Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The 'Burbs

Originally, this was to be called "going Downtown", but since we only got about eight turns into the game for a variety of reasons, I figure we only made it to the inner burbs at best. Chris took on the wily Vietnamese, while I ran a USN raid on a target to be disclosed later.

Downtown is a wargame unlike any other I've played. There is a certain amount of pre-planning, but each side has much different choices to make. The US player randomly selects a target, which usually selects a branch of service that will attack, figures out what planes will be available for the attack, then plots the route to the target and back, although only a subset of the raid's aircraft will be bound by this path.

The DRV player, on the other hand, knows exactly what he has to work with, but not where. Given the potential targets and the political and doctrine limitations, he places SAM sites, upgrades or adds AAA, makes some of those AAA sites radar-enhanced with Fire Can units, and finally adds defensive aircraft. All of these elements have their role in the game, so just because the DRV player has to do a bit more planning doesn't mean that they have no choices during the game.

Because of other things interrupting gaming time, we only got about halfway into the scenario over around four hours. There was still a lot of lookup of rules as this was our first full-on raid (the previous games have been learning scenarios that add in SAMs or simple bombing runs). This was our first game with standoff jamming, with SEAD forces to go SAM hunting, and the first time we'd actually gone through the entire pre-raid process in it's entirety. As such, there are many little nuggets of rules that require you to look through the rules from time to time. For what it's worth, in general we've been able to find rules fairly quickly, although I have to admit I've made a study of them and feel pretty good about my grasp of the system (if not the practice).

My raid started out well enough. First out was the F-8C's whose job it was to provide protection from the MiGs that were sure to show up. It's an interesting rule that allows the DRV player to add points for aircraft in exchange for VP, so you never know what you're going to face when you get over the mainland. Also out early were the standoff jamming aircraft, which are providing mediocre but essential services - hey, 5% is 5%, and there is some potential for it creeping up to 10% or more in some cases. As they say in the service, any 'trons are good 'trons.

Chris put a lot of his SAMs in Haiphong, which spent quite a bit of time acquiring my MiG CAP to no good effect. Fewer missiles to go after me later on, I guess. I'm not sure how effective that strategy is - the MiG CAP can't really do much good against the SAMs, having no air-to-ground capability other than strafing, but it would be nice to have them out of the way so that the MiGs have an open route to the strike force. That's where the action really is - even if you don't actually hit a bomber, you might freak the entire mission out enough that they all abort, and that's as good as a mission kill in this game.

So it was that when Chris went after my MiG CAP aggressively, I wasn't going to complain. Seeing as MiGs can stick around on the deck and be virtually undetectable, I forced the issue by bringing my CAP down to the deck and going for visual ID. That worked well enough to goad him into attacking my CAP, with the effective result of one MiG-21 shot down and a MiG-17 crippled, with all other flights I'm aware of disordered and unable to attack the important aircraft, the bombers.

In the meantime, my SEAD forces entered the board, tasked with taking out SAMs and making the route in safe for the bombers. I'm not sure how you do this effectively, other than to shut down enemy radars with ARM launches (it takes them on average three turns to come back online), and to bomb the rest. The problem is, of course, that you only have four actual strikes you can make on the SAM locations with bombs or rockets, so you have to pick carefully and hold your ARMs back until you can force several of them to shut down at once. This may be the trickiest part of the system, as timing is as important as it gets.

As of the end of turn 8, I had managed to shut down three radars with a Shrike ARM, but they all came back online quickly (the better to miss their actual shots, as Chris says). I did nail one SAM with rockets from an Armed Escort F-8C, but now the plane is essentially useless for anything but strafing and risking getting hit by AAA fire. One A-4E has two Shrike remaining with the intent to try to shut down as many of the Haiphong SAMs as possible.

We were just starting turn 8 at this point, and Chris had to leave, but we intend to finish up this weekend if possible. My strike force arrives shortly, although I suspect at this point that it's all about SAMs and AAA and very little to do with air combat. I have at least four VP in the bank from shot down MiGs and SAMs, with potentially a couple more if his crippled MiG can't get home, but I've seen what dedicated AAA can do to a flight of aircraft, and it ain't pretty. Also, if I have a target hex with more than one target, it just makes things that much harder to achieve. On the plus side, it looks like my BDA will have a relatively easy time of it, assuming most of the SAMs are out of ammo or close to it.

Part two to come, when we break out of Subdivisions and head In The City.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

House Update

My gout has been bad enough over the past month that I'm not sleeping well, so that means I'm up and at the computer, and that means it's time for... a House From Hell Update!

Actually, my ranting had kind of died off until my friend Chuck told me that some of the funniest (in a dark humor kind of way) posts were the ones outlining my experiences in buying a money pit. While things have indeed gotten stable (to a point), and we don't have contractors in every day anymore, I'm amazed at the things that are still going wrong.

Right now, it's the kitchen. I'll say this now - we are running out of major appliances to have problems with. To make things worse, the "insurance" that the sellers bought that was supposed to ensure that all of the appliances (at the very least) worked correctly turns out to be barely worth the paper it was printed on. While the newly dripping garbage disposal appears to be headed for replacement (and it was less than six years old), the leaking refrigerator will *not* be serviced through First American Home Buyers Protection Corporation. It was a crap fridge anyway, but we were hoping to survive for a year before having to redo the kitchen. However, as the song says, I think the Lord is trying to tell me something. Given that my wife managed to come about as close to destroying the glass in the oven door as possible without actually requiring its removal (and I've heard five or six stories so far on exactly how *that* happened - I was in Eugene at the time), it looks like the only appliance that doesn't have a fork stuck in it is the dishwasher, and I'm sure that's just a matter of days.

I'd jump on the kitchen getting a complete remodel in the summer, except that we seem to already have a full plate of projects once the weather is better:

Replace the rotting back deck,

Repour the driveway (which looks to be getting pushed back),

Strip and recoat the garage - we may put in new storage units as well, as the garage is very tight - I managed to bump a vise and do $1000 of damage to Mel's RAV4 a month ago (this may be pushed back as well),

Put in drainage for the front walk, which turns into a lake right in front of our gate during moderate rain,

Replace at the very least the window in our bedroom and see if there isn't a major source of draft coming from the window seat area,

Shoot myself in the head. May be moved up.

I can't imagine how we would cope if we didn't have some decent resources to draw on. The bad news is that I'll be effectively cutting any gains I get over the next few years (and they were looking pretty good) just to manage what needs to be fixed *now*. I'm not even including major remodeling of the master suite, powder room, and upstairs bath. The list just seems to go on and on and on.

All things considered, I'm really a very fortunate man. Given some of the crazy stuff happening to people I know (kidney failure, loss of a child in the shooting in Illinois recently, various mystery diseases), I shouldn't really bitch. I'm told I'm entertaining, though, and if I'm not venting I'm just building up more stress that's manifesting in my month-old gout flare-up. Right now it's so bad that the Tylenol 3's aren't cutting the pain, the steroids are bringing down the swelling, and I don't see a specialist for ten days. It's days like this when I struggle to see past my own problems.

At least we've had nice weather.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Colonies Strike Back

Mike wants to toss the gauntlet? Two can play that game, friend...

Here are my responses to Mike's Top 10 lists. He critiqued mine, and pleaded with me to have mercy. We shall see.

Let me be clear. I do not dislike Agricola. I am simply concerned that the designer throws in wackiness mistaking it for replayability. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I have only played once, and the board looked like the artist was stuck in an airport with nothing to draw on but paper towels and the only pigments were from the condiment shelf at the McDonalds. There may even have been a good game there, had my migraine subsided long enough for me to recognize there were people in the room. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Have not tried most of the micro expansions for this particular title, although I suspect I own most of them. Which is really stupid because the rest of my group tends to not play even the good versions of this title. I bow to Mike on this one, as he has experience with all three and I do not.

A really great and really expensive contemporary version of table hockey, popular in the 50's. I think all of us growing up with older siblings from a certain age have these things stuck up in their parent's attics with no playing pieces. The table hockey, not Crokinole. Fun, beautiful, and kind of doomed, and certainly not something I'm going to pay for a custom table. Although it would look good out at Sunriver - perhaps a Crokinole fund!

Die Sieben Siegel/Zing!
Still a game I like, but Tichu is the sentimental favorite for me just because it feels like Bridge without feeling like an idiot because you can't remember Stayman or how you respond when someone asks you for kings on the way to slam. I will say that there are few games that provide such priceless expressions when you know that someone is going down hard.

Certainly more interesting than it's immediate predecessor, Antike. Hamburgum appears interesting. I love the fact that you get to be an armaments dealer, getting rich off of the spoils of the threat of war (and war, if it comes). Own your own Great Power! Woot!

Key Harvest

I've played Keytown once, and am pretty sure it's not in my collection again. Maybe its the cartoony back of a napkin graphics, or that we misplayed a rule. I think it's just that the games haven't come out when I'm around, and thus no opinion from me.

Wallenstein got a bad rap in my group fairly early on, and this one has gotten very mixed reviews, both from con-goers and from the 'Geek. Mike says they've fixed some things, so I'll be willing to give it a shot someday.

"There are certainly several common themes in that list. Planning, action-based, low/no luck. Games that didn't quite make the list include Acquire, Age of Steam, Aquadukt, Brass, Caylus, Clippers, Drive, Ingenious, Perikles, Pueblo, Santiago, Tigris & Euphrates, Tichu."

OK, that's just cheating.

A Victory Lost

Barbarossa to Berlin
If you're going to pick a card driven game, BtB ain't it. Paths of Glory is a better design, but it's still Hannibal that wins this category for now. BtB should have been just an East Front game, and the upcoming Stalin's War will do just that.

Commands & Colors: Ancient
Check. The best of Borg's C&C designs in many ways, although I hear the Air Power expansion makes Memoir '44 playable.

Defiant Russia

One I have but have not played yet. The small counters and map may be a problem for me.

East Front
I chose a different block game not because this isn't a great game, just that the other is more accessible and thus I've played more. Funny how I seemed to be filling categories as I made my list - "Best Block Game," "Best CDG," etc.

FAB: The Bulge
Way too early to tell, but promising.

I am the only American in the country who is less than enthralled with the American Civil War. Growing up in Oregon, a state that wasn't terribly involved largely because we just didn't let those colored folk in. A state where the clan had to pick on Catholics in the 30's because that was as ethnic as it got. Battle sites? Try the corner where little Billy got hit by a rock. We have no history here. Nothing to see. Move on.

Hell's Highway
Even though I have learned to enjoy Market-Garden games, I am not sure I will ever understand why. The US had a relatively small roll (although arguably the most successful of the operation), while the object was never truly attainable given the environment surrounding it. You would hope that someone would say, "Hey, we went out for a picnic there in '37, boy was that ground soggy!"

This Accursed Civil War
I have this title, and will probably try to figure it out at some point. I know where to go for an opponent and a clinic. To be honest, I find anything from Ancients through to the early 20th Century as uninteresting wargaming topics. Which is funny, as most miniatures players like that era the best, especially toward the end, mostly because of the shiny uniforms. For this era, I tend to prefer my games strategic rather than battle-level.

"Bubbling under for wargames is Bar Lev, Breakout: Normandy, Hammer of the Scots, Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage, OCS (system), GCACW (system) and Twilight Struggle."

More cheating. Do you film your opponents workout sessions as well before Super Bowls? Well? Do ya?

Funny how close we are on the Euros and how different on the wargames, where I've played about half of the games Mike has listed compared to most of them.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Does This Game Make Me Look Fat?

Or - How To Lose That Bulge In Three Hours!

Mike was the only person to show for our regular Tuesday night gaming session, so we decided to go wild and try out the new Fast Action Battles - The Bulge from GMT Games. Mike had yet to receive his copy, and I had barely read the rules, so it is with a certain amount of amazement that I tell you that we were able to get through three turns.

FAB: Bulge (I will use FAB from here on out, although that refers to the game series, currently at one game and counting) follows what must be the first or second most revered topic in American wargaming - the German surprise offensive in the Ardennes at the very end of 1944 at the weakest point in the American lines. The battle has a huge place in American military folklore, being one of the three really major undertakings in Western Europe (the Normandy landings and subsequent breakout, and the ill-fated "Bridge Too Far" drive on Arnhem being the others, although arguably aside from the two Airborne divisions the US wasn't nearly as involved in the latter fiasco). The story is very American - poor planning and doctrine thought the Germans would never attempt a drive on Antwerp, the Allied supply source, and certainly never through the very same spot that they'd used to blindside the French for the second time in 25 years. And certainly never in bad weather when the Allied air cover advantage was negated.

Of course, the Americans were flattened early, but the timely intervention of Patton's 3rd army, the brave holdout of the 82nd Airborne in Bastogne, and the failure of the Germans to get beyond the Meuse river into the Allies backfield fits the concept of US exceptionalism to a T - take it on the chin, come back fighting, and win. Never mind that the German plan hinged on several unlikely events - taking a major fuel depot, quick advancement through the difficult terrain in the north of the Salient, and of course the holdout of Bastogne, the major road intersection of an area where control of the road network was key - this is a story that fits American's perceptions of themselves and so we game it over, and over, and over. Perhaps only the East Front holds more appeal to wargamers, and then only because it is the Bulge in a macrocosm taking place over 5 years and costing millions of lives.

The inherent problem with any Bulge game is that it's a pretty grim outing for the US in the early going. Little chance for counterattack until Patton shows up in force, so the US's job is that of plumber - patch every hole you can find, and do it for long enough until you can shut off the flow of German troops. It is not surprising that many Bulge games are more interesting solitaire unless you can find a US player with a masochistic streak.

So what does FAB bring to the table that differs from it's predecessors? Let's take a look:

o Limited Intelligence. The Germans had a pretty good idea of what they were facing, at least regarding the OOB. What they weren't sure of was how and when the reinforcing armies would arrive. While the Allies had some sense that the Germans were massing, they weren't expecting any trouble (other than Patton, who had his troops ready to come up and assist should the Germans get feisty) and certainly didn't have specific troop knowledge. The block mechanism allows the German to enjoy the same "I am *so* screwed!" attitude that the US player gets, because every lost step you have looks really small compared to two unknown blocks in a space you want to advance into. No other Bulge game does this as well, at least the handful I know of.

o Asset allocation. I suppose that other games have made stabs at this, but in FAB the combination of flexibility and really elegant basic mechanisms combine to take care of a lot of special cases. All of the crazy chrome that normally is de rigeur in a Bulge game (bridge blowing/repair, arty, concentration of force, air power, Greif), all of these things are handled by the assets. The assets you have available depend on the turn, what you've used in the past, what you've blown in the past, and what you think you'll need. However, since there is a pool of assets and you draw randomly from said pool up to twice a turn, you never know if the High Command will grant you what you want/need. Mike pulled all five of his engineers on turn 2, which isn't as bad as it seems. I had a horrible time getting the engineers for the two Panzer Armys back to repair several blown bridges in the north, but did get a good mix of arty elements to help me reach Bastogne on Turn 3. Even if the event is a dud, you can use it to corral a couple of assets you used in the prior turn for reuse without hoping the draw goes your way. Tie in the importance of what Higher Echelon the unit belongs to, and there's an awful lot of both flexibility but in a way that the combatants were forced to use historically. Even the German's fuel shortages are done using assets - it's brilliant.

o Breakthrough/Exploitation. Each side has some great ways to breakthrough and exploit their enemy's lines. You can mark units as "Reserve" during your movement phase, then move them once you've (hopefully) blow a hole in the enemy line. Even armor that fight in the Combat phase has a chance to advance a little further and fight a little longer if their attack overwhelms the defenders. As a last resort, if you've got a breakthrough but no one to exploit it, you can always use one of your Special Actions to allow breakthrough movement and combat. In other words, you can plan your breakthrough, but can also take advantage of battlefield opportunity if the conditions are right.

o Special Actions. Similar to the mechanism used in Europe Engulfed, each side gets Special Actions based on asset draws, but also through "reusable" SAs that come back each turn. If you don't use your reuseable SA in a turn, you get to bring an asset that has been eliminated back into the game, so you are almost never wasting them. Unlike EE, the range of actions is fairly small - breakthrough movement/combat, reinforce/retreat as defender, remove disruption markers (very useful for the US early on), and replacement of steps. The combination is very intriguing - do you blow the Event asset (they are permanently eliminated once used) so you can save your reusable SA to bring back an eliminated non-event asset, or do you save them up for when you really need them? Another simple mechanism that results in tough choices.

o Troop Quality. There are three troop quality levels in the game, and the differential between given forces gives you a bonus or penalty during combat. A couple of interesting elements to this mechanism - when you make an attack, you designate a point unit (as does the defender), and that unit determines your TQ when you are fired on. For example, if you have a veteran infantry as your lead unit but an elite tank in the space as well, and the defender has green infantry, the defender considers both units to be veteran during combat. Why not use the elite every time? First, many units change in quality as they face combat losses. In some cases, as for many of the SS Panzer units, troop quality will drop to veteran either after the first loss or not long after. In others, green infantry will "harden" as they take losses, gaining veteran status. Since artillery attacks before the actual units fight, it is not always the best idea to force your elite units to take the initial brunt of the attack (defender fires first in ground combat, too). In other words, if you lead with your best unit, sometimes by the time the arty is done with it it's not your best unit anymore.

o Play Time. Three hours to get through three turns may not sound great, especially if the campaign is nine turns long. Keep in mind that we were starting from scratch - I hadn't even gone through the examples of play (which I wanted to wait on until I'd finished the rules, a big mistake as they often cover the outline of the rules then give an example - they are quite well done). We should have made more use of the action matrix, which tells you exactly what units can do what in each phase. Had we looked a little closer, there would have been many more fieldworks placed and units in reserve. I would guess that we could get it down to about one turn per 30 minutes were we to play again within a reasonable amount of time, say, a couple of weeks. The tournament scenario (the first 5 turns) is playable in an evening, even shorter than my other favorite evening wargame, Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage. Tigers in the Mist is the only other Bulge game that I feel moves along even that fast, but it doesn't have a longer campaign game. There is also a 9 turn game that only uses the north portion of the board, where 6th Panzer failed to advance along the lines hoped by the German command, lines that would have given the Germans considerably more fuel to work with. At present, this is included with the pre-orders of the game, but GMT frequently makes these available online after a suitable amount of time so taht the pre-orderers get to feel special.

Which is not to say that there aren't a couple of flaws in the overall presentation. As mentioned before, I really hate rulebooks that split up into the core rules and the game-specific rules. My biggest peeve is that they come in two separate books, so I'm always going back and forth to find the rule then the exception for the game. Once the errata has percolated through to one of GMTs excellent Living Rulebooks available online, I will print the whole thing, repaginate so that all of the rules are in one place, and be happy. Unfortunately, this happens *after* I get familiar with the game. I understand the commercial reasons for such a choice, but given that the series rules generally go through a revision every time the game system puts out a new title, it seems a bit specious to keep this separation. Once a revision comes out, you could do with the single rulebook what I do with the dual books in reverse - print out the pages with the core rules, then stick them into the old book. What makes this approach all the more galling is that the developer inserts references to the game-specific rules in the core rules. Should they use an identical rule numbering scheme in the future games, that's great. I doubt it will happen as the game evolves, but here's hoping.

The other problem I have is with the map. I fully understand that the production material is often different from the proof, often in subtle ways that the producers have little or no control over, even with today's sophisticated computer color matching tech. Still, did we need another area control game where it's difficult to figure out which area is which? The problem in this case is the road net, which probably should have been made more translucent so that it could be seen, but not as strongly as the white area boundaries. All of those straight lines get hard to distinguish into the second beer, you know.

These are really nits, however, compared to the game itself. Assuming the game lives up to it's name and is truly playable in an evening (even the 4-5 hour campaign game once both players are fully familiar with the system), this will definitely be a title that comes out with some regularity. Sure, we've got a million Bulge games. This one, however, definitely does *not* make my ass look fat.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Weekend Warriors

Chuck came over today to play Barbarossa to Berlin with me. At least, that was his intent. In fact, the game played him. This was Chuck's first time as the Germans, and history was not kind to him. In fact, we made it through about six turns before it became clear that things were not going to a point where he'd be able to get to 11 VP in time for Totaller Krieg, the only way the Germans have to really keep the game going if they don't get an auto victory in the early going.

The invasion of Russia started out well enough, but I was able to inflict step losses here and there on his armies fairly regularly. Despite his Panzer Refit, he was getting too many casualties, not bringing up his infantry quickly enough, and as such the Germans never really got past Kiev in any force. He had three VP spaces after the Winter of '41, which lost him two VP, but the crusher was leaving a hole big enough for three Sov Fronts to move through and cut off two foot and one panzer army in Leningrad (which fell fairly quickly). At that point, Chuck was down to eight VP, about to lose Tunis and Tripoli, and the Casablanca card coming right behind in my deck for another four points gone. Chuck felt he made a mistake in playing Hitler Declares War in Winter of '41, as it allowed me to play both US Build Up and Torch in the spring thaw of the next turn, but I think it would have been a bigger mistake to have waited a turn and had to deal with the delta of six Russian VP taken in the winter of '42 (plus the loss of the HDW point).

German play in the early going requires focus, skill in bringing up your slower units, and decent card draws. Our decks were a little weird (I didn't get Industrial Evac until Spring of '42, which hurts the Russian offensive options considerably, and got all of the reinforcement cards for the Blitzkrieg deck in one hand except card 24), but I think the biggest problem was just unfamiliarity with getting the Germans up into position and using the Panzers to dash around and exploit whatever holes the Russian leaves open for you. I know the Russians exploited the German hole up north quite badly - even with 10 points of LCUs, the best he could hope for was to knock a Sov front down to an army, then watch it flip with the No Retreat option in the forest, and no other units in the area to help out.

With a couple of hours left, we decided to give Combat Commander:Med a shot. Mike and Chuck played a game where the Italians were whupped rather nicely by the Americans, with Mike complaining that these scenarios were not terribly balanced, and I wanted to see how well I could do with the Allied Minor deck (which only allows a single discard per turn, and then only if you don't do anything else).

The French deck may move slowly, but those Timer events sure came up fast. In fact, at one point I would shuffle the deck repeatedly, cut repeatedly, only to draw the next card as a Timer event. Twice. And another time with the card coming up within five or six cards. Chuck couldn't compete with that, and I ended up holding my own quite well. We played the scenario with the Moroccan troops defending a sunken road during the invasion of France in 1940, and Chuck did graciously allow me to reset my units after I misunderstood how gullies worked. I suspect that had an effect on the game, but this one gives the Moroccans so many VP to start (31!) that it requires the Germans to wipe the board of the Moroccans and take all three objective hexes without losing a unit, plus whatever the Moroccans get from Timer events.

Kind of a bummer for Chuck, although watching those Timer events come out one after the other was quite a sight to behold. Kind of a bummer for me too, although I sure enjoyed finding out just how frustrating the French can be when you have three Rout cards and a Command Confusion in your hand and realize that it's going to take you four turns just to get a hand of decent cards. I must have discarded at least four cards only to draw the exact same card, same action, same order. If Chuck wasn't also discarding (although he could discard his whole hand at a time), I would have been in serious trouble. I did manage to get Recover cards most of the time when I needed them, though, although I never had a single Ambush to play on Chuck in any of the three Melees we had, while he always seemed to have at least one. No way to save those up for the French, I'm afraid.

I still love this game, but that's two Med scenarios that have been blowouts in a row, and that's just me. I'm glad they expanded the game, but I may try a random scenario next to see if it works any better than the drubbing that Chuck has taken in our two games. I still haven't played any of the paratrooper battle pack scenarios yet.

Hey, at least the game played within 90 minutes. With all of those Timer events coming out, that's not any sort of surprise.

Thanks to Chuck for coming all this way only to have two less than tense games (good tense, not bad tense).

Friday, February 15, 2008

Going Downtown

I've been a wargame fan since I was 10 and discovered my brother's copy of the original "Anzio" (AH's take on the invasion of Italy in WW2) in the basement. Since that time my collection has grown (and grown) although I find that about 30% of the games I purchase ever get played. That's a pretty miserable ratio, although to be fair many of these games were bought 15 years ago when I did not have wargaming partners and the web was not the going concern it is today. I still tend to stick with the shorter and easier games, up until now because of space/time issues.

Now that I have a dedicated gaming space in the house, I'm making a concerted effort to learn some of these games that I've bought but done little other than punch and sort the counters. Aside from Vance Von Borries Invasion: Sicily (which is a predecessor to both Roads to Leningrad and Kasserine), the game that has been kind of a surprise is Downtown, a game about the bombing campaign of North Vietnam.

To be honest, this was sort of a "look, an expansion!" buy after C3i put out a couple of articles on the game. I was also interested in The Burning Blue, which covers a similar topic (albeit a much different era, although only separated by 25 years) and shares the same designer. What finally pushed this over the top, though, was Chris Brooks wanting to learn the game. We've had three sessions, using the progression recommended in the playbook to learn the game gradually, and it's been a hoot. I can vouch for the recommended "programmed instruction" style of learning, as looking at the extended example of play on Brinncomb-Woods' website was an exercise in "huh?" two months ago. Last night, as I reread it, the light bulbs were going on rather nicely.

Chris and I are prepping for our first "real" scenario, which takes place late in 1967 at the end of the initial Rolling Thunder campaign. Unlike most of the other scenarios we've played so far, this one has several targets that the DNV has to guard and a variety of aircraft that could be involved (USAF or USN). It is also the first time that we've seen nearly this many flights - As the US player,I filled up an entire sheet of flights, about 12, and didn't have room for the post-raid recon! I didn't look closely at what Chris would have for defenses other than he finally gets to fly something other than a MiG-17 (he graduates to the 21), plus a lot of SAM, AAA, and Fire Can ground defenses.

A typical US Raid will consist of several elements going in. First is the jamming flights, which you can fly onto the board or leave offboard if you are worried they'll be attacked. These are intended to make it more difficult for the SAMs and Fire Cans (radar guided AAA) to lock on. On their heels come the Iron Hand missions, which are geared to go after the various ground defenses. In one sense they are most effective when they bomb the actual sites, but they are also very effective in using Anti-Radiation Missiles that lock onto anything using radar, forcing those sites to shut down or risk getting hit.

Next in is the Combat Air Patrol (CAP) which are on the lookout for MiGs. The game has a rather elegant way of simulating detection - it is much more difficult to engage another aircraft unless they have been detected, and the North Vietnamese have a bit of an advantage as it's their home turf. Fortunately, by this point in the war the US has improved their own detection capabilities, so the CAP should have an easier time locating and forcing the MiGs into combat before they can go after the strike force, which carries the bombs but also has it's own CAP should the Mig CAP miss a couple of flights. The strike force can also go after AAA and SAMs in the area of the target, making it safer for other flights to drop their payloads. Finally, photo recon has to go in and verify that the target was indeed hit and damaged, and the Strike Force CAP may stick around and guard this final flight.

All in all, a lot going on compared to what we've done so far. Figuring out exactly how to gear up all of these aircraft is a bit of a challenge, as the information is a bit scattered here and there. Some units will have different loadouts depending upon which task they have, and all of that information is listed on the data sheets rather than in the playbook or rulebook. It took me about an hour to figure it all out, but I think got it all down. Still, I'm pretty sure that I'll have at least one flight that is mis-laden somewhere. The good news is that once you figure it out, it's a pretty smooth process and actually kind of fun in it's own way. Like most games with this sort of theme, it's as much about the pre-planning as the actual raid itself, although to be honest there are very few choices to be made other than the route itself. I may look into writing software to help generate this data to speed the process, at least for the US. The DRV forces have to make a *lot* more choices in this regard, and the outcome of the raid has more to do with how well the DRV defenses are set up than how the US loads it's planes as much of that is dictated by the service flying the raid and doctrine.

There are a couple of other people interested in learning this game in our group, and I'd be happy to teach it in the near future. There is some potential for multiplayer, especially if you have multiple raids being conducted simultaneously. It would be easy for the DRV players to simply break up the map according to region and let each conduct the battle as they saw fit, with the initiative pull system being decided by whichever player was granted higher rank. This may even come out at Sunriver, although I'm not sure that all four players are all that interested.

I'll report more after we play out this raid in the next week or so.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Conquest of Paradise - First Thoughts

Played this recent GMT Games release with Jesse (2-player) last week, forgot to get in my impressions.

I saw this game at WBC (the real one) several years ago and was instantly curious, as my wife grew up in Hawaii (although we're pretty sure there's no Polynesian in her ancestry). I love discovery games in general (AoE3 excluded), and so I was very interested to give this a try. The combat system is wacky (you have about a fifty percent chance of one of your units going away vs one of theirs), and the hidden nature of the various pieces can make it a little difficult to remember what has moved where during your turn, but all in all there's a fun little game there if you can get past the fact that much of your progress will depend upon how good your island tile draws are.

I say this because I turned over exactly four non-atoll island tiles, one of which was a good pull (Hawaii with four slots for villages). Jesse did much better, pulling all of the tiles that I needed for my bonus victory points, and promptly placing them far behind his lines.

Like so many games, I suspect this one is better with more than two, as it is very hard to bring down a leader unless your dice are very very lucky. While I did manage to take Jesse's home islands (and probably should have kept the villages there to score points), the next turn he was able to steal it right back and do me quite a bit of damage in return, so it's hard to say that an aggressive strategy would work for more than a turn or two.

I'm very interested in trying this with three players in the near future, perhaps at Sunriver in May. The game might also work as an evening game at WBC West, although the hidden unit factor might make it just a little too heavy (I really prefer games that are tactically light in those slots). There is minimal downtime, but the movement phase can take a little time as the game gets going and especially if combat occurs (and it can occur several times in just one player's move phase). With four, I could see downtime of up to five minutes if you are going first or last in the play order, which is on the border of what I'd accept in a game like this.

So, despite the fact that the game's outcome rested a bit on the luck of the draw, I have to say that it is certainly an interesting game, with a theme I have some small stake in, and that there are definitely some options when it comes time to take your turn. An excellent example is that your explorer can be used to generate extra income in lieu of being used to explore in the next turn. I also like the push your luck element in having the explorer go just one more space into the unknown.

As a bonus, the game comes with a Playbook that has no game-related content at all, just capsule descriptions of the various islands, culture card topics, and related material. If you're interested in a game that actually teaches you about the historical expansion of the Polynesians across the Pacific rather than just tacking an island theme on, and can tolerate a goodly amount of chaos, this might be a winner for you. It will definitely stay in my collection whether it gets a lot of play or not.

Through The Ages... and Ages... and Ages

Chris came over this morning to get in another step along the path to learning Downtown - we played scenario D6: Respect, which simulates a photo recon run. The DRV only get SAMs, Fire Cans, and AAA, so there isn't that much to do in the scenario other than learn how Fire Cans and SAMs work. Otherwise it's really only good as a learning scenario (although they did try to sex it up a bit by adding MiGs and an F-4 escort in a variant). SAMs are really good for screwing up someone's attention, and I can see how they will add a lot of time and complexity to most scenarios. The good news is that we've pretty much learned the rules at this point and are ready to start with one of the full Rolling Thunder scenarios next time out.

Rather than play through a second time, we decided to play through as much as possible of Through the Ages, which was released in a second edition and is almost certainly sold out already. TtA is about as faithful a representation of the old Sid Meier computer game Civilization as you are likely to find, albeit without the actual map. That goes for the amount of time necessary to play as well, which will definitely have an effect on how often it comes out. This is not to say that there isn't a good game here, just that it develops slowly and methodically, with occasional bursts of activity, just like the computer game.

All of your favorites are here - wonders take time to build, a big army will produce certain benefits, but you have to dedicate population away from productive pursuits. Bumping up to a new technology requires time spent earning lightbulbs, and you can devote excess population to Elvii to keep your population from revolting. When you change governments, you even have the choice to get it cheaper but essentially lose your turn. As a boardgame emulation of many of the elements of the computer game, it's a success.

However, it is not a game I think I'd even consider playing with four, and three would require some sort of side entertainment. You see, unless someone is messing with you (and that is a fairly rare event), there is little or nothing to do while your opponents try to figure out what they will do on their turn. Given the way that cards cycle in and out of the draft pool, that means that there is a very good chance that almost nothing you saw there a turn or so before will be there, and forget thinking out two turns. The cards move *fast*, and I could see it being possible that a critical card might come and go with three or four players without you ever getting a chance to grab it. Of course, there are additional cards added that I'd hope would help this out, but the potential still exists that you might really struggle if the cards don't come out well. I believe the track is set up so that any cards that get added at the start of your opponents' turns could be available when your turn comes around again, but only if they don't take them.

The critical resource in the game is lightbulbs. You can't play *anything* to the board other than leaders and wonders without earning lightbulbs, and the cards that improve your ability are far and few between in the early game. I was facing a rather steep light bulb shortage in fact, which made it very difficult to play most cards. The cards that improve your ability to get lightbulbs are almost non-existant - I'm pretty sure I counted a whopping four cards per Age at best, and if they don't come out early in the second Age you can find yourself putting almost all of your efforts into generating them. While there are other ways to generate them through action cards and events, it's an uphill battle. Knowing that you grab these cards when they come out is a key element.

Everything else - culture points (the final tally of victory), resources, and food - all seem to be available when you want them. In fact, despite my knowledge gap (Chris was earning something like 5 bulbs to my 2 every turn), I was doing well in happiness and culture, but it was clear that he could do what he wanted with raids and attacks while i was unable to do more than tread water, at least in terms of expanding. I was *just* starting to get things moving a bit faster when we ran out of time about halfway into the Age 2 deck, around 2.5 hours of play time after Chris ran over the rules.

The game is advertised as having three different difficulties and lengths, but that includes the pretty dull "simple" game, which features zero player interaction. The Advanced game has a lot more going on - events become much more important, you have raids, and there are new territories that you can conquer. The military game also becomes much more important, and happiness makes an entrance as a major factor in the game, much like the computer version. If for no other reason, TtA will have a place in my game library, even if I only play it with two players on anything resembling a regular basis. I'm not even sure that it would make a good game for WBC West - five hours of this in the evening, along with the constant scanning of the cards and your opponents' situations - it would be too much for me after a day of A Victory Lost. And not that many two player games show up at Sunriver, especially ones that are this long.

I am looking forward to trying it solitaire, with me playing two or three sides, just to see how it works. On the plus side, you are always busy...

I may try this with Jesse on Thursday, if we decide we have the time for it. Four hours would not be out of the question once you knew the system (it's pretty straightforward, with only new territories and other strength-related mechanisms being a bit more difficult), although the way you measure your corruption, food costs, and happiness is a bit confusing.

As for the price of $70 Us, I can only say that the market is dictating that this is *not* too high a price to pay, given it's almost immediate scarcity, and this for a second edition. Yes, the card art is cartoony, the bits are manageable, the human factors are both well done and weak depending upon the system in question. On the other hand, if you're looking for a game that gives almost *exactly* the same experience as the old Civ game, from the 30 hour playing time to the interaction of the various parameters, this is the game for you.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Agricola - Initial Thoughts

Finally got to play Agricola at Chris' last night - 2.5 hours for five players, about what I'm told we should expect. Not bad considering two of us were playing for the first time, although I do *not* think that we slowed the game down that much compared to the other players. This is a very tactical game in some ways, as I learned on pretty much a turn by turn basis.

First off, thanks to Chris for his superhuman efforts in getting his German edition (won on Saturday night in Eugene) ready in time to play on Tuesday. Quite a feat given that his family had new carpeting installed on Monday. There were a *lot* of cards, as we used the Easy deck of minor improvements and occupations.

Second off, I came in fourth of five, with Mike trailing me by a handful of points. I'm told 29 points for a first game is pretty good, but considering that George came in with 33 after following what looked like the Vriese-patented "Let's try *this*" strategy, I don't consider it that great of a score. Ian came in with 48 (IIRC), and Chris with 57, so the rest of us were clearly using sub-optimal strategies.

As for the game, I was whelmed. Chris assures me that I am wrong, but I see a couple of serious problems, at least one that I experienced directly. My first problem was that I think there is potential for this game to have the same problem Settlers has - one player gets screwed early, and they are doomed for the rest of the game. In my case, I spent literally three harvest cycles trying to get an extra house built and populated. I finally did it with three turns left. As such, everyone but Mike had more cycles (people) working for at least four or five turns before I started to catch up. And believe me, this game is *all* about cycles. Like Formula De, every cycle you blow (similar to missing entering a corner in the racing game) puts you further behind.

The problem with building a house and getting it populated is that it takes a lot of cycles. You need two reeds, five wood and the build action just to get the extra room put on, then you need to get the populate action. That's four actions, which late in the game is an entire harvest cycle, leaving no room for baking bread or getting food if you don't have another way to do it. That means you need to somehow, with all of the other players doing exactly the same thing, try to get those four cycles out of 20, done. Those of you with higher math skills see immediately that *everyone* will be trying to get these goods/actions, and everyone will have in essence one shot - harder if you consider that only one reed can be gotten each turn unless someone skipped the previous turn, and that you are likely to only get four wood in a given action.

And this is for *one* addition. Chris had three. Of course, once you get one offspring, you get more cycles, so whoever gets their bundle of joy last is already working at a disadvantage for a good part of the game. That was clearly the case for Mike and I, who were the last to add offspring (although I came after Mike but scored higher than he did). Conversely, the two players who added offspring early, Chris and Ian, did very well. More cycles are good in this game, it is the measure of how much you can do over the course of the game and there was a direct correlation between cycles and success in our game.

The other problem I had, and I personified it quite effectively, was what happens if you draw a bunch of minor improvements and occupations that are a complete mess. And i do mean a mess. I got exactly five cards played the entire game, one of which was free (chief's daughter for 1 point) and two of which were play-and-pass (Stable and Mini-Pasture). I also played the Farmer (free livestock, which was an obvious focus) and Woodchopper (which I used twice over the entire game). I also ended up with two major improvements, a Fireplace that morphed into a Professional Gas Cookrange later on (or whatever it is). The rest of my cards were pretty much useless, like a woodstove (only useful if you have no other choices as all it does is bake bread) and several cards that all did the same thing - plowing multiple fields with a single action. The occupations weren't much better - the Cook let me blow off one food for each offspring, which I neither had any of, nor needed once I did.

In comparison, Mike played something like seven cards, but everyone else was closing in on ten cards played each. In other words, they had useful cards, or cards that worked well together, while I put down my hand after about the eighth turn when I realized they were a complete waste of my time in this particular game. What I find interesting is that the cards are used with the *advanced* rules, meaning that they make the game more strategic, at least in theory. I think they add wackiness and instability to the game, at least if they are used as the rules state.

While I like the general idea of occupations and minor improvements, what I don't understand is why the designer didn't use a drafting mechanism instead, giving everyone an equal shot at the cards. All you have to do is not deal out cards, but instead have a row of seven occupations and seven minor improvements. When you take one of those actions, you get to pick a card, and it gets replaced in the draft from the deck so there are always seven cards. If there are seven crap cards out, everyone suffers equally. Yes, it is possible for one or two good cards to get snapped up quickly with seven bad cards left, but I don't think that's as big of a problem as someone having a useless hand. You'd have to do something with the start player/minor improvement choice (it seems strange that drawing a card would give you first crack next turn as well), so perhaps this variant would need some fleshing out, but I think it's necessary to level the playing field.

If you think that not playing cards just gives you cycles for doing other things, you are absolutely correct. However, keep in mind that some of the actions you'd spend cycles on have probably been taken already, so often your only real choices are to do an improvement or get an occupation. In other words, I had several actions that were simply not available to me as the game went on simply because I had a bad hand. In a short game, I can forgive this sort of thing, but not in a 2+ hour game.

Don't get me wrong, I think Agricola is a fine game and I'm likely to pick up a copy when the English version comes out (hopefully with some component fixes - the scoring track on the action board is a sick joke with type that I couldn't have made out in my 20's, much less my 40's - I didn't even know there were numbers on the icons, they were so small, and I was sitting close to it). I am extremely unlikely to play it willingly with five again, as I felt there was far too much downtime for what was almost certainly going to be a tactical choice of actions once everyone had taken the three I'd had in mind. I just think that the game needs a few tweaks, not a good thing for something that's been kicking around for years. Make the occupations and improvements drafts instead of hands, and make it easier to get reeds (this was my main problem with building an addition and getting an offspring).

Perhaps I am wrong, perhaps I'm missing something. Given my understanding of the importance of having actions/cycles in this game and the vagaries of the card deal, I don't think so. I think this game is an 8.5 right now, certainly not the 9.5 or 10 some are giving it, but it could have made that extra point if I thought that the game didn't have a fifth-wheel problem a la Settlers.

I expect a few comments now!

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Eugene Games Gala Recap - Day 3

Sunday dawned a bit later for me than Saturday (I'd wanted to be very sure to arrive by 9am for Here I Stand), and I struggled to get out of bed. One of the things I learned about long cons (like WBC, or even our own homegrown WBC West) is that you really have to learn to pace yourself. With WBC West, we have learned o play lighter games, or at least games that require considerably less thinking, in the evenings, which lets us maximize the heavier wargames the rest of the week. With the short cons, I'm finding that I'm good for about two-three days max of euro gaming before I start to get a bit weary of it all.

This time out, I was not doing a lot of teaching of games, but instead a lot of learning (although i did a *lot* of teaching in Here I Stand, to my detriment as Josh the VIII put the hammer on Paris - you still think playing England is boring, Mike?) With two full days of gaming spread out over three days, that felt about right given that I was staying about 10 miles away and we had to eat out all of the time. With Sunriver, that's worth about an extra day and so I can go from Friday into Monday without too much trouble, so long as I keep it light at night.

Once I arrived at the hotel, I noticed that there weren't nearly as many other people there - in fact, it was Lorna and a couple of others, plus Chris coming in just after me. As such, we played Kingsburg with Lorna, Jennifer, another guy who I'm ashamed to have forgotten his name, and Chris. I guess this is an elaboration of To Court The King, and I'm hearing that it's a better game. It's certainly a *bigger* game. With a lot of artwork that doesn't do much. This is another civ-building game, where you get resources to purchase advances that improve your abilities. With 20 advances on four tracks, it can be difficult to understand what "path" is best, but in truth you spend most of your time parsing dice.

That's right, a Euro with dice. Lots of them. Every turn you roll three or more dice, then assign them to different numbers on the board. For example, if you roll a three, a four, and a six, you could place one or more dice on the 3, 4, 6, 7 (3+4), 9 (3+6), 10 (4+6) or 13 (3+4+6) spaces. If someone else has already placed dice in that space, you usually can't play there as well. There is also an abundance of die bumpers that let you add two to a given die roll, which makes for a lot of choices that can take a while when you are learning the game. In the above example, you can pick from 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, and 15. That's a lot of choices, in fact it's almost all of them. There are other factors involved, and a couple of "sandbagging is good" mechanisms to keep players in the game.

Which didn't help me at all. I fell behind in VP early and never really caught up. Much of the time, I was going late in the player order and didn't get the chance to get the spaces I needed to advance. Since you can't really do much to determine player order (it's based on who rolled the lowest dice total), the net effect is that the game is really playing you more that you are playing it. Had the game been an hour long or less, and with a less busy (and smaller) board, I think I would have liked it more. However, it took two hours to get through our game (partly because people kept wandering off), and I was happy when we finally finished. I'll play again, but it's not going to go on the "to buy" list anytime soon.

Which left Chris and I a measly 45 minutes to try out KC's latest game, which must remain nameless. It involves bacteria, though, but not like you'd think. There, I've given it all away! ;-)

I did pretty well in the raffles, which were a fantastic idea. Sure, I got Munchkin Cthulu and Flanders 130something, and ended up with Wits and Wagers in the game exchange (I later learned that the woman who went first had been instructed to get Age of Empires III, the game I'd brought, but at the last minute her husband told her to get something she wanted), but it's not about that. It is all about the fact that Lorna threw in these extra micro/mini events that kept everyone on their toes and happy to get something just for showing up. If you were lucky, of course.

Again, a huge thanks to Lorna for her hard work putting this together. It really is a lot of work, just from the perspective of getting the venue, and I appreciate her efforts to build community that goes beyond just her local area.

I will probably skip Gamestorm this year, partly because it is held in Vancouver and thus I can add 30 minutes to travel time because of the Interstate Bridge (I quit a band that rehearsed in that general area for the same reason), although I am considering trying to make it to GMT's Weekend in late April. That's a much different group, of course, and not one I have an in with. Still, there are a lot of very good GMT games that are playable in a half day, and if I can get a traveling companion we might consider a train trip down and back. It would be a long trip, though, and not long before the Sunriver Retreat in late May, so it may not happen. I'm not going to be doing any cross-country cons this year, hoping that maybe something will work out in 2009.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Eugene Games Gala Recap - Day 2

Day 2 dawned dark and rainy, a perfect day to sit in a basement and game!

Here I Stand - First up was the touted game of Here I Stand, where six people fight the Reformation, from the Hapsburgs to the Ottomans. Every side has it's own juju and a little different take on the game, but no one as much as the Protestants. I played the French, helping out the English player with tips and such, only to get steamrolled during turn 3 by a combined English/Hapsburg assault. Had we progressed into turn 4 (and we were a good six hours, yes, hours, into the game at this point), I would have been pretty uninvolved for that turn, with three keys to get back and few cards to play with (two tops in addition to my home card). Hapsburgs were doing well, but had little hope of holding what he'd taken, with the Ottomans making trouble for him in the Med and them knocking on the gates of Vienna at last.

A great game, but I don't think I can do another "teaching" game. Just too long for the amount of game you get in. Perhaps another three-player game, this time from the top...

Phoenicia A great civ-building game marred only by a teacher who focuses on nothing but mechanisms and some of the worst bookkeeping methods/graphics I've seen (in terms of usefulness - the images were very nice otherwise). Chris and I somehow got off to a good start, but his superior income production in the late game combined with the expensive City Walls advance on the final turn killed me. Otherwise I got the game quite quickly, despite a first turn with no idea of what was going on. The income/point producing advances used the last man placed to determine what you got, making computing the value of a particular move a bit on the aggrevating side. Too bad, because I really liked the game but the human factors may just kill it for me.

Cheeky Monkey - A great push your luck game. Important note: That giraffe is f*cking Death, man. Draw after him at your peril. Same for the wild dogs. Otherwise, a really cool, really portable, really easy to teach and play game that is going on my to-buy list. Now. Scott spanked us with a very nice stack of about 3/4's of the tiles.

Incan Gold - Great fun, with KC and I having roughly the same tolerance for uncertainty. I *think* I pulled out a win on this one, although Rita pulled in a *ton* of points in the last round (we played six rounds with an extra level and artifact). Awesome game, one I could have sold a dozen copies of for Jesse's store over the holidays.

Ticket to Ride:Switzerland - Last game of the evening, and I was very happy to get this one in. I have the expansion, but it's been maligned for having too much luck in the ticket draws. My solution (which we implemented in part): you can't score a route twice, but the card doesn't hurt you either. There is some potential here to allow the cards t be much more useful and minimize the luck factor. I came in last *only* because I couldn't get the six cards of one color needed to finish my last route - a 23 point swing!

I'll finish up the recap (which will be short) tomorrow.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Eugene Games Gala Recap - Day 1

I had never managed to get down to Eugene for Lorna's Eugene Games Gala, and was excited that finally I had an opening to do so. Making the decision even easier is that my sister lives there and I had a place to stay for free! Yay! I was also excited about the game exchange taking place on Saturday night, as I had a couple of titles that I thought would go over well. In fact, I ended up taking Age of Empires III, getting a copy of Wits and Wagers in exchange. I actually think that was a good deal. Someone brought a copy of Tide of Iron - when someone remarked they didn't understand why anyone would bring a game like that, I replied that I had no such problem! I haven't gotten around to getting rid of my copy yet, but I'm more and more convinced it will happen at some point.

First of all, many many thanks to Lorna for her efforts in planning this get together. She not only does all of the groundwork to prepare, she also makes it fun to come and win a raffle, have a gift exchange, and there was even a last-minute math trade (thanks to Chris for running this at the very last minute).

Anyway, on to the games. Friday gaming didn't start until 3pm, but that didn't mean I didn't play a lot of games.

French Dice Game - Lorna had a wacky (and I do mean wacky) game of rolling dice, comparing symbols on the black vs orange dice, and remembering which symbols were unique to each color. I suck, and I do mean suck, at this sort of game. I'm one of those people who tests extremely well, but remembering visual elements is not my strong suit. I came in dead last out of six. Bonus points to the packaging, which comes in the form of a book-shaped box and some very colorful graphics that remind me a lot of the Snail Race game. The theme in this case was witches, although it really could have been anything. One really annoying bit - the scoring track looked like a snarled ball of twine, with numbers spread out all over the place in no recognizable order. It was almost impossible to know who was in the lead by looking at the board. Not the last human interface issue I'd run into over the weekend, but certainly the most brain-dead.

Race For The Galaxy - This is quickly becoming my favorite filler/2-player game. I just love it. This time, KC, Rita, Chris and myself played a very fast game that I managed to win with a combination of early military world pick-ups, a card-generating machine of producing worlds that had me rarely drawing cards in the end game, and no 6-point developments. Tom Lehmann has my undying gratitude for a game that takes San Juan, gives it enough of a CCG twist to make it really interesting, and makes it eminently playable with two. This *will* be a tournament game at the next Sunriver Retreat.

In The Year Of The Dragon - A game I picked up because the whole idea appeals to me - you are constantly fighting off various dangers, which change in sequence from game to game, and balancing several game elements to do so. My first game, and I would have really enjoyed it had it moved at a decent pace (we had one very confused player whom I hadn't met before). I have to admit that I was getting a bit testy toward the end of the game with his slow play - when you have, literally, two choices and one gets you nothing, perhaps the other is the one you should take? That and five players combined to make my first foray less than rewarding, but I *really* like the game and am looking forward to playing it again. Unfortunately, everyone else felt it was a depressing game because only bad things happened and you were just trying to pick up the pieces. Chris creamed us, having played before and knowing that you grab a large prestige tile early to score it for the rest of the game.

At this point, those of us from RCG decided that we needed food and alcohol, so off to a really good Mexican restaurant we went. Two margaritas may have been one too many for me, and I ate all of my food (and lots of chips) and I felt just bad enough to end the night a little early with one last game after we got back.

Blue Moon City - This game gets such great reviews, but I still see it as an exercise in seeing if you can draw the correct cards. Perhaps there is a good long term strategy (other than just going where everyone else goes) that involves paying close attention to how everyone else is doing. Me, I tried to make good use of the cards I had at any given time and came within a turn or two of winning, but Chris had such a huge number of crystals by game end that he was unstoppable. If it didn't feel like you needed to make hay while the sun shines in this game (a useless turn in BMC feels a lot like rolling the one number on the die in Formula De that keeps you from hitting the corner), perhaps it would be a better experience. It's light and fun and interesting but ultimately just not the combination of mechanisms to keep me interested for very long. By contrast, Year of the Dragon did have that particular combination, even played at a crawl. I felt the same way about Tower of Babel, another well-accepted Knizia game - I just didn't quite get what the point of playing was. A shame, the components are really engaging, but I can't get away from feeling like this game was put out to sell the Blue Moon card game.

By now, I was regretting eating all of those chips, so home I went to get a little sleep before tackling Here I Stand the next morning. The question was - would be get more than a couple of turns into the game, even with a couple of new players? Tune in later for the answer...