Thursday, May 29, 2008

Glory To Rome!

Chris hosted the other night for our regular Tuesday game group. Since he and his family are going to New York for an extended vacation soon, this is the last time he'll host for a while, so it was nice to get the chance to game with him. Also present were Mike, Ken, and HazMatt. On the table were Cheeky Monkey, Glory to Rome, and a couple of games of For Sale. I missed the Monkey because I was picking up a stranded friend, and Mike bowed out early to miss the two For Sale games.

I'll focus on Glory of Rome, which took most of the evening to play (around 100 minutes including 'splainin'). The game is an interesting blend of civ-building and resource management, and despite the Phil Fogglio-esque graphics there's a fairly deep game here. There are elements of Puerto Rico/San Juan/RftG here, but at the same time the design mitigates the luck elements that make SJ and RftG a bit frustrating (card mining in particular). 

The entire point of GtR (wasn't that an 80's supergroup?) is to build buildings and convert materials into wealth. If you have the most of a given type of material in your vault, you get 3 bonus points for that material. In our game, which was clearly played sub-optimally, that would have been a 20% point boost had anyone gotten it (I was about three seconds away before HazMatt ended the game, literally the only way I was going to miss out on an extra five points). In our game, we focused on buildings rather than filling our vaults, and I suspect that future games will see the opposite because of the bonuses.

The game is pretty simple. Each Order card has four different elements to it, although three of those elements will be fixed for every card of that type. The first is the occupation of the card, which lets you do one of six fixed actions during a turn. The second is the material type of the card, which always matches the occupation. The third is the VP value of the card if it goes into your vault, also tied to occupation. Fourth is the special ability that the card gives you if you convert it into a building. These are also tied to the occupation, but there are multiple buildings associated with each occupation so there's more of a variety. 

For example, the Craftsman cards all have the material Wood, are all worth 1 VP in the vault. There are four or five buildings on Craftsman cards, including Palisades that protect the owner from Legionary cards. 

Each player also has a play aid mat that doubles as an organizational tool. On the top of the mat you place the Site cards (involved in building) that you complete which give you Influence (VP and allow you to place cards in other areas). The Vault, to the right, is where you put cards that will count towards your VP at game end, but you can only place two cards there until you up your Influence. To the left are your Clientele, which are occupations that you can always use, also limited by Influence. At the bottom is your Stockpile, a place to put materials until you need them. The cards are arranged graphically so that the materials are visible from the bottom, the occupations visible from the left side, and so on, so cards go under the play mat and take up relatively little space. 

The turn works as follows. The "Leader" player (really the start player, not an indication of where they are competitively) decides whether to "think" (draw cards) or play an occupation card, which determines what players can do for that turn. If the start player was thinking, then the turn is over. If they played an occupation card, the other players may either think or play their own occupation card. If they have a Clientele card in the appropriate section, they get an extra action as that occupation, and they don't even need to play a card and may Think to draw cards *and* get the bonus actions. For example, if a Laborer was led, and I have two Laborers in my Clientele section, I can draw up to my hand limit *and* select two materials from the pool to place in my stockpile of materials. The actions don't take place until everyone has decided whether they will hire or think for that turn, which is why Matt was able to draw the last card from the draw pile before I could bank my Concrete card for an extra five points. You can also use special "Jack" cards that act as any Occupation, but don't have any other use in the game.

Mitigating the luck of the draw is the Resource Pool. All discarded cards go into this pool, so if you play a Patron, that means there will be Marble cards in the pool for people to draw next turn as all Patron cards are also Marble cards. As such, the play you make on your turn will benefit you the least on the next turn if you wanted to get the card back out of the pool right away since you go from the first player to the last player. 

The Occupations are as follows:

  • Patron - move a card from the pool to your Clientele, limited to your Influence.
  • Laborer - move a card from the pool to your Stockpile.
  • Legionary - Request cards, which must be in hand (and not Jacks) from the pool and your immediate neighbors. 
  • Merchant - move a card from your Stockpile to your Vault, limited to your Influence.
  • Craftsman - You may start a new building, assuming there is a matching Site card (has the same material) from your hand. You may instead add a card to a building in progress from your hand.
  • Architect - Same as the Craftsman, except you may add a card to a building in progress from your Stockpile rather than from your hand. New building cards still come from your hand.
Again, if you have multiple Clientele of a given occupation, you may do that action multiple times. Near the end of the game, you might be able to build an entire building, from foundation to completion, without playing a single occupation card. Each building requires a different number of cards to complete based on the material used to build it, which of course matches up with the VP that resource would give. As such, you need two concrete cards in addition to the actual building card (foundation) and concrete site card. There are a limited number of site cards in each material, so as they get scarce you may find yourself planning to build something that you can't build because the guy in front of you took the last card. It's a surprisingly deep game.

As you can imagine, there are multiple paths to victory, with something like 25 different building types and a host of ways to build up Clientele. A few buildings seem really great until you realize that a) by building them you take the materials and associated VP out of the game (they don't go back into the pool, unlike when you play Occupations), and b) if someone else gets it, it's hardly worth your time. For example, I build a Senate that let me collect all of the Jacks that other people played in a turn. Which was awesome, until Chris (sitting to my left) did the same. Now, all the Jacks went to him unless it was my turn or if he played a Jack. 

The only downside I see to the game is that it comes in a rather cheap package - three card deck holders in a plastic blister pack that doesn't really go back together again all that well. Chris says he built a box to put it in rather than deal with that mess again. The other ding is the cartoony art that makes the game look lighter than it actually is. 

So what makes the game superior in some ways to Race? First is the resource pool, which means that you have to make your choices of occupation carefully so as not to set up an opponent, especially the person to your left. It also means that everyone draws from the same set of resources for Clientele and Materials. Second is the Jacks, which you can draw instead of from the Orders deck. That means you have flexibility as the turns progress to play any occupation, if not to get a specific material (but you have the Laborer to do that for you). Third is the pipeline nature of building, which means extra steps that require planning ahead. Early on it's not a terrible idea to get several buildings going at once so that you can add to any of them as your cards allow. These elements all mitigate the luck of the draw from the Orders deck, although it has it's appeal as well (as you might be able to get several cards at once). There is relatively little fishing compared to SJ or RftG, which I like. 

On the downside, the game takes about 80 minutes for a full playthrough, about four times as long as Race. Still, it's a deeper game that still scratches the same itch for me, and this is a title I'll pick up. Note that we played the I.V edition, which is apparently a much better production than the first attempt in 2005. That must have been something to see.

Thanks to Chris for hosting, I had a blast. Even if Hazmatt did steal the win from me by ending the game *just* at the right time. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

On Patriotism

There was a good op/ed piece by Ed Dionne, Jr in the Oregonian today (Tuesday, May 27th) talking about patriotism and how progressives should not abandon this high ground to the conservatives. In particular, he went on at some length about what patriotism is, especially in regard to nationalism or jingoism. 

Just to get our definitions straight, jingoism is defined as aggressive patriotism, particularly in regard to a warlike foreign policy (which could clearly be applied to the Bush administration). Nationalism tends to be a negative term as well, at least when applied to an existing country (or if you are Israel and you are discussing Palestinian nationalism). The key word in the definition I read was "superiority", which also seems to apply to the US at present.

Recently I was at the Charbonneau barbershop listening to a man go on about how people who didn't love America should just leave. By "love" he meant "things are going really well for me and mine right now so don't rock the boat". That's all well and good, but America isn't a static entity. Never has been, and never will be. One of the truly great things about my country is that it does change and adapt as the world changes. No longer are white male landowners the only ones in power, although we seem to be a little slower than most countries in making that change - in fact, a considerable percentage of Americans own land. Many immigrants came to this country specifically so that they *could* own land, when it wasn't possible back in their country of origin - it was a major element of the immigration waves of the 1800's, which of course were designed to put bodies in the newly expanding West as the result of land purchases or land taken in the Mexican American War. 

Other changes are equally sweeping - civil rights regardless of your race or sex (although we haven't quite gotten around to guaranteeing the latter, shamefully), social safety nets, transportation and communication networks, major scientific undertakings. Even when the underlying motivations for things like the Apollo moon landings (we can't let the Russians take over outer space!) are antagonistic, the results (imagine life without a microwave oven) are generally beneficial to us as a whole. 

The key issue here is that these were all changes. Often those changes were fought tooth and nail by those who wanted to keep the status quo for selfish reasons, even if those who fought for the changes had the same motives. Trolley cars were eliminated by the rubber and gasoline companies who wanted people in cars, not mass transit. Clearly a change that has had mixed results, but we adapt and change to change itself.

Even the very definition of what America is changes as you move from neighborhood to neighborhood. I live in one of the most progressive parts of the US, a state that hasn't voted Republican for president since Reagan, yet my neighbors who wave the flag are all conservatives, rich, and white. Clearly they want nothing to change except for the Democrats to all die horribly and at once. Many of them defend torture, the suspension of habeas corpus, invading other countries if we disagree with them, and think Bill O'Reilly is a smart guy (which he probably is - he's made a career out of screaming over the top of anyone he disagrees with, which has been very effective if not terribly useful). Drive ten miles up the road to my old neighborhood, Multnomah Village, and you'd see people who throw up in their mouths at the idea of *any* conservative having a voice in power.

True patriotism is not either of these things. True patriotism is being able to look at all arguments and come up with a solution that will make life better for all Americans, not just the ones who look like you or go to your church. True patriotism is taking a hard, honest look at what our country does in our name and be willing to stand up in a hostile crowd and say that we need change because we're better than what our acts say we are. 

It is not wearing flag pins, it is not waving the flag on holidays (or all year, as many of my neighbors do). It is definitely not claiming that if you don't like it, move to Cuba. If you don't like it, think about why you don't like it, why things are the way they are, find a solution, and work to see it implemented. Perhaps that's an engineer's view of the world, but then we build the roads and buildings and bridges and Internet and airplanes and cars. We look at the world in what should be a neutral and objective way, find compromises where necessary, make design trade offs, but in the end we get the job done. 

Perhaps we should be electing engineers to run things instead of lawyers. 

Regardless of who the next President is, I am hopeful that we will begin to move away from the attitudes of difference and fear of change and start seriously addressing the myriad crises that loom in our future. Because they will require us to forget our tribal politics and entrenched interests and look at the world differently if we are to survive as a nation and culture, if not as a species. We can't consume the world's resources at our current rate if everyone does it, so it's time to start learning to make do with less. It's time to realize that the choices we make as a nation affect the entire world, and perhaps we should be making those choices as if we lived on a planet that we're stuck on. 

Perhaps patriotism should start to move past our national boundaries and apply to our world and our species and even life in general. Because wearing a flag pin will mean nothing to your children, or your grandchildren, if they're living in caves and wearing rat skins. Patriotism is really about thinking and moving and doing in arenas beyond the self, and the sooner we wake up and realize that patriotism has been a tool to control the population rather than improve life, the sooner we can start making a future for our kids instead of making things worse.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Holy Crap

Some of you who are astute readers and willing to listen to my political/social/economic ramblings know that I have a 23-year-old daughter. You also know that my wife and I, who had been dating for about two months when she got pregnant, made the decision to give her up for adoption. In Oregon, you are allowed to get information about your birth parents when you turn 18 (a practice I'm not convinced is a good idea just yet, although I'm quite happy that our daughter found us), and so she did five years ago. 

While it hasn't always been a smooth ride, I have always been thrilled that my daughter is in our lives, although sometimes not so much. 

Now, in a plot twist made for a Lifetime channel movie, I can say that I am going to be a grandfather right around New Years Day, assuming everything goes well. Making things only slightly more complex is the fact that my daughter and the father were living together for a while, broke up for a few months, decided to get back together, and sealed the deal with a little surprise. He's moving up to Portland from Vegas in early July, and from the few days I've spent with him I have a good opinion of him. They do not plan to get married right away, which I think is a good idea. 

I am, of course, concerned about a few things. I'm slightly worried that we may end up being the defacto parents of this child for a variety of reasons, and we have no experience with such things. I'm also a little concerned that my daughter is a member of an evangelical church, and my experience has been that some members of such churches can be extremely judgmental and nasty, especially as my daughter isn't planning to get married. I do not think that all evangelical Christians are this way, far from it, but when Mel was pregnant 24 years ago (my God) the handful of people who behaved poorly at hearing this news were, with one exception, evangelical Christians. Me, I'm not terribly concerned about the opinions of the people in her church, but I am concerned that she went looking for community and that she may be disappointed when some ostracize her for being fertile. These are small issues, however. My grandchild has the world before her (we do not know the sex yet, of course, as she is only a couple of months into the pregnancy) and a support system that is ready to help when she needs and wants it.

My own reaction has been interesting. We found out on Mother's Day (apropos!), and for about a week I wasn't sure if I was reacting at all. Everything felt very - flat, which I attribute to shock. On the one hand, my DNA is doing what it's geared to do - reproduce. On the other hand, an unplanned pregnancy (at least in this case) is something that is going to have repercussions on the rest of my daughter's life, regardless of what choice she were to make. I am pleased she did not choose abortion, although I am pro-choice (technically, I'd call myself pro-planning and would prefer that women are never in a position to have to choose abortion, but consider it the lesser of two evils). I think that the emotional cost of abortion scars you for life, and it is a choice that women should enter into very carefully. At the same time, I have seen the costs of adoption from both sides, and they are high as well. My daughter is already scarred from that experience, and I often wonder if she would be happier and more stable had we kept her (although we can never know - there are so many variables). 

In all, I think she is making the correct and responsible choice to keep this child. I think that this situation is going to force her to grow up very quickly, and that she is going to be challenged on many levels, potentially to the point where she breaks down in some way. I think that the situation is going to finally give us the chance to earn her trust, as we have been where she is now in many ways. I think that I am going to love being a grandfather, and heaven help this child if she doesn't enjoy playing games with me. I think that explaining why there are so many grandparents (both my daughter and her boyfriend have divorced parents, and then there's us, meaning up to ten "grandparents", although in this case I think that genetics wins ties) will be a challenge. I think that this is going to be one loved child. 

I also think I would have preferred to be in my 50's before becoming a grandparent. I certainly would have preferred that my 60 year old brother become a grandparent before me. I'm fairly certain I have beaten all of my friends to grandparenthood, at least those who are at or near my age. Being a grandparent is a milepost that says you are old, that your life is over and it's time to hand the torch to those younger than you. That's not likely to happen, as my life is full of me sidestepping the traditional path because it doesn't make sense to me. I am a 45-year-young grandfather, and I'm looking forward to it. I'm still going to skip over my birthdays, though.

The only thing I know is that none of this (other than providing love and support) is in my hands. I can give advice when asked, a shoulder to cry on, a helping hand when needed. But in the long and short run, all I can do is those things. They are not trivial, but they are not the hard work of parenting or trying to build a long term relationship almost from scratch. This is the work my daughter will need to do, and I both wish I could spare her this struggle and exult that she has, at long last, reached adulthood for better or for worse. 

So think good thoughts for Steph as she goes through this gauntlet. It will not be denied, and we now celebrate new life into a world of chaos and uncertainty as we have for millennia, throwing our DNA into the void of an uncaring and hostile universe, and are glad. 

Friday, May 23, 2008

Things I'm Glad AoC Does Different From WoW

A short list, but since I've been critical in my first two passes (and spent a little time playing WoW), here's my list...

1) Shorter corpse walks. I got my Horde Druid stuck in the Boulder Lode Mine, getting ganked by four Venture Co. goblins. three or four minutes of corpsewalking later, I found all of the dead mobs had respawned and there was no safe space to resurrect in the mine. Not that it kept me from trying, and on the third try I actually managed to just have *one* goblin attack me. Then when I was trying to get my system back into fighting trim, another four came at me. At that point I decided to wait to finish the quest until I'd gotten cat form and could sneak in (which I did later, and died when four more attacked me right after I'd killed the boss, but after I'd gotten the Samophlage Manual Cover from him). 

At that point, I res'ed in the graveyard and suffered 10 minutes sickness rather than do another three minute corpsewalk. Sheesh. 

AoC respawns you, intact, at a safe location. You may need to work through parts of the instance you're in, but in general things seem to be a lot closer than in, say, the Barrens in WoW. I mean, all Blizz had to do was allow you to res in Ogrimmar, but since it's in a different zone you don't do that. 

So maybe they should have added another graveyard?

2) Interesting human interaction right away. By this I mean "human" as in NPC, as  you clearly have human interaction right away in any MMO. Instead of burning through three levels in a long period of time (say, an hour), AoC gets you through to the city (and vendors, safety, etc) in about 20 minutes. You're in a major city right away rather than showing up at one around level 6, as you do in WoW (assuming you follow quest lines rather than just heading straight for the Ironforge, say).

3) And the early area doesn't involve spending half the time traveling. While I don't know what the post-tutorial areas look like yet, I do know that I'm not spending half my time running. I prefer to play female characters in WoW so that at the very least I'm looking at a nice ass even if it is on a very large cow. Because I spend a lot of time watching them run from one end of Stranglethorn Vale to the other. I love Leonadril, but I was feeling like we'd spent a little too much time together, if you know what I mean. AoC at the very least avoids that early on - most things are pretty close by, and the worst thing that happens is you get lost in Tartuga (got it!)

4) Helpful icons in the HUD. The Mini-map in AoC has arrows to show you where you need to go for the next quest. In Targuta, that may mean running around trying to find which street you need to go down to get there, but it's a big improvement over resorting to an online map to find where the Temple of Conspicuously Consuming Were Rats is as you do in WoW. Now if only they would let you list quests, as I've mentioned before.

See? I like this game. I like it fine. Once I've got the magic disconnected shadows turned off and I have a frame rate in the 30's, I'll like it even more. Tomorrow the goal is to roll another character (probably a priest variant) and try to get Basti through a few more levels (15, ideally).

That, and get one of my Twilight Struggle games done on Wargame Room (I need to play twice before Monday).

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Age of Conan, Day 2

Today Matt G and I spent about two hours running around Tortegu Island (I will have this name figured out at some point) attempting to group. I'd gotten two pirate-sweeping quests done when I found Matt, and after figuring out that we were in different instances we hooked up and got some questing done. Perhaps because I was helping, I only went up a single level over the time we spent, although we killed a *lot* of snakes and scorps while hunting Flesheaters. 

Some more comments on the MMO:

  • Things are still a little slow and clunky. I plan to take some of the advice on tailoring your machine for better performance, just as soon as they let me into the forums. 
  • I've gotten so that I just hit the '1' key repeatedly if I want a quest but don't want to have an entire conversation with a quest giver. They need a key to let you do this quickly, especially if you've got an alt and have been through this whole thing 20 times already. New newbie areas, please!
  • Shadows Over Tartuga - At one point, everyone and everything's shadows became detached from their bodies. It was tres freaky, let me tell you. All of these shadows walking around by themselves! 
  • Grouping - we had quite a bit of trouble staying grouped. At one point, I still had my group window up but whatever I typed wouldn't show up. Turned out I'd been bounced out of the group while Matt was still in it. It had happened before, but to Matt and I still got his messages. 
  • Interface - I have a horrible time finding how to do simple things in this interface. There is no "system" button, a la WoW, that lets you quit, fiddle with settings, etc. Finally figured out it was the ESC button (or F1, hard to tell as sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't). Figuring out how to generate a group chat window was a pain too, and typing '/' to get the cursor into the chat window didn't work - I had to click on it. I expect a lot of interface improvements over the coming weeks, but for now the delta between this game and WoW will slow me down on a regular basis. 
One thing that I'm finding to be disconcerting is the whole day/night paradigm. If you want to do solo quests in your own instance of the city, you tell the bartender and off you go. If you want to play multi-player, same thing. You can't do both sets of quests at once. Fortunately, the night quests seem to be class-specific, so you're less likely to want to group for them. I guess that once you get out of the initial area the diurnal cycle is set to game time rather than the player's request, and I'm not sure that's going to be a good thing. Imagine going to a new area planning to do quests there, logging out for the day, and coming back later and finding out that you can't do those quests. Maybe I have this wrong, but it strikes me as a bit dunderheaded out of the gate. Especially as right now I have a single night quest that's a little high for me right now, so I need the daytime quests just to play. 

One good thing about the various problems is that I'm not itching to play for eight hour stretches, but rather for two to four hours at a time (probably around two in the future) until things stabilize. I hear that you can solo all the way up to around 40 without any problem, too, although I'm concerned that there will be a lot of friend's characters that arrive at that point at a wide variety of times, making it hard to group. Time will tell, as the single newb area is definitely going to limit the number of characters I generate if all I do is run them through the same freakin' zone again and again. Hopefully Funcom will have additional starting areas as the game matures.

One last thing - I'm having trouble figuring out when I'm in an instance and when I'm not. Matt and I couldn't find each other for about five minutes until we figured out that the city itself had several instances. We could still communicate, and it was easy to get to the new instance (assuming you don't mind respawning outside the city). Just more confusion, I guess. 

I don't mean to sound like I'm down on the game, I'm just used to WoW and it's extremely mature and stable world. Finding the delta between the two games will be an interesting experience, and will give me a strong sense of whether or not I want to be involved in an immature MMO in the future. So far I haven't minded too much, and I'm much more into this game than I was with either CoH or GW. Regardless, my WoW account isn't going to go cold in the meantime - I'm still enjoying it quite a bit, although Leo is getting bored with the daily quests and has 23 group/dungeon quests that he needs people to play with to finish. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Totensonntag - Corps Command

Had a chance to play Totensonntag, a very small and light wargame from Lock'n'Load Publishing, the same people who brought you World At War and (of course) the Lock 'n' Load tactical WWII and Vietnam games. LnL has a pretty bad record with writing clear rules - Mark Walker prefers a conversational style that's great if you're giving a review, not so good if you want clarity in your rules. I've had trouble getting started with Band of Heroes simply because the rules were so familiar (in a bad way) that I have trouble clarifying specific issues. 

Totensonntag uses the same sort of style, but in this case there really aren't very many rules to screw up. The designer is Peter Bogdasarian, so the rules are a bit closer to a dryer and clearer style. The good news is that every situation we were able to find seemed to be covered, which you'd expect because the game is extremely small. Literally, as the box is smaller than that of Titan: the Arena. Both sides have a total of less than 50 counters combined for use in the game, so it's an excellent introduction to hex and counter wargames. 

The one rule that is a bit of a mess is whether or not you can use artillery to assault - in one part of the rules, assaults aren't mentioned while barrages are, and in another you are told that artillery may indeed assault like other units. A little clarity would have been nice, but we assumed that assaults were allowed. The other strangeness comes from no mention of what the back side of the counters is for (they just mention placing hit counters in the rules), although it's clear enough if you're an enthusiast. Since this game is clearly intended as an introductory game, it would have been nice if they'd caught this. I nit, however - the rules are very complete otherwise.

The subject is the 1941 British surprise attack on the German besiegers of Tobruk at Sidi Rezegh (I'm sure I'm butchering that last word). The goal is to break through with three units to Tobruk, or at least take one or more of the three airfields that the Germans held. All the British have to do is to take a single airfield and do it without losing too many units, while the Germans have to hold them off and do the same. That's a tall order for the Germans, as they have a bunch of Italians sitting in entrenchments a ways away, and it's not terribly difficult for the Italians to be "shattered" (losing four or more units). 

The components are a mixed bag by wargaming standards. The box is pretty sturdy and attractive, as are the board and counters, but the board is on heavy cardstock which is nice enough but this particular material tends to warp a bit and it's impossible to get it to lay flat without some plexi. A paper map would have been slightly less sturdy but would have been a better choice. The counters are a nice size (5/8") and use NATO symbology for the infantry/arty units, and armor illustrations for the mechs. Normally I think this is a good thing, but since some mechs have special characteristics I'd almost have preferred something a bit clearer. Some of the factors have very small notations on them that are almost impossible to read with my 45 year old eyes, and in fact the unit designations (which are not just historical but play a functional role) are nearly illegible as they tend to be a bit blurry even if you have 20/20 vision. The counters are on a fairly thin cardstock as well, although since this is a small game with low unit density I found it wasn't a huge problem. One German unit does have a faulty designation, one of the infantry units. The set up instructions are also incorrect and you'll want to check the 'Geek or the LnL site for errata.

The rules are very short, only eight pages of fairly sparse text with lots of illustrations and examples. This is a game you can learn in 10 minutes and teach in five if you and your opponent have some wargaming experience. There are a few unusual mechanisms in the game, though, so you'll want to read the rules pretty closely the first time out to be sure you understand things. The rules also contain quite a bit of special cases, or chrome, and not all of it is included in the play aid sheet (although the counters have those teeny tiny notations). 

There are six turns, each consisting of a single day, and each day has four impulses. On each impulse, each player rolls a six sided die. That number is used in a couple of ways - first, you can only activate units that have that number as their third factor (where most games put MF) or higher, so the Italians and leg Afrika Korps units that have a factor of 2 will only be able to activate about 1/3rd of the turns. Second, you can only move as many MF as whatever your roll is (although non-leg units move an extra MF). As such, the lower you roll, the more units you can move, but the shorter their range. Higher numbers allow fewer units to move, but they can zip along. Finally, whoever rolls the higher number gets to move first, so there is quite a bit of potential for double moves in the game. 

The more astute among you will notice that no one gets to move at all if you roll a six, and even the 5 result isn't that useful (other than the PzIIIs and recon units). The game takes that into account - if you roll a 5, you can bump your result up or down on the following turn at your option. If you roll a 6, you get to pick the next roll. So, while you might take a hit on the current turn, you have some choices next turn. If both players roll sixes, you pick your initiative numbers secretly, which actually happened to us. Seeing as the turn order was pretty important, it forced the Germans to play a 4 instead of a 3 to get some units out of harms way.

Combat is also very easy, at least once you figure out the numbers. Every unit has an attack value and a protection value, usually 3 and 10 respectively. You roll two dice, add the attack value, and compare to the protection value. There are several modifiers, which are conveniently included on the board, but in general most units will need to roll a seven in order to hit. Once a unit is hit, it is first flipped, which coincidentally lowers the attack value by one. If it can take further hits, there are Hit markers that can be placed on the units. When a unit is down to a combat factor of 0, it is removed permanently (and counts toward whether or not a division is "shattered"). The net effect is that a one factor shift is huge - the difference between having to roll a 7 vs an 8 has a 1/6 detrimental effect. 

Making things more interesting are artillery, which can fire at range if the target is spotted (plus making the 50% "range in" roll) and the ability of mech units to overrun (and recon units to dance away). That last one is important, as usually units can move *or* fire, not both, in any given impulse, and mech get to do both so long as they have that extra MF to do the overrun. Also, stacking is important as only the top unit can be assaulted (arty can pick their target, although they are pretty ineffective against armor even when they do range in). There's really a surprising amount to think about in this game, although the short time frame removes supply concerns entirely.

Terrain plays a big role as well, as units are limited when moving into escarpment hexes (mechs can't do it, moto units can at a cost), so since many of the units are mech they are channeled into a couple of narrow passes giving the game three main fronts - the eastern pass that is lightly fought until the Kiwis show up late in the game, the central front which is lightly defended early but reinforced in depth early on, and the Italians in their entrenchments hoping they can hold out. In our game, the British ignored the Italians for the most part, preferring to throw the South Africans at them when they show up on turn 3. All of the airfields and the road to Tobruk require getting through the passes, and then you have to be ready for the big German counterpunch on turn 3. Those PzIIIs are clearly the strongest and most mobile units in the game, and even though the Germans have four total units their armor and positive DRM make them a serious threat (although the German must be careful not to lose them as they count double towards being shattered).

Even if your units do take a beating, they get a chance to regroup every night based on side and unit type. The Germans regroup best, followed by all infantry units, followed by British tanks, followed by the Italians. ZoCs make it tougher, and in fact the Italians can't regroup in a ZoC at all. As such, every day has a similar flow to it - make the initial attacks, follow through on any breakthroughs or try to push back the attack, then hold the line and pull your damaged units back. Even taking a PzIII unit with a single hit feels very chancy in this game.

Play time is about 2-3 hours for your first game, but play becomes very brisk as you get used to the system and the DRMs. I would imagine this game would be playable in 90 minutes from the time you open the box until it's put away with experienced players (meaning having one game under your belt). Given the small size, this would be an excellent travel game, although no one will be playing it on an airplane soon (although you could probably pull it out while waiting to get on your plane if you were held over). 

This is supposedly the first in a series of games using the same system, and I have to say I think there's a real success here. The game seems to work quite well for desert warfare, and I'll be very interested to see if the system translates to other theaters. I'm quite pleased with the game, and it will make for a nice "filler" at WBC West when games finish earlier than expected. I'm happy to see a newer wargame company having success with different designers, and I'm looking forward to the other titles in this series.

Age of Conan First Impressions

Installed and played about four hours of Age of Conan today. Couldn't start until around 3pm because of some major server issues they were having (people were getting stuck in a region of the map), which is just as well.

After looking over the various options for starting a character, I chose a female Stygian ranger named Basti (Bast was taken). I hit level ten after about four hours, which is considerably faster than I would have done the same feat with WoW (level ten takes me about seven hours there, although there is much more travelling than in AoC, at least so far). 

I'm afraid I'm not yet up on the nomenclature, but I've been putting points into stealth and climbing first, less into endurance and healing. I've just gotten to the talent tree, and literally spent about 20 seconds looking at it before having to log off for dinner. That element is kind of nice, as you can tailor the character a bit more, although that's really not the thing that I enjoy about MMOs. 

The combat system seems to be easier to master than I had thought, although you don't automatically shift to the enemy that is actually attacking you - this screwed me up a couple of times. Otherwise, I can beat mobs at my own level rather handily, and it's the critters that are up two or three levels that are a challenge. 

The interface seems kind of primitive, and the quest-getting process (ask one of a series of preprogrammed questions, get an answer, ask another numbered question) feels a bit overdone, although the voice acting is passable. Sure are a lot of Germans and Eastern Europeans in Hyborea. This is not unusual for an early-life MMO, from what I'm told, so I'm expecting to see the environment improve radically over the next few months.

Of course, the main reason I'm playing is to get some time in with friends, and we've got at least four or five people that I know in life who are already playing, so I signed onto the Wiccana server as it's the unofficial "rp-pve" server with more laid back and mature players. No kids arguing about goths on the trade channel here, as seems to be common on WoW servers. Although someone used the word "boobies" in a sentence.

I'm also wondering what the "mature" content is in this game. Sure, there are dead people strung up in the starting town, and a lot of skin showing, and slavery given as a plot device (and some light sexual references), but certainly nothing that your average 14 year old hasn't seen a billion times on the internet. For goodness sakes, I was reading these books when I was 10, and there's nothing in the game that isn't in the books. 

Anyway, so far so good. Certainly a more pleasant experience than City of Heroes or Guild Wars, although I do wish they'd done a Mac version so that I don't have to reboot just to check my mail.

One other note: you can't join a guild until you've hit level 20. Too bad, it will make the game a little less interesting early on, although you can still play with friends (and there are multi-player quests early on). I'm looking forward to those, although probably not until next week because of my schedule.

Gay Marriage in California

I'm a strong supporter of gay marriage - I have several gay friends and my experiences in the arts, tech, and with the Unitarians have shown me quite clearly that the only authentic difference between me and a person who prefers sex with their own sex is just that. I know that there are people with strong religious convictions against homosexuality, but frankly I get very confused as to why that's such a big issue. To me, religion is a choice more than your sexual orientation, and no one is forcing any church to perform weddings for gay couples. Of course, there are churches that won't allow people in who aren't a specific race, and how many of us would admit to being in one of those churches in public?

By now everyone has heard the arguments on both sides. The one that I think is the only one that will have a hope of changing any minds is that the US was based on the idea of more freedom for the individual rather than less, and despite nearly eight years of an administration that has done it's best to scream Freedom at the top of it's lungs while simultaneously eroding that freedom at a frightening pace, this core value holds true. Does anyone think that this would be a better country without women's sufferage, the abolition of slavery, civil rights, and habeus corpus? Anyone, that is, who isn't doing a bang-up Archie Bunker impersonation? 

Marriage is two people committing to a long term relationship, in theory for the rest of their lives. It brings stability to society and security to child-raising. I'm not sure how a few Biblical passages that also ban the eating of shellfish and keeping your head covered rate with the other big social contract elements of Judeo-Christian culture, the Ten Commandments.

Of course, the horse has left the barn years ago, and just like the list of improving freedoms above there will be those who continue to fear power in the hands of people who aren't exactly like them. These are people like the Neo-Nazis, who would encourage that I be beaten or killed because I have dared to marry and produce offspring with a non-Caucasian woman. Or those who say that marriage is for propagation of children only - in which case I clearly should get a divorce because I've been clipped. 

You may come up with all of the arguments against gay marriage you want, but it all comes down to the simple fact that those who fight against it are on the wrong side of history. It's been demonstrated again and again. Are there causes that we should fight against? Of course - any unequal power situation (polygamy, child brides) should be avoided, but gay marriage has no more of a power balance issue than regular marriage. 

Gay men and women are exactly the same as heterosexuals in every way other than sex and reproduction. I've had landlords that were gay, played in bands and sung in choirs, gone on trips, drank beer and dined, and I'm here to tell you that they are people just like you. They have preferences just like you. Unlike you (assuming you are straight), they are banned from hospital beds, from inheritance rights, from family health plans. 

How the hell does allowing these rights to same-sex couples hurt you? 

More importantly, do you really want to be the person who rails against a particular group because they aren't like you? Because that's what the Klan does. Perhaps you'd be better served by getting to really know a few gay people and take a hard look at your own behavior. Hate is ugly, acceptance and tolerance are not. 

Besides, you really aren't going to end up having any choice, any more than the people who didn't want blacks or women to vote did. Portland has it's first openly gay mayor entering office in 2009, how long will it be until they get to the presidency? Don't be ignorant, be open.

Age of Conan - Here We Go!

Picked up the AoC package today, and have spent the past hour or so installing, with another 10 minutes until the servers are up. Apparently there's a problem with the Lacheish Plains area, and players are being urged to stay away from that part of the map. Unlikely I'll get out of a newb area today, frankly. I have three Wargame Room games that I need to finish before Sunday night! 

Also, the video requirement is for a high-end graphics card, and mine barely makes the grade at "required" (an ATI 256mb card - I still remember the first VooDoo cards that were something like 4Mb ten years ago, but of course I also still remember my Apple IIe with floppy disk space measured in kbytes and no hard drives). The eye candy is nice, but I'm more interested in overall play experience for now. A new card would set me back a good $300 on my Mac - there are very few options that don't risk damaging the card permanently.

I'll give more input once I've had a chance to play the game a bit. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Wizard Kings - One And Out

On our last morning in Sunriver, Mike and I decided to give Wizard Kings a try. We used a preset scenario done for 2nd ed with about 16 blocks per side. Oddly, it uses map 3 from the original set, so it's perhaps a poor choice for anyone thinking that they made a  bad decision buying the 2nd edition and never having owned the first. 

Worse, the game requires very specific blocks, and even more for reinforcements (the orc player will need a lot of goblin blocks as they get a free full strength block every turn). By my math, at one point I had something like 23 blocks on the board at one point. Given that the starting armies in the 2nd edition have seven blocks each, you would have to buy eight expansions, getting exactly the right blocks in order to play this particular scenario. 

Clearly, this is one of many scenarios that are out there, and there is nothing wrong with throwing a bunch of blocks on a map and going at it. Still, it's also clear that this game is increasingly geared to people who had the first edition and blocks to burn before the expansions. Which is not me. 

Worse, the game was incredibly static and dull. We poked at each other, but with no way to easily reinforce existing blocks in enemy territory (at least without a 2 city) the turns felt quite incremental and slow. Play was quite brisk, but after two hours we were back where we started and losing interest. 

I will note that there is a Gold block in every expansion pack that allows you to move money out of your cities to the front line, but you'd need several of them per side (in our game, I'd expect to need something like five to seven for each player), and that means another $100 investment in a game just to make it usable, and then you only have the gold units for two armies unless you want your supply trains to have giant targets painted on them. Not gonna happen.

So my experience with this game is that it's not only a complete fraud and holds very limited play without a major investment, but that it's really not a terribly interesting game either. Of course, I suspect that one of the reasons I prefer historical conflict simulations is that there's a clear historical yardstick that guides your play and provides a good comparison, so a fantasy title like this with no literary source to back it up is going to come up short every time. 

One of the very few wargames I've purchased and almost immediately regretted. This will definitely go on the sale pile in the near future, assuming I don't contact Columbia and request a refund or at the very least credit toward another game. Given that I own every block game they've published in the past 10 years, I'd say they owe me one. 

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Sunriver Retreat Wrapup

I type this from Sunriver, where Mike and I have been enjoying a pleasant evening just relaxing and chatting after three full days of gaming. We've got a couple of things we plan to play tomorrow as we close up the house and get ready to head home, but for all practical purposes we're done. 

This was the first year that we started rotating the retreat to Chris' beach house at Salishan in the winters after giving up on bad road conditions coming over the Cascades in late October and early November, so it's been a year since a retreat at this house (not counting WBC West, of course). It was a bit disappointing to have so few people coming out this time (five gamers, plus Chuck's wife Jody who joined us for a few things). Still, it was good fun and I accomplished pretty much everything I wanted to. 

Here's a short breakdown of how the weekend went. Sorry, no detailed game descriptions. It's simply too difficult for me as the host to blog and play and be the host, so I'm doing most of this from memory.

Tunes - Definitely a quieter sound than in the past. Jeff has good taste in music, but he dislikes heavier instrumentation, so not nearly as much Death Metal this time out. Lots of bands I hadn't heard before, which is always good. I would go so far as to say that Jeff's taste is to mine as mine is to Dave's, which doesn't really tell you much unless you're Dave, I guess. 

Crowd - A different feel, although everyone was a very savvy and quick study in most of the games we played. In the past there's usually someone not "getting it" and a good chunk of the time that was Mike or me this time out, so it seemed that we were getting a lot of new things on the table with relatively little pain. Except that WoW CCG Raid deck, where I really should have boned up on the rules ahead of time. 

New Games - I was quite pleased wrt how many of the new games I brought were played. Blackbeard was the holdout - I have little hope that this will ever see multiplayer table time in this group at this point, as there really wasn't much interest. Otherwise, even though some of the games were not terribly well received, they were on the table. Here's a quick list:

Dust - Has promise, although I'm not sure that this is going to be the right game for this group. We just don't play big world conflict games like Axis and Allies, and this is where this game fits in. Some nice ideas and mechanisms, though, although it doesn't really evoke the franchise terribly well as it's too broad a brush.

Mission: Red Planet - I really liked this relatively quick Faidutti game, especially the whole "Victorians in Space" theme. Cross area control with the psychological game of Race for the Galaxy or Citadels, and you'll get the idea. Not quite as well received by others, but I thought it was a good hour game if you don't mind relatively little control.

Last Night on Earth - Wacky Zombies Eat Brains game spoiled by vague rules (I'd thought you replaced "play immediately" cards in your hand, which is clearly not the case - the zombies rolled over us). Taken with the right group and the right attitude and this is a great late night game, but probably not great for serious gamers. This would have seen a lot of play in college.

R Eco - With three, this game is delightful, but I hear it's a mess with five. Good light filler, and one I'll pick up.

Stone Age - Similar to Caylus, Pillars of the Earth, and quite a few others, this DALOTGALOP game was intriguing but probably not enough for me to pick it up. 

El Capitan - Having not played Tycoon, I may look for the previous title as EC's map is dark and hard to parse. I won, but really have almost no idea how other than trying to get onto every port on the board. Marred by Mike not hearing or understanding that unplayed pieces from previous rounds carried on to later rounds, resulting in a major play error by Chuck at the game end. 

Pompeii - A decent screwage game with a weird little volcano you set up on the board. One I'll play with people who can handle this sort of thing, but not one I'm going to add to the collection. 

Kingsburg - OK, I played this one at Lorna's party in January, but I haven't gained any love for it. Play was *much* brisker in this session, but after six rolls of 8 on three dice in a row (I could reroll if I'd had seven points or less), this game simply doesn't grab me at all. Perhaps it's the ridiculously overproduced board (which would fit in half the space), or the constant dice rolling. Not for me. 

As for heavier games, we got in a few of those. I managed to win our game of Imperial, and I'm really not sure how other than that I had the right stocks in the right countries by the time we finished. I came in second in Die Macher, not bad considering it was the first full game I'd played (one "short" game and one aborted game). 

I got in a surprising number of wargames as well - Hannibal (played against Mike, who I've decided isn't right for the lighter card-driven titles as the literary elements of a game don't really grab him), Totensonntag (nice smallish wargame marred by a cardstock map that doesn't lay flat), Manoeuvre (won two in a row with the Austrians, beating the Turks badly when I kept getting the opportunity to attack surrounded units that couldn't retreat). We will probably play Wizard Kings tomorrow just so I know what I'm giving up when I sell my copy.

Disappointments - The WoW CCG raid deck definitely comes in first. I am completely to blame for this, but I also realize that you must have WoW CCG players to appreciate and enjoy the game. I felt the raid deck did an excellent job of evoking the feel of a major dungeon boss, but forgetting such critical rules as taking damage as the attacker in combat and allowing for a mulligan if your initial hand isn't great (plus having quickly cribbed together player decks) made for a lot of frustration. I suspect I'll have to give this up unless the right people (again) are playing, as there's nothing worse than watching people completely lose interest and knowing that your lack of prep is to blame. 

The other big disappointment was not being able to find a weekend when more people could come. I may move the time back to early May or late April, although I suspect that for many people a full weekend away simply is no longer viable. The good news is that I'm hoping to make Chris' weekend in December more easily now that I'm not in a choir anymore. 

Perhaps the biggest delight of the weekend was seeing three Macbook Pros in use (Matt, Jeff, and Mike) and I didn't even bring mine! The other nice thing was getting a good night's sleep on a regular basis - we got a very nice king bed last summer, and sleeping in it is a joy as it's the same bed as I have at home. Very comfortable compared to the other beds in the house, even if the shades in that bedroom aren't blackouts and I wake up at 6:30am and have to fall back asleep. I'll be extremely tired when I get home, but not as bad as some years. 

Another May, another Sunriver gaming retreat. I'm looking forward to WBC West more than ever now.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Quick Thoughts on Road To Legend

Mike, Laurent, Jesse, and his wife Iveta came by to give Road to Legend, the latest Descent expansion, a try. I'm typing quickly as I'm not sure I'll be able to get in a full session report before the Sunriver game retreat that I leave for on Thursday, but here's a quick rundown - 

The game is intended to turn Descent into more of a role-playing experience, with character development (and overlord advancement as well), smaller and more frequent dungeons, and just more of a story arc in general.

We spent about three hours going over rules, prepping for play (choosing characters, gear, etc), and running one level of the first dungeon (each has three levels). I'm pretty sure we could do two levels of dungeons per three hour session, probably closer to a full dungeon assuming no travel encounters or a lot of town activity. That's good news, although it means that a full campaign will take close to twenty or more sessions to finish. As a role-player from way back, that's fine with me.

The smaller dungeons give a much different feel, and I really like the semi-random nature of how they are built up. Between four different groups of mobs to stock the dungeon with and the various layouts (not to mention the rumors and legendary dungeons), it's clear that the variety will keep the game fresh. For example, in the level we played tonight there was a quick moving stream that swept the characters downstream toward a pit when they crossed it. 

There are still some questions in play I have (such as when to reshuffle the various decks), but since there's such a strong RPG feel it's easy to come up with a house rule on the spot when you encounter an issue. For example, at one point this evening Iveta's character was swept onto the same space as Laurent's by the stream, and you can't end movement in the same space, so I ruled that she pushed him downstream one space. Since there was no damage to Laurent, and it made sense from a physical standpoint, everyone agreed that this was a good solution. Harder to do this sort of thing in a boardgame without this much theme. 

There's been quite a bit of interest in play. I was delighted that Jesse and Iveta came, but it puts the number of interested folks at eight, not including me! That's not terrible, but it does mean we'll need to be careful about who plays when. I will likely set up a "hasn't played for the longest time" rule to give everyone a shot initially. While I'd imagine there is some attachment that people will get for certain characters, at the same time there isn't the emotional investment that one gets through character generation, and even the amount of development isn't all that extensive.

As a game, I think that it's a very nice blend of board game and RPG feel. The game is much more structured than RPGs (at least, the ones I've run - I believe in story first), and of course the whole "kill the party" feel for the Overlord is relatively rare in most RPG circles (again, the ones I've played in). Of course, it's much easier to respawn in this game, so death doesn't hold the same level of fear that it does in an RPG. 

All in all, I'd say this was a big success, and I'm delighted that I made the decision to make this a running game at the sessions I run. Because of the interest in playing, I expect to keep this on the table during the upcoming period when I'll be hosting every other week (Chris will be gone for another month on vacation with his family) and that will give lots of people the chance to play during that time. 

In a couple of months I expect to get a sense of whether or not we'll actually make it to the end. Perhaps I should have started the game at a higher level, but for me a big part of the fun is ramping things up as you go along - cooler weapons, deadlier foes, all in a big push to get bad enough to take on the villain in his crib. This expansion puts Descent in a class by itself, and I expect it to be a huge hit for them, even bigger than it is now.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Maybe They Should Have Mentioned This On The Box

Picked up Wizard Kings the other day, the second edition. Mike is a big fan of the game and I'd heard that the second ed cleaned up a lot of problems. Normally I don't go for non-historical wargames, although something like War of the Rings is so close to historical for many gamers that I won't count it. Certainly WK has no literary precedent, at least specifically. 

I was aware that there were expansions for the game, and the first ed broke these down by army, which I always liked. So you can imagine my surprise (and no small chagrin) to learn - after reading the rules - that the expansions are randomized. 

Uhm, shouldn't that be mentioned on the box somewhere? 

Apparently there are a lot of expansion "strips," each with one block for each army. Each expansion comes with two of these, plus one "generic" strip with items and critters. Plus blocks of course. And every expansion pack has a different random set of these. 

I should mention that even the rules, which mention an expansion, then say that each one is different (which is a trick considering they used "expansion" in the singular sense). I had to go online to discover that they are collectible. 

This is a big mistake on Columbia's part, as I generally avoid collectible games (but do on occasion make a decision to buy into one). Key word in that last sentence - decision. WK doesn't let you make that decision because there is nothing on the box to indicate that there is more than a single expansion, which even has a friggin' title. The word "collectable" or any permutation thereof is completely absent.

This game goes on the sell pile immediately. I would go so far as to say that the copy on the box constitutes fraud, and I may send the game back to Columbia and ask for a refund. The game is playable (to some extent - there are multiple scenarios in the box, compared with a paltry few in the earlier edition), but to be honest having a whopping seven blocks making up your army is not what I was looking for. Even having allied armies playing together feels like a kludge. 

Poor form, Columbia. Given your recent spate of weak games (Athens v Sparta, Crusader Rex), this may have been my last purchase. There are too many other companies putting out good block games - even the guy who did East Front took his Pelopennesian War game to GMT. I've met Tom Dalgliesh, and while his wife is fairly nice, he's a bit of a jerk, and I'm tired of the "All of the rules are in these columns, except these optional rules and occasionally an actual rule stuck in a historical note" approach their rulesets take. 

I believe in buyer beware, but the box needs to mention that the expansions are collectible. Period.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Great, More Online Gaming.

Matt (HazMatt) recently posted about the Gleemax site that's putting up Wizards of the Coast games for play online. The site is in alpha right now, so everything is free, which is an excellent price. Not sure I'd pony up $10 a month for this, but for now it's pretty cool.

Games at present are:

  • Magic Online
  • Axis and Allies
  • Vegas Showdown
  • Robo Rally
  • Acquire
  • Guillotine
  • Desktop Tower Defense
All can be played "solitaire" against the AI except for Magic, but also against other people online. I've tried Robo Rally (which seems to be almost fun sans watching people realize that they've just driven into a pit) and Vegas Showdown (which I beat handily despite having a rule wrong - you don't count closing off the endcaps unless they don't have rooms from the opposite pole covering them, so no yellow rooms on the blue section, even if they're connected). I lost ten points doing this because I'd thought you just got the points for having it covered, yet still won with 33% more points than the next closest contender. I do consider myself a decent VS player, though, and this is an Alpha product, so there you go.

All in all, pretty cool and very free. The access to the different games is a bit clunky (you have to log out to play a different game), but like I say... Free.

Check it out here.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Tuesday Night Gaming

It seems like every time I go to Matt's it's Old Home Week. Last month it was Jay, this month Dave playing the Prodigal Son back from exile/hiatus/whatever. Regardless, it's always nice to see people who haven't been around for a while (Mark, I'm talking to you), and even nicer to game with them, especially a gamer of Dave's calibre (and warped sense of humor). Joining us was Ben H, also nice to see, especially as he may be spending the summer in another city after selling his house.

On the table were Race to the Galaxy and Colosseum, both titles that someone somewhere has wanted to play and hasn't had opportunity as of yet. Race was Ben's request, and his experience - summarized best by the word "huh?" - was typical, even of people who had played San Juan, a spiritual cousin if not a direct descendent. I agree with Chris' assessment that the iconography and human factors are very well done in this game, but it does require assimilation (especially if you play the Borg - oops, wrong game). Also, I think that the extra requirement for consuming your cards (that they must have a place to consume them) is especially tricky, and like San Juan it helps a lot to have some idea of what's in the deck. 

In the end, Dave beat me by 4 points (41-37) with Matt and Ben somewhere behind that. I made a foolish error late in the game by playing the Trade/Consume card instead of the 2xVP/Consume card, thinking that because I had an extra card to consume it would be better to get the extra cards, but I was already pulling in five cards whenever someone played Produce so it wasn't really necessary. Had I done that the last two times I Consumed, it would have been enough to win the game! Still, this is such a fun little game and when played briskly (we've finished four player games within 20 minutes) it's a hoot. Especially considering that it's really four-player solitaire in some respects. 

I had brought Colosseum, mostly to practice the spelling, and after a quickish teaching session (I had read the rules the night before) with some help from Dave and Ben who had played, we got underway. I started out poorly, having lots of manly men and horsey horses but no tickets that were going to help me much. As such, I put on two anemic performances in the first two turns, along with a section of season ticket holders and an expansion to my arena. As such, I sat around the 15 point mark for the first two turns, although that was enough to give me one of Matt's horses in the second round, enough to give me the Star Performer. 

At that point I realized that I needed to keep my eye on the Big Show, which I decided early was going to be the most expensive tile in the game. As such, I went for a smallish midsized show (#13, Skeletor vs He-Man or something similar) for the third and fourth rounds, which put me up in the 37 point bracket, while I expanded a second time on the fourth round. The show gave me enough points to buy the 50-pointer for the end, with enough left over to get one of the three tiles I was short, plus a special tile that I traded to Dave to put me within one performer of a full show. As it was, I scored 88 points at the end to beat Matt by five for the win.

A couple of notes - we weren't sure if using your Emperor's Medals to move one of the VIPs on the track to a resting spot was legitimate, and it was not (at least in terms of you getting a medal). I did this on my very last move to get the Emperor into my arena and simultaneously onto a resting spot, costing 3vp to move him there for 7vp, but gaining back the 3vp as we were playing incorrectly. I have no recollection whether or not Dave took advantage of this, but I doubt it as he tended to save up his medals as I did. Either way, the difference was enough that it didn't matter in the end. Even the seemingly generous trade he made at game end where he got a special tile and I got one more performer was a 2 point swing for me and a 3 point swing for him, so I was actually hurting myself in that case by giving him the extra point. No matter, it was only a slightly dodgy win for me the first time out. Matt nearly won with his three bonus balconies and three season ticket sections, something like 24 points before he even put on a show at the end. That was one nice balcony, Matt. Dave's Loge strategy (which allowed him two dice to move the VIPs) worked to a point, although he still used one of his Medals to scoot the Emperor into his arena on the last turn (note to self - you can move them *back* that way).

Colosseum hasn't gotten a lot of press, partly because it's one of those games that on the surface appears to value bits over gameplay. Cleopatra has the same problem - the game is a bit obscured by all of the components for what is at it's essence a pretty elegant design. After all, there's not that much going on - you build a thing, then you bid on assets/performers, then you trade, then you put on a show. In our game, there wasn't that much trading, and the bidding rarely went above 10 (I bid 13 at one point as it gave me two more performers toward my final show, and there may have been one or two bids at 11, but that was it - most were eight or nine). 

The trick to this game is keeping your eye on the prize, but it's a balancing act that I really enjoy. You need to put on crap shows early in order to get the 5 point bonuses and generate income (a good thing, as neither of my initial shows had a full slate of assets). You need to put on multiple shows to get the word-of-mouth bonuses (+5) that each completed show gives you. I was fortunate that my mid-game show looked quite a bit like my end game show, although I needed six different assets to get to the end. Having that income of 37 with little need to modify it in the mid-game allowed me to concentrate on expansion and saving for the last one with money left over to hopefully nab the assets I needed. In the end, I was mostly trading to get what I needed as it wasn't showing up on the board so much, but I got close enough for government work. 

While there is a lot of chrome in the game, at it's core it's a very good game that requires long term planning combined with keeping your head above water enough to finance your shows. While the sequence of play is pretty simple, it's clearly a gamer's game with choices to be made and multiple paths to victory. I'm glad I bought it, and I'm looking forward to playing it in the future with this group. If you like auctions and negotiation games, this covers both those bases just enough to scratch the itch, and if you don't like them so much, neither really lasts long enough to be annoying. 

Special Kudos to Ben, who tolerated our calling the Decorations "the Bush" despite my early attempts to christen them "Shrubbery". Many heartfelt but crass jokes were made, and he was an excellent sport. Ben, you now know how Jimmy Carter felt when he was on The Daily Show recently where the lead story was about penis stealing/withering sorcerers in Bhutan. Especially when Carter came out promoting a book about his mother! Clearly we have our work cut out for us in the future to beat that

A fun night of gaming, and nice to see Ben and Dave again.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Red Storm over the Reich - Early Thoughts

I'm getting more and more interested in the less covered wargaming topics - it's kind of surprising how few conflicts get all the attention, especially in the US. For quite a while, it was all about the East Front (as a front, for the most part), the Bulge, D-Day, and occasionally Market-Garden. Oh, and Midway. The truth is that there are astonishingly few topics in military history that provide a balanced fight that's good for a game. The best ones tend to be involved one side getting to throw the punches at the beginning, with the other throwing the punches later on. That might explain why WWII has so many adherents (that and until recently there were quite a few veterans around) - the entire war was like that. 

And yet, there are tons of games that involve the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany in 1941. Usually involving the entire Great Patriotic War (as it's called in Russia), there are still quite a few games that focus solely on the events of 1941 and the German steamroller. I'm fairly certain that there was a certain amount of propaganda involved, us being in the midst of a Cold War with the Russians for forty years and during the era when most of us got into wargaming. As such, it's nice to see a few games starting to come out that cover the end of the war and put the shoe on the other foot. There have been games in the past on the subject, and perhaps these games are best for solo players simply because few of us want to be punching bags for an entire game.

Yet there are Bulge games everywhere, and they more and more often skip the later parts of the battle. If the Germans make it, it's over, and if they don't, it's over. So why fuss with the messy clean-up part?

A few games such as Barbarossa to Berlin and Empire of the Sun turn this idea on it's head by assuming that the Germans or Japanese are doomed for the most part. Not entirely, but by taking on two of the world's strongest industrial bases they certainly were setting themselves up for failure (arguably the Germans had the stronger case, and came the closest to pulling it off). As such, the German player in BtB watches their resources and units dwindle over time to the point where they literally hang on by their fingernails. At least they get about six turns at the start of the game where they run crazy. 

Still, very few games on the late war. Even Ted Raicer's upcoming Stalin's War doesn't even cover 1945, assuming that the Soviets are going to crush the Germans at that point and it's not much fun from a gaming perspective. Yet Compass Games has now published two designs covering the Eastern Front in 1945, Bitter End covering the encirclement of Budapest when the Hungarians refused to go over to the Russian side, and (ironically) Ted R's. Red Storm over the Reich, covering the Soviet push to Berlin. 

I've gotten the chance to set up RSotR on my game table (it barely fits with the leaves unextended, it's a two-mapper) and play through a turn, and while I think this is a hard go for the Germans, there's a pretty good game here. The game comes with three scenarios for different play styles, which I think is a good idea if perhaps solely intended to make the concept palatable. The historical scenario, which has the German forces right up against the Vistula in Poland at the start of the game, will result in massive losses for the Germans (largely due to being placed out of supply by the Soviet spearheads). One reviewer said something about nothing but a police dog and a wiener schnitzel stand between the Red Army and Breslau early on. However, the Soviets have to work hard to get to Berlin, take out the bunker and Hitler, *and* keep the Germans from keeping 5 VP. That may seem strange, but it reflects Stalin's concerns about his flanks and his directives to take pretty much everything in the country, both north and south, on the way to the capital. Plus there's this "Soviet Logistical Strain" thing, that kills momentum for three turns once the Russians get to the western map. Plus they don't get air support for a quarter of the game because their dirt airfields are on the soggy side. So it's not an easy game for the Soviets, just kind of depressing for the Germans.

To address this (and I'm not convinced it needed addressing - there's still a good game here), there are two options. The first, Operation Sleigh Ride, allows the German to pretend that Hitler had a clue and was willing to defend back a bit and in depth to prevent the massive Soviet encirclements. For a cost of 1VP, the Germans get to pull their units out of the historical starting position, and the Soviets still have to take Berlin in 8 turns. The second option assumes that Hitler was out of the picture for whatever reason and that the Nazi leadership turned to the military (Guderian) to pull their chestnuts out of the fire. This means that the Bulge never happened and those units were available to slow up the Russians instead. Coupled with the pullback, it means a much tougher slog for the Russians, but they get 50% more time to win the game. I think that adding 50% to the length of the game is a poor exchange when all you're doing is delaying the inevitable, and I like the simple desperation of the historical scenario, but it's nice that you get the option.

The game is extremely sequence heavy. There is a track just to keep track of what phase you are in, and you'll need it. There are no less than three or four supply checks for each side, and not counting advances after combat, five different movement phases for each side. Each turn. While this may seem to be a bit of overkill, I think it manages to reflect the different realities of each side pretty well. There is a definite trend in wargaming to more accurately reflect the command structures of each side differently, and I think that's a good thing. There are lots of ways to do it, and Raicer found a couple of pretty elegant ways to do it in this game, sequence of play included.

The other element of elegance I've noted are the movement rules. Most units in the game don't have a movement factor, they have a color coded box. Infantry get one, mech get another, and the Soviet Guard Rifle corps/armies get another (although it's fixed throughout the game). At the start of the major movement phases (there are three - assault, exploitation, and reorganization), you roll a die and that will tell you how many spaces each unit can move. For example, a 3 roll by the Soviets will give their Rifle units 4MP, their Guards Rifle units 6MP, and their Mech 10MP for the entire assault phase (for example - these numbers may not be exact, but they're close). 

Here's the trick, though. The Sovs will get to move three different times during the Assault phase - once before combat, once *during* combat, and once after in the "breakthrough" segment. So these points have to be spread out over the entire major phase, and this is done in about as elegant a way as you could do it. First, the Soviet player declares how many MP will be spent before combat. If he wants to fight, he has to leave his Rifle units with at least one MP, so in some cases that means they'll move one hex at best during this phase. If he declares more than 3MP, his arty can't fire that turn. All of the unit types have a marker on a movement remaining track, and their counters move down it that many spaces. Say the Russian declares a move of 3MP for each unit in this segment, so that would put us at 1/3/7 for the types mentioned above.

No one actually moves during combat, but it's taking time that the Soviet would otherwise have, so they roll a die to determine how long combat lasts in terms of MP - roll the die, half and round the number up if necessary for a result of 1-3. Down go the Soviet MP markers, and up goes the German reaction movement marker - reaction movement doesn't allow you to run away, and only mechs can use it, but it's invaluable for plugging where the holes look like they'll be. Chances are excellent that your Rifle units will use up their last points in this segment, but it's OK if they "go over" the limit - as long as they have a single MP before the roll, combat still happens. To continue the example, if I roll a "3" at this point, after combat my units will have MP of 0/1/5 remaining.

After German reaction, any units with MP still remaining can "breakthrough", although it should be mentioned that there are no overruns allowed at any point in the assault phase, which we're still in. I did say it was phase heavy. This is where the mechs do the encirclement of the units they just knocked down, putting them out of supply. They still have some chances to escape if the noose isn't tight enough, but it's a bad situation. Note also that the Germans just roll and move once (reaction excepted) in this phase, but then there's really no reason or even capability for them to do encirclements (although they do get mandated attacks from Hitler).

The other two movement phases, Exploitation and Reorganization, use new movement rolls for each side. Mech units can do overruns in Exploitation, although it's best to go after units you are pretty sure you'll wipe out as otherwise you're going to lose a step. No other combat is allowed in these phases, all the heavy lifting is done in the Assault phase. It's surprisingly elegant considering how many phases are in the game, and even though the Russians have a *lot* of special rules for movement during Assault (Guards Cav, for example, can move either all move before or after combat in this phase, but not both - apparently they were "committed" to the assault or able to move after), it becomes second nature after running through the process once.

This brings up another very interesting element of the game. Zones of control are semi-sticky - if you move into one, you stop (overruns excepted). You can move out of them, but only mech can infiltrate moving ZoC to ZoC. In combat, you can't attack from multiple hexes unless you have a mech in each attacking hex, and every unit projecting a ZoC into the hexes of the attackers has to be attacked in turn. Conversely, you can attack out of a single hex with no limitations at all - other adjacent enemies projecting ZoCs can be ignored. It's a simple rule that shows the coordination limitations involved, primarily in the Soviet army. 

The really interesting part, though, is that most German infantry units are one-steppers. If they take an asterisked combat loss, however, they can be flipped to their Kampfgruppe side, and eliminated units come back as these KG units. The trick is that the infantry have fairly low combat factors to start with, and as KGs many of them have an attack factor of zero. And, you see this coming, units with zero attack factors don't project ZoC. They also don't project ZoC if they are disrupted by artillery fire, or if they are out of supply. That means that your goal as the Soviets isn't so much to eliminate the units through combat, it's to make them ineffective through combat so that you can slide right by them and do encirclements. As such, spearheads do exactly what they're supposed to: the infantry and arty soften up the line so that the mech units can waltz through and surround the enemy. Making this all much easier to parse on the map is the fact that every unit that has no ZoC (and the Disrupted and OOS markers) have vertical white stripes on them, making it very obvious who exterts ZoC and who doesn't. The result is a very transparent system that shows off how combat was supposed to work at this level during this era. 

Not all is lost for the Germans, however. Even if they are in serious trouble, and with their MP cut in half for being OOS or disrupted it can be ugly, they are allowed to use a special type of movement called "roving cauldrons" that allows them to ignore enemy ZoC while moving. IF they move in one of three directions (toward the west or north), and IF they can be out of a Soviet ZoC when they're done moving. As such, mech units can usually get themselves out of a jam relatively easily so long as there's a hole for them to escape. It does an excellent job of modeling what happens if you *almost* finish the encirclement. All of these rules also show exactly how stupid it was to leave all of the units right up on the line waiting for the Soviet offensive to start, even dumber when you consider that the Forward Deployment of the Russian forces to the occupied territories in 1941 set them up for the mass encirclements the Germans pulled on them. Clearly one side learned their lessons while the other didn't. 

The Russians are set at the start for four spearheads that should result in at least a couple of encirclements in the early game in the center and south (especially the south, oh my). The north is full of good defensive terrain, and the Germans were more interested in protecting their ancestral territory rather than Poland, Slovakia, etc. There are fortresses, refugees fleeing from the big cities to try to get evacuated from the Baltic coast (which project ZoCs that impede the *Germans*), chrome for the bombing of Dresden, the effect of losing the industrial base in Silesia and the command base in Zoffen, and even a logistical limit on how far the Soviets can advance before their armored columns start to outrace their supply trucks. You can even bombard Russians using the Prinz Eugen. 

The game is pretty big, two standard 34"x22" maps joined together. The art is very nice and clear, although the various tables on the map are too small a type for me to read (there are bigger cardstock versions included with the game, fortunately). There are, thankfully, multiple spots where you get the effects of disruption, lack of supply, and logistical strain listed as well - I never understand why these things aren't de riguer in wargames - play aids should list, well, lists of stuff you aren't likely to remember. The terrain key doesn't mention which types kill ZoCs (forts, urban, major rivers after the freeze wears off), but I'm being picky. While the rules are a bit on the cavalier side (one of the main folks at Compass, Brien Miller, came from Avalanche and this may explain a lot), I've noticed that they did an excellent job covering the various confusions and mistakes for Silent War pretty effectively and early, so I'm hoping that RSotR will get the same treatment. 

And there are some confusions. Air units are listed as being able to both support combat and bombard, but the individual units are given stats for one type or the other, and the Germans have no support aircraft (although the combat rules mention both sides supporting). It will take you a few readthroughs to figure out exactly how movement (for both sides) works. And there are sections that summarize rules from other sections - the air rules, for example. I think that if you have a summary, you only need to refer the reader to it from the other applicable sections, there isn't a need to actually write out the rule multiple times, which leads to mistakes and confusion as to which one is the actual rule. 

A few other interesting elements of the game - you can't fight with a single infantry unit in a hex. Not at all. This emphasizes the materiel requirements for an offensive in an incredibly elegant fashion, in my book. Combat is about projecting force in an offensive or defensive capacity, so you figure out how much damage your factors are going to do to the other side. There are a small set of DRMs that take your terrain, air support, etc into account, and some units have multiple steps to show their toughness, but the "defense" factors are not so much about how much damage a unit can take as they are about how much damage a defending unit can inflict on an attacker. 

Replacements/reinforcements are also interesting. The Russians get one extra mech unit coming in late in the (historical) game, while the Germans are clearly more interested in surrendering to the Allies than the Russians, and so a lot of extra units are coming in from the west, the Courland pocket, etc for the Germans throughout the game. The Germans also get a lot of replacements, usually in the form of KG units (you can't flip the infantry units back to their original sides, you just bring in the destroyed KGs) but also some mech steps. The Soviet, on the other hand, gets to take replacements *once*, and then they get it for everyone - all flipped units come back to full strength, but you have to pick your time and there are other issues involved. Clearly, the Russians threw everything they had at the Germans for this final push from the start, and it's one of the few comforts the German player can take that he, at least, will have a pool of units to throw into the path of the onrushing juggernaut.

All in all I'm quite taken with the system. I've already screwed up a few rules (I missed that the roving cauldrons had to end movement out of ZoC, for instance - why not have a chart of ZoC rules on the map/play aids too?), but nothing terribly onerous. The units have their starting hexes listed on them, but setting this game up gave me a headache and I'll have to use the OOB sheets that come with the game next time - the type on the counters is just too tiny). The good news is that there is no reason to have a specific 1 2 Inf counter start on a particular space - there are no organizational rules in this game, only unit type is important. A good reason to keep the game sorted by unit type instead of by where they enter the board, I guess.

The only issue I have with this game (and with all contiguous multimap games - Great War in Europe is an exception as the maps don't connect physically) is that I can't store it. Also, my plexi sheet is *just* a little short in both dimensions, but that will only be a problem until the Germans collapse in East Prussia - the north end of the map is the Baltic Sea for the most part. As a result, this is a game that is likely to see table time, even solitaire, only when I know I have a period of time when the main table won't be in use or on VASSAL. Otherwise, it's a nice set of components, an under-addressed campaign of WWII, and a proven designer who brings some great ideas to the table in a moderately complex game while keeping things fairly streamlined. 

Like I mentioned earlier, I'm really starting to enjoy the insights that wargames bring to the history of a situation, and 18 years into the fall of the Soviet Union, we are getting access to more and more Russian and Eastern European sources that give us more informed game. When you have designers who can bring those insights to the gaming table, it's all good. 

Blackbeard - Out Of The Box

Blackbeard arrived yesterday, and boy does he have some hygiene issues. 

Certainly one of the more compelling wargame box covers of the early 90's, the old AH edition of Blackbeard was a game that I really wanted to like. Combine Berg's love of chrome, Don Greenwood's rules style, and a game sequence that, while almost certainly very evocative of the pirate life, wasn't exactly what anyone would call "brisk". My last game, in fact, played between myself, Dave, and Josh at one of the very first Sunriver retreats 10 years ago, started with a bang (revelry and debauchery, why must you be so much fun?) but then quickly devolved into the longest hangover ever, with my ship suffering from too much rum the night before for about six months. During that time (about 90 minutes in real time), my ship never moved, I was attacked by four warships, all of which I somehow fought off, but I never had a single game decision in all of that time. Part of the problem was the deck pulling the other player's turns consistently, so that I only had five or six turns the entire game. 

I think I may have tried to solo the game later on, only to be completely confounded by the KC and warship rules being intertwined in each other's rules sections. I like to think I'm a pretty smart guy, and few good rulesets leave me confused, but this one just lost me completely. 

Fast forward ten years, and the new Blackbeard, now with fiber, arrives on my doorstep. While I haven't had the chance to do more than clip the number counters and read the developer's notes, here's a quick out of the box description of the components and what I know of the game.

Map: Very attractive. No hexes, just sea zones that are fairly large. Ports look quite a bit like in the old game, with a rating for defense and wealth, plus Berg's patented "roll 2 d6 with one as the "ten's" dice" system, which he calls D66 (don't know that Euclid ever came up with one of those polyhedrons, certainly not a regular one, but then d10s aren't regular) port ID number. Nice heraldry to identify nationality. The fonts are all a very nice piratey but readable style, and there's even a Davy Jones' Locker space for your pirates when they run out of luck after being becalmed for 90 minutes with a hangover. The areas on the map are more or less the same. Stock is the "deluxe" GMT version, meaning it's like Europe Engulfed, Twilight Struggle - heavy cardstock rather than paper. 

Play Aids: Apparently these caused a near riot at GMT when they figured out that they would need 10 of the Pirate Ship cards in each game, which are very nice 8.5"x5" heavy card with a smooth finish. I expect those cost about a buck each to put in the game, which is a lot of money at that end. Apparently they tried to get as much info onto the card as possible to avoid having to require pencil and paper, and they almost did it - the rules include sheets to track pirate havens and raided ports that you can photocopy or get off the web somewhere. Also, the developer mentions that they had quite a bit of dice to roll in this game, and lots of tables/processes, so there are two 11"x17" folded sheets to cover not only the tables, but also most procedures and action summaries. While these look more or less like well done Excel sheets or Word tables opposed to the map and ship cards, I for one appreciate their inclusion in the game (and two copies is above and beyond). I cannot speak for how effective they are, however, but there are a lot of them.

Counters: One full sheet of 1/2" and one of 5/8" counters. I've just started trimming the counters, and I notice that where GMT didn't have a lot of "flash" on the counters (requiring only trimming of the corners), these have a lot of "slivers" on the sides that require a certain amount of massaging to remove completely. I really hate having this dusty stuff everywhere when you dump out a baggie of counters, so it's taking longer to punch/clip than usual. However, the counters seem very nice if the fonts are getting smaller and smaller and harder and harder for me to read. The pirate banner counters are actually about 1.2" wide, but use a script that can be difficult to parse across a table.

Cards: Two decks, one big one for events and one small one for the actual pirates. Events seem to refer to the rulebook more than I'd like to see, although a reference is always nice so long as it doesn't require your attention the first 30 times you play the card. I'm hoping the player aids take care of this issue. Artwork is of the woodcut or watercolor variety in a sepia tone (as is pretty much everything in this game). The stock is not casino card deck quality, but is very glossy and a passably heavy weight. The cards shuffle easily out of the box. The pirate deck includes semi-cartoony pen and ink drawings of the pirates, along with a set of characteristics that are reinforced with both color and geometric shapes (something I appreciate even though I'm not color challenged). Certainly a step up from the artwork in the original all around, although I did like the board in the first ed. 

Rulebook: Colorful, glossy, and quite a few pages long, although a good half of the book is devoted to history and developer's notes. Strangely, most of the notes justify the changes from the first edition, leading me to conclude that GMT figures that everyone who buys this game had the AH version, which is 15 years old. That's very nice, but I'd rather have gotten that information from the web and had notes on the design choices instead. The layout seems quite nice in the rules section, with lots of graphics and examples.

I should note here that the development team tried to get rid of complexity to make a game rather than a simulation (as was apparently the design goal in the earlier game). As such, the rules start out saying that if you played the original, you should forget pretty much everything you knew about it as almost no rule has gone untouched. Clearly a lot of the basic mechanisms are there (although now other players act as "anti-pirates" to keep them involved, worth the price of admission in itself), but they've been streamlined and tweaked. There in a full page of solitaire rules in relatively small type, and the game apparently handles up to five players (although I have no idea if that's a good idea or not). 

Dice: I'm noticing a trend toward dice that are so cheap...

They're so cheap, that they are unusable. Barbarossa to Berlin came with a German die that was clearly weighted toward '6'. Red Storm over the Reich seems to have a similar problem, although I've only rolled those dice about 40 times with about 3/4's of the Axis rolls coming up 5 or 6. These dice seem very light to me, although nowhere near as light as, say, the Command and Colors Ancients dice. Blackbeard comes with two black and one white standard d6's, although there is something about them that reminds me of the Mac interface. They have rounded corners and edges, and are of a good size, and don't appear to be cheaply made. There's a strangely modern look to them that I can't quite pin down. It's probably just me, but I want to like these dice. I still intend to purchase a nice set of balanced polyhedrals at some point just to have, although I know they tend to be on the order of $10-$15 per die. It may be worth it to see if Mike really *does* have a Die Roll Distortion Field around him. 

Box: The box is the nice heavy stock that came with Manoeuvre and Combat Commander, with very glossy artwork. I really like the way these look, it will be interesting to see how they look after a few years of being pulled off the shelf. Like Manoeuvre, there is a cardboard insert that I'm assuming they used for shipping - I can't imagine the game will fit in the box once the counters are punched. I'll probably put a counter tray in this game anyway, they tend to work well with marker-heavy games, and this game is all about markers. 

So there it is, a quick assessment of the game's components and a bit about the changes that were made. I'm looking forward to giving this a try, although now I'm sorry that I've got a mini-monster on the main table that I may need to take down. More about that in the next post...