Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Politics of Distraction

I got a comment on my last post, Staying Sane, saying that I "wasn't that smart" and then proving it by citing three specific things I mentioned in my post. The commenter was anonymous, which I've tolerated so long as they aren't selling something. For the record, while you would have to register with Blogger to leave a comment that had your name or moniker in the heading, there is nothing preventing people from putting their name in the comment itself. 

Foolishly, I responded to the person's complaints. I say foolishly, because the complaints were not germane to the point I was making - that we're in serious trouble in America, and that the level of political and social discourse has reached such a low level (we have pastors telling people to vote because the main issues are eliminating abortion and gay marriage - what country do these people live in?) that I see zero hope of the acceleration of our trip away from the most powerful and influential country in the world. 

What did the commenter have to say? That the 2000 election, decided by the Supreme Court and argued on the winning side by the son of one of the Justices, was constitutionally sound. That slavery was not the root cause of the American Civil War and there were other reasons. That the left was picking on Sarah Palin. 

It took me about an hour after I responded to realize that this is what we've come to. Hear an argument you don't like, pick on the smallest of details, and call the other person names. 

For the left, it's been to claim anyone running on the Republican ticket is just another W. Equally ridiculous. Palin is clearly someone that would have caused even more damage! ;-) Seriously, it's a bogus claim without anything to back it up, and that includes discussing the ways in which a candidate would *not* be like W. 

Here's another excellent example. On Sunday, we got a DVD in an "advertising" flyer called "Obsession," an anti-Muslim screed that, had the focus been Jews, African-Americans, gay men, or just about any other socio-political group, would have been called hate speech. In fact, this has been called hate speech, and it shows just how desperate both the newspaper industry is for revenue (their classifieds sections, long a big source of income, have dried up with the advent of Craigslist and other internet-based advertising), and the Conservative movement is to find a reason for people to vote for the party that brought you Iraq and the financial meltdown. So they distract us with not only fear, but take up column inches and minutes on the evening news by spending a lot of money to send out this four-year-old propaganda film produced by radical Jews. What do you think the chances are that they would have done this for a propaganda film produced by radical Muslims railing against radical Christians promoting bombing abortion clinics? And why do you suppose this DVD would have been limited in it's scope to potential swing states (although how they can consider Oregon a "swing state" when it's voted Democrat in every election since 1988 is beyond me)? 

Again, distraction. 

Our overriding issues are not a bunch of people who live on the other side of the planet, a very small percentage of which really don't like us (I find the people in my own country scary enough, thank you). They are overpopulation. They are climate change, regardless of who or what is bringing it on. They are the increasing toxicity of our environment. They are the fragility of our financial institutions, brought on by unregulated greed. They are the lost credibility of our leadership, affecting in rather startling ways our ability to deal with any of the above problems. 

When people are still arguing that the South was right and just to secede from the Union, over 150 year ago, and pastors say that homosexuality and abortion are our biggest problems, I have to think that these are people who are, willfully or not, choosing ignorance and whistling in the dark over improving their and our future. And our politicians keep on putting out the message that the willfully ignorant wish to hear rather than telling us what we *need* to hear - that things are gonna change in a big way, and sooner rather than later. That we need to do damage control *now*, not later. That the concept of the Rapture, while a very appealing idea, saying as it does that just when the world is going to completely fall apart God will lift up the righteous and leave the other 7 billion of us in the toilet against every creed of forgiveness and mercy that Christianity claims yet manages to gloss over because that wouldn't drive people into the churches to donate money, is all well and good but highly unlikely seeing as it's been predicted about a million times already and yet we're all still here. 

Christianity also includes the message of stewardship, that we need to all take care of our own house and our own house means the planet. Why aren't pastors preaching that message? Because Satan, even metaphorically, doesn't come looking like Satan, it will come looking like the good guys and screaming at the top of it's lungs that it has the message, and the only message, that you should hear and listen to. Satan wants us to focus on the ends, not the means. Satan wants us to look at this shiny distracting issue over here, not the important ones that mean survival for not only our country as a political entity, but also for a huge number of species around the planet. Satan (and I clearly meant this in a metaphorical way - I believe in Satan as a discrete entity like I believe in the Christian or any other god as a discrete entity, which is to say not at all) is winning. By a landslide. 

And I'm pretty sure that, given my observations over 45 years, that even good people will act in evil ways if they are given the right motivations or told the right lies. Because the world is far too complex for most people to grasp, myself included, and it's much easier and more comforting to complain that I'm an idiot and should read a book and that I'm a damnyankee and am going to hell. 

We won't get rid of the distractions, but we can learn to identify them and ignore them and demand that the important problems get fixed first, or at the very least mitigated. It may not help in time, and my guess is that those who enjoy professional blood sports and NASCAR and spend their Friday afternoons after work in strip clubs aren't going to be helping out much, but at least I for one am not going to give these distractions the time of day. 

So, Mr. I'm Not Giving My Name, complain all you want about ancillary issues and minor points of contention. I'm sure someone out there will say that I just don't understand NASCAR, or that Ultimate Fighting Craziness is a legitimate sport that requires insane amounts of intelligence and agility. In the end, the people who enjoy *watching* those sports do it because the possibility of seeing blood and death are very appealing. If that's what you like, you'll see a lot of it in the coming decades as we fight wars over the last remaining pools of oil, as we watch fundamentalists of all stripes increasingly resort to violence as a way of gaining attention. 

We have real problems to face. Perhaps we should pull our heads out of our collective asses and start dealing with them instead of thinking that the market will fix everything, or God will sort it out, or that it's just easier to whine that your side should never have lost a 150 year dead civil war because, tarnation, you were in the right. I think we have more important things to deal with now. 

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Staying Sane

The first presidential debates have come and gone, and I finally got around to watching the Couric interview of Sarah Palin. And I think I have an answer of how I stay sane.

After a recent political diatribe (the one where I pointed out that Americans seem to think that having a Commander-In-Chief you can have a beer with is a good idea, until you realize that except for the one guy you want to have a beer with, everyone around you is bat-sh*t crazy. Statistically, you're more likely to get Mr. BSC than Mr. Good Buddy), one of the people in my gaming group asked how I stay sane in a world that seems to have tossed it's critical thinking and BS-detecting skills. 

I finally have an answer. 

It came to me while watching the debate. Perhaps it was fatigue, perhaps it was that my head exploded so many times recently that I just couldn't take the risk of picking a side. Whatever it was, I watched the debate from about as objective a perspective as I ever have. From the perspective of "who did a better job of outlining their position," I give both sides a C+. I clearly think Obama is a better choice, but that's because of what my core values are. Which is to say I'd rather not be distracted with God, Guns, and Gays, or flag-waving (although only Obama had The Pin on, I noticed), and the Republicans, bless their little hearts, are masters of that. Not that the Demos don't do it too, it's just that the Republicans have gotten in so much practice over the past eight years. 

What I tried to do was notice what both candidates were saying that was specious and appealing to the voter who would rather drink crappy beer because to drink something with a fancy name would make him look like a fag to his buddies. For Obama, it was "W Bad. McCain Just Like W." Which is not true, but is an extremely viable campaign strategy (unless you were Kerry). For McCain, it was "This guy's barely out of college!" A particularly interesting argument given who he chose for his running mate. 

True to form, the papers came out with all sorts of letters from both sides spouting the same illogical and irrational crap that the parties spew at us. While I still think there's a larger logical disconnect from the right (and you'd expect that, seeing as a large chunk of their base thinks that dinosaurs were used as draft animals by humans, not a demographic you can expect to have a pleasant argument with), it's on both sides. 

I also saw the Couric interview with Sarah Palin, and it did nothing to make me more alarmed (although, to be quite honest I'm already extremely alarmed). Palin spouted the talking points pretty well for the most part, and that's all she'll do over the next six weeks. We can always hope for a meltdown, and there were times when she clearly was so far outside of her knowledge base that she looked like she was in a debate for student body president when she'd thought it was a beauty contest, but in general she is performing more or less to form. Yet the left trots out this interview as proof that she would be so incompetent as to make W look like Lincoln. Newsflash: we were aware of this already. 

One hiLARious moment: Sputtering about Couric bringing up Palin's comment that she had foreign policy experience because she could see Russia out of her window (which she can't, unless she lives on Attu), Palin sputtered for a while, then finally looked exasperated and said, and I quote, "Reporters." The look on Couric's face on the next cut to her was priceless. 

I could, without question, see President Palin in talks with the Chinese, start off my mentioning how much they had contributed to world culture, and boy does she love that lemon chicken stuff. That, and frankly it's all I need at this point, is enough for me to avoid McCain. There's a lack of experience, and there's a complete lack of experience. It's not like this is an either/or thing. On the Cooley Experience Gauge, Palin scores a 4, Obama a 40, McCain a 60. On the demonstration of critical thinking gauge, it's more like 0-80-60. I know which one *I'd* like to see running things. 

But I'm digressing, mostly because it's part of how I stay sane. 

And that's just it. In a country where being just like everyone else, otherwise called "mediocrity," is one of the biggest virtues, I've clearly lost. I suspect that most people reading this blog were among the smartest people in their class, but (prior to college, anyway), among the most despised people among their peers. Smart people in this country are *feared* by the masses. With good reason - smart people figured out you could get people to give you money for a piece of paper that was completely worthless, or at least worth considerably less than they claimed it was. Smart people expect them to, you know, *think*. They don't like thinking. They like memorizing pro baseball stats, but that's not thinking. Thinking is hard work. It's something you should be *paid* to do. It's why we spend our weekends doing physical things, because we would rather not spend our free time with tedious thinking. 

If you go by test results and general grades in my education, I'm a very smart man. I try to understand the world around me, and when my belief system fails I don't just patch it up and move forward, I try to find the truth and rebuild my belief system. Were God to reveal himself to me (in a good way), and tell me exactly how the world worked, I'd believe in God, but I'd still get into an argument with Hir. Or Hem. Yet when others *tell* me I'm smart, my first reaction is to duck. To suggest that many people are smart. To keep from looking like I'm vain about being smart. It's much better in our culture to know you are good looking to know you are smart. Our presidential politics this year are not about smart, which Obama clearly wins, but on experienced, which is somehow different, but certainly not elitist. So I hide my intelligence when it's pointed out to me. 

And it's all because I know, deep down, that people fear people that are smarter than them. Because the smarter people will win if they are allowed to do whatever they want. Because being smart doesn't mean being ethical. Most people, were they smart, would like to think they'd be ethical, but given actual practice I suspect most of them would take as much advantage of it as they could. Sharks are smart, and we don't need more sharks. 

Also, as should be clear from my posts, smart people are terrified that really ignorant and close-minded people could end up in charge of things. We live in fear pretty much 24/7.

So how do I keep sane? Several ways. The main way is to disconnect from the process. If McCain had selected, say, Lieberman as his running mate, I'd probably figure that whoever took office would be better, and this would be really easy. Palin turns that on it's head, and I'm forced to consider immigrating should McCain win and then die in office (although I suspect that Palin would suddenly find herself the object of some sort of scandal and be forced to resign, all at the behest of the Republican Party. Being smart also means being a cynic). Still, I'd much rather live in a country where the Supreme Court hadn't decided that W won in 2000 - if for no other reason that I'd believe I lived in a country where national elections weren't rigged, as no matter who wins we are in serious trouble, much more serious that we're being told. Scary thought, that.

The other ways I stay sane are to stick my head in the sand and play World of Warcraft. Play wargames that are increasingly complex, because when I'm doing that I'm not thinking of what a hole we've dug for ourselves. This blog gives me a certain amount of catharsis, and some of my friends are like-minded and I can blow off steam with them, although much of the time they'll believe all the propaganda about fired librarians and victim-funded rape kits (although no matter *how* you slice that one, it's a despicable practice) that Palin has had showered on her. Because the left grabs onto these things and runs with them, even when they ignore all of the facts, just like the right does. When Jon Stewart talked about the rape kit claim, which I found incredible, I found a handful of sites that were either playing apologist or trying to straighten out the record. That requires me to think - is the argument just trying to rules lawyer it's way out of trouble, or do they have a valid point? As with most things, the answer is complex. 

And there is really the problem, isn't it. The electoral system is set up to reward those who are physically attractive (usually - McCain is an anomaly mostly because the field for the Republicans was *so* weak, made weaker by association with W), and who are persuasive speakers. Not speakers with good ideas, but ideas that sound good. Kerry may have had good ideas, but no one was awake long enough to hear them. 

Then, once elected, they are expected to have a completely different set of skills. I, for one, would *love* to see a President who was a trained engineer, a problem solver. Instead, we get salesmen. We get demagogues. We get fear-mongers and people selected so that the dinosaur farmers will bother to vote. 

We get a mess. And we get it at a time when we can least afford a mess. We are where the Soviet Union was 20 years ago, no longer able to function economically, unable to trust our leaders, in a country where a quarter of the population still thinks that secession to support a lifestyle based on the bondage of other human beings who happened to look different was a good idea that failed. Every world power fails, it happens every time. Talk to someone who grew up in post-war Britain, a country that once controlled land around the world and was eventually reduced to getting unhappy when the people who lived close to a bunch of rocks in the South Atlantic figured that maybe proximity was a better argument for ownership than history. 

America is, astonishingly because it happened so *fast*, on the edge of that fate. We will no longer be the chosen currency for international trade. English will no longer be the lingua franca of the industrialized world. Our grandchildren will look to China as the land of opportunity, learn Mandarin as their second language like kids in Germany learn English today. 

In other words, I stay sane by learning from history and applying it to our situation. And our situation is grim. There is a burgeoning demand for near-future dystopian sci-fi, and it all looks much more plausible to me than the sort where humanity has managed to spread out among the stars, much less to different planets. 

On the bright side, eventually we'll more or less drown in our own excess, so who's in charge at that point won't matter so much. When the entire world looks like a Chinese urban center and there aren't enough air filtration masks to go around, when there *is* no potable water to drink that won't shorten our lifespans, none of this will matter. Regardless of who wins this election. 

Sanity is looking less and less attractive all the time. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Super Freak

I've been playing in a band for the last several months, and finally decided exactly one week ago that it wasn't going to work out for me. It's a bit of a long and tortured story, but the ending is particularly bizarre, so I thought I'd share it.

In the middle of July, we finally played out - for a block party one of our members used to be involved in. It was a decent gig, and we got some good feedback. "Good" as in "useful" in some cases, rather than in "you sounded good". Of particular importance was commentary on the vocals. As one of two lead singers, I got some excellent grades for my work both as a singer and as a frontman, which I have enough experience at this point to have some sense of, but it's nice to hear all the same. 

Not such good grades on harmony vocals, and terrible grades on the female vocalist the guitarist had hired back when we first started the band. She had some good chops, but was terrified playing even in front of a casual group of neighbors. One person said she looked like a turtle hiding in it's shell. For me, this confirmed what I'd know for some time - our other singer was not cut out for the sort of work (clubs and bars) that we were shooting for. You have to come out and own the stage if you want to be successful. I am not a vocal coach nor a stage presence coach, nor do I wish to be, and it was clear that our female vocalist wasn't anywhere near the level she needed to be at.

Out of this came two decisions - our current female vocalist needed to go, and the guitarist who founded the group needed to not sing on harmonies. Neither could hear the harmonies clearly, and I spent all of my time bouncing between different harmonies to fill in the blank spaces. I volunteered to fire the female vocalist, which went about like you'd think it would, and I got some very strange information on the conversations she'd had with the guitarist - he'd basically told her whatever she'd wanted to hear about the band: we weren't planning on playing out much, we weren't really focusing on danceable music, we were happy to work with someone without much (any) stage experience. All news to me. 

At this point, I really wanted to have some sort of harmony vocals at the very least in the band, and had undertaken firing our old singer with the idea that we'd have a built-in backup (haha) plan if we hired my wife, who has done this sort of thing in bands with me for seven years and two different groups. She isn't a lead singer, though, and the band insisted on auditioning people for the role. After a month of an exhaustive process that included a phone interview, a vocal audition with me, and a group audition with the band, we had three candidates. 

Candidate A had the least experience with performance, and I wasn't terribly sure she could hear and reproduce a harmony vocal. Candidate B had considerable experience, could sing both lead and backup, but had perhaps too "sweet" of a voice without enough grit for the material we were performing. Both were single mothers, and that was something I discussed with them in the phone interviews, as having someone suddenly not able to go to a gig because their babysitting plans fell through was not an option. Candidate C was my wife.

True to form, all of the candidates performed more or less as I expected. The band liked candidate A the best, despite my comment that I didn't think her harmony vocals, a primary concern for me, were up to par. The drummer, who had recommended candidate B, now let us know that she was "strong-willed" and thought nothing of missing a rehearsal if an opportunity to get out of town with a friend was possible. We also found out at the audition that she couldn't make rehearsals (except for the last hour) of a time that I'd published and discussed with her, suggesting that she didn't really want to be in the band anyway. 

After all of this, I took the recording of the first candidate home and listened to it carefully, and decided that indeed she did not have the backing vocal skills I required. When I got home, my wife asked who the band had picked. When I told her it was candidate A, she told me she was pulling herself out of contention. This sucked, because my decision (which was the final decision) was to hire my wife and now I was left with no good decisions. Having spent a good 40 hours on interviews, auditions, e-mail conversations, etc, I didn't want to go through that process again. That left me with two options - sing in a band with no harmony vocals and a guitarist that I was having a serious problem trusting, or ditch the whole thing and start over. 

I ditched the whole thing. It was a hard thing to do, for reasons I don't completely understand. I know that I had e-mails ready to go for all interested parties, but just couldn't quite push the Send button. When Jesse called me to see if I was ready to come over to play Devil's Cauldron, I told him of my situation, and he said "I thought this was supposed to be something you did for fun. This doesn't sound like much fun." I went in and hit Send without the slightest hesitation.

I got nice e-mail back from two of the members, saying they understood my frustration, and wished me the best. The drummer figured I might have had some reasons for leaving that weren't as articulated, so I told him how much trouble I had working with the guitarist. This is the kind of guy (the guitarist) who can't listen. I don't think he's capable of it. You would tell him something, and by the next week he'd have twisted it all around to whatever fit his vision of how things should be. Or he'd make a derogatory comment, then later tell people that I'd said it. When we suggested that perhaps people other than he should come up with songs, the very next day he put out a list of songs that we should have prepared for the next rehearsal "to move things along". The day after we agreed that I would fire the current vocalist and that *I* would drive the audition process, he put up an ad on Craiglist, which infuriated me because there was every chance that the existing vocalist might see it before I got a chance to speak with her. 

Life is too short to work with people like this. 

I'll also note that at the last rehearsal I was at, he and the wife of one of the members were going on about how the WTC towers *had* to have been rigged to detonate, and how the Bush administration must have been involved. Regular readers know that I am no fan of W, but this is debunked nonsense. It's the sort of crap I expect from Hannity, Limbaugh, or O'Reilly (in it's ridiculousness - Fox News constantly tosses this sort of baseless innuendo around, but I expect better from intelligent people). So he's one of those people who considers themselves to be very intelligent, but lacks any sort of critical thinking skills to ensure that what he says makes some sense. 

So, I said, good riddance to this sort of foolishness. 

The guitarist didn't send me any note thanking me for my hard work, or for my involvement over the past eight months. He just put up another ad on Craigslist. I'm pretty sure he didn't speak with anyone else in the band first, either.

Monday morning I checked my email, and here's where it gets bizarre. The wife (ostensibly - the writing/speaking style of the message was the guitarist's, more or less dead on) of the guitarist sends me a message saying that she had read my email, quoting my "I'm leaving" message," no less, and because of two things in it she's decided that I can't be in the band anymore.

First, I'm thinking, did she not notice the part where I left the band? In the message she's quoting?

Second, what is she doing reading her husband's email at 1am on a Monday morning? I've seen a lot of messages from the guitarist at 1am, so I know he stays up late and reads it.

The two things she was "concerned" about made me look sexist, which anyone who knows me understands is about as off base as you can get. The first was that I'd asked the former lead vocalist to show cleavage. Supposedly. It was that "supposedly" word that tipped me off that this was almost certainly the guitarist, and not his wife. The actual quote, and this was something that I'd explained to the band over and over, was that a female vocalist needed to play "lead cleavage" as well as be a good musician. This was a phrase coined by my wife to explain her role in the bands we were in together. It means that a female vocalist needs to have good stage presence and charisma onstage and project a certain air of sexuality. I at no time asked this woman to show me her cleavage. The phrase was intended to shock her a bit to see how she reacted to a suggestive sounding term, seeing as we'd be playing in places where that was how some men in the audience would react to a female vocalist. 

The other "issue" was that I was concerned about the new female vocalist's status as a single mother, which I've mentioned above. This, pure and simple, is a professional concern that was shared by not only everyone in the band, but by the candidates themselves. They answered the question to my satisfaction, and I mentioned it in the e-mail because I felt that Candidate A's chances of running into trouble were considerably higher as she had younger children.

If this e-mail was, in fact, sent by the guitarist posing as his wife, I have to wonder what he was thinking, and I think I get it. He needed to have the last word, and he needed to be the person firing me, not me leaving the band. I suppose that with enough drinks in you, it's possible that this would seem like a good idea at 1am on a Monday morning, but I just don't know. I know that if it *was* his wife, and I know very little about her other than that she wasn't happy that he had a band, that she was looking through his email very late at night and was poking her nose into something she neither understood (the "lead cleavage" issue had to have been related to her by the guitarist, and it had clearly been misrepresented in either case, but that would be SOP for this guy) nor had the slightest business in. And *firing* me? Please.

I know that my best option was not to respond at all, but I couldn't resist. I kept it very short, saying that the first issue had been misrepresented and that I'd never said any such thing, and the second was a legitimate professional concern. I also suggested that I thought this might well be the guitarist posing as his wife, but regardless I considered this to be harassment, asked them both never to contact me again, and set all mail from that address to be deleted upon receipt (with an autoreply message to that effect). Of course, I have not read any further e-mails because they are in /dev/null. I'll ignore phone calls as well.

So I'm looking for a new band again. This time, my spidey-sense will win out over my "close enough for government work" sense - I'd thought that I'd be happy with a band that met some of my criteria, but I'm going to need to be very picky indeed, so picky that I'm unlikely to find anything. I know there haven't been any ads worth replying to in the last week of Craigslist offerings - either the band rehearses in Vancouver, a good hour away; or wants someone in their 20's; or wants someone with a ridiculously high range (think Brad Delp from the original lineup of Boston). 

What I know for sure is that my stress level dropped almost immediately when I left this band. I'd considered asking the other members to fire the guitarist and we'd look for a guitarist/vocalist to replace him, but after firing one other member, everyone would be looking over their shoulders thinking they were next. You can't build a band on that sort of foundation. All but the guitarist told me to keep them in mind if I found something good and needed their particular skillset, though...

I've played with some interesting people, but this guy was something else. Even more frightening - he's a veterinarian. I sure hope he's better at that than he is at being a rational human. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

New Game Roundup

A bunch of new stuff just in, and a bunch more to come in the next month or so. 

On the Euro front (which gets thinner and thinner as time goes on), I picked up the new Ticket To Ride - Ya Shore Yoobetcha Edition, which is supposed to be good for two or three. I may get a chance to play that tonight with Matt if I'm the only person showing up at our game night, but one never knows. I also picked up the US release of Pirate's Cove, Kahuna (I'd had the very old and component-weak Arabana-Ikibiti, which Funagain put out back in the day), plus the first of the WWII Wings of War game, mostly just so I could see what changes they made and to keep my WWI edition (don't remember which one) company. I also got Agricola, which was not only much more expensive than just about any Euro I've bought at this point, but also had some incredibly flimsy cards. To sleeve these might be more $$ than I'm willing to put into the game at this point, as it's a few hundred cards. 

And that's it for Euros. This says something about how that market has gone beyond saturation for me. Yet I keep buying wargames...

Actually, I keep *preordering* wargames, and they show up right about the time I'm not expecting anything to show up. From MMP, I picked up the Operations Special #1, their house organ that came with the Iwo Jima area movement game, an HASL map and a few scenarios, counters for a Fallschirmjaeger (SCS) variant, and some errata counters. Of all of these, the Iwo Jima game is definitely the most interesting to me, as I've yet to get FSJ on the table, ASL continues to elude my shrinking brainpower, and the errata counters are about 80% cosmetic in nature rather than containing actual gameplay effects (such as correcting numeric values other than the unit number). Since the shipping was horrific, I picked up the Normandy 1944 ASL Action Pack #4 as well, because, ya know, I may actually play that game someday.

Then, a few days later, I got Storm Over Stalingrad, which I had completely forgotten I'd pre-ordered. Since MMP typically starts shipping to preorders about three months before they finish shipping, I'd foolishly assumed that I hadn't caught this. The game is another in their "Japanese Gaming Series" (the "International" moniker is far that only in the sense that the games are from another country than the US), and is a *very* simple area movement/impulse game. I got through the rules in about 10 minutes. Big differences are that there are no disruption levels, so spent units are at risk (although their defense values are typically larger than in, say, BK:N). Also, units may fire from an adjacent area, and terrain benefits are non-existent if you are fighting in the same area. Finally, defensive units do not roll dice in combat - the values are built into the defensive factors on the counters. Oh, and since most units have attack factors of 1 or 2, they are simply added together rather than using the usual method of adding one for each additional unit. Divisional integrity is achieved by simply only allowing units to activate together if they start in the same area and are in the same division. 

In other words, if you can streamline it, it's been done. The only complaint I have is that you are expected to bid for sides at the start of the game, and while they recommend a bid of 2 or 3, that seems arbitrary. A strong recommendation for a bid would be a much better choice rather than hedging, especially in an introductory game, and I don't think that "2 or 3" counts. If anything, make it two and one side wins, three and the other wins. Ambiguity in an entry level game is a bad idea. However, this is a nit at best. 

Also new to the table is the CDG Clash Of Monarchs, giving the Seven Years War (in Europe, although there are global events abstracted into the system) the treatment. It's up to a four player game, which is always a good thing (assuming it still works for two, which games like Sword of Rome and Successors do not). I have to admit that I was very excited about seeing this game, but I've had tremendous trouble getting into the rules - like Kutuzov, the initial section of the rules is very off-putting for some reason. Maybe I'm just getting old. The complexity is set at 7 of 9, which is a pretty high level for a CDG. Still, were there not *so* many games coming into my life right now, it would be something that would be set up and prepped to play. 

On the Everything Old Is New Again front, the third edition of one of my favorite multiplayer CDGs just got rereleased. Successors has a very different feel from other MP CDGs I own, with it's variable starting situation and multiple paths to victory. It's not a game you'll win by bashing your way to the top - in general, it's a game of holding back (the Usurper rules make you a prime target if you end a turn with the most VP) and maneuver, and a total blast to play with good opponents. Unfortunately, my experiences at WBC (the "real" one) have both spoiled me for the level of play I expect from others, while simultaneously demonstrating how petty those who play for stakes (even when it's just bragging rights for having won a tournament) can get. 

The new edition cleans up a lot of problems with the old ones. The first edition was a bastardization of a Richard Berg game (that, I suspect, eventually became The Conquerors: Alexander), which was "Hannibalized" when that title came out and was received so well. As a result, the game was a bit of a mixed bag and not developed as well as it should have been. Enter John Firer, who with co-designer Mark Simonitch, cleaned up some rules and added the mechanism that made the game great instead of merely interesting - use the Tyche cards to allow extra movement if you don't have anywhere to place control markers or can't use the event. A very simple change with far-reaching consequences, it made the game much more fluid and gave enough options to take it to the next level. Unfortunately, the rules were a mess, with special considerations for different types of units spread all over the book. The rules were only distributed over the internet, and at times were very difficult to find. My own copy was given to me directly by Mark S., and I used those rules extensively when I GMed the game at WBC. 

The latest edition makes several changes, mostly to card text (a welcome fix in most cases, as 2nd ed had card changes spread all over the rules where they were difficult to find). The production is first rate for the most part, although the stand mix for the generals left out sufficient black stands. As mentioned before, the board is mounted, which is sort of a mixed blessing and in most wargames would be a detriment (at least to the grognard crowd), but there's no arguing that it's *much* easier to parse than the original, although the art is more or less intact from that edition. Since I have yet to play, no word yet on whether gameplay is cleaner or better than earlier editions. I still think that Surprise cards are too powerful (if you get one and use it, you get another card, which could be another Surprise card. In tournament play, whoever got the most useful Surprise cards in a late round usually won). I've suggested a variant where you play a used (not discarded) Surprise card in front of you that is later used as a 2 Tyche card rather than just getting another card, so it's in effect a Bonus card that you can get the benefit of the event part prior to actually playing it. 

Finally, Conflict of Heroes came out, and I got through the first "firefight" a short time ago. I saw someone compare CoH to ASL with the Beyond Valor module (East Front Germans and Russians), which is ridiculous in any sense other than scale. There are no flamethrowers, no bazookas, no sense that there is any differentiation in experience level, no leaders, very little in the way of ordnance other than the handful made available in the game. Even the scope is extremely limited to '41-'42. I'm not trying to dis the game, I think there's some definite potential here, but there's no question that not only is this not ASL, but it shouldn't even be compared other than wrt era and scale. Combat Commander is a much better comparison, and frankly I think CC wins hands down in terms of accurate reflection of the realities of war. However, CoH is an excellent introductory wargame, and so long as  you aren't the kind of person who thinks you've got only one slot in your closet for a game of this scale and era, there's absolutely no reason you couldn't own both. I do. 

That's a lot of new games, but in the next two weeks I expect to get a couple more. The latest release from Vance von Borries' Eastern Front series is due out, Barbarossa: Kiev to Rostov. I have all of the games in this series except Army Group Center, and kick myself regularly that I didn't just drop the $70 for it when it was in print. At that time, however, I figured I'd never get around to playing a monster game, and that one was - four or more maps, thousands of counters. Of course, I've eventually come to realize that monsters are slowly creeping into my collection and I'm more and more interested in playing them as I get older (and have space for them, or at least one). So now I've got several games with more than two maps to them, and am in the process of learning pretty much all of them. For me to take on OCS alone speaks volumes about how my tastes are changing. It's a damned good thing I have friends who are interested in playing, or I'd *never* get any on the table, and maybe that's got a lot to do with why they're now being added to my collection. 

The other new GMT game coming at the same time as B:KtR is Pursuit of Glory, the Paths of Glory game that focuses on the Near East. The designers made it a goal to have as close to the exact same ruleset as Paths as possible, just a different map, scale, and counterset. Scale is obvious -the Pursuit map is the same exact area as the Paths NE inset map, in other words something like 1/10th of the entire Paths map. I'm happy to see this topic getting more and more interest, even though it was for the most part a sideshow back in the day. Still, the things that happened there echo to this day, and were a war of that scope fought now, chances are that the Near East would be the main front rather than a sideshow. This is one that will get punched, clipped, set up, and soloed almost immediately, even if I have to take out Burning Blue to do it. 

Speaking of which, I *finally* got around to doing more than prepping for a solo run at Burning Blue. There are a few questions I have about how things have gone so far, but it's a very interesting situation. In a short convoy raid, the German top cover ME-109s took on a unit of Hurricanes, but weren't quick enough to prevent them from causing minor damage to the Stukas they were protecting, then after the intial combat was over, were disrupted to a point where they were forced to pancake, leaving the Stukas to the tender mercies of two flights of Spitfires and a squadron of Defiants (obsolete fighters with tail gunners who were quickly reassigned to less active theaters after the first day or so of fighting). Lots of rules lookups, as you'd expect, and lots of special cases - since the Hurricanes were in pursuit of the raid group, they perform combat (twice - once with the Stukas, once with the Messerschmidts), then the MEs and the Brits immediately fought again in the dogfight phase. That seems a bit strange to me, and I'll need to try to understand the sequence of play a bit better now that I've pushed some cardboard around. It's still a complex game, but in actual play things move along pretty quickly when you know what you can leave out and what you have to pay attention to.

As with most things at my increasingly advanced age, I'm finding I do a whole lot better if I have someone to work things through with. Burning Blue, however, seems to be a game too far for most of my cronies, which is a damned shame because I'm finding I like these air games that require planning ahead of time. 

Once I finish this attempt at TBB, I'll be setting up Storm Over Stalingrad for a quick play, then it will almost certainly be time to try out Pursuit of Glory, although I'm hoping to get in that Edge of the World scenario from Case Blue in the meantime - Jesse and I are playing Devil's Cauldron every Wednesday now, so getting that solitaired is less interesting than it was although I'm finding that having run through a situation ahead of time makes for a much more interesting game, at least for me. 

Oh, and I played Combat Commander with my friend Connor the other day too. Guess I should quit whining about not getting enough gaming in. ;-)

Sunday, September 21, 2008

And I Thought 85 Billion Was A Lot

Guess what. AIG was, surprise surprise, just the start. Now the Fed is recommending that we bail out *everyone* who is stuck with a bad loan. The starting number is $700 billion, that's $700,000,000,000, btw. And doesn't include the folks we've already bailed out, at another $100 billion. And when analysts are suggesting that perhaps the number will instead be $1 trillion ($1,000,000,000,000, that is indeed 12 zeros), which is about 1/10th of the existing national debt, you know that we are in very deep doo doo indeed. 

The biggest threat? Inflation. It may be time to start stocking up on every staple I can conceive of before the prices start doubling and tripling in the next six months. 

At this point, I almost wish that McCain/Palin *did* get elected to office (or steal it, that seems to have worked the last two times out), because there is no way that the next president will be able to repair much of the damage in this country with the financial crisis as bad as it is. And it is. We have a *Republican* administration wanting to effectively socialize the entire investment industry as a preferable choice to it's complete collapse. In an election year. 

Me, I'm hoping that both parties are completely wiped out by this mess so that we can start over from scratch. I like the Constitution just fine (except the electoral college), but the parties no longer either represent the people, nor are they willing to let any other parties in. 

Of course, that means you get some really crazy parties with really crazy ideas (think the National Socialists in 30's Germany). Imagine a party whose main plank was the teaching of Creationism and Aristotilian physics, with the sun at the center of the universe. If some people can think, against every shred of physical evidence we have, that dinosaurs were once used by people as draft animals *solely* because a Bishop in England a few hundred years ago decided that each day of creation was equivalent to one thousand years of history (with the seventh day supposedly starting in 2000/2001), there will be some very frightening groups out there indeed. 

For now, however, we are going to have to find out what our parents and grandparents went through in the Great Depression, because our economy is built on an astonishingly flimsy set of premises. That bad house loans could lead to a complete collapse only proves my point. 

I may go learn how to shoot a firearm. It just may get that bad. 

$1,000,000,000,000. I think that number is going to be pretty low. Of course, in not too long a time, if history repeats itself, we'll be in an inflationary period where a million dollar bill may not buy coffee, certainly not at Starbucks (because no one will have discretionary income to buy coffee at Starbucks, so there won't be a Starbucks). At least you can pay off your home loan fast. 

One more thing: on your way out, don't forget to blame Clinton. It's clearly his fault. :-/

Friday, September 19, 2008

New TV Shows - Fringe and True Blood

The new TV series has started to start. Remember when everything all started at the same time? No more. Now new fall shows start in September and the pilots keep coming until the end of October. Part of the reason is to allow for some of the new shows to get a little time and see if they'll be successful, then rejigger the schedule for new shows coming up later so they get put on stronger or weaker nights. Whatever. 

The two new shows we're following right now, or at least felt like we should record, are Fringe (Fox) and True Blood (HBO). 

Fringe is an X-Files clone, the latest from J J Abrams. The biggest difference is that there are now *three* people in the core group, one of which is a man with bipolar disorder who, despite a very strong cast, seems to be the only person who has taken acting lessons. I'd give a little more information on the show, but to be honest it was so bad that we took it off of the DVR. Admittedly, this was not the pilot episode (which mysteriously disappeared from the DVR), but the second episode. It was terrible. Zero chemistry with the actors, a plot line that seemed to rely more on gore than on anything remotely interesting, some of the most incredible deus ex machina I've ever seen since the final season of Alias. I wanted to give up on it after 15 minutes. 

And I *loved* the X-Files. All nine years of it, even the crappy season 4 when the good writers all left and the last two seasons when even Sculley wasn't in the scripts. Fringe, at least this episode, made Bionic Woman look good. Even the 70's version Bionic Woman. J. J. Abrams should stick to keeping Lost from ending up like Alias did. Because this won't last 13 episodes.

True Blood is a modern Vampyre Gothic story set in the bayous of Louisiana, in a world where vampires have come out of the closet after the development of a synthetic blood drink that means they no longer have to hunt living creatures (and people) for sustenance. The main characters are a young blonde waitress who can read minds (and doesn't want to) and is fascinated by vampires, probably because she feels out of place herself, and a not-so-young vampire who has moved back to town when his last living relative (including him) dies and leaves him a house. The story revolves around a budding romance (or something) between these two characters, really an excuse to showcase stereotypes, racism, discrimination, etc, using the vampires in the role of the oppressed and semi-misunderstood class. 

We've seen two episodes, and while I like the general tenor of the show I'm not sure that it will stand up well over time. Of course, I thought that about Dexter as well, which turned out to be a crackerjack program, both seasons so far, with some really thought-provoking social commentary. Hopefully True Blood will turn out the same. 

I guess the series is based on one of the many many current vampire series where the main character is a vampire or does a twist on the classic story. Most of these are the usual serial trash, often just sexed up romance novels with a lot of skin and sex, and while True Blood does have it's sex (and some, ahem, vigorous sex at that, everything short of penetration), it's the social commentary that I hope will put it above the rank and file (which seems to have replaced the serial fantasy genre, such as Jordan's Wheel of Time or Martin's seemingly stalled Song of Ice and Fire - I know, he claims to be at work on the next book, but he said that three years ago right after he put out what has to be the least interesting book I've read in 10 years, A Feast For Crows). 

Anyway, it's been interesting so far, and once I get used to the female lead's bad teeth and constantly flickering facial expressions, both of which I think are apropos to the character, but annoying regardless, this stands a chance of being another Dexter. Time will tell. 

As it won't for Fringe. My God, that's an hour I'll never get back. 

Conflict of Heroes - First Thoughts

I got in a quick solitaire play of the first scenario in Conflict of Heroes, and here are my first impressions:

1) Components - I've mentioned this before, but I'll do so again. The box seems a bit flimsy for the weight of all of these components, but at the same time so do games like World of Warcraft, Devil's Cauldron, and Case Blue. Still, a slightly heavier box would have been nice - this is not a game that will go under other games on a stack. 

The boards are pretty heavy, but lay flat nicely. Only five of them in the box, although they are geomorphic so can create a large number of possible maps. Terrain is pretty clear in all cases - the rule is that if the terrain surrounds the LOS dot in the hex, that's the kind of terrain it is. It doesn't always work for roads, which isn't stated, but for anyone who's ever played a game with terrain issues it makes sense. 

Counters are large, thick, and have a linen finish, a la most Phalanx games presentations. Only nit so far - the combat chits are just as big and have unit modifier values on them, so making them smaller so that they would fit in the middle of the unit counter would have been really nice. However, stacking would have been a bit of an issue, although you rarely want to stack - the combat penalties are not good (your enemy gets one shot at each unit in a hex, multiplying his firepower). Counter mix is limited, but no clipping is required - you can get into the game in about 15 minutes if you're familiar with wargame concepts.

Paper is pretty thin and flimsy in all cases - cards, rulebook, player aids. Rulebook came with the pages out of order. You'll want to sleeve the cards for sure, maybe the player aids as well.

2) System - No buckets of dice here. Each player takes turns taking actions, which is rather weakly defined in the rules, and I can see novice players getting confused. Basically, you can activate a single unit to use it's own Activation Points (each gets seven in an impulse), and each action the unit takes costs APs as defined on the counter. You can augment this with Command Points, or take an Opportunity Action with an unused unit, or play an action card. Each time you take an "action" (meaning you use APs to do one thing with the unit activated, or if you use CPs, or an OP, or play a card separate from any of the above), your opponent gets the chance to react using CPs, an OP, or play a card of their own. It's a little difficult to grok until you see it in action, then it's very clear. I just wish they'd taken the time to clarify the terminology, but they certainly aren't alone in this respect. 

Despite the development shortcomings, it's really a fairly elegant system. Moving or firing costs a certain number of AP, but you can use your CP to supplement it, so a unit could potentially has more than 10 or even 15 AP/CP spent on it in a single impulse. Of course, saving your CP is a good idea for several reasons, the main one being that you can use the CP to use a unit that has been used for the turn already. OPs let you do something with an extra unit in an impulse, or react with a unit during the other player's impulse. However, when you do so that unit becomes used for the turn, so it's a matter of timing over operational flexibility (because you'd probably be able to move that unit as well, or even fire multiple times). Since some units have a fire cost of only two AP, those units will take a little more agonizing to fire as an OP. 

I did not get a chance to see the cards in action, they were not in use in this scenario, which was quite small and really only suitable as an intro to the game.

Combat is also straightforward. You spend AP/CP/OP to fire the unit at a target, then add the firing units FirePower (FP) value to the roll of two d6. If you wish, you may spend up to two CP to modify the dieroll in your favor. You compare this result to the defender's Defense Value, which will change if you are hitting them from the side or from the rear, plus any terrain drms. If you meet or beat the defensive value, you get a hit. If you beat it by four, the unit takes two hits and is immediately destroyed. If a hit unit takes another hit, it's destroyed. If an unhit unit takes a hit, it draws a damage chit from a pool (different pools for armor and infantry), which will have a variety of results, from simply acting as a hit to crippling the unit or even killing it on a single hit. Units may rally (even as a reaction, although it costs 5 CP to do so), and the chit is removed if you roll that number or higher, modified if you're in cover. 

It's a pretty straightforward system, and while the dice may or may not go your way, at the same time the types of damage done, especially in larger scenarios that have many units, is more likely to even out statistically because there aren't all that many damage chits - something like 20 or so for the leg units. I just wish it was easier to see what the damage counters were doing - Combat Commander handles this in a more elegant way, plus the hexes are large enough to handle several units easily. Of course, CC doesn't have tanks (which I didn't get to).

There are also rules for facing, LOS, terrain, rally, close combat (which needs few extra rules - if a unit moves into CC, the defending unit can use CP or OP to fire first, and close combat is devastating). Now if my rulebook was in order, I could find all of these rules pretty quickly.

My scenario went by quickly, about 45 minutes to get through enough to try a few things and see what would work and what wouldn't. I haven't looked at the cards, but they take things like improved positions, smoke, artillery, that sort of thing into account. 

Compared to Tide of Iron, this game is definitely a winner. ToI was overly long, overly complicated, terrible rules, dumb rules (smoke was stupid). Compared to Combat Commander, this is a better wargame entry title, but I'm not sure at all if it's a better game. You can play with more than one player, however.

Paper or Mounted - Tempest In A Teapot

The new edition of Successors came out from GMT games in the past couple of weeks, and there's been a little controversy over the use of a mounted mapboard, unlike the overwhelmingly paper nature of most maps. Euro and strategy gamers branching out into wargames are constantly annoyed to find that GMT's "deluxe" maps are actually just heavy cardstock rather than mounted, but wargamers prefer paper because they can be put into poster frames or under plexiglass sheets. I prefer the poster frames when possible because I can put a game in progress into a stackable art tray set I have for that purpose, and the games tend to be a little safer from spills and finger oil contact.

I had forgotten that the most recent Command and Colors: Ancients expansions (Barbarians and Civil Wars) came with the same kind of mounted maps. Apparently GMT decided that there was sufficient positive response to these that they chose to try it again with Successors, figuring (correctly) that because it was almost more a multiplayer strategy game than a wargame, or at least would appeal to that demographic, that it would help sales. 

However, one of the problems with the original maps for C&C:A was that you had to put a lot of terrain tiles down on the map. With a poster frame, the tiles tended to slip a bit more than usual. If you spent time trying to get the tiles *under* the plexi, it could be a bit of a chore and the positioning of some of the tiles could produce a situation where some would slide around under the plexi. The new mounted map has a linen finish, lies flat, and the tiles tend to stay put. Plus, if you want to play the big Epic scenarios, they fit together quite well. The original map, of the "deluxe" kind, is actually my default preference for wargame maps, but a) C&C:A really isn't a "wargame" as I normally think of it, and b) it didn't really work well with the tiles. 

So perhaps using this sort of map for Successors wasn't that great of an idea, although if any games should use mounted maps, they should also be playable in a single session, which I define as 4-5 hours. Sux barely makes that time limit with the new rules - tournament experience with 2nd edition rules a few years ago saw a full game run about five hours, up to six in the elimination rounds. That said, this is the kind of game that isn't going to be put away for a couple weeks and people come back to it, as longer two player games might be. 

Now let's throw into the mix Conflict of Heroes, a new game from Academy Games that is shooting for the entry-level wargame demographic, along the lines of Combat Commander. The components are very high end for a wargame, although I'm already seeing why *in most cases* paper maps are preferable. The maps are single-fold thick fiberboard, much like those in Tide of Iron (another recent and, IMHO, disastrous attempt at this niche), although not quite as thick as those in the latter title. They are already very slightly warped right out of the box. Moisture on these will almost certainly ruin them, a critical issue for a game that relies on line of sight, although the hex containing blocking terrain blocks LOS rather than the graphic (as in CC). The maps are also intended to be connected to each other, unlike CC, which also makes them a bit more difficult to get in a poster frame (but not under plexi). 

CoH costs $75 retail. There are five or six maps, something like 40 or 50 units for each side, plus an equal number of marker counters, all very large and heavy, like you would see in a euro-style family game. The cards are M:tG sized, but slightly thinner so they don't fit into standard card sleeves terribly well (although it's better to do this than not as the cards feel a bit on the flimsy side to me - not as bad as the cards in the US release of Agricola, which were nearly tissue-paper flimsy, but I can't put several hundred cards in sleeves without raising the cost of that euro game to over $100). The box, which would be fine for most games, feels like it's barely holding on when I pick it up.

But I digress. My point is that CoH almost certainly raised it's costs, both for components and shipping (due to weight) by a good 25-40% by including more euro-gamer friendly components. The game is clearly aimed at that demographic rather than grognards, so it's clearly an attempt to sell more games. Plus, it's intended as a system where you can purchase expansions, or more boxed stand-alone games. Also, the cost of some components clearly affected others, such as the cards, the box, and the Giant Square Rules (not to mention the Giant Square Book o' Scenarios, which is *glued* together rather than stapled, which is nearly impossible to backfold, includes the turn track *in* the book for each scenario, and demonstrates that the game needed a more experienced developer with some experience with scenario-based games). 

Did I mention that my ruleset came with the pages out of order? Can you imagine how much fun *that* will be to sort through looking for rules? And the reference card puts a non-optional movement choice under the optional movement rules section? 

My point is that games cost money to produce. I like to have components that will stand up to repeated play, as I like to have components that are of a similar quality. Successors does a good job of doing both, and their decision to try out a mounted board in a game that is more wargame than multiplayer strategy game is, I think, not a bad one, if not a decision I'd like to see translated to all of their games. Conflict of Heroes, on the other hand, overcompensates for component quality in some areas while undercompensating in others, all clearly to keep the game at a particular price point. 

I have not yet played CoH, so I can't give an assessment of whether it will be a good game or not. Trying to understand what the term "action" meant gave me a bit of a headache early, demonstrating that clear terminology is a very important part of gaming in general, but critical in wargaming. However, it seems to hit a pretty sweet spot for me, so long as it doesn't make the same bone-headed choices as Tide of Iron did wrt actual play (you can lay smoke in a hex *after* you move into it, and *after* your opponent can op fire on you in ToI, completely the opposite of actual tactical practice and common sense, making it very bloody to advance through open terrain). 

Of course, the idea that Phalanx Games had even the slightest connection to CoH was very nearly enough to make me run screaming from a purchase decision, but then again I can rationalize just about any purchase if it's shiny enough. 

In conclusion, I'd suggest to GMT Games that just because C&C:A had a good response to mounted boards does not mean that they should start mounting, say, the next von Borries Eastern Front game (Barbarossa: The Whole Frackin' Continent) with 32 maps and a shipping weight of one quarter metric ton. Grognards like maps they can put under plexi, so stick with that idea unless there are good reasons not to (like attracting non-grognards to the hobby - I'm all for that). Because I'd really rather not have to take a mounted map and scan/print it just so it will go in a poster frame so I can tuck it away for a few days.

Tuesday Gaming Recap - Trains!

Matt R graciously took over hosting duties for a couple of sessions from Chris while football season is in full swing (he is a coach for one of his son's teams), so four of us made the trek out to the hills between Sherwood and Newburg for a night of train games. Also present were Mike, JD, and Alex. On the table, Winsome Games' Wabash Cannonball (a stand-alone game with a feel between Age of Steam and a bare-bones 18xx title), and the now-classic Union Pacific.

Wabash is an abstracted 18xx-type title - there are stocks, but the value only changes for the individual as more stocks are sold, all at auction, and they are never sold once purchased. The various train companies do have treasuries, and their lines can be expanded only if you own stock, but there's no concept of "ownership" of a line through owning the majority of stock. Also, the tracks have no direction, they are simply cubes placed on the map, which covers the NE part of the US from Chicago in the NW corner down to the Chesapeake Bay area in the SE. Four train lines start the game on the east coast, and income from those lines goes directly to owners of the shares through dividends - the only way to supplement the lines' treasuries is through the sale of stock or through developing areas with timber. 

Each player has one of three choices during their turn, and that may be limited as the game goes on. First, you may extend the track on a line you own a share in by three spaces, with the cost showing on the spaces themselves. You can't run a second line into a timber or mine area, and there's an additional cost if you run into a city containing another line's token. 

Second, you may develop a space (city, timber, or mine) by placing a purple cube in the space. Once this is done, either the end-turn value of the city improves, the line gains $2 to their treasury, or the income for the line improves by $2, respectively. In most cases, the best way to improve the income of a line is not to improve the cities, which are typically $1 per turn, but to improve the mines to generate more iron for the tracks. However, if no one is buying shares, sometimes it's better to improve the timber to add some case to the treasury. Note that buying track always comes out of the line's treasury, so that's often necessary.

Finally, you can choose to auction off one of the remaining shares in a rail line. The number of shares ranges from 2 (the Wabash, which comes in after one line gets to Chicago) to 6, so this isn't a share-heavy game. When you buy a share, you dilute the value of that rail line to everyone else, so often this is a defensive move as much as anything else. For a single person to own all of the shares in one line, and if they are able to expand it sufficiently, is a recipe for disaster for the other players, as four of us found out to our detriment. 

Each of these actions can be executed a set number of times during a turn, and once two of the action sets are exhausted, the turn ends and everyone gets money. That means that early on, there's first a race for expanding the lines, then when no one else can do that, it comes down to either placing resources to generate additional income, or putting shares up for bid. The game ends when either three sets of line shares have all been auctioned off, or there are only three resource cubes remaining in the pool, or if three lines have used all of their track, or if the Detroit timer (8 turns) runs out. 

In our game, I started south with the C&O, mostly because I was cheap and that was the last line auctioned. It had the lowest starting income, so when I ended up paying as much as anyone else did for their shares, I was a bit disappointed. However, I expanded it aggressively early (getting to do so twice), and added resources as well, expanding it's income to 6, where it stayed for me for the remainder of the game through other's buying stock and further expansion. 

Perhaps the key moment in the game came when the New York line made it to Chicago, which starts the Wabash line and pays out to the players who own stock. I did not at the time, and JD and I realized that one of us needed to buy into the line to dilute it some more. I won that bid, as I did getting the initial Wabash line, which I ran into Chicago and Detroit, the two best cities on the map for income. I held Wabash as a sole owner for one turn, which netted me $10, an awesome payout. At game end, I held four stocks, matched only by Mike, who came in second behind me. 

This was a very cute game, and play time was only one hour. I understand that Queen Games plans to reprint it, and I will almost certainly pick up a copy at that time as the components definitely had a DTP feel in the Winsome version. There is also an Erie Line expansion that adds a second "bonus" line that starts much as Wabash does, which would make the game more interesting for 5 or 6 players, I think. With 5, it was a pretty cool game. You have to consider the treasuries of the lines you want to expand, whether or not it is likely to happen in a given turn, how much you bid for the various shares, etc. There's no reason to cause screwage (there is the ability, but unless someone owns two shares of a given line that you want to hurt, it's kind of counter-productive) except to exhaust one type of action or expand a line into a place another line is heading for, so it's a pretty friendly stock-based rail game. Once you're in the game with one line, past that the race is for cash and the ability to generate it as controlling ownership means nothing. 

All in all, a very cool game, and I'm delighted Matt introduced us to it and Mike wanted to play it.

To keep the theme going, we pulled out Union Pacific. We played with the stock rules (UP shares are picked for no cost, a second by burning a share in hand; non-distributed placement of the dividend cards in the stock deck), although the dividend cards came up at a pretty regular interval. 

As always, there were lots of races for lots of stock in lots of rail lines. I did well with the Mexican railway in the south, pulling four cards early to guarantee a first place holding. I also got to first place in the UP stock, shared with Mike in the first round, and held throughout the game. However, I struggled to keep up with most people in the other races, and the last dividend card came up before I was able to get enough of my Green train shares down to take second (I had thought it would be enough for first, but Alex beat me to it). However, in the final analysis, it was not enough to beat Mike with his seven point lead over me at the end, so I came in second. 

UP is a crown jewel in Alan Moon's curriculum vitae. While I prefer to have the dividend cards come up in a semi-regular fashion (the way we played could result in a double payout, although it came out about as regular as you'd want), and I remember that there was some other rule for the UP stocks (or perhaps that was the variant for the US rules - this was a German edition with text only rules). Still, a very close game (we kept tabs on who had what amount of money after each dividend payout), and the scores ranged from 116 (Mike, the winner) down into the high 90's, a pretty tight distribution.

Kind of funny that we played two games that involved stocks during a week when the market was melting down (and we all became stockholders in AIG, like it or not). 

Thanks to Matt for hosting, and for providing such yummy cookies. I ate four oatmeal and raisin, my favorites. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Whistling In The Dark

My wife works for a hair salon, the kind where a haircut costs $40 and up. It's a great place to work, her boss is wonderful (she gets full benefits working 20 hours a week), and it's relatively low stress for her because she's the receptionist and can spend time surfing the 'Net or helping out when things aren't too busy.

You would think that in a time of economic downturn, luxuries like expensive hair care would be one of the first things to go in a budget. Yet their business has been going like gangbusters for the past few months. Almost to a point where it may be the owner's best year ever. 

This week, two major investment houses either went under or were snapped up at bargain rates by other companies. The Fed rescued a major insurer yesterday (AIG) to the tune of $85 billion. Yes, billion. I cannot tell you how much money that is because I can't fathom it. I can't say that their reasoning was faulty, because had they not rescued AIG the ripple effects would have almost certainly led to economic conditions that would rival if not exceed the Great Depression of the 20's and 30's. On the other hand, the message that is clearly sent to American business, which has screamed that we should be allowing the markets to police themselves, are going to have a safety net the size of Texas, and everyone who pays taxes in the US will pay for it. 

Congratulations, you are now the proud owner of a failed insurer. Don't expect any dividend checks soon.

When I once said that the three biggest problems with this country were insurers, litigation, and mutual funds, I didn't think insurers were the biggest. Now I do.

$85 billion. $85,000,000,000. It looks a lot bigger when you write it out, doesn't it? 8.5 x 10 to the 10th power. My God, that's a lot of money.

I'm pretty sure we didn't have $85 billion just laying around. You know, in case Jenna's college recreation fund ran out earlier in the month than expected. This is California tipping in the ocean relief money. This is as much money as George HW Bush wanted to spend on Stealth bombers, for a 123 plane fleet that had lost it's purpose when the Cold War ended. This is combat operations in Iraq for more time than GWB has in office. This is to save *one* company. One. I sure hope that in the long run, the number of companies that it saves besides this one (and there is no guarantee that it will) makes it all worth it. 

I've been convinced that the reason people are spending money (except for gas, because, you know, that's *expensive* at $4 a gallon, and there are no billions in that sentence), is because they know, deep down, that the shit is going to hit the fan in a way that for most of them has never happened in their lifetimes (people old enough to remember the Great Depression are in their late 70's now), and things are going to be tough no matter what they spend their money on now. So it's a great time to buy that plasma TV, so long as it's not on credit because no one will come take the TV back when you can't make the payments any more. 

The *only* good news that I can see from all of this is that the odds of a Republican, *any* Republican, getting elected in the coming election has dropped to levels that should make them wonder if wasting any more money on their efforts is in vain. And that's good news only in a relative sense, as I have little hope that the Democrats, or Superman for that matter, stands a snowball's chance in hell of doing any more than stopping the bleeding. I don't know that there's enough plasma in the Red Cross to help at this point. 

Because AIG isn't the end of it. The Feds know this. AIG was not the only financial insurer out there, and all of them are now saddled with such a huge amount of debt that to bail them all out will bankrupt the federal government to a point where it will be completely unable to function. I'm fully aware that there are people out there who will see this as a good thing, at least right up to the point where services that affect them start breaking down (such as their bank accounts being insured - how long do you think *that* will survive as banks start failing? - the Freddie/Fannie debacle took out something like 10-15% of the funds for account insurance, who knows how much more AIG took out). 

For those of you who feel that the markets can regulate themselves, that greed is good, that the Bush tax breaks were a good idea, you are seeing why people can't be trusted to manage their own money well, much less someone else's. You are seeing why liberals feel that regulation is a good thing when done well. Depending upon how bad the damage ends up being (and I suspect that it will be very, very bad), you may be seeing the end of the Republican Party as a major force in American politics. Depending upon whether or not the Democrats can even begin to turn things around (and I'm not sure anyone will, at least not in four years), you may well be seeing the end of that party as well. 

As the Great Depression heralded the end of the era of the Great Powers of Europe, we are now seeing a financial meltdown that will herald the end of the American Century. China and India are next in line to become the leaders of the world, in what appears to be the first time that a great civilization came back around after a couple of thousand years to regain their dominance. Of course, now they will dominate the planet rather than their region. Time to learn Mandarin and Hindi. It's also a good time to speak with people who live or have emigrated from the UK, because where they are now we will be (if we are very very lucky) in about ten years. 

For those of you still whistling in the dark, let's see if things look the slightest bit better in six months. I'm hope hope hoping they do, and certainly we'll have a different executive trying desperately to get his or her (God help us if it's a "her" because you know how I feel about this particular "her", although I suppose it could be Pelosi, and I'm not sure that would be any better) hands on the situation. 

So go get those expensive haircuts. You're keeping my wife in a part time job. Plus, if you pretend a major financial collapse isn't on your doorstep, maybe it will just go away. One thing is sure - the morons who lined their pockets and those of their friends *will* be going away, including the worst president this country has ever had. I guess that focusing on God, Guns, and Gays just didn't quite cover enough ground to keep the country from avoiding the end of it's era of dominance. 

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Sarah Palin - Why She Was A Very Bad Idea

I have to admit - I am not only stunned that the McCain campaign would make such a hurried and unvetted choice in their VP as Sarah Palin, I'm also stunned that the entire Republican Party has been so willing to overlook her shortcomings. And I expected them to overlook her shortcomings, just not to this extent. This nomination demonstrates in ways I could not possibly express in words just how screwed up presidential politics are in this country. 

Never mind that had a Democratic candidate with Clintonian (which is to say, moderate) leanings that had exactly the same experience and baggage, we'd have seen the right excoriate her for exactly the same things they pooh pooh now. That's part of post-Rove politics in this country, and if McCain wins *every* election we have will be suspect, every campaign will be nasty and partisan. 

What absolutely stuns me is the idea that because Sarah Palin is some sort of "everywoman" (as if Alaska was representative of the US population at large - they are not, any more than Hawaii is) and that this is somehow a "good" thing to have in our President. Sure, Palin is the VP candidate, but if elected, McCain will be older than Reagan was when he took office, and we all know that by the end of his term Ronnie was not exactly in charge of things. Nancy's astrologer was. 

Unless the entire country, about a fifth of which has been under the impression that the last time we elected an "everyman" to the highest office in the land things turned out just fine, has been hit over the head with large blunt instruments, I can't see how this idea has the slightest traction at all. Of course, the Republicans spent their entire convention pretending that the Bush years never happened, that somehow a hurricane that never turned out as badly as it could have made up for the insane bungling of the response to Katrina, and had an air of desperation mixed with senseless optimism that perhaps Bush's presidency had not, in fact, screwed the pooch for the next eight years of control of Washington. 

Every speech that was made in St. Paul acted like the Democrats were responsible for the condition of the country. And the conventioneers ate it up, like cancer patients grasping at the idea of every radical treatment being "the one". The Republican Party, of course, has been very good at taking the opposition's ideas and making it look as if it was their own, sort of like a Microsoft of politics. Unhappy with the way things are going? Kick out the people who've had absolutely no power at all over the past eight years, the people that the Republican leadership has not *allowed* power to, it's all their fault. And their constituency eats it up like it's holy writ. 

That explains why Sarah Palin got such a warm welcome - she's the radical cancer treatment with almost no chance of helping anything at all (other than getting elected, which as you'll see I don't think comes under the aegis of "helping"). 

Why? She isn't qualified. She has nowhere near the amount of experience in any governmental capacity needed to run a country. If you think that's not important, think hard, very hard, about whether you'd vote for Sarah Palin were McCain to die between now and the election. At the very least it should give you serious pause. Because when we elect people to the Presidency that have such a small amount of relevant governmental experience, people that we choose because we could see having a beer with them because that's all our tiny minds can conceive is important in a person who can launch a nuclear attack on a foreign country on with the push of a button, we get exactly what we deserve. And we got exactly what we deserved over the past eight years, despite the right's constant attempts to put lipstick on the pig. 

Most of us think that we'd do a pretty good job were we elected President, and this is the conceit that the Sarah Palin nomination falls into. Because the chances are that we *don't* think our neighbor would make a very good President, in fact we probably think that our neighbor is an idiot who can barely take out his trash and definitely shouldn't be trusted with collecting the recycling, much less international affairs. Sarah Palin isn't us, Sarah Palin is our neighbor. She is our neighbor because *we* are our neighbor's neighbor, idiots in their eyes who aren't to be trusted with the recycling. 

What we need in a President isn't to be one of the great unwashed masses. We need people who are (and in this country, I skate astonishingly close to an insult here) intelligent. People who have vision and understanding and compassion and empathy, but also have the smarts to not only know what needs to be done, but to find people who *do* know if they themselves don't know. Not President's who hire people because they can say the right things like "Guns good, abortion bad". Not former horse show executives, or VP choices that are so palpably wrong that the campaign won't let the press grill them. 

Clearly, John McCain is not one of the great unwashed masses, no matter how much he tries to paint himself otherwise. He was a mediocre student, an officer only because of his father's and grandfather's military service. He had what appears now to be the good fortune to have been a POW for several years, which is either a critical requirement for being President or completely irrelevant depending upon who his audience is (much like Iraq was responsible/completely unconnected to the 9/11 attacks). He parades his trophy wife around as though most Americans think that this is a) a good idea, or b) common experience. I'm not belittling his service, I'm simply pointing out the hypocrisy present in the rationalization that the Republican Party has been going through for months. They *hated* McCain, but he was pretty clearly the best chance the party had of making the election anything in the ballpark of "close". 

I'm sure that some percentage of you are pulling out the already tired argument that Palin has more executive experience than any of the other candidates. Please. There are college-level student body presidents with more executive experience than all four combined. That's just a way to distract the conversation further - something else the Republicans have been very good at ("Look! Gay people taking away your guns!") The issue isn't if you've presided over a state legislature - were that the case none of the current candidates would qualify. The issue is how well you know the people you are going to have to work with to get the myriad now-critical (some maybe beyond critical) issues that *must* be dealt with as soon as possible. The issue is whether you think that the last eight years have gone well or not. Hint: They haven't. 

On the other hand, if you're one of the people who thinks that abortion, a practice that is (thankfully - I may be pro-choice, but that doesn't mean I think abortion is a good thing) declining, or gay marriage, or school vouchers are the most important issue facing America today, there's not a lot I can talk rationally with you about. It's not that you can't have an opinion about these things, but the simple fact of the matter is that they are sideshows. The things that we must be concerned about are all related to changing the way we live to improve the chances of species survival. We live on a planet that we are not-so-slowly poisoning, whose resources are disappearing, whose capacity for supporting human life is straining. To refuse to acknowledge that need is to stick one's head in the sand. It's a very human reaction, but the consequences don't improve as a result (and you end up with sand in your ears to boot). The rest is all distraction, because there's money to be made and you're helping to make it for someone else. 

I don't know why I do political commentary on these blogs. After all, if you think Creationism should be taught in the schools, it's going to be very hard for us to have a rational conversation because the entire "rationale" for Creationism is based on the idea that the Bible has all of the answers (good to know that we haven't really needed to add to our knowledge base in the past 1500 years, the last time the Bible added any new material, not counting editorial or translation or ideology changes) and that evolution has a few rough spots. Critical thinking has nothing to do with the "dinosaurs lived with humans" crowd, and heaven knows we need *more* critical thinking, not less. We need intelligent people running things, not cunning people with the right parents, not oil company CEOs whose idea of argument is to call the other side names. 

Is Obama as experienced as I'd like? No, he is not. Is he experienced enough? I sure hope so. Because the alternative, given McCain's age and general health (running a campaign takes a toll like you can't believe), is *less* experience, and a world view born from life on the edge of the world. When the party faithful are suggesting that Palin has international experience because Alaska's outermost rocks in the ocean are pretty close to Russia's outermost rocks in the ocean, that should be a pretty clear clue that rationalization, not rationality, is guiding the process. 

Me, I'll be voting for rationality, intelligence, and the sense that one side is actually thinking about cleaning up the mess rather than just getting into office. 

I leave you with a prediction: Should Obama be elected, there will be cries to impeach him from the end of the traditional "100 Days" period onward. For things that pale in comparison to the crimes (yes, crimes) of the previous administration. Why we didn't impeach this last SOB was, I think, the problem that the Democrats consider the Republicans (party, not individuals) to be just like them. They aren't. The basic difference is whether the ends justify the means. We've learned for eight years that the ends do *not* justify the means, over and over and over and over. Sadly, it is those who think the opposite who have the advantage - you can't be punished for cheating if you own the game and your opponents have no choice but to play. That is why it is so critical that the game be taken away from the cheaters. 

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Devil's Cauldron - On The Table

Jesse and I had an aborted attempt at playing The Devil's Cauldron, the company-level wargame focusing on the northern elements of the Allies' Market-Garden operation in 1944, fictionalized in the movie A Bridge Too Far. Mike and Eric had played it with very mixed results, so I was very interested to see if their complaints were justified. So far, I'm not sure I've had enough of a sense as to whether or not it's a great game or not, and the die-rolling has required a lot of checking of modifiers so it hasn't really been internalized for yet. This isn't a big deal, Panzer Grenadier had the same issues to some extent, but I'm still interested in playing so that's good. 

We played the very first scenario, which is a small one demonstrating why all of those raised roads running above the polder (farmland reclaimed from the sea between the wars in Holland) were such a problem for the Allies, and a big reason why even after they took Nijmegen Bridge that they were never able to completely reinforce the British 1st Paratroopers in Arnhem. The system uses something called Column that's required for vehicular units in towns and on raised roads, and the stacking limit of one unit in column is in effect - all of the time. That means if one tank unit gets bogged down, everyone stops. And you can't just get off the road. The potential for a single FLAK gun to stop up the entire process is very high, and that's exactly what happened. 

In the end, I was able to create a cross country avenue for a couple of units (which ended up out of command, although in the next activation they would have been back in command), and while I was down to having no armor units left that I could lose I went for the assault on the VP space. It was a near run thing, with both units down to any result giving the victory to the other side, but in the final assault phase Jesse was able to create the last step loss that the Allies could no longer support, and won the game. 

This is not a light system, although it's really not as bad as it might seem. Each unit has a ton of information on it, and almost every marker modifies those values in some way. For example, a cohesion hit lowers your direct fire, assault fire, and troop quality amounts by one, and there are reminders on the cohesion marker that correspond with the locations of those values on the unit counters. That's a pretty useful thing to do, and it makes up for having so many values (eight, counting the formation and division colors). The command point system can drive you crazy (it did me - I got the minimum points on my first turn), but deciding just where to use those points is a huge part of the game. Do you burn one to get the company integrity bonus for sure, or do you hope you get the roll? 

The math is a bit annoying at first, because of all of the modifiers, but like any game of this nature, those things will become internalized after a few hours of play. This scenario, including what seemed like a lot of looking up of rules and me insisting on running through how things worked, took us about 2.5 hours, although I'm sure it would run in less than 90 minutes the next time. However, there are lots of reasons to modify the fire value, and they are different for opportunity fire and direct fire, so that takes a little time. However, indirect fire is the same as direct fire, so the modifier burden for TDC and PG are about the same. 

All in all, the game was interesting and presented a lot of problems for both sides, and this scenario didn't cover paradrops or a lot of other rules (dispatch points, for one, which determines if your formation chits go in the cup or not). As such, it felt a bit like an exercise in figuring out one of the more obtuse of the game-specific rules, which is to say raised roads. In the end, it was a good learning game, and I'm looking forward to playing the next scenario at some point in the future.

We did have one ugly rules issue - the rules refer to using the Range modifiers on the combat table, which say that there is no mod at range 1, then for unarmored targets you subtract one for each additional hex of range to the target. The confusion came with armored targets, where the language said that if the range was more than 1 that the last hex of range gave a -2 modifier, the rest were at -1 past the first hex. To me, that implied strongly that when firing at more than one hex range, you had at least a -2 modifier (for the hex the target was in), and -1 for the rest except the first hex. So a target four hexes away, assuming the firing unit had a range of at least 4, would have a modifier of -4.

Jesse, however, thought that the "last hex of range" referred to the last hex of the *firing* unit's range, so that the -2 would only matter in the fourth hex if the firing unit had a range of 4. In the above example, a firing unit with a range of 5 would only have a modifier of -3 (one for every hex past the first), and only a firing unit with a range of 4 would have the modifier of -4. I felt the language supported my view more strongly, and we're trying to get an authoritative answer. This is the sort of thing that would have been wise to spell out in the rules rather than just referring the player to an abbreviated combat table.

That said, this was the only rule we struggled with. Everything else was pretty clear, especially with the Assault flowchart provided on the official website. I'm looking forward to giving this another try, although I don't know that I can find time for two monster game systems in my life right now (OCS is the other, which Jesse is also interested in - I'm not sure if the supply rules will be his cup of tea, though). Only time will tell.

I do know that learning these games by myself is no longer an option, nor am I particularly sure that I would have been any better at it at a younger age. Of the two (OCS, TDC), the latter has fewer rules and a more streamlined system, but OCS is very elegant in play (plus has been extremely well supported, while TDC has gotten good support but has not yet gotten a Living Rules update, nor are the rules even available in electronic form, the wargaming equivalent of 8-track tapes compared to iPods - electronic versions of the rules are even made available by Avalanche Press, the company voted most paranoid about it's IP). 

The Road To Legend, Chapter

Jesse, Iveta, Laurent, and Alex joined me for our next chapter in the Road to Legend. This was Alex's first time playing this variant of the game, but he's played Descent on multiple occasions so there was virtually no prep involved. We started our second dungeon after the heroes were on their way to fight Sir Alric in Dawnsmoor and decided that game time wasn't affected by making a dungeon run, and they needed a little cash anyway. 

The first level was King of the Mountain, where each new tile is another level higher, giving the heroes an uphill climb (and a -1 to damage and range) as they progressed. Sadly, I completely forgot about the Undying ability the Master Skeleton had (and he even got to roll two dice for popping back up), so it wasn't too hard a level for them. However, I did manage to tag Laurent's character with a Curse after he killed a spawned Master Dark Priest, and he also lost his sword after it was Frosted by my Master Deep Elf. I then dropped a pile of rubble on him and he died, scoring the Overlord five conquest points, which was more than a third of what I'd earned so far. 

The second level started well for the heroes - they were in the Garden of Grazia, which features a bunch of what amounts to free potions (they're actually herbs in this underground garden), but you stand a chance that the Master Giant will get cranky if you take too much, based on a power die roll. The boss on this level is a Master Ogre, who also has Undying. This time, I remembered to roll the Undying attribute, and he popped back up. Given he has 6 armor and 18 hit points, that was a nice bennie. He also can throw characters with Knockback, and getting thrown over part of the garden has just as much chance of pissing off the Giant as taking them. I also dropped Astarra into a pit, then crushed her with the Ogre boss, so that was seven conquest points in two levels for me, an excellent start. 

We stopped a little more than halfway into this level, as it got to 10pm. Fortunately, I've learned to take a couple of pictures with the iPhone and the game sets right back up just as easily as if we'd cleared a level. That's good news, as we're likely to finish the entire dungeon on the next run through, maybe even get through another week or two. I have definite plans for the XP I haven't spent yet, too. 

Playing this once a month has been just about right - while the game has a certain amount of sameness from level to level, at this point people are just getting used to the various possibilities and discovering the various monsters, so that's been fun. As they start to customize and develop the characters, I suspect that we'll have enough momentum to get at the very least to Silver level, although I'd love for them to get all the way through the campaign. 

Oddly, the new D&D system probably feels quite a bit like Descent - the battle parts are very miniatures-oriented, with strongly sequenced play, maps and figures encouraged, etc. As I haven't gotten around to playing 4th ed yet, I can't say for sure but it sure looks like Descent's popularity had a hand in the new rules, just as the D&D genre had a very big hand in Descent. 

All in all, despite the time necessary to devote to a campaign, I'm saying this one is a winner.