Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Top Ten Lists - Ten Favorite Games I Own

It's the end of the year, so time to make up all sorts of lists of things that no one but me really cares about. I give Tom Vasel a *lot* of crap about his top ten lists, so don't be surprised if I don't actually *have* ten items in each list!

My first list will be the Top Ten Games I Own. These are my faves, not games that were particularly groundbreaking, but instead games that I enjoy playing the most. They are in no particular order, but more based on where they happen to be in my gaming room. You see, this is an extremely appropriate list as this is the first time all of these games have been in the same space.

Ra - Knizia was at his best when the mechanisms were simple and the scoring complex (E&T aside). This push your luck game remains one of my favorites, although I believe it only truly works when you play with three so it doesn't come out much.

Traumfabrik - I have not played the US version (Hollywood ), but I can say that even with German movie titles I really like having actual 30's and 40's actors and directors in the game. I think this game plays well with any number, and the closed economic system takes it from a good game to a great game.

Around the World in 80 Days - Light fun, but with surprising depth. I think it works better with more players, but even with four it's a great time. I love race games, and in this one you get to race the other players *and* the clock.

Carcassone: The Discovery - Choosing when to score points adds both tension and decisions to the best of the Carc series. The City is a close second, but this one wins by a nose.

Ticket to Ride - I still like the original the best of the three (haven't played Suisse yet). I love the 1910 tickets, which is why I give it the edge over the others in the series. Maerklin may have a little *too* much tension for me.

Incan Gold - I helped Jesse in his store over the holidays, and I could have sold 15 of these had they been in stock. And it wasn't because I know the publishers.

Power Grid - When it works, it works. Rewards the long view, if you are willing to adjust to the whims of fate (and what power stations become available). And it scales quite well.

Tichu - I grew up playing Bridge and Pinochle, and this is the only game in my collection that feels like those classics. A sentimental favorite for sure.

Medici - The best six-player designer game. 21!

San Juan - My favorite filler, although this one looks to be eclipsed by Race for the Galaxy at some point.

Well, that's ten designer games. I guess this has just morphed into two lists. Here are the wargames:

Combat Commander - My favorite wargame, if I'm not worried about winning a tournament. The most evolutionary design since We the People. Hands down has the best literary elements of any game on this list.

A Victory Lost - My favorite old-school design, although the chit activation system brings it into the 21st Century quite well.

WW2: Barbarossa to Berlin - A close siblling to Paths of Glory, my favorite element of this game is that the Germans are almost certainly going to lose the war, but it depends on how *badly* they lose the war. A great arc, as well. Even though the Allies just keep getting stronger from 1943 on, the fact that they have to pick and choose where they make their efforts gives it extra life in the endgame, even for the Germans.

Successors - My favorite multiplayer wargame. This one keeps getting new life through new editions, although the second ed had about seven too many rules and a convoluted rulebook. I'm hoping that the 3rd ed cleans up those problems while keeping the overall flair of 2nd ed. The best "do the most with the least" game, where maneuver is as important as combat, and when you attack is as important as where.

Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage - Yet another CDG, but arguably the best of the bunch. Reprinted recently using the slightly stripped down 2nd ed rules that had been online for 10 years, it is a gem of elegance and tension. While tight games can come down to who draws what cards on the final turn, I have to say that the game I played at WBC where my opponent would win on a die roll of 4 through 6 has to have been my favorite. Always a great story, too.

Manifest Destiny - A checkered development history, some astonishingly poor art choices, and some thematic problems don't prevent this game, a descendent of Civ and Age of Renaissance, from making the list. I like it with any number, but it definitely feels different with three as opposed to five. I even like the Breakthroughs, although they are the least effective part of the game.

Britannia - The first and best of an entire family of games. The FFG version breathes new life with a few added rules, but the strengths are very nice components and a clear ruleset. The biggest drawback is that it only really works with four players.

History of the World - The AH version, please. I suppose the original Ragnar Brothers version would do as well. The Hasbro version takes what was a great "hold back until the end" game and made it loopy. Playing against really good players is a joy, even if all of your hard work to draw first in the final round nets you the US. Only works with six, though - too much chance for someone to get away with the Romans followed by a decent (non-Khmer) pick in the fourth round.

Breakout: Normandy - The best of the Impulse Movement games. Monty's Gamble plays faster, but this one just has the right balance of scope and deperation. I love the combat resolution system best of all, it almost defies computation. The biggest plus - you have to plan your impulses carefully and hope you can get everything done in time for nightfall if you are the Allies. My favorite solitaire game of the bunch.

War At Sea - Buckets of dice. Victory in the Pacific and Nine Navies War are both close, but this one wins on more *not* being better. Takes a fairly obscure subject (capital ship combat in the ETO in WWII, something that rarely happened) and makes it into a chess match.

Hammer of the Scots - Gotta have a block game in here. I haven't played Rommel in the Desert or East Front enough for it to make the list, and I really enjoy how the various Scottish nobles choose contingency over valor, switching sides as soon as it starts getting too hot in the kitchen (*their* kitchen, to be specific). Wins over Liberty and Crusader Rex in a heartbeat.

Clearly I favor lighter wargames over the longer and more complex ones, mostly because I've had very little opportunity or space for the latter. But hey, it's my list. Make your own if you don't like it.

There are several games I'm sure people feel should be on here: Euphrates und Tigris is an obvious choice, as is El Grande. I also neglected to put a Martin Wallace game in the list, mostly because they've seen little play in our group. These, however, are the ones that have given me the most joy over the years, the ones I feel I can consistently compete at, and the ones that come to mind when I'm asked what I like to play.

Next up: the 10 worst games I still own. Sadly, Rocketville went to Goodwill before the move!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Merry Whatever

I'm two days past the Solstice, two days before Christmas, and not quite sure where we are in relation to Hannukkah or Kwanza (and I'm sure I'm missing something else along the way). Regardless, here's wishing you and yours a safe, happy, fun, and drama-free holiday. And, of course, thanks for reading my ramblings and not coming over and burning my house down afterwards.

On second thought, if you're not busy, that might work for me. Just give me time to get the dogs, the games, and the iTunes hard drive out first...


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

WoW:the Boardgame Expansions

I was playing the WoW boardgame before I ever touched the MMORPG, and it's a testament to the latter that having played it improves the experience of the former. Some things in the original game didn't work all that well (independent monsters, some of the boss and war events, too many "right place right time" issues, serious downtime problems on occasion), but in general I love it as a solitaire or two-player game if I have the table space and time.

So it was that I was very excited about the Burning Crusade expansion, which added a bunch of new critters, overlords, quests, an extra board of the Outlands, and an implementation of dungeons/instances. I finally got a chance to set it up and play, using both it and the Shadows of War expansion that mostly doubled the talents and powers for characters, as well as trying to fix a few issues in the original game. While this "review" is based on only a single play, here's a breakdown of how I feel the various elements worked and an overall impression of the gameplay using both expansions. I'll begin with the Shadows elements and go from there.

Blue Quests: The blue independent creatures that populate the board via quests do a good job of simulating the dangers of traveling to your destination in the online game, although in the base system they only slow you down without any of the experience gains you get from combat, not to mention drops. In the online game, some players grind away at these creatures for that very reason - to level up themselves and their gear. SoW added blue quest cards that would give rewards for clobbering a certain number of these creatures, and it works to some extent. The problem is that there are only so many blue quests in play at a time, and the chance of getting that one or two XP to level up can be a crapshoot in some cases. BC adds more cards to cover the new creatures, but it's still a matter of having the right creature in the right place with the right card showing. I give these a C+ for effort, but I've rarely used them.

Destiny Cards: Event cards on steroids, they shift the rules around rather than just add quests or give one-off effects. For example, you might have a boss on the board that causes items in the merchant deck to be more expensive. They also only last for a certain amount of time. While there is no real corollary for the online game (festival periods are the closest events), I'm in favor of using this deck as it adds variety to the game. I find these cards to be more interesting than events in general, although getting the right card at the right time will affect the game outcome in some cases (which I think we can all agree permeates the game, making it a better ride than a game, but I'm cool with that). There are specific cards for the original overlords, too bad they didn't add them for the BC overlords in that set. B+

Expanded powers/talents: Nine classes, now with double the choices for talents and powers, and with BC up to six levels. There are a lot of choices to be made, and while I can see potential for "optimal path" problems it won't really affect me as I'm unlikely to play this game enough to discover them. Probably the best addition to the game, period. A

Horde Paladin/Alliance Shaman: Nice to have these classes added to the game, ending fights over who sits on which side of the board, but a very minor addition. Lets you play the BC races, although race is such a small factor in the game it's hardly worth mentioning. N/A

Outland Board: More stuff to do, more places to go. More table space taken up. I barely fit this beast on my gaming table with one of the two butterfly leaves extended. On the plus side it gives additional space to play, but I'm not sure that's a good thing. Perhaps I'll feel better when my online rogue gnome hits level 59 and I decide to visit the Outlands. Necessary, but same ol' same ol'. B-

New/Improved Critters: A whole lot of new critters, many of whom I haven't run into yet in the Outlands. There are also purple quest creatures that are even tougher than the red ones. My biggest gripe is that they are larger and their bases tend to cover the quest markers on the board. While it's nice to have such big plastics, in the end it only requires more table space. Again, necessary but not a lot of newness here. B-

Dungeons: A completely new mechanism to simulate instances in the online game, this works fairly well. In a brilliant move, FFG made these into a push-your-luck system that offsets the stuck-with-luck element and adds a lot of tension. You draw cards for each stage of the dungeon until you get to the boss. Some cards give you goodies if you beat the boss, some add to the boss's abilities. Once you draw a boss, you can keep drawing cards to try to get more loot. Knowing the decks kinda ruins this for me, but with two bosses in many of the levels you never quite know what you'll face, unlike the online game. All three new overlords require traveling through dungeons in the Outlands to get to the endgame, which means that you tend to be a bit more banged up as there's a forced march element involved (only one action per turn, then on to the next level, so you better rest while you can). XP rewards seem a bit high in the later dungeons.

On the downside, the dungeons added to the original board heavily favor the Horde, as they are almost all a couple of turns away from Alliance flight paths (other than Caer Darrow). The two early instances are very close to Horde flightpaths. My game was Alliance characters (solo), so I only did Lady Vash's dungeon. It helped my 4th level rogue get up to sixth level quickly (the Draenai Shaman was sixth when we went in), but I never felt like pushing my luck. First phase had four henchmen, second had two, third was (of course) just Lady Vash. I'll give this an A- for concept, B- for implementation in my game. Definitely made Vash very tough to beat, but did ramp up my weaker character to take her on.

New Overlords: Only one played so far, but Vash was *tough*. You couldn't reroll or change 1s and 2s, killing a lot of my talents for my rogue, and any 1/2 rolls you got ended up getting removed from the damage box. After two rounds I was *losing* ground on causing damage, and her power left me with no energy to cast spells causing a downward spiral. I suspect these new overlords are a bit too tough, but time will tell. And this with 30% more dice available in each color! B- for my experience with Vash only.

Play Time: I can usually play the base game (or with SoW) in about two hours, with a good 30 minutes for putting away if I sort the expansion out. BC doubled the play time as well as the pack up time. There were some good elements, but I may play this without the Outlands board elements in the future (there are rules for this, plus one extra overlord). As such, it's hard to recommend BC, nor am I even sure that it will see much playing time in the future, at least the Outlands parts. Great concept, but way too long to little effect. Of course, the same can be said for the game if you leave out the raids and other cool endgame changes, which were not added into this expansion (such as honor).

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Secular Humanism Is Not A Religion

The following essay discusses religion and faith in a way that many believers may find objectionable on first read. I would like to state that this is not intended as a personal attack on individuals, but on closed-mindedness. Like most theists, I am desperately searching for truth in a world where little is true. However, to show why Secular Humanism isn't a faith I have to compare it to faith, and along the way I must show why faith, in the traditional sense, is not a part of my worldview. There have been times when I have wished that I could believe in the Christian God, but I have yet to find a single compelling argument on his behalf. And I've been offered many over the years, perhaps hundreds. I'm just not a leap of faith kind of guy. At any rate, please know that I do respect faith and understand the need for it in humanity, and this essay should in no way be taken as a criticism of any specific person or faith other than in a very general sense.

Mitt Romney has once again tried to gain the religious right's stamp of approval, this time by trying to have his cake and eat it too. I'm sure it's lost on the general populace that you can't claim that your religion (Mormonism, or LDS) is compatible with Christianity (a view I've learned doesn't sit well with many Christians), then turn around and claim that we're all in one big war against Secular Humanism.

I'm pretty certain that Secular Humanism is not a faith, at least if it's me they're talking about (and I'm pretty sure it is). If anything, I'm a militant agnostic - I don't know and you don't either. While I lean pretty heavily toward atheism, which *is* a leap of faith and therefore arguably a religion, I simply don't have the evidence to prove that there is no higher power, at least in the traditional sense of a God who created the universe and takes an active role in the lives of people. At this point in history, religion has had a .000 batting average when it comes to conflicts between the two. Of course, science has as many advocates who ignore the tenets of science (proof must be repeatable, observable, and verifiable) to advance their own agenda, but without any way for religion to verify it's claims it simply cannot compete.

I am not saying that faith doesn't provide comfort, nor am I saying that there is no God. I am simply saying that faith has consistently given way to science over the past 1000 years and not the other way around.

This does not make me a religionist. It means I have a world view that doesn't include a personal God that I can appeal to or need to worry about making happy with conflicting and arbitrary rules to get into heaven. It means I don't have to agonize that an obviously evil man like Dick Cheney (and I've defined what I mean by evil before - ends justify the means in all cases) can affect the lives of millions of people to their detriment and wonder why the hell God is letting this happen. I don't have to wonder how we could be *made* and still be so deeply flawed if our creator is omniscient and omnipotent. And yes, I know the argument that Satan had his hand in our development cycle, but someone had to create Satan in that account and that means God.

If this sounds like I'm bashing religion, I'm really not trying to cause offense. I'm simply saying that I reject theological faith as a basis for understanding the universe. While I don't believe that we understand the universe at all well, we can use science to predict an outcome based on current conditions and past experience, and that's considerably more than faith can do. As such, to call Secular Humanism a religion is equivalent to calling science a religion when it is in some senses the antithesis of a religion. In science, faith gets you nowhere other than to point you in a direction of inquiry. In religion, faith gets you into heaven, unless you're wrong. Given that there are over 10,000 different faiths on the planet, I'm guessing that most people are getting it wrong.

And that almost certainly includes me, btw. After all, I don't know. And you don't either.

I do know, however, that Secular Humanism is not a religion. Unitairanism is a religion, and there are "secular humanists" in that church in droves, but it's not religion. Secular humanism is a *rejection* of traditional religion as a means of understanding life and our role in the cosmos. Freedom of religion also means freedom from everyone else's religion. Believe what you want to believe, so long as it does not pick my pocket or break my leg, and so long as you don't stick it in my face or try to control my life in it's name, and I will do the same for you. Put up Christmas trees and ignore the Old Religion roots of that tradition. Don't let your kids play games involving pretend magic, or keep them from dressing up on Halloween. Pull your kids out of public school and teach them at home. Pray for the oppressed, for the wronged, for the sick, for the deserving.

Just don't tell me my non-belief is in fact belief. Not until you've got a little proof on your side, a little scientific method. Something more than "I believe, and so should you." Because I'm not telling you that at all.

New Games

It's been a busy month for new games. From 1960 to Mr. Jack to finally getting to play Downtown to all of the new GMT releases and what I bought in their year-end sale, it's been a busy month. Here's a list of a few things I've gotten but haven't had a chance to try out yet, and some first impressions:

Roads to Leningrad - chit activation game on the German push to Leningrad in 1941 and the Soviet counterattacks that almost certainly prevented it's fall. This game comes out of the Kasserine (GMT) and Barbarossa series (also GMT) by Vance von Borries. There are actually four scenarios covering two battles on two maps, and the counter density looks quite manageable (compared to Great War in Europe, which overwhelms me to look at without tweezers at hand).

The Burning Blue - Definitely interested in this now that I've had a chance to fiddle a bit with Downtown. Battle of Britain from the ground control point of view, with a *lot* of detail and complexity, but mostly in the various subsystems and how they interact. Downtown has been quite manageable using their recommended learning curve, although I still have some sequencing questions (such as - if you move into a space that activates a ground element like AAA, can you still take your free turn after the unit is revealed?)

Deluxe Alex The Great (Great Battles of History series) - A replacement for my 3rd ed copy, which was one of the last games I laminated maps for. I really wanted the paper maps back in their original state, so I figured I might as well get the whole package. I'll play this mostly with the Simple rules. I was surprised that the counters were virtually indistinguishable from the originals, although I've been updating mine from C3i for years so I guess the old ones were fine. I will give my old copy (complete with laminated maps) away to the first member of Rip City Gamers who asks.

Saratoga, 2nd ed - Another replacement, this one mostly because I got it relatively cheap. Really nothing wrong with the old copy, the map isn't even laminated! It has the same offer as Deluxe Alex, and has had all of it's counters updated as well.

Combat Commander, Med and Paratrooper scenario pack - I'm a bit surprised I haven't played this yet, seeing as it's the best game I've bought in the last year, definitely the best wargame. I was hoping to get at least one game in last Saturday when I held an open gaming day, but it wasn't that kind of crowd. (Same goes for Starcraft, although it really will work best with three or maybe four). So many scenarios, so little time.

Race For The Galaxy - San Juan with balls. Some of the phases are a bit hard to parse, and it won't have the same sort of rapid play that makes San Juan such a fantastic filler, but it's definitely good enough and different enough to merit purchase - that means much more than it used to.

Zooloreto, Mission: Red Planet, Colosseum, Mr. Jack - All games that came highly recommended. I usually need to play a game to buy it these days, at least with Euros, but when my wife is out of town I get really really bored. Especially out here in the wilds of Wilsonville. Amazingly, I managed to keep myself from buying the two Battlelore expansions I didn't yet have. I really can't say why I buy expansions for that game when Command and Colors: Ancients fills the niche so well (and there will likely be two more expansions on my shelf around the New Year!)

Vortex - Dial up the way-back machine! This was a huge game in our group some years ago. I still like it quite a bit, and need to find ways to get games in. FFG held a sale where they had a sixteen-pack of boosters for about $33 (incl shipping), so I grabbed it. About a quarter of the flats were dupes, but only one of the rare flats, so that's 45 rare tiles. I will need a new storage solution for these, I think I've maxed out the various baggies all of the factions are in. A fantastic game, one of the few collectable titles I've enjoyed thoroughly (which I can't quite say about WoW:CCG yet).

Asia Engulfed - PTO version of Europe Engulfed, a grand strategic block game. Only one map, what looks to be fewer blocks (I haven't needed to remove the bulky insert to fit everything back after punching and placing labels). I do like the large format map of EE, but it does take more space than I like to use and doesn't lend itself to easy storage (because it won't fit in a poster frame, and thus in my Giant Stacking Trays). AE takes care of the problem nicely. I'm looking forward to giving this a try, and may tear down my nascent GWiE game until the corrected counters are out for that title (who wants to swap counters in an ongoing game?)

Conquest of Paradise - Being married to a Filipina who grew up in Hawaii, I have a passing interest in Polynesian culture (yes, I'm aware that Filipinos aren't Polynesian, they are a blend of South Asian, Indonesian, Chinese, and Spanish). Plus, I'm a sucker for exploration games and have been wanting to give this game a try since I saw a prototype back at WBC a few years ago. This is one of GMTs attempts at a Euro-style game, although it's clearly intended to be a bit meatier. Here's hoping that the added length doesn't kill the game, as it did with Winds of Plunder with more than three.

SCS Games - I came late to the party with these Gamers/MMP titles, but have done pretty well in collecting what I could. When MMP cobbled together copies of Yom Kippur War and Stalingrad Pocket, I grabbed them. The only games I haven't gotten yet, although SCS titles are a well-known quantity. This puts me at seven titles out of eleven total, with a twelfth on the way on MMPs prepub list. Missing are Gazala, Crusader, Ardennes, and Drive on Paris. I'm hoping these, like Fallshirmjaeger, pop up at some point, although I was lucky to find a copy of that game in Aurora, CO while on a trip there. What I really need to do is visit one of the big game stores in NYC or another large city, or better yet visit Australia again. I visited three different large stores in Sydney in 1996 and saw tons of games that were out of print on the shelves, but didn't have enough luggage space for more than a handful.

Quite a list.

Thomas Frey, Weasel

After putting me on the line for two months, our home inspectors finally had the balls to tell me they wouldn't compensate me for my ductwork, as detailed in an earlier entry. The excuse this time? That they recommended I have a thorough inspection of the HVAC system by a trained professional.

Silly me, I thought that was who I hired.

When I told him that my next call to him would be through my lawyer, suddenly he was willing to refund his fee. Too late, weasel. Our next step is to look into legal options and to let everyone we can think of in the real estate market know that he and his crew have no intention of standing behind their work unless legal action is threatened. I've already given them a Poor rating on Angie's List and am outing them on this blog as well.

For the record, the inspector's name is Thomas Frey, and his company is Thomas Frey and Associates. Hire them at your peril.

The strangest part of the entire exchange with Tom was at the very end, when he finally pleaded poverty, telling me that he didn't *have* $3000 to pay me for the ductwork. How can you run a company without reserves set aside for this very thing? Or, at the very least, insurance? He claims to be bonded and insured on his website, not that this has a thing to do with the matter at hand.

If you live in the Portland, OR metro area and are buying a home or know someone who is, or even if you are involved in the industry, do yourself a favor and avoid these guys. Weasels, every one - Brian, Scott, and especially Tom.