Monday, August 25, 2008

WBC West 2008 - Wrap Up

WBC-W '08 is in the history books. It was a week of heroic wins, doomed losses, and games that elated some and frustrated others. I like to feel I learn something every year in terms of what we can improve, and this year was no different. Here's my take on the event:

Most Anticipated Game - OCS Tunisia. I went in to this game knowing it would take a while to start internalizing, and sure enough it did, about five hours. By that time, however, I knew this was a game that I would enjoy while constantly feeling frustrated that I couldn't do anything I wanted with any units on the board, unlike the vast majority of wargames. I will be playing the Kasserine scenario solitaire in the near future to reinforce the ruleset. 

Best Play Experience - As much as I liked Tunisia, it was a learning game and one that I didn't start to enjoy until later on. The most intense play experience, though was A Victory Lost, one that was in doubt right up to the last turn. Honorable mention goes to Manifest Destiny, when I played about as good a game as I could, holding off Chuck at the very end to take the win despite the entire field nipping at my heels. 

Worst Play Experience - Thunder's Edge. This game taught me the most important lesson of the week - I don't like multiplayer strategy games in the stripe of Axis and Allies. At all. Throw in components that have a strong DTP feel, the potential for winning the game more or less after setup, and a subsystem that could have been left out of the game entirely to it's improvement, and the end result is a pile of MPS games that I own today but probably won't in about the time it takes for me to convince Mike to put them up on eBay. Attack!, Dust, probably a few more. I will hang onto Starcraft for now, mostly because of the interesting z-axis element and the action stacks, but it won't have much time to impress me. 

Rookie of the Year - Ken wins this one, hands down. Bribing us with really good hooch didn't hurt. He was pleasant and a gentleman throughout, even that first night when I was having my Thunder's Edge meltdown. Ken, you are welcome back anytime, although I suspect you now understand just why schedule is so important.

Biggest Surprise - My endurance. I've struggled to keep mental and physical concentration over the course of the week in years past, in some cases hitting the wall only two or three days in. This time, possibly because of my regular Wii Fit exercise program (proving any exercise is better than none), while I had occasional lapses, I definitely felt alert and involved more or less continually despite four or five hours of sleep the first couple of nights. Honorable mention goes to our three-player game of The Napoleonic Wars, which I played to check out the new edition rules. This is a very good three player wargame, and probably a great two-player game. Ken felt like he was getting beat up as Austria/Russia, but to hold of a stronger French army for nearly three turns - that was pretty impressive. Austria got removed from contention on that third turn (I had incredibly great card draws), and that may have hurt him in terms of his chances of winning the last couple of turns, but to be honest the game should have ended on the third turn with the Peace roll. 

Game I Most Want To Play Again Soon - Here I Stand, if only because I have yet to finish a full game. I will only play this three-player in the future, I can't imagine the downtime problems with six. Also the most likely to be played over a long period of time online (between Chuck, Eric, and myself). Honorable Mention to Nappy Wars 2-player.

Most Needed Player Aid - AVL needs a chart of ZOC and major river effects. I don't know how many times we had to look up various rules because of the delta - can't move from ZOC to ZOC across any major river space, but you *can* advance across a bridge with a mech and keep moving. Ack. The *only* knock on an otherwise classic game.

Biggest Disappointment - Actually, the game I most wished I'd played but didn't. This is a tie going to Pursuit of Glory (unpublished, so eminently unplayable) and The Burning Blue. Just not enough time to learn the latter, as I detail more below.

Things I'd Do Differently - The evening gaming was a bit of a mixed bag this year, and finding out that Mike liked almost none of them was frustrating, especially after we'd nixed Arkham Horror when he said he wasn't interested in playing that. As Mike is as certain to be there next year as anyone, I'm not sure what to do other than just look for games that will work well for the number we have minus two and have him play shorter and lighter two-player games. If it sounds like I'm picking on Mike, I'm really not. It's just that I'm trying to provide as comprehensive and fun an experience for everyone, and while I know I'm not going to hit the ball every time I go to bat, at the same time I'd prefer that everyone was playing games they liked. I'm fairly certain that Mike's experience this year was not what he'd hoped, partly because of the evening fare but also because of the Distortion Field wrecking multiple longer day games. 

We had a lot of confusion going into the week about when people would show up, and even one last second dropout (I got the mail the day I left), although that wasn't nearly as critical as the player would have only been there for the last couple of days when the schedule gets a lot looser. Next year I will post specific entry points. People are welcome to show up between entry points, but if they do there is an excellent chance they won't have an opponent unless they get lucky and someone else shows as well (or we have an odd number). As always, only day games are applicable. The entry points will be Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. If you came on Monday evening, for example, you wouldn't be guaranteed a game or opponent on Tuesday, but you would on Wednesday. 

This was a stickier problem this year than previously, so I'm just thinking out loud of how to solve the problem. If you have ideas, please contribute them. 

For those who wonder why we put such an emphasis on schedule, it's very simple. These are complex, involved games that run for (at a minimum) three hours or so, all the way up to 12 or more. Preparation, both in knowing the ruleset and the operational situation, is critical to the enjoyment of everyone at the table. Had I not been boned up on OCS, my game with Mike wouldn't have finished. And just forget trying to *teach* a game that you don't know really well. I know that Dave enjoyed his game of Wilderness War much more than if he hadn't spent time getting familiar with the rules and situation ahead of time. 

And our heads can only hold so many rulesets before they explode. I was considering bringing The Burning Blue, but decided against it at the last minute because I admitted to myself that I didn't have the necessary prep time in the game to allow it to be successful. That was another important lesson I learned this year, although fortunately before we got to the nanocon. 

Of course, even with all of these great games, it would all be for naught if the people I played with were all jerks (and I freely admit that I did my best impersonation of one during Thunder's Edge). Fortunately, they are all smart, funny, pleasant, patient people who are there as much for the company as for the gaming. Dave asked me as we were packing up if I'd felt like I was hosting this year, and I was surprised (pleasantly) to say that I hadn't. We are getting to a point where the event runs itself once things start, and it didn't matter what game we were playing or who I was playing with, every game with one exception was great fun. I really liked going to the concert on Saturday as well, and I *really* like not having to drive - four hours behind the wheel tends to take it out of me. 

I was also very happy to extend the week to a full seven days. We'll do this in the future, although if possible I might try to book the week from Saturday to Saturday to allow people a day to recover when they get home. I know I'm exhausted today, both physically and mentally, and if I had to work I think I'd fall asleep at my desk. The workmen with the compressor that started up at 8:30am didn't help, of course, but otherwise I probably would have slept in to noon. 

Dave asked us for our final video blog question about what we'd tell people to do if they were putting on a similar event. After four years, I'd say the following: it's about the people, the environment, and the games, in that order. Like the people you play with, understand the limits of the space you are in (as well as your own) and plan accordingly, and pick games you like to play, although if the first are taken care of the remainder is a relatively minor point. You will best know what your group enjoys - maybe side bets make things more interesting, or tournaments (not something so important for us), or keep a running total of who wins what (also not so important for us). By far the most important thing is that at the end of the week, everyone is ready to go home but at the same time thinking about Next Year.

Next Year, there will be t-shirts.

WBC West Report Part #7 - Final Day

When we last left our intrepid gamers, Doug and Chris were heading out to the Wilco concert (woo hoo!), Ken had finished his gaming for the weekend, and Dave, Mike, and Chuck were staying home to play India Rails. Apparently that didn't go so well for Mike, who I don't think has played a lot of these games. It's important to be careful to generate enough cash with your initial runs and not overbuild, and while I wasn't in the game I get the sense from his blog that he got caught short. You can always wipe your cards by losing a turn, which may or may not hurt you, but like I say, I wasn't there so I don't really know what happened. I do know that Chuck got the delivery cards in the right order and at the right times, which can be a problem with the game. Me, I prefer to play crayon rail games solitaire, as the downtime can be excruciating if you're just making a long run and other people are constantly making deliveries and drawing new load cards. 

There was a pretty epic Zopp game between Dave and Chuck later in the evening (I went to bed around 10:30pm), and I'm not quite sure who won, but the level of play was apparently a whole lot higher than when Mike and I were involved. ;-)

Sunday morning saw Chuck and I finishing up our AVL game. I had studied the board a little in case I went first to speed play up (right) and saw pretty early that were I to draw the STAVKA chit first that I would be in serious trouble. Sure enough, the first two chits allowed Chuck's Soviets to more or less wipe out my units near Stalino, and it was only the timely intervention (with no response from the Soviets) of most of my panzer units that pushed them back and more or less destroyed the Soviet army in that part of the board. However, I wasn't able to get the three infantry units out of Rostov intact, as that army didn't activate until too late to do any good, and I could have used them. However, the game was definitely in the balance.

Then I screwed up. I moved a panzer unit south to the Black Sea to prevent Chuck from using the road net to make a run for the Dnepr, but put it one space out of command from the best HQ in the area. To make matters worse, STAVKA came out first again on the 8th turn, and soon that unit was surrounded and I had to dilute my panzers to try to break out the southmost unit and also to head north to work on saving Kharkov. The breakout failed, and at that point I knew that I would be five points down at the end after losing points for OOS units, so I conceded the match at the start of the 9th turn. An epic game, with incredible luck on both sides. 

Perhaps the thing I like most about AVL is the narrative element. It really feels like units are fighting for their very survival, and I had not one but two chances to perform the famous "back-handed blow" first at Rostov, then at Stalino. It was a very tight game, but as happens in very tight games that activate via chits, how those chits come out at the end will have a huge effect on who wins. It is a testament to this game that I would have had a very real chance on the last turn had I not made that one stupid choice (among several stupid choices on my part). Of course, Chuck will say that I left him an opening to go retrieve 1st Panzer in Rostov, so there you go. A great game, one that I'll bring out repeatedly, and one that I'm already considering solitairing again in the coming weeks.

While we finished our game, Dave and Mike played for the Manouevre title, with Mike getting creamed fairly quickly. Something about dice and cards. The Deansian Statistical Distortion Field was in full swing over the course of the week, and Mike and I spoke a little about how shorter games might result in a more satisfying experience for him as he really likes close games that come down to the wire, and he'd have more chance of getting that experience with more games rather than fewer long ones. Of course, there's always chess. ;-) 

Our final game, played in between making beds and doing laundry, was Perikles, a fairly recent Wallace title published by Fantasy Flight. Personally, I think this is one of Wallace's best, although there is a fairly big luck element in the game during combat. And this time, I was the victim on the last turn. We were running 40-40-39-39 going into the final round, and I had no cities to guard, so I went after two of Sparta's cities. I had a chance to win the first one, but blew the following roll that would have won it. There's an example of where the dice, which are rolled perhaps fifteen or so times in a game by a given player, can really cause havoc. I failed pretty much all of my attack rolls in that turn, all six or so of them, and so handed Dave something like 12 points that put him in first place. 

That's not to say I don't like the game, far from it. I was in a position where I really needed some military victories because of how ownership of the cities and cube count played out, and I chose to go for two battles and failed both. One battle would not have gotten me the win, but it would have knocked Dave down far enough that Chuck would have taken it, so I went for both and reaped the whirlwind as a result. This game doesn't come out nearly often enough. 

And with that, WBC West was all over but the inevitable smack talk on the ride home. Dave asked us a few more wrap up questions for his video blog (an experiment that was successful from my perspective by virtue of it's relative unintrusiveness, although I have not seen the video yet). 

I will evaluate the week in a later entry.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

WBC West Report #6 - Friday Evening thru Saturday

Friday night was Chuck's night to teach and moderate Republic of Rome, the 20 year old AH multiplayer diplomacy game where everyone can lose but only one person can win. The game has a rather checkered career, having had the initial problem of some of the densest rules ever written for what is a pretty simple game at it's core. Page after page of exceptions and special cases make reading the rules (in 1990's-era Don Greenwoodese) an exercise in tedium. My electromagnetic fields class textbook was an easier read. Making things worse, AH itself tended to give official errata that contradicted itself on occasion. There is a living rules edition on the net that's been stable for a couple of years, and I recommend it as the authoritative rules in the absence of input from the publisher. 

Fortunately, Chuck knows the game well, and so the five of us listened to him explain the rules (too much - this game *must* be taught on the fly, as goes for so many AH multiplayer games of the era), then dove into the labyrinthine morass that was Roman politics. After a couple of turns, we pretty much felt we knew what we were doing, but given that no one really wanted to be sneaky we mostly just dropped intrigue cards on people who looked like they were ahead and gave consuls to people who had recently lost senators. 

In an interesting bookend, we had an epidemic early in the game, and one more on the very last Forum Phase roll. In the first case, Dave and Chris lost senators, and in the last I lost my really good senator to end up close to last before I could transfer my faction leader marker to him. In the end, it was really more about having a lot of fun with people around a table than playing the game per se. This sort of game screams "fiddly!" to me in so many ways, and the weak 90's era AH graphics and chits don't help. Put all of the markers and other minutiae into an iPhone app, and this might be worth playing, but for now I'm unlikely to pull it out. I own a pristine copy that I may end up putting up on eBay before the Valley Games reprint comes out (assuming it ever does - that's a company with a poor track record of success in publishing).

Saturday was our last full day, which is always a bit sad for me. My brains are *just* starting to run out of my ears, which indicates to me that the week went about as long as it was supposed to. Today, Chuck and Mike played the Cedar Creek scenario in Glory III, with Mike's die-rolling and the Deansian Statistical Distortion Field putting the big hurt on his side. Dave did some biking and other non-gaming activities, while Chris, Ken, and myself played three turns of Napoleonic Wars. Combining this with Welly and Here I Stand in one week shows that I can at least tolerate playing this system, and I enjoyed all three games (despite the delta between the three nearly popping my head). 

I took France, while Chris was the wily English and Ken the Austrians and Russians. Napoleon took his first impulse to make a run at Austria, but suffered horrendous attrition (thankfully halved) of half his force in the first forced march space. Ken brought up the Russians quickly, and Chris sank the combined Spanish/French fleet at Trafalgar with no problem. The French ships never left port again, not even to commerce raid. That gave Chris the chance to move his units around the board at will, but it didn't help much. A build up in Naples was met with a French force that zipped down from Milan to first take Naples (fortuitous, as Joseph was crowned on turn 3 by a proxy neutral card play). A build up in Portugal resulted in the British kicked out of Portugal and nearly losing Gibraltar (but the Spanish were unable to finish on the second round after getting two sixes in the first). Finally, he invaded mainland France not once but three times to little avail other than soaking up French CPs, which admittedly is the whole point.

Meanwhile, Napoleon simply couldn't get it done in Austria. Five attacks in the first turn all failed to dislodge Kutuzov's large mixed army, and despite Spain having a Capitulation card in the second turn, France wasn't able to get into Vienna before it was played. Prussia's fortunes went back and forth and back and forth, and very nearly fell into the French camp when England failed to return them to Unaligned status, which would allow the French to preempt on the next impulse and play a 6 action card with a 6 Reserve card (the old plus cards in the first edition), but Austria had a card that preempted France's preemption, and thus Prussia remained neutral into the third turn. I'll note that the French had four six cards, a five, and a four, plus their reserves which were 6 and 5 respectively. Hard to get more CPs than that in a turn. Things were better at the end of turn 2, plus Europe was exhausted, but a six was needed to create peace and the game continued into turn 3.

On the third turn, France had managed to grab a few keys (Naples, Salzburg, Venice) and had an extra card. Good events bumped the cards for them and the Spanish up, and they ended up being the last two powers with cards. This time, when France played the card that lets them replace all of the cards in their hand, they drew the capitulation card, so I knew it was time for Napoleon to bring it to Vienna. Kutuzov intercepted, and the final battle dice totals were 29 to 25 with the edge going to the Austrians and Russians. I rolled like a demon, though (finally, after losing so many battles where I had an edge), routing the two forces, although the Russians had a card that negated the rout, and then preempted after the British impulse (this time unopposed) to force the Capitulation and knock the Austrians out of the war. Only one ceded territory, though, but I still had enough to put France up above any other power. Britain never had enough gas to get the Prussians in, and Europe was once again Exhausted. 

At this point, France was the only player to donate a card to stop the peace roll, meaning they'd win on a 2 or higher on a d6. 

So I rolled a one. 

At this point, we were all exhausted ourselves after several days of gaming, and we all agreed that we'd let the game die on it's own. France was in a good board position, although with a little cleanup to do. Prussia, on the verge of going to the coalition camp soon, and Turkey going to the Austrians (like I cared), were both about as full of units as possible. Berlin had more than 20 units and four leaders. That next turn would have been about the French and British pushing that rope back and forth, while the Russians (who saw something like 15 units and leaders go to the regroup box after the Austrian capitulation) and Austrians would have been playing catch up. The French wouldn't have been able to bring in the Prussians, but the Austrians would have gotten the Turks, although aside from threatening Italy I'm not really sure how much help they'd have been. 

Nappy Wars is a real hoot, and definitely best with 2, maybe three. I suspect that this will see some more table time for Chris and myself, as it hits his sweet spot for complexity. 

Tonight we are off to see Wilco, Ken has bowed out as his family came out to Sunriver, and I suspect that Mike has about had it with dice for the week as well. Tomorrow, Chuck and I hope to finish our epic AVL game, and I will do a recap post on Monday of the entire week as well as how that final set of games turned out.

Friday, August 22, 2008

WBC West Report #5 - Friday Day

I'm taking the opportunity between games to fit in what has, so far, been the highlight of the week for me - my A Victory Lost game with Chuck. We've gotten through six of nine turns, with the outcome very much up in the air. In other action, Chris and Mike are finishing up their FAB: The Bulge game (which is going the distance), while Dave and Ken had an epic game of Hannibal that ended with Dave losing Hannibal at the 2/3's mark and Ken taking advantage to control enough areas that Dave felt the game was over.

I've played a couple of games of AVL, but it always seemed that things went pretty well for the Germans early and they didn't really have to sweat too much. In our game, however, I decided to run early to avoid multiple Soviet chit pulls that would wipe out my front line units. Chuck focused on 1st Guard, 2nd Guard, 5th Shock, 3rd Tank (which comes in early), and 28th Army, which comes in from the SE part of the map in an attempt to sneak into Rostov early. 

Chuck got to the Don and Donets rivers by the end of turn 2, but had to spend a little time regrouping and cleaning up Axis minor units in his backfield before continuing his advance. Of particular importance were the Hungarians up in the NW part of the map, who were holding onto the only real Soviet rail line into the rest of the map. It was critical that they hold through turn 4, and they somehow managed to do so, if only a single critical space. That crimped Popov's army as well as 3rd Tank, which are currently driving on Kharkov against pretty thin forces. 

The reason those forces are thin is that my German panzers (far too many of which were lost because I didn't pay careful enough attention to Chuck infiltrating past them so that they had to take losses instead of retreating) concentrated in the south to try to relieve the 1st Panzer Army, which *almost* made it to Rostov in time (I did actually get into Rostov, but was out of supply at the end of turn 5). That's one of the risks of the "run away" strategy - how do you keep the Soviets from advancing on both sides of the Don before the 1st Panzer gets on the map? Fortunately, by the sixth turn, I had two "activate anyone" chits in the cup, but things got very exciting when I drew two chits that allowed Chuck to attack my somewhat exposed units and reduce them. Things looked grim.

On turn 6, after Chuck had gotten his shots in, I finally got my Manstein, 1st Panzer, and 4th Panzer activations, enough to destroy three Soviet tank units, reduce a couple of Sov infantry beyond repair, and supply the 1st Panzer army units going into turn 7. They all have an excellent chance of pulling back across the river in time to stay fairly safe, and Chuck lost enough mech units so that I suspect I will be able to hold (or at least counterattack) against any further advances. On the down side, the areas around Stalino and Kharkov are also weak, and it will be interesting to see if I can hold (or retake) either or both. Stalino wouldn't be too hard, but I can't really lose either - I'm right on the hairy edge of points, so anything I lose I'll have to make up somewhere. Perhaps I won't pull back quite so much as I think I will, and I do have two of Chuck's remaining mech units pinned against the Black Sea. I will need those panzers, though, to save Stalino, and the 3rd Tank army is so strong that if it can hook up with 1st Guard, he'll get three activations a turn and they will be hard to stuff back in the bottle. Should be an exciting end to what has been an extremely exciting game.

Tonight, we play Republic of Rome (moderated by Chuck, a game I'm really looking forward to), then tomorrow Chris and I are going to try out the new edition of Nappy Wars. Chuck and I hope to finish our game on Sunday morning while we clean up - it's an excellent choice as those STAVKA draws take about 20 minutes to do, so while he moves the entire army I can get the house closed up. Saturday night I'm not sure what's going on, as Chris and I are going to take in the Wilco concert. And I didn't bring any long pants or a hat. Sigh.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

WBC West Report #4 - Wednesday Evening through Thursday

A little more report than usual tonight. 

Wednesday evening saw us playing one of my favorite multi-player strategy games, Manifest Destiny. This game is an evolution of Age of Renaissance, in itself a rather radical development of Civilization. Where AoR took Civ to a whole new level of not only complexity but also math (the third epoch requires adding and subtracting up to six or seven two and three digit numbers together to determine the cost of a single advance), MD was intended from the start to streamline the design, and to my mind it is very successful in that effort. The production values are bizarre at best (use of clip art for graphics, line art for the map, and scanned photos and paintings for the cards), but I'd rather have a good game that looks bad rather than a bad game that looks good. 

I consider myself to be a decent to good MD player (and in fact was once told by a championship AoR player that I was good at that game as well, although I don't think he had enough of a view of my play to know). I demonstrated this pretty well in our game, managing to pull off not one but two go-last-take-commodity-areas-go-first-collect-big-money plays, one near the end of the game with a $120 payout in oil, resulting in three 3VP advances in one turn. However, Chuck gave me a huge run for my money, coming within one Breakthrough roll (which required one of three numbers on a d6) of beating me. Still, I got the cards when I needed them, and played the way you are supposed to when life hands you lemons. I even started in Pennsylvania, considered one of the tougher starting points in the game. 

Thursday was Here I Stand day, while Mike took the morning off until Ken arrived and they played Napoleon's Triumph. I really like HiS - it's like nothing else out there in terms of it's asymmetrical powers, religious/political competition axes, and multiple fronts that you need to keep an eye on regularly, not just when things heat up. Henry VIII's search for a male heir alone makes this unlike anything else out there, not to mention the subject matter of the Reformation. 

Chuck took the Protestants/English, I was the Papacy/Hapsburgs, and we gave Dave the Ottomans/French so that he wouldn't have to worry about the religious battle. Chuck did a great job of explaining the rules, but we played very slowly. We also missed a rather critical rule that you couldn't reform/counter-reform the same space more than once in an impulse if you missed the first time. Chuck got off to a good start with the 95 Theses, but after that he was doing multiple rolls on a single space until well into turn 3 or 4. As such, he owned Germany, at least religiously, by the end of turn 2. We gave up after turn 4, nearly six or seven hours after we started. Most games I've played of HiS that start in the first turn go like this, mostly because you can't learn what you're supposed to do by watching other players. Everyone has very different goals and ways to score victory points, so you have to figure it out and ask questions when it's your turn.

The game has so many little subsystems (Ottoman Piracy, debates, reformation attempts, the Six Wives, exploration of the New World, it just goes on and on), that it's nearly impossible to keep all of the rules in hand unless you play regularly. Eric, Chuck, and myself played the tournament scenario a few years ago three player, and it went along pretty briskly, but we'd played recently. I played last January, and I swear it was like I hadn't played in three years. 

The other huge issue, at least unless you're playing with three, is downtime. As France or England, who don't have a lot going on on the board, you can wait 15 minutes between turns if things are moving along briskly. It's much better with three, although France/Ottoman still has to wait for quite a while if the Protestant or Papacy decide to do reformation, and forget it if the Protestants have a card that lets them make five or six attempts. 

The thing is, I really like the game. I think that Chuck and I may try the religious 2-player variant published in C3i that puts the political/military elements of the game into a card deck that simulates the other events going on around converting the faithful (or keeping them unconverted). I'd love to see how the game progresses for the English once Mary I enters the game and makes their lives hell on earth. I'd like to see more of the Popes show up (we had three Popes in four turns!) Perhaps Eric will be willing to play one turn a week for a few weeks with Chuck and I to get a full game in at some point, now that we have the rules in our heads. 

After a very nice dinner at Ken's place (just a couple of miles away), we started out the Manoeuvre tournament. I started out playing Dave, only to find myself with not nearly enough units on his side of the board and him smack dab in the middle of mine. I had an excellent shot at killing his fifth unit on what I knew would be the last turn, and I had not one, not two, but three unit cards, a Committed Attack card, and a leader. The odds of me killing him were excellent, right up to the point where he doubled his defense factor to 10 with a leader of his own, and then used a Guerilla card to remove one d10 from my roll. I could have killed him, but I needed a huge roll and didn't get it. BTW, I was Russia to Dave's Spanish.

My second game was against Mike, using Chris' copy of the game, with me playing the Austrians and Mike taking the Prussians. Unfortunately, Chris hadn't gone through and shuffled his decks well ahead of time, and the tiny decks don't shuffle well or easily. Mike discovered this about three minutes in after drawing cards for the same regiments in a row three different times. Having all of those cards show up in a row was pretty handy for wiping out two of my units, and at that point he said that he thought his deck needed more shuffling, which he did. He wiped out a third unit, and I was pretty sure I was going to lose quickly, but then he stopped drawing useful cards. I managed to first catch up in unit kills, then managed the fifth one about 30 minutes into the game for the win.

The crazy thing is, I considered asking if Mike wanted to start over after he realized what a mess his deck was, but as I was down two armies I figured it would look like I was just whining and hoping to reset the game. Had Mike asked to restart, I would have happily done it just because we hadn't started on an even setting. Now I wish I'd done it, even though we figured that reshuffling his deck would "fix" things, even though it would give me a huge disadvantage because I'd gotten the short end of the stick, basically spotting him two units. I figured that it wasn't a big deal, though, and soldiered through to a win when he kept drawing cards for units that had been destroyed already and I got cards that worked well together. 

After the game, I went through and thoroughly shuffled all of the decks in Chris' game so that wouldn't happen again. When I buy a new game, I always shuffle the cards repeatedly and even deal them out repeatedly just to make sure they're nice and randomized for this very reason.

Too bad, because my game with Dave was really fun (except when I'd do something and he'd be surprised that you could do that, to which I started asking Chuck what sort of teaching job he'd done with Dave to have so many rules misunderstandings!) It all worked out, because Dave beat Chuck in his second game, and since he'd already beaten me *and* Chuck, Mike was the last person Dave hadn't beaten. They may or may not play the final at some later date. 

Tomorrow, we start with a delicious breakfast out at Sintra, a great restaurant in Sunriver, then Chuck and I play A Victory Lost, Chris and Mike play FAB: Bulge, and Dave and Ken will play a game to be determined. Tomorrow night is Chuck showing us Republic of Rome, an old AH chestnut I've wanted to play for years but was daunted by the overly dense ruleset. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

WBC West Report #3 - Tuesday Evening through Wednesday Afternoon

Funny story - Dave always brings this early Fantasy Flight game called Thunder's Edge to every Sunriver event hoping that someone will ask to play it but always packing it back into his suitcase unplayed. This year, when I'd suggested Titan as a potential evening game for WBC West, Dave replied that it had two problems (his exact quotes below):
  • Player Elimination (unlike Thunder's Edge), and
  • Excessive Downtime (unlike Thunder's Edge).
The rest of us took the opportunity to reply to many statements with the qualifier "(unlike Thunder's Edge)" and hilarity ensued, especially if someone missed a particularly good opportunity, such as "I am so looking forward to WBC West (unlike Thunder's Edge)."

Last night, Chuck and his wife Jodi went out for dinner and a movie (Tropical Thunder, no less, so there was certainly a severe weather-related theme going), so I suggested that perhaps we just put a bullet in the head of this particular long-running joke and play the damned game. I'd actually played some years ago, but to be very honest I kept being amazed by how little I recalled anything other than the box cover, and even then. 

Bad Idea.

Oh, I won the game. However, because of the way the board is set up, I was able to turtle in one corner, which let me control three Population Centers, so all I needed to do to win the game was take the center city and get an auto-victory. Which I came within a single 5 or 6 on a die of doing. Which I almost certainly would have gotten had I trusted my gut and check the rules closely to see why it was that on a bad weather turn the artillery couldn't fire (this was a poorly written expansion set rule that said that spaceships couldn't support ground troops). Given that I was going to roll eight dice, the chances of getting a 5 or 6 on one of them was, oh, pretty good.

Instead, I got pushed back to my part of the board, where I sat for the next three hours doing absolutely nothing of any interest or importance other than defending from other players attacking me (and failing). And then I won anyway. Frankly, my only interest at that point was to get the game over with. And had been since about the point where I realized that we'd gotten the rule wrong. 

Any game where I can literally do *nothing* other than build units for four hours and still win has some serious design flaws. There's an entire Consul phase where you trade cards that give you VP and determine who gets to go first, but it's completely tacked on and I ended up with a handful of action cards that were useless - I played six of 14 cards over the course of the game. 

Perhaps the problem is that the game is early FFG, which tended to favor flimsy components and poor rulesets. The designer is Christian Peterson, who does decent stuff, but this game was just a mess. See also Twilight Imperium from the same period, which went through three different editions before they stuck with something. The text on the cards was nearly impossible to read because it was so small, the counters were the same (and with graphics so tiny that you couldn't tell them apart either). Mike's purple counters on the map looked like Barney throwup. 

However, I think the real issue is that while I like wargames, I'm less enthusiastic about war-themed multiplayer strategy games. Not having a historical basis doesn't help, at least for me. Without a *reason* for the game to contain certain types of chrome, the whole thing feels like a horrendously overproduced euro, where the great thing about euros is their elegance (simplicity in mechanisms). I feel exactly the same way about Axis and Allies in it's original form - I got rid of that game and the Europe and Pacific variants years ago. 

What really surprised me is how disgusted I got with the game and how unsuccessfully I was able to hide my displeasure. I spent most of the game wanting to leave the table and never come back. Usually I try to be a good host and give the game the benefit of the doubt, but this time I simply ran out of interest and patience so quickly I was a little taken aback. Perhaps it was because I was handed the win pretty much from the start by the semi-random starting process, and also because there wasn't an interesting decision in the game for me other than to run for the auto-victory. After that, my dogs could have won the game. 

Ken liked the game as we got going, and mentioned several times that I was being too harsh. I suppose from his perspective this is true - he was starting to grok the system pretty well toward the end. But then, he had to figure out tactics because he had little in the way of resources and cities and so had to do things in order to be competitive. He had a few things go well, other things not so much. I'm glad someone enjoyed it, because Mike and I were ready to start tossing lit matches at the board in the hope that something would go up in a big way. 

At least it made War of the Ring look interesting (which, to be fair, is an interesting game when played by people who understand the priorities, if a little overdone). 

After not nearly enough sleep, Mike decided in the morning to take a wee break, so the four of us pulled out Wellington. This is the first of the follow on games to Napoleonic Wars, and I really enjoy it. However, you have to go in understanding that you play the role of a theater commander who doesn't have a lot of say in how things go from a Grand Strategic standpoint. As such, things happen during the game that you have no say in, such as the Germans seeking peace with Napoleon and freeing up units for the Spanish front, or conversely the disaster in Russia. 

The game has complicated victory conditions, as you'd imagine, but the key for the French is to hang onto Madrid for as long as possible. If they can do this and keep six keys in Spain total they have a chance to win the game at the end of every turn. On the other hand, there is also a 1 in 6 chance every year that peace will break out and the war will end. This is all very historic, but feels a bit chaotic in a wargame. Normally it adds tension when people know it's coming, as you need to have all of your ducks in a row at the end of every turn.

Dave took the Spanish forces, Ken was Wellington, I was Soult and the French Army of the South, while Chuck took the north. Chuck had good success holding off several attacks by Wellington, mostly thanks to useful battle cards. Meanwhile, I brought Soult up from the south to shield Madrid and had to give up four keys in that part of the board, which brought the Spanish total way up, and at the end of the first turn I was far in last place while the Spanish were now up with the British and French-Nord key totals. Based on the start position for the 1813 scenario, we were not far off from the historical result. 

At turn end, we needed a 6 to conquer Spain through holding Madrid and enough keys to demoralize the Spanish. Unfortunately, Chuck rolled a 4. Then Dave rolled for the peace roll, which would give the game to the Allies if he rolled a six, and he, of course, did. The French held enough duchies in Spain to keep Dave from getting any extra bonus points, but because he was tied with the British and he went last in the turn order, he broke the tie and won. It may have taken longer to explain the rules to Dave and Ken than to actually play the whole game. 

On the plus side, Dave loved the game. Like Wilderness War and the other low-density CDGs, there's a great sense of story in this title, so if you can tolerate the fairly luck-driven game-end conditions, there may be a game here you'll like. Oddly, I hated The First World War (a Ted Raicer design published by Phalanx, who screwed it up beyond recognition), which has exactly the same sort of game-ending rolls every turn. Perhaps the difference is that Wellington actually has something to do with history and the fun is in knowing that the clock could run out at any time so you need to make hay while you can. Who knows. 

I do know that I really enjoy this game played with four. The interactions between the two players on each side, at least when people are actively playing for position within their faction, do a fantastic job of simulating the rivalries inherent in any military organization. The French are trying to lose Spain as slowly as possible, but if you're losing it slightly slower than your ally, all the better. Maybe you don't to your ally's aid quite as much as you would otherwise! 

I'm very interested in playing Kutuzov, which is very similar but includes significant rules to simulate morale and attrition issues, and has victory conditions that literally run for six pages of the rules. I don't know how anyone will be able to keep any of that straight for the first ten games they play. Of course, this was all very historical as well, as even Napoleon wasn't really sure what he was trying to accomplish other than "Beat Russia". 

Sort of like the US's military goals in Iraq. Except there, it was about getting back at the people that gave us 9/11. Except that the Iraqi's were never actually involved in that, but hey, they look alike and *someone* needs to pay. Except that the people who are also paying are the next three generations of US taxpayers too. Why do we keep letting people like this run our countries?

Obviously, we were all at loose ends by 1pm, so Ken went out to run a few errands while the rest of us played Team Zopp. After he got back, Ken has been looking at a prototype design of Chuck's that uses the CDG paradigm, while Dave and Mike have been playing Memoir '44, Pacific Theater style. Tonight we play Manifest Destiny, and tomorrow Chuck and Dave and I will play three-player Here I Stand while Mike and Ken play a game to be determined later. Maybe Turning Point: Stalingrad, which is a great game but that tends to bog down in rubble fairly quickly. 

At least I stand a much better chance of not being a huge grump again.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

WBC West Report #2 - Monday Night to Tuesday Afternoon

Monday, Monday... Can't trust that day. 

After our busy Monday morning and afternoon, the four of us pulled out War of the Rings for our evening game. Dave and I were Sauron and Saruman, respectively, while Chuck was Gondor and the Elves and Mike took everything else. Unfortunately, not a lot else to do when you're that last bit because it takes so long to get them going (aside from Rohan, of course). 

Chuck and Mike focused on running the Fellowship down to Mordor as quickly as possible, and I blame myself for not 'splainin' in sufficient detail to Dave how important it is to put at *least* two dice in the Hunt Pool for searching for them. As such, we whiffed a lot of Hunt rolls early, and the Fellowship made excellent progress. 

On the actual "war" front, Saruman made good progress in Helm's Deep, and was on the verge of assaulting the Rohanian (can't remember what they're called, there goes my geek cred), pushed from the south with the Southrons and was on the verge of taking Dol Amroth, which would have put us up to 5 VP. Dave assaulted Minas Tirith, but to no avail. 

None of that mattered, of course, because the Fellowship made it to Mordor with Gimli, two extra hobbits, and a pad of about five Corruption, so things weren't looking good. However, as they moved forward, it got to the point where we managed to get seven (!) dice in the Hunt Pool thanks to an event card, and when the Fellowship made the final push to the Crack'0'Doom (tm pending), all we needed to do was draw an Eye Hunt tile in order to corrupt them at the last possible second. 

And, of course, I did in fact draw an Eye tile! Hooray!

Except that Mike had this mithril armor or something silly and they made us draw again. Looking in the bag after the fact, it looked like we had about a 37% chance of drawing another Eye tile. 

We did not. The One Ring became the One Pile Of Melted Precious Metal, and all was for naught. 

Two things disappointed me about this game. There's a lot going on in the "war" segment of the game, and we were working toward that end (well, I was - Dave was not sufficiently "motivated" as far as I could tell, but it was his first game). I drew terrible events, very few of which were useful (and they are *hard* to read!) As such, the whole thing came down to the Fellowship, which seems to be a pretty common observation. 

The other thing that was horrible to realize was that I was missing the Aragon and Gandalf pieces from the game. How am I supposed to sell it *now*? I have no idea where they went, but I'm pretty sure I didn't put the game away last time as I sort the pieces by whether you start with them or they go in your pool, and the baggies were strictly sorted by type instead, so my guess is that someone else played it and the two extra companions never got put back in the box. Sigh. Perhaps FFG will be able to provide replacements. 

We finished up with a rousing game of Zopp, air hockey without the air. Good fun, although Dave and I were one point from a shutout before my flicking went totally pear-shaped and I more or less lost the game for us (made goals for the other team, kept hitting their pucks before anything else). Much smack-talking ensued. 

Ah, Tuesday afternoon - I'm looking at myself, reflections in my mind. Just the kind of day to leave myself behind. 

Tuesday was a lighter day for Dave and I, playing the campaign game of Wilderness War. This scenario gets short shrift from the CDG community, and I can almost see the argument. However, I've now played two full games (one on Cyberboard years ago), and I really like it. The map has time to develop, and the optional rules added in 2006 or thereabouts (which we never ended up invoking) do a good job without too much complication of leveling out some of the dangers (like one side or the other never getting their "9 card hand" card, especially important for the Brits because they don't get Wolfe until then). I got my card in 1757, while Dave's showed about a year later, which put him behind the curve a bit. 

It was an interesting game. We never really did much in the Ohio Forks area, other than raiding (which netted me around 6 points total, of which two were countered by Dave's two successful raids with his Iroquois and Mohawks, which he got early and kept for the entire game). I moved down to Ticonderoga early and set up a fort, but not much happened in the Hudson Valley for much of the game until Dave finally Surrendered Ticonderoga and that was as far as he got. 

Most of the action happened around Lake Superior, with the Brits making all the way to Niagara for a brief time. What killed them was me taking the fort at the NE end of the lake with the help of a couple of ambush cards, then building my own. He ended up with a sizable force in the area unable to escape because without supply they couldn't really get past the fort easily. Burning their carry at Oswego meant that once Levi could wipe out that force I only needed to focus on the Hudson and, of course, Louisbourg. 

That was an interesting axis of advance as well. Wolfe finally showed up in 1760, and after one failed invasion (thanks to some convenient fieldworks), he managed to get in and take the fort after several siege rolls. Despite my almost-well-timed Small Pox play on his large force, he managed to restore the entire 8 unit army with Troop Transports. By then, though, I had Montcalm with a very large force sitting in Ile-d'Orleans just outside of Quebec, and this time when Wolfe and Montcalm met on the Plain of Abraham, it was Wolfe who did the howling, and I don't mean in a good way. Reduced to three flipped units while I still had every unit I started with, Wolfe retreated to New York when I pressed and that was it for the Brit's adventures on the St. Lawrence River. 

At that point, the three points I'd gotten from beating Wolfe repeatedly put me up over the total I needed to win the game in 1761, two turns from the end, and that was it. Dave had suggested conceding earlier, but I'd talked him out of it and actually he was pretty close to pulling something out. The biggest thing the British player has going for him is the ability to operate on multiple fronts, while the French have the benefit of interior lines and an excellent transportation system over the various rivers and lakes - a unit can go from Niagara to Quebec in two turns. However, the French must pick their battles very carefully and force the British to spend time and energy building their militia and stockades to make the raids difficult. 

In our game, Dave learned that reduced units are extremely fragile, especially if the French can use their Militia units around Quebec - the units aren't drilled troops or regulars, but they can flip instead of Auxiliaries, and they don't lose combat effectiveness. As such, Dave kept losing units whereas I was able to preserve my regulars, and even got two chances to rebuild the regulars up (including an early play of the card). Pressing in all areas and waiting until the French are in the position of losing Regulars is the way the British can win the game, even with the delayed entry of Wolfe and Pitt that Dave experienced, and while I'm not saying he didn't play a good game (his drive to Niagara was brilliant, if flawed in the same way the drive on Stalingrad in 1942 Russia was - too long a supply line and not something you undertake unless you have the Iroquois on your side, which he did), I think that pulling back reduced combat units and fighting with fresh units would have helped him quite a bit early on, and the game could easily have gone his way as a result. 

After the brain burner that was OCS the previous day, this was an excellent choice to play today, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Winning, of course, never hurts, but considering that I've played WW something like ten times or more to Dave's once gave me a big advantage and I wasn't surprised by the outcome. Wargames require a deeper understanding of the operational situation that only comes with experience and repeated play, especially two player wargames and especially card-driven games where knowing the possible plays is what you need to start from. 

Meanwhile, in the Glory III (Antietam) Room, Mike and Chuck are still battering away at each other. They started out, but ran into a situation where it appeared they'd be hopelessly deadlocked, possibly because of a rules misunderstanding, but I really don't know enough about the game to be able to say definitively. They aren't sure at this point whether they'll continue tomorrow, which may mean we play Sword of Rome five-player rather than Wellington three-player while they continue. We'll just have to see. My preference will be for SoW, partly because I've never played that version, partly because I love the game but at eight hours it's hard to find people to play on a weekend for the necessary time. And you really need four or five, the three player game is a good introduction but just doesn't quite do it for me. 

More tomorrow after we've gotten our (wait for it) Thunder's Edge game in tonight and whatever the heck it is we play tomorrow.

Monday, August 18, 2008

WBC West Report #1 - Sunday Evening through Monday Afternoon

Perhaps the most anticipated gaming event of the year for certain members of our group is our own wargaming nano-con, whimsically titled WBC West after World Boardgaming Championships, which while perhaps over-ambitiously named is slightly bigger than ours. By a factor of a few hundred. 

But we have fun anyway, and so it was that Chuck, Dave, Mike, and myself went out to Sunriver on Sunday afternoon to start off the week. We like to play "lighter" games (which most Euro gamers would term as "heavy") in the evenings, and Sunday was no exception. Because dinner took a while, we didn't get started on our first evening game, Britannia, until nearly 8pm, and finished sometime around 1am. It was Dave's first game, and the first time I played Yellow (in the FFG edition, purple in the AH edition), and so while I did well with the Romans and was looking forward to being competitive, my dice went stone cold around turn 10 and I went for a couple of scoring rounds with nearly 0 points gained. In fact, only the Norwegians really contributed anything, but having Mike's Danes going after me required me to either put most of my units in with my leader or hope he had other fish to fry. Nope, I was the fish. 

Interestingly, Dave (the only person who hadn't played before), who had the benefit of all of us voting for him for Bretwalda early since his Saxons had a very rough start, managed to win the game in the end because his Norsemen kept scoring tons of points up north after the Caledonians and Scots were eventually wiped out. Chuck came in third even though his Normans were able to lock up the kingship at the end of the game for an extra 10 points. 

I like this game well enough, but it's brutal to be Yellow. You have six turns to do interesting things, then literally eight turns to do nothing at all (or very little), ending with a brief run with the Norwegians who come on strong on turn 13. That, to my mind, is the basic flaw of these games, and it's always good to come to the table with something to keep you occupied (I clipped the counters from the Solomon's Campaign game from the latest World At War magazine). 

After a night filled with thunder and lightning, bringing with it blessed cool air (today has been extremely comfortable in the house, last year it was a little toasty the first couple of days), Chuck and Dave played first Flying Colors (Napoleonic Era Age of Sail combat), then War Galley (take it back 2000 years or so, give 'em oars, then yell "Ramming speed!!"). Dave first beat Chuck with his British ships over Chuck's larger Spanish ones, then won again as the Spartans over Chuck's Athenians. 

Meanwhile, I had my OCS virginity sullied by Mike, who loves that system like I've never seen him get into a game before. I tried mightily to learn it solitaire, and I just don't think it's something within my capacity to do. Fortunately, while we did look up a few rules here and there, things went pretty smoothly, at least in the rules foraging parts. About three hours in I was not sure that this was going to be a game for me, but I trusted that I'd either come around or not by the end of the game. And come around I did, at least enough to want to give it another try some time in the future. 

Our game was the initial stages of the campaign in North Africa in late 1942 in Tunisia. This is a smallish scenario, having less than 100 units per side and a relatively short time-span of 15 turns. That may seem like a lot if you know OCS, but given that fully 2/3rds of the turns have better than a 50% chance of neither side doing much of anything (because of rain turning the entire country to mud) it's more like four turns of a bigger scenario. The difficulty is in managing your logistics to allow you to do all of the things you want to. However, since the Axis (for example) can only bring over 2 supply points a turn (three if it's nice weather, and that means no reinforcements from Sicily), and since it takes pretty much a supply point to move the mech units you want to move and another to fight with them, you literally have to choose your battles. I think I initiated something like three or four battles the entire game, while Mike (as the Allies) had tons of supply and was able to attack at will, further draining my own supply since I had to use it to defend over and over. 

What saved me in this game were two or three things. First, Mike had trouble getting replacement units (which you can save) early on - I think he got his first one about a third of the way into the game. This made things tricky for him as he kept losing units in attacks even though he was otherwise winning them and making some progress. His victory condition was to take three of the five key points in NE Tunisia, up in the corner near Tunis and Bizarte. He ended up taking one, and getting pretty close to two more, and even threatened Tunis. 

Secondly, Mike got some mud weather early and a few no flying turns. That hurt me as well because of my transport from Sicily, but it helped him get DG results on the units he wanted to attack. He also got his transport line up to where it needed to be and got his units into the fight quickly. Worse, he was able to win most of the initiative rolls early, allowing him to get double turns to exploit breakthroughs. Were it not for some good luck for me with his attacks somewhat blunted by me seeming to get surprise a good amount of the time, I would have been toast quickly. 

In the end, Mike made a very strong attack that punched a hole in my line, opening the way to Tunis, but instead of shoring up the hole and punching through the next turn, he decided to wheel south to put a couple of my units out of supply. I got lucky by getting the initiative on the next turn, then brought elements of the 10th Panzer down in an overrun that reestablished supply, cut off his exploiting units, and did some other damage along the way. In the end, I was able to use my tac air to disorganize his spearheads and even though the weather was better than it had any right to be at the end of December, he just couldn't punch through to any more objectives and I got my first OCS win. 

Despite the Deansian Statistical Distortion Field, I was starting to see ahead a turn or two and what you needed to do to get supply to your units and how best to use it. Given that I was constantly running out of supply when I most needed it, usually when Mike would make attacks that forced me to burn my remaining supply, preventing me from refitting my aircraft to make his airstrikes more potent, I felt I did pretty well. This is not a game where you just move units around the board. Like real commanders, you must first stockpile materiel in ways so that your opponent doesn't know where you plan to strike, then run an offensive in such a way that you protect your rear areas while driving on your objectives. This is not a game for everyone - it requires tremendous awareness and concentration like perhaps no other game I've played, and it's fairly draining (one reason why it was game 1 for us this week) - but if you can weather a few hours of feeling like you have nothing near what you need to prosecute the war you'd like to have, there's a really amazing system here. 

Here's the best part - the cleanest ruleset I've ever seen in almost any wargame, and the *series* rules run for 40 some pages. There's an index. Rules are, almost without exception, where you'd expect them to be. I hear ASL has a similar ruleset, although the almost constant errata (even in the updated edition from a few years back) makes keeping things up to date a bit of a challenge. With OCS, it may be that the 4.0 ruleset is going to be it. It falls, along with Wilderness War and Combat Commander, into a realm that most designers can only dream of. 

This is not to say that I'm now an OCS freak, far from it. This is not a great system for the solitaire gamer. There is simply too much going on in a turn, even in a small scenario, for one person to be able to parse and digest without a little down time between turns. Yes, downtime is a *good* thing in OCS. And the campaign games are almost certainly far from something I'd ever be able to finish, at least in any game that has more than two mapsheets. Even with Tunisia, perhaps the most accessible of the series, I'd want to play a campaign where one player took over the Torch units while the other Allied player took over the 8th Army pursuing Rommel from Alamein, and find ways to divide up the Axis units as well. Of course, the full game would require two players to more or less start for a couple of sessions, as the 8th army doesn't really show until 25 or 30 turns in. Mike and I finished our game at the very start of 1943, and there's at least a month until the 8th Army shows up. 

The OOP games in this series (Tunisia, Case Blue, and Burma are the only ones available) typically go for hundreds of dollars on eBay. I kick myself for not grabbing DAK2 when they fire-saled it last December, and I'll preorder the reprint of Guderian's Blitzkrieg.

Tonight we play War of the Ring, then tomorrow (Tuesday) Dave and I will play Wilderness War while Chuck and Mike take on the first half of their marathon two-day Glory 3 game. that night we'll play some Martin Wallace games, so while my brain load will lessen in the next day or so, it's still a long, fun slog with one day down and many to go. 

It still goes by *so* fast.

Monday, August 11, 2008

WBC Prep

WBC, the "real" one, is over and done as I type this, but it matters not to our hardy band of wargamers preparing diligently for our own nano-con that starts in less than a week - WBC West! 

After three years of spending a week or so out in Sunriver playing wargames until our ears bleed, we've learned a few things. Play lighter games in the evenings, or at least things that don't require everyone to look up things in the rulebook every 10 minutes and don't require as much careful planning and attention. Chuck noticed this trend at the one WBC we went to - everyone did much better if they played fun games like Slapstick or Paydirt in the evenings. I've learned to drink like a fish, quite literally - I over-hydrate like crazy because the week is so draining for me. 

One of the more recent lessons has been the early scheduling and preparation of games. Once the week starts, there isn't a lot of time to learn games on the fly, at least anything with any complexity at all - SCS titles, block games like Gettysburg, these are pretty light wargames by modern standards, but there are still enough crazy little rules, sometimes confusingly written, that trying to wade through such a game eats up way too many brain calories. As such, we now try to have the first three days at a minimum planned out, at least for the daytime games, and have the rules for as many games as possible read and refreshed in advance. 

The problem, of course, is that anything you do more than a week before the event has a tendency to fade right out without some sort of reinforcement. Chuck and Mike (and Dave) have been running practice sessions of games trying to get past the initial rules confusion and get at least a passing grasp on the overall situation. For me, I've been trying to learn OCS, but it's very hard to learn that particular game playing solitaire because even though the rules are pretty straightforward it's still difficult to retain all of those rules without someone to remind you when you're doing it wrong. I've gone through the Tunisia AAR that's online, and it's helpful to a point, but it's written in a very conversational tone that sometimes assumes that the reader has considerable experience with the game system. Mike thoughtfully offered to spend a little time going over the system with me, but I think we'll just have to wing it a bit. Fortunately, the initial Tunisia scenario is very good for learning as you see the situation develop as the counter density increases, and you get to go through the sequence of play several times. 

So I've gotten through the OCS rules, and may even get through a few solo turns to try to embed the process. I was feeling pretty good about the other games coming up: A Victory Lost, FAB Bulge, Wilderness War, Here I Stand, Victory in the Pacific. We'd also discussed playing Kutuzov, which has just come out and I thought was going to be Wellington in Russia. Which it is, but there's quite a bit of difference, chiefly in rather involved rules regarding morale and attrition. The rules are actually well laid out, but are also rather extensive and I'm having trouble getting through all of them. We'll still give it a go, but it will be a rockier experience than I'd like. 

In a related vein, Chris wants to play Napoleonic Wars, and he has the new 2nd edition. I got the update kit, which had a lot more in it than I expected. There are also a lot of different rules and I haven't played this one in a while. The delta between it, the original edition, and Welly/Kutuzov may be a little overwhelming for me, but I do enjoy multiplayer card-driven games so I'll at least get those rules skimmed. A game that may be a little tricker, at least if we play with five instead of four, is Sword of Rome. I really like this game, not least because each of the various factions has really unique motivations and styles of play, but I've not played with Carthage as a player and I *hate* having multiple rulesets to parse through. Much will depend on who makes it to the later part of the week, a roster still in some flux. 

Fortunately, I have some spare time over the course of the next week. Unfortunately, my band is auditioning for female vocalists and that's going to take up at least some of my evening time as I'm the guy doing the screening vocal auditions, and that takes about 20 minutes not including my travel and prep time. My timing, as always, is superb. 

I'm really looking forward to this particular WBC West - we are going to have a Manouevre tournament, some fun stuff during the evenings including some 2-player games but also a lot of fun multiplayer stuff including a "managed" game of Republic of Rome, Kremlin, all sorts of fun stuff that I don't get to play much. I'm a little nervous about the temperature out there, but so long as we don't have 90 degree weather we should be OK. I may look for an interior air conditioner unit (not a window mount, but one that transfers out the heat through water instead of freon or a gas), but I'm really not sure I'll have the time. 

Back to reading my Kutuzov rules, I guess. That and running the first couple of turns through to make sure I have the system down. Then OCS. Then checking Nappy Wars. Then the 5 player rules for Sword of Rome. Then, if I've got any grey matter left, a solo session of Burning Blue to see if it will work. Then...

Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Price of Leadership

I fired someone today. The woman who had been singing in my band for the past six months. We had a gig a couple of Saturdays ago and it became extremely clear to both the audience and to us that she was not ready to do live gigs anytime soon, much less paid gigs. I had a long talk with her on the phone today, and I was struck by how people react when their singing voice is involved in a critique - any peripheral issues look just like the vocal quality to them. I told her several times that her voice had a lot of promise, but she kept thinking that we were asking her to leave because of her voice. It's a crazy instrument.

What this entire experience got me thinking about is the strange brew of community that is a rock band, especially one that intends to be paid to play. Professionalism means a lot of things, such as living up to what you and your employer have agreed are the terms of your hiring. You promise to do a certain job, they promise to pay you. In a music situation, very few people in the population have ever been paid to perform music, at least directly, and most of the experience is in amateur choirs or impromptu music groups. In those, the sense of family and trust in the leadership and each other is what is important. When you throw money into the mix, as has happened with me singing as a "ringer" or paid singer in choirs, things change. 

For one thing, you are on time. To every rehearsal, to every performance. Showing up after call time drives directors crazy and will probably result in you not being asked back for the next cycle unless you are *very* good. While you can negotiate in advance if you think the schedule is too onerous (such as showing up for two rehearsals per week), you don't get to just change your mind later on and stop going to one of them. When the director picks someone to be the soloist and it isn't you, and you think they've made a grave error (I've been there), you can't complain although you can ask why they made that particular choice. In other words, things change. 

In a rock band, everyone is a paid singer in a choir, but everyone still treats it like they're amateurs. People show up for rehearsal late all the time. People don't carry their weight in setting up or tearing down. People decide they can't make a particular gig because their SO decided they were going on vacation instead and they didn't have the cohones to let the band know in advance. These people are called "flakes" and I avoid them like the plague. It's difficult to do in rock and roll, but it is possible. 

In a rock band, the ultimate goal (for me at least) is to have fun playing music in front of people who are enjoying the experience. To do that, I have to behave like a professional and hope that the by-product (fun for the band) of what we've been hired to do (in a bar band, attract people to the bar and encourage them to drink by providing a dance environment) somehow happens. The amazing thing is that there's such a strong convergence between those two goals. However, the band still needs to behave in a professional manner. You take the agreed upon breaks. If the owner hates a particular song, you don't play it. You honor the contract. You pay for your drinks if they aren't part of the deal. You don't encourage people to fight (I've seen bands do this - it's amazingly stupid when you consider that a possible side-effect could be someone landing on your PA or drumset). 

At the same time, people play in rock bands because they love doing it. Me, I could care less if I got paid, but I have to be because a) if I am not paid, my "product" is somehow considered inferior, and b) if I'm not paid, I am taking money out of the mouths of people who do this for a living. In other words, by doing something like this for free, I devalue the skills of everyone who is a musician. I never work for free unless I'm doing something as a gift for a friend or relative, usually a wedding or class reunion, and then I insist that the band is paid, but I don't accept compensation personally. I would absolutely play for free were these conditions not a part of living in a capitalist society. On the other hand, I have a talent and skill set that are not shared by 99% of the population, yet I would almost surely starve were I to rely upon it for survival. Thank you, radio, for hiding the value of popular art in advertising costs. 

When  you're in a band, you also have to be able to trust the other members. Things as simple as stepping on someone else's solo or vocal line are rampant in some bands, simply because one person has most of the attention and someone else is jealous. I've been in a band where the guy running the PA thought it was hilarious to delay the mic signal of someone sitting in with the band on a tune, making it sound like they had terribly timing. Ha ha. Another person I won't play with in the future. Musicians and actors are notoriously both self-absorbed and certain they don't measure up, so they engage in all sorts of messed up behavior to try to compensate, thinking that by winning some sort of mind game that they are in fact becoming better artists. 

So when I find a band where I feel the professionalism and musicianship are equivalent to the amount of trust required, I feel pretty fortunate. Having to fire someone to get there is no fun, especially when the person should never have been hired on in the first place. It's also no fun when the person has no idea of what it really means to be in a band. It's hard work, the industry is cruel, the participants are socially maladjusted, you have no guarantee that your ultimate goal (a good gig with a good audience with good pay) will be the final result, and then the whole thing comes crashing down when someone gets transferred to Orlando. 

Yet we keep doing it. We do it because we must. We do it because if we don't, we feel as though there is a gaping hole in the earth right below our feet that we can't see. We do it because the feedback loop between a good performer and the audience is like no other experience in the world, and there is no musical experience as visceral and direct as rock and roll. It's like tapping into the power line coming off of Hoover Dam. I suspect that what I experience is very similar to prayer, a connection to the Divine through the joy and power of music performed well. If I do it right, everyone gets in on it, and that's even better. 

So I'm willing to fire someone who was in over their head, who should never have been hired to do the job we were looking for. Of everyone in the band, I was the one looking out for her best interests from the start, and I was the person who had the guts to tell her what needed to be said. She didn't understand what we meant by "professional" in the context of a rock band - it's that your family can cast you out at any time if you aren't considered to be up to snuff. It is a task I take very seriously, and a task I hate to do, but I do it and I will do it again because sometimes the art demands it. 

Funny that I should think of a rock cover band (one that plays popular music by other people) as art, I know. It is. It's not as complex harmonically as classical music (some, anyway) or jazz, it's not as rhythmically complex as some other forms, but as with all things, the art is in how it's done, not what is done. When it all comes together, when you've put a piece of your soul in the final result, it's art. I'd go so far as to say that it's love as well. It completely and totally sucks that there must be a cost to get there, worse to be the guy with the bulldozer. For me, I'm not completely sure that I have an actual choice in the matter, but at the same time I will endure part of the cost to make sure that firing someone is done right.