Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Warriors of God - Chaos Management 101

Warriors of God is the latest game in the ambitiously-named International Game Series from Multiman Publishing, so far developed by Adam Starkweather. So far, all of the games have been designed by the Japanese, so perhaps "international" isn't quite the right word just yet, but then again the designers aren't Americans and MMP is an American company, so we'll let it slide for now.

The game was designed, I believe, to cover the 100 Years War, although there is a second "scenario" that has a completely different set of leaders and a handful of different special rules taking place 300 years earlier. That's pretty astonishing - that warfare would change so little, at least to our 21st Century eyes. Between the Christian-Muslim antagonism engendered by the Crusades preventing trade with the other civilizations of the world and the hegemony of the Papacy, it's definitely understandable. It's also very nice that you can get two completely different games under the same system in one package, making replayability high. 

This is an extremely low-level wargame, quite suitable for beginners. In fact, there is an extremely high degree of chaos in the game focusing on the rather, shall we say, mutable life expectancy of your average military leader. It's possible for one to die in battle, but it's also quite possible for them to die one turn after entry, almost certainly because of icky venereal diseases and/or blood poisoning after stubbing your toe. Imagine what it was like for the hoi-polloi. 

I've discussed the game in general before, but now that I've had the chance to play the first half of the Lion in Winter scenario against Matt R, I feel I have a better grasp on what this game is about. At first blush, it appears to be a dice fest, but I think it's much deeper than that. This is a game about chaos management, and believe me, it is manageable. And the key is in the control of areas. 

Controlling an area in WofG (WoG sounds too much like Worthy Oriental Gentleman, a British derogatory term for those who were not only not British, but had the audacity to not be Caucasian either. A little like having a game whose acronym was NiGR) confers several benefits:
  • You get VP for every area you control at the end of the turn, and I'd estimate the percentage of VP coming from this source (vs leaders killed in combat and captured leaders left to rot) at something like 65-85% of a given side's total. 
  • You can raise troops in controlled areas. That doesn't mean you'll get them, of course. 
  • You can move troops around between contiguous controlled areas. This is Important. 
  • It is hard to wrest control away from the other player. You must either manage to have more leaders than they do in the area (and the control marker counts, so you'd need two leaders just to remove one lonely marker), or else control the area outright at the end of your turn. You can't add in a control marker easily unless it's your "home" area (matches the herald on your leader in the area). 
Here's the trick. Once all movement and battle is done, you place new troops in controlled areas, regardless of who is actually in them. In other words, if the English control Normandy, but the French kicked them out in battle, there are still troops raised in the area. It doesn't mean the French will get them (far from it), but it does mean they get a shot at them. 

Then, you get to move the unassigned units around, if you can. This helps you get said troops *out* of Normandy in our example, but only if you control an adjacent area. You also can't move or take control of Mercs unless you're in their area, or control an area next to where they are.

Now for the chaos part. Every leader on the board rolls to see if they survive or die. On the first turn a leader is on the board, they only die on a roll of '1'. If they've been on the board for six turns, they're toast. In between the odds increase just like you'd expect them to. In our Normandy example, that means that the French leader in that area, the ones that kicked out the English (assuming there was just one)? A bad roll, and suddenly that's an area not only with the new troops in it, but also the ones the French leader had with him, all up for grabs.

Next come the new leaders to pick up all of those troops that are scattered about. You bring back leaders that were routed in the previous turn, also leaders that were sprung from the joint. However, those leaders also roll for mortality. No one gets out of here alive. In addition, whoever lost the initiative last turn gets to pick which of the two new unaligned leaders they wish to add to their forces, plus two new leaders that are a given. 

Keep in mind that you can place a leader in a friendly or an uncontrolled space, or (and here's another Important concept) in their home area, based on their herald. In fact, if they end up in their home area, they also get attached troops equal to their rank, which ranges from 1-3, usually in the 1-2 range. The area can be controlled by the other side, but if there are unassigned troops there, the new leader has a chance to pick them up. And the non-initiative player gets first pick of those troops at turn end, when they all get assigned. 

If all of that sounds wacky, it really isn't. Out of what appears to be a lot of chaos, the only real chaos is which leaders will stick around and which won't. And you know the odds of a leader surviving or not surviving the turn in advance. And you know what leaders will be introduced, and what areas they'll be able to start in. And what areas you can move units between (although you have to roll for any area that is uncontrolled with a non-home leader in it, and at best it's a 50/50 proposition). 

In other words, there appears to be quite a bit of chaos. In truth, there's very little. This game rewards looking ahead and playing the odds. And it does it in a fairly manageable fashion, as there are usually around six or seven leaders on a side in any given turn, and six more leaders that will be coming in the next turn. 

The sequence of play has ten steps, but in fully half you have maybe one decision if you're lucky. The rest are fairly wide open, and that's where the chaos management comes into play. As such, it's an excellent introductory wargame that feels like a medium weight Euro. You would be mistaken to think that. It's a brilliant design that takes a basic reality of Medieval Western Europe and creates a game of maneuver, of thrust and parry. Do you defend a critical controlled space with an extra unit, or keep one in reserve to force your opponent to come after it with extra strength that could be put to better use elsewhere? If you attack a weak leader for an easy victory, will that put your aging leader out of position to keep his troops loyal if he dies? There are a lot of things to think about in a game with fairly simple mechanisms. 

The IGS series has already brought us a wonderful "throwback" game in the form of A Victory Lost, as well as a couple of other games I haven't spent as much time with, Fire in the Sky and Red Star Rising (PTO and strategic Russian Front). I have a sneaking suspicion that WofG will be dismissed by grognards because of it's system simplicity and apparent chaos, but that would be a huge mistake. You aren't running huge stacks of panzers through southern Russia, but there are rewards other than complexity, at least as far as the rules go. And the whole *point* of the game is to manage chaos and take calculated risks. Give this one a look, I don't think you'll be disappointed.

OK, I Lied. Here's A Gaming Report

I had no intention of filing a gaming report for Rip City Gamers this week. Gaming has been a lot of fun, lately, and I like the people we game with, but there's something about gaming with folks that you've known more than a couple of years. Last night at Matt's, we got to relive a little of the "old days" (one could say we partied like it was 1999 - I remember when that was in the *future*. A *long* way in the future). 

Present were Matt, myself, Ben the Taller, KC, Dave, and Carey (representing the newer generation!). Everyone but Carey joined the group before the 21st Century, and therefore are allowed the respected title of Old Fart within the group. Heady days, those were, full of not only the newness of the hobby (in the States, at least), but also the newness of each other. Community is like that, it goes through phases not terribly different from those of a marriage or a rock band, both of which I have some experience with. 

In fact, there was a comfortableness present that got us all to agree when Dave (with much prodding to choose a game) suggested Shadows Over Camelot. A semi-cooperative game with what I like to call "micro-turns". You don't do that much during your turn, but much can be made about deciding what you *should* do. Made much more entertaining by the very real possibility that one of you is playing against the others in the shadows. Otherwise they'd call it "Clear Skies Over Camelot" I guess.

Normally, I'm hoping like crazy that I'll get the traitor, probably because it goes so much against my grain. Screwing up the good works of others is something I try not to do too much in real life, so I suppose it's a cathartic experience for me. Dave, however, knows when I'm the traitor within seconds, another reason why I don't play poker, and insisted that I draw my card first to minimize the possibility that I'd be the traitor. Silly Dave, the odds don't change that way! ;-)

Sadly, I was loyal, and he knew that too. Me, I was guessing it was Dave about half way in. Of course, there was much joshing that "I'm a deputy" reminiscent of similar mechanisms in Bang!, a game that was sadly good once, and everytime someone put a card face-down to collect an extra white card there were calls of "Traitor!" around the table. I think it's a flaw of the game that you aren't encouraged to pretend that you're a traitor if you're loyal, it would make things particularly entertaining.

We made decent progress early. KC and I made some serious headway in the Grail quest, which while it was never finished did quite a bit to stave off defeat in that potentially critical arena. However, Ben and I were able to stave off the Picts together, and he generously gave me all of the award cards, *and* the life point for success. We pretty much ignored Lancelot and the Dragon, but there was good success on Excalibre and Matt ended up with the +1. He and Carey did a great job of holding off the catapults around Camelot that started springing up like weeds once Excalibre's quest finished up. Strangely, the Grail cards dried up, and it was clear that the traitor was hoarding them.

However, at some point we had gotten so that there were four black swords showing, and if the traitor hadn't been caught by the time we had 12 swords on the board, two of the white ones would switch over and the traitor would win. Assuming there was a traitor, of course. Thus, at four swords, it becomes more important to start thinking about who it was. Dave had, of course, written down who he thought could be the traitor, starting with the most likely and working his way down. I was below the possible line. I am *so* transparent. After a little agonizing, Dave decided to go for it, and called out Ben.

And it was Ben. 

There was much high-fiveing. Except for Ben. 

Who had all of the Grail cards. He did a masterful job, but I think that the Grail Card Hoarding Strategy has the drawback of eventually you just can't play many cards, and thus as the game goes on someone is more likely to notice that you aren't, you know, playing cards. Me, I was playing *lots* of cards. 

We eventually won, even though the Black Knight added one more black sword, and I had the honor of finishing off the Saxons before they finished us off. Ben drew one card off of the final card I played, but in the end, when I laid the last Progression of Evil card face down on the Black Knight area, my reward was another 5 card. It was Fate, pure and simple. 

HilArious. The best game of SoC I've played, and (given past history) almost certainly the last good one. This, my friends, was a game for the ages, and I'm certain it's what the designers hoped for. Of course, it's all about who you play with. 

Carey had to go pick up his in-law(s) at the airport at 9:45 (funny how he had "Highway to Hell as the alarm tone for that), so we pulled out Frank's Zoo. I love Frank's Zoo. A bad hand can ruin your chances, and I had two of those, but the game rewards those who know how to leverage the cards they have through timing. Got three elephants? Save 'em for the three Lions someone plays down. On one hand, I had four (including a joker and mosquito), but I had to play two of them to prevent Ben, who was in the lead, from taking a couple of lions and increasing his chances of winning on the final hand, and I went down in flames as a result. 

Nothing like laying down a set that you think no one will beat, only to have the guy to your *right* beat you on it. Except, of course, when you've set that very play up for failure by being able to beat *it* in turn. Which I did once. Both kinds, that is. 

Ben ended up winning rather handily, taking four lions, a hedgehog, and the first guy out of cards bonus in the final round. I think he had something like 25 points, which is just ridiculous. The net result is that everybody wins. Both in games and in company. I drove home to Wilsonville about as relaxed as I've been in months. Thanks, guys, for a truly great night of gaming. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Work, Work, Busy Bee!

OK, I don't actually work. Not for a paycheck, anyway. But it seems I've been busy. Lots of gaming (including a very interesting half-game of Warrior of God with Matt R a week ago), we got a new addition to our gaming group who looks like a winner, and I have a lot of new games either in hand or imminent (Devil's Cauldron, Kutozov, new edition of Napoleonic Wars, and a whole lotta Panzer Grenadier thanks to Eric mentioning that you could pick the whole product line up for about a quarter). That's about 40 or so sheets of counters to punch and clip. If only I could do it when Mel's home, but then she'd notice that I got more wargames. Ack.

And then there's Mom. Lots of Physical Therapy sessions. Lots of repeating myself again. And again. And again. "You can take one more Aleve if your back still hurts. But just take one at night if you do that. No, just one at night. At night. Night, when it's dark." She's really pretty with it, but for some reason medication instructions defeat her completely. And she takes fewer pills than I do. 

What's been the hard work, though, has been the band. Yes, I'm still in a band. And no, we still don't have a name yet (although I have a name I'm pushing for). We did, however, have an actual gig. With actual people listening. And guess what? Everything I said would be a problem was. Imagine that. What do you call a guy with program management skills and 30 years experience in musical performance? A: Right. We got quite a bit of feedback from the gig, which was nice (especially having the words "Doug" and "awesome" not only in the same sentence but actually directly related! Woot!

The "leader" of the band hasn't even played in 25 years, which I just found out. He's a good guitarist, but not a good singer. He's close to pitch, but it's either below or just below the center of the pitch. Unfortunately, good singers sing slightly *above* pitch, so he clashes terribly when singing harmonies. And doesn't hear them anyway. Anyway, when I mentioned that while I liked songs like the Beatles' "Come Together," but they weren't dance songs, he'd go on about how everyone danced to it at all the frat parties he played for way back in the day. 

Feedback #1 from our gig: No good dance songs. 

He also hired a female vocalist who has some really good chops, but zero experience using a microphone or in front of an audience. I was asked to help audition, but not asked if I thought she'd be a good addition. I would have said no based on her brassy voice and non-existent experience level. I was not asked. At the gig, she tried to hide behind her music stand, looked intently at it even on songs she didn't sing, and her bright tone grated on the nerves of listeners. 

Feedback #2 from our gig: Lose the female vocalist. 

Now I get to choose between being a jerk and insisting she leave the band (or me, I'd do that if necessary), or getting to be her instructor on how to be a front person/rock star. Which I neither have taught, nor wish to. 

We have another gig at a benefit for a local cross country high school team, with a member of the Olympic team present to meet'n'greet, and dinner as well. This is the sort of gig where you want a jazz duo playing wallpaper music, not a six-piece rock band wailing out "Ramble On" or "Barracuda". In the business this is called a "mis-booking". Plus, we're doing it for free, which I'm guessing is the primary reason we were chosen. I'm hearing that their response to everything is "we just want to help out xxxx" or "that's fine". Should be a real thrill. Once I figured out exactly what the gig was, I recommended strongly that they find another act. Everyone else wanted to play, so play we will.

Anticipated feedback: Mis-booking.

Also, if I decide that it's me or the female singer, I'll bring that up after the gig. Should be fun. Not.

On the plus side, I expect that my demonstration of front-person skills has given me enough cred with this group to start to take over decisions from the guitarist, who has no idea of what he's doing. Very nice guy, very good guitarist, shouldn't be leading a band. I really don't *want* to be leading the band, but there's really no one else who has the personality or experience for it. 

The thing is that this is a pretty good band. Everyone plays well, everyone gets along reasonably well (you always want a *little* tension), and we're all more or less aligned in the same direction - play a club/bar gig every few weeks. No one is in it for the money, no one (even me) is in it for the fame. Actually, I do it because there is absolutely nothing like connecting with an audience when you sing, especially when you are able to tear down the walls around your lizard brain and just let 'er rip. When I don't do it for a while, and it's been a good six years since I've *really* gotten to let loose, I get a little difficult. Saturday was very cathartic for me, and better yet the audience seemed to enjoy it too. That's always nice. 

I'll give a further report after the gig. Probably no new game reports (maybe one on Warriors of God) until the next Road to Legend session in a week.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Cynic and Senator Obama

I put this link near the end of an earlier entry, but it's entirely possible that some may not be interested in the apparent subject matter. I felt this was an important enough article to mention on it's own, so here is the link again. This may be the truest writing I have ever read, and it is worthy of the 15 minutes or so it will take you to read. 

The Hero We Deserve

Back in the day, around 1989 or so, I managed to score tickets to a special screening of what was the hot movie of the day - Batman, with Jack Nicholson in the "real" starring role as the Joker. Tim Burton directed and provided the essential story, and the film was a hit. Several movies have come out in the intervening years, but the general trend was to drift toward the campy TV series from the sixties rather than stick with the grim 'n' gritty vision that Frank Miller brought in his The Dark Night graphic novel. As a result, the movies got weaker and weaker, although the recent Batman Begins looked to turn the franchise around. Under Christopher Nolan's skilled eye, Batman Begins did an "origins" picture about as well as anyone has, but it suffered from the limitations of the genre - the necessity of introducing important characters whose roles would not become ascendent until later films, for one. A somewhat fractured storyline, for another. As such, when the hype surrounding The Dark Knight, the second Nolan film in the franchise began to gear up, I was very skeptical. Even the metatragedy surrounding Heath Ledger's suicide, supposedly driven in part by his work as the Joker, looked exploited by the studio to gain momentum heading into the film's release. 

I am here to tell you that this is the seminal Batman movie. This is the one that takes the gloves off, this is the one that breaks the rules and comes to grips with the essence of what Batman is. And the amazing thing is that if there were ever a time to put a movie like this out, we're in it. 

First, I want to give a brief synopsis of what the film really does well and where it falls short. Most superhero movies have a cast of characters who have, at best, superficial roles and must be included for the sake of history. Harvey Dent as the DA, Jim Gordon as the last honest policeman, all take secondary roles to even Michael Caine's performance as Alfred in Batman Begins. In The Dark Knight, every role is an important one, fleshed out and given a full character treatment. This requires a master storyteller to pull off, and there should be an Oscar in the home of everyone who helped with the story and screenplay come next March.

The film also doesn't pull any punches. Superheroes are supposed to be for kids, but they are more than that when done well. Batman, perhaps more than any other comic book character, is extremely complex and requires the viewer to understand a sense of desperation that only maturity brings (or a childhood that none of us would wish on our worst enemy). This is not a children's movie, and I would hesitate to allow a pre-teen to go without significant preparation and debriefing. There are action sequences, but they are not the meat of the movie. It is the character development that takes the starring role, and thankfully so.

The acting work (with one exception) is outstanding. Morgan Freeman, Christian Bales, Heath Ledger (who is very hard to watch knowing the toll his amazing work took), Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, all showed up ready to make a very fine film, not just a summer blockbuster to help pay the bills. There is some journeyman work here that one doesn't associate with movies concentrating on men in tights and a cape.

There are some problems. Maggie Gyllenhall is awful - she looks awful, she acts like someone handed her the script an hour before, and even I can tell that she took the first choice as an actor that came to her in every scene, something you are taught *not* to do in Acting 101. The early portion of the film goes by at breakneck speed, and there are considerable assumptions made that the viewer is familiar with the mythos. This is not a movie one should watch if one hasn't seen Batman Begins or is not familiar with the backstory. Finally, there are at least a few points where I had trouble understanding dialog because of background noises in the film. These are all minor points, and by the end of the movie you really could care less, but it should be said that I have a critical eye for at least some things.

The essence of film noir is that even the good are flawed, and that the right temptation or circumstance will drive the noblest of us to commit terrible acts. Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, rendition of prisoners, suspension of Habeus Corpus, these are the terrible acts that Americans are committing not only on a daily basis, but for years. Recent estimates put something over 75% of the internees at Guantanamo Bay as being not the "worst of the worst" but people who were at the wrong place at the wrong time. The iguanas who live on and near the base have more legal rights under American federal law than the detainees have. Think about that for a few minutes. 

What is amazing is that these crimes have been commited, at least on paper, within the bright light of the realm of law, by elected leaders of what is ostensibly the freest country on the planet. Batman, in contrast, is not elected, he works outside of the law (albeit a law that has been horribly and actively twisted and corrupted, even if in the name of security) yet has a strict code of ethics that dictates the line he cannot cross. Early in the film, Christian Bales has a brief exchange with his "butler" Alfred, speaking of his limits, although the specifics are about his physical limits. He says something to the effect of "I can't think about what my limits are," but what he really is saying is that his code is all he has, and to rethink it would take him into places where he becomes no better than the people he fights. 

Harvey Dent, the new DA, however, looks to be the real thing. A man who will fix the law itself as the right thing. someone who may make it possible for the Batman to retire. He is the hero everyone wants to have, the person who will redeem the city for it's sins of allowing things to fall as far as they have. Because, in the final reckoning, whether it's Gotham City or 21st Century America, it is the people who hold the final responsibility for their leader's conduct. Of course, it will be no surprise to anyone familiar with the franchise that Harvey Dent suffers a terrible accident that drives him insane, and he does not end the film a hero, at least in truth. It is the Batman, in the finale, who is the hero the city deserves. And even he is only a hero in the eyes of a very few. 

In the end, the movie is about corruption and how the people closest to it are the ones who are best able to resist it. It is a movie about evil, both as random chaos and as greed. It is a movie about staying true to one's ethical system in the face of terrible and relentless pressure. It is a film about limits and what happens when one runs into them at high speed. 

It is a movie that should tell us quite a bit about ourselves, where we are, and how we got there. It is about how we should act, the leaders we should choose, and how those of us who are cynics and idealists alike are coming to realize that we are being crushed as inexorably as if we were at the bottom of the ocean. 

Almost miraculously, I read an article in a recent article in Esquire magazine (which I highly recommend, despite the expensive clothing articles and occasional cheesecake) that at first blush appears to be about Barack Obama. It is not - it is an article about us, about where we are, about how we got there, and about what we need to move forward. It is not a generous article about Obama, in fact it deflates the cult of personality surrounding him (which I think is a good thing, not because I don't think he would be a good president but because I'd like us to have him as president for more than four years). It is an angry article, angry at the Bush administration, at the Supreme Court, at Congress, but most of all angry that we are willing to give up the really important thing - freedom, morality, justice, honesty - so that we can keep pretending that we'll all get a big house and a riding mower if we just let the people in charge do whatever they want. Here's the link:

Not that anyone would want to know what I think, but if you want a glimpse inside my head, this is about as close as you'll get from someone who has never met me. This article should be required reading in every Civics class in the country, and for anyone who wants to register to vote, from school board members to being a party delegate. 

Jung's concept of Synchronicity never seemed so real as it did yesterday, when I both saw The Dark Knight and read this article. 

As we left the theater, my wife said that she was really depressed after seeing the film. There is no absolution without confession, although our leaders like to keep pretending there is (even the ones who look like our saviors). In The Dark Knight, someone pays the cost. wouldn't it be nice if we, all of us, the entire country of America, built on the bravest and best of ideals forged in an age of Reason with a capital 'R', wouldn't it be just grand if we all decided that, just maybe, we should pay that cost together. 

Monday, July 21, 2008

A Bad Idea

I'm not a George W. Bush fan. In fact, I think that had he actually been president (and not Dick Cheney), he would have been the worst president in our history at the worst possible time. We are witnessing the beginning of the end of American consumer culture and certainly the end of American Empire and hegemony, and while much of this would have happened at some point it's pretty clear that the process was accelerated by the incredibly short-sighted and self-interested policies of the Bush administration and those who invested heavily in it. 

But that's now what I want to talk about today. I simply say the above so that no one confuses this blog, even for the slightest instant, with any of the myopic right-wing blogs that clog the Net. Or, for that matter, the left-wing blogs. Because I'm going to complain about the left, today. Really.

I was at my local bank the other day when I noticed that the city of San Francisco wants to name a sewage treatment plant after our Glorious Leader. Frankly, I burst out laughing in the middle of the bank, and I'm sure at least a few people there were insulted. Which is fine with me, it was a very funny news item, especially considering that Fox "News" was doing the broadcast. It certainly was an insult to W, who has responded by not responding. 

Here's the thing, though. While I thought this was funny, it would have been funnier had it been an SNL or Mad TV skit. If San Francisco actually went through with their plan, it would do two things: set a bad precedent, and ratchet up divisional/diversionary politics in the US. 

There's no question that the Bush presidency has been a bad joke. We've blown a budgetary surplus, been embroiled in a Middle Eastern civil war that we started, reduced the US dollar from the lingua franca of currency to scrap paper, set efforts to limit or reduce global warming back so far that it's unlikely we have any chance to make meaningful changes, ignored the Constitution, performed state-sanctioned torture, incarcerated innocent civilians without due process (the iguanas at Guantanamo have more rights than the prisoners there), and are on the verge of destroying the US economy. If the end goal was to destroy the power of the Federal government (as it *must* be - who could have done all of this without intending to?), they came pretty close. 

But naming a sewage plant after the man? That's sinking to Rush Limbaugh's tactics. We don't need to call Bush names. We don't need to mock him. He's done a perfectly good job of showing why we need to be very careful in who we allow to run the country and to *make sure we're paying attention* to what they do when they do it. All that this exercise in sour grapes will do is encourage the right to do the same when they come back to power. And they will, make no mistake. Because if the left fails to pick up the pieces, the voters will forget how bad Bush was in four or eight years and there are no other choices. Sure, there are other parties, but failing the utter collapse (and it would have to be an utter collapse) the two political parties in the US have far too much power and control over the system to allow anyone else more than a token piece of the electoral pie. 

So, unless you'd like to see the Nancy Pelosi Methadone Clinic, the Hillary Clinton Serial Rapist Halfway House, and the Barack Obama Center for Fertilizer Research, perhaps it's instead time to stop calling each other names. We can point out the shortcomings of a particular individual, certainly, at least when it comes to on the job performance, and we can talk about how we can address what appears to me to be an overwhelming number of critical problems that will require immediate attention (health care, overpopulation, crumbling infrastructure, banks closing, climate change, energy issues, the list is really quite a long and daunting one). What we can't do is argue for days over what asses the people who are trying to do this are versus what asses the people are who are calling the first group asses, ad nauseum. 

In short, what we can't do is argue about the unimportant stuff. It's like having a hurricane run through your neighborhood and arguing with your neighbor about how he should have put his lawnmower away and now it's in what used to be your living room. That's not important. What's important is getting your life back together. It's about working with your neighbor to *fix* the damned problem. It's about trying to figure out why a hurricane came through your neighborhood and what you can do to prevent it from happening again. 

Bush has been a disaster for the US. Even conservatives will admit to this. What we need to do now is figure out how we let a bunch of people who had no business running the country get into power (hint: don't let the Supreme Court make that decision). What we need to do is find a leader who will admit that some of the problems we have are due to some really short-sighted ideologies and change the way we do things. 

We are where Great Britain was fifty years ago. I know several people who lived or live there, and without exception they *all* say they would rather be here than there. I have this very bad feeling that in fifty more years we'll be saying the same thing about the US. If we're very, very lucky, we *won't* be saying it about living on Earth in general. 

Of course, I figured out long ago that people, when faced with impending doom, will merrily pretend it doesn't exist. And if they do, their first response is to try to stock up on bottled water, buy a gun, and hide in the basement for a year. So I'm not holding out a lot of hope. But maybe, *just* maybe, if we stop playing tribal politics and *fix* our problems instead of trying to absolve ourselves of responsibility, *maybe* we'll pull our heads out of our asses just long enough to minimize the damage. 

Good luck with that. 

Friday, July 18, 2008

Qwirkle and Stone Age

Our Tuesday session was at Mike's this week, and Ian joined Mike and I for a little three-player gaming. On the table: Qwirkle, an Ingenious variant, and Stone Age, a DALOTGALOP game in the stripe of Pillars of the Earth and Cuba. 

Qwirkle is marketed as a kid's game, set for ages 6 and up, and it showed. Not that I don't recommend it as a family game, mind you, just that I'd take Ingenious over it any day of the week. The goal, as in Ingenious, is to play tiles so as to match up with lines of similar tiles and get points. Instead of dual hex pieces, you have a single *big* square piece that has a colored symbol on it. The color and symbol are not consistent across the tile set, though, they mix and match, so where you would only have purple stars in Ingenious, in Qwirkle you would have stars in each of the six colors. There are six symbols, and each symbol/color combo has three copies, making it easy to figure out if you hope in vain for a particularly good draw.

Play is extremely simple, but much more constricted in some ways than Ingenious. There is no boundary or even board in Qwirkle, you just play on the table top. However, you can't put a piece just anywhere - you must match all of the symbols or colors in a given direction, but once you match color you can't duplicate the symbol in a "line" and vice versa. A line stops when the tiles stop, so a "break" in the line may start another line if the next tile in that row or column is a different symbol or color. You may also play as many tiles as you wish, provided they all exist in a single line (you can't place one tile on one side of a break and another on the other, however, the idea of "line" means contiguous tiles). 

Scoring is simple - you get one point per tile in any line that you extend, including points for the tiles that were already there. For example, were there two tiles on the board, and you placed two more so that they formed a square (following the placement rules, of course), you would get six points. Two for the new line you formed, and two for each of the lines you extended with the new tiles. The previously existing line of two tiles isn't in and of itself extended, so you get no points for it per se, just for the two one tile lines you've extended. Much easier to grasp with actual tiles than in text, I'm afraid. One other quirk - if you are able to get six tiles in a row, you score a "Qwirkle" (imagine that) and get a bonus six points. Since the longest possible line is six (either a single symbol and the six different colors or vice versa), this can be a bit trickier than you'd think. You are always drawing blind, so scoring a Qwirkle has a considerable amount of luck involved, although poor defensive play is helpful. 

As you'd imagine by now, you also have a hand of six tiles, and draw back up to six after your play. Surprise! The game ends when someone plays their final tiles after the draw bag is exhausted. 

Had I not played Ingenious, I'd have really liked this game. If I had a four or five year old (and with the impending grandcritter on the way, I will before I know it), it would be an excellent game for teaching spacial relationships and counting, not to mention shapes and colors. That, of course, assumes that said critter isn't colorblind - this game is nowhere near colorblind friendly, and in fact I had considerable trouble differentiating the blue/green and red/orange colors without direct light, a real problem since you place the tiles on end on the table to see them as they are too big to hold in hand. 

Where Ingenious blows the game away comes in several areas. First, you have the constraint of a limited play area. Second, you have no constraints on tile placement other than a potential loss of points for that turn. Third, you must do well with *all* colors in order to score well. Fourth, the double-move mechanism makes timing a particularly interesting dimension both for the placing player and for defensive play - knowing what your opponent wants to score in to get the extra move is important. Finally, the double symbol/color tiles create the same variety of tiles found in Qwirkle but with the added dimension of orientation on the board.

Of course, Ingenious costs twice as much, but it's a better experience for gamers in almost every way. I think there's even a travel version out there, but I'm not completely sure. For families, Qwirkle is the better bet, although the large wooden tiles also make pretty good missiles if your child is a budding MLB pitcher. My family has one of those...

Mike creamed us, mostly because he had the right tile at the right time (although none of us was playing defensively right up to the point where Mike reminded us of the six point Qwirkle bonus by scoring one). After that, I was trying to collect combinations of tiles to pull off good scoring opportunities, and actually got a 17 point score, which is pretty good. I think 20 points was the maximum score for a single play.

On to the Stone Age! We played this at the most recent Sunriver, and while I enjoyed the game to some extent there, it didn't really grab me. This time, having a better idea of how things worked, and with three players (which limits meeple placement for resources and for the village placement areas) I enjoyed it much more. I will forego the game description as it would take several paragraphs, but the gist is that you have a limited number of meeples in your tribe who can do one of several tasks, from resource gathering to increasing cultivation to popping out mini-meeples to building tools to technology to building more huts. Many of the activites limit the number of meeples that can be assigned, so if you want to increase your guaranteed food for the turn you need to do it before anyone else does. People take turns placing their meeples, and you can put down as many as you want or as are allowed on a single area in your turn. At the end of the turn, every player has their meeples do their assigned tasks in whatever order you wish, although usually this is pretty obvious, and then you make sure everyone eats. When you run out of civ cards, or one of the four stacks of huts has been exhausted, the round finishes and everyone figures out their points.

There is one twist to the game that I suspect puts off some gamers, and that is rolling dice for resources. Instead of just getting a resource for each meeple, you roll a die for each. Each resource has a certain number you need to achieve to gain that resource, and if you roll multiples you'll get more than one. For example, wood costs '3' per, so if you roll a six you'd get to take two of them. If you roll a 2, you don't get any. that means you gamble every time you try to get resources, which normally means chaos. 

There are two factors that mitigate the chaos, however, and they are brilliant. The first is the stitched rawhide cup provided for you to roll the dice in. An utterly unnecessary and frivolous component addition, but I love it. The second is the use of tools. You can get tools in various ways, but you can use them to add pips to your dieroll once per tool per turn. You are limited to a maximum of three tool counters, which you can use as you wish (more than one per roll, if you like), but they can go up in value so that a given counter can go as high as four. That means you are guaranteed a '5' roll with a single meeple/die assigned to stone, enough for one of that resource. However, you'd have to use all four of those points on a single roll. You also get to decide which to use after you make a given roll, but once used you may not get the bonus for any other roles, and any wasted pips are just that - wasted. I'm a big fan of mitigated luck, and in fact Mike was actively pursuing being King of Tools in our game, while I never really got started down that path.

My path, at least in this game, was to try to build as many extra huts as possible for "upfront" points, while collecting the civilization cards that gave me bonus points for said huts. I was also trying to dig through one hut stack as quickly as possible in order to end the game before anyone could build up the exponential points given for collecting the otherwise useless generic civ cards (you try to get one of each of eight types, worth 64 points if you can get them all). I didn't do too bad a job, but because I was placing my initial meeple on the hut rather than on tools, when my luck with the dice went bad (and it did, rather spectacularly, on more than one occasion - try to *not* roll a total of five on three dice!) I managed to even do this twice in a single turn. I essentially blew a cycle or two, allowing Ian to collect most of the civ tiles he needed to simply blow us out of the water. I also made one or two suboptimal plays near the end of the game, and I never got past one tool (through a civ card) or increased my population past my initial five meeples. As it was, I felt I was perhaps a couple of really bad rolls from winning the game, whereas I ended up about ten points behind Mike and a couple of huge tech leaps behind Ian.

The verdict? I'm not sure if it was simply a better understanding of the game or whether it was the number of players, but I really liked this game with three. I like it better than the other games in the general family (Caylus, which is too fiddly; Pillars, which feels too scripted; and Cuba, which just hasn't captured my imagination), probably because of the mitigated luck element. You gamble every time you place meeples on a resource. You gamble every time you place a meeple and hope none of your opponents lock you out of where you want to go next. Actually, I suspect that this was one of the reasons why I liked this game so well with three - you are guaranteed to be able to get one of the critical village tasks (babies, food, or tools) two out of three turns, so long as that's your priority (with three you can only use two of the three areas per turn), and you have a better choice most of the time. With four players, you will be locked out only 25% of the time, but for another 25% of the time you won't have any choice in the matter. 

Whatever. I'm increasingly fussy about the euros I buy these days (and increasingly unfussy about wargames, go figure), but this is one I'll add to my collection. The game is a bit on the light side, but I like games where the idea is to make the most out of the options you're presented with, and in this case everyone is given the same options and ways to mitigate the die rolling if they choose to. I chose not to, it bit me hard in the ass, and I don't mind at all. Highly recommended for three (at the very least - two might be too tactical but I have no first-hand knowledge, and four may just have been playing at the Sunriver Retreat where there's a lot of gaming going on), especially if you're the sort of person who likes this sort of thing.

Thanks for hosting, Mike!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Panzer Grenadier - Finally On The Table

I'll admit it - I have serious issues with Avalanche Press' games. Their rules are sloppy and subject to frequent new editions with major rules changes, they seem more interested in putting out quantity than quality, both in scenarios for their PG and GWaS/SWWaS games and in actual gameplay for games like Red Vengeance, and they act like the company will fold if they allow people to play their games online. I find that hard to believe, seeing the quantity of different titles that flow from them and the frequent sales they put on. 

I own a lot of their games, regardless. Some, like GWaS/SWWaS I have tried and run into too many rules problems (both lack of rules and poorly worded rules), and won't buy into those systems anymore. Panzer Grenadier was one of their early titles, and I bought games in all three (!) of the different rules editions they put out - the original game, marred by a boneheaded idea that you could easily measure if a piece of terrain took up 10% of a hex, Afrika Korps in 2nd ed which had it's own problems. I'd given up completely on the series until third edition came out, and I picked up the Eastern Front reprint of the original game to see if it had improved. I was impressed by a better (but still incredibly thick) ruleset, especially wrt how leaders were treated, and what seemed to be better scenario design. 

In fact, I was enamored of the system that I bought several other of the games and expansions, especially when they had sales. I now own Airborne, Road to Berlin, Battle of the Bulge, Afrika Corps, Eastern Front, Desert Rats (all boxed games that stand on their own), and the expansions Blue Division, Red Warriors, Sinister Forces, Arctic Front, Iron Curtain, Edelweiss, and South Africa's War. That's a lot of games, counters, and maps. I figure there are something like 400 scenarios all told in that mix, which I will clearly never play. 

And, until last night, I had not. Oh, I'd pulled out the game, set it up, and run through a few turns here and there, but the rules have enough hidden rules that it's hard for one person to learn the game. For example, if a demoralized unit fails it's recovery roll and flees, a leader in the original hex can flee with it. And this rule is buried as an exception in an unrelated rule. Meanwhile, you are told what units you can activate in a turn at least five or six times - the identical rule, over and over. And it happens throughout the rules. A clean ruleset would take up, in my estimation, about 8 pages of dense text, maybe 12 with illustrated examples. So learning this game on your own can be a bit of a chore.

Making matters worse, you can't play the game online, at least not in the modern sense. Because of opportunity fire, you really can't play the game by sending your move as a file and using a dice server to generate the random parts. VASSAL would be ideal for the game, but Avalanche is so paranoid about it's intellectual property that it won't allow any modules to be distributed. As such, I can't play this game remotely. Which is incredibly stupid because the game takes a long time to play anything but the simplest scenarios. I'm fairly certain I'd play this game regularly if there was a remote play option, but there isn't and so I think I'm not going to buy any more PG product until there is an option to do so. I've got plenty of game already that isn't getting played. 

That said, Eric and I have moaned about not having opponents for the game (largely because of the above reasons) in our group, and decided to pull it out and give it a try last night. This was the first face-to-face third edition game for both of us, although he'd played second edition some time ago. He chose the Los Tigres! scenario (#11) from the Blue Division expansion, partly because you got to have Spanish Fascists in 1942 Russia, but also because this was the first appearance of the PzKwVIe, also known as the Tiger tank. The model had horrible problems with maintenance and upkeep, was slow slow slow, and was only produced in limited numbers, but it had an 88mm cannon that was taken from the FLaK gun that did such an incredible job in an anti-tank role, and was perhaps the most feared land weapon on the WWII battlefield outside of heavy artillery. 

The scenario has the Spanish units (and their lone Tiger unit) trying to mop up a pocket of Russian soldiers holed up in a town. The Russians are in dire straits - most of their units are reduced, and thus have low morale, and the handful of guns they have are not up to the task of taking out the Tiger without some serious luck. I think the heavy artillery they have could *maybe* cause some damage on an 11 or 12 on 2d6 *if* the Tiger was adjacent and hadn't moved that turn. An unlikely situation, seeing as the guns have no way to move once they are placed and the Tiger has no reason to assault a city, where the guns are likely to be located. As such, it falls to close assault tactics to take out the Tiger. 

Which we *almost* got to but not quite. While we only finished about 10 turns out of the 28 the scenario runs for, I figure we got about half way in over three hours, much of that time spent on setup (30 minutes) and rules lookups (another 15-20 minutes). The Spanish, coming from two directions, were knocking on the door of the one-hex town, and being held off to some extent from the other town, with a pair of units and a leader ready to assault the Tiger which had foolishly parked next to a woods hex. I'd had surprising luck with my two laughingly designated "anti-tank" guns, which didn't have enough firepower to damage the Tiger if you were able to *combine* them, much less on their own, but they did a bang-up job popping away with their measly 2-firepower attacks on infantry units. Had we continued the game, it would have been interesting, but to be brutally honest PG scenarios are about history and not about a balanced gaming experience, so I'm pretty sure I would have eventually have been wiped off of the map given another 10 turns, although I might have taken quite a few Spaniards with me. 

Here's the thing - I really like this game. We spent a lot of time early on figuring odds of a result, and there are four different combat tables to get to know, each with different rules. Anti-armor fire uses a differential system, and only single units can fire. Direct fire goes against specific hexes, and can take advantage of firegroups if you have leaders around. Bombardment is particularly deadly, but is harder to get firegroups set up, but can also be done indirectly. Assault requires leaders, no disruptions or demoralizations in the attacking units, everyone is involved, and you have to first get up close and personal. There's also opportunity fire, which is great for direct fire but not so good with anti-armor, and it can only affect a single unit at a time. Every type has it's own table, which used specific firepower totals and column shifts to get a result, and even then the most likely roll (a 7) will result in no success at all - the real wins are when you roll at the end of the bell curve, either side! 

As such, you spend a lot of time looking at the tables early on to figure out how many factors to throw at a given target, and whether to wait until they're one hex closer so you don't get the negative column shift. Even crap weapons can get lucky, though (see my success with the AT gun in an IG role), so nothing is certain. Except the odds of nailing that freakin' Tiger. As the game went on, we got so we knew the columns and shifts and combat got really fast (at least until you got a result, then much morale rolling was done). Because the game plays very interactively, even more so than Combat Commander, you have almost no downtime and both sides are actively involved even in a defensive role. 

The night just flew by, and I was disappointed that we were going to have to stop the game - I really wanted to see how the literary elements would have played out. I felt like this was Combat Commander for control freaks - while your combat and morale rolls are a very strong luck element, there isn't the craziness and random events going on like there is in CC - no blazes showing up in a critical hex, or crappy smoke when you needed the good stuff. You can shoot indirect arty all the way across the board at very specific spots with no checking to make sure it lands where you thought it would (although there are friendly fire rules). This is a God's-eye view game, just the way American wargamers like it. You know *right* where those Tiger tanks are. It won't help, but you know where they are. And, like Combat Commander, a lot of the scenarios aren't going to seem terribly balanced, but also like that game, balance isn't really the point. The point is to get a good feel for history and the issues the commanders faced and how the various weapons systems work together to be effective. And, of course, to tell a story through the game. 

I'm going to work to get this title on the table more, although it will likely be solitaire (the fog of war rules that can end a turn prematurely help considerably in this regard) or occasionally with Eric, who lives a bit more than two gallons of gas away as a round trip. Funny how that's a measure of distance for me now. I won't buy any more of the expansions or games, though, until Avalanche starts making it easy for me to play anyone anywhere instead of forcing me to stick with local opponents. 

And here's a thought on that. Avalanche should take a very hard look at the Days of Wonder model. Provide a proprietary online system that people can either subscribe to, or get a certain number of months access to when they buy the game, enabled by a password. A big box will get you two or three months. An expansion will get you one. The junkies will buy every game that comes out. Make it web-based so that people can't steal it and so it would be platform independent (because the only thing that would piss me off *more* would be to shut out the Mac folks needlessly). Alternately, when you subscribe, you get access to that game's scenarios for life. The initial investment in software would be a bit high, but you'd sell more games and wouldn't even need AI, just a solid interface that worked like you needed it to. Avalanche would control their IP, we'd have the opportunity to play the game remotely. There would be maintenance costs, sure, but eventually you might even be able to sell *just* the online access - no printing costs, distribution, or other costs involved. 

I mean, I like having the physical game as much as the next guy, and in fact with wargames that may be one of the primary reasons I have the game, but as I get older and even *my* closet starts to burst at the seams, maybe it's time to rethink the hobby and how we access it. List prices for wargames are going to start to break the $100 point on a regular basis in the not too distant future (the monsters and small press games already do), and if you can sell the online game for $50 I think there's a successful business model here. 

Avalanche, I hope you're listening. Because there's a good game here that gets overlooked because of your paranoia. I say, keep the paranoia but provide us with a way to play online. I think you'll come out ahead. 

Sunday, July 13, 2008

MobileMe - DOA

Our WBC West group has been using a .mac Group to communicate since March of this year. I wanted (and pushed for) .mac because the ads on Yahoo Groups make it difficult to read email messages on an iPhone. From the start, .mac was a bit of a mess - very little configurability, massive problems with getting people included in the group (including a very small link you had to hunt for if you didn't want to pay for the service), and a weak interface for anyone who has used a computer in the last year. It was clearly aimed at novice users. 

Apple recently decided to change the service's name to MobileMe, with the intent that it would support the iPhone/iTouch. That's great, but it's not what I signed up for. So when Chuck told me he was having trouble getting access to our webpage, I took a look and was completely unable to get to it as well. Every time I clicked on something that was supposed to tell me what was happening, I got sent to a migration webpage that linked back to itself. Hunting through the forums on the Apple website finally explained that Groups were being phased out - no new groups, and apparently little or no support for what was there. 

At that point, I decided to pull the plug on the operation. We're going to standard e-mail rather than use any group (the micro-con is only a few weeks away), and I've asked Apple to refund a proportional amount of the membership fee. They basically took away the *only* feature I used and expected me to jump up and down at what sure looks like an entirely new feature set. 

Apple has struggled with online paid services. Those of you who used Macs back in the 90's may remember eWorld, their disastrous attempt at copying AOL, and I've been unimpressed with the .mac service from the start (I had a sub for a year once before, but let it drop because they took so long to update iWeb to a functional state). The Apple Music Store is largely a good service, although it can be a bit of a chore to find things from time to time, but then again you don't pay to access it, just to purchase things. With .mac, you paid for access. And now, I have no access to what I wanted to use it for. 

This will be my last paid online service that I buy from Apple in any event. It's unfortunate that my platform of choice is only available from them, and while I'm very likely to stick with them it's also very likely that I will not feel the slightest guilt in warning people off from MobileMe. I predict that within a year, MobileMe will have gone under and Apple will abandon any value-added strategy for the iPhone. The simple fact is that they have failed this test twice in the past and will fail this one as well. 

I expect that they are getting a lot of angry .mac users at this point, but I will fill you in on my experiences with their support people and whether or not I get a refund, much less the $60 I'm asking for back out of my $99 investment that I got a bit more than 4 months out of. 

Apple, please make this right for your customers. It's bad enough that Obama voted to let the telecoms off the hook. Make this right.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Warriors of God - Initial Thoughts

If you're a wargamer, tell me if this happens to you: A new game magically appears on your doorstep (or jumps into your car when you drive by your FLGS), you punch, clip, and bag the counters, you read the rules, you set it up... and then you put it away and maybe - maybe - pull it out and look at it once or twice in the next five years. 

I have a lot of games like that.

It seems that if the game doesn't inspire anyone else in my group to play, it's not going to see much in the way of even solitaire table time. Part of the problem is that I don't seem to be able to split my personality as well as I once did, even now that I have dedicated gaming space where multiple games can be left set up and ready for play. I've been blessed with such a wealth of good opponents (on many levels) that the manufactured solitaire experience just doesn't do that much for me. Now, the solitaire experience is about learning a ruleset in preparation for face-to-face or online play rather than for the experience of just playing. 

I *knew* I shouldn't have gotten into MMORPGs. 

Recently, I got MMPs new International Gamers' Series title, Warriors of God through pre-order. Funny thing about preorders, at least for me. I rarely have the faintest idea of what the game will be like, as I tend to order almost anything that isn't American Civil War or Napoleonics. I do, however, applaud bringing games from other countries (although so far the I in IGS seems to stand for "Japan"), and I don't have any games on the Hundred Years War (although there's little in the way of designer notes or historical information other than what's in the actual game, and that's not much more than a list of leaders). 

So it was that I was surprised that this was a very low density and complexity game, albeit with what seemed like an awful lot of sequencing. Huge counters (1"!), a very nice and readable map, and rules that should have dialed back the background hues about six points. Adam Starkweather, bless his soul, writes rules like Richard Berg, full of cute asides that are funny once that show off how clever and smart he is. I'm sure he is clever and smart, I just don't see what place that sort of casual reference has in a set of rules. 

Once you get past a combat sequence that literally takes 25% of the rules to get through, however, and start to understand how the various subsystems all work together, there's a very intriguing game here. The battle system is actually very simple - you add up all of the combat units on a side, compare to the battle rating of the leading commander (based on rank), then roll a number of dice based on which of those two numbers is smaller. Sixes hit, unless your leader has a better Bravery rating than the other leader, in which case you can add the difference to every die. For example, a 3 bravery rating facing a 2 on the other side would hit on fives or sixes, while the 2 would just hit on sixes. There are some other elements in sieges and using longbow troops (what would Agincourt be without longbows?), but that's it. 

Even the rest of the turn, heavily sequenced, isn't that tough. Most of it has to do with raising troops, checking to see if your leaders have died yet, and springing your leaders from prison if they had been captured. Victory points are based on control of areas, which is non-trivial if you aren't in your home area - just having troops somewhere doesn't cut it. 

Throw in that a leader can die on any game turn, turning what looked like a very good bet into a lot of trouble, and there's a game here that has a lot of chaos to manage. Which, I suppose, is pretty darned true to the period. 

I've been playing the Lion in Winter scenario, which is the same length of time and the same rules but just a different set of leaders, and I'm really enjoying it. Part of that is the chaos of never knowing who is going to deploy where until you know who has died of an icky venereal disease or stubbed their toe and got blood poisoning. That makes for a very dynamic game that some in my gaming group would call "dice fest" and "broken", but I consider it to make the solitaire experience very good and a challenge for the players in a ftf game to call "chaos management". 

The really critical thing I've found is area control. It's hard to take control of an area that your leader doesn't call home (there are shield and flag heralds on all counters and all spaces - if they match, you more or less automatically take control of it if you're there at the right phase). To remove a control marker during movement, you need to have more leaders in the area than your opponent, and the marker counts as a leader in that case. Removal in the Control phase is a little easier, although if you have mercs in your force or if the area isn't your home area it's at best a 50-50 proposition, and that's rare. However, most of your VP come from area control, you can only reposition troops outside of movement (which is important because they are only raised in areas you control as well) by moving them through controlled areas. Control, much more than active force, is huge in this game, and like War at Sea, tends to snowball - you don't compute VP anew from turn to turn, it's added on to what your current position is. 

The game moves right along. There are some critical decision points, mostly where and when to move your armies and how to get the maximum use out of the troops you raise, as well as where to place your leaders, but it's a very low number. I'd compare the decision points with those in Hannibal, perhaps even a little less so. What I find particularly interesting is how the chaos can change the board situation militarily, but might take a few turns to turn around from a VP production standpoint. I've had turns where not a single leader croaked, and other turns where the board was suddenly nearly vacant. Both sides will add three leaders per turn, so you're never completely screwed, and control of an area will prevent your opponent from sliding in and stealing combat units (a common occurrence when you first learn the game, and another reason why area control is so critical to success). Still, if you're the kind of person who is under the mistaken impression that this is the sort of game where you might as well roll a die and see who won, it's not a game for you. 

I've only gotten half way into the LiW scenario so far, but that was only about an hour to do so after an abortive learning pass, and I'd imagine that you could get through a full game in two hours without too much trouble once you were familiar with the system and the subtleties. In fact, I consider this to be a light enough game that I'm hoping to get it on the table as an evening game at WBC West in another month or so. 

One last item that I find particular interesting: Combat can go on for multiple rounds, and indeed if you have a couple of lightly reinforced leaders and each of you are rolling two or three dice at matched Bravery, it can take a while to attrit one force or the other. However, there's a very interesting mechanism that takes care of this to some extent and discourages the modern version of Kingmaker's old "Scrope attack". When you move into an uncontested area with enemy units, you become the aggressor and get an appropriate marker. If, as aggressor, you are unable to come up with a single hit in three rounds, your opponent can force you to retreat in disgrace, disallowing you from taking control of an area with that leader in the later part of the turn, and they get a free shot at you. It's optional, so if they have an overwhelming force they can choose to instead keep taking shots at you, but in general you are encouraged to go in with the big boys if area control is on your mind. 

While it's not going to be a game for everyone, this is not only a good gateway game for Euro players but also a pretty good short game for grognards as well. The choices between using your leaders for combat vs area control, and the risky aspect of taking control outside of very limited circumstances, make for some interesting strategic decisions. I also like that you basically get two games for the price of one (plus, of course, Jeanne d'Arc with her own special rule, not to mention Robin Hood who shows up in Lion). 

Now if we could just get Adam to tone down the rules and make a few cleaner component choices. Dude, hire a technical writer to edit. Lord knows Devil's Cauldron would have been a much better game had you done so. Otherwise, this is a very strong series and I thank Adam for his work in getting these games out to the West.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Road To Legend, Chapter 1.3 and Onward

We met with a slightly smaller (but very enthusiastic) group for the third installment of The Road To Legend, with Ken, Ben, and Laurent steering the heroes through their final level of the first dungeon in Starfall Forest. When we last left our heroes, they were surrounded by a pretty big bunch of critters, including two hellhounds and a master giant with an extra 20 wounds and an extra armor. And a tendency to throw really big boulders around. 

It took exactly one turn for them to dispatch the hellhounds (drat) and another to finish off the skeletons, leaving only the giant to take abuse for several turns. Not long enough, however, for him to survive long enough to clear the Overlord deck a second time and give me extra CP. We finished the dungeon (and the first week - yay!) with the heroes at 21CP and the Overlord at 11. What I'd forgotten is that the Overlord tends to catch up a bit as the turns go on, as the heroes aren't always in a dungeon every week. 

In fact, the heroes spent the next week traveling back to Tamalir, where they got to do a little shopping, and spent the next turn healing up. That was a good choice, because it was clear that Sir Alric Farrow was on his way to besiege the Orc Market, and they needed to get the Enchanted Boat purchase just to be able to go after him as the only way you can get to the Orc Market is by boat. This also limited their ability to gain skills or extra power dice, although it also forces me to try to bring in my other Farrow lieutenants while I can still get their cost bonuses (they are cheaper XP-wise if I bring them in with other Farrows on the board). I was saving up for a Beasts upgrade, but think perhaps the lieutenants are a better idea for now. 

The one drawback is that they were forced to travel on Medium and Hard paths to get to the Orc Market, so they ran into their first outdoor encounter on the way. The party was ambushed by a Master Ferrox along with his tribe and a military advisor Naga, but the party got lucky and drew the Secure Glade as the area, which meant that you subtracted two from wounds generated which severely limited the Ferroxes special Bleed and Leech abilities. Laurent's character Tahlia took a little bleed damage, but only five or so total hits before they managed to clear out the encounter for a paltry 300GP. 

At this point, the party decided that since they had arrived at a dungeon, and since they were going to need to get a little money anyway, that they would enter the dungeon, so our next session will start at that point. After that, they go to the Orc Market, where they can apparently sneak into the besieged city and heal up before taking on Alric and his goons. I suspect they'll make fairly short work of him, but with two more lieutenants running around and chewing up the various cities, it may be hard for them to cover all of those bases. 

We also got our first Rumor, which the party wisely placed just south of the Orc Market, allowing them to continue through and grab the extra award after they finish with Alric. Of course, at the rate we're going, that will be in about three months, so I don't know that they will necessarily remember what the rumor was. Something about getting an extra treasure card every time they went to market, so pretty worthwhile.

Everyone seemed to really like the character development part, but what was particularly cool was deciding whether to go after Alric or let him burn down the Orc Market. They seemed to find a pretty good balance, although by my count, they will have to spend one week traveling to the city, another week training, and one more week fighting Alric. By then, I'll have both his wife and brother out there (5XP for the brother, not sure what the discount is for the wife but it will be doubled because I'll have two other Farrows on the board by then. She costs 11, so at worst the discount will be four. That's exactly twelve XP total for both, so in two more weeks I'll have three lieutenants on the map making the heroes chase after them! Woohoo! 

I love being the Overlord. There's a lot of downtime for me, but it lets me get down with my inner Bad Self. Plus, as host, I'm pretty likely to be the one consistent element from session to session, so the Overlord is a natural choice for me. Since I also put the game away, there are no secret elements that I have to avoid looking at (as there would be were I a hero player). 

I'm happy to say that the game worked just as well with three hero players as with five or four. Everyone really liked the added dimensions of the game, and it's almost too bad that the base game takes so much of the play time to get through. My estimate is about two hours per dungeon level, so a seven - eight hour session is just about right for a complete dungeon, an encounter or two, and the leveling (encounters seem to take about an hour). We can't really do that, so it will take about three regular sessions to accomplish the same thing (as it did in the last three sessions, in fact). 

We ended up with 35CP by the time we finished, and it's likely we'll each gain about the same amount in the next dungeon (21/14 - I'm hoping to get through the Overlord deck a little quicker this time). I also learned that I get to choose different Treachery cards every time we play! Also, there are a few Overlord improvements that allow you to remove cards from my deck to make things a little faster. I won't get those this turn, but I'll be able to get them in the future. Now I'll have to decide between lieutenants and a smaller deck...

Thanks to Ken, Laurent, and Ben for coming and playing. At the end of the evening, Ben asked if it was 9:30, but it was actually an hour later. That's the sign of a good game, to my mind, time just flies and you've been so immersed that it's over before you know it. 

Our next RtL session will be Tuesday, August 5th. I may start the game a little earlier (6:30pm) in order to get two dungeon levels done instead of one and a half. At least I can have the dungeons pre-set in terms of critters selected and map pieces sorted, which always helps. The encounters aren't so bad, as there aren't that many outdoor tiles, but the dungeon tiles and critters are many and varied, and they take about ten minutes to collect and set up (including the various special pieces on the board). 

Tuesday, July 08, 2008


 It's been a little while since I've put in an entry, mostly because we were in Sunriver with my extended family. Not a lot of gaming other than a few Cheeky Monkey games with my grand-niece (who did a good job of getting the monkey trading rules for a six-year-old) and three hilarious games of Times Up! with the adults. I ended up giving my copies of Cheeky and Pickomino to my niece as she seemed to like them a lot. Oh, and I also played Mario Party 8 with her as well. I'll turn her into a gamer yet.

I've also been working on learning OCS in preparation for our WBC West micro con in mid-August. I have to say that I'm finding the rules amazingly transparent, although I haven't gotten to the supply part yet. I've gotten the Mareth Line scenario in the Tunisia game set up, which uses a small portion of the map but relatively high counter density, which should give me a good sense of how the game works. So far, I'm impressed and will give more info once Mike and I have played it at the con. 

I'm also trying out Warriors of God, Adam Starkweather's ultra-light wargame on the Hundred Year's War (as well as a Lion in Winter scenario). The rules are very simple in general, and the game flows very quickly. There are a lot of things to consider, and the chaos that is the leader death rule will drive Mike nuts. Still, this is a winner, and one I'm looking forward to trying out. I strongly recommend playing a couple of turns for practice so that you can see how control of a given area is critical to raising troops, and how difficult it is to actually raise said troops. This game may have a higher depth of play/elegance of rules ratio than Combat Commander, although clearly not as flexible in terms of variety of scenarios. 

I also need to start getting my Burning Blue and Asia Engulfed rules read (or re-read). I plan to try the solitaire scenario that's available online for BB, and will have to simply try out the extended example of play in AE and carry it forward. These and OCS are my "new" games to play at WBC West, and I find that my brain does much better if I've done my homework ahead of time. Having to learn a game, both rules and situation, is extremely draining and to do it day after day simply shows just how old I am now.

Finally, and most importantly, I had the most satisfying session of World of Warcraft I've ever had. Better than dinging 70. Better than getting my Flying Machine. Better than running my first instance with a good guild. It was going online to look for clam meat off the coast of Desolace and having my daughter, who has started playing again, whisper me. That was why I started playing the game, wanting to have a connection with her while she was living in Las Vegas, and while it's taken 16 months to get to this point (we will be actually gaming together in the near future), none of that matters. I've always maintained that it's not so much what you play but who you play with, and last night brought that home to a degree I can't put into words. Of course, she's in town now (as is her SO, who is even bringing his level 70 over so Leo will finally have someone to play with), but every minute I spend with her is time I will never consider as having been wasted. 

There's a lot of gaming coming up in the next couple of weeks, so look forward to me making up for a dry stretch. Right now, I'm going to do my Wii workout. This balance board has been the best console-related purchase I've ever made, even my wife plays Wii now because of it. Amazing.