Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A Big Brass Pair

Tuesday night games were at Chris' place this week as we get back to our regular schedule after our switcheroo the last couple of weeks. On hand were myself and Mike to fill out the table to three. 

Some time ago, one of the hosts asked me not to bring games to his house for game night unless he'd requested it as he wanted to be able to justify his collection and couldn't do that if we were playing other people's games. I generally honor that for most of the group, but now that I live at the South Pole and not too many people show up when I host, I have to be aggressive and ask for the games I want to play when I go to other people's houses. So it was that I asked for Brass if we could swing it, and I got it. 

And, unlike my first playthrough of most Wallace titles, I "got it". 

People have gone on and on about this game as one of Wallace's best. Of course, they tend to do that every time Martin puts out a game. There's usually a backlash of some sort, as what happened with Tempus, but in general the man knows how to design a pretty tight yet involved game. There's usually some luck element to level the playing field a bit, but in general if you know what you're doing and see how the various elements fit together you can win the game. 

In some cases, such as Struggle of Empires, the game is very difficult to figure out with a single playing, mostly because of the interaction of the various tiles you can buy. Brass doesn't have that problem, or at least Wallace figured out how to make it elegant but deep. Here, you have a handful of different types of industries you can put on the map - cotton mills, coal mines, iron foundries, ports, shipyards - but each becomes more expensive but more critical to victory as the game goes on. You have a good sense of how each industry will benefit you both financially and politically (because what else could VP represent in this game? It has to be power!) within 20 minutes of starting play, and managing how those industries progress is a vital skill in the game.

Funny story - Chris hands me a very nice cheat sheet that he copied from the rulebook that devotes a good sixth of the page to Easily Forgotten Rules. I think this is a brilliant idea, one that I've used when trying to remember the chrome in a wargame. As he hands me the sheet, I say, "Oh, look, easily forgotten rules. In a Martin Wallace game. Who'da thunk?" 

Chris is a gentleman and a scholar, but if you ever want to provoke a reaction (or maybe it's just me), all you need to do is imply in the slightest way that Martin Wallace games are "too harrrrrrrduh!" Hilarity ensues. 

Actually, this is a very elegant game in many ways, although there are still small issues to remember. You can't build using a generic industry card in a city unless you've hooked up via canals/rails. You can't build canals/rails unless you've got a connection already. Thus, when I wanted to build a shipyard late in the game, I couldn't do it because I couldn't build a rail line out of the city Chris had monopolized in the north, and I couldn't build the shipyard first because I couldn't get coal and iron to the city. 

This is the kind of depth and considered play that I love, and the fact that I took to this game like a duck to Eugene says quite a bit about how good I think it is. Cooley's Law does apply (I won), but by the time we'd gotten through the canal phase I felt like a man in control of my destiny. That doesn't mean I'd have won, and I struggled mightily to get to a point where I could play a shipbuilding industry (with no success), but I felt like I could do more or less whatever else I wanted during my turn. I certainly figured out how to make enough money during the early part of the game - I ended up with over 60 pounds of cash left over at the end while no one else had enough money to generate a single bonus VP. Chris in particular seemed to struggle with money, often being one pound shy of being able to do what he wanted. This suggests that economic success, while not the final measure of victory, is critical early on. I was close to maxing out my income by the end of the game, and it allowed me to make the plays I wanted to.

Of course, we played with three people, and while for most of the game play order wasn't all that important, by the end of the game I was phasing my actions so as to swing double turns. I spent 15 pounds on building double rail lines often, as Chris pointed out that this game is all about cycles and the more you can do in a given cycle the better. In fact, aside from a couple of blown opportunities because of Mike's giant four cotton mill selloff and a few development actions to prep for laying down shipbuilding industries, I felt I was able to do what I wanted to do. I don't know that this would be the case in a four player game, where you might wait as many as six player turns between your actions, and the resultant reduction in cards and thus choices. Still, it's a game I'm looking forward to playing at Sunriver in a couple of weeks with any number.

Thanks to Chris for hosting, and for allowing me to impose my gaming needs on "his" night. While we seem to have fewer people showing up to play since I moved, at the same time I can't complain about the gaming we've done, and Brass is a definite highlight of my year insofar as gaming goes. Perhaps my favorite Wallace game to date, although only time will tell if that's true.

Next week we're back at Matt's near the Rose Quarter, just in time for the Blazer's season to be over (and traffic to be more likely to be tolerable).

Why I Can't Be President

There are a lot of reasons I don't want to be President, among them that the pressure of the job would kill me and that you must mold your thought into one of the two major political parties, neither of which I'm terribly enamored of. 

There are also several reasons why I would never be elected President. The one that perhaps disturbs me the most is that I'm not a Christian. How did we ever get to a point where, in this day and age, you must pass a litmus test for religion in a country that specifically allows you complete freedom in that regard? 

Even in Eastern Oregon, you apparently have to pass that test to be mayor. Recently, the mayor of Arlington was voted out of office, ostensibly for having posted pictures of herself in a bra and panties (and looking quite cut) on MySpace or some similar social networking site. I suspect that there was an economic issue as well involving a local golf course, but I don't know that she would have been removed from office quite so easily had she not also identified herself as an atheist. 

While I am not an atheist, as astute readers of my ramblings know, I am about as close as I can get without making an actual leap of (non)faith. I find it logically and empirically impossible to believe in the Christian God, personal and involved in day to day life, omni-this-that-and-the-other-thing, apparently unable or unwilling to correct the flawed beings he/she/it/they created but perfectly willing to make them suffer eternally for the results of those flaws. At the same time, I can't say there is, with 100% certainty, that there is no divine presence. As I've said, when I perform music I'm fairly certain that my experience is similar to that of prayer in the devout, although I obviously can't state that categorically. At the same time, it may just be an endorphin rush. Or both. Or something completely different. I'm happy to enjoy the experience and share it with others and leave it at that. 

Apparently, however, the electorate takes a dim view of someone like me running things. I've puzzled and puzzled until my puzzler is sore, and I think there are a few reasons why a devout agnostic like me could never be President:

First, and this is the shallow end of the opinion pool, I think that when you have a belief system that is based on very little if any physical evidence (as pretty much every religion is - in fact, it seems like some spend a lot of time fighting physical evidence to make their case - the whole "we had dinosaurs for pets" argument of some Christians is an excellent example of bad reverse engineering) it becomes very easy to hang your hat on the flimsiest of arguments because, frankly, you're used to doing just that. As such, anyone who threatens to bring down any of your beliefs is in themselves a threat. 

Second, the Republican Party climbed into bed with conservative Christians more than a quarter century ago and declared themselves Annointed of God despite the fact that their main goal is to let American business run unchecked. I speak of the Party insiders here, not of average Republicans. As such, the Republicans have been able to leverage utterly ridiculous issues like gay marriage (how this becomes a major issue is beyond me) and also more important issues like that of the freedom of choice vs abortion is murder debate (which is worth having, although I haven't heard an intelligent conversation on the subject yet) because it speaks to the fears of conservative Christians. 

In a word, they have used American Christians to get to power. Aside from a few bones tossed their way, abortion is still legal in the US and gay marriage is legal in at least one state and will be national law within the next ten. What the Republicans have done is let business run amok for eight years, acting in a very non-Christian way. 

My point is that Christianity is required because of the leveraging of Christianity into politics at exactly the time when we could have gotten away from religion in our government. Both parties are now guilty of this, but the Republicans have been at it and are better at it than the Democrats.

Finally, and this is I believe the main reason, is that for some people it is incomprehensible that anyone would behave in a "moral" manner without a reason to, and the only reason they recognize is punishment. This is a very small way to look at human behavior, although there is a lot of evidence that it's effective in some cases. At my daughter's church, religion is seen as a way to control men, especially young men. If God isn't in your heart, you're out drinking and screwing anything that moves, and thus God better be in your heart. 

Interestingly, I was taught a differing view by a Holy Cross priest in my Judaeo-Christian Culture class way back when I was an undergraduate. While I can't recall the philosopher that came up with this hierarchy, I'm sure one of my astute readers will know who I'm talking about. In this hierarchy, there are three levels of motivation for behavior. The first level is that of a child, who does things because he wants something and is willing to do whatever he can get away with to get it. There are many adults who have never gotten past this stage, and I'm related to a couple of them. In role-playing terms, this is called "evil". 

The second level of behavior is that of doing things because the law says so. In this class, Judaism was painted this way, and it's easy to see why even if it's slightly patronizing. Strict Judaism has a long list of laws covering dress, diet, and other elements of life that aren't directly associated with behavior, but by covering as many aspects of life as possible it makes it easier to direct the population to the behavior the religious leaders want. It's much easier to simply follow all of the laws rather than take the time to figure out which make sense and which don't, after all. To be more specific, the idea is that if you follow the law (doing something good), you are rewarded, and if you don't you are punished. The Book of Job is a rather convoluted attempt (This is God. This is God making a bet. This is God making a bet that he can screw with your life and you'll still love him. This is screwed up.) to reconcile the simple observation that - surprise! - people are rewarded for doing very bad things. 

The third and highest level of behavior is that of doing things simply because they are the right thing to do. Not because you'll be rewarded, not because you'll be punished if you do the wrong thing or don't do the right thing, not because someone said you should or shouldn't, but because you can see that an act will benefit others (or that not doing an act will prevent harming others). In an interconnected world such as ours, this becomes quite complicated. For example, you drive a hybrid to try to preserve oil and also to pollute the environment less, but you still end up with a bunch of batteries that are going to pollute the environment and you're still using oil. Maybe it's a net improvement, maybe not, although it's sold as nothing but improvement. 

And that's why so few people seem to operate on that third level. I do. It seems like the only thing between us and dictatorship, between us and chaos. It seems like long-term survival to me. I don't consider myself altruistic, I consider myself interested in seeing people not only getting along and working together for the common good, but also thinking about the consequences of their actions. This idea is the bedrock for the social contract, the implicit agreement that I will watch out for you if you watch out for me. Like the Prisoner's Dilemma, however, it only works so long as both of us refuse to rat out the other, and for some of us that's a bit of a trick.

Maybe that's the problem, then. It's not so much that people don't trust me, it's that they don't trust themselves to behave without external motivations. As the youngest of four kids (and youngest by a good 15 years - I'm what they call an "oops" baby), one of my prime motivations as a child was stability and calm. When you're the littlest, conflict is Bad. At the same time, I grew up with my sister's kids, who were close enough in age to me that I was in effect the oldest sibling. As such, I have a somewhat unique sense of myself as both oldest and youngest. Perhaps that experience has allowed me to take a different tack in the world, one that you don't see too often. I'm clearly an intelligent man, at least as measured by standardized tests. I have a wide range of life experiences including international travel at a young age, exposure to a wide range of socio-economic conditions, what I like to think of as a pretty open mind. At the very least, I'll let you hang yourself with your own rope in an argument. 

But I'm never going to be President. Major portions of my fellow Americans would not vote for me simply because my high standards don't come with any reprisals for failing to live up to them.

Except, of course, for the part where I have to look at myself in the mirror every day. I'm nowhere near perfect, but I'll put my ethics up again anyone else's any day of the week. I may not win, but I feel good enough about my personal rules of conduct that I'd  for the world to see. 

So why can't I be President?

Good thing I don't want to be, I guess.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Check Out *This* Ride

Last week, Leo dinged 70. This week, he gets the flight mount.  

I really like the flight mount. There are a couple of gnomish contraptions that I'll start looking into, as they look like ultralight helicopters. For now, I'm happy with the griffon. No more wading through hordes of mobs while stealthed! 

Wargame Room, Take 2

I've gotten in a second game of We the People at Wargame Room (WGR), and it went much smoother. For one thing, I was definitely doing better at managing my time - when you know what to expect and have the rules down, things go swimmingly. Our game went to 1780 (a bit more than halfway in), and I was at 33 minutes while my opponent (who hadn't played for a bit, much like me in my first game, and was also remembering the interface) was at 45. I, however, had taken pity on him and offered to extend the game for him by 15 minutes if he wanted. He accepted, but it didn't help him. He, like the guy I played in my first game, forgot the cardinal rule of playing the Americans - protect Washington (the general, not the city - there was no city at that time, of course). I will take that chance every time it is offered, even if I feel I've got little chance of winning it. 

This game has grown on me quite a bit, despite the obvious problems it has. As the British, I had all three of the "must play" cards that benefit the Americans - French entry, European War, and the Declaration. Two on the same turn, although fortunately the turn that I won so they never saw play. While there is a certain amount of historical accuracy in how the cards can turn out, it is still mildly galling that you can lose this game through absolutely no fault of your own if you get a hand of discards and other crap while your opponent gets a handful of minor and major campaigns and 3 ops cards (and North's Govt Collapses for that year). 

The rules organization is a bit of a mess, being written for use by 10 year olds who picked up the game at the Smithsonian while on spring break. Excellent example - try to find out what happens when the Continental Congress is dispersed. Hint: it's buried in a paragraph on a related subject and is not included in the full-page index on the back. No wonder I was at 68 minutes in my first game if this was the sort of thing I had to parse. 

In the end, though, the game is pretty short for a wargame, some of the more complicated concepts (such as having a choice of what to do with every card in the game in every other CDG - a concept my otherwise brilliant brother couldn't grasp at all, and he's played the old D-Day game about a thousand times) are missing and thus it's an excellent game to teach newbs, and there just aren't that many good strategic games on the topic (do you know anyone who has played the campaign game of 1776 to completion? Neither do I. Now someone will pipe up). 

Amazingly, another game bug, though. This one could have had serious implications for our game, it was just a matter of fortune that it didn't - During the Political Isolation phase, you have to have a CU or uncontrolled space (or leader or Continental Congress, if you're the US, or a port if you're the Brits) that your PC markers can trace to (although the rules aren't clear if you can trace into a space controlled by the other player, since CUs on their own can't flip PCs). The US player removes their PCs first, which is a huge advantage for the Brits. In our game, I had cut off a couple of American PCs in North Carolina, but on the final card play my opponent snuck around and cut off the seven PCs that were cutting him off. Then he put the dispersed Continental Congress on the spaces with his two PCs, saving them from isolation and dooming mine. 

A brilliant play, although at first it looked to me to be a wasted effort because I hadn't notice the CC played. However, all of our PCs were removed in the Isolation Phase, which wouldn't have been the case under any condition (it would have been him or me). I felt particularly stupid because I could have easily isolated a different American PC that would have saved my set, and I should have left a CU sitting back there anyway. Not that it mattered in the end, but only because he made a dumber play than I did. 

This is two bugs in two games, ones that you would expect would have been caught by now. Since the WGR games enforce the rules (the end of the turn goes by *real* fast), and the tournament says that in the case of a bug you simply have to live with it, it's a little annoying to discover them. Bruce says he'll get fixed versions of the game out quickly, and I appreciate that "quickly" may mean in a couple of weeks, but it's a little nerve-wracking to consider playing again when you know the game may not work like you expect it to.

Chuck and I are signed up for the Twilight Struggle tournament, which began yesterday. We intend to play on Thursday night to get a sense for the interface and to see if we can act as server (something I haven't tried to do yet). Plus, I need to make sure I can actually play the game. Unfortunately, we aren't playing each other (there are over 40 players in this tournament, compared to 12 in WtP) officially, and I expect to get more games in not long after. I can hardly wait to find what bugs are in that version of the game. 

One thing I wasn't expecting was how juiced you get playing on the clock. I can see why people do it, there's definitely an adrenal rush when you realize that the game isn't behaving like you expect it to and you have to push through so you can look it up on your opponent's time. TS has the same time constraints that WtP has - one hour per player per game. Paths of Glory and Barbarossa to Berlin have time limits of 5 hours total. I may not play those games, at least not without really knowing how the game works. Of course, you can ignore the timers in a casual game, and in the tournament you can even ask your opponent if they're willing to extend the time limits (there are notifications that you are getting close to time and that you've exceeded it, but you can ignore them). The spirit of the tournament, however, is such that you are expected to adhere to the time limit unless there is an overriding concern - potential interruptions, learning the game, learning the interface, etc. I will give first time players the benefit of some extra time, but not once they've gotten a game under their belts. This will come back to haunt me the first time I play the Americans, that's for sure.

I may sound as if I'm ungrateful for the work Bruce Wigdor has put into the engine and website, and I don't mean to be. In fact, I've signed up for a year membership ($50, voluntary unless you want some say in what game gets authored next) because I want to support his efforts and because I think this site is an excellent way to play games online. While the system isn't as modular as VASSAL, it does let you play the game without worrying if your opponent knows the rules well enough to not cheat inadvertently, which I find I like quite a bit. So, thanks to Bruce for his hard work and devotion to the hobby, and I'll keep you updated on how the tournaments are going. In about a year we'll know who won.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Rethinking Drugs

A lot of my non-gaming entries are inspired by writers appearing in the Op-Ed section of the local newspaper, the Oregonian. The common wisdom is that the media in general is biased to the left, although it's pretty clear to me that the entire purpose of a newspaper is to sell advertising space. That's a pretty right-wing idea, the generation of capital, and I find that there is generally a pretty good balance of political thought in the Op-Ed section over time given that the state of Oregon hasn't voted Republican for a president since Reagan. 

This time, it was Susan Nielsen's argument that Reed College should have done more to prevent the two heroin overdoses on it's campus recently. She faults the permissive atmosphere and the failure of the school to publicize the first death for the more recent death. 

First of all, we're looking at the wrong drug, here. How many college kids have their lives changed because of heroin? How many because of alcohol? Which is "tolerated" on campuses? Which is more abused? I don't think there's any question at all - the problem drug in college isn't heroin, or pot (which is apparently pervasive at Reed College), or anything that's illicit. The problem drug in the entire country, not just at the college level, is alcohol. 

And see how well it went when it was outlawed. So well that there are two amendments to our Constitution concerning it. It was called Prohibition, and it was a complete disaster. What most people fail to appreciate is that we still have Prohibition, and it's still a complete disaster.

It's been nearly 20 years since the first George Bush held up a baggie of crack cocaine on television, telling us it had been purchased directly across from the White House. The agents who bought it had to do everything but buy the seller a new car to get him to actually sell them drugs in front of the White House, it wasn't exactly a prime location from the seller's POV, but they did it and made it sound like it was happening every day. And that set the tone for the War on Drugs very effectively - give just enough of the truth to scare people, not enough to make them realize that the people who sell drugs legally really don't want to dilute their market with other products. 

There is an excellent neutral resource for learning about drug use that I recommend you read if you have children, and I also recommend you give copies to your children when you think they are old enough to understand exactly what it says. The book is called "Licit and Illicit Drugs" and was put out by the Consumer's Union a few decades ago. Despite it's age, there is little new research on the subject, mostly because the liquor and tobacco lobbies are very effective in preventing new research. 

This book, which at least a dozen medical doctors in my acquaintance agree is an excellent reference, covers pretty much everything. Including processed sugar and caffeine! Because they are drugs. So if you're drinking a mocha as you read this, you are in fact a drug user, and mixing your drugs to boot. 

There are more topics than I could possibly bring up in a blog entry, but here are just a few of the gems I've kept with me since reading the book 20 years ago...
  • Most illicit drugs are illicit not because of their social cost, but because they were the drug of choice for an "undesirable" element of society. Heroin and other opiates were purchased over the counter by housewives until they were made illegal by the Harrison Act, intended to screw over the Chinese immigrants who had worked on the railroad and had settled on the West Coast when that work was completed.
  • Marijuana was made illegal because of WR Hearst's concerns that his timber holdings in Mexico would be endangered if hemp became the primary source of paper instead of wood pulp. Hemp is considerably easier to produce, renews at a much faster rate than trees, and anyone can do it with a minimum of fuss. 
  • Cocaine and alcohol are roughly equivalent in terms of addiction rates and the damage they do to the human body over time. Heroin and tobacco in a similar sense, although most of the damage that heroin does to your body is due to black market factors such as the cutting of the stock with other materials to stretch it out. Were you a regular heroin user, you could safely ingest huge amounts with little or no physical cost.
  • In the 70's, something like 100,000 people died annually from alcohol abuse. Not counting automobile accidents, this is just from drinking too much. Tobacco caused a quarter million deaths a year annually. Cocaine, by comparison, killed 3000 people annually. 
  • A "heroin-related" death on a medical report meant that you were dead, they weren't terribly sure why, but you had heroin in your system.
  • Marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug, meaning that it cannot be used for any purpose, medical or otherwise. Cocaine, heroin, and most other drugs are Schedule 2, meaning they can be prescribed by a doctor. No federal funding for research into the benefits of marijuana is allowed, and since it's schedule 1, you can't even own any. The DEA still harrasses medical marijuana users and sellers despite the fact that several states allow it's use for medical purposes (and got that way through the initiative process - in other words, it was voted in by the populace of the state in question).
  • The name of the organization is "Mothers Against Drunk Drivers". There is no national organization or temperance movement against users of any other drug to control driving habits. This is because alcohol, more than any other drug, impedes judgement. During the Prohibition movement, only alcohol was targeted, and then because it made men violent and stupid. 
It goes on and on like this.

If you are worried about your children, don't worry that they'll smoke pot. Worry that they'll drink, or get in a car with a driver who's been drinking. Alcohol pervades our society, it is our drug of choice and the presence of dry counties do little to affect people's ability to purchase and consume it.  Yet, people every day, in every walk of life, drink alcohol in such a way that it doesn't adversely affect their lives. I drink wine from time to time, especially with a meal, and I am careful not to get into a position where my consumption will engender poor decisions (a given) by making sure someone else who isn't intoxicated can drive. Like many of you, I made some exceedingly poor decisions as a college student with respect to alcohol, considerably more than I made with all other drugs combined over the course of my life. So why is it legal and the other drugs aren't? 

The usual response I get when I have this conversation is that the person I'm speaking with has a relative who has struggled with some illicit substance. There are certainly substances (cocaine, for one) that should clearly be controlled in some fashion. Others, including heroin and other opiates such as morphine, are much less clear - methadone maintenance programs are extremely effective, at least they would be if we didn't have this bone-headed idea that addiction was some sort of moral failing (it's actually a genetic failing). But I have my own sad story, my niece Wendy, who was abused as a child by a stepfather, who ran away at 15 for 18 months, who was a hooker in Vegas before she could legally drive, who was identified when she finally came in from the cold for help as an alcoholic. Thirteen years ago, she decided she couldn't live her life unmedicated and took her own life to end her pain. Had she been able to get methadone (synthetic heroin that doesn't require increasing doses) on a legal and regular basis, she'd still be alive today. 

It's happened before. A founder of Johns Hopkins struggled with cocaine abuse earlier in his life. Even an around the world sailboat trip wasn't enough to keep him clean, he simply needed some sort of drug in his system. It was morphine use, the drug that heroin is a derivative of, that allowed him to kick the coke habit and found one of the most prestigious health organizations in the world. Of course, being a doctor he had access to uncontaminated morphine and the necessary supplies. In that sense, he was fortunate where Wendy was not. 

Have I done drugs? Given the above definition, the answer is an unqualified yes, as it would be for pretty much every man, woman, and child in the US. Processed sugar is without question a drug, just give a bunch to your five year old and see what happens. Have I done illicit drugs (a question that draws what sure seems to be to be an arbitrary line between "good" and "bad" drugs)? Even in a public forum, with the possibility that Federal data mining will send the DEA on a midnight raid to my home, I will state that I have. I admit to nothing since whatever the statute of limitations is, but I have consumed powered cocaine, psylocibin mushrooms, marijuana, and amyl nitrate (supplied in eight grade by someone who said "sniff this"). The coke did nothing for me, the 'shrooms were very cool (but stupid - you risk renal failure if the picker wasn't very aware of what they were doing), and I have a very strong suspicion that the majority of people reading this know what pot does to you. 

What's my point? First, that telling people that "drugs are bad" or "just say no" destroys your cred - any eighth grader knows that pot is fairly harmless, and that the arguments presented by the establishment are straw men for the most part. It doesn't take much to leap from there to the "illegal drugs are bad" argument holds no water as well. If you want your children to be safe, educate them instead of instilling fear. At the point where kids are going to be interested in experimentation, that's when you need to be giving them access to good information, and the book I recommend above does just that. 

Do colleges need to ramp up their zero tolerance policies? I clearly feel the focus should be on alcohol, and I think that most schools do this to some degree. Certainly fraternities no longer have the long leash they once had. Will it stop college drinking? Please. 

I attended University of Portland as an undergraduate during the Reagan years, and aside from my flirtation with a few illicit drugs at the time the clear focus there was on alcohol. From a student standpoint, that was. Compared to other local schools, where kids took bong hits in the hall, there was a distinct social pressure to limit drug use to legal sources. There were a few kids I knew who smoked pot early on, but after that it wasn't anything that I or my friends did (outside of a few rock band acquaintances). I even remember a couple of friends going out to the car to take a bong hit during a party my senior year, but they didn't advertise the fact at all, and it wasn't just because they didn't want to share. It was a marked difference from my high school, which apparently had enough drug use to have a bad reputation with state school fraternities! 

In other words, the thing that will control drug abuse (and by that I do *not* mean using illicit drugs, I mean using drugs in a manner that is detrimental to you and/or those around you) is social pressure. Drinking and driving is an excellent example - while it's still a very large problem, it is nowhere near as epidemic as it was even 20 years ago. At the same time, we have to stop thinking that "illegal" equals "bad". At a time when waterboarding is "legal" (and, for the vast majority of us, "bad"), it should be clear to everyone that laws don't equate with morality. Especially when there is money to be made, and the money is made by people who produce a far greater social cost with their products. 

I'm not saying that you host hookah parties at your home for your kids, far from it. In fact, it would disturb me if you allowed your children to smoke pot in your home, as I saw happen at the house of a guy I played RPGs with for a few sessions. At the same time, I think you have to understand that your kids *are* going to be curious, and they *are* going to have access to a wide variety of drugs *regardless* of what our laws are. Because drugs are clearly filling some need in our society, in fact in every society. Most religions have used drugs as sacrament (wine, peyote, cannabis, the list goes on), and I am unaware of any society on the planet that doesn't have some sort of recreational drug use, although Islam and the Mormons seem to be about as strict as it gets. As such, the only effective defense we have to prevent problems, whether they are from the black market effects, physiological effects, or functional effects, is the truth. The truth that some illegal drugs shouldn't really be illegal. The truth that some legal drugs are the real danger. The truth that you tried this stuff as a kid yourself.

Because "Just Say No" never got the job done, and never will.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

"Test Driving" WarGameRoom

I signed up for a We the People tournament at the WarGameRoom, a Java-based site that hosts several wargames for online play. It is not Cyberboard, nor is it VASSAL, but games that Bruce Wigdor has coded up for online play. Most of these games can be played on other sites, but WGR actually enforces the rules. Sometimes a little too much so. 

Once I'd gotten signed up, I realized I had to get a game finished by this coming Sunday, which is a bit of a trick given that I have a lot going on in the next few days, from a Downtown session with Chris, to band rehearsal, to a choir board meeting. As such, I didn't really have time to learn the interface, nor to brush up on the rules by soloing a game. That cost me quite a bit, as you'll see. Because with this system, you are on the clock. A chess clock, to be specific. You have so much time to make all of your moves, and the first player to go over defaults. Not a problem on casual games, of course (and we did play on, although I added very little time to my side of the clock), but I was clearly in over my head in this one. The initial interface issues managed to get me to misunderstand the text on a card, and so I wasn't able to remove the American PC I thought I could and lost three British PCs at the end of the first turn, the equivalent of two card plays - quite a nice coup for the American, although in the end it didn't help him in terms of actually winning the game.

The interface is a simple server/client, with one player starting the Java engine on their machine and then giving their IP address to the client player. It is also possible for a third party to play server to two player's clients in the case where it's hard to get through a firewall (I'm not sure exactly how to do port forwarding on my Airport Express .11n system - there are several possibilities, but I'd need to work with another person to test it fully). That means no solitaire games on the system, so you'd better know how things work.

And I did not. In our first two card plays, I went to place British PCs on the board, only to discover that the "OK" button in the dialog box that helpfully popped up mean "I'm done with my turn". Twice. So I started with my opponent placing his PCs in the very spaces I'd intended to during my turn. There was one other major problem late in the game, although one that didn't really have an effect on the outcome (although it certainly could have) - I went to put 5 CUs onto a controlled port, only to have some buggy dialog box come up. The only way out? Quit the dialog, starting your cardplay over from scratch. I spent a good five minutes trying to accomplish this simple mechanism, only to get screwed over on time for my trouble.

That may be my least favorite part of this system, at least the tournament structure that I'm playing in. We kept playing, and I won at what was the 1:08 mark when my opponent foolishly sent Washington up north to take Montreal and Quebec. When he was cornered in Quebec and I knew I'd have militia *and* a port to work with, I knew I had him. And did. The game was due to end that turn anyway, but it was a bit galling to have to chalk up a loss because of a buggy and initially confusing interface. 

However, I did have to look up several rules that surprised me (the game does enforce the rules, a big advantage over VASSAL or Cyberboard), such as that the Brits couldn't just place a PC under an army with an Ops card unless you were flipping over an enemy PC, or that they couldn't place PCs in open ports. I guess I hadn't played the Brits much and was very surprised by rules I really would never have remembered unless I was actually playing the game. And that I clearly should have done, off the clock, to get the rules and the interface down. 

I'm committed to the rest of the season, which means several more games over the next several months. That's fine, I like the game and I'm happy to see a system for real-time play that will work very well for beginners as I won't have to check their moves every time. I would be lying if I didn't say that about 5 minutes before my timer ran down (right after I had given up on the reinforcements), I was very close to simply chucking the entire process. 

One other strange element of the system is that the map is extremely Spartan - no background at all, not even to delineate the colonies. I think that's a huge mistake - functional boundaries can easily be included with a few dotted lines. The map does show color, but with the Winter Quarter spaces in outline, some of the colors are hard to differentiate on the screen. Some of the newer games have better graphics closer to the original maps (Twilight Struggle, Empire of the Sun), but I suspect that copyright permission plays a large role in that decision.

Bruce has done a pretty good job with the site in general, and I don't mean to sound ungrateful for all of his hard work. I came into my game unprepared and paid the price with a tick in the Loss column. To be honest, it would have been nice of my opponent to graciously say that since I was new at all of this I should get the win because I would clearly have gotten in under the wire without trying to figure out the interface issues. It's what I would have done, but that means that I graciously give him the win since that's what the rules say, and I had read the rules. 

Next time, I will be ready.

The Twilight Struggle tournament starts up this coming Monday, April 28th. The expectation is that you'll be able to finish a game about every two weeks, and considering that you will be on the clock from start to finish means you have to schedule no interruptions. I can *barely* do this with two tournaments (I'm signed up for both), especially TS as it's a much longer game. However, I expect that I'll be quite a good player of both titles by the time I'm done. Play against a wide range of opponents will improve your play faster than by any other method, and I so want Twilight Struggle to be the kind of game that you win through superior play rather than through luck. WtP is the same kind of beast, but at a couple of hours it's much easier to shrug and say "Oh, well" when the game goes pearshaped because of strange card draws. 

Also, I guess I really shouldn't complain because I managed to get dealt something like 15 3 Operations cards over eight turns - none the first two, but at least one and on one critical turn four (plus a minor campaign). I think my opponent's head blew up when I played the fourth one. He certainly was surprised when Howe ran up and killed Washington in Canada. 

So, to you, the unwashed masses, my advice is this - if you're playing a tournament at WarGameRoom, play a practice game or three first. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

For Immediate Release:

Today, at 7:03pm, April 23rd, 2008, Leonadril dinged level 70 as a mostly soloed gnome rogue, with a focus on assassination, with nothing other than engineering and mining as skills (and having given up on fishing/cooking at mid-game). He plans to take a week off, then move to the Hydraxis server where Laurent damned well better come through with his promises of a better guild. He looks forward to getting a flying mount at some point in the near future.

He thanks his agent and all the little people who made this accomplishment possible. Especially gnomes.

World Travels

Tuesday was Mike's night to host, and Jim, Jeff, Patrick, and myself managed to brave the rain for an evening of fun gaming.

This was Mike's night to get games off of his burn-down list (a concept that I can't even consider living on the outskirts), so the games to make it to the table were Phoenicia and Von Kap bis Kairo (From Cape to Cairo). 

Phoenicia is one of those civ-building games where you need to do one thing to keep progressing, but the other thing in order to win. In this case, you need the production to generate income to allow you to buy the advances and place your meeples to get the victory points to win. In the first game I played of this title at Lorna's birthday party in Eugene earlier in the year, Chris beat me out by having fantastic production that allowed him to come from behind to win at the end of the game. In this pass, I tried the same tactic, but two things got in my way - first was my housing shortage in the mid-game that required me to go after storage instead of VP, and the second was a rousing auction battle for Public Works that would allow me an easier time of getting City Walls, the big point getter at endgame. Mike had one more point in his production queue, and from there on I was struggling to catch up. 

Not that it mattered. Jim, who had a ton of laborers but only three storage in the midgame, grabbed a couple of houses when I mentioned to him that he was doing well in VP but was on the verge of a major stall because he wouldn't be able to amass the production needed to push in for the win. In the end, he had the necessary income to do just that, edging Mike by 2 points for the win. I was in third, having started to push for VP but too far behind to do it effectively. I did have a sustainable income of seven production cards on the last turn though, and felt I was just one turn away from catching up as I could outbid almost everyone.

My first outing with this title was fun, but a little frustrating because of the sometimes confusing iconography and learning how to balance the various elements. It is this core philosophy of the game, however - that you must have storage, population, production, *and* victory points - that makes the game compelling. It's clear that there are many paths to victory, making it a game that I will add to my collection.

Jim took his victory and left (ah, if only W had done that in 2000), so the rest of us muddled through the rules for vKbK, even though I'd played it before. Each player is trying to build a railroad from, well, the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa up to Cairo, in the northeast corner. On the way, you have to content with various geographical features including deserts that look more like desserts but with nary a half-naked pygmy in sight (for those of you who grew up learning female anatomy through National Geographic magazine). Strangely, you bid money to make money and choose the terrain you will move through all at the same time, then you flip over cards to see if you can build over said terrain. 

If you thought that there is a strong luck element in this game, you would be right. The only real decision points are how much to bid to get first pick of the terrain cards and then whether or not to spend extra money to help advance your train. Jeff clearly made these choices better than others, as he beat me out by one track to take the win. This is not to say that the choices are trivial - far from it. Part of why Jeff won was through better money management, having the necessary funds to drive the last spike whereas I came up short. 

It's a passable little game, made more appealing by it's tiny deck footprint in my game cabinet and it's comparative quality to other Ablung Spiel games. On the other hand, it's unlikely to see more play time, especially seeing as the rules translation supplied with the game is nearly unreadable. I think it took nearly as long for us to parse the rules as it did to play the game, and two of us had played before. Patrick remembered it being a pretty good game initially, then remembered that beer had been involved and it lost quite a bit of it's allure last night. 

Thanks to Mike for hosting. Next session is at Chris's as we return to our regular rotation after last month's switcheroo.

Editorial Policy

I removed a couple of comments from an old post of mine (on storage for my WoW boardgame). One I'd missed was spam from a gold seller, the other (posted in the last day or two) attempted to denigrate my sexuality based on my love of boardgames.

I deleted both comments.

I'm a huge fan of freedom of speech, but I don't have to tolerate spam or homophobia. Neither do I need to make any defense of my hobby other than to say that I'm open to nearly any social experience so long as everyone is a willing participant and it doesn't result in a divorce. Mine, for instance. 

Blog on.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

I Suck At Combat Commander

Matt came over last night as part of our new "Third Monday" gaming regimen. The idea was to get in some light 2 player war/euro gaming seeing as we live in more or less the same part of town. On the table was Combat Commander, and the scenario was #28 from the Paratrooper Pack, or as our resident Scot Mike likes to say, "yanks and cranks". (Or something like that. Apparently he's unhappy that there are no Brit 'troopers included, although given that the pack came out (days) before the CC:Med expansion came out, that's not a huge surprise.)

The scenario takes place shortly after D-Day, with a US paratrooper battalion (or whatever - I'm an idiot when it comes to military organization) having just taken a farmhouse on the Caretan peninsula in Normandy and a group of German FJ troops trying to take it back. As such, the US is in Recon posture rather than defensive. The map is a few building scattered around with a lot of hedges (they are not treated as bocage in this scenario, so cover is scarce and useless against arty), with the big points in the middle of the board held by the Americans. The Germans, on the other hand, start out either on or having to cross a road before they can begin advancing on the Germans. 

Of course, I started on the road and then drew three Command Confusion cards and one Move. I did manage to get off the road, but it wasn't pretty as my big stack of units in the middle of the board, including one of my 2-command leaders, was wiped out in a big melee that started at even odds. In my defense, I did not start that particular fight - Matt did, and while he had a 3 point advantage going in, he had no ambush cards while I did (plus an action that would give me 2vp if I won. I didn't). He also traded a paratrooper for a paratrooper with me in an adjacent melee. 

With no units in the middle of the board, and with another 2-command leader wiped out when I didn't recognize that he could shoot at me in a particular hex from the main farm structure, I was in deep trouble. Even when I felt like I was about to start making progress (good stack next to one of his, plus an arty request), the arty ended up doing as much damage to me as to him and preventing me advancing with three, count 'em, three Ambush cards. 

In the end, I lost when the vast majority of my Germans were running past the Surrender level, although Matt was up nearly 20 points. I did almost get a German into one of his objective hexes, and had an advance card to do so, but just couldn't do it. My Recover cards seemed to come out in clumps, and at one point I had two entire units on the board (out of 15 that I started with) that weren't broken. Once I lost my last leader (and I even gained Private Herzog at a really critical point), there was no way I could garner enough firepower to take the central hex, and there certainly wasn't any way I could generate enough firepower to even take out a unit. 

I'm starting to think that I'm playing the game poorly. In this case, I was so excited to have the opportunity to do some real melee damage that I sat on cards I should have used for other purposes. I definitely shouldn't have started out on the road, which negated any benefit the hedge row provided. I had a mortar that could have provided smoke, but positioned it poorly as it had a minimum range of three hexes. Placing it to the side and shooting smoke down the roadway I needed to cross was clearly the correct strategy. My dearth of play in tactical level games is pretty obvious. 

Still, it was a fun game, and there were definitely exciting moments when I *nearly* got momentum going again. All I need is a little more discipline in handling my cards (and a couple more Recover cards when I need them - at the end of my first deck, the last three cards were Recovers that had been sorely needed earlier), and I'll be a Combat Commander. 

Suuuuure, you will...


People who come over to our house know we aren't bit coffee drinkers. It's not that we don't like coffee, it's that it's a bit of a pain in the ass for people who don't tolerate caffeine very well. A cup of regular coffee in the morning will wake me up for a couple of hours in the middle of the night, so I've had to be pretty careful about just drinking decaf. That means that coffee becomes something more aesthetic than functional, and that means that the whole pain in the butt ritual of coffee preparation, including the ceremonial dumping of the grinds, is just not something that I kept up after leaving my office job (where I had to have my own coffee maker as I was the only guy drinking unleaded on my floor). 

And forget espresso. I don't know how many times I came home to find Mel had started out making a cup and ended up with the grounds everywhere after a user error. 

That has all changed.

I'm going to sound like I'm doing product placement, but I assure you that I'm nothing other than a satisfied customer, at least so far. Oh, I'm still clearly overly caffeine-sensitive, that hasn't changed. What has changed is that I can get a really good cup of espresso or lungo (a larger version that's still smaller than your standard cup of American Joe) with a minimum of effort, in about one minute, even less if I'm producing multiple cups. The product is called "Nespresso" and while it's not perfect, it's pretty darned close. 

We ended up with our low-end model (the C100 - the consumer models can exceed $1000 if you're more anal about your espresso than I am) because my good friend Steve bought us a housewarming gift from Macy's. We like wine, but we don't drink it often enough to feel that a free-standing wine chiller was worth the counter space it would take up, so we took it back and were having quite a bit of trouble finding a suitable replacement. For one thing, we wanted to get something that was in the spirit of the original gift, so clothing was out and the lamps they had were far too expensive for what we were looking for. That left housewares, and after 22 years of marriage you tend to have pretty much all the housewares you need. We considered plates, cookware, even an electric martini shaker (really). 

Then we noticed the Nespresso system. Great, I thought, we did espresso at home once and it was a disaster. If you tried to take the grounds out too soon while they were still under some pressure, you could be picking grounds out of your kitchen for days. Trying to get the milk heated/frothed was an exercise in frustration, and the damned thing took up about a cubic foot of counter space, always at a premium. 

Still, this machine looked a little different. It had a much smaller footprint, and instead of having to mess with measuring and cleaning up the grounds (not to mention grinding them if you're really serious), it uses capsules - 12 different blends, 9 of which are for espresso, 3 lungo. Of these, 2 of the espressos are decaf (one appropriate for cappuccino), and one lungo is decaf. However, the cheapest package was $230, and even taking off the return value of the wine cooler I wasn't sure this was something I wanted to spend that kind of money on.

Mel wanted to look for some pants, so I crashed on a couch in the mall. Fortunately, the Apple Store a few doors down had a wi-fi cloud that was public, so I was able to do a little iPhone surfing at decent speeds. I did a search on the Nespresso system, and found that it is not only popular, but the people who have them are crazy about them for all of the reasons I mention above. For every complaint I have had about home espresso machines, they have an answer.

The only real drawbacks in the system are twofold. First, you are limited to buying your coffee from a single source, and then the coffee is shipped to you within a couple of days. That means you better plan when you'll need the capsules! Of course, they're sealed so no need to refrigerate or bag them. That also means you are limited to whatever coffee they make. The capsules vary in acidity, strength, and bitterness, so there's a pretty good selection and the system comes with a sampler containing one of every type, so you're likely to find what you want. They do put out a couple of limited edition varieties during the year, which cost a bit more (still less than $0.60 per capsule), but otherwise you're limited to their choices.

The other problem, one that the company is starting to address, is that the coffee hasn't been fair-trade. They now have one regular variety that is a "sustainable" blend, which I guess is their term for fair-trade. I've not thought much about this until I read somewhere that coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world after oil. I'm not sure if that's true, but if it is perhaps we should also be buying fair-trade gas. So your mileage and conscience may vary.

Note that this is not a coffee maker, it's an espresso maker that does lungo as well, so if you like having a tanker of coffee to take with you in the morning, it's probably not a great choice. However, if you like espresso drinks, it doesn't take much math to figure out that that $4 iced mocha would cost you something like $2 after taking into account how much the machine itself cost.

Capsules are generally within a couple pennies of $0.50, which is a perfectly acceptable number for me assuming the coffee is of sufficient quality, and they come in "sleeves" of 10 capsules. I made an order of 110 capsules, and the cost (including shipping) was about $65. Sadly for my friends visiting, all but 10 capsules (those of the limited edition coffee) are decaf. You see, I tried one of the leaded lungos the first day we had the machine, thinking that it couldn't possibly hurt for me to be wired on a day I was performing in the chorus of a major Beethoven work, but I was up at 2:30am anyway. No more leaded for me. 

Making a cup is extremely easy - you open the capsule slot, insert capsule, close, stick a cup under the spout, press a button, and wait about 20 seconds. You get a cup that has a near-perfect crema (the foam on the top) every time that sticks around for at least as long as it takes you to enjoy the coffee (in my case, about 15 minutes). The taste is as good as any chain-bought coffee I've ever had. If your tastes run to coffee that's been excreted by large Amazonian rodents, then you'll probably be disappointed. Me, I was in heaven.

Two more items - we waited for a sale at Macy's to pick up the unit we liked, bringing it down to around $180, which is about as much as I'm willing to spend on something like this. I mean, I'll probably have a lungo every morning from now on as it's so easy to use, but I'm not getting a unit that warms cups and has a direct water line. Note that the units are actually OEMed by traditional coffeemaker companies, but the model numbers seem to be fairly consistent. Ours, as I mentioned above, is the C100, which is semi-programmable - you can set how much water the unit produces by holding the appropriate button down until that much liquid has been dispensed. There's no frother, no cup warmer, but the unit takes about 5"x9" on our counterspace, and you can get several 1.5 oz cups with one tank. 

The other thing you'll want to get, and you might as well get it when you pick up your unit as they sometimes come packaged with it for about $60 more, is the Aeroccino frother unit. It's a metal container that looks a bit like a small measuring cup and has a base unit you plug into the wall. For milk froth, you put in about an ounce of milk, put it on the base, push a button, and in less than a minute you have froth. No muss, no fuss. You can switch the frother piece out (the replacement "lives" on the lid for convenience), and get heated milk in two minutes, although I'd probably just nuke mine. I don't take cream with my coffee, but I do likee the froth, and it makes cappuccino a breeze to make. With this in the package, our cost was $230 minus the value of the returned wine cooler. That's less than a year's worth of lattes from Starbuck's, plus no wasted paper cups. Or surly baristas (I've taken over that role).

For me, the biggest impediment to morning coffee was having to undergo the ritual without the traditional payoff - enough liquid energy to get you through the day (or, in my case, into the wee hours). Shortcomings aside, the Nespresso system lets me enjoy coffee with enough ease and more than enough taste to make coffee worthwhile for me again. I like this system so much that I will consider getting one for the vacation house as well, or maybe a hard-shell carrying case so I can take it with me. 

Ahhh, crema...

Saturday, April 19, 2008


In an attempt to get a little more wargaming in between us, Chuck and I tried playing a game via the fantastic VASSAL online software, located at The client software is free, JAVA-based (so it should run on Macs, PCs, and Linux machines), and allows users to create modules for different games. Unlike Cyberboard (another excellent online resource), the moves you make go through a web-based server so you see your opponent's moves as they make them. There's no voice chat, but if you don't like the text messaging system you can always fire up Skype instead (we used chat most of the time). 

I myself have been using VASSAL for a year or two, primarily to handle the tedious attack run portion of the otherwise intriguing Silent War solitaire game. A well-written module for VASSAL allows you to handle quite a bit of the mundane record keeping with little work, but the critical factor is that someone has to have actually written the code that does that very thing. For example, in the module for A Victory Lost, you can right click on an HQ and turn on the command radius that even takes terrain into account. I had used VASSAL solely as a solitaire aide, never hooking up with an opponent to actually play before.

For our first foray into an online two-player game, we chose the recently re-released SCS game Afrika. The game has many improvements over its predecessor, and even has a pretty elegant supply system that is reminiscent of the much heavier OCS titles without quite so much overhead. The downside is that you have to really think about what you're doing in the game, planning to have supply in a position where it can be used after you've exploited with your units. 

We played the Compass scenario, which starts in late 1940 and features the UK forces pushing deep into Libya just prior to Rommel's arrival. There are five "short" scenarios, which double as starting points for anyone who wants to play all the way to the bitter end, and each is only a handful of turns long. Compass has difficult victory conditions (you have to take Benghazi, Tobruk, Bardia, knock out a bunch of boxed Italians in Egyptian territory, and do it in three turns). The game seemed more like a puzzle to me, requiring you to move a fairly small number of units a fairly long distance, and keep them supplied while on the offensive. 

Of course, we got about 1.5 turns in, which wasn't bad for a first game. I took a lot of time thinking about how to move, as I was working with an unfamiliar CRT, trying to figure out how best to utilize my supply, protect my supply lines (this didn't work so well - I'd forgotten Chuck had a recon unit under one of the boxes that can slip by enemy ZOCs pretty quickly), and manage to utilize my units in such a way so that I could get the most out of them every turn (exploit-capable units can attack as many as three times in one turn, assuming they overrun in their two movement phases which requires starting out of an EZOC). 

All in all, I think this is a very cool game, certainly more approachable for a first title than Stalingrad Pocket (which doesn't have the supply issues, but does have a few other important rules and a lot more counters). On the other hand, we were thinking that perhaps this is a better game to play ftf or via e-mail, seeing as planning your turn can take a while. And it's critical to plan in this case as the British (for example) had a whopping 25 combat units. This is definitely one I'll try to solo in the near future, although given the long map I may need to clear off my two extra tables (currently holding Ambush! and Lock 'n' Load: Band of Heroes). 

We haven't decided on a different game, although I'm thinking something involving chit activations like Roads to Leningrad or A Victory Lost. Poor Chuck got stuck waiting for me most of the time, and during his turn I took the opportunity to start trimming the pieces for Death in the Trenches and Totensonntag, two new games I recently picked up. 

VASSAL is great for being able to play games with people who otherwise can't get together (Chuck is a good 45 minute drive from my place assuming very light traffic on the I-5 bridge), and it allows you to play games that you may not have the time or space for. On the other hand, it is an imperfect solution: I find I have to really zoom in the board to see the unit designations clearly, if you can see the whole board you're likely to have it zoomed out so much as to miss something, and when it isn't your turn you can't move things around the board or change the display as it affects what your opponent sees (which makes things interesting if you're trying to move some counters around, but the view keeps changing). Also, Afrika had zero bells and whistles, to the point where you couldn't even control-mouse over a stack to see what was in it. It was almost enough to make me want to learn to make my own modules. 

As an experiment, I'd say things went pretty well. I don't know that this is the best solution for games that require long periods of time to make your move (if you're playing with both people online, that is - there are e-mail options in that case), but also for a game like Combat Commander where part of the appeal is rapid play - a GUI just can't respond as quickly as having physical components at hand. Still, I think it will be a good way for Chuck and I to get in more wargaming than we usually do, which is always a good thing. Now if only they had a mod for Barbarossa to Berlin...

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Gamer Porn

Even six months after moving in, I still haven't gotten around to finally finishing up the organization of the game room. Part of the problem is the horrendous lack of storage in our new place, although we'd gotten it down to something like 20 boxes that have been stashed in various parts of the house. My part was along one wall of the game room, but I couldn't figure out what to do with all of this stuff.

Yesterday I took the long trip out to NE Portland to get my teeth cleaned. That's a long way to go to see a dentist, but he's a buddy of mine from eighth grade on, so it's always nice to see him and remind him he owes me money. Or I owe him. Something. Anyway, the other thing about where his practice is is the IKEA store that's only about ten minutes away. Now that my gout has finally cleared up enough for me to start dealing with these boxes, I took the opportunity to pick up four 16" deep bookcases, thinking I'd put them where the boxes were and just put all of that stuff there.

In the middle of doing all of this, I realized that I have a perfectly good closet in the game room, one that was housing the wargame collection. Since a lot of the Euro games, currently out in standard 11" deep bookcases that didn't fit them so well, would fit nicely in the new bookcases, I did a little rearranging, and here is the result. Note that I spent about eight hours hauling the bookcase boxes up the stairs, assembling, then rearranging. Because there was a lot of stuff in the room, I could only really do one bookcase at a time, move stuff from the Euro collection over, move wargames from the closet into the old bookcases, then move things into the closet. Since I have some rearranging to do, only the RPGs and Warhammer stuff really went into the closet. Right now I still have the counters from magazine games in the closet, as well as the ASL stuff and the *BIG* FFG boxes like Descent and Tide of Iron, but everything else is now in the game room proper.

I just want to go in there and roll around on the floor like Ann-Margaret in the bean/chocolate/champagne scene from Tommy. Thats how old *I* am. 

While I haven't packed the non-game boxes (they need to be organized much better than they are now), and the rest of the room is a mess, here's a quick tour of the place for your amusement and a little insight into how screwed up my priorities are. Sorry, I neglected the closet, I'll include it with the "after" pictures once the room is set up in it's final configuration. All shots are in clockwise order, so if you print them out and put them in a circle around you it will almost be like you were here with me.

This first shot starts off just to the right of the closet door. The bookcase, which was there before, is holding mostly smaller games, although some of the larger boxes like Java and Formula De are there. The table-like object is actually a set of shelving units sitting on top of very skinny and short bookcases that hold the two-player games like Lost Cities. The shelves are for holding wargames in progress (from top to bottom, they contain all of my hastily-laminated maps from the 90's (open tray), Stalingrad Pocket (SCS 2nd ed), Blitzkrieg '41 (from the first issue of Command Magazine, which has three full pages of rules for the supply situation), and my ongoing Downtown game with Chris. These all sit in poster frames from Wal-Mart. The trays are ridiculously expensive - I think they were something like $50-$75 each, and they come in pairs. Also note the handy drink fridge to the right of the trays.

The next shot shows the new bookcases. I can't recall the product name, but it's something like Bestto or Blasti or something with an umlaut. They aren't the Billy bookcases that are so popular (and cheap) - these are deeper, narrower, and include adjustable feet for slightly more money. They are *exactly* wide enough to hold two Power Grid width boxes side by side without the box sticking out the front. I got four of them, leaving space for a floor lamp where the power outlet is. Box size rather than type of game was the deciding factor on what ended up here, so the first case has mostly Euros, the next two are a mix, and the fourth is mostly wargames.

The third shot is of the far end of the room from the door and closet. I have two Office Despot 2'x4' tables that I use to set up my USB piano keyboard if I need to patch songs for my band (note the gui'board at the left), although right now the tables are hosting an Ambush game (not as much fun as I remember, but still pretty cool), and a test drive of the Lock 'n' Load system, in this case one of the low end scenarios from Band of Heroes. Neither have seen much action in the last few days. Note that the floor lamp to the right has a handy second fixture, normally used for a reading lamp but here used as a spotlight looking for those sneaky Nazis hiding in the bushes. Also notice the very nice Blue Sky near field monitors on either side of the window (sub is under the desk on the right, hidden by the table) that I plug the iPod into for tunes or for music work. Outside the window is the fairway for Green 2 on the Charbonneau Golf Course, which is *just* starting to show signs that spring started three weeks ago. I'm informed that we should get to summer around July 25th. Really.

Shot four completes the collection. There are four bookcases here of varying brand, but all are 11" deep. All were in the Doug room from our old place, which was about half the size of the current Doug room. The rightmost bookcase is currently holding such useful items as cassette tapes (remember those?) and a line mixer that I can't decide if I'll ever need again. The next two bookcases are holding most of the GMT (aside from most of the ancients stuff, C&C and GBoH included), MMP (aside from ASL), Columbia, and Avalon Hill (aside from the flat or long boxes) games. These were all previously in the closet, I prefer them out and visible, demonstrating my neurosis to one and all. The final bookcase holds about half of my large Kosmos-style boxes (Ticket to Ride size), the CCG stuff (all in the top shelf), and the teeny boxes like card games. If you look closely you can see a glamour shot of Mel from around 12 years ago on the top shelf - she looks exactly the same, proving that I did in fact marry the undead. This last bookcase is the only one other than the very first one you saw that has stayed the same. Everything else moved around.

Here's one last shot to get you all the way around the room. The bookcase on the left of the shot is the one on the right you just saw, and the one on the left is the one in the very first shot. You can see the door to the hall on the left and the closet door on the right. Sorry about all of the lights whiting out everything - I took these shots with my iPhone, and it's kind of a limited application camera. You should get the idea of how the room looks, though.

I will post new pictures once I've finished clearing the room and get the table back in the middle it's a great gaming table, if you don't need to set up huge maps in some configurations. It has two butterfly leaves on either end, and when fully extended it will hold the entire Eurofront map (but I hope you don't need a place to put drinks down other than Syria). Note that these maps are 17" x 44" for each quadrant, creating a 34" x 88" total map, not typical for most monster games. I can handle two standard mapsheets under most circumstances on this table. The other two Office Despot tables are intended to hold larger games, although they have a limit of 48" to a side when they form a square. I'd originally intended on buying three or four of these to place along the wall where the new bookcases are, but that didn't work out and I'm glad I stuck with two. These can also be used to hold more gamers on the extremely off chance that more than six people show up to game at my place at one time.

That's my porn, hope you enjoyed it. Just don't let anyone in Arkansas know you let minors view or possess it. 

WoW, is that a CCG?

I get few requests on this blog, so when I get one from my fan (singular), I find I cannot refuse.

Unfortunately, there isn't that much to tell.

To start with, I try to stay away from CCGs as much as possible. I have a compulsive/addictive personality, fertile ground for CCGs or anything collectible in general (a boardgaming hobby is bad enough), and I find deck building overwhelming. There are published decks for just about any CCG online, and that's great if you have all of the cards from all of the various expansions that come out. WoW is now on it's fifth series, and given that Northrend is due out around the end of the year, I'm guessing we'll be seeing that number approach nine in the next 18 months or so.

Anyway, the main reason I got into WoW (I'll be referring to the CCG throughout this post and will note when I'm talking about other experiences in the franchise) was because I dug the online game so much. Where you have a quest in the game, there's a card that matches it. Same for gear, same for NPCs you run across, same for the talents and skills you accumulate. Playing a gnome rogue deck feels a lot like playing the character, except you can't just wait for your Strength meter to go back up for another Sinister Strike. They do try to put a lot of the other elements of the MMO into the CCG - in the later decks you can choose between Aldor and Scryers cards, you have a specific class that dictates what weapons/armor/skills you can have, there are Horde and Alliance limitations on your deck, etc. I really thought that the limitations would make deck building easier, but not so much.

The other reasons I got into the game were because Jesse ran (note the past tense) a WoW game night at his store. Of course, about the time I moved things got a little compressed, and when I finally got back to play around the holidays I found that the last night I had gone was the last night anyone had shown up. That was a real shame, because the thing that really pushed me into collecting these cards was the idea of a Raid Deck.

The Raid Deck is absolutely brilliant. I don't know if any other CCG has this sort of concept (the rest of WoW seems to be pretty standard fare for a CCG), but if they don't they should. In WoW, like most MMOs, you have tasks to complete that you won't be able to do on your own at the appropriate level, and in fact it's unlikely you'll be able to do it even when all of the critters involved no longer produce any XP for you. The instanced versions of these are called dungeons online, and there are also raids that are similar but generally are only taken on at the endgame when you've hit level 70. Some of these raids involve as many as 40, count 'em, 40 characters to have a decent chance of success.

Raid decks are an attempt, and a good one, to bring this element of the MMO to the CCG world. One player plays the Boss of a given dungeon while the other players, as many as you want to bring but usually four or five, take said boss on. The raid deck is set up so that the players encounter a series of opponents to defeat, all while playing with the single deck they might use for a standard one-on-one game. Different opponents will have different abilities and allies, requiring the other players to adjust as the game goes on. As in the standard game, when your deck runs out you are done, so it's a good idea to stick in at least one Blue Leaf Tubers card that will let you reshuffle your discard pile back into the deck.

The raid can be played casually, with the Boss player picking three or more opponents for the players to take on, or you can go for the full monty and try to take on all ten including the Big Baddie itself. I should note that I've only played one of these raid decks, and it may be that other decks have different circumstances. The raids, of course, match up with dungeons and/or raids in the actual game, and the process by which you progress through the entire series of opponents matches what you'd do in the MMO. The existing decks are for Oxyana's Lair, Molten Core, and Magatherion (I'm sure I'm butchering some of these names, I don't have the decks handy). Oxyana's Lair is out of print and hard to find, but the other two are easily available.

One other thing about the raid decks - they come with Loot cards. These are items that you can only get in the Raid set, and there are ten to a pack (each series has 40 cards total). People often "gamble" when they play a raid deck, with each player getting one random loot card at the end of the game, two if they beat the Boss. Hence five players being a good number. If the Boss player wins, he keeps the remaining cards. I'd want to be the Boss player, although you have the chance of getting nothing while everyone else gets at least something.

It is so that my group can play these raids without having to invest in the game that drives me to buy more cards. So far I've purchased a box of the original set boosters, several of the second set (Through the Dark Portal) starters and some more boosters, about a box worth all told, and now the Shadow of the Betrayer (set five) box of boosters. The starters have a 30 card starter deck tuned for a particular character, plus a couple of boosters to fill things out. In theory you are supposed to play a raid deck with everyone in the same faction (Horde or Alliance), although I suppose you could throw that rule out if you wished.

I came very close to buying boxes for the third and fourth sets as well, but at my cost of $72 per I'm probably best off stopping at this point. Having enough cards to flesh out four or five viable decks is tricky, especially if you don't have a lot of the aforementioned Blue Leaf Tuber cards. I guess you can always go buy some from the local card shop, although that just feels like cheating to me for some reason. Another reason I should stay away from this sort of game. At this point, I'm pretty sure I've got everything I need to have some great games, and I'm hoping that I'll be able to sell the idea at the next Sunriver retreat in May. Of course, I'll need to have built some decks by then. One thing about having this many cards - deck building gets a lot harder when you have a lot more choices.

If this sounds interesting to you, but you don't want to make an insane investment, I recommend buying a box or two as a group (probably from two different sets if you can find them - I hear Fires of Outland, set three, is out of print, but March of the Legion, set four, is still available - stick with cards from the first three or the last two as there tend to be similarities between these sets that you can leverage), sorting out the cards using a draft or whatever method you choose, going in together on the raid deck, and going for it.

A few notes about the raid I was involved in. The deck was Molten Core, so all of the opponents we faced were fiery critters, which started to all look the same after a while. I played my gnome rogue (of course), and we also had a mage, a priest, a tank, and a pally (I think). The priest had no ally cards in his deck at all - those are the cards you play in front of you that are persistent and have to match your faction - but he had lots of abilities - the cards that give you a (generally) non-persistent boost, sometimes during other players turns. That's another cool thing about the raids, you play just like you normally do, the only changes are what happens during the Boss' turn.

We played the whole shootin' match, ten critters, which took quite a while (I think total play time was around 4 hours). Unfortunately, I got killed first after I'd pulled a couple of sneaky moves on the Boss player and he decided I was too much trouble to live. Worse, that was about halfway through, and I stuck around hoping the game would end quickly and I could take my loot card and head home. Two hours later, the rest of the party (one other guy had finally gotten killed off about 15 minutes before the end) died on the verge of success - had they been able to survive for one more round they would have won, but the Boss had a card that inflicted 50 points of damage on everyone with no chance to prevent or save the damage. Clearly you want to have killed him before he plays that card. So I waited for two hours to get a loot card.

That *is* a drawback to the game, although you aren't required to play all ten characters, and I think that for most purposes a three critter game is sufficient (plus you don't have to worry about players running out of cards and dying that way). Since most people in my group have played *some* CCG at some point, teaching the game will be very easy to do, and for those that play the MMO it should be a lot of fun. And even for those that don't, although there is definitely something to be said for knowing the milieu.

So, there you have it. Why I Like WoW CCG. While I'm not stupid enough to say that this is the last CCG I'll get involved with, that is my intent. Did I mention I hate deck-building?

Sunday, April 13, 2008


Or whatever the kids are saying these days.

Time for an MMO update. I've been coming close to the end of my WoW experience, at least in terms of my main character, Leonadril on the Drenden server. Leo is now halfway through level 68, and has visited every region in the game (although some sections of Netherstorm and Shadowmoon are yet to be explored). I cannot think of a single point since we've moved (last October) that I haven't been earning double XP for this character, making soloing a viable strategy. However, when you hit 70, the soloing stops working at all, so unless I have some sort of good high level guild that I join up with, that will be end (in terms of active play) for Leo. And perhaps for WoW.

However, the two MMOs that I've tried as potential replacements both have fallen flat. I got a copy of Guild Wars (that came with the original campaign as well as Eye of the North) and raced up the XP ladder to 8th within a couple of hours. While I like that pretty much anything that will involve fighting is instanced, at the same time the top level is 20th and then it's pretty much all PvP. Both Eye of the North and Nightfall have ways to play with "henchmen" or "heroes" so that you can solo more easily, and the graphics are pretty nice, I'm not sure this is the game for me. For one thing, this is a popular game for school-age kids and teens as there are no ongoing fees (I paid $30 for the software set, so I consider this to be a pretty good deal to try out an MMO). That means lots of names like "B U T T H E A D" and I'm not sure that this is the sort of people I want to play with. WoW is bad enough.

The other game(s) I've tried out were City of Heroes/City of Villains. Dave had said the main appeal for him was the other people, and to be fair I've not grouped with anyone else. Greg said that the game was pretty dull, at least at the early stages, and I have to say I agree in spades. Different sections of the city look pretty much like the last section of the city you were in, and I find the street grid to be less than enthralling as I explore. I have yet to try out City of Villains, which takes place on islands rather than in cities (I think), but CoH just isn't grabbing me at all. Part of the problem may be that it doesn't seem to recognize that I have a 256Mb graphics card, so I'm stuck at a relatively low resolution and the graphics all look extremely clunky, especially compared to the nice effects in GW. Even cartoony WoW looks considerably better. Note that both GW and CoH are being run under Boot Camp on my Mac, which is *not* emulation, so I would think both would do about the same when it came to graphics under Windows.

For now, the main thrust is on WoW and getting Leo to 70. I've got tons of quests left, even after ditching the various group and instance quests (I'm debating whether to ditch my 0.5 armor set quest, which requires me to go to Stratholme - not a lot of folks real interested in the previous endgame dungeons these days), especially as I already have armor that blows it away. It does look cool, though, and one of my WoW CCG decks is built around a gnome rogue wearing the Shadowcraft armor, so there may be a sentimental motivation to get it. I know one thing, I'm unlikely to get a flying mount with Leo unless I can figure out how to make a *lot* more money than I am. I bought my fast mount recently, and have collected less than 500gp in the level and a half since that time. I know that you can work the auction house and other methods to make money relatively quickly, but I've got 4500gp to go and am not real sure I'm going to make it in time. I may continue just to get the mount, as there are areas you can't get to until you've got one.

I do feel like I've missed out on a lot of elements of WoW by doing most of this game solo. I've only been in six or seven of the dungeons, for instance. It would be fun to play with a regular group that focused on these, but I'm not sure I'll find those people on my server, at least starting from scratch.

Anyway, some things to think about. Perhaps the Conan MMO will cover the bases that I feel are lacking, and perhaps some of the folks in Rip City Gamers will be involved as well. That would be perfect, even if the MMO was short in some areas. Only time will tell.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Frederick the Not So Great

Chuck made the long trip down to save me from going out in the nice weather, and we got a little gaming in. Not a great success rate for me today, but we had a very good time.

First up was Prussia's Defiant Stand, a new block game from Worthington. I suspect there's a good game here. You'd never know it from the rules, full of holes and ambiguous wording. The basic problem - few concepts are defined formally, leaving you to "guess" what they mean. The FAQ covered none of the questions we had. Some notable problems - double defense is never defined, although there is an oblique reference made to what that actually means, although not using the term "double defense". One of the Frictions of War events says "no fortification steps" which could mean that you don't lose fort steps during a siege, or you can't add steps to your forts, or both. Start Areas for Russia and France could be considered "cities" or they could not. These are just three problems in a ruleset that is full of this sort of thing.

After three hours of play, we finally realized that our leaders could move two spaces and take infantry along with them without the forced march rolls, but no mention was made of leaders who only have movement one. At this point I decided to wait until there is a comprehensive FAQ or updated ruleset rather than try to parse one more ambiguity. Sadly, I think there's an excellent game here, but I'm unlikely to buy anything from this developer again. I had too much trouble with Phalanx's poor rules (again, a distinct lack of bothering to define simple game terms in most of their titles), and it's all development issues. Don't publish a wargame if you can't get a developer who can write (or at the *very* least, edit) rules.

For those interested in what the game is about, it's the 7 Years War in Europe, with Russia, Austria, and France trying to beat down Frederick's nascent Prussian state. The game uses blocks in a similar manner to Hammer of the Scots, although the cards you play also have events that you can use to gain an advantage in battle or play instead of activating leaders and units. Combat is very interesting, although none of this "flank" crap () - you go by the unit type, and cavalry has some choices to make that do make it feel like you want to leverage combined arms. Leaders are irreplaceable, infantry (on the other hand) is expendable like in no other game I've seen. All in all, this is a game I should love, but found fault with almost every informational element in the game. Worthington blew this one in a way we rarely see outside of a handful of companies, by trying to make a war game for Euro fans and their Euro sensibilities (the board is right out of a Euro). I'll consider it again when the rules have been shaken out a bit. A lot.

While that was a bit of a disappointment, we decided to try out one of the Paratrooper scenarios from the first Battle Pack for Combat Commander. Mike has complained long and loud that there *were* British paratroopers out there, some of which that performed just as well as the US/German ones (arguably, the Germans didn't perform all that well when they were used), but the set was published prior to CC:Med (where the Brits were introduced), so you can imagine the howls that would have ensued had you been required to buy that set to enjoy all of the scenarios. Can't please everyone.

Anyway, we played an interesting scenario set during the Bulge, with landed gliders in the No-Man's-Land between the German and US positions at Bastogne. I had trouble getting movement cards, and foolishly set up my main .50 cal MG position in a foxhole on a road, lowering my cover value and becoming a target for Chuck's big gun (and mortar). In the end, he swooped out and captured nearly all of the landed gliders on the map within a few card plays, while I was stuck in my lines. I might complain about my luck in this game (wasn't getting the cards I needed when I needed them, poor attack rolls, all of which is true to some extent), but when it comes down to it I simply placed my units poorly at the start and never made up for it the rest of the game. I will say I never had a single Advance card in hand the entire game, although there was really only one point when that would have been useful. Not sure if it's the scenario or the freakiness of luck, but this was not one of the more enjoyable CC games I've had. There really wasn't even a good story behind it, to be honest, which is the strength of the game.

Last up was Cold War: CIA vs KGB. This is a fun little game that I'd consider taking on a plane sometime (it would just fit on the tray tables), although I might consider smaller agent cards (not sure how the decision to make them huge was made), and perhaps some other token for the various "who won the Objective" tokens. Otherwise, it's a great game if a little long, but just by a bit. Chuck won our game in the end when I forgot which Agent I'd played that turn - I thought I'd done my Master Spy, but had in fact played my Director, so that I allowed Chuck to win an objective that gave him the game instead of fighting for it. This one is a winner, although I have so many two-player games now I'm really not sure how to even start to fit them all in.

With such a long drive for Chuck (he basically has to drive from one end of the metropolitan area to the other, a trip of at least 60 minutes one way without traffic), we're considering getting some gaming in via VASSAL, and now it's just up to us to figure out what game and whether or not there is a module for it. I'm pushing for Vance von Borries' Kasserine design, mostly because I've been learning that general system, and because I think it will be an excellent springboard for the East Front series, with which it shares a good amount of design philosophy. EFS will be difficult to play on VASSAL because of the scope (I just can't parse a big map on a computer screen), but there are many one-map scenarios and at some point we might just pull out the stops and try a big one at Sunriver one day.

Thanks again to Chuck for coming out, it's always nice to have someone my age out here.