gamble on not having a card you'll need to continue a route (a gamble that did *not* pay out for me, although I was one card away from it doing so). While I will agree that there is a certain degree of skill required to play the game well, and that I do like the fact that you have to maintain tactical flexibility while keeping an overall strategic plan, the game has fallen rather flat for me. And it's not that I've never won, although it *could* be because we're trying to set up mail routes in late 18th C. Central Europe. And that's got fun written all over it.

At this point, my "date" (Jim) needed a ride home, so that was all for me. Kind of a disappointing night for gaming in some respects, but the company is quite good as always, and it's always nice to see Matt who rarely attends other sessions. Next week I'll be missing the SouTues in Newberg or Sherwood or wherever it is as I'm directing a college choir at a competition in Salem.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Italia, or How To Watch Red Run Roughshod

Mike, Chuck, and myself got together on Saturday to try out Phalanx's Italia, the most recent game based on the Britannia system published so long ago. Each player takes on the role of a set of nations vying for supremacy (or survival) on the Italian peninsula and environs, either during the time of the Rise of the Roman Republic, or after the fall of the Western Empire in the 6th century AD. The former game is for three players, and so that is what we decided to play. Mike took the Red faction, consisting of the Romans and the Greeks, Chuck the Yellow which had the Celts (Gauls), Samnites, Epirotes, and Numideans, while I was Blue and the Carthaginians, Etruscans, and Illyrians. Our game started around 2pm after a little rules discussion (Italia has some definite changes from earlier incarnations of the system), and we stopped after turn 7, three turns early, around 7pm. I suspect we could have finished in about two hours, as the final turn features a lot of campaign moves that add considerable time to the game turn.

Mike's Greeks got off to a very strong start against my Carthaginians, as I was unable to succeed in sinking more than one Greek ship the entire game with the Carthaginian navy. In fact, aside from taking back Tripolitanea and one successful invasion against Agothacles in Lilybaeum, the only thing Carthage really succeeded at was Hannibal's run down Italy in turn 6. As such, the Greeks were able to score tons of points early on. Combined with the point-generating machine that is Rome in the later game, it was clear by turn 7 that Mike would win handily. The consensus was that the game is horribly unbalanced in favor of the Red faction in the Italia I scenario, and I have to say that I believe that Rome does indeed have a strong edge.

However, I will (in my own multiple-personality disorderly way) make a few rebellious noises in favor of the game. First off, this was a first playing of the game for all three of us, although I'd mucked through a couple of turns solitaire some months ago. The rules, in typical Phalanx style, are a bloody mess, and the player aids are anything but. As such, we spent some time trying to auger how things were supposed to work and made various mistakes as we went. A big one, and one that I'm not sure would have made a huge difference or not, was the ability to block reaction moves through spending additional gold. The Carthaginians could certainly have used this during Hannibal's run, as they had four or five gold in the bank at the end of the campaign, and I suspect it would have helped the Epirotes as well.

Of course, I don't believe that either Yellow or Blue played their positions optimally, while I think it is difficult for Red *not* to play optimally. Nothing against Mike, it was just that the game was rigged toward him from the start. Also, it is critical for the Greeks to get a major slapdown early in the game, hard to do if your dice run as cold as mine did for pretty much the entire game. Mike always complains about his dice, but mine were really atrocious, especially for the Carthaginians. As such, where the fight should have been taken to the Romans, it was spent much of the time trying to root out the Greeks in the south. I counted something like 25 points that the Greeks were essentially handed early in the game because of the vagaries of the dice.

Not that this would have made a difference directly, but I think there is a problem inherent in the game system itself that expects dice to average out to achieve a close-to-historical result on a constant basis, and when the game starts to wobble it wobbles badly. As an example, I will cite one of the first games I played with Matt G and Mike, all those years ago, of Britannia. Rome did not do well early, and as a result there was no strong force to resist the Saxons and they dominated the game so thoroughly as to make it as unbalanced as this game was.

A quick check of the Geek shows that at least a few people believe that Italia I is strongly weighted toward the Romans, and while this was indeed the historical result, you would think that the point system would balance this out to some extent. In the end, however, how do you balance points where the winner took everything? Answer - You can't. There is, however, a dissenting view that tells how Yellow can win the game over Rome, and indeed Chuck was about halfway successful in this particular strategy. The problem was, again, that the Samnites didn't go after the Greeks enough, and as such they provided the Romans enough points (and cover) that there was no prayer of beating them.

I'm hoping that Italia II (the post-Western Empire era) doesn't have the same problems as Italia I, but as I say I think the whole game concept is flawed. These titles don't have enough of a story/experiential component (that really requires a more personal scale, such as Combat Commander or Arkham Horror) to succeed on that level, so they almost end up being better as a solitaire time-waster than as a six-hour historical game. As Chuck said, "If I'm going to spend 8-9 hours playing a game based on this time period, we might as well play Sword of Rome." And he's absolutely right.

I suppose I will make an attempt to get Italia II on the table, if for no other reason than I don't really have any other game on that particular period and it's an admittedly weak part of my historical knowledge. However, one thing that I will have to do is create some usable player aids for this game. This is almost certainly my last Phalanx purchase, and one that would have gone on the sale pile almost immediately were it not for the support of the designer independent of the publisher. For a company that puts so much stock in the appearance of a game, you would think that ten minutes of focused thought would demonstrate that little things like a stacking reference, separate attacker/defender drm charts, and a reaction move recap on player aids that had more unused space than Wyoming would have made for a much more pleasant player experience at virtually no additional cost. Blennemann and his crew are examples of the worst kind of publisher - no concern for the end user once they've purchased the game, and certainly no time for anyone who doesn't speak Dutch. I say this from personal experience, as they respond very promptly to the Dutch member of our group, but pointedly ignore the twenty or so e-mails I've sent asking for clarification of a simple question about their Revolution title. They have a terrible rep in the industry, and I recommend you buy their titles only if it's a game you really want, and I mean *really* want.

Still, Italia isn't in and of itself a bad game, just based on a flawed concept made worse by dull developers. I will almost certainly attempt to try the Yellow strategy against Red solitaire to see if this is actually a functioning game, as it is the only three-player Britannia-style game out there (almost all are made for four players with various unsuccessful kludges for three), and I definitely will try the Italia II game out as well. So, while Chuck and Mike might take the hemlock before playing this again, I'm still willing to give it another shot.

Of course, I actually put money into it, so there you go...

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Oh. The Horror. The Horror.

After a break of more than a month, I was delighted to get the chance to game with Jesse again. After comparing WoW notes and looking at Guitar Hero on X-Box, we decided to play Arkham Horror. I'd played at GameStorm and had the rules firmly in my head, so off we went.

Our special guest Elder God was Ithaqua, who takes a stamina off of you if you end a turn in the streets. Not a big deal for me as the doctor, as I got to replace a stamina free every upkeep, but it did hurt Amanda a bit (Jesse's character). This was my first two player game, so it was going to be interesting to see if we could win or not. With two, you need to have 8 open gates to allow the elder god in, or else get up to 12 doom tokens on his sheet.

We started out strong, with lots of clue tokens and sealing one gate right away - I wasn't able to seal mine as I had to use a clue token in the Abyss (or whatever other world I was in, they all smell alike to me), but I did get the gate closed. Jesse had just gotten another one closed, but it was clear that the gates were popping up all over the place and no clues were forthcoming, so we had to hope for some Elder Seals in order to get some closures. There were a few surprises, like me getting sealed into the docks for a turn, getting sucked into R'yleh and taking four turns to close it (not even sealing it). But the worst was the Rumors that kept popping up.

The first rumor was the Southside Strangler, who managed to kill every Ally in the game except the one I managed to score (the one that gives +2 Will). Next up was the one that puts a doom token on the elder god every time you roll a 1-2 in the Mythos phase. Which I did regularly. I did manage to seal one more gate before the Doom Track filled up and we were off to fight Ithaqua.

Ithaqua isn't that hard, and Jesse had two spells that allow you to roll +9 combat dice for the entire combat, and things were looking good. Until I biffed my attempt roll, leaving me with a single stamina, not enough to make the attempt again, so I was effectively out of the endgame. Jesse rolled valiantly, hanging on to the bitter end (he eventually ran out of dice to roll for Ithaqua's attack on Fight), with a single Doom token remaining on Ithaqua's track. And so the Earth became the domain of all sorts of slimy, horrible, shambling things. Just like Vegas.

A great game, quick (we played in about 2.5 hours), and good company.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

GameStorm Report, Pt. 2

By the time I finihsed my gig on Saturday morning, it was 9:30am and I was exhausted. I debated going home to get an hour of sleep vs just going straight to the con to run my 12pm Combat Commander games. In the end, I went and sat behind the Kniziathon desk again, and fortunately no one needed any actual help.

At noon, I went and set up the games, one set for scenario 1 for newbies, the other set for scenario 7 in case I was teaching (as the Russians are so hamstrung). Walt and Wilhelm played the former, and Matt Riley (from our group) and I played the other. I explained the game to Wilhelm and Walt, although Walt had gotten in part of a scenario once before, but not enough to really lock in the rules. Of course, by now my voice was going quickly, but somehow I not only got Walt and Wilhelm playing, but also explained well enough to Matt that he was grasping the game very quickly (plus he's a quick study).

Walt and Wilhelm looked like they had a really exciting game, in the sense that all sorts of wackiness ensued and Walt won in a squeaker in the final seconds. Wilhelm professed to dislike the game, preferring something that allowed some sort of strategy. He felt that Up Front! provided that control, although I have to say that I really like CC:E, and even though I don't know that things work out the way you'd like them to, the narrative is so strong and the visualization so effective that I'm quite happy with this game and don't feel any need to learn Up Front in any more detail.

Meanwhile, Matt started on one end of the board and worked his way toward mine. I am fairly sure that the way to work this scenario as the Russians is to give the satchel charges to the teams, and the LMGs to SMG squads near the various objectives. Walt had actually set up the board, and so I just left things as they were, but I discovered that since the only way you're going to use those satchel charges is to move/assault fire the teams holding them, you might as well just waste teams instead of squads. However, things were generally going pretty well for me, and I had a definite chance of winning the game when I managed blow a three point advantage in a melee with one of my leaders against one of his leaders, even with several swaps of the initiative card. At that point, I was down over 10 points and we were running out of time so I conceded.

Nevertheless, I ended up winning, if only because Matt loved the game, and now I have the advantage of two more local players (both Matt and Walt) that I'm sure to get games up with in the future. The people who like this game love this game, and I'm even considering a mini-tournament at WBC West in August.

By now I was feeling like I was starting to hit a wall, and had four hours to kill, so I ended up sitting at a table where Walt was teaching Fire and Axe, a game about Vikings raiding, trading, and settling Europe. I am not going to spend a lot of time describing the game except to say that it's quite a bit like Settlers in that there are fairly limited options for screwage and when it does present itself it's in the form of action cards that may or may not help your position. There are many interesting mechanisms, and several ways to score points that I quite like, but the game felt like multi-player solitaire in many respects and it went on for a couple of hours. Oh, and one guy bailed right as Walt finished explaining the rules and I ended up taking his seat, so there went my rest period. I'll want to give it another play before I consider buying this one.

After an hour break where I got chili from the hospitality suite (was this really wise?) and bought the three second edition Columbia East/West/Eurofront game, I went and ran the newbie table of Arkham Horror. Yes, another game I frantically tried to explain rules with a voice that could barely be heard across the table. I was the only person who had played (other than Walt, who seemed to be my constant companion for the day, which is a good thing), so I did all the explaining. Unfortunately, I did get a few things wrong, most of which aided the players, but by midgame everyone had a good sense of the game and things were going pretty well, if a bit slowly. Compared with the "experienced" player table, who thought they were only a few turns away from winning two hours in, only to still be playing two and a half hours later, we weren't doing that badly. Monsters were getting handled pretty well, gates were getting closed (although with eight players, you only need five gates open to face the Bad Guy, and since our Elder God was the one that automatically wins when that happens, that would mean a loss). The problem we had was that people were using their Clue tokens to gain extra rolls most of the time, so we had only gotten three of the six gates sealed by midnight, and at that point everyone had definitely hit the wall, including me, so we packed it up.

Even though we didn't finish, everyone had a good time, and it was a very pleasant group to play with, as opposed to the other table that had mostly loud ubergeek types. One person I knew said that the real horror was playing the game with eight, although I felt that we generally had good opportunities to get bathroom breaks, and the company was good. I was out the door by 12:30am, and at home by 1am. Since we had overnight guests who had come in fairly late, and I was more or less out of gas, I chose to stay home on Sunday and rest, and that was also a very good choice. As I type, I feel like I've lost a couple of days of recuperation, but I got in a lot of good gaming at a convention that I frequently miss, so I figure it was a good exchange.

Special props go out to Chris Brooks, who made the Kniziathon a huge success, to those members of Rip City Gamers who made our presence known and tirelessly promoted various games, especially Mike Deans who seemed to be everywhere. Next year, perhaps I will be both healthy and unencumbered with other events on this weekend, but I'm not holding my breath.

GameStorm Report, Pt. 1

Nothing like a bad chest cold combined with two choir gigs to really take the bloom off the rose, at least potentially. For some reason, I seem to run into conflict after conflict every time that the local Gamestorm con is on, and this year was no exception. Usually, it involves my wife being out of town and me unable to leave the house for more than five hours (or the dogs will eat the Persian carpet), or going to Cuba, or a 20th anniversary, or something else equally lame. As such, I've been to about three of the past seven Gamestorms. This year I had the entire weekend wide open, but fate was to play a bigger role.

First up was two choir appearances by the University Singers (of U Portland, my alma mater). I'd agreed to direct a few pop tunes, including an ABBA medley I'd arranged back in grad school. The main concert was last week, but I hadn't really thought ahead and didn't notice that there were two gigs the following weekend, one on Friday night and the other early Saturday morning. I'd told the director that I wasn't available for the gigs (at most I was to direct two pieces at each concert), but I got guilted into doing them both. To be fair, the choir (made up mostly of non-music majors) did an amazing job and not just with the material I was responsible for. They outsang the Radcliffe Choral Union women's choir, which is one of the preeminent groups in the country, and represented the school well at the early morning performance for prospective students and their parents, so I have to admit that I was happy to be able to be a part of both events.

What I wasn't expecting was to get a bad chest cold starting Monday night, building to a crescendo on Thursday, and starting to lighten up a little on Friday. A little. In fact, I could barely speak, and then only in a husky Barry White imitation. Yeah, baby. As you can imagine, I was thinking that I was going to have just enough energy for the two gigs, and little left for Gamestorm. So it was that I decided to sleep in a bit on Friday and go to the con around 1pm, which in hindsight was a very good idea. I was forced to miss Mike's Combat Commander event, but he got me back by skipping mine on Saturday.

After sitting in the Kniziathon booth (the good Doctor, who is very pleasant in person, was the guest of honor) for a couple of hours, and meeting some nice people in the process, I made my way to the World of Warcraft game I'd signed up for at 3pm. I was a bit concerned that I'd have to bow out early in order to make my evening gig, and indeed I did leave just before 7pm. While I didn't actually start waving my arms until after 8pm, I was glad to get there and let everyone know that I would indeed be there to direct - let's just say I have a way with popular music styles that the real director doesn't.

We had a 6-player game, with me playing the Paly on the Alliance side. I was a bit disappointed to discover that I was the only player who had actually gotten in a game before, so I ended up playing assistant GM to help out with rules and keeping the game going. We played with the Shadows of War expansion, at least with the expanded skills/talents and blue creature cards (which played almost exactly as big a role as if we hadn't used them at all). As usual, players were able to pick up the game quickly, and by the fourth turn I was giving very little coaching to either side (although for some reason one guy on the Horde side had trouble understanding that attacking Blue critters wasn't going to do much to help him advance in levels).

I had a nearly perfect game, although as I'd never played a paladin before I was not as good at choosing skills as I might have and as such was a die or two short of a full load by game end. I did manage to make 5th level before turn 24, even taking down a boss by myself to get some very sweet Avenger armor, and was looking like we'd do well in the endgame. However, I was very surprised to see the Horde group making a run on Thel'Kezzad. Just before 7pm, I decided that I'd rather not sit and wait to see if they'd succeed, seeing as even though they were two third-levels and a fourth, they were rather nicely spec'ed out.

The next day, I found the GM, and he told me that they'd barely beat the overlord, having a single player with a single hit point surviving the fight. Just for fun, the Alliance side (with two 4ths and a 5th level player) tried taking on the overlord as well, and I was disappointed to hear that they failed! This surprised me, as I had gotten to a point where I was rolling pretty much every die in the game, maybe two or three short. Eli told me that he hadn't spotted a red 8, needed to roll an additional 6 blue dice, and I said that was strange as I had a skill that would change a 5+ to an 8. Doh.

Not that it mattered, as the Horde won regardless. It was kind of an odd game, as one of the Horde players looked remarkably like gnome with a pituitary problem, and I spent much of the night trying not to giggle. Also, I was trying to explain rules with laryngitis, and by the time I got home after the gig I sounded like the Frog Prince gone horribly wrong. On the plus side, I actually had a good night's sleep when I got home because I was so tired.

More in part 2...