Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Recent Gaming Wrapup

Quite a bit of gaming in the last couple of days, here's a quick wrapup:

1) Pursuit of Glory - I wrote a first impression of this more focused follow-on to the classic Paths of Glory card-driven wargame that took the system to new heights. Of particular concern was the new game's rulebook, clocking in at a whopping 48 pages. As comparison, the WWI monster Twilight in the East: 1914 has fewer pages of rules. After a "discussion" (as much as you can have trading posts on the 'Geek) with the designer, my impression is that the rules were vetted through ConSimWorld, and we all know how well *anything* by committee goes. By comparison, Paths rules were 16 pages. The designer tells me that Paths also had a 27-page FAQ, which is not surprising given the unexpected relationships between various events could be. 

That said, I went through the sample game, read the "quickie" new and modified rules (a two-page cardstock play aid), read through the rules (they've mentioned which are new, although often there are one or two changes in an entire paragraph, or that mention specific areas of the map, but it's still not a quick read), and started a new game that I've gotten into turn 3 so far. I can only do about one turn at a time, as parsing the board for both sides, trying to understand the various implications of events, etc, tends to make my head hurt the first couple of times out. 

So - how does it look? So far, very promising. The game is not, as may or may not have been suggested, a game you can learn on your own from reading the two page quickstart guide. There is a huge amount of chrome, enough to make Paths look like it was stripped down to nothing. There are tons of special units, each with special rules, a good dozen different nationalities, many with special rules, limits on where certain countries can place certain types of units, all sorts of craziness with the Turks' replacement factors, ways to build up small units into larger ones, and we haven't even started with the Russian Revolution (which is, for the vast majority of games, a foregone conclusion). If you were hoping for a carbon copy of Paths that you could open the box and start playing in 20 minutes, you will be sorely disappointed unless you know someone familiar with the game who will act as your opponent.

In my game, the Caucasus is not exactly stalemated, but there hasn't been a lot of movement (although there has been a lot of buildup). Persia remains neutral, mostly because the Russians felt that their numeric inferiority on that front when they had the card was going to be a liability. The Jihad level is at 5 or 6, and let me tell you that the quickest way to lose this game as the Allies is to ignore this as every time a new tribe counter shows up and often on one of the Allies' VP spaces. Interestingly, on turn 3 both the Bulgaria and Romania cards showed up in player's hands, but Romania won't really enter the war until Bulgaria does as you need to have an Allied large counter in the Balkans and that doesn't happen unless you start an invasion. Which the Allies did, but in Gallipolli. Also interestingly is that the Turks are trying to hold the Allies to their Beachhead because they hold the Verdun card which will either give them VP or force the Brits to lose units (not a good choice for them since they don't have that many on-board now), but they have to play it before the Allies get onto dry land. 

Also interesting is that by far the majority of Allied cards in their Limited War deck bring reinforcements onto the map. You can see that this is a game that the Central Powers want to get the upper hand quickly, then hold it, as their manpower issues can only hold them back. 

A game with this much story to it deserves a few good playings before giving it a thumbs up, but right now the literary aspects are very strong. If nothing else, this game will give you a very good sense of the war in this theater. If you've never played Paths or any other relatively complex CDG, or found them to be more than you could handle, this game will be no different.

And talk about a busy map. My god, there's stuff everywhere. It's a bit difficult to parse at first, but everything eventually makes sense. 

2) Conflict of Heroes - Taught this to Matt R on Monday night, we had an interesting game. I've been in contact with the designer due to me getting the incorrectly assembled rules (and you don't just open the staples and put it back together, this game has a huge square rulebook and it's *glued) together), and I have to say that any concerns I had about this game being distributed by Phalanx Games in the US was unfounded. Uwe Eickert is extremely responsive, friendly, and helpful. 

We played the first scenario, and I was again the Russians. It was looking good and I'd held off the Russians from the control marker through turn 3, but Matt nailed two of my units (one with a FOOT KILLED combat chit, the other with a 12 dieroll when he only needed an 8, enough to kill it outright). As such, I just didn't have the operational capacity to hold him off, and he ended up taking the space at the end of turn 4. I was able to bring in my SMG unit to challenge him at the start of the next turn, and even got initiative on turn 5, but had a 2 result in close combat. At that point, he killed that unit and I was left with the slowest MG squad on the planet that was too far away. 

While I've only played the first scenario (three times now), I can say that I am very high on this game. There are no leaders, which seems very strange at this level, but they're abstracted into the command point system, which is brilliant. If you found Combat Commander far too chaotic for yourself, you wish wargames came with mounted boards and huge counters, and like low complexity but lots of chrome built in that doesn't get in the way of the game, this may be the one for you. Highly recommended. 

3) Descent - The Road To Legend - JD, Laurent, and Alex took on the role of the good guys, first going after the Overlord's lieutenant in Dawnsmoor (who had built up two siege markers), and driving him off. I need stronger critters now that the heroes have gotten some good loot, it's very difficult for me to take on someone with five armor and get very far. Worse, they have a breath weapon that makes it nearly impossible for me to set up in the smaller dungeons without risking serious wipeage in the first round - I lost almost an entire dungeon level of critters who were only able to take one or two shots total. 

On the plus side, I have enough XP at this point to have three lieutenants which will make it very hard to go after them all as they start to raze cities. Also, I should have enough XP after this dungeon (assuming I manage to actually kill one or two of the party) to upgrade one of my critter categories to silver, which will make a very big difference in how much damage I can do. That's excellent news, as the good guys are already well-geared and this should even the scales a bit. I will probably pick the Beasts since that's the cheapest option. It will be important as my lieutenants are very tough, but require some backup from their minions, and right now most of the minions are pretty useless.

What's been very interesting about this game is that it is not getting old even after several months of play (although only once a month). What's keeping things interesting is that the strategic situation changes as the game moves on, and now that I have three lieutenants on the board the party will need to make very tough choices if I spread them around. Since I can always have the lieutenant run if they are placed near an exit, so long as the party doesn't get an absurd number of hits in a single round and kill them I can generally get away. At least I could with the first one, as he was immune to the Grapple ability one of the party has that essentially freezes an adjacent unit in place. This alone has been the biggest problem for the Overlord, enough that I almost think in this game it's too powerful and would have to consider watering it down, especially as in these smaller dungeons you can just forget spawning more monsters. My biggest asset is trying to get the card that lets me draw more cards more frequently - after my units were wiped in the first level I have zero chance of going through my deck twice this time out, which means a lot less conquest points for me. 

Anyway, it's been a fun ride, and while I'm not sure that it will hold up over 15-17 dungeons (we're on number three!), it definitely brings life to this title, one that I had trouble finding time to play more than once or twice a year. 

I plan to continue with the Pursuit of Glory game tomorrow. I'm also very interested in Bitter End, a low-complexity game on the German relief effort of Budapest in 1945. Two mapper, so not something I can set up and tuck away, but definitely a light ruleset and some interesting situations. The map is a bit of a horror, though. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Goodbye, Mr. Reinhard

The first part of the newspaper I read is the Op/Ed section. When you understand that newspapers are not about news but about selling advertising space, you also understand that there are a lot of stories that are misreported, sometimes grossly. The use of innuendo (words like "accused," "suspected," etc) are tossed in to cover the paper's legal butt, but most of the people reading an article tend to equate "we think he might be guilty" to "he's guilty". 

As a liberal, I feel it is my duty to read not only the opinions that I agree with, but also with those I don't. As such, I feel I have a pretty good sense of who can back up an argument and who can't, as well as the general tone of the regular writers. I've even seen one writer, who used to be funny, become a voice of vengeance against the Iraqis after 9/11 (and you see the logical problems already here), only to participate in the war as an embedded reported and be the first well-known journalist to die in the conflict. Sometimes you need to be careful what you wish for.

There are, of course, people who are there solely to prop up their ideology regardless of whether the individual issue has merit or not. It happens on both sides, but there have been a handful of conservative columnists who constantly seem to be willing to sell their ethics and morals down the river on single issues because it's what their "side" stands for. Charles Krauthammer, Rich Lowry (who fired a columnist from The National Review because the columnist, son of William Buckley Jr., endorsed Obama), and David Reinhard, our very own conservative at the Oregonian. 

On Sunday, Reinhard announced that he was tired of all the liberal hate in Oregon and decided to hang it up after the election. He spoke of several anecdotes where people had sent him his column covered in feces, or removed W bumper stickers from friend's cars, or other outrages to his conservative values. I can definitely see how annoying that sort of thing would be, and it says quite a bit about the people who react in such a way rather than engaging in civil discussion.

I by no means want to excuse or condone the behavior that David mentions in his column, but I find it specious for him to state baldly that liberals are the ones at fault here. Not when Rush Limbaugh was putting Hillary Clinton's head on a chihuahua body twelve years ago on his short lived television show. Now that The Daily Show gives them some of their own medicine back (and in a fairly non-partisan way - Jon Stewart mocks pretty much everyone he thinks is an idiot, with the main target being the media even more than W), it's not fair? After eight years and an electorate that is in shock about the abuses of power brought by single-party rule, he can't understand that there is tremendous frustration out there and that people tend to kill the messenger? 

He shouldn't be in this business if that's the case. And apparently he won't be.

Understand, I want to see a conservative columnist in the Oregonian. I want to see an extremely good writer, one who can back up their claims with something more than cherry-picked data or repeating Party talking points. Someone who can see the other side clearly, but simply doesn't agree with it and can state in a clear and concise manner why. 

David Reinhard was not that columnist. Rich Lowry is not that columnist. Charles Krauthammer is not that columnist. 

Good columnists aren't apologists who try to cover their "side's" ass every time they make an enormous mistake, such as including the right-wing propaganda film "Obsession" that denigrated Muslims and Islam as an "advertising supplement" when what it really was was a choice to take advertising revenue at a time when newspapers are struggling. If that's the case, sell the whole thing to Loren Parks (famous Oregon conservative known for throwing a lot of money at our ballot initiative process that we tend to see right through). At least then we'd know the paper was a Party propaganda organ and ignore it. Of course, any time anyone disagrees with something in the paper they scream that the paper is clearly in the hands of liberals (or conservatives - many people have no sense of context or proportion, apparently), but there's Fox News and then there's everyone else.

The good columnists, to my eye, are people like David Brooks, George Will, Debra Saunders, aren't featured often enough in the Oregonian. In general, they call an argument on it's merit rather than it's affiliation, and that's great. I may not agree with either their argument or their conclusion, but at least they write rationally and make me consider the issue more closely. 

The bad columnists apologize, call people names, smirk, mock, dance around logic like it was a live downed power cable. Reinhard did all of these almost without fail. Of all of his columns (and I've read a great many of them over the years), very few were what I'd call "charitable". By contrast, his liberal counterpart at the paper, David Sarasohn, regularly wrote about non-political issues. When Sarasohn was writing about Darfur, Reinhard was defending torture at Gitmo. When Sarasohn took a political argument and satirized it, Reinhard was a blowhard with no sense of humor. 

Perhaps the biggest indication of this was the portrait of the columnist. For a very long time, Sarasohn's smiling face, laughing at a private joke perhaps, was a clear counterpoint to Reinhard's sourpuss. At some point, the paper made him smile for his picture, which he complained about in that column, but it's always looked disingenuous to me. 

So goodbye, Mr. Reinhard. You weren't very good at your job, apparently - Oregon hasn't been a battleground state in this election for an instant, and we still have the same proportion of Democrats to Republicans in our representation at the national level (we went rather hard to the left in 2006). I can't recall a single time you called out George Bush for erring in a period that saw a long laundry list of mistakes that will cost your children and mine for decades, but you sure tried to spin every one of them so that he looked like a genius. That's not political discourse, it's bad salesmanship. 

I am sorry that you were forced to endure some very nasty (and almost certainly anonymous in many cases - I'm talking to you, Mr. War Of Northern Aggression) mail, and if anyone went after your family - well, there's crazies on both sides of the aisle and I can't imagine that you think you're alone in this. I don't condone it in any way, and the people who would take their argument with you into your private life clearly have serious issues of their own that I hope they can resolve in more productive ways. 

You can complain about Oregon all you want, that we have a lot of very mean liberals. What we really have, though, aside from the requisite number of people off their meds, is a very large number of extremely frustrated people. Not where I live, of course. Where I live, *I'm* afraid to mention that I'm a liberal, although I strongly suspect that the earring I wear gives it away. Where I lived before, the shoe would have been on the other foot. That's why I don't put out political signs in my yard - not because I'm afraid, and not just because the homeowner association won't let me, but because I think that a sign that says "Obama/Biden 2008" is a slap in the face to both my neighbors and to reasoned discourse. If we want to discuss politics, then by all means let's discuss it. 

If all we're going to do is debunk Republican Party talking points, however, there's about as much discussion there as if I were to try to convert you to a different faith. At that point, reason is no longer a tool or an option if you believe what a single political party in this country tells you, any more than if you believe what a single church tells you. No one has the monopoly on truth or righteousness, no matter how much we seem to need to believe that, and it's the people who cling unswervingly to a fixed universe who seem to be the ones getting us into trouble all the time. 

Note, I'm not disparaging religion here. I'm disparaging the blind following of religion. A radical fundamentalist Christian or Jew putting out a missive like Obsession (which uses point data to paint an entire picture) is as blind as a Muslim suicide bomber blowing up a school bus. What I'm saying is that arguments need to be weighed individually and in context, not in the vacuum of ideology.

Mr. Reinhard, I wish you the best, and I hope that your experiences with the blind haven't in fact blinded you further. Many of us who opposed the Iraq War back in 2002 and who tried to be voices of sanity in a country that came pretty close to rounding up Muslim's after 9/11 (see the FBI's gross mishandling of the Brandon Mayfield case, which happened in Oregon, as just one well-publicized example) went through similar things, including being sent to jail for protesting our government's actions. Hate isn't limited to one political or religious ideology, my friend, and it's sad that you couldn't see that your own actions contributed to that environment. 

One tip though - stay away from writing or sales. You weren't very good at either. I would instead recommend choral music directing, and you were very good at preaching to the choir.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Pursuit of Glory - Second Look

I've had a little time to look at the rules for Pursuit of Glory, run through the sample game, and run a few turns on my own. Like Paths, this will be a game where you learn considerably by playing others, so I'm looking forward to the VASSAL module when it comes out.

After looking at the rules, this is clearly a case of the rules writer preferring to repeat rules in the book rather than referencing them. This is usually a mistake that happens gradually - a rule gets added in one place, then the rules get bigger, and it gets harder to wade through them easily. Having rules in multiple places makes it much easier for a rule to be stated incorrectly in one spot but not in the others (or to miss places to make changes). With some discipline, more concise and focused writing, and stating rules once, I believe this ruleset could be shaved down to 30 pages or less. 

If you have played Paths of Glory before, Pursuit won't be difficult to pick up. If you look at all of the changed sections of the rulebook, there seem to be tons of places where things were changed. Because of the loose writing style, however, it's not as bad as it looks. My recommendation if you're a Paths player: Skim the Advanced Quick Start Guide, ignoring the sections on references to the rules. Then set up the sample game in the playbook and run through it, looking up *any* rule you didn't expect. Note that I found several actions in the sample game that were either impossible because the unit wasn't in the space (or because they'd forgot a unit was in a space), or misrepresented a rule (Severe Weather roll for a Tribal unit, placing reinforcements in a non-railroad space when the card called for it). By reading the rules carefully as you go, you'll get a much better idea of how things work. 

Next, read the Player Notes as a starting guide for what card plays are important if you wish. I find this sort of thing to be most worthwhile early in the learning process, as players will debunk most of the strategy tips within a year or so, so might as well use it now. Also skim through the rules, reading sections that you find interesting (such as the rules on Jihad and the Russian Revolution). Then set up the starting game and roll with it for a while.

A few notes about the counters: I'm told that the designers found that there were plenty of Fort Destroyed counters, but if the Churchill Prevails event goes well you could use up seven of them in no time at all. If the Fao fort in the Persian Gulf falls on the first turn, that's eight of the twelve counters, and the only other ones are on beachhead counters that you might need later on. I also have severe doubts that the control markers will be enough either. Most surprisingly, there are *no* counters for more than a handful of events, and those are ones you track on the board. When you play, say, Pan-Turkism, which is a prereq for several cards, you have to simply remember you played it by placing it on the table or simply using your memory. I can understand that they needed a lot more markers for this game (my God, there are a lot of little cardboard pieces on the board when you start) than usual, and they simply didn't have space for the event chits. A minor nit, but I always liked putting them on the turn record track as the game went on to see the story as it unfolded. 

All in all, the game is not any harder to learn than Paths, although there is definitely as much if not more chrome. Turkish Withdrawal; Severe Weather; limited placement of LCUs, both in the various "restricted" areas and TU/TU-A/BU units in swamps; irregular and tribal units; uprisings; limited Turk RPs; the Galipolli map; dozens of special units; it's a lot of chrome. I think it's necessary for a historically accurate game, but it's a lot of chrome and it speaks volumes as to why the theater hasn't seen a lot of strategic treatment in the past - Great War in the Near East struck me as problematic because there didn't seem to be a lot of reasons to behave in a historical manner (why not build the Sinai pipeline in 1914?), this game puts a lot more restrictions down, but mostly they are encapsulated and can be learned as you encounter them. 

Is it a fun game? So far it looks very promising, and the fact that there are two shorter scenarios that can ostensibly be played in an evening (4 hours) is a good thing. Knowing that the Russian Empire will fall at some point (and it will) is also a good thing, although allowing the Allied Player to delay it is a nice touch.

One huge nit that I'm astonished made it into the game. One of the biggest complaints I have about Paths is the attrition rule: at the end of the player actions, OOS units are immediately permanently eliminated. That's not a huge issue in and of itself, but it gives a large advantage to the player who plays a card last because they always have a chance to extract themselves from a bad position, while the starting player can get into trouble on the last player's card play and have no recourse. That puts a non-design burden on the player who plays cards first. I asked the designer of Paths about this, and he said it was *not* something he put into the game intentionally to gimp one side or the other. It was simply there to force players to keep a solid front of units. However, the reality is that the last player can take a low odds risk to cut off the other players units - I know, it's happened to me, and not because I wasn't set up well. It required a 6/1 dieroll, and the player got it, and I lost the game when he cut off three GE armies on the Western Front early on that I wouldn't see back. The shoe is on the other foot now, with the AP going first, but that's hardly a balancing mechanism - there is no connection between the games other than trying to keep the rules as similar as possible. Given that there is quite a bit of new material, that's kind of a specious argument. I use the Barbarossa to Berlin rule, where attrition for the starting player is figured at the end of *their* last card play, which makes the rule fair while maintaining the design choice's logic. 

I get shouted down a lot by people who disagree with me on this as it's been argued to death, but the simple fact is that the rule as written gives one side an advantage that was never intended as a balancing mechanism. That Ted Raicer never changed the rule speaks more to his ideology of changing as little as possible in the game once it's published, and I always play with the modified rule when my opponent allows it. After the last eight years in US politics, I think we now understand that ideology should never be the last word in anything. 

It's a nit, but it's the nits that can be visibly demonstrated and aren't fixed that really bug me. Obviously. 

All of that said, I'm still excited to give this a try, and that says something with *so* many titles competing for table space and time right now. I just got another *five* wargames from GMT for their big end-of-year clearance sale. If anyone can recommend a good psychiatrist, that might help.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Pursuit of Glory - First Look

Few games have been as anticipated (by me, at least) as Pursuit of Glory, the "sequel" of sorts to Ted Raicer's Paths of Glory. Like Paths, it's set during The Great War, but focuses exclusively on the southern Balkans and through the Middle East. While Raicer did not design this one, he did give it his "blessing" to use the Paths system as much as possible. Paths was arguably the first "big boy" version of the Card Driven system pioneered by Mark Herman and later brought to maturity by Mark Simonitch in Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage. Paths took the CDG system into the 20th century with lots of combat units (rather than one or two armies and a few loose CUs scattered around the board), a CRT rather than Battle Cards, and multiple fronts. The game suffered a bit from trying to include the Near Eastern theater, which almost required a different set of rules - my guess is that more than half the chrome in Paths was needed for that very reason.

As such, I was very excited that Pursuit (thanks, guys - PoG is now ambiguous. Nice work.) because all of the chrome would be directly in the system and not in just one area. Plus, it's a subject rarely covered in any detail in wargaming. The Great War in Europe Deluxe, another Raicer title, did feature a map devoted to just the Near East, but again there were so many extra rules and nothing really driving political and thus game behavior that it felt kind of strange. 

This is strictly a first look at the game and it's components - I have not yet gotten through the rules (and what a surprise *that* was) or even set the counters up on the map. This is in no way a review or judgement of the game as a game, strictly as a listing of what's in the box and my initial impression of it.

The map itself is surprisingly dense, almost to the level of For The People. Once you realize that this is less than one panel in the Paths map, now blown up to 8x size, it seems a little strange that there's so many places there. Of course, this *is* the cradle of civilization, but it's still a bit disconcerting. Places that didn't leave a lot of room for maneuver (the Caucasus, for example) now have some options, but places like the Sinai and the route along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers from Basra to Baghdad are still going to be fairly channeled. The colors are occasionally garish (there's a little purple in the mix on the background), and I have to wonder if the registration came out differently than they expected. They certainly made good use of space, with boxes and information tucked into every corner. A triumph of function over form, which is not altogether a bad thing in my mind. Of course, there is an inset for the Gallipoli area, as well as some extra rules governing movement and combat there. We just can't get away from the chrome. 

The counters will be very familiar to Paths folks. There are still LCUs and SCUs, but now the SCUs can be formed up into LCUs (and broken down if you use the optional rule). This dichotomy of scale is the differentiating factor in Paths over previous games, and the thing that makes these titles work so well. You can have small units holding the line while larger units do the fighting, a very elegant way to implement concentration of force, and it comes into it's own here. There are also many counters to remind players that various events have taken place, as you would expect. Surprisingly, there are quite a few Indian counters, something that was limited to a few events in the earlier game. ANZAC units and Turkish-Arab units are also broken out from their parent countries/militaries. Finally, there are also irregular and tribal units, which are pretty limited but can cause headaches in your backfield if you aren't paying attention. Like the MEF in Paths, they are almost better as a threat in being rather than actually getting played.

The decks are about what you'd expect, and very similar in construction to Paths. Each side has its own deck, subdivided into Mobilization, Limited War, and Total War groups. The pictures are grayscale as before (the entire world was grayscale up into the 1930s, you know, and before the camera everyone consisted of oil-based paint), and the earlier typography and iconography is in place - X/y number to denote Ops/SR, and in roughly the same distribution. The events that seem to be really critical in this game concern the spread of Jihad throughout the Muslim world (even into Afghanistan - the more things change, the more they stay the same), the construction of the Berlin/Constantinople railroad (and the follow-on into Baghdad), and getting Lloyd George into command in Britain so that he can unleash Allenby out of Egypt. 

There is a lot of paper in this game, more than I would ever have imagined. There is a folded cardstock sheet giving quick descriptions of the game for both new players and for experienced Paths players (although make no mistake, you aren't just reading this thing and jumping into your first game - there are extensive additions to the system). Other cardstock sheets repeat information on counters, good rules to keep in mind, setup information (yay!), and the standard charts and tables (although there is only one of these, GMT typically makes these materials available online and it is very easy to print your own second copy). The CRT is very similar to Paths, although the SCU table appears to be a bit more deadly than before. 

It is the rules that are the biggest surprise. Paths had perhaps 16 pages of rules in a fairly good-sized font. The Pursuit rules take up a full 48 pages of fairly small type. There are the usual counter/marker pictures (a must for games like this - they act as a localized table of contents when you are wondering about specific rules), illustrated examples, but make no mistake - this game has a lot more rules than Paths, or at least they spend a lot more time covering minutiae. Fortunately, the "new" rules are clearly marked so that old-hands can read a subset and get going. A casual glance through the rules suggests somewhere between 30-50% of the rules are new or modified, so again, this is not a game you should just set up with your buddy and start playing. Regardless, this is far from a "first" wargame - given the rules density, I'd put it at something like one to two points on a ten point scale above Paths, perhaps a 6 or 7. I felt that Kutuzov did similar things to the Wellington system. Not a bad thing by any measure, but just something that buyers need to understand.

There is, thankfully, a playbook as well - this is a lot of material for a game like this, more like I'd expect in, say, a Vance von Borries East Front game. The playbook adds some optional rules (AIEEEE!!!! More Rules!!!!!!), as well as repeats of the setup info, a sample game that runs for two turns, strategy guides for all sides and nationalities, and (thankfully) detailed descriptions of the various card events in the game, which include some clarificiations. This is nice to have up front, although having materials I need to access during the game in the Playbook is something I find a bit annoying. Maybe they're on cardstock somewhere and I've missed it. 

Thankfully, the designers included a handful of "critical use" cards that they recommend you either hang onto until the time is right, or play immediately once you get them. Most CDGs have cards like this (in Shifting Sands, you could be punished for *every* card you didn't play because of the huge number of cards that kept getting added to the game), but it's nice to know that from a design perspective, some are more important than others. The game may end up ignoring their advice, but at least we understand that there are some fulcrums of history that were crucial to what followed, and this game tries to honor them appropriately.

Both the Playbook and Rules are printed on stock that seems like it will not last very long. Given the huge amount of paper included, this isn't a huge surprise - you have to cut costs somewhere. Comparing the stock to that of the game-specific book from MMP's new SCS title, Rock of the Marne, there's simply no comparison. Pursuit's book's paper isn't as bright, is more translucent, and just feels flimsy. However, given that most people will print out a new set of rules (although at 48 pages, this is not cheap for the end-user in ink or toner), I guess that it's a logical place to scrimp. Hard to fault that. I do recommend that you print out a new copy of the rules to keep yours looking nice as soon as they are available, and these days that means about a week or three. 

Finally, there are three scenarios that come with the game, a welcome addition for those of us who can barely get through half a game in a day. The first scenario runs from 1914 through Spring of 1916, and focuses on the initial moves, the rail line to Berlin, the war in the Caucasus, and the introduction of Bulgaria and the defeat of the Serbs. In historical terms, this was the period marked by the Mobilization and Limited War events. The second scenario picks up where the first left off, and continues through the rest of the war - the building of the infrastructure in the Sinai that allowed the British to press into Palestine and Syria, the collapse of the Russian Empire (in this game it is a given, as it should be, although exactly when it collapses is pretty important), and Romania's entrance in the Balkans. Of course, there is also a campaign game that covers the entire war. Given that the timeframe and turn length are the same as Paths, I'd assume that this game will take about the same amount of time to play once you've gotten a little experience. 

I'm still very excited to get this on the table, but getting a rulebook that looks to be *more* dense than OCS really has me wondering. I'm hoping that the bulk of it has to do with Gallipoli, Jihad, and other chrome (the "other" rules section takes up seven pages), and that most of the changes are more minor than they appear. Still, this is not what I was expecting at all, which goes to show just how much of a compromise the NE portion of Paths was. On the plus side, like all CDGs this title looks to spur interest in a topic that has been more or less ignored by most wargamers, and now it will be much easier for our community to have some starting points for further study. 

I will post further comments once I've actually pushed some units around. 

At Last, The October Surprise(s)

Ever since TV became the dominant medium in political races (the Internet is not quite there yet, it's too easy for people to choose sources that only agree with what they already think - although Fox News is certainly trying to leverage that predilection), we've been granted the concept of the "October Surprise". As the election draws nearer, that one bombshell that the opposition has kept in it's back pocket lo these many months gets pulled out and tossed onto the bonfire. With George H.W. Bush it was information strongly suggesting that he had been aware of the guns-for-hostages deal with the Iranians leading into the 1980 election of his running mate, Ronald Reagan. In the end, Willie Horton and the looming threat of black men raping white women throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts won the day, but I'm sure Daddy Bush was sweating for a while (and in fact, the race might have turned out differently had it taken place two weeks prior). 

This weekend, we got not one, but two October Surprises, and these will not only kill John McCain's chances at a presidency, but stand to greatly improve the chances of the Democrats getting a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate of 60 votes (they can no longer count on Lieberman, who is for all practical purposes Republican at this point). 

First up was the revelation that Freddie Mac paid a considerable amount of money to a GOP firm to tank federal regulation in 2005. This was after the entity, long a Democrat stronghold, went under Republican management after the 2004 election. Conservatives have been pointing to Clinton-era legislation as the source of problems in Freddie Mac that in turn led directly to the $700,000,000,000 crisis (plus a few hundred billion here and there for good measure), but it turns out that it was the Republicans putting the last nail in the coffin. While Americans have a lot to be worried about (climate change is arguably the most pressing), we get pretty fussy when there's a leak in the wallet. We also tend to think that if a stock is valued at a given rate that it will only get better and not worse, so when over a trillion dollars in assets disappeared down the rabbit hole recently, we tended to forget that until those stocks are translated into cash, they're just paper. Unfortunately, far too many people chose to live as if that value was somehow guaranteed, and their anger will be focused on whoever they decide is at fault. Given that the Republicans have more or less run the government for the last eight years, this shouldn't be a huge surprise when it's the people in charge.

Note: yes, I'm aware that the Democrats controlled the House for the past two years. They certainly didn't control the Senate. They also didn't have veto power, nor the votes in the Senate to override a veto. Or a filibuster, which the Republicans have been very good at. I find it ironic that it is this very lockstep mentality which served the Republicans so well for so long will be the lever that destroys their power at the Federal level for at least two years. 

The second surprise was Colin Powell's endorsement of Obama. Powell says that race has nothing to do with it, although certainly he understands both how far we've come and how far we have to go in America in that regard. Instead, he claimed that the pick of Sarah Palin showed extremely poor judgement, that McCain has not had a cohesive economic thought yet, and that he did not like the direction of the Republican Party. Given that they tossed him to the UN with marginal (and, eventually, bogus) evidence to make the case for invading Iraq, then tossed him from his position because he wasn't slavish enough while keeping Rumsfeld on, who should have been sacked within two months of the 2003 invasion, I can't say that this isn't a very bittersweet play by Powell, a man who people thought could be our first African-American president. BTW, he had nice things to say about Obama as well, but you know that revenge is a dish best served cold. 

Don't be surprised if Powell doesn't end up with a cabinet post in the Obama administration, maybe even his old one. I don't know if he was actually any *good* at it, mind you, but I could see him being asked. I know he has no desire for elected office, but if there was a "real" American, one who cared about the country rather than his party in the Bush Administration, it was Powell. He has no place in the Republican Party now, any more than Lieberman does with the Dems.

Two weeks before the election, with so much early voting going on (we live in Oregon, which has perhaps the sanest and cleanest balloting system in the country, and so already have our ballots), this was probably the time to make these moves. I have no idea who revealed the Freddie Mac information, and Powell certainly wanted to make as much of an impact as he could. However, even with the polls leveling out (as they do in the weeks right before an election) this thing was over after Palin's first interview with ABC News, and buried after the Couric interview. At that point, the only people Palin was impressing (in a favorable way) were the people with ideological blinders on. 

Barring an equivalent Surprise from the Republicans (and their lack of substantive issues - "socialism" is a joke when your party just socialized private loss), I predict a landslide win for Obama, more than 10 points and a 350+ electoral vote win. I'm not as sure of a filibuster-proof Senate, but I think that there's more hope today than there was yesterday (and it was looking like about a 30% shot then). When it comes right down to it, people will step in the booth, look at the ballot, and say to themselves, "I just can't vote for these clowns again." With that comes the second thought, one I've been having for about two years now, "I sure hope the Dems can do this right, because if they can't we are well and truly screwed." Because there are going to be too many issues we can no longer ignore, one of which would normally be cause for extreme alarm. Now, we have a world that hates us, both other countries and Mother Nature, a financial system that was clearly a house of cards thanks to a lack of regulation and rampant greed, and entanglement in a country we went to war with illegally and immorally that flushes vast sums of money down the drain. We have national debt up to our eyeballs, mostly accrued to pay for said war. There is no more wiggle room in a situation that requires immediate and correct action, and God help us all, regardless of who is in charge, if we don't get it right and get it right pretty damned quick. 

Me, I'm strongly considering buying that compound in the mountains and learning how to operate firearms. 

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Gaming With Chuck

Chuck came over today, and we got two games in - Red Dragon Rising, a potential-history game positing a Chinese invasion of Taiwan published in Strategy and Tactics, and Storm Over Stalingrad, a Japanese-authored area/impulse game originally from a wargame magazine I'm not familiar with and now republished by Multiman under their IGS flag. 

RDR is a pretty cool little game, and if you can grab that issue of S&T you should. It's a fairly simple game, although hampered by poor rules organization (exactly *how* combat works is spread throughout the rules, with the actual "roll less than or equal to the combat number" rule in the preliminary section on units rather than in combat. There are also several long sections on what the various random events do, as well as what the various "operations" or ops, you can do are, and while I think they were trying to be fairly inclusive there was simply something lost in the editing. We had to look up several clarifications online during the game which could have been handled quite easily with a glossary. We spent ten minutes trying to figure out where the rule that says if you move Russians that there's a 1-6 chance that the Chinese lose immediately, and that was with two of us looking in two different rulesets! 

I'm really not sure what else I should expect from a magazine game, of course, but consider it fair warning. 

I'll also stipulate that this is not a Deans game. By that I mean there are many things that happen as a result of pure luck, including that the entire game ends in a loss by both players. You can literally get this result before anyone touches a piece on the board (but after setup), although it is a 1-300 chance. In our game, I consistently got the right random events to come up while Chuck's came up once or twice. The one good roll Chuck did get was to win the Korean War, which required him to roll a six. This was pretty much after there was any chance of the Chinese actually making it onto Taiwan, and even when he finally brought the airmobile troops in they were wiped out with minimal damage to the US/Taiwanese forces. It wasn't a pretty picture.

Even so, it's a pretty fun little game, if you don't mind too much chaos, and we got 'er done in less than two hours. I definitely recommend spending a little time on ConSimWorld and/or the 'Geek looking for rules questions, though. Still, there are damned few games on this topic (the Fleet series from Victory Games was published back in the 80's and so it uses 25 year old technology - no stealth, for example), and it was certainly entertaining. For me. ;-)

Actually, Chuck enjoyed it as well, and I expect we'll give it another go in the not too distant future. As an added bonus, I would expect us to play to completion in about 90 minutes assuming no extra rules confusion. 

After lunch, we trotted out Storm Over Stalingrad. I got this on the table for a quick single-turn runthrough, which I enjoyed some but wanted to see how it felt against an actual opponent. Most of the area/impulse games are excellent solitaire, as the timer element (the first combat roll of one side or the other determines if the turn ends) adds considerable tension. For those of you familiar with these games, don't expect considerations like resupply (or even supply, for that matter), disruption, or mandatory assaults. There aren't any. In exchange, you can fire from adjacent spaces, the cards take over functions like artillery and airpower, and terrain (surprisingly) plays a fairly small role once both sides are in a firefight. What is there is waiting for your opponent to do something with a stack of units so that you can go after them more easily.

For example, let's say I have a German stack in an area next to a Russian stack, and both sides are in +3 terrain, the most favorable to the defender on the map. If I move or fire with my stack, they first become "spent" which means that a) they can't do anything else that turn, b) they have a slightly lower defense value, and c) they don't get the benefit of the terrain if they fired on an adjacent hex. If I fired on the Russians and missed, now the Russians will get an improved shot at them. Since higher rolls inflict higher more damage, losing four points of defense is pretty bad. For example, if the Russians have 8 attack points to work with, and my best unit is an 11 on defense in a +3 area, that means the Russians have to roll a six just to break even (and in this game, you aren't penalized for blowing a roll, at least other than as I'll demonstrate). That means no result unless you roll a 7 or higher on two dice, about a 56% chance. 

Now assume that the Germans fired and missed the Russians. Now their best defender is at 10 instead of 11, and they lose the terrain bonus because they fired on an adjacent space. Now the Russians need a measly 2 result to break even, almost guaranteeing that they'll get some result. And since a 7 in this case would mean that the Germans would have to spend 5 points reducing, retreating, or eliminating units, that could be bad. In the previous example, they'd have to reduce one unit one step and leave the rest there, now they'd have to reduce at least two, along with retreat and loss. It's a big difference.

Making things harder on the Germans is that most of their units have fairly low movement values (usually two). It costs one point to move to an adjacent area, +1 if you are leaving an area you don't control or that has an enemy unit in it, and another +1 if you are moving to a similar area. As the game progresses, that means many German units can't move forward into a defended space if there's even one unit in their space. And because of the combat rules, it can be difficult to get rid of that unit sitting there. If the Russian keeps feeding units one at a time into the German areas, they just can't advance. In the "classic" Stalingrad area/impulse game, Turning Point: Stalingrad, that breakdown in mobility comes at the cost of rubble. In SoS, it comes from enemy units. I suspect the actual problem came from navigating rubble while people were trying to kill you, so picking one reason in a design for effect effort certainly makes sense. 

We played for about four hours, including setup and perhaps the fastest rules explanation of a wargame I've ever done. Combat Commander takes 30 minutes, this took ten tops (to someone who's familiar with the basic idea, of course). For a newb to area/impulse, I'd say 20 minutes, 30 for a complete noob. Without question, this is the best introduction to area movement-based wargames I've seen. Perhaps the only real flaw in the game is that the board is, due to the nature of the conflict, long and thin and thus doesn't fit in a standard poster frame. Also, the cards make it more difficult to enjoy the tension of what your opponent does or doesn't have in their hand, and Chuck nailed me with at least two really nasty surprises (although to be fair, those Russian Ammo Shortages played on his big 12 point killer stacks in mid-game weren't much fun for him either).  

Multiman has been hitting the ball out of the park recently with this series of Japanese-authored games recently - I'm a huge fan of A Victory Lost, and really like Warriors of God as well - and it's a shame that their pre-order system saw a game on feudal Japan get axed after there weren't enough orders, and a followup game to AVL has had glacial growth and may not survive much longer. That's a real shame, because the Japanese are clearly bringing some very good ideas to wargaming. In fact, games like Warriors of God are hugely popular in Japan, at least compared to the wargaming and/or strategy gaming hobby in the States. They have tons of games like these just waiting to be republished over here, and I think that's a very good thing. 

If you've wanted to dabble in wargaming and think you're ready to take on pushing chits of cardboard around a paper map rather than wood blocks or plastics around a mounted board, this could be your game. Don't expect a lot of historical background in the box other than the game itself, however - there aren't even any designer or developer notes included, although there are hundreds of volumes published on the topic, even in English. What is in the box is one of the best introductory wargames I've seen, one that has enough interest to keep the attention of grognards as well. Be warned, however, the jump from this title to, say, Breakout: Normandy is a large one, and you'd be well served to have a wargamer friend teach you one of the more complex titles in the genre.

Thanks for coming over, Chuck. It was a great day and two very good titles. The day was only made better when we discovered a box from GMT Games on the doorstep as Chuck was leaving, containing not only Pursuit of Glory and the newest Barbarossa title, Kiev to Rostov, but also a replacement SPQR scenario book (the recent reprint had a few scenarios using hex coordinates from the original maps). Kudos to GMT for not only replacing the book, but for figuring out a way to do it that would save them money. 

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Don't Get Cocky

The last of the three presidential debates is over. This one I didn't bother to watch, knowing that it would be just like the last two, although the increasing desperation of the McCain campaign (who somehow managed to turn frightening comments from their supporters at recent Republican rallies into talking points) is apparently showing more and more. 

I also avoid the post-debate interviews where both sides spin who they think "won" the debate. Let's be serious - neither side wants or needs to have a "real" debate. There's no comparison of economic plans. There's no real discussion of Iraq (which, amazingly, seems to be on track to schedule troop withdrawals during Bush's final months - that's "schedule," not "withdrawal" mind you). 

However, seeing as the larger consensus is that McCain has failed to staunch the bleeding and that the Republicans are finally going down in flames in a big way this year, I thought it would be interesting to find some quotes from Fox News' webpages to see how they're handling it over there. It makes for some interesting reading. Note that they have comments from the other side, although they tended to choose comments that "showed" McCain's superiority while saying that he was doomed. Republicans are now in damage control mode and this election is all but over.

Christopher Coffey, a Republican political consultant, noted that Obama remaining cool and collected during the debate had "the unintended consequence of making him look appear presidential." Wow, two slaps in less than ten words. That implies that getting good and pissed off is better in a presidential candidate, that or that Obama had no intention of looking presidential. Plus the "appear" part. I have to tell you, one of Obama's selling points for me is that he'd be a good man in a storm. If you "appear" cool and collected under pressure, that doesn't make you "appear" presidential, it makes you look presidential.

Mark Joseph, who wrote a book about Palin called "Sarah Baracudda" (and this year I can't tell if that's a compliment or not), said that, "Overall, McCain wins, but what these debates highlight is how superior a candidate Barack Obama is." Huh? The point of the debate is to highlight how superior a candidate is. If Barack is a better candidate, he wins the debate, exclusive of how you feel on the issues.

Richard Miller, an author who clearly favored McCain, states that "Markets and not politicians, are now what's in the saddle!" So McCain loses because of the market? Or because that's what important to people right now and they have more faith in Obama for domestic policy? That's one of the things that beat George HW Bush in 1992, although in that case it was Republicans voting for Ross Perot instead. Interestingly, excluding Hoover's presidency (which was in the middle of the Depression), as a composite the country has seen more economic growth under Democrats than Republicans (considerably better if you add Hoover in the mix, who was GOP). However, if you take out W and Nixon as well, Republicans do better by a nose. There were no losses under Democrats. Take that as you will, God knows we all are the last ten years.

Ellen Ratner, the Bureau Chief of Talk Radio News Service and a political commentator on Fox, was one of the few who baldly stated that Obama won, blaming McCain clearly for the loss. She spoke of how the topic of "Joe the Plumber" (a man who will be hounded unmercifully by the press right up to Nov 6th) elicited snickers from pretty much everyone in the press box every time McCain brought it up. Her comment tells me that the Republicans will blame McCain for the loss, not for the party that rammed Palin down his throat. Look for a tell-all from McCain at the end of his career about how none of it was his fault, a la Scott McClellan. 

Lanny Davis, a former White House Special Counsel, blamed television. Really. The point was that Obama is going to do better in that medium, and McCain was doomed in the debates from the start. An interesting counterpoint to Ratner, who felt that McCain's behavior, not his presence, was what killed him in the debate.

Andrea Tantaros, a Republican political commentator, said that McCain won the first 20 minutes, which was all that mattered, because after that everyone went to sleep. She then claimed Obama "waxed poetic" about "Republican" mores such as personal responsibility and tried to tie it into Jessica Simpson, a clear swipe at the "celebrity" ads the Republicans put out during the late summer. Because Democrats clearly aren't concerned about personal responsibility. And W certainly is. To Republicans - if you're tired of the left portraying you as greedy, rich bastards, perhaps you might do the Christian thing and turn the other cheek for a while and stop portraying Democrats as lazy socialists who don't want to work for a living. Democrats are as patriotic, as hard-working, as brave, as smart, and as clever as Republicans. And equally not all of those things at the same time. I'm becoming convinced that, side issues such as religion aside, the core difference between the left and the right is that the right thinks that you get what you deserve, while the left knows it isn't true too much of the time. 

Cal Thomas, the Right's pet African-American (see how many black faces you see at McCain rallies - they are damned few and far between) felt this was McCain's strongest showing yet. A strange result, seeing as the early polls are giving Obama his strongest result yet. He also said that the Republicans were issuing a challenge to the American people to take back and rebuild their country. Apparently from themselves. 

Fred Barnes, another Fox political commentator, felt that McCain dropped the ball by not taking up the issue of abortion more strongly. Because that's clearly what's wrong with the country, too many abortions. On a planet that is running out of room, out of resources, out of time, and all largely because there are simply too damned many people on it, the abortion issue is one that will run out of steam in the next 20 years when our very survival depends upon birth control of Chinese proportions. Not to mention that two Bush appointees to the Supreme Court haven't even tried to overturn Roe vs Wade. Why? Because the minute they do, the energy that the Right has controlled by drumming up opposition to choice goes straight back to the Left. It's always the people who feel oppressed who work the hardest. 

This commentary (and others I've left out) can be seen here. I recommend that you go take a look for yourself rather than just read the excerpts I've chosen to post, as I do with any quote used for political purposes. Of course, Fox chose these quotes as well, so make of them what you will. Any "news" organization claiming to be both "fair and balanced" and clearly partisan at the same time (Bill Kristol has said it in public on repeated occasions) is really only one of the two, and I'm guessing the latter. Now is when the Right will begin to feed on it's own in an effort to salvage what is looking more and more like the end of the Republican Revolution that began in 1994. For someone who understands that hard work isn't always rewarded, and that often no work at all is rewarded even more, it's about freakin' time. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Field Commander Rommel: First Impressions

I finally got to try out Field Commander: Rommel, the first boxed game from DVG, or Dan Verssen Games. Dan is one of those designers who does some very cool things, but then puts out some very poor designs as well - the Lightning series comes to mind. One of the first designs of his that I was exposed to was Hornet Leader, a brilliant 90's solitaire game where you commanded the air wing of an American carrier group somewhere off the coast of a global hotspot. He also did Thunderbolt/Apache Leader, a related title that added a ground war component, and the Down In Flames series, which I love to this day. After that, he moved into CCGs for a little while (7th Sea) and found it to be pretty lucrative, or at least more so than wargames. Since then, he's mostly been self-publishing DTP titles, which I've more or less stayed away from. 

Dan's designs, at least the ones I like, tend to have a very heavy luck factor. One raid gone horribly wrong in any of the fun air-based titles I've listed above and you go from having a successful campaign to one that isn't. That's part of the fun for me, at least as long as the game isn't already heavily weighted toward the AI. However, more than one bad mission and the game stops being fun pretty fast. 

This is a common issue for non-computer-based solitaire wargames - the AI is rarely complex, at least by computer standards, so much of how the game ends up will be based, assuming you use effective strategy/tactics/doctrine, on whether or not that killer enemy unit shows up at the right time, or if your last man with a bazooka manages to get that 10% hit that knocks out the German Tiger tank driving down the street (an actual result in an Ambush game I played some years ago).

As such, I have to take most AI-based games as interactive storytelling rather than a competitive game, although it is fun to learn effective tactics as you go. This is more a flaw with the overall solitaire wargame niche than with Verssen's designs, although I find his games to rely more on luck than on skill in general. 

That out of the way, let's take a look at FC:R, which is ostensibly the first game in a series that will transcend eras and weapons systems - the second game is about Alexander the Great, about as far from WW2 tactics and systems as you could imagine. The game is actually three games in one, with campaigns set in 1940 France, North Africa (which I suspect is the real reason for the game, the rest is just extra), and back to Normandy in 1944 for the Allied Overlord invasion. Each game, oddly, uses largely different counters (one or two of the German Panzer units are used in all three), and at different scales. The "Ghost Division" map runs from the Rhine to Cherbourg, while the D-Day map covers the same amount of space as perhaps two or three areas on the first map, although with many more areas and units. I have not had the opportunity to play more than the first map, Ghost Division, so I can't comment on whether the system works equally well (or poorly) as the later maps. 

Each map is divided up into areas, and the areas are grouped into regions for purposes of "supply" for both sides. Interestingly, there are no "supply" rules as most wargamers understand them - instead supply is abstracted into "resupply" points which each side gets at the end of each turn, which can be used to recreate units or add "supply" points. The supply points themselves are used to allow units to move extra areas, rebuild depleted units, and to improve tactical factors during battles. The maps also contain the AI for the Allies (you always play the Axis in this game), from how they resupply to how they move on the map. This seems to be a pretty elegant way of handling the differences in scale, time, and environment.

Units are on fairly light stock, but in a smallish game like this I have no issues with them. There are a lot of chit draws, however, and had I been thinking I would have spray coated the various markers and units to protect them. Units are rated as being of one of three types - armor, mech, or foot, which only comes into play when using the Battle Plan markers (see below). Each unit is rated for attack, defense, and movement. The attack and defense values are simple "roll at or below" in combat, with attack values having a superscript number on some units that inflict an extra combat result if you roll below it. If you're attacking, you want to roll the attack number, and the defenders use their defense numbers. That makes armor much more effective when attacking, although they aren't slouches on defense either. Movement simply refers to how many areas a unit may move, although this is also limited beyond the first space by supply considerations (one supply point per extra space moved). 

The sequence of play is a little involved, as you'd expect in a solitaire game, with most of the Allies turn dictated by a certain amount of randomness. The rules specifically state that when there's a choice to be made that isn't covered by the rules, the player can decide which way the Allies will go, even if it's a bad choice. These sorts of things bother me a bit, but I think that the game balance was generated with this in mind, so I went ahead and made what I considered the "bad" choices to be. In retrospect, the one "bad" choice I made actually turned out to screw up the Germans, so there you go. In practice, the sequence of play becomes pretty easy to remember, and most phases involve a few die rolls to see what happens or a few decision points for the Axis, so it's not too bad for non-wargamers. 

The rules themselves are of the "chummy" sort, which I loathe in a wargame where clarity and precision are critical. I found one or two points that were not handled well in the game (when you are allowed to reroll one of your rolls, it isn't specifically stated if that includes you rolling for the Allies, which are sometimes referred to as "their" rolls), but in general the system was intended to be elegant and straightforward, so I suppose it's OK in this case. Still, nailing down the definitions of various game terms is a huge problem with some designers/developers - see Devil's Cauldron for an excellent example where the word "range" is used in two different contexts in the same die-roll modifier table! In the end, though, I was able to play through without making many (if any) mistakes because of rules misunderstandings, although I did refer to the rules frequently during my game. I was mostly able to find things quickly - there is a rather extensive (and unnecessary) index on the back page that I didn't need to use because the rules just aren't that long, but I appreciate the effort. 

Each campaign has different victory conditions for the Axis. In Ghost Division, the Germans must take three specific areas - Cambrai, another adjacent area whose name escapes me, and Cherbourg, all the way at the other end of the map. The two eastern areas are well defended by the British, while Cherbourg is undefended early on. The rules do not state if the Germans win *immediately* upon taking (and holding) all three areas, although there is no specific victory phase as there is in many other wargames, so my assumption was that victory was granted at the instant all areas became German-held. 

Allied forces are reinforced through a couple of different ways, but the most interesting is their Operations build-up. Every turn, the Allies draw an Operations chit, which adds units or movement points to a pool. When the Go! chit is drawn, that force enters the board at a semi-random location, the Ops chits go back into the pool, and there's a new force on the board that the Axis have to deal with. Not knowing when these forces will enter, or even how large they will be, adds both tension and a chaotic element that could really drive you nuts. There are only six or seven Operations chits, so you know they're coming at some point, but every turn they aren't on the board means they're probably bigger and faster. Of course, they can come in at various points on the board, so you also don't know where to defend. The Axis have a similar effect through a much different mechanism - they get extra resupply points for every unit that doesn't move during a turn, simulating an operational pause to build up materiel for a big push. 

Most of your decisions will occur in how to allocate your resupply points and in combat. Combat, aside from the obvious "roll your rating to cause a hit," has a fairly interesting mechanism that adds a lot of tension and is, I believe, the heart of the system. At the beginning of battle, the Allies get a certain number of "Battle Plan" chits which give various benefits during battle, from extra faux units that get to roll to drms to rerolls to extra units. The number of these is based on how much surplus supply the Allies have and how many full-strength units they have. Once these have been randomly drawn from the pool, the Axis gets a number of Battle Plan Points to spend on his pool, although these are chosen rather than drawn, and each chit costs a certain number of BPP. Each campaign limits what chits are available for each side, a clever way to reflect operational realities and combat posture in a relatively easy way. Verssen clearly learned a few things from his work on CCGs, the best of which was to increase complexity through point elements, in much the same way that Combat Commander adds complexity through Actions and Events rather than extensive core rules. 

One last mechanism I liked - combat units gain experience through enemy losses. For each enemy unit destroyed in combat, one unit gains a Veteran counter that improves (maybe) their values. Alternatively, an already veteran unit can have it's counter flipped to it's Elite side. This is another elegant way to demonstrate how units improve over time. 

I had two "false start" games before completing the full game. In both situations, the Germans advance into a specific area on the first turn (there are no choices, as the starting German area of Liege is only adjacent to one area), and both times the Germans were the victims of bad die rolls despite choosing BP counters that gave extra combat rounds and improved the odds of destroying enemy steps. Because of the supply rules, the end result was that the German initial force was effectively hobbled to the point where I felt they couldn't continue with the campaign because it would take two or three turns just to get the Germans back up to snuff. This was the first point where I got a little concerned that the solitaire nature of the game might have a little too much chaos for those who prefer tight games. I've said before that every wargame includes a chaos element of some sort (the Simmon's Napoleon titles excepted, and that instead substitutes fog of war), but to have a game go south on the first combat (and twice at that) is a concern. On the bright side, that was the main point where I knew things wouldn't work out, so once you get through that first battle you'll know if the game requires a restart or not. No idea if the other maps have similar situations.

After that, it became clear that the resupply rules require the Axis to go after the objective spaces early and often - there are two resupply points for each objective area that the Axis controls. At the same time, the Allies get supply and units (at least, a better chance of units) or a completely different set of areas, so the Axis have to decide which to go after. Given the victory conditions, in hindsight I'd say that the Axis need to focus on Objectives and hope that there aren't too many reinforcement units coming into Caen to block Cherbourg. Interestingly, Paris isn't an objective (although there are optional conditions that can be added that require the Germans to take it or face losing VP)! 

In my game, the Germans took Paris early to prevent resupply and reinforcements into that forward area, then struggled taking the two easternmost objectives. The Germans start with only four units, and although they get very strong early, they are also fragile and require you to spend a lot of supply refitting them to their full-strength sides. With a couple of turns left (in essence, time running out), I found myself needing to make a break for Cherbourg with my two strong panzer units, and they were wiped out against a depleted Allied force in Calais when the Allies drew the Ambush BP chit (which allows them to fire first), and then they rolled like demons to wipe out both panzers. At that point, I knew that the Germans had no chance to reform and make a drive on Cherbourg with a very large and very strong Allied force in the vicinity. Ironically, had I moved that large force into Calais earlier (that choice I mentioned above), I could have driven straight through to Cherbourg instead and won. 

My early verdict at this point is that this is perhaps one of the more interesting yet easy to learn solitaire games I've played yet. There are rules to connect the three campaigns, and the variant rules give what looks to be really nice replayability. However, the game, like every other solitaire title, suffers from the possibility of your forces getting wiped by a bad result at critical points, and if you prefer a tightly balanced affair every time this is probably not a good game for you. However, if you like solitaire wargames and prefer literary elements to balance, my initial recommendation is to give this one a look. Fortunately, the price is not too high, the rules are very simple as wargames go, and the three campaigns allow you to start with low unit density and work your way up. All in all, this title may beat out Hornet Leader in my list of top solitaire games, and were I traveling for work, I'd strongly consider taking it with me to play in my hotel room in the evenings (as I used to do with HL). 

Friday, October 10, 2008

Enough Politics!

A lot of socio-political material from me lately. How about some whining about television?

It's the new season, and while several shows that I love haven't started yet (Bstar G, Lost), it's been slim pickings so far, both for new shows and returning ones.

Gray's Anatomy, the surprise hit medical serio-comedy that seems to grind all of the joy out of every song I discover on my own at the Apple Music Store (think Snow Patrol), has turned the corner into melodrama. It's now just another nighttime soap opera, although now the plot devices have gotten more and more ridiculous. Christina slips outside, and a giant icicle skewers her (after having only an hour or so to form in Seattle weather)! Leaky water pipes! Inappropriate and unprofessional behavior from the entire cast! Snore. Few shows are effective and entertaining after the first two or three seasons, and GA (now on it's fourth season, actually third considering the first was only a half season and the abortive strike season) has turned the corner into mediocrity.

Private Practice, the Kate Walsh spin-off of the above-mentioned GA, seems to be struggling with it's writing as well. The practice is in danger because they care too much to suck fat from people! The only thing, and I do mean the *only* thing keeping this show on my DVR is Walsh, who tops my laminated card of people my wife would let me fool around with and get away with. Actually, I'd just look in her eyes. OK, they do bring up occasional ethical questions in the medical community (do you do a dodgy procedure if it's what the patient wants?), but most of the storylines are repetitive, the guy from Wings has *nothing* to do, and the nice weather in LA is pissing me off. 

Dirty Sexy Money is off to a decent start, but with a cast that includes Donald Sutherland, Jill Clayburgh, and whichever of the Baldwin Brothers that didn't find Jesus or is on 30 Rock, it's a very difficult show to screw up. Of course, Peter Krause's character, the lawyer who's dad had the same job and died under mysterious circumstances, is still facing exactly the same problems - just when he thinks he's drawn a line, he gets sucked right over it. While you'd think that might get old after a while, in fact it's a primer on 50 ways to corrupt someone and as someone who likes to think they're pretty ethical, I find it an excellent cautionary tale. Interestingly, the woman who plays the youngest daughter (one of the twins) is MIA, apparently drying out with little or no mention so far.

Eureka, my second favorite SciFi show, has come and gone rather quickly, with a strong third season. Like most cable series, this one is only 10-12 episodes long, but the writing is clever, the lead character is perfect for the role, the supporting cast (with the exception of his love interest, who has clearly pissed off not only the makeup staff but also wardrobe) is very strong, and the story lines are clever and interesting. This one is out on DVD (not this season, but the first two), and I strongly recommend it. 

Dexter wins the award for the show I was absolutely sure would last for one season and be cancelled. And here it is on season three. Season two had it's moments, and I was a little concerned that season three was heading into the same "Dexter is the guy the cops are looking for" script, but it seems to be heading into new territory. Jimmy Smits joined the cast this year, and he looks just a little old and tired and just like he should - he's really a phenomenal actor, and it just makes the show that much better. Really great stuff, unfortunately only on Showtime in it's original form (and it's much better that way), but worth getting on DVD if you haven't seen it. Warning - having a serial killer as a sympathetic character is a real balancing act, and they pull it off beautifully. 

As for new shows, Eleventh Hour turns out to be better than Fringe. By about a tenth of a nanometer. I didn't feel like hurling things at the television, but the same problem with sketchy storytelling, characters I have zero feeling for, yet another quirky intelligent leading character (why do intelligent characters have to be freaks?), and another ice queen FBI agent. I swear these guys were cribbing off of Abrams, or (more likely), he was cribbing off of them. All the production values in the world won't save this one. 

Primeval, on Sci-Fi but imported from BBC, has a great premise - time/space anomalies are opening seemingly at random, and various critters from the past slip through and cause chaos. A lack of character development hampers the show, which recently jumped the shark (and damned early in the process) by having one of the characters come back to a time that was just a little different than the one he left, with mainly cosmetic differences. The CGI is really astonishingly good - for a TV series, but nothing like BstarG - enough to make one of my dogs (the dumber one) think a sabretooth kitty was the real deal. However, I just don't think there's enough there there for me to keep this one on my A list for much longer.

We've tried Pushing Daisies, the show that feels like Tim Burton on a *lot* of Prozac is writing it, but it just wasn't hitting the right buttons. It was a bit too much whimsy and not enough story, and the joke about how the Pie Man can't touch the love of his life Chuck (a woman, settle down out there) is old already. Still, "The Pie Hole" beats out "Cheese Gotta Have It" from Weeds as the best fictional storefront name in my book. BTW, Weeds got a little weird this last season, but I'm hanging in there.

True Blood, the Showtime series on vampires being real, outed, and in the Deep South, works as an amazing metaphor for race, gender, and sexual preference politics. The show is still finding it's feet in some ways, and as the source material is for all intents and purposes horror romance novels they're going to need to work hard to bring it up to snuff, but in general there's some really excellent work here. I don't know that it will survive, especially with Anna Paquin's gap-toothed smile giving me nightmares, but it's keeping my interest for now.

I've saved the best for last, of course. Most Brit shows that get copied over here don't work for me - I've never liked The Office (too much like the real thing for me), and of course Coupling's foray at a shot-for-shot copy using American actors was a complete disaster. So I was more than a little concerned that Life On Mars was going to be a mess. Still, Harvey Keitel and Michael Imperioli (of Sopranos fame) signed on... yes, I said Harvey Keitel. Let me just say that this show rocks in a way I haven't been so excited about since the first episode of Lost. BstarG didn't get me this happy about television. The 70's have been a bit overexposed recently, but this show does it right. They obviously spent a huge amount of money on sets, extras, costumes, everything. It's absolutely fabulous. And the story line, the script, the acting, everything - this may be the best thing on television right now. And it may be even after BstarG and Lost come back later on. Watching this after Eleventh Hour restored my rather badly tarnished faith in good television writing in about five minutes. 

Did I mention this is the *first* time Harvey Keitel has been on a television series? Ever? Brilliant. 

Seems like a lot of stuff, but of course a good quarter of it has been winnowed out already (if you count Fringe), at least from my DVR. And Lord knows I can use the distraction from the increasingly depressing election season. I got my registration card in the mail yesterday and it made me want to cry. So here's to you, well done television. We were thinking that the writers had taken off and hadn't come back, but it's nice to see that someone out there remembers the laughter.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Looking For Mr. Goodband

I left a band I'd been working with for eight months recently (see my recent post on why it's not good to work with people who have trouble with distinguishing reality), and have been combing through Craigslist for a few weeks looking for potential groups to hook up with. I thought I'd write a bit about going through that process, and the sort of things I've run into along the way.

First off, I'm fussy. Anyone who knows me knows that. I'm fussy about who I game with, I'm fussy about who I spend time with, and I'm fussy about who I make music with. I'm fussy because I've been around people that, on occasion, I've had a very strong and negative reaction to, and most of the time I've been able to look back in retrospect and see the trainwreck coming. At 45, I figure I'm running out of time to play rock and roll, so having spent eight months with a guy who couldn't shut up and listen if you put duct tape over his mouth I find myself back where I started.

Note that this is *not* a plea for you all to run out and find a band for me. Every once in a while that works OK, but in most cases I find that there's a lack of understanding of what it is I'm looking for and an assumption that all musicians are, more or less, interchangeable and similar in their tastes. Believe me, they aren't. 

In general, the musical genre is not my top priority, strangely. I like a wide variety of music, and would even work with an originals band were it stuff that I liked and the writer wasn't a control freak who wanted me to do it *exactly* like they heard it in their head. If that's your bag, great. Just don't expect other creative musicians to put their brains in neutral for you unless you're paying them pretty well. The pay is also not a big deal - if I was getting $50 for a night's work, that would be plenty for me, enough to justify gas money. 

What is important to me is a group that I can trust. That's a big word, one that covers a lot of ground, but in a nutshell I need to know that a band is a team effort. My most rewarding band experiences have almost always been with groups that I've considered family - people who understand that you aren't going to get there alone, that compromise is a virtue, and who get that each person is there for their own reasons and can find a way to nurture everyone. You still get into arguments, just like with family, but at the end of the gig everyone goes off feeling like they can't wait to do it again. 

There are other issues, such as no smoking in rehearsals, no drug problems (different from drug use, mind you), and it's always nice to have people who laugh at your jokes (and vice versa). 

So far, I've "applied" to four different groups, only one of which has been communicative and that I ended up auditioning with. The first was an originals group of 20 somethings that wanted nothing to do with a 45 year old, regardless of mileage. I understand the fear - most people my age who are looking for musical experiences are tied down pretty tightly to their lives, and many people who aren't are burnouts or wannabes who've reached a point where they've done too *much* rock and roll, or none at all but sure think they sound good singing Karaoke. 

The second group never returned my email. I look on those as groups I'm better off never being in touch with in the first place. If someone can't respond to an email with a simple "thanks, but no thanks," I'm guessing there's not a lot of trust to be found. 

The third group is a working band, albeit one doing corporate and wedding gigs, and one that has a horn section and two female vocalists already. To be honest, this has the capability of being a very good band for me to be in - there's a lot of "show", the gigs are all in good locations because no one hires a horn band without having a certain amount of cash (they usually ask $2000 to start). This band wanted some recordings, which I sent of me singing Love Shack and Easy Lover, tunes that show of my showmanship and range. However, I have yet to hear back from them. Interestingly, I listened to a few of their promo recordings, and the guy singing Love Shack was a little weak - it's a tune that really has to go over the top to work. It's been nearly three weeks, and I understand that they have a process they go through, but I've seen no new ads for them so I'm assuming they either discarded my application, found someone, or who knows what. Unfortunately, this makes me wonder if this would be a good group or not because of the trust issue. However, if it's an easy gig to do (they perform at about the right frequency for me, once or twice a month), it could be something I do to get my gigging jones handled while I also did something else that wasn't playing out.

That's where the fourth band comes in. I'd seen the ads a couple of times for a band looking for a "real" rock singer, someone who could handle songs in the range of Steve Perry, Brad Delp (Boston's original singer), or Tommy Shaw (of Styx). After the third ad, I figured that perhaps they didn't need someone who could sing two octaves above middle C after all, and contacted the guy. I sent the recordings I'd sent to the other group, and got back a message saying that I didn't have a gritty enough voice for what they were doing. I responded that I felt I could cover pretty much anything they wanted, so long as it was within my range, and that I'd performed quite a bit of the 70's arena rock material that they were looking for. The guy, very generously, gave me an audition slot last Sunday.

Auditions are a weird thing for me. For those few of you who have seen me perform, you know that I'm pretty uninhibited and certainly not shy on stage. Without me being an ego-maniac, I can say that I have a very good voice for rock, a very good range, good frontman skills, and I'm smart and learn music quickly. I tend to imitate the original recordings, but I'm not limited to that style alone. Still, when it's time to do an audition, I get really edgy and nervous leading up to the actual playing.

This time, I had some reason. This was some very high material, although nothing I hadn't sung before. Working For The Weekend, Blue Collar Man, Separate Ways, and (this one is for you, Dave) Everybody Wants You. They even were playing the songs down a half-step (one key down on a piano, so a song in F originally would be played in E). Still, I know that being in a loud environment without a good monitor was going to result in me oversinging, and sure enough that's what happened. 

Usually, I use something called "in-ear" monitors, which is basically a receiver and earbuds so that you get both hearing protection as well as a vocal-friendly mix. At an audition, that's more or less impossible to set up quickly, so I didn't bring my system even though it's not hard to set up. 

I don't have perfect pitch (which is really more of a curse than a blessing - imagine hearing a choir that is just a little shy of what your ear hears as the current pitch standard of A-440. Even though they sound great to everyone else, the whole thing sounds flat to you. However, I do have relative pitch, which means that I have a very good sense of what key a song is recorded in. Part of that is where the "break" in my voice lies, more or less right on the E above middle C. If I'm moving back and forth over that pitch, I have to adjust my voice accordingly. Having all of the songs down a half step played hell with me figuring out where the break was, especially since I've sung these songs so many time. 

Most of the time, I felt I did pretty well. Who's Cryin' Now, for example, went really well and the sound level was low enough that I wasn't oversinging. Separate Ways, however, nearly fell apart on me. After the first verse, my voice started to seize up, making it impossible for me to hit any high notes and preventing me from singing on "top" of the pitch. Fortunately, there's a long instrumental break, and I was able to loosen up enough to finish the song as it should sound. During most of the other tunes, I would go to hit a note and it wouldn't be quite where I thought it should, and my voice would crack a little. Ironically, this tended to be lower in my range, right around the break. 

It's hard to say what the band heard. I've been told I'm brutally hard on myself when it comes to music, although I prefer to think that I'm honest about what I can and can't do. They told me I was clearly a pro, which was nice to hear, and the guitarist sent an e-mail afterwards in response to my thank-you note where he said that I had the right range and now it was a matter of listening to the other candidates as well as deciding if I had the right voice for the project he imagined. 

I read that as "not too bad, but we're hoping for a bit better." That's how I would have looked at my performance. 

This is a group that isn't going to be gigging anytime soon, mostly because the guitarist and drummer have ongoing groups they work with, and are booked up through 2009. That would mean no gigs until, literally, 2010. However, because they only rehearse every two or three weeks, I could do a gig like the horn band *and* do this gig for now. The guitarist is the driving force in the group, and he gets to determine the set list and I'm guessing pretty much everything else. That's kind of a bigger red flag for me, as I know that in the absence of what I consider a good leader I tend to try to improve the situation. That's what happened in the non-listener band I was just in, and it worked to a point because everyone else seemed to understand that I knew what I was doing compared to the founder, who clearly knew *nothing* about running a band. However, most of the bands I've been in for more than a few months have been run mostly by me, so I have no experience with playing with a "smart" band leader. I suspect that we'd have some friction, but I also think that after a while it would either be something that actually *added* to the band's energy, or it would be a deal breaker. 

Interestingly, this was also the first time I'd sung in a band with a dedicated keyboardist. What a trip. To hear those parts and not be playing them was also a bit of a stretch for me. The keyboardist was very friendly (everyone was, other than the bass player, who I couldn't read at all), and mentioned hoping to hear me play a bit, but that really wasn't what I was there for. Part of that is being a little wary that they guy they're auditioning might replace you (and I could, but don't really want to), and part is that keyboardists love to compare gear, styles, etc. He actually had four keyboards, including a Hammond B-3 simulator keyboard from Roland running into a Leslie rotating speaker! Very few people other than purists do this anymore, seeing as most people can't tell the difference between a simulated Leslie and the real thing, and the software has gotten quite good at emulating it. In a rock mix, only a few dozen people in the business would probably be able to point out that a sound was emulation or a real Hammond. He also has the same main axe I do, a Roland XP-80 sample-player workstation that came out ten years ago (but the dedicated workstation market has completely stagnated in the face of software instruments, so it's still a very current sounding machine). He also had a couple of older keyboards, although I still have to wonder why he uses them if it requires a separate mixer. I used to haul around a Fender electric piano, an ARP Omni-2 string machine/polysynth, a Pro-One monophonic synth, and a Crumar T1-B organ with a 145 Leslie (that's the organ Boston used on their first album, one of the first B-3 emulators). I'm much happier now with a MacBook Pro and a USB keyboard - all of my gear now weighs less than the electric piano did back in the day, and I can do about 1000x more than I could then in terms of sound generation.

I guess it's really not my problem, though. It would be nice to have that second keyboardist in some situations, and it's also nice to have someone to bounce ideas off of or to give you an extra ear in hearing a tricky part. 

Of course, I won't hear back from these guys for a little while. However, as a "hobby" band (for now), this group really appeals to me, and I've told the guitarist to consider me if his first pick (if it isn't me) goes south, or if the keyboardist falls through as this is exactly the sort of thing I could pick up if necessary.

It's pretty hilarious that I find myself playing oldies and it's Journey and Loverboy. In 40 more years, I'll be singing Open Arms at the retirement home (down an octave, of course) with 30 of my closest Depends friends. 

For now, though, I'd still like to think that I'm not too old to rock and roll. This audition aside, my voice is stronger than it's been since it went all wonky in 2003 (another post on that experience someday), and even though I get very nervous about auditioning, it's still nice to know that good players will at least pretend that I've got chops. 

At this point, I'm still looking through the ads. There are a *lot* of them, and I've learned which ones to stay away from. Hilariously, the non-listener posted an ad to replace me (twice, actually, including within hours or me quitting), and the very last sentence, in all-caps, was:


Loosely translated, that means, "Do exactly what I want and don't point out when I constantly contradict myself and mis-credit what people say." Those are the sorts of ads to avoid. 

Thursday, October 02, 2008

And Da Winna Is....

From the insta-polls taken right after the debate, Biden won by a 2-1 margin. I got through most of it, but tired of both candidates avoiding the questions. Palin had a bunch of pre-planned things to steer the conversation toward (whoda thunk Alaska was a big energy state? Whoda thunk that Donald Rumsfeld would reappear as a hockey mom in heels - Goldarn him anyway!). Biden was a bit talky, but went mostly after McCain. Since the Right's only real focus group issue with Obama is his lack of experience, it wasn't like Palin could go there. 

Oh, and by the way, apparently there will be big changes after the election. Right. 

Palin's team had set expectations so low there was no way she couldn't exceed them. She got nervous in a couple of places, and I actually expected her to crack at least once. However, whoever prepped her did a good job - she stayed on her talking points throughout, made the right nods to the constituency she was supposed to (she's "tolerant" of gays, but no marriage for you from either party), and she evinced the sort of folksy cheery attitude that works so well for salesmen but scares the holy bejeezus out of the "elite". I don't know about you, but we've had 16 years of folksy cheery attitude. 

Amazingly, she pronounced the word as "nu-cue-lar". Must have been busy field dressing a moose when that particular faux pas escaped Fearless Leader's lips. I could swear Biden said "Biden" at one point when he meant "Obama", which is an Oedipal slip if I ever heard one. 

Like most people, this debate will change few minds, but it will also not seriously affect any trends, which are moving in Obama's direction. The Obama camp was smart to get the foreign policy debate between him and McCain out of the way early, now they can focus on McCain's glaring weaknesses on the economy and domestic issues. Of course, I don't expect those debates to change things much either. The candidates are under no requirement to actually answer the questions, and most of the time is spent arguing back and forth about who voted for what and how many times. 

For God's sakes, people, a voting record is a joke. There are so many votes conducted on minutiae on the floor, and so many amendments and sweeteners thrown into legislation that complaining about someone's record is like quoting the Bible: you can make just about any argument you want to. If I were president (and I am in no way interested in that job), the first thing I'd do is introduce legislation requiring that every law voted on by Congress could consist of no more than five pages of 12 point text and could only contain related laws as determined by me. 

The longer this goes on, the more depressed I get. 

Who won? Depends on who wins in November. Just like you don't know how much your house is worth until you sell it. Especially now.