Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Gaming Mash Up

It's been a little while since I reported on my gaming activities. Partly that's been because I got a new computer (distributed computing for my music library was *not* a technology ready for prime time), joined a band, and have been very busy getting my family's books in order in anticipation of tax season (and getting out those great 1099/W2 forms). I also had perhaps the worst flare-up of gout yet, one that lasted well over a week (and is still hanging on by it's toenails). I'm now working under the assumption that what may or may not have been gout at one time has morphed into rheumatoid arthritis, which I'm having screened in the coming weeks. I love January.

In the midst of all of this activity, I've also done a little gaming, and thought I'd talk a bit about it. Late December and early January were pretty barren of gaming - Chuck and I got in an afternoon, playing one of the new CC:Med scenarios where the Finns lay waste to a drunk Russian column (really) that went about as expected for Chuck's wasted Ruskies, plus a couple of games of Race for the Galaxy which we split. I'm a big fan of this latter title - it has all of the things I like about CCGs with none of the things I hate, and it works quite well with two players (and plays *fast*). I was a bit disappointed we weren't going to play Barbarossa to Berlin as we'd considered, but given that I live about as far from Chuck as it's possible to do and still be in the Portland Metro area, we figured the delay between sessions would be so long as to make our enjoyment minimal.

Just before the holidays began in earnest, Chris and I tried out the introductory scenario of Downtown, a very interesting but complex game on the US bombing campaign over Hanoi during the Vietnam War. After a lot of looking up rules, we felt like we had a pretty good handle on the basics of movement, detection, bombing, AAA, dogfighting, and planning. Fortunately there is little for either side to do in this game - it's mostly just an exercise to show off the system with a minimum of rules, and in that sense it was very successful. I think I was the NVA. We got just enough of each element to create a foundation for learning the rest of the rules.

Which we did just about a week ago, playing the suggested second scenario, Beginnings. In this one, I took the role of the USN, flying two bombing raids deep into NVA territory, while Chris got to plan where to place his AAA and run the NVA aircraft. We waited maybe a *little* too long between games, and had to look up quite a few rules again (and got a couple wrong), but in general we felt that this is a great system that will play quickly once we have the rules internalized. My F-4Bs did quite a number on Chris' MiG-17s, but the telling factor was that we all ran out of ammo after one dogfight with each flight, and that's pretty much it for the fighters. On the plus side, Chris opted not to go after my A-6's, which had the potential of creating "MiG Panic," scaring off the flights and sending them home. One of the two bombing runs was particularly harsh on my A-6's, and Chris ended up shooting one down. In the end, I came through with a marginal victory, having managed to inflict Total Damage to both targets. We got a little confused about the damage level as the A-6's can be equipped with Shrike missiles (which do one level lower damage, being designed to attack SAM sites), which we mistakenly took as the main bomb armament. With the loss of one plane, I managed to miss completing the mission successfully by about a point. Definitely a game that would work with multiple players (each can be responsible for a set of flights, or for ground defense vs air defense), and one I'm looking forward to learning more about (the next suggested scenario has a photo recon flight trying to take pictures and avoid SAMs).

I was shut down when I tried to get to Mike's holiday session by the SO, and that was pretty much it until the session at Chris' on the 8th, where we played Cuba. I like this game quite a bit, don't get me wrong, but it seems like more of the same to me. However, we all had different strategies and in the end it was really pretty close (I misunderstood a critical function of a building, and I'm pretty sure it cost me the game). This was my second playing, and while I'd happily play again I just don't think it will find it's way into my personal collection. Which is strange - I like the playing of the various personalities, a la Citadels, and I like the theme well enough, having been to Havana in the past few years (note for Bush administration data miners - legal trip), but there's just something missing. Perhaps it's lingering Euro ennui, I dunno. Still, very good company and I was very happy to get out and play games after a good two week break.

Mike came over the following Saturday and we played a couple of games. My brain has failed me at this point, but it seems like we played a moderately satisfying game of Combat Commander. I think it involved the British, and I think Mike won. Of course, the reason it all escapes me was our Epic (and I mean that literally) game of C&C: Ancients. That's right, we pulled out both boards from expansions 2 and 3, set up the Raphia Epic scenario involving a very long line of Selucids vs Ptolemeics (and lots of hephalumps), and went at it. One of the things I like about the Epic rules is that you play up to three cards during your turn, but only draw two (and then up to your hand limit). That means that often you are saving to get the right cards for a big push by playing the army cards first, although your hand limit makes it worthwhile to play the field commander cards sooner if they aren't just right. Mike took pictures and may have actually gotten them up on his site if you want the full play by play, but the story went something like this:

I push on my right flank, getting some success with putting the Elephants into the opposite line. On the left, a similar push goes a bit wrong, and Mike makes some headway there. In the center, Mike has a *big* push midway into the game, threatening that entire section of the board with all of his heavy infantry decimating my own heavy troops. Amazingly, my own troops managed to fight back on my next turn, not only wiping out several of his units but also killing his leader in the center with a lucky roll. As a result, I was in position to use my archers to pick off his weakened units at that point and sneak in for the win.

A couple of things that I learned in this game - Cavalry is *great* for cutting off retreat routes and increasing casualties, but you better be ready to pull them back a bit. Just another reason to try to keep your lines intact, not just to keep your troops bold. You are never out of it - your opponent usually will take some lumps in the process of giving you some, so be ready to counterstrike when it makes sense to. Elephants are best served by sending them into your opponent's lines where they stand the best chance of doing "good" damage when they get nervous about all of those pointy sticks. Better him than you!

I loved the scope of the Epic game, and also the increased flexibility of the use of cards, one of the weak spots in the system. What I don't like is that now all of my units are spread across four boxes, in something like 10 different Plano boxes for sorting. Clearly I need a way to hold and transport the entire set, in much the same way that ASLers do. With six different armies, that's a lot of Plano and a pretty big case to hold them all, plus the boards and rule/scenario books. Then again, maybe I'll just stack everything on a shelf, like i do now with my ASL stuff (gathering dust).

I hosted my first regular session at the new house in Wilsonville. Not surprisingly, it was not well attended, although two people dropped out at the last minute who live in the general area, so that was a bit disappointing. What was *not* disappointing were the games we played: Mordred, Aquaduct, and Ra. All three of these games played brilliantly with three players, and if I had to add a fourth it would have been Big City for the quadfecta.

Mordred is an early Wallace design that he recently re-released to benefit TSUK, an unfortunate acronym in line with COCC (Central Oregon Comm College). In this case, it's an organization that benefits athletic competition among organ transplant recipients, of which one of Wallace's family members is one. Jesse got me a copy for Christmas, and of course this was the infamous Valley Games reprint which they managed to get into the hands of everyone but those who had preordered and then claimed that they had *meant* to do that. Or something. I'm vitally unimpressed with their efforts so far, although Mordred is quite good. In a nutshell, you can either try to look out for yourself at the risk of Mordred winning, or play on the side of the angels but have less to work with. Interestingly, if you start helping Mordred out, you are likely to reduce your own chances of winning, but the same is true of taking the side of virtue! Mike and I were angling for both types of victory, but Ben was making a pretty good run on taking out Anglesly, Mordred's home castle. I won by a nose when Ben's desperation endgame income rolls sent Mordred over the edge. An absolute winner in my book, weakened only by the fact that it plays with 3-4.

Aquaduct got played once back when I was hosting in Multnomah Village, and while it seemed interesting it wasn't *that* interesting. I was working from a translation of the German rules, which say that you can only build *one* direction out of a spring, but the US rules say you can built *two* ways out. That changes the game dramatically, and I actually think I prefer the way we played. It was a very tense game, with the player-controlled end-of-game condition adding quite a bit to the game. In the end, Mike squeaked by me for the win. The simple decision as to whether to try to build up your villas or lay canals makes the game extremely transparent while forcing you to balance between long-term planning and immediate needs. But the place where the game really shines (as with all three games we played) is the ability to play so as to mitigate the luck factors. In both Aquaduct and Mordor, you roll dice (unusual in a Euro), but in both cases you have some choice as to how you deal with that luck. It is the ability to mitigate and manage your luck that makes these games more than a dicefest.

Last up was Ra, perhaps my favorite three-player game ever. The entire game is managing your bidding power as an extremely transparent resource, but the push-your-luck element takes it into the realm of genius for me. Every bid has to be carefully considered, as you are constantly planning for the next round (or even for the bidding tile bonus points at game end), so even if there isn't a single tile that is worth your time on the board, it may be worth it to call Ra just to bid 1 to get that 13 sitting in the middle of the board. Our game was a bit on the wacky side, making it all the more memorable. We had more than half of the Flood tiles come out early, and in fact I think we had very few that came out the rest of the game, making my extensive Nile tiles worthless at game end. Most of the God tiles came out early as well, and they were extremely valuable in the 2nd and 3rd rounds when Flood tiles were in high demand. There was consistent competition for the Monument tiles as well, both to keep others from getting the endgame bonuses, but also to build up your own set early. I had six different types by the end of the first round, and that drove much of my opponent's behavior for the rest of the game. In the end, I beat Mike by fewer points than the bonus for Most Bidding Points, which we shared. One point falling Mike's way, and the game would have been his. On the other hand, I had a couple of bidding tiles left and the tile draw all to myself, only to have a Ra tile come out immediately. Man, I love that game. For God's sake, don't play with five, though. Then the bidding tiles become too far and few between, and you don't have as many options for forcing bids by calling Ra. In other words, your ability to mitigate luck goes way down and the game becomes too tactical for it's own good.

If you've stuck with me this far, you might as well finish up with our abortive attempt at Die Macher on Saturday. We expected a four hour game, but when no one had read the rules I had to spend an hour covering the various systems and how they interact. This game needs a cheat sheet so that a new player can see how Media buys, Party Meetings, Shadow Cabinets, Party Membership, the various positions, and the issue pool all interact. As it was, we spent quite a lot of time looking up what Media buys actually bought you. It's not obvious, although I have to say I did better with the too-similar symbology of the Valley Games edition. BTW, I at one time mailed them asking if they would publish a replacement set of position cards to make it easier to distinguish them across the board. They never deigned to respond. By 3:30pm, we were into our second turn of seven, and since I had to leave around 5:15, it was clear we wouldn't finish. We did play out the second turn to reinforce what we'd learned, but I won't try this one again unless we have better play aids and everyone has at least scanned the ruleset. I finished up the afternoon playing Aquaduct with Rita and Mimi, losing to Mimi (I think) when she managed to get the last canal build just before I was going to use it to cement my own win (the turn before I was still in second, so was hoping to get one last shot). My placement rolls at the very end of the game didn't net me enough points to pull past her. I'll note that we used the US rules, so spring placement wasn't as critical as in the earlier game. I'd suggest that with three players, you only use one feeder from the spring, with four you can use two. Worth a try, anyway.

That's it for gaming for now. This is what we all get when I don't blog on gaming for more than a month, even when I have a serious drought for two weeks!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Baptism By Fire

Some of my posts recently have been critical of faith in the world of religion. To be honest, most of my experiences with evangelical Christianity have been through the eyes of the media (including both news sources as well as televangelists, perhaps not the best emissaries of the best things faith has to offer). As with all of my rants against faith-based lifestyles, I wish to assure my friends who *do* embrace this lifestyle that this is an outpouring of emotion for me, a cathartic channel that helps me to deal with being human and all the crap that comes with it. Please remember that I respect your faith choices, that I treasure freedom of religion (and yes, freedom from religion) almost as much as freedom of speech. I offer the following to hopefully give those people a better understanding of my own world view so that they may better get along with the heathen amongst them. We all have our own struggles and paths to follow, hopefully this will give you some insight into mine.

Recently my 22-year-old daughter moved back home from Las Vegas, which made me very happy. She had broken up with her boyfriend, quit her job (with no notice), and neglected to inform us that she had moved home for about a month. So it was that when she told me she'd been attending the Living Hope church in Aloha (a town whose name is a cruel joke in the depths of the rainy Portland winter), I was a bit concerned. While some would say that religion is there to help you when you're down, my experience has been that it's there to suck you in when you're down.

Yesterday, I was informed that we were invited to her baptism this morning at said church. Ack. I'm all for rituals that help us define major transitional points in our lives, but I think they need to be entered into with careful consideration. Marriage is an excellent example. While baptism doesn't carry the same sort of financial obligation, it should be something that you do because you are very sure that this is the faith you want to follow. Because with more than 10,000 to choose from, it would be nice to be right.

Anyway, we went to the church, which was the converted cafetorium type. The pulpit was less an altar than a stage with a thrust, and there was a big screen behind the musicians that showed the words in case anyone wanted to sing along. Or maybe they figured that people wouldn't understand the words, I don't know. The band played for about 30 minutes while they did the various baptisms off to the side, complete with anointing oil. Because the pool was off in the corner, it felt kind of like a sideshow, although the congregation cheered every time someone went under the water.

At First Unitarian, where I've sung in the choir at times over the past several years, one of the things I really appreciated was that the congregation was silent during the prelude and more importantly the postlude. In other words, the music was an integral part of the worship service rather than just a way to set the emotional state of the congregation to be receptive to the sermon. Of course, that is an important part of it's function, but by respecting the performance at the very end of the service it shows that that particular church understands that the emotional state *is* *as* *important* as the sermon. Living Hope clearly didn't feel that way.

The sermon really brought out some of the things that frighten me about evangelism. First off, it's clearly a zero sum game. We must triumph over them, whoever them happens to be. It's quite clear that Islam is the current bogeyman, with the high point of a missionary's testimony being the conversion of a young Muslim. In fact, he mentioned several times that the orphanage they went to help had saved all of it's children. I'd have been much more impressed had they taken cows and help to a group of non-Christians without trying to improve the God/Everyone Else box score, but that's clearly not the focus.

The sermon was full of the usual stuff about the coming Kingdom, with almost nothing about how exactly you are supposed to act to get there. Again, I'd be more impressed if people behaved in a "good" manner without any reason at all. At one point the pastor spoke about what to think when you had bad thoughts. I can only imagine that the main "bad" thoughts are about substance abuse or casual sex, but it's not a huge leap from there to questioning his teachings.

And make no mistake, this was a man with all of the answers. Ironically, the sermon was that we don't know God's plan, but you should listen to the pastor anyway because he's very charismatic. He went backstage immediately after the sermon and I didn't see him again. It was also clear that every answer to every question you might have was expected to be found in your Bible, because pretty much everyone their was carrying their own copy.

Finally, I'm always amazed that people are so self-absorbed that they can't recognize that saying that you were spared from some local disaster meant that God loved you. Apparently, he did not love the people who weren't spared, who were clearly guilty of great sin (even the infants) and thus were not spared. Miracles in our lives, I was told over and over. Or, maybe, vagaries of weather, I'm not sure which.

Do not get me wrong. I am not anti-Christian. I am anti-fundamentalist with regard to *any* faith. Thinking that you and you alone have the path to righteousness will, not may but will be used against not only others but you as well. Being a literalist requires you to study the primary sources of your faith, but I'm pretty sure that the phrase "in the lurch" was never used by the ancient Hebrews, nor is an idiom in the Greek of the period. Different versions of the Bible have given Eve God's breath in Genesis or not depending upon whether the translators/powers wanted women empowered or disenfranchised. Catholic monks transcribing the books were not allowed to be literate for fear they might add in their own editorial commentary, producing Moses crossing the Red Sea when in fact he crossed the *Reed* Sea, a swampy area in the isthmus between Egypt and Sinai. (And yes, it was a similar typo in the Latin). How can anyone trust *anything* in a literal sense in this document, especially when a good third of it was transmitted orally?

On the other hand, Christianity has brought many good concepts to Western culture, including turning the other cheek, being good for the sake of being good (the first religion to do so, sadly rarely followed anymore), focusing on the poor rather than the rich priest caste. It is the underlying ethos of Christian culture combined with the best the Greeks had to offer that form the best elements of America, one of which is freedom of religion, a concept that is fine for this group so long as it only applies to them in this zero sum game.

As I looked around the room, I realized that everyone there, myself included, was lost. Lost in life, lost in a wasteland of sexualized consumerism, lost in a sense of purpose and value. I know my daughter is lost, now more than ever perhaps. I know that I played a part in her pain by giving her up for adoption 22 years ago, although I understand that I cannot turn back the clock and must live with that decision. I, however, have come to an acceptance of being lost. I'm OK with it. I see humanity as DNA-propagation devices that every once in a while rise above our role in the cosmos to try to be human (in the good sense of that word). I'm not excited about death, but I see no evidence that anything comes after, and I certainly can't believe an entity as advanced as the Christian God is said to be could possibly damn me to eternal suffering because I looked at the world and didn't see him in it. That assigns a level of arrogance and egocentrism to God that I simply cannot accept in any form.

I could be wrong, in which case I'm pretty screwed. On the other hand, if the Mormons have it right I'm just as screwed. Or the Sunnis. Or the Shi'a. Or the group in Oregon City that was under investigation for refusing medical treatment for their children, resulting in triple the death rate. I hope that last group isn't right, or we're living under the thumb of a particularly insane God. And even if there *is* a creator, I would imagine that we are so insignificant that we would be to it as bacteria are to us, something to be eliminated when they cause enough trouble and ignored otherwise.

Yeah, I know, God's Plan and all that. In which case now I'm a cog. It does not make me feel any more interested. I know that at least some of the people who read this blog (most of which have probably given up by now because I've insulted them, which I am *not* trying to do - I am going after institutions and systems here, not people) are more worried than ever for my eternal soul. I am sorry if I cause any of you pain, that is not my aim. I am simply concerned with trying to do my best in *this* life in the absence of *any* evidence pointing to any other life outside of human experience.

One positive thing I did see. My daughter is clearly loved by many in the congregation (although the pastor knew her well enough to not know how to pronounce her last name), and their joy at her joining their fold gives me hope that she will be loved even when her attempts to evangelize my wife and I fall flat. I simply grieve for her intellectual curiosity, for her freedom to discover her own path, for her indoctrination in a mythology that ignores logic and reason in exchange for dogma that was exactly the sort of thing that Jesus railed against. I pray for her, even though I am as certain as a human can be that I pray to a void.

Sometimes I wish I was capable of that kind of faith, some way that I could ignore reality and empirical reasoning and embrace a world that was invented to control populations and explain why bad things happened to good people. It is simply not in me. It is the cross that I will bear throughout my own life. I have been blessed beyond belief, with a life that so far has literally been one in a million by my own calculation, yet there is still pain I feel for the plights of others, my daughter in particular. And that is why I ask that you pray for her, those of you who can believe. Because atheism is as much a leap of faith as any other religion.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Can You Still Rock In America?

Good question, and one I'm hoping to answer in the near future.

During the Move From Hell, I took time off from my choir, Choral Arts Ensemble, to focus on my mother and getting our house in order. (As an aside, I am happy to announce that I am typing this from the Room Formerly Known As The Room Of Death, now known as the office. At last the computer is out of the game room!) During this hiatus it started to become clear to me that I need a more physical and visceral musical outlet than just choral music (although I love it too). It's like enjoying both French cuisine *and* really good pizza.

As such, I made my first foray into the wonderful world of rock and roll tonight. Well, the first foray in a few years. The last band I joined lasted about three months, was a blues band (snore), I got very few singing opportunities, and after the drummer quit I made the drive up to Vancouver, WA every few days to help audition a drummer that couldn't keep time. Unfortunately, the band before that was the best band EVER and while I would play with these folks again in a heartbeat it's clear that we aren't getting back together anytime soon.

I was actually getting pretty nervous about this audition - I haven't done rock singing with a band at anything approaching a "serious" level in more than five years, and I wasn't really sure how my voice would hold up. I spent quite a bit of time going over the tunes I'd sent to them (I never got anything from them in the way of a list of songs), warmed up quite a bit in the car on the way over to rainy Dundee (out past Newberg!), and even had a little trouble finding the actual house as MapQuest had suggested I turn right instead of left at a critical point.

As it was, I'm afraid that this was not the right group for me. They wanted me to join, but it's just not going to happen. I've done enough bands now to know that when my Spidey Sense (tm) tingles, to just say no. In this case, the guys seem nice enough (no substance abuse problems), but I'm thinking that I need a group that either has a repertoire or has the chops to build one up quickly. This is not that band. Plus, I'm concerned that I'd be the *only* lead singer. Four hours in a smokey bar is probably going to be more than I can do until I build up my combat chops.

So, I came home and looked up a couple of other groups on Craigslist and have decided to audition frequently until I get the right vibe with the right people. I bring a lot to the table as a singer, and I'm even crazy enough to believe I say that without ego - more than one high-end choir director has told me I could sing with any group I chose to, and while that's in a different genre I've done enough rock music to know that it applies in that genre as well. Perhaps my friends Matt and KC, who read this and have seen me in action, can comment further.

Anyway, I'm looking. If you or anyone you know has a good-quality rock/pop group that needs a lead singer/frontman (and keys, if that sweetens the deal), please let me know via the comments. Me, I'm ready to rock and roll again. Before I get *too* old...